erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1940s posts

Sunday March 10, 2019

Movie Review: Phantom of Chinatown (1940)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Phantom of Chinatown,” a wholly unremarkable film, is remarkable for casting a Chinese-American actor, Seattle's own Keye Luke, as its Chinese-American detective. At the time, that may have been unprecedented. 

Most such roles, of course, went to white actors who put on yellowface: Warner Oland for 16 “Charlie Chan” movies, Sidney Toler for 22 more, and Roland Winters for six more after that. Peter Lorre starred in eight “Mr. Moto” movies in the late 1930s while Boris Karloff played U.S. Treasury detective James Lee Wong for five movies during the same time. Prestige pictures engaged in this practice as well: Paul Muni and Luise Rainier in “The Good Earth,” Katherine Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” Marlon Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” and up to the present day—if you want to call “Aloha” or “Dr. Strange” prestige pictures.

Phantom of Chinatown movie review“Phantom” is another James Lee Wong flick—the last one. Apparently Karloff’s contract was up and apparently someone at “poverty row” Monogram Pictures decided to save on makeup by hiring Luke, who had already appeared as Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son, Lee Chan, in maybe a dozen Charlie Chan movies, as well as originating Kato in the “Green Hornet” movie serial that same year. Since he’s younger than Karloff, and since we see him introduced to Capt. Street, his nominal partner in the other movies, this one is essentially a prequel.

George Washington was disinterred here
Luke isn’t just the lead in the movie but the lead detective in a murder case—despite not being a detective himself and spending most of his screen time with a real detective, Capt. Street (Grant Withers), who, despite the title, is almost comic relief here. He grouses his way through the entire movie and seems to have zero ideas how to solve the crime. I enjoyed him immensely.

The movie opens, inauspiciously, with a lecture. Dr. John Benton, an archeologist, has recently returned from the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, where he and his team uncovered the tomb of ... wait for it ... a Ming Dynasty Emperor! What was the tomb of an emperor of the Ming Dynasty, which was based in Beijing and Nanjing, doing in Mongolia? Yeah.

Dr. Benton quickly introduces us to several of our supporting players and future suspects:

  • his pretty daughter, Louise Benton (Virginia Carpenter), who winds up mattering not at all
  • her fiancee, the handsome pilot, Tommy Dean (Robert Kellard), who ... ditto
  • Benton's camerman, Charles Frasier (John Dilson)
  • his secretary, Win Len (Lotus Long, alliteratively ready to be Superman’s girlfriend)

In the excavation, Dr. Benton found a scroll in the tomb but hid it in his jacket. Did he also unearth a curse? Fierce winds came up, and one of his party, the co-pilot, Mason (John Holland), went missing and was presumed dead.

At this point in the lecture, to quote a little e.e. cummings, “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.” Then, extending beyond cummings, he clutched his throat and died.

That’s when Jimmy Wong shows up, along with Capt. Street, forever griping. A day later, Jimmy figures out the water was poisoned, and there may be clues on the film Frasier was showing. Frasier is attacked in his home; Win Len, tied up in the closet, seems to be playing her own game, and the bad guys, rather than making a clean getaway, keep lurking in the shadows.

There’s not much of a phantom—not even the “Scooby Doo” kind. The title character is Mason, who never died, despite the best efforts of the two-timing Frasier, and who’s holed up in Chinatown until he gets his revenge and the scroll. As for the scroll’s secret? Coordinates to “an eternal flame,” which Wong realizes means a giant oil deposit. As for Win Len's secret? She’s working for the Chinese government to make sure the scroll, and the oil, remain China’s. As to which Chinese government she’s working for—Mao’s or Chiang’s—that goes unasked.

But she gets it. In the end, Wong delivers the ancient scroll to Win Len. “This is part of China,” he says. “I think we can trust you to see that it remains so.”

Most of the movie is a big nothing, but one scene is so ahead of its time it makes the movie worth writing about. Halfway through, Wong and Street show up at the Benton house, where they are greeted by the snooty French butler, Jonas (Willy Castello), and a few workers moving a coffin.

Street: What's all this? 
Jonas: The sarcophagus from the Chinese tomb, sir, that once contained the body of a Ming emperor.
Wong: They tell me a Chinese archaeological expedition is digging up the body of George Washington in exchange. 
Jonas (affronted): Sir?
Wong (offhand): Well, it gives you a rough idea. Is Win Len home?

Luke’s line reading on “rough idea” is perfect. Makes you wonder what might’ve been in a more enlightened movie industry.

Phantom of Chinatown: Keye Luke

China about to get its oil back. Its Ming emperor? Probably not.

Little mentioned but maybe long remembered?
How did Monogram get enlightened enough in 1940 to cast a Chinese-American in a Chinese-American role? Who knows? Maybe if you were a “poverty row” studio, you were allowed a more enlightened racial viewpoint than the majors. What did you have to lose? Cf., Philip Ahn, “Great Guy,” Grand National. Others?

A film noir website does say that the Wong series—based on 20 short stories by Hugh Wiley that appeared in Colliers magazine between 1934 and 1940—ended with this one because of Luke: “Rather depressingly, the substitution of Luke for Karloff persuaded many cinema managers, especially in the South, to ditch the series.” Their source on this? Unmentioned.

The unprecedented casting and breakthrough role goes unmentioned in Keye Luke’s New York Times obit as well. In an interview Luke did with Heidi Chang as part of a Seattle Chinese oral history project just before his death, he's asked about high points in his early career and mentions “Oil for the Lamps of China,” a 1935 Warner Bros. picture starring Pat O’Brien, in which he plays a Chinese communist officer who helps drive Standard Oil out of China. He also mentions playing the patriach in “Flower Drum Song” for three years on Broadway in 1950s. Of “Phantom”? 没有了. Gone like a ghost.

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Posted at 07:42 AM on Mar 10, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday March 06, 2019

Movie Review: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I assumed they were trying to do “Casablanca” in Asia: desperate refugees in a lawless, international city, with one eponymous establishment at the center, where the roulette wheel spins constantly and the winner is announced by a French croupier. And this guy looked exactly like the croupier in “Casablanca.” Because, oops, he was: Marcel Dalio, the Jean Renoir staple who fled Nazi-occupied Europe for bit parts in Hollywood.

As with Rick in “Casablanca,” we keep hearing about the owner, Madam Gin Sling, before seeing her. Unlike with Rick, it’s a bit of a disappointment. She’s another white actress (Ona Munson of Portland, Oregon) in Oriental makeup; a bland Dragon Lady. Like Rick, she confronts a past love who abandoned her. Unlike Rick, her feelings are unambiguous and thus uninteresting. She’s just out for revenge. We see her constantly corrupt the innocent rather than, as with Rick, rescuing them against his better judgment. If anything, with her victims, we get whiffs of director Josef von Sternberg’s earlier great film “The Blue Angel”: that paralysis when you’ve sunk so far you can never get out.

She never gets in a good line, either. No “Of all the gin joints...” or “I remember every detail: The Germans wore gray, you wore blue” or “I was misinformed” or “I never plan that far ahead” or “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade,” or ...

Stop me any time.

Two plotlines converged in a Hollywood
The Shanghai gesture movie review CasablancaMine isn’t exactly an original thought, by the way. Many see parallels between the films:

  • “...like Casablanca on drugs”
  • “...like a twisted version of...”
  • “...like the evil twin of...”

But my initial assumption was wrong: “The Shanghai Gesture” wasn’t copying “Casablanca” because it predates “Casablanca” by a year—Jan. 1942 vs. Jan. ’43 release—while its successful stage version in 1926 predates the unproduced “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by a decade and a half.

Which makes me wonder if “Casablanca” was an attempt to remake “Shanghai Gesture.”

Instead of fighting to flee to Lisbon, everyone here is fighting to stay in Shanghai. The first one we see doing this is Dixie, the chorus girl (Idaho’s Phyllis Brooks, laying on a thick Brooklyn accent and attitude), who’s being rousted by cops until Mother Gin Sling’s right-hand man, Dr. Omar (Victor Mature), greases palms. After that, we never see her outside of Madame Gin Sling’s. In a world less controlled by Joseph Breen, her new profession, the oldest, would’ve been obvious, but here it’s fudged. Plus she never seems worse for wear. She never loses her gum-cracking ways. 

The main person fighting to stay is Madame Gin Sling herself. Her casino is in the international area where the money is, but a British developer, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), has purchased a large swath of it so she’s getting the boot to the Chinese side. Determined to stay, she asks her subordinates to find out more about Sir Guy.

That’s one plotline. The other involves a young woman named Poppy (Gene Tierney, stunning), who shows up at Gin Sling’s, becomes enamored of Dr. Omar and the delicious evil she feels in the place, then becomes corrupted. One minute she says she can stop gambling whenever she wants, the next she’s losing everything at the roulette wheel. She descends down into it like it’s the ninth circle of hell. It's filmed that way, too.

The two plotlines converge, sadly. Poppy turns out to be the daughter of Sir Guy. Oh, and Sir Guy is also the former lover of both Dixie and Madame Gin Sling. The Madame says 20 years earlier he abandoned her and stole from her and broke her heart; he made her the hardhearted creature she is today. Except he says he didn’t do these things. The money is still there, he says.

Oh, and Poppy, whom she corrupted, isn’t just his daughter; she’s hers, too.  

How does Madame Gin Sling react to this? Does she feel remorse? For herself and the daughter she never knew? Got me. Hollywood keeps her inscrutable. To go with all the “likees” bandied about in the film—mostly by foreigners.

Shanghaied by Breen
So why, given the cast and the director and the “Casablanca”-like storyline, does it all fall flat? It’s not just the crossing plotlines. It’s that nobody feels anything. They’re all dead-eyed. There’s no tragedy here because we don’t see or feel what was lost. 

Not even with Poppy. She begins the film a glossy girl enamored of bad things, and she ends it supposedly totally corrupted. Except instead of projecting the horror of it all (see Emil Jannings, “Blue Angel”), she simply seems a brat. It’s kind of absurd. And it gets more so when, in the great confrontation scene, Sir Guy more or less throws up his hands and lets Madame Gin Sling handle Poppy. Which she does for about 30 seconds. Then she shoots Poppy dead. Yes, you read that right. From outside, Sir Guy hears and senses this brutal act. At which point, Madame’s “Coolie” (Mike Mazurki) asks him, “You likee Chinese New Year?” And that’s the end.

Nothing. 

Supposedly the Code of Conduct boys demanded more than 20 changes to the script before they’d give their stamp of approval: Originally, according to Wiki:

  • the story was set in a brothel
  • “Mother Gin-Sling” was named “Mother Goddamn”
  • instead of European finishing schools, Poppy was raised in mom’s whorehouse

Which means Gin Sling knew about the daughter, etc. Who knows what the movie might’ve been in less prudish times.

Final thought: The word “Shanghai” was a hugely popular title trope in Hollywood in the 1930s. From a brief IMDb search: The Ship from Shanghai (1930), East of Shanghai (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Shanghai Madness (1933), Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), West of Shanghai (1937), Exiled to Shanghai (1937), Shadows Over Shanghai (1938), Incident in Shanghai (1938), and North of Shanghai (1939). Apparently we likeed.

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Posted at 10:39 AM on Mar 06, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday November 28, 2018

Movie Review: The Shadow (1940)

WARNING: SPOILERS

How many movies give their superhero’s superpower to the supervillain?

The Shadow 1940 reviewIn the pulps, and on the radio, the Shadow could “cloak men’s minds” as to appear invisible. Here, that power belongs to the Black Tiger, a man intent on bringing the city’s industrial leaders to their collective knees. Oddly, he only displays this power before his flunkies. In an elaborate and oft-repeated sequence, he appears silhouetted in the hallway outside their hideout with a light emanating from above. (In this shot, he has puffy blonde hair parted in the middle and seems less villain than Paul Williams circa 1978.) Then he pulls a switch, there’s a hum, and ... he’s gone! Now invisible, he walks into the hideout, always trailed by this beam of light, sits at his desk, turns on a few gadgets, and, with a plaster black tiger head on the desk flashing its eyes and emanating smoke from its mouth, he berates his men in a tremulous, high-pitched and highly annoying voice.

They never explain how he can do this. It seems a trick of cameras and lighting—a Hollywood trick, you could say—but in that last episode they don’t go into it. Last episodes in serials are rarely for exposition. It might get in the way of the thousandth fistfight.

Since the Black Tiger has invisibility, what superpower does the Shadow have? None. He’s just a dude in a cape and scarf with a maniacal laugh who’s good at fistfights. His signature laugh actually works against him here. In the radio series, it announced his presence but nobody knew where it came from, which is why it was terrifying. It was like he was everywhere. It was like he knew what evil lurked in their hearts! Here, it merely allows the villains to get the drop on him.

That said, Victor Jory makes a pretty good Shadow.

Invisibility > Fisticuffs
Some background. I began collecting comics in the summer of 1973 and a few months later The Shadow made his return in Batman #253. (Batman: “That laugh ... coming from everywhere ... and nowhere!”) He was new to me but a legend to the caped crusader. As they shake hands in the end, Batman even admits, with a nod toward the pulp origins of superheroes, “I’ve never told anyone this ... but you were my biggest inspiration.”

I was inspired as well. My friend Dan and I were busy creating our own series of comic books, Rory Comics, that were mostly derivative of Marvel. Their Falcon became our Eagle (“Rory’s first black superhero!”); their Dr. Strange became our Magus (“Last of the Maji”). And because of Batman #253, as well as the resurrection of “The Shadow” radio series Sunday nights after “American Top 40,” we introduced/stole The Shadow as well. He appeared as the villain in “James Steele: Master Detective” and then was given his own comic:

The Shadow in Rory Comics

My Rory Comics ripoff, circa 1977.

Why was I drawn to him—rather than, say, the Lone Ranger, whose radio series was also resurrected Sunday evenings? Was it the Shadow’s invisibility? (E.L. Doctorow is quite good on this.) His ability to see into hearts? To see deeply while remaining unseen? Who wouldn’t want that power?

The Shadow didn’t even start out as a character. He began as the narrator of an early 1930s CBS radio show, “Detective Story,” which was a series of unrelated pulp mysteries held them together by this mysterious narrator. As Raymond W. Stedman writes in his book, “The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment”:

The piercing voice, the macabre laugh, the ironic tones brought fan mail that reflected considerably less interest in the story than in the mysterious “Shadow” who told them. Almost overnight two things happened. The radio program evolved into the eerie dramas in which The Shadow was not narrator but principal participant, and Street and Smith introduced this fascinating new character in The Shadow magazine.

So why did Columbia Pictures take away his powers? Apparently they thought kids wanted action they could see. In the minds of the decision-makers, fisticuffs > invisibility.

By this point, the formula for ur-superhero serials was well-established:

  • The villain issues orders from behind a desk
  • His henchmen go into the world to implement them
  • The hero confronts them, is endangered (cliffhanger), but survives and foils the plan
  • Repeat

But “The Shadow” also steals from “The Spider’s Web,” a well-regarded Columbia serial from 1938:

  • The villain’s identity is hidden
  • His scheme is to disrupt big business
  • He turns out to be one of the city’s big businessmen

In both serials, the hero has three identities: himself, the masked hero, and a shady underworld figure who learns key info from the bad guys (Blinky McQuade for The Spider; Lin Chang for The Shadow). Both heroes have teams: an assistant (Jackson/Harry Vincent); an exotic assistant (Ram Singh/Wu); and a girl (Nita Van Sloan/Margot Lane).

In both, too, the “next episode” trailer doesn’t exactly milk the cliffhanger. Instead, it gives us next week’s cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter 7, for example, after The Shadow gets into a gunfight behind barrels marked “ACID,” there’s a fire and everyone gets out except The Shadow. He’s standing in the middle of the room when there’s an explosion and the roof caves in. How will he survive?

Here’s what they say about the next chapter:

“Tonight, the Limited [a train] with all aboard will be destroyed. The Shadow tries to prevent the disaster. He reaches the switch, he’s diverting the train, when he’s attacked by the Black Tiger’s Men! He fights them off, throws the switch, and then he’s knocked unconscious in the path of the roaring express. See THE SHADOW RIDES THE RAILS, next week’s brilliant episode of The Shadow!”

They just jump ahead. They assume he survives. Kind of defeats the purpose of the cliffhanger, doesn’t it?

There’s such absurdities throughout. In the second episode, Cranston and Vincent (Roger Moore) follow the bad guys to their hideout outside the A1 Garage Office. Inside, we hear this conversation:

Hood 1: Hey, whaddaya doing?
Hood 2: Wearing masks from now on.
Hood 1: Well, what’s the big idea?
Hood 2: Orders from the Black Tiger. Get ’em on. 

Cranston then knocks out a hood and enters the lair with his mask. Five minutes later, after the Black Tiger finds out he's been duped, he tells his flunky, Flint (Jack Ingram), “From now on, no more masks!” Consider it the shortest management innovation in history.

That said, the dumbest guy in the serial has to be Commissioner Weston (Frank LaRue). In the first chapter, he has Cranston drive to his office to show him a card from one of the Black Tiger’s men that says “Cranston Labs, 2:00” on it. What time does he do this? About five minutes before 2:00. Not much time to prepare. He also thinks The Shadow and the Black Tiger are the same person—“without evidence” as we say today. And when Cranston correctly suggests someone close to the business group is the Black Tiger, he waves it away. “We’ve developed something that indicates just the contrary,” he says. The police commissioner is such an idiot that one businessman, Turner (John Paul Jones), actually suspects the commissioner.

Turner is part of one of my favorite goofs in the serial. In chapter 7, the useless, harrumphing businessmen meet again at the Cobalt Club. Two of their own, Prescott and Marshall, have just been kidnapped, but the rest don’t know that. One of them declares, “But what on earth could’ve happened to Prescott and Marshall?” As he's saying it, look across the table at Turner. He’ actually mouthing the line.

I’ve never seen that in a movie before.

As for the identity of the Black Tiger? It’s Marshall. Not that that helps much. The businessmen are all so generic, it’s like “Which one is he again? Oh right. ... I guess.” Shame they didn’t make it more of a whodunit. But that would’ve required time and money. And maybe more talent. 

Who knows what evil ... nah, forget it
Beyond the missteps, what did I like? Jory, as mentioned, is good, with a piercing gaze, and physically correct for the role. Philip Ahn provides some quiet dignity as Wu—30 years before he’d do the same as Master Kan on “Kung Fu.” Roger Moore’s Vincent gets in some jokes. Margot Lane is played brusquely by Veda Ann Borg, but she has little-to-no chemistry with Jory. It’s a shocker to find out they’re supposed to be a couple.

By the way: You know what we never hear? 

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

This thing is five hours long, it’s one of the most famous lines in pulpdom, and yet they never use it. That’s pretty much all you need to know about “The Shadow.”

SHADOW SLIDESHOW


  • Thanks to Columbia, The Shadow doesn't turn invisible and he doesn't say “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” It's like Superman being grounded and James Bond not saying “Bond. James Bond.”  

  • Superhero/villain ephemera were big back then. Everyone had to have a calling card.

  • Is it the villainous Black Tiger ... or Paul Williams in concert circa 1978?

  • Jack Ingram acting with nothing. 

  • Lamont Cranston and Commissioner Weston confer on the case. Weston is about to make his 99th incorrect assumption. 

  • Cranston as Lin Chang; at right is Philip Ahn, better known as the kindly Master Kan on “Kung Fu”—a series that needs to be resurrected. 现在。  

  • Cranston and Margot Lane displaying their usual sexual chemistry.

  • The businessmen of the Cobalt Club displaying their usual smarts. 

  • The Shadow phones! It's not “Who know what evil...” but it'll have to do. *FIN*
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Posted at 08:21 AM on Nov 28, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Monday November 12, 2018

Movie Review: The Phantom (1943)

Review of the 1943 Phantom movie serial

WARNING: SPOILERS

I never dug the Phantom. None of my comic book-buying buddies did. Probably because he wasn’t a comic book guy but a comic strip guy—born in those pages in 1936, two years before Action Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world. After I began collecting in 1973, I recall being vaguely intrigued by the Phantom’s daily strip, since, at the time, he was as close to a superhero as you could find in the funnies. But no, he was boring. I kept waiting for him to do something super. I kept waiting for him to return from the jungle until I realized, “Oh, he’s supposed to be there.” He was what we now call a transitional superhero: mask and skintight suit, yes, but everything else spoke to boys adventure stories of the 1910s: the jungle, “magic,” signet rings, subservient natives, a German Shepherd sidekick. He was your grandfather’s superhero and creaked like it.

The 1943 Columbia serial, “The Phantom,” is that turned up to 11.

It’s a movie serial so it’s going to be cut-rate and clumsy; and it’s set in the jungle (Africa, South America, we’re never sure), so it comes loaded with the usual racial landmines. The filmmakers manage to trip them all:

  • Natives kowtowing before a white man (our hero), who is proclaimed a god
  • Flabby white dudes, wearing leopard-skin diapers, playing the natives
  • Flabby white dudes saying things like “Boola boola cahoola” and “Ubba gonga tonga” as examples of the native language

This last is like what “Gilligan’s Island” would be two decades later. I also got a whiff of “Star Wars.” At the end of Chapter 10, “Chamber of Death,” the Phantom falls through a trap door and into a pit, where a metal panel opens revealing ... a rancor! Kidding, it’s a tiger. But it’s still very much like Luke in Jabba’s lair in “Return of the Jedi.” Yet another reminder that these things hugely influenced filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who hugely influenced everything else. “The Phantom” and other serials are like the ur-texts of what’s playing at your local multiplex.

Boola boola cahoola.

That old cistern
What’s the story here? Glad you asked!

Prof. Davidson (Frank Shannon) and his team, including his spunky niece Diana Palmer (Jeanne Bates), arrive in the town of Sai Pana, on the edge of the jungle, hoping to find the fabled “Lost City of Zoloz” and its various riches.

Meanwhile, a gang of thugs, led by Dr. Max Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), needs the area to construct a landing strip in the jungle—for war, one imagines, but the why is never stated—so they try to throw the Professor’s team off the scent. Then they try to keep everyone out of the jungle by riling up the natives. Best way to do that? Kill the Phantom.

The Phantom, you see, is the reason there’s any peace in the jungle at all. He demands it. And he’s revered and kotowed to as a god because he can’t be killed. He’s “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks.” But it’s a trick; he’s just been played by different men through the years—20, as the serial opens.

The first Phantom we see is played by actor Sam Flint, born in 1882, who looks every bit of his 61 years. (I was reminded of Alfred dressing up as Batman in the ’66 TV series.) Thankfully, as he makes an appearance before the natives, sitting in a rising stone throne behind a smokescreen, he’s shot by a poisoned dart blown from one of Bremmer’s men. He knows he’s a goner so sends word to his son, Geoffrey Prescott (Tom Tyler), to take over. Geoffrey, who just happens to be part of Prof. Davidson’s team, arrives just in time to get Phantom 101 lessons and meet the natives on their side: Suba and Moku.

There’s also a treasure in jewels and gold, “a tomb of your ancestors,” an oath, and a signet ring. Like any boys club. Then, when Phantom XX dies, our newer younger version rises in the stone throne behind a smokescreen to make his proclamations.

My thoughts at this point:

  • Why wasn’t he trained in sooner? Seems a bit last minute.
  • Why a skintight purple suit and black mask? That’s not really ghostly. Nor good camouflage. Not to mention breathable. He is in the jungle, after all.
  • Why do Suba and Moku go along with the ruse?
  • How come, when the new Phantom emerges, no one says, “Hey, doesn’t he look 30 years younger to you?”

Bigger point: Our hero is someone who uses literal smokescreens to trick the natives. “There’s nothing that so sways the native mind as a few simple tricks and illusions,” Phantom XX tells him. That’s our hero. Did they know back then how bad this sounded? One wonders. In episode 9, the Phantom tells Diana about the ancient legend of the Fire Princess: How she arrived, helped them rule, then disappeared with a promise to return.

Diana: But surely you don’t believe that legend.
Phantom: Heh. Of course not. But the natives do. That’s why whoever calls herself the Fire Princess now can take advantage of them.

Uh, dude? You’re basically describing you. It’s one of the better examples of projection I’ve seen from a so-called hero. One wonders if it wasn’t a wink from the screenwriters.

Speaking of: I expected them to use the “man who never dies,” conceit more than they do. The problem with superheroes and serials is that each chapter has to end with a cliffhanger, and it’s absurd that: 1) the superhero gets into so much trouble, and 2) keeps surviving. “The man who never dies” conceit, at the least, gives a plausible explanation to the other characters for that survival. Except they never use it. Instead we get:

Rocco: Great news, Chief! We knocked over the Phantom!
Bremmer: The Phantom? But Long and Chris told me they took care of him at Rusty’s shack.
Rocco: Well, we’re not responsible for what they say.

And:

Flunky: Hey Doc! We sure got the Phantom in a pocket. He’s trapped in that dead-end tunnel.
Bremmer: I thought he’d drowned in that old cistern.
Flunky: He must’ve gotten out of that somehow, but he’s a sure goner now.

I think at one point Bremmer does wonder if maybe there’s something to “The Man Who Never Dies” legend, but it should’ve been integral throughout the serial. Missed opportunity.

(Sidenote: Daka, the Japanese villain in “Batman,” another Columbia serial from 1943, assumes with Batman what’s actually true with the Phantom. Since Batman keeps surviving, he decides there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” and if one goes down another takes his place. Probably no coincidence that the serials share two screenwriters: Victor McLeod and Leslie Swabacker.)

For those who care, these are the cliffhangers/escapes:

  1. The Phantom is stuck in a swamp with an alligator approaching ... but Devil, his German Shepherd, chases the alligator away then pulls Phantom out.
  2. A lion attacks him ... but is killed by a native’s spear.
  3. A grenade blows up a hut ... but Phantom had escaped beforehand.
  4. He’s being gassed to death ... but Devil warns his friend, Rusty, who pulls him to safety
  5. A rope bridge breaks ... but he survives the fall.
  6. A booby trapped is rigged ... but Devil saves him.
  7. The bad guys collapse a well ... but Phantom crawls through a tunnel.
  8. He falls into a canyon and there’s an explosion ... but survives.
  9. He seems to succumb to fire-dance flames ... but is pulled to safety by Moku and Devil.
  10. He falls into a pit and a tiger is released ... so he lights a flare and escapes through the tunnel the tiger emerged from.
  11. A metal gate portal is brought down ... but he rolls to safety.
  12. In a pit, he’s forced to fight an ape ... and kills it.
  13. In a cistern, water is dumped on him ... but he survives.
  14. An explosion in a cavern ... doesn’t kill him.

How does he survive? Either somebody helps, he did something beforehand we weren’t shown, or he just shakes it off. The best escape is really from the tiger. At least that involved some ingenuity.

Devil (played by Ace the Wonder Dog) is an interesting addition—he certainly beats the boy sidekick—but it creates an added absurdity. He wasn’t Phantom XX’s dog but Geoffrey Prescott’s. I.e., there’s Geoffrey with Devil; then Geoffrey disappears and Devil is suddenly the Phantom’s dog. In Chapter 8, “In Quest of the Keys,” Diana, who’s been wondering over the disappearance of Geoffrey, calls the Phantom on this. She asks: Why do you have Geoffrey’s dog? “I found him wandering in the forest,” he responds.

Smooth, bro. 

‘Bring sparkling burgundy!’
Tyler, who also played the first live-action superhero ever (Captain Marvel in 1941), is a good fit for the role. He’s strong-looking, athletic, and dull. As dull as I remember the Phantom being.

This is one of the serials in which we know the villain from the get-go and our hero doesn’t; so we wait for him to catch up. We wait 15 chapters—300 minutes. The villain is good in the sense that he’s infuriating—a liar and a scoundrel—and we can’t wait for the moment of comeuppance. So guess what they do?

They handle it off-screen.

For like the 10th time, Bremmer assumes the Phantom is dead, so he concocts a not-bad scheme to control the natives: He has one of his henchman dress as the Phantom. They do the whole nine yards: smokescreen, stone throne, but now phony Phantom just stands there; it’s Bremmer who does the talking. He’s in the midst of this when one of the natives, the long problematic Chief Chota (Stanley Price), takes this moment to reenact what the bad guys did in the first episode: He shoots a dart at the (phony) Phantom, who goes down. Chota is killed, and then there’s more smoke. When it clears, the real Phantom is standing there with .... Bremmer dead.

How does he die? Who knows? What of the fake Phantom? Got me. But that’s it. Not much of a payoff after five hours of drivel.

Oh, and the treasure from the lost city of Zoloz? The Phantom has it. He’s always had it.

There are many absurdities—snow-capped mountains in chapter 8, for example—but my favorite is the sideplot to the Genghis Khan-like castle of Tartar (Dick Curtis). It’s like the screenwriters ran out of ideas and so went the Khan route. At one point, impressed by the Phantom’s survival skills, Tartar calls for a celebration. “Bring sparkling burgundy!” he cries.

More lines like that might’ve made “The Phantom” worth watching.

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Posted at 02:12 AM on Nov 12, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Tuesday May 16, 2017

Movie Review: All Through the Night (1942)

WARNING: SPOILERS

By now, it’s more historical/cultural curiosity than anything—a battle between Damon Runyonesque gamblers (led by Humphrey Bogart) and a Nazi fifth column in New York City (led by Conrad Veidt) that’s so light-hearted I assumed it was filmed before we entered World War II. Nope. It was rushed into production after Pearl Harbor, then rushed into theaters a month later.

I watched it because I’m reading Noah Isenberg’s book on the making of “Casablanca,” and he brings up some of the similarities between the two movies. In both, Bogie starts out neutral, then becomes committed; Veidt plays the villain, while Peter Lorre scurries along the edges. Otherwise, there’s no comparison. “Casablanca” is a great movie and this one isn’t. But it’s got, as I said, cultural curiosities.

All Through the Night reviewBogie’s men, for example, are played by future ‘50s/‘60s sitcom staples: William Demerest, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason. Quite the trio. Gleason is the least funny of the lot and has the least to do. Silvers has a good bit where, during a fight, to confirm his opponents are Nazis, he shouts “Heil” at them, and if they respond in kind he clobbers them. Demerest, with the most screen time, is essentially playing the ever-crabby Uncle Charlie character he made memorable in “My Three Sons”: a gambler ironically called Sunshine. At one point, in the dark, Bogie asks, “That you, Sunshine?” He responds: “If it ain't, I've been doing a lot of suffering for the wrong party.”

We also get references to Flash Gordon, Joe DiMaggio, and practically every street in Manhattan. Best of all? Superman. Specifically the radio series, “The Adventures of Superman,” which had begun just two years earlier, on Feb. 12, 1940. Bogie is trying to convince a recalcitrant cop, Forbes (James Burke), that the Nazi hideout is in the auction house he says it is. As they enter the place, we get this conversation:

Bogie: The main office is right down this hall. This’ll open up your eyes.
Forbes: You’re scaring me. Sounds like the next installment of “Superman.” My kids will enjoy this.

I’m curious if Superman was mentioned in the movies before this. Besides via Max Fleischer, of course.

Historically, it’s interesting to see what we knew and didn’t. The femme fatale in the movie is Leda Hamilton (an uninspired Kaaren Verne), who collaborates because the Nazis have kidnapped her father and placed him in a concentration camp. A place called Dachau. So we knew about Dachau; we just didn’t know “concentration” was the wrong word—as evidenced by the fact that the movie has her father dying there “of natural causes.”

The rest is a tangle. A local baker, Miller, whose cheesecake Bogie’s character, “Gloves” Donahue, likes, is murdered. Leda shows up, they track her to a nightclub where she sings two songs, including the title number, and Bogie, enamored, tries to make his moves despite the pesky presence of the murderous Pepi (Lorre). After Bogie leaves, an argument backstage leads to another murder. When Bogie examines the body, he leaves one of his gloves behind, so he’s fingered for the crime. No pun intended.

With his men, including an overacting Barney (Frank McHugh), who should be on his honeymoon, Bogie leaps into the investigation himself. At a toy warehouse, Sunshine goes missing; at the auction house next door, Bogie is betrayed by Leda. But our heroes reunite, discover the Nazi connection, and escape with Leda, who's now on their side. There’s a chase in Central Park. Then to the cops? I forget. Basically it’s into and out of trouble for the whole long night, until Bogie and his men show up at a fifth column meeting, where the junior Nazis plan to blow up an American battleship. Our Broadway gamblers break up the ring and thwart the plan. Proving the old adage: “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”

In the end, we get a clever call to arms:

Leda: [to reporters] I feel it's about time someone knocked the Axis back on its heels.
Gloves: Excuse me, baby. What she means is it’s about time someone knocked those heels back on their axis.

Except the movie doesn’t end there. In keeping with the jokey tone, it ends with Bogie’s mom (Jane Darwell), who began the whole thing with her “feeling” that something was wrong, reiterating that line. “I’ve got a feeling, son.”

It was January 1942. Nazis wouldn’t be this funny again until “Hogan’s Heroes.”

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Posted at 04:59 PM on May 16, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
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