Wednesday, March 31, 2010

“It ain’t Gene Krupa!” – Mantan Moreland and ‘King of the Zombies’

What would they have thought - any of them - if they had only lived to see it?
A few years ago, the first six films in the Monogram Charlie Chan series were issued on DVD in a box-set delightfully named Chanthology. The most eye-opening thing about it, besides the delicious quality of the prints (yes, Monogram product gleamed and shone like any other movie on its first run: they didn't always look like they were photographed through the perforations of wet lavatory paper and sound like they were overdubbed in the kitchen of a fish and chip shop), was the bizarre fact that via some long, winding and deeply ironic path, the copyright on them has devolved to MGM.
What two studios could have been further apart! What would Monogram have given, what would they have paid, simply to have these films appear, as they now do, with the MGM lion roaring approval at the start?
All that effort, all that frustration, all that envy... swept away by the ignorant caprice of copyright law and the oblivious sieve of time. Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you... They say that if you have enough monkeys with enough typewriters and enough time, then eventually Monogram Charlie Chan films will be brought to you from MGM.
The box-set gave us a much-needed chance to re-evaluate these films, which suffered even in comparison with the Fox Chans. Few bodies of cinema have been subjected to such foolish and ignorant criticism as the Chan series generally, but these were movies that even Chan fanatics looked down on. The truth, as Ken Hanke's definitive study of the series bravely pointed out, is the Monochans are different from the Fox titles, but by no means negligible.
For many who dismiss the films, chief bone of contention - above and beyond Chan himself - is Monogram's decision to give make a regular character of black comic relief Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland, who keeps improbably running into Chan before eventually becoming his chauffeur.
You don't need me to tell you why Moreland is frowned upon by many today; but perhaps you may need reminding that he is terrific: a superb, intuitively funny actor, one of the great character actors, and comic actors, of his day. He needs no whiny defence or contextual justification: the man is hilarious. Okay, he is never allowed outside of the groove specifically carved for the black supporting actor, but we all know that.
Now look at how good he is.
Ironically, perhaps, Moreland was included not to alienate but to attract black audiences: his presence insured the films major release-status in Harlem and other predominantly black territories, where he was hugely and rightly popular. Like Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson and other controversial black comic actors of the period, Moreland has a divine comic sense and an enormously likeable screen presence; he always makes the most of what he is given, and he is often given room to do a comic party piece.
As they go along, the films increasingly incorporate authentic ethnic comedy scenes, where Moreland and another black performer do some variation on one of his stand-up routines, notably the old chestnut where he asks the other guy a question and then responds before he has a chance to answer but in full awareness of what the answer is.
(You can see him do this in a stage setting with Nipsy Russell in a wonderful compilation of black variety acts called Rhythm and Blues Revue which, though shot as late as 1954, begins delightfully with him peering around the curtain and calling "Mr Chan! Mr Chan!" He does the same routine almost word for word with Ben Carter, playing his brother Ben, in the Chan film Dark Alibi.)
Willie Best, whose involvement with the Chans goes back to the early days of the Fox films, also shows up a few times in the Monograms, either as Birminghham's brother Chattanooga, deputising when Moreland was elsewhere, or even, in Shanghai Chest, as 'himself': Moreland meets him in jail, where he is being held for loitering. (He later explains that he was loitering in a bank at midnight.) Best is certainly talented, but Moreland is the fresher, more inspired performer, and Monogram very soon realised that if they left him to do pretty much what he wanted everyone would benefit. These vignettes have the feel of authentic black nightclub humour for which the film stops to make room: these are scenes for black audiences to laugh at, not to enable white audiences to laugh at blacks. It's a reminder that Monogram were canny enough to recognise the Harlem audience was one worth catering to.
Moreland takes centre stage in the Chan films with evermore authority and assuredness as the series goes along. The Golden Eye - boasting some very funny business with him dressed as a cowboy and trying to close an overstuffed suitcase - even ends with him walking up to the camera and talking to the audience, while Chan and the rest assume fixed positions in the background.
In addition to the Chans he was also teamed regularly with Frankie Darro in a series of action adventures: Moreland worked all over in forties cinema, but it was only really Monogram that gave him the star treatment he deserved.
Moreland is at his very best in King of the Zombies (1941), a Monogram horror that, if it had only starred Lugosi as was originally planned, would probably today be regarded as one of the most professional horror pieces the studio ever turned out.
Moreland is certainly the chief attraction in the movie as it comes to us today (especially since the Lugosi role was given to the geezer who played the strong man in Freaks) but if the film has one claim to fame above all it is that it was, bizarrely and inexplicably enough, Monogram's only Oscar-nominated horror film.
Technically it was not their only Oscar-nominated film. The screenplay for their controversial life of Dillinger got a mention, presumably because of the controversy (nothing changes), and since the company known as Allied Artists was merely Monogram renamed, then let us not forget that it was Allied Artists that made Cabaret. (How many people know that Cabaret was a Monogram movie, I wonder?)
But back in the forties, when the studio's films stood more chance of being melted down and made into mandolin picks than of getting any kind of award, the fact remains that Edward Kay's music score for King of the Zombies ended up being tapped for one of the little gold fellers.
There is no obvious reason for why this happened - it sounds like any other semi-adequate Monogram score and much of the film has no music at all - and there must be more to the story somewhere. But there it is.
Who read out the nominations that night? Imagine, oh I don't know... Loretta Young doing it, immaculate in pearls and floor length gown. "Edward Kay, for King of the Zombies..." and a polite ripple of applause from the floor. And then to lose out to some nobody called Bernard Herrmann! Like anybody ever heard of that guy again. There ain't no justice.
It's just one more odd thing about a deeply odd movie all round. As well as borrowing liberally from the previous year's Bob Hope film The Ghost Breakers, it also anticipates the central plot motif of '43's I Walked With a Zombie, to say nothing of the innovation of the flesh-eating zombie nearly thirty years before George Romero. ("It's the witching hour," says slinky Marguerite Whitten in her little maid's outfit, to the easily shaken Moreland: "It's their feeding time, and they likes dark meat!" Zombies don't normally eat anything - the film itself stresses this point - so Monogram really are blazing a new trail here.)
. Basically, Mantan and two boring white men crash their plane in the jungle and find that they have in fact landed in the middle of a graveyard. They walk a few feet to a mansion owned by a sinister German called Dr Sangre - sorry, strike that: a sinister foreigner called Dr Sangre (America weren't actually in the war yet.) To their amazement he knows before they tell him that their plane has crashed - not much happens on the island that he doesn't get to hear about, he explains, though the fact that they crashed the plane in his own garden probably gave him a bit of a head start on this occasion.
Sangre's wife mopes about the house in a perpetual state of somnambulism, and also mooching about is Joan Woodbury, here filling our hearts with joy by affecting a foxy little European accent, as Sangre's niece ("by marriage", she stresses.) Joan thinks the root of her aunt's trouble might be not voodoo but garden variety hypnotism, and so steals into the doctor's library one night to read up on the subject. Luckily, she finds a book called Hypnotism right where you'd expect to find it: next to a human skull and the doctor's trusty copy of of Columbian Historical Novels Volume XIII.
What we perhaps don't see coming is that as well as a necromancer Sangre is also a Nazi - sorry, I'm doing it again: a representative of a villainous foreign power - who is holding a US admiral hostage and trying to obtain military secrets from him. No thumbscrews for him: he intends using voodoo as a means of transmuting his soul into Joan Woodbury's body and getting the information out of her instead: it may not be a more reliable way of doing it, but he'll surely have more fun trying.
Joan's partly right - he does use hypnotism to make Mantan think he is a zombie, leading to some very amusing scenes where he bosses the other zombies about. So many potentially spooky scenes in this movie are allowed to play as comedy, purely to accommodate this wonderful performer: even the big horror climax cuts to a shot of him peering from behind a table. Don't let the billing deceive you: Moreland's the star of this show.
Incidentally, Marguerite cures him of his zombie delusions by giving him salt with his food. Because, as we all know, "if a zombie uses salt, he dries up and gets dead again." A bit like a slug. (Take note, Romero: much less messy than blowing their heads off.) One of the two white guys, however, gets turned into a zombie for real, but, this being Monogram, he's back to his old self by the end, despite being killed, buried, zombified and then shot at point blank range.
As usual, and as is only right, Moreland gets the last laugh: "If there's one thing I wouldn't want to be twice, zombies is both of 'em!"

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.

Friday, March 19, 2010

“Is He Man Or Zombie?” … at Monogram, he really could be either

One of the strange features of Monogram horror often remarked upon by fans and non-fans alike is just how reluctant a lot of it is to actually be horror.
Look at the Lugosi series, for instance. Black Dragons is an espionage mystery with a fantasy twist. Bowery at Midnight is a fanciful crime caper with a supernatural afterthought, one not directly involving Lugosi's character and obviously added after the script was complete to beef up the film's horror potential. ("The Monster and the Ghoul!" screamed the posters; "One deals in wholesale murder... the other serves as a torture master for the living dead!" Well, sort of... but not really.)
As Tom Weaver notes in Poverty Row Horrors, PRC was the studio that made real horror movies with real monsters: Monogram's were usually spooky mysteries. But the question remains: If the publicists felt obliged to sell the films misleadingly as horror, it can only be because they expected to do better with a horror than a thriller. So why not simply make horror films and save them the effort?
A fine example is The Living Ghost (1942), promising the "strange secrets of a scientific killer" and asking, above a huge ghoulish close-up of actor Gus Glassmire, seemingly glowing like Chaney's Man Made Monster, "IS HE MAN or ZOMBIE?" A fair question judging by the picture, but the answer, most assuredly, is 'man'.
The Living Ghost is actually rather clever in its way: hypnotism, not voodoo, is the answer, but it's a nice touch to have the hypnotised first victim set up as chief suspect in the murder of the second.
What we have here basically is a fun whodunnit, directed by William Beaudine, that pairs James Dunn and Joan Woodbury as investigators. Woodbury, as usual, is as glamorous as all get out, like visiting royalty in the sparse Monogram backgrounds. As well as being a class-A dish she reveals a genuine gift for comedy in her bantering relationship with Dunn (who plays broad, and who she easily outclasses comedically). Woodbury fans should additionally note that the film ends with the sound of her being spanked off-screen.
At Monogram an old dark house mystery usually translates as a new brightly-lit house mystery, and so it proves here. Horror fans invariably come away from these kinds of movies disappointed for this reason as well as because they appear to cheat, promising much and delivering little, but anyone who likes sliding panels should enjoy it regardless, and the occasional line like, "Why does every murder mystery have to have a butler?" at least points to a certain degree of awareness of the age of the material.
Actually, Monogram's ballyhoo usually just about plays fair: ambiguity without any downright deception seemingly their touchstone. Return of the Ape Man is not a sequel to The Ape Man but it is about an ape man returning. Similarly, Living Ghost is not about a living ghost (whatever that might possibly mean) but a living ghost.
Phantom Killer (1942) reunites the stars of King of the Zombies (Woodbury, Dick Purcell and Mantan Moreland) but again: do not expect any phantoms. This is a murder mystery about crimes committed by identical twins, and a remake of The Sphinx, produced by the original Monogram back in 1933.
Phantom is fun in the established Monogram manner, but comparison between it and The Sphinx (directed by Phil Rosen) point out the very real qualitative differences between the studio's output before and after the Republic experiment.
Sphinx is by any measure an excellent little low-budget mystery, with typically A-list lead work from Atwill as the twins, and quality support from Sheila Terry and Theodore Newton, both on loan from Warner Brothers. The title - and title sequence, showing Atwill's face nicely incorporated into the Sphinx of Giza - seems to suggest an Egyptological flavour (perhaps in emulation of Karloff's Mummy of the previous year) but no: 'Sphinx' is merely the nickname of Atwill's deaf-mute twin, who serves as alibi for the cocky, talkative one who does the killings (all of stockbrokers, incidentally).
Atwill, alternately charming as the deaf-mute brother and swaggeringly evil as the other, gives one of his best performances, despite very little screen time, and the film - intriguing, stylish, compelling, and boasting only a couple of the kind of inane plot holes on which the later Monogram prided itself - is actually as good a low-budget time-passer as any major studio's B-unit turned out in the thirties.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

And then there was Sam... (A brief history of Monogram)

When we think of a quintessential Monogram movie, the image we create is almost certainly something much more specific: a Banner Production, that is to say the work of enterprising producer Sam Katzman, who operated out of Monogram in the nineteen-forties. Monogram itself was really two studios, and its history is a surprisingly complicated one that reveals much of interest about the way low-budget studios operated around this time.
Now think of the Monogram logo. What most readily comes to mind is the ring of stars rotating around a shiny disc with the letters MPC written on it. But that was the logo of the 'second' Monogram, the one we know and love from the forties.
The original Monogram had been formed long before under the aegis of W. Ray Johnston, who had graduated to company president after having kicked around the movie industry since the start of World War I.
According to the 'History of Monogram Pictures' in my invaluable 1944-5 Motion Picture Almanac:
Monogram Pictures Corporation evolved in 1930, under the leadership of W Ray Johnston, its president, who formed the company with a group of independent exchange men who were distributors for its predecessor, Rayart Productions, founded by Mr Johnston in 1924. The exchange owners who distributed Rayart product had previously formed a co-operative organization merging distribution units. This nucleus was incorporated as Monogram with Mr Johnstone as president. Trem Carr headed production, and Edward A. Golden joined the organization as sales manager.
Under Trem Carr, this thirties version of Monogram, though definitely a small studio, was one with its sights set on higher things, for whom the big time was just around the corner.
Their budgets may have been small but their aspirations were not, and their logo sequence was a gorgeous art deco cityscape, from which the words Monogram Pictures emerged, sliding on to the screen, like slick, modern trains.
The mainstay of the studio at this time was its westerns, churned out at the rate of upwards of a dozen a year through the early thirties. But Carr also supervised productions of Oliver Twist and Black Beauty (directed by Phil Rosen) in 1933, The Moonstone (with David Manners) and Jane Eyre (with Colin Clive and directed by Christy Cabanne!) in '34.
It was this forward-looking Monogram-on-the-up that first invited Bela Lugosi, then relatively hot after the success of The Black Cat, to appear in Mysterious Mr Wong (1934).
What happened next is interesting, and I hand you back to the Almanac:
During the autumn of 1935, Mr Johnston and Herbert Yates formed Republic Pictures, incorporating the Monogram exchanges as distribution outlets. A year later, Mr Johnston withdrew from Republic and revived Monogram, creating a new system of franchise distribution.
Presumably buried behind all that matter-of-fact business talk is a fascinating saga of raised voices and boardroom wrangles, but for whatever reason, the Republic experiment was not to Johnston's taste, and Monogram was back almost immediately.
But this'new' Monogram that emerged from the fiasco was one with a notably different agenda. While it had once been looking at the stars while lying in the gutter, having helped create one of its most serious rivals it could now no longer afford to experiment or aspire.
As the Almanac notes: "The reorganized Monogram in 1937-38 issued 39 features, 24 of which were westerns."
Soon, horror films would be added to the roster with the same logic: the public seemed to like them. To get a sense of what proportion of the studio's output the horror productions were, here's their list of productions for 1943-44:

A musical or two, some Charlie Chans, the odd drama, a couple of horrors and a half-dozen oaters: no room for Oliver Twist here anymore.
This time round, product was supplied by a variety of producers were employed, each with their own entirely separate production outfits, for which Monogram proper financed and distributed.

There were the King Brothers, Maurice and Franklin, who produced the closest thing to mainstream Hollywood product Monogram would handle: their Simone Simon comedy Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore remains a perfectly entertaining bit of nonsense and could almost be mistaken for a major studio B film.
. Short-lived Biltmore Productions (their FIRST also turned out to be their LAST) came up with this wartime extravaganza:
.Executive producer Sebastian Cristillo was in fact Lou Costello, and the cast includes the heroines of two of Universal's Mummy series. (And introducing Henny Youngman!)
Jeffrey Bernerd provided emotional thunderbolts:
And then there was Sam...
. It was Banner Productions, under Katzman and Dietz, that brought Lugosi and the East Side Kids to Monogram, and defined the company's popular image for all time.
"Arguably no producer or director in the history of the movies so gloriously exemplifies the joys of exploitation cinema as the legendary Sam Katzman," writes Ken Hanke in the book The Sleaze Merchants and who could argue with him? Katzman is the gold standard by which low rent movie hucksters are measured, and a man who cared only about getting as much fun on the screen as he could manage, even if the narrative made no sense and the ideas outstripped the resources of the production budget. He also had a lively and self-deprecating sense of humour that manifested itself in the form of in-jokes, not common at the time. The East Side Kids talk of altercations with 'the Katzman gang', while the hero of Voodoo Man is a horror screenwriter for Banner, whose boss 'S.K.' listens to him recounting the events of the film and proposes turning it into a Bela Lugosi movie.
Katzman's importance in this story cannot be overstressed. When we talk about all those great ingredients that make a Monogram movie a Monogram movie, almost all of them can be attributed to the one and only Sam Katzman.

Here's to you, Sam!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Monogram: first with the stories that matter!

One of the most endearing features of Monogram horror films is their tendency to smooth over plot developments with the cunning deployment of newspaper headlines. Rare indeed is the one that does not at some point regale us with a selection of sensational headlines, hot off the press.
Just what makes front page news on a Monogram paper is hard to define, however.
For instance, in Black Dragons the sensational news of the Jap dagger killer claiming his second victim shares the front page with
Council to Vote on Park Plan.
In a later edition,
sits alongside
City Will Ask Bids For Operation of Motor Bus System.
In The Ape Man, the news of Dr Brewster's mysterious disappearance makes the big story, almost threatening to push
Job Survey Is Nearing Completion
on to page two.
But we know he has not disappeared and soon the papers are full of the chilling details of his simian murder spree:
Ape-like hair is only clew to mysterious murderer.
I can only assume that there has to be some precedent for spelling 'clue' in that eccentric fashion, but it's good to see that job survey is still nearing completion, and still making the front page right alongside it.
In the Charlie Chan movie The Chinese Cat a series of front pages chart the failure of the police to solve a baffling murder. First:
As always, the paper (which claims to offer "all the news - International, national and local") offers a choice selection of similarly attention-grabbing stories alongside these scoops, such as
and my particular favourite:
(Where, for heaven's sake?)
But even better, the last two stories about the Manning mystery appear underneath the same stories both times, one of which concludes:
Washing facilities carry away fine glacial silt, and screens and classifiers sort out three sizes of sand, later blended in proper proportions, and four sizes of gravel.
They held the front page for this. Twice.
Ask any Monogram fan what the studio's greatest ever newspaper headline is, however, and there's only one reply.
It's from The Corpse Vanishes, and the medley of banner headlines that come racing towards us, superimposed over shots of a hot printing press, detailing Lugosi's abduction of brides at the altar. One screams:
Another yells:
Then, in case you were wondering:
And there was me holding out for a reasonable explanation.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Meet the Monogals!

Their names may not mean as much to horror fans as those of Evelyn Ankers or Fay Wray, Caroline Munro or Ingrid Pitt, Jamie Lee Curtis or Sarah Michelle Gellar, but the female leads of Monogram horror do not deserve their anonymity.
It's simply not true to imagine that there must be a good reason why they are 'only' Monogram starlets, that they must be in some way not good enough to cheerlead for Universal.
They're just as pretty, they scream just as piercingly, they express concern and worry with the same sort of facial expressions, and they get about on equally fine sets of pins, that come to just as fine a point, and end in equally spiky high heels.
Ah, but the breaks is the breaks is the breaks, and nobody ever claimed it was fair. Still, that's no reason why we should deny somebody as talented as Louise Currie or as gorgeous as Wanda McKay a seat at the same table as Peggy Moran.
So let us meet, and salute, and stake a claim for the wonderful scream queens of Monogram!
Joan Barclay
appears in Black Dragons, The Corpse Vanishes, The Shanghai Cobra

Sweet, petite, with a distinctive little nose and an unusual, rather modern face, Joan kicked around Warners for the first half of the thirties, where she showed up in Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935, Dames, and the Stanwyck shocker Baby Face (1933). But the bits never seemed to get longer or more important, so she crossed the tracks, where at least she got billing and featured roles. Chesterfield, Crescent, Principal (and other studios I might equally have made up for all most folks know) made her welcome in numerous now forgotten films, but a fateful encounter with Sam Katzman got her parts in the serials Shadow of Chinatown and Blake of Scotland Yard.
From here, via a few more bits for the majors and thousands of westerns, it was onward to the East Side Kids, Lugosi and Charlie Chan. (Her most interesting other connection around this time was with RKO, where she pops up in a couple of Falcons and Val Lewton's Seventh Victim.)
In Black Dragons she plays one of the most interestingly written of all Monogram leads, not repelled by the sinister Lugosi (as was the depressingly commonplace reaction in his movies by this time) but fascinated, almost vampirically hypnotised, by his suavity and obvious magnetism. She even draws him into some mild romantic banter:

Joan: You're a strange man. I've been trying to make you out.
Bela: Quite right. Curiosity killed the cat.
Joan: Oh!
Bela: Don't misunderstand. I'm not worth bothering your pretty head about.
Joan: What if I think differently?
Bela: Then I would say that you are a silly young creature.

It's not exactly The Philadelphia Story, but how Lugosi must have relished this!
In The Corpse Vanishes she is one of the brides Lugosi poisons with a toxic orchid and spirits away to his laboratory, there to extract whatever glandular or muscular fluid it is he's after this time. (Monogram mad doctors are always obsessed with fluids of one kind or another.) For Joan, then, horror immortality was to be found trussed up on Bela's operating table in her wedding gown, while he sets about her with his syringe and his hulking boob of a servant (Frank Moran) leers over her and strokes her face.

Louise Currie
ppears in The Ape Man, Voodoo Man, The Chinese Ring
Perhaps the spunkiest of the Monogram leading ladies, as well as paying her dues with Chan and East Side Kids roles, Louise enjoys the distinction of having appeared in both the most iconic (The Ape Man) and for my money the best (Voodoo Man) of the Lugosi Monogram series.
According to her own recollections, the studio considered her "the Katharine Hepburn of Monogram", and gave her wordier and more independent characters to play than was the average lot of the Poverty Row starlet.
She's often a journalist. In the Chan film The Chinese Ring she is "San Fransisco's biggest nuisance", cut from the same cloth as Torchy Blane and Marjorie Reynolds in the Mr Wong series. (No surprise there, as the film is an uncredited remake of Mr Wong in Chinatown.) In one scene she annoys her cop boyfriend so much he shakes her roughly by the shoulders; she responds by socking him so hard on the jaw he goes careening backwards into the wall. He also handcuffs her to a chair in order to ensure her absence at a hot murder site; she duly turns up anyway, the arm of the chair still dangling from her wrist.
In The Ape Man she's Billie Mason, a press photographer this time, who ends up being chased around the lab by a hairy Lugosi, trying to defend herself with a bullwhip. In Voodoo Man she shares what Variety would call 'femme duties' with Wanda McKay: surprisingly, it is Louise who gets abducted and imprisoned in Lugosi's lair in the opening scenes, and Wanda who helps to investigate. With a softer than usual hairdo, and cast unusually as passive victim, Currie is at her prettiest here.

This posed still can only hint at the intensity of The Ape Man's final scenes

She recalled: "I wore my own clothes in all my Monogram movies, because they really didn't have what you'd call a wardrobe department the way all the larger studios did. If they had supplied my clothes for these pictures, they would have been so terrible!"
(If nothing else, they did supply the garish checked coat she wears in Chinese Ring, since Deanne Best also wears it in the later series entry Shanghai Chest.)
A couple of months shy of her 97th birthday, I'm delighted to say that Louise is still with us. Her other films include Citizen Kane and Tireman, Spare My Tires.
Teala Loring
appears in Return of the Ape Man, Dark Alibi
As Judith Gibson, Paramount used her to help decorate Holiday Inn, My Favorite Blonde and Double Indemnity; Monogram put her up against Lugosi, Carradine and their thawed-out friend in Return of the Ape Man, and Charlie Chan in Dark Alibi. She had a second brush with Carradine in PRC's Bluebeard.
Loring had plenty of what it takes in the matter of Hollywood glamour - check out her first entrance in Dark Alibi, shot from below walking along a balcony and then descending a flight of stairs, with the regulation enormous padded shoulders of the period. I wish I could tell you what she gets up to in Return of the Ape Man, but I do not have it, and I have never seen it.
There are other, far more important films I have never seen. I have never seen The Grapes of Wrath, though I have owned a copy for years. I have never seen Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, though it is but a doubtlessly inexpensive E-Bay click away. David Lynch's Lost Highway is still sealed in the cellophane in which I purchased it, somewhere around a decade ago. But nothing feels so much like a reproach, like a festering wound, as the fact that Return of the Ape Man is both unknown to me, and out of my grasp. Teala is among the many reasons why.
Wanda Mckay

appears in Bowery at Midnight, Voodoo Man, The Golden Eye
Surely the most oomphtastically gorgeous of the Monogals, Wanda McKay spread her horror credits between Monogram and PRC (where she turns up in The Black Raven and Monster Maker, among others). A real little cutie with a round face, big, expressive eyes and a turned-up nose, her scores of other Monogram and PRC titles include such enticing prospects as Danger! Women at Work, Horace Takes Over, Leave It To The Irish and Jiggs and Maggie In Society. In all likelihood, all of these movies still exist, and just as likely will never be seen again by a living soul. (Unless you know better and want to become my new best friend.)
In Bowery at Midnight, as by far the foxiest dosshouse hostess on the East Side, she's a much bigger attraction than the free soup. (No wonder her boyfriend doesn't like her working there. "Judy, I want you to give up that silly job," he explains sympathetically, and with admirable regard for the bigger picture: "Saving humanity - it's ridiculous!") And in Voodoo Man (in its own innocent, stumbling, short-trousered, inadvertent little way perhaps the sexiest of the Monogram horrors) she is the curiously disinterested heroine who helps put a stop to Lugosi's female motorist abduction/zombification spree.
According to Tom Weaver's magnificently readable book Poverty Row Horrors! the former Dorothy Quackenbush was a bathing beauty and Miss American Aviation before the studios came panting. (Bizarrely, she was declared "Most Kissed Girl in Hollywood" in 1940, a slightly dubious accolade, you might have thought.) Bits at Paramount didn't lead anywhere special, and segued into the inevitable trip across town to 4376 Sunset Drive. Weaver tells us she retired from the screen in the fifties to breed and market rabbits. Eventually, she became the wife and ultimate widow of the great Hoagy Carmichael.
It's fair to say that Wanda was never going to be as confident an actress as, say, Louise Currie. On the other hand, who gives a toss?

Ginger Rogers
appears in The Thirteenth Guest

Elizabeth Russell
appears in The Corpse Vanishes

Sorry, couldn't resist slipping these two in.
Ginger is a delight, in her Anytime Annie years, in Guest, an excellent old dark house thriller. The only thing that stops her from being a fully-fledged Monogal, alas, is the fact that Shriek in the Night, in many ways a follow-up venture (with the same director and co-star), was for some reason made not for Monogram but Allied Pictures Corporation. This Rogers girl has bags of potential: whatever became of her, I wonder...
Russell, meanwhile, is probably the only mainstream female horror icon whose work at Monogram actually contributes to her icon status. That angular and fascinating face, so familiar from her bits for Val Lewton, especially as the Cat Woman who greets Simone Simon in the restaurant and the consumptive fatalist in The Seventh Victim, adds greatly to the fun of The Corpse Vanishes.
She is horribly excellent as Lugosi's insufferable wife, for whom he is killing a series of brides to obtain the glands (or whatever it is) that she needs to retain her youth, yet nothing he does is ever good enough for her.
Minerva Urecal
appears in The Living Ghost, The Corpse Vanishes, The Ape Man, Ghosts on the Loose
Shrewish, gangly, vinegary Minerva appeared in Chan movies in both their Monogram and TCF incarnations, as well as providing memorable support in God knows how many other Poverty Row mystery and horror movies. She's Bela's sister, so concerned that he's gone and turned himself into a gorilla, in The Ape Man, his faithful assistant, and mother of his moronic servant, in The Corpse Vanishes, and scores of creepy servants. Sometimes she goes for sinister, somewhat in the Judith Anderson manner, at other times she plays for laughs. She always gives good value, and was still plugging away well into the sixties.
It was presumably Urecal that writer Stephen Jones had in mind in the documentary The Dark Prince when he suggested that Lugosi's level in his Poverty Row horrors was "frightening Una Merkel and people like this." The berk.
Luana Walters
appears in The Corpse Vanishes
The Corpse Vanishes, probably the one Monogram horror that comes closest to sustaining a really juicy, spooky, Universal atmosphere throughout, is also a treat for seasoned fans of the Monogram gals: not only do you get Elizabeth Russell as guest ghoul alongside Lugosi, Minerva Urekal as a weird old hag, and Joan Barclay as featured victim, but on top of all that there's Luana Walters as a reporter!
As always with these female horror-journos, she's undervalued at her paper - incredibly so in this case, as each obvious clue she snatches from beneath the noses of the police is dismissed as irrelevant by surely the most cretinous editor of all time. For her, the murdered brides case is her ticket out of the society column and into the criminal big league: accidentally present at the scene of two deaths, she is unable to conceal her delight on both occasions.
Barging into the Lugosis' madhouse for an interview in one of those 45-degree hats so popular in the forties, she reacts only slightly when her polite request receives a sharp smack in the face from Liz Russell. (It's to Luana that Bela delivers probably his most celebrated line of Monogram dialogue, after she accidentally stumbles upon him and his missus kipping in coffins: "I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed: many people do so!")
She also has a great screaming scene, lit and staged as nicely as any Universal equivalent (in which she wakes in bed to find Frank Moran stroking her hair), and is equally good prowling the corridors of Lugosi's spooky house in splendid satin nightwear, as Moran follows in slow, lascivious pursuit, gnawing on a symbolic chicken leg as he goes.
An earlier scene, in which she's walking to the house up an eerily quiet road, sun-dappled but entirely enclosed by overhanging trees, though brief, and simple, and with little made of it beyond the raw material itself, is equally effective, setting the mood with an efficiency Monogram could not always be relied upon to accomplish.
And note the scene where she discovers Joan Barclay's body on Lugosi's operating table, each gleaming in their satin: Joan in white, Luana in black.
Luana was another graduate of Sam Katzman's cranky serial Shadows Of Chinatown, and a frequent presence in Monogram westerns. (Her features obviously suggested Oriental to low-budget producers: she was Fah-Lo-Suee in the 1940 serial Drums of Fu Manchu, too. These days, though, her most famous role might just be her lead in the marijuana road to ruin extravaganza Assassin of Youth [1937].) She makes a terrific Monogram horroine, and not just for all those boring old reasons like 'she shows real independence of spirit and is not beholden to the male characterzzzzzzzzzzzzzz'... (though all of that is, incidentally, true).
She made her last appearance in AIP's The She-Creature in 1956. She did not play the She-Creature.
Joan Woodbury
appears in Phantom Killer, King of the Zombies, The Living Ghost, The Chinese Cat

Great-looking, with a really striking face, Joan was made for Monogram: before settling there she had been in several of the Fox Chans, the massively recommended Mercury Pictures horror-whodunnit Rogues Tavern (with Wallace Ford and Barbara Pepper), the lead in Columbia's serial Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter, and Bride of Frankenstein, no less - she's the miniature queen in the glass jar.
One of the most elegant of the Monogram dames - and, as her list of almost-credits at other studios shows, very much the studio's girl most likely - Joan is almost too sophisticated for her surroundings. If Louise Currie's comments about the girls having to provide their own wardrobes at Monogram are true, then Joan had great taste in clothes: check out the feather-trimmed dressing gown she sashays about in in the early scenes of The Chinese Cat.
In King of the Zombies she assumes an accent as the villain's niece: most unusual for a female lead. You could imagine it would be easy to transform her into a most effective Vampira, or Morticia Adams.

Maris Wrixon
appears in The Ape and Face of Marble

A sweet, pretty blonde, Maris doesn't get much of a chance to shine in her two Monogram appearances. She's best known for her lead role in The Ape, as the wheelchair-bound heroine whose desperate need for spine injections causes kindly Dr Karloff to leap off the deep end, skin a gorilla and start killing people while wearing the skin. Maris herself was abducted by a gorilla in 1945's White Pongo for PRC, and did bit part work at Warners, where she's easily spotted in High Sierra and several others.

They could have been... but weren't...

The four actresses above represent the great almosts of Monogram horror. All four worked at Monogram; all four might easily have been cast in one of their horror epics - and yet, somehow, they were not.

Fay Wray (top left), the ultimate scream queen and by any reasonable standards the most fantastic-looking woman who ever lived, turned up at Monogram in 1939 to make a lively espionage caper called Navy Secrets. True, the studio was not making horror movies at this time (though they were only a year away from The Ape.) But surely they could have put her in a Mr Wong at least? But for Monogram's insouciance, Fay and Karloff could have easily co-starred.

Simone Simon (top right) remains one of horror's ultimate icons for her appearance in Lewton's Cat People and its eccentric sequel. Monogram secured her services in 1944 for an extremely likeable, sexy little comedy called Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Fair enough, you might think... until you realise that she might just as easily have been in Voodoo Man...

The almost supernaturally beautiful Irene Ware showed up at Monogram in 1934 for the delicious Ruritanian comedy King Kelly of the USA in 1934. Her Princess Tania is one of her most delightfully entertaining performances, and I wouldn't exchange it for anything... but with Chandu the Magician ('32) behind her and The Raven ('35) still ahead, what a trilogy of co-starring Lugosi vehicles Mysterious Mr Wong ('34) would have completed! It's not like she'd have turned it down...

Finally, and most extraordinarily, we have Ava Gardner (bottom right). The raven-headed temptress was safely signed to MGM when Monogram, somehow, acquired her as a loan-out in 1943. Did they put her in The Ape Man? Revenge of the Zombies? Nope. They assigned her a nothing part in the East Side Kids-meet-Lugosi caper Ghosts on the Loose.
Ah, well. That's Monogram for you.