Tuesday, April 25, 2017

“Old Man Depression, you are through—you done us wrong…”


I’ve mentioned a time or two on the ol’ blog that much of my classic movie mania—really, the entire content of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—sprang forth from the nostalgia craze that swept the 1970s, which played host to my formative years.  Hollywood looked to the past for moviemaking (Hearts of the West, Nickelodeon) and radio stations began rebroadcasting many of the great shows of Radio’s Golden Age like The Shadow and Fibber McGee & Molly.  One of the more interesting features to emerge from that period is Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, a 1975 documentary directed by Philippe Mora and now available on Blu-ray/DVD from the good people at The Sprocket Vault.

Brother presents a mash-up of clips from classic Hollywood flicks and newsreels in attempt to chronicle the events of The Great Depression…and to be honest, I’m a little hesitant to call the film a documentary because it’s really more of a cinematic mosaic, relying on images, music, and sound bites instead of going the more traditional doc route.  So I’m going to warn you right now: if you’re hungry for something along the lines of a serious Ken Burns-like presentation, you might want to move along because there’s nothing to see here.  But that would be premature (and very, very wrong), because Brother is a lot of fun: it includes a lot of great songs (a couple of classics from Woody Guthrie, not to mention contributions from the likes of Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday) that would make dandy music videos, and it’s most entertaining trying to identify the film clips included in the movie.

In his 1975 review of Brother Can You Spend a Dime? the late Roger Ebert wrote: “We get a great deal more of Roosevelt than we really need.” Which is kind of silly—FDR was president throughout that era, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that he figures prominently in the movie’s content.  (Now you know why I don’t place Rog on the pedestal that others do.)  Other personalities that turn up in Brother include Huey Long, Joe Louis, John Dillinger, Winston Churchill, and Herbert Hoover along with “more stars than there are in Heaven” via the generous amount of film clips.  (James Cagney gets the lion’s share of these, with nods to vehicles like Taxi! [1932], Lady Killer [1933], and ‘G’ Men [1935], but there’s also footage from TDOY faves like Black Legion [1937—a very effective sequence that blends newsreel footage of the Ku Klux Klan with Bogart’s character’s initiation] and To Be or Not to Be [1942—“Heil myself!”].)

Brother calls it a day once the United States decides to enter WW2 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and curiously wraps things up with footage of Lee Harvey Oswald and past presidents like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.  (Yeah, I didn’t quite understand this either.)  I really think classic movie mavens will enjoy this one, and to sweeten the presentation The Sprocket Vault includes some nice bonus material in the form of fifty minutes of newsreels from Pathe (“On land…on sea…in the air!”).  There’s a lot of great stuff in these time capsules (there’s a notice before the footage that the company is planning future DVD releases of these newsreel compilations), featuring celebrities like George M. Cohan (wowing Broadway in I’d Rather Be Right) and James Stewart (his induction into the service).  The old-time radio fan in me was particularly entertained by the footage of the opening of the NBC Studios at Rockefeller Plaza (a.k.a. “30 Rock”) and a bit with Lucille Ball demonstrating Sonovox (the device used to simulate the “talking train” featured in the Bromo Seltzer commercials of that era).  (I could have done without the footage of “movie czar” Will Hays, though—unless people feel empathy for the charisma-impaired.)

The Sprocket Vault Blu-ray/DVD release of Brother Can You Spare a Dime? has been digitally restored in high definition, and is available exclusively through Amazon.  Many thanks to Kit Parker and his staff for providing TDOY with both the screener and a delightful walk down Memory Lane.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Buried Treasures: Fast Break (1979)


John Travolta, Gabe Kaplan
With the premiere of the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter on ABC-TV in the fall of 1975, comedian Gabriel “Gabe” Kaplan became a television star, effectively drawing from elements of his stand-up act (he did routines about his childhood days in Brooklyn, many of which were featured on Kaplan’s album Holes and Mello-Rolls) in a series about a former remedial high school student who returns to his alma mater…this time as a teacher, instructing the same kind of kids in the gang (the “Sweathogs”) of which he was a founding member.  Kotter would last four seasons on the network (the first two as a Top Twenty favorite), and it continues to collect retirement checks at its new address, The Old Syndication Home (while also enjoying success on DVD).

The breakout star of the series, however, was not Kaplan—it was a young actor named John Travolta (who played Vinnie Barbarino, the leader of the Sweathogs), who parlayed his small screen success into motion pictures like Carrie (1976), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Grease (1978).  Travolta was such a hot property that by the show’s fourth season he was only making sporadic appearances (billed as a “special guest star”).  Gabe Kaplan also turned up MIA in the last season of the show that made him a star, though this was due to his contract dispute with executive producer James Komack…but upon the show’s cancellation, Kaplan decided to see if he could achieve the same kind of motion picture stardom as co-star Travolta with the comedy-drama Fast Break (1979).

In a nutshell, Fast Break is pretty much “Mr. Kotter Goes to College.”   Which is interesting when you consider that Kaplan proposed revamping Welcome Back. Kotter’s premise in later seasons by allowing the Kotter character to teach at a community college, where he would once again encounter his “Sweathogs.”  (Kaplan believed the decline in the series’ ratings had a lot to do with the ages of the actors playing the “Sweathogs”—he didn’t think men in their mid-to-late twenties were believable playing high school students.)  Gabe plays David Greene, an ex-junior high school basketball coach who’s having to manage a New York City delicatessen to make the rent…but he keeps his hand in the sport by playing in neighborhood pick-up games, and mailing out resumes to colleges in the hopes of obtaining a coaching position.

The only nibble he gets on the job front is from Cadwallader University, a Nevada institution of higher learning whose president, Alton Gutkas (John Chappell), is interested because Greene stated in his letter he’s willing to coach for nothing.  If David can put together a team that will beat Cadwallader’s rival, Nevada State (a team that’s no slouch on the courts), Gutkas will give him a guaranteed three-year contract at $30,000 per (that’s a little over $105,000 today).  In the meantime, Greene will have to settle for room and board…plus sixty bucks for every game he wins.  David is so determined to pursue his basketball dreams that he accepts the job…but his wife Jan (Randee Heller) says “Pasadena,” electing to stay in The Big Apple.

Greene is only able to assemble four starters for his “dream team”—pool shark Leroy “Hustler” Monroe (Bernard King), con man evangelist Tommy “Preacher” White (Michael Warren), ex-high-school-player-turned-felon D.C. Davey (Harold Sylvester), and Roberta “Swish” James…who is persuaded by David to masquerade as “Bobby James,” because female.  (Okay, before calls of “spoiler warning” start to permeate the blogosphere, let me say that this plot point is telegraphed in the freaking poster for the movie.)  Greene will find his fifth man in Bull (Reb Brown), an ambitious athlete more suited for the football team—he’s designated as C.U.’s center.  The New York talent allows Cadwallader to move swiftly up through the college basketball ranks, easily beating their opponents—but it will take Hustler’s talent with a pool cue to set up that crucial Nevada State game when he successfully hustles the team’s coach (Bert Remsen).

Fast Break is formulaic filmmaking (directed by Jack Smight, who helmed TDOY faves like Harper and No Way to Treat a Lady), a root-for-the-underdog movie where everything is a prelude right up to The Big Game.  That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, of course, there are amusing situations, including a getting-rid-of-marijuana-in-the-car scene that appears to have been cribbed from a Cheech and Chong vehicle (“One pound!”).  (The sequence that really made me smile is a conversation between Kaplan’s Greene and his student assistant [played by Richard Brestoff] in which the assistant has carried out Greene’s request to put Nevada State’s coach under surveillance a little too enthusiastically [he would have been a natural for the Nixon administration].)

I remember Brestoff as “Yeoman Hunkle” on the short-lived sitcom Operation Petticoat (he was one of the few characters to survive the massive cast shake-up ABC enacted in the show’s abbreviated second season), and I think this might be one of the reasons why Fast Break was a lot of fun for me—there are so many familiar TV faces dotting the cast.  Aside from Kaplan, the most recognizable thespian is Michael Warren (Officer Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues), who brings some hoops bona fides to his role as Preacher (Warren played basketball at UCLA during the time they won NCAA championships in the years 1966-68).  Character great K Callan has a small but funny role as a teacher whom Greene tries to seduce to keep her from flunking D.C.; the actress is perhaps best remembered as Clark Kent’s ma on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman but she’s had roles on scads of series (Joe’s World, Coach, How I Met Your Mother, etc.), as has Randee Heller (I think her role on Soap coincided with the release of Fast Break, but she’s also appeared on Husbands, Wives & Lovers, Mama Malone, Second Chance, etc.).

Rhonda Bates, John Chappell
I’ve seen the late John Chappell in a lot of roles (he was “Buddy Dornster” on The New WKRP in Cincinnati) …but the one I always remember best (I’m probably the only one) is “Mike D’Angelo,” the deceptively cheerful hospital administrator who made life challenging for the unfortunate M*A*S*H characters (Potter, Klinger, Father Mulcahy) who transferred to the universally reviled After M*A*S*H.   His Gutkas is married to a character played by Rhonda Bates in Fast Break—Bates playing a similar statuesque Amazon in the Don Rickles sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey.  Bates’ role in Fast Break is kind of puny, but then again most of the female parts are underwritten, particularly Heller’s; Randee is unfortunately saddled with the Marcia Strassman duties in this film (the actress showed no restraint in later interviews about how miserable her Kotter experiences were...her incredibly shrinking part on the series being just the tip of the iceberg).

If you go into Fast Break knowing there’ll be no surprises, I think you’ll get a kick out of this one despite its unevenness (it veers back-and-forth from comedy to drama and the transitions aren’t as smooth as they could be); I had never seen the movie until I downloaded it during our Epic (Vault) on Demand freeview.  It’s safe to say it represents Gabe Kaplan’s best silver screen work; his follow-ups were disappointing (I remember the terrible Nobody’s Perfekt, a 1981 release that seemed to be the only movie showing on HBO during my high school days), and after taking a stab at another sitcom in Lewis & Clark (1981-82), Kaplan eventually got into other lines of work including financial investments and poker playing (he’s a co-host/commentator for GSN’s High Stakes Poker).  Truth be told, I always thought Kaplan was a better stand-up comedian than actor but Fast Break provided a nice nostalgic wallow into the career of a performer who introduced “Up your nose with a rubber hose” into the American lexicon.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #3: “Desert Death” (10/19/35)


I’m two weeks into the Crime Does Not Pay series here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and already I have been able to gauge its monumental success because the CDNP shorts that had been previously posted at YouTube have been removed.  I swear I’m not making this up.  Some kind soul uploaded some of the two-reelers to the ‘Tube, blissfully unaware that they are owned by legitimate copyright holders…so you could argue that it was only a matter of time before it was brought to someone’s attention and the necessary “cease and desist” letter mailed to the violator.  (As always, cartooners—Uncle Ivan frowns on people who disregard copyrights…unless it’s a movie he really wants to see and can’t become some rat bastard has it locked it away in a vault somewhere.)  I thought that if I refrained from mentioning the shorts’ presence on YouTube, I could continue to conveniently view them in the confines of Count Comfy von Chair and not have to resort to sitting in my painful office desk chair, preparing my weekly snark.  As for those of you who are smugly saying to yourself right now “Well—he’s certainly overstated his importance in the blogosphere, the conceited ass!” I can only counter: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?”


This week, even though the “MGM Reporter” is identified at the (always reliable) IMDb, it would not have been necessary for me to consult that reference source because I recognized him right off as actor Richard Carlson—star of TV’s I Led 3 Lives and many science-fiction movie classics like It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  (The [always reliable] IMDb says this is his first movie—believe them if you must.)  In fact, Desert Death (1935) is the first Crime Does Not Pay short to credit performers in its main titles—the lucky winners are character great Raymond Hatton (a silent film veteran best known for his appearances in the “Three Mesquiteers” series) and not-quite-yet-a-character-great-but-on-his-way Harvey Stephens, remembered for his impressive stage work and appearances in movies like The Cheat (1931) and Evelyn Prentice (1934).  And now, let’s see what’s going on down in Pine Ridge…

REPORTER: How do you do, ladies and gentlemen…this is the MGM Reporter drawing your attention once again to the fact that crime is one business in which the final entry must always be set down in the debit side of the ledger…

Suppose you’re using two sets of books?

REPORTER: At this time, it’s my privilege to interview for you Mr. Burton James, chief investigator for one of the nation’s largest insurance companies…

As always, the individual who narrates these shorts is completely fictional—“James” is played by actor John Hyams, whose slightly-more-famous daughter Leila appeared in such movie classics as Freaks (1932) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).


REPORTER: From your experience, Mr. James, do you believe that crime does not pay?

“I’d be a fool to answer ‘no,’ young fella—do I look like I want MGM to stop payment on my check?”  James explains to Reporter Guy that “the criminal, no matter how clever he is, can’t win.”

JAMES: Now in this work of insurance investigation—we deal with some of the brainiest and most astute criminals in the world…
REPORTER: And if the smart criminal can’t win—there certainly isn’t much chance for any of the others, eh?

“That’s right, my boy.  Crime is not a profession for morons.”  Because we have twenty minutes to kill, James has just such a tale to illustrate how not even the best and the brightest can advance in the challenging, dog-eat-dog world of wanton criminality—ace investigator Bob Mehaffey (Stephens) is sent out into “desert country” to probe into the death of a man named John Collins…accompanied by a local sheriff (Erville Anderson) who looks as if he and Chet Lauck share the same makeup man.  The deceased Collins had been living with his cousin, George Lesh, out on Lesh’s sheep ranch for the past six months.  According to “Sheriff Alder.” Collins had been out to pick up some supplies and in his driving haste, badly negotiated a hairpin turn.  He went down an embankment, and might have walked away with nary a scratch had the cans of gasoline in the back of his vehicle not explodiated upon impact.


MEHAFFEY: What can you tell me about Collins?
SHERIFF: Well, nobody rightly knows much about him…and even less about old Lesh…Lesh is a…county mystery, you might say…came here to herd sheep for the Magowan Brothers about fifteen years ago and scarcely a…a soul has as much as laid eyes on him close up in all that time…
MEHAFFEY: How come?
SHERIFF: Well, he’s what you might call a ree-cluse

When Mehaffey inquires as to how Lesh gets his supplies, Alder explains that in addition to his being a lawman he owns the local store (you thought I was kidding with the Lum ‘n’ Abner comparisons, didn’t you?)—and his delivery man makes regular trips up to Lesh’s mailbox.  (Lesh’s box, by the way, is fourteen miles from his spread.  And to think I complain about having to dodge mud puddles to pick up the House of Yesteryear’s mail.)  Old Lesh will leave a list of what he needs in the box and the money to cover it, and once the delivery guy picks that up he returns to town, grabs what the old hermit needs from the Jot ‘Em Down Store’s inventory, and brings it back to deposit at the mailbox.  Lesh then waits until sundown to retrieve the goods.  (I suppose I don’t have to tell you that if Lesh ever needs any dairy products he’s going to be seriously boned, what with living in the desert and all.)

MEHAFFEY: Queer old duck, eh?
SHERIFF: Ain’t no name for it…gets his pay the same way at the mailbox…
MEHAFFEY: Ever see the dead man—Collins?
SHERIFF: Only sorta…

Sheriff Lum relates spotting Collins when he first arrived in Allenville six months ago.  He wasn’t able to identify Collins’ body in the wreck at first—“There wasn’t much left of him as you could see back there in the undertaking parlor”—and originally assumed it was Old Lesh who cracked up in the vehicle (it was his “flivver”).  But there were items in the wreck with Collins’ initials on them (a hat, a ring, and a pocket watch), and upon stopping by the shack, Old Lesh accompanied Alder to identify the body.


The two men arrive at the scene of Collins’ accident.  I strongly suspect that the “large insurance company” referenced by the MGM Reporter at the beginning of this narrative is Central Casualty, the outfit that employs Eric Gregg (Ronald Reagan) in the 1939 programmer Accidents Will Happen.  Why, you may be asking?  Well, because after an examination by Mehaffey…there are elements to this “accident” that do not add up.

A pool of oil clearly visible on the highway…


The ignition switch is in the “off” position…


MEHAFFEY: Strong smell of gasoline, isn’t there?
SHERIFF: Shouldn’t wonder…he had twenty-five gallons in that back seat…

“Twenty-five gallons?  What was he doing, drinking it?”  Mehaffey finds the remnants of one of the cans…with a peculiar gash in the top…


An additional canvassing of the area turns up evidence of some sagebrush that’s been removed from its base…a further search reveals the missing piece, tossed aside a few yards away…


SHERIFF: What’s that you got there?
MEHAFFEY: Piece of sagebrush, isn’t it?
SHERIFF: Sure…country’s all cluttered up with it…

“We are in the desert, you know.”  Finally, Mehaffey locates a teensy scrap of paper on the ground…and breaks the silence with “Sheriff…I’m not sure that was an accident.”

SHERIFF: No?  You think it was planned, mebbe?
MEHAFFEY: I’m not sure yet…
SHERIFF: Suicide?
MEHAFFEY: Might be…guess we better get up and see Old Lesh…


And so our heroes arrive at what used to be the old Haney place—now the address of Lesh the Hermit.  They’re greeted by several dogs, who commence to barking at the strangers until an elderly gent (Hatton) emerges from behind the shack, and adroitly tends to the nuisance by throwing a few rocks at the canines.  Alder makes the proper introductions, and the trio go inside the house.


MEHAFFEY: Mister Lesh?  Sheriff Alder here tells me you’ve been living here alone for a long time…up until about six months ago…
LESH: Yeah…that’s right…
MEHAFFEY: Do you mind if I ask you just how it happened that Mr. Collins came out here to live with you?

Lesh explains that he and John Collins (Arthur Stone) are cousins, and in a series of flashbacks he tells Mehaffey that while he was reluctant to take Collins in, he felt an obligation since he was his only living relative.  Collins wrote in a letter that he was dying and needed a change of climate for his health.  As he strolls merrily along Memory Lane, Mehaffey offers him a cigarette…and Lesh accepts it as if he hasn’t made a trip to Flavor Country in months.


LESH: You been here three days now, John…it’s time I said somethin’…
COLLINS: Well?
LESH: The minute I laid eyes on ya I knew there wasn’t nothin’ wrong with your health…’cept maybe a little too much alky-hol…what’s this all about?
COLLINS: Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you all along, George…the fact is I…I didn’t know how you’d take it…I’m…well…I’m in a jam…you see…I got mixed up in a shady deal over some government bonds and…I’ve just gotta have a good, safe place to hide until the whole thing blows over…

Mehaffey informs Lesh that Collins wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie as he produces a piece of paper from his pocket—it’s a notice with Collins’ picture on it, and the words “Fugitive Wanted” printed above.

LESH: Of course…after I heard about this I…told him to clear out…but he begged me to stay…he said he wasn’t wholly to blame…and you know, after he’d been here the first few days…I really enjoyed talkin’ to someone…

“Felons always seem to tell the best stories.”

MEHAFFEY: Did anyone see him during the six months he was here?
LESH: Why…uh…no…not that I recollect…you see, he wanted to avoid seein’ folks…
MEHAFFEY: Did he usually go up to the junction for the supplies?
LESH: No…no…I did…but I got in kinda late and I was just plumb tired out and…he said he’d go up for the stuff so I...I let him…I guess I hadn’t oughta done it…he’d be alive yet…

“Didn’t you wonder what happened to him when he didn’t return?” presses Mehaffey.  Lesh claims he knew nothing about it until Alder came in and woke him up the next morning to report the accident.  Then the investigator goes for the Coup de Gracie:


MEHAFFEY: Mr. Lesh…did you know that John Collins took out a $75,000 life insurance policy…naming you as beneficiary just before he left the East?
LESH: Why…no!
MEHAFFEY: Well, he did…he had a double indemnity in case of accident clause, too…that’s why I’m here…we’ll be paying out $150,000

Mehaffey is puzzled that Collins never mentioned what a grand guy he was to be so thoughtful of his cuz…until Lesh remembers that Cousin John did refer to it in passing:

COLLINS: I’m innocent…but if you turn me out, they’ll put me in jail for something I didn’t do just the same…let me stay…just a little while…you’ll never regret taking me in…I’ve…seen to that…

“But this policy is voided in case of suicide,” continues Mehaffey.  “Now, can you think of any reason—apart from the fact that he was a fugitive from justice—why he might have wanted to take his own life and make it look like an accident?”  George pooh-poohs this notion, recalling that the deceased Collins was feeling “pretty chipper” the last couple of days and had even made noises about returning East.  “You don’t mean that…that he’d take his life to pay me back?” inquires Lesh.  Lesh refuses to entertain such a notion…but let’s be reasonable, old timer—he’s been hiding out from the long arm of the law for six months; I wouldn’t put anything past him.

“Do you mind if I look around a little?”  Mehaffey asks the old man.  “I’ve got to make my report sound like I’m on the job.”  (“And to justify this fat expense account the company affords me, no questions asked.”)  In looking about the cabin, the investigator notices a pipe and a nearly full tin of tobacco.  “Yours?” he asks Lesh, and Lesh replies in the affirmative.  The investigator also asks upon spying a straight razor and shaving brush if the items belong to Lesh, with the bearded Lesh remarking that “I gave those up years ago.”  (They belonged to Collins.)



Having completed his snooping, Mehaffey seats himself at a desk to jot down some notes on a pad…and deliberately breaks the point of his pencil.  “Got a knife?” he asks his host, and Lesh produces one from his pocket.  Mehaffey re-sharpens his pencil, but before returning the knife to George he pulls the piece of the gas canister from his pocket, and inserts the blade in the puncture.  It fits like a glove.  He hands the knife back to Lesh, and remarks to Alder: “Well, Sheriff…guess we can be getting back to Allenville now…”

SHERIFF: Suits me…
MEHAFFEY: …but I think we’d better take this gentleman back with us…
SHERIFF: Him?  Why?
MEHAFFEY: So you can book him on a charge of murder


Dun-dun-DUN!!!!

LESH: Oh, I see…you’re tryin’ to frame me…to cheat me out of that insurance money… (To Alder) I tell ya he’s talkin’ nonsense!
SHERIFF: I’m halfway inclined to agree with ya!

“But on the other hand…it’s possible he’s right.”  (Fence straddler.  Must be a Democrat.)

SHERIFF: I’m right curious, Mister—just how you figure out this murder business…

“He probably didn’t commit any murder.  It’s just that…well, we are an insurance company and we’ll do just about anything to avoid paying a claim.”  No, I’m just kidding—Mehaffey has the goods on old George:

MEHAFFEY: In spite of what you say, you did know that John Collins had taken out a life insurance policy payable to George Lesh…you planned this murder for months…you ordered the gasoline and knew when it would be delivered…so in some way, you either killed your victim or knocked him out…then you drove to the junction in the dark and picked up the cans of gasoline…you drove back and stopped the car where the so-called accident happened…I know you stopped, because I found the little pool of oil that formed in the road while the car stood there…

There’s more, of course.  The ignition switch was still in the “off” position, because the murderer forgot to turn it back on as he was shoving the vehicle over the embankment.  The gasoline cans were gashed open with the knife, and the snapped sagebrush was where the killer used a piece to cover up his footprints.  The scrap of paper Mehaffey found at the scene was what was left of the torch the murderer fashioned to set the gasoline-soaked flivver ablaze.  An outraged Lesh accuses Mehaffey of lying, and concocting the story to get out of paying the claim (hey, there must be some reason why there’s fifty gazillion lawyer commercials on the tee vee warning me not to trust insurance companies).  It looks to be a “he-said-he-said” situation until Lesh stupidly picks up a shotgun by the door and brandishes it at the two men…then makes a run for it…


Get him, Lassie!  Go get him, girl!  One of the barking dogs leaps upon Lesh, sending him to the ground and allowing Alder and Mehaffey to procure his weapon.  Mehaffey asks the sheriff for the handcuffs, and he quickly snaps them on Lesh’s wrists.  “You men are crazy,” snarls Lesh.  “I swear I didn’t murder John Collins.”

“I don’t remember saying that you did,” replies Mehaffey as he grabs the shaving brush and razor and promises the Sheriff “a big surprise” as he moves toward Lesh.  (Yes, this is where Desert Death goes south for me because I seriously doubt Lesh would sit there and allow someone to shave him without struggle or protest.)


“There…you’re nice and clean…although your face…looks…like…it’s…gone…t’ru…a…machine…”  Mehaffey’s back is toward the camera, and when he steps out of the way “Lesh” is revealed to be none other than John Collins.  Since no one had seen “Old Lesh” in years, the two men’s builds and height were virtually identical—and Collins waited six months before he killed the old codger to allow his beard to grow in approximation of his victim.  How did Mehaffey know “Lesh” was Collins?  Well, Collins attacked that cigarette he was offered even though he had a pipe and tobacco within reach.  If the razor and shaving brush did belong to Collins, there would have been signs of use (earlier, Mehaffey touched the bristles on the brush and raised up a small cloud of dust).  But what cinched his suspicions was the reaction the two men got on their arrival from the dogs around the shack: “No sheepherder ever lived that had dogs who wouldn’t obey.”  (So you’re saying the damn dog did most of the work, and you couldn’t even give him a simple “Well, King…thanks to you, this case is closed.”)


And in slipping the handcuffs on Collins, he saw an untanned band around one of his fingers—one that had been accommodating the same bit of bling that Alden found among the effects in the wreckage.  “The sun gave him away.”  (Stupid sun.)

JAMES: Collins was one of the cleverest and brainiest crooks the police have ever had to deal with…but he wasn’t quite clever enough…he died in the electric chair…

It hurts, they tell me.


REPORTER: And if the law finally gets a brilliant criminal like Collins—what chance do the others…the…the less clever ones…of making crime pay?
JAMES: No chance in the world, my boy…no chance


Remember, kids—if you’re going to commit a crime, be sure to take that I.Q. test beforehand.  Next week: A Thrill for Thelma.  G’bye now!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

From the DVR: Ducks and Drakes (1921)


Back in November of 2016, I plugged a Kickstarter project instituted by author/silent film collector Edward Lorusso to restore the 1922 Marion Davies film Beauty’s Worth…and while I would have loved to throw a few coins into Ed’s guitar case to help with this worthy goal, I found myself woefully short of funds at the time.  (A condition I often describe here at Rancho Yesteryear as “weekly.”)  I was heartened to learn, however, that the DVD of Worth will eventually be made available via Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions, so maybe I’ll be “healthy” (to channel my inner Damon Runyon) by that time to grab a copy.  (If you happen to be flush with cash, you might be interested in Lorusso’s latest campaign to bring life to Davies’ April Folly [1920]—which will conclude tomorrow at 12:58pm EDT.)

Edward Martindel, Bebe Daniels
The Lorusso project that I was able to contribute to, The Bride’s Play (1922), recently made its debut on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™…along with an earlier film Ed applied paddles to—the 1921 Bebe Daniels romp Ducks and Drakes.  The review of Play is here, but I DVR’d Drakes to be viewed at a more convenient time…and found it a diverting romantic comedy that gets by largely on the charm of its star.  Ducks and Drakes is one of Bebe’s earliest feature films as a leading lady, after appearing in nearly 150 shorts opposite Harold Lloyd and roles in Cecil B. DeMille films like Male and Female (1919) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920).

W.E. Lawrence, Daniels
Ducks and Drakes (1921) is the story of Teddy Simpson (Bebe), a vivacious if flaky young flapper whose disapproving “Aunty Weeks” (Mayme Kelso) is pressuring her to become lawfully wed to her fiancé, Rob Winslow (Jack Holt).  Teddy has little tolerance for that foolishness, and to relieve the suffocating boredom of her existence, indulges in playing telephone pranks on unsuspecting doofuses (doofi?) like Dick Chiltern (Edward Martindel), a man old enough to be her father, and Tom Hazzard (W.E. Lawrence), amusingly posing as an “anarchist.”  With the kind of coincidences found only in movies, Rob, Dick, and Tom all belong to the same gentlemen’s club…and learn that they’ve all been dealing with the same girl.  The trio—along with a fourth member, Colonel Tweed (Wade Boteler)—decide to mother-hen a plan that will teach young Teddy a well-deserved lesson.

Jack Holt, Bebe
Because Teddy’s shenanigans really don’t do any long-term harm to anyone, you sort of have to prepare yourself for the wincing “taming of the wild gal” plot in Ducks and Drakes.  However, Daniels is so mesmerizing onscreen that I was a little lenient with the “battle of the sexes” direction the movie eventually heads towards.  The title of the feature is a tip-off; it originally was a quaint colloquialism used to describe a squandering of money or resources, but in this particular instance it’s used to describe Teddy’s wild lifestyle.  (The “ducks and drakes” is also reinforced in the title cards accompanying Elmer Harris’ screenplay; Harris is perhaps best known as the author of the stage hit Johnny Belinda, whose 1948 film adaptation scored a Best Actress Oscar for Jane Wyman.)

Director Maurice Campbell had previously directed star Daniels in Oh, Lady, Lady (1920) and She Couldn’t Help It (1920), and his comfort level with Bebe would continue with five additional films: Two Weeks with Pay (1921), One Wild Week (1921), The March Hare (1921), The Speed Girl (1921), and The Exciters (1923).  Campbell acquits himself nicely with the staging of the various comedy set pieces—the highlight being a sequence (filmed at California’s Big Bear Lake) in which Bebe’s Teddy is trapped in a houseboat/water cabin and at the mercy of an escaped convict.  Jack Holt, a one-time stuntman best known as Columbia’s top he-man star in the late 1920s/early 1930s (he’s also the father of Tim and Jennifer), is serviceable as fiancé Winslow (even if he does seem a bit too old for his twenty-year-old leading lady).  I was also amused by the presence of character thespian Boteler; I kept muttering “Sufferin’ snakes, Reid!” throughout the action (a reference to Wade’s role as “Michael Axford” in the 1940 serial The Green Hornet).

Ducks and Drakes wraps up its antics in less than an hour, and it’s made me more curious to check out more of Bebe Daniels’s available silent film output (I know her from the Lloyd comedies, 1925’s Miss Bluebeard, and her BBC radio work with husband Ben Lyon).  Kudos to Ed Lorusso for bringing this one out of the mothballs, a most engaging and energetic vehicle with a fine musical score from David Drazin.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Movies I’ve stared at recently on from TCM #74 (John Litel Edition)


It’s back by popular demand!  (Spoiler alert: it’s not really…it’s not even that popular, to be honest.)  The last one of these I did was back in November of 2015, and since I have been availing myself of some of the splendid B-movie fare from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ of late (if you work it right, you can fit two second features on one disc), I figured why not apply some paddles to this long-dormant Thrilling Days of Yesteryear feature.  (I have also taken the liberty of cleverly changing its title; I have become terribly spoiled with our DISH Hopper—it allows me to transcribe a lot of TCM’s movies to play back at a more convenient time—so it's more accurate to say “from the DVR.”)

I have kind of a running joke here on the blog (I use “joke” in the loosest sense, since I may be the only person who chuckles at it) where I occasionally comment on whether or not character veteran John Litel is playing a lawyer in a movie.  I realize Litel demonstrated much versatility in his cinematic endeavors (as well as scads of TV appearances) than I give him credit for…but there’s no getting around the fact that he seemed to be the go-to guy for playing onscreen attorneys.  He was Carson Drew—father of Nancy in Warner’s brief attempt to bring the popular teenaged sleuth to the silver screen.  Later, in Paramount’s Henry Aldrich series, he was the awkward adolescent’s pop Sam (also a member of the bar).  Still later, he portrayed Hugh Mitchell in Columbia’s “Rusty” franchise…still poring through the ol’ legal books to pay the rent.  (Fans of the blog might remember that Mr. L was also the diabolical Spencer Merlin in our Serial Saturdays presentation of Don Winslow of the Navy [1942].)

The four features I DVR’d from Tee Cee Em not only feature Litel but Dick Purcell—the unofficial “King of the B’s” at Warner’s.  Here in the House of Yesteryear, we remember Dick as the titular hero of the 1944 serial Captain America—one of his last movie roles before his untimely passing that same year when he succumbed to a heart attack after finishing 18 holes of golf.  I recorded these programmers during a day-long tribute to Purcell on the channel, which also featured Accidents Will Happen (1938)—reviewed in this space last week.

Alcatraz Island (1937) – John Litel gets top billing in this Warner’s effort released by the studio’s B-picture unit after their success with another “ripped from the headlines” vehicle, San Quentin (1937).  Our man John is ‘Gat’ Brady…and though he should write “notorious racketeer” in the ‘Occupation’ portion of his income tax returns, he’s also a doting father who’s stashed his daughter Annabel (Mary Maguire) in a private girls’ school lest she learn the truth about what her pop does for a living.  (It don’t make no never mind to Ann, though—she’s been clued into her father’s activities and loves him just the same.)  Gat is planning to take Ann to visit Europe when he gets a visit from the Feds: it turns out he hasn’t been filling out those tax returns I mentioned earlier, and though Gat’s clever attorney Fred MacLane (Addison Richards) cuts a deal for Brady to get a slap on the wrist (six months in the pokey and a $50,000 fine) the judge (Walter Young) winds up throwing the book at the Gatster, sentencing him to five years in Leavenworth.  (Just like real life, he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm.)

Ann Sheridan, John Litel
Being in stir is bad enough…but Gat’s troubles have just started.  ‘Red’ Carroll (Ben Welden), a hood out to settle a score with Brady (Gat refused to help Carroll’s brother, who was facing a murder rap), tries to put the snatch on Ann for revenge…and because he took her across state lines, he winds up doing a stretch in Leavenworth as well.  Red and Gat have a scrap, resulting in the loss of Brady’s “good behavior” time and a transfer to the titular pen of this movie…and Red arranges to follow him not long after, just to be a constant burr under Gat’s incarceration saddle.  In the meantime, Ann, MacLane, and Gat’s moll Flo Allen (Ann Sheridan) are hard at work trying to make things easier for Brady while he’s in the slammah, with Ann cozying up to lawyer George Drake (Gordon Oliver)—the legal eagle responsible for Gat’s internment in the first place!

In a review of Alcatraz Island Variety observed that “due to weakness of story, an average directorial job and failure to inject desired menace, it has its drawbacks as entertainment.”  That’s a tad harsh; I’ll admit my interest in the story started to subside once Gat was put behind bars (I liked the gangster-daughter angle of the tale, and wished that had been explored in further detail) but going in I didn’t expect anything more than the usual slam-bang Warner Bros. prison picture, scripted by Crane Wilbur and helmed by journeyman director William C. McGann…so I was thoroughly entertained for its 63-minute running time.  Island’s prison sequences are aided immeasurably by the presence of Purcell, everyone’s favorite “Runt” George E. Stone (as a philosophical inmate: “It's just the same in here as being in your grave—only you miss the fun of being dead”), and Vladimir Sokoloff as a convict known as “The Flying Dutchman.”  Having Ann Sheridan on hand is always a plus—my favorite “Oomph Girl” movies are always the ones where she plays the hard-as-nails, take-no-guff gal from the wrong side of the tracks.  (I know—this is a little like admitting “I like the Woody Allen films where he plays the funny, neurotic Jew.”)

Missing Witnesses (1937) – Litel is on the right side of the law in this entry; he’s Robert L. Lane, an inspector who’s been appointed by the governor as a special prosecutor to head a law enforcement unit that will deal with complications stemming from the reluctance of eyewitnesses testifying against a trio of hoodlums—‘Little Joe’ Macey (Raymond Hatton), Chivvy Prado (Earl Gunn), and Heinie Dodds (Louis Natheaux)—who have been shaking down merchants for protection money on behalf of an anonymous “Mr. Big.”  Assigned to Lane’s unit is ‘Bull’ Regan (Purcell), a hard-nosed cop who’s faster with his fists than his brains…and his continued capacity with the department hinges on his success at his new job (if he f**ks up, Lane will make certain his future employment opportunities involve the lucrative field of nighttime security).

Jean Dale
Regan is obsessed with locating a woman he spotted during an incident involving the protection stooges (the witness [Michael Mark] in that case was prosecuted for perjury after chickening out of testifying) and he finally tracks her down in the form of Mary Norton (Jean Dale), who’s been working as a secretary under the gentleman running the racket—Ward Sturgis (Harland Tucker).  Bull’s investigation into Sturgis runs into a brick wall when Ward’s corpse turns up a-floatin’ in the bay…and it appears Mary may be responsible!

Missing Witnesses is an unofficial remake of Bureau of Missing Persons (1933).  Both feature hothead cops (Pat O’Brien in Persons, Purcell in Witnesses) who are dangerously close to getting the heave-ho from the force…and while O’Brien’s favorite phrase is “I’ll bet you a dollar six bits” Purcell prefers “Well, there’s no harm in tryin’.”  (The characters played by Bette Davis [Persons] and Jean Dale [Witnesses] are also quite similar, even both hiding in closets at points in the action.)  Missing Witnesses was purportedly based on several cases investigated by then-Big Apple D.A. (and future New York Governor/Presidential nominee) Thomas A. Dewey.

William Clemens, the auteur behind Accidents Will Happen, also directed this film (and the evil dame from Accidents, Sheila Bromley, appears in Witnesses as the wife of Ben Welden’s character—another reluctant “witness”) scripted by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan.  Making return appearances from Alcatraz Island are Welden, Hatton, Young, Lane Chandler, John Harron, Al Herman, Stuart Holmes, Edward Keane, Milton Kibbee, Jack Mower, Willard Parker, Edwin Stanley, Myrtle Stedman, Elliott Sullivan, Joan Valerie, Tom Wilson, and William Worthington.  (You can’t say Warner’s didn’t keep actors busy—TDOY favorites like Veda Ann Borg, John Hamilton, and Mary Treen also have small roles.)

Litel, June Travis, Dick Foran
Over the Wall (1938) – Litel is back in stir…but this time, he’s prison chaplain Father Neil Connor, trying to straighten out an inmate named Jerry Davis (Dick Foran).  Davis, an aspiring pugilist with a quick temper, was wrongly sent to the jug after killing his manager, Eddie Edwards (Ward Bond)—but the responsible party is gangster Ace Scanlon (Purcell), who croaked Edwards after Eddie started making major moves toward taking over Ace’s racket.  Jerry’s assimilation into the prison population does not go smoothly at first—partly due to his prickly disposition and partly due to his protestations of innocence—but under Father Connor’s tutelage Davis reveals an unknown knack for carrying a tune and soon becomes a favorite with audiences via his radio performances.  Jerry’s best girl Kay Norton (June Travis), is convinced of her beau’s innocence…and even gets a secretarial job in Scanlon’s office to ferret out evidence that will free her man.  But after a deathbed confession from Ace’s henchman ‘Gyp’ Hatton (George E. Stone), Davis stupidly decides to crash out at the exact moment the governor (Jonathan “Mr. Dithers” Hale) is considering re-trying the case due to Kay’s discoveries.  (I never cease to be amused when the wrongly convicted are given a second chance in the movies…because it rarely happens in real life.)

Mentioning that Foran’s character becomes a singing sensation in this film naturally means that Dick is going to warble a few tunes (four by my count, including Ave Maria) …so if you’re not a fan of prison musicals (if that’s even a thing) consider this your caveat emptor.  I don’t care for Foran’s singing…but I soldiered on because I already paid the rent on the hall; truth be told I would have enjoyed Over the Wall more if someone other than Warners’ resident singing cowboy had played the part.  (For a prison break picture, it also takes its sweet time getting Foran’s Davis out of the joint; he never technically goes “over the wall” but makes a run for it while on the outside as a prison orderly on special assignment.)  The movie’s story was written by real-life Sing Sing Prison warden Lewis E. Lawes (personified in Wall by John “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Hamilton), who had to be one of the savviest civil servants when it came to self-promotion (his pop culture contributions include the radio programs Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing [also a 1933 movie] and The Crime Cases of Warden Lawes and the films Invisible Stripes [1939] and You Can’t Get Away With Murder [1939]).  Despite the handicap that is Dick Foran, Wall is a diverting little flick with good performances from Litel, Purcell, Bond, Stone, Hamilton, and Veda Ann Borg (as the dame what spills the beans on Purcell).  (I also giggled at seeing Preston Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin as Foran’s “handler” and a young, thin Dick Wessel as the inmate responsible for Stone’s “accident.”)

Marie Wilson, Sheridan, Margaret Lindsay
Broadway Musketeers (1938) – John Litel might have been stymied in his pursuit of settling down with Ann Sheridan due to a stretch in the sneezer in Alcatraz Island…but he gets to sashay down the aisle with that Oomph Gal in Broadway Musketeers, a fun little B-pic once you accept that it’s not going to be as racy as its pre-Code predecessor, Three on a Match (1932).  Annie gets John on the rebound once wife Margaret Lindsay runs off with gambler Richard Bond; Sheridan, Lindsay and third wheel Marie Wilson bonded as friends while growing up in an orphanage and are reunited when Margaret and Marie attempt to help Ann out of the lockup (she’s convicted of doing a striptease act at the nightclub where she works—Ann sings two numbers, which were a tremendous treat after having to put with up with Dick Foran’s caterwauling in the previous entry).

Janet Chapman, Litel, Sheridan
Margaret’s affair-on-the-sly is revealed when she makes newspaper headlines after a crack-up in Bond’s car; she heads for the hills to get a divorce (Reno, baby!), allowing Ann to assume her matriarchal duties with her only daughter, a cloying little moppet played by Janet Chapman.  Later, Margaret stops by her former home (Sheridan remarks that she looks ill, downplaying the effects of the drug dependency that plagued Ann Dvorak in Match) and persuades Ann to let her spend some time with young Janet…but then some goons in the employ of racketeer Dick Purcell stop by the house to collect a debt owed by Bond.  There’s a scuffle, knives are drawn…and soon Poor Richard is…well, even though it doesn’t sound like it will fit the phrase “sucking up the sawdust on the floor” does work, considering the untidy state of his and Lindsay’s apartment.

Litel takes a backseat to the three female stars of Musketeers…and, again, if you refrain from comparing them to the trio from Three on a Match (Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis) I think you’ll find it’s a most serviceable little B.  (A pin-prick of a nitpick: I love Marie Wilson like nobody’s business, but her character in the film fluctuates from smart cookie to the kind of dumb blonde she made famous on My Friend Irma.  However, her boyfriend, who appears toward the end of the movie, is played by the aforementioned Jimmy Conlin.)  I also enjoyed seeing Dewey Robinson (who has some nice moments where he bonds with little girl Chapman) and Horace McMahon as two of Purcell’s henchmen in this spirited little mellerdrammer scripted by Missing Witnesses auteurs Garnet and Ryan and directed by John Farrow.n cases supervised by New York D.A. (and future Presidential nominee) Thomas A, Dewey