Des Monjes/Two Monks (1934)

‘May the Devil get out from the house of the Lord.’

The monks at a remote monastery carry out a ritual to banish evil after it seems that one of their order has become possessed by Satan. Eventually, the monk appears to recover, and the Prior sends in a travelling priest to comfort him. But when the monk recognises his visitor, he violently attacks him…

An unusual and stylish drama often identified as one of the first Mexican horror films. Director Juan Bustillo Oro certainly conjures up enough atmosphere and startling images to enhance this tale of thwarted romance, madness and revenge.

Brother Javier (Carlos Villatoro) is a troubled soul, ranting and raving in his cell until the fellow monks in his monastery believe him possessed by evil. As they walk the passageways chanting, ringing bells and splashing holy water, they are relieved to be told that his latest fit of madness has passed. The Prior (Beltrán de Heredia) decides that a visit from the just arrived Brother Servando (Víctor Urruchúa) is in order. After all, he has an unmatched reputation from eloquence and piety. But when rruchúa enters the cell, Villatoro chases him out, wounding him in the head with an icon of Christ on the cross.

After the altercation, a repentant Villatoro asks that de Heredia absolve him. He explains that Urruchúa is his old friend Juan, who wronged him years before, and tells the old man the story. It begins with Villatoro as a struggling composer, wracked by consumption, whose only joy in life is the presence of pretty neighbour Ana (Magda Haller), to whom he writes his songs. When she resists her parents’ plans for an arranged marriage, they throw her out in the street and, aware of his feelings for her, Villatoro’s mother, Gertrudis (Emma Roldán), takes her in. Not surprisingly, as time passes, the two youngsters grow fond of each other and plan to marry.

Enter Urruchúa as Villatoro’s best friend Juan, back from years of adventuring abroad. The three quickly become inseparable, but Roldán becomes suspicious that all is not as it seems. Urruchúa suddenly announces a departure for parts unknown but arranges that Villatoro is away from home for the evening. When he returns ahead of time, he finds Urruchúa and Haller in each other’s arms, and tragedy follows. The Prior refuses to grant absolution to Villatoro until he hears the other side of the story and goes to see Urruchúa, who relates the facts from his point of view.

The beguiling device of events told from different viewpoints was rightly lauded in Akira Kurosawa’s landmark ‘Rashamon’ (1950). Although it’s surprising to find it already in use a decade and a half earlier, it can be traced back as far as ‘The Woman Under Oath’ (1919). The difference in Oro’s screenplay (co-written with José Manuel Cordero) is that the two principals do not dispute the facts. The twist is that Villatoro does not have possession of the facts that prompted them. The only flaw in this conceit is that his ignorance of a prior relationship between his intended and his best friend is a little hard to swallow. Some justification for this would have been welcome.

The notion that this is a horror film can be attributed almost entirely to the style with which Oro delivers the tale. After all, there are no actual supernatural elements and only one brief instance of violence, although it is graphic for its time. Oro’s striking presentation is immediately apparent in the opening scenes in the monastery. Of course, the gothic architecture and the spartan interiors help with the atmosphere, but the director takes it to the next level. The set dressing and props are minimal but well-chosen, the massive pipe organ and towering statues that are prominent in the climax being particularly striking.

Oro continues this aesthetic in the flashback scenes. The rooms of Villatoro’s home are large and mostly empty, furnished with only his piano, heavy drapes and a few pieces of scattered furniture. The feeling imparted is that of a theatrical stage, an impression heightened by the director’s preference for long takes, minimal dialogue and stretches of silence. There’s also fine examples of visual storytelling; Villatoro’s relapse into sickness indicated by crumpled music pages on the floor and the fantastic final scenes where a chaotic procession of masks suggests a descent into delirium and madness. Many of the scenes in the monastery seem lit by little more than a flickering candle, giving the shadows a sense of endless depth as if there is nothing behind them but deeper darkness.

This approach to the material might have been expected from a veteran director of silent pictures, but Oro had directed only one, ‘Yo soy tu padre’ (1927). This was only his third picture, the second being ‘Godfather Mendoza’ (1934), which he wrote and directed with Fernando de Fuentes. The same year he worked in a writing capacity on de Fuentes’ superb ‘The Phantom of the Convent/El fantasma del convento’ (1934). As both films seem set in the same location and both feature Villatoro and the elderly de Heredia (in his only two screen appearances), it seems likely they were shot back to back. Augustin Jiménez was cinematographer here and shot stills for de Furntes’ film, and Max Urban gets the music credit for both.

Oro had a long career in domestic Mexican cinema with over 30 years of writing and directing credits. Sadly, it seems he received no international recognition during his lifetime. Only a handful of his films, such as ‘Lo que va de Ayer a hoy/The Witch Came From Yesterday To Today’ (1945) and ‘Del Brazo y por la calle/Arm In Arm Down The Street’ (1956), were released outside his homeland. As this particular example was restored by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, it’s hoped that more of his work receives attention in the future.

An unsung triumph of world cinema that should be recognised and celebrated.

The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)

‘Take it easy, bright eyes; you’re taxing your brain.’

A gold-digger decides to turn over a new leaf when a young suitor commits suicide after finding out she was only after his money. However, a new life takes cash, so she makes blackmail demands of four prominent citizens at a weekend house party. Unfortunately, one of the guests has murder in mind…

Dreary, implausible ‘old dark house’ mystery that can claim to be the world’s first multi-media entertainment project. The story was launched as a radio serial on NBC’s ‘Hollywood of the Air’ slot in Autumn 1932, and the show finished with the mystery unresolved. The audience was then invited to submit their own solutions, with prizes on offer for any used before the official answers arrived via this RKO feature film.

This unique approach to storytelling is explained at the film’s start, direct-to-camera, by NBC’s Graham McNamee. He also introduces our main characters. Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) is quite the girl about town, bestowing her favours on one rich man after another. Ultimately, however, she decides to quit the life after young Allen Herrick (Tim Douglas) throws himself off a cliff when she reveals her true nature.

But quitting takes money, so she blackmails bank manager Priam Ames (H B Warner) to set up a weekend party at an isolated ranch with some of his wealthy friends, who just happen to be some of her old boyfriends. These include senator-in-waiting Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) and lumber merchant Will Jones (Gavin Gordon), who is about to marry into high society. To complicate matters, Warner’s young nephew, Frank (Matty Kemp), has fallen in love with Morley’s sister, the nieve and innocent, Esther (Anita Louise).

Early on, there are some warning signs that her scheme may not go quite to plan. For a start, Warner has invited the sinister Mr Vayne (Ivan F Simpson) along to the party, and the mysterious Mr Farnes Barnes (Ricardo Cortez) is also hanging around outside. So when Morley is suddenly menaced by a strange figure that resembles her dead lover, it’s no surprise it turns out to be the prelude to her murder. With the road washed out and a house filled with suspects, it’s Cortez who investigates the killing. He’s not a cop, by any means, but a pretty rough crew of comrades comes with him, so he has no difficulty assuming the necessary authority.

As is evident from the title, there are hints of the supernatural running all through director J Walter Ruben’s picture, but the events and resolution of the mystery have their feet firmly on the ground. The spooky elements are rather crowbarred into the narrative, much in the same way as Cortez’s character. Is he supposed to be a private detective? The way he refers to himself makes him sound more like a minor criminal, and his reasons for being on-site and tackling the mystery are thin at best. If the story or characters were engaging, these contrivances could be forgiven, but the plot is mundane and the characters one-note. The cast members do their best, but most of them have very little to work with, although Morley makes the most of what she’s given.

One of the most notable aspects of the production is the presence of Max Steiner as head of the music department, which, in effect, means he chose the music for the film from the studio library. He’d been at RKO since 1929 but had found his time there largely unproductive. He was even in discussions about leaving to take alternative work in both Moscow and Peking. But, after intervention by producer David O Selznick, he stuck around and, after this assignment, landed the gig writing the music for ‘King Kong’ (1933), the film that made his name. In subsequent years, he became one of Hollywood’s most celebrated composers, winning three Oscars and scoring ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939), ‘Now, Voyager’ (1942), ‘Casablanca’ (1942), ‘Mildred Pierce’ (1945), ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946), and ‘White Heat’ (1949), among many others.

There is no evidence that legendary producer Selznick was directly involved with this film, aside from his ‘executive producer’ credit, although the multi-media concept smacks of his type of showmanship. The film was released in mid-October 1932, by which time Selxznick’s contract with the studio was about to expire, and he was considering an offer from his father-in-law to return to MGM to head up his own film unit. He was also a brand new father, with his first prestigious film project, ‘A Bill of Divorcement’ (1932), new in theatres on the last day of September. So it’s unlikely that he had all that much input into such a minor thriller. Still, it’s possible that the radio-movie tie-in and attendant publicity campaign was his idea.

Convoluted, unconvincing mystery, remarkable only for its unique presentation over two separate entertainment formats.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Island of Lost Souls (1932)‘Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?’

A cargo ship rescues a man adrift on a raft in the sea, but the Captain arranges to put him ashore on a remote island where a scientist is carrying out secret experiments. Suspicious of his host, the young man attempts to escape, but finds the jungle filled with strange, frightening creatures, part human, part beast…

Major studio adaptation of HG Wells’ classic novel ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ which served to hammer another nail into the Hollywood science-fiction coffin, and relegate it to serials and the occasional low-budget production for almost the next 20 years. Although the production code had yet to censor Tinseltown’s output, its dark themes and content did not sit well with either critics or audiences of the time, and the film flopped. However, it’s come to be judged far more favourably in recent years and is now generally highly regarded.

Shipwreck survivor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is plucked from the sea by a freighter sailing to a small, uncharted island. It’s carrying a cargo of live animals under the supervision of a Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and crewed by the ugliest bunch of sailors who were ever shanghaied from a backstreet waterfront dive. In point of fact, they look barely human. Despite that, Arlen intervenes when the drunken Captain (Stanley Fields) strikes one of them to the deck. Later on, when Hohl and the animals are offloaded, Fields has Arlen thrown into their boat as revenge. As Fields sails away laughing, our hero is left to the dubious hospitality of Dr Moreau, played by Charles Laughton.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘No, I don’t want my drive repaved, nor do I want to buy Conservatory.’

It’s not long before Arlen realises that there’s a bad smell in paradise, of course, and that the stench is coming from Laughton’s lab, known locally as ‘The House of Pain.’ If you’re even vaguely familiar with the source material, you’ll know what Laughton is up to; turning animals into people with experiments informed by vivisection. His crowning glory is The Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), who he presents to Arlen as a native islander, hoping that the two will mate. When Arlen’s fiance (Leila Hyams) turns up later on looking for him, Laughton plans to mate her with one of his beast-men instead, the expression on his face giving the definite impression that he’ll have a ringside seat when it happens. Purely for scientific purposes, of course.

Out in the jungle, Laughton’s previous experiments are living in a loose colony, headed up by the Sayer of The Law (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, the horror icon is dreadfully under-used, even if he does get to intone the famous ‘Are We Not Men?’ dialogue. The fact is that he only joined the picture for a few days after Laughton had completed all his scenes, their appearance in the same scene courtesy of an editor’s post-production work. Lugosi does get some great close-up’s though, which showcase the intensity he brought to his performance. It’s just a crying shame he’s not given more to do. Similarly, there are some wonderful production stills of the beast-man makeups by Wally Westmore and yes, what we do see is quite impressive, but we’re don’t see nearly enough of them, with a lot of the footage of the creatures shot in semi-darkness.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘Look, I know we’re back in Lockdown, but I want to get my haircut.’

Paramount was looking to cash in on the sudden success of so-called fright pictures and had already scored big with ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1931) which brought an Academy Award for star Frederic March. However, they rather overstepped the mark with this film, which is good news for us but was bad news for the studio. The overt themes of bestiality, sadism, torture and a man trying to play god (Laughton even utters a similar line to the famous one Colin Clive shouts out in ‘Frankenstein’) pretty much ensured the film was going to run into serious censorship problems. It was banned in 14 states in America and outright in the UK until 1958 when it was only issued heavily cut. All references to Moreau having created the beast-men were removed, which must have made it a confusing experience for the audience.

Part of the problem for the censors was Laughton. He is just too damned good as Moreau, outwardly a gentleman but with every smirk and gesture suggesting a barely suppressed depravity. It’s a masterclass in performance as a man whose appetites and work are dangerously intertwined to the point of all-consuming obsession. None of the other cast members gets much of a look-in. However, it’s worth mentioning that Hohl makes a lot out of his role as Laughton’s alcoholic assistant, providing subtle, understated support.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘It’s first right past the House of Pain, you can’t miss it.’

The studio wanted a complete unknown for the Panther Woman and ran a nationwide campaign to find her that received around 60,000 entries. They picked Kathleen Burke, who was working as a dental assistant at the time, although it was less publicised that she had already acted on the stage and the radio. She does give an interesting, off-centre performance, although how much of that was intentional, and how much down to inexperience is unclear. She never escaped the shadow of the Panther Woman and her brief screen career only featured one other notable appearance, as the second female lead in the Lionel Atwill shocker ‘Murders In The Zoo’ (1933).

Apart from this film, director Erle C Kenton is best known for three of the final films in Universal’s ‘Frankenstein’ saga. Although it would have been interesting to see what a more visionary director would have brought to the table with this material, he does deliver a sharp, pacy film with plenty of energy. Of course, that’s to be admired but, at a brief 70 minutes, a longer running time could have served to flesh out the characters a little and provide more story development. It would also have had been good to get more of Karl Struss’ excellent black and white photography and see more of the beast-men.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘Like careful with the threads, man.’

Still, despite a few flaws, this remains quite easily the best version of Wells’ tale. The 1976 remake with Burt Lancaster was bland, and the 1996 version was a disaster. The unprofessional behaviour of some of its cast, and original director Richard Stanley’s inexperience with handling a big studio picture making for the worst combination possible. The uncredited version ‘Terror Is A Man’ (1959) is probably the best alternative take on the material, but it’s not really in the same league as this film.

A slick, exciting picture driven by a powerhouse performance by its star, Charles Laughton. A longer running time might have taken it to the highest level, but it’s still a high-quality effort.

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932)‘A cloud of vultures always hovers over the house of the living dead.’

A young couple arrive at the Haitian estate of a rich planter, who has persuaded them to hold their wedding ceremony at his home. However, he has an ulterior motive; he wants the woman for himself, and has recruited the local occult master to help achieve his aim.

Spooky, atmospheric, non-studio production from director Victor Halperin and his brother Edward who acted as producer. It’s an important film in the history of horror cinema, and not just because it’s generally agreed to be the first ‘Zombie’ film. Although box office grosses are notoriously hard to calculate and often tied up in creative studio accounting, most commentators agree that the fllm was a probably the most commercially successful independent American movie of the 1930s.

The film opens with young couple John Harron and Madge Bellamy taking a carriage ride through the Haitian night on their way to the sugar plantation of Robert Frazer. Apparently, the trio met on the boat over and Frazer persuaded the naive young lovers to tie the knot at the old homestead. But, of course, Frazer wants to put the moves on Bellamy and when she’s not interested, he goes to Plan B. This involves a deal with local zombie wrangler Murder Legendre, who is played by the wonderful Bela Lugosi, just over a year after ‘Dracula’ (1931) turned him briefly into a Hollywood star.

‘The More You Ignore Me The Closer I’ll Get.’

And it’s pleasing to report that this is one of Lugosi’s signature roles. His zombie master haunts the groves and cliff paths of the studio backlot like Satan himself; cruel yet suave, merciless but with a twisted smile on his lips and a glint in his eye. The actor’s grasp of the English language seems to have improved so that his line delivery is smoother, still heavily accented and a little offbeat, but with added menace and meaning. In short, his unforgettable presence pervades the entire movie and he gets plenty of screen time.

Although the production utilised some studio resources, the low budget does show through a little at times, but director Halperin employs some inventive camerawork and highly effective production design which more than compensate. The local cemetery is depicted as crosses planted on the side of a steep hill; a subtle suggestion that the dead are buried upright and not averse to the odd midnight stroll. The use of a vulture as Lugosi’s familiar is also a very creepy touch and the atmosphere is almost other worldly, the setting and action somehow removed from the conventions of normal space and time. 

White Zombie (1932)

‘Look, I said you could stay for the reception but this is going too far.’

However, the film is seriously flawed in two particular aspects. Firstly, there’s the story. There’s just not enough of it, not even for the scant 66 minute running time. The film can seem slow as a result, even though technically it’s far more modern in terms of technique than many films of the period. Some greater world-building would have helped no end. We do see the zombies working in Frazer’s sugar mill in one of the film’s most famous and memorable sequences, and in another Lugosi introduces some of his zombie crew as old enemies who sought to defy him. But we never find out anything more about the Lugosi character or what he gains from his dealings with Frazer. He certainly doesn’t seem to be the plantation owner’s hired hand.

Unfortunately, there’s a similar lack of development to the characters. Aside from Lugosi, Frazer has potentially the most interesting role to play; a love-starved Faust obsessed with young bride-to be Bellamy who makes a deal with the devil that he comes to regret. Sadly, Garnett Weston’s screenplay presents him as a completely one-note character; a petulant schoolboy whose constant whining sacrifices any sympathy the audience might have felt for him. Similarly, Bellamy and Harron have no real character traits, apart from their love for each other.

White Zombie (1932)

‘Once around the park, then.’

These weaknesses in the script inform the film’s other major flaw; the performances. Broadly speaking, the early days of sound cinema were populated by two types of actors, those that adapted quickly to the new medium, and those that didn’t. Sadly, Bellamy, Harron and Frazer definitely fall into the latter category. Their performances look hopelessly old-fashioned to modern eyes, although it does have to be acknowledged that perhaps they were trying to breathe some life into their terribly underwritten characters. As it is, it’s just impossible to imagine why even one man would be interested in vapid, moon-faced heroine Bellamy, let alone three. Although there is a wonderfully subtle moment when the more astute members of the audience will get the undoubted impression that Lugodi is keeping the zombified Bellamy around for a little more than just her skills at the piano.

Apart from Lugosi’s gloriously majestic performance, the only decent turn comes from Joseph Cawthorne, who brings a welcome lighter touch to the role of the local priest. He’s fulfilling the ‘Van Helsing’ part in the story and yes, the overall plot is not a million miles away from ‘Dracula’. The film even starts with a strange carraige ride to a gloomy old house. Castle or plantation, Haiti or Transylvania; take your pick, you’re still going to be mixing it with the undead before the credits roll.

White Zombie (1932)

‘Whatever she wants, it’s your turn.’

It’s interesting to note how the cinema ‘zombie’ has changed since his first bow. These creatures are not the walking dead from modern horror fiction but victims of the occult who have been placed in a kind of trance where they have no will of their own. Yes, they appear to die and are buried before resurrection, but they were never truly dead. And they don’t spend their time wandering about looking to chow down on human flesh and feast on brains. 

The movie does have some limitations but the haunting atmosphere and Lugposi’s tour de force performance make this a 1930s classic.

The Face At The Window (1939)

The Face At The Window (1939)‘All that is necessary is the adjustment of the current and its distribution.’

Paris in 1880 is a city living in fear after half a dozen murders. The unknown killer is known as ‘La Loup’ because each killing is signalled by the sound of a wolf’s howl and the appearance of a hideously ugly face pressed against a window…

Another melodrama of death and terror, courtesy of Britain’s first horror star Tod Slaughter and partner in crime producer-director George King. This time, they’ve taken on F Brooke Warren’s hit 1897 play, which mixed elements of Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley into a cocktail of mystery that filled theatre seats worldwide and had already led to three previous film adaptations.

Hard-working young Lucien Courtier (John Warwick) is penniless, but content. He’s got a good job in the bank of the elderly M. De Brisson (Aubrey Mallalieu) and has won the love of his fair daughter Cecile (Majorie Taylor). Unfortunately, she’s also caught the eye of that lecherous old bounder Chevalier De Gardo (Slaughter), and he’ll stop at nothing to possess her. Working late one night at the bank, Warwick finds the safe rifled and the watchman dying. A howl rises in the night outside. The Wolf has struck again!

The Face At The Window (1939)

‘If you don’t let go of my hand in a minute, you’ll regret it!’

It’s a real three-pipe problem for Inspector Gouffert of the Yard (sorry, the Sûreté), played by Robert Adair in oh, so Gallic mutton-chop whiskers. But, not to worry, there’s always friend Slaughter on hand to steer him in the right direction, which, of course, is right towards Warwick. In his spare time when he’s not helping with murder investigations, Slaughter hangs his hat at dubious drinking hole ‘The Blind Rat’ where his confederates include sinister landlady La Pinan (Margaret Yarde). There, ‘apache’ dancers cavort to an accordion player while he ‘entertains’ young ladies in the rooms upstairs. He also hands out jobs to his criminal gang, which include planting some of the recent swag in Warwick’s desk at the bank (obviously, security has improved a lot since the robbery!) Warwick’s on the outs with both Mallalieu and Adair when the coins are discovered, but Taylor stands by her man.

But not to worry! Help is at hand in the form of Warwick’s closest friend, ‘mad scientist’ Professor Le Blanc (Wallace Evenett). Despite being ridiculed for years, he’s persisted in his experiments with galvanism and trying to resurrect the dead! After Slaughter is forced to ‘polish off’ a suspicious Mallalieu, Warwick hopes that Evenett can reanimate the old man’s corpse sufficiently for him to identify his killer! Things come to a head in Evenett’s cut-price ‘Frankenstein’ laboratory under the watchful eyes of detective Adair and a sneering, contemptuous Slaughter. Will the dead man’s hand reveal the name of the Wolf?

The Face At The Window (1939)

‘Oh, my god, I really wanted my reading glasses!’

It’s highly likely that this ‘scientific’ resolution was one of the reasons that the play was so popular with audiences during the Victorian era. Although the idea that electricity could bring back life had been discredited by the time that the play was performed (and when the film is set), the conceit here is that its application will cause the body to carry out the last instruction of the brain, specifically that Mallalieu will finish writing down the name of his murderer. The text of the play is not readily available, so it’s unclear as to whether this experiment works in the original drama or not. Similarly, the three previous film versions are all lost, so it’s not possible to assess how they handled this aspect of the story. This is a particular shame in the case of the 1932 British version as it featured a young Raymond Massey. Suffice to say, that this adaptation takes a grounded approach to this element of the tale.

Given the lack of comparison material, it’s also not easy to gauge how much adaptation of the source material was employed by screenwriter A Rawlinson. The story does hit many of the familiar story beats of Slaughter and King’s previous films, but, then again, theatrical melodramas were often little more than a collection of tried and true elements; that was part of their appeal. All that’s generally known of the play is that it seems to have been focused more on the battle of wills between the detective and the killer. It’s the detective on the lab table at the climax, and the titular ‘face at the window’ is simply the killer in a mask.

The Face At The Window (1939)

‘I’m not sure I like where this is going…’

Considering that King and Slaughter had already collaborated on half a dozen pictures and this runs very much to the same formula as all of them, it wouldn’t be a surprise if I were to report that this effort looked tired and stale. Also, the British film industry was on the ropes and King was finding it increasingly difficult to finance his pictures, which must have impacted the budget. But, instead, this film is probably their most accomplished and all-round entertaining feature to date. Slaughter swaggers about and cackles maniacally almost as if his life depends on it. It’s hard to take your eyes off him, and it’s a constant delight that, however suspiciously he acts, it takes ages for anyone to peg him as the killer. Even Mallalieu completely fails to suspect him as complicit in the robbery, even though he quizzed the old gent at length about his security measures during a recent visit!

The film only runs a brief 65 minutes, but this allows King to pack in as much action, intrigue and romance as possible and paper over some of the plot inconsistencies. After all, what is Slaughter’s character supposed to be up to? What are his long term goals? He’s obviously not short of a few bob, even before heisting the bullion from Mallalieu’s bank, so it doesn’t seem to be thievery. Who were the other victims he killed before we join the story and why did he do it? We never find out. So, is his entire plot for world domination just an incredibly convoluted scheme to get Taylor in between the sheets? It would seem so! I guess he did it all just because he’s such an absolute cad!

The Face At The Window (1939)

‘Well, I ‘ad ‘ad a few…you know how it is…’

Warwick, Taylor and Adair all reprise their roles from Slaughter and King’s last but one outing ‘The Ticket of Leave Man’ (1937) and yes, they are all playing exactly the same parts here. Taylor also did identical duty in ‘It’s Never Too Late To Mend’ (1937) and ‘The Crimes of Stephen Hawke’ (1936)! This was to be her last performance for our diabolical duo, however, and she quit the business a year later.

Despite the film’s fine technical accomplishments and King’s effective evocation of an appropriately gothic atmosphere, the film opened to mixed reviews in America. Nevertheless, it’s great fun and, as the opening title card confirms, it should appeal to ‘the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy.’

Tod Slaughter would return in ‘The Crimes At The Dark House’ (1940).

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)‘Bombs exploding, men falling dead, drugged cigars, what kind of place is this I’d like to know? A gentleman’s house or a chamber of ‘orrors?’

Private detective Sexton Blake receives a coded message from Hong Kong. The courier is killed before he can speak, but the crime fighter identifies the culprits as the secret criminal organisation known as the Black Quorum. He determines to smash the organisation, but finds his efforts complicated by the presence of a glamorous French agent…

The adventures of Sexton Blake featured in a wide variety of British and international publications from 1893 to 1978, comprising more than 4,000 stories by some 200 different authors. The first was by Harry Blyth (writing as Hal Meredeth) who cast Blake as a generic 19th Century sleuth, but it was not long before other scribes turned him into a cut-price Sherlock Holmes, even giving him lodgings at Baker Street! His first big-screen appearance was in a 12-minute short film in 1909, and there were more than a dozen further appearances in the silent days, all of which appear to be lost.

British producer George King acquired the film rights in the 1930s with the plan of making a series of pictures around the character. He’d gained notoriety, and a measure of wealth, through the efficient delivery of low-budget films and was mainly known for the melodramas starring theatrical actor Tod Slaughter, most notably ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ (1935). However, this particular project was cut from a distinctly different cloth, having only a little in common with the theatrical ‘barnstormers’ that had been the stock in trade of the director and star.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

‘I say! This ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is jolly racy stuff!’

Englishman in Hong Kong, Granite Grant (David Farrar), has a problem. His activities have come to the attention of the Black Quorum, the ‘greatest crime organisation of the century’. It’s a puzzle how they managed to identify a top agent like Farrar when his undercover methods include sitting in a hotel lobby behind a raised newspaper and talking out of the corner of his mouth. But identify him they do, and an assassination attempt leaves him forced to entrust a vital communique to associate Duvall (Billy Watts). This coded message is directed (for some reason never adequately explained) to a private detective in London, Sexton Blake (George Curzon).

Meanwhile, back in old Blighty, Curzon is taking a break from his crime-fighting activities to attend a sale of postage stamps at a local auction house. Somewhat bizarrely, this gathering of seemingly harmless philatelists proves to be a cauldron of intrigue and villainy and the place where the hierarchy of the Black Quorum meet. Calling the shots is the fabulously wealthy Michael Larron (Slaughter) who only has eyes for pretty Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt); the plus one of his lieutenant and all-around ‘bad hat’ Max Fleming (Charles Oliver). Coincidentally, Gynt and Curzon have crossed paths in the past, and he immediately suspects she is on an assignment of some kind. How a private detective happens to know all these secret agents is something that A R Rawlinson’s screenplay completely fails to explain.

‘There’s a lot of people here. Shall we talk a bit louder?’

Curzon and Gynt proceed to discuss Watts’ imminent arrival in London with his important message, Curzon even providing the details of when the spy is expected at his rooms. Carrying out this conversation openly in the middle of a crowded auction room exhibits some of the finest traits of discretion and spy-craft I’ve ever witnessed, but somehow they are overheard. As a result, Watts is assassinated by blow dart within moments of his arrival, leaving behind the coded message from Farrar. The murder allows us to get acquainted with the local plod: Inspector Bramley (Norman Pierce), whose investigations make Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade from the Rathbone-Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series look like a positive Einstein. Still, Curzon’s not much better; setting fire to the coded message to light his pipe!

Decoding the message due to a brilliantly contrived (and completely ridiculous) coincidence, Curzon is off to the Quorum’s secret headquarters in Caversham Square, along with tiresome sidekick Tiinker (Tony Sympson). He functions as comedy relief and feeds stupidly obvious to questions to Curzon so he can answer them in a suitably dramatic manner. At Quorum Central, Curzon falls into the most elaborate, and strangely specific, trap in cinema history; a hidden hatch in the floor of a room full of waxworks posed as if they were gamblers in a casino. I have no clue as to what function this room is supposed to serve. From there, it’s the usual heroic struggle against the machinations of the Quorum’s head man ‘The Snake’ (just who could he be?) and a race against time to save Gynt from a roomful of lazy slithering reptiles.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

The initiation at the Rotary Club was more hardcore than he had expected…’

Regarded as part of the cinematic journey of Slaughter and producer-director King, this film is certainly the odd one out, and the reason was probably economic. The duo’s first collaboration, ‘Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn’ (1934) had been made at a time when investment wasn’t hard to find. The British government had introduced a ‘quota’ system to stimulate the homegrown industry and films such as Alexander Korda’s ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ (1933) had enjoyed great success on other shores. Unfortunately, that kind of popularity proved to be the exception rather than the rule and, by 1937, the money was starting to dry up.

It was in these conditions that the partnership chose to abandon their usual (and very British) melodramas in favour of something with more of an American flavour. The finished article shares some DNA with the Hollywood serials of the time, even if the feature format doesn’t allow for a lot of cliff-hangers. Still, there is an attempt to present the villain as a masked criminal with a secret identity, decking him out in robes with a silver reptile emblazoned on the front. His co-conspirators also have their faces hidden under black hoods, TV screens keep track of the street outside the secret HQ, and there’s a ‘death chamber’ of deadly snakes. Yes, it is all a bit half-hearted, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

‘Suspicious? Me?’

Slaughter’s performance is also interesting. Gone is the gibbering madman and the histrionics of his previous villainous portrayals. Instead, he favours a sly, creepy efficiency that is far more business-like than usual, even if flashes of his old excesses do peek out from time to time. This was probably Slaughter tailoring his performance to fit the material; after all, he returned to his cackling ways in his subsequent films. However, during the break after his last collaboration with King, ‘The Ticket of Leave Man’ (1937), Slaughter had acted for two other directors. Although ‘Darby and Joan’ (1937) is a lost film, John Baxter’s ‘Song of the Road’ (1937) has survived. Unfortunately, Slaughter’s typically over the top performance as a lecherous gypsy stands out like a sore thumb in what is otherwise a low-key celebration of the simplicity of rural life. That experience may have played on his mind.

Despite the general restraint and an absence of serious action, there are still some wonderful (and often very British) anachronisms to enjoy. The Quorum all wear hoods at their meetings, which you might reasonably assume is to keep their identities hidden from each other, until they just remove them about half a minute into the scene! Their disguises serve absolutely no purpose, other than to justify the film’s title, and provide some suitably dramatic ‘unmasking’ moments.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

‘We’ll have tea and biscuits, and then perhaps you would care to see the Death Chamber?’

Curzon warns Gynt that she needs to be very careful taking on an international crime syndicate; explaining that he’s ‘a very busy man’ and ‘may not always have the chance to come to your rescue.’ How very 1930s you might say, but, in one of the story’s few surprising developments, it’s actually Gynt who saves Curzon, and ribs him about it afterwards! Although he does return the favour later on, of course. Sympson’s sidekick is written as an eager, overenthusiastic youngster who tries hard but often gets things wrong due to his painful inexperience. Shame the actor was more than 30 years old at the time of filming!

King’s plans to turn ‘Sexton Blake’ into a series never materialised, and he and Slaughter returned to their melodramatic roots. The character featured in further movies and appeared on British TV in the 1960s and 1970s. The most notable projects were probably the films ‘Meet Sexton Blake!’ (1945) and ‘The Echo Murders’ (1945) if only because the title role was taken by Farrar, who appears here in the first act as wounded spy Granite Grant.

Farrar went from strength to strength after that, and he’s best remembered these days for his work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the classic ‘Black Narcissus’ (1946) and as the lead in their low-key bomb disposal drama ‘The Small Back Room’ (1949). Norwegian actress Gynt also had a long and successful career, her most notable appearance to fans of cult cinema being opposite horror icon Bela Lugosi in ‘Dark Eyes of London’ (1939).

An old-fashioned and mildly enjoyable criminal enterprise, but without Slaughter at full throttle, it feels more than a little muted.

Tod Slaughter would return in ‘The Face At The Window’ (1939).

 

Black Moon (1934)

Black Noon (1934)‘Never have the drums beat so in San Christopher without trouble.’

A young wife is seemingly obsessed by the ancient voodoo rites of the far-off island where she was born. Despite her family’s misgivings, she returns there to visit her uncle’s plantation and takes her daughter along on the trip. But it’s not long before it’s evident that the old religion is still alive and well…

Brisk, spooky b-thriller from Columbia Pictures that rides the coat-tails of the Universal horror boom but keeps its feet firmly on the ground. There’s nothing overtly supernatural here; just an ancient form of worship being practised by an indigenous people who have little contact with the outside world. Unfortunately, it’s entirely at odds with the standards of behaviour of what we’ve come to understand as civilisation and culminates in a blood ritual that oversteps the mark of our moral code.

Jack Holt is a happy man; successful in business and successful in his private life. Pretty wife Dorothy Burgess and cute little daughter Nancy (Cora Sue Cousins) are the apple of his eye, and with the capable support of secretary Gail (Fay Wray), he’s flying high at work too. But there’s a problem. Burgess is a native of the West Indian island of San Christopher and grew up surrounded by native customs and beliefs, being of mixed race herself. The locals weren’t best pleased when Holt liberated her either and invoked some kind of unspecified voodoo curse. Holt’s never been bothered by such superstitious nonsense, of course, and the years have passed quite happily.

Black Noon (1934)

‘It’s not a tablecloth, alright?’

But just lately Burgess has begun acting a little strangely, spending hours pounding her voodoo drum. She also regularly talks about going back home to visit her uncle’s plantation and she’s getting more insistent by the day. Holt consults the most useless psychiatrist available (Henry Kolker) who advises him to do nothing and let her go back to the island to work out her problems herself. Because she’s just a woman and doesn’t need any help with her silly neuroses.

Holt isn’t keen on this lack of action (probably because the advice just cost him a couple of hundred bucks), but goes along with the suggestion anyway, even allowing Cousins to accompany her mother on the journey. Also in the party to travel are the child’s nurse Ana (Eleanor Wesselhoeft) and secretary Wray who has just given notice, but agrees to one last job. Her reasons for quitting are that she needs to get away, having fallen in love with a married man (I wonder who that could be?)

This is Hollywood in the early 1930s before censorship arrived via the Hays Code and a story about heroic white folks being threatened by natives on a Caribbean island. You could be forgiven for hearing alarm bells ringing just from the plot alone. But that’s really as racist as the film gets and, in fact, a conscious effort is made to present a balanced point of view instead. When Holt visits the island, alarmed by how long his wife’s visit is taking, he’s accompanied by black sailor ‘Lunch’ McClaren (Clarence Muse). They enjoy a chat on the way, which includes a little of Muse’s personal history, specifically including his education in Boston. Sure, this could be seen as a bit patronising to a more modern, sophisticated audience, but Muse’s character is a long way from the ‘pop-eyed, fraidy-cat’ stereotypes usually imposed on black actors of the period like Willie Best.

Similarly, while the natives are presented as fanatical, there’s no gnashing of teeth or wild gesticulations on their part. They are following deeply-held beliefs and convictions, although with an enthusiasm that embraces (off-screen) murder. The only overt stereotype here is white plantation owner Dr Perez (Arnold Korff) who regularly berates his household servants and threatens all natives with deadly violence. Burgess even has a small speech about how the locals have been exploited for the benefit of the whites. It is very brief and somewhat less than convincing when delivered by an actress who is so white-bread American that it hurts, but it’s here nevertheless. Burgess gives a fairly decent performance in her role, even if her conversion from loving mother and housewife to voodoo priestess is far too sudden to be remotely convincing.

Black Noon (1934)

‘You smell better than my last boyfriend, but you’re not as tall.’

Unusually, the best piece of business here is the developing love story between Holt and Wray. At first, Holt is blind to her feminine charms, merely regarding her as a good chum and helpmate, but his slow realisation that she’s slightly more than that is very well handled by director Roy William Neill. There’s a moment where he sees her playing with Cousins and another where he finds the two have fallen asleep together on the child’s bed.

Most tellingly, there’s a scene where he watches her as she slowly ascends a staircase. We only see the back of his head, but it never moves, and there can only be one thing he’s looking at. Holt is a little stolid, but Wray is excellent in these more intimate scenes, doing a lot of acting with her eyes alone and showing there was far more to her talent than just screaming hysterically at the screen’s tallest (and hairiest) leading man.

The film’s other main asset is the presence of Neill behind the camera. As he demonstrated later on with many entries in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series, he was a master at utilising limited resources and conjuring atmosphere with judicious use of light and shadow. Although his career never really climbed out of the ‘B’ arena, he still delivered the hugely enjoyable ‘Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man’ (1943) and some other interesting projects. There was unusual ‘closed circle’ mystery ‘The Ninth Guest’ (1934), efficient noir ‘Black Angel’ (1946) and George Arliss as piratical pastor ‘Dr Syn’ (1937), a role later played by Peter Cushing in Hammer’s ‘Captain Clegg’ (aka ‘Night Creatures’ (1962).

Perhaps somewhat less than the sum of its parts, but an unusual concoction of dark thrills from the early days of sound cinema.

The Phantom of The Convent/El Fantasma Del Convento/The Fantasy of The Monastery (1934)

The Phantom of the Convent (1934)‘I begin to think those monks are up to something…’

A trio hiking in the mountains are lost in the woods when they are saved by a mysterious stranger and his dog. He takes them to a run-down monastery and suggests that the travellers ask the monks for shelter for the night.

Unusual, serious-minded supernatural drama from Mexico, a country whose cult cinema items usually involve silver masked wrestlers grappling with vampires, werewolves and various other outlandish creatures. Not so here, for director Fernando De Fuentes’ takes a fairly common piece of universal folklore and fashions it into a genuinely creepy drama with a surprisingly modern filmmaking technique.

The story begins deep in the woods with Eduardo (Carlos Villatoro) being rescued from a gully by wife Cristina (Marta Ruel) and best friend Alfonso (Enrique Del Campo). He’s fallen after the hapless threesome have wandered off the path in the dark, being completely unequipped for their impromptu hike. Villatoro is not a happy man; he’s tired and hungry and hadn’t wanted to come in the first place. But salvation is at hand in the form of a stranger in black and a large dog called Shadow. He deposits them at the gates of a tumbledown monastery and promptly vanishes, giving Villatoro another reason to complain. They are taken in by one of the monks, who takes them to his leader. And this is where the film begins to score.

The Phantom of the Convent (1934)

‘For those about to eat…we salute you!’

For a start, the location is excellent. The interior architecture allows Fuentes to create some exciting shot compositions and fine contrasts of light and shadow. The wide passageways and tall ceilings create an impressive sense of scale, and the stone walls convey a sense of antiquity and permanence that it would be difficult to match in a studio setting.

The dynamics of our three main characters are simple but telling. Ruel is getting fed up with her husband’s constant whining and would rather be with Del Campo, something that Villatoro is beginning to suspect. Del Campo also has the hots for Ruel, who seems keener than ever once they enter the cloistered halls. Here they are treated to a frugal dinner by the strange monks, only two of whom speak. The meal is interrupted by the need for a sudden ritual and followed by an explanation from the Father Prior (Paco Martinez). The story he tells of the fate of the monk Rodrigo and the cell with the huge cross nailed across the door curiously reflects the trio’s own situation and relationships. An odd coincidence. Or is it?

The story is nothing remarkable on the page, being a rather slight tale of the temptations of the dark side, but it’s brought to life thanks to the look and feel of the film. At times it echoes Carl Dreyer’s much-trumpeted early classic ‘Vampyr’ (1931), but scores over it because of better pacing and technical skill. Performances are restrained and well-judged, particularly Ruel, and is there anything creepier than silent monks? Fuentes selects some appropriate faces for these wordless holy men; lined and ancient and with eyes that seemingly reflect decades of abstinence and prayer. When they do communicate, it’s with sweeping hand gestures, graceful and precise, almost courtly but somehow unsettling.

The Phantom of the Convent (1934)

The silliest trousers contest entered its final stages with a clear favourite…

The camera work is also surprisingly fluid, if a little clumsy on occasion. It’s interesting to look at movies from the early years of the sound era that originated in places other than Hollywood. Tinsel town films had a static quality to a lot of their setups at this point, which people tend to assume was down to the cumbersome nature of the camera equipment. It often gives these films a stilted and creaky feel.

But other nations and filmmakers don’t seem to have had that problem. Just compare the camera movement in Tod Browning’s ‘Dracula’ (1931) with the Spanish language version, which was shot on the same sets at night after Lugosi and co had gone home. There’s no contest. The Spanish version is far better. Given the fact it was a directed by an American, George Melford, perhaps it was simply a conscious decision by the main studio heads not to innovate but to remain tied to very conventional techniques?

One thing did bother me about this film, though. Is this ancient holy building a convent or a monastery? The dialogue identifies it as both at different times, and its various titles use both terms. But there’s not a nun in sight. Confusing. A mistranslation from the Spanish? No, the explanation is far simpler. The word ‘monastery’ is from the Greek meaning ‘to live alone’ and is commonly used to describe a building used by a religious order set apart from the rest of the world. On the other hand, the word ’convent’ is a Latin word meaning ‘to convene or gather’. It’s only in English speaking countries that the term is typically used when referring to the living quarters of a women’s religious order. Historically it could also refer to religious houses occupied by men.

Not quite a lost classic, but a genuinely accomplished and forgotten spooky tale that deserves to be revived and celebrated.

Le Golem/The Golem – The Legend of Prague (1936)

Le Golem (1936)‘By the virtue of this pentacle, by this sword and by this flame, I order you to enforce my will.’

When the Prague ghetto is ravaged by a plague, the people pray for the mythical Golem to return to life and save them. However, the ruling Emperor has determined that the statue must be found and destroyed as he fears a prophecy that it will bring about his ruin…

Semi-sequel to the original trilogy of German classic silent films starring and directed by Paul Wegener. Here, the original Jewish legend of the clay statue brought to life is presented in its most famous iteration, that of Rabbi Loew conjuring the creature to life and using it to protect the people of Prague in a time of need. In this version of the tale, Loew has passed on, and the torch handed to his direct successor Jacob (Charles Dorat). Strangely, belief in the reality of the Golem seems uncertain, especially puzzling given that its’ last appearance surely must have been within living memory.

The plague has already struck the ghetto by the time we join the action, bodies being wheeled around on carts as the populace beg Dorat to invoke their legendary saviour. But all are subject to the rule of the increasingly unstable Emperor Rudolph (Harry Baur) who is so obsessed with sorcery and mysticism that he keeps 200 resident alchemists permanently on call. Various members of the court are seeking to take advantage of his increasingly erratic behaviour; mainly slimy Chancellor Robert Karl and the scheming Countess Strada (Germaine Aussey). Karl is nothing but an utter rotter (in surprisingly modern-looking spectacles), but Aussey looks like she may have redeeming qualities, particularly after her encounter with dashing young blade Roger Duchesne.

Le Golem (1936)

‘You know, you really are getting a bit thin up there…’

What follows isn’t so much the gothic folkloric melodrama of Wegener’s silent pictures, but a lengthy political intrigue, with the various protagonists manoeuvring for position at court as Baur’s grasp on reality disintegrates. For the most part, the Golem is just a McGuffin; a tool to be used in schemes and strategies, rather than a focal point of the action.

Director Julien Duvuvier also seems to have had a problem getting a good grasp on his material. At one point, the film seems to be heading for a comic ‘Flynn/De Havilland’ romance between Duchesne and Aussey, at another a black comedic satire on monarchy and court life. These two approaches aren’t incompatible, of course, but they don’t really fit with the scenes of Dorat being stretched on the rack or the last reel rampage when the Golem finally awakes. Bahr’s performance as the Emperor is also misjudged; he appears far more a figure to be ridiculed than feared, when a balance between the two was essential.

And, if you’ve managed to hang on to the last ten minutes for the creature’s rampage, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Yes, there’s the spectacle that a decent budget brings, but we never get a real sense of the Golem’s strength and power, despite the tumbling pillars and falling gateways. His appearance is also disappointing. After an initial lifeless encounter with Baur when he seems about 20 feet tall, he’s finally revealed to be just actor Ferdinand Hart, wearing a big cape and dark makeup. Yes, he may be a tall chap but he’s no giant and, beyond his size, there’s nothing remotely impressive about his appearance at all. Although Wegener’s Golem may look a little ridiculous to modern eyes, it undoubtedly had an eerie, otherworldly quality.

Le Golem (1936)

‘Blimey, these rubber bars are tougher than they look…’

Duvivier certainly knew how to light a shot and his frame compensation is highly professional. Hardly surprising, given that he was one of the founding fathers of French cinema, who’d delivered classic pictures like ‘S.S. Tenacity’ (1934), and ‘Pépé Le Moko’ (1937). During the war, he went to Hollywood and directed prestige projects featuring the biggest stars of the day, such as ‘Tales of Manhattan’ (1942) and ‘Flesh and Fantasy’ (1943). This film is often seen as a blip in his hugely successful career, and it’s not hard to see why.

There is a slight expressionistic feel to the production design, particularly some of the architecture of the ghetto. This provides a nice echo of the glory of German cinema of the 1920s, even if never pushes the boundaries in the way of something like ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1919). Originally, the film was going to be shot in that country, but, given the rise of Nationalism and Anti-Semitic feeling, the production was moved to France instead.

Despite some good qualities, this is ultimately quite the disappointment; a small footnote in both the director’s career and the history of fantastical cinema itself.

Chloe, Love Is Calling You (1934)

Chloe Love Is Calling You (1934)‘Reckon most of ’em been up all night voodooing down in the swamp’

A voodoo priestess returns to Louisiana after 15 years to revenge herself on the plantation owner who she believes killed her husband. Unfortunately, her plans go awry when her mixed race daughter falls for a visiting white man…

1930’s romantic drama dressed up with a climactic voodoo ceremony that just about pushes the project into the borderlands of the horror arena. Nothing supernatural actually happens (and we never think it will for a moment!) but there is a little business with fetishes and pins in dolls before all the dark figures dancing in the smoke and the sacrificial knife is upraised.

This small studio, independent production sets its tale in the bayou around the property of Col Joyner (Frank Gordon) who lost his only child to a drowning accident many years before. His plantation distills resin from trees to produce turpentine, although we see nothing of its manufacture or workforce, aside from a couple of shifty members who star in a fairly pointless subplot. Enter Mandy (Georgette Harvey) who has brought daughter Chloe (Olive Borden) and family friend Jim (Philip Ober) back to her cabin after more than a decade away. She blames Gordon for the death of her husband who was lynched after the two indulged in a bout of fisticuffs. We later learn that Gordon was still unconscious when the murder was done, which I guess makes him completely innocent.

The problem for Harvey is that Borden meets handsome Reed Howes, who is helping Gordon and his niece Molly O’Day at the old homestead, and the two fall in love. In about thirty seconds flat. This is all completely fine because he thinks she’s white (and so do we for that matter). From there, the story development is so blatantly telegraphed that we can see everything coming from miles away. In fact, there’s really not much reason to watch the second half of the film! You know exactly how everything’s going to come out!

Obviously, the question of race is on a modern day audience’s mind when looking at a project like this. How does it look in today’s more enlightened times? Well, there are problems, certainly, but we are spared the eye-popping comedy schtick that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time. Yes, the Colonel and his white guests lounge around while the black folks fetch them mint juleps, but at least the servants are treated kindly and with respect. The main issue is with Borden’s character, who throws over her black family the first chance she gets for a shot at the wealth and privilege of the white world.

But it’s Jim who is the film’s main arguing point and question mark. It’s never established exactly who he is supposed to be (apart from a love rival for Howes), but he lives at the cabin with Mandy and Chloe. However, Ober was a white actor and, although prints of the film are in very poor condition, it doesn’t appear that any makeup was applied to darken his skin tone (and why not hire a mixed race/black actor for the role if that was what was required?) On the other hand, Borden rejects his romantic advances as if repelled by him, despite the fact that he’s a stand up guy who has even saved her life! Is it because she instinctively suspects they are off a different race? Obviously, you’d hope not but it is curious…and a puzzle that will probably never be solved.

Chloe Love Is Calling You (1934)

‘We’ve got to stop meeting like this.’

Overall, this melodrama plays out a fair bit like a film from the silent era and that’s not much of a surprise considering the talent that was involved. Director Marshall Neilan wielded the megaphone on more than half a dozen of Mary Pickford’s big hits before drinking and a vicious dispute with major mogul Sam Goldwyn over the final cut of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ (1924) derailed his career.

The cast had mixed fortunes in later life with Ober becoming a respected character actor with a featured supporting role in Oscar winner ‘From Here To Eternity’ (1953) and many other appearances. O’Day was a teenage star in the 1920s, whose later career suffered due to alleged weight gain, although there’s absolutely no evidence of that here. She retired from the business in 1935, and lived to the age of 87. Howes also failed to make a successful transition into talkies, ending up as a heavy on a many a b-Western.

But the real story here is Borden. She was a bona fide star at Fox during the silent era, but the advent of talkies was the perfect opportunity for many studios to renegotiate contracts with their major names. Borden refused to take a pay cut and left. It proved to be an error of judgement with tragic consequences. She made only half a dozen more features, of which this was the last. In 1946, she was found scrubbing floors for a living and died in a home for destitute women on L.A.’s skid row barely a year later. She was 41 years old.

A relic of its time. Interesting from a historical perspective but not as entertainment.