Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Friday, November 23, 2007

Greenbriar Weekend Marquee

I knew Richard Dix was the Whistler and that William Castle directed some of the better series entries, but my acquaintance was limited to stills and a misunderstanding that this series seldom rose above "B" levels and was thus safely ignored by latter generations. Wrong was I on several counts. First off, Dix was not himself the Whistler. That character would remain unseen, except in shadow, and would at best serve as Greek chorus for principals changing with each film. Richard Dix was the only constant, but he never repeated roles within this series. Each installment would be a tour de force and provide more variation for the actor than other leading men, even in "A" parts, might hope for in whole of careers. Over seven thrillers in which he starred, Dix was sympathetic here, dangerously psychotic there. Wealthy in one, down and out in the next. Had these pictures attracted critical notice, Dix might have been rescued from low-budgeters and back in stardom he had known during the twenties and early thirties. Overripe in salad days, RD pushed pedals to the floor in big ones like Cimarron, and for my money, he’s dynamic there as empire builder, but once talkie empires were established, Dix’s billing fell below the title except in low-budget he-man actioners evocative of those that gave him a start. Nearing his fifties by the forties, both Dix and the Whistlers aged like fine wine as his tortured alter egos wandered dark alleys and were buffeted by fate. Scripts were borrowed, and padded, after radio’s Whistler team had their go. Sometimes uncertain pacing betrays those origins. Little will happen the first forty minutes, then there’s a rush to finish with plot contrivances unpredictable if unlikely. Crazy illogic plays as though it were everyday normalcy and you keep waiting for one of those dream endings to restore a semblance of reality. Customary "B" economies are observed, as these were pictures not likely to break out beyond predictable returns. For random example, Mark Of The Whistler earned $270,000 in domestic rentals, Power Of The Whistler $226,000. Like most series, revenue diminished as more came off the line. By Return Of The Whistler (the final entry), domestic rentals were down to $166,000. Young and eager director William Castle used Whistlers to show off for Columbia chief Harry Cohn, and a lot of his showman’s tricks were previewed for viewers who would encounter Castle a decade later in tricky horror pictures. Always in readiness to lift ideas from their betters, the Whistlers drew upon Citizen Kane for one (Dix’s tycoon life told in opening newsreel flashback) and The Maltese Falcon on another (Dix as morally bankrupt private eye pursues priceless Jenny Lind wax cylinders). All of which is to say neat ideas are in abundance here, and were it not for callow youngsters auditioning before Columbia cameras (Dix really carries a lot of dead weight among so-called supporting casts), these thrillers might enjoy enhanced reputations today. The Whistlers revolved upon the same studio wheel that drove The Crime Doctor, Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf, and Ellery Queen. Nobody had as many detectives and mysteries running as Columbia. Most have hung shingles at TCM of late after years of comparative invisibility. All are worth revisiting.

Ask anyone who was there in 1967, and they’ll tell you the money shot in Berserk is definitely Micheal Gough getting an oversized spike driven through his forehead from behind (to paraphrase Batiatus to Crassus, Brilliant thrust, difficult angle). It’s a breathtaking tableau that has stayed with me since, and I was happy to see it left intact for TCM’s recent showing. Do note Gough’s anguished countenance lined up alongside Joan Crawford in the one-sheet here. Berserk was among trashy shock shows aging actresses were loathe to accept in the post-Baby Jane sixties. Outside television and summer stock, however, these were the only games left for even biggest names of yore. Crawford is again hard-as-nails boss lady (and potential, if not actual, murderess) as befitting her public and private image since Mildred Pierce and the end of World War Two. The fact she was still able to play it with name above the title after twenty years is testament to her amazing longevity. Berserk is notable for putting Crawford front and center again after less rewarding featured and "guest star" appearances in support of others (The Best Of Everything, The Caretakers). At sixty-two, she’s brandishing trim legs and a wig pulled back like Barrymore’s Hyde hair, creeping us out with dialogue implying (mercifully offscreen) bedroom frolics with Michael Gough and Ty Hardin. Mayhem against circus backgrounds was so common as to presumably discourage post-war youngsters from wanting to leave home and join the big top. Tent shows in thrillers of limited budget were always of the struggling and fleabag variety. Serial murders seemed all the greater a hardship as so few performers could be spared without endangering the whole enterprise. Suspects are sufficiently limited in number as to necessitate dragging in by the heels a "surprise" killer who doesn’t even appear until the second half of the picture. Authentic circus acts play in their entirety, so there is uneasy communion between trained dogs and trapeze performers either hanged or impaled on a bed of nails, with Crawford functioning as a distaff Don Ameche presiding over a big-screen International Showtime. Producer Herman Cohen would regale interviewers with Berserk anecdotes, most arising from efforts to placate his imperious star. He’s shown twice among spectators in the bleachers. There would be fewer of these for Cohen’s kind of exploitation shocker as a soon-to-be introduced ratings system enabled gorier chills and rendered tame Berserk and much of what had horrified us in the sixties.


Blogger Michael said...

Well, you won't convince me that Dix is anything more than a big stuffed moose in Cimarron, but I really enjoy him as a two-fisted drunkard in Roar of the Dragon (1932), which plays TCM occasionally. Here's my IMDB review, which points out a couple of similarities to a couple of very famous later movies:

8:52 PM  
Anonymous M Blackmoor said...

Michael Gough is happily unaffected by unexpected stakes through the head and celebrated his 93rd birthday on Friday November 23rd.

2:38 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a great review you wrote for "Roar Of The Dragon", Michael. Thanks for providing the link to it.

m blackmoor, I'm happy to hear of Michael Gough's recent birthday. He's one of the greats. Wish someone would release "Black Zoo". Being an Allied Artists picture, I assume Warners owns the negative.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Enjoyed the Whistler info very much, John--I wholeheartedly agree that they are entertaining little programmers despite their B-origins.

Now if I can only get the Joan Crawford-Ty "Bronco" Hardin tete-a-tete out of my head...

2:21 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I might have been 12 years old when I saw, for the first time "Bersek", on television, in black and white (my parents didn't have a color TV set until 1985) in a late night airing.

No masterpiece, but it was an OK film specially when you are ignorant on who Joan Crawford was. When the WB channel in Latin America (a dead network here, but well alive outside the United States) played, I immediately recognized it.

In other countries, Joan Crawford could have ended her career in a higher note, than with her horror cycle. At least, even though most of them are really bad, some of those films are still entertaining

5:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019