Tuesday, July 30, 2013

An interview with "For Art's Sake: A Biography and Filmography of Ben Turpin" author Steve Rydzewski

Hello Plan9Crunch readers, on Sunday, July 28, 2013, I had the opportunity to have published in the Standard-Examiner a review of two biographies, "Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon” by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde, and "For Art's Sake: The Biography and Filmography of Ben Turpin," by Steve Rydzewski. Both books are from Bear Manor Media. Over this next week, Plan9Crunch will supplant the review, found here, with interviews with the authors. The first was with Hayde and Harter of "Little Elf ..." Tonight, we post the interview with Rydzewski of "For Art's Sake ..."
1) Turpin lived the life of a hobo for years and even while married, lived what was often a nomadic, low pay, paycheck to paycheck life. How did that affect his outlook on stardom. Do you think that might be a reason he stayed loyal to Sennett?

Rydzewski: "Ah yes, the nomadic and sporadic life of an actor. At 17, Ben left home and for the next five years traveled the country as a hobo, hopping in, on, or under trains, and, when hungry, panhandled.

"The acting bug bit him in the early 1890’s and he was soon earning a living playing stages across the country in his little rough-and-tumble tramp specialty. About 1901 Ben started touring as the popular cartoon character Happy Hooligan and was a hit. Never an overnight success, Ben played Hooligan for eleven years doing multiple shows a day.

"By 1907, nearing forty, and recently remarried, Turpin was tired of nomadic traveling and sporadic trouping when he joined the newly formed Essanay Film Company early that year for a steadier income. What at first seemed like an easy job to Ben quickly turned into a madhouse as soon as Essanay got rolling.

"After two years in movies Turpin was let go and he returned to the stage which, by then, had changed. Bookings were harder to come by and Turpin couldn’t wait to get back to the movies. He was happy to return to Essanay in 1913.

"So, yes, Turpin experienced some hard times before Mack Sennett found him. And I do believe all Ben’s previous hard and lean years had much to do with Ben’s happiness under Sennett. At last he found respect, world wide fame, and fortune. And don’t forget if Charlie Chaplin didn’t use Turpin in his first two Essanay comedies, His New Job and A Night Out, Ben’s film fate might have been something entirely different."
2) Turpin was treated badly by his early film producers (paid a pittance) and bullied by peers (I think of Wallace Beery) as he slowly moved up to fame? How personally do you think he took that abuse? How did it affect his love of his profession?
Rydzewski: "Ben did take a lot of abuse in the early, pre-Sennett years. He was still taking it under Sennett but not as badly. Ben was a small, frail, and sensitive man but a strong man of body and mind. He had grown accustomed to all the hard knocks over the years. Turpin was just doing his job, wanted to do it right, and to the best of his ability. He had always loved his work, and loved making people laugh. 

"Once he was in a groove and a success at Sennett, he commanded everyone's respect; Ben had reached the top. He made them laugh, he made them roar. He made Sennett rich. And when he had reached the top, Ben wanted nothing more than to give a lot of it back (in his own charitable ways) to the generous public who had put him there. He loved making movies and he loved his fans."
3) I found the media reports of Turpin’s efforts to save his wife’s life and his retirement to care for her very interesting? How involved with the journalists was the Sennett Company? Did Ben just stay out of it?
Rydzewski: "Turpin loved his second wife, Carrie. His first marriage didn’t work out so well. But with Carrie there seems to have been a true and solid bond and a marriage that endured for just over eighteen years until her tragic death in 1925.
"After spending so much money on advertising, Mack Sennett would surely take any free publicity they could get. Journalists had often wanted to get into the studio to interview Mack’s various stars, and permission was granted if the time was right. Sennett even kept his own publicity department to flood the media with hype when necessary.
"Under Sennett with success and better confidence, Turpin was still a modest man. He was a top comedian from 1917 to 1927, and there were a lot of comedians also striving for media attention, many never getting a drop of ink."
4) Why do you think Ben Turpin more or less retired from film as the silent era ended? Was he just tired of it, financially secure, or hurt that his demand has ceased?
Rydzewski: "When the talkies were new, Ben was nearly sixty years old. He had been an entertainer for almost forty years and perhaps had been growing weary of show biz. Shrewd investments in real estate provided him with an income, and occasional bits in movies kept him happy. He had a nice home, a good wife, and many friends. 
"Ben may have felt left out of movies during the 1930’s, and it’s hard for me to visualize him in anything other than a cock-eyed role. You can’t help but raise a smile at that face. Back in the day there were excuses that Ben’s voice was unfit for talkies, too garbled for microphones. He sounded fine to me! He was great in the small things he did with Laurel and Hardy (Our Wife and Saps at Sea), W.C. Fields (Million Dollar Legs), Make Me A Star with Joan Blondell, Cracked Nuts with Wheeler and Woolsey, The Love Parade, and others, but perhaps his all-too familiar face put him in a special niche.

"Ben did miss working in the movie industry he grew up with and helped to create. Surely he’d rather still be making movies. But by the sound era there were changes, many new faces and it was a whole new industry. In the thirties, Ben was a relic, but to a new generation he was a hit."
5) Turpin’s face is iconic today. I polled friends. Most were aware of the face even if they could not name the actor? Do you see a revitalized respect for Turpin’s work emerging in the era of YouTube, Netflix and Turner Classic Movies?
Rydzewski: "When I was a kid of twelve and having grown up on cartoons, I “discovered” the animated Turpin on TV. I never saw him before nor did I know his name; it took me a while to figure out who he was! Then I was hooked! I began collecting films, photos, newspaper and magazine articles, anything and everything and it’s been going on for almost 45 years.
"I’d love to see more public interest in Ben Turpin. He was a great clown, a great man, and one of the first of the American movie comedians. He deserves to be remembered for administering our greatest medicine, laughter."
Thanks Steve for taking the time to answer these questions.
Again, here is a link to my Standard-Examiner review of both books. Thanks for reading, Doug Gibson.

Headline: Books on silent stars Turpin, Langdon, an example of small-press thoroughness

By Doug Gibson, Standard-Examiner, July 28, 2013

Silent film comedy stars Harry Langdon and Ben Turpin inhabit the middle tier of fame. They’re not among the silents’ A-list — Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd — but they’re above Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan, Larry Semon and a host of others. Turpin, by virtue of his crossed-eyes, is an iconic character, even if many who recognize the face can’t place the name. Langdon, who rivaled Chaplin in his ability to produce emotion, pathos and laughs with a mere shifting of his eyes, was directed by Frank Capra, and co-starred with a very young Joan Crawford in his salad days. ...

The entire review is here.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

An interview with "Little Elf: A celebration of Harry Langdon" authors Michael J. Hayde and Chuck Harter

Hello Plan9Crunch readers, on Sunday, July 28, 2013, I had the opportunity to have published in the Standard-Examiner a review of two biographies, "Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon” by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde, and "For Art's Sake: The Biography and Filmography of Ben Turpin," by Steve Rydzewski. Both books are from Bear Manor Media. Over this next week, Plan9Crunch will supplant the review, found here, with interviews with the authors. The first is with Hayde and Harter of "Little Elf ..."


Q. Harry Langdon was an accomplished vaudeville star, with “Johnny’s New Car,” etc., prior to gaining stardom with Sennett. How prepared was he after his stint with shorts, to step into features? 

HARTER: Langdon had performed in various aspects of live entertainment for 20 years and knew how to make an audience laugh. He had also written much of his own material. The different approach to comic acting in movies would have been new to him but he quickly adapted to film acting in the Sennett shorts. After a few years in the two-reel field he was certainly experienced and ready for features. Langdon was a great pantomimist and observer of comic performances, plus he had a core group of collaborators that helped mold his comic persona in very successful films. So he was definitely ready in a talent sense.

HAYDE: What hurt Langdon while doing the features was the pressure of running his own company. He was no businessman, but the most successful comedians in those days were their own producers and status demanded that he follow that model.

HARTER: He was also under various personal pressures including a “Yoko Ono”-type paramour. Reviewers had called him “The Next Chaplin” early on and this, along with the personal issues, gave Langdon a false sense of superiority. Yet despite all that, he quickly adapted and did some excellent acting in the silent features.

Q. I’m amazed at Langdon’s ability to convey emotion, and produce humor, just from his facial expressions. Yet he seems to need a good team around him. In your opinion, who were the biggest assets to Langdon -- Capra, Harry Edwards, Vernon Dent, Ripley ...?

HARTER: Langdon's biggest assets were his many years of experience in live performances along with his varied skills in writing, performing, musicality and desire for artistic growth. His core team of Director Harry Edwards and later Frank Capra, scriptwriter Arthur Ripley and co-stars such as Vernon Dent caused Langdon to shine when he applied his talents.

HAYDE: I don’t think any one of them was more important than the others. As we said in LITTLE ELF, Edwards, Ripley, Capra and Langdon were all pieces of a puzzle that combined to shape and refine Harry’s quirky stage persona into something that really came through on the silent screen. Vernon Dent was a very capable co-star and there are moments that imply they could have made an effective team, but Langdon made many memorable films without him.

Q. I think “The Strong Man” and “Threes a Crowd” are masterpieces that should be considered alongside “The Kid” “The Freshman” and “The General” as silent comedy classics. But they are not. They do not get played on Turner Classic Movies and revival houses don’t play them as much. He has not joined Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd as iconic figures. Is this due to the negative influence of Capra, or the short rise and fall of Langdon as a features star in the silent era? 

HARTER: Langdon died in 1944. At that time silent movies were not the revered, analyzed and cherished art form that flourished in later years. As a result, due to his being relegated to short subjects and small supporting roles in the last years of his career, Langdon's death was barely noticed. He never appeared on television in the 1950's, which would have brought a whole new audience for his vintage films.

HAYDE: Exactly: he wasn't around to promote himself. For years, the “old guard” of silent comedy authors and historians called “The Strong Man” Langdon’s only masterpiece. That kind of put him in the category of a “one trick pony,” limiting his appeal. Moreover, Frank Capra took a lot of credit for its success, with the consequence of denigrating Langdon’s importance to his own film! Certainly Chuck and I expect that LITTLE ELF will help change these perceptions.

HARTER: As far as his best features not being revived, Langdon is a very acquired taste and must be really viewed in depth to appreciate his skills. His character is multi-varied, strange, sometimes eerie and is on the whole a bizarre persona. He is always interesting to watch, and like Keaton he’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, but a fascinating actor nonetheless. Langdon's initial huge success in the 1920s was in part due to the fact that he worked much slower than other comedians and was such a revelation in context to the more hurried pace of the ‘20s comedy films. Langdon’s artistic peak was only for the years 1925-1927 while the other comedy greats had a longer time span of artistic and commercial success.

HAYDE: There are also rights issues with the classic features. They’re no longer owned by Warner Brothers, who sold them to Raymond Rohauer in the late 1960s. The same company that owns all the Keaton silents owns Langdon’s First National features, but the demand for the latter isn’t on the same level. It’s fortunate that Langdon did some excellent work for Mack Sennett. Most of those films have been restored and the best of them have played on TCM. His Hal Roach shorts, which are not the disasters of legend but mostly surprisingly good showcases for his character, have also turned up on the network. This can only work in Langdon’s favor.

Q. Langdon, due to personal decisions, was broke through most of his life in the 1930s and on. However, a careful look at his post-silent career shows an actor/director/writer who maintained a busy schedule. He certainly worked more than Keaton, Lloyd, Turpin, Chaplin ... It seems that he managed to make a living in an era in which comedy had moved to dialogue rather than expression. How resilient to adversity was Harry, in your opinion?

HARTER: Harry Langdon was a survivor, with varied skills and talents and had a great work ethic. He was always pursing any possibilities for employment in show business. He did tend to live in the moment and spend freely but was always optimistic that other opportunities would present themselves. They always did and Langdon rebounded many times from apparent failure and worked regularly up until his death in 1944. He literally died in harness, had a comfortable living and owned a house. So he went out doing what he loved, had a happy marriage and a young son that he adored.

HAYDE: There was still a place for physical comedy and sight gags in the talkie era, and Langdon was right there with the best of them. Plus, having worked on the stage for so long in a succession of acts in which he talked and sang, he was not flummoxed by sound, as were many of his colleagues who didn’t have that training. He and Keaton didn’t let the status of having been major stars in the silent era keep them from accepting jobs that might seem unworthy of their talents from a latter-day perspective. They both enjoyed working and, since they lacked the excessive financial security of a Chaplin or Lloyd, needed to work. Do Langdon’s later films measure up to the standards of his greatest silents? Of course not; neither do Keaton’s, but many of those films have some marvelously funny moments that could have originated with no other comedian. Other than a handful of Columbia shorts, there are no out-and-out disasters among Langdon’s talkie films. Working at low-budget places like PRC and Monogram actually benefited Langdon: he got a level of creative freedom that other comedians, like Laurel & Hardy, did not enjoy at the big film factories.

Q. What is Langdon’s best talkie work, and why?

HARTER: Of the four great silent master clowns, Langdon had the best voice that suited his silent screen persona. When he had a positive and creative environment to act in talkies, he always delivered comic performances that entertained. Unfortunately, much of his later work suffered from inferior scripts, lackluster direction and low budget production values. However, there are scattered comic gems throughout his talkie career that display his talents in a fully intact manner. His best talkie work included: Hal Roach Studios Two Reel Short Subjects 1. “The Big Kick” (1930) – A great short that showcases Langdon’s gift for pantomime with dialogue at a minimum but effectively used. 2. “The Shrimp” (1930) – His best short for the Roach Studios which contains fine acting and dialogue. Educational Pictures Two Reel Short Subjects 1. “The Hitch Hiker” (1933) – A great Educational short that features an exquisite lengthy pantomime sequence and snappy dialogue. 2. “Knight Duty” (1933) – His best talkie short that is a gem in every way and fully convinces that Langdon could achieve the same quality as his silent film performances. Talkie Features 1.“A Soldier's Plaything” (Warner Bros., 1930) – Langdon co-stars in this early War comedy and delights with great dialogue and sings a cute musical number in which he accompanies himself on piano. 2. “Hallelujah! I'm A Bum” (United Artists, 1933) – An all-musical experiment that stars Al Jolson. Langdon co-stars and sings his dialogue to great effect. 3. “My Weakness” (Fox, 1933) – Langdon plays a Cupid like Greek Chorus who comments on the various action. This may be his best talkie appearance and sadly the film is not available. A print resides at UCLA and one hopes that it will be released on DVD in the future. 4. “Misbehaving Husbands” (PRC, 1940) – A low budget feature that emerges as a charming showcase for Langdon’s skills. His portrayal of a timid husband is genuinely funny and he has several great scenes throughout.

HAYDE: I agree with my partner with all of those, but would also add another feature: “Double Trouble” (Monogram, 1941), in which Langdon partners with Charley Rogers. The two make a good team, playing a pair of innocents similar to Laurel & Hardy, yet without evoking them. Harry revives his original “Elf” character for this film, and it’s a worthy and very funny showcase, especially when he impersonates a woman against his will. For more details pick up a copy of “Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon” by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde, published by Bear Manor Media. Thanks Michael and Chuck.

By Wednesday, July 31, Plan9Crunch will publish an interview with Steve Rydzewski, author of the Turpin biography, "For Art's Sake ..."

 Again, here is a link to my Standard-Examiner review of both books. Thanks for reading, Doug Gibson.

Headline: Books on silent stars Turpin, Langdon, an example of small-press thoroughness

By Doug Gibson, Standard-Examiner, July 28, 2013

Silent film comedy stars Harry Langdon and Ben Turpin inhabit the middle tier of fame. They’re not among the silents’ A-list — Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd — but they’re above Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan, Larry Semon and a host of others. Turpin, by virtue of his crossed-eyes, is an iconic character, even if many who recognize the face can’t place the name. Langdon, who rivaled Chaplin in his ability to produce emotion, pathos and laughs with a mere shifting of his eyes, was directed by Frank Capra, and co-starred with a very young Joan Crawford in his salad days. ...

The entire review is here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday afternoon break - Castle Films' The Mummy's Ghost

Kick back and enjoy a condensed version, courtesy of Castle Films and YouTube, of The Mummy's Ghost. I used to watch Castle Films as a kid in school at assemblies. It's cool to see an 8 minute version of a classic, and Castle's got a bunch, including all the old Universal horrors. So, enjoy:

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review of Hallelujah! I'm a Bum

By Doug Gibson

I love the 1930 musical comedy drama "Hallelujah! I'm a Bum." Al Jolson, in his first big-budget film since "The Jazz Singer," sings wonderfully as "Bumper," the "mayor of Central Park,", as does his black sidekick, Acorn (Edgar Connor). Harry Langdon, one of my favorite early cinema comedians, is in fine form as the Marxist old-newspaper collector, Egghead. Future wizard of Oz Frank Morgan is good as John Hastings, the real mayor of New York City, and Madge Evans is very sexy as June Marcher, the mayor's ... ahem ... perhaps promiscuous girlfriend. This is a pre-code film. Besides the sensuality of Evans, topics include infidelity, alcoholism, a sexy woman stripping in Central Park, lefty politics, suicide, and so on. It all makes you furious for the artistic damage wrecked on Hollywood by the Hays Commission.

Yet, "Hallelujah! I'm a Bum" flopped at the box office. Despite the respect it generates today, reviews were mixed. I have theories why, but let's first get to the plot. Bumper is a bum, the leader of the transients who populate Central Park. He's close friends with the mayor. The mayor is always offering Bumper a job in a bank, but he prefers life on the bum. In fact, in the first scene. the mayor, duck shooting in Florida, runs into Bumper and Acorn, who camping, have snagged his duck. The trio eventually roast the duck for dinner.

The mayor has a girlfriend whom he suspects of infidelity. Their relationship is tense. One day, after the mayor gives his paramour a $1,000 bill, she drops her money purse. Egghead, picking up newspapers, accidentally snags the purse. Bumper discovers it, spots the girl's address, and wants to return the money. In an interesting scene, the transients suddenly turn greedy, particularly Egghead, but Bumper talks sense into them.

Meanwhile, discovering that the $1,000 bill is gone, the mayor accuses his girlfriend of giving it to another man. They break up. Bumper tries to return the money but the girl, June, is gone. He meets the mayor, who seeing the purse, realizes he was wrong. He gives Bumper the money and goes off in an unsuccessful search for June. Bumper, meanwhile, shares the money with the bums.

One night, Bumper is walking along when he spots June, trying to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into water. He rescues her but June has lost her memory. Bumper has no idea that June is the mayor's girl. He falls in love with the beautiful June, who seems to have a big crush on him. With the help of one of his many friends in the city, he lets a room for the girl and tenderly takes care of her. So smitten is he that he goes to the mayor and gets that job in a bank that has been waiting for him. He even gets Acorn a job there.

Meanwhile, the mayor, pining for his lost June, is sinking into alcoholism. At Central Park, the bums, learning that Bumper as gone capitalist, hold a "kangaroo court" for him and Acorn. It's a very amusing, fun scene with lots of singing. Bumper, with his usual good grace, manages to be found "not guilty."

I won't reveal the climax of the film although it's more downbeat than the rest of the movie. The final scene has Bumper, in his business-clothes best, returning to Central Park and resting in the park. It's perfectly natural to assume that Bumper has returned to his status as "mayor of Central Park," but in my opinion, it's just as logical to assume Bumper is resting for an hour before returning to the bank.

In any event, the film is well made and the mix of acting and singing is done very well. Rhythmic dialogue
works well with the Rodgers and Hart songs and the direction by Lewis Millstone. The film bombed, though, only grossing about $500,000, a poor return on a negative cost of $1.2 million. The chief reason the film failed, I think is due to its lighthearted treatment of poverty. The film was perfect for the roaring '20s but with the nation mired in the Great Depression and many Americans facing the prospect of homelessness and life on the bum, the subject wasn't one that seemed so amusing.

A second reason may be that despite the huge budget, the film is basically an enjoyable but trifling tale of love, tramping and a quarreling couple. Jolson is likely the main reason for the inflated budget. Some reviewers felt he failed to carry the film past programmer status. One wonders if audiences felt the final product didn't merit a million-plus budget. For Langdon, the film was one of a series of early '30s features that the former star made in an attempt to move beyond the comedy shorts that were the bulk of his talkies career. Although Langdon would continue to star, direct, be a featured player, and write for features until his death in 1944, he would remain best known for his work in comedy shorts.

This is a great film, though, a fantastic example of pre-code filmmaking. Catch it the next time it's on Turner Classic Movies. Watch the trailer above!

Friday, July 19, 2013

A trio of Inner Sanctum films with Lon Chaney Jr.

By Doug Gibson

I have always wanted to sample Universal's "psychological mysteries" that called itself the Inner Sanctum films. When I was a youngster I watched "Calling Dr. Death" in the middle of the night but I recall nothing other than Lon Chaney Jr. seemed mentally tortured throughout. I finally grabbed the six-film DVD set from my co-blogger Steve Stones and watched three of the films, the aforementioned "Calling Dr. Death," "Weird Woman," and "The Frozen Ghost."

They're not bad mystery programmers (the three I saw timed in at 63, 63 and 62 minutes). What struck me in all three films is that one could take way the picture and the audio dialogue would work for radio, with minor shifts, such as reading newspaper headlines. By the way, a strange little man-head in a crystal ball introduces all the films. Although it must have been a given for viewers, 70 years ago Inner Sanctum was also a popular radio show.

Chaney is also miscast. He appears, respectively, as an academic, medical professional and suave rich man who dallies in mind-reading. He's also allegedly appealing to nearly all his pretty female co-stars. The truth is while Chaney was always a better actor than many have given him credit for, he was already starting to morph into the brutish, lumpish figure he would become for the last 20 years of his life. He doesn't pull off "suave," sophisticated" or the "ladies man persona." Of course, there is irony here -- if Chaney had not starred in this mystery series, the films would be largely ignore; there would be no recent Universal DVD release.

So, here are capsule reviews of the three films I viewed:

WEIRD WOMAN, 1944: This was my favorite of the three I viewed. Directed by Reginald LeBorg, Lon plays an academic who while on "safari," picks up an marries a cute woman (Anne Gwynne) who was raised by natives and believes in white magic. When the pair returns to university life, Lon's angry ex-girlfriend, played well by Evelyn Ankers, does a little bit of "gaslight" on Lon and his bride, pitting students, colleagues and colleagues wives against the pair. Among the supporting cast Elizabeth Russell, who was great as Lugosi's insane wife in "The Corpse Vanishes," plays the ambitious wife of a weak university colleague of Lon and Evelyn's. This is a good watch despite the fact that Lon best acting is when he is violent, rather than thoughtful or intellectual. The film never drags, and Ankers' acting is excellent at the climax. (Above is a strong scene with Gwynne and Russell from the film.)

THE FROZEN GHOST, 1945: In this entry, directed by Harold Young, Lon plays Alec Gregor, rich man who enjoys performing as conjurer "Gregor the Great." One night, his drunken plant in the audience annoys Lon so much that he wants him to die. While Lon is "hypnotizing" him, the plant falls dead. Despite evidence the death was natural, Lon goes semi crazy and ends his show as well as his relationship with his wife-to-be, played by Evelyn Ankers. Somewhat improbably, Lon is sent by his business agent, Millburn Stone, to live with Valerie Monet, played by Tala Birell, who runs a wax museum and carries a torch for Lon. She lives there with her pretty niece, Elena Verdugo, and creepy wax dummy creator, played by Martin Kosleck. Meanwhile, once-intended Ankers tries to see Lon again. Eventually, things get a little weird as Valerie Monet disappears, and apparently there's a plot to drive Lon into the loony bin and gain access to his money. The film gets convoluted near its end, but Kosleck is great in his role.

CALLING DR. DEATH, 1943: This is the worst of the trio I sampled. Lon plays a tortured neurologist who pines for his pretty nurse Patricia Morison. The problem is, he's married to a callous sociopathic gold-digger wife, Ramsey Ames, who blatantly advertises her infidelity to him. One weekend, when Ames is away, Lon follows her. He loses all memory of the weekend, waking up in his office. His wife is murdered that weekend. A persistent detective, J. Carrol Naish, continues to torment Lon, even as another man, David Bruce, is arrested, convicted and sentenced to die for the crime. Desperate to know if he killed his wife, Lon asks his nurse to hypnotize him and then interrogate him. Unfortunately, this film, directed by LeBorg, plods, and Naish's character is unprofessional and annoying. When the "twist" ending is announced, there's a hole in its logic that a viewer could drive a Hummer through.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Surgikill -- Underground filmmaker Andy Milligan's final film

By Steve D. Stones

In 1988, underground filmmaker Andy Milligan embarked on directing his final full-length feature film. Media Arts Productions LLC produced it. The film was to be a black comedy set in a small community hospital called Goode Community Hospital, named after Dr. Grace Goode, a character in the film played by Darlene Van Harlingen, also known as Bouvier. Her husband, John Van Harlingen, was the executive producer. This film is quite departure from the canon of other Milligan films, which were over the top sex and gore epics. The film was shot in an abandoned neighborhood clinic near downtown Los Angeles.

Dr. Goode is desperately trying to keep her small hospital in functioning order as some of her staff and patients are being murdered one by one. Not to mention that she is constantly being hounded to sell the hospital for other greedy business prospects.

The film is full of over-the-top gags and gimmicks that are occasionally funny and sometimes overstated and juvenile. For example, one particularly funny scene, at least to me, shows an old woman arriving at the hospital reception desk with a bedpan stuck to her butt. Two hospital orderlies attempt to pry it off her as she stands in complete embarrassment. Other scenes show characters being hit over the head with a bedpan, or splashed with urine from bedpans. These scenes quickly become overstated. Some of the characters constantly repeating: "We care about the people we care for," quickly gets exhausted too.

Another particularly funny scene shows an old woman lying on her back in the operating room with an arrow sticking out of her butt. Apparently her husband had mistaken her for an archery target and accidentally shot her in the butt. Perhaps her husband was on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney at the time, long before he became Vice President?

A latter scene in the same operating room has Dr. Harvey and Dr. Schweitzer performing a gallbladder surgery. They can’t seem to find the patient’s gallbladder, so they end up tearing out several of the organs from the patient. This particular scene has some connection to earlier Milligan films because it is intentionally and graphically violent, even if the organs used in the scene are obviously unconvincing and fake. Herschel Gordon Lewis would be proud of this scene.

A connection this film has to earlier Milligan films is the nurse-receptionist character and drag queen Ronna, who is very similar to the drag queen in Milligan’s excellent Fleshpot On 42nd Street, played by Neil Flanagan. Ronna is later revealed to be Robert Goode, who is Grace Goode’s cousin and the murderer in the film. Robert is murdering hospital staff and patients in hopes to inherit the family hospital for himself.

Nurse Ronna and Dr. Grace Goode are the two characters I enjoyed the most, and felt the audience would have the greatest connection to. The young, fresh out of medical school Dr. Schweitzer, seems a bit unconvincing to me as he constantly sucks on a baby’s pacifier, implying that he is young, inexperienced and "wet behind the ears." This character gets a bit annoying too. Many of the actors in the film are way over the top in their acting, and frequently shout their lines, much like in an early John Waters film.

Is Surgikill a great film? No, but who cares? I like movies to occasionally be campy, over-the-top and unbelievable, otherwise I would not be writing articles for this web site. Is Surgikill Andy Milligan’s best film? Probably not. I place my vote with Torture Dungeon, which I regard as his greatest masterpiece. Still, any die-hard fan of Andy Milligan cannot afford to miss this entry in his filmography. It may not have the same low-budget, gritty charm as his films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it is worthy of a viewing, if only to see what his last film looks like before his death in 1991. Like Milligan’s earlier films, I am confident that Surgikill will continue to gain a strong cult following as the years go by.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Beginning of the End -- Giant grasshoppers on the attack!

As "Beginning of the End" is the feature for this Saturday's "Svengoolie" show, we offer Plan9Crunch readers a review of the film.

Remembering Bert I Gordon's Beginning of the End

By Steve D. Stones

Long before Peter Graves appeared in the hit 1960s TV show Mission Impossible, he began his acting career starring in a number of low budget science fiction films of the 1950s. Some of the low budget science fiction films that he appeared in include: Killers From Space, Red Planet Mars, It Conquered The World, and my favorite: Beginning of The End.

I have a fondness for insects, particularly grasshoppers. As a boy, I would hunt them down in the fields near my home and pull off their legs or place them in a milk carton and blow them up with Black Jack firecrackers. Sometimes I even liked to put them on anthills and watch the ants attack them.

As penance for my behavior, I have used them as a subject in many of my paintings. The large grasshoppers in Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of The End would likely get their revenge on me if they knew how badly I treated them as a child.

The 1950s ushered in a series of science fiction films with the theme of something growing large as a result of atomic radiation. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers, a giant bird, giant ants, a giant colossal man and even a giant reptile from Japan named Godzilla were all popular forms of entertainment for post-World War II movie-goers. Director Bert I. Gordon was the master of the “giant genre.” In fact, his initials spell BIG, so he was often referred to as “Mr. Big.”

A small town named Ludlow in the suburbs of Chicago has been entirely wiped out without a trace. Pretty photographer and newspaper journalist Audrey Ames, played by Peggie Castle, is there to report on the town's devastation. The local authorities and the military are anxious to keep the story quiet, so they forbid Castle from taking pictures and printing any information about the devastation. Her newspaper editor suggests she investigate the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There she meets local entomologist Dr. Ed Waynewright, played by Peter Graves, who is conducting atomic experiments on plants. After being fascinated by Graves’ large plants, Castle convinces him and his laboratory assistant to look over the grounds of a recently destroyed warehouse near the Department of Agriculture. While investigating the grounds, they encounter several giant grasshoppers. Graves’ lab assistant is attacked and killed by one of them.

What I find so interesting about this film is the fact that actual grasshoppers are used in many of the scenes. Unlike so many giant insect films of the 1950s that use fake-looking paper mache or clay modeled insects, such as The Deadly Mantis, Monster From Green Hell or The Black Scorpion, Beginning of The End manages to use the real thing, even if it is through a rear projection method on a screen. Even the giant ants in Gordon’s own 1977 film, Empire of The Ants appear to be very fake looking and unconvincing, unlike this film. Plus, the film is not dependent on the CGI effects that we see in so many films of today. This makes it much more authentic and interesting to me.

Like so many low-budget science fiction films of the 1950s, the film manages to use many stock footage shots of military men loading shells into cannons and running around with rifles. There are also stock shots of mass numbers of people running in the streets, similar to The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. One particularly effective shot is of a woman standing in her high-rise Chicago apartment combing her hair after getting out of the shower. As she combs her hair in a white bathrobe, a giant grasshopper appears at her window, She screams loudly as the grasshopper breaks the window and the camera quickly zooms up close to the grasshopper’s head. (Too bad Oprah’s HARPO Studios in Chicago wasn’t around in the 1950s for the giant grasshoppers to pounce on!)

Other effective shots are of Graves and military men combing through a small forest as they encounter a number of grasshoppers. The grasshoppers actually look as though they’re walking between the trees as the men run to avoid them. One of the grasshoppers even manages to chase the army vehicle as it quickly drives out of the forest. These are some of the most effective sequences in the film. For unintentional humor, there is a sequence of Graves trying to capture a giant grasshopper so he can record the sounds it makes into a recorder. Somehow the grasshopper manages to make its way into a cage in Graves’ high-rise building laboratory in Chicago. How it managed to get through the door and into a cage in the lab is anyone’s guess, but it provides some unintentional humor in the film.

Also for laughs is the end sequence when the military general, played by veteran actor Morris Ankrum, uses the grasshopper call to drive them out into the nearby lake like the Pied Piper. An aerial view of the grasshoppers reveals that they are obviously floating in someone’s bathtub or bathroom sink. This is an important ending to the film, but also a very funny one too.

Beginning of The End is a film that taps into the atomic fears that so many viewers had in the post-World War II era of the 1950s. I highly recommend the film to any fan of low-budget science fiction films, especially insect lovers!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Vampire Bat – Poverty Row Vampirism

By Steve D. Stones

The lovely Fay Wray stars in this poverty row, slowly paced horror film from 1932, produced by Majestic Pictures. This was her third film alongside British actor Lionel Atwill. The film is a strange mixture of vampirism and science-fiction. It tries hard to look like many Universal Studios horror films produced in the same era, such as Dracula and Frankenstein, both from 1931. In fact, the film was made on the Universal lot, borrowing sets from that studio’s films. One set is borrowed from director James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” from 1932.

Wray is perfect as the damsel in distress, although her appearance in the film seems short and meant as window dressing to attract the male viewer. Atwill is also perfectly cast as the mad scientist Dr. Otto von Neimann, who conducts strange experiments in his laboratory. Dwight Frye is cast as a babbling village henchman, acting similar to his Reinfield character in Dracula.

The village of Kleinschloss in Central Europe is struck by a series of violent murders. Villagers are found dead in their beds and drained of blood. While the town is being overrun by giant bats, the local police inspector believes the cause of the murders to be human.  Even von Neimann insists that vampires exist and could be the source of the murders.

Meanwhile, von Neimann sends his lab assistant out for victims to nourish his bizarre experiment of human tissue that looks like a giant brain.  Victims are found with puncture wounds to the neck. Von Neimann insists that the murders are a result of vampire bats.  The villagers accuse Herman, a village wanderer, played by Dwight Frye, and chase him to his death as he falls off a cliff.

To steer a police detective off his scent, von Neimann administers poison sleeping pills to the detective. The detective is smart enough not to take the pills, and hides in the mad scientist’s lab to arrest him for the village murders, but also to rescue Fay Wray, who is tied up in the lab.

The Vampire Bat is now considered a public domain film that can be found in many DVD box sets with other public domain films. The best print I’ve seen of the film is issued by Navarre Corporation on a triple bill with King of The Zombies (1941) and Dr. Syn (1937). The Vampire Bat is a fun treat to watch back to back with King of The Zombies and Revolt of The Zombies (1936). Happy viewing!!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Walking the beat with the late, hip Vampira

Remembering Vampira

by Steve Stones

Hey Black dress moves in a blue movie

Graverobbers from outer space
Your pulmonary trembles in your outstretched arm
Tremble so wicked
Two-inch nails
Micro waist
With a pale white feline face
Inclination eyebrows to there
Mistress to the horror kid
Cemetery of the white love ghoul, well
Take off your shabby dress
Come and lay beside me
Come a little bit closer
Come a little bit closer
Come a little bit closer
Come a little bit closer to this
Vampira, Vampira, Vampira
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey

From the album "Walk Among Us" -- The Misfits-Collection -- Ruby Records & Plan 9-Caroline Records

As a teenage skateboard punk in the late 1980s, I must have listened to this song hundreds of times, but I was never fully aware of who Vampira was and what movies she had appeared in. Was she a comic book heroine, or a nightmare version of the Barbie doll?

I didn't know for sure. It wasn't until 1989, my senior year in High School, that a friend and I decided to rent Plan 9 From Outer Space late one Friday night. When Vampira appeared on screen, my heart raced a million miles an hour. There was something very sexually attractive to me about a shapely woman in a torn black dress, long phallic nails, pale skin and jet-black hair.

Cult director John Waters best described this feeling when he said: "Vampira was the first exaggerated woman I ever yearned to meet . . . she never looked scary to me. I thought she was pretty."

Finnish born Maila Nurmi, later known as Vampira, began her career in 1954 as a horror movie hostess in Los Angeles on KABC-TV making $75.00 a week. Her television show played on channel 7 on Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m. At that time, television was a new medium, and anything was possible.

Nurmi developed the Vampira character from three sources: The Dragon Lady in the Terry & The Pirates comic strip, the evil Queen in Snow White, and The Charles Addams Lady in the New Yorker Magazine cartoon strip. At the time Nurmi was developing the Vampira character, she was married to Dean Reisner, who would later go on the create Dirty Harry in the early 1970s. She worked on the television show in hopes to earn enough money to become an evangelist.

On the television show, Vampira would emerge from a dark Gothic hallway filled with smoke, walk towards the camera and let out a loud blood-curdling, shrill scream saying: "Screaming relaxes me so!!!" Some of the films that were played on her late-night television show included: White Zombie, Revenge of The Zombies, Devil Bat's Daughter, Strangler From The Swamp, The Rogue's Tavern, Detour, The Flying Serpent, and King of The Zombies, just to name a few.

After only fifty episodes, the show was cancelled in 1955, and Vampira found herself immediately blacklisted. Soon after, she was approached by an Ed Wood actor, Paul Marco, with a script and $200.00 to appear in a film directed by Wood entitled: Graverobbers From Outer Space which was later retitled: Plan 9 From Outer Space. Reluctant to take the job at first, she finally decided to appear in the film after living off of only $13.00 a week in unemployment benefits.

She convinced Wood that her vampire character should remain mute throughout the entire film. The script identified her as the Vampire's wife or the Ghoul's wife. In recent years, Plan 9 From Outer Space has a well-deserved cult status in cinema history, making Vampira a familiar name and face, and a pop-culture icon of the movies. Vampira has appeared on anything from books, paintings, and t-shirts, to action figures, trading cards, posters, buttons and graphic novels. Her image is permanently seared into western culture.

Sadly, Vampira passed on into another dimension on January 10, 2008. She will always hold a special place in the minds and hearts of her die-hard fans around the world. May she rest in peace. We love you Vampira!!!

Vampira's Films:

If Winter Comes, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Too Much, Too Soon The Beat Generation (1959)
Sleeping Beauty The Big Operator (1959)
I Passed For White Sex Kittens Go To College (1960)
The Magic Sword (a.k.a. St. George & The Dragon-1961)
The James Dean Story
The First American Teenager Bungalow Invader

She also appeared on Broadway with Mae West in Catherine The Great. It is also important to note that Ed Wood abandoned a project entitled: The Vampire's Tomb in 1954, which was modeled after Vampira. Footage shot of Bela Lugosi for The Vampire's Tomb was later used in Plan 9 From Outer Space. Check out this surviving clip from Vampira's ultra-cool '50s TV show.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Plan9Crunch mini-book review -- Dan Brown's 'Inferno'

By Doug Gibson

I finished Dan Brown's "Inferno," which I read at a slower pace than is likely best for the novel. It's an above-average B-grade novel, very fast-paced at the start and then, surprisingly for Brown, slows in pace. At times the novel seems to read like a travel guide of Italy ... About three-quarters through there's a well-executed twist that restores intensity to the tale. The ending is a bit odd, though, more advocacy than entertainment. ... However, the novel did spur me to put Dante's "The Divine Comedy" on my Kindle. (If interested in "Inferno," buy it here.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Color Me Blood Red -- '60s cinema gore!

By Steve Stones

This 1965 black comedy-horror gem is of particular interest to me, not because it is a great film, but because it involves a struggling artist who turns his career around by employing human blood as paint on his canvases. It’s the third in a “blood trilogy” directed by the infamous “Godfather of Gore” – Herschell Gordon Lewis. The other two films are – Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964).

The film has some similarities to Roger Corman’s 1959 black comedy – A Bucket of Blood, in which another struggling artist gains local fame by molding clay around a dead cat and victims he murders.

Artist Adam Sorg, played by Don Joseph, discovers a way to use human blood as red paint when he witnesses his girlfriend Gigi cut her finger on a nail on the back of a canvas. Soon, he stabs Gigi in the head and drains her blood in a bowl to paint with. The result is his next great masterpiece, which is quickly hailed by art critics and the local public.

Like so many struggling artists, Sorg is an eccentric loner who hates the pretentious, elitist attitudes of critics and the art world. He dismisses the praise by local critics, but continues to produce new paintings using his own blood and the blood of murdered victims.

One particular tasteless sequence in the film has Sorg tying up and disemboweling a young girl in his art studio after he has just chopped up her boyfriend in a boat chase out on the ocean. Color Me Blood Red was later followed by Gordon’s more inferior 1967 film – The Gruesome Twosome, in which an old woman running a wig shop and her mentally challenged son scalp young local college coeds of their hair as part of the wig shop business.

Something Weird Video in Seattle, Washington recently released the documentary – Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore. Watch it at your own risk. It may not be for those with weak stomachs. Enjoy!