Film Review: Black Legion (1937)

Release Date: January 17th, 1937 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Archie Mayo, Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
Written by: Robert Lord, Abem Finkel, William Wister Haines
Music by: W. Franke Harling, Howard Jackson, Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ann Sheridan

Warner Bros., 83 Minutes

Review:

“So, you’re afraid! Maybe they better change the name of your outfit from the Black Legion to the Yellow Legion.” – Ed Jackson

I was talking about Humphrey Bogart, my favorite actor, with a friend of mine when he asked, “Did you see that one where he was in the KKK?” I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I looked it up and found this film, which Bogart did really early in his career, before reaching superstardom. Also, it’s not the actual KKK but it is a group based on them called “the Black Legion”.

This film is rather short but it’s definitely got a lot packed into a small package. It’s a true thriller and very noir-esque before film-noir was a thing.

The gist of the story surrounds a hard working man that is looked over for a promotion that he was pretty sure he was going to get. It weighs heavily on him and eventually, some bad seeds take advantage of that and influence him into joining their cause. That cause, sees them dressing up in black hoods, similar to the KKK’s white hoods, where they go out at night in an effort to chase off the foreigners who are coming in and taking their jobs. So the Klan (or “Black Legion”) in this isn’t so much racist, as they are xenophobic.

In his heart, Bogart’s Frank Taylor was opposed to the madness he found himself entangled in but he was already in over his head and couldn’t leave the group for fear of what they might do to him and his family. It all comes crashing down when Frank murders his best friend that was trying his damnedest to save him. Regretful and remorseful, will Frank work to bring down the Black Legion or is the fear of his family’s safety too great?

The film is intense and it moves swiftly. It was hard for me to turn away from it and the acting of Bogart, as well as his best bud, Dick Foran, was superb and kept me glued to the screen.

While this isn’t Bogart or Foran’s best picture or performance, it really goes to show that both men were definitely capable of something greater. Luckily, for us, both men would have busy careers, especially in the noir style of the ’40s and ’50s.

Black Legion is certainly worth a watch. While most movie sites don’t list this as a thriller, it definitely is… and a pretty effective one from start to finish.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart films before he became a big star: High Sierra, They Drive by Night and Crime School.

Film Review: Donovan’s Reef (1963)

Release Date: June 12th, 1963 (Philadelphia premiere)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Edward Grant, Frank S. Nugent
Music by: Cyril Mockridge
Cast: John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Jack Warden, Elizabeth Allen, Jacqueline Malouf, Cesar Romero, Dorothy Lamour, Mike Mazurki, Patrick Wayne, Dick Foran

Paramount Pictures, 109 Minutes

Review:

“Well, there is our Mike Donovan. Three children and not one marriage. Oh, I do not say that he’s the first man to put the cart before the horse, but three carts and no horse? Huh?” – Marquis Andre de Lage

John Ford and John Wayne made a lot of really good movies together. Some of them had Lee Marvin in them too. Well, this is one of them but sadly, it is the last of them.

This also has Jack Warden and Cesar Romero in it too though, as well as Elizabeth Allen, Dorothy Lamour, Mike Mazurki, Patrick Wayne and Dick Foran. Plus, it is shot in beautiful and luscious Hawaii at the height of the Tiki subculture’s popularity in America.

Donovan’s Reef is a really good and lighthearted movie. It’s a lot more playful than what Ford and Wayne collaborations typically were. Sure, they’d have some tiny comedic moments but this is really a straight up romantic comedy that just so happens to have a male lead with real gravitas.

The thing is, I love seeing Wayne be funny and playful and kind of hamming it up. He doesn’t lose his machismo and if anything, it’s that machismo that makes his lighter roles work so well. For instance, Rooster Cogburn isn’t remotely close to the quality of its predecessor True Grit but Wayne is so damn good in it, playing opposite of Katharine Hepburn in an “odd couple” sort of situation. This is like that in the way that Wayne isn’t afraid to step outside of being the quintessential badass of his era.

I also love Lee Marvin’s character in this and the rest of the cast is damn good too. Cesar Romero was friggin’ delightful. And the young Jacqueline Malouf was perfect and sweet in her role. I truly enjoyed Elizabeth Allen’s role in this though, as she was the perfect pairing for Wayne’s wit and for the romantic stuff. She was the typical “rich white lady thrown into an exotic culture” archetype but she evolved beyond that and gave the role a lot of personality.

This is a beautiful film to look at. Hawaii is majestic and it is on full display in this movie.

Donovan’s Reef was actually much better than I thought it would be and I’m glad I checked it out. It’s definitely something I’ll probably revisit many times in the future.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other Ford and Wayne collaborations. For the Tiki aesthetic, The Road to Bali which also features Dorothy Lamour. Also, Diamond Head, which was also filmed in Hawaii and features Elizabeth Allen.

Film Review: Please Murder Me! (1956)

Release Date: March, 1956
Directed by: Peter Godfrey
Written by: Donald Hyde, Al C. Ward, David T. Chantler, Ewald Andre Dupont
Music by: Albert Glasser
Cast: Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, Dick Foran

Distributor Corporation of America, 78 Minutes

Review:

The thought of Angela Lansbury and Raymond Burr in the same film is pretty cool. The fact that this happened, was even cooler.

However, this wasn’t a Perry Mason and Jessica Fletcher team up movie for television in the 1980s, it was a film noir from the 1950s that uncharacteristically used Lansbury as a murderess.

The first half of this movie feels like a Perry Mason episode, as it is a courtroom drama. However, this came out a year before Burr reached super stardom with that show. Regardless, the first half of the picture really slows this thing down to a crawl and is a lot less interesting than the second half, where the real noir elements start. Hopefully, you aren’t trapped in a slumber, by this point.

The story sees Burr’s lawyer character fall for a murder suspect, his client played by Lansbury. She is accused of murdering her husband, which she did, but Burr believes she is innocent and gets her off. Later discovering that she did indeed kill her husband, Burr feels tremendous guilt. He then decides to trick her into murdering him, so that he can record her in the act and absolve his guilt.

The story is interesting but it takes too long to get going and when it starts to get good, you’re already exhausted from the courtroom stuff. Full disclosure, courtroom dramas typically bore the piss out of me so this might not effect others the same way.

Burr and Lansbury were both good in this but the film itself isn’t worthy of their talents. It is dry and uneventful, at least until the rushed second half, but even then, the shocking finale feels hollow.

This is still worth checking out if you like both of the leads and are a fan of b-movie noir.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part III – The Mummy Series (1932-1944)

Continuing on with my quest to rewatch and review all the classic Universal Monsters franchises, I have now gotten to the Mummy series.

The Mummy (1932):

Release Date: December 22nd, 1932
Directed by: Karl Freund
Written by: John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer
Music by: James Dietrich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward van Sloan, Arthur Byron

Universal Pictures, 73 Minutes 

the_mummy_1932Review:

Immediately following the success of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein films, Universal went with the next monster needing to scare the crap out of theatergoers: the Mummy. And who did they get to portray the now iconic character of Imhotep a.k.a the Mummy? Well, they went to Frankenstein’s monster himself, Boris Karloff.

This film was directed by Karl Freund and it was his official directorial debut. For a rookie director behind the camera, Freund had a great eye for capturing intense dread and a very visual gothic style of storytelling. The film was consistent with the vibe of Universal’s other early monster films. While not exactly on the level of what James Whale created in the first two Frankenstein films, this movie does deserve to be applauded as a feat of cinematography and lighting.

Karloff was as amazing as he always is and that should be no surprise. He gave us a much more organic Imhotep than what was given to audiences in the bad 1999 remake of this film. Karloff’s face, especially his eyes, during the waking of Imhotep from his 2,000 year slumber was pretty enchanting and frightening.

I think that this film is overlooked in comparison to the other franchises under the Universal Monsters banner and looking back at it now, I am not sure as to why. It is just as chilling and just as effective as their other early films.

The Mummy’s Hand (1940):

Release Date: September 20th, 1940
Directed by: Christy Cabanne
Written by: Griffin Jay, Maxwell Shane
Cast: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, Cecil Kellaway, Eduardo Ciannelli, George Zucco, Tom Tyler

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

the_mummys_handReview:

After an eight year hiatus, the Mummy returned! Except this mummy was a new character.

The mummy in this film is named Kharis and although his origin story is very similar to Imhotep in the first film, there are some differences. Additionally, this is almost the start of a new series itself, as Kharis continues on as the series antagonist leaving Imhotep behind. In this film, Kharis is played by Tom Tyler, who was best known for starring in low-budget westerns and as Captain Marvel in the serial Adventures of Captain Marvel.

This film uses some pretty awesome sets and that was the biggest takeaway for me in the realm of design and art direction.

This film also introduces the concept of the mummy needing tanna leaves to survive and to be controlled. It is a fictitious plant, so there is no need to worry about people actually using tanna leaves to animate mummified corpses.

This film is generally forgettable and the weakest in the series other than its set design.

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942):

Release Date: October 23rd, 1942
Directed by: Harold Young
Written by: Neil P. Varnick
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Dick Foran, John Hubbard

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes 

the_mummys_tombReview:

In this film, we get Lon Chaney Jr. playing Kharis the mummy. This is actually the first of three films where Chaney takes over as the undead monster. So Chaney has played the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. He’s been four out of the six monsters from the Universal Monsters franchises. If only he were the Gillman and the Invisible Man and he would’ve done a clean sweep.

I liked this film better than the previous one. Chaney brought a level of credibility and emotion to Kharis and he made him more relatable.

The problem with this and this branch of the Universal Monsters’ tree is that these films almost blend together too much. There isn’t a lot that sets each one apart and they feel like a retelling over and over again. It is hard to make the Mummy character as compelling as the other Monsters as it is really just a slow moving guy in bandages that wobbles around and moans. Yes, it is a scary concept, especially at the time it came out but it is the most one-dimensional of the Universal Monsters.

Lon Chaney Jr. did a good job and he owned the role probably more so than Boris Karloff did. Besides, Karloff was barely in bandages and spent most of his film playing an Egyptian dude in disguise.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944):

Release Date: July 7th, 1944
Directed by: Reginald Le Borg
Written by: Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes 

mummysghostReview:

Here we go again, another Mummy film.

At this point, I am growing tired of the formula and I am a pretty big old school horror aficionado. This is where I realized, that this is probably the weakest of the Universal Monsters sub-franchises.

Lon Chaney Jr. returns but even he can’t make this as interesting as I hoped it would be. I also don’t understand why Universal made the poor mummy walk up and down a steep sloped roller coaster track that led to his hideout. Why wouldn’t the evil jerk who is controlling the mummy pick easier terrain for his tortoise-like assassin?

But at least when it comes to style and cinematography, it is consistent.

The Mummy’s Curse (1944):

Release Date: December 22nd, 1944
Directed by: Leslie Goodwins
Written by: Leon Abrams, Dwight V. Babcock
Music by: William Lava, Paul Sawtell
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Virginia Christine

Universal Pictures, 62 Minutes 

themummyscurseReview:

Two Mummy films in the same year? Man, wasn’t Universal getting burnt out on the most mediocre of their Monsters series? And wasn’t Lon Chaney Jr. in desperate need of a break between these movies and all the others he was pumping out?

The mummy wants his bride and that is the plot of this one. Well, that and the fact that some bad guy has nine tanna leaves once again and can therefore control Kharis to do his evil bidding.

At five deep, these films just keep blending together more and more. There is nothing to really set this film apart. Plus, these movies are so short, that it was like watching five different pilots for the same show.

But, the series is over.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Invisible Man series.