Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Though best known for his horror roles, the legendary Boris Karloff (1887-1969) was one of Hollywood's most versatile character actors throughout his long career on stage, screen, and television.  Warner Archive's just-released BORIS KARLOFF TRIPLE FEATURE package showcases three long-forgotten Warner Bros. obscurities from the late 1930s that feature Karloff in distinctly non-horror settings that show he's just at home in character parts and even a straight dramatic turn than he was under the Frankenstein monster makeup.  Of course, this is no secret to his fans (had the Best Supporting Actor category existed prior to the 1936 Oscars, he almost certainly would've been nominated for his shattering performance in John Ford's 1934 classic THE LOST PATROL), but the horror label followed Karloff until the end, and to his credit, he never rejected it and even when he wasn't in horror roles, producers played up that notoriety.  In the trailer for WEST OF SHANGHAI, one of the films in this set, he's referred to as "Boris (Baby-Scarer) Karloff."  In THE INVISIBLE MENACE, he's mostly in the background in a murder mystery, with his mere presence making him the chief suspect.  Karloff was bouncing around from gig to gig at various studios throughout the 1930s, running the gamut from A-list projects to C-list Poverty Row cheapies.  The three titles in this Warner Archive set are strictly B-level assembly line fare, each in the 60-minute vicinity, quickies specifically designed to be the bottom feature on a double bill.  Two of them aren't essential Karloff by any means, but DEVIL'S ISLAND presents him in fine dramatic form as a wrongly-imprisoned doctor.  Karloff wasn't tackling many horror roles during the mid 1930s and instead settled in character parts ranging from the MR. WONG series at Monogram (which, like 1932's THE MASK OF FU MANCHU and this set's WEST OF SHANGHAI, found the actor under heavy Asian eye makeup in a Poverty Row knockoff of the CHARLIE CHAN series) to several turns that saw him as a kindly, elderly, and/or doddering professor/scientist even though he was only around 50 at the time.  By 1939 with DEVIL'S ISLAND, Karloff was in one of the busiest periods of his career as a headliner, the film being one of six starring roles he had in 1939 alone (including his return to the role of the Monster in Universal's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), followed by eight in 1940.  While the casual fan likely won't find much of interest in this triple feature set, Karloff completists will be intrigued at being able to see a trio of films that have been out of circulation for so long, and in prints that are in surprisingly good condition on top of that.

(US - 1937)

Based on the play The Bad Man by Porter Emerson Browne, WEST OF SHANGHAI takes a while to get rolling but once Karloff appears a third of the way in, the story starts to move at a relentless clip and benefits from some genuinely unpredictable characterization and plotting.  Opening with a draggy 15-minute set-up involving the assassination of a respected Chinese general Fu-Shan (Vladimir Sokoloff) on a train that ultimately has little bearing on anything, the film has a group of Americans being held hostage at a missionary camp by outlaw warlord Wu Yen Fang (Karloff).  Some snappy repartee ensues as Fang, who never misses an opportunity to flaunt his power, matches wits with the fast-talking Americans--Fang's pidgin-English arguments with sassy Lola (Sheila Bromley) are priceless--as one of them, pushy businessman Gordon Creed (Ricardo Cortez) tries to broker a deal for some oil fields.  Creed is also there to reclaim his missionary wife Jane (Beverly Roberts), who left him years ago and has no intention of going back to him.  Directed by John Farrow (Mia's father) and scripted by Crane Wilbur, WEST OF SHANGHAI attempts the difficult task of switching bad guys midway through when we realize that for an evil warlord, Fang isn't such a bad guy, and that Creed is really kind of a dick, which is hinted at early when he gripes his way into Fu-Shan's quarters on the train, bringing along his smoking, jabbering dinner companions while the General is trying to sleep.  Karloff, under some unconvincing eye makeup, is quite funny as Fang, even though his performance sometimes hits "Mickey Rooney-in-BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S" levels of cringe-worthiness.  It's hard not to laugh at the way Fang declares Lola unattractive, but then has his feelings legitimately hurt when she disses him right back ("I no interested in you," he pouts).  Overall, despite the un-PC nature of some if its content by today's standards, WEST OF SHANGHAI is still an enjoyable mix of mystery, melodrama, and fast-talking 1930s wisecrackery.  (Unrated, 64 mins)

(US - 1938)

Karloff, Farrow, and Wilbur team up again for this adaptation of a play by Ralph Spencer Zink.  Barely feature-length even by 1938 standards, THE INVISIBLE MENACE is slight and forgettable, but has its moments.  When a weapons supplier is killed on an Army base, the chief suspect is civilian Jevries (Karloff), when it's revealed that he used to be a government engineer in Haiti and was imprisoned for stealing money from a safe.  It turns out the dead man is the one who stole the money along with Jevries' wife, and that's enough motive for base honcho Col. Rogers (a typically bloviating Cy Kendall).  Making Karloff the villain would be too easy, and of course he's there as a red herring, but THE INVISIBLE MENACE is a harmless enough blending of mystery and comedy that works better when it focuses on the mystery.  The comedy is provided by Eddie Craven as a doofus private and Marie Wilson as his ditzy bride who, not surprisingly, ends up being smarter than everyone else.  Wilson, with a voice that's equal parts Gracie Allen and Betty Boop, made a career out of playing dumb blondes and was best known for the title role in 1949's MY FRIEND IRMA, the debut film of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.  Karloff is largely relegated to the background for much of THE INVISIBLE MENACE, but he has some impressive shouting matches with Kendall, one of the great unsung blustery assholes of Hollywood's yesteryear.  THE INVISIBLE MENACE was released on the bottom half of a double bill with SWING YOUR LADY, a forgotten hillbilly musical-comedy that Humphrey Bogart ranked among his worst films.  (Unrated, 55 mins)

(US - 1939)

The only film in this set not based on a play, DEVIL'S ISLAND immediately feels grander and more cinematic than WEST OF SHANGHAI and THE INVISIBLE MENACE, and features a strong dramatic performance by a curly-haired Karloff.  Here, he's renowned brain surgeon Dr. Charles Gaudet, caught in one of those unfortunate Dr. Mudd situations when he provides medical help to a convicted criminal who escaped during transport to the prison colony Devil's Island.  With French law trumping his duty as a doctor, Gaudet himself is sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island but is set to be executed when he takes part in an attack on some abusive officers.  His life is spared when corrupt warden Col. Lucien (James Stephenson) and his wife (Nedda Harrigan) request his help when their daughter suffers a convenient head injury that requires his expertise.  With the help of Madame Lucien, who feels that Gaudet deserves a pardon for saving her daughter's life, Gaudet and some other prisoners organize an escape.  Effectively combining gritty prison drama and with a standard-issue Warner Bros. message picture, DEVIL'S ISLAND is probably the best film in this package, due in large part to it having a more consistent tone than WEST OF SHANGHAI and it doesn't keep Karloff on the sideline for the bulk of the running time as in THE INVISIBLE MENACE.  (Unrated, 62 mins)

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