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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Barbara Shelley is the Cat Girl (1957)

To Carcass Me Is To Tempt Death!

Cat Girl (1957) is a B&W pastiche of every ‘Old Dark House’ story ever filmed and Val Lewton’s, The Cat People (1942), with the poster’s tag line referring directly back to that film. Directed by Alfred Shaughnessy, it has a suitably dark and spooky atmosphere, but it is most notable for the sharp performance by Barbara Shelley who realistically expresses both the fear and carnal bloodlust that results when her family curse consumes her.

Barbara Shelley, John Lee, Patricia Webster, and Jack May

Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) returns to her family’s ancestral home at the request of her uncle Edmund Brant (noted Shakespearean actor, Ernest Milton) to discuss her future inheritance, not knowing that it is actually the 700 year-old Brant curse. In tow, Leonora has brought along her calculating husband, Richard (Jack May) and their friends, perpetually drunk Allen (John Lee) and his wife, Cathy (Patricia Webster), who is in an on-going affair with Richard.

But, even before we arrive at the house, there are signs the Leonora may not be completely stable. Stopping at a pub, she is almost catatonic with the fear of seeing her uncle again. When she meets up with an old flame, hang dog psychiatrist, Brian Marlowe (Robert Ayres), it’s clear that’s she’s still carrying an overly obsessive torch for him. And, once at the house, she orders the elderly and infirmed servant, Anna (Lilly Kann), to carry their bags up to their rooms and fetch them coffee. Leonora! Anna she needs a cane to get around! Don’t be such a jerk! Well, we can chalk that up to nerves, I guess….

Ernest Milton and Barbara Shelley

Later that night, the sleeping-in-the-nude Leonora (the camera lingers lovingly on her bare back and shoulders) is woken up and summoned to her uncle’s sanctum sanctorum to learn the family secret; that the head of the family has been cursed with werewolfism, albeit of an odd sort where their spirit takes over a leopard that carries out proxy killings at its master’s command. When Leonora’s spirit possesses the cat, she undergoes a subtle, but effective transformation –her eyebrows become pointed and she acquires a more glamorous make-up designed to make her eyes look more cat-like. But, the best effect is how Shelley can convey a feral blood-thirst by simply contorting her face and hands.

Initially appalled by her uncle’s claims, Leonora shows an instant affinity for the leopard. Taking up the ancient curse allows Leonora to shed her prim, uptight skin and give in to her raging hatred for her controlling uncle and unfaithful husband, and her lust for Brian. Uncle and husband are soon found clawed to pieces by some large beast, and when the police bring in Brian The Shrink to deal with Leonora’s seemingly irrational claim that she killed them both, we know that she will stop at nothing to reclaim her old lover. His pretty blonde wife, the canary-like, Dorothy (Kay Kallard), had better not perch too close to Leonora!

Barbara Shelley as Cat Girl!
Like the best Femme Fatale’s, Leonora is a provocative, empowered protagonist who is both hero and villain in her own narrative. Hammer Films would exploit this motif in many of their future horror films while never failing to showcase an array of Technicolor bosoms. Leonora’s ‘curse’ can been seen as a liberation from her repressed 1950’s lifestyle as she finally gives herself permission to take control of her life and eliminate all of the obstacles standing in her way. “I am Woman. Hear my leopard roar!” Unfortunately, she takes the ‘eliminate’ part literally!

Robert Ayres and Barbara Shelley look for a cigarette

Brian tries to cleanse Leonora of her crazy belief by burning her uncle’s old books (was I the only one to wince at the thought of 700 year-old manuscripts being so callously destroyed?). This leads to a heated physical confrontation between the two of them, followed by a chest-heaving, mussed up hair, post-coitus-like reconciliation in front of a burning fireplace that was apparently too subtle for the British censors, but not the astute viewer.

After Brian commits Leonora to a sanitarium the film shifts into high(er) gear. The first night sees Leonora’s hands seemingly turn into maybe real claws (a nice touch!) and for a split second, a fuzzy, possible transformation into a were-cat, after which she proceeds (off camera) to tear up the room. Although he finally admits that Leonora is mentally disturbed, Brian still has her discharged (!) and proceeds to make his wife (!!) spend time with Leonora to in an attempt to help ‘normalize her’ (!!!). Hands up anyone who thinks this is a bad idea and that we should check where Brian got his medical degree?

Barbara Shelley and Kay Kallard

The climax of Cat Girl is a mostly effective variation on the famous bus stop scene from The Cat People. Threateningly dressed in a full-length black raincoat, our Polythene Pam-like Leonora plays cat and mouse with Dorothy through the dark alleys of the dockyards while the police search for an escaped leopard. Will Leonora channel her leopard avatar one more time? Will Brian arrive in time to save his wife? Cat Girl is worth watching to learn how the Brant family curse finally plays out.

The statuesque Barbara Shelley started her career as a model before moving into films in Italy in 1953 under her real name of Barbara Kowin. By 1957 she was appearing in English language films in Britain as Barbara Shelly where she had a long career dividing her time between TV and movies. Cat Girl was her first English language movie and she can claim ‘Scream Queen’ status for having starred in a number of genre films including Blood of the Vampire (1958), Village of the Damned (1960), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Gorgon (1964), and Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1967), as well as appearing in many episodes of The Avengers, Danger Man, The Saint, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E during the 1960’s.

Her best role arguably came as Barbara Judd in the film version of Quatermass and The Pit (aka 5 Million Years to Earth, 1967). As the assistant to Dr. Michael Roney (James Donald), she channels the hallucinatory vision of the Martian ‘wild Hunt’ (above) after the discovery of the ancient spaceship in Hobbs End, London. This one scene shows just how good her acting chops were and how underutilized she was in most of her film appearances.

Is Cat Girl Worth My Time? Yes. It’s an underrated, minor British classic well worth watching for Shelley’s almost hypnotic performance. The rest of the workman-like cast moves through their clich├ęd roles with a minimum of fuss, although prone to overacting. Barbara Shelley is the whole show here, but she’ll hold your attention for the entire film. It’s the sign of a well told story that it never lags and you never notice its 69 minute running time.

Availability: It does not appear to be currently available on DVD, but OOP copies are available on  the secondary market. It’s ripe for a full BluRay restoration.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tailspin Tommy – Gets the Monogram Treatment in Sky Patrol and Danger Flight (1939)

Mankind has always been fascinated by the possibility of flight. When the Wright Bros got off the ground in 1903, even though it was only for a few seconds, they ignited an air race that eventually put a man on the moon.

The early days of flight saw multiple individuals and companies competing with novel, sometimes outlandish plane designs that captured the public’s imagination. When Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927, America’s fascination with all things aviation caught fire. Tailspin Tommy was the first of the newspaper comic strips launched to cash in on the crazy and was soon followed by Skyroads, Scorchy Smith, Smilin’ Jack and  my personal favourite, Flying’ Jenny. During the war, strips like Terry and The Pirates and Capt. Easy that had not started out as aviation strips soon joined Johnny Hazard in putting their heroes into the cockpit.

The Tailspin Tommy newspaper strip is all but forgotten in the 21st century, but was immensely popular in its day. Written by Glenn Chaffin and illustrated by Hal Forest, it ran from 1928 to 1942. Notably, the legendary movie poster artist, Reynold Brown inked the strip from 1936 to 1942. Tailspin made his move onto film with two 12-part serials in 1934 and 1935.

 Artwork by Reynold Brown

John Trent took over the roll for four low-budget Tailspin adventures for Monogram that were all released in 1939. He was a seemingly good choice for the character, having gone into acting after a career in commercial aviation. However, despite having the physical cut of a leading man (he co-starred with Ann Dvorak in the comedy, She’s No Lady, 1937), his acting skills were modest at best, and he eventually returned to aviation as a test pilot.

Jason Robards, Milburn Stone, John Trent, and Marjorie Reynolds

Trent was backed up in the series by three actors who went on to much more substantial careers. Milburn Stone played Tailspin’s goofy pal, Skeeter Milligan, and Jason Robards was his boss/partner, Paul Smith, at Three Points Airline. The underutilized Marjorie Reynolds got second-billing as his girlfriend, Betty Lou Barnes, but she usually was only given a few lines per movie worrying about her hero, Tommy.

Tailspin Tommy in Sky Patrol (1939) predates the US entry into WW II, but has Tommy ‘drafted’ by the military into organizing a sky patrol to hunt for smugglers (read Nazi collaborators) on the west coast. Tommy is training the new recruits, but is having trouble with medical student, Carter Meade, who – surprise! - does not want to have to kill anyone. Unfortunately, he’s also the son of the commanding officer who sees his son’s aversion to killing as an ‘irrational phobia’ to be overcome. Tommy covers for Carter’s ‘weakness’ and gets him into the Sky Patrol, only to have him become the seemingly first causality of the team. However, it all turns out well when Carter is found alive, captured by the smugglers who are running guns in international waters. Carter saves Tommy by killing one of the bad guys, thus proving that he is really a man and not a peace-loving commie, or worse. Carter is played by a mid-career Jackie Coogan who does as much as he can with his brief, sketched-out part. Fans of his role as Uncle Fester in the 1960’s Addams Family TV show will only recognize the svelte Coogan here by his voice.

Jackie Coogan

The film has above average production values and script for a Monogram film, and even the ‘toy-boats-in-a-bathtub’ special effects are used sparingly and are not too distracting. Just don’t look too closely at the many holes in the story.

Tailspin Tommy in Danger Flight (1939) was the last in the series. It has a crackling good first half where Tommy becomes lost in a raging storm while trying to deliver medicine to a dam construction site that has suffered multiple injuries in an avalanche. Cutting between Tommy flying blind in the storm to Betty Lou and Skeeter desperately trying to help him from their radio room, the tension ramps up as Tommy’s fuel runs down with no place to land. Probably inspired by the flying sequences from the same year’s Only Angels Have Wings, with a healthy dollop of Clark Gable’s doomed flight to oblivion in Night Flight (1933), the first half of Danger Flight is as good as you’re going to get from any respectable B picture, and way above the norm for a Monogram film. However, the second half of the film pancakes back to earth as Tommy battles gangsters trying to steal the construction company’s payroll in what seems like a completely different film.

John Trent as Tailspin Tommy

I honestly only watched as many Tailspin adventures as I did just to enjoy the presence of Marjorie Reynolds, a pretty, button-nosed blonde with energy to spare. I suspect that Monogram used her as much as they did to help provide a much needed jolt to many of their otherwise lackluster productions. Playing the reporter Roberta Logan, she was the second best thing in the three of the six Boris Karloff-headlined Mr. Wong films (1939 – 1940) that she co-starred in. She also starred in a number of respectable poverty row crime/noir films before graduating to higher profile pictures at better studios in the early 1940’s (e.g., Ministry of Fear (1944) with Ray Milland). Although she never became a major star, she did help Bing Crosby introduce the classic song, White Christmas, in Holiday Inn (1942).

Ray Millard and Marjorie Reynolds in Ministry of Fear (1944)

What about the rest of the Three Points Airline personal?

Milburn Stone had a long career in show business going back to vaudeville in the 1920s. His film career consisted of mostly minor parts or bigger parts in minor films. Universal Shock Theater fans will recognize him from starring in Captive Wild Women and Jungle Girl (both 1943) and the Inner Sanctum film, The Frozen Ghost (1945) starring Long Chaney, Jr. Later in his career, Stone struck gold playing Doc in the long running Gunsmoke TV show. Appearing in 604 episodes, Doc became one of the most beloved characters in television history. Stone won an Emmy for the role in 1968.

 Milburn Stone in Gunsmoke
Jason Robards went on to be one the greatest stage and film actors of his era. After a decorated Navy career in WWI, his film career started slowly where he marked time in films like the Tailspin Tommy series until his talent was recognized. Amongst his many awards, he won a Tony, an Emmy, and two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (All The Presidents Men, 1976 and Julia, 1977).

 Jason Robards in Once Upon A Time in The West (1969)

Is Tailspin Tommy Worth My Time? Yes, if you’re a fan of the Monogram oeuvre or pulp serials. John Trent in Sky Patrol is about as flat as an actor can be and still be alive, but he is more animated in Danger Flight. The first half of that film is very engaging and would be a great introduction to the series. And, it’s fun to watch future stars, Reynolds, Robards and Stone early in their careers.

Availability: I watched these on YouTube as OK quality prints. The breaks in the films just add to the sensation of being at a Saturday afternoon matinee. Sky Patrol gets a B and Danger Flight a B+, bearing in mind the quality of films we’re dealing with. Both films benefit from their brisk 60 minute running times.

Bonus! More Reynold Brown poster art.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Robert Mitchum in Where Danger Lives (1950) and Angel Face (1952)


Robert Mitchum made a career out of playing characters that dominated the screen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn his head to look at anything. When Mitchum turns to look at you, his whole body turns. And you’d better be ready for what happens next, because good or bad, you aren’t going to escape it.

And yet for all that implied control, a Mitchum character was often placed in a situation where he knows that no matter what he does, his fate is not his own and things are going to end up with him dead. Or worse - he might actually end up with that crazy women that he’s run off with.

 Faith Domergue (Where Danger Lives) and Jean Simmons (Angel Face)

Where Danger Lives and Angel Face are both about the dangers of falling for crazy women.

In 1948, Mitchum was the victim of a sting operation and busted for possession marijuana (later overturned). The skittish management reintroduced him to movie goers as the good guy in the relatively upbeat Christmas movie, Holiday Affair (1949), playing a war veteran who gets involved with war widow, Janet Leigh. Although Mitchum is never anything but gracious and accommodating in Holiday Affair, such is his presence that you are never quite sure where the film is going to end up. Will he get the girl or will there be a pile of dead bodies under the Christmas tree this year?

Mitchum’s next movie was a move back into film noir with Where Danger Lives (1950) directed by John Farrow and starring Faith Domergue, with small, but critical appearances by Claude Raines and Maureen O’Sullivan. Shot by Nicholas Musuraca, who had photographed Mitchum  in Out of the Past and the best of the Val Lewton RKO productions (i.e., the Jacques Tourneur directed, The Cat People (1942)), the film never looks anything less than gorgeous, with Muscuraca’s compositions and lighting effects driving the movie forward as much as Farrow’s direction.
Robert Mithcum, Claude Raines & Faith Domergue

The plot of Where Danger Lives is simple. Dr. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) falls for an enigmatic attempted suicide Margo (Domergue) and dumps his faithful girlfriend (O’Sullivan) to pursue her. In a drunken confrontation with her very rich, supposed father (Raines), Mitchum suffers a concussion. Raines dies and with Jeff in a fog from the concussion, Margo grabs him and makes a run for the Mexican border. But just before he died, Raines had tried to warn Jeff of Margo’s dark secret. I wonder what that secret might have been?

Jeff just wants to call the police, but in his dazed condition he is can’t stop Margo’s desperate need to escape. On the run, the pair keeps falling prey to their own suspicions of being discovered when – at least initially  - the authorities are actually unaware of what’s happened to Raines. At one point they are captured and arrested – for not having beards when their car breaks down during a small town celebration! In an effort to talk their way out of their troubles, they’re forced to get married by the intoxicated crowd as the only way to avoid revealing who they are. And so it goes until they end up at the Mexican border. There the truth comes out as a half paralyzed, bullet-ridden Jeff hears Margo proclaim, “nobody ever pities me!” As great an exit scene as any femme fatale has ever made. 
 No way out for Faith Domergue In Where Danger Lives

Mitchum rehashed almost the same exact plot two years later in Angel Face (1952) directed by Otto Preminger and starring Jean Simmons in the femme fatale role. Both films start with an ambulance taking Mitchum to the medical aid of someone (Simmon’s stepmom in Angel Face) only to dump his girlfriend when he falls in lust with the young daughter/wife of a much older rich man. When that man ends up dead, the lovers struggle to avoid murder convictions and in the process end up married. And then things get worse.

Where Dangers Lives is a better film than Angel Face, although the latter has a much higher critical rating. Where Dangers Lives is a more satisfying movie with a polished, tightly written story. Each scene rackets up the tension as Jeff and Margo’s options exponentially diminish into a claustrophobic finale between a half dead Jeff and a mostly insane Margo. It was written by Charles Bennett who also wrote the screenplays for Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Foreign Correspondent, and who later joined The Cat People team of Jacques Tourneur and Nick Musuraca to write the classic British horror film, Night of the Demon. Although Domergue is not in Simmons league as an actress, she gives a compelling performance at the film’s climax where she becomes completely unhinged in one extended, single shot sequence.  

 Mitchum falls for Simmons' angel face

Angel Face, by comparison, has a stop/start quality to it that makes its 69 minute running time seem 20 minutes too long. It succeeds on the strength of Mitchum and Simmons’ chemistry, and her riveting face that demands the viewer’s attention as much as Domergue’s playmate figure. In the end, however, Angel Face scores more points where it really counts; it has a once seen, never to be forgotten ending. Having watched Angel Face before Where Danger Lives, my shouted advice to Jeff was to not get in the car with Margo!

Notably, both actresses were involved with legendary billionaire, Howard Hughes, who had gained control of RKO studios in 1948. Hughes hooked up with Faith when she was just 17, buying her parents a house to keep them at arm’s length. But she eventually broke off with him when she discovered that he was also bedding Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth at the same time. She went on to star in a number of cult classics including Cult of the Cobra, This Island Earth and The Atomic Man (all 1955). She gives a credible performance as a Doctor of Invertebrate Zoology in Ray Harryhausen’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (also 1955) where at one point she uses a laboratory flask to replicate Veronica Lakes’ code-defying hairbrush scene in Sullivan’s Travels (1942). 

Jean Simmons also had her problems (contractual rather than personal) with Hughes. Apparently Angel Face needed to be made quickly as Simmons RKO contract was set to expire within 18 days of the start of production. Hughes’ instructions to Preminger were to make the shoot as difficult as possible for Simmons. You can see from her short bangs that Simmons had cut off her hair is an effort to dissuade Hughes from using her in a film and was forced to wear a wig during production. 

Character Actors of Note in Angel Face: Watch for Gertrude Astor as the prison matron. She had a long career in silent films, with a large part as Cecily in Paul Leni’s  genre defining The Cat and The Canary (1927). Also, the ubiquitous and wonderful Teresa Harris as a nurse at Simmons jailhouse bed side (above). Don’t blink or you will miss both!

Are Where Danger Lives and Angel Face Worth My Time? Yes to both. Although Where Danger Lives tells its story better, both films are solid B+ efforts. Each film in enlivened by small bits by lots of great character actors.

Availability: Both Angel Face and Where Danger Lives are available from Warner Archives, the latter twinned with Tension (1949)