MODs of the Week: Pirates, Cowboys, Illustrated Men and Dead End Kids
Warner Archives offers a remastered presentation of actor Robert Taylor's near-to-last screen outings in Return of the Gunfighter (1967), a made-for-TV feature originally broadcast on ABC before receiving a theatrical release overseas. Taylor's weathered visage, worn down from its former matinee idol glory by age and illness (he would die from lung cancer two years after the film's release), does much to sell his portrayal of an aging gunslinger whose attempt to retire in peace is cut short by a search to find a friend's killer (Lyle Bettger as yet another charismatic heel). A young Chad Everett joins Taylor on the trail, while the supporting cast is filled out by familiar players like Michael Pate, Mort Mills and John Crawford and John Davis Chandler as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Warner also has Taylor in the pungently titled Tip on a Dead Jockey (1957), a modest thriller adapted from a short story by Irwin Shaw, with the star as a guilt-ridden former pilot who accepts a job from Martin Gabel (first mistake) to transport smuggled currency (second mistake). Jack Lord is Taylor's down-on-his-luck pal, while Dorothy Malone and Marcel Dalio are his wife and gabby houseguest, respectively.
Oh, and speaking of Butch and Sundance, Warner has the complete 1973 run of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, which has nothing to do with the 1969 Newman/Redford film or even Westerns in general, but offers instead a truly odd but amusing variation on the Scooby-Doo/Josie and the Pussycats formula with a group of teen spies who moonlight as the titular pop/rock band. It's agreeable '70s Saturday morning fluff with a sunshiney soundtrack and Mickey Dolenz as the voice of the Kids' goofball drummer, Wally.
Meanwhile, the 1951 comedy-fantasy Angels in the Outfield (Warner Archives) treads the line between genuine charm and treacle with its family-friendly story of flinty Pittsburgh Pirates manager Paul Douglas, who is offered a a reprieve from his team's losing streak by an angel (voiced by James Whitmore) if he promises to give up his atrocious language and penchant for brawling. As postwar fantasies go, it's no Here Comes Mr. Jordan, but Douglas shoulders the lion's share of the comedy as he transforms from gruff to lovable, and he's well supported by Janet Leigh as his unlikely love interest and a swell supporting cast that includes Keenan Wynn, Lewis Stone and Spring Byington. Vintage sports aficionados will note the cameos by Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio, as well as glimpses of the Pirates' former home turf at Forbes Field, which was demolished in 1971, as well as Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park.
Gritter escapist fare can be found courtesy of Warner's slam-bang double feature, Men of America/Roar of the Dragon (both 1932). The former pits future Hopalong Cassidy William Boyd and vaudeville vet Charles "Chic" Sale, as a World War I vet and an amiable saloon keeper, respectively, against gangsters led by the film's director, Ralph Ince, who discover that small town types are not to be trifled with. Roar of the Dragon stars Richard Dix as a boozy steamboat captain pinned down with his passengers - which include Edward Everett Horton, ZaSu Pitts, Arline Judge and faux Dietrich Gwili Andre - in Manchuria by Russian bandit chieftain C. Henry Gordon and his horde. The picture rattles and rolls like espresso-charged pulp, with lashings of illicit sex and ultra-violence (a burning at the stake!), as well as the show-stopping sight of perennial screen worrywart Horton mowing down bandits with a mounted machine gun.
Also from Warner: The Right to Live (1935), a sudsy melodrama with Colin Clive (Frankenstein, 1931) as a newlywed severely maimed in an aircraft accident, who calls on his brother (George Brent), to watch over his bride (Josephine Hutchinson). Brent carries a torch for his brother's spouse, which raises accusations of murder once Clive expires from his injuries. Based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham, the film eschews the author's original ending, which inferred a mercy killing, in favor of a more palatable conclusion for the Production Code.
There's also a Dead End Kids Double Feature, which finds the boys finally moving up to top billing in On Dress Parade (1939), featuring Leo Gorcey's first turn as wise guy Slip, the role he would play for the next three decade, and Hell's Kitchen (1939), a loose remake of The Mayor of Hell with Stanley Fields as an ex-con who aides the Kids at a draconian reform school and Ronald Reagan as his do-gooder nephew. Meanwhile, The Silk Express (1933) is an offbeat thriller set in the silk manufacturing business (!), with manufacturer Neil Hamilton (later Commissioner Gordon opposite Adam West in Batman) traveling by train with $3 million worth of silk and beset by killers dispatched by heelish businessman Arthur Hohl. There's also a pair of murders for Guy Kibbee's high-volume railway detective to solve, and a host of oddball passengers, including Dudley Diggs as a professor with a "sleeping sickness" that threatens to turn him to stone (!).
Alpha ups the ante on unusual with Wiretapper (1955), a biopic of Jim Vaus, Jr. (played by Bill Williams), who used his skills with electronic equipment to aid mobsters until a sermon by Billy Graham (playing himself) shows him the error of his ways. Alpha also offers The World Gone Mad (1932), a crime thriller from upscale Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures, which continued its reputation for providing high-end talent in their programmers by casting Pat O'Brien as a crusading reporter who aids a district attorney (hello again, Neil Hamilton) in bringing down Louis Calhern's stock market fraud scheme. J. Carrol Naish is also on board as Calhern's hired gun. Their most bizarre release is unquestionably The Beast of Borneo (1934),a lunatic mix of jungle adventure and mad science, as embodied by Eugene Sigaloff as Dr. Boris Borodoff, who requires the capture of a live orangutan to prove his screwball theory of evolution. Jungle guide John Preston (a real stiff) bags an ape with the help of a fruit platter laced with Gordon's gin (!), but comes to regret his participation in Dr. Borodoff's scheme. Clocking in at 63 minutes, The Beast of Borneo makes an ideal opener for an evening of camp jungle or science fiction pictures (may we suggest She Demons as your main course?), and should bring down the house every time Joe the ape opens his mouth to let loose what can only be described as severe digestive distress.
Those who prefer their science fiction without the benefit of belching apes might want to examine The Illustrated Man (1969), director Jack Smight's flawed attempt to bring three stories by Ray Bradbury to screen. Rod Steiger chews scenery whole as the title character, a carnival worker whose full-body tattoos serve as the lauching pad for a portmanteau presentation of Bradbury's "The Veldt," "The Long Rain" and "The Last Night of the World," which are hampered by co-producer Howard Kreitsek's intentionally vague and underfed script. But Smight's visuals are occasionally intriguing, and the presence of Claire Bloom as the mystery woman who inked Steiger lends the production considerable class. -- Paul Gaita