Musings of a B-Film Junkie

The Gorilla, 1939
I put a DVD of the 1939 film, The Gorilla, into the player and sat back to watch. Bela Lugosi (above, centre) starred beside the Ritz Brothers (trio above), a popular American comedy trio contemporary with the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers. This would be the last year the Ritz Brothers worked for Fox; they stopped making films entirely in 1943. It’s the first full film of theirs I’ve seen, but am not impressed.

Lugosi is best known for his starring role in the 1931 film, Dracula. After which he was typecast as the villain, mostly in horror and monster films. Some of which were great (or at least watchable for those who love the genres), many weren’t. Despite his attempts to get into other genres, most of his roles stayed in that narrow vein, mostly in B-films. His final “A” film was the 1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which I would personally have rated a B-plus-film), but he continued making B- and C-films until 1955, the year before his death. In the mid-1930s, he played the protagonist in the entertaining fantasy, Chandu the Magician, and later its 12-part sequel, The Return of Chandu.

But sometime in the mid-1930s, Lugosi had become addicted to morphine and later methadone, administered for painful sciatica, and only checked into a clinic for help in 1955. By then it was too late: he died in ’56.

The Ritz Brothers, in this film, look like poor mimics of other comedy groups. And where each character in the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges was unique, with highly differentiated styles, dialogue, and acting, the Ritz Brothers seemed interchangeable clones: indistinguishable from one another. Their work here seems derivative and thin.

The Gorilla was shot in black and white, of course, although colour movies were already being made (Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz being the two most famous). It co-starred Lionel Atwill, a polished English actor with a string of credits to his name; this, however, was not his best work. Nor was it Lugosi’s. Although I’ve enjoyed many of his films, in this one he felt wooden; going through the motions without any real effort. 

The GorillaBilled as a “horror-comedy,” I hoped it would be better — much better — than it was, something more along the Chandu lines. While not the worst B-film I’ve ever seen, it’s a long way from the best. And I’ve seen worse gorilla costumes in movies. Not often, however.

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Still Watching the Three Stooges

The original Three StoogesThere’s a bittersweet pleasure in watching the Three Stooges these days, knowing about them, their careers, their lives. What seems like zany comedy on screen was, like so many celebrity stories, much more complex, contentious, and even tragic at times. But there’s also an insuppressible joy in their work that keeps drawing me back to watch more. Moe, Larry, and Curly (and Shemp) will always bring a smile to my face. The subsequent replacements for Curly sometimes will, too, although not as often.

And with more than 200 film credits to their names, running from 1930 to 1970 in both shorts and feature films, there’s a lot to watch. One hundred and ninety of those short films were for Columbia Pictures alone (1934-59). These can be seen today online or in DVD collections from Sony (released as multi-year sets from 1934 to ’59, and as 17- or 20-disc collections; yes, of course, I have them). There are 51 other films or shorts in which they collectively starred or have a role, 17 of which were newsreels or bio-shorts.

And that doesn’t include all the films several of them made solo (Shemp Howard in particular was prolific) nor their 156-episode cartoon series, The New Three Stooges, that included live-action segments, and ran from 1965-66. And even this doesn’t show off their impressive careers that began in the 1920s in vaudeville. Moe Howard was performing on stage with his friend Ted Healy in 1923, joined by his brother Shemp in 1924. Louis Feinberg — aka Larry Fine — joined them in 1928. The three would appear with Healy in their first film, Soup to Nuts (1930), but parted ways with Healy over a contractual dispute. For a couple of years, the trio performed onstage as “The Three Lost Soles” and “Howard, Fine, and Howard.”

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Big G and Me

GojiraOne of my fondest childhood memories is sitting between my parents on a warm summer night, on the front seat of the family car, watching a movie through the windshield, above the dashboard. A single, metal-wrapped speaker hung from the glass of the half-opened window on the driver’s side. A box of salty popcorn passed between us, soft drinks too. Around us were dozens of other cars, all facing the giant outdoor screen, their occupants nothing more than dark shadows. Behind us was a low, concrete building with a screen-facing opening where we could buy snacks and drinks.

It was a treat to be allowed to stay up late, far later than the usual bedtime, to go to the drive-in, and many a night I fell asleep on the backseat as we drove home to the cottage along the unlit, unpaved rural roads a few miles from the village of Penetang. My immersion in film culture began early in this environment.

The films we watched were mostly what are called B-films; standard drive-in fare, many of them shot in stark B&W. What I liked best were the monster and scifi films: The Attack of the Crab Monsters, Them!, Forbidden Planet, The Mysterians, and others. Often scary for a youngster, but mostly a lot of fun. Sitting there with the comforting presence of my parents in the confines of the small car while the stars shone above the big screen usually made it less scary. While we likely saw also other films there – musicals, thrillers, westerns, romances – the only ones I can recall are the scary ones.

From the latter half of the 1950s until around 1962, we went to the drive-in frequently every summer. Then, circumstances forced my parents to sell the cottage. I don’t think I ever went back to another drive-in theatre after that. I did, however, watch many similar films on the small, black & white TV set in our living room – rainy day viewing on the four or five channels we received back then. Once hooked, I didn’t stop watching.

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One Million B.C.(E.)

One Million BC(E)
You can’t help but chuckle when Tumak runs down the rocky slope to battle the baby Triceratops (about the size of a Sheltie) and ends up rolling in the dirt with the all-too-obvious rubber model. I half-expected it to squeak like a dog toy.

Akoba and TumakIt’s just one of the many scenes in the 1940 version of One Million BC that make makes it fun to watch. Corny, yes, cheesy, perhaps. But mostly fun. And it was the top-grossing film of the year; that’s no small accomplishment.

The film is basically a Romeo-and-Juliet love story with a happier ending. Throw in some moralizing, a bit of clumsy sexism, warped Darwinism, paleontological anachronisms, some special effects (of sorts… although nominated for an Academy Award for those effects, today they are pretty comical, some even cringeworthy…) and you have a good movie. For its time. Those effects don’t stand up quite so well nigh-on eighty years later, what with out CGI-dense extravaganzas, but don’t give up on it too quickly.

Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, we have the Stone people with their Romeo (Tumak – Victor Mature) and the Shell people and their Julie (Loana – Carole Landis). And there’s no Mercutio. Or a friendly Friar Laurence. But there is Akhoba – Tumak’s brutal father (Lon Chaney Jr) who gives the film its pathos in a poignantly moral scene, and Ohtao, the friendly rival for Loana’s love who takes his loss of lover and spear who takes the whole competition with a smile.

Call it Romeo and Juliet lite. Without even a syllable worthy of The Bard, of course, since everything vocal in the movie is either a grunt, growl or a made-up word (both tribes seems to speak in single-word sentences and seem to have vocabularies limited to only a handful of words per tribe). Others have pondered more deeply over the language than I, but I did wonder if they only had nouns; verbs were to be discovered only sometime in the future.

Carole LandisAnd despite the cornball (and egregiously inaccurate) notion of dinosaurs and cavemen co-existing, or even cavemen of this level of advancement a million years ago, or the hard-to-watch battles between real lizards (cruelty of a sort no longer allowed in cinema – it is a disturbing part of the film, although the monster scenes were re-stitched into several other B-films in later years), there’s still enjoyable watching here. Assuming you like B-films, that is. To which I always answer in the affirmative.

It’s shot in glorious black and white, has no sex and the violence is very tame (no blood and very few deaths). Even the loincloths and costumes aren’t particularly titillating even for the time (no fur bikinis like Raquel Welch wore in the 1966 sexploitation remake). However, the rather demure Carole Landis looks pretty fetching in her outfit. For the women in the audience, the clean-shaven and frequently topless Victor Mature was considered a romantic hunk in his day. Their romance is remarkably chaste given their skimpy outerwear.
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The Mummy, the remake and the re-imagining

The Mummy, 1931Nineteen thirty-two. The year Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, was published. The Great Depression was at its worst. Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican Pres. Herbert Hoover to become the American president in a landslide win. Gandhi went on a hunger strike. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Eighty-four-year-old Paul von Hindenburg was re-elected president in April, defeating Adolf Hitler. Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was kidnapped from his New Jersey home. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the first scifi radio show was first aired. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington all had hit songs.

And in 1932 Boris Karloff starred in the Universal Picture’s film, The Mummy. It was a dark, brooding film shot in black and white, rich in noir-ish shadows and implied threat. It was inspired in part by the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the alleged curse that carried (spoiler alert: it didn’t) – the opening of the tomb was a worldwide pop culture event even a decade later – and also possibly by a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Ring of Thoth (1890).

But oddly enough, it was also a love story, one that stretched out through millennia. The iconic mummy costume – therefore the monster – is seen only for a short time at the start of the film, making it less visually scary than some films in the genre. Karloff, shorn of his wrappings, plays a newly-resurrected human – still pretty creepy in a restrained, almost gentlemanly way. And yet there’s a certain sympathy in the movie for the monster who remains in love. Roger Ebert even called his performance “poignant.”

The 1932 version, seen today, is far from scary, and more artistic than you might expect from a monster movie. The monster-into-man transition turns it into more of a suspense thriller than fright film. Universal came back with more traditional monster roles for the mummy in a series of low-budget remakes in the 1940s (most starring Lon Chaney Jr), but they failed to win over audiences or reviewers.

Universal had had significant successes with its first two monster films, both released in 1931: Frankenstein (also starring Karloff) and Dracula. These two would go on to spawn several sequels, but The Mummy never had a real sequel, although several “re-imagined” Mummy films would be made from 1940 through to the 1970s. Other monsters would join the party in the subsequent years: The Invisible Man, the Creature From the Black Lagoon and many more.
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Shin Godzilla: the reboot

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, of all the Godzilla films I’ve watched, I can recall the exact details of few. I cannot remember, just by looking at the title, which monsters were battling which. I need to look at the slipcase cover to see a picture to remind me which foe Godzilla was battling this time. Or foes, because there’s often more than one. In many ways, I prefer the original premise: a single Godzilla versus the world rather than Godzilla versus other monsters. Easier to keep track of the players that way. But that hasn’t happened in a Godzilla film since 1984. Until now, that is (I trust you have already read part one of this article).

Shin Godzilla posterIn my previous post I wrote about the original Godzilla film, Toho’s 1954 Gojira. This post is about the last (or rather, the latest, not including the recent anime release) film in the franchise.

Toho Studio’s Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence) rebooted the series once more after a 12-year hiatus, again returning to the root story to start afresh. It quickly proved the highest-grossing Japanese film in the series and received critical acclaim in Japan when it was released. It even won Picture of the Year and six other awards from the Japanese film academy.

It didn’t fare as well in the west, where many critics were lukewarm and some even hostile. Indiewire called it Godzilla’s “weirdest movie ever” although it recognized it as “a story about the logistics of dealing with an unimaginable disaster, and how the infrastructure of our society is the last line of defense we have in the face of a real crisis.” Empire magazine called it, “A sometimes shonky mix of puppetry, model-work and performance capture, the creature is still awe-inspiring in its size and city-stomping, skyscraper-roasting fury. Sadly, it also wears itself out quickly and then goes to sleep for an hour.”

That last is mightily unfair, but predictable in a Western review, because the film switches from action to character and theme development, something many North American viewers either dislike or misunderstand (perhaps the days when critics gushed over non-action (aka art) flicks like My Dinner with Andre may be well past us, or maybe it’s just a new generation of online critics who think Bruce Willis or Jason Statham have to be in a film to make it worth watching). But that development is core to Shin Godzilla because it’s not just a monster movie. It’s a subtle political satire and commentary, too.

Okay, maybe not so subtle, but it’s not an in-your-face satire like The Thick of It.
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