Halloween Havoc!: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Paramount 1932)

Universal Pictures kicked off the horror trend of the early 30’s with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN , and soon every studio in Hollywood, both major and minor, jumped on the terror train. Paramount was the first to hop on board with an adaptation of Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , earning Fredric March an Oscar for his dual role. Soon there was DR. X (Warners), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO), FREAKS and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (both MGM), and THE MONSTER WALKS and WHITE ZOMBIE from the indies. Paramount released ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at the end of 1932, a film so shocking and perverse it was banned in Britain for over a quarter century, and still manages to frighten even the most jaded of horror fans today.

Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the film begins with shipwrecked Edward Parker being rescued by The Covena, a cargo ship carrying a freight of wild animals to the uncharted island of Dr. Moreau, located in the South Pacific. Moreau is called “a scientific genius” by his associate aboard ship, Dr. Montgomery, but though ship’s Captain Davies labels him a “grave robbing ghoul” Parker gets into an altercation with the drunken captain, who strands him on the island. As Montgomery leads Parker through the jungle to Moreau’s home, the young man notices something strange about the island natives, something he can’t quite put his finger on.

It is now we meet Dr. Moreau: a white-suited, whip-cracking, portly figure who’s beard gives him a Satanic visage. The courteous Moreau invites Parker to spend the night, and leave with Montgomery in the morning, yet he has sinister ulterior motives. Moreau is a vivisectionist who has been experimenting with “organic evolution”, turning animals into half-human monstrosities in his ‘House of Pain’. The natives Parker encountered were the results of those mad experiments, but Moreau’s had more success with Lota, half-human/half-panther, and wants to find out how much human emotion she has by introducing her to the handsome Parker, hoping perhaps they’ll mate!

When Parker finds out about Moreau’s deviant research projects, he tries to escape with Lota (not yet realizing she, too, is half-human), but they’re stopped by the Manimals. Moreau rescues the pair, cracking his whip and forcing the beasts to recite The Law (“Not to spill blood”, “Not to eat meat”). After explaining his scientific discoveries to Parker, it’s discovered the schooner has sunk, leaving Parker no alternative but to stay longer. Lota has caught feelings for Parker, and they kiss, but to Parker’s horror, he feels large panther claws digging into his back! She’s reverting back to animal state, and Moreau returns her to his ‘House of Pain’. Meanwhile, Parker’s fiance Ruth has arrived with Captain Donahue, and Moreau’s plans to mate a human with his weird creations changes…

Shock follows shock in this gripping, gruesome film from director Erle C. Kenton, who began his career back in 1916. Kenton and his cinematographer Karl Struss use shadows and light to create an eerie ambiance, with that trademark Paramount early 30’s filmed-through-gauze style. Struss was well noted for shooting F.W. Murnau’s Expressionistic classic SUNRISE, and became one of the studio’s ace cinematographers. Kenton was strictly a ‘B’ director, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is probably his greatest film achievement. He later helmed Universal’s 40’s Monster Rallies (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN,  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , HOUSE OF DRACULA ) and Abbott & Costello comedies (PARDON MY SARONG, WHO DONE IT?, IT AIN’T HAY), as well as the 1948  exploitation drama BOB AND SALLY, which covered everything from abortion to alcoholism to VD in a little over an hour!

Charles Laughton  gives a bravura performance as Moreau, outwardly charming and cultivated yet harboring a deep rooted insanity. A lesser actor would’ve went over the top with a part as juicy as Moreau, but Laughton shows great restraint in bringing the mad doctor to life, even when uttering the tempting line, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”. Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is up there in the pantheon of 1930’s horror performances, and though he’d give us more fine film roles (Henry VIII, Ruggles, Inspector Javert, Captian Bligh, Quasimodo) his Moreau remains my personal favorite.

Square jawed hero Richard Arlen has what’s probably his most unusual role of his career as Parker (except maybe his Cheshire Cat in ALICE IN WONDERLAND , but as usual he nails it. Bela Lugosi appears, almost unrecognizable except for that Hungarian voice, as the hairy-faced Sayer of the Law, leader of the Manimals. Leila Hyams isn’t given much to do as Ruth,but she’s always a welcome presence. Arthur Hohl (Montgomery), Stanely Fields (Davies), and Paul Hurst (Donahue) offer strong support.

Then there’s Lota the Panther Woman. She’s played by 19 year old Kathleen Burke, who won a talent contest in Chicago for the chance be in the film. Burke brings a savage beauty to the part, and is quite good for a novice in her first time out. Miss Burke altogether made 22 films, among them MURDERS IN THE ZOO (another horror effort, starring Lionel Atwill), LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (as a Russian seductress), THE LAST OUTPOST, and BOY OF THE STREETS, before retiring in 1938 and returning to Chicago. Kathleen Burke passed away in 1980.

Those half-human monstrosities were created by makeup wizard Wally Westmore and Charlie Gemora (who also appears early as a gorilla in a cage). Each and every Manimal is unique unto itself, which must have been painstaking work for the makeup department, but well worth the effort. The revolt of the Manimals against Moreau is one of the most chilling scenes in early horror history, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is a bona fide horror classic that genre lovers do not want to miss.

 

Bang, You’re Dead!: Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (Paramount 1974)

Most people think of DEATH WISH as just another 70’s revenge/exploitation flick, right? Nope. Far from it. Sure, there’s loads of graphic violence, but this gem of a movie contains just as much political commentary as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with an added dose of black comedy to boot. The film had its finger firmly placed on the pulse of 1970’s America, with all its fear and paranoia about rampant urban crime, and is among the decade’s best.

Director Michael Winner and star Charles Bronson had made three films together up to that time: the revisionist Western CHATO’S LAND, the actioner THE MECHANIC , and the cops-vs-Mafia drama THE STONE KILLER . All were hits with the drive-in crowd, and helped Bronson go from supporting player to major star. Strangely enough, Bronson wasn’t the first actor considered for the part of Paul Kersey. Jack Lemmon was original choice, and that would’ve been an interesting interpretation, but the role ended up in Charlie’s firm hands, and he made it his own.

Architect Paul and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) return from an idyllic Hawaiian vacation to grimy, crime infested New York City. They have a good life, but that life is shattered when Joanna and daughter Carol are followed home from the grocery store by three young punks (one of whom is future star Jeff Goldbum, making his film debut), who break into their apartment, brutally raping Carol and killing Joanna. The scene is graphic and uncomfortable to sit through, causing critics of the era to condemn it, but that savagery is necessary to understanding Paul’s motivation.

Tired and frustrated by police efforts and living in daily fear, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands with a sockful of quarters, then is sent by his boss to Tuscon, where he meets Western developer Ames Jainchill. We learn Paul served in Korea as a medic (and conscientious objector). We also learn quiet, peaceful Paul is more than familiar with guns. A trip to a Wild West show gives him ideas, and a going away present from Jainchill gives him the means to carry them out…

Bronson’s Paul Kersey is not just a cardboard vigilante. After his first kill, Paul is sickened by what he’s done, going home and immediately vomiting. As he gains more confidence in believing his actions are justified, he comes to think of himself as a Wild West bounty hunter mowing down bad guys (and there are several allusions to Western films throughout the movie). Bronson walks a fine line here, and gives what I think is his best performance. True, Kersey becomes a murderous Avenging Angel, but ask yourself these questions: What if you were in his shoes? What if it were YOUR wife and daughter?

Two of my favorite 70’s character actors are in DEATH WISH: Steven Keats and Stuart Margolin. Keats made a memorable first impression in the Boston-lensed neo-noir THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE opposite Robert Mitchum, and went on to act in THE GAMBLER, HESTER STREET, BLACK SUNDAY , SILENT RAGE, and the TV miniseries SEVENTH AVENUE and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG. Here he plays Kersey’s meek son-in-law Jack, whose response to the tragedy is much different than Paul’s, to say the least. Keats was a fine actor who tragically committed suicide in 1994, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his work these days.

Margolin is a Familiar Face to fans of TV’s THE ROCKFORD FILES; he played James Garner’s former cellmate Angel, a con artist who frequently got Jim into trouble (winning two Emmys for his efforts). As Jainchill, Margolin plays a brief but essential part as the Westerner who sets Paul’s behavior into motion.  He’s best known for his television work, both as an actor and director, but his feature films include KELLY’S HEROES, FUTUREWORLD, DAYS OF HEAVEN, and S.O.B. He’s still acting, recently appearing on the revival of THE X-FILES. Both these men would make interesting Familiar Faces posts (hmmm… ).

Another great character actor, Vincent Gardenia, plays cynical NYC cop Frank Ochoa, assigned to hunt down the vigilante. Ochoa is enmeshed with the political ramifications of capturing the mysterious shooter, whose actions are popular with the public at large, having caused the crime rate to drastically drop in the Big Apple. The Emmy and Tony winning, Oscar nominated (BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, MOONSTRUCK) Gardenia is well remembered by 70’s audiences for his role as Frank Lozenzo, neighbor of TV’s Archie Bunker on ALL IN THE FAMILY. Plenty of other recognizable performers ply their trade as well: Paul Dooley, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Elliott, Christopher Guest, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Eric Laneuville, Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster!), Sonia Marzano (SESAME STREET’s Maria), and William Redfield.

Wendell Mayes’ script doesn’t judge Kersey one way or the other, letting the audience make their own decisions, and the writer of THE ENEMY BELOW, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE pulls it off with style. DP Arthur Ornitz gives viewers a bleak, uncompromising look at New York’s mean streets, and I absolutely love Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score. Critics of the time loathed and reviled DEATH WISH, but theater owners packed ’em in, as the film really resonated with audiences, and still does today. DEATH WISH spawned a slew of vigilante movies that became a sub-genre in themselves, but none truly caught the zeitgeist of the times like this one. It also spawned four sequels, which are enjoyable but not nearly on a par with the original. It also spawned a 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis and directed by Eli Roth, but like I always say, ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby! No matter which side of the coin you’re on, you’ve got to admit DEATH WISH is an important film that ranks with the best of the decade, not to mention damn entertaining!

 

Pre Code Confidential #27: Mae West in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Paramount 1933)

Bawdy Mae West had scandalized Broadway with her risque humor, and struggling Paramount Pictures snapped her to a movie deal. Her first was a supporting part in 1932’s NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, where she was allowed to rewrite her own dialog, and stole the show by purring sexually charged lines like “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”. Mae’s presence helped refill Paramount’s coffers, and raised the hackles of censorship boards across America. It wasn’t long until the Production Code became strictly enforced, thanks in large part to Mae, but before then, she was given the spotlight in 1933’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG, based somewhat on her stage success DIAMOND LIL.

Like the play, SHE DONE HIM WRONG is set in The Bowery during the 1890’s, but here Diamond Lil is called Lady Lou, because the censors wanted to whitewash all vestiges of the ribald play. Diamond Lil or Lady Lou, Mae is still Mae, and no one could deliver sexual innuendo like her! Lou is, according to her, “One of the finest women ever walked the streets”, a saloon singer who attracts men like a magnet. Owner Gus Jordan keeps her adorned in diamonds, Russian gigolo Serge Stanieff is infatuated, even prim Salvation Army reformer Captain Cummings has a crush on her. When Lou visits her ex-lover Chick Clark in stir, he’s driven so mad with jealousy he escapes to make sure Lou’s being true (fat chance!).

The plot revolves around some shady white slavery business involving Gus, Serge, and Russian Rita, but that takes a backseat to Mae and her ribald double entendres. This is the film where she coos to a young Cary Grant (playing the reformer!), “Why’ncha come up sometime and see me”. Cary asks if she’s ever met a man that could make her happy, to which Mae replies, “Sure, lots of times”. Or this little gem: “When women go wrong, men go right after them”. She also gets to sing three hot numbers, “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone”, “A Guy What Takes His Time”, and “Frankie & Johnny”.

Mae always claimed to have ‘discovered’ Cary Grant, but he’d already made seven films by this point, including the Pre-Code classic BLONDE VENUS with Marlene Dietrich. Grant was 29 at the time, while Mae was approaching 40, but a little thing like age never stopped Mae West, and the sexual heat between them is believable. Gruff Noah Beery Sr. plays saloon owner Gus, oily Gilbert Roland is the oily Serge, and Owen Moore the jealousy-driven Chick. Other cast members include Rafaela Ottiano as Russian Rita (reprising her stage role), Dewey Robinson as Lou’s loyal bodyguard Spider, and the delightful Louise Beavers as Lou’s maid Pearl. Familiar Faces abound in lesser parts: Arthur Housman , Rochelle Hudson , Tom Kennedy , Fuzzy Knight , David Landau, among others.

Though the prudes were outraged at Mae’s onscreen behavior, SHE DONE HIM WRONG  packed ’em in around the country, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that year (the shortest movie ever nominated, clocking in at 66 minutes). The Production Code clampdown a year later watered Mae’s earthy persona down considerably, but even watered down Mae West was better than none at all. She still found ways to sneak some in (as in this from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE: “I was in a tight spot, but I managed to wiggle out of it”), but Mae’s shocking one-liners mostly found themselves on the cutting room floor. Mae West never gave in or gave up though, and continued to be her raunchy self for years to come. She was Hollywood’s first Liberated Woman, and SHE DONE HIM WRONG represents the immortal Mae West at her lustful best!

Jack in the Saddle: BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN (Paramount 1940)

The gang’s all here in BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN – Jack Benny’s radio gang, that is! Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, announcer Don Wilson, band leader Phil Harris, comic actor Andy Devine, and crooner Dennis Day all show up for this fun-filled musical comedy romp directed by Mark Sandrich. Even Jack’s radio nemesis Fred Allen is heard (though not seen) cracking jokes at his rival’s expense!

The movie plays like an extended sketch from one of Jack’s radio or TV programs, as the vain Jack falls for pretty Joan Cameron (Ellen Drew), one of a trio of singing sisters (the other two are Virginia Dale and Lillian Cornell) trying to break into show biz. They “meet cute” when Jack accidentally smashes into Joan’s taxi. Jack keeps flubbing his chances with Joan, who only goes for manly, rugged Western types (“I wouldn’t go out with him if he drove up in a sleigh and had white whiskers and toys!”), so Jack goes West, pretending to own Andy Devine’s Nevada ranch to impress her. The cowardly comedian pays off the ranch hands to make himself look tough, but a couple of real-life tough hombres (Ward Bond,  Morris Ankrum) cause trouble for scaredy cat Jack. When the outlaws tie up Joan while attempting to rob the local dude ranch/hotel, the inept Jack manages to rescue her and save the day – with an assist from his pet polar bear, Carmichael!

In between the admittedly thin plot, you’ll find a treasure trove of classic Benny comedy. There’s plenty of bantering with Rochester, wisecracks about his cheapness, vanity, age sensitivity, and of course his ongoing radio “feud” with comic Fred Allen (sourpuss Charles Lane plays Allen’s press agent, out to expose Jack as a Western fraud). Jack in his Western get-up is a sight to behold, and his cowboy song , with it’s refrain “with the deer and the antelope”, is a hoot!

A real treat in BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN is Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who gets a rare opportunity to showcase his talents. Besides the back-and-forth banter with “Boss” Benny, Rochester even gets a romantic subplot with Joan’s maid Josephine, played by Theresa Harris .  They duet on “My My” (written by the film’s songwriters Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh) which made the Hit Parade that year, and he has a jazzy solo tap number highlighting his fancy footwork. Other than CABIN IN THE SKY, this is Rochester’s biggest movie part, and we can all be grateful he was given this chance to shine.

There are dance numbers by a troupe called the Merrill Abbott Dancers, solo songs from Irish tenor Day, hepcat Harris, and Drew (dubbed by big band singer Martha Tilton) to go along with the crazy comedy. Director Sandrich was no stranger to musical comedies, having sat in the chair for Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classics like TOP HAT and SHALL WE DANCE (and later the Christmas perennial HOLIDAY INN with Fred and Bing Crosby). While BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN may not be on a par with those films, it’s an   entertaining vehicle for fans of Jack Benny, and a good starting place for newcomers. Carmichael alone is worth the price of admission!

Pre-Code Confidential #24: THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (Paramount 1933)


I’d heard so much about THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE – that it was so depraved and salacious it almost singlehandedly led to stricter enforcement of the Production Code – that it was almost a letdown when I first viewed it. I say almost because, knowing the era this adaptation of William Faulkner’s SANCTUARY was made, I understand how shocked audiences must have been. THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE could be a TV Movie of the Week today, but in 1933 people couldn’t handle this level of lasciviousness.

Georgia-born Miriam Hopkins is outstanding as Southern belle Temple, though she does lay on the “sho’ nuffs” a little too thick at times. Temple, daughter of a prominent judge, is a wild child, a big tease to all the men in town. Solid, steadfast lawyer Stephen Benbow wants to marry her, but the self-centered Temple thinks he’s too dull, preferring to party all night. While speeding down a dirt road with the equally irresponsible Toddy Gowan on their way to a backwoods roadhouse, they get into an accident. The two are found by some  moonshiners and their big city bootleg connection, the cold-blooded gangster Trigger, and taken to their gloomy Gothic hideout.

Temple is then raped in the barn by Trigger, who shoots her young hillbilly bodyguard Tommy. The girl is in shock, as Trigger lugs her along his sordid path, making their way to Miss Reba’s Place, where she’s forced into a life of prostitution. Moonshiner Lee Goodwin is arrested for Tommy’s death, and Benbow is appointed council, but he refuses to talk, fearing reprisal from Trigger. Lee’s common-law wife Ruby isn’t afraid to speak the truth though, and Benbow tracks down Trigger with a subpoena. To his shock, Benbow finds the missing Temple with him. The murderous Trigger reaches in his pocket for his gun, but Temple gets between them, telling Benbow she’s been with the gangster all along, willingly, acting as his alibi and secretly saving Benbow’s life.

Temple then tries to leave Trigger, but the vicious hood won’t let her. He’s about to lay another smackdown on her when she grabs his gat and shoots her tormentor. Returning to her hometown just in time for the trial, Temple’s  father is outraged when Benbow plans to put his daughter on the stand, and now Temple faces a moral dilemma: tell the truth and suffer total disgrace for herself and her family name, or let an innocent man hang for a crime he didn’t commit…

Miriam gives one of her best performances as Temple, the party girl whose lifestyle leads her on the road to ruin. Hopkins doesn’t get the acclaim her contemporaries Bette Davis and Joan Crawford do, but her work in this and 30’s films like DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE , TROUBLE IN PARADISE, DESIGN FOR LIVING, BECKY SHARP, and THESE THREE show what a talented actress she was. Jack LaRue (Trigger) was Hollywood’s most hissable gangster, and here he’s so repugnant and evil, with that ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, you can’t help but hate him. Florence Eldridge (wife of Fredric March) is really good as the hardened Ruby, as is Irving Pichel in the role of Lee. William Gargan plays Benbow as written – bland – and one can see why Temple isn’t interested. A plethora of Familiar Faces appear: Oscar Apfel , Louise Beavers, John Carradine (a courtroom extra), William Collier Jr (the wastrel Toddy), Jobyna Howland, Elizabeth Patterson, Sir Guy Standing (Judge Drake), Grady Sutton , and Kent Taylor.

Faulkner’s controversial novel had to be watered down, even in the Pre-Code era, by scriptwriter Oliver Garrett, and even then, the censors demanded cuts due to pressure from the newly formed Catholic Legion of Decency . The rape itself, as well as any mention of Temple being a prostitute, are only implied, but you’ll get the drift (onscreen murders seem to be okay, though!). DP Karl Struss had worked on F.W. Murnau’s silent classic SUNRISE (receiving an Oscar) and early talkies COQUETTE, DR. JEKYLL, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. His camerawork on THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE was film noir before the term was ever coined.

Director Stephen Roberts handles the material well, cutting at times to the busybody townspeople talking about the scandalous Temple, and keeping the film moving at a brisk pace. Roberts had a long career in silent movies, mainly directing shorts, before being assigned to features. He died in 1936 after making only six more pictures. TEMPLE DRAKE may not have killed him, but it’s sinful reputation pretty much killed his career. The story was remade as SANCTUARY in 1961, but despite looser film restrictions it’s even more watered down than the original! I’d like to see a contemporary filmmaker(Quentin Tarantino? Martin Scorsese?) tackle the material, but for now, I’ll settle for the sleaziness of THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE.

 

Gone With The Whaaat?: MANDINGO (Paramount 1975)

If you’ve never seen MANDINGO, be prepared for loads of gratuitous sex, violence, debauchery, depravity, racism, incest, nudity, and other such unsavory stuff! Some people today discuss the film in a scholarly manner, dissecting the sociological implications of pre-Civil War decadence in the deep South, the plight of the abused slaves, the overindulgent cruelty of the slave owners, and blah blah blah. I’m gonna talk about what the movie really is: pure, unadulterated Exploitation trash, in which some scenes will have your jaw dropping in shock, while others will leave you laughing at the exaggerated overacting and ludicrous dialog!

The movie centers around the Maxwell family and their plantation home, Falconhurst. It’s no Tara; Falconhurst is a run-down, gloomy, decrepit mansion that looks like it belongs in one of those “hillbilly horror” schlockfests of the 60’s or 70’s. Family patriarch Warren Maxwell wants a grandson to carry on the family name, so he sends son Hammond to court his cousin Blanche. Along the way, Hammond and cousin Charles are treated to having sex with a couple of slaves. While the cruel Charles beats his with a belt, Hammond develops feelings for his, Ellie, and purchases her. He also buys a Mandingo slave called Mede, “a fightin’ n*gger” who he plans to use to wager on in to-the-death battles and breed with the other slaves.

On his wedding night, Ham discovers Blanche is no virgin – seems she’s already been had by her brother Charles (“It was just once!”). Disgusted, Ham turns to his “bed wench” Ellie for comfort, and she soon becomes pregnant. While Ham’s off pitting Mede in a brutal contest against a slave named Topaz (a no-holds-barred, hardcore battle straight outta Paul Heyman’s late, lamented Extreme Championship Wrestling!), a drunken Blanche whips Ellie with a riding crop, forcing the slave to tumble down the staircase and lose her baby.

 

Ham, who no longer touches Blanche, heads to Natchez to sell some slaves, and while the cat’s away, Blanche will play… with Mede, whom she forces to have sex with her by threatening to tell Ham he raped her (a lie, of course). Warren, tired of waiting for a grandbaby, locks Ham and Blanche in the bedroom together until they do the wild thing and produce a kid! Blanche soon announces she’s with child, and a baby is born at last… a black baby! Mede’s! The not-so-kindly family doctor allows the child to bleed out and die, Ham sees the dead black baby in it’s crib, poisons Blanche, and goes after Mede with a gun! Forcing Mede to fill a cauldron with boiling hot water, he tells his Mandingo, “GET IN!”. Of course Mede refuses, and Ham shoots Mede into the pot and runs him through with a pitchfork! Head slave Agamemnon grabs the gun and aims at Ham, Warren commands him to stop, so Agamemnon shoots Warren instead and runs off, and… and our film abruptly ends right there!

The distinguished actor James Mason plays family patriarch Warren Maxwell waaay over-the-top, complete with a terrible Southern accent. Mason seems to know he’s trapped in a bad film, and compensates by hamming it up mercilessly as the old slave owner. Whether delivering lines like (to his daughter-in-law) “You actin’ zany! Zany! You actin’ like a Georgia bitch!”, or trying to cure his “rheumatis” by pressing his bare feet on a little black child’s belly, Mason earns a spot in the Bad Acting Hall of Fame.

If Mason is over-the-top, Susan George as Blanche takes a full  leap into the abyss as Blanche. Her character is a drunken, horny harridan, vicious as the devil, and George is a real hoot! Perry King tries to play it straight as Hammond, but eventually gets caught up in the overblown theatrics. Brenda Sykes is good as Ellie, and the great Richard Ward shines in the role of the smarter-than-they-think Agamemnon  (“Why, a lazy, no account, stupid, God-forsaken n*gger like me cain’t have a soul, Massa”). Also in the cast are Paul Benedict (Bentley on THE JEFFERSONS), Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Lillian Hayman (the soap ONE LIFE TO LIVE), former Mr. Universe/pro wrestler Earl Maynard, Debbie Morgan (ALL MY CHILDREN), and Roy Poole.

Then we’ve got heavyweight boxer Ken Norton in the pivotal part of Mede. The muscular 6’3″, 200+ pounder, who handed Muhammad Ali his second professional loss in 1973 and held the WBC title in ’78, makes an imposing presence. Norton wanted to be an actor, but lacked the talent. He did star in the sequel DRUM, and had some other film and TV credits, but as a thespian, he was a good boxer. Norton tries, I’ll give him that, and he’s great in the fight scenes, but let’s just say dialog wasn’t his strong point!

Director Richard Fleischer throws any sense of subtilty out the plantation window in this lurid little Exploitation number. The movie’s based on an equally lurid 1957 book by Kyle Onstott, which must have shocked the socks off of readers back then. Dino De Laurentiis produced, a sure sign of big-budget schlock (though to be fair, he did make his share of good films). And Executive Producer Ralph Serpe claimed MANDINGO would “bring about a better understanding between the races”. Who you kiddin’ bud? There’s no deep sociological message to MANDINGO – it’s strictly Exploitation fare, and should be treated as such. If you’re in the mood for some trashy fun in a “so-bad-it’s- good” kinda way, then MANDINGO is right up your alley. Don’t expect any more than that!

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!: MOVIE CRAZY (Paramount 1932)

Harold Lloyd  made a smooth transition from silent films to talkies beginning with 1929’s WELCOME DANGER. Unlike Charlie Chaplin (who stubbornly clung to making silents until 1940), and Buster Keaton (whose MGM contract took away much of his artistic freedom), Lloyd retained both his comic visual style while integrating verbal gags in the new medium and kept control of the pictures he made. And while his popularity had begun to wane by the 1930’s, Harold Lloyd’s early talkies are definitely worth watching – because they’re flat-out funny! Case in point: 1932’s MOVIE CRAZY.

MOVIE CRAZY is one of those “Hollywood-behind-the-scenes” stories you know I love so much, so it automatically scored cool points with me! Kansas farm boy Harold Hall lives with his parents and daydreams of being a movie star. One day, he sends his picture and a letter to Planet Films exec O’Brien – only the inept Harold accidentally sends a pic of a collar-ad, good-looking guy instead of his nerdy self! O’Brien sends a reply asking Harold to come to Hollywood for a screen test, and the bumbling bumpkin goes west, immediately causing havoc at a location shoot. It’s also here he first lays eyes on actress Mary Sears, in character as a Spanish senorita.

One funny scene (among many) has Harold caught in a rainstorm, chasing his errant shoe as it floats down the street, finally landing on his keister and splashing Mary, now out of costume (though he doesn’t realize it’s the same person) and having car problems. His attempts to help her result in a series of comic mishaps, and earns him the nickname “Trouble”. She takes him home to get out of his wet clothes (wearing one of her outfits!) and her actor boyfriend, the drunken lout Vance, bullies our Harold. His screen test is a bust, though he’s led to believe he’s a hit, and Mary dumps him when she finds out he’s cheating (actually with her, as the senorita!), all culminating with Harold attending a swanky studio party, where he mistakenly switches jackets with a stage magician, causing more chaos with a water-squirting boutonniere, rabbits, and a box of white mice. Dejected, rejected, Harold gets beat up at the studio by the obnoxious Vance. When he comes to, a scene being filmed makes him think Vance is really assaulting Mary, and he finally vanquishes the bully, winding up with a studio contract, and Mary to boot!

There’s so many laughs in MOVIE CRAZY I could barely stop and take notes! Harold’s clumsy, naïve yet likeable persona serves him well as the hayseed in Hollywood, and he and costar Constance Cummings (Mary) make a cute couple. Spencer Charters as O’Brien takes the brunt of Harold’s ineptitude, and Kenneth Thomson’s Vance makes a hissable villain. Among the Familiar Faces are Louise Closser Hale as the studio boss’s dowager wife, Arthur Housman as a soused partygoer, and Grady Sutton in a brief but memorable cameo. The backstage scenes are well done, giving us a glimpse of those halcyon days of early talkies.

A plethora of writers worked on MOVIE CRAZY: the story’s credited to Felix Adler , John Grey, and Agnes Christine Johnson, screenplay to Vincent Lawrence, and ‘continuity’ to Lex Neal, Frank Terry, and Clyde Bruckman (with an uncredited assist to Lloyd and “Nancy and Sluggo” creator Ernie Bushmiller!). Bruckman also gets the director’s credit, though Lloyd had to take over much of the time due to Bruckman’s hard-drinking ways. Clyde Bruckman had been around since the early days of slapstick comedy, and worked with all the greats: Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields , The Three Stooges , Laurel & Hardy, so many others. His drinking curtailed his directorial career (his last was Fields’ MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE), but he could still get work as a gag man. However, Bruckman had a habit of “borrowing” (some would say stealing) old material and reworking it (The Stooges’ short LOCO BOY MAKES GOOD repeats the magician’s coat routine almost verbatim). Lloyd and his lawyers sued Bruckman’s then-employers, Universal, when evidence of this “borrowing” became blatant, and Clyde Bruckman never worked in features again. He was persona non grata around town, though  Abbott & Costello did hire him for their TV series, where his penchant for recycling other comedians’ old material once again found him in hot legal waters. Drinking heavily, unemployable, and nearly destitute, Bruckman borrowed a gun from his old friend Keaton and blew his brains out in a restaurant bathroom in 1955.

*ahem* well, that was a bit of a downer, wasn’t it? Instead of pondering the fate of the unfortunate Clyde Bruckman, let’s instead celebrate Harold Lloyd and MOVIE CRAZY, a hilarious concoction of comedy from an artist too often overlooked by modern audiences:

Pre Code Confidential #23: Marlene Dietrich in BLONDE VENUS (Paramount 1932)

Director Josef von Sternberg and his marvelous muse Marlene Dietrich  teamed for their fifth film together with BLONDE VENUS, a deliciously decadent soap opera that’s a whole lot of fun for Pre-Code lovers. Sternberg indulges his Marlene fetish by exploring both sides of her personality, as both Madonna and whore, and Dietrich plays it to the hilt in a film that no censor would dare let pass just a scant two years later.

How’s this for an opening: a group of schoolboys hiking through the Black Forest stumble upon a bevy of naked stage chanteuses taking a swim! The girls scream and try to hide, and beautiful Helen (Marlene) tries to shoo them away. Ned Faraday refuses until Helen agrees to meet him later. Flash forward to a scene of Helen and Ned now married with a young son named Johnny. Ned, a chemist by trade, has been poisoned by radiation and is thinking of selling his body to science. There’s a chance of a cure, but it’s in Dresden, and New Yorker Ned can’t afford the $1500 for the trip.  Helen offers to return to the stage to raise the money, and although Ned disapproves, he eventually comes to grips with the fact there’s no other way out.

From there, we follow Helen’s journey from docile hausfrau to nightclub sensation to wandering prostitute, with Sternberg’s camera slavishly keeping all eyes on Marlene. Dietrich could command the screen with the best of them – Cagney, Wayne, Lugosi at his peak. She gets an agent, who gets “all hopped up” over this “pip” of a woman, and lands her a gig at a club, redubbing her “The Blonde Venus”. Her ‘Hot Voodoo’ number, with Marlene crouching about in a gorilla costume, then seductively stripping it off piece by piece while donning a blonde afro wig, with native dancers writhing to the pounding rhythm of the drums, then turning into a hot jazz vamp, her knowing smile exuding sex appeal, makes the film worth watching all by itself!

In the audience is political ‘boss’ Nick Townsend, who immediately wants her, and Nick always gets what he wants. This was the fourth film appearance for 28-year-old Cary Grant , before he honed his screen persona to perfection, and he’s quite effective in the part. Helen tells Ned the club manager has given her an advance, and he’s off to Dresden, but in reality the money came from Nick – and now they’re more than just friends! When Ned returns from abroad and finds his home empty, he tracks her down. She tells him the truth, and he threatens to take Johnny away from her, so Helen and her child take a powder, an oddessy that takes them halfway across the country, trailed by a PI who catches up with her in Galveston.

After coming to the realization she’s “no good at all, no good for anything”, Helen gives up Johnny and sinks to a new low. Heartbroken and drunk, staggering into a flophouse, Helen’s on the verge of suicide, but instead winds up back to Europe, becoming the Toast of Paris. We get another number, “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed”, which Marlene sings in both French and English, dressed in a masculine white tuxedo and smoking from a long cigarette holder. Nick, who went abroad to forget her, is again in the audience, but now Helen is “cold as the proverbial icicle”. She returns to New York with him so she can see Johnny one more time, and things come full circle in a real tear-jerker of an ending.

All this goes on under the watchful eye of Sternberg and DP Bert Glennon, a favorite of both the German director and John Ford. Sternberg’s trademark Expressionist shadowplay would be a heavy influence on films noir to come. The breakneck script by Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren (allegedly from an original story by Dietrich herself) takes Marlene from domestic bliss to the depths of despair, and the audience on a ride filled with eye-popping moments.

Herbert Marshall  has the thankless part of Ned Faraday, although BLOND VENUS would make him a star in America. It’s a bit of a stretch to find Ned, who first laid eyes on Helen skinnydipping, would turn so prudish, but these were the mores of the times. Little Dickie Moore , former OUR GANG star, was one of the busiest child actors of the early thirties, and he’s good as young Johnny. Future Charlie Chan Sidney Toler warms up for the role as Detective Wilson, Rita LeRoy has a juicy bit as Helen’s rival Taxi Belle, and among the Familiar Faces are Al Bridge, Cecil Cunningham , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Mary Gordon, Sterling Holloway , Hattie McDaniel, Clarence Muse, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Dewey Robinson, and Morgan Wallace. BLONDE VENUS is a merry-go-round of a movie, and though some don’t rank it high in the von Sternberg/Dietrich catalogue, I found it a delightful exercise in debauchery, and as I said earlier, that “Hot Voodoo” number alone makes it worthy of your attention!

Smashmouth Football: Burt Reynolds in THE LONGEST YARD (Paramount 1974)

Dedicated to the memory of Burt Reynolds (2/11/1936-9/6/2018)

If it was producer Albert Ruddy’s idea to team macho actor Burt Reynolds with macho director Robert Aldrich for THE LONGEST YARD, then the man’s a bloody genius (Ruddy was no stranger to machismo himself, having previously produced THE GODFATHER)! This testosterone-fueled tale of an ex-NFL star turned convict, forced to assemble a football team of hardened criminals to take on the sports-mad warden’s goon squad of guards, is one of Burt’s best vehicles, and a comeback of sorts for Aldrich, who hadn’t scored a hit since 1967’s THE DIRTY DOZEN . Both men hit the end zone with this sports-themed film, and led the way for an onslaught of football films to come.

Former star quarterback Paul Crewe (Reynolds), who was thrown out of the NFL in a points shaving scandal, finds himself under arrest after fighting with his girlfriend, stealing her car, and leading the Miami police on a drunken car chase. He’s sent to Citrus State Prison, where Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert ) is a huge football fan obsessed with winning the prison league championship. Hazen wants Crewe to help coach his team, but the con balks at the idea, earning the wrath of Hazen and Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter).

After taking his lumps, Crewe agrees to put together a team of cons to play a tune-up game with the guards. Along with veteran con and ex-New York Giant Nate Scarboro (Michael Conrad), Crewe assembles a team of the biggest miscreants in stir, coaching them to be viscious, violent, and mostly importantly, cheat! Hazen sends around his trustee Unger (Charles Tyner) to spy on the team, now-dubbed ‘The Mean Machine’, and when he gets busted for being a rat he tries to kill Crewe with a booby trap, only to murder team manager and supreme scrounger Caretaker (James Hampton) instead. The day of the big game finds The Mean Machine up big at halftime, until Hazen warns Crewe his team must lose or he’ll face an additional twenty years as an accessory to Caretaker’s death….

THE LONGEST YARD, Ed Lauter, Eddie Albert, 1974
Macho Men: Robert Tessier, Burt, Sonny Sixkiller

Burt knew a thing or two about football, having played briefly for Florida State before injuries curtailed his college career. He certainly looks the part of an ex-jock, and carries himself well on the field. Eddie Albert is a real slimeball as Warden Hazen, obsessed with football and his own little power trip. All the actors are of the tough guy variety, above all Robert Tessier as Shokner, “the very baddest cat in the joint”, and one of my favorite badass character actors. Many of the others are former NFL and college players themselves, such as ex-Tarzan Mike Henry (later the dunderheaded Junior in Burt’s SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT films), Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers, Joe Kapp of the Minnesota Vikings, and Washington Huskies QB Sonny Sixkiller. Among the non-footballers there’s Richard “Jaws” Kiel, Harry Caesar, Bernadette Peters (as Hazen’s horny secretary), John Steadman (because every sports movie’s gotta have a guy named “Pop”), and ex-pro wrestler Pepper Martin.

Aldrich captures the violent worlds both behind the walls and on the field, and utilizes some cool split-screen work to give things that big-game feel. Screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn comes from a long line of Hollywood royalty (father Keenan, grandfather Ed), and was also responsible for the TV Movies TRIBES, THE GLASS HOUSE, and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN, and big screen ventures THE DROWNING POOL and THE DEEP. THE LONGEST YARD was his feature debut, and he came up with a real championship of a story. It’s the perfect way to get ready for the season… and oh, just one more thing:


LET’S GO, PATRIOTS!

(Hey, you knew that was coming, right?)

In The City: THE WARRIORS (Paramount 1979)


Back in the 70’s, the crowd I hung out with didn’t give a rat’s ass about STAR WARS … THE WARRIORS was THE movie to see! The film reportedly resulted in outbreaks of violence, vandalism, and even three deaths  – including one up in Boston! – and Paramount Pictures pulled all its advertising, because that’s what adults do! Didn’t matter to us, though… everyone already knew about THE WARRIORS and it’s glorification of violence, and all the neighborhood cool kids just had to catch it (including a certain long-haired wiseass who used to amuse his street corner friends with his “useless knowledge” of old movies).

The myriad street gangs of New York City have declared a truce and gathered together for a big meet called by Cyrus, leader of The Riffs. The charismatic Cyrus whips ’em into a frenzy proposing they all organize into one huge gang to control The Big Apple’s streets (“Can you dig it?”). A psycho named Luther, war chief of The Rogues, assassinates Cyrus, is seen by The Warriors, the cops bust things up (and bust a few heads), Luther pins the murder on The Warriors, and now the truce is broken as The Warriors must run through a gauntlet of gangs to get back to their Coney Island turf alive…

THE WARRIORS is essentially one long, though highly stylized, chase film.  Director Walter Hill and co-writer David Shaber (NIGHTHAWKS, LAST EMBRACE) updated Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel and turned it into a comic book orgy of exaggerated violence, complete with a gaudy color scheme and costumed villains, all set to a pulse-pounding synth-rock score by Barry De Vorzon. It was with this film that I first became aware of Hill, who had written the screenplay for Sam Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY and went on to make some of my favorite movies of the 80’s : THE LONG RIDERS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, 48 HRS.

Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) and Swan (Michael Beck)

The Riffs put out the word to get The Warriors via a radio DJ (reminiscent of another 70’s chase film, VANISHING POINT ), and the violence escalates as they encounter gang after gang out to get them. First up is The Orphans, a bunch of non-entities easily dispatched with a Molotov cocktail. Orphans chick Mercy, a street-wise toughie (“I ain’t no whore”), tags along with The Warriors, mainly to set up a little “Romeo and Juliet of the streets” subplot with Warrior war chief Swan to appeal to the females in the audience.

A war-painted Baseball Fury
“The chicks are packed!”: The deadly Lizzies

The film’s not about any sappy love story though, but rather the action-packed set pieces: The Baseball Furies, decked out in face paint and (hated around these parts) Yankee pinstripes, wielding baseball bats to take out The Warriors, to which hot-headed Ajax replies, “I’ll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle”! The roller-skating Punks menace Swan and Mercy in a desolate subway until their Warrior brethren show up and a violent men’s room brawl takes place. Best of all involves The Lizzies, an all-girl gang who sucker three Warriors to their crash pad to party, only to pull guns and switchblades out before our heroes barely escape with their lives! The climax comes at dawn, as The Warriors finally make it back to Coney Island, only to be confronted by psycho Luther and his Rogues. Asked why he wasted Cyrus, Luther sneeringly replies, “No reason, I just like doing things like that” as he points his gun at Swan and… I won’t spoil the ending; suffice it to say justice is served, and we fade out to the strains of Joe Walsh’s FM hit “In The City”:

Street Angel: the delectable Deborah Van Valkenburgh

Everyone thought Michael Beck (Swan) would be a big breakout star… that is, until he made XANADU the following year and had his cool card immediately pulled! Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Mercy) was every street kid’s dream, an object of lustful desire in a braless pink halter top, with full pouty lips and a sexy overbite – YOWZA! She went on to co-star in the sitcom TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT (1980-83), almost unrecognizable as the sensible daughter of Ted Knight. James Remar plays the meatheaded Ajax (every gang has one), a hunk of bad attitude constantly questioning Swan’s authority, who winds up getting busted hitting on an undercover cop. Remar’s had a decent career since then, appearing in 48 HRS, THE COTTON CLUB, THE PHANTOM, DRUGSTORE COWBOY, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, and as Kim Cattral’s sometimes boyfriend on SEX AND THE CITY from 2002-04. The other Warriors are Dorsey Wright (Cleon), Brian Tyler (Snow), David Harris (Cochise), Tom McKittrick (Cowboy), Marcelino Sanchez (Rembrandt), Terry Mihos (Vermin), and Thomas G. Waite (Fox), who went uncredited and was killed off early after a rift with Hill.

“Warr-i-ors, come out to play-ay!”

David Patrick Kelly’s Luther was another archetype you’d find in any band of juvenile delinquents, the sociopathic maniac who doesn’t give a shit about anybody or anything but himself. Luther’s taunting chant “Warr-i-ors, come out to play-ay”, accompanying himself by clinking three empty beer bottles stuck on his fingers, was definitely the film’s most imitated scene by kids everywhere, and remains its most iconic. Kelly’s looney-tunes characterization got him noticed, and he’s gone on to act in films like COMMANDO, THE CROW, CROOKLYN, WILD AT HEART, JOHN WICK, and as Jerry Horne on David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS, both the original series and the recent revival.

Why did kids like me like THE WARRIORS so much? It wasn’t just the stylistic violence that held an appeal: The Warriors were US, or at least a romanticized fantasy version of what we THOUGHT we were back in the day. We didn’t wear colors, our biker friends would disapprove (though a group or two of local yokels did after the film’s release, but they were basically just punk-ass wannabes that no one took seriously), but brothers (and sisters) we were, disaffected, alienated youth who chose to live outside societal norms. We were family, dysfunctional as hell with chips on each shoulder, trying to cope with a world we didn’t understand and didn’t really want to, anyway. THE WARRIORS has taken on cult status as an improbable but enjoyable rock’n’roll fantasy, but back in 1979, the idea of THE WARRIORS mattered… at least to a bunch of street corner “hoodlums” from New Bedford, MA, many of whom sadly died way too young. This one’s for you, Ball’s Corner Boys.