Monday, December 21, 2020

The Swirling Mists of Chor Yuen: 70s Shaw Brothers Wuxia on Prime: SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN (Trilogy) HEAVEN SWORD AND DRAGON SABRE (1&2)

There are seemingly hundreds of old Shaw Brothers kung fu and wuxia films on Prime. If you watch enough of them you can, in fact, begin to distinguish directors and sub-genres that fit your exact likes and go on your own massive Shaw Bros. bender. Me, I avoid the "Shaolin" ones, full of sweaty young bald dudes smacking each other around and going through their shame/training/revenge arcs in brightly-lit small villages, with nary a female marital artist in sight. These are usually dubbed in English, rather than subtitled. That can get annoying as you begin to discern the voice of the same nasal Brit doing all the male characters, like a half-assed Frank Oz (you know who he is when you hear him). I prefer the more esoteric "swordplay thriller" wuxia, from Shaw Brothers, in the original Cantonese with subtitles and gorgeously-lit nights, rich with elaborate decor, expansive sets, swirling mists, and strong female characters as deadly as their male counterparts, if not more so. The best and weirdest of these are usually directed by "Chu Yuan" (aka Yuen Chor). You know it's one of his when an old woman triumphs in a fight to the death with three experienced male martial arts heroes (as in the climax of The Proud Twins). Yuen Chor's output can be uneven, but all his films come stocked with dazzling swordplay, wire-aided spins, jumps and kicks, recurring characters, period fantasy garb where everyone is dressed like gossamer princesses (even the men), and plot points that generally avoid the tedious barrages of picaresque peasant suffering, government corruption, etc, in favor of cool supernaturally-tinged mysteries.  Sometimes the food is poisoned by smiling princess or the "Devil Grandma" and everyone is challenging each other to duels in the dead of night with magical weapons and seeking or finding hidden kung fu manuals as plum blossoms shed their snowy petals in a slow cascade against the gorgeous soundstage night sky. Heroes wander from one beautiful background to another as they seek to level up against the one or two ranked swordsmen left to challenge their skills. There's seldom any vengeance to seek beyond some ancient grudge of the hero's teacher or parents passed on to the next generation. The villains are generally sophisticated gentlemen or ladies, and the battles tend towards almost Leone-level cool (Leone is clearly a big influence on Yuen Chor, to the point that in many films hero Ti Lung walks around in a Clint Eastwood pancho) and there's plenty Hawks-level gallantry, Bechdel test-acing and wry professionalism between foes. Rather than duplicating some past castle and detailing the brutality and corruption of a nasty emperor, or filming outdoors like Golden Harvest does for earthy realism, Yuen's wuxias snake through a color-gel-lit soundstage land of mysticism, garden fountains, strange invincible light-shooting weapons, and sets that seem to stretch out to the infinite. My favorite are the soundstage magic hour shots created by a blazing visible circle of orange studio light that's more beautiful than the setting sun itself. It all swirls together to create a rarefied neither/or space that evokes the essence of a dream.

Also, they've probably never looked better than they do now, via Prime's seemingly endless collection of HD prints coming in on the Celestial Pictures distribution label. Since Shaw studios cranked out so many of these, they wisely kept all their sets seemingly mostly standing, connected to each other so the fights often flow through ornate plum blossom-filled gardens, temple ruins, secret lairs all aglow in foggy green and purple gel spot lighting, waterfalls, cliff face alcoves, little green water pools in the rock, meditation chambers, secret caves, ancient ruins, bamboo forests, indoor/outdoor restaurants, brothels, gambling dens, palace reception halls, booby trap-filled hallways, clan meeting halls, thief-filled roadside inns, and mystical fox ghost dens, all in a single scene. While the more fight scene-centric 'Shaolin films seem to forego beauty in the name of athleticism, the Chu Yuan swordsman thrillers all keep the beauty and mystery on par with the swordplay. Here is a land of strange characters, droll wit, and elaborate charade-style plots where one mystery reveal tops another, and every setting has its own colorfully-named gang of killers waiting in ambush. Swordsmen heroes uncover elaborate murder plots, protect invincible clan weapons, search for lost siblings, discover long-missing kung fu manuals (and attain the mystical powers therein overnight), and--above all, seek a duel with the one opponent who can finally give them a fair fight. Some of these champions and villains have chi of such power the practitioner glows red and shoot rays of light out of their palms. They can all jump straight up two or more stories, do endless midair flips and super high kicks (via unseen wires) and all regularly take mid-fight breaks for bits of conversation, i.e. confessing elaborate crimes, making grand threats, and/or professing innocence and being set up before resuming rounds of high-wire swordplay and kung fu combat. Frankly, it's glorious. 

Here are some of my favorites (all on Prime), and of course, check out my round-up of more fantastical supernatural based wuxias from my last big wuxia bender: Wild Wild Wuxia!

(1977) Dir. Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor)
Sentiment is not always a plus in the martial arts world, or so the bad guy--the evil Plum Blossom Bandit--says to the venerable ace swordsman hero Chi Lu-hsiang (the venerable Ti Lung) after praying on his sense of honor and loyalty. Now in self-imposed exile from his wealth and lady love, the venerable Chi Lu just coasts around the country, knocking back jugs wine, pontificating Taost-drunk style in thst unique 'talking to the air' Ti Lung way, and slowly getting a Doc Holiday style consumptive cough. Since he's ranked the #3 best martial artist in the world, Chi has to duel constantly with up-and-comers, but he's much prefer to gaze wistfully at the plum blossoms and just watch the world go by. He drinks because his one true love wishes she was with him instead of the husband she has, the friend Chi Liu gave his everything--lands, girl, house---to out of gratitude for saving his life ten years ago. Or is that --like many alcoholics (myself included)-- he'd rather drink to to numb the pain of losing his only love than get the love back, even if she's right there, pining for him in lonely solitude? If that sounds like Geoffrey Firmin to you, then, cheers, old man! It maybe sounds like me, too. We'd rather drink over losing you then have you back. Then we'd have to sober up. And get a job

Other cool characters include Lin Xanier, the whore of martial arts world,  offering to marry the man who finds and kills the Plum Blossom Bandit, thus drawing all the horny martial artists on the top twenty list to a grand brawl. She's contrasted with the modest beauty of the sad, sober creature Lin Hsin-ehr (Li Cheng) pointlessly sweeping up Chi Lu's empty courtyard, for no conceivable reason, waiting for the man she loves to return to his own home, the beautiful estate he gave up out of his woefully misguided sentiment.  

The ironies compound: despite the title, Chi Lu doesn't even carry a sword, preferring to parry with his fan. He bats his opponents around, blocks strokes with his fan (folded), and when things get tiring, just whips it open, wizzing some of the darts out of the folds, killing his foe instantly via at least one to the neck, the opened fan bearing the words: "Little Li's Darts That Never Miss." Who would want to duel with a guy who does that? Isn't that cheating? Either way, he's doing a lot of killing with those darts --a bunch of martial arts social climbers have been duped into thinking he's the Plum Blossom Bandit (who, incidentally, throws poison plum blossom darts and dresses like a pink ninja). Luckily a young bumpkin wanderer-- the irrepressible Ah Fei (Derek Yee)-- shows to cover Chi Lu's back. Other bad guys include a fake plum blossom bandit, a despicable old member of the 'Seven Incredible Men' who poisons Li's wine, and a doctor who notes that "Nothing is better than drinking to death" and then cures Master Li... with another glass of wine! You were poisoned by wine and the cure is more wine! "Why would trivial matters such as life and death get in the way of drinking?" demands the doctor. Lu gets it; he keeps drinking though his consumptive coughing (or is it an ulcer?). Whatever the reason, he doesn't let it stop him. Go for for distance, bro! 

Under Chu Yuan's direction, the rich atmosphere and expansive shadowy, mist and water-enshrouded indoor/outdoor sets keep the eye continually seduced, like cold wine down a parched throat after walking out of the hot sun into a chilly lounge, with just the right amount of wit, mystery, exotic atmosphere, emotional sweep, and Sergio Leone-style cool dude posturing to keep one's attention through the barrage of confusing plot reversals.

Cons: There are two too many draggy moments between Li and his "the past is in the past" philosophy as he refuses to even talk about how why he gave away his wealth, woman and house ten years ago. Another rarity: lots of exterior shots -- a relative rarity in the Yuen Chor-verse-- as they walk to Wudang Mountain to see if Li is the Plum Blossom Bandit. We get lots of long shots of these traveling heroes in dwindling numbers walking all the way to Wudang, and not eating for many days  (they keep running into "the Five Poisons Kid," who manages to poison everything edible or potable in advance of their arrival). How we keeps getting ahead of them is not to be thought about.

(1981) Dir. Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor)

"There is no truth in the marital arts world - only dead people, gold, and fame"

Correctly considered one of the few sequels better than the first, laden with swirling mists and plum blossom evenings ("they've bloomed too soon," notes Ah Fei "and will die sooner.") it has an almost mystical reverence for alcohol coupled to savvy awareness of the process of alcohol addiction (and evocations of Rio Bravo and My Darling Clementine). Rather than any Plum Blossom bandit (the masked pink ninja villain of the first film) it's the real plum blossoms that count here, seen at night, under softly falling snow, amidst tiny waterfalls and glowing lanterns, with mist rolling over the ground. The beautiful plum blossom trees of Chi Lu's estate being in bloom are in in fact what lures ever-drinking and coughing titular swordsman Chi Lu (Ti Lung again) back home, where his lady love lives, still hoping he'll finally come to stay. But Chi Lu is also looking for trusty Ah Fei, who's been missing from the martial arts world for awhile. He's cohabitating with that slutty martial art groupie Lin Xanier (Linda Chu) and has become a tranquil nonviolent early-to-bed health nut! Oh, Ah Fei!! Spending his days counting the plum blossom blooms, blinded by love and tranquilized by the drugs Lin spikes his tea with at night so he crashes after dinner and she can sneak down to the whorehouse and whoop it up with the head of the Money Clan!

Once he finds out, heartbroken Ah Fei plunges into alcohol addiction and winds up imprisoned in the Money Clan's brothel, groveling around on the carpet for a drink as the prostitute's laugh and pour wine in his face. We're reminded of the opening of Rio Bravo, especially at the climax when Tung Li's lady love brings Ah Fei his old clothes and sword after he's finally sobered enough to join his old friend in a duel at Summit Mountain. The duel is set at dawn, and the Money Clan leader's golden robe looks great in that artificial early light as the red sun pierces through the mists and trees, the sky gradually getting brighter as the duel wages on, 

While the echoes of Rio Bravo are clear, there is also evidence of Yuen Chor's aforementioned familiarity with the Sergio Leone westerns: various Morricone-esque electric guitars and weird rhythmic strains erupt during big duel squaring-off staring contests. There's also a nod to the numbering system with each challenging martial artist ranked fourth or fifth or whatever and all trying to climb the top and go up against #1, or at least the next person up. What a world! As with the first Sentimental film, there might be one too many frustrating melancholy exchanges between Chi Liu and his glum platonic love, but the scenery is gorgeous and Yuen knows how to parlay the need for fighting and position jostling amongst martial artists into an endlessly fascinating series of sword battles, exchanges of midnight coolness, honor and last words amidst the blossoms and delirium tremens. Fights flow endlessly but never monotnously. Each us better than the last. More slow motion than one might expect for a Shaw Brothers film. But hey.


(1982) Dir. Chu Yuan (Yuen Chor)

Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman skips the mopey romantic sudsy drama of the previous two films and works as a stand-alone adventure, with Ti Lung's consumptive wanderer Chi-Liu pretending to turn outlaw in order to infiltrate the 'Ghostly Village,' an apparently transdimensional, extradition-free settlement accessible only via a disappearing cloud bridge! It's one of the coolest of all Yuen Chor's Really Cool Places, evoking the fox ghost realm in Full Moon Scmitar (1979) coupled to Bat Island (seeable in another Chi-Liu Hisiang stand-alone adventure, Legend of the Bat (1978- not on Prime but there's a non-HD DVD). The first thing the Charon-like guide shows you after you cross the bridge and arrive in the Ghostly Village is "Hell's Cellar --do you need to buy any wine?"  So you know I love this film. Chi-Liu's fame ensures he gets handed a gorgeous little pad, with a servant ("this is a blanket") but you know there's no time to party. He has to find his contact. Are they one of his new neighbors, the mincing gay stereotype, the foxy siren known as "The General," or the wild gambling lunatic played by the irrepressible Lo Lieh? Turns out the masked 'phantom' who runs the place is organizing a revolution out in the real world, so the 'ghosts' can all come back to 'Earth' without fear of incarceration. 

The thing is, who is a spy for the throne and who isn't? People try and confess being a spy to out each other, so who can you trust? Meanwhile some real ghosts fly around in an immaculately green-lit mist-shrouded haunted ruin atop a nearby hill.  Spending a night up there on a bet, Lo Leih does the Costello monster comedy bit, quaking with fear while being gaslit by the ghost stealing his food one bite at a time, etc. with Chi-Liu as the Abbott straight man who sees nothing. Great, if familiar, stuff, all bathed in emerald green light, diffused by the mist. The sword fights are okay but it's really the spooky elaborate beauty of the sets and eccentric characters I vibe with; the always dark or at dusk/dawn inner/outer mist-enshrouded otherworld of the Ghostly Village, and the colorful never-ending parade of villains--like scruffy old rogue named Dugu Fei, aka "the Handsome Loner," aka "the one who disdains his kinfolks." And this time there are no exterior shots, nor or even daytime shots! Everything occurs from dusk to dawn, aka the time of ghosts, eddying through the gorgeous swirling mist like whirling vape-nados. 


(Dir. Chor Yuen AKA Chu Yuan)

Good luck keeping up with the byzantine plot of this strange two-part affair, especially since it kind of starts in the middle of some probably massive novel by Louis Cha (the Prime blurb lets us know it's also a popular TV serial). If you read the whole thing in advance I presume you wouldn't be scratching your head as we whizz past one crazy fight scene after another. If not may help to have seen The Battle Wizard first, as it borrows a lot of the same elements, like the hero finding a special oasis halfway down a cliff where he mends his wounds and finds ancient power in eating or drinking the blood of hot red frogs or giant pythons. There's also Hsueh-Erh Wen as a snake-handling venom-loving girl (!), and kung fu manuals that impart instant super power. This time we follow a dashing young hero (Tung Shing-Yee) seeking to find out who's behind his foster father going crazy after an evil monk killed his family and planted seeds of dissent against the Ming clan with all the other kung fu schools. The two titular magic blades are--when brought together--possessed of some dynamic magic but really don't figure that prominently. Mostly there's poison, journeys to find antidotes, hair-raising rescues, strange bargains, interrupted weddings and people once thought friends becoming bitter enemies and vice versa. 

As with most of these Celestial Shaw Brothers films, one of the unique aspects not often found in western action genre is the prevalence of female led-fighting clans like the Er Mei (the female counterpart to the Shaolin Temple) here given a very strong role in the proceedings. At Er Mei they keep their women sharp by forbidding all sexual contact with men, and they take an especially dim view of pregnancy. Here the Er Mei clan is led by a rigid white haired old super Buddhist nun with super deadly kung fu schools, who kills the girls who transgress, and eventually passes the reins to the secret love of the leader of the Ming clan, which makes his rival in the other clan super jealous, and around and around. 

The first film flows much better as the focus stays on young Tung-Shin Yee, curing himself from a Buddha's palm wound inflicted on him while a child, growing up under the protection of a renowned pharmacist who tries every cure in the book to keep him alive. All this will lead him to the promised land, eating the red frogs, finding the secret manuals, saving and taking over the Ming clan and getting to the bottom of all the grudges that have led to the Ming Clan being unfairly blamed for all sorts of calamitous behavior. The result: everyone watches various duels at the Gang Ming Summit showing off what they know, and since the good don't kill the losers, that's how you know who's good. 

At the end, even the villains may well take note of the power of the Amanita Buddha by renouncing their past, shaving their heads and joining the Shaolin monks in humble contemplation. Glory to Amitabha. I kind of like that kind of ending as it vibes with my own saving through the power of AA. Glory to the higher power as you understand it. 

All is emptiness...

Friday, November 06, 2020

Welcome to the Zugsmithery: SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (1960)

If you don't think film critics can make mistakes, consider the terrible reviews given the sublime SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, a C-list 1960 madcap comedy about the effect a knockout blonde who also happens to be a super genius doctor of medicine,  psychology, and physics (plus ten other degrees) has on a small town college when she arrives from Vegas to assume the role of dean. Hired by "Thinko" the computer/robot who is "never wrong!", she's clearly qualified so why is she causing such a stir? Just because she happens to arrive in the body of "the Tallahassee Tassle Tosser," Mamie van Doren?. Often billed as being to Jayne Mansfield what Jayne Mansfield was to Marilyn Monroe, Mamie underplays with such calm authority that even those who sneer and deride her 'type' would be impressed if they could leave their male sexual panic at the door. Not only can she can carry a film, she can stay cool and grounded, and almost believable as a photographic memory and 13 doctorates-having genius. No doubt she is the right woman to lead this cocakamamie college into the "space age!" She 
can give you the page # of any given text. In short, Thinko is not wrong; she's qualified above and beyond the rest of them. The sparks fly because no one can handle the fact of her hotness. This inability is never depicted as anything but 'their' problem, and reflects perhaps the irrational hostility of critics (similar to the unearned scorn heaped on Myra Breckenridge.

And she's not the only asset: a stunning Tuesday Weld is the college's hitherto raining beauty queen. (she accuses Van Doren of "making every other woman in the world feel flat-chested"). Weld has been trying to get lumpen football star "Woo-Woo" (Norman Grabowsk--a kind of Rick Moranis crossed with a Sherman tank) to swing for first base rather than just srtriking out in a stuttering virgin panic. Trying to help Weld out, Dr. Mamie gives him some good counsel --just one of the surprising moments van Doren handles with a sensitive aplomb, yet hitting all the right comedic notes ("boys with nicknames are usually sensitive"). No wonder Woo-woo ends up falling for her instead of Weld, but it hardly matters much. There's too much else going on for anything to reach that kind of climax, as the film slowly builds to one of the stateroom scene-style 'everyone onstage' madhouses. Even Maila "Vampira" Nurmi is around, though stuck in the role of a sexually frustrated lab assistant, ever machinating to help undercut MVD's sexual status. Her presence alone lets you know you're in the right place.

Oh, oh that Mijano --in a nice color photo
(I couldn't find a good Sex Kittens still that does her justice)

For all Van Doren's range, the secondary romantic lead, Mijanou Bardot (Brigitte's sister!) basically steals the bulk of the sex appeal as a very low key, underplaying version of a sexually voracious Russ Meyer-style exchange student, fout to bed a cross-section of ze American male for her term paper ("what you call ze 'social sciences.") Her forthright availability is the stuff of semi-terrified fantasy. She ends up zeroing in on a "real live Chicago gangster" in the form of Allan Drake as "Legs" --whose grounded 'strictly business' semi-reticence is met with sultry /academic urgency ("Do you want to set science back thirty years!?") He and his pal are there to lean on this guy "Thinko" whose been gambling rather too successfully. Though far from the most interesting of the Mad style cacophony of crazy characters, Drake's rattled "Legs" becomes more interesting purely through his gradual reciprocation of Bardot's unswerving affection, and vice versa a--like some Anna Karina anti-heroine--she even joins the gangsters' side ("Boo-booom Boom! Ventilate him!" and "This dialogue, pure Roaring 20s, no?!")

"I"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet."
"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet" 

And that's good Legs comes around and conquers his sexual panic. Hey, you'd be surprised how many normally red-blooded American males can't handle a beautiful girl suddenly throwing herself at them like a freight train. A man might fantasize all through his pained adolescence about such moments, but if one actually comes--and Lacanians know this all too well--his reaction isn't aggressive cool, but panic; he starts to stutter, spills his drink, and before you know it, finds himself running away, covered in sweat, desperate to get home and begin his lifetime of self-reproach over this one blown opportunity. To go from tortured adolescent longing for this golden chance to tortured adult regret about blowing it is almost a rite of passage; hopefully one can glean the message: the unconscious half of yourself is a spiteful anima out to keep you for herself. 

This is the comedic gold mine understood only by a chosen few in the comedy business. College can be visualized as a zone where fantasy and desire reign free - written by and for people who have only been there in passing, but who looked at all the girls and thought 'man if I was in college I could score with all these chicks,' In this film they suddenly they have to put up or shut up.  The women--namely van Doren, Weld and Bardot--have all the brains and assertive libidos, and the men are reduced to terrified deer in the headlights. Such is the Russ Meyer-esque vein mined by Albert Confessions of an Opium Eater Zugsmith in the long-derided Sex Kittens Go to College. 

L-R: Tuesday, Mijanot, Mamie
I don't have all the answers; I have no idea why this awesome comedy gets such a bad critical rap, unless male critics are too threatened by the idea of a genius bombshell who's not evil, passive, materialistic, or moronic. As of this writing it has a 2.2 on imdb. and Lenny Maltin gives it a BOMB ("don't say you weren't warned!"); Glenn Erikson says "Compared to Sex Kittens, Otto Preminger's Skiddoo is a profound statement on the human condition." An uncredited imdb writer calls it "one of the most legendarily worst films ever produced." But I say, if you've been to college and like to get wasted and love the films of Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, and Roger Corman, and you used to read Mad and Cracked as a kid, then at least consider checking out a film where all those things are rounded out to the uncommon denominator. I think a lot of these low budget zany comedies get a bad rap, especially if they don't have big recognizable directors (like Frank Tashlin or George Axelrod) so that critics can guess how they're supposed to respond. This isn't a guffaw style comedy, but how often did we laugh reading Mad as kids? Half the time we didn't even get the jokes. There were satires of films far too dry and adult for our interest, like The Sandpiper and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.  In that spirit, let Albert Zugsmith be your Alfred E. Newman. 

The Zug was strange figure who could go from producing films like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, and Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, to directing unclassifiable strangeness like Confessions of an Opium Eater, The Beat Generation, and Sex Kittens Go to College. He also produced Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill!  If you don't see that list is all connected, then you need to learn so very much about the spirit of revolutionary cinematic anarchy in the service of sexual stimulation. (Behind me right as I wrote that phrase a Quaker Oats commercial said "Where new normals are created.") That's the beauty of the Zugsmith touch. Watching Vincent Price sailing madly down the sewer towards Frisco Bay oblivion in Opium Eater for example, leaves us more questions than answers: is it a horror film? A white slavery expose? A surreal odyssey worthy of Bunuel? 

It is all that and more, for you have entered the Zugsmithery. 

The simple fact is, there are so many things to zero in on here in the Zugsmithery that if one element annoys you, there are ten more to delight or flabbergast. For me the most glaring and annoying element in Sex Kittens is Martin Milner (the supposedly hip jazz guitarist who had to have weed planted on him in Sweet Smell of Success) as the college's PR man / sexist hysteric. Talking fast in a kind of high-voiced style, sort of imitating Cary Grant at his most flummoxed in Arsenic and Old Lace, Milner tries to steal scene he's in, as if he's feeling the need to give the film a square 'white fall guy' center to ground the antics, i.e. he's the Tony Randall or Tom Ewell, there to link the film to every other banal "sex" comedy flatlining on big screens around America at the end of the 1950. Rather than letting the women own their scenes, Milner lets a kind desperate flop sweat swell his own lines until they rain all over their lines. He might come out a few yards ahead of Eliot Reid's smarmy detective in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) as far as worst male counterpart to a busty 50s-era comedic titan, but it's mighty close. 

There's one other caveat: I also don't like the cop-out patriarchy-triumphant ending (SPOILER ALERT!), when Mamie hangs up her shingle and goes back to Vegas to continue her tassle-tossing, so that Milner can romance her without feeling threatened. When she says, after giving up on her academic career, "for the first time I feel like I'm really using my brain" one wants to track down writer Robert Hill and beat him senseless with a rock-filled bra. (I feel the same way at the end of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls when smarmy, worthless David Gurian is accepted back into the fold and the murdered lesbians are blamed for their own deaths.) If there's one thing I loathe in these 50s-60s big screen sex comedies it's these young men with clean cut hair and a pipe and an unearned lordly air, as if they believe the Madison Avenue plastic fantastic wave that tells them they--by virtue of their educated SWM status-- have the right to re-enforce patriarchal homogenization when it begins to weaken. Sure, not all these guys are insufferable but the ones that are, like Milner and Reid, becomes more insufferable with every passing day of my work's sensitivity training. Ugh! (Of you can't get enough of my ravings on the topic, check out: CinemArchetype 13: The Skeevy Boyfriend. and Vanishing Caloric Density: The Queen of Outer Space.

 Luckily, there's a kind of masochistic 'turn the audience into feminists' critique going on here, as in Blonde Venus we may not like that he wins in the end, but we're clearly meant to root against the squirmy male who uses the conservative values of the reigning social order to help put a woman in her place for the crime of outshining him in every department. If we come away pissed off, at least we can credit the film for stealthily agreeing with us. We can't help but cheer when she dumps a conga on his head then pours a pitcher of water through it onto his head. Even if she apologizes later, and asks "do you find me... desirable?" so that we roll our eyes and snort derisively, Zugsmith gave us our moment. And we'll never forget it. 

To make certain we know where Zugsmith's sympathies lie, balancing out Milner's forced hysteria there's wondrously wry turns by Jackie Coogan, 'borrowing' W.C. Field's chicane drawl wholesale (even making a Professor Quail-style landing) as the college's key financial supporter, Admiral "Wildcat" McPherson; and John Carradine--proving he isn't limited to shady butlers and secondary Draculas--as a debauched science professor.  We knew Coogan had the comedic goods cuzza Fester, but it turns out Carradine is adept as hell at deadpan Mad Magazine-style comedy, as one of Mamie's firm supporters. Like everyone else except Milner and Nurmi, he's unthreatened by her mix of sex appeal and brains, calling her "a positive vision" while helping her into his faculty-packed jalopy (her chimp sidekick sneaks into the rumble seat) for a night of buzzed carousing (or a "simple homespun country fun"). Destination: "the Passion Pit," the college's local tavern.  To overcome any further doubts as to her qualifications as either genius, Vegas showman or star stripper, Van Doren hypnotizes the gathered faculty and Pit patrons to join her in a crazy rhumba (Conway Twitty watches, and then sings). As she puts it, "this is war and I'm out to wake up the troops!"

Thankfully, no amount of stage show antics can dampen the benevolent and respectful ardor of these older men, who are--essentially--too debauched to be troublesome (the greatest libertines never mash or paw; they won't say no if you make the first move, but otherwise lean in only to spook away the unwanted johnnies). Ah, the vantage point of age and experience! 

Cameo parts and great lines float around ("I'm a selectman of the church!" rants the cop who arrests the admiral when his morality is on the ropes); Charlie Chaplin Jr. is a bewildered fire chief; the imposing and magnificently bullhorn-voiced Babe London arrives in town representing "the Paddy Pad Brassier for the larger figures gal"  - At the end when heading off once more into the great beyond, London drops the ultimate microphone: "You people don't deserve Paddy Pads! I'm taking my brassieres to Europe where they'll be appreciated!"

And over all, it's one of those "What, me worry?" fantasies where all the women are stacked and leggy, but smart and aggressive, and the men more or less idiots. But when you have Coogan and Carradine dancing at a bar, how bad can things get, no matter how much Milner dashes around like some kind of universal chaperone (telling Jayne "You are a bit much for a growing boy to face at nine-AM in the morning.") or the flash-frozen "Woo Woo" mopes and Moranis-izes? Sure, the ending is total chaos as all the disparate parts come together in a big science lab/classroom climax (with the gangsters and Thinko finally squaring off) but at least half the gags hit home and if you don't really laugh, well, one of the beautiful gals is usually onscreen to rest your eyes on while you wait for the next zany character to come tumbling into the scene. For all its faults, I think I like it better, as a whole, than either Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which has an icky homophobic  subtext) or The Girl Can't Help It (which has an icky Tom Ewell smarm). Sure it's not as good as Lord, Love a Duck but what is? Even that's not perfect, though it sure is Milner-less.

The question is, does Sex Kittens link up with Opium to delineate and auteur style for the Zugsmith? Maybe not, but it does indicate a termite interest in veering from audience expectation and letting the sewer carry us where it may, no matter how far afield from the norm. If Vincent Price were to show up, waving an opium pipe as he sails past on a Chinese character floatation device, on his way to Dr. Goldfoot-fame, we might well be convinced. Maybe you you can't pin high hopes on it, maybe it's not any better than 1962's Invasion of the Star Creatures but if you can tolerate that (and I can) you should know there's plenty of the old galaka-zoom and maybe even some ring-a-ding dinkiness to be found at the Zugsmithery. Best of all, there's full-bodied and nuanced performances from Bardot (casually carnal), Van Doren (sensitive and balanced - she talks, not shouts, further stranding  Milner in the ham flats) and Weld (less to do than in Duck but still ravishing with her spot-on deadpan comic/sexy-fusion alchemical acumen). The three girls, especially Van Doren and Weld (they remained fast friends), project a kind sisterly, lordly benevolence, riding herd over the male students like a college sex-com Red River. Even with the cop-out coda, this baby is going places, maybe even all of them at once. Follow the lead of professor John Carradine and Jackie Coogan instead of the dopey Milner. A girl with youth, brains, education and hot blondeness is not a threat, a goal, or an object, but a great drinking partner. Let her prove it, and hang on tight. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020


Autumn... despite our current plaga, it means all the best things in life (and death) are now arrived.. especially old dark house movies from the 1930s,

These days, I wonder if I might be alone in this last part. Kids today don't have to love the old dark house movies, the way we Famous Monsters-reading kids did back yonder. Why would anyone bother treading through such blurry dross when there's every single old horror movie on streaming all the time? And if we don't get used to the genre and learn to love its creaks and groans, how can mild chills like Cat and the Canary or The Phantom of Crestwood ever resonate like they should?

What is an old dark house movie vs. say, a mystery or a thriller or a straight-up horror movie? Well, just as all of 'modern' country music stems from a handful of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams Sr. (which stem in turn from old string band reels and traditional ballads) so all of the old dark housers are based on a handful of barnstorming mystery plays that used to tour the country in roadshows, The Cat and the Canary (there are at least four film adaptations, including one lost to time "The Cat Creeps"), The Bat (at least two faithful versions and a zillion spinoffs) and The Gorilla. From these three basic plots spins the entire genre (just as the three in turn spring from drawing room mysteries and barnstorming Victorian melodramas). 

What makes an old dark house movie, aside from the old dark house itself? Usually there are a few recurring motifs: a threatening note; the reading of a will; a terrified maid; a shifty-eyed butler; a smart aleck reporter; a gorilla; one or more secret passages; a masked madman; incompetent cops or asylum guards who might actually be escaped mental patients; an imperiled heiress; hidden jewels, greedy heirs forgotten in the will unless the current heir dies or is proven insane; a black cat racing up the stairs, the sound of sheet metal thunder / stock footage lightning cutaways; gnarled or furry hands reaching out towards oblivious heroines as they sleep. One or more corpses! Repeat! ARGH!

For settings they fall back to an era long before the dawn of suburban tract homes, when extended families all lived together in big cavernous houses that were passed down through generations. Today they are mostly all cut up into co-ops but some still exist. If you've ever stayed overnight in one then you know ho creepy it is just waking up in the dark and trying to find the bathroom at night. You can easily get lost in the dark, and if you hear a strange noise it's almost impossible to search for its source. Families can live comfortably together without ever seeing one another. Guests can fill the rooms for long weekends of creeping around long hallways; and if the cops in the foyer hear a scream somewhere above, they may not even be able to find the one who screamed by the time they get up the stairs. Once you split up and search different rooms you may never find each other again). 

The secret panels and hidden lairs are what I think most grabs me. The idea people could be watching you through the walls, and you'd never know it. Or more cozily, vice versa. If you don't believe they're real I can tell you from experience: nearly every single old mansion has them, especially if they were built before or during Prohibition; but no one thinks to look for them. They'd rather say you're crazy when you say someone peered out from behind the bookcase. I've been in two rich kid houses that had hidden rooms adjacent to their bedrooms, secret spaces so quiet and isolated you could do whatever you wanted out of sight or smell from parents. Never before had I seen total freedom just a hidden door away from mind-numbing conservative patriarchal bourgeois repression.

But then, in general, the old ultimate patriarch, the dying old codger in the wheelchair symbolizes the extent of social isolation, of both sides, the rich patriarch's alienating inflexibility -driving his children against him until he only sees them when he's on death's door, their hands outstretched for their inheritances, or the children themselves, who've shut themselves away in hidden lairs of excess, the wealth affording them the freedom to wind up utterly alone in a room full of mirrors. In each case, their massive house becomes void of all but a few weird servants who become as disturbed and jaded as the owner. When forced to face mortality via the old will, only then is this hermetically sealed world of long shadows and empty rooms suddenly thrown open to relatives, cops, and cameras. The cops must pick through the list of suspects in search of where the old man might have hidden the loot or who may have killed him. If you've ever gone through the effects of a dead loved one then you know the weird frisson - like investigating your mother's or father's most private life, everything that was hidden from you all your life. Now, nothing personal is off limits. That's why the number one famous last words of our modern age isn't "forgive me, father," but "hide my porn."  

(1931) Written and Directed by Alan James
***1/2 (or * depending on your tastes)

"Say, that guy ain't no regular butler!"

The saddest eyes in show biz - Niles Welch
One of my new favorites in both the so-bad-it's-good and the old dark house genres, the surreal-comic barnstormer THE PHANTOM (1931) clearly marked a real departure for the mightily-titled Supreme Pictures. They made a lot of silent-era westerns and serials, and moving into sound did not come easy. A lot of their cowboy stock can be seen here, amazed and uncertain how to talk and seem natural while not moving far from the microphone, as if this isn't just the first time they've spoken out loud on film, but the first time they've been indoors. A few of them wouldn't succeed in this new medium, but many -- especially the Lily Lamont-voiced heroine, were doomed...  but you never know, maybe they just weren't into talkin'. 

Consider the opening: the warden's office of a nearby prison. The.... Phantom (the word always comes with pregnant pauses before and after) is next up on death row. The warden talks about the case with a reporter; someone mentions a plane outside, buzzing the yard. Suddenly! Outside the window, ''the Phantom" breaks jail and jumps from the big house wall onto a passing train. A biplane comes roaring overhead, keeping time with the train, throwing down a rope ladder, which the... Phantom... grabs onto and is lifted away to freedom. It's such a great stunt we can't blame Supreme Pictures for recycling it from an old Supreme serial, I presume, since it doesn't really connect with the rest of the picture/ s hard to know for sure if anything connects naturally in... The Phantom... 

And that's why I love it. I love its drift into hissing incoherence, nothing adds up. Though the Phantom's upcoming execution is on all the front pages, and he's a notorious master criminal on death row, once he escapes no one knows what he looks like! It never occurs to anyone to look in the paper, or get his mugshot. All they know for sure is that he threatened to get even with the DA (Wilfred Lucas) for sending him up the river. Enter rock-hard Sgt. Collins (Tom O'Brien) assigned as his bodyguard. Meanwhile the DA's society reporter daughter Ruth (Allene "Sweetheart of San Antonio" Ray), one of the talkies' immanent casualties, her tipsy nasal bubbly speaking voice she sounds like a lot like Lily Lamont in Singin' in the Rain. Did Jean Hagen see this movie?

At any rate, she's nicer than Lamont, and a career girl and her sad-eyed boss, Sam Crandall (Niles Welch -upper left). the coolest character in the film, for some reason says he's in love with her. One wonders many things about this deep-eyed actor: did he have a death in the family before shooting started? Was he still treating early sound recording like it was 1929, when you had to speak... slowly... and... clearly with... many pauses... ? Or is he just too drunk to remember his lines and is being fed them through some whispering prompter? Whatever the reason, he has a distracted melancholic gravitas that perfectly fits being put in the odd position of being asked by Ruth, who he hoped to marry, to promote square-jawed cub reporter, Dick (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) so Dick can be successful enough to marry her. "So... if I give Dick the job," intones Sam, gradually adding it all up for those who fell asleep, "you... and he... will be married?" (she nods, clearly thrilled). 

Just to let you know, he's the real hero of the story, in my opinion, because he does put big Dick on the big story that will give him his promotion. And guess what story? Find... the Phantom!

it's a mystery this time, pardnuh! 
Poor Sam, he's really better off without this girl Ruth. We never get why a cool Britt Reid / Lamont Cranston -style man about town would be into an overdressed, tipsy elf-voiced little heiress like her, aside from she's the only girl in the movie (not counting her comic relief maid). At least she and Big Boy Williams clearly have some chemistry. Sure, he's twice her height, but if she stays on her horse it would work. And she no doubt ride a horse a lot in earlier Supreme pictures, and was a rancher in real life, as was Big Boy. He comes off best, his hard edges help give him an inscrutable, dangerous air, like the director wants us to think he might be... the Phantom... (as far as being a reporter, on the other hand, he doesn't give the impression he knows how to hold a pen, nor do we ever see him try). 

Supreme made naught but a handful of pictures after The Phantom and as far as I'm concerned it's a shame. Clearly uncomfortable having to remember lines or speak clearly, everyone in the cast plays these stock old dark house characters-- from the terrified maid to the passive-aggressive butler "James"--like they've never seen a sound movie before, lending the whole thing an endearing air of primitivism that's just this side of priceless. This extends to Allan James' direction and the camerawork as well, the framing of each scene is so inept it skirts back around to brilliant. Characters swingle and dingle in corners of the screen during long static shots. Every element is slightly off, even the silence. 

The hissing of the 'room tone' in early sound films is, for some of us, a thing of joy. The room tone in The Phantom is almost a character in itself. It's like we're hearing what air sounds like for the first time, and we're amazed how easily people can walk through it without seeming like they're underwater. When they do finally speak, it's slowed, careful, as if they don't... quite.... trust... that words will carry through this thick aether). 

I think too there's something cool about cops trusting the adult judgement of civilians, and giving them guns; I like that nearly every male is armed, like they'd be in a western, and have no problem barging into places, skulking in and out of passageways and swimming through the thick crackling and hissing air. It's meant to be a mystery, so you're not supposed to know if Dick is... the Phantom, or Sam Crandall is... The Phantom or... is it that short guy who runs around with his face covered in a black slouch hat and a or is it the little hunched over guy  (Sheldon Lewis) who looks just like The Shadow crossed with Chico Marx?  Waving his big oogie-boogie hands at either Ray or the terrified maid, one suspects him of being..... the Phantom.... but is he? 

Either way, I love him. 

The dialogue is weird, too (including the first time I've heard the use of the word "cool" in a behavioral context in any early-30s film), allowing suspicion to flood the motivations of nearly every character. The relationships are very vague. For proof, here's one of the great, surreal exchanges of vague dialogue between Hampton the DA, and Niles' enigmatic editor (it seems to take five minutes), when reading, remember to hold the .... pauses :
Niles: "Well Mr. Hampton.. (pause). I'm sure you'd like to know what this is all about..."
Hampton:  (pause) "Yes... I would..." (pause)
Niles: (pause) "Well... (pause)... I'll be very glad to explain it..."
Hampton: "Good...(pause) come on and sit down...." (pause)
Niles; (pause) "...OK...." (pause)
(long pause- as they walk over to a sofa)
Beholding the row of failed brain transplants

The last act leaves the mansion and moves off to mysterious psychiatric "rest home," an amazingly dark hall of odd shadows with a dream-like massive palm frond-bedecked reception/waiting area, a hidden operating room, and secret passages galore. Ruth pretends to have fainted to warrant their barging in. Out of the woodwork (in some cases literally) creeps storky William Jackie (below left), whose got buggy Bruce Spence reptilian eyes and and the kind of lean tall body where, were he to turn sidewise, he might well disappear. Jackie is a last act breath of WTF? fresh air. He's got no problem with early sound recording. He just speaks in either a terrible or genuine Swedish accent with a bunch of fractured possible clues buried in his dialogue, if you can understand it. 

Note his surreal exchange with Dick, who insists on staying on script with his answers, regardless of what this crazy Swede might say:

Jackie: "Shhhhh- dis here's a crazy hoose: there's tree tousah why hunda why a men her." (my presumed translation "This here's a crazy house- there's three thousand, five hundred men here")
Big Boy: "What... What did you say his last name was?" 

Jackie: "I say d'ere's 7,777 seasick men here and d'ere all crazy, like me." 

 Big Boy: "ohh"

Jackie: "You know my son, he is the daughter of this here stable." (etc).
The finale gets even 'crazier' once Ruth is spirited away to the secret chamber operating room by the brain transplant enthusiast Dr. Elden, who mulls over the shelf of skulls from his failed attempts with his fey lab partner, the urbane Alphonse . What's truly crazy is that this guy is running an asylum but (SPOILER), if he's the Phantom, how come his two assistants--the freaky Chico Marx as the Shadow guy and Alphonse--didn't notice he was in jailed. It seem unlikely that they were the ones who busted him out, so the end reveal holds naught together. 

The craziness is even more whole-hog when-- moving shakily down the long 'shock corridor' in the dead of night, trying to find the abducted Ruth by shouting her namel--Dick is handed a note reading: "She's in Uncle Tom's cabin." Outside in the garden, the chauffeur is knocked out (by someone else) but wakes up and blames the stork-stepping Jackie and they get in a fight which Jackie presumes is just playful sconce bonking. The end finds the endangered Ruth stalling in the operating chamber while Dick tries to get the secret door combination from Jackie, who would rather tell him the story of "a-Yack and Yill."

The fistfights are all sped up and clearly unchoreographed but it's fun to watch everyone chase each other around sofas and operating tables. Still nothing compares to those great, sad cutaways to Niles, whose monotone expression as Sam Crandall never changes. His eyes wide as if he might any minute be revealed as... the Phantom, he's smart enough to know that the hot tip about the mental asylum is worth investigating, and he brings the cops and the DA along for the ride. 

The big reveal is that old Sam seems to know all about what's going on well before we or anyone else: "Print that Phantom story just as I laid it out, credit... Dick Mallory." He's not the Phantom but just a lovestruck hangdog dude who wants the apple of his eye to be happy... even if it is without him. In other words, Dick Mallory didn't write it, Sam did, before the events it depicts even happened, but Dick gets the credit so he can marry the girl the guy Sam loves... "and take a few weeks vacation to get married." That's how you tell a mensch! "Sam," I say to the screen, "don't worry... with those sad Irish eyes and that tony power position, you're going to get plenty of dolls on your dance card, girls with less squeaky-doll voices and far better taste in furs." 

But for Asher, alas, nothing more in the way of work after this than a few minor parts, just like Ray... and nearly everyone else involved in making... The Phantom. Let us mourn the passing of an era, and give thanks for this strange and eternal keepsake from the era before words, and sense. 

(1930) Dir. George B. Seitz

It's never been on TCM... or DVD, or VHS, or TV, but one can find the 1931 Return of Fu Manchu if one looks hard enough (I finally got to see it on Youtube a few months ago but then it was gone again) and one should. Until then, Drums of Jeopardy offers basically the same plot, and Oland seems to have just as much drunken fun there as he does as crafty Fu. In many scenes, his eyes glisten with the ecstasy of drink. By day he was playing good guy Charlie Chan over at Fox, by night he was slinking out to wreak havoc as Fu Manchu or--in this case, master chemist Boris Karlov (!). Enraged by his daughter's pregnant suicide (she won't name names, but she's hiding a clue, the famous necklace, the "Drums of Jeopardy," a Petrov family heirloom, no doubt stolen and given to her by the craven father; so Karlov crashes a dinner party and stares down the entirety of Russian aristocracy, demanding the guilty Petrov step forward. He doesn't, but Karlov knows it's one of them, so why not kill them all.... one at a to each brother, and father, in return, as receiving one of the "drums" (supposed to denote immanent death --hence the name). Convenient coincidence? Maybe. But very cool. 

Petrov's scene at the restaurant gets him hauled off to jail but.. in a purloined letter brought to the now Moriarty-like Karlov by his right hand man Mischa Auer, we learn he later escaped jail to become a leader of the Bolshevik secret police. He's now hunting Petroffs all over Europe, with a small but very capable squad of men at his command. Very cool. The letter also says what boat to America the remaining Petroffs are taking to escape, allowing Karlov a chance to prepare a warm reception.  

As with the Oland's Fu Manchu films, his motivation may be grief (unlike the Sax Rohmer Fu), but he's clearly having a blast and we're rooting for him and his Trotsky-like right hand man (Mischa Auer) all the way, relishing how they manage to have all the luck (like when the comic relief auntie is sent in her nightgown out to the streets to find a doctor and she runs right into Auer). and loathe the bland and bickering Petroffs and their flatline American aides. Even though he takes way too long to kill the final one good Petroff, allowing him chance to escape with the random girl who dared to help him by calling the cops when he showed up shot and disoriented in her apartment.  The bland good couple may prevail but whatever, the atmosphere is plenty thick, and there's cool moments like sharing a cigarette with the Nayland Smith equivalent (who trusts it's not poisoned--that would be "too easy") 

Oland can get great mileage out of little lines.

"They sent me for a doctor," Auer tells him in their hideout a block or two away.
"Well" says Karlov, "we must not disappoint them." He turns and looks back, "get my hat and coat and my bag... my black bag. "

The endangered Petroff is surprised to see Karlov leaning down over him when they arrive, the comic relief aunt fretting as she shoos them in: "You don't think he's going to die?" 
Karrov: "that would not surprise me... at all."

Too bad then, that the Nayland Smith character arrives to chase them away! But they're not gone long. The Amazon Prime print is pretty good, so dig in! 

(1934) Dir. William Nigh
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C-

"Hindus! Tom-toms! Apes! Haunted Houses!"

the posters for this film are lame so I figured I'd show
this Bernie Wrightston salvia hallucination comic book cover
There's a lot going on with John Pryn (Clay Clement), a super shady archaeologist who robs an ancient temple in India. He's such an entitled colonialist shit he whips the high priest with a riding crop for daring to object to his looting their active temple, causing the old man's prayer bead necklace to break (the beads scatter down the temple steps dramatically). No one seems willing to stop him. The temple dancer girl Chanda (Joyzelle Joyner) likes him and even helps him outrun the temple's pet gorilla. Rather than worry about getting the jewels back, the priest just levies "the Curse of Ka-La" --all who gain from his theft will die horrible deaths at the hands of some giant ape or other (what else do you want from an old dark house movie?). It can only be... "the curse of Ka-LA!" 

Years later the man finally agrees to share his stolen treasure with all of his expedition's investors (or their heirs). The catch, they must remain in his gloomy mansion with him for one year to um.... protect themselves from the curse of Ka-la! Naturally they all start dying in mysterious ways, and what's up with that motionless stuffed (?) ape in the library? And why does he have Chanda around as a kind of spiritual housekeeper/mistress? What's her deal? (She can't be an out and out mistress or wife --miscegenation was still illegal in southern states.)  And the sound of the drums... of Ka-La... keep pounding when it's time for another killing. 

It's impoverished and star-starved but it does zip along. The only caveat is the annoying young insurance salesman heir as the ostensible hero. He thinks he's mighty irresistible, hitting on the now-crippled Mr. Pryn's cute nurse. She tries to ward him off but where's she gonna go to get away? Urgh. So dated. Luckily he has just enough of a Jackie Oakie dab about his cheeks and stances to not totally suck. 

The archaic early sound recording system means long... pauses.. occur between each sentence (it seems to have been made much, much earlier than 1934). The long rambling scene of Pryn rattling off the terms of his release of the entitles hares, and the worry about the terrible curse is a great time to get popcorn or go the bathroom. Exchanges like: "Chanda is a strange person." / "Person? hah! She looks more like Gandhi's ghost" are pretty offensive. Luckily, the sharp-tongued old broad married to the fuddy-duddy professor has some good lines and there's an unspoken lesbian vibe between the faux hypochondriac  psychic"companion" who calls on her spirit guide "Pocahontas", leading to great exchanges between "them" like asking Pocahontas "What is that which afflicts our nostrils and enervates our senses?" / "This night," answers Pocahontas "one of you will go behind the veil." Everyone not currently dead regularly dims the light for seances in the pitch dark until the psychic herself gets a giant ape neck snap. A looney plumber with a big cigar arrives with a line of funny Vaudeville patter. And there's the usual overblown comedy of the dopey cop ("There's been a murder committed here... Who did it?"). 

As with all these kinds of things, there's not a lot of tears shed for those gone beyond the veil and the three cops are each stupider than the last... in fact, this is almost the same blueprint later used in 1939's The Gorilla, except instead of Bela Lugosi as a sardonic butler, there's a dopey plumber walking around with a stogie, and... of course... Chanda! She's a very interesting character in how she ultimately 'last man standing"'s her way to glory! 

(aka Strange Adventure)
(1932) Dir. Phil Witman
*** / Amazon Prime - C

This peppy short little old dark mystery is of special interest since the reporter is very smart and cool and a girl, "Nosy" Noodles (June Clyde). She's not afraid to scoop all her fellow journalists, yet they all think she's "regular". There are a few knowing glances between her and her cop boyfriend Mitchell (Regis Toomey!) and they both definitely know how to ferret out clues and sneak around the big empty house undetected to spy on murders, murderers, and tip-toeing suspects. In fact this is about the easiest piece of detective work ever since there's no dopey habit of being constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Noodles and Mitchell swap banter and he threatens to take her over his knee if she doesn't keep out of his way as he ponders clue-containing documents and sends chicken-eating coppers to round up the usual bickering suspects. Yet he respects her and knows that, like him, she has skills as far as how watch people skulk in the wee hours without them seeing her, leading to a lot of cool little scenes of watching her watch people creep around and pounce on each other, kind of like "Sleep No More" if you ever went to that. (I did, and didn't like it, but I like this). The old duffer, Silas Wayne, who kicks off to set the mystery in motion, is a hateful fool so we surely don't mourn him and there's all sorts of great little touches like a wry bit of fake jewel substitution: Silas realizes his big rock is a glass fake, then the secretary deftly swaps the real one he just stole with the fake so Silas re-test it, then he switches it back when he puts it back in the safe and Silas take it out and tests it again and its fake! Culprit caught!, thus sending for the cops but then he's dead!! And Dwight Frye plays the romantic gigolo nephew! What?! It's barely over an hour and there's even a gooney dude in oversize hood and black sleeves, waving his arms around. My favorite thing ever!

Alas, with racist butlering ministered by 'Snowflake.' He misidentifies a suit of armor as a "night-guard" amongst other things. Well, progress is slow, but look at us now! 

(1931) Dir. Edward Sloman
**1/2 / Youtube Image - C

I've long been a proponent of getting this one remastered and released on disc--for to my recollection it has never been shown on TV, either on TCM or back in the UHF era, and has never been on VHS or even some misbegotten Alpha DVD. For a long time the only proof it even existed was a loving write-up in a classic horror film book I had as a child.  Few critics have written about it since, or waxed sufficiently euphoric over the gleeful 'evil Mae West'-style performance of Lilyan Tashman as Laura, the conniving wife of lily-livered Herbert (Walter McGrail), nephew of the stubborn, premature burial-fearing matriarch Julia (Blanche Friderici) of the once-prominent Endicott clan (their memory evokes Ambersons-style magnificence in the mind of the elderly cemetery groundskeeper across the street). Today, the big house holds only Julia, her only son--a totally deranged but childlike simpleton (hammed through the roof and beyond by the great Irving Pichel) with immense crushing power in his strong hands--and the no-nonsense housekeeper, who has to regularly check the 'alarm horn' inside Julia's waiting tomb. (Fun fact: being buried alive wasn't uncommon in the 1800s and early 1900s, leading to a real life craze for burial horns, visible windows in coffins, easy-escape tombs, etc i.e. Poe wasn't the only one to become obsessed by the horrifying thought of waking up from a coma in a dark oblong box with no one able to hear you scream. 

Anyway, what sets the dastardliness of Murder By the Clock in motion is Julia's foolish idea to--after a bickering row with the maid compels her realize her house would go to brain dead Pichel when she dies-- Julia makes the mistake of changing her will over to her spineless louse nephew Herbert. Making him her prime beneficiary! Not smart, Julia, when he's married to the dollar sign-eyed monster Laura. And so, the night after signing the new will, Julia is murdered... like clockwork! Are we going to hear her funeral horn in the third act? 

I'll never tell. But I will say it would be a great old dark house movie just between Julia's morbid rantings, Pichel's lunatic laughter, the eerie graveyard across the street, and all the midnight creeping around the old mansion. But then you add the divine Tashman. Oh! Oh, that Lilyan! O what a gal!

Plying her strange seductive charms with all the subtlety of a punch in the face, Tashman proves one thing ably: shy men will always let themselves be manipulated by sexually forward women... they're just so grateful not to have to work up the courage tpo bust the first move. With shyness having cut them off from a dozen opportunities in the past, It can be oh so tough for shy guys to resist an assertive girl, even (or maybe especially) if--like Tashman-- she's only slightly attractive (i.e. 'ugly-sexy'). If a really beautiful woman comes onto a man who isn't used to it, the effect can be a kind of uncontrollable terror, stammering and running out the door (followed by weeks of self-reproach). If the shy guy and the hot girl do end up having sex, it's never any good. And I'll tell you why!

See, the hot girl is used to being bedded by expert seducers, which means the hot girl becomes more like a wine snob, used to the very best. A shy guy is too inexperienced to measure up, and she's never been sex-starved enough to savor whatever she gets. But an ugly-sexy lady like Tashman, a cop might figure he could let her seduce him and then arrest her and not feel bad about it. And that's why she's so dangerous. Over the course of the film she first manipulates her husband into killing Julia, then after she's dead, manipulates her sculptor lover into killing her husband. Pichel is blamed for Julia's murder - jailed on suspicion. Tashman's Laura comes to visit him and true to its (pre)code, lets him all but molest her through the bars while convincing him to break out (he can bend the bars with ease) and kill her husband, and/or her sculptor lover - whichever is still alive by then! So he's got every man killing every other man to be with her, just throwing them all into the big gloomy house, hoping none of them will live long enough to rat her out. Hot damn this lady rulez!

And ultimately the thing is, there is no hero or romantic lead to root for which makes it kind of a strange ride: all the men are easily seducible murderers. Only the homicide cop on the case, the Bickford-esque William Boyd, has any integrity.  Julia may have the other sucker's snowed with her ugly-sexy seductive pre-code wiles, but he's not having it. Still, he admires her powerfully for trying and even admits--before hauling her away-- he considered it; some might say Boyd brought a little bit of her cunning relish to his later role as Zolok, the evil ruler of The Lost City (1935), the glint of feral madness in the eyes, maybe. Either way. get this gem onto a good-looking Blu-ray or TCM edition, so we can finally savor it in all its full evil pre-code splendor!
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