Wednesday, February 26, 2014

'The Corpse Vanishes' is a delightfully bizarre cheapie from Monogram starring Bela Lugosi

By Doug Gibson

I have been watching "The Cult Vanishes" a lot recently. The 1942 thriller starring Bela Lugosi is no weirder than many of his other Monogram flicks, but it has -- as my colleague Steve D. Stones has pointed out -- some similarities to Lugosi's later Ed Wood flicks, particularly "Bride of the Monster." Lugosi whips one of his henchmen (Frank Moran), just as he does Tor Johnson in "Bride ...," and there is a very cheesy basement in both films, where the bizarre doings with young lovelies take place. Both "Corpse" and "Bride" have very very fake bricks painted on the studio walls.

Steve has done a great job summarizing "Corpse ...," so go to his review (here) to read it. I'll just say that Dr. Lorenz (Lugosi) lives with his wife in a remote area. She is kept young by Lugosi kidnapping brides who fall "dead" at the altar and taking fluid from their necks, which he gives to his wife (Elizabeth Russell). Lugosi sends the brides a rare orchid flower that renders them senseless and then with the help of his henchmen (Moran) and Angelo Rossitto, take them back to the remote home. A young reporter (Luana Walters) tries to get the story and solve the crime. (I also long ago wrote a review of "The Corpse Vanishes" for this site, (read) but I think I like the film better now.)

Luana Walters is a tragic figure. A rodeo star who was mainly in westerns, she was a beautiful woman and a good actress. She easily out-acts the male romantic lead, Tristam Coffin, who defines wooden. Unfortunately, Walters' career faltered while Coffin managed to do well in the business for 30-plus years. Her husband's death in 1945 further depressed Walters, and she suffered from alcoholism, a disease that would eventually destroy her liver and kill her in 1963 at the age of 50. In 1956, after being out of films for 7 years, she made her final two films, one of which was "She Creatures."

The very low budgets of Monogram are easily depicted in the cramped sets and amateur bit part players, such as the first groom of an afflicted bride (who is only capable of a goofy stare) and a police operator (who drips through some cool lines with the emotion of a fat lizard.) Supporting players (at Lugosi's home, including Moran, Rossitto and the cool Minerva Urecal (who had her best role in "The Ape Man," are better. A casting coup for "Corpse .." is Russell as Lugosi's insane wife. She was a favorite in Val Lewton's RKO thrillers, including "Bedlam,"and I recall her also in a Universal "Hidden Sanctum" film, "Weird Woman," with Lon Chaney Jr. Less impressive is Kenneth Harlan as Walters' Editor Keenan. He's gruff, but the lines he's forced to utter also make him appear stupid, and unable to sense a good story. Lou Grant he's not. Joan Barclay, who was Lugosi's co-star in the Monogram effort "Black Dragons," has a small part as an afflicted, kidnapped bride.

"Corpse" has a great twist ending, with Urecal's character letting out frustration on Lugosi's "Jeckyl/Hyde" Lorenz. I agree with Lugosi biographer Arthur Lennig, that "Corpse..." would have been much better if more action had focused on the strange relationships between Lugosi, Russell, Urecal, Moran and Rossetti than the plodding romance between boring Coffin and Walters, but it's still a fun film to watch, often and oftener. Watch it above!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cult film director Ed Wood's appeal is timeless

When it comes right down to it, enjoying Ed Wood is a patriotic act

By Doug Gibson

Originally published on Feb. 29, 2008 in the Standard-Examiner (

"We've seen 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' 15 times. Who can say that about an Emma Thompson film?"
— Comedians Penn and Teller, explaining why they're fans of Ed Wood

"Ed Wood," Tim Burton's quirky tale of the cross-dressing "world's worst director," was a flop at the box office. Yet years later, it boasts consistent DVD sales. That achievement is appropriate, since it is shared by the film's subject.

Filmmaker Ed Wood will be dead 30 years this year. When he died in Los Angeles, he owned only his name. He was homeless, his brain rotted with alcohol. His cinematic dreams were long gone. He was no longer fit to even work in pornography. His death was noted by no media.

But, only a few years later, a tiny Wood cult had grown into a pop phenomenon. His fame as "worst director" led to re-releases of his films. An oral, pop biography of Wood was published, TV documentaries of Wood were produced, the Burton film came out, a couple of his scripts were filmed by indy companies, and even several of Wood's long-forgotten '60s "trash" paperback novels were re-released. He is a subject of iconic art, too, as the "Plan 9 Crunch" painting by local artist Steve D. Stones shows.

The Wood-mania has peaked somewhat. The '60s books' re-releases are over. His films, etc., have moved back into a cult status, albeit a much larger one. Maybe that's a good thing. The first Wood boom, more than a generation ago, was initiated by a book "The Golden Turkey Awards" that made fun of the filmmaker. There was a smug, mocking attitude that Wood didn't deserve.

To be a cult icon requires that you not aspire to be a cult icon. It also requires a creative mind and a need to express that creativity that is audacious. I am a huge fan, but even I will not call "Plan 9" a technically great film. Still, it is an audacious film from a very creative mind. Its sometimes laugh-out-loud ineptitude derives from the creative instincts of a director who had neither the money nor the time to transmit his imagination to the screen.

"Plan 9," which cost about $50,000 to make, involves aliens from outer space raising the dead to warn mankind of the threat of nuclear weapons. Another Wood opus, "Glen or Glenda," is Wood's desperate plea of tolerance for cross-dressers. If we just allowed our mailman to wear satin undies, argues Wood, he could be a better member of his community and a credit to his government.

Does that make sense? If it did, part of Wood's charm would be lost.Wood had a more conventional side. He was a friend to an aging, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi, acting as agent to the ex-"Dracula" star and striving to get him roles in films, including his own. In the '50s and '60s, Wood directed TV commercials, industrial films and even Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty's show on local TV. He penned screenplays for low-budget films.

But alcohol grabbed Wood in a vise, and he gravitated toward low-budget porn. To add income, he penned more than 100 paperback novels. Written in unique syntax, seemingly in a single draft, they are a helter-skelter blend of sex, hyperbole and action. Imagine Elmore Leonard without an editor.

Wood never earned more than a few hundred dollars for each novel. Today, originals of his '60s novels sell for close to $1,000. Some of the best include "Devil Girls" and "Hollywood Rat Race."

In the '70s, Wood slid into boozy oblivion and worked in porno before he died in 1978. As an eighth-grader in 1977, living in Long Beach, I almost called him. I was doing a report on Lugosi, and Wood's name surfaced in a biography. I decided I had enough information for a junior high report. Not taking the chance to speak to Ed Wood remains one of my great regrets.

So, have I convinced you to give Ed Wood a try? If so, check out his films "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Glen or Glenda" and "Bride of the Monster." Laugh at the low-budget absurdity, but take note of the creativity. And watch Burton's film "Ed Wood." It's over-romanticized, but still a lot of fun.

And if I haven't convinced you to give Wood a try, may I appeal to your patriotism? Let's face it, if the Islamofascists ever take over, they'll destroy all copies of "Glen or Glenda!"

Gibson is the Standard-Examiner's opinioneditor. He can be reached at

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia – A Peckinpah Classic

By Steve D. Stones

“There ain’t nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it.” – Bennie (Warren Oates)

It’s unfortunate that director Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 film – Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia never found an audience at the time it was released, and did not impress most film critics. The film has aged well and developed more respect from viewers and film critics over the decades.

The film opens with a serene sequence of a young girl caressing her pregnant belly at the shore of a pond. She is brought before her father – El Jefe, who is a rich Mexican land baron. El Jefe demands to know who the father of the baby is. The girl is tortured and raped in front of her family as she reveals the name of Alfredo Garcia as the father. El Jefe literally puts a price on Garcia’s head by offering a million dollars to anyone who can bring his head.

Two hit men working for the head of an American business cartel are set on the trail of Garcia. They cross paths with Bennie - a washed up piano player working at a bar for drinks and tip money, played brilliantly by Warren Oates. Bennie tells the two hit men that he will keep an eye out for Garcia. He is offered a reward of ten thousand dollars for Garcia’s head. Bennie’s prostitute lover Elita, played by beautiful Isela Vega, informs him that Garcia was killed in a car accident.

Bennie sees Garcia’s death as an ace in the hole. He figures all he has to do is locate where Garcia is buried, decapitate his corpse at the grave, and bring the head to the two hit men that approached him at the bar. This task proves not to be so easy, as the viewer soon discovers.

As Bennie and Elita drive across the desolate Mexican landscape, they are followed by two more hit men. The two also want the head of Alfredo Garcia. Bennie locates the grave and attempts to decapitate Garcia’s head. He is hit in the head with a shovel and knocked out.

Several hours later, Bennie wakes up partially buried in Garcia’s grave with Elita at his side. The two hit men following Bennie have killed Elita and taken the head of Garcia. Bennie leaves Elita’s corpse in the grave, but cries for her passing.  Just before he leaves the grave, a close-up shot reveals Bennie putting his head back into the grave as the rest of his body is above ground. This shot is symbolic of Bennie losing his head emotionally, and alludes to his inevitable death.

Bennie soon encounters the two hit men changing a flat tire on a deserted road with the head of Garcia. Like many Peckinpah films, a gun battle occurs with slow motion sequences of the two hit men being shot as their bodies fly through the air in reaction to the impact of the bullet wounds. This is a stylistic trait that Peckinpah also employed in his 1968 western masterpiece – The Wild Bunch
Bennie is able to retrieve Garcia’s head in a burlap sack from the two hit men he kills, but has to drive across miles of rough Mexican terrain to get it back to his place. He swats away dozens of flies from Garcia’s head while driving and drinking tequila. He talks to Garcia’s head as if he is still alive. “Here, have a drink Al!” he says as he pours tequila over the head, driving recklessly down the road.

Many sources state that Oates’ character of Bennie is based on director Peckinpah. Oates even dresses like Peckinpah in shades, a sport jacket and loafer shoes. His clothes and the bag carrying the head become more and more soiled as the film progresses. This makes the viewer less and less sympathetic to Bennie’s character.

At one point in the film, a bounty killer labels Bennie a loser. He responds to the man by saying “Nobody loses all the time.” That sentiment proves not to be true as the film draws to an end.

Bennie confronts El Jefe and wants to know why Garcia’s head is so important to him. He will not give an answer, but insists that Bennie take a briefcase of one million dollars and leave. Bennie is still mourning the loss of Elita, blaming El Jefe for his loss. He shoots El Jefe at the request of his grand-daughter and slaughters all the body guards in the room.

As Bennie plows through the gates of El Jefe’s compound, he is gunned down by more hit men. Bennie has indeed lost for the very last time. A close-up of a smoking machine gun barrel fills the screen.

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia is a brilliant mix of black humor, violence, revenge and romance. Happy viewing!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Voodoo Man, Monogram's last Bela Lugosi production

By Doug Gibson

I really like 1944's Monogram film, "Voodoo Man," the last film Bela Lugosi starred in for Sam Katzman's Monogram/Banner film company. It was released, however, prior to the earlier Lugosi film, The Return of the Ape Man. I love all of the Monogram Lugosi films, the wild plots, the very low budgets, the dank lighting, the dreary non-horror leads, the typed-last-night dialogue. "Voodoo Man" for a long time was not seen as much as other Lugosi Monograms, and it took a while years ago to find and buy. However, with the Net generation, you can watch it above courtesy of YouTube. Still, I never see it on Turner Classic Movies or other television, even today. (Frankly, it's amazing how many films I once thought were virtually impossible to find, such as this and Rogues Tavern, are now easy to access via the web)

That's too bad, because it may be the best-paced, least convoluted Monogram film Lugosi made. It's ably directed by William Beaudine and looks like a lean, mean film-in-a-week film. (It was helmed in October of 1943). The plot involves Dr. Richard Marlowe, who kidnaps young lovelies in an attempt to transform their conscious life into his "dead" comatose wife, Evelyn (Ellen Hall). In typical Monogram nonsensical fashion, he lures his prey (and he has a home full of zombie-like beautiful women) with the help of a service station owner, George Zucco, who sends the girls to Lugosi via a roadblock. Lugosi, watching them on that newfangled thing called a television transmitter, sends an electrical ray that stops their cars. At that point, two moronic but relatively gentle henchmen, played by John Carradine and Frank Moran, kidnap the lovelies and take them to Dr. Marlowe's lair, where Zucco, a high priest to the God, Ramboona, attempts to transfer their lives to Marlowe's "dead" wife. Carradine's role is very bizarre; he has a large mop of hair brushed over his face to make him look dumb, and he plays some mean drums!

OK, you're wondering why I call this non-convoluted. My only defense is to recount the other Lugosi Monogram plots but I don't have 100 pages to do so. ... Back to the film, a Hollywood screenwriter, Ralph Dawson, off to marry his sweetheart, is sent by his studio boss (named SK, an inside Sam Katzman joke) to write a screenplay about the missing girls, which has, not surprisingly generated a lot of news.

The film, 62 minutes long, moves swiftly and carries the viewer's interest. It may be outlandish, but it's never dull. Lugosi is, actually, a his biographer Arthur Lennig notes, a sympathetic character, despite his kidnappings. He's endured 22 years of his wife's zombie-like state, and conveys his despair well. "Voodoo Man" has a dream cast, with Lugosi and Zucco together. It's a lot better than their other pairing, "Scared to Death." Carradine, as mentioned, is cast way out of type as one of the henchmen and has been criticized but I like his work in the film.He seems to be having fun and even manages to look creepy when he bangs the drums during the Ramboona God ceremonies. Moran, a former prizefighter, is good as his partner.

Monogram starlets Louise Currie and Wanda McKay are two of my favorites. Both are gorgeous and capable actresses who worked with Lugosi more than once. In fact, Katzman called Currie the low-budget Katharine Hepburn because of her striking beauty. In her films, I've noticed that her acting chops are a tad higher than other Monogram starlets. Unlike most Monogram.Banner romantic male leads, who tend to be stiffs, Michael Ames' Ralph Dawson has energy and personality on the screen. He later changed his screen name to Tod Andrews and guest starred on both and early late Andy Griffith Show episodes, Veteran actor Henry Hall is well cast as the amusing sheriff and has a fun time saying "Gosh All Fishhooks!" when the script calls for it.

But the best, and perhaps most famous line, is delivered by Ames' Dawson in the film's epilogue. Handing the script to the producer, he turns to movie company's president and suggests a casting choice: "Why don't you get Bela Lugosi. It's right up his alley!" That's a GREAT line in an average, enjoyable low-budget programmer.

Despite the flim clincher, it was Lugosi's last Monogram film role. Initially, things looked better for Bela in 1944. He was in a higher-budget horror spoof, "One Body Too Many," for Fine Arts Productions and then signed a three-picture deal with RKO that included "The Body Snatcher." But his film career would dry up in the latter 1940s, and he only made two films in that decade after the RKO deal. One, fortunately, was "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." Another was the strange, sometimes dull but at times surreal "Scared to Death," a color outing. As the decade progressed, most of his earnings would come barnstorming the country, on the stage in summer stock and other venues, usually performing as "Dracula" or as "Jonathan Brewster" in "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Fall of Buster Keaton book traces comic legend's career in talkies

Review by Doug Gibson

In 1933, after former silent movie comic star Buster Keaton -- still an A talkie star -- had been canned by MGM for drunkeness, the trade papers announced that Keaton was heading to Florida, at a fat salary, to star in independent films. Keaton, it was reported, would have creative freedom (a luxury he did not have at MGM, despite the films' success.)

It sounded great, but it was too good to be true, as genre author James L. Neibaur recounts in "The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia," 2010, Scarecrow (Buy). The independent project was underfunded, and the studio in Florida was fit for only two-reelers. Things collapsed and Keaton found himself unemployed long before a would-be film could even pass pre-production.

This anecdote is not important for the project's collapse, many a film star has seen a production close early. What makes the Florida effort interesting is that it was the last serious chance that Buster Keaton ever had to be a star of high-budget "A" films. Although Keaton would work for another 33 years, literally until his death, he would not star in a major film.

Keaton, who literally started vaudeville as a toddler, was discovered in part by Fatty Arbuckle and became a major silent comedian star. "The General," for example, is considered among the top two or three silent film comedy features. Keaton's stony facial expression hid an ingenuity and determination that surprised and pleased audiences when he achieved success, whether in love, money, or other goals.

But that history in the book is finished quickly. Neibaur is interested in explaining why Keaton, just two-decades plus later, was considered ideal to play himself as a has-been actor in the classic "Sunset Boulevard." At first, things looked promising for Keaton, as he signed -- in the waning days of silents, a star contract with MGM. Despite not having the final decisions, Keaton thrived with MGM silents, such as "The Cameraman," and "Spite Marriage," and even displayed talkie talent in MGM pre-code films, including "Doughboys," and "Speak Easily," in which he was paired with the loud, abrasive Jimmy Durante.

Nevertheless, Keaton melted down at MGM and, as mentioned, was canned after completing "What No Beer?" a so-bad-it-"improves"-on repeat-viewings movie. Durante is spectacularly unfunny, and Keaton is unfortunately drunk in many of the film's scenes. Keaton was AWOL during filming, had drunken rampages and MGM was glad to get rid of him. The film plays often on Turner Classic Movies, probably due to its time-capsule feel today as a glimpse at the last days of prohibition in the USA.

Neibaur recounts the various reasons that Keaton flamed out at MGM: A crumbling marriage to celebrity Natalie Talmadge, loss of creative control at MGM, a new acting persona that cast him as a buffoon rather than a determined underdog, and of course alcoholism. Being a drunk is what harmed Keaton's career. The rest are symptoms that drove him to the bottle, and unreliability.

One key strength of Neibaur's books is that there are in-depth recaps of the MGM, Educational and Columbia films Keaton made. A plus for readers is that Neibaur debunks a common perception that the Educational and Columbia shorts were all artistic failures. In fact, the author serves to rehabilitate Keaton's talkie shorts' image by extolling the virtues of short films such as "Allez Oop," "One-Run Elmer," "The Gold Ghost," "Jail Bait," (Educational) and "Pardon My Berth Marks," Pest From the West," "Nothing But Pleasure," (Columbia) and a few others. The author makes a convincing case that Keaton needs to be re-evaluated as a talkie comedy shorts talent..

To be fair, Keaton seemed to enjoy dissing his Educational and Columbia shorts over the last 20-plus years of his life. And during that era, comedy shorts commanded little respect in Hollywood. As Neibaur notes, one of the ironies of today is that the shorts of Keaton, and more notably The Three Stooges, are far better known than virtually all the features they played with. Nevertheless, it's true that one constant in both the Educational and Columbia shorts, as Neibaur notes, is that the quality of the series, after promising starts, dipped and a few duds found their way into production. It's hypothesized that Keaton's dissatisfaction with being in two-reel movie fillers may have dampened his initial enthusiasm after the contracts were signed

The Columbia era (late 1930s, early '40s) signified a consistent monetary comeback for Keaton. He would never earn cash similar to what he earned in his silents/MGM era, but after several years of being broke after his divorce, he added income with work as a gagman with the major studios and played featured parts and cameos in A and B productions. It as during this era that Keaton enjoyed a successful, until-death marriage with his wife Eleanor, and later benefited from the advent of television, something his colleagues Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin and Charley Chase did not live to enjoy. Some fans may recall Keaton's excellent guest role on a "Twilight Zone" episode that plays off his silent routines.

Besides TV and the occasional small role in a big film, Neibaur also devotes time to industrial films that Keaton made for executives and workers in companies. These were usually comedy couched in a film that dealt with training or promotion. As Keaton moved into his mid-60s, he received small, frankly demeaning roles, in the beach movies films, even playing an Indian. As Neibaur notes, it was money, and the chance to stay busy that motivated the senior citizen. Another film he had a cameo in was Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

One reason I am very glad I read this book is that it sent me to YouTube to watch two films that Keaton completed only 15 or so months before his death in 1966 at age 70. The first is "The Railrodder," a silent color film, made by Canadian TV, that has Buster traveling across Canada via a track-speeder all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It may be the last comic silent short made and it's very funny, with Buster showing remarkable skills for a 68-69 year old man with "bronchitis."

The other film is a documentary on the making of "Railrodder," titled "Buster Keaton Rides Again." It's a treat for Keaton and genre fans as Buster's life on the set and production  is captured in detail, traveling across Canada, shooting the film, meeting fans, and most importantly, bantering with his wife, Eleanor, director Gerald Potterton, and the crew on the train in between scenes. He's a pleasant senior citizen,who smokes, talks, acts, interacts with fans and media, and thoroughly enjoys the attention he is receiving. He looks quite healthy at that time and he has the energy to argue with Potterton over how a shot should be done and win the argument. I absolutely love the scene where Buster explains the difference between a suspense shot and a comedy shot.

But getting back to Neibaur's detailed look at the final 35 years or so of Keaton's career. It's clear that the bad publicity from the MGM experience, although covered up well in the press, solidified Keaton's diminished status. The Educational years, although a steady paycheck, was also a time where Keaton was still heavily drinking, and that hurt comeback attempts. It's re-assuring that Keaton collected himself to stay busy, write gags for The Marx Brothers and others, get the drinking under control, get married, and continue acting. That was a triumph. Eventually, Keaton's "bronchitis" turned into cancer. But he worked virtually until his death at 70, dying a day or two after the cancer was diagnosed.

Genre books such as Neibaur's may have a tough time gathering circulation (they are very expensive) but if they can help to properly reassess Keaton's later comedies (Many of the Educationals are on YouTube and the Columbia series is inexpensively priced as a DVD) that is a enduring positive. We should appreciate the love that produces books of this dedicated scholarship.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Buster Keaton's last starring role -- Boom in the Moon

By Doug Gibson

I am reading James L. Neibaur's book "The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia," (The Scarecrow Press, 2010) and I plan to review it soon. On page 177, he mentions Keaton's  role in an obscure Mexican comedy -- from 1946 -- called "El Moderno Barba Azul," or "Boom in the Moon." Neibaur says the film is best forgotten, and he's correct that it makes his low-budget comedy shorts seem like "The General" in comparison. However, I think it's worth a review; after all, it was Keaton's final starring role. So, here we go:

There's really no big reason to see Boom In the Moon ... unless you are a cult film fanatic. (And that's why we at Plan 9 Crunch are reviewing it) It's an  feature from 1946, made when Keaton was at the low point of his career (he later rebounded via TV and small roles and cameos in big-budget films). But in the mid-1940s, Buster Keaton was not working much.

But, first some background: In the 1920s, Keaton was among the kings of cinema comedy. But he had a drinking problem that became more acute when talkies came and he signed a multi-picture deal that included comedies with Jimmy Durante. To put it charitably, Durante's manic, often-unfunny rantings grated on Keaton's physical, stone-face comedy. Without any creative input, Keaton was portrayed as a buffoon and clown rather than an industrious underdog. During the making of their last film, "What No Beer?" Keaton was so drunk he trashed his dressing room and disappeared from the set for several days. After the film wrapped, MGM, his employer, canned Keaton.

After that, Keaton existed for almost 20 years in a grab-work-when-available world. His chief income was making comedy shorts for Educational Pictures and Columbia, as well as doing gag-man work for the bigger studios at $100 a week. Keaton's comedy shorts efforts were overshadowed by The Three Stooges and Little Rascals shorts.Also, Keaton felt the shorts were demeaning, as well. He had not starred in a film for a long time when he accepted the lead role in Boom in the Moon, or as it was known in Mexico, The Modern Bluebird ("El Moderno Barba Azul)

It is a very low budget, often strange movie starring Keaton and a bunch of mediocre Mexican actors. Buster plays a sailor in a lifeboat who drifts for weeks. He doesn't know that World War 2 is over and thinks he is in Japan when he lands in Mexico. He is immediately arrested and accused of being a killer of young girls. He's paired with another clownish prisoner (Angel Garasa). The pair are offered the choice of flying to the moon in a very goofy professor's rocket instead of execution. After a bunch of clowning they accept. Somehow the professor's very pretty niece (Virginia Seret) is in the rocket when it blasts off.

After a few days the rocket lands. The trio thinks they are on the moon, but they are really just a few miles from where they took off. The two convicts are cleared ... No more synopsis in case some readers want to watch the film. (It's hard to find. The best bet is to check amazon and ebay for used copies)

The first half is a little better than the last half because Keaton has the opportunity to use a lot of physical comedy, including a funny bit in his cell. The last half unfortunately allows too many actors to babble, including one Mexican actor -- playing a silly psychiatrist -- who will cause viewers to grind their teeth in pain at his performance. The rocket is so low budget that it would not have qualified for a C-movies serial in the 1930s. Still, Keaton occasionally, with his physical deadpan humor, comes off well in a few scenes. Ironically, Garasa, as Keaton's sidekick, is as nasal and annoying as Durante was with Keaton 15 years earlier.

Keaton has very little dialogue, and it's dubbed anyway in today's prints, although the others prattle on too much. Boom in the Moon could have been a lot better if it had been shot silent, and relied on Keaton's emotion and physical comedy. But that idea likely occurred to nobody in 1946.

The film was released theatrically in Mexico and played only in Spanish for 37 years, including U.S. TV on Spanish-speaking stations. It was briefly released via VHS with English dubbing in 1983. The release wasn't very long and the film has become a little hard to find. I'm glad I watched it -- I have wanted to for at least a decade. It was good to see Keaton starring in any feature in 1946. Despite the poverty-row film, Keaton still retained flashes of the great talent in the The General, The Camera Man, and Steamboat Bill Jr., etc.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Soldier's Plaything, an early Harry Langdon talkie

By Doug Gibson

One problem that film comic Harry Langdon had, throughout his entire sound career, was that his big-budget films with major studios bombed. The failure of the films were not Langdon’s fault, he performed well in all of them. And the films have gained in critical popularity in the 70 to 80 years after their release. Obviously, that’s little comfort to Langdon, who died 69 years ago. The one-time Sennett/First National silent star enjoyed his best success in the sound era as a comic lead in Hal Roach, Educational and Columbia shorts, and a few acting gigs in low-budget B films. Perhaps the best of these is “Misbehaving Husbands,” from Monogram. Nevertheless, his three A films, “A Soldier’s Plaything,” “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” and “Zenobia,” with Oliver Hardy, were all flops.

The film I’m reviewing today is “A Soldier’s Plaything,” from 1930, produced by Warner Brothers. It’s one of those very early talkies that blends comic routines with musical numbers. The film involves Harry (Tim) and co-star Ben Lyons (Georgie) as U.S. soldiers in Germany during the occupation after World War I. Georgie is the lady’s man who falls for a sexy German girl/woman Gretchen, (Lotti Loder). Harry has some excellent scenes, where he plays the “little elf” character he honed as a silent star very well. He also gets to sing a song, and does so very well. He’s not the focus of the film but he’s the funniest one in it. He easily outperforms -- in comedy -- a burly, yelling Noah Berry as Captain Plover, who constantly makes Harry and Ben shovel manure; that’s a running joke in the movie.

Ben’s Georgie, Harry’s soldier pal, is carrying a secret that harms his romance with Gretchen. He thinks he killed a violent gambler/gangster back home in the USA. That’s why he joined Tim as a WW1 recruit. Naturally, this causes some harm to his relationship with the German beauty. Worried that he’ll be arrested, he tells her he’ll come back and get her. Gretchen, who wants to go to the states with him immediately, is naturally skeptical. It looks like their romance is kaput, until an abrupt ending wraps up the plot neatly.

“Abrupt” is an excellent word to apply to this Michael Curtiz-directed film. It’s only 56 or 57 minutes, and is over before you know it. There seems to have been extreme editing in the film. Example: like old silent films, titles, rather than scenes, are used to move action along. Also, when Georgie’s major dilemma with Gretchen is resolved (he discovers the man he thought he killed is a fellow soldier) there’s no reconciliation scene with his girl. She’s just with him, all happy, in the next scene. According to movie books, there is a 73-minute version of this film (now lost) that played in Europe. It’d be nice if it was found one day.

According to genre books, Lotti Loder was a European beauty that Warner Brothers was planning to groom for stardom. It’s clear though, that by the finished release cut, studio execs had abandoned those plans during filming. Although beautiful, she does not have screen presence and seems just another supporting player in the film. There is one memorable -- pre-code -- scene of her with Lyons by a creek where she shows off a pair of very attractive legs, however. According to film books, she only made a few more films before leaving the industry.

Harry Langdon, as mentioned, is the best part of this film. He’s funny and demonstrates good comic timing. The film, due to editing, is a B film that cost A money. Depression-era audiences had other films with more depth to spend money on. Curtiz uses an interesting double-exposure technique when portraying life in the USA from persons describing it in Germany. I recommend this film, particularly if you are a Langdon fan and for those interested in the evolution of the earliest sound films. Watch Langdon sing in this film below!