Tag Archives: 1932

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

‘s The Old Dark House (1932) might be seen as a companion piece to his Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Both represent Whale at his most personal within the grand-guignol genre. While Bride Of Frankenstein is post-Production Code, so that it’s thinly disguised gay spirituality had to be delivered indirectly via myth, the pre-Code Old Dark House is awash with eccentric characters mocking dogmatic, false religious morality. Tackling hypocrisy within religion was a frequent theme with this director. Like , Whale applied the critique through cutting humor. However, as a Surrealist, Buñuel naturally didn’t give a damn about the intended audience; Whale deliberately sought accessibility. As his character states in the biopic Gods And Monsters: “The trick is, not to spoil it for those who aren’t in on the joke.”

Both films are replete with Whale’s idiosyncratic humor. However, Whale’s British sensibilities are more pronounced in The Old Dark House, which makes it a stand apart from the other Carl Laemmle-produced Whale films. Although it opened to good box office in the States, The Old Dark House failed to repeat the success of Frankenstein. It did phenomenally well in England and throughout Europe, but it was simply too sophisticated for hayseed domestic audiences, and business quickly tailed off (it also undoubtedly suffered from the Freaks anti-horror backlash). The Old Dark House was only revived once in the States, its rights lapsed, and the film languished in obscurity. It was considered lost for over a decade before a print was discovered (Whale died believing it to be forever lost). It was partly restored by preservationist and Whale confidant . Near the end of his life, star Boris Karloff was grateful when informed of the discovery. The Old Dark House has been released on DVD via Kino, but still shows some deterioration. Hopefully, a more thorough restoration will be forthcoming.

R.C. Sheriff and Benn Levy adapted J.B. Priestly’s “Benighted” and, under Whale’s orchestration, superseded the original literary source. The film’s cast responds to Whale’s deviant humor with contagious enthusiasm. The film had to be as much fun to make as it is to watch.

Still from The Old Dark House (1932)The Old Dark House opens with travelers seeking refuge from a storm. Sanctuary appears in the form of an old dark Welsh house, but its promise of shelter is a facade. Unknown to Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their hitchhiking companion Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) a tempest is brewing within the house. They are joined by two more “invaders” who belatedly enter the scene: Gladys (Lilian Bond, oozing sex) and Sir William Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) AND THREE ON A MATCH (1932)

While tame by 21st century standards, the best of the pre-Code productions (1929-1934) flauntingly mocked the increasing threats of industry censorship and yet, for all those displays of sex and sin, still managed to stylishly outclass thirty years of (mostly) bland “moral majority approved” films that followed. It is, perhaps, not surprising that these films, caught in the tail pipe of Victorianism and under the Poe-like eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency, were also more authentically provocative and aesthetically conscientious than the bulk of the “opened floodgate” post-Code productions that began in the 1960s. Somehow, that stressful studio climate inspired filmmakers to produce movies that were very much enshrined in the amber of their specific time and place,  yet also transcend many of the films immediately following.

Red-Headed Woman (1932) is one of the sauciest examples from that all-too brief period. It helps considerably that it stars Jean Harlow, the quintessential pre-Code sex symbol. Harlow has often been referred to as the Marilyn Monroe of the 1930s. (Monroe idolized Harlow and even considered playing her predecessor in a biopic, but changed her mind after reading the script. Monroe reportedly quipped: “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.”) Actually, Harlow was more talented and interesting than that later icon. After numerous roles in features and short films (including a memorable bit in ‘s Double Whoopee), Harlow became an “overnight sensation” with 1930’s pre-Code Hell’s Angels (dir. Howard Hughes) and 1931’s The Public Enemy (dir. William Wellman). Having been dubbed “the Platinum Blonde” and “the Blonde Bombshell,” Harlow dyes her trademark tresses here to play a carrot-topped succubus.

With a screenplay written by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald (based on Kate Brush’s “Wicked Lady”), and competently (if not altogether imaginatively) directed by Jack Conway, the strength of Red-Headed Woman lies in the writing and acting (the ladies seem to get it more than their male director).

Poster for Red Headed Woman (1932)Harlow is Lil, an unflinching mantis who ferociously devours her prey without even pausing once at the stop of moral consideration. Harlow imbues Lil with such intoxicating, nonchalant witchery that we initially root for her, regardless of how many Sunday School lessons we might have endured that strenuously warned us not to. It was this necromantic charm, combined with the film’s failure to punish its Eve, that partly inspired the moral outrage that accelerated strict enforcement of the Motion Pictures Production Code (the “Hays Code”) a Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) AND THREE ON A MATCH (1932)

197. VAMPYR (1932)

Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey; Castle of Doom (alternate English version)

“I just wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted, if you will, to break new ground for the cinema. That is all. And do you think this intention has succeeded? Yes, I have broken new ground.”–Carl Theodore Dreyer on Vampyr

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julian West, Jan Hieronimko, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz

PLOT: Allen Gray, a student of the occult, wanders to the small hamlet of Courtempierre. There, he witnesses ghostly visions and meets an old man who is soon killed by an assassin’s bullet. The man’s sickly daughter lies in bed, her blood drained by a vampire, and Gray takes it upon himself to find the source of the contagion.

Still from Vampyr (1932)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story was inspired by tales from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic short story collection “In a Glass Darkly,” the most important of which is “Carmilla” (a vampire tale with lesbian undertones).
  • Vampyr was produced in three versions: one with the cast speaking English, one in French, and one in German. Complete prints of the English and French versions no longer exist, although parts were used in restoring the German version. Some say the English version was never completed. Filming the same script in multiple languages was a trend at the time—see also the Spanish-language version of Dracula—although this practice was soon abandoned as too costly.
  • Star “Julian West” is actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who funded the production in exchange for the leading role. Gunzburg used a pseudonym to avoid the embarrassment that would result from having an actor in his Russian expatriate noble family.
  • Vampyr was shot through a layer of gauze positioned in front of the camera to create the soft, dreamlike visuals.
  • The film was booed at its premiere in Berlin, and in Vienna crowds rioted, demanding their money back. Vampyr lost money and at the time was seen as an embarrassment in its distinguished director’s career, although now it is regarded with near universal acclaim.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The translucent astral body of our protagonist, peering down at his doppelganger as it lies in a coffin.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nearly irrational, mood-based horror gem with imagery that verges on the surreal, Vampyr is a grim and restless death parable made in the brief age when the melodramatic structures of silent films were slowly being fleshed out with the new colors and textures afforded by sound. This experiment in terror by a master filmmaker, made in a unique period that cannot be recreated, is an artifact of its time that paradoxically seems all the more universal because of the age-bound specificity of its style.


Clip from Vampyr (1932)

COMMENTS: “It was an eerie moonlit night. Lights and shadows, Continue reading 197. VAMPYR (1932)

CREEPY COWBOYS: 4 WEIRD WESTERNS

Retro Media’s collection of “weird westerns” begins with Tombstone Canyon (1932) starring (already reviewed here). The Western, like that other indigenous American art form, jazz, ran the gamut from innovative to godawful. It goes without saying that this set of films falls in the latter category. Naturally, there are different degrees of awfulness. Cheap production, atrocious acting, pedestrian writing and, debatably, juvenile charm characterize the entries.

Tombstone Canyon was made before Maynard began ballooning up from booze, but he was already finding more empathy from his horse than from his fellow actors, which is perhaps why he spends much of the picture talking to his “wonder horse” Tarzan. The movie was made for the Z-grade studio World Pictures, whose mascot was a semi-nude blonde beauty holding two globe balloons over her breasts. No doubt, the 30s kiddies must have had their eyes bugging out.

If Tombstone Canyon looks like a backyard production put on by junior high school kids, then Vanishing Riders (1935) takes us a couple of years back, to fourth or fifth grade. It stars Bill Cody as the titular cowboy and Bill Cody Jr. as his adopted son. The fight scenes are laughable, the acting even worse, and the “scary” ghost riders, dressed in skeleton suits, are a hoot. There a couple of curly blonde cuties for window dressing, but the film, like many early poverty row westerns, is devoid of a score and is an unforgivably dull affair. It was directed by Bob Hill for Spectrum Pictures.

Security Pictures was such a low budget enterprise that it was and remains anonymous even among the infamous poverty row backlots. Its Rawhide Terror (1934) is saddled with three directors: Bruce Mitchell, Jack Nelson, and uncredited western schlockmeister Victor Adamson (whose son was horror schlockmeister Al Adamson). It is easy to assume Adamson, with his resume, did most of the work. Rawhide Terror started production as a serial, but when funding fell through it was converted to a 46 minute feature, despite its listing time as 52 minutes. It seems that six minutes have been lost, and let us fervently hope they are never found. The movie stars Art Mix. Adamson started his career by playing a character named Art Mix. However, he hired at least two different actors to also play Art Mix; that is, until  sued Adamson for capitalizing on his name. To get around that, Adamson searched for and found an “actor” with the real name of Art Mix. Apparently, this is that Art Mix. The plot of this truncated serial is even more confusing. White marauders, dressed as Indians, rob and kill a couple. The couples’ two sons, who have identical birthmarks, survive the raid. The elder son goes mad, wandering off with a maniacal laugh, which is as atrociously acted as one might imagine. Years later, the masked Rawhide Killer systematically kills each of the couples’ killers by strangling them with rawhide. Art Mix is the younger son, grown up. Describing the rest of the indecipherable plot is hardly worth the effort.

Still from Vanishing Riders (1935)
Vanishing Riders (1935)

Wild Horse Phantom (1944) wallows in its own silliness. Directed by Sam Newfield for the notorious PRC Studios, it co-stars that unlikeliest of western heroes: Buster Crabbe. With his blond locks (dyed black here) and baby face, Crabbe always looked out of place in oaters. Rather than taking on Ming the Merciless, Buster here confronts a Wild Horse Phantom. The title turns out to be a cheat, as there is no phantom horse. Instead, PRC dusted off the same flying rodent from ‘s The Devil Bat (1940). The flying rodent takes half of forever to make its appearance. It’s still equipped with the same screeching sound effect, and looks the worse for wear. It’s not after cologne this time. Rather, it’s a dime store Rhinemaiden protecting a gold mine (minus the gold). Stolen bank loot is the treasure, and Al  “Fuzzy” St. John is the slapsticky Nibelung dwarf ready to claim it. Fuzzy’s fight with a bat-on-a-string is tailored for six-year-old boys.  Kermit Maynard (Ken’s brother) fills out the cast.

These are strictly for the curious and, apart from that, to whom the “weirdness” of these might appeal remains the only mystery.

CARL THEODOR DREYER’S VAMPYR (1932)

Most agree that ‘s Nosferatu (1922) is the greatest and most unique screen incarnation of Bram Stoker’s iconic character (although, as blasphemous as it sounds, I would place ‘s 1979 remake on an equal plane. Yes, I said that, but that is a subject for another week). However, the greatest cinematic treatment of  vampire folklore is a world removed from the titular Transylvanian count: ‘s Vampyr (1932). But it is not for attention span-challenged vampire fans.

Vampyr is a film of relentless, static beauty, almost demanding chimerical concentration and phantasmagorical imagination of the viewer. After the predictable box office failure of the greatest film ever made—Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—the director deluded himself into thinking he could produce something commercial. He had what seemed to be the right source of inspiration (slight as it is): Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 pulp hit “Carmilla,” taken from the collection “In a Glass Darkly.” “Carmilla,” with its theme of a lesbian vampire would, of course, be enticing fodder for the dull masses. But it turned out Dreyer was too original and too much in possession of an authentic, artistic spiritual substance for titillation. Fortunately, Dreyer, who wrote the screenplay, jettisoned the lesbianism and, with it, any anticipation of appeasing puerile genre fans. Vampyr was a financial flop, resulting in Dreyer’s nervous breakdown and the dissolution of his production company. He would  not make another film until Day of Wrath (1943). If period aficionados found Vampyr‘s deliberate pacing and intense, ethereal milieu too challenging, then many contemporary viewers, saddled with grand guignol expectations, often find the film provocative. Despite this, Vampyr proved to be a profound influence on both the German Expressionists and the Surrealists.

Although Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound film, he was uncomfortable with the medium, and the movie is imbued with pronounced silent film aesthetics. The great Rudolph Mate served as director of photography, interpreting Dreyer’s crepuscular world through incandescent, gossamer grays, giving the film an enchanted but foreboding sheen. Dreyer likened the experience of watching the film to a person standing in a room, then being told that another has just died in an adjacent room. The perception of the room you are in suddenly alters, even though the room itself remains the same.

Still from Vampyr (1922)As in a dream, the imagery is often disjointed, but deeply ingrained: a ferryman with scythe, a shrouded river, a shadow departing its one-legged owner,  the antagonist dispatched by suffocating from falling white flour in a dilapidated windmill, and the film’s nexus, the disquieting vignette in which the protagonist, Allan Grey (Julian West, who financed the film) lies, trapped, in a sealed coffin, perforated with a glass window. We take on the role of voyeur to Grey’s nightmare, his helpless, vacant stare masking his terror. His eyes take in the landscape as he is carried away to burial.

The cast is primarily made up of non-professionals (with the notable exception of Sybille Schmitz as the dying sister, Leon). Chief among the amateurs is Henriette Gerard as Marguerite Chopin, the old woman whose spectral presence is matched by her ominous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko). Together, the two weave a spell over the film, as does Dreyer, who imbues Vampyr with a resplendent sense of hermetic purpose permeating its sickly skin. As with all of Dreyer’s work, Vampyr is replete with spiritual preoccupations and fears.

Vampyr may be one of the films most benefited by the Criterion Collection treatment. For years, it was only available in washed out transfers. Even the Image Entertainment release was disappointing. Criterion has done a remarkable restoration, using both French and German versions. Jorgen Ross’ documentary of Dreyer, Casper Tyberjerg’s essay, commentaries, a 1958 Dreyer radio broadcast, and the original script are part of an extensive package of goodies.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) AND THE MUMMY (1932)

After the successes of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) Universal Studios and Carl Laemmle, Jr. became anxious to produce vehicles for  and . After seeing unsatisfactory test footage for an early run at Frankenstein, Laemmle had sacked both director Robert Florey and actor Lugosi from that project. To make amends, Laemmle assigned Florey and Lugosi Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and teamed them with cinematographer Karl Freund, who had done extensive work in German Expressionist cinema, including The Golem (1920, d. Paul Wegener), The Last Laugh (1924, d. F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, d. ).

Still from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first of an -inspired trilogy starring Lugosi, followed by The Black Cat (1934, d. ) and The Raven (1935, d. Lew Landers). The star and Freund’s camera (barely) save the film from Florey’s banal touch. Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a far cry from the Count in his evening tux. Adorned in curly top, unibrow, and carnivalesque mad scientist duds, Mirakle is a Darwinist pervert who seeks to mate a  young woman with his Adam-like Ape, Erik, through some kind of mumbo-jumbo blood transfusion. Of course, Mirakle really gets his jollies by tying attractive, barely legal-aged girls to a king’s cross before penetrating them with a needle. Naturally, there are failed experiments before Mirakle thinks he has found Eve in Sidney Fox. Fox, a delicate, saccharine actress, is pure decor. No doubt she got the role via her engagement to a Universal Executive, whom she wedded later that year (it proved to be a stormy marriage, ending in the actress’ suicide in 1934).

A lurid, ludicrous plot is made worse by excessive babbling from a wretched supporting cast. Lugosi supplies an essential touch of rudimentary European mystery through non-acting tricks and his bewitching deconstruction of the English language. A Cabinet of Dr. Calagri-eque chase scene across the Paris rooftops and a brutal knife fight over a prostitute (with the startling visage of a voyeuristic Mirakle descending from the fog) are stylishly executed.  Florey lacked ‘s narrative rhythm and ‘s authentic empathy. The result is a case of style over substance, with the style supplied by others.

“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff

Meanwhile, Karl Freund was finally given the chance to direct. His The Mummy (1932) is saddled with an almost equally silly plot, but in Freund’s hands, it comes across as pure grand-guignol poetry. It was made by most of the same team who worked on Dracula, and is, essentially, a reworking of that story by the same writer, John L. Balderstein. Crusty Edward Van Sloan (who played Van Helsing) and chiseled David Manners (Harker) virtually reprise their roles. Like Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy opens with Dracula‘s curious theme music: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

Still from The Mummy (1932)Freund creates an ominous, ambiguous, and static mood, which is refreshingly anti-commercial. Universal thought so as well. This was his first and last directorial assignment for them. Karloff’s Imhotep exudes eroticism, even through 3,000 years of masterfully stretched flesh courtesy of makeup genius Jack Pierce, perfectly caught in the film’s gorgeously lit black and white. The actor’s performance is nuanced, menacing and simultaneously sympathetic. His yearning for the tenebrous, commanding Zita Johann is entirely convincing. Johann is Karloff’s most perfect female lead. Despite the doomed setup, their chemistry elevates us past the hokum. Unfortunately, they only worked together once, but they do constitute one the silver screen’s most original couples; a sort of Grimm’s Valentine.  Several scenes, depicting the history of the lovers was excised and, unfortunately lost. Rather, we are saddled with too much of that suburban bore; David Manners. Universal, as per the norm, sadistically allows him to live and get the girl.

THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) CRITERION RELEASE

1932’s The Island of Lost Souls is the first of three cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells “The Island of Dr.Moreau.” It is easily the best, although the 1997 attempt with Marlon Brando was not the disaster some critics claimed, and in fact was considerably better than the static, unimaginative 1977 version with Burt Lancaster.

The 1932 Island, directed by Erle C. Kenton, is rightly considered a classic, enough so that it has received the Criterion treatment for a 2011 release. This is Kenton’s sole classic.  Although he was a prolific director, he was essentially a journeyman, taking whatever was handed to him and usually injecting little style.  His other horror films for Universal were The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), The House Of Frankenstein (1944), and The House Of Dracula (1945), and they are all second rate, at best.

Island of Lost Souls deviates from the original story (which, predictably, prompted H.G. Wells to voice his disapproval), but the film is simply told.  Like 1932’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Island  is a pre-Hayes code film, and it shows.  Of course, both films were taken from  literary sources, and that too is apparent.  Lost Souls‘ literacy is due to screenwriter Philip Wylie, who also adapted Wells for ‘s The Invisible Man (1933).  The inimitable , one of the great classic screen actors, plays Dr. Moreua with a classicist’s relish.  Laughton is one of the major reasons for this film’s success, and as director Kenton shows atypical subtlety. These factors, combined with well-crafted sets and make-up, add up to a striking milieu.

Still from The Island of Lost Souls (1932)Island is almost an old-dark-house genre film, except that the stranded visitor, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) ends up in a sort of kinky, contemporary Eden.  God is present in the symbolic persona of Dr. Moreau and although he is the antagonist, he is a three-dimensional one.  He is intelligent, crafty, and that naughty twinkle in the divine eye is ever present.  God is creating again, although this time he’s attempting to correct his previous mistake by making man from the image of Eden’s animals.  Eve (a Wylie addition) appears in the exotic Lota (Kathleen Burke, who notably showed up in the following year’s pre-Code Murders in the Zoo).  Lota, AKA Panther Girl, alternately projects innocence and unbridled sexuality, and she is utilized by Moreau to usher forth a new Adamic age, with Parker as the new Adam.  Of course, in every Eden there’s a rotten apple or two, and here it’s Parker’s abroad girlfriend (, from Freaks) and the Beast Men, Moreau’s ungrateful children who hold a grudge against their creator for little things like torture, brutality, and vivisection.  The Beast Men are led by the Sayer of the Law (, who is well-directed). The Sayer calls the creator out for hypocrisy and original sin.  The Beast Men are well sketched here, which is a sharp contrast to the mere animalistic portraits drawn in subsequent versions.  The finale is natural jolt, so much so that no other celluloid interpretation of the tale can match it.  This lucidly told imaginative spin on Dr. Frankenstein’s Eden still holds up remarkably well.

As for the Criterion treatment, most welcome authoritative commentary is given by historians Gregory Mank and David J. Skall, along with filmmaker (the original director of the 1997 version, who was replaced by John Frankenheimer).  Stanley offers entertaining, honest insight.  A little less welcome are reflections by John Landis and Devo.  Production stills and the theatrical trailer are excellent supplements.  This is a superb release that is essential for classic film lovers.

TOD BROWNING’S FREAKS (1932)

There used to be a theory in art college that many of the professors blandly bandied about like religious dogma. It was the theory of “aesthetics only.” This theory maintained that it did not matter whether a painting was of a landscape, a penis, or non-representational. A work of art could only be judged by aesthetic criteria.

The biggest problem with that theory is that it rarely holds true. A good example of this would be in comparing the work of Diego Riveria to the work of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Riveria was clearly a better painter, aesthetically. He had a far better sense of composition, and a keener sense of color than Kahlo. However, Riveria lacked Kahlo’s obsessive vision, and it is her vision that remains far more memorably etched in our conscience.

Another example which blows the “aesthetics only” theory out of the water would be in comparing D.W. Griffith to his one-time assistant Tod Browning. There is no doubt that, aesthetically, Griffith was a far more innovative and fluid director. However, Griffith lacked two important qualities which Browning had in spades: obsessive vision and pronounced human empathy. It is the latter of these two vivid Browning qualities that renders Griffith a grossly inferior artist when compared to the inimitable Tod Browning.
Poster for Freaks (1932)Browning was consistently drawn to and connected with the social outcast, while Griffith espoused his racial superiority and reprehensibly tidied that up in his protruding “aesthetics” chest.  That Griffith was ( and still is) celebrated, smacks of American and Hollywood hypocrisy and superficiality at its most blatant.

Of course, this is nothing new, nor is it confined to the film community. Conductor Rafael Kubelik was mercilessly attacked and driven out of Chicago Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S FREAKS (1932)

PASSING THE TORCH FROM MAYNARD TO AUTRY: TOMBSTONE CANYON (1932), IN OLD SANTA FE (1934) & RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING PINES (1949)

Before Hollywood beckoned, Indiana native Ken Maynard had been a champion rodeo rider in the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.  Maynard was, possibly, the most popular of the “B” Western stars from the late twenties through the mid thirties.  Audiences loved him, but virtually everyone who worked or dealt with Maynard thoroughly hated him.  Excessive drinking, foul-mouthed, ego-driven tirades, supreme arrogance, and prima donna ways eventually burned every single bridge Maynard ever crossed, despite being given numerous chances to straighten out his act.  Eventually his excesses, reckless spending, womanizing, and difficult personality all caught up with him.  His last few films, from the mid-forties, show a dissipated, grotesquely overweight star well past his prime.  Since Maynard’s popularity had severely waned, his antics were no longer tolerated, and he was forced into retirement.  After his film career ended, Maynard did a few rodeo circuit shows, a radio show, started a circus, lost it, went through several more marriages, and filed bankruptcy.  His last few years were spent living in drunken solitude at a run-down trailer park, being cared for by his brother and fellow “B” Westerner Kermit Maynard, hawking off memorabilia (fake and real) and (secretly) receiving financial assistance from Gene Autry (Maynard gave Autry his start In Old Santa Fe, below).  Ken Maynard died destitute and suffering from severe malnutrition in the early 1970s.

When he was in his prime, one can easily understand Maynard’s appeal.  Personality quirks and sad ending aside, Maynard had undeniable, amiable charisma and, with his famous palomino horse, Tarzan, he seems the quintessential idea of a period “B” Western star.

Tombstone Canyon (1932) is a grand-guignol western directed by Alan James. As Ken and Tarzan are riding along Tombstone Canyon (actually Red Rock Canyon) they encounter the masked, cloaked Phantom Killer villain Sheldon Lewis (a hold-out, villainous favorite from the silent era).  Some bad local hombres try to jump Ken and Tarzan, but cutie Cecilia Parker appears from nowhere to lend Ken a helping hand in driving away the thieves.  When Cecilia introduces herself, Ken amiably exclaims, “Well that’s a might purty name you have there.”  The Phantom Killer, having observed from the rocks above, gives off a banshee cry and Ken tells Cecilia, “I’d like to meet up with that Phantom fellar.”

Still from Tombstone Canyon (1932)Cecilia finds out that Ken is in search of his identity and long lost father.  Local baddie Frank Brownlee has reasons for not wanting Ken to find out and it was his men who tried to bushwhack Ken in the desert.  Plenty of intrigue is afoot and Ken finds himself in numerous predicaments, including a run-in with the hideously scarred Phantom Killer (shades of the Phantom of the Opera, and even of Darth Vader to come).  The Phantom has sworn revenge against Brownlee and his gang, since it was they who beat him, scarred Continue reading PASSING THE TORCH FROM MAYNARD TO AUTRY: TOMBSTONE CANYON (1932), IN OLD SANTA FE (1934) & RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING PINES (1949)

MYSTERY RANCH (1932) & MYSTERY RANCH (1934)

Two B westerns, two years apart with the same title.  Both are off the beaten path and good in their own way.

First is the 1932 Mystery Ranch, atmospherically directed by David Howard and starring George O’ Brien.  This Ranch might be aptly described as a Gothic western, often looking more like an early thirties horror film than a western.  Charles Middleton is a tyrannical land baron and a piano playing, manipulative sadist who is holding his dead partner’s daughter, Cecilia Parker, hostage in order to force her into marriage and seize control of the Arizona valley.  Middleton is so chilling, so slimy that he leaves a trail and, in the process, steals every scene he is in.  Joseph August’s expressionistic camerawork certainly helps when the villain is so moodily lit.  You know from that outset that any villain who would stoop to bullwhipping a deaf-mute native American henchman is going to mean trouble for O’Brien, and our hero has his hands full trying to save the fair maiden from her evil guardian.

Mystery Ranch (1932) is suspenseful to the nail-biting level, has a great action sequence, is aptly scored, and climaxes with a great end for the villain.  Many of O’ Brien’s westerns were a notch above (of course, quite a few were several notches below) and the star holds his own with Middleton.  The scene in which the two are riding side by side, playing a suave cat & mouse dialogue until Middleton lays it all down, has a quality similar to the best James Bond/villain scenes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mystery Ranch (1934), directed by B.B. Ray and Starring perennial “B” favorite Tom Tyler (who also played a strange Mummy in Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand).

This Mystery Ranch opens with a bizarre scene in grotesque, high melodramatic, grand stand vaudeville style.  The added-on, delivered dialogue is just as flowery and absurdly theatrical.  It turns out that it’s just a scene from the latest book of pulp novelist Tom Tyler.  Tom’s daddy lectures his son for trivializing the west.  Soon, an opportunity comes, in the form of a invitation by letter, for Tom to get a glimpse of the real west.  Tom goes to visit The Mystery Ranch.  Only, it’s a scam to get some publicity for the ranchers, who, at first see Tom merely as a hack dime western novelist.  They stage a fake lynching, hold-ups, and a duel.  Tom gets wise and decides to turn the tables on his pranksters.  Of course, a real hold-up takes place and it’s a case of “the boy who cried wolf.”  The real hold-up scenario gets mixed up with Tom’s fake hold-up, which in turn gets another “one good gag deserves another good gag” gag.  One halfway expects Tom to shout out, “Let’s go play hide and seek!”

This film plays, at time, like an unintentionally surreal sitcom comedy filtered through B-western sensibilities. Of course there is a pretty girl and the obligatory fight between the real bad guys and Tom, in tight jeans,over some stolen gold bullion. There is even a spanking and, of course, a happy ending, with Tom proudly proclaiming “Now I have a great idea for new story,” getting the pretty girl and a last line of comedy relief.  A real curio.

Opening to Mystery Ranch (1934)