Halloween Havoc!: BLACK FRIDAY (Universal 1940)

The Twin Titans of Terror, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, reteamed for their fifth film together in 1940’s BLACK FRIDAY. Horror fans must’ve been salivating at the chance to see the duo reunited after the success of the previous year’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, but left the theaters let down upon discovering Boris and Bela share no scenes together, and the bulk of the action is carried by character actor Stanley Ridges in a dual role.

The movie’s a variation on the old Jekyll & Hyde theme, with a twist: instead of a secret formula, the change occurs via brain transplantation! The preposterous premise finds Karloff on death row as Dr. Ernst Sovac, walking that last mile to his fate in the electric chair. Sovac hands his notes and records to a sympathetic newspaper reporter, and our film begins in earnest. Flashbacks relate the tale of kindly old English literature Professor George Kingsley, struck down by a car driven by gangster Red Cannon, who is trying to escape a hit by his former gang. Both men are badly hurt in the crash, with Kingsley being mortally wounded and Red paralyzed. To save his friend Kingsley’s life, Sovac transplants part of Red’s brain in Kingsley’s head (which of course kills the gangster).

While Kingsley convalesces, Sovac learns Red has a half million dollars in ill-gotten loot stashed away in New York City. The doctor brings his friend to The Big Apple under the pretense of “a change will do you good”, hoping to jog the Red Cannon part of his brain into revealing the money’s whereabouts, so he can fund more brain transplanting research. This works all too well, as the familiar surroundings cause the Red Cannon part of Kingsley’s brain to slowly take over, especially after seeing his former moll, nightclub canary Sunny Rogers. Aware that he’s unrecognizable in his new body, Red goes on a killing spree against the four mobsters that tried to rub him out…

The script by Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor seems tailored for Lugosi to play the mad Dr. Sovac and Karloff as Kingsley/Red, right down to the character names and some of the dialog. But for whatever reason (reports vary), Karloff insisted on taking the Sovac part. It’s not like he’d never played a gangster before (see THE CRIMINAL CODE or SCARFACE for examples), but Karloff got his way. Bela wound up being wasted in the part of crook Eric Marnay (and though he’s quite good, it’s a minor role), and Ridges (who was probably slated to play Marnay) got the juicy role of Kingsley/Red. Ridges is effective, but it would have been a much better film if the original casting had stood.

Director Arthur Lubin adds a nice touch using the old “spinning newspaper effect” with Sovac’s notebook to transition scenes, with Karloff adding narration. DP Elwood “Woody” Bredell does a good job painting with shadows and light, warming up for future jobs on PHANTOM LADY , CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, and THE KILLERS . The supporting cast features Familiar Faces Murry Alper, Raymond Bailey , Virginia Brissac, James Craig (the sympathetic reporter), Paul Fix, Anne Gwynne, and Anne Nagel, but on the whole this is the weakest of the Karloff/Lugosi pairings (except for maybe RKO’s YOU’LL FIND OUT, with Peter Lorre and Kay Kyser and His Kollege of Musical Knowledge). *sigh* If only they’d stuck to the original casting…

Polish Ham: Jack Benny in TO BE OR NOT TO BE (United Artists 1942)

Comedian Jack Benny got a lot of mileage (and a lot of laughs) making fun of his movie career, especially THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT . While that film isn’t half as bad as Jack claimed it was, even better was Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE, a topical (at the time) tale of a band of Polish actors taking on the invading Nazis during WWII. Jack’s got his best film foil here, the marvelous Carole Lombard, and the movie’s got that wonderful “Lubitsch Touch”, a blend of sophistication and sparkling wit evidenced in classic films ranging from THE MERRY WIDOW and DESIGN FOR LIVING to NINOTCHKA and HEAVEN CAN WAIT.

Benny plays Joseph Tura, the self-proclaimed “greatest actor in the world”, and Lombard is his bantering wife Maria. Together, they lead a troupe of actors in Warsaw in a production of “Hamlet”, but every time Tura begins his “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy, an audience member walks out – unbeknownst to the vain Tura, the line’s a code for Maria’s young lover Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) to meet her in the dressing room! Germany invades Poland, and Sobinski’s off to join the RAF, but the acting troupe is forced to disban.

When the eminent Professor Siletsky is discovered to be a secret Nazi agent, the British send Sobinski back to Warsaw before the traitor can reveal the names of the Polish underground to the Gestapo. He reunites with Maria, now working for the underground herself, and Tura catches the young lieutenant sleeping in his bed! Maria returns, and an elaborate plan involving the acting troupe evolves with Tura impersonating Siletsky in order to retrieve that list of names. Gestapo head Col. Ehrardt is initially fooled by Tura, but then the dead body of the real Siletsky is found, just as Der Führer himself is about to pay a visit to Warsaw….

Benny’s vain, egotistical ham actor Joseph Tura is the perfect fit for his comic persona, developed through years of vaudeville and honed to a tee on his popular radio show. His trademark physical mannerisms and facial expressions are priceless, and Lubitsch brings out the best in him. He’s matched by screwball queen Carole Lombard, who shines in every scene she appears in as Tura’s not-so faithful wife. Sadly, this was the 33-year-old star’s last picture; on January 16, 1942, Lombard and 21 others (including her mother) were killed in a plane crash returning from a War Bond rally in her home state of Indiana. She was married to Clark Gable at the time. Among her many films, my favorites are TWENTIETH CENTURY, MY MAN GODFREY, NOTHING SACRED, and this one, released posthumously, and a fine capping to a brilliant career.

The supporting cast is equally brilliant, with young up-and-comer Robert Stack a fine lovestruck Sobinski. Sig Ruman ,  the Marx Brothers’ nemesis in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, gives another great comic characterization as the pompous Col. Ehrhardt (“So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh?”). Henry Victor is Ehrhardt’s top aide (and convenient scapegoat) Captain Schultz. Felix Bressart as Greenberg, one of the Polish actors, gets a chance to truly shine when he gives Shylock’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice (“If you prick us, do we not bleed…”). Old friend Lionel Atwill is on board as an actor who’s even hammier than Tura! Among the rest of the cast, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Helmut Dantine, Tom Dugan, Maude Eburne, James Finlayson , Charles Halton, Miles Mander, Frank Reicher , and Stanley Ridges in roles large and small.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is one of the few films where the remake (1983) is just as good. That’s probably because of producer/star Mel Brooks , a huge Jack Benny fan, who even pays tribute to the great comedian in the film (be on the lookout for the street sign Kubelsky Street, Benny’s given name). But if I had to pick one over the other to watch on a rainy night, it would definitely be Lubitsch’s 1942 classic, mainly because, like Brooks, I’m a huge Jack Benny fan myself! I’m pretty sure Mel would make the same choice.