Sing, Baby, Sing (1936)

Article 5377 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-21-2017
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Featuring Alice Faye, Adolphe Menjou, Gregory Ratoff
Country: USA
What it is: Musical comedy / Horror

Poor Joan Warren! Not only is her singing career on the skids because she’s not a trendy “blue blood”, but she also has to preview comedy acts by the Ritz Brothers. However, her agent attempts to resurrect her career by romantically linking her with a vacationing but hard-drinking Hollywood actor.

Where does the horror come in? Well, the movie does feature the Ritz Brothers… and that’s a cheap shot, I’ll admit. It’s not their fault I tend to associate them with the dismal THE GORILLA; in reality, they were out of their element in that movie and they knew it. That’s not the case in this movie; there performance consists of a series of vaudeville song-and-dance routines, and there’s something to admire in the deftness of their comic hoofing, However, as far as comedy goes, I feel they come across as a less-inspired Danny Kaye crossed with Huntz Hall at his muggiest, and that’s not a comfortable place to be. Nevertheless, they are responsible for the fantastic content of the movie; one of their routines takes on the Dr. Jekyll story and also features a version of the Frankenstein monster.

Most of the movie is your typical musical comedy of the time. The best thing about it is Adolphe Menjou’s performance as an actor somewhat inspired by John Barrymore; I’ve seen this actor in many movies, but I’ve never quite seen him cut loose in a comic style like this. The movie also features Ted Healy, and quite frankly, the Three Stooges were better off without him. Alice Faye and Gregory Ratoff do a fine job, and some of the songs are pretty decent. All in all, it’s pretty marginal from a genre perspective, but I’ve seen a lot worse.

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Article 5376 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-20-2017
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Featuring Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Elissa Landi
Country: USA
What it is: Epic sword and sandal

After the burning of Rome, Nero places the blame on the rapidly growing sect of Christians and orders their destruction. However, his highest military official has fallen in love with a Christian woman…

The Walt Lee guide attributes the fantastic content of the movie to the tortures and sadism, and one has to admit they’re fairly shocking. We don’t see the torture of the young boy, but we hear it and we see the after-effects. And some of the spectacles in the arena are pretty gruesome; among other things, we see a violent battle between Amazons and pygmies, men crushed by rampaging elephants, and a bound woman menaced by several crocodiles. Though this doesn’t make it a horror film, it certainly makes it horrific. I was almost expecting some sort of miracle in the final moments of the movie, but the movie refuses, giving the whole thing a sort of integrity that I like. The coliseum/arena sequence is the centerpiece of the motion picture, and it takes up the final third of the movie. The rest is a hodgepodge of court intrigue and sword-and-sandal setpieces; unfortunately, there’s no super-powered Maciste character to come to the rescue. Fredric March and Elissa Landi do all right as the heroes, but it is the villains that steal the show; Claudette Colbert is memorable as the self-serving Empress Poppaea, but it’s Charles Laughton that really shines as the decadent Emperor Nero, a role that seems tailor made for him. There’s a number of other familiar names and faces; you’ll recognize the voice of John Carradine as several different characters, and Angelo Rossitto pops up as one of the pygmies. There’s also Joe Bonomo as a mute torturer and Charley Gemora as… well, you’ll know him.

And speaking of the latter, I did find one thing quite disappointing. If you’re like me, the movie mostly makes you think of a still showing a near-naked woman being threatened by a gorilla. Well, the scene is here… and it lasts about two seconds in total.

Raskolnikow (1923)

aka Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment
Article 5375 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-19-2017
Directed by Robert Wiene
Featuring Grigori Chmara, Elisabeta Skulskaja, Alla Tarasova
Country: Germany
What it is: Crime drama

A student, under the belief of a philosophy that certain people are above the law, murders a stockbroker and her daughter with an axe. He manages to get away with the murder, but can he get away from his own conscience…?

When I was looking for this one, I discovered there were two different versions of the film on YouTube to choose from; one with Russian subtitles that ran almost two hours long, and one in English that was very badly framed and ran only seventy minutes. Despite the fact that there was a language comprehension issue, I chose the Russian version, for several reasons; it was more complete in every regard, I have a certain familiarity with the novel, and, seeing how the novel is very well known, it wasn’t too difficult to find a summary of the plot that helped me through.

Still, the movie was a bit difficult when it came to sorting out some of the subplots, but the main thrust of the story about a man who can’t quite escape his conscience comes through very well. It helps that both the actors who play the student and the detective who suspects him give excellent performances; the scenes between them are highlights. The movie was also directed by Robert Wiene, who uses some of the same expressionistic style he used in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI; it’s not as pervasive as in that movie, but it’s noticeably there, especially in the scenes in the building where the murder takes place. Walt Lee states the fantastic content of the movie is Wiene’s style (it’s the only version of the story listed in his book), but there’s a handful of dream/hallucination sequences which do lapse into the fantastic as well, including one in which the pawnbroker appears as a grotesque giantess. The movie is perhaps too long. but it’s effective enough of the time that it makes for a decent adaptation of the novel.

The Phantom Honeymoon (1919)

Article 5374 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-18-2017
Directed by J. Searle Dawley
Featuring Marguerite Marsh, Vernon Steele, Henry Guy Carleton
Country: USA
What it is: Ghost story

A man who specializes in debunking ghosts decides to visit a castle that is believed to be haunted. There he meets an Indian manservant who tells him the story of the ghosts that haunt the castle.

I can’t say how many “old dark house” movies I’ve seen, and I’m a little surprised to realize how much more common they are than movies like this – good old-fashioned ghost stories. I really liked this one. The story with the ghost debunker is a framing story. The main story is in three parts. The first part recounts the central incident in the story in which a strange duel to the death is fought. The second part gives the backstory to that duel. The third part finishes off the action in such a way that the framing story is incorporated into the tale as well. One of the most interesting things about this movie is that it doesn’t quite go in the direction you’d think it would go, largely due to the fact that the movie shifts gears in the final act from being a full-blooded horror movie into the realm of whimsical fantasy, and to the movie’s credit, the shift works very well. But then, I sensed a shift when I discovered that not only did the movie feature human ghosts, but the ghost of a car as well. My favorite moment in the film is when the debunker has a “close encounter” with a ghost. Hopefully, I haven’t given away too much; this is one of those movies that is appreciated if you don’t know too much about what’s going on. This is another title that has been rescued from my “one that got away” list, and I’m very glad it showed up.

Willoughby’s Magic Hat (1943)

Article 5373 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-17-2017
Directed by Bob Wickersham
Voice cast unknown
Country: USA
What it is: Columbia cartoon

A magical hat knitted from Samson’s hair ends up in the possession of a tiny little man named Willoughby, who is given super-strength when he wears it. Will he be able to rescue a damsel in distress and manage to keep his hat on?

There are no anthropomorphic animals on hand in this cartoon, but that doesn’t mean there’s no fantastic content; we have a magic hat, Samson, Hercules, Atlas and a villain that looks like a robot version of the Frankenstein monster. Columbia didn’t really come into its own until UPA took over in the fifties, so I’ve learned not to expect too much from their pre-UPA material. Sure enough, there are problems here; some gags don’t work (there’s no reason for Nero or Napoleon to be wearing the hat, for example), and there’s at least one big glaring dead spot in the cartoon where nothing is happening. Nevertheless, the premise is unusual and interesting, and it manages to have some solid fun with the concept; for example, I like the sequence where our hero first gets the cap and has to contend with his own strength. Also, there are moments when the sketchy background illustrations are reminiscent of the work of UPA, which is interesting. No, it’s not a great cartoon, but it’s a good one, and it may be one of Columbia’s best from the period.

Medvezhya Svadba (1925)

aka The Marriage of the Bear
Article 5372 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-16-2017
Directed by Konstantin Eggert and Vladimir Gardin
Featuring Konstantin Eggert, Vera Malinovskaya, B. Afonin
Country: U.S.S.R.
What it is: Horrific drama

On a hunting expedition, a pregnant noblewoman is attacked by a bear. Years later, the son that was born to her and has inherited the estate has taken to stalking women while wearing a bear skin.

Here’s a title that was consigned to my “ones that got away” list many years ago, but which has recently popped up on YouTube; unfortunately, the print does not have English subtitles, and I had to seek the help of a few sketchy plot descriptions to figure out parts of the story. Visually, it’s an interesting movie at times, and it occasionally uses a rapid-fire editing technique that would be interesting to evaluate. However, two circumstances prevented me from enjoying this technique. The first is that since I was unable to read the Russian title cards, I couldn’t quite grasp the context of the scenes. Second, the copy I saw of the movie seemed to be running at a slightly accelerated speed, and the rapid-fire edits went by so quickly it was difficult to focus in on or absorb the images. The story itself is a variation on the werewolf legend, though with something more of psychological transformation rather than a physical one. This is one I may have to give another chance sometime when it has an English translation; as it is, I found the movie a little frustrating. Still, like many of the “ones that got away”, I count myself lucky that I was able to find it at all.

Felix the Cat Woos Whoopee (1928)

Article 5371 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-15-2017
Directed by Otto Messmer
No cast
Country: USA
What it is: Felix the Cat cartoon

Felix the Cat is having a high old time at the Whoopee Club, unaware that his wife is angrily waiting at home with a rolling pin. And soon Felix makes his way out of the club and heads home…

The plot of this cartoon sounds like a hoary old comic situation that’s been done many times, but plot isn’t really that important in a Felix the Cat cartoon; it’s what happens outside of the plot that’s entertaining. In this case, most of the fun happens while Felix is on his way home, and since he’s fairly lubricated, he finds himself at the mercy of his hallucinations, which include things like traffic cops who attack with their buttons and street lamps that turn into dragons. The twenties were not a great time for cartoons, but the Felix ones are my favorite from that era; his penchant for playing around with the unreality of animation is appealing. This isn’t one of his best, but it is fun; I particularly like some of the weird monsters he dreams up.

When the Devil Drives (1907)

Article 5370 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-14-2017
Directed by Walter R. Booth
Cast unknown
Country: UK
What it is: Fun trick short

The devil hijacks a coach and a train and takes its passengers on a merry ride.

This ended up on my “ones that got away” list, but a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of a YouTube video, though he also passed on a warning that this particular print of the short movie is horrid. And it is. Not only does the print cut off huge sections of the original frame (it’s hard to find a scene where the devil’s head is NOT cut off), it’s running at the wrong projection speed (cutting a five-minute short down to three minutes), and the action is obscured by an obnoxious watermark logo in the center of the screen, a website flag on the top of the screen, and time lapse indicator near the bottom of the screen. This is a damned shame, because from what I could see, this is really a creative special effects short; it reminded me somewhat of THE ? MOTORIST. We see visions of the train riding on telephone waters, travelling underwater (which is pretty surreal), assembling itself on the side of a mountain, and flying off into the clouds. There’s a wonderful Melies collection out there, and I hope someday someone takes an interest in some of the lesser-known special effects directors out there and produces high-quality sets of their shorts as well. This is one I hope someday to see in a pristine condition; I know there are much better copies out there.

La guerra ed il sogno di Momi (1917)

aka War and Momi’s Dream
Article 5369 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-11-2017
Directed by Segundo de Chomon and Giovanni Pastrone
Featuring Guido Petrungaro, Alberto Nepoti, Valentina Frascaroli
Country: Italy
What it is: War, human and puppet styles

After hearing a war story, a young boy who likes playing with his toy soldiers Trik and Trak falls asleep and dreams that his toys gather armies and go to war.

This is the last directorial effort of the great Segundo de Chomon, and I must admit that he went out with an ambitious effort. The movie is in two parts. The first features a live-action war story about a young boy who tries to save his mother from enemy soldiers; I’m assuming this half of the movie is the work of co-director Pastrone. The second half is the dream sequence with the stop-motion puppets, and though moments of this sequence seem inspired by events in the earlier story, it goes off in a different and fairly elaborate direction. On top of the toys coming to life, this sequence also has a super-cannon to add to the fantastic content, as well as a sequence where one of the toys escapes a trap by taking himself apart piece by piece and then reassembling himself. The most impressive sequence has a town being destroyed by an invasion from the air; there’s some very nice miniature work here. It’s an interesting short, but I’m not quite sure if there’s any point to the work as a whole; the first half concentrates on action and thrills, while the second half jumps back and forth between being comic and serious. Perhaps the answer lies in the title cards, but my copy is in Italian without an English translation. However, I really suspect that the title cards aren’t really necessary; it’s possible to appreciate the spectacle without them.

From Morn to Midnight (1920)

aka Von morgens bis mitternacht
Article 5368 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-9-2017
Directed by Karl Heinz Martin
Featuring Ernst Deutsch, Erna Morena, Roma Bahn
Country: Germany
What it is: An expressionistic nightmare

A bank clerk is seduced by the lure of wealth, embezzles money, and leaves for the city, where he undergoes an odyssey of self-discovery.

There aren’t very many movies that you can place next to THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and come away with the conclusion that CALIGARI is the one that is stylistically more realistic. This is one. The sets are so twisted, the acting style so stylized, and the general tone of the movie so bizarre that I’m almost tempted to agree with Walt Lee when he attributes the fantastic content of this movie as being the result of the style. However, when you get down to it, there’s only one element of the plot that lapses into the fantastic, and that’s that our protagonist keeps seeing the face of Death in various women. It’s based on a radical stage play from 1912, and I find it almost perverse that a silent version of a stage play would abjure title cards, but it tries to tell the story in purely visual terms. It doesn’t quite work; I had to find a plot description to figure out what was going on in the story. My print is in very poor condition; it’s jittery and washed out, but somehow, that just enhances the nightmarish feel of the whole experience. Reportedly, this was never released in Germany but somehow found life in Japan, and it was believed lost for many years. It’s worth seeing, if for no other reason to see how outlandish expressionism could get.