Sunday, April 22, 2018

Peach-O-Reno a great intro to Wheeler and Woolsey

By Doug Gibson

Until a few years ago, I hadn't had much experience watching the old-time vaudeville/film comedian team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, but I'm glad I was introduced in full to the pair in "Peach-O-Reno," released by RKO Radio Pictures on Christmas Day 1931. This pre-code musical comedy with the team is simply marvelous. I tag it as a lower-brow (and that's not an insult) Marx Brothers-type film. It's very fast-paced, extremely witty, and has many fun musical numbers as well.

The plot involves Wheeler and Woolsey as Reno divorce lawyers Wattles and Swift. They have snagged all the divorce business in Reno, the divorce capital of the world because they keep it cheap and, let's face it, they're the wittiest divorce lawyers in town. They're also the coolest. The pair turns their divorce factory into a swinging casino at night. Wattles is the young attorney who more ladies swoon over. Swift, with his wit and fast moves, probably gets more action with the women.

One day, Joe and Aggie Bruno head to Reno -- in separate train seats -- to divorce. They squabbled on their 25th anniversary. Not far behind them are daughters Prudence and Pansy, trying to stop the divorce. The four naturally end up at Wattles and Swift, who have a full house, which includes a rich cowboy type who intends to murder Wattles and Swift for trying to give his wife a divorce.

I'm not going to give away the entire plot. Just sit back and enjoy the hour and three minutes. Things move from the divorce office to the casino, where young Wattles (Wheeler) dresses in drag to avoid the jealous husband. This pre-code sequence is absolutely hilarious, especially while Swift swiftly tries to gain lip time with one of the Bruno daughters. Eventually, everything gets settled in divorce court the next morning, which changes to a marriage court.

There's beautiful women, who change from their usher duties in the divorce office to more scantily clad duties in the casino at night. There's lots of gunfire but no one really gets injured. There's excellent Groucho Marx-type banter from Swift (Woolsey) with more than a few customers, including the matronly Aggie Bruno (Cora Witherspoon), and of course, there's several excellent musical numbers.

I'm glad we have Turner Classic Movies to show these films, and remind us of the many comedy talents that were out there besides the most famous, such as Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, etc. Viewers will enjoy "Preach-O-Reno," and like myself, start looking for more Wheeler and Woolsey to enjoy. It was directed by William A. Seiter. The imdb page is here. To learn more about the comedy team, go to this interview with W&W historian Ed Watz.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Trog a sad feature finale for Joan Crawford

By Doug Gibson

Late in her film career, Joan Crawford chewed up the screen with good, over-the-top performances in thrillers such as "Strait-jacket," "I Saw What You Did," "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," and "Beserk." Those who has seen Jessica Lange have fun in the TV series "American Haunting" and seen the late Crawford in her 1960s features can easily see Joan doing Jessica's role today.
Unfortunately, Crawford made one more feature in 1970, "Trog," for director Freddie Francis. A low-budget "major release," it features an outlandish plot that generates little energy from the 65-year-old Crawford, who for the first time looks old, and tired. Joan stars as Dr. Brockton, who gets really excited as a half-man, half-beast (played badly by Joe Cornelius) is discovered in the British countryside by two unfortunate underground explorers; one dies.

Once Trog is discovered, Crawford's character makes several impassioned pleas to allow science to study him. She also engages in long, boring diatribes about the missing link and evolution. (One of the problems with this film is that Trog is never allowed to really go crazy and act like a missing link. In fact, he too often resembles a repulsive baby monster who accepts treats from Dr. Brockton. There are a few murders by Trog, but not nearly enough to justify the price of a movie ticket.

Another veteran of horror films, Michael Gough, who starred with Crawford in the better 1967 circus thriller, "Beserk," outshines Crawford as a town resident who desperately wants Trog killed by authorities. In fact, Gough is almost psychotic in his hatred of the missing link, and he does chew up the scenery and provide a little life to the muddling film. Unfortunately, he's killed off by Trog in a ludicrous scene.

Despite the discovery of something that would have shocked the world, the whole Trog saga appears to be small potatoes in the the world that Francis film world. There isn't much media covering Trog, and ridiculously, there's only one mild security man guarding Trog! Perhaps the budget wouldn't allow more extras to serve as media?

Crawford looks frumpy and unattractive in the film. Just three years ago, at 62, she's still been quite attractive in "Beserk." But in "Trog," she's dressed in unattractive pantsuits. Some reviewers have claimed that Crawford was suffering from a drinking problem during the making of this film. That may explain her overly earnest, low-key performance and hangdog demeanor that she presents. She can't carry this slow-paced low-budget offering with bad FX anywhere. There's too much talking, little enthusiasm and minor action.

In the final scene, when (spoiler alert) Trog is killed, reporters ask Dr. Brockton for a quote. Actress Crawford stares bleakly at the reporters, shakes her head in despair, and walks heavily away. It's a fitting metaphor to her last feature, a mediocre offering. Joan would star in three more TV movies before dying in 1977 at age 72. Watch the trailer to "Trog" above. And watch John Waters (below) explain why he's a fan of "Trog."

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Lugosi's Broadminded, Invisible Ray and other films

By Doug Gibson
I have a conundrum; I watch lots of great cult films but have no time -- at least now -- to review them in depth. So, in the spirit of Leonard Maltin, here are four capsule reviews of some films!
Broad minded, First National, 1931, starring Joe E. Lewis, Bela Lugosi, Ona Munson, William Collier Jr. and Thelma Todd. 3 stars - This semi-forgotten Joe E. Brown comedy (buy it here on Amazon) is a treat for cult movie fans who want to watch a pre-Dracula Lugosi. As Pancho Arango, a hot-tempered Latin lover, Lugosi shows his comic skills in dueling with the clownish, wide-mouthed Brown, who pesters him. Plot involves Brown and Collier as playboys traveling across the country and meeting girls. In California the leads fall in love with various blondes, including Munson, who played Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind. Film has funny moments and Lugosi shows his versatile, comedic character acting skills. I caught this long-awaited viewing courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. Opening scene is of a "baby party" for adults that is prurient when one looks at the women, and creepy when looking at the males, especially Brown!
The Invisible Ray, Universal, 1936, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton. 3 stars - One of the classic 1930s Universal pairings of Karloff and Lugosi. This film is unique in that it is a science fiction film, rather than a horror film. Karloff and Lugosi are scientists who travel to Africa to find "Radium X," who Karloff has proven crashed into earth millions of years ago. "Radium X" is discovered, but contact with it turns Karloff radioactive, and deadly to the touch. Lugosi prepares medicine that counters the poison, but when Karloff's wife, (Drake) leaves him for an adventurer, Lawton, Karloff, going slowly insane, shirks the medicine and goes on a killing spree. Violet Kemble Cooper is creepy as Karloff's mother. Easy to buy and usually on TCM once a year.
Blood of the Man Devil, 1965, Jerry Warren productions, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Dolores Faith. 1 star - This is a so bad it's good film. Trash film producer Jerry Warren took an uncompleted film, finished it with mainly lots of bad bikini dancing, advertised horror legends Carradine and Chaney Jr., and produced an incomprehensible yet compelling mess. Film involves a town of devil worshipers locked in a power struggle between dueling warlocks Carradine and Chaney Jr., who never appear on screen together. How could they? They were making different films! The whole mess is populated with actors who, besides the leads, look nothing like devil worshipers. The plot sort of resembles a dark arts version of Peyton Place with the screen's cheapest werewolf mask. This barely released film, which amazingly has atmosphere, must be seen to be believed. Sinister Cinema sells it. 
Gun Crazy: 1950, King Brothers Productions, Peggy Cummins and John Nall. 4 stars - This low-budget gem is a film noir classic of the lovesick male with a reform school past who falls for the bad girl and follows her to both of their dooms. Cummins and Nall, little-known actors, generate real sparks as greedy sharp shooters who don't have the patience to live a normal life. When she kills in a robbery and the law closes in on them, the claustrophobic atmosphere director Joseph H. Lewis creates is outstanding and final love to the death moments between these two losers is moving. There's a reason Gun Crazy is taught in many film schools. Don't miss it. It's easy to buy and pops up on TV often.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Red Zone Cuba, Coleman Francis, John Carradine sings!

By Doug Gibson

I sat through Coleman’s Francis’s 1966 mess, “Red Zone Cuba,” AKA “Night Train to Mundo Fine.” It’s 89 minutes that even with Mystery Science Theater 3000’s gags thrown in, feels like a three-hour movie. I believe if I ever dared watch this film sans the comedy thrown in, it would feel like 890 hours and I would suffer some of horrible, reverse “Infinite Jest” coma-induced death with feces abounding.

There is one reason to see this film. With his sole bit of sense, Francis had John Carradine come in for a day and shoot an opening for the $30,000 film. His acting is ho hum, but then Carradine, I kid you not, sings the film’s theme song. The camp value of Carradine belting out the vocals to “Night Train to Mundo Fine” is a hoot. He sings well, with his hoarse voice. That’s not a surprise since he was a Shakespearian actor. And he compares almost as well as Lon Chaney Jr. did when the aging, alcoholism-ravaged thespian sang the title tune to the camp/horror classic “Spider Baby” earlier in the 1960s.

But the remaining 85 or so minutes, eh, it’s just awful. The film is boring, the characters colorless, the plot incredibly confusing and meandering. The editing is terrible; there are cutaways that leave the viewer bewildered as to what is happening and what has happened. The characters mumble, and that’s just when they are actually speaking. Much of the film was shot mute with no soundtrack synchronized. You hear mumbled words sans the speakers mouths being shown.

The plot involves three crooks on the lam from the cops. Their leader is played by Francis, and a Curly of the Three Stooges lookalike without an ounce of charisma. He tries to affect a tough, Broderick Crawford type of toughness but fails. His cohorts are played listlessly by Anthony Cardoza and Harold Saunders. On the lam, the trio is recruited as mercenaries for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. This portion offers a tad bit of hilarity with Cardoza, one of the producers, putting on a beard and makeup and playing Fidel Castro. (I know this sounds camp/hilarious but in the hands of director/writer/producer Francis, it isn’t. ) The “training” and “battle” scenes are so low budget that it appears that no more than a dozen or so people actually participated in the Bay of Pigs.

Somehow the guys escape from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. They return to the USA, commit a few crimes. In one scene Coleman throws an old storekeeper down a well. The scene is badly shot and fools no one. Eventually, Coleman and his cohorts are shot dead around a train station and the film ends. The last line, delivered in Francis’s overly solemn narration: “Griffin ran all the way to hell, with a penny and a broken cigarette.”

Hard to watch, boring and nonsensical, it’s still worth a MST3K watch for Carradine, Castro and a few jokes. But stay away from the director’s cut! Actually, if you have the courage, watch the MST3K-less "Red Zone Cuba" above!