Diamond Among the Coal: Bela Lugosi in BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT (Monogram 1942)


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I’ve written about Bela Lugosi’s infamous ‘Monogram 9’ before, those ultra-cheap spectacles produced by the equally ultra-cheap Sam Katzman for low-budget Monogram Pictures. These films are all Grade Z schlock, redeemed only by Lugosi’s presence, giving his all no matter how ludicrous the scripts or cardboard the sets. BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT is a cut above; still schlock, but the pulpy premise is different from the rest, and Bela gives what’s probably his best performance out of the whole trashy bunch.

Lugosi plays kindly Karl Wagner, a benevolent soul who runs the Friendly Mission down on the Bowery. But wait – it’s all a front for recruiting down-on-their-luck criminals into Wagner’s gang of thieves. And when he’s done with them, he bumps them off and gives the corpses to ‘Doc’, a dope fiend ex-medico who uses the bodies for his own nefarious purposes!

But wait again! Wagner’s not really Wagner, he’s…

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The Fabulous Forties #38: The Devil Bat (dir by Jean Yarbrough)


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The 37th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1940’s The Devil Bat, which Gary Loggins reviewed on this site back in October.  Since, for the most part, I agree with Gary’s review, I’m going to recommend that you go read it and then I’ll just add a few thoughts of my own.

The Devil Bat is usually described as being one of the films that Bela Lugosi made during his decline, even though he made it just a year after appearing in a supporting role in the Oscar-nominated Ninotchka.  Lugosi plays Dr. Paul Carruthers, a small-town chemist who uses radiation to create a gigantic bat that he unleashes on everyone who he feels has wronged him.  The bat targets anyone who makes the mistake of wearing an aftershave lotion that Carruthers has created.

I would argue that there is a hint of genius to be found within The Devil Bat.

First off, there’s the fact that the giant bat is so clearly fake that it actually becomes rather charming.  Wisely, the film makes no effort to convince you that the bat is real.  Whenever that big, fake bat is lowered in on a bunch of often-visible wires, it works as almost a Brechtian alienation device.  In much the same way that Godard used jump cuts in Breathless, Devil Bat uses that big, fake bat to remind the audience that they are watching a film.  As a result, the audience has no choice but to think about the conventions of the horror genre and how their own world view has been shaped by watching movies like Devil Bat.

The other hint of genius is the satirical masterstroke of casting Bela Lugosi as a small town chemist.  Lugosi remains Lugosi, regardless of what role he plays.  When the film’s characters accept, without even a second glance, that Bela Lugosi, with his thick accent and his theatrical acting style, is a humble suburbanite, the film becomes a perhaps inadvertent satire of American conformity.

Needless to say, Lugosi was always a far better actor than he has ever been given credit for being.  In The Devil Bat, he plays Dr. Carruthers with a weary sense of resignation.  Carruthers never becomes a standard evil villain.  Instead, he’s a man who has been so beaten down by life that he now see no other option beyond using a giant bat to kill those who he feels has betrayed him.  Much as he would in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, Lugosi brings an almost redemptive sadness to his mad scientist.

The end result is that poor, misunderstood and underestimated Bela elevates the entire film.

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The Fabulous Forties #33: Boys of the City (dir by Joseph H. Lewis)


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The 33rd film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1940’s Boys of the City.

As a classic film lover, I have to admit that I groaned a bit when the opening credits announced that Boys of the City starred “East Side Kids.”  The East Side Kids were a group of actors who appeared in a number of B-movies from the 1930s through the 50s.  Many of the actors started out as members of the Dead End Kids and a few more were members of a group known as The Little Tough Guys.  In the 40s, they merged to become the East Side Kids and then eventually, once the East Side Kids started to hit their 30s, they became known as the Bowery Boys.  Their movies started out as tough and gritty melodramas but, by the time they were known as the Bowery Boys, they were making cartoonish comedies.  Occasionally, one of their films will show up on TCM.  Their early serious films (Dead End, Angels With Dirty Faces) remain watchable but, from what little I’ve seen of them, their later comedies appear to be damn near unbearable.

Boys of the City finds the East Side Kids in transition.  The kids still have an edge to them.  They are definitely portrayed as being juvenile delinquents who are walking a thin line between either a short life of crime or a long life of poverty.  But them film itself, while it may not be as cartoonish as the films that were to come in the future, is definitely a comedy.

Basically, the East Side Kids (Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Hal E. Chester, Frankie Burke, Sunshine Sammy, Donald Haines, David Gorcey, and Algy Williams) have been arrested for vandalism and are given a choice.  They can either go to juvenile hall or they can spend the summer at a camp in upstate New York.  Somewhat reluctantly (and hopefully remembering the unlucky fates of Humphrey Bogart in Dead End and James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces), the kids agree to go to the camp.

However, on the way to the camp, their car breaks down and they are forced to stay at the nearby home of a crooked judge (Forrest Taylor) until they can get the car repaired.  The judge, however, is killed and it’s up to the East Side Kids to solve the murder!  Was the judge killed by the gangsters that he was set to testify against?  Was he killed by his niece (Inna Gest)?  Or maybe it was his housekeeper, Agnes (Minerva Urecal, who appears to be parodying Judith Anderson’s performance in Rebecca)?  Or was he murdered by Knuckles (Dave O’Brien), who the judge wrongly sentenced to die and who, following his vindication and release from prison, has become a guardian to the East Side Kids?

Who knows?  Who cares?  I certainly didn’t.

Clocking in at 68 minutes, Boys of the City is a typical 1940s second feature.  Designed to keep audiences entertained without requiring them to think, Boys of the City moves quickly and adds up to nothing.  I know that there are some classic film lovers who can tell the difference between the various East Side Kids (or Dead End Kids or Bowery Boys or whatever you want to call them) but they all pretty much blended together for me.

Not surprisingly for a film made in 1940, Boys of the City is full of casual racism.  Sunshine Sammy plays an East Side Kid named Scruno.  As soon as Scruno sees the cemetery next to the house, his eyes go wide and he says, “G-g-g-ghosts!”  Apparently, that was very popular in the 40s but today, it’s impossible to watch without cringing.

Boys of the City has some interest as a time capsule but otherwise, it’s a film that is easily and happily forgotten about.

One Toke Over the Line: REEFER MADNESS (G & H Productions 1936)


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I’m writing this post while battling a nasty case of the flu, so it’s probably going to be a short one. That’s okay though, because really, what can I say about REEFER MADNESS? It’s terrible filmmaking, and dull as dishwater. There are plot holes so wide you could drive a semi through them. This little exploitation number would’ve been long forgotten after making the rounds on the grindhouse and roadshow circuits, until it was rediscovered by the stoner crowd in the 70’s and turned into an ironic midnight cult movie.

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The movie itself finds stodgy Dr. Carroll lecturing the local School-Parent Group to help “stamp out this frightful assassin of youth” marijuana. He recounts what happened when some kids got hooked on the stuff. Seems this gang of drug pushers were out to corrupt American youth by turning them on at an apartment run by no-goods Mae and Jack. Sweet Mary’s brother…

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