Diamond Among the Coal: Bela Lugosi in BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT (Monogram 1942)


I’ve written about Bela Lugosi’s infamous ‘Monogram 9’ before, those ultra-cheap spectacles produced by the equally ultra-cheap Sam Katzman for low-budget Monogram Pictures. These films are all Grade Z schlock, redeemed only by Lugosi’s presence, giving his all no matter how ludicrous the scripts or cardboard the sets. BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT is a cut above; still schlock, but the pulpy premise is different from the rest, and Bela gives what’s probably his best performance out of the whole trashy bunch.

Lugosi plays kindly Karl Wagner, a benevolent soul who runs the Friendly Mission down on the Bowery. But wait – it’s all a front for recruiting down-on-their-luck criminals into Wagner’s gang of thieves. And when he’s done with them, he bumps them off and gives the corpses to ‘Doc’, a dope fiend ex-medico who uses the bodies for his own nefarious purposes!

But wait again! Wagner’s not really Wagner, he’s eminent psychology Professor Brenner, who specializes in deviant behavior! Wagner’s pretty nurse at the mission Julie Malvern has a rich Park Avenue boyfriend, Richard Dennison, a student of Brenner, who’s disdainful of Julie working with all those Bowery bums. “I want you to give up that silly job”, he scolds, “Saving humanity, it’s ridiculous!”, then later, “Go ahead and have all the fun you want, you and your social work”, as he petulantly walks out the door. Yep, Richard’s a real jerk!

Wagner/Brenner aligns himself with “dangerous killer” Frankie Mills, a young sociopath who has no qualms about doing Brenner/Wagner’s dirty work (though the split-personalited mastermind doesn’t mind murder himself, as when he tosses one of his henchmen off a rooftop to create a diversion!). Newly appointed police detective Peter Crawford is hot on Frankie’s trail, and that trail leads to the Friendly Mission, where Richard has gone undercover to spy on Judy (he thinks she’s banging Bela!!). Richard gets himself killed, the cops figure things out and bust the joint, and Wagner/Brenner hides in Doc’s secret basement, where we learn Doc’s been turning those corpses into Zombies!! The Professor gets his just desserts… but somehow Richard is de-zombified and reunited with Judy for a happy ending!

Reunited: Bela and his “Devil Bat’ costar Dave O’Brien

Bela tones down the bombast and plays the part of the double-life prof fairly straight. He’s damn good too, rising above the material and making the movie a memorable one (far as Monogram pics go, anyway!). He’s reunited with his DEVIL BAT costar Dave O’Brien as the cop Crawford, and though they don’t get much screen time together, it’s fun to see them briefly go at it again. DETOUR’s Tom Neal plays the psycho Frankie, pretty ‘B’ ingenue Wanda McKay is pretty Judy, and handsome ‘B’ lead John Archer the jerky Richard. Others in the cast of note are Lew Kelly as the doped-up ‘Doc’, Vince Barnett as the unfortunate hood who gets thrown off the roof by Bela, Bernard Gorcey in a funny cameo as a haberdasher, and silent stars J. Farrell MacDonald and Wheeler Oakman as (respectively) a cop and a crook.

Bowery at Midnight (1942)  Directed by Wallace Fox (Shown from left: Bela Lugosi, Tom Neal)

Sure, sometimes the dialog is downright dumb, the script relies too much on coincidence, and those cardboard sets were seen in countless Monogram epics (and it’s a wonder they didn’t collapse!). And yet… BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT is a fun little film, thanks in large part to the power of Bela Lugosi, who could (and often did) make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s the best of his ‘Monogram 9’, which isn’t saying much, but think about this… movie buffs are still watching Bela’s low-budget schlock, seventy-plus years after the fact. There’s a reason for that, and his name is Bela Lugosi.

 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: IRISH LUCK (Complete Movie 1939)

Here’s a wee bit o’Hollywood blarney for you, 1939’s IRISH LUCK, a Monogram programmer starring Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland , the first of their seven “amateur sleuth” films together. Grab yourselves some Guinness and a Corned Beef sandwich and enjoy!

A Quickie on a Quickie: KING OF THE ZOMBIES (Monogram 1941)

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KING OF THE ZOMBIES is a 1941 Monogram horror quickie that does not star Bela Lugosi. Apparently, the great Hungarian actor was too busy at the time. I don’t see how, it’s not like he was making A-list epics that year.  Looking at his 1941 output, Lugosi starred in the studio’s THE INVISIBLE GHOST, SPOOKS RUN WILD with the East Side Kids, and had small roles in Universal’s THE BLACK CAT and THE WOLF MAN . That’s what, about 4-5 weeks worth of work? Anyway, the part of zombie master Dr. Sangre was taken by Henry Victor, best known as strongman Hercules in Tod Browning’s FREAKS.

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What KING OF THE ZOMBIES does have is black comic actor Mantan Moreland . In fact, I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for Mantan, this film would’ve been long forgotten. I know many people today find his pop-eyed, mangled English, “feets do yo stuff” scairdy-cat schtick offensive and stereotypical. But it’s that very schtick that carries the film and rescues it from the abyss of obscurity. Besides, he’s treated more as an equal among his white cohorts, regardless of being called the nominal hero’s “valet”.

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The movie itself will scare nobody, though it does have a few atmospheric scenes courtesy of director Jean Yarbrough . It’s basically an “old, dark house” story with zombies, but the zombies aren’t very creepy, and the voodoo ritual scene is pretty blah. Madam Sul-Te-Wan tries to give it some oomph as voodoo priestess Tahama, but Henry Victor is no Bela Lugosi as Dr. Sangre, who turns out to be a mere Nazi spy. Marguerite Whitten has some good banter with Mantan as Sangre’s housekeeper Samantha; the two would work well together in several films. The “good guys” include John Archer, Joan Woodbury , and Dick Purcell (the screen’s first Captain America!), all of whom are much blander and less interesting than Mantan.

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So if your interested in seeing a spooky zombie movie, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for comedy, watch KING OF THE ZOMBIES and let the underrated Mantan Moreland entertain you with his brand of buffoonery. He was a very funny dude who starred in his own series of independent “all-black cast” movies, and saved many a low-budget studio effort with his comic support (especially those late 40’s Monogram/Charlie Chan efforts). He worked steady in films for years, transcending his stereotyped roles, and deserves to be remembered for his comedic talents.

Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in THE CORPSE VANISHES (Monogram 1943)

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A little over a week ago I wrote about Bela Lugosi’s pairing with The East Side Kids , and mentioned what’s been come to know as “The Monogram Nine”. These Poverty Row horrors were ultra-low-budget schlockfests made quickly for wartime audiences, and though the films weren’t very good, they gave Bela a chance to once again have his name above the titles. From 1941 to 1944, the Hungarian cranked out the rubbish: THE INVISIBLE GHOST, BLACK DRAGONS, THE CORPSE VANISHES, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT, THE APE MAN, VOODOO MAN, RETURN OF THE APE MAN, and the two East Side Kids entries. Let’s take a look at a typical Lugosi vehicle, 1943’s THE CORPSE VANISHES.

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Our story concerns young, virginal society brides who keep dying at the altar, their corpses hijacked by mysterious Dr. Lorenz (Bela, of course). The brides receive an “unusual orchid” whose “peculiar sweet odor” causes them to go into a state of suspended animation so Lorenz can extract their glandular fluids to keep his ancient wife young (she’s “at least 70 or 80 years old!”). Plucky girl reporter Pat Hunter finds some clues and investigates, leading her to seek out Lorenz, who’s an expert on horticulture. Hitching a ride with Dr. Foster, an assistant to Lorenz, they make their way to Lorenz’s sinister house, and Pat is greeted by mean bitch Countess Lorenz with a slap in the face!

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A storm outside forces Pat and Foster to spend the night at the old creep joint (as Sammy Petrillo would’ve called it), and Pat is visited by Angel, a creepoid henchman who lives in the cellar with his mom Fagah and dwarf brother Toby. Pat follows the creepoid through a secret panel in the armoire, then ditches him, but he discovers she followed him and follows her while munching on a turkey leg from the Monogram catering truck. She stumbles onto the missing corpses and hides while creepoid has fun petting their hair. Lorenz is naturally pissed about creepoid’s bumbling and strangles him.

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Pat has also discovered that Lorenz and the Countess sleep in his-and-her coffins, which kinda grosses her out. Lorenz explains this by saying, “I find a coffin more comfortable than a bed. Many people do, my dear”, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Pat and her newspaper come up with a scheme to trap Lorenz by staging a phony wedding, which goes awry when the fiendish doctor kidnaps Pat. A shootout with the cops results in Toby taking a bullet as Lorenz hightails it back to his creep joint to extract glandular fluids from Pat. Fagah, angry because both her freakish sons are now dead, stops him by plunging a knife in his back, then all kinds of chaos ensues until the cops barge in, late as usual. The case of the missing corpses is now solved, and Pat and Foster get married, supposedly to live happily ever after.

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Bela Lugosi spends most of his time lurking about and mugging for the camera. He’s does his best to make things work, but is saddled with a bad script and bad supporting cast. Luana Walters (Pat) is nice to look at, especially in those 40’s fashions, but her acting’s strictly amateur night. Tristam Coffin (Foster) is boring, and was put to much better use as a Western villain and serial hero (KING OF THE ROCKET MEN). Elizabeth Russell as the Countess is good, even using a Hungarian accent to compliment Bela. She was given much better material in her films with Val Lewton (CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM  , CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, BEDLAM ). Minerva Urecal (Fagah) just flat-out overacts, as do her creepoid sons (Frank Moran and Angelo Rossitto). Other Familiar Faces (who probably wanted to hide) include Vince Barnett, Kenneth Harlan, Joan Barclay, and George Eldridge.

While watching I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to Ed Wood’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER. There’s mad doctor Bela of course, the plucky girl reporter, the creepoid who strokes female victim’s hair (hello, Lobo!), and Bela whipping his henchman. I’m sure Ed saw this film and used these elements while concocting his script ten years later. Another similarity is the incredibly cheap sets that look like they’d fall over in a stiff breeze! THE CORPSE VANISHES, despite it’s faults, is fun to watch for Lugosi fans eager to see our hero play to the balcony again. It’s not a great film by any stretch, but for connoisseurs of bad cinema in general, and Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine” in particular, it’s definitely must-viewing!

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi Meets The East Side Kids… Twice!

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Ten years after making horror history as DRACULA,   Bela Lugosi signed a contract with Monogram Studios producer Sam Katzman   to star in a series of low-budget shockers. The films have been affectionately dubbed by fans “The Monogram Nine” and for the most part are really terrible, redeemed only by the presence of our favorite Hungarian. Two of the films were with the East Side Kids, SPOOKS RUN WILD and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, making them sort of Poverty Row All-Star Productions for wartime audiences.

I won’t go too deeply into all the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys variations here. Suffice it to say original Dead Enders Leo Gorcey   (Muggs), Huntz Hall (Glimpy), and Bobby Jordan (Danny) landed at Monogram after their Warner Brothers contracts expired, much to Jack Warner’s relief. The young actors were a rowdy bunch, and Jack was probably glad to be rid of them! Anyway, the trio were popular with the masses, and Katzman snapped them up to star in a quickie comedy series about a gang of slum kids getting involved in the usual movie-type shenanigans (boxing, high society, etc etc).

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The first teaming of Lugosi and the East Side Kids was 1941’s SPOOKS RUN WILD, an “old dark house” flick that plays on Bela’s Vampire King persona. The movie suffers from extremely poor lighting and camerawork, not to mention a lousy script by Carl Foreman, who went on to much better things (CYRANO DE BERGERAC, HIGH NOON, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) later in his career. Bela’s an obvious red herring but is seen to good advantage. The plot has the Kids reluctantly going to summer camp for the underprivileged while a “bloodthirsty monster” is on the loose. They wind up at your standard “old, dark house” with the usual spiders, skeletons, and secret passageways before they discover Bela’s a mere stage magician and the real maniac is finally caught.

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Besides the original Dead Enders, SPOOKS RUN WILD features Sunshine Sammy Morrison as Scruno, the only black member of the Dead End/East Side/Bowery conglomerate. Morrison was a former silent child star and original Our Gang member, and he’s pretty funny in a Mantan Moreland sort of way. Dave O’Brien (REEFER MADNESS THE DEVIL BAT ) is on hand as a camp counselor, and 2′ 11″ actor Angelo Rossitto skulks about as Bela’s assistant, as he did in two other Lugosi vehicles (THE CORPSE VANISHES, SCARED TO DEATH ). Little Angelo had a lengthy film career that stretched from the silent to the 1980’s (MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME), and included supporting roles in Tod Browning’s FREAKS, the exploitation classic CHILD BRIDE, a pair of Al Adamson shockers (BRAIN OF BLOOD, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN), and a recurring role on Robert Blake’s 70’s detective series BARETTA.

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Bela and the boys reteamed two years later for GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, with our man Lugosi as a legitimate villain this time, leader of a Nazi propaganda ring. This is the better of the two, as the series began to hit its stride. Once again, the boys get involved in some haunted house gags that were as moldy as the house itself, with moving pictures, mysterious laughter, and the like. Gorcey’s still the leader of the pack, mangling the English language as only he could (“I’m gonna send you to an optimist and have yer eyes examined”), and there’s more slapstick added, with Gorcey and Hall beginning to gel as a screen comedy team. Jordan and Sunshine Sammy return, and perennial messenger boy/elevator operator Billy Benedict makes one of his first appearances with the gang, as does Stanley Clements (GOING MY WAY), who would later take over the Gorcey part in the series last few Bowery Boys entries.

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Extra added interest to movie buffs is the young lady playing Glimpy’s sister. She’s none other than Ava Gardner, at the time a struggling bit player best known for being married to Mickey Rooney. This was Ava’s first billed role, and though she isn’t really given much to do, she’s certainly lovely to look at. Ava would go on struggling a few more years, until 1946’s THE KILLERS made her a star.

The two films have their moments, with a few chuckles to be found, but they’ll never make anyone’s Ten Best Lists. It’s fun watching Gorcey and Hall come together, and their ad-libbing is funnier than the most of the dialog they’re given. Bela Lugosi completests (like yours truly) will want to catch these, as will any East Side Kids/Bowery Boys fans out there (and I must admit I have a nostalgic soft spot for these movies) . For the rest, I’d recommend GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE for the presence of Miss Gardner, and skip the wretchedly made SPOOKS RUN WILD.

 

 

This Was Burlesque: THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER (Monogram 1943)

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Monogram Pictures is mostly remembered today as the home of Bela Lugosi chillers that weren’t too chilling, Charlie Chan mysteries that weren’t so mysterious, and the Bowery Boys peculiar brand of buffoonery. The Poverty Row studio seemed to throw virtually anything at the wall hoping it would stick in order to compete with the major studios of the 1940’s (MGM, 20th Century-Fox, etc). They signed burlesque stripper Ann Corio to a contract, fresh off her appearance in 1941’s SWAMP WOMAN (released by PRC, a studio even more poverty-stricken than Monogram) and concocted a farce titled THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER, which in spite of itself manages to entertain because of the talented comic actors in the cast.

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The opening says it all, as we gaze upon a book titled “Phony Phables”. The Sultan of Araban (Charles Butterworth ) has a daughter named Patra (Miss Corio), who owns all the country’s oil fields. Nazi agents (Jack LaRue, Gene Roth) want to buy them, but Patra will only sell to the Americans. Enter Jimmy and Tim (Eddie Norris, Tim Ryan), a pair of vaudeville hoofers stranded in Araban. The boys are duped into fronting for the Nazis to purchase the oil, passing themselves off as “subjects of the kingdom of Brooklyn”. Patra falls for Jimmy, while her American companion Irene (Irene Ryan) goes gaga for Tim. Evil Nazi sympathizer Kuda (Fortunio Bonanova ) kidnaps the sultan, Jimmy and Tim are implicated, then vindicated, and by film’s end, everything turns out for the best.

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Ann Corio’s quite a lovely women, but as an actress, she’s a great stripper. Ann doesn’t do any peeling here, but her costume’s skimpy enough to show her stuff to good advantage. A star of the Minsky’s Burlesque circuit, her movie career was brief. She later put together a traveling review titled THIS WAS BURLESQUE that was quite a successful nostalgia show. Supporting stars Tim and Irene Ryan were vaudeville veterans who had an act similar to Burns & Allen. Tim became a mainstay at Monogram, acting in and writing for many of their films. He’s pretty funny here, so I guess I can forgive him for his atrocious screenplay BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA . Wife Irene gets to display her comic talents, and has a pleasant singing voice. She’s best known of course for her long run as Granny on TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!

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Then there’s Freddie “Schnicklefritz” Fisher and his orchestra. These guys were kind of cornpone precursors to Spike Jones, mixing comedy with swing music. Speaking of which, there’s plenty of jitterbugging and hepcat talk here. Director Arthur Dreifuss was an old pro at low-budget musical comedies geared for young audiences, helming many a Gale Storm production at Monogram. He concluded his career directing 1960’s youth flicks like RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP and THE YOUNG RUNAWAYS.

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THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER is a fun little film, but certainly not essential viewing. It’s the product of a bygone era, a time when low-budget studios like Monogram churned out programmers designed to entertain the public and take their minds off the war for an hour or so. I’d recommend it to fans of Monogram Pictures, Ann Corio, or Irene Ryan. And any fans of Freddie “Schnicklefritz” Fisher, if there are any left out there!