Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Street Corner - Premarital Sex Gone Wrong

By Steve D. Stones

The title of this 1948 exploitation classic is a bit misleading. The title itself and the artwork on the DVD cover of a girl leaning against a street corner pole leads the viewer to believe that it is a film about female prostitution.  It's really more of a morality tale mixed with sex education clips.

Kroger Babb produced a film in 1945 - Mom and Dad, which showed a graphic depiction of child birth on the screen. Street Corner was made just a few years after Mom and Dad, and may have tried to top Babb's film by showing several child birth sequences, including a caesarean birth sequence that is not for the squeamish or those with a weak stomach.  This sequence was difficult for me to sit through. It makes the viewer sympathize with what a woman goes through to give birth, which is likely the point of the sequence.

Teenager Lois March and her boyfriend Bob Mason are two naive lovers who want to get married on prom night. Mason is leaving for college soon, and the two decide to put off marriage for a short while. Mason feels it is important to at least start college before diving into marriage.

While in a local diner, Lois hears on the radio that Bob has been killed in a car accident. Knowing that she is pregnant with Bob's child, she becomes ashamed and hopeless after his death. She decides to visit an abortion clinic to terminate the life of the child. She feels she cannot face her family and friends with the news that she is pregnant out of wedlock.

Street Corner ends with a very lurid sex education segment hosted by a medical doctor, played by Joseph Crehan. Here the viewer is subjected to a series of films showing natural child birth. The most graphic of the films included shows a C-section (caesarean) procedure that is difficult to sit through. It would likely only appeal to medical students, and not viewers of 1940s exploitation films. Other sequences show close up views of a vagina and penis with syphilis and gonorrhea.

The DVD of Street Corner put out by Video also includes a short 1943 film - Easy To Get. This is another sex education film, but aimed at servicemen in the military. This is a venereal disease prevention film that warns servicemen of the dangers of picking up women at clubs, bars, restaurants and dance halls. The film also includes graphic close up shots of the penis in various stages of gonorhea. The narrator also emphasizes the importance of using a condom.

Watch a clip from Street Corner here. Happy viewing!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films: A review

Review by Doug Gibson

"The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films: 1931 to 1936," by Jon Towlson, McFarland ( (800-253-2187), has a provocative thesis. Towlson differs with other scholars that early sound horror films were tamer than the so-called torture porn today. I was skeptical of that claim. I abhor garbage such as the "Saw" and "Hostel" films; conversely, I love the early- to mid-1930s cycle of horrors. However, I must confess that Towlson makes a pretty good case.

While we watch these old movies, with nary a cuss word and the obligatory "good" ending, often with a heterosexual couple embracing, it's easy to forgot what we've seen on the screen is pretty darn gruesome and sadistic. An iconic reminder of such can be glanced above at the book's cover, with Bela Lugosi, as Dr. Mirakle, torturing to death the prostitute played by Arlene Francis in "Murders In the Rue Morgue." She's on a cross, looking a lot like a female Christ.

But work the brain to think of the other classic oldies. The "Frankenstein" monster tossing a child to drown. "Dracula" killing a young flower girl. "Dr. X"'s face melting. The deranged doctor in "Mad Love" played by Peter Lorre seems to achieve orgasm as he watches a faux torture scene in the Grand Guignol. Or a mad wax sculpture artist in "Mystery of the Wax Museum," with tender voice, leading a young lovely to have hot wax poured on her. Or the nymphomaniac daughter and sadistic father in "The Mask of Fu Manchu." Or the "Freaks" turning Cleopatra into a bird. Or implied necrophilia and overt Satanism ("The Black Cat"). Or finally, the scene that sticks with me: the unlucky admirer of a sadist's wife who gets his lips sown together because he kissed the said sadist's wife; such occurs in"Murders In the Zoo." And what about the implicit bestiality in "Island of Lost Souls?"

These are grisly images, and just because they are not as explicit as what we see today doesn't lessen their shock value. It may even enhance it, as Towlson explains, with the use of shadows, sound, symbols, and the force of these things, which can play on the viewers' imagination. As the author notes, many of these films were either locked away for decades or played in heavily censored .versions until only a generation ago.

"Five reels of transgression followed by one reel of retribution" is a quote from the Nation magazine. It's the title of the longest chapter, the one that provides overviews of the films discussed. That phrase probably captures the heart of the book. Towlson claims that having a happy ending, or a side plot with goofy guests or wisecrack reporters, allowed the early horror filmmakers to get a lot of the horror, with sadism and shocks into the films. Is there a 1930's horror film from a major company without a "good" ending? Even "Freaks" has a tacked-on scene with a guilty Hans being consoled after the shocking scene of Cleopatra post-torture.

The book details the many battles, and concessions made with censors, to get the films completed and into theaters. There's a lot of tantalizing what ifs. What if "The Bride of Frankenstein," a superb film, had followed its earlier "Return of Frankenstein" plot where the monster kills his creator and his wife, but still, a character with pathos, draws to his knees imploring a kind word from God. At that point, a bolt of lightning kills the monster. That's a pretty cool ending; I'm sure James Whale would have loved it.

Or what of "Dracula's Daughter," still a fine film -- with pretty overt lesbianism that the prudish censors missed -- which was intended to have a prologue with Dracula and friends both ravishing and consuming captive young women. In fact, screenwriter John Balderston, Towlson tells us, was urging that the film push the boundaries of horror to more shocking levels. Alas, "Dracula's Daughter" was filmed in that mid-30s when the censors were putting more muscle on the horror filmmakers. It's one of the last of the pre-code horrors.

If you don't believe that the earlier films pushed more buttons than the later ones through the 40s, take the test. Watch "Dr. X" and then watch "The Return of Dr. X"; watch the Frederic March "Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde," with an erotic scene between the good doctor and a prostitute (Miriam Hopkins) and watch later adaptations. Watch "Dracula" and compare it to "Son of Dracula." Or "Bride of Frankenstein" and then "Son of Frankenstein." Although still-excellent films, much of the sadism, the lust, the sheer enjoyment of wallowing in wickedness was taken away after 1936.

Towlson devotes chapters to how the filmmakers managed to get around the censors -- it was always a chess game -- with the cheesy endings of love and kisses. MGM in particular would have wisecracking reporters suddenly announce marriage at the end. Universal would have cast members in films such as "The Raven" and "The Black Cat" make wisecracks very soon after experiencing, and surviving, intense horror. Towlson surmises that the these were subtle protests of the directors who wanted to make their "happy endings" as unrealistic as possible. Maybe, but I think that during the Great Depression, weary movie-goers wanted scares that came with happy endings. Real life wasn't ending so well.

Another chapter deals with the film censors, the Breen people, finally asserting their will and "cleaning" the movies up." As Towlson notes, this had an effect on new movies such as "The Walking Dead," "Devil Doll" and the aforementioned "Dracula's Daughter." It also helped bring in the horror ban that lasted a few years until the industry realized the public wanted more monsters, even if they were a little sanitized.

Towlson's book is a brainy one and it may take some careful reading. There's a section on how these films' critics of a couple of generations ago clash with more modern scholarship, and so on. But it's a rewarding read because it brings us to the table of the filmmakers, what they wanted to create, how far they wanted to go and were able to go. We're witnesses to the negotiations with the movie industry and state censors. I was surprised to learn that in the early 1930s, the film studios were often helped by industry censors who argued their cases with more restrictive state censors.

And, this is very important, watch the movies that are described in this book. It will make the viewing a more rewarding experience.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Unknown highlights Lon Chaney's intensity

By Doug Gibson

When I watch Tod Browning's 1927 silent masterpiece "The Unknown," and I've seen the film many times, for 50 minutes time ceases to exist. I'm lost in a film that is simply Lon Chaney's greatest performance, and yes that includes "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." "The Unknown" is the most intense performance Chaney had, and 90 percent of the effectiveness is in his facial expressions.

The film involves a small circus troupe, owned by a gypsy entrepreneur. Alonzo the Armless (Chaney) is the star attraction, a man without arms who can do amazing stunts, such as throw knives around the pretty torso of the circus owner's daughter, Nanon, played by a very young, barely clothed, and very gorgeous Joan Crawford. Another star performer is circus strongman, Malabar, played by Norman Kerry. Malabar loves Nanon, but she shrinks from him, telling Alonzo that she hates to have men's hands pawing her.

Alonzo is assisted by a little person, Cojo (John George). Cojo helps Alonzo conceal a secret -- that he really has arms. In fact, he has a hand with two thumbs. Alonzo, it's learned, is on the run the police, who are looking for a suspect with arms. All this is interesting but ultimately it is supporting material to the film's theme, which is Alonzo's desire to posses Nanon and gain her love. I hesitate to say that Alonzo is in love with Nanon. He equates love with possession, and ownership. Chaney's facial expressions when Alonzo is near Nanon are movie legend, combinations of pride, desire, lust, deformed love, coveting, desperation.

In the guise of being a friend, Chaney encourages Malabar to try to embrace and kiss Nanon, fully knowing that will repel the object of his desire. When Malabar is near, Alonzo's face often changes into a furious loathing individual, with envy, jealously and hate making his visage truly terrifying. One senses easily what a dangerous man Chaney's Alonzo really is when disturbed. Indeed, after being humiliated by Nanon's father, circus owner Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Rita) Alonzo swiftly finds him alone and kills him.

It's evident that if his possessive longing for Nanon -- one that Alonzo can only hide with great effort -- is not requited soon, mortal trouble may emerge soon. This leads Alonzo to engage in a macabre, desperate act that he hopes will win Nanon's love. When his ploy backfires, the minute or so where Chaney's countenance changes from hope, ecstasy, confusion, despair, anger and finally rage disguised as maniacal laughter is perhaps the strongest in silent films, and perhaps all films. The late Burt Lancaster cited the scene as the most compelling he ever witnessed in film. Alonzo's ensuing desperation leads to a climax that threatens Nanon, Malabar and himself.

Adding to the eccentricity and creepiness of this movie is its accurate descriptions of life in a small-town circus, a job that a younger Browning once had. Chaney was, as always, a perfectionist, and with Browning's direction gets excellent acting performances from Crawford, Kerry, and others. Although it looks on the screen as if Cheney is actually performing stunts, and everyday activities, with his feet, Browning used a an armless double, Paul Desmuke, to manipulate the toes. For a long time "The Unknown" was virtually a lost film, until a print was located in 1968 in Paris. The 50-minute version is missing a few unimportant scenes. The shorter version actually improves the film, making it leaner and more focused. Chaney's obsessive, jealous desire for Nanon is more focused, with fewer interruptions.

This film is shown several times a year on TCM, and is on in a few hours after this post, on Oct. 8, 2016, at 6:30 a.m. EST -- don't miss it the next time it airs. It's also on DVD and YouTube, with part one above. The film was released by MGM. Versions seen today have a suitable creepy, semi-synthetic score. Watch the trailer below!

Friday, September 30, 2016

An interview with In Search of Lost Films author Phil Hall

Interview by Doug Gibson

Recently, we reviewed Phil Hall's fascinating new book from BearManor Media, "In Search of Lost Films." You can read our review here. Phil's book provides us all hope that our fondest and most-hoped-for lost films may surface, whether in dusty foreign archives, the end shelf of a private collection, or even at a yard sale.

Today, he answers several questions related to his work, providing readers more insight into the search for lost films. You can buy Phil's book here and here. On with the interview!
            If someone with unlimited resources was looking for a typical lost film of the 20s or early 30s, one that was fairly widely distributed, where are the best locations to search

             Hall: If we are talking about American films, the best places would be foreign archives. A lopsided majority of recovered American films turned up in Europe and many have emerged in Australia, most likely because the distributors for those films didn’t bother to recover the prints from their overseas releases. If you are talking about Asian films, the same answer would apply: Indian and Chinese films that disappeared in their respective countries have turned up in archives and collections with a significant Asian expatriate population.

1    Why was silent film so disregarded by film companies so quickly? Did sound film make it seem obsolete quickly?

           Hall: The popularity of sound films was fast and furious, catching many film companies off-guard. Indeed, “The Jazz Singer” and the early talkies were initially seen as novelties by the Hollywood studios and many film critics. But audiences were the ones that ultimately decided what they wanted to see and once dialogue and synchronized music was incorporated into films there was no turning back.

          In retrospect, this was curious because so many early talkies were not very good, while many silent films from the 1927-1929 period represented the apex of screen art. But obsolescence did not occur over immediately: many small town U.S. cinemas were not able to afford a rewiring for sound until the early 1930s, so there were still venues for silent movies. Silent production continued in Russia, Japan, China and other nations well into the mid-1930s, while many independent and avant-garde U.S. productions remained silent well into the 1940s

Why were motion picture companies so lax for so many decades at preserving their products? I refer mainly to allowing nitrate film to store inefficiently and corrupt, and allowing these old films’ prints to be stored in the same location?

Hall: Because they never saw films as anything more than a disposable commodity. Prior to the advent of television, once a film ran its course in release there was no place for it to go, unless it was a mega-hit that could be re-released every few years. Plus, storage was expensive (especially off-site in warehouses). Unfortunately, the film companies lacked contemporary prescience in realizing the cultural, historic and commercial value of the older films.

1    In your opinion, what are five “lost” films that you think are likely to be found?

Hall: That’s hard to say, because films that were considered to be irretrievably lost, such as Orson Welles’ footage for “Too Much Johnson,” have miraculously turned up in the least likely places. I would like to imagine that Welles’ footage for his unfinished “Moby Dick Rehearsed” is still out there (it was last seen in the late 1960s), and I would hope that the Kubrick preserved the deleted pie fight climax from “Dr. Strangelove.” Otherwise, I would wager that three long-lost silent comedies – Harry Langdon’s “Heart Trouble,” Laurel and Hardy’s “Hats Off” and the first Marx Brothers film “Humor Risk” are resting in the dusty corner of a private collection or a foreign archive.

1    Why is so much excess footage, edited out of features, not preserved? I refer to "The Wizard of Oz," "Greed," "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman," etc. It amazes me that a director like Stroheim would not have saved his first cut of "Greed," for example.
                Hall: There was no perceived commercial value for deleted sequences – the whole notion of including deleted sequences as part of a film’s release only occurred when home video came into the forefront. Plus, as stated earlier, storage of film is expensive, and storage of footage that was cut from a release was not considered practical. With “Greed,” von Stroheim had no control of the footage that he shot – that was an MGM production, and he actually reneged on his original contract by going far over the original budget. I am surprised the film was ever completed, let alone released. 

1    There are a lot of grindhouse films that are lost, particularly Andy Milligan films. Where’s the best places to look to discover these non-nitrate lost films.

             Hall: Those are most likely in private American collections – very few theatrical prints were made from those releases, and the lucky people that snagged the prints after their releases were over probably put them away and forgot about them.

      What are three key things you learned from researching this book?

            Hall: First, I have the most patient publisher on Earth: the book was delivered a year late because of the extraordinary level of research and fact-checking required. Second, I never truly realized the depth and scope of lost films until I started doing research on the subject. And, third, many people are unaware that so many films are lost, and I honored to be able to introduce them to this issue.

1    Finally, what advice do you give to the average person on find a location to stumble across a lost film? Where should they?

     Hall: Lost films have  turned up in the strangest places – garbage bins, garden sheds, basements, and even in archives and museums under the wrong label. If you are in the U.S. and find a rare print, get in touch with a reputable archive, such as the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art or the George Eastman House, to ensure that the film is properly stored and can receive the appropriate restorative care.

       Although you mention in the book that the Medved brothers wrote about the gay porn film, "Him," why do you think they did?

     Hall“Him” was included in “The Golden Turkey Awards” in the chapter on bad porn concepts. I don’t know if the Medveds actually saw “Him” or read about it from a trade journal review. I assume they didn’t see the film – I can’t imagine Michael Medved in a gay porn venue. When the book came out in 1979, the film was not considered lost. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that people started to realize that no print of “Him” was in circulation or available from any adult film sources, and it was only then that it was declared a lost film. Of course, had it not been for the Medveds, we would never have known it existed in the first place.

    Thanks very much for your time, Phil.