Poverty Row April: Viewing Log and Introduction
Welcome, to another month and another theme. My plans for this one I believe will be similar to 31 Days of Oscar, which means that I believe I will keep this theme to one running log, and if I should find occasion a few additional posts to fill in some detail.
The theme for April will be films produced by what were known as the Poverty Row studios. Most of them were not around long, and while all their productions were made on a shoestring, and their facilities were located in a strip of desert on the outskirts of Los Angeles, some of them are quite good and have endured. One of my first exposures to the serial format that I really enjoyed was a Poverty Row project entitled, Blake of Scotland Yard by Victory Pictures Corporation.
This theme idea was inspired by a few factors, the main one being that I read a book entitled Poverty Row Studios, 1929-1940; cover-to-cover as research for a personal writing project. The book profiles a vast majority of these small companies that sprouted up like weeds at the end of the silent era/the dawn of sound.
The additional impetus, aside from further research, was added because the book contains filmographies, synopses and reviews that sound intriguing. Due to their vintage and copyright history many of these films are now in the public domain and easily found at The Internet Archive. When you further add the fact that many of these films were designed to play in double-bills and run about an hour, there’s more added incentive.
More details about the era and the companies will be included as the films are viewed, but the last thing that bears mentioning now is that many of these studios featured, actors, directors, writers and musicians either on the way up or the way down in their career, so that drew me to a number of the choices I plan to make.
In the log I will include links to the Archive selections where applicable. So it’s fun, easy, free, and fascinating to take in a bunch of these films when I’ve already had occasion to see a few without being aware that they fell into the Poverty Row category at the time. It will also allow me, and perhaps you if you’re so inclined, to see some weird and mostly forgotten stuff that oughtn’t be.
1. A Shriek in the Night (1933)
This is, for the most part, an entertaining and engaging mystery tale. It’s interesting that the film features an early appearance by Ginger Rogers. The downfall of the film is the staging and editing of the climactic sequence, which includes cheats that drain some of the suspense from it.
2. Maniac (1934)
What a nutty, perambulating, mutating story this one is. Refracted through time some of the quotes do seem legitimately like what psychiatric textbooks would describe the conditions, and the title cards where these quotes appear help rein in the otherwise wild story. Again this is another one that is great fun, has many unexpected turns, that make up for the technical failings (some may have to do with degradation, real or through video), but then the conclusion is terribly run-of-the-mill and unsatisfying.
3.Shadow of Chinatown (1936)
It became quite apparent as I started to watch this film that I was watching a composite serial. What that means is a feature length version of a serial, this was usually done to have a second profit off the same project. To give credit where credit is due the editors did a pretty marvelous job. I never saw the serial, but followed the narrative fairly well. This tactic does create more clumsy exposition than otherwise necessary and some seemingly wild intuition. The breakneck pace aside it was easy to take in though ultimately unsatisfying because I knew there was backstory all over the place that I wanted to know more about and never would in this version.
4. Toll of the Desert (1935)
This was the most frustrating view of them all. The set-up: An accident. A father assumes he lost his wife and son takes up with bandits. The son is saved by locals and raised as their own. Many years later estranged father and son, strangers to one another, cross paths. The set-up is brilliant. Some of the plot points are great, on paper. However, the cast, and the production that Commodore Pictures was able to assemble for this film is not up to snuff to say the least. It’s also a story that needed more time. The difficulties of working a 50-70 minute feature are more strongly underscored by a bad one. The conversations are redundant, dialogue is frequently a wooden time killer rather than revelatory. It’s definitely a concept that would be worthy of revisiting with different talent.
5. Murder by Television (1935)
The idea is rather out there and not over-drawn as it can be in much B-grade fare, but the pace and quantity of events is rather sparse throughout the middle. The film features a good post-Dracula appearance by Lugosi. However, in spite of a good twist it’s a bit lethargic.
6. Phantom (1931)
Of all the four films being added to this post today this one is the most debilitatingly dull. As will become a theme, there is a criminal here referred to as The Phantom. Here, however, it’s an escaped con. The set-up is a bit clunky and awkward, whether just establishing facts or in attempting misdirection. The angering thing here is that this film takes a nosedive in pace from the mid-point forward, and completely disengages.
7. The Rawhide Terror (1934)
Here is another terribly frustrating western because of it being a good concept squandered. The film is another poorly staged and shot affair that subjugates, through poorly expository, overt foreshadowing, a good concept and leaves it twisting in the wind for far too long.
8. The Phantom Cowboy (1935)
Aside from the staple obstructionist arm-holding-up-a-cape-motif there are some good things going on in this film. Again, you have here a short tale wherein the pace suffers, here character identification also suffers and lessens the impact this tale could have. There is also a deplorable excess of early comic relief in this film, which makes that section of the film hard to bear.
9. The World Accuses (1934)
Prior to this screening the selections that I had made for this theme were threatening to make a liar out of me. Save for Short Film Saturday, I did not feel the need to link to any of these titles on the Internet Archive. Aside from the debut screening in the series there wasn’t even another title to which I awarded a passing grade, though others had close calls and good qualities.
Are there melodramatic building blocks to this tale? Yes. Are they necessarily used as such? Not especially. There are some narrative shorthands to cram this story into an hour, but the inciting incident is big, quick and out there. There is a strong villainess and a desperation-forced substitute for that role. The story takes some great twists along the way and is always engaging. As with any story of its kind, it requires you exercise suspension of disbelief, but it never lost my interested either intellectually or emotionally.
In his book Pitts describes much of the acting he watched as high school play caliber. I thought he jested too much, but through some of these I’ve chucklingly agreed. The entire ensemble in this film is capable here, even if a bit stock at times. Surely it’d take talented kids to have a Poverty Row studio like Chesterfield to build a tale around by Dickie Moore (maybe best known as the voice of Pinocchio) and Cora Sue Collins. The production values, particularly the set design, was a bit higher here than standard Poverty Row fare.
10. The Ghost Walks (1934)
Well, one more and you can call it a streak. As I watched this in the wee hours, it made me wish I watched a few more during the day, like I did early on when my luck wasn’t nearly as good.
Perhaps the first thing that struck me as a side note is that this is the first of the selections I chose that struck me as being very Pre-Code, though its December 1st, 1934 release date made it after promised Code re-enforcement. Most of that impression has to do with the theatrical producer and his the male secretary, the secretary both in affectation and through dialogue directed at him, is being portrayed as gay – perhaps the biggest code taboo. This all leads me to my second point, which is had the acting not been of such quality, the lines not as well-timed or funny, this film would’ve been ridiculous. Instead it’s one of the funnier films I’ve seen in a while. Granted the horror/thriller portions are intended too and the first act pantomimes a straight horror film excellently, but the comedy is very much by design and laugh out loud funny.
The only patch this film, wherein a staged murder mystery in a creepy house comes true, stumbles is toward the end when the villain monologue plays out it’s not tremendously successful at being either a villainous horror plot or comedic. However, that’s a small bit of this film that runs a little over an hour and is highly entertaining throughout.
11. The Tonto Kid (1934)
This film got a second chance from me and in the end it truly did deserve, and earn it. My first attempt at screening this film was marred by home remediation project for a leak, thus, a lot of ambient noise was about. Pair that with digital files, substandard sound technology from early talkies and you can see my issue.
The film had more for it than I initially gave it credit for, but there were issues inherent with a sixty minute feature abound, such as telling a rather intricate tale that quickly, establishing a plethora of characters and motivations early on and lastly tying up loose ends very quickly.
However, it is an interesting film to note merely for the fact that it is a very early example of a western hero who plays both ends against the middle and is a gray character, one whose motivations and true nature aren’t very easy to figure.
12. In Love with Life (1934)
A few things come to mind when discussing this film, most are specific to Poverty Row others aren’t as much. I’ve discussed the running time and the utilization thereof on a few occasions in these posts. This is not something that stems from worries about my attention span or time management issues but is inherent to structuring. Some of these films are trying to cram a lot of film into not much time, others are at points stretching. This one, at a brisk 51 minutes seems to handle things just right.
Now one note I will include, I believe this is the TV edit. I base this conclusion on both the book by Mr. Pitts and the IMDb, which list the running time at 66 minutes, as does a supposedly remastered version available on the IMDb. Sadly, with many of these Poverty Row titles those are the only cuts that remain. If this is truly a TV edit kudos to the editors of this version, while it is brisk it never feels overly truncated. There just seem to be a few instances of dropped frames.
Things that separate this film are: that there is scoring throughout rather than just on the opening and closing title, there are moving shots which required sophisticated sound editing, elevated production values for the budget namely set design and good montage/titling work.
Not exclusive to, but more common in works of this type, are stories that pre-date and lead up to the stock market crash. It being a melodrama the moral is clear: we lost our money but have what matters. However, it doesn’t go as far over the top as it could, particularly with a mother-child separation at the beginning. It plays its tropes fairly well and quickly.
13. The Racing Strain (1932)
This is a film that seems to be entirely about the periphery and not about the center. In other words, it’s hollow. If you look at the description it purports to be a race car driver who is struggling to overcome alcoholism to return to the top, and that’s in there but not the focus. In fact, the racer in question is not even the protagonist. The protagonist is really his young mechanic, Bill, more commonly referred to as Big Shot (Wallace Reid, Jr.). He’s the character with a trauma to overcome, who has to grow, who comes to the rescue of his driver, who gets into fights. However, there’s approximately three times as much set up as pay-off.
And this is discounting the fact there’s a thinly-written, plot device of a character whose a punching bag for racist jokes and slurs. The movie just doesn’t move enough. Again it’s a shame because the idea is good, but it’s one that could’ve focused more on the addiction to make it a closer facsimile to The Champ. The idea for the project makes sense especially considering the involvement of Wallace Reid‘s son. He and Dickie Moore, on loan from Hal Roach to film one scene, are among the only redeeming qualities this film has, but most of it is wasteful.
14. Oliver Twist (1933)
Again there’s a disparity of running time between what I saw and what the IMDb lists. Having said that an extra 10 minutes wouldn’t have made this version feel any less like a Cliff’s Notes version of Oliver Twist. I come dangerously close to breaking my own fanboy ethos here, but even in strictly cinematic terms the treatment is a bit rushed, for a tale that can be such an epic and sprawling one. Oliver’s walk to London for example is one scene as opposed to a montage. Some of the casting choices are quite strange, namely The Artful Dodger, and disbelief has to be suspended throughout due to the fact that Dickie Moore is an American in London. There are enjoyable elements to it, mostly due to the bones of the tale, and being a Monogram film it is higher rent than most, but still feels a bit slipshod.
15. The Phantom Express (1932)
As I read and downloaded titles I noted the proclivity for the word phantom in titles. It must’ve scored well in marketing research of the day, it gives an air of mystery and intrigue. Sadly, no film I saw with the word phantom in it had either featured a ghost or been any good. This one at least accomplished the latter and is a highly entertaining tale. It’s not a whodunit so much as a “howdunit” as the perpetrators are revealed early. The film concerns a man who derails a train attempting to make an emergency stop causing many fatalities. He claimed there was an oncoming train he wanted to avoid, there was no record of this supposed train so it was dubbed “The Phantom Express.” The investigation into the mystery, the repeated incidents, the reveal along with explicatory closing monologue are all great. The effects work, mainly miniatures, may look primitive now, but is well done for the time and budgetary constraints. It’s really captivating stuff.
16. The Night Rider (1932)
Here again we have another western tale with a mysterious desperado whose identity is withheld throughout. The issue that films of this kind have faced thus far is that they are so preoccupied with the opacity of the villain’s identity that little else, if anything, gets developed. There are many attempts at humor, which mostly fail; the identity is well-guarded, but the reveal is poorly staged, and lastly, the story just flatlines once it takes its sweet time establishing all its players. It does that clearly enough, but little of what follows is compelling.
17. Ten Minutes to Live (1932)
Quite a few times during this festival I have gone back to what is essentially the bible to this theme Pitts’ book on the Poverty Row Studios. It list companies, filmographies, synopses and has reviews. When I read of Oscar Micheaux, who for 30 years as an independent filmmaker was a pioneer. He was not only a virtual one man operation, but a black man doing so from 1918 to 1948 makes him even more compelling. While he jump-started many a career, he was not without controversy both in his community and in white America also. In the end, I knew I had to see at least one of his films. I’m not sure if I searched The Internet Archive for all the titles listed in the book. After watching this film I did refer back to the review and my take on it is similar to Pitts’ “a jumbled mess,” and though it’s his only film I’ve seen, Pitts’ assertion that it’s his worst film is one I would hope would hold true. The sound is shoddy, the acting is the real-life inspiration of “bad acting” impersonations and much of the 57 minutes of screen time is wasted on non-diegetic song-and-dance numbers that act as filler during minimal stories, which, as Pitts states, are likely recycled footage.
18. Hearts of Humanity (1932)
They don’t make melodramas like they used to. To be a little less trite, because they make nothing like they used to, what made melodramas in the Pre-Code and Golden Age era work was the unrelenting wave of unabashed emotion, the incredible circumstance, be it hardship or triumph, the near-cloying tugging at heart strings in a tale with a more straight-forward narrative style made for a less cynical world. Yes, these date them, but any film from any period can be perceived as dated. What these films don’t fear is trying too hard for the emotional response.
In this film there’s an example of much of what I was talking about as a boy is orphaned one day through two unrelated acts. Both his parents die on the same day. His father has just learned of his mother’s demise when he meets his unfortunate fate. The plot that follows his less high-stakes to an extent, but it is moving. Jean Hersholt is endearing in the lead and Jackie Searle showed his ability to play endearing characters as well as conniving ones, though his Irish accent isn’t that great. It’s a simple film, but a truly enjoyable one in the style that only this era could produce.
19. High Gear (1933)
Oddly enough here you have an example, right after the last, of a melodrama that doesn’t work. This one also features Jackie Searl (as he was more commonly credited) albeit in a smaller role, he’s also orphaned, has a similar climax in terms of plot points, but is flat, rushed and for the most part ineffectual. Part of the issue with this film is that the stakes aren’t all that high. The climax of the film and denouement are lazily, cheaply handled with poor dramatic effect. The characters in this tale are flatter and less engaging than the prior one. Again this is a case of parallels causing easy comparison, but it just doesn’t work. The child, aside from the scene of immediate shock, seems greatly unaffected by his being orphaned. The trauma our protagonist deals with is handled with mediocrity and while the film moves well-enough and is done quite professionally in most regards save for the writing. In the end it’s just too much to overcome.
20. One Year Later (1933)
Every once in a while there is a film that will have you firmly ride the fence for a while. I usually like to give myself time to digest and think about a title. There have been quite a few titles that were about nothing or next to nothing in this theme (and that was not unexpected). This film is clearly not in that category, but it does have its issues, and plays a little coy with the details of the drama unfolding.
Ultimately this title gets a pass for a few reasons: while it doesn’t use a lot of voice over or flashbacks, the combination of audiovisual cues was still new film grammar at the time, it does tell a tale of fractured chronology, which is rather different than most of the fare thus far. Though it plays a little hard to get and does time-wasting tactics, it is also playing subtext while skirting what precisely happened in the year of the story that intervened. The events that escalate towards the film’s climax don’t click as well as they could, but they all make sense. I had a concentration lapse that cost me not to fully account motivations at first; I’ve bridged those gaps. It’s a film that is well-made, takes interesting story paths and for the most part stays engaging, despite its hiccups and difficulties.
21. Sex Madness a.k.a. Human Wreckage (1938?)
This title opens up more of the idiosyncrasies that Poverty Row titles had. Extant copies of the film do not have all the titles in front of them, therefore the director and release year are left in some doubt. Next, many of these films would have entered the public domain by now anyway, though many others were never copyrighted. Lastly, I noticed that the distributor as per the IMDb is the company that handled States’ Rights Distribution. Essentially, these small production companies, in order to find more screens, would then have these distributors act as subcontractors to barter podunk screens in certain states for them. Long story short, it’s the wrong company.
Now, I had planned, when I had more grandiose goals for this theme, as I typically do when these things start; to see more exploitation films of this era. However, I got at least this one. In all honesty, two things happened: firstly, while shocking for its era the title still proves hyperbolic, which isn’t shocking. Second, though highly melodramatic, the film for the most part was much better than I could’ve expected. It’s a bit bald-faced but it does put its didacticism in story elements and disguises its PSA DNA pretty well. If it had just not broadcast one key point I could’ve passed it.
22. The Mystery Train (1931)
Here again you get another misnomer. This film is not so much a mystery, but what it does have enough of is sufficient levels of intrigue. Also, it has what few of these titles have had and that’s a clear and distinct structure that works very well in its running time. Prior to the inciting incident two set of circumstances are perfectly drawn, thus so are motivations. This propels the film through much of the second act.
Fate, and a climax that is not quite as thrilling as the start bring it down slightly, but the way it does end is interesting, but it is is a very entertaining film.
23. Tangled Destinies (1934)
If you’ve ever seen a murder mystery weekend episode of a sitcom, the gag is that invariably a real murder ends up occurring. This is the kind of tale that inspired that charade because for the most part it plays out like one of those tales, minus the subterfuge. The set-up is fantastic: an emergency landing of a small plane during a storm forces the passengers to seek refuge in a nearby empty house. The storm causes power surges and ample opportunity for the mysterious murderer/crook to strike.
There are some Pre-Code twists to it that will leave you guessing, and the occasional not-suitable-for-the-21st-Century comment, but the film does well to build and develop its mystery and buck expectations.
This concludes the running post for my Poverty Row April theme. Albeit in May, I will return with some concluding thoughts on the series tomorrow.