Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, March 10, 2017

Shhhh! At long last, lost Lewtons: ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY, THE FALCON AND THE COEDS

Shhhh! Let us speak of Val Lewton, but quietly. A man whose oeuvre of poetic B-movie horrors we knew of, even in the 80s of Central Jersey suburbia (where we taped them off local TV creature double features, like a fisherman dipping his claw into the soft stream), Lewton made subtle and shadowy noir-horrors that are still ephemeral, mere wisps of smoke through the threader. Yet how come even my Journey-crankin' gearhead brother also liked Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie after I taped them back-to-back when they came on WORs Creature Double Feature and we watched them nearly every night one long ago summer, the fan on next to the window drowning out the crickets,  and the harp and frond shadows whistling all around the dark verandas? We dug the growls in eerie WMCA basement pools, and the rustle of the cane fields. They didn't shout and telegraph their emotions --they talked in low, conspiratorial voices and operated on a level of subtlety that drew us in (we had to lean into them), leaving us transported, and... then... suddenly realizing, as does the lovelorn birthday girl in Leopard Man, that it's gotten dark and we're locked in with some strange deadly force we can never see clearly. Where most horror was like a crazy derelict shouting at us over shrill orchestration, Lewton's movies lured us close with seductive calming whispers.

Maybe that was part of their appeal --the low, quiet talking was part of the wartime experience. Loose lips sink ships! The guy on the park bench reading the paper might be a Nazi spy! We could watch these films all night and never wake the parents (and they were good for hangovers, too).

It being the war, the thinking at the big studios was that if one must make horror films, make some of them hilarious, so that America might laugh at its Euro-thrashing boogeyman fears. Boris Karloff was on Broadway with Arsenic and Old Lace, and 1942's underrated Boogeyman will Get You was at Columbia; Lugosi was chasing the Dead End Kids around moldy Monogram passageways. And at RKO--on the B-lot with Lewton and Tourneur--a new way to exorcise the horror of war was manifesting, a style the both looked forward to film noir and backwards to classic literature and ancient myth, and with a minimalist leave-it-to-your-imagination approach to monsters.

The latter was something that we young Famous Monsters of Filmland devotees were initially turned off by, but then later-- when confronted with too many bad monster suits--we finally realized how seeing is never the same as believing; a really dark black shadow is itself scarier than any illuminated monster hiding within it.

That shadowy minimalism, in combination with the quiet whispering and the mostly-indoors filming, and the supernatural--unconscious--power-of-suggestion-genuine supernatural transformation aspects, makes Lewtons seem very personal. Everyone in the world could be wearing I walked with a Zombie T-shirts and we'd still think we were the only one who resonated with its weird dream poetry. It was just some small precious thing that spoke only to us in a 'psssst' sort of conspiratorial whisper, like some girl you meet at four AM outside on a stoop and have an hour-long conversation with in low voice to not wake the neighbor while you share a cigarette (and then you realize she was never even there - just a dream, your anima projected onto the smoke). I'm always amazed when I hear other people say they love these films, for I presume they're my discovery alone, and so perhaps do they.

That's why we fans--especially those who love both film noir and art films as well as horror pics, feel protective of them. I don't like all Lewton's later movies as well as the first four; I think it was a mistake to separate him and Tourneur after the third film, a mistake to start casting children (as in Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher) and setting things in period costumes, and a mistake to lose narrative steam by getting hung up on polemics on 'authority in tight spaces evoking madness '(Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead). All the tri-corner hats and clattering hooves and smiling coachmen (Bedlam, Body Snatcher), make me feel like I'm being dragged through Colonial Williamsburg as a bored, thirsty kid with aching feet (an experience which left me with a lifetime aversion to period pieces and the smell of horses).

The later Lewton would have no doubt done an actual Jane Eyre instead of I Walked with a Zombie, for example. If only the executives in their infinite wisdom didn't give him such easy literary titles as Body Snatcher and Bedlam! Better they got weirder and more prosaic like The Thorned Glove of the Time Traveler or I was a Voodoo Vampire. 

All of which is a tortuously long preface to the discovery of two 'sort of' Lewton films made by RKO's other B-units but using many of the same people, same actors, crew, writers, sets, props, ghostly mythopoetic flavors and signifiers from the first four films (all from 1942-1943) in the Lewton RKO series. When I've run the Lewton circuit and I got to have more, and am eyeing the Bedlam, Body Snatcher last gasp with grim countenance, maybe I'll turn to these instead. 

So here are two I have found and folded into my Lewton box, if you get my meaning. None of this will mean much to people not in love with the breezy interiority of I Walked with a Zombie. But then again, who wouldn't be, if they surrendered to it?

(1943) Dir William Clemens

From its crashing waves close-ups and swirling romantic piano music score, right down to the title font, the resemblance of Falcon and the Co-Eds to the opening of I Walked with a Zombie is uncanny; I only noticed it though as I recently saw them both--quite by accident-- back-to-back (1).
In addition to cast, font and mood, the figure of a gloomy fragile-doomed poet hangs over both this film and Lewton's fourth, The Seventh Victim. All three of them are from 1943, and two were written by Ardel Wray, a mysterious poetic figure who seems clearly to have modeled these fragile doomed poets on himself, possibly exorcising some inner doomed poet, forever at odds with the RKO B-movie system, looking for one muse to lift him from suicidal despair.

In both instances, a poet is hanging around and wafting in his (spacious) bungalow, clearly nursing a fabulous dreamy crush on some girl who's really a shimmering reflection of his own dream anima. A teacher at the all-girls school, the dead poet/English professor has fans who are sure it wasn't an accident or suicide and that the dean just wants to avoid scandal. Hence a saucy student heads down to the city to steal the Falcon's car so he'll need to go up there to get it. Once he's up there, reading the dead poet's manuscript as a crushing girl is swallowed in billowing curtains from an ocean view window, we think instantly of Seventh Victim's Jason (Erford Gage) and his original draft of poetry that Dr. Judd accepts from him on their way to the Satanic mass, or thereabouts. Reconstructing the personality from mute evidence, the Falcon declares this dead poet "a man who perhaps demanded too much from people and had to live in books to get it, who spent most of his time alone,.... who took refuge in his new imagination (...) how easily a man like that could be dominated by others." and "He lived such a narrow empty life that it finally suffocated him." Damn dude, been reading my seventh fLstep? Nimbly prowling around the grounds, Tom romances or confounds the endless string of suspects, manages to maintain the student body's collective crush without either dampening or indulging it, and employs three singing moppets to shadow suspects, the very cool 'Ug Sisters.'

Haunting Co-Eds with otherworldly presence is a dreamy psychic student named Margueritte (the alluring Rita Corday), with a dead composer father--supposedly similar in temperament to the dead poet (but more famous)--who keeps having premonitions of death ---voices whisper to her in the wind to kill herself. We hear what she hears in the sound mix, and it's pretty creepy as the whispers blend with the wind until we almost feel like we're going crazy. And for a supposedly grounded mystery, the film keeps a tactful and open-minded opinion on the supernatural, mirroring that of Lewton's films, wherein the real and the vividly imagined merge into a poetic realism (i.e. Irina is a cat and/or a frigid hysteric in Cat People; Jessica is a zombie and/or a casualty of tropical fever in I Walked with a Zombie - the supernatural as a dweller on the threshold of existence).

Tom Conway seems to have been quite busy amidst the RKO B-lots, for in 1943 alone he was in three Falcons and two Val Lewton pictures (Seventh Victim and I Walked with a Zombie). Like Lewton, Conway was born in Russia (St. Petersburg) to a wealthy family that fled the Bolsheviks, bringing with them with barely any of their vast fortune). Looking at Cat People now I realize that it is not really my favorite Lewton film anymore - it lost some esteem when I lost my own virginity (and stayed human). But whether the curse is real or not, I'm a huge fan of Conway's lascivious Dr. Judd. I'll grant you he doesn't really buy into her story and he should, because he's already losing his chance to get her on the rebound, but then it's too late; one certainly can't hold it against him if he turns up the following year after supposedly being torn up, to go around pimping Jean Parker and pissing off more poets in The Seventh Victim. 

Here are some more similarities -

The women angle too is interesting, as Lewton films are stocked with so many strong females. With women doing so many of the jobs usually taken by men during the years 1941-45, it's imperative to remember that, while women suffer at the hands of soldiers and blah blah, its a great time for feminist advances in the workplace and an even better time for attractive men still at the home front, that is if they want to experience a world where the women compete for the men, for a change. That's part of the noir fantasia we so love in The Big Sleep for example, all the hot available lady cab drivers, librarians, book store managers, etc. We think 'oh how novel!" now, but these films reflect a very real facet of life at home during the height of the war, and not only are there many women, but war widows, and in the morality of the time, a widow was basically allowed to sleep with anyone she wanted. She had given her maidenhood to the cause, and now the rest of her sex life was her own.

The girls' school, seen in both Co-Eds and 7th Victim is a prime example of this Edenic safe space in the time of war (ala the woman's dorm in A Matter of Life and Death). This is a kind paradise a man overseas can imagine without feeling either sexual desire or paternal affection but something in between and yet neither, beyond any one final thing, reflecting the feminine eternal flame that cores the death drive like an apple.


Astute viewers will also notice the school's main stairwell (built for Welles' Ambersons and used regularly by the B-unit) used for the interior of the all-girls' schools in both Co-Eds and Seventh Victim - leaving us to wonder - is it the same school?

Alas, Jean Brooks

I am not a fan of Brooks, and though she wears a few nicely trimmed dresses here and is a decent actress am shocked by her callous behavior towards the "students" (many of whom seem no older than her) and that we're supposed to not think she's the dragon lady. Kind of the missing link between Joan Bennett and Shelly Winters, she has gravitas and a no BS sense of acting and purpose that creates a kind of hangover contagion rather than the allure we'd hope for. Not sure if it's me but I can't abide her character being mean to Marguerite or letting a panther loose, or turning down a poison drink for weeks only to pick a noose instead. Nothing makes sense when it comes to our Ms. Brooks. 

(1945) **

Deconstructing the horror / war mindset is tricky. We can understand the psychology behind the horror ban as a classic example of Hollywood misdiagnosing the contradictions that abound in viewer psychology. The feeling was that audiences didn't 'need' more horror (the war provided plenty). Lewton's B-unit and Universal's THE WOLF MAN and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN proved audiences needed the old horrors more than ever, but they also needed to be able to laugh at their fears. Thus, horror comedy became a huge parallel program, stretching from Bob Hope in CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) and GHOST BREAKERS (1940) through to BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942 and the stunning success of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE on Broadway, which kept Karloff out of films for almost a year.

RKO finally loaded itself into the horror-comedy canon for ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY in 1945, a clunky if well-crafted little blend of scares, laughs and island intrigue. The comedy comes from a pair of shifty talent agents who try to appease gangster Sheldon Leonard's yen for nightclub entertainment by procuring a real 'live' zombie for his voodoo-themed lounge. What makes it, like Co-Eds, a long lost Lewton is that the boys go to San Sebastian, the same island setting as 1943's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and there they meet several actor/characters from that film, including the tall scrawny bug-eyed zombie, Darby Jones (above- the skeletal tall black man who plays the scariest of the zombies in Lewton's film, Carrafour) and the strolling calypso singer, Sir Galahad.

Though not part of the Lewton crew (he'd only appeared in a small role in the same year's Body Snatcher), Bela Lugosi has a florid, full-tilt villain role as the zombie maker who ensnares our bumbling pair of Abbot-and-Costello-esque comics (2), tying them up and then letting them run amok through his trap doors and passages, chased by himself and Jones.

As with Lewton's Zombie, a real chilling highlight is a song from Galahad, this one played as the boys disembark on the San Sebastian dock. First Galahad sings happily about how San Sebastian is a tropical paradise but when the boys walk past him and he's behind them, and all the other passengers have gone from the dock, the song gradually darkens in melody and lyric, to become a tale of menace, paranoia and woe.

Sir Galahad's songs are always direct addresses to the people he's singing about, which is what makes him uncanny - as in his slow ghostly walk across the empty veranda towards Frances Dee after brother David has passed out in I Walked with a Zombie. But of course the boys are imbeciles, and don't think Galahad's eerie tourist trap warning could apply to them.

Though played for comedy, these little termite moments gives Broadway the Lewton vibe. Also, it's entirely (RKO) studio-bound, with atmospheric lighting especially in the night/dungeon scenes The front of the NYC club could be the same set as in Leopard Man, the NYC exteriors the same as in Seventh Victim.e

As for the boys, they're fairly forgettable. The stooge screams like a hysterical baby the moment anything goes wrong, even while sneaking up on a voodoo ceremony, making the panic of Mantan Moreland in KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941) seem like square-jawed heroism. I'm also not a huge fan of Darby Jones' doofus ping-pong ball eyes this go-round. It's not a good look. His eyes were plenty buggy in Lewton's film, so what's the rumpus? Luckily we wouldn't see ping pong ball eyes in style again for zombies until 1972's SUGAR HILL where they rawk. At any rate, Bela makes up the difference. He seems to be having a grand time here, stretching his muscles in real sets after loping around Monogram's waterlogged cutaways for so long, Best of all, there's no Jean Brooks!

So enjoy what ye can while ye can, for the war can't last forever and once Johnny comes marching home, all that dizzy poetry will have to be stopped. Played by Alan Ladd or Robert Mitchum, our returning vets will be brooking no umbrage from fey 4F poets who've had the pick of the dame pool for too damn long.

Until then... Shhhh!

1. I thought I was the first to make the Ardel Wray connection, only to find Time Out London's Film Guide had beaten me to it, them crafty Brits.
2. Strangely, aside from Hold that Ghost in 1941, Abbot and Costello stayed away from horror until well after the war (... meet Frankenstein came out 1948), preferring westerns, period pieces, and sports spoofs.
Special shout out to the indispensible DVDBeaver from whom I copped some of the above Co-Eds stills

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