Film Festival

Windy City 2019 Film Schedule

Windy City’s Film Festival is almost as old as the convention itself: 2019 is our 18th year of screening motion pictures and TV episodes—many of them quite obscure—adapted from stories originally published in pulp magazines. This year, as always, we’ve managed to scrounge up a number of rarities you’re likely to be unfamiliar with, so when the dealer-room action becomes overwhelming and you need a break, by all means mosey on over to our “theater” and relax with one or more of these little gems.

FRIDAY

12:00 p.m. — THE NERVOUS WRECK (1923), 74 minutes.

Adapted from “The Wreck” (Argosy All-Story Weekly, December 3, 1921-January 7, 1922) by E. J. Rath [Edith Rathbone Brainerd].

Pulp devotees often forget that the top all-fiction magazines originally appealed to general audiences before shifting to an action-adventure orientation. The early Munsey pulps, today remembered primarily for their “scientific romances,” cast a wide editorial net and, among other things, ran lightly humorous stories mostly aimed at female readers. E. J. Rath (real name: Edith Brainerd) was a master of such easily digestible confections and placed dozens of them with The Argosy, The All-Story, The Scrap Book, The Cavalier, and Munsey’s Magazine between 1906 and her untimely passing in 1922 at the age of 37. Her final yarn was “The Wreck,” serialized in late 1921 by Argosy All-Story Weekly. Subsequently licensed for the stage, it was adapted by prolific playwright Owen Davis as The Nervous Wreck and enjoyed a Broadway run that lasted nearly the entire 1923-24 season.

Hollywood producer Al Christie, who rivaled Mack Sennett and Hal Roach in the mass production of comedy short subjects, purchased movie rights to the play and brought it to the screen in 1926 with Harrison Ford—a light comedian whose film career was on the wane—as Henry Williams, a dithering Pittsburgh hypochondriac who believes himself afflicted with a dread disease and goes to Arizona in search of a cure. In the desert wilds he undergoes a series of misadventures that lead to robbery, elopement, and pursuit by the local sheriff.

Adapted by F. McGrew Willis and directed by Scott Sidney, The Nervous Wreck does quite well by Rath’s original, adroitly blending character comedy with broad slapstick for a bubbly cinematic concoction. Incidentally, the property’s life was extended when theatrical impresario Flo Ziegfeld bought the Owen Davis adaptation and reworked it into a stage musical titled Whoopee! Starring Eddie Cantor, the lavishly mounted production logged more than 400 performances in its 1928-29 engagement before being licensed by Samuel Goldwyn, whose 1930 Technicolor film version featured Cantor and other members of the Broadway cast. A huge success, it’s still considered a classic and is one of the oddest motion pictures to boast a pulp-magazine story as the basis of its plot.

1:30 p.m. — THE MISSING MILLION (1942), 78 minutes.

Adapted from “The Missing Million” (The Popular Magazine, June 20-August 20, 1923) by Edgar Wallace.

The filming of crime novels by Edgar Wallace was practically a cottage industry in England, with dozens of his yarns brought to the screen there over a 40-year period. Wallace adaptations occasionally could be expensive, star-studded affairs, but more often than not they were economical little potboilers with middling casts—U.K. equivalents of Hollywood “B” movies. The Missing Million, turned out under stringent wartime restrictions, definitely belongs to the latter group.

When young millionaire Rex Walton (Ivan Brandt) disappears after receiving a blackmail threat, his sister Joan (Linden Travers) enlists the aid of Scotland Yard Inspector Dicker (John Stuart) to find him. The trail is strewn with corpses—members of an underworld gang who have tried to double-cross their mysterious boss, known as The Panda. Walton had drawn a million pounds from his bank account before vanishing, which lends urgency to Dicker’s search. And there’s another complication: Rex’s fiancée Dora (Patricia Hilliard) is a member of The Panda’s organization.

Some of Britain’s Wallace adaptations received theatrical distribution stateside, but The Missing Million wasn’t one of them. And until its recent release on DVD in the U.K., this film was all but forgotten in its country of origin. Not as snappy as The Flying Squad, which we screened here last year, it certainly has the flavor of a typical Wallace crime story. Anyone familiar with actors who regularly appeared in English-made movie melodramas will guess The Panda’s identity early on, although possessing that knowledge won’t be an impediment to enjoying the show.

3:00 p.m. — THE SHADOW (1940), Chapters One through Seven, app. 150 minutes.

Partially adapted from the Shadow Magazine novels “The Green Hoods” (August 15, 1938), “Silver Skull” (January 1, 1939), “The Lone Tiger” (February 15, 1939), and the Shadow radio episode “Prelude to Terror” (January 29, 1939).

Although we would have sworn The Shadow was run in its entirety at a previous Windy City convention, a review of past Film Festival schedules reveals that in the past 18 years we’ve shown only a few odd chapters as representative samples. As it’s one of the few chapter plays adapted from a hero pulp, we figured there’s no time like the present to give this fast-paced romp a complete screening, which is being done in two lengthy sessions.

An audacious if not entirely successful fusion of the character’s pulp and radio incarnations, The Shadow boasts a substantially original screenplay that incorporates elements from three of Walter B. Gibson’s novels and a 1939 radio broadcast. Veteran character actor Victor Jory, coming off widely praised “heavy” portrayals in Dodge City and Gone With the Wind, was cast in the title role based primarily on his superficial resemblance to the Lamont Cranston depicted in the Street & Smith magazine, and secondarily for his sublimely creepy rendition of The Shadow’s sepulchral laugh.

The industrial life of a major city is threatened by a criminal mastermind known only as the Black Tiger, who attacks prominent industries and the men controlling them. At wit’s end, Police Commissioner Ralph Weston (Frank LaRue) and his ace investigator Joe Cardona (Edward Peil) enlist the aid of criminologist Lamont Cranston (Jory) to help them run the Tiger and his gang to earth. Unbeknownst to them, Cranston is also The Shadow, a mystery man whom the police believe is just as crooked as the malefactors he brings to justice. His loyal assistants include Margot Lane (Veda Ann Borg) and Harry Vincent (Joseph Young, a.k.a. Roger Moore).

The first Columbia serial entrusted to independent producer Larry Darmour, who for several years supplied the studio with chapter plays made on shoestring budgets to maximize profits, The Shadow was directed by James W. Horne, whose film career dated back to the nickelodeon days. His ten episodic thrillers for Darmour teem with lowbrow humor (mostly targeting the heavies) and florid overacting but are invariably entertaining, The Shadow ranking as best of the lot.

Immediately following Friday auction — TEXAS TRAIL (1937), 58 minutes.

Adapted from “Tex Ewalt” (Short Stories, January 25-February 10, 1922) by Clarence E. Mulford.

We continue our string of Hopalong Cassidy films with one of the very best series entries (and there were 66 of ’em), which demonstrates just how good a simply plotted “B”-grade horse opera could be when dressed up with picturesque locations, evocative musical scoring, and an extremely personable cast. Texas Trail, like many Hoppys, is not surfeited with action sequences, saving most of the hard riding and fast shooting for its suspenseful climax. But director David Selman dresses up the narrative with nice little scenes of character development, especially between series star William Boyd and 12-year-old rodeo star Billy King, making the second of his four appearances in a Cassidy film.

The Spanish-American War is underway and the Bar 20 hands are training for what they hope will be deployment with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The Cavalry, however, has other plans for Cassidy and his men: It urgently needs replacement mounts and assigns Hoppy to round up a herd of wild mustangs in the remote Ghost Canyon district. With loyal pals Lucky (Russell Hayden) and Windy (George Hayes) at his side, he leads the Bar 20 outfit on what promises to be an arduous trek. Unscrupulous renegade Black Jack Carson and his gang follow surreptitiously, planning to rustle the captured horses and sell them to the Cavalry at exorbitant prices.

Officially (in publicity material and screen credits), Texas Trail is identified as an adaptation of “Tex Ewalt,” serialized in the Doubleday pulp Short Stories and published by the company in a hardcover edition titled Tex. Actually, the film uses nothing from its ostensible source material. One could accuse us of duplicity in labeling it a legitimate pulp-story adaptation. Well, okay, guilty as charged. But Texas Trail is so darned entertaining that we’re willing to wager you won’t mind a bit once you’ve seen it.

SATURDAY

10:00 a.m. — THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), 66 minutes.

Adapted from “The Street of Jungle Death” (Strange Detective Mysteries, July-August 1939), revised and expanded into the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich.

Cornell Woolrich’s output—novels and pulp stories combined—was the basis of a good many classic “B” movies and films noir. We’ve already run some of the more obscure; this one is better known and commercially available. But The Leopard Man is such a crackerjack little picture that, after revisiting it at home a couple months ago, we couldn’t resist slotting it into this year’s film program.

The black leopard employed in a nightclub act escapes during an engagement in a small New Mexico town. Following the death of a young girl at the beast’s claws, a posse is formed to hunt the man-killer. Other victims fall prey to the leopard and suffer similarly gruesome fates. Press agent Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) and his client Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks), for whose act the leopard was rented, are devastated to have been the unwitting cause of this reign of terror. But then evidence surfaces that human agency might be behind the grisly murders. . . .

Third of nine stylish low-budget films produced for RKO by Val Lewton, The Leopard Man was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also helmed Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the unit’s previous sleeper hits. Made in just four weeks on a budget of less than $150,000, this third Lewton offering exhibits the same ingenuity in maximizing thrills while minimizing expenditures. Robert de Grasse’s cinematography, utilizing clever lighting effects to create an atmosphere of nocturnal terror, can reasonably be characterized as “virtuoso,” and Mark Robson’s editing sustains a measured pace while heightening tension during sequences that depict the stalkings and murders. You’d be hard pressed to find a more suspenseful 66 minutes in any motion picture of the era.

11:15 a.m. — HIGH TIDE (1948), 72 minutes.

Adapted from “Inside Job” (Black Mask, February 1932) by Raoul Whitfield. Reprinted in The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (Simon & Shuster, 1946).

An obscure “B” movie released by humble Monogram Pictures, one of Hollywood’s smallest studios, High Tide some years ago was “rediscovered” by film noir cultists who proclaimed the modest thriller an unjustly neglected work. It had come to our attention in the early 1970s with the private screening of an old, worn 16mm TV print. At that time. though, we were unaware of the original story’s pulp origin.

The narrative gets underway at night, showing us a wrecked car on a beach. One passenger, newspaper editor Hugh Fresney (Lee Tracy), has broken his back in the crash and is immobile. The other, private detective Tim Slade (Don Castle), is pinned beneath the vehicle. Both are certain to drown as the high tide sweeps in. Helplessly awaiting their finish, Fresney and Slade reflect on the strange circumstances that brought them to this point.

Although lacking the bravura visual style of noir classics like Phantom Lady or Out of the Past, High Tide has the archetypal characters familiar to genre devotees: the sultry femme fatale, the cynical private eye, the hapless fall guy, the brutal crime boss, the scheming “big shot” cloaked in wealth and prominence. The narrative is well developed, although noir fans doubtless will figure out what’s going on long before Robert Presnell’s screenplay spells it all out. But this is a taut, compelling film, and one of the very few adapted from a non-series Black Mask yarn.

12:30 p.m. — THE SIN OF NORA MORAN (1933), 65 minutes.

Adapted from “Burnt Offering” (The Underworld, August-October 1930) and “The Woman in the Chair” (Complete Underworld Novelettes, Summer 1932) by Willis Maxwell Goodhue.

Nora Moran has an odd pedigree. Its plot was originally developed for a 1930 pulp novelette that the author, playwright Willis Maxwell Goodhue, subsequently used as the basis for a stage drama, The Woman in the Chair, making significant changes in the process. Then, using the play as inspiration, he composed a new prose version and sold it to another rough-paper magazine! Goodhue primarily wrote breezy comedies for the stage, and Nora Moran was not just his sole property adapted by Hollywood, but also his only melodrama.

Convicted of a murder she did not commit, Nora Moran (Zita Johann) is executed—the first woman in her state to die in the electric chair for 20 years. Her sad story unfolds in a series of flashbacks and hallucinatory interludes, with additional explanation provided by District Attorney John Grant (Alan Dinehart).

Sin of Nora Moran reached the screen as a vanity project undertaken by independent producer Phil Goldstone, who attended a performance of the Goodhue play and saw in it a potential showcase for actress Zita Johann (best known for her role in Boris Karloff’s 1932 horror hit The Mummy), with whom he was infatuated. Goldstone, a highly successful businessman, was best known in Hollywood as a money lender who supplied short-term loans to cash-strapped studios during the Great Depression’s darkest days. A dilettante filmmaker, he not only earned interest on his money but as a courtesy was loaned popular contract players for key roles in his Poverty Row productions. During principal photography Goldstone, infatuated with Johann, replaced original director Howard Christie after becoming convinced that the latter wasn’t effectively utilizing his stage-trained star.

Using the then-daring “narratage” technique—which relied on a series of non-chronological flashbacks knitted together by a narrator—the bizarre, morbid Nora Moran today is considered Poverty Row’s meisterwerk, a characterization we’re not prepared to refute. See it and judge for yourself.

1:45 p.m. — FAST AND LOOSE (1939), 80 minutes.

Adapted from “Fast and Loose” (Argosy, February 25-March 25, 1939) by Marco Page [Harry Kurnitz].

“Marco Page” was the pseudonym employed by critic and journalist Harry Kurnitz for his 1938 whodunit Fast Company, winner of that year’s “Red Badge Detective” contest sponsored by Dodd, Mead & Company. In addition to collecting the thousand-dollar prize, Kurnitz saw his first novel published by Dodd, Mead and quickly optioned by M-G-M, which rushed a film version into production. A murder mystery set in the rarified world of high-end bibliophiles, Fast Company had as its reluctant sleuths the rare-book dealer Joel Glass and his wise-cracking wife Garda. Metro, looking to duplicate the success of its popular “Thin Man” series, cast second-tier stars Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice in the leads, changing their characters’ surnames from Glass to Sloane.

While not exactly a runaway hit, the Fast Company movie did well enough to justify a sequel, so M-G-M commissioned Kurnitz to write one. In a concession previously granted pulp favorite Max Brand, then providing stories for the studio’s Dr. Kildare pictures, Kurnitz was allowed to sell a prose version of his screenplay to Argosy, which serialized “Fast and Loose” just as the resulting movie was playing its first-run engagements. Unlike the original novel, it never saw print in book form.

The sequel once again embroils Joel and Garda (now portrayed by Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell) in a bibliomurder, this one revolving around the theft and potential forgery of a Shakespeare manuscript. The dramatis personae include a shady millionaire, his wastrel son, his trusted broker, an eccentric supermarket tycoon, and a crooked nightclub owner.

The Kurnitz screenplay doesn’t quite reach the mark set by Fast Company. Nor can we honestly say that Montgomery and Russell match Douglas and Rice in their portrayal of the Sloanes. The first film’s stars were relaxed and breezy; the second’s somewhat less so. Their byplay seems forced and ever so slightly inauthentic. Nonetheless, Fast and Loose moves briskly and is a slick, entertaining programmer.

3:15 p.m. — THE SHADOW (1940), Chapters Eight through Fifteen, app. 160 minutes.

Partially adapted from the Shadow Magazine novels “The Green Hoods” (August 15, 1938), “Silver Skull” (January 1, 1939), “The Lone Tiger” (February 15, 1939), and the Shadow radio episode “Prelude to Terror” (January 29, 1939) by Maxwell Grant [Walter B. Gibson].

In these final eight episodes The Shadow’s struggle with the Black Tiger reaches a shattering climax—but not before there’s been plenty of laughs and fast-paced action.

Immediately following Saturday auction — CHEROKEE STRIP (1937), 56 minutes.

Adapted from “Cherokee Strip Stampeders” (New Western, October-November 1936) by Ed Earl Repp.

A burly, red-headed baritone from New Jersey, erstwhile band singer and radio vocalist Dick Foran played small roles in a handful of Fox films (including Shirley Temple’s first starring vehicle, Stand Up and Cheer) before signing a long-term contract with Warner Brothers in 1935. The studio had just decided to reenter the horse-opera market and was about to begin production on a low-budget oater titled The Boss of the Bar-B Ranch. But surprising audience reaction to a warbling Westerner named Gene Autry—seen in a 1934 Ken Maynard picture titled In Old Santa Fe and boosted to stardom in The Phantom Empire, a Western serial with science-fictional trappings—persuaded Warners to enter the singing-cowboy sweepstakes.

Boss of the Bar-B Ranch was retitled Moonlight on the Prairie and slightly rewritten to accommodate two songs performed by newly minted star Foran. Given better-than-average production mounting, Moonlight elicited generally favorable reviews and satisfied audiences. Foran’s acting left something to be desired, although his dime-novel dialogue and caricaturish Texas accent was partially to blame. In subsequent Westerns he delivered relaxed performances, although his robust vocal style always seemed more appropriate to the stage than to the sage.

Cherokee Strip, a reasonably faithful adaptation of Ed Earl Repp’s pulp novelette, has as its background the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and casts Foran as a frontier lawyer who comes to the aid of homesteaders being victimized by cattle rustlers. At a negative cost of approximately $99,000 it was by far the most expensive of the star’s 12 “B” Westerns, but also one of the most successful. The film’s box-office fortunes were heavily skewed by the surprise Hit Parade success of its featured song, “My Little Buckaroo.”

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