Wednesday, May 29, 2013

SCARED TO DEATH (1947)

My first viewing of Scared to Death circa 1987 proved to be a three-evening ordeal, having fallen asleep roughly every 20 minutes of its 67-minute running time. It might as well have been called Bored to Death.

Recently I gave it another shot. And again, I kept getting the 20-minute itch. The first time, I got up to slice a grapefruit. Twenty minutes later, I prepared a salad. So I suppose the second time 'round was something of a success in that I stayed awake and ate healthy foods.

Scared to Death has a certain cachet among Bela Lugosi aficionados, being his only lead role in a color production. Hardcore fans hold it in high regard for its allegedly surreal atmosphere --  surreal apparently meaning "sounds like they're making it up as go along." (Best line in the movie: the coroner looks at the corpse on the gurney and asks, "Is this the body?" Please let this not be the guy who has to cut me open.)

Actress Molly Lamont's most realistic moment
in Scared to Death.
It certainly has a strange framing device, being narrated by the corpse of a woman named Laura Van Ee. (The writers were probably weren't paid enough to come up with a longer surname.) We see in flashbacks that Laura was unhappily married to Roland Van Ee, with whom they share a house along with his father Dr. Joseph Van Ee, their maid Lilybeth and their dumb-as-a-sack-of-pliers security guard Bill Raymond.  Laura believes Roland and Joseph are trying to drive her crazy, while Lilybeth spends most of her waking hours fending off Bill's amorous advances. It never occurs to anybody that they could leave at any time; instead, they all stick around to drive each other crazy. Psychiatrists have a word for this: Family.

"Hands up -- or the little guy bites your ankle!"
Soon this happy home has a couple of visitors, Prof. Leonide and his dwarf sidekick Indigo. Leonide used to be patient there when the house was a mental hospital run by Dr. Van Ee, who is also his cousin. (Remember what I said about "family"?) About five minutes after their arrival, strange things start happening. A green mask appears in the windows. A decapitated head arrives in the mail for Laura. (FedEx doesn't accept body parts.) Someone knocks out Dr. Van Ee in the middle of a phone call to the police. And no one, least of all the private dick, considers even questioning Leonide and the dwarf. (Suggestion to all aspiring musicians: Leonide & The Dwarf would make a great name for a band.)

Recreating the stateroom scene from
A Night at the Opera.
As if there weren't enough people in this madhouse, cynical reporter Terry Lee and his fiance Jane Cornell drop by to check things out. That's the way things are in this town: call a cop, you get a reporter and his girlfriend instead. The next 20 minutes are taken up by Terry insulting his fiance and the security guard. (One of the great losses in movies is the concept of low-wattage women who put up with their emotionally abusive boyfriends.) For no other reason that the running time is approaching its end, Laura is hypnotized by a voice from God knows where. During her trance, we learn that a few years earlier Laura sold out her husband Rene to the Nazis when they were living in Paris. Rene, thought to have been executed, has instead returned to successfully (drum-roll, please) scare her to death. That he does it while disguised a woman is scary in itself.

As you've probably gathered, if you're looking for any kind of sense in Scared to Death, you're watching the wrong movie. Laura claims to be held captive by Roland and Joseph yet refuses to consider a divorce. Terry is engaged to Jane even while openly contemptuous of her. Indigo is deaf yet is briefly seen "overhearing" a conversation. Laura's from-beyond narration "remembers" incidents that didn't happen to her. That narration device is so abrupt and arbitrary -- we return to her corpse several times while the same spooky "Ooh-OOH-ooh" accompanies her voice -- that it seems less an artistic choice and more of a way to cover for scenes that were lost in the editing room. 
The floating mask comes free
of charge with the house.

Then there's the look of the movie. The sets (both of them) are like something out of a dream. Not that this was necessarily a deliberate choice on the part of the art director. No, it's the movie having been shot in glorious Cinecolor (Cinecolor being to Technicolor what Blue Bonnet Margarine is to French farmhouse butter). The not-quite true to life flesh tones make the cast look like a Madame Tussaud's exhibit come to life, while the mysterious floating green mask looks blue. Blue and brown, in fact, are Scared to Death's primary color scheme. I'm sure one of the Cahiers du Cinema snobs could read something into that, but don't believe him. Anything that interesting in Scared to Death is strictly accidental. 

"Aren't we supposed to be the stars
in this thing?"
Had Hal Roach decided to branch out into genres other than comedy, Scared to Death would have been one of his dandy 45-minute Streamliners. Instead, its running time is padded out to over an hour by dreadful comic relief in the form of Nat Pendleton as the detective, who gets more screentime than the nominal leads Bela Lugosi (as Leonide) and George Zucco (as Dr. Joseph Van Ee).

The kind of movie where the detective is
supposed to be funny and the guy in drag serious.


Usually a welcome presence in B-movies, Pendleton here is merely aggravating, whether making a play for Lilybeth or trying to figure out basic grammar. That his character is an ex-cop trying to work his way back into his old job in the homicide division is a prospect more frightening than anything else in the movie.


"You can trust me: I enunciate clearly."
Not that Scared to Death is a total washout. Bela Lugosi and George Zucco are both in their usual fine form. Zucco in particular appears to be taking these shenanigans quite seriously; you have to wonder if a better-than-average actor like him got stuck mainly in B-movies for most of his career simply because he enjoyed them. He's the cinematic brother of Lionel Atwill -- suave, well-spoken, adept at playing heroes or villains, seemingly sophisticated yet appearing mainly in films where a strong breeze could bring down the set.

"My co-pay is how much, doctor?!"
And speaking of actors stuck in B's, there's Bela. For reasons unexplained, Lugosi is dressed like a Southern Colonel in mourning. Maybe it's what all the Hungarian professors in 1947 were wearing. As his fans can expect, Lugosi brings usual panache to the silly proceedings. You can't help appreciate that no matter how substandard the script he was given, Bela always played it like it was a collaboration of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov. People make fun of him -- I've been known to do it, alas -- but the guy was a pro, giving 100% when lesser actors would have just walked through it and cashed their check.

This isn't even the strangest part of the movie.
It must be noted that Lugosi and Angelo Rossitto (as Indigo) -- 6'1" and 2'11" respectively -- definitely make a striking pair. Rossitto's character really has nothing to do other than scurry around, kick people in the shins and hide behind furniture. He's there just because he's a dwarf, looking a good 12 inches shorter than his actual height. Aside from Indigo, Rossitto's other credited roles include Dwarf in Pool Hall, Mute Dwarf, Dwarf Devil and, in a welcome change, Impaled Pygmy.  And talk about an interesting career -- Rossitto's the only actor to have appeared in Freaks and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Respect must be paid.

If this prop ever turns up at an auction,
let me know.
No doubt, there is much in Scared to Death that is slightly off, occasionally in a good way. Nineteen forty-seven being an uneventful year for the horror genre, between the Frankenstein/
Dracula/Wolfman era and the radioactive insects of the 1950s, perhaps its creators were trying to go down a slightly different path. The genuinely startling appearance of the head in a package certainly provides a hint of what was to come in later years. Yet the very presence of Bela Lugosi and George Zucco provides an anchor to a time that had already vanished. Scared to Death might be considered both a curtain call of one genre and a peek into the future of "shock" movies like Psycho and its brethren. If only it didn't drive me out of my chair or consciousness every 20 minutes.



                                                                           *************

Friday, May 17, 2013

THE TWONKY (1951)


Remembered by only the buffest of old-time radio buffs, Arch Oboler was one of the medium's most famous writer/directors. His most popular series, Lights Out!, presented atmospheric horror, while Arch Oboler's Plays was fantasy with a social conscience.  Oboler's style -- which might be described as heightened reality, the way regular people would talk if they had a good writer giving them pointers -- and the programs themselves were  undoubtedly a prime influence on Rod Serling's Twilight Zone many years later.

Oboler made the occasional foray into movies during this time (including the previously-discussed Gangway for Tomorrow) bouncing back and forth from film noir to anti-fascist dramas. In 1951, perhaps intrigued by the then-burgeoning television industry, he wrote and directed The Twonky, a low-budget sci-fi picture that over 60 years later remains a fascinating misfire.

The Twonky tells the story Professor Kerry West dealing with the new television that his wife has given him. Without even being plugged in, the TV starts quite literally taking over West's life. Giving the concept of "portable TV" a rather ominous twist, it even follows him around the house to keep an eye on what he's up to. Cops, colleagues and varsity football players who try to destroy the cathode-ray monster are knocked unconscious, only to awaken in a hypnotic trance babbling, "I have no complaints... I have no complaints... I have no complaints" like your average couch potato parked in front of a 50-inch 3D HDTV with his pretzels and Pabst.

That The Twonky is an allegory of the power of the television is as obvious as the nose on the face of Hans Conried, who plays Prof. West. But its real accomplishment is predicting both the 21st-century nanny state and the dumbing down of America with eerie accuracy.

For it's not enough that the TV insists on doing everything for West -- it does what it believes best for him, like replacing classical music with military marches or helping him play solitaire. By way of explanation, the talking TV identifies itself (in the typical take-me-to-your-leader patois) as a representative of the Bureau of Entertainment, which sounds like something straight out of 1984 -- or 2013.

Having taken charge of West's leisure time, the TV eventually prevents him from thinking for himself, going so far as to change his class lecture topic from "Individualism as the Basis of Great Art" to "Passion Through History."  And when its tyrannical behavior eventually drives West to drink, the TV zaps him back to sobriety. "I may be wrong," West screams in retaliation, "but it's my kind of wrong. It's my God-given right to be wrong!" That notion probably seems shocking to anyone growing up these days. In fact, if The Twonky were a new release, the TV would destroy West's cigarette rather than lighting it as it does here. And the New York City Council would be the first to lead the cheering.


"Twonky," by the way, is simply a slang dreamed up by one of West's colleagues, Coach Trout, for something inexplicable. Trout eventually comes to the conclusion that the TV is a robot from the future that fell through a time portal. Having landed in 1951 Los Angeles, the robot took the form of something that would help it blend in. The robot, he believes, was constructed to regulate every thought according to the dictates of the superstate -- a rather heavy idea for a movie many people probably blew off as being one step above a kiddie matinee.

A television wandering around the house sounds a little stupid -- OK, very stupid -- but it's pretty creepy here, despite (or because) of the rather humble special effects. That's not some Pixar creation walking into the kitchen or up the stairs; it's a real -- make that phony real -- Admiral TV.
Some years later, a Twilight Zone episode worthy of a horror movie featured a similar concept concerning a gambling addict and a slot machine. But here, the scare factor is undercut by a bassoon & flute-heavy score reminding us It's only a joke, folks. Someone more tech-savvy than me should post a remix The Twonky with Bernard Herrmann's music from Citizen Kane and Vertigo. It could be the stuff of nightmares. 

But even that wouldn't do anything to improve the dialogue or direction. Oboler made the unfortunate decision of wrapping The Twonky's spooky package with a whimsical ribbon, undercutting whatever message he might have tried to get across. Whimsey was the bete-noir of Oboler's unofficial protege Rod Serling as well, as demonstrated by the atrocious Twilight Zone episodes starring Carol Burnett and Buster Keaton respectively. (You haven't lived 'til you've heard a laugh track on The Twilight Zone. Nor do you want to.)


The Twonky's cast does what it can with the material provided. Hans Conried's name is often preceded by "the great" for a reason. A solid character in movies, radio and TV for six decades. Endless voice-over work in cartoons. A face and delivery you recognize immediately. Known mostly for comedic roles, Conried could have made his Prof. West  a compelling dramatic part had he been allowed. As it is, his off-the-charts reaction to the crushing of his independence is still quite moving at times, whether it deliberate or not. His plaintive cry, "Why is it when a man tells the truth, he's accused of drinking?", could have been just a comedic line in other hands. When delivered by Conried, it becomes the apotheosis of the sane human in a world gone mad. Yes, this is the great Hans Conried.

No one else in The Twonky comes with 100 TV antennae of Conried, although Billy Lynn, as Trout, is certainly something. It's difficult to say if he was the most subversively subtle character actor of his time or the brother-in-law of the casting director (he has only a handful of credited roles). What's not up for debate is that Lynn has the worst teeth in movie history outside of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera.  

The Twonky went unreleased for two years after its 1951 production. It could very well be due to its overall shabbiness.  Much of the audio sounds like it's emanating from a cave, thanks to the indoor-location shooting. The static direction and cinematography is what you would have found on syndicated sitcoms of the time. What is definite is that The Twonky's promotion was piggybacked onto Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil, the movie that started the original 3D craze in 1952.

As anyone who's seen Carnival of Souls or The Honeymoon Killers can attest, a movie's low budget can actually create a genuinely disconcerting ambiance. No, what ultimately works against The Twonky is, ironically, what its evil TV is a proponent of: not trusting people to think for themselves. Had Oboler gone the dramatic fantasy route of his great radio plays, The Twonky could have been one of the most interesting, unnerving low-budget sci-fi movies of the '50s. The taglines on the poster promise much and, occasionally, glimpses of greatness are seen. By the end, though, the film pulls its punches, settling for comedy rather than the serious, even prophetic ideas it lays out. But what can you expect from a movie called The Twonky anyway? 

It wouldn't surprise me if a seven year-old Steven Spielberg saw The Twonky at his local movie house one Saturday afternoon. In 1971, his first feature, the made-for-TV movie Duel, was about a monstrous truck... that seems to have a life of its own. There isn't one second of humor in its running time. So successful was Duel, Universal Pictures released it theatrically in Europe. Let this be a lesson to moviemakers everywhere: When inanimate things come to life, it's scary.

 
                                                       
                                                          ***********


 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH (1916)

A  good pipe and a hypodermic needle is all a man needs.
The 3-reel comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is the kind of movie that the word "bizarre" was created for.  Critically-reviled in its day and all but disowned by its star, Douglas Fairbanks, the short was rediscovered by a more welcoming audience during the early days of home video. Not so much for its quality, mind you, but its quantity. Like, in kilos. For this is the birth of drug humor in motion pictures.


Every person in Hollywood today is wondering,
How do I get my hands on that can?
You think Cheech & Chong took a lighthearted approach to drugs? 
They're like the Moscow Art Theater compared to Douglas Fairbanks, who, as detective Coke Ennyday, shoots up regularly as Jay Carney obfuscates. No other movie in my memory makes mainlining such a source of zany comedy. Ennyday's regular reaction to shooting up cocaine is to giggle like a madman, swing his arms wildly and dance a jittery two-step. Put him at the elbow of Liza Minnelli and he would've fit right in at Studio 54. 

Ennyday, sporting a phony mustache which he turns upside down or removes depending on his mood, is hired by the Secret Service to investigate an unnamed "gentleman" living the good life without any visible means of support. If that's a crime, somebody call the cops on Anthony Weiner.

And it's even better on toast with jam!
Ennyday discovers his prey has been smuggling opium inside the Leaping Fish floatation devices rented at the beach. Always up for a new thrill, Ennyday decides to taste the opium, which appears to have the consistency of vintage Nutella. And instead of knocking him out as opium is wont to do, it sends him into a frenzy that lasts for the rest of the movie. Was nobody concerned with realism while making this movie?!

Ennyday's sweetheart, whose job is inflating the Leaping Fish, is kidnapped by the smuggler and his Asian henchman. Tracing them to a Chinatown laundry, the detective subdues the smuggler with a hit of cocaine, which sends him literally flying to the ceiling. The cops arrive. Ennyday saves his sweetheart. Fade out.

But wait! In the positively meta epilogue, we see Douglas Fairbanks (as himself) in the office of a movie producer, to whom he has just read the script for The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. The producer advises him to stick to acting. This was the last time anybody said no to a movie star. 

Kim Kardashian's favorite mode of transportation
when trying to avoid paparazzi.
You'll notice that nowhere in the preceding paragraphs did you find the word "funny." For The Mystery of the Leaping Fish doesn't evoke laughter as much as it does open-mouthed disbelief. It's not just the drug gags that make you shake your head. Ennyday's front door is set up with a closed-circuit camera connected to his television -- in 1916. He travels in an ostentatious check-print auto (to match his clothes) with his butler perched on the backseat blowing a horn. Cops literally drive around in circles at the climax. The whole movie seems to be an elaborate private joke concocted by Fairbanks and his pals over a few drinks. When you consider that the scriptwriter was Tod Browning -- who went on to direct Freaks -- it all starts to make sense.

I've got a photo of me doing the same thing.
Fairbanks' career was ascending at the time, so just why he thought playing a cocaine addict in a drug comedy was a good move is a mystery greater than that of the Leaping Fish. Being the kind of guy who not only couldn't stand still but also enjoyed the occasional dangerous stunt -- like a handstand on the edge of a cliff  -- perhaps this was one of those "personal" projects he had to "get out of his system" before going back to, you know, good movies.


If I have my way, this will soon be a
common sight at Coney Island.
By the way, the Leaping Fish were a real craze in Los Angeles at the time, and ripe for reintroduction for swimmers today. (Memo to self: check on patent expiration date.) Ennyday makes them float faster, of course, by injecting them with cocaine, but I seriously doubt that would work in real life.

As with many movies shot on location at the time, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish provides a fascinating look at how provincial a city Los Angeles was decades before freeways and the post-war population boom transformed it into a sprawling mass of houses and traffic. The brief exterior shot of L.A.'s Chinatown shows an area as dusty and unpaved as in the days of Jesse James. What was once simply just another comedy is today an artifact of a time and place that no longer exist.

Some modern day viewers consider The Mystery of the Leaping Fish one of the most hilarious pictures they've ever seen. I've watched it a few times over the years and have laughed at two things: 
  1. Ennyday's telescope doubles as a hat. 
  2. Ennyday's sweetheart is identified only as The Little Fish Blower. 
It's coke time.
Neither of these are necessarily worthy of Oscar Wilde or even Olivia Wilde, but with a movie like this, you have to get your fun where you find it. Not that The Mystery of the Leaping Fish isn't worth a half hour of your time. But maybe it works best if you have a clock similar to the kind Coke Ennyday uses, to remind you when it's time to laugh.

Meta postscript: Alma Rubens, who plays the smuggler's girlfriend, died in 1931 as a result of heroin addiction.  

                                                ********************* 



Tuesday, May 7, 2013

MR. ROBINSON CRUSOE (1932)

Mr. Robinson Crusoe presents an artist at the end of his rope, both artistically and personally. Having been one of the biggest movie actors in the world just three years earlier, Douglas Fairbanks had seen his star fall dramatically with the introduction of sound. Convinced, rightly, that the new technology, along with his advancing age, would no longer suit the brand of derring-do his fans had become accustomed to, he tried his hand at Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew with wife Mary Pickford), sophisticated comedy (Reaching for the Moon) and travelogue (Around the World in 80 Minutes), all to less than stellar results.

So it's no surprise that his fourth talkie was little more than a low-budget 70-minute home movie/vanity project, Mr. Robinson Crusoe. Writing the treatment under his usual nom-de-scenario, Elton Thomas, Fairbanks updated the classic story to that of millionaire Steve Drexel sailing to the Dutch Indies with his friend William Belmont. Drexel, tired of civilization, decides to jump ship and live like Crusoe on a deserted island. If he's still in one piece by the time William returns from his tiger hunting trip, he wins $1000. If not, well, Belmont loses a friend but saves a grand. Good trade-off.

I wouldn't get too comfortable, Mr. White Boss Man.
Any Robinson Crusoe needs a Man Friday, and this is version no different. Unfortunately for Drexel, this Friday is a proto-Civil Rights activist who wants no part of playing Rochester to the white man, especially when said white man almost drowns him in an effort to correct his attitude. For reasons unexplained, Friday wears a necklace made of radio tubes, cuing Drexel to ask, "You killed a radio operator, hunh? You should've killed a radio announcer." Someone should have killed the writer.



The dame's wearing only a cloth and grass skirt,
for God's sakes -- do something!
Soon after Friday takes his leave, a native woman escaping her wedding ceremony shows up. "Friday's gone," Drexel observes, "you must be Saturday." (The level of wit in Mr. Robinson Crusoe is staggering.) Drexel brings his conquest up to his home-built bachelor pad, which contains all the usual comforts , including a radio made of Friday's necklace, copper, a shell for the speaker and some wood for the base. (Bose, take note.) He and Saturday immediately set up house, although he refuses to sleep in the same bed with her. Considering that Saturday is quite willing and good-looking, the reason for Drexel's non-reaction can only be speculated. Saturday, by the way, is played by Spanish actress Maria Alba, who looks about as "native" as Jean Harlow.

"Yeah, you were supposed to be the
entree. Funny, hunh?"
Just to give you an idea of the kind of friends Drexel has, Belmont and Carmichael stop off at a nearby island and convince the natives to invade Drexel's pad. They're to pretend to be cannibals and, after capturing Drexel, start to roast him over a fire, whereupon Belmont and Carmichael will "save" him. All this to welsh on a lousy $1000 bet while spending a good six figures on an ocean voyage. I don't understand rich people.

Hey guys, there's a half-naked woman there,
and all you have are eyes for are each other.
The monkey saves the day -- as they always do in these things -- by turning on the radio, which scares the natives -- as they always do in these things. Drexel escapes and captures the natives in his trap. Belmont and Carmichael show up and are impressed by Drexel's surroundings. (Noticing the radio, Belmont exclaims with admiration, "The man is Mussolini!" Whatever you say, dude.) Escaping a further influx of natives, Drexel, his friends and Saturday sail off to safety on their yacht. By the climax, Drexel has sold off Saturday to the Ziegfeld Follies as a hula dancer. I was hoping she'd break free and climb the Empire State Building, but that idea was a year away.

It probably didn't take Fairbanks long to write the treatment. Much of the first half of Mr. Robinson consists of him: 1) Creating Rube Goldberg-type devices to make his life more
We're not laughing at you,
we're laughing with you.
comfortable, and 2) Laughing. Laughing, in fact, is his first reaction to everything. Using animals as slave labor? Laughter. Listening to radio reports of traffic deaths and suicides back home? Laughter -- no kidding. He gets a real howl out of trapping a goat, who appears to have been drugged for its movie debut. This was well before the Hollywood branch of the ASPCA ruined all the fun animal abuse entails. 

More hilarity ensues when Belmont and Carmichael observe island natives. Carmichael explains that the village is preparing for an engagement ceremony, which will climax with the groom-to-be knocking out the front teeth of his beloved. Belmont chuckles, "Oh well, we do the same thing. Only we wait until after the ceremony." You just don't hear that kind of witty repartee anymore. Special note must be made of all the natives' clothing, which appears to have been come from a nearby Target.


After big-budget productions like Robin Hood, Zorro and The Black Pirate, a sorry little effort like Mr. Robinson Crusoe must have disappointed Fairbanks' remaining fans. He tries hard to combine the athletics of those classic adventure pictures and his earlier, modern-dress comedies (for Fairbanks made his mark as a physical comedian). But factors like age -- he was 49 but seems older -- and cigarettes worked against him.
 
Too, the movie wears its low budget on its ragged sleeve. Much of the first scene on the yacht was clearly shot in a studio with a very unconvincing back projection. The dialogue spoken on the location shooting is echoey and distracting thanks to poor post-production dubbing. The entire production must have looked old-fashioned even in 1932. The onscreen prologue is itself straight out of the silents. The "glories and freedom of a primitive paradise" could just as well refer to Fairbanks' Hollywood heyday as it does a deserted island. (Just to drive it home, co-star William Farnum was a former silent star as well, best known for The Spoilers, made in 1914.) One nice touch: circulating prints of Mr. Robinson Crusoe still contain the original exit music following the closing credits, the perfect accompaniment as you make your favorite tropical drink to forget what you just watched.

There's a sad, desperate air to Mr. Robinson Crusoe, with Douglas Fairbanks still trying to pretend it was 1925, when he was King of Hollywood and his namesake son wasn't yet more popular than he. His athletic grace comes to the fore from time to time -- but is that him making his climatic escape on a combination zipline/catapult? I think not. It kind of makes sense that his island-wear is a duplicate of Peter Pan's. Douglas Fairbanks had become a middle-aged boy who, sadly, refused to grow up.

     
**************

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

THE KEEPER OF THE BEES (1935)

The novel upon which The Keeper of the Bees is based would likely have my wife swoon, "Oh, I loved that book when I was growing up!" Lightly allegorical, vaguely ethereal, The Keeper of the Bees demonstrates how a chance meeting between two strangers can affect not just their own lives but those of everyone around them, all for the better. It's about dropping masks and embracing love -- without being stung. It's also as complicated as heart surgery in a blackout.

"I knew Rin Tin Tin. Rin Tin Tin was a
friend of mine. And you're no
Rin Tin Tin."

Army veteran Jamie McFarland, given six months to live, is hitchhiking to Chicago when he's picked up by Molly, who is immune to his attempts to pick her up. After being kicked to the curb, Jamie tries to follow her, only to have a dog tug him to its sick master, Michael, an elderly beekeeper. Before taken to the hospital, Michael makes Jamie promise to care for the bees until he returns. Jamie receives help from a neighborhood kid nicknamed Little Scout, and Margaret Campbell, the housekeeper.

"I don't have to change
diapers? Where do I sign up?"
While out for a walk one evening, Jamie runs into Molly, who tearfully admits she needs "the protection of a man's name."  Jamie offers to marry her -- he's only got six months to live, after all. Molly accepts, but only if they go their separate ways immediately after the ceremony, never to communicate with each other again. How many husbands would pay good money for that kind of marriage?

Just don't expect the
same salary as guys, kiddo.
Months pass. Michael, the old beekeeper, dies in the hospital. Jamie and Little Scout inherit the property. Jamie's health is renewed by the simple life he once shunned but now loves. But now Little Scout faces a crisis, being outed by friends... as a girl. Jamie assures her that girls can assume the same leadership positions as boys. (Remember, this is a work of fiction.)

A phone call from the hospital alerts Jamie that "Mrs. McFarland" is dying after giving birth to "his" child. Expecting to see Molly in the maternity ward, Jamie discovers a total stranger instead. Nevertheless, he leaves with the baby... just as Molly (Jamie's real phony wife) swings by the hospital to visit the now-passed mother.


Shortly after Jamie returns home with the baby, Molly arrives. The truth is revealed. The woman whose name Molly signed on the wedding license, Louise Campbell, was her cousin -- and Margaret's runaway daughter. Molly had been trying to protect Louise's reputation by giving her a husband, if in name only.  It appears that Jamie and Molly will marry eventually, this time with her real name on the license.


There's something of a spiritual feeling running through The Keeper of the Bees, like a light mist drifting across the story and its characters. Michael (the beekeeper) plays a Godlike role in his care of the bees and setting in motion the events that will lead the others to a happy end. Too, the Archangel Michael is the patron saint of soldiers -- like Jamie.  And only after dropping the uniform of war for a life of peace does Jamie become restored whole -- reborn, you might say. As his true nature comes to the surface, so do those of Molly and Little Scout.
"I've got the
script and
I'm confused."

But not Margaret, who overhears Molly and Jamie discussing the circumstances of Louise's death. Yet when told a moment later that her daughter was killed in a car accident -- a more acceptable death than illegitimate childbirth? -- Margaret (played by Emma Dunn) goes along with the ruse. She thus becomes the only character in The Keeper of the Bees choosing to live some kind of a lie, even as she looks forward to helping to care for the infant she now realizes is her granddaughter.  
  

Little Scout (Edith Fellows) brings her own set of conundrums. Like -- where the hell are her parents? Do they know she's dressing in male drag? Isn't there a school in this town? And was Harper Lee  aware of The Keeper of the Bees before creating a small-town tomboy named Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?

To be sure, unintentional chuckles are scattered about. Jamie asking the stricken Michael, "Where are the aromatic spirits of ammonia?" -- apparently a common household item in 1935. Molly walking the cliffs at night in heels. Little Scout and her friends playing with a loaded rifle. Margaret ordering Little Scout to get two bottles, four nipples and a quart of high-quality olive oil for the baby. I don't recall my wife giving me this shopping list when we brought our daughter home. (And so you don't get the wrong idea, Margaret rubs the olive oil on the baby -- another thing we inexplicably forgot to do.)

Had it been made at one of the A-level studios, The Keeper of the Bees would have featured stars like Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert. Instead, Monogram Pictures picked up the movie rights, doubtlessly in an effort, like Little Scout, to play with the big boys. Neil Hamilton and Betty Furness, one-time contract players at the majors now freelancing on Poverty Row, play Jamie and Molly. Perhaps it's for the best. They don't come off as movie stars -- all the easier to get lost in the movie's subtle charms. Even the dog is a little scruffy around the edges just like, you know, real dogs. (Thirty years later, Neil Hamilton would gain everlasting fame as Commissioner Gordon on Batman -- a series about two guys whose whole raison d'etre depends on literally wearing masks and living a lie.)

As delicate as the pollinated flowers that sustain Jamie's apiary, The Keeper of the Bees requires an audience willing to go with its gentle flow. It's a quiet movie, literally and figuratively -- Neil Hamilton is particularly soft-spoken -- lacking today's bombastic scores that artificially cue one's emotions. Margaret's repeated axiom, "Have faith," might just be as well aimed at the viewer: Have faith that you can watch a movie lacking cynicism. Have faith that life can be lived the same way. It's apt that the opening credits are seen inside a frame. The Keeper of the Bees is, in its own way, a little work of art.

                                         
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