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I love watching movies, but it becomes challenging during December when the year’s lengthiest and most ambitious films arrive all at once. By the time I’m done digesting, writing about and voting for them, I need a breather. That’s when I start reading, for pleasure, and watching vintage B movies—even while exercising. I’ll review some of the show-business books I read during the next week, but I also took a tip from The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane in his review of Killing Them Softly. He wondered why Hollywood had made so little use of George V. Higgins’ crime novels over the years, citing the current Brad Pitt film (which I caught late in the game, and liked more than most people seemed to) and the 1973 Robert Mitchum picture The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Because I respect Lane’s opinions, I bought a used copy of a vintage Higgins novel, Trust (published in 1989) and gobbled it up last weekend. What a treat! Like Elmore Leonard, he relies more on dialogue than description to tell his stories of New England criminals, lowlifes, and working-class stiffs—but Leonard has been quoted as saying of Higgins, “He doesn’t learn from me. I learn from him!” I can’t wait to read more of his work.

As for B movies, I started out with Westerns, sampling Warner Archive’s newest Monogram Cowboy Collection, Volume 4, featuring Johnny Mack Brown and Jimmy Wakely. These are perfect no-brainer fare, never taxing or troubling; quite the opposite in fact, since good always triumphs and the bad guys get their just desserts.

Johnny Mack Brown was a football star from Alabama whose good looks won him a contract at MGM in the late 1920s, but by the ’40s he was firmly ensconced in the world of Saturday matinee westerns. With his southern accent and courtly manner he was a gentleman cowboy (off-screen as well as on) and most engaging. The earliest film in the collection, Land of the Outlaws (1944), is the best, and features good old Raymond Hatton as his sidekick. It’s a simple story with our heroes as U.S. marshals working undercover to foil a small-town crook with big ideas, and it runs just under an hour! Director Lambert Hillyer cut his teeth with William S. Hart in the silent era and still knew how to get what mattered on screen. Western stalwart Charlie King appears as one of the bad guy’s henchmen and John Merton, who usually plays villains, wears a white hat this time around.

The remaining Brown titles come from the early 1950s, and Johnny has developed a middle-aged spread, but he’s still appealing. The films aren’t quite as solid but they’re still watchable, especially with players like Myron Healey, Lois Hall, Terry Frost, and Lyle Talbot on hand. I miss Raymond Hatton, though.

Jimmy Wakely was a singer and musician who was promoted as a Western star by Monogram during the 1940s. He’s not much of an actor, but he’s likable, and his singing voice makes up for his dramatic limitations. The movies are short and you never have to wait long for a musical number. Lee “Lasses” White is a congenial sidekick in such fast-paced pictures as Springtime in Texas and Moon Over Montana, produced and directed by Western veteran Oliver Drake, who also contributed some of the stories. His leading lady in the latter title is Jennifer Holt, sister of Tim and daughter of Jack.

Monogram also produced the provocatively titled I Escaped from the Gestapo (1943), which bears the title No Escape on screen. Produced by the King Brothers, this 75-minute yarn has an unusually good cast for a cheapie: Dean Jagger, John Carradine, Mary Brian, Ian Keith, Sidney Blackmer, and William Henry. Martin Mooney’s screenplay is based on a story by Gertrude Walker and the estimable Edgar G. Ulmer, and it seems promising at first. Forger and engraver Jagger participates in a prison break, but his partner in crime is caught and killed; little does he know that this has all been planned by German agents stationed in Los Angeles, where they operate a seaside penny arcade. The first half of the picture is surprisingly good; both good-guy Jagger and bad-guy Carradine make the most of their roles. Then the action becomes silly and outlandish, leading to an abrupt (and cut-rate) conclusion. Part of the fun in watching a film like this is spotting the unbilled talent. 

Spanky McFarland turns up as a newsboy, and silent-film comedian Snub Pollard has a pretty good role (with a lot of dialogue) as a dandy. Former silent-era leading man Jack Mulhall is reduced to a bit as a policeman sending out an alert during a montage.

MGM made its share of B movies, with superior production values. Two of the screenwriters of Moonlight Murder (1936), Edgar Allan Woolf and Florence Ryerson, went on to collaborate on The Wizard of Oz…but this 65-minute turkey was not their finest hour. Leo Carrillo plays an arrogant opera tenor who is murdered while performing “Il Trovatore” at the Hollywood Bowl. Chester Morris, Madge Evans (not photographed to best advantage), Grant Mitchell, Benita Hume, Frank McHugh, H.B. Warner, and J. Carrol Naish costar in this cluttered and obnoxious whodunit with a bit too much comedy relief. Its chief points of interest are its use of stock footage showing the audience at the Bowl, and the presence of Duncan Renaldo and Carrillo, who even share one scene, years before they rode into television history as The Cisco Kid and his laughing sidekick Pancho. But that’s not enough to relieve the tedium.

Finally, I checked out a Warner Bros. title I’d always missed, Fog Over Frisco (1934), which actually features some location footage, notably atop Nob Hill. It’s an early credit for Bette Davis, cast here as a footloose heiress who becomes involved in smuggling with underworld figure Irving Pichel. The cast includes Lyle Talbot, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Woods, Hugh Herbert, Arthur Byron, and Douglas(s) Dumbrille. The setup of the mystery is much more interesting than its resolution, which becomes almost farcically hurried, squeezing a massive amount of exposition into a few short, unsatisfying scenes.

All in all, I fared better with the Westerns than the other grade-B fare I sampled, but I never mind seeing my favorite character actors at work, and at least these films are blessedly brief. I feel as if my batteries have been recharged. On to the new year!

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