13 Chilling Episodes of “Suspense” Radio to Enjoy for Halloween

maninblackCall me old-fashioned, but I prefer horrors left to my own imagination. Perhaps that’s why I find old-time radio (OTR, to its fans) so efficiently unsettling. In the right context, a few creaks, groans, and a diabolical laugh can be enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck.

But why is a blogger obsessed with classic movies featuring radio? Well, the golden ages of both Hollywood and American radio drama intertwined considerably. Alfred Hitchcock himself launched Suspense in 1942 with a tense radio adaptation of The Lodger, the same story he’d filmed in 1927.

One of the most prestigious and longest-running classic radio programs, Suspense specialized in—you guessed it—thrillers and potboilers, presenting a guest star each week. The show’s tour-de-force leading roles gave top Hollywood acting talent, radioincluding such major stars as Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and Myrna Loy, a chance to prove how effectively they could work on the audience’s nerves with their voices alone.

Most Suspense radio plays fall into the vein of crime melodrama. However, when the show went in for horror, whether supernatural or psychological, it plunged into bloody and unnatural deeds with relish.

You can listen to all of these world-class programs for free. I’ve embedded audio for the episodes here.

So, what are you waiting for? Cozy up with a cup of cocoa and turn the lights down low. Fair warning, though: these episodes are well calculated to keep you in… suspense!

1. “The House in Cypress Canyon” (aired 12/5/1946)

robert_taylorAsk any OTR junkie about the creepiest episodes ever to travel the airwaves, and this chiller is bound to come up. An industrial chemist (Robert Taylor) and his wife consider themselves lucky when they buy a quaint new house in Cypress Canyon. Little do they know an insidious force behind the closet door threatens to destroy them.

With a terrifying, ambiguous plotline that the listener could interpret in any number of ways, “Cypress Canyon” will haunt you far beyond its half-hour runtime. Need a starting point for getting into OTR? Look no further!

 

2. “Ghost Hunt” (aired  6/23/1949)

ralph_edwardsA cocky radio host spends the night in a notorious haunted house and takes his microphone with him. He never makes it out, but the recording of his last hours hints at what drove him to a sudden death.

Not only does this creative episode deliver major goosebumps, but it also foreshadows the “found footage” horror subgenre. Plus, if you dislike guest star Ralph Edwards as much as I do for his patronizing treatment of Buster Keaton and Frances Farmer on This Is Your Life, you’ll thoroughly enjoy listening to him descend into madness!

 

3. “Three Skeleton Key” (aired 11/11/56)

vincent_price_radioNot for the squeamish, this episode. On an isolated French island colony, a trio of bickering lighthouse keepers find themselves under siege. A horde of rats arrives on a derelict ship after months at sea—and they’re hungry.

As producer William M. Robson warned listeners, “It is unconditionally guaranteed to chill your blood… unless you love rats.” In my opinion, he wasn’t exaggerating. Guest star Vincent Price could make oatmeal advertisements sound stomach-churningly gruesome, but here he’s working with serious gross-out material at his ghoulish best. Plus, the high-pitched, gibbering squeaks of those ravenous rodents will make your skin crawl.

 

4. “Narrative About Clarence” (aired 3/16/1944)

laird_cregarOne of the creepiest screen villains of the 1940s, Laird Cregar lends his soft, insinuating baritone to this tale of revenge and mesmerism. After studying the secret mystic practices of India, n’er-do-well Clarence returns home to stay with his half-sister, Lillian, and her skeptical husband.

Before you can say “hocus pocus,” the self-proclaimed mental scientist is using his powers to control Lillian’s young daughter. Can Clarence be stopped before he settles a long-festering family grudge in the ugliest way possible?

 

5. “August Heat” (aired 5/31/1945)

ronald_colmanOn a stiflingly hot late summer day, an artist (Ronald Colman) draws a picture of a man he’s never seen—a man he happens to meet that very afternoon. But what does it mean when that man turns out to be a funerary mason who’s made a tombstone for the artist purely by chance?

The text of W. F. Havey’s short story about coincidence and premonitions of death hardly seems meaty or dramatic enough for even a half-hour program. Nevertheless, clever writing, snippets of otherworldly music, and some subtly foreboding sounds at the end make it all work, offering a brilliant example of radio’s singular spell.

 

6. “The Whole Town Sleeping” (aired 6/14/1955)

aggieThere’s nothing supernatural or occult about this gripping episode—just a flesh-and-blood serial killer, stalking women who pass through a ravine on the edge of a little midwestern town. The ultimate radio drama heroine, Agnes Moorehead rips into the material, penned by Ray Bradbury, with her usual tightly-wound élan.

Since much of the story is told in real-time—step-by-step as the protagonist walks home in the dark—the audience powerfully identifies with her fear. This is one of those horrors that frighten us so deeply because they’re not as removed from real life as we’d like to believe.

 

7. “Donovan’s Brain” (5/18 and 5/25/1944)

orson_wellesA scientist recovers the brain of a recently deceased tycoon and decides to use it for his experiments. Soon the brain’s power is reaching out to control the will of the man studying it.

This adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel hit the airwaves almost a decade before the story served as the basis for the cult sci-fi film starring Lew Ayres. And the radio play is scarier. Way scarier. Let’s just say the ending isn’t quite as cheery as the film’s.

Orson Welles delivers possibly the finest radio performance of his career, voicing both the calculating, pedantic scientist and the gruff, domineering Donovan. Running a full hour, this two-part episode lets the creepiness linger and build slowly, as the beeping, bubbling sounds of the lab gizmos that keep the brain alive grow utterly oppressive.

 

8. “Fugue in C-Minor” (aired 6/1/1944)

vincent_priceFor a late 19th century lady in search of a husband, Mr. Evans seemed like the perfect catch: a sophisticated, rich widower. Such a shame about his first wife, who died in a carriage accident.

Why, then, do his little children insist that their mother is walled up in vast mechanisms of their father’s pipe organ?

Ida Lupino and Vincent Price strike just the right note of buttoned-up Victorian paranoia in this original play by Lucille Fletcher, who contributed several of Suspense’s most famous episodes. And sepulchral organ music adds a sense of doom and dignity to this bloodcurdling Gothic homage.

This is a recording of a rehearsal; the actual broadcast has been lost, I believe.

 

9. “Flesh Peddler” (aired 8/4/1957)

deforest_kelleyWho doesn’t love a creepy ventriloquist story? A dogged talent agent (DeForest Kelley)—or a “flesh peddler” in carnie parlance—sees Arthur Wilson and his dummy Oliver in a cheap carnival and senses something compelling about their chemistry. Trying to sign the act, the flesh peddler gets a little more than he bargained for…

Despite an implausible ending, the noirish rhythm of the dialogue and the cast of midway “freaks” endow this episode with a sordid, Tod Browning-esque ambiance that’s difficult to wash off afterwards.

 

10. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (aired 7/29/1948) 

aggie_mooreheadEnclosed or limited settings showcased the strengths of radio as a medium, minimizing the complex imagery that cinema often does better in favor of searing character studies. And few tales are more claustrophobic than Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s first-person account of a woman imprisoned in her own home.

Confined by her husband for an unspecified health condition, a doctor’s wife begins to obsess over the ripped yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. At first, she hates its garish pattern, until she thinks she notices a woman trapped behind it… The ever-superb Agnes Moorehead manages to cultivate our sympathy for the narrator’s plight while simultaneously creeping us out with her bizarre, elaborate fantasies.

 

11. “Deep, Deep Is My Love” (aired 4/26/1959)

lloyd_bridgesDon (Lloyd Bridges) loves to skin dive alone, explaining to his wife that he needs some time to himself beneath the waves. He’s lying; he only wants to join the golden woman who beckons to him from an underwater grotto.

The trouble is, Don isn’t sure that the strange woman really exists. Perhaps narcosis—nitrogen intoxication, a side effect of diving—is playing a deadly trick on him.

Vivid descriptions of marine life and seascapes imbue this episode with a lyrical, almost hallucinatory quality. On the other hand, the wheezing respiration of Don’s mask, his oxygen diminishing with each breath, maintains the delicate balance between his seductive dreams and a lethal reality.

 

12. “The Black Door” (aired 11/19/61)

A young archeologist travels to the jungles of Central America to search for “the City of the Fire God.” Teaming up with a local guide, our intrepid hero follows the trail down to a temple in the center of an extinct volcano. What could possibly go wrong?

I tend to find later episodes of Suspense overblown and tacky, but this one proves an exception. The mysterious, exotic score and intense narration recall some of the show’s spookiest fare from the ’40s and ’50s.

 

13. “The Hitch-Hiker” (aired 9/2/1942)

Any list would be incomplete without this ominous classic. A lonely driver (Orson Welles) encounters a phantom hitchhiker who somehow seems to precede his car wherever it goes. Modern listeners aren’t in for any surprises, but this episode’s desolate, somber atmosphere (amplified by music from the great Bernard Herrmann) gets its hooks in you and doesn’t let go. Just don’t listen to it on your next solo road trip…

 

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any nightmares you may experience after listening to these after dark. But, as Orson Welles says, “Personally, I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t like a good ghost story…”

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Dracula (1931): The Eye of the Storm

drac1Nobody’s been able to kill Tod Browning’s Dracula, but that sure hasn’t stopped critics from beating a dead… um, vampire.

Sadly, it’s become rather fashionable to dismiss the original Dracula as an overrated relic, lauded mostly because of its status as the first sound horror film.

Why, last week even I noted that the camerawork in the Spanish-language Dracula makes Browning’s movie, shot simultaneously, seem anemic by comparison. And I do stand by that statement; Spanish Drácula is a more technically accomplished film.

However, today I come not to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart, but to praise it as a brilliant piece of cinema. It’s time for me to reveal my undying (though not undead) devotion to the Lugosi version.

Are other adaptations of Stoker’s classic more faithful? More dynamic? More emotionally involving? Certainly. But I don’t think Browning wanted to shock us or take us on a thrill ride, although he could have. (Watch The Unknown if you don’t believe me!)

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Dracula may appear primitive, but therein lies its uncanny beauty. Sometimes sophistication isn’t half as convincing as simplicity. Eschewing ostentatious special effects and action sequences, the director chose to chill his audience with the silence and stillness of the grave.

As the documentary Universal Horror pointed out, audiences were accustomed to music during the silent era, so Browning wisely deployed the hissing nothingness of Dracula’s early talkie soundtrack to spook viewers. Similarly, the somnambulistic staging and acting reflect the emptiness of Dracula himself, a walking, talking corpse. Why do we wonder at film’s inertia? Its deadly title character freezes all that surrounds him, transforming every space into a tomb.

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And there’s something elemental and profound about how those famously Gothic visuals unfold. We watch the coffins open, the rodents and insects crawling around them, the dead brides rising. And then, the camera tracks into the Master, slowly, as though our desire to see, our curiosity, were an irresistible gravitational pull. This iconic scene doesn’t serve character or narrative—we’ve already been told who and what the Count is. The images urge us to feast our eyes on decaying, eerie splendor, the ultimate in decadence. Everything about Dracula’s introduction calls out to us, tempting us just to look and be caught in looking by a creature that controls humans through their eyes.

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By regressing to an archaic, almost presentational style of filmmaking, this adaptation seeks to regress the audience back to the receptivity of childhood or perhaps to the superstitious dread of our ancestors. Dracula is no mere movie. It is a ritual, a summoning, almost a séance.

Lest we forget, in 1931, a movie character who turns out to be a vampire, not a criminal masquerading as one, was a revolutionary—and risky—proposition. The original Dracula trailer marketed the film not so much with promises of shudders, but rather with disturbing questions: “Do vampires really exist? Do they leave their prisons in the dark hours—reaching out for new victims?”

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For over 80 years since, we spectators have been training our suspension of disbelief, but we must remember that Dracula was a key film in setting up our credulity in the face of the impossible. Without Browning and Lugosi’s success in presenting a bloodsucking demon as stark reality, horror as a talkie genre might not have developed to the extent it has… or not at all.

The need to establish credibility explains the film’s apparently unimaginative style. Innovative editing or florid tracking shots might’ve startled us out of the hypnotic spell that Lugosi casts with his penlight-enhanced eyes. We accept the vampire as a threat because he doesn’t seem like a trick of the camera—or a product of hours spent in the makeup chair. His dark glamour locks right into our schema for dangerous melodrama seducers, gaining audiences’ acceptance because he modifies a type of villain they recognize. Lugosi created a vampire that suited Hollywood perfectly, luring victims and viewers alike with his imposing charm.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m26s110But, in the end, what makes Lugosi’s performance immortal, frightening, yet charismatic? What pushes his performance over the edge from bad guy to pure, ageless evil?

In my opinion, the throw-away shots of Lugosi—the ones that almost get lost among the jack-o’-lantern close-ups and those erotic bite scenes—often reveal most about his definitive interpretation of the Count.

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For instance, after Dracula leans in to bite Renfield at Castle Dracula, the scene shifts to the Vesta, a ship bound for England. Now the Count’s servant, the maddened, hysterical Renfield wakes the Master up while a tempest pummels the ship. Once he’s risen from his coffin, Dracula glides above deck. As the camera gently rocks to suggest the shifting of the waves, the Count gazes offscreen with detachment and the sounds of the storm swirl on the soundtrack.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m58s172Browning cuts to shots of the ship’s deck, as men in rain slickers desperately struggle against the might of the gale, trying to control the violently thrashing ship. And then he cuts back to the Count, unaffected literally by the storm and figuratively the misery and imminent doom of the sailors.

This juxtaposition, bordering on a lack of continuity, between the motion of the ship and the comparative stillness of the Count, endows the shots with an unearthly quality. He’s the eye of the storm and everything around him, everything he touches, turns dead calm.

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As I revisited Dracula a few days ago, this overlooked moment reminded me of a passage from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. A bit of a leap, I know, but this is how Marlowe describes the Svengali-esque blackmailer Amthor:

“His eyes were deep… And they were also eyes without expression, without soul, eyes that could watch lions tear a man to pieces and never change, that could watch a man impaled and screaming in the hot sun with his eyelids cut off.”

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-15h06m05s40The allusion to a certain very specific torture leads me to suspect that Chandler had the model for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, specifically in mind when he wrote that. In any case, what Chandler evokes here, the utter lack of compassion for (or even reaction to) suffering, helped me pinpoint the unique attribute that Lugosi conjured as the Count.

The classically-trained 49-year-old actor—who’d ironically won acclaim as Hungary’s foremost Passion Play Jesus once upon a time—brought a diabolic, remorseless disdain to Dracula that remains unmatched. But he didn’t need to express it or emote it. He projects it even when totally motionless, exuding that disdain from every line of his arrogant, mask-like face, communicating it with his aristocratic, rigid posture. And film’s oddly static style parallels the unholy immutability and the frozen contempt of Dracula.

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Which brings me to the part of Dracula that I find most frightening. I’ve probably seen this film a hundred times since childhood, but the flower girl scene never fails to creep me out. To refresh your memory, on a London street corner, a waif is selling violets for gentlemen’s buttonholes. A new prospective client, seen as the a silhouette of a top hat and a sweeping cloak, towering over the tiny girl, steps out of the mist.

If foreboding were an image, it would look like this.

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Still shown in long shot, the flower girl opens her mouth in amazement. In close-up, Dracula bears down on her, his eyes glowing. The girl stares back in stupefied terror. And then he leans in, as though to kiss her, pushing her back behind a column. Her pathetic shriek pierces the air.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h50m07s29Immediately afterwards, the Count strides along the street in his top hat and cape, satiated and puffed up by his latest meal. A whistle shrieks. Bystanders gather around the column and huddle over the flower girl’s dead body.

Meanwhile, Browning shifts to an establishing shot of the theater where the next important scene will take place. That’s the only real narrative purpose for the image, although Karl Freund embellished it with a subtle crane movement. In a slightly closer shot, Dracula arrives, turning around to survey the people coming and going. If you’re watching closely, you’ll see his lips curl into something like a scornful smile. There it is again—that glimmer of arrogance, that immovable conceit.

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The notion that this monster can look at a human being, a vulnerable girl trying to eke out a living, and think of her as a snack, scares the daylights out of me. It scares me more than all the spilled viscera and jump shocks in horror movies since. That brief episode defines Dracula’s depravity, leaving the viewer surprised and mildly disgusted.

The random ruthlessness of the flower girl scene haunts me most, though, because it punctures the romantic aura of the vampire myth. Dracula resembles a hot-blooded lover in the Valentino mold, but the Count’s sangfroid and his icy contempt put him in a freakish category all his own. And yet, we’re still attracted to him, aren’t we? (Speaking for myself, I’ll come out and say it: yes.)

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Lugosi incarnated what I consider the most seductive portrayal of evil captured on film. As he creeps towards the camera, advancing on the audience as well as Mina, his face contorted into a hungry grimace, we’re repulsed, yet spellbound. I suppose that’s partially what I mean when I say that Dracula is a summoning. It calls up some primal region in the human psyche where predatory impulses, which we rationally reject, become desirable—in spite of ourselves.

Whatever its detractors say, Dracula resonates in its unnerving stillness, compelling us to sit uncomfortably with all of the conflicting human feelings that this inhuman creature stirs up.

In 1950, when asked about his most famous role and its impact, Lugosi replied, “Dracula never ends.” And, you know, he was right.

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Doctor X (1932): The Triumph of the Weird

posterA cannibal serial killer prowls the city streets on full-moon nights. Mad doctors perform sick biological experiments in secret labs. And Fay Wray shrieks in a silky, sheer negligée. Doctor X really wants to push your buttons… whatever buttons you’ve got.

As the film’s Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (famous for his English-language malapropisms) declared, “It’ll make your blood curl!”

After the double box office smash of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Warner Brothers decided to outdo Universal—which started the horror trend—in terms of shock value. Jumping on the craze for scary movies, the Warners shrewdly turned out a gruesome chiller all their own. Even in the context of no-holds-barred pre-Code Hollywood, the word bizarre doesn’t begin to cover Doctor X.

Unsurprisingly, the hardboiled studio of gangster dramas and newspaper comedies brought a radically different, absurd sensibility to the horror genre. Opting against a supernatural thriller or a Gothic adaptation, producers bought a spooky stage play and built an ultra-modern sci-fi whodunit on that framework. Rather than trying to evoke the tenebrous black-and-white poetry of Universal’s chillers, Doctor X attracted viewers in droves with the novelty of bloodcurdling deeds captured in color.

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Yes, that’s right: we’re talking about a feature film from 1932 shot in color. But a very special kind of color.

What we all recognize as glorious Technicolor—exemplified by films like Gone with the Wind and The Red Shoes—is a three-strip process, which combines blue, green, and red to reproduce a complete and vivid range of tones. However, Doctor X is one of comparatively few full-length movies filmed entirely in the earlier two-strip Technicolor process. Expensive and inconvenient, requiring sweltering hot lights, color tests, and special technicians and advisors, two-strip Technicolor still registered colors only as shades or derivatives of red and green.

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 I say, darling, you’re looking rather pink today…

Although two-strip Technicolor couldn’t reproduce the full spectrum of reality, this disadvantage suited the oddball plot of Doctor X perfectly. In the words of an original ad, Doctor X looks “so different it might have been filmed in another world.” Since a major plot point involves (slight spoiler alert!) synthetic flesh, the fact that about half of the colors show up in flesh tones—or else a sickly green—amps up the creep-out factor. When the villain finally does reveal himself, the sequence makes us wonder if we’re hallucinating. Electrodes buzz and blink as the man-made monster smears his face with molten flesh putty, all the more revolting in shades of leprous pink-orange set off by ominous green shadows.

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Curtiz looks on as Wray gets a lipstick touch-up on the set

Director Michael Curtiz (who’d go on to helm The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) wasn’t anybody’s dream boss, marching around the set begrudging the cast their lunch breaks. As Fay Wray recalled, “It was like he was part of the camera. He was steel.” Nevertheless, his expressionistic flair incorporated the two-strip Technicolor palette to masterful effect. Instead of trying to minimize the strangeness of the color process, Curtiz indulged his preference for silhouettes, showy compositions, and jarring angles. All of these elements, in conjunction with the unnatural hues, contribute to the audience’s sense of nightmarish disorientation.

Years before Douglas Sirk styled his celebrated Technicolor delirium, Curtiz harnessed psychedelic hues of rose and emerald to put the viewer into a kind of trance, mentally preparing us to swallow an implausible storyline.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h12m29s71And what a loony storyline it is… When the police suspect that someone from a prestigious research institute has committed a string of heinous cannibalistic sex crimes and mutilations, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) makes a deal. If the cops keep the matter quiet for 48 hours, he’ll use cutting-edge technology to find the guilty man among his staff and save his institute’s reputation. It’s ethical to do that, right? Meanwhile, wisecracking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) crashes Xavier’s remote lair to get the scoop. In the process, he’ll shake skeletons in the closet (literally!), go head-to-head with the terrifying killer, and romance Xavier’s feisty daughter.

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With its satirical, sinister portrayal of medical researchers, Doctor X betrays an abject disillusionment with—and mistrust of—scientific progress in general and scientists in particular. Only a year before, Colin Clive had portrayed Dr. Frankenstein as a dashing misunderstood genius, a romantic matinee idol Prometheus. By contrast, Dr. Xavier and his colleagues come across as, at best, eccentrics and, at worst, dirty old men who channel repressed sexual impulses into kinky experiments and flashy lab gizmos.

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Curtiz frames the film’s most striking shots with some chemical or electrical apparatus interposing between the viewer and the characters. The bubbling flasks or sparkling electrodes in the foreground loom large and dwarf the scientists, making them seem vaguely ridiculous. Even when the laboratory paraphernalia doesn’t dominate the screen space, it draws the eye, distracting from the scientists themselves. They are not masters of their chosen field, we understand, but slaves to it, consumed by their fetishized equipment and their dangerous projects.

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In its grotesquely comic way, the film suggests that all of Xavier’s colleagues, and even the doctor himself, are likely candidates for serial killers. Frankly, the shock isn’t that a murderer walks among them. It’s that only one of them is a murderer! Consider this exchange between two of the doctors, right as they’re about to submit to Xavier’s physiological examination:

—Were the murdered women… attacked?

—Does your mind never flow into any other channel?

—What do you mean by that?

—I mean that one day your sadistic tendencies may carry you too far, Dr. Haines!

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In case you missed it, “attacked” serves as a not-so-subtle euphemism for “sexually assaulted.” Can I get a great big yuck for that dark little peek into the minds of guys claiming to be mankind’s benefactors? Without doubt, Doctor X hints that perversity instead of goodwill drives scientists to immerse their lives in study and research. Even Dr. Xavier has to rationalize his comrades’ creepy behavior to the cops by explaining, “Sometimes, in the overdevelopment of one part of the brain, another part is weakened.”

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But even if that’s true, does the doctors’ collective brainpower justify their volatility? Um, no. At least, that’s what the movie seems to conclude. Ultimately, Xavier’s elaborate experiment—designed to unmask the killer by monitoring fluctuations in his heartbeat as he watches a reenactment of his crime—fails spectacularly. Twice. Xavier’s theories practically have their own body count!

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Whenever I watch Doctor X, the movie’s dim outlook on the scientific perspective reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a fascinating treatise on the power of rare events. As Taleb explains, “Before Western thinking drowned in its ‘scientific’ mentality, what is arrogantly called the Enlightenment, people prompted their brain to think—not compute.”

Sound familiar? Xavier unquestioningly relies on ice-cold logic. And logic lets him down. Big time. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that what seems like a perfectly reasonable inference almost proves the death of his nearest and dearest… The unforeseen twist or “black swan” that Dr. X implicitly eliminates from his pool of possibilities returns to haunt him with all-too-real consequences.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h11m03s232According to Taleb, academically bright individuals like Xavier and his lab-coat-wearing compadres often succumb to the “ludic fallacy.” That is, they tend to think (erroneously) that we can model life’s uncertainties with straightforward calculations and probabilities. In so doing, however, such traditional thinkers ignore the larger, fuzzy probabilities or “unknown unknowns” that enter into any given situation. Meanwhile, the real risks of life are bizarre and off-model. Freak occurrences shape the course of human history much more than we’d like to believe.

To vastly oversimplify Taleb’s point, we live in a weird world. So, having a weird mind, one prone to farfetched theories instead of rationality, might be a strong edge for survival. And only by scrutinizing weirdness can we ever begin to understand, well, anything at all.

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Which brings us back to Doctor X and its real protagonist. The movie might bear Xavier’s name, but it truly belongs to Lee Tracy as Taylor, the brash, fast-talking newspaperman. Taylor’s gift for sensational journalism spurs him to speculate wildly and focus on outlier events like the so-called “moon killings.” Taylor doesn’t command society’s respect like Xavier does. However, he saves the day—while all the doctors sit incapacitated by their logic, literally handcuffed by the rules of their experiment.

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When I first watched Doctor X, I felt that Taylor, with his morbid quips and upbeat demeanor, belonged to another movie. Then I realized that he actually reflects the movie’s oddness even better than the nutty doctors.

Despite their own deviant weirdness, the scientists don’t allow for the true enormity of the world’s weirdness in their calculations. Despite Taylor’s outward normalcy, he does. He rolls with the weird and actively seeks it out. His zigzag brain hasn’t closed itself off to black swans and freak occurrences.

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Thanks to Taylor, I have a new theory about life: you need to live it as though you’re in a 1930s horror movie.

No, I’m not suggesting you roam around misty moors at midnight in a lacy nightgown. What I actually mean is, don’t act like most characters in 1930s horror movies—who have no inkling they’re in 1930s horror movies and tend to baulk at the idea of monsters and psycho-killers.

In life as in film, it pays to contemplate the improbable, to steep yourself in it, rather than scoffing at it. And perhaps no movie defines “improbable” for me better than Doctor X.

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Funnily enough, every time I tweet this film with the #TCMParty someone complains, “Ugh. I hate colorized movies,” because he or she has automatically rejected the possibility of a color feature from the early 1930s.

Regardless of whether we think it should or shouldn’t exist, though, it does.

So, in its own way, Doctor X—the first horror film shot entirely in color—is something of a cinematic black swan… a triumph of the weird.

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As of this writing, you can stream Doctor X on Warner Archive Instant (which I totally recommend signing up for). So check it out for Halloween!

 

Night Shift: 6 Reasons to Watch Universal’s Spanish-language Dracula (1931)

villariasThey worked like children of the night, shooting from sundown to sunrise. Directed by a man who didn’t know a word of their language, the Spanish-speaking actors filmed an obscure alternative version of what would become one of the most famous movies of all time.

“Above all,” explains Lupita Tovar, the film’s heroine, “we wanted our version to be the best.” And, in many ways, it is.

For those of us who’ve watched and rewatched the Lugosi version, the simultaneously shot Drácula opens up a mind-boggling parallel universe—one with much improved camerawork and often more convincing acting.

This is a lavish, artful film in its own right, so much more than the “bonus feature” it’s listed as on home releases. If I haven’t hooked you already, here’s why any movie buff or horror fan needs to see Drácula.

 1. You’ll discover a little-known chapter of Hollywood history.

Why did a relatively small American studio make a foreign-language film in the 1930s? The answer, as usual with Hollywood, can be expressed by a single character: $.

With the coming of talkies, the problem of producing films for profitable foreign markets turned into a major headache for Hollywood. Unlike silent films, for which translated intertitles could simply be edited into prints, synchronized sound pictures posed a new obstacle. Dubbing was difficult and felt phony to audiences (like it still does, actually). Eager to keep up business during the early days of the Depression, studios recycled sets, costumes, and sometimes even actors to churn out complete foreign-language versions of some movies.

melfordGeorge Melford directing an early scene in Drácula

Spanish proved the language of choice for these alternate productions, although studios occasionally green-lit German and French versions. At Universal Studios, a Spanish-language version of the now-lost thriller The Cat Creeps offered Lupita Tovar, a beautiful Mexican actress, her first starring film role. Tovar proved so enchanting that Universal executive Paul Kohner not only championed a Spanish-language Dracula, but also fell in love with its star. Fair warning: once you’ve watched Drácula, you will, too.

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2. The flamboyant cinematography makes Browning’s version look positively anemic by comparison.

Most alternate foreign-language versions can’t hold a flickering Gothic candelabra to the English originals. Drácula, helmed by veteran silent director George Melford, is the exception, largely thanks to the fluid camera movements, tracing creepy arabesques around the set.

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You don’t have to wait long for an example of this superb camerawork. Our first glimpse of Dracula in his element practically bursts off the screen. As the sinister count appears on the stairs of his castle, the camera surges up the steps towards him. Universal’s famous crane—constructed for Broadway (1929) and repurposed in any number of films—endows the moment with a startling, supernatural ambiance, delivering a real visual jolt. Similarly, when the Count stands beneath Renfield’s asylum window, the camera tracks in from a long shot to a medium close-up, as though the vampire’s evil will were drawing us to him.

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In 1931, Universal had recently acquired a print of Nosferatu; Murnau’s grim, nightmarish vision, as well as the German expressionist aesthetic in general, clearly influenced Drácula more than its English-language counterpart. For instance, Melford devotes more screen time to the storm scene on the Vesta, piling shock value on a part of the narrative that Browning uses mostly for expositional purposes. Medium close-ups of the dead captain, Renfield’s shrieks in the gale, and Dracula’s rise from the ship’s hold all hit home for maximum scare power. And isn’t that what this is all about?

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3. The luminous Lupita Tovar runs the gamut from adorable to terrifying (even though she’s not called Mina in this version).

Rechristened Eva in Spanish, the Count’s main target undergoes a startling transformation when she comes under his malign influence. Tovar’s Eva shifts from a cheerful, normal girl to a morose, haunted victim. Now, I respect Helen Chandler’s stylized, anhedonic performance as Mina, but she hardly changes throughout the film and thus engages my sympathy far less.

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Tovar says that she put a lot of her own personality into Eva, making her “lively” in the beginning. We see that mischievous side as she insistently teases Lucia about her attraction to Dracula, ducking out from the door she just exited to deliver another friendly jab. Eva’s fearful, depressive state after Dracula’s first attack on her affects viewers all the more since we recognize the frightening trauma that’s overtaken her.

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With the Count’s blood coursing through her veins, however, Eva turns positively maniacal. Though she’s even livelier that she was before, Tovar evokes a vivacity at once seductive and unnatural. Her fiendishly aggressive, erotically charged interpretation of female vampirism was decades ahead of its time. I mean, Ingrid Pitt wasn’t even born yet!

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That said, Tovar did have some help from the costume department… In an interview, she noted, “I remember when I saw the English version later, the wardrobe was different. The dresses that Helen Chandler wore were all covered up. What they gave me were big décolletées, you know, what you’d call sexy. I wasn’t even aware of it!”

Amazing note: as of this writing, the legendary Ms. Tovar is alive and well at age 104. Long may she reign as the oldest living scream queen!

4. Pablo Alvárez Rubio delivers one of the most intense performances you’ll ever see on film.

Who would’ve thought anyone could act more strung-out than Dwight Frye, the English version’s giggling Renfield? Well, Spanish-born Pablo Alvárez Rubio reminds me of what Al Pacino would do with the part of Renfield. At one point, he literally chomps the scenery, gnawing on a chair in Dr. Seward’s office!

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Alvárez Rubio slips into hamminess, but it’s an epic kind of hamminess, the kind that assists us in believing the unbelievable. His frenzied, melodramatic acting in mad scenes impacts us because he starts out the story as such a friendly, likable fellow. (I adore Frye, but his subtly chilly quality as an actor puts us off a bit, in contrast with Alvárez Rubio’s easy affability.) Even once Renfield becomes Dracula’s servant, Alvárez Rubio rivals Frye for his ability to convey the tortured character’s fluctuating moods. One moment he seizes a fly with the fury of a wild beast; the next he filters back to his civilized self, apologizing to the doctors for his behavior.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-10h37m18s50Lupita Tovar remembered that his talent for simulating insanity astounded—and worried—the cast and crew: “We thought he was going to go crazy.” A real pro, though, Alvárez Rubio needed only a single take to harness his morbid pyrotechnics. Treat yourself to his ferociously tormented interpretation of Renfield.

5. It’s significantly longer than the English version.

Yup. That’s right. The Spanish version runs almost a full 30 minutes longer, bringing Drácula to a length that seems more appropriate for a modern feature than an early talkie. The additional length does take a toll on the plot, which seems to wander a bit more than the efficient English Dracula. However, on the positive side, the runtime gave director Melford and his cast breathing room to create more poignant relationships between the characters.

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If I have one issue with the Dracula we all know, it’s that the cast appears only mildly annoyed by the prospect of Mina and Lucy suffering a fate genuinely worse than death. By contrast, the Spanish version explores the pain of watching someone you care about fall apart. After Van Helsing discovers the bite marks on Eva’s throat, her father gives her a hug. His drawn-out, scared, paternal embrace stresses the relatable fear of losing a child. Similarly, Juan and Eva’s romance displays a mixture of tenderness, passion, and even a sparkle of fun that’s missing from the chemistry between Helen Chandler and David Manners.

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Within that extra half-hour, Melford also took the time to show spooky stuff you won’t see in the other version, such as shots of Dracula prowling through moonlit woods. The brief medical examination scene also presents us with one of the most grisly, yet matter-of-fact shots of the 1930s: an extended close-up of the two puncture marks made by a vampire’s fangs!

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-10h31m11s221 6. No, he’s not Lugosi, but Carlos Villarías as the Count conjured up a campy creepiness all his own.

Sadly, the one aspect of Drácula that indisputably falls short of the English version turned out to be the most essential: the title performance. Film historians tend to blame Spanish-born Villarías for the film’s relative obscurity. And I won’t deny it: Lugosi’s Dracula has more magnetism in his (unseen) fangs than Villarías’s Conde Drácula does in his whole walking cadaver.

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How dare you say that, Nitrate Diva! You’re in for it now!

But holding an actor accountable for playing Dracula and not measuring up to Lugosi just doesn’t strike me as a sporting criticism. Few actors have ever lent their mortal coil to any role so fully as Lugosi did to our favorite bloodsucking fiend. Nobody stacks up to the king of the undead. You set yourself up for disappointment by expecting otherwise.

So, the question to ask—instead of what he lacked—becomes what particular strengths did Villarías bring to the role? In my opinion, the lugubrious heavy served as a kind of missing celluloid link between the pestilential ugliness of Nosferatu and the suaveness of Lugosi. Villarías can believably kiss hands and stride into drawing rooms, but his animalistic nature reveals itself more readily than Lugosi’s.

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Consider his first big scene, on the steps of Castle Dracula: as Renfield struggles with the huge cobweb, Villarías stares down at him, menacing in a low-angle shot, his upper teeth bared and poised on his lip. Throughout the film, the Conde flashes a similar rat-like smile in moments of diabolic delight and visibly gnashes his teeth when cornered. Unlike the did-I-really-just-see-that hint of a smirk that Lugosi uses to suggest malevolence, Villarías’s toothy expressions make Dracula a more traditionally grotesque monster, a fairy tale horror rather than a bedroom villain.

Similarly, in contrast to Lugosi’s balletic predator approach, Villarías attacks the sleeping Lucia by leaning over and eagerly covering her with his cape. As he drapes the cloak over the sleeping victim, he really does resemble a bat, folding his leathery wings.

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Frequent extreme close-ups of Villarías’s glassy, bulbous eyes also heighten the repellent qualities of his interpretation. Given how jarring they are, it’s surprising to note how many of these extreme close-ups the film contains; you begin to feel that they’re almost as frequent as Lugosi’s many matinee idol close-ups in the English version.

vlcsnap-2014-10-10-17h43m37s95These striking shots invade our personal space, as though Villarías as Dracula were bearing down on us, dominating us. And this from a small screen! I can only imagine what they’re like in a movie theater! Reduced to his two glowing peepers, he reminds the viewer of an insect, surveying the world with inhuman, compound eyes. Lugosi deservedly gets the swoons and the shudders, but Villarías deserves some credit for wholeheartedly angling for an “Ewww…” every now and then.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-12h02m32s244I wrote this post as part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by two fantastic bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Kay of Movie Star Makeover. You’re strongly encouraged to check out the other posts!

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A Dream Remembered: Watching Gone with the Wind on Blu-Ray

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Why do we like Scarlett O’Hara?

Perhaps some moralizing readers will interject here, “Well, I don’t.” And there might be something to their reservations. Indeed, in his treatise The Mask of Sanity, psychologist Hervey M. Cleckly used her as a fictional example of sociopathic personality traits!

But I seriously doubt that as Scarlett raises her fist towards an amber sky and vows never to be hungry again anyone in the world wouldn’t root for her, whether knowingly or not. The enormous popularity of Gone with the Wind—and it still holds its place as the all-time domestic box office champion—rests on her slight shoulders and her even slighter sense of decency. Audiences love Scarlett, even if we’re often at a loss to explain why.

However, as I watched the saga on a new Blu-Ray, released with the 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition set, Gone with the Wind began to make sense for me in a way it hadn’t before. The crystalline sharpness and vibrancy of the colors, especially those triumphant oranges and flourishing greens, reminded me of the film’s viciously determined protagonist.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The exaggerated, beautiful palette gives the cinematography a prideful flush, an odd glow of vanity, as though the movie had pinched its cheeks just for us. If Gone with the Wind had been made in black-and-white, I suspect that we wouldn’t like Scarlett, at least not nearly as much as we do.

Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie all praise Scarlett for her will to live, a will so resilient and powerful that most of the other characters survive only by gathering around her, as if to warm themselves on the fiery blaze of her character. Scarlett’s formidable life force pulses through the Technicolor visuals, sumptuous even when portraying misery, defeat, and violence. And those visuals have never looked so sumptuous on my own television screen.

I first watched Gone with the Wind at age 11, on that still-new wonder, DVD. Budding film critic that I was, I found the landmark film grand, stirring, but above all really, really long. The word “overrated” just might have passed through my mind when it was all over. I grew to enjoy the movie more over the years since, but first impressions aren’t easily overpowered.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

By contrast, after I popped in the new Blu-Ray a few days ago, all 238 minutes flew right by. The burnished shine of silks, the downy radiance of individual complexions, the breathtaking range of colors drew me into the drama, heightening the impact of each scene. This time when the film ended, it was the word “revelation” that passed through my mind.

Scarlett’s amorality excluded, perhaps the most enduring criticism of Gone with the Wind focuses on the its relative lack of grittiness or realism. Orson Welles, for instance, praised one masterpiece, Keaton’s The General, by hyperbolically dissing another, saying that the earlier film is “a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone with the Wind,” because the silent film caught the true Matthew Brady-esque look and grain of the Civil War. I adore Orson (and The General, of course), but I think he missed the point.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

From the first, Fleming’s and Selznick’s vision of the old South tells us exactly how to interpret it: as “a dream remembered,” in the words of the text preface. That is, as a double fiction, a nostalgic panorama largely filtered through the experience of a seductive, single-minded heroine. With its sweeping vistas and jewel box of colors, Gone with the Wind coaxes us into committing Scarlett’s grave error: falling in love with something that doesn’t exist. What might seem like mawkish imagery on a DVD becomes an intentionally unreal journey through American history when viewed on Blu-Ray. I don’t pretend to know the difference between banality and insight, but image quality and definition can surely tip the scales where movies are concerned.

For instance, at the conclusion, the somber, light-absorbing blacks and foggy grays jolt us back to reality, bracing the intoxicated spectator for the final blow to Scarlett’s bizarre combination of ruthlessness and optimism. The transition from the mournful colors of Scarlett prostrate on the burgundy staircase to that strange, congratulatory tracking shot over Tara always rang false to me. With this viewing, however, the contrast acquired a deeper meaning that never occurred to me before.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

I realized why we like Scarlett: not only because she clings to dreams, but also because she can negotiate with reality while keeping it at bay. Whether it’s the Yankee she just killed or loss of the man she loves, she’ll clean up the mess now, but never really pick up the pieces (and notice that she makes similar remarks on both occasions). The coping strategy that rules her life is a paradox, but one we all depend on to survive.

In other words, as I rewatched this monument of classical American cinema on Blu-Ray, I felt that I was seeing it for the first time—that the colors could finally tell me their story. During that last shot, we bask in the golden apogee of Scarlett’s escape into herself, an escape that parallels the audience’s own craving for celluloid fantasy and a happy ending.

Yesterdays and tomorrows don’t appear to us in the hues of reality; we want to believe that they’re better than they were or will be. Gone with the Wind does cast aside the sense of photographic verisimilitude that we might expect from a Civil War movie. Instead, it exalts romanticism as cynicism, idealization as pragmatism, demonstrating how myths and dreams sustain us through ugly reality—a Hollywood speciality.

In 1939, millions of Americans could relate to Scarlett, absolving her selfishness because of the beauty of her dreams and the pain of her buried regrets. 75 years later, not much has changed—except that I can watch this film in its glory from the comfort of my living room.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

I strongly recommend the new box set of Gone with the Wind, which includes oodles of special features about the production and its stars, unseen footage from the Atlanta premiere, as well as some delightful memorabilia for the film’s anniversary. If you’re interested, you can also watch my unboxing video on YouTube:

I would like to thank Warner Home Entertainment for providing me with a review copy of the 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

All images used in this post ©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The Invisible Ghost (1941): Poverty Row Poetry

belaposterI love Poverty Row horror movies the same way I love cracked teacups and moldy vintage paperbacks. The bleak visuals, the improbable scripts, the down-on-their-luck casts give these crackly terrors the half-pathetic charm of unwanted things.

Films like Dead Men Walk and Voodoo Man are crowned by a halo of unintentional tragedy, since we often sense the pious devotion of martyrs to their art: talented actors and directors coping with bottom-of-the-barrel production values and perhaps mercifully brief shoots.

For those not as dorky as I, Poverty Row is a label for the cluster of small film studios, like Republic, Monogram, and PRC, that churned out B-movies for movie theater double bills. Their product would be rented to exhibitors at a flat rate—which meant that no matter how good or popular a Poverty Row flick might be, it was unlikely to rake in any more dough than stipulated.

However, far from the micromanagement that talent had to put up with at big A studios, those working in Poverty Row benefited from an astonishing amount of creative freedom. (Read: virtual indifference.) If you could turn in a salable film with something resembling a beginning, middle, and end—in two weeks—then the producers didn’t care what you did.

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While plenty of hacks earned their bread by marching actors around recycled sets, the occasional genius mined precious jewels out of the rough. And Joseph H. Lewis was one of them. Forever immortalized by Gun Crazy, his pulpy noir ballad to l’amour fou, Lewis cut his teeth on grimy B-movies, often imbuing the most routine assignments with an off-kilter grandeur.

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Which brings us to The Invisible Ghost, directed by a rising Lewis and starring a fallen Lugosi in one of 9 movies he made for Monogram. Fans of silents and early talkies will also get right into the gloomy mood at the first sight of a totally unrecognizable, catatonic Betty Compson. After starting her own business, Compson would pull herself out of low-budget actor purgatory, but she’d never forget the “hurt I got down there on Poverty Row.”

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Okay, so the movie itself is a little creaky and preposterous (“We’ve killed off the love interest? Better give him a twin brother…”) and I’ve seen pieces of broccoli who can emote more than the romantic lead. But I still urge you to watch it. There’s something borderline Lynchian about this stodgy American household… with a killer for a father and a crazy mother secretly living in the garage.

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Savor Bela’s soulful performance. Enjoy the refreshingly wise, likable, and dignified role of an African American butler, not forced to sully himself for offensive laughs. Keep an eye out for clever directorial touches—like swish pans, racked focus, and stark changes of lighting to signify the unleashing of Bela’s latent urge to kill. Drink in the duality of this surprisingly dark, despairing cheapie about an outwardly decent man split between tenderness and rage, a man who becomes a stranger to himself.

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And just try to tell me that those fugue-state scenes—in which Bela prowls the house for nubile young women to kill in the place of his long-lost cheating wife, as he creeps towards the camera with a wicked grin—don’t raise a few goosebumps…

The Invisible Ghost has slipped into the public domain, so you can watch it for free on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

Red Dust (1932): Rubber Souls

poster“Clark Gable and Jean Harlow have come to typify… free love and plenty of it. Anybody having the slightest knowledge of youth psychology knows what a disastrous effect such films have on the immature minds of adolescents who see them.” So preached Max Knepper in his humorless 1935 tirade Sodom and Gomorrah: The Story of Hollywood.

Okay, full disclosure time. I started watching Harlow movies in my teens and have since embarked on a life of wantonness, criminal activity, and blogging, so you might want to take this review with a grain of smelling salts.

Ironically enough, Red Dust is a story about morality, bordering on allegory at times. Much to the dismay of America’s bluenoses, however, the most moral individual in the movie turns out to be a wisecracking, unapologetic prostitute. I suspect that what really scared censors about this movie wasn’t the steamy chemistry between Gable and Harlow. No, what must’ve shocked them is that an apparently moral wife willingly succumbs to Gable’s adulterous advances.

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The story tastes like someone put The Letter and Rain into a cocktail shaker with some pineapple juice and thrashed vigorously. Rough-hewn Denny Carson (a moustacheless Gable) runs a rubber plantation in Indochina, occasionally longing to escape the grimy work for a more civilized life. One day he comes back to his bamboo hovel to find Vantine (Harlow), a feisty prostitute hiding out from the law.

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After a few weeks of playtime, Carson stuffs a roll of cash down her blouse and tries to ship her back to Saigon. Falling for the big lug, Vantine decides to stick around instead. The plot thickens when Carson’s new employee Gary arrives with his elegant, tennis-racket-carrying wife, Babs (Mary Astor). Before you can say “The natives are restless,” Carson seduces Babs—in a doozy of a rain-drenched, clingy-white-clothing-swaddled love scene—and cuckolds his deferential underling. Will he break up the marriage or do the right thing by returning to Vantine’s loving arms?

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Despite its underlying racism and occasional creakiness, Red Dust challenges audiences to see through outward signs of virtue and shatters the assumption that a good reputation equals a good heart. This movie makes you think a little—something that self-appointed champions of morality seldom want the public to do for themselves.

A kimono-wearing, platinum-haired hooker might loathe deceitfulness and strive to maintain a standard of decency, whereas a demure country club brunette might cheat on her husband and remorselessly lie to cover it up. Indeed, the lack of an easily recognizable moral horizon makes pre-Code cinema so tantalizing in general. No one has a monopoly on sin. Like the rubber that Carson harvests in the jungle, pre-Code morals are elastic, stretching to fit the situation.

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Red Dust also uncorks a vinegary commentary on the American way of life. At the very end, we learn that Babs and her startlingly bland husband Gary (Gene ‘the yawn’ Raymond) have arrived in San Francisco and no doubt intend to resume their society lifestyle—with hubby never the wiser of what she was getting up to on that rubber plantation.

This schmoe had earlier confided in Carson that he dreamed of traveling to South America, before his marriage put a stop to such a fantasy. In the same scene, Gary launches into a starry-eyed speech about his new, wife-approved vision of children and a house in the country, within commutable distance to New York, of course. It’s the sort of propaganda that would sound maudlin and gooey in any other movie, but, as Carson sits there in the driving rain trying not to betray his guilty secret, the context flavors the monologue with an unmistakable bitterness. The film thus implies, and none too subtly, that your standard, respectable American couple consists of a repressed wife and an emasculated husband.

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Meanwhile, far from the apparently idyllic dens of people like Babs and Gary, Carson and his crew of outcasts toil and labor to support the consumerism of the culture that marginalizes them. As he growls in an early scene, “You think I’m going to sink my whole life in this dry rot just so the rest of the world can ride around on balloon tires?”

Intensifying the satire on American values, Vantine mocks Babs by appropriating the vocabulary of a well-to-do housewife. “I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning what to wear to the country club dance this Saturday night,” She drawls for Carson’s benefit. Listening to Harlow’s tinny, faux-refined voice spouting out lines that could come from the Ladies’ Home Journal exposes the cherished virtue of domesticity as a pretense. Her burlesque of society chatter also highlights the film’s central inversion of roles: the prostitute stays faithful to her man, while the prudish wife cheats on her husband. Who’s the real “lady,” after all?

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In the end, however, I don’t watch Red Dust for the drama, the slick satire, or even for sweaty Clark Gable. I watch it for Harlow’s brazen, yet vulnerable comic performance. Consider her introduction in the movie, dozing in a random bed, when Carson and his crony unknowingly drop one of their drunk comrades on top of her in the dark. That unflappable voice cries from offscreen, “Hey! What’s the idea?” And then we get this piquant close-up of the silvery blonde illuminated by a flashlight, her eyes squinting as she reflexively berates the drunk whom she assumes is trying to sleep with her.

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Rather than present her as an object of fetishistic admiration first, as Lewis Milestone did with Crawford’s famous entrance in Rain, Fleming lets Vantine impress the audience as a brassy straight-shooter. Caught by surprise, she leads with a torrent of her personality and sass. Her profession and her looks are secondary. A few seconds later, as she forcefully swings her bare legs and kicks the drunk out of her bed, she does so with a remarkable lack of daintiness or self-conscious grace. You’d think she’d been doing it all her life.

The notorious rain barrel sequence, in which a nude Harlow lathers herself up and bathes in the plantation’s water supply, doesn’t disappoint. The men in the audience might not have noticed, but this very pre-Code scene serves an important narrative purpose, too, as Vantine tries to annoy Carson by scandalizing Babs. “Afraid I’ll shock the duchess?” She teases, beckoning to Carson with a soapy sponge. When Carson hurries up to reign in Vantine’s antics, Babs appears on a balcony. Fleming repeatedly cuts to her holier-than-thou reactions as Vantine playfully splashes around in the barrel. Again, appearances are deceptive, since Babs’s hypocritical “shock,” we understand, really betrays her own jealousy and her desire for Carson.

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Harlow proves her talent for both verbal and physical comedy. The dry twang with which she rattles off sarcastic dialogue vindicates MGM’s decision to cast her as Vantine, a role previously intended for Garbo or Crawford. Without Harlow dropping sassy lines like, “This rain seems to have uncovered a pile of garbage around here,” (when she bawls Gable out for his two-timing behavior) save the film from dull melodrama purgatory. In another instance, provoked Carson’s budding liaison with Babs as the monsoon pours down, Vantine disdains to comment. Instead, she scornfully kicks her shapely legs up on a table and starts to file her nails—not an extraordinary gesture, but one that Harlow fills with an amusingly contained anger, a hissy fit manicure.

1Her accomplishments in Red Dust are all the more inspiring given the tragedy that struck during production. Her husband Paul Bern, an MGM executive more than 20 years her senior, committed suicide. In addition to Harlow’s emotional loss, the scandal seriously threatened her career. A true professional, she returned to work after a 10-day break and soldiered on with a performance that runs the gamut from funny to heartrending.

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Victor Fleming directs the cast on the set of Red Dust

1932 was a good year for onscreen hookers with hearts of gold. Marlene Dietrich, as an impossibly glamorous courtesan, tempted a warlord to save her true love in Shanghai Express. Ruth Chatterton, playing a businesslike madame, sacrificed all for her son in Frisco Jenny. And Carole Lombard, in the role of a wry streetwalker, discovered the joys of home and hearth in Virtue.

But none of them struck the same gold as Harlow. Her chatty, stubborn, sublimely unladylike Vantine doesn’t want to be redeemed and doesn’t need to, either. Perhaps because of that, she remains one of the most iconic and lovable dames of the pre-Code era.

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