October 22, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: An Old, Dark Funhouse

HAlloween MoVie rating:
You'll never Guess the murderer
It's a dark and stormy night. The camera swoops down on the exterior of the forbidding Whyte mansion. Like a helicopter-borne peeping tom, it focuses on an upper story window. The storm shutters fly open, and a mysterious hand quickly pulls the shade, which reveals the main title, "Nat Levine presents One Frightened Night." (Even the title is ingratiating in a clumsy sort of way-- if my memory of basic grammar serves me right, a person can be frightened, but not a thing like a dark and stormy night… frightening, yes, but not frightened.) The camera pans to a series of windows and more hands pulling shades to reveal the credits. This is one of the more clever title sequences I've seen from this era, and an auspicious beginning. The film doesn't quite live up to its imaginative titles, but with a brisk 66 minute running time, there's no harm in giving it a chance.

Crotchety millionaire Jasper Whyte has chosen this stormy night to summon a motley (but upper crust) collection of relatives and his doctor and housemaid to the parlor for some important news. He's been unable to locate his long lost granddaughter, and he needs to do something with his millions before a new state inheritance tax takes effect at midnight. Years ago he disinherited his daughter because she dared to run away with a disreputable actor. She died, but he found out that she had a daughter. Remorseful, he tells the group that he's had his attorney searching for the granddaughter, to no avail. If she had been found, she'd have gotten every penny of his money. Instead, he's decided to give each of his remaining relatives and the doctor and housemaid a cool million to prevent the state tax man from getting his greedy mitts on it.

Naturally, everyone's ecstatic until the attorney shows up at the door with, lo and behold, the long lost granddaughter, an attractive blond by the name of Doris Waverly (Evalyn Knapp). Now the old man's ecstatic, and the rest of the crew are seriously bummed. The proud grandfather takes Doris upstairs to get away from the morose group and find out more about her. As they're talking, a second Doris (Mary Carlisle) shows up at the door-- she's part of a traveling vaudeville magician act (the Great Luvalle, played by the great Wallace "Wally" Ford), and what do you know, she just happened to be in the neighborhood and was curious about the grandfather she never met.

One frightened face.
Minutes later, the first Doris is found dead in a locked room with a cup of poisoned tea in her hand, and we're off to the "old dark house" races, with lots of lightning, thunder, lights going out, hands reaching out of secret passageways, grotesque masked figures, poison blow darts, bumbling police… the works. By now (1935), audiences were well-acquainted with all of the old dark house cliches from such films as The Bat (1926), The Cat and the Canary (1927), and of course, The Old Dark House (1932). This micro-budgeted affair takes all the hoary cliches and adds a very engaging cast, including Charley Grapewin as the irascible Jasper, Hedda Hopper (who in a few years would become the feared, powerful gossip columnist) as his money-grubbing niece, Regis Toomey as an insouciant playboy nephew, and wonderful, wisecracking Wallace Ford as the insecure vaudeville magician.

The best thing about Frightened Night (and a hallmark of '30s B movies) is the mile-a-minute dialog. The verbal barbs fly fast and furious in the movie's hour plus change running time, and seemingly every character dishes it out and gets it in return. One running joke has Ford constantly correcting the other characters when they address him by name-- "that's the Great Luvalle…" Even the bumbling Sheriff (Fred Kelsey) gets his digs in when someone exclaims, "Somebody tried to murder Mr. Luvalle!" "Maybe they saw his act," he says dryly.

One word of warning: this is not one of those classic titles that has been lovingly restored and remastered. The transfer to DVD (Alpha Video and Mill Creek) is just barely watchable, and the sound is terrible. But if you're a fan, something is better than nothing at all.

Key Player #1: Wallace Ford was one of the great character actors in B movies, with a career that spanned 4 decades, from the early '30s through the mid-1960s. In the '30s and '40s, he perfected the role of the hard-bitten yet genial, wisecracking yet self-deprecating, doughy-faced everyman who popped up in countless gangster films, dramas, comedies and thrillers. Born in England in 1898, his real name was Samuel Jones. He was abandoned by his mother and ended up with a farm couple in Canada who beat him and used him as slave labor. He ran away in his teens, eventually meeting up with an engaging itinerant farm laborer named Wallace Ford. When Ford was accidentally killed trying to jump a train, Jones adopted his beloved friend's name. Later, after gaining fame in Hollywood, Ford tracked down his natural mother in England. (Tom Weaver, Poverty Row Horrors! Monogram, PRC and Republic Horror Films of the Forties, McFarland, 1993)

Key player #2: Precocious Mary Carlisle was introduced to Hollywood at the age of 4, and was screen testing at Universal at the age of 14. She completed high school before breaking into movies as a bit player in the early 1930s. By the time she retired from acting in the early '40s, she was a veteran of dozens of B movies. In a Filmfax interview, she explained the unique nature of B's in a very matter-of-fact way:
There was little time for lighting and rehearsing. Everything was different [from working in an A picture]. On an A picture, a designer designs the wardrobe. At PRC, we'd go to wardrobe and pick out something that had already been worn two or three times on other pictures. It was the difference between buying a diamond at Tiffany's or a little unknown place; it was the difference between a Rolls-Royce and a Ford. We'd shoot a picture at PRC in anywhere from ten days to two weeks. They were quickie B's. (Weaver, Poverty Row Horrors! )


  1. These low budget gems are so much fun. I have this film on a Sinister Cinema Poverty Row package. The imagery is not great, but it's watchable. You are so right about the creative opening title sequence. Wallace Ford's name in a cast list always guarantees a good time.

    1. The title sequence alone is enough to look this one up, but the presence of Wallace Ford and the droll dialog sealed the deal for me. Ford is one of my very favorite character actors. I first encountered him in the Universal Mummy movies, and since then, his name in the credits always piques my interest. His real life would make a very interesting movie!