Saturday, May 20, 2017

The W.C. Fields Films provides solid account of comic's career

Review by Doug Gibson

Genre author James L. Neibaur has done his usual, solid, well-researched, enjoyable recap of a film great with "The W.C. Fields Films," (here) recently published by McFarland, (800-253-2187).

Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton are among performers whom Neibaur has assessed. As with the others, the Fields book covers his films, chapter by chapter. Serving as bookends are an opening chapter on Fields' early life and work in vaudeville, and the final chapter covers his last years.

Neibaur is a talented enough researcher and writer to have the film chapters also provide a chronology of Fields' life. The plots, filmmaking intrigues, reviews, box office fates, cast reminiscing, also includes snippets of Fields' personal life, including his frequent health problems as he aged.

If you are a casual fan of Fields, like myself prior to reading this volume, you'll learn that he was a major vaudeville star who dipped his toes into films a little and then several years later, made the full leap, astutely realizing that was where the future, and money was. Some of the early silent films were remade in the sound era. A couple, both remade, that are on my list to see are "Running Wild" and "Sally of the Sawdust." (Remade as "Man on the Flying Trapeze" and "Poppy.")

Neibaur also notes that Fields struggled at times with silent films. Regretfully, some are lost, including all three of an ill-fated attempt to team Fields with comedian Chester Conklin. Ultimately, it was sound that moved Fields to higher stardom. Neibaur correctly points out that Fields' understated delivery of his lines became very popular with audiences. In fact, aside lines like Fields (in "The Bank Dick") muttering that he loves daughters, particularly those between 16 and 18, is dialogue that I don't think censors would have allowed less subtle actors to utter.

Fields' glory days were with Paramount, his shorts, including 'The Dentist" and films such as "It's' a Gift" and "Man on the Flying Trapeze," are classic gems. He had the ability to play a put-upon father, a conniving boozer father, a con man father and guardian, and still provide sympathy with audiences. Also, pairing Fields with a loud, overbearing spouse prone to overly loud proclamations was usually comic gold. Neibaur also notes Fields's care in determining the plots and dialogues of his films; a demand that perceptive directors usually followed.

Fields' is also an actor whose health deterioration one can track through his two decades of stardom. In "The Dentist," he's still relatively trim. By his last film, the offbeat, eccentric, original "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," he's a bloated, obese man with a large, alcoholic red nose. His Paramount and Universal tenures were cut short by bad health and poor health practices. Tragedy always affected his health adversely, from friends' deaths to a toddler drowning in a pond on his property.

In his book, Neibaur includes Fields successful comeback with Universal, with films such as "My Little Chickadee," a must-see with Mae West (The two egos survived peacefully long enough to make a great film), "The Bank Dick," and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," a brilliant satire that Universal failed to understand, and played as a second-feature.

Prior to reading this book, I'd only seen Fields in "International House," which I bought to see Bela Lugosi," "The Dentist," "My Little  Chickadee," and "It's a Gift," a film I've seen at least 20 times. The "W.C. Fields Films" has a lot of company with other great books about Fields. It serves however as a great source to learn more about the unique vintage comedy star, one of the few silent veterans to prosper in the sound era.

Since I read this book, I've seen several more films with Fields. Some of my favorites include "It's a Gift," "Man on the Flying Trapeze," "The Bank Dick" and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break."

The prolific Mr. Neibaur, by the way, will soon have a book out on the Universal monster films.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rubin & Ed - Comic Weirdness By Trent Harris

Review by Steve D. Stones, art by Stones

"More psychedelic fun than a barrel of monkeys on mushrooms." - Details Magazine

Words cannot describe the comic weirdness, if not genius, of writer/director Trent Harris' 1991 cult classic - Rubin & Ed. The same can be said about his 1995 cult film - Plan 10 From Outer Space, which is a commentary on Mormon culture and Ed Wood's 1959 classic - Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I find Rubin & Ed to be the greater of the two films, but both make a great double-feature together.

Ed Tuttle, played by Howard Hesseman, is a down on his luck, middle aged loser who will do anything to prove to his wife Rula (Karen Black) that he can provide a living for her. The problem is, it's too late for Tuttle because his wife has left him and wants nothing to do with him. He wears old 70s leisure suits and a toupee to cover his balding hair. Apparently Tuttle has been a complete failure his entire life, but he refuses to give up, which is part of the charm of his character.

Tuttle attends a get-rich-quick, pyramid scheme seminar called "The Power of Positive Real Estate," also known as "The Organization." Attendants are brainwashed into thinking that they can achieve great wealth and success in their lives by bringing others into the group and selling real estate. Little do they know that the seminar is a scheme to take away their time and money.

While passing out pamphlets to promote "The Organization," Tuttle runs into his first and only sales subject, Rubin Farr, played by eccentric cult actor Crispin Glover. Farr lives with his mother in a hotel, wears bell bottom pants and platform shoes, and listens to the loud music of Mahler all day, while occasionally lounging by the pool.  Farr's mother is constantly on his case to make friends. This is where Tuttle makes his appearance. Two losers, Rubin and Ed, are now united.

Tuttle meets Farr at his hotel room and finds Farr's frozen dead cat in the kitchen freezer. Farr agrees to come with Tuttle to his seminar, but only if they can first find a proper place to bury the cat.  The frozen cat, named Simon, is placed in a Coleman cooler. What follows for the rest of the movie is a buddy themed, road trip across Goblin State Park in Utah - only this time Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are nowhere to be found.

One particularly funny dream sequence shows Rubin floating on a tube at Pineview Reservoir in Utah while his cat Simon is waterskiing behind a boat operated by a beautiful girl. Farr gives his most famous line in the film - "My cat can eat a whole watermelon!"

I was fortunate to have found a VHS copy of Rubin & Ed at a local thrift store for less than $1.00. Sources tell me that a used copy of Rubin & Ed on VHS will run anywhere from $40.00 to $100.00 on E-Bay and other movie sales sites. A new VHS copy will run you about $200.00. I often rented the film from Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video in the 1990s from the "Cult Classics" section of both video stores.

I was also fortunate to have purchased a signed copy of Harris' Plan 10 From Outer Space on DVD at Sam Weller's book store in downtown Salt Lake City about 10 years ago. This is one of my most cherished movie collectibles, next to a clam-shelled 80s VHS copy of Andy Milligan's Torture Dungeon from Midnight Video.

To purchase Rubin & Ed on DVD or other films by director Trent Harris, visit his web store at Hooray for the Echo People! Happy viewing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

All about Vernon Dent; an interview with his biographer Bill Cassara

Interview by Doug Gibson

Vernon Dent is ubiquitous to vintage comedy film. Genre fans and scholars know him well. The more casual film fan, the one who, say, has only sampled the Three Stooges shorts, can't recall his name but they sure do know his face. And, most importantly, Vernon Dent makes them laugh.

Dent's "I know that guy" persona is a lot like, say, the character actor Donald Meek. My wife and I, watching WC Fields and Mae West in "My Little Chickadee," saw Meeks play a faux preacher "marrying" the stars. "I know that guy. What's his name?" my wife said. "He's also in "You Can't Take It With You," I reply. (And several hundred other films ...) ... Vernon, by the way, worked with WC Fields in films.

It's the same with Vernon. Last year, on a Fox News segment, background film was rolling as comic relief. Suddenly, there's Vernon from an old Stooges short. "I know that guy. What's his name," said my son, who loves the Stooges and Harry Langdon shorts. (Dent, of course, is also a veteran of hundreds of films).

Enough preface, let's get to the interview with author and vintage comedy scholar Bill Cassara, writer of "Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy -- Second Banana to the Three Stooges and Other Film Comedy Greats" (2013, BearManor Media). Bill has also written biographies of Edgar Kennedy and Ted Healy. We've reviewed the Dent biography and the Healy biography.

Enjoy the interview.

1)      Vernon Dent is a ubiquitous figure to the casual vintage comedy fan, the one who only watches The Three Stooges. He’s the face without a name they always recognize. Describe how Dent’s talents make him so memorable to fans when other frequent co-stars are less noticeable to casual fans?

CASSARA: In the Three Stooges comedies there had to be an authority figure to play against their humor, it's called "comedy contrast." While there were plenty of actors who could do that, Vernon brought with him a seemingly no-nonsense approach and dealt out the punishment. It helped too that Vernon who was not a tall man, nevertheless physically fit perfectly in the frame with the much shorter Stooges. If one watches the Stooges even casually, he shows up in 56 of their total product. That makes a lasting impression, so if one sees "Vernon Dent" in the opening credits you know that the boys are really going to get it!        
2)      Did the deaths of Vernon Dent’s parents, have an effect on his life, career or personal, in your opinion?

CASSARA: Vernon's father was the owner of a saloon in San Jose, Calif., and was murdered when Vernon was a boy. The local newspaper blamed the circumstance of the murder, not on the suspect but on the "evils of alcohol." Vernon's mother made the boy swear on his father's grave that he would never touch alcohol. Vernon's mother was a non-professional thespian and encouraged her son's budding talents, she died when he was only 20. 
3)      In his pre-Sennett career, what were Vernon Dent’s greatest strengths in the shorts he made? How did these early films, as well as Sennett shorts, set up his career as a foil to the stars of the shorts?

CASSARA: It should be noted that Vernon was influenced by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, while Roscoe sang illustrated songs at the Unique Theater in San Jose. Vernon was a singer first, even a published song writer. Vernon was the emcee while at Seal Beach, Ca. when Hank Mann saw possibilities of him as a comic "heavy" to Mann's comedies. Vernon graduated to his own starring series for "Folly Comedies 1921-1922. His character was very similar to Fatty Arbuckle's film persona to include a similar fitting hat. In those silent days, action was the key. Vernon proved himself adept at physical comedy; making pratfalls and big reactions. The Mack Sennett studios demanded a quick pace and sometimes very dangerous stunts, he was also a "fat" character so necessary to play off of others.     
4)      What are the three best Harry Langdon/Vernon Dent Sennett shorts and why?
CASSARA: 1) HIS FIRST FLAME: This is the sweetest little film full of charm and redemption. Harry is a naive nephew to Vernon's worldly Uncle who works as a fireman. Harry overcomes his physical limitations and wins the girl and his uncle's respect. This film holds up really well to modern audiences, the lessons to be learned are still fresh and humorous. 2). HIS MARRIAGE WOW : Harry almost plays the straight-man to Vernon's maniac character. It's a visual delight as Vernon drives his car crazily and seeing Harry as his captured passenger. 2) SATURDAY AFTERNOON: This short made in 1925 establishes both as buddies, Harry is hen-pecked and Vernon is his "wiser" friend who tries to fix them up with a couple of floozies. Tiny Harry and big Vernon are perfectly contrasted together, this predates Laurel and Hardy by a couple of years and might have been very influential. 

5)      You mention something interesting in your biography, that perhaps Harry Langdon would have had better success at First National had he taken his frequent Sennett co-star Vernon Dent with him. How could Dent have improved, say, “Three’s A Crowd,” if he had played Arthur Thalasso’s part, or the judge in “The Chaser.”

CASSARA: I'd hate to speculate other than saying Vernon would have enhanced any screen appearance.
6)      There was an effort to make Dent a comedy pair team with Monty Collins, and of course many say he and Langdon were teamed often without officially being a team. What were the challenges in the 20s and 30s against succeeding as a comedy team? What were the artistic challenges as well as the logistical challenges, such as exposure, play dates and marketing?

CASSARA: This is an interesting question. Comedy teams were certainly popular in vaudeville but often did not make it in film because one was a talking medium and the other visual (during the silent era. For film teams to emerge there has to be a business sense by the respective studio that the audience will be in demand of said team. The comedians also have to have a strong respect for each other; the typical set up is for a "comedian" and a "second banana" to help set up the gags. Many teams failed because both wanted to be the funny one. Stan Laurel for instance had a chance through the years to establish himself as a solo comedian to lukewarm response. Frankly, he was not ready in the early years to take on a partner. This changed when he was eventually paired with Oliver Hardy, at the Hal Roach Studios. Audience reaction at the two as a true team demanded more. The studio then marketed it to the distributors and the public as such. Vernon and Harry were never a "team" on equal footing, Harry was the star and Vernon was versatile in comic support. While Harry had a defined character, Vernon did not.  More importantly, Harry wasn't ready to be a team in the 20's. On reflection in later years he might have regretted it.         
7)      All of us want so badly to see the lost Arvid Gillstrom Educational/Paramount shorts. Synopses seem to tease us with plots for Vernon and Harry that would be appropriate for a regular comedy team (Laurel and Hardy). Do you believe Paramount was pitching the duo as a team, albeit maybe with a little more press toward Langdon?

CASSARA: Gillstrom is a name not heard of anymore, he was an important director and producer for Paramount in his day. I think he was in line to make Harry Langdon comedies and Vernon would have a big responsibility for the studio. As it was, Gillstrom directed Vernon Dent and Bing Crosby in "Please," a two-reel comedy written by Vernon. He also wrote the screenplays for Langdon/Dent series that are lost now. Gillstrom died suddenly in 1935 and that ended any hopes of bigger fame at Paramount.    

8)      Based on your biography, Vernon seemed to have a wonderful final marriage. He settled into an eventual well-paid character actor supporting role in Columbia shorts, with freedom to do other work. His settling down into that role, was it due to domestic happiness, and perhaps also that his diabetes was a growing concern

CASSARA: Vernon was married three times and his second wife passed away When Vernon was in this 30's. Vernon met his future wife at a party at the Langdon's home and he was so smitten, he proposed to her that night. Vernon was in love and they were both dedicated to each other though Mrs. Dent had no interest in the movie business. Vernon's wife worked at a bank for consistent income, aside from Vernon's acting income he was also vested in real estate and owned a concession stand in Westlake Park in Los Angeles. They both pitched in during the weekends.   
9)      What are Dent’s best dramatic roles?

CASSARA: Thomas Ince hired Vernon for his feature: "Hail the Women" (1921). It is unfortunately this is a lost film, Vernon had a prominent part. Mack Sennett cast Vernon as a sinister and overbearing suitor of Mable Normand in the feature, "The Extra Girl." (1923) He played a mean husband in the rarely seen "Dragnet Patrol" even out bullying screen heavy Walter Long. Vernon's most sensitive portrayal was the feature, "Beast of Berlin" (1939) when Vernon's character is German citizen (a bartender) who is terrorized by the Nazi soldiers. We hear Vernon cry in's heartbreaking.  
10)   What are the best examples of Dent singing in films

CASSARA: In the short Technicolor film, "Good morning, Eve." Vernon (as Nero) sings "Rhythm in the Bow," it's very catchy. He sings "There's No Place Like Home" to a sequestered jury in "The Jury Goes 'Round and Round" (1945). My favorites are when Vernon sings the old songs: "The Waning Honeymoon" (Fainting Lover (1931), "When You and I were Young, Maggie" (with Harry Langdon in Hooks and Jabs), and especially in Bing Crosby's short "Please," Vernon challenges Bing to a singing competition and bellows out "Dear Old Girl."  
11)   Has there ever been a comedian who had a stare as humorously menacing as Dent?

CASSARA: I think Vernon carved this out for himself and sustained it through out his years at Columbia. He forewarned the Stooges many times with his look of intolerance, Charley Chase and Shemp Howard both got those stares in the baseball-themed "The Heckler" and "Mr. Noisy." The audience could witness his many stages of body language, but never the comedians.   

12)   Who did Dent pair best with in films? I imagine the favorites are The Stooges or Langdon, or maybe you have another selection?

CASSARA: For sustained pairing there is no doubt; The Three Stooges for the sheer delicious physical comedy and Harry Langdon for the obvious chemistry between them. 
13)  In your research, how is Dent received by genre fans? Is he recognized for his supporting talents or seen as a comedy star who couldn’t quite reach star status?

CASSARA: Though Vernon appeared in over 400 films, most of them are unavailable for viewing. We'll never know what heights Vernon would have propelled to if Gillstrom had lived, the same could be said about Thomas Ince who also died after casting Vernon in a dramatic feature. Vernon knew everyone at Columbia Studios when he became one of their prized stock-players in 1936, so who wants to change history? I had the pleasure of giving a discourse at the last Three Stooges Convention in 2016, if the knowledgeable audience was any gauge, they held Vernon Dent in highest esteem for his comic support. 

14)   In your research, what more did you learn about the warm personal friendship between Dent and Langdon? (Vernon, Harry, and their spouses seen in above photo.)

CASSARA: In Harry Langdon Jr.'s new book, it is reaffirmed how close Vernon and Harry were. Harry's widow emphasized this to Junior, Vernon even took the boy to baseball games in his father's absence. Vernon never had children but he would have been a great dad.

15)  If someone were to put on a Vernon Dent film festival, what 12 films would you choose to include?
CASSARA: Some titles I have already mentioned, those would have to be included in any list. The rest go to just about any of The Three Stooges: "Slippery Silks," "An Ache in Every Stake,"Idle Roomers," "Half-Wits Holiday," "Three Little Pirates," "Sing a Song of Six Pants," "Squareheads of the Round Table," "Fuelin' Around," Malice in the Palace," (see Vernon above)  "Scrambled Brains," "The Tooth Will Out." 

Is there anything you have discovered since your book was released?

CASSARA: Most definitely. I heard from a woman who was a teenager when Vernon was at home and blind unable to work. She used to check on him while his wife was at work. One day she came in and she caught Vernon at the dinner table with TWO pies in front of him furnished by a buddy. Vernon sensed her presence and slightly panicked (he was on a strict diet). He tried to buy her off with "Keep your mouth shut and the other pie is yours." That's how much he valued his sweets. I also heard from a man who said he was Vernon's lawn mower as a boy. Vernon offered him any of his souvenirs and artifacts. Apparently Vernon collected stills from all his pictures and had them autographed by his co-stars. Where they went nobody knows.

I also found out something unique about Vernon that I'm not sure if he was conscious of himself.  The very uncommon surname of "Mann" seemed to pop up in his life: He went to Horace Mann school, Sam Mann was Vernon's stage idol and who encouraged Vernon to continue impersonating him with his foreign dialects, Gus Mann hired him for the "Jewel City Cafe," Hank Mann hired Vernon as his comic heavy, and Helen Mann played opposite of him in "The Girl Rush" (1931). If I were to ever write a play about Vernon I would start with the temperance movement, Vernon's father's death, and weave it around all the "Mann" coincidences. I can see it now...  

Thanks so much, Bill, for the interview.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Harry Langdon Scrapbook captures the feel of vintage comedy

Review by Doug Gibson

Harry Langdon Jr., whose father, film comedian Harry Langdon will be dead 73 years this December, recalls as a very young child visiting the set of "Zenobia," (1939)  in which his dad starred with Oliver Hardy. As Langdon Jr. recounts, he was given a handful of double-headed nails by a stage worker. Perplexed at the oddly shaped nails, his father explained to Junior that they were used to make it easier to tear down sets.

"Nothing on a stage is permanent," Langdon senior told his son.

That phrase is the title of a book released last year from Walker-Anthony Books, "Nothing On a Stage is Permanent: The Harry Langdon Scrapbook." It's available from Amazon, and you can buy it from the publisher here.

The stage anecdote is from the book's introduction. Langdon Jr. is the narrator of a scrapbook that offers photos, artwork, press clippings, promotional clippings, film posters, letters, pay stubs, and more.

The narration is appropriately understated; the scrapbook is what the book's about, but it appropriately moves the reader through the life of Langdon and his career. The book serves as a well-done illustrated history of his life.

Some of the early photos, when Langdon was in vaudeville, in blackface, with "lightning sketches" he performed on the stage, and scrapbook items from his later hits "Johnny's New Car" and "After the Ball ..." will be priceless to fans. The recent publications of photos capturing Langdon's vaudeville days finally draw to a deserved close the Capra-inspired myth that he was a simpleton who had to be taught to be a film star.

I love the scrapbook additions of the Principle Pictures films that are mostly lost, as well as the contract. We learn in the book that one unreleased film, and lost, his very first, "The Skyscraper," was in a Pathe catalog in 1925 under a different title, "Mail and Female."

The book is full of tidbits that are of great interest to Langdon fans and all vintage comedy fans. There is a two-page promotional sheet for the lost film, "Heart Trouble," that is worth the cost of the Scrapbook.

Langdon Jr. notes that his mother, Mabel Langdon, carefully preserved these items. She survived her husband's death for well over 50 years. Langdon's highly talented art is in the scrapbook, including newspaper comic strips he did.

His personal life has a role in the book too. One pay stub for a film, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," shows that two thirds of Langdon's about $20,000 salary went for alimony. Another pay stub shows Langdon, in his own handwriting, noting a portion that goes to alimony.

The book is divided into sections, taking the reader through Langdon's life. His death is as sadly abrupt in the Scrapbook as it must have been in December of 1944. It's ultimately pointless to ponder how a Langdon in his late 60s, 70s, and later may have fared in TV. But it's hard not to.

Fortunately, his reputation was installed by critic James Agee, who in the late 1940s, tabbed him as one of the Big Four of silent comedy, along with Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

In regards to Capra, the book doesn't shy away from that fact that Capra was correct that Langdon's move into more personal films, after "The Strong Man," hurt his career. It would be silly to refute the obvious. Also, Langdon took responsibility for those box office failures, and even criticized the later First National films.

I find beauty in "Three's A Crowd" and "The Chaser," but understand why they may have perplexed audiences 90 years ago. In his narration, Langdon Jr. doesn't flinch from pointing out the disaster Langdon's second marriage to Helen Walton was. The Scrapbook takes us through the lean years of the 1930s, when work was scarce, and trips around the world were required to make money. It also captures the happiness of Mabel and Harry's union, and Harry's joy to have a family with a son. Langdon Jr. notes that one reason he remembers his father so well is because the family revolved around Harry's life.

I hope this scrapbook sells well. It's a gem, easily worth its cost. I like that fans and others were involved in its creation. Film historian and author Ed Watz is credited for his contributions, as is former magazine publisher and writer Michael Copner. So is Cologne-based artist Birgit Kreps, who provides absolutely gorgeous hand coloring to many of the Scrapbook items. Finally, two of my dearest Facebook friends, super Langdon fans, Jessica Carlson and Nicole Arciola, are among those credited for their assistance.

It;s been a good year for Harry Langdon, heck a good decade-plus, with three biographies, some DVD releases, and this Scrapbook. What can we do to get Turner Classic Movies to air a Langdon First National Feature. How about accompanying it with an interview with his son featuring this scrapbook?

Sounds like a great idea to me.

Friday, May 5, 2017

'Invisible Ghost' - Bela Lugosi's first Monogram film

Review by Steve D. Stones

Thank goodness for Kino Lorber Video. They are a top of the line New York company who is dedicated to digitally restoring and distributing classic forgotten horror  films in the DVD and Blu-Ray format. Many of the films they distribute are in the public domain.  Kino Lorber's print of Invisible Ghost (1941) (buy it here) is sharp and beautiful, unlike the worn out quality of public domain prints.

Bela Lugosi plays kindly Dr. Kessler who thinks his wife has died and roams his home as a ghost. She appears at his window at night, causing him to go into a strange trance to commit murders.  Mrs. Kessler is actually held as a hostage by the gardener in the garage cellar of the Kessler mansion. She suffers from brain damage due to an automobile accident.

Dr. Kessler's first victim is the young maid, Cecile Mannix.  Mannix was once romantically involved with Ralph Dickson, played by John McGuire.  Dickson is the fiance of Kessler's daughter Virginia. Because of their romantic involvement, Dickson is accused of the murder and executed.

Ralph's brother Paul arrives to unravel the mystery as to why his brother was blamed for the murder. He is mistaken at first as the ghost of his deceased brother because the two look so much alike. Paul soon discovers that Kessler is the murderer.  Kessler is later arrested after going through a trance.

Some of the humor in the film is a bit politically incorrect for our time. For example, after Kessler's black butler Evans, played by Claurence Muse, mistakes Ralph's brother Paul for Ralph, he asks the gardener "Do I look pale? I sure feel pale." This is meant to be a strange joke with regard to Evans' skin color.

The film was also known as Murder By The Stars and The Phantom Monster. During production, it was known as The Phantom Killer. Producer Sam Katzman and actor Bela Lugosi made a total of nine films together for Monogram Pictures. Invisible Ghost is their first and considered one of their best.

As with all of Lugosi's work, he is a true professional in Invisible Ghost and gives a great performance. Even his more hammy scenes of walking slowly with his coat stretched out to strangle his victims seems to work in the film.  He dines at a long table, pretending to  speak with the spirit of his wife at the other end of the table as they both enjoy a meal.  A bit campy, but still fun to watch.

Speaking of Kino Lorber, don't miss their Blu-Ray print of Lugosi's 1931 horror classic - White Zombie. This is a must have for any serious fan of classic horror films. Like Invisible Ghost, the print is sharp and beautiful. Happy viewing. (Watch a non-Blu-Ray version above).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ed Watz on Wheeler and Woolsey

Interview by Doug Gibson

Ed Watz is the author of the above book, "Wheeler and Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films, 1927-1937," (McFarland). It's a successful genre book logging more than 3,000 sales. Another book of Ed's I enjoy is "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," (McFarland) that he co-authored with Ted Okuda.

Ed's written a lot on vintage comedy the past several decades, and later this year his newest book, "Buster Keaton in the Talkies: Laughter Louder Than Words," is being published by BearManor Media. It will deal with Keaton's films from 1929 to 1941.

I owe my enjoyment of Wheeler and Woolsey to Ed's book, and I asked him recently to talk about the famous comedy duo, which made a lot of films, and money, for RKO. He agreed and here's our chat.

Plan9Crunch: Tell us a little about Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey's success in vaudeville in the 1920s and how they came to RKO's eye.

Watz: Bert Wheeler was a major star of vaudeville for about a decade, from the mid-teens until 1926. In 1923 Bert and his first wife and stage partner, Betty, were chosen by the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in that year's Ziegfeld Follies revue. Robert Woolsey only briefly worked in vaudeville; he appeared in numerous touring companies of famous plays, eventually landing on Broadway and appearing in a major show almost every season. In 1926 Ziegfeld hired Wheeler and Woolsey as the comedy relief in his latest extravaganza, RIO RITA. Their parts were loosely sketched but both comedians were expected to furnish their own material. By the time the show opened in New York the following February, they perfected a series of routines together that practically stole the show. When Ziegfeld sold the movie rights of RIO RITA to RKO, Wheeler and Woolsey were the show's only stage players who were hired to repeat their performances on film.

The subtitle of my W and W book, "The Vaudeville Comedy Team and Their Films," is actually somewhat of a misnomer as they were never a team in vaudeville. My original title for the book was "Forgotten Laughter," but my publisher decided to change it.

Plan9Crunch: Some call W and W small-town knock offs of the Marx Brothers but their films sometimes were more successful than the Marx Brothers.Whom played off whom, or did both teams have their own unique styles?

Watz: Actually I doubt that any of the W&W starring films outgrossed any of the Marx Brothers films, but because the W&Ws were usually modestly budgeted -- what you might call a "lazy 'A'" picture -- costing on average of $250,000 to $300,000. their films usually returned a decent profit of around $100,000 to $150,000. Whereas the Marx Brothers at Paramount and later MGM had budgets ranging first from around $600,000 and later over $1 million, their films tended to return a much smaller profit, or in the cast of three of their MGM films, no profit at all.

The Marx Brothers' films grossed more money, but their higher budgets meant that the profits -- if there were any to be had -- were lower than Wheeler & Woolsey's. The films of Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello likewise had lower budgets and their films, like W&W's, usually returned a solid profit.

Wheeler & Woolsey, like Laurel & Hardy, were both star comedians in their own right; while they played off each other, neither was the straight man. If there is any team similar to them it certainly isn't Stan and Ollie, or Abbott &Costello; but the repartee and rivalry over a girl in the W&W films anticipates the Hope & Crosby pairings in the "Road" pictures.

Plan9Crunch: How important was Dorothy Lee (seen above with the pair} to the team's success? Is she comparable to a Margaret Dumont or Christine McIntyre as a valued cast player with a great comedy team?

Watz: Dorothy Lee is a charming asset to the W&W films, especially in those moments when she gets to sing and dance a duet with Bert Wheeler. She's not really a comedy character, and she rarely acts as a straight woman for the team. Dorothy herself usually dismissed her performances but she remains a fan favorite. Wheeler & Woolsey films are often populated by terrific supporting casts who do indulge in comic banter. The Marx Brothers' Margaret Dumont appeared with the team in two of their films. Others who contributed great support include Betty Grable, Lupe Velez, Edgar Kennedy, Marjorie White, Warren Hymer, Louis Calhern, Billy Gilbert and Noah Beery Sr., among others.

Plan9Crunch: What's your favorite Wheeler and Woolsey film and why?

Watz: I have two favorites: PEACH-O-RENO, in which Bert contributes a brilliant comedy performance in drag that matches for perfection Jack Lemmon's work in SOME LIKE IT HOT; and COCKEYED CAVALIERS, a period picture set in Restoration England where Bob Woolsey romances beautiful Thelma Todd and the team becomes involved in court intrigue when a jealous Baron (Noah Beery) mistakes the pair of the King's royal physicians. CAVALIERS is very much a blueprint for the "Road" comedies of the next decade. It has a solid plot with their best individual comedy scenes, plus it never meanders, moving swiftly and logically to a hilarious chase climax.

Plan9Crunch: They had a breakneck pace of making films in the 1930s. Was that a reflection of their popularity, and did it have an impact of wearing Robert down to an early death?

Watz: Wheeler & Woolsey were among RKO's biggest box office attractions from 1930 through 1935. Once the studio realized that big profits were to be made on their inexpensively produced films, they wasted no time in churning them out. Five W&W films were produced in 1930 alone. Ten years later, Universal put its new comedy team Abbott & Costello through a similar assembly-line production schedule. Bert and Bob, like Bud and Lou later on, finally rebelled and within a few years would restrict their output to two films a year.

Bob Woolsey was never a healthy person, and the tough filmmaking schedules (and later, personal appearance tours) doubtless wore him out. On top of that, he was an insomniac, and drank to put himself to sleep. Although Bob's death at age 50 was announced as due to kidney failure, Bert Wheeler attested that Woolsey died from cirrhosis of the liver.

Plan9Crunch: The pair seem mismatched but they click very well. Bert's lovesick charm with Robert's wisecracks and schemes. Why does it work and does it compare with other comedy teams? What can we learn about comedy from watching them today? They play often on Turner Classic Movies.

Watz: I think the takeaway one can get from watching Wheeler & Woolsey in their best films is that the world of 1930s comedy was much more diverse than just Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, and The Marx Brothers. Besides W&W, there are many great comedians like Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Joe E. Brown, Edgar Kennedy, and Leon Errol, to name a few, waiting to be rediscovered. Harry Langdon's work in talkies is a revelation; I know of some people who prefer his sound films to his more celebrated silents. In Wheeler & Woolsey's case, they provide us with a time capsule representing some of the best (and most delightful) of 1930s Musical Comedy. I'm pleased that Turner Classic Movies continues to show their films, and the success of my W&W book (over 3,000 copies sold) tells me that people do want to know and see more of Wheeler and Woolsey.

Plan9Crunch: Bert had a rough career after Woolsey's death and the end of the films. He did stay active, including in summer stock. Was he typecast from the earlier films, or was he a comedian who needed a partner?

Watz: There's one thing I'd like to address now. To be honest, Bert was disenchanted with film work towards the end of the Wheeler & Woolsey cycle. He preferred the live stage and returned to it as often as he could, the late films he did appear in where basically done when it was convenient and/or for quick cash. Like Abbott & Costello, Keaton, Langdon, John Barrymore, Chico Marx and other performers of that time, he had little regard for money and enjoyed spending it as quickly as it came in. What Wheeler did not take into account was that his absence from a mass media outlet like film, radio and later television basically ensured that he was overlooked by the public at large. When the film careers of other popular 1930s comedians stalled (Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Burns & Allen), they had already made inroads into radio and easily adapted to television, ensuring their popularity into the 1950s and beyond.

That said, it doesn't seem to have fazed Bert when in the latter half of the 1950s the major stage opportunities were few and the television work became an ever-rarer opportunity. "I make as much as I need," he replied when Jack O'Brian inquired about his well-being in the 1960s. I truly believe that he looked back on his career content and with great satisfaction, not bitterness.


We really appreciate Ed sharing his insights on Wheeler and Woolsey with Plan9Crunch and its readers and we look forward to his new book on Buster Keaton.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy best as a familial biography

Review by Doug Gibson

It's been a long wait for a new biography, "Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy," (University Press of Kentucky, 2017). Author Gabriella Oldham began work on the project generations ago, with Langdon's wife, Mabel, who died in 2001. There was always talk of a biography from Mabel -- and indeed she is listed as a co-author, although the writing belongs to Oldham, a researcher of the silent film genre.

As noted early in the biography, an attempt is made to go beyond Langdon the showman and explore the businessman, the artist, the family man. And also his more "mature" years, after a career fall, that Oldham tells us produced a more humble man, able to plead for loans from friends, be closer to his family, and still thrill over a steady paycheck in front of or behind the camera. As Oldham notes, the book cover photo of Langdon (above) underscores her wish to present him in this serious light.

To be frank, the biography's main strength is in its familial tale of Harry and Mabel. The best parts of the book start when the pair are matched for a date. Their life anecdotes, clearly garnered from Mabel's recollections, convey a tale of two people who needed each other. He, impoverished by two divorces, worked hard for her and she, without a yen for the film industry, offered her husband a happy home and eventually a son, Harry Langdon Jr., who writes forward to the biography. (Harry Langdon Jr., now in his 80s, has enjoyed a successful career as a photographer.)

It's bittersweet that Langdon had to die with his son only 10 years old. As Oldham notes, having a wife and a son together with him was probably the happiest era of his life. Particularly enjoyable are accounts of Langdon, Mabel and baby Harry heading across to Australia where Langdon appeared in the play "Anything Goes." From there the family would eventually arrive in England where Langdon would act in one film and direct another.

There was a cheerful spontaneity to the family. When Harry wanted to make an effort to be on the stage in the  East Coast, Mabel quickly agreed to sell the house and leave, even if it meant leaving the piano with the new owners. The best parts of the book are accounts like this, including the very early years of Harry as a youngster in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he would put on plays, try to get into playhouses for adults and eventually, by his early teens, be a traveling performer.

Although I've read often of Langdon's death at age 60 in 1944 -- he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after a long day of soft shoe dancing for his final Columbia short, "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," the drama of the lingering days before his death is captured. As Oldham notes, he first thought he had a toothache. His descent must have been rapid because he was soon bedridden and unable to speak to his son or wife. Even then, as director Ed Bernds' notes reveal, his contemporaries were surprised he died.

I rarely am moved to tears, but Mabel's recollection of telling Harry Jr. that his father had died deeply touched this father of two sons, one deceased, the other 12. "He turned around, went to his room for over an hour, then came out as if I hadn't said anything at all." My heart breaks for the boy who began processing deep grief in that hour.

So, how does "Harry Langdon: King of Comedy" compare with two other biographies of Langdon, "Little Elf," by Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde, and William Schelly's "Harry Langdon: His Life and Films." This new book finishes third. There is, however, valuable information. The vaudeville years and his life with first wife, and acting partner, Rose, are covered quickly, but success with Mack Sennett and First National, followed by the fall, and the on-again off-again successes in sound cinema are not ignored.

The Frank Capra/Langdon  drama is interesting because Oldham, while certainly appropriately critical of Capra's less-than-truthful later observations of Langdon (the guy never seemed to get over being fired), also seems to infer that Langdon did indeed disrespect his gag man-turned-director. Anecdotes include Langdon's future second wife, Helen Walton, arrogantly sitting in Capra's director's chair, and an unpleasant scene where Langdon humiliates Capra for trying to get the star out for an extra shot in a scene.

Langdon had a swift fall at First National, and apparently it was ugly enough that Hal Roach verbally told Langdon he'd take none of the First National nonsense at his studio. Indeed, Langdon only lasted a season with Roach before moving to movies and shorts at other studios. He later worked a lot with Roach's studio behind the scenes and even starred with Oliver Hardy in "Zenobia."

Oldham is very critical of the Langdon-directed "Three's A Crowd" and "The Chaser," both flops. Langdon was also critical of "The Chaser" and the lost "Heart Trouble," his final First National film (and one film I dearly, desperately want found). Personally, I think the films Langdon had control over, "Long Pants," "Three's A Crowd," and "The Chaser" are more unique, cultish films than the hits, Harry Edwards' "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and Capra's "The Strong Man." But there's no denying that the first two films, fine movies, were more appealing to audiences.

Langdon was trying to take risks, to explore facets of his Little Elf character. Certainly a darker perspective was influenced by collaborator Arthur Ripley, but Langdon was the star, the director, the man responsible for the money. He lost First National several hundred thousand dollars with the final four films. I do agree with the assessment that Langdon was trying too hard to perfect individual parts of his movies at the expense of the overall success of the whole film. Audiences wanted underdog stories of the Elf overcoming adversity and getting the girl. They didn't want tragic and loveless endings for the Elf. Neverthless, "Three's A Crowd" is a surreal, dreamlike set masterpiece and it's an outrage that it's never aired on Turner Classic Movies.

Langdon was far more successful professionally than many might be aware of in the sound era. He made at least 30 shorts (several are lost), a lot of movies, including the big-budget "Zenobia" and "Hallelujah I'm a Bum," was on the stage a lot (as was Buster Keaton, another sound-era success), was a gag man with Roach, worked overseas, and was still headlining shorts and appearing in B movies until he died. Though most of his shorts were with Columbia, his best overall work was with Educational Pictures, with independent producer/director Arvid E. Gillstrom, of Mermaid Pictures.

These shorts, and some can be found at YouTube, are very strong. They often co-feature Langdon's close friend, Vernon Dent, who had worked with him since his silent Sennett days. Two I highly recommend are "The Hitchhiker" and "Knight Duty," but about all the Gillstrom films are great. (One can see Charles Chaplin's "City Lights" street sets in Gillstrom/Langdon/Dent's "The Big Flash.") Eventually Paramount released Gillstrom's shorts, which was a boon for Harry and Dent, who were almost becoming a team. But Gillstrom died, so the series ended and alas, today the Paramount Gillstrom shorts are lost. Most feature Harry and Vernon in roles similar to what Laurel and Hardy might do. One can only hope these Paramount shorts are one day discovered. What we do know is that there were no serious future efforts to co-star the two stars, although they appeared in films together often.

Late in his life, Harry, with good humor referred to his Columbia shorts, heavy on slapstick, as 'O Ouch O" comedies. Some are still pretty good. I enjoy "Tireman Spare My Tires," with Louise Currie, "To Heir is Human" with Una Merkel, and "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," with El Brendel, with whom Harry made several shorts. Harry also starred in a few low-budget comedy programmers for Monogram and PRC, the best of which is "Misbehaving Husbands," produced by Jed Buell, who ironically was the first filmmaker to sign vaudeville star Langdon almost 20 years earlier.

I've spoken very positively of the new biography. Overall, I like it. But there is one flaw that must be corrected in a Kindle version or future editions. I discovered several factual errors that are embarrassing. I'll mention a few here. (The fact I found several just through my read of the book worries me that there are other errors I did not catch). I urge University Press of Kentucky to fix this. Errors include:

Writing that Vernon Dent was a co-star in "Three's A Crowd." It was Arthur Thalasso.

Claiming that Raymond Rohauer, the admirable film scholar, bought and restored "Plain Clothes." He didn't.

Writing that "His New Mamma" is a lost film. It is not. I watched it yesterday.

Writing that "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" was a big monetary hit. It was not. It's a fine film but it went way over budget. The film was a major financial flop.

The Langdon short "Skirt Shy" is compared to "Saturday Afternoon" because Harry is dressed as a woman. I believe the author intended to use "The Chaser" and not "Saturday Afternoon."

These are errors easily corrected, like typos in a newspaper, and they shouldn't take away from what is an enjoyable biography worthy of a spot in a bookcase. Like my other Langdon books, I'll read it often, but I hope the errors are corrected.

Langdon was a marvel of an actor; a minimalist genius, able to bring laughter and pathos to the smallest gestures and eye glances. He appropriately joins Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the four greatest silent comedy stars. His silent shorts, with Dent, "Saturday Afternoon," and "All Night Long," are among the best made. This biography has many photos of Langdon, his family and peers, as well as much of his artwork; he was a talented artist. (In fact, I just got a copy of The Harry Langdon Scrapbook, with lots of photos and text from Langdon Jr. It was released last fall and we will review it soon at Plan9Crunch).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter brings the best giant killer bunnies movie

By Steve D. Stones

If I didn't know any better, I could have easily mistaken “Night of The Lepus” for a Bert I. Gordon movie. Gordon, aka “Mr. B.I.G.,” is known for low-budget 1950s and ’60s science-fiction films that explore the theme of gigantism — giant grasshoppers, ants, mice, spiders, teenagers, and even a giant 50-foot man in a diaper, which is “The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957)

But in 1972’s “Night of The Lepus,” Rory Calhoun stars as Cole Hillman, a rancher whose property in Arizona is being invaded by a herd of rabbits. Hillman calls on the help of two zoologists — Roy and Gerry Bennett, played by Janet Leigh and Stuart Whitman — to control the rabbit population.

Roy and Gerry suggest controlling the population of rabbits through hormone injections instead of poisoning the herds. Their daughter Amanda switches one of the hormone-injected rabbits with another rabbit. The hormone-injected rabbit gets free and grows to a giant size. The rabbit's offspring also grows to a giant size and takes over the Hillman ranch.

Animal rights activists should steer clear of this film. Many scenes show the impact of gunfire on rabbits when it hits their bodies, even though it is fake. An opening sequence shows stock footage of ranchers with shotguns chasing after and rounding up herds of rabbits.

“Night of The Lepus” was filmed in Arizona with domesticated rabbits set against miniature sets and actors dressed in rabbit costumes. The film fails to depict rabbits as scary or threatening in any way. The furry critters come across as cute and cuddly, just like the Easter Bunny.

Enjoy an offbeat Easter by catching this flick tonight, April 15, 2017 on Turner Classic Movies at 9:30 p.m. MST.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hurray for 'Hollywood Hotel'

Review by Doug Gibson

I love the opening scene in "Hollywood Hotel," 1937, in which a perky, cute, girl next door type of hotel operator brightly says, "Hollywood Hotel!" The unnamed actress, in a few scenes, captures the innocent energy of this ensemble musical.

"Hollywood Hotel" is best known as the film that first featured the iconic song, "Hurray for Hollywood." The Busby Berkeley-directed film, lots of songs and Benny Goodman's band, is one of the type of films that were popular in the first decade after talkies replaced silent -- the upbeat, girl and guy makes good musicals with literally dozens of stars, billed and unbilled, in the cast. These films likely cheered up Depression era audiences, allowing escapism.

The plot involves handsome saxophonist Ronny Bowers (Dick Powell) who gets a 10-week contract from All-Star Pictures. He gets a great send off and once in Tinsel Town is shuffled aside. After Ronnie is used to be the escort of a stand in actress (Rosemary Lane) impersonating a temperamental star (Lois Lane) who won't go to her premiere, he's fired and paid off  by the studio after the angry star learns of the deception.

"Hollywood Hotel," however, is one of those films in which you know all's going to turn out well in the end. Ronnie becomes a singing waiter. He and the stand in are already falling in love, and a plan is hatched to make Bowers a star. He's allied in this by wisecracking, often disparaged photographer Fuzzy Boyle, played by the great Ted Healy, who tries his hand at being an agent to help Ronnie. 

Eventually, the path to stardom for Ronnie begins with an appearance at a popular radio show called Hollywood Hotel, hosted by Louella Parsons. Hollywood Hotel was a real show with actors recreating scenes. Parsons plays herself in the film.

I won't give away the rest of the plot except to say that at the end, Ronnie is re-signed by All Star Pictures at a higher salary! As mentioned, there are guest appearances galore by stars. I enjoyed seeing a pre-star Ronald Reagan as a radio broadcaster and veteran comedy character actor Hugh Herbert, with his "woo woos," as the temperamental star's father.


But my favorite character in the film, and the reason I'm reviewing it, is Ted Healy's Fuzzy Boyle, celebrity photographer turned celebrity agent. His comedy relief is more appropriate in this type of film than his still talented turn in the truly horrifying pre-code horror "Mad Love." He's wonderful in the role, with crackling dialogue and strong comic timing. An example is an early scene where photographer Boyle uses his wit to con his way past a guard who wants to keep him away from a celebrity shoot. The scene is as polished as any comedy team's best work and I wonder if Healy had honed such a scene long ago on vaudeville. Scenes of Healy loyally working the waiting tables with Bowers and trying to boost his career are very entertaining. So are his scenes as an unenthusiastic potential romantic partner of the strikingly odd but funny actress Mabel Todd. Attractive blonde Glenda Farrell also has a small role.

The one drawback is that Healy, still a young 40, looks 10 years older. He would die soon after his 41st birthday in December 1937. He was beaten badly in a brawl while out on the town. For years it was suspected that his injuries killed him. However, it is more likely that years of hard living and neglected health contributed more to his death. Healy biographer Bill Cassara noted in his recent biography that kidney failure was a major cause of his death.

UPDATE! Bill Cassara, in a mention on a Facebook post, has provided the answer to who plays the Hollywood Hotel operator: (she's actually in the credits).

"And now the "mystery woman" of the opening seconds can be revealed: It was Duane Thompson who also started off the radio program of "Hollywood Hotel" with the same cheerful opening. For Vernon Dent fans, she used to be Vernon's little leading lady when he starred in the Folly Comedies back in 1921. Her stage name then was 'Violet Joy.'" ... ME: I wasn't looking for the name Duane.

Below, watch the opening scene of "Hollywood Hotel, along with the pretty telephone operator.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Deadly Mantis - Giant Mantis Breaks Free From Frozen Arctic

By Steve D. Stones

Here we have another entertaining giant insect movie of the 1950s - released in 1957. The Deadly Mantis is certainly not the best of the giant bug movies, but it's still a fun, delightful science-fiction film, despite its many flaws.

Producer William Alland wrote The Deadly Mantis. Alland is best remembered as a reporter who investigates the meaning of "rosebud" in Orson Welles' 1941 film - Citizen Kane. Alland also produced a number of other 50s science-fiction cult classics, including -  This Island Earth (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956) and The Colossus of New York (1958).

The opening of The Deadly Mantis treats us to a boring classroom-like lecture about the three radar stations in Canada - the Pinetree radar line, mid-Canada radar fence and the Dew line. Much like the opening of Alland's - The Mole People (1956) which opens with a boring lecture about the layers of the earth, this opening sequence seems a bit unnecessary, as if to pad out the length of the movie.

A volcano erupts in the South Seas, causing the polar ice caps to shift. A giant praying mantis, frozen in the ice for millions of years, breaks free from a melting iceberg at the North Pole. The giant mantis eventually makes his way to Washington D. C. and New York City by the end of the film.

A weather shack outpost on the dew line in Canada spots a blip on the radar detection. Something large attacks the shack, leaving no trace of the two men inside. Colonel Joe Parkman, played by Craig Stevens, investigates the attack, finding large skid marks leading up to the shack - as if something giant crashed into the shack.

Parkman is later called to look at a crashed  C-47 jet plane near the site of the wrecked weather shack. A large green colored wedge shaped object is found lodged in the plane. Parkman takes the giant wedge back to the Pentagon in Washington D. C. to be examined.

The Pentagon calls in Paleontologist Ned Jackson, played by William Hopper, to examine the wedge object. Jackson concludes that the object could not have come from an animal, but is most likely the giant spur from an insect leg. This conclusion is later verified when a giant praying mantis attacks a military barracks in the Arctic. The rest of the film is an attempt by the military to track down and destroy the giant mantis.

What puzzles me about The Deadly Mantis is why the producers of the film decided to have the giant mantis make a loud roaring sound like King Kong (1933) when it attacks its victims. This sound effect is very laughable. The Deadly Mantis also makes a loud, mechanical vibrating sound when it flies. These sound effects are not effective, to say the least, and could have been made much better.

Most close up shots show a rigid, slow-moving mantis, with little movement from its legs and body. Perhaps the most effective shot of the mantis is in a sequence in which a real mantis is used to climb up a miniature model of the Washington Monument at the National Mall in Washington D. C.

In 2008, Universal Studios Home Entertainment released The Deadly Mantis on DVD as part of a two volume box set of Universal films from the 1950s. This is a great set to have for any fan of 1950s science-fiction. The set contains The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) , The Leech Woman (1960), The Land Unknown (1957), Cult of The Cobra (1955), and six other titles. A must have for any serious fan of science-fiction cinema. Watch the trailer here. Happy viewing.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Teenagers from Outer Space -- wooden-acted cult manna

By Steve D. Stones

If it wasn’t for the wooden acting and poor production values, the 1959 sci-fi film "Teenagers From Outer Space" could pass with flying colors as a well-made, entertaining piece of celluloid. The film was distributed by Warner Brothers, which seems a bit odd, considering most low budget sci-fi films of the 50s era could never get a major studio like Warner Brothers to fund or distribute their product. The film couldn’t be placed in the Ed Wood School of bad acting and film making because, from a technical stand-point, its cinematography is well done, and the actors seem to take their dialogue very seriously. Many have suggested that this film could be a blueprint for the Terminator films, since the plot is one long chase sequence.

A group of teenage aliens led by actor King Moody land their spaceship somewhere in the Hollywood hills to place a gargon creature from their planet to harvest for food. Gargons have to be raised a safe distance from their planet. The gargon showed on screen is nothing more than a lobster in a cage.

Gargons grow to a million times their original size. One teenager named Derek, played by David Love, insists that the gargon creatures not be placed on planet earth because he has found evidence of intelligent life in the form of a dog. The dog is blasted with a ray gun by Thor, one of the other teenage aliens. All the aliens in the ship wear overalls that look like an auto mechanic might be wearing.

Derek insists that gargons not be raised on earth as he threatens the rest of the alien crew with his ray gun. Derek escapes, and Thor is assigned to chase after him and bring him back to the ship. Derek finds his way to a Hollywood neighborhood where he lodges with an attractive young girl named Betty and her grandfather. Betty and her grandfather naively accept that Derek is dressed in a strange outfit, and carries no luggage with him.

The rest of the film is a long, drawn out chase between Thor and Derek. While hunting for Derek, Thor blasts a gas station attendant, a sexy girl in a swimming pool (what was he thinking?), a college professor and a couple of police detectives with a focusing disintegrator ray-gun. Thor stops at nothing to find Derek and bring him back to the spaceship. The ray gun shines a reflective ray as the actor points the front of it in direct sunlight.

In a clich├ęd subplot, Derek falls in love with Betty, played by Dawn Anderson. Eventually Derek has to tell Betty that he is not of this earth. She is not too concerned, and maintains her love for him. The two go scouting for Thor’s ray gun after he is thrown from a car in a chase.

As Derek and Betty search for the ray gun near Thor’s car crash, a giant rear projected lobster (i.e. a gargon) appears on screen to attack the couple. Derek conveniently finds Thor’s ray gun in a bush and blasts the rear projected lobster as it falls to the ground.

The entire film has a Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet innocence to it that seems appropriate for the era. Some of the music used in the film can be heard in George Romero’s 1968 film – Night of The Living Dead, and Robert Clarke’s 1959 film – The Hideous Sun Demon. Director Tom Graeff cast himself as a newspaper reporter. Some accounts suggest that he cast David Love in the role of Derek because the two were gay lovers at the time. Neither of the two men went on to make a living in films in Hollywood. Scary Monsters Magazine #88 has devoted the issue to Teenagers From Outer Space, with interviews and articles about the film and surviving cast members and crew. The film is now in the public domain, and can be found in many DVD packs with other low-budget 1950s sci-fi titles. Happy Viewing.