Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Monster-Filled Christmas; Out-Stunting Stagecoach; The Enduring Lugosi; Corned Beef and Cabbage I Love You

Sometimes there are a few ideas ruminating around in the ol’ noggin that don’t require a full blog. So with no further ado…

Monsters for the Holidays

Surely I’m not the only one who looks back on their youth and associates monster movies with the holidays? If you are of a certain age (50+), you probably do. With mom and dad scrambling buying presents and planning menus for parties, us kids needed to stay out of the way. Back in the pre-cable days, when there were only five or six channels on the air, programmers knew they had a captive audience of kiddies home from school for the last two weeks of the year. So they would program movies that would appeal to the homebound urchins.

In the Chicago area, I remember seeing “King Kong” (1933) on the 3:30 Movie on Christmas Eve.  I also remember seeing a couple of Hammer movies, “Sword of Sherwood Forest” (1961) and “The Evil of Frankenstein” on 12/24 in the same time slot.

Every Christmas Eve we would have a big family Christmas Eve party and I remember one year being in absolute agony because the local UHF channel was running “Tower of London” (1939) on the 10:30 movie. On Christmas Eve!


I knew it wasn’t a horror movie, but it did have Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone in it, and it was from Universal Studios and boy, did I really want to see it. Still, I didn’t dream of asking to have the TV during the party. Today, most everything on the tube seems to be holiday-related this time of year, but there was a time when monsters ruled the television movie universe around the holidays. Not only were we off school for two weeks (and no homework), and looking forward to parties, gift-giving and family get-togethers, but there was a cartload of monster movies to look forward to. The other day, I was hanging ornaments, and “Tarantula” (1955) was on in the background, and for me it was the most natural thing in the world.

Out-Stunting Stagecoach

John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939) contains one of the most famous stunts in film history, and it takes place during the scene where the stagecoach is being chased by Indians across salt flats. The famous stuntman Yakima Canutt plays one of the attacking Indians who jumps from his horse onto the stage’s charging horses. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) sees this and shoots him. Canutt falls between the horses and grabs the undercarriage of the stagecoach as it goes past him. He hangs on for a bit and then lets go, leaving him behind as the stagecoach continues on at a furious pace. It’s considered one of the great stunts of all time. And it is.


Imagine my surprise when I recently watched a film made three years earlier from scrappy little Republic Studios, which outdoes the Canutt stunt in every way possible. “The Big Show” (1936) is an above-average Gene Autry film concerning the making of a B western. In an early scene, the crew is shooting a chase scene where a covered wagon, driven by an old man and (presumably) his daughter, is being pursued by Indians. The old timer is shot and a thrown tomahawk knocks out the daughter, causing her to fall backward into the covered wagon. The Autry character is on horseback, riding furiously alongside the wagon shooting at the attacking Indians, Seeing the unmanned wagon is a runaway, he leaps onto the team of horses to stop it. An Indian jumps onto the same team and the two struggle with each other atop the racing horses. The Indian gets knocked out and falls between the running horses, taking Autry with him. The two continue to fight under the wagon until the Indian is kicked away, leaving him in the dust.

Using the wagon’s undercarriage, Autry pulls himself forward, climbs back onto the charging horses, and reins them to safety.

There are some cutaways to the camera crew filming the sequence, but it doesn’t take away that we’re seeing two guys falling between hooves and fighting under a runaway wagon. I watched the sequence in a state bordering on awe.

Not to take anything away from “Stagecoach” but that sequence is really something to see. Republic was known for having some of the best stuntmen in the industry, as well as a special effects and miniatures department that was the envy of many a major studio. If that stunt was used in an “A” movie from a major studio, it would be considered one of the great stunts of all time.

The Lugosi Legacy

I recently went to see “Hotel Transylvania” and I didn’t think much of it. I liked the other horror-related animated features that came out this year, “Paranorman” and “Frankenweeine”, much better. Still, I was amused to see Adam Sandler, voicing Count Dracula, doing a faux Bela Lugosi impression. Here it is, 2012 and a kid’s movie is referencing an 80-year-old movie for its running length. Is there any other Golden Age performance you can say that about today? I’m sure the great majority of kids couldn’t tell you who Bela Lugosi was, but do a Lugosi accent and the vast majority would know you were doing Dracula. I’ve long thought that Lugosi’s Dracula performance was one of the major cultural milestones of the 20th century, and while it pains me to have to turn to Adam Sandler, of all people, for confirmation, I’m very glad he did it.

Kiss and Make Up

An unsung gem in a Cary Grant DVD collection that Universal put out a few years ago is Paramount’s “Kiss and Make Up” (1934) a really delightful pre-code musical comedy. Those who thought Cary Grant only sang in “Suzy” (1936) will be pleased to hear him warble a love song here.

In “Kiss and Make Up” he plays a world-famous cosmetic surgeon who is the darling of the society set. He falls in love with one of his patients (Genevieve Tobin), who is married to Edward Everett Horton. She leaves Horton and Grant and Tovin cavort in Paris (Paramount-style) and the Riveria. On a honeymoon in Paris, he discovers he’s not who he thinks she is. Let’s just say beauty is only skin deep.

It’s one of those very silly “throw everything but the kitchen sink and see what happens” movies that Paramount, in the 1930s, seemed to do better than anyone else.

It would make a fine double feature with RKOs’ “Hips Hips Hooray” (1934) a satire on beauty treatments from Wheeler and Woolsey. What was in the air in 1934 that two musicals – satires really - were made centered on the beauty and cosmetics industries?

For fans of Edward Everett Horton’s bathing suit appearance in “The Gay Divorcee” (1934) –and surely there are people who fit this bill - he dons a similar suit here. Instead of a very young Betty Grable in that film, here he cavorts with Helen Mack. I’ve always had a thing for Helen Mack, so I enjoyed this film tremendously.

The two sing a riot of a song, “Corned Beef and Cabbage, I Love You” which I must remember every March 17. I love some of these gloriously nonsensical ditties that 1930’s musicals gave us. It’s right up with the afore-referenced “Let’s Knock Knees” and the unforgettable “Love Me Love My Pekinese” from “Born to Dance” (1936). They don’t write songs like that any more, more’s the pity.


ClassicBecky said...

I loved this article, Kevin! I had to laugh about monster movies at Christmas -- I am of the right age group to remember that, and the thought of you hanging ornaments and watching Tarantula brought back a lot of memories. You must have been watching Svengoolie -- I watched it too!

What in incredible story about the great stunt in the Republic picture. I don't know how those guys do what they do! They must break every bone in their bodies over the course of a career!

Oh Bela, dear Bela. I too cringe at the thought of Adam Sandler doing that, but I know what you mean. It's at least a tribute!

I've never seen the Cary Grant movie -- I'll have to watch for it.

Really fun idea for a kind of stream-of-consciousness post, Kevin!

Kevin Deany said...

Hi Becky, yep, I was watching Svengoolie. Nice to see great minds think alike. Glad you liked the piece. There might be more of those in the future.

silverscreenings said...

"The Tower of London" on Christmas Eve?! No way! I had no idea some television stations were showing monster movies on Christmas Eve/Day.

Kevin Deany said...

Oh yes, most definitely. We're talking the late 1960s, early 1970s. I don't remember important stuff, but trivial stuff, like knowing that "Tower of London" was on and I wasn't watching it. I got over it...eventually.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Kevin, this was a delightful piece. Hey, my sister and I watched horror movies year-round in our house growing up. However, for one Christmas, the Shock Theatre movie was the infamous SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS. Yikes! I would have much preferred a Hammer picture or TOWER OF LONDON (either version!).

Kevin Deany said...

Rick, programming "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" sounds like the worst Christmas gift ever.

Elisabeth said...

A further note about that stunt from The Big Show—I recognized it immediately when you described it, because Yakima Canutt used it again in a 1943 Roy Rogers film, Silver Spurs. In that one he took it a few steps further—after climbing back on the wagon, he had another fight with a second man who'd jumped onto the wagon to attack the driver, and then eventually took the wagon over a cliff into a lake after turning the horses loose from it! You can read an excerpt from Canutt's autobiography here where he describes in detail how he did the under-the-wagon stunt.

Kevin Deany said...

Hi Elisabeth: Thanks for the Canutt link. Fascinating stuff. I need to check out "Silver Spurs." I like alot of the Roy Rogers westerns, and I especially want to see this one, as John Carradine is one of the bad guys. Thanks for checking in.

Classicfilmboy said...

Great stuff, Kevin. I must say that I don't associate monster movies with Christmas; however, there's nothing wrong with that, either. I hope you carry on tradition by watching Tarantula every year when you hang ornaments on the tree. I'll have to look for the Cary Grant movie -- sounds like fun!

Page said...

Thanks for giving us a nice holiday post. Perhaps I would watch the colorized version of King Kong for Christmas since it looked like children colored it in with crayons anyway. ha ha Not one thing wrong with watching monster films for Christmas. I much prefer them to the same cartoons that are trotted out yr after yr.

The Big Show is one of the few Autry films I've seen. (I grew up watching them with my dad!) Then after visiting the Gene Autry museum here, I've made time to watch a few more. Also, it was when I visited the Autry museum that I realized he really was a rough and tumble cowboy who didn't fake it for the cameras. He had thousands of acres here in OK dedicated to raising his livestock for the rodeo shows. Reading that he did such daring stunts himself doesn't surprise me at all.

Then, speaking of Stagecoach. I wonder how many were injured and even livestock in making that film. Every time I've seen it I think out loud about how dangerous it must have been to make.

Oh, there's not one thing wrong with Grant in a tux, singing either. You've hit a homerun on all of your selections. (I even like corn beef and cabbage!)

Sorry to be so late and we've already spoken but Happy New Year to you and your family.

Looking forward to what you have in store for us in 2013.
Page said...

My uncle Custer Post Park was driving that stagecoach. He was one of the few drivers who could handle a 6 horse team at a full gallop for such a maneuver. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, he was one of the officers and he drove the wagon when the troopers were fleeing to get across the river.

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you for sharing your memories of your uncle. That's very cool and I really appreciate you taking the time to write.