Doctor X (1932) Michael Curtiz

doctor-x-movie-poster-1932-1010524764A grisly mass murderer who is known as the “Full Moon Killer,” his victims are always attacked when the moon is full, is on the loose in New York City. The only clue the police have is that the killer must have a medical background. Doctor Xavier, aka Doctor X, (Lionel Atwell) and his staff at a local medical institute have become the main suspects since the victims are not only strangled but cannibalized. The good doctor convinces the police to let him conduct an in house investigation of his staff for 48 hours so as not to stain the reputation of the institute. They agree. Continue reading

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Kid Galahad (1937) Michael Curtiz

Harry-Carey-Wayne-Morris-and-Edward-G_-Robinson-in-Kid-Galahad-1937Kid Galahad is a solid entertaining Warner Brothers film starring Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, so you can hardly go wrong. The film was directed by Micheal Curtiz who just a few years later would direct Bogie in one of cinema’s greatest classics, Casablanca. Here Bogie is still a second string player in one of his typical, for the time, gangster punk roles he was being typecast to play. He had the unlikely name of Turkey Morgan. Like what tough guy has a nickname of Turkey? Continue reading

Short Takes III: Groucho, Doris and Frank James

Horse Feathers (****1/2) The only thing wrong with this hilariously funny Marx Brothers film is the absene of Margaret Dumont from the cast. Other than that this film, the fourth of five for Universal the Brothers made is outstanding.  At this point in time the Marx Brothers were in the middle of a series of iconic films that still stand today as gems of absurdist comedy. The anarchistic arm of comedy rules right from the opening scene when Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, performs, “Whatever It Is , I’m Against It,”   and that pretty much is the theme of this short 75 minute film.

There are so many great scenes it is difficult to highlight just a few. I love the row boat scene with Groucho romancing Thelma Todd while she is attempting to seduce the team’s plays out of him. The entire sequence has a risqué and somewhat surrealistic feel to it all. When Thelma fall overboard and screams to Groucho to throw her a life saver, heroically he does just that, a candy life saver. The final wedding scene ends in what could be termed a riotous orgy. The scene opens with Groucho, Harpo and Chico standing off to the side as newlywed Thelma and an unseen groom, presumably Zeppo, are receiving their wedding vows from  the preacher. As soon as he pronounces the couple man and wife and says to kiss the bride, Groucho, Harpo and Chico literally jump all over Thelma falling into one big pile to the ground.   Directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

My Dream Is Yours (***1/2) an odd little musical with a young Doris Day and second banana Jack Carson in the male lead role. Despite being a musical there are dark overtones of alcoholism and the death of a husband/father in the war. I am not much of a Doris Day fan (I’m diabetic and cannot take the sugar rush) generally avoiding her films like I would a hornets’ nest, but Martin Scorsese discusses this film in the new book, CONVERSATIONS WITH SCORSESE and liked it. Coincidently, it recently popped up on TCM and thought, with the Scorsese recommendation, I would give it a try. The film is a mixed bag, but  there is a wonderful dream sequence blending live action and animation featuring Bugs Bunny, along with Doris and Jack that is the highlight of the film. Location shots in Hollywood including Schwab’s Drugstore and The Brown Derby add a nice flavor. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

The Return of Frank James (**1/2) Fictional version of Frank James pursuit of the Ford Brothers for the killing of his brother Jesse. As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Frank James is a gosh darn, soft spoken, man of the land kind of guy just out for good ol’ American revenge. I find Fonda such a likable actor, he could play a serial killer and you gosh darn want to like him. Henry Hull is entertainingly blustery as the newspaper editor/lawyer who defends Frank in court. The recently deceased Jackie Cooper’s death scene in the film has more corn than tears, and the film is also hurt by some serious stereotyping dialogue forced to be read by the black members of the cast. Nicely photographed by George Barnes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast includes Gene Tierney, John Carradine and Donald Meek.

The Walking Dead (1936) Michael Curtiz

The Waliking Dea poster

“The Walking Dead” is a blend of gangster film, horror with a touch of science fiction tossed in.  Directed by Warner Brothers’ stalwart Michael Curtiz, who previously dabbled in the horror genre with “Doctor X” and “Mystery of the Wax Museum”, this 1936 film, is an engaging oddity that should not be missed. The film stars Boris Karloff as John Ellman, a down on his luck ex-convict who innocently gets mixed up with some underworld characters. He is framed for the murder of a judge who just convicted one of their buddies to a long prison term.  Two young medical assistants, Nancy (Marguarite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are witnesses to Ellman’s frame-up but do not come forth and say anything until the last minutes before his execution. By the time, the Governor is reached to stop the electrocution it is too late. Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), who Nancy and Jimmy work for, wants Ellman’s body for his experiments in bringing people back from the dead. Beaumont’s experiment is successful and Ellman is brought back to life.

Though he is alive, Ellman is not quite the man he used to be. He cannot remember much except who framed him and that he has an affinity for wanting to spend time at the cemetery where he says he feels that this is where he belongs.  Zombie like, Ellman soon begins to go after each of the men responsible for his frame-up and one by one, they begin to die, though more from fright than from Ellman actually doing anything.walking

What makes the film exceptional is the cinematography by Hal Mohr. The film is gorgeously shot with eerie long shadows. Most spectacular is the buildup to Ellman’s execution, poignant cello playing, and shadows of the jail cell bars flowing dramatically across the floor. The film is worth seeing for this scene alone.

Along with Karloff, the film’s cast includes Ricardo Cortez as Nolan, the mob’s slime ball lawyer, Barton MacLane as one of the gangsters and Joe Sawyer as the shooter appropriately named “Trigger.” Edmund Gwenn, best known as the real Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street” is the research doctor who is more interested in what it is like to be dead than in saving Ellman’s life. As Ellman lays on the ground dying the Doctor drills him, “What’s it like to be dead…tell me!”  In his final words, Ellman begins to tell him, “After the shock, I seemed to feel peace and….” He never finishes the sentence.

Karloff of course has been resurrected from the dead more times cinematically than anyone has except for you know whom, I count at least four. He first rose from the dead as the monster in the 1931 James Whale classic “Frankenstein” (it’s alive! it’s alive! cried Dr. Frankenstein) followed by “The Mummy” in 1932.  In 1936 came this film, and since you cannot keep a good man down, or dead for that matter, he came back one more time in Columbia’s 1939 low budget “The Man They Could Not Hang” , a film with some similarities to this one.   With his hallow cheeks and mournful look Karloff makes an effecting brain dead zombie that will keep haunting you long after the film’s short running time ends.

King Creole (1958) Michael Curtiz

     “King Creole” is arguably Elvis Presley’s best film. This may sound like a dubious achievement but “King Creole” is a movie that you do not actually have to be an Elvis fan to like. The film has a lot more going for it than most Elvis films. A good solid Hollywood director in Michael Curtiz, the man responsible for made “Casablanca,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Sea Hawk” and so many others.  A cast of actors that would do any film proud including Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow, Dean Jagger, Dolores Hart and the wonderful sexy off beat Carolyn Jones…and of course, Elvis. Also contributing is Russell Harlan’s moody photography that captured the seedy French Quarter atmosphere so well.

    “King Creole” was only Elvis’ fourth film and the last before military service cut his hair and other more vital organ parts, at least symbolically. The music was still good (King Creole, Hard Headed Woman, Trouble) and had yet to disintegrate into fetal filler like “It’s A Dog’s Life” and “Song of the Shrimp,” that would become typical of his movies within only a few years. The movie was based on an early novel by Harold Robbins, one of the most successful authors or the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Robbins works included “The Carpetbaggers,” “Never Love a Stranger,” “Where Love Has Gone” and “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” all eventually made into movies. “A Stone for Danny Fisher” was retiled “King Creole” when adapted into a screenplay (co-written by Michael V. Gazzo) for Elvis. The location was changed from the streets of New York to New Orleans to accommodate Elvis’ southern accent and of course, now Danny can sing.

     Danny Fisher is a high school student just about to graduate when family problems, his dad is out of work, and a hot temper result in Danny dropping out of school and falling in with a group of young punks who plan to rob a five and dime store using Danny’s singing skills as a diversion. The punks, lead by Vic Morrow, as Shark,  work for Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau) a minor local hood who owns a club where Danny works mopping and sweeping because his father can’t hold down a job.  Danny leads a double life. There’s Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), Maxie’s kept woman, who is attracted to Danny and Danny is attracted to her, as he is to Nellie (Dolores Hart), a nice girl Danny meets at the five and dime store he was mixed up in robbing. There’s also, Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), a honest rival club owner (he owns the King Creole) of Maxie’s, who gives Danny a break singing there, and then there is Maxie Fields, a viciously vile and abusive thug representing the dirtier underworld  side of the nightclub life. Danny is pulled in both directions; the unhappy Ronnie abused and used by Maxie and the sweet more innocent Nellie, the nice girl who a good life can still be possible with.

“King Creole” would be Elvis’ last ‘rebel without a cause’ style film. He would go into the army an anti-hero and when he came out two years later, like Samson once his hair was cut, he lost that rock and roll spirit. He turned into a cleaner cut friendly all American Elvis, a pod that would carry him through approximately thirty more films with little or no redeeming value.           

  King Creole has plenty of good moments in it like the opening scene; we see the wet empty streets on an early New Orleans morning. A black woman, riding in a wagon calling/singing out “Crawfish” as she slowly strolls the empty street. “See I got’em, see there size, stripped and cleaned before your eyes”.  A bongo beat begins and suddenly from up on a balcony above we hear Elvis sing out “Crawfish,” back and forth with the black woman.  What great opening scene. There a lot of other good stuff in this film, Elvis in a switchblade fight with Vic Morrow and his gang; Walter Matthau’s performance as the slimy hood Maxie Fields;  Elvis singing “Trouble” on top of a bar proving to Maxie that he can sing and Carolyn Jones giving another great performance as a sensitive good-hearted loser.  

It’s sad that Elvis rarely got to use his acting chops again (only in Flaming Star did he have that chance). In “King Creole” he shows flashes of acting talent that if nurtured could have potentially gave us some memorable performances. At one time or another Elvis was considered, or offered such roles as Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” and the Kris Kristofferson role in the Streisand remake of “A Star is Born.”  It would have been interesting to see what a director the caliber of a John Scheslinger could have done with Elvis.