Friday, February 26, 2016

Another Columbia short ... 'Pardon My Terror'

By Doug Gibson

A while back we reviewed "Wife to Spare," starring Andy Clyde, one of hundreds of Columbia comedy shorts that never make it on TV or DVD anymore. We also note the wonderful website, The Columbia Shorts Department, which is dedicated to making more aware of all, not just the Three Stooges shorts.

This week's review is the Gus Schilling and Dick Lane 1946 short, "Pardon My Terror," which, if not for the tragedy of Curly Howard suffering a stroke, might be better known as a Stooges short. The two-reeler, written and directed by Edward Bernds was meant for the Stooges but shifted to Schilling and Lane after Curley's stroke.

Here's what Bernds told Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, in their must-have guide, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts:" "If I had more time, I could have tailored the script to suit them. But as I remember the circumstances, we were committed to go with the Stooges; the sets were up, we were on the schedule -- which was sacred to the production office -- and we even had some of the cast obligated to the film. In the business it's called "play or pay" -- if you don't use them you pay anyway. ... I believe I only had two or three days to change the script, ad much of the Stooge-type humor stayed in. It turned out okay, though it probably would have been better with the Stooges because it wasn't ideal Schilling and Lane material."

Bernds is correct, "Pardon My Terror" turned out more than OK. It's an enjoyable laugh-fest with the duo as dopey detectives helping a heiress discover who "kidnapped" her grandfather. The more burly Lane plays the "Moe" character, even taking a few slaps at the smaller, nervous Lane, who is 80 percent "Curly" and the rest "Larry." The Stooge stuff works well. One particularly funny bit involves the boys being punched by a boxing glove that comes out of a bookcase. Also, Lane gets some good laughs out of a code for danger that Schilling devises, called "it's warm in here."

Another bit, corny but pure Stooges, is the boys walking "this way" following the butler to their bedroom.

Veteran Columbia hands Christine McIntyre (the heiress) and Vernon Dent (as grandfather) add class to the short. The baddies trying to bilk grandfather out of his money are Dick Wessell, the attractive Lynne Lyons and Kenneth McDonald. Another old hand, Phillip Van Zandt, plays a Jeeves-like butler to Denton's grandfather. A scene where Lyons tries to get Lane to drink poison is almost the same as a scene in the short "To Heir is Human" in which McIntyre tries to poison Harry Langdon.

Unbilled, but very funny is Emile Sitka as the landlord who wants the detectives' rent money and the black comedian Dudley Dickerson, also unbilled, provides strong humor.

I love these old Columbia shorts. We'll keep reviewing them through out the year and I hope they get views on YouTube. At YouTube, there's the Shorts Department, 2reelers and JohnnyFlattire pages that have Columbia comedy shorts.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Chandu the Magician -- Bela Lugosi plays the bad guy

By Doug Gibson

Several days ago, the astute, knowledgeable Steve D. Stones reviewed the 1934 serial "The Return of Chandu," in which Bela Lugosi is the stout-hearted, good magician. We promised a follow-up review of the bigger-budgeted 1932 "Chandu the Magician," in which the now-forgotten "big star" Edmund Lowe played the magician hero, and Lugosi the foil, the evil Roxor, who plans to destroy the world with a powerful ray machine.

Now Chandu was a popular radio show of that long-ago era, and plots generally need to stay close to the scripts. Chandu is Frank Chandler, he has a sort of chaste romance with the Princess Nadji, played by Irene Ware, and he's protecting the same family, in the film called "The Regents," dad, mom and two teenage kids named Bobby and Betty Lou. What's happened is that Roxor has kidnapped the Regent patriarch so he can get the information on his death ray (why would anyone invent a death ray that can destroy the world, or turn it into a mindless, brute era??)

But he does, and he wants Nadji as well and Roxor also is not above selling the kids into slavery, anything to get dad to cough up the formula. The relatively short film, 70-plus minutes, has Chandu doing his best to foil Roxor's plans.

"Chandu the Magician" is a better film than the serial, which drags and drags, and it has some cool special effects of that era. A couple involve escapes from stone-enclosed prison rooms and from the ocean. Lowe is not too great as Chandu but he's OK. (Why didn't anyone conceive of having Lugosi play two roles: Chandu and Roxor?!)

A key problem with "Chandu the Magician" is that it doesn't know whether it wants to be a comic spoof of the fantasy genre or a dark fantasy. It tries to be both. That indecision makes a secondary character played for laughs, Miggles, sort of misfire. It's a little jarring to laugh at Chandu having sport with the constantly whimpering Miggles and then cut to a scene where kidnapped, very nubile teenager Betty Lou, played by June Lang, is being sold at auction, in a revealing costume, as a sex slave. The pre-code clashes with the kid code.

Yet "Chandu" is a lot of fun, with scene after scene after scene of good people being rescued by Chandu and his allies. Despite the occasional dark detour it can be enjoyed by kids. Watch it before "The Return of Chandu" if you can. It's easy to buy. The ending is a bit of a letdown. I'm not giving away any surprise that Chandu wins but I kind of wish he had vanquished Lugosi's Roxor in a more exciting manner. Lugosi is, by the way, excellent in his bad guy role.

"Chandu the Magician" was released by the Fox Film Corporation and it had a relatively large budget for that time, $349,000. Director William Cameron Menzies would later direct two science fiction classics, "Things to Come," and "Invaders From Mars." Watch a clip below.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Return of Chandu -- Bela Lugosi plays the hero in this serial

At Plan9Crunch, we're going Chandu! Steve D. Stones reviews here the 12-chapter 1934 Principal Pictures serial The Return of Chandu, starring Bela Lugosi as the hero/magician. Next week, Doug Gibson will review Chandu the Magician, the 1932 feature film in which Edmund Lowe plays the hero Chandu, and Lugosi the evil villain Roxor!

The Return of Chandu - Leisurely Paced Serial Action

By Steve D. Stones

The Return of Chandu (1934) is certainly not Bela Lugosi's greatest serial of the 1930s. I give my vote to The Phantom Creeps (1939) mostly because of the giant, evil robot in the serial. Many Lugosi fans cite SOS Coast Guard (1937) as his greatest.

The Chandu character began as a radio drama star before 1934. MGM produced a big-budget Chandu film in 1932 entitled - Chandu The Magician. Chandu was played by Edmund Lowe in that film. Lugosi played his archrival - Roxor, a mad scientist.

In this film, Lugosi plays Frank Chandler, alias Chandu The Magician. Chandu is protecting the princess of Egypt - Nadji, as she visits Beverly Hills, California. A religious cult leader named Vindhyan, played by Lucien Prival, is determined to kidnap Nadji to use her as a sacrifice to bring back to life the goddess Ossana of Ubasti.

Nadji is kidnapped by the cult and taken to a South Sea island of Lemuria. Here we see a number of sets that were used just a year earlier in King Kong (1933). Natives open giant doors leading into Lemuria, the same doors that held back Kong. The natives worship a giant sculpture of a cat.

The entire serial is a back and forth of kidnapping and rescuing of Nadji. In an attempt to rescue Nadji, Chandu battles villians in jeweled turbans, a tiger pit and even a giant paper mache rock that is lowered on him in chapter 11.

Unlike many serials that followed in the 1940s, The Return of Chandu lacks edge of your seat action and fisticuffs.  The serial is very leisurely paced. In chapter three when Nadji is first kidnapped and placed in a mummy's coffin, Chandu uses his magical ring to help guide his vehicle to the hideout of the kidnappers. Chapter 10 spends lots of time showing flashback sequences of previous chapters. This technique was used in many serials to pad out the length of time a chapter would last. Even the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s used this technique.

Principal Pictures Corp. not only released Chandu The Magician as a 12-chapter serial, but also as two separate feature films. The first feature was of the same title of the serial, and was a condensed version of the first four chapters. The second feature used the remaining eight chapters, and changed the title to Chandu On Mystery Island.

For further information about The Return of Chandu and other classic serials of the 1930s, refer to Hank Davis' book - Classic Cliffhangers volume 1 (1914-1940) and the book - Sinister Serials by Leonard J. Kohl, both published by Midnight Marquee Press. Happy viewing!

Friday, February 12, 2016

On his birthday, a taste of Andy Milligan: Guru the Mad Monk

By Steve Stones

It's Andy Milligan's birthday: Plan9Crunch offers a review and look at the film "Guru the Mad Monk." Since Easter Sunday is upon us, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss a religious themed film. In case you haven’t noticed by now, the bloggers here at Plan Nine Crunch are huge fans of director Andy Milligan. Until we were finally able to track down a VHS copy of Milligan’s Torture Dungeon, Guru The Mad Monk was our favorite Milligan film. It remains a particular favorite of ours.

Any film that is critical of organized religion and religious fanatics has got my immediate attention. Actor Neal Flanagan plays the evil father Guru, who presides over the Church of Lost Souls. Guru is perhaps Flanagan’s greatest and most convincing role of any Milligan film he appeared in. I can’t help but feel great contempt for Guru as he tortures and executes his victims, all in the name of religion and power.

Like Victor Hugo’s classic Quasimodo character from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Guru has a disfigured, hunchback sidekick named Igor, played by Jack Spencer.

The opening credits of Guru The Mad Monk are some of Milligan’s best work. Production credits are revealed in calligraphic letters in an old book from the Middle Ages. This is in keeping with the medieval theme of the film. The mood is then shattered as the opening credits cut to the sound of passing cars in the background as Nadja, played by Judith Israel, is forcefully taken from the Church of Lost Souls and thrown into a jail cell. Although she is innocent, Nadja is accused of murdering her infant child.

Carl, played by Paul Lieber, is madly in love with Nadja, and is able to persuade father Guru to set her free on the condition that he provide Guru with fresh dead bodies to sell to help fund the bankrupt church. Guru knows of a potion that will induce the illusion of appearing to be dead, which he suggests Carl administer to Nadja.

Guru sends Carl to his evil mistress Olga to obtain the potion. Olga is dressed in an awful 1960s flower-power meets Renaissance dress. In order to obtain the potion, Carl must agree to leave the execution block in the execution chamber uncleaned of the blood of recent victims so that Olga may collect the blood and use it in her strange experiments. Olga laps up the blood with plastic fangs attached to her teeth. Perhaps these are the same dime store fangs Milligan used in Blood and The Rats Are Coming, The Werewolves Are Here!

Although Guru The Mad Monk runs just under an hour in length, the film had a budget of $20,000, which was considerably larger than any of his previous films. This was also Milligan’s first horror film to be shot in 35mm. I recommend the DVD print put out by Retromedia. It is a much sharper and cleaner print than the one put out by Sinister Cinema that looks as if it was dunked in red punch and has many deep scratches on it. Fans of Neal Flanagan cannot afford to miss Guru The Mad Monk or his next effort with Andy Milligan – Fleshpot On 42nd Street.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Edward Bernds' memoir is a history of early Hollywood sound films

By Doug Gibson

I've long wanted to read Edward Bernds's memoir, "Mr. Bernds Goes to Hollywood: My Early Life and Career in Sound Recording at Columbia with Frank Capra and Others." But it's pricey. Just to buy it in Kindle is $40-plus dollars; out of print dead-tree copies go around $50 and more.

But I found it, in the library at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where this blog calls home. Who wouldn't want to read about Edward Bernds' career as main sound man for such great Capra films as "Lady For A Day," "It Happened One Night," "You Can't Take It With You" and more? And Bernds was also on the set doing sound for Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Gregory LaCava, and more. In the studio system of the 1930s, it wasn't all A production assignments. Bernds was assigned to dozens of low-budget western oaters, many starring Charles Starrett. He also did sound for screen tests and the low-budget near low-on-the-Columbia-totem-pole comedy shorts. In fact, Bernds was on the set when a trio of performers, Moe, Curly and Larry, starred in a musical novelty short called "Women Haters." Of course, they became the Three Stooges and Bernds was around doing sound for many of the comedy, Stooges, Andy Clyde and others.

Bernds was born in Chicago in 1905. He loved the new medium radio and by the time he was 20 he worked at a Chicago station. When his girlfriend, Bathsheba, moved to Los Angeles, Bernds eventually followed her there and the pair were married. They returned to Chicago briefly but a job offer came from southern California as a sound technician. Bernds' tales of the early days of sound films is fascinating. He describes the gradual sophistication of studios' sound systems. Early synchronized sound involved filming in a confined space, that limited the freedom of the camera. That may be why so many early sound films look stagy.

Bernds worked briefly at United Artists but moved to Columbia. It was considered a lesser studio but it was a smart move for Bernds. He describes how he was noticed by Capra, an exceptional director who was able to place actors in plots and situations and elicit performances that made audiences care about their fate. Capra noted Bernds' talent, and he became his preferred sound technician.

It was a fortunate partnership. Bernds was an observer of film, a frustrated wannabe screenwriter and director who compensated that desire by writing short stories for the 1930s literary magazine "Rob Wagner's Script." Bernds recalls taking his published stories to Columbia's crusty boss, Harry Cohn, who always asked Bernds to send a screenplay. As Bernds notes, at that point in his life he lacked the confidence to write a screenplay.

As mentioned, Bernds kept notes and along with his memories they provide a detailed look at early sound Hollywood that is a treasure for film buffs. We get peeks into the characters and actions of stars such as Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Jimmy Stewart, Loretta Young, Leslie Howard Jean Arthur, The Stooges, of course, and many more.

Trust me when I say the life of a working-class, integral member of a film crew, the sound technician, is an interesting topic, particularly one toling 80-plus years ago. Bernds captures the times, the down of the Great Depression, the hope that Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered. We walk streets in 1930s southern California with Bernds and we vicariously relive Bernds' memories of his favorite mode of transportation, the cross-country train.

Bernds learned both diplomacy and when to assert himself on a set. As he recalls, Capra was open to suggestions, but a director such as LaCava would fire a subordinate for unsolicited information.

The details of filmmaking, beyond just sound technology, are fascinating in Bernds' memoir. He takes us across the Atlantic to shoot a film in England, to New York and New Jersey for shoots, to ranches in southern California, to the rickety Columbia stages used for the comedy shorts, and much more. We get glimpses of the dangers, and sometimes tragedies, that resulted in filming in an era before modern special effects.

Through the 1930s, Bernds and his wife raised a family and saw his paycheck grow with Columbia. But he harbored a major ambition, to be a director. And that is the theme of "Mr. Bernds Goes to Hollywood," it's one film professional's journey to finally becoming a director. The book opens with Bernds' relating Cohn's bewilderment that his efficient sound man wanted to chuck that for directing. It ends with Bernds' move to directing with the shorts department under the guidance of producer Hugh McCollum. The memoir barely covers the directing years, but any genre fan is well aware of the dozens of Columbia comedy shorts Bernds directed, and the features work he got, usually "Blondie" films.

Bernds never became an A director. He didn't have the opportunity to do Capra-esque films. He left Columbia when McCollum was fired and a previous western feature with The Stooges he made, "Gold Raiders," got terrible reviews and that hurt his career (I have seen the film and enjoy it). But he was hired at Allied Artists for a while and was busy directing for more than a decade, including the later Bowery Boys films, a couple of late Stooges features and some genuine cult science fiction films, including "Queen of Outer Space" and "World Without End."

He died in 2000, a year after his memoir was published. A couple of interesting points: Although he has great respect for Capra, he notes several recollected events that are distinctly different from what Capra writes in his autobiography. This is important because Capra, who had feuded with Harry Langdon in the 1920s, was harsh to Langdon in his memoirs, claiming things about him that have been debunked since.

Also, there is a bittersweet recollection of Bernds, and his writing pal Edward Ullman, visiting his old work office at Columbia in the late 1960s on business. The pair of film veterans were condescended to and lectured on comedy by a youngster less than half their age. At that point, Bernds decided he was content with his two film industry pensions.

I urge fans of the Columbia comedy shorts to read this book. They will gain a better appreciation of one of the best shorts directors. His later years are highlighted with an epilogue interview of Bernds by Leonard Maltin and Joseph McBride. Bernds offers interesting tidbits, some delightfully gossipy. McCollum, Bernds reveals, was smitten with the beautiful comedy shorts supporting player Christin McIntire, although he says it may have been platonic.

Those wishing a more detailed look at Bernds' work with Columbia comedy shorts must read the book by Ed Watz and Ted Okuda, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts, reviewed here.