Executive Suite (1954) – A Movie Review

“Executive Suite” is a drama that details the personalities and ambitions of the executives of the Tredway Corporation, a furniture manufacturing company, as they react to the unexpected death of the company president Avery Bullard.  It also showcases the difference between two different kinds of corporate executives.  One is the inspirational leader who recognizes that a company is the intersection of human beings as customers, employees and ownership.  Someone who wants the company to succeed by striving for excellence in all the aspects of running a business.  The other vision is expressed as the narrowest focus on maximizing the stock dividend by any means possible.

The movie has an all-star cast with William Holden, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon and Barbara Stanwyck as the big names and other fine actors such as Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Nina Foch, Shelley Winters and June Allyson rounding out the cast in support roles.

Bullard is leaving New York City to attend an executive board meeting at the Tredway factory in Pennsylvania.  He has a stroke and dies on the street in front of the office building where the Board of Directors meeting was just held.  His death on the street is observed from a window by one of the board members George Caswell, played by Louis Calhern.  Caswell take advantage of this insider information (Bullard’s death) to short 3,700 shares of Tredway stock in order to take advantage of the stock price drop that he expects to occur after the news breaks next Monday.  But unfortunately for Caswell, the company is about to report an extremely large stock dividend based on excellent profits.  This will make his short position extremely unprofitable.

As the news of Bullard’s death begins to filter through to the Tredway management, we get to see how each of the five vice presidents responds and what kind of men they are.  Walter Pidgeon is Frederick Alderson, Vice President and Treasurer.  He was Bullard’s loyal second in command.  He never had the drive to challenge any of Bullard’s decisions and he therefore has begun to drift into a more passive role in the company management.  Fredric March is Loren Shaw, Vice President and Controller.  He is currently the dominant force in the company.  Bullard has backed Shaw’s methods to maximize short term profits, even when that has meant producing shoddy product lines.  Shaw also maintains thorough surveillance of his fellow executives.  He knows about their private foibles and uses this knowledge to blackmail them when it suits him.   Paul Douglas is Walter Dudley, Vice President for Sales.  Walt is the epitome of the shady salesman.  He is having an affair with his secretary (played by Shelley Winters) and often ignores his family and business responsibilities to satisfy his own pleasures.  Dean Jagger is Jesse Grimm, Vice President for Manufacturing.  He is an old man who has seen the idealistic practices that Bullard espoused abandoned under Shaw’s penny-pinching program.  He is fed up with the shoddy products his plant has been forced to manufacture and is preparing to retire to escape it.  And finally, William Holden is Don Walling, Vice President for Design and Development.  Don is aggravated that Bullard’s promises to allow him to modernize and optimize the manufacturing processes have been abandoned to pursue short term gain.  His wife   Mary (played by June Allyson) wants him to quit and go someplace where his design talents will be put to good use.  The other two executive board members are stockholders.  One is George Caswell and the other is Julia Tredway (played by Barbara Stanwyck).  She is the daughter of the founder of Tredway and also Bullard’s long-time lover.  She is angry and depressed and looking to escape from all of the anguish she feels about Bullard and her unsatisfied relationship with him.

We watch as Shaw gathers up the votes, he thinks he can collect to assure his election to president.  Dudley’s vote he will get by blackmailing him over his affair with his secretary.  Caswell will sell his vote in exchange for a sweetheart deal to buy company stock and therefore cover his short position.  And Julia gives Shaw her proxy just to escape from the necessity of attending the painful meeting.  Along with his own vote this should give him the four votes he needs.

Meanwhile Alderson and Walling are attempting to stop Shaw.  Not knowing of some of the pressure that Shaw can bring to bear they try to persuade Dudley, Grimm and Tredway to elect Dudley as an alternate to Shaw.  Dudley because of the blackmail he is under of course turns them down.  Walling and Tredway get into an emotional argument because of her very traumatic feelings about the company and Bullard.  And when Dudley is no longer a viable choice for candidate Walling offers himself to Alderson as an alternative.  But Alderson breaks the news to him that Grimm will not vote for Walling because he feels that he is too young and inexperienced.

It all comes down to the board meeting and the voting fails to put Shaw over the top on the first ballot because Shaw had to provide Caswell with proof that he would be given the stock deal he wanted.  Shaw then provides him with this assurance and the meeting prepares to come down to a second ballot.  But before a motion is proposed for a vote Walling questions Shaw about his vision for leading Tredway into the future.

Shaw clearly articulates that the duty of a corporate leader is to do everything in his power to maximize the return on investment to the stockholders.  And he proudly claims that Mr. Bullard completely approved of the “improvements” Shaw had made at Tredway that allowed for the exceptionally large quarterly dividend that Tredway had just recently announced.

Then Walling answers him with a vision of a company thriving on excellence and integrity.  At one point he finds a small table near the wall of the boardroom that was an example of the shoddy craftsmanship that Shaw’s policies had fostered and he rips it apart with his bare hands and reviles a corporate philosophy that throws away the company’s reputation as a manufacturer of quality products to realize a short-term profit.  After this stirring appeal even Shaw votes with the rest of the board to elect Walling president.

I am not an idealist.  I understand that the good guys don’t always win.  I recognize that the market is a dog eat dog reality.  But I also have seen what lowest possible cost manufacturing has done to this country.  Corporate responsibility by American companies to its employees and the public is just as important as responsibility to its stockholders.  I watched this movie for the first time this week and I think the message it makes is very timely.  Add in the responsibility of government to protect American companies from unfair competition from rock bottom labor costs in the third world and you could be talking about a MAGA campaign ad.  And from the point of view of entertainment the movie is enjoyable and well made.  Even though this isn’t a movie I’ve seen over and over I can highly recommend it.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie filmed in England before leaving for Hollywood.  The plot involves a train somewhere in central Europe with some British citizens on their way back home.  An old English lady named Miss Froy is involved in some kind of espionage.  She befriends a young woman named Iris Henderson who is going home to marry a rich man she doesn’t love.  When Miss Froy disappears from the train and all the other passengers and crew swear she was never there Iris recruits Gilbert Redman to help her solve the mystery.  There are comic touches that involve a pair of friends named Caldicott and Charters who are obsessed with reaching England in time to watch the National Cricket match.  In fact, the comic bit they did in this film was so popular that the actors, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford respectively, reprised their characters in a number of films for many years afterward.

Hitchcock builds up the characters with plenty of background and personal details in scenes that take place before the train ride and once the young couple begin delving into the mystery it is obvious that a criminal conspiracy is taking place to kidnap Miss Froy, although no apparent reason exists.  On the train is a noted brain surgeon and he tries to convince Iris that a serious blow to the head that she sustained just before getting on the train is the source of her delusion about the missing Miss Froy.  Later on, we find out that he is the ringleader of the plot.

Finally, Miss Froy is freed and she reveals to Iris and Gilbert that she is a British spy and she must flee the train and go cross country to return to England.  But first she teaches Gilbert a musical phrase that is code for some top-secret information.  The adventure comes to a climax in a gun battle between the storm trooper and the English passengers as they attempt to take control of the train and flee over a border to a non-hostile country.  After several casualties they escape and return to safety.  When they reach England, Iris decides to forsake her rich loveless bridegroom and go off with Gilbert.  But first they head for the British foreign office to give them the musical code message.  But just as they reach the office Gilbert realizes he has forgotten the music.  But then hears the tune being played on a piano in the room they are about to enter and they see Miss Froy playing the tune.

This all sounds like a ridiculous jumble and in a way it is.  There are all kinds of odd things going on as there always are in a Hitchcock film.  A homicidal magician complete with a booth for making women disappear.  A mysterious burn victim with bandages that cover her face who is brought on the train well after Miss Froy disappeared.  There’s a deaf-mute nun in high heels.  A platoon of storm troopers that I guess are supposed to be German.  An avalanche, a murdered singer, clog dancers, a comedic Italian innkeeper who promises things he can’t deliver in four or five languages and scantily clad women.

But it’s actually highly entertaining.  All the little details of the story are well done and diverting.  The various characters are given enough development and even the villains are well rounded characters.  I thoroughly enjoy this movie and highly recommend it.

They Drive by Night (1940) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This story about truckers back in the depression era is described as a film noir but I think I’d call it a melodrama.  George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini.  They are partners in a long-haul trucking business.  They are owed money by the scheduler who assigns them loads and relatedly they owe money to the guy who sold them their truck.  We see them dealing with both sides of this debt relationship.  We also see how dangerous driving at the edge of exhaustion can be when their friend crashes his truck on the road in front of them because he fell asleep at the wheel.  And finally, it catches up with the Fabrinis.  Paul falls asleep at the wheel and drives off a slope.  The truck is totaled and because of his injuries Paul has his right arm amputated.  Joe breaks the news to Paul’s wife Pearl and she admits she is almost relieved that his disability will keep him from driving trucks ever again and at least spare his life.  Feeling responsible for what has happened to Paul Joe goes to an old friend of his Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale) who has a trucking company and obtains a driving job which will allow him to support Paul and Pearl.  But it won’t pay enough to allow Joe to marry his new girlfriend Cassie Harley (Ann Sheridan).  But there is a complication.  Ed’s wife Lana (Ida Lupino) is infatuated with Joe.  She talks Ed into making Joe the scheduler so that he’ll be around the garage and therefore easier for her to fraternize with.  But Joe refuses to go behind his boss and friend’s back with this unfaithful wife.  Finally, after being rejected categorically by Joe because of her status as Ed’s wife Lana goes crazy.  She drives Ed home from a party and after parking the car in the garage she leaves him drunk and passed out in the car and closes the garage door with the car engine on.  She explains the asphyxiation to the police as Ed sleeping drunk in the car as he often did and him somehow waking up, starting the engine and then falling back asleep.

With Ed gone Lana brings Joe into the business as a partner.  But now she finds out that Joe is engaged to be married.  She becomes enraged and tells Joe that she murdered Ed for him and won’t be separated from him for any reason.  Joe rebuffs her and walks away shocked.  Lana, now consumed by bitterness goes to the police and confesses that she murdered Ed but swears that Joe forced her to do it against her will.  Now there is a trial in which the circumstantial evidence provided by Lana makes Joe’s position very bad.  But when Lana finally testifies at the trial she has become totally unhinged through guilt.  She claims that she was compelled to kill Ed by the presence of the automatic garage door mechanism.  And she is dragged out of the courtroom laughing hysterically that it was the door that made her do it.

And so, we get the happy ending.  Joe owns the trucking business, Paul is his scheduler, the truckers admire and like Joe for his honest treatment and now Joe has the money to marry Cassie.

This movie is a product of the Hays Code.  Criminals have to be punished so we know that Lana is going to get her comeuppance and because Joe is a stand-up guy, he’ll end up okay.  And because this is a Warner Bros. studio production it has a lot of the character actors that were around at that time.  Alan Hale, Roscoe Karns and Charles Halton were some of the more memorable faces you see.  Karns has a relatively minor part as one of the truck drivers but he steals several scenes with his goofball manner and his fascination with playing the pinball games that seem to be in every diner that the truckers frequent along their routes between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The camaraderie between the truckers and the diner personnel is a substantial portion of the movie and some of the more interesting dialog.  But the movie belongs to Raft and Lupino.  Her ill-fated infatuation for him powers the plot, such as it is.  As I said, I consider this a melodrama and not a great movie.  But the Raft’s interaction with the rest of the cast other than Lupino makes this movie an interesting slice of life from the depression era and full of human interest.  This is not a great movie but it’s fun to watch. I recommend it on that basis.

The Haunting (1963) – A Horror Movie Review

There is a place called Hill House built in the 1870s in New England that has caused the death of all those who have owned it and lived in it.  A researcher in the paranormal, Dr. John Markway, has gotten permission from the present absentee owner to stay in the house and investigate its behavior.  Markway hires two women, Theodora, a psychic and Eleanor, a neurotic woman who attracts supernatural activity, to help him detect the supernatural activity there.  In addition, the owner has designated her nephew Luke Sanderson to be present as her representative.

Eleanor is more or less the protagonist of the movie.  She has led a tortured existence having spent eleven years as the caregiver for her invalid mother.  Becoming involved in the paranormal research seems like her chance to escape from her dreary existence and strike out on her own.

Theodora is a lesbian and she takes an immediate interest in Eleanor.  But it’s obvious that her attentions annoy Eleanor.  Eleanor on the other hand seems attracted to Markway who unbeknownst to her is married.  Luke is the scoffing skeptic who finds the whole idea of a haunted house laughable.

During the first day nothing notable happens but during the night the two women hear very loud and frightening pounding on the walls and at one point the doorknob in the room they’re in starts to turn.  The men had been outside chasing a dog that seemed somehow to get in the house on its own and had heard nothing.  On the second day Eleanor has several sensations caused by supernatural presences.  She is especially overcome by a horrible smell coming from the library where, as it turns out, one of the owners had hanged herself.  That night more noises and voices are heard.

Next day, Dr. Markway’s wife Grace shows up.  Eleanor is crushed when she realizes that the man she’s been interested in is married.  Grace announces that she will sleep in the nursery, the room where the eeriest happenings were known to have been centered.  While she is upstairs in her room the rest of the party is downstairs when the pounding starts again.  But this time things get out of hand.  Whatever is making the booming noise is also able to push against a thick wooden door and bow it in as if some inconceivable weight or pressure was being brought to bear.  As soon as it ends Dr. Markway runs upstairs to find how his wife is, but she’s gone.

Meanwhile Eleanor runs into the library and climbs an extremely dangerous metal spiral staircase to the top of the forty-foot tall room with the intention of throwing herself down in order to become a permanent part of the ghost community.  Markway risks his life climbing up the tottering staircase to stop her.  Rather than go back down the stairs they open a trap door to the attic to escape their predicament.  And at that moment Grace Markway sticks her face down the trap door from above and scares Eleanor into a fit.

In the next scene Markway has decided that the whole experiment is a mistake and orders Eleanor to leave.  He will continue to search from Grace who has somehow eluded them again.  Eleanor begs desperately not to be sent away.  She feels she belongs in the house.  But Markway is adamant and he is sending Luke with her to make sure she returns home.  But at the last second Eleanor drives away without him and heads down the long driveway.  But some force takes control of her car and eventually she crashes the car into a tree and dies.  The others reach her car and find her dead.  Grace has been wandering around and happened to be right at the scene of the crash.  The consensus is that Eleanor got her wish and will stay with the house.

In the last scene we’re shown a nighttime view of the house while Eleanor’s voice talks about being part of the ghost community there.

As far as haunted house movies go this is probably the best one until The Shining was made in 1980.  That’s not to say that the film and the characters aren’t extremely annoying, because they are.  Eleanor is a thoroughly neurotic and unpleasant personality.  The others are tolerably less annoying than Eleanor but none of them is going to win any personality contests.

All that being said, the movie does have an atmosphere of foreboding about it and the sights and sounds do produce the desired effect of creepiness.  Without a doubt the spectacle of frightened isolated women does effect a movie audience powerfully.  If you’re looking for a good haunted house movie it’s this or The Shining.

Pitfall (1948) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

In this film noir Dick Powell is John Forbes, a married man who works as an adjuster for an insurance company.  He lives in the suburbs with his pretty wife Sue, played by Jane Wyatt and his young son Tommy.  Based on the domestic scenes, we see that Forbes is bored with his humdrum existence of work and tame suburban monotony.

One day an insurance investigator, J.B. MacDonald (played by truly creepy Raymond Burr) comes to Forbes with a case that requires him to interview a woman, Mona Stevens played by frequent femme fatale actress, Lizabeth Scott.  Her fiancé, Bill Smiley, has passed along to her gifts paid for with money he fraudulently obtained against his insurance.  During his meeting with Forbes MacDonald indicates that he is lusting after Stevens and will be making a play for her while her boyfriend is in jail.  We can tell that Forbes despises MacDonald but in order to maintain a working relationship with the investigator ignores the crudity of MacDonald’s plan.

When Forbes meets Mona Stevens at her apartment he blandly and uncaringly requires her to surrender her engagement ring and other gifts given by Smiley.  She upbraids him for his callousness and just to show her disdain for his power she tells him about an asset he didn’t know about, a small speed boat that she loves more than anything else.  Now Forbes feels remorse for being such a heel and while going out to see the boat he apologizes and tells her he’ll buy her a drink to show her that he has nothing against her.  The couple go to the dock and at her invitation they go out on the boat and she even allows him to drive it.  They both enjoy the ride and each other’s company.  Afterwards they go to a bar and have some drinks and Forbes tells Mona that he won’t include the boat in his report.  During the scene sexual attraction is on display on both sides and afterwards they head back to Mona’s apartment.  Meanwhile we are shown MacDonald skulking around watching them.  In the next scene Forbes is shown arriving at his home very late in the night and he sneaks into his bedroom where his wife is asleep.  His guilt over betraying her is plain to see on his face.

The next day MacDonald shows up in Forbes’ office and tells him he doesn’t want Forbes interfering with his play for Mona.  Also, he informs Forbes that he has added the speed boat to the list of assets that Mona must relinquish.  Forbes tells MacDonald to stop annoying Mona and not to interfere with his actions either professionally or personally.  Forbes meets with Mona and tells her about the speed boat and MacDonald’s part in it.  Mona volunteers that MacDonald has been annoying her.  When Forbes gets home that night MacDonald is waiting for him in front of his garage and administers a serious beat down on Forbes.  Forbes tells his wife and the police that he had been robbed by strangers.  His doctor tells him he’ll have to stay in bed for a couple of weeks and Forbes tells his job that he has a bad cold.

When Forbes doesn’t show up for a few days Mona calls his office and is informed that he is home sick.  She drives to his house with some soup and there discovers that Forbes is a married man.  She actually speaks to his wife in front of the house claiming that she is looking for a house on a different street.  When Forbes finally gets well, he goes to speak to Mona and she tells him she has discovered his secret.  Forbes admits his deception and apologizes.  Now Mona tells him that Macdonald is pressing his demands for a relationship, hounding her at work and is threatening to tell her fiancé in prison that she is having an affair with Forbes.  Apparently, MacDonald who is a former policeman has connections in the prison.  Forbes promises to fix the situation.

Forbes goes to MacDonald’s apartment and administers a beating that at least matches the one he got from MacDonald.  And he warns him to stay away from Mona and Forbes’ family.  Time passes and Smiley will be getting out of jail.  MacDonald has been visiting him in jail and filling his mind with stories that Mona is having an affair with Forbes.  Smiley shows up at Mona’s apartment drunk and armed with a pistol that MacDonald gave him.  He accuses her of infidelity with Forbes and says he’s going over to his house to settle things.  Mona phones Forbes and warns him.  Forbes arms himself and when Smiley arrives, he pulls the gun on him and tells him to leave or be shot.  Smiley leaves but as soon as Forbes goes back in his house Smiley smashes through a large window in the living room and enters the house.  As soon as he steps foot in the house Forbes shoots him several times.  Forbes pretends that the man is a prowler in his statement to the police.

Meanwhile MacDonald is at Mona’s apartment and listens on her radio to the police channel where they hear about the shooting at Forbes’ address.  When the radio reports add homicide to the message MacDonald calls a friend at the precinct and learns that Forbes has killed Smiley.  MacDonald then informs Mona that with Smiley dead and Forbes entangled with his death and Macdonald’s connections with the police, Mona will have no choice but to go away with MacDonald and be his girlfriend.  As he starts packing her clothes her face becomes bleak and she reaches into a drawer, pulls out a pistol and puts several bullets into MacDonald.

Back at Forbes’ home he is racked with guilt and confesses to his wife his relationship with Smiley’s fiancé and the reason for the break in.  He then wanders off into the night preparing himself for the consequences of his actions.  He ends up at police headquarters and makes his statement to the district attorney and there learns that Mona has shot MacDonald and depending on whether he lives will be indicted for either murder or attempted murder.  No charges will be brought against Forbes but the DA rebukes him.  He says that Forbes’ attempt to conceal his infidelity is responsible for the shootings.  Otherwise he could have called the police and prevented the incidents.  As Forbes is leaving the building, he sees Mona being led away by the police.

As he leaves the building, he sees his wife Sue waiting for him in their family car.  He gets in and as she is driving him home, they discuss their situation.  Forbes is contrite and assumes she will want a divorce.  Sue admits that she has considered it but isn’t sure that is what she wants.  She does think they will have to move to another town and suggests that he asks for a transfer from his company.  When he asks her how she will take up her life with him after the betrayal she admits that things will not be the same but says she is willing to give it a chance.

I find this movie interesting for a number of reasons.  The fact that the adulterous husband avoided all legal consequences and might not even lose his wife was a very atypical ending in 1948.  The Hays Code required that the guilty be punished and that included moral offenses that might not have a jail sentence specified.  Also, the reality of a pillar of the community being bored with his “American Dream” existence was sort of heretical.  But the reality of post-war America is a fitting subject for a realistic appraisal of how men would adapt to a world that no longer needed war heroes but rather expected a boring but dependable “Father Knows Best” husband and dad.  Interestingly, Jane Wyatt who played the wife is best known for her part as the loyal, dependable wife in that show Father Knows Best.  The crisis and resolution of John Forbes’ transgression is handled in a more realistic and nuanced way than what would have been seen in the 1930s and early 40s.  Forbes breaks the accepted boundaries of morality but instead of paying with his life or his freedom he is stuck with his conscience and the knowledge that his wife can no longer believe in him.  One man is dead because of him and an innocent woman will go to jail.  This is much more like what life is really like.  Lots of gray, not so much black and white.  Flawed people living with the consequences of their mistakes and hopefully learning from them.

And on a personal basis, I find the fact that Mona filled Raymond Burr full of lead very satisfying and admirable.  It shows the right attitude.  Interesting movie with nuanced characters and lots of things to think about.  Highly recommended.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) – A Movie Review

This movie review is only for those who revel in cheesy, almost unwatchably bad horror and sci-fi movies of yesteryear.

Before I get started, I want to give a personal anecdote about this movie.  Back when I was ten years old, I was a big fan of horror and sci-fi movies that I watched mostly on the New York City local television station channels 5, 9 and 11.  They each had some kind of weekly show like Creature Feature, Chiller Theater or Million Dollar Movie that often featured such classics as Attack of the Crab Monsters or Tarantula.  Well at some point I saw “The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake” and became fascinated with the idea that there were such things as shrunken heads.  Coincidentally a kid’s toy came out called Witch Doctor Head Shrinkers Kit by a company called Pressman that had the cheesiest commercial demonstrating how you could make the aforementioned shrunken heads.  Suffice it to say that from the time the commercial appeared until next Christmas I harangued my parents relentlessly to make this my one and only Christmas gift.  Now money was short back then and this toy was on the pricey side but sure enough it was under the tree that morning at Christmas.  I was ecstatic and wasted no time making my first shrunken head.  I added the “plastic” powder and the warm water to the with doctor’s cauldron and stirred it while reciting the mystic spell, yikes.  Then I poured the goop into the mold and let it set.  Anyway, the stuff was like a gelatinous plaster of Paris and after it set for a day, I guess it somewhat shrank but honestly it wasn’t very much for all the hype associated and within a week or so it was in the garbage pail.  A very important lesson for me in the difference between expectations and reality.  And now seeing this movie for the first time in fifty some odd years it’s a similar experience.

Don’t worry about any actors’ names.  No one has ever heard of any of these people, either then or now.  The plot is that the Drake family has a curse on them because 180 years previous their ancestor was a merchant down in the Amazon jungle and one of his men was kidnapped by a local tribe of headhunters.  During a rescue mission it was discovered that the kidnapped man had been killed and his head cut off in preparation for it being shrunk.  Ancestor Drake became so angry that he had the whole village slaughtered.  The only one who escaped was the witchdoctor who took the head of the employee killed.  After this a curse was placed on the Drakes by the witchdoctor.  All the male heirs of Drake would have their heads cut off at about age sixty and shrunken down.  The skulls were kindly returned to the family crypt but not the shrunken head.

Skip ahead four generations and Jonathan and Kenneth Drake are the last male descendants of old Drake.  Jonathan is concerned for his brother Kenneth because his sixtieth birthday is approaching.  But before Jonathan can reach him an extremely tall Amazonian Indian stabs Kenneth with a curare envenomed blade.  He’s interrupted right after the lethal stab but later on he returns to the casket containing Kenneth’s body and decapitates it and takes the head away in this nifty hat box shaped wicker basket.  Then we meet Dr. Emil Zurich (from Switzerland!) who assists the tribesman in processing the head for shrinking.  It’s all very official.  The head is boiled then the skull is very cleverly removed and the rest of the head is filled with ashes and hot stones that miraculously transforms it into the charming shrunken head that would look sporty hanging from a rear-view mirror or possibly on a keychain.

Things get complicated with Jonathan’s daughter Alison and an appreciative police detective Jeff Rowan and a medical doctor named Bradford and a police forensics guy whose name escapes everyone.  Eventually we learn that Dr. Zurich and the really tall Indian are two hundred years old and have been doing the killing all along.  Zurich is a zombie with the head of the original victim from Drake’s Amazonian adventure sewn onto an Indian’s body by the witchdoctor who is the really tall Indian.  During the fun and games.   Jeff and Dr. Bradford save Jonathan from a curare attack by the Indian and in revenge Zurich has Bradford’s head removed and stored in what looks like a food pantry.  Finally, Jeff kills both the villains and the movie ends with Jonathan cutting Zurich’s head off.  This allows him to turn to dust and the movie mercifully expires too.

This movie is nowhere near as entertaining or witty as I’ve made it sound.  It’s awful.  It takes a special individual to sit through this.  Someone fearless and intrepid.  War Pig, this one is all yours.

Island of Lost Souls (1932) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This movie is a cinematic retelling of H. G. Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” As opposed to the majority of the creature features and horror flicks this film has a very substantial actor involved. Charles Laughton plays Dr. Moreau. He’s a scientist who was chased out of the civilized world for the experimentation he was doing on animals. So, he lives on a small island in the South Pacific and a boat skipper delivers a cargo of live animals once a year. As the story opens up the boat picks up a survivor of a shipwreck. This survivor, Edward Parker, is headed for a nearby island but he gets into a beef with the captain and gets dumped into Moreau’s launch as it is transferring the animals to the island. When he arrives there, he notices that the island is inhabited by the strangest looking people imaginable. Most of them resemble apes in pants. Later on, when Parker walks out in the jungle he is accosted by a group of the natives and has to be rescued by Moreau. Moreau sounds a gong and the natives assemble and to the accompaniment of Moreau’s cracking bullwhip they recite their creed.

Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law (SOTL): Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
SOTL: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
SOTL: Not to walk on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?

Incidentally, The Sayer of the Law is Bela Lugosi but his face is so completely covered with fur that the only way to tell is by his unmistakable voice. Parker is confused by all that’s going on and in the next scene he hears agonized screams coming from Moreau’s laboratory. Breaking in he thinks he is witnessing Moreau vivisecting one of the natives without anesthesia. And now Moreau explains to Parker the truth about the natives. They are actually animals that Moreau has modified through biochemical and surgical modifications. The laboratory where Moreau performs these modifications is called by the patients, for obvious reasons, “the house of pain.”
Moreau uses a subterfuge to keep Parker from leaving the island because he wants to carry out an experiment on him. He has manufactured a woman out of a panther named Lota and he wants to test whether she reacts like a woman when brought into contact with a man, Parker. This experiment is a success until Parker notices that Lota’s fingernails have reverted to panther’s claws.
And just at this point Parker’s fiancée, Ruth, arrives at Moreau’s island to bring him home. But Moreau cancels his Lota plan and instead plans to test his male creatures by having one of them kidnap Ruth. When this plan is thwarted Moreau orders one of his creatures to murder the ship captain who is helping Ruth to free Parker. But when the creature realizes that Moreau has ordered him to break the law by spilling blood he goes before the assembly and tells them that the law is no more. And then they figure out that since the captain is like Moreau and since they can kill the captain then by the transitive law of monster logic, they can kill Moreau. And that’s just what they get ready to do. While Parker and Ruth are escaping out the back door to safety on the boat, the creature mob catches up with the whip wielding Moreau and back him into his compound. Finally, in desperation when he has reached the wall, he reminds them that they are at the house of pain. The Sayer of the Law makes one more imaginative leap and has the mob drag Moreau into his laboratory and using his own surgical instruments they gleefully vivisect him to the rousing accompaniment of his screams.
I get the feeling that Laughton enjoyed this part. He played the part with great verve. He endowed Moreau with humor and perverse curiosity in the details of his cruel experiments. And like all good mad scientists of the 1930’s he does mention to Parker that he knows what it’s like to be God.
From a special effects point of view, the creature costumes are pretty cheesy. More interestingly it does appear that certain of the actors playing creatures had facial and other anomalies that could not have been simulated. But even if the special effects were rudimentary this is an interesting plot. Moreau’s relationship with his creatures is nuanced. Their obvious investment in the concept of their humanity is pitted against the fear and hatred they feel toward their creator. Moreau is a cruel god but he is completely absorbed in the wonder of his ability to create people. He doesn’t realize his peril when he provides the forbidden fruit of knowledge to his creatures by breaking his own law and by demonstrating that regular humans are mortal. Good story, fun horror movie, good work by Laughton. Recommended.

The Blob (1958) – A Science Fiction Movie Review

The plot is fairly simple.  A meteor crashes to Earth near a small town in the United States.  An old man finds the impact crater and a spherical object within.  The object breaks apart and inside is a blob of gelatinous material about the size of a baseball.  He uses a stick to pick it up but eventually the blob latches onto his hand and starts to absorb his flesh.  The old man wanders onto a nearby road almost overwhelmed by the agony he’s in.  A teenage couple in a car pick him up and bring him to a doctor’s office.  The doctor realizes that the man will need his arm amputated to save him from the quickly spreading mass devouring his arm.  He calls his nurse to come and assist him while the teenage couple, Steve and Jane, go back to the scene of the accident to find out who the old man is.

The nurse arrives but by this time the old man has been absorbed by the blob.  While the doctor is getting his gun, the blob eats the nurse.  He shoots the creature a couple of times with no effect.  He locks himself in a room to call the police but the blob is able to squeeze under the locked door and attacks the doctor.  At this point Steve and Jane have returned to the doctor’s office and Steve is just in time to see the doctor digested by the blob through the window of the room the doctor is in.

Now Steve and Jane attempt to get the police lieutenant “Dave” to believe their story.  Sgt. Bert tries to dissuade Dave from pursuing the investigation because he thinks the teenagers are pulling a prank on the police and after they go to the doctor’s office and find nothing but knocked over furniture and a fired rifle the police are in doubt what to do.  Jane and Steve are remanded into the custody of their parents and told to stay home and report back in the morning to figure out what was really going on.

Steve and Jane sneak out of their homes and together with their teenage friends try to investigate what is going on.  Meanwhile the blob wanders around town and eats a few more people without anyone being aware of its presence.  Finally, Steve locates it in his father’s supermarket.  But the creature traps Steve and Jane in the refrigerated meat locker of the store.  It begins oozing under the door but suddenly it retreats and leaves the store.

Now convinced of the deadly nature of the blob the teenagers decide to wake the whole town by setting off fire and civil defense alarms to summon the townspeople to the town square.  After Sgt. Bert berates them for a while Dave decides that he believes Steve and Jane.  They head for the supermarket but Sgt. Bert precedes them and comes out of the empty supermarket mocking their story about a monster.  Just then a terrific clamor breaks out as the patrons of the movie theater come stampeding out screaming.  The blob has eaten the projectionist and absorbed about fifty of the viewers before they could escape in the crush.  Now the blob is the size of a small house and headed down main street.

By incredibly poor judgement Jane, Steve, Jane’s annoying 6-year old brother Danny and the diner staff get trapped inside as the blob engulfs the small building.  As the creature begins oozing into the crevices of the building Dave calls up the trapped inhabitants of the diner and tells them to get in the cellar while they try to electrocute the creature with a power line.  Sgt. Bert proves himself useful for something when his sharpshooting abilities allows him to knock an overhanging power line down.  But the creature is not effected by the current and all that is accomplished is now the building is on fire.

As the fire infiltrates the cellar the diner owner starts using a CO2 fire extinguisher to put out the flames.  But Steve notices that the blob retreats from the extinguisher.  Remembering how the creature had retreated from the meat locker in the supermarket he figures out that the blob can’t tolerate cold.  Dave screams up the stairs in hopes that the phone is still connected to the police officers outside and tells them that the cold from CO2 fire extinguishers will force the blob to retreat.  But the fire department that is on the scene only has four CO2 extinguishers and that will not be nearly enough to push the creature back and subdue it.  Jane’s father is the principal of the high school and he goes to the school with the teenagers to get the twenty extinguishers that the school has.  When he gets there, he realizes he does not have the keys but proving he is a red-blooded American father he picks up a large stone and breaks the door window and breaks into his own school to save his children.

The extinguishers work and the trapped humans are freed.  Lieutenant Dave speaks to the Army and tells them to send a plane to dump the blob into the arctic where it will never thaw out.  And that’s just what they do.  But the end title, “The End” turns into a question mark!

Okay, so what have we got here?  Steve McQueen is a twenty-eight-year-old man pretending to be teenager Steve.  That’s a tough sell.  Watching him golly gee wilikers around his girlfriend Jane is strange when I think that he is the Steve McQueen of Bullitt and Cincinnati Kid fame.  But let’s put that aside.  The storyline and the acting are definitely passable for this genre.  The teenagers hot-rodding around and the small-town cops hassling them is a staple of movies from this time.  The cheesy special effects are also forgivable because of the technology of the time.  So, the simple answer is this movie works.  I remember seeing this on tv as a kid and thinking it was the height of sophisticated science fiction.  So, it definitely succeeded with its audience of the time.  How about today.  Well I think the same audience would react almost as enthusiastically.  Anyone under the age of ten will enjoy this movie.  For the really old I found myself enjoying the nostalgia of an era where the teenagers weren’t cretinous woke monsters but just ordinary teenagers enjoying a summer night in small town America.  Your mileage may vary.

As an aside, the actor who played the first victim of the blob, the old man, was Olin Howland, a character actor who also first saw the giant ants in Los Angeles during the movie “Them.”  He was an alcoholic drying out in a psychiatric hospital when the Army interviews him about the giant ants he has seen in the dried river bed into which the sewers flow.  He certainly got the plum roles.

Dead of Night – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“Dead of Night” is a 1945 British film that consists of a group of characters thrown together in a home and each tells a supernatural story.  Then these characters turn out to be the subject of another character’s dream.  And finally, the whole story turns out to be part of an endless recursive dream nightmare, a dream within a dream, within a dream like the images produced by two mirrors facing each other.  The only actor I recognized was Mervyn Johns who played Bob Cratchit in the 1951 movie Scrooge.

The stories include a young girl meeting the ghost of a boy who was murdered a century ago in the old house where the girl is visiting.  Another story involves a race car driver who while recovering from a crash has a vision of a hearse driver inviting him into the coffin.  Later he sees the same man as a bus conductor inviting him to board the bus.  He backs away and as he watches the bus drive off and crashes killing everyone aboard.  A third story involves a bedroom mirror possessed by a murderous spirit.  The fourth story is a comical golf ghost story.  And the final story is about an evil living ventriloquist dummy.

Back in the underlying scene the character who recognizes the other characters from his dream commits a murder and then somehow finds himself inside the five stories we have just witnessed in a mish-mash of the stories until finally he awakes in his own bedroom.  His wife consoles him for having another nightmare.  He then receives a phone call that sends him to the house where the earlier story takes place.  And the whole thing circles round to the introductory scene.

Despite the theatricality of some of the scenes the movie works.  Of course, it’s all ridiculous but the atmosphere of the movie is claustrophobic enough to produce the requisite discomfort in the audience that makes a ghost story work.  Admittedly the golf story is a bit of a distraction from this mood but there are enough creepy moments and characters to make this movie a success.  I’ll have to say that the fact that the cast look like ordinary people and lack the movie star good looks of an American production actually goes a long way to aiding the illusion we are inside the story with them.

Like many British films from the middle of the 20th century the story had to depend on a good script and competent actors instead of expensive sets and special effects to immerse the viewers in the story.  And because of that this movie still works as well today as it did back then.  And it stands up after repeated viewing.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The British love a good ghost story and this one has several.  Dead of Night probably won’t work for those who depend on comic book special effects to tell a supernatural story.  But if you have an imagination you may like this one.

King Kong – An OCF Classic Movie Review

King Kong follows in the tradition of books and movies that have explorers wandering into uncharted territories and finding wonders never before seen.  One of the sources for these movies was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel, “The Lost World.”  In this story adventurers travel to a plateau in the Amazon jungle and discover a land that time forgot, inhabited by living dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.  A silent film version of The Lost World was made in 1925 and the stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien in that film was the precursor to what O’Brien would do in King Kong.

The plot of King Kong follows the adventures of intrepid adventurer and film maker Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong.  Denham has made his name by travelling to primitive locales and filming the wild animals of these areas.  Lions and rhinos and other exotic creatures have been his subjects but his financial backers say he must add a pretty girl to his movies or the public just won’t care and won’t pay to see his movies.

So, for his next film he recruits a pretty young woman named Ann Darrow played by Fay Wray.  He finds her broke and hungry on the streets of Manhattan and convinces her to go along on his sea voyage to make his film.  Once he convinces her he’s on the level she agrees and the action moves to the ship “Venture” and we meet Captain Englehorn and his colorful crew including first mate Jack Driscoll who will be the romantic interest for Ann Darrow.

Once on-board Denham reveals the details of the expedition.  He has obtained a map locating an uncharted island inhabited by natives that live on one side of a cyclopean wall that protects them from some nameless terror.  Denham intends to go to the island and discover the reality behind the story.  During the voyage Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow fall in love and he repeatedly expresses his unhappiness with her being involved in the dangerous business of the expedition.

When they reach the island, the natives are in the middle of a ceremony to offer up one of their women as a “bride for Kong.”  The natives see Ann and offer to buy her as a substitute for their bride.  Denham and the crew return to the Venture and say they will return the next day to negotiate with the tribe to film the secrets of the island.

But during the night the natives row over to the Venture in their outriggers and secretly kidnap Ann.  Eventually the crime is discovered and Denham, Englehorn and especially Driscoll mount a rescue mission taking most of the crew along and their guns, ammunition and the gas bombs that Denham stocked to handle large animals.

Meanwhile we find out what being the “bride of Kong” entails.  The natives bind Ann’s arms to two pillars located outside of the wall that protects the village.  They then sound a huge gong and out of the jungle stalks a sixty-foot-tall gorilla.  This is Kong and instead of killing and eating his “bride” he is fascinated by her.  And despite her continuous blood curdling screams he gently frees her from the pillars and carries her away into the jungle in his hand as if she were a toy.

Denham and his men show up just as Kong leaves with Ann.  They split up with Denham and Driscoll taking half the men and following after Kong.  Captain Englehorn remains in the village with his men to guard the gate against the natives interfering with their escape.

Once in the jungle the rescue party discover that Kong is just one of many monsters to contend with.  They run into a Stegosaurus that requires a gas bomb and a hail of bullets to kill.  Next, they are attacked by a Sauropod as they cross a lake on a raft that they’ve built.  Several of their party are killed by the giant beast.

Meanwhile Kong is having troubles of his own.  He meets up with a Tyrannosaurus and battles the reptile to the death.  At one point the tree that Kong has left Ann in is knocked over by the titanic brawl between the two giants.  But afterwards Kong moves on with the girl in hand.

Finally, the rescuers catch up with Kong as he crosses a ravine on a massive fallen tree trunk.  But when they try to follow Kong lifts the tree and shakes all but two of the men off the trunk where they fall to their deaths.  Jack Driscoll has managed to reach the far side where Kong is while Denham is trapped on the far side of the ravine.  Once Kong has moved on Driscoll and Denham have a talk from opposite sides of the ravine.  It is agreed that Driscoll will follow Kong and attempt to free Ann while Denham will return to the village and organize another rescue party.

As Kong climbs up to his mountain lair, he battles two other prehistoric creatures.  First a reptile with an elongated neck and tail that makes it almost snakelike, almost strangles Kong but is finally dispatched by the giant primate.  And then once on top of the mountain a Pteranodon tries to fly off with Ann but is killed by Kong.  But while Kong is distracted fighting with the giant flying reptile, Driscoll, who has been tailing Kong, sees his chance and carries Ann on his back down a vine off the top of the mountain.  Kong starts pulling the vine up but when the couple are almost level with Kong they let go of the vine and land in the water below the mountain cliff.

Jack and Ann swim away and then run through the jungle and end up back at the village just in front of Kong.  The crew and natives bolt the gate in the wall but Kong by sheer brute force cracks the huge wooden bolt and forces his way into the village.  There he fights the villagers who use spears to try to kill the giant.  He crushes them with his feet and kills some of them with his teeth.  He runs amok smashing their thatched huts but when he reaches the crew of the Venture, he has a more difficult foe.  Denham throws one of his gas bombs at Kong and the gas renders the huge ape unconscious.

Now Denham conceives of a new idea.  He convinces the crew to help him bind Kong and float him back to New York on a raft behind the Venture.  He tells them that exhibiting Kong in New York will make them all fabulously wealthy.  And that’s what they do.

In the next scene we are at a theater on Broadway and it’s opening night on Denham’s exhibition of Kong.  It begins well with Denham introducing the story then opening the curtain to reveal the giant ape manacled and in leg irons attached to a massive scaffold.  Then he introduces Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow and plays up the angle that Kong’s capture was the result of a Beauty and the Beast story.  Kong was captured because he could not resist coming back to the village for Ann, his beauty.

But when Denham has the photographers come up to the stage to take photos of Kong and his captors the beast becomes enraged by the flashbulbs thinking that Ann was in danger.  He broke his chains and smashed through a brick wall and rampaged through Midtown Manhattan.  Climbing up the wall of a nearby hotel he improbably finds Ann Darrow in one of the rooms and heads uptown to the Empire State Building with Ann in hand.

On the way he kills several passersby and crushes a car or two but most notably he attacks an elevated subway train.  He rips up the track and when the train falls through the whole in the tracks he pummels it with his fist as it lays there like a dying beast while the passengers scream in fear and agony.

Meanwhile Driscoll and Denham know that Kong has Ann.  They alert the authorities and convince them to have fighter aircraft stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in South Brooklyn attack Kong on the top of the Empire State Building.  The four pilots wait until Kong puts Ann down and then commence to strafe him with their machine guns.  One of the pilots ventures too close and his plane is grabbed by Kong and sent to its destruction against the side of the building.  Finally, after many strafing runs Kong succumbs to the bullets.  But before falling to his death he picks up Ann and then puts her down as if saying goodbye.  A final burst of bullets hits him and he tumbles off the side of the tower and to his death on the pavement below.

On the pavement Denham looks on the shattered body of Kong where a policeman declares that, “the planes finally got him.”  But Denham retorts that it was, “Beauty killed the Beast.”

In my opinion King Kong is a fantastic movie.  Even with the primitive special effects and improbable plot and eighty-nine years later it is still an exciting and enjoyable adventure.  And in addition to the adventure, the liveliness of the characters is noticeably superior to the typically depressed and inert nature of modern characters.  Even in the depths of the Great Depression there is a positivity that pervades the actions of the characters that reaches the audience.  In every crisis of the story Denham and Driscoll use brains and bravery to win the day.  This was the American spirit that saw that generation weather the Great Depression, fight World War II and build the greatest country on the face of the earth.  This movie is highly recommended.