a major or well-known supporting star passes from the scene we read
about it on the Internet or in major publications, hear it on the
news, and sometimes, TCM will run a little tribute mini-marathon of
when it comes to the lesser-known stars lurking at the bottom of the
bill, unbilled, or even with a hefty resume of “B” credits, we
hear and read little, if anything. Rather than being presented to us,
we actively have to seek it out or risk missing it altogether.
topic today is one of those actors, John Calvert. He came to films
late in life as his primary vocation was that of stage magician, a
vocation at which he excelled for over eight decades, making over
20,000 appearances. He died on September 27, 2013 at the age of 102.
even those who knew him as a gifted magician probably didn’t know
he was also in movies. None of the films in which he had a major role
were ever found on the “A” side of the bill, though he did work
as a stunt double or technical adviser on some “A” projects. His,
though, are the sort of stories that make up the crazy quilt called
Hollywood history, filling in the back stories that make such history
did his first magic show at the tender age of eight and began touring
as an 18-year old. At the age of 100, he fulfilled a lifelong dream
by appearing onstage at the London Palladium, and was still
performing only a few weeks before his death, accompanied by his
assistant and wife of over 50 years, Tammy, who survives him.
also introduced many stage tricks during his long career, including
firing a woman from a cannon into a box suspended overhead on the
stage. He had his wife play an organ as they floated above the stage
and over the heads of the audience. And it was he who originated the
trick of sawing off the head of a spectator using a giant buzz saw.
he performed the trick onstage during World War II during bond
drives, Hollywood stars would often come forth to assist in the act.
It wouldn’t be unusual to see Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, or Marlene
Dietrich being sawed in half onstage or made to disappear in a box.
“One night,” he said in a 1998 interview, “Danny Kaye came out
impersonating Hitler. The Marines grabbed him and put him in the buzz
saw and he’d cut his head off. Then we put his head in a meat
grinder and out came German sausages!”
the stage, Calvert also broke into films as a hand double in
MGM’s Honky Tonk (1941). He earned $600 a day
doubling for Gable, who played a gambler. It was Calvert’s hands we
saw in those intricate scenes maneuvering cards; tricks only a
seasoned magician or gambler could pull off.
gotten the acting bug, Calvert appeared in his first role in RKO’s
1943 war drama, Bombardier, in an unbilled role playing –
what else? – Calvert the Magician. His first credited role was in
William High’s 1944 JD melodrama for Monogram, Are These
Our Parents? where, again to no one’s surprise, he played
a magician. In 1945, he managed 4th billing in The
Return of the Durango Kid, for Columbia, as one of a gang of
bad guys that run afoul of Our Hero, The Durango Kid. His last film
was an adventure film title, Dark Venture, which he
produced, wrote, directed, and starred in for a little company called
First National Film Distributing in 1956.
Calvert was never able to rise higher in motion picture features than
the “B” level, he did achieve some lasting fame as the last man
in the movies to play Michael Arlen’s suave detective, The Falcon.
commonly assumed that The Falcon was invented by RKO in order to have
a detective series for George Sanders once the deal allowing them to
bring Leslie Charteris’ suave detective, The Saint, to the silver
screen expired. This story, as with many Hollywood stories, is only
half-true. RKO did require a new detective to replace The Saint. They
had already made five films in The Saint series. The original starred
Louis Hayward as Simon “The Saint” Templar, but the last four
switched the starring role to RKO contractee Sanders.
not only didn’t like the film adaptations for his character, but he
also strongly disliked Sanders as Templar. In this, he was not unlike
other authors who sold their work to the studios only to see their
literary efforts returned into cheap programmers. However, while
other writers kept their mouths shut and counted the money, Charteris
would complain long and loud to whomever lent an ear. After a couple
of years of listening to him complain, RKO was as sick of him as he
was of them, and began lining up a replacement. After all – a
detective series is a detective series. Just switch the plot a little
and no one will care about the difference.
reader at the studio came across a short story titled Gay
Falcon by Michael Arlen in a 1940 edition of Town &
Country magazine. The story made its way to the RKO ladder
and it was decided that this was RKO’s escape hatch. They quickly
bought the rights and set about – as studios inevitably do –
changing the characters.
the Arlen story. the character’s name was Gay Stanhope Falcon. As
conceived by Arlen he freelanced as an adventurer and troubleshooter;
a man with a talent for engaging in dangerous enterprises and keeping
his mouth shut. RKO, looking for a Saint tie-in, changed Arlen’s
adventurer into an English gentleman detective with a weakness for
gorgeous women. They also re-christened him “Gay Stanhope
Laurence,” and like Simon Templar, he has an alias, “The Falcon,”
though for what reason he’s called this is never explained. As with
Templar, Sanders would play Laurence.
The first film in the
series, The Gay Falcon, if fact, was so close to the
preceding Saint series that the film was given the
working title of Meet the Viking in order to keep
Charteris from finding out. But, alas, Charteris found out anyway,
and – predictably – was furious, calling the film “so
shamelessly liable as to allow many dull-witted audiences to think
they were still getting The Saint.” It was a dead-on assessment. He
then filed suit against RKO for unfair competition, which was later
settled out of court. Charteris later got a revenge of sorts in his
1943 novel, The Saint Steps In, when a character refers
to The Falcon as “a bargain-basement imitation” of The Saint.
however, was not the only one dismayed by RKO’s new twist on
matters. Star Sanders also had little use for the new series. Sanders
had been featured as of late in some very popular “A” productions
such as Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Rage
in Heaven, and Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt. Having tasted
the Good Life he believed himself too important an actor for this
sort of nonsense and demanded his release. RKO was only too happy to
oblige him – it was a good cost-cutting move – and came up with
the idea of having Laurence’s character killed off, only to be
replaced by his brother. To play the brother, named Tom Laurence, RKO
cast Sanders’s real life brother, Tom Conway, who made his debut in
RKO’s 1942 film, The Falcon’s Brother.
proved such a hit that he went on to play The Falcon nine more times
before RKO finally pulled the plug in 1946 after The Falcon’s
Adventure. The series had pretty much burned itself out and RKO
figured enough was enough. But The Falcon was not yet done. A
production company named, appropriately enough, Falcon Pictures
Corporation, revived the detective for three low-budget films
– Devil’s Cargo (1948), Appointment With
Murder (1948) and Search for Danger (1949)
– all distributed by Film Classics. All three movies starred John
Calvert as The Falcon – now named Michael Watling. The Falcon was
now a working private eye that also employed tricks of magic to
flummox his foes. The films earned back enough to cover their cost,
but were not big hits. The budgets were such that they made the RKO
Falcon series seem lavish by comparison. The character later moved to
radio and later to television in a short-lived syndicated series in
1954-55. Michael Watling, a now played by veteran actor Charles
McGraw, was now an American espionage agent.
those who collect movies, both Devil’s
Cargo and Appointment With Murder are
available on DVD at Amazon.
long as I’m on an RKO “kick,” having covered The
Falcon series, now is a good time to plug my TCM movie recommendation
of the week: also from RKO, and also starring Tom Conway.
18, 11:15 pm –The
Seventh Victim(RKO, 1943) – Director: Mark
Robson. Writers: Charles O’Neal & DeWitt
Bodeen. Cast: Tom Conway, Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Isabel
Jewell, & Hugh Beaumont. B&W, 71 minutes.
before Ira Levin scared the pants off ‘60s audiences with his novel
about devil worshippers in Greenwich Village, Rosemary’s
Baby (which Roman Polanski turned into a classic horror
film), Val Lewton was doing the exact same thing for ‘40s audiences
with this finely crafted horror film.
main difference between them was that Levin knew he had hot stuff, as
did Polanski when bringing Levin’s bestseller to the screen.
Lewton, by contrast, was simply looking for a story to fill a
pre-chosen title by his bosses at RKO.
Lewton was a producer at RKO, he was on one of the bottom rungs of
the production ladder, being assigned to the B-Unit, where his job
was to make cheap programmers to fill out the typical package RKO ran
in its theaters. He’s been termed by some critics as “The Prince
of Poverty Row,” which is ironic when we consider that his salary
as a producer at RKO was a princely $250 a week. He also had three
inviolable rules when making a film: (1) Each film was to cost no
more than $150,000; (2) Each film was to run 75 minutes at the most;
(3) The story would conform to a title of the studio’s choosing. A
job to die for; in fact, the pressures from the job eventually
brought on the heart attacks that ended his life at the early age of
Seventh Victim conforms perfectly to this design. Here we
have the pre-approved title, such like The Cat People or I
Walked With A Zombie, for which Lewton has to find a story. There
was good news and bad news for Lewton on this project. The good news
was that, thanks to the grosses for Cat People and The
Leopard Man, studio interference – and limiting the film to 75
minutes – would not be in place for this feature. The bad news was
the Jacques Tourner had done such a wonderful job in directing the
two films that he was promoted to the A-Unit, leaving Lewton without
for Lewton, it was first things first. He needed a story. When he had
that, then he would get a director. The original story for the film,
by Bodeen (who previously wrote Cat People and would
later write Curse of the Cat People) was about an
orphaned girl caught in a web of murder set against the background of
the Signal Hills (California) oil wells. If she didn’t discover who
the killer was, she would become his seventh victim. Lewton didn’t
like the idea. He had an idea of his own that he thought might fit
the bill and brought in writer Charles O’Neal. Perhaps between the
three of them they could flesh it out, which they did in a burst of
time-pressure inspiration. Lewton then solved his director problem by
promoting film editor Robson to the position. Robson edited I
Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man for
Lewton, and Lewton thought highly of him.
let it be said here and now that The Seventh Victim is
not the perfect horror film. In fact there are several holes in the
plot so large one could drive a truck through them. There are good
reasons for these, as we shall see later, but first, a brief synopsis
for those who haven’t yet caught the film.
Gibson (Kim Bunter in her first role, so we know she came cheap) is a
student at a private school somewhere in upstate New York. One day
she’s called into the office of the Headmistress, where it is
explained to her that her sister (and only living relative)
Jacqueline, has unexpectedly cut off her tuition with not even so
much as a “howdy-do.” Mary’s reaction is one big “Huh?” She
leaves school to come down to the city, looking for Jacqueline. She
discovers that Big Sis sold her cosmetics firm and has disappeared.
This leads Mary on to a dark world of Satanism in the picture
postcard world of Greenwich Village and the Big Sister who is
desperately trying to escape. The art directors at RKO, Albert S.
D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller, did a marvelous job creating the
mise en scene of Greenwich Village from the existing set on RKO’s
back lot. Several posters on IMDb commented that the set looks
uncannily like an Edward Hopper painting “translated to film.”
It’s a perfect description that matches my reaction when I first
saw the film.
– as to those plot holes. Let’s just say that seeing isn’t
necessarily believing. Yes, those plot holes are there,
I can’t deny that. But also take into consideration that this is
Lewton we’re dealing with here; a man who doesn’t make a habit of
plot holes, especially of the size we find in the movie. There is no
movie ever made that was separate from its history. In other words, a
movie doesn’t spring out of the head of a producer or director (for
you auteurists out there) full-grown as Athena did
from Zeus’s head. All movies have what can be called backstories,
events that shape the final version of the film we see and which
result from a collaborative effort in shaping the final version, or
some backstage political shenanigans from forces outside the producer
or director’s control, usually having to do with money.
the case of Lewton, I refer to two authoritative books in my library
about this multi-faceted man: Val Lewton: The Reality of
Terror by Joel E. Siegel (Viking, 1973), and Fearing
the Dark: The Val Lewton Career by Edmund G. Bansak and
Robert Wise (McFarland, 2003). According to both accounts, The
Seventh Victim was originally slated by RKO as an A-feature,
a reward for Lewton’s high grosses. RKO always was in search of
someone who could bring in big box office. They failed with Orson
Welles, could they strike gold with Val Lewton?
might well have with this film. It has the requisite atmospheric
terror, and, like all good horror films, leaves the horror deeply in
the mind of the viewer. But RKO execs over the years have never been
happy unless they can screw something up completely; to snatch defeat
from the certain jaws of victory.
the question now becomes, “How did they do it this time?” Easy.
They waited until the final draft of the script was complete, then
asked Lewton who he going to assign to direct. When Lewton answered
“Robson,” the execs went loco. “But he’s never directed!”
they said. Lewton answered that Robson had already directed much of
the film, which only stiffened their opposition. They handed Lewton
an ultimatum: Either Robson goes, or you must trim the film to 75
minutes or less. Lewton stood by his employee. Bye-bye 90-minutes;
Hello 71-minutes. As the scenes were already filmed and RKO cut the
budget for reshoots, Lewton had to cut the best he could. The result
is what we now see of the film. As it stands, The Seventh
Victim is a wonderful film. Just think of much more
wonderful it would have been had those cuts not been forced upon
FILMS OF DESERVING INTEREST
19, 12:00 am – Miracles For
Sale (MGM, 1939): Tod Browning’s last
directorial effort for MGM stars Robert Young as a magician who owns
a magic shop. He likes to expose phony spiritualists that like to
prey on the vulnerable. During one such séance, Young meets Florence
Rice, who wants him to help her find a killer before she becomes the
next victim. As Leonard Maltin notes, the film “is a slick whodunit
that cheats its audience a bit too often." It also presents us
with the most obvious red herring in the history of film mysteries.
However, it is Browning’s last film. It failed at the box office
and he was fired as a result. Whatever magic he possessed in the
silent days was long gone, and his last sound films seem like he’s
learning as he goes. By the way, also watch this for its superb
supporting cast, including Henry Hull, Astrid Allwyn, William
Demarest, and two of my favorites, Gloria Holden and Frederic
21, 10:00 pm – Knife
in the Water (Kanawha
Films, 1962): Roman Polanski’s feature film directorial debut is a
film one would never expect to see in Communist Poland. It’s a
finely nuanced character study of a bored, materialist couple who
pick up a hitchhiker and take him to their boat. The hitchhiker’s
presence unhinges the fragile bond of their marriage and trouble
ensues. When the ruling Brahmans of Poland got a peek at this, they
reacted like one would think they’d react: they banned it. His
career over, Polanski left Poland and wound up a starving artist in
Paris. It wasn’t until a print escaped a couple of years later that
the resulting cheers assured Polanski of a future as a director. He
then headed to England, where his next film was Repulsion.
TCM dropped the ball with one, though. It should be shown back to
back with Ashes
which plays on October 22 at the ungodly hour of 6:15 am.