Friday, December 9, 2016

Drakula Halala -- the first filmed Dracula

Recap by Doug Gibson

"Drakula Halala," a 1921 Hungarian/Austrian film, is considered the first "adaptation" of the Bram Stoker novel. The film is lost; all that remains are stills and news reports, including a small novelization of the film. Above are the stars of the film, Paul Askonas as Drakula, and Margit Lux as Mary Land, the young lovely he menaces.

Scholar Gary D. Rhodes has the past several years become the man who fills in the pieces of a 50,000-word puzzle of the history of Dracula, Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood. Rhodes recently wrote an essay on the history of "Drakula Halala," which more or less means "Dracula's Death." He also translated the novella from the Hungarian.

I've always been fascinated with this film, and I am appreciative of Rhodes' essay, which will be the template for this post. The essay is part of a new book that Rhodes has co-edited with Olaf Brill, Expressionism in the Cinema, published by Edinburgh University Press.

Rhodes is the postgraduate director for Film Studies at the Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Brill is a German writer on film with an impressive resume. Rhodes notes that from his research, it seems that "Drakula Halala" was an expressionistic film. In what makes one ache to see this lost film, he sees similarities with "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Certainly, the novella compares to Caligari in plot.

I urge readers to buy Expressionism in the Cinema and learn more about "Drakula Halala." I will present a short recap of Rhodes' translation of the novella and afterwards mention a few facts unearthed by Rhodes in the chapter.

The melodrama, suffering, despair and pessimism that is ingrained in the Hungarian culture is represented in Rhodes' translation. Mary Land lives alone, a seamstress working long hours to support her father, confined to a mental institution after the death of his wife. The family was once happy and wealthy, but all that is gone. Mary's boyfriend, a woodcutter named George, implores her to rest but Mary will not.

Eventually, Mr Land's death appears near and Mary and George travel to the asylum. Left there by George, Mary talks with Dr. Tillner. Left alone she is accosted by several of the inmates, including a sadistic man, Drakula, who believes he is immortal. Another, who laughs, is called the "Funny Man." Mary visits her father, who dies. Overcome by sorrow and the fear of Drakula and other inmates who visit her and pretend to be doctors, Mary is advised to spend the night in the asylum.

That night, alone, Mary is kidnapped by Drakula and taken to his castle, where he says, they will be married. Mary's revulsion, her cross and the light push Drakula away from her. He promises to return for their wedding when night comes. That evening there is an elaborate wedding ceremony prepared with other brides of Drakula. It's a strange ceremony, with elaborate lights, shrill music and flowers flowing from the ceiling. Just before Drakula kisses her, Mary pushes the cross toward him. Everyone flees, including Mary.

Outside the castle, Mary is rescued by a family. An attempt by Drakula to recapture her fails. A real doctor cares for her until he is led away on a fool's errand by Drakula. He returns to Mary before any harm can come to her. Nevertheless, thoughts of Drakula torture her in her bed, and seeking relief, she runs out of the house and into the cold snow.

We then cut back to the asylum, where Dr. Tillner is conducting his rounds. Mary is sleeping. The nurse informs the doctor she's had a terrible night of bad dreams.

Mary's kidnapping, attempted marriage and flight was all a dream.

Outside, in the courtroom, the mental patients are gathered. The "Funny Man" has a gun. Seizing an opportunity to prove his immortality, Drakula goads the "Funny Man" into shooting him. He does and Drakula dies.

George returns to gather Mary. They return home to a lifetime of happiness.  Mary requests that no one ever speak of Drakula, and asks that a manuscript of his be burnt. (Below is a still of the wedding scene in "Dracula Halala.")

The film, if the novella is correct, is hardly Stoker's "Dracula." Maybe they wanted to exploit the Dracula cultural sensation without paying any royalties to Stoker's widow, Florence. In later years, she would shut down "Nosferatu" and nearly destroy every print due to copyright violation.

The director of "Drakula Halala" was Karoly Lajthay, who acted in films with a young Bela Lugosi. It was shot mostly in Vienna but created by Hungarians. Interiors were shot in Budapest. Askonas had also played the sinister, mesmerizing Svengali in a 1912 version of "Trilby." Lux has appeared in the Mihaly Kertesz co-directed "Alraune."

Kertesz later became the famous director Michael Curtiz. He worked with Lugosi, his future expatriate, in Hungarian cinema. Curtiz was one of three screen writers credited for "Drakula Halala."

Rhodes' recounts publicity and advertising efforts for the film. There were expectations of a long showing of the film in Hungary. But that didn't happen. The film premiered in Vienna in 1921 but only played briefly in Budapest during the spring of 1921.

It's anyone guess as to why the film had a limited showing. Rhodes merits our appreciation for unearthing the information he has discovered. It may be that tucked away, forgotten in an Eastern European film vault, exists a print of "Dracula Halala." Only time well tell. Rhodes, nevertheless, has intrigued us enough to want to know more about the "first Dracula film."

Friday, December 2, 2016

Freaky, funky Christmas films!

(This essay originally ran in the Dec. 20, 2007 Standard-Examiner)

By Doug Gibson

Every December (or after Thanksgiving!)  the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "The Shop Around the Corner," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — I refer to the Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon — "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and, of course, that other Jimmy Stewart classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

We all have our favorite Christmas cinema moments. George Bailey's joyous run through Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge dancing for joy on Christmas morning, Macy's Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a World War II orphan girl, and my favorite, crusty but lovable Father Fitzgibbon's surprise reunion with his mother after decades apart.

There are great holiday films. Much has been written about them. But today let's spill some ink about the other Christmas films, the kitschy ones. They're all over the dial. Just turn on the Hallmark Channel!

Most aren't worth five minutes of our time, but some still spread holiday magic. We've all heard of "A Christmas Carol" or "Scrooge," but how many recall the Fonz — Henry Winkler — starring in "An American Christmas Carol"? There are two well-received versions of "Miracle on 34th Street," but do you recall the kitschy 1973 TV version in which the lawyer was played by actor-turned-newsman David Hartman?

Even the biggy, "It's a Wonderful Life," has a kitschy cousin. Remember "It Happened One Christmas," the gender-switching knockoff starring Marlo Thomas?

Indeed, the competition is fierce for those kitschiest Christmas movies that still entertain us. But here are three finalists, all made on the cheap, yet still being sold and garnering holiday TV showings.

So, without further adieu, here is the best kitschiest Christmas film:

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" — This 1964 film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, N.Y., using many minor cast members from a NYC stage production of "Oliver Twist." It has a catchy theme song, "Hurray for Santy (sic) Claus," that you'll hum afterward. The plot involves Martians coming to earth, kidnapping Santa and whisking him away to cheer up the Martian kiddies. Two earth children are kidnapped along with Santa. Santa and the earth kids fight off a Martian baddie, prep a goofy Martian to become that planet's Santa, and launch off to earth in the spaceship. We never know if they made it home — perhaps the budget didn't allow that. The acting has to be seen to be believed, but the film has a goofy charm. It was a big hit on the now-gone "weekend matinee" circuit and played theaters for years. Pia Zadora, who was briefly a sexy starlet in the 1980s, plays one of the Martian children. John Call, as Santa, does a mean "ho, ho, ho." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)

And now, the second-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician. Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it. Watch the original Mexican version below!

Finally, the third-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa and the Three Bears" — If you lived in Southern California long ago, this 1970 blend of live action and cartoon was a Thanksgiving afternoon staple on KTLA Channel 5. The animation is mediocre, but the story has a simple charm. A forest ranger teaches two excitable bear cubs about Christmas while their grouchy mother bear wants them to hibernate for the winter. The ranger agrees to play Santa for the cubs on Christmas Eve, but a storm keeps "Santa" away ... or does it? The best part of the film is the live-action beginning and ending, where the ranger sits by the Christmas tree with his grandaughter, a sleepy cat and many toys. The ranger is voiced and played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Grumpy Mama Bear was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma on "The Flintstones"). The uncredited director is Barry Mahon, who made soft-core sex films in the 1960s with such titles as "Nudes Inc." and "The Sex Killer."

A footnote: These films can occasionally be found on TV. Indeed, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and "Santa Claus" are usually broadcast a Friday in December on KULC Channel 9 in Utah at 9 p.m. Antenna TV plays "... Martians" during the Christmas season. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Sh! The Octopus - A Fun Lighthouse Mystery

By Steve D. Stones

This 1937 comedy-mystery feature produced by Warner Brothers is loosely based on a stage play known as The Gorilla, then later made as a 1930 talkie, and was then made into a comedy starring the Ritz brothers in 1939. In this version, an octopus is substituted for the gorilla role. The script has many miles on it from its various filmed versions. The film stars two great comedy veterans - Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins as bumbling police detectives. They provide great comic relief to the film.

A young artist named Paul Morgan, played by John Eldredge, purchases a secluded lighthouse so he can work in private on his marine paintings. Captain Cobb (Brandon Tynan) escorts Morgan into the lighthouse and tells him the place has not been occupied for over twenty years. Morgan finds evidence that this is not true. A soft, warm candle is on the table, indicating that someone has been there recently. A knock at the door reveals another local captain - Captain Hook, who is the only other person with keys to the lighthouse.

Meanwhile two police detectives, Kelly (Hugh Herbert ) and Dempsey (Allen Jenkins)  are traveling on the mainland by car in the pouring rain when a tire blows out. They stop to change the tire and are confronted by a screaming attractive woman named Vesta Vernoff (Marcia Ralston) soaked by the rain. Just before the tire blows out, a radio report in the car tells of an octopus sinking a ship. Vernoff tells of seeing her stepfather's corpse at the lighthouse and of an octopus that lives in the bottom of the lighthouse.

When Vernoff and detectives Kelly and Dempsey arrive at the lighthouse, a hanging corpse is discovered at the top of the lighthouse dripping blood on the table below. Kelly and Dempsey try to investigate, but discover that the stairs of the lighthouse have been removed. A secret panel opens in the wall, and the detectives find some stairs that lead to the hanging corpse. The corpse turns out to be a stuffed dummy with a bottle of ketchup dripping on the table below.

I won't spoil any more of the plot, but some of the fun elements of this film are of scenes of octopus tentacles reaching out from behind doors and a curtain. Somehow the octopus manages to get out of the water below the lighthouse and make it to the main level to reach out behind the doors and curtains to scare the main characters.

Another fun sequence shows a pair of Detective Kelly's shoes hopping around, which is later revealed to be toads inside the shoes. A turtle with a lighted candle on its back burns the seat of Kelly's pants as he is sitting in a chair. Kelly's scuba outfit fills up with water in another hilarious scene as Dempsey and Morgan try to deflate all the water out of the suit.

In March of 2008, Turner Classic Movies played this film on a double-feature with another octopus film - It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955). For further information about Sh! The Octopus, refer to Gary and Susan Svehla's entertaining book - Guilty Pleasures of The Horror Film, published by Midnight Marquee Press, Inc. in 1996.  Happy viewing.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Glove Slingers' Fresh as a Freshman -- a Columbia comedy short

By Doug Gibson

It's been several months since we posted a review of one of the lesser (read non-Three Stooges) Columbia comedy shorts, so let's continue this infrequent series with the 1941 short, "Fresh as a Freshman," (watch it above courtesy of The Columbia Shorts Department).

"Fresh as a Freshman" was part of The Glove Slingers series of comedy shorts. It followed the life of young boxer Terry Kelly, played by David Durand in this offering, but there were three Terrys in the series. As Ed Watz and Ted Okuda note in their book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, the Glove Slingers were a sequential series, rare for the Columbia shorts.

But this presented some problems with finding a theme for the series. Initially, Terry is a boxer, but then he goes off to college, with romance, songs and dance and the inevitable fistfight climax. "Fresh as a Freshman," directed by Jules White, is moderately entertaining but encompasses the series' failure to latch on to a regular theme. There's Terry, his ma, his buffoonish but warm-hearted manager and trainer duo, a girl (Pamela Blake) Terry gets a crush on, college life, an oafish former boyfriend, and another cute girl (Dona Drake) who does a singing act in the middle of the 18 minute short.

That's a lot of fish on the fire and the oafish slapstick of Terry's boxing world uneasily cohabits with the college life and fraternity dances.

The plot: Terry, on his way to school, takes a picture for ma. The previous failed picture of a beautiful coed meshes with Terry's dime slot picture. He falls in love with her and improbably meets her fixing her car. Even more improbably he mistakes this beautiful woman in mechanic's garb for a guy.

Anyway, they're a couple at college but the ex-boyfriend recruits the aforementioned singer to pretend to be Terry's paramour, thereby alienating his current girlfriend. Terry's ma and boxing team come up to college for a mixer and all is eventually resolved with Terry punching the oaf and kissing his girl.

I've omitted the constant slapstick, usually involving the trainer and manager or the ex-boyfriend. There's some racist humor early and Jules White's penchant for violent humor gets in. In an early scene, Terry kicks his newfound love in the butt when she loses a car part. He doesn't know it's her then but it's still cringe worthy.

I love the Columbia comedy shorts. Watch this just to learn a bit more about the comedy shorts that shared screen time with the Stooges. The Glove Slingers only lasted for 12 episodes and "Fresh as a Freshman" underscores why its time was limited. There were too many tools in the box for the Glove Slingers to maintain the interest necessary to have a long run.