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WARNER BROS DOUBLE FEATURE: MOVIE REVIEW

In film, Humor on May 31, 2009 at 9:56 pm

THE HIDDEN HAND (1942)

The curtain raiser of this Warners double feature of the war years — shown on the Turner Classic Movies Sky channel — is much like a glossy King of the Zombies (Monogram, 1941): a comedy horror full of mounting (and disappearing) bodies, revolving wall units and sparkling, unexpected wit and fast-paced fun of the kind you never expect in movies these days.

The whole premise is known from the outset as brother John (played hilariously by Milton Parsons) escapes from the lunatic asylum. The two bumbling cops tracking him play the game too, an argument settled by the sergeant with “Yeah, you’re just the guy who’d know where a lunatic would go!”

As adapted by Anthony Coldeway from a Rufus King play, directed by the studio’s B stalwart Ben Stoloff, lines are delivered fast and furious except when more careful timing is required for the special comedy bits. When crazy John Channing of the homicidally-inclined Channings turns up at his almost-as-eccentric sister Lorinda’s (Cecil Cunningham) mansion he approaches her bed full of intent, strangling hands outstretched. All stops in closeup as she opens her eyes, slowly comes to, and without blinking reproves him: “John!… Where have you been?”

He insists to her that he had to act mad in the asylum so he could be locked up “in a padded cell to get peace and quiet” away from the mad people. In escaping he hung a guard up in a tree: “It was fun… until he stopped moving… I suppose I shouldn’t have hung him up by the neck.”

There are no stars in this — Everyone is billed below the title in the opening credits. Top billed, who in their careers never progressed beyond starlets, are Craig Stevens, 24, better known from Fifties and Sixties television (especially as Peter Gunn); Elisabeth Fraser, 22, who peaked this year in the Columbia A-feature The Commandos Strike at Dawn with Paul Muni; and Julie Bishop, 28, who the year following this partnered Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic and Errol Flynn in Northern Pursuit — both superstars, but in rather routine wartime flag-wavers so no breakthrough for her.

It’s the curse of the Channings, bumped off one by one as they await the bad news in the will of Lorinda, who’s faked her own death.

Willie Best in scared mode

Willie Best in scared mode

With Milton Parsons and 54-year-old character actress Cecil Cunningham, comedy honors go too to Willie Best, doing an over-the-top black servant of the period, scared into bulging eyes and body tremors. One gem he delivers about the Japanese houseboy (Kam Tong) — this was released within a year of Pearl Harbor: “Just can’t trust them Japs.” But it’s a stereotyped role, not as satisfying as Mantan Moreland’s lead role as an uppity servant in King of the Zombies the year before this.

Overall, highly entertaining viewing.

THE SEA WOLF (1941)

This is the kind of medium-budget adventure Warners could slip into its schedule easily, without having to shell out the massive $two million required for the occasional extravaganzas starring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland — currently in They Died With Their Boots On, the story of General Custer and how the Mrs won, and lost, him. Still its stars, Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino and John Garfield, were well up the ladder at WB and outlay for their salaries alone would have accounted for a considerable portion of the budget. There is nothing flashy in the special effects or set departments — just enough to be thoroughly convincing without going overboard like so many boring blockbusters do today with ludicrous overkill. And the portrayals are top notch from all concerned.

seawolfPug-ugly Robinson had been among the top flight of Hollywood stars in box-office popularity polls ten years earlier at the height of the gangster movie craze (Little Caesar, WB, 1930), which he ruled ahead of James Cagney long before Humphrey Bogart appeared on the scene, and was still highly paid in 1941 as an inimitable character star. He would leave the studio soon after this. John Garfield was an early method actor and graduate of New York City’s Group Theater — so an important onscreen figure but long before his time and accordingly under-appreciated compared with the smooth matinee idols who came along during World War II to take the places of established superstars who went into active service: if the likes of Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Cornel Wilde, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, etc, could ‘replace’ Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor and so on. Already a nominal star in Warner A-movies for three years and quickly listed in popularity polls, Garfield (Garfinkle) would never quite make the top twenty male draws though a fixture in the top thirty.

Similarly, Lupino, an iconic figure of film noir through the Forties, was never in big-budget movies to earn the superstar label. But she did go on to be one of fewer than a handful of females directing in the studio era. Of an illustrious English family of comedians, now at 27 (same age as Garfield) she was rising rapidly at Warners after arriving at Paramount eight years before as a bleached blonde. Now a hardnosed WB brunette, by High Sierra released early 1941 she was already billed above central character Humphrey Bogart. For Out of the Fog this same year she was paid $40,000 — impressive for a new star. A loanout to Columbia for atmospheric murder mystery Ladies in Retirement also boosted her.

Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) confronted by his crew

Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) confronted by his crew

Lupino called herself the poor man’s Bette Davis, though that was really more applicable to the frequently mournful, over-emoting Susan Hayward at Twentieth Century-Fox a decade later. This was another period piece that was right up her alley — a gritty, dark tale from master storyteller Jack London. But as directed by Michael Curtiz it is fast-paced at the same time as being thoughtful, bearing no relation to the studio’s ponderous Thirties historical biographies such as The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola or Juarez — all of which, though praised in their time, came to weigh heavy on the career of thespian Paul Muni.

Garfield and Lupino are on the run (separately) from the law in fogbound San Francisco and in escaping find themselves in far more desperate straits on Wolf Larsen’s (Robinson) small sailing vessel — in business stealing seal pelts from genuine sealers. Larsen is so universally feared and hated that his own brother has sworn to send him to the bottom of the sea, and almost succeeds by ramming him broadside.

How will the crew, made up of press-ganged innocents and seasoned cutthroats, fare?

The featured cast includes Canadian-born Alexander Knox as cultured writer van Weyden, struggling through to maintain his integrity, and professional Hollywood Irishman Barry Fitzgerald as Cooky, Larsen’s stoolie and betrayed by him to be thrown overboard and lose a leg to a shark. Both are consummate screen performers and go on to fleeting stardom in 1944, via Wilson and Going My Way respectively.

Do young but disillusioned Garfield and Lupino find each other, or are they doomed?

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