Horror Film Review: The Walking Dead (dir by Michael Curtiz)


In this 1936 film (which has absolutely no relation to the AMC zombie show), Boris Karloff plays John Ellman.  John Ellman is perhaps one of the unluckiest guys ever.  Seriously check this out:

John Ellman was once an acclaimed concert pianist.  However, he was wrongly convicted of killing his wife and spent ten years in prison.  Now that he’s finally been paroled, he can’t get anyone to hire him.  Meanwhile, the judge who originally sent him to prison is in the news for having defied the mob and sentenced a well-known gangster to prison.  The mob is out for revenge but, rather than take the fall themselves, they’d rather frame a patsy.  And who could be a better patsy than a man who everyone already knows has a grudge against the judge?

Nolan (Ricardo Cortez), a crooked lawyer, arranges for Ellman to be given a job.  Ellman is told that he simply has to spy on the judge for a few nights to determine whether the judge is having an extramarital affair.  Ellman agrees and soon finds himself being set up.  The gangsters kill the judge and plant the body in Ellman’s car.  Ellman is arrested and sentenced to die.  It doesn’t matter that there are witnesses who know that Ellman’s innocent.  No one is willing to cross the mafia.

Ellman is convicted and promptly executed but his story isn’t over.  A scientist named Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn, who later played the man who might be Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) knows that Ellman is innocent.  He takes Ellman’s body and, through an artificial heart and a bunch of other science-y things, he manages to revive Ellman.  John Ellman lives again!  Of course, he’s a bit of a zombie now and he doesn’t have any memory of his former life.  And yet, he instinctively knows who set him up to be executed and he sets out for revenge.

What’s interesting is that Ellman doesn’t kill anyone.  Even after he’s revived and presumably has no concept of right and wrong, John Ellman remains a rather passive zombie.  For the most part, the racketeers die because of how they react to the sight of the previously dead Ellman coming towards them.  For that matter, Beaumont isn’t the typical mad scientist that you might expect to turn up in a film like this.  He’s a benevolent man who was simply doing what he thought was the right thing.  Though the film ends with a warning about playing God, one can’t hep but get the feeling that, unlike Frankenstein, the film is overall very supportive of the idea of reviving the dead.

Directed by Michael Curtiz (who also did Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and countless other classic films), The Walking Dead is a combination horror/gangster film.  The film’s plot is a bit too convoluted for its own good but, overall, The Walking Dead works because of Boris Karloff’s performance.  He’s poignantly pathetic as the living John Ellman and then rather chilling as the vengeance-driven, recently revived Ellman.  The film’s most effective scenes are the ones where he just stares at his enemies, fixing them with a gaze that takes no prisoners and offers no hope.  It’s a great performance that elevates an otherwise uneven film.

Lisa Cleans Out The DVR: Road Gang (dir by Louis King)


I was going to start this review with a quote from Gandhi: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its prisoners.”  That was something that I first heard from a perpetually stoned ex-seminarian who used to live in a trailer park in Lake Dallas.  I always figured that, being as stoned as he usually was, he probably knew what he was talking about but, upon doing research for this review, I have discovered that Gandhi actually didn’t say that.  What Gandhi said was, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”  Fortunately, it’s the same basic idea and, regardless of how you phrase it, it’s a quote that perfectly encapsulates the message of the 1936 film, Road Gang.

Road Gang tells the story of Jim (Donald Woods) and Bob (Carlyle Moore, Jr.).  Bob is fun-loving.  Jim is more serious and engaged to marry heiress Barbara Winston (Kay Linaker).  Jim and Bob live in an unnamed Southern state (though I’m going to assume that the state is supposed to be Georgia, just because).  Jim has just written an article that exposes the corruption of political boss, J.W. Moett (Joe King).  The article is so good that both Jim and Bob have been offered jobs in Chicago!  There’s a lot of corrupt political figures who can be exposed in Chicago!

However, while driving up north, Jim and Bob are arrested on trumped-up charges.  At first, Jim and Bob laugh off Moett’s desperation but, unfortunately, another criminal happens to be breaking out of jail at the same time that Jim and Bob arrives for booking.  That criminal kills the arresting officer and then forces Jim and Bob to drive him across the state.  Eventually, the police recapture the three of them.  However, the escaping criminal is killed and Jim and Bob are arrested as accessories.  Under the advice of their lawyer, Mr. Dudley (Edward Van Sloan), they plead guilty and accept a deal.  What they don’t know is that Dudley works for Moett and that, as a result of pleading guilty, they are going to be sentenced to five years in a prison camp.

Okay, so the film gets off to a pretty melodramatic start.  And, to be honest, the entire film is extremely melodramatic.  A lot of time is devoted to Barbara trying find evidence that Jim and Bob were set up, something that is made difficult by the fact that Barbara’s father, like Mr. Dudley, works for Moett.  Fast-paced and not-always-logical, this is a B-movie, in every sense of the term.

And yet, as melodramatic as it is, Road Gang is deadly serious when it comes to portraying the brutality of the prison camp.  From the minute that Bob and Jim arrive, they find themselves at the mercy of the corrupt warden and his sadistic guards.  The prisoners are largely used as slave labor and subjected to punishments that are often arbitrary and extreme.

Road Gang doesn’t flinch when it comes to portraying why prison often not only fails to rehabilitate but also helps to transform minor offenders into hardened criminals.  There’s a disturbing scene in which Jim, Bob, and the other prisoners are forced to listen as another prisoner is whipped.  The crack of the whip and his howls of agony explode across the soundtrack in a symphony of pain and sadism.  Jim and Bob have two very different reactions to being in prison.  One survives.  One allows himself to be killed rather than take one more day in confinement.

Road Gang is often compared to I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.  Actually, beyond the theme of a fatally compromised justice system, there is no comparison.  The angry and fact-based I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a hundred times better and, quite frankly, Donald Woods was no Paul Muni.  However, Road Gang still has its moments of power.  Decades after it was made, the issues it raises continue to be relevant.  Do we send people to prison to rehabilitate them or to punish them and are the two goals mutually exclusive?  And how can we say that someone has “paid his debt to society” when, even after a prisoner serves his time, the stigma of having been imprisoned closes and locks most doors of opportunity?

Road Gang shows up occasionally on TCM.  There’s where I recorded it on January 23rd of this year.

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD (Warner Brothers 1936)


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1936’s THE WALKING DEAD has absolutely nothing to do with the wildly popular AMC TV series. This WALKING DEAD stars Boris Karloff , making the first of a five-picture deal he signed with Warners, an interesting hybrid of the gangster and horror genres about an unjustly executed man who’s revived by science exacting vengeance on those who set him up. The result was a fast paced (clocked at 66 minutes) entry in the first horror cycle, and one of the last horror films made until their 1939 revival (more about that later).

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Boris stars as John Ellman, newly released from a stretch in prison. A gangland cartel, looking to get rid of a law-and-order judge, set Ellman up as a patsy, hiring him to stake out the judge’s home, murdering the guy, and dumping the body in Ellman’s car. He goes on trial, defended by crooked lawyer Nolan, and sentenced to death…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #34: The Story of Louis Pasteur (dir by William Dieterle)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!!  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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OH MY GOD, LOUIS PASTEUR WAS THE DEVIL!

Okay, maybe not but that’s certainly the impression that you might get from looking at the one sheet for the 1936 film, The Story of Louis Pasteur.  Seriously, Louis looks quite sinister!

As the movie starts, that’s certainly the view of the 19th century French medical establishment.  A doctor has been murdered by a grieving husband and it’s believed that the murder was inspired by one of Pasteur’s incendiary flyers.  What does the flyer demand?  That doctors should wash their hands and sterilize their instruments before operating.

That’s right!  Washing your hands before plunging them into a human body was once considered to be a controversial notion.  Pasteur is put on trial, accused of inciting violence with his quackery.  Even though Pasteur is acquitted, he finds himself a pariah.  The autocratic and close-minded Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber) declares Pasteur to be guilty of great quackery and even the ducks are offended.  That’s how hated Pasteur has become.

But, of course, we the audience know that Pasteur is not a quack.  Not only do we know that he is responsible for discovering the process of pasteurization but he’s also apparently important enough to have his own 1930s Warner Bros. biopic.  And he’s played by Paul Muni, who made a career out of playing great men in 1930s biopics.

The film follows Pasteur as he discovers cures for anthrax and rabies.  Along the way, he yells at a lot of people and he gives a lot of speeches.  This film might as well have been called The Paul Muni Show and … well, his performance is okay.  It’s not great.  If you’ve seen the very first version of Scarface, you know that Paul Muni was capable of giving a far better performance than he gives here.  But then again, as written, all Louis does is bellow against everyone who disagrees with him.  (And cure rabies, we shouldn’t overlook that.)

The Story of Louis Pasteur is one of those old-fashioned biopics that feels a bit creaky and stiff today.  As I watched it, I kept thinking that it felt like something you might across on PBS at three in the morning.  However, 1936 audiences disagreed with me.  The Story of Louis Pasteur did quite well at the box office and was nominated for best picture, though it lost to another biopic, The Great Ziegfeld.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Anthony Adverse (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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Late last night, I continued to clean out my DVR by watching the 1936 film, Anthony Adverse.

I recorded Anthony Adverse off of TCM, where it was being shown as a part of that channel’s 31 Days of Oscars.  Anthony Adverse was aired because it was nominated for Best Picture of 1936.  That’s significant because, if not for that nomination, I doubt that anyone would ever have a reason to watch Anthony Adverse.  It’s certainly one of the more obscure best picture nominees.  Despite a prestigious cast and being directed by the respectable Mervyn LeRoy, Anthony Adverse only has a handful of reviews over at the imdb.  And most of those reviews were written by Oscar fanatics like me.

Anthony Adverse is an epic historical film, one that tells the story of Anthony Adverse (Frederic March).  Anthony is the illegitimate son of Denis Moore (Louis Hayward) and Maria (Anita Louise), the wife of evil Spanish nobleman, Don Luis (Claude Rains, convincing as a nobleman but not as someone from Spain).  Luis murdered Denis and Maria died giving birth so Luis abandons the baby at an Italian convent.  Anthony is raised by nuns and priests and then, 10 years later, is apprenticed to an English merchant named John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn).  Bonnyfeather just happens to be Anthony’s grandfather!  Though Luis told him that Anthony died as soon as he was born, Bonnyfeather quickly figures out that Anthony is his grandson.  However, Bonnyfeather doesn’t share that information with Anthony and instead, he gives Anthony the surname “Adverse.”

Bonnyfeather raises Anthony as his own son.  Anthony grows up to be Frederic March and ends up falling in love with and marrying the beautiful Angela (Olivia De Havilland).  However, Anthony is suddenly called away on business to Havana, Cuba.  He doesn’t even have a chance to tell Angela that he’s leaving.  He does leave her a note but it blows away.  Assuming that she’s been abandoned, Angela goes to France, becomes an opera singer, and is soon the mistress of Napoleon.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, Anthony becomes convinced that Angela has intentionally abandoned him.  Consumed by grief, he ends up running a slave trading post in Africa.  He takes one of the slaves, Neleta (Steffi Duna), as his mistress and becomes known for his cruelty.  However, he eventually meets Brother Francois (Pedro de Cordoba) and starts to reconsider his ways.

(The film’s treatment of the slave trade is …. well, it’s awkward to watch.  The film is undoubtedly critical of slavery but, at the same time, it’s hard not to notice that the only slave with a prominent part in the film is played by a Hungarian actress.  Anthony may eventually reject cruelty but it’s left ambiguous as to whether or not he rejects the slave trade as a business.  If Anthony Adverse were made today, one imagines that this section of the film would be handled much differently.)

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Bonnyfeather is dying and his housekeeper, Faith (Gale Sondergaard, who won the first ever Oscar awarded for Best Supporting Actress for her performance here), plots to claim his fortune.

After I watched the movie but before I started this review, I did some research and I discovered that Anthony Adverse was based on a 1,222-page best seller that came out in 1933.  I’m going to guess that the film’s long and ponderous story may have worked better on the page than it does on the screen.  As a film, Anthony Adverse clocks in at 141 minute and it feels even longer.  Despite the impressive cast, the film just never clicks.  It’s never that interesting.

At the same time, I can understand why it was nominated for best picture.  It’s a big movie, full of characters and extravagant sets and ornate costumes.  You can tell it was an expensive movie to make and there’s enough philosophical dialogue that you can pretend there’s something going on underneath the surface.  In the 1936, Anthony Adverse may have been quite impressive but seen today, it’s forgettable.

Anthony Adverse lost best picture to another overproduced extravaganza, The Great Ziegfield.  Personally, I would have given the award to the unnominated My Man Godfrey.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Blossoms In The Dust (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


Blossoms_dust_movieposterDid you know that up until the year 1936, if a child was born to unwed parents, it was common practice to actually put the word “illegitimate” on that child’s birth certificate?  As you all know, I am perhaps the biggest history nerd in the world and, while I knew that there was once a huge stigma associated with being born outside of marriage, I did not know just how institutionalized that stigma was.

I’m also proud to say that my home state of Texas — the state that all the yankees love to bitch about — was the first state to ban the use of the word “illegitimate” on birth certificates.  This was largely due to the efforts of Edna Gladney, an early advocate for the rights of children.  Along with starting a home for orphans and abandoned children in Ft. Worth, Edna also started one of the country’s first day care centers for the children of working mothers.

That’s right — there was a time when day care was itself a revolutionary concept.

I have TCM to thank for my knowledge of Edna Gladney, largely because TCM broadcast a 1941 biopic called Blossoms in The Dust.  According to Wikipedia, the film was a highly fictionalized look at Edna’s life but, to be honest, I would have guessed that just from watching the movie.  While Blossoms In The Dust gets the important things right (and it deserves a lot of credit for sympathetically dealing with the cultural stigma of being born to unwed parents at a time when it was an even more controversial subject that it is today), it’s also full of scenes that are pure Hollywood.

In real life, Edna knew firsthand about the challenges faced by children of unwed parents because she was one herself.  Apparently, at the time, that was going too far for even a relatively progressive film like Blossoms In The Dust so, in Blossoms, Edna (played by Greer Garson) is given an adopted sister named Charlotte (Marsha Hunt).  When the parents of Charlotte’s fiancée discover that she was born outside of marriage, they refuse to allow Charlotte to marry their son.  In response, Charlotte commits suicide.

In real life, Edna was born in Wisconsin but, following the death of her stepfather, moved to Ft. Worth to stay with relatives.  Edna was 18 at the time and eventually met and married a local businessman named Sam Gladney.  In Blossoms in The Dust, Edna is already an adult when she first meets Sam (played by Walter Pidgeon, who played Greer Garson’s husband in a number of films) and they meet in Wisconsin.  It’s only after Charlotte dies that Edna marries Sam and it’s only after they’re married that Edna moves to Texas.  Whereas the real life Edna had relatives in Texas, the film’s Edna is literally a stranger in a strange land.

That said, the film is actually rather kind to my home state.  The film spend a lot of time contrasting the judgmental snobs up north with the more straight-forward people who Edna meets after she moves to Ft. Worth and it’s occasionally fun to watch.  (Of course, I would probably feel differently if I was from Wisconsin.)

Blossoms In The Dust was nominated for best picture but it lost to How Green Was My Valley.  Greer Garson was nominated for best actress but she lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.  However, just one year later, Garson would win an Oscar for her performance in the 1942 best picture winner, Mrs. Miniver.  Incidentally, her husband in that film was played by none other than Walter Pidgeon.

Ultimately, Blossoms in the Dust is typical of the type of movies that you tend to come across while watching films that were nominated for best picture.  Some best picture nominees were great.  Some were terrible.  But the majority of them were like Blossoms in the Dust, well-made, respectable, and just a little bit bland.  Blossoms in the Dust is not bad but it’s also not particularly memorable.  If, like me,  you’re a student of history and social mores, Blossoms in the Dust has some historical interest but, when taken as a piece of cinema, it’s easy to understand why it’s one of the more forgotten best picture nominees.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Human Comedy (dir by Clarence Brown)


The-human-comedy-1943Thanks to TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I now have several movies on my DVR that I need to watch over the upcoming month.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining.  I’m always happy to have any reason to discover (or perhaps even rediscover) a movie.  And, being an Oscar junkie, I especially enjoy the opportunity to watch the movies that were nominated in the past and compare them to the movies that have been nominated more recently.

For instance, tonight, I watched The Human Comedy, a film from 1943.  Along with being a considerable box office success, The Human Comedy won on Oscar (for Best Story) and was nominated for four others: picture, director (Clarence Brown), actor (Mickey Rooney), and black-and-white cinematography.  The Human Comedy was quite a success in 1943 but I imagine that, if it were released today, it would probably be dismissed as being too sentimental.  Watching The Human Comedy today is something of a strange experience because it is a film without a hint of cynicism.  It deals with serious issues but it does so in such a positive and optimistic manner that, for those of us who are used to films like The Big Short and Spotlight, a bit of an attitude adjustment is necessary before watching.

And yet that doesn’t mean that The Human Comedy is a bad film.  In fact, I quite enjoyed it.  The Human Comedy is a time capsule, a chance to look into the past.  It also features a great central performance, one that was quite rightfully nominated for an Oscar.  As I watched Mickey Rooney in this film, I started to feel guilty for some of the comments I made when I reviewed Mickey in The Manipulator last October.

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The Human Comedy opens with an overhead shot of the small town of Ithaca, California.  The face of Mr. McCauley (Ray Collins, who you’ll recognize immediately as Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) suddenly appears in the clouds.  Mr. McCauley explains that he’s dead and he’s been dead for quite some time.  But he loves Ithaca so much that his spirit still hangs around the town and keeps an eye on his family.  Somehow, the use of dead Mr. McCauley as the film’s narrator comes across as being both creepy and silly.

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But no sooner has Mr. McCauley stopped extolling the virtues of small town life than we see his youngest song, 7 year-old Ulysseus (Jack Jenkins), standing beside a railroad track and watching a train as it rumbles by.  Sitting on the cars are a combination of soldiers and hobos.  Ulysseus waves at some of the soldiers but none of them wave back.  Finally, one man waves back at Ulysseus and calls out, “Going home, I’m going home!”  It’s a beautifully shot scene, one that verges on the surreal.

That opening pretty much epitomizes the experience of watching The Human Comedy.  For every overly sentimental moment, there will be an effective one that will take you by surprise.  The end result may be uneven but it’s still undeniably effective.

The majority of the film deals with Homer McCauley (Mickey Rooney).  Homer may still be in high school but, with his older brother, Marcus (Van Johnson), serving overseas and his father dead, Homer is also the man of the house.  Homer not only serves as a role model for Ulysseus but he’s also protector for his sister, Bess (Donna Reed).   (At one point in the film, she gets hit on by three soldiers on leave.  One of them is played by none other than Robert Mitchum.)  In order to bring in extra money for the household, Homer gets a job delivering telegrams.

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In between scenes of Homer in Ithaca, we get oddly dream-like scenes of Marcus and his army buddies hanging out.  Marcus spends all of his time talking about how much he loves Ithaca and how he can’t wait for the war to be over so he can return home.  One of his fellow soldiers says, “I almost feel like Ithaca is my hometown, too.”  Marcus promises him that they’ll all visit Ithaca.  As soon as the war is over…

With World War II raging, Homer’s job largely consists of delivering death notices (and the occasional singing telegram, as well).  Telegraph operator Willie Grogan (Frank Morgan) deals with the burden of having to transcribe bad news by drinking.  Homer, meanwhile, tries to do his job with compassion and dignity but one day, he has to deliver a telegram to his own house…

The Human Comedy is an episodic film, full of vignettes of life in Ithaca and Homer growing up.  There’s quite a few subplots (along with a lot of speeches about how America is the best country in the world) but, for the most part, the film works best when it concentrates on Homer and Mickey Rooney’s surprisingly subdued lead performance.  By today’s standards, it may seem a bit predictable and overly sentimental but it’s also so achingly sincere that you can’t help but appreciate it.

The Human Comedy was nominated for best picture but it lost to a somewhat more cynical film about life during World War II, Casablanca.