Friday, March 24, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Roaring City (1951)

“Murdered men flock to you like flies around a molasses jug, O’Brien,” observes San Francisco cop Inspector Bruger (Richard Travis), having discovered his nemesis, private shamus Dennis “Denny” O’Brien (Hugh Beaumont), lying beside a man who appears to be in the advanced stages of death.  “I could get all the killers in this town by just sticking to you and waiting for the bodies to drop into your lap.”

“You’d be one up on the way you do things now,” is O’Brien’s hardboiled reply…and we’re off to the races with Roaring City (1951)—a Robert L. Lippert-produced programmer whose title seems more fitting for a western than a crime picture.

Hugh Beaumont, Richard Travis
Roaring City is a B-quickie made up of two unaired television episodes from an attempt to bring the Jack Webb radio classics Pat Novak…for Hire/Johnny Madero, Pier 23 to the small screen.  The above dialogue exchange is from the second half of the film; Novak Madero O’Brien is hired by a damsel in distress (Joan Valerie) to pose as her stepdaughter Sylvia’s (Wanda McKay) spouse for a C-note.  It seems that Bill Rafferty (Anthony Warde), Sylvie’s old beau, is back in town and Syl is worried that Rafferty might do something terribly dangerous once he finds out about their marriage.  The unfortunate shmoe that winds up dead alongside the unconscious O’Brien was first introduced to Denny as her cousin Steve…but in his attempt to clear himself of a homicide rap, our hero learns that “Steve” is in actuality Sylvia’s husband.

Stanley Price
The first story in City finds O’Brien hired by skeevy fight manager Harry Barton (Stanley Price) to lay down several $1000 bets on a pugilist named Ham Harper—who’s going to win a fight against Barton’s fighter, Vic Lundy (Greg McClure), because Lundy is going to take a dive in the first round.  Things do not go as planned; Lundy ends up winning the bout (Harper was not in fighting trim…and he had a blood clot near his brain) and is rewarded by being murdered not long afterward.  Like bad Kabuki theater, Bruger is convinced O’Brien is responsible, necessitating that Denny follow the clues pointing to a gambler named Ed Gannon (William Tannen).

Hugh Beaumont is not going to play the sap for Rebel Randall; he's slipped some incriminating evidence into her pocket.
DVD Talk’s Stuart Galbraith IV believes Roaring City is the worst film in the Forgotten Noir & Crime Collection Vol. 4 set (available from The Sprocket Vault), forgetting that it has formidable competition with Radar Secret Service (1950) and Motor Patrol (1950), both in the same compendium.  I’m able to cut City a little more slack because I’m so familiar with its source material…while in the same breath recognizing that a TV show based on Jack Webb’s waterfront creations probably wouldn’t have had much success.  The dialogue on Novak/Madero is a hilarious parody of hardboiled detectives…and while City faithfully reproduces this (leafing through a drawer, Beaumont’s O’Brien finds a calendar featuring models “who posed without telling their mothers”), visually there’s very little director William Berke can add to the proceedings.  Seriously, you could close your eyes while this movie is on and miss very little of the action…particularly since O’Brien’s voice-over narration tells you all you need to know (and in more than one instance, is repeated again in dialogue with other characters).

Hugh Beaumont is roughed up by henchman Abner Biberman and serials hoodlum Anthony Warde (the poor man's Ted de Corsia).

Ed Brophy has been given his bottle, and he's ready for bed.
Galbraith disses my man Ed Brophy, whom I have applauded in previous reviews for Danger Zone (1951) and Pier 23 (1951) for attempting to do something out of his wheelhouse in his portrayal of “Professor” Frederick Simpson Schicker, O’Brien’s frequently inebriated confidant:

Brophy's character is a real oddity. The actor had a thick Brooklynese accent that was instantly recognizable; he was short, bald, and bug-eyed - ideally suited for none-too-bright comic henchmen parts. But here someone got the bright idea to cast him as an erudite (if alcoholic) British professor (Red Flag! Red Flag!) who speaks floridly, gesturing like John Barrymore. Brophy plays it with an English accent, but some of the woids don't quite come out right. The effect is bizarre: it's like when Stan Laurel bonked his head in A Chump at Oxford and started talking like C. Aubrey Smith.

Hey…I’ll admit Brophy is no Tudor Owen—but give the man props for not being afraid to experiment.  Next week on the blog: I’ll wrap up the “Forgotten Noir” series with Sky Liner (1949).  When that’s finished—TDOY will resurrect the long-dormant feature “Crime Does Not Pay (As Well as It Used To).”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

On the Grapevine: The Perfect Clown (1925)

Because I had developed little to no interest in athletics (football, baseball, etc.) in my formative years, my adolescence was occupied by my mania for movies—with a minor in silent film comedy.  As such, my initial education on Larry Semon—who, during his prime, was second only to Chaplin in terms of moviegoer popularity—was fueled by reading reference books penned by Walter Kerr (The Silent Clowns) and Leonard Maltin (The Great Movie Comedians).  Kerr’s recollections of seeing Semon’s feature film The Wizard of Oz (1925) were summed up by this terse statement: “It is a film that ought to have bankrupted everyone associated with it.”

Larry Semon
I didn’t have access to any of Larry’s shorts and features at that stage of my cinema development (the initial run of PBS’ Silent Comedy Film Festival had come and gone), so it wasn’t until I was much older that I was able to sample the comedian’s work with shorts like The Sawmill (1921) and Golf (1922).  Director Norman Taurog, who helmed many of Semon’s comedies (including Sawmill), bluntly assessed Larry’s talent thusly: “He wasn’t funny.  That’s honest.  I loved the man but he wasn’t funny.”  But this does Semon a disservice: I think many of his short comedies have their moments (I like The Sawmill a lot), even though I would agree with Maltin that the comedian was “cold, and his constant use of such stunt men as Bill Haubor kept his comedy at arm's length from the audience.”

Larry Semon has been the subject of reassessment (notably a comprehensive series of Classic Images articles by film historian/friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts published in 1999) in recent years—Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen, written by Claudia Sassen, goes a long way towards meticulously chronicling the funster’s “quick rise to film comedy fame, his manic scramble to stay at the top, and his painful decline by the late ’20s,” as my Classic Movie Blog Association colleague Lea relates in her Silent-ology review.  I also think that Steve Massa—author of Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy—has a spot-on take on the onscreen Semon:  “His screen character was pure clown with windup toy movements, chest-high balloon trousers, clodhopper shoes, and a bowler hat, topped off with heavy white make-up on his horse face that made him look like a slapstick version of Nosferatu.”  (I’m not going to lie to you: the Nosferatu reference made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in a Larry Semon comedy.)

I’m prefacing this review of The Perfect Clown (1925) with all this critical commentary because I must be brutal in my honest assessment of this film.  It’s not very funny.  The plot, which focuses on young stockbroker Larry Ladd’s (Semon) attempts to protect a satchel containing $10,000 when he’s unable to deposit the contents at the bank in time, is stretched out over 51 minutes…and I have never been so happy to see a movie end in my experience.  This would have made a so-so two-reel comedy (though I probably would have played it safe and cut it by a reel), but the material simply cannot maintain its feature length.

I had two brief periods of amusement: I smiled at a gag in which Larry, tightly clutching his money-filled briefcase, lays the contents down on the running board of an automobile after knocking a woman down, her parcels scattered on the sidewalk.  He gallantly helps her collect her things while the vehicle continues down the street.  Noticing his briefcase is gone, Semon experiences a mild panic attack before realizing what’s happened, and he goes running off in pursuit of the car.

The other bit that produced a more substantial titter is also automobile-related: Larry and his sidekick (Spencer Bell, embarrassingly billed as “G. Howe Black”) have had their car commandeered by a pair of cops looking for two escaped convicts.  (Larry and “Snowball” are wearing those same stripey prison pajamas—how they got into them is a plot point you wouldn’t believe even if I explained it to you with charts and graphs.)  Larry feigns car trouble, so the police appropriate another vehicle…and once they’re gone, the two “convicts” continue their mad dash (Larry is obsessed with getting the money bag back to his boss).  They round a corner…and there are the two cops, experiencing real car trouble.  Seeing as how their first choice of transport is working again, the gendarmes hop back in.

Much of The Perfect Clown is preoccupied with “fright” gags that wouldn’t have passed muster in a Columbia short.  I know that many film fans advocate you shouldn’t watch comedies without an audience, but in the case of this movie I honestly don’t see where it would make a difference.  Clown will generate some slight interest in that Oliver Hardy (billed as O.N. Hardy, which also made me grin) has a small role as “Babe” Mulligan, the son of Semon’s character’s landlady (Kate Price).  Frank “Fatty” Alexander, later a member of the “Ton of Fun” trio, also appears briefly in the beginning as the man with a novel method for rug beating.

I don’t want this review to sour anyone on exploring the surreal comic world of Larry Semon; the straight dope is that feature films were not his strong suit, and after several flops he returned to the two-reeler arena, where as Massa observes he “panicked and began repeating his old gags ad nauseum.  This bankrupted him financially and emotionally, which led to a nervous breakdown and his death from pneumonia in 1928.”  (Most tragic, since Semon showed much potential as a character actor on the strength of a semi-serious turn as “Slippy” in the 1927 gangster film Underworld.)  As such, I’d be most hesitant to recommend a purchase of this film from Grapevine Video…though there is a small saving grace in that The Perfect Clown is paired with a classic Lloyd Hamilton short, Move Along (1926)—which I first saw on the aforementioned Silent Comedy Film Festival in those cherished days of my youth.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Behind the Door (1919) Blu-ray/DVD Giveaway

It’s been a little over a month since we’ve handed out some excellent swag here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…so I thought I’d rectify the “fabulous prizes” drought by announcing a swell opportunity for members of the TDOY faithful to win a copy of Behind the Door (1919)—an upcoming release (due out April 4) from the hardest-working folks in the classic film heritage business: Flicker Alley.

If you make regular visits to this humble scrap of the blogosphere, you know that Flicker Alley is responsible for more than a few of the movies I’ve reviewed here in TDOY’s silent film showcase on Thursdays; past feature films written up on the blog include Victory (1919)/The Wicked Darling (1919), Tol’able David (1921), and Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924).  In addition, I’ve given titles like Children of Divorce (1927), The House of Mystery (1921), and Too Late for Tears (1949) the “Where’s That Been?” treatment at ClassicFlix, and the dusty TDOY DVD shelves are adorned with past bodacious Flicker Alley releases like Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies and The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. 1.  From Cinerama to Curtis Harrington, Flicker Alley is dedicating to presenting the finest silent, classic, and eclectic film collections so near and dear to all of us.

This is why I am so pleased and honored to participate (along with so many other great silent and classic film sites) in Flicker Alley’s giveaway for the upcoming April 4 release of Behind the Door (1919) on Dual Format Edition Blu-ray/DVD.

Legendary producer Thomas H. Ince and director Irvin V. Willat made this—“the most outspoken of all the vengeance films” according to film historian Kevin Brownlow—during the period of World War I inspired American patriotism.

Hobart Bosworth stars as Oscar Krug, a working-class American, who is persecuted for his German ancestry after war is declared. Driven by patriotism, Krug enlists and goes to sea. However, tragedy strikes when his wife (Jane Novak) sneaks aboard his ship and is captured following a German U boat attack. Krug’s single minded quest for vengeance against the sadistic German submarine commander (played with villainous fervor by Wallace Beery) leads to the film’s shocking and brutal climax.

This newly restored edition represents the most complete version of the film available since 1919, thanks to the collaboration of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia.

Sourced from the only two known remaining prints and referencing a copy of Willat’s original continuity script, this edition recreates the original color tinting scheme and features a new score composed and performed by Stephen Horne.  Flicker Alley is honored to present Behind the Door on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time ever.

Bonus Materials Include:

•            Original Russian version of Behind the Door: The re-edited and re-titled version of the film that was distributed in Russia, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
•            Original Production Outtakes: Featuring music composed and performed by Stephen Horne.
•            Restoring Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door: An inside look at the restoration process with the restoration team.
•            Kevin Brownlow, Remembering Irvin Willat: Directed by Patrick Stanbury, an in-depth interview with renowned historian and honorary Academy Award® winner Kevin Brownlow on the career of director Irvin Willat.
•            Slideshow Gallery: Original lobby cards, production stills, and promotional material.
•            12-page Booklet: Featuring rare photographs and essays by film historian Jay Weissburg, film restorer Robert Byrne, and composer Stephen Horne.

Official Release Date: April 4, 2017

Giveaway Hosted By:

Co-Hosted By:

One lucky winner will receive a copy of Behind the Door (1919) on Dual‑Format Edition Blu‑ray/DVD from Flicker Alley! Giveaway is open to residents of U.S./Canada and ends on April 12, 2017.

Leave a comment on this post after watching the trailer, and let me know what you think!

Adventures in Blu-ray: Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)

In 1922, motion picture audiences were treated to The Man from Hell’s River, the first of a myriad of feature films and serials starring a German Shepherd that had been rescued from a World War I battlefield by American soldier Lee Duncan.  Following in the paw prints of the earlier silver screen canine known as Strongheart, the new movie star hero known as Rin Tin Tin would work steadily until his death in 1932.  (The dog’s progeny, Rin Tin Tin, Jr., picked up the slack after that…though many have suggested that Rinty, Jr. wasn’t as talented as his old man…er, dog.)  The Rin Tin Tin films were an economic shot-in-the-arm for the fledgling Warner Brothers film studio, and in addition, jump-started future studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck’s early career in “the flickers.”

The history of this incredible canine movie star inspired writer Cy Howard (creator of radio’s My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi) to pen a story entitled Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Warner Bros.  Howard hired Arnold Schulman to collaborate on a screenplay, maybe because fellow comedy scribe Parke Levy once remarked of Cy, “Cy Howard couldn’t write his own name.”  (Ouch.)  While producer David Picker was employed at Warner’s, he took an interest in the Howard-Schulman project…and when Picker moved onto a job at Paramount, he took the property with him.  Naturally, the change of studio venue dictated that name of the movie had to change…and while it was known at one time as A Bark is Born (I wish they had gone with this one…but they abandoned it because of the A Star is Born remake in production at the time) it eventually became Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).  (She does not receive screen credit, but longtime Lily Tomlin collaborator Jane Wagner also worked on the script since Tomlin was at one time scheduled to play the role that eventually went to Madeline Kahn.)

Jackie Coogan, Aldo Ray, Madeleine Kahn
Hollywood, 1923.  Aspiring movie actress Estie Del Ruth (Kahn) befriends a German Shepherd who has managed to crash out of the city dog pound…but is upset because she believes the pooch is putting a serious crimp in her silver screen ambitions.  Au contraire—when the dog rescues her from the lecherous advances of a studio worker (a cameo by Aldo Ray), New Era Pictures president J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney) gets the idea to make that mutt a star, spurred on by the enthusiasm of a would-be writer-director (Bruce Dern) who answers to “Grayson Potchuck.”  The canine, promoted on theatre marquees as “Won Ton Ton,” becomes a big name in motion pictures and Grayson goes along for the ride as New Era’s directing wunderkind.  But the success of both man and dog are due solely to Estie, the only person Won Ton Ton will listen to…and complications ensue when the eccentric Fromberg bans Estie from the set.

Despite this setback, the Won Ton Ton pictures continue to pack theater houses…but rumors start to run rampant in Tinsel Town that it’s Estie who’s the secret behind the dog’s success.  An ill-advised decision to team Won with silver screen sensation Rudy Montague (Ron Leibman) in a feature film just may be the catalyst that kills the career of one of Hollywood’s most endearing success stories.

Bruce Dern
In his memoirs, actor Bruce Dern remarks that he initially found the script for Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood hilariously funny.  Dern, a man known for his conservatism and disdain for the counterculture (despite appearing in a lot of movies in the 1960s that dealt with this theme—The Wild Angels, The Trip, etc.), doesn’t seem like the kind of individual with a substance abuse problem…so you should sort of wonder what kind of hallucinogenic drug he was on to come to this conclusion about Won Ton Ton.  It’s an incredibly flat comedy; there are some inspired bits here and there (when the dog is scheduled to be put to sleep at the pound, a priest [Andy Devine] walks “the last mile” with him) but the movie seems to mostly feed on the nostalgia boom prevalent in pop culture at that time (the surprise box office success of the That’s Entertainment! and That’s Entertainment, Part 2, for example).

You can make a strong argument that a more accomplished director with a solid background in movie comedy could have made more out of Won Ton Ton—even though Michael Winner had romps like You Must Be Joking! (1965) and The Jokers (1967) on his C.V., he’s probably better known for the Charles Bronson smash Death Wish (1974) (and other Bronson hits like Chato’s Land and The Mechanic [both 1972]).  Winner proves startlingly inept at staging comedic scenes, and the editing (by Bernard Gribble) in Won Ton Ton doesn’t do the laugh quotient any favors, either.  But ultimately, the schizophrenic script (it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a Hollywood spoof, a paean to the silent era, or a Disney-like family film) is responsible for doing in the finished project: make no mistake—it takes a deft hand mining laughs from touchy subjects like transvestism, prostitution, and doggie suicide.  Furthermore, it adopts the “big-destruction-is-funny” gospel of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963—a movie I do like even though its reputation is obscenely inflated) to unnecessary extremes—seriously, people…you don’t always have to blow things up real good.

Johnny Weissmuller
So why would I recommend Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood to classic movie fans?  Well, like the aforementioned World, Won Ton Ton features a cornucopia of celebrity cameos that although Leonard Maltin dismissed them as “pointless” I feel they’re the picture’s only saving grace.  There’s something immensely satisfying in seeing the great William Demarest (his last film appearance) in a brief bit as the guard at the studio gate, or Jackie Coogan and Johnny Weissmuller (also his swan song) as stagehands.  (One of the subtlest gags in the film is that Carney’s studio head is always spotted with a different woman at his side at various social/publicity events…and those bits of “arm candy” are portrayed by Gloria DeHaven, Ann Miller, Janet Blair, and Cyd Charisse.)  Broderick Crawford is an SFX artist (his specialty is dynamite); Fritz Feld (complete with mouth pops) is a servant; Dennis Day delivers a singing telegram; Harry and Jimmy Ritz (the Ritz Brothers) masquerade as cleaning women (I will not apologize for laughing at this, particularly when studio guard Mike Mazurki notices one of them is sporting a moustache); Huntz Hall a moving man (his fellow Bowery Boy, William “Billy” Benedict, can be spotted on Dern’s tour bus); and John Carradine a skid row bum.  The only cameo that didn’t work for me is Edgar Bergen as the burlesque performer (Professor Quicksand) who acquires Won Ton Ton…and mistreats the dog terribly.  (That left a bad taste in my mouth…though Bergen’s performance is accompanied by a brief glimpse of the indestructible Regis Toomey as a stagehand.) 

It’s just a hell of a lot of fun seeing both Stepin Fetchit (as the manservant who does a little trucking when Kahn and Dern move into their mansion) and Walter Pidgeon play butlers in this film that Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk aptly describes as “an endlessly fascinating car wreck of a film.”  Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood was originally released to DVD in 2008, but has been resurrected by Olive Films this week (yesterday) to make its Blu-ray debut (many thanks to Bradley Powell for the screener).  My fellow classic movie mavens are going to want to add this to their library for the star-gazing thrill, and remember: “Success is nothing without the dog you love to share it with.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Delinquents (1957)

“They try to tell us we’re too young…” That lyric from the classic Nat King Cole song has special resonance for young Scotty White (Tom Laughlin) …because the parents of his best girl, Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard), have requested that he no longer date her.  It’s not that Scotty is an inappropriate suitor for Jan’s attentions—they just feel that a girl her age (she is sixteen, going on seventeen—as another song goes) shouldn’t be “going steady.”

Despondent, Scotty cracks under the strain of his teenage angst and goes on a three-state killing spree.  No, I’m just kidding about this—but he does hook up with a crew of young lawbreakers more than up to that particular task at his local drive-in.  Bill “Cholly” Charters (Peter Miller) and his gang step in to keep Scotty from taking a right pummeling from some other rough boys (even though Cholly’s pal Eddy [Richard Bakalyan] is responsible for the event that snowballed into the fracas), and a grateful Scotty allows Cholly to help him out with a bit of dating subterfuge: Cholly will masquerade as Jan’s new boyfriend, and pick her up at her home to take her to the movies.  Once they’re out of sight from her folks’ house, Scotty will take the baton from Cholly and continue the date portion of the evening.

Cholly snows Mr. and Mrs. Wilson (James Lantz, Lotus Corelli) with a yarn about working as an apprentice stockbroker (that reminds me: I should probably invest in hoodlum futures), and once he’s collected Jan, he persuades Scotty to attend a “party” that’s scheduled to be held at a seemingly abandoned house in the woodsy part of town.  Janice isn’t particularly wild about the idea…and her instincts prove right on the money: there’s drinking!  And dancing!  To raucous hopped-up jazz music!  Why…it’s almost as if this new crowd that’s adopted our young lovers are…delinquents!

Before he became the critically-acclaimed director of such films as MASH (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975), Robert Altman held the megaphone on a low-budget teensploitation flick known as The Delinquents (1957), filmed in Altman’s hometown of Kansas City, MO (depending on the source, the budget ranged from $45,000 to $63,000).  Motion picture exhibitor Elmer Rhoden, Jr., president of the Commonwealth Theaters chain, wanted to reap some of that sweet, sweet drive-in cash and hired Bob (who had been making industrial films and docs locally for The Calvin Company) to tackle the project; Altman scouted locations, cast the film, and cranked out the screenplay (inspired by j.d. movie successes like The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause) in about a week.

Many of Delinquents’ actors were local Kansas City-ians of Altman’s acquaintance (his then-wife Lotus Corelli plays Mrs. Wilson, while their daughter Christine essays the role of Sissy, Scotty’s kid sister) but Bob and Elmer made a pilgrimage to The Golden State to find more practiced thespians who could play the three male leads.  Peter Miller, who portrays Cholly, had not only appeared in Blackboard and Rebel but had on his resume Forbidden Planet (1956) and Crime in the Streets (1956).  Character veteran Richard “Dick” Bakalyan (as Eddy) had his first important dramatic film turn in Delinquents; he would later appear in such films as Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and Chinatown (1975)…but he’s probably best known as “Cookie” in the Walt Disney Studios’ “Dexter Riley” trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969—though he’s called “Chillie” in this one), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).  (Andrew “Grover” Leal humorously refers to Dick as Disney’s “Everyhench.”)  In addition, Bakalyan graces the cast of The Cool and the Crazy (1958), also produced by Rhoden, Jr. and directed by TDOY idol William Witney.

The star of The Delinquents (as Scotty) was Tom (Tommy) Laughlin—it was not, as previously reported, his feature film debut (Laughlin was also in These Wilder Years and Tea and Sympathy), but it served as an important launch pad for a motion picture career that would later be defined by the 1967 biker classic The Born Losers and cemented by 1971’s Billy Jack (Tom plays the same character in both movies), a film that has an inexplicable cult following.  (Laughlin’s Billy Jack is a man dedicated to teaching peace and non-violence by beating the stuffing out of anyone who looks at him cross-eyed.)  Billy Jack was such a monster box office hit that it led to a slate of follow-ups: The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977), The Return of Billy Jack (1986), and Billy Jack at Waikiki (1990).  (Um…I think this last title may be incorrect; I may have it confused with a “Ma and Pa Kettle” vehicle.)  In later years, Altman might have regretted selecting Laughlin for his movie; the two repeatedly clashed during the making of Delinquents, with Bob memorably describing the star as “an unbelievable pain in the ass.”

Absent the problems with Laughlin, Altman’s film went smoothly: The Delinquents was put together in three weeks, and the finished project was picked up by United Artists (for $150,000) for distribution, ultimately earning a nice return of $1 million.  But Bob wouldn’t look upon his debut feature with fondness in later years; UA altered the ending and included some sappy Crime Does Not Pay-like narration at the movie’s conclusion, which the director didn’t find out about until he attended a preview of the movie.  Delinquents played mostly at drive-ins, but it did attract the notice of The Master of Suspense—who hired Altman to direct episodes of his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and that led to future assignments on boob tube classics like The Millionaire and Combat!).  Still, when London’s National Film Theatre put together a retrospective of Altman’s work in January of 2001, The Delinquents was noticeably absent (a program note stated that Altman preferred that it not be seen).

Is the movie terrible?  No, it isn’t—unless you have loftier expectations from a drive-in teen flick.  What’s very impressive about The Delinquents is the level of professionalism present in such a low-budgeter; Altman demonstrated with this debut that he was a talent to watch, even though devotees may be disappointed at the lack of a film signature…save for a free-wheeling party scene that previews Bob’s fondness for free-wheeling improvisation.  The acting may be amateurish at times (this tends to happen when you use amateurs) but the black-and-white photography is a standout (cinematographer Charles Paddock noted that Altman suggested he watch The Asphalt Jungle to emulate its style) and again, the overall product is quite polished.  (The music from KC’s own Julia Lee and the Bill Nolan Quintet Minus Two in the opening nightclub scene is first-rate, too.)

The Delinquents makes its Blu-ray/DVD debut today, courtesy of Olive Films—“a boutique theatrical and home entertainment distribution label” (according to the company) that has made many their releases available to this humble scrap of the blogosphere (thanks to Bradley Powell) to review from time to time.  Fans of Robert Altman (and believe me—there’s an army of them out there) will want to add this to their video shelf so that they can truly appreciate a major filmmaking talent learning his craft.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Treasure of Monte Cristo (1949)

Edmund Dantes (Glenn Langan) has no sooner stepped off a boat (on which he’s employed as a second mate) docked along San Francisco’s waterfront when he must come to the rescue of a woman being attacked by a pair of goon-like gentlemen.  The female in question is Jean Turner (Adele Jergens), an heiress who’s currently receiving mail at a sanitarium (or “nuthouse,” as Dantes colorfully refers to it) because her guardian has placed her there to keep her from receiving the substantial fortune left to her by her father.  Jean cashes in when she’s either married or reaches the age of twenty-five; she mentions to Edmund that she’s nearly there, age-wise (yes, I knew Jergens was in her early thirties when this film was produced), but if the two of them were to tie the knot she could defeat her custodian’s eevill scheme.  (It would be a temporary business arrangement.  A three-month merger.)

Glenn Langan, Robert (Bobby) Jordan
So they’re off to “The Biggest Little City in the World” (Reno), and the morning after, Jean is having second thoughts.  When Ed ventures out to get her some cigarettes, he discovers upon his return that she’s vanished…but the address of the sanitarium has been scrawled on the mirror in lipstick.  (If Jean was abducted…wouldn’t the people putting the snatch on her notice something like this?)  Arriving at Casa del Cuckoo, Dantes hides in an upstairs room in the asylum when a man enters…and is shot by an unseen assailant.  This makes Ed The Amazing Colossal Patsy (actor Langan is known for his starring role in the 1957 cult sci-fi film The Amazing Colossal Man), as he’s arrested, tried, and sentenced for the murder of a man he’s never even met!  (Worst.  Honeymoon.  Ever.)

Adele Jergens
Despite its clunky title, which would be more fitting for a swashbuckling epic, Treasure of Monte Cristo (1949) is a decent noir whose only deficits are flabby pacing (I was kind of disappointed in director William Berke, who can usually make these little programmers hum) and uneven performances.  Far be it from me to want to deny actor Glenn Langan a career in show business…but the guy is in dire need of a charisma transplant (I know, he did quite a few biggies at Fox, like Forever Amber [1947] and The Snake Pit [1948]); a better leading man would have improved this picture enormously, and I’m only saying this because I have a thing for Adele Jergens.  (Adele and Glenn have zero chemistry.  Zip.  Nada.)

Margia, Margia, Margia! (Dean, that is.)

“If you love or live in San Francisco, this movie's like a time machine back to 1949,” observes Stuart Galbraith IV in his review at DVD Talk…and I think that’s another deficit in Treasure—it’s more of a travelogue at times than movie thriller.  (A narrator at the beginning even regales us with some Frisco stats before the story gets underway.)  Shooting on location is always nice in a film, but it shouldn’t overshadow the plot…which is conventional to the point of cliché from the get-go.  (There’s even a scene with a paralyzed victim who must communicate by moving his eyeballs.)  I wasn’t quite as taken with the suspense as Galbraith; truth be told, I had a little trouble staying awake at several points in the film.  (You could argue that the suspense is generated by “will he be able to keep from nodding off?”)

Steve Brodie
Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys fans will be amused at the presence of Bobby Jordan (billed here as Robert), portraying the friend who helps Langan crash out on his way to San Quentin—I’ve seen Jordan in a couple of Tales of Wells Fargo episodes of late, and can’t help but be a little wistful at how his adult life turned out (I think Leo Gorcey once remarked that his friend “didn’t have a guardian angel”).  Familiar movie heavy Steve Brodie plays the bad guy (pro-tip: never hire an attorney sporting a pencil-thin moustache) and member-of-the-TDOY-faithful b piper will be overjoyed to see Lippert “good luck charm” Sid Melton (billed as Sidney) as a henchman (thankfully, he keeps the shtick to a bare minimum).

Heeeeeeeeeeere's Sidney!

There’s a DVD disclaimer at the beginning of this film that reads: “The original nitrate negative to this picture had decomposed, but fortunately a master positive survived.  Even after restoration the sound track is not perfect.  We hope this imperfection will not affect your enjoyment of this rare film.”  It did not (though the part about the sound concerned me to where I waited until the cleaning ladies finished vacuuming), and it just reinforces what has become a mantra here on the blog: film preservation is most important, because nitrate won’t wait.  You can purchase a copy of Treasure of Monte Cristo on the Forgotten Noir & Crime Collector’s Set Vol. 4, available at The Sprocket Vault.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Eagle has landed

I had originally scheduled a huge silent film epic for review in this space today.  (Okay, it’s not that epic—it was gonna be Way Down East [1920].)  But since my Tales of Wells Fargo DVR project continues apace, I decided to grab something short and sweet for the blog’s silent movie spotlight today…and that’s when I came across a DVD of The Eagle (1925), an Image Entertainment disc that I purchased back in 2009 and have now freed from its shrink wrap exile.  (Do not judge me.)

Rudolph Valentino
The movie tells the tale of one Vladimir Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino), a lieutenant in Russia’s Imperial Guard during the reign of Catherine the Great.  A heroic rescue of Mascha Troekouroff (Vilma Banky) and her Aunt Aurelia (Carrie Clark Ward), who are at the mercy of a runaway carriage, does not escape the notice of the Czarina (Louise Dresser)—who rewards Vlad with one of her prized horses (coincidentally, the one he jumped on to save Mascha and Auntie) and is prepared to repay him with much, much more (she can make him a general!) if he only acquiesces to her request that he join her for a royal roll in the hay.  When he politely spurns her advances, she puts a price of 5000 rubles on his head.

Vilma Banky, Valentino
Mascha is the beautiful daughter of nobleman Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus), a despotic nobleman who has “liberated” the lands and wealth of Dubrovsky’s father (Spottiswoode Aiken).  Returning home when he receives word that his father is practically through Death’s Door, Vlad arrives just in time to witness the old man snuff it…and makes a solemn vow to avenge the death of the senior Dubrovsky.  In addition, he will assist the victimized peasantry by donning a mask to become Zorro The Black Eagle!  (Music sting)

Dubrovsky gains entry into the House of Troekouroff by posing as Marcel Le Blanc, a tutor hired to help daughter Mascha in French.  (I am not going to lie to you.  I giggled when the title cards referred to “Professor Le Blanc,” for obvious reasons.)  Vladimir is torn between his passionate love for Mascha and his pledged allegiance to bring down her father.  After all, you can’t kill your father-in-law before the wedding—that’s usually reserved for the reception!

My CMBA colleague Fritzi of Movies Silently fame declares that The Eagle is “highly recommended for people who think they don’t like Valentino.”  I think she’s on target with that; I don’t dislike Rudy, but I’ll readily admit that he ranks a little further down on my list of favorite silent movie actors.  But I enjoyed The Eagle so much that I downloaded Valentino’s penultimate film, Cobra (1925), from Epix on Demand during our past freeview weekend and I plan to put that on when I get an opportunity.  (Trying to expand my silent cinema education, as it were.)

What I appreciated so much about The Eagle is that it’s infused with a good deal of whimsy; true to its Robin Hood-like plot, the movie insists on not taking things too seriously and the action-adventure-romance aspects are lightly leavened with humor.  Valentino displays a rather deft touch with comedy in something as simple as attempting to remove a ring from his finger.  The acting highlights in Eagle belong to Louise Dresser, who is fantastic as Czarina Catherine; I just about spit Crystal Light Fruit Punch across the room watching her “seduce” Vladimir (she slyly pours out the wine she’s supposed to be drinking and then pantomimes downing her glass of vino…and Valentino does the same).  (It was Fritzi that reminded me that Dresser is also in another Catherine the Great picture, 1934’s The Scarlet Empress, as Empress Elizabeth; I need to revisit that one sometime soon.)

The laugh-out-loud moment belongs to Albert Conti as Kuschka, Vladimir’s fellow comrade-at-arms; when Dubrovsky runs for the tall grass to put as much distance between himself and the Czarina as possible, Kuschka gladly steps in to become Catherine’s “kept man.”  He even intervenes on his friend’s behalf when Vlad’s captured by Catherine’s soldiers and is scheduled to be executed—Kuschka owes a lot to Dubrovsky because, after all, Vladimir made him a general!  There’s also much hilarity in the sequences where visitors to Kyrilla’s wine cellar find themselves greeted by a formidable pet bear…though admittedly, I couldn’t stop thinking “What happened to the gas man?” since I had just finished that Radio Spirits Jack Benny project last week.

Rudy, cinematographer George Barnes, director Clarence Brown
The Eagle was a shot-in-the-arm to Rudolph Valentino’s flagging film career at the time of its release…but sadly, after only two more pictures (Cobra and 1926’s Son of the Sheik), Rudy would leave this world for a better one at the age of 31 in 1926.  He was most fortunate to have worked with Vilma Banky as his co-star in this film (Banky is drop dead gorgeous, no getting around it—but she’s also able to keep from being overshadowed by “The Sheik”) as well as director Clarence Brown, who later oversaw some of Greta Garbo’s most memorable silents (Flesh and the Devil, A Woman of Affairs) as well as later classics like National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946).

At the risk of sounding like I’m beginning a slow march to fogeydom, I particularly enjoyed this DVD version of The Eagle (I believe the Image disc is now OOP) because it was one of the many movies released under the banner of “The (Paul) Killiam Collection.”  This is how I watched movies in the days before TCM (and we were damned lucky to have them!); on public television (part of The Silent Years), before it was inundated by oil company advertising.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Grey Market Cinema: Black Tuesday (1954)

Convicted racketeer Vincent Canelli (Edward G. Robinson) has a date with “Old Sparky” (in layman's terms, the electric chair).  He’s not, however, going out alone; the state has a doubleheader planned that evening in that they’ll also be frying Peter Manning (Peter Graves), a man who robbed a bank of $200,000…but unfortunately, killed a cop as he was making his getaway.  The governor has offered Manning a ten-day reprieve if he’ll reveal where the missing money is located…but since he’s still going to be sitting down in the hot seat after that pause, Manning sends the gov some sand and pounding instructions.

Hal Baylor, Edward G. Robinson, Alexander Campbell, James Bell
As preparations for “Black Tuesday” (the day when executions are carried out—not to be confused with “Black Friday,” natch) continue, Canelli’s moll Hattie Combest (Jean Parker) schemes with Vince’s top gun Joey Stewart (Warren Stevens) to crash him out.  Their ingenious scheme involves Joey posing as one of the newspaper reporters witnessing the execution, while guard John Norris (James Bell) is persuaded to tape a gun underneath the chair for Canelli’s use.  Why is Norris being so cooperative?  Well, his sister Ellen (Sylvia Findley) has been abducted by Canelli’s mob…and if Norris doesn’t rise to the occasion, it’s lights out for Ellie.

The breakout goes per plan—except for a minor snafu involving Manning being wounded during the escape.  Canelli needs Manning alive—and fortunately for him, there’s a prison doctor (Vic Perrin) among the hostages the mobster has taken—because Peter is the only man who can retrieve all that lovely cabbage.

Despite his incredible versatility as a motion picture actor, Edward G. Robinson is more often than not associated with his portrayal of gangsters in his voluminous resume of films.  From Little Caesar (1930) to Key Largo (1948), Eddie G. was a commanding presence onscreen—the fact that he was never nominated for a competitive Oscar (he had to settle for an honorary statuette, awarded to him posthumously in March of 1973) just goes to show there’s something awfully hinky about that Academy Awards nonsense.  Like his fellow Warner Brothers co-worker, James Cagney, Robinson chafed at being typecast as a gun-toting villain…but let’s not make any bones about it: he was damn good at what he did.

Black Tuesday (1954), which allows Robinson to pull out all the stops in the manner of Johnny Rocco from Key Largo, is an unrecognized movie gem…and the disappointing aspect of this buried treasure is that because it was a United Artists release, it’s often difficult tracking down a nice print (had it been a major studio production, this bad boy would have been released to DVD ages ago).  I bought my copy from Finders Keepers, and while it’s certainly watchable I’ll warn you right now the source copy has really been through the wringer.  But at $6.99, it’s impossible to pass up—I suggest you try and grab this if you can.

Oops. (This will give you an idea.)

Milburn Stone, Jean Parker, Peter Graves, Robinson
As Vincent “King” Canelli, Eddie G. is a man who knows only violence…and the undercurrent in the film (written by Sydney Boehm, who also penned The Big Heat) is that capital punishment may be the only effective way to deal with the Canellis in the world.  (I found the atmosphere surrounding the execution—with reporters jockeying for good seats—a little disturbing.)  One of his hostages is a priest, Father Slocum (Milburn Stone), and Vince has very little hesitation about putting a bullet in Slocum’s brainpan if necessary.  (Slocum: “Listen to me, Vincent…you can’t keep on killing and killing…” Canelli: “No?  Just watch me…”)  The only hint of humanity present in Canelli is his relationship with Hattie (their scenes together briefly reveal Vince's tender side) …but once she’s out of the picture, the snarling primitive in him takes over.

Black Tuesday was directed by Hugo Fregonese, an Argentinian-born director whose career never really caught fire in the United States (I’m a big fan of The Raid [1954], which was also scripted by Boehm and features Tuesday co-star Peter Graves in a small role).  It is pulls-no-punches violent—so much so that it was banned by the Memphis, TN Censor Board in its initial release for its “grimness and brutality.”  Nevertheless, it’s great fun to see Robinson back in the saddle after his movie career in the 1950s was threatened by the House Un-American Activities Committee (sadly, Eddie “named names” …and his starring film roles became fewer and fewer as the decade rolled on); I’d like to see his Vincent Canelli tangle with Cody Jarrett—the menace played by Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Warren Stevens
There are a lot of future small screen faces in Black Tuesday: Graves would go on to star on the likes of Fury and Mission: Impossible, and “Father” Stone was a regular, of course, on the dean of TV westerns, Gunsmoke.  Speaking of westerns, that’s Jack Kelly (as he always insisted in interviews, “Maverick’s brother”) as the reporter who gets kidnapped by Robinson’s gang—one of the hoods is played by TV professor (and co-star on the boob tube oater Black Saddle) Russell Johnson.  Kelly’s character is the guy Warren Stevens’ Joey impersonates (and successfully, since it’s Kelly’s first execution rodeo) …and I must say, they had a lot of luck on their side in their plan to break Robinson’s Canelli out—suppose they had sent one of the veteran reporters instead?  (Stevens, by the way, was also no slouch when it came to TV: he guested on scads of boob tube favorites and had a regular role on Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers.)

OTR veterans Vic Perrin and Harry Bartell are also on hand (Harry is a pilot who’s going to fly Robinson and Company out of the country once they’ve got Graves’ money in their greasy mitts) as are character greats Arthur Batanides, Ken Christy, Edmund Cobb, Frank Ferguson (as the cop handling the hostage situation!), Paul Maxey, Stafford Repp, and TDOY fave William Schallert (also in Fregonese’s Raid).  An uncompromising film from its first frame to its last, Black Tuesday is a great little noir.