Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle (with fuzzy corners)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


As I've written in the past, 1933 was a magical year for movies, and America: it saw the election of FDR, the repeal of prohibition, and 'ahem' the rise of Hitler into power (that last part, not so magical but the war effort did lift us out of the Great Depression). At any rate -- change was afoot, probably akin to our modern years of Obama, legalization of marijuana, and gay marriage. Or worse, or better. And I myself turn to old dark house movies every May or so, because they understand hay fever, the way allergies imitate the first signs of a cold and make the bright sunny day with the calla lillies in bloom again seem a jeweled scorpion, glistening shiny chitinous flowers on the outside and stinging venom within; and by contrast murky AC darkness an opium den refuge of creaking doors, whistling wind and hands coming out from secret panels behind oblivious heiresses. Maybe it's that May is on the opposite end of the year from Halloween, and as such I can see it clear across the circle. Here's five from '33, with my ratings for both film itself and, since they vary so crazily in quality, the transfers I, at least, have seen.

1933 - Dir Albert Ray
** (Retromedia DVD- *1/2)

This weird Allied Pictures cheapie is one of those castaway flicks so big in the silent and early sound era, providing as they did an excuse for (partially obscured) nude bathing, reversion to savagery, (inexpensive) beach locations and ye olde gorilla suit. The castaways always include one rich lady unaccustomed to 'roughing it,' a sea dog who does the roughing, a virgin and a party girl who become buddies (ala Mary Anne and Ginger) and a comic relief drunk. Here there's also stolen diamonds, and a murder aboard ship shortly before she goes down. The killer is.... right in this lifeboat. Mischa Auer saves the day as a Ben Gunn type who's been stranded there so long he's started talking to the skeletons in his hut, but he's not a monster! Just because he's a crazed castaway with a thick beard is no reason to portray old Mischa as a monster on the poster (below left). He doesn't even do his gorilla impression (seen in My Man Godfrey), just beats up a skeleton when the communication gap proves too much. Meanwhile, his gorilla buddy keeps an eye on things and howls to keep the girls on edge.

Of the cast, Auer is the only familiar face (to me) but that can be a good thing because everyone eventually looks like a B-movie version of someone else. Lila Lee seems like the taller, gawkier older sister of Gloria Swanson; Gwen Lee is a Mae West/Pat Kelton-ish gold digger (she gets all the best double entendre lines not that there's many). Monte Blue (who got his start with D.W. Griffith) is the nominal hero; William P. Davidson is the numb nuts copper; perennial lush Arthur Housman can barely feign interest in how his girl (or is it his sister?) is being wooed by the square-jawed hero --I think! Needless to say he's my favorite. Anyway it's hard to tell who's who when all the heads are cut off either by inept camerawork or the Retromedia DVD's frame cropping.

Director Ray does deliver one masterful scene: the morning after the shipwreck, when the lifeboat survivors all wake up and--silently--without others noticing--begin to take stock of where they are, remembering what happened, (or coming out of a boozy black-out), and either forging silent eye-alliances, passing notes about the cache, or getting scared, but quietly, wordlessly, like you might with your buddy while standing in line at a customs check with a pocket full of weed or conflict diamonds. I learned more of the plot in that one silent stretch than in all the malarkey fore and aft.

I like too that the girls sleep in the cave on the beach during the night (the men around the fire) and they wake up to find skeletons of past castaways sitting right near them (it was too dark to see anything the night before), and there's a lurid, sexual almost HBO-level roughie vibe when the killer forces the two girls deeper into the woods at gunpoint, and it's wild man Mischa's gorilla and his skeleton crew to the rescue and on his tiny island with his old age and his wisdom, cries "Mary!" (that's his skeleton's name). And I like how Housman, the lush, slowly morphs from bleary to tipsy to hungover to competent and alert--like three different separate characters (and all without being grandstanding about it) and that he's so thrilled to be back in the presence of booze after they're rescued by a French steamer that he brings the whole tray, whiskey, seltzer bottle, ice, and all, to the inquest.  Prohibition, thou art repealed!  Hell, it was probably why they were all on that boat to begin with. The old international waters thing (three miles out?) led to lots and lots of three-hour tours and bootleggers hiding behind old ghost legends to keep snooping kids away from their stills...

Mischa and Mary (left)
Retromedia's Forgotten Terrors DVD is shit but hey! Hey! It's a genuine effort to pack in some films you'd never find in a million years on your own, including Tangled Destinies and The 1931 Phantom! They don't look so good but then again, they're at least made available on disc. (P.S. they're also on on youtube)

1933 - Dir. Victor Halperin
*** (DVDR- ???)

"Life does continue after death," notes Dr. Carl Houston, the psychologist friend (H.B. Warner) of bereaved heiress Carole Lombard. He wants to experiment on the corpse of soon-to-be-executed murderess/free spirit artist Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), a kind of prototype for Catherine Trammell or Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander. Meanwhile, bogus medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart) promises Lombard he can make contact with her dear, dead brother. Expert at delivering the old glowing death mask /blackmail/lost loved one's voice giving banking instructions via a long horn floating in the air, he's forced to kill his drunken blackmailing landlady (Beryl Mercer), since she forgets the age-old adage: never threaten to expose a creepy fraud when you're alone in the room with him and haven't yet arranged to leave some 'in event of my death' file in some cop or reporter's hands. So important in this day and age. Either way, the seance at Paul's pad seems to go as planned, ka-ching, but then Lombard stops at Houston's office for a second opinion, right as he's doing electrical experiments on the Rogan's fresh hung corpse. Carole winds up possessed--in one of those 'small world' turns of coincidence--by the very same murderess who swore revenge on Bavian for turning her in! What are the odds?

If the plot sounds familiar, it's because Boris Karloff played versions of the same scenario about a million times all through the late 30s and 40s, indicating America was obsessed with the electric chair, radio waves, curses, and soul transference (in that order). Sharp eyed fans will note some of the walls from Halperin's White Zombie have been reformatted for Paul's seance parlor, with one great touch: the above ground subway runs right past his apartment window, adding just the right amount of tawdriness. It's all pretty stilted but really picks up in the last third, which all occurs over one long night as the possessed Lombard seduces Paul, ever fighting to refrain from strangling him while canoodling out on her yacht (easy body disposal) and boyfriend Randolph Scott put-puts to the rescue. Pre-code points should be awarded for the scene when Paul cups Lombard's breast while they get down to business on the divan, and the general air of sleazy heat between them. When they sneak into Ruth Rogen's studio apartment (to fool around in front of her creepy life-size self portrait), they recall Marcello and Anouk in the beginning of La Dolce Vita. I froze the projector and did two paintings off the moment they embrace (acrylic on canvas -2003), to capture a kind of post-modern ghost refractionnn-ion-nn.... And Lombard shows her true chops by morphing between killer Rogen and grieving heiress with sensuous conviction.

Minus points for sight of a big dog perennially chained in the psychic's house; I'd have liked to see him getting a nice walk or some affection. Instead he conveniently disappears, never to be seen again. I don't have the Universal Vault DVR yet, because I have a pretty solid burn from an old airing, but it's only a matter of time before it too dissolves, warps... wane, as does all matter... in time. 

1933 - Dir Kurt Neumann
** / (DVR - ****)

With its use of Swan Lake over the opening credits (also used in Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue) you'd think this was going to be a real pre-code Universal horror treat: Lionel Atwill stars as the father of Gloria Stuart, who's celebrating her birthday in a big cozy castle while the whistling wind howls outside in the night. What a lame party it is! Three of her suitors are the only other guests (kind of like Lucy Westenra's house, at least in the book). The creepiest part is that dad Atwill doesn't mind having these three fools fight over her right in front of him, or to have them all sleep over, and for who knows how long, etc. Again, they are his only house guests. Instead of ordering them out, Atwill tells her to "give us all a nice birthday kiss." Yeeesh

The one with the best chance at Stuart's hand, the clear winner alas, among the very sorry lot, is an older foreigner played by Paul Lukas (at his flattest); the one with no chance at all is the abashed adenoidal pup who grew up moping after her on the swings (Onslow Stevens); the third, William Janney, considers himself a mystery writer. He bunks with Lukas, even though there's like a hundred rooms in the castle and no one else stays there but servants.

These strange details are way more fascinating than the titular mystery, which involves each suitor sleeping in the cursed blue room, one by one, to prove their courage. Stevens goes first, and in the morning... he's gone!

If Stuart and Atwill weren't so imbued with classic horror moxy this would be the smallest, saddest mystery film ever. the cast is utterly void of character details or anything else to talk about beyond the titular ---very predictable and inane--"secret." There are no other guests, and no other women characters aside from a maid. Thank heaven Edward Arnold shows up halfway through as the local detective, then, for his character alone seems to have a life beyond this half-baked mystery story, at the very least seems real on some level. The ubiquitous Robert Barrat (Babs' pimp dad in Baby Face the same year) is the butler who keeps signaling at the window in a red herring bit borrowed whole from Hound of the Baskervilles. 

Despite these quibbles, it will still be 'catnip' to Universal pre-code horror fans like me after they've already re-run the gamut (Frankenstein, Old Dark House, Black Cat, Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dracula, Invisible Man, etc.) and crave more, like a junky. Seems a bit like Laemmle was scraping the old dark script barrel even so, and Neumann's direction is as clueless as a June bride. He seems to think the only time to ever cut a scene is when something interesting or at least atmospheric is about to happen. At one point we literally have like a full minute of just Arnold and his cops in a bedroom looking at their watches. It's a remake of Geheimnis des blauen Zimmers from the year before, so blame the Germans! Soon enough, they'd deserve it.

The Universal vault DVR looks great though. So soak it up.

1933 - Dir Irving Pichel
**3/4 (TCM airings - ***)

Seances were all the upper crust rage in the early 30s (the way Ouija was in the 70s) and while most of the mediums turned out to be phonies, there was a general consensus that ESP was scientifically proven and real mediums did exist, as in Charlie Chan on Treasure Island. Here the true psychic is mellow gamin Dorothy Wilson, who makes up in a naturalistic low key sincerity what she lacks in dramatic range. Her trances tell her nearly everything but even when evidence comes fast and furious the cops don't believe her and consider it a favor not busting her as a phony just because her ruthless swindler of a father (Dudley Digges) refuses to refund three bucks to bunco squad undercover man Stu Erwin. Old Stu takes a shine to Wilson, though, and call me crazy (I dislike Erwin on principle) but the two have a cutely abashed chemistry, with Erwin's cop authority helping to offset his patented aww-shucks everyman awkwardness. He might not have been able to stand the strain of Peggy Hopkins Joyce in International House, and he might make Jackie Oakie seem like Arthur Kennedy but he's at least adequate to the task of breaking down a wall and slugging it out on steep stairs with the murderer, and he's not getting sick. Maybe it's that they're both a little anemic, lost artistic souls in a world of crass profiteers and sneering killers.

The plot is the old Bat Whispers bit with hidden loot in an old spooky mansion and assorted seekers posing as heirs or one another and all that. Here an old dying gangster tells the Viennese Dr. Cornelius where he hid his stolen million in the old lady's house. Soon the old lady is menaced by a floating death mask and draggy second floor footsteps. Her old maid/widow/sister/whatever (the pair have a lesbian vibe ala Cries and [or BatWhispers) winds up tighter than a clam about what she may or may not know so that she won't be next.

I love Irving Pichel as an actor--that otherworldly deep voice really sends me--but his direction here (and in 1935's She) lacks momentum and mood. The bland lighting is a long way from the stark expressionist intensity of the Bat Whispers, for example. Warner Oland is magnificent as Dr. Cornelius though, so almost makes up the difference. His owlish spectacles alight with thoughts of "walking off the loot," he's intoxicated with mischief, trying a wild array of approaches to getting the money out of the old lady to the point we can't tell if he's evil or just a shrink playing a guy able to confess he's evil in order to get the money from the old lady and give it up to the authorities. His advanced level head games remind me of my own strategies in my daily job, i.e. if you want to make your patients (or students) open up to you, act crazier than they are. The problem is, eventually you become crazier then they are; I saw it all the time at Bellevue! We know Oland's a great, fun actor, but this is a whole new side of him, seemingly drunk and alight with mischief behind owlish spectacles. And who would imagine old Daddy Digges could suddenly turn so grave and evil, even bullying, to his daughter? It's a spooky sudden transformation from a flim-flammer with a cute daughter in tow (ala Fields in Poppy) to an obsessed monster (ala Mason in Bigger than Life), letting us know Digges had a range larger than his usual alcoholic colonialist trader (or traitor). With better lighting and/or a stronger comic hero, Dawn might have been a classic. At least there's a great dark secret passage climactic stretch down super cool secret stairs to a giant round abyss! Don't quite before the miracle! 

1933 - Dir Ray Enright
*** (Alpha DVR - *)

Just when you thought blurry old Alpha couldn't get worse in their handling of these old independent clunkers, they switch to DVR greymarket format, with blurry color Xerox labels and tracking streaks on the bottom of the blurry image. On the other hand, at least they still put out, making them the old whore of the hoary old dark house houses.

More important is that, for all its blur, Tomorrow at Seven is worth the trouble: Director Enright surprises with some very modern camera moves, especially in the killer POV opening murder, and the banter between two bumbling Chicago detectives (Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins) is rife with slang-filled pre-code discourse early on ("he remembers the guy's a stew, see?"), relating how they got some tips on mysterious villain 'The Black Ace' by cutting lines of "gold dust" (coke) for the nostrils of some initially clammed up twist, see? Whether it's real slang or not it's quite vivid and thrilling in its uncanny savvy (i.e. if you've done a lot of drugs, you'll 'get' it). When the threatened rich old duffer Thornton Drake (Henry Stephenson) can't understand a word of it, McHugh tells Jenkins; "These guys don't understand these technical toims." Drake's the millionaire threatened with death 'tomorrow at seven.' So they all take his private plane down to his Louisiana mansion to escape the Black Ace. But of course they're playing right into said Ace's hands! If it sounds awfully like The Bat and/or The Gorilla, so what? It's a classic.

There's also some surreal rear projection: on the train where Vivienne Osborne (the maniac killer in Supernatural - above) meets Chester Morris, the rear-projected track seems way too large, resulting in fine Brechtian abstraction; and the plane crash has similarly bizarre touches (as I recall); but on the other hand. Jenkins and McHugh must have been hitting the gold dust en route because their comedic sense gets broader and dumber with each passing page of dialogue. When they're reading the identity of the Ace all slow out of the dead man's pocket, of course the lights go out before they can finish. When the lights. come back on there's no letter, of course, but by then this pair of cops are so dumb they start reading anyway... yikes. Oh well. If only they could have read faster or learned to hold onto evidence when the lights go suddenly out, the movie would be over.

Still, we didn't come down this way expecting originality, as you know, but to savor the '33 mood. And that ya got, blurry Alpha DVR or no: Charles "Ming" Middleton shows up as a mysterious coroner, Virginia Howell is a creepy mute housekeeper (she keeps giving the cops the finger 'in sign language'), and there's the very unusual appearance of a hulking, menacing genuinely African-American butler-henchman (Gus Robinson --his only credited role). So give up waiting for a better version, and just make sure to watch it on the crappiest, smallest TV you can find so you can pretend it's four AM and 1975 and you're pulling it down out of the ether on your UHF rabbit ears... gold dusted stew insomniac that you are.

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