Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 2: “There's a curtain, a wall I can't get through…”

Day 2 of Frankensteinia’s Boris Blogathon continues from where we left off yesterday—the remaining two features from the Boris Karloff: Icons of Horror collection

Before I Hang (1940) – This Columbia “Mad Doctor” entry only runs 62 minutes—and as such, doesn’t waste any time getting started. Boris plays Dr. John Garth, yet another in a long line of Karloff scientists who’s stumbled onto an amazing scientific breakthrough that is simply incapable of being understood by either his peers or your common garden-variety layman. Garth claims to have nearly perfected a serum that will retard the aging process and allow human beings to live longer than ever before—even to the point of immortality. But by testing it on a patient in great pain, Garth is unable to complete the experiment—the patient, in turn, asks Garth to do a Kevorkian on him and put him out of his misery. Found guilty of murder (the newspapers describe Garth as a “mercy killer”), the good medico is sentenced to be hung three months from the day of his sentencing at the stroke of midnight…much to the dismay of his daughter Martha (Evelyn Keyes) and her fiancé (and Garth’s assistant) Paul Ames (Bruce Bennett).

Incarcerated in Fillmore State Prison (I enjoyed that little pun), Garth is asked to stop by the office of Warden Thompson (Ben Taggart), where he is introduced to Dr. Ralph Howard (Edward van Sloan, Karloff’s nemesis in Frankenstein [1931] and The Mummy [1932]). Howard has convinced the warden to allow Garth to continue his work inside the jernt, and the two men feverishly work on perfecting the serum before Garth’s time is up. In the process, Garth suggests taking a shortcut by using the blood of a three-time loser and convicted murderer to complete a crucial step in the serum preparation process…and then, figuring “Hey! What do I have to lose?” directs Howard to inoculate him with the serum on the eve of his execution.

(Okay, quick show of hands…who remembers what happened in Frankenstein when Fritz [Dwight Frye] took a shortcut and swiped the brain of an abnormal individual so that Doc Frankenstein [Colin Clive] could put it in the monster? Ten…twenty-five…okay, good. Hold onto that thought.)

In one of life’s delicious ironies, Garth learns just before the execution is to be carried out that the governor has commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. (I guess he wasn’t running for reelection that year.) This late-breaking bulletin causes the doc to keel over in a dead faint, and when he is revived he learns from Howard that from the tests run on him while he was unconscious he’s apparently becoming younger! Howard insists that Garth inoculate him with the serum next, but when it comes time to perform the deed, Garth begins to sweat like Edmond O’Brien, rubbing his hands and the back of his neck…and then taking out his handkerchief to create a makeshift garrote in order to strangle Howard. Garth also takes out an inmate named Otto (Frank Richards) in the process before once again passing out—and when he is questioned by the warden, has no memory of what happened.

A plot contrivance releases Garth from prison, and the doctor vows to continue his work by testing the serum on three of his elderly friends—but when he pays a visit to the first, a pianist named Victor Sondini (Pedro de Cordoba), he starts in again with the sweats and presents Vic with a necklace of handkerchief. It becomes apparent to Garth that the blood used in his inoculation has had a toxic effect (he can’t stop committing murder)…and now it’s up to the gendarmes to catch him and hang him before he kills again!

Before I Hang is considered by many Karloff fans to be the best of the “Mad Doctor” series, but while I enjoyed seeing the picture I still think The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) is just a skosh better. Boris, of course, does his usual professional turn (as my friend Operator_99 at Allure has observed: “He always gave 100% and it showed.”) and is, in fact, pretty much the whole show—Keyes and Bennett get second and third billing in this but neither of their characters really makes any sort of impact. Again, lots of familiar Columbia character faces in this—Don Beddoe returns as the long arm of the law (“Dr. Garth, whatever he is, is the first man I've ever met who was polite to me and still made the chills run up and down my spine!”), along with Eddie Laughton, Richard Fiske (the drill sergeant in the Three Stooges short Boobs in Arms [1940]; his brother Robert is in Hang, too, as the district attorney), John Tyrrell…and Kenneth McDonald, the suave, urbane villain in many of the Three Stooges’ shorts also has a substantial role as a prison guard—sans his trademark mustache!

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) – In 1941, Boris Karloff scored a major triumph playing the part of the murderous Jonathan Brewster in the Broadway hit Arsenic and Old Lace. Warner Bros. produced a feature film version of the stage hit at the same time—but kept the picture under wraps until 1944 because they were contractually required waiting until Arsenic had completed its run. While several of the stars of Arsenic—Josephine Hull, John Alexander, Jean Adair—reprised their roles in the feature film version, the producers of Arsenic wouldn’t allow Boris to participate in the film, speculating that giving him the time off to make the movie would adversely affect attendance at the play (after all, he was the main attraction). This has always been one of the unfortunate setbacks to enjoying the film version—imagine what would have resulted if Karloff had not only been able to play his part (since the running gag in Arsenic is that many of the characters comment on Jonathan’s resemblance to Boris) but received the opportunity to do so opposite Peter Lorre, one of the major strengths in the film?

Instead, we must make do with The Boogie Man Will Get You, a decidedly inferior outing that features Boris as Professor Nathaniel Billings, a dotty scientist attempting to create a race of “supermen” and Peter adding comic relief support as Dr. Arthur Lorencz, an officious jack-of-all-trades (doctor/coroner/sheriff/justice of the peace/notary public). Billings and Lorencz are working out of the cellar of a historical tavern house just purchased by ditzy Winnie Slade (Jeff Donnell), whose ex-husband Bill Leyden (Larry Parks) has followed her because he’s convinced she’s been sold a bill of goods. The film is clotted with goofball characters, from Billing’s cleaning-challenged housekeeper (Maude Eburne) to a “choreographer” (Don Beddoe—again!) with a curious interest in the old building. The two scientists decide to use their “superman” device on a powder-puff salesman (“Slapsie” Maxie Rosenblum) despite the fact that Billings had tried it out five times previously (with nothing to show but five corpses). “Bodies” begin to pile up, people run around in frightened hysterics and the police (Frank Sully, James C. Morton) show up to investigate before all the “shenanigans” are easily explained in a Scooby Doo-like coda.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but this does not hold true for Boogie Man: it runs sixty-six minutes and apart from the byplay between Karloff, Lorre and Rosenblum (Lorre also has some choice ad-libs on display—something the professional Karloff was adverse to) there are very few laughs in evidence. The screenplay by Edwin Blum (adapted by Paul Gangelin from a story by Hal Fimberg and Robert B. Hunt) is a hit-and-miss affair though there are some funny lines, mostly from Lorre (“’Contractum sanctum putnam,’ which means done and dished up!”).In fact, Lorre pretty much grabs the wheel and takes everybody along for the ride, though I will admit I enjoyed Boris’ sweetly naïve performance as the befuddled Billings, yet another Karloff “Mad Doctor” who acts not out of malice but of concern for the betterment of his fellow man. I also liked Donnell (her scatterbrained sensibilities are hard to resist) but felt sorry for Parks—his is the same role as Cary Grant’s in Arsenic and Old Lace, and he comes across just as forced. At the reins of Boogie Man was B-movie legend Lew Landers, who had previously directed Boris (and Bela) in Universal’s The Raven (1935) as “Louis Friedlander.”

I will say this for Boogie Man—it’s a far better film that the previous comic teaming of Boris and Peter, R-K-O’s You'll Find Out (1940—which also features Bela Lugosi); I’m sure a few people will disagree but perhaps we can reach some common ground in pronouncing that Boogie Man is at least shorter (running time, of course). As for Karloff and Lorre, they would get together on two more occasions (both horror comedies); The Raven (1963)—perhaps the best of their teamings; the film also features hilarity from Vincent Price—and The Comedy of Terrors (1964), in which Karloff steals scenes for a change.

Wednesday: Karloff Television!

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2 comments:

Steve W. said...

Luckily, Boris did get another chance to play "Arsenic..." before a camera. He appeared on a television adaptation for Hallmark Hall of Fame. I haven't seen it for years, but it does still exist and I believe it's available at the Museum of Broadcasting in NY.

Vince said...

I watched The Boogie Man Will Get You on Halloween. Never have 66 minutes seemed so long.