Saturday, January 31, 2009

Once Upon A Time in the West - Opening Scene

  • 1) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD or Blu-ray?
  • The Dark Knight was the last movie I saw in the theatre. The last movie I watched on DVD was BULLDOG DRUMMOND'S BRIDE -- betcha nobody else answers with THAT movie!
  • 2) Holiday movies— Do you like them naughty or nice?
  • Sadly, I think I like the nice ones. I do quite appreciate and enjoy the naughty ones but the "nice" ones have the edge with me -- which is very strange since I'm not the "sweetness and light" kinda guy. But I'm a sucker for them films like "MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET", "THE BISHOP'S WIFE", "CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT", "HOLIDAY INN", IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE", "A CHRISTMAS STORY", and even "DESK SET" which takes place partly at Christmas.
  • 3) Ida Lupino or Mercedes McCambridge?
  • That's really tough since I love Mercedes McCambridge in JOHNNY GUITAR and GIANT and THE EXORCIST and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER . . . and especially in the INNER SANCTUM radio show entitled "MURDER COMES AT MIDNIGHT" -- you gotta hear that one. But I'll STILL have to go for Ida Lupino because she's so damn spectacular -- AND she directed THE HITCH-HIKER as well as 9 episodes of BORIS KARLOFF'S THRILLER. So it's gotta be Ida!
  • 4) Favorite actor/character from Twin Peaks
  • Damn, I'm torn between Piper Laurie and Russ Tamblyn -- so I guess I'll just have to go with Little Jimmy Scott!
  • 5) It’s been said that, rather than remaking beloved, respected films, Hollywood should concentrate more on righting the wrongs of the past and tinker more with films that didn’t work so well the first time. Pretending for a moment that movies are made in an economic vacuum, name a good candidate for a remake based on this criterion.
  • You know, I'd like to see somebody redo I BURY THE LIVING but without the copout ending which really spoils it for most people. And, of course, since no one has been able to successfully film Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND after failed attempts with THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE OMEGA MAN and I AM LEGEND. . .
  • 6) Favorite Spike Lee joint.
  • 4 LITTLE GIRLS -- his documentary.
  • 7) Lawrence Tierney or Scott Brady?
  • Oh my god, Lawrence Tierney, Lawrence Tierney, Lawrence Tierney, ya mook!
  • 8) Are most movies too long?
  • No, most movies nowadays just aren't good. If it ain't good, of course you're gonna think it's too long. But if it IS good, it ain't long enough!
  • 9) Favorite performance by an actor portraying a real-life politician.
  • Should I really go out on a limb and say Alexander Knox as Woodrow Wilson in WILSON?!? Nah, it's probably William Devane as JFK in THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER.
  • 10) Create the main event card for the ultimate giant movie monster smackdown.
  • 11) Jean Peters or Sheree North?
  • Jean Peters in PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is the best dumb floozy I've ever seen!
  • 12) Why would you ever want or need to see a movie more than once?
  • That's really a question that many people ask and which doesn't make any sense to me. It's the same, in my mind, as wondering why you'd listen to a cd after you've listened to it once. A good song is something we revisit again and again for it's artistry, it's craft and for the emotional impact we derive from listening to it. The same can be said for wanting to go back and look at a painting by Van der Weyden or a pieta by Michelangelo after we've already seen it. Why would a movie be any different?!? I tend to inhabit movies -- that is, I enter into that world and visit with the characters and settings on the screen. I've even been known to restart a movie immediately after I've just watched it. I can never turn down a visit to Katharine Hepburn's playroom in HOLIDAY or her apartment in DESK SET. I am always welcome at Gloria Swanson's SUNSET BLVD mansion as well as Barbara Stanwyck's bungalow smelling of honeysuckle in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, the board room in EXECUTIVE SUITE or Imhotep's tomb in THE MUMMY. There's nothing I like better than to visit Pastor Tomas' church in WINTER LIGHT or the rain-lashed hotel in KEY LARGO. How could I not want to visit all these movies and more again and again. And who am I to refuse a return visit when we all know that everybody's goes to Rick's.
  • 13) Favorite road movie.
  • Grand Theft Auto. heh heh
  • 14) Favorite Budd Boetticher picture.
  • The Tall T
  • 15) Who is the one person, living or dead, famous or unknown, who most informed or encouraged your appreciation of movies?
  • I guess it's a three-way tie between Martin Scorsese, Weaverman and Dr. Shock!
  • 16) Favorite opening credit sequence. (Please include YouTube link if possible.)
  • Once Upon a Time in the West. You can watch it up there.
  • 17) Kenneth Tobey or John Agar?
  • Kenneth Tobey
  • 18) Jean-Luc Godard once suggested that the more popular the movie, the less likely it was that it was a good movie. Is he right or just cranky? Cite the best evidence one way or the other.
  • Forrest Gump was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. And they gave it an Oscar.
  • 19) Favorite Jonathan Demme movie.
  • Swimming to Cambodia
  • 20) Tatum O’Neal or Linda Blair?
  • Linda Blair. I mean, she's got a new "Regan in the bed" bobble head out now!
  • 21) Favorite use of irony in a movie. (This could be an idea, moment, scene, or an entire film.)
  • Um......the ending of BRAZIL. Or am I fouling up the definition like Alanis Morissette?!?
  • 22) Favorite Claude Chabrol film.
  • Sadly I don't think I've ever seen one.
  • 23) The best movie of the year to which very little attention seems to have been paid.
  • I don't recall any.
  • 24) Dennis Christopher or Robby Benson?
  • Dennis Christopher.
  • 25) Favorite movie about journalism.
  • 26) What’s the DVD commentary you’d most like to hear? Who would be on the audio track?
  • THE COMEDY OF TERRORS with Roger Corman, Jacques Tourneur, Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Joyce Jameson, Les Baxter and Rhubarb the Cat on the commentary track.
  • 27) Favorite movie directed by Clint Eastwood.
  • 28) Paul Dooley or Kurtwood Smith?
  • Paul Dooley -- besides all the work he's done he was also a writer for THE ELECTRIC COMPANY so how could I not choose him?!? All that and he was in STRANGE BREW too!
  • 29) Your clairvoyant moment: Make a prediction about the Oscar season.
  • They're gonna give Heath Ledger an Oscar. Or if that's too easy -- Best Picture's gonna go to SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.
  • 30) Your hope for the movies in 2009.
  • That Hollywood will suddenly stop making movies by committee and actually let people who care about movies make them.
  • 31) What’s your top 10 of 2008? (If you have a blog and have your list posted, please feel free to leave a link to the post.)
  • I'm not gonna go down that road -- especially since I didn't SEE 10 movies in 2008!

Friday, January 30, 2009

FANS OF CLASSIC HORROR CAN REJOICE because the famous "LIZARD'S LEG & OWLET'S WING" episode of ROUTE 66 IS FINALLY OUT ON DVD -- and you don't have to buy an entire box set to get it, either! Now, I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here but just in case . . . On October 26, 1962 the popular TV drama series "Route 66" aired a special Halloween episode which guest-starred Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre entitled "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing". Now back in the day, this was big news and it was trumpeted repeatedly in issues of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine. Of course, the reason why this episode was so special to horror fans is that not only does it feature Lon Chaney Jr. in 3 separate monster make-ups but it also features the very last time Boris Karloff wore the Frankenstein Monster make-up! A little while ago they started putting out entire seasons of ROUTE 66 on DVD and horror fans who had no real interest in the series were going to have to wrestle with themselves to decide whether they should buy an entire DVD box set of Season 3 just for this one episode. Well, happily, and quite contrary to their usual game plan, they have also released a single DVD called ROUTE 66 SUPER SERIES VOLUME 1 which contains three hand-picked episodes including the coveted "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" and it's cheap as chips! Now, ROUTE 66 starred Martin Milner (of THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and later the ADAM-12 TV series) and slightly saturnine George Maharis as two young guys who travel all across America in a 60's Corvette getting into all kinds of adventures. This format allowed the series to be an anthology-type show but still having two main recurring characters -- sorta the best of both 60's TV worlds.
Naturally, the "Lizard's Leg" episode is the operative one but before I get to that I'd like to briefly look at the other two episodes hand-picked (by whom, I wonder?) for this single DVD. The first episode is entitled "Eleven, the Hard Way" and guest stars Walter Matthau as a gambling pro and Edward Andrews as the milquetoast guy who has gathered together money donated by the entire town of Broken Knee. The money has been gathered in order to save the town from going bust -- Walter Matthau will be given the money to gamble at a casino in order to increase the money enough to save the town. Matthau is perfectly cast as the rumpled, disreputable gambler that the town has no use for -- UNTIL they have a USE for him. Edward Andrews is an actor that, if you have seen ANY television or movies from the late 1950s and 1960's you've seen him before; he was in such movies as ADVISE & CONSENT, ELMER GANTRY and THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR and was in scads of TV shows including the Twilight Zone episodes "You Drive" and "Third from the Sun", The Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode "Anyone For Murder" and the Boris Karloff's Thriller episodes "Cousin Tundifer", "A Third for Pinochle" and "A Good Imagination". This ROUTE 66 episode, however, is really quite enjoyable and worth watching even if you're not at all interested in anything except the Halloween episode.
The second episode isn't quite as good: "And the Cat Jumped Over the Moon" is a juvenile delinquent tale which is quite dated in that "West Side Story" kinda way. It basically concerns two rivals for the leadership position of a local gang of hoodlums challenging each other to a game of chicken high up on rooftop. I will admit that the hijinks on the roof will make those afraid of heights a little queasy. However, perhaps the queasiest thing is seeing a ridiculously young and almost unrecognizable Martin Sheen as teen hoodlum Packy! Yeah, that's him up there wielding the switchblade with the crazy look in his eye and the bowl haircut! His rival, a former hoodlum who is trying to get out of the JD game is played by another future star: James Caan -- who looks slightly embarrassed by the lines he's given to say. Sheen goes whole hog into juvenile delinquent territory and doesn't hold anything back. This episode is probably best appreciated for its camp value.
But now we come to the reason we bought this DVD in the first place: the Halloween 1962 episode "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing". The episode opens nicely with Lon Chaney Jr. (in full Hunchback of Notre Dame makeup) creeping upon a sleeping boy. As he is about to get the boy in his clutches, the boy turns over and asks "Did you scare 'em, Grandpa?". Lon, of course, is playing himself and he is about to take a conference call with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre (who are also playing themselves). The three titans of terror agree to meet in Chicago (along with their legal representative Martita Hunt) to debate the future of horror. Lorre believes that the old monsters are still effective while Karloff believes they're old hat and don't scare anybody anymore; this basic premise will be taken up later by Peter Bogdanovich in his film TARGETS also starring Boris Karloff, by the way! Lon seems to be on Lorre's side and continually makes himself up as classic monsters in order to help prove Lorre's theory. This gives us a chance to once again see Lon as The Mummy and the Wolf Man as well as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The three horror stars check into the Chicago hotel under assumed names (as if ANYBODY wouldn't recognize them); the ghoulmeisters are using the names Mr. Retep, Mr. Sirob & Mr. Nol (their first names backwards) and are registering as an organization called "The Society for the Preservation of Geronuks" (a Somali antelope-type creature facing supposed extinction). Naturally, as Peter Lorre is the first to arrive at the O'Hare Inn he stirs up many sideways glances of recognition. A funny bit occurs when the desk clerk haltingly suggests that Mr. Retep bears a striking resemblence to Peter Lorre. "That's really quite insulting, isn't it?!?" deadpans Lorre. Martin Milner and George Maharis have also just happened to drop into the same hotel as "expediters"; Maharis is assigned to a convention of female executive secretaries (who uphold every single sexist stereotype going in 1962) while Milner is assigned to Parlor #9 to cater to the Geronuk Society's every need. It does appear that Karloff's opinion that the old horrors are no longer effective will win out. However, when the trio don monster get-ups and run rampant throughout the hotel causing shrieking mayhem, they discover that the old monsters can still frighten. Chaney dons his classic Wolf Man gear, Peter Lorre dons a top hat and cloak and Boris Karloff, for the last time in his career, dons the Frankenstein Monster get-up. All this, to the lover of horror films, is absolutely priceless and we're all lucky that the producers of ROUTE 66 decided to give us all such a spectacular Halloween treat!
All three episodes look and sound wonderful; picture quality has been cleaned up as much as possible and they're mostly crisp and clean. Another excellent added attraction is the fact that the original sponsor's commercials are also retained -- giving us vintage ads for the 1962 Chevrolet, Bayer aspirin and Milk of Magnesia (just a swallow and it's bombs away!). We even get that rather scary CBS "eye" irising in and out at the end of each episode. For the "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" episode alone, every horror fan should be grateful at the release of the affordable single DVD; however, the other two episodes are also welcome additions and well worth checking out as well. So flap outta your bat's nest and pick up a copy!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

THE PHANTOM (1931) is another of the seemingly endless 1930's "old dark house" movies which has been called by one wag on the internet movie database as "creaky beyond words". And one would be forgiven perhaps for thinking so during the film's first 15-20 minutes. However, it slowly dawns on the viewer that the film is actually meant to be taken as a comedy send-up of the whole genre which, even by 1931, had become cliched and overly familiar. The difficulty seems to be that this fact is not overtly telegraphed as the beginning of the film is played seemingly stone-faced straight. What immediately strikes the viewer is the apparent printing of the first take of every scene -- actors seem to stumble over their lines and hesitate -- but these have been left in the film. Uh oh, the viewer says to himself, this is going to be a heavy slog. The opening of the film takes place in the warden's office of a prison in which a fiendish villain known as "The Phantom" makes a daring escape by leaping from the prison walls onto a passing train and then is spirited away by an airplane trailing a long ladder up which The Phantom escapes. It is glaringly obvious that this entire sequence comes from some old silent movie; sound effects are added but the whole look of the sequence screams silent film. And, in fact, the same footage would AGAIN be used in the Bela Lugosi serial THE WHISPERING SHADOW a few years later. Wow, talk about shoestring budget, the viewer must by now be telling himself. But the intrepid viewer who manages to stick with it will slowly realize that this film is getting goofier and goofier and they couldn't possibly mean for it to be taken seriously. The goofiness, however, is somehow subtle -- if that's possible -- and creeps up on you like the Phantom himself.
And so the story goes: the escaped phantom taunts District Attorney Hamilton into meeting at his sprawling mansion. The cops stake out the DA's mansion and think they've caught the phantom when it turns out only to be a crusading reporter named Dick Mallory. Dick also happens to be in love with the DA's daughter Ruth (who is also a newspaper columnist). It turns out that while all this is going on, the Phantom is in fact inside the mansion and scares the wits out of Ruth and the hysterical ladies maid Lucy. A clue left behind by the Phantom causes Dick & Ruth to go to the second "creepy old mansion" of the film: the mysterious Dr. Weldon's insane asylum. Hysterical maid Lucy and her boyfriend chauffer Shorty stow away inside the car and all four gain entrance to the asylum. The slouch-hatted, cloaked Phantom is also inside (looking very much like the radio/pulp hero The Shadow which is probably NOT a coincidence). Dr. Weldon carries around a skull with him and blathers on about his plans for brain transplants. Dick and Ruth also encounter an apparent inmate of the insane asylum named Oscar who is perpetually wild-eyed and moves with the jerky movements of a bird. Naturally there are copious amounts of dark corridors to be chased through as well as sliding panels and secret passageways. Hey, there's even a rudimentary mad doctor's lab. That's about all I'm going to say about the plot because it really doesn't matter in this film; it's all just an excuse to put our characters through their "old dark house" paces.
The star of the film is Guinn "Big Boy" Williams who starred in countless silent cowboy roles but this time plays reporter Dick Mallory. The big lug (who incidentally got his nickname from Will Rogers) is easy-going and likeable as always; his face actually looks a great deal like fellow Texan George W. Bush (you should pardon the expression) if, however, rather than being a dopey pipsqueak Bush had been a strapping cowboy/football player type instead. Our pseudo-heroine Ruth is played by Allene Ray who had taken over as a popular cliffhanger serial star following the departure of Pearl White from the scene in 1920. Ray is adequate in her role as Ruth but not particularly noteworthy; she wouldn't do much more in the cinema after "THE PHANTOM". Violet Knights plays the cringing, whimpering maid Lucy; she remains amusing throughout (which is quite a feat for a character-type which can be very annoying). This role apparently was the last "credited" work she did in films although George E. Turner & Michael H. Price (in their seminal book FORGOTTEN HORRORS) claim she worked as a similar character in the classic Ken Maynard horror/western SMOKING GUNS in 1934. I'll have to rewatch that film and see if I can spot her. Hal Roach comic Bobby Dunn plays chauffeur Shorty a little less successfully but still manages to be a nice compliment to Violet Knights' maid. The cloaked homicidal maniac lurking around throughout the film is played by veteran lurker Sheldon Lewis (SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, THE MONSTER WALKS and TOMBSTONE CANYON) but he appears in the credits as "The Thing" instead of the Phantom. There is a reason for this billing but you'll have to watch the film to know it. Lewis is given not much more to do than creep around in the corners of scenes with his bushy eyebrows, large proboscis and cloak drawn up over his face; in this admittedly limited acting challenge Lewis plays it for all its worth. The most spectacular work in the film, however, is done by William Jackie as the bird-like, wild-eyed lunatic named Oscar. Jackie is quite simply phenomenal and you should see the film for his performance if for no other reason. His character does not appear till halfway into the film but his entrance is so arresting that the viewer's possibly flagging energy level will be immediately pumped up to maximum! While Ruth & Dick sit on a sofa inside the spooky insane asylum, a strange, bald figure suddenly slides up into view from behind an information desk; eyes wide and staring, head twitching and tilting like a bird. Allene Ray shuts her eyes tight while Guinn "Big Boy" Williams stares at the apparition as if he cannot believe his eyes. One wonders if this reaction was genuine and if Williams wasn't quite sure what Jackie would do as he levitated into view. Either way, it's an incredibly odd entrance. And things get odder! William Jackie's body movement range from rubbery to twitchy. At one point, as Jackie turns to exit a scene, his hands luxuriously smooth his non-existent hair as if part of the character's madness is to not acknowledge his male-pattern baldness. William Jackie also gives his character a comic Swedish accent. All throughout this comic performance, Jackie also manages to instill the character of Oscar with a vague sense of uneasy menace as well -- as if, at any time this so-far harmless lunatic could get homicidal and violent -- and we're never QUITE sure how to take him and never relax in his presence. This is quite some feat for an an unknown actor is an obscure horror comedy programmer. It's quite simply one of the oddest and most memorable performances in thirties horror/mystery films.
Director Alvin J. Neitz was cowboy star Ken Maynard's favourite director who, among other things, directed the aforementioned horror/western classic SMOKING GUNS. Neitz also wrote the screenplay for THE PHANTOM using the pseudonym of Allan James. Known as a good director of action films, Neitz's presence in THE PHANTOM's director's chair may seem odd; however, he does manage to keep the silliness moving (at least once we get past the first 15 minutes of rather talky and serious dialogue scenes and get to the first creepy mansion). The director's restraint towards the comedy in the first reel is perhaps something of a detriment since the viewer will not realize at first that this is meant to be a comedy. However, as I said before, once one gets past the first 15 minutes it becomes slyly apparent that this film is meant to be silly fun and one can then roll with it appreciatively. Because the later 3/4ths of the film carries it all off, I can't find fault with this directing choice although I will say that the slow and serious beginning was an extremely brave thing for Neitz to do. The film is indeed worth watching, then -- especially as soon as proceedings move to the insane asylum which encompasses the entire second half of the film (as well as introducing the wonderful Oscar character).
THE PHANTOM looks exactly like what it is: an early-30's talkie mystery/horror "old dark house" movie. But. Just as we think we've got it pegged, it veers quickly off to a deliriously goofy spoof of the genre which delivers its comedy delicately without the usual sledgehammer slapstick of many other films of its type. While I would in no way recommend the film as a classic, I would say that it should be enjoyable to those interested in the "old dark house" genre . . . with a twist. THE PHANTOM can certainly be called a little warped and twisted!

Friday, January 23, 2009

ANNOUNCING MORE CELEBRATING OF THE 200th BIRTHDAY OF EDGAR ALLAN POE OVER AT OUR SISTER BLOG "BATHED IN THE LIGHT FROM ANDROMEDA" where you shall hear various Poe songs, poems and stories beamed down to your eardrum by the diabolical Dr. Janos Rukh! There shall be readings of Poe-ems by some very famous people as well as songs inspired by Poe's tales of mystery and imagination. There will even be some sounds from the famous Roger Corman/Vincent Price/American International Poe films of the 1960's. All this and more to celebrate the Edgar Allan Poe Bicentennial! Click here to be bathed in the light from Andromeda!
DRUMS OF JEOPARDY (1931) is a quite rare and quite early sound film of horror and mystery much in the tradition of pulp magazines and "Perils of Pauline"-type serials. It also has more than a whiff of those "yellow peril" movies featuring pigtailed assassins hurling silver hatchets-- only this time the threat from the east is not Chinese but refreshingly Russian so the film is mercifully free of overt 1930's racism. Rather than tong assassins, the fog is infested with bolsheviks and deposed Russian princes. The feel and tropes of such fog-bound Fu Manchu menace is also underlined by the presence of leading actor Warner Oland: the Swedish actor who for years had specialized in villainous Orientals before finding his greatest fame as venerable Chinese detective Charlie Chan. This time, however, he's a revenge-seeking Russian mad doctor named -- get this -- Dr. Boris Karlov! Now, one is tempted to think that the character was named after a rather famous horror actor but one would probably be wrong. Not only was DRUMS OF JEOPARDY made and released several months BEFORE Boris Karloff made such a splash in James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN but also DRUMS OF JEOPARDY is in fact a remake of a 1923 silent version starring Wallace Beery as the murderous Karlov. The character's name coinciding with the King of Horror's stage name seems to be just a whim of fate.
THE DRUMS OF JEOPARDY, as you've no doubt already surmised, is gloriously old-fashioned not just in its early-talkie primitiveness but also in its early-20th century pulpiness recalling Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu as well as countless pulp magazines like BLACK MASK and WEIRD TALES. However, the film is not painfully creaky in its execution; director George B. Seitz was a famed maker of countless silent serials and he manages to keep the camera moving more than most films of this vintage -- in fact, he even manages a few very interesting camera angles such as a sky's-eye view down onto a ship's gangplank which, at first glance, gives the viewer the feeling of creepy-crawly things before realizing the figures are merely humans filing off a boat. Dr. Boris Karlov's revenge scenario (which is the whole crux of the movie) begins when his daughter attempts suicide over the caddish behaviour (unspecified) of a member of the Russian princely Petrov family. It isn't revealed at first which Petrov has "compromised" the girl but she eventually dies from her suicide attempt. The only clue found by the fuming Dr. Karlov is the famous jeweled necklace known as "the drums of jeopardy" which was stolen from an eastern empress by an ancestor of the Petrov family. Karlov, in a rage, confronts the old Petrov patriarch and his 3 princely sons (Nicholas, Gregor & Ivan) and attempts to kill them all with a gun. As he is taken away, Karlov vows revenge by threatening to use the curse of the "drums of jeopardy" against the Petrovs: if the jewels of the necklace are sent to a Petrov separately, that Petrov will die. Don't ask why -- this is pulp land we're visiting.
Years later, after the Russian Revolution has ousted the aristocracy, the Petrov men are sailing for America to enlist the help of U.S. Secret Service agent Martin Kent (Hale Hamilton). One by one, each Petrov receives a piece of the necklace and meets their grisly end at the hands of Karlov and his henchmen. Karlov's main henchman Piotr, in fact, is played by famous Russian character actor Mischa Auer. Piotr, mascarading as a US agent working for Martin Kent, talks the Petrovs into leaving the ship secretly for their safety. Of course, old man Petrov and one of his sons Prince Ivan meet their deaths. The other two princes, cowardly Gregor (snivelling Wallace MacDonald) and virtuous Nicholas (square-jawed Lloyd Hughes) escape the evil Russian assassins. Unfortunately, a bullet creases Prince Nicholas' forehead and he stumbles into the studio apartment of Kitty Conover (June Collyer) and her dotty Aunt Abbie (Clara Blandick) at 2 A.M. At first, Kitty pulls a gun on the interloper but soon falls for the handsome, wounded man and helps him call Martin Kent. Aunt Abbie, in her curlers and corset, goes out on the street to find a doctor. Unfortunately, the dotty old girl walks right into Mischa Auer's Piotr who brings Dr. Boris Karlov right to Prince Nicholas under the guise of a doctor. Before Karlov can plunge a hypodermic into the prince's arm, Nicholas fights him off as Martin Kent arrives. Karlov and his villainous henchmen are chased out into the foggy night guns blazing.
The Petrov brothers are smuggled to Aunt Abbie's house in the country but they are followed almost immediately by Karlov's assassins who creeps around in the dark outside the mansion while thunder and lightning crashes all about. Various skullduggery is perpetrated by Karlov's minions and various guards are picked off in the house. Martin Kent is even captured and taken to an old watermill which serves as Karlov's secret headquarters. Nicholas, now totally in love with Kitty, tells Gregor that they should leave the house because they're endangering the women. Aunt Abbie decides that she's going off into the night to get help (since the telephone lines have been cut). Gregor takes the old lady aside and gives her a note to give to Karlov (if she happens to be captured) which he says offers to give himself up if the mad doctor will leave the others alone. Unfortunately, the cowardly Gregor is lying; the note actually offers to tell Karlov who caused his daughter's death in exchange for saving his own cowardly skin. Aunt Abbie is, of course, nabbed before she manages to get 10 feet away from the house and Gregor is soon before Karlov betraying his own brother Nicholas. Disgusted with Gregor's cowardice, Karlov murders the coward with a poison gas he's just whipped up in his laboratory.
Karlov nabs both Prince Nicholas and Kitty as locks them in the old mill; the mad doctor gives Nicholas a knife and tells the prince that he must kill Kitty with it. . . if he doesn't, when Nicholas is dead Kitty will be left alone with Karlov and his minions -- implying that she will face a fate "worse than death". Visions of slavering Russian assassins gangbanging Kitty dance through Nicholas' (and the viewer's) heads as the two lovers are left alone with a candle Karlov has hung burning at both ends! By the time the candle has burned out, Karlov will return to carry out his nefarious purposes. Nicholas, however, spots some loose stones in the wall and plans to dig his way out of the cellar using the knife. Unfortunately as Nicholas dislodges a stone, tons of water start pouring into the cellar -- just as Karlov has planned to cause their deaths all along.
Warner Oland as mad Dr. Karlov is actually quite restrained; he does not demonstrate a "moustache-twirling" villainous performance which you may expect from this type of movie. Oland remains coldly evil throughout and, in fact, doesn't act like a "mad" doctor at all -- only one bent on revenge for the death of his daughter. Mischa Auer is also very low key as the evil Piotr. It is, in fact, rather surprising not to have teeth-gnashing villains in a film of this kind. June Collyer is also thankfully not insipid as our imperilled heroine Kitty Conover; she does a minimun of cowering (considering what usually can be found in such a role at this time period) and is fairly appealing. Lloyd Hughes as our romantic hero Prince Nicholas is suitably square-jawed and handsome but does occasionally display an expression which leads one to believe he may be constipated! Truthfully, there's not much that can be done with such a bland role where the villains provide all the interest. Unless, of course, you're talking about comic relief provided by crotchedy Clara Blandick as Aunt Abbie. Unlike MOST comic relief characters in 30's movies, Blandick isn't annoying at all but quite endearingly crusty. Whereas most films of this vintage feature cringingly bad comic relief, Aunt Abbie is actually fun and reveals a strong backbone as she tells off Dr. Karlov in no uncertain terms. Karlov says he is flattered when Aunt Abbie tells him she's been waiting to get at him for a long time. "Well, you won't be so flattered," snaps Abbie, "you'll be FLATTENED when I get through! I've been itching to give you a piece of my mind!" And Abbie does so -- reducing the villain to near silence! "And mark my words, my man," Aunt Abbie barrels ahead as she is literally dragged from the room by a couple henchmen, "You'll end on a scaffold yourself -- with your samovars and your vodkas and all your rotten vices! All I've got to say is I never DID like caviar! Or your Russian dancers squatting down on their hind legs running a mile and getting nowhere!" "Take her away!" laughs Karlov, "She annoys me!" Aunt Abbie even bashes one of the assassins with her umbrella and calls him a "vulgar boatman"! Truly good stuff! Of course, Clara Blandick will forever be known for portraying Dorothy's Auntie Em in the 1939 classic THE WIZARD OF OZ before eventually committing suicide in real life due to ill health. Wallace MacDonald is nicely slimy as the wretched and cowardly Gregor while Hale Hamilton is stodgy and unremarkable as special agent Martin Kent -- a character which SHOULD be dashing but instead is totally forgettable. The fun of the film, of course, arises from every scene being shot at night through dense fog or lightning flashes while deadly Russian assassins constantly lurk just out of sight. There are plenty of menacing shadows on walls and window shades as well as windblown curtains and flickering candles through dark hallways. The film itself looks like it had a fairly large budget; it doesn't look shoestring at all with many impressive sets ranging from the Russian palace of the Petrovs to an ocean liner to Aunt Abbie's sprawling "old dark house" and Karlov's old mill. In fact, as early 30's mystery/horror films go, this one looks rather sumptuous. Typically, there is no musical score to speak of; the soundtrack is filled with theatrical-sounding sound effects of thunder (rattling metal sheets) to whirling wind (which sounds like someone dragging a sheet over a clothesline) -- very unrealistic but theatrical effects which demonstrate just how early in the talkie business this film represents. Decidedly old-fashioned with theatrical acting styles exhibited by half the cast -- featuring long dramatic pauses between lines or silent movie dramatic gestures -- THE DRUMS OF JEOPARDY still manages to be one of the better examples of this kind of early 30's horror film which, when viewed sympathetically, can still manage to entertain. DRUMS OF JEOPARDY stands as a good example of old-fashioned, theatrical Hollywood still coming to grips with the new medium of sound -- before they made the next step towards the more realistic, less stagey cinema to come.