Tag Archives: Black and White

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)

BIG CALIBRE (1935)

Robert North Bradbury often seemed to add a pinch of the offbeat into his westerns, but when it came to directing his son, star Bob Steele, there was a downright oedipal underpinning because, quite often, Bob was thrust into an onscreen situation in which he lost his father.

Big Calibre utilizes this plot situation yet again, but regardless what Sigmund would have to say about it, it is of little consequence to this enjoyably odd oater. Bob’s father is killed and robbed of his cattle cash by a local chemist, played by screenwriter and Steele friend Perry Murdock. Bob pursues him, but the chemist escapes. Some time later, Bob, still in pursuit of his father’s murderer, is accused of holding up a stagecoach and murdering Peggy Campbell’s father, who also was robbed and killed with corrosive gas while en route to save his ranch from foreclosure.

The local banker wants Peggy for himself and is behind her father’s supposed killing (the body is missing).  He has a hunchbacked, fanged, bespectacled assistant/henchman. Peggy knows Steele is innocent since it was she who held up the coach in order to prevent the delivery of a letter, from the banker, seizing her ranch.

Still from Big Calibre (1935)The local mob is itching to hang Bob, and so an anonymous benefactor breaks Bob and his comedy relief sidekick out of jail, using corrosive gas! There is an unintentionally surreal, misplaced barnyard dance with Bob and the sidekick dancing with Peggy while masked! The dance ends in a planned brawl and Bob barely escapes with his life. Unsurprisingly, the hunchbacked assistant is none other than the low-life chemist who butchered Bob’s pa. When Bob knocks him to the ground his fake fangs and glasses come off to reveal his true identity.

An exciting and atmospheric desert chase follows with the assistant making his getaway in an automobile. All ends well, of course, with the bad guys reaping what they sow, the hero and his girl hooking up after she finds out her daddy is still alive, and Bob’s sidekick being chased off by an ugly childhood sweetheart who won’t leave him alone.

Big Calibre has more loopholes than plot. The loopholes hardly matter because it has an admirable low budget, authentic western weirdness. It’s strangeness is organic and subtle, rather than on-the sleeve. The lack of a musical score, which is the norm in early 1930’s B westerns, actually adds to the unique flavor.

Bob Steele possibly made more B westerns than anyone and few of them were good, but he had an amiable and hip personality that audiences responded to. He is probably best known as the low-life Curley in Lewis Milestone’s 1939 version of Of Mice and Men. Big Calibre, released by Sinister Cinema, is available on Amazon and the Sinister Cinema website.

GEORGES MELIES ENCORE

The films of Georges Méliès are testosterone for surrealists. In 2008 Flicker Alley and the esteemed Blackhawk films released The First Wizard of Cinema, a mammoth 5 disc, thirteen hour collection of Méliès’ surviving films. It was the DVD event release of several years. In 2010, the same forces have released a supplemental collection of 26 newly discovered shorts, aptly entitled “Encore”.

Understandably, this is not the event from two years ago, but it is an essential, released addition in the appreciation of Méliès’ unique art.  Contemporary viewers with preconceived notions of the term “film” may be thrown off by the aesthetic mindset from a turn of the century experimental filmmaker. Get over it and don’t look for narrative in the post-Edwin S. Porter sense of the word. There is much to savor here when transported into Méliès’ very different world.

First, there are two films here that were at one time mistakenly attributed to Méliès, but were in fact directed by the Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon in the Méliès style (he was often compared to Méliès). Chomon, who worked for the smae company as Méliès (Pathe), specialized in color tinting and “The Rose Magician” (1906), with its washy blues, yellows, streams of flowers and painted backdrops, including a giant seashell, exudes a heady, exotic nouveau flavor. “Excursion to the Moon” (1908) is clearly a homage to Méliès’ famous “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). Sublime golds, oranges, pinks, greens and blues permeate “Excursion”. Chomon beautifully utilizes snowy imagery, sleep, mushrooms, space rockets, explosions and a snow covered face in the moon, which has to be seen to be believed. Taking nothing from Méliès, the two Chomon shorts may be the most significant discoveries in this collection.

Still from Melies Encore (2010 DVD)As for the actual Méliès pictures, “The Haunted Castle” (1896), which is not related to Poe, begins in a castle set with a bat (on strings, of course) that transforms into the Devil himself (complete with horns and costume which looks like it was bough from L.S. Ayres). Old Nick waves his hand and a giant cauldron appears. He follows this with some black magic business, summoning forth a servant and a maiden, who emerges form the cauldron, then quickly disappears. The servant, then the cauldron, then the Devil himself all disappear.  Two Continue reading GEORGES MELIES ENCORE

NO MAN’S LAW (1927)

No Man’s Law is about as odd and obscure as it gets. Produced by Hal Roach, it stars Rex, King of the Wild Horses, Oliver Hardy (as a vile villain), James Finlayson,and Barbara Kent. Directed by some guy named Fred Jackman.

Oliver Hardy is one-eyed, grizzled, no good fugitive cuss Sharkey Nye, prospecting for gold with good guy partner Spider O’ Day, played by Theodore Von Eltz.  James Finlayson, of many Laurel & Hardy shorts, has cute Barbara Kent for a daughter and he is prospecting too but he’s not very good at it.  Rex, the horse, surveying his territory, does not take a liking to Ollie.  When Ollie gets a wee bit too close to a skinny-dipping Barbara, Rex steps in, chasing off Ollie.

Rex knows trouble is afoot and Ollie proves Rex right by plotting to kill Finlayson.  It’s murderous slapstick business as Ollie tries first to kill Finlayson, then tries to rape Barbara repeatedly, then kill Theodore.  Every time, Rex steps in just in time to save the day, finally in time to kill off Ollie.

That’s about all there is to the plot, and No Man’s Law would not be remarkable at all if it weren’t for Roach’s trademark slapstick style being channeled into Oliver Hardy attempting to kill and rape his co-stars.  Top-billed Rex is barely in it, showing up only when necessary.  Kent is certainly doing her best Mabel Normand.  For once, Finlayson has a  somewhat sympathetic part, and Ollie gets no sympathy whatsoever.

The slapstick business comes when Ollie tries to kill Finlayson by causing a cave-in at a mine and then by pushing him off a cliff.  More slapstick follows when Ollie gets into a fight with Eltz, plays cards with him (while Finlayson crawls under the table in his PJs), fights him again over a gun, shoots him (just a wound), and chases Barbara around the house trying to rape her.  It all wraps up nicely when then Ollie is in in hot flight from the rampaging Rex, who finally kills him.  All is supposedly good. but after seeing sweet childhood hero Ollie slime it up for an hour, I just wanted to go take a shower.

Weird.  Take this one to your next party.

JUST TONY (1922) & SKY HIGH (1922)


It all began with the legendary Tom Mix, the yardstick by which all B-Western stars are measured.

Born in 1880, Mix had worked with the Texas Rangers, had been a bartender, a sheriff, and a champion rodeo rider in his Wild West Show. Hollywood had a bona fide true blue western legend.  After becoming THE cowboy movie star at the age of 30, the extremely prolific Mix worked and played equally hard, developing a love for fast cars, fast women (married five times) , and reckless spending. Most of his 20’s westerns were adapted from Zane Grey novels and were high quality entertainment for the masses.   Mix often wrote, produced and directed in addition to acting.  He was the polar opposite to William S. Hart’s dusty realism.  Mix combined humor, increased action which featured his own stunt work, a star horse named Tony, flashy showmanship and enthusiastic energy in his films.   When his stardom naturally began to dim in the 1930’s, mainly due to age, he toured with his beloved Tom Mix Circus before an untimely high speed auto accident and a flying metal suitcase to the back of the head on an Arizona highway put an end to all the Circus in 1940, but not to the legend.   For ten years after his death, the Tom Mix Radio Show continued on with immense popularity.   Tom Mix comic books were also extremely popular for several decades, as was the touring Tom Mix festival which finally ran down (but not entirely out) in the mid 90’s.  Since most of his films are silent, few today have even seen a Tom Mix film, and his reputation by far exceeds the actual films.  Here are two Mixs from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun collection.

Just Tony (1922)Just Tony begins, aptly enough, with a trailer.  “Hit the Trail!  The Gun Ranger is out to clean up the town!  Bob Steel, two-gun deputy whose twitching fingers itch for fights!  Outlaws Rustlers Cowboys Posses and Bob Steel as the Gun Ranger!  A Republic Release.”  This trailer promises white hat cow dude Steel kicking black hat bad guy butt, a mix of masked bandits, pencil-thin mustached villains and a pretty girl exclaiming “Oh, Dan!”

Tom has his eyes on the beautiful black wild stallion, Tony, that he wants to tame, but first things first as he has Continue reading JUST TONY (1922) & SKY HIGH (1922)

CAPSULE: THE WHITE RIBBON [DAS WEISSE BAND: EINE DEUTSCHE KINDERGESCHICHTE] (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Haneke

FEATURING: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Leonie Benesch, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf

PLOT: A doctor’s horse is tripped by a wire strung between two trees, and soon

Still from The White Ribbon (Das weiss band) (2009)

other unexplained “accidents” start happening around a German village on the eve of WWI.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I wouldn’t have even considered covering this fairly conventional film in this sacred space devoted to weirdness, except that as I was leaving the theater, I heard an old man ask the old woman beside him, “Wasn’t that the strangest movie you ever saw?”  The old woman agreed. My initial reaction was sadness at the thought that they both had reached an advanced state of decrepitude without having ever witnessed the miracle of a truly strange film.  My second thought was, I have to get out there and nip this rumor in the bud.

COMMENTS: As a historical drama, a novelistic examination of small town immorality, The White Ribbon is superb.  It immerses us in the life of a quiet, one-bicycle German hamlet on the eve of World War I, where order is harshly enforced in public but cruelty and hypocrisy are the rule behind closed doors.  The story begins by evoking a mystery—who strung the invisible steel wire that tripped the doctor’s horse?—then moves on to explore various village subplots involving characters from every strata of society.  Among others, there’s the humane schoolteacher who romances a shy nanny; the Baron, who employs half the village and acts as if feudalism is still in fashion; a Farmer and the rebellious son who blames the Baron for his mother’s death; the Doctor, an eminent man hiding shameful secrets; the Midwife, who lives with the Doctor since his wife dies and cares for her mentally retarded son; and most significantly the Pastor, who is obsessed with enforcing purity among his children, binding his son’s arms at night to help him resist the temptation to touch himself and tying white ribbons on the elder children to remind them of innocence.  And there are the children themselves, whose eerily blank faces and frustratingly proper responses to interrogations mask unknown motives.  Led by creepy and unflappable Maria-Victoria Dragus, a gang of tykes seem to be present at the periphery of all the tragic accidents that start popping up around the village.  The question of whether the kids are just curious spectators drawn to the hubub in a quiet town, or if they have some deeper involvement in the plague of catastrophes, is the mystery that Haneke leaves unsolved.  But the real unsolved mystery may be why the director chose to structure his story as an unsolved mystery.  When the tale focuses on exploring of moral hypocrisy, exposing the domestic cruelty of upstanding pillars of the community, the film is first-rate drama; there are excellent, tense scenes where a man callously dumps his mistress and parents inflict sadistic punishments on their children for minor infractions.  Haneke apparently did not feel that this searing drama was enough to grant his film Palme d’Or-type gravitas, and so we have the ambiguous mystery arbitrarily piled on top.  Not only is the plot obscure, but the purpose of employing an obscure plot is obscure.

Perhaps it’s because Haneke’s thesis isn’t as meaty as it seems.  The reminders that these wan, detached and abused children will be the generation that grows up to embrace Nazism are not subtle.  But if Haneke’s trying to say that a morally rigid, patriarchal society set the ground for the rise of Nazism… well, that’s a small part of the puzzle.  But the same types of societies existed all over the Western world.  Change a few details—replace the feudal Baron with a capitalist robber baron—and the story could just as easily be set in small town America in the 1910s.  What’s specifically German about this story that supposedly helps to explain the rise of Nazism (as the film’s narrator suggests in his opening lines)?  If, on the other hand, Haneke isn’t blaming a particular social order for nurturing fascism, but trying to say something universal about human societies and their capacity for institutional evil, the point gets a bit lost by locating the story in such an incredibly specific historical time and place.  The movie ends up perched uncomfortably between ambiguity and a definite argument, between a universal message and a historical one.  Maybe these unresolved tensions help explain why The White Ribbon, with its impeccable acting and classic production, feels thematically awkward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Our narrator, well into old age, tells us that he is revisiting the strange events in the village to ‘clarify things that happened in our country’ afterward.  But ‘The White Ribbon’ does the opposite, mystifying the historical phenomenon it purports to investigate… ‘The White Ribbon’ is a whodunit that offers a philosophically and aesthetically unsatisfying answer..”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

BETWEEN MEN (1935)

Another B-Western from Sinister Cinema’s “Sinister Six Gun Collection”.

Between Men is a strongly composed “B” directed by Robert North Bradbury (Courageous Avenger and several of John Wayne’s Lone Star Westerns).  Bradbury was also the father of B-Western star Bob Steele, and his expertise in the genre is delightfully natural.  Between Men has a strong cast in Johnny Mack Brown as the stalwart hero, and this may well be his best role.  Beth Marion excels as the love interest, as does William Farnum in his scene-stealing role as Brown’s tormented father and Earl Dwire as the standard slimy villain.

Between Men has a richly melodramatic plot.  Farnum (great wide- eyed acting) believes he has killed his young son (Brown) and flees west.  Actually, the boy was only injured and is adopted by Lloyd Ingram.  Twenty years pass and the visuals shift from the upper-scale Virginia countryside to the stark New Mexico desert as Johnny embarks on a journey to find his adopted father’s long lost granddaughter (Marion).  Farnum has assumed a new name and is now Marion’s guardian after his hired hand (Dwire) rustles her cattle, kills her father, and attempts to raper her.  Marion is saved by a “drifter” whom Farnum hires for protection, not realizing that Brown is his son, whom he believes to be dead.

Soon however, Farnum believes Brown is putting the make on Beth.  Drifter Brown is not worthy of her.  The film does not state, but seems to imply, that Farnum himself lusts after her.  After Johnny fails to heed Farnum’s warning to stay away from Marion, a brawl between father and son breaks out, during which our dimpled hero obligingly loses most of his shirt.  Farnum sees an identifying scar on Brown’s chest and belatedly realizes this is his son.  Oddly, the film ends with Farnum sacrificing his life for the young lovers without ever revealing to Johnny that he is his father.  Needless to say, the dastardly bad guys are killed off, with Johnny and Beth walking arm in arm into the New Mexico sunset.  There is as much plot as action in this oater, which is a rarity in the genre of the thirties.  This, along with assured direction, photography by Bert Longenecker and aptly over-the-top acting make Between Men one of the better B Westerns from the period.