Roman Scandals (1933)

Article #1173 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-31-2004
Posting Date: 10-28-2004
Directed by Frank Tuttle
Featuring Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting, Gloria Stuart

When a local boy is thrown out of the town of New Rome, he finds himself transported to the times of Ancient Rome.

The time travel aspect in the above plot description delineates the fantastic element in this musical comedy; as for the actual mechanics as to how the time travel occurs, it’s never clearly explained, but from the surrounding events, It’s pretty obvious he either dreamed or imagined it. I found the whole affair a lot of fun, with the big dance numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley and some entertaining songs by Eddie Cantor. There are several interesting names in the cast; Gloria Stuart, David Manners, Edward Arnold and Alan Mowbray are all on hand, with various smaller parts played by Richard Alexander, Lucille Ball, Billy Barty (in another moment of fantasticism, Eddie Cantor enters a steam bath and is shrunk to the size of a midget, thus Barty’s appearance), Jane Darwell, Francis Ford, Paulette Goddard and Noble Johnson (as a torturer). The plot is fairly thin, but the mostly light-hearted fun has a few darker moments; the theme of political corruption is on hand, and one of the musical numbers involves the selling into slavery of a female slave who is then thrown to her death, a sequence that is somewhat shocking given the general light nature of the movie. Also, being pre-code, some of the musical numbers are fairly risque, especially the number inside the woman’s bath, which features Eddie Cantor singing in blackface and plenty of women in various states of undress. This one was definitely a movie of its time.

Panic on the Air (1936)

Article #1172 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-30-2004
Posting Date: 10-27-2004
Directed by D. Ross Lederman
Featuring Lew Ayres, Florence Rice, Benny Baker

While trying to figure out why a ball player failed to play in a recent game, a radio newscaster stumbles upon a curious story which involves the pencilling in of a moustache onto Lincoln’s face on a five dollar bill.

This is a moderately entertaining mystery with a curious starting point that unfolds in an interesting way, and for those who enjoy this sort of thing, this should fill the bill. However, as far as the fantastic aspects go, this is either a red herring or something of a puzzle. There are no touches of horror or fantasy to the story, and if their is any science fiction aspect tied to the radio or laboratory scenes, it is too subtle for me to spot. Actually, the most fantastic aspect of this movie is that the hero’s oriental manservent is named McNulty; I attribute this not to the fact that the movie takes place in some sort of alternate universe, but rather as someone’s idea of a joke.

Oddly enough, several sources I’ve run into describe the plot quite differently; they say it has something to do with a device that knocks radio programs off the air. This would put the movie into science fiction category if such a thing did appear in the movie, but it didn’t. However, I did find out that there is a movie called YOU MAY BE NEXT which had the working title PANIC ON THE AIR, and I wonder if perhaps the two movies were confused. At any rate, my source lists the cast for this movie rather than for that one. I suspect further research is necessary on this one…

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Article #1171 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-29-2004
Posting Date: 10-26-2004
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Featuring Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell

A carny decides he can crack the big time with a mind-reading racket when he learns a code from a down-on-her-luck mindreader.

This sad, powerful and somewhat disturbing film noir isn’t strictly horror, but the atmosphere is thick at times, and the tarot cards do show an uncanny ability to predict the future. Furthermore, the carnival background is like something out of a Tod Browning movie, and the mind-reading and spiritualist aspects should also be familiar territory to horror fans. The story is first-rate, the direction and cinematography are wonderful, and the acting throughout is top-notch. Tyrone Powers gives a strong performance as Stanton Carlisle, a man whose ability to put on an act is so great that he fails to realize that someone else might actually have a better act, but the best performances come from Joan Blondell as the down-and-out mind reader and Ian Keith, whose portrayal of the alcoholic Pete serves as an example of the type of man whom Stanton could become. Still, there’s an even more alarming example of Stanton’s potential fate, but I’ll leave that for the viewer to discover. My highest recommendations go out with this one.

Spy Smasher (1942)

Article #1170 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-28-2004
Posting Date: 10-25-2004
Directed by William Witney
Featuring Kane Richmond, Marguerite Chapman, Sam Flint

A espionage fighter known as Spy Smasher pits himself against an enemy agent known as The Mask.

The opening music in this serial is from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; I figured that any serial that would use this melodramatically pompous theme had better be good enough to live up to it. The surprising thing is that it does. This is even taking into account that the costumes of the hero and the villain are both singularly lame; Spy Smasher wears a flying helmet and goggles, whereas the Mask wears a hanky with two eye holes in it. However, the fight scenes are exquisitely done, it manages to come up with a good variety of cliffhangers, and the fact that the hero is given a twin brother results in some rather entertaining scenarios.

Another thing I noticed was that the first episode seemed rather familiar. At one point, the Firesign Theatre had put out a videodisc called “Hot Shorts”, in which the soundtracks of several serial episodes were redubbed for comic purposes. SPY SMASHER became BUTT BUSTER, a hero who dedicated himself to stamping out smoking. It’s nice to see the original serial for this one after all these years.

Curse of the Cannibal Confederates (1982)

Article #1169 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-27-2004
Posting Date: 10-24-2004
Directed by Tony Malanowski
Featuring Steve Sandkuhler, Christopher Gummer, Rebecca Bach

When a group of hunters and their girlfriends desecrate the burial ground of confederate soldiers tortured and killed by union soldiers, the soldiers rise up to wreak vengeance.

This movie was originally made as THE CURSE OF THE SCREAMING DEAD in 1982, then released by Troma five years later as CURSE OF THE CANNIBAL CONFEDERATES. With a title like that, and knowing that it came from Troma, you immediately know how to adjust your expectations. It’s really just a retread of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at heart. The dialogue is howlingly bad at times, the acting is terrible (it’s one of those movies where the actors try to express great emotion by hanging their mouth open and getting a vacant expression in their eyes), the music is annoyingly bad (especially during the zombie attack scenes), and all the human characters become so unlikeable during the length of the movie that you’ll be quite surprised that the script allowed any of them to survive. The only really gory section of the movie is the zombie-chowing-down scene that largely plays like the one in NOTLD except that a) it’s in color, b) it’s not done as well, and c) it runs on three times as long. Troma fans may be disappointed; there is more nudity and gore in the opening trailers on the tape than in the movie itself. The movie can almost be dismissed entirely as nothing more than a source of snickers. You will notice, however, that I hedged on that last statement. I did so for good reason. There was at least one startlingly good thing about this movie, and that was Mark Redfield’s performance as the Captain Matthew Mahler, the head of the zombie regiment. Despite having no dialogue (or considering the quality of said dialogue, perhaps “because” would be a better word), he manages to add a real sense of poignancy to the movie. After the first attack by the zombies on the hunters (which results in the demise of several of the zombies), he takes a moment to look over the “battlefield”, and for a few seconds I got the sense of a military leader musing on how many good men were lost in the battle. For some reason, I found this moment as touching as it was unexpected, and he manages to convey some of that same feeling in some of his other scenes. It doesn’t redeem the movie as a whole by any means, but it does show that sometimes you can find gems in the most unexpected of places.

Carolina Cannonball (1955)

Article #1168 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-26-2004
Posting Date: 10-23-2004
Directed by Charles Lamont
Featuring Judy Canova, Andy Clyde, Ross Elliott

When an atomic-powered rocket crashes near the ghost town of Roaring Gulch, the sole residents of the place have run-ins with spies.

This movie opens with stock footage of an atomic explosion, followed by stock footage of the launch of the first nuclear powered submarine. The next thing is the launch of a nuclear powered rocket, which doesn’t take off immediately because the guy pushing the button forgot to plug the cord into the control board. This gag should give you a sense of the level of comedy to be found in this slapstick comedy. Judy Canova was a singer that specialized in yodelling who had been appearing in comedies for twenty years, she plays herself in this movie. The movie also features Sig Rumann, Leon Askin, and Jack Kruschen, Russian spies who try to pass themselves off as Americans (despite their accents) by acting as if they’re not surprised by anything. The title refers to the trolley driven by Canova and her nearly deaf grandpa; the boiler that runs it also serves as a still to provide grandpa’s hooch. Eventually, the boiler blows, and they replace it with the atomic reactor from the rocket, which not only makes the trolley go a lot faster and turns it into a potentially dangerous weapon, it also makes better hooch. There are many running gags about the furniture in the ghost town falling apart. Canova sings some songs as well. That should give you some idea of what this movie is like. It’s better than it could have been, but not by much. Nonetheless, commentary is kind of useless in this case; you either like this kind of lowbrow slapstick or you don’t. You’re on your own.

Super-Sleuth (1937)

Article #1167 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-25-2004
Posting Date: 10-22-2004
Directed by Benjamin Stoloff
Featuring Jack Oakie, Ann Sothern, Eduardo Ciannelli

A movie star finds himself targeted by a murderer known as the Poison Pen.

This Jack Oakie vehicle seemed awfully familiar, and that’s because it is; I just saw the remake GENIUS AT WORK a couple of months ago. Between the two, I suspect horror fans would opt for GAW; after all, the cast of that one features Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. However, I suspect comedy fans would opt for this earlier version, and I’m afraid I’d have to side with them. For one thing, it spares me from having to watch Lugosi wasted in a nothing role (there is no equivalent role in this version). Furthermore, I don’t think Atwill did appreciably better in the role of the villain than Eduardo Ciannelli does here (in fact, I give the nod to Ciannelli). However, the main reason has to do with the comedy; why should I settle for Brown and Carney when I can have Jack Oakie, Ann Sothern, Willie Best and (especially) the great Edgar Kennedy? Granted, without Lugosi or Atwill, the fantastic elements are that much slighter; the sole horror element here is that the villain keeps a house of horrors, though I will give it an extra point on the gadget meter for the umbrella gun. Nonetheless, I simply think this earlier version is funnier. My favorite line explains why Sherlock Holmes didn’t need a bodyguard.

Behind the Mask (1946)

Article #1166 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-24-2004
Posting Date: 10-21-2004
Directed by Phil Karlson
Featuring Kane Richmond, Barbara Read, George Chandler

The Shadow discovers that an imposter is committing murders disguised as him.

I must admit at the outset that I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing any of the radio shows that made the character of the Shadow famous. The persona is so well known, however, that I had a strong sense that I would be in for moody, almost supernatural (the Shadow’s ability to cloud men’s minds) crime melodrama. So I will admit to having gone into this movie with certain expectations.

It starts out well enough; the opening scenes are quite moody indeed. However, once Lamont Cranston enters the scene, the mood goes out the window and the movie loses steam. This happens because the Shadow never uses his much-vaunted ability to cloud men’s minds; rather, he uses the less-than-welcome ability to try men’s patience. He does this through the use of excessive comic relief. Now, I’ve complained about comic relief before, but quite frankly, I didn’t know how good I had it. It’s not that he has a comic relief butler; that I could handle. It’s that he has a comic relief butler, a comic relief girlfriend, a comic relief butler’s girlfriend, and two (count ’em, two) comic relief cops. In fact, I’d say ninety-five percent of this movie consists of various combinations of the comic relief characters; what this movie needs is some mystery relief.

Therefore, despite the fact that we have three people pretending to be the Shadow at one point in the proceedings, I’m afraid I’ve come to the conclusion that none of the characters is the real Shadow, not even the one named Lamont Cranston. I say they’re all imposters, and that you’re just wasting your time here. There’s also no fantastic elements to speak of; clouding men’s minds would have qualified, trying men’s patience does not. This one was a washout.

The Karate Killers (1967)

Article #1165 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-23-2004
Posting Date: 10-20-2004
Directed by Barry Shear
Featuring Robert Vaughn, David McCallum, Joan Crawford

Napolean Solo and Illya Kuryakin try to track down the formula for extracting gold from sea-water. Unfortunately, the scientist who discovered it scattered the secret by leaving it in the hands of his four stepdaughters, who live in far flung reaches of the globe.

I’m stretching things a little bit here, but I think I’m still in acceptable bounds. THE KARATE KILLERS is the name of one of those movies that were made by editing together two episodes of a TV series (in this case, both halfs of “The Five Daughters Affair” from “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”). I was unable to get a hold of the actual feature, but I did manage to acquire the two episodes which were used; since it was a two part story, I’m assuming that all they really did was edit the opening and ending credits and tie the two episodes together. Since the two episodes were designed to tell a single story, there probably wasn’t the bizarre story-flow problem that usual accompanies this sort of thing.

Despite the fact that I’ve never been a fan of the James Bond movies, I have a somewhat greater affection for its derivatives, and that includes TV shows like this one that appeared in its wake. Maybe it’s because they didn’t try to overwhelm you with the violence, stunts and sex, and actually tried to tell a coherent story with a certain amount of wit. This one has a surprising amount of star power; along with the series regulars Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll, we have Herbert Lom, Kim Darby, Jill Ireland, Telly Savalas, Terry-Thomas and (of all things) Joan Crawford, who has one scene. Fans of serials may recognize Philip Ahn as the Japanese wise man; he played Prince Tallen in the BUCK ROGERS serial.

Ghost Ship (1952)

Article #1164 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-22-2004
Posting Date: 10-19-2004
Directed by Vernon Sewell
Featuring Hazel Court, Dermot Walsh, Hugh Burden

A couple buys a yacht that is reputed to be haunted.

This ghost story isn’t scary, but then, I don’t think it’s trying to be. As a matter of fact, I don’t see ghosts as being necessarily horrific; they can be, but often they seem merely indifferent or benign. In this one, the ghost really does nothing more than appear and leave behind the smell of his cigar smoke, and the only thing that I consider horrific about this is that it challenges our notions as to whether there are things beyond the ken of man’s understanding. This movie is decidedly minor, and will probably disappoint a lot of people, but I enjoyed it well enough. It’s decidedly unsensational-istic, the leads are pleasant and likable, and despite its talkiness, the talk is pleasant enough. If it succeeds particularly well at anything, it’s merely that it allows you to ponder the existence of ghosts without using high-pressure tactics to force you to do so, which I find is a good method to get around my innate skepticism on the matter. As such, the movie does have its uses.