Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Original Phantom of the Opera -- Greatest unmasking scene in cinema history

By Steve D. Stones

The Phantom of The Opera may be the most remade and referenced film in cinema history. The late film historian and archivist Forrest J. Ackerman lists it as one of his all time favorite films. The scene of Mary Philbin removing the mask of Eric the Phantom (Lon Chaney) still packs a punch nine decades later. 

Many accounts suggest that sound was added to the original 1925 film with the start of the talkie era in the 1930s. Some prints even have a color sequence added to the Bal Masque scene about fifty-five minutes into the film.

Lon Chaney was no stranger to playing the face of bizarre, grotesque characters. In fact, he is rightfully labeled "the man of a thousand faces" because of his great talent in playing a variety of strange characters. Chaney was the son of deaf-mute theater performers and learned to apply his own make-up, which is unheard of in today's Hollywood film industry.

Chaney's character is the tortured composer - Erik the Phantom - master of the black arts who lives deep below the Paris opera house in the catacombs. He is infatuated with an opera singer named Christine Daae - played by Mary Philbin.

Erik wishes to possess Christine and control her every move by his expression of love and devotion to her. He orders the opera house to give her the lead singing role. By disobeying this request, Erik brings down the giant chandeler ontop of the opera patrons in one of the most famous scenes in the film.  While chaos ensues, Erik is able to lure Christine into his lair. (While there she sees his face; watch above the scene. It's perhaps the greatest unmasking scene).

Erik releases Christine from the catacombs - on the condition that she not see her fiance Raoul ever again. Raoul and Christine betray Erik and try to flee to London. Christine warns Raoul that Erik watches over them and knows their every move.

The ending of the film may be a blueprint for monster movies to come. Townspeople chase after Erik as he tries to get away in a coach. He drowns himself in a nearby river. James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein film ends with a similar sequence of villagers chasing after the Frankenstein monster with torches.

Of the nearly dozen remakes of The Phantom of The Opera that have been made since the original, this 1925 silent era version remains the best - and the classic by which all following versions aspire to. No one can top the performance of Lon Chaney. His make-up and appearance have become iconic in film and popular culture. Chaney's image of Erik the Phantom can be found in comic books, monster movie magazines, coffee mugs, Halloween masks, posters, t-shirts and just about any printed media you can think of.

Happy viewing. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Review of Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy, a second banana gets his due

By Doug Gibson

It's a pleasant surprise to see that BearManor Media has provided cinema genre fans a biography of that most famous supporting character of slapstick comedy shorts, Vernon Denton (here). Mentored by Keystone cop Hank Mann, his career started about 100 years ago and never really ceased, moving smoothly through the heydays of Mack Sennett, Educational shorts and the Columbia comedy shorts.

Dent (1895-1963) was fated to have a face often recognized but a name that would come slow to the lips of the average theater-goer. He's best associated with the Three Stooges. (In fact, just a few days I was watching The O'Reilly Factor have a segment that was highlighted with old film clips. Although it lasted a mere five seconds one of the blackouts was Dent -- in some old Stooges short -- getting a pie in the face. I hope I'm not the only viewer who snapped his fingers and said, "THAT'S VERNON DENT!"

But enough of my chatter, I need to get to reviewing "Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy: Second Banana to the Three Stooges and other Film Comedy Greats," by Bill Cassara, BearManorMedia, 2013. To be very frank, if you're looking for a personal biography of Dent's life, and his impact on the times, you'll be disappointed. This is not really a biography. It can't claim that status when major events such as the death of Dent's mother, Fannie, or his first marriage, are captured in a passage or two.

Instead, what Cassara presents is the equivalent of a well-researched, in-depth, entertaining long magazine piece on the times of Dent's life, with major focus on the entertainer's career. Cassara provides scores of newspaper, school and publicity accounts to traverse Dent's interesting life and times. One personal note that does include extensive reference is the 1909 murder of Dent's father, William, a saloon keeper. William was murdered by the boyfriend of a woman he was having an adulterous affair with. Not unlike today, such an unsavory scandal attracted the media; an added incentive was that William Dent was a nephew of former U.S. President U.S. Grant.

The scandal caused Fannie to move her family from San Jose, California to Oakland, and Vernon grew up in northern California. He seems to have been stagestruck since about the age of nine, and received his share of local publicity as a teen. Fannie Dent died in 1915; by that year the young Dent was married and a professional musician performing in San Francisco and he later Southern California in a nightclub in 1916.

As mentioned, Hank Mann, who had a young Charley Chase directing films, started using Vernon as a supporting player in a series of one- and two-reelers. By 1920 The Pacific Film Company attempted to make a star of Vernon by having him basically do a Fatty Arbuckle takeoff in a series of shorts. As Cassara notes, that ended with Arbuckle's scandal involving the death of actress Virginia Rappe. In these early comedies, Vernon also starred with a beautiful, petite actress with the odd name of Duane Thompson, although in the comedies she went by Violet Joy. Some of these films still exist.

At this juncture of his career, Dent had roles in some features, including "Hail the Woman," but he caught the eye of Mack Sennett and that solidified him as a comedy shorts player. He had a natural rapport with star Harry Langdon, and the pair would work together in films for two decades. Late in the 1920s, during the evolution from silent to sound films, there were two attempts to pair Vernon with co-stars Monty Collins and later Lou Archer. Both attempts could not generate the fan interest to keep them competitive with popular teams such as Laurel and Hardy.

That Dent failed to click as a comedy shorts star is likely because he didn't generate the pathos or likability that Oliver Hardy, for example, could muster with his screen presence. Or maybe he had weak scripts too often? Dent was a splendid actor and talented comedian. That made him very valuable to the comedy shorts producers, who could essentially plug him into any part, star, supporting or bit player. He was always on the payroll of Sennett, Educational and Columbia and often made the equivalent of a $100,000 a year salary today.

Perhaps the last chance Dent had to develop a team was with Langdon in the Educational shorts of the early to mid 1930s. They have some great rapport in shorts, particularly "The Hitchhiker," "The Big Flash," and "Hooks and Jabs," but the death of director Arvid Gillstrom, and later Educational studios, moved both stars to the more slapsticky, Stooge-comedy Columbia, with its shorts head Jules White. As Cassara writes of the Stooges, "The humor of The Three Stooges was physical, lowbrow and 'vulgar.' It was anything for a laugh. The Stooges were a curious combination of surrealism and exaggerated sound effects."

And it worked. Audiences loved the Stooges and their act kept at least two dozen more comedians busy working at Columbia in its many different shorts series. Vernon worked for everyone, but in popular culture, he's attached to the Stooges. In fact, the final 40 percent of the book is a compendium of Vernon's 400-plus film appearances, including his roles with the Stooges.

As the reader gets closer to the appendix, more of the personal life of Vernon is noted. This is mostly thanks to interviews with Vernon's third wife, Eunice, conducted by film historian Ed Watz. (Vernon's second wife had died in the 1930s). He met Eunice at a party thrown by his good friend Langdon, and his wife, Mabel. According to the book, Eunice says he proposed that very night. Their marriage lasted until Dent's death.

As Dent settled into life as a Columbia comedy shorts player, he contracted diabetes in the mid 1940s. It was no surprise as the very heavy Dent loved eating sweets. The condition worsened and by the mid 1950s Vernon was blind. According to Cassara's book, he became blind after refusing to submit to more painful insulin shots.

The strength of Cassara's book is that casual, and even genre fans, will learn many new things about Dent. One was his participation in a "keep-up-the-moral" feature from the World War II era, "San Diego, I Love You," a Universal offering. I have embedded a scene from the film that includes Vernon at the end of this review. Other interesting tidbits is Dent's appearances on TV, including "I Love Lucy."

The details of Watz' interviews with Eunice provide fantastic ancedotes into the lives of the husband and wife, as well as a glimpse into the Hollywood of that era. She notes that Vernon was a favorite of Frank Capra, who used him in bit parts in some of his films. She also expounds more on the close friendship between the Langdons and Dents.

Dent died of a heart attack in 1963, having survived long enough to witness the rejuvenation of the Three Stooges' careers after the Columbia shorts ended. It would be very interesting to read similar accounts of other Columbia shorts supporting players, such as Christine McIntyre or Dick Curtis.

(Also embedded below is a clip from a 1924 Sennet short with Vernon and Andy Clyde, "Black Oxfords").

One more note: This Dent biography can be purchased for under $10 via Kindle.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

An in-depth biography of an accomplished British pantomime dame -- Arthur Lucan

By Doug Gibson

Let's face it, in America at least, to most cult movies fans, Arthur Lucan (AKA Old Mother Riley), is a footnote, the eccentric co-star with Bela Lugosi in the 1952 British film "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Watching that film, which is on YouTube, Lucan's pantomime dame is frankly, a "whirling dervish" of energy, prancing around the sets, singing songs and speaking 300 words a minute in the working-class dialect.

He's a talent, there's no doubt about that, but a strange one to U.S. viewers, or contemporary viewers today, because his chief skill is a largely forgotten one. As mentioned, Lucan was a "pantomime dame," a not uncommon feature of the British stage and music halls of the first half of the 20th century. "Old Mother Riley" was not a drag act, or geared toward gay audiences. It was comprised of comedy sketches, many of which were bathed in pathos and social messages, explains Robert V. Kenny, author of the new biography, "The Man Who Was Old Mother Riley: The Lives and Films of Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane (Bear Manor Media, 2014) here.

Arthur Lucan (1885-1954) was married to Kitty McShane (1897-1964), who he described as his Irish beauty. Unfortunately, after a few years of marital bliss, it turned into a dysfunctional nightmare with the mild-mannered Lucan eventually becoming a kept cuckold in his own home, with McShane, who by most accounts exhibited sociopathic behavior, taking control of the money, bankrupting the couple and using her lover, actor "Willer Neal," as her co-star in "The Old Mother Riley ..." films that she starred in with Lucan.  I often seriously wonder if there is an entertainer as universally disliked by those who knew her, and historians, as Kitty McShane. Kenny's account of their lives only seems to add more evidence of her malice, insensitivity and drunken cruelties.

The "Old Mother Riley" films, though, were a huge success prior and during World War II as topics such as the war, war profiteers, parliament, the rights of the poor, and even relations with Ireland were explored within the comedies. The basic premise stayed the same: Lucan played widow Old Mother Riley with McShane as her daughter, who was always seeking romance and usually found it. British audiences loved Lucan and McShane, who had developed the characters, if not with the same name, as early as the 1920s. However, Kitty McShane's narcissism led her to continue to play the "young daughter" in the post-World War II films, despite that she had become a plump matron.

Lucan honed his skills at the turn of the 20th century, learning a lot from a family of actors he lived and worked with prior to going out on his own and marrying McShane. Kitty McShane's pleasant voice and young good looks made the team very popular. One of their first skits, called "Bridget's Night Out," featured pantomime dame "mother" Lucan fretting over "daughter" Kitty's late night out. As Kenny explains, these skits not only were meant for humor, but tapped into the fear in those times of how a wayward daughter's life could be ruined if she was taken advantage of by a man.

I can't adequately explain Lucan as a performer except to say again that he is clearly talented in what he does. On YouTube, there is an early skit with Lucan and McShane that is similar to "Bridget's Night Out." It's heavy on pathos as well as comedy and one can't help but marvel at Lucan's skill, even if it's hard for us to comprehend. Watch it here but note that despite the title card, Lucan was not known as Old Mother Riley at the time (1936).

At their peak, with many movies and a performance in front of the Royal Family in Britain to their credit, Lucan and McShane were very rich, the equivalent of millionaires. McShane blew the money with excess spending and bad investments. Her behavior became so abominable that by the early 1950s, the pair, while married, had split; hence the reason that there's no Kitty McShane in "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire."

Kenny's book still fails to capture the dysfunctional but stubbornly durable connection between Lucan and his wife. Perhaps we'll never know why he put up with her cruelty, that extended to violence on occasions (Once her boyfriend Neal beat Lucan mercilessly). According to Kenny, McShane stopped -- in the late 1920s -- plans for Lucan to team with a comedian in U.S. films because there was no planned role for her.

As it was, Arthur Lucan eventually died as he lived most of his life, in a theater, collapsing while preparing to play his most famous character, pantomime dame Old Mother Riley. As for Kitty McShane, her career was more or less over. She lived almost 10 more years, in increasing squalor, and died shortly after her boyfriend, Neal, passed away.

Today, Arthur Lucan has been rediscovered in Britain and his grave is well cared for and there are occasional analysis of his career, which spanned roughly 50 years. Kitty McShane's funeral was attended by a few mourners, and despite knowledge of the cemetery she was buried in, a stone was never placed, and no one is sure exactly where she is buried.

Kenny's biography is superb. He makes a myth out of the idea that some entertainers are too old and gone to find interesting information into their lives. The book captures a period of entertainment history that few know much about, and appreciates the talent of the master of that particular entertainment. Until this book the most Lugosi fans and generally everyone else in the U.S. knew about Lucan and McShane came from a segment in Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks excellent book, "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain."

Watch Mother Riley Meets the Vampire below under a different title.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Terror of Tiny Town - Cinema's First All Midget Western

By Steve D. Stones

Not since Tod Browning's 1932 feature Freaks has a film emphasized the talents of a midget cast. You won't see Gene Autry, Roy Rogers or Gary Cooper make a sheriff appearance in this film. No horse named Trigger, or even a horse his size, comes to help the hero save the day. But, the bad guy wears a black hat, and the good guy wears a white one.

The cast is billed as Jed Buell's Midgets in the opening credits. Buell produced the film. The hero Buck Lawson is played by Billy Curtis, and the villian Bat Haynes by Little Billy (yes, Little Billy is his screen credit name).

The North Fork Ranch is having it's cattle rustled and stolen by Haynes and his men. A range war conflict between two families - the Preston's and the Lawson's, is taking place. Haynes has the sheriff overlooking his activities in not arresting him or the men. Haynes is also playing the two families against each other. Haynes' men try to overtake a stagecoach coming to town with Tex Preston's niece in the coach.

Haynes tries to frame Buck Lawson for shooting Tex Preston in the back. Haynes begs the town sheriff to arrest Lawson for the murder. Although the sheriff suspects Haynes of shooting Preston, Lawson is put in the town jail.

Lawson is released from jail and ordered to be hung by Haynes. The sheriff tries to stop the hanging, but is shot by Haynes. Haynes flees the scene and is chased by Lawson and his men. Haynes dies in a dynamite explosion while trying to hide. Lawson rides off with Preston's niece in the end.

Comic relief is provided by a midget cook chasing a duck for dinner.  Seeing midget actors walking under the swinging doors of the saloon and stepping up to a ramp in front of the saloon for a beer provides some unintentional humor. A number of musical performances also adds to the odd flavor of the film.

Producer Jed Buell also produced cinema's first all black western - Harlem on the Range in 1937.  A sequel was slated to be called Hang 'Em Not So High, but was never made. Midget actors would once again steal the limelight a year later in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Watch the film above. Happy viewing. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Rat Pfink A Boo Boo -- The cult movie with a typo!

By Steve D. Stones

Low-budget director Ray Dennis Steckler is best known for creating the first so-called “monster musical” – The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (AKA Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary). Like most of Steckler’s films, he cast his wife Carolyn Brandt in a leading role in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo (AKA The Adventures of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo).

As campy as the title may be, the person who created the opening titles for the film forgot to put a letter N and D after the letter A so that the title would read: Rat Pfink And Boo Boo. To further complicate matters, a letter P was placed in front of the word Fink, likely to not confuse the Rat Fink character in this film with the famous Rat Fink character created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in the 1960s. Confused yet? Perhaps this was Steckler’s way of avoiding copyright infringements?

A group of hoodlums is constantly harassing Ceebee Beaumont by calling her on the telephone. Ceebee is the beautiful girlfriend of rising rock singer and teenage heartthrob Lonnie Lord, played by Vin Saxon (AKA Ron Haydock). The group follows and kidnaps Ceebee, played by Steckler’s wife at the time – Carolyn Brandt, and demands a ransom of $50,000.00 from Lonnie.

Lonnie and his gardener, played by Titus Moede, thrust into action by dressing up in costumes similar to Batman and Robin, but instead they wear ski masks. They call themselves Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, in case you haven’t guessed by now. The two catch up with the hoodlums and save the day by rescuing the girl and avoiding a confrontation with a giant ape named Kogar.

Various interesting scenes in the film use colored filters over the black and white photography, such as an opening night sequence in blue of the hoodlums attacking a young woman to steal her purse. Other scenes use a red filter over the black and white.

The DVD and video print of Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, sold by Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon has a short introduction by director Steckler. Steckler’s films have gained a strong following in recent years, and have even been featured on Turner Classic Movies, a cable network that screens classic films.

Steckler spent the last few years of his life living in Las Vegas running a video store. He passed away in January of 2009. May his films live on forever for cult movie fans to enjoy for many generations to come!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Zenobia: Hal Roach comedy feature 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. 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. (watch a scene of Burke's wit above)

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.

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. Watch it above via YouTube.