Archive for Bela Lugosi

Phantom Limburger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 12, 2016 by dcairns


Recently watched two fantasy-fright type films which had very interesting elements but were strangely boring overall. One was ANGRY RED PLANET, the other was NIGHT MONSTER, a Universal horror movie I’d never heard of and which I figured must be dull. How else to explain its obscurity?

Well, it mostly IS dull, and there are lots of irksome things about it — Bela Lugosi plays a butler, and he’s JUST a butler, not even a meaningful red herring. A mauve kipper at best. But unlike a real snooze like SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, it actually revolves around a cool idea…


Ralph Morgan, the Wizard of Oz’s brother, has been reduced to limbless paralysis by the fumbling efforts of his doctors. When said medicos, including Lionel “Pinky” Atwill (deep joy) start getting bumped off, only Morgan has the means, motive and spectacular lack of opportunity that must, by the rules of DR X, establish him as the perpetrator. But rather than mad science as facilitator for his limbless killing spree, the film gives us a cherubic swami whose ministrations have given Morgan the power to generate ectoplasmic extremities using the power of his mind, so he can walk and strangle and be avenged using phantasmal arms and legs which fade as the dew when no longer required. The perfect alibi.


The movie begins charmingly, with the turbanned guru strolling up to Morgan’s mansion and remarking on the uncommunicative character of the local frogs. I immediately liked him. I did not, however, recognize him as Nils Asther, the once-sculptural beauty who specialised in oriental roles (a bit like Warner Oland, but lovelier) despite being Danish (a bit like Warner Oland, who was Swedish). A shame the interest is dissipated across too many characters with too little to do (the hero, as is often the case, is a waste of time), but a number of the supporting cast are better than they need to be. Movie serial specialist Ford Beebe directs with what one might call efficiency. He got it done inside two weeks, anyway.

Just a gorilla who can’t say no

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2014 by dcairns


Look, I made it a gif! It depicts Kay Kyser being violated by a stuffed gorilla. Yes, I *am* proud of myself. Why do you ask?

YOU’LL FIND OUT (1940) is worth resenting slightly because it unites Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre but is nothing but a silly comedy with not very good comedians. Kyser tries way too hard and isn’t funny. Sidekick Ish Kabibble tries less and is almost funny. On the other hand, Kyser also stars in John Barrymore’s last film, PLAYMATES, so we should be lenient on this one. And none of the ghouls is embarrassing, in fact all get to do their accustomed stuff and do it well. They are the reason to watch.


There’s also some fun stuff with electronic voice effects, Sparky’s Magic Piano style, which play a big role in the plot. I want to use this feature to decode the film’s writing credits. Director David Butler and James Kern are credited with the story, which is nothing much — an old dark country house spookshow with Scooby Doo explanation. Kyser and his band are playing a gig at this joint, so it’s like THE GANG’S ALL HERE with ectoplasm. Butler directed a lot of “zany” films which aren’t good like HELLZAPOPPIN. He worked with Kyser and with El Brendel and Eddie Cantor and did ROAD TO MOROCCO. Jerome Kern, a former attorney and singer wrote the script itself — I guess they needed someone with an education.


But three more schmoes are credited with “special material.” Monte Brice seems like a real Pat Hobby character, a silent era hanger-on with lots of vague credits for “story construction” or “special material,” mainly in comedy. One title intrigues: the lost WC Fields version of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. We can assume it’s lost because it has an IMDb review by our old friend F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre. I suspect Brice may be responsible for the more visual-comedy material, such as the ape assailant above, and maybe the film’s one real inspired gag, the dog playing fetch with a stick of dynamite. Comedy with real terror, as whenever the petrified comics hurl the high explosive away from themselves, the playful pooch brings it back.

Andrew Bennison is also credited, and also has silent movies on his CV, but mainly as a titles writer, so I expect he was writing cheesy quips for Kay and Ish.


And then there’s the mysterious R.T.M. Scott, who has no other screen credits at all. But I think I now who he is. Musician Raymond Scott worked with early electronic music. He also contributed tracks to David Butler’s earlier ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN. So I suspect he came up with the electronic vokes. I have no idea what the TM stands for though. Scott’s real name was Harry Warnow.

The guy credited for providing the film’s “Sonovox” equipment, however, is someone called Gilbert Wright, so that confuses things. But my theory is that Scott knew of the Sonovox and suggested it to Butler as a plot device. This is of no importance whatsoever. Thank you for your time.


The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2011 by dcairns

Now honestly, is that a proper question to ask of Pola Negri?

The film is Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WINE —

Sorry, BARBED WIRE. We shall overlook the forgivable calligraphic entanglement. It’s not primarily about WWI trench warfare though, but about a POW camp set up at Pola’s farm, where she falls in love with prisoner Clive Brook. The movie, being silent, feels free to cast Polish Pola as a Frenchwoman, English chin Clive as a German, and Bavarian Gustav Von Seyffertitz as a Frenchman. Which isn’t any kind of problem here: what’s odd is that Hollywood continued with this kind of counter-intuitive national casting after sound came in, and still occasionally does it.

Big Head of Pola. This gorgeous moment may be the work of an uncredited Mauritz Stiller.

Despite the melodrama surrounding her, Pola is admirably restrained here — gone is the kohl-smeared vamp of yore, performing via an admixture of violent semaphore and demented facial calisthenics. Her solemn, muted work in this movie is a revelation. Brook, the chin of England, comes pre-muted, but apart from a weeping scene which initiates some ghastly mugging, he’s a good match for Pola’s dignified turn. Her teary moments show her abandoning glamour altogether and becoming convincingly distraught, which is to say unattractive. This was, and still is, unusual. As Juliette Lewis once complained, “There are some actresses who do crying scenes and they still look pretty. Like, you could have sex with them while they’re crying!”

Christmas behind barbed wire — the tinsel on the tree is easily explained (you simply shred several spent cartridges with a potato peeler and voila!) but where they got the false head for the contortionist Santa Claus is a mystery with deeply sinister undertones. I kept anxiously checking out the prison guards to see if any of them had got suddenly shorter. So disturbing is the satanic Santa that he fully earns the German name for Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann, which sounds like some kind of boogieman, as likely to steal your child’s eyeballs as to stuff his stocking.

Credited director Rowland V Lee is a curious case. His SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably as camp and hysterical as James Whale’s BRIDE, and there’s a striking moment when Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi enter a room, talk for a moment, then step forwards and Rathbone expresses surprise at the presence of the monster, comatose upon a table, revealed by a tracking back of the camera. Since the monster must have been plainly visible to Rathbone since the moment he came in the door, this is a vivid and surreal illustration of the principle that things which are offscreen exist only provisionally in films, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. But in BARBED WIRE his filming is eloquent and expressive, the only really goofy moment being a flashback to something we just saw five minutes earlier, but even that is explained by the filmmaker’s understandable desire to show the audience what a character is talking about. But the really sublime stuff is probably Mauritz Stiller’s — I don’t know the story behind his partial involvement, but I guess it’s a typical example of the shabby way he was treated in Hollywood.

In Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir Put Money in thy Purse, he reports Orson Welles adopting some Mitteleuropean director’s name for the close-up: “Big Head of Pola.” Since Hitchcock also used the term Big Head for the same reason, I vote this excellent expression be revived and given pride of place in dictionaries of film terminology. After all, “close-up of Pola” is clearly a vague and ambiguous expression, since it doesn’t specify which portion of her the camera should focus on. I mean, there’s a dazzling choice.

In a stirring (silent) speech, Mona’s brother evokes a great march of the war’s fallen. His assertion that post-war bitterness, if not replaced by love, could result in another war to end all wars is horribly prophetic for 1927…