Tuesday, November 29, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for December 1-7

December 1–December 7


MEET JOHN DOE (December 1, 2:15 am): This is a wonderful film and I've never seen Gary Cooper more relaxed in a role than of the fictitious John Doe, the every-man who is created by fired newspaper columnist Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck writes a column with a letter from "John Doe," who is tired of the corrupt system that has left him jobless and bitter, and plans to jump off the roof of city hall on Christmas Eve. The story takes on a life of its own so she convinces the paper's bosses to find a John Doe and write articles about his life, thus creating a national movement. The movie is a comedy with an important message about how society ignores the regular guy. Frank Capra's films are often too sentimental for my tastes, but he hits the right notes with this movie. The supporting cast is solid, particularly Walter Brennan as Cooper's tramp buddy, known as the Colonel, and James Gleason as the headline-hungry managing editor. The film is in the public domain so you can watch it online.

CAPE FEAR (December 4, 2:15 pm): The 1991 remake is very good, but I prefer the 1962 original with Robert Mitchum as the terrifying Max Cady who stalks Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) as well as his wife (Polly Bergen in an excellent performance) and teenage daughter (Lori Martin). The interaction between Mitchum and Peck makes this a must-see. No one can touch Mitchum when it comes to playing pure evil and he shines in this film. Cady is a criminal who spent eight years in prison for rape after Bowden, an attorney, stops him in the act and testifies against him. Cady is out and forget about rehabilitation. Cady is focused on one thing: seeking revenge in the worst possible ways by not only going after Bowden, but his wife and daughter. It is full of suspense with exceptional performances. 


HITLER’S MADMAN (December 3, 8:00 pm): This was German refugee Douglas Sirk’s first film in America, a concise and action packed story of the brutal reign of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, his assassination by Czech resistance fighters, and the brutal revenge of Hitler upon that captive nation. Based on actual events, John Carradine makes for an effective Heydrich and he is supported by an outstanding cast, including Patricia Morison, Ralph Morgan and Elizabeth Russell. Look for Ava Gardner in a small, uncredited role as Franciska Pritric. Sirk provides a sterling example that a low budget does not necessarily make for a bad film. Made for Poverty Row studio PRC, Louis Mayer screened the finished product and was so taken that he purchased it from PRC. To give the film a little extra polish he had Sirk reshoot some of the material before release. The film holds up well today and shows how imagination and honest effort can defeat the lack of budget money.

TOKYO STORY (December 6, 1:30 am): One of the true and enduring classics of the cinema. Director Yazujiro Ozu’s portrait of the elderly in a rapidly changing Postwar Japan is both touching and poignant. An elderly couple (Chishu Ryu and Chiyeko Higashiyama) travel to the city to visit their children, who have no time for them and treat them rather tactlessly. It is a powerful look at the problems of the elderly, the disappointments parents face with their children, the children’s fear of growing older, and how the traditional values as pertains to families are disappearing as Japan becomes more and more modernized. To put it succinctly, it’s a masterpiece that should not be missed.

WE DISAGREE ON ... LUST FOR LIFE (December 3, 3:45 pm)

ED: A+. When considering a biopic about a person as passionate as Van Gogh, one needs an actor who can be passionate without chewing up the available scenery. And in Kirk Douglas we have that perfect actor. He brilliantly conveys the emotional state of Van Gogh without resorting to stage theatrics or trying to outshine his co-stars. In fact, there are times throughout the film when Anthony Quinn, who won a well-deserved Oscar as Paul Gauguin, outshines Douglas in their scenes together. (More kudos to Douglas for placing the importance of his subject before his ego.) As with any quality production, it is absolutely essential to have a good director and an excellent supporting cast. And Lust for Life has both. Vincente Minnelli has the good sense to stand back and let the story unfold while getting superb performances from a stellar supporting cast, including the underrated James Donald, Henry Daniell, Lionel Jeffries, Niall McGinnis, Laurence Naismith, and the always-dependable Everett Sloane. But in the end it’s up to the star to carry the project, and Douglas does just that with a textured performance for the ages. This is a film I can watch time and time again without feeling bored.

DAVID: C-. You won't get an argument from me that Kirk Douglas is one of cinema's all-time greatest actors and that over the years, Anthony Quinn showed himself to be a fantastic talent who delivered great performances in the right circumstances. While Quinn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his eight-minute performance in this 122-minute film and Douglas was his excellent self, this movie about Vincent Van Gogh, an interesting and intense figure in the history of art, does very little for me. I don't enjoy the story, how it's told, the pacing of the film or most anything else even though I recognize the strength of the acting. It's that strength in this overly melodramatic film that saves it from me giving it a grade lower than a C-. Not that it has much to do with this film, but while Van Gogh's life was fascinating, his art is overrated.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Movie Crazy

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Movie Crazy (Paramount, 1932) – Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Harold Lloyd (uncredited). Writers: Vincent Lawrence (s/p). Agnes Christine Johnson, John Gray, & Felix Adler (story). Ernie Bushmiller & Harold Lloyd (uncredited). Stars: Harold Lloyd, Constance Cummings, Kenneth Thomson, Louise Closser Hale, Spencer Charters, Robert McWade, Eddie Fetherston, Sydney Jarvis, Harold Goodwin, Mary Doran, DeWitt Jennings, Lucy Beaumont, & Arthur Housman. B&W, 80 minutes.

Once sound became firmly entrenched, critics and movie buffs alike wondered who of the top three silent comedians would successfully make the jump to the new medium. Charlie Chaplin waited until 1940 to accept the new reality. He knew his Little Tramp character was totally unsuited for sound, and the Tramp made his last appearance in the silent Modern Times (1936). Keaton knew he played much better without sound and many wondered if he could make the jump. As things turned out, he couldn’t. Saddled with bad scripts and a dominating partner in Jimmy Durante, Keaton quickly disappeared from the screen. Harold Lloyd was tabbed as the one who would make it successfully. The characters he played and his style of acting seemed flexible enough to slide over into the new world of sound pictures. 

His first venture into sound films, Welcome Danger (1929) was not an easy one. First made in the silent mode, it took a lot of work and money to convert it to sound. But Lloyd looked comfortable and the film did well at the box office. He followed it the next year with Feet First (1930), yet if anyone thought Lloyd would improve from his mistakes in Welcome Danger, they were sadly mistaken. It was obvious that he still played better in the silent world, where everything was much more fluid, than in the world of sound with its continual stops and starts.

Lloyd then took a two-year sabbatical before venturing forth with this, his third film. When we watch closely, we see he is still not comfortable with the new medium; he even considered the feasibility of releasing the film as a silent in Europe. Movie Crazy was a great improvement over his first two sound attempts and is seen by many of his fans and critics as possibly his best sound feature, but the film did not do well at the box office (perhaps because it was released during the nadir of the Depression) and many of its gags misfired or showed they were better suited to the world of silent features.

Harold Lloyd is Harold Hill, an amateur actor who is obsessed with the movies. He goes so far as to write letter to Planet Studios in Hollywood into which he’ll enclose a picture. While he’s away his father reads the latter and shakes his head. But on hearing Harold coming back, he puts everything back, but misplaces the photo Harold wants to send. Harold mistakenly sends a photo of someone else, quite good looking, with his letter. Studio executive J.L. O’Brien (Charters) sends him an invitation to come out for a screen test. Harold’s father, fearing the worst, offers to buy his son a round-trip ticket, but Harold will have none of that, telling his father that when he comes back he will do so in a Rolls Royce. 

As he detrains at Los Angeles’ Union Station, Harold finds himself watching the studio shooting a scene in progress. The director calls for extras and Harold is asked if he wants to be in a movie. Harold believes they want him for a leading role and proceeds to totally disrupt the proceedings, after which the director gives him the gate. But before Harold leaves, he falls in love with the leading lady, a “Spanish lady” being played by Mary Sears (Cummings). 

Later, Harold reports to O’Brien, who recognizes him as the person who disrupted his film. O’Brien thinks “Harold Hill” is the man in the photo sent to him, and doesn’t realize Harold is the real Hill. O’Brien screams to his staff to have Harold Hill tested and the staff complies. Harold fails miserably, and as he leaves the studio he’s caught in a rainstorm with Mary, who he does not know is the Spanish lady. After a series of mishaps helping her get into her car, she nicknames him “Trouble,” and by the time they reach her apartment she remarks that she’s pleased to meet a man who has not made a pass at her on their first meeting.

Harold runs into Mary later in costume as the Spanish lady. He still does not know that Mary and the Spanish lady are one and the same. After flirting with him as the Spanish lady, Mary coaxes Harold into giving her his fraternity pin. Later, in her own clothes, Mary accuses Harold of being a cad, but they make up and he promises to get the pin back. Harold brings out Mary’s maternal instincts and provides a nice buffer against the advances of her drunken leading man (Thomson).

Mary continues the facade until Harold kisses the Spanish lady. He tries to call on her, but she writes a note on the back of an invitation that she doesn’t want to see him again. Harold reads the wrong side of the card and is under the impression that Mary wants him to attend the party that night as her guest. Once at the party, Harold proceeds to turn everything upside down when he mistakenly dons a magician’s coat while in the washroom. Out on the dance floor, he ends up releasing, among other things, a litter of mice and a rabbit. When the magician finally discovers who has his coat, Harold is thrown out of the party. 

Later, Mary ends the charade by revealing to Harold on a movie set that she is indeed the Spanish lady. Vance, seeing Harold on the set, knocks him out into a basket. Waking up a few minutes later, Harold proceeds to fight for real with Vance while the set is being flooded for the film’s climax. Mr. Kitterman, the studio head, walks on the set to observe the goings-on and finding Harold locked up with Vance, thinks it’s all part of the script. He finds Harold unbelievably funny. Harold tries to tell him that it was for real, but Mary stops him in time to watch him sign a contract as Harold and Mary are reconciled.

The basic problem with Movie Crazy is that is comes off like a silent comedy to which a soundtrack is appended. Most of the gags remind one of Lloyd’s silent days and there’s very little word play, which is what most moviegoers have come to expect by now. For instance, the scene with Lloyd and the magician’s coat at the party goes on too long and seems calculated and mechanically contrived. The same with the fight scene in the boat. It just happens. There is no real build-up and it also goes on too long. 

Though the movie revolves around Lloyd and he dominates it, it is Constance Cummings who comes off best. She is quicker and more confident in her character than Lloyd is in his. In fact, it seems as if she has developed her character independently of his foibles. Her portrayal of the dual role of Mary Sears and the Spanish lady comes off brilliantly and would have worked a lot better if she was paired with Joe E. Brown or Bert Wheeler, someone more familiar with the world of sound than Lloyd, who strikes us throughout as distinctly uncomfortable in his new role.

Kenneth Thomson as Vance, the bad guy of the movie, performs his scenes well, but isn’t given enough time to expand his character and make us see just why he’s the villain of the piece. We would have liked to have seen more of Thomson, as well as Lucy Beaumont and DeWitt Jennings as Harold’s parents. This, again, is the influence of silent comedy, where the villain is simply introduced as such and goes from there. It’s the failure to properly integrate the physical comedy scenes into the body of the film as a whole that ultimately sinks it.

Given the box office returns, it would be another two years before Lloyd returned to the screen in 1934’s The Cat’s Paw, in which he finally begins to master the complexities of sound and turns out a genuinely funny movie. If I were to grade Movie Crazy I’d give it an “A” for effort, and be grateful that Lloyd and his crew had the good sense to cast Constance Cummings.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

We Disagree/We Agree Films For December

We're trying something new in December to give our readers even more of an opportunity to participate in The Celluloid Club.

As you know, we pick a film each week for our We Disagree/We Agree segment. If you'd like to give your thoughts on a particular film or more than one, send to celluloidclub@gmail.com: your full name, letter grades and reasons why you either like or dislike the movies. We'll include them with our TCM TiVo Alerts.

The films for December are:
Lust for Life – December 1-7
Ikiru – December 8-14
Third Finger, Right Hand – December 15-22
The Omega Man – December 23-31 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (WB, 2016) – Director: David Yates. Writer: J.K. Rowling. Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Sam Redford, Johnny Depp, Scott Goldman, Tom Bentnick, Tom Clarke Hill, Tristan Tait, Colin Ferrell, Matthew Sim, Katherine Waterston, Samantha Morton, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Zoe Kravitz, Ron Perlman, Jenn Murray, & Cory Peterson. Color, Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.

How do you catch a beast you cannot see?” “With great difficulty.”

Indeed, trying to catch a “demiguise” when it’s invisible can be challenging but not for Newton Artemis Fido “Newt” Scamander (Redmayne), a magizoologist who is collecting and cataloging rare magical creatures and keeping them in his suitcase. (When visible, a demiguise looks like a blue-furred sloth with big, sad eyes.)

It is 1926 in New York City, 70 years before Harry Potter even got started, according to writer J.K. Rowling. Newt arrives by boat searching for a much rarer creature, a “Niffler" – in appearance, a short-tailed platypus – which has eyes for gold and sparkling things and a pouch to store them in. What he doesn’t know is that an “obscuros" is also loose in the city and it has already destroyed one building and torn up a street.

Newt’s plans are upset when he meets Mr. Jacob Kowalski (Fogler) a man with a dream of opening a bakery and who has an identical suitcase, but his is full of sample baked goods. The suitcases are destined to be switched (and are). Mr. Kowalski becomes curious when one clasp mysteriously pops open and he lets out a few of the creatures within, one of which bites him.

The escape alerts an agent of MaCUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America) – an organization of wizards in a parallel universe inside New York’s Woolworth Building. Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for breaking the laws of the organization. Unfortunately, her status in MaCUSA is tenuous at best and her arrest makes no impression on her superiors, Seraphina Picquery (Ejogo) and the sinister looking Mr. Percival Graves (Farrell). It is only with clever trickery that they get themselves and the suitcase back to her apartment.

Tina helps Newt find Mr. Kowalski and they bring him to her apartment where Newt can cure him of the beast bite. But Jacob falls instantly in love with Tina’s roommate, a vivacious red-head. After showing Jacob the world he has hidden in the suitcase and demonstrating that these fearsome creatures are really gentle when treated right, the three go in search of the escapees, one of which is an “Erumpent” – a huge rhinoceros-like creature that is in heat and is tearing up the local zoo looking for a mate.

MaCUSA has their own major problem, as witnessed by the opening credits. The evil Grindelwald (Depp) has escaped captivity and threatens to start a war between the wizards and the No-Maj world (people with no magic, or Muggles in the Potter universe). In addition, a No-Maj named Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) is preaching against witches from the town hall steps with her children Chastity (Murray), Credence (Miller), and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) and whipping up support for her cause.

When presidential candidate Senator Langdon Shaw is killed by the rampaging obscuros, his father joins the movement against witches. This makes MaCUSA’s situation even direr.

Newt, Tina, Queenie and Jacob have to set things right before armed camps form and more deaths result. Their searches take them to meet the mysterious Lestrange (Kravitz) and the avaricious gnome Gnarlack (Perlman) at the Blind Pig Speakeasy. Gnarlack’s information costs Newt his timorous leafy green Bowtruckle – a creature who can pick locks.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a stunningly beautiful film with remarkable special effects and must be seen in 3D, which it uses to full capability. The animation is excellent, the soundtrack powerful and the script is eminently quotable. My favorite line is, “Worrying makes you suffer twice.”

The only weakness in the movie is the delivery of lines. Eddie Redmayne plays the self-effacing and modest collector well but mumbles several sentences incoherently. If I were director David Yates I’d be screaming, “What did you say?” over and over. Katherine Waterston has this problem too. Otherwise, the acting is splendid and the characters are believable. Especially, the police who line up and repeatedly shoot at something that has no body to speak of. The two hours and 13 minutes passed before I knew it. I would like to see a sequel to this film.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Clock Tower
5 Madison Ave., New York

Did you ever wonder what happened to the iconic Metropolitan Life Building (the one pictured on all their stationary – with the golden pyramid on top) after the insurance company bought and moved into the former Pan Am Building? It’s now the Edition Hotel and houses an elegant restaurant called The Clock Tower.

An inducement for my choosing The Clock Tower was the menu. Billed as being British cuisine, the listings on the menu were anything but the expected fare in an English pub.

When I met Carla, my server, I had had just enough time to view the cocktail list. But I knew that there was no place else in the universe where I could get a perfect Beefeater martini if I couldn’t get one here and I was right. The menu had English ingredients in almost every dish but with a stylish twist. I could have had king crab legs as an appetizer, but I wanted to seek the extraordinary.

Like magic, the wine steward appeared and I told him what I had ordered and what qualities I wanted in a wine. He steered me to the red wines from Spain and I chose the 2009 CVNE Viῆa Real, Gran Reserva Rioja. I had specified an elegant, full-bodied red with deep fruits and this one definitely fit the description. It even brought out finer flavor in the first course.

I admit I’m not a fan of salmon. I like Nova Scotia lox and the occasional salmon sushi, but I never order a main course of salmon. But the London gin cured salmon with salt baked beets, fennel pollen, and horseradish ice was on another level of reality. The salmon was delicate and delicious and, when combined with the other ingredients, divine. When a taste of the rioja enhanced that, I was in disbelief.

Next was the “winter leaf salad,” with smoked figs, black walnuts, watermelon radishes and fresh honeycomb. It looked like a bigger portion than it was but that was only the excess of frisée. The figs were julienne cut and the walnuts were candied. The light dressing did not overpower the individual flavors and the occasional honeycomb was a tasty, sweet surprise each time.

The competition between the “Long Island duck” and the “pan-roasted striped bass” was tough but the Colorado lamb chops (medium rare) in a spiced pistachio crust, with mixed grains, caramelized yoghurt, and artichokes won my choice of main course. They were appetizingly crossed and leaning on the other ingredients, the perfect shade of pink, tender enough to cut with a fork and delicious.

My dessert was pistachio soufflé with a ball of chocolate ice cream served separately finished a truly delightful dining experience. I had my traditional double espresso but this time, I had a nice glass of green Chartreuse with it.

But it wasn’t yet over, for Carla brought out a tray of homemade cookies and candies. I haven’t been served like this in many years. I started wondering what it would be like to stay at this hotel and come down here for breakfast. Who knows? Maybe even this will happen.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Duke Is Tops

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

The Duke is Tops (Million Dollar Productions, 1938) – Directors: William L. Nolte, Ralph Cooper (uncredited). Writers: Phil Dunham & Ralph Cooper. Stars: Ralph Cooper, Lena Horne, Laurence Criner, Monte Hawley, Willie Covan, Neva Peoples, Vernon McCalla, Edward Thompson, Johnny Taylor, Ferdie Fenton, Ray Martin, Guernsey Morrow, Charles Hawkins, Basin Street Boys, Rubberneck Holmes, & Cats and the Fiddle. B&W, 73 minutes.

Race films.” What an ugly term. But then it was an ugly period in America. There was the Depression, which despite massive government intervention, continued to plague American life. And on the social front, there was the treatment of the African-American, who benefited little in the years since slavery was abolished. One might say he moved up from being 3/5 of a person to being a second-class citizen. In many areas of the country, African-Americans could not vote and Jim Crow ruled, which made for a strictly segregated society, especially in the South, where a system of apartheid was in force.

In the South, to comply with the laws enforcing segregation, race films were shown at specially designated theaters. Though cities in the North were not formally segregated, race movies were shown in theaters located in black neighborhoods. Many large northern theaters that did show race movies usually showed them during matinees or at midnight showings.

While some race films were produced by African-American companies – most notably the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which existed from 1916 to 1921, and Oscar Micheaux’s Michael Film Corporation, which was based out of Chicago and lasted from 1921 to 1940 – most were financed and produced by white-owned companies outside the Hollywood mainstream, such as brothers Leo and Harry Popkin and entrepreneur Alfred Sack, a Jewish Texan, who headed Sack Amusement Enterprises out of Dallas. Although the financing was white, were there many instances of the product being written and directed by black talent such as Ralph Cooper (who originated the famous “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theater in Harlem back in 1937) and Spencer Williams, who often starred in front of the camera as well. The Duke is Tops is a product of Million Dollar Productions, a company founded in 1937 by Ralph Cooper and actor George Randol with the financial backing of Leo and Harry Popkin. Astor Pictures, a distribution outfit founded and headed by Robert M. Savini, also occasionally produced race movies, most notably starring entertainer Louis Jourdan. 

Most of the films were produced in northern cities and reflected the themes of middle-class urban values, industriousness, the “improvement” of African Americans, the supposed tension between educated and uneducated blacks and the tragic consequences in store for those who resisted liberal capitalist values. But these weren’t the only themes. There was a wide variety of movies: Westerns, musicals, dramas, thrillers, and comedies. What the audience didn’t see in these films were explicit depictions of poverty, ghettos, social decay and crime. If these themes appeared at all, they were often shunted to the background or used as a plot device, such as what happened with crime, which never went unpunished.

The films also assiduously avoided the popular stock African-American found in mainstream Hollywood productions, or else relegated these sort of characters to mere supporting roles or in the role of villain. 

Race films began their decline in the late ‘40s, when the participation of African-Americans in World War II helped lead to starring roles for African-American actors in several major Hollywood productions, such as Pinky (1949) with Ethel Waters, Home of the Brave (1949) with James Edwards, and No Way Out (1950), the film debut of  Sidney Poitier. It is said the last race film was a 1954 adventure shot in Key West, Fla., called Carib Gold.

The Duke is Tops is a good example of the backstage musical. Duke Davis (Cooper) is the beau and manager of the extraordinarily talented Ethel Andrews (Horne). Duke is also the producer of their latest show, called “Sepia Scandals,” which is on tour in small towns. One night, George Marshall (Hawley), a New York booking agent, catches the show and is bowled over by Ethel. He offers her a contract to come to New York, where her talent will be showcased in a major venue. There is one stipulation: Duke cannot accompany her. Duke is anguished by the decision, but eventually decides to let her go to New York, as it’s the best thing for her and her career. Ethel is also conflicted over leaving Duke and rejects Marshall’s offer. But Duke, knowing the New York offer is in her best interests, coldly tells her that he has sold her contract to Marshall and pocketed the profit. Ethel, heartbroken, changes her mind and goes with Marshall to New York. 

Later, Ethel's friend Ella (Peoples) discovers that Duke, knowing that Ethel would never leave him willingly, intentionally angered her in order to force her to do what he thought was best for her. Duke has Ella promise to keep her discovery a secret from Ethel.

While Ethel gets off to a great start in New York, Duke finds himself destitute. He turns to booking agent Ed Lake (Morrow) to secure backing for his vaudeville show. But Lake turns Duke down flat. In his view, vaudeville is dead. Duke later convinces theater owner Mr. Mason (McCalla), who had hosted his earlier show, to produce his new show, called “The Mobile Merry Makers.” The show is a flop and Duke ends up supporting himself by shilling as a barker for Doc Dorando's (Criner) traveling medicine show. 

Duke injects some much-needed showmanship into Dorando's pitch and, along with Dippy (Taylor), an unemployed property man, they hit the road hawking “Doc Dorando's Universal Elixir.” As the show catches on with audiences, Duke becomes Doc's partner with an elaborate trailer and a company of entertainers, including Willie Covans, the Basin Street Boys, The Cats and the Fiddle, "Rubberneck" Holmes and Joe Stevenson. The show becomes a hit and the money starts rolling in.

Meanwhile, a year has passed. One day, while listening to the radio, Duke hears that a show in which Ethel was appearing has flopped and he rushes to New York to be with her. Ella tells Ethel the truth about Duke, and when Duke arrives in New York, he meets with Ferdie Fenton (Thompson), the club owner who produced Ethel’s show. Fenton has taken the blame for rushing Ethel's career and thus causing her failure. Duke gets Fenton to agree to produce a new show that he will create, bringing in his specialty acts from the medicine show, and he and Ethel appear on stage together, reunited at last.


Most of the film’s acting is predictably stiff, but it has all the joys of a musical with several specialty acts not usually seen in mainstream Hollywood films, such as The Basin Street Boys (who had a long recording career highlighted by the postwar hit “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”), Cat and the Fiddle, Willie Covan, and especially the amazing “Rubberneck Holmes.”

Shooting on The Duke Is Tops, scheduled for 10 days, ran into a major glitch when the producers ran out of money to pay the cast. Horne's husband at the time, Louis Jordan (to whom she was married from 1937 to 1944), wanted her to leave. However, she refused, partly from the show business ethic that performers never abandon a show, but also because there were so few roles for blacks even in low-budget films. She wasn’t alone. None of the other actors dropped out either and the film still finished on time. When the film made its Pittsburgh premiere at an NAACP benefit, Jordan wouldn’t allow his wife to attend.

The Duke is Tops is best known today as the film debut of Lena Horne, but at its time of release, Ralph Cooper was top billed. Cooper, known as “the Dark Gable,” started his movie career in 1936 with 20th Century Fox, playing a supporting character named Ali in the Warner Baxter drama White Hunter. Surveying the current Hollywood landscape, Cooper realized that the role of Ali would probably be the best offered him if he stayed in Hollywood. He decided to take his chances in the low-budget world of African-American cinema while keeping his regular job as an emcee, singer and dancer on the club circuit. During the course of his all-too short movie career (only seven films) he played gangsters in Dark Manhattan (1937), Gangsters on the Loose (1937) and Gang War (1940). His final role was as an idealistic doctor in Harlem who becomes involved with gangsters in Am I Guilty? (1940). The Duke is Tops was the only movie to offer him a multi-talented platform and he took full advantage, establishing a good chemistry with leading lady Horne.

As noted, this was Horne’s first film. Her acting is a bit wooden and the low-budget sound system does little justice to her rich singing voice. After filming ended, she returned to the world of the clubs. While performing at the Little Troc on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, she was discovered by MGM scouts and signed to a long-term contract, the first black performer to do so, and made her Hollywood debut in 1942’s Panama Hattie, staring Ann Sothern and Red Skelton. While under contract, however, she had only two starring roles, in Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (under loan to Fox), both in 1943 and both were aimed at African-American audiences.

Most of her appearances were as stand alone segments in musicals where her footage could be edited out for Southern audiences. She lobbied for the role of Julie LaVerne in MGM’s 1951 remake of Show Boat, but lost out to good friend Ava Gardner, a victim of the Production Code, which forbade interracial relationships. Increasingly disenchanted with Hollywood, she made only two films in the ‘50s: The Duchess of Idaho (1954), which was also Eleanor Powell’s final film, and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956). She also found herself blacklisted in Hollywood for affiliations with Communist-backed groups, which she later disavowed. She concentrated instead on her singing and recording career, becoming a frequent guest on TV variety shows.

In 1981, she signed for a four-week engagement at New York’s Nederlander Theatre. The show was such a success that it was extended to a full year run as Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, for which she received a special Tony Award. The show toured the U.S., Canada and Europe until 1984. Active almost until the end, she died on May 9, 2010, in New York City. Her funeral held at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, attracted thousands, including Leontyne Price, Dionne Warwick, Jessye Norman, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivers, Lauren Bacall, Robert Osborne, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll and Chita Rivera.


After Lena Horne signed with MGM, The Duke is Tops was re-released as The Bronze Venus with Horne being top-billed and Cooper’s name appearing in smaller type below.

Director William Nolte enjoyed a long career as a second unit, or assistant, director, mainly in the world of Westerns. One of his last assignments was as the assistant director on Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955).

Monday, November 21, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for November 23-30

November 23–November 30


THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (November 24, 12:00 pm): Warner Brothers wasn't known for making excellent comedies in the 1930s and 40s, and Bette Davis didn't become famous for her comedic skills. However, this 1942 screwball comedy is the exception to the rule. Davis is delightful and funny as Maggie Cutler, secretary to Monty Woolley's character. Woolley's Sheridan Whiteside is an arrogant, acerbic lecturer and critic who slips on the front steps of the house of an Ohio family, injuring himself in the process. Since he's going to be laid up for a while, Whiteside thinks nothing of completely takes over the house, leading to some funny and madcap moments. Woolley, who reprised the role he first made famous on Broadway, is the best part of the movie. Davis is great and showed legitimate promise as a comedic actress. 

CROSSFIRE (November 28, 4:30 pm): Robert Ryan was a tremendous actor and this is my favorite film to feature him. This 1947 film noir that deals with anti-Semitism is considered the first B movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The film stars the great Robert Mitchum with Robert Young outstanding as a police detective. But it is Ryan's powerful portrayal of a white supremacist/anti-Semite GI who kills a Jewish guy he and his buddies meet at a bar who steals the movie. 


TOP HAT (November 25, 6:00 pm): Not only is this film the best of the Astaire-Rogers pairings, but it’s also one of the greatest musicals – if not the greatest – ever to come from Hollywood. Everything goes off perfectly in this movie: the score by none other than Irving Berlin, the dance numbers (especially “Top Hat,” and “Cheek to Cheek”), and even Fred’s pursuit of Ginger is fresh and funny. It’s the old formula – Fred meets Ginger, Fred loses Ginger, Fred gets Ginger – but in this film it has not yet run its course. Add to this a supporting cast featuring the always-reliable Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore, plus dependable Helen Broderick and Eric Rhodes, and the result is an engaging and charming 90 minutes. Look for Lucille Ball in an unbilled role as a flower clerk.

UMBERTO D (November 26, 2:00 am): Director Vittorio DeSica was known for his realistic portrayals of life in Postwar Italy. Next to The Bicycle Thieves, this is his most important  and best  film from that time. It takes a long, hard look at the problems of the unwanted elderly, the protagonist being a retired professor of linguistics at Bologna who can no longer survive on his meager pension. Thrown out of his apartment for back rent, he wanders the streets with his faithful terrier, Flike, Be warned, this is the saddest owner and pet drama since Old Yeller, and I'm not kidding when I say that this is a five-hankie picture. The film was instrumental in helping to reform the Italian pension system into something more humane. Critically lauded in the '50s, it's almost forgotten today, much like it's protagonist.

WE DISAGREE ON ... SANS SOLEIL (November 30, 2:30 am):

ED: B+Sans Soleil is an interesting film. It’s full of documentary images, yet it really can’t be called a documentary in the strict sense of the word. It’s more of a personal meditation on the nature of human memory: the inability to recall context and nuances, and how the resulting perception of personal and global histories is affected. Director Chris Marker films most of it in Japan and Guinea-Bissau, two countries with wildly divergent cultures. The scenes in Japan are compelling, especially the temple devoted to cats, and it’s a sort of travelogue through the memory. The best way to enjoy it is surrender to it from the beginning. Instead of stopping to analyze what is being seen, as we usually do with a film, we should let it soak in, and at the end review our impressions. Not everyone is going to like this, as it does come off a bit pretentious at times. But it is a whole lot better than sitting through the dull monotony of an Antonioni, Pasolini, or the later Godard. But see it at least once. You’ll find yourself running the images through your mind of days.

DAVID: C. Honestly, I don't know what's going on in this film. It's not compelling or even well made, and comes across as a random, mixed-up collection of film clips with no direction. Most importantly, it is neither interesting nor fascinating. Like Ed, I found it somewhat pretentious, but not over the top. Sans Soleil is a confusing collage of images at various locations throughout the world. If there was something that legitimately tied it all together, it could have worked. Just because there's a narrator talking about a supposed world traveler and discussing his adventures doesn't mean it's a cohesive story. It most definitely isn't. But I've seen a lot worse.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Arrival (Paramount, 2016) – Director: Denis Villeneuve. Writer: Eric Heisserer (s/p). Ted Chiang (short story, “Story of Your Life”). Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlberg, Forest Whitaker, Sangita Patel, Mark O’Brien, Abigail Pniowsky, Tzi Ma, Nathaly Thibault, Ruth Chiang, Jadyn Malone, Julia Scarlett Dan, Russell Yuen, Anana Rydvald & Leisa Reid. Color, Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.

Once again, extraterrestrials have taken the outrageously impractical step to travel the incredibly vast intergalactic distance to visit a planet filled with lunatics. I saw this movie with one question. “What are the creators going to do that’s different?”

Twelve enormous spacecraft suddenly and soundlessly arrive at 12 unlikely locations around the Earth and just hover above the ground. The one in the United States picked Montana to “dock.” Edge-on they look like rotten bananas, and full face, like concave cats-eye lenses with macular degeneration. They just hang there, silently, sending off no radiation, no signals, not shooting anything with ray guns and not even harming a blade of grass.

Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist who teaches college students, and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) are recruited to hopefully communicate with whomever is controlling these titanic “shells.” U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker) is, of course, impatient to find out why the ships are here and plays back a short audio clip of the alien rumblings and hoots (as if Dr. Banks can make anything out of it). She convinces him that she must see them face to face to hopefully start a dialogue and, even then, must develop a set of definitions comprehensible by the creatures to convey our questions.

A large door opens at the bottom of the craft in Montana and the team is elevated past the opening to discover that an artificial gravity exists inside whereby they can walk “up” the wall like flies to a bright window-like divider between them and the visitors. Two creatures approach the window and I had a flashback to Finding Dory. They appear to be octopus-like but, like Hank, only have seven tentacles – heptapods. Not only that, but each tentacle can open up at the end to display seven “finger” extensions. Ian decides to name them Abbott and Costello. When Dr. Banks attempts written communication by displaying the word “human” on a light pad and speaking the word, the aliens respond with a jet of ink from the center of a tentacle that coalesces into a circular “inkblot” on the window.

It’s baffling until the team gets enough pictographs to discern patterns and learn that the aliens communicate in whole sentences at one time. Up to this point, the governments of the 11 other countries where spacecraft now hover have been in contact with the U.S. team and with each other. China’s General Shang (Ma) is ready to blast their ship out of the sky, Russia follows suit and, one by one, the other countries discontinue mutual communication.

Throughout the movie, Dr. Banks is having these visions which I took to be flashbacks of her happy life with her daughter Hannah (Jadyn Malone at 4 years of age, Abigail Pniowsky at 8, and Julia Scarlett Dan at 12). At one point. she apparently loses her daughter to cancer. Sad, but so-so. These are confusing until the last scenes in the film when they are explained.

Dr. Banks has the titanic burden of discovering what the aliens are telling her, figuring out her visions and getting the world back into communication before some nation tries something globally fatal.

Arrival teaches us more about human nature than it relates a tale of alien visitors. Though the creatures have done nothing aggressive, shown no evidence of destructive power, the people of Earth are literally freaking out by just their presence during the slow communication learning process. It would be laughable if it weren’t so true to life. What we don’t understand, we generally make up, and it’s always worse than the truth. That’s one of three good things this movie has in its favor. The second is its proposal that universal communication is essential to world unity. Lastly, the subtle way the spaceships leave is a great special effect.

On the not-so-good side, there were several points at which I thought the movie could have ended and didn’t. It started my favorite way (not!) with a dully spoken narrative which leaves you saying, “Who cares?” It ends the same way. You find yourself rooting for the aliens and hoping they do destroy something, because the Earth people are acting so incredibly ignorant. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner did what they could with a script that could cure insomnia and I give them a lot of credit for that. And if the script doesn’t send you into dreamland, the dull grays, misty blues and general cinematography of the movie will. Forest Whitaker was given a part he could do in his sleep and he was great.

There’s no gore, no vulgarity, no violence and unfortunately, nothing to wake you up if you should fall asleep. Given the premise of the film and the twist revealed at the end, I think the writers, and director Denis Villeneuve could have done much more with Arrival. Another good part, there’s no hint of a sequel.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Bombay Grill House
764 9th Ave., New York

Always on the look-out for new Indian restaurants (my favorite cuisine), I was delighted to find this three-week-old gem on OpenTable.

Inside, it’s cozy, warm, open brick walls with tasteful sconces and little electric votive lights between the photographs of Indian temples. Overhead are antique chandeliers, but they are not lit, just for atmosphere.

I had an early reservation and it was no trouble getting a table in the middle of the restaurant. My server, Basudeb, presented me with the main menu and drink list, which also served as a wine list. She asked if I wanted to order a drink. I saw one beer that I have not tried and ordered the 1947 Premium Lager. It was a rich, full-flavored beer without being heavy, brewed by Indian-Americans in Long Island City, Queens, with intent purpose of being a better match for Indian food.

I started with Mulligatawny soup made with chicken. It was thinner than most comparable soups and less spicy than many, but it was hot and the chicken tender – a nice mild, red lentil soup.

The appetizer was something I’ve never seen on and Indian menu. Called Ragaraa, it’s deep fried, spiced potato patties with chick peas, a tamarind and a green chutney and a drizzle of yogurt. It was sweet and tart, spicy and piquant. The patties were hot but the sauce and chick peas were cold. The potatoes were the consistency of a good knish. A surprising contrast.

For my wine, Basudeb brought out a bottle of 2015 Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. I have had Chilean red wines before and they are remarkable. This one was excellent, despite the screw-top – a rich, fruity red with enough body to stand up to Indian flavors.  

My main course was the Masala Walla (spice merchant) lamb. It was very similar to the Rogan Josh I have ordered at several Indian restaurants before but with a richer, denser tomato-based sauce. Again, the spice level was lower than I might have expected (or desired), but the lamb was tender and the portion was large enough to impress me.

The choices of bread were pretty standard and I chose my favorite, onion kulcha, which was nicely browned and stuffed with perfectly cooked onions. Many times I’ve dined in Indian restaurants I found I had to take some portion of it home. Not this time. I finished everything.

Since I did not choose Besudeb’s main course, I let her choose my dessert. It happened to be my favorite as well: Gulab Jamun, normally spongy milk balls soaked in rose-scented syrup were slightly on the cheesy side. It added a new dimension of flavor to this usually very sweet dessert. I liked it. Then, after a mug of hot Masala Chai (spiced tea), my virtual trip to Bombay was complete. I thanked Besudeb for her smiling service and told her I would be back.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Doctor X

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Doctor X (WB, 1932) – Director: Michael Curtiz. Writers: Earl Baldwin, and Robert Tasker (s/p). George Rosener (contribution to s/p construction; uncredited). Howard Warren Comstock, Allen C. Miller (play, The Terror). Stars: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray,  Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Leila Bennett, Robert Warwick, George Rosener, Willard Robertson, Thomas E. Jackson, Harry Holman, Mae Busch, & Tom Dugan. In two-strip Technicolor, 77 minutes.

Now listen, please, to what I have to say: one of us in this room may be a murderer; a murderer who kills by the light of a full moon, leaving his victim’s body mutilated; a cannibal…” – Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill)

By the year 1932, the Depression has firmly set in and Hollywood was looking for new diversions to get the public into theaters. Studios took note that Universal had a series of hits with their horror films: DraculaFrankenstein, and Murder in the Rue Morgue that brought audiences into the theaters.

It got to the point where even Warner Bros. was forced to get into the game. But for Warners, known for its gritty urban dramas, horror was unknown territory. Fortunately, they had a director who had cut his teeth in Germany with such films – Michael Curtiz. He was assigned to direct two films devoted to horror: Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. To boost audience interest, the studio used the two-strip Technicolor process, although audiences not in the urban areas saw the pictures in black and white. And in keeping with the studio’s philosophy, there was absolutely nothing supernatural about each film: they were firmly rooted in the studio's urban environment and ethos.

Lee Taylor (Tracy) is a reporter investigating what the press has dubbed “The Moon Murders,” a series of killings over the past six months always committed under a full moon. Each victim has been neatly and clinically stabbed and chunks of flesh are missing, insinuating some form of cannibalism. Taylor is waiting outside the morgue, located somewhere on New York's Lower East Side, acting on a tip that the police are calling in an expert to do the postmortem on the latest victim, a scrubwoman. Barred from entry, he ducks into a local brothel to call his paper and give them an update on who’s attending the postmortem. 

The police have called in Doctor Xavier (Atwill), the head of the nearby Academy of Surgical Research, to perform the postmortem. Xavier concludes that the old woman was strangled by a pair of powerful hands before an incision was made at the base of her brain and her left deltoid muscle removed, presumably for cannibalization. 

Asked by Police Commissioner Stevens (Warwick) his opinion of the killer, Xavier replies that the killer is “A neurotic, of course. Some poor devil suffering from a fixation ... A knot or kink tied to the brain by some past experience. A madness that comes only at certain times when the killer is brought into direct contact with some vivid reminder of the past.”

Stevens is more than a little skeptical, but Xavier continues, pointing to his head: “But I tell you that locked in each human skull is a little world all its own.”

When Stevens asks what these ‘reminders’ would be, Xavier responds, “Anything. The poor devil, sane at all other times, is forced to live over the scene of the action that first drove him mad.”

And there we have it. While Universal is attributing its horrors for the most part to supernatural causes, Warner Bros. is going straight to Freud, with a side detour to Richard Kraft-Ebbing for the perverse details, for its explanation. There’s nothing supernatural at all about The Moon Killer; he is simply driven to do what he does by a past traumatic experience.

But to his consternation, Dr. Xavier discovers that the commissioner has an ulterior motive for asking him to perform the postmortem. The commissioner believes that someone from Xavier’s nearby Surgical Academy is the killer. Xavier takes umbrage to the accusation. He knows every student and faculty member personally and asks Commissioner Stevens to allow him to conduct his own internal investigation before officially proceeding. Stevens agrees to Xavier’s request. Xavier, Stevens, and the others present leave the morgue to see the Academy and meet its faculty. 

Immediately after the men leave, Taylor pops up from the slab where he has been hiding – and listening – while the discussion has been going on. Tracy’s character will perform tricks like this throughout the film, lending some necessary comic relief to the gruesome proceedings. He puts on his shoes and leaves to report what he has heard to his editor and heads for the Academy.

At the school, formerly titled “Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research,” Xavier’s daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray) discovers a figure skulking in the dark. She lets out one of her famous screams before turning on the lights only to find her father skimming through the bookcases in his library. She begs him to take a break and get some rest, but he replies that he cannot rest until he clears the name of the school. As she opens the blinds to let in the moonlight, Xavier tells her that he is bothered by the ghastly moon.

Dr. Xavier introduces his faculty to the police, and a better group of likely suspects could not exist. First up is Professor Wells (Foster), an expert on cannibalism. Wells is working on an experiment that is keeping a human heart beating through electrical impulses. He tells Stevens and his staff that his left arm is bothering him, then unscrews his artificial left hand.

Next up is Professor Haines (John Wray), whose specialty is brain research and is experimenting with brain grafting. He asks after Joanne in a way that can best be described as unsettling. Xavier notes to the police that Haines was part of an expedition that was shipwrecked. He and two colleagues were adrift for days in a lifeboat. When they were finally rescued, only two were still present. There was no trace of the third. 

The other person left alive in the lifeboat is Dr. Rowitz (Carewe), who also works at the Academy. His specialty is studying the effects of the moon on a person’s mind. As he is explaining his work, he begins to rhapsodize quite fancifully about the moon, while the light beaming down on his face from the skylight above shows massive scars. His rhapsodizing gets to the point where his grumpy, wheelchair-bound partner Professor Duke (Beresford) interrupts to get him back on track. After meeting the faculty, Stevens gives Xavier the 48 hours he requested to finish his investigation. 

As Xavier is busy making introductions, Joanne catches Taylor prowling around the grounds and threatens him with a gun. Taylor tries to charm her, but to no avail. As he skulks in the dark, an unknown figure creeps up behind him. He lights a cigar given to him by the guard at the morgue as the figure grows closer. Suddenly, just as the figure’s hands are about to close around his neck, the cigar explodes, a payback from a cop he used a joy buzzer on when they shook hands earlier (and something that will come into play later in the movie to save Taylor’s life), and the unknown figure runs away, unnoticed. 

Taylor later sneaks into the Xavier house, conning Mamie (Bennett), the family maid. Joanne once again catches him, this time attempting to steal photos of herself and her father for his paper. She becomes further enraged when she learns that he wrote the story about her father in that morning’s paper. However, as she’s busy taking Taylor to task, she lets slip the fact that her father is convening the faculty at his summer estate in Blackstone Shoals, Long Island, for his internal investigation. Taylor follows the group out to the estate.

At the estate, Xavier tells the others his reasons for the move. He and Professor Wells have devised a psychoneurological test to determine if anyone of them is the guilty party. Xavier is also going to subject himself to the test; the only person exempt will be Wells, who Xavier has deduced can't be a suspect as he has only one hand. Despite the protests of the professors, the test will begin in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Taylor has snuck into the house, receiving a series of frights as he tries to figure out what is going on. He ducks into a closet full of skeletons, and while waiting, begins to play with them. But one of the skeleton’s arms moves, exposing a hole in the wall through which an eye is watching. The closet soon fills with gas, knocking Taylor out. 

For the experiment, Xavier is using Mamie and Otto the butler (Rosener), dressing them up as victim and killer to re-enact the murders under the light of the full moon. Each of the professors, excepting Wells, is handcuffed to a chair and hooked up to a set of tubes monitoring their heartbeat, with each beat causing a reddish liquid to surge in the tubes. The quicker the heartbeat, the higher the liquid goes, which shows how excited the individual is becoming. If the tube overflows, that individual is guilty. As the experiment goes on, the lights go out, with chaos ensuing. Rowitz screams and as the lights go on, Xavier determines he is the killer, as his tube is overflowing. But Rowitz is dead, murdered like all the others. Wells is later found conked on the head during the pandemonium and when he comes to, he remembers nothing. 

Despite the horrors of the previous night, Xavier is determined to repeat the experiment, but Mamie is too distraught to continue. Joanne volunteers to take her place and dresses as one of the victims, this time, a young girl who was murdered by the fiend while in the hospital. Otto will once again play the killer. Taylor has wandered off to examine the house and has discovered a secret passage to one of the professor’s labs. Doctor Xavier thinks he’s slipped away to send in his story, but Joanne is certain that he kept his promise to her. Although they search, but cannot find him. But we saw that while Taylor is snooping around, a cloaked figure suddenly grabs him and imprisons him on the other side of a sliding panel.

In his room setting up the experiment, Wells begins acting strangely. He reaches behind some shelving and produces another hand. Although it’s misshapen, it is real and quite functional. Slipping it into his empty left sleeve, where it attaches itself to the stump of his arm, he applies what looks like goop to his left stump, all the while muttering the words “synthetic flesh.” The goop sets and allows him to use the hand like a normal hand, only a much stronger one. He turns on an electric arc generator and thrusts his newly-attached hand into the current, with his reaction being a rather strange combination of agony and ecstasy. He also applies the goop to his face, once again muttering “synthetic flesh,” in case we didn’t catch it the first time, creating a mask that looks horribly distorted. 

Wells sneaks up on Otto and strangles him. He then heads for Joanne grabbing her throat and reveling himself to the others, who are struggling to escape from their cuffs. Wells taunts them with his new makeover, revealing his insanity: “Yes, it is Wells! – but a new Wells! A Wells whose name will live forever in the history of science! Yes, look at it! A real hand! It’s alive – it’s flesh! Synthetic flesh! For years I’ve been searching to find the secret of a living manufactured flesh – and now I’ve found it! You think I went to Africa to study cannibalism? I went there to get samples of the human flesh that the natives eat! Yes, that’s what I needed – living flesh from humans for my experiments! What difference did it make if a few people had to die? Their flesh taught me how to manufacture arms, legs, faces that are human! I’ll make a crippled world whole again!”

As Wells continues clutching Joanne by the throat, Taylor suddenly springs out from the shadows and takes on Wells while Joanne manages to free her father and the others. The insane Wells is powerful, but just as Taylor appears to be overcome he uses his hand buzzer to drive Wells back, grabs an oil lamp from the wall, and flings it at the monster. The synthetic flesh catches fire and Taylor pushes Wells through the window, where he plunges in flames to the beach far below. Joanne and Taylor embrace as Lee phones in his story and tells the society editor that a future matrimonial announcement may be forthcoming.


The genesis of Doctor X was on Broadway in a three-act melodrama/mystery originally entitled The Terror, by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller. The title was changed to Doctor X after one of its main characters to avoid confusion (and a possible lawsuit) with a play of the same name. It opened on Feb. 9, 1931, and closed in April 1931 after 80 performances. Warner’s story department bought the play for $5,000, and while in preparation for filming, the screenwriters focused on the horror elements of the story, making it more of a horror/comedy and made the villain a monster instead of a mere serial killer. They also changed the locale of Dr. Xavier’s mansion from East Orange, N.J., to Long Island, N.Y., to give a more secluded and creepy feeling.

As the script began to evolve, the horror elements were downplayed and new scenes with Lee Tracy were added to emphasize the comical aspects of the story. Possibly it was felt that a film dealing with elements of cannibalism, rape, and other repressed Freudian aspects would be a little too much for the audience to take, as they couldn't merely shrug it off as they could the Universal horrors by noting the presence of the supernatural. One was far more likely to meet a fiend like that in Doctor X than meet someone like Dracula.

So the writers ratcheted up Tracy’s presence, making him both the hero and comic relief character. Usually in these sort of films where the reporter is the hero, he has a comic relief sidekick who usually works as his photographer. They also provided a subplot in the form of a romance between Tracy’s character and Fay Wray’s Joanne Xavier. Throughout most of the film she can’t stand him, but after he comes to her rescue in the final reel, she not only falls head-over-heels for him, but wedding bells are implied as the film fades out. In the end, we get a horror-mystery where the hero places emphasis on the comical aspects of the plot.

This and the film that followed, Mystery of the Wax Museum, were the last Warner Bros. would make using the two-strip Technicolor process. The only reason they were made using this method at all was to fulfill the contract with Technicolor, which was owed two more films. What we know and love today as Technicolor is a three-strip process combining blue, red and green to reproduce a wide range of tones. Back in its early days, Technicolor was a two-strip process, displaying colors only as shades of reds and greens. The company took a shellacking from critics and public alike due to way too many terrible, murky prints, and the public was said to be tired of it by 1932. Two-strip Technicolor was also hell for those who had to act under its strong lights, which raised the temperature on sets to around 120 degrees.

However, in its last bow using the process, the studio decided to go out with a little style. The producers asked Technicolor to work with them on developing a color scheme that would enhance the mysterious atmosphere they wished to create for the film. In addition, Ray Rennahan, a pioneer in color cinematography, was asked to supervise the photography on the film. This created a film that distanced itself from the garish, unflattering reds and greens and moved instead towards a pastel of aquas, grays, and browns. The result is that the film takes on a nightmarish, otherworldly feeling. The opening scene, with the full moon ever so slightly lighting the foggy streets, effectively sets the mood for the rest of the film.

The highlight, of course, is when the film reveals Wells (Foster) as the monster. As he plasters layers of what he calls “synthetic flesh” over his head and hands, the shades of pinkish-orange set off by green shadows provide an unsettling experience for the viewer, maximizing the mood. Max Factor, known by its reputation to glamorize actors and actresses, created the makeup used by Foster for his transformation.

But spooky hues alone do not an effective film make. In order to keep the audience riveted, the hues must emphasize something other than the actors. And so, in order to make maximum use of the color palette, Warner’s assigned art director Anton Grot, their resident genius when it came to fantastic set designs, to create elaborate sets full of wild and dangerous-looking electrical contraptions arranged against dark, vast, and foreboding interiors. The result was a set that mixed futurism with Art Deco, giving the film a look that is distinctly – and unforgettably – odd. 

Grot’s design for the Doctor’s summer home, called “Cliff Manor,” is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture gone wild, with its cavernous hallways, secret passage and huge basement laboratory. Should we be surprised that when reporter Taylor is driven to the place he is taken there in a horse-drawn carriage driven by a cloaked coachman?

The third slice of credit for the look of the film goes to director Curtiz himself. His emphasis on shadows and splitting the colors in order to emphasize one part of the frame, though not a horrifically sharp as black and white, nevertheless makes for an undeniably haunting experience. Curtis can also be credited, along with the writers, for a most unique innovation: standing the Old Dark House Mystery plot on its head. 

In the standard variation, a group of disparate people gathers at some wildly remote sinister old mansion. An entity, which is thought to be supernatural, stalks them and kills some off, until at last the hero and heroine reveal the killer not to be a supernatural force or being, but perfectly human, usually interested in being the last one standing to claim the inheritance. (Many critics and bloggers have noted that this morphed into the general plot for the animated series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?) In Doctor X, a group of people, all known to each other, gather in a remote, sinister old mansion, only they assume that which stalks them is perfectly natural, for this is the 20th century. But here, at the end, the killer is revealed to be just a bizarre as he is human.

Just as the standard Old Dark House Mystery has a slew of red herrings, so does Doctor X; in fact, the film is awash in them, from Professor Haines, who along with his colleague Dr. Rowitz (he who is investigating the effects of moonlight on the brain), may have eaten the other survivor of the shipwreck to stay alive, to the cranky wheelchair-bound Professor Duke, who we later find could walk on his own due to a hysterical reaction, to the Good Doctor himself. In the scene in his library, when Joanne raises the blinds to let in the moonlight, it causes her father to close his eyes, press his fingers to the bridge of his nose, and complain to her that moonlight makes him feel “nervous.”

As stated previously, our guide to this bizarre, deviate world is Sigmund Freud, with an assist from Kraft-Ebbing’s textbook, Psychopathia Sexualis. Their influence seems to be everywhere: in the killer Dr. Xavier claims is responsible; in his staff with their unusual peccadillos; even in Dr. Xavier himself. No one is immune, not even his daughter Joanne, who shows tendencies of a definite Electra complex towards her father in the way she constantly worriers after him and idolizes him. For instance, Professor Haines is a voyeur. He enquires to Dr. Xavier about his daughter in a creepy way; the police find a semi-pornographic book entitled French Art hidden in one of his textbooks; and when Lee Taylor and Joanne are at the beach, Haines is watching them though a pair of binoculars. Last, but certainly not least, let’s not forget that sequence at the mansion’s laboratory when Xavier has all the scientists (excepting Wells) chained to chair and forced to watch a reenactment of one of the “Moon Killer’s” crimes while being tethered to a machine calibrated to measure how excited they are by the scene. 

But the one who wrote the book on cannibalism, Dr. Wells, is the first suspect the police hone in on, and in the end, revealed as the killer. He was ruled out by both Xavier and the police due to the fact he has only one hand and the victims were forcibly strangled by a powerful pair of hands, but no one took notice of the “synthetic flesh” he was making, and the cuts that were made to remove flesh from the victim supposedly for rites of cannibalism were actually made to obtain specimens to further his synthetic project. In the scene where he reveals himself to the other while holding his hand to the throat of a prostrate Fay Wray in a negligee, implying elements of rape, also set the tone for future trends in horror movies. In both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, the women (both played by Fay Wray)  were bound and vulnerable to assault by all too human fiends. The implications of Fay Wray lying prostrate and helpless in a negligee before the Moon Killer was the stuff of which exploitation dreams are made, although we would have to wait until the late ‘50s for this aspect to become fully realized.

And what of the performances? Though he was billed behind Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, this is clearly Lee Tracy’s movie. He plays one of his typical fast-talking characters, which as noted above, was written to fit into the plot. He comes off as brash and rude, but he also has a vulnerability that shows not only his inventiveness but also reveals a strange sense of humor. It’s this aspect that raises the film from an adaptation of a stage play into something else altogether. His upbeat attitude and morbid humor is in stark contrast to the gravitas of the academics, who are prisoners of their own logic. Tracy’s propensity to sneak into places where he doesn't belong brings him a lot of trouble for his efforts. But when the final moments arrive, he shows his mettle in battling Wells to the death and his inventiveness is using a joy buzzer to throw his opponent off just as it looked like Tracy was done. Tracy’s quintessential role was that of the fast-talking newspaperman, a role he first played  as Hildy Johnson in the Broadway version of The Front Page in 1928. Although Doctor X was a departure from the films he was best known for, he took to the horror format without any problems and it’s a shame he never returned; his humor would have been most welcome.

This was Lionel Atwill’s first foray into the realm of horror, but as we know, it wouldn’t be his last. Atwill was as eccentric as some of the mad scientists he played. His hobby was attending murder trials. Were he acting today instead of back in the ‘30s we would expect to see him playing such characters as Hercule Poirot or Inspector Morse – he seemed born for those parts. It was Atwill’s alternation between the sinister and the sympathetic – set off by his distinguished voice – that allowed him to be so effective, an effect seen even in his comic lines, as they were spoken by a seemingly diabolical doctor and reflective of a sort of morbidity that makes Doctor X so offbeat. Atwill’s attitude is best seen in his attention towards his daughter. On one hand he is the devoted and loving father, yet he comes off so icily and logically menacing that we can easily visualize him killing her for the sake of science. One of Atwill’s funnier moments was his reading of the particularly awkward line “Oh, if only I were not powerless here in chains!” He says it will all the aplomb of someone having a rough time taking this seriously. Probably little did he know at the time that he would be speaking even wackier lines in cheaper movies. 

Speaking of daughters, Fay Wray acquits herself well in what was also for first foray into the horror genre. Known as the Queen of Scream for her role in King Kong, her screaming in Doctor X seems as though it’s a warm-up. Her character doesn’t have much to do in the film except to worry after her father and make for a fetching victim in the film’s climax. The film even has a hard time in distinguishing her character’s name, referring to her as “Joanne” in some parts and “Joan” in others. However, she does get to show the audience a little spunk when she stands down Tracy with a gun after catching him peeping through the window at her father's and tossing him from the house when she discovers that he wrote the story that got her beloved dad in so much hot water. Her romance with Tracy seems forced for the sake of the plot, but we get a nice glimpse of how she took advantage of the Technicolor process with her cream complexion and use of a green dominated wardrobe. I loved her snobby pronunciation of the family name as “Zaave-vee-A” And then … there’s that scream, which we first hear when she’s startled in the library. It was her work in this film – and her screaming – that caught the attention of Merian C. Cooper over at RKO, who was preparing the ultimate version of Beauty and the Beast, and needed someone who could give it her all when she screamed. 

The most interesting performer was Preston Foster as the crazed Wells. It wasn’t so much his performance, though, that interested as it was his casting. Foster had the looks of a matinee star and had just come off an excellent performance as Edward G. Robinson’s best friend in Two Seconds (1932). And yet here he’s in a character role. This would set the pattern for his later career: strong supporting or character player in “A” films and leading man in “B” productions. In Doctor X, he hits all the right notes as Wells, who is driven to murder and mutilation by the vision of the full moon. When he reveals himself in the movie’s crucial scene, the garbed, choking noises he makes when the moonlight envelops him are truly creepy and his enunciation of his concoction as he applies it is truly terrifying because we know his next move. 

George Rosener, the original screenwriter of Doctor X, whose script was totally redone by Baldwin and Tasker due to it’s being “amateurish,” managed to salvage a little victory in the role of Otto, the weirdest butler this side of Lurch. Leila Bennett, as Mamie, the hysterical maid makes little out of a minor role. She would later make an entire career out of playing strange servants, competing with Maude Eburne, who also had the same typecasting. 

Doctor X was a nice entry in the Old Dark house murder mystery genre; it’s great look and good performances making it a surreal, enjoyable murder mystery. Credit to Warner Bros. for taking a gruesome premise and to building around it one of their typical, fast-paced urban dramas. In doing so, they managed to create the first contemporary American horror movie they scored with the public, earning $594,000 worldwide and returning a profit of $72,000, which in 1932 Depression America was a strong plus as most of the studio’s releases that year lost money. The profits were strong enough to allow the studio to go ahead with Mystery of the Wax Museum, also directed by Curtiz.


Director Curtiz was a hard-driving martinet on the set, begrudging the cast their lunch breaks and reportedly shooting 15-hour days, six days a week, to impress Jack Warner with his efficiency. Others maintain that Curtiz shot the film late at night after other units had left the studio and told ghost stories to the cast in order to create the proper atmosphere. 

Doctor X was the first of three films Curtiz made with Lionel Atwill. The others were Mystery of the Wax Museum in 1932 and Captain Blood in 1935. 

Doctor X was also the first of three films Lionel Atwill made with Fay Wray. Afterward they co-starred in The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat (both 1932).

Doctor X was originally filmed simultaneously in color and in black and white, and supposedly the two versions used different takes in several scenes. When the film was included in a package of older films syndicated to television in the late ‘50s, the Technicolor version was thought to be lost. No print could be located, as Technicolor had discarded most of their two-color negatives in 1948. When Jack Warner died in 1978, a color negative was found in his personal collection and has since been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Since then, the black and white version has become the more obscure.

The love scenes between Lee Tracy and Fay Wray were shot in Laguna Beach. 

Some of the film’s sets were recycled in Miss Pinkerton.

Memorable Dialogue

After Xavier gives Commissioner Stevens his view of the murders, he’s met with skepticism.

Commissioner Stevens: It’s hard to believe that!

Xavier: Yes, for a policeman, I suppose it is.