Archive for Sidney Toler

The Speak

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on May 9, 2016 by dcairns


The first film adaptation of Preston Sturges’ hit play STRICTLY DISHONORABLE (followed by a 50s musical with Janet Leigh) takes some time to get going. It’s miscast all to hell, and the poor condition of the sound on the copy I saw had a glooming effect on the ambience. What Guy Maddin calls “the warm bath of audio hiss” gets discomfiting when the volume rises above the dialogue — you feel the actors are drowning in that bath, their merry chatter a mere displacement activity to divert their minds as the lip of the water rises around their smiling faces…

Paul Lukas isn’t miscast, really, although he’s mean to be playing an Italian opera singer. By Hollywood standards, where anybody foreign can play anybody else foreign, a Hungarian as an Italian is practically typecasting. It should be easier to accept New Yorker Sidney Fox (nee Leiffer) as a southern belle, but it sure isn’t. Still, Fox with unexpected puppy fat is enticing to look at, if not to listen to.

The guy who runs the speakeasy in and above which the action takes place is an early Sturges funny dialect character is played by an actual Italian, William Ricciardi, a fatal error. Maybe Sturges hadn’t intended his usual babbling malaprop figure (Akim Tamiroff or Lionel Stander or Luis Alberni), but I can’t believe this illicit barkeep was meant to be played like an Italian count.

Lewis Stone, who never struck me as a comedian, still doesn’t strike me as a comedian, but manages a few laughs as a drunken judge. It’s hard to know how many other laughs he might be stifling, though — director John Stahl seems content to let the humour fend for itself as the cast trample all over it.


It pains me to say that Sidney Toler, who made a very poor Charlie Chan despite his eyelids, and who has the kind of face the Germans talk about, gives the best performances as Mulligan, a stereotypical Irish-American cop character. The first time you’d know this was a comedy comes when Riciardi refers to his joint as a speakeasy and the friendly cop advises him, “How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t know what kind of place this is?” That’s half an hour into the film.

“I’m not getting much sense of Sturges from this dialogue,” remarked Fiona, and she was right — I don’t think it’s Hollywood rewriting, I think it maybe is just the cast clumsily smashing everything in their mouths.

The next great bit is, improbably, from Stone. “Speaking ex officio, I would say that honour should be tempered with the milk of human kindness, that is, if it’s possible to temper anything with milk.” Very Sturgesian — a platitude is derailed by the vagaries of language, leading a character up an unfamiliar and original branch line he hadn’t inteded to explore.

Then it takes a while but Fox gets a zinger: she’s contemplating sex out of wedlock, and Stone tries to dissuade her, stating that in all the instances he’s heard of, such decisions have ended in sorrow. “Well, maybe it’s just that when you don’t hear about them when they end happily,” she suggests, with faultless sex pixie logic.

Curiously, Lukas never really gets a classic Sturgesian moment, suggesting that while he seems to suit his role to the extent of never actually clashing with his surroundings, he can’t quite energize the material the way a Sturges actor would.


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 Humane 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…

Who Killed Charlie Chan?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2008 by dcairns


MR. MOTO’s GAMBLE is an odd entry in the Moto series, in which German/Hungarian actor Peter Lorre plays Japanese detective Kinsaro Moto. It’s odd because it’s really a Charlie Chan movie, from the series in which Swedish actor Warner Oland played Chinese detective Charlie Chan, only Chan has been excised and replaced with Moto. Why?

The DVD supplemental documentary tells the story, which I pass on here at no extra charge.

After making approximately 9,000,000,000 Charlie Chan films for 20th Century Fox, Oland was tired. He was also alcoholic, miserable, and mid-divorce. He didn’t want to make CHARLIE CHAN’S GAMBLE, and his reluctance took the form of a strange protest. He refused to work on Stage 6 at the Fox studio, claiming that the facility was outdated and draughty and he feared catching pneumonia. Fox argued that this complaint was reasonless: the stage was identical to all the others, and since the sets for CHARLIE CHAN’S GAMBLE had been built there, that’s where the film would be shot.

Oland insisted, and the Screen Actors Guild were called in to negotiate. Money was being lost while the sets stood empty. Eventually a compromise was reached: Oland would return to work, but on Stage 7. But the wily Fox had a trick up their sleeve: rather than tear down and reconstruct those bulky sets, they simply repainted the number 6 outside with the number 7. Chan showed up for work and apparently never realised he was on the exact same stage as before. So the studio were proved correct: the different sound stages were identical.

But a day or so later, Oland took off again, and production was shut down. Desperate to get some kind of use out of the script and sets, Fox chiefs eventually recast Chan with Moto, simply erasing one name and substituting another in the script, just as they had renamed Stage 6. Moto was now hanging around with Chan’s Number One Son, still played by Keye Luke, and dispensing pithy eastern proverbs, just like Chan. Rather than being mysterious and a master of disguise, Moto was now ever-reliable, but with an impish sense of humour. A brief scene was inserted at random to allow him to demonstrate his judo skills and love of cats, but that’s as far as the rewriting went.

Against the odds, Oland’s mood improved as his divorce was settled, and he prepared to return to his most famous role. The studio were glad to have him back. He decided to go on holiday before beginning his next Chan picture, but once he got to Sweden for a rest, the actor quickly became ill with pneumonia. He never recovered.

Fox eventually replaced the cherubic Swede with a creepy Scot, Sidney Toler, but we are left to ponder Oland’s strangely prophetic sense of impending doom, and wonder about the fatal Stage 6, and the persistent strain of bronchial pneumonia that tracked him across the globe…


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A young Persian gardener said to his Prince:

‘Save me! I met Death in the garden this morning, and he gave me a threatening look. I wish that tonight, by some miracle, I might be far away, in Ispahan.’

The Prince lent him his swiftest horse.

That afternoon, as he was walking in the garden, the Prince came face to face with Death. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘did you give my gardener a threatening look this morning?’

‘It was not a threatening look,’ replied Death. ‘It was an expression of surprise. For I saw him here this morning, and I knew that I would take him in Ispahan tonight.’

~ Jean Cocteau, The Look of Death.