By Ed Garea
This is Cinema Inhabituel for the week of September 15-22, the collection of films once forgotten now vindicated and those that still have us scratching our heads.
8:00 pm White Cargo (MGM, 1942) – D: Richard Thorpe. Starring Hedy Lamarr, Walter Pidgeon, Frank Morgan, Richard Carlson, and Reginald Owen.
“I am Tondelayo.” Now what film fan hasn’t heard that line at one time or another? Ever curious about where the line originated? Well, wonder no more – here’s the film. Hedy Lamarr, in one of her best-known roles, is the highly-seductive Tondelayo, who keeps the blood of all males boiling on a British plantation post in Africa. Her success rate would compare with any World War II flying ace. Once she gets her hooks into them, she drains their souls of its marrow and then discards what’s left. Her sights this time are set on the new boss, Walter Pidgeon. He has been warned that she destroyed his predecessor, but everything he’s seen and heard is of no avail. She begins by completely entrancing Pidgeon’s assistant, Richard Carlson. Once done with him, it’s on to the boss himself. Even toned down by MGM to meet both the strict sexual and racial mores of the time, White Cargo still packs a potent punch, for it’s based on every young man’s jungle fantasy. Is it a classic? By no means, but that doesn’t means it’s not a helluva lot of fun to watch, especially for Lamarr.
1:45 am The Window (RKO, 1949) – D: Ted Tetzlaff. Starring Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman, and Bobby Driscoll.
It’s the old story of the boy who cried wolf brought to the screen in this cult classic, a film unjustly overlooked by many. Bobby Driscoll is a boy with a vivid imagination, but when he witnesses a real murder, no one believes him, even after he finds himself the target of a killer that wants to eliminate any witness to his crime. It’s based on a novella by the great mystery writer Cornell Woolrich and has been redone numerous times over the years, the most recent attempt being Cloak and Dagger (1984), with Henry Thomas. Definitely mark this one on your list, you’ll find it well worth it.
8:00 pm Gabriel Over the White House (MGM, 1933): D: Gregory LaCava. Starring Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone, Arthur Byron, and Dickie Moore.
Right after you’re done viewing this film you are going to scratch your head and ask yourself how the hell did this ever get made? Guaranteed. Consider this plot: a crooked politician is elected president. A party stooge of the highest rank, he’s more interested in satisfying his cronies than the people who elected him. A short time into his presidency he’s involved in a serious car accident, but miraculously survives – thanks to the intervention of the angel Gabriel, who has plans for the redemption of the president’s soul.
When he recovers, people around him discover that he’s a changed man – in more ways than one. Whereas before he was rather nonchalant and happy-go-lucky, he’s now serious and high-minded. He storms into the House of Representative and convinces Congress to give him total power under a “state of emergency” to deal with the problems of the Great Depression. He uses that power to plow through bureaucratic roadblocks – solving the unemployment problem and putting people back to work; gunning down gangsters without trial, and bullying world’s leaders into sitting down and signing a disarmament accord. Once his goals are met, he passes on, for he really dies in that car crash.
The solutions may seem a bit draconian, but they were a reflection of what many felt needed to be done at the time. It’s no accident that Cosmopolitan Studios, owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, produced this film. It’s a bizarre film that needs to be seen in order to be believed, and if I could only nominate one film on this list as a must-see, it is this film.
2:15 am The Town That Dreaded Sundown (AIP, 1977) D: Charles B. Pierce. Starring Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, and Jimmy Clem.
This is a nice little gem of a movie from American International, of all places. Actually based on a true story of a hooded serial killer who stalked the town of Texarkana in 1946.
Despite the movie’s low-budget, it still manages to convincingly re-create a 1940’s town (forget some of the fashions and hairdos). In fact, the low budget actually works for the film, giving a sort of documentary feel. Director Pierce, who cut his teeth with the 1972 hit, The Legend of Boggy Creek, provides a lot more graphic violence than in his earlier work, earning it an “R” rating, and we can safely say that this is perhaps the first of the slasher films that became ubiquitous a few years later.
Considering that he’s a neophyte in the director’s chair, Pierce does a yeoman job of heightening the tension in the film by casting himself as Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson, the comic-relief of the picture. In one scene, Benson dresses in drag to try and trap the killer and his scenes are underlaid with “comedy” music. But rather than dilute the goings-on, when these scenes are intercut with the scenes of the killer at work, it makes for an even more effective film, ratcheting up the tension.
Two scenes in the movie stand out. In one, the killer has his victim bound to a tree. He attaches a knife to the slide of her trombone and while awkwardly playing notes on the instrument, impales her in the back. The second scene has become notorious among fans of psychotronic films. The killer has stepped up his game to home invasion and his victim in this case is none other than Dawn Wells, co-star of the hugely famous Gilligan’s Island back in the ‘60s, a series that, thanks to reruns, may never go away. It seems on this end that the crew took a particular delight in showing her character chased, shot in the face, and crawling in a muddy cornfield looking for help.
As in real life, the killer was never caught, but it’s the chase, frustrating though it is, that keeps us glued to our seats. The murders still remain unsolved to this day.
12:00 pm Mark of the Gorilla (Columbia, 1950) D: William Berke. Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Trudy Marshall, Suzanne Dalbert, and Onslow Stevens.
There is trash and there is bad trash. This film is clearly in the latter category.
Johnny Weissmuller is Jungle Jim, or Tarzan in street clothes. Now, Jungle Jim films by their very nature demand a certain degree of preposterousness. Make them too close to conventional drama and the result is a borefest whose only mitigating factor is its short running time. But make it too outrageous and one has this sort of movie.
A greedy doctor (Stevens) is after gold buried by the Nazis on an African game preserve. So, to get at it he dresses up his men in gorilla suits to scare off the local populace. Well, it may fool them, but it doesn’t ol’ Jungle Jim (or anyone else with an IQ in triple digits). And how does Jim know? Get this – he remarks that the Nagandi district isn’t gorilla territory! Wow. Even a ten-year old could spot the difference between these and the real thing.
The only tension in the movie comes from watching to see if Weissmuller can actually deliver a line convincingly. All these years and he still can’t act. But wait! The real bad treasure in this film is Suzanne Dalbert. Think Weissmuller is terrible? Compared to her, he comes off like John Gilbert, Richard Attenborough and Laurence Olivier all rolled into one.
Recommended for all who love a bad movie as a nice change of pace.
1:30 pm It! The Terror From Beyond Space (U.A./ Vogue Pictures, 1958) D: Edward L. Cahn. Starring Marshall Thonpson, Shirley Patterson, Dabbs Greer, and Kim Spalding.
Despite its title, do not make the mistake of lumping this in with the previous film. This is actually a tidy little thriller with a wonderful script from noted science fiction writer Jerome Bixby (the classic Star Trek).
So why does this film make the list? Because Ridley Scott lifted it premise for his big-budget sci-fi classic, Alien. It’s 1973 (!) and a rescue craft has been sent to Mars after receiving notification from the commander of the first ship (Thompson) that he is the lone survivor of the nine originally aboard. Things look tough for the commander, but unbeknownst to the crew, a Martian has stowed away on the ship right before takeoff. The creature, being on a harshly dry planet, needs fluids to live, and the astronauts aboard certainly have plenty of that. He goes on to wreak plenty of havoc and death before a way is finally found to stop him.
The creature is played by former B-cowboy star and stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan in a suit created by Corman veteran Paul Blaisdell. Because Corrigan wouldn’t come to Blaisdell’s house for a fitting, the designer had to improvise, with the result that the costume itself fit perfectly, but the head was a mite too small and Corrigan’s chin ended up sticking out. What to do? They make-up department painted Corrigan’s chin to simulate a tongue, so when you watch, watch the monster’s head closely.
3:45 am The Shanghai Gesture (U.A., 1941) D: Josef Von Sternberg. Starring Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson, Phyliss Brooks and Eric Blore .
There is an old joke about the tour of the homes of the Hollywood Stars. They all have a big front, but look behind and it’s discovered that the front is only a mirage to hide a run-down shack.
The Shanghai Gesture is a lot like that. The viewer can easily be taken in by the film’s seductive atmosphere, but look closely and it will be seen that this is a bad movie. Set in Shanghai during the ‘20s or ‘30s, it’s the story of a young woman’s descent into the decadence that was the red light district of Shanghai. Poppy (Tierney) has come to the gambling emporium of Mother Gin Sling (Munson) and takes to both the casino and its inhabitants as to the manner born. In particular, Poppy is completely captivated by Doctor Omar (Mature), who, besides being as “doctor of nothing,” is also Gin Sling’s lover. As the movie progresses we find that this section of Shanghai has been purchased by developers and that its buildings, including Mother’s emporium, are slated for demolition. The man behind this is Sir Guy Charteris (Huston), who turns out to be Poppy’s father. At the end, Sir Guy gets the shock of his life and Poppy discovers who her real mother is. But until then we are subjected to an awful lot of melodrama punctuated by the bad acting of Victor Mature.
It’s important for its later discovery by the French critics that were putting forth the auteur theory. While it’s true that Von Sternberg had quite a hand in the planning and shaping of his movies, he should also get the blame for when they turn out to be overcooked turkeys.