1941 - Universal **1/2
It's confusingly titled since the Ulmer 1934 is the Black Cat as far as every horror fan in the world is concerned, but this name-only version has charms of its own, hampered (unless you've a benign tolerance for idiots) by insurance salesman Broderick Crawford's spazz and bluster and the endless tut-tutting of Hugh Herbert. The climax exemplifies Griffith's dictum re: you don't crosscut from the heroine about to be grilled in a cat crematorium, Perils of Pauline-style, to old Hugh Herbert fiddling around with old lamps and screwdrivers laughing to himself like a simpleton, since it creates a feeling of rage rather than suspense in the viewer (his exact words, I swear!) Another rule: never turn your back on someone after you've accused them of murder, especially when you're alone with them inside a secret, soundproof chamber. Luckily there's Basil Rathbone (as a greedy heir) and the dialogue's so rattattat one gets the whiff of amphetamines in the air. However, unlike Howard Hawk's ingenious use of overlapping dialogue, here they have to wait for the other person to finish their lines, if you'll forgive the expression, so there's a weird disconnect, as it takes longer to go a shorter distance even while moving twice as fast. More stuff happens in the first half hour of this CAT than in six ordinary old dark house films, yet it never really goes very far in any one direction.
In addition to Basil Rathbone ("who does he think he is, Sherlock Holmes?" quips Brod), the package of greedy heirs include a young and very surly Alan Ladd! Would that Veronica Lake was around to chill Crawford's kinetic spazzing, although even the spazzing has some worth, like when he jumps off a second floor balcony and lands in the mud in a single wacky take, precluding (I presume) use of a stunt double. After flying through the air and tackling an empty suit of armor or the wrong guy five times in a row, though, you'd think he might hesitate the smallest bit with his wild accusations the next time a single whiff of red herring catches his dopey blue collar nose. But not unlike the Ritz Brothers' Gorilla movie, if you're mood is undiscriminating there are worse things out there: this Cat has even more secret passages and panels than usual for this sort of thing, the cat sculpture and its surrounding marble mausoleum are gorgeous, and there's two hangings! Interesting since one couldn't show anyone hanging in 1941, and they weave around that issue by showing her dangling legs reflected in the mirror... for a surprisingly long take.
As far as red herrings (or are they?) Gale Sondergaard is good as always as the sinister catkeeper (the old lady wants to keep her house a cat sanctuary after she dies), but poor Bela is literally stuck out in the cold as the shaggy groundskeeper. Clearly they wanted his name in the credits but didn't want to deal with him except through a second unit. Was it the morphine or just his infamous temperament that regaled him to these wasted parts at Universal all through the 40s? I would like to see one movie, just one, where Bela has a girlfriend. Why couldn't he be married to Sondergaard or something? Actually there is one film where a girl likes Bela, Monogram's otherwise unwatchable BLACK DRAGONS... Bela, you shall be... avenged! (Rattle metal thunder sheet and flicker the lights)
1941 - Universal - *1/2
There are a lot of things wrong from the start with Horror Island: squeaky clean Dick Foran in a Popeye-style sailor man suit struggling to pay for his boat; As Dick's dimwit first mate, Fuzzy Knight makes Andy Devine seem like like Errol Flynn, but even worse is Leo Carrillo's shameless overplaying as a Spanish pirate. The three are bound to seek some gold on a remote island, but need money for the expedition so they market it as an adventure expedition ("twenty million in Spanish gold!"). Signing up is wiseacre heiress Peggy Moran, her drowsy playboy companion, and some other tourists. After some on-deck skullduggery they land on a rocky coasted island and an old mansion and then 'yawn' finally murder, ghostly howls, and the dusty suits of armor that m-m-ma-move by themselves. Simmer for 30 more minutes of tepid candle-lit corridor creeping and, Mister, you got yourself a bland comedy-mystery cliche stew. Worse even, a lot of the spook happenings turn out to be fake, and we never really know which are the real scares until the sound guy gets killed and the scares keep coming. Needless to say, all concerned seek the hidden treasure, and a sinister shadow in a slouch hat add to the studio enforced and censor-scrubbed 'fun.'
Some like this film though, probably because they saw it as very young kids... it has a chapter in the Guilty Pleasures (Vol. 1 - Midnight Marquee)which I think is out of print. It should be enough to know that it's there, in the book, and that some writer likes it. I say if you just relax into the film and take it as a bunch of vaguely connected shots of young men and women in dreary wartime fashions and homogenized pirate costumes skeedaddling in and out of secret panels and conking each other on the back of the head, maybe you can muddle through.
There is one bright spot: Moran's effete rich pal, Thurston Coldwater (Lewis Howard), who lounges around and makes droll wry comments like an anesthetized Waldo Lydecker. He can do wonders with a line like "Listen, my impetuous young friend," and he has the last joke. Why didn't he star?!?!
1932 - RKO ***1/2
Where has this gem been all my life? Now it's on WB's Archive Collection where the image seems ever-so slightly squeezed so everyone looks super thin but who cares? So glad to have it around. Karen Morley (the moll from another 1932 gem, Scarface) shows why she deserves to be on the cover of the best film criticism book ever written (Manny at the Movies) with her scene-swipingly slithery performance as no-bones gold digger Jenny Wren, who's decided to retire and intends blackmailing all her rich ex and present lovers in one fell swoop, gathering them at a remote mansion at midnight, along with their wives, if any, her own shrewd maid, a colorful drunk, and bearable comic relief. Jenny's retirement is prompted, we learn, via groundbreaking whirlwind flashbacks, to some naive rich kid college boy leaping from a cliff after she dumped him (she learned he'd been cut off financially because of her). Then his ghostly face appears unto her on the balcony, and then she's dead.
On hand is Ricardo Cortez as a slickster hired by an unseen party to retrieve some incriminating love letters from her suitcase. He knows the coppers will pin her murder on him so he sets out to solve the mystery before the law can fix the ubiquitous washed-out bridge. The ending, on a foggy cliff with a single engine police plane coming in overhead, and the two guys walking off into the fog, foreshadows the similar end of Casablanca!! Was Curtiz a Karen Morley fan? I sure am, after this movie. The pre-code era is full of B-list actresses who almost all pattern their gold diggers after Jean Harlow or Peggy Hopkins Joyce, but Morley is herself, with that uniquely flat, nasal, slightly sing-song voice that immortalized such lines as "you work fast, don't you Tony?" and "I don't like cigar smoke in my room-duya-mind?" in Scarface.
The photography should also be noted for being supremely shadowy, nearly to Von Sternbergian levels, but with (in this case, Spanish-style) old dark house acoutrements -- secret passage, clues, complex motive crosswork -- instead of masochism and feathers. We learn in the beginning that the ending was chosen via a contest over the radio (after a serial of six chapters), but that hardly seems relevant today, or even likely in reality. Either way it's my new favorite. And I didn't even mention Hilda Vaughn as Morely's awesome, slightly Sapphic maid. She may be the coolest maid in all pre-code, almost a Leporello-level co-conspirator rather than a mere servant.
1936 - Puritan Pictures - **
Detective Wallace Ford wants to marry Babara Pepper quickly so they head to a remote lodge the next state over (where its presumably easier) to meet a preacher. A gaggle of suspicious types mill in the lobby of this remote lodge, and then a dog bares his fangs on cue at certain windows and soon, sans preacher, they're all locked in by a mysterious killer. Suspects include a cabal of diamond smugglers, an old coot in a wheelchair and, I forget who elsezzz but there are worse ways to doze off than in front of an old dark house mystery, as long as you wake up in time to marvel at the sustained crazy killer monologue finale.
Please note also the big fireplace in the lobby / lounge / tavern, which apparently is a mainstay of RKO-Pathe, the soundstage chosen 2-1 by fly-by-nite indie outfits like our film's releasing company, 'Puritan Pictures.' When at RKO-Pathe, make sure to build your set around the big fireplace, if it's available. You won't regret it.
Unfortunately when the fireplace is the film's best asset, you're headed nowhere fast; Pepper's character has that post-code nag problem where instead of just telling Ford what she's seen out the window, i.e. fangs, murders, she hems and haws and stammers like Lou Costello while Ford's busy cross-examining the rogues, and he's reluctant to listen to her, thinking she's just making some excuse to monopolize his time. Why doesn't she just tell him right off instead of saying "c-c-c-can you come here a m-m-minute?" Of course he brushes her off and since it's post-code she lingers and whines and schemes to get his mind back on the preacher and the marriage. The DVD is on Alpha and is pretty blurred. But I don't think clarity would help. The fog of booze on the other hand, just might.
1935 - Mascot Pictures - **1/2
A dark and stormy night, a crotchety old man (Charley Grapewin) gathering his greedy heirs to read the will, secret passages, a spooky mask, and a long lost blonde granddaughter who shows up last minute to inherit everything, down to the last measly million. What a dumb clause if you want your granddaughter to survive the night!! Luckily an imposter dies first, not unlike what happens in THE MONSTER WALKS (1932 - see Old Dark Capsules 1).
But ONE DARK NIGHT is a little more lively and ape-free than MONSTER WALKS, better even without Mischa Auer but saddled instead with the inescapable Wallace Ford. He plays a Vaudeville magician named 'the Great Lavalle,' whose car conveniently breaks down near the old mansion during the storm. His assistant (Mary Carlisle) just so happens to be the real granddaughter heiress. The old man believes her because she refuses to have anything to do with him or his filthy money. Meanwhile there are poison darts, Hindi sculptures, and a line-up of suspects who all must sooner or later tangle with the usual carload of clueless, gun-jumping cops. Rafaela Ottiano (the human trafficker in SHE DONE HIM WRONG) is the maid; Arthur Hohl and Hedda Hopper (you heard me) are suspects. Ford has no interest in Carlisle except as a pal and assistant, which is unusual, so she upgrades to Regis Toomey, despite the fact he may be the killer.
FRIGHTENED has been a fall-asleep C-level favorite of mine for years in a more truncated version than the somewhat blurry Alpha DVD (I had taped it in the early 80s off the old PBS show Matinee at the Bijou). I even used footage from it in my cynically unclaimed 2009 smashed hit, CURSE OF THE MALE GAZE (Carlisle stands in for Laura Mulvey). What better way, perhaps, to close this capsule collection than to present it now?
See Old Dark Capsules 1 here (with OLD DARK HOUSE, CAT AND THE CANARY, THE GHOUL, THE MONSTER WALKS, THE GHOUL)