RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: September 2016

Tarzan’s Peril (March 10, 1951)

Tarzan's Peril
Tarzan’s Peril (1951)
Directed by Byron Haskin
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

The lavish spectacle King Solomon’s Mines (1950) rewrote the rules of the “jungle adventure” film, since it was shot on location in Sub-Saharan Africa and instantly made all the B movies shot on soundstages and backlots look ridiculous. First and foremost, it showed that there was a lot less jungle in Africa than kids raised on Tarzan movies assumed there was. The distant, rolling plains we saw in King Solomon’s Mines bore little resemblance to the dense jungles where Tarzan swung on vines.

So producer Sol Lesser and RKO Radio Pictures picked up the gauntlet and decided to shoot their next Tarzan picture not only in color, but on location in Kenya.

Unfortunately, something went wrong with the color footage, so Tarzan’s Peril was released in black & white. A fair amount of the location footage found its way into the final product, but it’s not integrated very well into the main narrative. We never see Lex Barker strutting in his loincloth through the grasslands of Kenya, for instance. He mostly sticks to the soundstages and backlots, clowning around with Cheetah the chimpanzee and throwing knives at not-very-terrifying giant snake puppets.

Huston and Barker

As I said in my review of Lex Barker’s previous Tarzan picture, Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), Barker’s movies are probably only ever going to be watched by hardcore Tarzan fans. With nearly a century of Tarzan flicks to choose from, newcomers are advised to start with the Johnny Weissmuller movies, particularly the first two, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934). If you have kids and don’t want to expose them to the dated and racist depictions of Africans in the early Weissmuller films, you’ll probably want to show them either Disney’s Tarzan (1999) or Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) (which, incidentally, was the first Tarzan movie I ever saw).

However, if you’re not a hardcore Tarzan fan, there is one reason to check out Tarzan’s Peril. It features Dorothy Dandridge as “Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba.” Dandridge was the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and along with Lena Horne, she was one of the only black “leading ladies” in Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s. Of course, even for a beautiful and light-skinned actress like Dandridge, good roles for black women were still hard to come by in the ’50s. And the roles she was offered, like this one, are fairly limited.

Dorothy Dandridge

The problem is not just that Tarzan’s Peril is a low-budget picture (I love B movies, and this is a perfectly decent one with plenty of action), it’s that Dandridge is given frustratingly little to do. In fact, after watching Tarzan’s Peril I wished that Jane hadn’t even been featured as a character. She’s played by Virginia Huston, and except for a bit of mutual splashing around in the water, there’s no erotic chemistry between her and Barker. Mostly she comes off as an idealized version of a prim 1950s housewife, chastising Tarzan for eating food out of a pot on the stove and demanding he sit down to dinner.

Given that Huston was the third different actress to play Jane in as many Tarzan movies featuring Lex Barker, I wished they had written her out of the movie entirely and just focused on Dandridge’s character, Melmendi. Anything like kissing would have been verboten with a white actor like Barker, but they could have beefed up her part and had plenty of erotic subtext. That would have been really fun to watch.

Tarzan’s Peril is OK, but not great. On the plus side, it’s got plenty of action, some of the best location footage in an RKO Tarzan movie to date, and a trio of memorable villains.

Advertisements

The Steel Helmet (Feb. 2, 1951)

The Steel Helmet
The Steel Helmet (1951)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

This movie is a good example of why placing films in their proper context is so important. When I first watched Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (I rented it on VHS many, many years ago) I couldn’t get past the cheapness of the production or the amateurish acting by some of the cast. The exteriors are clearly filmed in California and the interiors are a combination of cheap sets and obvious soundstages. I don’t even think I finished watching it.

Flash forward to right now. For the last several years I’ve immersed myself in the films of the 1940s, and now that I have a really good sense of how war movies told their stories during and right after World War II, I can confidently say that The Steel Helmet is a groundbreaking film. Not only was it the first film made about the Korean War, but its depiction of the toll of combat is raw and uncompromising.

It also features an incredible lead performance by Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack. Evans was an actor who’d appeared in bit parts in a bunch of B-movies prior to this, but had never had a lead role before. (He get an “introducing” line in the credits.) Incidentally, one of those B-movies was Armored Car Robbery (1950), which also featured Steve Brodie, who plays the idealistic and naive Lt. Driscoll in The Steel Helmet.

Brodie and Evans

In The Steel Helmet, Fuller casually tackles huge issues like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and racial segregation back home, all with his uniquely blunt sensibility. He throws in oddball characters like a soldier with alopecia who can’t stop applying hair tonic to his bald head, depicts the enormous statue at the heart of a Buddhist temple with a reverence that borders on frightening, and portrays combat as an unending series of horrible events that will continue long after the movie’s runtime is over.

At his heart, Samuel Fuller was always a pulp novelist. His writing was often hackneyed and he assembled his films from crude materials. At first glance, his movies look no different from countless other low-budget productions. But once you really start to investigate the man’s work, you see that his films overflowed with ideas that most other filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, and whatever their shortcomings, they have an impact that most Hollywood big-budget productions never will.

The Steel Helmet made almost 20 times its original budget at the box office, and opened doors in Hollywood for Fuller. His next film was another movie about the Korean War, Fixed Bayonets! (1951), made for 20th Century-Fox.

The Enforcer (Jan. 25, 1951)

The Enforcer
The Enforcer (1951)
Directed by Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh
United States Pictures / Warner Bros.

I wasn’t expecting much from this fictionalized account of the exploits of Murder, Inc., but I ended up being completely blown away. Although the director listed in the credits is the lavishly named Bretaigne Windust, the bulk of the film was actually directed by Raoul Walsh after Windust was hospitalized with a serious illness.

Walsh is a director I love. He made lean, tough movies that are also incredibly entertaining. He did some of his best work with Humphrey Bogart, like The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941).

The Enforcer was the last time Bogart and Walsh worked together, and while it’s basically a low-budget B movie with an A-list star, Walsh’s crisp, fast-paced direction and facility with hard-boiled conventions elevate the picture.

Ted de Corsia and Everett Sloane

Even though Bogart is the only big name in the credits, this movie has an outstanding line-up of male character actors. The sheer number of ugly mugs in this movie is overwhelming. Ted de Corsia, Zero Mostel, Everett Sloane, and Bob Steele were never going to win any beauty contests, but they are all incredibly convincing as vicious killers.

Also, the black & white cinematography by Robert Burks is an object lesson in how to make simple sets look like works of art. A lot of people will tell you that The Enforcer is not really a film noir because it’s a straightforward D.A. & cops vs. gangsters story, but for me, noir is primarily a style, and this is a movie that oozes style.

Storm Warning (Jan. 17, 1951)

Storm Warning
Storm Warning (1951)
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Warner Bros.

Storm Warning is an incredibly frustrating film. It was one of the first films made since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) to openly depict the Ku Klux Klan, but Storm Warning completely whitewashes (no pun intended) the Klan’s religious and social prejudices and history of racially motivated violence.

About the only good thing I can say about The Birth of a Nation is that it was completely open about its agenda; it was racist propaganda through and through. Storm Warning, on the other hand, is a well-meaning anti-Klan film, but if the script ever contained any pointed messages, they were stripped out one piece at a time until only a few tantalizing details remained.

After I watched Storm Warning I read a bunch of reviews online, and was depressed by the number of people who justified the film’s focus only on white characters by saying that the Ku Klux Klan also killed white people like the Freedom Riders, and that this film just “showed the other side of the coin.” These people are either deeply ignorant or crypto-racists, because to ignore the Klan’s racial animus is to ignore history itself.

I read one review that said the term “Ku Klux Klan” is never spoken in the film, and that the white-robed racketeering organization depicted in the film is only ever referred to as “the Klan” (or possibly “the Clan”), but this is not true. The words “Ku Klux Klan” are spoken once, by a television news reporter outside of the courthouse.

Also, the film takes place in the town of “Rock Point,” which sounds like a coastal Maine vacation destination and looks and feels exactly like a small town in California, which is because that’s where Storm Warning was filmed. Most of the characters don’t speak with a Southern accent, and a few even sound like they didn’t leave New York City before they turned 21. The Klan was active outside of the South, but this film doesn’t take place anywhere. It’s a nebulous Hollywood small-town America that rings as false as the film’s story.

Cochran and Rogers

Storm Warning is a frustrating film because there’s so much good going on in it. I really like Ginger Rogers as a dramatic actress, and I thought she was wonderful in this film. The opening sequence in which she witnesses the Klan drag a reporter out of the town jail and murder him, then flees for her life, is stunning. Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography is gorgeous and makes me wish he had worked with more prestigious directors instead of toiling in the “B” trenches for most of his career.

Stuart Heisler’s direction is workmanlike, but he keeps things moving along at a nice pace. Doris Day and Ronald Reagan both deliver competent performances, but the most interesting performance in the film is Steve Cochran’s role as Day’s husband — Ginger Rogers’s brother-in-law. To say that his character is lifted directly from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire is an understatement.

Marlon Brando had been playing the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway for a few years when Storm Warning was made, and Cochran’s slow-witted, sweaty, violent, childlike, and white T-shirted brute is incredibly similar to Stanely Kowalski, right down to a penchant for bowling and attempted rape. Is it a coincidence that Warner Bros. — the studio that made Storm Warning — is the same studio that brought A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen less than a year later? I kind of doubt it.

Klan rally

Storm Warning is a great-looking film with some good performances and a laughably milquetoast story considering the subject matter.

It’s curious that the film retains real-world terms like “Klan” and “Imperial Wizard” and details like nighttime rallies, Klan uniforms, lynchings, and burning crosses while barely acknowledging that African-Americans exist, let alone the motivations behind the formation of the KKK in the Reconstruction-era South and its campaign of terror against black Americans and its hatred of Jews and Catholics.

Whatever socially progressive intentions were present in the original script by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks, what ended up on the screen is laughable. Framing the Klan as a greedy racketeering organization who are only opposed to “outsiders,” “troublemakers,” and “busybodies” is cowardly, and framing their victims as exclusively white is ridiculous.

Seeing Ginger Rogers bullwhipped at a Klan rally is the stuff of high camp; it’s more appropriate for the cover of a spicy pulp magazine than any kind of social exposé. Also, the fact that she’s saved by a heroic prosecuting attorney played by Ronald Reagan is ironic, since Reagan would go on to use the term “states’ rights” as a dog-whistle appeal to racist Southern voters when he was campaigning for president in 1980.