Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hey, kids—it’s Shameless Self-Promotion Corner!

I’ll have an edition of “On the Grapevine” up later this afternoon…and if I don’t get too lazy (like that would never happen) I’ll discuss a recent “Adventures in Blu-ray” tomorrow.  But I thought I’d keep you up to speed with what’s been going on around Rancho Yesteryear in the time that I had to take a quick vacation from the blog.

Tomorrow at the Radio Spirits blog, I’ll have a brief retrospective on the six films produced by Universal between 1943 and 1945 that cashed in on the popularity of the radio horror series Inner Sanctum Mysteries.  (Don’t click on the link until Friday at 8pm EDT—because it’s not technically up yet.)  If you’ve been a member of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful since the days the blog was at Salon, you know that I did a review of the 2-DVD set Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection there back in December 2006…but ever since Salon Blogs was vaporized by the Laser Cannon of Death, the essay has only been available if you own a device that reconstructs minute particles of disintegrated blogs.  Okay, I’m only slightly kidding about this—I actually stumbled onto the old piece by fortuitous luck, and I re-tweaked it here and there for the RS blog…I won’t mention where the hiding place is because I don’t want to jinx anything should I have to go digging around the ruins again.

But one review that is already up at the RS blog is Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944), the last in the brief film series based on the popular radio sitcom.  It’s certainly not great cinema by any measure of the yardstick but Gildy fans might get a kick out of it.  The Gildersleeve movies generally used only three performers from the program—Harold Peary (Gildy), Richard LeGrand (Peavey) and Lillian Randolph (Birdie)—but Ghost does feature an uncredited Earle Ross as The Great Man’s nemesis Judge Hooker.  Ghost is also worth a look-see because it has a couple of swell performances from Marion Martin (as a disappearing chorus girl) and Nick Stewart (in the role usually played either by Willie Best or Mantan Moreland), and some fairly impressive special effects for a programmer.  (In addition, the RS blog features another installment in the continuing rundown of the Boston Blackie movies with 1946’s A Close Call for Boston Blackie—an entry with a heavy emphasis on comedy and featuring TDOY fave Claire Carleton.)

At ClassicFlix, I thought I’d contribute something appropriate for the Halloween holidays with a "Where's That Been?" look at The Old Dark House (1932), a neglected black comedy masterpiece that probably won’t make the rounds on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (from what Dr. Film tells me, the rights issues are a nightmare) so you should try and score yourself the Kino DVD (which goes on sale from time to time) if you have an opportunity.  And have a potato.

Finally, last week Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence asked me if I could contribute to The Black Maria’s Monstravaganza, a week-long celebration of horror films and the like; I recycled some previous writing from here on the blog (I am nothing if not dedicated to recycling) and put together a piece on Thriller, the classic TV series hosted by TDOY idol Boris Karloff.  (Even though I was reworking previous essays, I had to spend a little time re-watching some of these repeats to kind of stoke the dormant memory banks—and I’m not sorry I did, because it reminded me of how wonderful some classic shows like “The Devil’s Ticket” and “Guillotine” can be.)  My distinguished colleague Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts will also have an essay up at the Maria (I was going to use the initials…and then I realized B.M. would not be appropriate) on old-time radio horror later on this week, so keep an eye peeled for it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Brief programming note

Since this is bad news, I probably should be texting this like in that commercial (except I don’t own a cell phone, so that would fail miserably)—but the blog is going to be kind of quiet for the next several days, and it will most certainly affect Serial Saturdays and Doris Day(s).  I’ve got three or four projects in the hopper right now that will eat up all the time I usually depend on to keep Thrilling Days of Yesteryear going at a rapid clip, so I must tend to those matters before we kick back with a little cliffhanger action from The Black Widow.  (No one is more disappointed by this than me, by the way, because if someone as beautifully evil as Sombra asked me to join her organization I would stop fighting for the forces of good in a New York minute.)

One of the projects involves my upcoming appearance on the Hollywood Time Machine podcast this Saturday night (October 25).  Hosts Alicia Mayer and Will McKinley will be chatting with yours truly on the subject of old-time radio horror and science fiction programs, and I have to say I’m pretty flattered and jazzed about being asked.  (I only hope my voice holds out, otherwise listeners may think they’ve tuned into Eddie “Rochester” Anderson on a Jack Benny Show rerun by mistake.)  The details on the show are here; you can listen online by going to at 6pm PDT (9pm Athens time) or you can download it on your Apple or Android by putting “LA Talk Radio” in The Google.

In blogathon news, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club have decided to go for a three-peat and host another What a Character! Blogathon from November 16-18.  It’s been a very successful yearly event ever since the first one took place in 2012, and there’s no reason why the third one won’t duplicate those earlier critical plaudits and kudos…unless a bus swerves out of control and crashes into their blogs, I suppose.  But leave us put aside such morbid thoughts and simply say that if you’re interested in participating, march on over (single file, students) and sign up.  (TDOY regrets that it will have to sit this one out again this year, because we are needed at home.)

So until next week, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.  My latest “Where’s That Been?” contribution is up at ClassicFlix (1944’s Betrayed, a.k.a. When Strangers Marry) to tide you over in the meanwhile.

Guest Review: The Blue Gardenia (1953)

By Philip Schweier

During a brief respite from the drudgery we call modern life, I had the opportunity to enjoy a few days of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, and stumbled across an enjoyable crime drama entitled The Blue Gardenia (1953). I suspect the title may have been inspired by the infamous Black Dahlia murder a few years prior, but having missed the first few minutes, I could be wrong.

Anne Baxter plays Norah Larkin, a young woman in love. Unfortunately, her beau is half a world away, serving in the military. But that doesn’t keep her from preparing a candle-lit dinner and creating an atmosphere of romance to enjoy his latest letter. When two people are in love, distance means nothing.

Or does it? Because no sooner does she open his latest missive than it becomes clear it’s a Dear Jane letter. It seems while serving in Korea he’s met a lovely young nurse and they’re due to be married (“Seoul mates” – there, I said it).

Shattered and emotional, she is vulnerable to a phone call from Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), whom we later discover is a scoundrel of the first order. In a case of mistaken identity, he invites Norah out. She quickly abandons her dinner and heads off to the Blue Gardenia Club, where she meets Harry who immediately begins wooing her with its trademark corsage and a barrage of Polynesian pearl divers (the drinks, not the actual divers themselves).

This prompts the following exchange between Joe the waiter (Victor Sen Young) and our male lead, Richard Conte. Conte plays newspaper columnist Casey Mayo.

Waiter: He's a fancy man with the ladies, that Mister Prebble.
Mayo: You jealous, Joe?
Joe the Bartender: Oh no, no...I fancy men myself.

WHA-? It’s 1953. At the height of the Red Scare, I suppose certain other segments of society could let their hair down a little.

Performing a bit of fortuitous music is Nat King Cole, singing “Blue Gardenia” at the Blue Gardenia. This song later comes into play (no pun intended), when Prebble puts on the record in an attempt to seduce Norah back at his place. Believe it or don’t, he’s an artist, with plenty of cheesecake art decorating his bachelor pad (because nothing gets a girl’s engine revving like pictures of beautiful women). Prebble makes his new girl one last drink; he may have called it a rum roofie – or not.

Drunk, drugged and dazed, Norah is forced to fend off Prebble’s advances. Her head swimming, she draws the poker from the hearth, steps up to the plate and swings like Babe Ruth, shattering the mirror over the fireplace, only to collapse in a heap on the floor.

She comes to a short time later. Prebble is lying on the floor nearby, an ugly gash in his forehead. “I’m going to need a good defense attorney,” she says to herself. “Better call Perry Ma – Oh, that’s right.” Still confused, she pulls on her coat and heads out the door, leaving her shoes behind. The next day, she wakes in her bed, uncertain how she got home.

Prebble isn’t so lucky. He’s dead, his skull caved in by the fireplace poker. On the scene is newspaperman Casey Mayo and the police. Leading the forces of truth, justice and the American way is none other than George Reeves, with a cheesy mustache to conceal his true identity (Hey, if a pair of glasses will work, why not a mustache?)

Capt. Sam Haynes (Reeves) plays Inspector Henderson to Casey Mayo’s Clark Kent, and together they have only a handful of clues: A pair of women’s shoes, size 8C, a fragment of black taffeta, a blue gardenia corsage, and a record playing over and over. Immediately, they suspect one of his many girlfriends done him in and begin asking questions at his favorite haunts.

When Norah reports to her job as a telephone operator the next morning, she discovers many of her co-workers are being questioned by the police. Apparently Prebble prowled the phone company employees in search of vict – er, models. One inadvertently breaks the mirror in her compact, prompting a dim recollection of the shattered mirror the night before.

When her co-worker returns, Norah is told they’re not supposed to talk about it, and then proceeds to explain that Harry Prebble was murdered and the police are questioning his girls for leads. But she’s not supposed to talk about it. Norah is stunned, and pieces the events of the night before together. Convinced she’s responsible for Prebble’s death, she burns her taffeta dress, flies off the handle at her roommates, and generally acts in crazy fear for her life.

Mayo, meanwhile, takes a bit of sympathetic approach in his column. Even when offered a free pass to cover the next H-bomb test, Mayo wants to stick with the Prebble investigation. Knowing Prebble for the D-bag that he was, he pleads publicly for the Blue Gardenia – as the murderess has been dubbed by the press – to turn herself in. In exchange for her exclusive story, his paper will provide the best legal defense available.

Sticking close to his phone through the night, he fields several phone calls from various nutcases with dreams of notoriety. One the REAL Blue Gardenia can tell him the size shoes found at the scene. Even Capt. Haynes gets in one the act, claiming Mayo is interfering with an investigation. Nevertheless, in a moment of despair, Norah calls and provides that key to her authenticity.

She agrees to meet Mayo at an all-night diner, where she tells all she knows about her “friend” who may have killed Prebble. She completely charms Mayo, who’s so infatuated he can’t see that she’s probably the killer they’ve been looking for. She’s a sweet kid who couldn’t possibly have murdered Prebble.

The next day, greatly relieved after her chat with Mayo, Norah apologizes to her roommate Crystal (Ann Sothern) for her behavior. Crystal is more than understanding. She’s noticed Norah’s black taffeta dress is missing, along with her shoes. She agrees to go with Norah to meet Mayo.

When Mayo meets Crystal back at the diner, his first thought is she’s hard-bitten enough to have whacked Prebble, and is dismayed to see Crystal point him in Norah’s direction. But unfortunately for all concerned it’s a trap. Waiting outside is Capt. Haynes and the rest of the force. It’s only after she’s been escorted to the squad cars outside that we see Haynes credit the diner’s operator as the person who led to her capture.

While Norah suffers in the hoosegow, Mayo is convinced more than ever she’s innocent (plus he wants to convince her he wasn’t the one who ratted her out). He spearheads a fresh investigation, leading to conflicting statements that as to what song was playing when Prebble got his. Norah says it was Nat King Cole’s “Blue Gardenia,” but it was a classical piece that was on his Close ‘n Play when the cleaning lady found him.

Mayo is able to drag Haynes along on following up this flimsy clue, leading them to the music store where Prebble bought his tools of seduction. When the manager tells his shop girl the police want a word, she heads into the bathroom, where she shatters and ashtray and…

Cut to Norah being escorted by the prison matron to the bedside of said shop girl, who is in the midst of confessing that she paid Prebble a visit that night. Thinking she was there for another taste of Harry Prebble, he switched records. But she’s hoping he will help her with “her problem.” Harry loses interest quicker than you can say Roe v. Wade, focusing instead on an unfinished painting. She begins to notice the various clues that he’s not the first female he’s had in his place that night. Red-hot in anger, she uses the poker to bash his brains in.

Norah is next seen leaving police headquarters a free woman, a bouquet of flowers in hand (I don’t recall the bouquet being among her personal effects when she went in stir, but I could be wrong). Mayo is on-hand, clearly hoping to kindle a romance with the former accused murderess. And under her roommate’s tutelage, she is quick to give him the cold shoulder – but not too quick.

It’s a pleasant little piece of crime drama, written by Vera Caspary, so perhaps the female point of view is more legit than most film noirs of the era. More notable is its director, Fritz Lang. Despite Lang’s reputation among film fans, many who worked with him found him abusive and difficult. Because of this, his career in America never reached the critical success of his earlier, more artistic films.

And speaking of Metropolis, it should be noted Blue Gardenia was one of George Reeve’s final film roles before he became perpetually identified as TV’s Man of Steel. The Adventures of Superman was produced independently by Superman Inc., a subsidiary of National Comics (later known as DC Comics). The producers owned the show lock, stock and barrel, and did everything it could to keep the cast under a tight rein. There was a clause in the actors’ contracts that prevented them from taking roles that would last more than 30 days. This was a means of keeping the actors from ever cultivating more promising careers, and thereby denying them any leverage they could use against the show’s producers.

Reeves had an uncredited appearance in 1953’s From Here to Eternity, and a small part in Forever Female the same year. Otherwise, he played Superman almost until the day he died.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blue Monday, how I hate Blue Monday…

Well, it should be evident by now that I failed to get a new installment of Doris Day(s) up on the blog yesterday.  I had every intention of fulfilling this task…but The Jack Webb and Stage-to-Screen Blogathons ate up a lot of time (it wasn’t an imposition—I kinda rather figured they would) and when it came down to brass tacks I had three essays to write, and only enough time to do two of them.  One of them was an outside project, and the other was an entry in Overlooked Films on Tuesday/Adventures in Blu-ray, which will post in another hour.  I figured that since I skipped Overlooked Films last week and we were kinda sorta at a stopping point before the second season of The Doris Day Show begins, that the TDOY faithful could hold off on the shenanigans of Dodo for one week.  (Besides, it’s not like it’s going to get any funnier, good people.)

Gonna be a crazy busy week here at Rancho Yesteryear with several outside projects dropping by like so many gentleman callers; I will definitely have something for the blog’s “On the Grapevine” feature tomorrow but Chapter 4 of The Black Widow is still up in the air.  (Which is ironic, since the title of that installment is “Peril in the Sky.”)  In the meantime, I’ve got a couple of pieces up at ClassicFlix that you might be interested in: the subjects being Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) and The Brasher Doubloon (1947).  As Rachel Maddow would say—watch this space.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Stage to Screen Blogathon: Death of a Salesman (1951)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Stage to Screen Blogathon, currently underway from October 17-19 and hosted by Rachel’s Theatre Reviews and The Rosebud Cinema.  For a complete list of the participating blogs and the topics discussed, click here.

Traveling salesman Willy Loman (Fredric March) returns home early from his established New York route one evening…and his devoted wife Linda (Mildred Dunnock) is understandably nervous.  She will later explain to Willy’s two sons, Biff (Kevin McCarthy) and Happy (Cameron Mitchell), that their father seems to be losing his tenuous grip on reality.  He drifts into nostalgic reveries of days gone by, and occasionally has difficulty delineating between the past and present.  His advanced age and inability to concentrate on his job has resulted in his demotion at work; he is no longer on salary and must depend on the commissions from his sales.  He’s not crazy, but Linda has noted signs that her husband is contemplating suicide.  At sixty-three years of age, a lifetime of bad career decisions, missed opportunities and unreasonable expectations have left Willy Loman disillusioned and depressed. 

Many of those unreasonable expectations are rooted in his son Biff—Willy has never wavered from his conviction that Biff was destined for great things, and because Biff has had difficulty “finding himself” ever since graduating from high school it has led to constant friction between father and son.  (There’s an event from both men’s past that brought all this on—which neither individual will discuss.)  Willy is haunted by visions of his older brother Ben (Royal Beal), who achieved great success in life (“When I was 17, I walked into the jungle…when I was 21, I walked out—and by George, I was rich!”), yet confounded by the down-to-earth pessimistic practicality of his neighbor and best friend Charley (Howard Smith), who’s first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers (“My salvation is I never took any interest in anything”) and whose son Bernard (Don Keefer) is a successful attorney, scheduled to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court.

Willy’s offspring have their own problems: Happy is what his mother describes as “a philandering bum” and Biff’s earnest attempts to reconcile with his father only produces more aggravation.  To pacify his father (at Linda’s request), Biff tells Willy that he has a business proposition for an old employer, a man named Bill Oliver—but in his zeal to meet with Oliver, Biff confronts the cold hard reality that he has no influence with a man for whom he once worked…and who fired him after Biff stole company property.  (Biff has continued his devotion to petty theft by swiping a fountain pen during his get-together with Oliver.)  At a restaurant in which they plan to treat Willy to a celebratory meal, Happy tries to persuade his brother to lie to Willy about the Oliver deal going south.  The senior Loman could use some good news, since he was let go by his boss (David Alpert) earlier that morning.

But Biff is simply unable to sustain the fantasy that has enveloped his father’s world—we learn that the reason he’s denounced his father as a “fake” all these years is due to the incident that’s gone undiscussed between the two of them: Biff discovered his idol had feet of clay when he visited his father’s hotel room in Boston unannounced…and found Willy dallying in an extramarital affair.  Biff finally confronts his father and explains that even though he’s never going to be what Willy has envisioned he still loves him.  With that knowledge—and having made sure he’s paid his insurance premium—Willy takes his own life in a car crash.  At his gravesite, Linda muses on the irony that they now own their home “free and clear”…and yet there’s no one with which to share this.

Death of a Salesman, considered by consensus to be playwright Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, was already under consideration for silver screen treatment even before Salesman was awarded the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  Shortly after the play’s opening in February, Variety reported that the Music Corporation of America had expressed interest in putting together a movie package that would include Miller, Salesman director Elia Kazan, and lead actor Lee J. Cobb…and according to Miller, would probably be produced at 20th Century-Fox.  Subsequent trade paper announcements speculated on the possibility of an independent production (with Kazan directing and Miller penning the screenplay) and deals at RKO and Paramount (William Wyler directing and Kirk Douglas starring).

Instead, Arthur Miller sold Salesman’s rights to independent producer Stanley Kramer, who had just inked a deal with Columbia Pictures for a series of motion pictures.  Kramer secured the services of performers Mildred Dunnock, Cameron Mitchell, Don Keefer, Royal Beal, and Howard Smith—all of whom had been in the original Broadway production—as well as Kevin McCarthy, who had played Biff in the London version of Salesman.  But Kramer was warned off Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role of Willy on stage, because of the actor’s past political affiliations; instead, Stanley went with a seemingly bigger draw in two-time Academy Award winner Fredric March.  (While many lamented the loss of Cobb, the actor did reprise the role opposite leading lady Dunnock in a CBS network production that was televised in 1966.)  Stanley Roberts adapted Miller’s play for the screen and László Benedek was assigned the director’s chair.

Apart from the acknowledgement that the film version of Death of a Salesman was based on his play, Arthur Miller had little participation in the motion picture.  There’s speculation that this might be the reason why the playwright later distanced himself from the movie; he remarked that director Benedek “chop[ped] off almost every climax of the play as though with a lawnmower” and he had no love for March’s portrayal, either, believing the actor interpreted Willy Loman as “a lunatic.”  (He could hardly criticize Roberts’ script, most of which used Arthur’s language verbatim from the play.)  It’s not hard to discern why Miller felt the way he did—again, despite his non-participation it was he who took much of the heat when the film was released due in part to his having attracted the notice of the House Un-American Activities Committee when Salesman hit theaters (because of the HUAC attention, chapters of the American Legion threatened to picket movie venues; the Washington, DC chapter actually did so in the case of the Ontario Theatre).

Arthur also objected to a one-reeler that had been paired with the main feature entitled Life of a Salesman, a propagandistic short subject designed to convince audiences that being a salesman really wasn’t the soul-sucking existence depicted in Miller’s play.  It was thrown together at the last minute to appease those groups who saw Death of a Salesman as an anti-American film and an affront to capitalism, but Miller objected in the strongest possible terms—even threatening to sue Columbia over its inclusion.  The studio backed down at the last minute, and Arthur won the day: “Why the hell did you make the picture if you're so ashamed of it?”

Columbia head Harry “White Fang” Cohn no doubt regretted greenlighting Death of a Salesman; the movie was a box office failure and sort of soured the relationship between the studio and producer Kramer, who would only see big receipts in two of the films in his Columbia contract, The Wild One (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).  Admittedly, the film is a bit of a downer (Willy Loman is not visited by an archangel who demonstrates to him life isn’t all that bad) and audiences just weren’t jazzed about seeing a movie critical of “the American Dream.”  Kramer himself (along with director Benedek) came under criticism for the “cheapness” of Salesman—something Kramer and Benedek had little control over (according to his contract with the studio, the producer wasn’t allowed to exceed $980,000 in his budgets).  Despite the criticism and tepid response from moviegoers, Death of a Salesman garnered five Academy Award nominations: nods for March, Dunnock and McCarthy, and in the categories of Best Black & White Cinematography (Franz Planer) and Best Score, Adaptation or Treatment (Alex North).

Right now I hear you asking: “Alvin, why have I not come across Death of a Salesman at any time on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in recent memory?”  After all, the 1951 version got a vigorous airing on television in the late 50s/early 60s, and is not only available for non-theatrical screenings but has aired on stations outside the United States.  Sadly, by the 1970s it dropped out of sight…and if you Google “death of a salesman dvd” you’ll more than likely be pointed toward the 1985 TV version starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy, which was produced after a successful theatrical revival of the play in 1984.  The speculation has long been that Miller preferred this version to the 1951 film, and since the movie rights to Salesman reverted back to his estate at that time he had no interest in a VHS release (let alone DVD).  The only way to see the 1951 version of Death of a Salesman is to get into contact with your friendly neighborhood bootlegger.

The unavailability of the 1951 movie is a tragedy almost equal to the subject matter in the play itself.  Arthur Miller went to great lengths to express his disdain for Fredric March’s turn as the heartbreaking hero in his play…but what is not generally known is that Miller originally offered March the opportunity to play Loman on stage, only to be turned down.  Freddie has come under considerable criticism for his performance (with many believing he’s “over-the-top” in the second half of the movie) but I was blown away by him the first time I watched the 1951 version.  He convincingly conveys the deterioration of a man who’s lied to himself all his life, who’s blinded by the contradictions of his warped philosophy and is frightened by the bewilderment that everything has gone wrong…somehow.  I recall reading about the time of the TV production that Miller was most praiseworthy of Dustin Hoffman’s presentation of Willy…and yet when I watched it (I had just finished reading the play for a college English class, an event that had a rather profound effect on my life) all I saw was a guy in unconvincing old-age make-up.

Mildred Dunnock gives the performance of a lifetime as the supportive Linda; I bow to no one in my admiration for both Thelma Ritter (nominated in the same Best Supporting Actress category as Dunnock for The Mating Season) and Lee Grant (Detective Story) but Dunnock was robbed at the Academy Awards (sorry, Kim Hunter fans—it’s true) and there’ll be no further discussion about it.  Oddly enough, it’s not Dunnock giving Linda Loman’s legendary “attention must be paid” speech that makes me weep—it’s a statement she makes to son Biff shortly before that, criticizing his frequent absences from home: “Biff, you’ve got to get it through your head—that one day you’re going to knock on this door and there’ll be strange people here.”  Linda spares no criticism of her sons, but in Dunnock’s hands one never gets the impression that’s she simply a one-dimensional nag or scold—she just doesn’t want to see her husband hurt anymore.

The cast in Salesman is all great—McCarthy, Mitchell, Beal, Jesse White, Claire Carleton—but I need to give special props to actor Howard Smith, who’s tattooed into my brain as the corpulent boss of James Daly in that great Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” (“Push push push!”); he’s splendid as neighbor Charley, who Willy acknowledges as the only friend he’s got despite their mutual antagonism (the fact that Charley is willing to offer Willy employment—which the proud Loman refuses to capitalize on—is just emotionally devastating).  Another Zone veteran, Don Keefer—he was the poor fool transformed into a jack-in-the-box in “It’s a Good Life”—plays Charley’s son Ben…and I got a little choked up when I watched him in this movie last night since the actor shuffled off this mortal coil in September at the age of 98.

There are rumors that there is a splendid-looking copy of the 1951 Salesman circulating on grey market video (culled from a 16mm print) but the one I have is a bit splicey (it’s still watchable, though).  The film was preserved in 2013 by Columbia and The Film Foundation in honor of Stanley Kramer’s centennial, and while I’m optimistic that a future release on DVD might be in the works I can certainly understand the studio’s hesitancy to release a movie they technically don’t own.  The 1951 Salesman is, I think, unquestionably the finest film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s voluminous output…and if you have the opportunity to see or acquire a copy, grab it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Black Widow (1947) – Chapter 3: Hidden Death

Last week on Serial Saturdays, the hero of our current serial, The Black Widow (1947), apparently tumbled into a vat of acid…

…but in actuality, criminology student and pulp fiction author Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards) missed it by that much.  Hooray for Steve!  Disappointed that he was unable to properly dispose of his nemesis, henchman Ward (Anthony Warde) does a Johnny Weissmuller with a nearby pulley…

…and swings his way to the exit, where he and his sidekick beat a hasty retreat.  As Colt gets to his feet, he discovers that the nameless drone working at the Cornwall Chemical Company has also become conscious and phoned the police about the ruckus.

STEVE: What do you know about those mugs?
EMPLOYEE: I never saw them before in my life…they seemed awfully anxious to get a hold of that acid…what’s this all about, anyway?

As the employee stubs out Ward’s discarded cigarette, Colt looks over at the “No Fumer” sign.

STEVE: You don’t believe in signs?
EMPLOYEE: Oh—I sure do…that big fellow was smoking when he came in here…

Colt grabs the cigarette butt and examines it…a clue!  He then asks the employee if he has a classified phone book, and it’s at this point in the action that thorn-in-his-side and gal reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lindley) arrives on the scene.

JOYCE: What a pretty picture!  Prominent author-detective Steve Colt siphons cigarette butt…
STEVE: How in the blazes did you get here?

“And what would it take for you to return?  To blazes, I mean…”

JOYCE: Very simple…you just hail a cab, give him an address and presto—you’re there!
STEVE: All right, all right… (Leafing through the phone book)
JOYCE: What are you looking for?
STEVE: Cigar and cigarette manufacturers…
JOYCE: I don’t understand…
STEVE: That’s not surprising…

“The complexity of this caper is a bit too complicated for your tiny ladybrain to comprehend…”

STEVE: …one of the Black Widow gang left this custom-made cigarette…if we can find the man who makes these, we’ll be one step closer to our mysterious friend… (Leafing through a few pages, then speaking to the employee) Do you mean if I tear this out?

“Well, considering the trail of destruction you’ve left ever since you entered this joint—why the hell not?”

STEVE: I’ll see you at Walker’s…
JOYCE: Hey—wait for me!

Oh, Joycie…he’s just not that into you.  The action then shifts to the lair of Sombra (Carol Forman), the delectable damsel of depravity who’s working on a scheme for world domination with her there-he-is-no-he’s-gone papa, Hitomu (“Brother” Theodore Gottlieb).  The vanishing patriarch is not in this chapter, by the way, so if you’re disappointed you can come back next week.  For the time being, Sombra consults with henchman Ward and lackey Dr. Z.V. Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley)…

WARD: …and I’m tellin’ you that character Colt is gonna make me blow my top one of these days…
SOMBRA: We don’t have to lose our heads…even though we may have lost some time…now that we know what the neutralizing acid is, one of our agents in Chicago can send us some…
JAFFA: And when the acid arrives, it will be very simple to extract the rocket fuel formula from the tube…
SOMBRA: Then we will have successfully completed the first step in our work…and my illustrious father, Hitomu, will be able to continue with his plan to conquer and subjugate the enemies of our culture…
WARD: I’ll buy that!

“I don’t have a dollar on me right now, though…but I’m good for it.”  Outside the building that houses Sombra’s fortunetelling parlor, Blinky the Stoolie (Ernie Adams) watches from his post while snapping candid photos of passersby.  He spots Bruce and Joyce pulling up in their coupe, and gets on his faux hearing aid to contact his boss…

BLINKY: Steve Colt just drove up…he’s stopping at Kabob’s tobacco shop…
(Sombra thinks for a moment, then notices Ward smoking a cigarette)
SOMBRA: Kabob’s?
WARD: Yeah!
SOMBRA (to Blinky): Get close to them…turn up the volume…

Colt attracts the attention of a man whose business sign identifies him as “A. Kabob”—but the characters do not pronounce it “kuh-bob” as it would follow the word “shish.”  Instead, it’s “kay-bob,” as if it were a radio station out on the West Coast.  (“You’re listening to K-BOB…the home of boss oldies, twenty-four hours a day with limited commercial interruption!”)  Kabob is played by character veteran Frank Lackteen, who’s normally a villain onscreen (his most famous serial role is in 1941’s Jungle Girl, as Shamba—but you might remember him as Koloka in the Serial Saturdays presentation of Don Winslow of the Navy [1942]) so it’s a refreshing change of pace to see him as a good guy.  Lackteen also appeared in a number of Columbia two-reel comedies, notably the Three Stooges shorts Shivering Sherlocks (1948) and Malice in the Palace (1949).

STEVE: Was this cigarette made here?
KABOB: Why, yes—that’s my wrapper…would you like to order some?
STEVE: I’ll order ten thousand if you can tell me who buys those…
KABOB: I have many customers…but if this is a special mixture I will know…

Kabob takes the remains of the cigarette and inhales deeply…then he sneezes.  “A thousand pardons,” he explains to Colt.  “You see, I am allergic to tobacco.”  Kind of an odd occupation to be in if you’re allergic to your own product, but hey—this serial features a little guy who pops in and out of a throne…so who am I to judge?  Kabob is able to identify the source of his allergies as a brand he mixes up especially for “a very fine gentleman, Mr. Ward.”  (Bro…ther…)

STEVE: What’s his address?
KABOB: Oh, that I do not know…
STEVE (peeling a twenty off a roll of bills): Perhaps this will refresh your memory…
KABOB: It would…but I don’t know where he lives…he always orders by phone and picks up his own packages…
STEVE: Here’s my card—suppose you let me know the next time he’s supposed to show up?

Kabob is most accommodating and promises to give Colt a ring, and as The Unholy Three continue to monitor the conversation via Blinky’s phony hearing aid Ward observes: “Pretty smart cookie, that guy…looks like I’ll have to change my brand…”

SOMBRA: On the contrary
WARD: But he’s got it fixed with Kabob!
SOMBRA: At the moment, that’s to our advantage…if Colt found out that much about you, he may know more…we’ll have to put an end to his meddling

Sombra’s scheme is to have Jaffa make a duplicate of the rocket fuel tube while Ward will lure Steve into a trap by ordering more cigarettes.  As the preparations for Operation Colt Castration continue, the action shifts to The Daily Clarion and the offices of John M. Walker (Gene Stutenroth), editor.  “I wonder what’s happened to Sherlock?” asks a seated Joyce as the object of her sarcasm strolls in.

JOYCE: We were just talking about you…
WALKER: Well—what happened to you?
STEVE: I’ve been running down a lead to one of the Black Widow gang…
WALKER: You have?
STEVE: Yeah…fellow by the name of Ward…
WALKER: So?  I’ve got a cousin in Milwaukee by that name…

You may not realize this—but Noel Coward worked on this script uncredited.  The phone rings, and Walker hands it off to Steve—it’s Kabob on the other end, letting Colt know that Ward will be around at three to pick up some cigarettes.  Hanging up, Steve informs Walker that’s he’s off to attend a meeting—“And I’ve got a secret for you, editor…I don’t think he’s your cousin from Milwaukee!”  (Oh, my sides.)

JOYCE (as Steve heads for the door): Hey, wait—I’m coming, too!
STEVE: Snap it up!

There’s a real douchey side to that guy.  Back at Sombra’s, Jaffa proudly shows his boss the duplicate rocket fuel test tube…and she is most generous with her praise.  “Excellent, Jaffa,” she purrs.  “I can hardly tell the difference myself.”  And she’s not kidding—as she hands one back to her lackey, he quickly corrects her that she’s handed off the wrong one.  With the dummy tube in his hands, Ward editorializes “Pretty neat job” as he absentmindedly taps the tube on his fingers.

JAFFA: Ward!
SOMBRA: Careful—the explosives in there are for Colt…not for us…and remember…after you pick up the cigarettes…go right to Mendoza…and be sure you’re followed…
WARD: Okay…okay

Ward picks up his cigarettes as Steve and Joyce watch from the car across the street…and when Ward starts to motor, the couple follows in pursuit.  We then sit through a couple of minutes of driving footage until Ward arrives at his destination…

…one of the caves that I’m sure was used in our last Serial Saturdays presentation, (Big) Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (1951).  Steve and Joyce pull up not long after and follow Ward inside.

Inside the cave is a laboratory, and the attendant in charge is the “Mendoza” referenced by Sombra in the last passage of dialogue.  He’s played by Ken Terrell, a stuntman-actor with a long list of serial credits—over sixty in all, including Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939), The Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), The Masked Marvel (1943) and The Invisible Monster (1950).  (If he’s playing a small part in a chapter play…it’s a good bet there’s a slugfest in the making.)

WARD: Better hurry…they’re right behind me!
MENDOZA: It’ll only take a few seconds to set the trip mechanism…

Mendoza works his magic on the phony test tube, and when Steve and Joyce enter the lab he and Ward dash into a nearby room and close the iron door on them.  “Well…the end of another wild goose chase,” observes Joyce.  As Joyce discovers the test tube in a vise on Mendoza’s lab table, Steve is preoccupied with an open vent leading to the other room.

JOYCE: Hey, Sherlock—check it out!
STEVE (removing the tube from the vise): No…it can’t be!
JOYCE: Oh…what a story!
STEVE: There won’t be any story until this is safely deposited in Weston’s vault… (Pointing in the direction of the vent)  Let’s go…

As the two of them head for the door, Steve gives Joyce the game plan: “Get this to Weston’s—I want to see what’s behind that door…”  So Joyce is off like a prom dress, and Steve doubles back to hide behind the door of the room that Ward and Mendoza ducked into.  The two creeps then re-enter the room.

WARD: You sure now that the explosive in that tube will go off all right?
MENDOZA: Your two friends will be blown to bits before they ever reach their destination…

“In fact, they’ll have a new destination—Kingdom Come!”  Steve emerges from his hidey hole at this point, barking “Get ‘em up—over there!”  So Mendoza decides to give him a “stool sample”…

…sorry about that.  There’s a fistfight—although I’ve noticed the donnybrooks in this serial seem to be performed with a bit more gusto—and after successfully pummeling his assailants into unconsciousness, Colt rushes out of the cave…but he’s too late, Joyce has already sped off in his car.

So Colt steals Ward’s car (not cool, Stevie!) and goes after Joyce in even more exciting car chase footage; he starts honking his car horn once he gets within striking distance of Joyce in his car…but she ignores his horn honking because of that stupid rivalry they have going on between the two of them.  In the meantime, the test tube is on the passenger seat behind her—and smoke starts to curl out of the enclosure…