Sunday, April 14, 2024

Zulu Dawn


Zulu Dawn

Directed by
Douglas Hickox
Written by Cy Enfield & Anthony Story
Starring Burt Lancaster, Peter O'Toole, Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott, John Mills, Michael Jaystrom, Bob Hoskins, David Bradley Ron Lacey, Freddie Jones, Simon Sabela
IMDB Entry

I generally don't like prequels.They are most often a way to cash in on a successful film and add nothing to it. But Zulu Dawn is an exception.

Zulu, from 1964, was the dramatization of the Battle of Roark's Drift, where a small garrison of British soldiers held off attacks by an entire army of Zulu soldiers (called impi). Zulu Dawn dramatized the battler of Isandlwana earlier the same day. While Roark's Drift showed the heroism of the British soldiers, Isandlwana showed the incompetence of their leaders.

The movie is set in 1879. The army in the Cape Colony in South Africa is eager to conquer the Zulu nation, led by the king Cetshwayo (Simon Sabela). Sir Henry Bartle Frere (John Mills), a British diplomat, wanted to annex Zululand into the Cape Colony, despite the fact that the powers in London forbid it. With the connivance of the head of the armed forces in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole), he gives Cetshwayo an arrogant ultimatum that was designed to be rejected. When it is, he does, he declares war and Chelmsford leads the army to disaster.

The British didn't take the Zulu army seriously, Frere calling them "a bunch of savages armed with sticks." The description failed to account for the fact that they were well trained in battle and capable of tactical planning the equal of any European force. 

They stopped at Isandlwana, a large South African kopje.* Despite being urged to do so, Chelmsford refused to circle the wagons for protection. He later broke a cardinal rule of military strategy and split his forces to go look for the Zulu army.

It turned out, they were massed outside of Isandlwana and ready to attack. They charged. Though armed only with spears, the thousands of impis quickly overwhelmed the British troops. 

Ammunition was poorly distributed Soldiers were issued only a limited number of rounds of ammunition.  The rest were in locked boxes, that had been screwed shut and there were very few screwdrivers to open them -- and they had a rule that you could only open one box of ammunition at once, and only for your own unit.

The result was perhaps the worst defeat of a British army during the Victorian era.**

The performances are good, though none really have a chance to develop characters except for Peter O'Toole, who plays his General Chelmsford with perfect arrogance.

The movie is long on spectacle. There were thousands of extras, making an impressive sight when the finally appear. The downside is that it is slow moving, especially in the beginning, when they are setting everything up. Still, it's a good dramatization of a major event in UK history. 

*A steep hill that stands above the surrounding plain. They are common in the area.

**The movie left out one of the most interesting aspects of the battles:  while it was raging, there was an eclipse of the sun.  The Zulus were not fazed by it, though.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Renegade Nell

Renegade Nell

Created by
Sally Wainwright
Starring Louise Harland, Adrian Lester, Nick Mohammed, Enyi Okoronkwo, Frank Dilland, Alice Kremelberg, Jake Dunn,
IMDB Entry

My cable company gave us Disney+ for free. I wasn't all that interested -- I'm not big on Star Wars and would much rather watch Aardman or Laika for animation. But free is free and I started looking around. After someone mentioned it, I started on Renegade Nell, which is superb.

The show is set in the early years of the 18th century.  Nell Jackson (Louise Harland) is returning home after her husband has been killed in a war. She stumbles upon robbery by the notorious highwayman Isambard Tully (Frank Dillane). When he tries to rob her, something miraculous happens: a tiny light goes into her mouth, and Nell can now stop bullets in the air and turn invisible.  Tully is forced to let her go.

Her home village is terrorized by Thomas Blanchford (Jake Dunn), the son of the local lord,  who goes around raising hell in the village. When a prank goes wrong, Nell's father is killed and she goes to Thomas's father for justice. Thomas pulls out a pistol and kills his father, making him lord, and then loudly blames Nell for the murder. His sister Sofia (Alice Kremelberg) witnesses it, but backs up Thomas's story. Nell grabs her two sisters and goes on the run, turning to robbery to survive and are helped by Blancheford's groom, a former slave names Rassalas (Enyi Okoronkwo).

Meanwhile, the Earl of Poynton (Adrian Lester), who urged Thomas to kill his father, starts using occult means to plot against Queen Ann. And Nell discovers the source of her own powers:  a sprite named Billy Blind (Nick Mohammad), who was sent to help her, but doesn't know by whom.

This is a tour de force by Louise Harland. Nell is excellent -- funny, heroic, and principled. I had seen her before as the ditzy cousin Orla in Derry Girls. There's no sign of that here, and she handles the role with aplomb.

Adrian Lester, who came to my attention as the head of the con men on Hustle*, makes an excellent villain, with dangerous magical powers. Frank Dillane makes Tully a charming and attractive rogue, fully capable of surprising you at every step.

The show was created and written by Sally Wainwright, whose won several British Academy Television Awards.

One season is on Disney+ and there's talk of another.** It should be great viewing.***


*Having recently been rewatching Hustle, it was a surprise to recognize him.

**The final shot, which shouldn't be a surprise, makes it possible.

***The original title of the show was The Ballad of Renegade Nell. I find that quite reminiscent of "The Ballad of Eskimo Nell," a poem that is the very antithesis of the Disney image and may have been a factor in the change.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Bad Sister

Directed by
Hobart Henley
Written by Raymond L. Schrock, Tom Reed, Edwin H. Knopf from a novel by Booth Tarkenton
Starring Conrad Nagel, Sidney Fox, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Zasu Pitts, Charles Winninger, Slim Summerville, David Durant
IMDB Entry

It's often fun to see the early efforts of big name movie stars. Bad Sister shows two of the best.

Marianne Madison (Sidney Fox) is the bad girl of the title, a wild young woman who is out for a good time. She sees several men, most notably, the physician Dr. Lindley (Conrad Nagel), who asks her to marry him. But she puts it off when the charming Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart) comes to town, promising much. He says he's a businessman planning to build a factory in their town. He flatters Marianne's father (Charles Winninger) into investing, and he convinces others to join him as soon as he gets a letter from back East confirming Corliss's bona fides. Meanwhile, Marianne's sister Laura (Bette Davis) is secretly in love with Lindley. Corliss sweet talks Marianne into forging a letter from her father approving of the deal, and several businessmen invest. Then Corliss convinces Marianne to elope with him and quickly abandons her. It's discovered that he was a con man.

This was Bette Davis's film debut. She  hated her performance and thought at first it would kill her career before it started. The role is pretty bland and the production company criticized her "plain" appearance. Luckily, she kept working until she had a break with Of Human Bondage a few years later.

Bogart's role was his third. He makes a good villain; modern audiences can probably see his true colors early on, but he comes off as smooth and trustworthy, just like a con man has to be. 

This was also Sidney Fox's first film. She was the mistress of studio head Carl Laemmle Jr., which probably had something to do with her casting. However, she does a respectable job overall. Sadly, she only appeared in a handful of films after this and died in 1942 after an overdose of sleeping pills. Lead actor Conrad Nagle had started out in the silent days and continued to act regularly into the late 50s.

The great ZaSu Pitts provides comic relief as Minnie, the family's servant and cook and Charles Winninger and Slim Summerville also had long careers.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Hustle (TV)



Created by
 Tony Jordan
Starring Adrian Lester, Marc Warren, Robert Vaughn, Robert Glenister, Jaime Murray, Rob Jarvis
IMDB Entry

Confidence men can be fascinating. And the UK TV series Hustle shows them at their best.

It shows a group of people who are experts at the long con.* Mikey "Mickey Bricks" Stone (Adrian Lester) is the leader. Danny Blue (Marc Warren) is an expert on the short con** who wants to get in on the more lucrative long con. Albert Stroller (Robert Vaughn) is the roper/outside man, who entices the victim into the con, while the fixer, Ash Morgan (Robert Glenister), takes care of the technical aspects. Finally, Stacie Monroe (Jaime Murray) provides sex appeal as needed. There's also Eddie (Rob Jarvis), whose bar is a meeting place for the rest and who often ends up scammed by them -- though they do consider him family if anyone else tries it.

The gang goes after people who are greedy and unpleasant*** and Mickey has a rule against pulling a con against a decent person. He is the mastermind, planning every step and contingency.  Danny is more free form, brash and overconfident, making things up as they go along. Albert is smoother than silk and perfectly charming throughout.

The cons rarely go completely smoothly, and there are even cases where Mickey and the rest are conned themselves. What makes the show so interesting are the plot twists which you don't see coming,**** but which are perfectly set up. Sometimes a random scene turns out to be vital to the plot. The characters will also occasionally break the fourth wall to address the audience about some of the finer points of their plan.

It's currently on TubiTV.  Check it out.

*There are several variations of these, the most famous example being in The Sting. The movie shows a real-life con -- the Wire -- that was used for many years and portrayed in the classic account of con men, Davide Maurer's The Big Con, The plot is based entirely on the description of the Wire in the book. Maurer sued over the similarities -- which were considerable -- but the screenwriter insists he wrote it on his own.

**Small-time cons like car sharping, 3-card monte, the badger game, the pigeon drop, or the Spanish prisoner. These take a mark for a quick, but usually small, score. Long cons can take people for thousands.

***One, for instance, kills a cat to buy up its owner's property.

****I remember seeing one and saying "They're not conning him! They're conning someone else!"

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Roman Scandals

Roman Scandals

Directed by
Frank Tuttle
Written by William Anthony McGuire, based on a story by William F. Kaufmann
Starring Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting, Gloria Stuart, Edward Arnold, David Manners, Verree Teasdale, Willard Robinson
IMDB Entry

Eddie Cantor was a big film star of the early 1930s, best know for his big eyes.* And one of his biggest hits was Roman Scandals.

Eddie (Eddie Cantor) is a jack-of-all-trades living in the midwest city of  West Rome. Warren Finley Cooper (Willard Robinson) is a millionaire who runs the town by bribery, and who had a fixation on ancient Rome. Eddie stays in one of his museums and becomes an expert on Rome. When he crosses Cooper by stopping his attempt to tear down peoples' homes to build a jail, he is kicked out of town. As he walks away, he suddenly finds himself in ancient Rome. He is sold as a slave to Josephus (David Manners), who frees him and needs his help to rescue Princess Sylvia (Gloria Stuart). Eddie -- now called Oedepus -- runs afoul of the Emperor Valerius (Edward Arnold) and is appointed his food taster, a very risky job, since the Empress Agrippa (Verree Teasdale) keeps trying to poison her husband.

The plot is slight, mostly a vehicle for Cantor's jokes, some dated, others still funny. You can see this as his star turn and he makes the most of it.

Slave Auction Scene
One of the best known sequences is the musical number portraying a Roman slave auction. Choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley, it shows a group of woman chained and nude and looking very distressed. Their long blonde wigs keeps things PG rated and the woman -- billed as the Goldwyn Girls -- included future stars Lucille Ball** and Paulette Goddard. Another Berkeley touch was that a woman falls to her death at the end, presaging "Lullaby of Broadway."

Given the time, it's not surprising that there is a blackface number. This one, however, is relatively innocuous other than the makeup itself. Cantor doesn't attempt any of the demeaning mannerisms usually portrayed and it really wouldn't have been any different if he hadn't smeared on the makeup.

Edward Arnold had a long career, often playing heavies, but occasionally the hero. Gloria Stuart, a

The songs were written by the great but underappreciated team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin.


*He often showed up in Warner Brothers cartoons

**Lucy has recounted that they actually were nude during the scene.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Behind Stone Walls

Directed by
Frank R. Strayer
Written by George B. Seitz
Starring Edward J. Nugent, Priscilla Dean, Robert Elliott, Ann Cristy, Robert Ellis
IMDB Entry 

I have been concentrating on pre-code films and film noir, primarily because there is a lot of good stuff out there if you seek it out. Behind Stone Walls is interesting because it had elements of both.

Esther Clay (Pricilla Dean) is married to the DA John Clay (Robert Elliott). She is also having an affair with his friend, fellow lawyer Jack Keene (Robert Elliott). When Keene breaks it off, Esther, enraged, shoots him. Her son Bob (Edward J. Nugent) comes upon the scene and goes to protect his mother. She escapes, but he is captured and charged with the crime. His father offers to resign as DA and take his case, but Bob refuses, so his father prosecutes and sends him to prison. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Peg Harper (Ann Cristy) in convinced of Bob's innocence and sets out to prove it.

The pre-code element is the outright acknowledgement of the adultery. It's portrayed without any hiding the fact. But it also fills the film noir penchant for portraying an evil, scheming woman.

Esther is short-tempered and definitely evil. She has no compunction in shooting Keene when he tells her it's over.  She doesn't care when her son*goes to prison for her crimes and has no compunction at trying to kill again.

The movie does not have the shadowy images that gave noir its name. It's also quite stagy; most of the scenes could easily work as a play. The pacing is also a bit slow. But the situation is a fascinating one. Bob refuses to rat out his mother, and the mother takes advantage of it all. She's even blackmailed by Keene's valet, who knows the truth. Esther is a prime example of a noir femme fatale.

*Actually, her stepson, but Bob doesn't realize that, since she married his father when he was still an infant. This is used as an excuse to show why she has no motherly love for the boy.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland

Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland

by George Gamow

Twentieth Century physics became a little daunting to the layman, with with relativity and quantum theory and the Big Bang. George Gamow decided to make it a bit easier with his book, Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland.

He created Mr. Tompkins, a middle ages banker type who decides to attend a professors lectures on the newer concepts on physics of the age. The lecture is boring and Tompkins falls asleep and starts dreaming.

The dreams cover various topics. The professor is there to guide him by showing how things work. It starts out showing the expanding universe. The key is that the setup allows a minimum of lecture and shows the concept with concrete examples that are easy to grasp. Quantum theory is shown by the example of a pool room, where the balls move in quantum paths, so that they appear to be in multiple places as they move. 

Tomkins is not a deep character; he is there to ask questions that the professor can explain to him.Still there is some character development as Tompkins finally proposes to the professor's daughter.

Speed of Light

My favorite were two chapters where the speed of light is only 10 mph. Cars and bicycles contract as they try to go faster, but when on a train, the telephone poles along the tracks get closer together. They also show how tune dilation works.

The book was a hit, and soon other volumes followed.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Call Her Savage


Call Her Savage


Directed by John Francis Dillon
Written by Edwin J. Burke, from a novel by Tiffany Thayer
Starring Clara Bow, Gilbert Roland, Thelma Todd, Monroe Owsley, Antony Jowitt
IMDB Entry

Call Her Savage is one example of the freedom allowed in pre-code Hollywood. There are several elements that soon became unacceptable once the Hayes Office took over, but even without them, it's a very strong story overall.

The movie starts out with a preamble in the 19th Century west, as well as a moral lesson that really doesn't have much to do with the rest. Eventually, we are introduced to Nasa Singer (Clara Bow), the granddaughter of the man in the early scenes. Nasa is a woman with a mind of her own, and plenty of courage -- when faced with a rattlesnake, she takes out a whip and drives it back. The scene is witnessed by Moonglow (Gilbert Roland), a half-native man who clearly is enamoured of her. Her father, though, tired of her temper and antics, sends her to a finishing school in Chicago.

Nasa, free of her father's disapproval, has a high time partying in the city. Lawrence Crosby (Monroe Owsley), to get back at his cheating girlfriend Sunny De Lane (Thelma Todd), asks Nasa to marry him out of spite. She accepts. She quickly finds out he didn't love her when he stays away on their wedding night to play poker (possibly). Crosby leaves her, but lets her use his money as long as she wants. It's a good thing, since her father completely cuts her off. She lives large until she gets a note that Crosby is dying and rushes to New Orleans to say goodbye, even though she hates him. A month later, she gives birth to a baby.

Nasa goes through ups and downs, some tragic, some comical, until she finally discovers her shameful heritage.

The movie is usually mentioned today for its portrayal of homosexuality, in the form of a scene in a nightclub where two men perform a risque song,* but that only lasts a few moments and has no bearing on anything.  There is also the taboo subject of mixed race and it's more than suggested that Crosby is suffering from tertiary syphilis.

On the other hand, while it is certainly entertaining, there are plenty of plot holes. Nasa's pregnancy, for instance, is never mentioned until the baby is born, one month after seeing Crosby for the last time, and she clearly is not eight months pregnant then. 

This was Bow's next-to-last film. It was a success, as was her next film, But Bow had grown tired of acting and retired the next year.

Gilbert Roland had a very long career in Hollywood, usually as a Latin lover and the go-to guy if they needed a handsome Mexican in the film or TV show.

Thelma Todd is best known today as Groucho Marx's "romantic" interest in Horsefeathers and Monkey Business.**


*They are more like modern day drag queens, though not in woman's clothes. That was how homosexuality was perceived at the time: men with a "female" personality.

**Her death is still an unsolved Hollywood mystery.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

William Boyett (actor)


William Boyett as -- what else? -- a cop
Actors are, more often than not, typecast. Few were typecast more than William Boyett. 

Boyett went into acting around 1950 and started appearing in TV shows. His second role was that of a detective, and he was quickly typecast. Looking at the characters names, you find "Grand Jury Bailiff," "Policeman Cooper," "Agent Lansing," "Special Agent Bob Marshall,""Lt. Keith," "Military Policeman Escort," "Policeman," "Constable Malloy," "State Trooper," "Pier Cop," "Sgt. Geary," "Detective Sergeant Harris," and others (including roles as military officers).

He got his break as a regular in Highway Patrol, where he played Officer Johnson, Broderick Crawford's assistant.* He appeared in over 60 episodes.

When the show ended, he went back to being a cop.  He did several episodes of Dragnet, and Jack Webb liked him enough to give him another regular role as Sgt. "Mac" MacDonald in Adam-12, Mac was the boss of  Malloy and Reed and appeared in more episodes than anyone but them and the woman who did the voice of the despatcher.

After the show ended, he continued to act in TV, including in Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he played a policeman. You kind of wonder if this became a bit of a joke in Hollywood: "We need a cop, let's see if Boyett is available."

But Boyett was clearly a professional, and always was able to do his role believably. Spotting him in old TV shows is plenty of fun.

*And often carried the narrative, since Crawford was an alcoholic and had troubles playing the part.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Hildegarde Withers (Part II)

 Edna May Oliver left the series after Murder on a Honeymoon, but RKO decided to continue the series. They were cheap to make and could fill out a double feature bill. So they cast other actresses and forged on.

Murder on a Bridal Path

Murder on a Bridal Path
Directed by
William Hamilton, Edward Killy
Written by Dorothy Yost, Thomas L.  Lennon, Edmudh H. North
Starring Helen Broderick, James Gleason, Sheila Terra, Willie Best
IMDB Entry

The choice for Hildegarde in the next film was Helen Broderick. It was decent casting.  Broderick*was most prominent at the time for her role in the classic Astaire and Rodgers musical Top Hat, where she played Ginger Rogers's best friend and confidante and the inadvertent cause of the central misunderstanding. 

The movie announces its plot in its title.  A woman dies in a horse riding accident, but Hildegarde realizes it's murder and Inspector Piper (James Gleason) is forced to admit she is right. It goes to an estate on Long Island, where the various suspects are gathered for a weekend and Hildegarde has to unravel the mystery

Hildegarde fits Broderick well. She was already known for her sardonic and dry sense of humor, and they used it to good effect. She is less bristly than Oliver's portrayal, but still keeps the character interesting.

The movie also features Willie Best as a horse's groom. As usual for the time, he's portrayed as slow and simple, and does the best he can with the part. Hildegarde treats him straightforwardly and accepts his answers to her question.

The movie never is more than the routine, though. Very little stick in the mind.

The Plot Thickens

The Plot Thickens

Directed by Ben Holmes
Written by Jack Townley
Starring James Gleason, Zasu Pitts
IMDB Entry

Broderick did only the single film before moving on, so RKO looked elsewhere, settling on Zasu Pitts.

The plot involves a murder in the park when a man tries to keep his girlfriend (a witness) out of it, muddying the waters by moving the body and confusing Piper (James Gleason). At the same time, a priceless silver cup is stolen.  Hildegarde sees through the ploy and unveils the killer.

I will say that The Plot Thickens is the weakest entry in the series. It's just a forgettable mystery and I have a hard time remembered a single scene.

I've been a fan of Zasu Pitts for years, ever since I saw her in reruns of The Gale Storm Show. She is miscast as Hildegarde. Her persona is usually described as "fluttery"** and is at odds with Hildegarde's more sarcastic mein. The lines just don't have the bite they should and her mannerisms changed from formidable to a bit ditzy. It is clear from the staging of her entrance that they were trying to build her up.

Still the interactions between Hildegarde and Piper are nice to watch.

Forty Naughty Girls

Forty Naughty Girls

Directed by Edward F. Cline
Written by John Grey, Harold Kusell
Starring James Gleason, Zasu Pitts, Marjorie Lord
IMDB Entry

The final entry in the series was an improvement overall. Zasu Pitts wasn't trying as hard to emulate the actresses who had originated the role, and found her own style, and it looks like it had a bigger budget.

The movie, like so many in the thirties, is set in a theater. A press agent -- something of a letch -- is murdered just before the performance of the musical that gives the movie its name. Hildegarde and Piper are in the audience and start to investigate, and when someone is murdered on stage, things get even more serious.

At this point, they altered the character to fit more closely into Zasu Pitts's talents. Hildergarde is less snarky and a bit more ditzy, but still manages to solve the case. 

There must have been a bigger budget, since they do show a Broadway show with a chorus line and original songs. And the film was directed by Edward Cline, W.C. Field's favorite director, which may account for its improvement. Cast members of note was Marjorie Lord, who played Danny Thomas's second wife on Make Room for Daddy.***

The series of films ended with this one. Everyone seemed to have lost interest. Pitts continued as a character actress, and Gleason continued as a supporting character, usually a cop, in the Falcon**** series and Joe Palooka. It was never a strong or memorable series, but there was some delightful interaction between Hildegarde and Piper.

*Her son, Broderick Crawford, won an Oscar for All the King's Men and became a TV star with Highway Patrol in the late 50s.

**Her mannerisms inspired the design of  Olive Oyl in the early Fleischer Popeye cartoons.

***The first wife, Jean Hagen, left the show after three seasons. The producers wrote her out by having her die, the first time a TV sitcom character did so. (Of course, the idea of her divorcing was never going to fly in 1956.)

****Note to linguists: in the 30s and 40s, "falcon" was pronounced "faw-con." As time went on, the "l" began to be pronounced, so nowadays it's pronounced "fal-con." One example of how pronunciation changes to match odd spelling.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Hildegarde Withers (Part I)

Hildegarde Withers was a fictional detective/schoolteacher in a series of books by Stuart Palmer in the early 30s, popular enough to be the basis of a movie series of light mysteries. I'll be covering the series in the next two weeks, starting with the first three starring Edna May Oliver.*

Penguin Pool Murder

The Penguin Pool Murder
Directed by George Archainbaud, Ray Lissner
Written by Lowell Brentano (story), Willis Goldbeck (screenplay), based on a novel by Stuart Palmer
Starring Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Donald Cook, Mae Clarke, Robert Armstrong, Edgar Kennedy
IMDB Entry

Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) is taking her elementary school class to the aquarium, when they find a body in the Penguin Pool. Detective Oscar Piper (James Gleason) is called in and Hildegarde is there to assist. The body belongs to Parker (Guy Usher), who has caught his wife Gwen (May Clarke) thinking of leaving him for Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong). Piper resents Hildegarde's meddling, but as she is always pointing out clues he missed, he tolerates her.

The joy of the movie (and the series) is the interplay between Hildegarde and Piper. Oliver plays her as  sarcastic and somewhat cynical, with a sharp tongue, always ready for an insult. Gleason is a perfect foil, trying to run an investigation, but finding his conclusions being objected to by Hildegarde. He gives the appearance of wanting her to leave him alone, but, despite his antipathy, he doesn't dismiss her words out of hand and, in the end, shows affection to her, and proposes marriage.

One interesting note is that Hildegarde's class is integrated and a Black child is shown to be smart and conscientious. It was a rare type of portrayal of the era.

You can also spot Edgar Kenney -- the master of the slow burn -- and Mae Clarke, best known for getting a grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy. Robert Armstrong was prominent in King Kong, as Carl Denham, who leads the expedition to find Kong.

Murder on the Blackboard

Murder on the Blackboard
Directed by George Archainbaud
Written by Willis Goldbeck from a novel by Stuart Palmer
Starring Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Bruce Cabot, Regis Toomey, Edgar Kennedy
IMDB Entry

The movie succeeded well enough that RKO did a sequel the next year.  Hildegarde is teaching at her school when she finds a body of Louise Halloran. Piper is called, but the body disappears.** Various suspects show up, all with reason to kill the woman. 

Once again, the movie focuses on the sharp-tongued Hildegarde and her exasperated cop friend. She is still a memorable character, even if the mystery is also somewhat routine.

Edgar Kennedy repeats his role of Sgt. Donohue, and is shown giving his famous "slow burn" expression. He had a long career in films, starring in a series of short films and most prominent to modern fans at the lemonade vendor in Duck Soup. Bruce Cabot was also in King Kong as the boyfriend of Fay Wray.

I did note that the schoolchildren no longer showed an integrated classroom.

Murder on a Honeymoon

Murder on a Honeymoon

Directed by Lloyd Corrigan
Written by Seton I. Miller, Robert Benchley from a novel by Seaton Palmer
Starring  Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Lola Lane, George Meeker, Leo G. Carrol, Willie Best
IMDB Entry

This time, Hildegarde is traveling to Catalina Island. On the short flight from the mainland, one of the passengers gets sick and dies. The local police are uninterested, but Hildegarde calls Piper, who shows up because the murdered man was a key witness against a crime lord. There are multiple suspects, including Hildegarde herself, plus a Honeymooning couple Kay (Dorothy Libaire) and Marvin Deving (Harry Ellerby), film director Joseph B. Tate (Leo G. Carroll). With the help of a hotel porter Willie (Willie Best), Hildegarde dives into the mystery in her usual snarky way, while Piper tolerates her because she is interested in the truth.

The plot here is slightly better, and the dialog is stronger, probably because Robert Benchley contributed. Hildegard's tongue is sharper and the dialog was more witty.

The movie also featured Willie Best, one of the few Black actors who was successful in Hollywood at the time. Unfortunately, his character had to hew to the stereotype of being slow and childlike. Quite a change from the performance of the young man in the first movie. But at least Hildegarde accepts him and asks for his help.

Modern viewers probably spot Leo G. Carroll. Carroll was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, and had TV success as Topper and The Man From U.N.C.L.E

After this film, Edna May Oliver left the series. But it did well enough for RKO that they brought it back with different actresses playing Hildegarde.***  I'll talk about them next week.

*In the early days of sound, it was possible for women who were not Hollywood beauties to star in films. Nowadays, Oliver would be shunted into supporting roles.

**Despite the fact they were going to get married at the end of the first film, that is completely ignored in this one and is never mentioned in the series.

***Gleason kept playing Oscar Piper.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Vampire Bat

The Vampire Bat (1933)

Directed by Frank R. Strayer
Written by Edward T. Lowe, Jr.
Starring Lionel Atwell, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Dwight Frye, Maude Eburne
IMDB Entry

Hollywood loves to jump on the bandwagon. And when Dracula became a massive hit, other studios started making movies with vampires in them. The Vampire Bat was one of the better examples.

The village of Kleinschloss is suffering a rash of people dying from mysterious blood loss and suspect a vampire. Kerl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas), the chief of police, thinks the whole idea preposterous and meets with Dr. Otto van Niemann (Lionel Atwell), who cares fpr the victims. They are visited by Hermann Gleib (Dwight Frye), a strange man who liked bats, calling them "soft like a cat."

There are more attacks and things seem to point to Gleib as the vampire.  The townspeople get out the pitchforks and hunt down Gleib. But the real story is not what they think.

This is a pretty routine vampire flick and the twist should be obvious. As for the cast, this seems to be Lionel Atwell month at Great But Forgotten. But it should be clear to the viewer that he is behind all this, though not in the way you might expect.

Melvyn Douglas became a respected actor thirty years later, getting two Oscars and several nominations. He's quite good as the skeptical chief of police. 

Dwight Frye was the go to actor to play madmen during the 30s, appearing in Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein,* and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, with walk ons in other Frankenstein films as Universal. He also appeared in the first version of The Maltese Falcon as Wilmer.

Fay Wray was once again paired with Atwell after their success with Doctor X

*Brought back as as a different character, since he had died in Frankenstein.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Doctor X

Doctor X

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin from a play by Howard W. Comstock
Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wran, Lee Tracy.
IMDB Entry

It's rare that a sequel is better known than its original.  Doctor X  is usually overlooked for its sequel (though it's not really one), The Return of Doctor X because it shows up in Humphrey Bogart's filmography as the only horror movie he made. But the original is worth seeking for several reason.

Women are being murdered in New York City every month, when there's a full moon. The victims are strangled and then cannibalized.  Police are baffled, but reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) and the police see Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) as suspicious, and that the killer might be connected with his Academy of Surgical Research. He asks the cops to have him investigate first at his estate on Long Island. Taylor -- a practical joker as well as a reporter -- sneaks in and meets Joanne Xavier (Fay Wray), Dr. Xavier's daughter.* Xavier devises an experiment to find the killer, but when someone is murdered, the mystery deepens.

The interesting thing is that the movie was originally in color, using one of the two-strip technicolor processes.** Warner Brother/First  National, who had struck it big with sound pictures three years earlier, hoped that technicolor would give it an equivalent boost. But that didn't happen. The extra expense didn't improve the box office enough to make it worthwhile, though it was successful.

The appearance is different from later versions of technicolor. The two-strip process was decent at showing flesh tones, but everything had an orange cast and it was overall quite dark. Certainly nothing to make the colors pop.

Lee Tracy seemed to specialize in breezy reporter types.*** Atwill is once again a sinister presence, and it's fun to see Fay Wray without a giant ape.

The movie does set up a nice red herring to obscure the identity of the killer, but one that does not come out of nowhere.

Director Michael Curtiz soon became a top director at Warner Brothers, notably for White ChristmasYankee Doodle Dandy, and Casablanca.


*It's interesting that at her very first entrance, she screams, reminiscent of her most iconic role, where she screams nonstop.

**When I first watched it, it struck me as a bad example of colorizing a film.

***He played Hildy Johnson in the original Broadway production of The Front Page.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Sphinx

The Sphinx

Directed by
Phil Rosen
Written by Albert DeMond
Starring Lionel Atwell, Sheila Terry, Theodore Newton, Luis Alberni
IMDB Entry

Pre-code movies are a mixed bag and many could not be made today, not because of censorship, but because audiences wouldn't accept the contrivances. The Sphinx is probably too contrived to fly now, but it is a solid bit of film noir.

It starts as a janitor (Luis Alberni) is working at night and encounters a man, who asks him for a match, and then the time. The janitor obliges and, after the man leaves, discovers a corpse.

The man is identified as Jerome Breen (Lionel Atwell) and he's quickly apprehended and taken to trial. It seems an open-and-shut case, except Breen is a mute and a doctor testifies he has paralysis of the vocal cord and cannot possibly speak. He is acquitted.

But reporter Jack Burton (Theodore Newton) is convinced that Breen committed the murder and goes to investigate. He soon spots a pattern in the murder of several representatives of investment firm. At the same time, his girlfriend, Jerry Crane (Sheila Terry) finds Breen fascinating. Not believing him a murderer, she starts to spend time with him.*  

Now, today, you'd just think that Breen is faking it and that the courtroom testimony about his voice was faked. But in the movie, there's another explanation which, though certainly cliched, comes as a surprise that ties together all of Breen's behavior.

Lionel Atwell was a solid star in the 30s and 40s, best known today as the one-armed Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein.**  He ranged from romantic lead to character actor. Leads Theodore "Ted" Newton and Shiela Terry had successful careers, but never really made an impact. The director, Phil Rosen, was busy and prolific, but not in anything major or well-known today.

This is a production of Monogram Pictures, one of the poverty row studios of the 30s, makers of low-budget films, usually with new or washed up talent. It's clear that the movie was made quickly and with a minimum of sets, but that doesn't detract from it.


*He "talks" to her using a pad of paper.

**Mostly because of Kenneth Mars's parody of him in Young Frankenstein.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

The Killers

Directed by
Robert Siodmak
Screenplay by Anthony Veiller, from a story by Ernest Hemingway
Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Virginia Christine, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Charles Mcgraw, William Conrad
IMDB Entry

During his lifetime, Ernest Hemingway was not happy with the way Hollywood treated his work.* But there was one movie that he approved of, saying "It is a good picture and the only good picture ever made of a story of mine."  That movie was The Killers.

The story starts out as a couple of shady characters Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw) show up in a diner in Brentwood, NJ. They make no bones about the fact that they are killers and looking for Pete Lund (Burt Lancaster), who is working as a gas station attendant. When he doesn't show as usual, they seek him out and kill him. Lund is resigned to the outcome.

Lund had an insurance policy and it intrigues insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) when the money goes to a hotel maid who barely remembers Lund. It turns out the Lund was a former boxer Ole Anderson, who had to quit once he broke his hand.  Reardon interviews a friend of Anderson's, Police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levine), who starts to fill things in. Sam's wife Lilly (Virginia Christine) dated Ole, but she was thrown over when Ole met Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), an enticing femme fatale.  When Kitty is found with a stolen brooch, Ole claims he was the guilty party and is sent to prison for it. Once out, he joins in with a payroll robbery planned by Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). From there on, things get complicated.

The story is strong and it's easy to get caught up as Reardon slowly uncovers the mystery. This was Lancaster's first role and he makes a strong impression as a man who's impulsive and under the spell of Kitty. This was also the first big role for Ava Gardner, but the part doesn't give her a lot to do other than be beautiful. It's not shown why she has such a power over men and really doesn't get any chance to act until nearly the end of the movie.

Edmond O'Brien is fine as an insurance investigator** and Sam Jaffee also stands out as the policeman and friend of Anderson.

The movie mad stars of Lancaster and Gardner. The director wanted actors who were not well known for the parts, so audiences didn't have any preconceptions.

The movie is well regarded in noir circles and is worth seeking out.

*One of the best movies made from his novel was To Have and Have Not, but that was the opposite. Director Howard Hawks, a fishing buddy of Hemingway, said he could make a good movie of his worst novel. Hemingway asked what novel Hawks thought was his worst and the answer was To Have an Have Not. Hemingway agreed, but the result was a film classic, mostly because Hawks jettisoned nearly all of the original story.

**He later played an insurance investigator, on the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar for a few years. I wonder if there was any connection; this movie could have been a Johnny Dollar plot.