Sunday, October 31, 2010

This Marriage Business (RKO, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I finally ran us was This Marriage Business, a 1938 RKO “B” directed by Christy Cabanne from a script by Gladys Atwater and J. Robert Bren that seems like a mash-up of everything Frank Capra had directed to that point. The film starts up with an exciting chase scene in which runaway heiress Babs Delaney (Ida Vollmar) and her old high-school sweetheart Robert Riordan (Richard Bond), whom she insists on marrying despite the marriage her parents have arranged for her with a European prince, are being tracked by New York Dispatch reporter Bill Bennett (Allan Lane) and his photographer “Candid” Perry (Jack Carson). While hurrying in pursuit of the runaway couple, the media guys see a car that’s stalled because its driver, Nancy Parker (Vicki Lester — the real one! She was a starlet, who according to the American Film Institute Catalog was under personal contract to Mervyn LeRoy but was loaned to RKO for this movie — which seemed odd because the only other credits I’ve seen for the real Vicki Lester were all RKO films, usually billed well down in the cast list whereas here she’s billed third and is playing the female lead; what makes it even more ironic is that 16 years after appearing with the real Vicki Lester, Jack Carson would have a key role as the press agent in the George Cukor/Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born, in which Garland played the fictional Vicki Lester), has run out of gas.

Bill zips by her but promises to send back some gas — which he doesn’t do, of course: he’s too busy ambushing the amorous couple at the home of Middletown city registrar Jud Parker (Victor Moore, top-billed), Nancy’s father, who among his other duties is responsible for issuing marriage licenses. Bill and “Candid” show up at the wedding in time to get roped into serving as the witnesses, and the runaway heiress and her new husband totally disappear from the story from then on as Bill learns that Jud has kept track of every couple he issued marriage licenses to and none of them have filed for divorce. Bill senses a story and he writes it up — and soon Middletown is flooded with people applying for marriage licenses from the man the reporter nicknames “Cupid” Parker in hopes that this will ensure that their marriages will last. Needless to say, Bill also falls in love with Nancy and decides to hang around Middletown to court her — even though she’s already got a boyfriend, local attorney Lloyd Wilson (Jack Arnold). Jud can’t stand Lloyd and is convinced his daughter could do better, and from the moment we look at him — with his pencil-thin “roo” moustache and his overall imperious manner — we’re convinced he’s up to no good.

It turns out that Jack is in league with Joe Selby (Richard Lane), the gangster who runs a roadhouse on the outskirts of town and is bribing the mayor, Frisbie (Frank M. Thomas), and the entire city government to keep his roadhouse (which also includes a casino — at least so we’re told; we never see any gambling equipment and indeed the supposedly corrupt roadhouse actually looks like a pretty decorous place) open. Lloyd says that Selby is simply his client, but we see a meeting of Selby and his lieutenants, including Lloyd, so we know better. Bill and “Candid” go to the roadhouse after Nancy has gone there on a date with Lloyd, and the police stage a phony “raid” on the place to satisfy local business owners concerned about vice in their town; Bill escorts Nancy out of there when the cops arrive, and that finally starts to melt her heart towards him. The Middletown business leaders get together and ask Jud to run for mayor on a reform ticket — they haven’t before had a candidate with enough popularity in town to buck the Selby-Frisbie machine — and in order to sabotage Jud’s campaign Selby has his girlfriend Bella Lawson (Kay Sutton), who sings at the roadhouse and who formerly dated convict Frankie Spencer (Paul Guilfoyle), who took the rap for a crime both he and Selby committed, try to entrap Jud in a sex scandal. The frame works better than Selby anticipated when Frankie gets released from prison and turns up in Middletown seeking revenge against Selby for setting him up and stealing his girlfriend, and it all leads up to a confrontation in Bella’s room where Jud (lured there because he’s supposedly issuing a marriage license so Bella and Selby can marry) witnesses Selby shoot Frankie but can’t remember what he saw and falls unconscious — whereupon Selby puts the murder weapon into Jud’s hand, thus getting his fingerprints on it.

A coroner’s jury holds Jud over for a murder trial, but as he reviews photos of the room “Candid” took for the local police, Jud remembers he heard two shots and Bill figures from that that there must have been two guns. He and “Candid” catch Selby and a henchman attempting to bury the second gun, and “Candid” takes a picture, but Selby’s henchman runs “Candid” off the road and snatches the camera, smashing it — only the day is saved by Corky, Jud’s pet dog (an obnoxious mutt but also sometimes the most intelligent character in the film!), who saved the plate with the key photo and delivers it to Jud in jail, where Bill is visiting him. Bill gets the picture developed and spreads it around town, leading to the arrest of Selby and the corrupt politicians who’ve been helping him, Jud’s election as mayor and Bill’s and Nancy’s tying the knot. It’s yet another example of just how much plot the “B” moviemakers of the 1930’s could cram into 71 minutes’ worth of running time — a modern movie would probably take twice as long to tell that much story — and though it’s no world-beater This Marriage Business is a fun movie, not laugh-out-loud funny but certainly amusing, and Victor Moore’s performance is relatively restrained, at least for him: he keeps the whiny mannerisms down to a minimum and for the most part turns in a heartfelt performance as a father who cares about his community, his daughter and the nice young man she clearly belongs with.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the last episode of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. I was struck by the extent to which it attempted to graft an anti-Fascist metaphor onto the original brainless heroes-and-villains comic-strip stuff. Emperor Ming’s prisons are actually referred to as “concentration camps,” his men are given an arm salute that’s a slightly less flamboyant version of Hitler’s and the very opening describes a “Purple Death,” a disease-bearing dust that Ming is beaming down from planet Mongo to Earth which kills people and leaves just one tell-tale sign: a purple spot in the middle of their foreheads. (Coincidence — or did the writers of this serial know about Kaposi’s sarcoma even back in 1940?) Star Larry “Buster” Crabbe (who, judging from all the complaints he had while filming these movies, had a very appropriate last name) complained that much of the film was padded out with footage from a 1929 German mountaineering film, The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, co-directed by Dr. Arnold Fanck (the man who discovered Leni Riefenstahl) and G. W. Pabst — with the result that an entire new kingdom of Mongo, Frigia, ruled by Queen Fria (whose accent hovered indeterminately between Marlene Dietrich’s and Sonja Henie’s), was invented to explain the appearance of all this stock footage taking place in the middle of freezing-cold mountain locations.

Still, while clearly cheaper than the original movie (which was filmed in 1936 at a cost of $500,000, making it the most expensive serial ever made), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe at least had the production “sheen” of a major studio, and benefited from a largely “borrowed” but still stirring musical score (the main theme is Franz Liszt’s tone poem Les Préludes and much of the score is cribbed from Franz Waxman’s work during his year at Universal, 1935-36 — including the beautiful “monster wedding” theme, complete with bells and chimes, from The Bride of Frankenstein). — 10/31/96


Charles and I repaired to our room and watched the first three episodes of the last Universal Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, shot in late 1939 and released in early 1940. This proved unexpectedly interesting; in some ways Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe may be the best of the three in the series, at least partly because, influenced by the “wars and rumors of wars” (a phrase they actually use in the script) in Europe and the strong possibility of the U.S. becoming involved, the writing committee (George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Barry Shipman), working from a comic-strip continuity by Alex Raymond, the characters’ creator, rethought the concept to make it more topical: Ming is called “Dictator” rather than “Emperor” this time, he’s given a uniform strikingly reminiscent of Mussolini’s (something Charles noticed before I did), and one of his captives in episode one denounces him for keeping him in “one of your filthy concentration camps.”

There are some aggravating cast changes: Carol Hughes replaces Jean Rogers as Flash’s girlfriend, Dale Arden (which is about six of one and a half-dozen of other; Hughes seems to me to be marginally more attractive but the part was so empty — quite unlike the plucky heroines of competing serials at Republic and Columbia, who actually got involved in their share of the action — just about any reasonably attractive young woman could have played it); the appealingly butch bear type Richard Alexander is replaced as Prince Barin (the good-guy ruler of Mongo who keeps trying to get back in charge after Ming keeps deposing him) by Roland Drew, who stood up to the real Nazis in his starring role in PRC’s 1939 feature Beasts of Berlin but here is outfitted with one of those silly “roo” moustaches that make him look way too nellie; and his wife/Ming’s daughter Aura is also played by a different woman (Shirley Deane instead of the marvelous Priscilla Lawson from the first Flash Gordon from 1936).

Fortunately, though, the male leads — Buster Crabbe as Flash (even though he’s a bit disappointing in the looks department and Steve Holland, the male model who played him in the early-1950’s TV show, seemed much hotter to me!), Frank Shannon as Dr. Zarkov, and — most importantly (in these sorts of stories the villains are always more interesting than the heroes) — Charles Middleton as Ming. The serial is quite nicely constructed, beginning — as the first two also had — with a menace to Earth being fired from outer space on Ming’s command, in this case the “Purple Death,” a plague that kills its victims nearly instantly and leaves behind only a single purple spot on their foreheads. Of course, Flash and Zarkov take up their spaceship — with Dale on board as an obnoxious, unwelcome passenger — and find that the death is caused by a toxic dust invented by a rather squirrelly scientist working in Ming’s labs on Mongo and spread though bombardment by spaceships flown from Mongo to Earth.

They go to Mongo and re-establish contact with Barin — whose minions are dressed like Robin Hood’s Merry Men in the 1938 Warners film with Errol Flynn and armed with bows and arrows, which would seem to be no match against Ming’s high-tech weaponry — and also meet Queen Fria (a surprisingly Dietrich-esque Luli Deste) of Frigia, a cold region in the far north of Mongo and also the only known source of “Polarite,” the one material that neutralizes Ming’s death dust. The good guys mount an expedition to Frigia to mine Polarite, which means they have to dress up in Arctic explorer gear (thoughtfully provided by Dr. Zarkov, who has also invented a special spray to cover their faces so those, too, can be invulnerable to the cold) — and a good chunk of the footage covering the expedition to Frigia and the heroes’ mountain-climbing in came from a surprising source: the 1929 German film The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, a mountaineering film co-directed by G. W. Pabst and Arnold Fanck and starring Fanck’s protégée, Leni Riefenstahl.

The footage from the old film is a bit grainier than the new, but it’s also considerably more creatively photographed and framed — and Universal even used some of the music from Pitz-Palu for underscoring, along with other bits from the Universal music library (including much of Franz Waxman’s marvelous score for The Bride of Frankenstein) and a surprising choice for the main theme, Franz Liszt’s tone poem Les Préludes. (In the late 1970’s conductor Zubin Mehta gave a series of concerts advertised as “Space Music” which included excerpts from John Williams’ scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind along with Liszt’s Les Préludes — justified by its use here — and Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, source of the theme for 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Not surprisingly, given their high-mountain locale, the cliffhangers for episodes two and three are literally that (the one from episode one is a bomb full of plague dust Ming sets off in his lab, risking the deaths of his own people to kill Flash and Zarkov, and the scene features the sulfur pit from the end of Son of Frankenstein, though the cave in which it sits is now decorated with a carved rock whose design looks vaguely Mayan), and though some of the cuts between new and old footage jar, overall the action scenes are quite well done and the serial is well-paced throughout, without the longueurs between action scenes that sometimes made other serials seem interminable. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe lacks the lavish production values of the first Flash Gordon but it’s a good deal more exciting than Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (and it’s three episodes shorter — 12 rather than 15); it doesn’t have the elaborate special effects of the earlier ones but it’s got its own set of charms, including a bunch of robot drones Ming deploys against our heroes at the end of episode three. It’s a fun show and I look forward to watching the rest of it! — 10/20/10


Charles and I ran episodes five and six of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, “The Palace of Peril!” and “Flaming Death!” (in the closing credits, every episode of this serial has a title ending in an exclamation point!), which were a bit of a comedown but only because the action has shifted from the frozen kingdom (queendom, actually) of Frigia and therefore we’re not seeing any more spectacular stock footage of mountains and mountaineers from the 1929 German film The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, but overall this remains in the same league as the first Flash Gordon serial and considerably better than the second, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. This is probably the fastest-paced of all of them, and the situations cooked up by the writing committee (George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Barry Shipman) are inventive and genuinely exciting.

This one had a mid-air rescue sequence in which Flash pulls Captain Roka (Lee Powell), officer in the army of Prince Barin (Roland Drew) and therefore one of the good guys, from a burning spaceship; an attack by Ming on Barin’s palace in Arboria — preceded by Ming’s successful kidnapping of his own daughter Aura (Shirley Deane), who’s also Mrs. Barin, from the Arborial (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun) palace, so she won’t end up as collateral damage when he attacks. This serial has it all (well, maybe not all: it doesn’t have the surprisingly resonant emotional depths of The Return of Chandu or the human weakness and genuinely creative cliffhangers of the 1943 Batman): fast-paced action sequences, transitions between the action highlights that are genuinely interesting drama in themselves, and a sense of unserious fun welcome in this age when all too many comic-strip or comic-book (oops, “graphic novel”) derived movies try to make their slender little stories into monumental statements about the human condition — and though the minnow-like spacecraft are silly (and probably were considered silly in the 1930’s as well, especially when they fly across the painted backdrops and the location of the wires holding up the models is all too obviously discernible from how the models are jiggling in mid-air), some of the special effects are quite good — including the plain of mini-volcanoes Flash has to walk across at the end of episode six (created by a super-element Ming and his captive scientists have invented that bursts into flame in air and burns absolutely anything it touches) that’s utterly convincing even though it also briefly looks as if Flash Gordon has invented the firewalk. — 10/22/10


Over the last two days Charles and I had watched episodes seven through ten of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, which quite frankly seems to me to be the most entertaining of the three serials. The production budget was noticeably lower than that of the first one — through working at a major studio, producer Ford Beebe (who also co-directed with Ray Taylor, whose previous credits included sole directorship of the fascinating The Return of Chandu) had access to some spectacular sets, including the leftover representations of 17th century Paris built for the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame that were quite effectively used to represent the environs around Emperor/Dictator Ming’s (Charles Middleton) palace. The special effects are variable; some of them — notably the fires started by one of Ming’s horrific weapons with which he’s been attacking the kingdom of Arboria, ruled by Prince Barin (Roland Drew) — are utterly convincing, while others are almost laughable, including those silly little spacecraft (which are also used for terrestrial travel within the environs of the planet Mongo, where the first and third Flash Gordon serials took place) dangling on unseen wires, and the decision to represent both lightning and the output of ray guns simply by scratching the film emulsion with a pin to create a jagged line.

Still, the serial is quite well paced (interesting since the previous Beebe-Taylor collaboration on Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was almost soporific) and the writing committee (George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey and Barry Shipman) has been inventive in finding clever devices to keep the action going with refreshingly little of the arbitrariness with which most serials were plotted. In these chapters, Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and Prince Barin plan to obliterate Ming’s defenses with a new gun Professor Zarkov (Frank Shannon) has invented which paralyzes electrical generators — only there are two major catches (if the gun were a drug they’d be called “side effects”): first, the gun can only be fired once — it self-destructs as it is fired — and it kills off all life within a certain radius around it when it blows itself up. Flash, Zarkov and Barin therefore head out to what they think is an uninhabited part of Mongo called the “Land of the Dead,” where they can set up the gun within range of Ming’s palace and fire it by remote control without it harming anyone or anything other than what they want it to harm — only it turns out the “Land of the Dead” is inhabited by a race of Rock Men, actually normal humans (or Mongoans) who disguise themselves in rock suits to camouflage themselves and evade Ming’s attacks. The Rock Men also speak in a weird-sounding language created by running a recorded soundtrack backwards — backwards tapes became such a staple of psychedelic rock music in the mid-1960’s it’s genuinely surprising that they were being used in a movie a quarter-century earlier — and Zarkov, it turns out, knows their language (how could he have learned it?) and can interpret for them.

The king of the Rock Men blames Flash and his party for the disappearance of his son, who it turned out was stuck to a lodestone (I’m not making this up, you know! Since people are generally non-magnetic, one would think he could have freed himself simply by removing whatever metal article on his body was attracting him to the natural magnet); Flash pulls him off the lodestone by sheer brute strength, flings him over his shoulder and carries him back to his dad, and of course the rescue of his son causes the Rock King to switch sides and help Flash, Barin and the other good guys. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is actually a quite entertaining serial — it may not be as lavish as the first Flash Gordon but it isn’t as dull as Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars either — and the great piece of classical music appropriated for its soundtrack, Franz Liszt’s “Les Préludes,” supplies both sinister bits representing the good guys in trouble and triumphal strains when they overcome it (and other people’s music from previous Universal films — including Franz Waxman’s incredible score for The Bride of Frankenstein — also effectively bolsters the action).

Universal also deserves kudos for shooting the Rock Kingdom scenes in a real canyon — they seem to have sent the crew out to the Grand Canyon or something almost as spectacular — instead of using one of the abundantly available but mind-numbingly familiar Western locations around Hollywood. It’s nice to be on the home stretch of this very interesting serial! — 10/29/10


I ran the last two episodes of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, which proved worthy successors to the rest of it. The Flash Gordon cycle from Universal (“Flash Gordon Conquers Universal!”) followed an odd pattern: a compelling if somewhat sluggish first serial, a surprisingly weak and not particularly involving second serial and a third that not only returned to the form of the first but in some respects actually surpassed it — notably in the intensity and excitement of the action scenes and the degree to which action and exposition were integrated instead of making us sit through a lot of boring jabber setting up the next action highlight, as happened in quite a few 1930’s and 1940’s serials and as happens all too often in action movies today (Iron Man 2 being an especially regrettable example of a mediocre film that could have been a lot more exciting if the writers had been able to integrate action and story as well as the ones of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe did).

Just about everything in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe clicked: the spectacular locations (some of them supplied via stock footage — including the early scenes in the country of “Frigia” in northern Mongo, which show enough beautiful and exciting scenes from the 1928 German silent The White Hell of Pitz-Palu, co-directed by Arnold Fanck and G. W. Pabst and starring Leni Riefenstahl, that it’s piqued my curiosity to see the whole thing), the (mostly) well-done matching of new footage and stock (and the effective use of Universal’s standing sets, including much of the re-creation of 18th century Paris for the 1923 silent Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and glass paintings to make this look like a considerably more lavish production than it was), and above all the relentless pace of the direction, which kept the film continually interesting and never let the action flag (odd since the same directors, Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor, had helmed the much less interesting second serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, though it helped that two of the writers who had worked on the original Flash Gordon but not on Trip to Mars, George H. Plympton and Basil Dickey, returned this time around).

Despite some weaknesses in the supporting cast — Roland Drew as Prince Barin and Shirley Dean as his wife (and Ming’s daughter) Princess Aura are simply not as good as the actors who played those parts in the earlier serials, Richard Alexander and the amazing Priscilla Lawson — and the lack of a really compelling villainess (at least one commentator compared Anne Gwynne as Ming’s partner Sonja to Marlene Dietrich, but she’s a flat, uninteresting character — frankly, she’s about as useless to the forces of evil as Dale Arden, played by Carol Hughes after the wooden Jean Rogers relinquished the role, is to the forces of good; the Republic and Columbia serials offered genuinely forceful women characters but the ones from Universal didn’t) — Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe comes off as the most consistently exciting of the three (though I still think the 1950’s TV Flash Gordon, male model Steve Holland, was hunkier and a more convincing action figure than Buster Crabbe).

Though it doesn’t have the emotional depth of The Return of Chandu (a solo directorial credit for Ray Taylor that features Bela Lugosi in one of the best, richest and most emotionally multidimensional performances of his career) or the vivid imagination of the 1943 Batman (which features the former Emperor Ming, Charles Middleton, in a sympathetic role!), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is everything one would rationally wish for in a serial, and it doesn’t peter out at the ending as so many serials did, either: it ends with a spectacular sequence in which Flash steals Ming’s ship, powered with the mysterious element “solarite,” and aims it straight for the power station where Ming and his court are holding forth — and bails out just in time to avoid becoming a kamikaze. Ming’s palace duly blows up from the solarite explosion and, keying on an earlier line in which Ming had said, “The universe? I am the universe!” (likely copied by the writers from the real-life Louis XIV’s “L’etat? C’est moi,” meaning, “I am the state”), Dr. Zarkov announces that Flash Gordon has conquered the universe, thereby finally — after nearly four hours of running time — explaining the title. — 10/30/10

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Mummy’s Ghost (Universal, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I recorded the 1944 Universal horror film The Mummy’s Ghost, either the third or fourth film in the Mummy cycle (depending on whether or not you count the original 1932 film, The Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff and Zita Johann, was subtly directed by Karl Freund and had a literate script by John L. Balderston that resorted to supernatural intervention for an ending but otherwise actually made dramatic sense within the limitations of the form — but in that one the mummy’s name was different and there wasn’t the gimmick of tana leaves supposedly needed to keep him alive). The Mummy cycle of the post-Laemmle, pre-International Universal extended to four films: The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (also 1944, and reportedly padded out with outtakes from the earlier films — I wouldn’t know because it’s the one film in the sequence I haven’t seen).

While at least they didn’t stick the Mummy into the middle of the multi-monster fests they also made during this period (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula), they made the Mummy a considerably less interesting character than he’d been in the Karloff film, in which he doffed his bandages, put on Arab street clothes and spent most of the film as the mysterious “Ardath Bey,” with a wizened old face (thank you, make-up genius Jack P. Pierce) and the Karloff voice. In the later Mummy films he had a new name (Kharis, instead of Imhotep — the true identity of the Karloff character and actually a real person in Egyptian history, though far from dying in disgrace the real Imhotep was the architect who designed the pyramids and was the only human being other than the Pharoahs whom the Egyptians later declared a god), was mute, and was the creation of the cult of Arkhan, which kept him alive with tana leaves (a tea brewed from four of these leaves would keep him in suspended animation, while a tea brewed from nine leaves would allow him to move).

The original Mummy’s Hand, with cowboy star Tom Tyler playing the Mummy, was actually quite entertaining, accurately described by Leslie Halliwell as “start[ing] off in comedy vein [not the campy black humor of the James Whale films, but charming boob humor and slapstick], but the last half-hour is among the most scary in horror film history.” The Mummy’s Tomb introduced Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Mummy (Chaney was actually the only actor to play all four of the big Universal horror characters: the Frankenstein Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, Dracula in Son of Dracula, the Mummy three times and the Wolf Man, which he originated, five times if you count the spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). It was pretty tacky — Wallace Ford and Dick Foran, in unbelievably sloppy old-age makeup that Jack Pierce should have been embarrassed to take screen credit for, reappeared in a story that took place 20 years after The Mummy’s Hand and got killed for their pains, before the Mummy himself was burned to death (presumably) in an old haunted-house set on the Universal backlot that Alfred Hitchcock would use, much more famously, 18 years later as the home of Anthony Perkins and his “mother” in Psycho. Halliwell calls it a “shoddily made sequel to The Mummy’s Hand, with much re-used footage; astonishingly, it broke box-office records for its year, and provoked two more episodes.”

The Mummy’s Ghost (we actually got there!) was the first of these, and though Halliwell calls it “a slight improvement on its predecessor” it’s actually a pretty dreary film, with Robert Lowery (a future Batman!) pretty dumb and hopeless as the romantic lead and Ramsay Ames reprising Zita Johann’s role from the Karloff Mummy as a modern Egyptian woman who is the reincarnation of the Princess Ananka, Kharis’ main squeeze back in his days as an ordinary person in ancient Egypt until they were caught together and sentenced to death by being buried alive in a tomb (screenwriters Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg borrowed this gimmick from Balderston’s script for the Karloff film, and I suspect Balderston in turn ripped it off the Mariette Bey/Camille du Locle/Antonio Ghislanzoni libretto for Verdi’s Aïda). Though she’s hardly in Johann’s class as a screen presence, she’s just about the only person in this movie who even attempts to act — and there’s an odd gimmick with her makeup; early on in the film she develops a grey streak in her hair (as if she’s become a regular patron of the Bride of Frankenstein Salon), and in the climax (when John Carradine, who took over from George Zucco as head of the cult of Arkhan, has decided he wants the girl for himself instead of giving her to the Mummy) she gets a matching streak on the other side of her face, and by the time the film has ended (in a surprisingly bleak final scene in which the Mummy kills Carradine, carries the girl into a swamp — a surprising phenomenon given that until the swamp appears we’ve been told this film takes place in a college town in New England — and drowns both her and himself) her hair has gone stark white and her face is all crinkled and grey to suggest instant old age. With mediocre direction by Reginald LeBorg (Stuart Timmons mentions him in his Harry Hay biography as one of Hay’s 1940’s boyfriends, but as a Gay horror director he’s as far from James Whale as Ed Wood was from Orson Welles as a straight director — only LeBorg’s access to a major-studio infrastructure kept this film from achieving a truly Woodian tackiness), generic photography and a really overbearing musical score, The Mummy’s Ghost was far from Universal’s best in the horror field. — 10/22/98


Last night’s “Schlock Cinema” entry at the San Diego Library was The Mummy’s Ghost, a 1944 series entry from Universal (actually filmed in the fall of 1943 but not released until June 1944) that depending on how you reckon it was either the third or the fourth in Universal’s original Mummy cycle. I say that because the first entry, The Mummy (1932), was very much an outlier: it was as much a reworking of Dracula as a mummy movie (as David J. Skal wrote in The Monster Show, “virtually every plot element as well as key performers [notably David Manners and Edward Van Sloan] … were recycled from Dracula,” as was the Swan Lake-derived theme music which opens both films), though I regard it as a superior film to Dracula, partly because of Boris Karloff’s almost romantic intensity in the title role (after the famous opening scene of the mummy coming to life, he’s in “drag” as a normal human, Egyptian mystic Ardath Bey, throughout the rest of the film) and also Zita Johann’s deep, rich performance as the modern-day woman (a half-British, half-Egyptian girl) whom the mummy realizes is a reincarnation of his long-dead forbidden love, far superior to Helen Chandler’s wooden acting in the counterpart role in Dracula. Written by John L. Balderston and directed by Karl Freund, The Mummy is much more a romantic fantasy with a supernatural element than an out-and-out horror film, and Karloff is not only fully articulate but he has some of the best dialogue of his career — when he pleads with Johann to join him in eternal (mummified) life, his line readings are so heart-rending one practically feels for him.

The later Universal Mummy cycle really started with the 1940 film The Mummy’s Hand, which liberally used footage from the 1932 film (the actor who played the Mummy, Western star Tom Tyler, was even cast largely because he was the same height and build as Karloff so his footage would match the stock from the older film) and set up the rules and character names for the subsequent three: the mummy’s name was Kharis, he’d been sentenced to living mummy-hood as a result of his forbidden love for the Princess Ananka, and a cult of Egyptian priests who were keeping Egypt’s old pagan religion alive (one could watch all these movies and have almost no idea that contemporary Egypt was a mostly Muslim country!) maintained Kharis’ mummy in a permanent state of suspended animation by repeatedly giving him a tea brewed from four tana leaves — coming from a shrub long since extinct — while if they used nine leaves to brew the tea, the mummy would regain the power to move but not the power to speak (which disappointed me when I first saw these films — though given how much less talented the writers on these were than John L. Balderston, maybe it’s just as well these mummies didn’t have any lines).

The Mummy’s Hand did well enough (and it’s a charming film in its own way, emphasizing campy comedy in the first half and effective horror in the second) that Universal did a sequel in 1942, The Mummy’s Tomb, though this time out they put Lon Chaney, Jr. into the mummy’s wrappings and mask-like head. The Mummy’s Tomb was supposedly set 20 years after The Mummy’s Hand and showed two people from the earlier film’s cast, Wallace Ford and Dick Foran, in heavy age makeup; it posited the King Tut-derived idea that there was a curse on the mummy’s tomb and that Kharis was marking for death anyone who had been involved in the expedition that opened the tomb of his former beloved Ananka, and as a result Ford and Foran were both murdered by the mummy before it was supposedly burned to death along with a house whose exterior became far more famous 18 years later when Alfred Hitchcock picked out the standing set for Norman Bates’ creepy old house in Psycho.

The Mummy’s Tomb was an even bigger hit than its immediate predecessor, so of course Universal and particularly its head horror producer, Ben Pivar, naturally commissioned another series entry. It opens in Egypt, where the high priest of the cult of Arkham (did writers Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg deliberately appropriate the name from H. P. Lovecraft?), Andoheb — played by George Zucco in heavy age makeup in what’s the best performance in the movie: though he disappears after the first reel, Zucco is absolutely convincing, literally shaking as he speaks and convincing us he’s really a palsied old man — commissions his assistant, Yousef Bey (John Carradine in “Egyptian” makeup that looks like he just got back from a six-week course at a tanning salon — why, when Universal had an authentic Egyptian, Turhan Bey, under contract, they didn’t use him is a mystery, but Carradine is at least effective in a sort of role he’d already played quite often and would eventually run into the ground), to go to the U.S., bring back the mummy of Ananka and also get Kharis back out of the land of the infidels and home where he belongs. Yousef asks how he can lure Kharis out of wherever he is, and Andoheb tells him that the mummy will scent out the tana leaves as soon as Yousef — or, it turns out, anybody else — brews them and come a-running.

The scene then shifts to Mapleton College in New England, where professor Matthew Norman (Frank Reicher) is holding forth to a rather bored-looking undergraduate class about Kharis and how he menaced their town some years before, until he burned up in the house — only, of course, he didn’t really burn up. That night, Norman looks at the box in which Kharis’ stash of tana leaves were found way back when and finally deciphers a hieroglyphic that had previously eluded him, annoying his wife (Claire Whitney) who naturally wants him to call it quits for the evening and come to bed with her, realizing it represents the number nine (number nine … number nine … number nine) and that’s the correct number of tana leaves to brew the tea that will revivify the mummy. He brews the leaves in a similar crucible to the one Zucco was using back in Egypt (it almost certainly was the same prop!) and sure enough the mummy scents it — exactly how the mummy survived the fire and kept alive during the intervening years are details the writing committee doesn’t bother even trying to explain — comes into Norton’s room (through a conveniently open outside window), kills him and drinks the tana-leaf tea.

The police immediately catch on that the mummy is loose again from the mold around Norton’s neck where the mummy strangled him — as the third entry in the series this isn’t one of those movies that was going to waste a lot of time having the characters initially doubt the monster’s existence — and from then it’s a series of chase scenes with the police and the townspeople (an intriguing adaptation of the “angry villagers” scene to an American setting) are trying to catch the mummy and the mummy, which is impervious to bullets, keeps eluding them. The writers also borrow the reincarnation schtick from the 1932 film; when the mummy breaks into the museum of Egyptology in which Ananka’s mummy is being displayed and reaches for it, it crumbles to dust at his touch and all that’s left is a bunch of dirty bandages. It turns out Ananka’s soul is now housed in the body of Egyptian exchange student Amina Mansouri (Ramsay Ames),whose boyfriend Tom Hervey (future Batman Robert Lowery) is naturally put out at her discomfort whenever anyone around her mentions Egypt or mummies.

Every time Kharis comes near her, a little more of Amina’s hair becomes grey and it looks like she’s been having highlights done at the Bride of Frankenstein Salon — though, astonishingly, none of the other characters in the movie seem to notice! Supposedly the influence of Kharis is prematurely aging her and fitting her to join him in living-mummydom, though in the middle of all this Yousef Bey decides that he has the hots for Amina and instead of injecting her with tana fluid to make her a mummy again, he’s going to give her the drinkable form of the tana tea, render both of them immortal and keep her for himself. (He decides this in a rather odd structure that consists of a shack on top of a long series of sloped tracks that seem like a low-tech grain elevator — I’ve seen this movie many times and I’m still unclear what was the original function of this bizarre-looking building.)

It ends with Kharis realizing that Yousef has double-crossed him, killing him, kidnapping Amina — who’s turning into an old hag, with fully white hair and a wrinkled old face that’s much more frightening, actually, than the mummy himself — and carrying her into a bog, where Tom wants to go in after her but is warned by the cops that to enter the bog means certain death. (I joked that at this point Tom should have said, “If I were Batman I could rescue her!”) As often as I’ve seen this movie before, I’d quite forgotten that Amina dies at the end — I was expecting a resolution in which Tom rescues her, Kharis dies and as he expires his influence over Amina ends and she turns back into a normal young person again — instead the mummy at least temporarily drowns in the cranberry bog, only with the next film in the cycle, The Mummy’s Curse, the bog has turned into a bayou and the mummy has somehow floated under about 1,500 miles worth of the U.S. to end up in Louisiana.

Stiffly directed by Reginald LeBorg — whom Universal kept giving horror assignments to even though his “straight,” non-supernatural thrillers are consistently better and more convincing movies — The Mummy’s Ghost isn’t much of a movie, and Kharis isn’t much of a monster either: he has a paralyzed arm (except when he picks up Amina, when it suddenly re-acquires normal strength), a slow, staggering walk (one would think his human victims could just out-run him) and one permanently closed eye, and Jack P. Pierce’s makeup is so thick there’s no way Chaney or anyone else behind the mummy’s mask could do the subtle, nuanced acting Karloff did inside Pierce’s makeup for the Frankenstein monster. Seeing this on the big screen, after so many years of knowing this movie only from TV and video, made it look surprisingly “fake” — the join line around Kharis’ one working eye where Pierce’s makeup left off and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s real skin began was all too obvious, and so were the lines on the breakaway fence rails when the mummy bursts through a fence in an early scene: I knew where the rails were going to break and, sure enough, they did exactly where I thought they would.

The Mummy’s Ghost is a product of Universal’s horror cycle in its later, most decadent form (in terms of quality, not content), at a time when aesthetic leadership in U.S. horror had decisively shifted to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO — in the next film, The Mummy’s Curse, one could see the Universal-ites making some half-hearted attempts to incorporate Lewtonian touches, including a visually rich Louisiana setting and a street singer used as a sort of Greek chorus, but these didn’t gel with a big old ugly monster roaming around the film — and part of the problem with these movies is that their makers seemed to equate “ugly” with “frightening” and also they’d forgotten the art Universal had once mastered in the early 1930’s of keeping the monsters powerfully off-screen at first and then introducing them with careful, suspenseful buildups instead of just having them walk around with no buildup at all — though the box-office returns of these films indicated that they were at least giving their audiences what they wanted to see, just as what today’s horror audience wants to see is rivers of blood gushing across the screen, never mind suspense, thrills, terror or any degree of imagination and subtlety! — 10/28/10

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

White on Rice (Brainwave, Malatova Productions, Tiger Industry Films, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was White on Rice, a 2009 independent comedy about a 40-year-old Japanese-American named Hajimi (Hiroshi Watanabe), though he’s assimilated enough that outside his family’s domain he just uses the name “Jimmy,” who’s been in a bad way since his wife left him two years previously. He’s got a job, but only for 15 hours a week in a customer service center (the film takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah, though it’s not actually named), and just as the film opens he’s come in off the street and is living with his older, and far more practical, brother-in-law Tak (Mio Takada). Tak is married to a much younger woman, Jimmy’s sister Aiko (played by an actress billed only as Nae), and they have a 10-year-old son, Bob (Justin Kwong). Aiko has a house guest, a graduate student named Ramona (Lynn Chen) whom Jimmy immediately gets a crush on and tries to date — but she’s only got eyes for her boyfriend Tim (James Kyson-Lee), a Korean-American she’s known since grade school and plans to marry. The gimmick is that though he’s 40 years old (his 40th birthday is celebrated in the movie) he’s sleeping in the upper bunk in his 10-year-old nephew Bob’s room, and he’s very much a child in an adult’s body while Bob is very much an adult in a child’s body: he’s a quite good classical pianist and he’s also built up a lawnmowing business that is making so much money Jimmy is borrowing from him to survive.

Directed by David Boyle from a script he wrote with Joel Clark, White on Rice is a good movie that could have been a good deal better: the ads promised a laff-riot and a lot of it is funny but it’s hardly the brilliant laugh-generator Kabluey was, and a good deal of it is simply too morbid to be as amusing as Boyle and Clark thought it was. Part of the gimmick is that Jimmy apparently used to be a minor movie actor — the film shows him in the middle of a quite bloody (literally) samurai movie, badly dubbed from Japanese into English, in which his head gets severed and used as a soccer ball by the three samurai who ambush him. Later, of course, the camera pulls back and reveals this is a movie-within-the-movie, an old film Jimmy insisted that his family watch on TV — though before he gets his head sliced off he tells Bob to leave the room on the ground that the upcoming scene is not fit viewing for kids. Jimmy has similarly morbid fantasies throughout the film, including one in which he slumps over his desk at work, sleeping on the job, and dreams that he’s pitched Ramona’s boyfriend Tim out of an open window to his death and Ramona has agreed to marry him now that he’s got rid of the competition.

Somehow from the idea of a Japanese-American family in the middle of white-bread Salt Lake City I had expected a lot more about immigration, assimilation and culture clashes, and there’s a little of that — it’s surprising that the central family communicates with each other almost entirely in Japanese, except for Bob, its youngest member, who speaks only English — but Amy Tan or Ang Lee this isn’t: one could do this story with white people (or any other ethnicity) and it would work just as well. The film ends with a scene so macabre we at first think it’s just another of Jimmy’s dark fantasies — he’s trying to cook a meal in the kitchen, it catches fire, and Tak comes in to chew him out, only to slip and fall on a potato peeling Jimmy has let fall to the floor, with the result that Tak falls on the knife with which he was threatening Jimmy, stabs himself accidentally and Jimmy and a white (we think) friend whom Jimmy (apparently) knew from one of his movies have to race Tak to the emergency room. Only it soon develops that Boyle and Clark want us to see this as part of the story’s reality, not just a dark fantasy of Jimmy’s, and though they do ring a few interesting changes on this (notably a nice-looking blond doctor at the hospital who tells Jimmy he understands enough about Japanese culture to know the concept of “face” and why someone would do something drastic when he thought he’d lost it, and it dawns on Jimmy that this uncomprehending white guy thinks his brother-in-law attempted hara-kiri; and another scene in which the same clueless blond guy hears Tak say his brother-in-law was the perpetrator of the attack, not his rescuer, and his 10-year-old son is a successful businessperson, and thinks that’s just Tak babbling under the influence of his pain medications), the whole sequence is just too morbid to be funny.

White on Rice had me screaming with delight in certain parts, feeling for the hero in others (though Hiroshi Watanabe isn’t exactly the most compelling screen presence of all time, with a pasty face and a rather raspy accent when he tries to speak English; it’s easy to understand why Ramona prefers her boyfriend Tim since James Kyson-Lee is much hotter than his on-screen romantic rival!) and at other points just waiting for the damned thing to end (it doesn’t help that Boyle almost never dissolves between scenes; instead he fades to black and then fades in again, leaving this movie with more false endings than “In the Mood”); had he and Clark lost some of the more morbid gags and had he maintained the kind of comic pace Scott Prendergast did in Kabluey (also about a sort of man-child who moves in with an in-law, but a far better paced, more imaginative and much funnier film), White on Rice could have been a comic masterpiece instead of just a modestly amusing movie.

Two 1941 RKO “Saints”: "The Saint in Palm Springs” and “The Saint’s Vacation”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last two nights Charles and I watched the final films (with one exception, noted below) in RKO’s cycle of Saint movies between 1938 and 1941: The Saint in Palm Springs and The Saint’s Vacation. The Saint in Palm Springs was the last one in the series that starred George Sanders, and next to him probably the most important person in the relative success of this film was its art director, Carroll Clark. (As usual in RKO movies of the period, the art director credit goes to the department head, Van Nest Polglase, and you have to look at the credit below his for “associate” to find out who actually did the production design for this particular film.) Clark had worked on all but one of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals for RKO, and the Palm Springs resort where most of the action takes place shows the same style: all those Bakelite floors and buildings with curvy Art Deco surfaces make it seem as if world-class dancers and a well-drilled chorus line are going to come in waltzing through at any moment.

Alas, the actual movie doesn’t have the appeal of the sets it was filmed on: apparently it was based on an original story Saint creator Leslie Charteris wrote for it, but he was upset at how little the filmmakers used of what he wrote (Jerome Cady is credited with the script) that he later used his plot as the basis for the novel The Saint Goes West and included some “digs” against the movie industry. Actually the plot device is almost too familiar from some of the other films in the series that used Charteris’s previously published novels or stories for their plots: a MacGuffin in miniature that can be handled on the person of hero or villain as the situation requires. In this case it’s three postage stamps from 19th century Guiana, worth $65,000 each (according to one poster there weren’t any stamps that valuable in 1941), purchased by Peter Johnson (Edmund Elton) and inherited by his daughter Elna Johnson (Wendy Barrie) after Peter is murdered in New York.

The stamps are concealed inside a locket the killers somehow miss when they ransack Peter’s room, and the Saint recovers the locket and has to take the stamps to Elna in Palm Springs and evade the killers — who of course come after her, as does the Saint’s long-time nemesis on the official police, Inspector Fernack (Jonathan Hale), who’s understandably convinced that the Saint murdered Peter because he was in the next room when Peter was offed. The Saint movies pretty much followed the same general pattern: marvelously witty openings in which George Sanders got to show off his insouciance and flair for bon mots (he was almost the inevitable choice to play Lord Henry Wotton when The Picture of Dorian Gray was filmed at MGM four years later) and an all too typical air of sloppy-mystery ennui when the plot rears its boring head and we’re asked to care whodunit. After this one RKO briefly lost the rights to the Saint character — instead they raided Michael Arlen’s novel The Gay Falcon and put George Sanders in a film of it, then recycled Arlen’s character for a series that, when Sanders bailed on it, was taken over by his brother, Tom Conway (they even wrote a story especially to dramatize the transition, The Falcon’s Brother, in which both Sanders and Conway appeared; Sanders spent most of the movie incapacitated and Conway filled in for him, then took over the part completely as the original Falcon’s brother when Sanders was conveniently killed off at the end) — and when they made another Saint movie it was in England, where they had previously filmed a Sanders Saint entry called The Saint in London.

The Saint’s Vacation picked up where The Saint in London left off and featured that earlier film’s leading lady, Sally Gray — though this time she played a reporter instead of a damsel in distress; it seems that every reporter in London is waiting with bated breath for a story about the Saint, who’s about to take a vacation on the Continent with his long-suffering friend Monty Hayward (Arthur Macrae, a genuinely charming actor who gets to be both more intelligent and more witty than the usual dumb sidekick for the master detective). What this film didn’t have that The Saint in London had had was George Sanders; instead the Saint, a.k.a. Simon Templar, was played by Hugh Sinclair, whom William K. Everson referred to as “less sardonic.” You can say that again; though Saint creator Leslie Charteris is not only credited with the original story but co-wrote the actual script (with Jeffrey Dell) as well, this film is almost totally lacking in the insouciant wit that gave the character its appeal when Sanders played him; not only is the script deficient in wisecracks but Sinclair, a decent-looking but stiff and unamusing actor, probably couldn’t have got much out of them even if he’d had the chance.

According to a “trivia” note on, The Saint’s Vacation was RKO’s attempt to get some of their frozen funds out of Britain — I had thought that hadn’t started until after the war, but apparently as early as 1941 the British Parliament had passed a law that American film companies could only take out 50 percent of the revenues from their releases in Britain. (They got the idea, ironically enough, from Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the minister of finance in Hitler’s Germany; in 1937, a year before he quit the government because he wanted nothing more to do with the Nazis’ racist policies, he pushed through the world’s, or at least Europe’s first frozen-funds law — and though Britain and Germany were at war in 1941 they presumably weren’t going to be deterred from instituting a policy they thought was a good idea just because an official from an enemy country had thought of it first.)

Oddly, The Saint’s Vacation is at least a bit more exciting as a thriller than some of the U.S.-produced films in the series; there’s a good Moriarty-esque villain, Rudolph Hauser (Cecil Parker), and the action moves effectively from Britain (Simon escapes the reporters who are trying to ambush him by donning a transparently fake beard and boarding the Channel steamer, then addressing Monty with a ridiculous Russian accent until he takes off the crêpe whiskers and reveals himself) to France to an unnamed but presumably German-speaking country. The war doesn’t seem to be going on — maybe we were supposed to believe this was taking place in the summer of 1939 — but the MacGuffin was genuinely topical: it’s a mysterious music box whose metal roll, when removed and rolled over a sheet of paper, reveals the blueprint for a new form of sound detector that would revolutionize air defense. (The British actually had such a thing: it was called radar.) The Saint’s Vacation is a decent, unassuming little movie — Sinclair doesn’t have Sanders’ personality or star power but he’s O.K. as a “type” for the role, and the plot moves effectively and more or less makes sense — but it was enough of a disappointment to RKO that the second and last Sinclair Saint film, The Saint Meets the Tiger, was made later in 1941 but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1943 — and then not by RKO but by Republic, to whom RKO had sold the rights.

The Soilers (Hal Roach/Pathécomedy, 1923)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched one other movie in the last two days: The Soilers, a Stan Laurel comedy from 1923 that, as its title suggested, spoofed The Spoilers — the second version, directed by Lambert Hillyer with Milton Sills as hero Roy Glennister and Noah Beery as villain Alex MacNamara, also released in 1923 — it was included in the Stan Laurel Collection from Kino on Video and I thought it would be fun to run it just after we’d seen the 1942 version of The Spoilers, which it tracks quite closely plot-wise. Laurel plays Bob Cannister (sometimes spelled “Canister,” a spelling confusion associated with the original Spoilers as well: Michael Druxman’s chapter on The Spoilers in his book Make It Again, Sam spells the hero’s name as “Glenister” throughout even though every time his name is shown visually in the 1942 version it’s “Glennister”), discoverer of the Double Cross Mine, only not surprisingly he gets double-crossed by gold agent Smacknamara (James Finlayson, later a superb comic villain in innumerable Laurel and Hardy movies), who’s in league with a corrupt attorney and a crooked judge to seize all the valuable mines in the Yukon.

Canister’s girlfriend is Helen Chesty (Ena Gregory), and the character of Cherry — a minor role in the first three films of The Spoilers but inflated to a star part for Marlene Dietrich in the 1942 version — is played by Mae Laurel, Stan’s real-life wife at the time. The film features a sequence in which a gold miner is literally shaken down over a stream, and the contents of his pockets — gold coins and paper bills — fall into the stream; later, when Laurel’s character finds these in a gold pan, he’s convinced he’s struck it rich. Stan attempts to blow up the Double Cross Mine’s office once the villains have taken it over, only he also tries to hold them up at gunpoint and, naturally, they have the sense to get the hell out of there before the bomb goes off, and he doesn’t. (Part of his problem is his confusion over which of the innumerable timepieces on his person is the one the bomb is synched to; Stan wears a dizzying array of both wrist and pocket watches and has at least two alarm clocks in his pockets — the most formidable clock collection I can recall on screen until the Robert Taylor character’s in The Time Machine, shown off in a scene so spooky that to this day I cannot sleep in a room with a ticking clock: all my bedroom clocks have to be electric.)

The best gag happens towards the end, in which Laurel and his writers, Hal Conklin and H. M. “Beanie” Walker, and director Ralph Cedar (according to his real last name was “Ceder” but it was “Anglicized” for this credit), decided to spoof the convention of the Western fight scene, in which two men start a brawl and just about everyone in their vicinity joins in, by playing it as the exact opposite: when Laurel and Finlayson start their climactic fisticuffs, everyone else ignores them! They start it in a room upstairs at the saloon — in which they’re periodically visited by a cowboy who looks properly dirty, disheveled and bearded but acts with all the gestures of a screaming queen, who periodically brings the fight to a halt by walking into the room, going to the mirror and literally primping: they patiently wait him out, then resume the fight when he leaves.

The fight then moves down the stairs to the floor of the saloon, packed with customers, who instead of joining in as in virtually every other saloon brawl ever filmed (including the one at the end of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, in which the gag was the opposite of the one in The Soilers: the big fight spilled out of the Blazing Saddles set onto other films being shot at the same studio), the customers either ignore the fight altogether or treat it as nothing more than an annoyance that’s getting in their way. When Laurel finally wins, the Gay cowboy calls out to him, “My hero!,” and when Laurel rejects him the Gay cowboy, who’s been at a second-story window with a flowerpot on the ledge, drops the flowerpot on Laurel, rendering him unconscious and getting him picked up by the garbage truck that has previously been shown picking up dead bodies off the street following gun battles. (This scene was excerpted in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, still the best survey film ever made about the history of Queer depictions in film.)

The Soilers is quite an artful comedy and holds up magnificently well; though it would take his teaming with Hardy to move Laurel up to the level of the all-time greats (including Charlie Chaplin, whom Laurel had understudied with the Fred Karno company in both British music halls and American vaudeville and who remained a strong influence on Laurel his entire career), even “solo” Laurel was an inventive comedian with a real flair not only for slapstick but situation comedy as well.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Spoilers (Universal, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Spoilers, the 1942 version of Rex Beach’s five-times filmed novel about the Alaska gold rush of 1898 and skullduggery involving miners, their claims and corrupt judges and government officials trying to steal the mines hard-working independent entrepreneurs have built up with their sweat equity. (After watching this film it’s easier to understand, with this kind of legend built up around their state’s history, how Alaska could give us someone like Sarah Palin.) Beach actually lived in Alaska during the Rush and published his novel in 1906 — and it was first filmed eight years after that, as a silent by the Selig company, with William Farnum as the butch hero Roy Glennister — co-owner of the Midas mine, the richest in the Nome area — and Tom Santschi as Alexander McNamara, the corrupt gold commissioner who’s trying to steal it from him. The film became famous for the final fight scene between the two — and in the days before stunt doubles and the “pass system,” Santschi broke Farnum’s nose and bent two ribs before it was all over.

The Spoilers was remade, again as a silent, in 1923 — a version that was enough of a hit that Stan Laurel shot a parody of it called The Soilers — and its first talkie version was made at Paramount in 1930 with Gary Cooper (who else?) as Glennister and William “Stage” Boyd (not the William Boyd who later played Hopalong Cassidy) as McNamara. In these versions Glennister’s love interest had been focused exclusively on Helen Chester, niece of the crooked Judge Horace Stillman, co-conspirator with McNamara and attorney Jonathan Struve, and there was a much less important female character, Cherry Mallotte, who dealt cards at the local saloon/casino and briefly misled Glennister into thinking that Helen was part of her uncle’s plot against him. For the 1942 version, produced by Frank Lloyd and directed by Ray Enright at Universal, the part of Cherry was built up big-time as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, on the ground that she’d already had a major hit in a Western, Destry Rides Again, three years earlier and so she could draw audiences to Beach’s Western in Northern drag.

The overall tone of The Spoilers is established from the first; after the punning foreword that the Gold Rush made normally cold Alaska “almost hot” we see a series of montages advertising rooms for rent at $100 a day and $5 cups of coffee (gold rushes invariably led to such absurd inflation, and it’s been pointed out many times that the real fortunes in the gold rushes were made not by the miners but by the businessmen who sold them food, clothes, lodging and supplies), and a miner comes up to one boarding house only to be informed by the proprietress that there are no rooms available. Then they — and we — hear a gunshot from inside the building, a man comes tumbling down the stairs (in a nice little in-joke he’s identified as “Lee Marcus,” the real name of the film’s associate producer) and the landlady tells the miner that now he can have a room. Glennister is played by John Wayne and McNamara by Randolph Scott in what his biographer, Robert Nott, calls his only “out-and-out bad guy” role, and Dietrich gets top billing (not that big a surprise) Scott is actually billed second and Wayne third, “a fact that rankled the Duke for years,” says Nott.

The Spoilers doesn’t have that much of a plot but it’s done with a real flair and style — probably more due to the witty script by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed and the atmospheric cinematography by Milton Krasner than Enright’s acceptable but pedestrian direction. At the opening Cherry is breathlessly awaiting Glennister’s arrival and fending off McNamara’s advances (she’s uninterested in him even before she knows he’s a crook), and the scene in which she’s awaiting word of Glennister’s boat docking is shot silent and shows how marvelous an actress Dietrich could be with gestures and expressions alone — if she had to wait for the sound era and Sternberg to make her a star, it certainly wasn’t because she couldn’t act without her voice! Also rather amusing is Marietta Canty’s performance as Cherry’s Black maid Idabelle, even though she was third in line for the “Mammy” roles after Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers; the scene in which Glennister comes into Cherry’s rooms above the saloon in blackface (the crooks have impounded the Midas’s earnings and Glennister and his partner Dextry, played by Harry Carey, have blown open the bank door to steal them back) and she thinks there’s finally a Black man in the Klondike she can cruise is priceless.

It gets even better when Glennister takes off his hat, thereby “outing” himself (and disappointing Idabelle no end), and gives her his shirt to have the burnt cork (or whatever he was using) cleaned off it — and then he’s forced to put something on over his chest even though the only thing that’s available is one of Cherry’s farthest-out costumes, a see-through something-or-other trimmed with feather boas: hey, any movie in which John Wayne goes both transracial and transgender is worth seeing! Dietrich’s presence in this Wild North setting is even more bizarre than usual — her huge bouffant hairdo practically becomes a character itself and her appearance has utterly no believable context, especially since she doesn’t get to sing a song (and as good as it is The Spoilers would have been even better if Cherry had been able to take the stage of the Northern Saloon for a Frederick Hollander number) — and the rest of the film is cast strongly, though Randolph Scott is just a bit too sincere to be believable as a villain (much like Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun four years later).

His co-conspirators, Samuel S. Hinds as Judge Stillman and the marvelously oily Charles Halton as attorney Struve, are fine, and the film abounds in welcome character performances, some of them by silent-era veterans: Richard Barthelmess, in his final film, as the Bronco Kid (in Beach’s original story he was Helen Chester’s long-lost brother but their relationship, preserved in the two silent films of The Spoilers, was removed in the script for the 1930 film and that change was kept here), who tries to get Glennister killed because he’s in love with Cherry himself; and William Farnum, star of the 1914 film of The Spoilers, as Wheaton, the honest attorney Glennister hires to appeal the case, only to find that he has no money because the Midas’s funds have been frozen (hence the bank robbery) and he can’t get the attorney on the ship to Seattle because McNamara has issued an order forbidding the captain from letting him board (though the captain gives Glennister a hint that if he sends Wheaton out in a boat and it looks like he’s drifting, according to the law of the sea the captain will have to pick him up).

Helen Chester is played by Margaret Lindsay, who was used to playing the good girl to Bette Davis’s bad girl in innumerable Warner Bros. films, and indeed her entrance is strikingly similar to her entrance in Jezebel: he comes in on the arm of her rival’s beloved after he’s returning from a trip and Cherry, like Julie Marsden (Davis’s character in Jezebel), puts on a brave face to hide her devastation. The plot comes to a climax when McNamara arrests Glennister for the bank robbery and the murder of the town sheriff (shot and killed during the robbery, actually by the Bronco Kid), then hatches a plot to get rid of Glennister permanently: he has the jail guard leave the door to Glennister’s cell unlocked so he can “escape,” and stations two men in the back of the jail to ambush Glennister and kill him — only Glennister goes out through the front door, lives and confronts McNamara in Cherry’s apartment, whereupon the two start a fist fight that, though largely doubled (by Edwin “Eddie” Parker for Wayne and Alan Pomeroy for Scott), gives us enough close-ups of the stars with bloodied faces it looks totally convincing. According to Robert Nott, “Scott, not a man known for telling Hollywood tales or exaggerating the truth, later said that he and Wayne sustained considerable damage from the fight, and that some of the blows were thrown in earnest due to an off-set rivalry for both billing and the lead role.”

The great action director B. Reaves Eason was brought in to stage the fight scene — the first time Charles and I watched The Spoilers he referenced Ray Enright’s most famous credit, doing the plot sequences for the Busby Berkeley musical Dames, and wondered if Enright could ever make a movie without someone helping him out on the most spectacular scenes. The parallel is actually rather cogent because Eason shoots quite a lot of the fight scene from overhead — the two men are shown breaking a hanging pipe during their fisticuffs and the pipe itself hangs over a good part of the subsequent action, adding a malevolent presence even before the fight works its way out of the upper story of the Northern Saloon down to the barroom floor where, needless to say, most of the Northern’s other patrons get involved in it on one side or another. The Spoilers isn’t a film for the ages but it is marvelous entertainment, great fun for fans of the genre or the stars — and it’s nice to see Wayne while he was still at least somewhat good-looking (though he’d already aged considerably from the beautiful and almost unearthly being he played in his 1930 film The Big Trail and the puffiness that would afflict his face in later years had already begun) before he became, in Douglas Sirk’s term, “petrified.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Saint Takes Over (RKO, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Saint Takes Over was a fast, relatively articulate, well paced by director Jack Hively and vividly acted by George Sanders (it’s nice, for a change, to see his supercilious manner on the right side of the law — sort of) and Wendy Barrie, who (surprise!) turns out to be the mysterious killer who’s knocking off gangsters right and left. It’s hardly a great movie, but it’s the sort of unpretentious entertainment Hollywood turned out so regularly back then — and Sanders’ reading of the Saint was much more subtle and sophisticated that the unambiguous hero Roger Moore played in the 1960’s TV series (about the other movie Saints, Louis Hayward and Hugh Sinclair, the less said the better). — 1/24/93


I ran The Saint Takes Over, a 1940 RKO “B,” the fifth RKO “Saint” film and the first based merely on the characters created by Leslie Charteris rather than by any specific Saint novel or story he had written — though in some ways that was actually an advantage; being able to concoct their own plot seemed to have freed writers Lynn Root and Frank Fenton to emphasize the sardonicism that made George Sanders’ Saint series the finest rendition of this character ever done (though Roger Moore’s TV series was definitely the runner-up — I haven’t seen any episodes in decades but I remember it as a fun camp-fest, though Sanders’ performances as the Saint remain supreme).

It features Sanders and frequent co-star Wendy Barrie as shipboard acquaintances who meet again in New York while he’s investigating a race-fixing gang consisting of a marvelously assorted collection of movie gangster “types”: avuncular crooked attorney Eagan (Pierre Watkin); nightclub owner Rocky Weldon (Roland Drew); “specialty broker” Max Bremer (played by the marvelously corrupt Cyrus W. Kendall); Sam Reese (Morgan Conway, taking a detour on the wrong side of the law before he became RKO’s first Dick Tracy); Leo Sloan (Robert Emmett Keane); and comic-relief figure Clarence “Pearly” Gates (Paul Guilfoyle), the principal witness for the defense in the trial of Weldon for murdering undercover cop Jack Summers, who had infiltrated the race-fixing gang. The crooks manage to get their principal nemesis on the NYPD, detective inspector Henry Fernack (Jonathan Hale) — a character recycled from The Saint’s Double Trouble and previous films in the series — suspended by planting $50,000 in his home safe and thus making it look like he took a bribe, and Fernack and the Saint attempt to catch the crooks only to find that some mysterious person is killing them off faster than they can take them alive.

The mysterious person turns out to be Ruth, Wendy Barrie’s character, who (surprise!) is Jack Summers’ sister and is knocking off the gang members one by one for revenge. (So revenge plots are nothing new even at this level of filmmaking, as much as this morning’s Los Angeles Times Calendar section tried to make them seem like a novelty!) The Saint Takes Over isn’t particularly compelling as a mystery — few “B” mysteries were — and it’s obvious that Root and Fenton couldn’t have cared less whodunit; what they were going for was the sardonic appeal of the title character, and they gave us that to spare, especially in an early scene in which the Saint pretends to believe Fernack really did accept a bribe so he can rag him about it (“What? You didn’t give any of the money to your wife?” begins one of his most bizarrely charming riffs), while director Jack Hively could have given the people who staged some of RKO’s bigger-budgeted, more prestigious thrillers lessons in building and maintaining suspense. — 4/5/04


Charles and I did watch a movie last night: The Saint Strikes Back, a relatively late (1940) entry in the RKO Saint series with George Sanders, and even though (or perhaps because) it was only based on Leslie Charteris’s characters and not one of his actual stories, it turned out to be one of the better entries in the series, an intriguing movie on the cusp between the relatively light mysteries of the 1930’s and film noir. It begins on an ocean liner, presumably bringing the Saint, a.k.a. Simon Templar (George Sanders), back from his adventures in his native land in The Saint in London, returning to New York City and the colorful gangster milieu that had made the first film in the series, The Saint in New York, interesting even though the Saint in that film was Louis Hayward, a decent-looking but colorless leading man who didn’t even approach the marvelous wisecracking insouciance that made Sanders (and, later, Roger Moore) right for the part.

On the ship Simon meets a young woman (Wendy Barrie) and tries to kiss her; she reacts by slapping him and hiding from him for the rest of the voyage, but he sends her a corsage of roses and she shows her true level of interest in him by wearing it. The scene then cuts to a gang of New York crooks who have formed a syndicate headed by crooked attorney Ben Eagan (Pierre Watkin), who has just successfully defended one of its members, restaurateur Rocky Weldon (Roland Drew), against charges that he fixed horse races so he and his syndicate buddies could make money placing bets on them. Eagan not only fixed the outcome of the trial by having the chief prosecution witness, Johnny Summers, murdered, he also hired a safecracker to break into the home of Inspector Henry Fernack of the New York Police Department (Jonathan Hale) and plant $50,000 in his safe so it will look like Fernack is on the take and the police will fire him and press charges. Though half-convinced, as usual, that Templar is in on the crime ring, Fernack agrees to work with him and see if they can find out who killed the witness.

This becomes even more urgent when Eagan is shown surprising the safecracker, “Pearly” Gates (Paul Guilfoyle), who attempted to rob Eagan’s safe at Rocky’s behest; a hidden camera linked to the safe took Gates’s picture as he was opening it, but shortly thereafter Eagan himself is shot and killed, not by Gates but by someone else firing through an open window in Eagan’s house. The Saint finds a rose petal on the scene of Eagan’s murder and thereby suspects the woman from the ship as the killer, though Fernack — being the typical unimaginative movie cop — is sure Gates must have killed Eagan because his picture is on the negative taken by Eagan’s hidden camera. Simon and Fernack kidnap syndicate member Leo Sloan, and he gets killed before they can get him to talk. The only remaining members are Sam Reese (Morgan Conway, who switched sides in subsequent films and played a prosecutor in RKO’s engaging 1946 “B” The Truth About Murder and Dick Tracy in the first two of RKO’s four-film series with the character in 1946-47) and Max Bremer (the marvelously oily Cyrus W. Kendall).

Eventually it turns out that Wendy Barrie’s character is in fact the killer — she was Ruth Summers, sister of the witness they rubbed out, and her motive was revenge — and Simon and Fernack, about to be arrested for the crimes themselves, get out of it by wiring Bremer’s office and broadcasting their confession to Johnny Summers’ murder and the frame-up of Fernack. The police arrest Reese, but Bremer goes out the fire escape — and is confronted outside by Ruth, and there’s a shoot-out in which they kill each other — not only an unexpectedly violent denouement for a Code-era film but one of the few instances I can think of in which a woman participated in a shoot-out to the death in a late-1930’s crime film. The moral ambiguity of Ruth Summers’ character — at once sympathetic and a murderess — would be enough to consider The Saint Takes Over at least proto-noir, but there’s more to it than that: the cinematographer, the virtually unknown Frank Redman, shoots it in the full-dress chiaroscuro style that would soon be associated with noir and director Jack Hively (a considerably livelier filmmaker than most of the people who had done the previous Saints) keeps the energy level high and avoids the longueurs most RKO directors fell into when they did thrillers.

For once the characters in this one seem to have real motivations and drives — they’re not just puppets being manipulated to create an interesting movie story — and Wendy Barrie’s character arc from typical movie socialite, turning down the advances of a man she’s secretly attracted to, to driven revenge figure to a genuinely remorseful death scene as she confesses all in Simon’s arms, is really powerful and gives this generally ill-used actress something powerful to do and some real emotional depths to sound — and there are at least some cracks in George Sanders’ legendary sang-froid as he bids her farewell … permanently. After RKO (temporarily) lost its rights to the Saint character and cooked up another series out of Michael Arlen’s The Gay Falcon, Sanders would make another movie called The Falcon Takes Over (third in the new series) rewritten from a Raymond Chandler novel, Farewell, My Lovely, and as William K. Everson put it, “Some of Philip Marlowe’s integrity even seemed to rub off on the superficial Falcon” — though here, even without an imprimatur from a writer later hailed as someone who transcended his origins in the pulps, Sanders turns in a first-rate performance in an original story by Lynn Root and Frank Fenton and shows he’s clearly warming up for the marvelous desperation he showed as the unjustly accused innocent — but suspicious-acting — man in the 1947 Douglas Sirk film noir Lured. — 10/23/10

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Iron Man 2 (Marvel/Paramount, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I watched a recently released DVD of a film I’d been waiting to see, Iron Man 2, which while not a bad movie was surprisingly mediocre. To its credit, it avoided the strained seriousness of the most recent entries in the Batman and Spider-Man series (am I the only one out here who regards Christopher Nolan’s Bat-movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Night, as pompous, pretentious, overlong bores?); unfortunately, it also avoided the exuberance of the two Fantastic Four movies which I found more entertaining than the common run of recent super-hero films (especially ones derived from the Marvel mythos).

One fascinating aspect of Iron Man 2 from a Zeitgeist point of view is that it finally got rid of the atavistic Capra-esque tic of anti-corporatism that still hung on in the first two films in the current Spider-Man cycle and at least began the process of turning its hero, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), into a full-fledged Ayn Randian mega-capitalist superman. In the opening scenes, Stark is giving a press conference and announces that as Iron Man — yes, he fully discloses his superhero identity (an interesting shift in this decade’s version of the superhero mythos after decades in which virtually every caped or hooded crusader from the comic books fought like the dickens to keep his or her normal human identity a secret) — he has successfully privatized world peace, and later he’s hauled before a Senate investigating committee (whose chair is played by a more corpulent, less hirsute Garry Shandling, of all people) and asked why he refuses to turn over the Iron Man suit to the U.S. government as a weapon. He basically says, as Howard Roark or Hank Rearden or John Galt would have, that the suit is his personal property and he’ll do what he likes with it. He also tells his girlfriend and confidante “Pepper” Potts (a monumentally overqualified Gwyneth Paltrow), “I’m bored with the liberal agenda now” — reflecting the mood of America as a whole in the year of the Tea Party.

To the extent that Iron Man 2 has a plot — even more than other recent superhero movies, it’s really just a slice of action porn and the expository scenes that set up each action sequence are even more dull and pointless than usual — it’s concerned with two main issues. One is Iron Man’s realization that palladium, the (real) rare-earth element at the core of his artificial heart, is slowly poisoning him — so he’s making half-hearted efforts to put his affairs in order and figure out how to continue the Stark Industries empire after he dies, while he’s also searching for a replacement element he can use in the device and soon realizes that only a heretofore unknown element will turn the trick. The other is Iron Man’s rivalry with Russian baddie Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, unrecognizable under a hoodie and with dreadlocks), son of a former business partner of Tony Stark’s father Howard (dead when the film begins but played by John Slattery in footage he supposedly left behind), who’s developed his own version of Iron Man’s “repulsor” technology in the form of electrical beams that radiate from his fingers and which he can manipulate like bullwhips. Vanko crashes the Grand Prix at Monaco (for some reason staged with 1970’s-era race cars) which Stark is driving in, and also appears to be in some kind of cahoots with Stark Industries’ principal competitor, Justin Hammer (portrayed as an old man in the Iron Man comics but made Tony Stark’s age here and played by Sam Rockwell), who’s ripped off the Iron Man technology and built a series of remote-controlled drone versions of the Iron Suit, into one of which he puts Iron Man’s friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, who took over this role after Terrence Howard got fired in a money dispute with the Marvel company — so just two years after the first Iron Man Howard is reduced to playing an assistant district attorney on Law and Order: Los Angeles, showing how little leverage mere actors have with the studios these days), with the result that Stark and Rhodes have to have an unwelcome high-tech battle neither of them want to fight (much the way Emperor Ming tricked Flash Gordon and his friend Prince Barin into a duel in one of the 1930’s Flash Gordon serials).

There’s nothing really wrong with Iron Man 2 — though some of the Robert Downey, Jr. quirks which attempt to humanize his character only make him seem dumb and annoying, like the kind of a guest who gets drunk at a party and puts a lampshade on his head, and like the first Iron Man this film features a sequence in which Downey is writhing on the floor, (temporarily) mortally wounded, that’s obviously intended as an evocation and a reminder of Downey’s own struggles with substance abuse and the real-life scrapes he got into before he went into recovery. It’s just that there’s nothing much right with it, either: the exposition scenes setting up the action just go on and on and on, and even the action, when it comes, is staged so unimaginatively it hardly seems worth the wait.

It’s the sort of modish corporate entertainment Hollywood churns out these days for budgets that could probably end poverty worldwide forever (the official estimate on Iron Man 2’s cost was $200 million), the sort of sequel that doesn’t really bring an interesting new point of view to the original (as what are probably the three best sequels in film history — The Bride of Frankenstein; Ivan the Terrible, Part 2; and The Godfather, Part 2 — brought to their originals): it just offers more, differing from the first Iron Man only about as much as the Big Mac does from the Quarter Pounder — and it’s ironic that Charles and I watched this the night we started running the last Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, which despite its being made in what was virtually the Stone Age of special effects is quite frankly a lot more fun and a lot better at mixing character with action and thrills.

The Last Flight (Warners as “First National,” 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Last Flight, an intriguing 1931 production by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag, with a screenplay by John Monk Saunders and Byron Morgan based on a novel by Saunders called Single Lady — which would have more accurately reflected what the film was about. The director was William, née Wilhelm, Dieterle, who after a career as an actor, later rising to director, in German films in the 1920’s (he played the role of the poet in Paul Leni’s Waxworks and both starred in and directed the marvelous 1928 film Sex in Chains), was brought to the U.S. to star in simultaneously filmed German-language versions of Warners’ English-language films (according to Robert Osborne, he played John Barrymore’s role as Captain Ahab in a German version of the 1930 Moby Dick), and he ended up assigned to direct The Last Flight after Howard Hawks, who had just done a World War I aviation film, The Dawn Patrol, based on a Saunders script, had a run-in with Jack Warner and/or Darryl Zanuck and got fired from it. (Hawks stayed at Warners for the time being, though, and in 1932 directed a smash hit for them, Tiger Shark, which they regularly remade thereafter.)

According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the Saunders novel was actually a compilation of short stories revolving around a character called “Nikki” (played in the film by Helen Chandler), a Frenchwoman living by her wits in Paris and attracting attention from various Americans. The film was Dieterle’s first directorial effort in English, and one wonders whether he had an astrologer cast charts for himself and the principal actors in his cast to determine the most propitious time to start shooting, as became a trademark of his during his glory years as a director in the late 1930’s. The film begins during the last stages of World War I, with Cary Lockwood (Richard Barthelmess, top-billed) and Shep Lambert (David Manners, reunited with his Dracula cast-mate Chandler) flying in a plane together. When their plane is damaged by German fire, Cary guides Shep down to a more-or-less successful crash landing: they survive, but Cary’s hands are badly burned while Shep develops a tic in one eye. They end up in a military hospital, and they’re released just after the war ends (shown by a dissolve between a plane propeller stopping and a clock striking 11) but told they will never be able to fly again.

They decide to stay in Europe and hook up with two other recovering pilots from the hospital, Bill Talbot (John — later Johnny — Mack Brown) and Francis (Elliot Nugent). All of them settle in Paris and spend most of their time drinking — one starts to wonder how, with no apparent source of income, they can keep covering their bar tabs — and they meet Nikki, natch, at a hotel bar they frequent. The film is considered historically important as one of the earliest cinematic treatments of the so-called “Lost Generation,” the Americans who lived in Europe for all or much of the 1920’s, and since the major novels about the Lost Generation by the names most usually associated with it — Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald — either hadn’t been written yet or had been written but not filmed — that may be right; certainly the characters seem “lost” in the sense that they do almost nothing of importance — they just drink, play jokes on each other and try to protect Nikki from the unwelcome advances of yet another American in Paris, Frink (Walter Byron, co-star with Gloria Swanson of the ill-fated Erich von Stroheim film Queen Kelly), a foreign correspondent for a New York newspaper. (This does begin to sound like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story; Frink, the villain of the piece, is the only character who actually has a job!)

In the film’s most bizarrely moving scene, Cary takes Nikki to the Père Lachaise cemetery and points out the graves of the luminaries buried there, including Chopin and Balzac (40 years after this film was made, Père Lachaise would become even more internationally famous as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, who died in Paris) and the two of them pick up heart-shaped stones which are supposed to be eternal tokens of love; miffed by a quarrel between them later on, he throws his out but she keeps hers. Just when it seems like this plot could be kept going forever without any real resolution — I didn’t know while I was watching the film that it was based on a series of short stories, but I should have been able to guess — Saunders has the put-out Cary decide to move from Paris to Lisbon and the other principals, including Nikki and Frink, all crash his train compartment and go there with him. Once there, they attend a bullfight (which is represented by horribly mismatched stock footage; the problem is that the stock was shot during the silent era at the then-standard 16 frames per second, and no one in Warners’ post-production department used any way of slowing down the apparent speed of the action — with the result that the fight, shot at 16 frames per second and projected at the sound standard speed of 24 frames per second, looks unnaturally fast and one wonders if both the toreros and the bulls are on speed) and Bill, out of a combination of drunkenness and idiot bravado, decides to leap into the bullring with the bull in full charge and wave his jacket at it like a cape. Needless to say, he’s gored and his injuries prove fatal.

Frink, who previously attempted to rape Nikki and got pulled off by Cary, confronts Cary with a gun he picked up from a shooting gallery at a carnival-like midway attached to the bull ring. Frink is about to shoot Cary when Francis, holding his own gun, saves Cary’s life by shooting and killing Frink, and then disappears into the dark (a liberty that marks this as a so-called “pre-Code” movie; after 1934 they would have to have him pay for his crime) — only Shep is caught in the crossfire and has a finely honed, moving death scene in which he compares his imminent demise to what happened to them when their plane crashed during the war. So Cary and Nikki end up a couple simply because they’re the only two principals left alive at the end. The Last Flight is an interesting movie, stylishly directed by Dieterle and unusually visually rich for a Warners film of its vintage, though it’s not all that well cast (Cary Grant, using his original name of Archie Leach, played in a stage version produced on Broadway right after the movie came out and one aches for the thought of him in the film as well even though having one future superstar in the cast might have thrown the ensemble out of balance).

While Saunders was clearly more interested in the men of his story and the bonding between them than he was in creating a coherent female character, Helen Chandler acts the part of Nikki surprisingly well — anyone who knows her primarily as the almost unimaginably stiff female lead in Dracula will be surprised by her work here, and while this film would have been even stronger with (dare I say her name again in a context like this?) Barbara Stanwyck in the role, Chandler is quite good, nailing the character’s transitory emotions and quirks and still making her come across as a credible human being. The Lost Flight is one of those really odd movies that doesn’t seem to have generated many imitators — at least partly because stories set in Europe quickly became unfashionable thanks to the twin whammies of sound and the Depression — though Dieterle’s visually rich style, and in particular his love of elaborate montage transitions, did leave their mark on the Warners house style.