Thursday, August 17, 2017

Please permit us to pause…

I really hate to put the brakes on the ol’ blog while I was going great guns (more or less), but it’s going to be silent for the rest of the week.  My sister Kat is in town, and she brought along with her my favorite nephew…who’ll be occupying much of my free time here at Rancho Yesteryear.  (Kat and Mom left him with Dad and I while Mom is at her doctor’s appointment….so the old man and I are gonna get Davis a tattoo.)  Normal blogging will resume Monday, so until then—make the most of your weekend, cartooners!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"The appalling thing about fascism is that you've got to use fascist methods to get rid of it."

After the retreat of the British armed forces from Dunkirk, Britain was invaded by Germany in July of 1940…and though the Brits initially put up a stiff struggle, the Hun eventually stymied The Resistance and restored law and order to Old Blighty.  In 1944, World War II is still in progress but with German troops badly needed among the Ural Mountains front, control of Britain has been handed over to local volunteers who have thrown in with the German Army and the SS.

Pauline (Pauline Murray) is an Irish-born nurse who’s been evacuated from her rural village by the Germans and their collaborators and relocated to London; in the process, several of her friends are shot and killed in the crossfire resulting from a battle between the “relocators” and a group of British partisans.  Pauline is apolitical when it comes to choosing sides in the conflict, but she’s seething with anger at the needless death of her friends…and once arriving in London, learns that she’ll have to join the Immediate Action Organization (IAO) if she wants to continue nursing.  The effects of the IAO’s indoctrination quickly take hold of Pauline, and she begins to exhibit traces of fascism in her behavior despite the efforts of an old friend—Dr. Richard Fletcher (Sebastian Shaw)—to dispel her of such dangerous notions.

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear hero Kevin Brownlow
The “what if?” scenario of It Happened Here (1966)—the title is a nod to the classic Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here—was dreamed up by 18-year-old Kevin Brownlow in 1956, years before Brownlow achieved immortality as a film historian with such books as The Parade’s Gone By and documentaries on the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, D.W. Griffith, and Lon Chaney.  Kevin collaborated with 16-year-old Andrew Mollo, a history buff (who later plied that interest into becoming a historian himself) who provided immeasurable help in insuring that their film was pin-point accurate in its authenticity.  (Mollo had been collecting German uniforms and equipment from flea markets for years, and the two blokes eventually hooked up with another collector who owned an impressive cache of Nazi arms and vehicles—all stored at his country residence.)  The amateur production took many years to finish (Brownlow and Mollo would have to suspend filming whenever the money ran out) but with an assist from directors Stanley Kubrick (who loaned them film stock from Dr. Strangelove) and Tony Richardson (who ponied up funds to finish the production) the film was completed in time for a premiere at the Cork Film Festival in September 1964.

The fascinating history of the making of It Happened Here is detailed in a book written by Brownlow that was published in 1968 (How It Happened Here), so I’ll hold back on this aspect of the movie only to say that it’s truly a masterpiece of independent filmmaking.  Its black-and-white, cinema verité style is so starkly realistic (Brownlow didn’t use any actual newsreel footage for the movie…including the scene where the film’s heroine is watching a newsreel) I had to remind myself a couple of times that the movie is complete fiction.  But the message of the film—that fascism can kick off its shoes and make itself to home under any set of normal circumstances—is a powerful one…and one that prompted more than a few critics at the time of its release to condemn the film, believing that the filmmakers were espousing that philosophy.  When United Artists agreed to release the film for American audiences in 1966, they insisted on the excision of a six-minute sequence where IAO fascists discuss their support for euthanasia where Jews are concerned.

That sequence would later be restored to the finished product when Brownlow regained the rights to It Happened Here thirty years later, and the entirety of the film is available on DVD from Milestone Films—a familiar name here on the blog responsible for such DVD offerings as In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) and The Connection (1961).  Milestone is currently having a “Dog Days of Summer” sale at their website, with select DVDs going for $10-15 and Blu-rays at $20.  Ordinarily, I’d snatch up every Milestone release that I don’t already own during such an event…but because the fundage situation at Rancho Yesteryear continues to be a bleak one I could only afford one selection, and It Happened Here made the cut.  (You’ll find several of their releases that have been reviewed here on the blog for sale, including Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room.)

The first reel of It Happened Here is a little rough in the audio/visual department, but once you’re past that I think you’ll be blown away by how splendid the production is despite its microbudget.  Because it was a shoestring operation, Brownlow and Rollo had to rely on a lot of amateur talent save for a few professionals like Sebastian Shaw, Reginald Marsh (“Sir” from The Good Life/Good Neighbors), and Fiona Leland.  Pauline Murray, who plays the nurse (also named “Pauline Murray”), was a bit intimidated (despite having appeared in an earlier movie in 1948) about performing alongside those accomplished performers as Brownlow related in The Independent:

Pauline Murray in a scene from the film
We realised we had that rarest of creatures, a natural actress...towards the end of the film, when she found herself playing opposite seasoned professionals like Sebastian Shaw and Fiona Leland, she wrote to me after seeing the rushes; "Sebastian and Fiona seemed alive, real people and I look like a vicious moron.  If we hadn't got so far, I'd say get someone else.  I honestly feel the lack of expression on my face is disastrous and could ruin the whole thing for you."  Fortunately, we could see what she couldn't—that in her restraint lay her strength.  For Pauline Murray was the film.

Pauline Murray, despite the naturalness that works so well in It Happened Here (she’s really a most appealing heroine), never appeared in another movie (though she did dabble in community theatre).  Brownlow and Mollo’s feature film is a true marvel and hey—at 10 bucks, it’s a bargain from Milestone.  Buy it.  I have spoken.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Review: Hollywood Obscura: Death, Murder, and the Paranormal Aftermath

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear goddess Thelma Todd had her motion picture career cut short by a mysterious death in 1935 that continues to mystify fans and provoke endless speculation even today.  Was the “Hot Toddy” murdered…or was her death merely a tragic accident?  There is no shortage of suspects for the murder theory (her ex-husband Pat DiCicco, business partner/lover Roland West…even mobster “Lucky” Luciano) but however you choose to explain Thel’s demise there’s certainly no argument that we lost a truly amazing talented actress-comedienne.

Thelma Todd with Charley Chase in
The Nickel Nurser (1932)
After Todd’s death, many witnesses have claimed to see her spirit floating around her old haunts (pardon the pun): the building that housed her restaurant, Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, is the site of several sightings, in addition to the garage where her body was discovered, presumably after passing out from the deadly carbon monoxide resulting from her Lincoln Phaeton running inside.  (Not to mention a few bruises of unexplained origin.)  There are even reports that the yacht once owned by Roland West, the Joyita, has a rather cursed history—linked to Thelma’s demise (there are those that speculate that possible murderer West croaked Thelma on the boat before bringing her to the garage and setting it up to look like an accident).  If you have a strong interest in the supernatural, you’re going to enjoy reading Brian Clune’s Hollywood Obscura: Death, Murder, and the Paranormal Aftermath—a book due out this month that examines a handful of Tinsel Town deaths (George Reeves, Marilyn Monroe, Ramon Novarro, etc.) in page-turning detail and relates accounts of folks spotting these celebs still tooling around despite a change of address in The Great Beyond.

Author Brian Clune
Speaking for myself: I’m a tremendous skeptic when it comes to the paranormal.  To paraphrase Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion: “I don’t believe in spooks…I don’t believe in spooks…I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.”  So I was a little leery about the ghost aspect of the book…but even those who remained unconvinced about such phenomena will enjoy Hollywood Obscura, a refreshing read by an author whose other works include California’s Historic Haunts (co-written with Bob Davis) and who’s contributed to such TV shows as Dead Files and Ghost Hunters.  Brian Clune is also the co-founder and historian of Planet Paranormal Radio and Planet Paranormal Investigations, the website for which can be found here.  His book is well-documented, and I was particularly tickled by the fact that he drew on material from some of my fellow classic movie bloggers including fervent Shirley Temple disciple Page at My Love of Old Hollywood (where a lot of the Thelma Todd biography was borrowed—odd, in that I’d think Pagey would be a natural for Ramon Novarro) and the now-defunct The Silent Movie Blog, once owned and operated by Facebook compadre Christopher Snowden (now blogging at Television Diary).

The Los Feliz "Murder Mansion"
Hollywood Obscura isn’t all about celebrities.  It features chapters on would-be celebrities, like the legendary Black Dahlia, and some semi-celebs who achieved fifteen minutes of fame, as in the case of the notorious Manson family.  There’s even a section on the infamous Los Feliz “Murder Mansion,” a case whose particulars I was not familiar with, so it made for a pretty riveting read.  Rounding out the book are chapters on “Bugsy” Siegel, John Belushi, Tupac Shakur/Biggie Smalls, and recent TCM Star of the Month Natalie Wood.  (Since I’m one of those people convinced that Wood’s husband—Robert Wagner—introduced Nat to a deeper part of the ocean, I don’t mind telling you I was a little uncomfortable watching R.J. and daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner chat it up in between those Wood movies showcased on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.  But I digress, even though this theory of Wagner's possible complicity is touched upon in the book.)

Hollywood Obscura is a most diverting tome, one you’ll navigate it very quickly (I took it with me when my fadduh had to have some tests done at Athens Regional and had it finished by the time they were done poking and prodding him) while being thoroughly entertained all the same.  Published by Schiffer Books, a family-owned independent based out of Atglen, PA, Hollywood Obscura is also available from fine bookstores (Barnes & Noble) and those not so fine (you know the behemoth I’m talking about).  Many thanks to Meghan Schaffer for sending the review copy my way.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rage against the (Windstream) machine

The fields went fallow on the blog for nearly a week for one simple reason: our internet provider is terrible, and isn’t planning on improving their behavior anytime soon.  I’m not shy about naming these poltroons; we get our crappy service from Windstream, and in a just world the company would be brought up before a tribunal to answer for their crimes…and once found guilty by a not-at-all-impartial judge of my own choosing, sentenced to one of those islands where they used to quarantine lepers, plague victims, and other unfortunates of society.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Windstream—at least in my neck of the woods—has been wedded to DISH, since they both deserve one another.

The trouble started around 4:30pm last Wednesday, when I noticed the little yellow triangle symbol superimposed over the internet connectivity icon on my laptop.  This meant that the system was down, and though I was mildly annoyed (I was working on a post for the Radio Spirits blog) I decided to be cool and wait to see if the problem would be quickly worked out.  Two-and-a-half hours later, and still no internet, I phoned Windstream with that sinking feeling in my stomach pit that they were going to make me run what I call “the Internet Obstacle Course.”  (This is where I’m required to unplug and re-plug cables, the modem, etc.—which I wouldn’t have a problem with except my mother insists that they be relegated to a space behind the TV (an area where a person of my girth has difficulty accessing) because she doesn’t like the sight of wires.

Before I called Windstream, I ran the Course ahead of time to make sure the problem wasn’t on my end.  It wasn’t, and I had suspected as such.  So, once I’d made it past their infuriating phone tree, I explain to the customer service representative that the system is out.  She’s convinced the problem is on my end, since no one else has complained, and lets me know she’s writing up a ticket so a technician can fix the problem.  He’ll be there Saturday.

I’m ticked off at this, because that means we’ll be offline for two entire days…and I won’t be able to get this post done.  I phoned my editor at Radio Spirits, and she lets me know that if I can get the piece to her Monday morning (assuming the tech fixes the problem on Saturday) she’ll give it a quick read, make the necessary changes, and have it back at me so I can schedule the post.

I should have known the technician wasn’t going to be at Rancho Yesteryear Saturday.  Oh, we got a phone call from Windstream at 11:15am informing us he’d be there between 11:15 and 3pm, but I end up calling them back at 3:05 to find out that the problem is worse than they originally estimated and that we may not be back up until Monday morning.  Monday afternoon, I’m having to call them back to find out where the hell the guy is, and they’re telling me it’s not going to happen until the next day.  I gave the person a bit of pranging about this, and they finally acquiesce to my demands, promising the work will be done by five that day.  When I wound up having to call back at 5:05pm to ask why they insist on lying to me every time I phone, we got a call on our other cell phone line…telling us the technician will be at the house between 8am and 12 noon.

Substitute "Windstream" for "AT&T" and you'll get the idea.
Since confession is good for the soul, I’ll come clean here.  I have a bit of a temper.  But I’m even-keeled for the most part—the only time I start approaching Hulk status is when someone can’t be straight with me.  They couldn’t be forthright and tell me that the problem with our internet connectivity was that some idiot installed some switches wrong, and it apparently took them all that time to find out just exactly what that individual screwed up.  My mother ran into the technician as she headed out the door Tuesday morning as he was just pulling up.  I had discovered by that time that our internet was back, but he wanted to check on our status.  He told her the story of what happened (I believe I was asked by both my parents not to come into contact with him for fear that something terrible might happen) and she replied matter-of-factly, “That person needs to be fired.”  The technician, looking out for his own, tried to explain that “it’s not his fault” and Mom just dismissed him with a wave of her hand.

That’s the sordid story of why there’s been nothing new to read on the blog for over a week, and because I had to get caught up with some other assignments there may not be any new material until next Monday (I wanted to at least get a new Crime Does Not Pay up—I’ll try my best, but my eye appointment tomorrow may interfere with that).  If your situation is like mine in that Windstream is your only option for internet access…I feel your pain, brother.  If you’re looking for a provider and are considering Windstream…don’t.  Run fast, run far.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Guilty Pleasures: Sssssss (1973)

You might remember Phil Hall as the author of an excellent book that I reviewed back on the blog in August of 2016 entitled In Search of Lost Films; Hall, a film critic/journalist who has contributed to the likes of Film Threat and American Movie Classics Magazine, also wrote The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, published in 2013 through BearManor Media—the book company owned and operated by my Facebook compadre Ben Ohmart.  (Phil is also a Facebook chum, in the interest of full disclosure.)  A couple months after I wrote the review for In Search of Lost Films for the blog, Phil posted a link to a article (in the Psychotronic Film Society group on Facebook) entitled “FilmSnobbery’s 25 Worst Films Ever Made” (he’s a contributor to that website as well).

Most of what I know about the subject of cinematic stinkers has been gleaned from the masterminds at World O’Crap, Scott and S.Z. and their splendid cinematic fromage compendium Better Living Through Bad Movies.  I’m no expert; I would define a bad movie as filtered through the sensibility of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (“I know it when I see it.”)  But I always get a kick out of perusing these lists; the FilmSnobbery rankings feature bad movies I’ve seen (Manos: The Hands of Fate, Plan 9 from Outer Space) and a good many I’ve managed to avoid (The Room, Gigli).  There are a few on the list that I might quibble over: for example, I hate Titanic (1997) with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns but I’m not sure it would qualify as one of the worst I’ve ever watched (I just wish I could get those three hours and 14 minutes of my life back).  Likewise, Seven Years in Tibet (1997—or as I called it after leaving the theatre, “Seven Years in My Seat”); again, not a movie I would watch even if a gun were placed to my temple but I’ve invested precious man-hours in more terrible movies.

There was one movie on the FilmSnobbery list that made me say “Aw, hell no!”  (Okay, there were actually two—I’ll admit 1988’s Club Paradise isn’t a good movie but any movie with Jimmy Cliff should not be on a “worst film” list…that’s just plain wrong.)  And that is Sssssss (1973), an unabashedly goofy flick that I fondly remember from my childhood…and when Kismet gave me an opportunity to revisit it when I saw it in the On Demand listings during a recent Starz Encore freeview, I found to my delight it still holds up well provided you’re not expecting something along the lines of Grand Illusion (1937).

Sssssss (don’t say it—hiss it) illustrates that if there is one thing guaranteed to bring about complete disaster in the world of science…it’s casting Strother Martin as a mad scientist.  He’s ophidiologist Carl Stoner (ophidiologist is a fancy word for a guy what studies snakes), and he’s convinced that humanity is on a runaway bobsled to H-E-double-hockey-sticks what with the pollution and other ecological disasters looming on the horizon.  Stoner is conducting unorthodox experiments on human guinea pigs—his former assistant has even been sold as a “snake man” to a carnival freak show operated by a man named Kogen (Tim O’Connor)—and his latest victim is a college student, David Blake (Dirk Benedict), who doesn’t suspect a thing when Stoner starts giving him mysterious injections (the doc explains that they’re anti-venom inoculations, in case David’s bitten by any of the severely poisonous snakes Stoner’s lab).

Carl has a daughter in Kristina (Heather Menzies), who becomes quite attracted to David and one night as Carl is running an errand (Stoner is exacting revenge on a boorish college football jock [Reb Brown] who killed his best friend, a snake answering to “Harry”) allows herself to be deflowered by him.  Carl doesn’t take this news too well…but let’s be honest—if you were slowly turning your prospective son-in-law into a king cobra you might be a bit skittish about the possibility of impregnating your daughter and unleashing a race of snake children into the world.  (Then again…why would this bother you if you’ve pretty much given up on the human race?)

Sssssss fails because it emulates the films that inspired it all too closely: the story moves forward at a laboriously slow pace, and its threadbare plot makes it all too easy for the viewer to pick apart its plot holes and implausible elements,” notes Donald Guarisco at  “To make matters worse, the characterizations and dialogue never rise above the level of a subpar comic book and the anticlimactic finale is likely to frustrate even the most patient viewer.”  Picky, picky, picky.  I knew going into the damn thing what its main “implausible element” was—you got some maniacal mastermind wanting to transform someone into a snake, ferchrissake!  For what it’s worth, I’m a patient viewer and I had no problem with the finale—I even enjoyed how it’s not tied up in a pretty pink bow.  I love Sssssss because it’s a delightful throwback to those great Universal science-run-amuck films of the 1950s (notably Tarantula); yes, I know the plot is ludicrous but I don’t care.  It’s a horror movie—not a documentary.

But the main reason why I’m such a fan of this film can be summed up in two words: Strother Martin.  Strother Martin—a character great whom I always associate as the sweaty weasel running the cantina in a sparsely-populated Western town—is a scientist.  A mad scientist.  Granted, any character Strother plays in a movie is bound to be a bit…eccentric, shall we say.  But you know pretty much within a minute or two after the opening credits that the cheese slid off Stoner’s cracker long ago, and to compound the perception that Doc Carl isn’t all there his rival is played by Richard B. Shull.  (I would want to see either man’s doctorate before attending any of their classes.)  As Andrew “Grover” Leal noted on Facebook, “Let’s face it—you’d think twice before buying roadside produce from Strother Martin.”

Sssssss has quite a few familiar TV faces (folks under contract to Universal, I’m guessing) in its cast; Dirk “The A-Team” Benedict (in his second feature film) plays the doomed David (Benedict can also be seen in Battlestar Galactica reruns, now showing on a MeTV near you) and Menzies (who would later appear with Bradford Dillman in the TDOY fave Piranha [1978]), as the fetching Kristina, co-starred with Gregory Harrison in a small screen series based on Logan’s Run (1976).  You know Tim O’Connor from a gazillion turns in movies and TV series (O’Connor turned 90 about a month ago—happy belated birthday, Tim!) as well as Jack Ging (also on The A-Team as “General Fulbright”), Charles Seel (The Road West), and Reb Brown (Yor!), last seen here on the blog in Fast Break (1979).

The special make-up effects—the creation of John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and Nick Marcellino—give the silly proceedings a hella boost, and when Sssssss was originally released in 1973 it was released on a double bill with The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973).  As someone who’s an admitted ophidiophobic (a fancy word for fear of snakes), there’s really no reason why I should be a fan of this movie…but I am.  (Shull’s demise in this movie is particularly memorable!)

Monday, July 31, 2017

“Well, thank you, Harvey! I prefer you, too…”

For ten seasons on TV’s The Carol Burnett Show, comic actor Harvey Korman was not only one of the hardest working second bananas in the variety show bidness but one of the funniest.  Korman left the series before its eleventh and final season to pursue projects that would allow him to take center stage (he was offered a contract by ABC-TV and did a self-titled sitcom in 1978 that came and went) and while he never quite captured the stardom he sought he had plenty of laurels to rest on as far as his boob tube legacy was concerned (not to mention his sidesplitting turn in Blazing Saddles [1974]).  During his stint on the Burnett show, Harvey was nominated six times for an Emmy (and he won four trophies) and four times for a Golden Globe (he won in 1975).  “He was fearless: he sang, he danced, he ad-libbed, he pranced, and he made TV audiences roar with laughter,” observes a Time Life press release for a DVD due to be released tomorrow (August 1): The Best of Harvey Korman.

My chum Michael Krause at Foundry Communications was good enough to slip me a screener, and while people may quibble what constitutes Mr. Korman’s “best” there’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of with regards to the material on this disc.  There are four telecasts (three of which haven’t been seen in 40 years) present, with the first a very funny show that closed out the first season of Burnett’s series on May 13, 1968.  Carol has no guest stars on this telecast; it’s billed as a “family show,” and focuses on her talented ensemble—Vicki Lawrence performs Best of Both Worlds and Lyle Waggoner does a not-too-shabby By the Time I Get to Phoenix—including a hilarious sketch where Harvey ducks into his dressing room to avoid his “fan club” (the women who comprise that aggregation reminded me of the same matrons who were gaga for Jack Benny) and fantasizes about being a Hugh Hefner-type.  There are funny segments of “Carol and Sis” and “The Old Folks” on hand, and a sprightly version of Together by the cast just before the wonderful closing featuring Carol’s charwoman character.

When Carol's Molly suggests the two of them "go inside and turn on Lawrence Welk" Bert cracks: "I didn't think that was possible."
Carol, Harvey & Vicki as Patty, Maxene & Laverne
A November 18, 1968 episode is unusual in that it was taped during a writer’s strike…which necessitates Carol having to hum her show’s opening theme and sing the familiar I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together close with choral accompaniment.  A telecast without an orchestra might be a handicap if Ella Fitzgerald is your musical guest (Ella could have just scat-sang a couple) but the First Lady of Song, Carol explains later, lip-synched to previously recorded numbers…and demonstrates by doing her own lip-synch to The Trolley Song (which experiences speed problems during the playback, and Burnett’s facial expressions are hysterical).  There’s also a lip-synch performed to the Andrews Sisters’ Bei Mir Bist Du Schön…executed by Carol, Vicki, and Harvey (in drag) in a “Carol and Sis” sketch.

In the "Carol and Sis" Andrews Sisters sketch, Isabel "Weezy" Sanford plays a cleaning lady...

...and Elaine Joyce turns up in another skit as the sexy neighbor from next door.

Carol gives Harvey a Miranda warning. (Sorry about that...
I've been hanging out on Facebook with Andrew "Grover" Leal
too much.)
Carol Burnett and her writers were classic movie fans, and many of her show’s best-remembered sketches were hilarious parodies of movies.  The November 18th show features Carol and guest Sid Caesar in “Mrs. Magnificent” (Mrs. Miniver), and as much as I revere Sid he’s forced to take a back seat to Burnett’s antics as a stiff-upper-lip British woman who’s unsettlingly nonchalant about being shelled by the Germans during WW2.  (Sid reprises some bits from Tars and Spars in the show’s opening Q&A segment, and he’s much funnier there.)  A September 29, 1969 show with guests Bernadette Peters and Nancy Wilson teams the two guests with Carol in a big musical number split in three parts: Wilson does a kind of Casablanca parody, and Peters is the novice who’s going out a nobody but coming back a star in a send-up of Warners’ Depression-era musicals.  In between these two, Carol apes Carmen Miranda and completely loses it when Harvey slips and falls on his Gazoo during the number.  (At one point in the song Korman ad-libs “I suppose they’ll want the Emmy back,” breaking Carol up.)

A reminder of CBS' commitment to programming in color.

Look who's in the audience!  Mr. and Mrs. Ross Martin!

A spoof of Summertime (the 1955 Katharine Hepburn film) is the highlight of the fourth and final show on The Best of Harvey Korman, a telecast from October 27, 1971 with guest stars Tim Conway and Diahann “Julia” Carroll.  Tim does his shuffling old man character in a sketch about a jewel robbery (Harvey manages to keep it together for the most part despite a couple of lapses into hysterics) and Carol and Diahann do the number that you see Carol perform with Lucille Ball in that segment that Burnett narrates on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, Chutzpah.  Carol Burnett fans will want to nab this very entertaining DVD for their shelf—a fitting reminder that whether he was supporting Carol or Danny Kaye, Harvey Korman was the yardstick by which second bananas should be measured.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #11: “Soak the Poor” (08/21/37)

This week’s entry in our Crime Does Not Pay series features two actors in the opening credits that would go on to bigger and better things in the motion picture bidness.  The first is Leslie Fenton, a British-born thespian who made an impression in silent pictures (Lazybones, The Road to Glory) before smoothly transitioning to the talkies and appearing in such features as The Public Enemy (1931), The Guilty Generation (1931), and Boys Town (1938).  Fenton later walked around to the other side of the camera and became a director, starting out with shorts (he even helmed a pair in the CDNP franchise) before graduating to feature flicks, notably Tomorrow, the World! (1944) and Pardon My Past (1945).  (If it happens to swing by The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ sometime in future, I highly recommend Tell No Tales [1939]—a great little B curio starring Melvyn Douglas…believe me, I am not a fan of Douglas in his “leading man” days but he’s positively first-rate in this one.)

The other familiar personage who gets a nod in the opening credits is Leon Ames, a hardy character actor whose was billed as Leon Waycoff early in his picture career (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Famous Ferguson Case) before he changed it to the more familiar handle and cemented his cinematic immortality with memorable turns in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Peyton Place (1957).  Ames would later channel William Powell in a boob tube version of Life with Father (1953-55) and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1961-62) before landing the role he was born to play: Wilbur Post’s (Alan Young) next-door neighbor (and former commanding officer) Gordon Kirkwood in Mister Ed (he replaced Larry Keating’s character when Keating died in 1963).  Ames continued to work even into the 1980s; he’s got a nice bit in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), his cinematic swan song.

“But, Ian,” I hear you saying.  “What of our old friend, the MGM Crime Reporter?”  Well, Philip Trent must have called in sick that day because the Crime Reporter is played by an unidentified actor…who looks like he might also have a sideline in the funeral parlor game.  He introduces Leon Ames as “Mr. Stanton” (no first name), a “special investigator of the Crime Prevention Bureau.”  (Don’t tell me they didn’t make that up.)

STANTON: The federal government in our several states met the challenge of unemployment and hunger during the Depression years by creating the Home Relief Bureau…hundreds of millions were distributed during the first few months of direct home relief…

Hundreds of millions of what?  This sounds like that government cheese thing.  I also like how Stanton refers to “the Depression years”—according to my father, they lasted until 1962 (the year he got married).

STANTON: …twice a month, each needy family received a relief ticket…exchangeable at authorized neighborhood grocery stores for food…

A precursor to food stamps, in other words.

STANTON: Then without warning, something went wrong…

I’m guessing Blue Dog Democrats got elected to Congress?

STANTON: …relief became a national nightmare…

Nailed it!  Okay, I’m just jinkin’ ya.  Stanton is going to illustrate an unsettling example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as we are whisked away to a humble grocery store (not the one owned by Herbert T. Gillis, sadly enough) to find its proprietor humming a happy tune.  Without warning, a pair of rough customers enter the store and send the grocer to the floor of his establishment courtesy of a sock in the jaw.

FIRST HOOD: This is the last time we’re gonna tell ya to get into line
SECOND HOOD: You know what happened to Belvin
FIRST HOOD: He didn’t want to do business with us either

Well, when you go around punching people in the jaw it’s bound to effect customer relations, Mr. Henchman.  I’d try the soft sell approach.  The second goon in this little morality play goes by “Mac” (I wish it could have been something more colorful, like “Monty the Gonif”) …but we recognize him as Ben Welden, a character great who played more hoodlums than you’ve had hot dinners.  (I think that scar across his left eye is a nice touch):

The scene shifts to yet another grocer getting a shakedown…and it’s none other than character veteran Byron Foulger!  My very good friend Cliff “Sugarball” Weimer, who carefully measures out the fountain soda machine syrup with utmost precision In the Balcony, once joked that he had probably seen more movies featuring Byron than Foulger’s immediate family…so I (un)officially made Mr. Foulger the mascot of ITB’s Facebook page.  An unidentified hood puts the squeeze on Grocer Foulger:

THIRD HOOD (counting pieces of paper): Sixty-four dollars’ worth of relief tickets…
GROCER FOULGER: You’re grabbing forty cents out of every dollar…how do you expect me to keep goin’?
THIRD HOOD: Quit beefin’…you’d have to wait sixty days down at relief headquarters for your dough…we give you cash on the line

So, what seems at first glance like unsavory criminal activity is just a concerted effort to cut through bureaucratic red tape.

GROCER FOULGER (after counting): Hey—this is thirty dollars’ short…even the way you figure…
THIRD HOOD: Last week you sneaked over to the relief office yourself with a flock of tickets…we’re taking our cut just the same…don’t try that again

I retract my earlier statement.  With all this lawlessness rampant in the welfare system, eventually there are going to be courageous men who say, “Enough is enough” …and they just decide to opt out of the program.  Such a man is played by Harry Hayden, and this time the (always reliable) IMDb gets the identification right.

GROCER HARRY: I’m all through—I’m washed up with this relief business…
FOURTH HOOD (grabbing the sign): Yeah?  This ain’t your business you’re throwin’ out…it’s ours…you know, accidents happen to guys who put up signs…well, come on, come on…let’s have what you got…

If the henchman that shakes down Harry the Grocer looks familiar…it’s because it’s an incredibly thin Horace McMahon, the character actor who later appeared on the right side of the law as “Lt. Mike Parker” on the TDOY television fave Naked City.  McMahon’s thug returns to Hoodlum Central, where he tells the second-in-command of the operation (identified as “Slim”) that Grocer Harry was all set to back out of the Relief deal until he was told it would be a shame if someone were to set fire to his store.

FIFTH HOOD: Nobody wants to handle tickets anymore!
FOURTH HOOD: We’re takin’ all the gravy!
DARLA HOOD: A lot of grocers are gonna fold up on you, Slim…
SLIM: You guys gettin’ soft?  Just get me the tickets, that’s all…

Slim takes up the tickets collected by his hard-working “staff” and takes them to the headquarters of the operation’s Big Boss, a charming snake named Nick Garvey (Fenton)—we’ll meet him in a second.  First order of business: Slim hands out stacks of tickets to a quartet of grocers who will, in turn, cash them in at the Relief Bureau for sweet, sweet moolah.  One of the merchants, a human-weasel hybrid named Schultz, is portrayed by a character stalwart named John Butler—who will appear in later entries in the Crime Does Not Pay series but I always remember him from appearances in several Robert Benchley shorts (How to Watch Football, Opening Day).

SCHULTZ: Say, Slim…
SLIM: Yeah?
SCHULTZ: I haven’t got much of a store…they’re gonna wonder at relief headquarters, turnin’ in this many…
SLIM: Why. Schultz—you’re the first guy I ever saw who didn’t like big dough

Suddenly, a terrible smell permeates the office…which can only mean Nick Garvey has entered.

GARVEY: You haven’t had any trouble up to now, have ya? 
SCHULTZ: No, I haven’t, Nick…but I…
GARVEY: Then forget it…your job is to take those tickets over to the relief office and bring back the dough…let me do the worrying—I’ll take care of you…

This is what is known in the two-reeler business as “foreshadowing.”  Meanwhile, Nick wants to see Slim in his personal office.

GARVEY: I understand you’re having trouble with some of your grocers…we gotta keep them from going out of business…
SLIM: Let ‘em try it…I’ll shake their ears off…
GARVEY: Now no rough stuff, Slim…we gotta give ‘em back their profits…

Um…I’m pretty sure this isn’t the way capitalism is supposed to work…

SLIM: Whaaaat?
GARVEY: Tell every grocer in town to raise his prices forty percent

(Wiping brow) Whew!  You had me worried for a sec…that’s how capitalism is supposed to work.

GARVEY: The people on relief are getting something for nothing…let them pay…

Nick Garvey, noted Republican economist, seems to have forgotten that everyone pays in this system.

I guess we should have expected those headlines.  What follows is a montage of grocers jacking up their prices to satisfy the parasites running this racket.  Ten pounds of potatoes: formerly 25 cents…now 35 cents.  Bread rises (no pun intended) from ten cents to twelve cents a loaf.  And milk—children’s milk, Mandrake!—sees a two-cent increase from eleven to thirteen cents!  Madness!  Superimposed over these rising prices are angry crowds of men, women, and chillun…who are all too aware that getting by on what they normally get on relief is a tragic set of circumstances at best.

As a small mob of relief holders loudly protest the rising costs of groceries, Hastings, a representative from the Home Relief Bureau attempts to address the situation:

HASTINGS: Please…please…we must have order here or we can’t do anything…remember…we’re here to help you…all of you… (Crowd mutters in anger) We’ve stretched our present budget to the limit…but we hope for increased appropriations any day…
FIRST MAN: Well, that’s what you said yesterday!

“Well, yesterday I was convinced Congress would do something…apparently I suffered some sort of head injury…”

SECOND MAN: If we had jobs, we wouldn’t be here!
FIRST WOMAN: Why don’t you go after the grocers!
SECOND WOMAN: I just can’t keep my family on four dollars a week…I can’t do it, I tell you…
HASTINGS: We’re doing everything that we can to get prices back to normal…
FIRST MAN: Well, when?
SECOND MAN: That’s what I say…when?
THIRD WOMAN: You’ve got to do something now!

“We plan to convene a committee this afternoon to address the matter…and a report with their findings should be out sometime in 1939…”  Helpless as only a government bureaucrat can be, Hastings has called in Our Man Stanton to examine the situation.

HASTINGS: It’s the same thing every day, Stanton…
STANTON: That’s one of the reasons I’m here…
HASTINGS: Oh…is that so?

“Well, that and to justify the taxpayers ponying up for my obscene salary…”  The state muckety-mucks have asked Stansy to consider why there are only four grocers getting compensation from all the relief tickets.  Hastings is convinced everything is on the up-and-up, but he asks Stanton if he wants to look at the cashier records.  As the two men head inside another office, Stanton stops…because he recognizes Schultz, who’s collecting his ill-gotten welfare gains.

STANTON: Is that one of the four grocers?

“No—I believe that’s one of the Four Freshmen.”  Schultz asks the clerk if any checks came through, and when he’s told “no” tells the man he’ll see him tomorrow.  Hastings assures Stanton that Schultz is one of the “four grocers” and the two of them walk over to the clerk’s area so Stanton can get a gander at the tickets Schultz turned in.  Stanton finds it peculiar that many of the tickets are from addresses that are not normally in the vicinity of the store, and his observations are heard by this nosy parker:

Stanton tells Hastings that he’s going to look into the peculiarity of people shopping from as far as ten miles away, and he signs a receipt for some of the tickets he’ll use in his investigation.  Nosy Parker offers to file the receipt…but what he’s really planning to do is phone Nick Garvey to let him know some flatfoot is sniffing around his operation.  He gives Nick the names of the relief customers, and in turn Nick issues orders for Slim to send his confederates out for damage control.  One of the people on the list goes by “Briggs,” and he’s played by another familiar face…

…it’s George Chandler, whom has a movie and TV resume as long as your arm—he’s “Chester” in the classic W.C. Fields comedy The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), and on television he played “Uncle Petrie” on Lassie (and “Ichabod” on the sitcom Ichabod and Me).  Briggs is a bit of a nervous Nellie when Stanton comes a-callin’…but that’s easily explained…

…some of the Garvey mob (shame on you, Ben!) are hovering over Briggs’ family ready to work over La Familia.  Another individual who’s reluctant to talk is Mrs. Clark, who tells Stansy that even though she and her husband “do without” it’s not enough to keep her sick daughter healthy—the child’s not getting enough to eat.  When Stanton asks about Schultz, Mrs. Clark becomes upset: “You’re the third man who’s been here today…Schultz…Schultz…Schultz!  That’s all I hear!  I’m sick of it!  I can’t stand anymore of it!  Get out!  Get out!

STANTON (on the telephone): Why, these people are scared stiff, Hastings…somebody’s been ahead of me browbeating them…there must be a leak in your office…
HASTINGS: What?  Anything I can do?
STANTON: No, I just wanted to warn you—hereafter, we’ll meet in Captain Burke’s office…we’ll get together after I’ve looked Schultz over…

“And in the meantime, I can put that new guy—Scaramucci—in charge of plugging the leaks.”  There’s a scene shift to Schultz’s grocery, where a clerk informs a “Mrs. Flynn” that she’s just twenty-eight cents over.

MRS. FLYNN: Oh, well…uh…couldn’t you take it out of our next week’s ticket?  It’s only three days off…
SCHULTZ (interjecting icily): We don’t give credit on relief tickets…
MRS. FLYNN: All right…take out the sugar… (The clerk starts removing items from the sack) And the butter…

“The milk…eggs…bread…vegetables…”  Schultz, spotting Stanton in the store, asks what he can do for him.

STANTON: I’m from relief headquarters…I’d like to see your tickets…
SCHULTZ: Oh—what for?
STANTON: We’re checking up on some families who are getting luxuries instead of necessities…

“You know, sugar…butter…milk…eggs…bread…vegetables…” Stanton looks over the tickets from the customers he visited, and everything appears to be in order—he bids the smug Schultz adieu, while Slim emerges from a nearby corner.  Schultz starts to file the tickets away but is stopped by Slim: “Hey, just a minute—those go back where they came from…”  The old-substitute-relief-ticket ploy (thanks, Nosy!) …and Stanton fell for it.

Stanton, Hastings, and other assorted underlings are having a meeting in Captain Burke’s (Davison Clark) office:

STANTON: Schultz was all primed…we’re dealing with fast workers, and they’re ruthless…

I wonder where Ruth is?  (Love the Firesign Theatre.)

STANTON: …to break this case by ordinary methods, it might take three months…but we haven’t got time—people are starving

You’ve also only five minutes left in this thing.  Stanton decides to go for broke: he hands out court orders to his deputies to serve on the four grocers—a little surprise audit!  “Bring me back a telephone number…a scrap of paper…or a name…anything!  Something that will give me a clue as to who’s behind this thing…”

Schultz is saying good night to his employees when one of Stanton’s men enters with the court order, asking to look at his books.  Schultz tells him “Help yourself,” but when he heads toward his safe to close the doors he’s told to leave everything open.  And then this happens:

DEPUTY: Just a minute—you can’t do that!
SCHULTZ: You’ve no authority to go through my private papers!  That’s my own personal box…I’ll be right back…

“I…forgot to program the DVR for that Michael Phelps/Shark thing.”  The deputy waits for a few moments, but Schultz does not return.  (Because he’s all ass and elbows, headed for the state line—that’s my guess.)  He phones Stanton at Burke’s office and gives him the lowdown about Schultz locking the box—“I’ll jimmy it if you say so.”  Stanton, in a rare display of adhering to the Fourth Amendment, tells his man he’ll need a witness…so he’s on his way.

At Nick’s headquarters, Garvey is reading Nosy Parker (his real name is “Joe,” for the curious) the riot act for not tipping them off about the court orders…and Parker emphatically tells his boss they didn’t come from the relief office.  Schultz bursts in, sweating in a way that would make Edmond O’Brien jealous:

SCHULTZ: They jumped my books—you gotta get me out of it!
SLIM: Well, keep your shirt on…
SCHULTZ: But you don’t understand—he’s got a court order!  He’ll go through everything!
GARVEY: Whaddya mean, everything?!!
SCHULTZ: He’ll go through my safe…
GARVEY: What’s the matter with your safe?!!
SCHULTZ: Well, I…that is…
GARVEY (grabbing him by the lapels): Come on!  Spill it!  What’s in that safe?!!

Schultz lets it be known that there’s a little book inside that safe…one that he kept the relief records in.  I know what you’re thinking right now—“That seems kind of stupid.”  (Not nearly as stupid as writing “The Real Relief Records” on the cover of the book, of course—he’s not a complete idiot.)  Schultz assures his “friends” that he’s locked it up and though Nick is telling him to make like a tree and get out of there, Slim beseeches his boss: “He’ll squawk!”

As Schultz backs up toward the evidence he plaintively screeches “You said you’d take care of me!  That’s what you said!  You’d take care of me!

“We’ll take care of you,” declares Garvey.  Say what you want about Nick and his associates—but they make good on their word.  As Schultz is ducking down alleys like someone trapped in a noir nightmare, he’s gunned down by the Garvey mob…though not before the studio gets in a plug for their current release of The Good Earth (1937) starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer—based on the novel by fellow Mountaineer Pearl S. Buck!

On the poster behind him.

By this time, Stanton and his man have opened Schultz’s private box (well, in all fairness—it’s not like he’ll be needing it anytime soon) and have found the grocer’s book with the incriminating evidence (he even took the time to write Garvey’s name in it!).  As Stanton gets on the horn to contact Captain Burke and have him raid Nick’s headquarters, several members of the Garvey mob pull up outside the store and relieve the deputy of some ledgers and papers he’s carrying out.  What follows is a scene in which Stanton conceals the incriminating book inside a desk drawer as the hoods tear apart the store looking for it.  It’s pretty much all over but the shouting…but I did get a hearty chuckle at this blatant bit of product placement:

I'd like to buy the world a Coke...

...and use it as a deadly weapon!

Garvey grabs The Pause That Refreshes, breaks it across a store display and starts toward Stanton with it.  Stanton tells him the book is in the cash register to stall for time, but by that time the jernt is swarming with cops ready to escort Nick and his chums to The Grey Bar Hotel.

STANTON: Nick Garvey and his killers went to the electric chair…the grocers who hid their greed behind respectable storefronts received no mercy…and were sentenced to jail for terms long enough to realize that crime does not pay

Oh, puh-leeze.  They’re white collar criminals—I’m guessing they pleaded to a lesser charge and fines were involved.  Next time on the blog: Crime Does Not Pay rips the lid off phony charity rackets with Give Till It Hurts (1937)!  G’bye now!