The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

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A Graveyard Smash!

Four of classic Hollywood’s biggest horror icons together in a macabre comedy? Even if you’re not a diehard horror fan how can you turn down a film like this (if only Bela Lugosi had lived longer). Each icon in The Comedy of Terrors plays to their strengths in this sitcom like set up in which a group of characters, not all of whom can stand each other are forced to live and work together and have no way out of it. Surely there was potential in this to be a TV sitcom, at the short and sweet run time of only 83 minutes it feels like an extended TV episode.

Right of the bat the exposition explaining the film’s set up is a joy to listen to with the perfect comic timing from Vincent Price mercilessly insulting everyone to Boris Karloff’s random one liners. Despite the film’s macabre tone it does have an innocent element to it such as Price’s reaction to Peter Lorre’s poorly made coffin, “No one in their right mind would be caught dead in a thing like that”; nothing beats a distinguished actor delivering a corny pun.

Basil Rathbone is presented as the villain of the film, partially due to him being Basil Rathbone acting in an antagonist manner however his character isn’t doing anything wrong, he’s just trying to collect the debt he is owed from his tenants. Then again going all the way back to the bible, those who collect owed money are always portrayed with scorn. After The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Comedy of Terrors has to be Basil Rathbone’s best ever moments on screen, showing off the full range of his talents from his swordsmanship and ability to recite Shakespeare all while hamming it up.

Vincent Price’s anti hero is one real bad guy of the film, causing misery to those around him. Yet we still gravitate towards him in a reverse of the Basil Rathbone situation; because he’s Vincent Price. The relationship between Price and Lorre is the centre piece of the film in a Pinky and The Brain like dynamic. I’m also surprised I didn’t notice Peter Lorre’s mask double until I had it pointed out to me, it’s the one aspect of the film which is actually creepy. Likewise the other great member is the great Orangey aka Rhubarb the cat. As a cat lover I appreciate the shots of the many shots the mean looking but still adorable feline.

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The Criminal Code (1931)

Crime Doesn’t Pay

The Criminal Code explores the issue of turning a normal person who made a mistake into a criminal through time spent in prison and ends up abiding by the criminal code itself. The same subject matter is also explored in the movie Caged made 19 later; nothing seems to change. Robert Graham (Phillip Homles) is a sheltered pretty boy who got a rotten break (similar to Robert Montgomery in The Big House). However unlike Montgomery in The Big House, Graham is put in a cell with two guys (including Boris Karloff’s Galloway) who look out for him. Although you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit over the movie fast forwarding six years and Graham not being remotely criminalised within that time. Among the film’s examination of the American legal and penal system, Walter Huston explains how it would be possible for someone to get off the hook for a crime such as manslaughter; “A year’s delay, a new trial, the witnesses would fade away, they always do, the whole mess would get cold, the paper’s would have something else to yap about. I’d get him off; he’d never serve a day”. Great thought provoking stuff.

Walter Huston plays the warden of the unnamed prison. He is stern but fair and a real “Yes sir!” type as evident from his first appearance with the manner in which he addresses a female witness (“Never mind that, pull down the shade”). The man is one lightening fast talker who can interrogate like a boss but his greatest of moment on badassery comes from the scene in which he goes into the prison yard to confront protesting, yammering prisoners face to face without any guards. Just look at the way he walks into the yard and lights up a cigar. As he approaches the prisoners the yammering stops and they don’t lay a hand on him. Simply put, this guy is badass. Perhaps unrealistically so but that’s why we have movies.

The Criminal Code was Boris Karloff’s first significant screen role in the part of Galloway. With his dominating, tall, lanky figure he steals the show; his monologue on why’s he’s in the slammer with the shadows across his face is hair raising stuff. Galloway has a vengeance with a guard named Gleason which gives the film some dark comic relief such as the two awkwardly passing each other on the stairs to Karloff’s recurring use of the lines “I don’t like you” and “I got an appointment with you”. Likewise the other memorable cast member, albeit in a very brief role is Andy Devine who is very hard to miss with that highly distinctive voice of his.

The Criminal Code uses the same set created for MGM’s The Big House released the year before. With its more intricate cinematography the film doesn’t capture the sense of claustrophobia seen in The Big House but still captures the mundanity of prison life. As an early talkie there is no music present in The Criminal Code but rather the sound of prisoners marching along with various other sound effects are just as effective as any music score could be.

The Criminal Code is also host to one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema (and was even featured in Karloff film Targets from 1968). When Galloway chases a squealer into a room while yammering is going on in the background from the prison yard, Galloway walks into the room with the squealer cornered as he slowly closes the door as the squealer looks on in terror. What happens next is up to the viewer’s imagination.

Alias The Doctor (1932)

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Doctor Implausible and the Suspension of Disbelief (Now There’s a Band Name)

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Had Alias The Doctor been made in the 1950’s it could likely have been directed by Douglas Sirk with its implausible melodramatic madness. When watching the film for the first time I was unaware of just how improbable the plot was going to be and after several “oh come on!” moments I realised this was a film in which I had to embrace the lack of plausibility rather than fight against it.

A car just happens to crash outside the house of Karl Brenner (Richard Barthelmess) on the night in which he comes home for the first time since being released from prison after taking the heat for his brother Stephan’s  failed and unqualified attempt at surgery when they where students at college only to find out he has since passed away and must perform surgery on the victims of the car crash despite previously being kicked out of medical school for said crime only to impress a local surgeon and have Karl’s mother tell the surgeon that Karl is actually Stephan so Karl masquerades under his dead brother’s name with no further identification than a medical certificate; oh just roll with it. Alias The Doctor is a movie which trades logic for emotion as Karl deals with the dilemma of committing fraud in order to save lives.

This is the perfect example of an hour long movie which packs a lot into that short space of time; quality over quantity. Aside from the story being full of delightfully absurd turns it’s other great asset are the visuals. You can’t talk about a Michael Curtiz film without talking about the visuals and Alias The Doctor is one of the more visually avant-garde films of the 1930’s with its use of expressionism, shadows, tilted camera angles, high contrast lighting as well as striking set design from Anton Grot (that opening shot of Karl ploughing the field would surely make John Ford jealous). This is Hollywood’s imagining of Europe as seen in may 1930’s films through and through.

Boris Karloff had originally filmed scenes for the film as an autopsy surgeon but was replaced by Nigel De Brulier when he was not available for retakes after British censors objected to the gruesomeness of his scenes. While it’s disappointing that Karloff would be removed from the film, Nigel De Brulier is surprisingly Karloff-like in his creepy demur and even walks just like Karloff. The character of the autopsy surgeon has several brief appearances towards the end of the film and doesn’t affect the story but builds up to one dark, humorous punch line in which he is seen preparing himself for the expected death of Karl’s mother during her surgery. Likewise Karl is in love with his adopted sister, I know they’re not related by blood but still. Where else but pre-code cinema can you get his kind of unashamed perversion?

Alias The Doctor even has an amusing depiction of a two tier healthcare system in which a patient inquires to Karl on why he is being charged (“Any doctor can serve a broken arm!”) only for Karl to reply, “But that’s the point, you kept me away from patients who needed me, people who couldn’t afford to pay a doctor. That’s our system”.

They save the best for last which Barthelmess’ monologue to the medial committee on why he should be allowed to operate on his mother despite being exposed as a fraud (albeit under highly unusual circumstances). This is storytelling which calls to the viewers raw emotion for a rebellious ignorance over rules and regulations; reality need not apply. Being an actor of the silent era, Barthelmess can convey a lot with his face while having a great voice to boot.

There is no record of Alias The Doctor every being released on home video prior to being issued on the Warner Archive Collection in 2010. Shame that such a visual work of art would have been out of reach for decades. I’ll say it now and I’ll it again; the 1930’s is an archaeological treasure chest of obscure gems.

Five Star Final (1931)

The Scum

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Five Star Final is 85 years old yet nothing has changed in that the public still has an appetite to read about filth in newspapers. The themes here would be looked at in many newspaper comedies throughout the 1930’s, however this is no screwball comedy – it’s deadly serious. I guess we can’t say “back in my day journalists had ethics”. The real life inspiration for Five Star Final came from a New York tabloid called New York Evening Graphic. At the time of the film release the Evening Graphic was losing circulation because its new editor was attempting to make it a more respectable paper, just like the character of Randall played by Edward G. Robinson the editor of the fictional tabloid newspaper The Gazette.

Randall is an editor who is not without ethics. Despite the objections of the paper’s management, “Randall won’t print pictures of girls in underwear in the pictures section” and prints cables from The League of Nations. The pressure is on him to stop printing “actual news” and more sensationalist stories and gossip. When Randall gives in we see the full sleaze of Edward G. Robinson; after all nobody could do sleaze better than him.

The stealer of the show however is Boris Karloff as Isopod. This isn’t a horror movie but his performance feel like one straight from a horror picture with is distinctive, eerie voice. Isopod is a disgraced priest of whom Randall disguises as a practicing priest to go undercover and do the paper’s dirty work; a creep who is full of crap and as Randall puts it “You’re the most blasphemous looking thing I’ve ever seen”. The name Isopod in Greek means ‘even footed’ but more commonly is the name an unpleasant looking order of crustacean parasites so I guess it works.

The Gazette has a number of shady practices; they bully retailers and vandalise their stalls for not putting their papers on top. Likewise they employee a pretty girl played by Ona Munson to do dirty work for the paper although the main reason they’re choosing her for the job is that she’s not flat chested, as evident by the shot in which Aline MacMahon is clearly looking at her rack (even Isopod enjoys checking her out).

In order the increase the circulation of The Gazette, Randall unearths a 20 year old murder case for the sake of a sensational story later titled, “Famous Killer’s Girl to Wed Society Man”. Today with this internet thing we’ve got going on it would be highly unlikely someone could hide the fact they were once tried for murder while Isopod could just get a photograph of the murder’s daughter on Facebook. But the fact remains the same: sensationalist news stories can affect the lives of innocent associates.

The film has a truly superb cast with everyone having their moment in the sun and this being a film set in the world of journalism, the dialogue flows at a rapid fire rate; a form of acting which is truly a thing of the past. Marian Marsh’s breakdown at the end is hair raising melodramatic brilliance, even if her husband just happens to walk in as she pulls out a gun in a delightfully improbable turn of events.

The production values are excellent helmed under the great director Mervyn Le Roy (such an impressive back catalogue). The use of sound in the opening credits with boys shouting “extra!” and the noise of the printing press sets the atmosphere while it’s evident the studio strived for this production to have authentic sets. Many shots in Five Star Final have an impressive level of depth such as that of George E. Stone with his feet up in foreground as he sits back while on the phone.

Five Star Final contains innovative use of split screen as Mrs Voorhes (Frances Starr) in the middle of the frame is trapped between paper employees who go about their business as usual and try to ignore her but also shows the paper as voyeuristic spies. Yes, the filmmakers sure love their symbolism here. Throughout the film Randall is constantly washing his hands (“50 times a day” apparently) while the paper employees going to the bar and drink in order to deal with their conscience. Likewise Randall’s closeted love interest Miss Taylor played by Aline MacMahon has feelings towards him but objects to his job and the paper; she is symbolic of his conscious. To top it all off, the film ends with an image of the paper lying in the gutter like the filthy rag it is; a final powerful image to stick in your mind.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Wrath of Genghis Kahn

 

Talk about a trashy film, just how trashy? Boris Karloff plays a sort of Asian Hitler hell bent on exterminating the white race, or how about the scene which involves Myrna Loy having a sexual fetish from seeing a man being whipped. Man, pre-code Hollywood was not right in the head. The film’s plot is like an Indiana Jones film which never got made (or more importantly could never be made), like Indiana Jones getting an artifact before the Nazis to avoid them harnessing its power to take over the world expect here its Asian Nazis. This is the kind of film which is so off the wall that its fun describing it in one of the purest pieces of pulp escapism to come out of the 1930’s.

In today’s politically correct world where everything offends everyone and people are obsessed with racism (like seriously, what well known movie doesn’t have an “This movie is racist” topic on IMDB) I find there’s a certain joy that comes from watching something as shocking and politically incorrect as The Mask of Fu Manchu; like a kid watching R rated movies behind their parent’s back. Even as late as the 90’s scenes from The Mask of Fu Manchu had to be cut for a VHS release (thankfully now in it’s fully restored original version on DVD) – notice for example how picture quality degrades for the line “A china man beat me? He couldn’t do it”.

Old Hollywood had an odd fascination with East Asia and Eastern Asian mysticism as Lewis Stone’s characters states, “Will we ever understand these eastern races, will he ever learn anything?”. Is it right to simply dismiss The Mask of Fu Manchu as a “racist” film. Is there a malicious intent with the film to demonize a race and culture with Dr Fu Manchu being the anthises to Judeo Christian values, or is it merely the representation of the perversion of a foreign culture and race.

No expense is spared on Fu Manchu’s layer. This is the bad guy layer that would make James Bond villains jealous. Complete with torture devices, crocodile pits, an assortment of mad scientist gizmos of topped with all round luscious deco making The Mask of Fu Manchu one of the most visually sumptuous films of the pre-code era. Like any Bond villain Fu Manchu could kill his opponents with a simple gunshot but instead puts them on devices which will kill them at a slow pace, and yes, they’re able to escape and halt the bad guy’s evil plans.

Boris Karloff prevents the character of Fu Manchu coming off a total caricature, showing he is a man of taste and culture and one who puts the genius in evil genius, boasting that he is a doctor three times over having graduating from three different universities. Likewise it amazes me how Myrna Loy transformed her image from an exotic to something as far from that as possible within such a short period of time; thankfully she didn’t do these kinds of roles for too long a period of time. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and her ever menacing presence.