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Tag Archives: Stanley Price

Scared to Death (Feb. 1, 1947)

Christy Cabanne’s Scared to Death is a terrible film, but I had enormous goodwill toward it after the first reel. I get that way when the front door of a house flies open in a movie to reveal Bela Lugosi and little-person actor-extraordinaire Angelo Rossitto standing on the front porch, wearing matching black suits.

If you don’t know Rossitto by name, you might recognize him by sight. He had an incredibly long career in TV and movies, stretching from 1927 to 1987. He was the quiet, dark-haired dwarf in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Blaster’s better half, Master, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot to do in Scared to Death, and the sheer awfulness of the movie ground down all my goodwill to dust by the final reel.

Scared to Death is notable for two reasons — Lugosi only appeared in three color films, and Scared to Death is the only one in which he received top billing. Also, it’s a picture that’s narrated by a dead woman on a slab in a morgue. Trust me when I tell you that neither of these things is a reason to run out and see Scared to Death.

The color process used for Scared to Death was Cinecolor, which is a two-color film process, and it just doesn’t look that good, at least in the public domain print I watched. Also, the narration by the dead woman is interesting at first, but it becomes unbearable after the first dozen or so times her corpse cuts into the action to speak its piece. Part of the problem is that the sound editing is so terrible during the transitions that the viewer will start to dread the corpse’s appearance, especially if the viewer is sensitive to loud, abrupt noises.

Scared to Death is only worth seeing if you love corny old horror-comedies or are a connoisseur of bad films. Lugosi and Rossito are always fun to watch, as is George Zucco, but everyone else in the cast is either flat or intensely grating, like Nat Pendleton, who supplies comic “relief” as the dim-witted police inspector.

Bottom line — among films narrated by a dead person, Scared to Death will never be confused with Sunset Boulevard (1950).

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The Crimson Ghost (12 chapters) (Sept. 21-Dec. 7, 1946)

The Republic serial The Crimson Ghost, directed by William Witney and Fred C. Brannon, features one of the most iconic cliffhanger villains of all time. His grinning skull mask was appropriated by the band The Misfits, and may be how the character is best known today, since his face appears on nearly all of their T-shirts and album covers.

The Crimson Ghost’s mask is also the most memorable and sinister part of him in the serial itself. He gets involved with the action — gunplay, car chases, and fistfights — too often to be mysterious or ominous, and his hideouts are generally rustic or quaintly subterranean, but damn that mask is cool!

By 1946, most of Republic’s finest serials were behind them, but the studio still made the best cliffhangers in Hollywood, and The Crimson Ghost stands up as solid entertainment. It’s also one of the earliest examples of post-war, Atomic Age, pulp lunacy. Granted, the storytelling isn’t that different from pre-war Republic serials, but The Crimson Ghost does contain a number of science-fiction elements, and some of the fear and paranoia that came from living in a world with atomic weapons was beginning to creep in.

Charles Quigley plays scientific criminologist and “outstanding physicist” Duncan Richards and Linda Stirling plays his lovely and plucky assistant, Diana Farnsworth. In the first chapter of the serial, “Atomic Peril,” Prof. Chambers (played by Republic mainstay Kenne Duncan, his hair dyed gray and playing against type as a good guy) demonstrates his invention, the “cyclotrode.” The cyclotrode is roughly the size of a bread box, with a rotating cylindrical metal coil on top. It can “repel any atomic bomb attack” by shorting out electric systems, a stunning display of which is shown when Dr. Richards pilots a little model of a B-29 and Prof. Chambers locates it somehow with the cyclotrode and shoots it out of the sky. After the demonstration is over, one of the observing scientists says, “I haven’t felt so safe since before the bomb fell on Hiroshima.”

Prof. Chambers says that he plans to hand the cyclotrode over to the government and begin work on a larger model, but one of his fellow scientists is secretly masquerading as the Crimson Ghost (voiced by I. Stanford Jolley) and commanding a small army of henchmen in his spare time. One of the Ghost’s henchmen — disguised as a janitor — gets the drop on Prof. Chambers with the old “revolver in a feather duster” trick, but Prof. Chambers manages to destroy the prototype, and a small-scale, ridiculous little arms race is on.

Republic Pictures always had the best fight stuntmen in the business, and the brawls in The Crimson Ghost are all really well-done. The first one is a doozy, with Quigley’s stunt double leaping over a conference table, later sliding down its length, and of course breaking lots of furniture along the way. The second fight features the most memorable stunt in the serial, when Quigley’s stunt double leaps up and kicks off of a wall to take down two assailants.

Over the course of The Crimson Ghost, Dr. Richards and Diana constantly cross paths and mix it up with the black-robed baddie and his right-hand man, the suit and fedora-wearing Ash (played by Clayton Moore, who is best known to legions of baby boomers as the Lone Ranger). Like all serials, the plot is massaged, kneaded, and stretched out to fill 12 chapters. There are plenty of fistfights and car chases — the bread and butter of chapter plays — but there are also plenty of nutty pseudoscientific contraptions like the Crimson Ghost’s “slave collars,” which are outfitted with small diaphragm radio receivers that allow the Ghost to order the wearer around like his own personal zombie; the collars also explode when removed, killing the unlucky victim.

It quickly becomes clear that the Ghost is really one of the professors with whom Dr. Richards regularly meets, so why he keeps telling them his plans is beyond me, but it makes for plenty of action when Ash and his henchmen show up every time Dr. Richards and Diana attempt to secure an “X-7 transformer tube” (which Richards explains is “a special radium vapor tube we’ve been developing for a death ray machine”) or procure the heavy water necessary to supply the cyclotrode’s tubes.

There are plenty of cool gadgets, like a transcription disc sent to Dr. Richards that carries a message from the Crimson Ghost that ends with a release of poisonous gas, radioactive tracking devices, dissolving sprays, and a cigarette case that releases a tiny puff of knockout gas.

The Crimson Ghost was one of three serials I watched repeatedly in high school (The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher were the other two). I loved Linda Stirling as Diana, whom Dr. Richards treats like a secretary even though she can pilot a plane, mix it up with Ash, and even throw her little body out of a speeding car and remarkably not have any scratches or bruises on her face. Watching it again made me realize that she’s a really bad actress, even by the standards of Republic Pictures, but her ineptitude as a thespian didn’t change the way I feel about her, or about The Crimson Ghost, which is a top-notch serial with plenty of rewatchability.

Romance of the West (March 20, 1946)

Romance of the West is a movie with its heart in the right place, if nothing else. It’s filmed in Cinecolor (a two-color film process, a.k.a. “not Technicolor”), which might initially fool you into thinking that it’s a high-class affair. Make no mistake, however. Romance of the West is bottom of the barrel, even by the notoriously low standards of the studio that distributed it, P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation).

In the grand tradition of singing cowboys, country and western star Eddie Dean plays a character named “Eddie Dean.” Eddie is an Indian agent sympathetic to the plight of his American Indian pals. He’s got a great singing voice, but not much else. When delivering lines, Eddie appears to be a life-size mannequin with a string in his back that somebody pulled to make him talk. He’s a lunkhead with a big, dopey mouth and zero screen presence. In a review of one of his films from the ’40s (I don’t know which one), the NY Times said, “Instead of the usual black and white, Eddie Dean’s newest western has been shot in Cinecolor, but it’s not an improvement; you can still see him.”

So why do I say that Romance of the West has its heart in the right place? Well, because it treats its Indian characters with a degree of respect, and there’s mention of all the treaties with them that the United States broke, forcing them into smaller and smaller reservations. But after lip service is paid, the plot goes off the rails. Eddie was supposedly raised by the Indians. So why doesn’t he speak their language with them, or act like them in any way? He’s also a tool of the paternalistic Bureau of Indian Affairs, and toes the line, but it’s presented as a wholly positive thing. When he informs his friend Chief Eagle Feather that the Indians’ land is being stocked with 200 head of cattle, since the buffalo are all dead, the chief acts as if it’s Christmas morning, and he just got the present he always wanted.

The tribe is never named. They’re all “Indians.” There are, however, good Indians and bad Indians. A consortium of powerful men who want the silver that exists on the good Indians’ land gin up some bad Indians to rape and pillage so the good Indians can be blamed for it and driven off their land with the government’s approval.

In a ridiculous scene following a raid by the bad Indians on the good Indians, a little boy is mourning his father’s death. Eddie asks the chief if he know the boy’s name and the chief says, “All I know is that him Indian boy,” or some such twaddle. Never mind that the kid’s at least seven years old and should probably know his own name. Eddie decides he’ll call him “Little Brown Jug” and takes him to be raised by the local monk, Father Sullivan (Forrest Taylor), even though the chief offers to take the boy in. Eddie and Father Sullivan cut Brown Jug’s long hair and dress him like a cowboy. And we’re supposed to believe that Eddie was raised by Indians?

Incidentally, Chief Eagle Feather is played by an actor listed in the credits as “Chief Thundercloud.” Chief Thundercloud was actually a part-Cherokee actor named Victor Daniels, who also had Scottish, Irish, and German ancestors. He played Tonto in two serials and the lead role in Geronimo (1939).

There’s really nothing to recommend Romance of the West aside from the songs, of which there are several; “Ridin’ the Trail to Dreamland,” “Love Song of the Waterfall,” and “Indian Dawn.” The arrangements are good, and Dean has a great voice. A great voice for radio, that is. To paraphrase the Times, the problem with this movie is that you can see him.

Sunset in El Dorado (Sept. 29, 1945)

SunsetElDoradoA lot of men were drafted during World War II. Roy Rogers was one of them. With a 1-A classification, he expected to be shipped out in the spring of 1945. Consequently, screenwriter John K. Butler (working from a story by Leon Abrams) came up with a script to showcase Rogers’s leading lady, Dale Evans. When V-E Day rolled around, however, the draft board exempted men over the age of 30 who had children, so Rogers never had to serve. Director Frank McDonald’s Sunset in El Dorado ended up starring both “The King of the Cowboys” and “The Queen of the West,” but Evans is still the central figure, and it’s a great showcase for her sunny persona.

The film begins in the present day. Evans plays a young woman named Lucille Wiley, who works for a company called “Worldwide Tours.” In the first scene, Lucille shows a filmstrip that illustrates everything visitors will see on their western tour package. As shots of a ghost town appear on screen, Lucille says, “And this is El Dorado, in its day a roaring boomtown. The Golden Nugget, El Dorado’s most famous, or infamous, fandango hall. In its day, it rivaled the halls in Dodge City or the notorious Barbary Coast. The legendary Kansas Kate was the feature attraction here. And what a colorful attraction she was.”

Although she has a good pitch, and Kansas Kate was Lucille’s grandmother, Lucille has never been west of Hoboken. In a fit of pique, she runs off on one of Worldwide’s tour buses, determined to see the little town of El Dorado. She’s having a grand old time, singing “Go West Young Man” with her fellow passengers (Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers), when her drippy fiancé Cecil Phelps, the president of Worldwide Tours (played by Hardie Albright), and her old-maid aunt Dolly show up to spirit her away. Cecil intends to marry Lucille immediately, in Yuma, but she desperately wants to see El Dorado.

Their car breaks down on the way, and any hope Cecil has of making Lucille his wife pretty much falls off a cliff when Roy Rogers and Trigger ride up to help. He finds Lucille, off on her own, and says to her, “Well, I’ve seen mirages before, but this is the first one that ever talked back. Are you a mirage?”

Trigger tows their car to the nearest town, which happens to be El Dorado. Once there, Lucille explores the remains of the Golden Nugget and discovers a painting of Kansas Kate hanging above the bar. She’s interrupted by an ornery old coot named Gabby (George “Gabby” Hayes) who’s been dropping by the saloon for 40 years to make sure nothing happens to the painting. As Lucille stares at the picture and fantasizes about what her grandmother’s life might have been like, the movie flashes back to the old west, but the narrative continues, as everyone has a counterpart. Evans plays Kansas Kate, Rogers continues to play that character called “Roy Rogers” he played in so many movies, Gabby plays his younger self, and Cecil the drip becomes Cyril the heavy.

The plot moves at a brisk pace, and hinges on the coded map to Gabby’s gold claim being stolen by a group of bandits. Roy suspects that Kate was behind the plan, especially since she originally told him she was a schoolteacher, not a saloon owner, in order to impress him.

After Roy slugs it out with the toughest guy in the bar, a heavy named “Buster” (Roy Barcroft), he takes over Buster’s position as Kate’s bodyguard. Apparently his first duty as her bodyguard is to perform “Belle of the El Dorado” with Kate and her backup singers in a fully choreographed number.

The romantic scenes between Rogers and Evans are, as always, sweet and believable. After they take a break from riding together, she asks him, “What I can’t understand is why you took this job in the first place, particularly when you thought I swindled old Gabby out of his gold mine.”

“That’s why I took the job, to find out if you did,” he responds.

“Did you find out yet?” she asks.

“Oh, just a hunch, that’s about all,” he says, chewing on a piece of alfalfa and smiling.

I won’t be giving anything away if I tell you that everything turns out all right for Roy, Dale, Gabby, and Trigger, both in their present-day incarnations and their rootin’ tootin’ old-west versions. The only question I was left with was, since Lucille looks exactly like Kansas Kate, her own grandmother, and Roy looks exactly like the old-west character “Roy Rogers” who presumably married Kate, does that mean that the modern-day Lucille and Roy are actually cousins? Well, probably not, but it couldn’t help but cross my mind.