Thursday, April 30, 2020

Journey To The Seventh Planet is a routine and familiar space travel film

Review by Steve D. Stones

From the team of Ib Melchior and Sidney Pink, who brought us – The Angry Red Planet (1960) – Journey To The Seventh Planet (1962) has similar plot elements to The Angry Red Planet. Similar plots had been shown on the big screen in many science-fiction films of the previous decade – such as Cat Women of The Moon (1953), Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956), Queen of Outer Space (1958) and the most horrible of the group – Missile To The Moon (1958).

Like the above mentioned films, Journey To The Seventh Planet takes us to familiar territory with five young men who arrive on a planet, then encounter sexy, scantily dressed women who fulfill their lustful desires. One of the sexy ladies is Danish actress Greta Thyssen, who also starred in the cult classic – Terror Is A Man (1959) and appeared in later Three Stooges shorts. The crew's real mission is to investigate a radiation source coming from the planet Uranus.

The year is 2001, and the United Nations is now the complete governing body of the entire world. The United Nations selected a crew of five men to represent an international expedition. The expedition is to last for ten days as the crew investigates the source of radiation on the planet Uranus.

Even before landing on the planet Uranus, the crew succumbs to a planetary force that appears to control their minds. When landing on the planet, one of the crew members experiences a state of deja vu in knowing he has been to the location before. The location appears to be a place where the crew member spent time as a child. In this particular sequence, actor John Agar pulls up a small tree from out of the ground and is puzzled that the tree has no roots. The look on Agar's face as he examines the tree is unintentionally funny.

As the crew investigates the area, a large opening in a tall bush is discovered. The opening appears to be a portal into another world. Before entering the portal, some of the crew members experience hallucinations and mirages of experiences and places of their past.

In full space gear, the crew enters the portal into a surreal, petrified forest of paper mache rocks and styrofoam particles used for snow. The group encounters a stop-motion Cyclops dinosaur that is killed by crew member Karl with a ray gun shot in its eye. In a second attempt to explore the petrified forest, the crew encounters a giant Cyclops brain who is the source of what is controlling their minds. This is familiar territory for actor John Agar, since he battled a giant brain in The Brain From Planet Arous (1957) that also controlled his mind.

Some of the music used in Journey To The Seventh Planet may sound familiar to science-fiction viewers of the 1950s and 60s. The music is also heard in Invasion of The Saucer Men (1957) and Roger Corman's film - The Last Woman On Earth (1960). English speaking voices were later recorded over the Danish actresses' voices.

Perhaps it's not fair to compare this film with director Pink's earlier effort – The Angry Red Planet (1960), but I find Journey To The Seventh Planet to be a bit on the dull side and very leisurely paced in contrast to the earlier Pink film. Even the beautiful Danish women featured, such at Thyssen, cannot save the film.

Journey To The Seventh Planet only has two monsters in the entire film for the crew to encounter and overcome. The Angry Red Planet brought us the interesting octopus plant monster, the iconic rat-bat-spider, a creepy three eyed alien who peers into a space rocket, and the giant amoeba gelatin shaped cyclops monster. 

Plus, The Angry Red Planet also employed an interesting marketing gimmick known as “Cine-Magic” in which scenes shown on the planet Mars are filmed with a red filter. Writer Ib Melchior's greatest effort is – Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964).

For further information about the life and career of writer and producer Ib Melchior, see Robert Skotak's book – Ib Melchior: Man of Imagination (2000 Midnight Marquee Press). Happy viewing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Joe Besser in Fraidy Cat stars in vintage Columbia comedy short

Review by Doug Gibson

The old comedian Joe Besser is  best known as the funny man who replaced Shemp Howard as the third Stooge in the late-middle 1950s. The Stooges needed a third to finish up their quarter-century contract with Columbia. The shorts with Besser are not the best of the Stooges, but other considerations, including smaller budgets and an inability of Besser to bond with the mannerisms and acting of Moe Howard and Larry Fine, hampered the productions. After the Columbia contract, the two main Stooges decided to make movies with Joe DeRita, another old comedy man.

However, on his own Besser made 10 comedies as a solo Columbia comedy star. I acquired "Fraidy Cat," a 1951 short, because I wanted to see how Besser worked as the star. Besser shone as a man/child type, this older middle-aged comic who chattered and snarked like a six or seven year old, bumbling and surviving his way through comic disasters.

In "Fraidy Cat," Besser is teamed in comedy with a radio personality of the time named Jim Hawthorne. Nevertheless, Besser is the main comedy star of the team, with Hawthorne as more straight man. In what is a remake of a Three Stooges short called "Dizzy Detectives," Joe and Jim are hapless detectives with a boss (Tom Kennedy) who threatens the duo with job dismissal if they don't catch a gang of thieves that uses a gorilla to rob shops. They take vigil at an antique shop where comic mayhem ensues. I enjoyed a slapstick bit early in the short in which an angry Kennedy pounds a desk, smashing some edible nuts. Hawthorne would support Besser in three Columbia shorts. (See the pair below in this still from the short, Besser at right)

If one wants to see Besser doing the fussy man/child act at his best, catch some old Abbott and Costello TV shows, where he play, in over the top but funny style, the childish "Stinky," who snarks and slaps often at Lou Costello in skits. Dressed as a detective in "Fraidy Cat,", Besser does a lot of that, takes a few lumps but always seems to come ahead, and get the bad guys, with the luck of providence. A typical Besser joke in the short, uttered in childish talk, is him insisting the criminal plot is an "inside job" because it's "not outside."

Jules White directs with his usual constant mayhem slapstick ... a lot of heads are cracked on the noggin. Besser may not be everyone's cup of Joe but he does possess strong comic timing, even in these later, cheaper-produced Columbia shorts. I mentioned Besser made 10 shorts with Columbia, but nearly half of them were remakes with a lot of stock footage. He actually remade "Fraidy Cat" as "Hook a Crook" in 1955, with few original scenes.

The print from The Columbia Shorts Department website is very clean and crisp and it's a strong introduction to Besser as a non-Stooges performer. Look to our site for future reviews of vintage Columbia comedy shorts.


Afternote: I recently acquired copies of nearly two dozen non-Three Stooges Columbia comedy shorts. Greg Hilbrich, who manages the invaluable website The Columbia Shorts Department offers many of the comedy shorts, including titles other than Columbia, for sale via DVD and digital download. A current sale of non-Stooges shorts provided the opportunity to view vintage comedy shorts that are out of circulation. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

Margaret Rutherford biography captures the famed actor's eccentric, endearing character

Review by Doug Gibson

I absolutely adore the acting skills and personality of the late Dame Margaret Rutherford, who for nearly three decades was a major star in Great Britain, as popular there as May Robson was in the United States, or Kathy Bates, to use a more recent comparison.

Her face was unique, both angular and broad, with jutting chin, iconic during the middle of the 20th century. Look at the photos below, catch the one with the cape, a wardrobe choice ubiquitous during her acting career, on the stage and film. Her character was a gale wind, determined, forceful respectability with a hint of dotty-ness, shrewdly polite but brooking no foolishness or disrespect.

The lady possessed charisma. I envy those who watch her films for the first time: Blithe Spirits, The Importance of Being Earnest, her "Miss Marple" films, particularly Murder She Said and Murder Most Foul (she was not Agatha Christie's Marple by any stretch but her offbeat, almost comic portrayal of the literary spinster sleuth was so original one can't help but love the films). She won an Oscar for The VIPs, but in reality that was a reward for a handful of superior films she had not been Oscar-rewarded for.

I also enjoy her role in a more provincial film from the early 1950s, "'Innocents in Paris." She interacts more with her real-life husband, Stringer Davis, who was in virtually all her films, and plays, as that was often contracted. They play well together, particularly in her Marple films (which, frankly, she's best known for in the United States.)

British author Andy Merriman has penned a fine biography of Rutherford. It's titled "Margaret Rutherford: Dreadnought with Good Manners." It's a very detailed account of her life. Not blessed with conventional good looks, it took years of dedication to her acting craft before her career gained steam. There are passages of Rutherford bicycling through Wimbledon and other areas to low-paying teaching jobs during the oft times that her early career stalled. She was persistent, and it paid off as her career gained stream in early middle age on the stage and eventually the screen.

Merriman captures in detail -- sometimes to a fault -- the ins and outs of Rutherford's stage work, her movies, her radio performances with the BBC, and television work. I appreciate his respect for the eccentric but loving relationship between Rutherford and her husband Davis. They married in middle age. She outshone him in the business, but there was no resentment. They both loved and needed each other.

As Merriman details, Rutherford suffered from depression. She had a bipolar personality that sometimes led to unwise, impulsive acts outside conventional common sense. It led to excess spending habits that frequently left the couple in rough financial times. On a more serious note, at one time, Rutherford convinced herself to be in a romantic relationship with a singer decades her junior. She made plans for them to run off together. The shocked singer ended his friendship and artistic association with Rutherford. That led her to one of her occasional breakdowns, resulting in shock treatments. Davis (seen below) was always there to help her regain stability.

During her life Rutherford feared that a family history of unstable behavior would cause her to lose her sanity. Her father murdered her grandpa. As a toddler her mother killed herself. She was raised by her aunt. Once famous, she was known among her peers as a kind woman, willing to make gestures of generosity. A very young Claire Bloom, a co-star in Innocents in Paris, relates an anecdote of Rutherford's kindly nature in the book.

Besides being a great biography, the book stands as a history tome, detailing 50 years of the British entertainment industry. Noel Coward, Richard Harrison, Alastair Sim, Constance Cummings, David Lean, Michael Redgrave, Fay Compton, Robert Morley, Joan Hickson, Ron Moody, etc. It will be a fantastic read for film enthusiasts.

But, please check out a few of her films. They are easy to stream. Essentials are her roles as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirits and her Miss Marple films. All are available at Amazon. The Marple films play often on TCM.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Return of the Ape Man; Bela Lugosi goes all mad scientist over John Carradine

A slightly different version of this review was originally published on Oct. 23, 2017, in the post, "Bela Lugosi, vampire, mad scientist or a god, he enhanced a film.)

Review by Doug Gibson

In “Return of the Ape Man,” one of Bela Lugosi’s final Monogram offerings, his deviously mad scientist, Professor Dexter, offers , with polite arrogance, this laconic remark at a fashionable party to another guest. “You know, some people’s brains would never be missed.” Shortly afterward, Dexter tries to prove it by luring the intended of his partner’s niece to his laboratory for an unwilling partial brain transfer to a reanimated, prehistoric “ape man.” Only the interference of partner Professor Gilmore, with the added persuasion of a gun, stops Dexter. “He might not die,” is Dexter’s defense.

If not for Lugosi, “Return of the Ape Man” would be virtually forgotten. Even John Carradine underplays his role as Gilmore to the point of near narcolepsy. The rest of the cast also seems to play their roles with lethargy. The script, frankly, is unimaginative, and cheats viewers of a climax with Bela’s character alive. But Lugosi’s Dexter is his second-best mad scientist role; only Dr. Vollin in 1935’s “The Raven,” surpasses Prof. Gilmore in mad, ethics-be-damned-crime-be-damned, obsession. Like Vollin, Gilmore is courtly, charismatic, dedicated and mad as a hatter in his desire to reanimate a primitive human and provide him a decent brain, at any cost.

Casual fans of the genre may not know that Lugosi played a mad scientist far more often on screen than he did a vampire. He has some great lines in “Return of the Ape Man.” They include: “Murder is an ugly word. As a scientist I don’t recognize it;” and “Fool, you’ll pay for this!” is Dexter’s angry retort when Gilmore stops him the first time. The too-passive Gilmore eventually becomes the subject of Dexter’s partial brain transplant, and the mad glee that fills the countenance of Lugosi’s Dexter is chilling and unforgettable. Do yourself a favor, Lugosi fans, see “Return of the Ape Man.

In fact, Lugosi only played his signature role, his iconic Count Dracula, in two films. He played a vampire in only three films, although he played a fake vampire in two films. His last primary role was again, a mad scientist, in Ed Wood's "Bride of the Vampire."

After his several-years tenure at Monogram, Lugosi made an A feature, One Body Too Many, in a supporting role. He then was in three films with a RKO, a more prestigious poverty row studio than Monogram. He starred in one of those films, "Zombies in Broadway," as guess it, a mad scientist. The other films were The Body Snatcher, a high-billed but ultimately supporting role to Boris Karloff, and Genius at Work, another supporting role in a cast that included Lionel Atwill.

Film work dried up after a feature role in Scared to Death, a color film where Lugosi played another favored role, the Red Herring, in a film that included Atwill. He was mostly on the stage the rest of the 1940s before resuming Count Dracula in the classic, iconic comedy, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." During this time, Bela made ends meet traveling across the country with his wife Lillian appearing in summer stock productions of "Dracula," and "Arsenic and Old Lace," as well as appearing in magic and spook shows.