Recently Rated Movies: Michael Gough and the Ice Cream for Crow

Find the Blackmailer (1943)
Dir.: D. Ross Lederman
TC4P Rating: 6/9

"Why, the nerve o' that tuh-mat-uh!"

Sure, watching "classic" classic film is often pretty great, though you sometimes find a dud among the films generally considered the greatest of all time. But "B" pictures are where the fun of classic film is really at, but you sometimes have to squirm your way through a lot of dross to find the real... well, "gems" may not be the word, but when you find a good one, they sparkle like any bonafide diamond. Of course, when you are hanging around such low-class digs, that gem may just be made of out paste instead.

As brisk (just 55 minutes long) as it is fun, Find the Blackmailer is a speedy little detective yarn featuring Jerome Cowan as D.L. Trees (his secretary is named Pandora Pines, so you get the gist of what is going on here), a private eye so far below public scrutiny that he gets the job in this picture just because nobody knows he is a detective. When a mayoral candidate (Gene Lockhart) gets involved deep with some gangsters, it is up to Trees to figure out the exceedingly convoluted mystery (involving the search for a talking crow) and save the day.

Find the Blackmailer is just a simple potboiler, but the performances are all engaging (I especially like Lockhart, but I like him in almost everything). The film is a wonderful showcase for Cowan, who played a lot of second bananas in his four-decade film career, including his supporting role in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, two years before this picture, where he played the tragic part of Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer, who gets bumped off by Brigid O'Shaughnessy. But Cowan is the man here, an unlikely tough guy who is able to think his way out of rough spots, and is able to smart talk his way into uneasy alliances when he needs to do so.

And of course, some of that smart talk is what slowly endeared this movie to me, with lines like ""Beat it, before I throw a moth in your muffler!" Yeah, that kind of stuff gets me right here, as does all the silliness with the talking crow, which itself might be a not so subtle ribbing of The Maltese Falcon. There are worse films that have been nominated for Best Picture awards, so why not skip all of that high-falutin' garbage and just settle for a fun "B" pic? 

[Find the Blackmailer is available in the Warner Archive set, Warner Bros. Horror/Mystery Double Features, along with 5 other films. If you like "B" pictures, this is a must have set, especially for Sh! The Octopus.]

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)
Dir.: R. Winer / Barry Mahon "Thumbelina" portion
TC4P Rating: 2/9

This one is currently frightening audiences -- and generating big laughs -- by being shown in trailers all over the country as part of a Rifftrax program being promoted in theatres right now. Unfortunately for me, seeing a truly bad movie as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or its offshoot riffing shows does not count as my having seen the actual film. And so I had to knock off a major blank spot on my film-watching resume by sitting down to watch a full version of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.

I said "watch a full version" rather than "watch the full version," because there are actually two different takes of this film. The Santa portion of the film is actually nothing but a wraparound segment that introduces a film within the film, a separately filmed fairy tale that could either be the story of Thumbelina or Jack and the Beanstalk (both filmed by exploitation director Barry Mahon), depending on which release you were unlucky enough to have caught. The films within the film are both longer than the combined before and after Santa segments, thereby rendering the title characters to also-ran status in their own movie.

As for the quality of the film, that varies between segments. The Santa portion looks like it was filmed outside someone's Florida beach house. After first hearing some completely talentless kids dressed at elves attempt to sing (and fail) about why Santa Claus hasn't returned to the North Pole, we see Santa use his mind control powers to enlist several local kids (some of the same ones playing the elves) to help him get his sleigh out from the beach sand holding it down. The kids get various animals to try and pull the sleigh free -- a gorilla, a warty pig, a sheep, and a cow -- but all to no avail. Why Santa doesn't get his fat ass out of the sleigh when the gorilla is pulling it will tell you all that you need to know. For some strange reason, we are shown shots of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn fiddling about on a raft in the water (with Ol' Man River on the soundtrack). As the kids give up hope, Santa tells them the story of Thumbelina.

The Thumbelina film not only has a different director, but is far better filmed than the Santa part. However, this is not praise, just a notice that the Santa scenes are some of the worst filmmaking that has ever been released theatrically, while the Thumbelina story is just a generic attempt at low-budget children's filmmaking. (It does raise my rating of the overall film just a tad since it so much better than the Santa wraparound.) We watch a pretty girl walk around the defunct Pirates World theme park in Dania, Florida, and she happens upon a series of diorama telling the story of Han Christian Andersen's Thumbelina. She imagines herself into the story, and then we get over an hour of slow-moving drama involving the birth of Thumbelina and her impending marriage to Mr. Mole. The songs are better than the ones in the Santa part of the film (and clearly a better songwriter too) though still not all that good. For the animals in the story, they have chosen to go with full head masks rather than makeup on the actors, and so all of the voices seem disembodied. It's dull but its better than what came before, and what will come at the end.

Returning to Santa, after the story, the kids depart for reasons unknown to the profusely sweating old elf, and thankfully he waits until they are gone to strip from his coat and belt down to his red t-shirt. When they return, all two dozen of them are hanging onto a red jalopy being driven by a poor guy trapped inside the silliest white rabbit costume that has every existed. It is the Ice Cream Bunny to the rescue, in a scene that only goes for the last ten minutes of the film, but seems to amble on for about three hours. And then these horrid urchins sing again... they... sing... again. (I'm sorry, but this film made me look up the definition of singing in the dictionary, because surely, this can't be what is meant.)

The whole affair really makes you start to hate the commercialization of Christmas even more, because without an audience out there willing to watch anything to do with the holiday, this movie doesn't get made. Maybe what we should have been teaching our children first all along was good taste. Manners, letters, numbers, potty training... that can all come later.

Oh, and singing. We should teach them to sing well too. That's something my ears learned from Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.

Black Zoo (1963)
Dir.: Herman Cohen
TC4P Rating: 5/9

Michael Gough. If there is one name that must be placed amongst the pantheon of the World's Hammiest Actors, Michale Gough must surely have a plaque there. You might know him best as Alfred the Butler in the four Burton/Schumacher Batman films, but Gough had acted for a very long time before that. For the purposes of this quickie, let's concentrate on a very small period in that career. In the late '50s and early '60s, he tore the horror world up in a trio of films for producer (and sometimes director) Herman Cohen, and where he really made the raised eyebrow and out-of-place tone of voice an art form.

My favorite of the three films has always been Horrors of the Black Museum, the first and best of the set, a Grand Guignol piece that I first saw as an older teenager and have never been able to get out of my system. (And it is one of the films to which I was tipped off by Stephen King's seminal non-fiction work, Danse Macabre.) The least of the trio is Cohen's giant gorilla epic, Konga, which while being highly derivative of better (and some worse) films, pushes the crazy factor just enough to make it interesting. Through both pictures, Gough controls your gaze for every second, his indignant face ready to burst (sometimes inappropriately) in every scene at the slightest provocation or perceived slight. And when things really start to not go his way, watch out!

But until this week, I had not seen the last film in the three Cohen/Gough team-ups, Black Zoo from 1963. After a beautiful girl is killed by a loose tiger on the street, we meet Michael Conrad (Gough), a British expat who runs a private zoo in Los Angeles called Conrad's Animal Kingdom. Even with Gough running about, all seems on the up and up at Animal Kingdom. Conrad leads tour groups to meet his lions, tigers, apes, and bears, and his wife runs a chimpanzee act that thrills audiences. Conrad himself seems to have an odd rapport with his predatory creatures, and he is seen to play his organ for his big cats while they fall asleep loose in his own home.

Jerome Cowan, whom you might remember from the first review regarding Find the Blackmailer above, shows up as someone attempting to swindle Conrad out of his immense property, and you can imagine how that works out. Anyone who crosses Conrad starts to disappear, and the police become increasingly suspicious, especially when the evidence at the crime scenes seems to point to animals as the killers. 

Once again, the result is a very derivative film, but what sets it apart from others of its ilk is its lead role featuring the nearly always sinister Gough. It is hard to watch this film in this age when all one can think about is the working conditions for the animals (except for the gorilla, which is not only a guy in a suit, but possibly the same suit from Konga). Even with some cool names showing up in the cast -- Elisha Cook Jr., Jeanne Cooper, Marianna Hill (yum!), Virginia Grey, and Edward Platt -- Gough is the whole show here. Like the other Cohen films, the main reason to watch is to see him puff and pout and plot his way out of and into situations. And he does it in the grandest way possible.

Yes, his hamminess is the big draw, but he was also an actor with a broad range -- appearing in Ealing comedies, Hammer and Amicus horror, Disney historical epics, and even winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in 1979. Gough, in any role, is always worthwhile, even when you really hate where they went with Alfred in the last two Batman films. Then again, I really hate where they went with every character in the last two Batman films, so I suppose that I should cut him some slack. He was just doing his job like any other working stiff actor.


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