A Just Desert

When most movie fans hear the name “John Ford,” they are already envisioning the monolithic peaks of Monument Valley filling the motion-picture frame.  In short, the man is synonymous with the Western.  And, yes, I like Stagecoach and love My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and worship The Searchers; but, are any of these classics my bid for the top Ford western drama?  Nope.  That honor is reserved for (obviously) one of my favorite movies ever, 1950’s WAGON MASTER, now remastered in a stunning new Blu-Ray edition from the settlers at the Warner Archive Collection.

To the average picture-goer, WAGON MASER is nowhere near as well known as the other aforementioned masterpieces.  And for good reason.  It was a modestly budgeted 86-minute mini-epic, lensed without fanfare or stars (but with nevertheless a plethora of wonderful actors).  It was a personal project for Ford, who took the tight script by Frank Nugent and his son Patrick, and turned it into cinema gold.

The crux of WAGON MASTER is a trek to the Promised Land (aka, the San Juan Valley in California) by a band of determined Mormons.  To help them cross the treacherous desert, they cajole the services of horse wranglers-(now)turned-guides Travis Blue and Sandy Wiggs.  Okay, sounds like a rigid, righteous kind of western show you’ve seen before.  Again, nope.  It’s a thrilling, beautifully shot (by Stagecoach’s Bert Glennon) saga, rife with humor, action, drama, and romance.  LSS, it’s everything a movie should be; whether one is a fan of the genre or not, I defy you NOT to be entertained by this journey.

Earlier I mentioned the basis for the plot; there’s another intertwining (as in snake) thread that ties the many narrative elements together.  In a pre-credit sequence (unusual for its time), we’re introduced to the Clegg family, a band of vicious psychopaths (a hint of inbreeding is definitely also present), who rob and then kill a shopkeeper.

The Cleggs end up on the trail as well, causing much suspense and (surprisingly, again, for a movie from this period, especially a Ford pic) a liberal dose of sadism (unlike the rest of the cast, who are dressed in traditional garb, they wear shroud-like dusters, later made famous in spaghetti westerns).

In addition to Ford, there’s so much to rally around on WAGON MASTER that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  My choice is to start with the leads.  In a celluloid dream come true, we actually get a movie STARRING Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr.!  Real-life best buds, their chemistry dominates the magnificent gallery of thesps, including Jane Darwell, Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Cliff Lyons, Movita, Frank McGrath, Chuck Hayward, Jim Thorpe and Francis Ford (the director’s older brother and former silent screen star).  As Uncle Shiloh, head of the thoroughly evil Cleggs, the remarkable actor Charles Kemper delivers what may be the finest role of his career.  After witnessing his creepy presence here, it’s hard to fathom that this dude was, in actuality, one of the nicest guys on the planet (he always played Santa for the kiddies at Ford’s annual Christmas parties). The year after WAGON MASTER, Kemper was the sympathetic partner of detective Robert Ryan in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground.  It took me a while to realize that these two excellent performances were delivered by the same actor.  Sadly, he passed shortly after the Ray pic wrapped (and before it was released), in 1950 at age 49.  The remainder of the monstrous Clegg clan comprise Hank Worden, Fred Libby, Mickey Simpson, and, in a pre-Thing appearance (but just as frightening), James Arness.

In a nod to his previous triumphs, Ford throws in a one wagon three-person traveling show, populated by ham actor/doctor Alan Mowbray (My Darling Clementine) and beautiful heart o’gold but tough whore Joanne Dru (Stagecoach); Ruth Clifford finishes the triad, a mature force of nature who catches wagon train leader Bond’s eye (the same as winsome settler Kathleen O’Malley does to Sandy).  They are here for a purpose, having been thrown out of the “good Christian” town just as the Mormons have (in short, in the world of pompous hypocrites, whores = Mormons).  It really is a misfit caravan.  And when said sacrilegious town law enforcers go posse hunting for the Cleggs, guess who they end up beseeching for help?

For a simple nabe exercise, WAGON MASTER packed a lot of themes and variants into its tack: duplicity, loyalty, violence (some of it justifiable) and a mini textbook on sexuality, from wholesome attraction to forbidden fruit to predatory lust (not merely Dru’s presence; one of the Clegg brood rapes an underaged Native American).

WAGON MASTER provided a much-needed respite for Ford.  He had just completed one of his few misfires at RKO, the lyrical but genuinely uneven The Fugitive.  This was a makeup exam – a small pic that wouldn’t have to reap oodles of ducats to put the studio in the black.  Depending on when you approached the director, he cited it as his own favorite movie (other titles would be The Sun Shines Bright and The Quiet Man).  Since, as indicated, there were no “big”stars, RKO wasn’t breathing down Ford’s throat.  Off he went to his beloved Monument Valley, where he and the cast and crew were pretty much left alone.  Which is how he liked it.

As mentioned, the Warner Archive Blu-Ray of WAGON MASTER is terrific, the best video rendition ever.  Picture is 1080p crystal clear, with a strong dynamic track booming with bombastic monaural sound (a perfect springboard for the musical background provided by the Sons of the Pioneers, and the stirring Richard Hageman score).  As an extra, there is audio commentary featuring Harry Carey, Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Harry Carey, Jr. from the late 1990s till his passing (two days after Christmas) in 2012.  He was affectionately dubbed “Dobe” by Ford, so christened for his brick top mop; that’s what his friends called him (“Mel, call me Dobe” was one of the finest moments of my eternal Romance with the Movies life).

Dobe and Marilyn Carey at their home in Santa Barbara, 2003. (photo by Mel Neuhaus)

I truly believe we connected when I told him that WAGON MASTER was my favorite Ford picture.  “Really?,” he replied with a concurrent mix of surprise and delight. “Mine, too.” I initially asked him about an early gambling scene.  “What the hell game is ‘High-low jick-jack-jenny and the bean gun’?”  Dobe shook his head, “Damn, if I know,” he laughed.   But he did share the following amusing (if not telling) incident with me.

WAGON MASTER was a happy experience from beginning to end.  To be honest with you, I had never seen Ford so relaxed.   Believe me, a Ford picture could be a baptism of fire, but not here.  I don’t think I ever saw him enjoying himself so much.  The whole picture was like a vacation.  None of that Ford cruelty, which was definitely a thing.  Even one unrehearsed mishap didn’t faze him.  It was during one moment where Ward breaks up a fight between me and my romantic rival.  A dog on the set didn’t take to Ward, and leaped on his leg – snarling, gnashing at him – tearing his trousers.  Ward kept trying to shake him off, but remained in character.  “Keep rolling!  Keep rolling!,” shouted Ford.  I’m pretty sure I never heard him laugh so hard, he was really like a different person.  He practically fell off his chair, right on his ass.  Come to think of it, maybe he did.   I wish all the shows could have been like this.  They weren’t.”

WAGON MASTER. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/RKO Pictures/Warner Home Entertainment.  SRP: $21.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

Auteurs with Depth

The only thing better than having 3D movies from the format’s Fifties’ Golden Age arrive on Blu-Ray is being able to finally appreciate the titles done by pantheon directors.  It is, thus, with immense pleasure to be able to discuss and hype two must-have platters for any 3D library, 1953’s WINGS OF THE HAWK, directed by Budd Boetticher and 1954’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE, helmed by Douglas Sirk (now both available, thanks to the gang at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, The 3-D Film Archive and Universal Studios).

Westerns, of course, provided a gold mine for 3D – a perfect visual frame for landscapes, cowboy and Indian battles, gun fights and all that fragile barroom brawl furniture frisbee-ed into your faces.  Universal-International certainly took advantage of the process, producing some of the best titles during 3D’s relatively short 1950’s reign.  While the lion’s share of the U-I coverage is usually geared toward the sci-fi Jack Arnold stuff (It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon), movies such as the two above managed to beautifully display the non-freaky wonders and possibilities of stereoscopic photography.  At first glance, WINGS and TAZA might not seem to be representing these acclaimed directors at their peaks.  At first glance.  But read on.  There are surprises in store.

WINGS OF THE HAWK would be a praiseworthy western, even without the 3D.  It presents an unusual take on the era’s oaters, and delivers the goods handsomely.

In 1911 Mexico, prospectors Gallagher and Marco are successfully running an operation that is unceremoniously taken over by thug-like Federales, who kill the latter (but not before Gallagher viciously fights back, injuring the band’s commandant, Colonel Ruiz).

Now on the run, Gallagher is surrounded by a band of rebels, working in factions for Pancho Villa and his protégé Orozco (a wink at cinema history, as the cameo appearance of the famed leader’s underling is played by Noah Beery, Jr., an obvious nod to Uncle Wally, who practically owned the role after his lead part in 1934’s Viva, Villa!).

Surprisingly, Gallagher’s captor is not your average angered farmer-turned-revolutionary, but the ravishing Raquel, a woman striving for equal rights and an expert agitator, in all areas of combat, riding and killing. Credit James E. Moser’s script, adapted by Kay Lenard from Gerald Drayson Adams’ novel (with assist from Budd) for carving that extra notch.  Similar to the following year’s Vera Cruz (also about Mexican rebels), WINGS OF THE HAWK often plays like a precursor to the spaghetti western.

With insurrection within the insurrection, double-dealing, burgeoning sexual fireworks (between the two principals) and dynamite action sequences, WINGS OF THE HAWK never lets up in its 81-minutes, from fade-in to fade-out.

Van Heflin (as Gallagher) is great (as usual); likewise beauteous Julie Adams (still billed as “Julia”) as Raquel.  Adams, it should be noted, had the typical U-I contract, which meant, in the words of future signee Susan Clark, that women basically, “stood around waiting for the fucking cavalry.”  Adams fared better, at least here. In one of the three pics she made with Boetticher (a candid shot I once saw of her lovingly looking on as Budd stages a fight scene suggests it was perhaps more than a professional relationship), WINGS is, perhaps, the lady’s best – giving the actress a chance to get in on and even instigate a lot of the action sequences.  Another interesting aspect of her character is the revealing of Raquel’s equally gorgeous sister Elena (Abbe Lane), who, rather than “fight the good fight” has decided to sleep her way into riches by marrying one of the country’s top political and military villains (the evil ubiquitous Ruiz).

Heflin once told a funny story about the making of this movie.  Prior to filming an escape/chase sequence, Boetticher pulled the Oscar-winning actor aside and said, “Now when I give the signal, you leap on your horse, and gallop to the corral fence, jumping it and riding hell-bent away.”  Heflin grinned and responded by nodding to the adjacent stuntman, “Shouldn’t you be telling that to him?  Budd, you know I really don’t do this stuff.”

The supporting cast is your typical roster of U-I thesp stock, which is to say a sampling of the decade’s character actor heaven; included in the lineup are Antonio Moreno, George Dolenz (as the slimy Ruiz), Mario Siletti (as Marco), Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Rodolfo Acosta and Paul Fierro.

The movie was shot in the new 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and is creatively framed by the excellent d.p. Clifford Stine (with the 3D material supervised by David Horsley, Fred Campbell and Gene Polito).  Suitable music supervision accompaniment is provided by Frank Skinner (another plus is the original stereophonic mag track reproductions in both 3.0 or 5.1).

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray of WINGS OF THE HAWK looks pretty good.  Working on the restoration of the 3D materials with The 3-D Film Archive couldn’t have been an easy chore, as it’s been nearly seventy years since the stereoscopic elements have seen the light of day.  Occasionally, some scenes look a bit on the dark side, but there’s nothing crucial to deter from enjoying this Third Dimension treat.  Extras include audio commentaries by Jeremy Arnold and 3D authority Mike Ballew; the most notable supplement is the U-I 3D Woody Woodpecker cartoon Hypnotic Hick (which was released with WINGS in its original release) I first saw Hick in 3D during a now legendary Third Dimension series at Manhattan’s 8th Street Playhouse movie theater in 1982.  The credits for this cartoon alone had the audience screaming in approval, as the titles and building girders seemed to stretch out over the viewers’ heads.  I remember taking off my glasses and looking at the packed house, who were all staring at the ceiling in optical illusion bedazzlement.  How cool to have this as an extra!  The trailer to WINGS is also featured, but, unfortunately, only in 2D.

Back in 2000, I had the opportunity to meet Budd Boetticher at The Museum of the Moving Image.  At the time, I asked him about working in 3D; his reply initially shocked me:  “HATED IT!  It was supposed to make things more realistic, never did.  Made them look more fake.  I shot the picture like any other, no attention to any 3D effects.  When I finished, they brought in some hack to film the crap being thrown at the camera.”

Okay, fair enough, but one must never forget that Boetticher was infamously dubbed a maverick – prone to fighting the suits when told to do something he didn’t want to do, or that he had not come up with himself.  Truth be told, there aren’t many instances of “crap being thrown at the camera.”  If Boetticher is to be taken at his word, it really becomes a head-scratcher as to why the remainder of WINGS OF THE HAWK looks so amazing in 3D; center action is meticulously framed between foreground and background, giving viewers great sense of depth.  This goes for both exteriors (landscapes, trees, cactus, boulders, barricades) and interiors (jail bars, lanterns, tables). I’d go as far as to say that WINGS OF THE HAWK might be one of the best of the Technicolor pics the director made while at Universal.

1954’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE was almost at the outset plagued by a title that seemed tailor-made for MST.  Star Rock Hudson’s sloughing it off as “Joe College in a wig” didn’t help.  And many who learned that it was directed by Douglas Sirk thought the whole exercise as a forced easily forgotten studio project that no one should ever mention in a serious discussion of the director or the genre.

Wrong.

TAZA is actually quite a good western – and refreshingly different from the reels of sagebrush sagas relentlessly churned out during the 1950s.  It’s based on a true story, with Taza taking after his peace-yearning father while hot-headed sibling Naiche opts to remove every white who has infringed upon the Indian nation.

Cochise himself became a cottage industry.  First played by Jeff Chandler in Fox’s 1950 smash Broken Arrow (which later became a hit TV series), the role won him much acclaim and helped make him an Eisenhower Era star.  He reprised the chief back at his home studio in 1952’s Battle at Apache Pass and, then again (and lastly) in this movie, as a cameo in the opening scenes.

As indicated, the movie’s version of Taza does contain a peppering of truth to counterbalance the expected (no pun) whitewashing.  Taza was conflicted – wanting to continue his father’s dream of harmonic ethnicity with the other races increasingly arriving in the West; yet, he also had to contend with a simmering faction of tribal members (led by his own brother, no less), who ended up siding with a bloodthirsty Geromino.  Taza’s plight is compounded by racist whites who want no peace at all – the chalky supremacist “only good Indian is a dead Indian” jackasses.  Sadly, this is an emotion felt by the commanding officer of the cavalry, General Crook, another true-life bigot who lived up to his name, but is portrayed here as more misunderstood than racist scum.  Taza does have one friend, sorta the white version of himself, the liberal Captain Burnett.

This all goes amiss when the Native Americans are (big surprise) royally screwed over and brutally ordered to be relocated to a reservation; an all-out war erupts.  Taza’s initial benevolence is proven not to have been of the weak creampuff variety he was thought to be.  The son of the famed chieftain emerges as a vicious warrior.  The script by George Zuckerman (from yet another original story by Gerald Drayson Adams) is admirably sympathetic for the times.  It should be noted though that the real Taza was not as successful as the movie version; although succeeding his father as chief of the Chiricahuas, Taza ended up leading his people to the land chosen for them. He journeyed to Washington to plead a case for Native American equality; there “civilization” took its toll.  He contracted pneumonia in D.C., succumbing on September 26, 1876, at age 33.

Still, enough historical authenticity survives to make TAZA, SON OF COCHISE a fairly reasonable depiction of some of the facts; for cineastes, it is also a very Sirkian movie.  The class structure within the Native American community is every bit as present as it is in the middle-upper echelons of the 1950s suburbia unveiled in Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, and Written on the Wind.  Taza must compete with his brother for the favors of the radiant Oona, who is essentially a “keeping up with the Joneses” trophy prize to be auctioned off by her greedy capitalistic father (goats and property replacing country clubs and Cadillac limos).  The duality of the human condition so prevalent in Sirkian drama is also visually underlined (in an attempt to appease both sides, Taza dresses in half Native American attire, with a “white eyes” Army police top).  Yet, TAZA is also a vicious pic – with violence escalating to near Anthony Mann levels (a young white settler getting an arrow through her breast).  The action scenes are breathlessly framed, the stunning Utah locations gorgeously rendered.  This is where the 3D comes in triumphantly – spectacularly composed imagery in the rare hybrid-shape of 2:00 (a format Universal-International would test the waters with between 1954 and 1955).  The boulders, cactus, fort gates, Native American villages, cooking spits, etc. envelope the viewer as few Fifties third dimension flicks ever have.  And the numerous action sequences enhance the experience as well.  Big kudos to d.p. Russell Metty (once again, Horsley, Campbell, and Polito assisted with the 3D material)!

Despite his scoffing, Hudson is excellent in the lead, as is Barbara Rush as his beloved bride, and also Rex Reason (as nasty bro Naiche, still billed as “Bart Roberts”).  Morris Ankrum, Gregg Palmer, Eugene Inglesias, Richard H. Cutting, Ian MacDonald, Robert Burton, Joe Sawyer, Lance Fuller, Charles Horvath, Russell Johnson, Hugh O’Brian, and William Leslie nicely fill out the excellent cast.

The Kino-Lorber/3-D Film Archive Blu-Ray of TAZA, SON OF COCHISE looks the berries – one of the finest Golden Age stereoscopic discs to date.  The colors really pop – a far cry from the faded 16MM prints I’ve suffered through since the 1970s – even the Technicolor ones.  The mono audio, too, is excellent, and features a rousing albeit typical score by Frank Skinner.  Extras include audio commentaries by David Del Valle, Courtney Joyner and Mike Ballew, and, most relevantly, the original theatrical trailer IN 3D.  Suffice to say, it is one of the best 3D trailers I have ever seen.

Over forty years ago, I had the pleasure of being at a MoMA screening of The Tarnished Angels, hosted by Sirk.  Afterward, he graciously allowed me a brief window for discussing his work (and signed my All That Heaven Allows half-sheet).  His comments on this movie are particularly worthy of mention.

“Many people ask me what my favorite movie is, and expect me to answer Written on the Wind or Imitation of Life.  Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that response – except it wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  Watching interviewers’ reactions to my reply consistently amuses me. One of my favorite movies is TAZA, SON OF COCHISE.  I always loved Westerns, and had wanted very much to make one.  I actually lobbied at Universal, who were famous for making them, to let me shoot TAZA.”

I loved working with Metty on those sensational locations – away from the studio.”

We did take some pains to devise many images to bring out the 3D effects, not just the obvious material, but subtle, visually natural and pleasing objects to fill the widescreen and third dimension frame.  To me, the whole process was more like a temporary experiment; not long after the movie was shot, they abandoned the format.  I think it mostly played in standard 2D.”

Thanks to Kino-Lorber and The 3-D Film Archive, my 3D Bucket List has gotten two titles shorter.  To reiterate, it’s wonderful to at last be able to view them in third dimensions, let alone own terrific copies of each.  These are necessary additions to anyone’s stereoscopic library (or for Boetticher and Sirk collections); 2-D versions are also included, but, seriously, try and check out the 3-D restorations.

WINGS OF THE HAWK. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 3.0/5.1 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K25216.

TAZA, SON OF COCHISE. Color. Widescreen [2.00:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K24491.

Both titles Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios/The 3-D Film Archive. SRP: $29.95@.

Mamie Untamied

My love and fascination for Mamie Van Doren goes back many years, in fact, decades.  I’ve long admired her starring roles in late 1950’s-early 1960’s features, and some of her memorable supporting parts in other pics.  Every time I thought I had her pegged, she’d surprise me.  Hey, she can sing.  And, hey, she’s funny.  And, hey, she’s genuinely good in this pic.  When a starlet can perfectly balance the see-saw on-screen chemistry with the likes of Clark Gable or dilute the overbearing presence of Mickey Rooney, there’s something special going on besides the OMFG amazing looks.

Pretty much wasted at Universal-International (wait, I didn’t mean for it to sound like that), Mamie graduated to a series of Albert Zugsmith classics at MGM (Zugsmith, too, fled U-I, but not before, as indicated in the previous column, producing flicks like Touch of Evil, Written on the Wind and The Incredible Shrinking Man), concurrent with a deal at Warners AND UA, where the platinum bombshell was to star in her own vehicles.

And WHAT vehicles!

Mamie Van Doren (born Joan Olander), in appearance, sass, and dialog delivery was akin to a throwback from the great pre-Code days of yore.  She tossed it around like Mae West on snake venom, her universe not surrounded by Cary Grant or Randolph Scott, but the dubious Steve Cochran, dope fiends, pimps, hookers and psychos (or as the title for one of these entries perfectly heralds, GUNS, GIRLS AND GANGSTERS).

The thing about Mamie is that when we actually finally connected, it wasn’t over movies, but politics.  Ms. Van Doren is, I’m proud to say, a progressive liberal, whose often incisive tweets make my day (and that of my fellow resisters).

Which brings us to my other attraction to the lady.

She’s quite a terrific and astute writer.  Really, folks, if you consider yourself a movie buff, you must locate a copy of her 1987 biography Playing the Field.  Yeah, there’s juicy stuff in it, but, overall, it’s one of the best depictions of the waning years of the Hollywood Golden Age, and a first-hand account of what it was like to be under contract to a studio. Highly recommended.

But back to the red hot Blu-Rays.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics has done us Mamie fans proud with the luridly slipcovered box set, entitled THE MAMIE VAN DOREN FILM NOIR COLLECTION.  Remastered from new 2K transfers (of 35MM materials), these black-and-white nabe gems (spread over two platters) are sure to be a hit with your home theater crowd.  Best of all, the woman herself has done a brand new supplemental interview especially for this trilogy.  If you’re a Mamie addict, I don’t have to go any further; if you’re not, this is apt to make you one.  So, read on!

1957’s THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS is the most extravagant of the three Mamie noirs, but with the least Van Doren (she had just given birth to her son, and this was her first pic back in action).  While light on Mames, her appearance counts (and, not surprisingly, commanded most of the publicity, posters, released stills and trailer footage).

STOCKINGS also has the best cast of the trilogy, with costars Anne Bancroft, Lex Barker, John Dehner, Ron Randell, Marie Windsor, John Holland, Diana Van der Vlis, Richard H. Cutting, and, in early roles, Stuart Whitman and Dan Blocker.  The plot, a serial killer stalking a posh Western dude ranch, is quite enticing and actually more resembles what would be soon called a giallo, rather than a noir.  The killings are quite sadistic (although they take place off-screen), and suggest that a graphic remake might be not be a bad idea.  The prob with the pic is that the focus character (the investigating sheriff, ably enacted by Dehner) is also the most boring one; maybe producers Aubrey Schenck and Howard W. Koch (who also directed) were trying to toss a procedural “Dragnet” cherry on top of the sundae, bloody, sundae.  Nevertheless it still remains sordidly entertaining with some rather bizarre interpretations from the nasty brother-sister couple who own the joint (a hint of incest between the pair is quite a jaw-dropper for 1957).  Schenck and Koch worked with Mamie on her Warners output and are the cofounders of the lean-budget company Bel-Air, which filled out many a bottom double-bill at the nabes during the 1950’s, covering all genres from horror to rock ‘n’ roll (STOCKINGS being one of their most elaborate).

In the aforementioned supplemental interview, Van Doren discusses working with Koch, and also relates a truly peculiar incident from the movie.  Throughout the filming, Bancroft practically stalked the platinum blonde, constantly snapping “worship” photographs of her at every opportunity.

Les Baxter provides a suitable score, but d.p. William Margulies’s cinematography goes one a bit better – it looks swell in widescreen 1080p.

1958’s GUNS, GIRLS AND GANGSTERS has one of those surefire grindhouse titles that can’t miss.  And it doesn’t.  Add Mamie’s gyrating form splashed across the posters and ads, and the box-office coffers practically filled themselves.

Of course, the pic being extremely cheap (lots of stock footage with voice over narration) made this a low-risk vehicle, and Mamie, as always, doesn’t disappoint the fans.  As the pent up Vi Victor, a maniac-incarcerated gangster’s moll, Van Doren gets to breathe heavy, give in to the charms of oily “genius” con artist Gerald Mohr, and sing some “desperate” ditties (“Meet Me Halfway, Baby” by Buddy Bregman and Stanley Styne) that leave little to the imagination (“I’m a girl that WILL deliver”).

The plot (much of it takes place in a diner/juke joint), as written by B-maven producer/scripter Robert K. Kent (story by Jerry Sackheim and Paul Gangelin) is basically a semi-1950s reworking of Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong.  Sexually frustrated psycho Mike Bennett (Lee Van Cleef) has been without his Mamie for nearly a half a year.  That’s too much for any man to be denied, let alone a kill-crazy lunatic.  So he escapes from prison, resulting in a bloodbath/ruined scheme by Mohr, who luckily (albeit briefly) reaps, as they used to say, the rewards of Van Doren’s “favors.” Or favor of the month.  There are some rather frightening murders in the pic that even I didn’t see coming.  The direction is brisk (telling its tale in just under 70 minutes), thanks to the speed-o efforts of Edward L. Cahn, with some crisp photography by Kenneth Peach).  The music is honky-tonk, sleazy jazzy terrific, especially with dem aforementioned tunes warbled by you-know-who.  There’s also a neat supporting cast of popcorn faves, including Paul Fix, Don C. Harvey and John Mitchum (Bob’s bro).  The one’s a pip!

Like GUNS, GIRLS AND GANGSTERS, 1959’s VICE RAID (the last of the UA Van Dorens) owes its roots (script by Charles Ellis) to Golden Age Hollywood, paying homage to the 1937 Warner Bros. classic Marked Woman. Spectacular whore Carol Hudson (MVD), working under the auspices of P.R. Girls “Models” (in essence, a Super “B” Girl as enacted by “the” Super B-Girl), relishes her rich life and tolerates the seedier aspects of the trade.  That all changes when her equally beauteous younger sister, Louise (Carol Nugent) comes to the big city, and develops a taste for the business herself (“Would you teach me to be a model like you?”).  A complicated subplot, with Mamie recruited to tarnish an undercover detective opens a viper’s nest of dirty cops, murderous pimps, scumbag politicians and more fun stuff.  As usual, Mamie is da bomb, tossing off zingers like dubbing herself “Skid Row” when entering her mark’s crib.  Once again directed by Cahn, and coproduced by writer Kent (with Edward Small), VICE RAID boasts quite an impressive cast for a 71-minute grindhouse epic, and features (Brad Dexter, Barry Atwater, Frank Gerstle, Chris Alcaide, George Cisar, Nestor Paiva and Jeanne Bates).  There’s some impressive black-and-white cinematography, courtesy of the great Stanley Cortez and a blowsy score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter.  The best of the Mamie UAs, VICE RAID, alphabet-wise, works a G-string budget worthy of our temptress in a D-Cup.

As usual, I was overly-anxious to get the skinny on the UA pics, and, as usual, Mamie didn’t let me down.  Her only request was to include some “photos of me that aren’t 100 years old!”  Below are some recent pix that she emailed me.

THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS was a very memorable movie for me, personally and professionally.  I had just given birth, and this was my first picture back in the saddle, so to speak.  The Kaneb [Utah] locations were gorgeous!  So was Lex Barker.  We immediately hit it off, and there were fireworks.  But I had to exert some serious self-control.  I was still married, and had just given birth to my son.  And Lex was still married, too – to Lana Turner, no less!  Although both our marriages were on the rocks, it was still too risky.  You have no idea how treacherous the waters were in the 1950s.  Contract morals clauses had real repercussions.  There seemed to be a Confidential creep hiding behind every tree.

“But we still had a great time.  Lex took about a million photos, as did Anne Bancroft, who was so fun [see above article for more on Shutterbug Annie].  And, there was Marie Windsor, who was an absolutely terrific person!

GUNS, GIRLS AND GANGSTERS was a mixed bag.  Lee Van Cleef was out of his mind.  He overacted like nobody’s business, to the point of looking like a fool.  During one scene, he put on a pair of dark glasses.  Fine, except it was in the middle of the night!  I tried to roll with it until it got to be too ridiculous. I turned to him.  “It’s midnight, take off those goddamn sunglasses, you fucking idiot!”

“On the other hand, there was Gerald Mohr – a thoroughly delightful and wonderful friend.  We worked together a couple of times.  Just a lovely person, and very funny.  Several years after GUNS, GIRLS AND GANGSTERS, he phoned me up and wanted to see me.  He was painfully thin, I knew this was bad.  “I just wanted to see you one more time.  I’m not going to be around much longer. Liver cancer.”  He passed not long after.  I was so sad.  Truly miss him.

“The shooting schedules I guess tell you more about these movies than anything.  Or maybe the studios. At Universal, a quickie but polished Technicolor western like Star in the Dust would normally have a 30 day window, with maybe another week for retakes; Yankee Pasha, perhaps a bit more.  At MGM, The Big Operator, though black-and-white, had a luxurious eight week schedule.  That’s MGM, everything was bigger and better, even on the smaller productions.  The UA titles had a 21-day shoot.  You may be stunned to learn that my Warners pictures were done even faster.  Untamed Youth was shot in 14 days!  It was not surprisingly one of my biggest hits…and, for that year [1957], for Warners.  They made a mint on it!

“The thing that I want to say, and this definitely gets in my craw, is how so many people belittle some of these movies – usually they haven’t even seen any of them.  But that doesn’t stop ‘em.  These were really finely-crafted, albeit swiftly-made movies.  And they did their job.  And I’m proud of them.  Oh, and, by the way, name another woman in America in the late 1950s who had her own series of movies!  There’s only one: ME!  Suck that up, you misogynist Republican fuckers!”

THE MAMIE VAN DOREN FILM NOIR COLLECTION. Black and white. Widescreen [1.75:1 and 1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K23338.  SRP: $49.95.

Platinum Blonde Gold Standard

I’m so delighted to see that Blu-Ray is “going Mamie” in a very big way.  Of course, I’m not referring to the 1950’s FLOTUS, but the 1950’s goddess, Mamie Van Doren.  Three of her best (if not her greatest) movies have now been spectacularly remastered in High Definition and the correct CinemaScope 2.35:1 aspect ratios.  I commend Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment for (at last) giving us the definitive editions of 1958’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, THE BIG OPERATOR, and THE BEAT GENERATION (the latter two both 1959). I think even those who haven’t yet joined the MVD fold might wanna give these a shot.  They’re not only terrific star vehicles, they’re damn good movies, one a cult classic, the others excellent noirs – with the last being a borderline genuinely great and controversial pic!

The late Fifties was indeed a busy time for Mamie, having been sprung from Universal-International (where she had been under contract), and then dividing her career between a series of UA flicks, Warner Bros. titles and these MGM classics.  In the interim, she managed to do a bit in Paramount’s Teacher’s Pet and giving birth to a son.  Quite a busy lass.

The MGMs, not only allowed her art to flourish in more extravagant epics (utilizing existing sets and props from bigger pictures), but had the benefit of being produced by the iconic Albert Zugsmith, also recently of U-I (where he and Mamie initially collided and would soon concoct the volatile celluloid results).  Zugsmith, unfairly crowned as an exploitation maven, was responsible for three of Universal’s greatest Fifties movies:  Written on the Wind, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Touch of Evil.  That ain’t no accident.  Mamie, who at U-I, generally portrayed the panting lady lust bucket impatiently waiting for her man to beat the baddies, was never truly given her potential for snarkiness, and, even more bizarrely, for hot, passionate sexiness.  That all changed with Zugsmith (and Howard Koch at Warners and UA).  These three Zug masterpieces (out of the seven they made together) define the woman as more than mere eye-candy.  She entertains, tosses off one-liners like a 30’s “say girl,” and proves herself as quite a good straight actress.  You’ll have to watch the flicks to get what I mean, but, perhaps, I can give y’all an example of what I’m talking about via my subsequent scribbling.  So, take a deep breath, and keep the ice in a wash cloth handy!

1958’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL has grown from a cult fave to an underground classic to an iconic Fifties must-see.  And with good reason.  It pushes the “restriction taboo” bar as far as 1958 would allow.  While it’s undeniably wacky, it’s also magnificently sleazy, sardonic and often laugh-out-loud hilarious (mostly, intentionally).  The pic, photographed in black-and-white and CinemaScope (one of my favorite combinations, a Zugsmith preference, too, it seems) is ably directed by sci-fi impresario Jack Arnold (It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon); the only thing missing is the 3-D (then, long fizzed out); too bad. 

The plot, takes its lead from the far more serious Blackboard Jungle, a 1955 blockbuster that MGM (Blackboard‘s and HIGH SCHOOL’s distributor) shamefully ballyhooed comparisons in the loopy trailer (included on the platter).

Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn, just three years away from West Side Story) is the new local bad boy, heavily into kicks.  And, by that, we mean drugs and hot teen babes.  He lives with his Aunt Gwen – get ready – Mamie Van Doren, a lady horndog who’d really like to take her nephew to nirvana, via Kama Sutra.

School doesn’t make it any easier for Tony to keep it in his pants, as, aside from the curvy co-eds, there’s smokin’ teacher Miss Williams (Jan Sterling).  Vying to be the new cool kid is also rather tough, as that position is currently occupied by j.d. J.I. (John Drew Barrymore), a leather-jacketed leftover from Rebel without a Cause, who spouts insane mumbo-jumbo versions of Kerouac poetry, that runs the gamut from bad to verse.

Eventually, Tony achieves his goal, and is inducted into the drug cartel (including a well-paid gig as a pusher).  “This is the final test,” sneers smarmy kingpin Mr. A (Jackie Coogan), watching Tamblyn inject horse.  Tony’s secret, later revealed (but not by us), turns the tables upside down and inside out.

Add in rock ‘n’ roll, including the amazing opening with Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out a piano keyboard on the back of a pickup truck and you’ve got the makings of one helluva afternoon at your living room Grindhouse.  With a score by Albert Glasser and a supporting cast including Ray Anthony, Charles Chaplin, Jr., Diane Jergens, Michael Landon, Jody Fair, Lyle Talbot, William Wellman, Jr., Mel Welles, Florida Friebus, Norman “Woo-Woo” Grabowski, Helen Kleeb, and William Smith, HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL delivers and then some.

The recent remastered Blu-Ray (first time ever 1080p for this title) is terrific, giving viewers the full CinemaScope experience (previous widescreen editions were compromised, more like 1.85 than 2.35).  Auntie Van Doren, whose screen time is limited, nevertheless makes the most of her scenes.  If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it now:  Mamie’s da bomb!

1959’s THE BIG OPERATOR is one of the most elusive of the Zugsmith sleaze-noirs – and one of the best.

Taking a lead from more mainstream acclaimed works like On the Waterfront, OPERATOR deals with the crooked unions and their crime family connections.

In this case, diligent workers Bill Gibson and Fred McAfee (Steve Cochran and Mel Torme), striving for fair union representation, come across psychopathic monster Little Joe Braun (Mickey Rooney, in one of his few performances I can tolerate).  Pure evil, this diminutive malignant lawn gnome rules by fear and violence.  Indeed, Braun thinks its dope to torture, and cherishes cruelty almost as much as his ill-gotten gains.  It’s so refreshing when he gets his ass kicked.

Cochran, married to (hardly) typical suburban housewife Mamie seems like a stretch on paper.  But they actually make a reasonable middle-class couple, with Van Doren toning down the HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL “auntie” kitsch, and being thoroughly believable as Mary, her tough, liberal husband’s spouse.  Although, that said, one scene, where she punishes son Timmy (TV’s Dennis the Menace, Jay North) gets a rise out of Cochran, for all the wrong reasons (a s-p-a-n-k-i-n-g).  The never dull marriage has a potent amount of chemistry, likely due to the actual sparks that the pair exhibited off-screen, much to the dismay of the actresss’ then real-life husband Ray Anthony (who also appears in the pic).  In fact, the entire cast of THE BIG OPERATOR needs mentioning, as it’s 1950s B-noir heaven: Ray Danton, Jim Backus, Billy Daniels, Maila Nurmi (aka, Vampira to you!), Lawrence Dobkin, Leo Gordon, Ziva Rodann, Don Barry, Ben Gage, Joey Forman and Peter Leeds (with return appearances by Zugsmith “regulars” Jackie Coogan, Charles Chaplin, Jr. and Woo-Woo Grabowski).

As indicated earlier, the violence is as red hot as Cochran and Van Doren, particularly one scene where the Velvet Fog gets smoked.  Literally.  Barely alive, covered in third degree burns and more bandages than Imhotep, Torme’s Fred McAfee makes a miraculous (if somewhat ludicrous) comeback in the final reels.

THE BIG OPERATOR was directed by Charles Haas, who did quite an admirable job.  He had an interesting no-nonsense occasionally surreal approach to his projects, and was another Universal-International alumnus Zugsmith brought along to MGM; check out his underrated Technicolor western Star in the Dust, featuring Mamie (the first Zug and Van Doren teaming) to see what I mean.

The script to the movie (based on a Cosmopolitan Magazine piece by no less than Paul Gallico) has a number of one-liner zingers that often blur the genuine corruption theme of the narrative.  Alan Rivkin and Robert Smith deserve a modicum of applause.

The black-and-white CinemaScope camerawork, too, merits praise – and I therefore tip my hat to Walter Castle.

The music credit is perhaps the most deserved of endless kudos – a remarkable jazzy score by Van Alexander.  Jazz maestros and aficionados have worshipped the movie’s main title instrumental for decades.  I’ve heard it covered in jazz clubs and on a myriad of artists’ LPs continuously since the 1970s.

The Olive Films Blu-Ray transfer of THE BIG OPERATOR is a joy to behold in all its 1080p glory.  What a treat to finally be able to see it again – and, at last, in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio (those Seventies full-frame TV prints blowed!).  To savor the rectangular imagery is not only especially pertinent but redefined in relation to the oft description of BIG‘s star:  a little Mickey Rooney goes a long way.

1959’s THE BEAT GENERATION is one of producer Zugsmith’s zenith pics.  It’s certainly Charles Haas’ finest moment, and, easily one of Mamie’s best (although she has a secondary, but potent role).

The movie, hyped as a cool, kookie look at the “way-out” world of the beatniks, is really a thrilling, but sordid controversial slap in the face of American culture and mores.  It’s a late film noir that, goofy elements aside, is a genuinely good (and, for its time, jaw-dropping) movie.  Richard Matheson’s and Lewis Meltzer’s piercing, realistic script tells two simultaneous stories that wrap around each other like a pair boa constrictors into B&D.  The first, the thread which ties all the elements together, concerns the Los Angeles police search for the Aspirin Killer, a psycho-sadist, who has raped a number of women – most perplexing, as these victims apparently willingly let their attacker into their homes.  The villain is none-other than smooth talking Stan Hess, a revered beatnik from a wealthy family who has dropped out to enjoy the youth movement before “the next mushroom cloud with radiation gumdrops, you dig?”  Eschewing the attention from a variety of beauteous beat girls, Hess denies their lust to purify his preaching of the words of Schopenhauer and others.  Others might well be Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper, as the fake 99-per-center is a virulent misogynist whose hated of women began at an early age (“I don’t need a mother – I’VE BEEN BORN!”).  Hess’s M.O. is to hitch rides with middle-class males, learning as much as he can, then tracking down their spouses while they’re at work.  He convinces the wives that he’s an old friend of their husband’s, then feigns a headache.  While the woman fetches an aspirin, he lays out his personal assault kit, and brutally takes his targeted marks to task.

Parallel to these gruesome going-ons, is the life of Detective Dave Culloran and his wife, Francee.  Culloran and his longtime partner, Jake Baron, have been assigned to the case, but Baron is concerned over his bud’s growing annoyance at these “so-called” casualties.  When Jake drops a verbal bomb on Dave that his psych profile matches the Aspirin’s, Culloran, at first angered, dissolves into despair; he knows it, too.  So does wife Francee; their marriage is corroding before their eyes, his outbursts of violence, his temper at her being barren – much of it due to the stress of the job, and this hellish case.

Then, one day, he picks up a genial hitchhiker and engages in conversation.  Of course, it’s Hess, who chalks up Francee as his latest prey.  The additional caveat; upon recovering, she learns she’s pregnant.  Is it her husband’s or the rapist’s?  Both go over the edge, as Francee confides in her BFF to help her find an abortionist.  Being the 1950’s, this was extremely illegal, and, being the 1950’s, her bestie sends her to the neighborhood priest, who listens to the woman’s disgust of what’s growing inside her, and casually replies, “Then do it.”  It is shocking reverse psychology that further takes up room in the troubled woman’s head.

In the interim, Culloran and Baron meet another victim, the tough-as-nails and hot-to-trot Georgia Altera (guess who?).  A strong woman, who can handle herself, she doesn’t seem to mind what happened – or almost happened.  The rape wasn’t completed, as the perp wasn’t the real Aspirin Killer, but part of a truly insidious plan by Hess to groom an army of copycats to throw suspicion off him.

The ending, while dealing with the main plot, leaves one open for a not-so-happy conclusion, reminiscent of the finale of De Toth’s brilliant 1948 noir Pitfall.

THE BEAT GENERATION is a movie that really deserves a revival:  not only for the amazing scenario, but also for the superb black-and-white CinemaScope photography of Walter Castle, Haas’ aforementioned direction and the wonderful performances from the cast.  Steve Cochran, as Culloran is absolutely terrific, as is Fay Spain as Francee.  The third lead, Ray Danton, as Hess is equally outstanding.  The large and diverse cast of notables also includes Jim Mitchum (Robert’s lookalike son) as the copycat, Margaret Hayes. Cathy Crosby, Ray Anthony, Irish McCalla, Dick Contino, Paul Cavangh, Sid Melton, Guy Stockwell, and the usual suspects Charles Chaplin Junior, Jackie Coogan (who also served as dialog coach on the Zug pics), Billy Daniels, Woo-Woo Grabowski, and Maila Nurmi.  I was always wondering about why Ray Anthony, as Van Doren’s volatile husband (a real-life mirror at the time; Van Doren referred to him as “Ray Agony”) was so damned angry in this picture.  A clue was given in Van Doren’s excellent autobiography, Playing the Field.  She and Cochran were off-and-on in a torrid love affair, and, one day, during shooting, Anthony entered his wife’s dressing room to find the two having upright sex on a chair.  I guess that’s a red flag.

I always loved this movie, and recommended it without reservation.  Indeed, most people have never heard of it.  With good reason, it rarely played anywhere after 1959, except on scant late night TV showings – and then in awful pan-and-scan full frame versions.  What a revelation to the see it at last in 35MM full aspect ratio CinemaScope High Definition.  The mono audio is just fine, and features a bizarre soundtrack of musical artists, most prominently Louis Armstrong, who does the fantastic opening title number.

One thing that bothered me when I first saw it was the integration of “wacky” beatnik kook stuff, mostly via Woo-Woo and aged beat schlump Maxie Rosenbloom.  Now, even that works – another example of how sociopath Hess uses the movement (even the benign, mild aspects of it) to live the master race life.

Upon reviewing the above copy, I had a few questions (well, more than a few); I yearned to include a “personal touch,” so I sent an SOS to the lady herself, who graciously agreed to give me a call.  Believe me, there are few greater joys (if any) for cult movie buffs than reminiscing with Mamie Van Doren.

As usual, Mamie was direct, informative, and riotously funny.

“The story about my first meeting with Albert Zugsmith is practically a comedy legend.  I was under contract to Universal, and sitting in the VIP area of the commissary one afternoon with Tony [Curtis] and Rock [Hudson].  In comes this smart-looking sandy-haired dude.  Tony and Rock both greeted him, “Hello, Mr. Zugsmith.”  I wasn’t sure I heard right.  All I got was the “Smith” part.  “Good afternoon, Mr. Smith,” I said with a smile.  He grinned at me, nodded and moved on.  Tony and Rock burst into laughter.  “MR. SMITH!?”  “I thought that was his name.”  “ZUGsmith!,” they both replied. “I thought that was like a nickname:  ‘Zug’ Smith.”  At this point, Tony was laughing so hard I thought he’d choke.  Rock almost fell off the chair on to the floor.  Great, I sighed, talk about keeping up the stereotype of the dumb airhead blonde!

“I guess it made some kind of an impression ’cause he cast me as the female lead in Star in the Dust.  After that, he wanted me for the sister in Written on the Wind (the part Dorothy Malone won an Oscar for), but the Black Tower nixed it cause I looked too young!  Later, when Zugsmith left Universal, I got a call from him (I was free now, due to my violation of the studio’s contractee morals clause; best thing that ever happened to me!).  “Hey, Mamie, I’m over at MGM, and I got a part for you.  You play an aunt.”  “ME – as someone’s aunt!?” “Yeah, Russ Tamblyn’s.”  Sounded intriguing, so…

“The movie [HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL] was a hoot.  John Drew Barrymore upheld the family tradition.  There were days when he was absent from the set, and MGM had to send out handlers to drag him back from his apartment (he being too totally fucked up to make it to the set on his own).  Russ, however, was a doll.  We hit it off real well, and even had one date.  He had just been drafted (right after HIGH SCHOOL wrapped), and I spent his last night of freedom out with him.  He wrote me from camp. “They’re treating me like crap, razzing me constantly about being in the movies.  They got me scrubbing the latrines!”

“MGM was quite pleased with my work in HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, and Zugsmith phoned to say they wanted for three more movies.  They were so much fun to do, much more of a relaxed situation at Metro than at Universal.  “Yeah, sign me up!”

[The other movies include the two listed here, and the as of yet, unreleased Girl’s Town].

HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL. CAT # OF798.

THE BIG OPERATOR. CAT # OF828.

THE BEAT GENERATION. CAT # OF968.

All black-and-white.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95@.