Friday, October 20, 2023

Spirit Week: Do you dare to insist that the practice of the occult science is a racket?


Directed by David Butler
Written by James V. Kern, Monte Brice, Andrew Bennison, R.T.M. Scott, and David Butler

Spoilers: moderate

As far as Spiritualism on film went in the first decade of the Sound Era, there just were not many takers in the immediate aftermath of the movie that (I believe) must be the first major effort to grapple with the religion, 1933's Supernatural.  As far as I can determine, there's not really a film meaningfully "about" Spiritualism, either from Supernatural's hostile perspective or from a more sympathetic point-of-view, for seven more years; and that's a long enough lapse that I'm probably just wrong, and there must've been something.  I would eat my hat, anyway, if there wasn't at least one film with a seance; but it did not yet become a trend.  The obvious reason is that Supernatural, quality aside, was not especially successful, and so it's not even surprising that producers wouldn't make more like it; one could suppose actual Spiritualists found it offensive, and complained, for it does paint the religion in an extremely poor light and there are much later films that do likewise that caught some heat, but spending a quarter hour in the Media History Digital Library, I wasn't able to find any evidence of that.  In any case, the closest thing I'm aware of to a film between 1933 and 1940 that took on Spiritualist concerns was 1937's Topper, a frustratingly dull comedy about two irresponsible socialites turning themselves into ghosts in the usual way and helping an uptight old banker, which you'd think would bring in a lot more of the trappings of Spiritualism than it ever does, given the set-up, but it is interesting that a tossed-off line of exposition explains that Cary Grant and Constance Bennett's ghosts' powers on the physical plane are effected through ectoplasm, which at least indicates that writers in 1937 expected audiences to know what "ectoplasm" was.  (Even if the writers themselves barely didforget the comedy, it's perhaps above all a terrible movie about ghosts, and at all times treats them as indistinguishable from invisible people.)

So, then: for three more years there might well have been nothing, and then at last in 1940 there was You'll Find Out, which is also a comedy, though tilted a lot more towards horror than Topper had been (though it's simultaneously tilted more towards "comedy" simply by virtue of being funny).  It's tilted toward horror despite repudiating Supernatural's own embrace of theahemparanormal, which, almost as much as being a comedy, would tend to limit just how much of a horror film you'd imagine it could be.  I feel nervous giving that awayin most movies saying "there's no ghosts" wouldn't be a spoiler, but in a movie with a spirit medium, it could be construed to bebut You'll Find Out doesn't really keep you in suspense about it; if it were going to spring a ghost on you, it would have been as a gag (that it doesn't is, perhaps, a bit of a missed opportunity).  The nearest it gets to making you think it will is just that unfairly-suggestive title, You'll Find Out, which seems like it ought to have an exclamation point for completeness's sake, though I clearly don't know what I'm saying, because it should just be called Kay Kyser and His Orchestra Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and Also The Other Killer, Bela Lugosi, and Yet Another Killer, Peter Lorre.  Or something along those lines.

That's me summing up a plot in record time, but that cast list right there, that is something I got very, very nervous about going in, because what we have with those three is a full-on team-up of 30s horror's biggest all-starsKarloff and Lugosi, anyway, and even leaving Mad Love off the table as a one-off foray into what one would call "proper" horror, Lorre was already at least a proto-noir all-starand this was a team-up that I had never once heard anyone so much as mention, even in passing, and I took that as an extremely terrible sign.  The happy ending is that this anxiety was not at all borne out, and while I'm not about to tell you this is some forgotten classic, maybe it should be talked about a little bit moreit's an early horror-comedy (it is, in fact, a horror-comedy-thriller-musical) that, as my fanciful retitling suggests, gets the jump on Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's specifically-similar adventure by quite a few years; and it is, after all, a basically good moviebut what's really precious about it is how well it uses Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre, and how Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre are such big factors in dragging this ultimately very silly comedy about a big band leader and a spirit medium into something I'm not at all uncomfortable calling "horror."

We do start out with silly comedy, of course, and I should probably explain Kay Kyser slightly since he's not had remotely the shelf life of those three icons; he was a very popular band leader, and one of several band leaders who became cross-over celebrities, in his case gaining fame in earnest with Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge, a cutely-named (unfortunately, evocatively-named) radio show*, that combined his hitmaking orchestra with a quiz show format.   He got even bigger, and within the year, RKO built a movie around him, 1939's That's Right-You're Wrong, which must've done well enough to do another, and while I'm admittedly operating with only a few scattered data points, Kay Kyser might be the best of his breed, because he beats the stuffing out of, for example, Tommy Dorsey, as a guy who happened to be a popular band leader but may or may not have had any business doing anything else on camera.  If he wasn't playing a band leader, I'm not entirely sure you would guess Kyser wasn't an established comic actor (and he later did a few roles that weren't just "Kay Kyser, band leader"), and I suppose his experience doing a program that, according to this film, was primarily a comedy show, helped.

And so that's where we begin, with Kay Kyser (Kay Kyser) closing out one of his broadcasts before an appreciative audience, with a good four or five minutes' worth of pattery comedy preface before we even start thinking about a plot, and it's pretty good: I think if you actively dislike old time radio, then you won't get anything out of it (and there's furthermore a good chance you won't get enough out of this entire movie to make it worthwhile), but I do like old time radio, and this is a very good primer for the kind of comedy this comedy's going to be pursuing, a whole hell of a lot of intentionally-creaky groaners where half the point is that you can see the punchline coming from miles away.  It's a lot later, but there's a beat where we visit for a while with band member Ish Kabibble (played by band member Ish Kabibble, so this shit's the real deal, which is pretty cool in itself) as he gets situated in the creepy mansion to which the plot will soon take us, and Ish holds forth about how this stuffed raven is so poorly-taxidermied, God it's just so badly-done, etc., and the joke is actually how damned well aware we are that it's a real raven and we're waiting for it to caw and flap.  The radio show, or this version of the radio show, is like this too, except faster, so the joke there is how corny and stupid the punchlines are, but that it's still funny if Kyser and his crew plow right through them with good cheer.

The plot, however, kicks in by way of Kay's manager Chuck Deems (Dennis O'Keefe), who's arranged for the band to play at the 21st birthday party of his girlfriend, Jan Bellacrest (Helen Parrish; and all of these characters, following Kyser, I suppose, have faintly goofy names), a wealthy heiress.  They head out to the Bellacrest estate, a forbidding miniature on the outside, a sinister expanse on the inside piled high with Jan's father's looted memorabilia from trips to Africa and Asia, and presently administered by Jan's guardian, her aunt Margo (Alma Kruger); the first words out of Margo's mouth are some Spiritualist baloney.  Jan admits that her aunt has gotten in pretty deep since the death of her brother, and she hates how she's been exploited by one "Prince Saliano" (Lugosi).  She has, therefore, enlisted the help of a friend of the family, Judge Mainwaring (Karloff), who's brought in an ally in the form of Professor Fenninger (Lorre), a specialist in debunking Spiritualist scams.  Unless her paranoia is getting the better of her, though, Saliano is well aware of her moves against him, because Jan's been nearly-killed three times in as many weeksChuck's on hand to witness a car almost run her down on the sidewalk, and he's already noticed she's started carrying a handgunand when she arrives home, these suspicions are pretty much confirmed, when Kay notices that during a brief storm-related blackout somebody has tried to kill Jan again with one of her dad's poison-tipped Malay blow-darts.  Things get worse when the only bridge to the island mansion gets blown up, by "lightning," so it's said.  So they'd better get cracking on exposing Saliano's trickery and forcing his hand, if they hope to save Jan's life.

This is a perfectly decent little old dark house plot, with far more going on than it seems (to the characters, I mean, the screenplay doesn't bother pretending to us that Karloff and Lorre's characters aren't in league with Lugosi's evil medium for more than a few minutes, and director David Butler never bothers pretending at all), though it's unfortunately not as, let's say, "deceptively tight" as you might like: I mentioned Jan's gun, for instance, but Jan's gun is very un-Chekhkovian.  (And while I was ready to consider Chuck to be an interestingly unusual 40s male protagonist, in that he does not instantly press Jan about that gun, he winds up retrenching into total boilerplate when the screenplay has him protectively withhold the whole "blow dart" thing from her.  You get the sense that the writersmostly James Kern with Butler assisting with the story; the other three are credited with "special material" which I assume means dopey gagsdid this mostly because they thought it might wind up necessary to their plot to keep Jan unwitting of this new, specific threat, but they certainly never fixed it when it turned out it wouldn't have mattered either way.)  And eventually, we're going to wind up with Kay and Chuck and Ish, etc., scoobying through the secret passageways and hidden rooms of this old dark house, which is hardly devoid of low chuckles, but it's perfunctory enough to not keep you distracted from how in pursuit of their scheme, our three conspirators appear to have done massive renovations to a house they don't own.

But up till then, it works amazingly well as horror-comedy, each even reinforcing one another.  Butler is walking a very tight tonal tightrope here, and it's possible that being quite aware that he was eventually going to fall off made him redouble his efforts, and so our three horror principals are permitted to exist in their own parallel horror film, practically devoid of any camp, or at least Karloff and Lorre are, as you probably wouldn't want Lugosi without some level of camp.  (It's productive camp for this scenario, anyway: Saliano might be the very first time on film Spiritualism gets associated with orientalismit would often be associated thus afterwards, right up until the present day with A Haunting In Venice, even if it's more sophisticated about itand this probably has some basis in the army of con artists the religion attracted, though it wasn't a normative element of contemporary Spiritualism.  Spiritualism, after all, was a very bourgeois white liberal phenomenon, presented as rationalist and compatible with Christianity and, indeed, very upstate New York.  I expect it's a bit of conflation with Theosophy, which did traffick in that kind of exoticismwhich I doubt serious contemporary Spiritualists liked, because they considered those mystics a rival fad.  But Lugosi skulking about with a turban on his head is to be taken a bit sardonically, with the medium essentially advertising his own tacky phoniness.  In any event, Lugosi does get a nice stare in, though the real camp part probably belongs more to his victim, Kruger's Margo, her complete lack of modulation in her "look off into the middle distance like you just had a stroke" encomiums to the medium winding up, for my money, the funniest thing here.)

So I was saying it middles extremely well, with Butler putting in the work, even managing a bit of atmosphere by entering the mansion with "deep compositions" that don't have anything in them, making the expanse of the house into the background kind of spooky all by itself, and going on to lean, for quite a while, on some very hoary tricks, notably punctuating scenes with flashes of lightning and thundercracks.  In 1940, this works in a rather weird way: it is late enough for this kind of thing to be used as genre parody, and there is some vague, intellectual sense that it must be getting used as genre parody here; but even if it's right at the tail end of it, it is still part of the era where it could be sincere scare tactics, and Butler is just absolutely refusing to show his hand.  "Experimental horror" is not where I would have assumed this director's skills would have lain.  (It turns out I'm actually quite familiar with Butler, but unfortunately just for his painfully low hit rate for musicals.  As far as the "musical" element here goes, I hope you like boring 40s big band pop, executed with exactly as much miring in the diegesis as you'd expect from a big band musical made at the outset of that decade, though at least it's executed with some energy.)

But "experimental horror" is kind of what we get, with Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre as enthusiastic collaborators and the rock-solid pillars of that experiment; and for all their paramount importance, this really good middle is perhaps more than anybody's a creature of editor Irene Morra, who is doing the most marvelous job with structuring this as maybe, just a little bit, legitimately and properly horrifying, privileging all three of our horror stars with the perfect timing for the magnificent introductions Butler and cinematographer Frank Redman have arranged for each of themgoodness, Lorre gets two magnificent introductions, since we first spy him as basically just the lower half of a face hovering in the darkness outside a windowand Morra keeps this up for as long as the film could possibly allow, continually souring the harmless goofballery of our heroes with cutaways to all the distinct flavors of malignity brought by the three villains.  For Karloff and Lugosi, you could probably guess what those flavors arecold cruelty behind a whisper-thin friendly veneer and wounded haughtiness seconds away from becoming a furious cackle, respectivelybut Lorre is surprising, permitted an uncommon suavity to his performance, evil and full of mocking contempt in his eyes, but never toadying, and the way the petite German manages to boss Karloff around makes him seem so much more genuinely dangerous than you could ever expect from a movie that I could've dismissively summarized, "some big band guy gets into a wrestling match with Frankenstein and then presents a song sung through an electronic machine that sounds like the device you get after you lose your vocal folds to throat cancer."  And I would not even say that the comic frivolity works against this.  It's the exact oppositethat's the game that Butler and Morra are playingbecause the collision of these tones and these images winds up bolstering the mood of horror, with every cut back to Karloff or Lugosi or Lorre making it feel like this roomfull of gentle idiots are nothing but lambs to the slaughter, hopeless and helpless before their monstrosity.  (One of the better jokes is that Kay places implicit trust in the Peter Lorre character.)

It does, of course, have to end eventually.  I don't know exactly when it stops feeling like a horror moviepossibly never, really, though it stops feeling like a scary horror movie probably around the time a stuffed gorilla falls on Kay in a basement.  On the plus side, even if it's not "horror" anymore, it does have a delightfully mean ending, at least in concept, as you rather wish they'd been able to show more of it on camera (one's suspicion is that they were lucky enough just to get the dog to carry lit sticks of "dynamite" in its mouth for even the couple of shots it does).  And while the comedy suffers, a little, from not being as frequently zapped by the horror, toothe movie is unfortunately just less funny when you've got less to be nervous about, and it may just get less funny as it goes along, regardlessit's just not long enough in its third act to get tedious, and there's something to be said for a movie that has a second act that half-convinces you that you have found a forgotten classic.

Score: 7/10

*As far as I can determine, this film is the very first time the name got changed to College (with a "C") of Musical Knowledge, though it could very well be an art department error rather than someone asking, "excuse me, but what's this business with the KKK?"

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