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Showcase Presents the Universal Dracula Legacy

It’s Halloween once again, and the Showcase crew assembles for their (mostly) annual monster movie marathon. This year the gang tackles the six films that make up the legacy of the king of the vampires: Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

Superman Week Day 1: Kirk Alyn in Superman (1948)

Superman 1948Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennett & Thomas Carr

Writers: George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, Royal K. Cole

Cast: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Carol Forman, George Meeker, Jack Ingram, Pierre Watkin, Terry Frost, Charles King, Charles Quigley, Herbert Rawlingson, Forrest Taylor, Stephen Carr, Rusty Wescoatt, Robert Barron, Virginia Carroll, Ed Cassidy, Mason Alan Dinehart, Nelson Leigh, Luana Walters

Plot: On the distant planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Nelson Leigh) has discovered his world is being drawn towards its sun. He and his wife, Lara (Luana Walters) prepare an experimental spacecraft that would allow his people to escape the world’s destruction, but only has time to complete a prototype before the cataclysm begins. Unable to rescue the people of Krypton, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El into the ship and sends him away just before their world is destroyed.  Landing on the planet Earth, the infant is found by Eben and Martha Kent (Ed Cassidy and Virginia Carroll), who adopt the child and raise him as their own. As he grows up, young Clark Kent (played by Ralph Hodges as a teenager, then Kirk Alyn as an adult) discovers he has the power to fly, incredible strength, super-hearing, and a sort of “X-Ray vision.” When he reaches adulthood, Eben implores his son to use his power for good. Martha makes a special indestructible uniform from the blankets he was wrapped in on his way to Earth, and Clark goes out into the world.

Wearing his costume and using the name “Superman,” Clark saves a train, whose passengers include Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), from derailing on a broken track. Clark later approaches Planet editor Perry White (Pierre Watkin) for a job, as working at a newspaper will allow him to stay up-to-date on potential danger that needs Superman’s intervention. Although reluctant to hire the neophyte, Perry gives Clark a chance when he claims to be able to get inside a collapsed mine to get the story. Naturally, Lois is after the same story, and gets trapped inside. As this is a movie serial, this begins a series of disasters roughly every 15 to 20 minutes, which require Superman’s intervention.

Clark gets the mine story and the job at the Planet, and both his career and Superman’s begin. The Man of Steel is soon considered a national hero, and is summoned to Washington D.C. to help guard an experimental “Reducer Ray” developed by the government. A mysterious villainess called the Spider Lady (Carol Forman) plans to turn the technology for evil. A meteor shower later brings chunks of the destroyed planet Krypton to Earth, and Clark discovers exposure to the radioactive rocks saps his power and, with prolonged exposure, could kill him, or at the very least, make it harder for him to wrap this plot up in about seven seconds.

Over the course of the serial’s 15 episodes, Spider Lady tries time and again to trap or kill Superman, often with Lois and/or Jimmy (and even Perry White, on rare occasions) getting caught up in the schemes, but he always manages to pull through. In the final segments, the Spider Lady gets on the radio to announce she’s perfected the Reducer Ray and will use it to destroy the Daily Planet building in nearly four hours. Rather than… y’know… evacuate the building, the police ask them to keep quiet and everyone carries on with business as usual. Lois and Jimmy get a tip that the ignition systems of cars are oddly breaking down, and reason that the Ray may be responsible, so they decide to fly a plane into the area. Suddenly, and with no warning (except for the fact that cars are oddly breaking down), their plane breaks down, crashes, and they’re captured again by the Spider-Lady. Superman fakes a Kryptonite reaction to trick one of the Spider Lady’s henchmen to bring him to her hideout. He finally faces the villain, who stumbles into her own device and is killed, proving once again that criminals really need  to build their hideouts according to OSHA requirements. Returning to the Planet office, Lois and Jimmy find Clark “asleep” at his desk, wake him, and they all have a good laugh over a woman’s brutal death.

Thoughts: It saddens me how Kirk Alyn has been forgotten by so many Superman fans. The first live-action Superman may not have made the mark on history that some of the others did, but by virtue of being first, he deserves at least some respect. It especially saddens me because Alyn is really good in the role. His Clark Kent has a sweet earnestness about him, and his Superman brings just the power the role demands. Alyn seems to take his inspiration from the Max Fleischer-directed animated features from the early 40s, almost perfectly replicating voice actor Bud Collyer’s change in tenor from Clark Kent’s high-pitched “This looks like a job…” then plunging into a powerful baritone with “…for Superman!”Alyn’s performance is almost Collyer’s brought to life. These days, Warner Bros seems intent on keeping every incarnation of the character as different from the others as possible. In 1948 the producers of this film drew on the Collyer’s well-known voice from the shorts and from the radio. The story is even credited as being “adapted from” the popular radio program. Synergy may not have been a corporate buzzword yet, but it was there.

Noel Neill was a prototypical Lois Lane, with a wardrobe and hairstyle lifted directly from the comics of the time, and a nice, biting sort of sarcasm that set her eternally apart from the wallflower females that surrounded the typical action hero of the era. Neill’s Lois is smart, confident, and fearless, perfectly willing to stumble into the most dangerous situations in pursuit of her story. At times, this can make her seem reckless or foolhardy, bumbling into the most obvious kind of trap, such as at the end of the series where she has Jimmy fly a plane into an area specifically because car engines are malfunctioning there, never stopping to think that a plane engine isn’t that different a device. There’s a delicate line that has to be walked here – Lois can seem single-minded and even unconcerned with danger, but the minute she looks foolish the character loses everything that makes her work and turns her into the caricature she often becomes in the hands of lesser writers or actresses. Neill usually walks that line very well, rarely straying too far into the territory that makes Lois look bad.

This movie serial wraps itself in the trappings of the comic book of the era, including using scenes from the comic to introduce each chapter. The opening chapter on Krypton also feels like a classic sci-fi film – the “distant planet” of “superior aliens” that’s clearly a bunch of guys in robes standing on a set that looks like it was drawn up by the artist of the Buck Rogers comic strip. It’s a little silly, a little cheesy, but all the more charming for that.

Even more charming are the special effects, most of which are animated sequences overlaid on the live-action. The first time we see Superman fly, Alyn literally transforms into a cartoon and zooms into a burning building. It was at that point I pretty much fell in love with this film. There’s really no attempt at anything resembling real physics, either. The “Reducer Ray” is powered by the natural reducing rays that bombard Earth all the time (look out your window, you’ll probably see them), and at one point Superman sees through somebody’s disguise by using his X-Ray Vision on a photograph of that person, which is somehow both ludicrous and awesome.

It’s interesting how much of a slow burn was permissible back then. The first two chapters of the serial are concerned entirely with Superman’s origins from outer space and establishing himself in Metropolis, both as a hero and as a reporter. There isn’t even a hint of the serial’s main plot – the battle with Spider Lady over the Reducer Ray – until chapter three. These days there’d be a compulsion to work such a thing in artificially, much earlier, possibly even trying to tie it in to the hero’s origin, all supposedly in the name of creating a more “sophisticated” story. If nothing else, this serial is evidence that sometimes a lack of sophistication can be a glorious thing.

As is often the case with these older movies, the modern part of the brain feels the need to invoke certain tropes and gimmicks that hadn’t quite been developed yet. In the Chapter 3 cliffhanger, for example, a scientist shows Clark Kent a meteor he has discovered, and Clark collapses, nearly dead. When Chapter 4 begins and Clark lies there, you want to shout at the screen: “It’s Kryptonite, you idiot! Close the box!” But this is 1948 – Superman as a character is only ten years old, and Kryptonite is an even newer invention (first created for the radio show before migrating to the comic books). Being so young, though, the film is also able to avoid certain bits that would become common shtick later on. In later adaptations, if Clark is threatened by Kryptonite when he’s not in his Superman suit he’d come up with some sort of lame excuse to explain why the meteor seemed to affect a mild-mannered reporter. In 1948? What the hell, he’s a scientist, right? Why not reveal your secret identity? If you can’t trust a professor, who can you trust?

For all the charm, this isn’t a movie that has a particularly high opinion of its audience. The voiceover narration can sometimes be rather intrusive… it’s hamfisted in the early chapters, giving us virtually every beat of the plot, especially on Krypton. Once we get to Earth and the story begins in earnest, a little recap at the beginning of each chapter is to be expected. But is it really necessary for the narrator to announce every time Superman uses his super-hearing or X-Ray vision, as if the fact that the wall of the safe just vanished before our eyes won’t be enough to clue us in as to what’s happening? Even the death of his foster parents is done away with quickly in a voiceover – Martha gives him his uniform and we cut to him leaving the house with a suitcase as the narrator helpfully tells us, “Okay, the Kents are dead now.”

Alyn would play Superman once more in the 1950 serial Atom Man Vs. Superman, but then was  replaced by George Reeves, who went on to play Superman in the Adventures of Superman TV show and wound up pretty much defining the character for over 20 years. We’re going to spend some time tomorrow with Reeves in his one cinematic appearance as the Man of Steel in Superman and the Mole-Men.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 2: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

abbott-and-costello-meet-frankensteinDirector: Charles Barton

Writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo & John Grant

Cast: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph, Frank Ferguson, Charles Bradstreet

Plot: Chick and Wilbur (Abbott and Costello, respectively, although why they even bothered with giving their characters names at this point is beyond me) are employees of a delivery company. They get a nervous phone call from Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) in London, asking about a pair of crates being sent to a house of horrors. He tells them that he’s flying to Florida the next day, and they are under no circumstances to deliver the crates until he arrives. The full moon rises in London and Talbot undergoes a startling transformation, becoming a Wolfman. Confused by the growling on the phone, Wilbur hangs up. Moments later, Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives to pick up the crates, which he claims contain the remains of the true Count Dracula and Frankenstein Monster. He tells this to Sandra (Lenore Aubert), Wilbur’s girlfriend, who Chick thinks is far too alluring to be with his bumbling friend.

Despite the call from Talbot, McDougal has the proper paperwork, so Chick and Wilbur deliver the crates To McDougal’s House of Horrors. Wilbur is on-edge, surrounded by the creepy contents, but Chick is convinced Dracula and the Monster are just characters from stories. As he leaves Wilbur alone, Dracula (Bela Lugosi, reprising his role for the first time since 1931) rises from his coffin, terrorizes him, and mesmerizes him. With Wilbur entranced, Dracula awakens the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). McDougal and Chick arrive and argue over where the exhibits are while Wilbur, hysterical, tries to explain what happened, but McDougal has them arrested.

Dracula flies to a remote castle where waits Dr. Stevens (Charles Bradstreet) and his assistant… Wilbur’s girlfriend, Sandra. Dracula wants to avoid Frankenstein’s mistake and give the monster a new brain, one so simple and naïve that it will never question his master. Sandra, of course, has just the brain in mind.

Talbot finds Wilbur and Chick, just out of jail, and confirms Wilbur’s story. He has been chasing Dracula, but he can’t go to the police for fear of revealing his own secret. As the moon is about to rise, he gives Wilbur the key to his hotel room and begs him to lock him up overnight, not letting him out no matter what he hears inside. Wilbur’s compliance lasts almost 45 whole seconds, before he goes into Talbot’s room to bring him a bag he left behind. In another comedy sequence, Wilbur narrowly avoids being torn to shreds by a Wolfman he never sees.

McDougal, furious over Wilbur and Chick’s release from jail, meets insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), who plans to use her feminine wiles to trick Wilbur into revealing the location of the missing exhibits. She narrowly avoids Sandra, who came by to arrange a meeting with Wilbur for that evening’s masquerade ball. Joan convinces him to take her to the ball as well, and while Wilbur revels in his two dates, Chick tries to figure out what his dumpy friend has that he doesn’t. (As Sandra tells him, “A brain.”) The two go to Talbot’s room, where they find it’s been torn apart. Talbot wakes and tells them about his curse – he was bitten by a werewolf, and transforms whenever the moon was full. As Wilbur saw the monsters, he pleads with him to help him. They don’t believe him, and continue their preparations for the ball.

Chick, Wilbur and Joan pick up Sandra for the ball (Wilbur allowing each girl to believe the other is Chick’s date). Sandra finds Joan’s ID card for the insurance agency, while Joan finds Sandra’s copy of Frankenstein’s book on life and death. Each suspicious of the other, they return and meet Sandra’s employer, Dr. Lejos, who Wilbur somehow fails to recognize as Dracula wearing a robe instead of his cape. Lejos insists that Dr. Stevens join them for the party, but Sandra suddenly claims she has a headache and can’t go. She brings Dracula aside and says that Joan and Wilbur’s snooping and Stevens’s inconveniently inquisitive nature are making the operation too dangerous. Angry, he hypnotizes her and bites her, and they go to the ball.

At the ball, Chick and Wilbur encounter a fearful Talbot, who is upset by Chick’s wolf-mask. Sandra, now a vampire, tries to bite Wilbur, but he’s saved by Chick and Talbot, seeking the now-missing Joan. As they search, the full moon appears and Talbot transforms. He attacks McDougal, who blames Chick when he sees the wolf-mask. The party goes mad and people flee, with Chick and Wilbur finding a hypnotized Joan with Dracula. He mesmerizes the boys and takes Wilbur and the girls away. Finally convinced, Chick finds Talbot and they go to Dracula’s mansion, where Wilbur’s brain is being prepared for transplant. Talbot and Chick burst in. Talbot is about to free Wilbur, but once again, he transforms, and Frankenstein’s Monster breaks free. The five of them engage in a mansion-encompassing battle of positively Scooby-Doo-ian proportions, until finally the Wolfman seizes Dracula and they plunge off a cliff. The Monster chases Chick and Wilbur to the dock, where Stevens and Joan set him on fire. As they sit in a boat, Wilbur berating Chick for not believing him, a cigarette hovers in the air, and the unmistakable voice of Vincent Price introduces himself… he’s the Invisible Man.

Thoughts: This film is, inarguably, the greatest horror-comedy ever made. Okay, maybe it’s not inarguable. You can argue it. You’d just be wrong. What’s not arguable, however, is that it is by far my favorite movie out of all the films selected for Lunatics and Laughter, and (with the possible exception of Ghostbusters) the one that I’ve watched the most times. It isn’t Halloween unless I see Bud and Lou go toe-to-toe with the greatest Universal Monsters.

That, in fact, is what makes this such a fantastic movie, friends. Universal Studios took their two greatest comedic stars at the height of their popularity and mashed them into a movie with three of their most popular monster franchises, even getting the classic Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. to reprise their roles as Dracula and the Wolfman, respectively. (Only Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is missing from the classic trinity, and he would get his chance to dance with the boys later in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff and again in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

It’s such simple alchemy – director Charles Barton got five amazing performers and allowed them to do what they do best for 83 incredible minutes. Abbott and Costello pull off the same sort of brilliant wordplay and slapstick that made them Hollywood legends, while Lugosi, Chaney and Strange (playing the Monster for the third time since Karloff’s retirement) give their performances all the force and horror they had in their respective series. The film doesn’t bother with little things like continuity either – there’s no effort to explain how Talbot knew Dracula or the monster, how Dracula found the creature’s remains, or even how any of the monsters were alive, as most of them had a tendency to die at the ends of all of their films. The sequels usually had a halfhearted resurrection scene, but Barton sees no need to even bother with that. The audience doesn’t care about any of these things. They know who Bud and Lou are, who Dracula and the Wolfman and the Monster are, and that’s all they need.

And damned if they weren’t right.

Like I’ve said, comedy and horror are flip sides of the same coin, and I’ve never seen a movie that demonstrates it as perfectly as this one. Our five lead characters (because that’s who Bud and Lou are, no matter what names they were using in the movie, they played the same two characters they always did) come from totally different styles of film: slapstick comedy and tales of pure terror. But when we put them together there is no clash. Everybody is themselves, everyone is entirely in-character, and it all fits together seamlessly. Even the scenes with Lugosi popping in and out of his coffin, giving Costello the stimuli for one of his legendary freak-outs, works for a Dracula who simply enjoys toying with his eventual prey. He even pulls the same sort of hypnosis and gets the same light-across-the-eyes treatment as he did in the original 1931 version of Dracula.

The plot, meanwhile, is straight out of the horror movie handbook. Dracula’s scheme to give the monster a simple brain keys into Costello’s movie persona perfectly. At the same time, it’s still the kind of devilish plan that many a horror movie villain has concocted over the years. Hell, let’s be honest – it’s a more logical plan than thousands of the others movie monster baddies have conjured up over the years. Talbot’s logic – “the police won’t believe me unless I tell them I’m a wolfman” – is kind of sketchy. It’s more likely they’ll just think him even crazier. But it’s still the same sort of logic that dominated this sort of movie back in the 40s and 50s, and therefore is easy to forgive. Similarly, the special effects are of the highest quality available at the time. Talbot’s werewolf transformation looks as good as it ever did in his own films. And while it may be pretty obvious that the Monster burning on the dock at the end is a mannequin being pushed along with sticks, in 1948, how else were you gonna get that shot?

Truly, the only moment that strains credibility, even for the time, is when Talbot and Chick plan their rescue mission. Talbot tells Chick they should hide and wait, since it is now morning and Dracula will be helpless until nightfall. Um… wouldn’t that make this the perfect time to attack? Come on, dude. (Honorable mention, though, goes to the fact that Talbot makes his transformation four nights in a row. Isn’t three usually the limit for a full moon?)

Bud and Lou, a classic vaudevillian comedy team whose act translated to film and television far better than most of their contemporaries, pull off a lot of the same shtick they usually do. They engage in verbal battles, with Bud tossing out unnecessarily complicated words so Lou can amusingly misunderstand them. Bud leaves Lou alone at inconvenient moments so he can be the sole witness to creepy happenings and have entertaining panic attacks. And once or twice, Lou is allowed to get the better of his buddy in a battle of the logical fallacies. In short, they take their standard routine and inject it into a horror movie. But not for one second does it feel forced, do any of the comedic interludes feel like a distraction, or does any of it feel like padding. They’re just there to have fun, as they always do. (Reportedly one scene – where Wilbur sits on the Monster’s without realizing it – took an absurdly long time to film because Glenn Strange simply couldn’t stop laughing at Costello’s antics in his lap.)

Even the old comedy trope – the panicky one sees the madness, the straight man conveniently misses everything until the last minute – feels fresh and original here. And no, it wasn’t, not even in 1948. When Chick pulls out the wolf-mask, you just know there’s going to be a moment when Wilbur encounters the real Wolfman and thinks it’s his buddy in disguise. You’re waiting for it. You would feel disappointed if it didn’t happen. But Abbott and Costello never disappointed on that front.

The finale is simply great. From the moment Talbot and Chick arrive at the mansion until Vincent Price makes his uncredited cameo, we go through one chase after another, with doors and props being smashed at every turn, our heroes bumbling into the monsters at the worse possible moments, often saved through circumstance, luck, or the good ol’ Rule of Funny. If you are physically capable of watching this movie without laughing, you need intense psychoanalysis. And if you didn’t love the Universal monsters before, this will do the trick.