Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bela Lugosi Slides Down Cinematic Skid Row

The East Side Kids Double Feature
Good Times Home Video // 1941 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Hey, why can’t I sing in da quartet? I used to sing in a quartet wit’ six members!” ~ so says Glimpy.

Opening Shot
Bela Lugosi (below right) begins his long descent into B-movie hell with this pair of poverty-row comedies featuring the East Side Kids.

A Bit of Plot...
In Spooks Run Wild, their first outing with Lugosi, The East Side Kids ship out to a mountain camp where they learn of a “monster killer” prowling the area. When Peewee (David Gorcey) is accidentally shot in a cemetery, the boys ask for help from Nardo (Lugosi), an old man who lives in the creepy mansion nearby. Nardo gives them shelter. Later that night, the boys see Peewee roaming the old house as if in a trance. Has he been turned into a zombie? (Note: Knowledgeable B-movie lovers will recognize little Angelo Rossito, below, as Bela’s butler. The diminutive Rossito sustained a long career in film — from Tod Browning’s incredible Freaks (1932) to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). He is always a fascinating and compulsively watchable presence in some of the strangest films.) While the Kids search for clues, the staff at the boys’ camp organizes a search party to look for their missing charges, accompanied by a secretive man hunting for the killer on the loose.

That’s an apt segue into Ghosts on the Loose, the Kids’ follow-up to the modestly successful Spooks. But even the most careful viewer will be hard pressed to locate any ghosts in this movie. Instead, we are treated to a young (barely 21) Ava Gardner, who plays the sister of one of the East Side gang. Much low-brow humor surrounds the kids’ musical preparations for Ava’s wedding day. Later, while the lovely Ava consummates her vows (alas, off-screen), the boys reconnoiter what they think is Miss Gardner’s honeymoon cottage. It is really the spooky old house next door—in dire need of a good scrubbing. Ever helpful, the boys set-to, cleaning and sweeping. They get the willies from weird noises and sinister characters sneaking in and out of secret passages hidden in the walls. Yikes! Nazi spies are on the loose. Bela’s in there somewhere, too. Hijinks ensue.

Historical Context and Significance
With limited acting range, an often impenetrable Hungarian accent, and apparently horrible agents, the legendary Bela Lugosi went from overnight stardom in Dracula (1931) to near total obscurity in less than a decade. By the end of his life, the faded horror star and morphine addict was reduced to appearances in the ridiculous films of Edward D. Wood Jr. (Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space). In this double feature we catch Bela mid-career, making the painful transition from celebrity to mediocrity, as his name would soon lend only marginal marquee value to a film project. The two films on this disc feature the wee thespian and comedic talents of the East Side Kids, a comedy troupe that began life at Warner Brothers as the Dead End Kids. Like Bela, the Dead End/East Side Kids (and later billed as The Bowery Boys) would make scores of forgettable films on puny budgets well into the 1950s. By then, some of the actors were pushing 40. Now middle-age teenagers may not be a laff riot, but their strained comedy and overwrought antics give these films a surreal, almost hypnotic quality. In sum, we’re talking bad-movie night, which is good. Remember — hilarity is hilarity, intentional or otherwise.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Image and sound quality are surprisingly crisp and clear for two films that have long been in the public domain, meaning the copyright has lapsed. Any rube with recording equipment and access to a negative can mass-produce and sell these titles. This humble reviewer has squandered hours of his life watching horrid B movies in lurid fascination, and I write with complete conviction that these movies have never looked or sounded better, given their age and the hurried manner in which each was shot and assembled more than 60 years ago.

Monogram Pictures, which produced this pair, was notorious for cranking ‘em out: three or four films per month. Although directors Phil Rosen (Spooks) and William Beaudine (Ghosts) each had a reputation for getting the shot in one take, good or bad — “cut, print, let’s move on” — these films still offer respectable cinematography and a suitably spooky atmosphere. Ghosts offers the cleaner print of the two. Blacks are rich and even in tone, with no artifacts to be seen. That’s virtually unheard of for a public-domain title digitized to DVD. Spooks is more problematic. Until the midway point, the jumpy print is all itchy and scratchy, with visible splices and a soundtrack that is clearly warped and stretched. Both films are presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with mono sound.

While we may groan at the strained plots and threadbare production values, Monogram Pictures gave many people their first shot in the business. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, who co-wrote Spooks, had greatness fermenting inside him. A decade later, he would write High Noon, creating iconographic characters for Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. So whether we look at this disc as a prime example of Bad Cinema, or as a proving ground for future talent, this double-feature should be a fascinating treat for B-movie fanatics, especially Bela Lugosi compleatists.

The Contrarian View
As comedy, this is pathetic stuff. Bela looks sick most of the time (possibly suffering a broken heart over a derailed career), while the East Side Kids work mighty hard to little effect, considering the scant chuckles they manage to yank from an audience. Similarly, extra features are in scarce supply on this disc — just one chapter of an old Lugosi serial, which at best could only whet the appetite to buy more product. And that is obviously the intent.

A minor quibble: the main disc menu features Ghosts before Spooks, yet the latter was released two years earlier. The print of Ghosts is far and away superior to the second feature, so placing it first may have been intentional: Give us a clean print and maybe we won’t gripe about the inferior quality of the second film. Still, it’s annoying that the titles aren’t in chronological order.

As mild diversions, these cheap productions might provide a laugh or two on a slow Friday night. But the real value may be from a historical perspective. Film buffs will be fascinated by Lugosi’s eccentric performances, or the occasional glimpse of future stars. Ava Gardner would eventually hit the big time in major MGM productions, while obscure journeyman actor Rossito carved a decent living out of playing sinister midgets.

I commend Good Times Home Video for presenting reasonably good transfers of low-rent films, but especially for keeping these movies alive and available. For connoisseurs of schlock, this stuff is priceless.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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