Tuesday, May 23, 2017

“You poor creatures…I wish I could help you…but you're by yourselves now…”

Back in July of last year, when The House of Yesteryear was enmeshed in that (mercifully) brief thrall of madness I jokingly called The DISH Austerity Program, there was really one outlet on our system for uncut, commercial-free movies…and that was HDNet Movies, a channel that spun-off from HDNet (now signing all correspondence as AXS TV) in 2003 and launched by gazillionaire Mark Cuban…who is, in some quarters, said to be considering a Presidential run in 2020 after also threatening to do so in 2016.  Not because he can solve America’s problems…but more along the lines of “If Donald Trump can become president, why can’t I?”  (This is the point on the blog where I curl up in a ball and weep uncontrollably…just bear with me and it will pass quickly.)

Despite my barely-disguised revulsion for Cuban and his ilk, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have DVR’d a movie or two from HDNet Movies when the occasion arises.  Most of the fare on the schedule consists of proven crowd pleasers like The Karate Kid (1984) and The Bridges of Madison County (1995), but there’s a nugget or two to be mined if you’re willing to work for it (and have a proper grubstake—yes, I watch a lot of westerns, as you might have guessed).  HDNet Movies’ a little like the Encore Movie Channel—past hits mixed in with recent flicks—and because I have not stepped inside a googolplex since 2009, it gives me an opportunity to catch up on some good “moon pictures” I’ve missed.

In Never Let Me Go (2010), a title card reads: “The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952.  Doctors could now cure the previously incurable.   By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.”  What follows is a reminiscence by a woman (Carey Mulligan) identified as “Kathy H,” as she looks back fondly on her experiences at a boarding school known as Hailsham.  The young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) has two close friends at the school: Ruth C (Ella Purnell) and Tommy D (Charlie Rowe)—Kathy has quite the romantic attachment to young Tom, but Ruth effortlessly steals the boy’s affections because she’s a bit of a b-word.  Hailsham isn’t all that different from the usual repressive boarding school, though the students there are constantly encouraged to get in touch with their artistic side by submitting their work to The Gallery, which is administered by a mysterious woman known only as Madame (Nathalie Richard).

Isobel Meikle-Small as the young Kathy
Okay, I tell a lie—there is one slight difference, and it’s a most sinister one.  One day, the students are informed by beloved teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) of their purpose for being there…because “The problem is you've been told and not told…”

Do you know what happens to children when they grow up?  No, you don't, because nobody knows.  They might grow up to become actors, move to America.  Or they might work in supermarkets.  Or teach in schools.  They might become sportsmen or bus conductors or racing car drivers.  They might do almost anything.  But with you we do know.  None of you will go to America.  None of you will work in supermarkets.  None of you will do anything except live the life that has already been set out for you.

And what does Miss Lucy mean by this cryptic statement?  Well, that’s “the big reveal” of Never Let Me Go, and I’d be robbing you of a unique movie-watching experience if I said anymore.  There’s no getting around it: this film—a combination of romance and dystopian science-fiction—will make you sit up and ask: “What the…front yard?”  If you’re familiar with the source material, the critically acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro published in 2005, you already know how this one ends…and you can certainly find more information on the film in other corners of the Internets.  But Leonard Maltin kept his big bazoo shut in his capsuled write-up on the film in his 2015 Movie Guide, and the least I can do is follow his example.

The acting in Never Let Me Go is first-rate, with a cast of thesps that I must grudgingly admit I have but only a passing familiarity.  I got the opportunity to see Carey Mulligan in Suffragette (2015) during one of our HBO-Cinemax “freeviews,” and enjoyed her performance tremendously in that one.  The actress leapt at the chance to play the lead in Never Let Me Go, purportedly because Ishiguro’s novel is her favorite book.  She’s most convincing in both her teen and adult years as a strong individual who remains resolute despite having been informed early in life of her fate, and her measured, understated turn has lingered in my memory despite it having been about a month since I sat down and watched this from the DVR.

Mark Romanek
Other than veteran actress Charlotte Rampling (in a nice showcase as the ominous headmistress), I don’t think I’ve seen any of the other stars from Never Let Me Go in anything else although I did recently DVR Lions for Lambs (2007) from HDNet so I’ll soon be chalking up another entry from Andrew Garfield’s oeuvre soon.  I know Keira Knightley only from the impressive amount of photographic publicity she seems to generate; the director of Never, Mark Romanek, admitted in an interview that it was nearly impossible to make Knightley look “plain”—“…even at her worst, Keira still looks astonishing.”  To Knightley’s credit, she admitted that she was unable to relate to the movie’s “love triangle,” but she managed to do a pretty good job convincing me.

Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield
I’ve joked on the blog many times about certain movies not being “date films”—Never Let Me Go qualifies in spades, mostly because of its grim subject matter.  (Again, I’m doing my best to hide some of its content but I can see why its plot plays better in the original novel, set in Japan, than it does in the film’s UK.)  It’s a most challenging movie, with haunting moments of both sadness and uninhibited joy (the reunion that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy have after not seeing one another in some time is both refreshing in its optimism and devastating in its doom), and Rachel Portman’s exemplary music score also scores points in the movie’s favor.  If you like movies that have wandered off the main path, this one will be a buried treasure.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“Well…how-dee do!”

Rick Mitz, author of The Great TV Sitcom Book, once joked that Amos ‘n’ Andy constituted the “two dirty words” of American broadcasting (and he even thought the “’n’” suspect).  I myself refer to the program as “the third rail” of old-time radio, insomuch as the medium’s first true phenomenon has been clouded with controversy ever since its premiere over Chicago’s WMAQ on March 19, 1928 (the show went national over NBC’s Red network in August of 1929) and stayed with the show long after it left the airwaves on November 25, 1960.  Created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two vaudeville performers who had a talent for black dialect, the long-running serial/sitcom began as Sam ‘n’ Henry over rival Windy City station WGN in 1926; the two men left the following year after a dispute with the station…and since they were unable to use the “Sam ‘n’ Henry” name (it was still owned by WGN) they changed the name of the characters to their better known alliterative association.

Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll
Amos ‘n’ Andy was one of the Golden Age of Radio’s most durable programs in addition to most popular.  In its early years (1928-43) it was a comedy serial, and its history is documented in a first-rate McFarland book penned by my fellow Radio Spirits scribe Elizabeth McLeod, The Original Amos ‘n’ Andy.  (McLeod has always championed that the serialized Amos ‘n’ Andy presented its characters in a sympathetic fashion—that it was only when the show adopted its sitcom format that the racial stereotypes became more blatant.)  From 1943 to 1955, it was presented as a weekly half-hour sitcom, and from 1954 to 1960, the show played out its waning radio years as The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall—a weeknight program with Gosden and Correll performing skits as their characters while spinning records as disc jockeys.  Amos ‘n’ Andy made the eventual transition to television (casting African-American performers in the title and supporting roles, of course) in 1951 but CBS-TV would cancel the series two years later despite its popularity, under protest from organizations like the NAACP…and in 1966, CBS completely removed Amos ‘n’ Andy from its syndication package.  (The Wikipedia entry for Amos ‘n’ Andy notes that Rejoice TV, “a small independent television and Internet network in Houston,” reran the show in 2012…though there’s scant mention as to whether CBS, which purchased the rights to the series from its creators in 1948, brought in their team of attorneys.)

With the cancellation of The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll weren’t quite ready to abandon the characters that made them famous…and with the prompting of ABC, anxious to duplicate the success of their hit animated series The Flintstones, they came up with an idea that would allow them to continue the show in cartoon form.  It was not a new idea; a cartoon version of Amos ‘n’ Andy had actually been attempted as far back as 1934 at the Van Beuren Studios but after two entries (The Rasslin’ Match and The Lion Tamer) the series was abandoned.  This time around, Freeman and Charlie would lend their characterizations to a pair of anthropomorphic animals…and Calvin and the Colonel was born.

Charlie & Gos with their cartoon counterparts
The “Colonel” was Colonel Montgomery J. Klaxon (voiced by Gosden), a crafty Kingfish-like fox who ostensibly ran a real estate firm but more often than not was involved in any number of get-rich-quick schemes.  Like his radio counterpart, the Colonel possessed a streak of larceny and many of the Calvin and Colonel episodes would find the character cooling his heels in the cartoon animal hoosegow.  The “Andy” of the series was Calvin J. Burnside (cartoon characters seem awfully fond of “J” as a middle initial for some reason), a dimwitted bear (Correll) who, depending on the situation, either served as the Colonel’s patsy or confederate in whatever scheme Klaxon had cooking on the burner.  Calvin and the Colonel didn’t really have an “Amos” character (though Andrew “Grover” Leal has posited that that function was fulfilled in the minor character of “Gloria,” Calvin’s manicurist girlfriend voiced by Gloria Blondell) but by the time Amos ‘n’ Andy had reached its radio sitcom stage the character of Amos Jones had started to take a backseat to the Kingfish-Andy shenanigans anyway.  (An acquaintance of mine who had just started listening to the radio show once asked me: “Why isn’t this series called Kingfish ‘n’ Andy?”)

The Colonel had a Sapphire-like spouse in Maggie Belle (voiced by Virginia Gregg)—although her name is spelled “Maggi Belle” in the show’s closing credits, I’m going to go with “Maggie.”  Instead of having to put up with a mother-in-law like the Kingfish, Colonel Klaxon suffered under the domineering thumb of Susan Culpepper (Beatrice Kay)—Maggie Belle’s sister, affectionately known as “Sister Sue.”  The character of Maggie Belle is not one of Ginny’s finest thespic hours, mostly because of the severe limitations of the role (she’s there to be a constant scold to the Colonel and little else) …but Kay doesn’t come off that much better (though I do giggle when she calls The Colonel an “old foof”).  I believe this can be explained by the fact that the radio counterparts of Sapphire and “Mama” were also rather thinly written…yet I wish they had considered letting Ernestine Wade and/or Amanda Randolph perform the Maggie Belle/Sister Sue roles to give their cartoon counterparts a little more oomph.  (I can certainly understand the reluctance to do this, though.)  The remaining character on Calvin and the Colonel was “Judge” Oliver Wendell Clutch (Paul Frees)—a shady lawyer (appropriately portrayed in weasel form) who the Colonel was always asking for advice (Clutch was the show’s Stonewall/Algonquin J. Calhoun counterpart).

Bob Mosher & Joe Connelly
Calvin and the Colonel was produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher through their company Kayro Productions…and if it seems a little odd that the two men responsible for Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters would get involved with a project like this, it’s because Connelly and Mosher not only wrote many of the original half-hour Amos ‘n’ Andy radio scripts but the TV ones as well.  Many of the Calvin and Colonel teleplays are credited to Joe and Bob, mostly because they dusted off a lot of their earlier Amos ‘n’ Andy efforts and recycled them for their “funny animals.”  Even though Amos ‘n’ Andy earned a fair share of criticism for promoting unflattering racial stereotypes, there was never any real malice in the program’s content—you could read the scripts without the black dialect and still enjoy a fitfully funny sitcom…which is why Calvin and the Colonel works so well, in my opinion.  The only thing that gave me pause about the animated series was that Calvin seemed to have an eye for a lot of females who were not of the ursine persuasion (I chortled at the thought of fundamentalists having a field day with this dating “outside of his species”) though he does get engaged to a female bear in “Calvin’s Glamour Girl.”

My interest in Calvin and the Colonel was stoked by the recent Oldies.com purchase of three volumes of the show released by Alpha Video.  I’d previously watched an episode or two at YouTube, but the more episodes I tuck under my belt the more I enjoy this pleasurable little series.  I’ll state right off the bat that this is due in large part to my familiarity with the source material, but as someone who loves old-time radio I think like-minded folks will follow my lead.  It’s quite hooty hearing the voices of Kingfish and Andy emanate from a fox and a bear, and in addition to the regular cast you’ll hear OTR/character favorites (in various episodes) like Joe Flynn, Jesse White, Frank Nelson, Barney Phillips, Will Wright, June Foray, Howard McNear, Hans Conried, Charlie Cantor, Frank Gerstle, Marvin Miller, Elvia Allman, Forrest Lewis, Olan Soule, and Peter Leeds.  (“It’s too piercing, man…too piercing.”)

It’s television animation, of course, but despite the limited budget the style of Calvin and the Colonel is reminiscent of that in the creations of Jay Ward (Rocky and His Friends) or Total Television (King Leonardo, Underdog).  A 2006 post at Michael Sporn Animation notes that the company who produced Calvin was TV Cartoons/Creston Studios (who also did the non-Jay Ward version of Crusader Rabbit), and the roster of talent that cranked out the installments included Chuck McKimson, Norm Gottfredson, Lee Mishkin, Phil Roman, John Sparey, Ben Washam, Tom McDonald, Volus Jones, Dave Weidman, Jim Davis, and Bob Bemiller—“They were more WB & Disney people unlike the Hanna Barbera shows which initially seemed to use more of their MGM cohorts.”

That post also observes that Calvin and the Colonel was the “second prime time show to premiere” after The Flintstones—which I don’t think is entirely accurate if The Bugs Bunny Show is worked into the equation (you can argue that the animation on Bugs had already appeared in motion picture theatres…but the segments that introduced the cartoons had not).  (Television Obscurities notes that CBS Cartoon Theater even predated The Flintstones by four years—though like Bugs, the show featured shorts previously unspooled in theatres.)  It is accurate to say that the success of that “modern Stone Age family” ushered in a slew of prime-time cartoon efforts in the 1961-62 season, with Calvin joined by the premiers of The Bullwinkle Show (okay, technically a continuation of Rocky and His Friends), The Alvin Show, and Top CatCalvin only lasted two months in its 8:30pm Tuesday slot (stiff competition from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) before it returned in January of the following year to a Saturday time slot (7:30pm) to fulfill its obligation to sponsor Lever Brothers.  It then made Saturday a permanent home—mornings, that is—for another year before fading from the small screen landscape.

Calvin and The Colonel working for the sponsor.
Though produced in color, Calvin and the Colonel originally aired in black-and-white…which is why so many of the prints you’ll find at YouTube and elsewhere are presented in monochromatic form (most of the sources I’ve consulted question as to whether the series was ever syndicated), except for the program’s inaugural episode, “The Television Job”…

…which I will graciously share here with you until some hoser pulls the YouTube plug.  “Job” (the black-and-white version), “The Polka Dot Bandit,” “Thanksgiving Dinner,” and “The Costume Ball” are featured on Alpha’s first volume of the series, while Volume 2 includes “Sycamore Lodge,” “Wheeling and Dealing,” “Sister Sue’s Sweetheart,” and “Nephew Newton’s Fortune.”  (“Wheeling” is one of my favorite Calvin outings—The Colonel is under orders from the women in his life to ship Nephew Newton’s car to him out on the West Coast…but he and Calvin have a mishap that results in Newton's ride being filled with cement.  It’s an unusual episode in that The Colonel emerges victorious in this one—at the end of the show, he breaks the fourth wall as he enjoys breakfast in bed: “I know I didn’t earn all this love and affection, but…I’m a married man, so I’m gonna take what little I can get.”)

But if you’re like me and there’s often too much month at the end of the money, Volume 3 is the Alpha Calvin and the Colonel collection is the one you should get—it features four color episodes in “The Colonel’s Old Flame,” “Sister Sue and the Police Captain” (this one was an episode I watched on YouTube—in color!—but it has apparently been yanked), “Calvin’s Glamour Girl,” and “Colonel Out-Foxes Himself.”  This last one is very funny (it’s the one on which I heard Conried and Cantor), as The Colonel attempts “The Pocketbook Swindle” after it’s been pulled on him…with unsuccessful results.  Animation history king Jerry Beck calls the show “illustrated radio” …which is certainly fair, though I’ve heard the same term applied to much of the Hanna-Barbera product as well, and Calvin and the Colonel can certainly hold its own with Huck, Yogi, and the rest of my childhood heroes.

I told Grover I'd only buy these dolls if one of them said "Holy mackerel, Calvin!"

Dell Comics published two Calvin and the Colonel comic books in 1962 (one of which was in their “Four Color” series, which is why the second issue was labeled “#2”) and Milton Bradley released a board game to capitalize on the (non)popularity of the program (Leal also notes that there were “Calvin” and “The Colonel” dolls available for purchase—they talk, too!—and Beck has published this image of a C&C coloring book)—you can find the board game/comic books on eBay, if you’re curious.  I’d settle for a DVD release of the complete series only because I believe it’s much better than its reputation and it doesn’t deserve its current obscurity.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Due to circumstances beyond my control…

…I had to scotch this week’s presentation of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s (ir)regular Crime Does Not Pay feature.  (I picture people hitting the top of their computers shouting: “Honey, I can’t get the blog to work!”)  Long story short (too late!), I had a situation here at Rancho Yesteryear involving several annoyances...chiefly my futile attempt to learn why my prescription has not been called into the pharmacy by the endocrinologist’s office.  (On a side note—I’m kind of pleased with myself that I’ve mastered the proper pronunciation/spelling of “endocrinologist.”  But I digress.)  I hope to have CDNP back next Friday, and there will also be overlooked movies, silent, and dormant TV shows to discuss as well.  Seacrest out.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Buried Treasures: Feel My Pulse (1928)

Pampered heiress Barbara Manning (Bebe Daniels) has spent her entire life cooped up indoors due to the dictates of her father’s will—Babs’ old man appears to have been a germophobe, and insisted his only daughter be brought up in the same fashion by her Uncle Edgar (George Irving) until she’s twenty-one.  With the arrival of the big two-one, her Uncle Wilburforce (Melbourne MacDowell) from Texas—Texas, that is—shows up to squirrel her away to a ranch on the Lone Star State.  But Barbara is convinced she’s got a bad ticker (angina pectoris), and fears that Wilburforce’s prescribed regimen of excitement, adventure…and romance might be the death of her.

William Powell, Bebe Daniels
Remembering that she’s the owner of a sanitarium on Manning Island—located twenty miles off the mainland—Barbara hies herself in that direction, mistaking Wallace Roberts (Richard Arlen) for a taxi driver and demanding that Wally ferry her to her destination.  What our young debutante does not know is that the hospice’s caretaker, Sylvester Zilch (Charles Sellon), has allowed bootlegger Phil Todd (William Powell) to set up his base of operations there (Zilch gets a kickback of four cents per case of booze) …and that the last thing Todd and his goons need is Barbara poking around in their bidness.  So the Todd mob goes through the motions of pretending to be the staff (Boss Phil is the doctor, and his henchies patients) with hilarious results.

Daniels in She's a Sheik (1927)
My experience watching Ducks and Drakes (1921) back in April (DVR’d from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™) was such an enjoyable one that in the process of purchasing a buttload of Alpha Video DVDs from Oldies.com, one of the discs I slipped into the cart was Feel My Pulse (1928), an uproarious farce featuring Drakes star Bebe Daniels and leading men Richard Arlen and William Powell.  This high wattage trio had previously appeared in She’s a Sheik (1927), a comedy directed by Clarence Badger (Hands Up!) and one that I would love to see but it’s apparently lost.  (Daniels and Powell also worked in the earlier Dangerous Money [1924] and Senorita [1927]—Senorita is considered by some to be one of Bebe’s finest feature comedies.)

I’m not as familiar with Bebe’s oeuvre as I should be, save her work alongside Harold Lloyd in his early one- and two-reel comedies and her later appearances with husband Ben Lyon on the BBC’s long-running radio/TV hit Life with the Lyons.  But every new Daniels feature I check off is unquestionably a treat, and Feel My Pulse is my favorite vehicle yet.  Granted, there’s a little bit of contrivance involved in the plot (have you ever met anyone sequestered from society—father’s will or no?) but then again it is a comedy (not a documentary), and Bebe demonstrates that she was amazingly adept at physical slapstick with funny sequences involving her leaping out of Arlen’s car to retrieve her valued valise of medications (Arlen’s character refuses to believe she’s an invalid after witnessing her “sprinting exhibition”) and bobbing up and down like a yoyo out of one of the sanitarium windows.

My favorite scene of Bebe’s in the film is her encounter with “Thirsty McGulp” (Heinie Conklin)—I plan to use that as an alias the next chance I get, by the way—a member of Powell’s mob who has quite a fondness for the bottle.  He offers some of his “medicine” to Daniels, and she reciprocates with some of her own…and before you know it, the duo are completely in their cups and singing Sweet Adeline.  (Bebe notes in a title card that she didn’t see Thirsty’s “two brothers” join the party, which made me laugh out loud.)  Daniels’ character is a bit naïve (Arlen describes her in writing as “attractive, but they come no dumber”) and much of her advanced vocabulary on the title cards prompts Dick to observe that she’s “a loose leaf from Webster’s Dictionary.”  (The very witty titles come courtesy of George Marion, Jr.; Nicholas T. Barrows and Keene Thompson receive screenplay credit from a story by Howard Emmett Rogers.)

Richard Arlen
Before he demonstrated with screen wife Myrna Loy that intoxication can be fun in the Thin Man movies, Bill Powell was a superb villain in silent films (he was the baddie in 1927’s Nevada, which I covered here back in September of last year) and he doesn’t disappoint in Feel My Pulse (you can just see the dollar signs register in his eyeballs when he learns from Sellon that Bebe’s worth 30 million dollars).  Arlen is aces as Bebe’s love interest (he’s Powell’s number-two man…and yet he is not what he seems—I can say no more), and I gave out with a hearty chuckle when I saw Charles Sellon’s name in the credits (Sellon plays the memorable blind man in W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift—“Open the door for Mr. Muckle!”).  Pulse is short and sweet at 62 minutes, and I was gobsmacked to learn that the movie was neither a commercial nor critical success at the time of its release (with so many of Daniels’ movies having been sacrificed to the ravages of time it’s since been reappraised…and well it should be).

Feel My Pulse was an early effort from Gregory La Cava, who would later go on to direct Powell to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the screwball comedy classic My Man Godfrey (1936).  I purchased my copy of Pulse from Oldies.com and was not disappointed; it’s also available from my other favorite vintage silent store of cherce, Grapevine Video (my CMBA colleague Fritzi at Movies Silently says Grapevine’s print is “fairly rough”), where it’s been paired with a Billy West comedy, Lines Busy (1921).  If you’re carefully counting out change so as to make it to the end of the month, it’s also available for viewing at YouTube.  This one is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Underseen and Underrated: Afraid to Talk (1932)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to Underseen and Underrated: The Classic Movie Blog Association’s Spring 2017 Blogathon, underway this week from May 15-19.  For a complete list of the participants and the films discussed, click here.

From May 13 to June 15 in 2016, The Museum of Modern Art hosted Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928–1937—a collection of films from the period when that studio was run by Carl Laemmle, Jr., son of Universal founder Carl, Sr.  (Certainly, not the first nor last case of nepotism in Tinsel Town, but the younger Laemmle rarely got any respect—wags derisively referred to him as “Junior” Laemmle—and he often found himself the butt of jokey observations like “the son also rises.”)  The MoMa schedule included some movies that make the occasional rounds of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (The Good Fairy, Show Boat [the 1936 version]) and some that I personally have not seen since the days when AMC literally stood for “American Movie Classics” (Air Mail).  The event was a classic movie lover’s dream come true, and one of the offerings was Afraid to Talk (1932)—which, as of this point in 2017, is the best “new” classic film I’ve seen all year.  (Afraid was also unspooled at MoMa’s To Save and Project festival in 2011.)

Tully Marshall, Eric Linden, Frank Sheridan
Racketeer Jake Stranskey (Robert Warwick) is gunned down in a Chicago hotel room…but fortunately for the Windy City police, there was a witness to the killing: bellhop Eddie Martin (Eric Linden), who is initially reluctant to finger the trigger man (snitches get stitches, you know).  Police Commissioner Garvey (Frank Sheridan) gives him the usual line of “civic duty” crap, and Eddie finally picks out Jig Skelli’s (Edward Arnold) ugly face from a mug sheet.  However, if Martin had known that a confederate of Jig’s threatened his wife Peggy (Sidney Fox) while she made her way to police headquarters to check on her spouse, he might have continued to maintain his code of omerta.

Albert Maltz
The corrupt powers-that-be—headed up by police chief Frank Hyers (Ian Maclaren), who also moonlights as one of the party bosses—reluctantly accept the fact that they’re going to have to prosecute Skelli…but they didn’t count on Jig’s ace in the hole: he found a sheath of documents on Stranskey’s corpse that detail the many payoffs collected by Mayor William “Billy” Manning (Berton Churchill), District Attorney Anderson (Tully Marshall), and other party ward heelers.  If they send him up for the murder, Skelli will make it snow with the blackmail.  Forced to let Jig skate, the PTB need a fall guy for the Stranskey hit—and choose as their patsy the bellhop who witnessed the killing in the first place.

Afraid to Talk was based on Merry-Go-Round, a controversial play written by George Sklar and future Hollywood Ten blacklistee Albert Maltz (the movie’s screenplay was adapted by Tom Reed).  When you think of hard-hitting social dramas in the films of the '30s, you usually associate that material with Warner Brothers—yet Afraid can hold its own against any film featuring the likes of Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson, and in many respects, surpasses a lot of the Warner’s product.  The amoral universe of Afraid—where everyone appears to be on the grift and honest individuals are few and far between—is most reminiscent of the brief cinematic oeuvre of writer-director Rowland Brown, responsible for such pre-Code flicks as Quick Millions (1931), Hell’s Highway (1932), and my favorite of them all, Blood Money (1933).

Edward L. Cahn
The Brown-like director of Afraid to Talk is Edward L. Cahn, a name usually associated with motion pictures like Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and It! The Terror from Outer Space (1958—acknowledged as the inspiration for Alien [1979]).  Cahn began his career at Universal as an editor (his brother Philip also worked in the cutting room) and his exemplary work doing last-minute cuts on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) got him a promotion to the director’s chair, working on crime pictures and comedies.  Before his fertile career as a director of second features in the 1950s, Ed worked as a journeyman in the MGM shorts department, notably entries in the studio’s “Crime Does Not Pay” franchise (last Friday’s CDNP on the blog, A Thrill for Thelma [1935], was directed by Cahn).  I noticed a preview of Cahn’s CDNP style in Afraid in one scene when the party bosses decide to make Chief Hyers’ soused nephew Lenny (George Meeker) the new magistrate after the only honest adjudicator (Reginald Barlow) refuses to have anything to do with the release of Skelli.  As Lenny slurs an acceptance speech, there’s a whip-pan to a bust of Abraham Lincoln, comically commenting on the absurdity of how relatives rise through the ranks of government.

Edward Arnold, Mayo Methot
Edward Arnold had a fairly prolific acting career in the silent era but his Joe Skelli is a blueprint for the later “big boss/fat cat businessman” roles he’d play throughout the talkies (The Glass Key [the 1935 version], Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe), and with Louis Calhern as the contemptible assistant D.A. (who never lets his suave menace and complete lack of conscience falter for a second), the acting talent in Afraid to Talk may very well be the finest that director Cahn ever worked with.  Also on hand are Mayo Methot (the third Mrs. Humphrey Bogart) as Arnold’s moll and Matt McHugh (Frank’s bro) as his giggling brother, with silent movie villain Gustav von Seyffertitz in a heroic turn as the lawyer hired to help bellboy Martin out of his predicament.  I also got a chuckle spotting Joyce Compton and Dorothy Granger as the two “party girls” at Joe Skelli’s “get out of jail” celebration, and seeing favorites like George Chandler (as a fellow bellhop) and Arthur Housman (as a drunk—who’da thunk?).

There’s a pervasively bleak atmosphere that shrouds Afraid to Talk—those individuals chosen by the people to represent them do nothing of the sort, and instead live high off the hog from graft and kickbacks, never batting an eyelash at the horrific notion of framing Eddie for a crime he didn’t commit.  (Commissioner Garvey is the only official who won’t go against his conscience, though this is provoked more by Skelli’s mob gunning down children in the streets during a heated moment in a gang war.)  It’s a riveting pre-Code picture because you’re never quite certain where it’s headed and the cynicism that runs rampant throughout (I love the Greek chorus of “bystanders” who comment on the action as they watch developments on an overhead news ticker) appeals to the disillusioned person that I have become late in life (one of the film’s most unforgettable sequences is the interrogation of Linden’s Eddie, which gradually gets physical as Calhern’s goons work him over to extract a confession).  It’s not an easy movie to track down, and though I’m a little red-faced to resort to shilling in the blogathon I obtained a very nice copy (it’s from a VHS recording—there’s a little tracking trouble at one point, but overall I was most impressed with the print) from my friend Martin Grams, Jr. at Finders KeepersAfraid to Talk is a fourteen-carat gem.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rain delay

My mad scheme was to have up on Monday and Tuesday reviews of two movies that I recently watched off my Hopper (Dish’s cute nick for their DVR…though the one in my room is technically a “Joey”) …and then that plan quickly went south.  I’m still trying to tame the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives (I seem to have accumulated a lot of DVDs over the years) by cataloging my holdings (every time I do this, I find a movie or two I missed previously) and because I set Sunday aside to do that, my Monday post never materialized.  Monday, I spent three hours of my life that I’ll never get back journeying to the doc’s for an appointment (I wouldn’t mind the wait so much but the chairs in the endocrinologist’s waiting room appear to be leftover furniture from The Flintstones) and then after lunch, I agreed to go with Mom to Kroger Nation to get some things she needed.  For reasons that I can only attribute to my stupidity, I lifted a few cases of water from one section of the store to my cart (the water was in the area where you walk in, and I didn’t want to set off any alarms in the store since I had already placed items in the cart), then picked them up to put them in the trunk of the car…and then picked them up to set down on the carport.  That left me kind of stove-up, and I decided to just continue with Operation DVD Reorganization.

Artist's depiction of the waiting room at NAED.
Because I have committed to the current Classic Movie Blog Association blogathon, there will be an “Overlooked Films” entry tomorrow (that’s the blogathon theme), and (knock wood) normal posting will resume on Thursday and Friday (Crime Does Not Pay!).  (I splurged on a metric butt-ton of DVDs from Oldies.com since I had a little jingle in my pocket, and I’ll be reviewing some of my acquisitions in the coming month and June.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #4: “A Thrill for Thelma” (11/23/35)

After a two-week hiatus from the blog, Crime Does Not Pay returns to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…and I should probably issue this heads-up: this bedroom office desk chair of mine, being the most uncomfortable piece of furniture in the house, is going to be a major impediment in my making sure I crank one of these out a week.  It was so much nicer when the CDNP shorts were available on YouTube; for the tragic tale of how that was “nipped in the bud,” you’ll need to brush up via the presentation of the last short, Desert Death (1935).  Suffice it to say, the vacation I took from CDNP was essentially an engraved invitation for all the well-honed wits on Facebook to jockey for seats at the Algonquin Round Table with pithy observations like “Crime Does Not Pay…where Ivan’s concerned.”  Fortunately, I touched upon this week’s entry, A Thrill for Thelma (1935), in a blog post back in 2010…which means I’ll be able to recycle a few of the jokes.

After the Gang Busters-like opening credits, the MGM Reporter (William Tannen) invites us to pull up a chair at “Women’s State Prison,” and have a bit of a chinwag with “Warden Hannah Graves” and “Captain Richard Kyne.”  The (always reliable) IMDb does not identify the dour actress playing “Warden Hannah” (perhaps one of you character thespian experts could lend a hand in the comments) but the actor essaying the role of Kyne is Robert Warwick, a veteran performer whose films include The Little Colonel (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), and The Sea Hawk (1940).  Those of us with more of a comedic bent recognize Warwick from several Preston Sturges-directed pictures including The Lady Eve (1941) and Sullivan’s Travels (1941); as for myself, I remember Warwick best as the dipsomaniacal actor pal of Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950).

“There is your answer,” Graves replies to MGM Reporter Guy as she stares out the barred window at a line of female inmates, because he’s started in on his “crime does not pay” spiel as he’s required to do.

GRAVES: Those women are living out their hopeless, empty lives…because they tried to beat the law…

“Hopeless, empty lives?”  I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and guess that Warden Hannah is the last person they notify if a female prisoner is on Suicide Watch.  Graves singles out for Reporter Guy a “red-headed girl” who’s “a living example that crime doesn’t pay.”  Because Captain Kyne worked the case, the two of them get their tickets punched for Flashback City and recall two years ago that young Thelma Black (Irene Hervey) was graduating with her classmates at Debutante High School.  As they wait in line to receive their diplomas, one of Thelma’s fellow matriculates asks what her plans are after high school.  “I’m going to get a kick out of life while I’m still young enough to enjoy it,” she firmly declares.

Thelma is played by Irene Hervey, a 1930s ingenue who appeared in such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), Three Godfathers (1936), and Destry Rides Again (1939).  Hervey also graced a lot of programmers (San Francisco Docks [1940], Night Monster [1942]), and around the House of Yesteryear she’s remembered fondly as the heroine in the serial Gang Busters (1942) and as “Aunt Meg” on Anne Francis’ TV show Honey West.  As Thelma, she has been summoned by the jovial Warden Graves to her office “to tell her story.”

THELMA: After I graduated…I went to a school of beauty culture…and then I got a job in the Astor Salon…I made up my mind that I was going to get everything life could offer…I wanted money, clothes, luxuries…

A wealthy salon patron, reeking of high society, gives Thelma a tip because she’s humble and lovable.  (She does not bite down on it, because it is paper money.)  The scene shifts to a nightclub, where Thelma is enjoying the company of Steve Black, a handsome young swain portrayed by Bob Livingston.  Livingston began his film career in the silents in various bit parts and continued his extra work with the arrival of talkies.  He had a bit part in a previous Crime Does Not Pay short, Buried Loot (1935), but really didn’t become a big name until he moved to Republic Pictures…where he not only starred in such serials as The Vigilantes are Coming (1936) and The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939), he played “Stony Brooke” in that studio’s popular Three Mesquiteers B-western series.  He later teamed up with Al “Fuzzy” St. John in PRC’s Lone Rider franchise, filled in for Gene Autry when Gene went off to “do his bit” in WW2, and finished his onscreen career with numerous character parts.

STEVE: Having a good time, honey?
THELMA: Oh, I’m thrilled
STEVE (leaning in): Like me a little bit?
THELMA: Steve, I’m crazy about you…

I think it’s just the champagne talking.  As Steve lights Thelma’s cigarette, he glances over at a neighboring table to see another customer paying his bill with a ginormous bankroll.  Seeing that Bucky McBigBucks is leaving with his lady friend, Steve suggests to Thel that the two of them “go places” as well.  Soon, they’re tooling down a stretch of road with Thelma at the wheel as Steve gives her a kiss.

STEVE:  Say…there are a lot of parked cars along here…
THELMA: Yes…other people seem to have the same idea we have…

Hot monkey love!  Spotting the gentleman from the restaurant, Steve tells his lady love: “I’ve got a swell idea for a gag.”

STEVE: I’ll bet we could give a couple of those front-seat wrestlers a scare that would stunt their growth…you game for a big laugh?

Thelma, who has already been established as a gal looking for thrills, is ready to be dealt in and so Steve instructs her to pull over, whereupon he exits from the vehicle and walks back to the car where Rich Restaurant Guy is inspecting his girlfriend’s tonsils.  Brandishing a pistola and making sure he’s covered his face with a muffler, he relieves the gentleman of the weight of his wallet…and back in the car with Thelma, the two of them have a healthy chortle at Steve’s prank.

STEVE: You should have seen their faces…scared?  I thought the girl was going to fold up like a camp chair, and the fellow’s teeth were doing a castanet routine!
(Thelma laughs…and then she sees Steve counting the contents of the man’s billfold)
THELMA: But you’ve still got his wallet…
STEVE: Yes…so I have…
THELMA: Well…let’s take it back to him…
STEVE: Oh, I’ll send it to him by special delivery tomorrow

“Oh…okay!”  Seriously—Thelma didn’t spend all that time at Debutante without learning a few things (I’ll spare you the details), and she calls bullsh*t on Steve by turning the steering wheel hard, intending to return to the scene of the crime.

STEVE: Hey—what do you think you’re doing?
THELMA: We’re going back!
STEVE: Oh, no we’re not—keep going!  Keep going!

The two of them struggle for control of the car, unaware that there’s an automobile approaching from the opposite direction.  The second car swerves to avoid Thelma and Steve, crashes through a fence and lands on its side…and then immediately catches fire.  Thelma faints at the wheel, so Steve takes control of the car…and a scene shift finds Thelma contemplating the foul, evil deed that she’s done.  After handing her a stiff belt to deal with her anguish, Steve elects to tune in a news broadcast…and that’s when they get the bad news…

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Police tonight are searching for the hit-and-run driver who crashed into a car on the High Line Road a few hours ago, causing the death of J.J. Willis, the driver, and gravely injuring his wife…police believe the hit-and-run car is the same which carried the bandit pair, a man and a red-headed woman in a tan coupe who held up a parked sedan on Willow Road shortly before the accident…

Sweet honey bee of infinity!  You’re in terrible, terrible trouble, Thel!  She rises from his chair and makes tracks for the door.

STEVE: Hey, you going someplace?
THELMA: Yes…to the police!  I’ll tell them how it was…I’ll tell them I didn’t mean…
STEVE: Sure, sure you will…but remember…you just killed a guy…you were driving the car at the time of the stickup, don’t forget that!
THELMA: Oh, Steve…what are we going to do?
STEVE: Well…we’ve got to get out of here as soon as we can…
THELMA: Okay, Steve…let’s go right away…

Now…had you or I happened to be in that same room with our budding Bonnie-and-Clyde, our advice to the impressionable young Thelma would surely have been “Don’t listen to Steve!”  But while you can learn many things at DHS (Debutante High School), good judgment is apparently not part of the college preparatory curriculum…

STEVE: Now listen, honey…I’m wild about you…I’m sorry I got you into this mess…but you and I are going to stick together
THELMA: Steve, I’m afraid
STEVE: Don’t worry…I won’t let you down…

Spoiler alert: he’s going to let her down.  Thelma even acknowledges this as we return to her confession in Warden Graves’ office (“That was my mistake”).  “I was frightened,” she says tearfully, “bewildered…I couldn’t think clearly…I realize now that what I should have done was go to the police to tell the truth…but instead I took the easiest way…”

Thelma continues her tragic tale of her quick descent into crime.  “Such an easy way to get everything I wanted out of life…luxury…money…excitement…”  A montage shows our heroine and her ne’er-do-well beau living the high life downing quarts of champagne—though in his defense, he does make an honest woman (well...kind of honest) and “put a ring on it”:

Okay, enough with the oohing and ahhing.  “Oh, I thought I was riding high,” Thelma narrates.  “Things I craved were coming my way…I wanted thrills and I was getting them.”  But not only is crime a dangerous gateway drug—there are certain side effects involved, so ask your doctor is Crime© is right for you.  As Thelma and Steve lounge in their luxurious flat, a newsboy hawks papers outside, informing potential customers that there was a victim who perished in the latest “bandit heist.”  “Well, I had to do it,” Steve explains as he receives the stink-eye from his girlfriend.  “He wouldn’t behave.”

THELMA: The police will get us for this!
STEVE: Oh yeah?  (Laughing) Not the way I operate, baby…don’t I use a different gun every time?  Don’t I use a different car every time?  Oh, come on, honey—no dumb cop is gonna get me…I’m too smart for ‘em!

Cocky will come back and bite you in the ass every time.  That’s…Burke’s Law.  “We thought we were smart,” laments Thelma, “but the police were smarter.”  At this point in the narrative, Thelma demurs to brainy Captain Kyne to explain just how the gendarmes brought an end to the “bandit heist” crime wave.

Truth be told, the cops didn’t have to be that much smarter than Steve.  They were already clued into the fact that different weapons were used in the holdups, and that the bandits relieved their victims of their transport during the robberies…with those cars later found abandoned.  With the help of his sidekick, John Hennessey (Pat O’Malley), Kyne interrogates the woman who was snogging with the murdered victim at the last holdup, and she fills in some much detail on how the robbery went down.

"I can't swear to it...but I think the hold-up man was Bela Lugosi!"
At the mention that they had just left the El Royale Club, Kyne and Hennessey swing into action.  You see, Steve the Brainiac has been operating his crime wave in an area that makes it devastatingly simple for the police to stick pins in maps…

…in fact, as the two men are going over their theory, there’s a notice over the station intercom that there’s been another stickup—near the 22 Club!  The solution to stopping Steve the Mastermind is to station cops—a lot of cops (what would be the proper nomenclature for that, I wonder—a pigpen of cops?)—in the various nightclubs in that area.  The police impersonate doormen, waiters, and patrons—and they’ve been told to keep an eye out for a red-headed dame (because a strand of Thelma’s ginger hair was found in one of the abandoned vehicles).  Finally, their persistence pays off; one night, a customer clearly in his cups whips out a fat wad of moolah and starts spreading it around to the waiters and a cigarette girl…that sort of behavior attracts Steve like flies to you-know-what.

The customer (an undercover cop) and his concubine (another cop) leave the nightclub and drive down the road some ways, noticing that Steve and Thelma are following.  As the two detectives pretend to do a little passionate necking, our couple drives by them…and then turn around in a clearing to go back the other way.  Steve is completely unaware that once he exits the car to rob his next victim, a pigpen of cops will gun him down like the mad-dog killer he is…

 …Thelma speeds off in a desperate attempt to escape the consequences for her pathetic thrill-seeking life…but as we know fully well by now, something something not pay.  Still, we should feel a little sympathy for Thel…a good girl who only decided to accelerate the acquisition of those shiny trinkets that our rotted-with-corruption capitalist system assures us we need to own.

KYNE: Thelma made a complete confession and was sentenced to twenty years…the best years of her life will be spent behind prison walls…

I’m sure she’ll make a lot of new friends.  And there’s a ping-pong table, they tell me.  But here comes Warden Laugh-a-Minute with the kicker:

GRAVES: The state saved Thelma’s child the stigma of being born in prison…but her greatest punishment will be throughout the years to come…Thelma will be denied seeing her child for twenty years…her trail of thrills has ended in the knowledge that her baby must never know that his mother is a convict…and that his father was a murderer slain by the law…

“Well, gotta run—there’s bread and water to be supervised!”  Next week: Hit-and-Run Driver (1935).  G’bye now!