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Tag Archives: Martin Kosleck

She-Wolf of London (May 17, 1946)

Jean Yarbrough’s She-Wolf of London is a passable way to while away an hour after the A feature has run its course, but that’s about it. By the mid-’40s, Universal’s horror department was looking pretty moribund. The last truly outstanding horror film Universal Pictures released was probably The Wolf Man (1941). After that, there were several Mummy, Dracula, and Invisible Man sequels and spin-offs, as well as a couple of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink monster mashes, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Most of them were fine, campy entertainment, but none of them approached the truly outstanding horror pictures that Universal produced in the ’30s.

This picture is similar in many ways to Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946), which I watched a few weeks ago. (Incidentally, Jean Yarbrough, who directed She-Wolf of London, also directed the original The Devil Bat in 1940.) Like Devil Bat’s Daughter, She-Wolf of London is a horror film with every last drop of the supernatural squeezed out of it. Sure, there are a few teases here and there, and the foggy atmosphere is thick, but as soon as a young girl in a film who’s set to inherit a fortune starts to think she’s crazy, five’ll get you 10 she’s being manipulated by someone.

She-Wolf of London takes place in turn-of-the-century London. The Allenby Curse has almost been forgotten, but this is a Universal horror picture, so it’s all set to rear its ugly head again. (The curse has something to do with members of the Allenby family assuming the form of wolves, but the film is vague about the details.) Phyllis Allenby (played by June Lockhart, who is best known to legions of baby boomers as the mom on two classic TV series, Lassie and Lost in Space) is a young woman who just wants to marry her sweetheart, Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). When a series of brutal murders committed by a woman wearing a cloak and hood occur in a nearby park, Phyllis fears she is killing people at night and forgetting everything when she wakes up in the morning. All the evidence of cinematic lycanthropy is there — the muddy footprints leading back to the bed, the blood on the hands — but, as I said, she’s an heiress on the verge of inheriting a vast fortune, so you can bet she’s being gaslighted.

Even for what it is, She-Wolf of London is stunningly predictable, right down to its easy-to-spot red herrings. It’s notable only for taking a relatively serious approach to its material long after most of the studio’s horror films were pure camp. But that, in itself, is another problem. As an exploration of the psychosexual motivations that might drive a murderess, the picture falls completely flat. Cat People (1942) this film is not.

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Just Before Dawn (March 7, 1946)

Just Before DawnJust Before Dawn (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

Criminal psychiatrist Dr. Robert Ordway, a.k.a. the “Crime Doctor,” is a fictional character created in 1940 by Max Marcin. Crime Doctor was a Sunday-night program that ran on CBS radio stations for seven years. There are only a few extant recordings of the shows, but the ones I’ve heard are comfortable and formulaic little mysteries, not unlike the long-running Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

Like a number of other popular mystery programs, Crime Doctor was adapted as a series of films. Dr. Ordway was played by four different actors over the course of the radio show, but on-screen, he was always played by Warner Baxter. Baxter had been a matinee idol in the silent era, and had won an Oscar for his role as the Cisco Kid in the early talkie In Old Arizona (1928). By the ’40s, however, he was in poor health, and the Crime Doctor series was an easy paycheck for not too much work. Each picture took less than a month to film, and he made roughly two Crime Doctor pictures a year. Baxter doesn’t seem to be coasting in them, though. While he doesn’t ever run or do any stuntwork, he is a fine actor, and his patrician presence is always a treat.

In the first film, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), we learn the character’s origin. A Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan is shot and left for dead on the side of the road. Suffering from total amnesia, Morgan calls himself “Robert Ordway” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. Eventually, his past catches up with him, but everything works out in the end, allowing him to keep his new name and continue his work as one of the good guys in a series of films released by Columbia Pictures. Crime Doctor was followed by Eugene Forde’s Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943) and Shadows in the Night (1944), George Sherman’s The Crime Doctor’s Courage (1945), and William Castle’s Crime Doctor’s Warning (1945). The film series is less cozy than the radio episodes I’ve heard, and delves into noir territory, with all of its shadows, brutal murders, and mysterious characters.

The sixth film in the series, Just Before Dawn, which was also directed by Castle, begins at night, with a shot of a hulking man (Marvin Miller) walking up to the shadowed entrance of the Ganss Mortuary. He is met by Karl Ganss (Martin Kosleck), who gives him a small leather case that contains a hypodermic needle and a vial of something marked “insulin” that’s not really insulin.

In the next scene, we see Dr. Ordway relaxing at home by the fire with a book when Mrs. Travers (Mona Barrie), his new neighbor, knocks on his door. One of the guests at her party has taken ill, and she can’t get in touch with their regular doctor. This was the good old days, when there was no such thing as dialing 911, but any doctor, even one you’d never met before, would drop everything and walk across the street to your house to take a look at someone who had collapsed on your couch. Dr. Ordway isn’t just any doctor, though, and his reputation precedes him. When he is announced as “Dr. Ordway,” the Travers’s butler Armand (Ted Hecht) excitedly blurts out, “the Crime Doctor!”

The collapsed gentleman in the living room is a diabetic (remember that insulin?) named Walter Foster (George Meeker). Dr. Ordway attends to him, and speaks with Foster’s attractive young sister, Claire (Adelle Roberts), who tells Dr. Ordway that her brother must have forgotten to take his insulin. Dr. Ordway unwittingly prepares a hot dose for Foster, and assures Claire and Mrs. Travers that he’ll be fine. While Dr. Ordway is meeting some of the other party guests, Foster drops dead. He has been poisoned, and the murderer has made Dr. Ordway the instrument of his crime.

The police, generally a bumbling lot in these old mystery series, encourage Dr. Ordway to investigate the crime to redeem himself, especially since he lives right across the street from the Travers home, and it will be easy for him to keep tabs on everyone. I don’t know what city the Crime Doctor series takes place in, but its police force must be one of the laziest in the country.

Dr. Ordway investigates the crime in a by-the-numbers fashion. It turns out that a lot of people at the party (and possibly someone who was not at the party) had reason to want Foster dead. There are obviously nefarious things going on at the Ganss Mortuary, but how they relate to Foster’s murder is not immediately clear.

After the halfway mark, the film really kicks into high gear. After an attempt on his life, Dr. Ordway feigns blindness to lull his antagonists into a false sense of security. He also undergoes a fancy make-up job that turns him into a dead ringer for a vicious killer on the lam named Pete Hastings. Things get really nutty by the end, when Dr. Ordway makes himself temporarily immune to poison by lining his stomach with a heavy emulsion of chalk in order to catch the killer. Just Before Dawn is the only movie I can think of that ends with a shot of the protagonist lying down on an operating table to get his stomach pumped.

I’m a big fan of the director. Castle gained notoriety as a purveyor of high-quality schlock with his “gimmick” films of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Anyone who bought a ticket for Macabre (1958) was automatically insured by Lloyd’s of London, and received a settlement if they died of fright during the picture; House on Haunted Hill (1959) featured a gimmick called “Emergo,” in which a plastic skeleton shot out of a box next to the screen as Vincent Price manipulated his own skeleton on-screen; the gimmick for The Tingler (1959) was called “Percepto,” and involved theater patrons getting their spines buzzed by a wire hidden in their seats; and Homicidal (1961) featured a one-minute “Fright Break” at the climax that allowed anyone who was too scared to keep watching to leave and receive a full refund. Of course, they were lighted with a spotlight as they walked up the aisle and then had to stand in the cardboard “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until the film ended and their fellow patrons strolled past, so not too many people took advantage of the offer.

Before he carved his unique place in cinematic history, Castle directed dozens of programmers like this one. Prior to making Just Before Dawn, he directed three entries in Columbia Pictures’s Whistler series, The Whistler (1943), The Mark of the Whistler (1944), and Voice of the Whistler (1945). In general, I prefer the Whistler series. The plots are more varied and interesting. I also liked Castle’s prior entry in this series, Crime Doctor’s Warning, a little more than this one. Its depiction of the Greenwich Village art scene and the crazy beatniks who inhabited it was really enjoyable. But Just Before Dawn is, like all of Castle’s movies, still a whole lot of fun for fans of B mysteries and bottom-of-the-bill programmers.

Pursuit to Algiers (Oct. 26, 1945)

Pursuit_to_AlgiersPursuit to Algiers, the twelfth film to star Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his boon companion Dr. John H. Watson, is a minor entry in the series, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. It’s the ninth Holmes picture directed by Roy William Neill, and his sure hand and professionalism are fully in evidence.

The film gets down to business in a wonderfully circuitous fashion, as Holmes and Watson are handed cryptic directions by a series of strangers. In each case, it takes Holmes a few beats to catch on, while Watson is oblivious the whole time. Eventually they are led to a group of men from an unnamed foreign country whose king has just been assassinated. They want Holmes to guard the life of the heir to the throne, Nikolas, who was educated in England. Holmes suggests that Nikolas pose as Watson’s nephew on a steamship voyage to Algiers. Once at sea, the film introduces a worthy cast of drawing room mystery characters, including a trio of sinister but quirky assassins.

Elements of Leonard Lee’s screenplay are taken from an otherwise unrecorded affair mentioned in the beginning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” in particular the use of the steamship Friesland. And at one point in the film, Watson begins to share with his fellow dinner guests aboard the ship his adventure with Holmes that involved the “Giant Rat of Sumatra,” which is mentioned in Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” These references are similar to what Anthony Boucher and Denis Green would occasionally do in their scripts for the radio show The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was heard on the Mutual Broadcasting System, and, like the film series, starred Rathbone and Bruce. For instance, in one program, Holmes is willed a patch of land in gratitude for his successful work on a case, and he tells Watson he plans to retire there someday and keep bees. (In Conan Doyle’s stories and novels, the background of Holmes’s retirement in 1903 to the Sussex Downs, where he engaged in beekeeping, was never supplied.)

At times, Pursuit to Algiers comes dangerously close to being a musical, as one of the passengers on the ocean liner is a young and beautiful pianist named Sheila Woodbury (Marjorie Riordan), whom Dr. Watson makes a bit of a fool of himself over. It’s all in good fun, though, and Bruce’s “silly old goat” act is always fun to watch, even if his portrayal of Watson is a bit more ridiculous than Conan Doyle’s original conception of the character. Sheila plays several songs on the piano, including the beautiful “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” Watson even joins her at the piano toward the end of the picture for a lovely version of “Loch Lomond.” Director Neill always keeps things moving, however, and despite its minor status, Pursuit to Algiers is still a worthy entry in the Sherlock Holmes series.

The Frozen Ghost (June 1, 1945)

FrozenGhostMedia tie-ins are nothing new. Radio’s Boston Blackie, a long-running syndicated show about a (mostly) reformed jewel thief and amateur sleuth, got its start as a series of short stories, then silent films, then talkies, before being adapted for radio. And big-screen adaptations of radio series were commonplace. The Whistler, The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and I Love a Mystery all led to multiple film adaptations, not to mention the many radio series that were adapted from other media, like dime novels or the daily comic strips, that went on to be films.

The radio drama Inner Sanctum Mysteries, which was produced by Himan Brown, premiered in 1941 and ran for more than 10 years. An anthology thriller program, its scripts weren’t quite as clever as The Whistler, and it didn’t regularly feature A-list Hollywood talent like Suspense, but it was an effective show. While rarely out-and-out supernatural, it tended more toward the macabre than other programs of its type. Its jealous husbands, scheming wives, and escaped lunatics were flesh and blood, but its settings — crumbling churchyards, decrepit mansions, and dark and stormy nights — could have done double duty in horror stories.

One of the things that made the show stand out was its host, Raymond Edward Johnson (who simply went by the name “Raymond” on the show), and the memorable sound effect of a creaking door that opened each program. Raymond prefigured TV horror hosts like Zacherley, Elvira, and Ghoulardi with his macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor. A typical program began like this:

“Good evening, friends. This is your host, Raymond. Welcome to the inner sanctum. Come in, won’t you? What are you staring at? The walls? Well, you know that old saying about walls having ears? Well, these walls have eyes, and a nice assortment of fingers and hands. One of them has a heart, but you can’t beat that. Don’t mind me, friends, in my old age I’m getting to be a bit of a gore.”

Raymond’s mocking delivery made it clear that none of it was meant to be taken seriously. Part of the pleasure of listening to the programs in 1945 and 1946, when Lipton Tea was the sponsor, was listening to the host’s exchanges with Mary, the Lipton Tea and Lipton Soup girl, whose sunny disposition he frequently ridiculed, and who in turn expressed shock and dismay at the gloomy goings-on the show dramatized. (When Raymond left the show in May 1945 to serve in the Army, he was replaced with Paul McGrath, who never stated his name. The format of the show and his relationship with Mary, however, were pretty much the same as Raymond’s.)

From 1943 to 1945, Universal Pictures released six “Inner Sanctum Mysteries.” They were all low-budget B pictures starring Lon Chaney, Jr., all clocking in at under 70 minutes, each designed to be the second half of a double bill. Calling Dr. Death (1943) was followed by Weird Woman (1944), Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), and The Frozen Ghost. All of these films are entertaining (especially Weird Woman), but compared with the radio show, they’re missing some of the ghoulish fun. They’re always introduced the same way … not by Raymond or someone like him, but by a head floating in a crystal ball that speaks as though its owner is on a heavy dose of Thorazine.

The Frozen Ghost features Chaney as a famous mentalist who watches a man die during his act. He believes he caused the man’s death with his hypnotic gaze, and goes into seclusion to a wax museum, of all places. When a woman dies after a hypnosis session there, he’s convinced he’s a psychic killer, but then her body disappears. What gives? Unlike the first three films in the Inner Sanctum series, The Frozen Ghost is a bit of a mess, but scream queen Evelyn Ankers is always a welcome sight, and at one hour and one minute, the picture doesn’t really overstay its welcome.

Chaney was born Creighton Chaney, but started being billed as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” in 1935. As an actor, he is the antithesis of his father, who was one of the most brilliant chameleons in film history, and one of the finest actors of the silent era. Chaney, Jr., on the other hand, acted exactly the same in every movie, like a hulking man-child who appeared to be staggeringly hungover in every scene. I enjoy plenty of films he appears in, but he’s not a great actor. To its credit, the Inner Sanctum series makes good use of him. In the four films I’ve seen so far, he always plays a character who is at the mercy of forces outside of his control, which requires him to appear bewildered, upset, and terrified, which he’s pretty good at doing.