The B-Hive

The Saint Strikes Back

By Ed Garea

The Saint Strikes Back (RKO, 1939) – Director: John Farrow. Writers: John Twist (s/p), A.C. Edington (treatment, uncredited), Leslie Charteris (novel Angels of Doom). Stars: George Sanders, Wendy Barrie, Jonathan Hale, Jerome Cowan, Barry Fitzgerald, Neil Hamilton, Robert Elliott, Russell Hopton, Edward Gargan, Robert Strange, Gilbert Emery, James Burke, Nella Walker, Willie Best & Paul E. Burns. B&W, 64 minutes.

This is the first of five films starring George Sanders as Leslie Charteris’ master criminal-turned-crime-fighter Simon Templar. As Charteris drew him, Templar was a charming, sophisticated rogue, whose humor hid his ruthlessness and a physical dimension he employed when the situation called for it. While Sanders lacked the physical dimension, he had all the rest, and his suave style combined with a silky smooth voice made the films a hit at the box office. At times it almost feels as if Sanders was playing an early version of James Bond. 

For a film with a running time of only 64 minutes, the plot is quite complicated. When a gangster is murdered while about to take out a fellow guest at San Francisco’s Colony Club on New Year’s Eve, Val Travers (Barrie), who orchestrated the attempted murder, is the first to flee. Travers is the daughter of a police inspector who committed suicide after he was bounced from the force on suspicion of being a member of the gang of a notorious gangster known as Waldeman. She has organized a gang herself to ferret out the mysterious Waldeman and enact her revenge. Outside the club she runs into Simon Templar, who helps Val make her escape. The fact that Templar is waiting outside the club himself leads us to suspect he was the man who killed the potential assassin. 

Hearing that Templar is in the city, the San Francisco police reach out to the NYPD for Inspector Henry Fernack (Hale), who is familiar with the Saint. The Saint visits Fernack in New York before the Inspector travels to San Francisco and the two form an uneasy alliance to catch Waldeman. 

At San Francisco police headquarters, Templar theorizes that Traverse was framed by an inside man in the police department, but he is ridiculed by criminologist Cullis (Cowan) who suggests that Templar is the mysterious Waldeman. 

Discovering that philanthropist Martin Eastman may be somehow involved, Templar and Zipper Dyson (Fitzgerald), a safecracker he learns was hired by Val to break into Eastman’s safe, do just that where they find a stack of federal bank notes Val’s father was supposed to have received from Waldeman’s organization as a bribe. When Eastman fails to notify the police of the theft, instead seeing Cullis, Templar suspects that Eastman and Cullis are in cahoots with Waldeman. However, the police are hesitant to act for fear of losing Waldeman. To flush out the gangster, Templar and Val visit Eastman. Templar had secretly returned the stolen bank notes and confronts Eastman with them after getting him to open his safe. Panicked, Eastman tries to flee but is shot down as he leaves the house. 

Templar and Val next pay a visit to Cullis, confronting him with the stolen notes. Cullis confesses to framing Val’s father, but unbeknownst to him the San Francisco police have been tapping his apartment and hears his confession. When Cullis again accuses Templar of being Waldeman, the police commissioner informs him that Templar has been working with the police all along and they approved all his actions. Trapped by the evidence, Cullis finally admits that Waldeman is really Allen Breck (Hamilton), Val’s friend, admirer and attorney. 


The novel that served as the basis for the film was also published under the titles of The Saint Meets His Match and She Was a Lady (the original publication title). Many changes were made for the film: moving the locale from London to San Francisco, replacing Scotland Yard Inspector Teal with NYPD Inspector Fernack, and changing the female lead’s name from Jill Trelawney to Valerie Travers. While Jill was British, Val is from San Francisco.  

Sanders was a good choice to replace Louis Hayward, who played Templar in 1938’s The Saint in New York. Hayward was a difficult act to follow (and in my estimation, the best actor to portray the character), but Sanders makes playing Templar seem almost effortless, as if he were born for the role, though he does lack the edge Hayward gave to his portrayal.  

Director Farrow keeps things moving, with the emphasis more on the whodunit aspect as opposed to gunplay. A delightful scene has Fernack and the Saint ending up on the same plane going back from New York to San Francisco, with Fernack insistent that he’s going to keep an eye on the Saint throughout the entire trip. When the plane has a stopover in Fort Worth, Templar slips out. When Fernack discovers the Saint is missing, he also leaves the plane, albeit in his dressing gown, only to find that Templar has trickled him and the plane departs for San Francisco leaving Fernack stranded. 

One point that intrigued me was when the San Francisco police commissioner told Cullis that the Saint has been working with the police the whole time. If that is true, then why did they reach out to New York for the services of Fernack? Thought the film Fernack seems like Templar’s reluctant sidekick, without a reason for being there other than the screenwriter’s whim.     

Another problem centers around Breck. We don’t see much of him in the film and never get any clues or explanations as to how he could have pulled of the ruse of being an attorney and Val’s wanna-be boyfriend while at the same time running a massive criminal organization.

One nice indication that this is indeed a B-movie comes when Cullis and the police break down Val’s front door. One would naturally suppose that a pair of front doors for a mansion would be heavy and would have to be knocked off their hinges, but the police break right through these with no tools as if it was made of balsa wood, which it probably was.

At any rate the film was a huge hit for RKO, and in rural and suburban theaters it was moved to the ‘A’ position. One thing that helps it nicely is the sterling supporting cast, including Fitzgerald, Cowan, Hamilton, Russell Hopton, and Edward Gargan. Willie Best, who may well have been the best actor in the film, is assigned the small role of Templar’s valet, Algernon. “Why Algernon?” Templar tells Fernack. “We tried several names and it was the one he liked best.” Hmmm.  

When Sanders moved on to playing Gay Lawrence, the Falcon, he was succeeded by British actor Hugh Sinclair. Sinclair starred in the last two installments (1941 and 1943) before RKO pulled the plug on the series. It was ten years before another Saint movie was made, with Louis Hayward returning to the role for Hammer. The film was not a success, and the Saint disappeared from the screen until the 1960s when he was revived first in France (once by Jean Marais) and then, in its most famous revival, by Roger Moore in a long-running TV series and movie spinoffs. Moore’s portrayal of Templar was even closer to James Bond. There was another revival of the character in England during the late ‘70s, and the last appearance of the character was in an execrable 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer.

In early publicity for the film the studio announced the leads as Frederic March and Joan Fontaine, For his part, Charteris wasn’t satisfied with with Hayward or Sanders, feeling both were “hopelessly miscast” as the Saint. He had pressed RKO for his character to be played by either Ronald Colman, Cary Grant or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He was far happier with Roger Moore's image and interpretation.

Notable Quotables

Val Travers: Why are you telling me all this?

Simon Templar: Because… well… because I love you. But don’t lets get sticky about it – I’m really a very shallow person. I also love fireflies, mockingbirds and pink sunsets. I think, however, that we could find each other more diverting than a pink sunset, don’t you?


Simon Templar: (to Fernack referring to Val) I mean how could a girl as pretty as that be so clever?

Men Are Such Fools

By Ed Garea

Men Are Such Fools (WB, 1938) – Director: Busby Berkeley. Writers: Norman Reilly Raine, Horace Jackson (s/p). Faith Baldwin (story). Stanley Logan (uncredited). Stars: Priscilla Lane, Wayne Morris, Humphrey Bogart, Hugh Herbert, Mona Barrie, Johnnie Davis, Penny Singleton, Marcia Ralston, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Donald Briggs, Nedda Harrigan, Eric Stanley, Claud Allister, & Renie Riano. B&W, 69 minutes.

After his somewhat unexpected breakout in The Petrified Forest, it seems that Jack Warner had absolutely no idea what to do with his new budding star, Humphrey Bogart. Looking over Bogart’s movies from 1936 to 1940, it was not an impressive resume. His best work was in two films made outside the Warner’s environment: Dead End, and Tay Garnett’s comedy Stand-In

Back at Warner Bros. he ran the gamut from A to B, usually playing a cardboard crook in such forgettable films as The Amazing Dr. ClitterhouseKid GalahadKing of the Underworld, and You Can’t Get Away With Murder. Even when he played a good guy, as in Marked Woman and Crime School, he failed to rise above the material, which was poor at best. (Who even remembers Bogart in Marked Woman?) Give him a role with a little room to maneuver, such as Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties, and he acquitted himself well. (It was said at the time that nobody dies like Bogie.) But these also were few and far between. 

Typical of the crap he was assigned during this period was Men Are Such Fools, a comedy so lightweight it practically floats away; one of those films you have a hard time describing the plot of even 90 minutes after you’ve seen it. According to Bogie’s biographers A.M. Spearer and Eric Lax, this was his first assignment after signing a new contract that would pay him $1,100 a week for 40 weeks with an option for two more years at $2,000 per week. At one point after watching the dailies, producer Hal Wallis contemplated scrapping the whole thing, but it was purchased specifically for Busby Berkeley, the studio’s genius in residence concerning musical comedies, and Berkeley wanted to stretch his wings, so to speak. He should have stuck to his choreography.

Bogart is billed third, after Priscilla Lane, the doyenne of the Cutesy-Poo School of Acting, and Wayne Morris, the latest block of clay the studio was prepping for stardom. The plot revolves around Lane. She plays Linda Lawrence, a secretary at an advertising agency with an eye on bigger and better things, and writes some copy for a drink called “Fruit Tea,” a cure for hangovers, which she hopes will win her a larger and more prominent role in the company. Already in with her boss, Harvey Bates (played by Hugh Herbert in his usual absent-minded style with much emphasis on the “hoo-hoo-hoo’s”), she finagles a dinner with him in which she hopes to bowl him over with her charm and intelligence, such as they are.

However, Linda has a stalker of sorts in the person of Jimmy Hall (Morris), who works for another agency. He’s head over heels about her, although she doesn’t share the same level of enthusiasm for him because she believes that he’ll never rise to be anything in the business world. His idea of courting is to barge unannounced into her office and annoy her while she’s trying to get work done. Somehow Jimmy learns of her dinner and invites himself to the restaurant. He manages to get her drunk and she mistakes her resulting hangover the next morning for love.

Through her connection with Bates, Linda has moved up to copywriter. Jimmy, now her beau, wants to get married immediately, but Linda is more interested in pursuing her career. Because she’s attractive, men in power positions tend to listen to her ideas. Eventually she meets the agency’s only other woman copywriter, Beatrice “Bea” Harris (Barrie), who at first distrusts her new co-worker, but they quickly form a friendship. 

Bea invites Linda to a weekend party at her country home. Linda drives there with Jimmy, who is still trying to get her to marry him. This clod’s idea of getting her to accept his marriage proposal is to stall the car on the railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train, then restart it after she agrees to marry him. Somehow, Linda is taken with this approach, which tells us more about her mental faculties than we need to know.

At the party, Linda meets Harry Galleon (Bogart), a big shot at the agency in charge of radio. Harry’s ex-fiancee, Marcia Ralston (Townsend), is there too. She still carriers a torch for Harry, but he has a roving eye for the ladies and is currently playing post office with Bea. Linda turns on the charm and flirts with Harry, hoping to get her ad played on the radio. Jimmy, watching Linda throwing herself at another man’s feet, goes into a sulk and attracts the attention of Marcia. When Linda sees this, she becomes upset, and by the end of the weekend she and Jimmy have decided to get married immediately.

At first, Linda keeps her job with the agency. But one night she’s working late with Harry, while Jimmy’s cooling his heels at home. She and Jimmy are supposed to go to dinner to meet his old frat brothers. As she’s about to leave for the evening, Harry stalls her, claiming he’s getting the necessary signatures from the bosses to get her Fruit Tea spots on the air. Jimmy calls. She promises to meet him and his buddies for dinner. Harry stalls some more, and when he finally returns he does so with a mission – to make a pass at Linda. She is angry. Although she’s been leading him on at every turn, she acts to his pass like an insulted virgin. Harry follows her out the door, where Jimmy is impatiently waiting. He flattens Harry and demands Linda quit her job and settle into the role of housewife.

Linda agrees and takes up her new role as “the woman behind the man.” At first she’s happy, but friends notice a restlessness. She makes friends with a neighbor, Mrs. Dalton (Kathleen Lockhart), whose husband Bill (Gene Lockhart), owns a financial marketing firm. The dinner goes well and Bill and Jimmy adjourn to another room to talk. When Linda asks afterward if Bill offered Jimmy a job, Jimmy says that he did but he turned it down. Linda is dismayed. Jimmy explains that the job seemed too speculative and he had a good, secure position now. Besides, he’s a married man with responsibilities. Linda’s comeback is to the effect of asking him if he would have taken the position if he were single. When he nods in agreement, it’s too much for Linda, who packs up and moves out. Jimmy is astounded and asks her if she doesn’t like it with him. She answers that at first she did, but has grown to hate it because Jimmy has become too smug, refusing to move up in the world.

Berkeley uses a newspaper column to note the passage of time. The gossip column notes that Jimmy and Linda have separated and the Jimmy is now a partner with Nelson Sales Promotions. Linda is back with the agency and dating Harry, who wants to marry her. However, Linda finds she’s still carrying the torch for Jimmy.

Out to dinner at a restaurant before their big broadcast, Harry proposes, but Linda is reluctant. Shortly after, Bea and Harvey Bates arrive and invite themselves over to sit with Linda and Harry. Bea wants to speak with Linda privately and asks her to come to the powder room. On the way there, who do they run into but Jimmy and Marcia, who are now a couple.

Later that evening, during the broadcast, Linda announces that she’s off to Paris to be married. Jimmy is listening over the radio and hurries down to the studio, where he punches Harry out again and hectors Linda to stay with him. Linda’s reaction is to immediately leave for her boat with Jimmy in hot pursuit. Harry is already there, waiting for Linda. When he asks a steward if the party he was expecting is in their stateroom, the steward tells him she is. Harry rushes off to the stateroom as the boat sails only to find that it’s Marcia who is waiting for him. Jimmy is downcast as he sees the boat sail away, but he hears a voice from the shadows. It’s none other than Linda, who tells him she wasn’t sailing after all, but wanted him to think so in order to see if he really loved her. They finally reconcile as the film fades to black.


The best thing that can be said about this film is that Bogart is in it. True, he has a small, supporting role, but at least here he looks somewhat comfortable, unlike other B’s he made at the time where he plays cardboard-cutout gangsters, or the following year, when he plays a most unorthodox vampire in The Return of Doctor X

Cast in the unenviable role of the cad, he nevertheless comes off as a more interesting character than the two leads. And at the party, check out his bathing robe. It looks like a trench coat. It was a scene he reportedly didn’t want to do, but he doesn’t look all that silly in his two-piece bathing suit.

The leads, Priscilla Lane and Wayne Morris, are less than enticing, though in their defense they don’t have much of a script to work with. The main problem here is motivation. What makes these two characters decide to do what they do? Why would a career woman such as Linda fall head over heels for a clodhopper like Jimmy? Not that Linda doesn’t come with her own baggage. She comes off most of the time like an immature, manipulative control freak. For instance, at the party it’s okay for her to flirt shamelessly with Bogart’s character, but when Jimmy is targeted by another woman her jealousy is piqued to the point where she wants to get married immediately. And what woman is thrilled by a proposal that takes place while stalling a car at a grade crossing in front of an oncoming locomotive? Isn’t she in the least concerned that she may be affiancing herself to a psychopath?

For his part, Jimmy comes of as one of the most unlikable leads in a romantic comedy. His idea of charm is to be annoying and invite himself right in to whatever function where he sees the object of his desire. His best move is to stand around and try to look impressive. Every time he opens his mouth he loses credibility. And what a couple they make. He has to overcome his general stupidity and need for thuggish browbeating while she has to overcome her incessant need for control, constant game-playing and emotional distance. Both have this need to always be right and both are utterly incapable of compromise.

The best character in the movie by far is that of Bea Harris, the acerbic copywriter who helps Linda in her climb up the corporate ladder. As played by Mona Barrie, Bea is a Dorothy Parker type who looks askance at the world with her poison pen ever at the ready. Before telling Linda that “all men are polygamists,” she tells of her past as an abused wife and lonely divorcee almost offhandedly, as if it is the rule and not the exception. Although her minutes are few in the film, she gives a brilliant, delicately layered performance that brilliantly contrasts her with Lane’s character. Were this a Pre-Code movie she would have had a lot more screen time and a lot more to say.

This was the second film Lane and Morris were paired with the first being Love, Honor and Behave (1938), in which Morris played a milquetoast husband to Lane’s assertive wife. They would be paired again in Brother Rat (1938) and its sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby (1940). As the studio was pushing them as the next big romantic leads, the publicity team went so far as to cook up a romance between the two. They were frequently photographed at nightclubs and parties. The two dated briefly, but nothing came of it.

Critics were unimpressed by Men Are Such Fools. The normally supportive Variety called it “routine,” and The New York Times got in a good dig by describing this 69-minute long picture as “about an hour too long” and “sad and aimless.” The film netted Warner Bros. a profit of $10,000.

It’s recommended only for Bogart fans and Busby Berkeley completists. By the way, look for Carole Landis in a bit part as “June.”

The Duke is Tops

By Ed Garea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Hot Rhythm

By Ed Garea

Hot Rhythm (Monogram, 1944) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: Tim Ryan & Charles R. Marion. Cast: Dona Drake, Robert Lowery, Tim Ryan, Irene Ryan, Sidney Miller, Jerry Cooper, Harry Langdon, Robert Kent, Lloyd Ingraham, Cyril Ring, Joan Curtis, Paul Porcasi. B&W, 79 minutes.

Imagine, a film – and a musical, yet – starring both Irene Ryan and former silent comic Harry Langdon. Only on Poverty Row.

Jimmy O’Brien (Lowery) and Sammy Rubin (Miller) work for the Beacon Recording Company. They write jingles for radio commercials, but would like to graduate to songwriting and the raise that comes with the position. 

Jimmy literally runs into Mary Adams (Drake) in the hallway. She has just finished singing one of his jingles in a commercial. Head over heels, he poses as a songwriter and tells her he can introduce her to Herman Strohbach (Kent), the manager of the Tommy Taylor band. Strohbach is looking for a girl singer to audition. However, complications arise because Strohbach and Taylor (Cooper) are locked in a dispute over a new contract with Beacon boss J.P. O’Hara (Tim Ryan).

Jimmy has an idea: he’ll make a demo record of Mary so O’Hara can hear it the following day. Lacking a band, he records Mary singing along with Taylor’s band on a live radio broadcast. Afterward, he gives the demo to Sammy, who leaves it for pressing. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Whiffle (Langdon), O’Hara’s assistant, informs his boss that his secretary just quit. O’Hara tells him to hire another. He hires the scatterbrained Polly Kane (Irene Ryan). No sooner does she start work than she hears that a girl singer in a quartette singing radio jingles falls sick and she convinces Whiffle to let her take the sick girl’s place in the quartette.

O’Hara hears Mary’s demo and likes what he hears, though he doesn’t know who the singer is. Later, to his horror he discovers that the boys in the pressing room thought the demo was a regular Tommy Taylor disc and pressed and distributed 10,000 copies of the record. This leaves O’Hara open to legal action from Strohbach and Taylor. 

While Jimmy, Sammy and Mary wait for O’Hara to tell them about his reaction, the boss and Polly are busy going all over the city, buying every copy they can find and smashing it. Their strange behavior is noticed by the police, who arrest them, leaving them to be bailed out by Jimmy and his friends.

O’Hara is determined to find the girl who sang on the Tommy Taylor record. When he mentions this new girl singer to Polly, she thinks he is talking about the jingle she recorded and tells O’Hara it was her. His reaction is to offer her a contract so she can make more records. Meanwhile, Mary discovers Jimmy is not really a songwriter and breaks up with him because he deceived her. When Strohbach and Taylor hear Mary’s demo, Taylor decides to hire her, but Strohbach, by mistake, has already offered a deal to Polly.

In the meantime, Mary returns to her old job singing at a cafe. When Jimmy and Sammy go to see her and straighten everything out, the resulting chaos gets Mary fired. The next day, Mary tells Jimmy that he should confess everything to O'Hara but he refuses, for Strohbach is suing O'Hara for $250,000 for distributing the illegal record.

Polly tells O'Hara that she is quitting in order to sing with Taylor's band, which leads him to believe she is the girl on Mary's demo. As she has not yet formally signed with Strohbach, he signs her up and tells Jimmy and Sammy to make a recording of Polly with a house band, where they have her perform one of their songs. 

O'Hara is shocked when he hears that Polly's voice is nothing like Mary’s, O’Hara is taken aback and realizes he’s signed the wrong person. He then convinces Polly to sign with Strohbach. However, after Polly signs with Strohbach, her record is suddenly in demand, causing O'Hara and Sammy to go on another record smashing spree, which again lands them in jail. 

After Jimmy and Mary bail them out, Jimmy and Sammy finally confess all to O’Hara, who fires them. Sammy then takes Mary to see Taylor and proves that she’s the singer he's been seeking. The meeting is interrupted by a phone call from Strohbach, who triumphantly says that he has "the girl" under contract. 

At the nightclub where Taylor is appearing, Mary and Polly are both scheduled to perform and all the interested parties are in the audience. When Taylor introduces his new singer, both Mary and Polly take bows, but Taylor escorts Mary to the microphone. Realizing he signed the wrong singer, Strohbach passes out. Mary, who by this time has made up with Jimmy, is a hit, and O'Hara tells Jimmy and Sammy that he will double their salaries. 

When Strohbach regains consciousness, O'Hara offers to take Polly off his hands if he will drop his lawsuit. Strohbach readily agrees, but after he hands the contract over, O'Hara shows him a newspaper clipping about Polly's hit record, which causes Strohbach to pass out again.


After years of watching Irene Ryan as Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies, I always find it a little strange to see her in other parts. I remember as a teenager seeing her as Edgar Kennedy’s wife in one of his RKO shorts and I was simply dazzled, not only seeing her as someone other than Granny, but seeing her as a young woman. Already accomplished in vaudeville (where she met and married fellow performer Tim Ryan in 1922) and on radio, Irene’s film carer, which began in 1935, consisted mainly of shorts for Educational Films (later Columbia and RKO) and uncredited parts in feature films. In 1943, she and Tim went to Monogram, were they appeared in Sarong Girl, starring Ann Corio. Tim caught on at Monogram, both onscreen and off, as a scriptwriter. He often wrote parts for Irene, even after they divorced in October 1943. They were simply billed by Monogram as “Tim and Irene” on movie posters. 

As O’Hara, the harried and perplexed boss, Tim Ryan puts in a nice performance. His scenes with Irene display the precise timing they learned during years in vaudeville. In addition, he and Charles Marion wrote a funny script for the film.

The presence of Harry Langdon as Mr. Whiffle is the reason for most film buffs to tune in. Langdon brings his silent movie comedic touches to the film, and the sad part is that he disappears about halfway through the film. He has a great scene when he stands in for a medicine tonic ad. At first, the tonic won’t fizz, and then it fizzes too much. Employing his great comic timing, Langdon reacts to the situation in hilarious fashion, even at one point attempting to trying to put the fizzy glass in his suit pocket. His scenes with Irene Ryan also stand out as they use their comic skills to good effect. Unfortunately, a few months after this film was released, Langdon passed away at the relatively young age of 60 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Lowery makes for a so-so leading man, hindered by a lack of chemistry with female lead Dona Drake, whose singing far exceeds her acting. Sidney Miller is probably best known among film buffs for his many appearances in Warner Bros. Pre-Code pictures and later, Mickey Rooney films. He met Rooney on the set of Boys Town (1938) where, unlike many of Rooney’s co-workers, he got along well with the star and befriended him, later writing the lyrics to Rooney’s musical compositions. After World War II, he shifted careers from acting to writing, working for Donald O’Connor. In 1953, he joined Walt Disney, where he was wrote, directed, and composed music for many of Disney’s television ventures – in particular, The Mickey Mouse Club, where Disney tasked him with a total revamp of the show after its first season. (Disney wanted it to appeal more to teenagers than to the very young children at which it was originally aimed.) Miller brought in new writers and choreographers to give the Mousketeers more musical numbers and comedy skits and turn the show into a sort of mini-variety show. Although that was what Disney wanted, it didn't go over with the audience, with the result that the numbers for the show went down. Miller’s arguments with the cast led to his dismissal and he continued his directorial career in television, including My Favorite Martian (1963), The Addams Family (1964), and Get Smart (1965). He is also remembered as the man who directed Lou Costello’s first solo effort after his break with Bud Abbott, the ghastly The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959).

All totaled, Hot Rhythm is a decent time-waster, with good comedy and surprisingly – for Monogram – good music. Director William Beaudine does a good job with the material, keeping the pacing brisk. It’s odd that Beaudine is remembered today – thanks in large part to the Medved brothers in their book, The Golden Turkey Awards – as a bad director. 

Beaudine, who began directing back in 1915, was one of the most respected directors in the silent days, known as a seasoned comedy director and renowned for his ability to work with children. When talkies arrived he was one of Hollywood’s top directors, commanding $2,000 a week in 1931. But he was wiped out by the stock market crash and most of his salary went toward reducing his debt load. In 1935, he went to England, where he directed more than a dozen films. When he returned to the States, he found his absence had hurt him and he was unable to secure work at the major studios. The only places he could work were Poverty Row studios and independent productions. His efficient style made him in demand by low-budget producers needing to save money, and this efficiency translated well when he turned his directorial talent to television. It’s somewhat odd today that Beaudine is derided for his style, being called “One-Shot Beaudine,” when MGM director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke, is praised for what was essentially the same style, and lauded as “One Shot Woody.” 

Faces in the Crowd: Dona Drake

The life of Dona Drake could well be said to have been something right out of a Fannie Hurst novel. Born Eunice Westmoreland in Miami, Florida, on November 15, 1914, she was the daughter of African-American parents Joseph Andrew and Novella Smith Westmoreland. Being light-skinned was a great help to her career due to American attitudes about race, and she billed herself as a Latino of Mexican heritage. First known as Una Villon, she worked Broadway, nightclubs, and revues. (Keeping in line with her new identity, she even went so far as to learn Spanish.) 

In 1935, she changed her name to Rita Rio to further emphasize her “ethnicity.” She landed a featured role in Eddie Cantor’s Strike Me Pink (1936) in which she did a snake-like dancing performance during the “The Lady Dances” number. The climax was when Cantor threw her high in the air and then catches her with the palm of one hand some distance away. Her performance didn’t lead to any further film work, but it did enable her to form an all-woman band called “Rita Rio and Her Rhythm Girls” (aka “The Girlfriends”)  that toured successfully.

On her own she performed in a few two-reelers and sang on the radio. Her good friend Dorothy Lamour helped her land a contract at Paramount, where the studio changed her name to Dona Drake. The publicity sheet for her written by the studio stated that she was christened Rita Novella, was of Mexican, Irish and French descent and born and raised in Mexico City. Her first film for her new studio was the 1941 Lamour vehicle, Aloma of the South Seas. She also appeared in the Bob Hope comedy Louisiana Purchase (1941) as well as in the Hope/Bing Crosby/Lamour film Road to Morocco (1942), where she played an Arab girl. The failure to break from typecasting led the studio to drop her shortly after loaning her to Monogram for Hot Rhythm

In August 1944, she married Oscar- (and later Emmy-) winning costume designer William Travilla. (Travilla gained fame when he dressed Marilyn Monroe in a tailored potato sack to prove she’d look good in anything.) As a freelancer, she appeared in the 1946 Claudette Colbert/John Wayne film Without Reservations. Other notable films during this period were Another Part of the Forest(1948) as Dan Duryea’s girlfriend, Beyond the Forest (1949) as Bette Davis’s Indian maid, and The Girl From Jones Beach (1949) as Eddie Bracken’s paramour. She also starred as the gold digging second female lead in the 1948 Stanley Kramer production So This is New York.

The birth of daughter Nia slowed her down a bit, but she returned to work television before retiring from a variety of health ailments, including heart trouble and epilepsy. In 1989, she succumbed to respiratory failure brought on by pneumonia. Husband Travilla followed her to the grave the following year.

Smart Blonde

By Ed Garea

Smart Blonde (WB, 1937) – Director: Frank McDonald. Writers: Kenneth Gamet, Don Ryan (s/p), Frederick Nebel (story “No Hard Feelings”). Stars: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Wini Shaw, Addison Richards, Robert Paige, Craig Reynolds, Charlotte Wynters, Jane Wyman, Joseph Crehan, Tom Kennedy, John Sheehan, Max Wagner, & George Lloyd. B&W, 59 minutes.

In 1937, Warner Bros. released a low-budget B-movie Smart Blonde, starring Glenda Farrell as reporter Torchy Blane and Barton MacLane as her boyfriend, Lt. Steve McBride. The film, notable in that it featured a female lead (most unusual for Warner Bros.), immediately caught on with moviegoers and proved so successful that it spawned eight sequels as audiences couldn’t get enough of the adventures of Torchy and Steve. 

The genesis of the series was in 1936, when the studio bought the rights to Frederick Nebel’s popular “McBride and Kennedy” crime stories for Black Mask magazine. Between 1928 and 1937 Nebel wrote 37 novellas featuring the exploits of Richmond City police captain Steve McBride and his alcoholic reporter buddy Kennedy of The Free Press. The studio’s first task was to jettison Kennedy, as his drinking would have drawn the ire of the Production Code. Instead, the studio created a female reporter, following in the wake of MGM’s immensely popular Thin Man, with the idea that she would be a love interest for McBride and bring in more women to what essentially looked like another hard-boiled detective flick.

Glenda Farrell was cast as Torchy, most likely because she just finished Gold Diggers of 1937 and the studio liked to keep their actors busy. Farrell was an Oklahoma native whose theater career began at age 7 when she played Little Eva in a local production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When her family relocated to San Diego, Farrell continued her stage career, also working in vaudeville. In 1925, she debuted on the Los Angeles stage. Moving to New York in 1929, she replaced Erin O’Brien Moore as Marion Hardy in Aurania Rouverol’s hit play Skidding, which became the genesis for MGM’s Hardy Family series. She also appeared in Love, Honor, and Betray with George Brent, Alice Brady and Clark Gable.

Looking for talent with the transition to sound, Farrell was signed to a long-term contract for First National in 1930. She was immediately cast as Olga, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s love interest in Little Caesar. Publicity releases stated that Farrell could speak nearly 400 words a minute. Used as a supporting actress during her first years, Farrell achieved something of a breakthrough when she played the smart, brassy, sexy, wise-cracking reporter Florence Dempsey in 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. The role was like a dress rehearsal for Torchy Blane.

Taking advantage Farrell’s success in Mystery of the Wax Museum, Warners began casting her more and more in comedies, teaming her with their other beautiful wisecracking blonde Joan Blondell in a series of comedies where the two are on the hunt for rich husbands.

For the role of Steve McBride, the studio cast Barton MacLane. MacLane might have seemed like an odd choice as he had played mainly heavies in his Warner Bros. career. But he had also played policemen in two of the studios “Perry Mason” entries and it was thought that his no-nonsense persona would make a nice contrast to Farrell’s irreverent, wise-cracking Torchy. The studio’s hunch paid off in spades for the chemistry between the stars was first-rate and totally believable. 

The movie’s plot is fairly straightforward. Nightclub owner Fitz Mularkay (Richards) sells his business enterprises, including his popular nightclub, The Million Club, to his close friend from Boston, George “Tiny” Torgensen (Crehan). The reason for the sale is that Mularkay’s fiancee Marcia Friel (Wynters) disapproves of them.

As Torgensen is getting into a cab with Torchy, who has just finished interviewing him, he’s shot and killed. Police Lieutenant Steve McBride, Torchy's boyfriend and the man in charge of the case, takes Torchy with him to The Million Club. Steve leaves Torchy with Dixie (Wyman), the hat check girl, while he talks privately to Fitz in the office. Mularkey tells Steve that Torgensen was one of his closest friends, and because of that he wants to catch the murderer before the police can. McBride advises him to do otherwise. Meanwhile, Torchy strikes up a conversation with Dixie and learns that singer Dolly Ireland (Shaw) was in love with Fitz and that Fitz's right-hand man, Chuck Cannon (Wagner), was angry about losing his job. 

Comparing notes after their visit, Steve suspects the other bidders that were beaten out by Torgensen. Torchy, however, suspects Chuck and persuades Steve to look for him. While they are searching at Chuck's apartment, Fitz shows up, demanding to know what the police have on his man. Torchy tells Steve she learned that Chuck and Dolly were seen together at Union Station just before Torgensen was killed. 

While Steve continues his investigation, Torchy lunches with Fitz's fiancée Marcia. Marcia begs Torchy to convince Fitz to sell his business to anyone who wants to buy it. When Chuck is later found murdered, Steve immediately suspects Fitz. As Chuck’s body is removed, Torchy discovers a slip of paper unnoticed by the police. She notices writing on the paper and hides it in her purse before she leaves. Meanwhile, Steve decides that Fitz is covering for someone else. He immediately Dolly, who he learns has just left town by train. He has the train stopped and Dolly arrested and sent back to the station, where he questions her in Torchy’s presence. 

When the ballistics report states that Chuck's gun did not kill Torgensen, Marcia tells Steve that Chuck had threatened her and that she’s afraid that Fitz killed him to protect her. Torchy’s suspicions are raised when she receives conflicting stories from Marcia and her brother Lewis (Paige) about their parents. 

Torchy has her paper investigate the name “Corson” that she found on the paper she took from Chuck’s room. With the information from the paper’s investigation, Torchy deduces that Marcia’s real name is Corson and that she and Lewis are grifters who have been trying to take Fitz for his money. She also figures out that Lewis killed Torgensen before he could recognize Marcia, whom he knew in Boston, as an imposter. When Lewis pulls a gun on Steve, Torchy and Fitz, Fitz shoots and kills Lewis, who shoots Fitz in the shoulder. At the hospital afterward, Steve and Torchy explain the details of the case to Fitz when Dolly enters. Fitz concludes that Dolly is his real love and tells his visitors he not only has decided to stay in business, but also proposes to Dolly. Inspired, Steve proposes to Torchy.

Director McDonald, a former dialogue director at the helm of his first film, does an excellent job with his material. From the beginning of the film, things happen quickly as McDonald dives right into the plot, not even pausing to introduce the characters and leaving the audience to piece together everything that is happening. In fact, things happen so quickly that it causes confusion. When I first saw the film, I had a bit of a tough time distinguishing between Fitz and Chuck.

The movie finally slows down a little more than halfway through, giving the audience a chance to catch up. Although it lacked in the number of suspects at the end (each earlier suspect conveniently gets knocked off or cleared), the final deduction rings true to the preceding goings-on, especially when Torchy gives a final explanation. 

The opening of the film is one of the best for a B-movie. After establishing Torchy’s credentials with a series of newspaper headlines announcing the sale of Fitz Mularkey’s sporting empire to Torgensen, each featuring Torchy’s byline, the film immediately cuts to a shot of a cab speeding alongside a passenger train slowing down before arriving at the station. Inside the cab we see Torchy in the back seat telling the driver to stop as close to the train as possible. We see her exit the cab at a full gallop and jump on the end of the train. She smooths her appearance and enters the club car, asking the whereabouts of Mr. Torgensen, with whom she gets an exclusive interview.

When the train arrives at Union Station, Torgensen hails a cab and asks Torchy if he can drop her anywhere. As Torgensen enters the cab he’s shot and killed. Torchy runs to the phone to call in the story to her paper, The Morning Herald. We’re only a few minutes into the film and the slam bang opening assures that we’re going to stick around for the rest of the ride. 

What distinguishes the Torchy Blane series from others, such as The Thin Man, Perry Mason, Philo Vance, or even the Nancy Drew series was the fact that Torchy and Steve were working-class types more at home in a diner than carousing at a nightclub. They got where they are through hard work, not inherited wealth, as with other movie detectives. That they come off so convincingly was due to the energy and enthusiasm with which Farrell and MacLane played their characters. 

Dressing in professional suits (check out her outfit at the beginning), Farrell modeled Torchy after real life reporters she knew. Questioned about the character in a 1969 interview with The New York Times, Farrell stated that she was determined to create a real human being and not an exaggerated comedy type: “I met those newswomen who visited Hollywood. They were generally young, intelligent, refined and attractive. By making Torchy true to life, I tried to make a character practically unique in movies.” (Quoted in the book The Women of Warner Brothers.)

MacLane, who modeled Steve McBride after real detectives he knew, is not mere comic relief. To the credit of the writers and studio, McBride is presented as a credible investigator, one that leaves no stone unturned, moving slowly towards the solution of the mystery. However, he’s not only working against the perpetrator, but also against his own girlfriend, who often hides evidence from him to use on her own. For instance, when she finds the slip of paper when Chuck’s body is removed, she keeps it for herself rather than turning it over to Steve.

Viewers quickly get an idea of the relationship between Steve and Torchy. She calls him “Skipper,” and he calls her “Kid.” One moment they’re sweet as pie to each other, and the next they’re arguing, almost like a married couple. A constant feature of the series is that at the beginning of each film, Torchy wants Steve to take her out to dinner, but a case is always breaking and there’s no time. At the end of the picture Steve’s always promising to take Torchy out for a steak dinner and proposing marriage. As previously mentioned, the chemistry between the stars makes their relationship all the more believable. 

The other major character in the series is that of the childlike, poetry writing Gahagan (Kennedy), who works as McBride’s assistant and fills the comic relief role. Though McBride often treats him with a combination of slight indifference and condescension, Torchy thinks otherwise, often relying on his help in sticky situations. Besides his enjoyment from assisting her, Gahagan is presented as a big kid who loves it when Torchy relies on him and gets a thrill when McBride allows him to turn on the siren. 

Besides Gahagan, the other character in the movie who stands out is that of Dixie, the hat check girl, played quite ably by the young Jane Wyman (her first credited role in a feature film). In an ironic note, Wyman would later play the role of Torchy after Farrell quit the series in 1939’s Torchy Blane … Playing With Dynamite.

Though Smart Blonde was a hit with the public, Frank Nugent of The New York Times was not so enchanted, noting that the film: “tends to support George Bernard Shaw's recent contemptuous description of the movies as a medium devoted to the depiction of people walking upstairs and downstairs, entering and leaving rooms, standing inside and outside doorways and doing practically nothing all the while.”

In 'Smart Blonde,' in which Glenda Farrell imitates a reporter and Barton MacLane libels the homicide squad, we have a murder mystery solved by an endless succession of door-openings and shuttings, taxi-hailings, jumping in and out of automobiles, and riding up and down in elevators. Mr. Shaw's pet antipathies are present, too, as well as one shot of Miss Farrell swinging aboard a moving train.”

For all this activity, the film is a static and listless little piece which never made us at all curious about the killer of Tiny Torgensen, night club operator, and Chuck Cannon, who had been Suspect No. 1 until he also died of lead poisoning. I seem to remember having seen the story in pictures before; strange that the same mistake should have been made again.”

Torchy Blane would not only have a lasting impact on American pop culture, but would also be the role for which Glenda Farrell would be best remembered. Farrell, having married Dr. Henry Ross in January 1941, made fewer films in the Forties than she had in the Thirties, largely electing to concentrate on her stage career, appearing on Broadway in a number of notable productions. In the Fifties she returned to the movies, appearing in Secret of the Incas (1954), Susan Slept Here (1954), and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955). In addition she frequently guest-starred on such television shows as Armstrong Circle TheatreGoodyear PlayhouseStudio One, and Wagon Train. In the Sixties and in 1970, she concentrated on television, appearing in only three films: Kissin' Cousins (1964) with Elvis Presley, The Disorderly Orderly (1964) with Jerry Lewis, and Tiger by the Tail (1970), her final appearance on screen. Ironically, Farrell, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer at age 61 in 1971.

For some reason, the studio replaced Farrell and MacLane with Lola Lane and Paul Kelly in Torchy Blane in Panama (1938), but public reaction convinced the studio to continue the series with the original stars, who were on board for the next three films in the series. But in 1939, Farrell’s contract with Warner Bros. expired and she left the series. With Farrell gone, MacLane also opted to leave. They were replaced with Jane Wyman and Allen Jenkins in the final film, Torchy Blane … Playing With Dynamite. The box office returns convinced the studio to finally pull the plug on the series. 

Torchy Blane may have left the silver screen, but her influence on popular culture continued. 1938 saw the debut of one of the icons of popular culture – Superman. In a letter to Time magazine in 1988, Jerry Siegel, Superman’s co-creator, stated that he and partner Joe Shuster based reporter Lois Lane (who made her Action Comics debut in June 1938) on Torchy as Farrell played her, with the character's name a variation of Torchy Blane in Panama star Lola Lane. Lois's appearance was taken from model Joanne Carter, who later married Jerry Siegel.

The studio would recycle Smart Blonde in 1941 as A Shot in the Dark, starring Regis Toomey in the Steve McBride role (named William Ryder) and William Lundigan as reporter Peter Kennedy (switching back to the original Kennedy as conceived by Nebel, but without the alcoholism).


Torchy (to the policeman guarding the door of a crime scene): “You don’t understand – I’m Torchy Blane of The Morning Herald!
Policeman: “I don’t care if you’re flaming youth.”

Steve (trying to prevent Torchy from following him into the building where Chuck lives): "This rat hole is no place for a woman."
Torchy: "But I'm a newspaperman!"

On Dress Parade

By Ed Garea

On Dress Parade (WB, 1939) – Directors: William Clemens, Noel M. Smith (uncredited). Writer: Tom Reed (original s/p). Stars: Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsly, John Litel, Frankie Thomas, Cecilia Loftus, Selmer Jackson, Aldrich Bowker, Douglas Meins, William Gould, & Donald Douglas. B&W, 62 minutes.

Since they were signed by Warner Bros. after the success of Dead End, the Dead End Kids appeared in five films of varying qualityCrime School and Angels with Dirty Faces (both in 1938), and They Made Me a CriminalHell's Kitchen, and Angels Wash Their Faces (all 1939). Although all the films save for Angels With Dirty Faces were B-productions, the films were popular with audiences. They were so popular that after the PTA complained to the studio about their being depicted as gangsters after Hell’s Kitchen opened, they were turned into good little Samaritans for Angels Wash Their Faces

But they were coming to the end of the road at the studio. For one thing, their off-screen antics didn’t endear them to studio management. They terrorized the set of their movies, throwing the other actors off with their constant ad-libbing, which necessitated a large number of retakes and angered Warner Bros, cost-conscious management. During the filming of Angels With Dirty Faces, their ad-libbing so upset Jimmy Cagney that he hauled off and socked Leo Gorcey between the eyes, which put an end to the practice for the rest of shooting. They also pulled pranks, such as stealing Bogart’s trousers and tossing a firecracker into his dressing room while he was taking a nap. Among other things, they painted obscene pictures on the office walls, and set off fire sprinklers in the wardrobe department. It got so bad that the studio hired a former football player, Russ Saunders, to keep them in line. Ultimately, he had to use a fire hose to subdue them. 

For another thing, the studio was running out of stories for them, especially now that they were turned from criminals to misunderstood good boys. It was decided this would be their last go-around at Warner’s, and what better way to end the series, other than putting them in prison, than to put them in military school?

The film also marked a departure from their earlier films in that they were split up. Before, they had always functioned as a unit. The studio may have done this to keep them from getting together to cause trouble, or perhaps it was being used as a test screening to see which of the Kids could succeed in a solo career. The only delinquent in the film was Slip Duncan, Leo Gorcey’s character. The others are all presented as normal well-behaved young men. 

The film opens in World War I. Major William Duncan (Douglas) saves the life of Captain Michael Riker (Litel). Years later, Riker, now a colonel and headmaster of Washington Academy, a military school, receives a telegram informing him that Duncan is dying. He hurries to Duncan’s bedside at the hospital. Duncan’s last request to Riker is to take care of his son, whom he has never seen. He had been searching for a number of years and has finally found him. Riker agrees, and along with his adjutant, calls on Mrs. Neeley, who is in the living room with Father Ryan (Bowker). She has been the caretaker for Duncan’s son, named Shirley, but nicknamed “Slip” (Gorcey). When she tells Riker that Slip is a hellion who constantly gets into trouble, and is headed for reform school, Riker decides that his school, which is run by boys for boys, is just the place for the troubled young man. 

At this point, Slip enters. Mrs. Neeley thought he was in bed, but Slip explains that he and his friend Dutch (Punsly) had to “straighten out” a guy named Nick. Riker pitches the idea of military school to Slip but, all things considered, he’d rather not.

The next day Slip’s at the pool hall when Dutch comes in to tell Slip that Nick has called the cops. Slip tells Dutch that he’s going to take it on the lam. But Dutch convinces him that taking up the military school offer is preferable to reform school, so Slip visits Riker and Lewis in their hotel room and agrees to attend. After he leaves, Father Ryan and the cop who was looking for Slip come out from another room and we learn it was all a ruse to get Slip into military school.

Slip’s stay at school gets off to the predictable rocky start, as Slip is determined to do as he pleases and resists discipline. But his cadet roommates, Ronny Morgan (Jordan), Johnny Cabot (Hall) and Georgie Warren (Dell), are equally determined to put him right. Slip’s behavior is so atrocious that Riker considers asking him to leave, but instead pleads with Slip to make something of himself in honor of his father.

Afterward, everything is fine until Dutch comes up for a visit. He tells Slip that the whole arrest was a trick to get him to sign up. Slip blows his top and begins to pack. When Cadet Major Rollins (Halop) comes into Slip’s room to stop him, a fight ensues with Slip pushing Rollins through a second story window. Feeling guilty over his deed, Slip visits Rollins in the hospital and promises him that he’ll repent. Even though the other cadets ostracize him, Slip works hard and gets top grades in every subject by the end of the term. The term’s end is also the end for Georgie Warren, who has flunked out. He joins the regular army in order to do well and hopefully win an appointment to West Point.

At summer camp, where the cadets have gone to learn directly from the army, they run into Georgie, who has done well. But a fire breaks out in a munitions store house where Georgie is working. Learning that Georgie is trapped inside, Slip braves the flames and smoke to rescue his friend. Both Slip and Georgie are hospitalized with serious burns. George recovers first and leaves for West Point. Slip also eventually recovers and returns to school a hero. In a ceremony where he is made cadet major, Riker presents him with his father’s Distinguished Service Cross.

Gorcey’s role in the film, that of a malcontent/gang leader, was a role he would carry over to his East Side Kids and Bowery Boys roles. Ironically, in the Bowery Boys series, he is nicknamed “Slip.” This also marks Bernard Punsly’s briefest appearance in any of their films. 

Unlike their other films, On Dress Parade is devoid of life. The boys seem uncomfortable in their new roles, and the scene of Gorcey leading his class in calculus and tactics stretches credulity to the breaking point. New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent describes the film as “a mutually losing tussle between factual scenes of comparatively recent army games and a fictional plot of the type which is sometimes referred to as ‘the old army game.’ As entertainment, it is the kind of picture that is making it harder and harder for ‘Screeno.’” It is an apt description.

Stagecoach Outlaws

By Ed Garea

Stagecoach Outlaws (PRC, 1945) – Director: Sam Newfield. Writer: Fred Myton (story & s/p/). Stars: Buster Crabbe, Al St. John, Frances Gladwin, Ed Cassidy, I. Stanford Jolley, Kermit Maynard, John L. Cason, Bob Kortman, & Steve Clark.  B&W, 58 minutes.

I have a confession to make: I’m a big fan of the B-Western. They’re fun to watch, move fast, and the action is continuous. The plots are somewhat simple, almost as if from a cookie cutter, but I know what I’m getting, so I’m never disappointed. Over the years these lowly regarded B-Westerns have served as a spawning ground for young actors such as John Wayne, and a last refuge for those whose time and star have faded.

One of the outfits churning out B-Westerns in the ‘40s was Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) and one of their most successful franchises starred Buster Crabbe and Al (Fuzzy) St. John. Crabbe first starred as Billy the Kid in 1941, taking over the role from fellow B-veteran Bob Steele, and played the role in 13 films. The character’s name was changed to “Billy Carson” in 1943, and Crabbe starred in another 23 films.

Like Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe was a championship swimmer, having won a bronze medal in the 1500-meter men’s freestyle at the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics and a gold medal in the 400-meter men’s freestyle at the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. But it was Weissmuller who beat out Crabbe for the role of Tarzan in an MGM screen test. Paramount, though, was impressed enough to star him in the 1933 feature, King of the Jungle, where Crabbe played Kaspa, a white youth raised in the jungle by animals, is captured, and brought back to civilization as an attraction in the circus. It was one of many Tarzan imitations and was not to be Crabbe’s last. Later that year, he starred for producer Sol Lesser in the serial, Tarzan the Fearless, a movie so wretched it was pulled from many theaters after only one episode and placed a permanent damper on Crabbe’s career, consigning him to the B’s and below. He made a few films for Poverty Row studio Mayfair before Paramount signed him for a series of B-Westerns based on Zane Grey’s writings.

While at Paramount, he also freelanced in a couple of serials for Universal, three as Flash Gordon and one as Buck Rogers. The serials quickly passed into limbo, but were revived by audiences in the 60s and 70s when they played on television and at colleges, and made Crabbe something of a cult figure.

His Paramount contract having run its course, and with no new prospects at Universal, Crabbe became a free agent, i.e., unemployed. It was in 1941 that he accepted a role as an African explorer in a low-budget thriller from Poverty Row Producers Releasing Corporation. Titled Jungle Man, it made back its cost and more, and PRC pressed Crabbe into action in their “Billy the Kid” series, replacing Bob Steele, who had enough of low-budget oaters and left for greener pastures. And except for a few adventure films, such as the notorious Jungle Siren  (1942), where he and “jungle girl” stripper Ann Corio fought the Nazis, Westerns would be his specialty at PRC. His first film in the new series was 1941’s Billy the Kid Wanted, where he was paired with a man who would appear with him in the subsequent Billy the Kid/Billy Carson films: Al. “Fuzzy” St. John.

Al St. John has quite a pedigree in Hollywood. He was one of the original Keystone Cops for Mack Sennett and made many shorts with his uncle, Fatty Arbuckle. After Fatty was banished from Hollywood due to scandal, St. John formed his own production company and made comic shorts for many studios, including Fox, Educational, Rayart, and First National. (One of his shorts for Fox, 1923s Spring Fever, co-starred a young Jean Arthur.) When sound arrived and slapstick comedy became screwball comedy, St. John drifted into Westerns, where he grew a beard and assumed that most popular role of The Sidekick.

Legend says he acquired the name “Fuzzy” while appearing in a Fred Scott oater for low-budget Spectrum Pictures. The story was that the producers were unsuccessfully trying to hire Fuzzy Knight, but balking at his asking price, hired St. John instead, billing him as “Fuzzy” in the picture. Given his beard, he began using the nickname in future appearances. He also worked for director Sam Newfield and his Westerns writer, Fred Myton, in the late '30s. When Sam co-founded PRC, St. John went with him, playing Fuzzy Jones (later Fuzzy Q. Jones) in a number of Westerns before landing in the Billy the Kid series as a sidekick to Bob Steele. After Steele quit, St. John became the sidekick of Buster Crabbe, and when Crabbe left the series, the studio simply plugged in Lash La Rue without missing a beat. When PRC folded in the late '40s, Lash and Fuzzy took their act over to producers Ron Ormond and Joy Houck. Their last film was in 1952, after which both La Rue and St. John bid goodbye to Hollywood and hit the dusty trail, plying their trade at Wild West shows and rodeos.

Stagecoach Outlaws makes ample use of Fuzzy’s pratfall skills and revolves around a case of mistaken identity. It begins with a bang, as Billy Carson happens upon three masked outlaws holding up a Red River Lines stagecoach. They shot the driver and the guard and are trying to kidnap the only passenger, Linda Bowen (Gladwin). Billy shoots and kills one outlaw while chasing the other two off. He accompanies the stage and Linda back to Red River.

Linda and her father, Jed (Cassidy), are grateful and impressed with Billy’s skill. Ned tells Billy there have been quite a few stage robberies as of late and offers Billy the job of protecting the coaches, but Billy declines, telling Ned that he doesn’t like being tied down.

The two surviving outlaws, Joe Slade (Cason) and Vic Dawson (Maynard), slink back to town to report their failed mission to their boss, saloon owner Steve Kirby (Jolley). Kirby had earlier tried to convince Jed to sell the stage line to him, so we knew right away he was a heel. That’s the way it works in a B-Western.

Kirby berates them for their failure and then gets an idea. Notorious bank robber Matt Brawley (Kortman) is cooling his heels in a jail in nearby Cherokee. If Joe and Vic can break Brawley out, not only will he join their gang, but he might also be persuaded to share in the loot he has stashed from the robbery.

However, before Joe and Vic can get to Cherokee, Brawley, left in the care of Fuzzy while the sheriff (Clark) stepped out for refreshment, overpowers Fuzzy, cold-conks him, and places him in the cell as he makes his getaway. When the sheriff returns and finds Brawley has escaped, he’s so angry that he decides to leave Fuzzy in the jail cell as punishment.

The two baddies arrive, overpower the sheriff, and thinking Fuzzy is Brawley, spring him and take him with them. Fuzzy, for once sizing up the situation, decides to play along until he can make his escape, and travels with the two back to Red River.

Fuzzy’s cover is almost blown when Billy sees him, but Fuzzy pretends not to know who he is. After Billy brawls with Vic in the saloon, he overhears Fuzzy introducing himself to Kirby as Brawley and picks up on the ruse, concerned for his friend.

Billy follows Joe, Vic and Fuzzy to a ghost town hotel, where the two outlaws grill Fuzzy about the hidden loot. Searching the hotel, Billy accidentally rings the front desk bell, and Joe, Vic and Fuzzy rush downstairs looking for an intruder. Fuzzy manages to ditch his partners long enough to tell Billy about his plight. Later, Joe and Vic tell Fuzzy that they’ll let him in on a lucrative proposition if he agrees to share his loot. Vic catches Billy trying to eavesdrop on their conversation but Billy escapes after a brawl.

Back in Red River, Kirby tells Linda that he advised her father to sell the stage line to him, but Linda says her father will never sell. When Billy shows up and questions Kirby about his intense interest in the stage line, the two get into a fight, which is broken up by Jed. Afterward, Billy offers to protect Jed’s next shipment: the nearby miner’s payroll.

The next day we see Billy, dressed in a serape and sporting a fake mustache, pulling a cart while Joe and Vic force Fuzzy to go with them to rob the stage. They secure the lockbox, but when they force it open, they find it’s full of iron washers.

After Kirby learns of Billy’s ruse, the real Brawley shows up in town, looking for his impersonator. Overhearing Brawley’s threats, Billy hightails it to the ghost town to warn Fuzzy and runs into his friend as he’s sneaking out of the hotel. The two join together against Joe and Vic, who have kidnapped Linda. While Joe and Brawley chase Fuzzy, Billy has it out with Vic in the hotel. Fuzzy returns, and he and Billy overwhelm and hogtie the baddies while freeing Linda.

Back in Red River, Vic is about to spill the beans of Kirby when Kirby shoots him through an open window. Billy returns the fire, killing Kirby. As the film ends, Billy says goodbye to Jed and Linda while Fuzzy takes the recaptured Brawley back to the Cherokee jail.

Stagecoach Outlaws is a pretty entertaining outing from PRC in spite of the low production values, one of which includes substituting a curtain for a wall at the ghost town hotel. (Watch for the scene where Billy bumps into it.) It’s more St. John’s picture than Crabbe’s, as the plot really revolves around Fuzzy. He usually is given time in the other films of the series to do his shtick, but not as the center of attention and he is fun to watch as both the comic foil of Billy as well as the baddies, with more than a couple of Sennett-type pratfalls to his credit.

The film also has a good supporting cast, with veteran B-movie heel I. Stanford Jolley in fine form as the conniving Kirby. Kermit Maynard, brother of Ken, gets a meaty role as Vic, and Kortman, whose credits harken back to the silent days, manages well as the tough guy Brawley. The only fly in the ointment is Frances Gladwin, as Jed’s daughter Linda. She can’t act and it shows as she sits there in the hotel room seemingly baffled by all the action going on around her.

This is one of the better entries in the series and both Crabbe and St. John acquit themselves well in their roles, billed at the beginning as “Our Pals,” just in case the kids at the matinee didn’t know. It’s also well thought out and written, which is a rarity with PRC. One last point: although this Western series made more than enough money to keep PRC afloat, Crabbe made only $3,000 per picture and St. John, $1,000. Considering what they returned, it was skimpy wages indeed.

Young Dr. Kildare

By Ed Garea

Young Dr. Kildare (MGM, 1938) – Director: Harold S. Bucquet. Writers: Max Brand (story), Harry Ruskin & Willis Goldbeck (s/p). Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Lew Ayres, Lynne Carver, Nat Pendleton, Jo Ann Sayers, Samuel S. Hinds, Emma Dunn, Walter Kingsford, Truman Bradley, Monty Woolley, Pierre Watkin, Nella Walker, Marie Blake, Leonard Penn, & Virgina Brissic. B&W, 82 minutes.

In the late 1930s, MGM, always on the lookout for a solid, profitable, and hopefully long-running B-series, given the success of the “Andy Hardy” films, focused their sights on a series of popular stories by Max Brand (real name Frederick Schiller Faust) about an idealistic young intern, James Kildare, working in a New York City hospital. It mattered not to the suits at the studio that Paramount had already made a film about the character, called Internes Can’t Take Money, in 1937, starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck. MGM acquired the rights to the stories from Brand, and set about planning the film, to be titled Young Dr. Kildare.

Dr. Kildare was first introduced to audiences in a pulp-fiction story, “Internes Can’t Take Money,” published in Cosmopolitan in March 1936. Brand followed it with “Whiskey Sour,” published in Cosmopolitan in April 1938. As originally conceived by Brand, Dr. Kildare was an aspiring surgeon who left his parents’ farm to practice at a big New York City hospital where, through his work, he comes frequently into contact with members of the underworld. Paramount’s adaptation followed this pattern.

However, when Brand was contacted by MGM about the Kildare rights and informed that MGM hoped to create a series starring Kildare, he made major changes to the storyline. Dr. Kildare’s specialty was now diagnostics instead of surgery. The character of Kildare’s superior and mentor at the hospital, Dr. Gillespie, was added and the underworld elements discarded. Brand also restarted the story from Kildare’s first arrival at the city hospital.

Brand totally cooperated with MGM on the film series beginning with the first release, Young Dr. Kildare. He wrote several original Kildare stories, which were first serialized in magazines, later republished as novels and adapted into films by MGM (but not published as movie tie-ins). This would be the case with Calling Dr. Kildare (1939), The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1940), Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case (1940, published as “Dr. Kildare’s Girl” in Photoplay the same year), Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940), Dr. Kildare’s Crisis (1940), and The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941). After this film, the Brand-MGM partnership came to an end. Brand would author one more published Kildare story, “Dr. Kildare’s Hardest Case” in 1942. An unfinished story, “Dr. Kildare’s Dilemma,” was published in two parts in a Los Angeles fanzine titled The Faust Collector in February 1971 (Part 1) and January 1973 (Part 2). A restored fragment of the story was included in a book collection titled The Max Brand Companion (1996).

Now that the film was in the planning stages, the next task was to assemble a cast and a director. Lew Ayres was cast as Dr. Kildare. His intelligent, youthful looks belied the fact that he had been in films for nearly a decade, beginning with an unbilled role in the 1929 comedy, The Sophomore, for Pathe. His best-known roles were as Paul Baumer in Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and as Edward Seaton, Katharine Hepburn’s alcoholic brother, in Holiday, for Columbia in 1938.

For the role of Kildare’s superior and mentor, Dr. Gillespie, a brilliant but curmudgeonly physician whose career is now hampered by his confinement to a wheelchair, the studio cast Lionel Barrymore. For Barrymore, an actor who normally did not want to be cast in B-movies, the tides of circumstance led him to accept the role: He had broken his hip in an accident. It was the arthritis he contracted from the accident that confined him to the chair and available to play the character of Gillespie for the rest of the Kildare series and beyond. At least Barrymore could take solace in that he escaped being Judge Hardy in the Hardy Family sequels and playing second banana to Mickey Rooney. In the Kildare films, he shared star billing with Ayres.

The other cast members who would appear in subsequent films were Nat Pendleton as Joe Wayman, ambulance driver and the comic relief, Marie Blake as Sally Green, hospital switchboard operator and love interest of Wayman, Nell Craig as Nurse “Nosey” Parker (this sobriquet, hung on the nurse by Dr. Gillespie, later became a popular term), Walter Kingsford as Dr. P. Walter Carew, the head of the hospital, and Frank Orth, as Mike Ryan, the proprietor of Sullivan’s Café, a bar/restaurant where the doctors come to eat. Harold S. Bucquet, whose directorial experience had been confined to assistant director on features and directing shorts, was given the chair, with the real power wielded by producer Lou L. Ostrow.

When filming began, the onscreen chemistry between Ayres and Barrymore was so strong that MGM decided to make a sequel or two. As a matter of fact, the studio tacked on a scene at the end of Young Dr. Kildare with Ayres and Barrymore announcing their adventures would be continuing. Public reaction made it a consistent moneymaker for the studio, and 15 films were cranked out over a period of nine years before MGM finally threw in the towel. 

As with the Andy Hardy series, MGM used the Kildare movies to showcase some of their younger contract talent: Ava Gardner, Red Skelton, Lana Turner, Donna Reed, and Barry Nelson. Bonita Granville, signed from Warner Brothers, where she played juvenile roles (most notably Nancy Drew) was signed by MGM with the hope of placing her in adult roles, and she played such in The People vs. Dr. Kildare. Because there was a noticeable lack of chemistry between Ayres and Lynne Carver, who played Kildare’s girl, Alice Raymond, in the first film, Laraine Day joined the cast as Nurse Mary Lamont to become Kildare’s love interest beginning with the second installment, Calling Dr. Kildare. Alma Kruger also became part of the cast in that film as Molly Byrd, Chief of Nurses and a thorn in Gillespie’s side.

Although the Kildare series featured what at the time was cutting edge medicine, the films seem horribly dated in that aspect today, given the advances in medicine and medical shows such as ER and House, M.D. They also tied such concerns as social conditions and poverty to their effects on a patient’s physical and psychological health. But let’s face facts – audiences do not come for the technology, they come for the human drama, and the Kildare series was chock full of that commodity. A doctor on the front of the battle for life against death is tailor made for the movies, and it was the adventures of Kildare and Gillespie who put their careers, and sometimes their lives, on the line to help cure a patient that made the films a must see back when they were released, and they continue to fascinate audiences even today.

Young Dr. Kildare opens with Dr. James Kildare, fresh out of medical school, returning to the family home in Dartford, Connecticut, to see his mother Martha (Dunn), father, Dr. Steven Kildare (Hinds), and girlfriend Alice Raymond (Carver). The family has eagerly been awaiting his arrival as they have a surprise for him, which they show to him when he returns to the family home. It’s his own office, right next to his father’s in the family abode (they converted the house’s parlor). They even amended the shingle on the outside to include him. But Jimmy, grateful as he is to the family for their efforts, has other plans. He informs them his dream is to become a diagnostician, and towards that end he has applied to Blair General Hospital in New York as an intern at $20 a month in order so that he can study under the foremost diagnostician, Dr. Leonard Gillespie. Jimmy’s father is disappointed that his son won’t be joining him in the family practice, but he tells his son that he understands his desire and supports him fully.

Cut to Blair General Hospital, where we see Kildare and the other hires being greeted by Dr, Carew (Kingsford). Gillespie bursts in to size up the newcomers. He asks for a volunteer to come forward and diagnose him on the spot. No one except Kildare steps forward. Looking Gillespie over, Kildare tells the older man that he has a slight discoloration on his fingernail, but needs to check his epitrochlear gland in his elbow to be sure. (Not only is there no such gland, there are no glands in the elbow.) Gillespie strongly disagrees and proceeds to belittle Kildare in front of the other interns.

Later, the interns joke in their dorm and are kidding Kildare about his confrontation with Gillespie, when the young doctor is informed that Gillespie wants to see him in his office. Gillespie shows Kildare a group of children in his clinic and challenges the young doctor to diagnose each child, which Kildare does to Gillespie’s satisfaction. Later, in Gillespie’s office, Kildare is again asked by Gillespie to diagnose him. Kildare opines that the melanoma is cancerous and Gillespie may live for only another year. Gillespie gets mad and throws Kildare out of his office, although later we learn that Kildare’s diagnosis is correct and that Gillespie may be a brilliant doctor, but he is a terrible patient.

Kildare finds himself assigned to ambulance duty, working with driver Joe Wayman (Pendleton), who at first does not trust the young intern. On their first call, they speed to a bar, where a man has collapsed. Putting aside the obvious conclusion that the man is merely drunk, Kildare suspects heart trouble. They are about to load the man into the ambulance when another call comes in – an attempted suicide case. Before leaving, Kildare tells Wayman to administer oxygen to the man all the way to the hospital. Wayman, thinking the man is merely drunk, fails to give him oxygen and the man dies before reaching the hospital as a result. When it’s revealed that he was a prominent politician, Kildare is called to Carew’s office to explain. Kildare tells Carew the man’s death is his fault entirely and refuses to implicate Wayman. Carew removes Kildare from ambulance duty and assigns him to assist in surgery. Wayman, however, is deeply touched that Kildare took the fall and pledges loyalty to his new friend. This is an interesting juncture in the film because, in covering for Wayman, Kildare has, in effect, confessed to manslaughter. The film never discusses it and takes it no further, instead sweeping it under the rug, so to speak, because it can’t be discussed anyway due to the strictures of the Code.

The attempted suicide case, however, is becoming more interesting. The victim, Barbara Chanler (Sayers), is the daughter of a millionaire, yet Kildare has found her in a tenement trying to do away with herself. The nurses in her ward tell Kildare that Chanler has attempted once again to take her life. Kildare comes down to speak with her. It turns out she has a deep, dark secret. Kildare learns part of that secret and she swears him to secrecy.

Once again, Kildare gets into hot water when psychiatrist Dr. Lane-Porteus (Woolley) is called in. He determines that young Chanler is suffering from schizophrenia, but Kildare disagrees. He avers that she is sane; that she was driven to attempt suicide by an ordinary reason. But when Dr. Carew asks him to reveal Chanler’s secret, Kildare refuses, and Carew suspends him for insubordination. Despondent, Kildare retires to Sullivan’s Hospital Café for a beer to think things over. Alice, who has come down to the city from Dartford along with Jimmy’s parents, surprises him there. He tells her that he plans to return to Dartford, and when he sees his parents, he pretends that nothing is wrong. But he cannot fool Mom, who knows something is bothering him. She tells him to do what he thinks is right, no matter what the consequences. Kildare later visits Gillespie, who hints – rather broadly – that Jimmy should ignore hospital rules if he wants to properly diagnose his patient.

Fortified by both Mother and Dr. Gillespie, Kildare goes to Barbara’s fiancée, John Hamilton (Bradley) to see what he may know. Hamilton tells him that he and Barbara argued about her desire to go to the Blue Swan Club with dubious racehorse owner Albert Foster (Penn). Jimmy and Wayman visit the Blue Swan Club to see if they can get to the truth. Using what Barbara had told him – that she had been with Foster that night and had gotten very drunk, going with him upstairs to a private room – and speaking with those involved, Kildare learns that nothing really happened. Foster had recognized her, and fearful of what her rich father could do if he took advantage of her in this condition, simply dumped her on the street.

Now that he knows the truth he swears Barbara to secrecy, telling her not to mention that he has visited. He coaches Barbara on how to act with Lane-Porteus – to say that she tried to kill herself over an argument with John. That would help keep her from being institutionalized. Lane-Porteus declares Barbara to be fine a short time later.

However, the hospital board is unaware of these new developments and fires Kildare for insubordination. Jimmy tells his parents and Alice that he is ready to return to Dartford as his father’s partner. Suspecting what really happened, Gillespie visits Barbara and learns the whole truth. Gillespie now drops in on Kildare as he is busy packing. He tells Jimmy that all long he has been testing him to see if he has what it takes to be his assistant. He reveals to Kildare his system of “stooges,” placed strategically about the hospital. Their job is to keep him apprised of everything that goes on. One of his stooges is Joe Wayman, the ambulance driver. Now, Gillespie tells Kildare that he is certain of the young doctor’s integrity and competence. He offers Kildare the job as his assistant, informing him that the melanoma diagnosis was correct, and he hopes to pass along as much as he can before the cancer kills him.

The trappings that would guide the later Kildare films were set in Young Dr. Kildare, such as the characters not only of Kildare and Gillespie, but also the supporting players. Nat Pendleton, as Joe Wayman, fills in the comic relief role because the audience discovers that Gillespie isn’t being funny even when he’s being funny. (Red Skelton would later take on the comic relief duties when Pendleton wasn’t there.) Though the films in the series rarely exceed 90 minutes, the producers still manage to give the audience a continuity by layering in the supporting players’ personalities into the various subplots, so that watching the chronologically, as audience then did, one could see the development of the characters and the little idiosyncrasies they develop. We see the growth of Kildare and his relation with his mentor, Gillespie, as they fight hospital bureaucracy and the stubbornness of their patients to get to the truth and help cure what ails them.

The series also takes advantage of the fact that medicine makes a nice background and environment for drama, and the Kildare series takes advantage of this by deftly blending medicine with aspects of both soap opera and detective capers. Kildare will often step outside the confines of Blair General to assume a combined role of sleuth and therapist, righting the patient’s wrongs and gaining a better understanding that, along with the medicine, will be used more and more with each subsequent film. Kildare’s concern for the welfare of his patients goes beyond what merely ails them to what caused the patient to become that way and what can be done outside of the medical cure to insure the patient’s complete recovery. And when he gets in too deep he can always count on the curmudgeonly advice and influential offices of Dr. Gillespie to dig himself and the patient out.

We see it in the first film as Kildare defies hospital authorities to try to find the reason why a young woman would try to do herself in. He goes outside hospital grounds and procedures in order to find the basis of her illness. And Gillespie, who seems as if he’s aiding those trying to bury the good young doctor, is merely standing by on the sidelines – all-seeing, all-knowing, until his interference is necessary to the outcome.

As noted earlier, Ayres is fine as Kildare. But it is Barrymore who is the heart of the series. In the first film, he comes off more as Kildare’s adversary, but later, in film after film, we see the love he feels for his protégé becoming more and more apparent, thanks in large part to the humanity with which Barrymore imbues the character of Gillespie. Barrymore so dominated the series that, after Ayres left in 1942, the series continued, only now centered on Gillespie and his search for Kildare’s successor. It would take another six films before the audience finally tired of the doings over at Blair General.


When the United States went to war in 1941, Lew Ayres registered as a conscientious objector, refusing to take up arms because of his religious beliefs. MGM responded by dropping his contract, and Ayres soon became reviled by both the film industry and in the press.

After time in a labor camp and as a chaplain, Ayres put his training in the Kildare series to good use, joining the Army Medical Corps and serving honorably in the Pacific campaign, winning three battle stars. He also donated all his salary as a corpsman to the American Red Cross.

After the war, Ayres returned to Hollywood, but worked as an actor only sporadically, spending the bulk of his time studying philosophy and religion. He did appear in several well-regarded films, such as The Dark Mirror (1946) with Olivia de Havilland, The Unfaithful (1946) with Ann Sheridan, and the psychotronic classic, Donovan’s Brain (1953), with Nancy Davis. Ayres also earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as a compassionate doctor in Johnny Belinda (1948). 

The rest of his career was spent in television as a guest star on many series.

Marie Blake, who plays switchboard operator and receptionist Sally Green, was born Edith Marie Blossom MacDonald. Her younger sister was MGM singing star Jeanette MacDonald. She later became well known as “Grandma” on The Addams Family (1964), renaming herself Blossom Rock (she was married to actor Clarence Rock until his death in 1960).

Truman Bradley later went on to host the heralded television series, Science Fiction Theater (1955-57).

Leave It to the Irish

By Ed Garea

Leave It to the Irish (Monogram, 1944) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: Eddie Davis, Tim Ryan (s/p). Cast: James Dunn, Wanda McKay, Jack La Rue, Dick Purcell, Arthur Loft, Barbara Woodell, Vince Barnett, Joseph DeVillard, Olaf Hytten, Eddie Allen, Dick Scott, & Ted Stanhope. B&W, 71 minutes.

For hardened cinephiles, the term “Monogram comedy” is one of the best-known oxymorons. Monogram Studios specialized in noir dramas, bad horror films, and wretched East Side Kids “comedies.” Leave It to the Irish is yet another Monogram comedy where laughs are missing, being replaced with a load of comical situations that fail to pan out. Many will blame the director, William “One-Shot” Beaudine for the movie’s failures, but as I see it, he could only work with what he was given – and he wasn’t given very much.

Our film stars the estimable James Dunn as private investigator Terry Moran. Terry is such a success at his job that he’s forced to pawn his gun so he can afford to take his girl, Nora O’Brien (McKay), to dinner. When the movie opens we see Nora and bartender Barney Baker (Barnett) playing with what seems to be a rubber crab that moves on its own with a flick of the finger. This is obviously intended to telegraph the fact that we’re in for a comedy. But instead of a night out with Nora, Terry is hired by Mrs. James Hamilton (Woodell) to investigate the recent death of her husband. The police have ruled it a suicide, but she suspects murder, and flashes a few bills in Terry’s face to get him to agree. When she receives a note directing her to go to the Black Swan Club for information about her husband’s death, Terry agrees to meet her there. Before he leaves Barney’s place after making his apologies to Nora, he borrows Barney’s pistol, as his is in hock.

When Terry arrives at the club, Gus (Devillard), the headwaiter, takes him in to see Rockwell (LaRue), the club’s owner. When Terry enters Rockwell’s office, their conversation as to why he’s there ends up with Terry’s gun being confiscated by Rockwell’s henchmen and Terry worked over. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hamilton is handed a note from Nick, one of the waiters, asking her to meet him at a fleabag hotel. When Terry and Mrs. Hamilton arrive at the hotel room, they open the door to find Nick lying dead on the floor. As Terry bends over him, an unknown assailant slugs him over the head while Mrs. Hamilton flees the scene.

When he comes to he finds himself in the company of the police and Chief O’Brien (Loft), who just happens to be Nora’s father. The Chief, who doesn’t approve of his daughter dating a failed private eye, wants to arrest Terry because the gun used to kill Nick was traced to him. But Nora convinces Dad that Terry is innocent. Terry and Nora go to Mrs. Hamilton’s home, but the butler (Hytten) informs them that she has left town and hands Terry a note from Mrs. Hamilton asking him to drop the case.

Terry then figures that Hamilton’s warehouse might contain the vital clues to crack the case and he takes Nora there to check it out. Once inside, they discover an invoice for a large quantity of liquor to be delivered to Hamilton, but upon a search, they discover the boxes are not filled with liquor bottles, but with stolen furs. Terry returns to the Black Swan Club for a showdown with Rockwell. Upon entering his office, Terry finds Rockwell shot dead with a handkerchief belonging to Mrs. Hamilton clutched in his hand.

Meanwhile, Nora returns to the Hamilton house, where she runs into Gus. He locks her in a room with Mrs. Hamilton. When Chief O’Brien and his men arrive to free them, they discover that Terry, with Barney’s help, has captured Gus and his gang. Terry explains to O’Brien that Rockwell and Hamilton were partners in a stolen fur racket. Rockwell suspected that Hamilton was trying to double-cross him so he killed his partner. But the real double-crosser was Gus, who arranged for Nick to hand the note to Mrs. Hamilton in order to expose Rockwell. Rockwell caught on to the scheme and killed the waiter in the hotel. Realizing that Rockwell had figured everything out, Gus killed him and planted Mrs. Hamilton’s handkerchief in his hand to throw the suspicion on her.

It’s a rather thin plot, and the numerous red herrings thrown at the viewer fail to distract our attention from the fact that Gus was behind it all. We pretty much figured that out in that first scene at the club. Because Jack LaRue played many a gangster, the natural tendency would be to suspect him. LaRue functioned in much the same manner as Bela Lugosi in these types of comedy-mysteries. The comedy bits thrown in along the way are pleasant, but not very funny, and the fault for this mess can be laid at the feet of screenwriters Davis and Ryan. It almost seems as if Monogram has to make a picture for its distributors and rushed this one out. Beaudine, for his part, keeps things moving along quickly, and the film actually seems shorter than its 71 minute running time.


Star James Dunn had quite a checkered career. He began with sharp notices for his supporting roles in the Shirley Temple films, Baby Take a BowStand Up and Cheer, and Bright Eyes (all 1934). He was usually cast as the boy next door or the nice guy, but while he became a leading man, his true talents lay in supporting parts. Fox tired of his diminishing box office returns and let him go in 1935, whereupon Warner Bros. picked him up and starred him in a series of B-programmers. His best was The Payoff (1935), playing a sports columnist who loses his unfaithful wife to a hood he’s been trying to nail for fixing games.

In the late ‘30s, his drinking caught up with him and he became unemployable anywhere else except Poverty Row. Working for Republic, PRC and Monogram allowed Dunn to get his life back together while earning a regular paycheck, and he recovered to the point where Fox cast him as the idealistic, but luckless, father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the very next year after making Leave It to the Irish. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the Elia Kazan movie. But success didn’t last too long, and Dunn soon went back to the bottle. After 1950, he would make but one more movie before his death in 1967, working exclusively in television. He is one of the few actors to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his movies and the other for his work in television.

Wanda McKay (born Dorothy Quackenbush) studied modeling in New York City and went on to grace the cover on many national magazines. Her likeness also appeared in Chesterfield ads on billboards across the country. In 1938, she won the “Miss America Aviation” crown in Birmingham, Alabama, which in turn led to being hired as a hostess/model for TWA. It was from there that Paramount signed her to a contract. She appeared in quite a few films for the studio in supporting or unbilled roles. Eventually she got lost in the shuffle and Paramount released her in 1941.

After doing The Royal Mounted Patrol for Columbia (1941), McKay signed on at PRC and split her time between there and Monogram. In the ‘50s, she turned to television, appearing in a series of oaters. Her last job was an unbilled role as a telephone operator in MGM’s Dean Martin vehicle Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957). In 1977, she married for the first time to Hoagy Carmichael (his second); a marriage that lasted until his death from a heart attack on 1981. McKay died in 1996 from cancer.

Sweetheart of the Campus

By Ed Garea

Sweetheart of the Campus (Columbia, 1941) - Director: Edward Dmytryk. Writers: Robert H. Andrews & Edmund L. Hartman (s/p). Cast: Ruby Keeler, Ozzie Nelson, Harriet Hilliard, Gordon Oliver, Don Beddoe, Charles Judels, Kathleen Roward, Byron Foulger, George Lessey, Frank Gaby, Zoot Watson, & Four Spirits of Rhythm. B&W, 70 minutes.

This little programmer from Columbia is notable only for two items: it’s Ozzie and Harriet’s first movie pairing, and it’s Ruby Keeler’s last film. Other than that, the rest is filler. Bad filler.

Ozzie Norton (Nelson) and his band are about to open in a new nightclub near the campus of Lambeth Technological Institute. Ozzie’s featured attraction is dancer Betty Blake (Keeler), who’s in love with Ozzie (naturally). A dancer fronting a big band? Oh, well.

Rehearsal goes well, with Betty tapping away to a lame song, but then the party is interrupted by the presence of Mrs. Minnie Lambert Sparr (Howard), accompanied by a cast that includes the sheriff (Beddoes) and Harriet Hale (Hilliard), the daughter of Dr. Hale (Lessey), a professor at the college. Sparr, the head of the college, insists the joint be closed because it violates a state law forbidding the establishment of such a club within five miles of the campus. She tells the sheriff to padlock the place.

Lest we think that Mrs. Sparr is your typical puritanical battleax, it seems she has an ulterior motive in mind, as exposed by Harriet Hale. Under the terms of her late brother’s will, the land on which the college sits will revert to Mrs. Sparr if the enrollment drops below 300 students. Her plan is to turn the college into a girls’ seminary.

Not taking this lying down, Ozzie and the band lead a protest match, but are jailed by the sheriff for their troubles. Harriet visits them while in jail and lets them know not only that she’s on their side, spilling the beans about Mrs. Sparr, but that she has a plan. Yes, a plan. She proposes they all enroll at the college to boost enrollment. The band’s publicist, Terry Jones (Oliver) sees this as a great publicity stunt, and builds a publicity campaign around the fact that Betty is the only co-ed at the college.

They begin by preempting the college television station and performing a number with Harriet singing. When Harriet and the guys decide to turn an abandoned gym into a nightclub, the Battleax protests. But Harriet outmaneuvers the old goat by describing it as a commissary with music. The resulting publicity has attracted a bevy of co-eds and a traveling football team. By this time Ozzie now has a weekly show on the college station featuring the warbling of Harriet.

Not to be outdone, Mrs. Sparr insists that all new students take a series of examinations administered by the strict Dr. Bailey (Foulger). But Betty manages to pass, mainly by flattering Dr. Bailey. But though she’s won the battle, she loses the war, as Ozzie declares his love for Harriet. Miffed, Betty decides to take an offer on Broadway, but before she leaves, Terry declares that he’s fallen in love with her.

Betty becomes a smash hit on Broadway, and as the Battleax eagerly awaits the end of term so she can take over the place, Betty suddenly arrives with a bevy of new students she has recruited from her admirers. She also announces her intention to remain on campus, and Terry kisses her at the end.

As mentioned before, Sweetheart of the Campus is a serviceable, if not spectacular, programmer; the sort that keeps the audience entertained while awaiting the main feature, but not good enough to overshadow it. The plot, though clichéd, is pleasant enough, and the songs listenable if not memorable. As also mentioned before, it was the first film in which both Ozzie and Harriet co-starred. Some fans were of the mistaken belief that this was where they met, but in truth they’d been married since 1935. In three years, they would begin The Ozzie and Harriet Show on radio and segue over to television in the ‘50s, where they would compete with Ward and June Clever for the title of America’s favorite white bread couple.

This was, indeed, Keeler’s last movie. Having come over to Columbia from RKO, this was her only movie for Columbia, and, after seeing the contents, decided that she didn’t have to be an archeologist to read the handwriting on the wall. Her tempestuous marriage to Al Jolson had ended in 1940, and she had married second (and last) husband, John Homer Lowe in 1941. It was just as well, for Keeler’s success at Warner’s was based on two items: her charisma and her marriage to Jolson, who Warner’s had signed with huge expectations. Speaking about her days at Warner Brothers, she was forthright when she said, “It's really amazing. I couldn't act. I had that terrible singing voice, and now I can see I wasn't the greatest tap dancer in the world, either.” The entertainment world would not see Ruby again until 1971, when she starred in the Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette, directed by none other than Busby Berkeley.

Aside from the stars, the most interesting thing about the film is the look it gives us into the very early days of television, via the “campus television station.” NBC had started to broadcast television in New York City in 1939, but the effort was placed on hiatus during the war.

Also, don’t blink when the football teams arrives on campus, or you may just miss Alan Hale, Jr. in an early role as one of the players.

Notable Dialogue

Betty Blake (Keeler): “Ozzie and Harriet, Ozzie and Harriet, Ozzie and Harriet - you say it like they go together like ham and eggs!”

Ironic Dialogue

During the film, Betty Blake takes Harriet Hale (Hilliard) aside to give her advice about marriage. The former Mrs. Al Jolson tells the present and future Mrs. Ozzie Nelson, “Being married to someone more famous than you are isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Truer words were never spoken.

RKO's Almost Breakout Star

By Ed Garea

Don’t Turn ‘em Loose (RKO, 1936) - Director: Ben Stoloff. Writers: Thomas Walsh (story), Harry Segall & Ferdinand Reyher (s/p). Cast: Lewis Stone, James Gleason, Bruce Cabot, Louise Latimer, Betty Grable, Grace Bradley, Nella Walker, Gordon Jones, & Addison Randall. B&W, 65 minutes.

By 1936, most of the themes for gangster films had been worked and reworked seemingly to death. Looking for new ground to tread, RKO’s Don’t Turn ‘em Loose takes a look at the parole system and the corruption and incompetence within.

The film boasts a good, solid cast, with Lewis Stone receiving top billing, backed by the capable James Gleason and Bruce Cabot. Stone plays a school superintendent, but his appointment to the parole board will remind viewers of his popular role as Judge Hardy. Nella Walker, as his wife, has a strong resemblance to Fay Holder, who plays Mrs. Hardy in the MGM series, and I would think her casting was intentional if this film were released in 1939. Stone’s character also shows the same penchant for making speeches and moral bon mots that he would later hone to a fine point in the Hardy Family series.

Gleason is his usual dependable self, again playing a cop. But it is Cabot who drives this film. 1936 was his best year since playing John Driscoll in 1933’s King Kong. He was just coming off an excellent performance as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, and if a little more care had been exercised with this film, it would have been a breakout performance. Cabot’s the heel of the film, a totally unrepentant type called Bat Williams. When the film opens we see him before the New York State parole board with his wife and baby in attendance to bolster his case and show his repentance. He is granted parole over the objections of Detective Daniels (Gleason) and vows to stay on the straight and narrow. Minutes later, as he enters his lawyer’s car for the ride back to town, we learn that the “wife” was an actor and the “baby” borrowed for the day. Bat reunites with his gang and his moll, Grace Forbes (Bradley). He immediately begins planning the next heist, a payroll job at the Escow Creamery. The robbery goes off, but in the process Bat kills the payroll clerk.

Upon their return to the hideout, Bat takes his leave, refusing to tell the gang where he’s going. It turns out he’s headed for Barlow, New York, where he is known under his real name of Robert Webster. His family has no idea of what he really does; they are under the belief that he is a globetrotting engineer whose most recent port of call is in Brazil. Even his childhood sweetheart, Letty Graves (Latimer), has no idea of his real life. His father John Webster (Stone) is a respected school superintendent, and his mother Helen (Walker), is the typical Hollywood homemaker. Robert has come home for the wedding of sister Mildred (Grable). While the family is celebrating Robert’s return, John receives a phone call from the governor, who asks him if he would be willing to serve on the parole board. Afterward, John tells the family about it, with Robert advising against it.

Later, Bat breaks into a local jewelry store to steal a present for Grace. In the process, he kills a guard in cold blood. Before he returns to the city, however, Daniels tracks down Grace and secures her cooperation by threatening to tell Bat all about her affair with gang member Al (Randall) while Bat was in stir. This leads to a nice little scene where Bat comes back to the apartment to fetch her. She wants to go out and see a movie. He tells her to dress nicely, and she replies by telling him that she’ll wear her special red dress. (Shades of Dillinger!)

Daniels springs the trap as they leave the theater, with Bat giving Grace a knowing look as he’s led off. A few scenes later, Bat has hatched a plan for escape by hiding in the back of a truck delivering lumber to the prison in a scene that has to be seen for its sheer preposterousness. As Grace returns to her apartment that night, she discovers she’s not alone. Bat is waiting with his friends, Smith and Wesson. One shot later and Grace’s role in the film is over. Bat then returns to prison in the same manner he’s escaped, and despite the time he’s been away, no one at the jail seems to have noticed he was gone. Some prison this is.

Time passes and soon Bat is once again up for parole. Guess who’s sitting on the board? John Webster, who is willing to grant parole to everyone except Bat Williams, who he characterizes as an unrepentant career criminal to whom it would be a mistake to grant parole. Daniels, who is sitting in on the meeting, gives a “three cheers” type of response, while the parole board head, a slimy sort of character, responds that if John were only to meet and talk with Williams, he’d change his mind. And so Bat is brought in. This leads to one of the great double takes in film, as John sees his son standing before him. (If it was Curly Howard instead of Stone, he’s take one look at Bat and yell “Nyha-aa-aa-aa-aah!”) Obviously taken aback, John asks to speak alone with the prisoner.

What follows is another preposterous scene, as John begins to put two and two together to realize that his son has always been a no-goodnik, even from childhood when he broke into his sister’s piggy bank. Yes, John had overlooked it all, but now he realizes he can no longer overlook this. (Andy Hardy never did this to him.)

Bat counters with the argument that the soon-to-be-married Mildred would be absolutely devastated if the truth ever came out. It’s good enough of an argument for John, who agrees to Bat’s parole on the condition that he gets lost and never darkens the Webster family’s towels again. It’s a deal, and John calls for the board, telling them that after consulting with the prisoner, he has agreed to grant him parole. Daniels is devastated; he thought John would be different from the other namby-pambies and take a harder line instead of simply rubber-stamping these mugs for release.

Time passes, and the family gets ready for Mildred’s wedding. John is writing a letter of resignation to the parole board when he and the family receive a visit. Guess Who? Yes, it seems that Bat cannot resist dropping by to see his sister off. While he’s there, old girlfriend Letty lets slip the fact that her father, who owns a big, successful construction company, is preparing his huge payroll. This is a score too rich to resist, so Bat heads out to pay a visit to the old boy. Unbeknownst to him, his father has followed him, and the two have a confrontation. Suddenly, Detective Daniels, who has heard everything, breaks in to arrest Bat. They scuffle, and during the melee, Bat disarms Daniels. He tells Daniels to say goodbye before he pulls the trigger, but John, who has picked up Daniel’s revolver, shoots Bat before he can shoot Daniels. Daniels takes the gun from John and tells him to get the heck out of there. Having heard everything, he will see that the family is not embarrassed. In the next scene, Daniels is driving a mortally wounded Bat out of town. A telegram is received at the Webster’s home, informing John that everything has been taken care of and he no longer need worry.

What a film. One thing is for certain, it moves fast, not pausing long to linger upon its characters. And it all makes a kind of sense until the final scenes. The supporting cast is fine. Grable, in her limited role, is bubbly and cute. Latimer adds a nice touch as Bat’s old flame, and Bradley is solid as Bat’s moll, especially in her death scene. As mentioned before, Gleason is fine as Daniels, and Stone is more than capable playing John Webster. But the real star of the film is Cabot. He growls, sneers and stalks his way through the film, making the most of his part without resorting to overemoting.

If the studio had invested a little more money and preparation time to this picture, Cabot might have come out of it as RKO’s breakout star. But RKO was more interested in ”now” rather than taking a chance on “later.” Even its theme of corruption in a failing parole system is used only as background. RKO wasn’t about to launch a social campaign a la Warner Brothers, who by this time had also dropped its stance on social activism. Entertainment was in and advocacy was out.

Trivia: It was after the release of this film that RKO dropped young starlet Betty Grable from its roster, commenting that while she was cute, it wasn’t enough. She made a couple of films for Paramount before signing a contract with 20th Century Fox. She became a huge star in her first Fox film, Down Argentine Way (1940). She went on to become one of the studio’s most popular stars and her pinup during World War Two was posted in barracks all around the world.

Scarlet River 

By Ed Garea

Scarlet River (RKO, 1933) - Director: Otto Brower. Screenplay: Harold Shumate. Cast: Tom Keene, Dorothy Wilson, Lon Chaney, Jr. (as Creighton Chaney), Betty Furness, Edgar Kennedy, Roscoe Ates, Billy Butts, Hooper Atchley, Jack Raymond, Jim Mason, & Yakima Canutt. B&W, 54 minutes.

Looking at a rough synopsis, one would simply assume this is just another run-of-the-mill B-Western directed by someone no one’s ever heard of and starring the usual bunch of bad actors. The Ranch Foreman is plotting with the Evil Banker, who controls the mortgage on the ranch, to ruin the ranch financially and force ranch owner Judy Blake to sell it to said Evil Banker so he can later make a killing by selling to developers. Meanwhile, Judy meets a handsome stranger who comes to her rescue and defeats the baddies. However, this film sets itself apart with a nice little plot twist, which makes for interesting viewing: The hero and his pals are actors filming a Western using Judy’s ranch as their location.

I have to give this film kudos for having the courage to kid the genre (it was one of the first to do so), and to do it effectively. Credit for this must go to writer Shumate for his witty and perceptive script, and to star Keene for pulling off an excellent performance. Keene, who was RKO’s resident B-Western star at the time, was not known for his acting prowess. But then, in these sorts of films, he didn’t need to be. All he had to do was ride, shoot, punch the bad guy, kiss the leading lady, and look good doing it. As his Westerns rarely went over an hour, the formula was to keep him busy. He could also fare somewhat well as a supporting actor; again, as long as he could be kept busy. When King Vidor cast him as the male lead in his ponderous Our Daily Bread (1934), Keene’s flaws and lack of ability were on full display. But when it came to Westerns, all the producer had to do was place a white 10-gallon hat on Tom’s head, give him a sleek horse to ride, a few good gunfights, a girl to kiss at the end, and let it go from there.

Scarlet River opens with Tom Baxter (Keene) and his crew trying to find a suitable location to film their latest Western, but it seems that whenever they find a good location, events transpire to drive them out. In one scene, cross-country runners interrupt their filming. Returning to the studio to check for a new location, Tom runs into Joel McCrea outside the studio commissary. Tom tells Joel of his troubles only to have Joel make a couple of bad puns by way of advice. Inside the commissary, Tom says hello to Myrna Loy and sits at a table with Bruce Cabot, Rochelle Hudson, and Julie Haydon to order lunch. Once the cameos are finished, Tom sees a photograph of Scarlet River Ranch, which was sent to the studio by ranch hand and would-be screenwriter Ulysses Mope (Ates), the picture’s Comic Relief. The ranch is picturesque, it’s remote, and the owner, Judy Blake (Wilson), is in need of the location fees because the place is in trouble.

We know from experience that when a ranch, especially one owned by a young, beautiful woman, is in financial trouble, it’s because there is a fly in the ointment. The fly in this case is none other than Judy’ s foreman, Jeff Todd (Chaney). It seems that Jeff is a really confused fellow. One moment he’s courting the pretty Judy, whose younger brother idolizes him, and in the next he’s scheming with the crooked “Clink” McPherson (Atchley) to defraud Judy out of her ranch, squaring this in his mind by figuring that, once broke, she’ll marry him. But we know there’s no way she’ll marry a man who, even at this early date, comes off like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. It’s an acting trait he never lost.

But Jeff hasn’t counted on Tom. After all, he’s the hero of the story. After meeting Judy and her brother, Buck, and hearing her tale of woe, Tom comes to realize that the ranch’s problems are due to ranch hands like Ulysses writing film scripts all day when they should be working, and foremen like Jeff whose persona just doesn’t ring true to Tom. Tom is rather put off by Jeff’s boastful and uncooperative demeanor. The boastfulness is easily fixed when the film’s director, Sam Gilroy (Kennedy in a marvelous turn), challenges Jeff to perform the classic taking-control-of-the-runaway-stagecoach-horses stunt. Jeff, already jealous of Judy’s attention to Tom, assumes the task is a piece of cake, but ends up having to do the Yakima Canutt dive between the rows of horses to avoid being trampled. Tom then “reappears” to do his own stunt. (Actually, stuntman Canutt, who also has a bit role as one of the movie crew, performed both stunts and reportedly broke his shoulder in the process.)

What’s interesting about this is that, when Westerns usually send up Hollywood, the hero is an authentic True Westerner who completely shows up the phony actor. In Scarlet River, the joke is that Tom the actor playing a cowboy is actually more of a cowboy than the men who actually do the work, such as Jeff.

Tom decides to follow Jeff on his horse and catches Jeff shooting a steer. Jeff tries to explain the shooting by telling Tom that the steer drank contaminated water. When Jeff calls the bluff by saying that he’s sending for a veterinarian to confirm Jeff’s story, Jeff runs off in a panic to consult with McPherson, who comes up with the answer: they’ll kidnap Judy and force Tom and his crew to leave. Meanwhile, things are not going so swimmingly for Tom and Judy, as Judy, in a puzzling scene, catches Tom in the act of spanking Buck, who Tom caught smoking. But when Tom leaves it to Buck to tell the truth, Buck lies like a rug and denies everything. Later, though, he gets a conscience and apologizes to Tom, promising to make amends. This film was shot in the environment of Pre-Code Hollywood, but Keene is coming off more like the Hopalong Cassidy of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Perhaps it’s that Tom has to drive out the influence of Jeff on young Buck. Who knows?

McPherson kidnaps Judy and sends gang member Dummy (Mason), a mute, to deliver a note to Tom and his crew that Judy will be released unharmed only when Tom and his crew leave Scarlet River. But unbeknownst to McPherson, when Dummy returns, it’s not Dummy, but Tom in disguise. He and Judy almost escape, but are captured. While McPherson plans the “accidental” death of Tom and Judy, Jeff tries to stop him from killing Judy, but is killed himself by McPherson. Tom and Judy attempt another escape, and are saved when Edgar and the film crew ride to the rescue. Using blanks, movie grenades and Tom’s riding and fighting skills (natch) they’re able to capture McPherson and his gang and save Judy’s life - and ranch.

One of the film’s more interesting facets is the look at how moviemaking was done back then. The cameras and the lights were huge, as were the boom mikes that resembled telegraph poles. It’s also great to watch the crew themselves walking around the set in jodhpurs, leather jackets and silk scarves. We also get a glimpse as to how a stunt like a “pickup” was done - where the girl is “injured” and a cowboy gallops up on his horse, grabs her, and swings her into the saddle behind him.

As noted earlier, Keene put in a fine performance, but was also aided by solid performances by his supporting cast. Wilson, who played Judy, began her career as a secretary to director Gregory LaCava. Preparing to cast his upcoming RKO film, The Age of Consent (1932), he took note of Dorothy’s photogenic looks and set her up for a screen test. Amazingly, she won one of the two female leads. Later that year she was named as a “WAMPAS Baby Star of 1932” (WAMPAS stood for “Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers.”), along with Ginger Rogers, Gloria Stuart, Patricia Ellis, and Toshia Mori. In 1936, she married screenwriter Lewis Foster and retired from the screen.

Other notables in the cast include Furness, who played Babe Jewel, the female lead in Tom Baxter’s movie, and the aforementioned Kennedy, who does a good turn as the harried director Sam Gilroy. Creighton Chaney was appearing in only his sixth film at the time (two of his appearances were unbilled), and would continue to work under his real name until 1935, when he adopted the stage name “Lon Chaney Jr.”

Speaking of changing one’s stage name, Keene entered films under his real name of George Duryea before RKO gave him the moniker of “Tom Keene” in 1930. Tiring of working Westerns, he returned to the stage, but when he was short on cash he would work Westerns for Republic and Monogram into the ‘40s. Beginning with the Danny Kaye vehicle, Up In Arms in 1944, Keene took the name “Richard Powers.” However, that didn’t stop him from sliding further down in the credits. Most film fans remember him today from his association with Ed Wood, playing Colonel Edwards in Wood’s 1956 masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space. He had earlier worked for Wood in the 1953 TV pilot Crossroad Avenger.

They Came to Blow Up America

By Ed Garea

They Came to Blow Up America (20th Century Fox, 1943) Director: Edward Ludwig. Writers: Michael Jacoby (story), Aubrey Wisberg (s/p). Cast: George Sanders, Anna Sten, Ward Bond, Dennis Hoey, Sig Ruman, Ludwig Stossel, Elsa Janssen, Robert Barrat, Poldi Dur, Ralph Byrd, Charles McGraw, & Fred Nurney. B&W, 73 minutes.

There are times when a plot lands on the studio’s lap.

Such is the case with this movie from Fox in 1943. Like the Warner Brothers films of the ‘30s that claimed to be “ripped from the headlines,” They Came to Blow Up America was based on recent events. (Not so coincidentally, Darryl Zanuck, head of Fox, was also head of production for Warner Bros. in the early ‘30s when their “ripped from the headlines” films came out.) 

In this case, it was the landing of Nazi saboteurs in America, part of “Operation Pastorius,” a plot hatched by the Abwehr (German Army Intelligence) and directed against strategic American economic targets. The first agents, led by Georg Dasch, landed on Long Island on the night of June 12, 1942. Immediately after landing, everything went wrong. A Coast Guard patrolman came upon the group and began asking questions. Dasch grabbed him, threatened him, and shoved $260 into his hand. The Guardsman left, but reported everything once back at base. A second group landed later that month in Florida. The two groups were supposed to link up on July 4 in Cincinnati to coordinate their operations, but never came close. Dasch had misgivings about the thing and along with his second-in-command, Ernst Burger, decided to inform the FBI. After that, it was easy for J. Edgar Hoover and his agents to quickly round up the group. Brought to trial, the saboteurs were given the death penalty, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in recognition of their testimony, commuted Burger’s sentence to life in prison and Dasch’s to 30 years. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman granted the pair executive clemency and deported them back to Germany.

Sounds like a great idea for a movie, right? Well, Fox certainly thought so and set both Jacoby and Wisberg to work molding it into a film. The first thing the writers did was to provide a twist. Instead of the chief saboteur, now renamed Carl Steelman, being a German national who lived in the U.S., he now became an American born to naturalized parents. Sanders, then under contract to Fox, was brought in to play Steelman. Sanders had made a name for himself playing villains of various sorts, including Nazis. Even when he played a good guy, he generally portrayed characters about whom we weren’t that sure, such as the Saint and the Falcon.

The film is told in flashback. A junior agent quizzes FBI Chief Craig (Bond) as to why only six of the eight saboteurs were given the death penalty. Bond retrieves Steelman’s file and fills the agent in on the whole story. Steelman was in reality an FBI agent, who had been a mining engineer and explosives expert in South America before joining the Bureau. He’s sent to his hometown of Milwaukee to infiltrate the local German-American Bund. It is at such a meeting that he meets Ernst Reiter (Nurney), who divulges that he’s been called back to the Fatherland to be trained as a saboteur. Reiter dies in a police raid. The FBI keeps Reiter’s death a secret, allowing Steelman to become Reiter and attend the spy school in Reiter’s place.

To effectively pull off the ruse, Steelman must pretend to be a rabid Nazi even to his parents (Stossel and Janssen), who are predictably outraged. Steelman travels to Hamburg, Germany, posing as Reiter, and begins his studies. While in Hamburg he becomes enamored of a young woman named Helga Lorenz (Dur). Shortly after meeting her, Steelman is summoned to Gestapo headquarters by Colonel Taeger (Hoey) and informed that Lorenz is suspected of being a traitor. Taeger then orders him to continue seeing Lorenz to gather evidence against her. Visiting her at her apartment, he accidentally find anti-Nazi leaflets and warns her, but also notices they are being spied upon, so he denounces her to Taeger, who has her arrested and shipped to a concentration camp. However, Steelman intercepts the car taking her away and rescues her.

A stickier situation arises when Steelman is informed that Mrs. Reiter (Sten) wishes to see her husband. He has no choice but to tell her in private that her husband was captured in America and to give him a day to explain himself. Knowing that she will go immediately to the Gestapo, he beats her there and denounces her to Taeger as mentally incompetent. Taeger buys what Steelman is selling and has her thrown into a mental asylum.

Meanwhile, back in America, Pops Steelman has become ill, possibly depressed over his son’s “conversion” to Nazism. Craig comes to visit and tells Pops the truth to put his mind at ease. However, he stresses over and over before leaving that this is top secret and cannot be divulged not even to Ma Steelman. So what does Pops Steelman do? He immediately tells the family’s doctor, Herman Holger (Ruman). We in the audience know that one does not tell Sig Ruman anything, for he’s one of the naughtiest Nazis on the planet. Dr. Holger immediately informs Germany, though not before Steelman has graduated with honors and is already at sea with his crew.

Taeger gets the message from Dr. Holger and cannot believe his eyes. He goes to see Frau Reiter at the asylum, shows her a photo of Steelman, and asks if that is her husband. He answers with an emphatic “nein,” and threatens to sink Taeger once she gets out. Taeger, seeing his future in Dachau, tells the asylum’s warder to shoot her, for didn’t the Fuehrer order all metal defectives to be killed? Exit Frau Reiter. Taeger then wires the submarine to inform them to turn back. Unfortunately, Steelman and his crew have already left on rubber rafts for the shore and the sub itself is blown apart by a explosive device Steelman has conveniently left behind.

Once ashore, the saboteurs are quickly captured. Craig makes Steelman keep his disguise and testify against the other men, as well as the four other saboteurs sent to Florida. Once back in Milwaukee, Steelman looks up Dr. Holger and informs him that he has a list of German agents in America. He further informs the Doctor that he is at number eight on the list as he arrests Holger for espionage. The film ends with Craig explaining to the inquiring agent that Steelman is already on another undercover assignment.

The first thing we notice after the film ends is that for an action film, it has little action. We also notice that Sanders is badly miscast as the hero an action figure and overall sensitive guy a role that does not play to his acting strengths. Sten, whose career was long past the time when Samuel Goldwyn was billing her as the new Garbo (amazing what happens when your first three movies bomb badly), is quite effective playing the outraged Frau Reiter. She makes the most of her small role, conveying the fine line between confusion and outrage, with her German accent perfect.

The most puzzling bit of casting was having Cockney Dennis Hoey playing Gestapo Colonel Taeger. Hoey gives it his best, but it just doesn’t come off, being more comic than anything else. Dur, as the threatened Helga, is as flat as last night’s beer, doing nothing else except taking her cues from Sanders. The film may be ripped from yesterday’s headlines, but it is nothing more than layer upon layer of cliché. Note Steelman’s parents. Stossel is essentially playing the same sort of character he played in Universal’s Frankenstein series as the angry, confused villager. They may have come to blow up America, but we’d have been better off if they just blew up the plot instead.

The Murder of Doctor Harrigan

By Ed Garea

The Murder of Doctor Harrigan (WB, 1936) – Director: Frank McDonald. Writers: Peter Milne & Sy Bartlett (s/p), Mignon G. Eberhart (novel), Charles Belden (dialogue). Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Kay Linaker, John Eldredge, Mary Astor, Joseph Crehan, Frank Reicher, Anita Kerry, Robert Strange, Phillip Reed, Mary Treen, Joan Blair, Johnny Arthur, & Don Barclay. B&W, 67 minutes.

The Murder of Doctor Harrigan was the second of seven films featuring the character of Nurse Sarah Keate, a sleuth conceived by novelist Mignon G. Eberhart, a best-selling American writer who specialized in romance-mysteries in a career that lasted from 1929 to 1988. Keate was the subject of Eberhart’s first novels and The Murder of Doctor Harrigan is based on her 1931 novel, From This Dark Stairway.

Warner Brothers, like other Hollywood studios, always on the lookout for a successful B-series, took a flyer on the novels, and in 1935 released the first of the series, While the Patient Slept, starring Aline MacMahon as Keate and Guy Kibbee as her detective-boyfriend, Lance O’Leary. While the first adaptation did decent business and word-of-mouth with the public, this sequel and the subsequent films never really caught on, a rather unusual occurrence in a decade that saw several popular series featuring such female sleuths as Nancy Drew, Hildegarde Withers, and Torchy Blaine.

A large part of the problem was that Warners never kept the same actress in the role. Worse, the character of Keate herself had her name shifted from film to film. In The Murder of Doctor Harrigan, her name is “Sally Keating,” the name Marguerite Churchill starred as in Murder by an Aristocrat (1936). In 1937, the character somehow wound up at 20th Century Fox, where Jane Darwell played her as “Sarah Keats” in The Great Hospital Mystery.  Then it was back to Warners for two more films in 1938, this time with young ingénue Ann Sheridan as “Sara Keate” in The Patient in Room 18, and later that year as “Sarah Keate” in Mystery House

Also that year, Warners in England filmed a remake of The Murder of Doctor Harrigan as The Dark Stairway (a famous lost film), but the character is not named Sarah Keate or Keats, or even Keating.

For The Murder of Doctor Harrigan the studio originally cast Mary Astor as Sally Keating, but Astor refused the role. So, with its usual sensitivity, Warners signed Broadway actress Kay Linaker to make her film debut as Keating and forced Astor to take a supporting role as another nurse in the hospital. With Linaker making her debut, top billing went to Ricardo Cortez, playing a doctor with whom Nurse Sally is romantically involved.

The action in the film takes place in a hospital. Our first scene is that of an ambulance speeding through the city, seemingly on its pay to pick up a patient. But the bus stops at a tenement, where Nurse Sally disembarks and goes to the front door. A woman answers, hands Sally a locket, and Sally returns to the bus for the ride back to the hospital. Accompanying Sally on her joy ride is Dr. George Lambert (Cortez), who is in love with her and wants to marry her. But that part of the plot will unfold later. The locket belongs to one of the patients, and this is an establishing scene to give us a clue as to Sally’s character, as she’ll go out of her way to deliver that extra care to her patient.

In this case, the locket belongs to Peter Melady (Strange), founder of the hospital, and it contains something that will set the complicated plot into motion: the formula for a new anesthetic developed by Melady that can be used on people that cannot tolerate ether. But we know it’s never just as simple as that, for Melady has chosen Dr. Harrigan for his heart operation. There is bad blood aplenty between the two, as Melady has shut Harrigan out of any credit for his new wonder drug, although Harrigan worked with Melady in developing it.

As the plot develops, we’re treated to a tour of the hospital and its main characters. There is Nurse Margaret Brody (Treen), whose forte here is comic relief. Nurse Lillian Cooper (Astor) also works the floor. We learn shortly thereafter that she is embroiled in some sort of situation with Harrigan. Whatever it is, he wants her gone from the hospital the next day.

Also at the hospital is Harrigan’s wife, Ina (Blair), who is nursing a broken arm she received in a traffic accident while two-timing the doc. When the paramour, Kenneth Martin, arrives to visit, Harrigan confronts him and tells him to stay away in the future unless he wants trouble. Another patient residing there is Jackson (Barclay), a hopeless dipsomaniac. His next-door neighbor, Mr. Wentworth (Arthur), a nervous wreck staying there for a rest cure. Suffice to say, he gets no rest. And, just to make it a family affair, Melady’s daughter, Agnes (Kerry), a good friend of Sally, is also healing there from a case of sunburn.

When Melady’s regular physician, Dr. Coate (Reicher) objects to another doctor operating on his patient, Harrigan moves the operating time up from the next morning to that night, and informs Sally that she’ll be the nurse assisting. But when Sally arrives in the operating room, neither Melady nor Harrigan is there. She calls for a hospital-wide search, and Harrigan’s dead body is found in the elevator. But there is no trace of Melady anywhere to be found. The police are called, and several things throw suspicion on Sally. But George, who is in love with her, takes action to clear her name. Searching the hospital, they find the body of a black man in the basement. He had died earlier that evening and was supposed to have been taken to the morgue. Sneaking a ride to the morgue, Sally and George find the body of Melady. An autopsy reveals the cause of his death was due to fright.

Sally is arrested upon her return to the hospital, while George tells the police that he believes Agnes, afraid of what Harrigan might do to her father, dropped some of the anesthetic into Harrigan’s drinking water, which rendered him unconscious. Also, according to George, Melady died of fright when confronted by the killer, who was one of the inventors of the drug. Meanwhile, Sally has secured the formula for the drug. There is a tense scene with Coate, who is also head of hospital administration. He wants Sally to hand over the formula to him, but she refuses. The tension in the scene comes from her suspicion that Coate may be the murderer. Shortly afterward, someone attacks Sally in the stairwell, obviously after the formula.

When the attacker is caught, he turns out to be Dr. Simon, another of the interns. It turns out that Simon was another person Melady tried to screw out of any recognition for developing the drug. Simon had allowed Melady to use him as a guinea pig during the trials. He also stabbed Harrigan. When the police ask him if he wiped his prints from the knife, Nurse Cooper comes forward to confess that it was she who performed the deed. She did it because she knew Simon was the murderer. Besides she hated Harrigan with a passion. He was her former husband, and divorced her to marry his current wife, who is very wealthy, which is why her presence at the hospital upset Harrigan so much. Coate, who has fired Sally during the course of the investigation for “improper procedures,” apologizes to Sally and offers to place her back on staff. But Sally tells him she’s leaving anyway – she’s going to marry George.

For a movie this short in length to have such a complicated plot tells us that something has to be jettisoned. In this case it’s the dialogue and the logic of plotting, for things have to move quickly. Thus, most of the action is described rather than seen, and, at the end, George lays out the solution of the murder to the police rather than letting us see it unfold.

The rather unfortunate decisions that help sink the film are the sacrifices of plot to bits of comic relief. I already mentioned that the alcoholic Jackson and the nervous Wentworth. There’s a scene early on where Jackson gets an alcohol rubdown from Nurse Brody. When she accidentally leaves the alcohol bottle in his room, Jackson proceeds to drink it down, necessitating the need to have his stomach pumped. But the nurses confuse Wentworth’s room for Jackson’s and proceed to pump the wrong man’s stomach. The time wasted in this unfunny scene would have been better served concentrating on the mystery.

The performances, for the most part, are good. Although he has a tendency to be wooden at times, Cortez is fine as Dr. George, although he’s much better at playing sleazebags than heroes. Linaker is competent in her film debut, though the screenplay gives her little to do. Whereas in the earlier film, and subsequent entries in the series, Nurse Sally is a sleuth. Here she’s strictly second banana to Cortez, who character becomes the sleuth. Astor is decent in her role, although there are times when she looks as if she’d rather be anywhere else. The rest of the cast is merely adequate, save for Joseph Crehen, who acquits himself well as Lt. Lamb, the lead detective in the case.

This was the second film for director Frank McDonald, who would go on to a lengthy career directing in the world of B-movies and television. The Murder of Doctor Harrigan is another entry in the short-lived “Clue Club” series – a promotional partnership between Warner Brothers and Black Mask magazine. Patrons were encouraged to attend Clue Club presentation by the promise of prizes that could be won by filling out special cards at the theater.

As for lead actress Linaker, movie stardom was not in the cards. She would go on to appear in 56 features – most of them on the “B” side of the marquee – before retiring in 1945. She enjoyed a second career as a writer, penning scripts for radio and television. She did write one screenplay. It was for a 1958 science-fiction film called The Blob, for which she received $150. The film went on to make millions. She tossed the writing career for one as a college professor in New England, teaching courses on acting, writing, and public speaking, retiring in 2005 at the age of 92. She passed away in 2008.

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 DraculaJesse 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.

2-Headed Shark Attack is meant for those who are either bad movie connoisseurs, or bored teenagers looking for something – anything – to watch. Otherwise, pass this one by. Any movie where the best performance comes from Brooke Hogan is a movie worth missing.

My Kingdom for a Cook

By Ed Garea

My Kingdom for a Cook (Columbia, 1943) – Director: Richard Wallace. Writers: Andrew Solt (s/p, story), Lillian Hatvany (story), Harold Goldman, Jack Henley, Joseph Hoffman (writers). Cast: Charles Coburn, Marguerite Chapman, Bill Carter, Isobel Elsom, Edward Gargan, Norma Varden, Almira Sessions, & Mary Wickes. (Working title: Without Notice) B&W, 81 minutes.

Let me begin by saying that Charles Coburn is one of my favorite actors. Lauded by critics and historians like as one of the great supporting actors, he’s livened every film he’s made, whether as Barbara Stanwyck’s father (The Lady Eve), Bette Davis’ lecherous old uncle (In This Our Life), a befuddled hypochondriac store owner (The Devil and Miss Jones), or the matchmaking Benjamin Dingle (The More the Merrier). His presence is always a welcome one of me in a movie, and there are films I wouldn’t otherwise watch save for his presence.

That being said, not even Coburn can help this mess of a movie. I would suppose that, being as he’s given so many good performances in support, that Columbia should have given him top billing in an entertaining B-movie. The only problem is that this film is not entertaining.

Coburn plays English author Rudyard Morley, a curmudgeonly type (what else?) replete with monocle and obviously false beard; a sort of cross between George Bernard Shaw and Sheridan Whiteside from The Man Who Came to Dinner. He’s off to the States for a goodwill lecture tour, but is distraught when he learns that his personal cook, Margaret (Varden), is unable to accompany him, leaving him to travel only with daughter-secretary Pamela (Chapman). When they arrive in New York, they meet Morley’s publisher, who extols Morley and his books while Pamela reads a list of those who sent congratulatory telegrams. When she reads the name of Charles Coburn, Morley says, “Who? Never heard of him.” That is the funniest line in the movie, which should tell us something.

Morley and Pamela are soon on a train to a small New England town named Colcord, where the rest of the film will take place. Aboard the train, Pamela is taken with young Army lieutenant Mike Scott (Carter), but Morley’s cantankerous attitude insults the young man. By now we all realize that the goodwill tour is going to be a total disaster, only we don’t quite know just how total it will be. We get our first inkling when we learn that the grand dame of Colcord’s cultural activities is none other than Lucille Scott (Elsom), who coincidentally happens to be Mike’s mother. From here on in it’s pure boilerplate.

Morley insults the entire town, and embarrasses Pamela, when he subs the town’s welcoming party. But when he learns that Mrs. Scott’s cook, Hattie (Sessions), is also a master chef, he finagles a dinner invitation to the Scotts’. After dinner he steals Hattie away by telling her, among other things, that she’s wasting her time and talents catering to people who can’t fully appreciate her artistry. This starts a battle between Mrs. Scott and Morley that soon reaches the press, but Mike steps in and convinces Hattie to return to the Scott kitchen. Ah, but Morley has an ally in Mrs. Scotts’ long-suffering secretary, Agnes (Wickes), who tells him that he can get Hattie back by giving her no-good husband, Duke (Gargan), a job.

Now really ticked off, Morley intends to retaliate by delivering an insulting speech at the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Colcord’s founding. Meanwhile, Pamela, who has fallen in love with Mike, decides to thwart her father by staging an elopement with Mike to Canada, knowing he will lose no time chasing after them. But when Mike and Pamela arrive in Canada, they hear that Morley’s been arrested and is cooling his heels in the local jail. It seems that he went to a farm where Duke was helping with the harvest and became embroiled in a fight, causing his arrest for disturbing the peace.

Mike and Pamela come back to bail him out just before the official proceedings are to start. Pamela also informs her father that she intends to marry Mike in earnest, so he’d better get himself used to the idea. As the proceedings begin, Morley ascends the stage to deliver his speech to a cacophony of boos from the audience, but he surprises everyone by changing gears and apologizing for being an old fool, declaring he has come to celebrate the American people. Naturally, he’s now the town’s sweetheart and even gets an invitation from the president to visit him in Washington, which provides us with the necessary finale. As he leaves from the station with a royal send-off from the town, he departs in the company of his new secretary, none other than Agnes, who he has lured away with the same line that he used to steal Hattie.

Though the film tries to be another The Man Who Came to Dinner, it has none of the sharp humor of the former. Try as he might, Coburn just can’t be as nasty as Monty Woolley. Neither does it helps matters that Coburn’s supporting cast is bland – not a zany in sight unlike The Man Who Came to Dinner. Then again, My Kingdom for a Cook lacks the talented hand of a George Kaufman and Moss Hart; if the film had such funny supporting characters, it would not have known how to employ them. Co-star Chapman, a fine actress in her own right, is also let down by the script, saddled in a romance with someone with whom she has exactly zero chemistry. In the end, My Kingdom for a Cook is nothing but another B-boilerplate programmer, made to precede the feature attraction and pleasant enough to the point where the audience won’t leave before that main attraction is shown. 

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?
Betty: Inside.
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.

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 TiesFalcon 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.

Did I Miss Anything While I Was Asleep?

By Ed Garea

While the Patient Slept (WB, 1935) – Director: Ray Enright. Screenplay: Robert N. Lee and Eugene Solow, with additional dialogue by Brown Holmes. Based on the novel of the same name by Mignon G. Eberhart. Cast: Aline MacMahon, Guy Kibbee, Lyle Talbot, Patricia Ellis, Allen Jenkins, Robert Barrat, Hobart Cavanaugh, Dorothy Tree, Russell Hicks, Eddie Shubert, Walter Walker, Henry O’Neill, & Brandon Hurst. B&W, 66 minutes.

The lights go out. A shot rings out in the dark. A scream is heard. The lights go back on. A body is lying on the floor. When it comes to movies, there are few things I like better than an Old Dark House mystery/thriller with mysterious butlers and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or sliding bookcases. This fast moving B from Warners fits the bill perfectly.

The patriarch of the Federie clan, Richard (Walker), has called the family vultures together along with his lawyer, Elihu Dimuck (O’Neill) to come and watch him die. The butler, Grondal (Hurst), brings him a telegram that has just arrived. As he reads the message, Richard becomes visibly distraught and destroys the telegram; but the strain causes him to collapse. The family calls Nurse Sarah Keate (MacMahon) to the deserted mansion to care for Richard as they await the outcome. During the give and take between family members we learn they are a most disagreeable lot; in fact, the only decent one among them is Richard’s granddaughter, March (Ellis), who lives with him in the family mansion. During this family discussion a heated argument breaks out between Richard’s son, Adolphe (Barrat), and Ross Longeran (Talbot) over the disposition of an outstanding loan. Later that night, when Sarah is checking her unconscious patient, she discovers Adolphe’s body on the stairwell, dead from a gunshot. The police are summoned and arrive in the form of slightly dotty Detective Lt. Lance O’Leary (Kibbee), accompanied by Sgt. Jim Jackson (Jenkins) and Detective Muldoon (Shubert).

O’Leary immediately rounds everyone up for questioning. He also knows Sarah from somewhere or other; it’s never made clear. But O’Leary informally deputizes Sarah to find him find the killer. From here on it's a night of rambling speeches and shouted questions, with the whole mob gathered in the living room. Lightning flashes; there’s a mysterious silhouette; a groping hand from behind a curtain reaches out for Sarah.

O’Leary suspects March is behind the murder, but Sarah insists that March is the only one beyond reproach. There is also the question of a small green figurine of an elephant (MacGuffin alert). Sarah tells O’Leary that she found the figurine beside Adolphe’s body, but now it’s missing. What’s so important about that figurine? Grondal confirms that it may contain something important. But what about Grondal? It’s soon discovered that he has a criminal record. Now he’s a suspect, but not for long. The appearance of a mystery man on the grounds is coupled with the death of the butler, whom Sarah determines was strangled with a violin string.

Snooping around for O’Leary, Sarah discovers a secret passageway. She follows it to the attic, where she gets locked in. O’Leary finds her and tells her it was Charles who sent the telegram. He also tells her about Charles’ prison release. He persuades Sarah to stay and gives her a gun, instructing her to fire it at 12:30 sharp. When she does, Charles is caught. As O’Leary explains the presence of Charles, Jackson enters with Dimuck in tow. O’Leary, who is now in possession of the elephant, reads the note hidden within. It was from Richard Federie and says Dimuck couldn’t give up the money he managed for Richard. With the case closed, O’Leary proposes to Sarah just as Richard is finally regaining consciousness and asking about what he missed while he was out.

Yes, the plot is complicated, especially for an hour-length film, and it contains holes large enough to drive a truck through. However, all movies require to a suspension of disbelief to a degree or two. When dealing with a B-movie such as this, the best course is to sit back, disregard the intricacies of the plot, and look for other things, such as acting, writing, and the mise-en-scene.

In a film such as this, the best thing a director can do is to keep it moving along. This is the sort of film that can easily get out of control and Enright, a veteran of the B’s, knows that well and does an admirable job of not letting things bog down on unnecessary plot points, which is somewhat amazing considering all the sidebars taken with respect to the plot. For instance, in films like this, after the mise en scene, everything grinds to a halt while the police bring in one suspect at a time and interrogate them, both to complicate the plot and to distinguish them in the eyes of the viewer. In the case of this film, everyone has been called to the mansion to visit old Mr. Federie. Right after Nurse Keate arrives and begins to work, everyone in the house troops in, one after the other, asking to be informed first when Mr. Federie is able to speak. But when last one arrives, Keate cuts her off and tells her she’ll contact her when Mr. Federie comes to and shoos her right out. Thus we’ve met the possible suspects with little fanfare and in line with keeping the film moving at a nice pace. And each visiting family member in turn is given time to look as guilty as sin, intensifying our search for the guilty one in the bad bunch.

The script, by Lee and Solow, is full of other nice little touches, and Brown, who contributed some of the dialogue, tailors it to each actor in keeping with the character. Most of Brown’s gems go to leads Kibbee and MacMahon, but Jenkins, who plays Kibbee’s aide-de-camp, Sgt. Jackson, also gets off a few good ripostes.

Kibbee ends up with the best lines. At one point, he calls prissy family member Eustice (Cavanaugh) “useless,” a malapropism that gives us insight into the fact that he suspects him of more than standing around. To another he notes that, “You seem to dislike your husband . . . even more than most wives.” But when he goes up against Nurse Keate, he comes up short. When he asks her about a missing item, she describes it as “something round like your nose, not quite so red.” Keate enjoys insulting Kibbee’s Detective O’Leary, and we learn at the end that they are involved in a romance of sorts, though I suspect it’s merely a plot point in the manner of the Hildegarde Withers/Inspector Piper from The Penguin Pool Murder (1932), although it seems de rigeur that, by 1935 and the clamping down of the Code, any unmarried woman working so closely with an unmarried man must somehow be romantically involved with him.

Though a B-programmer such as this is more dependent on a moving plot rather than characterization, it still requires strong performances by its leads if the audience is to be satisfied. Luckily, While the Patient Slept boasts two excellent performances from leads MacMahon and Kibbee, and their chemistry together is wonderful to watch. Fans of Warner Brothers will also recognize members from their stock company in the supporting roles. Barrat, Tree, Talbot, Jenkins, O’Neill, Helen Flint, Cavanaugh, and Ellis all lend their talents to helping the director and writers take an ordinary Old Dark House Murder Mystery and turn it into an intelligent, funny, and at times – dare I say – charming, little film.

The writers and director transform the defects found in most other films of the genre into virtues with jokes so subtle they meld into, rather than stand out, in the plot. Added to this is the cinematography by Arthur Edeson that masks the shabby surroundings and gives us the illusion of a movie that cost more to produce. In the final accounting, then, it’s not so much what the director, writers and cast members are given by the producers, but what they ultimately make with what they have. And in this regard, despite the all-too-familiar trappings of the Old Dark house mystery, they pull it off magnificently.

Trivia: In the opening credits of the film we see that it is a “Clue Club” movie. From what I’ve been able to discover, apparently Warners made a deal with a pulp publisher – some say Black Mask magazine – to film selected stories in conjunction with a “club” viewers could join that promised prizes. While the Patient Slept was the second in the series, the first being The White Cockatoo (1935, with Ricardo Cortez). The goal was for Warners to produce 12 films, but I could only find seven to which the moniker applied. Besides the two already listed, the others were as follows: The Case of the Curious Bride (1935, with Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, & Donald Woods), The Case of the Lucky Legs (1936, with William), The Case of the Black Cat (1936, with Cortez & Jane Bryan), The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936, with Cortez & Mary Astor), and Murder By An Aristocrat (1936, with Lyle Talbot & Marguerite Churchill). It would appear that the series petered out possibly from lack of enthusiasm by prospective members.

George Brent – Ace Reporter

By Ed Garea 

YOU CAN’T ESCAPE FORVER (WB, 1942) Director: Jo Graham. Cast: George Brent, Brenda Marshall, Gene Lockhart, Roscoe Karns, and Eduardo Ciannelli. B&W, 77 minutes. 

THE CORPSE CAME C.O.D. (Columbia, 1947) Director: Henry Levin. Cast: George Brent, Joan Blondell, Adele Jergens, Jim Bannon, Leslie Brooks, Una O’Connor, and Fred Sears. B&W, 87 minutes.

When an actor grows older and loses his or her star luster, things change. No longer is there a limo from the studio to take them to the set; no, they have to use their own cars. Personal assistants are a thing of the past, as well as a private trailer for those quiet moments. It can be quite ego bruising, except if the actor happened to be a star for Warners in those early days when Pre-code films ruled. Warners didn’t lavish those extras on their stars – in fact, they were lucky if they got a few days off between films. George Brent and Joan Blondell were two of Warner Brothers’ biggest stars in the early ‘30s; stars that could be counted upon to carry a film, no matter if it was an “A” musical or a programmer placed under the First National label and released on the ‘B’ portion of the bill.

So when age and over-familiarity took their toll, stars like Brent and Blondell, who came of age in the assembly-line production methods of Warners, simply took stock of their employment situation and moved on to whatever would provide a paycheck. No muss, no fuss. They didn’t consider themselves stars so much as employees and it was this attitude that enabled them to survive in an industry marked by the corpses of those it threw away when they were no longer considered star material.

This attitude was perfect for George Brent. He had already led what some might call a full life before coming to Warners. Born George Brendan Nolan in Shannonbridge, County Offaly, near Dublin, he was orphaned at the age of 11. Moving to New York to live with an aunt, he would return to Dublin to attend university. He left the university in 1919 and became a member of the IRA, seeing service in the Irish War of Independence (1919-22). (What was odd about this was that he was the son of a British Army Officer assigned to Ireland.) He fled Ireland with a bounty on his head for his activities, though later in life he claimed to be only a courier for Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. However, British sources had him listed as an IRA hitman/assassin.

Reaching the U.S. in 1925, he changed his name to George Brent and began a career on the stage. His first appearance was in a touring production of Abie’s Irish Rose. During his travels he took a small, uncredited role in John Ford’s The Iron Horse, but after filming was over he decided to return to the stage. In 1927, he made it to Broadway, appearing in Love, Honor, and Betray alongside another young actor, Clark Gable.

Upon learning that Hollywood was looking for actors that could speak well, he landed there in 1930. He made his first film, Under Suspicion, for Fox. He knocked around, accepting small parts for Fox and Universal. In 1932, he signed with Warners with the promise of leading man roles. He would remain with the studio for the next 20 years. Brent’s reputation quickly became one of a leading man that could work well with the more temperamental actresses on the Warners roster. This easy camaraderie enabled Brent to indulge in one of his favorite leisure activities: affairs with the co-stars. His first marriage was in 1927 to Helen Louise Campbell, who appeared with him in Love, Honor, and Betray. They divorced two years later.  His next wife was Ruth Chatterton, with whom he starred in such films as Lily Turner and Female. This union lasted two years. In 1937, he married Constance Worth, whom he had met at a party. This union lasted only six months, ending in December 1937. Next up was the gorgeous Ann Sheridan in 1942. They had met while starring in Honeymoon for Three. Again it was a short marriage, ending exactly 365 days later on January 5, 1943.

It wasn’t until 1947 that Brent settled down for good, marrying Janet Michaels in December 1947. This union lasted until her death on March 23, 1974, and produced two children: Barry and Suzanne. She wasn’t an actress; rather, she was a horse breeder, and Brent settled into a life of a horse rancher when he wasn’t busy in the movies and television, which became his new career in the early ‘50s. He retired from acting in 1960, only coming out of retirement once, in 1978, in the film Born Again, the story of how Watergate conspirator Charles Colson found religion.

Cast a good actor in a B-movie and we really have something to watch. And that’s the case with George Brent. He always brings his “A Game” to the “B Movie,” never letting down despite scripts that often let him down. In the first movie on the docket, we see what a good script and crisp direction can do to make a movie enjoyable. In the second movie, we see the stars struggle with second-rate material.

The scenario of a newspaper and its employees is custom-made for the B movie. Things move at a mile a minute and there’s little time for the in-depth characterization we find in an “A product.” Such is the case with our two featured movies.

You Can’t Escape Forever sounds more like the title for a prison or crime movie than a newspaper story. But there it is and we have to go from there. Warners had a wonderful talent for recycling films. Beginning with a story by Roy Chanslor, our movie was originally filmed in 1934 as Hi, Nellie!  Paul Muni and Glenda Farrell shared the lead. The story pops up again in 1937 as Love is on the Air with Ronald Reagan and June Travis in the lead. So this is the third go-around for this particular story. There would be a fourth version in 1949 entitled The House Across the Street, starring Wayne Morris and Janis Paige. All four films share the same basic plot, but were modified to meet the times.

What’s the modification here? Well, the war is on and the worst thing a criminal could do is engage in the black market. Steve Mitchell (Brent) is the editor of a city paper and he’s on a crusade to bring black marketer and mob big Boss Greer (Eduardo Ciannelli at his villainous best) to justice. When Steve writes a story linking Greer to a suspicious murder without the necessary proof, Greer threatens to sue and Steve is transferred to the “advice for the lovelorn column.” But this does not deter him from his mission to put Greer behind bars. Aided by gal pal/reporter Laurie Abbott (Brenda Marshall) and comedy relief Roscoe Karns, Steve finally brings Greer to justice after a whirlwind tour of the less inviting spots in the city. In a climax clearly marking the times, Steve and a company of soldiers stop Greer and his henchmen cold.

What places this film above other “Bs” of the time is the snappy dialogue – shot back and forth fast and furious; great cinematography by Tony Gaudio and James Van Trees, masters of the low-budget camera; beautifully choreographed action scenes (check out the finale) and tight direction, never meandering for a moment, which is exactly what a “B” movie needs do. The acting by Brent, Karns and Ciannelli is excellent. But I had the feeling the film was intended as a vehicle for Brenda Marshall, who came across rather flat, as if the action were passing her by. Warners was trying to build Marshall for stardom, but she ultimately lacked the talent to put herself over.

I wish I could say the same for Columbia’s The Corpse Came C.O.D. With that great title and co-leads Brent and Blondell it should have been a most entertaining comedy, but it’s tied to a thin and trivial script that would serve better at 60 minutes rather than nearly 90. Brent and Blondell are competing reporters looking to outdo one another. (And of course they’re romantically involved.) When a starlet (Adele Jurgens) discovers the body of a costume designer in a crate of material sent to her home, she calls reporter Brent instead of the police to help her out. Brent suggests she brings in the police. Blondell, who sticks to Brent like glue throughout, blows her top and then decides to outdo Brent by solving the mystery herself.

Though Brent displays a fine touch for this sort of light comedy, Blondell completely outdoes him with her frantic energy. Jurgens is expected to be the beautiful star and she does that just fine. Though Blondell is not the babe that enchanted us during the early ‘30s, she still looks good and at age 41, outshines Jurgens in that department. I found it odd that she should be back to the Bs after turning in a sterling performance in 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but then Hollywood has never been gracious to older supporting actresses.

What really sinks the film, though, is its continual self-references. Though it is supposed to be a whodunit, it’s actually a movie about making movies. Every stale gimmick is taken out and flashed before our eyes: the blonde stick in the trashcan; baddies reaching out for Blondell in dark places; the usual stolen jewels; cats jumping out and scaring the stars; the corrupt cop behind it all shot by his partner; and, believe it or not the old mannequin stuck to the back gimmick. I thought that died with Abbott and Costello. The last 10 minutes of the film provide the background we should have been given in the first 20 minutes, a sure sign of sloppy plotting. And yet, despite it all, Brent and Blondell almost manage to pull the thing off.

TRIVIA NOTE: Look for future B director Fred Sears as Detective Dave Short. 

Son of the Border

By Ed Garea

(RKO, 1933) Director: Lloyd Nosler. Starring: Tom Keene, Julie Haydon, Edgar Kennedy, Lon Chaney Jr., Al Bridge, Charles King, & David Durand.

There are few things more enjoyable than a ‘30s B-Western, unless it’s a ‘40s Monogram or PRC Western. This one comes from RKO and stars Tom Keene, RKO’s cowboy star at the time. I love Tom Keene Westerns because (1) Tom couldn’t act; and (2) he wound up starring in Plan 9 From Outer Space (as Col. Edwards), as well as co-starring with The Bowery Boys in their 1956 epic Dig That Uranium! So we know that Tom’s B to Z creds are in order. An added bonus is the chance to catch the early Lon Chaney Jr., when he was working under the moniker Creighton Chaney.

The plot is simple: Rancher Tom Owens (Keene) is a force of good to be reckoned with in his little town. He’s after a stagecoach robbing gang, led by a baddie named Henchey (Bridge). He’s shocked (Shocked!) when he learns that his good friend Jack Breen (Chaney) is a dues-paying member of that very gang. He pulls Jack aside and tells him that if Tom were he, he’d beat it out of town, if he gets the drift. Good advice, but does Jack listen? Not on your life, otherwise we have no movie. And Jack is soon at it again, this time holding up a bank. But during the getaway Tom is forced to shoot Jack and kills his friend. Jack manages to conveniently die in the arms of his fiancée, former saloon girl Doris (Haydon), who encouraged Jack in his career choice. This earns Tom the everlasting hatred of Doris, who holds Tom entirely responsible. And she’s out for revenge.

In the meantime, the late Jack’s orphan brother, Frankie (Durand) arrives on the afternoon stage from Phoenix looking for big brother. He’s naturally devastated when he learns of his brother’s death. Tom takes charge of the lad and brings him to his ranch where, with the help of his trusted sidekick Windy (Kennedy) he teaches the boy about ranch life. But when young Frankie runs into Doris one day in town, she uses the opportunity to educate the lad all about his brother, regaling him with stories. Tom sees what’s going on and tells her to bug off, but she retorts that if he tries to keep her away, she’ll tell young Frankie all about Jack’s killing. Tom replies something to the effect of “So when is a good time for you to see Frankie?”

Cut to Tupper, the town’s friendly ticket agent. He’s revealed to us as the silent leader of the gang and tells Henchey to whack Tom in order to facilitate their gang’s planned robbery of the next stagecoach. Henchey naturally fails in his attempt. Tim, tired of Doris making his life miserable, decides to send Frankie back to Phoenix and buys a ticket for the very coach Tupper plans to rob. But Doris learns via the grapevine that Tupper plans to murder everyone on the coach and rushes to tell Tom. He sends her to get the sheriff while he and Windy intercept the bad guys and lead the coach to a town on the Mexican border, where they get into a shootout with the villains. Doris is wounded protecting Frankie and Tom, and Tom settles matters by killing the gang members and tossing Tupper through a window. Tom and Doris bury the hatchet and agree to take joint responsibility for raising Frankie. The end.

What’s even better is that all this takes place in only 55 minutes. Chaney, for his part, proves to be just as wooden as a young man as he was later in life. I also noticed that he always seemed to look regretful, whether at age 30 or 65. Kennedy as Windy the sidekick gives a decent performance. When I look at the portly Kennedy in the role I can only assume that he got that nickname because his favorite meal is beans. But there is zero chemistry between Keene and Kennedy, odd for a hero and sidekick. Haydon, who plays Chaney’s girlfriend Doris, scores in the looks department, but she’s even more wooden than Chaney. I loved the line that the crowd at the saloon misses her as a dance girl and attendance has gone down since she left, leading us to think she was doing something other than dancing.

If you’re looking for nonstop action and laughs galore, you just can’t beat a film like this. It’s the type of film one runs at a gathering and does an MST-like session with friends. It makes the time pass ever so well and can be a bonding experience if bad films are your thing. 

Postscript: This movie is so obscure that you can't order it on Amazon.

What is a B Movie?

By Ed Garea

We often speak of B Movies on this site, as do many film fans. But there are still fans out there unaware of the term or don’t exactly know what it means. Mention the phrase “B Movie” to any filmgoer and the first thing that pops to mind is “cheap,” which is usually equated with the term “lousy.” But, just as not all “A” productions are good, not all “B productions” are bad.

The term “B” really refers to the billing the movie received on the marquee. The more costly with bigger stars “A” production was listed on top with the lesser cost with either young rising or old fading stars listed on the bottom of the marquee. But this does not denote the quality of the movies. In fact, several “B’s” are just as good, if not better, than the “A’s” they were listed below. In fact, as this column will show in the future, many readers’ favorite movies are of the “B” variety.

The roots of the B Movie go back to the late 1920s. By the end of the Silent Era 1927-29, the cost of a major Hollywood studio production might average from $100,000 at, say Universal, to about $175,000 at Fox, and $275,000 at MGM. Rising production costs hit local independent theaters hard, which led to the formation of what later were called “Poverty Row” studios. 

Studios such as Tiffany, Mascot, Columbia (although it reorganized in 1924, it was still viewed as a Poverty Row studio), and Film Booking Office of America (FBO, which later morphed into major RKO), concentrated on productions costing usually no more than $20,000. These were aimed at independent theaters, usually in small towns or local neighborhoods in the city. A couple of these films enabled the smaller theaters to avoid what was the standard programming of the time: a couple of live acts followed by one or two shorts, and then the main feature.

Independent theaters had to rely on what was known as “block booking,” in which the theater had to buy a large amount of a studio’s film sight unseen. This system, which was invented by Paramount in 1918, basically worked accordingly: If a theater wanted a film with a bankable star, they had to acquire anywhere from 13 to 104 titles of differing quality. The star vehicles were available to be pre-screened, but the others had to rented sight unseen. This became known as “blind bidding.” The owner then received the star vehicles along with others of lower cost and quality, usually starring a rising or fading star.

With the establishment of sound in 1929, a new programming setup was established. The night’s program would now begin with a newsreel, a short, and/or serial, a cartoon, and then the double feature. The majors favored their affiliates over the independents when it came to doling out the movies. Also, as the price of block booking rose, many independent owners cut down on the number of films they bought. Thus, the indies might be able to get the latest Garbo film from MGM, but the film that usually went with it to the affiliates was not given to the independents, so they filled the gap with cheaply-made films from the lesser studios. Unlike the product from the majors, which was rented on percentage, the lesser “B” pictures were available for a flat fee. These were usually Westerns (which were also great for the Saturday and Sunday matinees, when the place was packed with kids), Horror, Mysteries, and Melodramas.

For their part, the Poverty Row studios also distributed independent productions and foreign films. Lacking the necessary financial muscle to enforce block booking, they depended on a plethora of regional distributors, called “States Rights” organizations. These, in turn, peddled the blocks of product to the exhibitors (usually about 10 or so featuring a known star that made more than one movie for the studio, such as the five “Mr. Wong” films Boris Karloff made for Monogram plus The Ape, also for the studio, making it a grand total of six) for a flat fee. If the theater was able to advertise successfully, and if the star was a favorite, the theater made a good sum from this scheme.

The main moneymaker for the Poverty Row studios, and the B-units of many of the majors as well, is a genre that has fallen into sorry neglect in recent times: the Western. Westerns were cheap and easy to make on a large scale, and went over well, especially with children at matinees. They also served as wonderful opening feature attractions for the evening’s program. Republic made its money with a plethora of Gene Autry Singing Westerns, and when Gene refused to work unless he received more money, Republic began grinding out Roy Rogers Singing Westerns without missing a pecuniary beat. Western series like the Texas Rangers for PRC, the Trail Blazers for Monogram, and The Three Mesquiteers for Republic were well-received by the public. We’ll examine this genre at length in future columns.

Life at many independently owned theaters went somewhat like this: It’s 1939, and on Monday, the “A” feature is a film that had finished its first-run at the theaters owned by the major studios, let’s say Holiday with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in 1938. For the second feature, the theater runs the new Karloff “Mr. Wong” movie. On Wednesday, the bill now consisted of 1939’s Love Affair with Irene Dunne, which had just ended its run at the Paramount theaters. Paired with that is Hitler-Beast of Berlin, a cheapie with a young Alan Ladd that was produced by Producer’s Distributing Corporation. (This studio later became Producer’s Releasing Corporation, or PRC.) On weekends, two Westerns from Monogram play around the clock on the matinee and, during the evening, another major studio production that finished its run is paired with yet another Poverty Row film. Many small town theaters never even saw an “A” film, instead getting their product exclusively from States Rights distributors.

However, two events occurred that changed the fortunes of the B Movie, and by extension, that of independent theaters.

The Regina Theater (at Wilshire and LaCienega) in Los Angeles was trying to stave off bankruptcy. So on Thursday, Aug. 5, 1938, the theater began running a triple-bill of DraculaFrankenstein, and The Son of Kong, films long out of release and practically forgotten by their studios, Universal and RKO. The theater soon was doing a booming business, running the films continuously 21 hours a day to sellout crowds. Patrons that wanted to see the film formed lines around the blocks, causing the police to be called for crowd control. Universal realized that they had smash hits on their hands, and ran 500 more prints of each movie, renting them to independent theaters around the country.

Furthermore, Universal, which had given up the horror film in 1936, now began to see the profit potential these films represented and immediately put Son of Frankenstein into production. The lesson learned by the financially-plagued studio was that it was far more profitable to make cheaper films than trying to compete with MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, RKO and Columbia in making “A” products.

The other event was on the legal level. In 1940, under pressure from the courts, the major studios agreed to limit block booking to about five film packages. Not only was this a boon to the Poverty Row studios, but it also encouraged some of the smaller majors, such as Universal, Columbia, and RKO to increase their “B” output. One of RKO’s most profitable series was the cheaply-made Val Lewton horror films. They also made profits with the Mexican Spitfire series and the Saint (and later Falcon) thrillers.

Columbia countered with the Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf series. And Universal had two of the biggest box office stars in the 40s: Abbott and Costello, in addition to the immensely-profitable Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. In addition, Universal still cranked out the popular horror films, each of which did well at the wartime box office. Fox also got into the act with its highly-profitable Charlie Chan series, which actually began in the ‘30s.

This placed pressure on the Poverty Row studios to come up with unique films of their own. They began exploring other exploitable issues, such as populated Pre-Code films of the early ‘30s, and gave them a social spin to avoid censorship. Among the subjects explored were juvenile delinquency (Monogram may have been the first with Where Are Your Children? in 1943.), women’s prison movies (Again, Monogram’s Women in Bondage, 1943), teenage-oriented musicals (Edgar G. Ulmer’s Jive Junction, PRC, 1943), and teenagers/hot rods/death films (PRC’s The Devil of Wheels, 1947).

With the 1948 Supreme Court decision outlawing block booking and the practice of the studios owning their own theaters, some of the Poverty Row studios began expanding into the realm of “A” pictures. Monogram created its Allied Artists subsidiary for just that purpose, while Republic, which was beginning to experiment with “A” productions during the war years, moved ahead with even more, peaking with John Ford’s The Quiet Man in 1952. PRC, on the other hand, read the handwriting on the wall, and sold out to Eagle-Lion, who wanted the studio to produce B-movies to be linked to their British releases. In 1951, United Artists took over the studio in a corporate deal.

Then came television. While on one hand television had an insatiable appetite for old movies, it also caused many former theatergoers to stay home. This forced the major studios to invent gimmick after gimmick to attract audiences. 3-D and Cinerama were representative of the gimmickry the studios tried to give audiences an experience they couldn’t match on television. The impact of television was such that Allied Artists retired the Monogram logo and went 99% to B-movies, with only a rare “A” feature, like Friendly Persuasion (1956) and Love in the Afternoon (1957), both starring Gary Cooper.

Republic scaled back its production, concentrating on its film laboratory before throwing in the towel in 1958. RKO also died around that time after being horribly mismanaged by Howard Hughes. But there was a new kid on the block: American International Pictures, which specialized in drive-in fare for teenagers. With the boom in personal autos during the ‘50s, the drive-in theater enjoyed what could be called its golden age. Drive-ins attracted teenagers like honey attracts flies, and AIP realized early on in the game that if they tailored their product to that market segment, they could be a very profitable operation, especially with what they were spending per film. Cashing in on sci-fi, rock ‘n’ roll, JD, and later, Beach Party movies and Roger Corman’s Poe Horror films, AIP became a small but noticeable force in the industry. Meanwhile, other studios didn’t stand by idly. Universal fought back with William Alland produced sci-fi films, and Columbia with William Castle gimmick-laden horror pictures.

The 60s saw the birth of the “splatter film.” Because the censors still cracked down on nudity, independent producers began looking for other ways to be outrageous and get away with it. Herschell Gordon Lewis, a producer of “nudies,” became tired of the low profits and extremely restricted venues for his films. That, plus the fact the police could raid the theater at any time and confiscate his product. In 1963, he conceived of new excess, not of sex, but of blood, and so Blood Feast made its debut in independent theaters and drive-ins. While the authorities went crazy at the sight of a bare breast, they has no problem with a woman having her tongue cut out, and Lewis went on to make a series of profitable splatter features. 

Even Russ Meyer, king of the Nudies, went the violent route with Motor Psycho and Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, marketing them to Middle America and proving, in a strange way, radical H. Rap Brown’s pronouncement that violence is as American as apple pie.

The replacement of the Production Code with the Ratings System in 1968 opened the doors to nudity in film, and with it came the “sexploitation” film, commonly known as the “T & A” film. B-movie making veterans such as Roger Corman began not only making these sorts of movies, but also incorporating the more racy theme into his other horror and sci-fi films. 

The premiere of Easy Rider (1969) brought with it a load of copycat biker films, and Shaft (1971) opened the doors for a new kind of movie, Blaxploitation, aimed at the African-American audience. Again, these are categories that will be explored in depth in future columns. 

With the ‘80s came financial consolidation, with many of the independent producers being swallowed up by the corporate giants. Directors John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham, who previously made their films on a shoestring, were now backed by Paramount and Universal. (By the ’90s the average cost of a film was over $25 million.) The ‘80s also saw the advent of what could be called the “A/B” film: a film with an “A” budget, but “B” in subject matter. Die Hard, Total Recall, Terminator 2, and Tim Burton’s Batman are prime examples of this new category.  

If BatmanDick Tracy, and Raiders of the Lost Ark had been made in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s, they would have been much cheaper B productions.

And what does the future hold? With the cost of the average film approaching the $60 million mark, producers have become very conservative. Of the top grossing films in 2011, six were animated features and the box office champion was based on a children’s book. As the box office for 2012 is shaping up, out of the top 10 grossing films so far, three are animated, three are sequels of comic book adventures, three are franchise sequels and one is an adaptation of a children’s book. In other words, it’s all “B” material.

The serious and cheaper “B” movies can still be found, however, if not at the theatre, then certainly on DVD. And they are out there. All we need do is intensify our search. But then, film mavens have been intensively searching for interesting movies since they first became hooked on the medium

No comments:

Post a Comment