Friday, December 2, 2016

Freaky, funky Christmas films!

(This essay originally ran in the Dec. 20, 2007 Standard-Examiner)

By Doug Gibson

Every December (or after Thanksgiving!)  the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "The Shop Around the Corner," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — I refer to the Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon — "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and, of course, that other Jimmy Stewart classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

We all have our favorite Christmas cinema moments. George Bailey's joyous run through Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge dancing for joy on Christmas morning, Macy's Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a World War II orphan girl, and my favorite, crusty but lovable Father Fitzgibbon's surprise reunion with his mother after decades apart.

There are great holiday films. Much has been written about them. But today let's spill some ink about the other Christmas films, the kitschy ones. They're all over the dial. Just turn on the Hallmark Channel!

Most aren't worth five minutes of our time, but some still spread holiday magic. We've all heard of "A Christmas Carol" or "Scrooge," but how many recall the Fonz — Henry Winkler — starring in "An American Christmas Carol"? There are two well-received versions of "Miracle on 34th Street," but do you recall the kitschy 1973 TV version in which the lawyer was played by actor-turned-newsman David Hartman?

Even the biggy, "It's a Wonderful Life," has a kitschy cousin. Remember "It Happened One Christmas," the gender-switching knockoff starring Marlo Thomas?

Indeed, the competition is fierce for those kitschiest Christmas movies that still entertain us. But here are three finalists, all made on the cheap, yet still being sold and garnering holiday TV showings.

So, without further adieu, here is the best kitschiest Christmas film:

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" — This 1964 film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, N.Y., using many minor cast members from a NYC stage production of "Oliver Twist." It has a catchy theme song, "Hurray for Santy (sic) Claus," that you'll hum afterward. The plot involves Martians coming to earth, kidnapping Santa and whisking him away to cheer up the Martian kiddies. Two earth children are kidnapped along with Santa. Santa and the earth kids fight off a Martian baddie, prep a goofy Martian to become that planet's Santa, and launch off to earth in the spaceship. We never know if they made it home — perhaps the budget didn't allow that. The acting has to be seen to be believed, but the film has a goofy charm. It was a big hit on the now-gone "weekend matinee" circuit and played theaters for years. Pia Zadora, who was briefly a sexy starlet in the 1980s, plays one of the Martian children. John Call, as Santa, does a mean "ho, ho, ho." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)

And now, the second-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician. Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it. Watch the original Mexican version below!

Finally, the third-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa and the Three Bears" — If you lived in Southern California long ago, this 1970 blend of live action and cartoon was a Thanksgiving afternoon staple on KTLA Channel 5. The animation is mediocre, but the story has a simple charm. A forest ranger teaches two excitable bear cubs about Christmas while their grouchy mother bear wants them to hibernate for the winter. The ranger agrees to play Santa for the cubs on Christmas Eve, but a storm keeps "Santa" away ... or does it? The best part of the film is the live-action beginning and ending, where the ranger sits by the Christmas tree with his grandaughter, a sleepy cat and many toys. The ranger is voiced and played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Grumpy Mama Bear was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma on "The Flintstones"). The uncredited director is Barry Mahon, who made soft-core sex films in the 1960s with such titles as "Nudes Inc." and "The Sex Killer."

A footnote: These films can occasionally be found on TV. Indeed, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and "Santa Claus" are usually broadcast a Friday in December on KULC Channel 9 in Utah at 9 p.m. Antenna TV plays "... Martians" during the Christmas season. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Sh! The Octopus - A Fun Lighthouse Mystery

By Steve D. Stones

This 1937 comedy-mystery feature produced by Warner Brothers is loosely based on a stage play known as The Gorilla, then later made as a 1930 talkie, and was then made into a comedy starring the Ritz brothers in 1939. In this version, an octopus is substituted for the gorilla role. The script has many miles on it from its various filmed versions. The film stars two great comedy veterans - Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins as bumbling police detectives. They provide great comic relief to the film.

A young artist named Paul Morgan, played by John Eldredge, purchases a secluded lighthouse so he can work in private on his marine paintings. Captain Cobb (Brandon Tynan) escorts Morgan into the lighthouse and tells him the place has not been occupied for over twenty years. Morgan finds evidence that this is not true. A soft, warm candle is on the table, indicating that someone has been there recently. A knock at the door reveals another local captain - Captain Hook, who is the only other person with keys to the lighthouse.

Meanwhile two police detectives, Kelly (Hugh Herbert ) and Dempsey (Allen Jenkins)  are traveling on the mainland by car in the pouring rain when a tire blows out. They stop to change the tire and are confronted by a screaming attractive woman named Vesta Vernoff (Marcia Ralston) soaked by the rain. Just before the tire blows out, a radio report in the car tells of an octopus sinking a ship. Vernoff tells of seeing her stepfather's corpse at the lighthouse and of an octopus that lives in the bottom of the lighthouse.

When Vernoff and detectives Kelly and Dempsey arrive at the lighthouse, a hanging corpse is discovered at the top of the lighthouse dripping blood on the table below. Kelly and Dempsey try to investigate, but discover that the stairs of the lighthouse have been removed. A secret panel opens in the wall, and the detectives find some stairs that lead to the hanging corpse. The corpse turns out to be a stuffed dummy with a bottle of ketchup dripping on the table below.

I won't spoil any more of the plot, but some of the fun elements of this film are of scenes of octopus tentacles reaching out from behind doors and a curtain. Somehow the octopus manages to get out of the water below the lighthouse and make it to the main level to reach out behind the doors and curtains to scare the main characters.

Another fun sequence shows a pair of Detective Kelly's shoes hopping around, which is later revealed to be toads inside the shoes. A turtle with a lighted candle on its back burns the seat of Kelly's pants as he is sitting in a chair. Kelly's scuba outfit fills up with water in another hilarious scene as Dempsey and Morgan try to deflate all the water out of the suit.

In March of 2008, Turner Classic Movies played this film on a double-feature with another octopus film - It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955). For further information about Sh! The Octopus, refer to Gary and Susan Svehla's entertaining book - Guilty Pleasures of The Horror Film, published by Midnight Marquee Press, Inc. in 1996.  Happy viewing.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Glove Slingers' Fresh as a Freshman -- a Columbia comedy short

By Doug Gibson

It's been several months since we posted a review of one of the lesser (read non-Three Stooges) Columbia comedy shorts, so let's continue this infrequent series with the 1941 short, "Fresh as a Freshman," (watch it above courtesy of The Columbia Shorts Department).

"Fresh as a Freshman" was part of The Glove Slingers series of comedy shorts. It followed the life of young boxer Terry Kelly, played by David Durand in this offering, but there were three Terrys in the series. As Ed Watz and Ted Okuda note in their book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, the Glove Slingers were a sequential series, rare for the Columbia shorts.

But this presented some problems with finding a theme for the series. Initially, Terry is a boxer, but then he goes off to college, with romance, songs and dance and the inevitable fistfight climax. "Fresh as a Freshman," directed by Jules White, is moderately entertaining but encompasses the series' failure to latch on to a regular theme. There's Terry, his ma, his buffoonish but warm-hearted manager and trainer duo, a girl (Pamela Blake) Terry gets a crush on, college life, an oafish former boyfriend, and another cute girl (Dona Drake) who does a singing act in the middle of the 18 minute short.

That's a lot of fish on the fire and the oafish slapstick of Terry's boxing world uneasily cohabits with the college life and fraternity dances.

The plot: Terry, on his way to school, takes a picture for ma. The previous failed picture of a beautiful coed meshes with Terry's dime slot picture. He falls in love with her and improbably meets her fixing her car. Even more improbably he mistakes this beautiful woman in mechanic's garb for a guy.

Anyway, they're a couple at college but the ex-boyfriend recruits the aforementioned singer to pretend to be Terry's paramour, thereby alienating his current girlfriend. Terry's ma and boxing team come up to college for a mixer and all is eventually resolved with Terry punching the oaf and kissing his girl.

I've omitted the constant slapstick, usually involving the trainer and manager or the ex-boyfriend. There's some racist humor early and Jules White's penchant for violent humor gets in. In an early scene, Terry kicks his newfound love in the butt when she loses a car part. He doesn't know it's her then but it's still cringe worthy.

I love the Columbia comedy shorts. Watch this just to learn a bit more about the comedy shorts that shared screen time with the Stooges. The Glove Slingers only lasted for 12 episodes and "Fresh as a Freshman" underscores why its time was limited. There were too many tools in the box for the Glove Slingers to maintain the interest necessary to have a long run.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

RIP Lupita Tovar -- The Spanish Dracula's Eva

Dracula (Spanish-language version), 1931, 104 minutes, Universal, black and white. In Spanish with subtitles. Directed by George Medford and Enrique Tovar Avalos. Starring Carlos Villarias as Conde Dracula, Lupita Tovar as Eva Seward, Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield, Barry Norton as Juan Harker, Carmen Guerrero as Lucia, Jose Soriano Vioscia as Dr. Seward and Eduardo Arozamena as Professor Van Helsing. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

(We note the death of the actress Lupita Tovar, who died Nov. 12 at the age of 106. She will always be iconic for her superb performance as Eva in the 1931 Universal Spanish "Dracula.") Universal's Spanish-language version of Bram Stoker's tale was shot at the same time the Bela Lugosi classic was filmed. The same sets, props and backdrops were utilized. As the story goes, the Spanish-language version was shot late at night, after other Dracula director Tod Browning's cast and crew shot during the day. This version was out of circulation in the United States for decades before being rediscovered. The film is wonderful, and only the talent of Bela Lugosi prevents it from rating as high as the "conventional" Dracula. In fact, in many ways, this longer, more gothic, version is an improvement on director Browning's too often stagey version. However, star Lupita Tovar, very sexy in the film, is still with us and just celebrated her 102nd birthday!

The Spanish-version Dracula is a very sensual movie. However, unlike Lugosi -- who is the sexual creature in Browning's film -- it's the women in the Spanish-language Dracula who radiate sexuality. Unlike the buttoned-up, Victorian-like Helen Chandler's Mina Seward in Browning's version, Lupita Tovar's Eva Seward (the same character) is a sexual creature whose erotic awakening is brought on by Conde Dracula (Villarias). She's shy and virginal at first, but, late in the film, in a low-cut nightgown which shows a surprising amount of cleavage for a 1931 film, she rises from her bed under Dracula's spell, eager to meet the night. Carmen Guerrero, as Dracula victim Lucia, is also sexier than her counterpart in Browning's version.

Also, the Spanish-speaking version of Dracula is much longer than Browning's version. Sometimes this hurts -- occasionally the film will lag as scenes go on to long -- but mostly it's an improvement. Characters like the mad Renfield, Eva Seward and Professor Van Helsing are more developed, and viewers will care more about their fate. Also, there are wonderfully spooky scenes that are missing in Browning's version. They include: Dracula walking through a spider's web without disturbing it; Renfield's horror at watching Dracula commanding a door to open; the terror of sailors battling a storm who see Dracula on their ship; shots of rats and bugs as Dracula's had reaches out of his coffin; and Renfield repeatedly assuring Dracula that no one knows of his trip to his castle in Transylvania. There is a wonderful scene -- not in the Browning film -- where Renfield, politely relating the history of his life to Van Helsing, calmly stops to catch a fly. Also, Renfield's death at the hands of Dracula is captured in a more brutal shot than in Browning's film. Finally, Tovar's Eva Seward is much more aware of her fate and the possessive spell Dracula has over her. In a memorable scene, she begs Professor Van Helsing to kill her after Dracula is finished with her.

The weakest link is Barry Norton's Juan Harker. He's as mediocre as David Manners in the Lugosi film. Villarias as Conde Dracula does a good job, but he pales in comparison to Lugosi. But in fairness, who can compete with Lugosi? Lugosi is sinister and charming. Villarias is forbidding and creepy. Also, Villarias will occasionally mug too much for the camera, a problem that Renfield's Rubio (who also does a good job overall) has as well. Rubio's madness is a bit more forced that Dwight Frye's Renfield. Instead of Frye's calculating, horror-filled mad chuckles, Rubio periodically breaks into hysterical screaming, which is annoying. Arozamena's Van Helsing is good, but also fails to rise to the level of Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing in the Browning film. His delivery is a little too forced, and his character lacks the subtle wit that Van Helsing utilized while verbally sparring with Dracula. Vioscia is adequate as Dr. Seward.

However, if you're a Dracula fan, you'll love this film. It's a must for any cult film collector and today can be easily found (Amazon sells it online). As mentioned, the story is richer (viewers of this film now know what Browning cut from his Dracula) and Villarias, while no Lugosi, is still better than 90 percent of the rest of the Draculas of filmdom. Also, the "I never drink ..... wine" line is as great in Spanish as it is in English. Co-director Medford was a veteran of many silent films.