CURTIS HARRINGTON WEEK: Fragment of Seeking (1946)

“A climactic fragment from the existence of an adolescent Narcissus” and an “examination of youthful narcissism” are words that director Curtis Harrington used to describe this early sixteen-minute long movie.

A man catches a glimpse of a woman, becomes obsessed by her and then alternatively horrified by her when he sees her in a much more frightening way the closer he gets to her.

But under the surface, this film looks like Lynch before Lynch. Influenced by Maya Deren and somehow brave enough to confront being queer on film in 1946, Harrington explores the links between sex and fear and death and worry and angst and alienation.

As you can tell by this week of his movies I’m fascinated by Harrington, a man whose career goes from occult leanings to an appearance in Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of the Pleasure Dome, rescuing James Whales’ The Old Dark House, making psychobiddy films and finally finding something of a home making TV movies and episodes of mass population pleasing culture like Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty. He’s definitely all over the place and isn’t that how we like our creative people?

MILL CREEK DRIVE-IN MOVIE CLASSICS: Shock (1946)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Melanie Novak writes about the Golden Age of Hollywood, infusing her weekly movie reviews with history, gossip, and the glamour of the studio era.  You can read her reviews at www.melanienovak.com and follow her on Instagram @novak_melanie.

Loyal B&S About Movies fans will likely know Vincent Price for his horror films from the fifties and sixties.  But long before he made The House of Wax (1953), Price cut his teeth on the London stage in 1935 playing Prince Albert in Victoria Regina.

Hollywood came calling, of course, and after a few early films with Universal (and a screen test for Ashely Wilkes in Gone With the Wind), he signed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox that would allow him to split his time between New York and Hollywood.

In 1941 he starred in Angel Street on Broadway, playing a husband who convinces his wife she is going mad in order to steal her family’s jewels.  The play was a smashing success and remains the longest-running melodrama in Broadway’s history with over a thousand performances.  In 1944, it was retitled Gaslight and filmed with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, a role for which Bergman won her first Academy Award.

Vincent Price returned to Hollywood and had supporting roles in a pair of Gene Tierney film noirs—the classic Laura (1944), in which Price plays Shelby Carpenter, a playboy suspected of murdering his fiancé, and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), in which Price’s character is jilted by Tierney’s Ellen Berent, one of film’s most deliciously bonkers femme fatales.

After fifteen films and eight years in Hollywood, Price got his first starring role in the film noir Shock (1946), the only Price film in the Mill Creek Drive-In Classics 50 Pack.  

Shock was a B-picture filmed in eighteen days.  Price plays Dr. Richard Cross, a psychiatrist who is dismayed to learn that a woman witnessed him killing his wife after she refuses him a divorce.

Lucky for Dr. Cross that the sight of the violence shocks Janet Stewart into a catatonic state, and that Dr. Cross is called in to treat her.  With the help of Elaine Jordan, his mistress and nurse, Cross uses sedatives to keep Janet Stewart confused.  Channeling his gaslighting role in Angel Street, he convinces her and everyone else that she is insane so that she won’t be able to implicate him in his wife’s murder.

In true film noir fashion, it is Elaine, the low-rent Phyllis Dietrichson who pushes Cross deeper and deeper into the cover-up, using her icy sex appeal to convince him to give Janet Stewart a lethal overdose and make it look like an accident.  

But can the successful psychiatrist, who killed his wife without premeditation, follow through with the cold-blooded murder of a patient to save his own skin?

Shock is not in the same league as Laura and Leave Her to Heaven (to say nothing of Double Indemnity), but it’s a satisfying B-film that foreshadows the great villains in Price’s future, who will not need a femme fatale to convince them to wreak havoc on the world.

With a scant 70 minute run time, you can’t go wrong gobbling this one up on a crisp fall evening.

Sources

  • Price, Victoria.  Vincent Price:  A Daughter’s Biography, 1999.

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

There was a second Universal horror cycle after the Karloff and Lugosi monsters, even if they never get discussed any longer. And so much of it was based around one man, Rondo Hatton.

Well, Sherlock Holmes too. We’ll get to that.

Hatton was once a sportswriter for The Tampa Tribune and a World War I veteran, but then acromegaly distorted the shape of his head, face and extremities, giving him a unique look that made him a livings special effect. In fact, the studio system tried to play his looks up as an even worse deformity, stating that he’d received elephantiasis after exposure to German mustard gas attack during the war.

After playing the Hoxton Creeper in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death, a series of Creeper films was planned. Sadly, House of Horrors and The Brute Man were released after his death, the result of shis acromegalic condition.

Back to the master detective.

The second character spun off from a Holmes film was The Spider Woman, who originally appeared in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman. Again, like Hatton, Gale Sondergaard didn’t need much makeup to achieve her fame as a dangerous and evil woman.

In fact, after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, MGM considered having the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz played as a glamorous villainess, much like Snow White’s evil stepmother. They did two screen tests with Sondergaard in the traditional witch look and the more out there sexy style. After the decision was made to go with the ugly wicked witch, Sondergaard was reluctant to wear the disfiguring makeup, so she stepped away from the role which went to Margaret Hamilton.

Sondergaard also played the evil humanized cat Tylette in The Blue Bird — 20th Century Fox’s answer to Oz — as well as the sinister wife in The Letter.

So yes, back once again to Holmes. After playing the villain in one of the long series of Sherlock movies, Sondergaard would play the sinister Spider Woman again in an unrelated sequel. In the first movie, she was known as Adrea Spedding but now she’s the wealthy, blind and mysterious Zenobia Dollard.

Jean (Brenda Joyce, who played Jane in several Tarzan films) is hired as Zenobia’s caretaker, a job with a definite shelf life as all of the previous caretakers have vanished. Perhaps that’s because at night, Zeonbia’servantnt (yep, Rondo Hatton) harvests her blood while she sleeps a drugged sleep, mixing her plasma with that of her ancestors and a little bit of spider venom — sounds like one of my cocktails — to make a death serum. Oh yeah — he has blood drinking plants to help him with his experiment!

At just 59 minutes and with direction by non-horror fan Arthur Lubin, this film couldn’t catch on the same way Universal’s past horror successes did. Yet it’s still astounding that they attempted to start a new series, much less one with a female antagonist. That said, this did run quite often on TV, as it was part of the original Universal Shock Theater package.

Kino Lorber’s new blu ray of The Soider Woman Strikes has a great looking 2K remaster of the film, commentary by film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter, trailers and Misteress of Menace and Murder: Making The Spider Woman Strikes Back, a new documentary featuring interviews with C. Courtney Joyner, Rick Baker and Fred Olen Ray. Much like all of their latest releases, Kino really knows how to find that exact movie that you suddently discover that your collection is missing. You can get it directly from Kino Lorber.

Song of the South (1946)

If you ever ride one of Disney’s Splash Mountain rides, you’re seeing the characters from this movie, which has remained locked in the Disney vault — at least in America, as it has been released in Japan, Germany and the UK on VHS and DVD — because in the words of executive chairman and former CEO Bob Iger, Song of the South is “not appropriate in today’s world.”

Let me explain to you how wrong the world once was and pretty much still is. A special Academy Award was given to James Baskett “for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world.” He was the first African-American man to ever win any type of Oscar. But when the movie premiered in Atlanta, the actor was prohibited from attending because the city was racially segregated by law. This wasn’t during the Civil War. This was during your parent’s or grandparent’s lifetimes. (Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American woman to win, be nominated, or even be allowed to attend — and, even then, only with special permission — the Academy Awards, for 1939’s Gone With the Wind).

When the movie was released, Walter Francis White — the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — sent newspapers a statement that said, “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in Song of the South remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, Song of the South unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master–slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” He had not seen the film nor realized that it was set after the end of the Civl War. Perhaps a more balanced view came from his fellow NAACP member Norma Jensen who remarked that the film was “so artistically beautiful that it is difficult to be provoked over the clichés, yet it has all the clichés in the book.”

The major issue is that the film features the subserviant status of black characters, the way they dress, their exaggerated dialect and other archaic depections of black people. The stories come from Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, who was a racial reconciliation activist writer. That doesn’t help the film’s overall tone.

The major thrust of the movie is that a white child named Johnny is inspired by the tales of Bre’e Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear that are told by Remus. His mother doesn’t understand and thinks that the stories are making her son — who is already dealing with the seperation of his parents — too much of a rebel. Uncle Remus attempts to leave the plantation as a result, but when Johnny is hit by a bull, only his the stories and songs of the old man can save his young friend.

The funny thing is that as dated as the movie’s attitudes seemed in 1946, it was still re-released in U.S. theaters as late as 1986, when it seemed incredibly wrong. And while Disney  has never released the film on home video in the U.S., it eventually will. That’s because the film will go into public domain in 2039 and Disney will lose all copyright to the film if it is not physically released in theaters, on hoem video or via Disney+.

That said — who knows? I recently watched the film and can see the issues, but when Whoopi Goldberg was made a Disney Legend, she said that she hoped that the movie would be reissued so that people could start a dialogue about it.

Today, characters and songs from the film appear in various Disney media yet children never associate them with this film, which would never be seen if it weren’t for the internet and convention DVD sellers.

I wish there could be an assessment of this film and a discussion of what is wrong about it, while understanding that many of Uncle Remus’ lessons could teach us plenty. But this film remains a media landmine and even the whispers of a home release in 2007 led to controversy and threats of legal action.

You should see it for yourself, make up your own mind and treat everyone with the dignity they deserve. But you already knew that.

Bedlam (1946)

Inspiration can come from anywhere. For example, this movie was based on William Hogarth’s 1732-1734 painting series A Rake’s Progress.

Written by producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson, who would go on to make Peyton PlaceValley of the Dolls and Earthquake. It would be Lewton’s last movie for RKO.

Boris Karloff plays Master George Sims, who runs a fictionalized version of Bedlam, or as it is more formally known, the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Referring to his patients as looneys, he makes them perform for him. He’s based on John Monro, who was in charge of the real Bedlam and actually charged the public admission to see his patients’ bizarre behavior.

Shocked by the treatment of the patients, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee, “The British Bombshell” who would become the matriarch of soap operas General Hospital and Port Charles) tries to reform Sims’ asylum, only to end up jailed there and menaced by the very patients she was trying to save.

The film closes with this legend: “Reforms were begun in 1773 — a new hospital was erected shortly afterward — and since that time Bedlam — once a by-word for terror and mistreatment–has led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill.”

She-Wolf of London (1946)

As a kid, I’d see a title like She-Wolf of London and prepare myself for lupine madness, only to be angered by the fact that there is not a single werewolf in this movie. Imagine how angry I am as an adult when I watch films like The Wolf of Wall Street!

Years before Lassie and Lost In Space, June Lockhart would play the title character. There’s been a series of murders at a local park and her relatives inform her that because the blood of a werewolf runs in the family and that she is responsible for the deaths. Not Maureen Robinson!

As our heroine begins to worry that she is the next to suffer the Curse of the Allenbys, her aunt both tries to help and worry her at the same time. I smell gaslighting! Can you smell gaslighting? Because I totally can.

Sara Haden, who plays Aunt Martha Winthrop, is perhaps best known for playing another movie aunt, Aunt Milly Forrest in thirteen Andy Hardy films.

This was directed by Jean Yarbrough, who also brought us Hillbillys in a Haunted House and Jack and the Beanstalk, one of only two movies that Abbott and Costello made in color (the other is Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd).

Black Angel (1946)

Constance Dowling was a heart breaker. She started her entertainment career by lying about her age — and her occupation to her mother — to get a job as dancer at New York City’s Paradise nightclub. She went on to have a long affair with married director Elia Kazan, which only ended when she left town for Hollywood.

She lived in Italy from 1947 to 1950, where she romanced Italian poet/novelist Cesare Pavese, who committed suicide in 1950 after a lifetime to depression, political worries and the final rejection of Dowling. In his poetry, he refers to her as the “face of springtime,” yet one of his last poems was dedicated to her and mentioned that “death will come and she’ll have your eyes.” He overdosed on barbituates.

In 1955, Dowling married film producer Ivan Tors, who created Sea Hunt, Flipper, Daktari and Gentle Ben. He also produced her last film, Gog, before she retired to have three children and a foster child with Tors.

I’m telling you all this so that you know why she’s the perfect person to play gorgeous singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), who is the mysterious and murdered character at the heart of this 1946 film noir.

Every man in Mavis’ life is now a suspect, like her drunk musician ex-husband Martin Blair (Dan Duryea, who usually plays the bad guy; interestingly enough his parents didn’t approve of him being an actor, so he worked for six years in advertising until the stress gave him a heart attack and he went for his dream of being a star), sinister nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre!) and Kirk Bennett, who gets busted for the crime.

Now, it’s time for his sainted wife Catherine (June Vincent, again this movie plays against type as Vincent was named Television’s Favorite Homewrecker by TV Guide as so many of her roles involved her stealing husbands and boyfriends) and Blair to learn the truth.

Broderick Crawford shows up as a cop, as does Wallace Ford (who was in Freaks), former National Boxing Association Middleweight Champion of the World Freddie Steele (who doubled for Errol Flynn in Gentleman Jim), former vaudevillian Ben Bard and Junius Matthews (the voice of Rabbit in the Winnie the Pooh cartoons and Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone).

Writer Cornell Woolrich disliked the movie made from his book. He had tons of other films made from his work, including The Leopard ManPhantom LadyThe Return of the WhistlerNight Has a Thousand Eyes and Rear Window. He also had some surprising adaptions made from his stories, like Umberto Lenzi’s Seven Blood Stained Orchids, the 1984 role-playing and video game referencing Cloak and Dagger and the Tobe Hooper director made-for-TV movie I’m Dangerous Tonight.

This is the final movie for director Roy William Neill, who was behind eleven of the fourteen Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, as well as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and an early 3D film called The Man From M.A.R.S.

Looking for an enjoyable noir? Good. This new Arrow Films release features a brand new restoration from original film elements, new audio commentary by writer and film scholar Alan K. Rode, and a video appreciation of the film by historian Neil Sinyard. 

You can get this blu ray release from Arrow Video.

DISCLAIMER: This movie was sent to us by Arrow. Thanks!

So Dark the Night (1946)

Joseph H. Lewis was known as “Wagon-Wheel Joe” by studio editors when he was cranking out B-movie westerns as he was in love with using the wheel itself as a visual motif. But he was about more than just one genre. He directed Bela Lugosi in The Invisible Ghost, the musical Minstrel Man and plenty of TV late in his career, but he’s mostly known for his film noir work. One of those films, Gun Crazy, is a romance about, well, loving guns.

There’s a ten-minute bank heist sequence in that film that’s been celebrated for decades. No one but the principal actors and people inside the bank were informed that this one-take scene was real. It’s audacious — the action goes from inside the bank to the getaway car with no cut and then Lewis let his actors improv all of their dialogue.

But we’re here today to speak of So Dark the Night.

Inspector Henri Cassin (Steven Geray, who was in tons of films in supporting roles, but fans of this site may know him as Dr. Frankenstein in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter) has left Paris for a vacation he’s waiting a long time for. He’s a renowned expert who has solved all manner of the world’s toughest cases, but he finally deserves some rest.

At a small country inn, he falls for the innkeeper’s daughter Nanette. She’s a simple country girl, but something speaks to the older Cassin and he hopes to marry her. Everyone informs him that he’s too old, but his romantic heart beats for the possibility of a new life.

On the night of their engagement party, her ex-boyfriend Leon informs Cassin that he may have her now, but she will always think of her younger lover and eventually, he will have her. Nanette vanishes from her party with Leon as the main suspect, but he’s soon found dead.

Nanette’s mother is warned that she will be next to die and sure enough, she’s soon strangled. Pierre, the patriarch of the family and owner of the inn, sells the inn as Henri returns to Paris.

The murders and disappearance haunt Henri, who sees the fact that he’s solved hundreds of murders as meaning nothing when facing the one case that concerns the woman he truly loves. He comes up with a sketch of the killer and more information by studying the footprint found near Leon’s body. That’s when he comes up with an audacious hypothesis: he is the murderer. The sketch matches his face and his foot fits the print.

After confessing to the police commissioner, we learn that Henri is schizophrenic. Somehow, he escapes back to the inn where he attempts to kill Pierre. The police commissioner has followed him, however, and shoots our protagonist dead, putting him out of his misery (and mystery).

While this movie emerged from Columbia’s b-movie factory, it’s still fascinating and leagues beyond any movie that would be created today.

As you’d expect from Arrow Video, their new blu ray release has it all. A high def 1080p version of the film that makes it look better than it has since it was originally released, audio commentary and analysis on the film by critics and experts and the original trailer.

I’d never seen any of Lewis’ work before, so this was a welcome change of pace. I’m looking forward to going deeper into his work.

DISCLAIMER: This movie was sent to me by its PR department, but that has no impact on this review.

CHILLING CLASSICS MONTH: Shock (1946)

Dr. Cross (an amazingly young Vincent Price) is treating a young patient for shock, as she went into a coma when she saw a man kill his wife with a candlestick. But what if that man ended up being Dr. Cross? And how will she escape?

Lynn Bari plays the Doctor’s lover/nurse Elaine, and if you know anything of noir, she’s never a leading lady but always the seductress, a “sultry, statuesque man-killer” as Wikipedia refers to her. Sadly, her career fizzled by the 1950’s, “sabotaged by unresolved problems with her domineering, alcoholic mother and three marriages.”

Once Dr. Cross realizes that Janet knows he’s the killer, Elaine convinces him to overdose her on insulin and give her shock therapy, which sends her into a coma. He can’t find it in his heart to kill her, but his nurse won’t help him save her, so he chokes her. Luckily, Dr. Harvey saves the day and all is well — but things sure got close.

If you don’t have the Chilling Classics set, you can always watch this on Amazon Prime. Actually, since the original copyright holder never secured the rights, it’s in the public domain, so you can find it pretty much anywhere.