MILL CREEK NIGHTMARE WORLDS: Shadow of Chinatown (1936)

Shadow of Chinatown is a 65-minute version of the 300-minute long serial of the same name. It’s all about San Francisco’s Chinatown is being destroyed by Victor Poten (Bela Lugosi) and The Dragon Lady (Luana Walters), hired by white businesses to decimate the new Chinese businessmen who are taking away their profits. Unlike most serials of the time, it’s intriguing to see a movie in which white people are attacking Asians instead of sinister Fu Manchu being a stereotypical bad guy.

Look, it’s a movie in which Bela Lugosi mesmerizes women into hating the Chinese as much as he does.

This was directed and written by Robert F. Hill, who had 116 directing credits in his career. After World War II, Universal sent him to Japan to open a movie studio where he warned that the locals would try to attack him if he started an American studio in their country. He needed to get a doctor’s permit to prove his wife needed care back home before Universal would let him give up. The next person who tried had that happen as Japanese filmmakers attacked him and used the studio Universal built for themselves.

Desire (1936)

After one of the most elaborate jewel heists in European history — in which our female protagonist convinces not just one, but two men that she’s about to marry them — Madeleine de Beaupre (Marlene Dietrich) has escaped with a small fortune of pearls.

On her way to Spain to fence the goods, she runs into car trouble and is helped by Tom Bradley (Gary Cooper), a kindly American who just wants to help. She leaves him behind but he accidentally ends up with the hot pearls. That means that she has to romance him in the hopes of getting them back. But what happens when she falls for someone instead of just trying to work them?

A remake of Happy Days in Aranjuez, which was based on the play Die Schönen Tage von Aranjuez, by Hans Székely and Robert A. Stemmle, this movie was supposed to be the comeback movie for John Gilbert after a series of failures. Only days before shooting started, he had a heart attack and got replaced by John Halliday.

Supposedly, Gilbert and Dietrich were living together when she tried to use her influence to have him cast opposite her. However, she withdrew her support when he started seeing former fiancée Greta Garbo again. Dietrich then got back with Gary Cooper and Gilbert had a fatal heart attack occurred on the same day that Cooper’s casting was officially announced by Paramount.

Dietrich spoke highly of this movie, saying: “The only film I need not be ashamed of is Desire…” and “Desire became a good film and, moreover, also proved to be a box-office success. The script was excellent, the roles superb – one more proof that these elements are more important than actors.” She must have really enjoyed this movie, because she played the role at least two more times in radio adaptions.

The new Kino Lorber blu ray of Desire has two commentary tracks, with one by Samm Deighan and the other featuring David Del Valle and Nathaniel Bell. The 2K remastering of the film looks great and this is just about a perfect release for lovers of Hollywood history.

The Lash of the Penitentes (1936)

Released as Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of Exploitation Pictures, Vol. 9 as part of the Something Weird/Kino Classics line, The Lash of the Penitentes is an astounding bit of before your grandparents exploitation sleaze, a report on a murder within the hidden non-English speaking New Mexican cult of Catholic masochists known as Los Hermanos Penitentes.

Hey, happy easter a few days late, because these guys and ladies went absolutely wild during Lent, basically whipping the sin out of themselves before crucifying for real one of the lucky ones of their close-knit group.

Somehow, cinematographer Roland Price (Marihuana: Weed With Roots in Hell as well as early censor-baiting titles like How to Take a Bath and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband) was able to film the rituals and worked with Harry Revier (the maker of Child Bride) to make a murder mystery film that could go all over the country as an exploitation film, whether in a censored 35-minute version of a fully berserk 48-minute epic of Catholicism mixed with ecstatic devotion.

I love that Kino is releasing things like this, pieces of exploitation history that once only lived in dusty old film cans. Seeing them on my shelf makes my heart grow several sizes larger due to joy.

You can get The Last of the Penitentes from Kino Lorber.

Mill Creek Sci-Fi Invasion: Trapped by Televison (1936)

“Gee, ain’t science great?!”
— Bill collector Rocky O’Neil

Forrest Gump had a box of chocolates. For the movie hound staff of B&S About Movies, we have Mill Creek boxes of DVDs where you never know what you’re going to get. Well, you do know what your going to get: pure programming insanity. Who in their right mind would collate the adventures of Paco Querak in Hands of Steel (which is also available on ‘the Creek’s Pure Terror box set) into the same box set as this Columbia Pictures “who done it” starring former silent screen star Mary Astor, who worked her way up to a forever-remembered role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy alongside Bogey in The Maltese Falcon (1941) (de rigueur viewing for any movie hound reading this). Oh, and she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that same year for her portrayal of concert pianist Sandra Kovak in (a film that no one remembers) The Great Lie (1941).

Again. Ex-B movie actress-cum-Oscar winner Mary Astor and Joe D’Amoto’s go-to actor George Eastman . . . on the same box set. Pure insanity. Why? Because, outside of the plot backdrop of the “new” technology of television, this isn’t even a sci-fi movie: it’s a Columbia B-movie comedy starring Lyle Talbot, who excelled at . . . B-movie comedies and romantic thrillers (and later co-starred on ’50s TV’s Ozzie & Harriet).

Hey, wait a minute . . . you sure this isn’t a repack of Murdered by Television starring Bela Lugosi? Nope. That was released a year earlier, in 1936. Remember all of those post-WarGames movies in the ’80s obsessed with the “new” technology of home computers? Then all of those “net” movies in the early ’90s? Well, it that was like that in during the Industrial Revolution of the 1930s — with Hollywood obsessed with television as plot fodder.

Anyway, the always dependable Talbot is Fred Dennis, a broke inventor dogged by Rocky O’Neil (Nat Pendleton), a kind-hearted, mobster-backed bill collector. Hey, gang! Fred’s finally done it: his TV camera and TV monitor (a television set) works! His trusted romantic sidekick is Astor’s Barbara “Bobby” Blake (well, the “hot babe with a guy’s name” screenwriting trope had to start somewhere), blessed with a knack for advertising and promotion; she’s going sell Fred’s invention and they’ll be rich. Corporate intrigue — as we oft say around here — ensues, as gangsters, competing scientists, and electronics companies vie for the invention, with Talbot, Astor, and Pendleton — along with everyone’s favorite Lucille Ball clone, Joyce Compton (in that always annoying pillbox hat) — keeping one step ahead of the lighthearted mayhem.

The twist to this oldie: it’s actually pretty good. And you can watch it on You Tube.

The script by Lee Loeb and Harold Buchman (whose resumes stretch from the early ’30s into the mid-70s across TV and film) is well-written from a technological standpoint (there’s no slapstick-crazy Doc Browns pushing junk science flux capacitors) and the acting isn’t that bad. If you’re a Nat Pendleton and Joyce Compton completest — and need a fix of Bela — you can catch them together in the MacGuffin-strewn noir Scared to Death (1947), which, as it turns out, Mill Creek featured on their Pure Terror box set (recapped here). (Oh, and if you’re interested: we covered all of the films in their Chilling Classics set; recapped here.)

What would we do without Mill Creek box sets supplying us with movies? I don’t even want to think of a Mill Creekless world. Do you? But still . . . this movie encased in a box with artwork featuring a futuristic city under destruction by space ships . . . and Dorothy Statten’s name . . . is pure insanity. And we love it.

Now, let me get to work on my new Lifetime-oriented screenplay: Trapped by Phone App.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

Wedding Present (1936)

Richard Wallace (A Night to Remember) directed this screwball comedy vehicle for a young Cary Grant, who plays Charlie, a man whose promotion to city editor drives his reporter girlfriend Monica “Rusty” Fleming (Joan Bennett, who was also in Big Brown Eyes with Grant) to New York City. That means that Charlie must grab his friend “Smiles” Benson (William Demarest, Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons) and try to win back his lady love.

Gene Lockhart, who plays the Archduke Gustav Ernest, would appear with Grant again in one of his biggest roles, His Girl Friday.

It’s funny knowing the Grant that would end up in films like North by Northwest and see him in his fast-talking days, rushing through slapstick antics. That said, this is a fun escape from the majority of the bad news that is on the TV these days, a reminder than 1930’s films are still worthy of rediscovery. 

You can get this as part of Kino Lorber’s Cary Grant Collection, which is a great opportunity to own some of the actor’s earliest films on blu ray.

Big Brown Eyes (1936)

I haven’t seen many crime comedies that revolve around manicures, but that’s exactly what this Raoul Walsh (the one-eyed director of High Sierra) comedy is all about.

Cary Grant plays police officer Danny Barr, who is growing tired of chasing jewel thieves. His girlfriend Eve Fallon (Joan Bennett, Dark Shadows, Madame Blanc in Suspiria) gives up her manicurist job to become a reporter, aiding Danny as he hunts down the criminals. One of them gives up way too much info while getting his nails done, which leads to them finally tracking down the big bad, Richard Morey (Walter Pidgeon, who was in both Sextette and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood at the end of his career).

It’s a fun little farce. It was also one of more than seven hundred Paramount productions, filmed between 1929-49, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution. It aired for the first time on TV in 1959.

You can get this as part of Kino Lorber’s Cary Grant Collection, which is a great opportunity to own some of the actor’s earliest films on blu ray.

The Rogues’ Tavern (1936)

You’ll need to cut me a lot of slack with this movie, due to its nostalgia value of watching this on the defunct Good Life TV Network with my dad — where we also watched the 1981 war epic Inchon, which was produced by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the head of the controversial Unification Church, who also owned the cable channel.

This is just a good ‘ol fashioned murder mystery concerning a soon-to-be-married pair of detectives (he’s a “real detective”; she’s just a “store detective”) who stopover at Red Rock Tavern on a bleak and windy night.

As they settle in and mingle with their other guests — a wild dog breaks in through an open window and attacks and kills two of the guests. The sleuthin’ is on as detectives Jimmy Kelly (Wallace Ford) and Marjorie Burns (Barbara Pepper) discover that the dog isn’t the real killer. Then all of the guests discover they’re trapped inside the tavern by locked doors and windows.

Like I said, this is just a good ‘ol fashioned murder mystery the way the used to make ’em and the way they don’t know how to make ’em anymore.

See, Pop? Making me watch those old flicks wasn’t for naught.

Oh, there’s a twist here: Barbara Pepper, a notable, flashy Hollywood “blonde dame” of the 1930s and 1940s Golden Era of cinema, became better known to us younger folks as Doris Ziffel on TV’s Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. You . . . maybe . . . might remember (I do) Wallace Ford starring as Marshal Herk Lamson in The Deputy, just one of those (many) short-lived TV westerns that didn’t live to up the likes of Bonanza and Gunsmoke.

I can’t believe this hasn’t ended up on a Mill Creek Box set. Maybe it has and we just haven’t reviewed that particular box — and we’re on our 10th box, this November 2022! Oh, and might I suggest you pair this one up with Murder by Television (1935) for an evening of retro viewing? Toss The Black Raven (1943) and The Ghost Train (1941) on the VHS fires, as well. Good stuff!

You can watch this in the public domain on You Tube.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

午夜殭屍, aka Midnight Vampire (1936)

Coming up in November we’re reviewing Mill Creek’s Sci-Fi Invasion 50-Film Box Set — and we take a poke at Willie Palmer, aka Godfrey Ho, and joke about his bunny vampires in Robo Vampire; however, those rascally vamp-rabbits aren’t from cinematic ineptitude: they’re from Chinese legend: the Qing Dynasty legends of the Jiangshi (meaning “hard or “stiff”). Their tales first appeared in widespread print in 1789 by way of the literary visions of writer Ji Xiaolan. Director Yeung Kung-Leung was the first to bring the Jiangshi to the big screen with 1936’s Midnight Vampire. The Chinese text, spoken, is pronounced Wǔyè jiāngshī, and actually translates as “Midnight Zombie” in the English. Thus, while me may be a bit rough on Ho’s inversion of Chinese vampires, it actually works as a smart parody on the Jiangshi genre. Who knew?

From Ricky Lau’s Mr. Vampire (1986) courtesy of the IMDb.

As you can guess: this movie — a tale about a dead man who returns from the grave to kill his brother — is impossible to find, with trailer/clips and images even harder (pardon the pun). How difficult? Even the film’s IMDb page is a barren wasteland; Letterboxd doesn’t list the film in its digital catalog. Where’s Criterion Collection and Kino Loeber on this one? (Hey, at least Kino Loeber picked up all of Jean Rollin’s ’70s erotic vamp tales, so all is well, KL!)

The Hong Kong film industry — as with Italy’s — is not one to pass up a hot trend when they see one: they’ve been responsible for more of its fair share (starting in the ’80s) of hoping vampire movies than any other Pacific Rim country, starting in 1936 with Yeung Kung-leung’s Midnight Vampire — released just five years after Universal’s Dracula in 1931 (the first licensed cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel). While it was shot first — but released after (and not based on Stoker’s work) — Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer brought his silent, 1932 vampire tale (the exquisite) Vampyr, aka The Dream of Allan Gray, based on elements of five short stories — “Carmilla” in particular — from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 collection of supernatural stories In a Glass Darkly. However, prior to these tales was F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized, 1922 inversion of Stoker’s work, Nosferatu.

The most popular and widely accessible Jiangshi tale is Ricky Lau’s 1985 action-comedy take on the Qing Dynasty legends, Mr. Vampire (which provides the above image; so don’t email us: we posted the image on purpose to make a point). That film was produced by Sammo Hung who, if you know your Walker, Texas Ranger trivia, starred on that CBS-TV program and had his own spinoff series, Martial Law. And Sammo Hung got the industry-fad of ‘80s jiangshi movies a-hopin’ with 1980’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind; the loose sequel/sidequel was, of course, Mr. Vampire.

And how it is that Chuck Norris never fell into Hong Kong B-Moviedom and kicked some comedic, Jiangshi stiff-ass punks? The tales of the hoping bunny vampires will never tell. . . .

Update, October 2022: We had an enjoyable Facebook exchange this weekend — with a reader, the chap below in the comments — and one of our critical contemporaries, one well-versed in Asian cinema, regarding Yeung Kung-Leung’s Midnight Vampire.

The short of the story: Courtesy of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, we’ve collectively confirmed this classic of Hong Kong Cinema — the first film from that country concerning vampires — film is truly lost, forever: both images of and the film itself, are gone.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.