Friday, March 22, 2013

TEAR GAS SQUAD (1940)

From the time Al Jolson opened his yap in The Jazz Singer, the movie musical became one of the mainstays of American culture. My Fair Lady... Funny Girl... The Sound of Music... Tear Gas Squad...

Wait, what the -- Tear Gas Squad? You mean you don't remember that? Neither do I, hardly, and I just watched it the other day. Not that I was planning on watching a musical. Not with that title and its 55-minute running time -- technically, five minutes shorter than what a feature was considered back then. Never was such a baldfaced bait-and-switch perpetrated on ticket buyers.

It must have taken the writers longer to watch the final product than to have written it. Small-time crooner Tommy McCabe becomes a cop to impress Jerry Sullivan (a woman, so don't get any ideas), who comes from a family of policemen. A hothead by nature, Tommy is soon canned when he punches out fellow cop and romantic rival Bill Morrisey. But he redeems himself by catching the gangsters who killed his brother Joe.
Everybody sing! (If you're not too gasp-jammed.)

Yeah, that has "musical" written all over it. Or at least it does with the four songs Morgan sings. But the numbers he's given here don't even count as forgettable. It's as if they didn't exist to begin with. (One of them, performed at the chintzy tavern where he works, is called, "I'm an Officer of the Law." It's funny because his character has always hated cops. Get it?) The low budget is betrayed by the seemingly-endless stock footage during  police manhunts. (One sharp-eyed viewer over at imdb.com noticed the Warner Bros. water-tower, complete with logo, which gives you an idea of the care that went into this production.) Movies like Tear Gas Squad were made strictly to pump product into the studio-owned movie chains. Thank God the auto manufacturers didn't own repair shops -- the number of accidents caused by second-rate jalopies would have skyrocketed.

Was John Hamilton ever young?
Hey! Superman don't need no gun!
The thing that Tear Gas Squad has going for it is the supporting cast. Anyone who grew up in the '60s would get lockjaw from saying, "Oh my God, that guy!" Two stars from Superman, George Reeves and John "Great Caesar's Ghost!" Hamilton appear as Tommy McCabe and Chief Ferris respectively. Reeves gives it his all -- you can tell that he thought this was a stepping stone to better things. Too bad he thought wrong. Hamilton does his usual "I'm in charge here" routine that he appeared to have patented some time during the McKinley administration.


"Stop! Or I'll shoot my
baby blues at you!"
The only time Buchanan
appeared to have bathed.
Hebert Anderson, the father on Dennis the Menace, plays rookie Pliny Jones, even though he doesn't look like he could handle being a school traffic-guard, let alone a cop. Edgar Buchanan from Petticoat Junction ("That's Uncle Joe, he's a-movin' kinda slow...") is Jerry's slob of a cousin Andy.  Buchanan spends all of his time with suspenders pulled over an undershirt, like all off-duty Irish cops in movies like these. He's so young (37) he'd be unrecognizable without his froggy voice. And even then, I didn't recognize him until his very last scene.

"What am I this time?"
Then there's Frank Wilcox from... well, let's see. There's The Bill Dana Show, Bewitched, Perry Mason, Mod Squad, Mr. Ed, Mona McCluskey, Wild Wild West, Beverly Hillbillies... Had enough? You remember the guy -- an authority figure, whether it be a judge, doctor, banker or, here, cop. Resonant voice, no-nonsense manner, distinguished mustache. Probably second only to Charles Lane for appearing incessantly on prime time television. It's really something that he was believable in each role since you saw him as a different character every goddamn night of the week.

"Who you callin' 'cro-magnon'?"
"I'll just have a wee
drop o' the wee dram o' the
wee whiskey."


A couple of other familiar faces turn up, too, playing their usual types. Ben Welden, who, if he hadn't become an actor, would had to have become a two-bit crook. (In today's beauty-obsessed society, he'd have no choice.) Scottish-born Mary Gordon could play Irish (as she does here) or British (as Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper in the Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes movies) although her accent never changed. A method actor she wasn't.

She's the most masculine of the three.
All of Tear Gas Squad's character actors completely overwhelm the lead players by their mere presence. Not that the stars aren't good. Morgan is a fine singer, although that Irish tenor style went out when Dennis Day retired, if not sooner. And you can't help but feel sorry for John Payne (as Bill Morrisey) since he's just too nice for Gloria Dickson's Jerry. I can't figure out why they're battling over her since she doesn't seem worth it. Jerry's been leading Bill on forever even though she has no intention of getting serious with him. In fact, she seems to enjoy watching Bill and Tommy battle it over her. (I've been there, guys -- forget her!) Add to this the fact that she happily lives with a houseful of cops who watch over her like Stasi agents, and you see this chick has some real issues. And she's not even that pretty, for cripes sakes. She must give off some serious pheromones. 

So if you have a thing for inane, schizophrenic, lower-case "e" entertainment, then by all means wallow in Tear Gas Squad's charms. If not, you can regard it as an audio-visual history lesson -- an example of a time when something had to be projected onto a screen for a couple of days. The strange thing is, if you added some new numbers and re-wrote the script, it would make for the next cult off-Broadway comedy -- Tear Gas Squad!: The Musical. Now that might be worth watching.

By the way, the tear gas doesn't show up until the final three minutes. Right before Dennis Morgan sings to Gloria Dickson while his horse looks away in utter boredom. 
                                            
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video
The original trailer for Tear Gas Squad. Everything about it is a lie. (The video may take 10 seconds to appear.)
 



 

 



 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

NAZTY NUISCANCE (1943)


When last we saw Adolf Hitler, he was being tortured by Satan's minions in the finale of The Devil with Hitler, Hal Roach's 45-minute "Streamliner" comedy. Either there was overwhelming demand for another Hitler farce or Roach's writers were unable to come up with anything new, because two years later came Nazty Nuisance, another slapstick epic featuring the axis punching bags getting their comeuppance, only this time by American soldiers and an orangutan. With a logline like that, you wouldn't expect it to be the 1943-model of Zero Dark Thirty, but that's exactly where it leads to. But more on that later.

Even though their characters were killed off in their previous appearance, Bobby Watson and Joe Devlin repeat their landmark roles as Hitler and Mussolini, making this perhaps Hollywood's first prequel. Johnny Arthur replaces George E. Stone as their Japanese counterpart Suki-Yaki. (What, two years since the first movie and the writers still hadn't heard of Hirohito?) Once again, Der Fuhrer is trying to double-cross his fascist friends, this time by signing a worthless peace treaty with Chief Paj Mab, the ruler of Norum (pronounced "No room"), an island in the Pacific. Mussolini and Suki-Yaki tag along to keep an eye on things. Only when a clever group of American seamen are washed-up on Norum are things set to right via a phony magic act.

Clearly, anyone expecting another The Devil with Hitler won't be getting their money's worth here. As movie follow-ups go, Nazty Nuisance isn't even The Godfather 3, and that featured Sofia Coppola in a major role. The problem, as usual in these kinds of situations, is the idea itself. Nazty Nuisance lacks not only the bizarre story of its predecessor, but an exact title as well. The posters say That Nazty Nuisance. The movie credits read simply Nazty Nuisance. Maybe somewhere there's a preview where it's called Nuisance.

Ma, he's making eyes at me...
Striving for the bloodcurdling verisimilitude that The Devil with Hitler by and large avoided, Nazty Nuisance opens with a scene featuring Hitler meeting with his inner circle. Unfortunately, the prop man must have been at lunch, since the opening tracking shot is disrupted by a very obvious bump by something on the floor. In his brief role, former Laurel & Hardy director/gagman Charley Rogers actually bears a resemblance to Josef Goebbels. Had the movie focused on Hitler's gang, it would've made for a more interesting satire. But then it wouldn't have been a cut-rate Hal Roach movie.

Almost the real things.
Joe Devlin's Mussolini, as usual, doesn't disappoint -- he looks more like Il Duce than Il Duce -- and gets cheap laughs pretty easily through sheer, idiot bluster. Unfortunately, after George E. Stone's outrageously insulting "yellowface" Suki-Yaki in The Devil with Hitler, Johnny Arthur's attempt at realism is something of a letdown. Your definition of realism, however, may have to do with your ethnic background.

Frank Faylen (right)  puts the double-whammy
on Johnny Arthur.
On the other hand, it's always a treat to see Frank Faylen (Address Unknown) as your stereotypical  down-to-earth American -- here, Seaman Benson, who disguises himself as a magician in order to entertain, then capture, the axis leaders. One of those great utility actors, Faylen was believable in comedies, dramas and whatever Nazty Nuisance is.





Benson messes with the three despots by making them physically ill at dinner. I admit, without shame, to have found Hitler's reactions -- pop-eyed from eating a stew filled with hot pepper, pretending to enjoy a glass of kerosene substituted for wine -- hysterically funny. Having been laid low with an intestinal flu at the time, my only excuse is that my defenses were down. Yet that photo on the right still makes me laugh every time I look at it. So, yes, it is funny whether I'm sick or not.

Three men and a monkey.
Once the orangutan turns up, it's every homo sapien for himself. Benson initially convinces Hitler and Mussolini that he's turned Suki-Yaki into the simian, who proceeds to get drunk on a flask of wine. Naturally, this leads to a pillow fight involving the remaining two axis leaders and Hitler's aide, all of who are dressed in their long-johns -- a comedy standby when you run out of other ideas. Come to think of it, so is drinking kerosene. Did people really keep cans of that stuff lying around the kitchen back then?

"Don't worry,  Code Pink will bail us out."
The bad guys return to their submarine, only to discover that it's been taken over by the American sailors -- and here's where it starts to resonate with today's unsuspecting audience. Locking them in an airtight area aboard the sub, Seaman Benson is ready to go all Abu Ghraib when he hears Hitler boasting of the German navy torpedoing a refugee ship and machine-gunning the lifeboats. But the Captain stops him, reminding him, "It's against the rules of international warfare. Prisoners of war have gotta be treated with respect." I had to rewind to make sure this guy's name wasn't Eric Holder.

Once the Captain is out of earshot, though, Benson engages in psychological torture, making the prisoners believe that the sub is sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Frightened like little girls, the three quickly blame each other for their predicament, driving them to physically abuse each other without Americans getting involved. Memo to CIA: That's the way it's done.

You'll believe a fascist really can fly.
Benson avoids being frogmarched to a court-martial only because the sub really does blow a gasket. The crewmen help the axis "escape" by shooting them out of the torpedo launcher. (The Captain reluctantly allows Benson to kick Hitler in the rear before the hatch closes.) The sight of them flying out of the sub is provided by the Roach animators, who hadn't improved one iota since they created a mouse for Laurel & Hardy's Brats in 1930. The fascists land heads-down in the sand, their legs kicking like mules above them... and that's where the movie stops, the Streamliner having reached its required 45-minute mark. The studio was probably hoping the critics would demand another follow-up just so they could refer to Hal Roach's Hitler Trilogy.


Admitting that The Devil with Hitler is better than Nazty Nuisance is like preferring ballpark franks to dirty water hot dogs. Really, what can one say about a movie where the comic highlight is Mussolini getting socked in the face with a pillow wielded by a drunken orangutan? And yet, overall the movie plays pretty well in my memory. Even the sets, no more believable than a grade-school play, provide a pleasant reverie. I'm a sucker for such things.

The cast went on to other, though not necessarily bigger and better, things. Joe Devlin put his Mussolini to use in two other comedies throughout his 30-year career. Johnny Arthur racked up over 100 roles but, like Devlin, his most familiar character was the reliable Uncredited.  

Bobby Watson portrayed Hitler, sometimes in dramas, nine times. He made his final movie, Vincent Minnelli's The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, in 1962, playing -- well, whaddaya know -- Hitler. He was 74, almost 20 years older than Der Fuhrer at the time of his death. By then, the actor was billed as Robert Watson -- as if trying to escape a past that Hollywood would never let him forget.


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New to the blog? Click here to read about The Devil with Hitler. Your life will never be the same.







 


Friday, March 15, 2013

ACE OF HEARTS (1921)

A group of pompous, self-satisfied New Yorkers have made it their goal to assassinate every powerful capitalist in America. Wait, have we stumbled into the weekly MSNBC staff meeting?

Uh-uh, these are the characters in Ace of Hearts, the 1921 melodrama starring Lon Chaney, himself the ace of aces character actor, and based upon the novel by the peculiarly-named Gouverneur Morris. (Jokes about his brothers Mayeur and Senateur are, frankly, too obvious even for me.)

Chaney, as Farallone, watches with envy as fellow anarchist Forrest (John Bowers), wins the honor of killing their next target by way of pulling the ace of hearts from a deck of cards. At this point, little differentiates them from al-Qaeda other than their lack of sexual congress with livestock. But Lilith (Leatrice Joy), the sole female member -- with whom Farallone is hopelessly in love  -- will marry Forrest just to buck up his courage. That's one way of collecting life insurance!

The morning after their wedding, though, Forrest and Lilith are feeling bad about assassinating rich people willy-nilly. That's love for ya: one minute you're married to "The Cause," as Lilith claimed to be, the next you're taking a one-way trip to Bourgeoisieville. Slacker! Farallone takes advantage of Lilith's new-found emotions. If Forrest backs out of his assignment, Farallone will make sure the group doesn't take revenge. But if he's killed, Lilith must marry him. (The circumstances surrounding my marriage is remarkably similar, but that's for another time.)

Forrest, disguised as a waiter at a posh restaurant, has planted a bomb at his target's table. You can tell the victim-to-be is an evil capitalist because he wears a pince-nez and dresses for breakfast like an ambassador being introduced at the Court of St. James. But only when Forrest sees a young, happily-in-love couple making goo-goo eyes nearby does he have a change of heart. (A sight like that tends to make me want to vomit, but to each his own.) He tenders his resignation to his fellow terrorists, returning the unexploded bomb before he and Lilith leave for a better life. The penalty for this act of treason is death. As the cards are dealt to see who will kill Forrest, Farallone keeps his promise to protect him by setting the timer on the bomb. When he receives the ace of hearts, all he can do is laugh. Seconds later, he and the others are killed in the resulting blast.
 
Homegrown terrorists were an unfortunate part of American life at the time of Ace of Hearts' release; the Wall Street bombing had occurred less than a year before. Yet  these folks look more like the board of directors at J.P. Morgan rather than a motley bunch of revolutionaries. I mean, they own a townhouse on what appears to be the Upper West Side. Damn, if that's Marxism, I want in! 



Chaney, however, stands out from the rest in the simplest of ways. With his then-anachronistic hairstyle (the better show off his haunted gaze), he resembles  a 17th-century vampire. While the others regard their assassinations as a combination business deal/sporting event, only Chaney appears to be emotionally aware of the consequences of their actions. 

It's this emotion that makes his own last-minute change of heart convincing. Via subtitles, he tells his partners-in-crime, "I myself am no longer sure that the world can be regenerated by destruction... Construction is what the world needs. Love is what the world needs." And you thought Burt Bachrach & Hal David came up with that one.

When people hear the name "Lon Chaney," they tend to think of monsters. But the truth is, Chaney played what could be referred to as a monster only three times that I can think of: the title roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, who were in reality horribly-deformed humans, and a vampire in London After Midnight, who turns out to be a police detective in disguise. So, in other words, he never played a monster. Talk about a bad reputation.

Yet those aforementioned portrayals were so effective that it's undercut his reputation as a superb character actor. Few, if any, could so effectively get across feelings without the use of sound whether through his eyes, physical movements or just standing there.

And speaking of emotions, nobody can play "sad" like Chaney. So torn up is he about losing Lilith, he tortures himself by standing outside her apartment in a driving rainstorm on her wedding night, just waiting until Forrest turns off the bedroom light. If that's not enough self-abasement, he spends the rest of the stormy night curled up on her building's front stairs. It says something about audiences that they apparently loved seeing Chaney put through the wringer in almost every role, usually over a woman, and often ending in his death. Better him than them, I guess.

Chaney made Ace of Hearts just as his career was really going places. Physically, it wasn't nearly the  challenge as his previous role playing the legless gang boss in The Penalty (another one by Gouveneur Morris, making him a two-termer for Chaney). Nor was it as entertainingly sick as two of his later classics, He Who Gets Slapped and The Unknown. (The latter's greatness can be judged by the way it drove my wife out of the room.) There's just something about Ace of Hearts' story and Chaney himself that I found quite involving and, ultimately, moving. He sports no bizarre make-up or physical distortion to create character depth here, just unparalleled talent. 

Chaney, although occasionally physically florid, is so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast here that, in the end, none of the other actors matter. You could completely recast his Ace of Hearts co-stars and it would play exactly the same. I'm not sure any other silent actor so carried movies on his shoulders. Audiences probably felt the same way, making him one of the most popular stars of the '20s. Even when the parts became more twisted (often literally), people felt the humanity underneath the otherwise demented surface. When one realizes that the complete oeuvre of, say, Vin Diesel or Kate Hudson will be digitally preserved until the sun burns itself up, it's doubly a crime that only about a third of Lon Chaney's movies have survived.
 
Movie history alert: Ace of Hearts was a Goldwyn Picture, before Metro and Mayer joined the party, so it gives you a chance to see Slats, the original lion. Unlike the more familiar, roaring Leo, Slats just kind of sits there, eyeing the room for a comfortable place to nap. If that's not disappointing enough, he looks like he just raided Motley Crue's wig closet. Hairdresser required on the set, now!


Ace of Hearts, while not Chaney's best, is still fascinating and gives a good idea of what he could do without his famous make-up kit. One of his most popular roles, in fact, was the gruff, plain-as-dirt drill instructor in Tell it to the Marines in 1926. So realistic was his portrayal, he was made an honorary member of the Marines. Four years later, the military provided an honor guard at his funeral. Appropriate for a man who hid behind a host of memorable characters, his crypt is unmarked.



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Monday, March 11, 2013

THIS IS THE NIGHT (1932)

As the iconic image of Paramount's snow-capped mountain fades, we see pretty quickly this will be no ordinary movie. Under the opening credits, an orchestra warms up. When the last name appears, a conductor steps to the podium and taps the stand with his baton. He opens the lead sheet of the score. He lifts his hands, the orchestra comes to attention -- and the symphony of sex known as This is the Night begins.

A lesser-known example of the pre-code romantic farce that Paramount specialized in, This is the Night also shows how, in retrospect, studios didn't necessarily understand the potential talent they had under contract. (This was touched upon in a previous post on Meet the Baron.) That This is the Night is a more egregious example in no way spoils the fun; indeed, it adds to the entertainment value in a way unintended at the time.

This is the Night's story is the kind that the French once turned out like andouille.  Gerald Gray and Claire Mathewson are in the midst of an affair when Claire's husband, Stephen, returns home unexpectedly. Having already booked a trip for two to Venice, Gerald engages his friend Bunny to hire a woman to pose as his wife while Stephen travels to the same hotel with Claire. Germaine, a struggling actress who needs the money, eagerly accepts the offer.

This probably isn't even the first time Claire has had an affair during her marriage. As they prepare to leave for Venice from Paris, Claire finally realizes Stephen might be be suspicious. Stephen, she tells Gerald, is acting especially nice with her. And the last time he was that nice, she says, "I wound up with a black eye." (There was a time when violence against women was good for a laugh.)

You know how this will play out. Claire immediately becomes jealous as Germaine does her job too well, to the point of coming on to Stephen. By the end of the movie, Gerald and Germaine fall in love, while Claire returns to Stephen. It's the kind of thing Ernst Lubitsch could do in his sleep and, indeed, director Frank Tuttle does his best to ape the master. Rhythmic dialogue, double-entendres, sophisticated slapstick (a running gag throughout features Claire's clothes getting accidentally torn off) -- it's all here, along with generous with generous dollops of sex. And drinking -- lots of drinking. (If movie characters today indulged in dope-smoking as much as they did with booze during Prohibition, we'd never hear the end of it.)

Black eye aside, it's never made clear what Claire saw in Gerald in the first place. It can't be money, because she lives the good life. As for Germaine, she doesn't seem to be they type for whom money is the be-all end-all of a relationship. Perhaps all of this tomfoolery was to make Depression-era audiences feel superior to the upper class. 


Strictly on a technical level, This is the Night is fascinating to watch today for its rich blue hues in the exterior nighttime scenes, tinting being a not uncommon effect for major movies at the time. Audiences today not used to it may find it jarring when, say, an old movie suddenly switches from black & white to blue to yellow (for indoor electric lighting) to black & white again, but back then it was just part of the show. (Frankenstein's original prints were tinted green, which Universal hyped as "the color of fear." This makes sense only if one is afraid of pea soup.)

But a movie like This is the Night lives or dies not by tinting but the cast's ability to pull off the sophisticated machinations. The top-billed actors might be nearly-forgotten today but are all at the top of their game here.  Lily Damita (Germaine, a/k/a Chou-Chou) was a kind of French Lupe Velez, a fiery sexpot whose accent was the source of comedy but whose sensuality cannot be denied. Charlie Ruggles (Bunny) was the master of befuddlement; his halting delivery is something of a proto-Christopher Walken, only you wouldn't run in the opposite direction if you saw him approaching one dark night.

The onscreen persona of Roland Young (Gerald) was uptight decades before the word  existed. Similar to Ruggles, Roland's constant state of perplexity is of a more sophisticated sort; he's the type to, say, talk to himself while trying to figure out a can opener. Too, he seems to have been born middle-aged. (He's 45 in This is the Night but could pass for a decade older.) Thelma Todd (Claire) was a sexy blonde with a welcome flair for comedy, whose shenanigans with Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Wheeler & Woolsey made her one of the best-loved actresses of her time.

But what of Claire's cuckolded husband, Stephen? Well, he's certainly built-up in the dialogue by being something of a geek. He's supposed to be at the Olympics in L.A. throwing a javelin, which Claire seems to find an unacceptable sport. She also finds  annoying his habit of singing everywhere, including in bed. So if the guy you're stepping out with is in a constant state of emotional constipation, hubby must be a real loser, right? 

Unless hubby is played by Cary Grant. Then the question becomes, Whaaaa? In what universe is it believable that a dish like Thelma Todd would throw Cary Grant over for Roland Young? If this was Paramount's way of making over This is the Night to absurdist fantasy, then it succeed far beyond expectations. More likely, it was just a way to introduce its newest contract player, a former stage actor, to movie audiences in a humble supporting role. Never was a movie debut more off-kilter. From the moment he makes his entrance singing offscreen as he walks up a flight of stairs, Grant runs every scene he's in. As good as his co-stars are, Cary Grant is Cary Grant. His comedic timing is already in place, and charm & charisma fairly burst off the screen. He has less screentime than the others, but, boy, does he make every minute count (whether he means to or not). 

This is the Night is what used to be called a bedroom farce. A naked Germaine hastily using drapes for a dress. Gerald falling off a ladder. Claire and Gerald engaging in risque dialogue regarding Stephen's javelin technique. Gerald desperately trying to give Germaine cues in order to throw Stephen off the track. Claire and her aforementioned penchant of accidentally getting undressed in public. Bunny falling drunk into a Venetian canal. (Bunny is the best friend, meaning no sex for him.) And music, quite a bit for a non-musical, for which the dialogue often keeps time to. (A semi-spoken song in the opening scene, "Madame Has Lost Her Dress," becomes a motif throughout the rest of the movie.)

Bedroom farces need a light touch -- they can walk a very fine line between wit and crudeness. I'm not sure anyone, other than George Clooney, has the class to pull off a movie like This is the Night now. And who would believe, say, Jennifer Aniston cheating on him with Tommy Lee Jones? No, This is the Night is a time capsule of a style that could never be successfully replicated today.

It's certainly an irony that the unknown actor who made his movie debut here wound up becoming bigger than his already-established co-stars combined. Top-billed Lily Damita never quite made it in talkies, and is best remembered as Errol Flynn's first wife. At 26, he was five years her junior at the time of their wedding, and until the end of his life considered her the most beautiful woman he ever knew. Today, her looks don't seem as striking; in fact, there are times in This is the Night where she bears an unfortunate resemblance to Joy Behar. Her sexuality, though, runs just under the surface at all times, so you can never ignore her.



Charlie Ruggles' movie career started in 1915 and continued on TV a couple of year before his death in 1970. Baby-boomers who think they've never heard of Ruggles will certainly remember him as the voice of Aesop in the "Aesop & Son" segments of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Another long-time star, Roland Young, found his most acclaimed role as Cosmo Topper, the, yes, perplexed sophisticate haunted by equally-sophisticated ghosts in a series of features produced by Hal Roach.
And it was Hal Roach saw the comedic potential of Thelma Todd when he put her under in contract in the late '20s. One of the few actresses who could combine sex with slapstick, Todd had a tendency to fluctuate from slim to zaftig. She was contractually obliged by Roach to keep her weight at a certain amount lest she be fined for every extra pound -- a provisio known around the studio as "the potato clause."  As beautiful and talented as she was, she's unfortunately known best for her death at 29 by asphyxiation in her garage in 1935.

And as for Cary Grant... well, suffice it to say that it wouldn't hurt to carve out 80 minutes of your time when TCM next schedules This is the Night. Try to watch it as you would have in 1932, when you might have been a fan of Charlie Ruggles or Thelma Todd or Roland Young. Will your natural reaction to Cary Grant be the same as it would have been over 81 years ago -- "Hm, who's that tall guy with the weird accent? What is that, British or something"? Or will his legendary status be so drilled into your mind that your only reaction will be, "Oh my God, it's Cary Grant!" -- and regret every moment that the "stars" take control while the newcomer waits patiently in the wings for his next line?



Probably the latter.  For today's audiences, then, This is the Night is a farce in more ways than one.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

I LOVE A MYSTERY (1945)


Night. The Golden Gate Bridge is shrouded in fog. A sonorous narrator intones, "San Francisco, golden gateway to the Orient. Where East and West meet and mingle. City of romance... and mystery."

Cut to an ambulance, siren shrieking, speeding down the street. The seen-it-all EMT tells the driver, "What's your hurry, Joe? Take your time." He gestures toward their deceased passenger. "All the kings horses couldn't put that fella back together again."

The two bring a covered body into the morgue, where a cynical attendant fills out a form. He's joined by Morgan, a fast-talking reporter who, after engaging in shop-talk, wants the scoop on who the victim is. "Jefferson Monk," he's told. The reporter whistles in surprise. "The Jefferson Monk?" The cop shrugs. Wanting to find out for himself, the reporter lifts the sheet, only to quickly shut his eyes in revulsion. "Hey Morgan," asks the attendant, "how do you spell 'decapitated'?"

That, friends, is how you open a movie. I Love a Mystery, based on the then-popular radio series of the same name, doesn't quite reach that height of unexpected shock again. Nevertheless, it contains all the earmarks of classic B-film noir-wannabe: murders, dark alleyways, dames who can't be trusted, a short running time (69 minutes). This, to me, is heaven.

Mr. G's wardrobe provided by House of Liberace.
As with many B-movies, what I Love a Mystery lacks in budget more than makes up for in a convoluted plot. Told in flashbacks within a flashback (a la The Great Gatsby), we find out that Jefferson Monk had engaged the services of Jim Bannon and Doc Long to find out who'd been stalking him -- and to prevent him from being decapitated in three days. Monk, you see, had been taken to the temple of the Barukhan, a secret society that dates back a thousand years -- a century or so less than the Friars Club. Barukhan's grand poobah ("Call me... Mr G" he says in tones both mysterious and unintentionally-hilarious) reveals the well-preserved corpse of Brarukhan's founder -- who looks exactly like Monk. The head of the corpse, however, is falling apart. Mr. G has a proposition for Monk: Take $10,000 now and you give us your head in a year -- when, it is prophesied, he will be decapitated. And just to show Monk he's not talking through his mystic hat, Mr. G tells him that his wife will become paralyzed in three days -- which she does. This guy seems much better at predictions than the Mr. G on WPIX-TV in New York who gives the weather.

"You should've seen me before
my LifeStyle Lift."



Next thing you know, any number of strange people enter Monk's life. A sarcastic blonde. A prissy Russian psychiatrist. A peg-legged stalker scarier-looking than Joan Rivers. As Jim and Doc investigate, they soon discover that Ellen is faking her paralysis, and that the mystic Mr. G is actually a sketchy antiques dealer. Ellen had been in the cahoots with this crowd -- and more! -- to drive Monk to suicide in order to collect his two million dollars. Once Monk figures out her scheme, he embarks on a killing spree of the conspirators. (Can you blame him?) Momentarily trapped by Jim and Doc, he escapes in his car, which crashes, decapitating him on the date prophesied. Pretty good predicting for a sketchy antiques dealer.


The cast of I Love a Mystery
in the world's most awkward conga line.
No question I Love a Mystery's plot has more holes than Pebble Beach. Seven people, by my count, were in on this scheme for a year. If Ellen was to keep, say, one million, that would leave $166,666 each for the rest. But... in order to originally unnerve Monk, he and his wife were followed around the world by a street musician playing a strange melody on his combination oboe/
recorder/bazooka in every country they visited. Then the conspirators had to find an empty back-alley basement to set up the phony temple and create a lifelike wax dummy that looked exactly like Monk. Then Ellen had to successfully fake paralysis for a year. And everyone would have to play their parts perfectly the whole damn time. Really, was it worth the effort and money to do what, say, a broken brake line in Monk's car could've done in 15 seconds?

Never trust a blind man who knows
his way around town.
But that doesn't leave Monk off the hook. Didn't he have some suspicions when Ellen kept her bedroom locked at all times? Or that a thousand year-old corpse just might stink up a damp basement? Or when a blind beggar leads him to the temple and walks down a flight of stairs without the aid of a cane or seeing-eye dog? Some saps are just just asking for it.





You'd trust these guys
with your life, wouldn't you?

One of the joys of movies like I Love a Mystery is the plethora of unfamiliar faces, the better to get lost in the story. And no two are more unfamiliar than Jim Bannon and Barton Yarborough as Jack and Doc -- and for good reason. These guys are the least photogenic heroes outside of Quasimodo, with Yarborough in particular possessing a face made for radio. (Appropriately, he portrayed Doc on the radio version of I Love a Mystery for a time.) Doc speaks with a Southern accent and a carpetbagful of homilies, similes and whatever other "imilies" might be lying around. Bannon, although blessed with a warm delivery, resembles a marionette version of Ed Sullivan. Apparently too cheap to rent office space, Jack and Doc operate out of a booth at the Silver Samovar, a restaurant straight out of Disneyland Moscow. They also share a one-bedroom apartment and wear utterly hideous pajamas buttoned to the Adam's apple. These guys are never going to get laid.


"That woman inthe wheelchair behind us?
Phony. Oh yeah. I can tell."
It's unclear what part the good ol'boy Doc plays in their fly-by-night agency, since his one skill seems to be calling people "son." Jack, however, is one of those smartypants experts on everything from classical music to medicine to linguistics to art. Jack knows Ellen is faking it. He knows the shrink is a phony. He knows the mysterious melody is by Tchaikovsky. You'd think he'd have gotten a job with the FBI instead of hanging around a beef stroganoff joint with Foghorn Leghorn. (I Love a Mystery is the only B-movie where you'll hear a detective use the word "chiaroscuro." This guy makes Sherlock Holmes look like Crazy Guggenheim.)


If George Macready had grabbed his throat
one more time, his head really
would have fallen off.



The principal supporting players are of the "I've-seen-them-somewhere-before" school. As Jefferson Monk, George Macready's signature movie is putting his hand at his throat in terror every time he thinks of his impending decapitation. (Either that, or he thinks he's going to vomit.) Nina Foch, as Ellen, plays sympathetic and villainous equally convincingly. Yet even from the beginning, you get the feeling she's hiding something. That's a woman for ya, bub.



This is as close as she gets
to smiling. Bitch.
The most interesting one of the bunch is Carole Mathews as Jean Anderson, the mystery blonde who picks up Monk, only to try to convince him he's crazy. (That sounds like a typical date for most men.) Better than the average starlet, Mathews isn't afraid to go full-on bitch. When Monk finishes her off, you want to buy him a beer.


The sets play as much of a part in I Love a Mystery as the cast. Not that they're any great shakes, mind you. It's just that, having seen so many Columbia B's, they're more familiar to me than the cast. I recognized Monk's mansion from The Whistler. One of the back streets was used in most of the Boston Blackie pictures. And it wouldn't be a Columbia programmer without an appearance by the sole City Cab Co. taxi. Did moviegoers of the '40s make the same connections? Or did they have better things to do than obsessively remember the detritus of studio backlots?

Two more movies in the I Love a Mystery series were made the following year. In 1967, when America was gripped by the nostalgia craze, a TV movie was made starring those thespian powerhouses Les Crane and David Hartman. That turned out so well it was shelved until 1973, proving the adage You need more than a familiar title to make it good. It probably didn't help that it was played for laughs, either. The 1945 version might seem absurd in retrospect -- and, at times, while you're watching it -- but everyone involved plays it straight. Sincerity always trumps snark.

The original I Love a Mystery radio series ran from 1939 to 1952. For a while, there was a third detective, Reggie, the muscles of the outfit who handled most of the violence that had to be done to the bad guys. Something of a strongman, you might say. He was played by... Tony Randall. Now that's a mystery anyone would love.



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