Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bank(s) holiday

You know the famous quote from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  The legend goes that up-and-coming movie mirthmaker Mario Bianchi was inspired to adopt the nom de screen of “Monty Banks” (also spelled “Monte Banks”) when the legendary Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, his employer, told him in 1917: “You can't play another 'montebank' [mountebank] with a difficult name like Bianchi!”  It makes for an amusing story…except that in a 1918 two-reeler, The Geezer of Berlin, “Banks” was still billed as “Bianchi.”  What we can be certain of is that despite his popularity in the 1920s as a comedy star in various shorts and features, Monte’s mostly remembered today (if at all) as the husband of British entertainer Gracie Fields (he directed her in four feature films during the 1930s).

Banks’ enduring contribution to silent comedy is featured in the Robert Youngson compilation Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961): the laugh-a-minute, thrill-a-second, runaway train climax from his 1927 feature Play Safe.  This sequence was later recycled for a two-reeler released that same year entitled Chasing Choo Choos (Play Safe didn’t do well at the box office)—and this engaging short is one of five comedies featured on a new DVD release from Alpha Video, Monty Banks: Hollywood’s Forgotten Comic GeniusChoo Choos is an entertaining cutdown (the eye-popping stunt work is courtesy of Harvey Parry), though to be honest I think you’re better off watching this material in Thrills and Laughter…only because that movie concentrates on nothing but the chase, whereas Choo Choos contains a little bit of the backstory that might be confusing if you’re not familiar with the plot of the full feature.

Monty Banks in Wedding Bells
The wonderful thing about Forgotten Comic Genius is that Chasing Choo Choos isn’t even the strongest short on the DVD; I really enjoyed Wedding Bells (1924), in which Monty plays a would-be groom who must deal with his jealous bride (Ena Gregory) the morning after his wild bachelor party.  Monty doesn’t know that his neighbor (William Blaisdell) from across the hall is babysitting his fiancée’s dog (she won’t marry him unless she’s certain the dog is properly looked after), and Neighbor has smuggled the mutt into Monty’s crib out of sight of the landlady (Louise Carver).  Ena thinks that Monty’s playing around, and refuses to do the matrimonial sashay down the aisle unless Fido is outta there.  So Monty hilariously attempts to shed himself of his new pet, with hilarious results…and then when Ena gets everything straightened out with the neighbor, Monty must get the dog back.  The gags in Wedding Bells are clever and the denouement is hilarious (I did see this one coming, I must confess), making the overall effort a most delightful two-reeler.

Banks in The Covered Schooner
Pay or Move (1924) is also a gem; Monty must protect the father of his girlfriend (Gregory again) from a sinister outfit known as the Koo Koo Kans (my, that’s subtle)—even though he’s in Dutch with the old man because he’s in arrears where his rent is concerned (Papa is his landlord).  There are good gags in this one, but what makes them so engaging is that Monty’s character is shown to be a very resourceful individual (he’s able to fool a couple of goons with some mannequins dressed in police uniforms).  The Covered Schooner (1923—directed by Harry Edwards; the title is a jokey reference to The Covered Wagon) is just a slight slip in quality, mostly because it starts out strong (Monty’s a florist who’s trying to close shop so that he can rescue his girl (Lois Boyd) from the amorous clutches of Captain Blaisdell) but peters out in the second half (Monty gets shanghaied aboard Blaisdell’s ship).  (Though one gag did make me snort out loud: for some odd reason, there’s a gorilla among Blaisdell’s cargo [and not a particularly convincing one], and Blaisdell and his crew decide to throw Monty into the cage where the animal is certain to make quick work of him.  Then they look inside…and both Monty and the gorilla are on the floor of the cage, shooting craps.)

John Carpenter, Movie Man
The weakest short on Forgotten Comic Genius is Paging Love (1923)—fortunately it’s also the first short, so it’s kind of like eating your vegetables before you get to the dessert—and really, it wouldn’t have been that bad if someone had just considered making a one-reeler out of the material (the plot in this one, in which Monty must sell a copy of his prospective father-in-law’s [busy Blaisdell] encyclopedia to win his daughter’s [Boyd again] hand, is painfully thin).  (The last five minutes has Banks channeling his inner Harold Lloyd when the shenanigans go “high and dizzy.”)  All five of these comedies come from the collection of my Facebook chum John Carpenter (a.k.a. “The Movie Man”), whose participation in Alpha’s Blondes and Redheads: Lost Comedy Classics was so essential to that DVD release’s success.

As I was browsing the Internets looking for photos to illustrate this essay, I laughed out loud at some of the search results because a small group of people seem to have confused Monty Banks with Harold Peary, radio’s The Great Gildersleeve—and because I knew you’d be saying right now “Oh, come now, Ian” I grabbed this screen shot for proof:

Yes, that is misidentified at Getty Images.  I would expect something like that at eBay or even the (always reliable) IMDb…but Getty?

“It is almost impossible now to describe a once-popular comedian like Monty Banks by speaking of his mannerisms; he doesn't seem to have any,” observed Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns.  “He is short, on the plump side, possessed of a miniature mustache that would seem suave on a head waiter but it is somehow a badge of apprehension on him.  He is likeable.”  Kerr goes on to say that despite his extensive comedy training Banks rode out his career in silents emulating Harold Lloyd (while taking special pains to ensure that the “thrills” in those features steered close of trickery).  “The stunting is impeccable, worth keeping in film anthologies; but we cannot quite remember the man.”  That’s why we’re fortunate to have releases like Monty Banks: Hollywood’s Forgotten Comic Genius—they do so much to make certain we don’t forget.  (Many thanks to my Alpha pal Brian Krey for the screener.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

“You poor creatures…I wish I could help you…but you're by yourselves now…”

Back in July of last year, when The House of Yesteryear was enmeshed in that (mercifully) brief thrall of madness I jokingly called The DISH Austerity Program, there was really one outlet on our system for uncut, commercial-free movies…and that was HDNet Movies, a channel that spun-off from HDNet (now signing all correspondence as AXS TV) in 2003 and launched by gazillionaire Mark Cuban…who is, in some quarters, said to be considering a Presidential run in 2020 after also threatening to do so in 2016.  Not because he can solve America’s problems…but more along the lines of “If Donald Trump can become president, why can’t I?”  (This is the point on the blog where I curl up in a ball and weep uncontrollably…just bear with me and it will pass quickly.)

Despite my barely-disguised revulsion for Cuban and his ilk, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have DVR’d a movie or two from HDNet Movies when the occasion arises.  Most of the fare on the schedule consists of proven crowd pleasers like The Karate Kid (1984) and The Bridges of Madison County (1995), but there’s a nugget or two to be mined if you’re willing to work for it (and have a proper grubstake—yes, I watch a lot of westerns, as you might have guessed).  HDNet Movies’ a little like the Encore Movie Channel—past hits mixed in with recent flicks—and because I have not stepped inside a googolplex since 2009, it gives me an opportunity to catch up on some good “moon pictures” I’ve missed.

In Never Let Me Go (2010), a title card reads: “The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952.  Doctors could now cure the previously incurable.   By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.”  What follows is a reminiscence by a woman (Carey Mulligan) identified as “Kathy H,” as she looks back fondly on her experiences at a boarding school known as Hailsham.  The young Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small) has two close friends at the school: Ruth C (Ella Purnell) and Tommy D (Charlie Rowe)—Kathy has quite the romantic attachment to young Tom, but Ruth effortlessly steals the boy’s affections because she’s a bit of a b-word.  Hailsham isn’t all that different from the usual repressive boarding school, though the students there are constantly encouraged to get in touch with their artistic side by submitting their work to The Gallery, which is administered by a mysterious woman known only as Madame (Nathalie Richard).

Isobel Meikle-Small as the young Kathy
Okay, I tell a lie—there is one slight difference, and it’s a most sinister one.  One day, the students are informed by beloved teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) of their purpose for being there…because “The problem is you've been told and not told…”

Do you know what happens to children when they grow up?  No, you don't, because nobody knows.  They might grow up to become actors, move to America.  Or they might work in supermarkets.  Or teach in schools.  They might become sportsmen or bus conductors or racing car drivers.  They might do almost anything.  But with you we do know.  None of you will go to America.  None of you will work in supermarkets.  None of you will do anything except live the life that has already been set out for you.

And what does Miss Lucy mean by this cryptic statement?  Well, that’s “the big reveal” of Never Let Me Go, and I’d be robbing you of a unique movie-watching experience if I said anymore.  There’s no getting around it: this film—a combination of romance and dystopian science-fiction—will make you sit up and ask: “What the…front yard?”  If you’re familiar with the source material, the critically acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro published in 2005, you already know how this one ends…and you can certainly find more information on the film in other corners of the Internets.  But Leonard Maltin kept his big bazoo shut in his capsuled write-up on the film in his 2015 Movie Guide, and the least I can do is follow his example.

The acting in Never Let Me Go is first-rate, with a cast of thesps that I must grudgingly admit I have but only a passing familiarity.  I got the opportunity to see Carey Mulligan in Suffragette (2015) during one of our HBO-Cinemax “freeviews,” and enjoyed her performance tremendously in that one.  The actress leapt at the chance to play the lead in Never Let Me Go, purportedly because Ishiguro’s novel is her favorite book.  She’s most convincing in both her teen and adult years as a strong individual who remains resolute despite having been informed early in life of her fate, and her measured, understated turn has lingered in my memory despite it having been about a month since I sat down and watched this from the DVR.

Mark Romanek
Other than veteran actress Charlotte Rampling (in a nice showcase as the ominous headmistress), I don’t think I’ve seen any of the other stars from Never Let Me Go in anything else although I did recently DVR Lions for Lambs (2007) from HDNet so I’ll soon be chalking up another entry from Andrew Garfield’s oeuvre soon.  I know Keira Knightley only from the impressive amount of photographic publicity she seems to generate; the director of Never, Mark Romanek, admitted in an interview that it was nearly impossible to make Knightley look “plain”—“…even at her worst, Keira still looks astonishing.”  To Knightley’s credit, she admitted that she was unable to relate to the movie’s “love triangle,” but she managed to do a pretty good job convincing me.

Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield
I’ve joked on the blog many times about certain movies not being “date films”—Never Let Me Go qualifies in spades, mostly because of its grim subject matter.  (Again, I’m doing my best to hide some of its content but I can see why its plot plays better in the original novel, set in Japan, than it does in the film’s UK.)  It’s a most challenging movie, with haunting moments of both sadness and uninhibited joy (the reunion that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy have after not seeing one another in some time is both refreshing in its optimism and devastating in its doom), and Rachel Portman’s exemplary music score also scores points in the movie’s favor.  If you like movies that have wandered off the main path, this one will be a buried treasure.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“Well…how-dee do!”

Rick Mitz, author of The Great TV Sitcom Book, once joked that Amos ‘n’ Andy constituted the “two dirty words” of American broadcasting (and he even thought the “’n’” suspect).  I myself refer to the program as “the third rail” of old-time radio, insomuch as the medium’s first true phenomenon has been clouded with controversy ever since its premiere over Chicago’s WMAQ on March 19, 1928 (the show went national over NBC’s Red network in August of 1929) and stayed with the show long after it left the airwaves on November 25, 1960.  Created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two vaudeville performers who had a talent for black dialect, the long-running serial/sitcom began as Sam ‘n’ Henry over rival Windy City station WGN in 1926; the two men left the following year after a dispute with the station…and since they were unable to use the “Sam ‘n’ Henry” name (it was still owned by WGN) they changed the name of the characters to their better known alliterative association.

Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll
Amos ‘n’ Andy was one of the Golden Age of Radio’s most durable programs in addition to most popular.  In its early years (1928-43) it was a comedy serial, and its history is documented in a first-rate McFarland book penned by my fellow Radio Spirits scribe Elizabeth McLeod, The Original Amos ‘n’ Andy.  (McLeod has always championed that the serialized Amos ‘n’ Andy presented its characters in a sympathetic fashion—that it was only when the show adopted its sitcom format that the racial stereotypes became more blatant.)  From 1943 to 1955, it was presented as a weekly half-hour sitcom, and from 1954 to 1960, the show played out its waning radio years as The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall—a weeknight program with Gosden and Correll performing skits as their characters while spinning records as disc jockeys.  Amos ‘n’ Andy made the eventual transition to television (casting African-American performers in the title and supporting roles, of course) in 1951 but CBS-TV would cancel the series two years later despite its popularity, under protest from organizations like the NAACP…and in 1966, CBS completely removed Amos ‘n’ Andy from its syndication package.  (The Wikipedia entry for Amos ‘n’ Andy notes that Rejoice TV, “a small independent television and Internet network in Houston,” reran the show in 2012…though there’s scant mention as to whether CBS, which purchased the rights to the series from its creators in 1948, brought in their team of attorneys.)

With the cancellation of The Amos ‘n’ Andy Music Hall, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll weren’t quite ready to abandon the characters that made them famous…and with the prompting of ABC, anxious to duplicate the success of their hit animated series The Flintstones, they came up with an idea that would allow them to continue the show in cartoon form.  It was not a new idea; a cartoon version of Amos ‘n’ Andy had actually been attempted as far back as 1934 at the Van Beuren Studios but after two entries (The Rasslin’ Match and The Lion Tamer) the series was abandoned.  This time around, Freeman and Charlie would lend their characterizations to a pair of anthropomorphic animals…and Calvin and the Colonel was born.

Charlie & Gos with their cartoon counterparts
The “Colonel” was Colonel Montgomery J. Klaxon (voiced by Gosden), a crafty Kingfish-like fox who ostensibly ran a real estate firm but more often than not was involved in any number of get-rich-quick schemes.  Like his radio counterpart, the Colonel possessed a streak of larceny and many of the Calvin and Colonel episodes would find the character cooling his heels in the cartoon animal hoosegow.  The “Andy” of the series was Calvin J. Burnside (cartoon characters seem awfully fond of “J” as a middle initial for some reason), a dimwitted bear (Correll) who, depending on the situation, either served as the Colonel’s patsy or confederate in whatever scheme Klaxon had cooking on the burner.  Calvin and the Colonel didn’t really have an “Amos” character (though Andrew “Grover” Leal has posited that that function was fulfilled in the minor character of “Gloria,” Calvin’s manicurist girlfriend voiced by Gloria Blondell) but by the time Amos ‘n’ Andy had reached its radio sitcom stage the character of Amos Jones had started to take a backseat to the Kingfish-Andy shenanigans anyway.  (An acquaintance of mine who had just started listening to the radio show once asked me: “Why isn’t this series called Kingfish ‘n’ Andy?”)

The Colonel had a Sapphire-like spouse in Maggie Belle (voiced by Virginia Gregg)—although her name is spelled “Maggi Belle” in the show’s closing credits, I’m going to go with “Maggie.”  Instead of having to put up with a mother-in-law like the Kingfish, Colonel Klaxon suffered under the domineering thumb of Susan Culpepper (Beatrice Kay)—Maggie Belle’s sister, affectionately known as “Sister Sue.”  The character of Maggie Belle is not one of Ginny’s finest thespic hours, mostly because of the severe limitations of the role (she’s there to be a constant scold to the Colonel and little else) …but Kay doesn’t come off that much better (though I do giggle when she calls The Colonel an “old foof”).  I believe this can be explained by the fact that the radio counterparts of Sapphire and “Mama” were also rather thinly written…yet I wish they had considered letting Ernestine Wade and/or Amanda Randolph perform the Maggie Belle/Sister Sue roles to give their cartoon counterparts a little more oomph.  (I can certainly understand the reluctance to do this, though.)  The remaining character on Calvin and the Colonel was “Judge” Oliver Wendell Clutch (Paul Frees)—a shady lawyer (appropriately portrayed in weasel form) who the Colonel was always asking for advice (Clutch was the show’s Stonewall/Algonquin J. Calhoun counterpart).

Bob Mosher & Joe Connelly
Calvin and the Colonel was produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher through their company Kayro Productions…and if it seems a little odd that the two men responsible for Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters would get involved with a project like this, it’s because Connelly and Mosher not only wrote many of the original half-hour Amos ‘n’ Andy radio scripts but the TV ones as well.  Many of the Calvin and Colonel teleplays are credited to Joe and Bob, mostly because they dusted off a lot of their earlier Amos ‘n’ Andy efforts and recycled them for their “funny animals.”  Even though Amos ‘n’ Andy earned a fair share of criticism for promoting unflattering racial stereotypes, there was never any real malice in the program’s content—you could read the scripts without the black dialect and still enjoy a fitfully funny sitcom…which is why Calvin and the Colonel works so well, in my opinion.  The only thing that gave me pause about the animated series was that Calvin seemed to have an eye for a lot of females who were not of the ursine persuasion (I chortled at the thought of fundamentalists having a field day with this dating “outside of his species”) though he does get engaged to a female bear in “Calvin’s Glamour Girl.”

My interest in Calvin and the Colonel was stoked by the recent purchase of three volumes of the show released by Alpha Video.  I’d previously watched an episode or two at YouTube, but the more episodes I tuck under my belt the more I enjoy this pleasurable little series.  I’ll state right off the bat that this is due in large part to my familiarity with the source material, but as someone who loves old-time radio I think like-minded folks will follow my lead.  It’s quite hooty hearing the voices of Kingfish and Andy emanate from a fox and a bear, and in addition to the regular cast you’ll hear OTR/character favorites (in various episodes) like Joe Flynn, Jesse White, Frank Nelson, Barney Phillips, Will Wright, June Foray, Howard McNear, Hans Conried, Charlie Cantor, Frank Gerstle, Marvin Miller, Elvia Allman, Forrest Lewis, Olan Soule, and Peter Leeds.  (“It’s too piercing, man…too piercing.”)

It’s television animation, of course, but despite the limited budget the style of Calvin and the Colonel is reminiscent of that in the creations of Jay Ward (Rocky and His Friends) or Total Television (King Leonardo, Underdog).  A 2006 post at Michael Sporn Animation notes that the company who produced Calvin was TV Cartoons/Creston Studios (who also did the non-Jay Ward version of Crusader Rabbit), and the roster of talent that cranked out the installments included Chuck McKimson, Norm Gottfredson, Lee Mishkin, Phil Roman, John Sparey, Ben Washam, Tom McDonald, Volus Jones, Dave Weidman, Jim Davis, and Bob Bemiller—“They were more WB & Disney people unlike the Hanna Barbera shows which initially seemed to use more of their MGM cohorts.”

That post also observes that Calvin and the Colonel was the “second prime time show to premiere” after The Flintstones—which I don’t think is entirely accurate if The Bugs Bunny Show is worked into the equation (you can argue that the animation on Bugs had already appeared in motion picture theatres…but the segments that introduced the cartoons had not).  (Television Obscurities notes that CBS Cartoon Theater even predated The Flintstones by four years—though like Bugs, the show featured shorts previously unspooled in theatres.)  It is accurate to say that the success of that “modern Stone Age family” ushered in a slew of prime-time cartoon efforts in the 1961-62 season, with Calvin joined by the premiers of The Bullwinkle Show (okay, technically a continuation of Rocky and His Friends), The Alvin Show, and Top CatCalvin only lasted two months in its 8:30pm Tuesday slot (stiff competition from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) before it returned in January of the following year to a Saturday time slot (7:30pm) to fulfill its obligation to sponsor Lever Brothers.  It then made Saturday a permanent home—mornings, that is—for another year before fading from the small screen landscape.

Calvin and The Colonel working for the sponsor.
Though produced in color, Calvin and the Colonel originally aired in black-and-white…which is why so many of the prints you’ll find at YouTube and elsewhere are presented in monochromatic form (most of the sources I’ve consulted question as to whether the series was ever syndicated), except for the program’s inaugural episode, “The Television Job”…

…which I will graciously share here with you until some hoser pulls the YouTube plug.  “Job” (the black-and-white version), “The Polka Dot Bandit,” “Thanksgiving Dinner,” and “The Costume Ball” are featured on Alpha’s first volume of the series, while Volume 2 includes “Sycamore Lodge,” “Wheeling and Dealing,” “Sister Sue’s Sweetheart,” and “Nephew Newton’s Fortune.”  (“Wheeling” is one of my favorite Calvin outings—The Colonel is under orders from the women in his life to ship Nephew Newton’s car to him out on the West Coast…but he and Calvin have a mishap that results in Newton's ride being filled with cement.  It’s an unusual episode in that The Colonel emerges victorious in this one—at the end of the show, he breaks the fourth wall as he enjoys breakfast in bed: “I know I didn’t earn all this love and affection, but…I’m a married man, so I’m gonna take what little I can get.”)

But if you’re like me and there’s often too much month at the end of the money, Volume 3 is the Alpha Calvin and the Colonel collection is the one you should get—it features four color episodes in “The Colonel’s Old Flame,” “Sister Sue and the Police Captain” (this one was an episode I watched on YouTube—in color!—but it has apparently been yanked), “Calvin’s Glamour Girl,” and “Colonel Out-Foxes Himself.”  This last one is very funny (it’s the one on which I heard Conried and Cantor), as The Colonel attempts “The Pocketbook Swindle” after it’s been pulled on him…with unsuccessful results.  Animation history king Jerry Beck calls the show “illustrated radio” …which is certainly fair, though I’ve heard the same term applied to much of the Hanna-Barbera product as well, and Calvin and the Colonel can certainly hold its own with Huck, Yogi, and the rest of my childhood heroes.

I told Grover I'd only buy these dolls if one of them said "Holy mackerel, Calvin!"

Dell Comics published two Calvin and the Colonel comic books in 1962 (one of which was in their “Four Color” series, which is why the second issue was labeled “#2”) and Milton Bradley released a board game to capitalize on the (non)popularity of the program (Leal also notes that there were “Calvin” and “The Colonel” dolls available for purchase—they talk, too!—and Beck has published this image of a C&C coloring book)—you can find the board game/comic books on eBay, if you’re curious.  I’d settle for a DVD release of the complete series only because I believe it’s much better than its reputation and it doesn’t deserve its current obscurity.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Due to circumstances beyond my control…

…I had to scotch this week’s presentation of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s (ir)regular Crime Does Not Pay feature.  (I picture people hitting the top of their computers shouting: “Honey, I can’t get the blog to work!”)  Long story short (too late!), I had a situation here at Rancho Yesteryear involving several annoyances...chiefly my futile attempt to learn why my prescription has not been called into the pharmacy by the endocrinologist’s office.  (On a side note—I’m kind of pleased with myself that I’ve mastered the proper pronunciation/spelling of “endocrinologist.”  But I digress.)  I hope to have CDNP back next Friday, and there will also be overlooked movies, silent, and dormant TV shows to discuss as well.  Seacrest out.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Buried Treasures: Feel My Pulse (1928)

Pampered heiress Barbara Manning (Bebe Daniels) has spent her entire life cooped up indoors due to the dictates of her father’s will—Babs’ old man appears to have been a germophobe, and insisted his only daughter be brought up in the same fashion by her Uncle Edgar (George Irving) until she’s twenty-one.  With the arrival of the big two-one, her Uncle Wilburforce (Melbourne MacDowell) from Texas—Texas, that is—shows up to squirrel her away to a ranch on the Lone Star State.  But Barbara is convinced she’s got a bad ticker (angina pectoris), and fears that Wilburforce’s prescribed regimen of excitement, adventure…and romance might be the death of her.

William Powell, Bebe Daniels
Remembering that she’s the owner of a sanitarium on Manning Island—located twenty miles off the mainland—Barbara hies herself in that direction, mistaking Wallace Roberts (Richard Arlen) for a taxi driver and demanding that Wally ferry her to her destination.  What our young debutante does not know is that the hospice’s caretaker, Sylvester Zilch (Charles Sellon), has allowed bootlegger Phil Todd (William Powell) to set up his base of operations there (Zilch gets a kickback of four cents per case of booze) …and that the last thing Todd and his goons need is Barbara poking around in their bidness.  So the Todd mob goes through the motions of pretending to be the staff (Boss Phil is the doctor, and his henchies patients) with hilarious results.

Daniels in She's a Sheik (1927)
My experience watching Ducks and Drakes (1921) back in April (DVR’d from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™) was such an enjoyable one that in the process of purchasing a buttload of Alpha Video DVDs from, one of the discs I slipped into the cart was Feel My Pulse (1928), an uproarious farce featuring Drakes star Bebe Daniels and leading men Richard Arlen and William Powell.  This high wattage trio had previously appeared in She’s a Sheik (1927), a comedy directed by Clarence Badger (Hands Up!) and one that I would love to see but it’s apparently lost.  (Daniels and Powell also worked in the earlier Dangerous Money [1924] and Senorita [1927]—Senorita is considered by some to be one of Bebe’s finest feature comedies.)

I’m not as familiar with Bebe’s oeuvre as I should be, save her work alongside Harold Lloyd in his early one- and two-reel comedies and her later appearances with husband Ben Lyon on the BBC’s long-running radio/TV hit Life with the Lyons.  But every new Daniels feature I check off is unquestionably a treat, and Feel My Pulse is my favorite vehicle yet.  Granted, there’s a little bit of contrivance involved in the plot (have you ever met anyone sequestered from society—father’s will or no?) but then again it is a comedy (not a documentary), and Bebe demonstrates that she was amazingly adept at physical slapstick with funny sequences involving her leaping out of Arlen’s car to retrieve her valued valise of medications (Arlen’s character refuses to believe she’s an invalid after witnessing her “sprinting exhibition”) and bobbing up and down like a yoyo out of one of the sanitarium windows.

My favorite scene of Bebe’s in the film is her encounter with “Thirsty McGulp” (Heinie Conklin)—I plan to use that as an alias the next chance I get, by the way—a member of Powell’s mob who has quite a fondness for the bottle.  He offers some of his “medicine” to Daniels, and she reciprocates with some of her own…and before you know it, the duo are completely in their cups and singing Sweet Adeline.  (Bebe notes in a title card that she didn’t see Thirsty’s “two brothers” join the party, which made me laugh out loud.)  Daniels’ character is a bit naïve (Arlen describes her in writing as “attractive, but they come no dumber”) and much of her advanced vocabulary on the title cards prompts Dick to observe that she’s “a loose leaf from Webster’s Dictionary.”  (The very witty titles come courtesy of George Marion, Jr.; Nicholas T. Barrows and Keene Thompson receive screenplay credit from a story by Howard Emmett Rogers.)

Richard Arlen
Before he demonstrated with screen wife Myrna Loy that intoxication can be fun in the Thin Man movies, Bill Powell was a superb villain in silent films (he was the baddie in 1927’s Nevada, which I covered here back in September of last year) and he doesn’t disappoint in Feel My Pulse (you can just see the dollar signs register in his eyeballs when he learns from Sellon that Bebe’s worth 30 million dollars).  Arlen is aces as Bebe’s love interest (he’s Powell’s number-two man…and yet he is not what he seems—I can say no more), and I gave out with a hearty chuckle when I saw Charles Sellon’s name in the credits (Sellon plays the memorable blind man in W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift—“Open the door for Mr. Muckle!”).  Pulse is short and sweet at 62 minutes, and I was gobsmacked to learn that the movie was neither a commercial nor critical success at the time of its release (with so many of Daniels’ movies having been sacrificed to the ravages of time it’s since been reappraised…and well it should be).

Feel My Pulse was an early effort from Gregory La Cava, who would later go on to direct Powell to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the screwball comedy classic My Man Godfrey (1936).  I purchased my copy of Pulse from and was not disappointed; it’s also available from my other favorite vintage silent store of cherce, Grapevine Video (my CMBA colleague Fritzi at Movies Silently says Grapevine’s print is “fairly rough”), where it’s been paired with a Billy West comedy, Lines Busy (1921).  If you’re carefully counting out change so as to make it to the end of the month, it’s also available for viewing at YouTube.  This one is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Underseen and Underrated: Afraid to Talk (1932)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to Underseen and Underrated: The Classic Movie Blog Association’s Spring 2017 Blogathon, underway this week from May 15-19.  For a complete list of the participants and the films discussed, click here.

From May 13 to June 15 in 2016, The Museum of Modern Art hosted Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928–1937—a collection of films from the period when that studio was run by Carl Laemmle, Jr., son of Universal founder Carl, Sr.  (Certainly, not the first nor last case of nepotism in Tinsel Town, but the younger Laemmle rarely got any respect—wags derisively referred to him as “Junior” Laemmle—and he often found himself the butt of jokey observations like “the son also rises.”)  The MoMa schedule included some movies that make the occasional rounds of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (The Good Fairy, Show Boat [the 1936 version]) and some that I personally have not seen since the days when AMC literally stood for “American Movie Classics” (Air Mail).  The event was a classic movie lover’s dream come true, and one of the offerings was Afraid to Talk (1932)—which, as of this point in 2017, is the best “new” classic film I’ve seen all year.  (Afraid was also unspooled at MoMa’s To Save and Project festival in 2011.)

Tully Marshall, Eric Linden, Frank Sheridan
Racketeer Jake Stranskey (Robert Warwick) is gunned down in a Chicago hotel room…but fortunately for the Windy City police, there was a witness to the killing: bellhop Eddie Martin (Eric Linden), who is initially reluctant to finger the trigger man (snitches get stitches, you know).  Police Commissioner Garvey (Frank Sheridan) gives him the usual line of “civic duty” crap, and Eddie finally picks out Jig Skelli’s (Edward Arnold) ugly face from a mug sheet.  However, if Martin had known that a confederate of Jig’s threatened his wife Peggy (Sidney Fox) while she made her way to police headquarters to check on her spouse, he might have continued to maintain his code of omerta.

Albert Maltz
The corrupt powers-that-be—headed up by police chief Frank Hyers (Ian Maclaren), who also moonlights as one of the party bosses—reluctantly accept the fact that they’re going to have to prosecute Skelli…but they didn’t count on Jig’s ace in the hole: he found a sheath of documents on Stranskey’s corpse that detail the many payoffs collected by Mayor William “Billy” Manning (Berton Churchill), District Attorney Anderson (Tully Marshall), and other party ward heelers.  If they send him up for the murder, Skelli will make it snow with the blackmail.  Forced to let Jig skate, the PTB need a fall guy for the Stranskey hit—and choose as their patsy the bellhop who witnessed the killing in the first place.

Afraid to Talk was based on Merry-Go-Round, a controversial play written by George Sklar and future Hollywood Ten blacklistee Albert Maltz (the movie’s screenplay was adapted by Tom Reed).  When you think of hard-hitting social dramas in the films of the '30s, you usually associate that material with Warner Brothers—yet Afraid can hold its own against any film featuring the likes of Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson, and in many respects, surpasses a lot of the Warner’s product.  The amoral universe of Afraid—where everyone appears to be on the grift and honest individuals are few and far between—is most reminiscent of the brief cinematic oeuvre of writer-director Rowland Brown, responsible for such pre-Code flicks as Quick Millions (1931), Hell’s Highway (1932), and my favorite of them all, Blood Money (1933).

Edward L. Cahn
The Brown-like director of Afraid to Talk is Edward L. Cahn, a name usually associated with motion pictures like Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and It! The Terror from Outer Space (1958—acknowledged as the inspiration for Alien [1979]).  Cahn began his career at Universal as an editor (his brother Philip also worked in the cutting room) and his exemplary work doing last-minute cuts on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) got him a promotion to the director’s chair, working on crime pictures and comedies.  Before his fertile career as a director of second features in the 1950s, Ed worked as a journeyman in the MGM shorts department, notably entries in the studio’s “Crime Does Not Pay” franchise (last Friday’s CDNP on the blog, A Thrill for Thelma [1935], was directed by Cahn).  I noticed a preview of Cahn’s CDNP style in Afraid in one scene when the party bosses decide to make Chief Hyers’ soused nephew Lenny (George Meeker) the new magistrate after the only honest adjudicator (Reginald Barlow) refuses to have anything to do with the release of Skelli.  As Lenny slurs an acceptance speech, there’s a whip-pan to a bust of Abraham Lincoln, comically commenting on the absurdity of how relatives rise through the ranks of government.

Edward Arnold, Mayo Methot
Edward Arnold had a fairly prolific acting career in the silent era but his Joe Skelli is a blueprint for the later “big boss/fat cat businessman” roles he’d play throughout the talkies (The Glass Key [the 1935 version], Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe), and with Louis Calhern as the contemptible assistant D.A. (who never lets his suave menace and complete lack of conscience falter for a second), the acting talent in Afraid to Talk may very well be the finest that director Cahn ever worked with.  Also on hand are Mayo Methot (the third Mrs. Humphrey Bogart) as Arnold’s moll and Matt McHugh (Frank’s bro) as his giggling brother, with silent movie villain Gustav von Seyffertitz in a heroic turn as the lawyer hired to help bellboy Martin out of his predicament.  I also got a chuckle spotting Joyce Compton and Dorothy Granger as the two “party girls” at Joe Skelli’s “get out of jail” celebration, and seeing favorites like George Chandler (as a fellow bellhop) and Arthur Housman (as a drunk—who’da thunk?).

There’s a pervasively bleak atmosphere that shrouds Afraid to Talk—those individuals chosen by the people to represent them do nothing of the sort, and instead live high off the hog from graft and kickbacks, never batting an eyelash at the horrific notion of framing Eddie for a crime he didn’t commit.  (Commissioner Garvey is the only official who won’t go against his conscience, though this is provoked more by Skelli’s mob gunning down children in the streets during a heated moment in a gang war.)  It’s a riveting pre-Code picture because you’re never quite certain where it’s headed and the cynicism that runs rampant throughout (I love the Greek chorus of “bystanders” who comment on the action as they watch developments on an overhead news ticker) appeals to the disillusioned person that I have become late in life (one of the film’s most unforgettable sequences is the interrogation of Linden’s Eddie, which gradually gets physical as Calhern’s goons work him over to extract a confession).  It’s not an easy movie to track down, and though I’m a little red-faced to resort to shilling in the blogathon I obtained a very nice copy (it’s from a VHS recording—there’s a little tracking trouble at one point, but overall I was most impressed with the print) from my friend Martin Grams, Jr. at Finders KeepersAfraid to Talk is a fourteen-carat gem.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rain delay

My mad scheme was to have up on Monday and Tuesday reviews of two movies that I recently watched off my Hopper (Dish’s cute nick for their DVR…though the one in my room is technically a “Joey”) …and then that plan quickly went south.  I’m still trying to tame the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives (I seem to have accumulated a lot of DVDs over the years) by cataloging my holdings (every time I do this, I find a movie or two I missed previously) and because I set Sunday aside to do that, my Monday post never materialized.  Monday, I spent three hours of my life that I’ll never get back journeying to the doc’s for an appointment (I wouldn’t mind the wait so much but the chairs in the endocrinologist’s waiting room appear to be leftover furniture from The Flintstones) and then after lunch, I agreed to go with Mom to Kroger Nation to get some things she needed.  For reasons that I can only attribute to my stupidity, I lifted a few cases of water from one section of the store to my cart (the water was in the area where you walk in, and I didn’t want to set off any alarms in the store since I had already placed items in the cart), then picked them up to put them in the trunk of the car…and then picked them up to set down on the carport.  That left me kind of stove-up, and I decided to just continue with Operation DVD Reorganization.

Artist's depiction of the waiting room at NAED.
Because I have committed to the current Classic Movie Blog Association blogathon, there will be an “Overlooked Films” entry tomorrow (that’s the blogathon theme), and (knock wood) normal posting will resume on Thursday and Friday (Crime Does Not Pay!).  (I splurged on a metric butt-ton of DVDs from since I had a little jingle in my pocket, and I’ll be reviewing some of my acquisitions in the coming month and June.)