Bad Movie of the Week

One of a series

Amazon Prime Video has a bunch of the Boris Karloff classics on file, and this is one of them. It’s Mr. Wong, Detective from the Mr. Wong series in 1938—the first of six. This is from Monogram Pictures, a company we have seen a lot of before. Details are from Wikipedia.

In the opening scene we see a shadowy character known in the film only as “Lescardi” (Frank Bruno). He’s hiding out on a pier on the San Francisco waterfront, watching a ship pull into the harbor. He reports to his boss, Anton Mohl, aka Baron Von Krantz (Lucien Prival). Only, he comes in through the skylight instead of the door, causing Mohl to greet him with a pistol and a warning, “You’re going to get killed doing that, one of these days, Lescardi!”

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Their situation is grim. The ship will carry a shipment of poison gas to their “enemies.” They are desperate to forestall the shipment. They enlist the aid of Olga Petroff / Countess Dubois / Sophie Dome (Evelyn Brent).

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Meanwhile, one of the industrialists preparing to ship the poison gas is Simon Dayton (John Hamilton), President of Dayton Chemical Co. He is also in desperate straits. The actions of Mohl and company are taking a toll on his comfort level. He pays a visit to Detective James Lee Wong (Karloff). They set up a meeting in Dayton’s office for 10:00 the following morning.

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In the meantime, Dayton’s partners, Theodore Meisel (William Gould) and Christian Wilk (Hooper Atchley), convene an urgent conference with Dayton. He consents to sign an agreement bequeathing his holdings in Dayton Chemical Co. to his partners in the event of his untimely death. This is foreboding.

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Disaster descends shortly. Before Dayton is able to meet with Wong, poison gas inventor Carl Roemer (John St. Polis) barges in. He has a gun.

When the police arrive shortly thereafter, sirens blaring, Dayton is found dead in his office. How did he die? It was poison gas. How did it get administered? Mr. Wong will be able to provide the answer.

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Wong notices glass particles in Dayton’s office. He determines the pieces came from a glass bubble about 65 mm in diameter. A glass blower reconstructs several samples.

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Wong learns the high-manganese-content glass is brittle, and he surmises sound of a certain pitch will cause it to shatter. Several attempts with musical instruments fail, but his pet parrot comes through. The glass shatters.

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What else will shatter the glass. If you guessed the wail of a police siren, you are hot on the trail. Dayton was poisoned when a glass sphere containing the poison gas was shattered as Police Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers) arrived. The ruse works twice more to accomplish the murders of the remaining Dayton partners when police arrive as summoned.

All this to and fro with Dayton Chemical works out just great for Captain Street, since his main squeeze, Myra Ross (Maxine Jennings), is (the late) Simon Dayton’s secretary.

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I’m not going to tell you who the murderer is, but I will note that Mohl and his gang, though wanted for other nefarious deeds, had nothing to do with it. They were just put in to keep us guessing.

This movie actually had a plot, and a nice one, too. Again, dialogue and performances are second rung, even for 1938. I watch some TV drama these days, and the small screen is showing some amazing talent. Either there are some great drama schools running 24 hours out there or else the industry is attracting artistry that would otherwise be doing politics. Thank Hugh Wiley and Houston Branch for the script.

Bad Movie of the Week

One of a series

Backlog becoming depleted. Desperate for another Bad Movie of the Week. Amazon Prime Video to the rescue. From 1939 it’s The Mystery of Mr. Wong, starring Boris Karloff as famous (after Charlie Chan) Chinese crime detective Mr. Wong. I only watched this through one time, so I’m relying on Wikipedia for the details. This is from Monogram Pictures, as seen previously. Karloff was a regular with this studio.

First, here’s an outline of the plot. Actually, more a sketch than an outline. A package is tossed into the harbor from a ship just in from China. Recall, this is 1939, a time when the Japanese are ravaging China, so the background is dicey, to say the least. Anyhow, somebody in a small boat picks up the package, and presently “wealthy gem-collector Brandon Edwards” (Morgan Wallace) arrives at his palatial estate with the package.

We observe the package contains a very large gem stone. Mr Edwards has added to his collection. Another of his collection is the comely Valerie Edwards, Mrs. Edwards (Dorothy Tree). Enchanting Valerie is not his alone. She is shared by his equally unfaithful employee Peter Harrison (Craig Reynolds). Here we see the charming triangle.

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Mr. Edwards receives an ominous warning. The recently acquired gemstone is The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, the largest star sapphire in existence. It has disappeared from Nanking (Nanjing) during the Japanese looting.

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That night a gala dripping with swank is held at the Edwards hut. Sumptuous hostess Valerie Edwards directs the guests in a game of charades. There are three sketches, and the winner of each will receive a pricey bottle of champagne. The second sketch does not go well.

Mr. Edwards participates by playing the part of a husband murdered by his wife’s lover. Ouch! After being “shot” in the plot, he fails to get up. He is, indeed dead.

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Fortunately, ace crime investigator James Lee Wong is in attendance, and he begins working immediately to resolve the mystery.

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The plot deepens. Drina, the maid (Lotus Long) has come over from China and has hired on at the Edwards house with the aim of lifting the stone and returning it to China. Why back to China during those perilous times, one can only guess. Anyhow, she filches the stone from the Edwards safe and prepares to forward a secret note from the deceased on to Mr. Wong. But first she must smoke a poisoned cigarette and die.

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Never fear. Even absent the dead man’s letter, Mr. Wong figures out who the culprit is, and everything gets resolved in the usual fashion of getting all the suspects together in one room and eliminated each in turn by remarkable deduction until only the guilty party is left standing (sitting).

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My analysis: the plot is long on lame, and the dialog has enough wood to do a basketball court. Karloff is not his creepy Frankenstein character, but he is no Spencer Tracy, one of the few quality male actors of the period. The rest of the delivery is just short of dead pan.

No sex, except for a smidgen of hugging and kissing. Nobody gets naked. Could have perked this one up a bit. Truth be known, during this time and for years to follow the train wreck that was the Hays Commission cast a shadow over American entertainment, lifted only about 1968.

Bad Movie of the Week

What the producers have done is to take a fairly simple Robert Louis Stevenson short story of horror and depredation and turn it into a full-blown feature movie. To do so they had to add some characters and a vast body of plot. They retained the name. It’s The Body Snatcher from 1945 out of RKO and featuring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. It’s the last film the two ever made together, and neither survives to the end. Direction is by Robert Wise. But let me get to the story.

Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is a young medical student of weak finances, unable to continue his studies under Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane. Dr. MacFarlane offers him a job, and with that support young Fettes is back on board. A crisis emerges when Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday) brings her daughter (Sharyn Moffett) to see the doctor. The daughter has had surgery for a spinal injury but still cannot walk. Dr. MacFarlane has zero bedside manner and sends the woman away. He only teaches and has no time for actual medical practice.

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As a side issue, we learn that Dr. MacFarlane is secretly married to his housekeeper, Meg Camden (Edith Atwater). Interesting, but nothing at all to do with the plot.

 

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Fettes pursues the sad case of Mrs. Marsh and her daughter. Additional surgery may be needed, but more study is needed. Dissection of a cadaver will provide the necessary experience, so a cadaver is required. Fettes learns his new job is to take delivery of cadavers brought in by shady cab driver John Gray (Karloff). Fettes is aghast to discover the first delivery is a person he knows to have been just interred. Where is Gray getting these bodies?

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Gray has some strange hold on Dr. MacFarlane. Gray calls him “Toddy” for reasons not explained. It’s apparent relations between the two are going south fast.

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We see Gray up to his grisly task. Out of dead bodies, he recruits from the living. There is a blind girl (Donna Lee) who sings in the streets. No more. Gray’s carriage follows her down a darkened street, and the singing stops in mid-chord. Fettes recognizes her corpse next on the dissecting table.

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Joseph (Lugosi) is Dr. MacFarlane’s man servant. He winkles out the facts about Gray’s grisly business and pays him a visit. Blackmail is on his mind, but not for long. Gray makes his move, and Joseph becomes the next cadaver. It’s the last scene Karloff and Lugosi ever played together.

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Next MacFarlane pays Gray a visit. He comes off better than Joseph did. It’s Gray’s turn to grace the dissection table. Off to rob a fresh grave, MacFarlane and Fettes take the late Mr. Gray’s carriage. Driving back down a treacherous country road they believe they hear the voice of Gray coming from the sack with the corpse. They see Gray’s corpse where they thought they had the body of a dead woman.

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The horse bolts, and the carriage, with MacFarlane and the body, plunges off the road. MacFarlane is killed, and a look at the body reveals only the dead woman. It’s the end of the story.

Stephen’s short story is worlds simpler. It starts with men gathered for their nightly round in a pub.

EVERY night in the year, four of us sat in the small parlour of the George at Debenham – the undertaker, and the landlord, and Fettes, and myself. Sometimes there would be more; but blow high, blow low, come rain or snow or frost, we four would be each planted in his own particular arm-chair. Fettes was an old drunken Scotchman, a man of education obviously, and a man of some property, since he lived in idleness. He had come to Debenham years ago, while still young, and by a mere continuance of living had grown to be an adopted townsman. His blue camlet cloak was a local antiquity, like the church-spire. His place in the parlour at the George, his absence from church, his old, crapulous, disreputable vices, were all things of course in Debenham. He had some vague Radical opinions and some fleeting infidelities, which he would now and again set forth and emphasise with tottering slaps upon the table. He drank rum – five glasses regularly every evening; and for the greater portion of his nightly visit to the George sat, with his glass in his right hand, in a state of melancholy alcoholic saturation. We called him the Doctor, for he was supposed to have some special knowledge of medicine, and had been known, upon a pinch, to set a fracture or reduce a dislocation; but beyond these slight particulars, we had no knowledge of his character and antecedents.

Stevenson, Robert Louis (2013-11-07). Robert Louis Stevenson: Complete Collection of 266 Works with analysis and historical background. Including Novels, Stories, Non-Fiction works, Poetry … and Illustrated) (Annotated Classics) (Kindle Locations 70682-70691). Annotated Classics. Kindle Edition.

This little soirée is interrupted by the announcement that a Dr. MacFarlane has come to treat a guest at the inn. Fettes confronts MacFarlane on his leaving, and the narrator later relates the story behind the confrontation.

There is no Mrs. Marsh and her daughter, who play a significant if uncritical role in the movie. There is no marriage to the housekeeper, and there is no Joseph the man servant. We learn that MacFarlane has murdered Gray when he delivers Gray’s body to Fettes in the dissecting room.

Together Fettes and MacFarlane set off on a grim night to rob another grave. An accident disposes of their lantern, and they complete the digging in the dark. They start back to town with the body in a bag between them. The body seems to be more than just the woman they dug up in the pitch black.  The story ends when the two discovered Gray’s body in the bag that was supposed to contain the deceased woman.

It’s all very simple and might be worth as much as an episode of The Twilight Zone. A lot of what writers Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton added is just fluff to make a full length (77 minutes) film.

Bad Movie of the Week

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This one is bad. The plot so stretches reality, it’s hard to watch the film without wondering a handful of times whatever the writers were thinking? Would that we could ask Dudley Nichols (screen play) and Garrett Fort (adaptation). It’s The Lost Patrol out of RKO in 1934 and directed by John Ford. It’s from Patrol by Philip MacDonald, who also brought us Forbidden Planet. I’m sorry I don’t have a copy of the book to go along with this review, but here’s an overview of the plot.

It starts out with a British patrol in 1917 (World War One) crossing the desert in Mesopotamia on horse back. That was the first thing that got me to wondering. We just spent more billions than I ever earned in a life time fighting a war in Mesopotamia, and I do not recall seeing scenery that looks like this in the news footage. Take that as a throw-away from the writers and get on with the story. Nothing is said while the leader of the patrol is shot off his horse by an unseen Arab sniper. And that’s the last we see of him in the whole movie (see above).

How would you like to get a movie role like that. “How big is my part, C.B.” “Just a few seconds.” “Where are my lines?” “You don’t have any lines.” “Then what am I supposed to do?” “You’re supposed to get shot.” “Get shot?” “Yeah, and fall off your horse.” “You want me to fall of my horse?” “Nah. We’re going to have a stunt man for that. We just want you to lie on the ground and flop your arm over as you die.” “And I’m going to get paid for that?” “You’re going to get lunch.” I didn’t see where he got any credits in the titles, either.

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Anyhow, this is how the movie gets its name. After they bury their unfortunate leader in the sand the patrol resumes its trek, with the sergeant (Victor McLaglen) in charge. The first thing the sergeant does as they ride off is to summon the corporal. He asks the corporal where they’re supposed to be going. The corporal doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Their officer had been keeping that information to himself, always promising to discuss it “tomorrow.” Nevertheless, off they ride, single file, to somewhere unknown. The lost patrol.

Right away I started seeing horrid flaws in the plot. The officer is shot off his horse among the sand dunes by a sniper. Unless the sniper then went on lunch break, he’s still around. Out there in the dunes. Yet the entire patrol takes time out for a burial service for the deceased officer, a set up classically known as “target practice.” We can only imagine the Arabs have gone off to evening prayers, because, despite excellent opportunities, there is no more sniping. No more, at least, until the patrol arrives safely at an oasis.

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That’s right. Rather than picking members of the patrol off one by one while they are out in the open, in the desert, among the dunes, the Arabs wait until they get to the safety of the oasis, where there are trees and even a stone structure for cover. Right now you are thinking as I am, how come the Arabs didn’t just wander over to the Oasis before the British patrol got there and pick off the soldiers as they came for the only water in 100 miles? The answer is there wouldn’t have been a movie otherwise, and the guy playing the deceased officer wouldn’t have gotten lunch.

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The remainder of the plot involves the remainder of the patrol, save one, getting picked off by Arab snipers. Now get this. The soldiers are in the safety of the Oasis, and the Arabs are stuck out in the desert without water. The soldiers can wait for weeks while the Arabs dessicate out among the dunes.

No, there needs to be a plot, so we see soldiers exposing themselves while lying in guard amongst the dunes or even climbing to the top of a tree for a better look. Even when a friendly British airplane spots them and lands, the Arabs pick off the pilot while the soldiers try to warn him of the danger.

Drama is added by Private Sanders, a religious fanatic played by Boris Karloff. Dark and brooding as any creation of Victor Frankenstein, Sanders eventually goes completely off the deep end. It keeps the story interesting.

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There is some late action when the Arabs figure they have the Brits whittled down sufficiently for a frontal attack. We see the sergeant finishing off the last remaining Arab with a Lewis gun salvaged from the airplane. Spoiler alert: Only the sergeant is left alive when the relief British patrol arrives. And we never find out what the patrol was about and where they were supposed to be going.

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Hey! There’s music by  Max Steiner. Not among his best. All he had to do was to evoke some Middle East themes, heavy on the wood winds.