Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday, 18 November 2010

King of the Zombies (1941) - Mantan Moreland Saves the Day, and the Movie...

There are two movies running in parallel during King of the Zombies. One is a piece of straight up mystery in which heroic Dick Purcell and John Archer crash land on a strange island of the undead and do battle with a nefarious mad European doctor played by Henry Victor. The other movie involves Mantan Moreland having some goofy fun as he tries unsuccessfully to avoid becoming a zombie and to escape the aforementioned spooky island. On their own, each has its moments, but when the two films intersect – well, the movie is only big enough for one and the comic hi-jinks easily win out. It’s interesting that in a film where the black and the white characters are separated by class and by the stairs of a house, that despite (I’d imagine) the intentions of the writer the below stairs action proves to be by far the more exciting, funny and vital of the two. They are the flip sides to two very different films and two very different social outlooks and experiences.

Basically, if you take Mantan Moreland out if this picture you are left with a competent poverty row cash-in to the Universal horror cycle and nothing more. With him involved, King of the Zombies is not exactly a classic but nonetheless a fondly remembered and much revived movie (it also helps that it seems to be in the public domain). Monogram obviously saw the worth of Moreland as although he is billed third in the opening titles, interestingly his name is in a bigger typeface than his co-stars Dick Purcell and Joan Woodbury. In King of the Zombies, he steals every scene he’s in and acts everyone in the cast off the screen to such a ridiculous level that it’s not even funny. The man is and was a star performer of the highest order.

Despite his towering presence, it’s a shame that the viewers have to endure the same old tired “color” jokes. There’s about three in the opening 5 minutes, along the lines of (for example) “I thought I was a little off color to be a ghost”. I know it was 1941 but you’d hope that gag was lame even by then. Thankfully, as soon as Mantan gets to do his thing, the movie picks up greatly. When I reviewed Law of the Jungle a few months ago I made the point of defending Moreland’s big eyed scaredy-cat shtick, saying that in effect his comic reactions and double takes were no different to that of Lou Costello in a similar situation. However, it’s unfortunate that this type of character for a black actor has a particularly nasty cinematic baggage to go with it, but Moreland is such a talented comedian that I feel that he really does transcend such stereotyping. And anyway, what’s the alternative, should he be acting a little more “white”? No thank you. King of the Zombies is, if nothing else a movie that shows him to be an effective and hugely talented comic leading man. It’s pretty amazing to see a black actor effectively starring in a mainstream movie from this period, and I don’t believe for a moment that anyone who went to see the film did so due to the lure of Dick Purcell and the rest of the cast (except the zombies).

Anyway, the plots regarding a missing Admiral, a sinister doctor and some zombies are pure hokum and really only there for window dressing. What’s really fascinating is how the movie essentially starts by playing off the usual casual racism of the time and finds itself (intentionally?) being subverted from within by Moreland’s charisma and vitality. The crux of the first third of the movie is that Moreland is subservient to his two companions played by Purcell and Archer. It seems to be a relationship with a modicum of respect but not much else. Although Moreland’s role as servant to the other two is not explicitly defined, a key moment early on is when the mad doctor played by Henry Victor offers his guests a drink yet misses Moreland’s glass out when pouring. The crestfallen look on his face is a picture of disappointment that is made worse when he is told he can’t have a room to sleep in with the others as he should be in the servant’s quarters otherwise it would “set a bad example”. Heroic Dick Purcell is vaguely apologetic but basically tells him to put up with it. Of course, once he goes downstairs and discovers the zombies, Purcell and Archer accuse him of dreaming it or even worse, of being drunk. Some friends they are, now we know where they stand! This immediately sets up Moreland as the unlikely hero of the film rather than the comic sidekick. It’s almost as if the movie set out to be a horror but in rehearsals they saw how good he was and decided to play it for laughs and switch the focus of the plot.

No matter, luckily downstairs in the servant’s quarters is where all the fun happens! Mantan quickly hooks up with pretty kitchen maid Samantha, played by the delightful Marguerite Whitten who tells him of the strange voodoo rituals and of the “dead folk what run around”. Between the two of them, Moreland and Whitten really keep the picture afloat and in some alternate reality I‘m sure they went on to make dozens of movies together as they have a natural chemistry sadly lacking from the rest of the wooden cast. After wisecracking himself though the usual haunted house comic shenanigans, in which he even manages to get a laugh out of the line “the tropics sure give a man a color!” when looking in the mirror (no mean feat), Moreland eventually falls afoul of the denizens of the undead.

The highlight of the film then arrives as Mantan is hypnotized into thinking he is a zombie. The evil doctor tells him to repeat, “I am dead” and “I am a zombie” which gets the incredulous reply “I am a zombie…I am…I is??” When the hypnotism is complete and he has chanted, “I am a zombie” enough he stops, then looks at the zombies and deadpans “Move over boys, I’m one of the gang now!” Soon he’s convinced he’s a zombie and has taken over as their leader and is drilling them like an army (“Company halt! Gangway for king zom!”) He also finds that the zombies don’t eat much so ends up getting all the food to himself as Marguerite Whitten plays along suspiciously. In a funny exchange he says to her “Don’t you bother me woman, can’t you see I’m a has been?” When she tells him that zombies can’t talk he snaps back “Can I help it if I’m loquacious?” He’s then he’s told that if he puts salt on his food that he’ll dry up and die again so replies “This bein’ a zombie sure is a drawback!” before taking some salt and finally snapping out of the spell with a scream of “How do I look? How do I look?” He runs to a mirror and laughs with relief when he realizes he’s not a zombie, then with split second timing remembers to be scared again and runs for his life! Moreland’s turn as the hypnotized zombie and his interplay with Whitten are easily the best parts of the film and come across as so fresh, spontaneous and natural that the rest of the cast and the movie as a whole don’t really stand a chance in comparison.

That’s not to say that the rest of the (white) cast are uniformly bad. Henry Victor is suitable creepy as the mad doctor in a role purportedly intended for Bela Lugosi. He really makes the most out of lines like “She lives, yet walks in the land of those...beyond!" Sadly others like Dick Purcell and John Archer just stand around and say their lines. However, it’s the African American members of the cast that really shine. Aside from the aforementioned Marguerite Whitten, Leigh Whipper really impresses as the incredibly creepy and definitely psychopathic butler and there is a nice cameo for Laurence Criner as an educated doctor. And some of the extras definitely give the impression that they served as technical advisers for the witchcraft scenes! All this really proves to me is that there was an embarrassment of riches in terms of working black actors in Hollywood in the 40s and that I really need to investigate some Harlem cinema.

In the end Mantan was right about the zombies but his stupid friends are still stupid. They thought they had an adventure of their own and were probably blissfully unaware of the fun he and his friends had below the stairs. I understand fully that Mantan Moreland and other actors in his position were just doing their best to get work within the Hollywood system but when I see the way he so effortlessly commands the screen when given the opportunity it’s obvious that he was a man out of time. If he were around in these more enlightened times, he would be a massive star, no doubt about it. Someone with the gifts for comic timing, reaction and delivery just wouldn’t have gone to waste. However, I look forward to the next movie I can find where Mantan Moreland gets sufficient screen time (any suggestions out there?) because I can’t think of a more dynamic talent in 40’s screen comedy.

As for King of the Zombies, it’s a superior Monogram picture despite not exactly being a comedy or horror classic, but it is strangely subversive. When it comes down to it, by the end of the movie the status quo is completely reversed and the fool becomes the hero. The aloof European doctor which the lead characters are initially so in thrall of is shown to be a (thinly disguised) Nazi who is toppled not by the square jawed heroics of Dick Purcell but by the permanently scared bumbling of his ‘servant’ Mantan Moreland. Most importantly the conventions of the horror movie are turned on the their head by Moreland, who makes the viewer realize just how contrived and ridiculous the whole set up is by his barrage of Woody Allen-esque one-liners. At the end he emerges once again as the only real person in the cast and the only character in which we can find an emotional connection. He may be scared of everything he sees but he’s the most human character in the movie, and that’s including zombie and non-zombie alike. He sums up the situation perfectly with the last line of the movie, “If there’s one thing I wouldn’t want to be twice, zombies is both of them!”

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Smarty (1934) - Joan Blondell and the Funny Side of Domestic Violence

It seems that if you look hard enough at classic movies you find that times, tastes and morals haven’t really changed all that much in the intervening years. We can still recognize most of the staple characters of 30s melodrama - the gangsters, the gold diggers, the hen-pecked husband and the ambitious career woman all still exist in some form or other in contemporary popular culture. Even though the politics and morals of our time have changed, we retain an affinity for these situations because on some basic level they are still recognizable to us. Obviously not all social mores are the same, given that the representation and treatment of minorities, though rarely hateful still leaves us with a sense of unease and the assumption and or hope that society, has in some way moved on. Smarty falls firmly into the category of belonging to a (hopefully) bygone age in so much as it is a rip roaring comedy about the hilarious subject of, er… domestic violence.

It’s an odd choice for a comedy to say the least, and the result is bewildering clash of high drama and low gags. As usual for a Warner Brothers production of the mid-thirties it has an excellent cast, a sharp script, and a fine (and under rated) director packed into a brisk 65 minute length. It starts with bickering couple Joan Blondell and Warren William well…bickering. She teases and belittles him in a frankly nasty way until he becomes “impotent with rage”. An innocent night of bridge with friends Claire Dodd, Edward Everett Horton and Frank McHugh (playing their usual screen characters: Dodd is acid tongued, Horton is jittery and polite and McHugh is a bumbling simpleton) descends into fight night when Joan pulls the trigger with the words “diced carrots!” and Warren William is pushed about as far as a man can be pushed. He smacks her full on the face and seethes with his no longer impotent rage as she runs away in terror. All well and good for the start of a comedy, as you would expect.

If smacking around your back-talking wife wasn’t bad enough, the reaction to the deed is what really labels the film as a "period piece". Horton is outraged and shocked but is told by Claire Dodd that it’s only because he’s being too “virtuous and noble” because, uh... that’s a bad thing I guess. She continues with the immortal, only in the pre-code thirties line “A good sock in the eye is something every woman needs. At least once in her life” While Horton, and the modern audience pick their collective jaws up off the floor, McHugh (up until now the comic relief) chimes in that “there’s a lot in what she says” With that sagely advice, the motion is carried two to one, she deserved it.

Cut to poor Joan Blondell who is well, not really that upset about the whole episode. She claims, rather half-heartedly that she “won’t live with a man that hits me” and demands a divorce. You mean to say that the punch heard round the world was just a comedy plot device to get us to a divorce scenario? As this point I was trying, really trying to put myself in the mindset of a 1934 viewer but I was beginning to struggle somewhat. Let me get this right - she gets hit (and not a comedy slap, a real sock in the face), everyone thinks it’s okay and it’s played for laughs so that she can use it to her advantage in a plot to win back her soon to be divorced husband. It’s almost as if the writers knew the Production Code was coming in a few months and decided to see what they could get away with.

But it gets worse. After a cutting remark about Claire Dodd’s promiscuity, (On being asked to keep Joan company she says “I don’t mind strange beds” which gets the come back from Blondell of “If I’m not mistaken it’s a preference”) poor misguided Joan then laments the fact that the spark has disappeared from her marriage (hence the divorce). The reason? “If he really loved me, he’d have hit me long ago” Okay, I’ll admit, she’s an incredibly annoying character but I think I’d just turn to drink to get over my problems. Or maybe that’s just me being “modern” again.

To her credit, despite being so annoying Joan Blondell has perhaps never been lovelier or funnier than in Smarty. The whole film seems designed to show off her shapely form, from the opening shot of her legs to the ridiculously revealing backless dress that causes so many problems later in the movie. Her delivery of the lines, despite being tonally dubious (but that’s a problem with the film as a whole) have a distinct air of the Myrna Loys about them, with cheeky darting eyes and playful inflections. Her courtroom scene, in which she is granted her divorce, is a short master class in comedy as she plays up being a supposed innocent to win over the judge. She is all big eyes and teeth, as only Joan Blondell can do, but with subtle little moments of comic business, like briefly holding up the wrong hand when asked to swear on a bible. It’s a beautifully played scene that is designed to enable her to shine.

We fast forward a year and Miss “Smarty” is now married to Edward Everett Horton and is seemingly having fun tormenting and belittling him in her usual irritating fashion. He doesn’t want her to wear a backless dress so she goes ahead and wears it anyway then invites ex husband Warren William along to the party. She wastes no time in trying to seduce him but it initially doesn’t work out (he thinks the dress is like “lipstick on a child of eleven”) Before long she’s back to her old ways, telling him “I’ve been going to the movies quite a lot recently. There the girls are quite different. They get kicked ‘round and pushed in the face…with grapefruit…and they love it” It may be a funny and knowing wink to The Public Enemy (which also features Blondell – what did she make of seeing her doppelganger on screen, or is that just getting too meta-textual?) but clearly, the girl needs therapy.

Having been spurned by the ex-husband she tries to get the usually unflappable Horton to hit her and, one would assume become a real man. She taunts and dares him, knowing that he won’t do it until he too snaps and slaps her in the face. Somehow, this doesn’t have the desired effect and divorce is on the cards again. She didn’t seem to enjoy it much, perhaps he just didn’t hit her hard enough. No pain, no gain, right? In the end Blondell and William are reunited and Horton is sent on his way (he gets a lucky escape if you ask me). She immediately gets back in the groove and gets smart with William but this time he knows exactly what to do. He tears her dress off, holds her hair back tight and hits her again whilst telling her to shut up. They collapse onto a sofa as he says “If you don’t watch your step, I swear I’ll hit you hard”. As they kiss and disappear out of view she replies, “Tony dear, hit me again”

If we briefly ignore the complete and utter wrongness of the central premise, Smarty is a smart little film. The thing is, to a modern audience the central premise just can’t be ignored. Surely most people, even in 1934 couldn’t have thought that all women deserve to be slapped around a bit and that a man wasn’t a man until he did so? And what for me makes the movie all the more unnerving is that this frankly insane idea is played for laughs. Laughs? Okay, I’ll admit that the threat of domestic violence has been used for laughs before, such as in The Honeymooners, but Ralph never actually hit Alice did he? Throwing custard pies, plates or shoes at a woman may be funny, but throwing fists is not (and actually seeing the blows is even worse). Comic violence of this sort traditionally always happened off screen to the sound of bangs and crashes. Maybe I was being rather modern about it all but who on earth decided to green light this thing?! Or maybe I’ve just grabbed the wrong end of the stick entirely and like Edward Everett Horton’s character I’m being too prudish and thus missing the feminist subtext. Or maybe not.

As previously mentioned, sometimes times change for the better. Domestic violence is wrong folks, and even when played so enticingly by a top notch cast of beloved Hollywood icons. In the UK, the movie was called Hit Me Again, which in a true British manner, rather gets straight to the point and hopefully would alert viewers to the horrors ahead. That said, when it’s not being completely morally insane, Smarty is almost a great little movie but sadly also a very, very wrong one. Ultimately it probably says more about male film industry attitudes in the thirties than that of the average man or woman on the street. Despite this, I think several books deserve to be written about whatever issues Joan Blondell’s character has in the movie. Did she get on with her father? Was she hit as a child? Does she feel undervalued as a person? We need to know these things and give her all the help she deserves. Maybe she just needed a cuddle. Actually, I’m not sure I want to know, to be honest.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Random Thoughts # 1 - October Round-Up

Since I’m proving to be incapable of writing such a thing as a short blog entry, and since real life seems to be conspiring to prevent me from writing regular film reviews and profiles, I thought that I would start each month with a brief review of my thoughts, viewings and listenings throughout the previous four weeks. So here’s how I spent my October... The most newsworthy event in October for me was the death of Norman Wisdom aged 95. Though he stopped making regular film appearances in the 60s (and stopped making decent films in the 50s!) he became a bit of a national treasure in Britain due to his ability to seemingly never age (he was still falling off ladders well into his 80s) and his regular television appearances. He was someone that I grew up with and who, for a brief period in my teens was my favourite film star. I do mourn his passing but have mixed feelings, as I haven’t watched one of his films in years and I’m not entirely sure that I’ll still find his mawkish form of slapstick particularly funny. I really meant to watch The Bulldog Breed, Man of the Moment or Up in the World in tribute to him but I never got round to it. I still have good memories of him and though at times he fell in to the Chaplinesque trap of being overly sentimental, he was an excellent physical comedian with tons of charm and a real survivor, entertaining audiences for over 60 years. Despite his flaws and patchy filmography, he’s a uniquely British comedian (though inexplicably a national hero in Albania) and it’s sad that another part of my childhood has disappeared into the ether. For a rather nice tribute to Sir Norman, please click here.
Film highlight of the month was a rare big screen showing of the 1945 British thriller Murder in Reverse? Starring William Hartnell. Though essentially a B picture this was a tautly directed tale of a man innocently sent down for murder and who, upon his release sets out to clear his name. It went by at a cracking pace and Hartnell, as ever was excellent. He really is a most under rated actor and I would really like to see more of his work. Whilst best know today for Doctor Who, he was a juvenile lead in British films of the 30s (as Billy Hartnell) eventually graduating to character parts in films such as The Bells Go Down, The Way Ahead and Odd Man Out. Murder in Reverse? was one of several attempts to establish him as a leading man in thrillers and crime films, in the mould of Bogart, Robinson or Cagney. It didn’t quite work out but at least he got the chance to show his skill as an actor in films such as this. In Murder in Reverse? his character emerges from prison half way through the narrative after fifteen years inside and Hartnell excels at subtly showing the effects of what he has endured. He’s a broken man but a man with a pent up rage to even the score, despite being physically spent. In many ways, Hartnell is almost a method actor in his use of mannerisms and body language to emphasize details about his characters, both major and minor. Perhaps his greatest and most accomplished attempt at this approach is his portrayal of Dallow in Brighton Rock where it’s the details such as chewing on a matchstick or cleaning his nails that help to establish depth to the character. It’s a testament to his ability as an actor that Hartnell never lets his performance be swamped by Richard Attenborough’s blisteringly intense star turn. For me another Hartnell highlight is to see him tussle with Patrick McGoohan in the climatic moments of Hell Drivers. To see these two icons of 60s television share screen time (and try to kill each other) is a real treat. Though it seems that a DVD release of Murder in Reverse? is not on the horizon, I’d implore anyone with an interest in British movies of the 40s and 50s to search out a film featuring William Hartnell. I just wish there were more of them available, including the elusive and awesomely titled comedy I’m An Explosive. If anyone has a copy, well my right arm is yours…. Other Movie highlights in October – The Grass is Greener (1960) – One of my favourite Cary Grant films from back in the day still held up, much to my relief. It’s a lovely, underplayed film (sometimes too underplayed though) with a great cast, especially the demure and elegant Deborah Kerr. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) – I Finally made it through all 12 chapters of possibly my all time favourite movie serial. I know a lot of people prefer the first two but this one, with its stirring music and impressively epic scale gets my vote. If only all serials were so consistently exciting. Next up is The Mystery Squadron, my first Mascot serial, hooray! It’s a Boy (1933) – British farce starring Leslie Henson and Edward Everett Horton about a man finding out he has an illegitimate child on the eve of his wedding. It’s suprisingly racy for it’s time with several innuendo-laden lines and a scene where Horton and Henson have to explain what sex is! Old Mother Riley’s Circus (1941) – This is one of the better Arthur Lucan films featuring the character that practically wrote the book on lowbrow humour. I’m going to write a profile on the Old Mother Riley films once I’ve watched a few more but the character is certainly…an acquired taste. It’s very difficult to explain in a few sentences so I’d encourage anyone reading to get hold of one of the films. You may be confused at first, but trust me they grow on you. Old Time Radio highlight of the Month - I listened to an excellent edition of the Lux Radio Theater from September 26th 1938 where Jack Benny and Mary Livingston appear in a production of Seven Keys to Baldpate. What makes this one so good aside from having Jack and Mary playing themselves is that the usual host, Cecil B. DeMille also appears as himself. In the story, Jack Benny is constantly pestering DeMille to let him appear in and write one his films, so C. B lets him stay in one of his (haunted) properties in order to write the script. The whole thing is ridiculous but you can tell that the cast are having a great deal of fun, and DeMille, who really can’t act to save himself is pretty amusing. I know that there are about three million episodes of the Lux Radio Theater but this one is definitely worth digging up. And there you have it - that was October. All this and no mention of time traveling Chaplin extras! Not from me, no sir. Next month…November!