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Ein Käfer gibt Vollgas

off-the-wall entry in German "Superbug" kiddie film series
SUPERBUG--SECRET AGENT is, I believe, the second of five films in this German SUPERBUG series, which is a takeoff on the HERBIE films of Disney, but which foreshadows KNIGHT RIDER in many ways. The English-dubbed version of this film is what I saw, and it is dubbed in a cartoon-like way that is in keeping with the cartoon-like feel of the film. In fact, on the level of being a "spy" film, this plays out a lot like a Scooby-Doo cartoon, but with live actors and real locations (Portugal, quite lovely and well-filmed!). There is much Stooges/Bowery Boys-style slapstick, and even the usually suave Joachim Fuchsberger (star of many fine Edgar Wallace thrillers in the 60s) finds himself mugging as if he's in an Edgar Kennedy comedy short. Superbug's owner, Jimmy Bondi (played by Robert Mark, who also directed and wrote the film under his real name), is a laid-back unshaven fellow with a cowboy hat, making him a relatively "safe" hero for a children's film. As another comment stated, this film is also quite reminiscent of the Terence Hill-Bud Spencer comedies of the 70s and 80s, with sound effects in the fight scenes and quirky semi-lounge music that immediately cries "foreign" to an American audience. Overall, I found this film quite entertaining as an adult...if you like lowbrow comedy and nice Portuguese locations. Think "a live action Scooby-Doo made in Germany, entertainingly dubbed in English" and you should have a good idea what SUPERBUG--SECRET AGENT has to offer.

Il cavaliere del castello maledetto

CAVALIER IN THE DEVIL'S CASTLE--above-average dubbed costumed adventure, but not in scope or in color
From the credits I can tell that this film was shot in widescreen and in color. The US print available from SWV, which is worth watching for fans of dubbed Euro historical costumed adventures, is pan and scan, and also in black and white. Made in 1959 and distributed to American TV in 1965 via Walter Manley enterprises (who handled many superb European and Japanese genre films), the US version titled CAVALIER IN THE DEVIL'S CASTLE hints at what an interesting film the color, scope version might be, wherever it is. An evil ruler (played nicely in an arrogant, patronizing manner by Massimo Serato) seizes and keeps imprisoned the benign ruler of a neighboring territory, then tries to entice the daughter of that ruler to marry him and unite the territory. Meanwhile, a "masked cavalier" is standing up to Serato and uniting the populace against him. It should be no secret to the viewer which member of Serato's court is the cavalier, but until the inevitable happy ending, there is some intrigue, humor, well-staged fights and fencing duels, and a steady pace that keeps the viewer engaged. Director Mario Casta's other films that have appeared in the US in dubbed versions are all of interest and not at all standard fare: THE BLACK PIRATE with Ricardo Montalban and Vincent Price; BUFFALO BILL, HERO OF THE FAR WEST with Gordon Scott; KERIM, SON OF THE SHEIK with Gordon Scott (see my review); THE CENTURIAN with Jacques Sernas and John Drew Barrymore (although in the pan and scan version available, Barrymore is often cut out of the frame!); and GLADIATOR OF ROME with Gordon Scott. Even in dubbed, cut versions, Casta's films seem like unique takes on established genres with interesting visuals, and they seem to be well-acted. Of course, seeing these films in anything resembling the original widescreen color un-dubbed versions (and with English subtitles)is not likely to happen in my lifetime, so the US television versions will have to do. Remember, a film such as this is only going to appeal to someone who's already seen 50 similar films and has a hunger for them. For the novice, try something like THE EXECUTIONER OF VENICE (w/ Lex Barker and Guy Madison) and see if the genre interests you.

Delta Farce

fans of lowbrow Stooges/Bowery Boys style slapstick, rejoice; all others avoid
I enjoyed Larry The Cable Guy's previous film, HEALTH INSPECTOR. It was a perfect example of lowbrow physical comedy that should have appealed to the Three Stooges and Bowery Boys fans out there. It used time-tested formulas dating back to silent comedy (check my reviews of obscure silent and early-sound comedy shorts and you'll see I love that tradition), and while they are simple-minded and obvious, they still work when in the hands of a comic master. For me, Larry the Cable Guy is in the Larry Fine/Leo Gorcey/Jerry Lewis vein, and also somewhat like the comedic sidekicks in old westerns. This new film is not as much of a gross-out vehicle as the Health Inspector. Bill Engvall is very much a straight man to Larry, while DJ Qualls is like a psycho version of Don Knotts/Barney Fife. These three are a great slapstick misfit trio, if crude obvious physical comedy is what you like. I presume anyone reading this already knows the plot--three loser guys are sent to Iraq to fight and mistakenly get dropped off in Mexico. Like any plot for a slapstick comedy, it's merely a device to hang routines on, and I found the routines to be quite funny. The writing is full of jokes and all three guys are great physical comedians. It's also nice to see screen heavies like Keith David and Danny Trejo in comic roles, David as the Sergeant who is leading the boys, Trejo as a weird bandit leader. Larry's stand-up routines are VERY different from this film. Don't see this film unless you liked Health Inspector. Or unless you want to see someone working the old Three Stooges/Bowery Boys type routines. My teenage daughter and I laughed quite often and found the film more than worth the money. By the way, the outtakes at the end of the film are interesting in that they show scenes that did not make the final cut. I hope those scenes will be included on the DVD. I anxiously await Larry's next vehicle, WITLESS PROTECTION.

Ten Little Indians

low-budget Harry Alan Towers adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic, great cast!
While the ending of the novel is changed in this 1965 remake of Agatha Christie's novel AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, it's still an OK murder mystery, a kind of modern version of an old dark house chiller, with an excellent cast of UK veterans and US imports Hugh O'Brian and Fabian. A mysterious "Mr. Owen" invites ten strangers, all of whom seem to be guilty of some crime, to spend a weekend in an isolated mountain home. They gradually get killed one by one. My wife felt that the only interesting character in the film was the one who is killed first (you'll have to watch it to see who that is), but I found the whole thing to be entertaining and the ending to be surprising (although the clues ARE planted, when you watch it a second time). Like any Harry Alan Towers production, this is low budget but well cast, and once again Towers wrote the script himself under his Peter Welbeck pseudonym. The recent DVD reissue of this includes the infamous "Whodunit Break" (which appeared at the film's climax in its theatrical run but was cut from all TV prints) as an "extra" but does not edit it back into the film, which is good because it would make second and third viewings of the film painful. Watch that scene once, marvel that anyone would ever attempt anything so cheesy, and then watch the uninterrupted movie again. Nice to see Shirley Eaton as always (The Girl From Rio and Su-Muru), Hugh O'Brian is a charming and masculine lead, Fabian is entertaining, and the British veterans are as colorful as you'd expect, although some Americans may have trouble telling them apart initially, except for Dennis Price. Worth renting, but I can't say it's worth fifteen dollars. Maybe $8.99 or so.

Escape by Night

pleasant low-budget drama with "good gangsters" redeemed by rural folks
This uplifting crime-drama, from the early years of Republic Pictures before the studio became an assembly-line, stars usual second-banana and character actor William Hall (a leading man in the Robert Kellard vein) as a former coal-miner who has come to the big city and gets in the way of two rival gangs fighting over a girl, and then finds himself associated with one of the gangs unintentionally. That gang hides out in a rural area (the leader of the gang, Dean Jagger, is not with them...this is just the colorful, "loveable" members of the gang!), where they meet a rural family and a small-time businessman and a dog, all of whom transform the minor criminals and cause them to finally stand up to the gang boss. Ah, there's nothing like those criminals with a heart of gold one finds in Damon Runyon or in 1930's movies. If you can accept the Hallmark Channel premise of this b-programmer, it's actually quite entertaining and fast moving, and has some nice supporting acting from the likes of Ward Bond (as the "cook" of the gang). "Bill" the dog gets a lot of screen time, and he's a good performer in the Rin Tin Tin Jr. vein who fights for the honor of the reformed gang moll with the Hungarian accent, played by Steffi Duna, who seems a lot more comfortable in the "good girl" than in the "tough girl" role. No great analysis is needed of a film such as this. It's good rainy-day entertainment with a positive, uplifting message, but still a crime film. Short of a Touched By An Angel or Highway To Heaven episode, one doesn't see this combination very often nowadays. Worth searching out for b-movie fanatics--others can wait.

Passkey to Danger

mid-40s Republic crime comedy--good cast, but doesn't really work for me
The second film I've seen in two weeks made at Republic in the mid-40s starring Kane Richmond and Adele Mara is nowhere near as good as TIGER WOMAN (see my review). In this one, Richmond is some kind of advertising man who comes up with a concept for a women's clothing campaign (I think, based on the drawings we see) called THE THREE SPRINGS. Soon, various eccentric gangster types and crooked businessmen start expressing an interest in the campaign, feeling as though Richmond is actually making a reference to something else with the title and they are trying to cover that up. I won't give away the plot and say WHAT they think he's referring to with the ad campaign because that is the device that puts the plot, such as it is, in motion. Studios needed to churn out a certain number of b-movies per season, and often a project that might have sounded good on paper gets locked into the production schedule and it gets made even though it doesn't fully gel. That's what the problem is here. Each scene, on its own, is entertaining. Richmond--a kind of square-jawed, self-deprecating leading man who probably best resembles George Clooney among today's stars--is always a pleasure to watch. The top-billed star here Stephanie Bachelor--who was in films for a brief six year period, and who seemed to get leading roles mostly at Republic--as Richmond's girlfriend. She looks great and delivers the arguing-couple romantic banter well, but there's not much depth to her character. As for Adele Mara, she's given a thankless role here as a kind of femme-fatale, but we're not really sure how deep is her involvement with the bad guys, and the way the film disposes of her character cannot be excused. Unless my copy of the film is cut (and it's the Hollywood Television Service print, so it may be), I can't believe this script made it past ANY editor. My wife and I looked at each other as the "End" credit appeared, and asked, "What about Adele Mara"? We know what happens to her, but it is never resolved. WHAT??????? On the good side, this film is entertaining in pieces--the supporting cast (with such fine performers as Gerald Mohr and Gregory Gay) is colorful, there's a lot of witty romantic banter between Richmond and Bachelor AND Richmond and Mara. It's just that the plot doesn't hold together, the events in themselves don't command attention, and there's a rushed feel to many scenes as though the attitude was "let's get this in the can quickly." Some of the fights are the most phony I've seen in a Republic film--a studio known for its excellent stunt-men. Richmond and the bad guys seem as though they were just instructed to pull the punches because the stunt men couldn't make it today. Still, it was not an unpleasant way to kill 60 minutes and b-movie and Richmond fans will enjoy it. Bachelor and Mara are both wonderfully attractive and witty leading ladies. Just don't expend much energy or cost in trying to find a copy.

The Tiger Woman

Entertaining Republic 40's crime-mystery with comic touches
Republic Pictures will always be best-known for its serials and westerns and John Wayne films, but their feature films, most of which resemble the "B" programmers of, say, Columbia or Universal, are a little-known asset of the studio. Most haven't been shown on TV in decades and few have been released on video. Republic issued a strange assortment of excellent and not so good (such as When Gangland Strikes) features back in the VHS days, but nothing really in 15 years. Republic features were almost always entertaining, economical, professionally made, well-cast, and tightly paced...just like their westerns. This particular feature, the first director credit of Philip Ford (nephew of John), casts the witty, square-jawed leading man of serials and b-action films, Kane Richmond, as a private eye sucked into a web of dirty dealings involving a nightclub owner, his wife, her "friend", etc. The night club is the Tiger Club, and thus the wife is the "Tiger Woman" of the title. No, this is not a jungle film and has nothing to do with the serial of the same name. Xavier Cugat vocalist and Republic leading lady Adele Mara plays Sharon, the Tiger Woman, and shows a range of emotions from confused, naive victim to mourning widow to shrill black widow. Ms. Mara is always a delight to see--her large seductive eyes are not soon forgotten!--and she did a lot of work for Republic in the mid and late 40's. Her boyfriend is played by British actor Richard Fraser (Picture of Dorian Gray), whose accent slips in here and there, and who does a good job of playing a character who thinks he's in control of the relationship with Ms. Mara but who is simply a plaything to be discarded. As always, Kane Richmond is the perfect b-movie leading man--handsome, athletic, witty, self-deprecating even while the character he's playing might be vain--and he and Adele Mara take what could be a standard, unimaginative mystery programmer and make it special. Also usual for Republic is the fine cast of colorful supporting players such as Cy Kendall (often a heavy, here a quirky police detective) and Gregory Gay (as a mobster/mortician (!!!!!) of uncertain ethnicity!). The print reviewed is a 16mm Hollywood Television Service (Republic's television syndication arm) copy with the republic logo removed, so it's possible that this copy could have a few minutes trimmed from the original theatrical release print, but most of these b-programmers are under an hour anyway, and the films moves quickly and gets a lot done in a short time. I also acquired at the same time as this film one made the next year at Republic with the same two stars, PASSKEY TO DANGER, and will try to review that within the next few weeks. THE TIGER WOMAN is a pleasant way to kill an hour, the mystery angle works quite well and while the conclusion could probably be anticipated, the film leads the viewer down so many other blind alleys that when the REAL conclusion comes it almost seems to come out of the blue. If only one could see the Republic library on some cable channel...

The Black Dahlia

outrageous, campy L.A. crime drama--visually striking
Maybe it's just me, but how could one NOT laugh at the over-the-top performances in such previous Brian De Palma films as SCARFACE and DRESSED TO KILL. This film, however, has to be one of De Palma's biggest misfires since BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. First of all, forget even a semi-factual account of the real Black Dahlia killing. I have not read the Ellroy novel on which THE BLACK DAHLIA is based, so I can't comment on the adaptation. All I can say is that while this film features amazing 1940s production design and striking camera work, the script is one cliché after another and the dialogue is full of anachronisms. Is that supposed to be cute or "ironic"? And the performances are so over-the-top that the audience laughed at a number of scenes. Even such usually subtle and nuanced performers as Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank chew the scenery and make wild grotesque faces into the camera as wildly as later Orson Welles or later Richard Burton or later Cameron Mitchell at their most extreme. As a director, Welles can get this to work in his films such as LADY FROM SHANGHAI or MISTER ARKADIN or TOUCH OF EVIL because despite the excess there is still a sense of the unknown and the terrifying. In BLACK DAHLIA, it's just hammy acting. If I wanted to see this kind of thing, I'd rent WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. The plot is nonsensical and has no relation to the real world--and during the last fifteen minutes we keep getting new resolutions to the murder that are even more outlandish than the last one. If De Palma intends this as a send-up of the L.A. noir genre, then he achieved what he set out to do. THE BLACK DAHLIA looks good on a big screen, if you can forget the plot and dialogue. If you are thinking of renting this, watch CHINATOWN again...or better yet, watch HOLLYWOODLAND. How does De Palma get financing for these projects??? If you want to see a crime film where almost every character plays it like Glenn Anders in LADY FROM SHANGHAI (a little "target practice"), this is your film. Whatever critic called this a "shrieking camp-fest" was totally on the mark.

Desperadoes of the West

OK late-Republic western serial, noteworthy for star Tom Keene
The other review of this 1950 Republic western serial described it as "competent", and I second that. It's solid, features fistfights and gunfights and bar brawls and wagon/horse chases galore, and works well as bread-and-butter western entertainment--kind of like the later Rocky Lane films. The plot involves a collective of rural folk who have some oil leases, which are being sabotaged by evil Easterner I. Stanford Jolley (in an outlandish stovepipe hat, as oily as ever!). The head man for the locals is the great 30s western star Tom Keene, now billed as "Richard Powers" as he was during his 40s/50s supporting actor period. It's great to see the star of OUR DAILY BREAD as the star of a film once again, and he brings a kind of depth and gravitas to the role that the usual late-Republic bland leading men, chosen to match the Republic stunt men, usually lack. The mature Mr. Keene is obviously doubled in the fights A LOT, but that's OK--he's an impressive hero anyway. Roy Barcroft is along for the ride as Jolley's henchman, and such western stalwarts of Dennis Moore (as a workman drinking on the job!) and George Chesebro (as a wagon driver, if I remember correctly) are in small roles and not even billed. As I observed in my review of GOVERNMENT AGENTS VERSUS PHANTOM LEGION, a Republic serial from 1951, there was a kind of generic quality to some of the Republic product in this period (except for those that still had a weirdness quotient, such as JUNGLE DRUMS OF Africa or Canadian MOUNTIES VS ATOMIC INVADERS), but star Keene, the fine supporting cast, and an oilfield setting, make this serial a LITTLE bit different. Fans of "b" westerns or post-World War II Republic serials should find this entertaining and worthwhile, but it may drag a bit for the general audience.

Government Agents vs Phantom Legion

competent but generic late-Republic serial
GOVERNMENT AGENTS VERSUS PHANTON LEGION, from 1951, is, like virtually all Republic Pictures product (up through 1955, at least), a competent and fast-moving and professional piece of work, but piece of work it is. Even the title has a generic feel to it, and almost every aspect of the serial suffers from a similarly generic, non-specific, non-interesting quality. The hero is bland and uninteresting. The lady who works with him is completely undeveloped as a character and is even more bland. The head of the phantom legion(one of four businessmen is a saboteur, the question is which one) is bland, and even his henchmen show a lack of imagination, trotting out the same old crashing cars off cliffs and staging fires. The federal agency the hero works for is ill-defined (I thought for a moment I was watching a David Mamet piece!), the nature of the materials hijacked and stolen is ill-defined, etc. On the plus side, the action is fast-moving, there are the usual well-staged cliffhangers, constant fist fights, and a number of car chases, and an excellent supporting cast of western-film veterans. Unlike some Republic serials, I don't think I could watch all of this one in an afternoon---I saw an episode or two a day over a week's time. By this time, Republic could produce a solid, professional serial in their sleep, and for this film it seems that they did. Personally, I find a number of Republic serials that came after this to be much more entertaining--Canadian MOUNTIES VS ATOMIC INVADERS is quirky and fun, and even the last two serials KING OF THE CARNIVAL and TRADER TOM OF THE CHINA SEAS have elements of plot and setting and atmosphere and supporting characters that make them more interesting than GOVERNMENT AGENTS. In short, a solid professional piece of work, and not bad to kill time with on a rainy day, but lacking inspiration and not a good introduction to Republic serials, unless you were out to make fun of them and point out their limitations and clichés.

Ring of Fear

Mickey Spillane investigates crimes at the Clyde Beatty Circus in cinema-scope!
Well, say what you will about RING OF FEAR, it's certainly a novelty. First of all, the real "Star" is the Clyde Beatty Circus, which couldn't have purchased better advertising than this beautifully shot color and cinema-scope production, half of which must be the circus's best acts. A psycho is at loose in the circus, so the great crime writer Mickey Spillane, playing himself, is called in to investigate! Spillane himself calls in for a fellow investigator to help, and that guy poses as a magazine reporter. Pat O'Brien plays the manager of the circus, and Clyde Beatty himself also appears and does a number of lion and tiger-taming routines. Irish actor Sean McCrory, in an over-the-top performance, plays a one-time circus employee who became a stalker of a lady working at the circus and escapes from a mental institution to re-join the circus (and this is NOT a spoiler--all this is shown in the first few scenes), where he's accepted back as ringmaster. There's even comedy scenes with Batjac Productions regular Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez! My favorite scene is one where Mickey Spillane shows up at the circus and runs into the uncredited comic master Vince Barnett, who is reading Spillane novels on the job all day and explains to Spillane himself how his productivity has gone down so much due to Mick's novels! Mick then produces his newest one, hot of the press, and hands it to Barnett, who almost salivates over it! There's not much "mystery" here since we know exactly how each crime is committed, and we only get to know about a half dozen employees of the circus at all, so obviously the suspect pool from which Spillane and assistant have to choose isn't really that large. No, what makes the film entertaining is the circus setting, the idea of Mickey Spillane playing himself, and the colorful performances. Pat O'Brien (no relation to the bar or the TV gossip host) could play a role like this in his sleep, but he still has the gruff authenticity that makes him so watchable and loved by audiences for decades. Spillane comes off as an amiable and sarcastic yet tough guy. Sean McCrory, the "human star" of the film (the circus itself being the main star), chews the scenery and one wonders how ANYONE would not instantly think he was guilty of SOMETHING. This film will no doubt get a large audience through its being included in the new box set JOHN WAYNE'S SUSPENSE COLLECTION, which contains four Batjac Productions (see also my review of MAN IN THE VAULT, also in the package). It's a fascinating curio that's worth watching once, and may have some camp appeal for future viewings. As a Spillane fan, I'm happy to see the master in anything, so I may well watch it again. The transfer is superb on the DVD with rich colors and fine widescreen composition. One can only imagine how beautiful and awesome the circus scenes were on a large 1950's movie screen.

Man in the Vault

atmospheric 50's "B" crime-noir
I had an old fuzzy copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy of a TV broadcast of this 1956 crime-noir B programmer, but now that there's a new letter-boxed DVD out, I threw the old tape away and can finally enjoy this film for what it is: a solid "b" crime film with good performances, good pacing, and great Los Angeles location photography. The under-rated William Campbell plays an average guy working as a locksmith, who is approached by a gangster who wants to break into a safe deposit box. Campbell, like most people probably, initially tries to be polite, but turns down the offer. Gangsters don't like being turned down, so one can imagine where the plot goes. There's a woman involved, a shady lawyer, another gangster who has gone legit, Mike Mazurki as an ex-boxer turned enforcer, and the comedy of Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (a regular in Batjac Productions of this era). The main female role is played (well) by Karen Sharpe, who hails from here in San Antonio! Anita Ekberg is in a small role as the girlfriend of James Seay's character, the owner of the safe deposit box. Ekberg is not really given much to do. The film, an early directorial credit of Andrew V. McLaglen. legendary director of many classic westerns and action films, is very well-paced and has amazing location photography of 1950's Los Angeles. A few key scenes take place in a bowling alley, actually Art Linkletter's La Cienega Lanes, which is of great documentary value in itself. Wait until you see the climax inside the bowling alley! This probably deserves a "7" rating, but I'll give it one star more for the nice widescreen transfer on the DVD and the great location photography. This plays a lot like an Allied Artists low-budget 50's crime film, and for me that is a high compliment. Check it out...

Behind the Headlines

Lee Tracy as radio newsman in this fun RKO programmer
Last month, TCM showed about a dozen Lee Tracy films, largely forgotten today (I managed to tape most of them), and I'm now working my way through them. Tracy's patented persona at the time--wisecracking newspaper man who gets by on his wits more than his brawn--is put to good use in this bottom-of-the-bill 1937 programmer from RK0. Tracy is an ex-newspaperman who has gotten into radio newscasting--not Winchell-style commentating, but on-the-spot live coverage of news from the scene. His assistant is the wonderful comic Tom Kennedy (see my review of FREE RENT, a Columbia short done with Monte Collins). His old newspaper colleagues do not appreciate being scooped by him and don't care for the exciting nature of his reporting, which makes their dry written articles seem irrelevant, so they are actively sabotaging his work. Add to that an ex-girlfriend who is a top reporter at one of the major papers (played by the little-known Diana Gibson, who seems to have been in films for four years and then vanished) and who spars with him throughout. Tracy and Gibson both stumble across a huge gold robbery about mid-way through the film, which propels everything to an exciting climax. Don't ask any questions about character motivation (Gibson's character starts off completely unsympathetic, but eventually softens up) or plot consistency--this is a b-movie that was undoubtedly just a day's work to its writers, who basically manipulated stock character types and movie conventions. Fortunately, with a colorful star like Lee Tracy, there's snappy dialogue and his ability to capture audience sympathy. In some ways, this reminded me of a slicker, more studio-bound version of the Frankie Darro-Kane Richmond action films being made across town at the Ambassador-Conn studio around the same time. BEHIND THE HEADLINES is no classic or hidden gem, but with as much reality present as in a Republic serial, and with Tracy's spirit of fun, it's an entertaining way to kill an hour.

The Hard Guy

early Spencer Tracy one-reel short--of historical interest
If you haven't seen this yet, don't read the plot summary. It starts off as a grim, naturalistic story of a starving urban family and the father's struggle to do something to make a change. How surprising to see Spencer Tracy so young and unformed as an actor! I won't give away the surprise ending because, frankly, without the surprise ending the short has little to offer. In only six minutes or so, it has no time to go into depth. Every time I see one of these early 1930's depression-era films that treat the underdog working man with such sympathy, I wonder what has changed so much in our society. Can you imagine any major studio project--other than a foreign import--set in the present time that sides with a working-class character who robs and pulls guns on his victims? Yes, it's another era, isn't it? That's not exactly what happens here, but this short plays on our expectation that that is what WILL happen. An interesting curio. Because TCM does not list shorts on its schedule, I just happened to be setting my TV to tape something on TCM later in the day when I caught the "one reel wonders" intro, and thought I'd hang around to see what it was. And after this, TCM ran an obscure 1930 interview with D.W. Griffith as filler! Great stuff, but is there any way we could find out about them IN ADVANCE, TCM???

Goober and the Ghost Chasers

obscure Hanna-Barbera "Scooby-Doo" rip-off, w/ Partridge Family Kids added
I never saw this show when it originally ran--my review is based on the run of the show as taped from Boomerang Network. After the massive success of SCOOBY-DOO, Hanna Barbera was asked to come up with a Scooby-like show--in effect, to rip off their own creation! This is their result. Three characters--Gilly, a photographer, and two of his friends (neither of whom have many distinguishing characteristics, other than looking like the human characters in Scooby-Doo from a distance)--work for a magazine that does exposes into supernatural phenomena. They are assisted by a quirky dog, Goober (voiced by Paul Winchell, as are many of the minor characters on the show also), who becomes invisible when trouble arises. He also makes asides to himself as the action unrolls. In these mysteries, about half the time, they are aided by the four YOUNGER members of the Partridge Family (in other words, NOT Shirley or David). Three of the four of them are not developed in any way or given many lines. The only Partridge heavily involved in the plots and given a lot of lines is Danny Bonaduce, which is good since his sarcastic and witty remarks are like having a member of the Little Rascals along for the ride. The plots are somewhat similar, although they work as mysteries aimed at the seven-year-old intelligence. This series SOUNDS more interesting than it is, when one reads a description of it on a history of animation website. It's not really worth finding a copy unless you are a serious Scooby fan or a student of early 70's Hanna-Barbera animation. I showed an episode or two of this to my teen-aged children, both big fans of the original Scooby-Doo, and they thought even less of it than I did. The usual professional H-B product, but just uninspired.

Air Hostess

textbook example of efficient, exciting b-movie programmer
The b-level programmers of Columbia Pictures during the 1930's are often quite exciting and well-paced. The studio's assembly line produced audience-satisfying product quickly and inexpensively. And, in this case, with a director like Albert Rogell, veteran of dozens of fine b-westerns in the silent era and who would continue working in bread-and-butter product through the 1950's, AIR HOSTESS (not the most exciting title!) has all the elements of a textbook example of the exciting, efficient b-movie. Daring stunt flier James Murray (of King Vidor's THE CROWD, who would die a few years later due to alcohol) sees his friend and mentor get killed during WWI and helps watch over the friend's young daughter over the years. The film soon switches to the early 30s, where the daughter (played by the perky Evalyn Knapp, perhaps best-known today for starring with John Wayne in the long-time public domain, dollar-rack favorite HIS PRIVATE SECRETARY in 1933) is a grown up airline hostess and Murray is a pilot who is still a daredevil but also an inventor of aviation technology looking for an investor to help see his plans to fruition. Needless to say, they fall in love, a number of problems arise, Thelma Todd appears (looking especially regal!!!!) as "the other woman", and the film ends up with an amazing train-plane sequence. Knapp is quite appealing (although a few flubbed lines are left in, reminding us that Columbia was NOT a major studio in 1932!), and James Murray shows the charisma that made him a star in THE CROWD. He has a brash quality, and had he lived, he surely could have made a career of playing wisecracking newspaper reporters and leads in b-action films. Interestingly, his character is drunk in about 1/3 of the film--one wonders if that was written into the film to capitalize on the bad publicity Murray had received for his drinking problems, or if he actually was drunk on the set and the writers quickly decided to play along with it (I'm betting the former). In any event, he is quite impressive and this is a major role for him, though the movie was undoubtedly a bottom-of-the-bill product that vanished quickly from theaters. In less than 65 minutes, we laugh, we cry (the scene where the WWI flier has his daughter's letter read to him is a real tearjerker), we feel for the characters, we cheer them on, we worry about them, and we are brought to the edge of our seats in a nail-biting climax. What today's directors could learn from a film like this and a director such as Albert Rogell. Also, it's not every film that's set in Albuquerque (at least half of it is!). Finally, those who collect films with spanking scenes can put this one on their lists, although it's a brief one. Highly recommended to lovers of classic fast-moving early 30's b-movies.

Hasty But Tasty

Roadrunner-like entry in the Ant and the Aardvark cartoon series
The non-Pink Panther work of Depatie-Freleng is not to everyone's taste, but I've always enjoyed their work--the surreal visuals, always first-rate music, and quality voice talent and sound effects. Basically, the Ant and Aardvark series is cut from the same cloth as The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, or going back more, Tom and Jerry, with the Aardvark (called an "anteater" in the cartoons)being the aggressor and the Ant the pursued. The series had an incredible Dixieland musical score featuring such west-coast jazz legends as Shelley Manne, Pete Condoli, Tommy Tedesco, and the great bassist Ray Brown. I could LISTEN to these just for the music. Some of the series entries have a laugh track, some don't--this one doesn't. It's also one of the most Roadrunner/Coyote-influenced ones. The "instant hole" could have been an Acme product from over at Warner Brothers. Also, for some reason, the backgrounds used in this particular cartoon remind me of George Herriman's KRAZY KAT, which is some ways is the granddaddy of this whole genre. You can find sets of these cartoons without much trouble on the internet. I highly recommend them to people who like both The Pink Panther and Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry. And don't let me forget the wonderful voice talent of John Byner, who portrays BOTH characters, giving the Aardvark a Jackie Mason-like borscht-belt tone and the Ant a Dean Martin-like casualness.

The Pickaninny

early comic vehicle for Sunshine Sammy Morrison
Despite the politically incorrect title, this short (clocking in at about 22 minutes) is a nice comedy vehicle for legendary Black film comedian Sunshine Sammy Morrison, probably best known today for his run as a member of the before-the-Bowery Boys "East Side Kids" at Monogram in the early 40's. If the birth year given on the IMDb for Morrison is correct, he's only 9 in this film, and he already has a great comic presence. He's initially working in a store, then is attracted to a young black girl who comes in the store, then splits to the woods where he helps a greenhorn camper go fishing, then a guy in a bear suit AND a real bear tear things up, then Sammy eventually finds his way back to the store, hides in the stove, and is carried off by his dad. Sammy's character is a clever, inventive boy who is depicted as both smarter and stronger than the white kids taunting him in the first scene, and there's not really any demeaning "racial" humor. This may predate his membership in Hal Roach's OUR GANG shorts. Director is James "Paul" Parrott. Interestingly, the camper plays his role in the Paul Parrott fashion, and the policeman played by George Rowe even LOOKS like Paul Parrott--in fact, I looked up Rowe's credits just to prove to myself that there WAS such an actor, and it wasn't just a pseudonym for Parrott. Sunshine Sammy Morrison was a true film pioneer, one of the first Black stars and certainly the first Black CHILD star, and there's little that's demeaning or cringe-producing the way there is in, say, some performances by Stepin Fechit or Fred "Snowflake" Toones, as brilliant comedians as those men were. Roach comedies generally play well even today, and this one is no exception. Strangely enough, while the young girl in whom Sammy is interested is played by a Black girl, I think that the two Black women who come into the store and the actor who plays Sammy's dad may be Caucasians in black-face--it's difficult to tell with the picture quality, but I think case you're interested. I'll see if I can dig up some more early 20's Morrison shorts from my age 9, he can carry a film by himself, quite an achievement!

The Batman/Superman Hour

fast-moving, simple animated children's version of the 60s Batman, from Filmation
I managed to miss this 1969 series as a child, but I recently watched 20+ episodes (some titled BATMAN, some BATMAN AND ROBIN)taped off of Cartoon Network a number of years ago. Like most Filmation product of the era, the animation is limited, but the pace is fast-moving and the supporting voice actors over-play the roles as if in an old serial or melodrama, so the limited technique does not become a problem, and certainly would not have been a problem for the juvenile audience at which this show was aimed. The template for the show was the 1960s BATMAN TV show, and Olan Soule and Casey Kasem bring interpretations to the characters of Batman and Robin that are similar to those of Adam West and Burt Ward (although camp was not a concept grasped by most seven-year-old youngsters in 1969, so Soule and Kasem rein in the hokum somewhat). The children's versions of the various villains--Joker, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, etc.--are fun and colorfully acted by the voice talent. Also, isn't that Ted Knight narrating these? If you need a break from the recent dark,expressionistic interpretations of Batman--even in animated form--this simple, entertaining children's show should do the trick. Don't know if these are in print or presently being aired, but an internet search should turn up some episodes for you...

La morte negli occhi del gatto

satisfying 70's Italian variation on the Old Dark House horror genre
SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE is not really a standard "Giallo" by any stretch of the imagination. It's actually a 1970's Italian variation on the Old Dark House genre--it even hearkens back to early sound films such as THE MONSTER WALKS and silent films such as THE CAT AND THE CANARY--but with a Hitchcock and Tennessee Williams twist, and all done in the stylish Gothic manner that Italians do so well. Jane Birkin is a girl home from boarding school to an old castle with the ultimate dysfunctional family. Hiram Keller, of FELLINI SATYRICON fame, is superb as James, the outcast of the home who turns out to be the only sane one. It's a florid, over-the-top performance that makes me want to search out more of the late Mr. Keller's obscure European films. And it's a hoot to see (but not hear) Serge Gainsbourg as a Scottish police inspector (he's dubbed). The mysterious cat motif works well, and there is a sly sense of humor and good fun throughout the entire film, but enough murders and atmosphere and mystery to make the experience well worth you time. This is not the kind of film to over-analyze--just enjoy it and let yourself go along for the ride as if you are on a roller coaster or in a fun-house. The widescreen transfer looks nice and the beautiful, rich colors come through well. I can imagine pulling this film out again every year or so and still being entertained. Recommended!

La ragazza dal pigiama giallo

fascinating Italian 70's mystery, shot in Australia, starring Ray Milland
Those expecting a sleazy, gory late entry in the "giallo" cycle of Italian cinema might be let down at THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE, but the film is actually a superb murder mystery, a fascinating character study, a police procedural, and a visually striking experience. Perhaps it's best to say that it was "inspired by a true story," since much liberty is taken with the original Australian case on which the film is based (and the Blue Underground DVD has as an extra an interview with investigative Australian author Richard Evans, who wrote a book about the real case from the 1930's). Ray Milland stars as a retired detective who spends time most of his time in his greenhouse (is this an allusion to the Columbo episode where Milland was into gardening?) but is brought out of retirement by a baffling case where an unknown corpse is found charred and decayed in an abandoned car on a beach. The police must first find who the woman is before finding who killed her. All the while as this story is being told we are following a second plot which I won't divulge here. At about the mid-point it seems as though the film might be nearly over, but it takes another turn and the chronologies of the stories become clear. As a regular watcher and reader of murder mysteries, the red herring characters were clear to me, the identity of the victim was no surprise, and the solution to the crime was not as much of a surprise as other IMDb reviews seem to think. However, I was riveted the way I am in a good Columbo episode thinking about the HOW and the WHY of the crime, and the clever way in which the various threads are tied together. Milland is, as always, superb, bringing many interesting quirks to the character of Thompson the retired detective. Michele Placido is impressive as the Italian immigrant waiter who is a major player in the parallel story, and Mel Ferrer is his usual suave self as a Professor who is having an affair with Placido's wife, who is played by the lovely Dalila Di Lazzaro. Fortunately, Milland and Ferrer provide their own voices. Howard Ross is also memorable as a vain and brutal German who is also having an affair with Dalila. While Riz Ortalani's music is largely the thumping electric euro-funk one expects in a 1977 film, it's much more subtle than, say, a soundtrack by Goblin, and two songs by Amanda Lear (my wife asked me "is that Nico?") are haunting and perfect, although many will find themselves initially put off by her singing. I don't think I can get the main song of hers out of my head. I had always considered buying a pan-and-scan VHS of this, but I'm glad I waited for the new and beautiful widescreen DVD. The Australian locations for the film as surprising and shot in an unexpected way that is fresh and makes the background an important character. I've been waiting to see this for two decades, and while it wasn't exactly what I was expecting, I was completely satisfied by it and watched it twice the day I bought it. Mystery fans and those into 70's Italian genre films should not miss it. However, don't expect the level of sex and violence you're usually provided in such films.

Pioneer's Gold

surprising Pete Morrison silent-western, many fine elements
No question about it--like Black director Oscar Micheaux (and others such as, say, Louis Gasnier and Charles Hutchison), Victor Adamson was a much better silent director than sound director. Films such as this one and the much different OLD OREGON TRAIL are quite interesting and thoughtful for z-grade genre product. First of all, PIONEER'S GOLD has a large and interesting cast of characters. Spottiswoode Aitken, looking like a long-haired 80 year old John Kerry after a long weekend, is an old man who is isolated and lonely and thinks of the woman he loved long ago. He finds her daughter, a schoolmarm (or "school ma'am" as the titles call her), and offers her an inheritance if she marries his nephew (the son of his long lost brother) whom he hasn't seen for many years. A crook named "The Fox" who steals mail shipments, steals the letter to the nephew offering him this deal, and then poses as the nephew...and then the schoolmarm is kidnapped by a woman crook (who is part of a wild psychotic hillbilly family that could have been out of the pages of a Flannery O'Connor story--Merrill McCormick, always colorful as a bad guy, plays a grotesque member of this family who reminds me of Brad Dourif at his most off-the-wall in some weird indie horror film), who then poses as her! Leading man Pete Morrison I'm most familiar with through his later supporting roles. I'd describe him as a mix between pre-1931 Rex Lease with a twist of pre-1933 Lyle Talbot. He's an interesting looking man and I hope to see some more of his starring roles (any b-western fan has seen him in early sound westerns in supporting roles). His riding skills are superb and he has a natural screen presence and is good at projecting any number of moods. Running at about 62 minutes, PIONEER'S GOLD is a much better film than it needed to be as a piece of low-budget-western product, and has a complexity to it and a rich array of supporting characters. Bravo to Victor Adamson. How could this be the same man who made THE ADVENTURES OF Texas JACK or THE RAWHIDE TERROR???

The Arizona Kid

comedic late-silent Art Acord western
My copy of this film is from a mid-thirties (I think) reissue with a different title (PURSUED) and title card and end card (all the other cards throughout the film are original and tastefully done, not like the cheesy reissue cards). It also seems to be missing the first minute or so, as Art Acord is present from the first frame, yet no title card announces him, although every other minor character gets his/her own title card. The quality of the print is also just fair--only in close-ups can one see details in faces as the print is washed out as if duplicated one too many times or perhaps blown up from 8mm. In any event, this film actually borrows heavily from another Horace "Maniac" Carpenter directorial effort done three years earlier, THE LAST CHANCE with Bill Patton. One or two of the puns in the dialog cards are even re-used here! Acord is quite funny as a marshal posing as a dude in a department-store "outlaw outfit" who acts like a clown as he tries to infiltrate a gang. Since he's such a harmless clown and since the gang needs a new member, they accept him. Acord plays this role more outrageously than Bill Patton did, even acting a bit swishy here and there (and I'm not reading this into the film, since the dialog cards confirm it was intended). No great analysis is needed of this film--and the quality of the print keeps me from saying much about the photography or the performances of the supporting actors. Carpenter himself has a small role, but I can't really see what he's doing with his face, just a white blur. The rating of 6 is for what the film might be in a good quality print--the print I saw would get a rating of 3 or 4. For the serious silent western fan only. I look forward to seeing more of Acord's work (he's from my one-time home of Stillwater, Oklahoma!)--see my review of FIGHTERS OF THE SADDLE.


Robert Blake in an intense performance and totally unsympathetic role
Wow! CORKY, which played the drive-in circuit briefly in 1972 (it was the only Blake starring role I missed back then), must be listed among Robert Blake's greatest and most intense performances of the late 60s and early 70s. However, be warned that Corky Curtiss is a totally unsympathetic character who treats everyone horribly, is on an ego trip, and sets out to wound the people who care for him. The film begins in Texas, where Blake and his pal played by the under-rated Chris Connelly, are driving in minor car races on the weekend and working for shop owner Patrick O'Neal during the week. Blake is married to Charlotte Rampling, who looks the part but whose accent wavers and sounds like Duchess Sarah Ferguson auditioning for Hee-Haw. After alienating everyone in the town and abandoning his wife, Blake and Connelly take off to take on the southern racing circuit. Blake's abusive behavior toward the easygoing Connelly finally makes CC split from Blake, and Blake's a**hole behavior winds up digging himself a deeper hole and leaving him more alone and stranded. He fails to learn anything from this, and I'll leave you the viewer to watch the final 20 minutes...everything from when Blake meets the two boys at the swimming hole on through the violent ending. If you are a Blake fan, you will go crazy over this film. He's over-the-top from beginning to end, struts around without his shirt on and with a beer in his hand, jives everyone he meets, and perfectly captures the loud, offensive, boorish, vain good-old-boys we all can't stand in real life. The film's title during its making was LOOKIN' GOOD (and there is a song by that title played in the middle of the film), and that fits things well as about the only thing that Blake cares for is strutting' and LOOKIN' GOOD. Talk about an anti-hero, Corky Curtiss makes Kowalski from VANISHING POINT and the leads of TWO LANE BLACKTOP look like Mother Teresa. This is the kind of post-James Dean, out-of-control Method performance that only a few people, Mickey Rourke among them, can get away with. To the film's credit, it gets small-town life down perfectly in every detail. When Charlotte Rampling is trying to get a GED, working two jobs, and pulling her life back together, I thought "I KNOW dozens of people just like her," just like I know dozens of people like her a**hole husband Corky. It's no surprise this film wasn't a hit, although that could also have been due to distribution, because who would want to see such a downer of a film? The Robert Blake fan, that's who. And if you are one, track down a gray market copy of this film immediately. Mine was taken from an old 1980's TNT TV broadcast, but the days when films like this were shown on TV are long gone. As this was an MGM release, perhaps you could write Turner Classic Movies--I'd LOVE to see Robert Osborne's introductory comments about CORKY! This would be perfect on a double bill with THE DAREDEVIL, starring George Montgomery (see my review of the latter). Blake was untouchable in his prime, and films such as this one contain the proof. Director Leonard Horn, who passed away a few years after this, worked mostly in television, except for the strange 1970 release THE MAGIC GARDEN OF STANLEY SWEETHEART. With that and Corky as his two big-screen directorial efforts, one wonders what Mr. Horn would have done if he'd been given creative freedom to make low-budget feature films instead of TV episodes and TV movies. Someone should interview Blake or Rampling (Connelly, O'Neal, and Ben Johnson are gone) about this film and about Leonard Horn.

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

A&C still in fine form in their waning days at Universal--great to have Karloff on board
I somehow missed this film on television as a child, but ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a fine vehicle for the boys and shows that they were still in excellent form in their last few years at Universal. There's a lot of physical comedy here and less verbal jousting than in their 1940's material, which is great because both Bud and Lou were amazing physical comedians. They are American police officers who are for some reason in England (learning British police techniques--I just saw a Columbo with that plot recently!), and stumble across a series of killings that has baffled the police. At the same time, we are introduced to Boris Karloff as Dr. Jekyll who has a young lady played by Helen Westcott as his ward (and, in an uncomfortable scene near the end, he professes his love for her "since she was a child"!!!!), and she in turn has an American reporter played by Craig "Peter Gunn" Stevens (always a reliable and attractive leading man)interested in her. There's a strange suffragette subplot that opens the film and is brought back a few times, including an off-the-wall musical sequence, but Ms. Westcott's character is the kind of movie-feminist who abandons the cause when the first hunky man takes an interest in her. The "transformation" scenes with Karloff are well done, and of course Lou gets "transformed" a few times himself. There are some exciting chases, and the scene near the end around the chimney on a roof is a classic that you'll have to see for yourself. Karloff underplays his role, which was probably a wise decision and keeps things from becoming campy. People either like A&C or they don't understand their appeal. Those who enjoy them will find ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE a fine, lesser-known later entry, and it would probably appeal to today's children too. Do those children or grandchildren a favor and introduce them to Bud and Lou--they'll thank you later.

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