By Ed Garea
This is Cinema Inhabituel for the week of October 23-31, where we focus on movies either long forgotten or rarely shown, but interesting . . . always interesting.
It’s Halloween week on TCM and what better way to celebrate than with some rarely shown horror movies; the sort we never see anymore outside of TCM or our own DVDs. So take notes and enjoy as we go over the strangest of these forgotten films.
3:30 pm Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A. (Sack Amusement, 1946) – Director: Spencer Williams. Starring Francine Everett, Don Wilson, Kathrine Moore, Alfred Hawkins, and Boykin.
It’s extremely rare to see what were called “Race Pictures” on any channel. BET used to show them under the title of “Classic Black Films,” but they apparently have found it more profitable to use the time for reruns than history. The film is loosely based on W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, “Miss Sadie Thompson,” which has been done before by Hollywood with Gloria Swanson, and later under the title Rain, with Joan Crawford. The film was shot in Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Dallas, Texas. The fact that this is a neglected part of Hollywood’s past makes it an essential and therefore worth one’s viewing time.
1:45 pm Call of the Jungle (Monogram, 1944) Director: Phil Rosen. Starring Ann Corio, James Bush, Claudia Dell, John Davidson, and Phil Van Zandt.
Monogram Studios, looking for any edge in the jungles of Hollywood, decided to star stripper Ann Corio in a South Seas adventure, of all things. She plays Tana, an islander who likes to hang out at the local tiki bar. Listen to her dialogue, for at times she speaks perfect English and at others goes in a patois of broken English. And if you think that’s bad, check out co-star James Bush, who is solving the case while playing the piano. It’s just another reason why this film should be checked out by cinephiles.
3:15 am Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (Automat Pictures, 2007) Director: Jeffrey Schwartz. With Joe Dante, Roger Corman, John Waters, Leonard Maltin, Marcel Marceau, and John Landis.
William Castle was the ultimate showman, as this excellent documentary attests. He sold his films to the public with the help of outrageous publicity gimmicks, whether it be life insurance for Macabre, flying skeletons across the stage for House on Haunted Hill, wired seats for The Tingler, or having the audience vote on the ending for Mr. Sardonicus. Joe Dante, who appears in the documentary, made an affectionate film about Castle in 1993 called Matinee.
3:15 pm Village of the Damned (MGM, 1960) Director: Wolf Rilla. Starring George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Martin Stephens, Michael Gwynn, and Laurence Naismith.
This excellent sci-fi thriller was the first about evil children from outer space sent here to conquer us all. It’s based on John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, one of the creepiest novels in the sci-fi genre. Fortunately for those that haven’t read it, the film is quite faithful in its own right, with Sanders and Shelley giving a performance for the ages. Check it out.
2:45 am M (Nero Films, 1931) Director: Fritz Lang. Starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens, Theo Lingen, and Ellen Widmann.
The film that made Peter Lorre a star and one of the most unsettling movies ever made. It’s a sinister trek through the underbelly of society, as criminals band together to do what the police seemingly can’t: catch a notorious child-murderer. Originally titled Murders Among Us, the Nazi Party pressured the studio to change the title, lest the public make the connection. Lang pulls out all the stops to creep the audience out, including the use of Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” whenever the killer is stalking his prey. Don’t miss this one.
9:15 pm Freaks (MGM, 1932) Director: Tod Browning. Starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Rosco Ates, Henry Victor, and Harry Earles.
Eventually, the lure of his childhood was too great and Tod Browning was pulled in head over heels to the world of the carnival, a world in which he grew up. It’s a morality tale of greed and vengeance as the carnival freaks take matters into their own hands and mete out the justice required in their macabre world. The film features real sideshow performers from the carnival – the freaks of the title. If Browning was hoping for a hit, he was horribly wrong. The film sickened audiences and caused many of them to leave their seats. Pressure from critics and civic groups caused MGM to pull it from distribution and it languished unseen until it was revived for Midnight Shows in the ‘70s. It was also banned in England for many years. But it still had influence on other moviemakers. Witness Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1946) and Fellini’s La Strada (1954).
6:30 am London After Midnight (MGM, 1927) Director: Tod Browning. Starring Lon Chaney, Marceline Day, Henry B. Walthall, Percy Williams, and Conrad Nagel.
It’s one of the most famous of the lost films, having been destroyed in a fire at the MGM warehouse in the ‘60s. No known prints are known to survive and this feature was compiled from photos taken on the set and a complete continuity script. It’s worth watching at least once in the hope that a print of the movie is yet to be found.
4:00 pm The Devil Bat (PRC, 1941) Director: Jean Yarborough. Starring Bela Lugosi, Dave O’Brien, Suzanne Kaaren, Guy Usher, Donald Kerr, Edward Mortimer and Arthur Q. Bryan.
It’s one of Bela’s best and hammiest performances as a mad scientist who electrically enlarges ordinary bats to monster size and trains them to attack anyone doused with a special aftershave lotion he’s concocted. We know someone’s not long for the film when they tell Bela, “Well, Goodnight, Doc,” and he responds with “Good-bye” with all the slow pauses he can muster. It’s a wonderfully ridiculous film, and look for Arthur Q. Bryan as the editor of the newspaper that sends reporter Dave O’Brien, the nominal hero, to the scene. Bryan was the voice of Elmer Fudd in Warner Brothers cartoons. Many assume it was Mel Blanc as he was the only one that received credit, but that was due to the language of his contract, which stated that he should be the only one credited.
3:15 am Island of Lost Souls (Paramount, 1933) Director: Erle C. Kenton. Starring Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, and Kathleen Burke.
A truly creepy Pre-Code horror based on H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and starring the one and only Charles Laughton as the crazed scientist who mutates animals into humans. He tries unsuccessfully to mate his panther woman (Burke) with shipwrecked sailor Edward Parker (Arlen) in one of the most unsettling scenes in the history of film. Though it was banned in England upon release, it remains as the best version of the novel to make the screen, really not much of a compliment when we consider the other versions. But TCM’s early morning scheduling of the movie proves the fact that this film still retains its punch. Look for Bela Lugosi in a minor role as one of Moreau’s creations, “The Sayer of the Law.”