Mystery movie: Alibi For Murder (1936)

Alibi For Murder

Alibi For Murder, 1936

Alibi For Murder (1936), produced by Columbia Pictures, directed by D. Ross Lederman, starring William Gargan and Marguerite Churchill, with Gene Morgan, Wade Boteler, Dwight Frye, and John Gallaudet. Written by Tom Van Dycke. Approximately 61 minutes (depending upon the print you see). Originally released September 23, 1936. Note that its working title was apparently Two Minute Alibi but I don’t believe the movie was ever released under that title.

Briefly: This film is not all that interesting, but it does have one feature that may be of interest to my readers; it attempts to bring an “impossible crime” to the screen.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular film and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction, including revealing the secret of the “impossible crime” shown here. If you haven’t already seen this film, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and watch this movie before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this movie about?

Alibi for Murder, 1936

Alibi For Murder, 1936 (title card)

William Gargan plays an intrepid radio reporter, Perry Travis, who is trying to get an interview with a reclusive Nobel Prize-winning scientist, John J. Foster, as he disembarks from the Hindenburg in New Jersey. Perry’s comedy-relief assistant Brainy Barker (Gene Morgan) assists him in his quest. The scientist’s beautiful secretary Lois (Marguerite Churchill) misdirects him as to Foster’s whereabouts, but Perry reads a luggage label and learns that the scientist has gone to his Long Island home. He speeds out there and bluffs his way into the front hall, but as he’s trying to get past the household to interview the scientist, a shot rings out and Dr. Foster is found dead in his library. The library door is under observation and yet no one is in the room.

Alibi for Murder, 1936

Scene in the “murder room” from Alibi for Murder, 1936

Perry reveals the murder as a scoop on the air, and he reveals (for no very good reasons) that he thinks it’s murder. There are plenty of suspects, including Foster’s wife Norma (Drue Leyton), his business manager E. J. Easton (Romaine Callender), and Mr. McBride (Dwight Frye). McBride is Foster’s assistant but his function is to be overwrought, to cast aspersions on the rest of the household and Foster’s business associates, and to reveal that the victim was not the selfless scientist everyone thought. He’s also seen very, very briefly in the victim’s office just before the household breaks in (and gets to say the classic line, “But he was dead when I got here!”).

There’s also a large subplot concerning Foster’s discoveries as they apply to munitions. All sorts of people are after Foster’s latest discovery, which has some important but unstated use in war-related chemicals. Sir Conrad Stava (Egon Brecher) (whom Lois has seen going through Foster’s desk) comes to visit Perry and Brainy and then some shots are fired through Perry’s office window. Perry finds a listening device in his office; everyone’s trying to find out how close he is to learning Foster’s final secret.

Skippy the wire-haired terrier

Skippy (aka Asta) the wire-haired terrier

When Perry heads out to Long Island, he’s just in time to rescue the butler, Lois, and Easton from a garage that is rapidly filling with deadly gas. (He’s assisted in this rescue by an uncredited dog I believe to be Skippy, the wire-haired terrier who played Asta in the first four Thin Man movies.) Later that night the detectives figure out that because of a ventilator in the garage roof, the gas victims were never in any real danger … A couple of thugs (Norman Willis and Edward McWade) promise violence to Perry and Brainy, but Perry manages to get them taken into custody by enlisting a traffic cop.

Perry convinces Lois to gather all the suspects in the victim’s library and demonstrates how the victim was killed. (Foster was killed with a silenced gun and the murderer planted a bullet cartridge in the fireplace that exploded when the room was empty.) Then Perry reveals that the killer was about to run away with Foster’s wife … the murderer then tries to escape, shoots it out with police, and dies in the process.  Perry broadcasts his latest scoop and, in the traditional romantic ending, announces that he plans to marry Lois.

Is this a good mystery movie?

You know, it’s not too bad. There are a couple of sophisticated mystery elements in this movie that are a bit above the regular run of B-movies … principally the idea that some of the suspects may have looked like they were in danger in the gas-filled garage but the detectives realize they never really were. And, of course, that the murderer plants a cartridge in the fireplace that goes off after he’s left the room. In B-movie terms, that’s quite an intellectual stretch for this film; it’s carried through properly by having Perry be seen to pick up a cartridge case by the fireplace, early in the film, and justify its presence in the blow-off finale.

Of course, there are the usual plot holes — it’s hard to tell a fast-moving story like this in a mere 61 minutes without them. But there are actually some moments of genuine deduction; for instance, around the use of a silencer. And the detective tests a hypothesis by investigating the gas-filled garage.

Who’s in this movie and in what other mysteries have I seen them?

Links to the names of individuals are to their IMDb listings.

It is somewhat distressing that most people who see this review and the movie will really only recognize Skippy the wire-haired terrier, who appears for about sixty seconds over two shots.

Dwight Frye, Alibi For Murder, 1936

Dwight Frye

A possible second-most-recognizable would be character actor Dwight Frye, who plays a small but pivotal role here — he played Renfield in Dracula (1931) and Wilmer, the gunsel, in The Maltese Falcon (1931). In terms of other period mysteries, he’s also in The Circus Queen Murder and Who Killed Gail Preston?, both of which are worth your time, and played small, often uncredited roles in a host of other A and B movies.

William Gargan, Alibi for Murder, 1936

William Gargan (not from this film)

William Gargan should be more familiar to mystery movie fans than he actually is — he did a good job playing Ellery Queen in three B movies in 1942, and the title character in television’s 1949-1951 TV series Martin Kane, Private Eye and the sequel 1957 series, The New Adventures of Martin Kane. He’s also in 1946’s Murder in the Music Hall, 1945’s Midnight Manhunt and 1942’s Who Done It? All these films would qualify for inclusion in my analysis of mystery movies and you may see me talk about them here some day.

Marguerite Churchill

Marguerite Churchill

Marguerite Churchill‘s film career seemed to sputter to a halt in 1936, three years after her marriage to actor George O’Brien — I’m not sure why. She has striking features and a great figure, and given the material, she’s quite a competent actor. Before this film, she has some excellent mystery movie credentials — she plays Sally Keating in 1936’s Murder by an Aristocrat and appears in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931). I’ve talked about the “Sally Keating” character in my discussion of another early mystery movie from 1935, While The Patient Slept. Churchill is also in 1936’s The Walking Dead (a Karloff horror movie) and Dracula’s Daughter the same year, where she is seduced into vampirism by Gloria Holden.

Gene Morgan

Gene Morgan (not from this film)

Gene Morgan has a lot of uncredited roles as second banana, or worse, dating back to the silent days.  He too was in Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938), Murder in Greenwich Village (1937), and 1936’s Meet Nero Wolfe (as officer O’Grady). He’s also the lead in a piece de merde from 1932 called Tangled Destinies which is a mystery I hope to look at for you some day.

Wade Boteler

Wade Boteler

Wade Boteler doesn’t have much of a role here but you can see him in an Old Dark House classic I discussed some time agoThe Hidden Hand (1942), and lots of other uncredited appearances in mysteries like 1942’s Blue, White and Perfect and 1941’s Footsteps in the Dark. He’s definitely from the B-movie end of the spectrum but he did play Inspector Queen in 1936’s The Mandarin Mystery and Lt. Macy in Charlie Chan At The Circus (1936), and a sheriff in 1936’s The President’s Mystery. Once you get a good look at his face, you’ll recognize him in a lot of old movies, usually as a gruff cop.

Shadows on the Stairs (1941)

Shadows on the Stairs (1941)

The director, D. Ross Lederman, was primarily a B-movie director of westerns and action movies, but he has a good few mysteries in his resume; 1936’s The Final Hour and Panic on the Air, for instance, and 1934’s The Crime of Helen Stanley. My fellow members of the excellent Facebook group Golden Age Detection will remember a reference within the last few days to my fellow GAD blogger Jamie Bernthal-Hooker’s analysis of Murder on the Second Floor by Frank Vosper; Lederman directed one of the two filmed versions of this novel, 1941’s Shadows on the Stairs.

Not With My Neck, Tom Van Dycke & Ben Kerner

Not With My Neck, Tom Van Dycke & Ben Kerner (Handi-Books #80, 1948)

And finally, the screenwriter, Tom Van Dycke, appears to have had not very much of a career in mystery novels or films.  His novel, Murder at Monte Carlo, was made into a movie of the same name from 1935, starring Errol Flynn — no, not Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo, that was quite a different story and 1937 to boot. ABE doesn’t offer a copy of this book but there are a number of copies of another mystery by him — Not With My Neck (1947), which was a fairly lurid paperback from Handi-Book in 1948.

How can I see this movie myself?

I’ve been told this movie is in the public domain — I’m never sure about these things, so confirm for yourself. I bought a copy over the internet years ago for $5. These days if you want to get a copy you can do so via Amazon. Experienced film buyers will know that the usual range of crazy prices (here from about $20 to over $100) is meant for the unwary and you can probably find a copy at a much lower price if you look around.

I don’t remember ever seeing this film on television; I would start by looking at TCM and similar old-movie services to see if they offer it.

 

It’s all my fellow bloggers’ fault: three lazy reviews

Women writers

My fellow mystery bloggers hard at work

It’s been a little while since I’ve been a very regular blogger, I’m sorry to say, and I’m going to take the liberty of blaming some of my recent laziness on the excellence of my fellow bloggers. Allow me to explain. Three times in the last few weeks, I’ve thought, “Oh, that particular piece would make a good blog post, because reasons.” Two books and an old mystery movie, to be precise. So I take the work and go through it a couple of more times, looking for themes, something unusual about this particular item, etc. And then I go and look on the internet and, darn it, someone by whose intelligence I have been impressed in the past has already taken the same item apart and explained it much better than I would have done, and — and this is the killing part — in fewer than a third the words it would have taken me to do it. How galling. 😉

So may I recommend you to a couple of other reviews?

The Six Iron Spiders, Phoebe Atwood TaylorThe Six Iron Spiders, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (she liked to sign herself PAT) from 1942, was well covered by the excellent (and enviably prolific!) Kate Jackson here, in her blog crossexaminingcrime in 2016. Kate notes the idea right off the bat that also made me think the book was interesting; that the civilian war effort is a crucial aspect of the plot as well as of the setting in this story.

WW2 First aid courseAsey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock”, is involved with a murder that happens in his own home at a meeting of volunteer first aid attendants being instructed in advanced techniques by Asey’s cousin Jennie. The story proceeds at PAT’s characteristic high-speed pace, with bodies that disappear and reappear and people running in all directions at high speed. The difference here is that everyone speaks through the shared lens of The War at its everyday level for the American populace. Thus high-speed chases are discouraged because tires for one’s personal vehicle are impossible to obtain, and people are constantly doing war-related things like spotting — sitting in a dark place looking for enemy aircraft/submarines — or studying first aid, or doing a kind of orienteering, where everyone agrees to meet in 90 minutes at an encoded location on a list everyone should have memorized.

As Asey remarks to himself near the end of the book,

“… it would be hard to plan a murder, and harder to commit one after you’d planned it. You couldn’t ever quite tell where your victim might be, what he might be doing, or how many other people might be watching you from a spotter’s station, or how many people might suddenly fly to the scene on a problem of one sort or another.”

Given the type of plotting that PAT is famous for, no wonder; the more confusion with people running around on secret business, the better. So that was the main point of interest for both of us. I must agree with Kate’s dislike of PAT’s less than charming observations about women in slacks; I can only add in PAT’s defence that generally she was more tolerant of difference than many of her contemporaries, and actually seemed to me to champion a specific kind of ultra-competent womanhood. There are many examples of highly competent women in PAT’s novels, Jennie Mayo herself being a prime example.

Iron spider skillet

An iron spider.

And to answer the question shared by everyone who cannot see the cover art for most editions: “iron spiders” in this case are a Cape Coddy way of referring to cast-iron frying pans. The spider appears to me to have a longer handle and a deeper bottom than similar skillets.

Atomic Renaissance, by Jeffrey MarksIf you want more information about Phoebe Atwood Taylor, this most fascinating writer of fast-moving wholesome Americana, the only reference book worth your time is by a friend of mine, Jeff Marks.  Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s is the only volume to give you the background on this madcap writer. I will forgive Jeff that his blog, The Corpse Steps Out, doesn’t get enough attention because I know that his biographies of mystery writers always take a long time to research and are just fascinating when they get to us … write faster, Jeff!

Murder by the Clock poster, 1931

MURDER BY THE CLOCK, 1931

Next I was going to have a look at an old film from my archives, Murder by the Clock from 1931, based on two works by mystery writer Rufus King. “Oh, good,” I thought idly, “there’s a book AND a movie that I can talk about, and Inspector Valcour deserves some attention.” Cliff Aliperti at his blog Immortal Ephemera, to my horror, had more to say about the movie in his excellent piece found here than I would have done, and — oh, the shame — at even greater length, because he knew about many

Murder by the Clock, Rufus King

Murder by the Clock, by Rufus King (Popular Library #31 from 1944)

filmic things I’d never heard of. Then when I found that my superbly well-read friend John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books had in 2012 done an in-depth look at the book … found here … my review was mentally being wadded into a ball and tossed away. Why bother, when these guys totally get it already? John’s assessment that this book is more like Ross MacDonald than any of King’s contemporaries is just brilliantly insightful, and I like King’s playful way with language just as much as he does. One tiny correction to a comment in John’s column; the William Boyd who plays the lead here is not the same William Boyd as became Hopalong Cassidy. The lead actor here called himself William “Stage” Boyd to distinguish himself from the man who later became Hoppy, and nearly ruined Hoppy’s film career by being involved in a scandal.  Fascinating stuff.  But the two actors had the same name, which made it very confusing.

Murder by the Clock, 1931

A lobby card from Murder by the Clock, 1931

Anyway, the movie has a creepy element injected into it that has nothing to do with the book of the same name, that I understand is taken from a stage play of Rufus King’s. An elderly woman is terrified of premature burial and has had an elaborate system installed  that sounds a booming horn outside the family mausoleum, if she should wake up in her coffin. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, right? The horn, as you may well expect, goes off at least once during the movie and if you’ve been following along, it will make you jump when it booms. The really amazing thing about this movie, though, is the performance of Lilyan Tashman playing, apparently, She Who Must Be Obeyed. Tashman takes the ball from Theda Bara and runs with it. She is the Vamp ne plus ultra and can apparently rule every heterosexual male in sight with just a whiff of her perfume. Valcourt is made of stronger stuff, though — although the fact that Rufus King was gay may have something to do with his resistance. Lilyan Tashman is a fascinating figure who died only a few years later at age 33, probably from breast cancer, leaving only a handful of fascinating performances by which to judge her. Here, she’s really something. The movie is definitely worth a look for her alone, since the mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long. As of today, you can find it here on YouTube.

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley (Penguin #6)

After being outdone twice, I thought I’d have a look at something by a favourite author of mine, Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley (1933). (Published in the US as Dead Mrs. Stratton.) This time I looked first to save myself some time — sure enough, Kate had looked at this book six months ago. Karyn Reeves, at A Penguin a week, also had a look at this one some years back. Both bloggers have insight into what’s going on here and have given us interesting assessments; not much more for me to add. I’m going to have to start unearthing books that are far more scarce!

I agree with Kate Jackson that this is a kind of variation on The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in that Berkeley’s plot makes it clear that the truth about what happened to the completely obnoxious Mrs. Ena Stratton is entirely a function of who happens to be telling the story of her death. The story begins by … well, sort of telling you who commits the murder, but anyone familiar with Berkeley’s over-the-top cleverness knows that it can’t end there. Ena is constantly threatening to kill herself, as one of a vast range of attention-getting stratagems that have infuriated everyone around her, and when she is found hanged after a bizarre party, no one is surprised. Berkeley’s detective, the Silly Ass Roger Sheringham, traces the peculiar course of a chair upon which Mrs. Stratton did or did not stand, as various characters report having moved it here, there, and everywhere around the roof upon which her body is found. It seems as though everyone lies to the police at every opportunity and Sheringham is the only detective in a position to find out what really went on. Again, the experienced Berkeleyite will know that there is always one final twist at the end of the tale, and so it is here. I think you will be ultimately surprised when you learn who did what to Ena Stratton, and when; the final pages hold the final punch.

“Jumping Jenny” is a colloquial back-formation from Robert Louis Stevenson for a hanged woman, which practice thankfully died out some time in the 20th century nearly everywhere on earth. Its male equivalent is the “jumping jack”, the phrase Stevenson used; to my knowledge the exercises that one does in calisthenics classes are named after the jerks and spasms of a person who’s just been hanged. Perhaps your instructor will switch to more strenuous pushups, as mine did when I mentioned this cheerful fact. I need to learn to keep things to myself sometimes. 😉

The Sleeping Sphinx, John Dickson Carr

The Sleeping Sphinx, by John Dickson Carr (Bantam #996)

The reason I mention the bizarre nature of the party is that it has an echo in another great mystery by a great writer. Here, as in John Dickson Carr’s The Sleeping Sphinx (1947), there is a party at which people dress up as “a well-known murderer or his victim.” In Carr’s book, this is two days before Christmas (!). Okay, who has parties like this?

Sheringham notes that the host is a writer of detective stories and that the idea of the party

“… exactly carried out the light-handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well-known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original …”

This seems to me to be saying that at some point in the past someone had given such a party, and not in a fictional sense either. My online searches revealed nothing about who might have done so, but either Carr and Berkeley are referring to the same thing or else Carr is referring to Berkeley, which is likely — the idea has a certain Grand Guignolerie about it that would appeal to Carr. My first instinct is to suggest that both writers seem to be taking for granted that there is a really high standard of literacy extant about readers’ knowledge of famous murderers and what they looked like. At one point Sheringham remarks that Una Stratton had dressed up as Mrs. Pearcey and another guest as Mary Blandy. Pearcey was executed in 1890 and Mary Blandy in 1752 and I cannot imagine that the average person of 1933 would have known what they looked like, or how they dressed. Nor can I imagine going to a party dressed as a famous murderer; even less as a famous victim. It just seems in very poor taste regardless of period. Would you want to go to a party dressed as Sharon Tate or O.J. Simpson?

Cordially invited to meet death, Rex Stout

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death”, a novella by Rex Stout, this newspaper insert edition from 1943

I know from an old Nero Wolfe story, “Cordially Invited To Meet Death”, that there was such a profession as “party-arranger” that encompassed activities like that. Bess Huddleston, in the story, arranges “the Striker dwarf and giant party”, among other such extravaganzas (including an abortive attempt to hire Wolfe to attend a party and solve an imaginary crime). But enticing people to dress up like murderers or victims to have a party is just beyond me. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I hope the Carr/Berkeley reference to such a party is merely a detective writer’s way of establishing mood and not a kind of party that actually existed.

(added 12 hours later) It occurred to me that one of the characters mentions the recipe for “chicken à la Toulousaine”. It’s not difficult and quite tasty: there’s a recipe here.

***

I think the lesson is clear that I will have to look further into the recesses of Noah’s Archives to find things about which my fellow bloggers haven’t already spoken. Well, consider me as doing the literary equivalent of spitting on my hands … But it is a pleasure to recommend good work by other bloggers too. Now that I have managed to master the intricacies of the linking function at the top left of this page, I can recommend entire blogs to your attention where I merely cited individual articles before. Go through the three dozen links there and see where your fancy leads you!

 

 

 

 

Who Killed Rover? (1930)

1280x720-J7YThis curious short film (15 minutes) is one of a series of nine “shorts” made between 1929-1931 known as the “Dogville Comedies”, or “barkies”. They have no actors per se; the cast is made up entirely of trained dogs, who are dressed in human clothes and walk on their hind legs, with a dubbed sound track of human speech. The subtitle for this film is “An all barkie murder mystery”.

“Shorts” were meant to fill out a programme at movie theatres; before the format shifted to the “double feature” (see Wikipedia’s entry here) the presentation model was

  • One or more live acts
  • An animated cartoon
  • One or more live-action comedy shorts
  • One or more novelty shorts
  • A newsreel
  • The main feature film

Who Killed Rover? would qualify as either a live-action comedy short or a novelty short.

(added 24 hours after publication) I am grateful to my friend Jamie Bernthal, my fellow blogger, for providing a link directly to the film on-line. You can watch it here.

The Dogville shorts were intended to be parodies of popular movies (other titles include So Quiet on the Canine Front and Love Tails of Morocco). In contemporary terms, they were wildly popular and very expensive to produce.

1280x720-R9WHere, the story concerns Phido Vance, amateur detective, whose help is requested by a young bride, Zelda Rover. Her new husband, John Rover, has inherited a large fortune from his late uncle and, during their wedding earlier that day, someone has fired a shot that missed. Then someone kidnaps Rover. Phido assists the police and foils the plot of the villain, who ties Rover to a chair and arranges an elaborate death trap involving a cuckoo clock set to go off at midnight. The day is saved and everyone is wagging their tails at the end.

dogville-5Frankly, fifteen minutes is more than enough to grasp the entirety of what’s going on here. The script, such as it is, is a series of set-pieces that are meant to sketch out the activities of the plot. All that’s of interest here is the idea that someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to create dog-sized props and sets, sew costumes and fit them to the dogs, and put peanut butter in their mouths to make them smack their lips and counterfeit speech. The voice-over is fitted to the dogs’ movements as best it can be, and it seems as though the editors had a lot of footage with which to work. Unfortunately the novelty of this palls rather quickly, especially if you are a dog-lover wondering at what those poor dogs had to undergo in order to make this film. (They do an amazing amount of hopping around on their hind legs, dressed in elaborate costumes.) The Rube Goldbergian death trap at the end is amusing, and there are a few funny moments, but by and large this is nothing remotely resembling a mystery. It’s just a joke that goes on about 10 minutes longer than it ought to. There are snide characterizations — blacks, gays, Asians, and what might be either a lesbian or Marie Dressler LOL. It has effectively zero to do with any Philo Vance story; this is not a parody of anything identifiable. Just a bunch of jokes on a “mystery” theme.

200_sI recorded a copy of this quite by accident some years ago; TCM used it to fill in some time after a film in which I was interested. I’ve always found it fascinating to speculate about exactly what prompted this and the other Dogville comedies to be made. At some point there must have been a group of people sitting around a table at MGM who put up the money to make this film; I wish we could have heard that conversation.

There’s a long essay about the origins of the Dogville comedies here; I can’t be sure whether it’s accurate or not, but there’s nothing unreasonable here. You can actually order a DVD collection containing the entirety of the Dogville oeuvre here; it’s US$21.99.  I’ve included some still photographs for your edification but, frankly, I cannot identify any as belonging specifically to Who Killed Rover?

 

 

LitRPG and other ludic fiction

Columbo and DogI’m always fascinated when someone comes up with a new take on an old sub-genre, or inverts an old sub-genre to create a new one. An example of how this can work is the howcatchem — the audience knows quite well whodunit, but wants to see how Lieutenant Columbo will bring home the crime to its perpetrator. That one is a variation on the open mystery, where we don’t always know if the perpetrator will be caught. The howcatchem is not a huge sub-genre, but writers know that audiences are prepared to find that story fascinating as long as it pays off at the end in the way they expect.

wheatley_covercolorOne sub-genre from the end of the Golden Age of Detection was the dossier mystery, which is rather like a whodunit; instead of being entirely written in prose, there are photographs, documents, and actual objects (like a postage stamp or a piece of “bloody” fabric in a glassine envelope) bound or glued into the text. The final chapter was always sealed to prevent premature peeking, and the reader had to exercise some fine
hair_wheatly2colorobservational skills to note that, for instance, the jacket sleeves on one character were too long in a photograph, or there were marks on a handwritten letter indicating water droplets. The originals of these are currently esteemed by collectors and the dossier mystery has enjoyed occasional revival every so often. You might think of it as a cross between a novel and a pop-up book, or some other form in which the reader actually has to manipulate the contents of the volume physically in order to get a complete reading of everything available. Julian Symons in his history of the detective genre Bloody Murder felt that the creation of the dossier novel marked the point at which the classic detective novel became something of a cliche and the crime novel began to arise; certainly the dossier mystery is structured more like a game than an all-prose book.  Perhaps we might think of it as one of the earliest precursors of today’s topic, ludic fiction. (“Ludic,” meaning “game-like” or “about games”.)

19535293488_2Branching away from the Golden Age for a moment, many of my readers will be familiar with a peculiar sub-genre known as a gamebook, especially if they know that what’s meant is more commonly known as a CYOA or “choose your own adventure” novel. The book written in the second person (“You’re heading home after a hard night at the factory …”) and is divided into numbered sections; you start at #1 and read until you come to a decision point, at which point the book offers you choices.  “If you investigate the strange sound, turn to 34; if
51J1viA39lLyou proceed directly home, turn to 187; if you stop at the gas station, turn to 51.” Each choice leads to a small set of different outcomes, some of which end your experience abruptly; the experienced reader will be aware of reading strategies that involve bookmarks or thumbs inserted at decision points. I have a couple of paperback gamebooks written about Sherlock Holmes, although they’re not very interesting. Many of the best entries in this sub-genre were written by Steve Jackson and not all of them are for children.

17736There are very early precursors at the beginning of sound films with a sub-genre that essentially no longer exists, the college-based football movie. Biff the hero has to outsmart the wicked gamblers and make it back to Riverdale in time to play in the Big Game, which is depicted in excruciating detail and in glorious black-and-white. I don’t really think it survived the 1930s as a sub-genre but you’d be amazed at what a lot of those movies there are. The Marx Brothers parodied them in Horse Feathers (1932).

Silent_Hill_film_posterBut all these sub-genres predate the internet and the computer age, and that’s when things really started to get interesting. Essentially a number of tiny niche sub-genres of fiction sprang up that had to do with the interface between games and stories. Clue, Doom and Silent Hill, among many others, are all movies based on games; the novelizations associated with such films are books about movies about games. (Yes, it gets complicated.) A few years ago I wrote about one such movie, Battleship, which takes that relationship between story and game and extends it beyond the breaking point.

MystCoverWhen the gamebook met the computer age, two different things happened. One was the novelization of computer games; essentially, in the same manner as the movie tie-in novel, the events of a computer game were written as prose and published, usually as a paperback original. The other was the invention of the adventure game (think Myst) itself, which was more or less a computer-based
MV5BZGY0MjUwZTktNmM4OS00NmEyLWFmYTYtMDRiNDJjZTM5Y2FhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg5OTk2OA@@._V1_updating of the choose-your-own-adventure form — with a more formalized version of “saves” to replace having to keep your thumb at paragraph 83. Sometimes the adventure games became novels; sometimes novels became adventure games, such as a long series of Nancy Drew adventure games and a wild version of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express that features a very unexpected twist ending.

981838Just as there are movies based on games, there are also books based on games. I wrote recently about the puzzle adventure, a sub-genre in which the reader follows along an exciting plot line as the protagonist competes in a large-scale puzzle-solving exercise for high stakes (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance). As noted above, some computer games have been novelized; for instance you can read a fairly faithful version of an old Infocom adventure game called Planetfall in paperback, where the protagonist doesn’t have to keep saving and going
WoW_Box_Art1back to points before he gets killed through ignorance. There are a number of novels that fill in the backstory of the Myst games, and these later became a contribution to a MMO in the Myst universe. An MMO is a Massively Multi-player Online game like World of Warcraft, where hundreds of thousands of players go online every night to kill monsters (and each other) with primitive (and digital) weapons by working in small groups. And of course someone made a movie out of that called Warcraft in 2016, which was then novelized the same year, to fill in more backstory of the particular plot they’d chosen to represent the MMO. Like I said, it gets complicated.

zero-charismaBack in the pre-internet day, I was an occasional player (and even more occasional Dungeon Master) of Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as an RPG; Role Playing Game. In D&D, you generate a character for yourself and join other such characters in playing out a fantasy-based game scenario administered by an all-knowing Dungeon Master. Each such character has attributes that are expressed numerically, and events in the game are mediated by rolling dice for random results. It gets very, very complicated, but at a basic level, a stupid character like Axel the Barbarian might have an intelligence of 6 and his smarter associate, Greymalkin the Wizard, an intelligence of 18. Axel’s Strength values, though, would be higher to compensate. Every character has ability scores for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Then you get into the finer points; if you’re hit with a rock by a child you might take 2 points of damage, which is quickly recovered, but if a Gold Dragon breathes fire on you, you might take 650 points in an instant and “die”.

dekaron-fotoRPGs in the internet age are frequently indistinguishable from MMOs and you are most likely to see the acronym MMORPG commonly used.  There are MMOs that are not RPGs, such as Second Life, and RPGs that are not MMOs, like the paper-based Dungeons & Dragons, but mostly there are MMORPGs. Most MMORPGs of today are currently about Tolkienesque landscapes where warriors and magic-users fight against monsters and evil magicians, but there are many other types; space opera, historic RPGs in various eras (Shogunate Japan, World War II, Ancient Rome), comic book superheroes, global trade, etc. The MMORPG automates the process of dice-rolling and keeps track of various “buffs” (your expensive sword that does an extra couple of points of damage each blow) and “debuffs” (“You have been stabbed by a poisonous blade and will lose 5 points of damage each minute until you take an antidote”) that affect the outcome of play and allow things to move along much, much faster than your Dungeon Master rolling twenty-sided dice behind a screen to figure out if you got hit with a sword or not.

9272bdacef02f937c0b33132905ceb70--new-chapter-cyberpunkAnd that finally brings me to my latest discovery, a brand-new take on ludic fiction. It’s known as LitRPG and it’s starting to be weirdly popular. It’s not exactly what you’d think of as a novelization of a sequence of RPG gameplay: that’s because the fourth wall is constantly being broken to keep the reader updated as to the statistics of the protagonist (and occasionally other characters). You’re in a game and you always know you’re in a game. And that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Here are “the two Commandments of LitRPG” (that I’ve lifted from a website devoted to such things, so it’s their statement, not mine):

  1.  A LitRPG shall involve some type of explicitly stated progression (leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc.)
  2. A LitRPG shall involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in.

And here’s the way it works in the text, sometimes:

“I pick up the items and add them to my inventory.
Currency.  500 gold.
Item:  Jeweled Lich Eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul.
Another notification pops across my vision.
Congratulations!  You have just completed the quest ‘Guardian Forest Dungeon.’  You now have an increased alliance with the elves.”

From chapter 7 of S.L. Rowland. “Pangea Online Book One:
Death and Axes: A LitRPG Novel.” (2017)

ace50eca80706ae1dff28766a855fa22--brody-reborn

This cover art is an excellent way of understanding LitRPG; the primitive warrior in a rough landscape, but with a superimposed computer screen giving him information.

In other words, the fourth wall is broken and the reader is yet again reminded that the protagonist is within an MMORPG. Also the reader is constantly being updated as to the status of the protagonist’s health and the things he has in his pockets (“inventory”). So in a Big Battle that is meant to be the climax of a LitRPG novel, every time one character attacks another, you know exactly who hit whom with what, numerically how much damage it did, and what the effects on future combat events are likely to be.  (“White Fang strikes the undead monster with her +2 Elven Broadsword, but undead are naturally immune to Elven weapons so its attack is full force.”)

tumblr_inline_mrg5gaRoB61qz4rgpWhat attracted me to this sub-genre initially is that I always think it’s fascinating when a literary movement starts from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I admit that slash fiction got quite out of hand in the ’00s.  This is a modern genre wherein an author “ships” or writes about sexual relationships between well-known fictional characters who weren’t known to have them — for instance, Sherlock Holmes taking Dr. Watson to bed. I knew it in the 70s and thereabouts as fanfic. In the 00s, all kinds of unskilled enthusiasts were writing about how Ensign Mary Sue attracted the attention of Captain Kirk and got rogered on the holodeck, or whatever. They would post slash on fora for each other and developed a critical language that encompassed it (see Wikipedia on Mary Sue). Slash was a brief craze among young women but it remains popular, and “shipping” appears to have made it into the language. And as I noted, slash was generated by those young women themselves. They weren’t sold it by Random House or Amazon. Their enthusiasm for an implausible sexuality may have led them to excess, but they thought of that stuff themselves and they worked hard doing it.  Possibly from slash we’ll get the Mary Higgins Clark of tomorrow. And so I make a point of looking at genres that create themselves spontaneously, as opposed to, say, the cupcake cozy, which appears to me to be a research-based construct of major publishing companies, purveyed to an uncritical and uncaring public.

2bb598129088196cea260629c5f89963Indeed, LitRPG seems to be something which came spontaneously to life. It’s going to be a difficult genre for anyone to understand who hasn’t played in an RPG or an MMORPG, but it has all kinds of interesting characteristics that are not unlike more successful genres. It appears to have arisen primarily in Russian-language materials associated with professional gamers but, as sometimes happens, there’s a bunch of Americans who claim they did it first. And if they weren’t first, by golly they’re going to be the best and get ‘er done on Amazon. To the credit of both countries, the writers recognize the economic advantages of having the books available in English for the English-speaking market. I might be seeing more than is there; my assessment of the materials surrounding the market was very limited. It looks like a lot of young men are having a lot of fun writing and reading these books; they may not be making a lot of money but they’re having a great time and forming a community.

I surveyed a random sample of LitRPG, which in itself is kind of an issue. Quite a bit of the LitRPG I saw is fantasy RPG based (think Tolkien-ish) but there’s a goodly amount from the strongly militaristic game background and some very odd outliers. I have to confess I didn’t think I’d really enjoy living through the adventures of someone in a mechanized combat suit killing things, etc., so I read through some fantasy based ones and called it a day. I’m saying this so you know my sample is skewed and I may not have the full grasp yet.

My first reaction after gulping one of these novels down was “Wow! Not many people other than gamers are ever going to enjoy that, but it was a lot of fun!” At the outset I was prepared to be quite snotty about the amateurish nature of the writing, but I soon realized something. As you can imagine, LitRPG is quite rigorously plot-driven; literally, the protagonist is given a quest or task and must find a way to accomplish it. Characterization is at a minimum. But if you think about it — that’s very similar to the earliest days of the puzzle mystery in the Golden Age of Detection. I admit that Inspector French doesn’t exactly level up when he works out that the criminal’s alibi can be broken, but there’s a process in RPG called “grinding” where you repeat low-level activities a number of times that reminds me very much of French sending out his minions to search for London stores that sell a certain kind of typewriter. So perhaps it’s merely good fortune, or perhaps a clever selection of an appropriate genre for a novice writer, but these young writers with excellent plotting skills and limited characterization skills get the job done quite nicely, for the most part.

Indeed, there are actually characters in these narratives who are literally labeled as NPCs (non-playing characters), which is a great idea that should have been adopted for the puzzle mystery. That means that only specific characters could be suspects and that old Mrs. Twitterbury who runs the local teashop is merely there to add local colour, and you can be guaranteed she didn’t kill Lord Oldandrich. NPCs are there to add colour and the protagonist knows it, so the audience knows it too and doesn’t get emotionally invested when an NPC gets killed.

The LitRPG authors usually go to a good deal of trouble to create a framing story that is not merely “Generic kid plays a game and this is how it goes”, but adds some urgency or higher-stakes outcome to the situation.  For instance, one protagonist has his consciousness downloaded into an RPG in order to escape an asteroid that’s going to strike earth and kill him and almost everyone else. Another one is playing for economic reasons; his daughter needs a heart transplant and this is the only way he can make the money. My first LitRPG  experience (quoted above; S.L. Rowland’s Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, 2017) has a framing story very much like what I expect to be next year’s hit movie, Ready Player One; a young orphan starts out toiling in the lowest levels of the data mines and ends up owning most of cyberspace and Getting the Girl. I’m not sure where these novice writers learned how or why to add this framing story, but I’d say the best ones have it and it’s an elegant technique that is frequently beyond the grasp of amateurs.

And plotting itself is meant to meet the expectations of people (mostly young men with good reflexes) who play a lot of MMORPG. At the outset of games/novels, your character must do low-level things like meet the locals and dispatch unfriendly creatures like … rats. As the protagonist increases in stature and experience, he can interact more seamlessly with the NPCs and fights with progressively stronger enemies (“minibosses”). The classic gaming structure leads to a final “boss fight” with the most powerful entity in the narrative. The boss fight often has an element whereby the protagonist must possess a certain object in order to defeat the final boss (the “sacred sword of the Ancients” or suchlike), or must have teamed up with a certain other character for a joint attack, or in some way met a prerequisite before the final battle. This structure naturally lends itself to a plot-driven novel in a way that is easy for novice writers to execute; gamers know this structure instinctively and, based on their experience of what makes the most satisfying narrative, arrange that whatever it is that the protagonist is fighting at his current level of experience is sufficiently strong itself to put up a good fight but not usually kill the protagonist. It kind of writes itself: a level 35 elf battles three level 32 orcs, not three level 2 fluffybunnies or a level 268 telepathic dragon that spits battery acid.

There seems to be a firm determination that every LitRPG book created shall be part of a series, which is another similarity with Golden Age detective fiction. I’m not sure why there’s an implicit assumption that the character of the protagonist is sufficiently interesting to carry the story, but perhaps this is merely why the best authors create the framing stories noted above and expect those to carry the reader.  Will the hero get his daughter a heart transplant and move forward? (Generally, yes indeed, and has a bigger problem in volume 2.)

I strongly suspect that LitRPG will have little appeal for people who haven’t already played MMORPGs but I found a great deal of simple pleasure to be had in this form; it might be naive in a literary sense but it has energy and enthusiasm.  The plots all move forward pleasingly at a high rate of speed, and there’s always something new and dangerous right around the corner.

51JdHvHLIULIf you’re interested you can find out more by searching for “LitRPG” on Amazon or your preferred bookseller; most of these books are not easily available in printed formats but almost entirely for the Kindle et al. I did enjoy the book I found serendipitously, Pangea Online Book One: Death and Axes, from S.L. Rowland — it was free for Kindle Unlimited and a mere CDN$4.98 if you’re so inclined. If you have a bright nephew of 11 or so who plays MMORPGs, by all means get him a copy; it’s the equivalent of a simple Heinlein juvenile. I read my way through quite a few of these in a week or ten days, trying to isolate some generalized observations, and they’ve all rather blurred together, but honestly I didn’t find many clinkers — just the ones for which I didn’t care due to the subject matter being “future war” or “urban jungle”. If you’re a gamer you’ll know the kind of thing you like already and you should be able to pick it up cheaply. And if your idea of a good time is being the tank for your party while the rest of your crew kills the skeletons and picks up the loot, you’ll love these books.

 

 

Hopalong Cassidy — detective?

Please be warned that this essay concerns a film with a mystery as part of its plot, The Dead Don’t Dream; part of its enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. As I note here, the mystery portion is ridiculous and impossible to figure out, but I thought I’d make my readers aware to be on the safe side. To be honest, I’ll be giving away the “trick” of a movie that is essentially meaningless but I am giving it away, so … if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

hoppy_headLast fall I had a look at an old Hopalong Cassidy film, Law of the Pampas. I’ve been following right along with as many of Hoppy’s adventures as I can find; there’s a cable channel available to me that’s been re-running them.  As you might have guessed from the nature of my other interests, I’m interested in Hoppy because that brand went from being the most leveraged brand in history — in about 1951/52 it had penetrated into more markets and sold more 1951 dollars’ worth of goods than even Star Wars later managed, to my knowledge, in comparable currencies — to what it is today, which is to say barely a footnote. I think it’s safe to say that if you ask anyone today living in an English-speaking country who Hopalong Cassidy is, the word “cowboy” will come up immediately, and … nothing else.

In order to fully understand that huge arc from hero to zero, though, you need to understand something about the phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy (“Hoppy”, to millions of children) in the early days of television. There’s a lot to this story, and a couple of deeply fannish books have been written about it, so I’ll just hit the high spots and if you’re curious there’s more for you to discover.

Hop-a-long Cassidy - 1shtWilliam Boyd was a silent film star whose career was on the downward slide when he played Hopalong Cassidy first in 1935. Hop-Along Cassidy (aka Hopalong Cassidy Enters) was the first of 41 independent Hopalong productions released through Paramount between 1935 and 1941.  Yes, 41 movies in six years; that’s about 7 per year; they might have shot one every six weeks for most of the year then rested a while. Harry Sherman, the packaging producer, then distributed 13 Hoppy movies through United Artists between 1942 and 1944, keeping to the same breakneck speed. At some point in 1944, as I understand it (I could be wrong on the dates here) William Boyd felt that he had become indelibly associated with the Hoppy character and determined to spend the rest of his life playing him and him alone. So he hocked his assets to the hilt and purchased all rights to the character; the entire film library, merchandising, everything, for $350,000.

hoppyadThat process seemingly took all of 1945 and most of 1946; after acquiring the rights, Boyd himself began production and did a single film in 1946 and a further 11 films in 1947 and 1948, releasing them through United Artists. But the productions were not popular on the drive-in circuit and Boyd was going broke. Then he had the idea of taking one of his older pictures to the local NBC station (as I understand it, KTLA) and rented it for a nominal fee. The broadcasts were enormously popular and went to the national level almost immediately. In 1949, NBC edited the features to a suitable length for broadcast, and Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western TV series. Apparently there were a lot of Western fans with televisions in 1949; the genre took off across the country and Hoppy’s popularity was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Western genre on television in the 50s and 60s.

HoppyTVThere was a new radio programme from 1948 to 1952, and Boyd packaged a hit television show with 52 episodes of new and old material from 1952 to 1954. There were also comic books and paperbacks and you could even buy the movies themselves on 8mm and 16mm film from Castle Releasing. Boyd retired Hoppy near the top of his game, although his decision probably had something to do with the death of his long-time companion Topper, Hoppy’s big white horse. Boyd continued to make personal appearances for a few years but then apparently preferred that people remember him as he had been, declining interviews, photos and all appearances in his later years.

61Q84PPJXCL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_What really interested me about Hoppy was that he was one of the greatest all-time feats of cross-platform marketing. I can’t say Hopalong Cassidy was the first brand that was cross-marketed in different objects — Little Orphan Annie comes to mind — but anyone who frequents flea markets and collectibles shows has seen tables of Hoppy-related materials. It was an enormously broad-based brand in its day. Literally, they stuck that brand on every conceivable product (except, strangely, for chewing gum; Boyd was against it) — lawn mowers and toy guns and sandwich loaves and neckerchiefs and TV sets and everything in between. There’s a large book or two detailing all the collectibles available and it makes for fascinating reading, although the brand has fallen out of favour today and the values have plummeted. Boyd himself made millions from licensing. And Hopalong Cassidy was the very first featured image on a lunchbox.

hoppy-headerIt’s also the case that William Boyd starred in more movies playing Hopalong Cassidy than any actor before or since has done, as an individual actor playing a single character — a grand total of 66 films. (Few were much longer than an hour.)

I imagine when you have to find 66 different ways to ring some changes on the basic set of seven Western plots (many of which can’t be done in the Hoppy context) you are hard-pressed to come up with anything new. Hoppy’s plots were repetitive and simple.  Here’s a few strains I’ve isolated after seeing perhaps two-thirds of the 66:

  • Hoppy comes to a town where someone is pretending to be an honest citizen but is really a crook; Hoppy finds out and thwarts the underlying criminal plot.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of a farmer/rancher/little guy/helpless woman who is targeted by an unscrupulous trail boss/land baron/bully.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of someone unjustly accused of a serious crime, and finds out who really did it.
  • Hoppy must execute a difficult task such as a cattle drive or guiding a wagon train, because someone needs his assistance.
  • Hoppy must mediate between two warring factions who want control of something (water, a town, unfenced land).
  • Someone thinks Hoppy (or one of his sidekicks, or a friend) did something wrong, or dishonourable, and he has to prove them wrong.
  • Hoppy must enter an unusual environment (go to a different country, or disguise himself and take up a different profession) and expose a criminal enterprise.

Hoppy Serves a Writ - 1shtThe one that I wanted to talk about today, at which I hinted in the title to this piece, is “Hoppy defends someone unjustly accused and finds out who really did the crime.” Just abstractly, doesn’t that sound like every Perry Mason episode you ever saw? Yes, from time to time Hoppy had to act as a detective, and that interests me. What happens when you cross a Western brand with a detective plot?

20ce0f649216fe71ddc69babf71e939aWhat prompted this interest in the possibilities of Hopalong Cassidy as a detective was a tiny segment of 1941’s Doomed Caravan. I won’t bore you with the details, especially since there aren’t many worthwhile, but essentially a bunch of outlaws capture a group of cavalrymen, steal their uniforms and equipment, and impersonate the troopers in an attempt to get close enough to rob a freight shipment that Hoppy has agreed to protect. When they arrive in town, everyone takes for granted that they are who they say they are. But Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused by a number of small inconsistencies in their clothing and gear.  He investigates a little, and questions one man about a bullet hole in his shirt and another about the wrong initials in his hatband. We see his eyes narrow, but he keeps his suspicions to himself until it comes time to save the day.

cdb2da219c6b80bec78aa253db7ea35cFor fans of mysteries on film, this film’s strongest player is Minna Gombell. She had a first-rate second-rate career in films, toiling away in relative obscurity, but she made an impression on me in 1934’s The Thin Man as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson, the greedy widow who would do nearly anything for money. Here she plays a tough but straight-shooting frontierswoman who needs the freight shipment to succeed, and her acting skills stand out a mile against her surrounding players. There’s nothing else of any great interest in this movie, but it did pique my interest to see if Hopalong Cassidy had ever displayed any great detective chops.

a5f5f7f13c4932f7c488e63ffed9c5b9There is one late entry in the series, 1948’s The Dead Don’t Dream, which would seem like the ideal candidate; I remember being quite excited when I read the information in the TV listing. Hoppy comes to the Last Chance Inn (at which all the local gold prospectors stay) to attend the wedding of his sidekick Lucky Jenkins to the niece of a wealthy local miner. The miner disappears from the inn and is found dead the next day. And the next night, the man who sleeps in that same room at the inn vanishes and is found dead elsewhere the next day. In fact this is the third time it’s happened.

Now, that’s a bare-bones story hook worthy of John Dickson Carr, isn’t it? What a pity something happened along the way to this admirable concept. What went wrong, I’m not entirely sure. Hoppy starts to investigate the rancher’s disappearance immediately, trying to get the wedding back on the rails. But this movie doesn’t really make any sense. There is ominous music when it seems like people are listening outside a door, or when something scary might happen … but nothing ever really happens. Hoppy seems to have a string of unaccountable and unmentioned intuitions that guide him as to precisely what to do next to make the plot move along at a brisk clip, but none of them are motivated by anything that actually happens or even anything that’s spoken about.  Within the hour, for instance, Hoppy is off to see the uncle’s dark and ominous gold mine — for no real reason except that no one knows where the uncle’s gold is kept. Yes, the uncle is there and he’s deceased. And everyone just sort of accepts this and sits around and talks about it, until Hoppy figures out what’s going on (more divine intuition).

People come and go, people talk about events, but no one detects and there’s nothing that happens that explains anything. The killer tries to kill Hoppy, and it’s never clear why, except of course that he’s investigating.

HopalongCassidyFilms.gifAfter further hubbub and back and forth, people coming and going, Hoppy finally figures out that the room contains a four-poster bed that kills people. In the middle of the night, the top of the bed descends soundlessly, suffocates the sleeper, and then returns to its topmost position. Now, this is also a clever idea. But in terms of the plot, it makes no sense at all. The owner of the inn has nothing to do with it; the actual criminal is someone who occasionally stays at the inn. How did the bed get there? WHY did the bed get there? Who in this Western world needed to kill people surreptitiously? When you think about it, in the other Hoppy movies, people die all the time from gunshots without any need for complicated mechanical traps.

There’s more, but it makes just as little sense as what’s gone before. Lucky’s engagement is broken (which everyone in the contemporaneous audience would have known to be inevitable anyway; Lucky has to chase the girls to keep the plots moving). Hoppy identifies the killer, and how I will never know, since there are no clues; he accepts someone’s comment as to one of the suspects’ criminal background. No detection, no investigation, just intuition and action.

To sum up — this is a great idea for a mystery movie, that suffers from terrible execution. No one thought any of this through, it’s just needless obfuscation, and the script has no underlying logic. Just a bunch of things that happen, ominous music, the killer gets arrested, and Hoppy makes a little joke as everyone prepares to leave.

983712c1ad67e46193d162211ca9f2b0At the time of production of The Dead Don’t Dream in 1948, the brand was just about at its nadir. Boyd was paying for the productions himself and cutting corners wherever possible; mostly by sticking with a small crew, trying to get everything in a single take, and skimping on services like music and screenwriters, using unknowns who needed experience. These weren’t even as good as the early “B” pictures in the series but more like “C” grade. I understand that, particularly with Boyd’s self-produced films, they were later chopped up a little to fit into television running times, which might explain the general air of incoherence and unmotivated plot developments in this outing. I suspect there’s another ten minutes of plot that needed to make it into the finished product and didn’t.

So unless there’s something I haven’t yet managed to see, the chances of Hopalong Cassidy taking shape as a detective are slim to none. Occasionally he participated in a mystery-like plot, just as he occasionally participated in the occasional romantic plot, but overall, his Western chops remain unsullied by any cross-genre participation.  In a way, it’s too bad. The Hoppy brand had a huge following in its day, but if it had been rebooted as a “Western detective” series, who knows, it might still be around today!

Law of the Pampas (1939)

law_of_the_pampas_posterJust lately I’ve discovered the pleasures of a new-to-me TV channel, “Silver Screen”, whose mission seems to be, “Let’s keep the programming budget as close to zero as possible.” So I’ve been experiencing the pleasures of a lot of rubbishy old films that few people other than me take seriously.

I’ve been enjoying a lot of elderly Westerns of no particular merit, including entries in the long-running Hopalong Cassidy series. In 1939, when Law of the Pampas was made, there were no fewer than four Hoppy movies (there were SEVEN made in 1943, which must have been exhausting), and in total there are sixty-six of them. Say what you will about their quality, 66 films equals a long-running and durable brand — and you knew who Hopalong Cassidy was without being told, didn’t you? That’s what interests me.

rm5qzy7xWilliam Boyd plays Hoppy, and Russell Hayden is along for the ride as sidekick Lucky Jenkins. Hoppy always had two sidekicks; one handsome young cowboy, and usually the grizzled old Gabby Hayes as comedy relief. Here Hayes is absent and the comedy relief role is filled by “Argentinian” Sidney Toler.

The story is simple enough. Our heroes to go Argentina to deliver some prize bulls to rancher Pedro DeCordoba; Pedro has been having troubles, what with two of his children dying in “accidents”. Nobody pins down the source of trouble to Sidney Blackmer’s evil American son-in-law “Ralph Merritt”, who is eliminating other potential heirs to the estancia, until Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused. Steffi Duna plays Chiquita, Blackmer’s misguided mistress who thinks she’ll marry Ralph and rule the roost, and Sidney Toler plays Fernando Ramirez, the ranch foreman. Hoppy remembers he’s seen the son-in-law’s face on an American wanted poster and brings him to justice, in an exciting finish that looks like every other Western chase sequence you’ve ever seen — but with bolas as well as six-guns.

bill-boyd

William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy

Why is this oater worth your time? Well, you will probably not be intellectually troubled by the mystery plot, which has a kind of inevitability about it from the start. It’s not completely obvious, as is often the case in Hoppy’s outings, but it’s clear who the guilty party is from the start. (Sidney Blackmer could easily have had “Bad Guy” written on his forehead in Sharpie.) There is a tiny bit of originality in that it takes place in “South America” — although everyone speaks English and the sets look exactly the same as all the other American-set Hoppy films. “The King’s Men” do a turn as singing cowhands, which is silly and fun, and B-player stalwart Anna Demetrio has some nice moments as Toler’s big fat wife Dolores.

russell-hayden-and-steffi-duna

Russell Hayden, sidekick, and Steffi Duna

Neither will you be troubled by trying to decipher the characterization; there really isn’t any. Hopalong Cassidy at this point was so well known to his primary fan base of children that all he has to do is show up and not do anything evil or mean. The script is written so as to explain to you everyone’s role upon their first appearance and all you have to do is settle back and wait for the inevitable.

anna-demetrio-and-sidney-toler

Anna Demetrio (L), Sidney Toler (R)

What really interested me was that this film was made in 1939; Sidney Toler was at that time deeply involved in headlining the Charlie Chan series. Essentially he played a South American cowboy and a Chinese-Hawaiian detective in the same year, and to my eye and ear he plays both roles with exactly the same facial expressions and accent, despite his Missouri origins. In fact Toler made eight films in 1939, playing ranch hands, gauchos, Charlie Chan, a shady lawyer, a Chinese racket-buster and an intrepid judge. Quite an accomplishment.

sidney-blackmer-and-steffi-duna-1939

Sidney Blackmer (L), Steffi Duna (R)

Also of interest to me was the performance by Steffi Duna as the Chiquita of easy virtue. When she arrived in Hollywood in 1934 from Hungary — yes, Hungary — she played a long succession of Hispanic characters, slinky Euro-trash, and even an “Eskimo” (in 1934’s Man of Two Worlds). You really had to work hard in those days to submerge your origins and make a living as a B-movie actor!

This film is available in various places for free; it seems to have somehow fallen out of copyright. Free-Classic-Movies.com will let you watch as much of it as you can stand for nothing!

 

The Remaining (2014): Christian morality porn

The-Remaining-I-2014The Remaining (2014) was recommended by a friend who knows my interest in cheeseball horror or, indeed, cheeseball anything else; given a choice between a four-star film and a zero-star film, you’ll find me curled up in front of the piece de merde with a big smile on my face. I always say you can learn more about filmmaking from a terrible movie than a good one; a good film is seamless and it takes three or four viewings to come a full realization of, say, how the camera angles contribute to a sense of dread, or whatever. Whereas if you’re watching Sharknado or one of its fellow crapfests, you’re constantly thinking to yourself, “Wow, I would have avoided doing THAT,” and you start to learn the difference between good and bad filmmaking.

imagesBelieve me, you’ll learn a lot about filmmaking from this one!

Author: Chris Downing and Casey La Scala, who also directed.

Cast: Alexa Vega, who was the older sister in the Spy Kids movies and is now all grown up. Her Wikipedia biography cites her strong Christian faith. The remainder of the cast is a bunch of, generally, unknown actors who have small TV roles to their credit and who presumably needed the work.

The-Remaining-movie-church-photoOther data: According to Wikipedia, it grossed $1.7 million. Nobody’s apparently willing to disclose production costs, but I suspect this didn’t make back its money since there is no mention anywhere on the internet of The Remaining 2 being a possibility.

remaining_rapture-eyesAbout this film: This film starts out with an overlong sequence before the Rapture occurs at the 11-minute mark which establishes the characters and situation. It’s part of the currently very awful handheld camera trend, which started out as clever when The Blair Witch Project did it and is now a way of making a movie if you have a very low budget; one character clutches his camera despite all trials and tribulations. At the precise Raptorial moment, a viewpoint character is running his camera while coming down in an elevator with the bride’s parents; her mother is just saying that she wishes her daughter had been married in a church when — in a nice little moment — you can see the characters’ breath as everything gets very cold. Wham, half the wedding guests fall down and die, and their eyes glaze over. Weird things begin to happen; a little earthquake, some sort of sonic boom, and people start running from the building. In what has to be the nicest piece of production in this whole film, a huge airplane falls out of the sky and crashes into a nearby building. A handful of young people leave the building and head for a library to protect themselves as chunks of ice fall from the sky; they immediately decide it’s the Rapture because, as the bride sententiously remarks, “All the good people are gone, and all the bad people are left here.”  Well, the bride may be a bad person (I think we’re meant to believe she and her new husband had premarital sex) but she has grasped the concept immediately. She finds a bible in the library, buried under a stack of Nora Roberts novels, and, sure enough, everything was foretold precisely as it’s happening! They pick up a pretty young blond woman, who comes along with them for no apparent reason. They go to a church to find the bride’s BFF who, unbeknownst to her boyfriend, heads there every time they have a fight. The bride gets picked up by an invisible flying thing and gets dropped to the ground with terrible claw marks in her back; the bible she was clutching is now burned to ash.

images-1The kids meet up with the BFF at the church, engage in some hokey moralizing to cheer themselves up, and get patched up by a woman who is apparently the only person of colour left on earth. Some people head out to a hospital to get the bride some medical assistance, but of course there isn’t any. All the young people start to speculate about what’s going on and why they were spared (one girl says, without a hint of a smile, “I’m a good person. I’m just not a churchy good person, that’s all.”) The handsome bearded pastor who is holding down the church reveals that he was a bad person because even though he sort of believed in Jesus, he didn’t really; he was paying lip service, as it were. The church gets attacked by what might be demons, and everybody heads for the basement; the handheld video switches to the green of low-light shooting, which is both difficult to believe and damn near impossible to see. The pastor gets swept up by the invisible demons and disappears. At daylight, the young people (almost everyone in this film is meant to be 18-25) decide to make their way out through the now destroyed church and past the very-dead pastor. (People seem to develop sudden urges to move to the next location for no really good reason, almost as though the set rental had expired.) Off to the hospital, past a bunch of 18-25 extras wandering aimlessly around, only to find that the hospital is empty of medical help and supplies. The bride dies in her groom’s arms in what is meant to be a dramatic and poignant scene — she sees heaven and whispers how beautiful it is. The groom heads outside and curses God because she died — oh-oh, bad idea.  Yeah, a gigantic spike comes out of nowhere and kills him, then whisks him off into the sky. An invisible force in the hospital kills a few more kids. The few remaining kids, including the cynical videographer, head off to what appears to be a refugee camp. Golly, it’s almost as though the American system has come through and is restoring order! One of the hospital victims has left a video on her phone for her videographer boyfriend where she realizes the futility of her former life, where she was “spiritual” but not religious — now, oh, how she regrets it all. “We all have to make a choice.” She weeps and chooses God; whoops, she gets killed! The boyfriend goes off and gets baptized, while “Amazing Grace” plays in the background. But the other kid realizes that all that churchiness will draw the demons, and the newly baptized videographer gets torn apart by invisible demons. The two remaining kids, cynical boy and non-churchy girl, clutch each other — she decides to choose God too, and leaves the cynical guy behind as dark creepy demons start to come out of the sky. Cynical guy gets dragged away by demons as the movie ends.

This movie is very low budget. There are a couple of expensive pieces of SFX (airplane hits a building, and a quick scene where the young people walk past a burning helicopter) but by and large, the demons are literally invisible. So if you’re accustomed to movies that actually show you the monsters with which they’re trying to scare you once in a while, you will be disappointed; they couldn’t afford it. All the actors are fairly good, but they struggle with the dialogue they’re given. Alexa Vega’s death scene is just awful; it’s as though she said, “I’m not doing this film unless you give me one scene where I can go all out.” The trouble is, the underlying emotions are conceived by people who probably haven’t experienced them, and so they’re burlesqued and hokey. Cheap sets, no costumes, almost zero in the way of good special effects. And that extremely annoying handheld camera throughout, which makes me think merely that they couldn’t afford Panavision. Inserts that are obviously stock footage from Weather Channel. And the whole cast is (a) 18-25, (b) white, and (c) unconvincing. The whole thing is rather like Ed Wood Jr. had converted to Christianity and made this cheese log in honour of his newfound faith.

maxresdefaultWhat does this all mean? Now, as I mentioned, I do enjoy cheeseball horror. What struck me as sufficiently interesting about this film to warrant a blog post is something that I noticed about it, and its companion pieces about the Rapture, Left Behind/Left Behind II, two gloriously awful pieces of cinema starring, in #1, the execrable Nicolas Cage, and in #2, the execrable Kirk Cameron. Essentially, the Rapture flips the horror narrative by killing the good guys and making the bad guys suffer; I think I might have figured out why.

Back at the dawn of the slasher movie, people realized that there was a common pattern to be seen in horror movies intended primarily for a teenage audience; if you were a morally unsound person, you got killed, and if you were a young female virgin, you had a chance of surviving to the sequel. This gave rise to the umbrella description of this genre as “fuck and die movies”. It’s always the kids who are making out in the car who are the First To Die; the bullies, mean girls, sexually advanced, LGBT, petty criminals, disobedient kids, and even cigarette smokers were doomed to be chainsawed, or whatever the killer’s mode of choice happened to be for that property. Bad people die; good people live.

Here, though, all the good people die 11 minutes into the movie, and the rest are merely marking time until Satan’s minions snatch them up. Oh, they’re not REALLY bad; it seems clear that most of these good-looking youngsters are the kind of kids we would think of as good, it’s just that they had the misfortune to not have devoted themselves heart and soul to a Christian church. It’s the equivalent of premarital sex in a Jason Voorhees slasher; if you’re not good, you have to live through — according to the bible — seven years of torture and punishment. (Being strapped to a chair while Left Behind II played on endless repeat, for instance.)

The-Remaining-2But if you think about it, there’s something wrong with this idea. Who is the audience for this movie? I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that the only people who are taking this seriously — and who are not, like me, reeking of marijuana and giggling uncontrollably in the back row — are your basic hard-core dedicated Christians. And the movie is telling them that what they have to look forward to is dying 11 minutes into the movie. Oh, sure, they go to live with Jesus and all. But they die.

So is this meant to be a kind of “scared straight” moment for the pot smokers in the back row? I suppose there are some hard-core Christians who are stupid enough to believe that that could happen. But honestly, if a single person sees “the error of their ways” as a result of viewing this potboiler, I suggest his mental stability was none too solid in the first place, and Christianity is liable to be supplanted by Scientology, weightlifting, or anti-psychotics, in the very near future.

No, I think what this is is actually a particularly nasty kind of porn; Xtian revenge porn. (My regular readers know that I use the word “porn” to describe artistic endeavours that have the trappings of strong emotion without actually delivering.) The message here is, “Teenage evangelical Christians, you are RIGHT. Yes, your classmates all think you’re an idiot; you aren’t allowed to have sex before marriage, are constantly wracked with guilt for your ‘sins’, and are no longer even close to being the dominant paradigm. But you know what? Here’s what’s going to happen. When the Rapture comes, you’re going to go live with Jesus in heaven, and all those people who laughed at you — they’ll be torn to bits by mystical demons.” So your typical evangelical teenager in some rural flyover red state gets to experience what will happen to his enemies — that pretty girl who mocked him for being a virgin, that cynical popular guy who called him a dork, that pastor whom he suspected wasn’t really, really a true believer — in as much grisly detail as the budget could afford, which isn’t much. Yeah, that’ll teach YOU, you bastards. Just you wait till the Rapture comes, then you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth. And I’ll be in heaven! All their lives they’ve watched Freddy Kruger whisk people off to hell, but for the wrong reasons … it makes perfect sense that they would believe that this large-scale revenge on the unchurched would be both imminent and this violent. Because if a little seed of doubt begins to creep in …

And that’s the trouble with the moral high ground — you have to be a really, really good person to claim it, and when you do, it’s awfully easy to slide off. If you think about this logically, taking any pleasure in this movie is a sin (because you REALLY should be trying to lead all these unchurchy people to the Lord, right?) and so by enjoying the suffering of the infidel you render yourself susceptible to be whisked into the sky by invisible demons. Oh, too bad, so sad.

I think I’ll risk the demons. Besides, if I actually did end up in heaven, I might have to endure Kirk Cameron being a pompous dick; I’d rather be in hell with my friends, thanks.

Notes for the collector:

You can get a used DVD of this for $4.82 on Amazon as of today. Why you’d bother I have no idea … but then, I’ve found in the past that it’s the significantly awful artistic items that become the most desirable and expensive in the future. If there is still the equivalent of a Blockbuster in your town, you should be able to pick this up in the bargain bin for $1.49 in about two years; see if you can manage that. But this is not a film for viewing; this is a film for laying down and avoiding.