Matinee Idyll

Titles Reviewed: The Amazing Mr. X (1948), Blondie Meets The Boss (1939), Born To Be Wild (1938), The Far Frontier (1948), Indiscreet (1931), Submarine Alert (1943)

The Amazing Mr. X

(USA, 1948) DIR: Bernard Vorhaus. PROD: Benjamin Stoloff. SCR: Crane Wilbur, Muriel Roy Bolton, Ian McLellan Hunter. CAST: Turhan Bey, Lynn Bari, Cathy O’Donnell, Richard Carlson.

Turhan Bey (the Austrian actor of Turkish and Czech descent was a matinee heartthrob even when he was cast as a no-gooder) is a phony psychic who claims he can communicate with a grieving woman (Bari)’s dead husband. Her sister (O’Donnell) naturally thinks the medium is just exploiting her in order to make a quick buck. This derivative B movie may seem familiar now, due to bigger pictures made before and after it, but today it remains a lovely treasure. It is worth seeking out alone for the great scene when, during a seance in which the medium will be revealed as a phony, when suddenly the voice of the dead husband is heard... and even Bey is shocked!! What this movie obviously lacks in originality it makes up for with a startling command of mise en scene which transcends the modest production. Every scene is an exercise in style: expressionistic lighting and shadows elevate this movie into a genuinely captivating mood piece. The success of this film may be more attributed to the great cameraman John Alton, who turned many B noirs into first-class cinema, than to director Bernard Vorhaus. (Alton, O’Donnell and director Vorhaus had previously collaborated on Bury Me Dead.) After this picture, director Vorhaus would be blacklisted, and would finish his career in Europe. The Amazing Mr. X (also titled The Spiritualist) is in the public domain, so one should have no problem finding a copy. It is the perfect little film to accidentally discover on a rainy night.

Blondie Meets The Boss

(USA, 1939) DIR: Frank Strayer. SCR: Richard Flournoy. STY: Kay Van Riper, Richard Flournoy. PROD: Robert Sparks. CAST: Penny Singleton, Arthur Lake, Larry Simms, Jonathan Hale, Danny Mummert.

28 Blondie movies, based on the long-running comic strip character, were produced from 1938 and 1951 by King Features and released through Columbia, all featuring Penny Singleton as Blondie, and Arthur Lake as Dagwood. For my money, this, the second film of the series, is the best. Hilarity ensues when Blondie becomes the breadwinner, working for Mr. Dithers (Jonathan Hale) when Dagwood is away on a fishing trip. This short and sweet film is solidly written, and worth the price of admission alone for the scene where a cop enters a pool hall, and says aloud: "Somebody's wife called the police chief and said their husband had to be home for six o'clock. Now, I don't want to embarrass anybody by mentioning anybody's name..." Before he finishes his sentence, everyone in the pool hall clears out.

Born To Be Wild

(USA, 1938) DIR: Joseph Kane. SCR: Nathanael West. PROD: Harold Shumate. CAST: Ralph Byrd, Doris Weston, Ward Bond, Robert Emmett Keane, Byron Foulger.

Born To Be Wild is a nice way to spend 64 minutes, in this caper of two truckers (Ralph Byrd, best known for playing Dick Tracy, and Ward Bond) who race against time to carry a truckload of dynamite to a dam which had been closed down by a land baron who is squeezing the townsfolk out of their properties. The intrepid duo is constantly intercepted by gangsters, resulting in some fun escapism. Doris Weston also tags along for the obligatory love interest. At first, this seems like a familiar programmer, until one realizes that it was written by author Nathanael West (best known for the novel The Day of the Locust). Before his untimely death in 1940 at the age of 37, he was paying the bills by penning B films for Republic and RKO (namely, the well-remembered Five Came Back). This movie is unusual for its (yes!) musical numbers, as the two tough guys sing "Danger Ahead" (cute) in an early scene. (Perhaps it was intended a spoof on macho action pictures.) Director Joseph Kane is best known for helming countless Republic westerns, and kept quite busy until the 1970s, making his swan song with the oater, Smoke In The Wind, featuring John Ashley and Walter Brennan!

The Far Frontier

(USA, 1948) DIR: William Witney. SCR: Sloan Nibley. PROD: Edward J. White. CAST: Roy Rogers, Trigger, Gail Davis, Andy Devine, Francis Ford, Roy Barcroft, Clayton Moore.

An irresistible Roy Rogers Oater that remains a good sampler to explain the appeal of Saturday afternoon B-westerns: the kind of Republic backlot western where the camera politely pans away when someone gets socked on the head, where everyone fist-fights in fast-mode, and where there are always excuses for musical numbers (this time by Foy Willing and The Sons of the Pioneers). Oh yes, this is also one of those beloved B-westerns that feature automobiles! Roy's pal Tom (Moore, who had a long history of B films and serials prior to The Lone Ranger) is a border patrol officer who catches onto a smuggling ring (with good ole Roy Barcroft being among the heavies) and gets knocked over the head for his trouble (see above). Then those very baddies attempt to frame him for murder and robbery! This is all because Tom's dad and the crony behind the smuggling operation are old foes! Good thing Roy is on hand to save the day- and filling the "side-kick" order is Andy Devine, who plays his role as a judge for laughs (there's just something about his rustic high-pitched voice). And true to his onscreen billing, Trigger is "the smartest horse in the movies", as he comes to Roy's rescue when he's trapped in an oil drum. Remember this movie was made for young boys, so Gail Davis (a wide-eyed brunette found in many backlot epics before appearing on TV's Annie Oakley) has little more to do than stare at the action. Roy doesn't even kiss her!


(USA, 1931) DIR: Leo McCarey. PROD: Lew Brown, Buddy G. DeSylva, Ray Henderson. SCR: Lew Brown, Buddy G. DeSylva, Ray Henderson, Leo McCarey. CAST: Gloria Swanson, Ben Lyon, Monroe Owsley, Barbara Kent, Arthur Lake.

This early talkie is irresistible melodramatic corn, originally intended as a musical with 15 numbers, however director McCarey reduced them to only three, instead favouring the comedy-drama. The result is a very enjoyable romp that epitomizes Hollywood schmaltz. Gloria Swanson (who sings, believe it or not) is a flapper gal who symbolically ends her sinful ways by refusing to marry the heel she's with. She ends up engaged to a nice author, but admits that she’s still in love with the cad. Then her little sister shows up, just graduated from the education that Gloria paid for, and newly engaged... to guess who? So, Ms. Swanson creates a lot of havoc in an attempt to warn her sister about her future groom is before it's too late. And who does she get to help her in her plot? None other than Arthur Lake (soon to be Dagwood in the Blondie movie series!!) as a wallflower who is stuck on her kid sister. In the film's highlight, he drunkenly tells the cad's parents that Crawford's entire family is insane! Sitcom hijinks later unfold at a big bash, and it's a lot of fun. This is a pretty good warm-up for director McCarey, soon to be a master of wacky comedy (Six Of A Kind, Duck Soup). And for an early talkie, it is surprisingly sophisticated-- watch that long take where the camera tracks Ms. Swanson through her apartment. Naturally it shows its age -I like how the lovebirds sheepishly confess to one another that they each have "been with" other people before- but that's part of the charm. The film in the public domain, so you should have no problem finding a good cheap copy.

Submarine Alert

(USA, 1943) DIR: Frank McDonald. SCR: Maxwell Shane. PROD: William H. Pine, William C. Thomas. CAST: Richard Arlen, Wendy Barrie, Nils Asther, Roger Pryor, Marc Lawrence, Ralph Sanford, Dwight Frye.

In this irresistible second feature, a man gets a job in a radio factory and discovers that this place is being used by German spies to transmit radio signals to a Japanese sub! This hour-long romp is great fun, with a gallery of B-movie faces: Richard Arlen, Marc Lawrence, Wendy Barrie and Dwight Frye! I found this for cheap on the Alpha Video label. I love this company for what it does (namely resurrecting a lot of old Saturday matinee titles or even later drive-in films), but often I've been disappointed in the quality. For instance, my Rhino VHS of The Sadist is better than their DVD. However I'm happy to report that this is a rather nice transfer, if not perfect.