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A cinematic valentine to Uncle Forry
2007's "Famous Monster: Forrest J Ackerman" was a brief 48 minute celebration of 'Uncle Forry,' longtime editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland (lasting from 1958-1982), who became an avid horror fan from a very young age, thanks to his maternal grandparents taking him to see as many as 7 films a day. It was Lon Chaney's "The Phantom of the Opera" that truly started him on the road to the Ackermansion, where his vast collection of movie memorabilia was stored to allow easy access to fellow buffs eager to see them. From the early days befriending Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury to the 1950s, when Forry coined the term 'Sci Fi,' to the 60s, when Christopher Lee's reprise of Dracula included Bela Lugosi's signature Dracula ring bestowed upon him by Ackerman. Those were the days when 'Horrorwood, Karloffornia' was the place to be, when the SHOCK! Television package proved so popular that publisher Jim Warren cashed in on the growing 'Monster Kid' craze by hiring the biggest kid of all to be his editor-in-chief. Future directors weaned on the magazine included John Landis, Fred Olen Ray, and Joe Dante, whose initial letter detailing the worst horror films he had seen wound up being published as an article (collectors would read each issue from back to front in search of every item they could afford). Among numerous Forry anecdotes is meeting a 4 year old girl who knew about Dracula and Frankenstein but not Abraham Lincoln. When he showed her his picture on the front of a penny, she recognized him straight away: "Vincent Price!" The best thing about this cinematic valentine to an unapologetic acolyte of screen terror is that it was released just before Ackerman's inevitable passing in 2008 at the ripe old age of 92.
Mediocre Bava but hardly his worst
1970's "5 Dolls for an August Moon" ("5 Bambole per la Luna d'Agosto") was regarded by director Mario Bava as his worst film, for a number of valid reasons, chiefly a lackluster script with interchangeable characters that are doomed right from the start of this knockoff of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians." Another is that he accepted the offer to begin shooting two days after signing on, with little time to work out its many inherent weaknesses, leaving the audience to decide on the merits of the events (or lack thereof) displayed on screen. We have three couples gathered together at the island retreat of industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corra) and his wife Jill (Edith Meloni), not so much for a weekend getaway as to make a play for a new resin formula created by Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger), accompanied by wife Trudy (Ira von Furstenberg). Nick Chaney (Maurice Poli) would like nothing better than for his young bride Marie (Edwige Fenech) to use her feminine wiles to achieve his goals, while Jack Davidson (Howard Ross) also covets the formula, each of the three men signing a check for a cool $1 million as incentive for an unwilling and secretive Professor. Also on the island is the young gamekeeper's daughter Isabel (Justine Gall), living away from the main house and often seen spying upon the filthy rich. Unlike previous Bava entries such as "Blood and Black Lace," there are no stalking sequences to build suspense, nearly all the victims found quite dead and no means of escape as they await the arrival of another launch, storing the corpses in a giant walk-in freezer. Perhaps the experience of making a silk purse out of this sow's ear inspired the director to do his own take on the same material, since 1971's "Twitch of the Death Nerve" served up multiple murderers and corpses in a ballet of blood that proved to be one of his very best.
Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)
Could only be made in the 70s...
1971's "Pretty Maids All in a Row" is indeed a curious item from MGM, Gene Roddenberry's only feature film production apart from his six STAR TREK franchise entries, adapted by Roddenberry at the behest of former Desilu executive Herb Solow from Francis Pollini's forgotten 1968 novel about high school teachers seducing willing students with a serial killer on the loose. With his legendary glorification of the opposite sex, and William Ware Theiss back on board as costume designer, the producer also secured the sadly brief services of James Doohan and William Campbell as sidekicks to investigator Sam Surcher, played by Telly Savalas two years before his star making turn as television's KOJAK. Future POLICE WOMAN Angie Dickinson undoubtedly turned masculine heads as substitute teacher Miss Smith, the object of desire for frustrated student Ponce (John David Carson), understandably obsessed as he is by such close proximity to braless, nubile pubescence before, during, and after class (male viewers can only wonder at the camera's eagle eyed ogling of every comely female form in sight). Surcher's prime suspect is football coach and guidance counselor Tiger McDrew, with his accomplished background in psychology and a Purple Heart from the Korean War, a definite change of pace for top billed Rock Hudson, only 12 years removed from Doris Day and "Pillow Talk," and likely a surrogate for producer Roddenberry himself in his frequent seductions and pontifications, all with a beautiful wife and young daughter at home (he too would soon find a home on the small screen in McMILLAN AND WIFE). Roddy McDowall's frazzled principal Proffer is only concerned about the bad publicity, quick to overlook Tiger's randy ruminations so long as his team performs on the football field, and private 'testing' sessions behind locked doors with naked students a daily occurrence. Nothing seems quite right about this high school, remaining open for football and class despite the growing number of undressed corpses, and Keenan Wynn's comic relief sheriff eventually paying for his prying eyes with his life too. Everything looks perfect for low budget Roger Corman sexploitation, requiring perhaps a minor change from high school to college, yet somehow as a major studio release it failed miserably at the box office. In the director's chair was Frenchman Roger Vadim, making his Hollywood debut, clearly exulting in young, healthy pulchritude in the wake of his divorce from Jane Fonda, though no apparent Brigitte Bardots are among the selected 'Pretty Maids.' Angie Dickinson, at a stunning 38, makes her ample presence felt to a charming degree as she helps to cure Ponce of his shyness, the kind of hands on approach that adolescent males always yearned for but never got. The soundtrack features a theme song that appears in two different versions, Lalo Schifrin's "Chilly Winds" (lyrics by Mike Curb) rendered by The Osmonds as a soft ballad during the opening credits (issued as the B-side of "Double Lovin'" from their album HOMEMADE), a more rocking take with 13 year old Donny more prominent for the closing credits. What an eclectic collection of talent, and a genuine oddity that Quentin Tarantino continues to hold in high regard.
Warren Oates a perfect match for John Dillinger
1973's "Dillinger" wasn't the first biopic of the 30s most infamous bank robber (that would be Lawrence Tierney's 1945 Monogram feature sporting the same title), but as the directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter John Milius, it carried forth the blood red stain of death exemplified by the 1967 "Bonnie and Clyde," without turning its gangsters into romanticized folk heroes. Apart from his tight staging of action packed shootouts, the best thing about this version is its exemplary cast, with Warren Oates such a dead ringer for the charismatic title character that he was seemingly born to play John Dillinger (Milius was always drawn to such strong performers anyway). Opposing him is Oscar winner Ben Johnson (for 1971's "The Last Picture Show") as FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, determined to smoke one prized Cuban cigar over the corpse of every criminal on his Most Wanted list. What a Rogue's Gallery of capable confederates: Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Dreyfuss (as Baby Face Nelson), John Ryan, Steve Kanaly (as Pretty Boy Floyd), and Frank McRae, with Michelle Phillips playing Dillinger's love interest, and another Oscar winner (for the same 1971 film!), Cloris Leachman popping up at the very end as 'The Lady in Red.' Although it's about as factual as the 1939 "Jesse James," the pacing never flags and the filmmakers truly bring the Depression-era to vivid life, an unbeatable entertainment for those with strong stomachs.
Hollywood's long lasting independent maverick
2021's "Roger Corman: The Pope of Pop Cinema" was a French documentary that examines the vast and still ongoing output of maverick producer/director Roger Corman, which began as a story editor and screenwriter at 20th Century-Fox before venturing out on his own as an independent (still going deep into his 90s). 1953's "Monster from the Ocean Floor" was touted as his first genuine production, and since he wasn't impressed with his director, decided to save money by tackling the job himself on a color Western, "Five Guns West." Talent before the camera like Dick Miller or Jonathan Haze are bypassed for those behind the camera, such acclaimed filmmakers as Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, and Ron Howard, who was savvy enough to accept the sequel to "Eat My Dust!" at the same acting rate if he could double as director for free (this film would be "Grand Theft Auto"). At 54 minutes there just isn't time to cover much more than the basics that most informed buffs already know, and from the 70s his New World Pictures achieved new heights of glory with delightful entries like "Caged Heat," "Death Race 2000," and "Piranha." Ron Howard sums it up best by quoting his mentor: "Ron, you are doing a good job on this picture, and if you continue to do a good job you'll never have to work for me again!"
Quatermass 2 (1957)
First Hammer sequel never lets up
1956's "Quatermass 2" was Hammer's sequel to "The Quatermass Xperiment," both adapted from popular BBC series scripted by Nigel Kneale, whose exclusive contract forbade him from writing the first feature but not its follow up. Unhappy with Hollywood import Brian Donlevy as a steely, determined Quatermass, plus the streamlining performed by director Val Guest, Kneale himself did the honors this time around, as instead of a single human astronaut slowly transformed into something completely alien, there is now a full blown conspiracy involving the British government being taken over by cosmic invaders inside tiny cylinders covering the ground near the desolate village of Winnerden Flats. After encountering a distressed couple on the road, Quatermass decides to inspect the area with assistant Marsh (Bryan Forbes), where an unbroken cylinder infects the latter, forcibly left behind once the scientist sees for himself the actual recreation of his lifelong dream of a moon based community under gigantic domes. A reunion with Inspector Lomax (John Longden) finds the project identified as a means to produce synthetic food, but it's already clear that the armed soldiers are truly out for blood, one unlucky government official meeting his doom in horrific fashion, while a courageous reporter is gunned down for his trouble. The terror is more wide open this time, and the eerie feeling that it's already too late keeps the intensity as high as its original counterpart. Much of the Hammer stock company came together for "X the Unknown" (made in between the Quatermass features), and it's a pleasure to see such familiar faces as Michael Ripper, William Franklyn, John Van Eyssen, and Percy Herbert on hand to lend it that studio touch, despite shooting on location at an Essex refinery (James Bernard again delivering a nerve jangling score that admirably punctuates the horror). Taking notice of the audience's preference for horror over black and white science fiction, Hammer made their next title a color feast of bloody mayhem with a homegrown television star ready for the big screen, Peter Cushing taking the lead in "The Curse of Frankenstein."
The best of Boris Karloff in a comprehensive documentary
2021's "Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster" is among the first truly comprehensive documentaries about the actor known for his indelible portrayal of The Monster in James Whale's 1931 "Frankenstein," yet one wonders why it took so long for such a film to be made, just over 50 years after his 1969 passing at age 81 (better this than a biopic!). Kicking things off with The Monster was clearly the right way to start, continuing with "The Old Dark House" and "The Mummy" before delving into his early life, the youngest son in a diplomatic family, whose dark complexion made him stand out in school as well as silent bit parts. A chance encounter with Lon Chaney was most encouraging, but it wasn't until his 1930 performance as convict Galloway in Howard Hawks' "The Criminal Code" that studios and audiences began to really take notice of him. Karloff always believed that any actor worth his salt could have played The Monster and reaped its rewards, proving himself again and again in worthy vehicles like "The Black Cat," "The Invisible Ray," and one for Columbia, "The Black Room" offering him dual roles as twins, one good, the other evil, plus a magical third performance as the bad one impersonating his murdered brother. The 40s were a bonanza for Broadway success in "Arsenic and Old Lace," then a three picture collaboration with RKO producer Val Lewton in "The Body Snatcher," "Isle of the Dead," and "Bedlam." His final decade brought television acclaim as host and occasional star on NBC's THRILLER, the Wurdulak in Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath" (the family that slays together, stays together!), his memorable narration of Dr. Seuss' "The Grich That Stole Christmas," and a final bow as an aging monster actor in Peter Bogdanovich's "Targets." A trip down memory lane for enthusiasts, or a wonderful introduction for the uninitiated, you can't go wrong either way.
Discovering Film: Peter Lorre (2015)
Examining the most indelible Peter Lorre performances
Unlike A&E's 1996 biography of Peter Lorre, this equally short 2016 documentary focuses more on the actor's most indelible screen portrayals, kicking off with 1931's "M," Fritz Lang's psychological thriller about a compulsive child murderer who must explain himself to the Berlin underworld or be subjected to vigilante justice. There would be two roles for Alfred Hitchcock ("The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Secret Agent"), before Hollywood stardom as globetrotting Japanese detective Mr. Moto, moving on to his most prolific period during World War 2, a frequent costar with Humphrey Bogart in such classics as "The Maltese Falcon," "Casablanca," and "Passage to Marseilles." His comeback, spurred on by Bogart's "Beat the Devil," would feature smaller yet unforgettable performances in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Around the World in Eighty Days," climaxed by Vincent Price vehicles "Tales of Terror" and "The Raven," grateful to be doing comedy again. No mention is made of his three marriages, and only a brief discussion of his morphine addiction following a botched appendectomy. Clearly an actor who deserves more in depth coverage than a 44 minute dissertation.
The first in depth coverage of actor Peter Lorre
This Halloween 1996 edition of A&E's Biography pays tribute to Peter Lorre, the first in depth video biography of the actor since his 1964 death at age 59 from a fatal heart attack, abetted by Stephen D. Youngkin, coauthor of the 1982 publication "The Films of Peter Lorre." Aspiring to the stage from a young age, his disapproving martinet father soon relented once he saw how dedicated his eldest offspring was, relocating to 1920s Berlin for a bohemian lifestyle that earned plaudits from his debut. Playwright Bertolt Brecht made him a household name in Germany, while director Fritz Lang's 1931 feature "M" achieved international success that soon saw Lorre making the rounds in Hollywood, first under contract at Columbia ("Crime and Punishment") then 20th Century-Fox, where the Mr. Moto series established his versatility as a mysterious globetrotting figure who could take out enemies with his prowess at judo. His happiest years were spent at Warners opposite good friends Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet, all gathered together under first time director John Huston for 1941's "The Maltese Falcon," but by decade's end personal and financial setbacks forced him to accept just about anything, his once lauded skills now reduced to self parody as simply 'making faces.' Lorre felt that the best actors had to be adept psychologists to achieve the utmost in characterization, and remained on good terms with his first two wives, Celia Lovsky best remembered as Vulcan matriarch T'Pau in STAR TREK's "Amok Time" (she died in 1979).
Terror in the Wax Museum (1973)
John Carradine and Ray Milland
1973's "Terror in the Wax Museum" was among the handful of horror films made through Bing Crosby Productions, best remembered for "Willard" and "Ben" (the crooner himself having left the fold years earlier), the first of two from the brothers Fenady, producer Andrew and director Georg also responsible for the darkly comic "Arnold." Both features betray their TV background with studio bound exteriors depicting turn of the century London, aided greatly by the casting of screen veterans in major roles, with John Carradine introducing this one as waxworks owner Claude Dupree, entertaining offers to sell out to New York businessman Amos Burns (Broderick Crawford), but remaining loyal to longtime collaborators Harry Flexner (Ray Milland) and disfigured deaf mute Karkov (Steven Marlo). Running the pub next door is building owner Tim Fowley (Louis Hayward), its chanteuse entertainer (Shani Wallis) belting out the same excruciating number night after night. The wax figures on display are some of history's most notorious murderers, including one for the never caught Jack the Ripper, who mysteriously comes to life to snuff out Dupree for his 'betrayal' of inanimate friends. Scotland Yard's perfunctory investigation proves a slow moving slog through intriguing possibilities, such as the real Ripper seeking revenge for his unflattering effigy, and as cast members die off the hidden culprit looks more and more like a sure bet. Carradine and Milland come off best, an improvement on Cameron Mitchell's "Nightmare in Wax" but hardly a patch on Vincent Price's "House of Wax" (lacking the humorous tone of the next Fenady film, "Arnold").
Inside Straight (1951)
David Brian and Lon Chaney
1951's "Inside Straight" is hardly a Western though set in 1870s San Francisco, where a run on the local bank has shareholders in a near violent panic. The bank owner is widow Ada Stritch (Mercedes McCambridge), forced to call upon longtime millionaire nemesis Rip McCool (David Brian) for the needed funds, coyly dealing his cards to determine the victor. Gathered around McCool are all his main associates, though only Shocker (Lon Chaney) has remained a trusted friend since their first meeting when Rip was a penniless teen earning enough wages as a miner to bury his beloved parents, dead from cholera during their westward journey. After relocating to Frisco, he proceeded to bilk Ada out of her hotel with worthless mine stocks, earning and losing a fortune in stealing them back. One loveless marriage to chanteuse Lily Douvane (Arlene Dahl) produced a son, McCool's second marriage to governess Zoe (Paula Raymond) ending with both mother and child dying in childbirth. The only truly likable character on display is Lon Chaney as the Serbian Shocker, given name Schockovitz Ninkovitch, using the same accent for his 1956 portrayal of "The Golden Junkman" on TV's TELEPHONE TIME. Gerald Mayer, nephew of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, had only 8 other feature credits as director (soon relegated to television), this film a regrettable box office flop that failed to ignite stardom for stone faced David Brian, quickly descending to supporting ranks as in 1952's "Springfield Rifle," again opposite Lon Chaney. Such suave masters as Cesar Romero or George Sanders might have made something of this cad, but Brian is just a bore; his television work included a memorable cameo as John Gill in the 1968 STAR TREK episode "Patterns of Force." Look fast for future TV stars Hayden Rorke (I DREAM OF JEANNIE) and Barbara Billingsley (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER).
Behave Yourself! (1951)
Farley Granger and Lon Chaney
1951's "Behave Yourself!" is that rare comedy lacking in anything remotely humorous, spoofing the gangster genre with its huge array of guest stars essentially reduced to cameo roles, most of whom join the heavenly choir by picture's end. The cause of all the mayhem is an overly friendly Welsh terrier named Archie, liaison for a contraband smuggling ring, who latches on to small time accountant William Calhoun Denny (Farley Granger), using the pooch as a last minute substitution for a wedding anniversary gift that delights wife Kate (Shelley Winters), if not her typically suspicious mother (Margalo Gillmore). The crooks wait for their loot to change hands as every address listing a lost dog winds up with another batch of corpses to baffle the cops, until the last few that remain all gather at the Denny residence for a final shootout. The blame for this misfire lies squarely with author George Beck, supposedly written as a Damon Runyon knockoff in four days as his only feature film as director, less so for mismatched stars Granger (substituting for Cary Grant) and Winters, whose off screen friendship doesn't translate into on screen sparks. Easily lost among the numerous supporting villains is Lon Chaney as Pinky, the somewhat dimwitted racketeer responsible for most of the bodies lying about, and an easy target for Denny's false escape route (he would also be wasted in another alleged comedy, "Pardners," starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis).
Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, one last time
"Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" served as the third season's Halloween broadcast on October 26, 1962, ushering in a screen revival for both Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney while providing one of Peter Lorre's last TV appearances (all three play themselves). We first see the 56 year old Chaney in his father's guise of the Hunchback, later wrapped up as The Mummy before going out in style as his own Wolf Man, just as Karloff dons his signature makeup one final time as Frankenstein's Monster (at age 74!). Martin Milner as Tod and George Maharis as Buz now find themselves working at the O'Hare Inn outside Chicago, where Buz is in his element ogling the pretty girls (among them Jeannine Riley and Betsy Jones-Moreland), while Tod is assigned as liaison for the trio of Hollywood stars and their attempt to prove that they still have the ability to scare the new generation. Lon is adamant that what worked before remains effective, Boris a bit more skeptical, Lorre (garbed only in a cape) delivering a priceless retort when being compared to 'Peter Lorre': "that's pretty insulting, isn't it?" The frightened reactions of the girls prove an absolute delight for our classic monsters, Chaney in particular rejoicing up and down the hotel hallways before bidding farewell with one last snarl. Brief turns from Conrad Nagel and Martita Hunt can't steal the thunder from the terror-ble trio, the whole thing rather slight yet pure nostalgia for long time chiller fans. Karloff would soon return to films in "The Raven," Chaney doing the same in "The Haunted Palace," both for AIP opposite current horror star Vincent Price (this was the second of Lon's three ROUTE 66 episodes, preceded by "The Mud Nest" and followed by "Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!").
Flame of Araby (1951)
Jeff Chandler and Lon Chaney
1951's "Flame of Araby" was a fairly ordinary though well made adventure, aided greatly by the pairing of rugged Jeff Chandler and ravishing Maureen O'Hara, shot in saturated color as first "Wildfire," then "Flame of the Desert." It's strictly by the numbers scripting by Gerald Drayson Adams, a stodgy Arabian Knights outline depicting the conflicts between a regal Tunisian princess and a Bedouin chieftain, transformed by the staging of director Charles Lamont into a straightforward Western in the pursuit of a wild black stallion known to be the swiftest horse of them all, Shahzada. Jeff Chandler was described by future costar Jane Russell as more a personality than an actor (specifically 'a charming man'), which works here as his relentless desire to tame that which cannot be tamed equals that of Princess Tanya (Maureen O'Hara), whose hand in marriage has been promised to one of the dreaded Corsair brothers, desperately in need of a champion who can outrace their finest steeds to defeat them both. Much of Maureen's thunder is stolen early on by the stunning Susan Cabot, whose erotic dance before Chandler's Tamerlane made quite an impression on her instructor: "with a figure like yours, the only person who'll look at your feet will be Arthur Murray!" Once interiors conclude at the midway mark, it's an all outdoor feast most appealing to equestriennes everywhere who can appreciate the characterization of the horse Shahzada, his sleek nobility and sheer power essayed by 8 year old saddlehorse Highland Dale, best remembered as the 1946 "Black Beauty," and as Broadway Bill in Frank Capra's "Riding High." Back at Univeral for only his second film since 1945's "House of Dracula," Lon Chaney was cast as Borka Barbarossa, never seen without brother Hakim (Buddy Baer), preying upon the spinelessness of Tanya's ruler cousin (Maxwell Reed) to secure a princess in their midst (two years later, he appeared opposite John Payne's pirate Barbarossa in "Raiders of the Seven Seas"). Appearing unbilled are Neville Brand as a horse trader (reunited with Chaney from Gregory Peck's "Only the Valiant"), Richard Hale as Tanya's dying father, and pretty Dorothy Ford, a tall starlet soon to play opposite Buddy Baer again in Abbott and Costello's "Jack and the Beanstalk."
Jesse James (1939)
John Carradine and Lon Chaney, part 4
1939's "Jesse James" is a hugely enjoyable Western that was shot on gorgeously saturated color landscapes in Missouri, but about all it has to do with the real Jesse was shared by his granddaughter: "well, there was a man named James and he did ride a horse!" Cast against type in an effort to counter his 'pretty boy' image was Tyrone Power, paired with Henry Fonda as brother Frank, so good that he received his own sequel a year later, "The Return of Frank James." Present in both films was the flamboyant John Carradine, in one of his best remembered roles, the 'dirty little coward' who shoots Jesse in the back to conclude this entry, then facing the wrath of his vengeful brother in the follow up, finishing with a climactic encounter in court. Carradine doesn't make his first appearance until after the 20 minute mark, wearing a mask as the James gang wage war on the Midland railroad by robbing their first train. Brian Donlevy's opening salvo against Jesse's mother (Jane Darwell) includes Lon Chaney inside and outside the James home, billed 31st out of 31 as 'One of James Gang,' speaking only four words but granted far more screen time than one might at first suspect (he lasts all the way until the Northfield raid, flying off his horse once he gets shot). If anything brings it down it's the thankless intrusion of Nancy Kelly, bringing the picture to a dead stop every time she pops up, but at least Henry Hull's bluster counters with a number of sharp retorts.
One Million B.C. (1940)
Lon Chaney and Carole Landis
1940's "One Million B. C." was producer Hal Roach's follow up to John Steinbeck's tragedy "Of Mice and Men," an even more challenging film from Hollywood for combining cavemen with dinosaurs despite the fact that they were long extinct before mankind walked the earth. Casting the leads required no real acting experience due to the deliberate absence of intelligible dialogue, though Lon Chaney was retained from the Steinbeck feature to play Akhoba, leader of the Rock people, ruling the clan by brute force and leading the hunt with his huge hounds. Victor Mature does make an impression as Tumak, son of Akhoba, forced to go his own way after losing a dispute with his father, coming upon Carole Landis as lovely Loana (Raquel Welch became an icon in this role for the 1966 remake), a member of the gentle Shell tribe, serving as tutor in the more measured ways of her people for the rough hewn Tumak. The human interest story eventually takes a back seat once the dinosaurs arrive, ordinary lizards and gators made to look more ferocious and pitted against each other on miniature sets (this footage would adorn many a cheap outing for decades to come, from 1950's "Two Lost Worlds" to 1961's "Valley of the Dinosaurs"). The shapely and busty Landis is a revelation in her skimpy one piece outfit, yet it's the veteran Chaney who earns acting honors as the once proud warrior who learns how to adjust to the kindness of a stranger. He even sought to match the exploits of his late father by creating his own makeup design, and photos prove he had the right stuff had not union rules prevailed. Even after the accolades that emerged from his grand portrayal of Lennie in "Of Mice and Men," this would sadly be his only movie role for all of 1940, until he was tabbed by Universal to star in "Man Made Monster," then a much smaller henchman part in MGM's "Billy the Kid."
Of Mice and Men (1939)
Lon Chaney and Burgess Meredith
John Steinbeck conceived "Of Mice and Men" in 1937 as just one in a series of 'California novels' based on his own experiences and hardships laboring with migrant workers during the early part of the 20th century, which also inspired his best known story, "The Grapes of Wrath." By 1939 both were in production simultaneously, John Ford identifying with the Okies of "Grapes," while producer Hal Roach successfully moved away from comedy to adapt "Mice," considering James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Broadway's Wallace Ford to play George Milton, with Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams tentatively set for gentle giant Lennie Small (Broadway's Broderick Crawford was not in the running). Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. Both arrived from the West Coast version of the play, and while Meredith was already an acclaimed stage presence it was Chaney who proved a revelation, toiling in Hollywood for nearly 60 films to little notice, yet this breakout role would only lead to a star contract at Universal for a series of classic monster roles that essentially echoed his father's name. Ranch workers during the Great Depression, Milton is a reluctant caretaker for cousin Lennie, who was kicked in the head as a youngster and is incapable of looking after himself, but yearns for the day when he can tend rabbits on their own farm. Not knowing his own strength, Lennie has an unfortunate tendency to pet smooth things like ladies' hair or satin dresses, the two forced to go on the run after every incident until they come to the Jackson Ranch, where they must contend with the bullheaded foreman's son Curley (Bob Steele), whose life has become a hornet's nest of trouble since marrying flirtatious Mae (Betty Field). Lennie's great size marks him as a target for Curley's aggression, which leads to a violent climax in which the smaller man pays a heavy price with a crushed hand. Dames and dogs just don't mix, and when Lennie makes one mistake too many poor George must prevent a vengeful Curley from stalking his prey like a dangerous animal. The Looney Tunes animation team earned a multitude of laughs at Lennie's expense, but in actually viewing Chaney's childlike portrayal one can't help getting caught up in his hopes and dreams despite the air of inevitable tragedy; he was so convincing that he would end up doing similar characterizations for the rest of his life, sometimes to comedic effect as on a 1966 episode of THE MONKEES.
Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)
Among Warner Oland's very best
1937's "Charlie Chan on Broadway" was Warner Oland's penultimate Chan film, with only "Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo" still to go, but this ranks right up there with such celebrated entries as "The Black Camel" and "Charlie Chan at the Opera" as one of the series' very best. Billie Bronson (Louise Henry) returns to New York City after several months keeping a low profile overseas, intent on putting a stop to the budding romance between nightclub owner Johnny Burke (Douglas Fowley) and his new chanteuse Marie (Joan Woodbury). Crossing the Atlantic with Chan and son Lee (Keye Luke), Billie remains unaware of the lurking presence of Thomas Mitchell (Marc Lawrence), who has been hoping to secure her personal diary, with plenty of information that would create chaos for underworld kingpin Buzz Moran (Leon Ames). When Billie's corpse is found in Burke's office, top newshound Speed Patten (Donald Woods) phones in the gory details to his editor Murdock (J. Edward Bromberg), who was patiently waiting for the murder victim in her hotel room, eager to purchase the much coveted diary. Harold Huber almost steals the film from Warner Oland, but the finale is perhaps the finest conceived for any Chan film, Lee coming to his father's rescue after one notable slip up by an exceedingly clever culprit (Leonard Maltin famously quipped: "try to solve this one!"). Lon Chaney can be spotted as a desk reporter with one line at the 14 minute mark, lost in a great many unbilled bits during his two years at Fox, with a slightly more noticeable role in a Sidney Toler entry, 1939's "Charlie Chan in City in Darkness."
City in Darkness (1939)
Leo G. Carroll and Lon Chaney
1939's "Charlie Chan in City in Darkness" was Sidney Toler's 4th entry in the long running Chan series, and pretty much his weakest before the move to Poverty Row Monogram (also the only one lacking Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan). The prime offender here is the same as in Warner Oland's finale "Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo," Harold Huber's mangling of the French language with the 'City in Darkness' being Paris, curiously the only time that Toler ventured into Europe during his Fox period. The mystery here just isn't too involving, and at 75 minutes it drags as the longest of all 22 Toler films, but as usual a terrific cast makes it watchable, Douglass Dumbrille the main heavy and murder victim, Leo G. Carroll a suspicious forger of fake passports for those most desperate to leave France on the eve of war with Nazi Germany. It's a rare case of too many unnecessary characters cluttering up the narrative, and too little to do for Charlie Chan himself, taking a back seat to Huber's gibberish with a bemused expression. Lon Chaney is wasted in a nothing bit as Carroll's henchman Pierre (he speaks only two words), a shame since this would be his final bow at Fox, having spent the previous two years in mostly unbilled roles (including a desk reporter in Oland's "Charlie Chan on Broadway"), just ahead the role of a lifetime in Louis Milestone's "Of Mice and Men."
Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938)
From Chan to Moto
1938's "Mr. Moto's Gamble" began life as "Charlie Chan at Ringside," Warner Oland's 17th entry as the Chinese detective, but his sudden illness forced producer John Stone to quickly refashion the script as the 4th entry in Peter Lorre's Mr. Moto series, retaining Keye Luke as 'Number One Son' Lee Chan (a role he would vacate until the final days at Monogram). Back from "Charlie Chan on Broadway" is Harold Huber as a tough talking city inspector, Moto reduced to being a college instructor on the methodology of murder, embroiled in a new one when a fighter dies in the ring during a championship bout, suspects including his crooked manager (George E. Stone) and victorious opponent (Dick Baldwin). Also present is a notorious bookie (Bernard Nedell), whose most frequent winner is Nick Crowder (Douglas Fowley), betting on a 'hunch' while henchman Joey (Lon Chaney) collects the dough. Ward Bond gets a standout role as the overconfident heavyweight champion, Lynn Bari and Jayne Regan vying for Baldwin's affection. Lorre always delivers solid performances, but with each film there's less judo prowess, a general softening of the character that allowed for greater comic relief in future entries, not a good omen for more serious minded mystery buffs. Lon Chaney was nearing the end of his two year stint doing bit parts at Fox, a couple of lines in this credited role but quite minor.
Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)
John Carradine and Lon Chaney, part 2
1938's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" found Darryl Zanuck combining the talents of Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, and Ethel Merman in a star studded celebration of early 20th century music by Irving Berlin, three composed expressly for this film. Power as Alexander chooses to forego a career as a classical violinist to become a popular bandleader with Faye his star attraction, their budding romance terminated when she leaves and eventually weds Ameche. A radio career beckons to reunite the two years later, aided by a little luck and a helpful taxi driver (John Carradine). It was a real oddity to see Carradine in such a sympathetic light, with a scar on his face and suspicious demeanor, here paired for a second time with frequent costar Lon Chaney, in for an unbilled bit as a photographer with one line at the 54 minute mark. The picture was a huge success, and remained a favorite of Alice Faye, who ended her Fox career opposite Carradine again, in Otto Preminger's 1945 "Fallen Angel."
The Alligator People (1959)
Only a boisterous Lon Chaney offers up any sparks
1959's "The Alligator People" was another Cinemascope entry for Robert L. Lippert's production outfit, still distributing through 20th Century-Fox like previous Regal titles "Back from the Dead," "The Unknown Terror," "She Devil," and "Kronos." It was a no brainer casting Lon Chaney, who had previously worked for the producer on "The Big Chase," "The Black Pirates," and "The Silver Star," the penultimate feature for director Roy Del Ruth, whose career stretched back to 1923, cinematography by another silent veteran in Karl Struss, of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (the Fredric March version) and "Island of Lost Souls." Topping the small cast is gorgeous Beverly Garland as plucky heroine Joyce Webster, whose investigation into her husband's disappearance on their wedding night leads to a secluded plantation known as The Cypresses, where Chaney's Mannon is the drunken handyman, and strange experiments involving reptiles take place. Her courtship with Paul Webster (Richard Crane) took longer than expected due to a plane crash in which he nearly died, Dr. Mark Sinclair using alligator cells to regenerate the damaged tissue, unwittingly allowing the reptilian side to produce a monstrous deformity. Mannon despises gators because of the loss of his left hand (a hook in its place), killing as many as he can on the premises, adding Paul to the list for foiling his lecherous advances upon a helpless, rain soaked Joyce. Most of the film is dead talk so it's really Chaney to the rescue with a bombastic portrayal that brings proceedings to life, but his brief appearances are merely a side character far from the central premise. He does figure in an admittedly electrifying climax, Mannon bursting in to disrupt the final treatment, one fatal mistake with his hook bringing an end to the plantation while poor Joyce trails the fully transformed Paul into the forbidding swamp. Beverly Garland long championed this as one of her favorite roles, enjoyed working with the boisterous Chaney, and agreed that it was hard keeping a straight face throughout.
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Lon Chaney's third and final role for director Stanley Kramer
1958's "The Defiant Ones" was only Stanley Kramer's third film as director, yet it was the one most responsible for elevating him in the pantheon of great filmmakers, already a renowned producer of previous hits such as "The Men" (Marlon Brando's screen debut), "Death of a Salesman," and "High Noon." Always drawn to controversial subject matter, race relations made this one most impactful, nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning for best cinematography by Sam Leavitt, and best original screenplay by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith. A white bigot (armed robbery) chained to a black convict (assault and battery with intent to kill) was not something done on Southern prison farms, the reason why Robert Mitchum refused the role of John 'Joker' Jackson, won by Tony Curtis after Marlon Brando had to withdraw due to prior commitments (Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and Frank Sinatra all turned it down). Elvis Presley expressed a desire to costar with Sammy Davis Jr. But his manager objected, Sidney Poitier truly the only choice for Kramer as Noah Cullen. Chained together because 'the warden's got a sense of humor,' the pursuant posse headed by Sheriff Muller (Theodore Bikel) figures the two will probably kill each other within five miles, arguing about which direction to take, then almost drowning in the rapids. A disastrous search for tools at a turpentine camp finds the two caught and almost lynched by a bigoted Mac (Claude Akins), stopped by sympathetic foreman Big Sam (Lon Chaney), who secretly allows the convicts to escape after they notice the scars on his own wrist from those prison shackles. They next come upon the farm of young Billy (Kevin Coughlin) and his love starved mother (Cara Williams), who takes a shine to Jackson and offers him escape at the wheel of her car, leaving Cullen behind to perish alone in a boggy swamp (frequent cutaways to the sheriff's men as the distance between them grows shorter). Curtis, Poitier, Bikel, and Williams all earned Academy Award nominations for their performances, but one would have liked to see the often neglected Lon Chaney receive his due, as poignant here as he was in previous Kramer titles "High Noon" (as the arthritic former marshal) and "Not as a Stranger" (as Robert Mitchum's defiant, alcoholic father). As Sidney Poitier often pointed out, Stanley Kramer was a filmmaker not afraid to take chances, securing solid character roles for Chaney that were three dimensional human beings and not the usual run of typecast heavies. The most humorous piece of trivia was in regard to longtime friends Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster: the former would only do it if he could play the black convict, the latter would only do it if he could play both parts!
Crazy House (1943)
Olsen and Johnson invade Universal Studios
1943's "Crazy House" may not strike many as Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson's best film, but it's one of the highlights of their Universal resurgence in the 1940s, a gaggle of guest stars in a wacky satire of Tinseltown that would be repeated by Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" in 1976, and "The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood" in 1980. The picture opens with Olsen and Johnson making their triumphant return through the studio gates, or rather flying over it since studio chief N. G. Wagstaff (Thomas Gomez) made it clear that they stay locked out; they proclaim themselves 'Universal's most sensational comedy team,' and are immediately welcomed as Abbott and Costello! This is by far the most engaging part, familiar faces scrambling to escape the shadow of Olsen and Johnson, from Andy Devine and Leo Carrillo preferring the company of a skunk, to Nigel Bruce's Doctor Watson making the announcement to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, who is already aware of their presence: "I am Sherlock Holmes, I know everything!" (the duo were currently shooting "The Spider Woman"). Nothing else comes close to this self spoofing, and six contract players include this title on their resumes without actually appearing on screen: Lon Chaney, Evelyn Ankers, Louise Allbritton, Turhan Bey, Grace McDonald, and Gale Sondergaard. Chaney would join Andy Devine and Leo Carrillo for the next Olsen and Johnson caper, "Ghost Catchers," but not their screen finale, 1945's "See My Lawyer." Today's viewers might understandably find it difficult to tell the team apart, Ole Olsen the short one with high pitched giggle, his more straight laced partner a smidgen taller.
A lucky horror hostess enjoys the company of Lon Chaney
CBS affiliate KSLA-TV in Shreveport LA, channel 12, was the place to be this Saturday night at 10:30, March 14, 1964, the TERROR! Show hosted by Evilun (Ruth Sprayberry 1921-1995) featuring a double bill of Lon Chaney classics, "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" followed by "The Mummy's Tomb." Appearing in person was the star himself, Lon Chaney arriving the previous rainy evening where he was greeted by 300 fans, the Byrd High School Band, contestants for Miss Shreveport and Shreveport Mayor Clyde Fant. The next day Evilun and Chaney held court at the Exhibit Museum for the 'Design a Monster' contest (5,000 entries overall, including sculptures), where they signed 2,000 photos and gave out 600 additional autographs when they ran out of snapshots. Two entries for 'Worst Prize' were then highlighted on her show that night, one winner from Texarkana, the other from Gladewater, plus a special prize for best child artist to an 11 year old girl from Longview. Lon talked about the Creoles, performed a bit of Lennie from "Of Mice and Men," then walked off the set dragging his foot as Kharis the Mummy. On Sunday the two returned to the exhibit one final time before Lon's departure. A four minute clip of Chaney's appearance has survived and remains in the Sprayberry family archives.