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Friday, November 27, 2020

Greta Garbo is the Two-Faced Woman (1941)

Greta Garbo’s last screen performance has her playing a prim ski instructor masquerading as her gold-digging twin sister to undermine her wandering husband’s (Melvyn Douglas) affair with Constance Bennett.

I can see why this George Cukor-directed film flopped at the box office; Garbo in a strictly comedic role was just too much of a stretch for audiences used to their stern, aloof heroine.  However, she is great; today she would be praised for stretching her boundaries.

Two-Faced Woman is a lot like Barbara Stanwyck’s The Mad Miss Manton (1938) in that it has lots of great parts that don’t add up to a whole. The script is inadequate and the direction dull. The fun in watching Garbo play polar opposite twin sisters is undermined by the fact that her philandering husband (Douglas) knows who she is all the time. This, for me, cuts the legs out from under the film, much like in The Little Shop Around the Corner (1940), where of the two pen-pal lovers, Jimmy Stewart knows who Margaret Sullivan is, but not vice versa. It becomes a bit painful watching both Sullivan and Garbo make fools out of themselves for men like Stewart who does not have the gumption to reveal his identity, or Douglas who is nothing more than a smooth talking egotist who treats women like chattel. 

Douglas played this highly unsympathetic role too many times opposite great actresses, e.g., Joan Blondell in There’s Always a Woman (1937) and Myrna Loy in Third Finger, Left Hand (1940), His character in these films is like watching a fine sports car trying to accelerate with the emergency brake on. It’s hard to imagine women ever falling for a cad like Douglas who is perpetually tittering on the edge of being physically abusive. Such was considered comedic back in the day.

Two-Faced Woman is buoyed up by Constance Bennett in her supporting role as Douglas’s paramour. Her one scene sparring with Garbo is worth the price of admission. Apparently most of Bennett’s scenes were cut as she upstaged Garbo whenever they were together. And one can see why. Although Garbo is excellent, she is clearly uncomfortable in her uncharacteristically comedic role, whereas Bennett is like a well-oiled machine playing the cool manipulator with a light comedic touch that she had perfected over the previous decade.

Kudos as well to the brilliant Ruth Gordon who sparkles as Douglas’s long suffering secretary. Did you know that in addition to winning an Academy Award (Rosemary’s Baby) and an Emmy (Taxi) for her acting, so had four Academy Award nominations for screenwriting?

A print exists of the original uncut & unaltered Two-Faced Woman, but, although it has been shown publicly, it has never been released to TV or DVD. Come on Criterion! It’s Garbo with Constance Bennett and Melvyn Douglas! If you can release The Atomic Submarine, surely this is more deserving of a spiffy 4K restoration and release!

Is It Worth My Time: A qualified yes. If you can sit through the first leaden 30 minutes, things pick up once Garbo switches from Karin to her Katherine persona. And while Constance Bennett’s knife-like hip bones are not on display, her razor sharp wit is undiminished.

Availability:   From Warner Archives and the usual on-line sources.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Ball of Fire in the Jungle - Law of the Jungle (1942)

Did anyone notice that a year after its release, Howard Hawk’s BALL OF FIRE (1941) was remade as a low budget jungle adventure?

In LAW OF THE JUNGLE (1942) singer Nora Jones (Arline Judge) is stuck in a small African town without a passport, singing for her keep at the local watering hole run by the shifty Simmons (Arthur O’Connell). When Nazi agents kill a British agent there, Nora hotfoots it into the jungle rather than stick around to get pinned for the murder. Fortunately she stumbles into palaeontologist Larry Mason (John King) and his assistant, Jefferson Jones (Mantan Moreland). Mason, being the stereotypical scientist, just wants to get rid of her so he can get back to his digging undisturbed. But Nora’s in a pickle and will have none of that and so tries to warm Larry up with her feminine charm.

                                                     Arline Judge, John King & Arthur O'Connell

Unknown to Nora, she’s carrying important papers from the British agent that will blow the cover of her boss, Simmons, and his Nazi colleagues. Before you can say ‘Auchtung!’ our heroes are running for their lives, pursued by the Nazi’s and eventually captured by hostile tribesmen. Salvation comes in the form of the Oxford educated Chief Mojobo played by Laurence Criner, who you saw playing briefly opposite Fay Wray in Black Moon (1943) and in King of the Zombies (1942). Criner turns out to be a Lodge Brother of Jefferson’s with no love of nasty ‘foreign agents’, so, unsurprisingly, everything works out on the end. Nora even thaws out Larry and snags her man!

                                                                         Digging for fossils

Plotwise, the only notable thing about the production is how closely the Nora and Larry interactions mirror those of firebrand Barbara Stanwyck to Gary Cooper’s bookish professor in the screwball classic Ball of Fire. Arline Judge was a hard working B actress in the 30’s and 40’s, while John King is noted for playing the singing cowboy, Dusty, in the long running Monogram Range Buster series. King is a handsome stand in for Cooper, and dark-haired Judge looks and sounds a lot like Stanwyck. I’ll bet good money that director Jean Yarbrough noticed the similarities and directed Judge to delivery her lines as if she was Stanwyck in Ball of Fire. I’d go further and suggest that Judge and King were even hired for their resemblances to Stanwyck and Cooper. Or maybe Yarbrough just thought up an interesting way to put a fun spin on an otherwise pedestrian film.

                                                              The great Mantan Moreland

The real star of the film is, of course, Mantan Moreland. The brilliant comedian featured in dozens of Monogram films in the 30’s and 40’s, usually taking at least second billing and stealing every scene that he appeared in. Moreland perfected the pop-eyed, scared of his own shadow routine that was often the only part available to black actors in films of that era. But, Mantan made that part his own and, for all of his supposed cowardice, he more often than not ended up saving the day. You laugh with him, never at him. And given the predicaments that he usually finds himself in – chasing or being chased by murders and other sundry criminals – I can’t but help agree with him that those situations are best stayed out of!

                                                                        Arthur O'Connell

The other notable appearance is by Arthur O’Connell. His role as the treacherous Simmons was a rare occurrence for him in a Poverty Row B picture. He had a number of small-to-large roles in classic films such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Naked City (1942) and Force of Evil (1948) before earning Oscar nominations by recreating his Broadway role in Picnic (1956) and for playing Jimmy Stewart’s drunken mentor in Anatomy of a Murder (1956). Readers of a certain age will best remember him playing the pharmacist in a long running series of Crest toothpaste commercials in the 1970’s.

Finally, film aficionados will know prolific director Jean Yarbrough for his work with Abbott and Costello, and directing cult classics such as The Devil Bat (1941) with Bela Lugosi, and the last (and least) of the classic Universal monster films, such as She-Wolf of London (1946; the last of the Wolfman-related films) and the iconic Rondo Hatton in The Brute Man (1946).

Is Law of The Jungle Worth My Time? The presence of Mantan Moreland and the thin Ball of Fire connection will make this of interest to film buffs; otherwise I’m sure that there are hundreds of better films to spend your time with. Also to be avoided if you cringe at the stereotypical depiction of African natives.

Availability: Only on YouTube as far as I can tell.

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)


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Joker in The Lost Continent (1951)

The Lost Continent (1951) is an unfairly maligned Lost World story starring Cesar Romero, today best remembered for creating the definitive (no arguing) version of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker.

Romero plays Major John Nolan, the officer in charge of leading the expedition to recovery the data recorder from an atomic-powered rocket lost during a test flight. Nolan takes off with co-pilot and embittered former WW II comrade-in-arms, Lt. Daniel Wilson (Chick Chandler), and comic relief mechanic, Sgt. Willie Tatlow (Sid Melton). In tow are the scientists in charge of the rocket; its Russian designer, Dr. Michael Rostov (John Hoyt), the introspective Dr. Stanley Briggs (Whit Bissell) and the always chipper Dr. Robert Phillips (Hugh Beaumont), whose job is to carry the Geiger counter to track the rocket’s radioactive signature1.

Hugh Beaumont, Sid Melton, John Hoyt, Chick Chandler, Whit Bissell, and Romero

Of course their plane crashes on an island in the middle of the South Pacific. They quickly meet a native (Acquanetta) who tells them that the rest of her people have fled because their gods are angry that a great ‘fire bird’ has landed on the top of their sacred mountain. Ascending to the plateau, our team finds a green-tinted prehistoric world populated with some not-too-badly animated dinosaurs. The boys battle a Brontosaurus and a couple of Triceratops before they reach their goal and escape as the whole island explodes.

Acquanetta and Romero

The Lost Continent script pretty much hews to the basic plot of every Lost World movie, and if you read the on-line reviews, you’d assume that that it is just another badly made B movie not worthy of your time. But, I’m here to at least softly praise its good points. The first being that as someone who has actually been on expeditions to exotic locales to find dinosaurs, albeit fossilized and not – alas – living ones2, I found the movie quite engaging, with many elements ringing truer than many bigger budget films.

Most scientific expeditions run relatively smoothly. They are organized and executed by professionals who know what they’re doing and hold the goals of the endeavor AND the safety of the crew in the upmost importance. However, there are times when despite your best plans you find yourself under the leadership of someone who puts their personal goals ahead of the safety of the team.

This is the circumstance that our search party find themselves in once they crash land on the island3. Major Nolan immediately marches them off to find the missing rocket. When someone suggests that they should see if the plane’s radio is still working, Nolan cuts him off by saying that they are under orders to maintain radio silence until they complete their mission. Hmmm. With their plane destroyed, Briggs injured and no supplies, wouldn’t it be a good idea to see if the radio works? If it’s dead, how is Nolan planning to arrange to be picked up even if they find the rocket? Nolan’s actions suggest that he’s on a personal suicide mission and doesn’t care who he takes down with him. 

Romero and Chandler
From his conversations with his buddy, Wilson, we learn that, like him, Nolan’s traumatic war experiences have soured him on the military. One can imagine a post-war scenario where a lack of jobs and an inability to fit back into civilian life has sent him back to the only thing he understands, the military. In such a scenario, Nolan can then be interpreted as a film noir ‘anti-hero’ driven to destruction in an effort to lash out at the institution/woman he loved, but who dumped him into a concentration camp for his devotion. The opening scene of the movie re-enforces Nolan’s frustration with the military. A rare opportunity to enjoy a romantic interlude with Marla Stevens (Hillary Brooks) is coarsely interrupted by a summons from his bosses to go find the rocket. Nolan’s frustration with life and the military in particular, bubbles through Romero’s portrayal of the character. Like every film noir anti- hero, Nolan is bound by the heartless regulations of a game from which he can’t break free. Artist Mark (Xenozoic) Schultz had this to add during our recent discussion of the film,
"Nolan is not only a solidly Noir protagonist, but the fatalistic tone of the entire movie places it squarely in the Noir genre. The cataclysmic ending is echoed in Kiss Me Deadly. Noir expert Eddie Muller suggests that non-crime genres, such as SF, do not belong in the film noir canon, but I would argue that noir should be most significantly defined by nihilistic, fatalistic themes that can overlap into almost any genre. If you substituted the science mission with a heist, no one would argue that LC wasn't noir. The character dynamics and the plotting would be the exact same. Even their code-mandated grim fate at the end."
Romero, Melton and Chandler
Nolan pushes them upward over what must be at least 500 meters of shear vertical assent that would test the most experienced climbers, let alone a ragtag bunch that have no climbing gear other than a rope. At this point a good leader would sit back, evaluate the situation and realize that obtaining the rocket data is beyond the scope of their resources. Plus, they’ve technically achieved their goal of finding the rocket! A simple radio message would bring a properly equipped team to the island within 24 hours, bringing the medical help needed for Briggs, and rescuing the stranded crew.

But Nolan and the plot insist that they all carry on, and it is their drawn-out ascent of the plateau that has been widely ridiculed by critics. At almost 20 minutes in length, it takes up about one-quarter of the film’s total running time. I’ll happily admit that it is there to simply pad out the film. However, for my money, it pretty accurately represents what most expeditions are all about the countless hours it takes to get to your destination.

Having hiked and climbed over hundreds of kilometers of badlands, I can attest that the climbing sequence is a good approximation of what that’s like. Needing to watch your every footfall because a misstep could mean injury, which is often the same as death when you’re miles away from help in a harsh environment. Coming to a dead end while trying to find the best path. Being pummeling by the nasty weather while perched in the most precarious of spots4.  They’re all part of the expeditionary routine.

The film makes the most of its plaster rock cliff set, rearranging its pieces and shooting from different angles so that no shot replicates the last. The slow, deliberate climb parallels the progress of any average expedition. I’ve also had the bad luck to have to follow someone as crazy as Nolan on their self-proclaimed ‘Death March’ (the actual term used in my case). When he comes to a dangerous part of the pass, Nolan never looks back to see whether everyone else can make it across. His attitude is, “I’m better than you and if you can’t keep up with me, you deserve to die”. And people do. Nolan ignores Brigg’s injury that puts himself and, thus, everyone else in danger. Like the best noir anti-hero Nolan doesn’t care if he is the only one left standing in the end (or if he is standing at all).
The Lost World looks it was inspired by a Rudolph Zallinger Painting.

Once the pinnacle is reached the team find themselves in a very effective set that gives the unsettling feeling of an alien, prehistoric environment. It’s obviously artificial, but that just adds to its unearthly atmosphere. However, the green film tint used for this portion of the movie doesn’t work for me – I prefer good old B&W, but, maybe, like the red tint used in another Lippert Production, Rocket Ship XM from the previous year (clips of which are recycled here), it was more effective in the theater.

The stop-motion dinosaur models are primitive, but are none-the-less charming. We’re treated to an almost modern interpretation of intraspecific Triceratops combat when two of them lock horns in a battle to the death. I would, however, quibble with the attack by the Brontosaurus that sees Hugh Beaumont climbing a tree to escape. Hugh obviously had not watched the original King Kong (1933). It did not work then, and it does not work here. Climbing a tree to escape the reach of an animal with a 6 meter long neck doesn’t make any sense. I’m always puzzled why an herbivore with the brain the size of peach pit would be driven to violently attack something that is non-threatening. I guess that King Kong set the rule of vicious sauropods that must be obeyed!

In his book, Keep Watching The Skies, Bill Warren offers these insights in to the film’s animated sequences, 
“For years, the identity of the stop-motion animator of the inadequate dinosaur scenes in Lost Continent was unknown. But then in Filmfax #105 (January–March 2005), William Fogg’s article on the movie basically answered the question, although who actually did the animation is still unclear. In December 1950, Robert Lippert signed a contract with Edward Nassour for “750 feet of black-and-white film featuring prehistoric animals.” Jay Baylor and sculptor Henry Lion often worked for Nassour in that period, so either or both may have been the actual animator—although there is no replacement animation of the type Nassour used in the later Beast of Hollow Mountain. The animation was done in a very short six weeks, explaining its deficiencies.”

After surviving all these threats, a nicely animated pterosaur leads the team to the rocket (bravo for the naturalistic look of it landing on a rock!). They manage to collect the precious data, but not before losing one more crew member (death by Triceratops!). On their descent, the surviving men are forced into a frantic race against the volcanic destruction of the island. They flee for their lives as the ground literally drops away beneath them in a sequence as exciting and well done as any big budget production could have managed. At the last second the surviving men escape in a native outrigger canoe.

Their fate is unresolved. The film ends with the dazed men clutching their precious data as the remainder of land crumbles in to the sea. No food. No Water. No supplies. No one knows where they are as they drift helplessly5. Will they be rescued? Will the next generation of rockets get built? If only Nolan had radioed HQ their position before setting out on his suicidal mission!

If there’s a moral here, it’s knowing to quit while you’re ahead. Having figured out where the rocket was and without the ability to mount a safe way to reach it, it’s best to call in help.

Sid Melton

The cast of The Lost Continent is made up of a lot of familiar faces that helps to smooth over its admittedly many flaws. I have a soft spot for Sid Melton who had a long career in mostly comedic small parts, including playing Captain Midnight's sidekick in the 1950’s and as part of the ensemble cast of the long running TV show, Green Acres. In the anthology parody movie, Amazon Women on The Moon (1987), Joey Travolta does a spot on spoof of Melton in the segment of the same name, which is itself a spoof of Fire-Maidens of Outer Space (1956) and a dozen other 50’s space exploitation flicks (e.g., notably Abbott and Costello Go To Mars, 1953).

Affable Hugh Beaumont (pre-Leave It To Beaver) had the magical ability to sail through cheapo movies like this with good humor and his dignity intact. A rule of thumb for characters appearing in these sorts of films would be to stick close to Hugh; I can’t think of one where he does not it make it out hale and hearty. And, I’m surprised that the producers did not give Universal’s Captive Wild Woman (1943), Acquanetta, a larger part. Most films like this would have her guiding the boys up the plateau and then either ending up with Romero or sacrificing herself so that he could escape. She’s wasted in this small role, but I hope she got away before the island blew up! 

Is The Lost Continent Worth My Time? I might be in the minority, but I’ll highly recommend it to those that enjoy these quickly made, low budget Lost World flicks. The 83 minute production by Robert L. Lippert & Sigmund Neufeld, and Sam Neufeld’s (Sigmund’s brother) direction rises well above the expected cheapie cash grab. Cinematography by Jack Greenhalgh is sharp and rich adding a lush tone to the film, while the score (available as a stand alone track on the DVD) evokes the spirit of high adventure. Screenwriter Richard Landeau also co-wrote the screenplay for the exceptional Quatermass Xperiment (1955), so he clearly was capable of writing better material when given the chance. Notably, both films feature rockets stuck in the ground like darts--ludicrous but dramatically impactful visuals.  

Availability: The 2001 DVD from Image Entertainment is still available and offers a sharp, clean print with good sound.

1. Do not accept any of the nonsense spoken about radioactivity in this film as fact.

2. I know that all birds are dinosaurs.

3. Calling this unnamed island a continent is pushing it.

4. Although no giant anole lizards have ever tried to eat me.

5. Given that the back-projecting ocean footage clearly shows waves breaking on a beach, our heroes could simply have stepped out of the canoe and walked home.