Film Festival

Windy City 2017 Film Schedule

With the 2017 lineup we return to a varied program of obscure pulp-related movies, although a few of the films are at least tangentially related to this year’s theme of gangster pulps. We’ve salted the schedule with many seldom-seen movies based on rough-paper yarns by favorite authors, and are confident this year’s selection will have something for everybody.

Friday:

12:00 pm — The Call of the Savage, Chapters 1-6 (1935), app. 120 mins.

Adapted from “Jan of the Jungle” (serialized in Argosy, April 18—May 23, 1931) by Otis Adelbert Kline.

Noah Beery Jr. has the starring role as Kline’s youthful hero, raised by a female chimpanzee after her own baby dies. Kline’s plot machinations find 16-year-old Jan and his “mother” shipwrecked off the coast of Venezuela and moving inland to the jungle, where he encounters a Lemurian Princess and comes across the requisite lost race.

Universal’s screenwriters wander occasionally far afield from Kline’s novel, and Beery is too old and flabby to be convincing as a teenage boy hardened by life in the jungle. But the serial is quite entertaining and will please most viewers, especially those not familiar with the original story and therefore unlikely to pick nits with the scripters’ deviations from it.

02:15 pm — Blonde Inspiration (1941), 72 mins.

We normally run films adapted from stories published in pulp magazines. This M-G-M “B” picture represents a departure in that it’s not from a pulp, it’s about a pulp. Aspiring novelist Jonathan Briggs (John Shelton), hoping to sell short stories while laboring on his masterwork, is disappointed when the pulp magazine Smoky Trails returns three of his yarns apparently unread. He storms the New York office of publisher Phil Hendricks (Albert Dekker), who’s trying to sell the pulp but can’t because he’s in hock to his printer and his star writer, “Dusty” King (Donald Meek), has apparently gone on a bender. Phil’s secretary and girl friend, Margie Blake (Virginia Grey), is recruited to press Jonathan into service by having him write the upcoming issue’s lead story.

Based on an unproduced play titled Four Cents a Word, this low-budget comedy has some inside jokes about the industry that will ring true to knowledgable pulp fans and historians. It’s directed—quite sprightly—by legendary musical filmmaker Busby Berkeley. But don’t expect any musical numbers with leggy chorines.

03:30 pm — Burglar to the Rescue (1931), 22 mins. Adapted from “A Burglar to the Rescue” (Detective Story Magazine, November 1, 1930) by Herman Landon.

The first of six “Shadow Detective” featurettes released by Universal Pictures during the 1931-32 season, this is also the first motion picture to feature The Shadow.  But this is not the pulp Shadow created by Walter B. Gibson, it’s the radio Shadow created by Harry Charlot in the summer of 1930 for Detective Story Hour, the Street & Smith-sponsored program that dramatized yarns from the company’s Detective Story Magazine. (The same Herman Landon tale picturized here was also the subject of one of those broadcasts.) Filmed in Universal’s New York studio, this early talkie took advantage of stage actors accustomed to delivering dialogue. There are only four players in the story—Thurston Hall, Frank Shannon, Charlotte Wynters, and Arthur Aylesworth—but all four eventually settled in Hollywood and concentrated on movie work. Shannon has achieved an immortality of sorts for his portrayal of Dr. Zarkov in the three Flash Gordon serials (also Universal productions, by the way).

But perhaps the most historically significant aspect of Burglar to the Rescue is its casting of radio’s Shadow, Frank Readick, in the role he made famous. Since the Detective Story Hour broadcasts originated in New York, it was a simple matter for filmmakers to tailor their shooting schedule around his availability. The subsequent Shadow Detective featurettes were produced in Hollywood, where uncredited actors appeared in silhouette and gave voice to the character. None was remotely as effective as Readick.  While watching this film, remember that Readick’s voice was the one that made The Shadow a national sensation—and the one Walter Gibson described in his early novels.

04:00 pm — Chip of the Flying U (1926), 70 mins. Adapted from “Chip, of the Flying U” (The Popular Magazine, October 1904) by B. M. Bower.

Perhaps the most famous of the many Western novels written by Bertha Muzzy Sinclair as B. M. Bower, Chip had already been brought to the screen (in 1914, with not-yet-famous Tom Mix in the title role), as had some of its sequels, when Universal’s resident Western star, Hoot Gibson, starred in this remake. The Hooter was extremely popular at this time, his starring vehicles often turned out with “A”-movie production values.

This is not a shoot-’em-up sort of Western; it’s more of a light romantic comedy in the accepted Gibson manner. Chip Bennett (Gibson) of the Flying U Ranch, though a confirmed misogynist, falls in love with Dr. Della Whitmore (Virginia Browne Faire),  sister of the rancher for whom Chip works. In order to be near her, he fakes an accident and claims to have a damaged ankle. The two fall in love, and Della submits several of Chip’s highly accomplished cartoons to a receptive publisher. She later discovers the ranch hand’s deception, however, and complications ensue. This is a lively little picture that amply displays the charisma that made Gibson such a favorite of Roaring Twenties moviegoers.

Immediately Following Auction — The Return of Doctor X (1939), 62 mins. Adapted from “The Doctor’s Secret” (Detective Fiction Weekly, July 30, 1938) by William J. Makin. Over the years we’ve been requested many times to repeat this entertaining Warner Brothers “B” picture, originally included in our 2003 film program.  Since we’re not exclusively devoting our 2017 lineup to a theme, this year finally gives us that opportunity.

Makin’s story deals with a doctor who perfects synthetic blood, which is used to keep a killer alive. Warners’ “B”-unit ramrod Bryan Foy hired screenwriter Lee Katz to adapt the yarn, and the picture was assigned to former scripter and dialogue coach Vincent Sherman for his directorial debut. Retitled The Return of Doctor X to establish a tenuous connection with the studio’s 1932 horror hit Dr. X, it was rushed into production during May of 1939. The role of the killer—whose sinister countenance was enhanced with a wee bit too much white makeup—went to contract player Humphrey Bogart, for whom real stardom was still a couple years away. Reportedly, he was ordered to take the part as punishment for some previous display of recalcitrance. Bogie complied, but hated the assignment and considered the film one of his worst. He was a bit unfair: it’s actually a fast-moving romp that does justice to its source.

Saturday:

10:00 am — The Call of the Savage, Chapters 7-12 (1935), app. 120 mins. Adapted from “Jan of the Jungle” (serialized in Argosy, April 18—May 23, 1931) by Otis Adelbert Kline.

The serial’s second half takes place mostly in and around the lost city.  The pace picks up and the plot draws to an eminently satisfying conclusion.

12:15 pm — Alibi for Murder (1936), 59 mins. Adapted from “Body Snatcher” (Black Mask, February 1936) by Theodore Tinsley.

Columbia Pictures made four “B” mysteries from the Jerry Tracy stories written by Theodore Tinsley for Black Mask. We ran the first and third, Panic on the Air and Murder Is News, a number of years back. The second, Alibi for Murder, is like the inaugural series entry in that Tracy’s name is changed for no apparent reason. He’s called Perry Travis in this one. William Gargan plays him in the stereotypical demon-reporter fashion of Thirties movies.

Disembarking from the dirigible Hindenburg in New Jersey is famous but reclusive Nobel Prize-winning scientist John J. Foster (William Worthington). Radio reporter Perry Travis follows Foster’s secretary, Lois Allen (Marguerite Churchill), hoping to get an interview with her distinguished boss. Perry arrives uninvited at Foster’s Long Island mansion just as a shot rings out. The scientist is found dead at his desk, and Travis calls the police before scooping his competitors by rushing the story onto the air. Trying to ferret out the murderer, Perry uncovers a criminal conspiracy with frightening potential consequences. During the heyday of double features, Hollywood ground out such movies like sausages, and this one is great fun.

01:30 pm — Lady in the Death House (1944), 56 mins. Adapted from “Meet the Executioner” (Detective Tales, June 1942) by Frederick C. Davis.

Given his productivity, it’s amazing that Frederick C. Davis didn’t sell more of his pulp yarns to Hollywood; Lady in the Death House was the third of only three feature films adapted from his stories. Notwithstanding its Poverty Row origin, the picture is rather offbeat and quite effective, notably giving sympathetic roles to two male actors best known as cinematic “heavies.”

In her prison cell, as she awaits the hour of her execution, Mary Kirk Logan (Jean Parker) pens a letter to her friend, the eminent criminologist Charles Finch (Lionel Atwill). When news of the letter leaks out, reporters flock to Finch’s office to learn its contents. To appease the reporters, Finch recalls his first encounter with Mary in a flashback that consumes most of the movie: One night, at the bar of the Grotto Club, Finch meets Dr. Dwight “Brad” Bradley (Douglas Fowley), a research physician who has been forced to support himself by working as an executioner at the prison. The two men come to Mary’s aid and Brad falls in love with her. But the young woman, later implicated in a murder, is tried and convicted. And now her fiance is faced with the possibility that he might have to execute her!

02:45 pm — The Bar 20 Rides Again (1935), 62 mins. Adapted from “Bar 20 Rides Again” (serialized in Short Stories, May 10—June 10, 1926; abridged as “Snake Buttes” in Real Western, January 1935) by Clarence E. Mulford.

Most of the 66 Hopalong Cassidy feature films were made from original screenplays, and even many of those ostensibly based on Clarence E. Mulford’s novels took little from their pulp-page sources. Bar 20 Rides Again, the third series entry, is a relatively faithful adaptation of the original novel with one major caveat: The movie has Hoppy impersonating a dude gambler who infiltrates a gang of rustlers and surreptitiously foments chaos. In the Mulford original, that function was undertaken by Tex Ewalt, a real gambler who had once run afoul of Cassidy but was later considered an invaluable ally to the Bar 20 boys.

The early Hopalong Cassidy films were not as kid-friendly as later series installments and the 1950s TV program. They’re considerably more gritty and violent; when Hoppy shoots as someone, he shoots to kill. They’re also heavier on plot and atmosphere, with action arising organically from the narratives rather than being dragged in without motivation just to give viewers a thrill. Bar 20 Rides Again is no exception. By the way, this film introduced George Hayes as grizzled sidekick “Windy Halliday”—a character not found in Mulford’s oeuvre, but one that helped make the Hoppy films the most successful of their kind during the mid and late Thirties.

04:00 pm — Gambling Ship (1933), 72 mins. Adapted from “Fast One” (Black Mask, March 1932), “Lead Party” (BM, April ’32), “Velvet” (BM, June ’32), and “The Heat” (BM, August ’32) by Paul Cain.

Long considered the hardest of the hard-boiled novels that originated in the pages of Black Mask, Paul Cain’s Fast One collected five linked novelettes chronicling the exploits of Gerry Kells, a New York “enforcer” who quits the rackets to move west for a good time. Caught up in Los Angeles mob intrigue and framed for murder, Kells will need all his nerve and toughness to fight back and get revenge.

Paramount Pictures bought screen rights—interestingly—to four of the five novelettes, rather than the novel as published by Doubleday. This is significant for reasons that will become apparent to Fast One readers after they’ve seen the movie. It was designed as a vehicle for the studio’s promising new actor, Cary Grant, not yet typecast in the sophisticated comedies for which he would become best known. Cain’s original was mangled in translation from pulp page to silver screen, but the picture—long unavailable—is well worth seeing.

After being acquitted of murder charges for which he was framed by Pete Manning (Jack LaRue), suave Chicago gangster Ace Corbin (Grant) decides to reform and begin a new life in California. On the train he falls in love with gambler’s moll Eleanor La Velle (Benita Hume), but both conceal their true identities and adopt aliases. In Southern California, Eleanor discovers that her lover, Joe Burke (Arthur Vinton), owner of the Casino Del Mar steamer, operating legally off the harbor outside the three-mile limit, is heavily in debt because Manning’s thugs are deliberating ruining his business. Corbin decides to take a hand.

Immediately Following Auction — Pursuit (1935), 60 mins. Adapted from “Gallant Highway” (Street & Smith’s Complete Magazine, May 1935) by Lawrence G. Blochman.

Not among the authors typically collected by pulp-fiction aficionados, Blochman was quite a good writer who regularly sold such major markets as Argosy, Adventure, Short Stories, Complete Stories, and The Popular Magazine. He’s mainly remembered—if at all—for his mysteries featuring Inspector Leonidas Prike. (We ran the 1934 film version of a Prike whodunit, Bombay Mail, a number of years ago.) While adapted from one of Blochman’s lesser efforts, Pursuit is a slick, fast-moving M-G-M “B” with excellent production values and a sturdy cast.

Newly widowed actress Ann McCoy (Dorothy Peterson) fears she will lose her young son Donald (Scotty Beckett) to wealthy relatives in an upcoming court battle. To prevent this from happening, she hires private detective Nick Shawn (C. Henry Gordon) to spirit the boy to Mexico, where she intends to rendezvous with him. Shawn assigns Maxine Bush (Sally Eilers) to whisk Donald away, and in turn she tries hiring a tough pilot named Mitchell (Chester Morris), who has experience flying dangerous missions. He balks at participating in what he believes to be a brazen kidnapping, but due to circumstances beyond his control the pilot becomes embroiled in the scheme.

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