Sunday, March 28, 2010

Going up, going down, going west, going nowhere: The rest of Monogram

Of the many sources I've consulted and cribbed from during this series of articles on Monogram, by far the most useful has been Ted Okuda's invaluable Monogram Checklist.
This eccentric labour of love - and it's exactly what it seems from the title: one long, book-length list of every film they made - seems to capture exactly my feelings about the studio. He clearly considers them important and cherishable enough to make the devotion of preparing a book-length list of their productions worthwhile, useful and somehow necessary in the face of so much general disinterest, but at the same time sees no contradiction between the rightness of the effort involved and the equal rightness of welcoming the reader to the finished work with a 'historical overview' that begins:

If mentioned at all by film historians, the Monogram product is usually dismissed in a cursory manner - which is understandable, since most of their output was cheap, vulgar, inept and ultimately forgettable.

Okuda's meticulousness and the democratic lack of over-emphasis on any particular star, strand or genre results in a very different angle on the studio to the one with I was most familiar.
For instance, am I correct in thinking that almost anyone who is asked what kind of films the studio made would think of Lugosi first, the East Side Kids second, perhaps Charlie Chan third, and then everything else, all lumped together, coming in a hazy and distant fourth? That's certainly how the books I tend to read play it. But the horror movies we consider so central to the studio's ethos were only a tiny percentage of their total output; they actually made fewer films in the horror genre than in practically any other to which they turned their collective hand.
The overwhelming majority of their films, it would appear from a browse of Okuda, were westerns. I'd say for every horror, or even sub-horror spooky mystery, there must be two dozen oaters. Maybe more.

So perhaps western buffs have their 'own' Monogram, running parallel to the horror buff's Monogram; perhaps 'Monogram' means 'a cheap western studio' to just as many dedicated movie fans as those to whom it means 'a cheap horror studio'. If so, it would certainly be with better cause.
I asked The Tainted Archive's Gary Dobbs, the fastest draw in Wales, about this. He confirmed that "when western fans usually talk about Monogram it is as part of Poverty Row, and they are lumped in with other such studios who churned out cheap, action packed, adventures sometimes in as little as ten days."
But Gary also reminded me that, as well as that parade of B-western stars like Bob Steele, Tex Ritter, Buck Jones, Ray 'Crash' Corrigan (sans ape suit) and Tom Keene (riding the valley between the twin peaks of King Vidor's Our Daily Bread and Ed Wood's Plan 9), the studio played host on no fewer than 16 occasions to John Wayne.
He also pointed out that many of the titles - through the sheer accident of Wayne's continued viability as a star draw - remain widely available on DVD in bargain editions. Any low cost 'John Wayne collection' is likely to include a liberal smattering of his Monograms, just as is the case in the many comparable Lugosi collections available. So there's good cause indeed for associating Monogram with Wayne at least as much as Lugosi.
Of course, Wayne was no more a big star than Lugosi in the periods they worked for the studio. But the big difference was that Wayne's glory years were ahead of him, Lugosi's behind. A widely-recognisable name at Monogram is invariably on the way up or on the way down, though in truth Wayne wasn't really going anywhere all this time: I'm sure he saw his future in Monogram-level westerns, until the freak of Stagecoach lifted him instantly from one cinematic strata and deposited him in another.

Either going up or going down... Actually, a perusal of Okuda's index shows a perhaps surprising scarcity of actors and actresses in the ascendant starting out at Monogram, in marked contrast to the mournful parade of the other sort passing by in the opposite direction. It may be a bit of a myth, in fact. Really only Ginger Rogers in The Thirteenth Guest, already making her mark in Warners musicals, and Ava Gardner in Ghosts on the Loose, already signed to MGM when Sam Katzman decided to cast her as Huntz Hall's sister, stand out from the crowd.
Then there's the strange case of Lon Chaney Jr, who was potentially on the up - still billed as Creighton Chaney and being compared to Clark Gable in the fan magazines - when he played the hunky hero of Sixteen Fathoms Deep (1934, an action drama set, according to Okuda, "in the highly competitive sponge-diving industry") but hurtling back down again when he made a surprise return to the studio in '48 for - of all things - a remake of the same film. This time, though, he was cast as the villain. Hollywood, my friends, Hollywood.
But most of the studio's lead players were headed in neither direction: as Wayne looked set to be, they were born at Monogram, lived at Monogram and died at Monogram. Great guys like Regis Toomey, Lyle Talbot, Eddie Nugent, Dave O'Brien, and that wonderful roster of starlets I celebrated here.
The likeable Talbot had real potential, but only ever got a half-hearted shake from the big-leaguers. He's in several Warners crime films, loads of westerns, a ton of television, and both Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda. He always gives good performances at Monogram: a relaxed rapport with one's female co-star was often a huge challenge for Poverty Row actors, but he sparks nicely off Ginger in Thirteenth Guest, and Thelma Todd (in one of her always great but all-too rare dramatic leads) in the highly recommended aviation drama Klondike (1932).

Most of these Monogram leads alternated work at the studio with bits and walk-ons in the majors. The Bomba the Jungle Boy series, beginning in 1949, starred Johnny Sheffield, 'Boy' to Weissmuller's Tarzan. The great Walter Catlett secured six supporting gigs as conniving Mayor Colton in a series of small town family comedies headed by Raymond Walburn: Father Steps Out, Father Makes Good, Father Takes The Air et al. Beginning with Three of a Kind in 1944, Sam Katzman attempted to make a new comedy team out of big studio second bananas Billy Gilbert, Shemp Howard and 'Slapsie' Maxie Rosenbloom. The results, if reports are fair (and let's face it, they're usually not), were not joyous.

Then there was Leon Errol.
Cast adrift somewhat after the appalling death of Lupe Velez cut short the Mexican Spitfire series at RKO, he was all too happy to jump ship to Monogram for more series work in featured comedy support.
Joe Palooka, Champ (1946) cast him as conniving boxing promoter Knobby Walsh, opposite former golfer Joe Kirkwood Jr in the title role of the hick he promotes. Based on a long-running comic strip (and previously adapted for the movies in 1934 with Jimmy Durante and Stuart Erwin, to say nothing of Thelma Todd and, oddly enough, Lupe Velez), Monogram kept Errol busy in eight Palooka assignments between '46 and '50, treating him well enough to allow one of his celebrated dual roles in Joe Palooka Meets Humphrey (1950) as Lord Cecil Poole, a direct lift of his Lord Epping in the Mexican Spitfires.
The better-than-average supporting casts included the likes of Eduardo Cianelli, Elisha Cooke Jr, Joe Besser, Lionel Stander, Douglas Dumbrille, Trudy Marshall, Donald MacBride, Clarence Muse, Eddie Gribbon, and, in most of the series, Elyse Knox, a Monogram favourite best known to Universal fans as the heroine of The Mummy's Tomb.
Errol missed only one of the series during this period: 1948's Joe Palooka in Winner Takes All, for which William Frawley stepped in as Knobby Walsh, but two more were made after his tenure (he may have pulled out due to illness: he died in 1951) for which James Gleason took over the role. As for Kirkwood, who had made his way through every film of the series, the next stop was television, and twenty-five episodes of The Joe Palooka Story.

There's something especially sad about seeing an old comedian toiling on the Monogram treadmill. Incredibly, Harry Langdon wound up there on four occasions in the forties, twice in the relatively dignified capacity of guest appearance in what passed at Monogram for an all star revue and once in a similar capacity but the less salubrious environs of an East Side Kids movie, but on one occasion in his own bona fide vehicle: Double Trouble (1941) as a character called Alf Prattle in a film Monogram hailed as "a double-play on the nation's funnybone."
Today, Langdon, when remembered at all, is remembered somewhat paradoxically as a forgotten comedian, but to twenties audiences the thought of him ending up in such a position would have been as unthinkable as Chaplin doing so. Okuda's unglossed synopsis is heart-breaking: "Two British refugees (Harry Langdon and Charles Rogers) get jobs at a canned bean manufacturing plant and manage to lose a valuable gem in one of the cans."

And the list goes on. One time romantic lead Nils Asther, General Yen no less, was drinking the bitter tea of support work in a Monogram Charlie Chan come the forties. 1932 WAMPAS hot pick Mary Carlisle shifted almost immediately to Poverty Row, appearing twice for Monogram in '33 and '34 (the latter year in a college-set romantic comedy called Girl O'My Dreams alongside our old pal Creighton Chaney). Edmund Lowe clocked up four leads for the studio between '42 and '46, as a brain surgeon turned pilot, an international jewel thief, a magician turned investigator, and a gang boss in the King Brothers' notorious 1945 Dillinger. Lee Tracy, many years after his drunken decision to take a whizz from his hotel balcony on location in Mexico had cost him his shot at being an MGM major, was back in the newspaper offices, his natural home, for Monogram's High Tide (1947). Skeets Gallagher consented to support work in the eccentric (and recommended) musical trifle Zis Boom Bah (1941) and, for his pains, got his name mis-spelled in the credits. In the same movie Huntz Hall plays a character called Gallagher: they spell the character's name correctly.

But the most striking and poignant of all cases of 'fancy meeting you here' was the strange saga of Kay Francis at Monogram.
Just how did she, of all people, end up at 4376 Sunset Drive? The jury is still out on the question.
The massively elegant, languorously erotic Francis had been a seductress at Paramount before the Code and a woman's picture stalwart at Warners thereafter, a huge star to whom millions of women looked for fashion guidance and a kind of byword for effortless chic. What she wasn't was someone like Joan Crawford - so desperate to hang on to stardom that she'd rather make films like Trog than no films at all.
Whatever drew Francis to Monogram it certainly wasn't the desperate desire to hold on to a career she didn't much care about. Needless to say, Monogram were thrilled to have her, and her three films for the studio - the last films in which she ever appeared - were all bigger-than-usual hits for the company thanks to her presence in them.
The decisive factor may have been that the films would allow her to produce: she struck a co-producing deal with Jeffrey Bernerd, provider of Monogram's emotional thunderbolts and scorching exposés, and the closest thing the studio had to a woman's picture producer.
Together they did the best they could with Divorce (1945; "Should husband-stealing be a crime?"), Allotment Wives (1945; "Pretty to look at but poison to love!") and Wife Wanted (1946; "See how fake 'friendship clubs' and 'date agencies' lure the lonely-hearted into shame and extortion!").

Perhaps just a brief note of clarification here for British readers, for whom the title Allotment Wives will probably sound a good deal more hilarious than it does in America. Rest assured, this is not a drama about men who think more of their vegetable patches than their long-suffering spouses. The title refers not to weekend gardening but to a wartime scam whereby fast women would cynically marry naive servicemen so as to receive regular dependency payments while he is on service, then dump him when he returns...
... though the film was actually a quickie spin on Mildred Pierce, with Return of the Ape Man's Teala Loring as the daughter, and the duplications extending even to Kay's Joan-alike hairstyle.

That concludes my ramble through Monogram's other worlds, and I can think of no better way of signing off than returning to Okuda, who rounds off his historical overview thus:

On the whole, one would be hard-pressed to defend the Monogram output; most were dull, shoddy efforts produced by those whose sole interest was to obtain a fast buck. But as inept as the majority of their product was, Monogram apparently appealed to their target audiences, as they succeeded where so many other independents had failed. And even if most of their films don't deserve a second (or even a first) look, they should be acknowledged and catalogued, which is the primary reason for this book.

And with that he's off, dutifully cataloguing all 723 of the studio's films.
No further explanation is attempted, no real justification ever offered for why films that "don't deserve a second (or even a first) look" nonetheless "should be acknowledged and catalogued".
Some might even argue - more fool them - that if there was ever a good working definition for a body of cinema that shouldn't be acknowledged and catalogued, it is precisely the one which doesn't deserve a second (or even a first) look. Why bother cataloguing something you'll never look at again, and regret looking at in the first place? From this he makes a living?
The truth, of course, is that Okuda knows that no justification for his labours could possibly make sense for those immune to the studio's charms, and for the rest of us, none is necessary. He just knows that this is a story worth preserving. I agree wholeheartedly, and if you find his book as hard to put down as I do, chances are you're in agreement too.


Mr Pendlebury said...

I'm sorry to see the back of your Monogram posts.
I've caught the odd Monogram film over the years but mostly to me, and probably plenty of others, it's just a name you think of first when on the subject of poverty row studios. Still if they gave work to the likes of those you've mentioned over these posts then who am I to argue? Regis Toomey, Kay Francis, Lugosi, Karloff and the later Charlie Chan films all worthy members of my own personal movie hall of fame if not everyones.

Matthew Coniam said...

Not quite the end of the Monogram posts - two still to come, including the epic Lugosi marathon match report...
I see now that the last piece had a very final ending, but I just meant it was the end of that post. You don't get off that lightly. Hope Mantan Moreland is in your hall of fame because he's up next.
I thank you in advance for your stamina.