Agatha Christie’s “Jones”

In these tumultuous times it’s nice to know that in the UK there are at least two ubiquitous artistes who apparently will never go out of style:  Agatha Christie and Toby Jones.  It is therefore not surprising that these two formidable forces of nature should meet, or rather, collide, and most entertainingly, in a pair of new standout releases from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment:  a 2010 production of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (on DVD) and, even better, a superb 2016 adaptation of the no-frills version of THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (Blu-Ray), each a prominent, perennial Christie gem and both featuring the extraordinary Mr. Jones.


It was inevitable that the greatest Poirot in the History of Poirots, David Suchet, would eventually be tackling a version of his most famous case.  And, thus, in 2010, it came to pass.  Since the 1974 movie edition, every subsequent take on MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS has been a celebrity-studded excursion, tantamount to a Christie rendition of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  It’s one “Hey, look who it is!” star-gazing sighting after another.  And this lavishly produced tele-feature is no different.  Glamming the support of the great Suchet are the likes of Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Chastain, Barbara Hershey, Eileen Atkins and, natch, Mr. Jones (as the unscrupulous American millionaire, portrayed by Richard Widmark in the ’74 big-screen pic).

I’m not going to go into the plot, save the basics.  The title sets the stage as the rich-folks’ choo-choo chugs and halts in a snowbound wilderness somewhere in Eastern Europe.  A reluctant Poirot, surly and not really wanting to deal with any crime matters, is recruited to attempt to solve a passenger’s murder.  The problem isn’t a suspect, it’s a trainload full of ’em.

Even before the first “all aboard!” is sounded (the Aleppo set-up), this is a fun, suspenseful, super-enjoyable ride – the second-best way for folks to spend a wintry evening under the covers. The direction (Philip Martin) is crisp, the writing (Stewart Harcourt) is a sharp as the cheddar hors d’oeuvre served in the dining compartment, the production values (Jeff Tessler, Miranda Cull, Sheena Napier) and music (Christian Henson) sumptuous and the photography (Alan Almond) downright gorgeous.  Strategically released on DVD to coincide with the newest Kenneth Branagh EXPRESS, this Suchet deco-delight is a tough one to beat.


While EXPRESS is an undeniably intriguing, entertainment, it is the 2016 adaptation of Christie’s other world-famous work, THE WITNESS FOR FOR THE PROSECUTION, that wins the Jones v. Jones stakes hands down.  This is a WITNESS unlike one you’ve ever seen.  How so?  Well, because it’s not based on the renowned stage version or the celebrated 1958 Billy Wilder movie.  It’s gleaned from the original 1923 short story – a far different and somber cry from the rollicking post-WWII reboots.

Taking place in real time — Britain after the Great War — WITNESS does not presents us with the curmudgeonly barrister-protagonist so dear to our hearts.  The John Mayhew here is NOT the super-successful legendary defense attorney.  He is a struggling, failing near-impoverished lackey, living a sad existence in a loveless marriage and plagued by a crippling case of asthma, contracted when he was gassed during the war.

This Mayhew doesn’t choose his clients from the elite list; he trolls the prisons searching the dregs of society who cannot afford any legal assist.  It is during one of these desperate scavenger hunts that he comes across a man no lawyer will touch – yup, you guessed it, Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), accused of murdering Mrs. French a rich, older woman.

Mayhew senses that this unfortunate may have been dealt as many lousy cards as he has.  A war vet who rescued Romaine Heiler (Andrea Riseborough), a beauteous German waif he found in the trenches, Vole has had nothing going for him, save his dashing good looks.  Romaine, the German woman he saved and later wed, is now working in a second-rate music hall, yearning (but never attaining) solo singer status, due to the bigotry her coworkers hold against her Teutonic heritage.

That Mrs. French is not the gullible, lonely widow portrayed in the later WITNESS evocations is another revelation.  She is a cougar, whose mantra is “I like young men,” and pays increasingly handsomely for their favors.  She is also Kim Cattrall, amazing, sensuous and just wonderful in the role.  It should be noted that her devoted maid Janet (Monica Dolan) is also not motivated by sheer loyalty; she has a lesbian obsession for her boss.

All of these factors play key roles, as the case goes to court and the newspapers go wild.  Mayhew himself begins to get some play, even though he needed to align himself with Sir Charles Carter (David Haig) a mercenary scumbag of a lawyer.

When a mysterious woman comes forward with a scandalous tale concerning Romaine, who has now turned against her husband, Mayhew jumps for the bait and overnight becomes London’s heroic headline king.

Ah, but things are not as they seem, and Mayhew’s new lavish lifestyle and practice soon makes him wish for his days in the tenements – the result of a surprise and unwanted reunion at a posh resort; this is coupled by a shocking disclosure from the barrister’s wife (Hayley Carmichael), who venomously spits out the reason for her spousal hatred.  The ending is totally unexpected, and, frankly, quite shattering.

THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is an engrossing, first-rate thriller that, like EXPRESS, benefits from top-notch participation in all areas, specifically the direction (Julian Jarrold), the writing (Sarah Phelps), the cinematography (Felix Wiedemann), the spectacular period set/costume design (Nick Palmer, David Bowes, Liz Simpson, Claire Anderson), the music (Paul Englishby) and, of course, the acting.  Howle and Risenborough are terrific as the Voles; ditto Dolan as lascivious Janet, Carmichael as the brittle, acidic Mrs. Mayhew and Haig as the bastard barrister.  But it is Cattrall and Jones who make this a must-see, must-own platter for mystery/Christie fans.  The Blu-Ray, we should add, in keeping with Acorn tradition, is a widescreen knockout.

No kidding, folks, this is already one of the best releases of the New Year.  And if you think my testimony may be biased, well, I guess I plead guilty!

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.  Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios. CAT # AMP-2616.  SRP:  $19.99

THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Mammoth Screen/Agatha Christie Productions. CAT # AMP-2547.  SRP:  $34.99.



And It’s Of Green Cheese

One of the most little-known (and, thus, underrated) works in John Ford’s formidable canon is his very personal 1957 indie pic THE RISING OF THE MOON, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the clan at the O’Warner Archive Collection.

A perfect celebration of the perks and foibles of the human condition, particularly if they’re of Irish descent, RISING is a three-story omnibus of Gaelic charm, scripted by one of the director’s favorite scenarists, Frank S. Nugent (with assist from T.E.B. Clarke), and based upon a trio of famed tales of the Emerald Isle.

Ford envisioned this sliver of a movie after completing The Searchers (but with creative seeds sown in his mind as far back as 1952’s The Quiet Man).  It would be a vacation of a “job of work” – a modest entry, shot on-location in black-and-white, in standard 1.66:1 widescreen and with no stars.

After The Quiet Man, Ireland was more than eager to welcome their new favorite son back with open arms, and potential backers couldn’t wait to dig into their pockets.  “John Wayne?” they asked.  “Nope.  No stars.  Locals, maybe the Abbey Players, no Americans.”  It was like the potato famine all over again.  When the dust cleared, only Michael Killanin remained (who would work with Ford on two more remote works, Gideon of Scotland Yard and Young Cassidy).  To quote Father Ted‘s Father Jack, “Feck all!”  And the cameras rolled.

The movie, like The Quiet Man, is a loving valentine to the country of Ford’s ancestors. Only quieter.  Personally, RISING is one of my favorite Ford works, and one I trot out to friends whenever I get the chance.  Certainly, it gets much play during the month of March, a quintessential St. Paddy’s Day platter.  It warms the cockles of me heart to expose a smattering of lads and colleens to the RISING‘s many pleasures, and have them enthusiastically respond with a sincere “I LOVE this movie!” critique (which they unanimously do, I’m proud to say)

The beautifully acted trilogy opens with Frank O’Connor’s The Majesty of the Law, a poignant piece bristling with roguish affection and conviction.  The village constable (Cyril Cusack) is out to serve a warrant on a blustery but beloved hermit, Dan O’Flaherty (the great Noel Purcell, forever Pablo Murphy from The Crimson Pirate).  O’Flaherety belted a neighbor in a scuffle and has been charged with assault and battery.  As passionate as he is honest, Dan is ready to go to jail (once he takes care of some personal affairs: “Would Friday be all right?”).  The law doesn’t want to arrest the impoverished resident; in fact, the man’s neighbors offer to pay his five pound fine.  But steadfast O’Flaherty refuses.  Even the victim, head still in bandages, shows up to pay the fine himself!  But old Dan will have none of it.  Soon the entire township is at odds, wondering if there can ever be a civil resolution.

My pet of the bunch is the second offering, Michael J. McHugh’s wacky and raucous A Minute’s Wait.  It tells of a train arriving at a small village depot, not unlike neighboring Innisfree, and right on schedule – a mere four hours late.  And, as the conductor melodically announces they’ll be a short “one minute wait,” the entire car load of passengers rushes the pub for the first of many station libations.  It is here we learn of the lady publican’s (Maureen Potter) adoration for the blarney-kissed conductor (Jimmie O’Dea), rhapsodizing about his confrontation with a castle ghost.  We witness elder clan members (May Craig, Harold Goldblatt) matchmaking their grown children (Maureen Connell, Godfrey Quigley), the winners of a rugby match converging upon the choo-choo, along with the victors/townsfolk of a Quiet Man-esque display of fisticuffs.  Throughout this mélange is a veddy English couple (Anita Sharp-Bolster, Michael Trubshaw), the brunt of a trunkful of insults, verbal and physical (they are forced to share their compartment with a crate of fish, then removed to a lesser space to make room for the town goat). Will these stories wrap to salvable conclusions? More importantly, will the hopelessly late railroad ever chug off into a Fordian sunset?  These questions are addressed via a final touch of hilarity involving the befuddled British couple.

The most beautiful of the stories is left for last, Lady Augusta Gregory’s 1921 (expanded to cinematic dimensions from its stage roots).  During the “troubles,” a British-occupied hamlet is witness to the arrest of a key agitator (Donal Donnelly), who is to be hanged.  Two nuns (Doreen Madden, Maureen Cusack), one actually the sister of the prisoner, request a five minute meeting with the doomed man.  But they’re really actresses who dress the hero up in a nunnery frock and spirit him away to a local theater until he can be smuggled out to sea and safety.  The apparent thick Irish policeman (Denis O’Dea) assigned to help the English is way smarter than he appears to be, and his nocturnal dockside dinner break with his wife (Eileen Crowe) is, in my humble opinion, one of the best pieces of film Ford ever shot.

As one might expect, American distributors weren’t knocking down doors to acquire THE RISING OF THE MOON.  Ford, who was not having a great year (his excellent British thriller, the aforementioned Gideon of Scotland Yard, starring Jack Hawkins, was chopped down to barely over an hour, relegated to the bottom half of a direct-to-the-nabe double-bill, and insult to injury, denied it’s superb Technicolor; Columbia ended up releasing it stateside in black-and-white).  Ford’s anger at not being able to sell a project on his name alone (which hadn’t been a problem throughout the 1940s) ate away at him with a vengeance.  Worse, John Wayne, the man HE made a star, could get any movie started by just nodding in approval.  Ford played his hand the best he could, and took RISING to Warner Bros. for whom he had just scored a sizeable hit with The Searchers.  Jack Warner, wasn’t thrilled, and begrudgingly agreed to pick up the movie with one proviso – that a “name” star introduce each story.  Ford called Tyrone Power, with whom he had a decent working relationship on the 1955 pic The Long, Gray Line.  Ford, in turn, demanded that Power’s name not be well…over-Powering in the ads and trailers.  Warner acquiesced, but, being Jack Warner, his word was about as good as a three-dollar bill (the mogul had after all screwed his own kin out of their studio).  Ford nearly plotzed when he saw the one-sheet – a duo-tone poster with the bottom half in full-color depicting the characters from the narrative; there, on the right side, was color portrait of Power with his name in large block letters.  That said, Power does a good job setting up each fable (it couldn’t have been more than a one-day shoot),  but is it just me, or does it look as if the actor is wearing leprechaun ears?

THE RISING OF THE MOON got lukewarm reviews, and did only marginal business (even in Ireland, its performance at the box-office proved to be a disappointing one).  The movie quickly evaporated into the mist of obscurity, occasionally surfacing in 1960s late night-TV screenings.

The anamorphic Warner Archive DVD-R is excellent, mastered from the 35MM elements, with stunning monochrome location work, achieved by the great Robert Krasker.  The hauntingly gorgeous music that appends the visuals comes via Eamonn O’Gallgher, melded into numerous Irish ballads, accompanied by an Irish harp and including, of course the iconic title tune.

I recommend THE RISING OF THE MOON without reservation (no matter what time of the year).  The variance of the stories will give your emotions a thorough workout, from laughter to tears.  It’s what first-rate movie-making is all about.

THE RISING OF THE MOON.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic].  2.0 mono audio. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000382534.  SRP: $21.99.



Available from the Warner Archive Collection: or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.



Freud Where Prohibited

No better way to get the eight month jump on Halloween than by unearthing a rarely-seen fright delight, 1971’s HANDS OF THE RIPPER, available in a special Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack from the folks at Synapse Films.

Don’t let the title fool you – this is a fairly elaborate narrative with enough plot twists and Hitchcockian transference of identities to please even the most highbrow of goth snobs. That said, it is also a Hammer Film – and one filmed post the U.S. ratings systems…so there’s enough lurid sexual innuendo and gore galore to satisfy the splatter enthusiast (especially in this first-time ever American uncut edition).

I want to go on record as saying that this is one of my favorite Hammer Films – in fact, possibly my number-one favorite from their baroque library NOT directed by Terence Fisher.

The intense scenario, tantalizingly realized by screenwriter L.W. Davidson, originated from a story by Edward Spencer Shew, concerns the illegitimate daughter of Great Britain’s biggest tourist attraction. The picture opens with a posh-garbed toff escaping into a safe-house where his lover attends their baby progeny. Soon it’s apparent that the woman’s blood-spattered upper-class boyfriend is none other than you-know-who and, literally, in a flash (the gleaming blade heightened by the roaring fireplace), before you can say “Jack be quick,” she is carved into yet another pile of Victorian mincemeat. This Honeymooners episode gone wrong is all being watched with scrutiny by their crib-captive golden-tressed child. From this moment on, every shiny object, every glittery, sparkly thing, sets off the girl’s ultra-violent side – a trait due to the inheritance of her infamous pater’s bat-shit crazy gene. Vegas fans can only be grateful that she was born forty years before Liberace.

Moving a decade hence, we now see the orphaned Anna (the striking Angharad Rees) working for phony spiritualist Dora Bryan. An embarrassing sham séance takes a turn for the worse when Bryan pimps the young girl to an attending member of Parliament (Derek Godfrey). Before you can say Rees’ Pieces, there’s more carnage than a GOP Obama roast.

Also sitting in at this event is Dr. John Pritchard (The Forsyte Saga’s wonderful thesp Eric Porter); Pritchard’s a progressive medico specializing in the embryonic science of psychology, particularly the you-want-to-fornicate-with-your-daddy rappin’ of Siggy F. He rescues Anna, takes her into his home – and attempts to cure her malady…with horrific results.

Has Anna been irreparably psychologically damaged – or is she possessed? It’s science vs. religion that is the underlying theme of this surprisingly complex thriller. But don’t let that lofty stuff get in the way of this superb 85-minute Grand Guignol exercise. Not only is the oh-so-innocent-looking Rees conflicted by her parentage; as the body count rises, Pritchard too becomes obsessed. After taking the aforementioned Godfrey into his confidence, the lecherous politician insists on turning the girl over to the authorities; the doctor, a bit of a screwball himself, sloughs off his patient’s annoying homicidal tendencies…Regarding Anna’s penchant for serial killing, he responds with an icy “…it’s worth it!” if it – you know – benefits the world of science, blah-blah-blah…No black and white personality schisms here – it’s all gray…in fact, Gray’s Anatomy. Anna’s maniac button is kinda like ‘Tippi Hedren’s in Marnie, but on steroids.

The killings themselves are masterpieces of a demented imagination: staked through a door with a fire poker, jagged mirrors in the throat, hatpins in the eye…I mean, come on – where else are you going to see a dowager impaled by a lorgnette?

As indicated, the violence is tempered with a liberal dose of early 1970s movie sex. The slight albeit beauteous Rees is certainly not your typical bodacious Hammer girl; the fact that she’s rather “…modest up there” is even verbalized by an aroused lesbian hooker seconds before the streetwalker is turned into a Jackson Pollock painting (Rees, who is friggin’ terrific in this movie, is more akin to another wisp of a Hammer femme: Nike Arrighi in The Devil Rides Out). Other excellent cast members include Jane Merrow, Keith Bell, Norman Bird and Katya Wyeth. In an instance of art imitating life, the real Jack the Ripper was never identified (personally, I think it was Lincoln…never actually assassinated, but gunshot brain damaged to the extent of his having to split people like so many rails). In HANDS OF THE RIPPER, the actor playing the notorious Whitechapel murderer has also been relegated to anonymity, slaying his part uncredited. Pertaining to the former, its cover-up understandable because, as I said, he was our 16th president; but in movie lore…WTF? He owns the opening scene and even has dialogue. This was, after all, a 1970s motion picture, and not a Biograph one-reeler. And, seriously, if “3rd Pub Whore” gets billing (Tallulah Miller) – why not Saucy Jack? Ah, sweet mystery of life…Oh, well…Onward and upward.

The picture looks fantastic, thanks to some outstanding cinematography by Kenneth Talbot. The awesome 19th-century sets, snatched from the life-sized mock-ups built for Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, emboss the Hammer trait of making their rather “modest up there” budgets resemble a major studio super production. The lush music by composer Christopher Gunning is gorgeous – eschewing the expected shock chords for romantic lyricism. I know this might sound outrageous, but, in spite of the on-screen events – HANDS OF THE RIPPER is, in its own way, a very beautiful film and one that, in addition to humans, skewers Victorian mores and hypocrisy. To paraphrase that theater-goer in the bar after watching Springtime for Hitler: “Didja ever think this music was for a movie called HANDS OF THE RIPPER?”(Gunning’s score is accessible as an isolated track on the B-D)

The picture did have its share of problems. No one really wanted to do it. Producer Aida Young, who had a smash with Hammer’s She and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, eventually took it on – her last Hammer project – “…because I needed the money….It looked like the worst kind of rubbish, but I must say we made it work.” To this, director Peter Sasdy can’t be complimented enough. His take on the project is almost like that of a Frank Borzage film; furthermore, Sasdy’s expertise at creating atmosphere is pitch-perfect (check out his other dissection of Victoriana – 1970’s Taste the Blood of Dracula).

HANDS OF THE RIPPER opened on the bottom half of a double-bill with the more high-profile Twins of Evil. Double-bill indeed – as that vampire flick got the mucho share of hype due not to its formidable lead Peter Cushing but the Playboy tie-in with title real-life sibs, Mary and Madeleine Collinson, who jubilantly bared all for their art (I’m still not sure if the title refers to the ma’ams or…the mamms). If more exploitation evidence is required, the promo for the latter was Which is the Virgin? Which is the Vampire? A trick question if ever there was one.

I saw the pair – one of the last Hammer co-feature releases – in the spring of 1972. Even then, while “dual-ly” impressed with Twins, I stated without equivocation that I preferred the accompanying flick. Knowing that their large audience base would be kids, Universal cut both pictures with less finesse than RIPPER‘s Anna. Further sections (yeah, sections) were excised for the 1977 network TV broadcast. To make up for the shortened running time, which I surmise to have been the length of one of their 8MM Castle Films, Universal, as was their wont back then, filmed some extraneous footage in Hollywood to tack on at the beginning; it was a ridiculous modern-day recap with shrink Severn Darden discussing this extraordinary case of butchery. He might as well have been talking about Universal’s editing department (the studio did a similar hatchet job on Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera and Kiss of the Vampire. More ludicrously, they performed some likewise surgery upon Losey’s non-Hammer Secret Ceremony, transforming prostitute Elizabeth Taylor into a hat designer!  How’s that for downsizing?!). I was thus rightly astounded some 32 years later when I obtained a PAL DVD box set from the now-defunct Australian home video company MRA Entertainment. Twins of Evil, HANDS OF THE RIPPER and a third title, Vampire Circus, encompassed versions I never dreamed existed. I have no doubt that these extended renditions would have been too rough for even an ‘X’ back then – let alone the ‘R’ which ended up being affixed to them for the U.S. issues.

Suffice to say that Synapse’s B-D/DVD of HANDS OF THE RIPPER utilizes the complete unedited version; however, unlike the MRA discs, which were on the grainy side, the new mastering defines 1080p High Definition in both clarity and color resolution; to call this new transfer a marked improvement would be an understatement.

But there’s more, folks. Synapse has produced some special extras for HANDS OF THE RIPPER – the best being a top-notch mini documentary, The Devil’s Bloody Plaything:  Possessed by Hands of the Ripper, comprising interviews with Sasdy, Merrow, Joe Dante and Hammer authority Wayne Kinsey (sadly, Porter and Rees are now deceased). The packaging, too, is noteworthy, offering an ebullient graphic Belgian poster with Rees magically-appended to a Jayne Mansfield cleavage, nothing less than an act of bovinity. There’s also the U.S. theatrical trailer, TV spots, a still gallery and the audio-only of the Darden nonsense (the picture portion seems to have been lost – a Pyrrhic victory, as you KNOW they’ll find that before von Stroheim’s complete Greed). What’s truly cool about these supplements is the genuine affection that the company put into making them. If only other home vid outfits, whose divvying out of their “it’s just a paycheck” B-D/DVD featurette assignments had that kind of dedication and integrity. Trust me, it does make a difference!

In a genre rife with cheesy second-rate horror schlock, Synapse’s HANDS OF THE RIPPER is – I gotta say it – a cut above the rest.

HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Color. Blu-ray: Letterboxed [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA 2-0]; DVD: [1.66:1 anamorphic]; Mono audio [2-channel Dolby Digital]. CAT # SFD0129. SRP: $29.95.





Raising the Eyebrow to an Art

If one were to compile a list of the major stars of the pre-Code era, the name William Powell would have to be at the forefront.  True, he excelled in many post-Code pics, and, indeed, made memorable appearances during the silent era.  But it’s his pre-C titles that we legions of early Thirties fans relish…and worship.  Thus, it is with great satisfaction to broadcast the release of the DVD-R 4-disc ensemble of WILLIAM POWELL AT WARNER BROS., available from the folks at The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.

Granted, the four titles here do not represent the star at his zenith, but they do contain two top-line pictures from his brief Warners days, plus two fascinating obscurites that, combined, make this set a worthy addition to any pre-Code/Powell buff’s library shelf.

Powell’s career was a varied and diverse one, spanning thirty years and nearly one hundred movies (and three Oscar nominations) in which the actor wore both white and black hats, yet NEVER gave a less than terrific performance.  Powell’s sleepy eyes (and ‘stash) seemed to doom him to villainous roles (parts he essayed during most of his 1920s period), but his love affair with the camera and his undeniable likeability aided by a natural flair for comedy soon gave rise to an ascension up the star ladder.  By the late 1920s, he was a key player at Paramount; the part-talkie The Canary Murder Case assured his foothold in the transition to sound.  This piqued the boys Warner, out to snare any and every attraction Vitaphone could accommodate.  Jack Warner’s simple strategy was to, frankly, offer up more money than actors and actresses with excellent speaking voices were worth.  And, during the years 1928-1932, it seemed to pay off.  Sweetheart long-term contracts were given to Al Jolson and Powell Paramount contemporary Kay Francis.  Bill Powell’s Philo Vance turn made him a logical Warner possibility, and soon he was lassoed over to Burbank.

The teaming of the two Paramount luminaries (Powell and Francis) proved a goldmine for Warners, especially with the release of their greatest pic, 1932’s One Way Passage.  Other more salacious offerings (Jewel Robbery, also 1932) reaped more box-office gold, and each star seemed to be proving that Jack Warner had made the right decision (this would eventually prove disastrous for the studio as the 1930s dragged on, particularly with both Jolson and Francis).  Powell was smoothly at ease with such risqué productions as Lawyer Man and especially The Kennel Murder Case, which returned him to his (up to then) most famous role (Vance).  But Powell was becoming increasingly unhappy with the types of vehicles Warners was serving up; more importantly, MGM was dangling an impressive carrot in front of him; and, professionally, the Culver City outfit was where he felt he should be.  The WB Powell musical Fashions of 1934 seemed to indicate he was right, and he eventually secured his release and bolted to Metro, where, during that same year he appeared in Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man.  Need we say more?  The popular actor overnight became a superstar.

But that doesn’t mean the quartet of titles in WILLIAM POWELL AT WARNER BROS. are to be sneezed at.  Au contraire.  In whole or in part, they’re quite entertaining and frequently wonderful (with outstanding participation from folks in front of and behind the camera).

So, let’s take a gander.


1931’s THE ROAD TO SINGAPORE is the creakiest of the Powell foursome, making less discriminating viewers likely wish for the presence of the more famous name’s-the-same 1940 pic, costarring Hope and Crosby.  Yet, the sex in the tropics movie does have its moments, nearly all due to its lead.  There are some pre-Code gems dropped between the overall stodginess in J. Grubb Alexander’s screen adaptation of Roland Pertwee’s play Heatwave (a way better title, which was actually based upon a novel by Denise Robins).  In a coconut shell, the plot concerns the return to the islands of well-oiled rake Hugh Dawltry (Powell), whose credo is that it “isn’t against the law to make love to other men’s wives.”  His latest target is recently transplanted Dr. March’s (creepy and dull Louis Calhern) classically beautiful spouse Philippa (Doris Kenyon), whom he first spies on the cross-over voyage (in between romancing a variety of shipboard (and bored) females.

At first the lady rebuffs him, but, after seeing her husband’s true colors (he’s a brutal racist, and, it’s implied, a lousy lover), she amorously gravitates toward the far more desirable Dawltry (“Dinner at eight is never more compromising as breakfast at seven,” they logically conclude…and collude).  A follow-up hard kiss on the veranda is pre-C moment to savor, as it’s obvious the lady is having an orgasm.

Alas, Philippa isn’t the only interested woman, not a surprise as the entire male populace seems to be a bunch of brittle, antiquated bigots with sticks rigidly in place up their arse.  The second best performance is the flick is in fact Marian Marsh as Rene, Calhern’s young, horny teenage sibling, determined to have Powell make her a woman.  She and her sister-in-law bond by sitting around in their lingerie, talking sex and smoking cigarettes while copies of The Hungry Wife get passed around more often than a box of Crackerjack.

SINGAPORE is surprisingly stiffly directed by the usually slick and fast-moving Alfred E. Green (remember Baby Face?).  The photography by Robert Kurrie is a definite plus, as are the Anton Grot sets and excellent supporting cast (Alison Skipworth, Lumsden Hare, Tyrell Davis, Ethel Griffies, Charles Lane and Snub Pollard).  But there are far better things in store for purchasers of this 4-disc set.


In contrast, 1932’s HIGH PRESSURE, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is one of the best pictures Powell ever made for Warner Bros.  And it’s a textbook template for Pre-Code 101, full of sexy situations, slimy double-crosses, drinking, whoring, and more great lines than a Jaguar showroom.

Powell plays Gar Evans, the king of the PR world, out on a womanizing toot(sie) du jour.  His ex-peeps are desperate to find him, as there’s a million-dollar op in the works, if they can get the right promoter to promote.  Gar is the guy, but he’s more tight than right, so, after a sobering reunion (“finding a needle in a haystack is nothin’ like looking for a guy in a gin mill!”), Evans zooms back on the (non-Jim) beam and struts his stuff.

Based on a play by Aben Kandel, the mile-a-minute screenplay by Joseph Jackson and S.J. Peters is a never-disappointing hoot.  Powell’s in good company with the ladies, flanked by two hard-candy Say Girls, Evelyn Brent and Evalyn Knapp; with them around no butt is safe from a kicking.  And if that’s not enough, there’s Polly Walters literally bringing up the rear, superbly telling Guy Kibbee where to shove his wreath.  Furthermore, there’s the always-welcome splendid participation of Frank McHugh, George Sidney, Ben Alexander, Charles Middleton, Oscar Apfel, Harry Beresford and Henry Armetta.

The dialog is priceless, with Powell self-described as an excellent night worker, especially when it comes to dictation.  Sidney, a worried investor, is nevertheless impressed by this and Knapp’s eagerness to work into the wee hours.  “I’m very ambitious,” she purrs with enough heat to melt an iceberg.  Powell’s revolutionary ideas really are ahead of their time, coming up with the concept for the informercial.  With technical expertise from d.p. Robert Kurrie, art direction by Anton Grot, and Earl Luick’s panting-friendly pre-C ladies wear, HIGH PRESSURE is high pleasure.  Plus, there’s the trailer, featuring a scene not in the movie of Kibbee “auditioning” babes.


In 1933’s PRIVATE DETECTIVE 62, Powell plays an undesirable in Paris, deported for playing a part in an espionage plot, then, recruited back to France to ply his smarmy talents.  But Powell (as Donald Free), wants no part of it.  He jumps ship and ends up in Depression-era New York, where jobs are scarcer than integrity in D.C.  He hooks up with a sleazeball private eye (Arthur Hohl), and, with the help of a gangster client (Gordon Westcott), mushrooms the agency into a mega-successful concern, where the phrase “bedroom dick” is a compliment.  Oh, yeah, and all this happens within the first ten minutes of this rapid-paced 66 minute pre-Code lulu.

Hogan, the unsavory Hohl, is the lowest of the low.  He’ll stoop to no less than murder, deception and robbery to keep his detecting on an even keel (in one sequence, he hires date-rapists in order to blackmail a female client).  Powell/Free finds he’s finally had enough, although it’s not due to being sideswiped by decency, but rather the shapely charms of Margaret Lindsay, an affluent gangland victim whose Jones for plunging rivals her Orry-Kelly necklines.

Some masterful dialog by Rian James (ranging from “Who ever heard of a man going to Atlantic City with his wife?!” to warning cokehead James Bell to “lay off the da snow”) makes this adaptation of Raoul Whitfield’s story a celluloid wow.  The shimmering photography is by Tony Gaudio, the smooth-as-silk direction by the great Michael Curtiz and the overall enjoyment is had by all.


Curtiz and Powell team up again for the interesting but problematic THE KEY, a 1934 barely-made it pre-Code (it was released on June 9, 1934).  It’s a low-rent yet intriguing version of the Irish “troubles,” way better realized the following year by John Ford’s The Informer.  This take, as scripted by Laird Doyle (from a play by R. Gore Brown and J.L Handy), differs from Ford’s, as it’s from the British point of view, with personal relationships overpowering the politics.  Powell is Captain Bill Tennant, once again a rake by any other name, a notorious womanizer who nonetheless is an ace undercover man (in many ways) for the British.  Assigned to Dublin in 1920, he is pleasantly surprised to find himself neighbors with Captain and Mrs. Kerr, as portrayed by Colin Clive and Edna Best.  Clive delivers yet another self-loathing, tortured portrayal as a top officer, haunted by his killing a traitorous rebel, who was also his friend.  Powell doesn’t make it easier; he’s another pal from the past – whose earlier days with Clive’s wife Best were far more rousing.

Lots of subterfuge, deceit, self-sacrificing and soul-searching before this drama concludes with able support from Hobart Cavanagh, Halliwell Hobbes, Donald Crisp, J.M. Kerrigan, Henry O’Neill, Arthur Treacher and, a particularly nifty turn by Anne Shirley (still Dawn O’Day), as a young Irish flower-seller, smitten with Powell.  The excellent photography is by Ernest Haller, with music supervision by Warner’s reliable Leo F. Forbstein.

THE KEY, Powell’s last Warners release, proves a decent send-off for the busy actor, a nevertheless quickly forgotten entry that was overshadowed by the suave thesp’s new arrangement over at Metro.

That said, WILLIAM POWELL AT WARNER BROS. is a worthy acquisition for any WP (or WB) aficionado.

WILLIAM POWELL AT WARNER BROS. Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. Made-to-order DVD-Rs from The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT# 1000428690 .  SRP: $39.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection: or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.





Pulp Friction

Film noir fans need to momentarily stop running down those nocturnal rain-swept streets, catch their breath and rejoice for the Blu-Ray release of Don Siegel’s vastly underrated 1954 crime thriller PRIVATE HELL 36, now available through Olive Films/Paramount Home Video.

An Allied Artists special, HELL contains what is likely the perfect noir cast.  In the four leads are Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran, Howard Duff and Dorothy Malone, with Dean Jagger, Dabbs Greer, James Anderson, Richard Deacon and King Donovan admirably shouldering their always-appreciated support.

The plot (by costar/producer Lupino and her then-husband Collier Young, for their Filmmaker’s Presentation company) is a peach.  I’ve-got-your-back no-nonsense official City of L.A. gumshoes Cal Bruner and Jack Farnham (Cochran and Duff) genuinely enjoy their work, and its middle-class rewards (along with Scott Brady and Charles MacGraw, they are the perfect plainclothes candidates for a fantasy version of James McElroy’s Black Dahlia).  This includes the violent part (a right-off-the-bat lethal skirmish in a convenience store is jaw-dropping and serves as splendid precursor to director Siegel’s “Do ya feel lucky, punk?!” sequence in Dirty Harry).  The schism between them is that Farnham can shrug it off after-hours, enjoying suburban living with his curvy, loving spouse Francey (Malone).  Bruner, on the other hand, when not barbecuing with the Farnhams, contemplates a larger-than-life existence – one he feels he truly deserves, being better than most everybody (he’d never admit it, but he’s kinda a perfect Nazi).  Not surprisingly unmarried, Cal haunts watering holes, eventually hooking up with barfly/singer/whore Lilli Marlowe (Lupino), who, despite her circumstances, is a pretty decent person, striving for something better.

PRIVATE HELL 36 (the “36” being a secret locker) would never progress further than the interesting level, if it weren’t for the dark, talon-fingered hand of fate.  A wild car chase with a mob figure on the run results in his demise.  Calling in the fatality along a deserted, rural road, Bruner and Farnham discover a suitcase with $300,000.00 in stolen mob money.  Jack is all for turning it in; Cal has other plans, and suggests an alternative.  NOTE to all noiristas:  NEVER take advice from Steve Cochran.  Farnham is reluctantly convinced, and from here on their troubles escalate, notably when Bruner’s increasingly overt psychopathic tendencies, veering frighteningly toward paranoia, go full Fred C. Dobbs on Farnham’s ass.  Plus, we have the police (led by narrator Jagger), already suspicious, and anxious to vanquish the force of dirty cops.  PLUS, that pesky mob isn’t about to write off their losses either.  Jack and Francey thus become the archetypical genre poster couple for the hopelessness walls-closing-in scenario that, as we all know, cannot completely EVER end well.  And it doesn’t.

PRIVATE HELL 36 is one of my all-time favorite noirs, and, in my opinion, one of Don Siegel’s greatest pics.  Siegel, as recounted in his superb 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film, considered it a mess. The reason being that producer-writer Lupino tried to also become director Lupino; it additionally didn’t help that, aside from Dean Jagger and himself, the four leads were mostly drunk throughout the shoot. Ultimately Siegel, who called it a “family film” (Lupino and Collier Young had been husband and wife) concluded “I liked Ida personally, and admired her talent.  We just couldn’t communicate.” Siegel’s “family” comment had on an ulterior, cynical meaning, as three years previously Lupino divorced husband Young (who still remained her business partner), marrying Duff.

Off-camera keg-party hijinks aside, I still love this movie.  The snarky, gritty script is peppered with quotable lines, many reflecting the then-current mainstream culture (“I’ve seen all this on Dragnet,” spouts one cynical denizen about the daft, ferocious chain of events).  Cochran takes the honors for the best lines, specifically when offering his personal exoneration to his far-more reputable-partner for their murderous deeds (“Stop taking it so hard.  He wasn’t your brother.”).  And watching all these scene stealers interact with one another is pure mean street joy.

All of the above is compounded by the downright brilliant black-and-white widescreen cinematography of Burnett Guffey.  Ditto the ominous score by Leith Stevens.

The Olive Films Blu-Ray does this unfairly ignored freak show justice, with a spiffy-looking platter, that, apart from slight grain, is a monochrome winner.

Tough, rough and oozing with guilt, PRIVATE HELL 36 rates a key spot on your crazy-ass cop noir sidebar shelf, alongside On Dangerous Ground, The Prowler, Kansas City Confidential and the rest.  Don’t miss it.

PRIVATE HELL 36.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT# OF456.  SRP:  $29.95.



Mighty Hammersaurus vs. a Twentieth Century Fox

Aggressively coming behind the recent Blu-Ray release of the 1940 original One Million B.C. is the far-more celebrated 1966 remake, a piece de resistance of Sixties sex, violence and state-of-the-art special effects.  One need not read any further to discover that this is the ultimate edition of the psychotronic Hammer Films classic, a triumph for the great Ray Harryhausen and a fantasy flesh fest for everyone else.  It all comes to your home-vid media room via a magnificent two-disc Blu-Ray, courtesy of Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

The birth of this Jurassic joyride began as a seed in the generally goth head of Hammer producer/writer/director Michael Carreras (a key suit, although I’ll avoid using the term Hammer head), who saw the project as an ideal vehicle primed for a high-tech redux.  It was a way to bring the great Harryhausen into the Hammer fold, plus reveal much bodacious dollygirl skin, draped in scanty animal skins.  Sort of dinos meet beach party antics that tipped more toward a Bond world than a Frankie and Annette sojourn.

Indeed, Carreras was faithful to the source work, creating a straight adaptation of the original Mickell Novack Roach script, but, as Joel McCrea’s employers demanded in Sullivan’s Travels, “…with a little sex.”

Actually, more than a little.

Working with 7-Arts, in conjunction with 20th Century-Fox in the States, Hammer had gleaned a major human acquisition – the studio’s newest successor to Faye/Tierney/Darnell/Monroe/Mansfield: Raquel Welch (although the starlet/actress had yet to show much of herself, save swimming through a diseased bloodstream in the sci-fi hit Fantastic Voyage).  More on her later.

Another major coup besides Welch and the aforementioned Harryhausen was the master SFX artist’s previous director Don Chaffey, who guided the mythic narrative of 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, arguably the finest work either of these two men had ever been involved with.  Ditto was the acquiring the services of Jason’s outstanding d.p. Wilkie Cooper, (who likewise shot Harryhausen’s 1964 Victorian space travel epic First Men in the Moon).

The picture was to be shot in the Canary Islands, a perfect weird environ that blossomed with strange, haunting (yet vacation-friendly looking) beauty.

The remaining cast of humans, aka the Rock and Shell folk, included some high-octane Brits, comprising Robert Brown (as Akhoba, the Lon Chaney role in the 1940 tale), and the wonderful Percy Herbert as Sakana, evil, lustful son of Brown.  For Tumak, the Victor Mature character, Hammer did for its female audience what it had so masterfully achieved for its male contingent.  Part-time actor/photographer John Richardson was cast as the exiled Rock man who learns about love, brotherhood and hygiene (not necessarily in that order) from the ga-ga gorgeous Loana (or woo-woo Welch).  Richardson succeeded in bringing many girls into the theaters with this pic, and gave the formidable beauteous ladies on the shoot quite a series of pre-menopausal hot flashes. The prime (or primal) recipient of this hormonal upheaval was Bond girl/movie bad babe Martine Beswick, who, as Nupondi, a ravishing Rock (or Rockette), desires Tumak but is “taken” by Sakana.

The “dialog” (so to speak) is identical to that of the Hal Roach version.  Pressbooks even hyped a caveman/modern man Neanderthal/English dictionary.  Movies used to be so much fun!

Harryhausen’s work, of course, is fabulous – among his best – but, initially, 1966 viewers/fans were aghast (me included).  The first monsters we see are of the old blown-up lizard variety (that much of a faithful remake we didn’t need).  I recall shouting out at the Heights Theater, “No, Ray, what have you done?!”  I figured this was Fox interference, as this is what passed for dinosaurs in two of their previous outings, 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (which I loved) and 1960’s The Lost World (which I didn’t).  Mercifully, the big lizards are onscreen for a short time only, and the next time prehistoric beasts appear they are Harryhausen stop-motion gems.  Apparently, the lizard idea was Ray’s himself, a backfire that he thought would more realistically segue into his work; Harryhausen reasoned that audiences would react to the wonder more if the debut monsters were actual living creatures (in regard to the living, breathing dragons, the same problems prevailed as in the 1940 pic, being that the lizards didn’t move in the heat and had to be cooled down to perform – at least this time they were cared for by reptile wranglers, with no resulting fatalities).

Raquel Welch, was, naturally, the big promotional linchpin of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. as the remake was now called (both for the obvious physical reasons and the fact that she was a Fox star).  It all paid off handsomely.  ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. became one of the top-grossing pictures of 1966, and Hammer’s biggest box-office champ to (that) date.

Release strategy divided the movie into two separate directions.  In the States, B.C. was geared toward the mass kiddie crowd, while an elongated, graphic cut was unveiled for a more adult audience in the UK (a similar ploy was used in their inferior follow-up When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, featuring a ridiculous American version as opposed to a full-nudity international edition).

The differences between the two versions of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (in running time, about nine minutes, or a split reel), is rather extensive.  Okay, big surprise, we’re talking sex and violence.  For the latter, this is illustrated via a sequence (rather two sequences) where Tumak (and later, Tumak and Loana) come across a cave of hybrid humans, half homo-sapien, half cannibalistic beasts, who literally rip the head off of one of their own, devouring the juicy parts, and using a head as an ornament.  The sex part is a segment wherein a now pent-up, horny Nupondi (Tumak has been banished) is about to become the property of salivating Sakana.  To prepare for this rather unpleasant event, the woman is used in a ceremonial dance where she has obviously been given some potent hallucinogens (what the B-westerns used to refer to as “loco weed”).  In a scene that surpasses anything Welch contributes to the scenario, Beswick, oiled-up and breathing heavily, gyrates like an Amsterdam hooker on an oyster binge.  It’s likely that this supreme moment gave Carreras the impetus to star the actress in her own entry, Prehistoric Women, released later that year.

It should be happily noted that BOTH versions are included in the Kino set (a big relief, as the pick-and-choose options of yore meant buying the edited U.S. Fox anamorphic DVD or a non-anamorphic UK Warner-Pathe platter).

As indicated earlier, Harryhausen’s efforts in ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. are iconic.  There are fights with an Allosaurus (the apple-tree shaking part in the Mature opus), a battle between a Tyrannosaurus and a Triceratops (the alligator/lizard scene in the original), a beach frolic invasion by an aircraft carrier-sized turtle, and, most famously, the cleavage-heaving Welch being spirited away by a Pterodactyl as food for her young ‘uns.

All-in-all this is an amazing Blu-Ray set that Hammer fans, Harryhausen/SFX buffs, 1960s cinema aficionados and Welch-Watchers cannot afford to be without.  The images and colors in 1080p High Definition are incredible, and the soundtrack, featuring the music of Mario Nascimbene (who uses riffs reminiscent from his previous acclaimed scores for The Vikings and Barabbas) is glorious.

But the beat goes on.  There are a number of enticing, vastly entertaining extras, including two archival (2002) interviews with Welch and Harryhausen.

The Welch piece is, sadly, just what one would expect.  For nearly fifty years, she has bitched about this movie (“…took me years to live it down!”), much like Burt Reynolds’ condemnation of his great spaghetti western Navajo Joe.  She continues to do that now, but in a kinder, warmer and fuzzier back-handed way.  Still, she goes on about how she never wanted to do it, fought with Fox (after only one picture), and was terrified that she’d be typed as a sci-fi queen, due to B.C. and Fantastic Voyage.  Ironically, it’s these two movies (along with a guest appearance in Bedazzled and her genuine comic flair in the Richard Lester Musketeer flicks) that remain the best works in the actress’s career (nevertheless, her grunting and giggling, considered inadequate, was dubbed in post). Welch claimed she only agreed to the UK’s Hammer B.C. deal because she wanted to be part of the Swinging London scene that was then going on.  More probable is the fact that Fox threatened to suspend her if she didn’t go.  Welch also states that she came close to death on the shoot, running around in those skimpy skins during an unprecedented blizzard in the Canary Islands.  That, too, is unlikely.  Welch does concede that the movie “made” her, especially when the famous cavegirl poster was distributed before the official release date.  She also begrudgingly acknowledges the brilliant artistry of Harryhausen, to say nothing of the pecs of Richardson that kept her in sweaty mode (apparently even in those Way Down East non-existent snowdrifts).  Finally, she talks about her getting on so well with Beswick, whom she admits was quite a knockout.

The Harryhausen interview is far more reliable, as he describes shooting in the Canary Islands with the cast and crew.  Most relevantly, he humorously comments on chasing and pointing giant sticks at the actors, instructing them to run, cower, scream, fall, etc.  He also addresses the critics who called the picture a farce of history.  No one, says Ray, ever stated that we were making a documentary.  He also mentions that budgetary problems put the kibosh on a final dino attack at a cave (mirroring the climax of the 1940 Roach flick), and that they wrote in the volcanic eruption instead.  This seems to be at least half correct, as both those sequences appeared in the original, and that the eruption HAD to be the final capper to the remake.  He also displays the remnants of the dinosaurs used in the production.

The third and best of the filmed interviews is a recent discussion with Beswick, who, it turns out, is not the mean girl she often portrayed, but a savvy, funny and totally neat-o person whom anyone would be thrilled to hang out with.  She likewise recounts the shoot (not a word of snow, but does mention some torrential rainy days), the genius of Harryhausen (so enamored of his work was she that the actress asked if she could watch him do the stop-motion in his studio, which he agreed to).  She also discusses her almost being sued by Hammer for wanting to drop out of the production early-on.  Unlike Welch, it wasn’t for “artistic” reasons, but rather personal ones.  Once she saw Richardson, she knew her career would take a backseat to lust.  Threatened with legal action, she sighed and agreed, becoming fast friends with Carreras and “doomed” at a press junket prior to filming.  Richardson and Beswick were on opposite sides of the room, but, as soon as their eyes met, the bond of sexuality became so strong you could, as they say, cut if with a knife.  “Oh, no!,” she groaned.  She knew she’d give in, and did.  Carreras told her he’d never seen such physical attraction in all his life.  The thesps married in 1967 (divorcing in 1973).  As to she and Welch being best buds, Beswick is diplomatic, and leaves it at “we got on.”

I always believed whatever Hammer Films outlined in their one-sheets. So when the poster of Welch, in her fur bikini, amidst an array of dinosaurs and a belching volcano, contained the byline herald “THIS IS THE WAY IT WAS!,” I thoroughly wanted to think it so.  And, admittedly, for me, in 1966, it was.

ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # K20726. SRP: $29.95.



Mature in a Young World

In the continuing and (much-desired) remastering of the Hal Roach library on Blu-Ray, VCI Entertainment, in conjunction with MVDvisual and Blair & Associates Ltd., has released the long-anticipated High Def platter release of the 1940 classic ONE MILLION B.C.  The movie is such a landmark pic for a myriad of reasons:  star/TV broadcast staying power, special effects, box-office legs and even controversy.

Where does one begin?

Let’s start with the people involved, in front of and behind the cameras.  The picture, geared to the human pastry contingent, aimed to give the public ample helpings of cheesecake and beefcake, and succeeded admirably on both counts.

The main attraction (or name) that’s associated with ONE MILLION B.C. is newbie Victor Mature.  It made him a pinup as much the 1966 remake made one of Raquel Welch.  Coupled with Mature was beauteous Carole Landis, quite fetching in her lady-tailored animal skins as Vic was in his loincloth (although Mature may have had an edge when it came to the larger breast-chest).

The implausible story concerns two tribes of primitive peoples, the brutish Rock People and the peaceful Shell People.  The differences are immediately physically apparent.  Rocks are dark haired, grunting beasts and eternally grubby; Shells are blond, laugh a lot and are bath-oil fresh.  Even their names are a tipoff to their social environs.  Landis is Loana, a fantasy name that instantly conjures up lilting breezes, soft waves and sensuality usually associated from one of those Dorothy Lamour countries; Mature, on the other hand, is Tumak, which suggests a gastric disorder.

Tumak’s and Loana’s eventual meeting in a Jurassic world that never existed dangerously pits them against the still-evolving climate elements, rampaging dinosaurs, and primal urges that ultimately send them down that bumpy road to create what we today call civilization.

If it all sounds like a silent picture from before the Jazz Age, it ain’t no accident.  No less than D.W. Griffith was commissioned to direct the epic (a rare job for the then-struggling cinema pioneer) for UA, the studio he helped found (in fact, he even helmed a notable embryonic version in 1912, Man’s Genesis).  Although likely little more than a publicity stunt (even Griffith’s dwindling industry fans proclaimed him as “finished” by the mid-1930s), he was on-set at some point during early production.  While he very publicly left the picture due to that old bugaboo “artistic differences,” (“Mr. Roach did not feel that it was necessary to give the characters as much individuality as I thought was needed, and so I did not wish to appear responsible for the picture by having my name on it.”), his influence is nevertheless at least minimally apparent in two sequences:  one where snarling Rock man Mature learns to laugh, and another where the Shells are shown developing art.  With Griffith banished like one of the disobedient Rock tribe, Hals Sr. and Jr. shared the directorial duties.

The politics alone of ONE MILLION B.C. make the movie a must-see.  With the Depression now ended, and with the Roosevelt policies obviously working, the saga of the ancients is notable for its New Deal attitude.  The Rocks are the “take what you can for yourselves” Republicans, while the Shells are the Democratic open arms share-and-share alike/there’s room for everybody faction.  The aforementioned art (cave paintings) encouragement (and youth classes) and creation of music is nothing less than a Flintstone evocation of the WPA.  As such, the pic is absolutely fascinating.

But back to the actors.  While it’s extraordinary that this flicker took a quartet of writers (Mickell Novack, George Baker, Joseph Frickert and Grover Jones), especially since there is no dialog, save crude first names, animalistic growling ‘n’ howling and sounds for basic human functions, there’s much to be said for visually progressing the narrative (or photoplay, as they used to say in the Griffith days) at a swift fast clip.  Signed to Roach contracts, Mature and Landis made such a sensation in this odyssey that within  a year both were freed from Roachdom and scooped up for long-term 20th Century-Fox servitude (Mature’s deal being cosigned with RKO).  The great d.p. Norbert Brodine, also a Roach employee, because of his work here, was likewise given a sweetheart deal at Fox, where he remained for most of the rest of his career.  The third B.C. cast member of note is, of course, Lon Chaney, Jr., then riding high from his terrific reviews of his previous Roach effort, 1939’s Of Mice and Men.  Much wag-talk was made of Chaney’s participation, of how he yearned to take up the reigns of his celebrated father.  Layout after magazine layout ballyhooed Chaney’s working on various makeups for his role as Akhoba (Mature’s abusive pater), hoping to follow papa’s “man of a thousand faces” legacy. It all backfired infamously as the makeup and hair unions (not so prevalent in Lon Sr.’s day) threatened to halt the filming with T-Rex-sized injunctions.  Lon’s efforts are not for naught, as his performance is certainly the best in the movie.

For actual dialog (the aforementioned Jones’ contribution), a framing story was added with modern-day spelunking young folks (Mature, Landis, etc.) seeking refuge in a storm and coming across a creepy hermit (the creepy Conrad Nagel) living amongst the artifacts and cave paintings of yore.  Bearded, ragged Nagel has much of the wordage, as he gives a guided tour of his domicile that fortunately quickly dissolves to the actual events of the mercifully non-preachy-speaking participants.

The special effects in ONE MILLION B.C. are legend, deservedly giving Roach SFX staff Roy Seawright, Jack Shaw and Frank Young a guarantee of future work.  While one can easily sidestep the dude in the papier-mache dino outfit (drooping head accounting for the poor bastard not being able to see where the hell he was going), many took umbrage with the “actual” prehistoric creatures.  No Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen here, but rather the template for the blown-up lizard/rear-screen projection method.  It may be considered a cop-out today, but in 1940, it wowed the crap out of audiences (coupled with roaring sound effects, albeit mostly dog sounds, or barking dinosaurs).  Indeed, the effects were so striking that for decades after its release, the ONE MILLION B.C. monster footage found its way into a plethora of cheap sci-fi B-movies (amazingly as late as 1961’s Valley of the Dragons).  Two Castle Films 8mm versions (One Million B.C. and Battle of the Giants) remained perennial crowd pleasers for me and my undiscriminating grade-schoolers pals for years!

But the criticism of the footage cut deep, and not from King Kong fans, who demanded stop-motion, but from animal-rights activists who openly banned the movie (it was refused a British release).  It wasn’t simply the torture of the reptiles (taping/stapling a Dimetrodon fin on an alligator, or horns on a whatever the heck that other lizard was), it was the out-and-out murder and mutilation of same.  Cold-blooded creatures (the reptiles, not the producers), the “dinos” adapted well to the studio soundstages, resting comfortably under the hot lights.  Unfortunately, that didn’t do for the call of “Action!”  So the crew was ordered to freeze the set, which got the aggravated animals on the move, usually ending up with their death from exposure.  The ASPCA groups also weren’t that thrilled by the real-life bison/ram that gets clobbered over the head with a formidable club.  Sadly, no one ever commented on the gorgeous Rock girl who get lava-ed by an erupting volcano (a scene as startling today as it was then), with thousands of gallons of Hollandaise sauce, Velveeta or whatever substituted for the molten stone that completely covers her in one continuous shot.

Suffice to say that with its scantily-clad great-looking Neanderthals, dinosaur action and homo-sapien violence, ONE MILLION B.C. was a runaway hit in 1940.  THE runaway hit.  No foolin’, aside from holdover engagements of Gone with the Wind, the Roach pic vied for the Number One Box-Office Attraction of the Year.  That’s quite a feat, considering the competition (Rebecca, The Little Foxes, The Sea Hawk, The Letter, The Philadelphia Story, Northwest Mounted Police, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.).

The volcano eruption finale additionally remains quite impressive, with the earth opening up, swallowing man and beast and man-beasts.  All-in-all, ONE MILLION B .C. is a popcorn-munching experience that has warmed the cockles of many a heart for over seventy years, and now keeps the momentum going, thanks to this excellent VCI Blu-Ray.

The black-and-white images, framed by Brodine, look luminous and sharp with nice detail and contrast.  The mono audio, featuring the Werner R. Heymann score that I couldn’t stop humming during the pic’s ubiquitous screenings on NYC’s Channel 9 in the 1960s, has now come back to haunt me once more.  As of this writing, I still can’t get the damn music out of my head!

ONE MILLION B.C. Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 LPCM. VCI Entertainment/MVDvisual/Blair & Associates, Ltd. CAT # VCI9030.  SRP:  $29.99.