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Tag Archives: James S. Brown Jr.

The Trap (Nov. 30, 1946)

Howard Bretherton’s The Trap, produced by James S. Burkett, was Sidney Toler’s last appearance as Charlie Chan. Toler died on February 12, 1947, at the age of 72.

He inherited the role of Chan, a Chinese detective created by the novelist Earl Derr Biggers, from Swedish actor Warner Oland, who died in 1938. Oland played the venerable old detective from 1931 to 1937. He died at the age of 58 from complications due to bronchial pneumonia, possibly related to his alcoholism. (According to Yunte Huang’s recent book about Charlie Chan, Oland like to throw back a few before playing the character, as it helped his fuzzy, drawling, faux-Chinese line delivery. When Toler took over the character, the producers encouraged him to do the same thing.)

The Trap is a run-of-the-mill B mystery from Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. A gaggle of showgirls, their impresario, and their press agent all set up camp in a dusty old beach house in Malibu Beach.

After one of them is strangled with a silken cord, the hysterical women telephone Charlie Chan and reach his driver, Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland). If you enjoy politically incorrect humor, you’re in for a treat, as the bug-eyed Moreland mugs and twitches in ways black actors never would again.

Accompanied by Birmingham and his “number 2” son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), Chan arrives on the scene, and proceeds to unravel the mystery while spouting nonsensical aphorisms like, “Puzzle always deepest near the center.”

The Trap is a standard “old dark house” mystery, with the regular array of stock characters, such as a severe old battle-axe of a housekeeper and a doctor running away from his past. Kirk Alyn, who would go on to play Superman in two serials in 1948 and 1950, plays a tall, handsome motorcycle cop who assists Chan in his investigation, and doesn’t make much of an impression beyond his mustache and dark glasses. The beach setting doesn’t really jibe with the creepy old house — which has a basement and plenty of secret passages — and seems to exist mostly as an excuse for the pretty showgirls to go swimming whenever they can.

The Charlie Chan films remain a historical curiosity. Neither Toler’s makeup nor acting make him convincingly Chinese, but the series still has its fans, even its Chinese fans, such as Huang, the author I mentioned above.

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Devil Bat’s Daughter (April 15, 1946)

Frank Wisbar’s Devil Bat’s Daughter is a film that follows the template created by Dracula’s Daughter (1936), but doesn’t quite get it right.

Like Dracula’s Daughter, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a sequel to a Bela Lugosi horror film — in this case, The Devil Bat (1940) — that does not feature Lugosi. Instead, the protagonist is … you guessed it, his character’s daughter. But while Dracula’s Daughter was a slick, good-looking Universal horror picture that featured a haunting lead performance by Gloria Holden, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a run-of-the-mill Poverty Row mystery thriller whose connection to its predecessor feels forced.

I haven’t seen The Devil Bat, but based on plot synopses, there seem to be several inconsistencies with how its treated in its sequel. Nina MacCarron (Rosemary La Planche), is the daughter of Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi), of The Devil Bat, but she uses her mother’s maiden name. Returning in a stupor to her father’s home in Wardsley, New York (Heathville, Illinois, in the original), she collapses while searching the basement where he conducted his experiments (the basement was also apparently not present in the first film). She is taken in by the physician Dr. Elliot (Nolan Leary), who cares for her while she lies in a catatonic state. After she escapes from the hospital, Dr. Elliot has her transferred to the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale), who treats her while she lives in his home with him and his wife, Ellen Masters Morris (Molly Lamont). With Dr. Morris’s treatments, she slowly returns to normal, but she is plagued by terrifying visions (rippled footage from The Devil Bat).

Intrigue abounds. We learn early on that Dr. Morris has a mistress, Myra Arnold (Monica Mars), who is pressuring him to divorce his wife, whom he only married for her money. When Ted Masters (John James), Mrs. Morris’s son from her first marriage, returns home, he and Nina start to fall for each other, but a series of murders throws Nina’s sanity into question. The film seems confused about what type of picture it wants to be. There’s plenty of talk of vampires (Lugosi was inextricable from his most famous role), but it doesn’t come to anything, and this isn’t really a horror picture.

Devil Bat’s Daughter is modestly entertaining, but I was hoping for more. Director Wisbar was a German émigré, and his previous film, Strangler of the Swamp, was a great-looking, creepy little horror picture. Like Devil Bat’s Daughter, it also starred Rosemary La Planche, Miss America 1941. It’s too bad for genre film fans that La Planche wasn’t in more movies, especially horror movies. She could have been one of the great scream queens. She’s uniquely pretty, with thick eyebrows, big eyes, bow lips, a very straight nose, and mountains of wavy hair. Her face retains its attractiveness even when she’s screaming, and she sure can take a fall while running.

Strangler of the Swamp (Jan. 2, 1946)

Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp is a surprisingly good little ghost story. I don’t use the term “little” pejoratively, but as a term of affection, and in recognition of the film’s modest budget and one-hour running time. What Strangler of the Swamp lacks in lavish sets and big stars it makes up for with atmosphere, story, and pacing. Plenty of movies distributed by the Poverty Row studio P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) ranged from forgettable to completely stinko, but some were genuinely well-made films, and this is one of them.

Director Wisbar was born in 1899 in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany (now part of Russia). After making nine films in Germany between 1932 to 1938, Wisbar emigrated to England, where he directed a television adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Telltale Heart” for the BBC in 1939, when TV was still in its infancy. In 1945, he directed his first American feature, the P.R.C. potboiler Secrets of a Sorority Girl. Strangler of the Swamp was his second film for P.R.C., and was a remake of one of his earlier films, Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria), from 1936.

Strangler of the Swamp takes place in a bayou, presumably somewhere in the American South, but, like a lot of horror movies from the ’40s, regional accents are nowhere in evidence, and geographical authenticity is an afterthought.

Old ferryman Joseph Hart (Frank Conlan) lives in a rude shack by a crossing, and ferries the townsfolk back and forth across a narrow strip of water by hauling his little craft hand over hand along a rope stretched between two trees. His passengers speak in hushed tones of the men they know who have recently died by strangulation. The denizens of the swamp believe that the previous ferryman, Douglas, was hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. They believe that his ghost haunts the swamp, strangling all the male descendants of the men responsible for putting him to death.

Ferryman Joseph does finds an actual noose hanging from a branch as a spectral warning, but most of the strangling in the film occurs in that neat ghost-story fashion in which it could just be a series of freak accidents. The spirit of ferryman Douglas (Charles Middleton) appears to ferryman Joseph with his head wreathed in clouds of dry ice, but Joseph meets his end when he panics and gets tangled up in some branches. The title of this film is the most gruesome thing about it.

After the death of ferryman Joseph, his granddaughter, Maria Hart (Rosemary La Planche), arrives in the swamp to claim her birthright. Fed up with urban isolation and happy to have a place to call her own, she takes up residence in Joseph’s shack and takes over his job shuttling people back and forth. Even though all the billowing clouds of dry ice cover up the set’s limitations, after the fifth or sixth ferry ride, even the least astute viewers will probably notice that there’s no water under the barge.

Blond, fresh-faced, and lithe, La Planche makes an appealing heroine. Her love interest, Chris Sanders, is played by the handsome but wooden actor Blake Edwards, who would end up being much more famous for his work as a director, writer, and producer (of, among other things, The Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, numerous Pink Panther films, and the Peter Gunn TV series).

Prior to appearing in this film, California native La Planche had lots of bit parts and uncredited roles. She was six years old when she made her first appearance on film (in the Louise Fazenda comedy short The Bearded Lady in 1930), but she never became a child star. Once in her teens, she appeared in a flurry of tiny roles and as a dance extra in many films, and was even crowned Miss America in 1941. (She was Miss California in both 1940 and 1941. The pageant rules later changed to only allow contestants to compete at the national level once.) As Miss America, she traveled extensively with the USO, and once helped sell $50,000 in war bonds in a single day. When Wisbar cast her in Strangler of the Swamp, it was her first starring role.

Wisbar brings a dreamy, European sensibility to the proceedings that sets Strangler of the Swamp apart from most of its B-movie brethren. The conclusion, in particular, didn’t fall into the ’40s cliché that anything supernatural had to eventually be explained away.

The Missing Corpse (June 1, 1945)

MissingCorpseThis movie is sort of like Weekend at Bernie’s, if the object in that film had been to keep Bernie’s body hidden and constantly on the move so no one could find it.

J. Edward Bromberg, a hard-working character actor, gets a rare chance to star in a film. He plays an upstanding newspaper publisher named Henry Kruger who threatens rival publisher Andy McDonald (played by Paul Guilfoyle) after McDonald splashes a tawdry story about Kruger’s daughter all over the front page of his daily paper. McDonald turns out to also be a blackmail magnate, and when one of his victims rubs him out, his body winds up in the trunk of Kruger’s car. Most of the film involves the increasingly perplexed Kruger’s attempts to deep-six the body so he won’t be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. The only problem is, the body won’t stay in one place for very long. Who’s moving it? And why?

The Missing Corpse is a fun mix of comedy and suspense. Like most of the output from P.R.C., it’s a quick, low-budget diversion, and little more, but it’s still a light-hearted and fun hour and one minute. As far as MacGuffins go, a dead body is a pretty good one, and P.R.C. certainly released worse films into theaters in the ’40s.