Halloween Havoc!: I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (RKO 1943)

Val Lewton’s  I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is, despite the exploitative title, one of the most moody and atmospheric horror films of the 40’s. This was Lewton’s follow up to the highly successful CAT PEOPLE (1942), with Jacques Tourneur again in the director’s chair. Though screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray based their script on a story by Inez Wallace, producer Lewton had them add elements of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE, making this a  Gothic zombie movie!

Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is summoned to the West Indies isle of St. Sebastian to look after Paul Holland’s (Tom Conway ) catatonic wife Jessica. The cynical Holland has an air of melancholy about him (“There’s no beauty here”, he states on the sea trip to the island, “only decay and death”). Upon arrival, Betsy meets Holland’s stepbrother Wesley Reed (James Ellison), a jovial sort until he gets in the presence of Holland. Reed runs the family sugar mill, from which eminate the almost constant “mysterious, eerie” beat of the islander’s jungle drums.

That night Betsy hearing weeping and moaning, and follows the sound to Fort Holland’s tower, where she observes Jessica, dressed in a flowing white shroud, looking like the Angel of Death herself, walking, silent, as if impelled by a force beyond her control. Servant Alma (Theresa Harris ) explains Jessica’s condition: “She was very sick, and then she went mindless”. Jessica’s doctor (James Bell) ascribes her condition to a spinal cord injury that left her with no will of her own. But the island natives have another word for Jessica… zombie!

There’s much more to the story, but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen this classic horror tale. Tourneur keeps the pace deliberately slow, layering the film with a sense of dread rather than shock after shock. The use of sound and silence, a familiar element in Lewton’s horrors, plays a large part in establishing the mood, especially during the scene with Betsy and Jessica walking through the cane fields in the eerie moonlight. DP Roy Hunt works wonders with shadows and light, Roy Webb’s score hits all the right notes, and Mark Robson’s superb editing helped him earn his spot in the director’s chair a year later with THE SEVENTH VICTIM .

The cast is a cut above your typical 40’s ‘B’ horror players. Frances Dee was a star at Paramount during the 30’s who was seriously curtailing her career at the time to raise her sons with husband Joel McCrea. Tom Conway, like his brother George Sanders, always projected a melancholy, cynical figure onscreen (and off). James Ellison never quite cracked the A-list, but  was always a dependable actor. Theresa Harris shined in every role afforded to her, from BABY FACE to OUT OF THE PAST. Edith Barrett plays the pivotal part of Mrs. Rand, mother to both Conway and Ellison. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot brings his talents to the table, and Darby Jones makes a terrifying zombie.

Lancelot and Jones reprised their roles when RKO returned to Saint Sebastian for ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY , a sort-of sequel/spoof starring Bela Lugosi and the comedy team of Brown & Carney. But forget about that piece of nonsense, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is the film you want to see this Halloween season, the perfect Lewton “quiet horror” tor satisfy your taste for the macabre.

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Turning Back the Cuckoo Clock with Wheeler & Woosley in THE CUCKOOS (RKO 1930)

We last left the wacky world of Wheeler & Woolsey with a look at the looney HOLD ‘EM JAIL . Today we delve deeper into comedy’s film vault with their 1930 effort THE CUCKOOS, based on the hit Broadway musical by Guy Bolton, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby. The play featured the team of Clark & McCullough, who are even more obscure than W&W to most film fans (they appeared in a series of shorts from 1928-35), but RKO (after the success of 1929’s RIO RITA) put W&W into the film version, hoping the team’s antics would click with Depression Era audiences.

And click they did, leading to an RKO contract and nineteen more features! THE CUCKOOS’ plot concerns romantic entaglements at a plush hotel, with  heiress Ruth (June Clyde) in love with pilot Billy (Hugh Trevor), but pushed toward the oily Baron de Camp (Ivan Lebedeff ) by her rich Aunt Fannie (Jobyna Howland). The boys get in the thick of things as a couple of fraudulent “American fortune tellers”, with Sparrow (Bert) in love with gypsy Anita (W&W’s frequent costar Dorothy Lee). The gypsies, led by burly Julius (Mitchell Lewis), scheme with the Baron to kidnap Ruth, while out to get Sparrow and his pal Professor Cunningham (Bob) because Julius wants the lovely Anita for himself.

The plot takes a backseat to Wheeler & Woolsey’s silly shenanigans, and they dominate the picture with their buffoonery and double entendre laced puns (it is the Pre-Code era, after all!). Some highlights include the nonsense song “Oh, How We Love Our Alma Mater” (complete with silly dance), Woolsey putting Wheeler in a trance (he gets on all fours and barks like a dog), the boys asked to keep their eyes on a forbidden keg of beer at the border (Prohibition, doncha know?) with hilarious results (and the punchline later lifted in a Three Stooges short), being constantly interrupted in their hotel room by a succession of crazies (reminiscent of the old burlesque skit ‘Crazy House’), and Bert in drag enticing the gypsies to his boudoir, only to receive a conk on the noggin from a hidden Bob!

Woolsey gets off some funny one-liners with Jobyna Howland, the team’s version of Margaret Dumont (she appeared in two other W&W films), like this one: Fannie: “Do you think you’ll love me until I die?” Professor: “Well, that depends  on how long you live”. She’s big and bawdy, and makes a perfect match for sarcastic Bob.  Miss Lee, just 19 at the time, was cast a Bert’s love interest in a dozen of their films. She’s cute as a button but no great thespian, though she brings a Ruby Keeler-ish enthusiasm to her roles (personally, I think she’s much prettier than Ruby!). Dorothy and Bert have a charming duet together, “I Love You So Much”, which is reprised by the cast at film’s finale.

THE CUCKOOS is far less static than The Marx Brothers’ early effort THE COCONUTS, although it can be stagey in spots. One thing different from that film is the abrupt switch to two-strip Technicolor for some of the musical numbers, which took me by surprise! W&W’s song “Goodbye” is in this early color process, as is “Dance the Devil Away”, a bizarre little segment with Dorothy and a bevy of beauties gyrating with wild abandon on a Hades-inspired set! The finale gets the Technicolor treatment, as well. Wheeler & Woolsey were on the right track here, and continued to make kooky comedies until Robert Woolsey’s untimely death in 1938. If you haven’t rediscovered them yet, you’re as crazy as they are!

Pre Code Confidential #14: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (RKO 1932)

Director Gregory LaCava is remembered today mainly for a pair of bona fide classics: MY MAN GODFREY and STAGE DOOR. LaCava, who started his career in early silent animation, was also responsible for THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, a Pre-Code screwball comedy begging to be rediscovered. It’s a crazy, innovative, pedal-to-the-metal farce headlined by fast-talking Lee Tracy and “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez as a pair of carny con artists who work their way up to The Great White Way in grand comic style.

Tracy does his rapid-fire spieling schtick as a carnival barker promoting hot-tempered tamale Lupe, a hootchie dancer who spends most of the movie wearing next to nothing. Together with pal Eugene Pallette , they leave the carny life behind (with the law on their tails!) and head for Broadway, where Lee promises Lupe he’ll make her a star. The trio pawn Lupe off as Turkish Princess Exotica (with Tracy pawning off an unwitting Pallette as a eunuch!), and set their sights on Broadway impresario Merle Farrell, played to perfection by the perpetually befuddled Frank Morgan. Tracy’s promotional stunt includes importing a lion named Stamboli straight from Coney Island!

Soon hustler Tracy has Lupe under contract to Merle Farrell’s Follies, where the former hootchie becomes a Broadway sensation singing and dancing to the double entendre laden “The Carpenter Song”. She then dumps the loquacious Lee for old goat Morgan, causing him to promote a new find, hotel maid Gladys, redubbing her Eve, Queen of the Nudists! The hustling huckster also manages to snap a photo of Morgan and Lupe in a compromising situation, which he proceeds to plaster all over the producer’s office. Morgan’s no fool, so Lupe gets dumped, and Eve gets her follies spot. Lee misses his spicy little enchilada though, and a riotous scene finds every noise he hears reminding him of “The Carpenter Song”. The unhappy Tracy decides to chuck it all and return to carny life, where he finds his pal Pallette running the old show, and little Latin Lupe doing her hootchie thing once again. And they lived happily ever after!

Lee and Lupe make a great screen team, their styles meshing perfectly amidst all the zaniness going on here. Morgan and Pallette’s comic talents add to the merriment, and Shirley Chambers’ dumb blonde turn as Gladys/Eve holds her own with the star quartet. Franklin Pangborn is on hand as (what else?) the hotel manager, and “Queen of the Extras” Bess Flowers has a larger than usual part playing Tracy’s secretary. Max Steiner contributes the music, and even appears as the conductor at the Follies! We also get Teresa Harris (Barbara Stanwyck’s BABY FACE companion) in a brief bit as Lupe’s maid.

LaCava and Corey Ford’s screenplay is full of sharp, sparkling dialog, off the wall comedy situations, and blazing banter between Lee and Lupe. THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH is a Pre-Code delight, a forgotten little gem waiting to be savored by movie buffs. So what are you waiting for – go find it!

Read more “Pre-Code Confidential”!

LADY KILLER (1933)

KONGO (1932)

MAKE ME A STAR (1932)

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934)

THE SECRET SIX (1931)

PLAY-GIRL (1932)

BABY FACE (1932)

BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

CLEOPATRA (1934)

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931)

DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931)

FLESH (1932)

Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)

When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane ) down the stairs and loses the ability to walk, she still treats Pinks like shit. The two leads aren’t very happy characters, and the movie suffers because of it.

It’s Pinks who helps her the most, paying her hospital bills and willing to practically wheel her all the way to Miami (the scene they cause at the Holland Tunnel is a comic standout), yet Her Highness is just using the lowly bus boy, her only goal being to snag millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr, later a successful television producer for Warner Bros). I think it’s Lucy’s character that turned me off; even at the end (which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch), I didn’t have much sympathy for her. She’s a self absorbed, total bitch, especially in her treatment of those who care about her, and almost completely ruined the film for me.

The movie’s saving grace is the eccentric supporting cast that brings those trademark “Runyonesque” characters to vivid life. Ray Collins   and Sam Levene hit the bull’s-eye as a pair of erudite gamblers named Professor B and Horsethief. Eugene Pallette and Agnes Moorehead shine in the parts of Violette Shumberg and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a “fat-and-skinny” odd couple (the Nicely-Nicely character would later pop up in GUYS & DOLLS, played this time by Stubby Kaye). Millard Mitchell   has an early role as retired hood Gentleman George. Among the other Familiar Faces around the big street you’ll find Louise Beavers, Hans Conreid, George Cleveland, Charlie Hall, Donald Kerr, Marian Martin, John Miljan, and Dewey Robinson. Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra play in MacLane’s Miami nightclub, and look closely for Bess Flowers and a young Marie Windsor as faces in the crowd.

Director Irving Reis (THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER, ALL MY SONS) had the unenviable task of balancing the bittersweet comedy-drama of Leonard Spielgass’s script, and isn’t quite up to it. Reis was fairly new in the director’s chair at the time, and those schizophrenic shifts from offbeat comical Runyonesque hoods to mean Lucy throwing shade at Fonda are quite jarring. Perhaps if director Reis had toned down Ball’s character a few notches and let Fonda lighten up a bit, I’d feel different. As it stands, I chalk it up as an interesting failure, but fans of Fonda, Ball, and Damon Runyon yarns will probably want to judge for themselves.

 

Lunatic Fringe: Wheeler & Woolsey in HOLD ‘EM JAIL (RKO 1932)

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The comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey is pretty esoteric to all but the most hardcore classic film fans. Baby-faced innocent Bert Wheeler and cigar-chomping wisecracker Robert Woolsey made 21 films together beginning with 1929’s RIO RITA (in which they’d starred on Broadway), up until Woolsey’s untimely death in 1937. I had heard about them, read about them, but never had the chance to catch one of their films until recently. HOLD ‘EM JAIL makes for a good introduction to W&W’s particular brand of lunacy, as the boys skewer both the prison and college football genres, aided by a top-notch comic supporting cast that includes a 16-year-old Betty Grable.

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Football crazy Warden Elmer Jones (slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy ) is the laughing-stock of the Prison Football League. His team hasn’t had a winning season in years, and he sends a message to the president of “the alumni association” to send some new recruits “for the old alma mater”. He goes to the president’s office, and enter Wheeler and Woolsey, two novelty salesmen who proceed to drive him crazy. When he leaves, the real “alumni” show up, and after the boys brag about their gridiron prowess, they’re set up to stick up the joint with real guns instead of their water pistols.

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Of course, the framed fools are sent to Bidemore, where Spider trades barbs with the warden’s spinster sister Violet (the marvelous Edna May Oliver ) and Curley tries to romance daughter Barbara (Miss Grable). They continue to infuriate the poor warden with their antics, especially when Violet has them made trustees. When Bidemore’s star quarterback gets paroled, Woolsey touts Wheeler as a superstar. Let’s just say Tom Brady, he ain’t!! This all culminates in the most improbable victory since Super Bowl LI , with Bidemore winning the game and getting cleared of the frame-up to boot.

The deliriously funny script is by S.J. Perelman, Walter Deleon, and Eddie Welch. Perelman was a writer for The New Yorker magazine, and one of the early 20th century’s best known humorists. He wrote two of the Marx Brothers movies (MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS), the stage and screen versions of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and won an Oscar for his screenplay AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. His fingerprints are all over the film’s dialog, as in this exchange between Woolsey and Oliver- Edna: “I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I’m not a virtuoso”. Woolsey: “Not after four years in Paris”. Edna (pausing a beat): “I trust we’re talking about the same thing!”. Earlier in the film, W&W get booted out of a swanky nightclub on their keisters, followed by this-  Wheeler: “You know, I met that bouncer’s foot before”. Woolsey: “Yeah, I met it behind”.

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Deleon was no slouch when it came to comedy either, having written films for W.C. Fields , Bob Hope, Jack Benny Abbott & Costello , and Martin & Lewis. Welch seems to be a kind of “comedy doctor”, with three other W&W films to his credit, and an uncredited contribution to Laurel & Hardy’s SONS OF THE DESERT . All this madness was directed under the deft hand of Norman Taurog, who began in films in 1912, won an Oscar for 1931’s SKIPPY, and directed all the great comics of the classic era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s slapstick sight gags and pun-tastic wordplay are on a par with other teams of the time, and are worth rediscovering. Start right here with HOLD ‘EM JAIL.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 11: Five from the Fifties

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The 1950’s were a time of change in movies. Television was providing stiff competition, and studios were willing to do anything to fend it off. The bigger budgeted movies tried 3D, Cinerama, wide-screen, and other optical tricks, while smaller films chose to cover unusual subject matter. The following five films represent a cross-section of nifty 50’s cinema:

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BORDERLINE (Universal-International 1950; D: William A. Seiter)

BORDERLINE is a strange film, straddling the borderline (sorry) between romantic comedy and crime drama, resulting in a rather mediocre movie. Claire Trevor plays an LAPD cop assigned to Customs who’s sent to Mexico to get the goods on drug smuggler Pete Ritchey (Raymond Burr , being his usual malevolent self). She’s tripped up by Ritchey’s rival Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray , channeling his inner Walter Neff), and taken along as he tries to get the dope over the border. What she doesn’t know is he’s also an agent, and thinks she’s a smuggler! The movie usually gets shoehorned into the noir category, but besides the drug smuggling angle, it’s just an average ‘B’ flick. Fun Fact: Claire’s husband Milton Bren was the film’s producer.

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THE NARROW MARGIN (RKO 1952; D: Richard Fleischer)

Highly influential ‘B’ noir about a tough cop escorting a mobster’s widow from Chicago to Los Angeles via train to testify on corruption, with hired killers onboard out to stop her by any means possible. Gruff-voiced Charles McGraw and sexpot Marie Windsor deliver Earl Fenton’s hard-boiled dialog with gusto; the film was Oscar-nominated for Best Story, but lost to THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (they were robbed!). Director Richard Fleischer and DP George Diskant create a textbook example on how to make a tense, exciting movie for under $250,000, with a big plot twist I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen this gem. The ambient sounds of the train travelling take the place of the usual music score, making the violence even more ultra-realistic. A must-see! Fun Fact: Marie Windsor was once a gag writer for Jack Benny. When the comedian finally met her in the flesh, he was stunned by her good looks and helped her secure a Hollywood contract.

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THE BIGAMIST (The Filmakers 1953; D: Ida Lupino)

San Francisco couple Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine want to adopt a child, but when the child welfare investigator (Edmund Gwenn) looks into the case, he discovers O’Brien has another wife (Ida Lupino) in LA. O’Brien gives a sympathetic performance as the man leading a double life, and Lupino handles the sensational material with depth and sincerity. Watch for the scene where O’Brien meets Lupino on a Hollywood tour bus for glimpses of the homes of stars Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Jack Benny, and Gwenn himself! A quiet but powerful film that’s worth your time. Fun Fact: Producer/screenwriter Collier Young was married to Fontaine at the time; before that, he had been the husband of director/star Lupino! Ah, Hollywood!

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THE WILD ONE (Columbia 1953; D: Laszlo Benedict)

The granddaddy of all biker flicks! Marlon Brando is leather clad Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels MC, who terrorize a small California town. Brando’s existential, iconic performance dominates the film, but Mary Murphy is equally good as Kathie, the girl who falls for him. Lee Marvin also deserves a shout-out as Chino, leader of rival gang The Beetles. The scene where Murphy is chased down by the bikers, saved by Johnny, still retains its power. Jerry Paris, Alvy Moore , and that great oddball actor Timothy Carey are among the cyclists; Jay C. Flippen, Ray Teal, and Will Wright represent some of the “straight’ citizens. A bona fide cinema classic, not to be missed! Fun Fact: Brando’s Johnny was the basis for Harvey Lembeck’s goofball Eric Von Zipper character in all those “Beach Party ” movies.

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ROCK ROCK ROCK (DCA 1956; D: Will Price)

13 year old Tuesday Weld makes her film debut as a teenybopper trying to raise money to buy a strapless evening dress for the prom, but you can forget about the dumb plot and enjoy a veritable Rock’n’Roll/Doo Wop Hall of Fame lineup: LaVerne Baker, Chuck Berry (“You Can’t Catch Me”), Johnny Burnett Trio, The Flamingos, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (“I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), The Moonglows, Big Al Sears, and others, hosted by pioneering rock DJ Alan Freed. Tuesday’s vocals are dubbed by Connie Francis, and co-star Teddy Randazzo was a minor singing star who later wrote the hits “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Hurts So Bad”. Lots of energetic teenage dancing; just sit back and have a foot-wiggling good time! Fun Fact: This was the first film for the production team Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, better known for their Amicus horror anthologies.

Diluted Noir: Robert Mitchum in THE RACKET (RKO 1951)

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A solid film noir cast headed by Robert Mitchum Robert Ryan , and Lizabeth Scott ; and a lineage that dates back to both a Broadway smash and an Oscar-nominated original can’t save THE RACKET from rising above minor status. Once again, tinkering behind the scenes by RKO honcho Howard Hughes, this time under pressure from Hollywood censorship czar Joseph I. Breen, scuttles a promising premise that coulda been a contender into an average movie.

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City crime boss Nick Scanlon is an old-school hood whose violent ways don’t jibe with the modern-day syndicate. Capt. Thomas McQuigg, “an honest cop” who’s a no-nonsense guy, is determined to take him down. But the city’s rife with tainted politicians, making McQuigg’s job that much harder. Scanlon’s got a headstrong kid brother named Joe dating a “cheap canary” named Irene, and McQuigg plans on using him to get to Nick. Add a crooked DA, a virtuous young cop on the rise, a newspaper reporter, and a detective on the take, and you’ve got a recipe for slam-bang gangland entertainment.

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Not so fast! Breen objected to several plot points, including Irene’s profession (she was supposed to be a hooker), some of the more violent aspects, and the fact that the bent detective gets away with murder. He called the film “a new low in crime screen stories” and “thoroughly and completely uacceptable within the provisions of the Production Code” (source: American Film Institute). Hughes and his producer Edmond Grainger made extensive changes, turning Irene into a nightclub singer, cutting out some violence, and making sure the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Sam Fuller was brought in to doctor the script, and Nicholas Ray, Tay Garnett, and Grainger himself reshot some scenes. The result is an average crime drama that, while still retaining some power, fails to rise above it’s restraints imposed by the Code.

Director John Cromwell and the stars of "The Racket"
Director John Cromwell and the stars of “The Racket”

Director John Cromwell had starred in the original 1927 Broadway production as McQuigg, along with a promising young actor named Edward G. Robinson. He knew the material better than anyone associated with this version, and must’ve been supremely disappointed at what they did with his film (Cromwell was soon to be blacklisted by the odious HUAC Commie hunters). William Wister Haines and W.R. Burnett’s tough-talking script was taken out of their hands and sanitized (Burnett also knew this territory, having penned the screenplays for LITTLE CAESAR, THE BEAST OF THE CITY , and SCARFACE). DP George Diskant’s camerawork retains some flashes of his brilliance, but nowhere near his work in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT or KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.

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The performances by leads Mitchum and Ryan still hold up, with Ryan particulary brutal as the ruthless Nick. Scott’s role was changed so much it seems like she lost interest in it halfway through. William Talman is a good guy for once as the honest young cop who looks up to McQuigg, paying for it with his life. Ray Collins as the D.A in the pocket of the syndicate shines, as does William Conrad as the detective who acts as enforcer for the gangsters. The film’s loaded with Familiar Faces, including Robert Hutton as the reporter smitten with Irene, and Don Beddoe , Brett King, Harry Lauter, Eddie Parker, Don Porter , Walter Sande, Milburn Stone , Les Tremayne, and Herb Vigran .

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THE RACKET is okay for what it is, but when I think about what it could have been, I just shake my head. The early Fifties were a time of extreme paranoia in Hollywood, with both the censors and the Communist witch hunters clamping down on anything that didn’t jibe with their party line, making them just as bad as the other side. I haven’t seen the rarely-screened 1928 silent version (which lost the Oscar to WINGS), so I can’t really compare the two. What we’re left with is a film that’s like drinking a shot of watered-down booze; unsatisfying and in need of a stronger kick. If there’s any “classic” film in desperate need of a remake, this would be it. Are you listening, Hollywood?