Film Festival Highlights 2014

FRIDAY

 

12:00 — Stormy (1935).

Our 2014 Film Festival tribute to Western Story Magazine begins with this virtually unknown adaptation of Cherry Wilson’s “Stormy Dorn,” serialized in WSM during 1929. Shot on location in Arizona’s Painted Desert by Universal Pictures’ serial unit under the supervision of Henry MacRae, Stormy follows a teenaged boy (Noah Beery Jr.) whose devotion to a wild mustang inadvertently places him in the middle of a dispute between two ranch-owning brothers (J. Farrell MacDonald and Fred Kohler). Leading lady Jean Rogers, radiantly beautiful at 19 years old, was chosen by MacRae to play Dale Arden in the first Flash Gordon serial shortly after completing this modestly budgeted but beautifully photographed horse opera.

 

01:15 — Murder Is News (1939).

This year’s first film celebrating Black Mask on the 85th anniversary of Dashiell Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon” serialization in that magazine, Murder Is News was the third whodunit adapted from one of Theodore Tinsley’s Jerry Tracy stories. Based on the story of the same title in Black Mask’s August 1937 issue, it finds the newspaper columnist investigating the murder of a wealthy industrialist whose cheating wife plans to run away with his attorney. Lovely Iris Meredith, fresh off her portrayal of Nita Van Sloan in the first Spider serial, appears here as the wife’s protective secretary. Playing Tracy is prolific character actor John Gallaudet, who acquits himself handily in one of his few starring roles.

 

02:30 — Singing Guns (1950).

Although several dozen of Max Brand’s pulp stories reached the silver screen, during the talkie era only two were adapted from his output for Western Story Magazine: 1930’s “Twelve Peers” (printed in book form as Destry Rides Again) and “Singing Guns,” serialized in December 1928 and January 1929 issues. Considered one of Brand’s very best novels by devotees of the author, it begins with the outlaw Rhiannon (played by popular vocalist Vaughn Monroe) saving the life of sheriff Caradac (Ward Bond), who has been pursuing him. As the story progresses, Rhiannon tries to go straight despite a deck stacked against him. Gorgeous Ella Raines is the leading lady and Walter Brennan takes a key supporting role.

 

04:00 — Fall Guy (1947).

Cornell Woolrich’s memorable 1940 Black Mask yarn “C-Jag” (later reprinted as “Cocaine”) provides the basis for this low-budget film noir effort produced by Walter Mirisch for release by Monogram Pictures. A young man (screen newcomer Clifford Penn) comes out of a drug-induced haze with blurred memories of a party, a bloody knife, and a body in a closet. As his mind clears he finds blood on his shirt and the knife in his possession. He enlists the aid of his brother-in-law, homicide detective Mac MacLane (Robert Armstrong), to help find the crime scene and establish his innocence—assuming he is innocent. Fans of this author will have no trouble recognizing the plot, although Fall Guy takes considerable liberty with Woolrich’s original.

 

Immediately Following Auction — The Mounted Stranger (1930).

This year we’re reserving Friday’s post-auction time slot for a brace of rare Universal Westerns adapted from pulp stories in rough-paper magazines other than WSM. We begin with Breaking Loose, a 1926 two-reel short starring Ben Corbett and Pee Wee Holmes; it’s the only available entry (out of two dozen produced) from a series based on W. C. Tuttle’s humorous “Piperock” stories in Adventure. Next up is The Mounted Stranger, starring Hoot Gibson, which was the second screen version of Henry Herbert Knibbs’ “The Ridin’ Kid from Powder River,” serialized in 1919 issues of Street & Smith’s The Popular Magazine. Pete Ainslee (played by Buddy Hunter as a boy and Gibson as an adult) is orphaned as a young boy and grows to manhood determined to get revenge on his father’s murderer. Silent-serial queen Louise Lorraine is adorable in the ingenue role and Francis Ford, older brother of famous director John, shines as “The Spider,” a supporting character so popular that Knibbs later wrote pulp stories with him as the protagonist.

 

 

SATURDAY

 

10:00 — Private Detective 62 (1933).

Better known for other Black Mask series characters, Raoul Whitfield also placed in the magazine three stories featuring private eye Don Free. This little-known Warner Brothers programmer is an adaptation of “Man Killer,” published in the April 1932 issue. William Powell, at that time best known for his screen appearances as detective Philo Vance, brings his customary suave insouciance to the role of Free. The plot involves a shady gambler (Gordon Westcott) attempting to blackmail a young woman (Margaret Lindsay) who’s been winning too much at his tables. Old Man Murder rears his ugly head and before long Free is up to his ears in intrigue. Swift and snappy, this atmospheric whodunit is directed by Michael Curtiz in the accustomed pre-Code Warners manner.

 

11:15 — Sierra (1950).

One of the very best Westerns starring World War II hero Audie Murphy, Sierra is the second screen version of “The Mountains Are My Kingdom,” written by Stuart Hardy (a pseudonym of prolific pulpster Oscar Schisgall) and serialized in 1936 issues of Western Story Magazine as “The Mountain King.” The first version, titled Forbidden Valley (1938) and starring Noah Beery Jr., was shot in black and white, but this one is lensed in eye-popping Technicolor and boasts the similarly eye-popping Wanda Hendrix, who later became the real-life Mrs. Audie Murphy. As Ring Hassard, a wild-horse wrangler who has lived hidden in the mountains because his fugitive father (Dean Jagger) is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit, Murphy delivers a pleasingly natural performance.

 

01:00 — Smart Blonde (1937).

Frederick Nebel’s MacBride and Kennedy series was among the most popular to appear in Black Mask, and this briskly paced “B”-grade version of a late entry, “No Hard Feelings” (February 1936), is an unusually close adaptation—but for one major change: the demon reporter Kennedy is replaced by a distaff newshound named Torchy Blane (fast-talking Glenda Farrell), the love interest of hard-boiled police detective Steve MacBride (Barton MacLane). Otherwise, Nebel’s original reaches the screen almost totally intact, right down to the crisp dialogue. The first of a nine-picture Torchy Blane series, Smart Blonde was rather inexplicably the only one taken from a Black Mask story. It’s a great little movie, though.

 

02:15 — Sandflow (1937).

This Buck Jones vehicle has as its source another WSM serial written by Cherry Wilson: “Starr of the Southwest,” from 1936. The protagonist is Starr Hallett (renamed Buck for the movie, in deference to the star’s popularity), he of the Branded Sombrero, who has spent his adult life making restitution to ranchers for cattle his father stole years before. The old man kept a record of his victims by emblazoning their brands on his Stetson hat, which Starr wears as a constant reminder of his obligation. Every time a rustled rancher is repaid, his brand is crossed off the battered sombrero. Sandflow adds a wrinkle to the plot by compelling Buck to help his wayward brother Lane (Robert Terry), who has been falsely accused of killing a sheriff.

 

03:30 — The Maltese Falcon (1931).

First of three Warner Brothers film adaptations of Hammett’s classic novel, this one stars Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, and Dudley Digges in the roles immortalized by Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet in the better-known, more common 1941 version. Not quite as faithful to Hammett’s original as the Bogart, it comes pretty darn close and has the advantage of being closer to the novel’s time period. And being pre-Production Code, the 1931 Falcon implies a good deal more than the ‘41. It also goes further with Brigid’s memorable self-strip when she is accused in stealing money from Gutman. Cortez looks a bit too much the Latin lover, with his slicked-down hair and polished manner, but the toughness is there. If you’ve never seen this version we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

Immediately Following Auction — The Westerner (1934).

Tim McCoy stars in this Columbia “B,” one of eight exceptionally good low-budget oaters he made for the 1934-35 season. It’s based on “Burnt Ranch,” a Walt Coburn novel published complete in the April 1, 1933 issue of Western Story Magazine. Initially it focuses on the loss of confidence Tim’s bronc-buster character suffers after being thrown by a dangerous mustang. But the story’s emphasis shifts when he buys a troubled ranch and uncovers a dastardly scheme. Unlike many Saturday-matinee Westerns, usually constructed around a succession of chases, fistfights, and gunbattles, McCoy’s Columbias generally sported sturdy plots and were often adapted from pulp stories.

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