Archive for February, 2018

Five-Finger Exercise

What I’ve Been Watching: The Beast with Five Fingers (1946).

Who’s Responsible:  Robert Florey (director); Curt Siodmak (screenwriter); Robert Alda, Andrea King, Peter Lorre (stars).

Why I Watched It:  SILVER.

Seen It Before?  At least once, long ago.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  10.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  1.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  6.

And?  With SILVER well underway, I’m herewith launching a complementary, as-yet-unnamed initiative aimed straight at the heart of the nexus:  since my LD programming is predetermined, why not avail myself of the opportunities for some long-overdue page-to-screen comparisons?  The title story of W[illiam] F[ryer] Harvey’s second collection, The Beast with Five Fingers and Other Tales (1928), debuted in the first volume of The New Decameron (1919), and is presumably the now-obscure British author’s greatest claim to fame.  He died in 1937 at only 52, and appears to have no other screen credits apart from episodes of four different TV series based on “August Heat,” all between 1950 and 1961.

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I thought I might have read this one as a lad in Peter Haining’s The Ghouls, which Mom used to bring home from the library and was, as you may imagine, a seminal tome for me, collecting eighteen stories adapted into horror films.  But perusing it now—and having it readily to “hand” in Sebastian Wolfe’s Reel Terror—I strongly suspect that I would have remembered how different it is.  The task faced by Siodmak (reportedly with uncredited additional dialogue by Harold Goldman, among the screenwriters of the 1940 Dorothy L. Sayers adaptation Haunted Honeymoon) was not only to expand the fairly limited story to feature length, but also to change its tone from borderline whimsy to actual gothic horror.

Fryer’s unnamed narrator introduces botanist Adrian Borlsover and his nephew, Eustace, “who lived in the gloomy Georgian mansion at Borlsover Conyers, where he could work undisturbed in collecting material for his great book on heredity.” Visiting Adrian at his “sunny south-coast watering place,” Eustace learns that his uncle, who has had extraordinary powers of touch since losing his sight at 50, has “developed, unknown to himself, the not uncommon power of automatic writing.”  While Adrian traces Braille with his left hand, the right begins communicating independently with Eustace, asserting friendship and that they will see each other “when poor old Adrian’s dead,” which happens two months later.

Eustace receives a box containing what is presumed to be a live specimen, which escapes unseen, and a letter from the family solicitor, explaining that in addition to leaving him a “valuable collection of books,” Adrian had instructed—in a bequest apparently written by the “beast” itself—that his right hand be sent to Eustace! Sure enough, the escaped “rat” is the digital demon, wreaking havoc among Eustace; his secretary, Saunders; the butler, Morton; and the other servants, who threaten to walk.  Stowing away in a glove, the beast follows Eustace to Brighton, crawls down a chimney and—as Saunders seeks help to put out an accidental blaze—creeps, “black and charred,” to exact its vengeance on Eustace…

How much of this Fryer expected us to take seriously I don’t know, but while the narrator says that the story Saunders told him is “practically uncorroborated,” a chance meeting in the Zoological Gardens with Morton, still shaken by the experience, seems to confirm it. At any rate, there is very little to the story, and even less remaining in the film, excepting some choice bits of business like the hand getting nailed onto a board and imprisoned in a safe, or knocking books off the shelves as it scurries behind them in the library.  Perhaps inspired by Eustace reading of Adrian’s death while in Naples, Siodmak resets the tale in an Italian village, San Stefano, with J. Carrol Naish as its Commissario, Ovidio Castanio.

Here, the hand belongs to pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), who lost the use of the other in a stroke and has grown quite attached to his attractive nurse, Julie Holden (King). That’s fine with his secretary, Hilary Cummins (Lorre, effectively conflating Eustace and Saunders), giving him more time to focus on his research into astrology, but Julie appears more interested in Bruce Conrad (Alda, whose character is inexplicably billed as “Conrad Ryler”), a charming rogue who dabbles in fake antiques, and transcribed Bach for Ingram to play with his good hand.  When Hilary unwisely draws Ingram’s attention to this, he is throttled hard enough to leave fingerprints on his neck, his life saved by her intervention.

No sooner has Ingram’s wheelchair taken a tumble downstairs than his slimy brother-in-law, Raymond Arlington (Charles Dingle), and nephew, Donald (John Alvin), sleaze in, expecting to inherit, even the books for which Hilary has a decidedly proprietary feeling. But they get a surprise when lawyer Duprex (David Hoffman) reads the recently revised will, leaving everything to, you guessed it, Julie.  In a flash, the shyster and the in-laws—there’s a combo—are flinging accusations of incompetence, insanity and/or conspiracy, hoping to revert to the prior will in Ingram’s safe…if only Donald can recall the clever mnemonic Uncle Francis taught him for the combination; cue the ghostly piano playing.

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[L-R:  Naish, Alda, King, Lorre]

Seeing a light in the mausoleum, they find Ingram’s body minus one hand, the blade that evidently severed it still clutched in the other, while the strangulations of Duprex (fatally) and Donald (not so much) implicate the beast, with which Hilary comes face to, uh, face. The servants resign en masse, yet in a cheat that annoyed Madame BOF and me, Hilary is revealed to have committed the crimes himself, aided by a recording of Francis playing, and imagined the living hand that, as in the story, is thrown into the fire, then emerges to choke him to death.  In a final indignity, Castanio jokes to the camera about ghosts, even faking an attack by a hand revealed to be his own as the camera pulls back; womp womp.

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Q: What do Humphrey Bogart, James Bond, Frank Capra, Roger Corman, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Boris Karloff, Fritz Lang, Richard Matheson, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, and Jules Verne have in common, besides my esteem?  A:  Peter Lorre.  If you’ll forgive a juicy digression—hell, it’s my blog, I’ll do whatever I want—he’s one of those guys I’ve long loved not only in his own right, but also because his career intersected those of so many other faves.  I was jazzed to revisit this after many years, especially since it was before he bulked up, apparently a side-effect of health and substance-abuse issues that no doubt contributed to his death at 59 in 1964.

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You want famous firsts? In 1954, he played the very first Bond villain, Le Chiffre, in an episode of Climax! based on Casino Royale.  The following year, he appeared in “Young Couples Only,” an episode of Studio 57 that is almost certainly the very first Matheson adaptation ever…playing a character (above) explicitly compared to Lorre in the original story!  Following the SF-heavy 1950s, he and fellow Golden Age horror stars such as Karloff and Rathbone got a welcome career boost when AIP teamed them with Price (who read the eulogy at Lorre’s funeral) in Matheson’s Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963)—both based on Poe’s work and directed by Corman—and The Comedy of Terrors (1963, below).

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[I actually have this poster, by the way.  I took it as a “parting gift” when my erstwhile employer, GoodTimes Entertainment, was mismanaged into bankruptcy and acquired by bloodsucking leeches who laid most of us off.  As I said more or less on my way out the door, “What are they going to do, fire me?”]

Boris and Peter were no strangers, also joining forces in You’ll Find Out (1940) with Bela Lugosi; The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942); and the legendary 1962 Route 66 episode “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” with Lon Chaney, Jr.  They should have shared screen time opposite Grant in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)—recent SILVER viewing—but the producers who mandated that Warner Brothers shelve the film until its Broadway run ended also refused to let Boris take a hiatus to recreate his role onscreen, as several of his co-stars did.  Lorre played Mr. Moto (below) in eight entries (1937-9), also appearing in genre films like Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935) and, as another Asian, Invisible Agent (1942).

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As if that’s not enough, Lorre worked with my favorite director AND actor. After fleeing Hitler ended his German career, with its star-making turn as the child-killer in Lang’s M (1931), he made his English-language debut as the villain in the first Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), later appearing in Secret Agent (1936) and two episodes of Hitchcock’s TV series, “The Diplomatic Corpse” and “Man from the South.”  The indelible Joel Cairo in Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941, below) and the doomed Ugarte in Casablanca (1942) were the highlights of his collaborations with Bogie, also including the delightful All Through the Night (1942), Passage to Marseille (1944), and Huston’s spoof Beat the Devil (1953).

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Even slumming with Irwin Allen in the likes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and the Verne-based Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), Lorre always brought something to the table.  His other and—virtually by definition—better Verne adaptations were 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954, below) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). The Beast with Five Fingers is perhaps not his finest hour, but nobody does overwrought like Lorre; he, the special effects (still so impressive that I’m not sure how William McGann and H. Koenekamp pulled them off), and the atmosphere Florey achieves with cinematographer Wesley Anderson, in one of his only features, are in my opinion the film’s greatest assets.

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Nowadays, at least in my circles, Florey gets more ink for being the guy who didn’t direct Lugosi in Frankenstein (1931)—whereupon Universal threw them Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) as a compensatory bone—than for his own work, but I won’t go there.  He co-directed the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts (1929, below), known for its innovative production numbers, and had already worked with Lorre in The Face Behind the Mask (1941), a film noir with horrific overtones.  Florey followed many a Hollywood vet into television at the end of his career, directing episodes of Thriller (“The Incredible Doktor Markesan”), Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits.

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This was a rare horror outing for Warner, befitting a seeming discomfiture with the genre, and ended Lorre’s tenure there, arguably his peak. Conrad was reportedly written for and declined by his Casablanca co-star Paul Henreid, yet at least as filmed, the role seems far better suited to Alda (father of Alan), who plunged from originating Sky Masterson in my favorite Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls—recast with Marlon Brando in the 1955 film version’s fatal flaw—to Mario Bava’s bastardized House of Exorcism (1975).  Ironically, Henreid directed Lorre’s Raven co-star Hazel Court in “The Terror in Teakwood” (below), a 1961 Thriller episode concerning a mad concert pianist and severed hands that, um, run amok.

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I think my hands would be inclined to run amok as well…



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Strange Tails, Part I

Not normally a big fan of musicals, I am partial to the elegance of Fred Astaire, although my wife, the dancer in the household, prefers the more athletic style of Gene Kelly.  And while Rita Hayworth, with whom Fred danced so exquisitely in the aptly titled You Were Never Lovelier (1942), is one of my all-time screen goddesses, the 10 films he made with Ginger Rogers are obviously the, well, gold standard for Golden Age musicals.  Having seen them all over the years, I knew I didn’t love them equally, and aspired only to own my favorite, Top Hat, yet when I requested it one year, my typically generous mother-in-law bought me a DVD boxed set of the entire series, on which I have recently embarked.

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RKO Radio Pictures had a banner year in 1933, unleashing both King Kong and the team of Astaire and Rogers, although in Flying Down to Rio, the latter were credited below the largely forgettable romantic triangle, with Ginger billed above Fred for the only time.  It didn’t take long for RKO to kick F&G upstairs, and it’s interesting how completely their first starring vehicle set the template for the seven films that followed over the next five years.  Their many similarities not only make it tough to differentiate them, but also lead me—fairly or unfairly—to evaluate them more as series entries than as individual films, so for my reference, and perhaps for yours, I have established this handy-dandy checklist.


Title:  The Gay Divorcee (1934).

Based on Stageplay?  The Gay Divorce (music and lyrics by Cole Porter; book by Dwight Taylor, adapted by Kenneth Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein from An Adorable Adventure, an unproduced play by J. Hartley Manners—whew!).

Mistaken Identity?  Yes, but mercifully brief.  Mimi Glossop (Ginger) is at a seaside hotel to arrange for her divorce and, presumably, ditch that horrid married name; just after dancer Guy Holden (Fred) finally overwhelms her with his terpsichorean charm, she mistakes him for the paid co-respondent with whom she is supposed to be “discovered.”

Edward Everett Horton?  Yes.  He was only in three entries, but in my opinion, EEH was to F&G what Margaret Dumont was to the Marx Brothers, his mere presence kicking things up an incalculable notch.  As Guy’s friend and Mimi’s lawyer, Egbert “Pinky” Fitzgerald, he inadvertently brings them together while trying to elude Mimi’s oft-divorced Aunt Hortense.  This master of the double-take was also unforgettable in Holiday (1938)—repeating his role from the 1930 version, which I’ve never seen— Design for Living (1933, below with Gary Cooper and Fredric March), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), among countless others.

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Eric/k(s):  The Head Waiter in Flying Down to Rio, ubiquitous British character actor Eric Blore graced half of the entries (again as a Waiter here), and in two of them was joined by Erik Rhodes.  Belying his flamboyently continental, ha ha, screen image, the latter was born in Oklahoma, and re-created his stage role—as did Astaire and Blore (the three are shown below, although not in a shot from the film)—of Rudolfo Tonetti, the actual co-respondent, who famously mangles the password “Chance is the fool’s name for fate” in his faux-Italian accent.

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Other Colorful Characters:  Don’t know if Alice Brady counts, but she’s pretty funny in her only series entry as the ditzy Hortense.

Usual Suspects:  Two key personnel are basically givens.  Pandro S. Berman produced this and all of F&G’s subsequent RKO entries, plus Fred’s A Damsel in Distress (1937); choreographer Hermes Pan rose from uncredited assistant dance director on FDTR to credits like “ensembles stager,” and worked with Fred—whom he strongly resembled—on all 10 entries, among many other films.  Similarly, Mark Sandrich, the uncredited second-unit director on FDTR, ended up helming half of them, including this, as well as one of Fred’s best non-Ginger films, Holiday Inn (1942), in which Bing Crosby introduced “White Christmas.”

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Immortal Number(s):  It may all be downhill after “Night and Day” (above), combining Porter’s sole surviving song—one of his best (and I’m among those who don’t merely defend but actively champion Fred’s vocal abilities)—with a pas de deux that practically makes me swoon.  Dancing obviously constitutes courtship in these movies, but its slightly subtler equation with sex is perfectly exemplified here by both Fred’s offer of an après la danse cigarette and Ginger’s ravished expression.  I’m also very fond of the admittedly mortal “A Needle in a Haystack,” a delightful number in which Fred suits up while he’s dancing.

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Bonkers Number(s):  The title song of FDTR (above), performed by Ginger and a flock of wing-walkers (wing-dancers?) after Fred’s vocal, set the bar pretty high, if you’ll pardon the pun.  I can’t watch it now without recalling the clips used in my youth in a montage that introduced late-night movies on WOR-TV—whose corporate parent, not coincidentally, owned RKO.  But here, “Let’s K-nock K-nees” (below) combines a vocal by pin-up legend Betty Grable (wearing Dolores del Rio’s jumpsuit from FDTR, in case that looked familiar), memorably loopy lyrics, a morceau of pseudo-singing and dancing by EEH, and an elephantine ensemble number to pretty jaw-dropping effect.  That and the opening number, “Don’t Let It Bother You,” were written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel.

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New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  Another holdover from FDTR, in which “The Carioca,” F&G’s first onscreen dance together—followed by the typically massive production number with an apparent cast of thousands—sealed their popularity; they’re even hailed as “The King and Queen of ‘Carioca’” on posters for this film.  “The Continental” (written, like “Needle,” by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson) is catchy, but at an enervating 17+ minutes, the longest in the canon, it clearly wears out its welcome, with vocal renditions by Mimi, Tonetti (!), and Some Random Broad (Lillian Miles).

White Tie and Tails?  Yes, for much of the movie.  I’m a firm believer in the old adage that everybody looks better in black and white, especially such BOF faves as Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, but it is perhaps truest for Fred, whose signature attire is in monochrome anyway.  They just don’t get any classier than that.

Unique Aspect(s):  First starring vehicle, adapted (with an “e” added to the title to appease the censor…WTF?) from Fred’s last Broadway show.  This was nominated for Academy Awards in five categories, including Best Picture, and “The Continental” won the very first Oscar for Best Original Song; ironically, because the eligibility period initially spanned two calendar years, it beat out “The Carioca.”  On most F&G films, several writers—not all of whom I shall bother to enumerate—reportedly had an uncredited hand in the dialogue.  Here, they included Robert Benchley (insufferable grandfather of Peter), in his only series entry, and H.W. Hanemann, credited on FDTR.


Title:  Roberta (1935).

Based on Stageplay?  Roberta (music by Jerome Kern; lyrics and book by Otto Harbach, based on Alice Duer Miller’s novel Gowns by Roberta).

Mistaken Identity?  Not exactly, but as an entrée to Paris society, Lizzie Gatz (Ginger) styles herself as the volatile Countess Tanka Scharwenka, hence the faux accent with which she performs “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” aptly pronouncing the H’s like chutzpah.  In exchange for his not blowing the whistle, she agrees to get a gig for old friend Huck Haines (Fred) and his band, the Wabash Indianians, the engagement for which they sailed to Paris having abruptly fallen through.

Edward Everett Horton?  No.

Eric/k(s):  Neither.

Other Colorful Characters:  Here at least, the towering and stolid Randolph Scott is anything but colorful, yet undeniably a person of interest due to his later Western stardom.  As John Kent, one of the boys in the band, he reconnects with his beloved Aunt Minnie (Helen Westley)—aka Roberta, as in “Gowns by”—justifying the requisite haute couture milieu and falling hard for her able assistant, Stephanie (top-billed Irene Dunne).  When Minnie dies intestate and John inherits the shop, he wisely asks Stephanie to stay on, but what promises to be a smooth personal and professional partnership is threatened by the opportunistic resurgence of his horrible ex, Sophie Teale (Claire Dodd).  This requires an intervention by Huck, who here is more interested in salvaging John’s romance than in cultivating his own, although they get around to that, too.

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Usual Suspects:  Among the scenarists of The Gay Divorcee, Dorothy Yost reportedly made uncredited contributions to this, Follow the Fleet, and Swing Time before sharing a credit on The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.  Per Wikipedia, “In her writing, Yost included a focus on Hollywood’s representation of ethnic and racial minorities as well as regional settings.”  You go, girl!

Immortal Number(s):  “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is the best-known of the four Kern/Harbach songs carried over from the original show, as was “Handle,” which leads into a marvelous F&G tap duet (below).  I’ll admit I’ve always been indifferent to Dunne, but am particularly perplexed at her presence in a musical, or at least this one; she doesn’t have a bad voice, but it’s so much more operatic in style, less charitably described by Madame BOF as “screeching,” that she seems to have wandered in from another movie.  I adore the melody of “Smoke,” yet prefer it as an instrumental, to which F&G fortunately do a lovely pas de deux later on.  Two other Kern numbers were added and became #1 hits:  “Lovely to Look At” (also the title of MGM’s 1952 Technicolor remake), earning the film’s sole Oscar nomination, and “I Won’t Dance,” repurposed from the 1934 London flop Three Sisters with new lyrics.  The latter begins with Fred demonstrating his “feelthy piano” skills, followed by a vocal that explicitly portrays dance as a kind of gateway drug to, uh, “romance”—also playfully name-checking “The Continental”—and a blistering tap solo.

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Bonkers Number(s):  Borderline.  In a failed attempt to persuade Alexander Voyda (Luis Alberni)—who wanted Indians, not Indianians—to hire them anyway, the band performs an impromptu dockside audition with the self-explanatory “Pipe Organ Number” (below), wearing gloves painted like keys that Huck “plays.”

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New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  No.

White Tie and Tails?  Yes, but he looks just fine in that regular tux and black tie as well, thank you very much.

Unique Aspect(s):  Only time F&G had to relinquish top billing after having achieved it; only series entry for William A. Seiter, who also directed You Were Never Lovelier.  Lucille Ball, who later bought RKO with husband Desi Arnaz and renamed it Desilu, can be seen as one of the models during the climactic fashion show (hey, there’s a phrase).

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To be continued.

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Concluding our overview (expanded from comments on the SuperMegaMonkey Godzilla Chronology Project) of Toho’s Showa-era Godzilla films, plus two non-series kaiju eiga.


War of the Gargantuas (1970)

The letterboxed print aired on the Starz networks intrigued me. Both that and Monster Zero were shown dubbed rather than subtitled, and I presume the fact that they toplined gaijin Russ Tamblyn and Nick Adams, respectively, had something to do with it. Yet since the original U.S. release expunged the connection to Frankenstein Conquers the World, it couldn’t be that dub, since the F word (no, not that one) was flying thick and fast, and I now believe it to be another of Toho’s alternate “international versions.”

In fact, the bulk of the dialogue seemed to be devoted to the relationship between Frankenstein (sic) and the Gargantuas, although if they ever proferred a definitive explanation of exactly where Sanda actually came from, it eluded me. Aside from matching the actors with unsuitable voices—poor Kumi Mizuno’s is especially grating—the soundtrack is also extremely muffled and hard to understand. Perhaps most distracting, the voice ostensibly emerging from Rusty doesn’t sound remotely like his.

Well, in any language, or with any soundtrack, this is a pretty crappy picture. When I watch Haruo Nakajima or one of his successors play Godzilla, the fairly impressive suits enable me to suspend my disbelief enough that I actually “see” Godzilla. But here, he and his counterpart, Yú Sekita, are so obviously doofuses (doofi?) in crappy make-up that the whole thing just becomes risible. The Wikipedia page for this film features a hilarious still of Tsuburaya standing next to them on the miniature cityscape set, which drives the final nail into the coffin of verisimilitude.

This dub just renders the enervated Tamblyn’s performance even more somnolent, while the quasi-Nehru jacket he wears for mountain climbing—while his companions are all sporting suitable alpine gear—is a head-scratcher, and just what the heck is supposed to be his relationship with Kumi, who only ever addresses him as “Doctor?” Add to that the frequently lousy effects (e.g., when Sanda catches Kumi and places her back on the ledge, or the Mario Bava-style “volcano” that conveniently appears to swallow up the boys) and anticlimactic ending, and you’ve got a real turkey. “Special Guest Star” Kipp Hamilton’s rendition of “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” (later popularized by Devo), which prompted a most unwelcome standing ovation from Gailah, deserves special mention for endearing this film to Tom Flynn, the once and future Host with the Most.


Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971, aka Godzilla vs. Hedora[h])

This was not one of the Showa entries included in the recent Starzapalooza, but since we’d bought my daughter—who has fond childhood memories of my introducing her to this loopy film—a nice DVD, she was kind enough to lend it to me when visiting for Christmas. Alas, that apparently uses Toho’s otherwise gorgeous widescreen, subtitled “international version” and, despite offering both English and Japanese audio tracks, inexplicably omits the memorable “Save the Earth” lyrics they’d taken the trouble to translate and record for AIP’s U.S. release. I think I even saw it in the theater back in the day, double-featured with Godzilla vs. the Bionic/Cosmic/Whatever Monster, although that may actually have been after it was broadcast on TV, especially given the three-year gap between the two productions.

In any case, I vividly recall being baffled by the off-kilter storytelling style of what may still be the weirdest Godzilla movie ever, at least among those I’ve seen, and wrongly blaming its incoherence on a botched U.S. edit at the time. It’s not too surprising that director Yoshimitsu Banno reportedly infuriated producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and torpedoed his own career with this one, since however timely the environmental theme may have been (and, sadly, still be), echoing the original’s anti-nuke stance, it’s handled so clumsily as to undercut any possible message, while the Big G takes another giant step downward by emulating Daiei rival Gamera’s power of flight. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its monumental goofiness, “Smoggy”—as we refer to both Hedora(h) and the film—remains a guilty pleasure of sorts, and in his own gross way is scarier than most G-foes.


Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Although letterboxed, the prints of the three 1970s Showa series entries aired on Starz (no Godzilla vs. Hedorah or …Gigan) were all dubbed, an unfortunate example of why kaiju eiga are often dismissed. And while their ’60s counterparts are films I like, merely enhanced by elite presentation, this just makes mostly bad films worse, e.g., the grating voice attributed here to the whiny kid in the inevitable short-shorts. Those are my two favorite cinematic decades, but this is a ’70s movie in the worst possible way with its ugly photography, costumes, and sets; the inventor’s dangling-cube home is the kind of jaw-dropper born only in fever dreams of the most unhinged production designers.

Yes, I enjoyed the mix-and-match use of Toho’s, um, Big Three that was sustained over four films beginning with the so-called Godzilla vs. the Thing. But in the “Fukuda Trilogy,” the recurrence of selected kaiju (e.g., Gigan, Angilas), plus their increasing anthropomorphism—unlike, say, Mothra—and tendency to show up in groups of four at the climax, exacerbate the feeling that we’re watching pro wrestling on acid. And yet, unable to confirm without immediate access to them both, I might buck the conventional wisdom calling this Godzilla’s nadir, and say it may be a step up from Haruo Nakajima’s sad swan song, the arguably sillier stock-music-and-footage fest Godzilla vs. Gigan (“Hey, Angilas!” “Whattaya want?”).

So it’s Gigan, for whose return precisely nobody was clamoring, and the equally ill-conceived Megalon in this corner, with Ultraman-wannabe Jet Jaguar—whose growth spurt utterly ignores, for instance, the question of where his additional mass came from—and drive-by (swim-by?) savior Godzilla in the other. To give credit where it’s due, Megalon’s destruction of the dam is actually pretty impressive, despite the highly implausible survival of the cargo container’s occupants, who would presumably have been killed on impact. Unintentional hilarity: the Seatopian leader instructs his minions to contact their agents on Easter Island, and we immediately cut to a shot of the famous statues. “No, not those guys!”

At the risk of contradicting fnord12, I believe it was gaijin distributor Cinema Shares rather than Toho itself that invoked the De Laurentiis Kong when ballyhooing the film so heavily in the U.S. Mark Drummond commented on the accompanying comic-book version, which misidentified Jet Jaguar and Gigan as “Robotman” and “Borodan,” respectively. And the butchered version that, alas, marked the Big G’s first American prime-time network premiere was hosted by John Belushi in a Godzilla suit on NBC; I never saw it, which is probably just as well.


Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974, aka Godzilla vs. the Bionic/Cosmic Monster)

Watching this after its direct sequel was a curious experience, emphasizing both similarities and differences. Many have pointed out the consistency in the casting of, and the relationships among, some of the characters (with Akihiko Hirata here mercifully free of fright wig, and actually aging gracefully in real life), although “consistency” is not a word that springs to mind when considering their respective screenplays. Yet while we may not think of kaiju eiga as a particularly director-driven subgenre, the difference between even cut-rate, latter-day Ishiro Honda and the disjointed storytelling of ’70s Jun Fukuda is more dramatic than anything seen in this picture.

Godzilla’s 20th-anniversary outing reportedly made more money than its predecessor, which is as it should be, but less than its far superior successor, a head-scratcher that helped lead to his hiatus of almost a decade. I’d forgotten that although he walks away from his jaw-popping by Mechagodzilla (a move that seems uniformly fatal in King Kong movies), Angilas is hors de combat for the remainder, sparing us the tag-team formulism of Gigan or Megalon. Speaking of whom, I never thought I’d see the day when any kaiju would make those two look good by comparison, yet King Caesar resembles nothing so much as an oversized mogwai with moth-eaten pelts randomly attached to his body.

You’ll also notice that, absent those WWE-style four-way matches, the two Mechagodzilla films reverse their climactic dynamics. Here, it requires two kaiju to square off against him, although Little Caesar brings relatively little to the table, whereas in Terror of Mechagodzilla, the original must hold his own against both his robo-double and Titanosaurus. I always liked Mechani-Kong from King Kong Escapes, so I rank MG pretty high among G-foes, especially amid the mostly lame ’70s competition—and of course we briefly get the spectacle of Godzilla apparently fighting himself!

As a lad, I saw this at the cinema near the Trumbull mall during its kid-oriented U.S. theatrical run, although I can recall neither which entry was the co-feature (I want to say Smog Monster), nor whether it was before or after Universal forced the speedy title change from Godzilla vs. the Bionic… to …Cosmic Monster, due to their Six Million Dollar Man bionic franchise. I do remember that they somehow managed to put one of the reels on backwards, which both exacerbated and epitomized the film’s already considerable WTF factor. Sharp-eared viewers will note that the score, in which Fukuda-fave Masaru Sato—this was the series swan song for them both—makes his bid for Mothra-esque glory with the Caesar-summoning song, also includes a nice cut from Son of Godzilla during one of the battles.

“That’s a powerful pipe” perhaps deserves special mention.


Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

A viewing order determined at least partly by Starz has produced some interesting juxtapositions, e.g., plunging from the pinnacle of Godzilla vs. the Thing into the depths of War of the Gargantuas. In this case I moved in the opposite direction, soaring from Godzilla vs. Megalon to the letterboxed Honda/Ifukube/Hirata reunion that ended the Showa era on a high note, even slipping Kenji Sahara in as a general. Per Shakespeare’s Gay Boys in Bondage (via Monty Python), “And what a difference!,” plus I’m obliged to admit that even the dubbing’s not too bad.

Ironically, the satisfaction of this throwback to the 1960s Golden Age of kaiju eiga derives in part from a plot mechanism decades older, since Hirata’s disgruntled scientist could well have come from a ’30s or ’40s genre film: “I’ll teach those humans [And you are…?] for failing to recognize me. They mocked me—well, now they’re going to eat their words!” The tragedy of the Mafunes is strangely compelling, with the doctor’s allegiance to the aliens motivated as much by gratitude for their “saving” his daughter Katsura as by a desire for vengeance on his race, and Katsura herself torn between her innate goodness and her alien programming. Strange to see boobies in a kaiju eiga when she’s under the knife, but since I doubt Tomoko Ai had machinery in her belly in real life, they are evidently fake boobies, which may not count.

His oeuvre having been pillaged for stock cues in Gigan, Maestro Akira Ifukube makes a triumphal return with an impressive score that lends the proceedings the proper gravitas, especially in our first look at the reassembled Mechagodzilla, suitably emblazoned “MG2.” For the most part, Teruyoshi Nakano’s effects rise to the occasion, although for some reason I always find those extreme up-angle shots of Titanosaurus in bright sunlight jarring, and the laws of physics certainly take a beating when he picks Godzilla up by his snout. As is typical for these films, Godzilla is trounced with equal ferocity, even suffering a premature burial, when double-teamed by Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus—no fair!—but easily triumphs one on one.

Toho-footnote Titanosaurus will never win any Kaiju of the Year awards, but at least has the virtue of being organic in multiple senses, i.e., both “natural” (he’s a dinosaur) and “of a piece” (not a hodgepodge thrown together out of disparate parts, like Gigan or Megalon). Starz was Showa-ing—er, showing—the original Japanese version, minus the sloppy edits that caused some confusion about various plot points, e.g., the last-minute redemption whereby a wounded Katsura kills herself to destroy the control device. This also lacks the stock-footage prologue added by Henry G. Saperstein to pad out the film when, after its sketchy U.S. theatrical release as Terror of Godzilla, most of us gaijin first encountered it on TV in 1978…which is not to be confused with the indigenous stock footage in that weird split-screen “Disaster Monsters” interlude.


Final reminder: Godzilla expert Steve Ryfle will discuss and autograph his new book Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa at New York’s Japan Society at 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, February 21. The event is moderated by Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at the incomparable Film Forum, and the reception to follow will feature a display of rare Godzillabilia.

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What I’ve Been Watching: The Atomic Submarine (1959).

Who’s Responsible:  Spencer G[ordon] Bennet (director); Orville H. Hampton (screenwriter); Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey (stars).

Why I Watched It:  See below.

Seen It Before?  Long ago.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  8.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  5.

And?  This is part of my Self-Imposed Laserdisc-Viewing/Exercise Regimen (hereinafter SILVER), whereby I am working my way systematically through my LDs while riding my stationary bike.  In some cases, that will mean forcing myself to watch stuff I’ve been putting off for years, but in others, it’s a welcome opportunity to revisit films I remember fondly, albeit hazily here.  In particular, I’m hoping to confirm this definitively—as we did with the obscure Euro-horror entry The Murder Clinic (1966)—as the source of an image that has been locked in my friend Gilbert’s memory since childhood, in this case an “eyeball monster” that I think may well be the inhabitant of this film’s flying saucer.

The story is set in a then-near future when sub-Arctic civilian and military shipping has become commonplace, yet is now threatened by a series of unexplained disasters. Cmdr. Dan Wendover (Foran) is sent to investigate, his titular Tiger Shark packed with special weapons, gear (e.g., an experimental mini-sub), and personnel, including two underwater-demolition frogmen and noted egghead Sir Ian Hunt (Tom Conway).  Not all the baggage they carry is literal, because Dan’s exec, Lt. Cmdr. Richard “Reef” Holloway (Franz), has an iceberg-sized chip on his shoulder about the alleged pacifism of Dr. Carl Neilson, Jr. (Halsey), who created the Lungfish with his revered father and is its only qualified pilot.

Things get weird around the 40-minute mark as the Shark spots, and fires two torpedoes at, the undersea UFO—whose design prompts the nickname Cyclops—only to have one inexplicably miss and the other stop dead in a mass of apparent gel surrounding it; oddly, no mention is made of these two live nuclear weapons thereafter.  Dan, favoring a direct approach, rams Cyclops, which everyone naively assumes has “killed” it, but the prow of the sub has lodged within it, so the Lungfish is dispatched to try to cut them loose.  In the event, “killed” is more accurate than they realize, because Cyclops is not only inhabited by our tentacled eyeball but also alive and, more important, capable of regenerating itself.

This minor SF feature is a footnote to Bennet’s reign as the “King of Serial Directors” on Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949), et al., but the cast is headed by a quartet of the usual suspects.  Screenwriter Hampton ground out The Alligator People and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake that same year, and has genre credits dating back to additional dialogue for Rocketship X-M (1950), which teamed FX mainstays Irving Block and Jack Rabin.  That prolific pair designed and created this film’s effects with frequent partner Louis DeWitt, penned the uncredited story (per the IMDb), and worked on countless ’50s efforts such as Flight to Mars (1951) and Kronos (1957), plus the series Men into Space.

The male lead in the Rabin/Block Invaders from Mars (1953) and Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus (1958), Franz was cast by Edward Dmytryk in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and others, while Foran took a break from the saddle as Steve Banning in The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and …Tomb (1942).  Although he ironically worked with Mario Bava only on the spaghetti Western Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970) and the sex comedy Four Times That Night (1971), Halsey did star in Return of the Fly (1959).  Conway was, of course, a veteran of Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim (both 1943), and succeeded his brother, George Sanders, as the Falcon.

The supporting cast could have wandered in from one of the many war/sub movies this recalls in its early reels; naturally, I know sagebrush star Bob Steele, playing CPO “Grif” Griffin, best as Canino in The Big Sleep (1946).  An early fixture at AIP, producing such Roger Corman efforts as Day the World Ended (1955) before going independent, Alex (brother of Richard) Gordon also wrote Jail Bait (1954) and Bride of the Monster (1955) with Ed Wood.  But it is the Rabin/Block team—whose last feature this was—that makes it memorable, the micro-budget’s struggle to live up to their ideas giving it a ramshackle weirdness that I find of greater interest than a more conventional, empirically better film.

Carl’s passengers enter Cyclops through an iris (get it?) hatch and find…nothing, a plain black set with lighted ramps anticipating the Outer Limits episode “Nightmare.”  The rest are either fried by unspecified means or crushed in the iris, but after the alien hand puppet (voiced by John Hilliard) tells Reef they like Earth best of all the planets considered for colonization, and by the way would love some human specimens, he fires a Very pistol into its eye.  The Shark is extricated while it regenerates—via reverse footage—and when Cyclops flies off, a hastily rejiggered ICBM soon sets things right, leaving Reef and Carl to mend fences, hoping that their victory will forestall further visits from the evil aliens.

The laserdisc co-feature, Richard Gordon’s First Man into Space (1959), just…isn’t…very…interesting.

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