Monday, November 25, 2013

BAD GIRL (1931)

More than adultery, boredom or installing the toilet paper roll so that it goes under instead of over, miscommunication is the number one disruptor of marriages. It's remarkable how often spouses can hold increasingly-edgy conversations without realizing what the hell the other is really talking about. And when I say "spouses," I'm referring to my own marriage.

That miscommunication is the entire premise behind Bad Girl, right down to the title. One of this blog's rare Oscar-winners (for direction and writing) Bad Girl promised the usual sexy pre-code elements: risque chatter, cigarettes, bathtub gin, a token gay character, violence and, if I was lucky, a reference to reefer or happy dust. It was a promise broken.


DOT: "I love when you call me insulting names."
EDDIE: "Thanks, jerkwad."

Instead, it tells the story of Dot (Sally Eilers), a New York working girl who's sick of men hitting on her. So when Eddie (James Dunn), a radio repairman, doesn't give her a tumble, she falls in love with him. (Already, it sounds like a Jennifer Aniston/Vince Vaughn rom-com.) A hard-boiled kind of a guy, Eddie can't bring himself to say anything resembling "I love you." In fact, two of his cuter nicknames for Dot are "Stupid" and "Unconscious." I'm not convinced my wife would have appreciated those terms of endearment when we started dating, but that's further proof of how women have changed over the years.

I've only got eyes for that cool radio
in the rear.
Either Dot can see through his exterior or she's yearning for a sadomasochistic relationship, because after making love for the first time, she accepts his marriage proposal. This doesn't go over well with her brother, who calls her "a tramp," and is convinced that this is "one of those rush marriages." That's the kind of pre-code stuff I was waiting for! It took a while, but now I was looking forward to plenty of despair, adultery, and all the other pleasures of cinematic marriages.

Dot obviously doesn't remember
that boxers in old movies always
 wear a bandage over their eyebrow.

I was to be sadly disappointed. These two crazy kids are in love -- but not enough to have a simple, honest conversation. Dot's pregnant, but can't tell him. He thinks she wants to move out of their one-room flat, so he blows his savings -- which he was going to use to open his own radio repair shop -- on a fancy apartment for them. She thinks he doesn't want a child, so she pretends to feel likewise, leading him to pretend likewise. To pay for the doctor, Eddie takes up boxing for extra money, but doesn't want to tell Dot, so she thinks he's out carousing with the boys. Then when the kid is finally born, Eddie pretends not to care because he thinks Dot doesn't care, so she gets depressed...


Get the picture? Like, there would be no picture if, just once, Dot and Eddie just took five minutes to ask each other, "What's going on?" instead of acting on wildly specious speculation? By the time they come to their senses (after wrongly believing their baby had died), I was hoping, Well, maybe now their new found happiness will be disrupted by
Wipe those smiles off your faces!
real tragedy. Like, say, when riding home in a cab from the hospital they'd get into an accident and the kid really bites the dust. And their marriage falls apart and Dot finally becomes that titular bad girl by going the streetwalker route, leading to her to die of consumption in Eddie's arms when he finds her coughing up blood in a back alley on the West Side. Now we've got a movie!
That's not the way things work out, though. What Dot and Eddie experience instead is a realization of their true feelings for each other, followed by a  kiss, a fadeout, and two or three minutes of the restored post-credit exit music under a black screen. Oh man. What a washout of a movie.
Frank and Oscar

Well, no, not really. Thanks to Frank Borzage's sympathetic direction and Edwin J. Burke's snappy dialogue, Bad Girl rises to a level that a similar movie could never achieve. Borzage, at the time one of Fox Studio's great directors and an expert at romantic dramas, makes you care about Dot and Eddie despite the absurdity of their situation. They're not stupid, just victims of their own battered personalities: Dot, by not knowing how to trust men, and Eddie, by knowing nothing but unhappy couples and families. A fine scene during their first date shows them in Dot's tenement hallway, interrupted by a middle-aged couple arguing off-screen and, a moment later, an older woman facing a death in the family. Borzage allows each of these mini-dramas play out in single takes, never laying on the action too thick, allowing Eddie to remember why he's preferred to live a solitary life -- even if deep down he would rather be with a good woman.

Dot, too, has always been single, spurning men's advances with icy putdowns. As she tells her friend Edna, "When they deliver baloney to my door, I always give them a receipt."  Yet upon meeting Eddie -- and voicing her complaints about amorous men -- he dishes it out in a nastily amusing comeback:


You tell her, Eddie!
If you don't want them to flirt with you, whaddaya dressed like that for? You wear those clothes for what? To show off the curves of your body. Look at the dress  -- what's it cut so low for? Yeah, so some guy can get an eyeful. And your dress is deliberately made to blow up over your knees. Listen, sister -- if you don't want guys to salute ya, take down your flag.

That's better than Hamlet's soliloquy. I mean, don't you wish you talked that way?


"Let's put up a sliding board into
the East River while we're at it!"
Little unspoken touches elevate Bad Girl from the silly melodrama it could have been. Eddie's radio is old even in 1931, visual proof that he's saving his money. The sink in Dot and Eddie's first apartment is in the living room. The rooftop of Dot and Eddie's new apartment features a realistic view of the Queensboro Bridge. Dot, by the way, believes the roof would be a wonderful place for children to play. Upper East Side mothers today would self-righteously disagree.

Might a different cast made a difference in Bad Girl? It's difficult to say. While quite the looker, Sally Eilers' personality pales beside, say, that of Bette Davis, who was getting her start in Hollywood about the same time. James Dunn lacks the depth of, say, James Cagney or Lee Tracy, either of whom could have done more with the same
Take it from them:
men are no damn good.
character, if not the script itself. 
Only Minna Gombel, who could best be described as a proto-Eve Arden, commands a level of realism as Dot's blunt pal Edna, upping Eilers' game in their scenes together. One of Bad Girl's best moments consists of the two reminiscing about the unreliable men they've known, leading to a laughing/crying jag that would probably strike a note of uncomfortable realism for more than a few women today. (Unless I wasn't paying attention, Edna's relationship with the little boy she lives with was never explained. Is he her brother? Illegitimate son? The director's nephew?)

And yet... the sheer likeability of Sally Eilers and James Dunn cannot be denied. Yes, their characters' self-defeating behavior is often annoying, at times disturbing. But they're not bad people, just a couple of souls so battered by life that, even when they fall in love, withdrawal is the only way they can deal with one other. As with the title Bad Girl itself, Dot and Eddie are selling themselves one way while disguising the reality that lies beneath. You know, the way humans often do. 

But damn, I sure wanted to see that bad girl I was promised.




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If you've never heard of the above-mentioned Lee Tracy, you might want to read about two of his more interesting movies by clicking here and here.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

RAWHIDE (1938)

Distant as it seems now, there was a time when Westerns were probably the most popular B-movie genre. Rarely straying from the simple good guy/bad guy plots, often with a couple songs thrown in by the hero, these "oaters" (as they were known in the trade) brought the kids in by the wagonful every Saturday. In fact, the only thing that could rival them for kids' loyalty was baseball. So leave it to producer Sol Lesser to cash in double by producing Rawhide, starring that pistol-packin', sharpshootin' cowpoke Lou Gehrig. Yes, that Lou Gehrig. (The credits read that Gehrig's appearance was "by arrangement with Christy Walsh." Walsh was the first sports agent, and the credit was a free commercial on top of whatever Gehrig, and maybe the producer, were paying him. These days, Walsh would have demanded a producer credit, a new Lamborghini and a sterling silver cocaine tray.)

Smith Ballew chokes on his
bandana.
Probably the cheapest-looking feature ever released by 20th Century-Fox, Rawhide proves, if there was any doubt, that Gehrig was a born baseball player. Sol Lesser himself must have known that Gehrig couldn't carry a movie, even if he was playing himself. Enter cowboy actor Smith Ballew to carry to the heavy load and sing three of the four songs crammed into Rawhide's 58-minute running time. All "The Iron Horse" had to do was memorize some dialogue no more complicated than your average Golden Book, ride a horse without making a fool of himself and work in a couple of baseball bits. Yet if it hadn't been for Gehrig, Rawhide would have gone even further down the memory hole than it has already. It's an irony similar to that of another 1938 release, Religious Racketeers featuring Mrs. Harry Houdini. Only she never had a batting average of .340.


There's no need for a deep analysis of Rawhide's psychological intrigue; this caption on the back of an original Rawhide still will suffice:
No Mourning Becomes Electra, this.

Gehrig dares the reporters to
laugh at his get-up.
People who have heard Gehrig's voice only in his legendary farewell speech might find it a little jolting when he first opens his mouth, sounding as he does more like John Gotti than the idols of millions. "Take it or leave it, I'm t'rough wit' baseball," he barks at reporters before boarding a train at Grand Central Terminal. When a cynical scribe reminds him of the cheering crowds and excitement of the big city he'll be leaving behind, Gehrig replies, "Dat's just what I wanna get away from. I had all o' dat. I'm gonna wallow in peace an' quiet for da rest of my life." This guy was a real old-school New Yorker.


Big deal. Today's athletes use real
guns to shoot each other.
The ol' tenderfoot-out-West routine is played for all it's worth, which isn't very much. After trying unsuccessfully to put on a pair of spurs, Gehrig (or, rather, his stuntman) is thrown off his horse the first time he tries to ride -- all accompanied by appropriately "funny" music featuring empathetic oboes. Soon getting the hang of things, he (or, rather, his stunt singer) even handles a verse of Smith Ballew's number, "When a Cowboy Goes to Town." The singing voice doesn't come within an outfield of Gehrig's, but this being a more innocent time, most of the kiddies in the audience probably swallowed it as happily they did the popcorn. Fast-forward to today's swallow-anything concertgoers, who have no problem with paying $350 to watch their favorite idol lipsynch. Thanks, Lou, for setting the trend.


Gehrig throws an eight-ball slider.
At some point all this horseplay wasn't going to be enough for sports fans in the audience -- and, really, who else was going to pay good money to see Lou Gehrig act? Nope, Lou had to give his fans what they came to see. A poolroom fight (certainly no sports hero would ever be caught in a barroom) allows Gehrig to pitch a few poolballs at the bad guys' heads. Later on, stumbling across a sandlot baseball game, he deliberately hits a homer into the window of Ed Saunders, a desperado ripping off the local ranchers.

Saunders assures a rancher, "If you like your
barbed-wire fence, you can keep your
barbed-wire fence."
Ed Saunders is one really bad galoot. Having temporarily taken over the Ranchers Protective Association from the honest but ailing L.G. McDonnell, Saunders hires a bunch of goons to force the locals to buy their supplies from him. Had he been smart, he'd have called it the Affordable Ranching Act. McDonnell is being treated by a doctor -- on Saunders' payroll -- with a "medicine" helpfully labeled POISON. Saunders would like the quack to finish the old guy off once and for all, but laments, "He's one of those guys with scruples."  We've already learned that the doctor isn't allowed to practice "back in Chicago" anymore -- 1930s movie code meaning anything from malpractice to performing illegal abortions -- so you'd have to wonder what kind of scruples he's talking about. I mean, it's pretty difficult to confuse POISON with CIPROFLOXACIN anyway.

Smith Ballew takes umbrage at being called
a Gene Autry clone.
And speaking of killing people, there's violence a-plenty in Rawhide. I counted a dozen gunshot victims, while Gehrig beans five or six more at the poolroom. Buckboards are hijacked, property burned, horses tumble off the road -- you'd think Rahm Emmanuel was the mayor. And as with the old Roy Rogers Show, anachronistic touches run throughout Rawhide. Cowpokes ride their horses along the town's dusty main street, then go into their offices and make phone calls. Everyone dresses like it's 1872, but Lou Freaking Gehrig just bought the ranch down the road. On the other hand, I use chopsticks to eat Chinese food when I have a perfectly fine set of 21st-century silverware, so who am I to talk?

The cowboy cliches come fast and thick in Rawhide. The old, toothless Gabby Hayes-
Saunders and Kimball play a round of
"Can You Top This Banality?"
wannabe called Pop. Saunders' ornery thug named -- what else -- Butch. One conversation at the poolroom between Saunders and Larry Kimball (Smith Ballew) overflows with bromides:
KIMBALL: There's an old saying, Saunders. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

SAUNDERS: I know another old saying. If you play with fire, you're gonna get burned. Keep on trying to throw a monkey-wrench into me and you're gonna wind up right there, behind the eight-ball. 

All they needed was "a stitch in time saves nine" and "a watched pot never boils" and everybody could have gone home for the day.

Although a native of Texas, Smith Ballew definitely was a step away from the likes of his
"Yo, Lou -- mind if you eat somewhere
else so I can give your sister a little
pulled pork of my own?"
fellow singing cowboys. Unlike the nasal twang of Gene Autry or the baritone of Roy Rogers, Ballew's pleasant crooning style harkens back to his earlier career as a jazz singer. Evalyn Knapp -- the "pretty girl" from the photo caption above -- plays Gehrig's sister Peggy. But her main job is providing a romantic interest for Ballew, which no little boy in his right mind watching Rawhide would have stood for. History doesn't record what Lou Gehrig thought about interacting onscreen with a sister that he didn't have in real life. I'd like to think they had an affair, just for the ewww factor.

Rawhide was released in April, 1938, the beginning of what was to be Lou Gehrig's final full season as a professional baseball player. By the time he said his goodbyes, his one movie role had been forgotten, which was probably for the best. His personality in Rawhide is as flat as the Texas plains; his diction reflects the street-tough Yorkville neighborhood where he was born; and the script certainly didn't do him any favors. But speaking as a decidedly non-sports fan, every second he was onscreen all I could think was, "My God, that's Lou Gehrig in this movie." As it was in 1938, that's all that matters today.

 As for Rawhide's finale, once Smith and Lou put the Saunders' gang behind bars, Gehrig finally gets to wallow in peace and quiet like he always wanted -- until he receives a telegram from the Yankees informing him that they've agreed to his salary demands. Before you can say "you're out," Lou is on his feet and packing his bags, his alleged "retirement" nothing but a ploy to get a raise. Try that gag at work sometime, see how well it works.

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

RELIGIOUS RACKETEERS (1938)

Well, it looks like all those saps who didn't believe the warnings put forth by Sucker Money -- tu wit, paranormal activities are a bunch of egregious hooey -- needed another lesson five years later. The more blatantly-titled Religious Racketeers goes down the same finger-wagging road, only with a lower budget and more outlandish storyline. Oh, and an appearance by the 61 year-old widow of Harry Houdini, the only person in the cast with a name that was familiar even in 1938. Considering this was her only movie role, it does no good to her reputation that it had to be in what would be described by scientists as "claptrap." On the other hand, she's the only thing outside of the title that would get anyone interested in Religious Racketeers today. (The headline on the left gets not only gets the title slightly wrong, but makes it seem like Mrs. Houdini herself is the racketeer in question.)

Like his fellow charlatan in Sucker Money, Religious Racketeers' Louis LaGagge
LaGagge surrenders to the ridiculous
script (and costume).
specializes in fleecing gullible women out of their money by preying on their emotional distress. (Today, he'd be a shoe designer.) With his sidekick Harvey Wilson, LaGagge zeroes in on millionaire steel heiress Martha Morgan as his next big payday. When he seductively promises her, "Tonight, we contact the great beyond," you expect him to add slyly, "If you know what I mean, heh heh."

Aware that reporter Elliot Cole is on his trail, LaGagge persuades Martha into going to Egypt to meet another swami -- LaGagge in disguise. That is, if you can call his atrocious black beard a disguise. It's more of a distraction, as you sit there wondering, How many voles did they have to kill to make that thing?  

"This Christmas, sweetie,
you give me something -- starting
with all your money."
Cole tracks them down, forcing LeGagge to scram to India, where Martha is to meet another mystic (you-know-who with a Santa Claus beard). I was hoping that LaGagge would eventually flee to China just to see what racially-insulting outfit he'd come up with next. Instead, he takes the logical step of freezing Cole in a block of ice and throwing him in the Ganges to drown. (Why use a gun when you can drag around someone ensconced inside a six-foot square ice cube?)  Cole survives -- we never learn how -- and returns to save Martha. By now, LaGagge has fallen in love with her, and wants to return her money. But Wilson, who oxymoronically warned LaGagge to run the scam "on the level," kills him and absconds with the dough, only to be captured when returning to America. If only he went to Pakistan dressed as a guru, he'd have made a clean break.   
Why make good money running the lights
of a Broadway show when you can work for
a fly-by-night scam artist?
For a guy who's in need of money, LaGagge certainly has no trouble traveling to exotic lands. Whether in a tent in Egypt or a makeshift temple in India, this guy has enough props to supply a movie studio. Even more baffling is Cole's knack for finding LaGagge halfway around the world. Not only is he blessed with a nose for news, he must have a hell of an expense account.



Too bad Religious Racketeers' set designer didn't have a tenth of the money flowing through the movie. A scene in a graveyard is represented by plaster-of-Paris tombstones in front of an oversize picture of a cemetery. In Egypt, LaGagge's tent is pitched in front of a photograph of the Sphinx. (A live camel gives the best performance.) By the time they got to India, I was looking forward to seeing a snapshot of the Taj Mahal to set the mood, but had to settle for flimsy set of downtown New Delhi, represented by a couple of storefronts and a streetlamp. If it wasn't for the extras with tablecloths around their waists, it could pass for Kansas City.

"Why, sure I'm Arab! I'm in
Arabia, ain't I?"
How low is Religious Racketeers' budget? The director didn't even bother providing  sand in the Egyptian scenes, allowing the cast walk on the noisy stage floor instead. And anyone who'd fall for the cheesy disguises LaGagge pulls out of his trunk deserves to get fleeced. Wilson, in particular, looks as Arab as Leo Gorcey.

Martha swoons at the way Ada
handles such hamfisted dialogue.


The budget woes appear to have affected the number of takes the director could shoot as well. Informed that Cole has found Martha's hotel,  LaGagge asks Wilson, "Did he see her -- I mean, talk to her?" It's rather shocking that he could screw up that line, when the woman playing Martha's friend Ada (Betty Compson) perfectly recites tongue-twisters like, "You should see him in the temple, when he surrenders himself to spiritual communication." I couldn't even memorize that. A decade earlier, Ms. Compson was pulling down $5,000 a week at Paramount. She was now reduced to Poverty Row ventures like Religious Racketeers thanks to her former husband's financial shenanigans -- none of which included gazing into crystal balls or pretending to gab with the dead. Where was Hollywood Racketeers when you needed it?

For a movie that's supposed to be a warning against spiritual shams, Religious Racketeers sure gives a terrific crash course on how to play the game. Every few minutes, LaGagge carefully explains to Wilson how to reel in the suckers, get them to fall in love with you, then persuade them to hand over all their cash. I wonder how many people considered this an instructional movie.

"Harry, you never talk to me!"
If so, it would have been a special irony for Bess Houdini. Her husband being a well-known skeptic of all things occult, the Widow Houdini's role as herself was something of an imprimatur for the movie's message. Early on, having failed for a decade to contact her late husband, Bess intones, "This proves he was right, for if it was possible, I would have had some sign from him in the past ten years." Yeah, a sign that read DON'T MAKE THAT CHEESY MOVIE! Billed in Religious Racketeers' credits as "Mme. Harry Houdini" like some kind of royalty, she has only two brief scenes, one of which is unfortunately edited to almost nothing in current video versions -- a disappearing act that her husband would not have approved of. 
"Call me Fanch."

Religious Racketeers' producer, Fanchon Royer, released a dozen other bottom-of-the-bill movies during the '30s, with captivating titles including Neighbors' Wives, Trapped in Tia Juana and Alimony Madness, making her ripe for another go-round on this blog. Moving to Mexico in the 1940s, Ms. Royer remade herself as an author of religious biographies. One of her subjects, Padre Pio, is said to have possessed a trunkful of mystical skills, including talking to angels, physically combating Satan and being in two places at once. That Ms. Royer could accept all this unhesitatingly while having produced a movie called Religious Racketeers would be amusing to many.

                                                       ***********************
 To read about Sucker Money, go here.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

THE PHANTOM (1931)

So easy is it to watch certain (read: cheap) old movies with an oh-so sophisticated smirk that it makes one wonder what the original audiences thought of them, especially in comparison to major studio productions of the time. Take 1931, which saw the release of, among others, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Monkey Business, Frankenstein, Guilty Hands, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, City Lights, The Last Flight and from Germany, M, The Threepenny Opera and Kameradschaft. Having watched all 12 of these, I can assure you that if those were the only movies you saw that year, you would have been satisfied. 


Then there's The Phantom, one of those 
non-classics where absolutely nothing makes sense. Presented by some dubious outfit called Action Dramas, The Phantom might have tested even the staunchest movie fan's tolerance for entertainment. A crime/mystery/thriller hybrid, it isn't bad per se. I mean, for my money, it's better than Avatar. But when you consider its director, Alan James, had already shot over three dozen movies by this point in his career, you kind of wonder why The Phantom looks like his first effort -- or earlier than his first, if such a thing is possible. Edits so abrupt that some shots are almost subliminal; shaky camerawork; actors speaking with ellipses... between... every... word; stagey blocking; scenes shot silent only to have dialogue and sound effects added afterwards. Was this thing made in 1927 and kept on the shelf four years? And let's not forget classic dialogue like this:

MAN: (pointing to his house) He's in there!
COP: You don't mean he's in the house?! 

The plot -- no, make that the things that happen for an hour -- concerns a condemned prisoner nicknamed The Phantom who escapes from prison and threatens the life of
Dick Mallory realizes that using his
fiancee as bait  to catch a madman might not be
the best move.

District Attorney John Hampton. A strange masked man appears at Hampton's house and attempts to kidnap his daughter Ruth. Ruth's fiance Dick Mallory, a reporter, shows up just in time to save her. Dick and Ruth chase the masked man to Dr. Weldon's insane asylum, where Ruth is brought to an operating room so Weldon can perform an experimental brain surgery on her -- which would be welcomed by anyone in the audience by now. The cops eventually arrive to put an end to this folderol.

You could create a new Grand Canyon with all The Phatom's plot-holes.
The butler eavesdrops on a
conversation because it's in the script.
The title character, who's supposed to be on death row, somehow climbs a high, flat prison wall to escape without anyone noticing, then jumps on top of a passing train before being picked up by a biplane. Dick Mallory, who's never visited Hampton's house, finds his way through its maze of secret passages, an interesting touch I've never seen on any of those home-remodeling shows my wife is always watching. And while the house itself is guarded by cops, people break in easier than if they walked through the front door. It takes the climactic arrival of Dick's editor, Sam Crandall (who's secretly in love with Ruth) to identify Weldon as the Phantom, thus continuing the smart reporter/dumb cop meme we've discussed before. Oh, and there's Hampton's butler whose only job is to act suspicious. How did the writer ever get this piece of claptrap to the director? Because it was the same guy!
How is it that rich people hire such stupid help?

And it wouldn't be a B-mystery without comic relief, although with a movie like The Phantom, it's difficult to discern just what it's relieving us from. Tedium?  Disbelief? Hampton's butler and maid, Shorty and Lucy, exist to run around in a panic, scream and, in general, aggravate the audience every chance they get. I recognized Shorty, or rather one-eyed actor Bobby Dunn, as the kleptomaniac from Laurel & Hardy's Tit for Tat, so he was worth a few minutes of my time. The actress playing Lucy (whose name, Violet Knights, sounds like a pushover football team) is a different matter altogether. "Screechy" doesn't do justice to her voice. Is there a word for "driving one to suicide"? Even by B-standards, Knights' performance is intolerable. How did such a "talent" get hired for The Phantom? Perhaps it helped that her brother was Alan James -- you remember, the writer/director of The Phantom. Thanks, bro!

Sadly, I'm starting to resemble him.

But for sheer weirdness, nobody beats William Jackie as Oscar the mental patient. Ridiculously tall and gangly with birdlike features, Jackie anticipates John Cleese's silly-walk routine by a good 40 years. His delivery, at once effeminate, garbled and hilariously stilted, would be condemned by any number of minority groups today. I couldn't figure out what accent he was attempting -- or if it was an accent at all -- until a quick "Yah, sure" signaled that Oscar was supposed to be Swedish. (In this respect, the producers were probably trying to evoke Fox Pictures' resident Swedish dialectician El Brendel, the unfunniest comic actor of his time.) Jackie's performance is utterly bizarre and unique to low-budget indies like this.  And as for why he uses a Swedish accent -- well, it's right there in the 1931 edition of the Shortcuts to Cheap Movie Laffs: "Nothing's funnier than some psycho Swede talking about the story of 'Yack and Yill.'" 

"This is how I wowed 'em on the rialto back in 1889."
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Sheldon Lewis as the mysterious masked figure identified in the credits as The Thing. With a scarf pulled above his nose, his eyeballs imitating Ping-Pong balls being hit back and forth by spastics, and long fingers quivering like octopus tentacles, Lewis -- born in 1868 -- appears not to have learned any acting style developed later than the Spanish-American War. The star of the original 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde -- a one-reel short that insultingly presented the story as only a nightmare -- Lewis was by this time a dime-store Lon Chaney, specializing in strange characters with bad teeth. Other than grunting a few hammy heh-heh-heh's, he plays The Thing minus dialogue. Lucky him.

President Big Boy
In this gallery of oddballs, bad actors and 19th-century relics, Guinn Williams, as Dick Mallory, stands out not so much for his acting skills but simple normality. Billed here as "Big Boy" Williams, he's the only actor in The Phantom who gives something resembling a good performance, even if he has nothing but stupid lines to recite. Fortunately, he went on to become a fine character actor, mainly in Westerns, at Warner Brothers, where he was one of Errol Flynn's drinking buddies. A disconcerting thing about the Texas-born Williams, however, is that throughout The Phantom, he eerily resembles George W. Bush both physically and vocally. I almost expected him to announce the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in the insane asylum.

Surprising for an ancient Poverty Row release, current prints of The Phantom are pretty crisp, probably because they haven't seen the inside of a projector since Hoover was president. Too, the audio track is free of the usual hiss and crackles. Soft squeaks of chairs are audible, as are ambient, off-camera sounds from the set itself -- perhaps the footsteps of the collection agency representative come to repossess the props. Best scene: the escape from prison via train and biplane, shot on location without phony special effects. Even the wobbly camerawork atop the train makes it that much more exciting. Take that, CGI!

So what did critics think of The Phantom in 1931? It's impossible to say. B-movies like this rarely, if ever, got reviewed. One look at that action-packed movie poster atop this page was likely enough to rope in interested audiences, though. And when you consider that it was probably supported by a comedy short, newsreel, cartoon and possibly a live vaudeville act, a silly movie like The Phantom would be remembered as a grand evening's entertainment. That is, until you thought about it afterwards. Like the scene when, a minute after Walden is arrested, editor Sam Crandall arranges for his article on what just transpired to run with Mallory's byline -- an article he must have written before knowing all the details. And how could Ruth claim that The Thing mentioned Dr. Weldon to her when he didn't say a word throughout the movie? And what happens to all the patients at the insane asylum now that Weldon is arrested? And why didn't the cops recognize him as the Phantom to begin with? And how did he climb up a flat, 50-foot prison wall to make his escape? 

And -- this is important -- who did Alan James sleep with to become a director?

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