Thursday, June 28, 2018

See America Thirst a pre-code comedy with Harry Langdon, Slim Summerville

Review by Doug Gibson

Back in California, and that means a trip to UCLA’s Film & Television Archive to view a mostly-lost film. Harry Langdon was the subject again (two years ago I saw and reviewed My Weakness). This time I viewed a version of Harry’s 1930 Universal “buddy-comedy” film, See America Thirst, directed by William James Craft. It’s a thrill for me to see Harry’s hard-to-find films; next on my bucket list will be a trip to the Library of Congress to see the Hal Roach shorts that lack sound discs.

Speaking of sound, one mild disappointment is that the archive’s print lacked any. And the print I viewed was clearly a sound print. There was way too much talking, and no titles that would have clued a silent version. I know that a version of See America Thirst with sound has played film festivals. I don’t know if UCLA has it or it was my fault when I requested the film. Did I choose a silent version?

The print was in very poor shape, muddy, blurry at times with a couple of vertical jumps and rough transitions. But that didn’t bother me, it adds to the excitement of  viewing a film that is virtually lost and appreciation to the archive for preserving it.

So, here’s my synopsis of the film. To help overcome the dialogue loss, I re-read my friend Ed Watz’ recap of the film in my friend Michael Hayde's biography of Langdon with Chuck Harter, The Little Elf. I also received some input from another friend, artist Nicole Arciola, who has seen the sound version of See America Thirst.

Harry and co-star Slim Summerville are hobos on a train. They get kicked off and try to regroup. They see some sheep and find ducks. Later they encounter an inquisitive police officer. Harry tries to hide the duck (similar to a scene in “Tramp Tramp Tramp”) and fails. The cop chases them and the hobos hide in the back of a truck that is carrying bootleg liquor and driven by hoodlums. A pair of other hoodlums in a vehicle chase them. Gunfire ensues. Harry and Slim are oblivious to it all. A carrying bag falls into the back. Alcohol leaks onto both hobos and they get drunk. A grenade in the back goes off and the vehicle explodes on a bridge. Harry and Slim fall into a river. Harry swims with exaggerated speed to the shore. (Reading Watz I learned that Harry said he couldn’t swim and Summerville said he’d better learn fast.) On the shore the pair discover the bag that fell into the back. It is stuffed with a fortune in cash. As Arciola noted to me, Harry says “Money money money” in much the same manner he did in the last film he made, Pistol Packin’ Nitwits.

Now rich, the former hobos are living it up, renting vehicles, dressed to the nines and going to gangster nightclubs. But the money belonged to the Spumoni crime family and the boss wants it back. After telling the hood who lost the money to take a gun and kill himself (which leads to a lame joke from the returning hood that he missed), Spumoni assigns a hired killer to take out Harry and Summerville at the nightclub.
Singing at the nightclub is a beautiful blonde, played by starlet of the era Bessie Love, who is also apparently a hoodlum’s moll. She’s very scantily dressed in the pre-code manner. After her song the killer approaches the pair. Once they are aware they are being hunted, Harry trembles. Ironically, shaking is a trait used by an even more fearsome killer who is hunting the hired killer. Believing that both Harry and Summerville want to kill them, the hoods pay a fortune to Harry and Summerville so THEY WON’T KILL THEM. (During this scene, a sign in the nightclub switches from TAXI, to AMBULANCE, and finally to HEARSE. The humorous sign switch is supposed to indicate the peril facing Harry and Summerville).

What follows is a series of sometimes amusing scenes where Harry and Summerville are catered to by the hoods, encounter “gangster-friendly” lodgings with armored protection for the beds and disguised platters of food that really contain weapons that fire when the covering is removed. One sequence that lasts way too long, losing its comedy value due to the poor pacing, is Summerville discovering cannons that move and jut outside the windows of a high-rise. Harry, sitting on a cannon, almost falls off, then Summerville almost falls off, and they eventually create a sort of bridge that allows them to hop to another floor. Also, the pair romance the beautiful blonde (Bessie Love) who tells then she’s really a law enforcement agent trying to gather evidence against the Spumonis.

As the film nears its climax, the Spumoni leader, vacationing in Florida, meets up with the real killer they think Harry is. As a result, all the gangsters in Chicago, Spumoni and the rival gang, team up to kill Harry and Summerville, who are in an armored vehicle on the street, expecting, with Bessie Love, to see and be protected from a gang fight. Instead all the gangsters head for the vehicle.

It seems all over for Harry and Summerville, except (and sans sound I’m unsure a bit of how this developed) a professor has invented knockout gas that can be sprayed on the bad guys. Harry and Slim manage to do this and leave all the gangsters unconscious on the streets. (Now Ed Watz is no fan of this film, but he acknowledges that a scene in which Harry, who has run out of the gas -- accepts that his finger used as a spray gun has knocked out the bad guys – is well done. Actually, Summerville is on a canopy spraying away. It is a funny “Little Elf” moment in the film.

Another strong moment in the film is when near the end where Harry, expecting to see his beloved Bessie Love, encounters her in the arms of her fiancé, the District Attorney. This is very similar in pathos to the same type of scene in “Three’s  A Crowd.”

The epilogue involves the pair, with ragged clothes after the battle, discovering that the carrying case full of money now has no money; they lost it. In another decent “Little Elf” moment, Harry wags his finger in disapproval at Summerville, and money comes out of his cuffs. It’s discovered that the money is sown into Harry’s clothes. The pair leave still rich. The End.

Watz is correct in his assessment that the 75-minute film is at times poorly paced. Some of the gags are very forced but the last 10 minutes, in my opinion, are very strong. Watz believes the film is one of Harry’s worst performances. I can’t agree or disagree without hearing the sound. Just watching the visual action, Harry seems more expressive than Summerville, who is more of a straight man. Bessie Love is a very attractive presence, but her part is very small for a third-billed leading lady. Reviews that are cited in “The Little Elf” range from acceptable to the reviewers quite liking the film.

The viewer gets the impression that some of the comedy scenes may be based on vaudeville skits that Harry and Summerville maybe performed in the past. At least scenes are played as if they might have been vaudeville skits. Some of the pair’s banter when romancing Bessie Love plays like that as well as scenes such as the boys getting drunk.

The sets and locations in See America Thirst are above average. There are modernistic sets, particularly in the lodgings of the gangsters. The hoods are played for laughs, as is prohibition, which existed when the film was made. Even with a muddy print, Harry looks healthy and young in the film.

Some old hands in the cast include Stanley Fields and Tom Kennedy as well as a very young Walter Brennan.

If you are in Southern California, go to UCLA and see this film, and My Weakness. It’s not at all difficult to make an appointment to see these almost-lost movies, and the staff at the university library is very helpful. 

(The See America First photos used in this review are courtesy of Richard Finegan).

Friday, June 22, 2018

Astro Zombies – A 1960s Horror, Science-Fiction and Spy Caper.

Astro Zombies (1968) is director Ted V. Mikels' best known film, although it's not his best film. Mikels wrote the screenplay, along with Wayne Rogers of TVs MASH. The film is a bit of a confusing mess but required viewing for any Mikels fan. The film appears to show elements typical of a 1960s spy film but then cuts to elements of horror and science-fiction. It's only redeeming value may be the scenes of buxom beauty Tura Satana lounging around in colorful sexy evening gowns smoking phallic cigarettes against the backdrop of bad 1960s furniture and décor.

Doctor DeMarco, played by cult actor John Carradine, is conducting secret experiments in his laboratory with the organs of murdered victims. He is testing a new thought wave transmission machine in an attempt to create Astro Zombies, which are super-human men who cannot be destroyed. DeMarco is assisted by his mute hunchback side-kick Franchot, played by William Bagdad. Franchot conducts some of his own experiments on beautiful young women with his spare time. Franchot is the stereotypical, cliched lab assistant that we can trace back to the Universal horror films of the 1930s.

Apparently, lovely Satana is the head of a spy ring who is determined to track down DeMarco and steal his secrets so she and the spy ring can build a race of super-human zombies bent on doing their will. This is where part of the confusion takes place in the film. At first, the viewer is lead to believe that Satana and her henchmen are working for DeMarco, at least this is how I viewed the film. It isn't until several minutes into the film that we realize that her operation has no ties to DeMarco, but is trying to track down DeMarco himself.

As film critic Welch Everman points out in his 1993 book – Cult Horror Films (Citadel Press), one of the most ridiculous scenes in the film shows an Astro Zombie running away from a rape scene with a flashlight inserted into a portal in his head. Apparently his brain was charged with battery power, and the flashlight serves to recharge his brain as he runs from the rape scene. It's an unintentionally funny scene, but nevertheless funny and ridiculous.

A continuity error shows Satana and her two sidekicks – Juan (Raphael Campos) and Tiros (Vincent Barbi) pulling into an underground parking structure to confront some CIA agents. As the car pulls into a parking spot, the camera shows the car overlapping two parking stalls. When the scene cuts back to the parked car, it is pulled perfectly into one parking stall. These odd bits of continuity problems make for interesting cult movie viewing.

Watch for a scene in the film of shirtless director Mikels playing drums on stage with a painted nude dancer against a psychedelic backdrop. Much of the music used in the film is the same library music used in the 1950s science-fiction classic - Missile To The Moon (1958). Astro Zombies was also titled Space Vampires, although there are no vampires in the film. Happy viewing!

-- Steve D. Stones

Friday, June 15, 2018

My Weakness with Harry Langdon as Cupid

By Doug Gibson

I emptied a small part of my bucket list today. As readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of Harry Langdon, and I've long wanted to see one of his films that is generally off limits to the general public. "My Weakness," a 1933 Fox film that's heavily influenced by "Pygmalion" -- in which Harry plays "Dan Cupid," and serves to narrate and both fronts and bookends the film's tale -- is an almost lost film, preserved by UCLA's film archive, and sometimes shown at festivals, but not Turner Classic Movies. (I know, I've kept a close eye hoping it'd show on the schedule.)

With the Gibson family in Southern California this week, I contacted UCLA several weeks ago, asking for a chance to see "My Weakness." I was surprised at how easy it was, after a couple of emails, I had reserved a two week window to see the film.

Today, I went to the Powell library to the film section, presented my "credentials," and I was ushered into a small viewing room with a DVD remote. The film came on the screen on its own, I was able to start, stop, rewind, and so on. My smart phone was not allowed, so no still shots in this review are from me.

Because the film is not available for easy-access viewing, this review will contain a synopsis of sorts, along with my observations, most at the end. First, "My Weakness" is a sexy, pre-code comedy/romance musical, with several scenes that include attractive women in their underclothes (see still below this paragraph), scenes that would be forbidden in just a couple of years. It's one of the Berkeley-like romps where all the characters are generally harmless and despite the travails, one never doubts that things will work out in the end. Witty repartee mingles with romantic triangles and intrigue, and rhymes and songs join in.

Harry Langdon starts the film off as Cupid, walking out from the clouds, playing his harp and speaking in rhymes. With the familiar white makeup, he looks as young as the Little Elf of the Sennett years. He introduces a tale of love that required a lot of work.

We enter into the domain of Ellery Gregory (Henry Travers), owner of a bra company. Ellery, who proves later to be a bit of a randy old man, is telling his nephew, Ronnie Gregory (Lew Ayres, a star of "All Quiet On The Western Front") that he's cut him off money-wise, and by the way, he's engaged to Ronnie's old squeeze, Jane Holman (Irene Bentley). Ronnie is a playboy, you see, always with what Ellery calls a "harem."

With both is a spunky but rather bedraggled maid named Looloo Blake (Lilian Harvey) who tells them almost fiercely that she wants "to get up in the world" and marry a rich man. Ellery, amused by the maid, tells Ronnie he'll put him back on the payroll if he can turn Looloo into a high-society woman and get her married to a rich man.

Initially, Ronnie isn't too impressed with Looloo, who complains about her taxi-driving boyfriend Maxie, (Sid Silvers). In fact, Ronnie brushes her off after a quick observation of her trying to attract men.

We go back to Harry Langdon as Cupid, who observing the affairs, says "I kind of feel something for this gal." Harry is also eating what looks like a candy bar.

Meanwhile, Ronnie goes to his frumpy, humorless cousin Gerald (Charles Butterworth) to plead his case and gets a firm "No. No. No." from Gerald whose passions are stamp collecting and carrots. Langdon's Cupid has already informed us that he's given up on Gerald. Later, while Ronnie is relating his money problems with a group of beautiful women friends (one is played by Irene Ware, of "The Raven), he gets the idea to take up Ellery's challenge. He'll try to match Looloo with his drab cousin Gerald. They think it will be a great joke on Ellery.

Looloo is walking with Maxie, in the rain, with Maxie only keeping himself dry under the umbrella. Looloo tells him she wants the cream of life. He replies, "Don't forget, the cream of today is the cheese of tomorrow."

Looloo goes back to Ronnie and pleads her case for him to help her. "OK, you win, come here," Ronnie says. He takes her to his girlfriends, who cluck over how dowdy she looks but agree that there are possibilities for her. What's interesting about this scene as it unfolds is that Ronnie and the girls talk in rhyme. Oftentimes in the film characters, including Langdon, speak in couplets. It reminds of the Langdon film "Hallelujah I'm a Bum."

At this point the film delves into pre-code as Looloo undresses for the girls while Ronnie discreetly has his back turned.

Two months have passed, and Looloo has been transformed into a stunning beauty. She's also carrying a torch for Ronnie. She often talks to his picture, and in a scene that's quite funny and poignant, she takes every opportunity to learn to kiss, using Ronnie to learn. Ronnie, however, is oblivious to the romantic signs Looloo is giving. All he can think about is making sure Looloo appeals to Gerald so he'll be back in good financial graces with uncle. About as far as his emotion will go is to say, "Hello Looloo, the girls tell me you've been making great headway."

Before the kissing scene, Harry Langdon's Cupid appears again in a well-shot scene, I think when the girls are making over Looloo, where he flies (with wings) into a room and leads a chorus of singing figurines, human and animals, flasks, salt shakers, figures of frogs, etc., even Rodin's The Thinker, all are singing, even photos of stars, including Will Rogers and Clara Bow.

The group goes to a fashion show, where Looloo will hopefully successfully woo Gerald. As Looloo, looking beautiful, moves down the stairway, she stumbles and falls. When she asks Ronnie if anyone noticed, he says "only 300 or 400."

Ronnie preps Looloo to woo Gerald. "If he asks you anything you don't understand, just say, 'what do you think.'"  There is a song and then a procession of fashion models. Looloo is introduced to Gerald, and later goes outside with him. She tries to get him attracted to her but he is uninterested in her until she tells him she loves carrots at midnight. So does Gerald, and he falls madly in love with Looloo.

Harry Langdon's Cupid occasionally comes in to offer commentary with lines such as "Didn't I tell you he was a tough guy" and "Now let's look at the old softie." As the plot continues, Looloo gets a marriage proposal from Gerald she really doesn't want.

After being brushed off by Ronnie, who is still unaware of her feelings, a hurt and angry Looloo swears off all men, causing both Gerald and Maxie to go off and cry together as men who love Looloo in vain. In an amusing scene, Gerald asks Maxie advice on suicide, but it only results in Gerald getting slugged and falling on Maxie.

Eventually old man Ellery also falls in love with Looloo, (He doesn't know she's the maid who sparked his challenge to Ronnie, although he learns it later.) Ellery, drunk on a highball, even proposes to Looloo. Ronnie starts to feel regret as to how he brushed off Looloo, and tells the old man he's now ready to take a job. I'm condensing a lot here but it all ends in a rather witty fashion with Ronnie, now in love, using advice he once gave Looloo to win her heart.( This includes pulling up his pant leg and telling her he has a rip in his stocking. ...)

In the penultimate scene, Ronnie and Looloo share a long kiss of requited love and in the final scene, Harry, framed in a heart, tells the audience, "Well, I put it over, didn't I," and promises to do it again, and again, and again.

I had 12 pages of synopsis notes and left out most of the latter pages but for a more complete plot outline, go to the Langdon biography, Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon. Langdon, fourth billed, is very good in a relatively small role. This was in an era where Harry was testing the waters as an actor in large-budget films. He was in "A Soldier's Plaything," "Hallelujah I'm a Bum," and "See America Thirst" besides "My Weakness." Harry was already working in comedy shorts with Educational, and eventually he'd move out of bigger-budgets, doing shorts for Columbia as well as roles, starring and otherwise, in a succession of B films, with the exception of A-picture "Zenobia" with Oliver Hardy.

Although I have no complaints with Harry as Cupid, it might have been intriguing to see him as the bland brother Gerald. It would have been interesting to see that character as the "elf," guided by situations and developments with little outward emotion except small gestures. However, the elf would have had to end with some woman, if not Looloo, at least one of Ronnie's harem. Gerald, of course, gets no girl in this film.

British-born Lilian Harvey was being groomed for stardom by Fox. It never occurred. She has screen presence and is very beautiful, and sings well, but her speaking voice seems a tad weak. However, I was watching a poor quality DVD of "My Weakness" with at times fuzzy resolution and jumps in the film, so she might have been better on the big screen. Her screen career ended about 1940. She was a contract player with Germany's UFA and World War II made her a foe of the Nazis.

Lew Ayres was made a star in "All Quiet On the Western Front" and does fine as the romantic lead, although he's no competition for Clark Gable. Ayres had a remarkably long career, working until a couple of years of his death, in roles so diverse as guest spots on "The Love Boat" and a "Hart to Hart" TV movie.

Another good role was Adrian Rosley as Baptiste, a valet or manservant who provides moral support for the leads. And Bentley as Jane Holman is tartly good too. The film was directed by David Butler, who also directed Shirley Temple movies, as well as "The Road to Morocco" with Hope and Crosby and did a lot of TV directing, including "Leave It to Beaver."

This is a nice movie with a choice role for Langdon as Cupid. It deserves to have easier access for fans of pre-code musical comedies and Harry Langdon. I urge readers to keep placing it on a request list on TCM website and maybe we'll get a high-quality, cleaned up print on TCM in the near future.

Below is a song, "Gather Lip Rouge While You May," which was sung in "My Weakness."

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Three cheers for traditional horror, boo to torture porn

This column by Doug Gibson was originally published in the Aug. 1, 2007 Standard-Examiner. It includes a plug for Ed Wood's 1955 wonderfully creaky mad scientist seeks revenge shocker, "Bride of the Monster," starring Bela Lugosi, in his final substantive role. It also starred Tor Johnson, a Wood regular. Ed co-wrote, produced and directed "Bride." It was sneaked, incredibly, with Deborah Kerr's "The End of the Affair!" (At left, Tor Johnson menaces Loretta King in "Bride.")

Dump the 'torture porn' and enjoy an old 'chiller'

by Doug Gibson

Scary cinema is fad-based. We had the creature-features of 60 and 70 years ago ("Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Wolf Man"), then the atomic, science fiction thrillers ("The Thing," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"). Alfred Hitchcock was a genre himself in the 1960s and early '70s with "Psycho," "The Birds" and "Frenzy."

Gore films were the fad as I grew up. It started with George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," gained momentum with Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and sort of peaked with Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," a clever satire of consumerism.

When I was a teen, John Carpenter's very scary, and slyly amusing, "Halloween" kicked off the "slasher film" fad. "Nightmare on Elm Street" kept that going, and the dreadful "Friday the 13th" started a string of even worse summer camp slasher movies — anyone remember "Sleepaway Camp" or "The Dorm that Dripped Blood?" Unfortunately, I do.

I stopped watching new horror films in the early 1990s. The movies stopped being original to me, although — hate to say this, maybe I just got tired of blood and guts. Today, if I want to see a scary movie, I choose a spooky ghost story, such as "The Others" or "The Sixth Sense" or "Haunted," a low-budget 1995 chiller.

Regarding today's fad — torture porn, such as "Saw" and "Hostel": Not only do I avoid that junk, I'm already planning strategies so my children will spurn it.
In my 40s now, I find myself enjoying old, forgotten films, tiny-budget cheapies from the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. I saw these titles in the 1970s' TV Guide, listed after midnight on Los Angeles' several independent TV stations.

A few I got to watch; most I missed. But I never forgot them: "The Ape Man," "Bowery at Midnight," "Scared to Death," "Murder By Television," "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Carnival of Souls," "The Man with Nine Lives," "King of the Zombies." The studios that made these films — Republic, Monogram, Producers Releasing Corporation, Golden Gate Pictures, Lasky-Monka — they're long gone.

The films have ceased their ubiquitous presence on late-night TV, except rare dates with Turner Classic Movies and UEN's local Sci-Fi Friday movies. But you can buy them all on DVD now — some for a buck. (NEW ADDITION ... a lot of them are on Blu Ray.)

Still, it's sort of sad. As I explain to my skeptical wife, there is a sense of community watching one of these old movies on TV. We're an audience — unseen and far apart — but nevertheless, fans sharing a great film. You don't get that feeling when you watch a film on disc or tape.

For what it's worth, a few recommendations — by decade — of these old chillers. Are they scary? Most, frankly, no. But they are original, with ambitious plots that go as far as a small budget allows.

The 1930s
"White Zombie" — This 1932 film stars Bela Lugosi as "Murder Legendre," an evil sorcerer who helps a rich, selfish young man lure a young couple to an island. The selfish man loves the woman, but his plan to win her backfires when the woman is turned into a zombie by Legendre. The film's chills still hold up, particularly the scene of zombies toiling in a sugar mill and the atmospheric castle against a cliff.

The 1940s
"Strangler of the Swamp" — Made in 1948, this atmospheric thriller involves a man, hanged for a murder he didn't commit, who returns as a ghost and assumes the role of ferryman at the swamp. Instead of ferrying passengers, he strangles locals in revenge. Finally, a young woman (Rosemary LaPlanche) prepares to offer herself as a sacrifice to get the ghost to leave. The strangler (Charles Middleton) was "Emperor Ming" in the old "Flash Gordon" serials.

The 1950s "Bride of the Monster" — This 1955 film is probably the best Ed Wood directed. Sure, that's not saying much, but an emaciated, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi is still good as embittered, exiled mad scientist Eric Vornoff, who "vill perfect ... a race of atomic supermen vich vill conquer the vorld!" Wood staple Tor Johnson, a 400-pound wrestler, is also in the movie. The low budget includes a photo enlarger as an atomic energizer and a rubber octopus as the monster of the marsh.

The 1960s
"Spider Baby: Or the Maddest Story Ever Told" — This comedy/horror is creepy. It stars a very old Lon Chaney Jr. as the caretaker for an insane family. They suffer from a syndrome that causes them to degenerate into children, then babies, then prehuman savages. Relatives come to the house to institutionalize the family. It proves to be a long, horrific night. "Spider Baby" was filmed in 1964 but not released until 1968. Chaney Jr., who could barely talk due to his advanced alcoholism, actually sings the title song.

Gibson is the Standard-Examiner's assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at