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Thursday, August 13, 2020

George Zucco is The Black Raven (1943)


GEORGE ZUCCO was born to play mad scientists and creepy bad guys. Although he was always able to slip between A, B and Z-grade productions without getting ghetto-ized in the latter, he is probably best known for (typically) chewing up the scenery in the post-Karloff Mummy movies from Universal and for playing a long string of villains in Poverty Row films, e.g., Voodoo Man (1944), where his part as voodoo priest is only slightly less embarrassing than that of John Carradine’s role as Bela Lugosi’s imbecilic, bongo-playing henchman.

THE BLACK RAVEN (1943) is a PRC film produced and directed by super-prolific Sam Neufeld, starring Zucco in what is effectively an anti-hero role as Amos Bradford (aka the villainous ‘Raven’). It’s a variation on every Old Dark House plot where, over the course of one evening, the house is question gets stuffed with dodgy characters and young innocents as the murdered bodies stack up much to the bewilderment of the local hick sheriff (see my review of the similar film, Black Doll).

 Robert Randell and Wanda McKay

The Black Raven is a small inn just south of the Canadian border that is the last stop for people trying to flee the US. Thanks to a convenient storm, the only bridge in the area is washed out, so in trickle: mob boss-on-the-run, Mike Bardoni (Noel Madison), mousy embezzler, Horace Weatherby (Byron Foulger) and crooked politician, Tim Winfield (Robert MIddlemass) who is hot on the trail of his underage daughter, Lee (Wanda McKay; she’s ‘only’ 20 years old) who is trying to elope with Allen Bentley (Robert Randall aka Bob Livingston). Add to the mix escaped convict, Whitey Cole (I. Stanford Jolley) who is trying to shake down and then rub out his two-timing former partner (Zucco) and you’ve got a jar of hornets just waiting to be shook up. Shots are fired, people die, the embezzled money vanishes, and soon all the characters are running up and down stairs, and being chased in and out of rooms until all of the bad guys eventually get what’s coming to ‘em!

Glenn Strange and Bryon Foulger

Zucco gives a restrained, almost nuanced performance as the suave proprietor of The Black Raven Inn. He seems to take as much pride in running a well-managed facility as he does in whatever his only-hinted at nefarious activities might be. What else is he up besides being an innkeeper? For sure you don’t get a cool moniker like The Raven without building up a significantly notable past! Did he once tangle with The Shadow or Doc Savage? The Spider or the Blonde Phantom? Did he once hold New York City for ransom with some exaggerated, raven-themed explosive device? Perhaps he’s actually an alias of Professor Moriarty that Zucco played in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).


 Zucco and McKay

I can envision The Raven semi-retiring to the country after a high profile life of crime in the big city, but still running his vast organization without leaving his beloved inn. Occasionally he gets tangled up with some local crime, such as the events of this movie, which allows him to play amused amateur detective running rings around the less than competent law officials.

 Like the best anti-heroes, The Raven is not without his own moral code. In this movie he does not want to see the lives of the two young lovers destroyed by a stupid sheriff over anxious to pin the first murder on the wrong man. In a better-written movie, Zucco’s character would have manoeuvred all the bad guys to their own comeuppances and then settled back with a glass of brandy to plan his next big scheme.

 I think PRC missed a great opportunity to kick start a franchise with Zucco’s Raven character. The only other ingredient necessary would have been a sympathetic, but sharp-tongued female foil (e.g., Gale Sondergaard) in addition to The Raven’s comic-relief heavy, here played by the sometimes Frankenstein monster, Glenn Strange.


Charlie Middleton and Zucco

As in so many Poverty Row films, almost all the actors in The Black Raven had deep acting careers both in the theatre and on the stage. Did you notice that the sheriff, Charlie Middleton, had already played opposite Groucho Marx in Duck Soup (1933) and was soon to become Sci-Fi’s quintessential baddie, Ming the Merciless, in Buster Crabbe’s three Flash Gordon serials during the 1940’s?  Perpetually nervous Byron Foulger was part of Preston Sturges' stock company of actors and appeared in almost all of his films throughout the 40’s. And, lovely B-actress Wanda McKay is always a bright spot in any picture. Too bad her fetching role as the Jungle Goddess (1948) is not more readily available as a good quality print.


I. Standford Jolley

Is The Black Raven Worth My Time? Yes, especially if you’re sympathetic to 64 minute poverty row programmers, which I clearly am. The acting is well above average for this sort of movie with good performances by Zucco, Noel Madison and Byron Foulger. Even Glenn Strange is enjoyable to watch coming across as a more emotive Lon Chaney, Jr. (sorry, Lon, I still love you!). I suspect that if its limited budget and shooting schedule had of allowed for some rehearsal time and more than one take, The Black Raven could well have risen well above its disparaging review in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide (one and a half stars!).

Availability: Watch it on YouTube, or watch it or download it from Archive.org, the latter being a great resource for public domain films.

 Bonus: Wanda McKay is the Jungle Goddess (1948)