June 2, 2024

A Trip Down Monster Kid Memory Lane with Roger Corman

The great Roger Corman, master of the quick and cheap exploitation picture, producer and distributor of hundreds of films, and mentor to a whole generation of influential filmmakers and actors, passed away on May 9th of this year at the age of 98.

Roger Corman on the set of The Trip (1967; Wikimedia Commons)

Rather than duplicate a career summary that you can get in a thousand different places on the web, I thought I’d honor Roger by reminiscing about his influence on this particular Monster Kid growing up in the midwest in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

I’ve told this story before, so bear with me if it feels like a case of deja vu all over again. Living in central Iowa in the mid-‘60s was Monster Kid Heaven. On Friday nights, one of the Des Moines TV stations ran sci-fi movies, introducing me to such thrilling delights as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and the like (there were also duds like Teenage Monster or Giant from the Unknown, but being a resilient kid, I took the bad with good and was grateful that my ever-suffering parents allowed me to stay up to watch this stuff at all).

Then on Saturday nights, my local station presented Gravesend Manor, which was hosted by the wacky ensemble cast of Malcolm, the butler of the manor, his vampire buddy the Duke, cigar-chomping Esmeralda, and Claude, the mute, put-upon assistant. Gravesend Manor was the icing on the weekend monster cake, showing selections from the Shock Theater package featuring the classic Universal monsters, with a few non-horror mysteries and thrillers thrown in (it was always a letdown when the familiar monsters failed to make an appearance, but on the up-side, anticipation would then build for the next week).

To say the least, the one-two, Friday-Saturday punch of sci-fi thrills and Universal monster chills made a deep mark on my very impressionable mind. After all, here I am, decades upon decades later, and I’m still revisiting these films and posting about them.

Newspaper ad from The Courier-Journal, June 9, 1957, Page 78, via Newspapers.com

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Roger Corman (and to give credit where it’s due, frequent writing collaborator Charles B. Griffith) had crept into my young head and were occupying it every bit as much as my beloved Universal monsters. I’d be lying to say I was impressed with every Corman film that showed up on Friday nights. I wouldn’t become familiar with the term “production values” until much later, but I knew cheap when I saw it.

These weren’t what you'd call polished pictures, but they still made an impression. For instance, the giant mutated crabs of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), with their lidded googly eyes and frowny faces, look like live-action cartoons. But there’s something very un-cartoony about the premise of giant irradiated crabs not only consuming human beings, but absorbing their consciousness and using that ability to lure more unsuspecting human prey into their maws (or whatever it is crabs eat with).

Okay, so giant crabs throwing their voices like ventriloquists, imitating the people they just ate for lunch is ridiculous on its face, but also creepy as hell. And then there’s the other doom facing the scientists -- the island they’re stranded on is quickly breaking up and falling into the sea. Even though the idea is wacky in the extreme, it still somehow resonated.

“The Most Terrifying Horror Ever Loosed on a Shuddering Earth!”

“A horror film has got to have something in every single scene, so the audience never has a chance to sit back for more than a moment. These films are constructed very carefully -- you do have to give people a few moments to relax and then come back into it. My main goal in Crab Monsters was to integrate tension into each scene, leading to the horror conclusion.” -- Roger Corman, The Movie World of Roger Corman (edited by J. Philip di Franco, Chelsea House, 1979)

Speaking of approaching Doom, it was Roger Corman who introduced 10-year-old me to the Apocalyptic variety via Last Woman on Earth (1960), an ultra-cheap fantasy-melodrama featuring a fatal love triangle between end-of-the-world survivors Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone and future Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (who, in addition to writing, took acting gigs while he was still getting his feet wet in Hollywood).

I know, I know -- what in the world was a 10 year old boy doing watching something like that? Well, it was on one of those precious late-night creature shows, and in the olden days before video on demand, you took what they gave you and liked it.

“Liked” is maybe too strong a word in the case of Last Woman. Compared to all-out nuclear war resulting in a decimated earth filled with irradiated mutants, Last Woman’s apocalypse is almost gentle -- the trio had been scuba diving in Puerto Rico when a mysterious event depleted all the oxygen in the atmosphere just long enough to kill off everyone not breathing through some sort of gear. The film is a mostly slow-moving affair, with the survivors wandering around, bickering among themselves until the inevitable climactic blow-up.

This was a guaranteed snoozer for a prepubescent Monster Kid, with one exception. As the trio is walking through the streets of San Juan wondering what the hell happened, they encounter the body of a little girl lying like a large rag doll on the sidewalk. Needless to say, this got my attention, since one of the great unwritten rules of film violence is that adults are fair game, but kids and dogs are not. Disturbing as it was (especially as I wasn’t much older than the girl), this scene made the film Memorable, and automatically exempted it from the mental Dud pile.

“On an island of tropical splendor, these three must make their own world, their own new code of morals...”

A definite Dud (at least at the time) was the other film Corman made while shooting down in Puerto Rico, Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). (Roger wanted the most bang for his buck when he invested in location shooting, so he was always looking to get an additional movie out of the deal.)

Featuring the same acting trio as Last Woman, Corman’s Creature is a comedy-horror mash-up about an American gangster who agrees to transport the deposed officials of a Caribbean banana republic to a safe harbor, but secretly plans to relieve them of their lives and treasure while blaming everything on a made-up sea monster.

Some of the comedy bits are cringey even for a 10-year-old, and the monster is comically cheap-looking, literally made from random household items. But screenwriter Charles Griffith’s premise is clever and adult for a cheap drive-in flick, and there are some wry comic moments to reward those who can look past its faults (see my full review here).

“It’s alright, be calm everybody, the boat’s insured!”

Much more in line with my Monster Kid sensibilities was Day the World Ended (1955), which was set in a more traditional apocalyptic post-nuclear war landscape, featuring a band of quarreling survivors threatened by a single (and singular) irradiated mutant (others are hinted at, but the budget apparently could only bear the cost of one monster suit).

Marty the Mutant, as the creature would come to be affectionately dubbed, was the creation of Paul Blaisdell, an independent effects artist who was highly ingenious and economical, and the go-to guy for several of Corman’s 50’s creatures. (Paul also saved costs by wearing the suit himself.)

Marty is positively demonic-looking, with pointed bat-like ears, horns growing out of his head, and three eyes (you scoff, but are you absolutely sure radiation from a nuclear war wouldn’t produce a Marty or two?). Marty’s evil looks are interesting enough, but he’s also somewhat sympathetic, with a psychic connection to one of the normie survivors that puts him a grade above the typical ‘50s B monster.

“The Screen’s New High in Naked, Screaming Terror!”

But the ultimate Corman-Blaisdell creature collaboration was Beulah, the squat, fierce-looking Venusian vegetable monster from It Conquered the World (1956). Beulah didn't quite achieve the lofty goal of the title mainly because, for budgetary reasons, she tried the conquering thing all by herself.

Although she may not look it to the untrained eye, Beulah was the Corman-Blaisdell team’s highest-concept creature. Corman and Blaisdell reasoned that in such an alien environment as Venus’, vegetables rather than animals might have reached the highest stage of sentient being. That alone wasn’t groundbreaking, given that the humanoid alien in The Thing from Another World (1951) was supposed to be an ambulatory vegetable.

Blaisdell took it a step farther with the idea that any kind of humanoid would be crushed by Venus’ atmospheric pressure (not to mention melted by the heat, but we digress), so natural selection would favor some other form of body type. And so, the squat, conical would-be conqueror Beulah was born. Once again, Blaisdell wore the suit himself (which was more like a small parade float with moveable arms than a suit).

Like many such other slow-moving menaces, would-be victims had to almost throw themselves at the creature, but there’s no denying that Beulah is unique in the annals of B sci-fi. (For more on Beulah, click here.)

“The Most Terrifying Monster the Mind of Man Can Conceive!”

“The first day we were shooting [It Conquered the World], I took the creature out. Beverly Garland, the leading lady, went over and looked at the creature. Standing over it, she said, ‘So you’ve come to conquer the world, eh? Take that!' and she kicked it.” -- The Movie World of Roger Corman

(I love that these creatures have nicknames.While they don’t represent the height of creature effects even for the time, they are wackily idiosyncratic with their exaggerated, frowning monster faces, and a refreshing change from all the giant insects and various other enlarged monsters that proliferated during the decade.)

This post wouldn’t be complete without addressing one other solitary invader from the ‘50s Corman archive. A year after Beulah failed to conquer the world, Corman had another alien set up shop in Southern California. Although he was Not of This Earth, Paul Johnson (Paul Birch) could definitely pass for human by covering up his cloudy, all-white eyes with dark glasses. Lacking a creature like Beulah, Not of This Earth (1957) had to compensate with some other-worldly ideas.

Johnson, looking like the original Man in Black, is an alien from the planet Davana who has come to Earth in search of uncontaminated blood (it seems his people have been sickened with blood disease as the result of a nuclear war.) To aid in his mission, Johnson has a matter transporter and holographic communicator installed in a closet (!) of his comfortable ranch-style home.

Posing as a man with a mysterious blood disease, Johnson enlists the unwitting aid of a doctor and nurse (Beverly Garland) to receive regular blood transfusions. The stakes couldn’t be higher: if the transfusions work, Johnson’s home planet will invade and subjugate the earth for access to healthy human blood. If they don’t, the earth will be destroyed.

I confess I was not too impressed with the movie the first go-round. It was slow moving and talky, and the alien menace, despite the disturbing eyes, was just a doughy middle-aged man in black (Johnny Cash he was not). However, a couple of scenes kept me from falling asleep.

In the first, Johnson is perturbed by a vacuum cleaner salesman who shows up on his doorstep (played by Corman mainstay Dick Miller). Sensing an opportunity, the alien invites the man down to the cellar for a demonstration of the product. Blathering away as he tries to make a sale, Miller’s character belatedly senses something’s not right, takes a look at Johnson’s featureless eyes, does a double-take, then looks forlornly at the camera for a brief moment before being dispatched by the space vampire.

This was my introduction to breaking the fourth wall, and it's a perfect example of the black humor that peppered Corman’s films and made even pre-pubescent Monster Kids like me sit up and take notice.

“Look buddy, let me have five minutes of your time in your own cellar, and I’ll prove to you that this little baby can do what no other vacuum cleaner in the world can do!”

Another sit-up-and-take-notice moment comes later when Johnson has been exposed as an alien invader. Deciding that he’s done with the doctor, the alien dispatches a flying, umbrella-like creature that wraps itself around the victim’s head and, well, maybe it’s best not to use your imagination.

The creature is a creepy forerunner of Alien’s infamous face-hugger. While this and the Dick Miller bit weren’t quite enough to redeem the film for me that first time, subsequent viewings revealed a wryly subtle take on mid-century American paranoia and strange agents hiding in plain sight in sunny Suburbia.

Whether the film hooked viewers the first time, or, as in my case, required repeat viewing to appreciate, it certainly has had an outsized impact for an early Corman exploitation flick, having been remade twice (most famously in 1988 with Traci Lords in the Beverly Garland role).

The ultimate Roger Corman cheapie that rewards repeat viewings is of course The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which, appropriately enough, also enjoys the biggest cult reputation of all -- much of it due to its resurrection via a Broadway musical and a big budget remake.

This tale of a nerdy flower shop employee and his co-dependent relationship with a man-eating plant was made in a couple of days on a next-to-nothing budget. Full of ad-libbed dialog and seemingly ad-libbed sight gags, Little Shop is perhaps one of the unlikelier cult hits in cinematic history. Somehow, scenes that by themselves might seem sophomoric or forced -- like a duel to the death with dentist’s tools -- come together in a surreal package that has something for everyone (well, almost everyone).

It’s as if the super-accelerated production got the casts’ adrenaline going and brought out everyone’s best. There are physical bits and sight gags for Stooges fans and puns and malapropisms for the more verbally oriented (enough that it takes several viewings to fully take it all in). It’s hard not to like something about it.

Still, Little Shop was an unlikely attraction for a Monster Kid weaned on the more dignified Universal Monsters, but I was thrilled whenever it played on one of my creature features.

“Where a talking, man-eating plant gives Homicide something to think about!”

“If Bucket [A Bucket of Blood, 1960] and Little Shop, two of the cheapest films I ever directed myself, look like they were made on a bet, they pretty much were. In the middle of 1959, when AIP wanted me to make a horror film but had only $50,000 available I felt it was time to take a risk, do something fairly outrageous. I shot Bucket on only a few sets in five days. When the film worked well, I did Little Shop in two days on a leftover set just to beat my speed record.” -- Roger Corman (with Jim Jerome), How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1998, p. 62

Roger Corman inevitably graduated to bigger and better things, starting with the elegant Poe films he made with Vincent Price for American International Pictures. The man never stopped working, producing hundreds of films over the decades -- and as if that wasn’t enough, he somehow found time to do cameo appearances in some of his former mentees’ pictures.

But none of those achievements will ever fully eclipse the wonderfully quirky cheapies from the early years.They weren’t great films, but they invariably turned a profit, and Corman gained the kind of experience and smarts that money (especially bloated Hollywood budgets) can’t buy. But best of all, he created indelible memories for a whole generation of monster-loving kids.

May 14, 2024

Fate Opens The File on Thelma Jordon

Poster - The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
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The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)

Pros: A good, mid-level effort that represents a sort of watershed in Barbara Stanwyck’s noir career; Features a relatable “everyman” in Wendell Corey
Cons: A head-slapper of an ending that manages to be both brutal and cloyingly sentimental

This post is part of the It’s in the Name of the Title Blogathon, hosted by two big names in movie blogging, Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Rebecca at Taking Up Room. Gill and Rebecca tasked their fellow bloggers with reviewing a movie in which a character’s name (first, last or full) appears in the title; for more contributions, see either or both of the hosts’ blogs.

Speaking of big names, there weren’t many that were bigger in the classic era of screen entertainment than Barbara Stanwyck. From the risque pre-Code talkies in which she played plucky women of questionable virtue, to TV dramas like The Big Valley where she portrayed tough-as-nails matriarchs, Stanwyck blazed her own distinctive cinematic trail, eventually garnering four Best Actress Academy Award nominations, an honorary Oscar, three primetime Emmys and a multitude of lifetime achievement awards, among other honors

A rundown of Stanwyck’s title roles alone demonstrates the depth and variety of her career: as Mexicali Rose (1929) she’s a “loose” woman who likes to use men; as Annie Oakley (1935) she can do anything a man can do, and better; as harried, working class Stella Dallas (1937), she would do anything to help her daughter get ahead in life; as The Mad Miss Manton (1938), she’s a fun-loving debutante who proves to be more adept at discovering clues than the police; as Martha Ivers (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946), she’s an intimidating business woman with a dark secret; and as Mrs.Carroll (The Two Mrs. Carrolls, 1947), she’s the new wife of a tortured artist who may or may not be utterly mad.

Stanwyck reached her noir femme-fatale peak as cold-as-ice Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944). But as the war years receded and America settled down into a dull but comfortable suburban existence, Stanwyck’s screen image shifted. The noir roles were still there, but she was just as likely to be on the receiving end of dark designs as not.

Screenshot - Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)
Fred was sorry that he wasn't double indemnified against laser death stares.

Only a year after her dicey stint as the second Mrs. Carroll, Stanwyck was again in peril in Sorry, Wrong Number, portraying an invalid, Leona Stevenson, who inadvertently overhears a murder plot from her bedroom phone.

The difference between calculating Phyllis Dietrichson and panicky, bed-ridden Leona couldn’t be more stark, yet when Thelma Jordon rolled around in 1949, Stanwyck’s crime drama roles -- both as the Femme Fatale and the Suffering Woman -- were starting to get on her nerves:

“‘My God, isn’t there a good comedy around?’ [Stanwyck] asked at the time. ‘I’m tired of suffering in films. And I’ve killed so many co-stars lately, I’m getting a power complex!” [Quoted in Dan Callahan’s biography, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, University Press of Mississippi, 2011, p.159]

As if to punctuate the grimness of the roles she was getting, Thelma Jordon is both a femme fatale and a sufferer. Thelma takes a long, circuitous route to get to both states of noir-ness (maybe too long and too circuitous; more on that later), and drags a noir Everyman in the form of Assistant District Attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) along for the ride.

Fate arranges for a “meet cute” between the duplicitous Thelma and her ostensible patsy, DA Marshall. One night at the District Attorney’s office, Cleve is downing shots and complaining about his depressing marital situation to his boss, Miles Scott (Paul Kelly). After Scott calls it a night and goes home, alluring Thelma shows up at the office asking for Scott, wanting to report an attempted burglary at her aunt’s house, where she is staying.

Now inebriated and not wanting to go home where his wealthy, domineering father-in-law is holding court at a dinner party, Cleve convinces Thelma to go out for drinks. Pretty soon Cleve, disenchanted with his hum-drum middle class life, falls hard for the alluring and mysterious Thelma.

Screenshot - Paul Kelly and Wendell Corey in The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
Cleve: "I'm fed up. Ever heard that phrase? No, you wouldn't, you're not married."

It seems that a combination of alcohol and infatuation has painted a big P for Patsy on Cleve's forehead.

First, there’s Thelma's story about attempted burglaries at her aunt’s house that smells to high heaven. When asked why she didn’t just go to the police, Thelma responds with a laugher of an explanation that her aunt is afraid of uniformed cops. Then, having allowed Cleve to think that she was single, Thelma belatedly admits that she herself is married -- to a low-life crook and con man named Tony (Richard Rober).

The noir stuff soon hits the fan when, on the night that the pair are planning to go off together on a romantic trip, Thelma calls Cleve in a panic that her aunt has been shot. Cleve steals over to the house to help clean up the mess. Wanting desperately to believe that it’s Thelma’s no-good hubby Tony who has shown up unannounced and killed the old lady in an attempt to rob her, Cleve, with his extensive DA experience, frenetically barks orders at Thelma to set the scene to look like a garden-variety burglary gone wrong.

If Thelma is truly a cold-blooded murderer she’s an excellent actress, as she seems genuinely panicked, like an innocent bystander who realizes how much the circumstances make her look guilty. And despite the lovers’ best efforts at rearranging the crime scene, she most definitely looks guilty.

Screenshot - Wendell Corey and Barbara Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
Thelma: "I wish so much crime didn't take place after dark. It's so unnerving!"

When Thelma’s sketchy past becomes public, along with the news that Aunt Vera changed her will in Thelma’s favor, means, motive and opportunity line up against her. Combined with Vera’s butler’s testimony about Thelma’s furtive behavior on the night in question, DA Scott decides that a murder charge is a slam dunk.

With the ball in his court, Cleve goes to work, anonymously suggesting to Thelma’s lawyer (Stanley Ridges) that he hire the Chief District Attorney’s lawyer brother to work for the defense, forcing the DA to step down due to conflict of interest. Cleve gets the lead prosecutor assignment, and proceeds to do everything he can to throw the case.

Is he the dupe of a cold-blooded Phyllis Dietrichson type, or is it more complicated than that? And where was the shadowy Tony on that fateful night?

The File on Thelma Jordon invites the viewer to be an alternate juror on the case. We haven't witnessed the actual shooting, but we have seen Cleve’s and Thelma's hurried rearrangement of the crime scene. The circumstantial evidence -- like the convenient change to the will -- is strong, but there are seeds of doubt. Thelma’s distress on the night of the shooting seems genuine, which is uncharacteristic of a shrewd, heartless manipulator -- or was she just acting?

Stanwyck synthesizes Thelma’s contradictions over the course of the film, from wry bemusement at Cleve’s drunken advances, to smoldering passion, to panicked helplessness in the middle of the night, to tight-lipped stoicism after she’s been arrested, to an almost regal dignity as she leads a swarm of reporters and onlookers from the jail to the courtroom to hear the jury’s verdict.

Screenshot - Stanley Ridges and Barbara Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordon (1949)
You'd be confident too if you had both the defense and the prosecution on your side.

Thelma’s ultimate fate comes completely out of left field and it’s both shocking and cloyingly sentimental. It's the sort of ending guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of any blue-haired upholder of public morality. 

Fortunately, Thelma's ending hasn't erased fond memories of the film. Biographer Dan Callahan relates that at the American Film Institute’s fete of Stanwyck, in which she received a Lifetime Achievement Award, Walter Matthau singled out Barbara’s performance in Thelma Jordon:

“[P]articularly the way she sighed, ‘Maybe I am just a dame and didn’t know it.’ Matthau then went on to knock her co-star, Wendell Corey, an unprepossessing actor who was good when he was doing a menacing type in Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose (1956), but who was hard-pressed to hold his own as a leading man opposite Stanwyck.” [Callahan, p. 158]

While I’m hesitant to disagree with the great Walter Matthau, I think “unprepossessing” is just what the film calls for. Cleve is a post-war, suburban “everyman” who is fed up with domestic life and resents being dominated by his overbearing father-in-law. Cleve would be far less believable in the hands of a more charismatic leading man who could “hold his own” with Stanwyck. Men like Cleve don’t often score with sensual mystery women like Thelma, and it makes sense that he’s willing to endanger his family and career for her.

Thelma: "I'm no good for any man for any longer than a kiss!"

In the same year as Thelma Jordon, Corey lost Janet Leigh to Robert Mitchum in Holiday Affair. Corey was the epitome of the reliable but unexciting second male lead who loses out in romance to the charismatic star. At least he had Stanwyck all to himself for most of The File, even if it wasn’t entirely due to his animal magnetism.

The File on Thelma Jordon was directed by Robert Siodmak, who was one of a generation of filmmakers who got their start in Germany during the silent era, but fled to Hollywood as Hitler rose to power. In the 1940s he made a string of crime pictures that years later would come to be seen as some of the very best examples of film noir, including Phantom Lady (1942), Christmas Holiday (1944; with Deana Durbin and Gene Kelly), The Killers (1946; Burt Lancaster’s film debut and Ava Gardner’s first featured role), Cry of the City (1948; Victor Mature and Richard Conte), Criss Cross (1949, Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo), and of course The File on Thelma Jordon to round out the decade.

Besides having such an assured director in her corner, Thelma benefits from George Barnes’ standout cinematography. Many of Cleve’s and Thelma’s scenes together take place at night, with the play of light and shadow serving as a visual metaphor for the lovers' dark sides and conflicting emotions.

Thelma Jordon is not Barbara Stanwyck’s best title role, and it’s not the high point of director Siodmak’s noir career, but it is a solid crime thriller with a relatable everyman in the person of Wendell Corey and enough plot twists and turns to make things interesting. But be forewarned: the slap dash ending might induce cognitive whiplash.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD

The 2024 "It's in the Name of the Title" Blogathon