Tag Archives: Poverty Row

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.

EDGAR G. ULMER’S THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951)

‘s The Man From Planet X (1951) was the first released movie depicting an extraterrestrial visitation. Although it was shot for peanuts, this Mid Century Films production is a lesser known cult entry in the sci-fi genre. Being the first of its kind, The Man From Plant X established many archetypes to come.

The studio wanted an exploitative film, tagging their alien invasion opus as “the weirdest visitor the earth has even seen!”  True to his nature, Ulmer instead delivered a tight little mood piece. It does have a (considerably) weird alien, but the finished film is probably not what the studio anticipated. Ulmer douses the film in glowing mist, dim lights and masterful compositions (his expressionist roots are still intact).

Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) and his daughter, Enid (Margaret Field, mother of actress Sally Field) have set up shop in a Scottish castle to monitor UFO sightings. Journalist John Lawrence () is on hand when an alien craft lands on the moors (the ship is patterned after much in 1930s modernism).

Still from The Man from Planet X (1951)The first appearance of the E.T. is a jolter. Ulmer’s eerily mute, Bauhaus alien looks like it might have been designed by Oscar Schlemmer. It is a masterfully surreal design; a gnomelike child that is simultaneously benign, fragile, and aggressive. The alien from a dying, freezing planet pre-dates Nicolas Roeg‘s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).  Sci-fi fans may see the influence Planet X had on later films like Invaders From Mars (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), to name a few. The alien is vulnerable, falling prey to a faulty breathing apparatus, which puts him at the mercy of the quietly malevolent Dr. Mears (dependable character actor William Schallert). Human avarice rears its ugly head and reaps havoc. The alien is exploited and provoked, the military called in, and…

Plot-wise we have seen it a hundred times, but it was done first here. The main difference is that Ulmer tells his tale without bells and whistles. With the exception of Schallert, the cast is unexceptional. However, Ulmer’s protagonist (Clark) is commendably intelligent and genuinely moral.

There is no cinematic chest-beating here. With meager shells, Ulmer and company produce a film adorned in his usual themes of ambiguity and self-destruction. Stylistically, The Man From Planet X  is dreamy and understated. Perhaps too understated. Despite some beautiful shots (alien in the moors, intense close-ups) and (now) familiar elements (the alien can only communicate via musical sounds, can control minds, and plots an invasion) The Man From Planet X is a commendable, atmospheric entry in the science fiction genre, but little more. Ulmer does wonders without a budget to speak of, but is clearly hampered by the six day shooting schedule. Pacing issues are not resolved and the film has little flow.

Next Week: Ida Lupino’s noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953).

EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

Reviewing ‘s Detour (1945), critic Dennis Schwartz wrote: “For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.” That about sums up Ulmer. It also sums his Detour star, Tom Neal. Ulmer was an aesthetic outsider who made poor choices in his personal life but tried, sometimes in vain, to bring an artistic sensibility to everything he worked on. Neal was an outsider of a different sort. Despite having received a law degree from Havard, Neal turned to amateur boxing, which only partly satisfied his extremely violent temper. In 1951, that temper and jealousy got the better of him with in a tussle with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton. Tone received a brain concussion, and Neal was permanently blacklisted by Hollywood. The actor was reduced to restaurant work and eventual bankruptcy. In 1965, Neal took a gun to the back of his wife’s head and shot her to death. Incredibly, he received a mere six-year sentence, but he died within a few months of his release from prison in 1971. His son, Tom Neal, Jr. attempted to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps, appearing in a remake of Detour (1991) that no one seems to have seen.

Shot on the quick and cheaply, Detour defies the rules of Poverty Row aesthetics. In his review of Ulmer’s Detour, critic Roger Ebert acknowledges the film’s flaws: “Detour is a film so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school.” And yet it is greater than the sum of it’s parts, defying the “aesthetics only” art school rule. Ebert adds, ” Yet, Detour lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir.”

The pessimism of Detour drips into the nitrate of Ulmer’s bubblegum Shakespearean saga. Al (Neal) is a pianist who prostitutes his art in dives. Ulmer symbolizes this in idiosyncratic fashion by Al’s transformation of a Brahms piano piece into a grotesque, possessed, populist parody. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject, is self-portrait. Al eerily mirrors Ulmer in the portrait of a highly cultured artist who is reduced to a career gutter through his own missteps. It is little wonder that Detour was Ulmer’s favorite of his own films.

Still from Detour (1945)Fate is an ambivalent, malevolent force relentlessly and unjustly dogging Al. He responds with self-pity tightly wrapped in ten cent philosophy. Al, like Bluebeard, is waxing bitter over a woman. His curse is to be in love with the ambitious Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue’s dreams of a successful Hollywood career provoke jealousy within Al and serves as a biting reminder of his own failed career. She departs and settles, albeit uncomfortably, in the land of opportunity. Although destitute, Al vows reconciliation and embarks upon a thumbed journey to Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL (1937)

This odd hybrid could only have been produced in an era which gave no credence to genre labels.  Riders of the Whistling Skull is the kind of movie which is so delightfully in love with its period that one could easily imagine a true genre geek like Tarantino falling in love with it today.  Director Mack V. Wright is completely comfortable throwing horror, western, jungle, mystery and comic relief into a seamless mix.

The Three Mesquiteers (Bob Livingston, Ray Corrigan, and Max Terhune), for those not in the know, were the starring trio of a number of “B” westerns.  The well-photographed, well-paced Riders of the Whistling Skull is, by far, the best of these.  Pretty girl Betty Marsh (Mary Russell) is searching for her lost father, Professor Marsh (John Van Pelt), who, along with Professor Flaxton (C. Montague Shaw), has been kidnapped by a diabolical Indian cult.

Enter the Three Mesquiteers, who have found the injured Flaxton in the desert.  They take him to Miss Marsh.  Flaxton revives long enough to tell all that he and Professor Marsh found the lost city of Lukachukai (!) hidden deep in the region of the Whistling Skull Mountain.  Flaxton tells them of vast hidden treasures and of the unspeakable horrors of the ancient cult.  Before Flaxton can reveal the location of Lukachuka, the lights suddenly go out.  When the lights are turned back on Flaxton is discovered on the ground with a knife in his back.  Inscribed in the handle of the murder weapon is ancient Indian curse.  The mystery begins!

After a treasure map is discovered, The Mesquiteers join Betty and travel into dreaded taboo territory in order to find Professor Marsh and to uncover the identity of Flaxton’s murderer.  Shortly into the expedition, one member of the party is murdered, shot by an arrow inscribed with the same ancient Indian curse as the knife.  Another member of the party, Professor Fronc (George Godfrey) is kidnapped, tortured by Indians, and tied half naked to his horse, after being branded with the brand of the ancient Indian cult of Anastasia.
Still from Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937)
Silhouetted Indians atop Coachella Valley (atmospherically shot) attack the expedition with flaming arrows shot into the wagon, which of course, demands late 30’s, western-styled expert stunt work.  Betty goes missing in the ensuing chaos.  The Three Mesquiteers go out in search of her and find her in the middle of an ancient Indian cult ceremony.  Russell’s tight, white shirt competes with her equally tight slacks and the even tighter jeans of our three cowboy studs for inducing the most testosterone and smoldering sex appeal.  One halfway expects King Kong to come out of nowhere and seize the heroine from the clutches of the natives, but no such luck.  Never fear, because the Mesquiteers are old hands at heroically saving virginal heroines when danger looms.

When the expedition finds Whistling Skull, they stumble upon more killer natives, secret passage ways, living mummies, and Professor Marsh.  Corrigan wins the testosterone contest when he loses his shirt, bares his chest, fights off the cult, and saves pal Livingston.  The mystery is solved when the murderer is exposed.  Luckily, the Sheriff and his band have been following from afar.  They lend a hand in dealing with the murderer, defeating the natives, and surviving a terrible avalanche, all before the neatly wrapped last line of comedy relief.

The End.

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.

COURAGEOUS AVENGER (1935)

Time to dust off this collection of B-Westerns from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun Collection.  The packaging is ultra-cool, starting off with those priceless trailers:

Trailer # 1: “Ride at Full Gallop into a Thundering Texas Romance to the rescue of a girl haunted by killers!  Johnny Mack Brown as the fist-flashing GENTLEMAN FROM TEXAS” blazes across the screen as Johnny shoots and punches his way across bar tables.  Add in beer bottles over the head, a pretty dame named Claudia Drake and the TrailsMen singing “Texas Jubilee” on banjos.   It’s a “Violent Drama of Valorous Love and Texan Vengeance” from Monogram Pictures.

Trailer # 2 screams “It’s the Real McCoy” (as in Tim McCoy) “heading this way to tame the town that defied the law!”  More fisticuffs, six-guns blazing, horses, good guys in white hats, and fallen bad guys in black hats (who never bleed) are all promised.  “The Outlaw Deputy Tim McCoy made bad men check their guns while he checked up on romance!  Cow-Town became a mad-house of Thundering Action when the nerviest outlaw East of the Rockies turns OUTLAW DEPUTY!”  A Puritan Picture.

Trailer #3: ” Come Along Boys and Girls on a Thrilling Trip to MYSTERY MOUNTAIN where KEN MAYNARD the screen’s most popular Cowboy Actor and his famous horse TARZAN will ENTHRALL you!  will THRILL you!  will STARTLE you!  in their 1st SUPER SERIAL!  ACTION!  ROMANCE!  All the THRILLS of THE OLD WEST!  Don’t miss seeing Ken Maynard and his horse Tarzan in MASCOT’S MIGHTY EPIC  SERIAL MYSTERY MOUNTAIN! WATCH FOR IT!”  This one has all the elements of the previous two, but throws in locomotives and a star horse.

Time for the feature now, a SUPREME PICTURES CORPORATION starring JOHNNY MACK BROWN in COURAGEOUS AVENGER.  After heisting a bullion shipment some despicable thugs are hiding in the desert, kidnapping local drifters for slave labor for their mine!  Soon, hero agent Johnny enters, decked in ten-gallon white, white suit, white tie, beaming an All-American Football hero smile and dimpled square jaw (naturally, a few yeas later, that square jaw was a bit hard to see under an extra chin, which was still one less than the two extra ones that fellow cow-hero and middle-aged Ken Maynard acquired).  Johnny finds himself commissioned to round up bad guys who killed their latest gold heist victim with three silver bullets.  Shucks, Johnny was just getting ready to go on vacation too.  Duty calls especially when Johnny finds the victim was his girl’s brother and “we were chums too!”  Johnny embarks on the mystery and a quest for justice, western-style.

To complicate matters, the ring of bad guys is lead by none other than his girl’s evil step-dad.  It doesn’t take long for the obligatory desert fight between Johnny and the bad guy, rollicking between the rocks in ass-hugging tight jeans.  After some ass-kicking, Johnny infiltrates the ring, frees the slaves (a dose of grand guignol in that scene) , stops the next heist,  and after a couple of thrilling stunts, rounds up the baddies and literally rides off in the sunset with girl Helen Ericson (who is mere decor).

Courageous Avenger is a 16 mm print and so is as good as it can be (especially since it was probably shot for about $50.00).  There’s no soundtrack music to liven things (fairly common for 30’s B-Westerns), the sound itself seems to come and go, nor is it any great shakes, even for a period B-Western.  But, it is a helluva lot of fun in grand Sinister Cinema packaging and you can’t really go wrong with Brown (although he looked even better with Beth Marion at his side).

The B-Westerns never received much respect in their day, and certainly don’t now, but pass the big bucket of buttered  popcorn and give me this over Avatar any day. More to come.  Dedicated to Dad.