Monday, November 30, 2009

“You don’t like me much, huh?”


When the Warner Archive announced that they were releasing all sixty-three Joe McDoakes one-reelers in one honkin’ big box set back in October, I put up a little blurb about this on Facebook…and while the reaction was mostly positive, there was a bit of dissension in the ranks. Author James Neibaur, who will forget more about film comedy than I can possibly ever learn, had a particularly lukewarm response to the news…and when I quizzed him further he offered as his defense was that the shorts were at least “funnier than the Ritz Brothers.” (I took this to mean that Al, Harry and Jimmy represented the nadir of comedic celluloid.)

I’m not entirely ga-ga for los Hermanos del Ritz (they are a bit of an acquired taste) but my yardstick for unfunny comedy teams is measured by the tepid antics of Wally Brown and Alan Carney, two clowns whose previous appearances in films like Kay Kyser’s Around the World (1943) and Lupe Velez-Leon Errol’s Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event (1943) prompted R-K-O to team up the two men in what I can only generously describe as “the poor man’s Abbott & Costello.” (I also like my friend Aaron Neathery’s categorization of Wal & Al as “The Monkees of obscure comedy teams.”) Brown & Carney’s first feature as an official team was The Adventures of a Rookie (1943), a blatant Buck Privates-rip off that makes Laurel & Hardy’s Great Guns look like a masterwork. The two men appeared in a sequel the following year, Rookies in Burma (1944), and wrapped up their hitch in Hollywood service comedies with Seven Days Ashore (1944)—which I happened to catch today as part of the Virginia Mayo birthday tribute.

Ashore gives Brown & Carney top billing, but the story focuses mostly on Gordon Oliver, who plays a gob named Dan Arland, Jr. and is the recipient—along with pals Monty Stephens (Brown) and Orval “Handsome” Martin (Carney)—of seven days of liberty while their ship is docked and repaired in San Francisco. Dan, who’s a bit of a hound, has three girlfriends that he’s constantly juggling in Frisco: Annabelle Rogers (Elaine Shepard), a society deb who was engaged to him but called the whole thing off, and Carol Dean (Mayo) & Lucy Banning (Amelita Ward), a pair of musicians in the all-girl band headed up by Dot Diamond (Marcy McGuire). To decide which cookie with which he’s going to spend his leave time, he composes two notes to Carol and Lucy and has Handsome pick one out of a hat—but wacky complications ensue and both women end up receiving the missives. And if matters weren’t already complicated, Annabelle has returned—she’s staying with Dan’s parents (Marjorie Gateson, Alan Dinehart) during her visit…and Dan decides to have a stab at rekindling the old flame. This turn of events sits none too well with our lady musicians, who serve Dan with subpoenas for breach of promise; Dan fights back by having Monty and Handsome pretend to be millionaires and win Carol and Lucy’s cold little gold-digger hearts…however, the girls fall for Brown & Carney regardless of the fact that they haven’t a red cent. (Yes, I am well aware that falling in love with Brown & Carney requires a major suspension of belief. That’s just the way musicals work, kids.)

Seven Days Ashore differs from the usual Brown & Carney shenanigans in that it’s one of only three B&C films—the others being Step Lively (1944) and Vacation in Reno (1946)—in which the comedic duo do not play “Jerry Miles” (Wally) and “Mike Strager” (Alan), the characters portrayed in the remaining Brown & Carney teamings. That doesn’t make Ashore any funnier than the other films, however, but the movie isn’t completely without merit. There are some first-rate character actors in attendance here, notably Dooley “Sam” Wilson (who sings the As Time Goes By-like Apple Blossoms in the Rain), Margaret Dumont (as a society dowager …surprised?), Claire Carleton, Emory Parnell and Ian Wolfe and blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em bits from Dorothy Malone and Lawrence Tierney. It also has the good fortune to feature Marcy McGuire (whose part should have been much bigger), a sorority sister of all the man-crazy movie dames like Joan Davis, Cass Daley, Martha Raye, etc. McGuire was a popular nightclub entertainer who was cast in a similar R-K-O outing entitled Seven Days' Leave (1942) but whose potential was never fully realized by the studio—her best-known turn is probably as the gal who swoons at the feet of Frank Sinatra in Higher and Higher (1943). She does a couple of swell musical numbers in Ashore, including Sioux City Sue and Ready, Aim, Kiss…and really gets down with her bad self interrupting Dumont’s rendition of Over the Waves with a number she performs with Freddie Slack and his Orchestra, Jive Samba. (The low point of the musical has to be Freddie Fisher and his Band’s The Poor Little Fly on the Wall—performing as “Colonel Corn and His Band,” they demonstrate why there was room enough for only one Spike Jones and His City Slickers.)

Having watched Ashore this morning, there are only two other Brown & Carney vehicles I’ve not seen: Girl Rush (1944) and Reno (which technically isn’t a Brown-Carney match up since they share no scenes together in the film, according to Wikipedia). Of the B&C encounters I have witnessed, I’d have to say that Step Lively is probably the best; again, they’re supporting comics (to stars George Murphy and Frank Sinatra) instead of the main draw but they manage not to be too obnoxious—though I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I’d prefer watching the original source for Lively, the Marx Brothers’ Room Service (1938). I also have a soft spot for Radio Stars on Parade (1945) but only because of the old-time radio angle (the film features appearances by Frances Langford, Ralph Edwards, Skinnay Ennis, Don Wilson and Sheldon Leonard). There’s also a large cult following for Zombies on Broadway (1945; a spoof of Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie [1943]) and Genius at Work (1946; a reworking of Wheeler and Woolsey’s The Nitwits [1935]) which team Wally and Don with Bela Lugosi…but it is my firm belief that while Boris Karloff has the supernatural power to make bad movies better than they are, “poor Bela” cannot.
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The wonderful world of Facebook #28

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 7: “You know what they call my films today? Camp! High camp!”

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has devoted the past week to participating in the Boris Karloff Blogathon sponsored by Frankensteinia—and I’d just like to say that I can’t recall having a more entertaining time in recent memory. I lament the fact that I still had a post or two in me but for various and sundry reasons could not devote the necessary time to sit down and write them…but to be honest, I think I and everyone else who participated in the project could write from now until next year and still just barely scratch the surface of Karloff’s incredible career. What I was pleased about was that I was able to focus on Boris’ involvement in the aspects of the material that has become the signature stuff of TDOY: old-time radio, television and classic films…with a particular emphasis on the cult and B-movie product.

I decided that for the final post I’d discuss what I consider to be my favorite Boris Karloff film. The answer will probably surprise you, and to be honest it wasn’t easy choosing a favorite because he appeared in so many wonderful movies. There’s the horror features: the Frankenstein trilogy (the 1931 original, Bride and Son), The Old Dark House (1932), The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). There are those wonderful character turns in The Criminal Code (1931), Cracked Nuts (1931), Five Star Final (1931), Scarface (1932), The Lost Patrol (1934) and Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936). And, of course, those little-seen movies that one wishes were more widely accessible to the actor’s fans--Night World (1932), The Black Room (1935; to its credit, Room is available on a commercial DVD), The Walking Dead (1936) and The Sorcerers (1967).

But my absolute favorite is one that I mentioned earlier this week in my post on Boris and old-time radio: the 1968 suspense thriller Targets, directed and produced by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Karloff as a horror movie actor who decides that his “old fashioned” means of scaring movie audiences can’t compete with the terror prevalent in modern-day society. There’s a reason why it’s my favorite, and I’ll try my best not to be long-winded in my explanation.

“All right, what are you going to do—plant roses? Actors don’t retire…about six months and you’ll blow your brains out, Byron,” Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich) chides horror icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) about seven minutes into Targets. This is true to a large extent, but there are some actors who have no need to continue on (perhaps having invested wisely)—instinctively knowing when it’s time to get off the stage. Actors continue to work after the age of retirement for primarily two reasons: either a person’s gotta eat (these would be the ones who invested unwisely) or because it’s harder than hell to get the greasepaint out of their blood.

With regards to movies, very few actors manage to make their cinematic swan songs of the same high quality as their best-known work. But it has been done: Humphrey Bogart went out on a high note with The Harder They Fall (1956); John Wayne had a fitting capper to his career with The Shootist (1976); Clark Gable’s send-off was The Misfits (1961); Robert Ryan’s The Iceman Cometh (1973). (These were just off the top of my head; I’m sure you can think of others.) I consider Targets to be a member of that worthy group, even though I’m sure by now that anyone reading this has cried “Foul!” because it technically wasn’t Boris’ swan song—he appeared in four Mexican quickies afterward: Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), El coleccionista de cadáveres (1970; a.k.a. Blind Man’s Bluff), La muerte viviente (1971; a.k.a. Isle of the Snake People) and The Incredible Invasion (1971).

Truth be told…I don’t care. (Denial is not just a river in Egypt.)

The film that would ultimately become Targets came about because director-producer Roger Corman—“the king of the B’s”—contacted Bogdanovich to offer the aspiring director-writer a chance to make a movie with Karloff, who owed (according to his contract) Corman two days work. The idea was to construct a film that would use twenty minutes of footage from a film Boris previously made for Corman, The Terror (1963), another twenty minutes of new Karloff footage, and the remaining forty minutes a story that would somehow connect all three segments.

The problem for Bogdanovich in preparing the film was how to link the Terror footage (The Terror being a Victorian horror period piece) to the new Karloff material, and initially the novice director conceived a scene whereupon Boris and Roger would be watching Terror in a screening room. The lights would come up, and turning towards Corman Karloff would remark: “Roger, that’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” A funny in-joke, to be sure—but the more consideration Bogdanovich gave the scene, the more it made sense to cast Boris as a movie actor who describes himself as an “anachronism.” The other part of the story—in which troubled Vietnam vet Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) goes on a homicidal rampage against his family and innocent bystanders—resulted from a casual conversation between Bogdanovich and his former boss, Esquire magazine editor Harold Hayes, who suggested doing a film loosely based on sniper Charles Whitman, an individual who made notorious headlines in 1966 by killing 14 people and wounding 32 others from atop a tower at the University of Texas in Austin.

Bogdanovich and then-spouse Polly Platt wrote the story, with the director also polishing the completed work into a first-rate screenplay. But Bogdanovich has always given generous credit in interviews to director-producer Samuel Fuller, who furiously rewrote the script in a three-hour time span of pacing up and down. Peter had wanted to bestow a screenplay credit to Fuller, but the director waved him off, refusing to accept any recognition or fee for his work. As a result, the character played by Bogdanovich in Targets—“Sammy Michaels”—is a nod to the cult director; “Samuel Michael” being his first and middle names.

What was originally calculated to be two days of work from Karloff actually turned out to be a total of five, and though his physical appearance is startling (and not in a good “horror movie” sense)—he was suffering from emphysema (only one lung worked regularly, requiring the use of an oxygen mask and wheelchair between takes) and the braces on his legs (a souvenir of suffering for his art on the Frankenstein films) also necessitated the use of a cane in many of his scenes—he remained the consummate professional, never complaining and even refusing to accept payment for the time he worked past his scheduled two days of employment. (In fact—not including the footage from The Terror—Karloff is in Targets for a total of thirty minutes, a bit past his scheduled time in the film.) Boris admired his young director a great deal, and though he was hesitant about some of the aspects of his character (he felt Peter should have toned down the self-deprecation some) he clearly appears to be having a great time throughout the course of the movie. It’s great to see Karloff as the hero (confronting O’Kelly’s “maniac” at the climactic drive-in sequence by confusing the young man with both his real-life presence off screen and larger-than-life presence on) and many of the wonderful moments in Targets are not “big scenes” but smaller, subtle touches—the smile on Karloff’s face when he watches a rerun of The Criminal Code on television and his entrance unnerves elderly Ethel Wales, and his momentary expression of being startled when he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror the morning after knocking back a few with Sammy.

The total budget for Targets was an cool, economical $125,000—and when Bogdanovich told Corman that he was confident he could get one of the major studios to distribute the film (in lieu of Corman’s usual agreement with American International Pictures), the producer gave him the go-ahead; after some initial hesitation from Paramount, the movie sold for $150,000, netting Rog a tidy little profit. But by the time the film was scheduled to be released, events in real-life—the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy—created an atmosphere where excessive violence in films didn’t set too well with moviegoers…and Targets, as good as it is, is definitely not a movie for the violence intolerant. Bogdanovich’s movie was rushed to theaters in August of 1968 and while it received a few positive reviews (including one from The New York Times) it was mostly a financial flop. The only benefit Bogdanovich received from the film was that top execs from independent BBS Productions studio saw it and told the novice director that he could make any film he wanted at BBS—and Peter took them up on the offer with his second film, The Last Picture Show (1971).

My first acquaintance with Targets came from both a description in Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies guide and an essay on the film in Danny Peary’s invaluable film reference Cult Movies. I finally got to see it when it was shown on the USA Network back in the mid 1980s—that version included a brief introductionary scroll advocating a more stringent policy on the sale and purchase of guns, making Targets one of the few films that isn’t shy about lobbying openly for a cause (the old Hollywood saw being “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”). (Peary was one of the few individuals to point out that the horror in Targets isn’t so much the “arsenal” in O’Kelly’s car trunk but the ones inside the cars of the drive-in patrons who’ve decided to combat his shooting rampage.) I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the movie since (I bought the DVD when it came out) but it’s a member of an elite group of films that I will sit down and watch to the end if I come across it on TV. It features Karloff as how I like to remember him—professional in every sense of the word (even though his character is a bit jaundiced at the beginning, wanting to bail out of the business) and an actor not only capable of incredible gestures and body language but possessing an amazing voice that could chill the very marrow of a viewer’s bones (I’m referring to his recitation of Appointment in Samarra).

Boris Karloff was indeed a one-of-a-kind talent, and his film, radio and television legacy continues to inspire dedication and indescribable awe at this tiny scrap of the blogosphere I call Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

“He Nothing Common Did or Mean

Upon That Memorable Scene”

--The notation on a plaque inside St. Paul’s Covent Garden (“The Actor’s Church”), commemorating the life of Boris Karloff and taken from Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland.”

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When worlds collide #73

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 6: “Thank you so much…”

The scene quickly establishes itself as nighttime in an insane asylum, and we witness a solo figure (Boris Karloff) seated at a piano playing a tune. One of the sanitarium’s guards enters the man’s sanctorum to hand the patient his evening newspaper, and when the man sees a picture of opera diva Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) on the front page, he flies into an uncontrollable rage. He overpowers the guard and escapes, with a trail of newspaper headlines trumpeting the escape of a madman following close behind. The audience will soon learn the man’s identity as the great operatic baritone Gravelle, who checked into the asylum as an amnesia case; no one has been aware of his long stay because the singer allegedly perished in a theatre fire in Chicago.

The gendarmes are naturally brought in to investigate Gravelle’s departure, and comic-relief Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest) is none-too-pleased to hear that his superior, Inspector Regan (Guy Usher), has brought in Honolulu Chief of Police Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) for help. “Wait a minute! You haven't called Chop Suey in on the case? Have you, Chief?” Kelly demands, letting us know from the get-go that he’s not a particularly politically correct flatfoot (he also refers to our hero Charlie as “Egg Foo Yung”). When Chan arrives and demonstrates his powers of deduction to a skeptical Kelly, the three men also receive a visit from Mme. Rochelle and her lover, Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye). (“Borelli” sounds as if he’s a distant relation to one of the characters played by ‘Chico’ Marx.) Rochelle lets the police know that she received a bouquet of flowers with a card (containing a death threat) attached, prompting Regan, Kelly and Chan to agree that a stakeout at that evening’s performance is in order.

A production of the great opera Carnival is scheduled to go on that evening and Gravelle invades the theater, intending to don Borelli’s costume (as Mephisto) and take his place. Upon the completion of the first act, both Borelli and Mme. Rochelle have already rung down the curtain…permanently—and so it would seem that Gravelle is the murderer. But there are several other suspects: the respective spouses of the slain lovers, Mme. Lucretia Borelli (Nedda Harrigan) and Mr. Whitely (Frank Conroy). In addition, a young couple (Charlotte Henry, Thomas Beck) are also wanted for questioning—with the young man eventually being arrested when most of the evidence points to him. Can Charlie and Number One Son Lee (Keye Luke) track down the real killer in a fast-moving sixty-six minutes? (Is there any real doubt?)

Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) is considered by many fans of the Asian super sleuth to be the best of the Warner Oland Chans, and I might even go as far to say that it’s my favorite of all the Chans, period (though a large majority will probably hold out for Charlie Chan at Treasure Island [1939]). Again, it’s the presence of Boris that makes me favor the movie so—I love how the two stars share top-billing as “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff” in the opening credits—and at the risk of spoiling it for those who haven’t seen the film I’ll let you know that Karloff is pretty much a red herring. (I guess it won’t hurt if I also point out his singing is dubbed.) I really do enjoy his performance in Opera, though; that patented melancholia of his serves him well in one touching scene when he attempts to reconnect with his long-lost daughter (Henry) after being away for so long. Oland is my favorite of all the actors who played Charlie Chan (I like Sidney Toler all right, but his interaction with Number Two Son Victor Sen Yung lacked the heart of the Oland-Luke relationship) and my favorite scene in the film is when son Lee is taking items out of his pocket and presenting them to his father in order to obtain fingerprints. Charlie is fumbling through his pockets and Lee asks him: “What’s the matter, Pop—lose something?” Charlie’s response: “Not yet…but light fingers of Number One Son most alarming.”

I jokingly referred to the fictional Carnival as a “great opera” only because the music was written by composer/curmudgeon Oscar Levant—who allegedly agreed to do it after asking if he could use “Silencio!” in the work. Opera is a movie whose sumptuous sets belie its B-origins; director H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone wisely chose to save 20th Century-Fox some scratch and utilized standing sets for Café Metropole (1937) for the filming of the staged opera scenes. Demarest’s character is a little hard-to-take at times (but eventually acknowledges a grudging respect for Chan by the picture’s end) but he manages to compensate with some nifty slapstick pratfalls and a face-wipe that would do Edgar Kennedy proud. (And of course, I can’t forget the in-joke line that always brings down the house, spoken by stage manager Maurice Cass: “I'm stage manager here and this opera's going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in!”)

And because I always like things at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear to be nice and tidy, Boris Karloff got the opportunity two years later at playing Asian detective James Lee Wong in a short-lived series at Monogram: Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939), The Fatal Hour (1940) and Doomed to Die (1940)—a sixth film, Phantom of Chinatown (1940), was supposed to star Karloff but ended up as a vehicle for…wait for it…Keye Luke instead. To me, the hallmark of a true Boris Karloff fan is being able to sit through any Wong picture, which I managed to do a year or two back—click on the individual titles in case you’re interested in reading the reviews.

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Nostalgia isn't what it used to be #2

Friday, November 27, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 5: “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff…”

No less a horror authority than author Stephen King—in his reference book on horror in pop culture, Danse Macabre—described NBC-TV’s horror anthology series Thriller (1960-62) as “the greatest horror series ever to air on television.” Though the series’ overall run was lamentably brief, many of its episodes to this day remain classic examples of the horror genre—and also transformed its host, Boris Karloff, into a pop culture icon in the same league as The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, One Step Beyond’s John Newland (also a frequent director/performer on Thriller) and Alfred Hitchcock.

The concept of Thriller was created by network executive Hubbell Robinson, who envisioned a rotating mystery anthology of episodes dealing with both horror tales and crime stories on a weekly basis. Fletcher Markle, the wunderkind producer who had been touted as the Canadian Orson Welles due to his contributions to CBS Radio’s Studio One, was one of the first individuals chosen to develop the series but because Markle envisioned Thriller as part-film noir and part-Alfred Hitchcock Presents, friction began to develop between he, Robinson and associate producer-story editor James P. Cavanaugh over just where the series would eventually go. Markle left Thriller after a few episodes and was replaced by Maxwell Shane (the writer and director of Fear in the Night [1947] and its remake, Nightmare [1956]) who assumed responsibility for Thriller’s crime output, while William Frye’s bailiwick was the show’s horror tales—the episodes that were inarguably the best and best-remembered nearly fifty years later.

Casting Karloff as the host was a stroke of genius on Robinson’s part—the actor’s long association with horror films made him the ideal person to introduce each weekly segment…and as an added bonus, Boris would occasionally act in the stories as well. Karloff appeared in a total of five out of the series’ sixty-seven episodes, including a splendid adaptation of the classic Edgar Allen Poe tale “The Premature Burial” (10/02/61)—but his finest performance on the show might be in the classic episode “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” (02/26/62), in which he plays a scientist who discovers a means to reanimate the dead. Not only does “Markesan” wrap up with one of the most horrific images of any TV episode, but allows Boris to showcase his tongue-in-cheek gallows humor when he observes in his introductory remarks: “You know, there’s…there’s something vaguely familiar about that Dr. Markesan…creepy, sinister sort of chap, don’t you agree?” I have it! He’s the kind of netherworld character who’s forever popping up in nightmares…my nightmares, anyway.”

The classic Thriller episodes—much like those of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits—still resonate in the memories of fans today; perhaps the best-remembered is “Pigeons from Hell” (06/06/61), which stars Brandon “Come back, Shane!” de Wilde as a young man who, spending the night in an old abandoned house, awakens to discover that his brother’s (David Whorf) been killed after taking an axe to the head—and that his corpse wants to kill his brother in the same fashion! (This episode, based on a story by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, isn’t necessarily my cup of Orange Pekoe but I felt it only proper to include it.) “The Cheaters” (12/27/60) would get my vote as the best of the Thrillers; based on a short story by Robert (Psycho) Bloch it chronicles how an evil pair of spectacles changes the lives (and not for the better) of a junkman (Paul Newlan), a wealthy old lady (Mildred Dunnock), her scumbag nephew (Jack Weston) and a self-centered novelist (Harry Townes).

I’m also partial to a pair of episodes which, interestingly enough, feature both William Shatner and Elizabeth Allen. “The Hungry Glass” (01/03/61; adapted by director Douglas Heyes from a Bloch story) stars The-Man-Who-Would-Be-Kirk as one-half of a married couple (his wife is played by Joanna Heyes) who purchase their dream house from realtor Russell Johnson (Allen plays his wife)…a house that has a haunted—and dangerously tragic—past. Shat gives a nice little performance in this; he’s not entirely certain that the unusual events taking place in the household aren’t the result of a previous medical condition he suffered (a case of shellshock) while serving in Korea, which reminds me of his character in the classic TZ episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” “The Grim Reaper” (06/13/61; this time Bloch does the script, adapted from a short story by Harold Lawlor), on the other hand, features Bill as a conniving nephew who conjures up a fable about a painted (allegedly cursed) owned by his aunt, Natalie Schafer—with Allen (blonde in this one) as Schafer’s secretary.

Another Thriller tale I particularly admire is “A Wig for Miss Devore” (01/09/62), starring Patricia Barry as a faded actress who plans to make a comeback playing the part of a woman hung for witchcraft; her devoted assistant (John Fiedler) manages to procure the very wig worn by “the witch” for realism’s sake…and I don’t have to tell you that what results is not pretty. There’s also the sublimely creepy “The Weird Tailor” (10/16/61; adapted by Bloch from his own short story) which stars Henry Jones as a haberdasher commissioned by wealthy George Macready to weave a suit that will bring Macready’s son back from the dead. The episodes I list here are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg of the fine tales showcased on Thriller; I also like “Well of Doom,” “The Devil’s Ticket,” “The Prisoner in the Mirror,” “Terror in Teakwood,” “Masquerade,” “The Purple Room,” “The Closed Cabinet” and “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk.”

As a whole, the Thriller episodes that concentrate on crime stories aren’t quite as successful—possibly because that particular genre was being beaten to death on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But there are always exceptions to the rule: I have a soft spot for “Man in a Cage” (01/17/61), a nifty suspenser that stars Philip “Captain Parmalee” Carey as an executive searching for his smuggler brother in Morocco, and I also enjoy “Papa Benjamin” (03/21/61), a nice adaptation of the Cornell Woolrich tale (which I always associate with the radio series Escape) starring Jester Hairston as the titular character and John Ireland as the unfortunate composer who tries to mix music and voodoo.

Showcasing top-flight talent in all areas was the rule, and not the exception on Thriller. As previously mentioned, author Robert Bloch’s classic short stories were frequently adapted as material for the series’ plots (not to mention Bloch’s own contributions), and the writing was handled by pros like Donald S. Sanford, John Knuebuhl, Robert H. Andrews, Robert Arthur, Alan Caillou and Twilight Zone mainstays Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. The direction of the episodes on Thriller was also placed in capable hands with veterans like Mitchell Leisen, John Brahm, Herschel Daughtery and Robert Florey. On occasion, ambitious actors anxious to show off their skills behind the camera got a crack at directing, too—the most prolific of them was Ida Lupino, but Paul Henreid, Ray Milland and Richard Carlson all got at least one turn in the chair. Among the familiar movie and television faces that could glimpsed on the series (in addition to those previously named): Leslie Nielsen, Mary Astor, Everett Sloane, Jay C. Flippen, Rip Torn, Richard Chamberlain, Victor Buono, Ellen Corby, Mary Tyler Moore, Jack Carson, Jeanette Nolan, Beverly Garland, Warren Oates…even Mort Sahl!

Though Thriller engaged in stiff competition during its two years on the air—its inaugural season found it up against the popular Red Skelton Hour, and a move to Monday nights in season two didn’t do the show any favors, bumping head-to-head with Ben Casey—the series performed well enough to NBC’s liking, but its demise was due to two factors: the schizophrenic nature of the show (horror vs. crime), and Alfred Hitchcock who, it has been said, was jealous of the competition Thriller presented to his own series (which would expand to Thriller’s sixty-minute format in the fall of 1962). (The speculation was that Hitch used his influence at the National Broadcasting Company to terminate any further seasons.) Undaunted, Thriller enjoyed a healthy retirement in syndication…and was even one of the programs featured on the Sci-Fi Channel in its halcyon days, and later turned up as a staple on a Canadian cable channel, Scream (which is the source for many of the bootleg DVD collections that circulate on the internet—something I would never even dream of purchasing…even if that Google ad to the right has been plugging it like crazy all this week).

No, Thriller aficionados will soon see their beloved, neglected series available as a commercial DVD release next year, and as sure as my name is Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., it’s going to be one of the biggest TV-on-DVD releases ever.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 4: “Lights out…everybody!”

One of my favorite sequences in Targets (1968), the celebrated cult film classic that stars Boris Karloff as a actor/horror icon who decides to quit the movie business when he feels his “old-fashioned” horror can’t compete with the terror that runs rampant in modern society, occurs when his character, Byron Orlok, is preparing for an appearance at a drive-in scheduled for later that evening for the release of his latest film, directed by wunderkind Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich, the director of Targets). He’s in his hotel room with Michaels and his assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), and is painfully bored with a series of questions being asked by local disc jockey Kip “The Hip” Larkin (Sandy Baron)—inquiries submitted by Larkin’s listeners that touch on such inane subjects as “Do you like working in motion pictures?”

Annoyed by all this, Orlok expresses his displeasure to Michaels, who suggests that the horror movie veteran use his time at the appearance to tell a ghost story…which he proceeds to do (the story is a shortened version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Appointment in Samarra):

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I'd like to leave you with a little story to think about as you drive home... through the darkness...once upon a time, many, many years ago, a rich merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace to buy provisions... and after a while the servant came back, white-faced and trembling, and said, “Master, when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and I turned to look, and I saw that it was Death that jostled me. And she looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Oh, master, please, lend me your horse that I may ride away from this city and escape my fate. I will ride to Samarra and Death will not find me there.” So the merchant loaned him the horse and the servant mounted it, and dug his spurs into its flank, and as fast as the horse could gallop he rode towards Samarra. Then the merchant went to the market-place and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he said to her, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?'” And Death said, '”I made no threatening gesture—that was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight... in Samarra.”

Karloff’s mesmerizing delivery of this tale—in which the camera moves in for a close-up of his face in a nearly fluid take (Bogdanovich later lamented his intention was to do it in one take but he was forced to do a small edit)—is just one of the many reasons why I adore the film, a movie that I’ve often referred to as my personal favorite among Boris’ voluminous output. It’s a testament to his incredible talent; how he keeps the audience spellbound with just the hypnotizingly sinister tone of his voice. As great a film actor as Karloff was, he also did outstanding work on radio—he was a frequent performer on the medium’s best-remembered horror shows like Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Lights Out and Creeps by Night. His dramatic chops won him roles on The NBC University Theatre and The Theatre Guild on the Air. His ability to poke fun at his “horror image” insured that he be invited to josh and joke with the likes of Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Al Jolson. He was even invited to appear on the panel of radio’s most literate quiz program, Information Please—including a memorable May 17, 1943 broadcast in which he performs the Frankenstein monster growl!

I had originally intended for this post to document some of the highlights of Boris Karloff’s radio career for Frankensteinia’s Boris Karloff Blogathon this week—but time and deadlines sort of crept up on me and it appears I’m not going to be able to compose as thorough an essay as I planned. But back in October 2004, I did post an entry on one of Boris’ most memorable performances: a tour-de-force turn in the classic Lights Out tale, “Cat Wife.” Here’s what I originally wrote:

“To true monster mavens,” writes Gerald Nachman in Raised on Radio, “the definitive horror show was Lights Out, whose name played on—indeed, gleefully exploited—the unseen aspects of radio by asking listeners to hear the show in total darkness…” I may have already stated on this blog that Lights Out is my all-time favorite of the old-time radio horror show offerings; it beats out the better-known Inner Sanctum Mysteries only because Sanctum has a tendency to come off as overripe camp at times (though this is not to suggest that Lights Out was free of the taint of goofy melodramatics as well), and because Sanctum’s horror stories always seemed to have a “rational” clarification for their goings-on. On Lights Out—to paraphrase Vic & Sade—“stuff happened,” with very little explanation for what supernaturally took place—it always seemed to land smack-dab in the middle of “What the…?” territory.

I kicked off a month of Lights Out programs with an April 6, 1938 broadcast of “Cat Wife,” one of the best-remembered shows written by writer-director-producer Arch Oboler. “Wife” was actually the second show put on by Oboler, originally broadcast June 17, 1936, and it was often repeated throughout the series’ run. This particular program stars actor Boris Karloff, who made special trips to Chicago to perform on the series (he was also a frequent player on Inner Sanctum), as a long-suffering husband married to an out-and-out tramp who embraces vulgarity with open arms. Karloff's presence on this broadcast has to do with the program observing its fourth anniversary; anyway, husband Karloff has run her equally obnoxious friends out of their home, and the two of them begin to quarrel violently:

LINDA: Why do you think I married you?

JOHN: I thought you loved me…

LINDA: I married you because I was sick of working in a two-bit barbershop…because I was sick of living in a hall bedroom wearing bargain sale dresses—I wanted dough, and plenty of it, all I could get! You were the best chance to get it that came my way…

JOHN (weeping) No, no, Linda…you did love me…you must have loved me!

LINDA: I loved you about as much as that canary up there loves his cage…I told myself I’d stay with you for a year…divorce you, stick ya for plenty of alimony and then get out!

JOHN: But we’ve been married five years…

LINDA: Yeah! Five years! Because you fooled me, that’s why…

JOHN: I fooled you…?

LINDA: Yeah! Hah! You started to make a lot of money…more money than I ever thought you could make… (Laughing) So you’re giving me the air, hah?

JOHN: No, no, Linda…I love you! I’ll always love you—I didn’t mean what I said!

LINDA: Well, I did…

JOHN (pathetically): Oh Linda, don’t leave me…you’re no good, I know you’re no good but heaven help me I love you…I’ll never love anybody else…

LINDA: Get out of my way!

JOHN: No, no!!! I won’t let you go! You’ve got to stay…

LINDA: Keep your hands off me!!!

JOHN (angrily): You’re no good…you’ve cost me my self-respect…but you’ll stay with me…you’ll stay with me or I’ll cut you off without a cent! (Linda starts to laugh uncontrollably) You won’t get a dime! Not a dime! (She continues to laugh) Stop that! Stop laughing!

LINDA (still laughing): Oh, you sap…you fat-headed sap!

JOHN: Stop that!!!

(She stops…)

LINDA: So you’re going to cut me off without a cent, are you? Oh ho, you fool…I’ve got everything that belongs to you now…you hear me? Everything!!!

JOHN (barely above a whisper): What are you talking about? What are you saying?

LINDA: This house…it’s in my name, isn’t it? The car…it’s in my name, isn’t it?

JOHN: I know, but…oh no, you…you wouldn’t!!!

LINDA: Oh, wouldn’t I? Well, listen to this, my darling husband…I cleaned out the bank account yesterday…

JOHN: No!

LINDA: …every cent! I won’t be in the street—you will! Now this is my house, get your things and get out of here!!!

JOHN (boiling point): I’ll…I’ll kill you!!!

LINDA: No! Stop!!!

JOHN: I’ll kill you!!!

LINDA: Don’t you come near me; let me go…let me go!!! (she screams)

JOHN: Agggghhhh!!! Ohhhh…

LINDA: You won’t touch me again; I’ll tear your eyes out!!!

JOHN: You…you cat!!!

LINDA: Get out of my way!!!

JOHN: That’s what you are…a cat!!! A big, white, heartless cat!!! You think like one, you screech like one, you claw like one!!! (Linda begins laughing again) You even look like one!!!

Now, to be frank, there are other words to describe Linda—but from what I understand, the NBC censors kind of frowned on that language back in those days. So, while his potentially profane vocabulary has its arms tied around its back, John repeatedly calls Linda a cat, until wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am…she completely metamorphoses into a human-sized feline. (This is the point in the story where the listener starts saying “What the…?”)

But that’s what makes this story so great and great to listen to…Oboler never bothers to explain why the missus is now a five-foot cat and able to bathe herself. Some eggheaded friend of Karloff babbles something to the effect of: “She was hysterical, John…and the suggestion that she was a cat caught her in an unguarded moment and resulted in a temporary neurosis…” and then you say, “Hey, textbook boy—she’s a friggin’ cat, ferchrissake!” There’s an awful lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in this tale as well—my favorite is when Karloff places an order with the milkman for six bottles of milk and six bottles of cream. “Cat Wife” is a must-listen-to show for any Lights Out novice.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 3: “If it can happen to the gerenuk, it can happen to you.”

No one can deny the enormous impact that Boris Karloff made on the silver screen throughout his amazing career—but I believe that not mentioning his many memorable appearances on the small screen would be giving him short shrift as well. In fact, Karloff was one of the earliest performers to be attracted to the new medium—at a time when others in the industry considered TV to be a threat—by headlining a short-lived horror anthology series in 1949 on ABC-TV entitled Starring Boris Karloff. The actor continued to make occasional forays into TV, usually as the host of horror anthologies like The Veil (1958) and Out of This World (1962), (though he also played the titular role in the 1954 syndicated series Colonel March of Scotland Yard) and what would probably become the apex of his TV career, Thriller (1960-62)…which I hope to have an essay on later this week. But for the time being (and in keeping with this week's Boris Karloff Blogathon, hosted by Frankensteinia), I’ve spent the past couple of days gorging on Boris’ guest shots…a few of which I’ve written mini-reviews about below.

Suspense: “A Night at an Inn” (04/26/49) – This is the earliest Karloff guest appearance I have in my collection of TV shows; an offbeat little production (from the live days of TV’s Golden Age) that stars Boris as the leader of a gang of sailors/jewel thieves hiding out at a small country inn (appropriately titled Ye Last Hope). Boris and company (Anthony Ross, Jack Manning, Barry Macollum) daringly swiped a precious ruby from the forehead of a sacred idol while stationed in India, and a team of assassins have trailed them to their lodgings to seek revenge.

Inn” is a real curio, available on a fascinating DVD collection entitled Suspense: The Lost Episodes, Volume 1—and was an installment of the TV series adapted from radio’s long-running “outstanding theater of chills.” The production values are quite primitive, and yet I think the episode is most effective (primarily due to Boris’ participation); the ending of the half-hour is particularly spine-tingling. Karloff would revisit Suspense on five other occasions (including “The Yellow Scarf” [06/07/49] and “The Black Prophet” [03/17/53], which I have on DVD didn’t get to watch due to a tight deadline, and “The Monkey’s Paw” [05/17/49], which unfortunately does not seem to have survived), which is interesting when you consider he made only one appearance on the radio version (a January 25, 1945 broadcast entitled “Drury’s Bones”).

The Gale Storm Show (Oh! Susanna): “It’s Murder, My Dear” (01/31/59) – The social director of the S.S. Ocean Queen, Susanna Pomeroy (Gale Storm), and her pal Esmeralda “Nugey” Nugent (ZaSu Pitts) have been forbidden to step off the ship by Captain Simon P. Huxley (Roy Roberts) because he’s convinced Nugey has come down with a case of measles (it’s not all that serious, though—she breaks out in rash whenever she’s nervous). This puts the kibosh on the two ladies’ plans to visit the Hal Roach Studios but—this being a sitcom and all—they soon find a way to sneak off the ship and cause mayhem on the studio lot. They meet up with actor Boris Karloff (who’s shooting an episode of his series The Veil) and while watching him work, witness his exact double shoot him in the shoulder with a rifle high above the soundstage. The double turns out to be Geoffrey Haines, an aspiring actor who can’t get work because of his resemblance to the star. Haines locks up Susanna, Nugey, Karloff and a nurse in the studio infirmary so that he can take Boris’ place and although the authorities eventually arrive to ring down the curtain on the would-be actor, Haines is satisfied knowing he got to play one big scene that earned him kudos from the director (Frank “Sam Drucker” Cady) and crew.

Yes, it’s a sitcom plot so old it’s been carved on stone tablets—but the presence of Karloff in this above-average Susanna outing (a benign sitcom that won’t make anyone forget I Love Lucy any too soon) makes for entertaining comedy; I particularly enjoyed the moment when Susanna and Nugey meet the actor (outside of Lake Laurel & Hardy!), with Susanna asking "Are you are a Boris Karloff fan, too?" and Boris’ response: "I have to be—my wife insists." A particularly interesting thing about this episode is that it often blurs the line between sitcom and reality; a studio guard (Tom Kennedy) informs Susanna and Nugey that The Gale Storm Show is shooting on stage one, and the two women even spot ZaSu Pitts driving around on the lot (Nugey: "My mother used to take me to see her in silent pictures."). Boris is also unafraid to poke a little fun at his image (“"Why would anyone want to shoot me? My old pictures weren't that bad...or were they?") and I couldn’t help but think that when his double laments “There’s only room for one Boris Karloff” he should have offered his services to Columbia when they were making The Black Room (1935).

Route 66: “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” (10/26/62) – Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock breeze into a motel just outside of Chicago, having landed positions at the O’Hare Inn as “junior executives in charge of convention liaison.” (I never ceased to be amazed, by the way, at how easily these two guys managed to find employment—they could have taught The Fugitive’s Richard Kimble [David Janssen] a thing or two.) Buz is placed in charge of forty—count ‘em—forty female executives, while Tod is asked to be an expediter for a small group known as The Preservation of Gerenuks. The Gerenuks, in fact, are a trio of horror movie icons—Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.—who have gathered with their business manager (Martita Hunt) to discuss of a television show on which they’re working. Karloff, in a foreshadowing of the character he would play in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), argues that the antiquated horror of the past simply will not play in today’s society, while Lorre and Chaney maintain they still have what it takes to raise a goose bump or two. Tod and Lorre work together to prove his point by having Chaney disguise himself as the Wolf Man and terrorize the secretarial contingent (admittedly, this bit with the women fainting dead away at Chaney’s getup is a tad sexist, viewed through twenty-first century eyes), and in the end, Karloff is sold.

Originally presented as a Halloween episode, “Lizard’s Leg” remains one of the best-remembered installments of the classic Route 66 series, and seeing the three actors interact together is not unlike a hot fudge sundae; most of the fun comes from seeing the reactions of the individuals in the hotel to the “unholy three” (told by a desk clerk that he looks a little like Peter Lorre, Lorre—signing in as “Mr. Retep”—responds: “That’s very insulting, isn’t it?”)…witness Milner’s reaction to seeing Karloff after his character has finished examining a coffin requested for a meeting by Lorre. What ultimately makes “Lizard’s Leg” so pleasurable is that the three men are clearly enjoying themselves by gently mocking their personas (why else would Karloff have agreed to don the Frankenstein monster make-up again after vowing never to do it again?): Boris is his charming, cultured self; Peter the conniver; and Lon doesn’t stray too far from his “Lennie” characterization in Of Mice and Men (1939). Laugh-out-loud moment: Lorre addresses Karloff as “Boris baby.”

The Wild Wild West: “The Night of the Golden Cobra” (09/23/66) – Secret Service agents James T. West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) find themselves investigating strange occurrences in Pawnee territory—West and Pawnee administrator Colonel Stanton Mayo (Simon Scott), in fact, are taken captive by a maharajah (Boris Karloff) who refers to himself as “Mr. Singh” and who tells West he has been made his guest because he wants Jim to “tutor” his three would-be-assassin sons in the fine art of fighting. Singh’s daughter Vada (Audrey Dalton) attempts to help West escape her father’s clutches, but ultimately our hero must face down Singh who, as it turns out, has designs on snatching the land away from the Pawnees because of an “ocean of oil” that’s been discovered (black gold…Texas tea) on the property…and Col. Mayo (not to be confused with Colonel Mustard) is in cahoots with Singh as well!

Fondly remembered by fans as “James Bond in the saddle,” Wild Wild West continues to be a beloved (if a bit gimmicky) cult series in which the paper-thin plots were mere window dressing for wacky villains, anachronistic weapons and inventions…and the entertaining by-play between stars Conrad and Martin. Karloff’s guest appearance (sadly, his only one since Singh snuffs it at episode’s end) fits like a glove here; he’s perfectly in-tune with West’s tongue-in-cheek proceedings and his dark complexion (a result of his East Indian heritage) allows him to play Singh quite convincingly.

I Spy: “Mainly on the Plains” (02/22/67) – The proliferation of so many espionage adventure series in the 1960s (a phenomenon of the James Bond craze) formed the ideal background for Boris Karloff’s many guest appearances on television; in the 1966-67 TV season alone he could seen on The Wild Wild West (see above) and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (in a September 27, 1966 episode entitled “The Mother Muffin Affair”—in which he plays the villain…in drag). This I Spy appearance completed the hat trick; Boris is Don Ernesto Silvando, an eccentric scientist who’s convinced he’s Don Quixote, the literary creation of Miguel de Cervantes. This mindset of Silvando’s serves as an endless sort of amusement for American secret agents Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby), who have signed on to protect Silvando on a driving trip to Madrid. Silvando, as it turns out, has a formula in his head that will make most modern-day missile systems obsolete…and he’s been targeted for assassination by foreign spies.

Again, the clue to enjoying I Spy was not in the hefty plots but the hilarious interplay between stars Culp and Cosby, whose characters of Robinson and Scott were never meant to be taken too seriously—both men, in fact, treated their secret agent jobs as just another nine-to-five time clock drudge. “Plains” is great because you can definitely see that both Culp and Cosby have a genuine affection for Karloff, whom they pretty much allow to take the ball and run with it (a similar affection can be detected with actors Martin Milner and George Maharis in the Route 66 “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” episode). My favorite moment in “Plains” occurs when Don Ernesto releases six men from the back of a van, encouraging their freedom—which makes Kelly and Scottie curious as to who those men were. Kelly washes off some of the mud clinging to the passenger-side door and reads “Policia De La Mancha” as the notation:

KELLY: What does that say? And don’t lie…

SCOTTIE: In my neighborhood, he’s known as The Man…

Boris Karloff enlivened many a television series through his guest appearances, and I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to include The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game guest shots because I do not have them as yet in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives. The good news is that with the exception of his Gale Storm Show appearance, all of the other shows reviewed are available for purchase on DVD (the Route 66 episode is present and accounted for on Route 66: The Complete Third Season, released in an exclusive edition at a Best Buy nearest you). Grab ‘em while you can—and tell them Boris sent you!

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