Monday, October 31, 2005

Obscure Vintage Comedies Ate My Brain: The Halloween Edition

Mummy's Boys (1936): Bill Sherman covered this one pretty thoroughly last week, but I'm going to add my two cents just the same. Bob Woolsey smoothtalks himself and his pal Bert Wheeler into a Egyptian expedition that hopes to return "cursed treasure" that has been blamed for a series of mysterious deaths (a la Lord Carnarvon). Is the cause truly supernatural? Nope. After being chased endlessly around an Egyptian tomb by a phoney mummy with a syringe full of poison (it's a fairly nasty idea when you think about it, but it's played for laughs just the same), Bert and Bob reveal the real killer to be the guy you suspected since frame one. This is far from Wheeler and Woolsey's best, but it's not the disaster it has been painted by biographer Edward Watz. Woolsey's aggressively "ugly American" behavior in Egypt is so broad that it comes across as a self-parody, and the running gag about Bert's need to take quick naps (anywhere, anytime) to clear up his faulty memory is worth a few genuine laughs. And, like almost all RKO Wheeler and Woolsey pictures, Mummy's Boys looks very good. Most importantly, it's the first of a genre. Although short "scare" comedies had long been popular (with the ghosts and ghouls invariably revealed to be ordinary mortals up to no good), this is the first example of the wisecracking comics v. monster(s) feature format that would reach its apex with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 (and which would be a staple of Mexican filmmaking through the early 1970s).

El Signo de la muerte (1939): The mother of all Mexican horror spoofs, a genre the Mexican film industry went further with than anyone else ever dared. A wizard with a line in Aztec sorcery must sacrifice four virgins in order to raise the spirit of Quetzalcoatl. By day, he's an anthropologist and his assistant is a very young Cantinflas, so new to films that he doesn't even have his famous costume together yet. This rather lavish-looking Mexican horror comedy also features topless women and some genuine gore.. in 1939! Clearly there way no Mexican equivalent of the Hays Office to contend with. Cantinflas actually shares top billing with comedian Medel who looks and acts as if he just stepped out of a 1916 Keystone comedy. Some sequences in El Signo de la muerte are worthy of a "straight" horror film, something that can't be said for most, if not all, other classic Mexican horror-spoofs.

Zombies On Broadway (1945): Brown and Carney, the Un-comedy team, are publicity agents for gangster Sheldon Leonard (who else?) who threatens to t'row dem t'roo da door an out da winda unless they come up with the live zombie they promised for the grand opening of his new theme-club, The Zombie Hut. Zombies are really popular! So Brown and Carney are forced at gunpoint to go to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian to find one. A knife-throwing dancer, Anne Jeffreys, promises to lead the uncomics to some zombies in return for their help getting her off the island, but they all end up getting abducted after B&C disrupt a Zombie Ceremony (with hilarious consequences). They find themselves prisoners in the jungle castle of Bela Lugosi, a mad scientist who has developed a short-term zombie-making serum. Bela makes eyes at Anne and makes the hapless comics dig their own graves.. but they're so dumb, they don't even realize it!! (ha ha he ho!). In one genuinely creepy scene, B&C do their take on Abbott and Costello's the-comic-sees-the-ghost-but-the-straightman-doesn't-believe-him shtick. After much dialogue to the effect of "JERRY!! I SAW IT!!!" and "Aw, yer nuts.", Carney is stealthily abducted out of his bed by Zombie Darby Jones, zombified by Bela, and placed back in the bed, now with CREEPY, BULGY ZOMBIE EYES! When the Zombie comes back for Brown (whose back was turned when Carney was abducted), he's carried from the room screaming "MIKE!! I BELIEVE YOU NOW!! MIKE!!!" That would be unnerving enough, but then the camera cuts back to Zombie Carney in bed, staring at nothing with his big, fake eyeballs, and he suddenly cracks this weird little half-smile. It's creepy. I'm not kidding. Long story short, Bela gets brained with a shovel by his pet Zombie before he gets a chance to zombify Anne Jeffreys, and Jeffreys and Brown head back to the US with Zombie Carney in tow as the promised live zombie for Leonard's silly club. But the serum wears off before Leonard gets to see his new zombie! A fight breaks out and Leonard somehow ends up getting injected with Zombie Juice. He's his own featured attraction! It's a hoot! And then Brown ends up sitting on the syringe full of zombie serum and HE becomes a bulgy-eyed zombie! Big laff finish! Intentional or not, this is one of the only classic horror comedies that has anything in it resembling genuine scares. And it had better, because, unlike most classic horror comedies, it has nothing in it resembling genuine comedy. Like RKO's previous, legit zombie picture, Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With A Zombie (1943), ZOB is very atmospheric and the cinematography is terrific. If Brown and Carney were an actual comedy team rather than an amazingly lifelike simulation of one, Zombies On Broadway would be a classic counterpoint to Tourneur's film. It isn't, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's no time-waster, either.

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952): I love Mitchell and Petrillo and I don't care if the whole world knows it. Sammy Petrillo does a more than credible Jerry Lewis impression and while Duke Mitchell may be no substitute for Dean Martin, he's not really trying to be. And I personally don't think his singing is so bad (he got much better; see his 1978 magnum opus The Executioner). Sammy and Duke accidentally parachute onto a tropical island where they meet some "natives" and where Bela Lugosi's mad scientist has set up his lab in yet another jungle castle. Lugosi's scheme this time around is to create a formula that will reverse the evolutionary process and/or turn things into gorillas. Meanwhile, Duke falls for native girl Nona (Charlita) while Sammy is fallen for by Charlita's sister Saloma, the very cute Muriel Landers. She's fat and he runs from her which equals comedy. Jealous of all the time Duke spends belting tunes at Nona, Bela turns Duke into Ray "Crash" Corrigan in a gorilla costume (that's Crash groaning a few bars of "Do I Love You" out of that suit) for most of the movie. After much running around, Bela attempts to shoot Duke/Crash/Gorilla, but instead kills Sammy who throws himself in front of the bullet (when screening this film at Paramount, Jerry Lewis reportedly yelled out "Thank GOD!!"). I believe this sequence is intended to be dramatic and very serious. But it's ALL A DREAM! Sammy fell asleep in his nightclub dressing room and all the people in his dream are there, Wizard of Oz-style (Bela is the nightclub manager!). What's worrisome is that Sammy seems to recognize everybody from their "dream" personas and not their "real" ones.. even his own girlfriend, Muriel Landers, who turns out to be a very good kisser, is a total stranger to him. Duke and Sammy swing into their song-and-patter nightclub act despite Sammy's clearly fragile mental state. Some say producer Jack Broder made this film with the expectation that Paramount would pay him more than the cost of production to keep it off the market. I don't buy it. Broder may have considered the idea after the thing was in the can, but I don't believe for a second that he made Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla intending to have it destroyed. In any case, it's not a bad little horror comedy and has plenty of built-in exploitation angles that were played to the hilt by neighborhood theaters in the 1950s. Incidentally, BLMABG was written by Tim Ryan, a comedian who was teamed for years in poverty-row comedies and vaudeville with his wife Irene as a kind of low-rent Burns and Allen. Irene Ryan found lasting fame as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.

El Castillo de los monstruos (1958): The best Mexican horror spoof I've seen. This epic pits Antonio Espino "Clavillazo", the Man with the Eloquent Hands, against a vampire (German Robles again) , a Frankenstein's monster ("Frentestein"), a mummy, a gillman ("La repugnante Bestia de la Laguna Seca"), TWO wolfmen, and a mad scientist, all in a castle.. hence the title. Village undertaker Clavillazo befriends a pretty young widow, Evangelina Elizondo, and temporarily gives her his own ramshackle apartment while she looks for work. Unfortunately, she has also caught the eye of the village mad scientist and it isn't long before she's abducted and hypnotized into believing herself "Galatea". It's up to Clavillazo to rescue her from the doctor's castle, but first he has to defeat the doctor's ARMY OF MONSTERS. Clavillazo is extremely good here and has a series of beautifully-timed comic set pieces, the best of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the titular monsters. A sequence in which he serenades Elizondo by miming to a love song on a transistor radio is particularly charming (and very funny when his friends change the station and he's forced to keep pace). Antonio Espino is one of those comedians who by all rights should have been an international success in his day, and yet he retired from the screen in his prime, going down with the rest of the Mexican film industry. I'd love to know his story. It's a pity that Columbia held on the US distribution for El Castillo de los monstruos and thus kept it out of the hands of K. Gordon Murray. This would have been an indispensable addition to Murray's package of dubbed Mexican horror pictures.

Los fantasmas burlones (1965): FOUR Mexican comedians for the price of one, mostly because all of their careers were on the downturn in 1965, along with the Mexican film industry. Clavillazo, the genius pantomimist and catchphrase delivery-system, stars along with goofy eccentric dancer Resortes as a pair of carnival mind readers/fortune tellers who accidentally conjure up two genuine ghosts: Tin-Tan (the second most famous Mexicomic of all) and his brother Loco Valdez (who most famously played The Big Bad Wolf in Mexican fairy tale movies). Tin-Tan none-too-convincingly plays an Englishman, Ludovico Churchill, and Loco is an 18th Century French dandy. These historical roles are meaningless, however, and eventually get lost in the shuffle as Tin-Tan and Loco steal suits, run amok in the amusement park and make time with Clavillazo and Resortes' girlfriends. The film is loaded with comedy musical numbers, mostly from other movies (resulting, at one point, in Resortes suddenly becoming eight years younger and losing his mustache). There's an absolutely amazing Around The World Tribute to Ethnic Stereotypes number which features Tin-Tan and Loco as, among others, stereotyped Chinamen (in Japan), Egyptians, and Greeks, and Loco performs "Witch Doctor", transforming himself at intervals into a Witch Doctor, a fey cupid, and a Nazi (!!!!). Brain-melting, Mexican comedy overload, with more catchy pop songs, low-budget ghost FX and carnival atmosphere than thirty such lesser films. You don't need to understand a word of Spanish to enjoy this, but it helps.

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