Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Now More Than Ever!

When discussing American politics over the last three years I’ve often simply framed things this way: “America is a fictional country.” But the U.S. of A. didn’t just turn into a big ol’ Grand Fenwick in 2016. I’d say we took a turn for the fictional when Ronald Reagan became Pres in 1980. The period before that had some resounding reality to it — after the star of Bedtime for Bonzo became president (hear him say it was a great comedy here), all bets on the country being a serious real-world, present-day entity were off.

The year he was elected was considered the last year of the “Me Decade” — but we all know that Tom Wolfe got it wrong, and that the Seventies were only the beginning of the self-involvement, which further made the country an even more bizarre place where basically anything could happen (but what always did happen made for scenarios that would’ve been thrown out in any good Creative Writing class as being “unrealistic”). Every decade since has been the “Me Decade,” and there is no prospect of the crazed introspection and leisure-time fascinations ever turning back now that the Internet and handheld devices rule us all.

So, why *isn’t* it more than likely that the encounter below will happen again, albeit this time at a political rally, a convention, or a debate? At some point, it should’ve become evident to those of us who watch this clip on an annual basis — nay, who LIVE this clip on an annual basis  that we are all of us Robert Vaughns, and the clowns are ruling the roost. It wasn’t for nothing that this particular event occurred during Reagan’s second term in the White House (the one where he more than likely had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s and the country was indeed run by the VP, a creepy former head of the CIA)?

Remember that the oft-quoted statement by George Carlin was not two lines long  it was three. The third line is often lost on the Internet (which is oddly, completely appropriate).

“When you’re born in this world, you’re given a ticket to the freak show.

When you’re born in America, you’re given a front-row seat.

And some of us get to sit there with notebooks….”

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Some Notes on Pre-code Horror (Part 1 of three)

Halloween is the single finest holiday in the calendar, mostly because it has no hard-and-fast rules. You can celebrate it any want you want. It’s a DIY holiday that encompasses any behavior that you like — what better time to binge on vintage horror movies, from the era when talkies were a new art form and basically anything could happen onscreen? Herewith, the results of a very, very entertaining binge.

The best-remembered, most-revived monster movies made during the pre-code era were made by Universal. Those titles appear in this piece — in fact, two of the best-ever titles I will list at the end of the second part of this piece were produced by Universal. But I wanted to also tout the horror movies made by other studios, from the prestigious (Paramount, MGM) to “poverty row” productions (Majestic, Halperin Productions).

The three best of the bunch will be preceded by an honor roll of the best from that short period of time when sound was new and sublimely talented craftspeople were working in front of and behind the camera. And the only way to begin is with:

Dracula, 1931, Universal, Tod Browning (released Feb '31) The film that jumpstarted the genre. The German Expressionist films are the undisputed masterpieces of the silent era, and the films starring Lon Chaney offered a portrait gallery of amazingly nasty-looking (yet often terribly misunderstood) monsters and villains. But it was Browning’s Dracula that began the horror craze in earnest and, as such, is the one of the most imitated pictures of all time.

Browning’s film is derided these days for alternating between scenes that are way too talky and way too silent. It has its slow moments, with the dialogue-heavy sequences being a reflection of the debt that early talking cinema had to the stage. The film did, however, introduce the idea of an aristocratic monster — a figure who moves freely in high society while he harbors a deadly secret….

Lugosi is magnetic onscreen, with Browning framing him in truly iconic images that were copied endlessly in later monster movies and dramas concerning human predators.

Frankenstein, 1931, Universal, James Whale (Nov '31) The other seminal horror film of the early Thirties introduced two staples of the genre: the mad scientist (yes, Dr. Caligari and Rotwang came first, but their adventures were, by turns, dreamlike and allegorical) and the misunderstood, misfit monster.

Whale’s monster movie was remade and reworked over the next four decades. Although the stagey, dialogue-heavy scenes here are clunky as hell, the scenes in the laboratory and the ones featuring Karloff’s monster are as exciting today as they were in ’31.

The two essential elements that distinguished the film have been written about endlessly, but they can’t go unmentioned here. First, the German Expressionist influence found in the lighting, set design (by Charles Hall), camera angles, and editing — outside the brightly lit drawing rooms, all is darkness and menace. The other element that still “sells” the film is the starmaking, mute performance by Boris Karloff, who played the monster as both a clueless child and a vengeful force of nature.

After the box-office success of Dracula and Frankenstein, every studio tried to develop horror/monster pictures. The results were often mixed (or just downright weird), but there were three things that were repeated over and over:

—moody lighting and striking imagery. A decade before film noir, the darkest films in American cinema were horror movies with plots that allowed for all sorts of bizarre and deviant behavior.

—old supernatural tales, alternating or infused with completely manufactured mythologies and science (often in the same package). Yes, Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker’s novels were written in 1818, 1886, and 1898, and the figures of werewolves, zombies, and mummies had previously existed, but the masterstroke of the Thirties monster movie was to cherry-pick items from ancient myths while also making things up from whole cloth.

—“young lovers” storylines that were included to counteract the abnormality of the films as a whole. As was the case in Golden Age talkie comedies (think of the features starring Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers), the single most annoying thing about a lot of Hollywood horror movies were the scenes featuring happy young lovers. Even when the male in the couple was a mad scientist, these half-baked romantic scenes are a slog.

Below are capsules about the most notable pre-code horror pics. After a chronological listing of those titles, I will discuss the three best Golden Age horror films (by a wide margin).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1932, Paramount, Rouben Mamoulian (Jan ’32). Jekyll is a prestige, A-budget production that has a lot of beautifully executed moving camera shots and tight closeups. Frederick March enacts great (much copied) transformations from the urbane and good-willed Dr. Jekyll to the savage and simian Mr. Hyde. March was so good he won the Best Actor Oscar, a feat not repeated for a performer in a horror movie until Kathy Bates won in 1991 for Misery and Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster won in ’92 for The Silence of the Lambs.

March’s performance is stylized and at first seems dated, but it is positively modernist when compared to Spencer Tracy’s “naturalistic” performance in the 1941 MGM remake of Jekyll — which finds him as a stray American identified as a British doctor. Ingrid Bergman is more memorable in the remake as the “flirtatious girl” — no longer a hooker — who is Hyde’s victim, beginning a long run of Bergman-as-victim performances. (And, as my father attested, the single meanest Hyde of all time was Jack Palance in the 1968 telefilm remake. Jack didn’t even need that much makeup!)

The plot element that most clearly reflects pre-code permissiveness here involved Miriam Hopkins’ hooker character. She is both the victim of a number of beatings from Hyde and also supplies a timeless piece of leg-art fixation, in which she lazily moves her leg back and forth to hypnotize the “innocent,” uptight Dr. Jekyll. Busby Berkeley was allowed to indulge in post-code gam-fetish imagery in later years (Busby got away with a lot), but it was deemed too “lewd” in other contexts.

1932 was the banner year for pre-code horror in Hollywood. Mad scientists, crazed killers (who may or may not have been motivated by supernatural urges) and, yes, smarmy young lovers appeared in profusion. When watched over a short period of time, one gets the impression that Hollywood was in the mood to shock and disturb the American public….

Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1932, Universal, Robert Florey (Feb '32) A schizophrenic piece that combines the “young lover” tedium with astonishingly dark (in tone and hue) scenes involving a mad scientist named “Doctor Mirakle” (played by the great Lugosi) who is looking to mate his gorilla with some lucky Parisian woman. Bela is wonderfully creepy playing the first of his portrait gallery of sadistic scientists. (The American public’s fear of science is clearly reflected in these villainous experimenters with deviant agendas.)

If the film’s surprisingly grim tone and theme of intended bestiality wasn’t enough to make Rue Morgue one of the most intriguing films from the banner year of ’32, then surely the appearance of a “mystery guest star” is. For one of Dr. Mirakle’s victims is a comely “woman of the streets” (that’s her i.d. in the credits), played by later “What’s My Line?” regular Arlene Francis! (above)

White Zombie, 1932, Halperin Productions, Victor Halperin (Aug ’32) Less than two years after his triumph in Dracula, Lugosi had declared bankruptcy (reportedly for overspending on clothing!) and was already starring in “poverty row” features made by smaller producers.

This is one of the most notable of those titles, because Lugosi is in high dudgeon as the voodoo master who holds a group of zombies in thrall, and the film is a decent potboiler, with director-producer Victor Halperin doing a fine job of using his limited budget to up the scare factor.

The zombie rule book (pre-Romero) was written here. This is a vision of shambling slave-creations that can be redeemed — but only if they are the kewpie-doll heroine (part of the picture’s pesky young lover combo).

Halperin used techniques from the preceding horror/monster pics, including mesmerizing close-ups of Lugosi staring straight into the camera, and even tighter close-ups of his eyes (borrowed from Browning’s Dracula). The most impressive steal was the split screen used by Mamoulian, in which a wipe effect stops midway and we see two different images in each half of the frame.

Doctor X, 1932, First National, Michael Curtiz (Aug '32) Lionel Atwill was an all-purpose authority figure in the later Universal monster movies, but first he was a star in his own horror features. The first of these is notable for its combination of mad scientist horror and the standard murder mystery. It also is one of the two earliest color films in the genre (the other one also starred Atwill and will be featured in the second part of this piece).

The two-strip Technicolor process in which the film was shot winds up making it look oddly menacing; it emphasizes the shadows in the street scenes and the electrical sparks in the laboratory scenes. It thus offers a look at what Frankenstein might’ve looked like, had it been shot in color (which it thankfully wasn’t).

The plot is pure pre-code sleaze: A killer who is cannibalizing his victims is sought by the police, who have narrowed down the list of suspects to a group of eccentric scientists, led by Dr. Jerry Xavier (Atwill). He in turn decides to reveal the killer by conducting a group experiment that will heighten the guilty man’s homicidal tendencies while the participants are handcuffed — the thought that the culprit is one of the few un-handcuffed people in the room occurs to the quirky eggheads a bit too late.

The Old Dark House, 1932, Universal, James Whale (Oct '32) Is one of the most curious and wonderfully deranged creations of the ’32 horror onslaught. James Whale gave us a glimpse of the over-the-top sensibility that permeated Bride of Frankenstein (see below) in this picture, which is both a legitimate horror movie and a bona fide spoof of the “dark and stormy night/old dark house” horror pics (which were affectionately spoofed in Curt McDowell’s amazing Thundercrack!, and the biggest cult movie of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Whale had been a stage director, so he knew the importance of a great ensemble to sell the material. In this case he gave us two sets of young lovers (although Melvyn Douglas always seemed quite older than the average “boy lead”), but also a solid assortment of character people, including one of the greatest camp archetypes in movie history, Ernest Thesiger (here playing a character named “Femm”). Also a “monster” in the form of the family servant, a grunting gent with a misshapen face played by Karloff.

Even Whale couldn’t enliven the young lover sequences, but he included many inspired touches — a Manchester braggart, played by Charles Laughton (in his first American film), an old family patriarch played by an old woman (playing an old man), and the real homicidal menace in the house, a relative named “Saul” (Brember Wills), who is the oddest individual in the whole film.

The Mummy, 1932, Universal, Karl Freund (Dec '32) Like Dracula and Frankenstein, this is a beautifully crafted film that, unlike those films, shows the “monster” only briefly at the beginning. Karloff carries the entire enterprise as an ancient Egyptian variant on the Dracula character. He incarnates a wholly sympathetic monster, who has lived centuries simply to be reunited with his princess soulmate.

Screenwriters John Balderston (who wrote the play Dracula and worked on nearly all of the key Universal monster pics in the early Thirties), Nina Wilcox Putnam (who wrote children’s books and comics, and helped create the 1040 tax form when she was an accountant!) and veteran scripter Richard Schayer concocted a series of plot elements that became “mummy lore,” assembled out of bits of older tales.

Director Karl Freund, one of the greatest cameramen ever (from German Expressionist silents to the “I Love Lucy” three-camera shoot), did a superb job of mixing suspense and melodrama. It’s a shame Freund directed only two horror movies (this one and Mad Love), as both are testaments to his talent for the macabre and menacing. He preceded these two films with camerawork on Dracula and Rue Morgue, and then, after Mad Love in 1935, never worked on another horror film.

Island of Lost Souls, 1932, Paramount, Erle C. Kenton (Dec '32) Arguably the best, and definitely most disturbing, of the ’32 horrors was this adaptation of H.G. Welles, which is one of the most warped films to emerge from Golden Age Hollywood. The primitive nature of the makeup jobs done to create the film’s “manimals” and the sheer sadism contained in the plot put this on a par with the best of Universal’s monster movies.

First of all, there is the plot — Dr. Moreau (the wonderful Charles Laughton) is a scientist creating half-human, half-animal creatures in a remote jungle area on an uncharted island. His “experiments” become citizens of the island, or (if their “fusion” went awry) they are put to work doing manual slave labor. Actors of various ethnicities play some of these creatures, so an unspoken subtext about Anglo imperialism appears throughout.

Two of the manimals are unforgettable. The first is the “Sayer of the Law,” played by the very busy Lugosi. He delivers the “law” in the film and speaks the line that gave Devo their lyric and first album title, “Are we not men?”

The other creation is the only female in the bunch, the Panther Woman. She looks Asian but was played by an Irish-American actress, Kathleen Burke. Her small, thin body is an unusual sight in a Hollywood film (when glamour was all). Even more jarring is the fact that Dr. Moreau is trying to pimp her off on the film’s hero (Richard Arlen) to see if she can have sex and give birth.

Laughton’s sublimely wicked performance as Moreau combines two of the elements that appeared in most of the pre-code horror pictures. First, there is self-proclaimed godhood. From Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll onward, the mad scientists in horror movies proclaim their divinity and equal status to God himself. Lost Souls was banned in England until the late Fifties (when it had to edited to get a release certificate; the cut scenes were restored in this decade!). This was based on a few items in the film, not the least of which was Moreau’s line “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

The other common element of the mad scientist characters was a sadism little seen in cinema outside of domestic abuse dramas, addiction sagas, and, yes, s&m movies. The sadists in monster movies express sheer delight when another character is in pain, presumably because it is within their purview as gods-on-Earth to deliver punishment.

The grimmest and most memorable aspect of Laughton’s performance is this delight, reflected in the broad smiles he sports when discussing  his “house of pain” (the laboratory where he creates his manimals) and his plans for breeding new races of creatures.

The films discussed above can be found on DVD/Blu-ray (the Universal "Legacy" series of collections is exemplary) and often for free on YouTube, Daily Motion, Archive, and To be continued...