Friday, April 3, 2015

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #69

I shall take you into my confidence right now and let you know it’s going to be a busy April.  There’ll be a goodly number of items up on the Radio Spirits blog within the next week or so, and I’m also hard at work writing liner notes for one of their upcoming releases.  In addition, I’m trying to get caught up on a backlog (admittedly this is my fault) of movies I’m reviewing for ClassicFlix—I invite you to check out some of mine that have posted recently: Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming (1966), Thunderhoof (1949), Man of the West (1958) and the Warner Archives release Classic Shorts from the Dream Factory: Volume 3, which is the compilation of all of the MGM Ted Healy/Three Stooges two-reelers.

The game plan is to put together entries of Serial Saturdays and Doris Day(s) over the weekend—which reminds me: happy 91st birthday, Miss Kappelhoff! (or 93rd, depending on what date you subscribe to)—I slacked off last weekend because AT&T U-Verse (those rat bastards) graced us with free Starz!, Encore and Epix and I grabbed movies from their on-demand library like a madman.  I felt a little guilty sloughing off on the blog stuff, because I had already seen most of them (Married to the Mob, 28 Days Later, Used Cars, etc.) with the exception of Midnight Cowboy (1969—I’d seen bits and pieces, but never sat through it all the way through) and Coffy (1973).

But in an attempt to clean up the DVR, I have sampled a few offerings from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™…and since it has been a while since I’ve done a “TCM potpourri” post, here we go.

The Sorcerers (1967) – Michael Reeves was a promising young British filmmaker who left this world for a better one on February 11, 1969 after overdosing on sleeping pills.  As such, his oeuvre is fairly small; his best-known work is his final film, Witchfinder General (1968—a.k.a. Conqueror Worm), a first-rate horror entry that features Vincent Price in one of his best roles.  I hadn’t seen Reeves’s penultimate film (The Sorcerers) but TCM ran it some time ago, and while it’s not a perfect movie the underlying theme of pessimism in the director’s other features is present and accounted for (Danny Peary once posited that given Reeves’ view of a world where “people are inherently monstrous and too weak to control their own impulses” his death shouldn’t have been all that surprising).

TDOY fave Boris Karloff is a professor of hypnotism who invents a device that will allow him and his wife (Catherine Lacey, the high-heels wearing nun in The Lady Vanishes) to control the mind of a young subject (Ian Ogilvy) and live vicariously through his experiences.  It starts off innocent at first with petty theft, but then Lacey starts to develop of thirst for power and she’s soon having Ian commit murders.  Boris’ mind isn’t strong enough to stop his mahd wife—but…he…must…find…a…way.

The low budget on Sorcerers certainly hurts the movie—still, I think if a bit more care had been taken to flesh out the characters it wouldn’t have mattered much.  We’re only given a smidge of Karloff and Lacey’s background history, so when she goes on the power trip it’s certainly horrifying but yet not quite as effective if a foundation for why she does so had been more effectively established.  Ogilvy’s character is underdeveloped as well; it’s hard to be sympathetic to a guy who seemed pretty much a wanker even before Karloff got hold of him.  (You could argue, of course, that this was Reeves’ intention all along.)  Despite my quibbles, I enjoyed Sorcerers; it’s an excellent example of making do with less and Karloff (as well as Lacey) are really excellent in their performances.

Simon of the Desert (1965) – I have been making a concerted effort to get more foreign film exposure in my life, which is why I recorded all those Luis Buñuel films that have been turning up on TCM of late (sue me; I like Buñuel’s irreverent attitude toward religion).  This is the only one I’ve had time to watch: Claudio Brook is the titular saint, a prophet whose devotion to the Almighty is so strong that he’s spent years standing on top of a column in the desert, preaching to anyone within earshot the word of the Lord.  The sad thing is—the viewer gets the impression that God’s not all that interested in his disciple; at one point in the movie Simon vows to only stand on one leg until he receives a sign from his Creator.  (Spoiler warning: God sends no sign.)

Buñuel doesn’t so much mock Simon as he does empathize with a man whose devotion to his cause blinds him to the fact that God appears to have decided to opt out of this world and he’s no longer checking his voicemail; furthermore, Simon—who is truly capable of performing miracles—doesn’t get many thanks for his good deeds, as witnessed by a man (Enrique del Castillo) whose hands are restored after they were previously cut off for stealing.  (“There’s no pleasing some people,” to quote a Life of Brian line.)  Silvia Pinal is The Devil, who tempts Simon repeatedly.  Simon of the Desert runs an abrupt forty-five minutes before it calls it a day, and while the movie is quite funny its unsatisfying ending mars it a tad.

Millionaire Playboy (1940) – Joe Penner was at one time during the twentieth century the most popular comedian in this country, if the phenomenal ratings for his radio show are any indication.  If you listen to any of his surviving broadcasts (there aren’t many, but there are some) you might wonder how this could be the case—personally, I’ve never found the gurgling grotesque who popularized the “Wanna buy a duck?” catchphrase all that amusing…and keep in mind that I like the Ritz Brothers.  (In Jordan R. Young’s marvelous book The Laugh Crafters, December Bride creator Parke Levy recalled working for Penner and asserted that the comedian’s success can be attributed to his appeal to kids; once Joe set his sights on more sophisticated humor that pretty much started his decline.)

RKO tried to make him a movie star starting in 1937, but most of his movies are an acquired taste (Go Chase Yourself has Lucille Ball in it, which helps a little).  Since Millionaire Playboy, his second-to-last film, only runs 64 minutes I decided to have a go; Joe is the son of wealthy Arthur Q. Bryan (one of the reasons I went with this) but because he’s got a psychosomatic condition where he uncontrollably hiccups after kissing women, Bryan hires slickster Russ Brown to cure his progeny.  What results is pretty mild comedy—a lot of the “body-in-the-sack” material in the final third is clearly inspired by Laurel & Hardy’s Habeas Corpus (1928) (and Max Davidson’s Dumb Daddies, released the same  year)—but any movie with Fritz Feld, Tom Kennedy, Grady Sutton and Mantan Moreland is certainly worth some effort.

Hot Lead (1951) – Some of my favorite B-Westerns star Tim Holt, and I think it’s because those RKO oaters had pretty impressive production values that outshone the shoestring product being cranked out at other Poverty Row studios.  And I just like Tim Holt; even when he was playing wankers in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) or Hitler’s Children (1943) he had an earnestness that was quite appealing.

But here’s the real reason why I liked Hot Lead, which is admittedly your run-of-the-mill western stuff involving guys both good and bad:


That’s Mister John Dehner (as Turk Thorne!) in the center, and I’ll watch him in anything.  (If you don’t believe me, you will when I start the fourth season of The Doris Day Show.)  His head stooge is played by the perpetually sneering Robert J. Wilke, and the two of them (along with Paul Marion) are trying to blackmail ex-con Ross Elliott into helping them rob a train’s gold shipment.  Holt is working for ranch owner Joan Dixon, and though he’s leery of Elliott’s past he convinces Joan to take Ross on as a ranch hand when they’re short on manpower.

Tim’s sidekick in many of his westerns was actor Richard Martin, who went by the handle of “Chito” (not the snack food) and was unusual as far as sidekicks went because Chito demonstrated a love for the company of the ladies.  (He was also better-looking and taller than Holt…I’ve just always found that odd.)  To compensate for his offbeat interest in the womenfolk, Chito was handicapped with a talent for mangling the English language rivaled only by Leo Gorcey.

3 comments:

Scott said...

Okay, this has puzzled me for years, and I finally have to ask: what's the origin of the "Mister John Dehner" gag? (I probably would have let this one go by as well, but the thing has obviously gotten inside my head, since I stepped on Dehner's radio star on Hollywood Blvd a couple of days ago -- stamped on it, actually -- and muttered, "That's Mister John Dehner to you, bub!" Realizing, not for the first time, that I didn't know what the hell I was talking about.)

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

On radio, Dehner played "Paladin" on Have Gun -- Will Travel...and every week, announcer Hugh Douglas would introduce him as "Mister John Dehner." This tickled both myself and a buddy of mine from Savannah, so we got in the habit of mimicking Douglas whenever the subject of Dehner came up. I have to say, I was pleased as Hi-C to see that so many folks picked up on it from reading the blog...though I need to confess a familiarity with the radio HGWT is kind of essential to get the gag. But your Hollywood Boulevard story is the best laugh I've had all week.

Scott said...

Thanks, Ivan. I'm proud to have joined the lineage.