Tuesday, October 29, 2013

WHOM THE GODS DESTROY (1934)

Many successful businessmen want to make the road in life easier for their children. John Forrester, the lead character in Whom the Gods Destroy, is no different. A theatrical impresario who would have made David Merrick look like an usher, Forrester works day by day to make his son, Jack, a great playwright. But get this -- John Forrester is dead! And yet, he isn't. However... wait, let's back up a bit.

John Forrester is sailing on an ocean liner that collides with an abandoned ship. Bravely (stupidly?) offering up his life jacket to a woman he doesn't know, Forrester has a panic attack when the images of his wife and five year-old son appear before him. Naturally, this gives him the impetus to grab an abandoned fur coat, pass himself off as a woman and make his way onto a lifeboat. And don't tell me you wouldn't do the same thing, guys, even if you didn't have hallucinations of your wife and kid. 

As if.

By the time Forrester quietly makes it back to New York, he discovers that he's been hailed as a hero for sacrificing his life in order to save another's. Fearful of being found out as a phony, he changes his identity, grows a beard, and works at a diner for five years, then at a puppet theatre for another twelve. (Drowning at sea or working at a puppet theatre for over a decade -- which sounds like a worse fate to you?) Meanwhile, the now-grown son Jack quits college in order to follow in his father's footsteps by writing, producing and directing a Broadway show. Only the difference is, Jack's play sucks, big time. Forrester introduces himself to Jack as a friend of his father, and urges him to try again. Summoning all his talent, Forrester helps to shape Jack's new play into a triumph, never once revealing his real identity. Like anyone in the theatre would ever refuse credit for anything.

You can tell he's a Communist;
he's got a cool haircut and hipster overcoat.
Whom the Gods Destroy attempts to cram something of an epic story in its 70-minute running time, going off in several different directions before settling into the father-and-son thread. The shipboard scenes promise an interesting subplot featuring an Eastern European refugee, Peter Korotoff, who spits on Forrester in disgust. "You are a capitalist!" Korotoff exclaims (like Forrester didn't know already). "Men of money should be destroyed!" Forrester laughs it off, observing, "Some day we'll read a news item about him saying he's been hanged." Ah ha, I thought, we're going to see the commie swinging from a noose at the climax! Well, no. When he's later prevented by Forrester from escaping the sinking ship with the women and children, Korotoff pulls a knife on him, only to be shot by the Captain. His whole purpose, then, is to provide the cruel irony of Forrester successfully pulling off the same stunt. Commies and capitalists, they're all the same.

That's no lady!
The question any right-thinking person would have at this point is Who the heck would confuse this guy for a woman, even with a fur coat pulled up to his nose? If his ample girth wouldn't have been enough of a tip-off, surely his haircut, tuxedo pants and dress shoes should have been a dead giveaway. Only when carried off the lifeboat in a small Irish village is Forrester found out. Slapped around by the angry townsfolk, Forrester is condemned as a coward. Personally, I thought it was a pretty clever ruse that went unappreciated by these hicks, but that's the New Yorker in me. Only one villager cares for the sickly Forrester, restoring him to health over the next several months. Together, they cook up a fancy tale explaining how Forrester survived the sinking, thus allowing him to return home with his head held high and his gut still hanging low.

Ah ha, I thought once again. Forrester is going to be treated to a hero's welcome by family and strangers alike, only to look nervously over his shoulder for any witnesses during the next six reels!

No, this is definitely not a headline
he wants to see.
And again, I was proven wrong. Once Forrester gets a look at the plaque outside his theatre proclaiming his alleged shipboard sacrifice, his mind goes into zany-montage mode as he realizes what would happen if the truth were to come out. Stumbling around in the rain -- you knew it would be raining, right? -- and mumbling to himself, Forrester is picked up by a cop and taken to court, where the judge throws him in the pokey for, well, stumbling around in the rain and mumbling to himself. If that was a crime, I'd have served a life sentence by now.

Keep it up, laughing boy, see how
funny things are when the reviews
come out.
And here's where the story really falls apart. John Forrester has been made out to be the biggest thing on Broadway outside of Sophie Tucker's ass. Playwright, director, producer. His plays run at the John Forrester Theatre. The concession stand probably sells Forrester Gummi Bears. Yet no one recognizes him when returns to New York! From that point on, my heartstrings were plucked without success, thanks to that enormous plot hole. All there was left to revel in was the sight of Jack Forrester -- played by Robert Young -- getting the smirk wiped off his smug face when his play bombs on opening night.


Well, one person eventually recognizes Forrester -- his wife, Margaret, to whom Jack insists on introducing on the opening night of his second, successful play. While Jack goes out for Champagne, John and Margaret reunite for the first time in almost two decades. In a genuinely touching moment, they reignite the love they once shared, while Margaret desperately tries to understand her husband's motives. John convinces her that their son must never know the truth, yet promises to see her from time to time "for the few years we have left." 

Ol' Sparky, circa 1934.
At that point, Whom the Gods Destroy abruptly came to an end, awkwardly cutting to the 1950s Columbia Pictures logo rather than its 1934 incarnation seen at the beginning. Something smelled rotten in Burbank, so a little investigation was in order. I discovered that apparently all of the prints of Whom the Gods Destroy currently in circulation leave out the scene that originally followed afterwards: John, suitcase in hand, sneaking away from his family forever, believing that any kind of a relationship with his wife is impossible under the circumstances. Thus I was deprived of an unhappy ending for which I was craving. Maybe if Columbia Pictures made the complete Whom the Gods Destroy available legally instead of forcing screwballs like me to troll the "grey market" for my fix, we wouldn't be disappointed by someone's scissor-happy hackwork. 

The title for its Swedish
release translated as
The Great Disaster,
leaving it wide open for
wisecracks galore.
As with other pre-code movies on this blog -- Why Men Fight, Guilty as Hell, The Sin of Nora Moran -- I was attracted to Whom the Gods Destroy initially due to its unusual title, perhaps expecting some pseudo-spiritual melodrama. I suppose it's rather churlish to expect greatness from what turned out to be nothing more than a big fat soap opera with a Broadway angle. And, as with soap operas in general, realism isn't what its creators were going after. But by no means is Whom the Gods Destroy a bad movie. The sinking of the ship is appropriately terrifying, featuring all-too realistic panic and, as with Forrester's later scene in New York, a surprisingly lengthy montage. Walter Connolly's performance as Forrester is emotionally believable even when the story isn't. (Even less believable is that the portly actor was only 47 years old at the time.) As usual, Robert Young is Robert Young, which isn't necessarily the worst thing. 

Pulling the
Big deal -- you can still see the strings!
strings -- of the marionettes -- are the Yale Puppeteers, a theatrical troupe established in 1922 by graduates from, of course, the University of Michigan. (This was apparently before truth-in-advertising laws went into effect.) Extra points are awarded to legendary character actor Akim Tamiroff in his brief but semi-pivotal role as the Commie. 
And just to show how Broadway has changed over the years, the curtain-closing scene of Jack's successful play consists of the lead character blowing her brains out on a church altar. I don't see a play like that opening in Broadway's Disneyfied world any time soon. Bring on the marionettes, boys!

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

Friday, October 18, 2013

GUILTY AS HELL (1932)

America must have been a pretty hellish place in June of 1932 -- the month that saw the release of Merrily We Go to Hell and Guilty as Hell. Those freewheeling pre-code days coincided with the some of the worst of the Depression. People knew the score and were happy to have genuine adult emotions (i.e., sex, violence and risque dialogue) represented onscreen honestly. Or at least honestly as the local censor boards would allow.

Guilty as Hell. It's an eye-catcher of a title, is it not? -- and the only thing that originally piqued my interest. I didn't need to know the story before going in. I might not have even bothered with it had it gone by the title of the play it was based upon, Riddle Me This. As any Halloween merchant will affirm, hell sells.

The poster's tagline -- "Hidden hands ended her life! Whose were they?" -- -- turns out to be something of a ruse. You know from the first seconds who killed the lady in question (her name's Ruth, by the way); it was her husband, Dr. Tindal. Tindal strangled her (possibly for signing up for Obamacare) and framed her lover, Frank Marsh, for the crime. It's up to wisecracking reporter Russell Kirk to find the real killer.

Vera  would look pretty hot if she
didn't have that zombie vibe going on.
Did I say "wisecracking"? Make that nihilistic. Making himself at home at the murder scene, Kirk casually flicks cigarettes ashes on the corpse while telling his editor on the phone, "She passed out in her pajamas, but I think she'd look better in her nightgown." He eats her candy. He tries stealing evidence. He lies about his reason for visiting the home Frank Marsh shares with his pop-eyed sister Vera. This ink slinger must work for a Murdoch paper. Frank and Vera, by the way, live in a mansion-sized brownstone with no visible means of income. This is a typical early '30s conceit, as if everybody sported formal wear after 6:00 without any explanation of where all the dough was coming from, while 90% of the audience was barely scraping by. Talk about rubbing it in.

I'd like to see a newspaper reporter try this
on a New York police detective today.
The other typical conceit is the dumb cop (Detective McKinley) who wouldn't be able to crack a pistachio, let alone a murder case, without the help of a journo like his frenemy Russell. This was always good for a laugh back then -- who didn't like seeing cops given the razzberry? -- but rather dismaying, if you think about it. I mean, if the guy in charge of solving crimes is what anthropologists refer to as doltish ignoramus, what does that say for the police department as a whole? Besides, who're you going to call when you get mugged -- the Daily News

Guilty as Hell goes off in all kinds of tangents -- Russell falling hard for Vera; a gangster named Jack Reed getting hauled in as a material witness; a running gag involving a woman both Kirk and McKinley have been sleeping with -- leading up to Frank landing on death row. The prison scene features an early use of what would become a classic movie cliche. As Frank counts the hours before getting his neck stretched, a black prisoner sings a haunting spiritual. Well, kind of a spiritual. "The Lonesome Road" was something of a pop number, co-written and recorded by crooner Gene Austin in 1927. It was the go-to song when you wanted to feel all righteous without having to sit through a sermon. (Frank Sinatra, no saint he, turned it into a jazz standard in the '50s.)


What really sets Guilty as Hell apart from other crime movies of its day is its look. Perhaps conscious of the script's stage origins, director Erle C. Kenton goes to town with the visuals effects. It isn't just that Guilty as Hell contains fluid camerawork and more wipes than the baby care aisle of a CVS. In its opening moment, we see Ruth's strangulation from her point of view and in the reflection of Tindal's glasses -- an unexpected ratcheting up of the creep factor still effective over 80 years later. Is it possible that Alfred Hitchcock remembered this startling effect when shooting a similar scene for Strangers on a Train 20 years later? Or am I talking through my felt fedora with wild, idiot abandon as usual? I think we know the answer to that one.


A scene in McKinley's office features a whole mess of reverse POV shots during a heated argument among several characters. This is especially unnerving when being yelled at by McKinley, played by the decidedly undishy Victor McLaglen, and Adrienne Ames as Vera Marsh, who seems to be suffering from a textbook case of exophthalmos. Lady, see an ophthalmologist, you're scaring the children!

We eventually learn that Dr. Tindal was in cahoots with Jack Reed, the hoodlum. Thanks to figuring out that a clue had been planted to frame Frank, smart-ass reporter Russell saves him from the hangman. Tindal is arrested only to die seconds after getting cuffed. Was it suicide? Old age? The screenwriter running out of paper? It's never precisely explained. And what thanks does Russell get from Vera for saving her brother's life? The ol' I'm-engaged-to-another-man-sorry-if-I-led-you-on routine. The pop-eyed bitch.


"No, point toward the camera!"
The twists and turns encountered in Guilty as Hell are engaging. The dialogue isn't bad (Russell to his detective nemesis: "They shot the wrong McKinley," which I nominate as the first presidential assassination joke spoken in movies). The suspense is, well, fairly suspenseful. But, again, it's the opticals that grab you from the get-go. There are so many hands reaching, fingers jabbing and, if I recall correctly, shoes kicking at the camera that director Kenton seems to have been pushing for a 3-D conversion. Maybe James Cameron can handle it now.

But one thing left me puzzled. Guilty as Hell appears to located in New York... except the capitol building is shown as being a few blocks from McKinley's office, which would make it Albany. Yet Jack Reed is hiding out in "the Heights" -- which made me think of Brooklyn. But the telephone exchange seen in a close-up of a phone book is Madison, as in Avenue, as in Manhattan. Googling the phone number today -- MA6-2020 -- will take you to businesses in Queens, Los Angeles and Phoenix...

You think me obsessive? Well, there's only one way I can possibly plead, your honor:

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




Wednesday, October 2, 2013

INNER SANCTUM (1948)



Unlike the silliness of I Love a Mystery or the total misfire of The Shadow Strikes, Inner Sanctum makes the transfer from radio to movie a successful one, sticking to its mystery/horror roots with enough child abuse and violence toward women to justify the mask of Tragedy looming in its Daliesque poster. (Well, maybe it doesn't really look like a Dali, but I wanted to show that I have an awareness of something that doesn't have sprocket holes.)

Only a Poverty Row picture (apparently the sole release from M.R.S. Pictures) could generate a creepy eeriness -- or eerie creepiness -- from the opening seconds, practically a master class in low-budget film noir suspense.  The setting is the dining car of a train. The elderly Dr. Valonius is staring intently at the glamorous (by 1948 standards) Marie Kembar. A passenger interrupts the silence:


PASSENGER: I beg your pardon, have you got the time?
VALONIUS: [still staring at Marie] Eighteen minutes past six.
PASSENGER: Well, I could've made a guess myself. If it's too much trouble to look at your watch, why didn't you say so?
VALONIUS: I have no need for such contrivances.
MARIE: [looking at her watch] He guessed correctly. I have 20 after. I'm a little fast.
PASSENGER: I can believe that.



Not even Dr. Valonius can explain why Marie's
purse looks like a hurricane lamp.
I love this kind of dialogue. In a matter of seconds, you have a bead on these characters. Valonius, a low-key kind of seer, engages in a conversation with Marie. Interested in her story -- she's vacationing with her fiance -- Valonius tells her about a couple he once knew who were also traveling by train. And so the story proper begins.

Harold Dunlap can't catch a break. Not only has he accidentally killed his ex-girlfriend, he's stuck in a flooded, small-town boarding house with a 13 year-old who witnessed him dumping the body on the platform of a train. When he's not trying to kill the kid -- understandable, in light of things -- Harold's avoiding the come-ons of boarder Jean Maxwell. 

"You're unsociable, you're a killer, you smell
bad -- I love you!"
Jean has a thing for bad guys, responding  positively to their negative pheromones. It doesn't matter that Harold makes it clear he isn't interested; this dame is stuck on his butt like a diaper. Even after she's discovered Michael bound-and-gagged in Harold's closet and gets socked in the jaw for her troubles, Jean still wants to run away with the lug. As in high school, the pretty girls in B-movies always go for the gorillas. Why do they get to score with the best chicks -- the ones with good looks, high sex drive and low self-esteem? And if you think I'm still holding a grudge from my high school days, you're mistaken. I'm just asking a theoretical question.





"Say, Mike, let's see how long you can
live if  I hold you underwater!"

Inner Sanctum is filled to the brim with shocking violence both real and intimated -- Harold tries to smash the kid's skull with a crowbar when he's not plotting to push him out a window or drown him in the river -- and dialogue you couldn't replicate today. Ruminating over the flooded roads and bridges, Jean sighs, "This town is washed-out any way you look at it." One guy asks of Harold's ex, who was killed by a sharpened nail file run through her chest, "Any more news about the gal who had her heart manicured?" Another fellow sagely observes, "When you tell a woman over 40 she's beautiful, you're not being generous, you're a philanthropist." I'm sure women in the audience in 1948 laughed along with their husbands at that line. Now, like my wife, they'd merely grunt a disgusted "Ugh." Girls, what happened to your sense of humor?
"No. No kissing for me."

There's a lot going on under the surface of Inner Sanctum, at least through my prying eyes. Harold Dunlap is a guy whose seething interior can barely be contained. We never learn the source of his fury at the woman he killed, other than, as Valonius tells us, she made his life "complicated and miserable" (Take a number, bro!). Jean is throwing herself in front of him like a Persian rug, but all Harold has to say is, "You're very pretty... when your lips aren't moving." (I'd like all you husbands out there to try that on your wife to see her reaction. Just be sure that you're enrolled in Obamacare first.) He even refuses a kiss from her luscious, pouty lips. Man, is he irritating.

"How do I look, kid?"
But there's something about his relationship with Michael that seems kind of off -- aside from trying to kill him, I mean. Forced to share a room with the kid, he has no problem undressing to his shorts and gazing at him from bed. Realizing that Michael's pretty sure that he's rooming with a killer, Harold urges him to come over to his bed to inspect his body, just to make sure that there aren't any telltale cuts that might have occurred during a murder. When you understand that actor Charles Russell plays Harold with a proto-Kevin Spacey vibe -- and wears clothes just a scosh too tight -- all of his scenes with the kid are on the discomforting side. That is, to reiterate, when he's not trying to kill him.

She would so go for me.
Mary Beth Hughes, on the other hand, is off-the-charts sexy as Jean Maxwell. By being both beautiful and approachable, she exudes a sensuality that the more glamorous A-listers couldn't match because, like her B-queen sister Ann Savage, she's real. While women like, say, Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner were clearly out of anybody's league, the average guy could at least kid himself that Mary Beth Hughes would talk to him. Her first meeting with Harold is classic film noir. As she appears from the shadows, Hughes' eyes start near his crotch than wander up to his face, her look going from friendly to bedroom-bound before she opens her mouth. It's a wonderful combination of acting talent and directorial skill from Lew Landers. If you haven't heard of Landers, it isn't from lack of trying on his part. In his 28 year-career, he directed 154 movies, along with over 100 TV episodes until his death in 1962, which he probably directed as well.

Who do you find scarier: the killer or the driver?
Why did some radio series make mediocre transfers while others, like Inner Sanctum, hit the bulls-eye? Care, pure and simple. Everyone involved wanted to make the best product possible rather than simply cashing in on a hot property. Take producer Walter Shenson, for instance. Some years after making Inner Sanctum, he eyed another cultural phenomenon that he knew had box office potential -- yet took enough care with so that despite it being a low-budget black & white picture, would still be a class act that won critical plaudits everywhere: A Hard Day's Night. It's easy to make great movies, right?

I almost forgot to let you know how Inner Sanctum resolves. When last we see of Harold and Jean, they're sitting on a porch swing. Despite knowing that Harold just tried to murder Michael again, Jean still waxes romantic about running away with him. But Harold is tired of running; all he wants to do is wait for the police to do their duty. And another chance with this blonde dish goes blooey. There's something off about this guy, alright.

But then we return to where we began, on the train with Marie and Dr. Valonius. And... No, I can't reveal the ending. It comes completely out of left field yet... Well, suffice it to say that the next time I'm on Amtrak, I'm going to pay attention to someone who predicts the future.

                                            ******************
There are several copies of Inner Sanctum on YouTube. The complete print, running 62 minutes, is here.