Archive for Jean Yarbrough

Life is But a Dream

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2009 by dcairns

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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.

Wolves of all Nations

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2008 by dcairns

A Fever Dream Double Feature.

The Geographical Werewolf sub-sub-genre was inaugurated by Guy Endore’s terrific novel The Werewolf of Paris, and swiftly developed by Hollywood with Werewolf of London, where Henry Hull and Warner Oland got hairy around the Mother of Parliaments. John Landis’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, easily his most interesting and effective film, is today the best-remembered entry in the G.W. field.

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON fails to satisfy. Essentially a Scooby Doo version of SUSPICION, it shilly-shallies around for nine-tenths of its duration, with all the action happening offscreen. Things pick up markedly in the last ten minutes, with director Jean Yarborough pouring on the dry ice fog and dutch-tilting the camera like a drunken sailor, but the revelation that there’s NO WEREWOLF takes the wind out of his sails. The credit “Make-up effects by Jack P. Pearce” promises much to a Universal Studios horror fan, but the great monster-maker’s work turns out to be confined to some fake wrinkles (very MUMMY-like) on a maidservant.

June Lockhart, as the heiress convinced she’s a wolf-woman, is cute and appealing, but always seems an unlikely lycanthrope, while the true culprit is constantly sinister even when trying not to be. The most convincing relationship in the film is between the two cops, who are like a bickering old married couple, although they’re not very convincing as Scotland Yard detectives.

More interesting, if not necessarily very effective, is WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON, which doesn’t really attain the status of satire, at least not consistently, but is unusually directed — some weird, gratuitous bit of artsy technique enlivens most every scene — and does spin a few interesting things from its central conceit. Dean Stockwell, a fascinating actor whatever the film, plays Jack Whittier, a journalist recruited to work in the Whitehouse, bitten by a gypsy wolfman as he attempts to leave Hungary to take up his post. The opening reprises the Lon Chaney WOLFMAN with wit and low-budget panache, making the most of an obviously inadequate lighting budget.

“That it could happen… in America. That it could happen… now. That it could ever happen… to me…” the film kicks off with these words, tremulously uttered by Stockwell in V.O. over a long lens moonrise against the Washington skyline, while the titles play out and the music warbles, and none of these visual and aural elements quite connect with each other. This odd, off-key beginning is maybe the high point.

Elsewhere we get dwarf actor Michael Dunn as mad scientist Dr. Kiss, and arch references to the Watergate Hotel and lines like “Well, you won’t have Jack Whittier to kick around anymore.” Most amusingly, when Stockwell tries to concoct a less plausible explanation for his lapses of memory, he hits on the plot of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and suggests that he’s been brainwashed to act as an assassin for the communists. But while there are a few amusing political quotations, and a little bit of parody of Washington lifestyles, there’s virtually nothing about policy, making it a would-be political satire without any politics. It (ouch) lacks bite.

The print seems to be faded down one side, and is hideously speckled and cropped to 1:1.33, but that just added to the nostalgia value of the fashions and filmmaking. What became of Milton Moses Ginsberg, writer-director of this geo-lycanthropic politico-horror satire? According to the IMDb, after finishing this one he lay down to rest for twenty-six years, returning to our screens with THE HALOED BIRD, a short film, in 2001, in which he himself plays… the Golem.

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