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Category Archives: March 1945

Strange Illusion (March 31, 1945)

StrangeIllusionEdgar G. Ulmer was born in 1904 in Olmütz, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic). Like a number of talented German and Austrian directors, he moved to the United States in the ’20s and began working in Hollywood. Unlike better-known directors like Billy Wilder or Fritz Lang, however, Ulmer toiled in obscurity for most of his career, cranking out no-budget films. At least part of this was due to the fact that he was blackballed after he had an affair with Shirley Castle, who was the wife of B-picture producer Max Alexander, a nephew of powerful Universal president Carl Laemmle. Castle divorced Alexander and married Ulmer (becoming Shirley Ulmer), but the damage to Ulmer’s career was done. He spent most of the rest of his career churning out product for P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) Studios, one of the financially strapped Hollywood studios collectively referred to as “Poverty Row.”

Today, Ulmer is best known for two films, The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). I’ve seen the former, but not the latter. The Black Cat stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and is one of the more memorable and strange Universal horror pictures. It was a big box-office success, too. I haven’t seen Detour yet, but it has a reputation as one of the best low-budget noirs.

Strange Illusion, which Ulmer made for P.R.C. early in 1945, is a mixed bag. Ulmer’s ideas are clearly larger than the short shooting schedule, low budget, and B-grade actors can support. James “Jimmy” Lydon (on loan from Paramount) plays a young man named Paul Cartwright, whose late father was once the governor of California. The film opens with a stunning, Freudian dream sequence in which Paul walks with his young, attractive mother through clouds of smoke. A menacing, dark man whose face cannot be seen walks with them. He seems to have designs on Paul’s mother. Then the mysterious automobile accident in which Paul’s father died is replayed. It’s a fantastic sequence, and grabs the viewer right away. Much of what follows is prosaic, but not bad. There are a lot of great shots of Paul and other characters that incorporate an enormous portrait of the late Mr. Cartwright, towering over his survivors as though he is passing judgment on them from the afterlife. Warren William is very good as Paul’s mother’s fiancé, and he brings the right balance of charm and menace to his role. Lydon, on the other hand, really irritated me, and some of the youthful “jive” talk he has with his girlfriend is pretty stilted and painful. There’s also a little too much plot for the film’s brief running time. If by the end of this picture you haven’t figured out that this is Ulmer’s teen-oriented take on “Hamlet,” then, brother, you never took a comp lit class. Overall, Strange Illusion isn’t bad, but it’s recommended only if you really enjoy B movies from the ’40s.

Horror fans are encouraged to check out The Black Cat, as well as Bluebeard, a dreamy and beautiful horror movie Ulmer made for P.R.C. in 1944. It stars John Carradine as a homicidal puppeteer in 19th century Paris.

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Utah (March 21, 1945)

RoyGabbyThe western genre may be moribund, but it refuses to kick the bucket. Singing cowboys, on the other hand, are deader than vaudeville. There was a time, however, when Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were two of the biggest film stars in America.

I saw bits and pieces of Rogers’s movies on TV when I was younger, but to be honest, his horse Trigger made more of an impression on me than he did. And I still have never seen a Gene Autry movie. As part of my obsessive-compulsive project of watching old movies in the order they were released, however, I added Utah to my Netflix queue. It stars the holy trinity of hokey singing-cowboy movies: Rogers, Dale Evans, and Gabby Hayes. I was surprised by how charismatic I found Rogers in this movie. Sure, he’s corny, but he’s charming and handsome. At a time in America when a muffin-faced hayseed like Van Johnson was considered the height of attractiveness by a lot of bobby-soxers, Rogers is refreshingly dark; almost Eurasian looking. And Dale Evans looked fantastic. I’m used to seeing her and Rogers in publicity stills from the ’50s, when they were both middle-aged, but here, at the age of 32, she looks about 19. (Rogers, too, looks younger than his 33 years.)

Utah has a predictable plot. Rogers and his singing group, the Sons of the Pioneers, work as ranch hands (along with the crotchety Hayes) on the Bar X Ranch. Meanwhile, Evans and her singing and dancing troupe of ladies are performing in Chicago when they learn their financial backing has fallen through. Fortuitously, Evans’s grandfather bequeathed her a ranch in Utah, which she realizes she can sell to make enough money to keep her show going. Guess which ranch it is?

Evans and her distaff posse have to visit Utah to take care of business (natch), and hijinks ensue. Roy and Gabby attempt some elaborate trickery to convince Evans not to sell the ranch, and there are some black hats who want the ranch for themselves. Even in black and white, the Utah landscape is rugged and beautiful, and there are a lot of musical numbers and fistfights to keep the film moving. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s enjoyable, especially if you like singing-cowboy music.

By the time he made Utah, Rogers had already starred in more than 40 films. His first lead role was in Under Western Stars (1938), when he replaced Gene Autry, who had walked out on his contract. Born Leonard Slye, he rechristened himself “Roy Rogers” for this starring role, and a matinee idol was born. After his first marriage ended in divorce, he married Arline Wilkins. They had three children together, and he was still married to her when he and Evans started making movies together. Wilkins died in November 1946, shortly after the birth of Roy Rogers, Jr., from complications due to a Caesarean section. Rogers and Evans, of course, eventually married, in December 1947. Together they adopted four children, and they remained married until his death in 1998.

The House of Fear (March 16, 1945)

Even when it’s pretty easy to figure out the solution to the mystery, as is the case here, the Sherlock Holmes pictures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are well-oiled machines; exceedingly well-made, and a joy to watch. Directed by Roy William Neill, The House of Fear is loosely based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Five Orange Pips,” and is the tenth film that Rathbone and Bruce made together in the Sherlock Holmes series. It tells the farfetched story of a group of curmudgeonly old friends who call themselves “The Good Comrades,” and spend most of their time together as a club in a remote area of Scotland (in a creepy old castle, natch). After one man receives a single orange seed in an envelope at dinner one night, he is murdered. And then it happens again to another member of the club. And again. Oh, and did I mention that each member of The Good Comrades has an insurance policy with all the other members listed as beneficiaries? Sounds like a job for Sherlock Holmes…

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) was the first film that featured Rathbone as Holmes and Bruce as his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson, and it set the tone for the series beautifully. If you’re a fan of English mysteries, I can’t recommend it highly enough (even though it’s an American production, it gets most of the details right). Their second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) is also a doozy. It’s probably my favorite in the series, owing in no small part to George Zucco’s brilliant performance as the cunning Professor Moriarty. After the first two, I found the next few Rathbone/Bruce films, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), a bit of a letdown. The setting was changed to the present day, and the films contained a good amount of World War II-era propaganda. Worst of all, someone decided that Rathbone’s hair should be combed forward. This might seem like a minor detail, but Rathbone, with his aquiline nose and intense gaze, is the very embodiment of Holmes when his hair is slicked back. With his hair combed forward he looks as if he’s wearing a curly pageboy wig.

The series hit its stride again with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). Not only was Rathbone’s hair restored to its full Holmesian glory, the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” was adapted to a more temporally indeterminate setting. It may have been “the present day,” but the wartime propaganda was jettisoned, and aside from automobiles and telephones, it could have been the Victorian era. Holmes was Holmes again. This film and the three that followed in 1944, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and The Pearl of Death, are all fantastic.

In total, Rathbone and Bruce made 14 full-length features together as Holmes and Watson, and they appeared together for years on the Sherlock Holmes radio show. For many people, Rathbone and Bruce simply are Holmes and Watson. Rathbone was often cast as the villain, a role he played well (e.g., in The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938] opposite Errol Flynn), but when I think of Rathbone, I think of a brave, brilliant, and heroic detective.