Sunday, November 26, 2017

The first vampire of the screen - Theda Bara

Theda Bara as The Vampire in the film A FOOL THERE WAS (1915)

By Steve D. Stones

The lovely Theda Bara in A Fool There Was is not so much a vampire who wears a cape and sucks the blood from victims, like Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931) or Max Shreck in Nosferatu (1922). She is a seductress who sucks the life out of married men – who then lose everything, including their wives, children and social status. A Fool There Was is a tale of lust, infidelity and seduction.

John Schuyler, played by Edward Jose, is a wealthy Wall Street lawyer and statesman called by the President of The United States to sail to England as a special envoy to settle claims with Great Britain. His mistress, played by Bara, joins him on the voyage. Soon, Schuyler's friends and wife find out about his affair. His life quickly begins to crumble, as his friends and loved ones turn their back on him.

Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio on July 29th, 1885. She is considered cinema's first female “sex symbol” and “femme fatale.” Her career spanned 40 films between 1914 – 1926. Most of these films are considered lost from a 1937 vault fire at Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey – where Bara shot most of the films.

In 1917, Bara moved to Hollywood to film Cleopatra. Hollywood at that time was quickly becoming the entertainment capital of America. Hollywood was the place to be if you were an actor at that time. A Production Code was not enforced until 1930, so Bara was known for wearing very revealing costumes in her films. This may be one of many reasons why some refer to Bara as a “vamp.”

Only six of her forty films are said to exist today, including: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925) and two short comedies made for Hal Roach Studios – Madame Mystery and 45 Minutes From Hollywood. Some footage of Cleopatra (1917) managed to survive at the Museum of Modern Art's film collection in New York. Bara never appeared in a sound film, which adds to her sense of mystique and intrigue.

Bara eventually got tired of being typecast as variations of the vamp character. When her contract ended in 1919 with Fox studios, she assumed other roles would be forthcoming. This did not happen. She instead headed to Broadway in 1920 to star in "The Blue Flame." The performance was a success, but the critics thought it was terrible.

The Fort Lee Film Commission in New Jersey dedicated Main Street and Linwood Avenue as “Theda Bara Way.” Her image also appeared on postage stamps in 1994. A 2006 documentary – The Woman With The Hungry Eyes – was made about Bara's career.

For further information about the career of Theda Bara, refer to Phil Hall's book – In Search of Lost Films (Bear Manor Media 2016). Hall's book is reviewed here on Plan 9 Crunch. Happy viewing.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Bert Wheeler in the short Innocently Guilty

It's time for another installment in our occasional series of those old-time Columbia comedy shorts that are not well known (think all of them save the Three Stooges.) Today we recall "Innocently Guilty," a 1951 two-reeler that starred Bert Wheeler. Above is a still from the climax of the short. Yes, Bert was hiding in a baby carriage.

Some information about Bert Wheeler. He was a big name in the 1920s on the vaudeville stage and achieved even more fame on the big screen as the boyish half of Wheeler and Woolsey. They made a slew of wonderful comedy films for several years that made a lot of money. After Robert Woolsey died Wheeler's screen career faded and although a working actor, he was struggling to earn a living by 1950, working in summer stock, etc.

As Ed Watz and Ted Okuda note in their book, "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," the head man at Columbia's comedy shorts, Jules White liked to sign former comedy names to two-picture deals, with an option for more if the shorts caught the public's fancy. White, who directed "Innocently Guilty," is quoted in the book as saying, "I gave him (Wheeler) a job at a time nobody else wanted him." Wheeler only made two shorts for Columbia. The second, in 1951, is called "The Awful Sleuth." (I have not seen that one.) "Innocently Guilty" is mediocre, although Wheeler acts well in it. The fault lies in a mediocre script and director White, who often equated humiliation and violence with humor. Only the Three Stooges were consistently able to take such direction and turn it into quality humor.

The short, which Okuda and Watz note had already been filmed twice with Andy Clyde as "It Always Happens" (1935) and "His Tale is Told," (1944) is remade with Wheeler as Hodkinson G. Pogglebrewer, tractor salesman, leaving his happy home to pitch tractors in the big city to Mr. Bass (the perennial Vernon Dent). Old Hodkinson has an appealing wife, Helen, played by another Columbia perennial supporting player, Christine McIntyre. Unfortunately, the script calls for Hodkinson to have a pathologically suspicious sister-in-law, Marge (Margie Listz), used by White for slapstick physical humor.

Once in the big city Hodkinson helps a sexy woman, Fifi (Nanette Bordeaux)  in the hotel, in her room, with an innocent task. Unfortunately, his crazy sister in law has dragged his wife to spy on him. Catching hubby looking compromised with another woman, she plans to divorce him but quickly changes her mind. All seems OK except that the next day, Hodkinson, to get a sale, pretends to be a ladies man to Bass. He even lies about what happened with Fifi. Bass admits to Hodkinson that he's so jealous of perceived male attention to his wife he'd commit violence if confronted with it.

You guessed it folks, Fifi is Mr.  Bass' wife. And with the imagination of Jules White, Fifi, sans outer clothing, Mr. Bass, and Hodkinson all end up in a car together. Fifi gets back to her room undetected, followed for some reason by Hodkinson, and then followed by pathological Margie and Helen, and finally by Bass, now prepared to kill Hodkinson.

None of this is terribly funny. The short ends inconclusively, with Bass shooting at the fleeing, dressed-as-a-baby Hodkinson. White was known for ending shorts with the stars running away, the conflict unresolved.

So why did I still enjoy the short? It's a part of history, a starring big-screen role for Wheeler late in his career. And Bert Wheeler is indeed good in the short. Even a decade-plus after the glory days, he retains the boyish, aw-shucks, optimistic charm that he had with RKO in the 1930s. He's likable. He's just shoved into an awful script and a poor choice for a director.

It's' also fun to see veterans McIntrye and Dent in any Columbia short, although this is far from their best work. Dent, in particular, is far too passive in his opening scene to be accepted later as a husband jealous enough to kill. Both Dent and Liszt take their knocks more than once as foils for physical humor. Early in the film water from a store awning knocks Liszt for a loop, and of course actors take tumbles in the bathroom scene. It's also nice to see silent star Heinie Conklin in a small supporting role as the janitor.

I was able to see this film thanks to Greg Hilbrich, who runs The Columbia Shorts Department website, which is just full of information all things Columbia comedy shorts. The short is posted on Hilbrich's Facebook wall. It's come to my attention he soon plans to post it on The Shorts Department YouTube page and once that occurs, I will embed the short here.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Republic does B-movie vampires: The Vampire's Ghost

By Doug Gibson

This is an interesting 1945 vampire tale, only 59 minutes, from Republic Pictures. It's semi-obscure and few retailers carry it (I've been waiting years to catch it on Turner Classic Movies) but it's just interesting enough to have a chapter in McFarland's "Son of Guilty Pleasures of the Horror Film" and Frank Dello Stritto gives it a couple of pages in his collection of essays "A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore."

Plot involves saloonkeeper Webb Fallon, a haggard-looking white man with impeccable manners, who runs a small saloon in an African port. There have been vampire attacks on the natives, and they are getting restless. They speak the language of drums, and the drums spell Fallon (John Abbott) as their chief suspect.

They are right of course. Fallon is a vampire, centuries old and very tired. He bemoans his fate but also accepts it with chilling simplicity. When he sets his sights on the pretty fiance of a young Englishman, it looks as if nothing can stop him.

What makes The Vampire's Ghost so interesting is that it deviates from the standard vampire plot made famous by Bela Lugosi. Vampire Fallon can move around in the light and sleeps in a bed with native soil from his grave by the bed.

As mentioned, he's sympathetic early but Webb is able to give his vampire a sort of polite heartlessness that underscores the undead sociopath that lies beneath his gentleman English exterior. In one scene, Fallon ruthlessly and quickly dispatches a boat captain and saloon dancer who have cheated him at cards. He also plays with the boyfriend (Charles Grodin) who knows that Fallon wants his fiance (Peggy Stewart). Fallon the vampire seems detached, as if he is repeating a game he has played many times before. He relies on sapping the inner strength of his potential victims. The languid, remote location of his life (Africa) underscores his soft deadly power.

If you can find this film, it's worth a buy, particularly if you enjoy the changing genres of vampire film. Surprisingly, in its own quiet way, The Vampire's Ghost predates Twilight. It's an example of well a fiilm can be made on a tiny budget. This would be an excellent addition to UEN's Sci-Fi Friday roster. Watch the movie online here.

Notes: The Vampires Ghost was written by Leigh Brackett, who wrote Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back. Roy Barcroft, who played the doomed boat captain, later played a sheriff in the 60s cult film Billy the Kid versus Dracula. The Vampire's Ghost, directed by Lesley Selander, was released on May 21, 1945. In the early 1970s, it played on the TV movie show Creature Features paired with House of Frankenstein. Another good blog review:

Friday, November 3, 2017

Nightmare of Ecstasy: A review

Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr., by Rudolph Grey, Feral Books

Review by Doug Gibson

"Only in the infinity of the depths of a man's mind can we really find the answer."-- From the 1953 film Glen or Glenda, written, directed, produced, and starred in by Ed Wood, Jr.

Edward D. Wood, Jr., died homeless in 1978. The former "C" movie director was an alcoholic with a brain that had virtually wasted away from an excess of booze and disappointment. He expired on a friend's bed while his wife in the next room ignored his pleas for help. For the last several years of his life, the only writing, starring and directing jobs he had were for pornography. There was no mention of his death in the Hollywood press. He directed only six films that were made available to mainstream audiences, the last in 1960.

Now, flash to 2017: the late Edward D. Wood, Jr. -- known as Ed Wood -- has become a cottage industry. His films, most notably Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, are major cult favorites selling thousands of copies a year. A film, Ed Wood, was made starring Johnny Depp as Ed. It was an Oscar winner. Wood's cheapie, near-pornography fiction paperbacks from the 1960s are collector's items. Reprints have been sold from outlets such as the Quality Paperback Book Club and Amazon. One of Wood's last screenplays, I Awoke Early the Day I Died, was filmed and stars Billy Zane of Titanic fame. There are webpages devoted to Wood. Popular film publications write about him. His short stories are being published. Films are being found, including Final Curtain..

So what made Ed Wood an American original, as he's described in Rudolph Grey's oral biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. From the recollections of friends, lovers, acquaintances and colleagues, Grey treats readers to Wood's life. It's a bizarre, hilarious, eccentric and sad look at the most unique soul who ever left small town life to try and hit it big in Hollywood. Wood was a reverse Sammy Glick -- full of enthusiasm and drive but not with a Machiavellian soul. As a result, everything he touched turned to lead instead of gold.

A heterosexual transvestite, Wood fought the Japanese in World War 2 wearing a bra and panties under his soldier's garb. After the war, he spent a couple of years with a traveling carnival and then headed to Hollywood. In the late 1940s Wood was an extremely handsome, energetic man who had no trouble attracting a team of actors, most of whom would stay with him for more than a decade. They included an aging Bela Lugosi, Vampira, a slinky horror TV show host, a psychic named Criswell, Wood's girlfriend Dolores Fuller, a 400-pound Swedish wrestler named Tor Johnson, and veteran character actor Lyle Talbot.

Wood finagled his first feature deal by convincing exploitation film producer George Weiss to let him make a film about a sex change, which was new and in the news in 1950. Instead, Wood made Glen or Glenda, an absurd, surrealistic autobiographical film about his own transvestite tendencies. Weiss took it, added some bond- age scenes, and released it as I Changed My Sex. It bombed then, but gradually grew to become the one Ed Wood film that enjoyed a real cult audience while he was alive.

Grey's biography details Wood's life as a "one-lung" producer in 1950s Hollywood. It was raise a few thousand dollars, shoot for a few days, shut down, raise some more money, and shoot some more film. The book is fascinating for its anecdotes of how Ed saved costs. He stole a rubber octopus from another studio for his film Bride of the Monster. He stole scene shots at motels, streets and parks. He used stock footage from other films in abundance, which often gave his films a disjointed, out-of-sequence look.

Wood's tender friendship with the aging, penniless Lugosi shows his altruistic side. It was a sincere desire to assist his boyhood film idol maintain dignity in his last years. Grey's book is a real treat for Wood fans. It contains a listing of all his film projects, whether they got off the ground or not, and a complete summary of his novels and stories.

It's easy to laugh at Ed Wood's movies. And they do appear silly. But he doesn't deserve the smarmy humor that often accompanies critiques of Ed Wood films. Wood's films often seem ridiculous because he had neither the time, nor money needed, to make a real Hollywood production. But -- and this is important -- THEY ARE NEVER DULL. Plan 9 From Outer Space may seem silly with its hubcaps-for-flying-saucers, daylight-to-night shots and stilted dialogue, but its anti-war sci-fi plot -- aliens raise the dead to convince earth to stop building weapons -- would be a crazy, exciting film with a $50 million budget.

Grey's book demonstrates what a crazy, original idea man Ed Wood was. That's why, of the thousands of low budget offerings that dotted movie screens in the 1950s, Ed Wood is the survivor. Perhaps Penn and Teller summed it up best: "We've seen Plan 9 From Outer Space 15 times. Who can say the same thing about an Emma Thompson movie?"