Childhood amnesia

For a long time I never realized that other people remember their childhood, I do not. I guess there are a lot of people who have missing memories, for a lot of reasons.  Since I acquired a new set of parents and a new family last year I have spent a lot more time trying to remember my childhood.  Those memories aren’t coming back. But images pop back now and then, like snapshots, nearly always associated with a thing or a place.

I went down the pinterest rabbit hole, assembling all sorts of images that I remembered from back then.  It was more difficult than I had expected, I remember a lot of things from advertisements, things my cousins owned, things that passed through my hands as an antique dealer and collector – in the end I realized I didn’t own as much crap as I thought I did.  I can remember nearly all the books I owned but very few of the toys or games. My other mother was also not one for having a lot of trendy plastic crap, in retrospect she didn’t have a lot of money but she had better taste and avoided faddy thing.

I could only remember one thing I ever got for christmas, a portable television set, and I can’t even remember what year I got it.  I know I got other crap, other years . . .nowhere near as much as other kids, but enough, usually one big thing a few small things and treats.  That used to be enough for any kid.  But the television, that was the best thing ever. It was like giving me a house key, a bus pass and a library card all at once. Maybe I was trapped in that house with the crazy woman for the two decades but with that thing, I was free to go anywhere it would take me.

Murders in the Zoo (3/31/1933)

Murders in the Zoo (3/31/1933) Randolph Scott herpatologist and boy detective or ‘why do we even HAVE that lever?’ Big game psychopath Atwill, obessively kills any man who he catches talking to his wife, God knows how many maître d’s he’s offed before we catch up with him practicing a little whip stiching in the jungle. Unfortunately his wife is the beautiful Panther woman, Kathleen Burke, in a bit of stunt casting, I mean whom ELSE would you cast? Like many of Atwill’s non-mysterious villains, we already know who done it, we are just waiting around to see how he gets caught doing it. The hook in this film are the animals, and suffering bear cubs and big cat chaos aside, they come off pretty well in this film. THEY aren’t as frightening as Atwill’s casual killer.

Comic relief Ruggles is at his Ruggly best terrified of the animals he’s trying to promote, and scene stealing with abandon. He’s much more of a protagonist than Randolph Scott in this film. Science geek is really not Scott’s milieu, his scientist is so brilliant he dopes out the murder weapon and then invites the villain to come by after dark and talk it over. Randy, get a horse.

Despite having terrible taste in men, Burke’s stalked wife has some grit about her, when she invades her husband’s study to recover the murder weapon, too bad I was starting to like her. No rear screen projection to be found at climactic dinner party IN the carnivore enclosure. A lot of real lions, real pumas, real leopards, but no one told them this was a movie, when they DO get turned loose upon each other, with the aforementioned lever, they seem to be having a very unpleasant time of it. There are two other really great gags in the film, the tossing the woman into the alligator pit stunt is very well done, if it wasn’t for lack of blood curdling screaming it looks quite real. And the constrictor cameo at the end of the film, had a hell of a stunt double and I hope they paid Atwill extra for his contibution.

It’s an adequate little comedy/murder with animals, worthy of any double bill, as long as there’s a newsreel and a short AND a cartoon and I get to take home a piece of sandwich glass. BTY When Gail Patrick is holding two bottles of milk in front of her chest, and says ‘They are nice, aren’t they?’ she’s talking about the orphaned bear cubs chained up the fence right?

Mystery of the Wax Museum (2/17/33)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (2/17/33) Park avenue body snatchers. In Universal’s hands this tale would have been set in some quasi European olde worlde micronation, but dragged kicking and screaming into the two strip technicolor NY noir, it packs a terrific wallop. From the gruesome Grand Guignol fire bombing of the waxworks humans to its giant cauldron of waxy death climax, it’s a delicious shadowy nightmare.

Zanuck turns his mad script doctor Ben Hecht loose on Wax Museum horror story. If you doubt Hecht’s hands were around this story’s throat, just close your eyes, his NY-speed patter will make you reach for the subtitles which aren’t included, so don’t bother. It also shovels in all of the other Warner precode genetic material: tough gum-cracking reporters, city newsrooms, antagonism between the sexes, Irish cops, bootlegging, drug addiction, slum life and raucous off-color dialogue – “Hello Sweetheart, how’s your sex life?”

Despite the presences of …wait let me look them up…nevermind I forgot them already…the hero of this picture is the Glenda Farrell, who along with Frank McHugh take Hildy Johnson/Walter Burns out for a spin, treating us to some of the best Hechtian dialogue ever. Glenda’s Kolchakian bouncy girl reporter manages to knit together the threads between the horror story and the murder mystery: “I’d rather die with an athletic heart from shaking cocktails and bankers than expire in a pan of dirty dishwater.” Alas Fay Wray’s character exists solely to be menaced and scream and look swell against the set design. Atwill, whose name should always follow Karloff and Lugosi’s but somehow does not, turns in another great villain.

Curtiz’s known for his shadowplay, really twists the knife with soundwork here: the air escaping from a corpse, the labored breathing of the hatted and caped ‘monster’, the creak of the rope lowering the body out the window, Glenda getting spooked by hurdy gurdy wires, the squeaky gurney wheels, the creak of the wheelchair, the nails being pulled from a coffin, all ramp up the creepfactor.

But like all genre pictures, you really can’t dissect all the the textural effects: Why is there a fella standing around INSIDE the museum with a hood on? whose eyes are in that mask? is that the equivalent of a painting’s eyes following you for no reason. When did he have time to take Fay’s clothes off? How does this process actually work? Why don’t the bodies rot? What exactly paid for that two-story mad artists wax filled swimming pool set when he didn’t have two sous to rub together at his last museum? Did he go into business making those Mission Impossible quality face masks, cause THAT’s way better than his wax dipped dead folks. Park those questions at the door, buckle up and light a candle to Ben Hecht.

The Vampire Bat (1/10/1933)

The Vampire Bat (1/10/1933) Waste not, want not. Majestic Pictures was pretty clever pushing this piggy back production into theaters at the height of advertising campaigns for similar pictures. By using Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Melvyn Douglas, and shooting at night on Universal’s European village and the Old Dark House sets, absent great cinematography this film could have been a legit Universal film.

The script even isn’t half bad, not having an actual monster at its core it relys on people feeding into their own paranoias. Atwill’s arch and peculiar performance telegraphs his villainy: another mad scientist looking for the secret of life and exploting fear, rumor, and mythology to run amuck. I get hypnotizing someone to do your dirty work, but what’s with the cape? Did you convince him he was a Vampire? What’s the deal with the long distance hypnosis? cause that’s a neat trick. Dwight Frye’s obviously rabid bat collector steals this picture shamelessly but without him it just doesn’t work. Douglas’ police inspector, ostensibly the voice of reason, makes a bonehead play sending a screaming mob with torches and dogs after a mentally ill man.

Stagey and creaky, with no special effects, it’s just a tiny picture that nary puts a foot wrong, except by tying Fay Wray to a chair and then GAGGING HER? What are you stupid? Maude Eburne’s hypochondriac comic relief is reason enough to buy the restored version.

the Mummy (12/22/32)

the Mummy (12/22/32) Merry Christmas 1932, Mummy’s home. Paramount brought you beastiality for the holidays, Universal tops it with necrophilia. If you doubt that, just look at the poster. Mummified mummy gets very little screentime but is on all the merchandizing. To his credit, Ardeth Bey didn’t know he was looking for a soul buried in a human, he was just going to conjure up a crumbly girlfriend. Burying magicians alive, never ends well for anyone. I do prefer a creepy mage mummy to a shambling zombie burn victim.

Balderston borrows a lot from his Dracula screenplay including pushing women around, ‘go to bed’, ‘get some rest’, ‘go back to the hotel’ – what the hell? At least Helen tries to push back ‘I’m not a child,’ two seconds before she agrees to go back to the hotel with a fella who has been creeping on her all night. The core of the tale of lovers separated by time and death, is lifted from a short story by the recently deceased and beyond complaining Conan Doyle.

Freund didn’t do much directing, but here it shows that he could have if he had wanted to. The musical motifs push the creep factor in this film, it adds a level of tension to the silent sequences which wouldn’t have been there if they were sound. It is chilling when they play the musical chord that represents him reaching out and touching someone. Universal’s globalization is always a bit of a mishmash, though characters switch fluidly from English to French, the Egyptian is mostly effective gibberish. Though silenced again, Noble Johnson was apparently quite busy in 1932.

This is probably one of the best films that exploits Eastern mythology to scare the pants off a Western audience. Feeding into the myth of the curse of the Pharaohs, it also implies that plunderers for science are still looters, and all must be punished, even Ardeth Bey. For its few faults, it is quite effective and no other Mummy film seems to ‘get’ it, as this one did. BTW the naming of Professors Whemple, knowing of Karloff’s lisp, is just childis

Island of Lost Souls (12/1/32)

Island of Lost Souls (12/1/32) Wrong time, wrong island. Moreau plays Mengele on a bunch of unsuspecting animals, setting himself up as the deity to his beastmen, fire and bloodly climax assured. Experimenting on live unsedated animals was a thing back in the day, and people were outraged at the idea, it’s still a thing today, but fewer people are outraged. Kicking off the British Villain archetype, Laughton pluses it with some satantic facial hair and a stragetically placed pistol. His mad scientist is gleeful at the idea of stretching his animal to man transmogrification hobby to into beastiality territory. In the book it is the screams of suffering animals that drives our hero from the house into the jungle, in the film, it is screams of a suffering manbeast. The 1st of the many moments you can literally hear censors all over the world sharpening their scissors. Paramounts horror films at the time are more sexy and violent than others, instead of hinting at mating human to monster, here they are openly discussing it and planning for it. I am trying to image a 22 minute version with everything outrageous removed.

Westmore’s makeup effects were groundbreaking and much talked about at the time. That and the Panther woman contest added to the the prerelease hype, luring viewers in like the sideshow canvases daring you to come and see the freakshow. The other effects in the film are so subtle in comparison they are practically seamless: as in the rear screen projection of Arlen and Laughton disembarking the schooner in the background to reenter the cave set in the foreground to conclude the scene. Struss’s Cinematography is incomperable, but Dreier’s Art Direction that tickles me the most. Set dressing Moreau’s House of Pain, so that we have trees and vegetation inside the living quarters, eliminating the demarkation between what is civilization and what is jungle. Cutting heavily between set dressed outdoor locations, and soundstages, you feel as trapped as the island denisens.

There was no hiding Bela beneath all that fur, which is strangely lacking from his hands. Most beastmen seem to be reverting from the extremities inward, so that may have been a omission, or perhaps a full fur face get up is quicker to strip off than a more elaborate effect. Kelton was a servicable director, this seems to be his highwater mark, before he comes to Universal for a couple of the Frankenstein sequels. Here he makes some very clever choices, as with Lota’s reveal, when Moreau first speaks to Lota, we never actually SEE her, until she is presented to Parker.

For a while there was a spate of shipwrecked island movies. I suppose that trope had to run its course prewar while there were still undiscovered island and tinpot mad scientists wanting to build a better race on them. The film leaves me wondering about Moreau’s funding…who is PAYING for all this? is there some sort of export product that he was using his workforce to harvest? I think they could do great business spinning yarn.

Mask of Fu Manchu (11/5/32)

Mask of Fu Manchu (11/5/32) or madness takes its toll. There is much to roll your eyes at in this one. NOTE: I have a visceral reaction to actors being made up as other races. Saying Lugosi is Egyptian is one thing, adding a few pounds of makeup to Karloff is another. Nearly all non-white actors are relegated to set dressing or muscle and the only Asian with a speaking role is a stereotypical waiter in the last reel. If this film wasn’t such a train wreck on the racial front, it would be a point worth making, but to get to the good stuff in this film you really do have to swallow a lot of codswallop.

MGM was not to be left on the sideline in this horror movie money grab, adding their typical “if some is good, way too much is better” flair. At minute five a bunch of fellas in zip-up mummy suits kidnap Fu’s first victim and then we are off to the races, he gets tortured over the next five minutes, intercut with a visually familiar tomb excavation. Karloff and Loy swan around in some exceedingly nice dresses, spewing single entendres at everything, and the art director has a field day or perhaps a nervous breakdown. At the midpoint we have another torture scene, followed by some secret passages and snakes…a lot of snakes…and some tarantulas and alligators to make a change. In the last reel we have torture device overkill, do they get these things out of a catalog? Watch for Ken Strickfaden doubling for Karloff when Fu takes Ghengis Khan’s sword on a test drive through one of his Tesla coils..and the death ray makes another appearance. What the hell is up with everyone’s finger nails? what is up with all the men in diapers? what’s with the anything and everything? why am I asking you? It’s a fantasy nightmare suitable to entertain the inner deviant in us all.

It’s a good looking film, and it has been looted and pillaged over the years, with bits of itself showing up in much less offensive films. I don’t watch it often, or ever, I think it would be much improved by the addition of Tom Servo and Crow in the foreground.

Old Dark House (10/20/1932)

Old Dark House (10/20/1932) A high water mark for a genre already entrenched in literature and film. Whale slathers his own special sauce all over what was already a dark psychological chamber piece. The black humor was much too high brow for an American audience who were expecting cheap thrills. Marketing Karloff as the monster of the piece was quite a bait and switch, I understand the audiences disappointment. It is basically a tower of dark chocolate petit fours. The real monster of the piece is the torrential storm, violently combining five unsuspecting strangers together with five certifiable nutjobs. Karloff wins the prize for WORST BUTLER IN CINEMA HISTORY, he’s Rebecca Femm’s weapon of choice to keep the men in her family in line. Introduced as the owner of the house, it makes you wonder why her brothers were excluded, but then we meet the brothers and we KNOW why. If they weren’t imprisonoed in that house with her as their jailer, they’d be in prison.

Rebecca’s NO BEDS fixation, can be taken a couple of ways, in her religious zealotry she may not want anyone having sex under her roof, or the most likely, she just doesn’t want to do any more laundry. The set certainly may look more like a hotel than a house but we don’t want anyone disappearing upstairs into the bedrooms, we want the action captured where we can see it. Stuart can’t even find respite when changing her clothes, the bedroom contains a horror story and a bunch of fun house mirrors. I am still not sure why she opens the window, but it does seem to blow her out of the room down a corridor lifted straight from Paul Leni. At this point it is the case of the disappearing camisole and the magically appearing earrings, but that’s insignificant. Whale wanted her to appear as a flame for Karloff to chase around and the transformation accomplishes that, as well as give us something pretty to look at.

The plot is merely to make it to morning sane and alive. Giving us a very deliberate satire of the dinner/house party, which was what people DID before television replaced the roaring fire. The utterly Whalesian dinner scene is a masterpiece, each bit of business is contrived for a reason. Rebecca cutting bread and then skewering it to send it round the table, only for it to find its way back to her, she’s the master here. She relishes her pickled onions from the relish dish, imply that she IS the pickled onion at the table. Thesinger weaponizes “Have a Potato” though avoiding them himself.

At midnight, we join the after dinner conversation, just AFTER the dinner party game of ‘TRUTH’ has commenced or concluded–perhaps making all that follows “the DARE”? The rest of the film and book are a sequence of unfolding secrets, upping the stakes once we start bringing the family secrets down from the upper floors. A drunken troll of a butler upending the remains of dinner, chasing a blonde flame which he will snuff out if he catches. It takes all three guests to wrestle the bad butler into the servants hall, when the real danger-boy is sliding down the banister. Pyromaniac Saul (read SOL – hint hint nudge nudge) gives Melvyn Douglas whiplash with his personality change, challenging him to another parlor game of placate the knife wielding looney. Yes that’s why Perkins didn’t clear up the Roast Beef ensemble on the floor. Seriously that was SO English, any self respecting American housewife would have had that mess picked up before they locked themselves in the closet. Rebecca knew what was coming, Horace knew what was coming, they both locked themselves in their bedrooms. Perhaps they didn’t figure Saul was gonna burn the place down this time. But from what the bearded lady upstairs has foretold, they deserved it.

I could go on picking pieces off this dish and holding them up to the light, but reams and reams have been written about this film…and will continue to be. I have lost track of the number of times I have seen it. I’m not even sure how many times I have seen it today. It follows Priestly’s book pretty closely, but in another director’s hands it would have been a lackluster film. This is the film that makes us take a closer look at ALL Whale’s other films.

Chandu the Magician (9/18/1932)

Chandu the Magician (9/18/1932) The first time I saw this picture I really didn’t appreciate it. A special effects buffet served up by William Cameron Menzies, he utilizes EVERY trick in the book: miniatures, dry for wet, optical tricks, double exposures, rear screen projection, glass paintings, practical stunts, Tesla coils!….everything but the kitchen sink. For a busy little film, it succeeds nicely due to the simple plot. Bela’s Bond villain wants to use Chandu’s brother in law’s death ray to take over the world and Chandu uses his magic tricks to stop him. The electromagnetic weapon’s were all over the news in the 20s & 30s, everyone claimed to be in the verge of creating them, so Roxor’s plan wouldn’t have seemed all that crazy in 1932. What is unbelievable is that Chandu could have learned all that magic in three years, but then Stephen Strange did it in less time, but who am I to judge?

Try as a I might I can’t find anything to roll my eyes at, not even the comic relief. None of the characters are written badly, you can’t scream at the screen and say ‘don’t open that door’ ‘don’t go down that corridor!’ Chandu is basically a super hero, he has powers beyond those of mortal men, but he could have used a much better tailor. The turban I can get past but the quasi military riding outfit including cape seems a good way to get heat stroke in the desert. Bela’s supposed to be Egyptian…why not? he’s actually quite debonaire in this one, no crazy eyebrows, not even the brylcremed hair and he gets to chew a little scenery, especially at the climax. Irene Ware’s Princess is nicely written, she doesn’t seem to be waiting around for Chandu show up, more than willing to grab a gun and some jodphurs and follow him into to secret caves into the villains lair.

I am glad I pulled this out. I had forgotten about the nearly pornographic slave auction of Chandu’s niece, I had forgotten about the practical effects where the floors open up in the prisoner cells to dump them down into the river below. I had forgotten about the astral projection and remote viewing effects which come in very handy when breaking in and out of secret lairs. I had forgotten about the Egyptian statue guards that come to life and chase comic relief Miggles through the cobwebby temple. I had forgotten that I liked it very much.

The Most Dangerous Game (9/16/32)

The Most Dangerous Game (9/16/32) What is now considered Cooper and Schoedsacks test reel for their later epic, was always meant to be an epic of its own. I think reducing the budget helped make it a better movie, cutting away anything extraneous leaving us with the best version. There is nothing subtle about this thriller, everything is telegraphed like a freight train whistle, which is not a bad thing for our tight little island tale of terror and sadism. Banks gives us another villain in fancy dress with impecable manners, yet bug house crazy. The horror elements are limited to his trophy room and Zaroff’s decorating sense.

Banks’ white Russian expat libertine madman, stroking his TBI like Bloefeld’s cat, gives us a good idea why the Reds decided to give them the boot. Fay is well…Fay….blonde or brunette, there is no other woman you can drag through a jungle day and night and still look magazine cover fresh. Joel would stay swoon worthy until well into the 1950s, I would take him over that block of wood Bruce Cabot anyday. But my favorite in your face injoke, is seeing the great Noble Johnson in white face. And I think Cooper’s anti temperance stance did Robert Armstrong’s character no favors, that fella that drunk on that island would have been short lived.

For those who have no tolerance for drawing room anti-comedy and coded threats, you can nip up to minute 39 when McRae/Wray start running through RKO’s Stage 12 test driving Kong’s swamp, cave, and fallen tree over the ravine. Gloriously elaborated with matte paintings, rear screen projection, picture in a picture, employing all of the cutting edge illusions. These magnificent jungle sets seem so lifeless without all the birds and creatures, perhaps Zaroff has already killed off everything. Cept for Harold LLoyds dogs which are fascinating to watch…yes they are 1930s Great Danes, all kinds of scary and muscular. Danes these days look like skinny ponies in comparison.

The movie has it’s own thing going on, but most people are brought to it because of the Kong associations. I always try to watch it paired with Kong and keep checking youtube for an edit mashup of the two films. Zaroff meet Kong.. ..then Kong would rag-doll the hell out of him like Hulk v. Loki. Ha

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