Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book takes a critical look at the films of Larry Buchanan

By Steve D. Stones

Despite what film critics and historians may think of Texas filmmaker Larry Buchanan, he is not a terrible director who produces bottom of the barrel, trash entertainment. Like any Ed Wood film, Buchanan's films are laced with political and social commentary - if the viewer chooses to look hard enough.

Cult film writer Rob Craig has written an excellent book examining Buchanan's films and career. Craig makes a good case for the legitimacy and importance of Buchanan's work, and examines many of the recurring themes in his films. Themes such as the oppressive nature of patriarchy, the curse of fame, historial revision, the rebel outsider and government conspiracy are all addressed in many of Buchanan's films. Craig is detailed in pointing out how each of these themes are addressed in each Buchanan film.

Like any great low-budget, independent filmmaker, Buchanan worked in a number of genres in film - such as the western, exploitation, science-fiction, horror and the bio-pic. He created a series of TV movies for Azalea Pictures that were homages-remakes of 1950s horror and science fiction films.

The first in this homage-remake series for Azalea was The Eye Creatures (1965), which is based on Invasion of The Saucer Men (1957). Next up was Zontar, The Thing From Venus (1966) - based on Roger Corman's 1957 film - It Conquered The World. Another Corman remake Buchanan filmed was the 1967 film - In The Year 2889 - based on Corman's The Day The World Ended (1956). Creature of Destruction (1967) is Buchanan's remake of The She Creature (1957). Most of these films are direct scene-by-scene remakes of their original source with some changed dialog.

Buchanan addressed the media's obsession with fame and the curse that comes with it in a number of his films such as - The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964), The Other Side of Bonnie & Clyde (1968), Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976), Hughes & Harlow: Angels In Hell (1977), Beyond The Doors (aka Down On Us - 1984) and Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn (1989).

The Trail of Lee Harvey Oswald is a film that takes the stand-point of what would have happened if Jack Ruby had not shot and killed Oswald in a Dallas parking garage in 1963, and instead his case went to court. Shot in Dallas shortly after the assassination of JFK, many critics felt it was too early at the time to release a film addressing the accused killer of the president.

Both Goodbye, Norma Jean and Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn are about Hollywood sex icon - Marilyn Monroe - although one addresses her orphaned life before fame, and the other at the time of her death.
Perhaps Buchanan's most famous and loved film is Mars Needs Women (1967). The film is Buchanan's treatise on the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Three male martians come to earth to seek out young women for breeding purposes. One of the martians, played by teen idol Tommy Kirk, falls in love with a sexy, brainy brunette scientist.

For further reading by Rob Craig, see his book about grindhouse director Andy Milligan - Gutter Auteur: The Films of Andy Milligan and his interesting book about Ed Wood - Mad Genius: A Critical Study of The Films. Happy reading. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

'Monster boomer' grows up with Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, ...

By Doug Gibson

(A longer version of this review was published by the Standard-Examiner newspaper (here). 

In his memoir, “I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It: Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns and Old Movies,” (Cult Movies Press, 2014) "monster boomer" Frank Dello Stritto describes a world in which youngsters carved imagination from technology far before the computer age. On the TV set, for a while a luxury for a 1950s family, the author and his siblings were introduced to vampires, monsters, atomic supermen, Superman himself, space heroes, Abbott & Costello, and the old, already-creaky Universal horrors of the ’30s and ’40s. Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, joined Superman as his first TV heroes, the “Little Rascals” was an early favorite, and the culture was reflected as the television dictated; crimes occurred in the chilly downtown city, situation comedies in the warm residential neighborhoods.

The first sentence of Dello Stritto’s title is from the Abbott & Costello film, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” a film the author believes played a huge role in shaping the boomers’ fondness for the old monsters created by Universal studios. In the comedy, the pair engage in adventures with Dracula, as portrayed by Bela Lugosi, the wolf man, as portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., and a Frankenstein monster that resembles in features Boris Karloff’s iconic character. Youngsters such as Dello Stritto, wowed by the film, are responsible for the long-lasting perception of these monsters’ visages appearing as they did in the old movies. In the 1950s, these Universal films, as well as similar offerings from studios big and small, were gradually fed to television to air on ”Shock Theater,” or “Creature Feature,” on afternoons or evenings. The Universal films were even reissued to 1950s theaters, competing on screen with the nuclear-age and space monsters.

As Dello Stritto notes in the book, the later outer space monster movies scared him more than the old Universal monster flicks. Nevertheless, the old monsters made a larger impression on the youth. One suspects that more than Abbott & Costello moved the author’s heart to favor the old monsters. For one thing, the old monster films were more difficult to track down. The Draculas, Frankensteins, wolf men, mummies, and so on appeared on TV sporadically, sometimes too late for the youngster Frank to watch. Other times his mother might say no or his father would veto a film Frank had his heart set on due to a football game or these dreaded words, “what else is on.” Dad was master of the TV.

Today one can chart the evolution of the Universal horrors from the first film of a series to the last. Dello Stritto saw them when he could, and never -- the first time -- in the appropriate order. Later, as a young adult, Dello Stritto would haunt New York City and other locations to find revival theaters that played films such as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” “The Old Dark House,” and “Mark of the Vampire.”

But the adult Dello Stritto took his interest much farther, working his way through old public records to unearth treasures about Bela Lugosi, who is clearly his favorite subject. The young adult even wrote a biography of Lugosi 40 years ago, but discarded it after learning more intensive biographies of the subject were forthcoming.

Besides the movies and TV shows, life several decades ago is captured in the memoir. From the early days of TV, to tenement life sans showers or baths, to a world where the new TV was never switched off, to the Cold War and arms race with the Soviet Union, to the boxing bouts between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, to dad losing his steady job and having to work on the docks, the author captures a life that shaped him into the man he is today.

“I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It” provides the answers to the life that shaped Mr. Dello Stritto into being such an authority on Lugosi and the horror/thriller cinema genre.

To read a Plan9Crunch interview with Dello Stritto, go here.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gabriel Over the White House -- A pre-code fascist hero!

By Doug Gibson

"Gabriel Over the White House" is one of the most, contradictory, fascinating films we've encountered in the Plan9Crunch cyberworld. It's a 1933 pre-code motion picture from MGM, but it's not devoted to "immoral lifestyles," such as "Employee's Entrance," or a sexual innuendo film such as "She Done Him Wrong." Rather, "Gabriel Over the White House," is, like the pre-code "Heroes for Sale." It's a film that condemns the U.S. capitalist political and economic system as one that favors the rich, powerful and criminal elements over the poor and middle class; it portrays the power structure as one that deliberately oppresses the common people.

(I realize I sound like a derivative humanities professor but I'm just explaining the pre-code political stances in film history.) Anyway, the film involves the tenure, in the depths of the Depression, of U.S. President Judson "Jud" Hammond, played by Walter Huston. He's a political hack, a gregarious pol beholden to all special interests, full of faux sentimentality and faux good cheer. In one scene, he jocularly asks his young political aide, Hartlee Beekman (Franchot Tone) if he can call him "Beek."

President Hammond is injured in an accident that leaves him in a coma for a while. While in the coma, he is endowed with the spirit, if not the actual indwelling, of the Angel Gabriel. When he awakes, he's a completely different leader, resolute and determined to stamp out corruption and crime. To do so he declares martial law, dissolves Congress, diverts money -- by fiat -- to veterans, creates jobs programs and equality programs, spending billions that have been diverted from the rich and special interests. He also nationalizes alcoholic beverages, and uses U.S. military might to capture an Al Capone-type character and his cronies, has them court martialed in a "star chamber," and once convicted, summarily executed against a wall. The film's climax involves President Hammond forcing his European allies to pay their war debts to the U.S., with a not-too-subtle promise that the U.S. will attack them if they don't pay up.

At that point, President Hammond dies, presumably of deferred injuries from the accident, and the nation mourns the death of a great leader of the people who has died.

This is a fascinating time-capsule film. It lionizes a protagonist, Hammond, who uses tactics that a Stalin or Mussolini used. Of course, all the "reforms" that Huston's president are successful, from providing bonuses and jobs to wiping out organized crime and setting shifty political colleagues and foreign allies straight. As a citizen, the film teaches that you only have to allow President "Angel Gabriel" Hammond to tear up your constitutional rights and become a dictator end wrong-doing.

Rumor has it that this film was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's favorite movie; our leader during the Great Depression probably envied "President Hammond" his ease at swatting away congressional and foreign opposition. And remember, Hammond is a hero in this film, none so much as when he's shooting gangsters against a wall and threatening European allies with military destruction.

Another star of the film is Karen Morley, who plays President Hammond's secretary, Pendola Molloy, who falls in love with Tone's Beekman. She serves as sort of the moral conscience of the film, initially distrusting the "new" Hammond, but eventually revering the "dear leader." Huston, it must be noted, is absolutely magnificent in "Gabriel Over the White House." His before-and-after transformations are done superbly and his screen presence and gravitas makes the audience sympathize with the new president. He may be a dictator, but he's an honest, likable dictator.

I quote from Wikipedia the following: "Controversial since the time of its release, Gabriel Over the White House is widely acknowledged to be an example of totalitarian propaganda. ... the author of the original novel, was a "liberal champion of government activism"] and trusted adviser to David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister who brought Bismarck's welfare state to the United Kingdom.The decision to buy the story was made by producer Walter Wanger,variously described as "a liberal Democrat" or a "liberal Hollywood mogul." After two weeks of script preparation, Wanger secured the financial backing of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's staunchest supporters, who had helped him get the Democratic presidential nomination and who enlisted his entire media empire to campaign for him.Hearst intended the film to be a tribute to FDR and an attack on previous Republican administrations."

Louis B. Mayer, head man at MGM, hated the film. Conspiracy theorists have alleged a long time that the film was a sort of "dry run" for Roosevelt to take similar measures as "President Hammond" does. There are claims that Roosevelt had a hand in the script. Frankly, I doubt that. However, the film is hard to defend for anyone who adhere to our Republican form of government. It's best thought of as a misguided, yet idealistic fantasy of a strong leader able to solve all the problems of a nation mired in the Great Depression.

Watch a couple of clips from the film via YouTube. It can be purchased via amazon, as well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Talking Three Stooges and more: An interview with the creator of Columbia Shorts Department website

When it comes to history on the 25 years that the Columbia comedy shorts were a staple in movie theaters, there was the book, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," by Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, that has been like a bible for us genre fans. However, one individual has taken it a step further into the digital age.

Greg Hilbrich is the creator of the website The Columbia Shorts Department. It is an always-growing "information-heavy site dedicated to the vintage theatrical short subjects of Columbia Pictures." The website is frankly, priceless, and we are indebted to Hilbrich's hard work and scholarship. Once I discovered the site, I knew we had to interview him for Plan9Crunch, and we have a treasure trove of information ahead of us. It's a long interview, but full of fascinating information, but still not nearly as much information as The Columbia Shorts Department website contains.

Enjoy the interview!

-- Doug Gibson

Plan9Crunch: How did you become interested enough in the Columbia comedy shorts to start a website on its history?

Hilbrich:  Here's the short answer.

It all began with the Three Stooges. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the pre-cable/satellite days when weekends on local television were made for old Bowery Boys and Abbott and Costello comedies, Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolfman films and an occasional Ma and Pa Kettle or a Sherlock Holmes feature. The real fun for me was the after-school programming, shows like Gilligan's Island and The Munsters and old theatrical shorts like Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, The Little Rascals and The Three Stooges. During one of these television viewings of a Stooges short, my dad told me about how, as a kid growing up in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he rarely saw a Stooges short in the theater. Instead, he rattled off the names of comedians he remembered seeing ... Andy Clyde, El Brendel, Hugh Herbert and Buster Keaton. He told me how he recognized Jules White's name (on the Stooges shorts) and that he was the same guy who made the films of the comedians he named, (and) told me that they had the same sound effects. His little discussion on these "other films" ended with the question "How come they don't ever show those guys on TV anymore?" (He recalled seeing the Andy Clyde and Buster Keaton Columbia shorts on WGN Channel 9 out of Chicago in the early 1960s, tied into the same hour-long program with the Stooge comedies).

I asked a few more questions about his movie-going experiences, where I learned that most of what I watched, the old Popeye and Tom and Jerry cartoons were made to be seen in a theater too. I had always noticed the studio logos at the beginning of them, but never quite made the connection at that age. So I went to the library and began my research. Being such a Stooges fan, I found myself checking out books like MOE HOWARD AND THE THREE STOOGES and THE THREE STOOGES SCRAPBOOK. In these books I would find the names of a few of the guys my dad had mentioned, El Brendel and Andy Clyde, in the select filmographies. I also discovered that there were short comedies starring all three of the actors who were more popular for replacing Curly as "third Stooge." So my interest in theatrical short-subjects began ... one thing led to another and that's when I found the book THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS by Leonard Maltin, a book chock-full of the information I was seeking out, but (still) I couldn't find a single one of these films to view.

Then it happened. ... I discovered THE book ... my "bible" of sorts, THE COLUMBIA COMEDY SHORTS by Ted Okuda and Ed Watz. This book was even more chock-full of the information I sought as it was a complete list of every two-reel comedy Columbia produced, 526 of them, between 1933-1958 (The book only concerned itself with those shorts produced in Hollywood by both Jules White and Hugh McCollum. Columbia actually produced/released thousands of one- and two-reel subjects ranging from animated cartoons to sports reels to sing-a-long subjects). There was information on the people in front of and behind the scenes, release dates, actual quotes from folks who appeared in the films and more, But even with this wealth of information provided by Okuda and Watz, one thing that was apparent to the question "How can I get to see some of these things?" ... was that there simply was no easy way. So I started to look into other areas of opportunity such as private 16mm film collectors, mom-and-pop home video companies, and Hollywood collector shows.

Unfortunately, being new to this, I didn't turn anything up right away. My dad died in 1992, so he never got to see any of the films he had me searching for, but shortly after his passing, they seemed to start pouring in, Andy Clyde and El Brendel being the first official non-Stooge Columbia shorts I got to see.

I like to think that my dad had a lot to do with that.

So as I gathered up more shorts for my collection, I also gathered up more bits and pieces of info that THE COLUMBIA COMEDY SHORTS book had omitted; not on purpose, just over time, more information became available. So, with the blessings of Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, my site became a somewhat unofficial and very expanded follow up to their book.

Plan9Crunch: How would you describe your site to a casual web surfer whose knowledge on the subject ends with the Three Stooges?

Hilbrich:  As far as the comedy shorts go,  I often describe a non-Stooge Columbia short as being a Three Stooges film without the Three Stooges. I describe them that way because the same folks behind the Stooge films are behind these other shorts. Easily recognizable are the names of directors, writers, co-stars, gags, plots and sound effects, even the style of the opening titles are all very familiar, giving off a sense of déjà vu even to the casual Stooges viewer. Columbia was the king of the two-reel comedy short. The unit stayed in business until the late 1950s, and the shorts stayed in regular theatrical circulation a good 10 years after Columbia closed the doors on its short subjects division. There was a reason why, and although the 190 shorts starring The Three Stooges were the studio’s number-one two-reeler draw, there were another 336 two-reelers that helped keep the unit in business. So my site explores those other films, all by series. Originally, the site was going to focus only on the two-reel comedies, but I decided to make the site a much wider world when it comes to the shorts that feature the words "Columbia Pictures Presents." I offer information (when available) on every single Columbia short either produced by the studio or produced by other production companies and released through Columbia. Being that there are thousands of titles, my site might be a bit much for the casual web surfer -- it's very info-heavy -- and it could easily scare someone off. It's also a work-in-progress, and I am doing my best to make it user friendly.

Plan9Crunch: Obviously, the Three Stooges have became iconic and are still played today on TV. What separates their long-term appeal from other stars, such as Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon, whose Columbia shorts are appreciated only by a few genre fans?

Hilbrich: The Stooges are far different from Langdon or Keaton, or most of the other comics who appear in these two-reelers, but the shorts of Langdon and Keaton, and many others, were just as popular when originally released.

As I mentioned earlier, not all of the shorts ran in certain areas of the country. I've looked through old newspaper archives, for instance, and in the area my dad grew up in and rarely saw an "Also included, a Three Stooges comedy" in the movie advertisements local theaters ran. I did find a lot of Andy Clyde, El Brendel, Harry Langdon Columbia's advertised, even some simple "Added-Columbia Comedy" blurbs with no description of what the short was. It was definitely television that helped spark the Stooges' popularity (not saying they weren't already a hit).

Because of the Stooges' television success, Columbia’s Screen Gems released to TV a package of some 200 non-Stooge titles. Their selections of titles are somewhat baffling, not every single short in a series was offered. Using the Stooges' success, these films were marketed as sure-fire ratings winners. They weren't, and disappeared from TV a short time after their initial release (maybe turning up as fillers after a movie or during a rain delay of a ball game). I think the reason for this was that they simply weren't the Stooges. They usually ran in a time slot shared by other shows popular with the after-school crowd; combined into an hour-long block of maybe, for instance, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, a Popeye cartoon, and a Glove Slingers short. ... "Glove Slingers? Where are the Stooges?" some kid who just rushed home from school to catch them might ask. Now, as for Andy Clyde and Buster Keaton, I believe because they were still in the public eye, their shorts remained in the rotation (at least at WGN they did). Other stations, such as one in Cincinnati, rotated through the entire package of non-Stooge shorts.

Another reason that these films in their post-theatrical run maybe fizzled out was that there just weren't enough of them to sustain a series of sorts. There were 190 Stooges shorts to cycle through as a daily program, and only 10 Keaton shorts. In some other cases, a series with Polly Moran (that was included in this non-Stooge deal) only contained 2 titles. Yet despite their TV revival failure, a lot of the shorts (many unobtainable today, like Harry Mimmo’s DOWN THE HATCH) were reissued theatrically in the early 1960s.

Plan9Crunch: I have read Okuda and Watz' book, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," and I'd wager the casual reader would be shocked to discover how many Columbia comedy shorts stars there were. Who are some of your favorites among the many, including Hugh Herbert, Charley Chase, Monty Collins, El Brendel, Vera Vague, Sterling Holloway, Schilling and Lane, Baer and Rosenbloom, Shemp Howard, Joe Besser ... and so many more?

Hilbrich: I was one of those who was shocked to see how many comics Columbia starred in two-reelers. My favorite of these others are Andy Clyde, followed by El Brendel. Hugh Herbert’s films are fun when he's paired with Dudley Dickerson, but I like them all; even the worst of the shorts have a moment or two, well, maybe not KIDS WILL BE KIDS (1954), Jules White’s answer to the then-popular theatrical reissues of Hal Roach’s Our Gang (The Little Rascals) comedies.

Plan9Crunch: What can we do to get more of these other Columbia shorts into public consumption? I love Harry Langdon and have managed to see most of his Columbia shorts via YouTube, and I bought the DVD release of Keaton's shorts. But it's a tough task finding these non-Stooges shorts, and recently I've noticed Langdon shorts being taken down from You Tube by Sony for copyright reasons!!?? I would hope Sony would release Langdon's Columbia shorts, but that seems like a fantasy wish.

Hilbrich:  I hope that because Sony is pulling some of the shorts that were posted on You Tube that it's a sign that these little films could be coming to the On Demand DVD service (or maybe even TCM) in the near future. A while back, an online petition was formed to get the Columbia Charley Chase shorts onto DVD -- that finally happened (the set was almost sidelined by the poor reception the Keaton set received). The Chase shorts were made available through the Sony On Demand dvd-r service. A bonus included the Chase-directed Columbia short A NAG IN THE BAD with comics Smith and Dale. Perhaps a petition would help see at least some other shorts in the future.

The two-reelers have crept their way onto DVD. A beautiful restoration of MIDNIGHT BLUNDERS with Tom Kennedy and Monty Collins appears on a set of Columbia horror films, PHONY CRONIES with El Brendel appears on one of the budget Stooges DVD sets, and Andy Clyde’s HOT PAPRIKA appears as an extra on a Hammer Studios pirate-themed set. All but two solo Stooges' Columbia shorts are available on in the Ultimate Stooges DVD set, included are a couple of Andy Clyde and Glove Slingers shorts that co-star Shemp Howard (as well as the Shemp Howard-El Brendel team up PICK A PECK OF PLUMBERS).  The two titles missing are NOT GUILTY ENOUGH (Andy Clyde with Shemp Howard) and a early Joe Besser short produced by Ben Blake called CUCKOORANCHO. I highly recommend this Ultimate Stooges set.

Plan9Crunch: What's the most fulfilling aspect of your Columbia blog for you? Is it tracking down the shorts posters, bio info on the stars, or finding new locations or websites where many of the shorts exist, or something else?

Hilbrich: I love researching this subject, collecting lobby cards and one-sheets for these little two-reelers is fun, but the most fulfilling thing about collecting information about these mostly forgotten films has been helping family members of those who either appear on screen or were behind the scenes during the production actually get to see the films. Harry von Zell's daughter, for example, had no idea that her father ever appeared in his own two-reel comedy series and was floored by what she saw when I sent her some of the films I have in my collection. Why she didn't know he appeared in two-reelers was answered by the fact that he just never mentioned it. Another person who comes to mind is the son of Stooges writer Searle Kramer. He knew his dad worked on Stooges shorts (some of their best, I feel), but had no info or had ever seen the other Columbia films his dad wrote or co-wrote, and I helped him obtain copies of several.

Plan9Crunch: I've noticed there are lost Columbia shorts. Do you think it's more that they haven't been properly looked for or that they are really lost?

Hilbrich: I think it's a mixed bag. I know of a few titles that no material exist on, but I think for the most part, they're out there. I know of a few one-of-a kind prints in private collectors hands, and I know of a few that have been publicly screened that I'd love to get copies of (Harry Mimmo's DOWN THE HATCH in 3D and ROOTIN TOOTIN TENDERFEET, a Max Baer and Maxie Rosenbloom short that was a reworking of Laurel and Hardy's WAY OUT WEST). Probably not the best shorts, but it's nice to know that they're out there, especially with the recent discovery of HELLO POP, a Ted Healy short featuring Moe, Larry and Curly that was made at MGM, that was once on top of the "lost pile," so there's hope.

On a personal note, I finally tracked down a print of MITT ME TONIGHT, the fifth short in the Glove Slingers series. It was part of the Screen Gems' TV package for syndication, but it's been a tough one for me to track down. There were 12 Glove Slingers shorts produced, and I believe only the first 8 titles were in the TV package. A "Holy Grail" of sorts is the last of the Glove Slingers series, HIS GIRL’S WORST FRIEND, as it features my pal Parry Hall's father, Eddie Hall.

Plan9Crunch: There were scores of supporting players in the Columbia shorts, Vernon Dent, Christine McIntire, Dick Curtis ... Who are some of your favorite supporting players?

Hilbrich: I am a big fan of Vernon Dent. Christine McIntyre always stands out, but my favorite is Emil Sitka. That man could have had his own series. His on-screen antics are often funnier than the star player's, to which a comparison to James Finlayson of the Laurel and Hardy subjects was always made by my dad whenever Sitka was on screen. He's always a focal point, no matter how large or small his role is. He's terrific in Billie Burke’s BILLIE GETS HER MAN (1948)  and in the role as Hugh Herbert's uncle in HOT HEIR (1947), a role he would improve upon in its remake, GENTS IN A JAM (1952) with The Three Stooges. And then there's his role as the preacher in BRIDELESS GROOM. Can you imagine one of the other supporting players, such as Vernon Dent or Dick Wessel in that role? Neither can I.

Plan9Crunch: The Columbia shorts had a certain slapstick style, influenced by Jules White and made very popular by the Three Stooges. What impact, in your opinion, did Columbia's more physical style of comedy have on the success, or lack of success, stars such as Keaton, Langdon, Chase and others had. Also, did Columbia leave the lasting impression on comedy shorts, in the same manner that, for example, Glenn Strange's Frankenstein Monster is more iconic than Boris Karloff's monster?

Hilbrich: It's funny that you bring up the Frankenstein comparison, as I associate Glenn Strange with that role over Boris Karloff, too.

Columbia cornered the market on 15-20 minute slapstick comedies with their unique, mostly overly violent tones. But the Stooges' style of slapstick comedy in these Columbia shorts is really different and the boys take it up a notch, even when compared to a short like TRAINING FOR TROUBLE with Gus Schilling and Richard Lane that recycles the same or very similar plot line and gags. There is a smoother flow to the Stooge films, and there is a flat-out attraction to their characterization of human beings. In a Stooges short, Moe, in retaliation will pick up a shovel and swing it into Larry's face as a form of punishment, with a CLANG sound effect. In an El Brendel two-reeler, El might pick up that same prop shovel to begin to throw it over his shoulder, and with that same sound effect of a CLANG, he clips Tom Kennedy in the head. It's an accident that is forgiven, leaving El to be happy. Moe wasn't on the other end of that shovel.

The moments of slapstick throughout these shorts are all very similar, vases get broken over people's heads, monsters or goons chase people through hallways, gun fire blows hats off heads, but it's all a little different than how those same situations appear in the shorts of the Three Stooges. The cartoon violence that is softened by those sound effects mentioned earlier are handled very well in the Stooge shorts, and for that reason the sound effects work better with them. The Jules White approach to the violent style of slapstick does outshine other studios' short-subjects of the era just because that style is much more outlandish in approach and execution.

As for the success or lack of success this style of comedy had on others like Charley Chase or Harry Langdon, I don't think it was lost in first release. If you look through older reviews in trade magazines, audiences ate it up; the shorts were popular, even shorts that we might look at today as being just so-so. Keaton’s Columbia shorts are looked at today as being awful. I really don't think they are as bad as the shorts he made at Educational, and they are definitely 10 times better than the stuff he did for MGM in the early 1930s. Are they as good as his early 1920s output, no, they aren’t. The style is very much off from what viewers today are used to seeing when compared to his silents , and the use of stunt doubles or rear-screen projection can be jarring, but audiences of the day welcomed his films, and I don't think they compared something like THE GENERAL to his Columbia short MOOCHING THROUGH GEORGIA. He was a familiar face from the past once again bringing laughs to the screen.

If anything, it was the release of the films to television that spawned a lack of success; again going back to what I mentioned earlier, the films were broadcast during a time slot children were used to seeing the Stooges in. And the Stooges had more childlike appeal, with Curly’s mannerisms. A good example of a Columbia shorts series being a close second to the Stooges in appeal to both theatrical audiences and younger television viewers later are those starring Andy Clyde. His "old man" character is the draw, a likable goof that wanders into slapstick situations but never comes off as too stupid to sympathize with (as Laurel and Hardy do (to me at least) in their later films for Fox.

Slapstick was the focus of 90 percent of Columbia's two-reel comedies, especially those directed by Jules White. Ed Bernds' approach at directing the shorts sometimes allow an actual story line to develop and conclude in the brief 16-18 minutes with outlandish bits of slapstick peppered throughout. A Jules White short might end on a sight gag with no conclusion to the story line, and some vote that the Stooges shorts at his helm are much more cruel, even with the sound effects softening the violence. TV stations took notice, and some of the gags, for either sensitive material that was a product of the times or extreme amounts of violence, cartoonish or not, were either cut by Screen Gems themselves or by in-house television station editors.

The most violent scene in Columbia shorts history was not even a product of Jules White, but instead by director Del Lord in THEY STOOGE TO CONGA (1943) with The Three Stooges. It's the now-famous climbing spike gag, in which Curly drives a spike into Moe's eye. It's been reported that Screen Gems did not include this short in its rotation of Stooge comedies for syndication, but that is not true. Now whether or not stations chose not to use this short in their lineup  or have their in-house editors remove the climbing spike clip, I'll never know. I'm sure a little of both happened, but I own a Screen Gems print of this title, climbing spike gag and all intact.  But even with some of these shorts slightly edited for violent content, we'll never really know how many kids busted each other's skulls open with a hammer or cut off one another's noses with a pair of scissors, but I think it's pretty safe to say that very few kids were sent to the ER for 32 stitches because one of their pals playing Moe ran a hacksaw across their heads.

Plan9Crunch: What future plans do you have for the site? Any chance of a convention with a full slate of shorts with those players we can't access on TV today?

Hilbrich: The site is still, and will most likely always be, a work-in-progress since I am always updating it with new or expanded information that I continue to find daily, which I couldn't do by myself, so I do feature a page of acknowledgement to all of those who have helped me out. One of the biggest challenges for me is finding information on the less-popular one-reel subjects, especially those from the early 1930s. I've managed to gather up titles, but I'm still working on production credits and the synopsis. There are a few other things in the works, like a media player and gallery for photos of the one-sheets, lobby cards and other bits of related material. There are also some other pages to the site that I am working on, pages with mini-bios for the writers, directors and other behind-the-scenes folks.

The site is also on the way to becoming a dot com site, so you won't have to type in a thousand-letter web address. I'd love to do a screening of the shorts, maybe one day that will happen, but I don't have anything planned.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review: Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies

Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, 1963, director Ray Dennis Steckler, Starring Cash Flagg (Steckler), Carolyn Brandt. Color, 82 minutes. (Also know as The Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary.) Schlock-meter rating: 6 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

I'll say this much: Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is a GREAT title. And for that the late director/star Steckler gets three stars right off the bat. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is very confusing, and only the carnival scenes somewhat save this semi-bore, and very non-scary, monster musical with strippers who are very clothed.

A word about the carnival. It looks a lot like the old Pike in Long Beach, Calif., a wonderful amusement place by the beach that was torn down more than 25 years ago. If any web surfers reading this can verify this, I d love to know.

The plot is very tangled and poorly developed, but here goes. An ugly gypsy fortune teller (who looks a lot like a tired Liz Taylor with a big mole) turns a bunch of hapless fortune seekers into scarred, drugged-out zombies who have an urge to kill. (Why do zombies always have an urge to kill in films? by the way.) No reason is ever given as to why the gypsy wants these zombies around. One night free spirit, cool young guy (Steckler), who looks a bit like a homely Nicholas Cage, goes to the carnival with his rich-girl lady. They have a spat when he eyes a comely dancer, and she stalks off.

Steckler goes after the dancer, and falls into the clutches of the evil fortune teller. He spends the rest of the film wandering around in a daze, occasionally killing and once trying to kill his girl. Later the zombies revolt and wreck havoc around the carnival. Steckler is pursued to the beach, where he meets his fate. Steckler is nota bad actor. He later was very good in a private eye flick he directed, Super Cool. He also made some great C films, including the spoofs Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and The Lemon Grove Kids series, as well as genuinely nervy psycho killer film called The Thrill Killers.

But this film is too undisciplined to take seriously. Several times scenes don't seem to mesh with the plot and often there is no explanation for why anything is occurring. The viewer is never told how the evil gypsy controls minds. She mumbles in dreams and we see a bad imitation of the Twilight Zone spiral (was this film shot originally in 3D?). In theaters ushers were forced to dress up like zombies and run through the theaters. Steckler's then-wife, Carolyn Brandt, who often starred in his films, plays a sexy carny dancer.

It was advertised as a monster musical and as a result, we're forced to watch a lot of bad singing and dancing. The acting is overall poor. The best part of the film is the weird carny world where so much of the action occurs. The film captures the seedy side of small-time carnival life a generation ago. Unfortunately, the limitations of the filmmakers and likely, a very tiny budget, produce what s mostly a talky bore. But still a great title! I must mention that Steckler, in interviews I have read and watched, seems like a good guy, modest and candid. Other titles for this film included "Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary." This is the film Steckler is best known for, even if it's not his best. Try "Body Fever" or "The Thrill Killers." It's fun to say Steckler acting in the film. He was a fine thespian. The film was also spoofed in MST3K. Watch the film above!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

'The Sorcerers' is a creepy 1960s film of mind control

By Doug Gibson

The "The Sorcerers" is a bit dated with its setting in the supposedly "mod" 1967 London, but it's nevertheless a fascinating cult film that continues to gain in acclaim almost 50 years after its release.

It's one of Boris Karloff's last films, and while the star, he's not the chief villain. That role, surprisingly, goes to his co-star, the also elderly Catherine Lacey, and boy is she creepy and evil. 

OK, here's the plot: Karloff plays Professor Marcus Monserrat who lives in a cheap, hovel-like home with his wife, Estelle. They seem to be decent folks but they have a dark secret; the professor was shunned by his colleagues and reduced to poverty due to his eccentric theories. 

Nevertheless, they are plugging along with their mind-control theories, extending the research to not only controlling another person, but vicariously experiencing the sensations, emotions and physical effects of what their subject goes through.

Eventually, a young, handsome twenty-something named Mike Roscoe, played by a young Ian Ogilvy, becomes their chief guinea pig. They have success with him and can control his mind and experience what he experiences.

Now the film comes to its interesting twist; that it's done so well is thanks to director Michael Reeves, only 23 when this film was shot. Reeves was a major talent who could elicit strong unpleasant performances out of actors; he directed "Witchfinder General," starring Vincent Price in arguably his most evil role.

While a viewer might expect Karloff to become the baddie of the couple, Reeves has Mrs. Monserrat, the elderly Lacey, go off her rocker and become evil. Long-denied any luxuries or even economic peace of mind; she becomes addicted to the sensations that Mike Roscoe is experiencing, and pushes him to crime and even murder. When her husband tries to stop her, Lacey's character physically overpowers Karloff's character, and she keeps her husband as a wounded slave.

This is a dark film but a fascinating one. One wishes that the current crop of "torture-porn" films that come out of Hollywood could try to emulate the low-budget atmosphere and terror of "The Sorcerers." A very young Susan George is a murder victim in this London-helmed film. According to gossip I have heard, Karloff encouraged the idea of his wife's character being the villain. Rumor has it Lacey was not happy with her role, but she performed marvelously.

For a long time this film was difficult to find; it was more talked about than seen. However, in recent years it has received an all-region DVD release and I recntly caught it on Turner Classic Movies. A good Michael Reeves double feature for cult movie fans would be this film paired with "Witchfinder General."

Watch the trailer for "The Sorcerers," from Tigon Productions, below:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Big Hearted Herbert is Guy Kibbee at his most grouchy

By Doug Gibson

"Big Hearted Herbert," 1934 black and white, directed by William Keighly, produced by Warner Brothers and released by Warner Brothers The Vitaphone Corp., 59 minutes. Starring Guy Kibbee as Herbert Kalness, Aline MacMahon as Elizabeth Kalness, Patricia Ellis as Alice Kalness and Phillip Reed as Andrew Goodrich. Schlock-meter rating: 6.5 out of 10,

I love Guy Kibbee movies; the man was made to play the middle-aged business man of the 1930s with a lot of bluster in sight and tenderness hidden; he stars in the only surviving film version of Sinclair Lewis’ homage to the conformist businessman, “Babbitt.” Often playing his wife in his Warner Brothers/Vitaphone films of the 1930s is Aline MacMahon,a  tall, angular actress who seems to get more attractive as the film goes on; she was often the ying to Kibbee’s yang.

“Big Hearted Herbert,” which I first watched thanks to Turner Classic Movies, is not the best programmer that Kibbee made with MacMahon, but it’s a perfect example of the domestic comedies that Kibbee could so effortlessly perform 80 years ago. He stars as Herbert Kalness, grouchy, long-winded successful plumbing supplies business who grouses constantly to his wife, Elizabeth, played by MacMahon, and three kids, Alice, Robert and Junior. Herbert practically worships a dour family photo of his late father that hangs, saint like, in the family home.

It’s obvious Elizabeth loves Herbert, because she has the patience of a saint with her husband, who is so worn out and stressed from hard work and success that he constantly erupts into self-pitying rants at the dinner table about the laziness of his kids, the ungratefulness of the family, the uselessness of a college education and social airs, the importance of hard work and plain living, and so on; he just snaps at everybody. Kibbee is a little more crabby than fussy in this film; he’s rarely been this ill-tempered, but his screen presence, which is geared toward audiences softening at his round countenance, makes it hard to hate him.

Herbert, though, really becomes a burden to his family when he loudly asserts to Junior that he will not go to college, but rather enter the family business and work 10 hours a day like Herbert did. He also erupts at the announcement that daughter Alice is engaged to college man (Harvard no less!) Andrew Goodrich, future lawyer. 

At a dinner with his future in laws, Herbert puts his grouch-mode into overdose, insulting and upsetting everyone. 
At this point, MacMahon’s wife Elizabeth has had enough and arranges a come-uppence for her crabby husband. That occurs when Herbert arranges a dinner party with the family with some of prized business customers. The final act of the film is the most amusing as MacMahon shines as much as, if even more, than Kibbee, who has quite a transformation from the constant grouch character he’s played the first two acts. What happens is that wife Alice arranges the dinner to be as old-fashioned and rustic as Herbert claims his own past life was.

But it’s all in fun, and this is at heart a pleasant, light-hearted domestic comedy; despite Kibbee’s there never any real suspense that things won’t turn out OK in the end.

Today, most remember Kibbee as Governor "Hoppy" in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but some of his best work includes the aforementioned "Babbitt" and the comedic satire "The Dark Horse,' where he plays a simpleton recruited for higher office, pre-dating Peter Sellers in "Being There" by more than 40 years. You can watch a great 3 minute trailer of Big Hearted Herbert at

Friday, April 10, 2015

Poverty Row Horrors remains, despite the snark, a great achievement for Tom Weaver

By Doug Gibson

I re-read a genre book that's been around a long time, "Poverty Row Horrors," by Tom Weaver, with help from Michael and John Brunas. It's a marvelous work of film scholarship that covers -- in depth -- the output of Monogram, Producers Releasing Corporation and Republic studios during the first several years of the 1940s. It was a certainly a golden era for cult film buffs with stars such as Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, and even Boris Karloff, working in the C-film horror trade.

Weaver is, to use a cliche, a treasure. Besides his interview books, he has done work, with associates, on the Universal horror films, the films of John Carradine, and of course this book, that frankly may not be equaled. The depth of the research is superb. Everything you want to know about, say "The Mad Monster," "The Invisible Ghost," or "The Vampire's Ghost," etc., you are liable to find in this volume.

In the era of the now-defunct "Cult Movies" magazine, I always looked for a Tom Weaver film review and read it first, for the sole reason that I knew it would have far more genre-intensive information than the other film reviews.

But there is a less attractive feature to Weaver in his writing; he can be snarky, particularly to Bela Lugosi ad his fans. Here's an example from "Poverty Row Horrors" in "The Devil Bat chapter: "According to another PRC 'scoop,' 'Bela Lugosi says that for sheer dramatic tension and unadulterated horror, Devil Bat far outshines Dracula (cue to Weaver's snark) (There may be more truth to that statement than traditionalist horror fans will want to admit!)"

Sigh. Anyone who has read Universal Horrors has to put up with the Bela-bashing to enjoy that otherwise superb book. But one aspect of reading Poverty Row Horrors will be the periodic snarky jabs at directors, actors in these cheap but memorable films. Although these jabs are a small price to pay for the scholarship Weaver uncovers, one wishes he could see these films in the way that Cult Movies once opined, as "Rembrandt with a crayon." We are all aware of the plot holes, inconsistencies, and low budgets of films such as "The Corpse Vanishes," "Dead Men Walk," "Ghosts On the Loose," and others, but it's odd to hear a writer of this genre unleash his inner-Bosley Crowther (the fussy New York Times critic of that era) in meticulously criticizing Poverty Row cinema.

Enough of my rants, though; Weaver does acknowledge the fun factor of these films, the ability of these crazy plots of films such as "Bowery Over Midnight" or "Return of the Ape Man" or "Isle of Forgotten Sins" to provide entertainment, to be successes due to the charisma, mixed with outlandishness, that a Lugosi can provide. I agree with Frank Dello Stritto that these poverty row horrors did not really scare audiences; they were a combination of relief and nostalgia, escape for audiences wearied by the Depression and World War II. Also, Weaver seems to be a good sport, willing to take opposing viewpoints. He wrote a gracious introduction to the recent book "Tod Browning's Dracula," by Gary Don Rhodes, even though he disagrees with Rhodes' take on "Dracula."

If I have a real beef on a film's quality with Weaver it's probably his take on Frank Wisbar's PRC masterpiece "Strangler of the Swamp." Although I agree the later PRC version is not as good as Wisbar's German effort "Ferryboat Woman Maria,' it's still a superb film with amazing atmosphere for having a swamp on a stage. And Charles Middleton as the Strangler, with his methodical steps and dead eyes, is the closest poverty row came to creating legit scares. Weaver claims that many of Strangler's fans are merely echoing William K. Everson's praise in "Classics of the Horror Film." I disagree; I never read Everson's book and still loved "Strangler," among the first Poverty Row films I saw. I agree with Weaver that Wisbar bored us later, including with "Devil Bat's Daughter," but he scored with "Strangler in the Swamp."

(Frankly, an example of genre fans being swayed to one side is the excessive praise for the Spanish "Dracula" a generation-plus ago when it was located. Too many declared it superior to Browning's "Dracula," an incorrect assessment that is slowly being corrected.)

I do love this book, and no one should get upset at subjective differences of opinion. If you are a poverty-row horror film fan, this is a book that will last a lifetime as one reads chapters over and over. There is also an informative chapter on the music used in these films. A segment of more films with short synopsis, and a filmography for the many professionals who appeared in the films.

I favor the Monogram and PRC films, and particularly enjoy reading the Joseph L. Lewis and Edgar Ulmer directed films. I'm not as big a fan of the Republic poverty row films, but I do love the offbeat film "The Vampire's Ghost," and it has its chapter. You can buy this book via amazon here

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Flying Serpent is a kind of dull remake of The Devil Bat

By Doug Gibson

Listen, I'm a big George Zucco fan, I love the old Producers Releasing Corporation 40s C-movies but the 1946 The Flying Serpent is not one of the better offerings. Zucco plays a mad archaeologist who uses a live big flying creature to kill his enemies. The "flying serpent" is a stiff stage prop and if you look hard you can see the strings.

Naturally, Zucco gets it in the end from his dangerous bird. In theme the film is very similar to the far superior 1940 PRC release The Devil Bat, starring Lugosi. There's a big killer controlled by a bitter man of science. An investigative journalist helps solve the crime and protects a young lovely. Also, the music is the same as Devil Bat, and a lot of other C-films of that era, and the film uses "banner headlines" like Devil Bat and others to bridge plot. There's comic bits to relieve the "tension."

Also, as Tom Weaver has pointed out in his book, "Poverty Row Horrors," Zucco is a pretty one-dimensional villain. He's more cranky than complex. There's no angst associated with his murders, such as Lugosi's bitter revenge in "Devil Bat." He's not even the crazy scientist George Zucco in another PRC film, "The Mad Monster." He's just a mere sociopath in this film.

What worked well in Devil Bat it doesn't work here. The scenes with the crusading radio reporter (Ralph Lewis) are very dull and slow down the main action of Zucco getting revenge. By contrast, crusading newspaper reporter Dave O'Brien is outstanding combating Lugosi in Devil Bat. Flying Serpent is a tight, very low budget film that runs 59 minutes. It was directed by Sam Newfield and also starred Mary Forbes.

It's worth watching -- anything with Zucco is but it's not up to par with other PRC offerings such as Devil Bat and Strangler of the Swamp. Watch the film below; it has some decent moments.

Watch the film here.