“With a few exceptions, The Bride of Frankenstein represented the last gasp of the horror film as a serious genre,” claimed Andrew Sarris. The late critic had a point. By now, Whale’s blackened horror comedy sequel to Frankenstein (1931) has become so legendary, it is almost too easy to forget how much Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a standalone film, possessing a texture unlike anything before or since. Genre classifications be damned.
Director James Whalehad vehemently and repeatedly refused Universal Studio’s pleas for a sequel to his runaway 1931 hit, but when they promised him carte blanche, his enthusiasm was inspired. Whale set to work on a high camp satire, playing havoc with Western family values. Our contemporary idea of a Gothic celluloid baseball bat taken to the bourgeoisie might be Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family Values (1993). Compared to Whale’s authentic island of misfits, the creepy, kooky klan are comparatively status quo.
It may be tempting to dismiss the endless essays addressing the film’s homosexual themes as wishful revisionist hindsight, but the head-in-sand types are as clueless as yesterday’s batch of “Liberace is gay?”naysaying muggles. Yes, James Whale was gay; shockingly, openly gay for the 1930s. The queered eye of Bride‘s hurricane blows in the form of Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius, extending his role of Horace Femm from Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932). Accompanied by his horticultural box of little people, Pretorius endorses necrophilia, snubs his beautifully bitchy nose at homophobic mores, and constructs a deco bride for a simpleton bisexual monster, gesticulating with all the subtlety of a high-dive belly buster.
The Raven (1935) marks the second teaming of Universal’s dual horror stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It is also downright mortifying in its pedestrianism. Director Lew Landers simply did not have the sense of style or vision with which Edgar G.Ulmer imbued The Black Cat(1934) . Worse, Landers lacked the foresight or directorial strength to shape or reign in Lugosi’s performance. Lugosi’s overacting is both the key to that which remains most fascinating about The Raven and, paradoxically, sinks the film into abject parody. It was Lugosi’s deliriously sadistic antics here which inspired the two-year UK ban on horror films. The ban significantly hurt Lugosi, causing his salary stock, never good to begin, to plummet. Seeing The Raven today through a decidedly more jaded contemporary lens, one wonders what all the fuss was about. Still, one can easily imagine why 1935 audiences were nonplussed regarding the Hungarian ham.
As the Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed, stark staring mad Dr. Vollin, Lugosi melodramatically throws up his arms, laughs maniacally, and screams: “Poe, you are avenged!” It plays like a scene out of a wretched comic book, with a Transylvanian Marx Brother in the lead role. The reason for Vollin’s madness is his unrequited love of the prettified Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), which never seems feasible. In gratitude for Vollin saving her life, Jean does a Poe-inspired ballet for him, but the dance is as dull as she is. Earlier, Vollin compares himself to a god, and that is ultimately the nagging problem with Lugosi’s screen persona. Karloff inspires us to identify with his suffering and outsider status: Lugosi, with few exceptions, distances himself from his audience.
While Lugosi undoubtedly sends The Raven crashing, the film would have imploded from boredom without him. Aside from Karloff, the rest of the cast is a non-presence, alternately delivering lethargic line readings and grotesque comedy relief, which is anything but. The only relief is supplied by the two stars, who are our lifeline, even through all that Lugosi pretension.
Lugosi has a chilling, seductive moment when asking Jean if her injured neck still hurts. We sense his glee in the potential of her pain. This scene of intimate sadism works far better than his later howling. However, even in Lugosi’s most embarrassing moments, he remains alluring through his presence and his idiosyncratic mangling of the English language: “Torture, I love torture! What a deeelicccious torture!” When Vollin has just mutilated Karloff’s Bateman, the victim, upon seeing his own reflection, shoots out the room of mirrors. Lugosi’s Vollin responds with a hair raising cackle. Vollin would have felt at home in Margaret Hamilton‘s castle.
Unfortunately, Karloff is saddled with one of Jack Pierce’s absolute worst makeup jobs, which seriously threatens to undermine his performance. The actor even has a been there, done that canned monster growl. Playing second fiddle, Karloff’s discomfort occasionally shows. Still, he is our humanist touchstone. The strength of his performance lies in his introduction as a gangster on the lam, pre-mutilating surgery. He has an outcast monster-like sense of resilience and pathos, and with no help from his director or makeup man, Karloff is forced to rely solely on his own internal resources. He succeeds with underrated, protean skills, delivering a refreshingly nuanced performance, even through a fake, pancake eye. Fortunately, Karloff never descends into Lugosi’s level of cringe-inducing caricature.
The rest of the film is merely a commercial for torture devices. Just as in a commercial, little drama is drawn from the props. Apart from the two leads, The Raven is adolescent, gothic decor.
Retro Media’s collection of “weird westerns” begins with Tombstone Canyon (1932) starring Ken Maynard (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 Pictureswas 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 Tom Mix 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.
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 Bela Lugosi‘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.
The Hollywood musical has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur. Contemporary audiences, corn-fed on laser battles with green aliens and tights-wearing, invulnerable superheroes who defy gravity, somehow find the idea of a film in which actors suddenly burst into song as “intolerably unrealistic!”
The genre’s peak era began at the dawn of sound, in the early 1930s, with Busby Berkeley at Warners and RKO’a teaming of the inimitable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The musical climaxed twenty later, in the 1950s, with the “arty” musicals of Gene Kelly, Vincent Minelli, and Stanley Donan.
Mark Sandrich directed a number of the RKO musicals with Astaire and Rogers. His first teaming with them was The Gay Divorcee (1934). This was followed by Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938). Later, he directed Astaire with Bing Crosby in 1924’s Holiday Inn (which some people still confuse with the inferior 1954 remake, White Christmas) and Blue Skies (1946).
Top Hat is Astaire and Rogers’ at their near-peak, although some revisionists have argued that honor should actually go to the George Stevens directed Swing Time (1936). I’m not siding with the Swing Time revisionists, because I have my own revisionist opinion, which I will cover down a later RKO road. Top Hat is a near-perfect film from Hollywood’s near-perfect decade, and it’s pure class, catapulting Depression-era man from his oppressive environment for 101 minutes of “Heaven, I’m in heaven” (well almost 101 minutes. More on that later). Astaire’s choreography blends seamlessly with the musical direction of the great composer Max Continue reading TOP HAT (1935)→
London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era. Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.
MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate. For Mayer, film was strictly profitable, escapist fare to corn feed and increasingly dumb down audiences. At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world. Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim). However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality. Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit. He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.
Sometimes the devil wins, and when Thalberg died at the age of 37, Old Nick (Mayer) had no one to rein him in. MGM, under Mayer, had a notorious habit of buying out rivals—the original versions of the studio’s watered-down remakes—and then would make every attempt to destroy and/or suppress the superior original. For instance, they bought out the 1940 British version of Gaslight and unsuccessfully attempted to destroy all the copies just in time for the debut of their inferior 1944 version, starring Charles Boyer. MGM did destroy many, but not all, Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)→
The Miracle Rider was the last film of Tom Mix and his horse Tony, Jr. (Tony Sr. had departed this earthly realm). It is a sound serial from Mascot with twice the normal Mascot budget. Mix was 55 when he made this and showing it. Although his voice was deep and suitable for sound, and he was still in good shape, Mix looked his age and was now using a stunt double for complicated stunts. Mix had made several sound films for Universal, but they fared only moderately well. Mix had officially retired and was promoting his Tom Mix circus when he was talked back to the silver screen for one last go round. It is fortunate he did. The Miracle Rider was an astounding success, making both Mix and Mascot over ten times its investment. The serial is one of the better serials of the period, too, and so Mix went out on top, dying five years later in an automobile accident. Even though Mix had been out of the public eye for five years following Miracle Rider, his death caused a large outpouring of grief. Mix’s enigmatic life, career and tragic demise are the stuff of legend.
The Miracle Rider begins with the history of native Americans and how they were treated by white men. Daniel Boone (who looks nothing like Fess Parker) warns white men to leave the Indians alone, to no avail. Later, Davey Crocket (who looks nothing like Fess Parker) warns white men to leave the Indians alone, to no avail. Buffalo Bill does the same, again to no avail. Tom’s on-screen father, a Texas Ranger. is killed by white men as he tries to protect Indian land. Many years later, the adult Tom Mix, as “Tom,” steps into his father boots as a Texas Ranger himself.
Tom is made an honorary chief of a tribe and is called “the Miracle Rider.” The evil oil baron with the very serial-sounding name of Zaroff (played by Charles Middleton, so memorable a villain in films like Mystery Ranch and Flash Gordon) is not pleased. Zaroff wants the Indians off the land so he can mine something called X-94, which is an explosive that can make kings and queens grovel at his feet. The Ravenhead reservation is rich in X-94 deposits and now, but with Texas Ranger Tom being made an honorary chief, this complicates things.
The Miracle Rider is another B western that mixes sci fi elements and modern automobiles within the old west. Zaroff receives transmissions from a radio control apparatus, which bleeps a lot. The transmission informs Zaroff that Europe is wanting more orders of X-94. What is an evil madman to do? Well, in addition to henchman Jason Robards (Sr.) Zaroff hooks up with a Judas of an Indian named Longboat, who is a half-breed aspiring to be chief. With Longboat’s help, Zaroff makes the tribe believe they are cursed by the great firebird, courtesy of some x-94 effects. Zoroff’s has an evil scientist assistant, hiding in a secret lab, who makes X-94 bullets and a robot glider, meant to scare the Indians off the land.
Chief Black Wing (Bob Frazer) will not be frightened by the robot glider, so he is dispensed with. Tom goes after Black Wing’s murderers, jumping from Tony, Jr. onto a speeding truck carrying a shipment of X-94.
Black Wing’s daughter Ruth, played by Joan Gale, has the arrow that killed her father and she knows that this is no arrow made by a Ravenhead. But, the arrow is stolen and, in pursuit of the thief, Tom finds himself trapped inside a flying robot glider!
There’s plenty of intrigue and derring-do atop oil rigs, in automobiles driving off cliffs, amidst explosions, and inside secret caves. There seems to always be a hidden telephone inside a rock for henchmen to call Zaroff. Tony, Jr. sees plenty of action too, and the whole serial has the feel of a wild and wacky 20th century wild west show being filtered through primitive sci fi sensibilities.
Zaroff tells Tom, “If it wasn’t for your meddling…”, sounding just like a Scooby Doo villain. Of course, Tom saves the day and lives to ride off into one more sunset.
Surprisingly, Tom is not given a love interest at all. Perhaps a white man hooking up with an Indian girl would have been too much for 1935 audiences, even if she is being played by a white girl. There are no actual Indians in Miracle and, par for Hollywood’s course, the greatest Indian is a white man, ala Dances With Wolves; but unlike the mawkish, overblown Kevin Costner film, this Miracle is fun.
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.
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.
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