Tag Archives: 1934

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)