Tag Archives: 1934

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.

178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

Peter Allison: “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.”

Dr. Vitus Werdegast: “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”–The Black Cat

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund

PLOT: A rainy night and roadside accident lands WWI veteran Dr. Vitus Werdegast and a honeymooning couple to the old dark house of Satanist Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig, a mass murderer guilty of war crimes, is also Werdegast’ s longtime nemesis. Werdegast is sworn to revenge, but must also protect the couple from being sacrified at a Black Mass.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
BACKGROUND:

  • In his native Hungary, Lugosi had often played romantic leads. Typecast since Dracula (1931), Lugosi was initially enthusiastic about taking on the role of Werdegast. However, upon seeing the script and discovering that his beloved “protagonist” raped the heroine, The Black Cat became a career nightmare for the actor. Adding to the onset tension was Lugosi’s increasing jealousy of Karloff. In an interview with author Gregory Mank, Ulmer’s widow, Shirley Ulmer, related that Karloff and her late husband were kindred, erudite spirits. The two often engaged in discussions ranging from art to philosophy and film aesthetics. Lugosi, who was no intellectual heavyweight, felt the odd man out. Threatened by his genre rival, Lugosi resorted to lurid anecdotes for attention, even claiming that he had once been a Hungarian hangman. Naturally, such yarn spinning only served to further distance Lugosi from his peers.
  • According to Mank, Lugosi got increasingly excited at the prospect of “skinning” his rival. Multiple takes were required and, in each take, Lugosi’s English became even more rushed and indecipherable. Many years later, Karloff advised impressionist Rich Little to watch the skinning scene from The Black Cat, in order to mimic Lugosi’s idiosyncratic vocalizations: “Did you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’sh what I’m going to do to you now. Vear the skin from your body, shlowly, bit by bit.” Karloff’s infamous lisp, at its most pronounced here, parallels Lugosi’s language mangling. Reportedly, Lugosi, of all people, consistently ridiculed Karloff’s speech impediment.
  • Among the excised scenes were the afore mentioned rape, a scene of Joan Allison actually transforming into a black cat, and shots of Karloff’s skinned Poelzig, crawling on the floor with bloodied, flayed flesh hanging off his frame. Awkward comedy relief and embarrassing scenes depicting Werdegast’s fear of black cats were added, along with a slightly more traditionally heroic shaping of Lugosi’s character.
  • Ulmer drew his inspiration for Poelzig from two sources: first, the German architect and leading member of the avant garde architectural society “Der Ring,” Hans Poelzig. Polezig’s work was an eccentric mix of Gothic and Noveua, filtered through very personal sensibilities. Second was the infamous Satanist and misogynist Aleister Crowley, whose concupiscent philosophy is expressed by his motto “I rave and I rape and I rip and I rend.” Ulmer grafts those two identification points into a First World War backstory. Ulmer had additional influence here as well: his father was one of the countless European victims in the Great War.
  • Ulmer doubled as set designer and imbued the film with Bauhaus sensibilities.
  • Ulmer should have been Universal’s third iconic horror director, directly behind  and . Like those contemporaries, Ulmer had enough personal vision to elevate a pedestrian seed into something unique. Unfortunately, Ulmer broke a basic rule: He had an affair with his boss’ wife, which lead to his being fired and blacklisted by major studios. Although Ulmer was offered a chance to direct a big budget Shirley Temple musical for Fox, he turned down the offer, choosing instead to makepoverty row quickies for  PRC, where he languished for the rest of his career. Most of  his films are saddled with execrable scripts, and despite a cult following in France, Ulmer’s ultimate artistic merit is speculative.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the roadside accident, Vitus Werdegast and company arrive at Hjalmar Poelzig’s mansion. Ulmer’s camera jerkily climbs the deco stairs. The light from a radio blinks. Through cracks and clicks, Poelzig’s manservant announces: “Dr. Werdegast has arrived.” Poelzig’s wife lies asleep in bed; a half nude vision of purest white. Next to her lies the blackened silhouette of Polezig. Upon hearing the voice of his servant, Poelzig awakes, clicks on a light, and sits straight up. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see the image for what it is; a blatantly erect phallus. Polezig rises and walks menacingly toward the bedroom door, seen through the sheer curtain of a canopy bed. He is a phallic symbol as harbinger of death. Sex and death awash in starkly cubist black and white, and dramatic classical music. Poelzig’s wife is also his step-daughter, and Werdegast’ daughter. Werdegast waits below, suspicious but not completely aware of the incestuous milieu permeating Polezig’s fortress.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Despite a checklist of outré taboos, The Black Cat, partly due to studio tampering, is characterized by subdued aesthetics. Rather than conveying grotesquerie and perversity through blood-soaked Poe-like dungeons, which would be the pedestrian route, Ulmer crafts a very personal restlessness through the icy tents of modernism, futurism, highly stylized acting, and artistic music. While this may make it a challenge for contemporary viewers, it renders this tale of revenge, lust and paranoia even weirder.


Fan made trailer for The Black Cat (by David Smith)

COMMENTS: For the first team-up of Universal’s horror stars, Karloff and Lugosi, uncredited producer Carl Laemmle Jr. virtually gave director Edgar G. Continue reading 178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

DAMES (1934)

 co-directed Dames (1934) with ho-hum stock director Ray Enright, and that may be one reason why it is among the most uneven of Berkeley’s films. The plot is threadbare. Oddball moral majority-type millionaire Hugh Herbert is planning on bequeathing ten million dollars to his cousin Zazu Pitts (of 1924’s  infamous Greed) and her husband . That is, on one condition—that he finds them to be “morally acceptable” (i.e., no smoking, drinking, or mixing up with show-biz types, especially those that do shows with those immoral dames!)

Of course, there has to be a fly in the ointment, and here it is . Powell’s tenor persona wears thin quickly. He is such an all-smiles poster boy that one wonders what in the world that constipated Herbert might have found objectionable in him. A little background info here on Powell: the actor realized the limits of the screen persona that he had been thrust into. He waited out his youth and when he was too old to be prancing  on-screen he shrewdly reinvented himself as a hard-boiled forty something private eye in film noir. Here, he is the fellar of , daughter of Zazu and Guy. Dick wants to put on a show and gets help from the eternally underrated (who became Mrs. Powell two years later).

In direct contrast to the virginal Keeler, Blondell is the much more interesting, wise-cracking working girl who manages to get Guy Kibbee into a compromising situation. She uses that to her advantage and blackmails Guy into financing Dick’s Broadway production. Naturally, it will all work out.

Plot-wise, that’s about all one needs to know. Unfortunately, the film does not spin the plot quite that fast and it takes some time before we get to Berkeley’s numbers, but once we do, most is forgiven.

Blondell is Warren and Dubin’s “Girl At The Ironing Board” and, on the surface, the song seems a bit subdued. But, the discerning eye will notice that not only is she singing to the fellas’ shirts on the clothes line, but the shirts are singing back. This number, set at the the turn of the century, is eyelash batting cynicism that only Blondell could have done justice to (with Keeler, the piece would have fallen flat). Blondell is a good sport even when one of the undie shirts gets a sleeve-full of her tush. Continue reading DAMES (1934)

65. MANIAC (1934)

AKA Sex Maniac

“Unless you regularly do mushrooms and go to Lady Gaga concerts with your good friend Crispin Glover, then watching Maniac is guaranteed to be the weirdest experience you have ever had.”–ad copy for the Rifftrax version of Maniac

DIRECTED BY: Dwain Esper

FEATURING: Bill Woods

PLOT:  An on-the-lam vaudevillian kills and impersonates his mad scientist employer, driving himself mad in the process.

Maniac (1934)


BACKGROUND:

  • Dwain Esper was a successful building contractor who, it is rumored, only got into the movie business when he came into possession of a cache of filmmaking equipment that was abandoned in a foreclosed property.  He worked outside the film distribution system, taking his exploitation movies on the road and showing them in rented venues, accompanied by lurid advertisements promising forbidden fruit for “adults only.”  Esper obtained the rights to Tod Browning’s Freaks from MGM for a song, and took the movie on the road with his other exploitation hits.  Other films he directed or produced had titles such as Marihuana, the Weed with Roots in Hell and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband.
  • Made outside of the Hollywood system, Maniac was not subject to the Hays Production Code, although it probably ran afoul of most local censorship laws.  Audacious directors like Esper deliberately put racy material into their films that the major studios could not touch.  Maniac contains a scandalous amount of nudity, which had been extremely rare in motion pictures up until that time and was banned outright when the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1934.
  • The film incorporates (steals) footage from Maciste in Hell (1925), and reportedly also from Häxan (1920) and Fritz Lang‘s Sigfried (1923), for its delirium sequences.
  • Named one of the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzie Movie Guide.
  • One gruesome scene involving a cat’s eyeball appears to be a real case of animal abuse, but is almost certainly a convincing illusion.
  • The movie’s ending rips off the Edgar Allen Poe short story “The Black Cat.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are lots of strange, unexpected sights to be seen in this time capsule of man’s freakish desires, but you won’t forget the cat’s eyeball.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDManiac promises to show us the life of a madman as a shameless


Scene from Maniac

pretext for delivering multiple shock scenes in an “educational” context, but the final product is so disjointed, feverish and crazily assembled that it seems to be the work of an actual madman.

COMMENTS: Most bad movies are just bad.  A rare breed are so bad they’re “unintentionally” Continue reading 65. MANIAC (1934)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edgar G. Ulmer

FEATURING: , Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A young couple find themselves caught between the machinations of a doctor bent on revenge and a mad engineer in the latter’s Art Deco mansion, built on the graves of the soldiers he sold out in a World War I battle.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEThe Black Cat has the cadence of a nightmare.  Its shadows haunt the mind long after the DVD clatters out of the tray. Still, as impressive as the movie’s evocation of corruption masked by civility is, it’s highly creepy but only mildly weird; it remains to be seen whether it’s eccentric excellence will overcome it’s somewhat suspect surreality and catapult it onto the List.

COMMENTS:  Today, The Black Cat looks like a cult film.  In the popular memory it’s almost never mentioned alongside the Universal horror classics Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), but “those in the know” sing its praises to the uninitiated: The Black Cat is a forgotten Expressionist classic, too cool for the masses, a film that had to be resurrected from oblivion by the cinematic savants at Cahiers du Cinema who recognized its neglected genius.  Truth be told, however, The Black Cat, which teamed up terror titans Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the first time, was a huge box office hit in 1934.  Despite reviews from The New York Times, Variety,and Time that ranged from dismissive to near-scathing, the film was a blockbuster, Universal’s highest-grossing release of the year.  Through modern eyes—with its daring pre-code perversity and its disjointed, dreamlike rhythms—The Black Cat looks like an ahead-of-its-time oddity we assume musty old timers would have misunderstood, but perhaps audiences in 1934 were hipper than we give them credit for.

At the time, the two rising horror stars were the main draw, and they acquit themselves admirably.  Returning to wreak revenge on the man who wronged him after spending 15 years in a WWI prisoner-of-war camp, Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast makes an unlikely, suspect hero.  He’s a raw and damaged bundle of obsessions and phobias hidden underneath a suave, aristocratic exterior and filtered through a thick Hungarian accent.  Lugosi has his impressive moments, as when he loses his mind (and, temporarily, his grasp of the English language) in the film’s startling climax, but Karloff outshines him, turning in one of his finest performances as villainous architect Hjalmar Poelzig.  Initially glimpsed as a menacing shadow rising mechanically from his bed, when he steps into the light we see a frowning, grim faced man with a diabolically angular haircut, draped in black robes.  Karloff’s every motion is cold and calculated, detached and almost inhuman: he hangs back, animated only by the occasional spasm of evil (as when he reveals his hidden lust for the heroine by thrusting forth his hand and tightly gripping a nude figurine in the foreground while watching her kiss her husband).

Vitus and Poelzig play a cat-and-mouse game, dramatically demonstrated in an oddly conceived chess match for the soul of the heroine.  The backdrop before which they fence—Poelzig’s gleaming Bauhaus mansion, full of odd angles, deep shadows, and hidden rooms, including one with twisted crosses and jutting angular pillars before which he conducts his rites dedicated to Lucifer—lends their jousting an aura of  strangeness.  Karloff’s haircut is almost an Expressionist set of its own.  There’s no literary connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s psychological horror story “The Black Cat,” but the beautiful, flitting imagery and tone of repressed evil evokes Poe’s opiated style, and there is a literal black cat who pops up inexplicably on occasion, almost as an afterthought, to terrify the phobic Lugosi.

The Black Cat is full of arresting images: corpses preserved and encased in glass boxes, Lugosi recoiling before the giant shadow of the black cat, Karloff conducting a Black Mass.  The plot, on the other hand, is fragmented; it lurches forward without clear explanation  (the company hardly reacts when Lugosi launches a conveniently placed throwing knife at the pesky feline; the unexplained swoon of a female Satanist allows Lugosi to turn the tables on Karloff).   At one point Poelzig asks Vitus, “of what use are all these melodramatic gestures?,” a question he could well address to the movie itself.  The answer, of course, is to provide pure atmosphere: an atmosphere of psychic repression and elegant perversity, full of hints of necrophilia, sex slavery, incest, mass murder, and other European decadences.  The combination of powerful images and loose narrative connections gives the film a choppy, nightmarish feel that works even better in the memory than it does while you are watching it, and accounts for the weird feeling The Black Cat generates in susceptible viewers.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer apprenticed under F.W. Murnau and worked as an uncredited set designer for Fritz Lang on Metropolis, among other projects.  Set to be a big name helmer after the success of The Black Cat, rumor has it that Ulmer indulged in an affair with the wife of a powerful Universal producer and was exiled to the poverty row studio PRC.  There, he turned out workmanlike B-movies with titles like Girls in Chains and Isle of Forgotten Sins before creating another minor classic, the grimy and effective low-budget noir Detour (1945).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…nutty, nightmarish melange… a crepehanger’s ball.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (retrospective)

For another opinion and further background on the film, see Alfred Eaker’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

Edgar G. Ulmer has a cult reputation, particularly in France. The late British film critic, Leslie Halliwell, believed that reputation to be wholly undeserved, since most of Ulmer’s films ranged from B to Z status. Ulmer did not begin that way when, in 1934, he was handed “complete freedom” in an A (A-) production, teaming, for the first time, Universal Studio’s reigning horror stars Bela Lugosi and in the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired The Black Cat. The resulting film, and Ulmer’s affair with his employer’s wife, quickly ended a promising top-notch studio career almost as quickly as it began.

This first Karloff/Lugosi teaming was also their best. That is because of their eight collaborations this was their only joint-starring project directed by a visionary auteur. In The Black Cat Lugosi was cast as protagonist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, and Karloff as antagonist Hjalmer Poelzig. In the original, uncut film, Lugosi’s hero does some less than heroic things. Enough of Vitus’ sinister quality remains that Lugosi gives us a hero we are never quite comfortable with. Under Ulmer’s direction, Lugosi’s performance is superb, an extreme rarity for this actor. As good as Lugosi is, Karloff is even better and, as unpopular as it may be to say now, Karloff was always a far better actor than his co-star.

Ulmer’s “complete freedom” came to a screeching halt when universal execs saw the filmed footage and script. Lugosi’s hero rapes the heroine, the heroine occasionally turns into a black cat, and Karloff’s Poelzig is skinned alive and last seen crawling on the floor with his skin hanging from his body as Lugosi’s mad hero laughs hysterically. All of these scenes were cut from the film and, par the course at that time, were destroyed. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the scenes were shot and then burned, or merely scripted and axed.
Still from The Black Cat (1934)
Regardless, what remains of The Black Cat is a flawed, baroque masterpiece, intoxicating to watch and simultaneously frustrating, especially in light of Ulmer’s original intent. Lugosi’s Hungarian psychiatrist Vitus is traveling by train, and he is on a journey of revenge and retaliation. Vitus meets two newlyweds—American novelist Peter Alison and his wife Joan (played by David Manners and Jaqueline Wells)—who are as bland a 30s couple as one is likely to find. Lugosi sees something in the young woman Joan and touches her hair as she sleeps. The Hays Code be damned, it’s an erotic, Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE BLACK CAT (1934)

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)