Monday, February 20, 2017

Science fiction, fantasy and horror; all from 1957

Review by Steve D. Stones

It really didn't occur to me that many of my favorite low-budget science-fiction films were released in 1957, until I read Rob Craig's awesome book - It Came From 1957: A Critical Guide to the Year's Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films  (McFarland - 2013 - - 800-253-2187). If you are familiar with Craig's writing, you know he is no fan of big budget, Hollywood produced science-fiction films. He loves the more creative, thought provoking films made on a shoe string budget by smaller studios. Director Roger Corman is an example of this. Craig gives an interesting analysis of Corman's 1957 releases, such as Attack of The Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth.

In 1950s America, the Cold War was a hot topic, the expansion of the Military Industrial Complex was underway, a grandfatherly figure and war hero - Dwight D. Eisenhower - was in the White House fulfilling his conservative agenda, and the space race had also just begun. Science-fiction entertainment of the 50s reflected all of this, as Craig points out in his book. The 1950s, with its robust economy and birth of the "baby boomers," was truly a decade which bred consumerism and a hope to fulfill "The American Dream."

One of Craig's more interesting reviews of a 1957 film is his review of From Hell It Came, a favorite of mine, produced by Jack and Dan Milner. This film breaks from the stereotypical 1950s portrayal of the woman as homemaker and bearer of children. A woman scientist and feminist named Terry, played by beautiful Tina Carver, is pursued by a male scientist, Tod Andrews. Andrews suggests in one scene that she should be like "normal women" by getting married to him, having children and settling down as a house wife. Carver rejects his suggestion, and feels it is a lifestyle she could not be a part of. As she says in a scene from the film "I live by my intellect!"

Like From Hell It Came, Roger Corman's - Attack of The Crab Monsters also focuses on a group of scientists living on a Pacific atoll while conducting research, only this time the scientists are not necessarily trying to impose an Imperialistic agenda on natives. The scientists discover that one of the giant crabs is pregnant. Craig gives a Freudian analysis of the giant crabs, with their raised frontal limbs and large mouth opening, as the opening of a vagina ready for intercourse, particularly in the missionary position. Their teeth devour the penis of any male who dares enter. A strange, yet humorous analysis of the giant crabs.

If you have read much of Craig's writing, you know he is often critical of what he calls the "phallo-centric" and "patriarchy" of male dominance in popular culture. He often relates his subject matter to the patriarchal dominance of men in culture and cinema. He makes this clear even in his book about Texas director Larry Buchanan - A Critical Examination.

Craig even references the male erection in relation to the subjects of the films he discusses, such as the giant architectural monster in Kronos, who sprays his electrical energy as if it is sperm erupting from a penis. Craig sees the giant walking tree in From Hell It Came, known the Tabanga, as a walking penis who enforces his male agenda on its creators.

Don't forget to read Craig's conclusion at the end of his book. It is here that he opens up on his views of the Star Wars and Alien franchises, calling them brain dead serial junk which act as propaganda to encourage a perpetual state of war. It is safe to say that fans of Star Wars would not take too kindly to his analysis, but perhaps many Star Wars fans would also have no desire to see any of the low-budget films Craig so passionately writes about.

Craig's analysis of Star Wars may be more of a frustration of film viewers favoring special effects and swash buckling action over a more thoughtful, intellectual approach of lower budgeted science-fiction films. I see his point, and I agree with him, for the most part. However, there is no denying the impact of Star Wars on science-fiction cinema and popular culture.

For further analysis of Craig's views on big budget, Hollywood produced films, see Andrew J. Rausch's and Charles E. Pratt, Jr's 2015 book - The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood. Craig is interviewed in the book and makes a great case for the importance and entertainment value of Ed Wood films. Like Rudolph Grey, Craig is an expert on all things Ed Wood.

For further reading of Craig's works, see his other excellent books - Ed Wood: Mad Genius - A Critical Study of The Films (2009), Gutter Auteur: The Films of Andy Milligan (2012), and The Films of Larry Buchanan - A Critical Examination (2007). I am anxiously waiting for his latest project about low-budget director Jerry Warren to be released. It couldn't come out soon enough for me. Happy reading.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Moron Than Off, a comedy short remake of Langdon effort

Review by Doug Gibson

As part of our occasional series that explore the old-time Columbia comedy shorts that do not feature the (great) Three Stooges, we turn to Sterling Holloway, a skinny, gangling funnyman who made a half-dozen shorts for Columbia in the mid 1940s. Holloway had a long, distinguished career. His voice was unique, and heard as Winnie The Pooh and many Disney cartoon characters. My favorite screen moment of his is a one-time guest spot on The Andy Griffith Show as Bert Miller, low-pressure salesman who can't stand doorbells.

For this post, we're going to look at the 1946 short "Moron Than Off." As always, we thank Greg Hilbrich's The Shorts Department for getting these shorts available. YouTube address here. Actually, a short called "Man Or Mouse" is a better Holloway effort, in my opinion, but we look at "Moron Than Off" because it's a remake of a 1935 Columbia short, "I Don't Remember," starring the great Harry Langdon. It's worth a comparison. (We thank YouTube's Johnny Flattire for this and other offerings.

The plots of both concern an absentminded husband who is driving his wife, and mother, to despair over his general ineptitude. He's the kind of man who brings home dogs panting from the heat when his wife asks him to buy hot dogs, and leaves himself to dry, rather than the umbrella, after a jaunt in the rain. Holloway's character is named Elmer Fossdinkle. He draws paintings with cryptic humor that are unsalable. Langdon's character, by the way, is named Harry Crump.

A problem Holloway has is that he lacks the subtle, facial humor of Langdon. Langdon can arch an eye, or stare blankly at a dilemma and get laughs. Holloway has to play the role more broadly, with exclamations and some face-mugging. The budget for "I Don't Remember" seems much higher than "Moron Than Off," and the cast is better. Holloway's sidekick is Monte Collins. Langdon has Vernon Dent. Also, Geneva Mitchell as the harried wife to Langdon is better than Eleanor Counts as Holloway's better half.

After breakfast, the wife of Holloway's friend, played by Collins, comes over to complain that Fossdinkle is making her husband gamble. As she arrives, Holloway, thinking the doorbell was the phone, carries on a phone conversation briefly with her as she talks just behind him. This is actually one rare moment where the remake has a scene funnier than the original. In "I Don't Remember," Langdon sees his friend's wife before he can start talking on the phone.

Eventually, Fossdinkle is told to go pay for the home furniture or it will be repossessed. Instead of doing that, he gives the money to his friend Collins to bet on the Irish sweepstakes. Returning home to his mother's lamentations, he decides to paint the walls of the house to look like it's furnished. This leads to some gags of Fossdinkle and his wife trying to st down and falling. This scene is done much better in Langdon's "I Don't Remember." There are more paintings shown in a much better home setting. The cheapness of "Moron Than Off" shows in this scene as only a small wall is shown.

After failing to save the furniture, Fossdinkle, in despair that he'll likely lose his wife, prepares to commit suicide, but instead decides to try to kill his friend, who comes to visit. This scene might jar more politically correct audiences today but it's played for laughs, involves a policeman, and in "I Don't Remember," a hapless maintenance man as well. During the chase, both notice newspapers with headlines saying they won the sweepstakes. The pair go to turn in their halves of the tickets. Predictably, Holloway and Langdon's character can't recall where their half is, then find it, then lose it, then find it, then lose it, and so on ...

I love these Columbia shorts and I think Holloway does a good job. He's no Langdon but he has a certain, goofy enthusiasm and physical comedy skills. Certain parts of "Moron Than Off" have stock footage from "I Don't Remember," including a final scene at a beach with Fosdinkle still searching for the ticket in the sea.

Jules White directed "Moron Than Off" and his brother "Preston Black" directed "I Don't Remember." Remakes were not uncommon with Columbia shorts. We'll back with another Columbia comedy short review in a couple of months or so.

Friday, February 10, 2017

'Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors ...' a breezy recap of a golden era

Review by Doug Gibson

On the cover of BearManor Media's enjoyable new offering, "Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors 1931-1934," is the infamous still from "Freaks," the one where the murderous trapeze artist Cleopatra, played by Olga Baclanova, is seen post-mutilation by the sadistic, vengeful carnival freaks. She's turned into a type of duck woman, and can only quack.

That "end scene" jarred me as a child watching the only version of "Freaks" then available in the 1970s, at least for TV consumption. It reminds that for decades the Hollywood pre-code horrors were seen on TV only in truncated versions, victims of the mid 1930s censors. "Freaks," by the way, has an epilogue beyond the duck woman. * However, like "Dr, Jekyll and Mr Hyde," and "Mystery of the Wax Museum," "Freaks" and other films, were even pushed out of circulation by the studios; a few were thought lost.

The films you could see: "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "King Kong," etc. were missing memorable scenes, such as the vampire's death groans, the Frankenstein monster tossing a child into a lake, or men being eaten by spiders on Kong Island. It's been about 20 years ago that fans finally began to see these films as they were presented in the pre-code era; first in video, later on DVD and now the Internet and streaming offer options.

With this comes more genre books on the pre-code era and its movies. BearManor's author, Raymond Valinoti Jr., provides an entertaining, informative look at these early '30s horror films. It's not as deep a dive into the pre-code horror era as McFarland's "The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror ...", but its breezy, one-film-after-another style makes for an easier read for genre fans. And the chapters are packed with information despite the slender several-pages chapters. I'd wager that the average genre fan will learn at least one fact about each film that he or she didn't know before.

Cast and crew, plot summary, the background of each film, why it was released, an explanation of the pre-code elements of each film and how they were received; audience and critics' reactions; recollections by principals and the financial fortunes of the films are popular topics in the chapters. All the essentials are covered, including "Doctor X," "Island of Lost Souls," all the Universals, including the delightful "The Old Dark House"; "White Zombie," and the grisly "Murders in the Zoo." In all, 19 films are profiled, including "The Mask of Fu Manchu" and even "Supernatural," an obscure pre-code horror directed by Victor Halperin with Bette Davis. It's the sole movie featured that I have yet to see.

Valinoti is a fine writer, and the book features a valuable introduction to the genre as well as an epilogue discussing post 1934 genre films. Frankly, I think "The Raven," "Mad Love" and "Bride of Frankenstein" should have chapters in this book. However, "Dracula's Daughter" and "The Walking Dead" are appropriately noted as films that were somewhat sanitized due to the code's renewed strength.

The author overdoes it a little in pointing out the sexism, racism, nativism, and other isms of some of the films. I don't disagree but these are 1931-1934 films, and need to be assessed in that context.

But there is little to complain about. "Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors ..." is another fine BearManor Media offering to satisfy those whom delight in the minutiae of film genre.

* The TV version of "Freaks" I saw may have been the roadshow version that was peddled by exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper long after the film was removed from general release by MGM.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

'Murders In the Zoo' has the most sadistic pre-code scene

By Doug Gibson

Murders in the Zoo” is a largely forgotten fairly large-budget Paramount film from 1933. It merits far more attention. Like its Paramount predecessor, the better-known “Island of Lost Souls," it has scenes of sadism and pain that are unique for its era. Film critic Leonard Maltin has called the film “astonishingly grisly.” In any event, it’s a great tale and well worth owning.

The opening scene is a shocker. A man, Taylor, is being calmly tortured by Lionel Atwill’s character, who comments that he’ll never kiss another man’s wife again. Taylor is left in the jungle, presumably to die due to the elements or wild animals. Hands tied behind his back, he staggers forward. As he turns his face, the camera reveals that his lips have been sewn shut! And his pain-filled, terrified expression adds horror and discomfort to the scene.

The film involves a sadistic, psychopathic millionaire sportsman named Eric Gorman, played very well by Atwill, who murders men who display a romantic interest in his wife, Evelyn, played by Kathleen Burke (the panther woman in “… Lost Souls.”  The murdered man, we learn, had kissed – in jest – Evelyn. Gorman announces that he has disappeared, dryly telling his wife that he "didn't say" why he left.

Gorman returns from the Indo-China region with many wild animals that are put in a financially struggling zoo. The principals there include Professor Evans (Harry Beresford), his pretty daughter Jerry Evans (Gail Patrick), and her romantic interest,  Dr. Jack Woodford (played by future cowboy films star Randolph Scott). Meanwhile, Evelyn, despite her brutish husband, is engaged in an adulterous affair with playboy John Lodge, played by Roger Hewitt. Also thrown into the plot for comic relief is alcoholic public relations man Peter Yates, played by Charlie Ruggles, a popular comedy player of that era. In fact, Ruggles is top-billed! 

More murders occur prior to the climax. It’s interesting to see films other than “… Lost Souls” that feature the iconic, beautiful Burke, and she’s not a sympathetic character. Nevertheless, the audience cares about her fate because her husband is a world-class movie villain. Atwill’s pursuit of Burke’s Evelyn from their home to the zoo, where he throws her, alive, over a bridge with alligators below is chilling.

By far the most interesting character is Atwill. He is absolutely superb portraying a combination of intimidation, strength and cruelty. Picture a combination of Leslie Bank’s Zaroff in “The Most Dangerous Game” and Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly in “On the Waterfront.” A merciless character, he sees his wife as his possession. Atwill’s Gorman is also cunning, able to change his personalities and facial expressions on a whim to to his advantages and desires. The scene where he demands sex from his unwilling, repulsed wife is macabre. He taunts her with brutal, pre-murder sexual humiliation much the way Fredric March's Mr. Hyde did to streetwalker Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins in "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde," another shocking pre-code horror.

In one of most erotic pre-code scenes ever, Hopkins' Ivy comes close to seducing the Dr. Jekyll side of March's character, which eventually unleashes the sadistic Hyde.

Atwill’s performance is worthy of Lon Chaney’s best silent offerings and it would have been interesting to have seen Chaney in the role. Scott is semi-bland as the ultimate hero who gets the girl but it’s fun to see him in a non-cowboy role.

Obviously, once the code was enforced, for decades viewers missed the opening lips sown shut scene. Since it serves as sort of a prologue, it could easily be cut. Another scene, less shocking but perhaps reminiscent of the morals codes of the early 1930s, that was cut for decades was a tipsy Ruggles, waking up after fainting from seeing a snake, asking if anyone knew where a laundry was.

Do you get it? It's a kind of funny, but what's even funnier is that it once offended censors.

"Murders in the Zoo" made money for Paramount but not a lot. The grisly opening scene may have scared off repeat viewings, and a publicity stunt by the studio of using real animals in a scene backfired, as the animals went out of control, with deadly fights and one panther escaping for a while.