Archive for Buster Crabbe

The Loin King

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2012 by dcairns

I’ve never seen Buster Crabbe’s turn as TARZAN THE FEARLESS, but the same year he played a Tarzan knock-off for Paramount in KING OF THE JUNGLE, a film about a different kind of lion-man from those Buster rubbed manly shoulders with in FLASH GORDON. Kaspa was raised by lions (and did screenwriter Fred Niblo Jnr read up on feral kids and uncover the tale of Kaspar Hauser?)

Right up front we get an audacious scene change — as Kaspa’s parents acquire a pass to go exploring in lion country, they’re asked if they think it’s safe taking their pre-school kid with them. They shrug off the potential perils — dissolve to the tattered permit lying athwart their scattered bones, bleaching in the desert sun. Tiny Child Buster is mysteriously unharmed and undistressed, though we do rather fear for him as he clambers a rocky escarpment with a glinting blade in one pudgy fist. The scenes with him and the lions are carefully staged — he has rough-and-tumble antics with the cubs, but a variety of effective tricks prevent him from getting too close to Mrs Lion’s jaws.

You can see Paramount are determined to work that zoom lens until the zoom bar drops off.

Another blithe dissolve gives us full-grown Buster in leopard-skin loin-cloth, hanging out with his lion pals. This is pre-code cinema’s most revealing loin-cloth, so aficionados of that garment are urged to beat a hasty path to KOTJ to enjoy the taut, tensing buttocks of Mr Crabbe in all their gluteus glory.

Captured by Douglas Dumbrille and Sidney Toler for a traveling circus, Buster is shipped to San Francisco, escapes, and is tamed by schoolmarm Frances Dee, who plays him chopsticks and otherwise imparts the benefits of civilization. But Kaspa is discontented with circus life, and longs to free his feline pals. A spectacular circus fire allows him to save the day and effect a return to Africa, with Dee in tow. Randall William Cook points out that the story follows the same arc as MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, and probably served as a sewing pattern for the later gorilla thrilla. KOTJ likewise features scarifying live animal action even more alarming that MJY’s — a hissing, snarling, biting and scratching lion-vs-tiger catfight — the movie should carry a credit saying that the Human Association couldn’t bear to look.

The furry flurry is impossible to frame-grab effectively, but just imagine the sound of a sackful of disgruntled tomcats rolling down a hill in slow motion…

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Cast in order of (ridiculous) appearance

Posted in Comics, FILM, Television with tags , , on February 29, 2012 by dcairns

Excuse me. I’m all excited now and have to go run around the room a few times.

I remember playing in the garden as a kid and my Dad called me in because there was something coming on TV he thought I’d enjoy. It was the original FLASH GORDON serial. He’d seen it at the cinema as a kid in the 40s, where the audience literally cheered the goodies and booed the baddies during the opening titles. Watching it with me, he was a little skeptical about the staging of the fights — Larry “Buster” Crabbe as Flash beats up an Imperial Guardsman while two other Imperial Guardsmen stand and watch, waiting for their turn. I loved it — I was probably nine or something. I didn’t notice that Professor Zarkoff (Frank Shannon) was inexplicably Irish. I loved the monsters and the Brute Men of Mongo and the spinning top spacecraft and the crackling firecracker rocketships slowly circling to land in fogbound papier-mache valleys.

I’ve seen barely any other serials apart from the FLASH sequels and BUCK ROGERS, all of which aired on the BBC in my dim youth (usually starting a couple of days before the Scottish school holidays, so I’d miss episodes 1 & 2) — any suggestions? I don’t want to be noticing the poorly staged fights, I want to be enveloped in pulp.

Two Wongs

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2008 by dcairns

“Punning on Chinese names is a low form of wit.” ~ Clive James (writer, broadcaster and low wit).

DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937) is one of two Anna May Wong films directed by French emigré Robert Florey in Hollywood. I saw the second collaboration, DANGEROUS TO KNOW, at the Museum of the Moving Image, I think, on a trip to New York, where it was playing as part of a Wong retrospective (AMW is being rediscovered and reappraised a fair bit these days). I remember it being decent enough, with a few imaginative directorial flourishes.  While DANGEROUS is a fairly sombre, noir-styled crime drama with Wong playing second banana to Akim Tamiroff, who was being seriously groomed as an exotic leading man (!), DAUGHTER is more in the way of a romp.

Wong is Lang Yin Ling, daughter of an antiques dealer murdered by people-traffickers, (a topical plot, but this sombre start scarcely darkens the proceedings) who vows revenge and sets about tracking down the boss of the outfit, first travelling to the South Seas or somewhere, working as a hooch dancer so she can infiltrate the racket. Meanwhile, cop and obvious romantic interest Philip Ahn has inveigled his way into the outfit by getting a job on the crook’s boat. Complications ensue.

Better known, perhaps, as Master Kan in TV’s Kung Fu.

For a minor-league film, this picture has a pretty great cast. Dependable surly Charles Bickford, youthful Anthony Quinn and Flash Gordon himself, Larry “Buster” Crabbe, play malefactors. Wong’s fellow graduate of the Sternberg glamour academy, Evelyn Brent, is a moll. Louise Brooks once observed that E.B.’s approach to acting was to stride into a scene, plant her feet wide apart, and stand with her hands on her hips, and that Sternberg made her great by softening her with feather boas and keeping her from striking poses. Well, she decidedly backslid after Sternberg.

Two-fisted fellows. Never has a hyphen been more important than in that last sentence.

Favourite supporting player was John Patterson Frank Sully, whom I’d never heard of, who plays a cauliflower-eared Irish ex-boxer working as a chauffeur to Mrs. Big, Cecil Cunningham (Cecil is a woman), who turns out to be a swell guy. Actually, there are lots of NICE PEOPLE in this film, I immediately liked it for that reason. For some reason, they weren’t boring, even if they weren’t brilliantly written. They were just nice.

While no masterpiece, DAUGHTER gets a shot in the arm once we get to Bickford’s sleazy rum joint, the Home Cafe (which is it?). Florey suddenly gets inspired, skewing the camera, laying on the atmos thick and lurid, and thronging the frame with characterful extras.

After this sequence the film lapses into a solid, entertaining third act with plenty of fisticuffs (poor Philip Ahn seems seriously winded by the end), and a coda featuring untranslated Chinese dialogue between our two lovebirds and some quips for Patterson. “By the time you get out of jail my grandchildren will be collecting my social security cheques.”

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, made six years earlier, is a silly Fu Manchu movie with Wong playing the daughter of the crime lord, here rendered chubby by Warner Oland, better known as Charlie Chan. For some reason Swedish actors were considered ideal to play orientals in Hollywood. The story, a travesty of Sax Rohmer’s racist pulp Daughter of Fu Manchu (itself something of a travesty) gives Wong an incomprehensible character trajectory from conscience-tortured avenger of imagined wrongs, to sadistic villainess. Threatening to disfigure the blonde heroine with acid, unless her boyfriend mercy-kills her first, is the one moment of zesty sadism comparable to Myrna Loy’s lip-smacking turn as Fah Lo See in MASK OF FU MANCHU (she was a popular Fah Lo See). The dialogue is by the esteemed Sidney Buchman (MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON), and he’s clearly trying for SOMETHING, but the results are pretty ungainly and risible. “Death shall first waken Petrie from sleep, and then end his lingering horror with a slow knife.”

Sessue Hayakawa (THE CHEAT, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) is romantic interest (Wong’s films either shrink in terror from the spectre of miscegenation, or deflect it by attempting to provide suitably ethnic partners), struggling somewhat with his dialogue. He never once confuses an “L” with an “R” sound, but it seems to be absorbing all his concentration to avoid it. He’s rigid with strain at all times: “He’s terrifying!” exclaimed Fiona during his love scene.

Enjoyable supporting thespage comes from the pleasingly named Harold Minjir, as an effete English Comedy Homosexual, who actually saves the day in the end. This seems to have been Minjir’s biggest ever role (he was actually American-born), in a bit-part career that saw him typed as hotel clerks, couturiers and secretaries. Shadowplay salutes his fey heroism!

Wong herself is dependably dignified, which is part of why she’s being honoured these days. As an actress she’s adequate, but her waif-like figure, strong and noble features, and surprisingly deep voice with its unusual enunciation make her a striking presence, and that typical solemnity makes her warm smile more surprising. Maybe her uniqueness as a Chinese-American star in that period, and the dignity with which she always performs, are what make her so sympathetic, in addition to her natural charisma. Even when she plays a villain, I’m on her side.