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!

 

The Great American Pastime: IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH (20th Century-Fox 1942)

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day has finally arrived! It’s a tradition as American as Apple Pie, and so is IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, a baseball movie about a lousy team in Brooklyn whose new manager takes them to the top of the heap. The team’s not explicitly called the Dodgers and the manager’s not named Leo Durocher, but their improbable 1941 pennant winning season is exactly what inspired this charmingly nostalgic little movie.

When Brooklyn’s manager quits the team, dowager team owner Mrs. McAvoy seeks out ex-player Frank Maguire, who seven years earlier was run out of town when an unfortunate error cost the team the pennant. She finds him running a club out in the sticks, and convinces him to come back to the Big Leagues. He does, bringing along his faithful bat boy/sidekick ‘Squint’, and just before the season’s about to begin, Mrs. McAvoy abruptly dies. Her family members, led by majority owning niece Kathryn Baker, know absolutely nothing about baseball and want to sell, but Frank woos and wins Kathryn over.

Ownership spends big money to bring in new players, and the Brooklyn nine go on an incredible hot streak. But when Frank stands Kathryn up on a date to accept a speaking engagement, their romance hits a bump. Further turmoil is caused when Frank starts his rookie phenom pitcher in a crucial game, and the rook gets shellacked. Poison pen sports columnist Danny Mitchell, who led the charge to run Frank out of town all those years ago, dips his venomous pen in ink once again, and things fall apart, with the players petitioning to have Frank removed. Will Frank and Kathryn get back together? Will Brooklyn rally and win the pennant? Will there be a happy ending? (I know, silly questions, right?!)

The criminally underrated Lloyd Nolan is convincing as baseball lifer Frank Maguire, and gives a passionate performance. Carole Landis also shines as socialite Kathryn, and the two have good screen chemistry. They made one other film together, the WWII drama MANILA CALLING, and it’s a shame they didn’t make more. Sara Allgood’s role of feisty Mrs. McAvoy is brief but memorable, Robert Armstrong plays the hissable columnist, William Frawley the sarcastic Brooklyn GM, Scotty Beckett the irrepressible ‘Squint’, Jane Darwell is Nolan’s Irish mum, and there’s more Familiar Faces than you can wave a bat at: James Burke, Gino Corrado, Mary Gordon, Matt McHugh, Jed Prouty, and many, many more.

Dodgers vs Reds at Ebbets Field: Umpire George Magerkurth takes a pummeling from overwrought Brooklyn Dodgers fan Frank Germano who objected to some of his calls. (Photo by Hank Olen/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)My favorite scene is based on a true-life incident that occurred during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1940 season, as Nolan goes out to argue with the umpire over a bad call, and a fan runs out of the stands, slugging the ump and causing a riot! Actual footage of the incident is spliced into the scene, and a courtroom coda features Nolan giving an impassioned, patriotic plea on the fan’s behalf (gotta get that WWII angle in the film somehow!). Director Ray McCarey handles the material well; like his more successful, Oscar-winning older brother Leo McCarey, Ray got his start at the Hal Roach fun factory, directing Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy shorts. He guided The Three Stooges in two of their best at Columbia, the Oscar-nominated MEN IN BLACK and the football spoof THREE LITTLE PIGSKINS (featuring a young Lucille Ball), and though his feature film career consists mainly of little ‘B’ films like IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, his body of work deserves to be rediscovered.

So grab your peanuts and Cracker Jacks, the frosty beverage of your choice, and get ready, because baseball season has begun at last! Let’s root, root, root for the home team, and you know what’s coming next, right?…


LET’S GO, RED SOX!!

 

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE MAD GHOUL (Universal 1943)

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I’m pressed for time, so no 1000 word essay tonight. Instead, let’s look at one of Universal’s lesser horror films, THE MAD GHOUL. The movie’s a “stand alone”, not connected to any of the studio’s monster series (Frankenstein, etc). I chose it because it stars one of horror’s unsung stars, George Zucco. The bug-eyed British character actor with the smooth delivery plied his trade in A list films (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) and Grade-Z clunkers (SCARED TO DEATH). He was the evil high priest Andoheb in three of Universal’s Mummy movies, Professor Moriarty in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, and played a pivotal role in the monster fest HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Like his contemporary (and frequent costar) Bela Lugosi, Zucco wasn’t picky about where he worked, getting top billing in a string of PRC chillers. In THE MAD GHOUL, Zucco gives his best performance in a gruesome little tale about bringing “death to life”, graverobbery, and murder.

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The plot concerns college instructor Dr. Morris (Zucco) recreating a “poison gas” used by the Mayans to put people in a zombie-like state. The only way to revive them however, is by combining certain herbs with fluids from a fresh heart. His assistant Ted (David Bruce) is exposed to the gas and becomes a fiend. Ted has a girlfriend Isabelle (Evelyn Ankers of course), a singer also loved by Morris. When she confides to Morris she doesn’t love Ted anymore, the doctor thinks she wants him and exposes Ted to the zombie gas to get him out of the way. But it’s not the vain doctor she loves, it’s her pianist Eric (Turhan Bey). But Ted’s zombieism can’t be reversed without fresh hearts,  so Morris and Ted go on a graverobbing and murder spree, as they follow Isabelle on her concert tour.

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The cast also features King Kong’s Robert Armstrong as a hot-shot reporter, Milburn Stone of TV’s GUNSMOKE as a cop, and  tough guy Charles McGraw as his partner. It’s Universal’s most out-there 40s films, with it’s ghastly subject matter well ahead of its time. The director is James Hogan, better known for his Bulldog Drummond and Ellery Queen mysteries. This was Hogan’s first foray into horror, and sadly his last; he died soon after making this one. THE MAD GHOUL doesn’t get much attention from classic horror fans, but it’s well worth seeking out for a creepy B shocker unlike anything else made in its era. So show some love to George Zucco and THE MAD GHOUL, won’t you? And stay away from the zombie gas!

Halloween Havoc!: KING KONG (RKO 1933)

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No matter how many times it’s remade, no matter what new technology’s available, the original 1933 KING KONG will never be topped. The story’s familiar to horror lovers: Showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters the ship Venture to take him to the unchartered Skull Island. He scours New York to find a “love interest” for his next picture. Finding down on her luck gal Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) trying to steal an apple, he offers her a chance for “money and adventure and fame….the thrill of a lifetime”. Denham’s brainstorm is to travel to the island to capture pictures of Kong, a beast that Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) thinks is just “some native superstition”. First Mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is reluctant to have a woman on board, but soon warms up to her. They arrive at the island to observe the natives performing a strange ritual. A young native girl is being adorned with flowers. When they spy the white Ann, the chieftan (Noble Johnson) offers to buy her. The crew refuses, but the natives sneak onboard in the dead of night and capture Ann.

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When Charlie the cook (Victor Wong) finds a native bracelet on deck, Denham and the crew go ashore. Ann’s been tied to an altar behind the massive locked gate. The natives climb up the wall to wait for the arrival of…KONG! A giant ape appears and grabs Ann into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll, and some crew members go in hot pursuit, encountering monsterous dinosaurs along the way. Kong ends up killing all save for Driscoll and Denham. The mighty beast is downed by “gas bombs”, and carted away to New York.

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Denham stages a Broadway showing of “King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The theater’s jam packed with curiosity seekers. The press is on hand, eager to see the beast. Kong is presented onstage in chains, in what reminds one of a crucifixion pose. When the photographers take picture, their flashbulbs disturb the ape and he breaks free. Pandemonium erupts as King Kong is loose in New York City. Snatching Ann through a window, Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to strafe Kong, machine guns a-blazing, and the great ape topples to his doom. Carl Denham gets the last words, sorrowfully stating, “It was beauty killed the beast”.

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Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack keep the story moving along at a fine clip, aided immensely by Max Steiner’s score. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects hold up very well, and the matching shots of Kong with the actors are well integrated. Kudos should also go to Murray Spivak and the sound department, which adds to the excitement. Eagle-eyed film fans will be able to spot James Flavin, Roscoe Ates, Dick Curtis, Charlie Hall, Syd Saylor, and Sam Levine in small roles. Cooper and Schoedsack even have cameos as the pilot and gunner who take down Kong. KING KONG has stood the test of time, and is a bonafide classic that never fails to thrill viewers of all ages. A perfect way to spend a Halloween evening.