Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

A hypnotic murder mystery

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was so popular, a second Meet film was created for them. Originally, Meet the Killer was entitled Easy Does It and intended for Bob Hope, but Universal bought the rights and reworked it. A&C’s prior two films, Mexican Hayride and Africa Screams, weren’t exactly their strongest work, and they needed another hit.

Boris Karloff’s character was initially a woman named Madame Switzer, and the film was called Meet the Killers. Five days before shooting began, Karloff was hired, and the character became a swami.

In New Zealand and Australia, censors removed every scene with a corpse. Denmark banned the film because of a scene where corpses play cards.

Meet the Killer was filmed from 10 February–26 March 1949 and released on 22 August 1949. Sadly, Lou was stricken by a relapse of rheumatic fever after filming wrapped and bedridden for several months. That November, he had to have an operation on his gangrenous gallbladder. Because of his illness, the next A&C film didn’t begin production till 28 April 1950.

Freddie Phillips (Lou) and Casey Edwards (Bud), a bellboy and detective, respectively, at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel, are swept up in a lot of trouble when famous, short-tempered criminal lawyer Amos Strickland checks in. Shortly after he has Freddie fired for his hilarious incompetence, Freddie goes to his hotel room to apologise.

Freddie doesn’t realise Strickland is a corpse, nor does he see a mysterious hand in a black glove reaching under the curtains. When it finally gets through to him, Freddie races to the lobby in terror.

Suspicion is cast on Freddie when guest Mike Relia reports someone broke into his room and stole his gun. Bellboys have keys to all the rooms, and he also yelled at Strickland and was fired shortly before the murder.

The missing gun turns up in Freddie’s room, which makes him look even worse. Casey believes his innocence, and goes with him to Relia’s room to return the gun. While in the room, they discover a damning telegram.

Freddie opens the door to check if the coast is clear while Casey plants the gun in a suit pocket, and up comes a swami who hynotises Freddie.

Inspector Wellman (James Flavin) and Sgt. Stone (Mikel Conrad) order Freddie kept in custody as a guest of the state in his hotel room until his name is cleared. This is hardly a punishment, as Freddie lives it up with room service and beautiful female employees giving him beauty treatments.

Freddie’s luck becomes even worse when his date Angela compels him to write and sign a confession, pretending the real killer will confess when he sees it.

Casey sends Relia’s fingerprints to HQ and reports he has a criminal history, with Strickland serving as his lawyer. The investigators don’t think this is damning evidence, since his criminal past is common knowledge and ancient history, and six of Strickland’s other past clients are also at the hotel and received the same telegram.

Angela falls under suspicion too when she’s accused of mixing a poisonous champagne cocktail.

The swami creeps into Freddie’s room that night and hypnotises him again. His orders entice Freddie into putting a noose around his neck, but Freddie is cowardly even under hypnosis, and falls backwards instead of jumping.

Not deterred, the swami asks Freddie to kill himself with a gun. This also fails, and the swami asks how he’d prefer to die. Freddie wisely answers “Old age.”

The swami asks him to jump out of a window next, but Freddie jumps backwards into the room. All these refusals make the swami angry, and he goes after Freddie with a knife, ordering him to plunge it into his heart.

Freddie still refuses to kill himself.

The swami thinks he’s finally found success when he asks Freddie if he’d plunge the knife into the heart of the man in the mirror, and Freddie says yes. Things don’t go as planned when Freddie tries to stab the swami, believing that was the man in the mirror.

Casey comes to the rescue after the swami scrams.

And then the bodies start turning up in Freddie’s closet. Even more damning, he comes into possession of a bloody handkerchief.

Several attempts are made on Freddie’s life, culminating in a mysterious voice ordering him to bring the handkerchief to the Lost Cavern.

Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

A monstrous quintet

Premièring in NYC on 15 December 1944 and in L.A. on 22 December, with a general release on 16 February 1945, The House of Frankenstein was the first multi-monster movie. Prior, only two monsters had appeared together. In early drafts, even more Universal monsters were featured—the Invisible Man, the Ape Woman, the Mummy, the Mad Ghoul. Working titles included The Devil’s Brood and Chamber of Horrors.

This film marked the début of Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster. His predecessor, Boris Karloff, is said to have coached him on how to play the role. Karloff’s appearance was to be his last in Universal’s classic horror cycle.

A mad scientist, Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff), was thrown in prison for robbing graveyards in his quest to replicate Dr. Frankenstein’s work in bringing the dead back to life. His hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) is very eager for this project to take place, since he feels it’ll cure his deformity.

After their break from prison during a lightning storm, they run across the travelling Prof. Lampini (George Zucco) and help to push his circus wagons out of the mud. To repay the favor, Lampini invites them into one of the wagons.

This isn’t exactly the beginning of a beautiful friendship, since Dr. Niemann and Daniel murder Lampini and take over his horror show.

Who should attend the next show but Bürgermeister Hussman (Sig Ruman), the reason Dr. Niemann was thrown in prison! As part of his quest for revenge, Dr. Niemann brings Count Dracula’s skeleton to life and convinces him to do exactly as he’s told.

While Hussman is walking home with his grandson Karl and his new bride Rita (Anne Gwynne), Dracula (John Carradine) pulls up alongside them and offers a ride. The Hussmans also agree to have a drink with him.

It doesn’t take long for Dracula to bring Rita under his spell with a hypnotic ring. That mission accomplished, Dracula assumes his bat form late at night and kills Hussman. It’s too late by the time Karl discovers their guest’s true identity and rushes to his grandfather.

Things go from bad to worse when Rita disappears while Karl is phoning for help. He races after Dracula’s departing carriage, but to not avail. Karl alerts a team of police on horseback, whom he gives chase with.

Rita is recovered after a road accident caused by Daniel throwing Dracula’s coffin into the path of the pursuers. Dracula himself is killed by the sunlight.

Dr. Niemann’s next stop is Castle Frankenstein, which is now in ruins. He and Daniel are ordered by cops to scram, since travelling shows like theirs aren’t allowed.

More trouble immediately follows when Daniel comes to the rescue of a young Romany girl, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), being whipped and turns the whip on the attacker. Daniel begs Dr. Niemann to take in the injured girl till she recovers. Since the cops also ordered the Romany out, she’s left without any familiar faces.

Ilonka is initially alarmed when she discovers Daniel’s a hunchback, but quickly becomes friendly and accepting again. Daniel’s been kind to her, so it doesn’t matter what he looks like.

While Dr. Niemann and Daniel are prowling around the ruined castle in the middle of the night, Daniel falls through the floor and into a cave. Explorations reveal the frozen bodies of the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), preserved inside ice blocks.

Daniel and Dr. Niemann light a fire to unthaw the bodies. First to be freed is the Wolfman, Larry Talbot, who demands to know why he’s being tortured like this. He can’t bear living with the curse of transforming into a wolf at every full moon.

Dr. Niemann promises to free him from the curse if he helps with reanimating the Monster. This promise is short-lived, since despite Larry and Daniel’s begging, Dr. Niemann refuses to work on anything but reviving the Monster and getting revenge on two other people.

Meanwhile, Larry becomes the Wolfman at the next full moon and kills someone. Daniel tries to tell Ilonka about Larry’s true identity, but she’s too in love with Larry to believe it. She screams at Daniel that she hates him and that he’s ugly, and runs away. Awash in anguish and unrequited love, Daniel begins whipping the Monster’s body.

The locals form a search party to find the werewolf after the body of the Wolfman’s latest victim is discovered. During the search, Larry tells Ilonka the truth about himself, and says Dr. Niemann won’t help him.

Larry confronts Dr. Niemann again while the Monster is being reanimated, and once again is rebuffed.

Everything comes to a head at once when Larry transmogrifies into the Wolfman again, the angry villagers converge on Dr. Niemann’s house, and the Monster is reanimated.

Posted in 1940s, Historical fiction, Imre, Writing

WeWriWa—Trepidation in a train

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. I’m now sharing from Chapter 45, “Imre’s Revenge,” of my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, and ends the chapter.

After a violent fight with a former gendarme, Imre Goldmark is being smuggled out of Budapest and into Italy to join his girlfriend Csilla and their friends. Imre is afraid he killed the gendarme, and his mother doesn’t want to take any chances. Imre’s sister Júlia decided to leave Hungary too.

They’re now safe inside a cattlewagon of a train under the protection of the Brihah. Imre has just told Júlia he thinks he loves Csilla, and that he wouldn’t have killed a man for any of his prior girlfriends.

Budapest’s Nyugati Station in 1936
Copyright FOTO:FORTEPAN/Lőrincze Judit

“Are you really sure you killed him? Maybe he just passed out or was badly injured.”

“There was no pulse or breath.” Imre fell silent at the sound of footsteps pacing around outside.

Throughout the night, various voices drifted through the air. Some of them were Russian soldiers, but others were Hungarians. Every so often, they heard voices in a third, unfamiliar language, which they hoped was Hebrew being spoken by Brihah agents guarding the train. It was difficult to fall asleep with only straw for a bed and no blankets, but eventually both Imre and Júlia’s exhaustion got the better of them, and they were sound asleep by the time the train pulled out of the station and began making its way towards the birthplace of Dante, Boccaccio, and the Renaissance.

Posted in 1940s, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Plunged into darkness

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. I’m now sharing from Chapter 45, “Imre’s Revenge,” of my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s.

After a violent fight with a former gendarme, Imre Goldmark is being smuggled out of Budapest and into Italy to join his girlfriend Csilla and their friends. Imre is afraid he killed the gendarme, and his mother doesn’t want to take any chance. Imre’s sister Júlia decided to leave Hungary too.

They’ve just climbed into a cattlewagon of an unguarded train with assistance from their smuggler.

Copyright zenobia_joy

They were plunged into darkness after the door slid shut and the locking mechanism closed. Júlia eased herself onto the straw on the floor, and Imre followed her lead after removing the heavy sack.

“So this is how Csicsi travelled,” he whispered. “Now I know a little bit how she felt. If this feels degrading, I can only imagine how much worse it must’ve been to be packed in with eighty other people in the heat of summer, and with a hostile gendarme hanging onto the outside of the car.”

“You really like her, don’t you?”

“I think I love her. She’s not the type of woman I would’ve considered myself interested in, but we seem well-matched so far. I wouldn’t have killed a man for any of my other ladies.”

Posted in 1940s, Movies

White Heat at 70, Part II (Behind the scenes)

White Heat was originally based on the life of Kate “Ma” Barker, the ruthless matriarch of the Barker-Karpis gang (active 1931–35). Four members of the gang were her sons Herman, Lloyd, Arthur (“Doc”), and Fred), who began committing crimes as early as 1910. At its height, the gang had 25 members. Most of their crimes were bank robberies, though they also engaged in kidnappings.

Warner Bros. bought the rights to the story from writer Virginia Kellogg for $2,000, and Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff set to work turning it into a screenplay. Director Raoul Walsh was horrified by the finished product, which took six months to complete, and pleaded with William Cagney to talk his brother out of doing it. William was his business manager and produced several of his films.

William assured him “Jimmy [would] rewrite it as much as possible.” After many rewrites and input from multiple parties, the film only had the barest of similarities to its real-life inspiration.

Filming commenced 6 May 1949 and lasted six weeks, till 20 June. Locations included the (now razed) San Val Drive-In in Burbank, the Columbia (now Warner) Ranch, the Santa Susana Mountains, an old tunnel of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Van Nuys.

Jack Warner wanted the famous scene of Cody going nuts in the prison mess hall to take place in a chapel, feeling the “cost of a single scene with 600 extras and only one line of dialogue would be exorbitant.” He relented when the writers pointed out Cody would never voluntarily enter a house of worship, and that the point of the scene is to have lots of noise transmogrifying into silence when Cody screams.

That scene of Cody’s total breakdown was improvised, and the looks of shock on the other actors’ faces were real. No one either behind or in front of the camera knew what was going to happen.

The cost of that scene wasn’t Jack Warner’s only headache regarding this film. He was pissed Cagney had returned to his studio in mid-1949, after leaving in 1942 to form his own company with brother William. Though Cagney never forgot how badly he was treated by Jack Warner during his contract renewal in the 1930s, he needed money badly. The four films he made on his own weren’t financially successful.

For his part, Warner called his prodigal star “that little bastard” and swore he’d never take him back. He was very displeased when Cagney was suggested for the lead of this new picture by the screenwriters, but they were positive no one else could play that role as it needed to be.

Cagney’s new contract gave him $250,000 per film, one each year, in addition to script approval and the chance to develop projects for his own company. Though he’d resisted returning to gangster roles for years, afraid of being typecast, he compromised for the sake of his waning box office draw.

Once he signed on to star in White Heat, the budget was upped to one million, and Raoul Walsh was brought on as director. Cagney had asked for Frank McHugh, but Jack Warner rejected him to save money.

The film earned $2,189,000 in the U.S. ($23,598,063 today) and $1,294,000 internationally ($13,949,700 today). Critics by and large loved it, a reputation which continues to this day. White Heat routinely features on those incessant best-of lists.

In 1950, Virginia Kellogg was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Story, and Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff were nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture. In 2003, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry.

White Heat has been referenced countless times in other films, music videos, cartoons, and songs over the years, most notably Cody’s famous final line (which isn’t the film’s final line).