RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Ted Hecht

Tarzan and the Huntress (April 5, 1947)

Kurt Neumann’s Tarzan and the Huntress should really be called Tarzan and the Poachers. The word “huntress” conveys more risqué sexiness than the film actually contains (the same can be said of the poster), and seems designed to draw in the same people who shivered at the sight of the muscular Johnny Weissmuller being clawed by the beautiful actress Acquanetta in his previous outing as the King of the Jungle, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946).

When Tarzan and the Huntress begins, we learn that zoos around the world are facing a post-war shortage of animals. (Did lions and monkeys get drafted? I missed that.)

Enter Tanya Rawlins (Patricia Morison, stepping up from Queen of the Amazons to a higher-quality jungle movie). Tanya is an animal trainer leading a safari that also includes her villainous guide, big-game hunter Paul Weir (Barton MacLane), and the moneyman, Carl Marley (John Warburton).

Meanwhile, a half-naked couple who live in a treehouse with their pet chimp and their boy, who calls his adoptive parents by their first names, are preparing to honor local monarch King Farrod (Charles Trowbridge) on the occasion of his birthday. No, they’re not hippies, they’re Tarzan and Jane, played by Weissmuller and Brenda Joyce. Their adopted son, “Boy,” is once again played by Johnny Sheffield, who looks as if he should probably change his name to “Man” sometime soon (or at least “The Artist Formerly Known As ‘Boy'”), since he’s nearly as big as Tarzan. (This was Sheffield’s last role in a Tarzan picture. In 1949 he struck out on his own in the Bomba, the Jungle Boy series.) When Tarzan inspects the fishing pole that Boy has fashioned for King Farrod, he smiles and says, “Everybody like fishing, even kings.” This might be a lesser entry in the Tarzan series, but the playfulness of Tarzan’s little family group and their idyllic life in the jungle is always fun to watch. If you’ve seen one Tarzan movie, however, you’ve seen them all, and you know that something will soon come to threaten their peaceful existence.

In this case, it’s a perfect storm of Tarzan-related problems — hunters and trappers arriving from the “civilized” world, treacherous locals, and Cheeta and Boy’s shared love of shiny objects.

When Weir tells Tanya that King Farrod won’t allow more than two specimens of each animal to be taken out of the jungle, Noah’s-Ark style, she sputters, “You can’t be serious!” So in a back-door deal, the king’s scheming nephew, Prince Ozira (Ted Hecht), offers Weir and Tanya a “no quota, no restrictions” offer on trapping animals, as long as they pay him a bounty per animal.

One of the members of Tanya’s safari offers to trade Boy a hand-crank flashlight for Cheeta. Boy refuses, since Cheeta’s like a member of the family, but he’s not above stealing a pair of lioness’s cubs in exchange for the nearly worthless bauble.

Tarzan returns the two cubs to their mother and draws a line in the sand. Hunters stay on their side of the river, Tarzan stay on his.

The hunting party doesn’t seem overly concerned, but then Tarzan calls all the animals to him with his powerful jungle cry, and they leave the hunters’ side and come to his.

It’s on.

Tarzan knows just how to handle the greedy poachers when they cross the river into his territory. “Hunters without guns like bees without stings. Hunters not so brave now,” he says, after he steals all of their weapons and hides them behind a waterfall.

That would be the end of the story if it weren’t for that darned Cheeta, who wants Tanya’s shiny compact so badly that she shows the hunters the way to the waterfall.

Cheeta gets her compact, the poachers get their guns, and it’s time for Tarzan and Boy to hand out the punishment, one hunter at a time.

Tarzan and the Huntress was Weissmuller’s penultimate turn as Tarzan. After appearing in Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), he went on to star in the Jungle Jim series and Lex Barker took over starring in the franchise with Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949).

Weissmuller appears to have gained some weight since he made the previous picture in the series, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, but he’s always fun to watch as the character. Brenda Joyce looks beautiful, as always, but I wasn’t sure what to make of her little slip-on pantyhose shoes.

If you’ve never seen a Tarzan picture before, Tarzan and the Huntress probably isn’t the place to start, but it’s solid entertainment for fans of the series, and offers especially good animal action and hijinks.

Advertisements

Shoot to Kill (March 15, 1947)

William Berke’s Shoot to Kill (also released under the title Police Reporter) isn’t as bad as you may have heard it is, but it still ain’t good.

Berke was a journeyman director, but he was a fine visual craftsman, as can be seen in the crime programmer Dick Tracy (1945) and B westerns like Sunset Pass (1946) and Code of the West (1947).

When he worked with talented actors, as he did in Cop Hater (1958), which he made toward the end of his career, he could produce a damned fine piece of entertainment.

When he worked with untalented actors, the results could be disastrous.

The plot of Shoot to Kill hinges on a contrivance, but that’s not the problem with the picture. The problem is that its male and female protagonists, Russell Wade and Luana Walters (billed in the credits as Susan Walters), are such phenomenally awful actors that every word out of their mouths is like a speed bump.

Just when the narrative is chugging along nicely, and the tension is rising, Wade and Walters sit down to discuss matters, and their frozen-molasses line delivery grinds everything back down to first gear.

The film begins at the end, with a car crash that kills district attorney Lawrence Dale (Edmund MacDonald) and gangster “Dixie” Logan (Robert Kent, billed in the credits as Douglas Blackley). Also in the car, injured but alive, is Marian Langdon (Walters).

What unlikely chain of ridiculous events brought these three characters together? From her hospital bed, Marian Langdon spills the tale.

Dixie Logan was sent to prison by perjured testimony solicited by D.A. Dale, who’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Marian goes to work for the D.A., and is privy to all kinds of nefarious activity. For instance, Dale is in cahoots with gangster Gus Miller (Nestor Paiva), so when some of Miller’s heavies discover that the kindly old man cleaning up in Dale’s office after hours is really a police plant, they throw him down an elevator shaft. (Murdering someone by throwing them out of a window is called “defenestration.” What’s the word for murdering someone by throwing them down an elevator shaft? If there’s not a word for it, there should be.)

Dale romances Marian while she feeds information to reporter George “Mitch” Mitchell (Wade) on the side. She eventually gives in to Dale’s proposals of marriage, and they get hitched in a midnight ceremony, and survive a 12:10 AM attempt on their lives.

All in a day’s work.

This quickie wedding leads to the contrivance I mentioned earlier. When Dale expects to get down to nuptial business, Walters gives him the cold shoulder, and informs him that she knows the only reason he married her is so she can’t testify against him now that she knows all his dirty little secrets. A wife can’t testify against her husband, after all. (I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure this law — which existed in plenty of states — meant that a wife couldn’t be compelled to testify against her husband in court. If she wanted to, nothing could stop her.)

Shoot to Kill has enough plot for a movie twice as long, but it’s an acceptable way to kill an hour if you can overlook wooden acting and ridiculous twists.

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.