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Tag Archives: William Berke

Jungle Jim (Dec. 15, 1948)

Jungle Jim
Jungle Jim (1948)
Directed by William Berke
Esskay Pictures Corporation / Columbia Pictures

It’s the end of an era, and the start of a new one. Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) was Johnny Weissmuller’s last time playing Tarzan, and this was his first time playing Alex Raymond’s comic-strip hero Jungle Jim.

Raymond was one of the greatest writer-artists to ever work in the medium of the funny pages, and in addition to Jungle Jim he also created Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9, and Rip Kirby.

Unlike other jungle heroes like Tarzan, Ka-Zar, Ka’a’nga, and Sheena, Jungle Jim operated in Southeastern Asia, not Africa, and he wore a full set of clothes.

For the purposes of a Saturday-afternoon flick, however, it’s clear that director William Berke and his production team didn’t spend much time differentiating their highly fictionalized jungle world from the highly fictionalized version of Africa that appeared in most jungle B-movies.

In fact, I’m unclear after one viewing whether this film was meant to take place in Africa or Southeastern Asia. There were references to the Masai, but the “natives” being referred to were not black Africans, but rather the type of “natives” common to films produced by “Jungle Sam” Katzman; in other words, they’re white actors who look like Brooklyn teamsters wearing turbans.

The biggest difference between Jungle Jim and the Tarzan films comes when we see Weissmuller walk out of the jungle in the first shot of the film, fully clothed and wearing a Panama hat, which is an odd sight after so many years of mostly only seeing him in loincloths of various sizes.

But never fear. Most of the things that made Weissmuller an action star are still on display. It takes exactly 2 minutes and 4 seconds from the moment the film begins before Weissmuller takes off his shoes and leaps into the water to attempt to save a terrified native from a man-eating leopard. Even though Weissmuller is older and heavier as Jungle Jim than he was in a lot of his Tarzan films, he’s still an Olympic champion swimmer, and no other B-movie actor could knife through the water like he could. (Well, maybe Buster Crabbe could.)

Reeves and Weissmuller

The plot of Jungle Jim is the typical jungle-adventure-film malarkey. A scientist named Dr. Hilary Parker (Virginia Grey) is searching for the lost temple of Zimbalu, which has great archaeological value. Zimbalu may contain gold, but — more importantly — it might be the source of a substance that could be used to cure infantile paralysis if placed in the right hands. (Paging Dr. Jonas Salk!)

Curing polio is Dr. Parker’s goal, but it’s not the goal of safari member Bruce Edwards (played by George Reeves, who would go on to play Superman on TV in the ’50s). Edwards is only in it for the gold, and doesn’t care who he has to stab in the back to get it.

There’s also a beautiful “native” girl named Zia (Lita Baron), who doesn’t know why Dr. Parker dresses and acts like a man, and is jealous of the attention Jungle Jim pays to Dr. Parker.

Like most low-budget jungle adventures, Jungle Jim employs lots of stock footage. An entire sequence is edited to make it appear as if Dr. Parker’s dog Skipper is interacting with a little monkey. There’s also a crocodile attack, a monkey stealing honey, and a crow smoking a pipe. The emphasis in Jungle Jim is on action above all else. An elephant stampede is immediately followed by a rock slide, which is followed by the shapely Zia dancing spastically around a campfire.

Jungle Jim is dumb, but plenty of fun if you like B-movies set in the jungle. If you like beautiful women, there’s plenty to enjoy, too. Grey and Baron are both stunning. Dr. Parker is supposed to be mannish, but those glasses don’t cut it.

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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.

Code of the West (Feb. 20, 1947)

Code of the West, a programmer from RKO Radio Pictures, has the same pedigree as Sunset Pass (1946). Both films are based on novels by Zane Grey, the screenplays for both films were written by Norman Houston, both are directed by William Berke, both star James Warren and John Laurenz, and both feature Robert Clarke, Harry Woods, Steve Brodie, and Harry Harvey in supporting roles.

In Sunset Pass, the tall, lean, blond-haired, scowling Warren played a cowboy named “Rocky.” Here, he plays a cowboy named “Bob Wade.” John Laurenz plays the same character, Chito Rafferty, a comical, musically inclined Irish-Mexican. (Incidentally, “Chito Rafferty” was a sidekick character made famous by Richard Martin, who played the character in 33 different westerns from 1943 to 1952. Laurenz was the only other actor to play the character, and he only did so in Sunset Pass and Code of the West.)

While I won’t be able to tell you the plot of either of these films at this time next month, I thought Code of the West was the better picture, largely due to the presence of a young Raymond Burr, who is a smoother and more malevolent villain than Harry Woods was in Sunset Pass.

In Code of the West, Burr plays a land baron (what else?) named Boyd Carter. Carter and his henchmen know that the railroad is coming through town, but they’re keeping the information to themselves as they buy up all the land they can get their hands on. When a young banker named Harry Stockton (Robert Clarke) lends Bob and Chito money to stake a claim of their own, Carter’s men go into action.

If you were drawn to this film by the poster above, be forewarned that Carter’s arson-murder gang that blasts the frontier is mostly a collection of stock footage. But if you squint your eyes, suspend your disbelief, and take another sip of bourbon, you’ll be fine.

Sunset Pass (July 8, 1946)

Judging by the only Zane Grey novel I’ve read, Riders of the Purple Sage, which was published in 1912, Grey was the most influential and important writer to ever mythologize the American west.

He was also a hack, and his florid prose made me wish for the more psychologically realistic and straightforward portrayals of the west I grew up reading in westerns by Louis L’Amour. Part of this is due to the era in which he was writing. By the ’40s and ’50s, passages like the following would have seemed ridiculous:

Her head was bowing to the inevitable. She was grasping the truth, when suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a hardening of gentle forces within her breast. Like a steel bar it was stiffening all that had been soft and weak in her. She felt a birth in her of something new and unintelligible.

The word “overwrought” doesn’t begin to describe the world Grey creates. His hero, Lassiter, wears an outfit that would make Richard Boone as Paladin in the TV series Have Gun — Will Travel (1957-1963) look positively conservative. Not only is Lassiter dressed all in black leather, but his black sombrero boasts a band of silver dollars, and his long-barreled revolvers are sexualized to a ridiculous degree. And, of course, the action is fast, furious, implausible, and frequently accentuated by exclamation marks. I’d be tempted to call the novel Riders of the Purple Prose if it didn’t contain such raw power in its descriptions of landscapes.

Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an up-Hinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.

Grey had the soul of a Romantic. In his world, emotion trumps reason and the physical world mirrors the longings and passions of the people who exist in it. For better or for worse, it is this vision of the old west that captured the imagination of the reading public in the early 20th century, and informs the western genre to this very day.

I don’t really know why I’m going on and on about Riders of the Purple Sage, except that William Berke’s film Sunset Pass, which I’m reviewing today, is based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Zane Grey, and watching it made me think back to the only novel by Grey that I’ve read. (There’s an earlier filmed version of Sunset Pass that was directed by Henry Hathaway and starred Randolph Scott. It was released in 1933. I haven’t seen it.)

Sunset Pass, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures, hasn’t gone down in history as one of the great westerns, and it certainly can’t hold a candle to John Ford’s early westerns, but it’s a sight better than the stuff P.R.C. and Monogram were churning out week after week in the ’40s. The print I watched was clean and crisp. The black and white cinematography looked great. Neither Berke’s direction nor Norman Houston’s screenplay, however, capture Grey’s febrile world or antiquated dialogue. This is a by-the-numbers oater with plenty of shootouts, fistfights, chases on horseback, romance, and a few songs.

The film begins with an exciting but nonsensical scene. A cowboy named Rocky (James Warren) and his Mexican sidekick Chito (John Laurenz) tie up their horses in a stand of trees and watch a passenger train chugging toward them. They leave their horses and run alongside the train, which appears to be moving at top speed, and hop aboard. They take their seats, flirt with the ladies, and are in place to attempt to foil a train robbery. I say “attempt,” because a young woman named Jane Preston (Nan Leslie) knocks Rocky’s rifle barrel to the side when he attempts to shoot one of the robbers, allowing him to make his getaway. The men are all masked, but it’s clear that she recognizes him, and intervenes to save his life.

It turns out that Rocky and Chito are undercover agents employed by the railroad to stop robberies. If this is the case, what was the purpose of them not only leaving their horses in a remote area but also boarding the train in the middle of its journey? If anyone can explain it to me, please do. Were they hungover and missed the train? That’s the only explanation I can think of.

With the money stolen, Rocky and Chito are in hot water with the railroad company. Rocky rides off to track down the stolen loot while Chito grabs his guitar and makes love to showgirl Helen “Lolita” Baxter (played by Jane Greer, who exhibits none of the malevolence she would exude a little more than a year later in her most famous role as the femme fatale who ensnares Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past).

Eventually Rocky catches up with the robbers, but he’s shot and badly wounded. Luckily, he’s spirited away by a young man named Ash (Robert Clarke), who turns out to be Jane’s brother.

Clarke gives the best performance of the film as Ash Preston, and when his character faces ethical dilemmas, the movie really comes alive.

James Warren is a decent hero, but his performance is more one-note than Clarke’s. Tall, lean, and blond, with a perpetual scowl, Warren is sort of a Sterling Hayden Lite.

The villain of Sunset Pass, Cinnabar (Harry Woods), is good, too, but his name sounds like a candy bar or a coffee bar chain, and the other characters in the film refer to him a lot by name, which I found unintentionally funny.

Sunset Pass is standard western fare, but it was an enjoyable enough way to while away an hour and 5 minutes.

Dick Tracy (Dec. 1, 1945)

Dick Tracy, directed by William Berke and starring Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, wasn’t the first filmed adaptation of the most famous detective in the funny pages. There had been four serials prior to it, all of which starred Ralph Byrd; Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941). The first one was also re-edited into a feature in 1937, which was a fairly common practice. These were B pictures, after all. If you had the footage, why not repackage it?

This film, however, took the character in a new direction. Played by Morgan Conway, Tracy is more believable as a real person than the way Byrd played him. Both embody aspects of the character, but they look nothing like each other. Byrd literally looked like a cartoon character. He had small, perfect features and intense eyes. But for me, his voice was too high and his nose too small to really convey the toughness of the character. Conway, on the other hand, is ugly and tough as nails. He looks like what I imagine Tracy might look like if he were a real person, although his nose is more of a “schnoz” than Tracy’s “beak.” He’s decent and brave, but still not above underhanded tricks to get his man. When we’re introduced to him, he’s interrogating a sweaty suspect named Johnny (Tommy Noonan). Tracy makes Johnny believe his mother has been killed so he’ll agree to roll over on someone. After Johnny spills the beans, Tracy admits to having tricked him. “It was the only way I could get you to talk and clear yourself at the same time,” he says. “All right boys, clean up Johnny and send him home.”

This film also features the full supporting cast of characters from Chester Gould’s daily newspaper strip, many of whom had been missing from earlier adaptations; Tracy’s sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his best girl Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys), his adopted son Junior (Mickey Kuhn), and Chief Brandon (Joseph Crehan). Gould’s violent, gruesome world is handled well in this film. Its opening may be the darkest of any film based on a comic strip character made before 1970. A high-angle shot shows a man with his back to the camera, leaning against a light pole in a quiet, suburban neighborhood at night, smoking a cigarette. When a bus stops and a single, female passenger (Mary Currier) disembarks, he moves into the shadows. A tracking shot follows her as she walks across the street, then cuts to a static shot of the man’s shadow on a wall, and the viewer can see from the movement of his shadow that he is reaching into his breast pocket for something. This is followed by a tracking shot of the woman with the camera directly behind her, presumably showing his point of view. The woman walks down the sidewalk, her heels clacking. She looks nervous. She turns around. There is no one behind her. She keeps walking. Suddenly, a shadow falls across her and she screams. The man attacks her. There is a cut to a long shot of the street, which shows her body lying on the sidewalk and the man running away.

Dick Tracy discovers a note on the woman’s viciously mutilated body, demanding that $500 in small bills be left in a street sweeper’s trash can on the corner of Lakeview and Ash. The note is signed “Splitface.” The next morning, the mayor of the city (William Halligan) receives a similar note, demanding that $10,000 be paid out or the mayor will be “slashed to pieces.”

The murdered schoolteacher, the mayor, and another man who was killed by Splitface seemingly have nothing to connect them. Tracy and Patton investigate, and Tracy comes to the conclusion that Splitface is motivated by something other than money, since the murdered woman didn’t pay, but the murdered man did.

Dick Tracy has plenty of action, with Dick and Pat chasing down suspects on foot and in cars, but it doesn’t skimp on the investigations that lead them there. It’s not rigorous enough to qualify as a police procedural, but it doesn’t gloss over any details, and Conway’s acting style and line delivery are not unlike Jack Webb’s on Dragnet.

Devotees of the daily strip will probably quibble with details, but I thought this picture did a nice job of balancing the violence with over-the-top characters. There is a loony astronomer and fortune teller named Professor Starling (Trevor Bardette), a ghoulish undertaker named Deathridge (Milton Parsons), and of course the great character actor Mike Mazurki as the villain.

Dick Tracy is a one-hour programmer, and there’s no question that it’s a B movie, but it’s an expertly directed, fast-paced, and thoroughly enjoyable one.