Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lugosi Swears!? Ghosts on the Loose (1943)

Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
At no point in time does the viewer witness ANY ghosts (as the title suggest) or skeletons (as the poster suggests)

I first heard about Ghosts on the Loose while reading Lee Server’s biography, Ava Gardner: “Love is Nothing”.  Server described the film (which was Ava’s first credited substantial role) as a rushed mess of a production. He continued to state that the picture garnered cult popularity in the 1940s because “teenage doofuses” would catch repeat viewings under the belief that Bela Legosi blurted out the word “shit” while sneezing during a particular scene.  This, of course, was a time when the Hay’s Code was in full effect and such transgressions were unheard of in the movie industry. So, in a gesture that would make any “teenage doofus” proud, I rushed to find the film and see the shoddy swear-laced piece of cinema history for myself (Having now seen the film, I agree with Server in believing that Lugosi, a man of Hungarian descent, simply said the Hungarian word for “Achoo!” It hardly sounded like “shit” at all).

Bela Lugosi, in an odd comedic turn, plays a Nazi sympathizer who hides his  fascist propaganda in the cellar of a house that a group of bonehead teenagers (East Side Kids) were cleaning up for two newlyweds. Yes....that is the entire summary of the plot in a single sentence.

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall as Mugs and Glimpy
The movie was a continuation of the “East Side Kids” series of films. They were a group of young adults, formerly known as “The Dead End Kids” (of Angels with Dirty Faces fame), who behaved like a lame blend between the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello. This is not to say that I did not find them somewhat amusing. Although much of their comedy has aged worse than expired milk, I did chuckle at a gag or two, and was kept mildly amused throughout. Granted, a healthy portion of my amusement generated from the films inferior quality. The slightly racist undertones reflected in the Black kid’s character agonizingly creaks  with age and certainly hurt my enjoyment of the movie (Dealing with some of the more unsavory ideals of the time are an unfortunate byproduct of my passion for classic film).

The picture was certainly the harried mess Server claimed it was.  Director William Beaudine (known famously as “One-Take” Beaudine) blew through the filming process at break-neck speed, completing it in just six days. The quality of this method of shooting is painfully apparent. He overuses the fade in a vain attempt to disguise his squalid style. In an early scene Leo Gorcey, the Moe-like stooge in the East Side Kids, dropped a piece of sheet music. As the camera cuts from and then back to him, he is seen with the sheet music magically back in hand. Blunders like this and "One-Take's" choppy unimaginative shooting can be seen throughout the movie.

The only advantage to Beaudine’s hasty filming was that it didn’t give Ava Gardner time to reflect on her nervousness and self-consciousness. At this stage in her career, she was still a bit uncomfortable around a camera. Coming from the tobacco fields of North Carolina, she never really did much acting or performing until she signed with MGM. Unfortunately Ava’s inexperience is as obvious as a black eye. Her performance as one of the East Side Kid’s soon-to-be-wed sister was about as bland and stiff as a stack of plywood. In her defense the role was anything but ideal. Outside of fawn-eyed gazing at her leading man (Rick Vallin), she hardly had anything to do. 

Fans of the “East Side Kids” may enjoy this cinematic blunder, but there is little for anyone else to like. Although the comedy isn’t horrible, I would recommend Abbott and Costello or the Three Stooges if someone is looking for humor from that period. If you have a desire to see C-Movie filming quality, a very young (and undernourished ) Ava Gardner sleep-walking through a role, Bela Lugosi sneezing a word that vaguely sounds like swearing, or the East Side Kids, then this picture is for you!
Lugosui's sneeze that created a small cult following in the 1940s.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

When an individual imagines Humphrey Bogart, they immediately picture the cynical and romantic Rick Blaine in Casablanca, or the quintessential noir detective in films such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. However, the 1939 picture The Return of Doctor X showcases a creepier side of Bogie that goes unseen in all of his other movies.

 The film is a super-charged dose of B-movie camp. Everything from the concept of using synthetic blood that revives the deceased, to the fact that the police respond to a murder through reading it in the papers, is smothered with delicious horror-movie cheese. This is the kind of horror classic one watches to be amused and entertained, not shocked or frightened.

Bogart as Maurice Xavier(Dr. X)
Bogart takes a delightfully twisted turn as Doctor X, in what would be his only film in the genre of SciFi/Horror. Like a twisted amalgamation of Igor, Dracula, and Dr. Frankenstein, Bogie's transformation into a blood-thirsty mad scientist is nothing short of inspired. As soon as he lurks his way onto the screen, slowly stroking a white rabbit with his perverse gaze and white-streaked hair, I knew I was in for a treat. The character, a psychopathic genius-killer who was sent to the chair for intentionally starving a child, is brought back to life, and can only maintain existence through murdering others for their blood.....take that Hannibal Lecter.

One of the more classic scenes was when Dr. Flegg was explaining Dr. X's origins and exposing him for all of the recent murders. The look on Bogie's face when he felt betrayed by the one who gave him a second chance was like a child who was just abandoned by his father. VERY few actors would have given such a campy character so much depth without even having to speak. Absolutely priceless.

Allegedly Bogart wanted no part of this film, but was contractually obligated to Warner Brothers. It was a character that Bogie reportedly stated was "better suited for a Bela Legosi or Boris Karloff". Despite his aversion to the role, Bogart certainly turned in a memorable performance.

Return of Doctor X was directed by Vincent Sherman, whose uninspired camera-work does little to justify the film as anything more than a cookie-cutter cheese ball classic.The rest of the cast, fronted by Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, and Rosemary Lane, turn in sub-par performances that, at times, seem as lifeless as the poor suckers drained of their blood. Wayne Morris' hammed portrayal of newspaperman Walter Garrett does garner a few laughs and adds a little life to the picture when Bogie isn't around.

The film is perfect for fans of Humphrey Bogart and B-Movie horror buffs. But, if you are looking for something that is more attuned to the classic Bogart persona, or want a film with-oh I don't know- a working plot, then this quirky classic may not be the best choice.