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Tag Archives: RKO Radio Pictures

The Thing (From Another World) (April 27, 1951)

The Thing
The Thing (From Another World) (1951)
Directed by Christian Nyby
RKO Radio Pictures / Winchester Pictures

I’m probably one of the few people my age who fell in love with the original version of The Thing before seeing John Carpenter’s 1982 version. Back in high school, I’d watch any piece of 1950s sci-fi schlock at least once, but The Thing (From Another World) was far from schlock, and I watched my VHS copy at least six or seven times when I was a teenager, maybe more.

In fact, I loved The Thing so much that I didn’t really like John Carpenter’s remake the first time I watched it. I loved the optimistic, capable characters in the original and all their rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, and I found Carpenter’s version pessimistic and depressing. However, like most of Carpenter’s films from the ’70s and ’80s, The Thing gets better every time I watch it, and it’s now easily one of my favorite sci-fi/horror films.

Revisiting the original version of The Thing was a strange experience, at least for the first 20 minutes. I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and Carpenter’s version has in many ways replaced it in my heart.

Once you’ve seen the innovative, gory special effects of Carpenter’s version, it’s hard to go back to James Arness in a bald cap, spacesuit, and claw hands. The 1951 version also lacks the central idea of a shape-shifting alien who can mimic human form, so there isn’t the same level of paranoia, which is a huge part of Carpenter’s version.

arness

After the first couple of reels, however, I settled back into the rhythm of the original and enjoyed it as much as I always did. It’s a completely different movie from Carpenter’s version, and what it does, it does brilliantly. It may not have much in the way of paranoia, but it’s a suspenseful film that establishes a real sense of isolation and claustrophobia.

One thing that struck me on this viewing of The Thing is how much of its gruesomeness and horror is dependent on the viewer’s imagination. Descriptions of things like a plant-based alien-humanoid who lives on blood or scientists hanging upside down with their throats slashed are only referred to in dialogue. This probably played better for audiences weaned on radio dramas, and I’m not sure how well it will hold up for younger viewers accustomed to explicit shocks. On the other hand, the decision of the filmmakers to keep the alien monster mostly off-screen has dated the film well.

The Thing holds up as superior entertainment that is head and shoulders above most ’50s sci-fi movies. The cast is full of actors who never became household names, but they deliver deft character work and seem like real people. What the film lacks in budget it more than makes up for with an intelligent script and tight pacing. It’s a terrific movie that I can watch over and over, and it still feels fresh.

flying-saucer

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.

Where Danger Lives (July 14, 1950)

Where Danger Lives

Where Danger Lives (1950)
Directed by John Farrow
RKO Radio Pictures

A more accurate and unique title for this film could have been A Man Concussed.

Don’t get me wrong, “Where Danger Lives” is nice and vivid, and it’s so perfectly “noir” that it’s also the name of an excellent blog you should all be reading if you have any interest in film noir. But “A Man Concussed” would have been more specific, and for whatever reason (probably inspired by the Robert Bresson film A Man Escaped), it’s the title that kept running around in my head as I watched Robert Mitchum in this film, his character suffering from a traumatic brain injury, and getting deeper and deeper in trouble.

The screenplay for Where Danger Lives was written by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, who penned the scripts for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), as well as many others. Where Danger Lives has a good story with plenty of unique touches, but the movie never quite hit me where I live. Director John Farrow and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, certainly crafted a great-looking movie. Visually, Where Danger Lives is a great noir, but in terms of a complete experience I don’t think it’s a film noir I’ll keep coming back to.

Where-Danger-Lives-33050_3

Perhaps the trouble is Mitchum’s leading lady, Faith Domergue. She delivers a competent performance, but just doesn’t exude the same combination of allure and menace that the great femme fatales do, like Barbarba Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross (1949), or Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1950).

Where Danger Lives is certainly worth seeing at least once, especially if you’re a Robert Mitchum fan like I am. The supporting cast is pretty great, too, including brief appearances by the great Claude Rains and the always enchanting Maureen O’Sullivan.

Tarzan and the Slave Girl (June 23, 1950)

Tarzan and the Slave Girl
Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950)
Directed by Lee Sholem
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

Lex Barker’s second go-round as Tarzan made me miss Johnny Weissmuller just a little bit more than his first.

Part of it was that I just didn’t find Tarzan and the Slave Girl as entertaining as Barker’s first go-round as the character, Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), but I think it was also because the novelty was starting to wear off.

I’m not trying to dump on Barker, who’s fine in the role, and certainly a beautiful physical specimen. Saying that another actor isn’t as good as Weissmuller in the role of Tarzan is akin to lamenting that no one was a better James Bond than Sean Connery.

Some fans of the original Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs complain about Weissmuller’s pidgin English and monosyllabic dialogue, since the Tarzan of the original novels, Lord Greystoke, grew past his feral beginnings to become a cultured and well-spoken superhuman lord of the jungle. However, I think everything about Weissmuller’s interpretation of the character works in the movies. His difficulty with English emphasizes his magnificent physical qualities, and makes Maureen O’Sullivan (who played Jane in the first six Tarzan movies opposite Weissmuller) a better partner for him, since she has skills that her mate lacks.

Tarzan and the slave girls

The good news is that every Tarzan movie delivers a decent amount of entertainment, and Tarzan and the Slave Girl is no different. If you’re looking for lovely half-naked bodies, animal action, jungle stock footage, and drunken chimp antics, then this movie delivers.

The plot is the typical mishmash that Tarzan movie fans are used to. Deep in the jungles of an Africa that in no way resembles anyplace on the actual continent, a group of white men from a tribe called the “Lionians” are kidnapping young women from other tribes. The young women they kidnap are also white, and mostly look like a casting call for Dorothy Lamour and Linda Darnell types.

Tarzan (Lex Barker) and his mate Jane (played for the first and only time by Vanessa Brown) are embroiled in this plot when the Lionians kidnap Jane and a woman named Lola (Denise Darcel), and Tarzan must rush to their rescue.

Whatever else this film might lack, it’s certainly full of leering shots of its female stars. Not only do Jane and Lola engage in a catfight for no particular reason, soon afterward they are captured by the Lionian slavers, and the long, lingering closeup of Darcel and Brown both rubbing their feet and ankles when they are shackled together made me wonder if director Sholem was taking some inspiration from Irving Klaw’s fetish films.

In fact, the casting of Darcel, a French actress whom we last saw as the only female character in the war movie Battleground (1949), seems like a way to make sure every heterosexual male viewer’s taste is catered to. Vanessa Brown, who plays Jane, is very slender and youthful-looking, whereas Darcel is fleshy and sexy.

Darcel and Brown

At this point in time, Tarzan and the Slave Girl is probably only ever going to be watched by hardcore Tarzan fans. If you’ve never seen a Tarzan movie, you have tons to choose from. The best place to start is probably with the first two Weissmuller flicks; Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), which is arguably the greatest Tarzan film of all time.

However, if you are a hardcore Tarzan fan and have seen all the Weissmuller films, the Barker films are not without their pleasures. They’re solid Saturday matinee viewing, and for my money that’s never a bad thing.

Armored Car Robbery (June 8, 1950)

Armored Car Robbery
Armored Car Robbery (1950)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
RKO Radio Pictures

Richard Fleischer’s Armored Car Robbery was originally conceived and shot with the title “Code 3,” but RKO Radio Pictures opted for extreme truth in advertising. It’s a great example of the kind of tough, no-nonsense B-noir that RKO specialized in.

Fleischer had an extraordinarily long career in Hollywood. He directed his first short in 1943, and worked throughout the 1940s making short features and short documentaries, as well as low-budget features that no one remembers, like Child of Divorce (1946) and Banjo (1947).

Fleischer worked consistently throughout the decades, and went on to make huge movies that everyone remembers, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Soylent Green (1973). His directorial style is hard to pin down, as are any personal or authorial touches. Fleischer made movies in practically every genre; film noir, science fiction, war movies, horror flicks, and docudramas. He made trash classics like Mandingo (1975) and the remake The Jazz Singer (1980), which starred Neil Diamond. Toward the end of his career, Fleischer made entertainingly bad movies like Amityville 3-D (1983), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Red Sonja (1984).

Back in the 1940s, Fleischer was one of those competent, hard-working craftsmen who toiled away in the studio system and produced movies that were entertaining, but not particularly memorable. (He was the son of legendary animator Max Fleischer, who created Popeye and Betty Boop, as well as the great Superman cartoons of the early 1940s.)

The last movie Richard Fleischer directed that I reviewed was Bodyguard (1948), which starred legendary tough guy Lawrence Tierney. Because there are always more movies to watch than I can possibly make time for, I missed Fleischer’s next few flicks, The Clay Pigeon (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949), Make Mine Laughs (1949), and Trapped (1949).

McGuire and McGraw

I almost passed on Armored Car Robbery, but I decided to give it a watch for two reasons. First, it’s a heist movie that came close on the heels of one of the greatest and most game-changing heist movies of all time, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Second, it stars granite-jawed tough guy Charles McGraw, whom Fleischer would direct again in one of my favorite noir thrillers of all time, The Narrow Margin (1952).

So I wanted to see how Armored Car Robbery stacked up against The Asphalt Jungle, and I wanted to see what Fleischer and McGraw were getting up to before they made The Narrow Margin together.

Considering its small budget and tight shooting schedule, Armored Car Robbery stacks up pretty well against The Asphalt Jungle. The heist is not nearly as detailed, but it’s believable, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off.

Like Fleischer’s Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery features a lot of location shooting in Los Angeles. For instance, the heist takes place outside Wrigley Field. (I know what you’re thinking, isn’t that in Chicago, where the Cubs play?) In Los Angeles, Wrigley Field was a ballpark that was in operation from 1925 to 1965 and demolished in 1969. It was built by the same chewing-gum magnate who build the other Wrigley Field.

The leader of the heist crew, played by William Talman, calls in a series of false reports outside Wrigley Field, then observes police response times. He puts together a string of heavies, including dependable baby-faced heavy Steve Brodie and dependable haggard-looking heavy Gene Evans, along with an oily Lothario played by Douglas Fowley.

If you’ve seen a heist movie before, you’ll know that the best laid plans often go awry. Talman is shtupping Fowley’s girl on the side, which can’t possibly turn out well. Incidentally, Fowley’s girl is played by the lovely and talented B-pictures mainstay Adele Jergens, who gets to show off her gams as a burlesque dancer. Armored Car Robbery gives her a nastier, more fun role than the one she played as a dancer in Ladies of the Chorus (1948), in which the 30-year-old Jergens played Marilyn Monroe’s mother(!).

McGraw and Jergens

After the commission of the heist, Armored Car Robbery is a tightly paced cat and mouse thriller in which the robbery crew narrowly avoids capture by the police as McGraw and his new partner track down leads. A lot of it is shot quickly and unpretentiously, but the cinematography by Guy Roe is always excellent, especially in the nighttime set-ups and the paranoia-inducing low-angle shots when the crew is beginning to unravel.

Armored Car Robbery is great entertainment, and a wonderful showcase for its dependable cast. If you’ve never seen Charles McGraw in a movie before, Narrow Margin is a great place to start, but Armored Car Robbery isn’t a bad place to start either. And it contains the memorable moment when McGraw comforts a friend whose husband has just died with three words, “Tough break, Marsha.” In his book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, Alan K. Rode called it “the bluntest expression of bereavement in film history.”

Armored Car Robbery will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Friday, July 10, 2015, at 12:15 PM (ET).

Wagon Master (April 19, 1950)

Wagon Master

Wagon Master (1950)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

I have mixed feelings about John Ford.

I absolutely love some of his films, and consider them masterpieces, but he also made a lot of films that I’m not crazy about even though every other classic film fan seems to revere them, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

After watching Wagon Master, which was the western that Ford directed after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I’m beginning to think that my expectations might play some role. (In between these two westerns, Ford directed the comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home, which I haven’t seen.)

High expectations and the reverence of others can sometimes make a film tough to enjoy. I thought that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was stunningly photographed, and I liked some of the performances, but overall I found it poorly paced, historically inaccurate, and unbearably sentimental. I also really didn’t like John Wayne’s performance. I love it when the Duke plays variations on himself, but whenever he plays a “character” I find it hard to watch. His role as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon isn’t as bad as when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), but I still found his “old man” schtick disingenuous and poorly acted.

Johnson and Bond

Wagon Master, on the other hand, is a film almost no one ever talks about. When I sat down to watch it, I had no expectations, nor anyone else’s reverence to contend with.

I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a poetic and leisurely paced western that I’d love to see again some day. Unlike Ford’s last two westerns, which were both shot in Technicolor, Wagon Master is shot in black and white. (At least until the 1960s, I think I prefer my westerns in black and white.)

In Wagon Master, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who both had supporting roles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, play a pair of horse traders named Travis and Sandy.

They’re approached by a group of Mormons who are led by a recent convert to the faith, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), whose constant struggle to not use profanity is a running joke in the film. The group of Mormons are heading west through desolate stretches and need experienced range riders like Travis and Sandy to guide them. The Mormons plan to found a settlement and begin growing crops so a much larger group of their brethren will be able to join them in their promised land a year later.

The range is full of dangers, including human ones, who come in the form of the murderous Clegg gang. They’re led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper). If you pay close attention you’ll spot future Gunsmoke star James Arness as another member of the gang, Floyd Clegg.

Kemper and Arness

The Clegg gang is menacing, but there are also friendly strangers who join the wagon train along their journey — a drunken snake-oil salesman named Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and his two female companions, Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) and Denver (Joanne Dru).

Perhaps if I were to proclaim Wagon Master a masterpiece, it would collapse under the weight of my approbation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was a beautifully made film that unfolds at a perfect pace.

I especially enjoyed seeing Ben Johnson come into his own as an actor. The Oklahoma-born Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo rider in real life, and he’s convincing and charismatic in this role. I liked his supporting role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but he carries the film here, and emerges as a great western star. He has no false bravado or unrealistic heroics, and even decides against pulling his gun at several times when the audience might expect him to.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Oct. 22, 1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

As a cinephile, I feel like any criticism of the almighty John Ford must be made in hushed tones.

So in that spirit, let me begin by praising the aspects of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that I found praiseworthy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of the most beautifully shot westerns I’ve ever seen. Winton C. Hoch won the Academy Award for best color cinematography for this film, and he deserved it. Hoch had previously shot 3 Godfathers (1948) for Ford, and would go on to lens three more films for Ford, The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955), and The Searchers (1956).

Technicolor is a process that often looked oversaturated and occasionally even gaudy, but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon looks simultaneously lifelike and hyperreal. It stands as a towering achievement of what a talented cinematographer could do when shooting in Technicolor.

I also really enjoyed Ben Johnson’s performance as Sgt. Tyree, a former Confederate captain now serving in the U.S. Cavalry as a scout. Johnson was as comfortable in the saddle as he was on his own two legs, and he would go on to a long career in Hollywood, specifically in westerns. I enjoyed his role in Mighty Joe Young (1949), but it didn’t hint at his future greatness in the same way that his performance in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon does. I also enjoyed Richard Hageman’s score, and I found this film enjoyable moment to moment.

John Wayne

But overall, I really didn’t like it. I like plenty of John Ford’s movies just fine, but for more than 20 years I have been mystified by the universal reverence film fans have for his work.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is emblematic of what I don’t like about Ford’s films. His westerns were grand operations in mythmaking, but with an excess of sentimentality. They were historically inaccurate and geographically incoherent, and without a great actor like Henry Fonda in the lead, his films feel like they’re adrift at sea.

I like John Wayne. I really do. But he was better at being an iconic presence than he was at turning in a good performance. The only “performances” of his I’ve found compelling were ones that contained a streak of nastiness, like his roles in Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956). In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wayne is mostly himself, but he has a few opportunities to emote, and those scenes were dead on arrival for me. There’s nothing interesting about his character, unlike Henry Fonda’s deeply flawed character in Fort Apache (1948).

This is a film with remarkably low dramatic stakes. Almost nothing happens in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This would be fine if it were simply a realistic look at the role the U.S. Cavalry played in the settling of the American West, but it’s not in any way realistic or historically accurate. It takes place in 1876, shortly after the massacre of General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film’s narrator informs us that multiple Indian nations are joining forces to fight the U.S. government en masse, and that just one more defeat like the one Custer suffered and it will be a century before the Pony Express will be able to safely cross the west again. Historically, this is utter hogwash, and not just because the Pony Express ceased operations in 1861.

Of course, a western doesn’t need to be historically accurate to be entertaining, but with no interesting characters, no dramatic tension, and extremely little action, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon just didn’t work for me. Perhaps my viewing was a victim of high expectations, since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems to be universally loved by classic film fans. It’s the second in Ford’s unofficial “Cavalry Trilogy,” but aside from the gorgeous visuals I thought it was a much weaker movie than the first, Fort Apache. (The third part of the trilogy is Rio Grande, which was released in 1950 and also starred John Wayne.) On the other hand, I brought no particular expectations to Ford’s last film, 3 Godfathers, and I enjoyed that one quite a bit.