By Ed Garea
The Ape (Monogram, 1940) – Director: William Nigh. Writers: Adam Shirk (play). Curt Siodmak (adaptation and s/p), Richard Carroll (s/p). Cast: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gene O’Donnell, Dorothy Vaughn, Gertrude Hoffman, Henry Hall, Selmer Jackson, & Philo McCollough. B&W, 62 minutes.
“And you thought only Bela Lugosi made movies this dumb.” – Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.
In 1938, Boris Karloff signed a six-film deal with Monogram Studios. The Ape was the final picture under the contract, and possibly the worst of Karloff’s career. The screenplay was co-written by Curt Siodmak, adapted from Adam Shirk’s 1927 play of the same name. We have one first-rate actor and screenwriter working on the film. So what went wrong? Simple, it was made by Monogram.
Karloff is Dr. Bernard Adrian, a kindly doctor in the town of Red Creek. But though he’s a very kindly doctor, he keeps to himself, immersed in research for a cure for polio. Because of his reclusive ways, the good folk of the town distrust him. Some proclaim that he should be run out of town and circulate rumors that he used his patients as guinea pigs for his experiments. In one scene, the good doctor is at a shop where the shopkeeper warns him that a mob is forming because of the missing dogs in the neighborhood and the constant rumors about his experiments. This is a scene from which we’re expecting some sort of action against the good doctor, but it just stops there and goes no further. The Ape is full of scenes such as this, which promise much and deliver nothing. Could it have been an editing of the original script, or just plain laziness? Who knows?
Even the kids in town despise the doc, throwing rocks through his windows when he’s not home. Now the doc doesn’t have many patients, but he does have one special patient. She’s Frances Clifford (Wrixon) and she’s suffering from polio, which the Doc has vowed to cure. He takes special interest in Frances, as she reminds him of his late daughter. On his latest visit, he gives her a jewelry case that belonged to his daughter, remarking that she would have turned 18 this very day and the jewelry case was to have been her birthday gift. Dr. Adrian lost both his wife and daughter to polio, hence his determination. Talking with both Frances and her mother (Vaughn), Adrian suggests that Frances get out more. A circus has recently come to town, and that would be perfect entertainment. At that moment, Frances’s boyfriend, Danny Foster (O’Donnell) shows and Frances suggests the excursion to him.
From the opening credits suggesting a circus, we are led to believe this is a film about a circus, but no such luck, as we’ll see. Actually, the real reason for the circus is to introduce our other main player. While Danny and Frances are enjoying the acts, we cut to another section, where we see a gorilla in a cage. It’s in the process of being taunted by its handler (the unbilled I. Stanford Jolley). Seems he hates the beast because it killed his father. As the handler is also drunk, we can quickly figure where this is going. You guessed it – the ape reaches through the bars and returns the favor. The cigar in the handler’s mouth drops into the nearby hay, starting a fire and enabling the gorilla to escape.
The injured handler is brought to the doctor’s place. Dr. Adrian has his maid, Jane (Hoffman), help him bring the wounded man back to his laboratory. After everyone else has left, the doc gets to work. While his patient is begging Doc not to let him die, Doc gives him a spiel about how he’s about to make history. Adrian then sticks a syringe into the man’s spine and draws out his spinal fluid, and that’s that for our handler. The next day, Adrian visits Frances, telling her that he has developed a radical new form of treatment. It’ll be painful, he warns, but when it’s all over she’ll be able once more to walk. She’s all for it and he injects her in the back.
Less than a day later, Frances tells Adrian that she feels heaviness in her legs, in which she never had any feeling since becoming ill years before. Adrian is ecstatic, and rejoices later in his lab. Unfortunately, in the midst of his reveries, the vial with the magic fluid rolls off the table and shatters on the floor. Uh-oh.
What to do? In such a film as this I need not remind anyone of the next twist in the plot. Of course – the ape, being hunted by Sheriff Halliday (Hall) and his posse, breaks into Adrian’s lab, probably looking for his ex-handler. In one of the great preposterous scenes in B-dom (or B-Dumb), the Doctor, who looks as if he’d have trouble punching his way out of a wet paper bag manages to outwrestle the ape, crack him on the noggin with a bottle of anesthetic, and when the monkey is three sheets to the wind, knife him in the heart from behind. Now, lest that seem unbelievable, what happens next will really boggle the mind. Adrian skins the ape and uses both the ape’s skin and head as a disguise in order to obtain more spinal fluid. Again, to quote Weldon, “What a brilliant idea! Nobody would notice a gorilla killing people!”
The first victim of the “ape” is an adulterous banker. Before his untimely demise we were introduced to him in what seems to be an attempt at a sub-plot. His villainy is played up during a scene with his wife, where he turns down her dinner of lamb stew and dumplings, telling her he’ll eat out. “I wish you wouldn’t keep on going here where we live,” she whines, knowing full well what he’s up to. She then tells him that she doesn’t want to be pitied; she has no one but him, no folks and nowhere to go – all of it falling on deaf ears. Of course, after his body is found, the townsfolk are saying how sorry they feel for his widow. The townsfolk also learn that the ape must be prowling nocturnally.
Meanwhile, Adrian gives Frances another shot of his newly obtained serum. But he has some problems. The first is Frances’s boyfriend, Danny. It seems he can’t get it through his thick skull how anything that causes Frances such pain could be helping her. "I don't like things I don't understand," he tells Frances. A bigger problem is another doctor from out of town, a Dr. McNulty (Jackson), who Sheriff Halliday has brought in as coroner and medical examiner in the gorilla case. McNulty notices the syringe marks on the backs of the victims. This gets him to thinking, and we learn that he and Adrian go way back together – back to a research foundation that expelled Adrian years ago for his questionable experiments. Even back then Adrian was consumed by the idea that spinal fluid from healthy people might just result in a cure, and it seems he was no more discerning where he obtained it than he is now.
So, is the jig up for Adrian? Of course not: this is a B-movie made by Monogram, so when shown evidence in the person of Frances, who can now move her foot slightly, that such a controversial experiment did work, McNulty just doesn’t back off. No, he offers to let Adrian return to his old job with the foundation, but Adrian blows him off, saying it’s too late.
However, there now arises one problem Adrian has failed to anticipate. It seems that the sheriff, despite all his dimwittedness, has figured out that his bloodhounds go nutzoid whenever they come near Adrian or his domicile. Adrian had earlier deflected the hounds’ suspicions by claiming they were sniffing his insect repellent, the late handler’s coat, it was that time of the month, yada, yada, yada. Nevertheless, the sheriff is certain that something is going on around Adrian’s house, so he stations his deputies where they can both keep a close watch on the house and the surrounding woods.
Adrian tries one more attack, but only gets knifed for his efforts. While running back to his house, he is shot on the doorstep, and everyone now learns it was Dr. Adrian in the ape suit all the time. Adrian raises his head to see Frances take her first steps and then dies. Frances and Danny share the final scene, as Frances can now walk and has burned her wheelchair.
As we have seen, the plot is nothing short of idiotic. So how about the acting? Considering the leads, Gene O’Donnell comes off as entirely wooden. Maris Wrixon is good, considering she doesn’t have much to do. But it’s Karloff who shines and makes this worth watching. It seems that no matter how lousy the film is, how utterly worthless, Karloff always gives his all. Were it John Carradine or Bela Lugosi trapped in such a mess, they would have mugged their way through, but not Karloff; he always gives a dignified performance and nothing less than 100%, even if the vehicle he’s in isn’t worth his time. And it’s the case here – Karloff plays Dr. Adrian not as mad, but with as single-minded with the best of intentions. He wants to cure Frances no matter what, and the people he kills along the way were not of the best moral fiber, not that it excuses killing, but the way the film positions its characters, it relieves Karloff of real malicious intent, instead presenting us with a totally misguided altruism.
The supporting roles are filled with Poverty Row veterans like Henry Hall (Kid Dynamite with the East Side Kids, The Ape Man, Girls in Chains, The Return of the Rangers, and Voodoo Man among his appearances) and Selmer Jackson (Bowery Boy, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc., Paper Bullets, Dillinger, and Black Market Babies, among others). These were actors who gave average performances in below-average films. The man in the ape suit is none other than Ray “Crash” Corrigan, here in an unbilled role as both the ape and Dr. Adrian in the ape suit (it was too heavy for the slightly-built Karloff to don). Corrigan was both an actor, not famed for his Westerns, and a stuntman that owned his own ape suit. Other stuntmen famous for playing apes were Charles Gemora (Road to Zanzibar, Charlie Chan at the Circus, The Monster and the Girl, and Africa Screams) and George Barrows (Gorilla at Large, and the unforgettable Robot Monster), who owned a gorilla costume which he rented to producers.
William Nigh, Monogram’s house director, helmed The Ape. To say he was prolific is somewhat of an understatement, as he directed 121 features in his career, which began with Salomy Jane in 1914 and ended with Stage Struck in 1948 (his retirement), mostly for Poverty Row studios. He was renowned for his assembly-line approach to film-making, and made movies in almost every genre, whether action, Westerns, musicals, comedies, dramas, war films, mysteries, and even film noir. (So much for auteur theory.) His films with Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids have become cult classics, and he was familiar to Karloff as the only director the actor worked with while at Monogram. Ironically, his 1918 feature, My Four Years in Germany, was such a hit that it established Warner Brothers as a major player in Hollywood.
Faces In The Crowd: Maris Wrixon
Born Mary Alice Wrixon on December 28, 1916, in Pasco, Washington, Wrixon has 64 film and television credits to her name, yet she’s practically unknown today.
With only a bit of theatrical background, she signed with Warner Brothers in 1939. She had the necessary endowments and beauty to take her to stardom, yet her career at Warner’s never got off the ground. She appeared in 13 films in ’39, and 12 in ’40, mostly as an unbilled background character or given a line or two at best. When not in the studio, she modeled for numerous women’s magazines, such as Vogue, where she appeared on the cover. She was reportedly a favorite of George Hurrell, Sr., Hollywood’s premier glamour photographer.
Wrixon did eventually move up playing leads in such B-movies as The Case of the Black Parrot (1941, opposite William Lundigan) and Bullets for O’Hara (1941, with Roger Pryor and Anthony Quinn). She also had good roles in features such as Footsteps in the Dark (1941, starring Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall) and Million Dollar Baby (1941, starring Priscilla Lane and Jeffrey Lynn). When not working at Warner Bros., she found herself loaned to Republic, where she worked with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Weavers, and Monogram, which she described as “being in a foxhole.”
Warner Bros. released her in 1942, and except for a couple of films at Universal, she worked on Poverty Row. Her last film, As You Were, with William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, was made for R&L Productions and distributed by Lippert in 1951. She then worked guest spots in such television shows as The Cisco Kid, Boston Blackie, Sea Hunt, and The Untouchables until her retirement in 1963. Her personal life was more of a success: from January 28, 1940, until her death on October 6, 1999, from heart failure, she was married to German émigré film editor Rudi Fehr.
Trivia: Nigh had previously directed a version of The Ape as House of Mystery in 1934 (again for Monogram).
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter
By Ed Garea
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (Circle Prod./Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (original story and s/p). Cast: John Lupton, Narda Onyx, Cal Bolder, Estelita Rodriguez, Jim Davis, Steven Geray, Nestor Paiva, Rayford Barnes, Roger Creed, Nestor Paiva, & William Fawcett. Color, 88 minutes.
This is it, the companion piece to Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, which played the drive-ins and second-run theaters. Billed as the first “Horror-Western,” it really wasn’t. The first “Horror-Western” was the 1926 silent, The Haunted Range, with Glenn Strange and Max Terhune. Other entries in the field include the 1932 John Wayne cheapie, Haunted Gold, and the 1938 Republic “Three Mesqueteers” film, Riders of the Whistling Skull. However, in all three films, the supernatural forces turn out to be quite natural, like something from a Scooby-Doo mystery. There’s also Gene Autry’s 1935 Republic serial, The Phantom Empire, which is concerned with a long lost underground civilization armed with ray guns and other superior technology, but perhaps that’s more in the realm of science fiction rather than horror.
In 1956, the Nassour Brothers released the low-budget Beast of Hollow Mountain. Rancher Guy Madison is being plagued with a slew of missing cattle. When he goes into the nearby mountains to investigate, he gets more than he bargained for in the form of an animated stop-motion Allosaurus. This, then, may be considered as the first legitimate Horror-Western.
Besides not being historically accurate, the title of the movie itself is a misnomer. The villainess of the piece, Maria Frankenstein, is actually Dr. Frankenstein’s granddaughter. However, as is the case with these sorts of films, the titles are dreamed up in advance and the screenplays fit in. Also, this is not exactly the sort of movie where critics would take the producers to task for this “mistake.” They were just grateful to see the words “The End” flashing on the screen.
Along with Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, this was the last film in the long career of 73-year old director William “One Shot” Beaudine. Beaudine’s name has become synonymous over the years with low-budget stinkers, but he was actually a director of merit in the silent days (such as Mary Pickford’s 1926 Sparrows). Virtually wiped out by the Crash of 1929, he found work directing B’s for Warner Brothers and other majors, but in 1937 he began a long association with Poverty Row for such studios as Monogram and PRC. His work in television in the ‘50s allowed him to set aside a nest egg, but the Depression ingrained in him a fear of retirement, lest his savings once again be wiped out. After helming these two turkeys, however, he realized there are worse things than retirement and handed over his director’s chair to son William Beaudine, Jr.
Produced by Carroll Case for Joe Levine’s Circle Productions, both films were envisioned as a package for the drive-in crowd. Like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter was shot at the ranch of former Western star Ray Corrigan in Simi Valley, California. While it doesn’t quite have the star power of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (John Carradine), it can boast something better for aficionados of bad movies: Narda Onyx. Ms. Onyx is quite possibly the hammiest actor I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching in action. She gives an entirely new meaning to the term “over the top” with the way she spews every line of dialogue with a look of wild-eyed abandon and anticipation.
As the film opens, we are treated to a view of a small village with what has to be on the phoniest matte paintings of a rustic-style monastery. We then find ourselves in the house of the Lopez family as they take part in a family whine. It seems that many of the townspeople are fleeing, depressing real estate values in the town. They note that nothing but death and sorrow has come to their town since the two doctors moved into the phony matte painting on the hill. Daughter Juanita (Rodriguez) is especially perturbed about the deaths of the village children and the disappearance of her brother. Well, there goes the neighborhood.
Cut to an especially cheesy laboratory in the house on the hill. Doctors Maria and Rudolph Frankenstein (Onyx and Geray) are prepping for their latest experiment. Maria is the granddaughter of the Old Baron and Rudolph is her brother, though he looks old enough to be her father. Oh well, I guess these experiments can take a lot out of anyone. They get the audience up to speed on just why they’re here in the Southwest. Seems they got into a bit of trouble with the authorities in Vienna for their experiments and had to beat it out of town fast. Most people choose an area for the scenic view, the close availability of the railroad, but the Frankensteins chose this area for the strength of its thunderstorms, the electricity of which is needed to run their equipment. Looking around the lab we see an anatomical chart, electrical equipment (supplied by Ken Strickfadden, who designed the electrical equipment in the old Universal horror films), the ever-necessary medicine chest, and, of course, an operating table.
Now, it’s back to their experiment. Starring today on the operating table is none other than Francisco, Juanita’s brother. They strap on what looks to be a World War II helmet adorned in colorful bright thick stripes of red, yellow, and green, looking as if they use it as a piñata when they not performing an experiment. Protruding from the sides of the helmet are two plastic-looking antenna. Maria zaps Francisco, who sits up, but suddenly collapses. She tells Rudolph to inject him with digitalis, but unbeknownst to her, he injects the poor slob with poison. What went wrong? Maria is beside herself, hamming it up to the limit: "What a fool I've been! I've allowed the duothermic pulsator to be attached only to the body!" She decides to consult the only reference book that can help at a time like this: her grandfather’s account. (How I Did It?) She miraculously turns to just the right page (this is One-Shot Beaudine, after all) and reads. So, that’s it. Her eyes turn bright and she gets a funny look on her face – and it’s not gas. Duothermic pulsators aside, Grandpa’s notes clearly state that a living brain is required for the hook-up. (She didn’t know that? How long have they been experimenting?) Then they can have a servant “to do our bidding.” Good help is clearly hard to get. Rudolph protests, but Maria brushes him aside, calling him weak as she yanks out the last artificial brain Gramps has created. Apparently, either the secret died with him, or Maria and Rudolph are really incompetent.
Cut to a saloon, where two men are engaging in an improvised MMA contest, which is won by a shirtless man with a great physique and a really stupid look on his face. We learn this is Hank Tracy (Bolder), sidekick to none other than Jess James (Lupton) himself. Seems Jesse has won the bet placed on Hank but the saloon owner (Paiva) doesn’t want to pay up. Hank tells him that he’s welching on none other than Jesse James himself. Why, I thought you were killed at Northridge, says the saloon owner. Oh no, replies Jesse. The man’s at large with a price on his head, so what does he do? Why he broadcasts his presence, of course. Smart.
Jesse and Hank are in town to meet up with Butch (Creed) and brother Lonnie (Barnes), two of the last three Wild Bunch members left (the others have all been killed). Butch and Lonnie are having a disagreement over inviting the James Gang and the proposed cut of the loot: Lonnie still wants his third, but Butch demurs. When Butch discovers that only Jesse and Hank remain from the gang, he’s naturally disappointed, but a job is a job. The disgruntled Lonnie runs to the Marshal (Davis) to dime out everyone in the plot, and the Marshal, with Lonnie in tow, rounds up a posse to ambush the baddies. During the firefight, the two Wild Bunch boys are killed and Hank is wounded. On the run, Jesse and Hank come upon the Lopez camp, where Juanita looks over Hank's wound. The hospital is far away, she says, but I know of two doctors in the area. Great, just great. She was accusing the Frankensteins of murder, but is okay with taking the wound Hank to see them. What scriptwriting! On the way, an Indian comes from nowhere to capture Juanita. He attacks Jesse when he rides to the rescue, but Jesse turns the attacker’s knife against him, and no more Indian. My Hero, says the look in Juanita’s eyes as they embrace. Jesse works fast.
Over at the Frankenstein place, Jesse meets Maria: “You’re the doctor?” He gives her the tried and true “Hank shot himself while cleaning his gun” excuse, but Maria’s not buying it. Not that it matters – Maria is overjoyed, for she figures they have to be running from the law and are stuck. As for Hank, well, “what a brute he’ll make!” Indeed. The Marshal, meanwhile, is questioning the Lopez family at their campsite. They claim ignorance; after all, Jesse identified himself to them as “Mr. Howard.” Juanita reports the Marshal’s questioning to Jesse back at the Frankenstein ranch. They engage in as deep as “stay,” “no, I must go” scene as the film will allow, which ends with another embrace. After Juanita leaves, Maria makes her move on Jesse, telling him the reason the villagers all moved out is because they are ignorant and do not understand. She tells Jesse that she needs his strength and plants a big kiss on his lips. But Jesse is unmoved, which sends Maria right into a jealous snit. She gives a note to Rudolph, telling him to hand it to Jesse. It’s a prescription for Hank, who has suddenly taken a turn for the worse. In reality, the note tells the recipient that the bearer is none other than the notorious outlaw Jesse James. Amazingly, Jesse complies, taking the note to the town druggist without ever stopping to read it. Rudolph, for his part, thinks the whole thing hilarious. He accuses Maria of being jealous and has a good laugh at her “being human after all.” For his trouble, he gets smacked across the face.
Juanita, for her part, does not trust this “errand” her “Yesse” has been sent on for Hank, and decides to snoop over at the Frankenstein place. She’s just in time, for Maria is about to carve into Hank, despite Rudolph’s obligatory admonition that no one should tamper with the laws of God. She’s shaved his head, has his magic helmet affixed, and has swapped her grandfather’s artificial brain for Hank’s. It’s okay; he wasn’t using his, anyway. Now she puts on a duplicate helmet so he doesn’t look silly all by himself. She intones into a portable microphone that from now on, Hank, “You are Igor. You are Igor.” Hank/Igor begins to sit up, but collapses. Rudolph is quick to label this yet another failure and gets out the “digitalis.” But Maria insists that she should administer the shot, and while they jockey for control of the syringe, she cops a quick peek at the medicine chest and sees there, right on the shelf, is a flask labeled “Poison.” What kind of poison we don’t know; all we know is that it’s poison. She now goes berserk, accusing Rudolph of sabotaging her experiments from the beginning. They wrestle for the syringe; Rudolph gets the upper hand. Maria cries out, “Igor, Help me!” Igor dutifully arises from the table and puts the kibosh on Rudolph, while Juanita, who has witnessed the whole shebang, turns tail and gets the heck out of there.
Jesse, meanwhile, has arrived at the pharmacy, and hands the druggist the “prescription.” The druggist takes one look at it, claims that it’s a special mixture and ducks out the back to the marshal’s office, where he finds only Lonnie. Lonnie tries to ambush Jesse, but Jesse draws first and there’s no more Lonnie. Jesse reads the “prescription” and figures out that he’s been double-crossed. So, it’s back to the Frankenstein place – with a vengeance. (While this is going on, Juanita runs into the real Marshal and spills the beans, figuring it’s better than leaving him to the mercies of the Frankensteins.) Jesse enters the lab and gets a good view of what’s been happening while he was away. Maria blames her brother, distracting Jesse until Igor can conk him and lay him on the operating table. She straps him in with some bon mots, “We have something in common: we’re both outside the law.” She injects Jesse to knock him out as the Marshal comes in. Maria sics Igor on the Marshal, who crushes the Marshal out cold, or dead, and drags him into the back room. Juanita revives Jesse. Maria then tells Igor to kill Juanita. As Igor goes to do his duty he begins to mumble Juanita’s name. Then he turns on Maria, chanting “kill, kill,” and strangling her. He then goes after Jesse, but Juanita grabs Jesse’s gun and shoots Igor twice in the back, ending his short career as a monster.
In the film’s final scene, Jesse and Juanita are standing over Hank’s grave. Juanita pleads with him to stay with her, but Jesse’s a fugitive and rides off with the Marshal, who wasn’t killed after all. Over his career, William Beaudine directed 199 movies, including this one.
What makes Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter watchable is the miserable quality of the acting added to a ludicrous script. John Lupton, as Jesse James, is so wooden he should’ve been checked annually for termites. It’s difficult to fathom the attraction he has for the opposite sex, much less have two women fawning over him to the point of distraction. His film career began in 1951 with Edgar G. Ulmer’s St. Benny the Dip. Lupton’s career was mainly one of supporting roles. He may be best known among cinephiles for his portrayal of upright Marine Corporal Marion ‘Sister Mary’ Hotchkiss in 1955's Battle Cry. His few lead roles came in low-budget B’s and Z’s. Otherwise he kept busy guest-starring on television.
Cal Bolder (real name Earl C. Craver) played football at Wichita University and fought in the Korean War. After the war he settled in Southern California, where he joined the LAPD. The story goes that a talent agent whom he pulled over for speeding spotted him and convinced him to change careers. Bolder worked mainly in television; the only other film he acted in was George Cukor’s 1960 comedy-romance, Heller in Pink Tights, with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren. He retired at the end of the 1960s and moved to Washington, where he pursued a vocation as a novelist. He published “Last Reunion,” a novel about a serial killer, under the name E.C. Craven. (It’s available on Amazon for those who care.) As Hank Tracy, Cal wanders around as if he doesn’t have a clue – which he doesn’t.
Veteran actor Jim Davis somehow survived this turkey to go on to play Jock Ewing in Dallas. It was said Beaudine hired him because they worked together in television. At any rate, Davis practically sleepwalks through the film, looking disinterested to boot. Rayford Barnes was another supporting actor who worked mainly television and Westerns. Ironically, while in our film he played the last of the Wild Bunch, three years later he actually had a small part in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. He also had a small role in the 1973 psychotronic classic, Little Cigars, about a troupe of circus midgets whose sideline is robbing banks.
If anyone in the cast could be said to give a halfway passable performance, it would be Estelita Rodriguez as Juanita. Born in Cuba, she specialized in Hispanic “spitfires” at Republic Pictures, most notably with Roy Rogers. She also had a part in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) as Consuelo, who, along with husband Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and no that's not a typo), runs the town’s hotel. Rodriguez was married four times; one of her husbands, actor Grant Withers, committed suicide a few years after their divorce. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter was Estelita’s last film. She reportedly died of influenza while prepping to star in the life story of Lupe Velez.
But as I said before, it’s the completely over-the-top performance of second-billed Narda Onyx that makes this a Z-classic. She also appears to be the only one in the damn movie who’s excited to be there. Without her, this could easily sink to the level of Manos: The Hands of Fate, needing a MST 3000 treatment to make it watchable.
Onyx was a child actor in Estonia who fled with her family to Sweden in 1944, but was intercepted by the Germans and brought to Danzig. During the last months of the war, the Onyx family made their way to the American lines at Bonn and sought refuge with the Swedish Red Cross. After the war the family moved to Sweden, where Narda resumed her acting career. She later traveled to England, where she worked for the Old Vic Company, and later moved to Canada, where she worked on stage and television and married fellow Estonian refugee George Virand in 1961. The couple left for Hollywood shortly thereafter. This was Maria’s last credit – she turned to writing and penned a biography of Johnny Weissmuller titled Water, World and Weissmuller. (It can be found on Amazon.)
Rudolph: Maria, you've already caused the death of three children and violated the graves of others just to make the experiments.
Maria: My, you're a humanitarian! You should have stayed in Europe and given pink pills to sweet old ladies.
Maria (to Jesse): You have refused me, Maria Von Frankenstein, granddaughter of the count.
Maria: Igor, go to your room!
This was the last film shot at the Corrigan Ranch. Right after filming ended, Ray Corrigan sold his ranch to Bob Hope . . . Screenwriter Carl K. Hittleman had been associated with two previous films featuring Jesse James as the main character: I Shot Jesse James (Lippert, 1949) which Hittleman produced for director Sam Fuller, and The Return of Jesse James (Lippert, 1950), based on a story idea by Hittleman.
2-Headed Shark Attack
By Ed Garea
2-Headed Shark Attack (The Asylum, 2012) – Director: Christopher Ray. Writers: Edward DeRuiter (story), H. Perry Horton (s/p). Cast: Carmen Electra, Charlie O’Connell, Brooke Hogan, Christina Bach, Morgan Thompson, Anthony E. Valentin, Gerald Webb, David Gallegos, Geoff Ward, Ashley Bissing, & Mercedes Young. Color, 88 minutes.
There are good movies and there are bad movies. And then, there’s this atrocity, released direct to video for reasons that become obvious when one watches it. It seems the company that made this gem is in competition with the SyFy Channel to see who can make the worst shark movie, and, based on the terrifically cheesy graphics, I can say this one takes the cake (such as it is).
We know we’re in for a bad movie experience once we see the cast. With stalwarts such as Carmen Electra (the ex-Mrs. Dennis Rodman), Charlie O’Connell (brother of Jerry and whose career is pockmarked with other works of art on this level), and Brooke Hogan (who is every bit as good an actress and her father, Hulk, was a wrestler), all we need is a bad script and lousy direction. But wait! Included in this movie are some of the worst special effects I’ve ever seen.
As for direction, behind the camera is Christopher Ray, son of legendary Z-movie director Fred Olen Ray, and living proof that the acorn does not fall far from the tree. The screenwriter, Horton, received an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University’s (Colorado) Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, whatever that means. He could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he simply took a correspondence course in screenwriting instead.
We open with a group of young people wakeboarding (a combination of water skiing and snowboarding). Soon they become a tasty meal for our title creature. Cut to a boat called The Sea King, where a group of students, led by married professors Franklin and Anne Babish (Carmen and Charlie), are studying marine biology. Electra as a marine biologist. Now this is science fiction. From the dialogue she spouts in the movie one would surmise that Carmen thinks marine biology is studying the private parts of Marines. Not to worry, for this collection of students is even more brain dead than she.
The gang is cruising along merrily; Jerry points out the local sights in the ocean and the girls and guys relax on deck, showing off their abs and silicone. Suddenly, Anne, driving the ship, hits an object in the water. Professor Jerry spots it as a Megamouth shark. Wait a minute, he tells the students, Megamouths are deep-water sharks. Not only that, he’s also dead. This is an attempt, and a poor one, at creating some sort of early tension. They try to bring the shark carcass on board, but it drifts back and is sucked into the boat’s propeller, damaging the hull and causing the boat to take on water. (Things happen fast in a Z-movie.) This is where the cheesy special effects come into play. We do not actually see the shark torn apart, but rather something akin to a shadow cutout of a shark in front of the propeller and a lot of red water gushing forth.
Jerry ponders why all this is happening. Suddenly, our two-headed hero appears and attacks the boat as well, conveniently breaking the ship’s radio antenna. Co-captain Laura (Thompson) is prevented from summoning help. The group then spots a deserted atoll nearby, so Laura and Anne pilot the boat close enough to the shore as to allow Franklin to take the student to the atoll via a dinghy while Anne and Laura remain on the Sea King, along with the ships crew, Han (Webb) and Dikilla (Valentin).
While the Prof and the gang explore the atoll, looking for scrap metal with which to repair the hull, Laura enters the water to see if she can make repairs. This gives the shark an instant meal and a taste for silicone. Now, for reasons known only to the writer and director, three of the students decide to take a break and go skinny-dipping, giving our shark even more of a meal. Meanwhile, the group finds and repairs two small speedboats as an earthquake strikes the atoll, injuring the Prof, who is brought back to the Sea King by students who are later devoured.
After a few more students are eaten, Anne, the Prof and the crew leave the Sea King for the atoll. Suddenly, another earthquake hits, and Anne and the Prof begin to suspect that the island is collapsing on itself. What a plot device. In the meantime, Kate (Hogan) and Cole (Ward) return to the Sea King and fix the hull. Cole, a thoroughly disreputable sort, drives off in the Sea King, forcing Kate to swim back to the atoll. The two-headed shark attacks the Sea King and sinks it, causing it to send an automatic distress signal. Cole attempts to escape in a lifeboat, but the ringing of his cell phone attracts the shark, and exit Cole. Helping the atoll to rapidly sink is our shark, who is eating the atoll from below. The Prof and Anne then spot a small tsunami coming (What else?), which overtakes the atoll and leaves the Prof and Anne as a meal for the hungry fish. After all, he has two mouths to feed.
The survivors flee on the shrinking atoll to an abandoned hut, but the shark breaks in and devours another four. Now only three are left: Kate (Hogan), the nerdish Paul (Gallegos) and Kirsten (Bissing). By using a gasoline tank they found earlier, they manage to blow their visitor to kingdom come, but not before losing Kirsten. A helicopter rescues Kate and Paul, the only survivors in a group of 23 people, as the movie mercifully ends.
The only reason for a bad movie fanatic to want to see this is for camp value, but there’s precious little of that. Simply stated, it’s a movie that’s so bad, it’s bad. I’ve seen better special effects made with an Etch A Sketch; although most of the cast is devoured, it’s done in the same fashion as when the Megamouth hit the propeller. We never actually see the shark eat anyone. All we do see is their bodies in front of the shark, accompanied by a lot of blood fogging the water, and later perhaps a totally unconvincing hand or a leg. As for the shark, it’s predictably ridiculous, and seems to increase and decrease in size during the movie: one minute, the cast is being attacked in shallow water, while later they are safe because they are in shallow water. At one point the shark is big enough to smash against and sink the atoll, while in the next scene he’s small enough to fit in the tiny hut along with the surviving students.
As for the plot, it has more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese. Students wander off and on, doing the dumbest things. The writers seem to have collected every obvious plot device and even a few more that defy logic. For instance, at the end, the gasoline bomb has a wet t-shirt for a fuse and Kate manages to light it anyway. Earlier, a crowd is standing in the water wondering what to do. “Why not climb the rocks behind you?” I say to myself. After all, even this shark cannot climb rocks. But no, they decide to swim for it instead. If your idea of dialogue is “Wait a minute! What was that?” or “Hurry up! Go, go, go!” then this is the movie for you.
The Z Files: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula
By Ed Garea
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (story & s/p). Cast: John Carradine, Chuck Courtney, Melinda Plowman, Virginia Christine, Harry Carey Jr., Walter Janovitz, Hannie Landman, Bing Russell, Olive Carey, Roy Barcroft, Marjorie Bennett, William Forrest, George Cisar, & Charlita. Color, 73 minutes.
Wow. A vampire Western! Now there’s a genre. And yet, it’s not the first. Universal’s Curse of the Undead beat it to movie screens by eight years (and it’s a better film to boot). But the producers of this can take some comfort in the fact that this film is worse. Much worse.
In fact, for a film dependent on action, out of its 73-minute running time, only about two, or three at most, of those minutes contain any action. The rest of the time is spent building up to the action with some great establishing scenes that fall flat on their face, really crummy dialogue, a leading man with all the appeal of imitation lime Jello, and a villain who appears clearly swacked in most of his scenes.
The film was reputedly shot in about 5 days and looks like it. It was filmed at Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s spread in Simi Valley, the scene of many a B Western. In fact, look closely and you’ll notice the ranch house was the same house used in the Buster Crabbe/Al “Fuzzy” St. John Westerns for PRC. For those who like their acting bad and their vampire bats fake, this is one to see. Those who like their movies at least making a little sense would be wise to skip this one, if for no other reason than taste.
Our film opens with a really terrible day-for-night shot of a rubber bat, compete with wires, flying around. Cut to an obvious German immigrant family camping out for the night. By the look of their covered wagon we can tell this is the Old West. Mom and Dad Oster (Christine and Janovitz) are sleeping on one side of the camp while daughter Lisa (Landman) is asleep on the other. Suddenly, Lisa is awakened by the chirp of the bat (Chirp??) and proclaims, “It’s here!” Father reassures her that she’s only having a nightmare, but Mother places a cross in her hand for safety and they go back to sleep.
The bat ducks behind the wagon and out comes Drac (Carradine). Although the film never mentions Dracula by name (probably for legal reasons), since it’s used in the title, we’ll refer to him as such. Obviously famished from all that flying about, Drac decides to stop at Lisa’s for a quick meal. He puts the bite on her, but her hand opens, revealing the cross, which scares Drac off. Looking at her neck later we can see that Drac left four bite marks. Must’ve been using his bottom fangs as well.
Cut to a stagecoach, which has stopped to take on Drac as a passenger. He’s traveling light – just himself and no luggage. The other passengers are Mary Ann Bentley (Bennett), her brother James Underhill (Forrest), and an aptly-named liquor salesman Joe Flake (Cisar). Making conversation, Mary explains that her husband has passed and she went to Boston to bring back her brother to help her run the ranch, the Double Bar B. She shows Drac a picture of her daughter, Elizabeth (Plowman). Drac is quite taken with the photo, telling from his hammy expression. (He also seems inebriated as well; perhaps he’s been into Joe’s sample case.) My favorite quote in this scene is when Mary Ann mentions to Drac that she shouldn’t be traveling at night. Night? Hell, it looks like late afternoon out there, that’s just how bad the optical filter is. (Later on Beaudine just decides to dispense with it altogether rather than continue the farce. So we’re treated to the sight of Drac walking around in broad daylight. Oh well, perhaps he’s using industrial strength sunscreen.) The stage stops for a rest at an Indian village where Drac departs and later that night puts the bite on a lovely and stacked Indian maiden (Charlita), who’s fetching water from the village’s well. All through the film when Drac is about to do something really diabolical, his eyes bug out and a red light shines on his face. He also has the power to disappear and reappear at will. Backstage, most of his disappearing came at lunchtime, when he hauled himself down the street each day in full costume to a bar where he would enjoy a hearty liquid lunch. Afterward he would return well-roasted, and it shows in his performance at several points in the picture.
When the group is about to leave the next day, neither hide nor hair of Drac can be found. So they decide to go on without him. Bad move, for the other Indians have found the body of the maiden and conclude it was the passengers in the stage what done it. (Watch closely and you’ll see they get a cue to rise up and ride off after the stage.) They hunt it down and kill everyone abroad. Soon after, Drac appears in his bat disguise (complete with strings), ducks behind the stage and reappears in human form. He searches the deceased, taking James’ identity papers and the photo of Elizabeth. We can easily guess where he's going.
Cut to his next destination, the Double Bar B ranch, where Elizabeth (or “Betty”) is being taught to shoot by a handsome young man, who we shortly learn is Billy the Kid (Courtney). It seems Billy has reformed by turning himself into a Casper Milquetoast type. He wants to marry Betty, but is worried people will find out he’s really Billy the Kid. “But that’s all behind you,” Betty reassures him. Oh sure, everyone will forget all the murders he committed because he’s now a nice guy. But as the scene ends we see that Billy and Betty are being spied upon. The voyeur is Dan Thorpe (Russell), along with a couple of toadies, who fill in the missing plot hole with just one line – very economical: “That guy Bonney sure moved in on you. First your foreman’s job, then your girlfriend.” So we now know two things: Thorpe will be out for revenge, and Billy will eventually kill him. Later we’re treated to a little tension, Beaudine style, when Billy tells Betty he’s found a lamb with its throat neatly sliced open. Billy tells her that Indian Jim said he saw a large bat kill the lamb. Cue the eerie theremin music.
Drac, meanwhile, is now in town posing as Betty’s dead uncle. He’s taken a room at the hotel, begging the question of why he just doesn’t go out to the ranch, since he’s now the dead uncle. Drac informs anyone who’ll listen that he came on ahead of the stage. About a minute after this the townsfolk are informed of the stage’s fate. Cut to the threesome sitting at a table in the hotel. Why, it’s the immigrants! And they quickly point out that Drac is a vampire. Drac feigns ignorance; just because he’s running around in that silly looking costume with a pointed goatee doesn’t mean he’s one of the undead. The townsfolk, having never seen a vampire before, tend to agree.
Drac graciously gives his room at the hotel to the immigrants and goes out to the ranch. Later that night he visits the hotel to finish the job on their daughter, but when he returns to the ranch he finds he has company. Yes, it’s those pesky immigrants, who Billy has hired as household help. Frau Oster is determined to protect Betty from Drac’s evil designs. (Several times throughout the film, Mrs. Oster is referred to as “Mrs. Olson,” as Virginia Christine was famous for playing the character in Folgers ads. I guess Beaudine thought it was a natural mistake by the townsfolk or just didn’t want to do another take to get things right. Would it have mattered, anyway?)
Frau Olsen now decides to decorate Betty’s bedroom in various shades of wolfsbane, the equivalent of a cold shower to an amorous vampire. (If she had all this to start, then why did her daughter get killed? Just asking.) Billy, meanwhile, brings his concerns about Uncle James to the wrong fellow – Uncle James. Carradine tactfully tells to him stop prying and believing those German immigrants, or get the pink slip. Later, Billy is conducting a meeting about good employee relations with Thorpe, the outcome of which sends Billy running to Doc Hull (Carey). While getting patched up, he tells her his suspicions about the newly arrived Uncle, and discovers that the doc just happens to have a couple of books on the subject. I’m sure that part of every good country doctor’s library has a book or two on vampirism. One never knows when it’ll be needed. Billy pours out his suspicions, “You know that lamb I told you about? Its throat was ripped wide open. At least that's what the boys told me." When the doc asks him if he thinks it could be the work of a vampire, Billy turns thoughtful: "I hate to think it could be true but, well, I . . . I don't know about things like that. You know, I . . . I ain't had too much schoolin’."
It’s at this point the doc whips out her book and opens it right in the middle, miraculously landing on the right passage to answer the question. She begins to read: “According to an old European superstition, a vampire is a ghost which leaves its resting place at night to suck the blood of living victims; humans, when possible. Sometimes it kills its victims, other times it keeps them alive. Sometimes a vampire takes one of his victims as a mate and eventually turns her into a vampire . . . Now you know as much about it as I do, Billy.” Billy is dumbfounded. “Gosh . . . Well, how do you know of a person is a vampire? How can you tell?” Yes, how can you tell? Not to worry, for the doc says, “Well, there’s some footnotes here in German. My German's pretty bad. But one thing I can make out: A vampire . . . does not cast . . . a reflection . . . in a mirror." (Vampires fur Dummkopfs)
When Billy tells the sheriff (Barcroft) about his newly obtained knowledge, it sets off a light bulb in the sheriff’s empty head. Earlier he dismissed Frau Oster’s explanation for her daughter’s death. Now he a fount of wisdom: “Ah yeah, vampires. Seems to me I recollect that she said that’s who done the killin’!”
We now cut to Thorpe, who’s trying to score some brownie points with Uncle James. He comes into the office and says he want to see Uncle James. Carradine rises from his chair. Now, this scene must have been shot after lunch, because Carradine weaves his way over to see Thorpe, who proceeds to dime out Billy over his accusations about Unk. That’s it – Billy is out and Thorpe is in. In addition, Drac tells his new foreman that he wants Billy clean out of town. Being a conscientious brown-noser, Thorpe runs into Billy at the hotel bar and informs Billy that he (Thorpe) has come to make sure Billy leaves town. A fight breaks out and Thorpe draws, but Billy is faster and Thorpe has played his last scene.
While this is going on, Betty is sharing doubts about Billy’s recent behavior with Eva: “Oh, it’s Billy. He's been acting so strangely lately. Now he wants me to try some, some experiment on Uncle James.” Eva asks what sort of experiment it is, to which Betty replies that it’s done with a mirror. “Oh God, the vampire test!” Eva exclaims. No, not that! Cue the organ.
As Betty by this time has foolishly removed the wolfsbane from her room (something about it clashing with the wallpaper, I believe), Drac now makes his move. He mesmerizes Betty through a combination of bugging his eyes out and having the red light shining in his face. (Though, honestly, that red light makes it seem as if he’s standing behind a rotisserie chicken cooker.) The next day Billy arrives at the ranch to find Betty zonked on the bed with two large hickeys on her neck. Eva tells him to take Betty to the doctor. Although the doc can’t make heads or tails about what’s wrong, she is sure that it’s the work of vampires. At this point the sheriff waltzes in to tell Billy that he has to drag him off to the hoosegow until the matter of Thorpe’s killing can be put to rest.
Now that Billy’s cooling his heels in the cooler, Drac makes his big move. He comes to the doc’s office to take Betty home. In one of the great nonsensical scenes in film history, the doc decides to put the vampire test to the test. She takes down the wall mirror, places it behind the vampire, and then calmly stares into the thing. Drac’s reaction is to turn around and stare at her until he can remember his next cue. (At this point Drac is clearly feeling no pain.) He then walks out carrying Betty, looks back at the doc and makes a noise not unlike that of a poodle in heat. The great thing is that the entire scene is done in such a relaxed manner that it almost seems like a rehearsal for the real scene yet to be shot.
As if that wasn’t enough, here comes another great scene. (In fact, the entire film now becomes one laughable scene after another, as if all seeming pretense to make a decent picture has been tossed out the window.) As Drac has come for Betty, the doc is in a panic. What to do? I know – I’ll get Billy. He’ll know what to do! She goes to the jail to try and spring Billy, but the sheriff is a party pooper: Billy has to stay put until the trial. At this point, and it’s done so nonchalantly, the doc – a little old aging and overweight lady – completely disarms the sheriff by taking his pistol from its holster with little effort and giving it to Billy, whereupon the sheriff reluctantly releases Billy on his own recognizance.
Before Billy leaves to have it out with Drac we are treated to some of the most inane dialogue in the picture. The doc offers her scapel to Billy to do Drac in: “Billy!” she says. “Take this! That gun will do you no good against him!” Billy, as stone-headed as ever, simply replies that he’s never see a man yet that a bullet won’t stop. “But he’s not a man!” replies the doc. Billy shrugs, fingers his gun and simply says, “This’ll do.”
Now it’s time for the final confrontation. After taking Betty home, Drac has now moved her to the abandoned silver mine. Earlier he had been scoping out the mine, and now we know why: it’s a honeymoon hotel. Drac has a double bed set up and ready to go. In a mine, yet. But here comes Billy, yelling out Betty’s name so Drac can hear him. What does Drac do? He hides. Perhaps he intends to jump out and yell “Surprise!” But a few seconds later he comes out of hiding to do battle. Drac is kicking Billy‘s ass, knocking him down. Billy draws and fires, but as the doc said, bullets have no effect. So what does Billy do now? He throws his gun at Drac, of course (as if he’s been paying attention to television episodes of Superman), and from the sound Drac makes Billy has hit his target. In fact, the gun hits Drac right on the schnozz and I think Drac’s cry wasn’t in the script. Drac falls down and out. The sheriff and the doc have been following closely behind, of course, and the doc now hands Billy her scalpel, which Billy uses to drive into Drac’s heart. We now suddenly cut to a shot of the rubber bat flapping around outside on its string. Suddenly, it falls to the ground – dead. Wait, isn’t Drac the bat? Is Beuadine trying to go metaphysical on us with this bit of symbolism, as if Drac’s soul were trying to escape? Why are we even discussing this, anyway? Right before the movie ends, we cut back to Drac, who is nothing more than a pile of bones. Guess he won’t be troubling us anymore.
This film plays rather fast and loose with the vampire legend. Carradine walks around in the daylight, a no-no for a vampire, but considering the almost nonexistent day-for-night shots, it was just as well, anyway. Carradine also carries no coffin around with him. He also sits down to dinner later in the film: vampires aren’t supposed to eat, other than drinking blood for nourishment. As for some who feel that driving a metal stake into Carradine violates the custom of a wooden stake, I would point out that several films in the past have employed metal stakes.
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is truly a laugh riot, but if it has one redeeming feature, it’s the plethora of good character actors that work in it. Besides the top-billed Carradine, we have Harry Carey Jr. as the stage driver and his mother, Olive, in her last film role as the doc. Virginia Christine, who gained undying fame as Mrs. Olsen in the Folger coffee commercials, is Eva Oster, and Walter Janovitz, best remembered by television fans for his turn as dog keeper Oscar Schnitzler in Hogan’s Heroes, is her husband Franz. Ex-foreman Thgrpe is played by Bing Russell, father of Kurt, and the sheriff is B-movie stalwart Roy Barcroft, famous for his appearance if the Republic serials of the ‘40s and early ‘50s. And Indian maiden Charlita Roeder (sometimes billed by just her first name) had previously worked for Beaudine in his 1952 classic, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
If anyone could be said to fail in this film, it’s Chuck Courtney, whose Billy the Kid comes off like bland Marshmallow Fluff instead of a tough guy trying to reform. Perhaps he simply lost interest in the film, because Courtney had a quite a career forbore this as a solid actor. He had previously worked for Beaudine, getting critical plaudits for his role in Born to the Saddle (Astor, 1953). He played Dan Reid, nephew to Clayton Moore on the long-running hit The Lone Ranger. He was also a favorite of both John Wayne and Robert Conrad, who employed him in many of their vehicles. In 1994, he received The Golden Boot award for his contribution to Western films. A series of strokes that left him totally debilitated led him to take his own life in 2000 at the age of 69.
Memorable Dialogue: Billy runs into Betty outside the abandoned silver mine and asks what’s going on.
Billy: Where’s your uncle?
Billy: What’s he doing in an abandoned mine?
Betty: That’s his business.
Billy: Maybe it’s my business, too.
Betty: (Breaks down) Oh, Billy, what’s happening to us? We’ve never quarreled like this before, ever!
Miscellany: This was Carradine’s first attempt at a vampire role since playing Dracula in Universal’s House of Dracula in 1945 . . . Billy the Kid vs. Dracula was originally slated to begin production in 1961 with Joe Breen as director . . . The film was shot in anywhere from 5 to 8 days . . . Interiors for the film were shot at The Producer's Studio in Hollywood and exteriors at Corriganville, Hollywood stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan's ranch in California's Simi Valley. The ranch was also used for King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), and Sam Fuller's The Baron of Arizona (1950) . . . In Universal’s The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), evil high priest Carradine stalks reincarnated Egyptian princess Ananka, played by none other than Virginia Christine.
The Z Files: Death by Invitation
By Ed Garea
This is the inaugural column dedicated to what are referred to by critics as “Z movies.” The Z movie is a product of the ‘50s (though the term wasn’t coined until the mid-‘60s), when the studio system collapsed and independent producers and newly-minted smaller studios jumped in to fill the market for what used to be known as “B” movies.
Television also helped kill off the B-movie proper, and the advent of the drive-in and the rise of the grindhouse in urban areas gave low-budget producers a market for their films. The Z movie is low budget, but that alone does not make it bad. The quality standard for such a film must be well below that for a B movie and the producers are those on the fringes of the film industry. In the ‘30s and into the ‘40s, films from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” could meet those standards, as they were poorly made, with shoddy scripts, decrepit sets and woeful acting, and marketed to independent theaters. Most Poverty Row productions focused on horror or mystery; the later Z movies first focused on horror and science friction, later going into the genres of gore, violence and soft-core pornography.
Television also helped kill off the B-movie proper, and the advent of the drive-in and the rise of the grindhouse in urban areas gave low-budget producers a market for their films. The Z movie is low budget, but that alone does not make it bad. The quality standard for such a film must be well below that for a B movie and the producers are those on the fringes of the film industry. In the ‘30s and into the ‘40s, films from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” could meet those standards, as they were poorly made, with shoddy scripts, decrepit sets and woeful acting, and marketed to independent theaters. Most Poverty Row productions focused on horror or mystery; the later Z movies first focused on horror and science friction, later going into the genres of gore, violence and soft-core pornography.
So what we get from all this is that Z movies are terrible. That is true, but it’s also why, in the vast majority of cases, they’re fun to watch. Otherwise, Mystery Science Theater 3000 wouldn’t even have come into existence.
Death by Invitation (Kirt Films, 1971) – Director: Ken Friedman. Writer: Ken Friedman. Cast: Shelby Leverington, Norman Paige, Aaron Phillips, Lesley Knight, Denver John Collins, Bruce Bentlinger, Tom Mahoney, Sarnell Ogus, Sylvia Pressler, & Rhonda Russell. Color, 81 minutes.
This low-budget slice of celluloid from producer Leornard Kirtman (Carnival of Blood – 1970 and Curse of the Headless Horseman – 1972) is so slow-moving it might as well be titled “Death by Boredom.” It works on the old horror standby of a centuries-old curse leading to modern-day revenge, but the execution is so poor and crudely done that it loses its audience. The plot execution is so poorly done that unless viewers have seen something like it before, they’re out of luck, for nothing is ever explained during the course of the movie.
We begin by being treated to a spectacularly clumsy opening where a group of villagers are about to burn a witch. Is this set in Salem, England, Holland? We’re not told. At any rate, it’s nice to see that the colonists of 17th century inhabitants lived in shingled houses with metal outdoor basement doors and concrete sidewalks. They’ve got their witch, but they don’t quite know what to do with her. Mainly they drag her around, dressed as one would at a low-budget Renaissance Festival. They tie her to a stake, but there’s no wood surrounding it, so they drag her to a basement where they slit her throat. But before dispatching her, she seems to place a curse on the family of the man that led the mob. All this is accompanied by some of the most annoying music I have ever heard in a picture.
Cut to the present day. We’re on Staten Island, I think, (it’s never made clear), and are dining with the Vroot family. Since that’s a Dutch name, one can assume our 17th century witch was dispatched either in New Amsterdam or Holland proper. The Vroot family, resided over by patriarch Peter (Phillips) is celebrating the engagement of daughter Carol (Russell) to Jake (Paige), whom Roger wants to join the family business. Among the invited guests is Lise (Leverington) who is a dead ringer for our dead witch. Uh-oh. Lise is late to the party and tries to make light by telling a story of how the cab gave her his number on the way over, but the strictly religious family won’t hear of it. However, no one seems to mind when Jake begins hitting on Lise right in front of everyone. Fiancée Carol just sits there in the background sporting a dress that looks like it was cut from the living room drapes.
Lise also seems to serve some sort of double duty as a visiting caregiver to Peter’s wife, Naomi (Ogus). At least I think this is the case; watching this film is like trying to solve a puzzle.
After Lise departs, son Roger (Collins), intrigued by her story (Why?) takes a cab ride to her place where she regales him with a monologue about how in a primitive tribe the women did the hunting and the men made them up and oiled them for the hunt. When the men try it themselves the women found out and killed them. All this is told at a pace that makes one want to cry out “Get to the point already!” But Roger is entranced by the speech, or bored out of his skull, I couldn’t tell. He takes off his top and kneels before Lise, and we think Roger is about to get lucky. But no, Lise proceeds to sink her nails into his throat and back, killing him as the stage blood oozes down.
Now, instead of celebrating an upcoming betrothal, the Vroot family is trying to find Roger. This leads to a very clumsy and contrived scene with a clueless detective who tries to steer the family into believing that Roger is probably somewhere pushing drugs. This must be Friedman’s attempt to ease the tension by inserting a comedy relief scene. The problem is that the cops merely come across as stupid and witless, and the Vroot family is left with just their hopes that Roger will eventually find his way home.
Two other scenes need mention here. One is where Jake visits Peter’s office to hear his offer of going into the family business. What is supposed to be a scene expanding and extending the plot turns into a cacophonous mess as the Muzak playing in the background at the office drowns out Peter and Jake’s dialogue. The scene just rambles on, leaving me with the impression that the director had decided to go to lunch and didn’t inform anyone else on the set. The other scene is where little Elly (Knight) is up in her room when we suddenly see Lise outside. Shortly after we learn that both Elly and sister Sara (Pressler) have been slain. The shot of Lise earlier seems to have been like an insert to let us know whatever it is that Friedman wants us to know. The only thing it has going for it is that it does come off as creepy and strangely effective – for once.
It’s been strongly telegraphed that Jake is hot for Lise and we know it’s just a matter of time before he gets his shot. We have already seen that, for someone who’s just gotten engaged, Jake spends as little time as possible with his future bride, who just remains in the background. He drops in on Lise at her place and she begins with the old monologue about the tribe of women who do the hunting while the men prepare them for the hunt, but Jake will have none of it; he’s horny. They proceed to have the required sex scene, although for a producer whose product includes a few softcore titles, the scene is somewhat muted. After the fun is over, Jake discovers blood dripping down. He follows the trail and discovers a hidden room Lise conveniently has in her apartment. Attached to the ceiling in that room is a bag with the chopped up remains of others in the Vroot family. Jake is horrified and the scene degenerates into a terrible fight scene with an ax-wielding Peter entering and accompanied by very poor sound. It ends here and we wonder what the point of the whole thing was to start.
What keeps the film from being totally unwatchable, besides the unintentionally hilarious script, is the performances of the leads, in particular Leverington and Paige. Both, unbelievably, went on to decent careers, mostly in television. This was actually the first film for Leverington, who also went on to strong roles in both The Long Riders (1980) and Cloak and Dagger (1984). Paige, later known as Norman Parker, has also appeared in Prince of the City (1981), Turk 182 (1985), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and television series such as Family Ties, Falcon Crest, and the soap As the World Turns.
Death by Invitation actually opened on October 21, 1971, at the Esquire Theater in St. Louis, which may have been chosen because of its proximity to Leverington’s alma mater of Southeast Missouri State. For his part, Friedman would only direct one more feature, Made in U.S.A. (1987), but made his mark as a screenwriter, with films such as White Line Fever (1975), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), Johnny Handsome (1989), and Cadillac Man (1990).
Although not a full-blown train wreck, Death By Invitation is more like a shaggy dog exercise, with great expectations and a zero payoff. It’s for late night viewing when anything will do, as long as it’s accompanied with a snack and some wine before hitting the hay.
Mamie Van Doren on TCM on June 20
By Ed Garea
If there could be said to be a psychotronic version of Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren would fit the bill. Known for her trademark platinum blonde hair, her voluptuous presence made many an unwatchable movie somehow watchable. TCM is screening seven of her films, beginning at 8:00 pm today, and each and every one of them can be found in Michael Weldon’s authoritative The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.
If there could be said to be a psychotronic version of Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren would fit the bill. Known for her trademark platinum blonde hair, her voluptuous presence made many an unwatchable movie somehow watchable. TCM is screening seven of her films, beginning at 8:00 pm today, and each and every one of them can be found in Michael Weldon’s authoritative The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.
8:00 pm Untamed Youth (WB, 1957) – Director: Howard W. Koch. Cast: Mamie Van Doren, Lori Nelson, John Russell, Don Burnett, Eddie Cochran, & Lurene Tuttle. B&W, 80 minutes.
In this great, campy exploitation film from Warner Bros., Mamie and Lori play sisters who are falsely arrested and railroaded onto a cotton farm run by Russell in cahoots with crooked judge Tuttle.
But no matter how hard they’re worked during the day, the inmates always have the time and energy to musically cut loose at night. Yet, does it make any sense that Mamie sings four songs and Eddie Cochran only one? However, this is definitely one to catch – if anything else, for the sheer nonsensical entertainment.
Trivia: The film opened to atrocious reviews and looked as if it was headed for box office oblivion when the Catholic Legion of Decency publically condemned it. That turned its fortunes around as the curious flocked to see what all the fuss was about, and the picture copped a nice profit.
9:30 pm The Beat Generation (MGM, 1959) – Director: Charles Haas. Cast: Steve Cochran, Mamie Van Doren, Ray Danton, Fay Spain, Louis Armstrong, Maggie Hayes, Jackie Coogan, Maxie Rosenbloom, Vampira, & Irish McCalla. B&W, 93 minutes.
MGM had finally found the youth market thanks to producer Albert Zugsmith, who made the highly-profitable High School Confidential the year before. Van Doren was a huge reason for that film’s success, so it was considered a no-brainer to give her a leading role in this lurid tale of a detective (Cochran) in pursuit of a serial rapist (Danton) known as “the Aspirin Kid.” (Don’t ask.) The rapist is being given shelter by a group of unwitting beatniks, who probably think he’s cool because he can spout philosophy.
Mamie is Georgia Altera, a striking divorcee (what else?) who gets all mixed up with the Aspirin Kid and his beatnik friends. It’s a potentially decent thriller sunk by a dumb script, but it’s bad enough to be entertaining. The amazing cast includes Coogan as Cochran’s partner, McCalla as Coogan’s wife, Maxie Rosenbloom as a beat wrestler, Vampira as a poetess who spouts awful poetry and keeps a pet rat, and Spain as Cochran’s wife and the egotistic Aspirin Kid’s next victim. The film also features Armstrong and his band.
Trivia: Look for Regina Carrol, who later starred in a series of wonderfully trashy films directed by husband Al Adamson, in a small part as a dancer (billed under her real name, Regina Gelfan) . . . Believe it or not, the co-author of the horrid script was none other than noted sci-fi writer Richard Matheson.
11:15 pm Born Reckless (WB, 1959) – Director: Howard W. Koch. Cast: Mamie Van Doren, Jeff Richards, Carol Ohmart, Tom Dugan, Nacho Galindo, & Allegra Varron. B&W, 80 minutes.
Mamie’s a saloon singer who falls for rodeo star Richards. Ohmart is Mamie’s competition. While it’s not bad enough to be a howler, Mamie does get to belt out a couple of tunes. Richard in real life was a former minor league ballplayer before he got into the movies. And look for Galindo, from the great Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Western Buchanan Rides Alone, as Papa Gomez.
12:45 am Guns, Girls and Gangsters (UA, 1958) – Director: Edward L. Cahn. Cast: Mamie Van Doren, Gerald Mohr, Lee Van Cleef, Grant Richards, Elaine Edwards, & John Baer. B&W, 70 minutes.
In this fast-moving heist film Mamie is a Vegas singer drawn into a scheme by husband Van Cleef and his cellmate Mohr to rob an armored car carrying casino revenue. Produced by Edward Small and directed by low-budget specialist Cahn, it’s a diverting 70 minutes in length.
Trivia: Small was sued for plagiarism a couple of years after the picture’s release by writer Art Estrada, who claimed he and co-writer Steve Masino had submitted a script titled “Blueprint for Crime” to Small, who turned it down. The case was settled out of court.
2:00 am Vice Raid (UA, 1960) – Director: Edward L. Cahn. Cast: Mamie Van Doren, Richard Coogan, Brad Dexter, Barry Atwater, Carol Nugent, & Frank Gerstle. B&W, 71 minutes.
Another campy little gem from producer Small and director Cahn starring Mamie as a prostitute enlisted by syndicate boss Dexter to frame police Sergeant Brandon, who is in the midst of his campaign against vice. But when Mamie’s sister (Nugent) is assaulted by one of the hoods, she and Brandon join forces to take down the syndicate.
Trivia: Working titles for the film were Women Confidential, Pleasure Girl, and The Blonde in 402. The Hollywood Reporter review of the movie refers to it as Vice Squad.
3:15 am Sex Kittens Go to College (Allied Artists, 1960) – Director: Albert Zugsmith. Cast: Mamie Van Doren, Tuesday Weld, Mijanou Bardot, Mickey Shaughnessy, Louis Nye, Pamela Mason, Martin Milner, Conway Twitty, Jackie Coogan, John Carradine & Vampira. B&W, 94 minutes.
Bad Film Alert: The best thing about this relentlessly unfunny comedy is its great title. Get this plot: Collins College needs a new head for its science department, so Doctors Carter (Mason) and Zorch (Nye) feed all relevant information into their super-computer, Thinko, and it comes up with Dr. Mathilda West (Van Doren). Unfortunately, the brainy Dr. West has secret past: she’s stripper Tassels Montclair. And we’ll leave it at that.
Trivia: Because if its title, the film would play porn houses and was later released to television as The Beauty and the Robot . . . Working titles included Sexpot Goes to College, and Teacher Versus Sexpot.
5:00 am The Girl in Black Stockings (UA, 1957) – Director: Howard W. Koch. Cast: Lex Barker, Anne Bancroft, Mamie Van Doren, John Dehner, Ron Randell, Marie Windsor, & Gene O’Donnell. B&W, 75 minutes.
A maniac is on the loose at a Utah resort. He murders, and then mutilates his victims, all voluptuous women. Who is he? Almost everybody at the resort is a suspect because each has skeletons in his or her closet. This is a great sleazeball production, part noir and part exploitation. Besides Mamie there are several other performances to watch: Bancroft, who was making a career for herself in B films and had to go to Broadway to find her niche as a great actress; Windsor, who co-starred in several noir films before this, most notably The Narrow Margin (1952) and The Killing (1956), but she was also in such films as Catwomen of the Moon (1953), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955); and Barker, a former Tarzan noted for being another in the line of men married to Lana Turner and identified by Lana’s daughter Cheryl Crane in her autobiography as the man who molested her as a child. Thus we add a touch of reality.
TCM Salutes Richard Carlson on April 29
By Ed Garea
Richard Carlson, noted for his sci-fi films of the ‘50s, is being feted by TCM with a night of his psychotronic movies.
Beginning at 8 pm with It Came From Outer Space, it continues through to the last showing at 4 am with the Bert I. Gordon “classic,” Tormented.
For me as a kid, Carlson was (and still is) one of my favorite actors. He first came to my attention as Dr. Jackson in Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost, where he helped the boys solve the mystery of the bad-tasting water at the derelict hotel they inherited while still finding time to romance the gorgeous Evelyn Ankers.
As time passed, I found him starring in more films I considered essential: It Came From Outer Space, The Ghost Breakers, and, of course, the classic Creature From the Black Lagoon. These firmly cemented him in my mind as an actor to watch. As I grew older and my tastes broadened from horror and sci-fi to other genres, I found him in such films as Back Street, The Little Foxes, and the highly enjoyable, but strange, White Cargo. As with other movie stars I idolized as a youth, his presence in a movie was enough to make me watch. But it was his sci-fi roles I loved most.
The odd thing was that he was renowned for these roles in the ‘50s, though he made only four of those films – It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Magnetic Monster (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954), and Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), and these were made within a two-year period.
I’ll examine the first three of these in this article, as Creature From The Black Lagoon deserves a separate article of its own.
8:00 pm – It Came From Outer Space (Universal, 1953) Director: Jack Arnold. Cast: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes, & Dave Willock. B&W, 81 minutes.
The collaboration of producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold gave fans many memorable sci-fi films in the ‘50s, including Tarantula, This Island Earth, The Mole People, The Monolith Monsters, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. This effort was their first. It’s also noteworthy as the screenwriting debut of author Ray Bradbury. He wrote a story treatment for the studio entitled “The Meteor,” and was hired to expand it. The result was that he penned the complete screenplay. The studio then brought Harry Essex aboard to do the necessary polish, and for his efforts, Bradbury was paid in the neighborhood of $3,000.
Not only was the film Universal’s first attempt at science fiction, it was also their first attempt at the new technology of 3-D. The result was a solid hit and one of the top grossing films for the year.
Carlson is schoolteacher and amateur stargazer John Putnam. His girlfriend is fellow schoolteacher Ellen Fields (Rush). One night, John and Ellen see a meteor crash in the desert. He rouses his friend Pete (Willock) to take him to the site in his helicopter, and the three of them go to investigate. Landing at the site, only John is able to descend into the crater, where he spots a spaceship and a brief glimpse of its hideous passenger before a landslide, caused by the alien, covers it. Since he’s the only one who has seen the ship and its pilot, no one believes his story. But John soon finds that some of the townsfolk are not what they seem, especially his friends, telephone linesmen George (Johnson) and Frank (Sawyer). After chasing Frank and George into a dark alley, they reveal to him that they are alien replicas of the men, sent into town to get necessary parts for the ship and that the real Frank and George are fine and will be released once the ship is repaired.
However, Sheriff Matt Warren (Drake), alarmed by the disappearance of both people and electrical equipment, gets involved in the mystery. Meanwhile the alien George abducts Ellen and a replica Ellen is sent to lure John to a mineshaft, which connects the downed spacecraft to the outside world. There the alien explains to him that their race is an advanced one and will continue to be peaceful as long as they’re not disturbed while repairing the ship. It also explains that, while they desire contact, humans are not developed enough to accept their frightening appearance. John informs the sheriff of his meeting, but the sheriff decides to take action and rounds up a posse of men to confront the aliens.
John races to the mine ahead of the group to warn the aliens, but he finds they no longer trust him and are readying their laser weapon to defend themselves. However, he convinces them that if they release the abducted people as a show of faith, the men will cease attacking. The aliens reluctantly agree and the abducted humans leave the mineshaft unharmed, as Frank and John dynamite the entrance to the mine. As the townspeople watch the ship fly out of the crater back towards space, Sheriff Matt asks if they have left for good, to which John replies that they will return when we are ready to accept them.
Considering its budget ($800,000), It Came From Outer Space is a remarkable film. The photography of Clifford Stine, combined with director Arnold’s pacing, makes the film look like anything but a B product. It also neatly captures the paranoia of the Atomic Age, especially concerning UFOs. Even the climactic scene with the townsfolk coming together to take on the aliens, which by this time had become a cliché, thanks to countless westerns and horror movies that preceded it, is handled with care and style. About the only glaring weak spot is the revelation of the alien, which is a constant weak point of almost every film of the genre, since the appearance of the monster can never equal our imagining of it. Bradbury himself had complained about it in several interviews: “I warned them not to bring the ‘monster’ out in the light - ever. They ignored my advice. The bad moments in the film come when the monster does just that: stops being mysterious, steps out, and becomes a laugh riot."
But perhaps its real influence can be seen in a story about Bradbury attending a review screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He ran into the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, who told him that the inspiration for Close Encounters lay in the fact that he had watched It Came From Outer Space numerous times as a kid.
9:30 pm – The Magnetic Monster (UA, 1953) Director: Curt Siodmak. Cast: Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, Harry Ellerbe, Leo Britt, Leonard Mudie, & Byron Foulger. B&W, 76 minutes.
This was one of my favorite sci-fi films when I was young. I liked it because it didn’t feature the usual monster and had enough scientific mumbo-jumbo to keep me interested. For me, it was never enough that the monster was; no, I always wanted to know how and why it came about. The film covered this well enough for me to warrant repeat viewings whenever it was shown. But it had been almost 40 years since I last saw it on television or in the cinema, and when TCM ran it a few months ago I was looking forward to seeing it once again. Of course, there is the inevitable clash between the film as it is and one’s cherished memories of said film, and this was true when I saw it again after that long absence. It’s almost like a cultural clash as I asked myself exactly what it was when I saw it as a kid. When it was over, I realized it was better than what I just finished watching, but it was definitely not the classic I had built it up to in my mind’s eye.
Nonetheless, it’s a good, well-plotted movie, even if some of its points are wildly absurd by today’s understanding of physics. Dr. Jeffrey Stewart (Carlson) and Dr. Dan Forbes (Donovan) are investigators for the U.S. government’s Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI). As the movie opens, Forbes is sharing his findings about high levels of radiation in the area with Stewart when they are summoned to a store whose owner is complaining that all his appliances have suddenly magnetically bonded. Upon investigating, they determine the source of the magnetism is the office above the store. There they discover the body of man that has died from radiation poisoning. He is, they learn, the assistant to Howard Denker (Mudie), who has disappeared along with his briefcase. A manhunt goes out and Denker is apprehended, dying, on a plane. In his briefcase is his creation – he tells Forbes and Stewart that it’s an atomic isotope he created by bombarding serranium with alpha particles. This altered its properties, making it magnetic. Oh, Denker says before departing this world, it must constantly be fed an electric charge or it will grow uncontrollably.
They attempt to control it in a university cyclotron, but it explodes, magnetizing everything near it and doubling its size. The only way to control it, Stewart and Forbes reason, is to overfeed it and thus render it harmless. The only power source with the capacity to do just that is the top-secret subterranean deltatron (see picture above) off the coast of Nova Scotia. The scientist in charge of the deltatron, Dr. Benton (Britt), protests, as this planned overfeeding will destroy his toy, but the Canadian government overrides him and allows Forbes and Stewart to proceed. However, during the course of their work, Benton goes over the edge and pulls a “bwa-ha-ha” moment by sabotaging the floodgates. If they do not desist, everyone in the building will drown. But Stewart thwarts Benton’s plans by cutting the cable to the floodgates and allowing them to close and protect the employees gathered behind. The experiment works, though the deltatron is destroyed in the process. The isotope is rendered harmless and the world is safe once again.
The problem with The Magnetic Monster lies neither with the acting nor the direction. The acting is uniformly excellent – Carlson and Donovan are absolutely convincing in their roles and carry the film nicely. Ditto with the direction. Siodmak keeps the action going at a brisk pace and there are practically no dead spots in the film. It is also one of the first – and very few – movies to address the horrors of the atomic age in a clear and sober manner. The problem with the movie is its science. One does not have to possess as Ph.D in physics to see the obvious holes in the plot. First off, Dr. Denker supposedly created this isotope at the university, then, because he didn’t want to share his discovery, he took it with him and rented an office in which to set up shop. If he created his isotope in a university lab, then the government would be in on it and there would be absolutely no way Denker could take his project and go home. Secondly, the electrical energy he would need in his storefront lab would blow every fuse in the city. Imagine his electrical bills. And thirdly, check out the “deltatron” itself. It comes to us audience members courtesy of stock footage from a 1934 German film entitled Gold about the attempts of a British scientist to turn base metals into gold with the help of an atom smasher. Check out the giant vacuum tubes on the thing. No cyclotron I’ve ever seen photos of had vacuum tubes. However, ignore the science and what we have is a most enjoyable and cerebral combination science fiction/mystery.
Trivia: Co-producers Ivan Tors and Richard Carlson saw this as a pilot, so to speak, for a new television show based on the adventures of OSI investigators entitled A Men. However, the proposed show failed to get off the ground and the partnership between Tors and Carlson dissolved. Tors would bring back the OSI for two following films, Riders to the Stars and Gog. Herbert L. Strock co-directed, but got into trouble with the Director’s Guild as he also functioned as the film’s editor. In Riders to the Stars, Carlson got the credit while Strock actually directed the film.
11:00 pm – Riders to the Stars (UA, 1954) Director: Richard Carlson (Herbert L. Stock – uncredited) Cast: Richard Carlson, William Lundigan, Herbert Marshall, Martha Hyer, Dawn Addams, Robert Karnes, & King Donovan. B&W, 82 minutes.
Producer Tors’ follow-up to the suspenseful The Magnetic Monster is this rather dull entry about attempts to get a man into space. A group of highly-qualified single men, including Dr. Richard Stanton (Lundigan) and Dr. Jerry Lockwood (Carlson), are recruited for a secret project. After a series of grueling physical and psychological tests, the remaining four are told of the project’s purpose.
Dr. Stanton’s father, Dr. Donald Stanton (Marshall), the man in charge of the project, has been working with his colleagues on manned space travel. But they have discovered in the course of their study that even the finest quality steel turns brittle in empty space. Yet meteorites are not subject to this problem, and the scientists want to know why. To do this they have to recover one before it hits the atmosphere, to learn how their “outer shell,” as they put it, protects them. So this is the project for which the four astronauts have been recruited: to go into space and capture a meteor. Three - Stanton, Lockwood and Walter Gordon (Karnes) - accept the challenge while the fourth quits in disgust.
They each pilot one-man rockets into space. While attempting to capture his meteor, Gordon is killed. Lockwood, seeing his friend killed before him, becomes unhinged to the point where he aims his ship into the deepest reaches of space and pushes the petal to the metal. Stanton, despite warnings that he’s running low on fuel and could burn up on re-entry, nonetheless captures a meteor and brings it to Earth, earning him a kiss from the project’s female scientist, Dr. Flynn (Hyer).
Unlike The Magnetic Monster, which didn’t let the technobabble get in the way of the suspense, Riders to the Stars is drowned in its own blather. Like the earlier Destination Moon, the science alone was the reason to watch. There was no hero, villain, or monsters to fight. Unfortunately, without these there is also little, if any, tension, aside from the climatic scenes in space. The performances are decent and the direction workmanlike, but nothing really stands out.
Tors apparently learned his lesson from this film, for in his next foray, Gog, we have a hero, an unidentified villain, and two monsters in the form of robots Gog and Magog, who are turned into killing machines by the unidentified villain, which is only seen as a silent aircraft passing over the installation. (Commies, perhaps?)
Elvis at the Movies
Editors’ Note: In honor of Elvis Presley’s birthday, David Skolnick, Jon Gallagher and Ed Garea look at his career on film.
By David Skolnick
Elvis Presley never envisioned he’d be an actor, even in January 1956, when he became an “overnight music sensation.” But only a few months later he was screen-tested, and his first film, Love Me Tender, named after one of his biggest songs, was released that November. Presley made 31 feature films between 1956 and 1969. Some are quite good. Several are jaw-dropping terrible.
The first “Elvis Formula” film was 1960’s G.I. Blues, which was a box-office success. The plots of the “Formula” films were thin and the acting was weak. In each of those films, Elvis had some sort of exciting job – usually a race-car driver, singer, cowboy or pilot – he’d meet a pretty girl, got in a jam, sang a few songs, danced a bit, entered some sort of race/contest/fight, won that race/contest/fight and the affection of the girl, sang another song and the credits rolled with him and the girl kissing.
After G.I. Blues, Presley’s fifth film, he starred in two non-Formula films, which were more dramatic with interesting plots. Unfortunately, neither 1960’s Flaming Star nor 1961’s Wild in the Country did well at the box office. So Presley’s next film, also in 1961, was Blue Hawaii, an awful Formula movie that was a huge success. Nearly every film Presley did the rest of his career had that Formula. Many are terrible, but there are a few gems in there.
In honor of Presley’s birthday, he would have been 78 today, we pay tribute to the King on the Silver Screen. Here are our favorite and least favorite Presley films.
For the most part, Elvis’ Formula films are enjoyable to me. Something silly like Roustabout (1964), Girl Happy (1965), or Spinout (1966) are fun to watch. But there is very little I like about the worst films and honorable mentions listed below. Let’s start with the best.
Best 3 Elvis films (in chronological order)
JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957): A wonderful and entertaining film, this was Presley’s third movie featuring a compelling plot, some good acting and great music. Elvis’ performance of the title track, a number for a television show, is his finest moment in motion pictures.
Elvis is Vince Everett, who’s in prison for a manslaughter conviction. Lucky for him, his cellmate is Hunk Houghton, a former country-and-western singer played by Mickey Shaughnessy, who hears Vince sing. Hunk recognizes talent and serves as a mentor. Upon his release after serving 20 months, Vince looks for work as a singer. He doesn’t have much luck until he meets Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler), who not only becomes his producer/manager but his love interest. Who can resist Elvis?
The film is somewhat of an indictment against the music industry. Vince is tired of getting ripped off so he and Peggy create their own record label, leading to incredible success for Presley’s character. Vince’s ego gets out of control, alienating his girlfriend and leading to Hunk, who is eventually paroled, getting so angry that he beats up Vince, who refuses to fight back. During his beatdown, Vince is hit in the throat and there is concern he’ll never sing again. But fear not, he recovers and is a changed man.
The production of this film is top-shelf, particularly in comparison to many of Elvis’ later movies, has a nice story and solid acting. Sadly, Tyler and her husband died in a car crash shortly after the film wrapped up production.
CHANGE OF HABIT (1969): This was Elvis’ last movie, not including his two concert documentaries, and one his most unusual. There are only a few songs in this film, with “Rubberneckin’” being a highlight of the movie.
Elvis is an inner-city doctor, John Carpenter, who falls for a nurse, Michelle Gallagher (played by Mary Tyler Moore, who could turn the world and plenty of other things on with her smile). One problem, Michelle and two other nurses working with Elvis are nuns. They keep that secret to themselves concerned that those in the ghetto won’t accept them if they know they’re nuns. Yeah, I know, but it moves the movie along. She has to choose between her love of God and the King.
The movie is oddly compelling featuring a Billy Jack-esque group of inner-city hippie teens staging a sit-down protest, and a memorable scene in which Elvis cures an autistic child through hug therapy. It’s a change of pace for Presley and one in which he’s allowed to show he had some range as an actor. But it was his last acting job.
LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE (1968): A quirky film that seems to be an effort to make an Elvis version of a Swinging London movie. Presley plays Greg Nolan, a photographer who works two jobs in the same building. One is for a conservative publication and the other is a Playboy-like magazine. The film features some drug references and Nolan appears to have casual sex, including one scene in which he’s in bed with his female co-star. Michele Carey plays that co-star, an eccentric sexy woman who uses different names, is quite flighty and keeps Elvis (sort of) against his will after drugging him at her beach house, guarded by a huge dog.
This is a pretty entertaining movie, though it can drag at times. However, I love it as it’s unique and different, Elvis looks great (as he got into shape for his TV comeback special during this time), and it’s fun to watch. The outfits worn in the film look like they came straight from a late 1960s London clothing boutique, and the actors deliver some groovy lines.
The best part of the film is Elvis singing “A Little Less Conversation,” which went largely unnoticed until it was remixed in 2002 and became a No. 1 hit. The original is better.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964), KID GALAHAD (1962), KING CREOLE (1958)
Worst 3 Elvis film (in chronological order)
BLUE HAWAII (1961): The one that ruined Elvis’ movie career. He made a few quality films toward the end of his Hollywood career. But the box-office success of this ridiculously bad movie resulted in Presley doing way too many awful “Formula” films.
The plot (as if it matters) has Elvis playing Chadwick Gates, recently discharge from the Army, who returns home to Hawaii. His mother (Angela Lansbury, only nine years older than Elvis, is at her all-time worst in an awful over-the-top performance) wants him to work for the family fruit company. Chadwick wants to hang out at the beach with his girlfriend (Joan Blackman) and when it comes to work, his ambition is to be a tour guide for said girlfriend’s business.
I can’t stress how bad Lansbury is in this movie from her horrible fake Southern accent to her overacting. Even Elvis puts in a stronger acting effort in this movie. The storyline is awful, the movie is so dull it’s painful to watch, and it’s as if Hawaii is the star of the movie (it’s in the title so maybe it’s supposed to be). The scenery is nice, but does nothing to save this movie from being a dud.
The lone highlight is a throw-away scene in which Elvis, accompanied by a music box and invisible background musicians, sings, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
HARUM SCARUM (1965): This movie poster reads: “Elvis brings the Big Beat to Bagdad (yeah, it should be Baghdad) in a riotous, rockin’ rollin’ adventure spoof!!!” He actually brings an unwatchable piece of garbage to the Silver Screen.
Presley is as an action-film star kidnapped by Middle Eastern assassins who want him to kill a king. Well, who else could kill a king besides The King? Mary Ann Mobley plays a slave girl who is actually an Arabian princess in an absolutely unconvincing role. It’s so bad that Mobley is probably the best actor in this film.
You can actually see a defeated look on Elvis’ face during this movie. He looks like he knows the film is awful and he’s embarrassed to be in it – and he should. It’s a comedy, but there’s absolutely nothing funny about this film. There isn’t any moment in the film worth seeing, but this mediocre song, “Hey Little Girl,” with Elvis in green jeanie/harum/M.C. Hammer pants is bizarre. Stop! Elvis time!
THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS (1969): Elvis is the manager of a traveling Chautauqua show in 1927 that becomes a murder mystery in a small town in Iowa. Dabney Coleman, the town’s pharmacist, is lucky enough to be the murder victim reducing his time on screen in this disaster.
Despite running the traveling show, Elvis isn’t in much of this film either. I don’t know how he worked it out, but Presley is in less than half of this movie. If only the movie was half as long, it would still be a bad, boring but short film. Instead, it’s a bad, boring full-length film.
The lone saving grace is Elvis singing a decent song, “Clean Up Your Own Backyard,” and an awesome looking white suit straight out of his 1968 TV comeback special.
DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR (1963), PARADISE, HAWAIIAN STYLE (1966), DOUBLE TROUBLE (1967), STAY AWAY, JOE (1968)
By Jon Gallagher
My assignment was to pick out and write about the three best Elvis movies and the three worst Elvis movies.
I can’t. As an Elvis fan, I just can’t. It’d be like asking a Shakespeare fanatic to pick out his favorite sonnet. Like asking a Beatles aficionado to choose their favorite Fab Four song. Like asking a fan of the Duke to select their three favorite John Wayne (By God!) movies.
On January 8 of each year, we sit around watching Elvis movies, eating ice cream and cake, and
even sometimes opening presents. Now if that’s not a true Elvis fan, I don’t know what is!
Never mind that it just happens to be my birthday as well.
I’m listing several of my favorite Elvis flicks along with my three, shall we say, least favorite, and I’m sure, if he were still with us, the King wouldn’t care.
TICKLE ME (1965) co-starring Julie Adams, Jack Mullaney, and Jocelyn Lane. Elvis plays Lonnie Beale, a rodeo star between gigs. He takes a job as a stable hand at a “fat farm” for wealthy women. He meets a fitness trainer, Pam Merrit (Lane) who has a map drawn by her grandfather (or some other long lost relative) that promises to lead to a treasure. Pam has no interest in Lonnie until the bad guys show up. They attempt to kidnap her, but Elvis is there to save the day (and the damsel).
They break up temporarily but when Pam finds the ghost town where the treasure supposedly is located, Lonnie comes back to help. They’re stranded in the town due to a storm, and then all the fun starts.
Lonnie, Pam, and sidekick Stanley (Mullaney) battle the ghosts in the ghost town in truly comic fashion.
The movie is a musical, of course, but also a very good comedy. Elvis gets to show off his comic talents (my favorite is a double take he does after opening a door with a surprise behind it) and it’s good harmless fun that the whole family can enjoy without resulting nightmares.
The screenplay is a collaboration of Elwood Ullman and Edward Bernds, who had also worked together, penning several shorts for the Three Stooges as well as some feature films for the Bowery Boys.
CLAMBAKE (1967) co-starring Shelley Fabares, Bill Bixby, and Will Hutchins. This is probably my favorite Elvis movie. It’s the classic Prince and the Pauper tale with Elvis playing the ultra-rich Scott Heyward. He’s tired of women throwing themselves all over him and not knowing if they loved him, or his money. Will Hutchins plays the broke ski instructor Tom Wilson who trades places with Scott (who just happens to be a good ski instructor himself, I guess).
Enter Diane Carter (Fabares) who is a broke single girl, looking to hook up with a rich guy during Spring Break. She meets Elvis (as Tom) and James J. Jamison III (I thought for a long time that he was the heir to the Daily Bugle, but then I was only 10 when the movie came out) and they compete for her. Jamison is in town to race in the Regatta and is favored to win. Elvis decides to compete with him, finding an aging boater (Sam Burton played by Gary Merrill) who has a boat that he’s not entering in the race. In addition to his skills as a ski instructor, Scott/Tom also shows that he’s a gifted chemist who comes up with a formula for paint that makes the hull of Burton’s boat indestructible. Now Elvis and Bixby are in a race, not only for the trophy, but for the girl as well.
James Gregory plays Dustin Heyward, Scott’s dad and is the highlight of the movie. He does an old Three Stooges gag where he’s looking for some money to pay a cigarette girl, finds a lower denomination bill, pulls it out, crumples it up and throws it away, all without once breaking dialogue.
At the end of this movie, based in Miami Florida, Elvis is confessing that he’s really Scott and pointing out some oil wells his family owns. The oil derricks are set against those beautiful Floridian mountains that have become the subject of so many postcards from the state.
It’s cheesy, predictable, and just plain silly at times. That’s probably why I like it so much.
FOLLOW THAT DREAM (1962) co-starring Arthur O’Connell, Anne Helm, and Joanna Moore. It’s another comedy, with Elvis doing his best Jethro Bodine impression as Toby Kwimper. The Kwimper family – Pop (O’Connell), Toby, Holly (Helm), and two kids are out for a drive when the car runs out of gas. The trouble is, they missed a sign somewhere telling them that this particular stretch of Florida highway is not yet complete. With nowhere to go and no money to get gas, they decide to homestead right there on the side of the road. Local authorities try to get them to move, but hard-headed Pop won’t hear of it and the more they try to get him to vacate the area, the more determined he becomes to stay.
The family is a conglomeration of mismatches. Holly is a 19-year-old orphan, taken in by Pop to help him care for the twins who are also orphans. Pop holds them together with love and good old-fashioned wisdom.
The family starts a business by accident. As they are fishing off the highway bridge, a local businessman stops by and attempts to land the fish that Toby has his hook. The result is a business catering to avid fishermen. When Toby decides to expand the business, he heads for a bank where tellers think he’s there to rob the place. Fortunately, the bank president is the man who stopped by to land the first fish, everyone lives happily ever after.
Oh, wait. It’s not over yet. There’s a social worker who gets upset that Toby won’t respond to her advances and tries to take the kids away. There’s also a couple of gangsters who stop by and set up a casino on the land the Kwimpers are homesteading. It’s a good thing they weren’t the ones in charge of setting up Las Vegas or the neon lights industry might not be what it is today.
The end has an amusing courtroom scene in which Toby proves he’s a whole bushel smarter than that Jethro feller, and…..
Whoa. Gotta watch that country hick in me trying to come out.
Anyway, it’s an entertaining movie, and one of Elvis’ better ones.
KISSIN’ COUSINS (1965) co-starring Elvis Presley (I’ll explain later), Arthur O’Connell, Jack Albertson, and Yvonne Craig. Holy Hillbillies, Batman! I never knew Batgirl looked like that! Elvis plays a dual role in this movie as TV’s Batgirl plays one of his love interests who wears some very skimpy clothes.
The Army wants to put a missile base on Tatum Mountain in Tennessee, but the Tatum family won’t hear of it. It’s discovered that Second Lieutenant Josh Morgan is a distant relative of the Tatums so he and a crew of Army personnel are sent to negotiate a deal.
The problem is, Pappy Tatum (O’Connell) is a moonshiner and he tends to chase away those government revenuers with the business end of a shotgun. He and his family, which includes Elvis playing the dual role of Jodie Tatum, interact with the Army as they try to reach a deal. Throw in a group of female hillbillies known as the Kittyhawks, and I’ll start sounding more like a hick than I did in the review of Follow That Dream.
It’s interesting to see how they handled Elvis playing the dual role given the fact that not a lot of technology existed in 1965 for doing things like that. It’s even more interesting to note that it took just a mere 15 days to shoot the entire movie!
There are some other fun things to look for in the movie. Teri Garr plays one of the hillbilly dancers and One Adam Twelve Kent McCord is an extra. Many have said that the Elvis we see playing Jodie (with much lighter hair) is what Elvis looked like without the black hair dye.
When one of my daughters saw this for the first time, she commented that it was amazing at the end that a bunch of hillbillies could just fall into a perfectly synchronized, perfectly choreographed dance. I reminded her that it was no more unbelievable than when a bunch of street hoods broke into a similar (yet very different) routine in West Side Story. She never made fun of an Elvis movie again (and actually learned to enjoy them).
GIRL HAPPY (1965) co-starring Shelley Fabares, Harold Stone, and Gary Crosby. Break out the blankets for a beach party! Elvis and crew invades the Fort Lauderdale area (not really; the film was shot on soundstages in California for the most part) in an attempt to cash in on some of the success of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funny-jello.
Elvis is the lead singer of a band playing nightclub in cold, snowy Chicago. They put in their final night and get ready to head for Florida on Spring Break when Big Frank (really!) decides to exercise a clause in their contract to hold them over. Elvis and his buddies hatch a scheme. They find out that Big Frank’s daughter Valerie is heading south and they volunteer to head south to act as bodyguards for her. Big Frank agrees, but it’s obvious that he has the connections to put the big hurt on them if anything should happen to his little girl.
Naturally, Rusty (Elvis) isn’t interested in watching Valerie; he’s too busy chasing girls. Eventually, Rusty and Valerie hook up, but then her dad tells her that he’s paying Rusty to keep an eye on her which sends her over the edge. She parties hard, lands in jail and it’s up to Rusty to get her out before Big Frank shows up.
It’s a fun movie that’s more predictable than a third and long situation, and we get to see Elvis in drag. Okay, maybe I could have done without that part, but I liked it anyway.
SPINOUT (1966) co-starring Shelley Fabares, Diane McBain, Dodie Marshall, Deborah Walley, Jack Mullaney, Will Hutchins, Warren Berlinger, and Carl Betz – Quite a list of co-stars, huh?
Elvis is Mike McCoy in this movie in which he has two jobs. He’s the lead singer in a band but he’s also a racecar driver. He’s also totally committed to being and remaining a bachelor despite the intentions of three different women. One is the daughter of a millionaire (Fabares), one is an author of books for women (McBain), and the third is his own drummer (Walley) who everyone sees as “just one of the guys.” All three hatch plots to marry Mike, while the millionaire (Betz) is only interested in getting him to drive his racecar in an important upcoming race. Berlinger plays a mousy, yet thoroughly enjoyable personal secretary to the millionaire, complete with fainting spells whenever stressed.
After the big race, Elvis has to choose which of the three women he will marry. It gets extra points on the grading scale because of his decision. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but let’s just say it was a little unexpected.
Fabares costars in her second of three Elvis movies while Mullaney has his second stint with Elvis.
STAY AWAY, JOE (1968) co-starring Burgess Meredith and Joan Blondell. I’ve only seen this one twice. I didn’t like this one when I saw it as a kid and when I watched it as an adult, I wondered why I hadn’t trusted my juvenile instincts and why I had just wasted an hour and a half of my time.
I’m not sure of the plot. It had something to do with Elvis being a half-breed or a full-blooded Navajo Indian and he’s involved with a scheme to have the government pay for a herd of cattle. He buys a bull, but the bull isn’t interested in the other cows, but put a rider on his back and he becomes a raging maniac that no one can ride. There’s also something about a brand new car that Elvis has to sell parts from as part of a running gag. The car goes from being brand new to a shell on cement blocks over the course of the movie.
As a kid, I kept waiting for Burgess Meredith to go, “Wah, wah, wah” and the Caped Crusader to come sweeping in from somewhere. As an adult, I realized that would have at least made the movie interesting, but not much more silly than it already was.
CHARRO! (1969) co-starring Ina Balin and Victor French. Elvis got some good reviews for his acting ability in this non-musical, but a 12-year-old Elvis fan isn’t interested in how dramatic the king of rock and roll can be. I saw it later as an adult, but just couldn’t get interested in the plot.
JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) co-starring Judy Tyler and Mickey Shaughnessey. Listing this as one of my least favorites probably surprises a lot of people, including myself. Elvis plays Vince Edwards who is convicted of manslaughter after killing a guy in a bar room brawl. While in prison, another convict, Hunk Houghton (Shaughnessey) teaches him how to play the guitar and sing. The movie follows the cutthroat side of the music business with a series of broken promises, the stealing of songs, and the oversized growth of heads caused by the phenomenon of instant success. This is one that I didn’t see until I was an adult, and I thought that just about everyone in the entire movie had a terminal case of overactingitis. That plus the fact that out of all Elvis’ hits, “Jailhouse Rock” is probably my least favorite.
If it was on TV, I’d probably watch it. I just wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it.
There you have it! The best of and the worst of and a few in-betweens. If you celebrate Elvis’ birthday by watching any of the marathons of Elvis movies on TV, just remember…. They weren’t trying to win any awards; they were trying to make money (which they always did).
By Ed Garea
Unlike many people, I first came to Elvis not through his music, but through his movies. My older cousin was forever blasting his records whenever we came to visit and her brother and I thought them awful. But one Saturday night, I saw him in Loving You, with Lizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey. I rather liked the films and began to take a different view of Elvis. It wasn’t until the Beatles arrived in 1964 that I began to become interested in popular music, and I went to see A Hard Day’s Night, which was on a double bill with Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco. The crowd couldn’t wait for the Elvis film to end so they could see the Beatles, but I rather liked it. It was a harmless musical, it was in color, and it co-starred Ursula Andress, whom I had a crush on after seeing her in Dr. No.
I sort of left it at that over the years, watching an Elvis flick when nothing else looked interesting, but when I received my copy of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, watching the rest of Elvis’s movies became a requirement. I can say that I’ve seen them all, so either congratulate or pity me. Following are my three favorites and my three least favorites from his work.
KING CREOLE (1959): For the first and last time in his film career Elvis was working for a top-notch director, namely Michael Curtiz. And he had a top-notch supporting cast: Walter Matthau, Carolyn Jones, and Dean Jagger as his father. In this musical noir, Elvis has flunked out of school and needs to get a job to help support his father. He becomes a singer at a seedy nightclub and becomes involved with gangsters and a smart moll played by Jones. It was said to be his favorite of his movies and was co-written by Michael V. Gazzo, who later co-starred in The Godfather, Part Two. Curtiz, incidentally, reportedly said that Elvis had a fine future as an actor.
LOVING YOU (1957): Elvis’s second movie and his most autobiographical. He plays deliveryman Deke Rivers, a handy guy with a song and guitar, who is discovered by down-and out publicist Glenda Marlke (Lizabeth Scott) and her husband, country-western entertainer Tex Warner (Wendell Corey). They gradually promote him to fame and fortune, and while he becomes a teen idol, the combination of both rock ‘n’ roll (controversial at the time) and his troubled past comes in to haunt him. Adding gasoline to the fire is the suspicions of Warner that Elvis is moving in on his wife. A great plot, with intelligent dialogue and good songs, including the title track and “Teddy Bear.”
STAY AWAY, JOE (1968): Yes, Joe, stay away. Stay far away. The absolute nadir of his acting career, it’s described by critic Michael Weldon as an “embarrassing, totally out-of-it comedy.” And that’s putting it mildly. It’s surreal to watch, and when you can’t think it can get any worse, it surprises you and does just that. In the “so-bad-it’s-good” category, and wasting the talents of Burgess Meredith, Joan Blondell and Thomas Gomez, whose appearances in this tell you how badly they needed a paycheck.
CHANGE OF HABIT (1969): Elvis’s last move and he doesn’t go out with a bang, but with a whimper. As if the producer, director and writers said “What implausible character can we make Elvis in this one?” they decide to make him an activist doctor treating patients in the ghetto and trying his best to change life for the better. Way to go, Elvis. Now, to make it even more implausible, the producers decide to cast Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara McNair as nuns working with Elvis and also hoping to change life for the better. Now this wouldn’t be an Elvis film if there weren’t some naïve young lady he could charm out of her socks. In this case, it’s Mare herself, who is considering giving up her habit for a shot at Ol’ Liver Lips. Of course, the Church wins out, but Mare does get to meet Ed Asner, who’s also in this movie and who would later co-star on her television show. Barbara McNair is utterly wasted as Sister What-A-Waste, with practically nothing to do but look cute.
BLUE HAWAII (1960): The picture that started Elvis’s slide into mindless musicals. I can only quote high schooler Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon), a character in the 1985 film Heaven Help Us, who has snuck out with his friends on the class trip to New York to see Pope Paul VI to take in a movie. He gets one look at Elvis floating downstream in a Hawaiian get-up, complete with leis (a multi lei-yered look, so to speak), and says, “Jesus, what did they do to Elvis? Cut his balls off, or something?” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
(Here's an article that appeared August 14, 2012, reviewing 13 of Elvis' movies.)
(Here's an article that appeared August 14, 2012, reviewing 13 of Elvis' movies.)
Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan at RKO, Part 2
By Ed Garea
Edited by Steve Herte
Edited by Steve Herte
As we read in Part 1, Tarzan and Johnny Weissmuller wore out their welcome at MGM with the Tarzan franchise being snapped up by producer Sol Lesser for RKO. Weissmuller made six more Tarzans for RKO before turning in his loincloth for khakis at Columbia as Jungle Jim.
While at RKO, Weissmuller made Tarzan flicks exclusively. Only one time during his tenure did he venture forth in another role and that was for producers Pine-Thomas and Paramount, where he starred in the 1946 melodrama Swamp Fire. He played a man who recently served with the Coast Guard and is returning to his life in Louisiana where he was a riverboat captain. His rival is Buster Crabbe (Wow! Two Tarzans!), who is the bad guy – we can tell from his mustache – and whom Johnny must battle for both his job and his girl. Proving he hasn’t completely left his jungle days behind, he does get to wrestle a rubber alligator. The box office returns from the movie didn’t exactly set a line of producers at Weissmuller’s door.
Save for that, Weissmuller toiled on as Tarzan in films of diminishing quality. By his final film he must have been as glad to leave Lesser as the producer was to ditch him for a younger model. The following are the final four.
TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS (1945): Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, Johnny Sheffield, Henry Stephenson, Maria Ouspenskaya, Barton MacLane, Donald Douglas, Steven Geray, J. M. Kerrigan, and Shirley O’Hara. Screenplay: John Jacoby and Marjorie L. Pfaelzer. Director: Kurt Neumann.
While taking a nature walk, Tarzan, Boy and Cheetah hear a woman screaming. Investigating, they find a woman being chased by hungry rear-projected leopards and a panther. Running out of room, she plunges off a cliff. Tarz chases the cats away and revives the girl while Cheetah helps himself to her gold bracelet, which she dropped on the ground. (It makes one think that perhaps the ape has a fence somewhere.) Her name is Athena (O’Hara) and she’s from Palmyra, an ancient city in a hidden valley populated by women that wear tight-fitting leopard skin outfits.
Because her ankle is sprained Tarz will carry her back to Palmyra and tells Boy to stay behind. But does he listen? Not on your life once he learns there are babes there, and he follows Tarz at a discreet distance. Inside the secret city, the Amazon Queen greets Tarz and thanks him for returning Athena. The Queen turns out to be Maria Ouspenskaya, all 5’1” of her. Some Amazon! How did she get this job, anyway? Shouldn’t she be out somewhere curing werewolves?
Before he leaves, Queenie drops an important plot point, reminding Tarz that he’s the exception to the rule. Anyone else that drops in is not getting out. Of course, this doesn’t apply to us in the audience, who are watching from the safety of our television screens. However, after watching this atrocity, we may want to do ourselves in.
Soon afterward Jane makes her less than triumphant return (and Joyce makes her debut), arriving via express shipping to a nearby trading post run by the grubby Ballister (MacLane). Jane does not come alone, but is accompanied by archaeologists Sir Guy Henderson (Stephenson), Andres (Douglas) and Brenner (Geray). Cheetah, happy to see Jane, gives her the bracelet he had glommed earlier. Sir Guy’s partner, Brenner (Geray) spots the “made in Palmyra” designation on the bracelet and asks Tarzan about its origins. Tarzan becomes agitated by the questioning and leaves with Jane and company for home.
Looking up the designation, Brenner concludes that it comes from the lost city of Palmyra and Ballister recalls several stories about the place. Everyone but Sir Guy wants to go check it out and do the tourist thing and decide to ask Tarzan to guide them. But when Ballister shoots a helpless mother lioness, Tarz loses it (probably because they ignored the ‘Lion Crossing’ sign) and flatly refuses to have anything further to do with them. Sir Guy understands and declares he will lead the group to the north instead. However, Boy is fascinated with the scientific tools the group carries and is further miffed because Tarzan shooed them away. He tells the group that he’ll take them to Palmyra, an invitation they readily accept being there’s no handy service station around to ask for directions or a map. Further, they correctly surmise that (1) Boy is in the midst of a teenage rebellion, and (2) he seems to have an IQ of about room temperature.
So Boy takes them to Palmyra, where they are welcomed and immediately sentenced to death. But after convincing Queenie of their good intentions, she relents and instead sentences them to hard labor. At any rate, the explorers soon learn that, of course, the Amazon city is loaded with treasure. The girls are thrifty and all have excellent 401(k) plans. Now Boy has a brainstorm (uh oh) and sends Cheetah to Athena, who agrees to help everyone escape. However, good old villainous Ballister wants to help himself to the treasures. So they make off with the gold. Sir Guy wants to donate it to a museum, but Ballister would rather donate it to his own personal retirement fund, so farewell to Sir Guy. As Athena tries to get away, Ballister sticks a knife in her back (Villainy 101), but before dying she manages to sound the general alarm. Only Ballister and Andres (Douglas) escape, dynamiting the usual narrow mountain pass to keep from being followed.
Now Queenie’s really mad. Someone’s gotta pay for this and we all know who it’s going to be. Meanwhile, on his way to Palmyra, Tarz spots Ballister and Douglas making off with the gold and chases them into the handy dandy quicksand pit, where they meet their doom. Tarz then takes the gold, uproots a tree to make a bridge, and brings the loot back to Palmyra, where he convinces a grateful Queenie to let Boy go on the grounds of mental incompetence.
Again, it’s another incomprehensible, but highly enjoyable, adventure with Barton MacLane in fine villainous form and Ouspenskaya looking and acting as if she’d rather be anywhere else. If you don’t think too hard about logical causes and effects and just keep eyes glued to the action taking place before you, it’s a rather pleasant way to spend 70 or so minutes.
TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN (1946): Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, Johnny Sheffield, Acquanetta, Edgar Barrier, Dennis Hoey, Doris Lloyd, Tommy Cook, Anthony Caruso. SP: Carroll Young. D: Kurt Neumann.
Well, Amazons really hit the spot at the box office so why not do it again with a slight twist and still rely on plot turns done to death in earlier movies? The result is a hodgepodge that, while not as entertaining as its predecessors, will still please all the fans out there.
The film opens with Tarz and family enjoying an afternoon strolling and shopping in a Zambesi village. Tarz wows the crowd by wrestling Tongolo the Terrible (an unbilled Abe “King Kong” Kashey) and Cheetah fools around with a snake charmer’s basket. Suddenly a wounded man enters on the back of an elephant. He soon succumbs to the wounds, which are thought to have come from a leopard. But after examining the man, Tarzan declares that it was not a leopard, but, as he says, “Something leopard that isn’t leopard.”
We soon learn that it’s a cult where the men dress in cheesy leopard skin costumes and use iron claws that look suspiciously like garden weeders. They worship a leopard god and are led by sexy high priestess Lea (Acquanetta). Also lending a hand to the cult is Dr. Ameer Lazar (Barrier), who moonlights as the cult’s plant in the government. The goal of the cult is to stop civilization from penetrating their little corner of Zambesi so that it can remain pure and unadulterated. To achieve this goal they must not only ambush every caravan into their territory, but must also discredit Tarzan, who appears to be the only person onto their little scheme.
This provides us with some information as to the intelligence in this part of the country. The cult is able to pull off this trick quite neatly by unleashing a pack of real leopards on the next caravan. Now even Jane thinks Tarz has gone over the bend. But Tarz shrugs it off and returns home to the tree condo to work on a plumbing problem (don’t ask). But Lazar and Lea, still worried, send Lea’s sneaky little brother, Kimba (Cook) to spy on Tarzan. Kimba, however, unbeknownst to Lazar and Lea, has an agenda of his own. He decides that he’ll make his bones in the cult by killing Jane and Boy.
In the meantime, a group of teachers is captured and made ready for sacrifice, causing Tarzan to come to the rescue. Tarz is captured in the rescue attempt and tied to a pole, where Lea threatens to rip him apart with her claw back-scratcher unless he divulges where to find the missing Kimba. It seems that as Kimba made ready to whack Jane and Boy, Cheetah knocked him out and Boy, seizing the moment for once, locked him in a sturdy bamboo cage.
Getting no answer from Tarzan, Lea orders her underlings to kidnap Jane and Boy, who are brought back to the camp. Cheetah unties Tarzan (as usual), and in turn Tarz frees Jane and Boy. Then he brings down the pole to which he was tied, causing the cave’s ceiling to collapse and a resulting cave-in. Moments before the cave totally collapses, Tarzan watches Kimba shoot Dr. Lazar and then be opportunely crushed by falling boulders.
The casting of Acquanetta was considered a minor coup. She was popular with B-movie fans for her role as Paula Dupree the Ape Woman in Captive Wild Woman and its sequel, Jungle Woman, for Universal in 1944. Acquanetta was really her name – she was born Burnu Acquanetta (which means “Burning Fire, Deep Water”) in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her mother was Arapaho and her father white. Given up for adoption, she was raised in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and renamed Mildred Davenport.
Discovered modeling in New York City by Universal in 1942, she was given a big build-up with a three-page spread in a later edition of Life. Universal at first changed her nationality, billing her as “The Venezuelan Volcano,” but as details of her early life became public knowledge, her Apapaho heritage was emphasized and the studio claimed that she did such things as sleep in a teepee. She married Phoenix car dealer Jack Ross in the ‘50s and retired from Hollywood, appearing from time to time in her husband’s commercials and hosting a local show called Acqua’s Corner that accompanied the Friday Night Movies.
Tommy Cook, who played Kimba, went on to a busy career in feature films, starring in such classics of the cinema as Teen Age Crime Wave (1955), and the ever popular Missile to the Moon (1959), a remake of 1953’s Catwomen of the Moon.
TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS (1947): Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, Johnny Sheffield, Patricia Morison, Barton MacLane, John Warburton, Charles Trowbridge, Ted Hecht, and Wallace Scott. SP: Jerry Gruskin and Rowland Leigh. D: Kurt Neumann.
Well the war is over, and there are no more Nazis for Tarzan to fight. So he lives a peaceful life with Jane, Boy and Cheetah, occasionally making forays into the local culture, such as celebrating the birthday of local bigwig King Farrod (Trowbridge). So what does one get a king for his birthday? Boy builds His Highness his very own fishing rod and reel, Jane comes up with some exquisite cloth from somewhere and Tarzan comes up with some sort of phony-looking plastic atrocity; possibly a fruit dish for the table that he got from the village’s K-Mart.
At the celebration, they are met by big-game huntress Tanya Rawlins (the beautiful Patricia Morison) and her evil trail boss, Weir (Barton MacLane again). The king allows only one pair of animals to be taken at a time, but Tanya and Weir have worn out their stock and need more . . . much more. They decide to make a deal instead with the King’s greedy nephew, Prince Ozira (Hecht), who uses their help to whack the king and discover that it’s good to be the king.
But they still have to deal with Tarzan and that’s not easy, although Tarzan is getting the worst of the deal when he discovers that Boy, the youth he raised into a blithering idiot, has swapped two lion cubs for a flashlight. The bad guys surround Tarzan. It looks hopeless. But Tarz calls for help and help soon arrives in the form of a herd of elephants that stomp both the bad guys and their camp into the mud. Tanya gets away in her plane, but Cheetah sneaks aboard, steals her compact and parachutes to the ground with the prize. No, I’m not making this up.
Morison can be best remembered as an actress with huge potential that was never realized in Hollywood. Discovered by a Paramount talent scout while in a production of the musical The Two Bouquets on Broadway, she was brought along slowly in B-movies such as the Westerns I’m From Missouri (1939), Rangers of Fortune (1940), Romance of the Rio Grande, and The Roundup (1941).
Billed in advance publicity as the next Dorothy Lamour, Morison was also tried in such forgettable junk as Beyond the Blue Horizon and Are Husbands Necessary? (1942). She asked for her release and freelanced in The Fallen Sparrow (RKO, 1943) and the Tracy-Hepburn Without Love (MGM, 1945). She then signed with Universal, where again she floundered, with her best-known role being that of master criminal Hilda Courtney in the Sherlock Holmes mystery Dressed to Kill, the swan song for the duo of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Freelancing once again, her best shot for stardom came with the role as Victor Mature’s despondent wife in Kiss of Death (20th Century Fox, 1947), but her scenes were left on the cutting-room floor.
During the war while on a USO tour she made the acquaintance of Cole Porter, who was impressed with her full mezzo-soprano vocal range. When she left Hollywood to return to Broadway, he thought enough of her talent to ask if she’d like to audition for his new musical, Kiss Me Kate. Over 1,000 performances later, she never looked toward Hollywood again.
TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS (1948): Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, George Zucco, Andrea Palma, Fernando Wagner, Edward Ashley, John Laurenz, Gustavo Rojo, Matthew Boulton, Linda Christian. SP: Carroll Young. D: Robert Florey.
This was Weissmuller’s last outing as the King of the Jungle and, sad to say, he doesn’t go out in style. Having posed Tarzan against almost every kind of enemy from the jungle and civilization, what was left? Why mermaids, of course. Why didn’t they think of that before? Of course, there are no mermaids in the film. (And little action, come to think of it.) The overall look of the film is decidedly low budget; it was filmed on location in Mexico to save on labor costs, but the weather played havoc with the sets – and the actors.
Angel "Chupitas" Garcia, a cliff diver hired as Weissmuller’s stunt double, was killed while performing a cliff dive near the end of the movie. Producer Sol Lesser also suffered a major heart attack while on the set and had to be taken to Los Angeles to recuperate. Even Weissmuller was not immune, coming down with sunburn so severe he needed make-up for the final shoot.
Tarzan and Jane now find themselves as empty nesters, having sent Boy off to school in England. They have little to do now so they butt into other people’s business. And this they do quite well. Tarz rescues a young girl named Mara (Linda Christian, future wife of Tyrone Power) from a jungle river and takes her to Jane and his friend Benji (Laurenz), a singing postal carrier (please don’t ask), who nurse her back to health.
Mara tells them she had been chosen to become the bride of Balu, but she wanted none of that and escaped. Instead, she loves Tiko (Rojo), who has been banished from the island. She then goes on to explain that a high priest of Balu named Palanth (who else but George Zucco) has enslaved the population of the island of Aquatania. Balu appears to the people as a large, mute figure residing in a temple on top of a rocky island declared off limits to everyone except Palanth. In reality, Balu is none other than Varga (Wagner), a greedy pearl trader in a plaster costume in cahoots with Palanth to relieve the natives of as many pearls as possible, which are offered as “tribute” to Balu. Mara thanks Tarz and Jane by giving them a large black pearl, which Jane in turn donates to the area’s new reform-minded commissioner (Ashley), probably for his PAC.
Meantime, Palanth misses Mara, so he sends underlings to kidnap her and bring her back, but unbeknownst to them Tarzan is following the boat back to the island. He sneaks into Balu’s temple and spots Varga disrobing and leaving the island. This gives the big lug an idea, so he dons the costume and becomes Balu. Benji, meanwhile, has brought the pearl to the commissioner and brings him and the inspector-general (Boulton) to Tarz’s tree house, where Jane and the lovelorn Tiko tell the entire story, and the group makes out for the island. Palanth has them brought to the temple for questioning, but Balu suddenly appears and not only orders Mara to be released, but Tiko forgiven as well. The island then prepares to celebrate the marriage of Mara to Tiko.
Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan at RKO, Part 1
By Ed Garea
Tarzan films are one of those pleasant memories from childhood. I would camp myself in front of the television armed with a bag of Fritos and a glass of milk, oblivious to the world around for an hour or more, depending on how many films were being shown. When I see them as an adult after what seems like an eternity, my reaction is either one of delightful nostalgia for good times past or I look at it and say to myself, “I used to watch this?” (Sort of like pro wrestling.)
But back in the days when MGM was calling the production shots, the Tarzan movies were well-made excursions into the world of fantasy, where Tarzan and Jane could have a Cape-Cod-style tree house, no means of income but plenty of goodies lying around the pad, and a kid without actually having sex (they found him). And it is a further tribute to the genius of MGM (and in particular Irving Thalberg) that Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympic swimming star with almost no clue as to what acting was, could star in a series of box-office bonanzas. By simply adhering to a strict formula and taking care with the production, MGM could crank out a Tarzan film about once every other year to long lines at the box office.
At first, the stories were taken seriously, but after a while they began to run out of plots. Beginning with Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), logic began to creep out of the plots, replaced with what later became known as “Camp.” Maureen O’Sullivan was tired of traipsing about in a loincloth, Weissmuller was getting a bit long in the tooth, and the producers at MGM saw the handwriting on the wall. More importantly, however, the advent of World War II cost MGM half of its foreign markets, and it was these markets that provided the profit to the expensively-made adventures. Tarzan’s New York Adventure was the sixth – and last – entry in the MGM series.
While the Tarzan pictures were finished at MGM, they were still judged as a viable franchise for the right studio. Sol Lesser was a producer at RKO who began his career as an exhibitor with a chain of theaters and later sold them off to focus exclusively on independent production, mainly churning out a series of B-Westerns. In the early ‘30s, as the first MGM Tarzan was about to be shot, Lesser announced that he had purchased an option on the property for five films. MGM persuaded him to hold off for a couple of years by purchasing three of the optioned films. (The two films Lesser did produce were 1933’s Tarzan the Fearless with Olympic swimming champion Buster Crabbe, and 1935’s The New Adventures of Tarzan with Herman Brix, aka Bruce Bennett, donning the loincloth. Both were made on miniscule budgets and further played to miniscule crowds due to the pressure MGM put upon exhibitors to bypass the films.)
But Lesser never lost his interest in the Jungle King, and so the next year he imported Weissmuller, Cheetah and Boy to RKO, where the series continued. Never was a producer so aptly named. Everything about Sol’s production was “lesser:” lesser budgets, lesser scripts, and lesser actors. But this was RKO, which along with Universal, was the bottom of the barrel among the major studios.
The RKO films differed from their MGM predecessors in several ways. Because of the restricted budgets, characterization was dropped in favor of more and more action. The RKO Tarzans had more of the feel of a Saturday afternoon serial with no stop to the action and little time given for character development. Filmgoers didn’t need to know the inner workings of the bad guys; it was enough to know they were bad because Tarzan opposed them.
Because O’Sullivan was under contract to MGM and had zero interest in ever playing Jane again, a search was conducted for an actress to take her place. Because of the war, Lesser figured the series could get by without Jane for a couple of films, which would give him time to find someone for the role. Thus audiences didn’t see Jane again until 1945 and the third film in the RKO series, Tarzan and the Amazons, when B-starlet Brenda Joyce took on the role. Joyce worked the final three Weissmuller films and the first with Weissmuller’s successor, Lex (Alexander) Barker.
Joyce’s casting underlined another difference between the MGM and RKO product: the diminishing role of Jane. In the MGM films, Jane’s relation to Tarzan took time out from the action to focus on their characters. With the new emphasis instead on action, the roles of Boy and Cheetah were expanded at Jane’s expense. Cheetah’s comic relief bits were enlarged and Boy’s main task became to either get Tarzan in the soup or turn up the heat if he was already there.
Further, the decision was made to step up the pace of releases. While MGM had released a new Tarzan every two years or so, Lesser reasoned that with Weissmuller aging, he should strike while the iron was hot. Weissmuller would make an additional six films for Lesser, but while his timeline for the first six with MGM was from 1932 to 1942, his output with RKO lasted half that time, from 1943 to 1948.
So let us travel to the back lots of RKO, where lost kingdoms abounded, jungle girls in alluring tights ran and hid and were chased by the bad guys, themselves unrelentingly evil. Plus, for the first two entries in the series, Nazis! It doesn’t get any better than that, although we shall see that it certainly does get worse. The following are the first two of the six movies Weissmuller made for Sol Lesser and RKO.
TARZAN TRIUMPHS (1943): Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Sheffield, Frances Gifford, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, Philip Van Zandt, Rex Williams, Stanley Brown, and Pedro de Cordoba. Screenplay: Roy Chanslor and Carroll Young. Director: William (Wilhelm) Thiele.
This is the best of the bunch for Weissmuller. After this, it was straight downhill. In case no one noticed, World War II was raging at the time and Tarzan would prove to be no exception. As the film opens, Tarz is living large, enjoying the bachelor life happily with Boy and Cheetah while Jane is in England visiting her family. During one of his mindless excursions Boy is trapped on a rocky ledge. Zandra (Gifford), whom we learn later is the daughter of the ruler of the lost kingdom of Pallandria, tries to rescue Boy but only succeeds in getting them both in danger and in need of rescue by Tarzan.
Later, in the comfort of their tree condo, Boy is reading a letter from Jane about the Nazi threat when a plane crashes. Tarz saves the pilot, Lt. Schmidt (Williams), from a hungry rubber crocodile and takes him back to Treehouse Central to heal his wounds. Schmidt pretends to be British with an act that could only fool Tarzan, but he’s really a nasty and thoroughly naughty Nazi. Meanwhile Zandra, her father (de Cordoba), and her brother, Arghmet (Brown), welcome other Nazis, led by Colonel Von Reichart (Ridges) to Pallandria. The Germans proceed to take over the town and enslave the inhabitants, forcing them to dig for minerals vital for the German war effort. (Sig Ruman is here in a minor role as a German sergeant, foreshadowing his later role as Sergeant Schultz in Stalag 17.)
The Colonel lusts after Zandra and wants to make her his personal love slave, but she escapes his clutches and runs to Tarzan, begging for help. Tarz, however, is an isolationist: “Nazi leave me alone, Tarzan leave them alone.” He soon changes his mind, however, when the Nazis kidnap Boy, seeking to learn the whereabouts of a coil needed for their radio – a coil Cheetah swiped and without which the Nazis cannot contact Berlin for reinforcements. Now the Nazis have really done it – they went and made the Big Guy mad: “Now Tarzan make war!” And he does, with a verve and elan that would have done Ah-nuld and Stallone proud. The Nazis are dispatched in interesting and gruesome ways – eaten by carnivorous fish, pushed off a cliff by Cheetah, and knifed and speared in various ways by Tarzan. Even Boy knocks off a few for good measure. Finally the evil Colonel is led by Tarzan into a trap with a man-eating lion and becomes the lion’s main course. In the end, the coil is reattached, and when Berlin HQ answers the call, they mistake Cheetah’s chattering for Hitler.
TARZAN’S DESERT MYSTERY (1943): Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Sheffield, Nancy Kelly, Otto Kruger, Joe Sawyer, Lloyd Corrigan, Robert Lowery, and Frank Puglia. SP: Edward T. Lowe, Jr. D: William (Wilhelm) Thiele.
Jane is still missing and we learn that she is doing her patriotic duty as a nurse in a London hospital. She is in desperate need of “fever” medicine and turns to Tarzan as her favorite pharmacist, telling him in a letter to get off his duff and get her the medicine. Tarzan takes Boy and Cheetah with him across the desert to the other side of the jungle where the fever medicine plant conveniently grows. On the way, Tarz sees a group of men (later exposed to us as Nazi spies) led by Karl Straeder (Sawyer) and Paul Hendrix (Kruger) beating the hell out of a striped wild stallion. (Those rascals!) Tarzan makes them free the horse, and in gratitude, the stallion allows Boy to ride her to the local oasis.
Arriving at the oasis they run into Connie Bryce (Kelly), a magician from America who is stranded from a USO tour and is amusing herself by allowing the locals to saw her in half. Tarz, however, coming upon the scene in mid-performance, thinks they’re attacking Connie and chases them away – along with Connie’s horse. Discovering his mistake he offers to escort Connie to the capital city of Bir Herari, which is where they were both headed. The naughty Nazi spies beat Tarzan there and accuse the big guy of horse jacking. Hendrix then presents the horse as a gift to Sheik Abdul El Khim (Corrigan), the local Bigwig of the area, for the necessary Brownie points while Tarzan is thrown into the hoosegow, entrusting Boy to Connie’s care. (We’ll overlook the possible consequences of leaving a young adult whose hormones are probably raging with a luscious babe.)
The Sheik’s son, Prince Selim (Lowery), smells a big Nazi rat and warns Dad about accepting gift horses from Nazis. Later that night, while Cheetah wows the crowd with his high-wire act (no, we’re not making this up), Connie meets with the Prince, bringing him a bracelet containing a message from his old college chum, Prince Ameer. The message warns Selim that Hendrix and his pals are Nazi spies arming the locals for a revolt, as if the locals were not already revolting enough on their own. While the Prince is busy reading the message the Nazis are watching and send the Prince to meet his maker.
Unfortunately, before they can retrieve the bracelet, Cheetah makes off with it. (It always amazes me that a smart-ass chimp flummoxes these supposedly ingenious spies.) The Nazis pin the blame for the Prince’s death on Connie, who is jailed awaiting the hangman’s noose. What to do? Boy and Cheetah free Tarzan and Tarz in turns crashes Connie out. They head towards the unknown jungle for the fever medicine plants, pursued at a distance by the Nazi spies.
Losing their pursuers during a sandstorm, the foursome takes refuge in a camel driver’s hut (played by an unbilled Sid Saylor). Tarz leaves the other three behind and sets out for the jungle. There he braves giant rear-projected lizards while harvesting the medicinal plants. Meanwhile, Connie, Boy and Cheetah spot the Nazis catching up with them and decide to hide in the jungle. Straeder follows and is mauled by a lion and shortly afterward becomes a lizard’s lunch. Boy wanders into a cave and is caught in a giant spider’s web (obviously made from rope) manned by the slowest and phoniest spider in Hollywood history. Tarzan arrives in the nick of time, rescuing Boy and chucking Kruger to the spider. They get the plant, Jane gets her medicine, the spider gets fed, and everyone goes home happy.
This is probably my favorite Weissmuller RKO feature because of its sheer inanity. It plays more like a Saturday serial than a movie, containing several plot holes that only a kid could overlook, being more impressed with the lizards and the spider. The casting is hilarious, with Brooklyn-type Joe Sawyer playing a German spy and the smooth and urbane Otto Kruger as his sidekick, probably because of his last name. But the biggest casting faux pas was in assigning the role of the Sheik to Lloyd Corrigan, an actor best known for playing Boston Blackie’s fey buddy Arthur Manleder. As a sheik he comes off completely preposterous, but totally entertaining in a strange way, if one likes bad movie casting.
In Part Two, Tarzan goes from bad to worse as the war ends and we run out of Nazi baddies.
Edited by Steve Herte
By David Skolnick
Elvis Presley made 31 feature movies – about 20 or so too many – and was the subject of two excellent concert documentaries. While his first few films are hardly Oscar-worthy, most are fun to watch with plots that make sense. Yeah, Presley suddenly breaks out in song in those films too, but Jailhouse Rock and King Creole are good movies.
Though Presley showed some promise as an actor, by 1960, the Elvis Formula started with G.I. Blues, his fifth film. The formula had Presley find himself in some sort of trouble (typically not his fault), meet and pursue an attractive girl, sing a few songs, get into a fight or a race, and end up with the girl.
Following G.I. Blues, Presley made Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, which are decent, but weren’t Elvis Formula films. Of greater importance, the two weren’t box-office successes. Presley’s next film, Blue Hawaii, went back to the formula and is one of his worst films. But it made money and sealed the deal on Presley doing mostly Elvis Formula films the rest of his acting career. Some are a lot better than others. Some are so bad you can’t look away.
On Thursday, August 16, the 35th anniversary of his death, Presley is Star of the Day on TCM, which is airing 13 of those 31 feature films as well as the Elvis on Tour concert documentary.
Here are reviews and “highlights” of the Presley movies being shown by TCM.
6:00 am, It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963): Painfully bad film with Presley as a down-on-his-luck pilot in need of $1,200 to reclaim his repossessed cropduster plane, named Bessie. (I’m not kidding.) His partner, played by Gary Lockwood, lost the money while gambling. The two hitch-hike, get picked up by an apple farmer and attend the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. He ends up with Joan O’Brien, a nurse. Film highlight: Elvis singing “One Broken Heart for Sale.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQC3uqp1Sc8
8:00 am, Kissin’ Cousins (1964): Ever the versatile actor, Presley is a military officer and his identical hillbilly cousin. The only difference in their appearance is as the hillbilly, Presley wears an awful-looking strawberry-blonde wig. Since there are two Elvises – or is it Elvi? – he gets two girls. Military Elvis gets Yvonne Craig (Batgirl) and hillbilly Elvis gets WAG Cynthia Pepper. Film highlight: Singing the title track (largely because it means the movie is over). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn0EdIy_OhI
9:45 am, Girl Happy (1965): I like this one, but can’t explain why. Elvis and his band want to vacation in Ft. Lauderdale, leaving behind their steady gig at a Chicago nightclub. The nightclub owner is a gangster with a daughter, played by Shelley Fabares, also heading to south Florida. The gangster wants the guys to keep an eye on her. It’s Fabares’ first of three movies with Elvis. While he’s interested (and rightfully so) in Mary Ann Mobley, of course he ends up with Fabares. Elvis hated the songs in this movie, largely because they suck. Film highlight: Not even close, it’s Elvis singing “Do the Clam” (co-written by Ed Wood's ex-girlfriend, Dolores Fuller) with an embarrassingly-bad dance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58z-eRUFt_E
11:30 am, Harum Scarum (1965): This and Stay Away, Joe are Presley’s worst movies. Presley plays an action-film star kidnapped by Middle Eastern assassins who want him to kill an Arabian king. Presley appears disinteresting in this film. If you watch it, you’ll have the same feeling. Mobley doesn’t get him in Girl Happy, but succeeds in this disaster. Filmed on some of the movie sets used in Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1925). Film highlight: Elvis singing “Shake That Tambourine” with Billy Barty as a thief. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=114WCqbcdR8
1:00 pm, Double Trouble (1967): Elvis plays a singer who goes to Europe. In real life, he served in the Army overseas, but never performed there because his manager, Col. Tom Parker, was Dutch-born and lived illegally in the United States. The Colonel never allowed Presley to tour other countries as he often traveled with him and would have had trouble getting back into the United States. In this movie, Elvis falls for a teen heiress, played by Annette Day in the only movie she ever made. If you were in a movie this bad, you’d likely never want to act again either. Someone’s trying to kill Day’s character and/or her film career. How quickly was Presley turning out films at this time? This movie was released only 13 days after Easy Come, Easy Go, another Elvis movie, premiered. Film highlight: Elvis singing “Old MacDonald.” He was apparently told it wouldn’t appear on the soundtrack album. This wasn’t the first or the last time someone lied to Presley. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGTdsCEKvEY
2:45 pm, Stay Away, Joe (1968): This should be more titled, Stay Away, Audience. This is an unwatchable piece of garbage. Presley is a half-breed Navajo rodeo rider with Burgess Meredith as his father, who lives in a paper shack on an Indian reservation. The less said about this film, the better. Film highlight: A weird sexual scene with a much older Joan Blondell, talking about being his former lover, followed by an attempted seduction by Blondell’s 19-year-old daughter, Mamie, played by Quentin Dean. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sptxykyrYn8
4:30 pm, Charro! (1969): An atypical Presley movie as he doesn’t sing in the film (though he performs the title track) and the only time he has a beard on the silver screen. He’s a reformed outlaw who has to take on his former gang members to save a town. It sounds a lot better than it actually is. Film highlight: There really isn’t one, but here’s a link to the entire film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpqQUsxRuyM
6:15 pm, The Trouble with Girls (1969): Presley is the manager of a traveling Chautauqua show in 1927 that ends up in a small Iowa town. The town’s pharmacist, played by Dabney Coleman, is murdered. Marlyn Mason is Elvis’ love interest. Presley is in less than half of this film, which is quite bad and exceptionally boring. Film highlight: An underrated Elvis song, “Clean Up Your Own Backyard” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_FXWyC8L_E
8:00 pm, Elvis on Tour (1972): His last movie, Elvis on Tour is more than just a concert film. It shows Elvis behind the scenes and being interviewed as he embarks on a U.S. tour. Presley comes across as someone who loves to sing, but is tired of touring. It’s a very honest and compelling look into what was essentially Presley’s last great musical moment – his 1972 tour. He looks pale and has put on weight, but he’s great. This is an absolute must-see. Film highlight: There are so many. I’m a bit biased as “Burning Love” is my favorite Elvis song. It was his last Top 10 hit, released in 1972. Presley’s not too familiar with the words, as it was released around the same time he was touring. Notice that he’s holding a paper with the song’s lyrics and still doesn’t get all the lines correct. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZLdV9qDziY
9:45 pm, Jailhouse Rock (1957): One of Elvis’ best. He’s in prison on a manslaughter conviction. His cellmate recognizes Vince Everett (Presley) has musical talent and serves as a mentor. When Everett is released, he looks for work as a singer. He becomes a success thanks to a producer and his love interest, played by Judy Tyler (she and her husband died shortly after the film wrapped up production). Presley does a solid job. Film highlight: The iconic “Jailhouse Rock” performance Everett does for a television special. It doesn’t get much better than this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gj0Rz-uP4Mk
11:30 pm, Viva Las Vegas (1964): Elvis often played a race-car driver and here’s one of those films, though this is better than most even with a weak plot. It was his most commercially-successful film in terms of box-office revenue. The chemistry between Presley, who plays Lucky Jackson, and Ann-Margret, who plays Rusty Martin, his love interest, is exceptionally good. That probably because the two were more than just friends off-screen. Rusty, a swimming instructor (an excellent excuse to get Ann-Margret into skimpy bathing suits), pushes Lucky into a hotel pool causing Lucky to not be so lucky and lose the money he needs for an engine for his car. Lucky becomes a waiter to raise some cash, and then enters the hotel’s talent show to win the money needed for the engine. Lucky and Rusty sing and dance with Lucky getting very lucky at the end with Rusty. Film highlight: Ann-Margret’s legs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=01wG4tSIG88 There’s also a weird dance number with Ann-Margret followed by Elvis singing “C’mon Everybody.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiJ7uQfogKA
1:00 am, Speedway (1968): This may sound crazy, but Presley plays a race-car driver in this film. His manager, played by Bill Bixby, is somewhat of a creative accountant meaning Elvis owes the IRS a bunch of money. Nancy Sinatra is an IRS agent, and of course, everyone who works for the IRS looks like her. Plot? Don’t worry about it. No one making the film worried so why should you? Sinatra is the only person to ever have a song on an Elvis movie soundtrack album. (Even Ann-Margret who sings in Viva Las Vegas and slept with Presley didn’t get that.) Film highlight: Sinatra sings “Your Groovy Self.” Her lip-syncing is awful and, at times, she dances like Davy Jones from the Monkees. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66NgaGxs5VM
2:45 am, Spinout (1966): You’re not going to believe it, but Presley plays a race-car driver. He’s got three love interests, but Shelley Fabares is one of them so it’s game over for the other two. Film highlight: Elvis singing the title track surrounded by girls dancing poorly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22VHM2VMmHo
4:30 am, Live a Little, Love a Little (1968): A quirky, strange film that is one of my favorite Presley movies. He plays Greg Nolan, a newspaper photographer, who meets Bernice, an eccentric, attractive woman, played by Michele Carey, at the beach. He ends up at her home and is drugged by her, and kept against his will at times by her very large dog. Nolan loses his newspaper job – there’s no future in that business anyway. He lands two jobs as a photographer in the same building. One is for a conservative publication and the other is a girlie magazine. Presley’s character comes off as hip, having what appears to be casual sex and there are some drug references. It’s no Easy Rider, but still one to see. Film highlight: It’s definitely Presley singing “A Little Less Conversation.” This and “Rubberneckin’” in his final feature film, Change of Habit, are my two favorite Elvis movie songs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bscxdX2iuK0
By Ed Garea
You’ve never heard of Mr. Wong? That isn’t surprising, as his name is known today only to dedicated mystery fans and diehard fans of B-movies.
Chinese detectives were the rage in the ‘30s, what with the success of Fox’s Charlie Chan series. So, Monogram Studios figured that if Fox could do it, they could do it, too.
It’s always easier for a studio, especially a Poverty Row studio such as Monogram (Jean-Luc Godard’s favorite American studio) with resources next to nil, to adapt a film character from an already established literary effort. So the studio turned to the Collier’s stories of Hugh Wiley featuring a Chinese treasury agent named James Lee Wong who worked the docks of San Francisco. The stories were typical for their time, with lots of police brutality, rough treatment of women, Chinese gangs, corrupt businessmen, drugs galore, and the required grisly murders. But they were well-written and gained quite a following. In the stories Wong is described as a Yale graduate, about six feet tall, 165 lbs. with a solid knowledge of chemistry. He lives in an apartment in San Francisco, and the other tenants are subordinates under his command.
To star as Mr. Wong, Monogram chose Boris Karloff. Boris Karloff? Why he looks as Chinese as . . . Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu. At first, viewers may be surprised that Karloff doesn’t attempt a Chinese accent in the films. But then, why should he? Was not Mr. Wong Yale educated? Wouldn’t such a character speak with a dignified voice rather than a heavily-accented Pidgin English?
At any rate, I doubt that Monogram would have cared if Karloff played the role with a German accent. They had signed him to a six-picture deal and he still was a name at the box office. For “buddy support” the studio brought in Grant Withers, a former reporter turned silent screen star turned supporting player, as Police Capt. Sam (later changed to Bill) Street. His role was to look and act flustered and yell a lot when the police fouled up. Given the success of the first film – Mr. Wong, Detective (1939) – the studio added Marjorie Reynolds as nosy reporter Bobbie Logan. Besides being Street’s girlfriend, her job was to make the mystery even worse and a bigger task for Wong.
Five films followed Mr. Wong, Detective: The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939), The Fatal Hour (1940), Doomed to Die (1940), and The Phantom of Chinatown (1940). The last was made without Karloff in the title role, as he completed his contract with Monogram by starring in the preposterous horror film. The Ape (1940). Sans Karloff, the studio instead cast Keye Luke as Jimmy Lee Wong and actually made a better film. It was the first time an Asian was to play the lead as an Asian character. As for Karloff, he drifted around, starring for RKO, Universal and Columbia in a few B’s playing mad scientists and villains. Seeing that the future in Hollywood didn’t look exactly rosy, he left for Broadway to play a part in a play titled Arsenic and Old Lace that was written especially for him by playwright Joseph Kesselring. He would return to Broadway four more times. And as for Hollywood, he returned to steady work as a supporting player and sometimes star.
Here are reviews of two Mr. Wong films:
10:30 am – DOOMED TO DIE (aka The Mystery of Wentworth Castle, 1940): Shipping magnate Cyrus Wentworth is depressed over a disaster to his ocean liner “Wentworth Castle” (which was carrying an illegal shipment of Chinese bonds). He is shot in his office during the very act of kicking out Dick Fleming, his daughter’s fiancée. Capt. Street arrests Fleming, but Bobbie Logan is convinced of Fleming’s innocence and enlists the help of Mr. Wong to find the true killer. It’s a routine plot that moves like a snail, containing more red herrings than the Fulton Fish Market. That, coupled with Monogram’s typical dark photography and the recycling of footage from previous Mr. Wong films, makes it a little hard for the viewer to follow or want to follow. It is only the performances alone, particularly Karloff and Reynolds (Bobbie Logan) that keep the viewer interested.
11:45 am – THE FATAL HOUR (1940): This is one of the better entries in the series. Capt. Street’s best friend, Dan O’Grady, is murdered while in the middle of an investigation of a smuggling ring. Distraught, Street enlists the help of Mr. Wong. Wong discovers that it’s jade that is being smuggled, and after several deaths he tracks down the criminal mastermind, only to be confronted with his own death. But he is saved in the nick of time by Bobbie Logan. It looks like Monogram actually spent a few bucks on this one and the film is helped by a tight script, which makes it more of a crime thriller than a straight mystery, with plenty of clues for Wong to winkle out. There is also a large cast of victims and suspects to keep us occupied, which alleviates some of the cheapness in the Monogram production. They may have spent more money from the look of it, but it still looks cheap.
By Ed Garea
Dick Tracy has been a part of American pop culture since artist Chester Gould debuted the comic strip in 1931 for the Detroit Mirror. The strip proved so popular that a radio series of Tracy’s adventures went on the air in 1934 with voice actor Bob Burlen as Tracy. In 1937, Republic debuted a 15-chapter serial simply titled Dick Tracy with Ralph Byrd in the title role. It proved so popular that two other serials followed: Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941). Unlike the comic strip, where Tracy was a detective in a large Midwestern city, Dick was now a G-Man working out of California. He’s also somewhat of a superhero along the lines of Batman as he faces villains named The Spider, mad scientist Dr. Zarnoff, Pa Stark (think Ma Barker), and the Ghost. Movie buffs might just want to check out Dick Tracy’s G-Men, because in the role of Tracy’s girl Friday, Gwen Andrews, is a young Jennifer Jones.
In 1945, RKO brought Tracy back to the screen in a series of four quickly made B’s that ran about an hour each: Dick Tracy, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946), Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (1947), and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). Morgan Conway starred as Tracy in the first two and Ralph Byrd was brought back to reprise the role in the last two.
Byrd also starred in a short-lived television adaptation for ABC. It ran only one year, 1950-51, but additional episodes were filmed for syndication until 1952 when Byrd’s sudden death brought the series to a close. There was also a cartoon series produced by UPA (1960-61), where Tracy sits in his office and doles out the work to his detectives, Hemlock Holmes, Heap O’Calorie, Joe Jitsu, and Go-Go Gomez. The cartoons are considered way too politically incorrect to be aired in these puritanical times, but can be purchased on DVD.
Following is the July 27 lineup on TCM. All times are Eastern:
8 pm: DICK TRACY (Touchstone, 1990) – The background of this film goes back to 1975 when Warner Brothers developed the concept of a big-screen adaptation of Dick Tracy. It went through many studios, from Warners to United Artists to Paramount to Universal, and finally, to Disney. Directors like Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Richard Benjamin, and even Martin Scorsese were considered for the project, and actors such as Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, and Mel Gibson were considered for the lead. Finally, Warren Beatty agreed to star in the film – if he could also direct. Disney was hesitant at first, because Beatty’s last directorial project, Reds, lost over $40 million at the box office. But finally a deal was struck that Beatty could direct and star if he kept the costs under control. The result was a splashy Technicolor-stylized homage to the strip by simply using the colors yellow, blue and red to maximum effect. The plot, originally developed by Landis, is centered about villain Alphone “Big Boy” Caprice and his plan to control crime in the city by uniting all the classic Tracy gangsters and eliminating Tracy. Caprice finds himself bedeviled not only by Tracy, but also by a criminal known as The Blank. In the climatic showdown on a raised drawbridge, the only ones left as Caprice, the Blank, and Tracy. Caprice shoots The Blank, who turns out to be Madonna (she was a singer he inherited when he took over a nightclub for his headquarters from his former mentor Lipps Manlis, played by Paul Sorvino). Tracy then knocks Caprice down into the bridge’s gears, killing him. No gangsters are left to survive in a later sequel, which, I suspect, is the way Beatty plotted it all long.
9:55 pm: DICK TRACY SPECIAL (Turner, 2009) – Leonard Maltin hosts this half-hour retrospective on the history of the comic strip and the many spinoffs it as produced over the years.
10:30 pm: DICK TRACY (RKO, 1945) – The first of four RKO productions featuring the detective. Tracy must go up against Splitface (Mike Mazurki), a vicious killer who has escaped from jail and is intent on killing every member of the jury that found him guilty. Though it’s somewhat plodding, the nourish B&W photography is wonderful and Mazurki makes for an effective villain. With Anne Jeffreys as Tracy’s sweetheart, Tess Trueheart; Lyle Lattell as Pat Patton, and the always great Milton Parsons as Deathridge the Undertaker. Also, keep a sharp eye out for Jane Greer in an early role as Judith Owens.
11:45 pm: DICK TRACY vs. CUEBALL (RKO, 1946) – Morgan Conway is back as Tracy as he goes up against another vindictive criminal. This time it’s Cueball (Dick Wessel) who is intent on rubbing out the former gang members that double-crossed him. Along with his sidekicks Simon Little (Byron Foulger) and Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), Cueball is in possession of a cache of stolen diamonds and operates out of the Dripping Dagger, a run-down gin-joint managed by Filthy Flora (Esther Howard). To trap Cueball, Tracy uses Tess Trueheart to act as a buyer, but things go wrong. Anne Jeffreys is back as Tess.
1:00 am: DICK TRACY’S DILEMMA (RKO, 1947) – Ralph Byrd replaced Conway as Tracy in a film closer to the spirit of the comic strip than the previous two. This time Tracy’s antagonist is The Claw (Jack Lambert), a criminal so named for the various tools he attaches to the appendage he wears in place of his missing right hand. This film is faster-paced and has good comic relief in the character of Tracy’s friend Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) and “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), an informant who hangs out in front of The Claw’s watering hole, The Blazing Skull. Like the others, it clocks in at an economic 60 minutes.
. . . AND ONE TAKE ON DICK TRACY WE HOPE TCM DOES SHOW:
THE GREAT PIGGY BANK ROBBERY (WB, 1946): This spoof of Dick Tracy, done by director Bob Clampett, story writer Warren Foster and animators Bill Melendez and Rod Scribner, is one the best cartoons ever to come out of Termite Terrace, if not Hollywood. The premise is simple: Daffy Duck is ga-ga over Dick Tracy and gets so involved while reading Tracy’s adventures in a comic book that he knocks himself unconscious. In his dream he is Duck Twacy and must solve the mystery of who is stealing all the piggy banks. During his quest he runs into such characters as Mouse Man, Pumpkin Head, Double Header, 88 Teeth, Wolf Man, Rubber Head, Pickle Puss, and finally, Neon Noodle. It’s a smart and funny take on Chester Gould and his roster of outrageous villains. Flattop is even seen launching planes from the top of his head. (A nice play on words because the slang term for an aircraft carrier was “flat top.”) Since Turner owns the rights to the cartoon it would be a shame if they skipped it.
By David Skolnick
Exploitation films have (thankfully) been around since the beginning of moving pictures. The 2010 documentary, American Grindhouse, (click here to watch the entire movie, courtesy of Hulu.com) provides an overview of exploitation films and its many genres.
While it’s hardly comprehensive, the 80-minute film covers a lot of ground. The highlights are clips from several exploitation films, and interviews with key players – including Herschell Gordon Lewis, Don Edmonds, Jack Hill and Larry Cohen - and those influenced by these movies and exploitation film historians.
The line is somewhat blurred, but grindhouse films are basically the same as exploitation movies. The term “grindhouse” is slang for theaters in the seedy sections of major cities – such as Times Square in New York City – that showed films around the clock featuring a lot of gratuitous violence and/or a lot of gratuitous nudity. In the 1950s, theaters that once played to burlesque switched over as that art form died and began running exploitation films. They were called grindhouses after the "bump and grind" of the burlesque, and the fact that they ground out these films regularly.
American Grindhouse takes an interesting perspective on exploitation films, astutely pointing out that the Hays Code (Hollywood’s morality provisions placed on major-studio movies from 1934 to 1968) gave rise to the popularity of exploitation films.
One of the final straws that led to the implementation of the Hays Code is Freaks, a brilliant 1932 MGM release about life in a traveling carnival with real-life sideshow acts and several shocking scenes. The movie was so controversial at the time that Tod Browning, who directed and produced it and is a horror-film icon, was essentially blacklisted and made only a few other movies, including the fantastic Devil-Doll, after.
American Grindhouse pays homage to Freaks, and its impact on the exploitation industry.
When the big-time studios stopped making exploitation films, the second-, third- and fourth-rate studios gladly stepped in with B-movies with a little more violence and a little more sex. The Hays Code put a final end to Pre-Code titillation, causing the major studios (and many of the minor ones) to abide by what the Code judged to be excess sexuality and violence.
This caused the exploitation film to go “underground,” as it were, playing in decrepit theaters and in carnivals and roadshows. To escape censorship and the law during the 1930s and ‘40s, exploitation films claimed to be “educational” in nature, “teaching” the viewer about the dangers of marijuana (Reefer Madness), pre-martial sex (Sex Madness, She Shoulda Said No!), and even showing the birth of a child (Mom and Dad). Freaks survived by playing the exploitation circuit.
As the years passed, the envelope got pushed more, and thanks to drive-in theaters, there was an outlet for these films. Monster films became more violent. Women in prison films became more violent and included nudity.
American Grindhouse discusses and shows clips from nudist-camp films, juvenile-delinquent movies and horror films. It became a totally new ballgame in 1963 when Lewis, who had previously made nudist-camp films, directed two landmark grindhouse features: Scum of the Earth! a “roughie” sexually-violent film, and Blood Feast, an incredibly terrible, but even more incredibly gory and violent, movie. While both were successful, the latter was the start of what is known as “splatter films,” primarily shown in drive-ins in the South, that turned huge profits.
Don’t bother with plots, and it’s too kind to say the acting is awful. The movies, in color (of course!), featured tons of violence, such as amputations and graphic murders, and more blood than you could imagine.
Not to be outdone, those making nude films also went much further in the 1960s than in previous decades. They even had names, such as the nudie-cutie (“erotic” films that featured naked women that no longer had them at nudist camps), the previously mentioned roughies (in which women were subjected to violent sex acts), and women-in-prison movies.
American Grindhouse also spends time, though not enough, on biker films, beach flicks and blaxploitation, and, strangely, too much time on something known as Nazisploitation, which apparently existed in the mid-1970s and featured women dressed in Nazi outfits – at least for a little bit before they got naked – brutally beating other women into bloody naked messes.
So what killed grindhouse/exploitation films?
There are several factors. First, the elimination of the Hays Code in 1968 allowed mainstream studios to make violent films that had real plots and real budgets, such as Bonnie and Clyde, and Jaws. The quality of those films was light-years better than what audiences were watching from the low-rent studios.
Second, sex became much more mainstream in the early 1970s with the rise of porno films. Again, not much on plot, but the sex in films like Deep Throat and the Devil in Mrs. Jones was more hardcore and surprisingly, these movies were of better quality. The theatrical hardcore sex film was killed for good with the rise of VHS and video, which enabled producers to market their wares straight to video and the viewing home.
While American Grindhouse ignores foreign films, they also played a role in the death of American exploitation movies. Because European censorship was vastly different from that of 1950s and early ‘60s America and allowed for occasional nudity and avant-garde subject matter, quality foreign films often had to play in grindhouses or what were called “art theaters.” Quality and compelling films, particularly from France and Italy, raised the bar on movie-making, and it was considered high-brow to watch a decadent foreign film in the name of culture.
The death of drive-in movie theaters also played a role in killing exploitation films, as did "Midnight Shows" at mainstream theaters.
American Grindhouse does a solid job of giving the viewer an overview of the various kinds of exploitation films. It also doesn’t pull any punches. There’s a large amount of nudity and violence in this documentary. But that is what exploitation films are all about.
(A special thanks to Ed Garea for his contributions to this article.)
What is a Psychotronic Film?
By Ed Garea
Thus begins a new column for this site that will contain only reviews of psychotronic movies. This, of course, begs the question: What is a psychotronic movie? The answer may surprise you.
It all began in 1983 with the publication of a paperback book entitled The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by then as yet unknown film critic and historian Michael Weldon. Weldon is to unusual cinema what J Michael Kenyon is to pro wrestling history: part archaeologist, part chronicler, and part narrator. The book soon took on a life of its own with fans such as Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Walken and John Waters singing its praises. In the book Weldon defines psychotronic film as follows:
“Well, monster and science-fiction films, of course. But exploitation films of any sort, really: biker movies, rock ‘n’ roll movies, musclemen movies, 3-D movies, ‘60s beach movies, Mexican movies with subtitles – you get the idea.” Weldon thought he made up the term, “but it later turned out I’d stolen it from The Psychotronic Man, a Chicago-made film about a maniac barber who kills people with psychic energy.” No matter, though, for Weldon had coined a name to encompass a variety of films that, until now, really seemed to have nothing in common.
Does a movie have to be termed “Grade Z” to fit the category? No. Readers will find many films made by Poverty Row studios such as Monogram, PRC, Tiffany, and Invincible that cannot be called “psychotronic” by any stretch of the imagination, for they are usually melodramas, westerns or lame comedies. It is only when they present subject matter such as noted above that they become psychotronic. In other words, there is one word that truly marks a psychotronic film: offbeat.
“Ah,” says the reader, “but when I paged through this book, I found, to my great surprise and consternation, that Casablanca was listed. Why is this? Why is Casablanca considered psychotronic?”
There are two reasons: One is the presence of psychotronic stalwarts such as Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Conrad Veidt. The other, more compelling, reason is that, for all its awards, Casablanca is an exploitation film, made to cash in on the myriad headlines generated by the Casablanca confab between FDR and Churchill.
Warner Brothers bought the rights to an unproduced play entitled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” dressed it up in patriotic colors, and paraded it as a love story set during World War II and a parable against isolationism. It was originally supposed to have been a quickie production starring Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan, but after Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis got a look at the script by Julius and Philip Epstein, with help from Howard Koch, they decided they really had something and upgraded the production accordingly. But, at its base, Casablanca is an exploitation film.
"Okay,” says our skeptical reader, “then what about The Song of Bernadette?” Simple: it’s the subject matter, which is otherworldly, making the film offbeat enough to be classified psychotronic. What must especially be kept in mind is that "psychotronic" is not a denigrating term. It is merely a descriptive term, and the fact that it ranges from films such as Casablanca to The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters is descriptive, not judgmental. Science Fiction movies range from the wonderful Metropolis to Creature With the Atom Brain; Horror films from Bride of Frankenstein to Frankenstein’s Daughter; and Westerns from Red River to Last of the Wild Horses; yet, no one thinks to call these categories “denigrating.” And so it is with the category of “psychotronic.”
In the future we will publish reviews of psychotronic films and tell you if they are on DVD and from where they might be obtained for your collection. In the meantime, as with all our features, you, the Readers, are certainly welcome to join in. Is there a favorite psychotronic film about which you wish to tell us, or perhaps a Top Ten Psychotronic film list?
Join in the fun; it’s better that way.