The Origins of Horror Comedy Films

Happy October! This month means it’s time for plenty of horror film viewing and content. Along with all the usual horror films out there, there’s also a wealth of horror comedy content. From Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Shaun of the Dead, the two have always mixed well. Familiar tropes are played upon for comedy, genres are parodied. The two often make a perfect match, and that’s not even counting the horror films that provide unintentional comedy. But what are the origins for this genre mashup?

1932’s The Old Dark House may be the most highly regarded early example. Directed by a top horror man of his day, James Wale, the film works as both a horror film and a dark comedy. But also interesting is that it manages to parody the old dark house style of horror film, with the tropes of that type of film already well established by 1932. Even this film wasn’t the first to do that.

The Cat and the Canary (1927) features a standard old dark house plot, where a family must spend the night in a haunted mansion in order to get an inheritance. Based on a black comedy play, the humor remained in this film version. The play would serve as the basis for three more direct adaptations in the 30s, and The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case (1930) seems to have taken some inspiration from the idea as well.

In fact, comedy horror films adapted from stage plays was quite common around this time. The Gorilla, another old dark house play, premiered on Broadway in 1925. Film adaptations were made in 1927, 1930 and 1939. The 1930 version featured Walter Pidgeon. The film is lost, so the world may never get to see Mr. Gruffydd stalked by a man in a gorilla suit again. The Monster (1925) and The Bat (1926) were also adaptations of black comedy plays. 1925 also featured an early direct parody, the Stan Laurel vehicle Dr. Pryckle and Mr. Pryde.

It’s hard to say for sure, but the earliest feature length horror comedy might be The Ghost Breaker. The question is which version of the film was the first comedy. The play was adapted in 1914 and 1922, both of which are now lost. The 1922 version was definitely made as a comedy and marketed as such. The 1914 version is much sparser in the area of information. Most sources list it is as a drama. And seeing as it was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starred HB Warner, it probably wouldn’t have been a barrel of laughs even if they tried.

But what is the actual first example of horror comedy? Like so many other things, the answer may lie with Georges Méliès. Many of his earliest “trick” films, along with the work of others around the time, could certainly be considered a mix of horror and comedy. As far back as The Bewitched Inn (1897) and A Midnight Episode (1899), Méliès used elements of the supernatural to create comedic effects in his films. And he wasn’t the only one either. The Haunted House (1899) and The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1900) are works by other directors that also fall along the same lines. So where did this mashup and horror of comedy begin? It shouldn’t be a surprise that this also goes right back to the beginning of film itself.


Mad Doctors, Trolleys and Funerals: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2018

Another year has come and gone, which means it’s time for all of the best-ofs lists to come out. And as always, none of the films I saw this year were new releases. But if you want to know what some great films from 1928 are, this list has you covered. These are the ten best films I saw for the first time in 2018, in chronological order. It’s a strange, eclectic mix that probably wouldn’t go too great together as a big marathon. I’m not here to judge if you want to mix Harold Lloyd and Dario Argento, though. 


Speedy (1928)

Everyone knows that they’re getting with a Harold Lloyd comedy, but this one is even better than most. The plot setup provides a great opportunity for the classic Lloyd big finale: his girlfriend’s family runs the last horse-drawn trolley in the city, and it will be put out of business by the railroad company if it doesn’t run in 24 hours. This, of course, leads way to a wild and crazy ending that is remarkable to watch. But even before Lloyd’s harried final trolley ride, things are a delight.

The rest of the film provides a great look into 1920s New York. Lloyd begins the film working as a soda jerk, a fun scene. Later, he weaves his way through city streets as a cab driver that drives around the real Babe Ruth. Ruth leads to a taste of more baseball footage before the film’s final scenes send the viewer all over the streets of New York.

Not only does it have the best of Lloyd’s comedy, but it is just a wonderful look into the past as well. Lloyd’s final silent film is one of his finest.

Beggars of Life (1928)

1928 was a remarkable year for cinema, and Beggars of Life is right at the top of the best. Louise Brooks’ performance as a woman on the run is one for the ages. Along the way, she’s joined on her journey by another vagabond (Richard Arlen). Their path is soon altered by the unpredictable Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery).

Beery gets top billing and gives a great performance, but it is the emotional journey of Brooks that leaves the greatest impression. In some ways, it’s a simple emotional journey. But visually, it’s a lot more than that. The train hopping scenes provide several stark visuals, and the climax is edge of your seat (or mountainside, as the case is here) stuff.


Mad Love (1935)

Mad Love, the American film debut of Peter Lorre, could not be a better concoction of weird and creepy. One can’t help but wonder how much weirder it could have been if it had come in under the precode wire. Even in this state, it’s a bizarre little film that leaves a mark. Lorre plays a doctor so in love with a lovely actress (Francis Drake) that he even has a wax figure of her put in his home. But when her husband (Colin Clive) needs miracle surgery, he sees an opening to win her love–even if it means doing crazy things.

Lorre’s descent into madness is made all the more frightening by how realistic it is. It often seems like he has no control over his actions. That being said, the film’s height of creepiness comes when he hatches a scheme to don a particularly eerie costume. In a career full of unsettling performances, this is one of his weirdest.

The suspense is ratcheted up through the audience’s knowledge. We know the things he’s done long before the hapless victims. The film has some out of place twists and turns thanks to a Ted Healy comedy subplot, but it works in a kind of strange fashion. Well, everything in this film works in a strange fashion. 

Katharina, die Letzte (Catherine the Last) (1937)

This romantic comedy out of Hungary seems to be all but lost to the ages, which is a shame. Hans Holt stars as a man desperate to get near the woman he loves, following her father shutting him out. He decides the best way to get his foot in the door is feigning love for the family’s maid, Katharina (Franciska Gaal). Heavy on heart and sentiment, this a gem that will make you wish for more of this remarkable cast.

The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940)

This is not a film for everyone, and your mileage with it depends on how appealing the concept sounds: a parody of stuffy Victorian melodramas. The audience for this film probably dwindles more every year, but it is very good at what it sets out to do. The film boasts a great cast (Billy Gilbert, Buster Keaton, Margaret Hamilton, Anita Louise) is helmed by veteran silent comedy director Edward F. Cline. 

The plot centers around a family potentially losing their home, but the plot hardly matters. If the idea of a veteran group of actors playing melodrama broadly to the point of absurdity appeals, this is a film for you.


The Innocents (1961)

At their best, an old dark house film can be just about the scariest type of horror film. The Innocents is one of the finest of the type, a white-knuckle haunted house thriller. And it accomplishes all that without a hint of cheap jump scares or overused conventions. The film provides all the tension it needs through atmosphere thick enough to cut with a knife. 

It’s best not to say any more about the events that unfold, as this is a film where it’s better to go in blind. What is no spoiler is that Deborah Kerr gives the perfect performance, along with the unnerving children she is in charge of (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin). See this one with the lights out and go along for the ride. 

Bye Bye Braverman (1968)

Coming of age films are a particular kind of an emotional experience. Endless numbers of films showing children facing the precipice of adulthood have been made. Bye Bye Braverman, meanwhile, is a coming of age film of a much rarer variety: facing old age and death. Wrapped up in a package of a smart New York comedy, there’s a lot more going on than just clever fast-paced dialogue.

The plot is as simple as can be: when one of their friends dies, four buddies take a trip together to attend his funeral. This ordeal is handled exactly the way it’s gone on forever in daily life. None of them want to talk about what happened, and if they have to, they just wave it off as no big deal. All the while, they’re struggling with their own mortality and see premonitions about what their own end might look like. The film is never heavy-handed with the emotion or sentiment, but it does hit hard at just the right moments.

The ensemble cast of George Segal, Joseph Wiseman, Sorrell Booke and Jack Warden have stupendous chemistry. You can feel that this motley crew of friends has had conversations like this forever. They are funny and clever throughout, and are helped by memorable small parts from Alan King and Jessica Walter. 

It’s also a fascinating time capsule of New York. Sidney Lumet overwhelms the viewer with a stream of 60s New York streets and locations. It’s just an extra part of the experience, and one that provides a great window into the past.  Bye Bye Braverman is, on the surface, just a smart little film. But it’s the kind of film that leaves a deeper impression than you would ever expect.

Deep Red (1975)

Suspiria may be Dario Argento’s greatest work, but Deep Red isn’t too far behind. It has all the jaw-dropping visuals and colors you’d come to expect, with everything else being the icing on the cake. And in this case, the plot is an intriguing murder mystery. The mystery would be intriguing enough when done by anyone else, but when put together under the artful hand of Argento, it’s a real delight for the senses.
Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

A psychological thriller that’s ripe with style and originality, Eyes of Laura Mars is a film that delivers an exceptional overall package. Faye Dunaway plays a fashion photographer who begins seeing premonitions of murders about to happen. This is a cool enough concept for a thriller, but it’s the style of the film that makes it so good. The film doesn’t skimp on the fashion part of the story, providing a cool and slick look at the fashion world at the time. The premonitions are just as slick and are quite eerie. This is one of those films that sounds kind of fun on paper, and then provides so much more in execution.


Curtains (1983)
Reviewed here earlier this yearCurtains has all the feel of a 70s proto-slasher, despite coming much later. It has all that you can hope from the genre: actors that make you care about their fate, an unsettling atmosphere, and some scary moments. This is one of the better under-the-radar slashers out there.

Some October Slasher Recommendations

October is upon us, and there’s plenty of horror films to watch. Maybe you’re going to be gorging yourself on Universal monster movies, or maybe you’re prepared to be letdown by whatever new horror movies are coming to theaters this month. If slashers are more your bag, there’s always an embarrassment of riches–and the mileage can really vary. For every Halloween or Black Christmas, there’s ten more Memorial Valley Massacres and other shoddy slashers. But there are many legitimately good slashers that need more of a audience. Here’s a few suggestions to spice up your October viewing habits.


Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

The other films on this list are kind of fun. They’re what you expect from a slasher: sometimes a little creepy, but often all in good campy fun too. Alice, Sweet Alice is not like that at all. It’s one of those rare slashers that makes you squirm, a very serious and dark affair that leaves the viewer on edge. How dark is it? Well, a child is murdered early on, with another child as the main suspect. A leering, sickening neighbor plays a role in the film that’s a little uncomfortable. The killer’s mask is one of the creepier you’re ever likely to see. And to top it all off, there’s ominous religious overtones that lend another level of the unsettling to the film.

All of that makes Alice, Sweet Alice more than the usual slasher fare. It’s several things all at once: a slasher with a whodunnit mystery, while also providing biting commentary on religion. It has the feel of a grittier American version of a giallo film in tone and imagery. This one may not be the most fun, but it is one of the more compelling and uncomfortable slashers.

The Prowler (1981)

The Prowler has all the trappings of a certain kind of slasher. Namely, it’s one of those films where the killer is around because it is the anniversary of a previous event. But this one sets the stage in a much more interesting way. The film opens with newsreel footage relating to World War II, followed by a Dear John letter and more 1940s setting footage. These little extra touches make it a bit more engrossing.

The bulk of the film is standard fare, above average from the usual stuff. The killer wears a very cool military outfit, and most of the scenes feel genuinely claustrophobic. For fans of such things, Tom Savini supplies some good gore. There’s even some good seasoned actors who get limited screen time, Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. The Prowler shows that even the most tired concepts can be polished to be good, suspenseful and entertaining.

Graduation Day (1981)

Clearly no day at all is safe from a slasher film. It’s a miracle Arbor Day Massacre was never made. Graduation Day is better than the gimmicky name implies, though. This one has a revenge plot too. In this case, revenge is sought after the death of a member of the school’s track team. No member of the track team is safe as the body count grows.

Graduation Day presents the best of all worlds. It has both its creepy moments and wacky fun moments too. There’s songs that are prime slices of 80s cheese, and plenty of other fun moments as well. The film’s biggest strong suit is weird frenetic editing. It adds a great deal of tension and originality to it. This is the best kind of fun slasher: some good kills, a little bit of tension, and all the goofiness you could want.


Curtains (1983)

Curtains sounds typical enough on paper: six actresses show up at a cabin, vying for a part. Soon enough, they start getting killed. The film is anything but typical, though. Moving at a slower and more deliberate pace than one might expect from an 80s slasher, Curtains is an effective slow burn. It relies less on gore and schlock and more on atmosphere and some pretty good acting. Samantha Eggar and John Vernon add a little bit of weight to the affair.

And when it’s time for things to get weird, it gets really weird. The film is best known for two things: the creepy old lady mask and the ice skating scene. It is certainly a scene that earns high marks on the originality and creepiness scale. On top of that, this is a mystery slasher that provides a satisfying conclusion and twist. Curtains breaks enough norms that it feels like more of an early slasher, one before a cliched formula was down.

Six Degrees of Trash Cinema Separation

There are some actors who appear in everything. Take Franklin Pangborn for instance. My personal theory is that he appeared in every movie made between 1930 and 1949. Okay, so the facts might not bear that out totally, but it’s not very far off. It’s not an uncommon thing with character actors in classic films. Throw a dart at a TCM schedule and you’re likely to land on something featuring SZ Sakall or Sig Ruman. Those are the easy ones to understand and explain, these six degrees of separation in classic film. Some of the instances are a little stranger. And that’s when a solid actor shows up in every piece of trash ever made.

There is no finer example of this than Cameron Mitchell. Throughout his career, he appeared in such huge films as How to Marry a Millionaire, Carousel and the hit TV series The High Chaparral. He then went on to appear in front of every working camera from the 70s through the 90s. Yes, Mitchell appears in such luminous roles as Dr. Cadaver (Jack-O) and Butt Cutt Cakes (The Klansman). It’s far too much to list all of his shlock appearances, but he sure did find a home in the land of horror films with good but misleading titles: Demon Cop, Mutant War, Night Train to Terror and Blood Link, just to name a few. He even appeared in a genuine porn film and whatever the hell this is:

With as many appearances in a Blockbuster store as Linnea Quigley, Cameron Mitchell is clearly the Kevin Bacon of trash cinema. But of course there are other notable contenders. John Saxon probably walks around in a cop uniform just in case someone needs him for a part at a moment’s notice. He’s been in some prime horror (Black Christmas, Nightmare on Elm Street films) and some less than stellar ones (Zombie Death House, Blood Salvage). In more recent years he’s landed some SyFy original movies like War Wolves. If you need a stern man to add gravitas to your grizzly bear zombie film, John Saxon is still your guy.

Joe Don Baker, for all his MST3K infamy, does have many respectable films to his credit. He’s also got a plethora of shoddy cheese on his résumé, such classics as Wacko, Joysticks and Leonard Part 6. He also played Joseph McCarthy in a TV movie about Roy Cohn (played by James Woods), which sounds scarier than any of his other movies. Baker is the guy you hire for the cop part when John Saxon is tied up with Wolf Hunter 7: The Real Final Chapter.

Even old prominent horror legends can fall into the same kind of trash. Boris Karloff kept his forays into Z grade horror, but Bela Lugosi is in countless low budget horror films. He needed the work and gave it his all, no matter what the film. It didn’t matter if he was a half ape in Ape Man or playing alongside a Jerry Lewis imitator in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Lugosi still gave it the full treatment.

And as bizarre as it to see good actors in so much schlock, it actually shows make these films more fun. You need a Cameron Mitchell putting his faith in Blast Hardcheese during Space Mutiny. Comedy needs a good straight man, and sometimes trash does too. We salute you, actors who will jump into any tepid pool of celluloid sewage. Thank you for your service.

The Growing Pains of Early Talkies

The time was March 1928. The Jazz Singer was still a huge hit and money maker for Warner Brothers across the country. The studio decided to take a risky move and pull the film while it was still raking in the viewers. Why? They were ready to release their second talking picture, Tenderloin. And this one was more ambitious, with four full scenes of dialogue. Warner Brothers rolled the dice and unleashed their newer spiffier talkie.

The speed at which Tenderloin and other talkies were released is a breakneck pace. And with each of these films, the growing pains and early issues are apparent. And yet, many quick adjustments were made as well. Let’s take a look at what some of these very first talkies brought to the table, as seen in film magazines of the day.


Unsurprisingly, Warner Brothers had another financial hit with Tenderloin. Audiences came out in droves, but how much they all enjoyed the film is a bit of a different story. The film’s legacy now is that it elicited some of the reactions famously seen in Singin’ in the Rain: audiences laughing at poor quality. Depending on the source, audiences either laughed at Dolores Costello’s lisp or the film’s melodramatic dialogue.

What is known for sure is that the studio felt compelled to recut the film, removing two of the four dialogue. Film Daily had major problems with the second talking scene, stating that while the words may appear good in writing, they “failed to register when spoken.” They went as far as to say the scene so derailed the film that the film “lost its audience” the rest of the way.

In the wake of this fact, Film Daily offered some pertinent advice and opinion for the future:

Producers will flounder until they learn what to do with this un-catalogued element. These portions of the “Tenderloin” dialogue which missed did so no because the idea or the reproduction were poor. The synchronization was excellent, but the conception bad. The invocation suffered because of the utter banality of the words put into the mouths of the characters.

The Warners are rightfully entitled to credit for taking a bold step in an uncharted direction. Exhibitors and others should bear in mind that there exists no precedent for this type of undertaking. The result, of necessity, will be spotty until experience points the way out of the maze of mediocrity.

These words sum up a lot of the problems that these early talkies faced. Tenderloin showed something that would become very clear: serious dialogue and drama were the most difficult things to get right at this time. Light musicals and comedy shorts (usually based on Vaudeville routines) were much safer bets. Warner in particular released endless comedy and musical shorts that were generally popular and of good quality.

But not all musicals faired quite so well. Universal’s first full talkie, Melody of Love, was by all accounts, a disastrous effort. Photoplay even found the music and singing terrible. Their final thoughts pulled no punches: “This horrible example should be a museum piece, valuable because it shows how not to make a talkie.”

Fox and Fox-Movietone also found good success producing comedies, including several Peter Benchley shorts. They also similarly released a flop of a drama, Napoleon’s BarberPhotoplay found this film both technically poor (“the characters, as usual, seem to speak from their vest pockets”) and an overall awful film (“there is but one real consolation–it is only a two reel picture”).


While all this was going on, Warner’s constant efforts to make more talkies was paying off. With each new film, more issues were getting ironed out and the quality was increasing. Their third partial talkie Glorious Betty had some technical issues, but Film Daily sung the praises of advancement: “the latest Warner effort marks a rather important something in the advancement of pictures. It offered proof that the use of sound to augment dramatic and entertainment values is no mistake when used properly.” With many attempts at talking in dramas failing, this may have been the first successful use of a talkie drama.

Their next follow up was The Lion and the Mouse, which upped the ante to half talking. Their first full talkie, The Lights of New York, was released in July 1928. While some critics panned it for being crude or lowbrow, Warner had yet another cash how on their hands, making $1 million off the $23,000 production.

Critical acclaim for talkies also came around in due time. Paramount found one of the first critical darlings with the release of The Letter in April of 1929. Photoplay sung the praises of lead actress Jeanne Eageles, calling her work “the first high pressure emotional performance of the all-talkies . . . The Letter is a real landmark in the progress of the microphone drama.”

And considering the first talkie had been released not even two years earlier, that is some amazing progress.

Nuns, Communists and Witches: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2017

Another year has ended, and with that comes the deluge of end of year lists. It’s time for me to do my own, my favorite films I saw for the first time this year. As usual, some of these were reviewed earlier in the year here, but many haven’t been. This year, the list heavily on the comedy side, but there’s plenty of variety in time period. They are presented in chronological order.

A Woman in Grey (1920)

Actually a film serial, A Woman in Grey was reviewed in full here. Considered one of the last adult American serials, it is a smart mystery that keeps the audience hooked. For anyone curious, it’s the perfect first serial to try. Expertly filmed in real Pennsylvania mansions, it’s just as good looking as it is compelling and mysterious. 

Zaza (1923)

The full review of Zaza from earlier this year can be found here. It’s a great introduction to the talent of Gloria Swanson in her prime. She gives an amazing wild performance, playing all the comedy to the hilt. A fight scene between her and Mary Thurman is a highlight that won’t be forgotten by any who see it.

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930)

For classic film fans, this an especially fun Laurel and Hardy romp. The duo show up at the reading of a will, hoping to con the family into thinking Stan is the heir to a Laurel family fortune. But the dead man has been murdered and they are forced to stay at the house with the family until the killer is found.

What follows is a great sendup of the old dark house films. It has every element you need: the unsettling butler, creepy portraits, family members disappearing one by one. It plays like a more over-the-top version of The Cat and the Canary, with all the parody elements in overdrive. There’s a great chase sequence involving a bat, giving Laurel and Hardy a chance to put their original stamp on the proceedings. The ending in which the murderer and method are revealed is both a good satisfying twist and funny too. That is no small feat.

The Ghost Camera (1933)

This is a fun little mystery that shares a similar jumping off point as Blow-Up, except with an actual solution and no pretension (thank goodness). A man finds a camera and discovers that one of the pictures appears to depict a murder. From there, he must attempt to track down a woman found in the photos. Complications ensue and the mystery continues to deepen.

At just over an hour long, it’s a quick but satisfying mystery. There’s plenty of good British humor throughout, and all the twists and little mysteries pay off in a satisfying manner.

Service with a Smile (1934)

For fans of early Technicolor, this short is a must see. The loose “plot” centers around comedian Leon Errol creating a bizarre and comically over the top gas station. It’s all a backdrop for elaborate musical numbers with eye popping color. Whether it’s a fleet of dancers in bright green dresses or a number at a golf course, the color is bright and remarkable. Also looking gorgeous in color are the number of cars seen throughout. A rare look at vintage cars in vibrant color can’t be passed up.

The musical numbers are strong themselves, with the song “What You Gonna Do Now?” being particularly catchy. Errol’s cheesy jokes have some charm too. This overall package makes it one of the most entertaining and notable shorts of the period.

Climbing High (1938)

Climbing High is familiar territory for fans of screwball comedies. A wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) is supposed to marry a socialite (Margaret Vyner), but falls in love with someone without the social status (Jessie Matthews). Every bit of wackiness is to be found, from pies being thrown to wind machines knocking people around. The film does get credit for originality: it may be the only film where someone holds someone hostage until they sing opera.

What makes the film really stand out is Jessie Matthews. Perfectly at home with some fast silly comedy, she carries every scene with equal parts charm and befuddlement. And yes, she somehow makes singing opera with a madman funny. Matthews alone makes this above average fare that’s worth seeing.  

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Another comedy duo horror movie on this list? Sure, why not. Somehow I’d gone all this time without seeing this classic mix of comedy and horror. It certainly lived up to the legendary hype. Abbott and Costello do exactly what you’d expect and do it well, but it’s the performances of the horror icons that stand out. Bela Lugosi especially is great playing it straight, and Lon Chaney Jr and Glenn Strange play their parts well.

With all these stars (as well as Lenore Aubert playing the doctor) acting as if they’re in a classic Universal monster film, it’s all quite the perfect fun tribute to them. Horror and comedy have rarely mixed better, and it satisfies all you want from a Universal horror and classic comedy film.

The Trouble with Angels (1966)

The Trouble with Angels, simply put, is some of the most fun you’ll ever have watching a movie. The story of two high school girls at a convent supplies plenty of good cheer and good fun. There’s hijinks to be had, resulting in plenty of light fun. The cast is stellar: Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills, Mary Wickes, June Harding and Gypsy Rose Lee all play their parts well. A fun coming of age tale, you’ll be left in a better mood seeing this.

Reds (1981)

Warren Beatty’s epic chronicle of John Reed, Louise Bryant and the rise of communism is an unforgettable ride. It’s not just a biopic of a couple people. It’s an immersive chronicle into an important period of American and Russian history. Numerous notable historical figures play into the story, the roles performed by an all star cast (Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, just to name a few).

Helping with the realism is the numerous appearances of real witnesses to the characters. They appear throughout in interviews, speaking directly about the real Reed and Bryant. In some cases, songs they sing end up as the soundtrack music to some scenes. This makes the rest of the film with the actors all the more real and raw. Reds feels like you’re in every part of that real scene, and you come away having learned a lot.

The Love Witch (2016)

Perhaps it’s fitting that the only modern film on the list has a decidedly retro feel. A tongue-in-cheek tale of a witch putting men under her spell, it’s worth seeing if only for now good the film looks. Shot in the style of the 60s or 70s, the film features gorgeous color and cinematography throughout. Luckily, it’s just as fun as it is visually pleasing. Fans of old horror should appreciate the modern retro feel.

A Tale of Two American Silent Serials

We’ve talked a lot about silent film serials on here this year, but we haven’t actually reviewed any so far. Finding silent serials, especially American ones, is no small feat nowadays. Plenty of famous serials exist in incomplete form. At best, those only give a little glimpse of what they were like. Foreign serials, considered the best of all, are more often extant: DVD releases of Fantomas, Les Vampires and House of Mystery are available. 

But what about the American serials? An important part of film history at the time, they deserve a compete and critical look. And so, we will take a look at two American silent serials that do exist in complete form. In some ways, these are the ideal two to look at, as they represent two different eras of serials. One, A Woman in Grey, is sometimes referenced as the last of the adult serials. With elaborate complex mysteries, it’s very much in line with the critically popular serials of the previous years. The other, The Mysterious Airman, represents the shift to more action based serials, something that continued into the sound era. 

A Woman in Grey (1920)

 If you’re looking for a good mystery, A Woman in Grey delivers in spades. It’s a well layered mysterious tale with a lot going on. A man inherits a house of a deceased relative, empty since her murder. A mysterious woman in grey called Ruth Pope (Arline Pretty) takes an interest in the home, while everyone takes an interest in her true identity. Both the murderess and the witness who put her in jail have a mark on their left hand, the hand Pope always keeps covered. Is she the murderer or the long lost witness? There’s also a fortune to be found in the home, one that can only be accessed by combining two codes. Pope has one, and the equally mysterious J. Havilland Hunter (Fred C. Jones) has the other. Frequent battles for the second code ensue.

Within those two major plot points, there’s several additional subplots and developments: romance, jealousy, more mysterious identities, surprising twists. While there are a ton of moving parts, it’s never hard to follow and stays mostly within believable realms. Part of what makes it so easy to swallow is that the mystery is grounded in only a few very real possibilities. From very early on, the audience knows there are only two real possibilities for Ruth Pope’s identity. That amount of information creates a unique type of suspense. There’s just enough info to make very educated guesses, while also being confident that the film won’t pull a dumb twist out of left field. 

That’s not to say the serial doesn’t have its problems. It did not need to be 15 chapters, for one. Cutting a couple out would eliminate some repetitive moments and cut out the film’s only weak subplot. But it still generally moves and works very well.

The entire serial is well directed and looks great, made even more impressive that this was an independent production–the company never even made another film. Filmed on location in Scranton, PA, all of the real location shots add to the film. There’s very few set pieces to be found. Real mansions were used, as were real scenes out of outdoor Scranton.

For a taste of what American serials were like at their peak, you can’t go wrong with A Woman in Grey. It’s got the right smarts and thrills to keep an audience hooked.

The Mysterious Airman (1928)

Unlike the previous serial, The Mysterious Airman is notable for who made it: the Weiss Brothers. From the early 20s and well into the 30s, the Weiss Brothers churned out dozens of serials. Many of these were of the western and jungle variety. And by the 30s especially, the were pretty cheap and not that good. But The Mysterious Airman is none of that. It’s just fun, action packed chapters.

The plot all centers around some airplane Macguffins. An inventor comes up with new technology for one airline company only. This prompts plenty of tension from rival companies, as well as from a masked Pilot X who will shoot planes down if he has to. It’s all very silly, especially when it gets down to the specific unrealistic details. That just means it’s not a high brow deep story, but it is a lot of fun.

The fun really comes in from the action. Each of the ten chapters is all about daring airplane feats, and every episode delivers. The flying scenes look fantastic, surprisingly slick given what must have been a limited budget. Once these action scenes are going on, it doesn’t much matter that the story isn’t about much that important. It’s just an action packed great ride at those points.

At only ten chapters, The Mysterious Airman is the perfect length for such a light, breezy tale. There is still some plot intrigue, as the serial does a good job of building up who Pilot X will be. But mostly, you’ll just be happy to come along for another wacky and wild chapter. While the conventional wisdom of these latter serials is that they’re of lesser intellect quality, The Mysterious Airman is still plenty enjoyable while being action based. The “adult” serials may have ended, but both these serials are great in their own ways.

A Look at the Golden Age of Porn

Imagine if you will, a modern day version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. A lavish production that jumps locales, it’s punctuated by smart, funny writing and beautiful cinematography. What film are you picturing? It’s probably not an adult film, but that’s exactly what this is: The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Yes, this Radley Metzger film is as smart and well made as it sounds. It also happens to be pornographic.

Sometimes considered the high watermark of The Golden Age of Porn, Misty is perhaps the finest example of what the genre was capable of at the time. But as I’ve recently discovered, it’s called the Golden Age for good reason. It’s a period with shockingly good films that could match mainstream films. And the parallels to beloved precode films are numerous.

Specifically, the films of this time include smart comedies more mature than you’re likely to ever find in theaters. Metzger’s films are tightly packed with literary dialogue, for those paying close enough attention. In another one of his films, The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, the title character is consistently interrupted by a poll taker who asks her comically absurd “deep” questions. When finally asked why she’s there, the poll taker replies “I’m here to give the film socially redeeming values.” Two other films, Blonde Ambition and Jack and Jill feature parodies of famous works (Gone with the Wind and Romeo and Juliet, respectively) that would send any audience into laughter.

While it may seem shocking enough that these films have plots, the plots are often quite ambitious. Take Off is an adult version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The ageless leading man is seen through the ages in a series of vignettes, including a Casablanca-style scene. In Misbehavin’, God and the devil make a bet to see if someone will marry for love or money. While these ambitious plots may not always play perfectly, the attempt alone is admirable and impressive. And it’s also a sign that the films could have achieved even greater things if they were given time to grow.

And that is one of the many parallels to be found with precode films. In both cases, it’s clear that the films were bound to reach even higher levels if not brought to a close by standards outside of their control. In the meantime, they were taking big chances and making the most out of limited budgets. And in regards to taking chances, unpredictability is the flavor of the day in these golden age films, just like precodes. It always feels like anything is possible at any time, and neat happy endings are never guaranteed.

Some of these golden age films even have plots that could have been at home in a 1930s precode picture. Wanda Whips Wall Street echoes Female, with Veronica Hart in the Ruth Chatterton role as a ruthless businesswoman. Another film, Tropic of Desire, hits on the kind of gritty dark side of things you’re most likely to find in a precode film. The film takes place at a brothel that’s home a stopping point for World War II soldiers. In a surprisingly emotional scene, one of the girls learns that her husband has been killed in the war. In a film filled with period music and settings, it’s a dramatic and realistic touch.

While precodes were brought down by the implementation of the production code, video tapes brought an end to the Golden Age of Porn. With product needed faster and cheaper, there wasn’t any time left for budgets or grand plots. The quality quickly plummeted, as the medium demanded something different.

It’s impossible to know where these films would have gone next, but with more time and bigger budgets, the films would have likely reached bigger heights. And these films had an important place. At their peak, they were adult in the best sense of the word: smart, clever, mature films.

A Few More Bad Silent Films

A while back, we looked at a few very bad silent films, as “recommended” from some brutal reviews in Photoplay. Since there’s always perverse fun in watching some cinematic garbage, it’s time to check out a few more of these supposed bad silent films. This time, we’re even including an early talkie, since the Photoplay review is too good to resist. Remember kids, only a professional can get through films this bad. Don’t try this at home.

The Love Light (1921)

The Photoplay review:

There is something decidedly wrong about a Mary Pickford picture when the best thing you remember about it is a caption entitled “stewed chicken” followed by an action scene in which an inquisitive hen, drinking wine from an overturned cask, is seen to float back to its coop with that ludicrous uncertainty of movement associated with the modern gentleman full of the neighbors’ brew. Yet that is about all I recall of The Love Light.

It’s surprising that the drunk chicken is all the reviewer remembers of The Love Light, although they can’t be blamed for forgetting everything that happens in the film. For while the film starts out looking like a light Mary Pickford comedy, it transforms into a constant pitfall of absurd tragedies. Let’s lay out all the things that happens to Pickford in the film: she takes in a deserter from the war, trusting his story of being an American. He’s actually a German spy, and in sending him an “I love you” message from her lighthouse, accidentally sends out a message that leads to her brother being killed. The German spy husband falls off a cliff, after which she has a child from him. She loses her child after nuns take them away from her. And when her kidnapped child is stranded at sea, she must light her house on fire for the boat to see land. Oh, and her other brother goes blind in the war.

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Got all that?

I sure hope so, because that takes place in about 40 minutes or so. It becomes comically absurd how many times Pickford throws her head back and screams into the void. Not to mention that the whole problem started because she somehow got fooled into thinking a German spy actually sounded like an American. Given everything else that happens to her, it’s a miracle that she didn’t accidentally set herself on fire while setting the house ablaze. Overall, The Love Light is such a poor vehicle for Mary Pickford, who loses all her charm in a sea of absurd tragedy.

The Claw (1927)

The Photoplay review:

Evidently this was produced just to make the contract players earn their salaries. We still have the wealthy papas endeavoring to make great big he-men out of their sons. To Africa they are set for rejuvenation. And between cannibals and jungle animals the hero wins out.

In fairness, The Claw really isn’t all that bad. It’s just not very good either. A decidedly minor effort,  it’s a mostly forgettable romp with plot elements so obvious they could be seen from space. Claire Windsor plays a woman bored by her supposed wimp husband (Maurice Stair), while she crushes on a brave explorer and Major (Arthur Edmund Carewe). But to the surprise of no one, her husband proves to be the real brave one while on a dangerous African expedition.

The film does contain one interesting wrinkle that is unfortunately never fully followed up on. Carewe is harboring a secret wife and child, which should have at least set up some over-the-top melodrama. Instead, it barely becomes a factor in the rest of the film. At under an hour, the film just keeps cranking along with no real depth.

Don’t look for much excitement in the jungle scenes. Like everything else in the film, it’s perfunctory and rushed. Don’t look for much with The Claw, the cinematic equivalent to one of those ambient noise machines.

Riders of the Purple Sage (1925)

The Photoplay review:

We were looking forward to this latest Tom Mix vehicle, but for some reason or other we were disappointed. Perhaps we expected too much. The popular novel by Zane Grey had plenty of action but not so much with the picture. Of course Tom can always be relied upon to prove himself the hero and save a young lady, who in this case happens to own a ranch and is robbed by rustlers. Fine photography.

Photoplay has it about right. Tom Mix was always an ideal western star, and his presence and personality does help this adaptation of Riders of the Purple Sage quite a bit. And it is indeed well directed with some great stunts as well. As for the content of the film and how compelling it is? Well, that’s a whole different problem.

One intertitle sums up the whole problem with the film. It notes that Mix has “outwitted them at every turn.” That point couldn’t have been any clearer if he was wearing a Harlem Globetrotters jersey. There just isn’t much drama and suspense, as Mix disposes of all adversity in practically the blink of an eye. Don’t look away, or you could miss him disposing of a series of villains in seconds flat. Even Warner Oland’s final dastardly plan is introduced and disposed of quicker than a hiccup. While there’s still some fun to be had, the one sided nature takes a lot of the interest out of it.

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High Voltage (1929)

The Photoplay review:

A stupid, morbid movie that’s suspiciously like “The Sin Sister”–and nowhere near as good. Three blondes, a banker, a truck driver and a dick are snowed in for a week in a country church. It’s intended to scale the heights of human drama, but due to clumsy direction, it is utterly vague and ridiculous. The usual charming William Boyd smile is hidden behind a week-old beard, and anyway, Bill’s losing his girlish figure, or so it seems.

High Voltage is actually an early complete talkie, but with a “stupid, morbid” lead in, this movie just sounds so tempting. Unfortunately, High Voltage couldn’t have a more misleading title. Well, except that audiences probably feel like they’re being subjected to a real Milgram experiment while watching it.

As an early talkie with Carole Lombard and William Boyd, it could actually have a lot going for it. Instead, the film only presents just over an hour of some of the dullest and most lifeless dialogue ever put on screen. Trapped on a bus and a church, these characters just spout trite dialogue endlessly. It somehow feels to go on much longer than the short run time, more like the length of time it took for continental drift to complete. Only recommended if you’re looking to torture someone.

A Few Words About My Father

As you can no doubt tell, this post won’t have anything to do with classic films. Back when my father passed away in April, I wrote a brief post about his own film fandom. That, of course, was a wholly inadequate look at the man himself. So on the date of his birth, we’ll part aside films for a moment to tell a little bit about his story.

Tell his story is no easy task. To define my dad by his career, he would have first mentioned his over thirty years working at the airport. One of his greatest thrills in life was to guide back the airplanes. But even that is an incomplete portrait of his career, since he usually worked two or three jobs at one time, ranging at various points from unloading trucks to being a bartender (intoxication engineer, he called it). He was also incredibly proud to have served in the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army.

And as for stories about his life, well, that could take a long time to. He loved to tell colorful stories of his life, seemingly movie-like tales like trying to hitchhike across the country and nearly getting run over by a boat somewhere in Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve committed some of these to writing, and will do more of that later. But for now, we’ll keep things a little briefer.

My dad can probably best be understood through two things: his relationship with my mother, and how he handled his illness in his final years.  To know these things is to know a lot about him and his character. So please, indulge me for a moment as I tell a little bit about Daniel M. Bliss.

~ ~

Of all my dad’s stories, none can match the love story of Daniel and Janet. It began a way that sounds almost too far-fetched, too fictional. But every bit of it is true. To my dad, Janet was truly the girl next door, since they were neighbors. Their families lived right across the street. My dad was close with his future father-in-law before he really even knew my mom, walking the very short distance to watch football games. Maybe that’s the key to a successful marriage: scope out the potential in-laws first. Eventually they started dating, and remained together nearly 39 years later.

Although their interests were often different, my parents’ marriage thrived on one thing more than anything else: talking. When still living separately with their parents, they would stay in the kitchen talking until all hours of the night, using the stove as a feeble light once all were asleep. (Don’t try that at home, kids. Just use your cell phones for illumination.)

Talking for hours was not always an option during my dad’s illness. He often couldn’t stay up very late, feeling tired, fatigued or in pain. But they did have one more night together like that, just weeks before he passed.

The day before, we had all gotten the bad news. Chemo just wasn’t an option any longer, as my dad wouldn’t be able to handle it any longer. Things were too severe and his pain was too much. All that was left was to wait. He was given heavy pain medication, a hope to make him more comfortable at home. Lately the pain had become so bad he could hardly move.

The next day, my brother and I went as planned to a baseball game. When we stopped at the house after, sometime after 10pm, we expected to go upstairs and see dad, where hopefully he was now feeling able enough to still be up, watching a movie. Much to our surprise, he was still in his chair in the living room, talking to my mom. “We wanted to wait up for you guys,” he said.

In the three years of his illness, my dad had rarely been like this. Even on his good days, he still usually found himself too fatigued at the end of the day. But thanks to the medication pushing all of that pain to the back burner, he was more like himself again. He didn’t feel any pain. And the whole time we were gone, the two of them had talked, just like the old days. In all the shock and sadness of the previous days and weeks, my parents were so happy that night. For one final time, they were just the same as they were 39 years ago.

Only months before his death, my dad told me a story I’d never heard before, one of something he did when he became very serious about my mom, when he knew she was the one. He wanted to surprise her with something, a bit of a cute gesture. And he had just the right idea.

At a local saloon sat a jukebox. My dad knew of an old song in there that he badly wanted to give my mom. How he knew about it, I don’t know. By this time it would have had to be over a decade old, and the song charted at #125. But boy, was it ever a fitting song to give my mom: “Just Across the Street” by the Del-Rios.

I’d sit and I’d watch from my window

Just wondering about a true love I’d some day meet

But I never thought the one I’d love

Lived just across the street

First, he offered the owner what the cost of a 45” would have cost then, and the owner wasn’t interested. The haggling continued, but the owner still wouldn’t budge. With no options left, my dad made an announcement.

“I’m going to leave $20 and I’m taking it.”

And so he did. It wasn’t the best financial decision, but sometimes other things are more important.

And now you are mine and I’m so happy

I feel I’ve got the world at my feet

And I thank the stars for sending me along

Just across the street

Yes, I have found my love

Just across the street

~ ~

It goes without saying that the three years of my dad’s illness were not easy. The tough moments or days were too many to name, but the good and special moments far outweighed them. We all knew how tough, resilient and courageous he was, but it was more apparent than ever in those three years. Those moments are the ones worth focusing on, and the ones to learn from.

After he starting chemo, my dad was determined to still work at his very physically demanding job. And he did: with the fanny pack that fed the chemo into his chest still attached to him. The idea of chemo possibly spilling all over him and his coworkers was more than a little alarming, but luckily biohazard was never called in. Only when he encountered a debilitating exploratory surgery a couple months in did he stop working. And even then, he still thought and hoped he would get back one day. It was over two years later when he officially retired with a heavy heart.

There was something else going on in those first few months too, the time before his big emergency surgery. As he trudged through lots of chemo and doctors meetings, he assured us that the cancer hadn’t spread, that it was isolated in the one spot. “We just have to be prepared for in case it does spread.”

But it already had. Just before the surgery a couple months later, we found out that it was stage four cancer, and had been the entire time he’d been diagnosed. My dad protected us from it, at least for a little while, not wanting to drop that news on us. All the while, he’d carried that weight alone. That he kept this information from us originally was never brought up to him, and he never spoke of it. There was no reason to. We already knew the reason why.

The surgery altered his life forever and ravaged him. Gaunt and under a hundred pounds, his doctor later revealed she only gave him two to three weeks to live. But of course, that wasn’t the end of the story in 2014. We were lucky enough to have a lot more time.

The road to recovery was long, arduous and seemed never ending. He still could hardly eat and being constantly dehydrated, he never sounded like himself. Slowly, changes started to happen. As he became able to eat again and get his voice back, his world opened up and he was finally able to live again.

And live he did. Every meal became a joy. He found a new favorite restaurant with a new favorite dish. He paid off the mortgage on the house, holding a cookout to celebrate (and many more after that). He mowed the lawn, walked the dog, painted inside the house. He bought a convertible (complete with fuzzy dice). He went on drives often, sometimes with my mom, and sometimes alone. He watched movies all the time, having discovered Netflix. He attended a final college football game, one of his most beloved activities. He saw one of his sons get married. He lived.

When faced with constant adversity, more medical complications to name and insurmountable odds, he lived. He found a way to live again and squeeze as much enjoyment out of life as he could. That’s a measure of perseverance and strength I’ll never forget.

This belief that you can fight through anything was most clearly shown to us then, but he always told us about it too. My dad always reminded us of what he’d been told back as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. I would be facing some obstacle that worried me, and he would always say “remember, you’re a member of the 101st. And what’s our motto?”

“We have a rendezvous with destiny,” I’d reply.

And then the day came when the roles were reversed.

It was probably some time in 2015. The first chemo he’d been on was no longer working, and it was time to switch to something else. This second chemo would cause him to lose his hair, although it would come back during later treatments. In a moment of raw vulnerability my dad didn’t often show, it became clear he was very worried about handling a new and possibly grueling type of chemo. I thought I knew just the thing to make things better.

“You’ll be okay,” I said. “Remember, you’re a member of the 101st.”

He rose to his feet, assuming a very proud and official stance. He saluted and said the familiar phrase, but then he added something that he’d never told me before. The way he explained it, whenever faced with a great form of adversity, they would all shout “airborne!” as a sign of strength and encouragement, that they could get through anything.

“Airborne!” he said and returned back into his chair.

Throughout my life, my dad was always trying to teach lessons to my brother, from the big things to the small things. Sometimes it was just a reminder of what his dad warned him about football games, and how the real game starts in the fourth quarter. Sometimes it was a reminder of the quote “time waits for no man” as a reminder to not put off your tough situations, to just get them over with. But he taught me his most valuable lessons in those last few years, even if he didn’t know he was doing it.

Faced with constant adversity, uncertainty and his own mortality, my dad never wavered. He continued to live every day as fully as he could. And he always put on his bravest face, ready to face and confront whatever waited him next. In seeing that, my dad passed along the most important lesson of all: that I can match his courage and face anything that confronts me. If he could do that, then I can too. And I’ll always be okay.