Thursday, August 29, 2013

THE SHADOW STRIKES (1937)

Like the previously-discussed I Love a Mystery, The Shadow was an enormously popular radio series that seemed ripe for the movies. Chronicling the adventures of a mysterious crime-fighter whose real identity was known only to his assistant, the program's catchphrase, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows..." remained legendary long after its demise.

The same, however, cannot be said about about The Shadow Strikes. (The title made wonder if the movie was about labor trouble among pulp fiction heroes.) Released by the short-lived independent studio Grand National Pictures, it mistakes "convoluted" for "mysterious," a factor typical of B-mysteries of its time. Ten minutes into it, there seemed to be three different plot threads going simultaneously:

1) An attempted burglary at the office of lawyer Chester Randall. 2) The murder of elderly tycoon Caleb Delthern. 3) The possible involvement in one or the other by a gambling boss named Brossett (no first name given). These threads are gradually pulled together with the finesse of a one-armed monkey doing crochet work. I toyed with the idea of actually explaining the story further, but my mind wandered so often that, even when taking notes, I'm unable to come with a cohesive description.

"Yo, it's me -- The Shadow. Wassup?
The script itself seems to have been lying around a Grand National file cabinet when some genius got the idea to make the bland hero into The Shadow. That's the only explanation for two of its most egregious mistakes. First, it completely ignores The Shadow's main skill, that of "clouding men's minds," a trick he picked up from the (of course) mysterious Orient, allowing him to become de facto invisible. In The Shadow Strikes, he depends on a turned-up overcoat collar and slouch hat to disguise himself. Yes, that should do the trick.

From the New York Tymes.
Even more ridiculous is that the picture doesn't even get his real name right. In the radio series (and, previously, short stories), he's Lamont Cranston. Until the very end of The Shadow Strikes, he's pretending to be a lawyer named Chester Randall. That is, when he's not pretending to be Randall's assistant Mr. Harris. It's only in the final minute we hear the name "Lamont Cranston" spoken. Except in the credits -- and a newspaper clipping -- his last name is spelled with a "G" instead of a "C." Was anyone at Grand National sober when The Shadow Strikes was in production? And I'm not even mentioning having a British servant named Hendricks instead of a woman named Margo Lane as his sidekick. Well, yes I am mentioning it, so scratch that.

Anybody ever hear of casual Fridays
around here?
The Shadow Strikes is loaded with the usual business you find in B-mysteries. Pistols are handily available in the top drawer of every desk in town. Cops need the most obvious advice from a lawyer to do their jobs -- like running ballistic tests on aforementioned pistols. When approached by a bad guy with a gun, a woman asks, "What's the meaning of this?" (Would that be your first question in such a predicament?) Exterior nighttime shots are filmed in broad daylight. Rich people hang around the house in tuxes, silk gowns or silk robes and ascots. Cops openly insult everyone in earshot (the police captain refers to Cranston's assistant as "that pelican-faced stooge of yours," which I'm looking forward to
A shadow does not The Shadow make.
using in conversation one day.) Allegedly snappy dialogue which falls with delicacy of a marble coffee table. (Man to girlfriend following a disagreement: "I suppose after we're married, we'll live scrappily ever after.") A bugging device features a microphone in an office and the headphones three stories down in a car; because the car drives around with the device intact, the cord is apparently 20 miles long. Thank God the NSA figured out that little problem.
The Shadow Strikes is also rich with actors you wouldn't recognize if your life depended on it. The title character is portrayed by the man with a name straight out of (porn) movies, Rod La Rocque (real name: Roderick La Rocque de la Rou). Once a leading man in silents, La Rocque was by now -- stop me if you've heard this before -- slumming in movies like Beau Bandit and Hi, Gaucho! (In between, he sailed to Germany to star in S.O.S. Iceberg for Hitler's favorite director, Leni Riefenstahl.) La Rocque's delivery in The Shadow Strikes, often casual to the point of sounding improvised, falls somewhere between Bob Hope and Edward Everett Horton. Except when he's in disguise as The Shadow. Then he speaks like Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants. Some hero. (You think that sounds strange. Co-star Bill Kellogg looks like a cross between a young Humphrey Bogart and Ron Mael from the band Sparks.) Like people in general back then, La Rocque looks a good decade older than his 39 years (unless he fudged his birthdate). He sure was popular in his day, though: when he married actress Vilma Banky in 1927, 2,000 people attended the wedding reception. Pity the caterer!



I couldn't find a photo of co-star Bill Kellogg,
so just combine these two photos in your head and you'll get an idea of what he looks like. In a word, wow.




The studio that released The Shadow Strikes, Grand National, is marginally more interesting than the movie itself. Created in 1936 as just another low-budget indie, it had a shot at the big time when signing James Cagney -- currently on strike from Warner Bros. -- to appear in two movies, Tough Guy (guaranteed to be the only drama about the thrilling adventures of an agent from the Bureau of Weights & Measures) and the so-so musical Something to Sing About. Despite Cagney's star power, the movies can't disguise their humble origins. Once Warners ordered Cagney back to work or else, it was only a matter of time before Grand National folded -- 1939, to be precise. Appropriately, PRC took over the studio complex. (Notice how everything comes back to PRC?) Grand National's art deco logo, featuring a giant clock whose sweeping hands reveal the studio name, still looks cool, though.

"Anybody know the wind chill factor
in here?"
As with way too many Hollywood pictures then and now, The Shadow Strikes is a missed opportunity. As portrayed by several actors over the years (including 22 year-old Orson Welles), the radio version of The Shadow was a genuinely eerie ghost-like figure who appears out of nowhere to investigate a crime before vanishing when his job is finished. The guy here just goes into his coat closet to grab an alleged disguise that wouldn't look out of place on a winter's day in Plattsburgh. That the writers decided to drop the whole clouding of men's mind routine -- the one factor that set him apart from other crime-fighting heroes -- is major mistake. Unless they mean clouding men's minds with excess characters, tedious dialogue and confusing plot points. 

"Hey, you really are the killer!"
However... the whole experience of making it through the 61 minutes it takes to watch The Shadow Strikes was worth it just to witness what may or may not be the birth of the most famous cliche in the annals of murder mysteries. After going through an endless parade of suspects, from the victim's son to his daughter's boyfriend to the guy who runs an illegal gambling parlor, we finally learn -- yes -- the butler did it. Who knew what evil lurked in the hearts of the hired help?

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

LADY GANGSTER (1942)

I've been saying it for years: by and large, the most entertaining B-movies were made by B-studios. That goes for double for anything crime-related. The grit and edginess necessary for the nasty atmosphere accompanying the stories came naturally to PRC, Monogram and the rest. Criminals tend to be lowlifes, anyway. Check out some real mugshots online sometime -- not a one comes within a mile of looking like Faye Emerson, the star of Warner Bros.' Lady Gangster.

At least they have the title character's name right: Dot Burton. That doesn't sound like a girl you'd introduce to mom, unless she was Ma Barker. Dot's been sent up the river after organizing a bank robbery, then hiding the money. The remaining members of her gang go underground. Thanks to the double-crossing of two other prison inmates,
"Me -- a lady gangster? Surely you jest!"
Dot is denied the parole arranged by her childhood friend Ken Phillips, the owner of a radio station. Convinced that Ken was actually behind the denial, Dot arranges to have him killed by her gang. When she learns that Ken had nothing to do with it, she escapes prison to save his life. Ken, in turn, arranges to have her released into his custody, so he can hire her as one of his station's announcers.

How to win parole and influence people.
That last sentence doesn't play as ridiculous as it sounds -- OK, maybe it does -- when you consider that Dot turned to crime only when her acting career didn't pan out, a move duplicated decades later by Lindsay Lohan. That Dot earned parole after making her escape by cracking the warden on the skull with a lamp makes for a very forgiving prison system indeed. (Read about Money Madness to get the real lowdown on what happens to woman who was actually innocent of committing a crime.)

"We're with the band."
Dot's prison is really just a second-rate hotel. Sure, the rooms leave something to be desired -- like, oh, toilets and privacy -- but the dames get to hang out in a rec room where they listen to the radio, dance, knit and iron. My wife would find this perfectly acceptable way to spend her day. Except the ironing part. And unlike their male counterparts, their uniforms could get them into any hipster bar in Red Hook.


Lucy & Annie: nope, they're not gruntled at all.
Most of the inmates have standards, like the one who says, "I'd play ball with anyone but Hitler to get out of this hole." But there's always a bad apple or two, and here it's Lucy, a disgruntled stoolie, and Annie, a disgruntled deaf-mute. When Stew, one of Dot's cohorts, comes by on visiting day, Annie lipreads their conversation to discover that they were talking about what they were going to do with the stolen loot. 

Somebody should have thrown the writer
in prison.
This scene plays utterly ridiculous right down the line. Not only does Annie look like a Gilda Radner character, she'd need a telescope to successfully read their lips. Cranking up the Absurd-O-Meter a notch, Stew is disguised as a woman -- and nobody notices! This scene, by the way, seems to be played completely straight. No wonder why director Robert Florey changed his name to Florian Roberts on Lady Gangster's credits.



Three gunmen are no match for a
radio station owner with his back to them.
Equally outrageous is the climactic fist fight. Somehow, radio exec Ken Phillips (busy character actor Frank Wilcox), who doesn't appear to have lifted anything heavier than a cigarette lighter in his life, successfully takes on Dot's three menacing henchmen, even knocking them through stairway railings before being momentarily stopped by a bullet to the arm. And instead of hailing the nearest ambulance, he rides along with the cops -- in the front seat! -- as they chase the gang. If that's not enough, at the climax he appears to become the love object of Dot. This would be tough enough to swallow, but when Dot's played by the glamorous Faye Emerson, you fairly choke on the concept.

Eyebrows by Kiwi Shoe Polish.
Although only an hour long, I nearly turned off Lady Gangster a few minutes into it. As I alluded to earlier, B-movies from the majors are a little too glossy for my taste. The dialogue tends not be as gritty nor the actors as interesting. (Only RKO Radio really knew how to get its hands dirty.) But two cast members kept me watching, and that was only because of their later TV work. One was DeWolf Hopper as Ken's assistant. Fifteen years later, 20 pounds lighter, hair 100 shades grayer and using the name William Hopper, he began a long run as Raymond Burr's sidekick Paul Drake on Perry Mason.

And away we go (to rob a bank)!
Then there's Dot's milk-drinking getaway driver, Wilson, the only one of the gang who really cares for her. He's played by (as his name reads in the credits) Jackie C. Gleason. Only 26 years old, he's already coming into focus as an actor. The side of the mouth delivery, the gruff but sympathetic characterization, even the way he holds his cigarette between his fingers and thumb -- it's all there, just waiting for a different medium to transform him into one of the major show business icons of his time. It was an irony that would probably be lost on no one involved in the making of Lady Gangster, least of all Gleason himself.

Lady Gangster is one of those movies that should have made Warner Bros. think twice before cracking wise about studios like PRC. It takes more than bigger bucks, a decent score and a pretty face to put over a crime picture. A lower budget often allows for a more noirish atmosphere. A score that sounds like it was slapped on the soundtrack whether it was appropriate or not increases the already dreamlike quality of the production. And although Faye Emerson allows herself to go tough by greasing up her hair and laying off the mascara, B-movie queen Ann Savage could act the part better than any Oscar-winner. While many once-forgotten Poverty Row releases look better than ever today, Lady Gangster remains what it was meant to be: just another way to kill an hour with women in prison. 

Now that I think of it, that actually sounds pretty good. 

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

MONEY MADNESS (1948)

At some point in their lives, kids are astonished to discover their parents once had lives before, well, being parents. Imagine what Theodore and Wally Cleaver would have thought if they discovered their father, Ward, used to be a sociopathic killer.

Well, not really, but that's Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver starring in Money Madness as career criminal Steve Clark. After hiding $200,000 from a bank robbery in a safe deposit box (thanks for the idea!), Steve worms his way into the life of innocent Julie Ferguson. Discovering that poor Julie lives with her nasty Aunt Cora, Steve comes up with a brilliant idea. After two dates, Steve marries Julie before poisoning the battleax. Fast worker, right? Julie inherits the house and suddenly finds a mysterious trunk with 200-grand in the attic. Hey, it could happen to anyone!

"Hands off the threads, lady."
The first inkling you get that Steve's three grains short of a granola bar -- besides poisoning Aunt Cora, I mean -- is when he confesses the crime to Julie. Concerned that Cora's taken a turn for the worse, Julie tries calling a doctor. From out of nowhere, Steve quietly appears and hangs up the receiver. In the quiet, measured tones one would use when describing swatting a fly, Steve explains:

You said I was different. And I am. I don't figure things the way most people do. Now take Aunt Cora for instance. She's old. She's no good to anyone in the world. She's unhappy and she's made you unhappy. There's no reason for her to live. So I -- well, I... fixed her tea last night and her grapefruit juice this morning.

If you look carefully, you can see a smile cross his lips, the kind a child would offer his mother after successfully tying his own shoes for the first time. It's at this point his performance crosses the line from eerie to terrifying, staying on that track for the rest of the picture.

"That'll be a buck and a half. Or I'll cut
you up into little pieces and throw you
to the badgers."
Steve tries to blend in by driving a taxi, which, if you're a New Yorker, sounds like a typical job for an escapee from an institution for the criminally insane. Soon, he starts showing up everywhere Julie happens to be, making a line like, "Your ride's waiting, miss" sound like a disturbing threat. So terrified is Julie that she can't confide the truth of the situation to her own lawyer (who's in love with her). Steve, you see, pointed out that it was she who actually served the spiked drinks to Cora. Their marriage, as Steve calmly explains, is predicated on neither of them testifying against the other in a court of law. Which is as good as any other reason most people come up with.

Money Madness appears to have the happy ending most American movies indulge
in: bad guy killed, girl safe in the arms of the man who loves her. That is, until you remember the entire movie was told in flashback -- and that, in the first scene, Julie was sentenced to prison for ten years for being Steve's accomplice even though she was entirely innocent. Man, talk about cynical!  I guess the moral the moviemakers were trying to get across was Don't talk to men. It's bad for your health.
A familiar sight in my home.

If you still can't wrap your head around the idea of Ward Cleaver as a killer, then one viewing of Money Madness will set you straight. Something of a Poverty Row-Fred MacMurray in looks and style, Beaumont is far more intense here. And, if I haven't made it clear enough, capital-C Crazy, more believable than, say, the grandstanding Jack Nicholson in The Shining. As with other actors discussed on this blog, Beaumont's performance would be considered classic had Money Madness been a major studio release instead of getting lost in the B-movie shuffle. That Beaumont is totally convincing in such an evil role is more astonishing when you consider that he was, at the time, a Methodist minister who took acting gigs to raise money for his church. God and Hollywood work in mysterious ways. 

Despite the idea I might have given you, not every B-movie is a classic in hiding. Most don't even pass the threshold of mediocre. Often, I've despaired that I might have seen all the ones worth watching. Then along comes something like Money Madness, a solid, well-made thriller that comes alive in the very first scene, then keeps ratcheting things up during its 72-minute running time. (Why do most filmmakers today seem to think "The longer, the better"?) I found it almost difficult to describe because it should be seen, as I did, unfamiliar with the story or the plot twists. Some rainy day -- or better, night -- swing over to YouTube and give it a shot. If nothing else, you'll never watch Leave it to Beaver the same way again.



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

Friday, August 2, 2013

SUCKER MONEY (1933)

When my wife and discuss the great movie producers of the past -- wait, let me correct that. When I wish my wife and I would discuss the great movie producers of the past, the name Willis Kent would never come up. Although most of his releases were westerns, he's known today for his low-budget melodramas about the "social issues" of the day. Something of a Darryl Zanuck of "adults only" exploitation pictures, Kent appeared to have gotten the idea for his movies from the less polite newspapers of the day. Cocaine addiction (The Pace that Kills), marijuana (The Road to Ruin), abortion (Race Suicide), prostitution (The Wages of Sin) -- you get the idea. Controversial subject + outlandish title = boffo box office.


 
Kent's Sucker Money, released by Invincible Pictures (which went out of business three years later), sets its mood immediately. Following the sound of a gong, a bizarrely-dressed person of indeterminate sexual origin pulls back a curtain in a psychic's parlor to introduce the opening credits. (To paraphrase Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, the gaudier the credits, the cheaper the movie.) In case audiences didn't know what they were in for, the capitalization-challenged subtitle reads:  



 an expose of the 
PSYCHIC RACKET 
a True Life Photoplay 
    
Yeah, if "True Life" means "Utterly Bogus." But I'm not looking for realism with movies like this  -- I mean, that's what I'm trying to escape on a daily, nay, hourly basis. And when I'm craving 60 minutes of strange entertainment with at least one good actor -- in this case, Mischa Auer -- a picture like Sucker Money does the trick.

A group of grifters led by Swami Yomurda ("Yo murder" -- get it?!) is infiltrated by actor-turned-cub reporter Jimmy Reeves. Yomurda and his cohorts (I think that's a hip-hop band my daughter listens to) are currently trying to fleece businessman John Walton. Walton's daughter, Clare, falls in love with Jimmy, whose real identity is soon found out. While Reeves is subsequently held captive, Yomurda kidnaps and hypnotizes Clare and holds her for ransom. You don't need to be a psychic to know happiness will eventually prevail. 

You think this is a crime -- you should see the
price of a theater ticket these days.
This Yomurda guy isn't as smart as he thinks he is. Instead of hiring a henchman in the usual ways -- which, in old movies, tends to be waterfront dives -- he takes out a classified ad in Reeves' newspaper looking for a "character man adept at makeup." (Strangely, he also asks for a child impersonator, a subplot never explored, but ideal for a Willis Kent production in itself.) Reeves' editor is suspicious by the ad's promise of "No traveling," but a real actor would immediately smell a rat at the other comment in the ad, "Good pay." But they're not kidding about that. Yomurda offers Reeves $75 a week -- the equivalent of $1,339 today. If that's the kind of dough you can make as a phony-baloney table-tapper, you can cut me in. I'll save my scruples for when I can afford them. 

Yomurda giving Clare the ol' "you are
getting sleepy" routine, which never worked
for me when I was dating.
And Yomurda's crew really is raking it in. They've got enough people to start their own stock company version of Henry V. Their business is more wired than an Apple store, with secret buzzers, light boards, dimmers, dry ice and trapdoors. They even create phony materializations during seances by secretly filming their suckers around town from a truck. (Talk about psychic -- this was 80 years before Google Streets!) It probably never occurred to audiences in 1933 that these people must have looked like a damn circus parade going from town to town with all this gear. Inconspicuous they're not.

"You haven't lived 'til you've seen
my crystal balls."
Yomurda makes sure everything looks spiritual, even if there are conflicts of a sort. A statue of Buddha graces the "materialization" screen, yet the visits from the dead are said to be provided by Vishnu. Make up your mind, swami! The earthly go-between for here and the afterlife is Princess Karami -- described as "a former hooch dancer" -- whom Yomurda has hypnotized to do his bidding... and whom he plans to replace with the equally-spellbound Clare. Yomurda is no Ricardo Cortez, so this hypnosis thing must be his only way to score with even hooch-dancers. (The name of the actress playing Princes Karami is Mona Lisa. She doesn't smile demurely once in Sucker Money, so I don't see the connection.)

Although an indie production, Sucker Money was shot at Republic Studios, kind of the M-G-M of Poverty Row, so it probably looks a cut above Willis Kent's more outre releases. Still, you
Efficiency at work: six people crammed into
a two-shot.
can't help wonder why it took two people, Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer, to direct this thing. As with other low budget indies of its time, long takes are interrupted by jarring edits. A high angle shot of a corpse in a basement is the closest thing to an interesting framing device. And while nobody blows their lines, I can't help but feel that 95% of what's on screen is a first take. Taking it a step further, off-screen actors are never properly miked, often giving it the look of a filmed rehearsal. While all this would take most people out of the story, it makes me feel that I'm actually there, watching how a movie with a budget probably hovering in the low five figures, actually got made. (Co-director Davenport was the widow of silent screen star Wallace Reid, whose 1923 death due to morphine addiction made headlines. Davenport spent the next ten years writing, directing or starring in low-budget "warning" pictures, often under the name Mrs. Wallace Reid. Nothing like cashing in on a tragedy.)

Gunned down by cops at the film's
climax, Auer pops his eyes one last time.
Swami Yomurda must have been pretty popular with audiences, since character actor Mischa Auer originated the role -- or at least the name -- in Sinister Hands the year before. Although Russian-born, Auer managed to make his way around several onscreen nationalities, never associating with the word "subtle" over his 40-year career. In his early days, he specialized in pop-eyed madmen in thrillers like The Monster Walks, then branched out as pop-eyed goofballs in comedies. If you look carefully, there are times in Sucker Money when, in profile, Auer resembles a degenerate James Mason. That's a plus, by the way.

Just call her Bullseye Busch.
Auer's Sucker Money co-star, Mae Busch -- whose dipso character specializes in "the grandmother gag" during seances -- had the opposite career. Having started out in dramas during the '20s (Chaplin called her "the greatest actress of the screen"), she eventually became Laurel & Hardy's go-to actress whenever they needed a hooker, gun moll or harridan wife. Busch might have had some off-screen practice for their slapstick shenanigans. Rumor has it that when comedienne Mabel Normand caught fiance Mack Sennett in bed with Busch, the latter bashed her over the head with a vase. Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!

Earl McCarthy, as Jimmy Reeves, is the leading man type typical of '30s Poverty Row: young, wavy hair, prettier than the women, possessing the masculinity of a mint parfait. He actually appears more comfortable in scenes with the older Mae Busch than with his supposed leading lady Phyllis Barrington. (Busch responds to his mock-flirting ways with, "Don't get gay with me, fresh guy!" Um...) It's not surprising that his character used to be an actor, since he doesn't look like anything but. With his limited emotional range, it's doubtful McCarthy would have made it to the majors. It didn't matter; before the year was out, he was dead of a heart attack at age 26. Maybe if he'd spent more time infiltrating doctors instead of sham soothsayers...

Willis Kent's final drama, Confessions of a Vice Baron, was released in 1940. His CV goes blank until 1950. Then, over the next eight years his output was limited to stag movies featuring strippers with names like Justa Dream, Satalyte and Patti Waggin. (What, no Moaner Lisa?)  These movies, like many of his '30s shockers, would run in urban grindhouses under different titles for years afterward, making a mint for him and his distributors. Had a psychic told Kent that his movies would one day be widely available
to everyone everywhere online for free, he'd have felt like the sucker.


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