Life is But a Dream

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Rondo Hatton! The very name sends shivers of excitement, mingled with profound shame, down my caffeine-encrusted spine!

For those in the dark, Rondo was an acromegaly-afflicted human being exploited in cinema for his grotesque appearance. I read about him as a child in Monsters of the Movies and A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, where Denis Gifford described him as the only actor to play Hollywood monsters without makeup. To my infant self, that seemed like a pretty neat career. The idea that there was something degrading or offensive about casting a man with a severe pituitary problem as a psychopathic killer didn’t really occur to me until later, not could I see any of Rondo’s films, apart from his brief appearance in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME as a rival to Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo in the Feast of Fools scene, and his stomping turn in the rather good Sherlock Holmes movie THE PEARL OF DEATH (a fairly faithful adaptation of a very enjoyable Conan Doyle story).

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But Hatton actually had what might be termed starring roles, albeit in cheapjack exploiters over at PRC (Producers Releasing Corps, or Poverty Row Company if you prefer). Regular Shadowplayer Douglas Noble supplied me with a copy of THE BRUTE MAN, so that I could move one step further along in my deluded quest to see all the films pictured in Gifford’s mammoth green history of the horror genre. This is the one movie where Rondo is entrusted with what we could describe as actual lines, although given the standard of writing on display it might have been kinder to let him remain THE MUTE MAN.

But Rondo acquits himself well. I was talking to students last week about the kids in SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, little girls who don’t so much act as simply whisper. My theory is that very small children, and very old people, have a kind of innate reality onscreen which excuses them from having to act. It’s enough for them to exist. A person who is really living, or really dying, can hold our attention simply by existing, by standing there as a living record of themselves. Rondo has the same quality. His line readings are peculiar, amateurish, but he’s far preferable to most of the characters who attempt to “act” in this film. I’m reminded about Alexander Mackendrick’s line that as soon as you put a real person up against an actor, the artifice of the actor is exposed. Rondo acts as a physical, big-faced rebuke to those striking poses and attempting “inflection” around him.

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He also has an engagingly plebiean accent, sounding a bit like a more muted Bender from Futurama.

Z-movie hack Jean Yarbrough actually achieves a little bit of momentum and what could pass for atmosphere, and for once Rondo is up against something “uglier” than himself, Tom Neal’s moustache. I’m not really down on moustaches, I secretly covet a Don Ameche pencil-thin appurtenance of my own, but Neal’s cookie-duster looks like a furry centipede unfurling in the shadow of his nose. One longs to don a Jean Cocteau-style rubber glove, reach into the TV screen and brush it from his upper lip. Failing that, one longs to have Rondo snap his spine like a twig. Rondo obliges.

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Creepily, the story rehashes elements from Rondo’s own biography, portraying him as a college sports star disfigured by illness (a cheesy chemistry lab explosion is drafted in as explanation), but leaves out the part about him becoming a movie star. A shame, since an unlikely Between Us Girls-style rise to celebrity at the end could have provided a welcome twist. Instead, Rondo, who has been robbing and killing to raise money for a blind girl’s sight-restoring operation (making this a sort of homicidal remake of CITY LIGHTS, or a less homicidal version of John Woo’s THE KILLER), is betrayed by the blind girl, who pockets the reward to get the op and is congratulated by the campy cop characters for her civic-mindedness. Rondo, who seems to have been shot in the cock by Tom Neal, is dragged off by the authorities and absolutely no comment is made as to what will befall him. Presumably PRC were holding onto the character for a sequel, having already paraded Hatton through two similar freakshows. But THE BRUTE MAN was to be Rondo’s last film — his pituitary tumour upped and killed him that same year.

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Acromegaly gets a look-in in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN too, as its one of the many glandular disorders mad prof “Dr. Sigmund Walters”  claims to be able to cure. In reality, he’s more interested in turning gorillas into foxy chicks by transplanting cerebellums. Worryingly, he speaks of racial improvement, and worryingly, his foxy chick is played by Acquanetta, a Brazilian Native American starlet who isn’t trusted with any lines (and doesn’t quite have Rondo’s presence) and whose casting seems almost to suggest that Universal are saying that dusky Brazilian women are closer to our primate ancestors than the likes of, say, Evelyn Ankers.

Since the doc is John Carradine, there is still fun to be had for the non-Klansmen among us, and a scene where JC berates his subject for giving way to her primitive passions and reverting half-way to an ape state, struck me as unaccountably hilarious.

Director is Edward Dmytryk, during his B-Movie Hell period. His Karloff outing, THE DEVIL COMMANDS is an incoherent (butchered by the censors) but classier offering from this time. CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN moves at a fair old lick, throws in lots of impressive-but-worrying lion-taming footage (is firing pistols in the air really the best way to calm a big cat?) doesn’t worry too much about making sense, but has insufficient ape-woman action. Unlike Rondo, poor Acquanetta isn’t trusted to say anything at all, which means her potentially fascinating psychology is left unexplored, and her participation in the lion-taming act (being a disguised gorilla, she has power over jungle cats — you know, in the way that gorillas don’t) consists of standing beside the cage and staring. I can’t help thinking her talents would have been better exploited by giving her a role that involved moving about a bit. Her thighs are impressive.

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10 Responses to “Life is But a Dream”

  1. In his book DEATH ON THE CHEAP: THE LOST B MOVIES OF FILM NOIR, Arthur Lyons devotes six pages to discussing the history, style and substance of PRC. But it’s what he writes at the onset that’s always stuck with me. “Unquestionably the premier discount production company of the Poverty Row studios was Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC. Its productions were so cheap and for the most part so bad that at the time, many around Hollywood quipped that the letters stood for Pretty Rotten Crap.” Gotta say though, the frame grabs and YouTube clip are impressive in their clarity and crispness, not what you’d typically expect from a so-called Poverty Row film, most of which are public domain and are pretty time-worn.

  2. My boyfriend and I have been working on an off over the eyars (interruptions caused by other projects) on a very long piece of Lucille Bremer. Briefly and MGM star, thanks to a series of circustances it would take all day to explain her contract was sold to Eagle-Lion which had just bought RC. And for PRC she made what I consdier to be Edgar G. Ulmer’s very greatest film Ruthless. Lucille played Sidney Greenstreet’s faithless wife, stepping out on him with Zachary Scott — as Diana Lynn and Louis hayward stood on the sidelines and surveyed the wreckage. A kind of pocket Kings Row it was written by Alvah Bessie. As a result it was the very first victime of the balcklist. Bessie was called to testify before HUAC in 1947 (the start of their hearings) and balked. As a reuslt PRC took his name off the films’s credits (they were restored a few years ago.) It’s an incredible indictment of American greed and power-lust, and Ulmer gives it his all.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    DE: wasn’t Bremer Arthur Freed’s girlfriend, who got cast aside and sent to Poverty Row Hell? She was a good dancer with Astaire, even though she can’t make an impression next to Garland in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.

    She’s in Boetticher’s cheapjack loony bin noir BEHIND LOCKED DOORS, another Eagle-Lion release. It could have been a PRC production, if it had been made three years earlier.

    I see she died as recently as 96. Did you meet her?

  4. Never got to meet her, alas. But met several people who did — including Noreen Nash. It was assumed that she was Arthur Freed’s girlfriend. But while he wanted her there is much evidence that she didn’t come across– hence her banishment. He tried to turn her into a major star with the misbegotten Yolanda and the Thief. She was a superb dancer and much underrated as an actress.

    It’s quite a story.

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    It sounds a lot like Michelangelo Antonioni’s LA SIGNORA SENZA CAMELIE, a terrific satire about Italian film industry from his pre-L’AVVENTURA period. That’s about an actress(played by Antonioni’s first muse Lucia Bose) who becomes a Galatea for a Pig of a pretentious artist and then struggles to express her identity.

  6. jason hyde Says:

    I’m fairly certain that THE BRUTE MAN was actually made by Universal but for some reason (most likely deep deep shame) pawned off on PRC, who had less shame. PRC’s other acromegaly epic THE MONSTER MAKER is worth a look for its completely bonkers plot, downbeat tone, random gorilla, and J. Carroll Naish wearing the highest pants I’ve ever seen. I swear they come up to his chest. Not necessarily what you’d call an entertaining film, but interesting nonetheless.

    CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN never seems to linger long in my mind. I’ve seen it a couple of times in my life and all I can really remember is that Carradine’s face looked unnaturally long, it seemed like the Clyde Beatty stock footage made up half the film, and Acquanetta sure was a doll. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

  7. Universal had Rondo’s previous films, and the film is pretty good quality, so I believe PRC probably picked it up: maybe after Rondo died Universal didn’t want to be associated with it.

    The Monster Maker is on my list. As a kid I was fascinated by stories of Rondo, and the use of the illness in Tarantula.

  8. Christopher Says:

    despite her exotic tropical latin look,Acquanetta was actually of Native American decent(Arapaho),born on a reservation in Wyoming..She ditched the movie scene early and moved to Arizona,where she was something of a local celebrity..Helping Indian causes and appearing in her husbands Car dealersip commercials during late night movies..She also had her own line of Turquois jewelry..I recently picked up a book of poetry she wrote in 1972..very cosmic 70’s type groovy deep thinking stuff..very unlike..the Jungle woman..Leopard woman..Gorilla woman of 40s Universal days.. :o))

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    DE: thanks for the skinny on LB. If she had been AF’s paramour, she could have been cast aside at any time; since she refused the casting couch (as you say), she was kicked to the curb. She couldn’t win, I guess. At any rate, she kept her counsel when she could have Spilled the Beans. . .

  10. Thanks for the info, Christopher. Have amended the piece. I should have remembered from the last time Acquanetta’s name came up.

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