Tuesday, April 5, 2016

At the (old) movies: Chaney and Chan

Some notes from a mystery double feature presented by the local cinephile society:

In one special way, “Calling Dr. Death” (1943, Universal) is a rare film.

I don’t mean that it’s a film that for years was thought lost. Or that it’s a film of rare quality, for Lord knows it isn’t that.

“Calling Dr. Death” is a rare 1940s movie because one of its leading players is still with us.

I’m referring to Patricia Morison (note to any fellow copy editors out there: yes, there’s only one “r” in that last name), who plays Stella, assistant to Dr. Steel, who is played by Lon Chaney Jr.

Ms. Morison, I’m happy to say, last month celebrated her 101st birthday.

I mostly remember her as the villainess in Basil Rathbone’s last Sherlock Holmes film, “Dressed to Kill.” She later found more fame as a member of the original cast of “Kiss Me, Kate.”

“Calling Dr. Death,” directed by Reginald LeBorg, was the first in a series of “Inner Sanctum” mysteries produced by Universal. These movies were spin-offs of a radio show called “Inner Sanctum,” which was a weekly anthology of suspense plays, none of which were adapted for the movies.

The “Inner Sanctum” radio show began with one of the medium’s most famous sound effects: a slowly closing, creaking door that suddenly slams. Each radio drama was introduced by a narrator whose cheerful remarks were larded with so much campy gallows humor that you could almost feel the rope burns.

A year later, Columbia launched a series of B movies based on a similar radio show, “The Whistler.” These films, a few of them directed by a young William “House on Haunted Hill” Castle, hold up better than “Calling Dr. Death.” I haven’t seen the other Inner Sanctum movies, but I suspect that the folks at Columbia looked at them and figured out what not to do.

For some reason, the folks at Universal did not use (or weren’t allowed to use) the creaking-door sound. (Decades later, that effect was used to open each episode of the “CBS Radio Mystery Theater.”)

Instead, Universal came up with a different opening. We fade in on what looks like a library room. In the middle is a table. In the middle of the table is a big glass jar. In the jar is a distorted, dismembered head that introduces the movie.

I don’t know how “Calling Dr. Death” did at the box office, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the number crunching, that disembodied head had plenty of company.

Lon Chaney Jr. was known for playing characters who, like the Wolf Man, were caught in and tortured by circumstances not of their own making.

In this particularly tragic case, the circumstances are Edward Dein’s script and Mr. Chaney’s agent.

The script tells how Dr. Steel, who specializes in hypnosis, comes to believe that he has killed his unfaithful wife. He is dogged by a Columbo-style police detective played by J. Carrol Naish, an actor who was Irish and who was known for playing roles that capitalized on dialect humor. He played Charlie Chan on TV and the title role in “Life With Luigi,” a stupefyingly stereotypical radio show. When I was a kid, I first saw him as an Indian chief in a short-lived TV comedy called “Westward Ho.”

I don’t remember seeing Naish ever playing an Irish guy. (He’s also in the first “Whistler” movie, too.)

I can’t fault Chaney, but there’s not much good he – or anybody – can bring to a film that incorporates the worst of bad old-time radio, particularly the overwrought interior monologue, which we hear during a close-up of an (understandably) agonized Chaney.

When the plot is finally resolved and we’re finally told what was really going on, well, let’s just say it happened it bit too fast for me. Then again, it probably couldn’t have happened fast enough.

I must have seen the second feature,"Charlie Chan in Panama” (Fox, 1940), before; 40 years ago, one of the local TV stations used to run all the Chan films, then all the Rathbone Holmes films, so again, I should have been at least a little familiar with it.

So imagine my delight when the film got underway and I realized I had no memory of it. It was like watching a new Chan film, so I could play along and try to solve it as the great detective tried to stop a plot to blow up the Panama Canal.

One nice thing about the Chan films – including those I do remember seeing – is that most of the time the supporting cast consists of actors who are forgettable or whom I’ve seen so many times elsewhere that I forget whodunit anyway.

This film has its share of famous heavies – Jack LaRue and the often-employed Lionel Atwill, who also played Professor Moriarty. (I endured gum surgery many years ago, an experience not made any easier by the surgeon’s uncanny resemblance to Mr. Atwill. When the doc died, I was tempted to attend the wake just to make sure.)

The production values and direction (by Norman Foster) were solid, the film moved along likely, and the cluing (as we mystery writers call it) was fair, though right near the end I had a pretty good idea who the baddie was.

And, as you might have heard, the Panama Canal was not blown up.

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