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Tag Archives: Maury Gertsman

The Brute Man (Oct. 1, 1946)

Actor Rondo Hatton, whose face was so unique that it has been immortalized in bust form as a series of horror awards, was reportedly voted the best-looking boy in his class at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Florida.

Whether or not this story is apocryphal, we do know that Hatton didn’t always look the way he did when he starred as the hideous “Creeper” in a series of low-budget horror films in the 1940s.

Born on April 22, 1894, Hatton worked as a sportswriter and served in World War I, after which acromegaly began to change his facial features. Acromegaly is a syndrome often associated with gigantism. It usually manifests in adulthood or middle age, and its progression is slow. It involves swelling of the soft tissues — particularly the hands, feet, nose, lips, and ears — general thickening of the skin, the swelling of internal organs, and the pronounced protrusion of the brow and lower jaw.

While working as a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, he was spotted by director Henry King, who was in Florida to make Hell Harbor (1930). King hired Hatton for a bit part, and Hatton eventually moved to Hollywood, where he appeared in a series of small roles, most notably as a contestant in an “ugly man competition” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and as a member of the lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). He first appeared as a character called “The Creeper” in the Sherlock Holmes thriller The Pearl of Death (1944), and then twice more in two horror films that were unrelated to the Sherlock Holmes series, House of Horrors and The Brute Man, both of which were directed by Jean Yarbrough.

In House of Horrors, which was released on March 29, 1946, an unsuccessful sculptor saves the Creeper from drowning, and gets him to murder all the critics who have written unfavorably about his cubist “tripe.”

In The Brute Man, a once-handsome B.M.O.C. (big man on campus) who was disfigured in a lab accident prowls the city, killing for revenge. Spinning newspapers with headlines like “Back Breaker Claims Second Victim” fill in the missing details, as the viewer wonders why police can’t find the most unique and strange-looking person in the city, who is spotted in public plenty of times.

After one of his murders, the Creeper takes refuge in the home of a blind piano teacher named Helen Paige (Jane Adams, who unfortunately never appears in that pink satin and white ermine number we see her wearing on the lobby card above). For no reason I could discern, she lies to the police about someone being in her apartment, and the Creeper climbs out her window and makes his escape.

We eventually learn that the Creeper used to be a boy named Hal Moffet, a football star at Hampton University, who was popular and handsome, although his temper made him some enemies. He and his friend Clifford Scott (Tom Neal) were in love with the same girl, Virginia (Jan Wiley). The night before an oral exam in chemistry, Cliff fed the academically impatient Hal the wrong answers so he’d be kept after class and not be able to score with Virginia. Naturally, the professor did what any professor would do with a student who bungled a quiz; he kept him after class working on a complicated and dangerous experiment. After seeing Cliff and Virginia through the window, Hal realized he’d been deliberately crossed up, and smashed a flask of chemicals on the floor. Unfortunately, the cloud of caustic smoke damaged his face, and he’s now hell-bent on getting revenge on everyone he thinks wronged him. Last on his list are Cliff and Virginia, who are now married.

This story is, of course, a burlesque version of reality. Acromegaly, not a lab accident, was responsible for Hatton’s appearance, but he was a football player and handsome young man whose appearance gradually became monstrous. (The publicity department of Universal Studios actually claimed that Hatton’s facial deformities were the result of a mustard gas attack in World War I.)

Hatton died on February 1, 1946, before either House of Horrors or The Brute Man were released. He was 51 years old, and his death was caused by a heart attack that was directly related to his disorder. He wasn’t much of an actor, but his appearance alone telegraphed pathos, and the renewed interest in Universal’s horror films in the ’60s and ’70s eventually turned him into a horror icon.

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Dressed to Kill (June 7, 1946)

Dressed to Kill was director Roy William Neill’s eleventh Sherlock Holmes film, and the fourteenth and final film starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his loyal sidekick Dr. John H. Watson.

This was the year that Rathbone said goodbye to the character. His last appearance on the Mutual Broadcasting System radio program The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was in “The Singular Affair of the Baconian Cipher,” broadcast on Monday, May 27, 1946. The next week’s time slot was filled with the summer replacement program The Casebook of Gregory Hood, which starred Gale Gordon as an antique dealer and gourmand living in San Francisco who solved mysteries in his spare time. Like the Sherlock Holmes program, the scripts were written by Holmes aficionados Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. The show was fun, but Gregory Hood was no Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes returned to the airwaves in October, on the American Broadcasting Company. Nigel Bruce reprised his role as Dr. Watson, but Tom Conway took over the role of Sherlock Holmes (although Bruce received top billing). Rathbone, who felt that his association with the character, whom he had played on a regular basis since 1939, was killing his career, so he returned to New York City and the theater. He won a Tony in 1947 for his role in the Broadway play The Heiress, but little significant stage work presented itself to him in the years to come. He had bad luck with films, as well. When The Heiress was made into a film in 1949, Rathbone hoped to appear again as Dr. Sloper, the role for which he had won a Tony, but the part ended up going to Ralph Richardson.

Whatever Rathbone’s feelings about his iconic performances as Holmes, there is no question that he left an indelible mark on the character. (He eventually returned to the role in 1953 when he appeared as Holmes in an episode of the Suspense TV show, as well as starring as Holmes in a play that was written by his wife, Ouida. The play received lukewarm reviews and closed after just three performances.)

In the first scene in Dressed to Kill in which Rathbone and Bruce appear, Rathbone waxes nostalgic about “the woman,” Irene Adler, a character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” while Watson sits reading The Strand, the magazine in which Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories originally appeared. (Later in the film, a smoke bomb will prove the undoing of Watson, and Holmes will taunt him, since Watson described an identical ruse in the story he wrote called “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It’s an enjoyable bit of metafiction of the type Conan Doyle himself engaged in.)

The boys receive a visitor to 221b Baker Street, Julian “Stinky” Emery (Edmund Breon), an old friend of Watson’s. Emery is an avid collector of music boxes, and was robbed the night before. Curiously, the thief (or thieves) knocked him unconscious and then took just one music box, a trifling little thing that Emery had purchased earlier in the day at auction for just £2.

We, the viewers, know that Emery’s music box was one of three manufactured in Dartmoor Prison, so we know that the trio of miscreants tracking them down in London have an ulterior motive, in this case, finding where a pair of original Bank of England plates are hidden, which they will be able to use to produce £5 notes that are not “counterfeit” in the traditional sense. The three music boxes all seem to play the same tune, but with his fine ear for music, Holmes will note minor variations in the melodies, which is the key to the code.

Dressed to Kill features many plot elements that will be familiar to long-time viewers of the series. Mrs. Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) is a clever femme fatale in the mold of the eponymous antagonists of The Spider Woman (1944) and The Woman in Green (1945). And the plot device of a number of cheap trinkets holding a code was used before, and to better effect, in The Pearl of Death (1944).

Dressed to Kill is far from the best of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series, but it’s far from the worst. The Rathbone Holmes pictures are remarkably consistent and terrifically entertaining, however, so the worst picture in the series is still better than most mysteries from the ’40s.

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.

Terror by Night (Feb. 1, 1946)

Thrillers set on trains have a special place in my heart. It’s not only because I love to travel by train. It’s also because I think a passenger train is the perfect setting for a mystery. It provides a single location and a set cast of characters/suspects, just like any good English country manor, but with the added excitement of constant movement and breakneck speed.

A short list of my favorite thrillers set on trains would include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Narrow Margin (1952) (the 1990 remake featuring Gene Hackman is worth seeing, as well), and Horror Express (1972). But even lesser efforts set on trains delight me, such as the Michael Shayne mystery Sleepers West (1941) and the Steven Seagal slugfest Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995).

So when I saw that Roy William Neill’s tenth outing in the director’s chair for a Sherlock Holmes film (and the thirteenth film in the series overall) was set on a train, I was really looking forward to it.

Terror by Night, which stars Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his faithful friend Dr. Watson, does not disappoint. Loosely based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), and “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” from His Last Bow (1917), with a few elements taken from The Sign of Four (1890), Terror by Night follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to foil the theft of a diamond on a train bound for Scotland.

The diamond in question, the ridiculously ostentatious “Star of Rhodesia,” is owned by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes), who is traveling with her fey son Roland (Geoffrey Steele). Also aboard the train is a young woman named Vivian Vedder (Renee Godfrey), who, in the first scene of the picture, has a special coffin prepared, supposedly to transport her mother’s body. The presence of a secret compartment in the coffin, however, alerts the viewer that Miss Vedder is probably up to no good.

Also aboard are an old friend of Dr. Watson’s from his time in India, Maj. Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray), the dependably lunkheaded Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), Prof. William Kilbane (Frederick Worlock), whom the blustery Watson interrogates in a comical scene, and a skittish married couple (Gerald Hamer and Janet Murdoch).

Universal Pictures’s Sherlock Holmes series is my favorite mystery series of the ’40s. Except for a few duds early in the series that focused too much on World War II-era propaganda, the Holmes pictures with Rathbone and Bruce and some of the most thoroughly enjoyable, clever, and fast-paced mysteries I’ve had the pleasure to see.

Secret Agent X-9 (13 chapters) (July 24-Oct. 16, 1945)

Secret Agent X-9Republic Pictures is the unassailable king of the cliffhangers after the silent era. Most of the best chapterplays of the ’30s and ’40s were Republic productions. Dick Tracy (1937), The Lone Ranger (1938), Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), Perils of Nyoka (1942), The Masked Marvel (1943), and Captain America (1944) are just a few of the more than sixty serials produced by Republic Pictures, most of which are still incredibly entertaining. The best Republic serials combined wild action and elaborate stunts with nicely paced stories that could be strung out over 12 to 15 weekly installments with a few subplots here and there, but nothing too complicated or that viewers couldn’t pick up with in the middle. Each chapter ended with a cliffhanger (like Captain Marvel flying toward a woman falling off a dam, or a wall of fire rushing down a tunnel toward Spy Smasher). The next week’s chapter would begin with a minute or two of the previous week’s climax and the resolution, and the cycle would repeat until the final chapter.

Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures were the two other major producers of serials in the sound era. Universal ceased production of serials in 1946, leaving only Columbia and Republic to duke it out into the ’50s. One of the last serials made by Universal was Secret Agent X-9, released into theaters starting in July 1945. It was based on a daily newspaper strip created by writer Dashiell Hammett (the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) and artist Alex Raymond (who worked on Flash Gordon). Both creators left the project soon after its inception, and the King Features strip continued under various hands, vacillating between espionage and private eye stories.

X-9The first film serial featuring Secret Agent X-9 was made by Universal in 1937, and starred Scott Kolk as Agent X-9, a.k.a. “Dexter,” who sought to recover the crown jewels of Belgravia from a master thief called “Blackstone.” The second featured a boyish-looking 32-year-old Lloyd Bridges as Agent X-9, a.k.a. “Phil Corrigan.” Made toward the end of World War II, the 1945 iteration of the character focused on wartime intrigue and Corrigan’s cat-and-mouse games with Axis spies. Taking a cue from Casablanca (1942), the serial was set in a neutral country called “Shadow Island,” in which Americans, Japanese, Chinese, French, Germans, Australians, and the seafaring riffraff of the world freely intermingle. A fictional island nation off the coast of China, “Shadow Island” has a de facto leader named “Lucky Kamber” (Cy Kendall) who owns a bar called “House of Shadows” and has a finger in every pie, including gambling and espionage. Various German and Japanese military officers, secret agents, and thugs run amuck in this serial, but the one who most stands out is the unfortunately made-up and attired Victoria Horne as “Nabura.” In her role as a Japanese spymaster, Horne is outfitted with eyepieces that cover her upper eyelids, appearing to drag them down from sheer weight. She doesn’t look Asian, she just looks as if her eyes are closed.

While Nabura is played by a white actress in yellowface makeup, the main Chinese character is actually played by a Chinese actor, which was typical in World War II-era Hollywood. Keye Luke, surely one of the hardest working Chinese-American actors in Hollywood history, plays “Ah Fong,” Corrigan’s faithful sidekick. Corrigan is also aided by an Australian double agent named Lynn Moore, played by American actress Jan Wiley. Wiley does nothing to alter her accent, which was also typical for American actors who played Aussies in Hollywood productions during the war.

Secret Agent X-9 has good production values and special effects. The stock footage that shows up in nearly every serial is judiciously used, and integrated well into the newly filmed material. Where this Universal serial just doesn’t measure up to the best Republic offerings is in the pacing and action departments. Republic serials featured stuntwork that still impresses (e.g., Spy Smasher leaping through the air, landing on a mechanic’s creeper chest-first, rolling under a car, and grabbing a goon’s ankles before he can escape). Secret Agent X-9 features ho-hum shootouts, fistfights, and car chases.

Also, instead of a plot that evolves naturally over the course of the series, there is a simple story that seems as if it’s been stretched from a 90-minute feature into 13 chapters, most of which are longer than 20 minutes. Secret Agent X-9 also suffers from poor timing. When the first installment was released, V-E Day had already passed, but the United States was still at war with Japan. By the time the final installment was released, atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had surrendered to the Allies, and a new phase in world history had begun. Secret Agent X-9 is set in 1943, so it’s never out of date, per se, but its MacGuffin, a substitute for aviation fuel called “722,” which everyone in the film is scrambling to secure for themselves, seems like small beer after the advent of the Atomic Age.

Strange Confession (Oct. 5, 1945)

StrangeConfessionApparently populist rage against pharmaceutical giants is nothing new. In Strange Confession, the fifth of six “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” produced by Universal Pictures and released from 1943 to 1945, Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a brilliant chemist named Jeff Carter whose life goes from bad to worse when he twice accepts employment from the unscrupulous owner of the largest medical distributing company in an unnamed American city.

Strange Confession is more of a straight drama than the other films in the Inner Sanctum series. Except for its gruesome finale, it’s free of the Gothic overtones and murderous double-crosses found in the rest of the series. The opening few minutes are gripping, with Jeff clutching a bag in his hand and skulking through the shadowy nighttime city streets, deliberately avoiding a police officer. It’s a very noir beginning, right down to the story structure. Jeff arrives at the home of an old school chum named Mr. Brandon (Wilton Graff) and sits down to confess something horrible. He opens the bag and shows Brandon what’s inside. Brandon recoils, but the camera doesn’t reveal the bag’s contents.

Jeff recalls better days. He once had a well-paying job, a pretty wife named Mary (Brenda Joyce), and a baby boy named Tommy (Gregory Muradian). Unfortunately, his employer, Mr. Graham (J. Carrol Naish) exploited his talents and treated him poorly. He even had Jeff hard at work on Christmas Eve, composing an acceptance speech for him in which he took full credit for Jeff’s accomplishments in the lab. Jeff quit his job and worked for a small pharmacy, forced to labor on his chemistry experiments after hours in his bathroom. He was poor, but happy. But this wasn’t enough for his wife, who wanted better things in life, so a year later, Jeff went back to work for Mr. Graham. Jeff, his wife, and little Tommy started living the good life, with a house in the suburbs and an Irish housekeeper named Mrs. O’Connor (Mary Gordon).

Unfortunately, Graham, in addition to being a bad boss, was a cad. He had designs on Mary, and sent Jeff and his affable assistant Dave (Lloyd Bridges) deep into South America to work on a flu cure called “Zymurgine.” While Jeff and Dave were hard at work testing and perfecting the formula for the drug, Graham romanced Mary, who naïvely saw him as just a friend, taking her out to dinners and shows. Worse, he rushed Zymurgine into the market before Jeff’s fully tested formula was even ready to be shipped back to the United States. In a prescient moment, Graham tells his coterie of underlings, “You can sell almost anything if you advertise it enough.”

Ill-gotten profits trump integrity, and the whole thing comes full circle, personally affecting the principal characters and leading to a bloody conclusion. Strange Confession is quite a good one-hour B picture. Chaney’s performance is better than usual, and Naish is a smooth, oily antagonist. He’s well cast, too. With his hangdog features, black hair, and pencil-thin mustache he looks like a shorter version of Chaney, making him the perfect doppelgänger villain.