Monday, May 25, 2015

The Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon 2015: The Abbott and Costello Show

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon (May 25-28) hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association.  Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

The release in 1948 of what many fans consider to be their finest and funniest motion picture—Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein—signaled a return of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to the yearly top ten tally of box office film stars.  The duo didn’t stay there for long, however; by 1952 they would be replaced by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as the country’s most successful movie comedy team—and in hindsight, it was probably not too disappointing for the verbal slapstick duo.  For despite their incredible film success, which really began with their second film, 1941’s Buck Privates, the two men didn’t have a great deal of either affection or patience for the moviemaking process.  Stories are legend about their boredom at how time consuming working on a set could be, and they often passed the time with epic poker games and prank-pulling.  “’When do we come and what do we wear?’” reminisced the immortal Buster Keaton about the duo’s approach to movies during his days as an MGM gag writer (in a clip from the documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow).  “Then the day they started shooting they find out what the script’s about.”

It would be the new medium of television that would bear responsibility for the comedy team’s renewed vitality in their performances, particularly when Abbott & Costello became part of the permanent rotating group of weekly hosts on The Colgate Comedy Hour.  Performing on live television reminded Bud & Lou of their glory days on the burlesque stage, and most comedians will no doubt agree that hearing the appreciative laughter of a live audience is far more stimulating than doing the same routines in front of a jaded movie crew who’ve probably stopped laughing after the third take.  Surviving kinescopes from that era show both men having the time of their lives (to use one of the titles from their classic film oeuvre), and their success on the small screen would lead to one of the most popular syndicated series in the history of the boob tube: The Abbott and Costello Show.

The premise of The Abbott and Costello Show was disarmingly simple: Bud and Lou played themselves, a pair of unemployed actors who lived in a rooming house run by the apoplectic Sidney Fields, also playing himself.  Fields was a crony of the duo from their radio days; he often performed on the program (in addition to supplying much of the writing, since his background was in burlesque as well) as various characters with the surname of “Melonhead,” which he continued occasionally on their TV show as well.  A hallmark of Fields’ radio interactions with Costello would be a routine in which Sid easily takes offense at Lou’s innocent suggestions, and no matter how much the comedian tries to be diplomatic his comments he’s unable to appease the angry Fields (below is a similar snippet from the TV episode “The Birthday Party”):

LOU: Mr. Fields…you are invited to my party…
FIELDS: You’re finally inviting me…you want me to bring a present, huh?
LOU: Look, Mr. Fields—a lot of people are bringing presents…you don’t have to bring me no present…
FIELDS: I see…everybody brings a present…you want me to come empty-handed…people should look at me and say, “Sidney Fields is a cheapskate”…huh?  “Sidney Fields is nothing but a broken-down, dirty tramp”—is that it?
LOU: Look, Mr. Fields—you don’t look like no tramp…you look nice…
FIELDS: I don’t, huh…my feet are coming through my shoes…my elbows are coming through my sleeves…
LOU: Yeah…and your head is coming through your hair

In the first season of the show, Fields not only played his landlord self but other relatives in the Fields family—who turned up from time to time whenever Abbott & Costello were in search of work.  (Fields made no attempt to disguise his dual roles, simply slapping on a moustache or cheap toupee to maintain the “deception.”)  Much of the show’s comedy revolved around Bud and Lou’s tenuous housing situation: the two men were constantly in arrears as far as their room rent was concerned, with Fields threatening to evict the duo at every turn.  Fields was also the series’ most prolific scripter; he’s credited with twenty-five of the total fifty-two episodes telecast, demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of burlesque comedy.

Also among the supporting cast was actress Hillary Brooke…playing Hillary Brooke.  (The Abbott and Costello Show did not set any records for casting originality.)  Hillary was essentially Lou’s love interest, and though her regal bearing and accent suggested that she was a Britisher by birth, Brooke actually hailed from Astoria, NY (she cultivated a British accent in her early show business years to set herself apart from her blonde competitors).  She first worked with Bud and Lou in their 1949 comedy Africa Screams, and would later reteam with them in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952).  Because the first season of the TV show was filmed at the legendary “Lot of Fun” (the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, CA), it was no doubt a nice working arrangement for Hillary since she was also appearing semi-regularly on the Gale Storm sitcom My Little Margie, on which she played the high-class Roberta Townsend—frequent girlfriend of Vern Albright (Charles Farrell).  Brooke appeared on Bud and Lou’s program only in its first season, though she does have a cameo in a second-season episode, “In Society,” in which she helps Mike the Cop out of a pair of handcuffs.

“Mike the Cop” was Officer Mike Kelly, and played by one-time movie Green Hornet (and occasional Roy Rogers sidekick) Gordon Jones.  Jones had played a bad guy in Bud & Lou’s underrated The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), and on their TV show acted as the boys’ nemesis: a lunk-headed cop who was always threatening to run Costello in on some charge, though Mike may have been the only policeman on the force dumber than Lou.  Mike was easily excitable, which made him the perfect foil, and Jones was fortunate to continue on in Season Two after several of the series’ regulars got their pink slip.

Two of those regulars were Joe Besser and Joe Kirk (a couple of Joes).  Besser played “Stinky Davis,” a malevolent brat clad in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit (it was intimated that Stinky really was a child, though he didn’t fool much of the audience) who was the bane of Lou’s existence (“I’ll harm you!”).  Besser had also worked with the duo in Africa Screams, stealing that movie with a scene in which he runs back and forth with a glass of water as Bud and Lou are engaged in discussion; when asked why he keeps interrupting, Besser replies in that memorable whine of his: “Oooh, my tent is on fire!”  (They recreated this gag in one of the first season episodes, incidentally.)   The other Joe was actually Costello’s brother-in-law; Joe Kirk (who also had appeared on the team’s radio show) played Mr. Bacciagalupe, an Italian vendor whose line of business would change according to the demands of the episode—in some installments he was a greengrocer, in others a baker.  Kirk divorced Lou’s sister in 1953, which might explain why he didn’t stick around for the second and last season.

Also discharged from Season One was Bingo the Chimp, first introduced in “The Politician”…and whose subsequent surge in popularity resulted in more episodes being based around the Simian-American, who functioned as Costello’s pet (he even wore an outfit similar to Lou’s).  The scuttlebutt has it that Lou didn’t particularly care for Bingo, and the animal may have sensed the animosity because he up and bit his co-star on the set one day…oblivious to the fact that it may not have been in the best interest of an ambitious chimpanzee to antagonize the actor who owned a large piece of the show.  Like Hillary, Bingo also made a cameo appearance in a second-season episode once he had been dismissed: he does a brief roller-skating turn in “Cheapskates.”

Other performers who appeared on The Abbott and Costello Show’s first season included several of the duo’s close cronies: Milt Bronson, Joan Shawlee, Murray Leonard and Bobby Barber, to name a few.  (Barber was a longtime member of the A&C payroll; his official title was “court jester,” supplying the pies-to-be-thrown and other prankish items used on their film sets to keep the hi-jinks at a suitable level so that Bud and Lou could perform.)  The show’s first season also featured a number of thespians who had previously appeared on the team’s radio program: Elvia Allman and Iris Adrian, for starters. 

Fans of The Abbott and Costello Show generally consider the series’ first season to be the strongest.  It wasn’t much more than a peg to hang their classic burlesque routines on, to be honest: “Jail” features the “Slowly I Turn” bit (also known as “Pokomoko” or “Niagara Falls”); “The Army Story” cribs a lot of material from Buck Privates; the highlight of “The Charity Bazaar” is the “Lemon Bit,” which the team also performed on occasion on The Colgate Comedy Hour.  In “The Haunted House,” Bud, Lou and Hillary have to spend a night in the titular dwelling according to the details of a will…and wouldn’t you know, here’s the “Moving Candle” routine from Hold That Ghost (1941).  “Peace and Quiet” gives the boys all the room they need to perform “Crazy House” (though in this instance it’s more like “Crazy Hospital”).  And before you ask, they get around to their most famous piece of material—“Who’s on First?”—in “The Actors’ Home.”

But there was an endearingly loopy insanity about the program’s first season that attracts fans even today—Bud and Lou inhabited a world in which crooks and sharpies lie in wait around every corner, and women would walk right up to Lou for no reason and slap his face (“How dare you look like someone I hate!”).  The show made no attempt to ground itself in reality; the team would often emphasize the theatricality of the program by appearing in front of a theater curtain and commenting on the events that had transpired in “breaking-the-fourth-wall” fashion.  There was even a running gag involving an unidentified “card girl,” who would come out with a large card listing the other performers who would be appearing in the episode…and concealing Lou’s face in the process, much to his annoyance.

Since the first season had pretty much chewed up most of Bud and Lou’s repertoire, the second season (which abandoned the jaunty opening titles, featuring scenes from such A&C movies as Keep ‘Em Flying [1941] and In Society [1944]) reconditioned itself into a more traditional sitcom, and saw veteran scribe Clyde Bruckman hired to pen many of the episodes.  Bruckman is a most enigmatic figure in the world of comedy; he worked alongside such greats as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields…though the jury is out on how much Clyde actually contributed to their films, since those comedians already had clearly defined screen personas.  Bruckman was considered radioactive where employment was concerned; two of the studios who availed themselves of his services, Columbia and Universal, were on the receiving end of lawsuits from Lloyd because Clyde had a habit of reusing old material from Harold’s films…and many others as well.  (Let me just state that if recycling classic gags was a crime—our comedy prisons would be filled to capacity.)

So while not as popular as the inaugural season, Year Two of The Abbott and Costello Show is of interest to comedy fans because Bruckman’s contributions are so easily recognizable from previous laughter excursions.  An installment like “Killer’s Wife” is basically a refashioned Hugh Herbert two-reeler—any of them, to be honest.  The same can be said for “Private Eye,” which appropriates many elements of Columbia’s “scare” comedies.  “Car Trouble” reworks the Buster Keaton short Nothing But Pleasure (1940), while “South of Dixie” borrows heavily from The Three Stooges’ Uncivil War Birds (1946).  The premise of “Honeymoon House” is that Lou has put together a pre-fab cottage (with help from Bud and Mr. Fields) for his fiancée (Karen Sharpe), unaware that his rival (Danny Morton) has sabotaged the project by painting over the actual numbers.  (Any resemblance to the classic Keaton two-reeler One Week [1920] is purely coincidental.)  Veteran comedy writer Jack Townley also contributed to the second season output; he was responsible for one of my favorite episodes, “Amnesia,” in which Bud manages to convince Lou that he’s been married to a woman for three months to keep him from actually walking down the aisle with an unknown correspondent from the Lonely Hearts Club.  The actress who plays Lou’s “wife” is Adele Jergens, who “de-glams” from her usual attractive persona to play a rolling-pin-wielding harridan.  (Hey—I like Adele.  So sue me.)

All fifty-two episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show were directed by Jean Yarborough, a journeyman who worked with Bud and Lou at Universal in the 1940s (Here Come the Co-Eds, The Naughty Nineties) and the 1950s (Jack and the Beanstalk, Lost in Alaska)—so he was familiar with the team, and even had the foresight to insist that a camera be focused on Lou at all times in the event the comic came up with an inventive bit of business.  Yarborough also produced the series (taking over from Alex Gottlieb), though the title of “executive producer” went to Costello’s brother Pat in one of those Hollywood nepotism stories we’ve come to know and love.

Critics were not kind to The Abbott and Costello Show…but then again, Bud and Lou were never really held close to any critic’s bosom throughout their long show business career.  Sure, the series was crammed with lowbrow humor and jokes old enough to be collecting pensions…but as I have long pointed out here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, sometimes the jokes with the longest whiskers got the biggest laughs.  Costello bet director Charles Barton on the set of A&C Meet Frankenstein that one gag—“My date had so much bridgework every time I kissed her I had to pay a toll”—would get a boffo response from the theater audience, more so than some of the other scripted material…and a chagrined Barton was forced to pay up when it did just that.  (And yes, Bud and Lou recycle that old chestnut in one of the show’s episodes as well.)  The Abbott and Costello Show would spend years and years in The Old Syndication Home; the show was at one time a mainstay of WGN’s programming, who no doubt used the series as an appetizer before they’d unspool one of the team’s classic movies.  It’s currently a staple at MeTV, where it airs Sunday mornings at 7am EDT—an hour-long block of classic comedy.

And while The Abbott and Costello Show might not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, it’s an important television artifact because—along with Bud and Lou’s movies—it’s a virtual encyclopedia of burlesque routines: the popular variety show theatrical form is but a distant memory in the past, so it’s nice that someone took the time to make sure it was recorded for generations to follow.  Jerry Seinfeld even acknowledged the influence The Abbott and Costello Show had on his own self-titled sitcom, Seinfeld; the main antagonist in the episode “The Old Man” is named “Sidney Fields,” and the Chinese puzzle intricacies of many of Seinfeld’s episodes (miscommunication and emphasis on plot complications rather than character development) can be directly traced back to its source in Bud and Lou.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: Casablanca (1942)

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

Today is National Classic Movie Day, an event that we are celebrating in style here at Rancho Yesteryear: a sumptuous dinner, cake and all the other trimmings.  Okay…I might be exaggerating about the food aspect.  My mother did prepare a cake, but not for the special occasion…she just had a hankering for cake.

This shouldn’t, however, diminish today’s event because as it is all too evident over the years at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, classic movies are one of my true passions.  I’ve examined the origins of why this is so both on the blog and other venues in the past, so I’m going to try and not be too long-winded in this introduction.  Suffice it to say, that day that I sat down to watch King Kong (1933) with 300 citizens in the small West Virginia town library of my formative childhood years, the fix was already in with regards to my classic movie addiction.

When Rick at the Classic Film and TV Café proposed this blogathon to talk about our favorite classic film, I knew without hesitation that my essay would have to be on Casablanca (1942).  I first saw Casablanca at Marshall University around 1981/1982; the college’s Activities Committee showed movies in a makeshift auditorium on weekends, and on one occasion they featured three Humphrey Bogart titles: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Key Largo (1948)…and of course, Casablanca.  I love all three movies but Casablanca had the most significant impact on me since I was seeing it with an audience.  The consensus has long been that movies need to be enjoyed most in that sort of venue, and Casablanca was no exception; the audience roared with approval at the point in the movie where Bogart’s Rick Blaine orders Claude Rains’ Louis Renault “Not so fast, Louie,” signaling that Blaine has finally decided to throw his support to the Allied cause.  The electric response to that scene in that makeshift auditorium (actually a converted biology lab) still stays with me today.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen Casablanca, probably because I thought it kind of pedantic to keep score.  But I’ve seen it enough to know most of the dialogue by heart, which is why I always got a kick out of that old Diet Coke commercial where the couple starts mouthing the movie in the theater before they step out into the aisle for a romantic waltz and embrace:

Casablanca is my favorite movie because it’s a film that adopts so many movie genres.  It’s first and foremost a romantic love story, but it’s also a rousing WW2 adventure with elements of nail-biting suspense.  It’s also a musical, with the tuneful contributions of Dooley Wilson on Shine, Knock on Wood and the film’s iconic As Time Goes By.  It’s also quite comical at times; there are so many great moments in Casablanca for some odd reason the one that always makes me laugh out loud is when Rick glances at the dossier on him and asks “Are my eyes really brown?”  (A week or so ago, Our Lady of Great Caftan and I recreated the famous “I came here for the waters” scene on Facebook to thunderous applause.  Okay, maybe a few titters from the crowd—don’t ruin a beautiful moment here.)

Though this could be fodder for another blogathon, I would probably respond without hesitation “Humphrey Bogart” if asked who my all-time favorite actor was.  Bogart was recognized by his peers with an Oscar for The African Queen (1951) (though I would argue he gave better performances in both The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948] and In a Lonely Place [1950]) but I agree with Danny Peary (he makes the case in Alternate Oscars) that Bogie deserved it for Casablanca.  His Rick Blaine is the kind of guy we’d either like to be or envision ourselves as already: a suave tough guy whose wisecracking cynicism masks the heart of a true idealist.  The actor was able to wipe away multitudes of movie memories playing snarling gangsters and other villains with his heroic portrayal of Rick, simply by making the noble sacrifice of giving up the woman he loves in order that she help her husband carry on in the fight of stamping out the Nazis and all that they stood for.

Humphrey Bogart made four movies with his actress-wife Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo.  And yet, in none of those films does the man demonstrate the amazing chemistry that he shared with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.  The electricity between the two of them is positively astounding—even more when you realize that the two had never worked together before (and would never again) and Bogart had to wear platform shoes to compensate for the height difference between him and Ingrid.  I don’t want to suggest that Bogie did all the heavy lifting here (except to say that with the exception here of Ingrid and Gloria Grahame in Lonely Place, none of the actor’s onscreen romances come close to the passion generated by these two); Bergman was nothing short of luminous as Ilsa Lund.  When she explains to Rick that her attraction to Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid) was more intellectual than physical (“He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals”), we recognize that not only she is a bright, intelligent, independent woman but one who is capable of being nurturing and caring as well.  The glistening tears that collect in her eyes as she wrestles with the dilemma of loving two men equally is devastating to watch.

Casablanca benefited from being made at Warner Bros., where all their contract players worked whether or not the roles they had been assigned were appropriate.  This explains the eclectic cast of the movie: Claude Rains (as Renault), who was delighted to learn that his Louis would not turn out as a rotter but a hero; Sydney Greenstreet (as Ferrari), stealing scenes despite an inconsequential role with the mere swat of a fly swatter; Peter Lorre (as Ugarte), at his sniveling best (“You despise me, don’t you?”).  Paul Heinreid, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey and the others—there’s not a false note in anyone’s portrayal.  And of course, it goes without saying: nobody sings As Time Goes By like Dooley Wilson.

“They don’t make them like that anymore.”  We all know the familiar cliché, and we’re often tempted to apply it to Casablanca as the gold standard of “oldie but goodie.”  We also know that the making of the movie wasn’t as simple as all that; Casablanca had a troubled history, with stories of script pages being dashed off at the last minute…and the surprise that this unassuming picture, re-released in 1943 only to cash in on the publicity surrounding the headline-making Roosevelt-Churchill summit (it had actually played in New York the previous year to stifling yawns), would win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Our love for Casablanca is such that it seems silly to think that any other film could have taken the top prize…but the Oscars don’t always function on that same logic.

During my years in exile in Morgantown, WV, I had a lady friend whose revulsion for Casablanca knew no bounds.  The reason for this could be found in a movie of which she was quite fond, the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally...  In that picture, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) have an intense conversation of the subject of Casablanca, and the reason why Ingrid Bergman gets on that plane at the end.  (“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca married to a man who runs a bar.  That probably sounds very snobbish to you, but I don’t.”)  For my friend, this is the reason why she would never see Casablanca: “She gets on the plane at the end of the movie!  Even when a mutual friend of ours painstakingly tried to explain why it was necessary for Bergman to do so (a dialogue exchange that I seriously could not keep from laughing throughout) the woman remained firm.  She later explained to me: “I don’t like movies with unhappy endings.  My life is an unhappy ending, and who wants to watch their life on the big screen?”  (I even thought that agreeing to sit down and watch her favorite movie—Gone with the Wind—she might relent.  No dice, Chicago.)

This may be the most magical element of them all with regards to Casablanca.  We’re upset that the torrid affair between Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund won’t ever progress as far as Paris (and one night in Casablanca), but we know that Rick makes the right call: “You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.”  It’s an unhappy ending, but a satisfying one—one that produces both tears and smiles knowing that despite Rick’s observation that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” betting on humanity and people doing the right thing is a can’t-lose proposition.

Casablanca is one of the few classic movies that I’ve managed to see on what we call “the big screen”; I’ve been fortunate to watch titles like Rear Window, Some Like it Hot and Dr. Strangelove—favorites all—but Casablanca was a special experience because despite my many favorite classic films, it’s the one I’d want with me in that legendary desert island scenario.  The appreciative audience that watched the movie with me when I saw it in Savannah was a plus (though it didn’t come close to that memorable reaction at MU), but what I remembered most about the showing was the guy who announced at the beginning: “Since there were no cellphones around in World War II, we request that you turn yours off during the movie.”

Happy National Classic Movie Day, everyone!

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon – Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

There was much rejoicing in the blogosphere earlier this year when Marilyn “Ferdy” Ferdinand announced that the series of For the Love of Film blogathons staged to solicit funds for one of our passions here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—film preservation—would re-ignite after a brief hiatus.  I participated in For the Love of Film I and II, but had to skip the third go-round due to pressing outside concerns.  This year, the For the Love of Film extravaganza will turn over couch cushions for enough change to fund “Cupid in Quarantine (1918), a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.”  A total of $10,000 will be needed to cover the lab costs (plus a new score for Quarantine’s streaming web premiere), and it is hoped that the essays contributed to the blogathon will encourage folks to give whatever they can to the National Film Preservation Foundation for this most worthy cause.  Regardez:
Click on the “Gort” Button and make a contribution…and you’ll also be entered in a drawing to win fabulous swag at the end of the blogathon.  Why a “Gort” button, I hear you ask…unless that’s the voices in my head, in which case never mind.  Well, this year For the Love of Film’s theme is science fiction in cinema…and that presented a bit of a quandary, only because I was sort of torn as to what movie I should write about.  I thought about a discussion of the Shakespearean overtones in Forbidden Planet (1956), or asking “Is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) an allegory of Communism or McCarthyism?”  Finally, with the deadline looming, I decided to fall back on what always works in situations like this: snark on a terrible B-film.  And so, without further ado, TDOY Twilight Theatre presents: Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)!

A few seconds before the opening titles commence, we see this eerie figure slowly shambling up a walkway.  We’ll get a better look at the mysterious individual once we know who’s in this flick, who directed, produced, etc.

A scene shift, and the shambling thing has somehow acquired an automobile…suggesting that there’s an Alamo nearby and they don’t seem to be too particular who they rent to.  The mystery man (Karl 'Killer' Davis) stops outside the palatial residence of a racketeer named James Hennessy, who is totaling the end of day receipts.  One of his underlings (Paul Bradley) informs him that the day’s take comes to about $20,000, and we’re to assume that this income will not only be undeclared on his income tax but probably derives from such illegal operations as pinball machines and Redbox kiosks.  Hennessy tells his lackey that he’ll be with him in a sec, and when his man Godfrey has left his office he starts to dictate the take into a Dictaphone for his secretary.  (You know you’ve really made it as a gangster when you can afford to take on a secretary.)  In mid-sentence, the stranger that pulled up in the car outside bends the iron security bars with his brute strength and smashes the window to Hennessy’s study.

MAN (robotically): I told you I’d come back… (Hennessy reaches for a gun tucked away behind a mobile bar) Remember Buchanan?
HENNESSY: Why…you’re not Buchanan!
MAN: I don’t look like him…but I am him…don’t you recognize the voice, Jim?  I promised to see you die…and I will

Hennessy empties his pistola into the stranger, but that’s an exercise in futility—he appears to be impervious to bullets.  We don’t actually see what happens next to Hennessy, but the shadows on the wall don’t leave much to the imagination:

Ouch!  Snap into a Slim Jim!  The killer, having performed some unorthodox chiropractory on Hennessy, then proceeds to exit the same way he came in—even as Hennessy’s henchmen start shooting at him.  Who is this mystery man who calls himself “Buchanan”?  James Buchanan?  Edgar Buchanan?  During the murder of Hennessy, we’ve watched as two men monitor the mystery man’s movements via remote TV screen, with one of them ordering him to “come back home.”  This man is Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger), an ex-racketeer with several scores to settle—including one with the now-deceased Hennessy.  The other is a bespectacled scientist with a German accent—he’s Dr. Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gaye), whose insistence on keeping a low profile suggests that there may be a few skeletons in his closet.

BUCHANAN: Well…your creature’s helped us get rid of the first one…I’ll see them all die before I’m through…
STEIGG: Ach…if I had only known when you first offered to help me financially…
BUCHANAN: Dr. Steigg…if it weren’t for my money, you’d still be experimenting with cats and dogs in that flea-sized lab of yours in Europe…I made it possible for you to prove your theory with human beings…
STEIGG: That is true…but my theory was to use these creatures to help people live…by doing everything that was difficult and dangerous…you just want to see people die
BUCHANAN: Not just people, Steigg…particular people…and I’ll get ‘em…every single one of them
STEIGG: And after you do?  What?
BUCHANAN: There’ll be nothing we can’t do or have…nobody will be able to stop us…

So there you have it—perversion of science for evil instead of niceness, and the old standby megalomaniacal ambition to use that evil to further your own ends.  Several times in the course of this feature, Buchanan and Steigg have to dress up in beekeeper-type outfits and then negotiate what looks like one of those play tunnels with which kids have endless hours of fun.  I suppose it’s because the “atom rays” Professor Nazi uses to animate these dead bodies are highly radioactive, and the Hazmat suits are just a precaution.  There’s a short scene where the two of them examine two other men who are hooked up to some device; Steigg unhooks one of them as Buchanan inquires “Is he dead?”

“He never was alive,” the Professor intones seriously.  He also points out helpfully that with these creatures, “the brain always dies first.”

Well, now that we’ve acquainted ourselves with the villains of the piece…let’s meet the good guys.  The po-po have arrived at Casa del Hennessy, and the investigation is being handled by Captain Dave Harris (S. John Launer) with an assist from the director of the police crime laboratory, a pipe-smoking wanker named Dr. Chet Walker (Richard Denning).  Also in attendance is the District Attorney (Tristam Coffin), who informs the two men that he doesn’t think robbery was the motive since nearly sixty grand was left in the safe.  “Maybe he didn’t want to get into a higher bracket,” observes Harris, in an indication of things to come.

Walker’s investigation reveals that the killer left his fingerprints behind (in addition to a good deal of blood, as a result of being shot multiple times)…and they have a somewhat luminous appearance.

“Let’s take this back to the lab and make a test on it,” suggests Walker as he cuts up a portion of Mr. Hennessy’s nice shag rug to collect a footprint.  As Walker, Harris and McGraw exit the crime scene they’re swarmed by nosey reporters.

FIRST REPORTER: Doctor, how did anybody break through those bars in there?
WALKER: Maybe he ate all his vitamins…

The scene shifts to Walker’s laboratory, where we get to witness actual science being performed as our hero gets closer and closer to figuring out the solution to this baffling crime.

WALKER (peering through a microscope): Look…a diluted solution of hematin…two absorption bands between the Fraunhofer lines…
HARRIS: Oh, cut the double talk, Chet, and break it down into plain English…
WALKER: Take a look…this so-called blood is a chemical composition…
HARRIS (looking under the microscope): It looks like a bunch of crystals to me…
WALKER: Exactly!  There are crystals in that concoction…
McGRAW: Now, what do you mean, “concoction”?
WALKER: Here, I’ll show you…

As he pours various substances into a beaker—“Adrenaline…sodium hydroxide…and blood sugars”—Walker makes things even murkier by telling McGraw: “Throws the beam to the right dextrose…no hemoglobin traceable…”  This means that the substance isn’t blood, which the chemist proves by sticking the solution in the old centrifuge.  But he does determine this with the help of a Geiger counter:

WALKER: This so-called blood is highly radioactive!
HARRIS: Dangerously so?
WALKER: Plus nine!
HARRIS: Is that a lot?
WALKER: Enough to kill a man if he’s exposed to it long enough…

“So I hope the two of you didn’t have plans for children in the future…’cause that’s definitely not gonna happen.”  Walker announces that he’s done all he can do for the evening, and the three men are mobbed by the same reporters as they leave his office.  “According to the evidence,” Walker explains, “Hennessy was murdered by a creature with atom rays of superhuman strength…and a creature who cannot be killed by bullets!”

The press respond with that same skepticism we’ve come to know and love in old movies.  “Just for that I’ll misspell your name,” threatens one.  “I don’t blame them,” cracks Harris.  “I don’t believe it myself and I was with you.”

In science fiction films of the 1950s, one generally establishes the threat to normality caused by tampering with the Creator’s domain by showing the hero in his native habitat; a nice little suburban house, populated by the protagonist’s dutiful wife and their precocious little brat.  But the family scenario in Creature is a little…oh, let’s say interesting.  Take this scene, in which Capt. Harris stops by the Walker household to fill Chet in on the latest developments, and he’s greeted by the Walkers’ daughter Penny (Linda Bennett):

PENNY: Uncle Dave!  (She runs to him and he lifts her up in the air)
HARRIS: Well, how’s my little sweetheart this morning, huh?
PENNY: I feel fine, Uncle Dave!
JOYCE: There’s some coffee in there, Dave… (She heads upstairs to wake her husband)
HARRIS: Thanks…I could use it…well…Penny and me are going to have a little tête-a-tête, aren’t we, huh?

Um…okay.  Upstairs, Joyce (Angela Stevens) rouses Chet out of his slumber…and he seems to think it’s time for a little pre-breakfast nookie as well:

JOYCE: Chet…Chet, wake up… (Chet awakens, and immediately puts his arms around his wife, kissing her) Chet…not now!
CHET: Oh…name a better time…
JOYCE: Dave’s here!

“That’s okay—he can watch!”  Joyce tells Chet that Dave is here on an emergency, and that’s when he stops pawing his wife.  Dressed and downstairs, Chet learns from Dave that the guy who broke Hennessy in two with his bare hands has an interesting history:

HARRIS: I just came from the bureau…they checked the murderer’s fingerprints…his name is Willard Pearce—they let me have it from the files…
WALKER: Petty theft…fraud…three months in prison…tubercular…how could a tubercular man have strength enough to break those bars like that?

Oh, that’s not all, Chester: “How could a dead man have strength enough to do it?” Harris asks him.  It would appear that Willard Pearce is the late Willard Pearce, having snuffed it twenty four days before he tried to turn Hennessy into a pretzel.

WALKER: That doesn’t make sense!
HARRIS: You’re the smart one…if it doesn’t make sense to you, imagine how it sounds to me!

Since Pearce’s corpse was delivered to the morgue, Harris is having a couple of “his boys” check with the morgue to see about how Willard went for a little walk.  Asked if McGraw knows about this turn of events, Dave tells Chet that the D.A. is on his way to the office and he wants to see the two of them there.

D.A. McGraw will never make that appointment.  As McGraw starts to pull his car out of the garage, another zombie-looking fiend (Michael Ross) pops out from out of nowhere and he tells his prey in the same mechanical tone: “I’m from Buchanan…if you know that, you know why I’m here.”  McGraw tries to get away, but to no avail—the killer picks the D.A. up as if he were a rag doll, and breaks both McGraw’s jaw and neck.  Walker and Harris learn of the D.A.’s death as the two men are listening to the record from Hennessy’s Dictaphone for clues as to the person responsible for the murder.

The two men arrive at McGraw’s and a curious Walker pulls out the old Geiger counter to check the car for “radioactive emanations,” playing a hunch that the two murders might be somehow connected due to the similarity in the killings—even though he readily admits that’s not likely, given “McGraw’s enemies were usually friends of Hennessy’s.”  The reporters can’t help but notice Walker’s use of the Geiger, and they start to realize that he was on the level with the “atom ray” story he told them earlier.  Meanwhile, Harris gets the news from the morgue: eight bodies have mysterious disappeared.  There’s only one other course of action now: a boring talkfest with Walker and Harris, joined by Chief Camden (Charles Evans), Mayor Bremer (Pierre Watkin) and U.S. Army General Saunders (Lane Chandler).

MAYOR: I hope, Dr. Walker, you’ve called us here to assure us the stories about dead men walking our streets is only a hoax
WALKER: I wish they were…
CAMDEN (to Harris): What did you find out about those bodies stolen from the morgue?
HARRIS: Well, according to the records, they were to be cremated…they were placed in coffins and delivered to the city crematory…
SAUNDERS: May I ask how this concerns me?

The General has a good point, and Walker is only too happy to play the show-off by demonstrating the size of his big brain:

WALKER: Do you remember Faraday’s experiment with a frog’s leg?
CAMDEN: I flunked Chemistry One three times
SAUNDERS: I remember Faraday’s experiment…
WALKER: Good…then you’ll remember Faraday applied energy—in that case, electricity—to the leg which had been severed from its body…it moved!
MAYOR: Huh!  Frog legs…I don’t see the parallel…

That’s because you’re nothing but a humble wardheeler, your Honorship.  Walker’s theory—outlandish though it may be—is that these murders are being committed by dead men invigorated by radioactivity, and that’s why Saunders has been brought in on the case: he’s needed to coordinate the military in tracking down the source of those mysterious radioactive emanations.

Meanwhile, back at Steigg Labs, Buchanan and the doctor have programmed another assassin—this time to trail Walker, whom the doctor admires for his “Imagination” in doping out the cockamamie plot of this movie.  The would-be killer tracks Walker to the Army base, but for some reason doesn’t carry out his mission.  Instead, we’re back at Castle Walker—where a freshly delivered newspaper blares this headline:

JOYCE: That’s not true, Chet…is it…?
WALKER: You better hide it from Penny…
JOYCE: But how can I hide a thing like…
WALKER: Please, Joyce…I’m tired, and I’m hungry…and frankly, I don’t know how…

“That’s going to be your job in the parenting department.  Now get out in the kitchen and fix me a sammich.”  Okay, he’s not quite that bad—but Chet does request that his wife rustle up a “nice, cold martini.”  “Coming right up, Chet,” she says in a voice suggesting he should walk his ass over to the bar and fix his own damn martini.

JOYCE: Penny’s outside playing…
WALKER: Well, what about it?
JOYCE: Well, is it safe?
WALKER: There seems to be some sort of definite pattern…can't put my finger on it, but I do know that Hennessy and McGraw were killed for a reason
JOYCE: Well, it's all right then?
WALKER: Well, for a while…I don't think they've gotten around to indiscriminate killings yet…

I take it back…this guy is a douchebag.  Joyce and Chet lie to their daughter about both the newspaper (“It didn’t come today”) and the television set (“It’s broken”), and then Joyce brings the Master of the House his drink (“I’ve been looking forward to this all day”).  But just as he’s about to get his drink on, “Uncle” Dave comes by the house with more bad news:

HARRIS: Hennessy and McGraw helped convict Frank Buchanan…
WALKER: Buchanan…the name rings a bell, but not too clearly…
HARRIS: Buchanan was a top mobster around these parts…he practically ran the city…when McGraw became D.A. he took out after him…
WALKER: Well, where does Hennessy come in?
HARRIS: Well, Hennessy was Buchanan’s number-two man…he wanted the number-one slot, so he turned on him…

The thot plickens!  Buchanan wound up being deported to Europe thanks to McGraw’s rigorous prosecution, and though Walker doesn’t know it yet, that’s where Buchanan met up with Dr. Steigg in his flea-sized laboratory.  There were three other men involved in the Buchanan affair: assistant D.A. Lester Banning (Don C. Harvey), now in private practice; Jason Franchot (Edward Coch), Buchanan’s former accountant; and Tom Dunn (Paul Hoffman), described as Buchanan’s “gunsel.”  (I’m not sure if scriptwriter Curt Siodmak meant that in the same way as Dashiell Hammett did in The Maltese Falcon or not.)  Sensing that those individuals should be warned, Chet is set to be out the door with Dave just as Joyce has brought him another martini.  So she downs this one herself:

I thought to myself: “I bet she does a lot of that whenever that wanker isn’t around.”

Walker and Harris meet with the three men, and suggest that they offer themselves up in protective custody in the Greybar B-and-B as a precaution.  They nix the idea (reputations to protect, you understand), so Harris instructs his men to keep close tabs on the trio in the meantime.  After they leave, Dave gets a telegram informing him that during his sojourn in Europe, Buchanan made his casa Steigg’s casa as the authorities report find the remnants of a laboratory with dead dogs, cats, and monkeys scattered about.  “Dogs, cats, and monkeys,” ruminates Chet.  “That’s the way experimentation usually starts.”

Harris’ men do a pretty piss-poor job in the protection department: one of Steigg’s zombies (dressed as a patrolman) arrives at the house of Jason Franchot, and kills not only him but the uniformed guy he relieved on duty.  To compensate for the blunder, efforts to locate the “radioactive emanations” are stepped up with the help of the military, who fly planes overhead with “radium finders” to locate Buchanan’s hideout.  Conceivably, Buchanan and Steigg could continue their reign of terror on the city and escape detection because no one knows where their headquarters is located…and the town’s citizens are probably worked up in a proper frenzy with the increased military activity, thinking it’s Jade Helm 15 or something.  So Siodmak decides to help his characters out—he foolishly allows Steigg to go into town, where he winds up in a bar…

…the doctor later explains he had to go to town, to pick up a prescription because his hand has been throbbing.  (The effects of radiation?  Quien sabe?)  But for now, Steigg rushes out of the saloon when he sees the military outside—and some weekend warrior wanders in with a Geiger counter, which naturally sees a peg in the meter because Steigg has come and went. 

In a scene shift, Chet pays neurologist and ex-boxer Kenneth Norton (Nelson Leigh) a visit to get some more information on the elusive Dr. Steigg.

NORTON (reading from a book): “Wilhelm Steigg…born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1893…University of Berlin…Zurich…Milan…1948 Harmon Prize for his research in amygdala stimuli…”
WALKER: Amygdala stimuli…what’s that?
NORTON: Ultra-shortwave stimulations to specific parts of the brain…producing…involuntary movements of the body…
WALKER: That’s highly specialized stuff…
NORTON: Yeah…a number of stories have been published about amygdala stimulation of monkeys…here’s one of them (He hands Chet a magazine) Appropriations have been made for research and development…and there’s a doctor in Madrid who’s made great advances since this article was published…
WALKER: Have you…uh…been conducting any experiments here at the hospital?
NORTON: No…but I have a short film that I told you about…would you like me to run it?

I kind of lost it at this moment, because this scene reminds me of a similar sequence in Tarantula (1955), where the action involving the ginormous menace comes to a standstill just so Raymond Bailey can show John Agar a nature film.  Walker is quite impressive by the film featuring the doggie, and it prods him to query Norton as to whether the experiments Steigg was working on could be used on human beings.

NORTON: Are you trying to connect the experiments with animals with the mysterious events of our city?
WALKER: It would answer the riddle, wouldn't it?  Remote-controlled creatures…their brains powered by atomic energy…roaming the streets…directed from a central point…
NORTON: Utterly fantastic

Interesting if true!  Walker intercepts a phone call from Harris, who lets him know about the events concerning Steigg at the tavern.  The good doctor himself is getting a tongue-lashing from Buchanan, who berates Steigg for being so stupid as to walk around decent folk.  So Buchanan instructs his employee to “prepare” Franchot for a mission…one in which he will eliminate Walker once and for all.

Back in Camden’s office, the chief and the mayor learn from Harris and Walker that Banning and Dunn decided maybe it might be a good idea after all if they spent a day or two sampling the city’s hospitality in the pokey…thereby avoiding any potential death or other nastiness.  Their conversation is interrupted by a phone call, and Camden is put in contact with one of Buchanan’s zombie assassins (whom Buchanan speaks through):

ZOMBIE/BUCHANAN: You will stop all planes and trucks searching for radioactivity…I will give you until 3:00 this afternoon to do this…if you do not…many people will be killed exactly one hour later
CAMDEN: Who is this?  Who is this?
ZOMBIE/BUCHANAN: There will be no other warning

And the zombie hangs up.  (He does not, however, check the change slot.)

MAYOR: What do you think, Dr. Walker?  Could he…or they…or whatever these creatures are…could they do this thing?
WALKER: There’s no definite knowledge as to what they can or cannot do!
MAYOR: Then they must be stopped!
MAYOR: Well…

“Clearly I need to appoint a committee to look into the matter, and instruct them to release their findings after six months!”  No, that will take too long…and anyway—Buchanan is probably just bluffing.

Nope…he was not bluffing.  Over a montage of buses, trains, planes, buildings and other explodiating things a montage of scary newspaper headlines appear…prompting the Governor to make this pronouncement on television:

As Governor, I am declaring a state of emergency…all police facilities have been alerted to prevent any further crimes by so-called atomic creatures…the state militia will assist in patrolling all traffic…all scheduled transportation shall be cancelled until further notice…if you must go outside, have identification papers with you!  The radium-finding planes and trucks will continue to operate—since this is our best hope of locating the source of these beings…do not be alarmed, as we are confident that we will soon pinpoint the origin of these emanations…all possible measures for your safety are being taken…

This is exactly what Alex Jones has been warning us about all these years—wake up, sheeple!  Buchanan turns off the television set to put a halt to the Guv’s bloviating.  Steigg, having crapped his pants, is anxious to dismantle the laboratory and head for the hills…but Buchanan hasn’t quite satisfied his lust for revenge.  “There are two more yet…to say nothing of that bright boy, Dr. Walker,” he growls.  Steigg tries to tell him that it would be futile to put the snatch on Walker in an effort to learn the whereabouts of Banning and Dunn, but Buchanan waves him away and orders him to create another zombie.

Chet escapes being captured by the zombie—a revived Franchot dressed in military garb—only because he asks Harris to drive his car over to the lab so that “the boys” can adjust his Geiger counter.  This means that Dave makes the supreme sacrifice in this film by falling into the clutches of the villains, who zombify his ass and use him to find the two remaining men for which Buchanan is carrying a grudge.  To be honest, I don’t precisely know how an individual looking like this…

…doesn’t rouse the suspicion of the man guarding Banning and Dunn, but Harris slips through and dispatches both of them.  Harris becomes badly damaged during his mission—something to do with the especially constructed “neurons” being shot away by all the bullets—but he’s able to lead Walker and the rest to Buchanan’s hideout, where the ex-mobster is finally dealt with by being shot by the heroic Chet.  Go science.

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) has quite a following among sci-fi schlock fans.  Jeff Stafford describes it as “a superior B-horror film with sci-fi elements and a crime syndicate subplot,” and he’s half-right on that.  I found Creature to be outrageously goofy at times, its script by Curt Siodmak simply reworks elements of Curt’s best-known work, the novel Donovan’s Brain.  (Siodmak, brother of famed noir director Robert, was also famous in film circles for writing the screenplay of the classic horror movie The Wolf Man, as well as contributing to the likes of The Invisible Man Returns and I Walked with a Zombie.)

Still, I was attracted to poke fun at Creature after writing a profile on its leading man, actor Richard Denning.  Growing up, I knew Denning as the governor of the Aloha State on Hawaii Five-O (some people older than I might remember him as the “husband” on Lucille Ball’s proto-I Love Lucy series My Favorite Husband on radio) but the man graced a lot of science fiction programmers like Creature: Unknown Island (1948), Target Earth (1954), Day the World Ended (1955), and The Black Scorpion (1957).  Denning’s best-known sci-fi outing was Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), where he competed with dull scientist Richard Carlson for the attention of bodacious bathing suit-wearer Julia Adams.  (Technically, Denning was a third wheel—because the Gill-Man also had designs on Adams as well.)

Apart from Denning—unless you consider Tristam Coffin (a veteran of serials and B-westerns) and Pierre Watkin (also a cliffhanger-oater mainstay—though some might remember him as the guy giving W.C. Fields “hearty handclasps” in The Bank Dick) major movie players—Creature is pretty much populated with a lot of Columbia Studios contractees who never quite grabbed the brass ring of stardom.  Edward L. Cahn (who also did The She-Creature [1957] and Invasion of the Saucer Men [1957]) helmed this mess, and while some have singled out his economic direction as a plus (he forewent a lot of tedious talking-head shots to save time and money) it’s pretty obvious Cahn wasn’t ever going to move beyond anything other than journeyman status.  (Incidentally, Cahn also recycled the concept for Creature in another film, 1959’s Invisible Invaders—which features aliens inhabiting corpses.)  Creature originally played on a double-bill with the considerably better It Came from Beneath the Sea, and is available on DVD as part of the collection Sam Katzman: Icons of Horror.  (Really?  “Icons of Schlock” would be more accurate.)

Watching movies like Creature with the Atom Brain, you might wonder to yourself: is it really worth writing out a check on behalf of film preservation if this is the sort of thing to expect?  I say yay, yay and thrice yay—even though the merits of a movie like Creature are debatable, film itself is a recorded history of our times and our culture, and we need to concentrate on saving every foot of cinema that we can.  Please donate generously.