Sunday, August 30, 2020

Scared to Death: Bela Lugosi in 'natural color'

Observations by Doug Gibson

Look above you, readers, and you see a newspaper ad -- from the Bakersfield Californian -- for a "spook show." at midnight on July 4, 1957. On stage will be Dr. London's Inner Sanctum Hour. On the screen is "Scared to Death," with Bela Lugosi headlined. The ad states it's "in gory color."

A woman dies in "Scared to Death," sans gore, and a couple of the cast gets a knock on the head. It is indeed in color, Cinecolor, a cheap film system used mostly for nature and westerns. In fact, it was advertised as "Natural Color" often, including in the Chula Vista Star in an ad on July 11, 1947 below. Incredibly, it was the co-feature to "Suddenly It's Spring," with Fred MacMurray Paulette Goddard!

Golden Gate Pictures released "Scared to Death" in 1947 even though it was completed in 1946. I know a lot of genre fans that enjoy the film. After many viewings, including another as I type this review, it has grown on me. But it can be a tough slog. It's an inside-the-house/sanitarium mystery that gives away the ending at the beginning. We see a woman, Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont) who is dead at the morgue. Strangely enough, she serves as our narrator.

For about an hour we are inside the sanitarium house, which belongs to Dr. George Van Ee (George Zucco) whose son, Ward, is in a loveless marriage with Laura. It's an odd situation. The doctor and his son are treating Laura, but she claims to be a prisoner. Ward wants a divorce, but Laura refuses. She seems to always be very stressed out. Lionel Atwill was originally cast as Dr. Joseph Van Eee, but died in late April of 1946.

A rather dumb cop, played by Nat Pendleton for comic effect, is providing security at the house. He's smitten with a mostly disinterested maid, played by Gladys Blake. Bela Lugosi, as Prof. Leonide, arrives at the house with a mute little person companion, Indigo, played by Angelo Rossitto. Lugosi gives every sign and appearance that he and Dr. Van Ee are enemies, or at least at odds over something or other. They verbally spar for a few minutes. It's fun to watch two old pros go at it in any film. But really nothing happens except it's agreed Lugosi's Leonide will lodge there awhile.

(Below is another ad for the film, from the July 11, 1947 San Bernardino, Calif. Sun. I like that it is accompanied by, presumably, a short called "Spooks to Me." I think the actual title is "Spook to Me," a Columbia Comedy short from 1945 starring Andy Clyde.)

Back to the plot of "Scared to Death:"  .... Someone appears to be gaslighting, Laura. She receives creepy mail packages, eerie messages, and a green floating head occasionally appears at windows. From time to time, Laura's corpse at the morgue breaks in for more narration. Eventually a fast-talking, aggressive-to-the-point-of-obnoxious newspaper reporter, played by Douglas Fowley, arrives with his ditzy girlfriend. He spends most of his time interrogating the various people in the house. His interview with Leonide is a highlight because Lugosi has good comic timing and is able to shift his pleasure to displeasure -- on discovering he's talking to a reporter -- in amusing fashion.

I enjoy this film now, mainly for Lugosi. He looks healthy, unique and just plain great in a very formal suit, cape and formal hat. He has the most acting energy of anyone in the cast. He speaks in the same style he used in the 1934 "Black Cat," placing emphasis and emotion on his lines at various appropriate times. His eyes are so expressive. Let's face it, Lugosi never gave anything other than his best in his films, even confusing films like "Scared to Death."

And it is very confusing to a first-time viewer. The film attempts to keep a scary atmosphere by using a few eerie-sounding musical chords of "DUN DA DUH!! a few times. With so many characters flitting around, plot twists -- some of which go nowhere, and such a low budget, the viewer can easily lose the plot thread for a while.

 I'm done summarizing the film. I will post a review/summary of "Scared to Death" that was published on June 8, 1947 by the Big Spring Daily Herald newspaper in Big Spring, Texas. The "review" is obviously part of the film's press packet that was probably just cut out by the editor of the newspaper section and placed on the page. Passing off studio-manufactured movie reviews as legit opinion in newspapers is not done today but I have seen a few 1940s' genre press kits in Cult Movies magazine and they include publicity movie "reviews" for willing press.

Here's a snippet if the review is too hard to read. It is "a picture designed especially to mystify and horrify even the most blase of audiences."

The Complete Films of Bela Lugosi, by Richard Bojarski, includes a review of Scared to Death from the New York Daily News. It reads in part, "Scared to Death is a horror film, just the sort of fare the Rialto Theater patrons go for. ... with sudden, unexplained disappearances, floating green masks that come and go at windows ..." The review adds that Lugosi and George Zucco "are old hands at this horror game."

I hope Lugosi got the biggest paycheck. Every ad I and my friend, David A Grudt (thanks for his help) found in archives always listed Bela in the type. Theater owners knew who exactly brought in the crowds.

With Lugosi and Zucco, a large house for a set, a woman in distress, and a decent supporting cast, I wish director Christy Cabanne had used his stars for a better plot. Maybe a Poverty Row version of a "Black Cat" type film with Zucco playing the Boris Karloff role. But that didn't happen.

As mentioned though, the film grows on you if you give it a few viewings. It may be the first film, until "Sunset Boulevard," narrated by a corpse. You can watch it below.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Ella Cinders is one marvelous silent film and Colleen Moore is great in it

Review by Doug Gibson

My initial reason for watching Ella Cinders, a 1926 comedy take on Cinderella from First National Pictures, was because I knew that my favorite silent comedy screen star, Harry Langdon, had a cameo with the actor who starred as Ella Cinders, Colleen Moore.

The cameo was great, very funny; but the movie is even better. It's a comedy classic and it's understandable that the winsome -- timid-but-determined heroine with the expressive countenance and bobbed hair -- Moore became a star.

Ella Cinders was a cartoon strip for decades in the prior century. It involved a beautiful step-child bullied and virtually enslaved by her widowed step-mother and her two far less attractive (and that's being kind) step-sisters. That's a familiar tale, of course. The setting is Colorado. Besides her screen-presence beauty, Moore is a genuine comedian who inspires pathos. I'm not scholar enough to analyze her talents next to other women silent stars, but with her pluckiness I do feel comfortable comparing her to Mabel Normand in two films, Mickey and The Extra Girl. (One of the Ella Cinder comic strips is below.)

So, Ella is pretty friendless except for one champion, the delightfully named Waite Lifter, the local iceman. (He's as handsome as a prince, by the way). One day, while cleaning up at a local get-together at her home she discovers news of a photo contest. The winner gets a screen contract in Hollywood. Ella sees it as an escape. To get the $3 needed to enter she babysits. She lifts a magazine from her sister on eye movement while acting. Watching her practice is very funny and special effects -- impressive for that time -- are used to have eyeballs move from side to side in the sockets.

(In the two stills below Moore's Ella is seen with her step-mother, Ma Cinders, played by Vera Lewis, and with her "prince," Waite Lifter, played by Lloyd Hughes).

Ella gets her photos taken and wins the trip. She won not for her beauty but because her eyes crossed while a fly was on her nose. The judges loved the comic effect. Her family shuns her but Waite sees her off on the train to Hollywood.

In the train, Moore shines in a scene where Ella takes a nap while alone on the train and wakes up with the car filled with Native American men in traditional garb. They are smoking cigars and Ella, wanting to be a good sport, tries puffing on one with comic results. Her acting in the scene is on par with Lucille Ball.

Once the train arrives in Hollywood Ella is hit with another major setback. The contest was a scam; the promoters are in jail. She's urged to go home but realizing how dire her prospects are there and the derision she'd receive, Ella musters the courage and determination to go it alone in the movie world and try to get a foot in the door.

This eventually leads to a funny sequence of scenes where she attempts to get past the guard at a studio's gates and is eventually chased through the lot by him. This includes the laugh-out-loud funny scene where Ella encounters Harry Langdon and mistakes him for another studio gate-crasher. Langdon, in complete "Little Elf" mode, listens quietly, using his facial expressions to provide encouragement. To avoid detection, he advises her to contort her body so he can place a tablecloth over her so she can hide as a table. It's clear that Harry was filming "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" at the time based on the clothes he was wearing. (1)

Ella is eventually discovered and caught. But she so impresses the director, played by Ella Cinders director Alfred E. Green, that she gets a film contract and favorable press notices in her hometown announcing she's a star.

I'll stop with the plot recap here except to mention we learn that iceman Waite Lifter is actually a national sports hero with a wealthy family. In a short scene we see him arguing with his father, who doesn't want him to marry Ella.

The film I watched clocks at 51 minutes. However, I believe the film is 74 or 75 minutes. Perhaps part of the film is lost and this is a shorter re-release print. It's still very enjoyable and with overall good pacing. The climax of the film involving a reunion of Ella and Waite seems a bit too abrupt and perhaps that is where cuts were made. I also wonder if a final resolution scene with Ella and her wicked step-family might be missing.

Colleen Moore had a long fascinating life. She retired from acting after starring in The Scarlet Letter in 1934. She was a shrewd investor, so much so that she was partner later in life with Merrill Lynch. Besides writing an autobiography, she also wrote a book on how to invest in the stock market. Born in 1899, she died in 1988.

Moore preserved her films through the Museum of Modern Art but was persuaded by Warner Brothers to give the nitrate films to the studio for preservation. Once there the films were ignored and not maintained. When Moore inquired about the films years later, she was deeply disappointed to learn that many had deteriorated beyond repair. She searched to replace the now-lost films with a little success.

As for Ella Cinders, it can be viewed at Amazon Prime and at EPIX network. However, neither of those prints have music. I recommend watching the YouTube print embedded below. Despite one odd scene of Moore "talking," it's an OK print with music that provides a fun 51 minutes for viewers. We can only hope that TCM Sunday Silents will provide a strong print, with Ben Model-quality music, in the future. If the longer version exists, that would be a treat to view as well.

1) During Ella Cinders, on a few occasions Moore brings her fingers to her mouth to express confusion or discomfort. The gesture is so much like Langdon that I can't help but wonder if he suggested to Moore that she use the gesture.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Criswell the mystic local advice columnist, 1949-1951

Dead2Rights Ed Wood Wednesdays, that wonderful blog from Joe Blevins that provides in-depth analysis on all things Ed Wood, has a detailed, informative blog post on Criswell, predictor of the future, star of two Wood films and occasional Johnny Carson TV guest.

The blog post notes accurately that Criswell's sojourn with a measure of fame began around 1953. However, I am from Long Beach, Calif., and very long ago my now-deceased mother, while enduring a Plan 9 From Outer Space viewing with me, remarked, "I know that Criswell guy; he used to write a column in the (Long Beach) Press-Telegram. I saw it when I was barely a teen."

I often wondered about that, and recently I have become captive to the addiction of searching old newspaper clips. So, having signed up for Newspaper Archives, I searched for Press Telegram clips of that era. And lo and behold, Mom was right.

In his pre-salad days, Criswell penned a local column for the Press-Telegram. Here is a JPG of his column on Dec. 24, 1949. There he is in the upper left (smaller picture)

I am aware it is unreadable, and I hope to correct that soon. The thing is, unlike, Newspaper Archive is more expensive, and very cumbersome to use, at least for this novice. I hope to post the column in readable clips soon. I just gotta learn. Newspaper Archive also does not automatically convert to JPG. Clicking on the JPG helps with reading, particularly the second column clip, below.

I have transcribed a small part of the article. Here is the Editor's Note: (not in caps)


And here are a couple of questions, and answers from Criswell:

Q. Will this marriage last? Will my husband go into business for himself? Will I get that job that I have been after? A. Reader.

A. Both you and your husband have a definite mind of your own, and it is this creative quality in both of you that is causing the friction. I do not sense a break up of the marriage at the present time. Your husband will go into business for himself late in 1950. You will get that job only there will be a delay. You will always manage to come out rather nicely.

Here is another Q and A:

Q. My husband drinks too much and spends almost all he earns. Will he ever change or do you advise a separation? Should I seek employment? Will I be able to contact my son soon? Mrs. N. V. E.

A. Your husband will never change to any great extent and you must expect his periodic lapses from time to time. Later, you will change residences. You will work at a job you like during this coming year. You will hear from your son very soon.

Above is another JPG, of Criswell's Long Beach Press-Telegram column for Feb. 18, 1950. You'll note this is a Criswell Predicts now over the headline, which reads, Columnist Answers Readers' Questions. I do have this clipped to show only the column in its three columns. He has a longer introduction which notes his "record of predictions ... has been considered outstanding."

Here's is a couple of Q and As for our readers' enjoyment:

Q. What happened to my husband, Joe? Mr. J. L. C. 

A. I sense that Joe is out of your life.

Another one:

Q. Several years ago I married my boss, taking him from his wife. Now problem is to keep him as this new secretary of his is trying the same thing that I did. I have a lovely home and an easy time of it and don't want to give it up. What should I do? I married him to get out of secretarial work and now this immoral girl wants to do the same. Mrs. H. L. S.

A. The best thing for you to do at the present time is to suggest that you come back into his office as his secretary. You will be safe this time. See that the next secretary he hires is a man. He has wanted to take that trip to Europe and whether you like that a boat ride or not take that trip.

(I like the last sentence of Criswell's response because it seems him adding a prediction to his answer, unless it's a typo and should have been part of another answer).

At the top of this page is an old clip of from I think the Long Beach Independent, Sept. 26, 1950. This is for a Criswell personal appearance. Of the two clips below, one is an ad for a personal appearance, in the LB Independent for March 31, 1950. Note that Criswell did his show in between, or before movies playing at the theaters. That's a blast from a long-gone era.

The other is a what's-on-radio grid listing from May 30, 1950, same newspaper, and it's fascinating because it notes that Criswell, at that time, had a daily 15-minute radio program on KGER 1390.

(Thanks to my friend, David Grudt, for compiling these clips via I hope readers enjoy this looks at the work of folks around the Ed Wood circle. I love doing it.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Looking back on Vampira, through the newspapers

Hello Plan9Crunch readers. This is Doug Gibson and I am starting a new, occasional series of looking at our cult icons, and how they were promoted, through media lens; in this case the newspapers of their heydays. Thanks to newspaper archive sites this is fairly easy to do, and I find these glimpses of history interesting.

For this post, we will focus on Vampira, and several media mentions of her in the 1950s in the LA press. I'm planning to focus on Criswell in the near future, and share some of his very early press columns. In this endeavor I wish to thank my near-lifelong friend, David Grudt, of Long Beach, Calif., who has sleuthed well to find these clips that we are sharing here. They are all from the Los Angeles Times. Unfortunately, I cannot locate archives from the LA Herald Examiner or Hollywood Citizen News. I sure would like to dip into those archives.

So, on to the media clips of Vampira.

1) The first (above at top) is from June 12, 1955, and details how an alleged masher was charged with harassing Vampira on the street.

2) The second, just above us, is from Sept. 11, 1954. It's a very clever ad from the Times, with a notice of Vampira's' TV show on at 11 p.m. The top ad, for a beauty contest, says, If YOU LIKE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS ... The smaller Vampira ad starts ... IF YOU LIKE BEAUTIFUL GHOULS ...

3) I love number 3 here, from the Times classifieds of Feb. 2, 1955. Notice that a Chevrolet dealership is pitching a "Vampira" Weekend sale. A plug by Vampira is signed "Repulsively yours, Vampira." It's an interesting look at offbeat advertising/public relations.

4) In Dick Kidson's Farmers Market Today column of June 14, 1954, Vampira is described as "the current sensation of the local airways." I love the final paragraph, where Kidson informs us that Vampira was at the farmer's market and ordered a "silver cigarette case made in the shape of a coffin."

That is so chillingly cool.

5) The above clip is from May 11, 1956, and the Times announces, with a photo, that Vampire is returning with a new show, on KHJ, Channel 9. Being rather tongue in cheek, she tells readers she plans a different look. She says she wants viewers to think of her as the "average friendly neighbor they would expect to find living halfway up the swamp." She concludes: '"I've undergone a grave change. ... My motto now is 'home sweet homicide.'"

6) Here is likely the first mention of Vampira in the LA Times -- May 1, 1954. Vampire is announced in the blurb as hostess for a new show, "Lady of Horrors," at midnight on KABC Channel 7. It is promised she will be wearing a "form-fitting shroud." And before the show, a party is planned at Ciro's.

7) This from, June 19, 1955 classifieds, is interesting. A home called Vampira's Hideout is for sale. I have no idea if Vampira was selling a home, or if the realtor, Marie F. Purcell, had contracted to use her name.

It's pretty clear from these clips that Vampira achieved some iconic status as early as the mid 1950s.

Next time we go clips hunting, it will be for Criswell. Again, thanks to my good friend David Grudt for his assistance locating these treasures we shared.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Night of The Blood Beast – Aliens Impregnate Space Traveler

Review by Steve D. Stones

With titles like Hot Car Girl (1958), Attack of The Giant Leeches (1959) (aka The Giant Leeches), Blood and Steel (1959) and this 1958 film – Night of The Blood Beast, how could any cult movies viewer of forgotten low budget gems not want to be a fan of director Bernard L. Kowalski's films? These lurid titles are enough to attract the attention of any obscure movie fan.

A young astronaut, John Corcoran (Michael Emmet), loses control of his space rocket while en route back to earth. He crashes near Walker's Pass in Florida, where the spacecraft was launched. A photographer, Donna Bixby (Georgianna Carter) and technician Dave Randall (Ed Nelson), arrive on the scene from a nearby space agency tracking station to investigate the damages. The two discover a large hole in the side of the spacecraft as if something forced its way out, and Corcoran lying dead inside the spacecraft. Bixby photographs the wreckage for future investigation.

Astronaut Corcoran's body is brought back to the space tracking station in Florida for an autopsy performed by Dr. Alex Wyman (Tyler McVey) and his assistant Dr. Julie Benson (Angela Greene). Although his body appears to be deceased, his blood pressure and heart rate appear to be normal for a living person. A blood sample from his body reveals strange, abnormal cells that show he is infected with something foreign. Dr. Benson and Corcoran were engaged to be married, so Benson is very emotional about his death.

Later that evening, an unseen creature attacks and kills Dr. Wyman by decapitating him and suspending his body in a medical examination room. Astronaut Corcoran comes back to life at the time of Wyman's death, and the group immediately thinks he's responsible for killing Dr. Wyman.

After an x-ray of Corcoran's chest reveals alien embryos impregnated in his body, the strange creature that killed Dr. Wyman bursts into the room again to communicate with the group, but Randall and Steve Dunlap (John Baer) fire shots at the creature, forcing him to flee the room. The entire room becomes engulfed in flames.

The space tracking station has lost all communications with the outside world. Electrical power has also been knocked out. Randall, Dunlap and Bixby leave the station to track the creature and to discover the source of what knocked out their radio communications. While tracking the creature, Bixby is attacked as Randall and Dunlap fire shots over the creature's head. The creature flees once again.

In a third attempt to track the creature, Corcoran pleads with Randall and Dunlap to not meet the creature with violence, but instead attempt to communicate with it. Randall and Dunlap agree to Corcoran's plan, but are still skeptical, so they take along Molotov cocktails to saturate the creature with gasoline and to ignite him with flames. The group tracks the creature to a nearby cave, where it communicates to the group its plans of an alien race coming to earth to dominate. Corcoran kills himself at the cave to prevent the birth of the alien embryos in his chest.

Night of The Blood Beast had an original working title of Creature From Galaxy 27, and was produced by Gene and Roger Corman. Director Kowalski was only 28 years old at the time he directed the film. The film played on a drive-in double bill with another Roger Corman produced film – She Gods of Shark Reef (1958). She Gods is a complete yawn-fest compared to the superior Night of The Blood Beast.

Watching this film, I can't help but think that perhaps director Ridley Scott may have been inspired by at least the story of Night of The Blood Beast when he created Alien (1979). Many sources report that Scott received most of his inspiration from Mario Bava's – Planet of The Vampires (1965) and perhaps Edward L. Cahn's film – It! The Terror Beyond Space (1958).

The Alexander Laszlo music of Night of The Blood Beast was also featured in Kowalski's 1959 film – Attack of The Giant Leeches. Laszlo's score can also be heard in the 1950s TV space adventure – Rocky Jones - Space Ranger and the 1959 drive-in hit - Beast From Haunted Cave.

Most exterior shots were filmed at Bronson Canyon caves at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. This location was also used in many other cult classic films of the 1950s, such as Unknown World (1951), Robot Monster (1953), The Day The World Ended (1955), I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) and Teenage Caveman (1958). Speaking of Teenage Caveman, the creature costume used in Night of The Blood Beast will make an appearance in Teenage Caveman.

Night of The Blood Beast would certainly make an excellent double-feature with Kowalski's other lurid sci-fi adventure – Attack of The Giant Leeches. Happy viewing.