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Tag Archives: Jane Randolph

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (June 15, 1948)

There are two schools of thought regarding Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

On the one hand, it was the final nail in the coffin of the increasingly moribund Universal monster series. If you’re a horror purist, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents the nadir of Universal Studios’ monster movies.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who loves horror-comedies, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents one of the best-known and most enduring films in the genre.

It wasn’t the first horror-comedy. Paul Leni’s silent film The Cat and the Canary (1927) was the cornerstone of Universal’s horror machine, and it had plenty of comedic elements. James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) is both scary and incredibly funny, which is not an easy mixture to pull off.

And the practice of throwing comedians into a horror-movie scenario didn’t start with this film either.

The Ritz Brothers were paired with Bela Lugosi in The Gorilla (1939), and Bob Hope and Paulette Godard starred together in a remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) and the horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers in (1940).

So by the time Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was released, not only were horror-comedies an established part of the box-office landscape, but Universal Studios had firmly demonstrated that they had run out of ideas beyond the “mix and match” approach, which gave us Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), each one more campy and silly than the last. (And the last “straight” monster movie that Universal released in the ’40s — Jean Yarbrough’s 1946 film She-Wolf of London — was pretty dull.)

My main problem with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is that I don’t find Abbott and Costello funny. The duo started in vaudeville, and every comedic set piece in their films feels to me as if it needs to be watched in the midst of an easily amused, wildly guffawing audience for the full effect. Watching their films at home just doesn’t work for me. (I felt the same way about Mel Brooks’s 1974 horror-comedy Young Frankenstein when I rented it years ago. After hearing for most of my life that it was one of the funniest movies ever made, I was shocked by its obvious jokes, its incredibly slow pacing, and the way Gene Wilder mugged for the camera. The problem, I think, is that the jokes are timed to allow for a large audience to rock with laughter before the next joke is dropped. If you’re watching it for the first time alone, however, it can feel awfully slow.)

As a nearly life-long aficionado of Universal monster movies, I appreciated the look of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The film is set in Florida, and the sets are an effective mix of castle-like structures and steamy swamps. I also enjoyed seeing Bela Lugosi reprise his most famous role — Dracula. John Carradine played the Count in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, and he was fine, but there’s no beating Lugosi. And it’s always fun to see Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, a.k.a. The Wolf Man.

I also liked that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wasn’t overloaded with characters. Lugosi performs a kind of double duty. As Dracula, he turns into a bat and bends people to his will, but he’s also a mad scientist, scheming to bring Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) back to life to do his bidding. (The gag is that he plans to use the brain of Lou Costello, one of the dumbest characters in the history of cinematic comedy.)

Despite its classic Universal-horror look, there’s really nothing scary about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The director, Charles Barton, was a hard-working journeyman who had a lot of experience directing comedies and none directing horror. But the special effects do look really good. The main thing that stood out for me was Dracula’s transformations into a bat, which look much better here than they did in Dracula (1931). In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the transformations are achieved with a mixture of hand-drawn animation and puppetry. Still, I’ll take the eerie power of the original and its rubber bat on a string over an Abbott and Costello horror-comedy any day.

Open Secret (Jan. 31, 1948)

The years following World War II gave us a number of films that explored anti-Semitism in America. On the top of the heap were Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), a thoughtful, Oscar-winning drama, and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947), a taut, Oscar-nominated thriller.

On the bottom of the bill, so to speak, were movies like the Monogram cheapie Violence (1947), which was about a cabal of American fascists who were dedicated to preserving “America for Americans,” although the film never really got into specifics about who they intended to preserve it from.

John Reinhardt’s Open Secret, on the other hand, is just as cheap as Violence (possibly even cheaper), but it’s very specific about who its anti-Semitic antagonists hate.

Open Secret grabs viewers right from the beginning with a pre-credits sequence. (A rare occurrence in movies made in the ’40s.) A man walks into the back room of a bar, where a group of men sit around a poker table, and stands in the shadows, his face hidden. The camera pans across the men’s faces until one of the men finally speaks. “He’s guilty,” he says. “Well, get going,” says the man in the shadows. The men get going, and walk by Marathon Pictures Presents painted on the side of a fence like “Kilroy Was Here.”

The following 66 minutes of Open Secret don’t always live up to to the exciting promise of the first 2, but it’s briskly paced and features a good lead performance by the always-dependable John Ireland. He’s reunited with Jane Randolph, his co-star from Railroaded (1947). They play a newlywed couple, Paul and Nancy Lester, who are the polar opposites of the boozy thugs they played in Railroaded.

Faced with a hotel shortage on their honeymoon, Paul and Nancy stay with Paul’s old friend Ed Stevens (Charles Waldron Jr.), and are shocked when they find pamphlets in his apartment with titles like “The White Knight” and “Were the Nuremberg Trials Fair?”

“Somebody probably stuffed them in his mailbox. Must be. Ed isn’t like that,” Paul says to his wife.

Open Secret has all the hallmarks of a B picture. Like similar offerings from Monogram Pictures and P.R.C., the sets look like they’d fall over if one of the actors sneezed, the music is obtrusive, and the supporting players’ acting is more wooden than a Louisville Slugger. But on the plus side it has an interesting premise, a decent script, and the “star” players are all convincing. I always enjoy seeing Sheldon Leonard (he plays a detective in Open Secret), and George Tyne, who plays Harry Strauss, the proprietor of a camera shop, is also good.

Strauss is targeted by his prejudiced neighbors, not only because he’s Jewish, but because he’s in possession of some damning photographic evidence.

Open Secret is also interesting because it’s the earliest film I’ve seen in which a television is present. There’s a scene in Strauss’s shop that shows him and another man watching a baseball game on the television behind his counter. Full-scale commercial television broadcasting began in 1947, and televisions started showing up in large numbers in bars, hotels, and private homes, but Open Secret is the first film in which I’ve seen characters watching television.

Excluding science-fiction films, does anyone know of an earlier film that showed people watching television? If you do, please comment.

Railroaded (Sept. 25, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s Railroaded represents a number of missed opportunities and a few modest successes.

In 1947, Mann made his first really good film noir, Desperate, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures. It wasn’t a perfect film, but the actors were decent, the story was suspenseful, and many of the lighting setups by Mann and his cinematographer, George E. Diskant, were stunning.

Railroaded was the next film he made. While I was watching it, I found myself frequently saying “If only…”

If only the script was more focused. If only the music wasn’t so terrible. If only the actors were talented. If only the film featured more screen time for the interesting villains and less screen time for the uninteresting heroes. If only Mann had been given a larger budget. If only he had worked with cinematographer John Alton.

But if you want to watch that kind of movie, you have to dig into Mann’s later work; his six collaborations with Alton, made between 1947 and 1950, or the five westerns he made with James Stewart between 1950 and 1955. Railroaded is a modestly entertaining little picture if you have no expectations, but if you’re familiar with Mann’s later work, it’s bound to disappoint.

Mann made Railroaded for Producers Releasing Corporation (P.R.C.), a dependable old Poverty Row workhorse. It was the last really cut-rate movie that Mann would make. (P.R.C. was in the process of being bought by the powerful British film distributor J. Arthur Rank, and P.R.C.’s name would soon be changed to “Eagle-Lion International” to class it up a little. It was through Eagle-Lion that Mann’s excellent T-Men would be released later in 1947.) While Mann’s budgets were low, he was able to work with less studio control at Eagle-Lion International than he had been faced with at RKO, Universal, Paramount, and Republic.

In Jeanine Basinger’s book Anthony Mann (published in 1979; expanded and republished in 2007), she writes that Railroaded “is more unified than Desperate and points toward the coherence of Mann’s later works. It is perhaps his first really unified film, presenting the story of a young woman … and her attempts to clear her brother’s name of a murder charge.” I don’t agree with Basinger’s assessment, and find Railroaded an even more uneven film than Desperate.

Guy Roe was Mann’s cinematographer on Railroaded, and even though he’s not as good as Alton, there are still a number of impressive sequences, particularly the robbery that opens the picture.

John Ireland (the only actor in the film with any talent) plays a sneering criminal named Duke Martin who perfumes his bullets. (What’s a B-noir bad guy without a gimmick or two?)

The robbery is of a joint controlled by Jackland Ainsworth (Roy Gordon). It’s a numbers operation hidden in the back of a beauty shop run by Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph). Clara is Duke’s girlfriend, and the inside job was supposed to be a cinch, but the cops show up, and Duke snuffs one of them, which sets the events of the film in motion.

Duke arranged everything to point in the direction of a patsy, Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly). Steve is a young guy who lives with his sister, Rosie Ryan (Sheila Ryan), and his mother, Mrs. Ryan (Hermine Sterler). At the breakfast table, Rosie talks about the movie she saw the night before, and how she cried at the end, when the police got their man. Even though he was a criminal, she felt bad for him. Steve is unsympathetic, and says “Maybe some guys need a goin’ over.” Minutes later the police bust in and arrest him for murder. (John C. Higgins’s screenplay, which is based on a story by Gertrude Walker, could have used more clever and ironic moments like this one.)

Things look bad for Steve. Duke used Steve’s scarf as a mask during the robbery. Steve’s car was stolen and used as the getaway vehicle. A paraffin test to see if Steve has recently fired a gun comes up negative, but that doesn’t mean much after Duke’s partner, Cowie Kowalski (Keefe Brasselle), who was shot during the robbery, gives a deathbed confession that implicates Steve.

Railroaded isn’t actually a very accurate title for the film, since the cops don’t railroad Steve. They work with the evidence they have. (Framed would have been a more accurate title.) Unlike Desperate, which followed an innocent man’s terrifying flight from both gangsters and the police, the unjustly accused protagonist of Railroaded pretty much disappears from the film as soon as he’s jailed. Enter Sgt. Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont), a police detective who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Ryans, and is still sweet on Rosie.

Rosie believes her brother is innocent, and eventually starts to convince Sgt. Ferguson. This is where the picture really took a nosedive for me. Sheila Ryan is nice to look at, but she’s a completely unconvincing actress. Beaumont is even worse. He brings the same gravitas to his role as Sgt. Ferguson that he did to the scenes on TV a decade later in which he punished Wally and The Beav. Watching his scenes is like watching grass grow, and he and Sheila Ryan are the protagonists of Railroaded, not bit players.

With no one to root for, the only enjoyment I got out of Railroaded was watching John Ireland’s scenes, especially the ones with Jane Randolph. With the heat on, Duke orders Clara to hole up and stay off the booze. He’s planning one last score — a robbery of the Club Bombay, where the vigorish from Ainsworth’s bookie shops goes. Duke figures he can get revenge on Ainsworth and make off with $30 to $40 grand, which he’ll use to finance his and Clara’s getaway to South America. Of course, he can’t keep Clara off the sauce, but things aren’t all bad, since occasionally something exciting happens, like a vicious catfight Clara gets into with Rosie that Duke impassively watches while hidden:

Railroaded is a pretty typical P.R.C. product. The sets look like they’re made out of cardboard, the dialogue is stilted, the music is awful, and actors who can carry a scene are in the minority. Stretches of the film are entertaining, and occasionally the cinematography and editing create suspense and some real excitement, but overall, this isn’t one of Mann’s better pictures. There are plenty of people who champion the film, but for me, if a picture doesn’t have decent actors and strong characterizations, it doesn’t hang together. A few great scenes do not a great film make.

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