Preview Murder Mystery (1936)

Article #755 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-9-2003
Posting Date: 9-6-2003
Directed by Robert Florey
Featuring Reginald Denny, Frances Drake, Gail Patrick

The actor in a remake of “Song of the Toreador” is receiving threatening notes telling him he will not live to see the preview of the movie.

About two-thirds the way through my copy of this movie the videotape started doing some bizarre stuttering that made it somewhat difficult to watch, but I was able to see enough to figure out what was going on (though I do know that I’ll have to search for an upgrade in the future). It’s a bit of a shame; this is a very enjoyable mystery, well directed by Robert Florey, and with a cast that features the heroine of MAD LOVE and one-time DRACULA hopeful Ian Keith. It’s a little predictable at times; I saw one murder and one murder attempt being set up before they actually occur, but the ending has some quite satisfying twists that send it a little ways into the horror genre.

One question, though; at one point, a man suspects that a mouse has been eating some of the cheese on his desk. He then sets up an elaborate system with a camera and an assortment of strings in order to get a picture of the mouse. My question is in two parts: a) Why didn’t he just use a mousetrap?, and b) what was he going to do with the picture of the mouse; blackmail him?


The Night Life of the Gods (1935)

Article #754 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-8-2003
Posting Date: 9-5-2003
Directed by Lowell Sherman
Featuring Alan Mowbray, Florine McKinney, Peggy Shannon

An inventor creates a ring that will turn people to stone, and vice versa.

This movie was based on a novel by Thorne Smith, the same man who gave us the novel “Topper”, on which the movie TOPPER is based. That movie was the last time I encountered Alan Mowbray in this series; there he played a butler. Here he has a butler, played by Gilbert Emery. This movie also has William ‘Stage’ Boyd playing a detective; the last time I encountered him was yesterday, when he played a detective in MURDER BY THE CLOCK. Ray Corrigan is on hand, billed as Raymond Benard, and King Baggot (who played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde once upon a time) is a lobby extra. Actually, I could go on like this for a little while longer to avoid trying to address the movie directly, as I’m not quite sure to what to make of it. In its way, it is as anarchic as HELLZAPOPPIN’, or any Marx Brothers comedy (without the music). It has little plot to speak of; it’s mostly a series of connected setpieces all playing with the concept of people being turned to stone and vice versa. The title refers to the second half of the movie, where our protagonist brings several statues of Greek gods to life, and they (for want of a better phrase) run amuck. Hebe steals cups, Neptune looks for fish and pokes people with his trident, Bacchus gets drunk, Venus tries to get a date…you get the idea. The movie also throws leprechauns into the mix. If it were a bit funnier, I might love it; as it is, it is a strange little question mark in the history of cinema. The butler steals the movie.

Murder by the Clock (1931)

Article #753 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-7-2003
Posting Date: 9-4-2003
Directed by Edward Sloman
Featuring Lilyan Tashman, William Boyd, Regis Toomey

An old woman is strangled, and the primary suspect is her brutish but dim-witted son.

These early talkies can be a bit of a chore; in order to ensure decent sound, the films were shot in a fairly static way, the pace was often quite slow, and actors were required to be slow and careful in the way they articulated their lines, and this was not conducive to good acting. Between these elements and the rather obvious dialogue in the screenplay, one might be tempted to completely dismiss this forgotten horror that initially seems like your standard “Old Dark House” murder mystery. However, the story starts taking an unusual direction when you realize that in place of the usual romantic leads, you have a weak, drunken man and his manipulative wife who eventually proves to be a femme fatale of the first degree. In short, this forgotten horror may actually be an early form of film noir, and plotwise it plays out as such, which gives it a higher degree of interest value than it might otherwise have. That’s Irving Pichel as the dimwitted brother, and Regis Toomey actually manages to land some good comic lines as an Irish cop.

Queen of the Jungle (1935)

Article #752 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-6-2003
Posting Date: 9-3-2003
Directed by Robert Hill
Featuring Reed Howes, Mary Korman, Dickie Jones

A little girl gets lost in the jungle as the result of a tragic hide-and-seek accident, and becomes the leader of a primitive tribe. Years later, her childhood friend sets out to find her.

One of the first things you notice about this old serial is how loudly it creaks. Then you notice a curious phenomenon; some of the scenes appear to be shot at a different speed than the others. You then notice that the scenes that are in fast motion have no dialogue. It was here a quick check on IMDB confirmed my suspicions; a goodly portion of this movie is made up of footage from an old silent serial called JUNGLE GODDESS. This isn’t the only time a talkie used a goodly amount of silent footage; a horrible little movie called THE WHITE GORILLA tried it a decade later, and did a very bad job of it. This one is somewhat more successful; it actually looks like they took the trouble to cast actors and actresses that resembled the characters in the silent footage, so that only the speed of the footage really gives it away. It manages to pull off its trick for a while, but as the serial progresses, the story deteriorates; there’s at least one cliffhanger where the follow-up episode appeared to actually omit the escape footage, so I don’t know how they got out of the peril. The final episode looks largely like a bunch of cliffhangers edited together to finish up the movie. It ends up all having a bit of charm to it, but don’t expect much; it’s largely just a curio.

The Mad Genius (1931)

Article #751 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-5-2003
Posting Date: 9-2-2003
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Featuring John Barrymore, Marian Marsh, Donald Cook

A puppeteer with a clubfoot has dreams of becoming a dancer, and decides to experience it vicariously by taking a young man under his wings and making him a great dancer.

A basic rule of movie-making in Hollywood is that if it worked once, it will work twice. This is why the above plot has more than just a little resemblance to SVENGALI, in which Barrymore also played a mad genius trying to make a woman a great singer. It’s less of a horror movie this time, as the hypnotism angle of that movie plays no role here, and the main character’s clubfoot is used less for horror effect and more for plot development; it is his deformity that made the Barrymore character unable to become a dancer himself. Boris Karloff is also on hand in a small role, but you would be excused if you didn’t notice him; not only is he speaking with an accent, but the camera never gives us a close look at him. In fact, I found it curious that Barrymore talks about Frankenstein at one point in the proceedings.

Barrymore does a great job, but the movie is stolen by Charles Butterworth as Barrymore’s comic sidekick; his dialogue is absolutely priceless, particularly when he narrates the story of the ballet he’s written. I also thought it was odd that whereas Barrymore’s role in SVENGALI made me think of Bela Lugosi in DRACULA, his role here reminds me of Lionel Atwill’s in THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM; seeing as how both this movie and THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM were directed by Michael Curtiz, this may be more than just a coincidence.

Sadly, the movie is marred by a contrived ending; it comes out of left field, and though it does add one real horror element to the mix, it’s also a deus ex machina of the worst kind. This is a shame; despite the fact that it’s largely a retread of SVENGALI, it was a very good movie up to that point.

I Love a Mystery (1945)

Article #750 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-4-2003
Posting Date: 9-1-2003
Directed by Henry Levin
Featuring Jim Bannon, Nina Foch, George MacReady

Two investigators look into the situation of a man whose head is being sought by an oriental cult.

I like mysteries, too, especially when they’re as loaded with odd plot twists, interesting characters, exotic atmosphere, and dark, horror-like touches as this one. This was the first of a short-lived series of movies based on a radio series, and it caught my attention from square one, with one of the primary plot elements involving a man being followed by an ugly peg-legged man carrying a bag (“just big enough to hold a human head”). Only time will tell whether I will cover any other movies from this series.

The Time Machine (1960)

Article #749 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-3-2003
Posting Date: 8-31-2003
Directed by George Pal
Featuring Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux

A man invents a time machine at the end of the nineteenth century, and takes a journey into the far future.

This adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel is much more faithful to the source story than Pal’s earlier WAR OF THE WORLDS was to its source. It has one of the all-time great props; the time machine itself is a wonderful and memorable creation, and the time travel sequences are breathtaking indeed. However, I usually emerge from the movie with an odd sense of disappointment, and it’s a little hard at times to say why. I had read the original story of Wells several times when I was young, long before I ever actually got to see the movie, and though I haven’t read the story closely in quite a while (I have a collection of H.G. Wells novels that I will be rereading in the near future), I always get the sense that the story has been “dumbed down” in subtle ways; just as an example, the scene where Weena asks the time traveller how women wear their hair in his time seems overly cute, false, and out of tenor with the story, and I don’t believe that would be a question Weena would actually ask.

This may sound like nit-picking, and perhaps it is, but it does seriously hamper my enjoyment of the movie. I also miss the omission of chapter 11 from the story, in which the time traveller goes even farther into the future into a time where Earth is nearing its last days, and this has always been the one chapter of the book that has most embedded itself into my memory; it’s omission from the movie tends to leave a fairly big emotional hole for me.

Still, even if I feel that the ultimate version of the story has yet to be made, I applaud George Pal’s attempt. I also really loved one final touch in the movie, and that is that it leaves it to the viewer’s own imagination as to which three books are missing at the end of the movie. It’s a subtle, effective touch that is entirely unexpected and thought-provoking, and I have to smile when we reach that point.

R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. (1916)

R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. (1916)
Article #748 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-2-2003
Posting Date: 8-30-2003
Produced by Willis O’Brien

A mailman in prehistoric times uses underhanded means to steal the girlfriend of a rival.

Though it is nice that some of Willis O’Brien’s caveman comedies are still in existence, in all honesty I have to say they are more interesting historically than they are in and of themselves. As comedies, they’re fairly lame, and the characters are downright ugly; in fact, it’s hard to tell the men from the women sometimes (though if a character spends almost all of its time on all fours, you can say with some confidence it’s a dinosaur). As for the plot, I have a couple of comments; first of all, the mailman performs an act that would have been considered a federal offense had there been a federal government in those times, and in the denoument, a certain character implies that delivering mail is a very lucrative and prosperous profession, something that may well surprise an employee of the U.S. Postal System.

Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

Article #747 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-1-2003
Posting Date: 8-29-2003
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Featuring Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Johnny Sheffield

Tarzan and Jane discover a baby who is the only survivor of an airplane crash, and the rear the boy as their own. Years later, the boy’s relatives come to the jungle in search of him.

Had I watched this movie after having seen the first three Weissmuller Tarzans only, I would have mourned what would have been another step in the domestication of the character; however, after having seen TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS, I really appreciate how this one still retains enough of the savagery that made the initial entries so appealing. The characters are more complex than in that later movie, there is still that wonderful chemistry between Weissmuller and O’Sullivan (this was supposed to be her last outing as Jane, but the ending was changed), and Africa is still inhabited largely by animals and fierce native tribes, an aspect that had almost vanished entirely in the AMAZON movie. There are some powerful scenes here, particularly a moving moment when Tarzan has to keep a baby elephant from running to his mortally-wounded mother who is making her way to the elephant’s graveyard. Yes, it pales next to the first three of the series, but it’s still a richer and more resonant experience than some of the later ones. Sometimes you just need to sit back and count your blessings.

Topper (1937)

TOPPER (1937)
Article #746 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-31-2003
Posting Date: 8-28-2003
Directed by Norman McLeod
Featuring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, Roland Young

A stodgy and dull bank president finds himself haunted by two ghosts intent on getting him to enjoy life.

First, a rant.

Ever order a movie on the internet, and then wait with baited breath for it to arrive, and when it does, you discover to your horror that you got the COLORIZED version? ARRGGGHHHH!!!!! Not only that, but it was one of the very first movies to undergo colorization, so it’s done particularly badly. Double ARRRGGGHHHH!!!!!

Still, it was the only copy of the movie I had, so I watched it anyway. Fortunately, it’s a good one, with great dialogue and wonderful performances from Roland Young, Constance Bennett, Cary Grant, Billie Burke, Alan Mowbray and Eugene Pallette. Hedda Hopper and Doodles Weaver are also in there somewhere. It’s consistently amusing and fun to watch, but I do have a couple of minor quibbles (outside of the ghastly colorization); there’s a long stretch in the second half where Cary Grant is nowhere to be found (he’s one of my all-time favorite actors), and despite all the fun, it never quite cuts loose in the way you hope it might. Still, it was a joy to watch, and though I definitely plan to watch it again sometime, I will wait until I have a chance to upgrade my copy to one in which the predominant colors are various shades of grey.