Wednesday, July 29, 2020

50 Years Ago Today in Cincinnati Theaters

It's fascinating to discover that these two films about transexuality opened on this same day, half a century ago. Also worth sharing is this Cincinnati ENQUIRER interview with the real life subject of the second film, in which she responds to the movie and its portrayal of her story.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Adventure Ahoy!

Yvonne de Carlo and Philip Friend on the high seas.
BUCCANEER'S GIRL (1950, Kino Lorber): Frankly, I wasn't expecting much more than a nice dose of classic Technicolor, but this candy-colored Universal International item turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Yvonne de Carlo stars as Deborah McCoy, a street-smart Boston girl who stows away on a ship that is unexpectedly overtaken by the hordes of notorious pirate Frederick Baptiste - initially believed to be the scraggly, eye-patched, old salt Jay C. Flippen. However, once she's discovered on-ship (disguised as a boy), she is taken to the real Baptiste, a handsome and intelligent military strategist played with elegance by Philip Friend. He puts her ashore in New Orleans, where she is recruited into a charm school run by a delightfully zaftig Elsa Lanchester, who sees her potential. (The Bride of Frankenstein and Lily Munster! What more could you want?) As the wily Debbie begins her groomed ascent in Louisiana society, she soon learns that the much-coveted millionaire bachelor Capt. Kingston and Baptiste are one and the same. He's engaged to another woman but she alone has the secret of knowing his double identity. 

 Jay C. Flippen and Friend.

Love ensues, naturally, along with a few terrific songs by Walter Scharf (WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY), and there's also a wealth of dramatic special effects shots of ships at full sail that would later be cannibalized as stock footage in the "Video Pirates" segment of AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON. Directed by Frederick de Cordova (BEDTIME FOR BONZO), the film never quite settles on whether it wants to be a romance, a comedy, or a musical, but manages to entertain on all these fronts, helped along by the sumptuous three-strip Technicolor photography of Russell Metty (TOUCH OF EVIL, SPARTACUS) and a stellar supporting cast that boasts Norman Lloyd ("Sinister Master of Intrigue!" as the trailer hails him), Henry Daniell, John Qualen, Connie Gilchrist, Douglas Dumbrille, and Ben Weldon. There's also a dandy (if somewhat dodgily recorded) audio commentary by Lee Gambin, who addresses the facts of production and promotion, the careers of the key players, and goes into some detail about the film from the angle of gender studies. With everything else it offers, the film is proven surprisingly available to such a reading and Gambin ensures that we'll see even more in this entertainment the second time around.

VISA TO CANTON (aka PASSPORT TO CHINA, 1960) / THE SCARLET BLADE (aka THE CRIMSON BLADE, 1963; both included in the box set HAMMER VOLUME V: DEATH AND DECEIT (Indicator UK): I don't know why - perhaps it was the bland colorlessness of the outer packaging, the genre and period, or perhaps even the fact that Michael Carreras directed - but I loaded this first disc from Indicator's latest Hammer box set expecting it to be in black-and-white. When it opened with a full color Columbia logo and fanfare, I was genuinely startled and - contrary to what the IMDb reviewers say - the feeling of surprise and discovery continued, for me, for the fairly brief duration of the picture. Neither of the film's titles is all that enticing, however this film - shot back-to-back with TERROR OF THE TONGS - is as clear-cut a diagram for what would soon become the James Bond series as I have seen. Eddie Constantine's first Lemmy Caution adventure POISON IVY (La môme vert-de-gris, 1954) would be another, but this film - despite being shot entirely at Bray Studios, with some documentary rear projection - conjures up an acceptable illusion of international glamour and sexual intrigue. 

Richard Basehart gambles with Milton Reid looking over his shoulder in VISA TO CANTON.
As was Hammer's habit at the time, American actor Richard Basehart (despite his smoldering voice, an Ohio boy) was imported to play the lead, a travel agent based in Hong Kong who is recruited to undertake an espionage mission behind enemy lines in communist China to rescue a member of his adopted family. There are some preposterous Chinese makeups applied to the likes of Athene Seyler, Marne Maitland, and Eric Pohlmann, but Bert Kwouk and Bernard Cribbins pop up in welcome roles and Lisa Gastoni is outstanding as the prototypical Bond girl - and not with subservience either, as she's the most experienced and capable spy of the lot. For all this, the film's most striking ingredient is the score of ITV's Edwin Astley, whose original spy music not only anticipates his later work on DANGER MAN and THE SAINT, but - as musicologist David Huckvale very entertainingly points out in his supplement, the work later done by John Barry on the Bond series. (I would add that its use of flute also prefigures a good deal of Jerry Goldsmith's work on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E..) This was Carreras' second feature as a director, following THE STEEL BAYONET (1957), and I found it capably done, and a good deal more than merely capable when Gastoni was involved.

Oliver Reed and Lionel Jeffries in THE SCARLET BLADE.

The other films in this DEATH AND DECEIT set are THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1962), THE SCARLET BLADE (1963), and THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR (1965), all swashbucklers of a sort directed by John Gilling, best known for THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE REPTILE, and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES - and each of them also a nice showcase for Hammer's new discovery, Oliver Reed. I had seen PIRATES before, which pits Kerwin Mathews (7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JACK THE GIANT KILLER) against a formidable Christopher Lee, and also BRIGAND, a sand-and-scimitar item that I recall as much weaker, but THE SCARLET BLADE was new to me and quite possibly the best of the lot. Set during the English Civil War, it's the story of the eponymous character (Jack Hedley) and his grass roots rebellion against the usurping Roundhead forces of Cromwell, personified by Colonel Judd (an uncommonly evil Lionel Jeffries) and intermediary replacement Major Bell (Duncan Lamont). Unknown to Judd, his own daughter (June Thorburn, previously in Gilling's FURY AT SMUGGLER'S BAY) is sympathetic to the rebels and assisting their cause, helped by the romantically ambitious Capt. Sylvester (Reed) whose betrayal she risks when she loses her heart to the Scarlet Blade. Also written by Gilling, the script is a nicely, teasingly balanced situation and the action pieces, stunt work, and so forth are all of exceptional caliber, with Hedley throwing himself headlong into much of the excitingly and dangerously choreographed action. The film's only fault is one of simple chemistry; as good as he is, Hedley doesn't have a leading man's face or aura and, even though Reed sometimes goes out of his way to look smarmy, he's ultimately on the sympathetic side and it's hard to believe there could ever be a contest between their crossed swords of charisma. Adding to the film's pleasures is Jack Asher's often extraordinary color cinematography, which encompasses a number of Bernard Robinson's set dressings from HORROR OF DRACULA and other Hammer favorites. Also, the uniforms worn here by the Roundheads surely did double duty later in the decade when Michael Reeves shot WITCHFINDER GENERAL and, though comparatively mild, this film occasionally raises memories of that later classic in other ways. You can count THE SCARLET BLADE among the company's very best ventures outside the realms of horror and fantasy.

Reed informs the rebel army of Jack Hedley (right) as gypsy Michael Ripper eyes him suspiciously.

Indicator have started including audio commentaries with this latest set, discontinuing their former talking head featurette approach. The talks for both of the films I've highlighted are by Kevin Lyons, author of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASTIC FILMS AND TELEVISION. From what I sampled of both, I found these a bit dry, being largely non-scene-specific and composed mostly of career details and trivia. This kind of material really lends itself better to the printed page, unless some measure of personal interpretation or insight is also brought to bear on the career arcs under discussion. Much more juicy are the lengthy off-the-cuff discussions of Gilling and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster that are offered respectively by Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby. The PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER commentary is ported over from a 2008 DVD release and features screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye, and moderator Marcus Hearne. THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR features a Vic Pratt commentary. The set also contains numerous other extras on each disc, and perpetuates the nice idea of having female film historians (Virginie Sélavy, Kat Ellinger, Josephine Botting, and Melanie Williams) profile the leading lady of each film, and musicologist and author David Huckvale's winning post-mortems of the various scores and their composers, which always enriches my appreciation of an oft-overlooked aspect of the filmmaking art.

At a glance, some might overlook this set or disregard it entirely because it collects work that's outside Hammer's foremost genre, but it embodies a generous helping of the work of two of the company's most interesting auteurs as well as some of their most celebrated associates. It's rewarding in unexpected ways. The set, which includes a 36-page color booklet of new essays and press kit reproductions, is Region B and strictly limited to 6,000 copies.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. (c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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Friday, July 24, 2020

They Came From Beyond Taste

Michael Gough as the Master of the Moon. No, I'm not kidding. 
(1967, 85m 12s; Kino Lorber)

In my opinion, the single best critical overview of Freddie Francis' uneven directorial career is to be found in  Paul M. Jensen's 1996 book THE MEN WHO MADE THE MONSTERS, which devotes a substantial chapter to him. An articulate defender, even Jensen makes few claims for THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, Francis' 1967 science fiction film for Amicus. 

He allows for a certain visual vitality early on (what Jensen calls "an atmosphere of dangerous uncertainty"), after which point it becomes merely "silly," as its hero Robert Hutton "spends nearly an hour of the film trying to learn what the audience already knows." (He's not much of an expert, staring at one point that "No propulsion system on Earth could get to the moon and back," not very long before one really did.) The film was apparently made back-to-back with another film by the company, Montgomery Tully's THE TERRORNAUTS, which was made first and gobbled up the greater share of the budget allotted for the pair, which left Francis in an unfortunate situation. As filmmaker David DeCoteau mentions in the audio commentary track he shares with David Del Valle, the film's real problem is that it has a lousy script. This is partly due to its literary source (a 1941 science fiction novel, THE GODS HATE KANSAS by Joseph Millard, that was naïve even by 1967 standards) and an adaptation by producer Milton Subotsky that was, intentionally or unwittingly, aimed at eight year-olds.

Believe it or not, these are the good guys.
Hutton plays Dr. Curtis Temple, the director of a scientific unit studying the possibility of extraterrestrial life - which, in itself, is kind of silly. He and his associates work in a spacious and largely empty room where is taped to the wall a poster of the Solar System that I had on the wall of my own room as a child, and the impressive floor is a mosaic interpretation of space that makes the operation site seem a repurposed Turkish bath house. Temple works closely with his fiancée Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne, an actress with a strange auburn bouffant and an endlessly jutting lower lip that seems to lead her from place to place). By a strange coincidence, just as we are getting to know them, they pick up a sighting of a series of what appear to be meteorites coming down to Earth, but they are in fact flying in a V formation. Just as it's casually mentioned that Temple has a steel implant covering part of his brain from an old war injury, Lee and some others visit the Cornwall site where the meteorites have fallen. As an attempt is made to take a sample of them, Lee is "taken over" by something within, and she commands the other meteorites to seize the other men in the group similarly. ("The brains of these primitives seem quite suitable for our purposes; we have made a most excellent choice," says one, staring dully into camera.)

Jennifer Jayne as Lee Mason - programmed by the Moonies.
What follows then for awhile is a fusion of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1955) and QUATERMASS II (1957), as the men and women possessed by alien intelligence set up a base to serve as headquarters to an imminent invasion - not from another planet, but from our own Moon. It is quickly learned by the Moon people that Temple is exempt from their takeover tactics thanks to his steel plate, and when he belatedly figures this out, he pays a visit to the only man he can still trust, his brilliant colleague Farge (Zia Mohyeddin), with whom he designs and creates a colander-like helmet (melted down from Farge's beloved loving cup awards from dog shows!) to protect him, a pair of bizarre Cronenbergian goggles with the ability to see through the Moonies' earthly disguises, and a special ray gun - all in what seems the space of an afternoon. Then they proceed to invade Earth's first Moonbase and take on none other than the egomaniacal Master of the Moon (Michael Gough, in a role he was obviously born to play), attended by shirtless, pot-bellied servants dressed like Mickey Hargitay's Crimson Executioner in BLOODY PIT OF HORROR. Since I've told you most everything, I'll say no more of the story except that Temple's climactic meeting with the Master of the Moon aspires to a note of corny, wiser-than-thou irony; it might have played that way on the page in 1941 (pardon my skepticism) but onscreen it's just a chorus of raspberries.

Luanshya Greer - an interesting character who deserved a better film.
Francis is on record as having said that he really wasn't all that keen on horror, and THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE argues that he had even less affinity for science fiction. It seems he took Subotsky's script and simply carried on (a la Nurse, Teacher, Constable, Cabby and Cleo), doing what he could with what little he had.

Despite the director's cavalier handling, I was still able to find a meager measure of enjoyment in the film by approaching it as an unexpected adjunct to what I've called "Continental Op/Pop" cinema. Consequently, the film can be approached as a demonstration reel of visual solutions to various problems.

Once our heroes penetrate the Moonbase, Don Mingaye (Hammer's resident art director) gives the film some scenic panache that evokes Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK, made around the same time. (The scale model special effects by Les Bowie, however, find the budget pinching badly.) DP Norman Warwick's pictorial interaction with the minimal sets, often from oblique and exaggerated angles that wisely stress form and geometry over content, complemented with quick cutting during action sequences and a wildly jazzy score by James Stevens, lends the proceedings a certain comic-book dynamism. Indeed, the Stevens score alone would relate this film in a fraternal sort of way to Amicus' later film SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970), with its Edgar Wallace krimi-inspired jazz score by David Whitaker.

This film has had previous releases on VHS and DVD, but the new Kino Lorber release is its first appearance on Blu-ray (85m 12s). This 1.85:1 presentation sourced from Studiocanal is undoubtedly an all-time best; the colors are bold, the image sharp, and it has a decent mono track. The Del Valle / DeCoteau commentary is pretty much a lively bull session about a film neither of them likes very much; each makes worthwhile observations, and there's a personal reminiscence by Del Valle of a backstage encounter with Michael Gough. As it's all improvised, there are occasional whoopsie-daisies (Honor Blackman played Emma Peel, "Freddie Fisher," etc) but if you're feeling forgiving and a need for some sassy solace after watching the main feature, here's your ticket. There's also a theatrical trailer. Available on Blu-ray and DVD at a persuasive price. 
(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Going Ape With Scream Factory, Part 3

Acquanetta is examined by new mad doctor J. Carrol Naish in JUNGLE WOMAN.
The second film in the Paula the Ape Woman series is JUNGLE WOMAN (1944), directed by Reginald LeBorg. LeBorg is best remembered for a handful of later horror films, including THE BLACK SLEEP and DIARY OF A MADMAN. JUNGLE WOMAN has the reputation of being one of Universal's most disposable chillers because it's almost entirely told in flashbacks as Dr. Carl Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish) is tried for Paula's murder in a judge's (Samuel S. Hinds) private chambers, with the now-married principals of CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (Milburn Stone, Evelyn Ankers) occasionally chipping in their recollections, prompting more stock footage from CWW and THE BIG CAGE than seems quite decent. As noted in my last installment, there are no transformation scenes; in fact, the only view given of Paula in her half-ape form is withheld for a single shot at the end of the picture. Laid out in synopsis form, it doesn't sound very promising - and yet I personally find JUNGLE WOMAN to be the most interesting of the three films in terms of its approach to generating horror scenes. LeBorg wasn't a first rank horror director, but you can see him turning the disadvantages of this production to their best advantage with a series of interesting and sometimes very effective set pieces - the opening attack (staged with doubles in silhouette), the attempted development of Acquanetta's Paula - now with actual lines to speak - into a kind of B-movie version of Simone Simon's Irena in Jacques Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE (1941), and especially a sequence in which a swimming Paula sets out to avenge her hair-trigger jealousy against this film's romantic couple (Lois Collier, Richard Davis) as they enjoy a moonlit boat row. The single shot of the submarine Paula's arrow-like wake closing in on the rear of the rowboat is one of Universal's most effective frissons of the 1940s, looking ahead to a special form of aqueous horror that would not come fully about until CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) or JAWS (1975).

Vicky Lane in Paula makeup by Universal's resident genius, Jack Pierce.
THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE followed its troubled predecessor by a full year, and its release was muted by placing it in many theaters as the co-feature on double bills with Universal's latest Inner Sanctum picture THE FROZEN GHOST, both films directed by Harold Young (THE MUMMY'S TOMB). At least it had display ads in newspapers - a prowl through newspaper archives indicates that Universal hadn't wished to draw undue attention to JUNGLE WOMAN. The script takes a horror pulp premise, a standard romantic back story (Amelita Ward, Phil Brown) and wedges Paula's rocky legacy into it. She is now played by 18 year old Vicky Lane, born to an American mother in Dublin, who - in a disclosure that must have mortified Universal's publicity department - described herself to reporters as "Black Irish." She was also, already at her young age, the wife of actor Tom Neal, the star of Edgar Ulmer's DETOUR. She does not in the least resemble Acquanetta, looking like an all-American sweater girl than and exotic import, but the makeup and hair department did their best to emulate her predecessrors' distinctive coiffure. Lane had actually appeared uncredited in a few earlier films (including Douglas Sirk's HITLER'S MADMAN), but this was her first credited film role - and her last.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 29, 1945.
Lane's inheritance of Acquanetta's duties is lacking in a convincing feral nature in either of her personas, and Universal seems to have deliberately deprived Paula of central attention by casting their "monster without makeup" star Rondo Hatton as Moloch, the henchman of the film's mad scientist, who is always firmly addressed as Mr. Stendhal (DRACULA'S DAUGHTER's Otto Kruger). Usually cast in silent roles, Hatton gets a surprising amount of dialogue and an even more surprising amount of lip from Stendhal, who lambastes the poor man's moonstruck reactions to heroine Ann Forrester (Ward) with unbelievable lines like "you're not exactly a Casanova, you know," and adding with a glance at the nearby Ape Woman, "that's more in your line." Harold Young, whose specialty seems to have been movies like BACHELOR DADDY and JUKEBOX JENNY, doesn't come near the atmosphere his cameraman George Robinson gave to THE MUMMY'S GHOST; his cameraman here was Maury Gertsman, a longtime Universal DP who was dealt this as his first horror picture. The studio was pleased enough with his Rondo Hatton scenes to place him in charge of the visuals on the rest of the films Hatton would make for the studio: HOUSE OF HORRORS and THE BRUTE MAN (both scripted by this film's author, Dwight V. Babcock), as well as the relatively woebegone one-shot, SHE WOLF OF LONDON.

In many ways, it's the audio commentaries that raise UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 5 to the level of a reference necessity, especially for anyone who doesn't already own Tom Weaver's UNIVERSAL HORRORS or Greg Mank's WOMEN IN HORROR FILMS two-volume set. As always, Weaver's THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL and CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (he's assisted by Steve Kronenberg on the former) are smart, feisty, often amusing talks that succeed as entertainment as much as production studies. He imports vocal performances by Larry Blamire and Lucy Chase Williams to fill in for Edward Dmytryk and Acquanetta, and pokes his nose into all sorts of production trivia and data - including a TMI explanation for John Carradine's aversion to white pants. Mank's JUNGLE WOMAN commentary is impeccably snappy, detailed, and expressive, its every shift and silence perfectly timed to the onscreen action; it's about as perfectly and tightly (yet smoothly) executed a commentary as I've heard. Scott Gallinghouse's JUNGLE CAPTIVE commentary is a bit dry by comparison, with some unannounced gaps, but there is no faulting his documentation, an exhaustive report on the making of the picture with special attention reserved for Rondo Hatton.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Going Ape With Scream Factory, Part 2

John Carradine unveils Acquanetta in Edward Dmytryk's CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN.
In the 1930s, Universal produced a series of ambitious sequels to their horror hits, ranging from DRACULA'S DAUGHTER to 1939's epic SON OF FRANKENSTEIN; but in the 1940s, their approach to sequels became more influenced by serials than any attempt to improve on what had been done before. As several horror scholars have noted, their approach to their Mummy series was fecund enough but also swollen with stock footage and a complete disregard for the characters, geography, and chronology established by previous entries. These films have already been released on Blu-ray, as has their highly varied Invisible Man series (which even includes an INVISIBLE WOMAN); however, it has not been until recently - with the release of Scream Factory's UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 5 - that Universal's entire trilogy of "Paula, the Ape Woman" movies has been made available on disc. The entire series was issued on VHS and through Universal's MOD DVD-R "Vault Series," but only CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN had a general DVD release as part of the 2009 set UNIVERSAL HORROR: CLASSIC MOVIE ARCHIVE, where it was paired with THE BLACK CAT, MAN MADE MONSTER, HORROR ISLAND, and NIGHT MONSTER.  

The Scream Factory release presents beautifully restored copies of CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE WOMAN, and THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE, along with Paramount's THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (reviewed yesterday). The four films (each barely over - or under - an hour) are spread over four discs with audio commentaries, still galleries and trailers. There's also a full-color booklet but its content is almost entirely photographic, without an accompanying essay. The set is priced at a notch below $70, which rounds off to just under $18 per movie. Some reviewers have complained that the set is over-priced, given the length of the movies (and the extent of the stock footage contained within a couple of them), but it should be noted that the audio commentaries by Universal historians Tom Weaver (UNIVERSAL HORRORS), Greg Mank ( KARLOFF AND LUGOSI and Scott Gallinghouse (SCRIPTS FROM THE CRYPT: THE BRUTE MAN) are valuable additions to the set. Admittedly, these are hardly essential titles for the average horror fan, but they are of fair significance to genre buffs with a specific interest in Universal horror or 1940s mad science horror of any stripe.

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN is of somewhat greater general interest than the others as it was one of the later B-pictures made during the early phase of his career by director Edward Dmytryk. Before he became established as the director of such films as MURDER, MY SWEET and THE CAINE MUTINY, Dmytryk honed his skills on pictures like THE DEVIL COMMANDS, CONFESSIONS OF BOSTON BLACKIE, THE FALCON STRIKES BACK, and this mad science caper, which is as lean and taut a 1940s thriller as you're likely to find. It not only incorporates a fair amount of stock footage from an earlier Universal adventure picture, 1933's THE BIG CAGE, which was built around documentation of famous animal tamer Clyde Beatty at work, but took a chunk of its actual storyline itself, which was about a circus on the verge of bankruptcy gambling on a comeback by having Beatty tame lions and tigers in a cage at the same time. In CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, this is the scheme of animal tamer Fred Mason (GUNSMOKE's Milburn Stone), who's counting on its success so that he can marry pretty Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers). While on his latest expedition to Africa, Mason found and brought back a gorilla he named Cheela (Ray "Crash" Corrigan), whose responses to him are almost human. In a bit of handy exposition that changes the story just enough to not be identical to the Beatty film it's swiping from, Beth is given a depressed sister with a glandular problem, which brings her into the orbit of debonair scientist Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine), who is fascinated by the circus and takes her up on an invitation for a behind-the-scenes visit. It is during this visit that Walters observes Cheela's human streak, and since he's completely unbalanced, he decides to have the primate abducted and taken to his secret laboratory. His glandular research enables him to extract Cheela's most human essence in the form of an attractive girl, whom he names Paula Dupree. When Walters visits the circus with her in tow, everyone is astounded at her innate ability to control the animals, even a battling lion and tiger. To make a long story short and a short movie shorter, horror ensues.

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943) isn't great but it is admirably efficient of its kind. It does a splendid fluid job of matching up with the BIG CAGE footage, and Stone (who is a great help in selling those illusions) and Ankers have more chemistry than most Universal romantic couples. Naturally, Corrigan is not nearly so convincing a gorilla as Charlie Gemora in THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, but the real show here is Carradine at his most icily menacing. There is a great moment when he engineers the death of the man he's hired to abduct Cheela, once the job's been done. We don't see any of the violence; Dmytryk trains our attention to Carradine's face, which doesn't blink once as the man is being torn apart in front of him. And then there is Acquanetta's portrayal of Paula, as close to Germany's Alraune as American cinema had ever come to creating a daughter of mad science. Like Alraune, she's both monster and glamour girl, and Aquanetta's mute (and to an extent, blank) performance lends Paula an impenetrable mystery. Of course, she is essentially unknown even to herself until those occasions when her sexual jealousy of Beth causes her simian glands to reassert themselves, darkening her in color, sprouting hair, and reverting Paula to her true nature.

There was something about Paula's transformations into the Ape Woman that was troubling to the critic with the US communist newspaper THE DAILY WORKER. He complained that CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN was promoting Hitler's racist conception of black people being subhuman and ape-like. There had apparently always been some distrust of how Acquanetta - whose full name she claimed to be Burnu Acquanetta - represented herself. A full year before CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, the Salt Lake Tribune (28 July 1942) carried this caption to one of her early Universal promotional shots: 

Here's a sidebar of Acquanetta's full account of her personal history, as published in the Tallahassee Democrat (Tallahassee, FL) , 30 July 1942:

The DAILY WORKER rants enflamed curiosity, curiosity led to rumor, rumor led to former acquaintances coming forth and speaking out, and Universal bowed to pressure during the filming of the sequel JUNGLE WOMAN - not only by omitting any and all transformation scenes from the picture but by postponing any view of the Ape Woman at all until the last 50 seconds of the movie! By the time the filming was completed, Universal had undertaken their own private investigation of Acquanetta's personal history and learned the truth: "Burnu Acquanetta" was in fact the former Mildred Davenport of Pennsylvania, an 18 year old African-American woman. By this time the word was out, JUNGLE WOMAN (1944) was already in the can. Even as Universal was quietly tearing up her contract, they still had a picture to promote, so they ballyhooed her as "the exotic, dark-skinned, dark-haired American beauty who hoodwinked the entertainment world into thinking she was South American," while praising her latest performance as "even more intriguing and effective" than her work in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN. The truth was out, and it would come out even more loudly in 1950, as Acquanetta sought an enriching divorce from millionaire Luciano Baschuk, who claimed that - despite the son they shared - they had never been properly married. Acquanetta would be replaced by Vicky Lane in the final Paula the Ape Woman film. When Universal first issued their horror films to television as the famous "Shock Theater" package, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN and THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE were included, but the controversial JUNGLE WOMAN was mysteriously withheld. My own newspaper archives research shows that the film wasn't shown on television in North America until June 1972 - an absence from circulation of 28 years.

Though well-intentioned, the DAILY WORKER's righteous outrage against the film was misplaced; a time-lapsed transformation of any human actor into Ape Creature would have had to transition to a darker phase to get from Stage 1 to Stage 3. All that was ultimately achieved for making an issue out of this non-story was the public embarrassment of a black woman and the willful destruction of her career - the career of the first African-American actress to achieve name-above-the-title stardom in movies that were not advertised with the words "All Colored Cast." Some might see her downfall (some downfall, she always married and remarried well!) as Acquanetta's rightful comeuppance for denying her race, but was what she did really all that different from what separated Archie Leach from Cary Grant, or Ruby Stevens from Barbara Stanwyck, or the lies that Hollywood studios regularly concocted about their stars to fuel the gossip columns?

I'll delve into JUNGLE WOMAN and THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE tomorrow. 

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Going Ape With Scream Factory, Part I

Philip Terry as Scot, Charles Gemora as his simian alter ego in THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL. 
Scream Factory's UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 5 focuses on Universal's Paula the Ape Woman series (CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE WOMAN, and JUNGLE CAPTIVE, 1943-1945) and appends a well-chosen, earlier ape-meets-mad-science B-title from Paramount, THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941). 

An early directorial achievement by former editor Stuart Heisler (PETER IBBETSON), THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL is a remarkably sensitive potboiler about Scot Webster (Philip Terry), a young man from small town America, who moves to "the Big City" with his sister Susan (Ellen Drew), where he is quickly framed for murder by gangsters (spearheaded by Paul Lukas) who have dragged his innocent sibling into prostitution. Scot is tried, found guilty, and sent to Death Row, where he is approached by the hat-in-hand Dr. Parry (George Zucco, in the first of many demented doctor portrayals), who persuades him to bequeath his brain to science. Scot is too depressed to be anything but amenable, and when the big day comes, he dies only to reawaken inside the body of a powerful gorilla - inter-species transplantations being Dr. Parry's pet project. The soulful-eyed primate then embarks on a spine-crushing spree, eliminating the crooks who played him for a patsy and are making his sister's life a living hell.
George Zucco and Gemora in another portrait pose.

Working from a script by Stuart Anthony, who had previously written Heisler's breakthrough film THE BISCUIT EATER (1940) as well as Charlie Chan's forays into London and Paris, the early scenes of Heisler's film are surprisingly Lewtonesque - muted, soulful, introspective, noir-like - which is odd because this film was released in February 1941, while Lewton's first horror picture CAT PEOPLE didn't come out until December of the following year. It wouldn't surprise me if Lewton had chosen Ellen Drew to star in ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) on the basis of her work and general look in this film. It's a similarity that Tom Weaver tags in his commentary as Drew makes her first appearance stepping forth from an abstract plane of mist, over dubbing her opening words with "I walked with a zombie...", though he takes the comparison no further. But the film's early scenes, establishing a flashback structure interweaving the sibling's small town life, their gentle mutually supportive relationship, and the subsequent trial, share much of the way Lewton had his characters portrayed in CAT PEOPLE, THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), and particularly THE SEVENTH VICTIM (also 1943), where another sheltered small town girl follows a sibling to a dark metropolis, only to be confronted with the myriad dark dangers of Gotham. Photographed by Victor Milner (LOVE ME TONIGHT, DARK CITY), the film never forfeits its noir atmosphere even as its story shifts gears into a horror pulp "body count" saga. 

What holds the film's schisms together is the performance of Charles Gemora as the ape, in an ape suit of his own design. Gemora had previously played apes in Tarzan films, in Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and BLONDE VENUS with Marlene Dietrich, but he created his most ambitious ape suit for this film. Some 80 years later, this film's gorilla illusions remain among the most convincing ever filmed, and its not only due to the impeccable costume but to Gemora's soulful performance. Only Rick Baker has exceeded Gemora's work in this area, adding contact lenses to his masterworks, but Gemora is here portraying a gorilla with a man's brain, so the appreciably human gaze behind his bestial features is what finally sells the whole picture. But Heisler doesn't stop there, peppering the cast with numerous names we happily exclaim when these familiars of ours loom into view: Joseph Calleia, Gerald Mohr, and Marc Lawrence as Lukas' supremely slimy cohorts, plus Edward van Sloan, Robert Paige, Cliff Edwards, and Dave Willock, to name a few. There's also a little dog, Skipper, who has a heart-tugging relationship with Scot that picks up where it left off when he crosses paths with the ape.

To paraphrase what UNIVERSAL HORRORS author Tom Weaver (intending to shock) says in his commentary: pound for pound, Paramount might actually have been THE top horror studio of the 1930s and '40s, given the consistently high quality of such pictures as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, Rouben Mamoulian's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, MURDERS IN THE ZOO, SUPERNATURAL (now available from Kino Lorber with my audio commentary), THE CAT AND THE CANARY, AMONG THE LIVING, and particularly THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL. Despite its bland title and relatively short running time, it is an indisputable gem of the period and well worth discovering. 

Tomorrow I'll begin dealing with the Paula the Ape Woman films as a set.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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