Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Magic Sword – A fantasy adventure from director Bert I. Gordon


At a time in the 1960s when Italian sword and sandal action films dominated the drive-in movie screens, American director Bert I. Gordon created this medieval fantasy adventure epic – The Magic Sword (1962). Gordon was known for films depicting giants, usually as a result of atomic radiation, such as a giant spider, giant grasshoppers, giant ants, a giant man in diapers, and even giant teenagers. The Magic Sword is considered by many of Gordon's fans as his best and most ambitious film. From a technical filmmaking and storytelling perspective, The Magic Sword is Gordon's best film.

Princess Helene (Anne Helm) has disappeared without a trace. Lodac the wizard, played brilliantly by Basil Rathbone, has kidnapped the princess. He appears before Helene's father, the king (Merritt Stone), and demands revenge for the king's father executing his sister at the age of 18 for witchcraft. Lodac releases seven curses on the land and threatens to feed the princess to his dragon in seven days. One of the king's knights – Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), sets out to rescue the princess so he can marry her. Lodac warns that it will not be easy for Branton and his men to find his castle where the princess is being held in a cell.

Meanwhile, sorceress Sybil, played by Estelle Winwood, is foster mother to Sir George (Gary Lockwood), who will not allow George to leave their home until he is twenty-one and in the possession of a magic sword and a strong white horse. George wants to leave their home so he can rescue princess Helena first, and win her love. George tricks Sybil into getting trapped in an underground cavern so he can leave with the magic sword and white horse to find the princess. George assembles six brave knights to follow him on his journey to find the princess.

Sir George and his six knights appear before the king at his castle. George tells the king that he wants to save the princess, but sir Branton insists that he will be the one to rescue the princess and marry her. Branton challenges George to a duel, but his sword is broken across George's chest as he strikes him.

The Magic Sword is filled with many interesting set pieces and well done special effects for 1962. Brandon, George and their knights encounter a forest of dead trees and a giant man eating ogre. The forest is filled with bubbling lava pits. The knights battle the giant with spears. George attempts to rescue a knight who has fallen into a hot lava pit. While rescuing the knight, George is pushed into the pit by Branton.

Another set piece shows cone headed humans in a castle feasting at a table while the eyes of stone gargoyles move back and forth near a fireplace mantle. The princess encounters a hanging cage of midgets when she wanders away from her cell. An uncredited appearance by midget actor Angelo Rossitto happens during a scene in princess Helene's cell. Cult actress Maila Nurmi, known for her iconic role of Vampira on TV in the 1950s and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), appears in the film as a hag. Another cult actor, Richard Kiel, plays a pinhead character.

Director Gordon saves his best set piece and special effect for the ending of the film when Sir George frees Princess Helene from a two headed fire breathing dragon. George battles the dragon with his magic sword. This final scene shows the connection of the Magic Sword to the story of St. George and The Dragon. Helene and George are married and everyone lives happily ever after, just like in a fairytale story. The film was also marketed as La Espada Magica, St. George and The Dragon, St. George and The Seven Curses, The Seven Curses of Lodac, Happy viewing. 

(The Magic Sword is available at many online locations. A great print is at Tubi. It is also on Amazon Prime. And here's a link to a You Tube print.)

Reviewed by Steve D. Stones

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Zenobia a comedy that matched Oliver Hardy and ... Harry Langdon

By Doug Gibson

"Zenobia," a 1939 Hal Roach comedy feature is an charming film, albeit one that failed to attract audiences. It's mostly forgotten today, except for routine once-a-year airings on Turner Classic Movies. (It did, however, recently get a Blu-Ray release.) The film, from Hal Roach, pairs rotund Oliver Hardy with silent- and early-talkies era comedian Harry Langdon. This was because Hardy's iconic partner, Stan Laurel, was engaged in a contract dispute with Roach. Langdon, a close friend of both Laurel and Hardy, stepped in to film "Zenobia," with no real intention of taking Stan Laurel's place, although there was talk of a second Hardy/Langdon feature, that ended after "Zenobia" failed at the box office. Laurel eventually returned to Hal Roach, but soon after the pair left for good, moving to 20th Century Fox.

But let's talk about "Zenobia." It takes place in Carterville, Mississippi, in the post-Civil War deep South, although to be honest the residents there appear to have been spared the recent horrors of war. Hardy plays -- way out of character -- Dr. Henry Tibbett, a mild-mannered country doctor whose finances are a bit shaky because long ago he decided not to use his medical skills to get wealthy. Nevertheless, he lives in a rented mansion with Mrs. Tibbett (Billie Burke), his daughter Mary (Jean Parker) and their three servants, Zero (Stepin Fetchit) Dehlia (Hattie McDaniel) and their child Zeke (Phillip Hurlic). Daughter Mary is engaged to marry a rich young man, Jeff Carter, played by James Ellison. Jeff's snobbish mother, Mrs. Carter (Alice Brady) loathes the match is working to get back with a former girlfriend, Virginia, played by June Lang.

Despite this subplot, this is a gentle film, and no matter how dastardly the machination of Mrs. Carter and Virginia to dash Jeff and Mary's love, there's never any danger of the pair being split up. All ends well and even mean Mrs. Carter apologizes at the end. What's most interesting is that Burke -- who was Glinda the Good Witch in Wizard of Oz -- provides most of the comedy, and not Hardy. Burke proves herself adept at comedy, playing a scatterbrained but quick-witted, and loyal spouse to Hardy's gentle, good-natured Dr. Tibbetts.

This domestic set up is damaged by the performance of Fetch-it as the servant, Zero, who perpetuates a racist stereotype that unfortunately was a part of Hollywood in that era. "Zero" mumbles, whines, cowers and cringes throughout the film. However, the contrast between his performance and that of McDaniel is interesting. McDaniel, who won an Oscar as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, delivers a strong performance, in which she never surrenders her dignity or self-respect.

Now, time to mention the main plot and Harry Langdon's excellent contribution to "Zenobia." Langdon plays Professor McCrackle, a traveling tonic salesman who also has an elephant, named "Zenobia," who travels with him. One day, when Zenobia is feeling poorly, McCrackle begs Dr. Tibbetts to treat his elephant. Because he's such a nice man, Tibbetts treats Zenobia. His treatment works so well that the elephant becomes enamored of the doctor and won't leave him alone, following poor Hardy's doctor and occasionally picking him up. Upset that he's no longer number one with his elephant, Langdon's McCrackle is convinced, with some help by the scheming Mrs. Carter, to file an alienation of affection lawsuit against Dr. Tibbetts.

It's an amusing plot, and Langdon is excellent in scenes with Hardy. He's too good a comedian and actor to try to imitate Laurel. Instead, Langdon utilizes his understated comedic talents and blend of timidity, deadpan blank face and "Little Elf" voice to generate a fair share of laughs. His best scenes with Hardy are when Zenobia is being treated by the doctor, as well as his efforts to keep the elephant away from Hardy's Tibbetts. In the final courtroom scene, which is the strongest point of the film, Langdon is hilarious as he is constantly interrupted while trying to testify using a memorized script.

So why did the film fail? It cost $637,000 and grossed only $351,000 worldwide, according to the Langdon biography "Little Elf. " It's not Langdon's fault. One reason may be that audiences were so used to Laurel and Hardy comedies that they couldn't accept Oliver Hardy in a role that was mostly non-comedy. In fact, when he's treating Zenobia is the closest he gets to traditional "Hardy comedy" and audiences probably wanted more. Also, while Burke is very good in comedy, and witty, it must have seemed strange to audiences to see her, and not Oliver Hardy, getting the laughs. Another reason may be that there is very little drama in this comedy. As mean as Mrs. Carter, Virginia, and others are, you don't really feel that there's any tension in the film. The New York Times described Zenobia as "Gone With the Wind" as devised by Hal Roach, and there's truth to that. Carterville seems like somewhere in NeverLand, an alternative multiverse. Finally the biggest reason Zenobia failed so badly was that the public didn't want to see Hardy with anyone else other than Stan Laurel.

The New York Times also gave props to Langdon, writing (from Wikipedia) "...Harry Langdon has adopted the partnership prerequistes formerly reserved for Stan Laurel...Harry Langdon's pale and beautifuly [sic?] blank countenance...has probably already excited the professional jealousy of Mr. Laurel..."

However, Langdon never intended to attempt to supplant Laurel, a man who went out of his way to help Langdon through tough stretches in the 1930s, and is due a lot of credit for providing momentum that insured the last several years of Langdon's career was fairly busy, and prosperous. Scenes in the otherwise excellent film, "Stan and Ollie," that purport to show that Hardy was upset at Laurel for briefly leaving Hal Roach and saddling him with Langdon are fictional.

Zenobia is worth watching, and I'm glad it's frequently on TCM, as it provides both a glimpse at the versitility of Oliver Hardy and the comic talents of Harry Langdon. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is an above-average current Universal horror


Review by Doug Gibson

"The Last Voyage of the Demeter" is a superb Gothic-type horror film. It's atmospheric, creepy with frightening scenes. I don't know if it will be a money-maker because it's a bleak tale. But it has an engrossing, suspenseful, and hopeful climax/ending.

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” comprises chapter 7 of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, in which the vampire travels to London. When the ship drifts into Whitby harbor, it’s deserted and the crew is dead. The depiction of the ship is realistic. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the musical score from Bear McCreary adds to the gothic dread and drama.

It’s a good cast. Of particular note is Aisling Franciosi, as Anna, a Roma woman stowed away on the ship to be essentially a chew toy for Dracula. Her character slowly gains resolve as her strength returns. Apparently the Anna character was a late addition by producers. It was a smart move. She’s a protagonist who provides courage and sacrifice in the life and death battle.

Also strong are Liam Cunningham as Captain Eliot, and Corey Hawkins as Clemens, a member of the crew. Clemens is a black doctor who cannot find employment in his profession due to racism. He saves Anna from death and eventually becomes the leader in the struggle to survive the vampire.

If there is a weakness, it is how Dracula is portrayed. I don’t mind the Nosferatu-like appearance, but having Dracula appear as a human-oid bat is a bit off. He looks like an outcast from the Island of Dr. Moreau. However, Javier Botet as Conde Dracula is creepy and savage and I am happy the producers resisted the urge to go all computer on the character.

The secret to a good horror film is that it provides character depth to the victims of evil. You, as the viewer, care about – and grieve the deaths of well-developed characters. This is what separates a classic horror film, such as “Halloween,” from slasher dreck like “Friday the 13th.”

In “… Demeter,” there is a well-developed, likable character that we sympathize with. This character is ultimately doomed. We grieve for this character’s fate. It adds to the horror because the filmmakers took the time for audiences to get to know this character.


This is an above-average film. It reminds me of a cross between Universal expressionism and the Hammer genre, with its savage, Nosferatu-like vampire. However, watching it I knew this would lose money. It's suspenseful but not often scary. It doesn't have the jump scares, head explosions and torture porn that many contemporary viewers want. I do think its reputation will increase with time.

A final note: As mentioned, the film seems to be underperforming at the box office. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent effort. I wonder today why $45 million would be spent on “…Demeter,” which is a solid B movie. If this film had cost $15 million it might have ended in the black and we’d be able to one day watch what the filmmakers appear to have set up as a potential sequel.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Ed Wood pens a screenplay about a football hero; new book a fun read for the Wood minutiae fans


Review by Doug Gibson

I admit it. I’m an Ed Wood fan-atic. There are probably a few thousand of us in the world. We’ve watched Plan 9 From Outer Space, and/or Glen or Glenda 100-plus times. Our 30-plus year copy of Nightmare of Ecstasy is read to tatters. We own a Wood novel or two, or more. We’ve purchased Bob Blackburn’s three volumes of Wood’s fiction and non-fiction writing. The Ed Wood Jr. Faceback page and Dead2Rights Ed Wood Wednesday blog, are both near-daily needs.

In short, we love the minutiae of Ed Wood’s’ life and career. We can’t get enough of it. Any breaking new news about our idol of unfeigned kitsch, Mr. Wood, we consume.

W. Paul Apel, a writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. has authored a book that is fun for Wood minutiae fans, “I WatchedFootball Early the Day I Died: The Lost Ed Wood Frank Leahy Screenplay,” Bear Manor Media, 2023, is an insider-joke title. It’s a riff on a Wood screenplay, “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died,” a film made long after Wood’s 1978 death.

The backstory on the book is interesting. In issue 11 of the magazine Cult Movies, published a generation-plus ago, a screenplay is attributed to Wood titled “The Frank Leahy Legend.” Fast forward many years later and Ed Wood writer/fan Greg Javer writes more about the screenplay on Joe Blevins’ Dead2Rights blog. It mentions that the screenplay is archived at Loyola Marymount University. Apel reads that and is motivated to contact Loyola Marymount, which provides him access to the “Frank Leahy Legend.” (Both Javer and Apel provide introductions to the book, and there is a forward by Blackburn on the years he and Kathy Woods, Ed’s wife, were friends.)

So who is Frank Leahy? (see his photo below) I’m a football fan. Frank Leahy was a Notre Dame football coach. He is arguably one of the greatest coaches of all time, as successful as legendary Notre Dame coaching peer, Knute Rockne, whom Frank Leahy played for. Rockne was charismatic, and filled newspaper headlines. He died in a plane crash heading to Hollywood to negotiate picture deals. That tragedy added to his mystique.

Leahy was not nearly as charismatic. He’s best known for utilizing the T formation strategy for Notre Dame football. He eventually retired from football as his health declined, was briefly involved administratively in professional football, then was a businessman until he died in 1973.

So how did Ed Wood, who was busy writing, assistant directing, even acting in soft- and hard-core pornography in the mid ‘70s, get a gig writing a screenplay for an “inspirational” biography of Frank Leahy?

No one knows for sure but one can guess. Earlier a Leahy super-fan named Bernard J. Williams had written a sort of biography of Leahy. Much of it is interviews with Leahy before his death. Apel has read it. It’s been published in two versions, and it can even be purchased on Amazon as “Iron Desire: The Legacy of Notre Dame Football Coach Frank Leahy.” Kindle version is only $2.99.

Williams may have been involved as associate publisher of an early ‘70s science fiction magazine. Forrest J. Ackerman was an iconic genre figure who represented science fiction writers. He knew Ed Wood, even was his agent once. Apel wonders if Williams and Ackerman crossed paths?

Who knows, but it sounds nice to think that Ackerman mentioned Wood for the Leahy job hoping to get his down-on-his-luck friend a nice screenplay gig. What may be just as likely is that a budget-conscious Williams was looking for a cheap first draft and Ackerman said this Wood fellow would be cheap.

Ed Wood was in his final years. He’d long lost the battle with alcoholism by 1975. It would destroy his career, his body, and eventually his life. Wood was still working for filmmaker Stephen Apostolof, but his tenure with the more stable porn house Pendulum Publishing was about played out. He and wife Kathy needed money. Life for Wood was a race against bill collectors; a race Ed’s body could not take much longer.

I hope Wood got a decent four-figure payment for the script he turned in, “The Frank Leahy Legend.” The man needed a break.

Apel presents a copy of the entire screenplay, which is manna for us Wood fan-atics. The author has crafted an interesting book, with the screenplay interrupted often for observations from Apel. They are insightful comments, pointing out where in the script Ed utilizes scenes and verbiage that are unique to his previous work. Apel also describes where Wood has done his homework, independently researching his subject to include screenplay events that are not in the book hagiography.

So how is “The Frank Leahy Legend” screenplay? Well, it’s very long, close to what would translate as a near three-hour movie. It desperately needs at least 80 pages trimmed. This is a story that cries out for the 72-minute 1970s’ TV Movie of the Week treatment.

However, Wood was enough of a professional to not turn in a hatchet job that just follows the book.  “He actually created his own structure …,” writes Apel.

Wood changes events in the book into sequences that translate better into a movie. Examples include Wood having a young Leahy taking his long first journey to Notre Dame on horse. Another example is Wood portraying Leahy’s father’s violent death more dramatically. Wood also did extensive research on the vast amount of characters in the non-fiction screenplay, a tedious task in a pre-Internet world.

But the screenplay has flaws. Apel notes Wood includes scenes that do not move the story forward, thereby bogging the narrative down. Major events, such as getting a scholarship to Notre Dame, have no real set up. Also, other important portions, such as Leahy’s wife’s struggle with alcoholism, are only touched on the surface, with little narrative depth. There is the (endearing) odd Woodian syntax, such a Leahy saying, “I’m out only to win.”

In what becomes farcical, Wood’s screenplay about a football player and coach does not even depict a football game until roughly half the script is completed. Just like a low-budget, ineptly produced horror cheapie provides more talk than action, Wood’s script talks football without offering much game action.

Still, as I read the script, I started to enjoy it, as a Wood fan.  It is tedious but it’s the work of a veteran writer who plugged on. There are scenes that Wood goes into autopilot a bit (perhaps the alcoholism was bad that day) but there’s enough to understand why Wood was able to make a living for decades as a writer. He knew his craft until the end. He provides a life story.

Readers are fortunate, though, that Apel provides commentary from time to time. It provides respite from the overly long story structure.

There are “Ed Wood moments” for minutiae lovers, which Apel includes in his comments. An illicit paramour of a married Leahy is wearing angora. There is a scene of a young Leahy about to bed down with a girl that reads like a mild version of a scene from one of Ed’s hundreds of adult short stories. There’s a father who does not approve of his son (think “Glen or Glenda). There lots of drinking in the screenplay, and descriptions of women’s clothing, such as garters.

Wood creates a conflicted character in Leahy, a man willing to be deceitful to win. Some call him a cheater. I would not go that far. It’s more unethical sports chicanery, like having players fake an injury to get more time to stop action and plan strategy.

Besides his marital infidelity, there’s a tasteless early scene where high school athlete Frank Leahy, and his much older coach, discuss plans to go out tomcatting for teenage girls. I was waiting for a cop to enter the page and arrest the coach.

These “adult” subjects in the screenplay seem a bit muddled because the screenplay starts with narrator (Bernard Williams) talking about Leahy to his young son. That opening narration seems to go off the charts early as the film moves into narrative style and includes topics a father would not mention to a young son. Nevertheless, the narrator makes infrequent returns to the screenplay and Williams actually becomes a character late in the script that interacts with Leahy.

I have read reviews where it’s claimed Wood just did this for the money. True, but this was an assignment so different from the usual porn writing that I think Wood might have hoped this would lead to a credit on a respectable film, perhaps a 90-minute TV movie. That might have had a chance given that Leahy – legitimately famous -- had only recently passed away. But the script probably disappointed Williams, and we know it was shelved, eventually stored at a Hollywood Catholic church before being donated to Loyola Marymount.

So “The Frank Leahy Legend” ends up as an interesting footnote to the Ed Wood life story, which of course has been made as a feature film; something Frank Leahy never accomplished.