Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Miracle on 34th Street was a TV special in 1955



The 1947 Miracle on 34th Street is iconic, a holiday classic. And deservedly so. It's witty, heartwarming, with superb performances by Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, with supporting actors that include Natalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Gene Lockhart, William Frawley, and Jack Albertson.

But there are others, and I want to discuss a 1955 TV version titled The Miracle on 34th Street. It's obscure but easily available. It's worth a viewing. It stars Thomas Mitchell as Kris Kringle and the cast includes Teresa Wright, Macdonald Carey, Sandy Descher, Hans Conreid, John Abbott, Whit Bissell and Dick Foran.

The Miracle on 34th Street would likely be forgotten today if not the archive of YouTube and other streaming websites. It's a brisk, lean 46-minute show, over before you know it. But it's a enjoyable near hour, a sort of homage cum remake of the 1947 classic.

Here are some key changes: Kris Kingle, played by Thomas Mitchell, does not get hired for the Macy's Parade because the other Santa is drunk. He's already the Macy's Santa. There is no character of Alfred, the teen janitor who Kris becomes a mentor to in the '47 film. Also, the very touching '47 film scene of Kris speaking Dutch to a young European orphan girl is omitted. However, Kris does advise shoppers to go to other stores, including Gimbels, if the deal is better there. And he has Descher's young Susan pull at his beard.

The omission of Alfred leads the plot with Mr. Sawyer, the unhappy Macy's psychologist, and his clash with Kris, in a different direction. Sawyer does interview Kris as part of his job, hates him and wants him fired. However, the episode where Kris knocks Sawyer over the head with his cane occurs at an assembly at Susan's' school, where Sawyer congratulates the students for not buying into supersition. During this scene, Kris, dressed in Santa garb, is -- unbeknownst to Sawyer -- behind him on the stage, mocking him.

The children can't help laughing and it's amusing for a while. Then, a flustered Sawyer berates adults who dress up as Santa. At this point, the scene takes a turn that today would seem very dark. Kris Kringle lifts his cane high and savagely brings it down on the unsuspecting Sawyer. This is a very harsh contrast to the '47 version, where a frustrated Kris sort of "pops" Sawyer on the head with his cane in his office. In the '47 version, it's clear Sawyer is maliciously feigning injury afterward.

However, this Kris Kringle really hits him hard, and frankly I think a month or two in the jail for assault might have been merited. This leads to a second point: Although Thomas Mitchell is not a bad Kris Kringle, unlike the more gentle Edmund Gwenn in the '47 version, the '54 version Kris Kingle is a bit of a looney. Mitchell's Kris Kringle occasionally has a mad look in his eyes, and he really gets angry. When Teresa Wright's Doris rushes after him to say he's not fired earlier in the film, the audience can see the deranged anger in Mitchell's eyes.

Neverthless, and happily I guess, Kris Kringle is of course exonorated by the judge. In another change from the '47 film, Doris calls the U.S. Post Office, suggesting they forward letters to Santa Claus to the court where Kris is being tried for his sanity.

One other little twist is a scene where MacDonald Carey's Fred Gailey has brought venison to a dinner with Kris, Doris, and little Susan. Doris suggests to Susan if she doesn't like venison, she'll make her eggs. Kris interjects, with a long face, that he would prefer eggs too, because well, venison being deer, he just couldn't eat that. It's a mildly amusing scene, worth a smile. 

The Miracle on 34th Street was an episode of The 20th Century Fox Hour. It's' not the only other version of Miracle on 34th Street. There was a radio version, another TV version in 1959, and two mediocre conventional movie remakes. One, a TV film, is from 1974 with Sebastian Cablot as Kris Kingle. A theatrical version in 1994 had Sir Richard Attenborough as Kris.

But none approach the classic 1947 version, which remains the version to see first and often. However, I think this 1955 TV show version is the second-best offering. And it fits within an hour, for quick viewing with the family. You can watch it here. The two clippings from The Los Angeles Times were unearthed by my friend, David Grudt.

-- Doug Gibson

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Two anthologies that provide a history of classic Christmas stories


Reviews by Doug Gibson

Readers of our blog know the name of author Andi Brooks. This year he has edited and compiled two fantastic anthologies of classic Christmas Tales. One is A Treasury of Christmas Stories: Classic Tales for the Festive Season. The other anthology is Ghost Stories for Christmas: Volume Two. 

They provide superb reads, preferably on a comfortable relaxing weekend afternoon, or around the late hours passing through midnight into the early mornings. Brooks has also included in some of the two books' stories original drawings. Both books provide the provenance of the stories, with date, name of author, and the periodical that published the tale.

Here is a Plan9Crunch link to blogs that are about and/or mention Brooks.

You can purchase these books, and other books from Brooks, via Amazon here.

Let me briefly delve into a Treasury of Christmas Stories. I've read about three-quarters of the stories. I am saving the rest for the long Christmas weekend this year. I had not read, or heard of, "The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree, by Dostoevsky, before this year, but its imprinted in my heart. It tells the story of a boy, 6, on Christmas Eve, desperately searching for food. He's starving, and it's freezing cold. Unable to satisfy his hunger, he curls up in a virtually alley, by a woodstack. He suddenly encounters a wonderful Christmas Tree, with warmth, food and love. His recently dead mother, resurrected, is there with him. It's Christ's Christmas Tree, provided to children who perish due to humanity's neglect. 

One can't resist tears when Dostoevsky writes, "And down below in the morning the porter found the little dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack ..."

Another story compiled by Brooks is an abridged A Christmas Carol, the (not much) shorter version that Charles Dickens provided live to audiences with his eloquent voice. Dickens earned well for this, and continued the recitations until his death at 58. The plot and spirit of the hallowed story is not harmed by this shorter version. All the important points are retained. Passages excluded include the Lord High Mayor dinner in Stave 1, the discussion between the Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present on Sunday closure laws, and the scene in the Final Stave where Scrooge manages to make a donation to the portly businessmen on a charitable mission.

Other stories that stood out to me included Babouscka, a tale of a Russian woman, who with sad countenance, visits homes on Christmas Eve. She loves the babies, and caresses them. Her visits are tinged with regret, a sort of atonement. You see, she failed to accompany the Three Kings when they requested she join them on their visit to the new-born Christ. 

A poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, Christmas at Sea, draws a beautiful contrast between Christmas day on a ship, with warm homes visible on land.


Ghost Stories for Christmas: Volume Two is -- like Volume One -- a gem. Because I'm a former full-time journalist, I enjoyed "The Wicked Editor's Christmas Dream," 1893, by Alice Mary Vince. The tale -- sort of a very short A Christmas Carol take -- involves a spirit showing a loosly ethical journalists the consequences of preferring tabloid reporting over more virtuous stories.

The Ghost Summons, 1868, by Ada Buisson, is a deliciously creepy tale of a young doctor provided $1,000 pounds to be with a patient convinced he will die that night. The doctor considers the patient delusional, but learns otherwise.

I particularly enjoyed the story Bone to Bone, 1912, by E.G. Swain, in which the spirit of a man who died 150 years ago in a vicarage subtly provides clues to the current owner on how to locate and return his now scattered bones to their proper resting place.

Long or short, these stories are well edited  by Brooks, and satisfying. Readers do not have to be like me, and read most of them in a month. Read a few to several this Christmas season, and repeat every next Christmas season. The reading pleasure will last through the years, and longer as you re-read the tales

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Afterlife Wanderer, 1915, is cinema's first vampire film

(Both photos from The Afterlife Wanderer are courtesy of Daydreams Database: Cinema of the Russian Empire and Beyond, edited by Anna Kovalova and developed by Alexander Grebenkov.)

It seems the very first vampire film has been discovered. It's from 1915, titled The Afterlife Wanderer. (See stills from the film above). More below:

Film scholar Gary D. Rhodes is found in many of the pages of Plan9Crunch blog. He's written extensively about Bela Lugosi, and recently -- along with co-author Bill Kaffenberger, unearthed new information about Bela Lugosi's pre-Dracula years in the two-part Becoming Dracula series. 

A few years ago he also unearthed information on the lost Hungarian silent film, Drakula Halala, regarded as the first film to use Bram Stoker's tale as provenance, albeit loosely. However, as Rhodes notes, there's really no vampire in Drakula Halala. Just like there's no real vampire in Tod Browning's lost 1927 silent film, London After Midnight (see star Lon Chaney in a still from the film below).

Often the 1922 classic Nosferatu is regarded as the first vampire -- of the blood-sucking variety -- film (see star Max Schreck, who really resembles a rat, in a still below). But Rhodes has unearthed a 1915 Russian film, unfortunately lost, as likely the first film to feature a blood-seeking vampire.

As mentioned, it's called The Afterlife Wanderer, and it stars a young Olga Baclanova, who would later see her career surge in Hollywood. She's in a lot of films, but is perhaps best known for playing the evil, ill-fated circus vamp in Browning's "Freaks." 

On the Medium website, Rhodes writes in detail about the film, its history and how it earns the distinction of being cinema's first vampire film. Here is one paragraph from Rhodes' article:

"One review described The Afterlife Wanderer's title character as 'vampire who sucks the blood of the living people at night.' Another called her a 'vampire woman sucking blood from loved ones.' No doubt about it: she was a real vampire and a reel vampire."

According to Rhodes, reviews were mixed -- to be kind -- for The Afterlife Wanderer. It was banned by the mayor in one city. Baclanova's performance was subtly mocked by one reviewer. The Afterlife Wanderer will be discussed in detail in a book by Rhodes slated for publication next year, Vampires in Silent Cinema.

But there's lots of information on The Afterlife Wanderer, and other similar silent films, in the Medium piece. It can be read in its entirety at the Medium website. Rhodes forthcoming book, available next year, Vampires in Silent Cinema, can be pre-ordered here.

Monday, November 6, 2023

'40 Cult Movies' offers a perceptive, interesting new look at the genre

Review by Doug Gibson

Jon Towlson is pretty well known and respected as a genre writer. On the Plan9Crunch blog, we have read and enjoyed his book on pre-code horror films, “The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films: 1931 to 1936.” But he’s written several books and many articles. The guy’s a legit expert on films.


In “40 Cult Movies: 40 Cult Movies from Alice, Sweet Alice to Zombies of Mora Tau” (2023), he reviews and comments on a wide variety of films, from Freaks to Shivers, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Upgrade, to The Legend of Hell House to Drag Me to Hell.


It's a very diverse selection. Some of the films are familiar to all, some familiar to genre fans, and some are obscurities that Towlson notes have small cults. A Serial Killer's Guide to Life and Redeemer: Son of Satan are examples of films with a following in search of a sustained cult. I love that The Legend of Hell House is included. It’s a fantastic horror film overshadowed by another great film, The Haunting. Towlson aptly notes how the haunted house is perfect match for the plot and mood of ... Hell House.


One strength of Towlson’s writing is he can thoroughly discuss a film, its plot, cultural impact, its director's history, its relation to other films, and leave the reader satisfied with what has been read. That is a rare quality in writing.


In his introduction, Towlson makes it clear that if you don’t agree with everything, “that’s OK.” I love that in a writer. Towlson describes how many of his films underscore political or cultural themes. I agree with him in many cases, notably films from Penelope Spheeris, David Cronenberg, and George A. Romero, all with multiple films discussed in this book.


I had a harder time accepting that Invasion of the Body Snatchers represents 1950s conformity and even the McCarthy era. I know director Don Spiegel thought so but to me it’s solely a damn good science fiction piece. But Towlson presents excellent arguments for his takes and I’d likely have a tough time debating him.


The book is full of these types of interesting discussions on how films provoke the culture wars. Cronenberg’s Shivers is an example. Is this tale of a parasite infecting residents with sexual mania actually positive? Is it preferable to a stultified, consumerist life that decreases sexual interest? These, and other reviews of  films such as Martin, Alice Sweet Alice, and others will keep us reading through the night.


Also in his introduction, Towlson hopes that the book prompts readers to seek out the films he has covered. I have already started. In the past two weeks I have watched, for the first time, Horror Hospital, Alice Sweet Alice, Audrey Rose, and Shivers. I also re-watched, Redeemer: Son of Satan, a film I saw a long time ago as Class Reunion Massacre. All have been rewarding views.


This is the best book on cult films since Danny Peary's 1980s series of books. I hope Towlson will do this again with 40 more cult movies. He’s the writer to give us genre in-depth looks at these unique films. I hope we have three or four volumes. 40 Cult Movies would be a great companion buy with "TCM: Undergound: 50 Must-See Films", which we also reviewed on Plan9Crunch.


In his acknowledgments, Towlson writes, “I dedicate this book to anyone who has ever had a tape snarl up in his VCR.” Oh, that is apt. Reading about these films, many I watched for the first time on VHS (I even saw a few in Beta) brings so many great memories of heading to the VCR store and looking for a garishly decorated clamshell VHS. In those days they sold the sizzle more than the steak. I discovered that in films like Dr. Butcher M.D. …, Criminally Insane, Pranks, Bloody Birthday, etc. But there was steak amidst the sizzle, such as Martin, Evil Dead, and Torture  Dungeon, Andy Milligan’s take on Shakespeare that I’d love to see explored in a future volume of Cult Movies ...

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Halloween III – Season of The Witch: An overlooked Halloween movie


I have a confession to make. Like many film critics in 1982, I did not understand or take a liking to Halloween III – Season of The Witch the first time I viewed the film. As the decades have rolled on, I have developed a greater appreciation for the film with multiple viewings. The film is not considered canon in the Halloween series because Michael Myers is nowhere to be found in the film. Director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill agreed to participate in the film only if it was not going to be a direct sequel to Halloween II. Carpenter's chilling music adds some greater credit to this often overlooked horror film.

It's Saturday October 23rd – eight days before Halloween. A tall middle-aged man named Harry Grimbridge, who runs a costume shop business, is being chased by a car in the opening of the film. He appears to be out of breath as he runs with a pumpkin mask tucked in his pants. He finds his way in the pouring rain to a gas station where he tells the station attendant “they're coming!” The gas station attendant takes the man to a local hospital. The man is treated by Dr. Daniel Challis, played by Tom Atkins. Challis is in the middle of a break up with his wife and is never home due to the demands of his job.

Grimbridge is later killed in his hospital bed by a man dressed in a suit. His eye sockets and skull are crushed. Dr. Challis follows the man in the suit out to the hospital parking lot as the man drenches himself with gasoline in his car and sets himself on fire. Grimbridge's daughter Ellie, played by Stacey Nelkin, arrives the following morning to identify the body of her father. Ellie finds Challis in a bar and asks for his assistance in uncovering the motif behind her father's death.

Challis and Ellie travel to a small Irish community named Santa Mira, where Silver Shamrock Novelities manufactures Halloween masks. Ellie's father had picked up some masks from Silver Shamrock a few days before his murder. When the couple arrive, they discover the entire town to be under heavy video surveillance and a strict 6pm curfew. The two uncover a plot by the Silver Shamrock owner Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy) to use the masks in an ancient Celtic ritual involving a stolen boulder from Stonehenge and a triggering device inside Silver Shamrock masks to kill children when a commercial airs on TV.

Although Michael Myers is never seen, the film still has a number of brutal killings. A homeless man has his head torn off by one of Cochran's robot henchmen. Dr. Challis' lab assistant is killed with a drill in the head by another robot henchman. A child wearing a Silver Shamrock mask watches a TV commercial as his head cracks open to reveal snakes, worms and cockroaches. A business woman in a motel has her head explode from the chip placed in a Silver Shamrock mask.

Halloween III suggests that Cochran's desire to kill millions of children is like a harvest sacrifice during samhain to help provide greater crops during the next harvest season. Children being glued to their televisions as Silver Shamrock commercials air is a metaphor for the consumerist attitudes of Americans being controlled and influenced by messages we see and hear on TV.

In a recent social media post I saw about the 41st anniversary of Halloween III, many comments were offered about the film in the comments section. Most of the comments were negative reviews of the film. Some of the negative comments were directed at Dr. Challis, who jumps into bed with Ellie, a woman 20 years younger, and Challis abandons his wife and children in the film. Other comments suggested that the film has bad acting.

The main reason that many critics may not like Halloween III is because of the obvious reason – the absence of Michael Myers. In Halloween III, the solution to the mass killings is very simple – remove the Silver Shamrock mask and live. In any Halloween movie with Michael Myers, the solution is not that simple. Myers is a killing machine who stops at nothing to murder his victims. The problem is not solved simply by removing a mask. Even when Myers appears to be wounded or killed, he still gets back up and goes after his victims. The viewer never really feels this kind of horror and doom in Halloween III.

If you consider Halloween III – Season of The Witch as a stand alone film that has nothing to do with Michael Myers, you may still find it entertaining and worth your time. If you are looking for a film which connects well with the Michael Myers story, you may want to skip Halloween III and see Halloween IV instead. Happy Halloween and happy viewing.


Steve D. Stones

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Boris Karloff provides subtle chills in The Walking Dead, 1936


An excellent horror film to watch for Halloween season that more casual genre fans may not be familiar with is Warner Bros' 1936 chiller, "The Walking Dead," starring Boris Karloff. It was helmed by famed Hungarian director Michael Curtiz. Other chief cast members include Ricardo Cortez, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull.

There are no mindless zombies consuming human flesh in the lean mean 60-plus minute film. Karloff plays a down-on-his-luck musician ex-con in bad need of a job. He spent time in prison after being sentenced harshly by a stern judge.

This stern judge has just sentenced a corrupt politician to 10 years in prison. Gangsters who control most of the crime in the city have decided the judge needs to be murdered. Since Elmann was sentenced by the judge they want to kill him. The gangsters set Elmann up to take the fall for the judge's murder. Elmann is in a car with one of the gangster when the judge is murdered. He's there thinking he'll get a job, but he winds up charged with the murder.

Ellman's lawyer turns out to be a Mr, Nolan (Cortez) who is part of the criminal gang. Cortez gives a feeble effort at trial, resulting in Elmann's conviction and death sentence.

Ellman claimed during trial that a man and a woman were at the scene the night of the murder and can be his alibi that he did not kill the judge. That's true. They are Nancy (Churchill) and Jimmy (Hull). They work as medical assistants to Dr. Evan Beaumont (Gwenn), who is working on efforts to revive the dead. Threatened by gangsters the night the judge was murdered, Nancy and Jimmy attend the trial, but rather disgracefully never corroborate Ellman's claims.

Just before his appointed time of the execution, the pair finally reveal what they know to lawyer Nolan. However, he intentionally slowwalks getting the information to authorities and Elmann is executed.

At this point, Dr. Beaumont requests that he be allowed to try go revive Elmann's body, restoring life. Through a type of electricity procedure and a mechanized "heart," Elmann is revived. This is not done in secret. The resuscitation is big news as is the late-breaking news that Ellman is innocent. In fact, Nolan procures a $500,000 settlement for Elmann.

Karloff's Ellman is very weak and still being treated. However, he expresses disgust and anger when he sees Nolan, ordering him out of the hospital. At a larger gathering, Karloff displays disgust at Elmann's accomplices, all of whom are gang members, including the actual killer. This prompts the district attorney, (Henry O'Neill) to lay groundwork to investigate Nolan and his confederates.

At this point Karloff begins to make nocturnal visits to the gangsters, escaping the hospital. He is clearly getting weaker, and his hair has white streaks in it. He comes as a type of avenging angel, asking each gangster why they did what they did, telling them they cannot avoid responsibility.

The gangsters' reactions are a mixture of fear and panic. Most seem unable to actually shoot the unarmed Ellman, and they eventually die through a panicked accident while backing up, or through a heart attack. 

Nolan and the remaining gangsters eventually try to kill off Karloff. There is a satisfatory conclusion, set in large part at a cemetery that Elmann feels comfortable in.

This film has supernatural elements. It's strongly hinted that Karloff learned who the guilty persons were in death, during the period before he returned to life. Karloff gives a strong, understated performance, of a man full of outrage but not intending to kill his past tormenters. In fact, Elmann looks perplexed and concerned when he sees his tormenters' panicked, surprising deaths.

Cortez is an excellent actor, who was a big star then. His resume includes an early series of Perry Mason films. Gwenn, who gained iconic fame as Kris Kingle in "Miracle on 34th Street," plays a kindly "mad doctor" well. Churchill was very good in "Dracula's Daughter" but both she and Hull are kind of bland in this movie.

Curtiz's direction is strong. He moves the plot smoothly and keeps the horror from going over the top. There's no need to be gory. The creepy parts, the ones viewers remember, are the scenes of a forbidding, aging Karloff walking slowly to those who betrayed him, and observing the antagonists' panicked reactions.

This was Curtiz's third and final Warner Bros' horror film. Others were "Mystery of the Wax Museum" and "Doctor X," both superb pre-code films. "The Walking Dead" is early non-precode, and I suspect a lot of explicit scenes were cut. But I think in this case, a more subtle touch likely improved the film. Its success was solely in Karloff's hands, and he delivers a great performance.

- Doug Gibson

I want to give cult film expert Buddy Barnett credit for this paragraph. Interested persons can read a (short) "novelization" of "The Walking Dead" in the June 1936 edition of Movie Action Magazine. It's a fascinating time-capsule read. The link is here at the Internet Archive. You have to scroll to that month's issue.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Enjoy Bela Lugosi's poverty-row gem The Corpse Vanishes


By Steve Stones

The Corpse Vanishes is my favorite Bela Lugosi Monogram film. It is also the first Monogram film I ever remember seeing on TV as a child sometime in the late 1970s. The scene of police opening a coffin in the back of Lugosi’s car is priceless. The look on Lugosi’s face as they open the coffin is unintentionally hilarious.

Speaking of coffins, the film also stars Tristram Coffin as Dr. Foster. Coffin starred in many serials of the 1940s and 50s. Angelo Rossitto, star of Freaks and countless other Monogram cheapies, plays Lugosi’s midget assistant Toby. He is billed in the opening credits as simply Angelo. It’s interesting to note that Rossitto would go on to star in the Mel Gibson film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome some forty years later. He also starred in Al Adamson’s cult classic Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

Young brides are dying at the altar and Dr. Lorenz, played by Lugosi, is kidnapping their bodies for scientific experiments to rejuvenate his countess wife’s youth and beauty. She is played by Elizabeth Russell, best known in RKO's Cat People and Curse of the Cat People. Newspaper reporter Patricia Hunter, played by Luana Walters, discovers that all the kidnapped brides were wearing a rare wild orchid. Her investigation leads her to Dr. Lorenz, who raised the rare orchids. Apparently the smell of the orchid caused the brides to collapse at the altar.

On route to Dr. Lorenz’s home for an interview, Hunter meets Dr. Foster, who warns her of Lorenz’s eccentric and weird ways. Arriving at the Lorenz home, the Countess Lorenz expresses her unwelcoming nature to Hunter by slapping her in the face. Lorenz convinces Foster and Hunter to stay the night because of the pouring rain outside.

During the night, Hunter discovers a passage to an underground mausoleum and sees some of the kidnapped brides being held there. She also witnesses Lorenz and his wife sleeping in separate coffins. Lorenz explains to Hunter the next morning that sleeping in a coffin is much more comfortable than sleeping in a normal bed. Lorenz also suggests that Hunter was having a bad dream when she thought she witnessed seeing the kidnapped brides in the mausoleum.

Hunter decides to return to her newspaper headquarters and comes up with a plan to trap Lorenz in the act of kidnapping a bride by staging a fake wedding. The wedding day is set, and Lorenz does not fall for the trap, but instead kidnaps Hunter at the scene of the wedding. Foster and the local police catch up to Lorenz just as he is about to conduct an experiment on Hunter. The film ends with Hunter and Foster getting married. This time Lorenz cannot kidnap the bride.

It’s also interesting to note that Barney A. Sarecky was the associate producer of this film. Sarecky was one of the screenwriters for the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, starring Buster Crabbe as Flash.

Any fan of Bela Lugosi cannot afford to miss The Corpse Vanishes. All of Lugosi’s Monogram films are an absolute delight to watch. I particularly love this one because of the simple plot. Watch for the scene of Lugosi whipping his laboratory assistant named Angel. It’s a precursor to Lugosi’s famous scene of whipping Tor Johnson in Ed Wood’s classic The Bride of The Monster. Enjoy watching the film here.  Also, more photos from film and a newspaper ad.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Quick reviews of two films: a classic and an amusing time-waster

At Plan9Crunch blog, we note two vintage films we recently enjoyed. One a classic I’ve seen and loved 20 times. The other a low-budget comedy from an RKO ‘40s team I like.

--Doug Gibson


The above is an iconic scene from Night of the Hunter. I recently watched it again via TCM. Although opinions are subjective, I consider this the finest film ever made. Charles Laughton helmed an allegorical tale - based on the Davis Grubb novel - of Good and Evil battling over the welfare of two innocents.

Robert Mitchum is fantastic as the murderous, coveting faux preacher. But Lillian Gish, as the elderly, flawed but pure, protector of children ... wow, the finest performance I've witnessed in a film.



This Carney & Brown comedy B film recently aired early morning on TCM. I look for the RKO comedy team's other films because I enjoy the team with Bela Lugosi in two films. "Girl Rush" was pretty amusing, an entertaining 65 minutes. One of the co-stars is comedienne Vera Vague. She's considered blowsey and unattractive in film, but she's actually gorgeous.

Also in the 1944 film is a young, just-signed-to-a-contract Robert Mitchum. It's surreal to see Mitchum in drag in the comedy film's climax, Yet the star power is there. Mitchum dominates every scene he is in. Wally Brown and Alan Carney were no competition to Abbott and Costello but they provided fun films in a similar comedy vein. 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Magic Sword – A fantasy adventure from director Bert I. Gordon


At a time in the 1960s when Italian sword and sandal action films dominated the drive-in movie screens, American director Bert I. Gordon created this medieval fantasy adventure epic – The Magic Sword (1962). Gordon was known for films depicting giants, usually as a result of atomic radiation, such as a giant spider, giant grasshoppers, giant ants, a giant man in diapers, and even giant teenagers. The Magic Sword is considered by many of Gordon's fans as his best and most ambitious film. From a technical filmmaking and storytelling perspective, The Magic Sword is Gordon's best film.

Princess Helene (Anne Helm) has disappeared without a trace. Lodac the wizard, played brilliantly by Basil Rathbone, has kidnapped the princess. He appears before Helene's father, the king (Merritt Stone), and demands revenge for the king's father executing his sister at the age of 18 for witchcraft. Lodac releases seven curses on the land and threatens to feed the princess to his dragon in seven days. One of the king's knights – Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), sets out to rescue the princess so he can marry her. Lodac warns that it will not be easy for Branton and his men to find his castle where the princess is being held in a cell.

Meanwhile, sorceress Sybil, played by Estelle Winwood, is foster mother to Sir George (Gary Lockwood), who will not allow George to leave their home until he is twenty-one and in the possession of a magic sword and a strong white horse. George wants to leave their home so he can rescue princess Helena first, and win her love. George tricks Sybil into getting trapped in an underground cavern so he can leave with the magic sword and white horse to find the princess. George assembles six brave knights to follow him on his journey to find the princess.

Sir George and his six knights appear before the king at his castle. George tells the king that he wants to save the princess, but sir Branton insists that he will be the one to rescue the princess and marry her. Branton challenges George to a duel, but his sword is broken across George's chest as he strikes him.

The Magic Sword is filled with many interesting set pieces and well done special effects for 1962. Brandon, George and their knights encounter a forest of dead trees and a giant man eating ogre. The forest is filled with bubbling lava pits. The knights battle the giant with spears. George attempts to rescue a knight who has fallen into a hot lava pit. While rescuing the knight, George is pushed into the pit by Branton.

Another set piece shows cone headed humans in a castle feasting at a table while the eyes of stone gargoyles move back and forth near a fireplace mantle. The princess encounters a hanging cage of midgets when she wanders away from her cell. An uncredited appearance by midget actor Angelo Rossitto happens during a scene in princess Helene's cell. Cult actress Maila Nurmi, known for her iconic role of Vampira on TV in the 1950s and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), appears in the film as a hag. Another cult actor, Richard Kiel, plays a pinhead character.

Director Gordon saves his best set piece and special effect for the ending of the film when Sir George frees Princess Helene from a two headed fire breathing dragon. George battles the dragon with his magic sword. This final scene shows the connection of the Magic Sword to the story of St. George and The Dragon. Helene and George are married and everyone lives happily ever after, just like in a fairytale story. The film was also marketed as La Espada Magica, St. George and The Dragon, St. George and The Seven Curses, The Seven Curses of Lodac, Happy viewing. 

(The Magic Sword is available at many online locations. A great print is at Tubi. It is also on Amazon Prime. And here's a link to a You Tube print.)

Reviewed by Steve D. Stones

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Zenobia a comedy that matched Oliver Hardy and ... Harry Langdon

By Doug Gibson

"Zenobia," a 1939 Hal Roach comedy feature is an charming film, albeit one that failed to attract audiences. It's mostly forgotten today, except for routine once-a-year airings on Turner Classic Movies. (It did, however, recently get a Blu-Ray release.) The film, from Hal Roach, pairs rotund Oliver Hardy with silent- and early-talkies era comedian Harry Langdon. This was because Hardy's iconic partner, Stan Laurel, was engaged in a contract dispute with Roach. Langdon, a close friend of both Laurel and Hardy, stepped in to film "Zenobia," with no real intention of taking Stan Laurel's place, although there was talk of a second Hardy/Langdon feature, that ended after "Zenobia" failed at the box office. Laurel eventually returned to Hal Roach, but soon after the pair left for good, moving to 20th Century Fox.

But let's talk about "Zenobia." It takes place in Carterville, Mississippi, in the post-Civil War deep South, although to be honest the residents there appear to have been spared the recent horrors of war. Hardy plays -- way out of character -- Dr. Henry Tibbett, a mild-mannered country doctor whose finances are a bit shaky because long ago he decided not to use his medical skills to get wealthy. Nevertheless, he lives in a rented mansion with Mrs. Tibbett (Billie Burke), his daughter Mary (Jean Parker) and their three servants, Zero (Stepin Fetchit) Dehlia (Hattie McDaniel) and their child Zeke (Phillip Hurlic). Daughter Mary is engaged to marry a rich young man, Jeff Carter, played by James Ellison. Jeff's snobbish mother, Mrs. Carter (Alice Brady) loathes the match is working to get back with a former girlfriend, Virginia, played by June Lang.

Despite this subplot, this is a gentle film, and no matter how dastardly the machination of Mrs. Carter and Virginia to dash Jeff and Mary's love, there's never any danger of the pair being split up. All ends well and even mean Mrs. Carter apologizes at the end. What's most interesting is that Burke -- who was Glinda the Good Witch in Wizard of Oz -- provides most of the comedy, and not Hardy. Burke proves herself adept at comedy, playing a scatterbrained but quick-witted, and loyal spouse to Hardy's gentle, good-natured Dr. Tibbetts.

This domestic set up is damaged by the performance of Fetch-it as the servant, Zero, who perpetuates a racist stereotype that unfortunately was a part of Hollywood in that era. "Zero" mumbles, whines, cowers and cringes throughout the film. However, the contrast between his performance and that of McDaniel is interesting. McDaniel, who won an Oscar as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, delivers a strong performance, in which she never surrenders her dignity or self-respect.

Now, time to mention the main plot and Harry Langdon's excellent contribution to "Zenobia." Langdon plays Professor McCrackle, a traveling tonic salesman who also has an elephant, named "Zenobia," who travels with him. One day, when Zenobia is feeling poorly, McCrackle begs Dr. Tibbetts to treat his elephant. Because he's such a nice man, Tibbetts treats Zenobia. His treatment works so well that the elephant becomes enamored of the doctor and won't leave him alone, following poor Hardy's doctor and occasionally picking him up. Upset that he's no longer number one with his elephant, Langdon's McCrackle is convinced, with some help by the scheming Mrs. Carter, to file an alienation of affection lawsuit against Dr. Tibbetts.

It's an amusing plot, and Langdon is excellent in scenes with Hardy. He's too good a comedian and actor to try to imitate Laurel. Instead, Langdon utilizes his understated comedic talents and blend of timidity, deadpan blank face and "Little Elf" voice to generate a fair share of laughs. His best scenes with Hardy are when Zenobia is being treated by the doctor, as well as his efforts to keep the elephant away from Hardy's Tibbetts. In the final courtroom scene, which is the strongest point of the film, Langdon is hilarious as he is constantly interrupted while trying to testify using a memorized script.

So why did the film fail? It cost $637,000 and grossed only $351,000 worldwide, according to the Langdon biography "Little Elf. " It's not Langdon's fault. One reason may be that audiences were so used to Laurel and Hardy comedies that they couldn't accept Oliver Hardy in a role that was mostly non-comedy. In fact, when he's treating Zenobia is the closest he gets to traditional "Hardy comedy" and audiences probably wanted more. Also, while Burke is very good in comedy, and witty, it must have seemed strange to audiences to see her, and not Oliver Hardy, getting the laughs. Another reason may be that there is very little drama in this comedy. As mean as Mrs. Carter, Virginia, and others are, you don't really feel that there's any tension in the film. The New York Times described Zenobia as "Gone With the Wind" as devised by Hal Roach, and there's truth to that. Carterville seems like somewhere in NeverLand, an alternative multiverse. Finally the biggest reason Zenobia failed so badly was that the public didn't want to see Hardy with anyone else other than Stan Laurel.

The New York Times also gave props to Langdon, writing (from Wikipedia) "...Harry Langdon has adopted the partnership prerequistes formerly reserved for Stan Laurel...Harry Langdon's pale and beautifuly [sic?] blank countenance...has probably already excited the professional jealousy of Mr. Laurel..."

However, Langdon never intended to attempt to supplant Laurel, a man who went out of his way to help Langdon through tough stretches in the 1930s, and is due a lot of credit for providing momentum that insured the last several years of Langdon's career was fairly busy, and prosperous. Scenes in the otherwise excellent film, "Stan and Ollie," that purport to show that Hardy was upset at Laurel for briefly leaving Hal Roach and saddling him with Langdon are fictional.

Zenobia is worth watching, and I'm glad it's frequently on TCM, as it provides both a glimpse at the versitility of Oliver Hardy and the comic talents of Harry Langdon.