27 June 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
187 miles from Moose Head, Alaska...
'Klondike Fury' is the overwrought title of a Poverty Row film that takes place mostly indoors. The opening shot is a laughably fake studio set-up of a miniature 'plane flying past some papier-mache mountains. The very few 'exterior' shots of the Klondike terrain are clearly filmed indoors, on a level floor, as cornflake snow drifts straight downwards (no wind) and the actors' breath stays resolutely unfogged. The script is based on a magazine story filmed previously (as 'Klondike') and now radically altered. The original story and previous film version featured a tough-tootsie Alaska heroine, a quick-frozen piece of hoarfrost. Here, she's been thawed out into a dimpled ingenue.
The two-man 'plane crashes in the middle of the Klondike. According to the dialogue, we're "187 miles from Moose Head, Alaska" (yeah, but I'll bet there's a Starbuck's nearby). Conveniently, the only cabin within a 200-mile radius just happens to be near the crash site. The pilot dies, but the injured passenger has just enough strength to stagger across the tundra (a few steppes) into the cabin, where he promptly collapses.
Conveniently, this cabin also contains the only blonde woman within a 200-mile radius: Peg Campbell, an orphan who's lived here ever since a tree killed her father. (Don't ask.) Peg has been in this isolated cabin since infancy, but she has a California accent and a steady supply of attractive outfits, and her makeup and hairstyle are impeccable. Peg is played by Lucile Fairbanks, a mildly pretty but untalented actress. Stacked like cordwood in this cabin are a bunch of picturesque characters spouting faux-folksy dialogue. (The place also seems to have electric lights, central heating and plenty of groceries, although these issues are never addressed.)
SPOILERS COMING. The injured passenger has a Dark Secret, which he eagerly reveals in cheap flashbacks. He is John Mandre, a brilliant surgeon whose friend Carl Langton had an inoperable disease. (The dialogue keeps mentioning this disease without ever describing it or naming it; I diagnose Lazy Script Syndrome.) Against the advice of his colleagues, Mandre operated on Langton. When Langton dies anyway, there are accusations that Mandre intentionally killed him to have a clear path to Langton's pretty wife. Naturally, Mandre confronts these accusations by chucking his medical career and heading for Moose Head, Alaska. (Mandre is played by Edmund Lowe, a former silent-film star whose career was in sad decline at this point.)
Now grab a snow shovel and clear a path for the coincidences. Among the inhabitants of this cabin is handsome young invalid Jim Armstrong, who - gobsmackingly enough - has the exact same rare medical condition that Carl Langton had, which we now learn is a tumour of the thalamus. ('That's a part of the brain,' says Dr Mandre, proving he didn't skip classes in medical school the day they studied brainology.) Mandre decides to redeem himself by performing precisely the same surgery on Jim that he performed on Carl, even though this isolated cabin has no medical equipment and no health insurance. Had enough coincidences yet? Wait, there's more! The two surgical operations have another parallel too, because Jim accuses Mandre of intending to kill him on the operating table so that Mandre will have no competition for Peg's affections.
Since Mandre is clearly operating on Jim's brain to achieve his own spiritual redemption (with a chance to save the patient's life being merely a bonus), it's extremely obvious how this film ends. There's precisely one surprise on the way to that ending. I've seen a hundred bad movies in which a desperately ill or injured person holds the hero at gunpoint, reeling off a long monologue in a fevered delirium ... only to collapse just before pulling the trigger. We get that scene here, in a confrontation between Jim and Mandre ... but, impressively, the scene ends in an unexpected and original manner. That's the only originality hereabouts.
I sat through this Arctic argle-bargle for one reason only: the presence of Clyde Cook in a supporting role. The Australian-born Cook was formerly a vaudeville acrobat of astonishing skill, known as 'the Kangaroo Boy'. He performed on Broadway during the 1919 Actors Equity strike, and he had a respectable career in silent films as the only slapstick comedian whose acrobatic pratfalls equalled the abilities of Buster Keaton and Lupino Lane. I interviewed Cook about a year before he died; he had a long and fascinating career. Here in 'Klondike Fever', 187 miles from Moose Head (and considerably farther from Brisbane, Australia), Cook speaks his few lines of dialogue in a Brizzo accent. He plays a crusty codger named Yukon, although nobody explains why a guy named Yukon is speaking Strine. (Maybe he took a wrong turn at Wooloomooloo.) Also lurking amongst the icicles is veteran character actor Vince Barnett, who supplemented his income between film gigs by hiring himself out as a stooge for some of Hollywood's legendary practical jokes. We also get Marjorie Wood (in flashback) mispronouncing the name 'Frankenstein'. The film ends with Dr Mandre returning to his old surgery, while Arthur Gardner as a would-be funny ethnic sign painter named Tony exults: 'You betcha my life!' Hand me my snowshoes, Nanook: I'm heading back to Moose Head. I'll charitably rate this movie 3 points out of 10, mostly because it revives my fond memories of meeting Clyde Cook.