Beautiful Dreamer: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO 1949)

The folks who brought you KING KONG – producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Shoedsack, writer Ruth Rose, animator Willis O’Brien – returned sixteen years later to the giant ape theme with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a classic fantasy that can stand on its own. Though the film usually gets lumped into the horror genre, it’s more a fable than a fright fest, a beautifully made flight of fancy for children of all ages, and one of my personal favorites.

In deepest darkest Africa, little Jill Young buys a cute baby gorilla from the natives. Twelve years later, impresario Max O’Hara, along with rodeo wrangler Gregg and his crew, travel to The Dark Continent in search of exotic animal acts for a new show he’s producing, when they come face to face with the now 12 foot tall, 2,000 pound gargantua, affectionately called Joe by a grown Jill. She’s the only person that can control the beast, so hustler O’Hara signs them both up to headline his newest venture, Hollywood nightclub The Golden Safari.

The act features Jill playing “Beautiful Dreamer” on piano while Mighty Joe hoists her far above his head. Then, in one of my favorite segments, ten of the world’s strongest men (professional wrestlers Sammy Stein, Killer Karl Davis, Rasputin, Henry “Bomber” Kulky, Slammin’ Sammy Menacker , Max the Iron Man, Wee Willie Davis, Man Mountain Dean, The Swedish Angel, and ex-heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera) attempt a futile tug o’war against Joe! The act’s a smash hit, yet neither Jill nor Joe are happy with their decision to leave home for the bright lights of Tinseltown.

A trio of trouble-causing drunks sneak backstage and get Joe wasted on booze, and the enormous ape escapes and wreaks havoc on the club. Joe is captured and ordered to be killed by those pesky authorities, but the ever-hustling O’Hara comes up with a scheme to free the beast and return him and Jill to Africa. The cops are in hot pursuit when the gang spots a burning orphanage (which was tinted red in the version I recently viewed), and Mighty Joe rescues a bunch of children from certain doom. Joe and Jill are allowed to return home, accompanied by Jill’s now boyfriend Gregg, and guess what – that’s right, they live happily ever after!

Sixteen year old Terry Moore had been playing mostly bits before shooting to stardom in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Miss Moore. who’s still with us at age 90, went on to a lengthy screen career in films like COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA (for which she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), DADDY LONG LEGS, SHACK OUT ON 101, PEYTON PLACE, and numerous TV appearances (and also did a memorable 1984 nude PLAYBOY pictorial at age 55!). Ex-rodeo champ, stuntman, and John Ford favorite Ben Johnson put his roping and riding skills to good use here as Gregg (and Ford himself was an uncredited co-producer). KING KONG’s Robert Armstrong plays the hyperbolic producer O’Hara, older but still as fast-talking as ever. And perennial Warner Brothers movie sidekick Frank McHugh steals a few scenes as O’Hara’s sidekick Windy.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a Familiar Face spotter’s dream (especially that panning shot down the nightclub bar!). Old Hollywood Buffs will have a ball locating (among many others) such stalwarts as Iris Adrian , Kay Christopher, Chester Clute, Joyce Compton, Ellen Corby , James Flavin, Bess Flowers, Byron Foulger , John Gallaudet, Ed Gargan, Dorothy Granger, Paul Guilfoyle, Carol Hughes, Tom Kennedy, Donald Kerr, Charles Lane, Richard Lane , Kermit Maynard, Anne Nagel , Nestor Paiva, Jack Pennick, Irene Ryan , William Schallert , Regis Toomey – a veritable classic movie lover’s paradise! Happy Hunting!

Willis O’Brien  supervised the special effects, but most of the animation was done by his protege, Ray Harryhausen. Young Ray had done some film work, notably on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, but MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was his first of many fantasy features to follow – classics such as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH , 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, ONE MILLION YEARS BC , GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and CLASH OF THE TITANS. His debut here earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which was given to O’Brien as special effects supervisor. O’Brien, in turn, handed the Oscar over to Harryhausen, and deservedly so. Honestly, you don’t see that kind of humility in Hollywood very often!

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was remade by Disney in 1998. Having never seen it, I can’t really comment on it, but I don’t see how it could possibly compare to the original. This is (in my humble opinion) one of the all-time great fantasy films, and despite it’s age still holds up well today. It’s the kind of movie that, if you  showed it to the younger generation, would surely spark their interest in films of the past, and I can’t give it a greater compliment than that!

 

Creature Double Feature 2: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (Columbia, 1955 & 1957)

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Let’s return to those thrilling days of yore before CGI and enter the wonder-filled world of Special Effects legend Ray Harryhausen! I’ve covered some of Harryhausen’s fantastic work before (ONE MILLION YEARS BC EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS THE VALLEY OF GWANGI ), and most of you regular readers know of my affection for his stop-motion wizardry. So without further ado, let’s dive right into IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

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An atomic submarine picks up a mysterious large object on its sonar. The sub’s hit hard, and radiation is detected in the surrounding area. The damaged sub is taken to Pearl Harbor for repairs, and a substance found on it is determined to be from a “living creature” by eminent scientist Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and beautiful marine biologist Prof. Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue ). Sub Commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey ) and Leslie immediately butt heads, which means they’re going to hook up before it’s all over. But let’s face facts, no one cares about the romantic subplot, we’re here for the monster, determined to be a gigantic octopus!

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Ocky (as I’ve taken to refer to him) has been disturbed by H-Bomb tests in the Pacific, and his radioactivity has caused the fish he usually feeds on to flee, so now Ocky is going after larger prey. He attacks a tramp steamer and eats everyone but a small raft of survivors, who confirm Leslie’s theory. The U.S. Navy goes out in full force hunting for Ocky, who eats a deputy sheriff off the coast of Oregon. The entire Pacific Coast is shut down, as Ocky makes his way to San Francisco, wreaking havoc at the Golden Gate Bridge. The fabled bridge has been wired with electricity to shock the beast, and Pete and Dr. Carter board the sub with a special jet-propelled torpedo to launch into Ocky’s brain. Meanwhile, Ocky’s on the loose in the Market Street area, causing destruction, snatching a helicopter out of the sky, and allowing the filmmakers to add plenty of shots of panicked citizens running down the streets of San Francisco!

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Army flamethrowers drive Ocky back to the sea, and our intrepid heroes launch their super-duper torpedo. But Ocky catches the sub in it’s six-armed grip- that’s right, el cheapo executive producer Sam Katzman held the budget reins so tight, it only allowed Harryhausen to animate six octopus arms! Anyway, Pete scubas out and uses a harpoon gun to shoot plastique explosives at Ocky, but isn’t successful, so Dr. Carter bravely does the deed, hitting Ocky square in his octopus eyeball and blowing his head off, making the Pacific Coast safe for surfers once again!

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Ocky’s stop-motion scenes of destruction are exciting, but there’s only so much you can do with a giant octopus. The monster in our main attraction is another story. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH begins with a spacecraft crash-landing off the coast of Sicily. Some brave fisherman (with bad Italian acc-a-centas) board and find two humans still alive. They pull them off before the ship sinks, and little, annoying Pepe (played by future VEGA$ co-star Bart Braverman) is sent to get help from a visiting doctor (Frank Puglia ) , but Dr. Leonardo is only a zoologist, so he sends his med student granddaughter Marisa (Joan Taylor) to attend the surviving crewmen. One dies, but Col. Bob Calder (William Hopper, PERRY MASON’s Paul Drake) demands to speak to his superiors, butting heads with Marisa in the process (and you already know what that means!). Meanwhile, enterprising Pepe finds a capsule loaded with a mysterious, jellylike substance, so he sells it to Leonardo for 200 lira (so he can buy a “Texas cowboy hat”!).

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The jelly hatches a tiny, strange-looking creature, so Leonardo and Marisa put it in a cage with plans to take it to the Rome Zoo for study. But next morning the thing has grown larger, and escapes while in transit. Annoying Pepe tells Air Force brass he sold the stuff in the capsule to Leonardo, and they track him down. Seems that spacecraft was a secret expedition to Venus, and the creature in question is a Ymir (though it’s never called that in the film).

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The Ymir wanders the countryside scaring horses and sheep, coming across some sulfur in a barn, which happens to be the Ymir’s favorite food. While snacking, Ymir is attacked by a dog… bye, bye dog! The local farmer stabs it with a pitchfork, and Ymir attacks him! This pisses off the local Commissario, who no longer wishes to cooperate with the Americans and wants Ymir dead. The Italian higher-ups give Calder one last chance to capture Ymir, and they do, using a net and zapping poor Ymir into unconsciousness with high voltage.

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Ymir (who’s now grown to gigantic proportions!) is kept sedated by electricity and studied at the Rome Zoo. The Air Force holds a press conference and allows three reporters to view the beast. When an accident short-circuits the electricity, Ymir breaks free from his bondage, and engages in a titanic battle with a zoo elephant. Ymir goes on a rampage through the streets of Rome wreaking havoc, and you guessed it, we get shots of panicked citizens fleeing for their lives! The armed forces can’t stop Ymir as it heads to the Colosseum, where bazookas finally take it down, as it hangs on for dear life before plunging to its demise.

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The Ymir is Harryhausen’s most iconic (and lifelike) creation. Like Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong before it, the Ymir is a frightened and misunderstood creature  trapped in a world it never made. The scene where police are tracking down Ymir with dogs is reminiscent of an old Universal horror; all that’s missing are the torches and pitchforks. Ymir definitely gets the viewers to sympathize with its plight, and I felt sorry to see the poor beast persecuted to its inevitable doom.

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is my favorite of the two, and I consider it Harryhausen’s masterpiece. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA is fun, but the story of the Ymir still resonates, and is a certified science-fiction classic. See them both and enjoy the genius of Ray Harryhausen!

On Willis O’Brien and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (Allied Artists 1959)

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Willis O’Brien was the pioneer stop-motion animation wizard who fathered the immortal KING KONG . For that alone, he will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s giants. O’Brien started at the dawn of film, working for the Thomas Edison Company. He created an early dinosaur movie THE GHOST OF SLUMBER MOUNTAIN, which was cut down to eleven minutes by one Herbert Dowley, who took credit for O’Brien’s work. His crowning silent achievement was 1925’s THE LOST WORLD, an adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle adventure story that astounded filmgoers of the era.

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That same year, O’Brien married Hazel Collette, who bore him two sons. The O’Brien’s marriage was not a happy one, and they divorced in 1930. Hazel was mentally unstable, and diagnosed with tuberculosis the following year. Willis, whose drinking and philandering contributed to the marriage’s deterioration, remained devoted to his boys, especially young Willis Jr., who was born tubercular, and eventually lost his eyesight. After the success of KONG, O’Brien embarked on the sequel, SON OF KONG, and his sons visited the set to watch dad work. A short time after that visit, Hazel Collette O’Brien took a gun, murdered her own children, and attempted a botched suicide. She died in a Los Angeles prison hospital a year later.

This tragedy seemed to take the heart out of Willis O’Brien. He went back to work with his friend, producer Merian C. Cooper, on THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, and did some work on Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE. But despite a loving and successful remarriage, the rest of his life was filled with unfinished dreams of film projects that never came to fruition. A small comeback was mounted in 1949, when O’Brien and his latest protégé Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a Cooper production that garnered an Oscar for the film pioneer. But by the late 50’s, Willis O’Brien was reduced to creating effects for low-budget monster movies like THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.

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THE GIANT BEHEMOTH was O’Brien’s last “giant monster’ movie. It starts off with a bang: an A-bomb explosion! A group of scientific minds has gathered in Britain to watch footage and hear a lecture from American Marine Biologist Steve Kearns (Gene Evans) on atomic waste. Meanwhile, trouble’s brewing off the coast of Cornwall, as dead fish are washed ashore, and a pulsating mass is causing those near it to burn. Kearns and Professor Bickford (Andre Morell) investigate, and the fish test positive for radiation. Rumors of a “sea monster” run rampant, and when the steamship Valkyrie is found beached with no survivors, Kerns and Bickford are convinced a Behemoth is on the loose!

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Alerting the local navies of England, France, and Germany, the search for the monster begins. Kearns and Bickford visit eccentric Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowan ), who helps them identify Behemoth as a prehistoric creature. Behemoth hits land and attacks London, the military is called in (of course), but they’re no match for the berserk Behemoth. It returns to the sea, and Kearns and the forces of good track it down in a sub, blasting it with a torpedo hit and ending Behemoth’s reign of terror (though there’s a neat little twist at the film’s end!).

Sound familiar? Hell, yeah. Director Eugene Lourie was brought in to make the original script (from blacklisted writer Daniel James) more like his 1953 hit THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. He certainly succeeded in that respect. Star Gene Evans is about as credible a scientist as I am, but does make a sturdy hero. The acting honors go to MacGowan (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, THE EXORCIST) as the slightly daft Dr. Sampson. But THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is fun on a Saturday matinée popcorn movie level, and though it’s derivative of Lourie’s other monster movie (and GODZILLA, to a certain extent), it does feature O’Brien’s visual effects. In fact, the scenes of Behemoth terrorizing London stomping on cars and spreading his deadly radioactivity, are the film’s highlights.

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Willis O’Brien contributed to one more movie, some scenes at the end of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD , before his death in 1962. His life story is tragic, but his artistry lives on through legendary movies like KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. And as much of a rehash as THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is, it’s still a last chance to see the screen’s mightiest maker of monsters work his magic one last time.

 

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 6: All-Star Horror Edition!

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As many of you Dear Readers know by now, classic horror has always been my favorite genre. From the Universal Monsters to Bug-Eyed Aliens to Freddie Krueger and friends (fiends?), a good scary movie is a good time! Even a bad scary movie can be fun, if I’m in the right mood. So here are six (count ’em), yes six horror films I’ve recently watched, with some great horror actors and directors at their best (and worst!):

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MIRACLES FOR SALE

(MGM 1939, D: Tod Browning)

The first great horror director, Browning teamed with Lon Chaney Sr. in the silent era to shock audiences with films like LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT and THE UNHOLY THREE. He kicked off the Golden Age of Sound Horror with DRACULA, followed by the controversial FREAKS. MIRACLES FOR SALE was his last film, and while it’s more of a locked-room mystery, it’s loaded with those bizarre Browning touches. Robert Young stars as The Great Morgan, ex-stage magician who now devises tricks for others, in this occult-flavored whodunit involving a beautiful blonde damsel in distress, a phony mystic, a demonologist’s murder, and magic tricks aplenty. There’s some chills to be had here, and Browning fans will enjoy seeing the old master at play one last time. (Fun Fact: Universal horror vets Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) and Gloria Holden (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER) play key roles in the mystery.)

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SCARED TO DEATH

(Screen Guild 1947, D: Christy Cabanne)

Move over, Ed Wood…this may very well be the worst movie ever! A dead woman on a morgue slab narrates the tale of how she died. The story’s told in flashback, with occasional annoying cuts back to the corpse for a brief sentence. Bad acting, non-existent direction, rotten writing…even the cheap Cinecolor process is atrocious. Horror icons Bela Lugosi and George Zucco are wasted, as are character actors Douglas Fowley, Nat Pendleton, and Joyce Compton.  And I have no idea what midget actor Angelo Rossito is supposed to be doing except being a midget! SCARED TO DEATH may bore you to death! (Fun Fact: It’s your only chance to see Lugosi in a color film…but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

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FRANKENSTEIN 1970

(Allied Artists 1958, D: Howard W. Koch)

Boris Karloff  plays a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein instead of the monster in this quickie. A television crew visits Castle Frankenstein to shoot footage for the 250th anniversary of The Monster’s creation. There’s a strong Hammer influence, as we see onscreen body parts, though they’re kept in a fridge and gotten rid of via garbage disposal! Karloff slices up the ham pretty thick here, but the spooky atmosphere and some creepy scenes almost make up for his overacting (almost). The King has done far better films, but this one’s OK for a rainy day with nothing better to do. (Fun Fact: Former cowboy star Donald “Red” Barry plays the obnoxious TV director.)

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THE VALLEY OF GWANGI

(Warner Bros 1969, D: James O’Connelly)

This sci-fi-Western hybrid is much more fun than the recent COWBOYS & ALIENS, thanks to the genius of special effects master Ray Harryhausen . A failing Wild West Show  travelling through Mexico stumbles upon the Forbidden Valley, where prehistoric dinosaurs still roam the Earth, and capture a T-Rex in this film that owes a lot to KING KONG . James Franciscus loses his Texas accent about halfway through, Gila Golan’s Israeli accent had to be dubbed, and Lawrence Naismith camps it up as a British paleontologist, but it’s not about the acting, it’s about those marvelous Harryhausen monsters. Always fun to see his Dynamation dinosaurs engage in a roaring battle. A good if not great little gem. (Fun Fact: 50’s sci-fi icon Richard Carlson (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE ) plays rodeo boss Champ in his last film role.)

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SHOCK

(Laser Films 1977, D: Mario Bava)

Mario Bava directed some classic Italian horror and giallo films (BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE…hmm, I sense a pattern here!) and his last, SHOCK, is an eerie and uncomfortable thriller about a creepy little kid (David Colin Jr of BEYOND THE DOOR) who’s possessed by the spirit of his dead junkie father and tries to drive his mother crazy. Bava’s familiar themes of sex, death, and horror are in play, as is his eccentric cinema wizardry.  A truly twisted swan song from one of the world’s most unique filmmakers, well worth checking out. (Fun Fact: Daria Nicolodi who plays the mother, is the real-life mother of actress/director/cult figure Asia Argento)

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THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY

(Fulcia Film 1981, D: Lucio Fulci)

Believe it or not, this was my first time viewing a Lucio Fulci film. It won’t be the last!! THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY took me back to the days when I’d go see movies like DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, great loopy masterpieces of cinema schlock. A family rents a home in a quaint suburban Boston town while the husband completes some research by a colleague who committed suicide. Unfortunately, the house is still occupied by Dr. Freudstein, a disgraced (and deceased) turn-of-the-century surgeon who lives off his victim’s body parts. There’s gore galore and plenty of frights to be had here, and Fulci does a good job with the New England atmosphere, including nods to local supermarket giant Stop & Shop. And that scene with the bat scared the piss outta me! (Fun Fact: this was the final entry in Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy…you know I’ll be looking for the other two!)

Halloween Havoc!: EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS (Columbia 1956)

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UFOs have been spotted across the globe. Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are on their way to the secret headquarters of Operation Skyhook when they’re strafed by a saucer! They tell Carol’s dad, General Hanley (Morris Ankrum) what occurred. The General in turn reports all the satellities they’ve sent up have been destroyed by mysterious forces. When Marvin and his crew send up the next one, the base is attacked by saucers, and the rocket launch incapacitated. Soon General Hanley is captured by the aliens, and Marvin learns to communicate with them. The alien’s intent: destroy Planet Earth! Our weapons are useless against their superior technology! CAN EARTH BE SAVED FROM THE FLYING SAUCER INVASION?!?!

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If you’re a fan of 50s sci-fi, you already know the answer. And if you’re a fan of Sam Katzman movies, you know it’ll be chock full of stock footage and made on a miniscule budget. The saving grace of EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. Ray gives us alien spacecrafts instead of the usual giant monsters in this one, and they look fantastic. It’s fun to see Harryhausen’s saucers blowing up famous Washington landmarks (including the Capital building…beware, Congress!).

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Director Fred F. Sears keeps the movie moving along at a brisk clip, so you almost don’t notice the budgetary limitations. Well, almost. The cast perform their parts fine. Movies like EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS aren’t about the acting anyway, it’s all about the space aliens and their weapons of mass destruction. There are two cast members I’d like to single out, though. These guys don’t appear in the film, but you’ll recognize their voices. William Woodson narrates the movie, and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the voice certainly will. He made a career out of narrating films and TV shows, most notably the 60s series THE INVADERS and the first season of THE ODD COUPLE. The other gentleman portraying the disembodied voice of the alien is Paul Frees. If I took the time to cite even half his credits we’d be here all day, so I’ll just tell you he’s most famous as the voice of Boris Badenov, arch-enemy of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and his pal, Bullwinkle J. Moose! If you want more info, all you’ve got to do is Google.

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EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the type of movie where you can just shut your brain off and enjoy. You’ve seen it all before, and you know the good ol’ USA will emerge triumphant. The fun is in getting there, and you’ll enjoy the trip watching EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS. So pop some corn, put your feet up, and get ready to be entertained!