Film Festival Highlights 2011

Windy City 2011 Film Schedule

In keeping with the theme of this year’s convention, all but one of our 2011 films have been adapted from Dime Detective or other Popular Publications pulps.


12:00 pm: Lady Chaser (1946 Producers Releasing Corporation). 58 mins.
G. T. Fleming-Roberts was one of many prolific pulp scribes who, notwithstanding their success in rough-paper magazines, failed to make much of a dent on Hollywood. This low-budget mystery represented Fleming-Roberts’ only sale to the movies. Adapted from “Lady Killer” (Detective Tales, July 1945), it’s the story of Dorian Westmore (Inez Cooper), who inadvertently gives a poisoned aspirin to her wealthy uncle. When the old gent dies as a result, Dorian is subsequently tried and convicted of murder. Her fiancé, Peter Kane (Robert Lowery), vows to prove her innocence but runs into trouble at every step of the way. Hardly a classic movie—in fact, in some respects it’s just barely competent—Lady Chaser effectively captures the flavor of Fleming-Roberts’ original.

1:30 pm: Hands Across the Rockies (1941 Columbia Pictures). 56 mins.
Scripter Paul Franklin jumped through hoops to make “A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain,” written by Norbert Davis for the October 1940 issue of Dime Western, a suitable addition to the Wild Bill Hickok series of “B” Westerns starring Gordon “Wild Bill” Elliott, and he didn’t entirely succeed. He incorporated most of the yarn’s lengthy courtroom scene, but Saturday-matinee audiences probably didn’t cotton to all that talk. Nonetheless, Hands is a fascinating example of pulp-story adaptation. Elliott breezes through the piece with his customary efficiency and sidekick Dub Taylor, substituting for the trigger-happy old timer in Davis’ original, is less annoying than usual. Kenneth MacDonald, a familiar face in Columbia’s “B” Westerns, serials, and Three Stooges shorts, contributes his usual devilment as a particularly ruthless villain.

3:00 pm: Dangerous Lady (1941 Producers Releasing Corporation). 63 mins.
Based on Leslie T. White’s “Corpse Crazy” from the November 1937 Dime Detective, this Poverty Row whodunit features two of the magazine’s lesser series characters, private eye Duke Martindel and his lawyer wife Phyllis. They become advocates working on behalf of a young woman named Leila Bostwick, who has been framed for the murder of a judge. In trying to untangle the twisted threads of the case, Duke and Phyllis run into numerous shady characters and find their own lives endangered.  The film’s screenwriters desperately and somewhat futilely try to recast the Martindels as The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles, but Dangerous Lady’s convoluted script isn’t anywhere near as snappy as those provided William Powell and Myrna Loy over at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and PRC’s production values can charitably be described as threadbare at best. Still, the movie is great fun and boasts a supporting cast that includes such silent- and early-talkie favorites as Evelyn Brent, Greta Granstedt, and Kenneth Harlan. The Martindels are played by Neil Hamilton (later Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV series) and June Storey (best known as Gene Autry’s leading lady in a slew of musical Westerns).

4:30 pm: Gun Lords of Stirrup Basin (1937 Republic Pictures). 53 mins.
Adapted from the Harry F. Olmsted story of the same title published in the September 1935 issue of Star Western, this Bob Steele starrer is one of the better “B” oaters featuring the bantam buckaroo. It’s a horse-opera variation on Romeo and Juliet (with some of Zane Grey’s To the Last Man thrown in for good measure) in which Steele’s Dan Stockton tries to end the feud between his cattleman father (Frank Ball) and the homesteader (Frank La Rue) whose daughter Gail (Louise Stanley) is Dan’s sweetheart. For his trouble the young rancher is driven from his home and caught between two fires. A. W. Hackel’s production is inexpensively mounted, but Olmsted’s original story—translated to celluloid with reasonable fidelity—is strong enough to transcend the typical narrative banalities and weaknesses of such cheapies.

Post-Auction: A Lawman Is Born (1937 Republic Pictures). 53 mins.
Producer A. W. Hackel, who shuttered his Supreme Pictures Corporation in 1936 to make inexpensive “B” Westerns for Republic release, licensed a number of pulp yarns from such Popular Publications regulars as Harry F. Olmsted, Walt Coburn, and E. B. Mann. In so doing he ensured that his scriptwriters would have stronger-than-usual original stories from which to work, rather than mindless, cliché-ridden rehashes of earlier Westerns. Olmsted’s “Lawman,” which saw print in the May 1936 issue of Star Western, revolves around hired gunman Tom Mitchell (Johnny Mack Brown), who inserts himself into a range war between large ranchers and small. After his sheriff friend is cut down by an assassin’s bullet, revenge-minded Tom is elected to wear the star and reluctantly promises lady friend Beth Graham (Iris Meredith) that henceforth he’ll only kill in self-defense. We’ve never shown a Johnny Mack Brown film at the Windy City show, but he was a major cowboy star, top-lining more than a hundred Westerns in a 20-year period.


10 am: Lady in the Death House (1944 Producers Releasing Corporation). 56 mins.
Another top pulp author who had limited success licensing film rights to his stories, Frederick C. Davis saw just three of his thrillers adapted for the screen. Lady in the Death House, the third and last to be released, was based on “Meet the Executioner,” an unusual yarn published in the June 1942 issue of Detective Tales. An early exercise in what would shortly be identified as film noir, this PRC picture stars Jean Parker as Mary Kirk, a young woman who confronts a blackmailer in her home and is accused of murder when his dead body is subsequently found. Her two champions are her boyfriend, Dr. Dwight Bradford (Douglas Fowley), and psychologist/criminologist Charles Finch (Lionel Atwill). There are several unusual elements to this little chiller, not the least of which is that Fowley’s character also happens to be the state executioner and, beyond that, a medical researcher who hopes to discover a means of reanimating dead bodies. Tighter scripting and a gifted director might have made Lady in the Death House a bonafide classic, but even as is it’s worth a look-see.

11:30 am: Ticket to a Crime (1934 Beacon Productions). 67 mins.
Sadly, Carroll John Daly’s most famous series characters, Race Williams and Satan Hall, never made it to the silver screen, and this independent “B” mystery remains his only screen credit. Based on “Ticket to Murder,” published in Dime Detective’s October 1, 1934 number, it features private detective Clay Holt, who logged a bare handful of appearances in the magazine. The movie stars Ralph Graves, a comedy star during the late silent era and, briefly, a matinee idol of early talkies. A heavy drinker who sabotaged his own career, Graves plays Holt with the somnambulistic insouciance that became his trademark once he found himself relegated to work in Poverty Row cheapies. Ticket to a Crime opens with Holt receiving his first case in weeks. Unfortunately, his client is murdered that night at a swank dinner party where a valuable pearl necklace vanishes. Lewis B. Collins directs leadenly, and he’s not given much help by film editors Roy Luby and Holbrook Todd. A faster pace and tightening of the narrative would have helped the picture considerably, but Ticket merits screening because it faithfully adapts the original story.

1:00 pm: Mistress of Atlantis (1932 German/English production). 81 mins.
By rights, we should have run this film last year because it fit with the theme of our 2010 con. Based on Pierre Benoit’s classic novel L’Atlantide—originally published in America in the pages of Adventure—this unusual lost-race tale depicts an Atlantis that survives beneath the Sahara desert and is ruled by the beautiful but cruel Antinea (Brigitte Helm, who played both the virginal Maria and the seductive robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). A lost French Foreign Legionnaire (John Stuart) stumbles onto the city’s secret entrance and becomes the queen’s new favorite—a honor that does not necessarily bode well to its recipients. Directed by G. W. Pabst, whose classic films also include the Louise Brooks silents Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, this adaptation of L’Atlantide captures the essence of Benoit’s novel and, despite its deliberate pace, makes for compelling viewing.

2:30 pm: The Lady and the Monster
 (1944 Republic Pictures). 86 mins.
Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain is well known to horror and science-fiction fans, largely as a result of the 1953 and 1962 movie versions. Most devotees, however, are unaware that Siodmak’s novel was serialized in the Popular-published Black Mask prior to issuance in hard covers by Knopf, and that it was first adapted to the screen by Republic Pictures, best known at the time for its “B” Westerns, cliffhanger serials, and John Wayne spectaculars. In some ways, Lady and the Monster is the most effective film version of Donovan’s Brain. Silent-screen heartthrob Richard Arlen turns in a great performance as Dr. Patrick Cory, the young scientist who keeps alive the brain of a recently deceased millionaire who telepathically directs him to commit acts of vengeance. Vera Hruba Ralston, the former ice-skating champion and girl friend of Republic president Herbert Yates, doesn’t register particularly well as Cory’s love interest, but Erich von Stroheim (once billed as “the man you love to hate”) shines as the doctor’s sinister assistant. Director George Sherman, a graduate of the studio’s “B”-picture unit, shows himself to be a capable helmer of bigger-budget movies, but the real credit for this film’s eerie atmosphere goes to cinematographer John Alton, on the verge of perfecting the stark, shadowy look that would come to be accepted as the trademark of film noir.

4:00 pm: Mysterious Crossing (1936 Universal Pictures). 57 mins.
We are extremely happy to present this long-lost “B” mystery, adapted from Fred MacIsaac’s “Murder on the Mississippi” in the December 1935 issue of Dime Detective. While crossing a Mississippi River ferry by night, the Rambler—aka roving reporter Addison Francis Murphy—witnesses a struggle that culminates in two men pitching overboard. When one of them turns out to be a wealthy businessman, the Rambler’s professional curiosity is aroused and he sets out to solve the mystery. Murphy (who, by the way, is never referred to as the Rambler on screen) is played by James Dunn, a specialist in light-hearted roles. The Arthur Lubin-directed film gives him a sidekick in gravel-voiced Andy Devine and a beautiful ingénue in Jean Rogers, who had recently appeared in the first Flash Gordon serial. Owing to the expiration of Universal’s rights to MacIsaac’s story, Mysterious Crossing was neither theatrically reissued nor made able in 16mm to the non-theatrical market. A few prints were struck for TV syndication in the mid 1950s when Universal licensed a large group of its films to Screen Gems, but the legal department put the kibosh on their inclusion and hurriedly withdrew the prints from circulation.

Post-Auction: The Return of Wild Bill (1940 Columbia Pictures). 59 mins.
First shown at the 2003 Windy City Pulp & Paper Convention, Return of Wild Bill was scheduled to be repeated in 2008 but had to be canceled when our specially made DVD copy of the picture—mastered from a 35mm print just for us—failed to arrive at the hotel in time. Perhaps that’s just as well, because as an adaptation of a Popular Publications pulp story it’s better suited for this year’s program. Based on Walt Coburn’s “The Block K Rides Tonight” (Star Western, July 1939) and directed by cult favorite Joseph H. Lewis, Return features Gordon “Will Bill” Elliott as the son of a small rancher slain by self-appointed vigilantes after being framed for the murder of a neighboring cowman. Heavier on characterization than the typical “B” Western, this neatly turned out oater makes significant alterations to Coburn’s plot but retains its flavor and incorporates its best dialogue. The nominal leading lady is Iris Meredith (perhaps best known by pulp fans as Nita Van Sloan in the first Spider serial), but her performance is eclipsed by that of Luana Walters, who shines as “bad girl” Kate Kilgore, sister of the sibling villains.

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