British babes Mary and Madeleine Collinson became the first set of twins to not only star as Playboy Twin Centerfolds (and we’ll get to that at the end of this post!!), but to star in a Hammer Horror film, 1971’s TWINS OF EVIL. Not only that, the lasses got to play opposite Hammer icon Peter Cushing as their puritanical, witch burning uncle. It’s the final chapter in Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy (preceded by 1970’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and 1971’s LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), based on characters from Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella , and it’s a sexy, blood-spattered scream!
As uncle Gustav Weil goes around the countryside burning young girls at the stake, his recently orphaned twin teenage nieces Maria and Frieda arrive from Venice. Prudish Uncle Gustav disapproves of the girls’ plunging decolletage (“What kind of plumage is this? The birds of paradise?”). While Maria is shy and demure, Frieda’s a rebellious wild child, and sneaks out of the house to meet up with Gustav’s sworn enemy, the decadent Count Karnstein.
The aristocratic Count has long been dabbling in black magic, and his satanic ritual summons forth his dead ancestor Countess Mircalla (played by Katya Wyeth in a cameo), who puts the bite on Karnstein and makes him one of the undead. The Count in turn sinks his fangs into Frieda, and things really start to get gruesome from there as Gustav and his church brethren storm Castle Karnstein for an exciting, gore-filled climax.
Cushing’s amazing as always, delivering his pious lines with aplomb and running around like a much younger man (he was 58 at the time). Damien Thomas takes the role of the debauched Count and runs with it, his handsome looks belying what lurks underneath. Character actor Dennis Price has a small part as one of Gustav’s closest advisers. Director John Hough keeps the pace brisk; some other Hough horrors of note include THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, and AMERICAN GOTHIC, not to mention the Peter Fonda drive-in actioner DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY.
As for the Collinson Twins, their screen career pretty much ended with TWINS OF EVIL. Let’s face it, there’s not much you can do with a twin gimmick after starring in a vampire horror flick. Madeleine passed away in 2014, but Mary is still alive and well, living the good life in Milan. As I promised earlier, here are Mary and Madeleine Collinson in their famous 1970 Playboy Centerfold:
C’mon, you didn’t really think I was going to go there, did you? This is a family blog!!
Hockey fans are excited about this year’s Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, so I figured now’s the time to take a look at the quintessential hockey movie, George Roy Hill’s SLAP SHOT. Hill and star Paul Newman, who’d previously collaborated on BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, reunited for this raucous, raunchy sports comedy about a failing minor league hockey team who reinvent themselves as a hard-hitting goon squad.
Newman plays Reg Dunlap, an aging rink rat now the player-coach for the Chiefs, a dying franchise in a dying mill town. The team is on a massive losing streak, and attendance is at an all-time low. Two-bit GM Joe McGrath (Newman’s COOL HAND LUKE antagonist Strother Martin) is trying to sell the Chiefs, and things look bleak until Dunlap begins taunting his opponents and the rink violence escalates. Enter a trio of new players named the Hanson Brothers (David Hanson, Jeff and Steve Carlson), who take the art of hockey goons to a whole new level, and the fans return in droves, eating up the carny-like atmosphere like cherry flavored sno-cones.
Young hockey purist Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean, THE ROOKIES, TWIN PEAKS) objects to the pro wrestling inspired mayhem and refuses to take part, but the Chiefs become the hottest attraction in the league, and make their way to the championship game. Meanwhile, Reg tries to discover the true identity of the Chiefs’ mysterious owner while dealing with marital disharmony (Jennifer Warren, later a director in her own right) as he continues to promote the hell out of his beloved Chiefs in order to save the franchise…
The movie is DEFINITELY non-PC and probably will offend the more sensitive types, but those of you who still have your sense of humor intact will guffaw wildly at the crude jokes and shenanigans taking place on and off the ice. In between the sexist humor and bloody violence you’ll find a serious character study as Newman’s Reg Dunlap goes through a mid-life crisis, including the loss of both his wife and his career. Paul was still in great shape at age 50 and looked like he belonged on a hockey team. Ontkean’s Ned Braden has marriage troubles of his own with wife Lindsay Crouse; both turn in good performances and Ontkean’s wicked funny striptease on ice toward the conclusion is a comedy highlight!
Those wild’n’crazy Hanson Brothers were based on real-life minor league hockey goons the Carlson Brothers, two of whom (Steve and Jeff) play their fictitious selves (third brother Jack was called up to Edmonton, replaced by another hockey goon, Dave “Killer” Hanson). Their cinematic hockey havoc made them minor celebrities, doing personal appearance tours and even making the cover of Sports Illustrated (albeit thirty years later). Besides the always-reliable Strother Martin, others of interest include 70’s favorite Jerry Houser as a Dunlap loyalist, M. Emmett Walsh as a gullible reporter, Brad Sullivan as the obnoxious perv Morris, and the hit song “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which keeps popping up throughout the film:
SLAP SHOT’s screenplay by Nancy Dowd was based on the experiences of her brother Ned’s time in the minor leagues (Ned plays the part of feared opponent Oglethorpe in the film). The movie wasn’t a hit at first, but has since become one of the ultimate “guy flicks” thanks to it’s sheer outrageousness. After all, it’s got sex, violence, beer, and sports – what’s not to love, eh? Meanwhile, here in the real world, Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals is about to start, soooo…
Critics in 1976 were divided over Alfred Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT, which turned out to be his final film. Some gave it faint praise, in an “it’s okay” kinda way; others decried it as too old-fashioned, saying the Master of Suspense had lost his touch – and was out of touch far as contemporary filmmaking goes. Having recently viewed the film for the first time, I’m blessed with the gift of hindsight, and can tell you it’s more than “okay”. FAMILY PLOT is a return to form, and while it may not be Top Shelf Hitchcock, it certainly holds up better than efforts made that same year by Hitch’s contemporaries George Cukor (THE BLUE BIRD), Elia Kazan (THE LAST TYCOON), and Vincente Minnelli (A MATTER OF TIME).
Hitchcock reunited with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST) to concoct a devilishly clever black comedy about phony psychic Blanche Tyler who, along with her cab driver boyfriend George, is charged with finding the missing nephew of very rich Mrs. Rainbird. The old dame is offering a $10,000 finder’s fee, which makes the perpetually broke couple drool, but there’s a catch: the boy in question has been missing since he was a baby, over forty years ago.
Meanwhile, as the couple leave the Rainbird manse, we cross-cut to a tall, mysterious blonde walking toward another stately manse. The silent woman hands over instructions to a trio of suits; she’s actually Fran Adamson, who along with her mastermind husband Arthur kidnap the rich and powerful for ransoms paid in sparkling jewels. The pernicious pair has been plying their trade for years without being caught, and it’s no spoiler to tell you Arthur Adamson is really the missing Rainbird heir, a sociopath who killed his adoptive parents in a house fire, and doesn’t like Blanche and George snooping around in his business…
Hitchcock and Lehman combine the suspense with loads of dark humor, and the result is a fun film that ends with a wink to the camera, as if Hitch is telling us, “Lighten up, it’s only a movie”. It may be a minor film in his major career, but it was entertaining enough to keep me invested throughout. Lehman’s script keeps it’s tongue firmly in cheek, and he won that year’s Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Screenplay. The language is cruder than you’ll find in Hitchcock films past, but that’s just Alfred keeping up with the times; he had always pushed the boundaries of the censorship boards, and was probably delighted to be able to let loose!
Barbara Harris is marvelous as the fake psychic Blanche, giving a joyously ditzy performance. Harris was shamefully underutilized by Hollywood, and should have been a much bigger star. Bruce Dern does good work as well playing Blanche’s bickering boyfriend, caught up in something way over his head. This was Dern’s second film with the Master; he had previously had a small role in 1964’s MARNIE. William Devane is another criminally neglected actor; he’s chillingly charming as Adamson (and can now be found hawking gold in TV commercials for Rosland Capital!). Karen Black’s Fran is kind of a thankless role, but her presence is always welcome onscreen, as is another underrated actor, Ed Lauter, playing Devane’s murderous cohort.
Albert Whitlock’s (THE BIRDS) special effects during the car chase scene were no longer cutting-edge, and in fact look as phony as Blanche’s psychic powers, but that’s really a minor quibble. FAMILY PLOT may be lesser Hitchcock, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to keep Hitch fans happy. At least it did for me, and I’d recommend it to all who want to see The Master of Suspense take us on one last ride.
Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.
Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN: there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.
There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.
Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.
Quick, name a film noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Vincent Price, and… Steve Martin? There’s only one: 1982’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, the second collaboration between that “wild and crazy guy” Martin and comedy legend Carl Reiner. I remember, back in 1982, being dazzled by editor Bud Molin’s seamless job of incorporating classic film footage into the new narrative while simultaneously laughing my ass off. Things haven’t changed – the editing still dazzles, and I’m still laughing!
Martin and Reiner’s first comedy, 1979’s THE JERK, was an absurdist lover’s delight, and this time around the two, along with cowriter George Gipe, concocted this cockeyed detective saga after combing through old black and white crime dramas (we didn’t call ’em film noir back then) and cherry picking scenes to build their screenplay around. Martin plays PI Rigby Reardon, a hard-boiled knucklehead who takes on the case of Juliet Foster’s missing father, a famous scientist and cheesemaker. Rigby instantly falls for the femme fatale (“I hadn’t seen a body like that since I solved the Case of the Murdered Girl With the Big Tits”), and who can blame him, since she’s played by the delicious Rachel Ward, who shot to fame in SHARKY’S MACHINE and the TV miniseries THE THORN BIRDS!
The case leads him to discovering a conspiracy involving “The Friends and Enemies of Carlotta”, but the plot is strictly secondary to Martin’s interacting with movie stars of the past. Rigby’s got a partner named Marlowe, none other than Bogie himself, using footage from THE BIG SLEEP , DARK PASSAGE , and IN A LONELY PLACE . His interaction with Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, dolled up in a blonde wig and tight sweater to resemble Barbara Stanwyck, is a scream. Martin dons drag again as James Cagney’s mother in a funny riff on WHITE HEAT .
Besides those previously mentioned, other classic stars appearing include Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Charles McGraw, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner, from films like THE BRIBE , DECEPTION, THE GLASS KEY , HUMORESQUE, I WALK ALONE, JOHNNY EAGER, THE KILLERS , KEEPER OF THE FLAME, THE LOST WEEKEND, NOTORIOUS , THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, SORRY WRONG NUMBER, SUSPICION, and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (and by the way, that’s 70’s Exploitation queen Rainbeaux Smith doubling for Veronica Lake in her scene opposite Martin).
There are some great running gags throughout the film, like Juliet’s unique way of extracting bullets (“It’s really for snakebite, but I find it works for everything”), Martin going berserk every time he hears the phrase “cleaning woman”, and his constant chiding of ‘Marlowe’ for not wearing a tie. DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID was the last film for a pair of Hollywood greats: composer Miklos Rozsa and costume designer Edith Head. Both went out on a high note, a loving homage to films noir past, and a brilliant piece of work that itself stands the test of time.
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.
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!
When the conversation turns to great screen comedians, Don Knotts doesn’t get a lot of respect among the cognescenti. Talk to his loyal fandom, including celebrities like Jim Carrey and John Waters, and you’ll hear a different tune. They all agree – Knotts was a talented and funny comic actor, the quintessential Everyman buffeted about by the cruelties of fate who eventually triumphs against the odds. Following his Emmy-winning five-year run as Deputy Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , Knotts signed a movie contract with Universal, and his first feature for the studio was the perfect vehicle for his peculiar talents: a scare comedy titled THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN.
Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a meek typesetter for his local newspaper in the small town of Rachel, Kansas. He’s also somewhat of the town laughing-stock, bullied by the paper’s ace reporter Ollie, his rival for the affections of sweet young Alma. Luther dreams of becoming a reporter himself (after all, he has “a certificate from the Kansas City Correspondence School of Journalism”), and one day Luther, goaded on by his coworker Kelsey, writes a filler piece on Rachel’s infamous Simmons mansion, where a ghastly murder/suicide occurred twenty years ago, and the locals believe is haunted by the deceased.
Luther’s little column causes quite a stir, and the editor (also goaded by Kelsey) gets the idea to have someone spend the night in “The Murder House” and write a story – namely Luther! The cowardly Luther is reluctant at first, but after being embarrassed by Ollie in front of Alma, decides to go through with it. This sets the stage for the bug-eyed, rubber-faced Knotts to engage in his patented ‘fraidy cat’ buffoonery, as he encounters unexplained noises, secret passageways, eerie music from an organ that plays itself, and a portrait stabbed with garden shears dripping blood!
The story makes Luther the talk of the town, and the Chamber of Commerce throws a town picnic in his honor (a sign reads “Rachel, Kansas – Home Plate for Wheat and Democracy”!). But Nicholas Simmons, heir to the Simmons mansion, claims it’s a complete fabrication, and sues him for libel. The raucous trial culminates at the “Murder House”, where Luther’s story is debunked, but with a little help from his friends, Luther is vindicated and the mystery of the Simmons murders is finally solved.
For all intents and purposes, Luther Heggs is Barney Fife under an assumed name, even wearing Barney’s old salt-and-pepper Sunday-go-to-meeting suit! Rachel might as well be Mayberry transplanted to the Midwest, and that Mayberry flavor is no coincidence. Screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everrett Greenbaum worked on some of the GRIFFITH SHOW’s classic episodes, as did director Alan Rafkin, and Mayberry citizens Hal Smith (Otis), Hope Summers (Clara), and Burt Mustin (Old Jud Fletcher) appear in small roles. Another Mayberry figure had a hand in the film – Andy Griffith himself, who was called in by Knotts to help punch up the script! The plot recalls a GRIFFITH episode entitled “The Haunted House”, those “karate skills” were on display in another, and that speech Don gives at the picnic is a riff on his old ‘Nervous Man’ persona. Yet THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN isn’t just a rehash of Don’s greatest hits; it’s a showcase for his incredible comic timing, and became a box office hit.
Producer Edward Montagne (who’d created another successful 60’s sitcom, MCHALE’S NAVY, featuring Don’s future comedy partner Tim Conway) filled his cast with dependable Familiar Faces from the worlds of film and TV. Pretty former Playmate Joan Staley (BROADSIDE, ROUSTABOUT) plays Alma, mean Skip Homeier is mean Ollie, and George Chandler, Ellen Corby, Robert Cornthwaite , Herbie Faye, Sandra Gould, Florence Lake, sourpuss Charles Lane , Cliff Norton, Phillip Ober, Eddie Quillan, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent (as Luther’s editor/boss), Reta Shaw (funny as leader of Rachel’s ‘Psychic Occult Society’), Lurene Tuttle, Nydia Westman, and Dick “Please Don’t Squeeze The Charmin” Wilson all engage in the frenetic madness (and that’s screenwriter Greenbaum’s voice doing the “Attaboy, Luther” shouts offscreen).
You can call THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, or Don’s other films, just silly family comedies geared to the kiddie matinée crowd if you want. But for me, and millions of other Don Knotts fans, he was an inventive comic actor who made some hysterically funny films. He may not have reached the lofty heights of a Chaplin or Keaton, but he definitely followed in their tradition. Scoff if you wish, but he still manages to make me (and many others) laugh out loud, and that’s what matters most!
Deanna Durbin was the best Christmas present Universal Studios ever received. The 15-year-old singing sensation made her feature debut in 1936’s THREE SMART GIRLS, released five days before Christmas. The smash hit helped save cash-strapped Universal from bankruptcy, and Miss Durbin signed a long-term contract, appearing in a string of musical successes: ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, THAT CERTAIN AGE, SPRING PARADE, NICE GIRL?, IT STARTED WITH EVE. One of her best is the Christmas themed comedy/murder mystery LADY ON A TRAIN, one of only two films directed by Charles David, who married the star in 1950, the couple then retiring to his native France.
Our story begins with young Nikki Collins travelling by train from San Francisco to New York City to visit her Aunt Martha, reading a murder mystery to pass the time. Nikki witnesses a real-life murder committed through a window, and after ditching her wealthy father’s assistant Haskell (“of the New York office”), goes to the police, who laugh her off, thinking the crime novel’s gone to her brain. So Nikki seeks help from the mystery writer himself, Wayne Morgan, who wants nothing to do with this ditzy dame (and neither does his society gal, Joyce Williams). Nikki learns at a newsreel screening the man was shipping magnate Josiah Waring, whose body was moved from the scene of the crime to his Long Island estate to make his death look like he fell off a stepladder while decorating his Christmas tree.
The plucky girl heads to Long Island, and is mistaken for Waring’s “fiancé”, nightclub singer Margot Martin, by the deceased’s irresponsible nephew, Arnold Waring. She’s arrived just in time for the reading of the will, in which Arnold and his more sedate brother Jonathan receive a grand total of a dollar each, while the bulk of the estate goes to Margot. Nikki keeps up the charade, and finds a pair of bloody slippers stashed in Waring’s room. The trail leads to the Circus Club, where Nikki meets the real Margot, and she and Wayne get arrested for the murder of the club’s manager. Nikki’s bailed out, not by Haskell, but Arnold, and the entertaining comedy-mystery winds up with a suspenseful conclusion that’ll keep you guessing whodunnit right until the end.
Deanna’s a delight in a film that juggles elements of screwball comedy, musical segments, film noir, and straight mystery, never once dropping any of the balls. Deanna was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time (second only to Bette Davis), and the studio lavished attention on their star, with numerous costume and hairstyle changes throughout the film. Of course, her beautiful soprano voice is on display, and she sings “Give Me a Little Kiss”, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, and the Christmas perennial “Silent Night”, sweetly serenading her dad in San Francisco over the phone on Christmas Eve:
The supporting cast is a real Christmas present for Familiar Face spotters: there’s Ralph Bellamy as Jonathan Waring, Dan Duryea as his wastrel brother Arnold, the underrated and underutilized David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL) as Wayne, the late Patricia Morison as Joyce, Edward Everett Horton as the flustered Haskell, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris as a pair of henchmen, Samuel S. Hinds as the family lawyer, plus Jane Adams , Bobby Barber, Barbara Bates, Ben Carter (Mantan Moreland’s longtime vaudeville partner), Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Jaqueline deWit (as nasty Aunt Charlotte Waring), Tom Dugan, William Frawley , Thurston Hall (the unfortunate victim), a pre-stardom Lash LaRue, George Lloyd, Sam McDaniel (the friendly train porter), Matt McHugh, Maria Palmer (the real Margot), Addison Richards, and Bert Roach, among many others.
LADY ON A TRAIN’s screenplay was written by Edward Beloin and Robert O’Brien, based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who knew a thing or two about mysteries – he was the creator of Simon Templar, aka The Saint! DP Woody Bredell adds some shadowy shots reminiscent of his work on Universal’s horror and noir flicks that enhance the film’s overall atmosphere, and Bernard B. Brown (who once contributed sound effects for Warner’s early Merrie Melodies cartoons) garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Sound. Every Christmas season, I try to find holiday-themed films a little off the beaten track, and LADY ON A TRAIN is a real gem. Add it to your Christmas watch list!
Rondo Hatton (1894-1946) was dubbed by “The Ugliest Man in Hollywood” by Universal for his repulsive visage. Originally a Tampa-based sportswriter, Hatton began developing the disease acromegaly as a young adult, a form of gigantism which distorts the facial features and bone structure (wrestler Andre the Giant suffered from this). Rondo moved to Hollywood and got work as a film extra and some bit parts (he can be spotted in SAFE IN HELL , IN OLD CHICAGO, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (’39 version), and THE OX BOW INCIDENT, among others).
Hatton played “The Hoxton Creeper” in the 1944 Sherlock Holmes entry THE PEARL OF DEATH (with Universal Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers as a villainess, for a change), then proceeded to scare the daylights out of audiences in JUNGLE CAPTIVE and THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK. While not a trained actor, his unique looks made him a perfect fit for horror. Hatton died in January 1946 before the release of his last two films, and today let’s take a look at the better of the pair, HOUSE OF HORRORS.
Martin Kosleck plays Marcel De Longe, a sculptor of (shall we say) limited talent whose work is excoriated by an acerbic art critic (Alan Napier ). The already unstable artist goes off the deep end, and decides to end it all. Instead, he winds up saving another lost soul from drowning – the notorious serial killer The Creeper! The two oddballs bond, and Marcel creates his masterpiece, a bust of Creeper’s hideous head! Creeper returns the favor by snapping the critic’s spine, and commercial artist Steve Morrow (Robert Lowery ), who recently fought with the pompous jerk, becomes the prime suspect, while Creeper continues to kill Marcel’s enemies.
While homicide detective Lt. Brooks (Bill Goodwin) is busy trying to put the moves on Steve’s sexy model (Joan Shawlee ), Steve’s girl, art critic Joan Medford (Virginia Grey) visits Marcel, looking for filler for her Sunday column. Sneaking a peek at Marcel’s latest piece, she lifts his drawing of Creeper to run in the paper. The engraving boys notice a resemblance to the mad killer, while Marcel notices the sketch is missing, and he sends The Creeper out to kill again….
Kosleck is a lot of fun as the deranged De Longe, whether having conversations with his cat or bugging out in all his crazy-eyed glory. Grey is also good as a snappy newshound, but Robert Lowery’s as wooden as ever. Joan Shawlee (credited as Joan Fulton) stands out in more ways than one as the model; fans know her best as ‘Sweet Sue’ in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Napier, always remembered as Alfred the Butler on TV’s BATMAN, is good too, as the George Sanders-like pompous jerk. Familiar Faces include Virginia Christine as one of Creeper’s early victims, Byron Foulger, Howard Freeman, Syd Saylor, and Charles Wagenheim.
But it’s Rondo Hatton who’s the star attraction, and the reason fans still remember this minor but effect little chiller directed by Jean “DEVIL BAT ” Yarbrough. In 2002, The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards were established by horror fandom, given to the best in film, television, books, art, and websites every year. The award was created by comic artist Kerry Gammill, and is based on Marcel’s bust of The Creeper in HOUSE OF HORRORS:
Since I’ve already reviewed HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN back in 2015, we now turn our attention to HOUSE OF DRACULA, the last “official” entry in the series (though the Universal Monsters would ‘Meet Abbott & Costello’ three years later). The film tries to put a new slant on things, using science to conquer the supernatural, but winds up being just a hodgepodge of familiar horror tropes without much cohesion. HOUSE OF DRACUA does have its fans, but I’m not one of them.
John Carradine returns as Count Dracula, introducing himself as Baron Latos to Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens ) and seeking a cure for his vampirism. Edlemann discovers a “peculiar parasite” in Dracula’s blood, and believes he can cure him through a series of transfusions. But the Count, that sneaky devil, has his fangs set for Edlemann’s pretty nurse Militza (Martha O’Driscoll), whom he hypnotizes with those hypnotic eyes of his. Drac reverses a transfusion, and turns Edlemann into a Jekyll & Hyde-type homicidal maniac.
Also looking for help is Larry Talbot, aka The Wolf Man, seeking relief from his lycanthropic curse. Lon Chaney Jr. once again takes the dual role, sporting a pencil-thin moustache this time (for his “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” series”). Talbot, fearing the full moon, gets himself locked in the local jail, where Edlemann and Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill, in his fifth and final different part in the saga) watch him transform before their very eyes. Tired of waiting for a cure, Talbot throws himself into the sea below Edlemann’s estate, is rescued by Edlemann, and the pair find the body of Frankenstein’s Monster in a cavern.
The procedure on Talbot is a success, and Edlemann promises his hunchbacked nurse Nina (Jane Adams) she’s next on the list. But Edlemann, now gone mad thanks to Dracula’s tainted blood, kills his servant Siegfried (Ludwig Stossel, no relation to John!) and Nina, and brings The Monster back to life, just as Inspector Holtz and a gang of those angry villagers barge in, and chaos ensues as Talbot shoots Edlemann and The Monster is destroyed in a fiery finish lifted straight from GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (with Lon playing The Monster!).
Carradine is good as Dracula, as he was in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (not so much in BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA , however!). His “hypnotic eyes” rival Bela Lugosi’s, and he makes a very suave vampire. Chaney, though, is way too whiney this time around, and when he’s finally cured I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to listen to his complaining anymore! Glenn Strange, in his second of three appearances as The Monster, is once again little more than a prop. Onslow Stevens tries as Edlemann, but is defeated by Edward T. Lowe’s ludicrous script, which constantly contradicts itself, often in the same scene! As for the rest, Atwill’s done the Inspector routine a thousand times before, Martha O’Driscoll isn’t convincing as Militza, Jane Adams does manage to gain some sympathy as Nina, and Skelton Knaggs’s part as a villager is underwritten.
It’s not director Erle C. Kenton’s finest hour, either, though George Robinson’s cinematography helps a bit. HOUSE OF DRACULA seems like too much of a rush job, as if Universal just wanted to be rid of its Monsters once and for all. The Second Horror Cycle was winding down, and though the studio would bring all it’s Monsters back for ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, it took Hammer Films’ CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA , along with the release of the Universal Monster Movies to television with SHOCK THEATER in 1957, to fully bring Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula, and the rest of the brood back to bloodcurdling life.