Friday, March 26, 2021

'The Sinister Urge' - Ed Wood's film no headliner in newspaper ads

"The Sinister Urge," Ed Wood's first (sort of) barely nudie film, certainly his final helm as director of a close-to-mainstream film, hung around for bookings. The above is from a Hartsville, Ala. daily dated Sept. 6, 1967. The film was released in late 1960 by Headliner Productions, run by Roy Reid. Not surprisingly, it often ran with other Headliner releases. On this day it was paired with Headliner's "The Violent Years," scripted by Wood, that was close to five years older than "The Sinister Urge!" 

You can read a review I wrote a while back of "The Sinister Urge" here. I recall reading in Rudolph Grey's "Nightmare of Ecstasy" that "Sinister Urge" was an introduction to adult films. I thought that was an exaggeration for years, but I finally realized that the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version -- the only version I saw for a long while -- was edited. There is brief nudity in the film, semi-explicit sex murder scenes, and explicit bondage photos showed, and seen in full prints, by actor Harvey B. Dunn playing a father complaining to cops Kenne Duncan and James Duke Moore. Duncan and Moore are no Friday and Gannon. They are bland and earnest but with no humor. Still, they are Ed's actors and who can't love them!

Above are a couple of newspaper clips of "The Sinister Urge" playing with "The Violent Years," swapping top billing (it usually was a co-feature to "Violent Years," and another Headliner film, "Married Too Young." But, as mentioned, "The Sinister Urge" played adult theaters. Above it's featured with "Case of the Stripping Wives" and "College Affair" in El Paso, Texas, in 1966. This shows that as a director Wood was already familiar with seeing his films in the nudie theaters, likely before "Orgy of the Dead."

Above we see "Married Too Young" a headliner over "Sinister Urge" in 1963. Wood also wrote some of "Married Too Young." He got some work in the 50s and 60s from Reid's Headliner Productions. According a newspaper clipping source for this blog, my friend David Grudt," Roy Reid's LA Times 1987 obituary said he booked vaudeville acts in Long Beach, Calif., early in his career. When booked at Adult theaters, "The Sinister Urge" often headlined. Examples are above with Ed Wood's film above "His Wife's Habits" in Texas in 1965 and above "Heat of the Summer" in an Illinois theater. I find it fascinating that at that Ilinois adult theater, Roman Polanski's classic "Repulsion" is slated to play there in the future. By the way, "Heat of the Summer" was a (presumably) sexy French film import made in 1959.

Above are a couple of more clips. In one "The Sinister Urge," playing by itself in Texas, is the sole film advertised. In the other, from Alabama, it's below "Violent Years" but is soon to be replaced by something title "Water Hole No. 3." My favorite part of "The Sinister Urge" is a fight scene between Ed Wood and Conrad Brooks lifted out of the aborted "Hellborn" production, which was started but never finished.

NOTES: Another reason to see "The Sinister Urge" is for the crazy, over-the-top performance of poured-into-her clothes Jean Fontaine as a "godmother" of porn, but with mostly unseen demanding crime bosses. (I have often, just half seriously wondered if her gravel voice was dubbed). She was great fun in this film. Wood semi-regular Carl Anthony plays her producer/director. You expect Fontaine to chew and spit nails at any point of the film. An interview with Fontaine would be fascinating. Harry Keaton, (Keatan in credits) who plays a grizzled old porn cameraman, was in comedy shorts 40 plus years ago. I've never been sure if he has some relationship to Buster Keaton. A young acting student named Dino Fantini plays the sex killer, and he's actually pretty believable, even frightening.

-- Doug Gibson 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Phantom Planet: Low-budget, corny, enjoyable space opera

By Doug Gibson

"The Phantom Planet" is a 1961 low-budget space opera that is often mocked for its special effects and melodramatic plot. In fact, the 'bots on MST3K have spoofed it. Nevertheless, I find it a lot of fun. It is part of that endearing 1960s genre of low-budget space exploration films that are too ambitious for their plots. Films such as "Space Probe Taurus" and "The Wizard of Mars" come to mind.

"The Phantom Planet" takes place in 1986 and involves space ships out probing outer space for life. Some U.S. spaceships are disappearing so a new team is sent out. The two-man team is sucked toward a mysterious planet. One of the crew dies but Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) survives. He lands on the planet Raydon, where everyone is 6 inches tall or so. He instantly become the same size,due to the weird atmosphere. 

Eventually Frank learns that Raydon is a planet trying to keep to itself and avoid conflict. One assumes there are a lot of people there but you never see more than a dozen or so Raydonians. There are a couple of beautiful sisters and Chapman is offered to choose one as a mate. I must add there is a sort of "Me Tarzan, You Jane" aspect to relations in this film that was common in these genre space operas.

 Eventually, after a few personality conflicts Frank bands together with the Raydonians to fight the planet's enemies, the Solarites. A Solarite is a rather gross, tall chicken-type creature. The budget only allows for one (played by Richard Kiel of Eegah fame) and he proves easy to vanquish. Frank falls in love with a beautiful Raydon girl (starlet Dolores Faith) and frets whether he should return to Earth. I'll spare future plot details to those who want to see this film. 

It's a fun time-waster. It slows a bit in the middle when Frank gets to Raydon and is out of the space craft, but the pace picks up at the end. All the genre fun is there: bizarre-looking space monsters, "popcorn-type" meteorites seen through a space capsule window, teeny tiny spaceship models moving clumsily through "space." It's corny but entertaining, what more can you ask of 90 minutes!


 The film is easy to find. It is in black and white although I just saw a colorized version courtesy of Legend Films. It was directed by William Marshall, a 1940s "big band" star who became an actor. One of his wives was Ginger Rogers. Former silent film star Francis X. Bushman played the Raydon leader. Hugo Grimaldi, who later helmed the cultish "The Human Duplicators," was part of the production.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Arthur Lucan -- biography captures Old Mother Riley

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 available online, 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 under a different title. The British version with the title Mother Riley Meets the Vampire is on Tubi.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Unearthly -- John Carradine as the aggressive mad scientist

 The Unearthly

The Unearthly, 1957, Director: Brooke L. Peters; Cast includes John Carradine, Tor Johnson, Allison Hayes, Myron Healey; About 75 minutes in most prints. *******1/2 out of 10 stars on the Schlock-Meter

By Doug Gibson

"The Unearthly" boasts Ed Wood’s giant Tor Johnson among its cast, which automatically bumps it up a star or two on the Schlock-Meter. The tale is pretty standard fare for 1950s sci-fi/horror filmdom; Mad scientist John Carradine uses unsuspecting patients to try and graft on a “17th gland,” which the “good” doctor hopes will create eternal life. The problem is, all of the previous human guinea pigs he’s tried the gland procedure on have turned up mentally impaired and deformed. They exist -- a pretty motley bunch -- in the basement.

Pretty Allison Hayes is Carradine’s next intended victim, but she’s saved by Myron Healey, who plays an undercover cop who infiltrates Carradine’s sanitarium pretending to be a killer on the lam. Don’t you love these convoluted plots. Anyway, it’s up to Healey to save the day, since the patients of Carradine are too dense to realize that their ranks are shrinking rapidly.

Surprisingly, Carradine makes a pretty effective bad guy in this low-budget offer. He’s more subtle, resisting the urge to revert to his usual “over-the-top” overacting. The few times Carradine raises his voice in anger, his sinister side is effectively revealed. In a more quiet way, he's still chewing up the scenery. Tor Johnson, as Carradine’s hulking helper, is actually allowed a few lines of garbled dialogue. There are a few shots of Allison Hayes in a low cut nightgown, which must have a excited quite a few movie-going boys just entering puberty in 1957.

Some of the more glaring inconsistencies include: The sanitarium appears to be located in a secluded, out-of-the-way site, but it only takes the police a couple of minutes to arrive when called; none of the “patients” of Carradine’s doctor appear too concerned that Tor Johnson’s grotesque “Lobo” is on the staff; also, it’s amusing to see characters feign the effects of being shot in the stomach without any blood or bullet holes showing up.

Director Peters (real name Boris Petroff) basically did a smaller-budget semi-remake of an earlier low-budget film called "The Black Sleep." Carradine was in that one, but as a loony in the basement who leads a revolution against the mad scientist, played by Basil Rathbone. I actually like "The Unearthly" more than "The Black Sleep," which also had Johnson in it, as well as Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. "The Unearthly: simply more lean and mean, essentially a Monogram Poverty-Row of the 1950s, with no pretensions.

The ad above ran in the Aug. 23, 1957 edition of the Cedar Rapids, (Iowa) Gazette. "The Unearthly" was paired with another thriller, "Beginning of the End."