Yukon Gold: THE SPOILERS (Universal 1942)

What’s this?? A “Northern” Western set in 1900 Alaska Gold Rush territory starring my two favorite cowboys, John Wayne and Randolph Scott ? With the ever-enticing Marlene Dietrich thrown in as a sexy saloon owner? Count me in! THE SPOILERS is a big, brawling, boisterous film loaded with romance, action, and, most importantly,  a sense of humor. It’s the kind of Hollywood entertainment epic that, as they say, “just don’t make ’em like that anymore”. I’ve never been quite sure who “they” are, but in regards to THE SPOILERS, they’re right – and more’s the pity!

Rex Beach’s popular 1906 novel had been filmed three times before (1914, 1923, 1930), and would be one more time after (in 1955), but with The Duke, Rugged Randy, and La Dietrich on board, this has got to be the best of the bunch. Even though audiences were more than familiar with the story, which would be used time and time again unofficially (that is, stolen!) in lesser Klondike films, THE SPOILERS was a big hit, raking in over a million dollars at the box office (a hefty sum at the time!).

Prospector’s claims are being jumped by unscrupulous officials, chief among them new Gold Commissioner Alexander McNamara (Scott). Big Roy Glennister (Wayne), co-owner of the Midas Mining Company, returns from Seattle, smitten with pretty young Helen Chester, niece of new law’n’order Judge Stillman, who’s secretly in cahoots with McNamara. Cherry Malotte (Marlene), operator of The Northern Saloon and Roy’s gal pal, is jealous of the attention her man’s giving Helen, and flirts with McNamara. The two crooked officials make an attempt to wrest The Midas from Roy and his partner, crusty old Al Dextry, through legal chicanery, resulting in Roy jailed on a trumped-up murder charge. Cherry discovers the truth and assists in freeing Roy before the crooks can set him up to be killed, and the entire thing winds up with a knock-down, drag-out, four-minute saloon brawl (yes, I timed it!) between Wayne and Scott (and their stunt doubles Eddie Parker, Allen Pomeroy, Gil Perkins, and Jack Parker, to give credit where credit is due!).

Duke only gets third billing behind Marlene and Scott, even though he’s really the star of the show, mainly because he was on loan from Republic Pictures, while Randolph was under a Universal contract, and Marlene was… well, Marlene! Wayne and Dietrich were in the midst of a torrid affair begun while shooting 1940’s SEVEN SINNERS together, and you can practically feel the heat between them rising from the screen, giving the sexual innuendos they throw at each other (courtesy of screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed) a little extra zip! When Duke tells Marlene (use your inner John Wayne voice here), “I imagine that dress is supposed to have a chilling effect. Well, if it is, it isn’t working – cause you’d look good to me, baby, in a burlap bag”, his eyes tell you he means it!

Randolph Scott turns his syrupy Southern charm to The Dark Side, and makes for an oily villain. Scott had played shady characters before, but none as the out-and-out bad guy of the piece, and wouldn’t again until his last film, 1962’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. Another actor usually on the right side of the law, Samuel S. Hinds , is the crooked judge. Harry Carey (Sr) plays Wayne’s partner Dextry, mentoring the younger man onscreen much as he did off it. Margaret Lindsay gets the thankless part of Helen – sorry, but she’s no match for Marlene! Former D.W. Griffith star Richard Barthelmess does good work as saloon card dealer The Bronco Kid, who carries a torch for his boss Cherry.

Three Cowboys: Harry Carey, John Wayne, William Farnum

There are other interesting casting choices in THE SPOILERS. William Farnum , who starred in the 1914 original, is on hand as a lawyer on the side of the good guys. Hollywood’s perennial souse Jack Norton plays the town drunk, and gets to perform some heroics for a change! Robert W. Service, a real life poet who wrote about the Yukon Gold Rush days, has a brief bit as (what else?) a poet (you can read his most famous, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, by clicking on this link ). George Cleveland and Russell Simpson are a pair of grizzled old miners, and oh-so-many other Familiar Faces appear: Irving Bacon, Marietta Carey (as Cherry’s maid Idabelle), Willie Fung , weaselly Charles Halton, Bud Osbourne – happy hunting!


Director Ray Enright keeps the pace brisk and the comedy breezy, like when Idabelle runs into Roy wearing blackface – wait, I didn’t tell you The Duke appears in blackface? Don’t worry, it’s all part of the plot, as is when he comes out wearing one of Marlene’s feathery nightgowns. Wait, I didn’t tell you he appears in semi-drag, too? Well, if your appetite isn’t whetted enough by now to watch THE SPOILERS, then I guess there’s no hope for you. If it is, strap yourselves in, because you’re about to go on one hell of an entertaining ride!

Halloween Havoc!: MAN MADE MONSTER (Universal 1941)

Lon Chaney Jr.  made his first foray into Universal Horror with MAN MADE MONSTER, the movie that led to his studio contract and immortality with THE WOLF MAN . Both films were directed by George Waggner, who also wrote the script here under the pseudonym Joseph West. Lon’s large and in charge as the electrical monster, but top billing and acting honors go to Hollywood’s maddest of mad doctors, the great Lionel Atwill .

A bus crashes into high tension wires on a rain slicked highway, leaving all aboard dead save one. He’s Dan McCormick, a carny performer known as ‘Dynamo Dan, The Electric Man’. His seeming imperviousness to electricity piques the interest of scientist Professor Lawrence, who invites the jovial Dan to stay with him and his young niece June. Lawrence wants to run some experimental tests on Dan, but when he leaves for a medical convention his assistant Dr. Rigas takes control.

Using Dan as a guinea pig to prove his theories, Rigas gives Dan massive doses of electricity, causing him to become dependent on the daily jolts. Rigas’s final treatment gives Dan an eerie (superimposed) glow, as well as superhuman strength, forcing him to don a rubber suit to contain the electric power coursing through his veins. Lawrence returns to this, and the mad Dr. Rigas rails about creating “the worker of the future”, an army of electric zombies that will do his bidding, and proves his point as he commands Dan to kill the scirentist.

June and Mark return to the house to find her uncle dead, with Dan only able to repeat “I.. killed.. him”. McCormick is put on trial and found guilty of murder, and sentenced to… the electric chair! This has the reverse effect on Dan, as the voltage revives his superstrength, and he escapes prison and runs rampant, causing havoc and destruction as he makes his way back to Dr. Rigas and a date with destiny…

Lon is full of piss and vinegar in the early scenes, just a big, good natured lug who likes nothing more than horsing around with the Lawrence’s dog Corky. Chaney, who was a well-known dog lover in real life, has fun in the part (as, I assume, did Corky!). After getting zapped into zombiehood, ‘Dynamo Dan’ becomes just another mindless monster, showing no emotion thanks to the devious Dr. Rigas. But the role secured his spot at Universal, and Chaney became the studio’s top horror star of the 40’s, playing all the Universal Monsters at one point or another – that is, except for The Invisible Man and the Bride of Frankenstein!

Lionel Atwill steals the show as Rigas, chewing the scenery with gusto, his eyes popping from behind those crazy goggles. When Lawrence states he thinks Rigas is mad, Atwill gleefully replies, “I am! So was Archemedes, Gallileo, Newton, Pasteur, Lister, all the others who dared to dream!”. Lionel Atwill, who could give Bela Lugosi a run for his money in the mad doctor department, elevates this programmer to lofty horror heights, and woukd team with Chaney again for GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , and HOUSE OF DRACULA.

A Universal cast is worth repeating, and here we have his grey eminence Samuel S. Hinds as kindly Prof. Lawrence, Anne Nagel as June, and Frank Albertson as the reporter. And of course, Corky, whose other films include MY FAVORITE WIFE, IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE , and CRISS CROSS . Much ado was made about the movie being filmed on the same set as Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent classic PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, with Junior ready to take the mantle of his famous father. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but young Lon did enjoy a long career in both the horror and Western fields, despite his alcoholism. MAN MADE MONSTER is definitely lesser Universal Horror, but worth checking out for Chaney’s initial horror role and the bravura stylings of mad doctor Lionel Atwill. Oh, and Corky’s pretty good, too!

Familiar Faces #5: The Law and Mr. Hinds

I first became aware of actor Samuel S. Hinds watching those old Universal pictures that played frequently on my local channels. What I didn’t know about the stately, distinguished thespian is he had a secret past: Hinds was a successful, practicing attorney for over 30 years before the stock market crash of 1929 wiped him out, and he decided at age 54 to pursue his second love, acting. Hinds, born in Brooklyn in 1875, was a Harvard educated lawyer who had a long interest in amateur acting. When he made the decision to turn pro, he wrangled film parts large and small, credited and uncredited. His first talking picture was 1932’s all-star comedy drama IF I HAD A MILLION, in which he played…. you guessed it, a lawyer! (Hinds previously had a small role in the silent 1926 THE AMATEUR GENTLEMAN starring Richard Barthelmess).

Hinds had a small role as a dinner guest in 1933’s MURDERS IN THE ZOO, a Pre-Code horror starring Lionel Atwill , but it wasn’t until 1935 he came into his own in scary movies. THE RAVEN cast him as Judge Thatcher, father of beautiful Jean (Irene Ware), with Bela Lugosi’s mad, Poe obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin determined to posses her – or else! Vollin, driven insane by Jean’s rejection, straps the Judge to a slab and lowers a PIT AND THE PENDULUM-inspired blade designed to slice the jurist in two! Boris Karloff lends strong support as Bela’s reluctant henchman Bateman in one of the Demonic Duo’s best efforts, and Hinds adds a touch of sanity to the demented proceedings.

Sam returned to horror with 1941’s MAN MADE MONSTER, which introduced Lon Chaney Jr. to genre fans. Hinds is well cast as kindly Dr. Lawrence, whose attempt to help Chaney’s ‘Dynamo’ Dan McCormick is thwarted by his evil assistant Dr. Rigas (Atwill again). THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX (1942)  typecast him as a lawyer in a spooky murder mystery with Atwill a red herring. Hinds and Chaney reteamed for Robert Siodmak’s SON OF DRACULA (1943), with Lon as the undead Count and Sam in the small role as yet another judge. Hinds closed out his Universal Monster career with a bit as a coroner in 1944’s JUNGLE WOMAN, the second entry in the Paula Dupree/Ape Woman series.

Hinds was also kept busy on the Universal lot supporting the studio’s comedy kings Abbott & Costello. The team scored big with 1941’s BUCK PRIVATES , and Sam was right in the thick of things as the base commander. RIDE EM COWBOY (1942), one of my favorite A&C flicks, has him as the owner of a dude ranch, and father of lovely Anne Gwynne. PARDON MY SARONG (1942) has the dignified actor as a native chieftain on a South Seas island, once again encountering Lionel Atwill. 1943’s IT AIN’T HAY, his last with the comedians, finds him as owner of champion race horse Tea Biscuit.

The actor appeared in his share of classics, as well. The screwball YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) saw Sam as Jean Arthur’s dad. 1939’s DESTRY RIDES AGAIN cast him as the crooked mayor of wild west town Bottleneck. Both films starred James Stewart, who figured prominently in what’s perhaps Hinds’ best known role: Pa Bailey in the 1947 Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Hinds is also known for playing Lew Ayres’ dad in six of the Doctor Kildare films.

From film noir ( SCARLET STREET, CALL NORTHSIDE 777) to Westerns (SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS, BADLANDS OF DAKOTA) to comedies (HELLZAPOPPIN’, THE EGG AND I), Samuel S. Hinds lent his easy-going, dignified presence to over 200 movies of the 30’s and 40’s. His last, 1949’s THE BRIBE , was released posthumously; the actor passed away October 13, 1948 at age 73. He worked right up to the end, a real trouper, and I for one am glad he gave up the dramatics of the courtroom for the dramatics of the screen. Hollywood was all the better for it!

 

 

The Art of Noir: Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET (Universal 1945)

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One of my favorite movies of any genre has always been SCARLET STREET. I used to watch the grainy Public Domain print on my local cable access channel over and over. When I saw that TCM was running the film last October, I recorded it for future reference, as I was in the midst of my “Halloween Havoc” marathon. I finally got the chance recently to sit down and enjoy this beautiful, crispy clear print and watch the film as it was meant to be seen.

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Meek, mousey cashier Christopher Cross receives a gold watch at a party honoring his 25 years of service to J.J. Hogarth’s company. Chris has done his boring, repetitious job without complaint, though his dream has always to be a successful painter. When Hogarth leaves the party, Chris watches him get into a car with a pretty young girl. Walking home with friend and co-worker Pringle, Chris muses aloud what it would be like to have the love of a young beauty. His  wife Adele is a ballbuster, constantly berating his art and lack of gumption, and unfavorably comparing him to her late policeman husband.

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Enter Kitty March. Chris encounters her getting slapped around by an unknown assailant (later revealed to be her boyfriend Johnny) and rescues her. They go for a cocktail, where Chris tries to impress her by passing himself off as a painter. Kitty, thinking he’s rich and famous, claims to be an actress. Johnny schemes to have Kitty string Chris along, playing him for a sucker. Gullible, lonely Chris now becomes a thief and embezzler in order to fund Kitty’s lavish lifestyle. Johnny brings Chris’s paintings to sell in Washington Square, where they’re snapped up by an art critic named Janeway. Believing he’s discovered a new sensation, Janeway tracks down Johnny to Kitty’s apartment, where he’s tricked into believing Kitty is the artist. Chris’s “modern art”, under Kitty’s name, becomes the toast of the art world. Things fall apart when Adele’s ex-husband shows up, quite alive, and demands to be paid off. Chris, finally free of Adele, can now marry Kitty. But the vixen cruelly rejects him, and Chris murders her, pinning it on Johnny. But Chris will never be rid of Kitty and Johnny, as we discover in the film’s haunting finale.

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Edward G. Robinson has one of his best roles as Chris. Henpecked, his dreams never fulfilled, Chris Cross is one of the most pitiful, heartbreaking characters in film noir, and Robinson pulls it off beautifully. Joan Bennett was never sexier or sluttier than here as Kitty. She’s cruel, lazy, and downright treacherous, without an ounce of kindness, the complete opposite of Chris. Dan Duryea is her man Johnny, giving one of his patented sleazebag performances. Even though he’s framed on a murder rap, I felt no sympathy for Johnny paying for his countless other, unacknowledged sins. Rosalind Ivan (Adele) is as good here as she was in another noir, Robert Siodmak’s THE SUSPECT. Jess Barker, Russell Hicks, Samuel S. Hinds , and Margaret Lindsay round out the excellent supporting cast.

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Fritz Lang’s  expressionistic direction is top-notch, and SCARLET STREET is (in my opinion) one of his top three films, right up there with METROPOLIS and M. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay was based on the French novel LA CHIENNE, filmed in 1931 by Jean Renoir. Of course, since “La Chienne” translates in English to “The Bitch”, the title had to be changed! (We’d have to wait til 1979 for a film with that title, starring the eternally bitchy Joan Collins) Milton Krasner’s B&W photography gives SCARLET STREET an atmospheric, melancholy mood, as does Hans J. Salter’s score.

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The paintings in the film are by John Decker, artist and notorious Hollywood reprobate. Decker was a talented portrait artist known for his drinking bouts with famous pals like Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, and W.C Fields. His paintings are certainly unique, and I’ll leave you with a gallery of some of his artwork:

W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
John Wayne
John Wayne

 

Halloween Havoc!: Karloff and Lugosi in THE RAVEN (Universal 1935)

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Universal’s “Twin Titans of Terror” teamed up for the second time in THE RAVEN. Their 1934 pairing in THE BLACK CAT was the studio’s top grossing film that year, so it was only logical to reteam the two stars in another Poe based outing. But while in THE BLACK CAT they were evenly matched, here Boris plays second fiddle to Bela’s mad Dr Vollin. Lugosi takes center stage and creates one of his nastiest villains, a sociopath out to avenge his unrequited love.

Young Jean Thatcher loses control of her car and crashes off a cliff. The doctors, including her boyfriend Jerry Holden, agree only Dr. Richard Vollin can save her. Vollin refuses over the phone, stating he’s retired from practice, so Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher, travels to Vollin’s estate and, appealing to his vanity, convinces the doctor to do the surgery. He does so, and falls in love with his young patient in the process.

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When we first meet Vollin, he’s in his study with a representative from the local museum, reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (as only Bela can!), while a staute of the bird casts an ominous shadow on the wall behind him. “The raven is my talisman”, he says. “Death is my talisman”. Vollin isn’t interested in donating any of his large Poe memorabilia to the museum; in fact, he tells the gentleman he’s building the torture devices made famous in Poe’s tales. When told that’s an interesting hobby, Vollin replies (again as only Bela can), “It is mooore…than just a hobby”. The thin veneer of sanity is already beginning to give way to Vollin’s madness.

Jean has recuperated well enough to give a dance recital in Vollin’s honor. Her interpretive dance “The Spirit of Poe” is accompanied by an actor reciting the poem, music swirling while she performs her ‘danse macabre’ for the audience. Vollin is enraptured, but the Judge is worried about where this is all heading. Confronting Vollin at his home, he realizes the doctor is more than just infatuated. Warning him away from Jean adds fuel to the madness burning within Vollin. Fugitive criminal Edmund Bateman shows up unexpectedly at Vollin’s door. Bateman’s been told the doctor can “change my face” to avoid the police, but Vollin has other plans. He operates on the criminal’s “nerve ends” causing Bateman to become a grotesque looking monstrosity. When his face is revealed to him before a wall of mirror, Bateman angrily shoots them out (Welles’ inspiration for LADY FROM SHANGHAI, perhaps?) Vollin tells Bateman he’ll turn him back if Bateman’s willing to “torture and kill” for him. Reluctantly, Bateman agrees to assist in Vollin’s demented scheme.

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Karloff’s Edmund Bateman, though a killer, is played for  sympathy. Born with an ugly mug, Bateman felt driven to “do ugly things”. Like the Frankenstein Monster, Bateman’s been battered and beaten by a world he never made, lashing out at the injustice of his lot in life. Boris always gave his best characters a touch of humanity (the monster, Grey in THE BODY SNATCHERS, Elman in THE WALKING DEAD), and makes us feeling sorry for the brutish Bateman.

Vollin invites Jean, her father, Jerry, and two other couples to spend the weekend at his estate. A storm is brewing outside, but inside Vollin it’s already raging. Bateman abducts Thatcher and hauls him down to Vollin’s basement, where his torture devices are set up. Strapping Thatcher to a slab, Vollin gazes up at the blade hanging above the judge’s prone body. He flips a switch and, like in Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum”, the blade slowly descends, swinging to and fro aimed at Thatcher’s midsection. “Try to be sane, Vollin”, Thatcher pleads, but it’s far too late for that. Laughing manically (as only Bela can!), he replies with glee, “Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!”

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Another switch is flipped, and Jean’s entire room drops to basement level. Jerry and one of the couples (the other is fast asleep) hear Jean’s screams and find a panel leading to the basement. Vollin orders Bateman to throw Jean and Jerry in a steel-walled room, and locking them in, the walls begin to close in on them. Now completely insane, Vollin rails the two “will never be separated, never!…What a torture! What a delicious torture!” Bateman, realizing Jean’s about to be crushed to death (she was kind to him earlier despite his hideous kisser), shuts the switch off, but not before Vollin gut-shoots him. Struggling to his feet, Bateman overpowers the doctor and, in a last heroic feat, drags him in the room and pulls the lever, causing Vollin to be crushed by his own devious torture chamber.

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Lugosi’s descent into madness is one of the great accomplishments in horror. Building slowly, by the end he’s completely over-the-top deranged. I don’t think anyone could pull off the role of Richard Vollin the way Beal Lugosi does, and it’s one of his top acting jobs. Karloff gets the most out of his subservient role, and milks it for all the sympathy he can. Irene Ware (Jean) makes a fine damsel in distress (she worked with Bela before in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN), while stalwart Lester Matthews (Jerry) plays the romantic lead (Matthews also was in the bizarre Savage Intruder with Miriam Hopkins). Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Thatcher) is no stranger to horror movie buffs, appearing in MAN MADE MONSTER and SON OF DRACULA, while Ian Wolfe (Snuffy, one of the guests) made over 300 appearences in a career that stretched from 1934 to 1990.

Director Louis Friedlander moves the film briskly along from a top-notch script by David Boehm. Friedlander would change his name to Lew Landers, a workhorse of a director who did everything from Gene Autry Westerns to Boston Blackie mysteries. Landers worked again with Karloff on THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) and Lugosi on RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). Grinding em out quickly was Landers’ forte, and though he worked strictly in the B-realm, his films were generally well received. Television called in the 50s, and Landers made a home there, most notably on KIT CARSON, HIGHWAY PATROL, and RIN TIN TIN.

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Karloff and Lugosi made eight films together (including their cameo in 1934’s GIFT OF GAB), and while most genre fans rate THE BLACK CAT as their best pairing, I’m kind of partial to THE RAVEN. Neither film is literally based on Poe (“suggested by” the title cards say), but this one is more close to the “Spirit of Poe”. It’s a showcase for the talents of Bela Lugosi at the peak of his acting powers, with Boris Karloff lending good solid support. If you can only see one Karloff/Lugosi team-up this Halloween, I highly recommend you make it THE RAVEN.