Wednesday, June 12, 2024

THE DRAGON MURDER CASE (1934)

Director: H. Bruce Humberstone

Writers: F. Hugh Herbert, Robert N. Lee, Rian James, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine

Producer: unknown

Cast: Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Eugene Pallette, Robert McWade, George Meeker, Robert Barrat, Dorothy Tree, Helen Lowell, George E. Stone, William Davidson, Arthur Aylesworth, Etienne Girardot, Robert Warwick, Charles Wilson, (and uncredited cast) Henry Otho, Wilfred Lucas, Milton Kibbee, Sam McDaniel, Bruce Mitchell, Cliff Saum, Eric Wilton, Hedwiga Reicher, Eddie Schubert 

During a house party at the Stamm estate, the guests join Bernice Stamm (Margaret Lindsay) for an evening swim in the outdoor pool. After diving into the so-called “dragon pool,” Bernice’s fiancé, Monty Montague (George Meeker), never resurfaces. Old, dotty family matriarch Mrs. Stamm (Helen Lowell) blames the dragon of North American Indian legend that was supposed to inhabit the river which supplies water to the dammed-up portion making the Stamm’s swimming pool. Police Sgt. Heath (Eugene Pallette) brings District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) along to answer the call from the Stamm estate. Wealthy intellectual and amateur detective Philo Vance (Warren William) tags along to assist in the investigation. Draining the pool does not reveal the missing Monty’s body, only a series of huge, three-toed tracks in the pool’s clay bottom. 

The Flashback Fanatic movie review 

Under the penname S.S. Van Dine, art critic Willard Huntington Wright wrote a series of a dozen mystery novels published from 1926 to 1939. These featured the erudite, amateur sleuth Philo Vance. While the novels were not critically acclaimed and their hero was often derided as a snob, Philo Vance proved to be very popular. Beginning at the end of the silent-film era in 1929, the Vance character was adapted for the movies. During the 1940s, Vance was the basis for three different radio programs. As late as 1974, an Italian television mini-series adapted the first three Philo Vance novels. 

1934’s The Dragon Murder Case was the sixth film in the series and based on the seventh Philo Vance novel. Many considered the novel to be inferior to those before it, and the film adaptation is not often well regarded. Perhaps many Vance film fans missed William Powell who had established himself in the role (which he did not care for) in four of the five previous films. None other than a pre-Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone had also played Vance in one film.

This morbid movie fan has always had a soft spot in his black heart for this Philo Vance flick. Although the mystery and its solution is not as complicated as some previous Vance films, I like the weird menace angle it teases us with. It is also rather unique in that half the movie is over with before the body of the murder victim can be located.

In The Dragon Murder Case, the very popular ’30s film actor Warren William plays Philo Vance the same year that he would become the first actor to portray writer Erle Stanley Gardner’s defense attorney hero Perry Mason. He would play Mason in four consecutive films. William would also star as a detective alongside Bette Davis in Satan Met a Lady (1936), the loose and comedic second adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. William would return to the role of Vance in the mystery-comedy The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). From 1939 to 1943, William would star as The Lone Wolf in nine films of that detective character’s series. Horror buffs will remember William in the supporting role of Dr. Lloyd in 1941’s The Wolf Man.

While the Philo Vance of the novels could be rather off-putting in his snobbery, the Vance of the films seems a bit more appealing. That is probably not due particularly to any change of the character’s personality for the films, merely that the medium of the novels would spell out Vance’s attitudes in much more specific detail. Warren William’s relaxed confidence and refinement seems to be quite suited to the role.

Like many amateur detective heroes, Philo Vance is given plenty of autonomy by the authorities and can be pretty rash in his tactics. If anything had gone wrong during his reenactment of the Monty Montague disappearance, Vance could have been charged with manslaughter or, at least, reckless endangerment. I guess Vance’s already proven crime-solving genius earned him one helluva lot of trust with the authorities.

With dullards like Sgt. Heath around, rash action is welcome. Eugene Pallette portrayed the clueless cop five times, more than any single film actor would play Philo Vance. His character seemed pretty typical for its time. The guys actually on the payroll to solve crimes are usually outclassed in every way by the sleuths outside of the police department. This trope has held true from Sherlock Holmes to Batman. Despite Vance’s reputed snobbery, here he seems pretty tolerant of Sgt. Heath, even as he gently mocks Heath’s tendency to jump to conclusions.

As the featured ingénue that seems to be a major impetus in the plot, Margaret Lindsay does not have much to do. Like just about everyone here, her character of Bernice Stamm is just one piece in this crime-puzzle cast. Nevertheless, she manages to be pleasant and likable without ever getting too angsty about her less-than-ideal, impending marriage to Monty Montague. As a Warner Bros. contract player in the ’30s, Lindsay was kept mighty busy. Her favorite role would be alongside George Sanders and Vincent Price in Universal Pictures’ gothic-flavored The House of the Seven Gables (1940).

Third-billed Lyle Talbot’s Dale Leland is the lovesick guy that has an obvious motive for killing Monty Montague, the fiancé of his true love, Bernice. While he gets plenty of screen time, this seemingly passive role probably had Talbot relishing the times he was loaned out from First National Pictures/Warner Bros. to play the energetic leads in the low-budget crime thrillers The Thirteenth Guest (1932) and A Shriek in the Night (1933).

George Meeker is one of those guys that you inevitably run across in movies of the ’30s and ’40s. He was a very busy actor that wound up usually being cast as the unprincipled supporting character or an outright villain. Actually, his role here as the ill-fated Monty Montague seems a bit less unpleasant than usual, until we find out just how he managed to hook up with Bernice Stamm. Once we learn what his character is about, there is no love loss felt about his fate.

The Stamms really seemed to be begging for trouble when they drew up the guest list for their house party. They not only invite bride-to-be Bernice Stamm’s passed-over sweetheart, they also invite Ruby, an old flame of the ill-fated Monty. Dorothy Tree plays the sexy, blonde Ruby. This macabre movie junkie remembers her best as a vampire bride in both the Bela Lugosi-starring classic Dracula (1931) and the simultaneously produced Spanish version.

I suspect that a lot of the appeal to most of the depression-era audience for films like this was to vicariously experience the lavish comfort of the upper class that they envy, while they can also gloat over strife among the well-to-do and the nasty fates some of them suffer. (Works for me.) Having that ingenious snob Philo Vance crash the party to try solving this whodunit or whatdunit just for the hell of it makes me glad that I attended this sinister soiree called The Dragon Murder Case.

Monday, May 20, 2024

BLACK ZOO (1963), aka HORRORS OF THE BLACK ZOO

Director: Robert Gordon

Writers: Aben Kandel, Herman Cohen

Producer: Herman Cohen

Cast: Michael Gough, Jeanne Cooper, Rod Lauren, Jerome Cowan, Virginia Grey, Elisha Cook, Jr., Edward Platt, Douglas Henderson, Marianna Hill, Warrene Ott, Oren Curtis, Byron Morrow, Eilene Janssen, Joseph Mell, Jerry Douglas, Eric Stone, Zamba (the lion), (and uncredited cast members) Claudia Brack, George Barrows, Dani Lynn, Susan Slavin, Herman Cohen, Daniel Kurlick, Michael St. Angel 

Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) is the proprietor of the Conrad’s Animal Kingdom zoo in Los Angeles. Conrad is absolutely devoted to his animals and treats them with kindness and reverence. The wild animals are so docile in Conrad’s care that he can control them. Whenever anyone threatens to disrupt his life or his zoo, Conrad uses the most dangerous of his animals to kill the offender. 

The Flashback Fanatic movie review 

Producer Herman Cohen was on quite a roll of youth-oriented horror films in the 1950s beginning with such attention-getters as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957). The titled monsters may have been teenagers, but they were made into killers by the schemes of the evil adults that controlled them. Cohen would continue with his teen-angst terrors into the next decade. However, those ’60s productions were more focused on the middle-aged antagonists responsible for all of the villainy. The youths were no longer the title subject or the main drivers of the plot. While those later films seemed to fixate almost exclusively on the petty ambitions and egos of their middle-aged fiends, they still depicted young people being exploited, traumatized, or victimized by their elders. 

In 1963’s Black Zoo, Cohen had once again concocted a crazy scenario that let actor Michael Gough off his leash to chew the scenery as only one of my favorite movie madmen can. As in two previous Cohen productions, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and Konga (1961), Michael Gough’s lead performance as another obsessive and amoral asshole provides most of the entertainment value. That’s plenty for this fan of actors you love to hate. 


Cohen and co-writer Aben Kandel usually reworked premises from previous classic horror films for their own victimized-youth productions. 1933’s Murders in the Zoo seems to be the probable inspiration for Black Zoo. Both films feature a maniacal zookeeper killing his enemies with wild animals. The novelty of those beasts sharing a lot of screen time with the actors was something to distinguish each film from its competition in the genre. 

That is not to say that Black Zoo is a remake of the earlier film. Like all of the other Cohen-Kandel stories, Black Zoo is a variation on a horror trope that goes its own demented way. In the case of this film, the villain does not just use wild animals to dispose of his enemies; he actually controls the beasts. At first it seems that this ability is just the unlikely result of zookeeper Michael Conrad’s love and care of the animals. There is a later suggestion of some mysticism involved. Conrad is a member of an eccentric animal-worshipping cult. There is no direct correlation stated between Conrad’s cult activity and his uncanny control of his beasts. However, being the Michael Gough fan that I am, I can explain almost any antics his despicable characters perpetrate. 

Although I can contrive some credibility for the feats a Michael Gough villain performs, I certainly can’t justify his absolute assholery. (That damned spell-check is even more anal than I am. Assholery is a word, dammit!) It’s bad enough that Gough’s Michael Conrad makes assassins out of his zoo animals. Conrad also treats Carl (Rod Lauren), his mute, teenaged zoo attendant, like a slave. He gets totally pissy about his wife, Edna (Jeanne Cooper), having a few drinks with dinner, and then he flies into a rage when she shows any concern for the sad, mute Carl. Control freak Conrad finally stoops to get his own hands dirty with domestic violence. Amazingly, this abuse turns out to be some very effective foreplay. One murdered casserole and a vicious backhand later, Conrad and Edna are lip-locked in the kitchen. Where’s the justice? This is just another fine example of why we all love to hate Michael Gough villains. 

That kitchen scene leaves us wondering what the hell Jeanne Cooper’s Edna ever saw in the selfish Michael Conrad. Dysfunction between the featured couple is another mainstay of earlier Cohen-Kandel horror films. Like the male heel in the other stories, this film’s Michael Conrad can turn on the charm when he wants to put up a good front. I expected him to start hitting on the cute art students that are sketching animals at his zoo. Gough’s Dr. Decker in Konga would have probably been making the moves here on young Audrey (Marianna Hill). Yet this movie’s Michael Conrad seems devoted only to his zoo animals. 

Rather surprisingly, when Audrey tries to flirt with the handsome, mute Carl, this never leads to anything more than giving Conrad another opportunity to be the belligerent boss. It would have seemed like the perfect opening for more character conflict by having the lonely Carl wanting more out of life than being Conrad’s bullied henchman. This story focuses almost entirely on the “family” of Michael Conrad, wife Edna, young Carl, and the zoo animals.

Those featured animals are usually shown sharing scenes with the actors. Aside from our old friend, the homicidal gorilla suit (George Barrows this time) from Konga, the other dangerous beasts are big cats. We are not only treated to tiger and lion attacks, we also get to see assorted huge felines lounging on the furniture in Conrad’s living room as he serenades them with his pipe organ. They are even allowed to attend a funeral rite Conrad conducts for his deceased tiger in a foggy forest. There are also a couple scenes where the lion is walking right past Michael Gough without the benefit of any trick photography. Maybe it helped the lion to keep his cool sensing that Michael Gough himself was actually very fond of animals. That took a helluva lot more nerve on Gough's part than petting a baby chimp back in Konga! 

Michael Gough’s co-star, Jeanne Cooper, is required to play a character almost as offbeat as the crazed Conrad. As Edna, she had a trained chimp act that she was developing before she married Conrad and devoted her show solely to appearing in Conrad’s zoo. Jeanne Cooper’s acting chops are given quite a workout against Michael Gough in the aforementioned dinner demolition scene. This squabble is mostly covered in a few long takes that show how veteran performers can keep things moving with the spirited back and forth of their performance. That ability to handle long dialogue exchanges must have been a great asset to Jeanne Cooper for her later soap opera career in her forty-year-long role of Katherine Chancellor from 1973 to 2013 on the CBS television series The Young and the Restless (1973 — present). 


Two other familiar television faces appearing here are Edward Platt as Chief Detective Rivers and Elisha Cook, Jr., as zoo attendant Joe. Platt was immortalized later in the decade playing another frustrated authority figure, The Chief, on the spy-spoof series Get Smart (1965-70). Cook had already established himself as mild-mannered or victimized film characters since the 1930s. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, Cook was also a familiar guest star in a multitude of television series. 

While producer Herman Cohen’s earlier Gough-starring films, Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga, get more attention, this 1963 production really delivers the villainy seasoned fright flick fans can relish: zookeeping zealotry inspiring animal attacks and casserole carnage. Black Zoo is yet another cockeyed horror premise valiantly legitimized by the great Michael Gough at his beastly best.

Monday, May 6, 2024

THE HOWLING (1981)

Director: Joe Dante

Writers: John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless, adapting the novel by Gary Brandner

Producers: Michael Finnell, Jack Conrad

Cast: Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, Patrick Macnee, Belinda Balaski, Dennis Dugan, Elisabeth Brooks, Robert Picardo, Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, Slim Pickens, Margie Impert, James Murtaugh, John Carradine, Don McLeod, Kenneth Tobey, Jim McKrell, Noble Willingham, Herb Braha, Steve Nevil, Joe Bratcher, Bill Sorrells, Mesach Taylor, Ivan Saric, Wendell Wright, Michael O’Dwyer, Sarina Grant, Chico Martinez, Daniel Nunez, (and uncredited cast) John Sayles, Forrest J. Ackerman, Roger Corman, Michael Chapman, Mick Garris, Robert A. Burns, Robert Hammond, John Jensen, Jonathan Kaplan, Kelli Thompson 

Eddie ‘the Mangler’ Quist (Robert Picardo) is a serial killer that has been using Los Angeles as his hunting ground. He has a fixation on television news anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace). In cooperation with the police, Karen agrees to meet with Eddie in the hopes that this will result in the killer’s capture. The dangerous encounter results in Eddie being shot to death and Karen being traumatized. To help recuperate from this disturbing experience, Karen and her husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone), take a vacation at The Colony, a country retreat for group psychological therapy. Karen finds more stress with some of the odd characters staying at The Colony, and the howling that she hears from the woods around her cabin frightens her. 

The Flashback Fanatic movie review 

Director Joe Dante’s previous fright flick, Piranha (1978), was his sci-fi variation on Jaws (1975). His horror follow up here is a modern spin on werewolves that reveals they are as susceptible to incompatibility with modern society as anyone else. In their case, those concerns are not just to achieve happiness but also to ensure their survival. 

Although this film is adapted from the original novel by Gary Brandner, director Dante was unsatisfied with earlier scripts that were more faithful to the source material. So, John Sayles was brought in to write an entirely new story using just a few elements from Brandner’s novel. Sayles once again concocts a fine mix of horror, humor, and quirky characters as he did for Joe Dante’s Piranha. Sayles also plays an uncredited role as the morgue attendant. 

Another of the talents from Piranha, special make-up effects artist Rob Bottin, created a lot of The Howling’s attention-getting buzz with a fantastic transformation sequence. His efforts result in the scene that set the creature effects standard for decades to come. Bottin’s expertise was noticed and he became a much-in-demand talent. He would continue to distinguish himself with his work in a succession of thrilling genre films, such as The Thing (1981), RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), and many more. 

The Howling is a film that looks and sounds great. Cinematographer John Hora’s lighting enhances the mood of just about every interior scene and his views of the foggy forest have a nightmarish beauty. Pino Donnagio’s fine music score boosts the creep factor even higher. 

Ably assisted by these great talents, director Joe Dante once again expertly mounts a horror gem of many facets. The Howling flaunts humor that is never at the expense of the horror, which is a pretty tricky balancing act. Much of that humor is used to expose the pretense and crassness of media that caters to a cynical and apathetic audience. The film’s characters are not explored at any great depth, but they are all well realized with good performances. 

Anyone who can’t fall in love with Dee Wallace during this movie is heartless. As our heroine, traumatized newscaster Karen White, Wallace gives a great performance with her simply drawn character. Her sensitivity and vulnerability keep us loyally on her side every minute. Wallace had appeared in horror specialist Wes Craven’s classic The Hills Have Eyes (1977). She would soon star in the Steven Spielberg sci-fi blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). When Wallace got top billing in the Stephen King novel adaptation Cujo (1983), she was joined in the small cast by The Howling’s Christopher Stone. 

Dee Wallace’s soon-to-be husband, Christopher Stone, appears in The Howling as her character’s spouse, Bill Neill. He provides a nice, solid support to the traumatized sensitivity of Karen White. Bill seems like a stable and caring sort of guy and is responsible for prompting Karen to follow through on visiting the retreat to help with her emotional trauma. Unfortunately, Bill eventually becomes unreliable and creates even further stress for our troubled heroine. 

Belinda Balaski, who was so likable in Piranha, continues to win me over as Karen White’s best friend and co-worker, Terri Fisher. She is featured in two of this movie’s scariest scenes. 

The third beauty to grace the main cast is Elisabeth Brooks. She is unforgettable as Marsha, the most exotic resident of The Colony. Whether decked out in her provocative leather dress or much less, she manages to be both sexy and unsettling. 

Certainly the film’s most unsettling character is Eddie ‘the Mangler’ Quist. Robert Picardo plays Karen White’s fiendish fanboy to perverse perfection. His rendezvous with his favorite anchorwoman in the movie booth of a porn shop is the first of many creepy scenes in The Howling. We are introduced to Eddie as only a shadowy presence that neither Karen White nor the audience is allowed to get a good look at. Picardo’s soft-spoken dialogue is dripping with lust and menace that makes the audience squirm as much as poor Karen. 

One of director Dante’s favorite actors and cult film favorite, Dick Miller, plays yet another of his characters named Walter Paisley. This time around he is the proprietor of an occult bookstore. Miller’s character is this film’s brusque, modern answer to the Professor Van Helsing-type of folklore authority found in many traditional horror films. Miller has said that this was his favorite role and he really shines during his brief time in it.


The cast is rounded out with a lot of other great actors for fans of genre films and television. Patrick Macnee, John Carradine, Kenneth Tobey, Slim Pickens, and Dennis Dugan join Piranha’s Kevin McCarthy. Even Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine editor Forrest J. Ackerman makes an appearance. 

With such casting, it is apparent that director Joe Dante was indulging himself and other horror film fans. In addition to The Wolf Man (1941) playing on television, many of this film’s characters are named after directors of werewolf films. Despite this sense of fun, the film never lapses into meta-film contrivances that take us out of the movie. Dante still keeps us invested in the characters’ situations and concerns. 

“Repression is the father of neurosis,” states Patrick Macnee as trendy psychotherapist celebrity Dr. George Waggner. The effects of repression on individual behavior and society are evident throughout The Howling. We see the denizens of the sleazy side of town called “flotsam and jetsam” by Kenneth Tobey’s veteran cop, yet many of them are there just to partake of the disreputable delights of prostitutes and pornography. Repression by society does not quell those longings; it merely makes their indulgence more dangerous. 

While repression has been responsible for so many people throughout the ages being guilted into their hang-ups, society also recognizes that an individual’s amoral freedom can pose dangers to others. The Howling explores the sociopathy of hedonism. Releasing the most basic inhibitions may be a lot of fun, but lycanthropy demonstrates the worst-case scenario for such behavior. The abandonment of empathy and conscience results in a loss of humanity. It is this total disregard for others and ultimately the resulting destruction of a stable society that is the danger posed by everyone giving in to all of their innermost, selfish desires. 

The Howling also makes the sensual aspect of werewolves more overt than prior films. Lycanthropy is not treated as a curse but as a turn-on. However, turning into a werewolf is risky behavior. Civilization has a long and often shameful history of persecuting those not conforming to prevailing social norms, but stopping monsters that enjoy killing people seems to be a wisely accepted standard. The main concern here for those afflicted with lycanthropy is not being cured but to figure out how to keep getting away with it. As if that’s not deep enough for you, The Howling also answers the burning question: Do werewolves do it doggy style? 

1981 was a golden age for horror films. As a regular reader of the new Fangoria magazine, I had been really jazzed to see The Howling, and it did not disappoint. Its perfect blend of horror, humor, sex, and satire serves up a fun fright flick that is thrilling, touching, and just a bit thought provoking. The Howling was one of the best times this horror hound has ever had at a movie theater.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

THUNDER IN THE PINES (1948)

Director: Robert Edwards

Writers: Jo Pagano, Maurice Tombragel

Producer: William Stephens

Cast: George Reeves, Ralph Byrd, Lyle Talbot, Denise Darcel, Marion Martin (as Marian Martin), Greg McClure, Michael Whalen, Vince Barnett, Roscoe Ates, Tom Kennedy, (and uncredited cast) Frank Hagney, Milicent Patrick, Arno Tanney, Jack Tornek, Joey Ray 

Wartime buddies Jeff Collins (George Reeves) and ‘Boomer’ Benson (Ralph Byrd) are now northern Wisconsin lumberjack foremen. Each of them has been secretly corresponding with a girl that they met in France during the war. When French beauty Yvette Cheron (Denise Darcel) meets both men at the Osega town train station, Collins and Benson realize that they are both after the same woman. Shifty, local businessman Nick Roulade (Lyle Talbot) has recently hired Collins and Benson separately to harvest the pines on different halves of his land. The two logging pals have become competitors to deliver the timber from their assigned areas by an April 1st deadline. The winner of the competition will not only win a bonus; he will also win the hand of the flirtatious Yvette. 

The Flashback Fanatic movie review 

There are some movies that seem to have trouble fitting neatly into a genre. Those are often highfalutin dramas that usually deal with heavy issues, and an audience will only line up for them when household names take the starring roles. However, some oddball B films never intended to be anything more than light entertainment while somehow avoiding common genre classifications. One would think that a modest production would need to push an obvious and exploitable genre to hook an audience needing a reliable fix from a certain kind of story. Moviegoers will not need big production values or major stars if there is an intriguing mystery to solve, a criminal gang to defeat, a monster to destroy, or an Old West town to clean up. One then has to wonder just what was the intent behind Thunder in the Pines. 

I was surprised to learn that there have been over forty films about lumberjacks. During the first half of the 20th century, this line of work must have been widespread enough to get the attention of filmmakers. Still, lumberjacks were hardly the basis for a thriving film genre. Western, horror, and crime pictures would have seemed to be much safer and easier fare for the low-budget filmmaker to market. 

Nevertheless, Robert L. Lippert’s Screen Guild Productions (soon to be renamed Lippert Pictures) must have decided that the off-the-beaten-path environment and situations of Northwoods logging would provide an interesting backdrop for some macho shenanigans. In those days there also seemed to be more of an interest for wilderness-based adventures. Lippert must have been pretty enthusiastic about Thunder in the Pines to go to the trouble of having it made with sepia-tone prints. 

The obscure Thunder in the Pines is chiefly remembered for starring George Reeves. Prior to this film, Reeves had a long string of roles in B films and notable appearances in a few prestigious pictures. Early in his career, Reeves had the small role as one of the Tarleton twins in one of the most famous films of all time, Gone with the Wind (1939). Just before his military service, he starred in 1943’s Oscar-nominated, World War II drama So Proudly We Hail! After the wartime service interruption of his career, George Reeves was back to B films. This was frustrating for Reeves because his acting career seemed to be a casualty of bad timing. When he made Thunder in the Pines, Reeves was just three years away from becoming famous as Clark Kent/Superman in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951), which led to the Adventures of Superman television series (1952-1958). Despite landing a small role in the Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity (1953), Reeves was typecast as the Man of Steel for the rest of his life. 

Reeves’ co-star, Ralph Byrd, was another B film veteran that had already become famous for portraying a comic strip hero. Byrd had made many appearances in small and supporting roles in movies throughout the 1930s. His claim to fame was starring in film adaptations of Chester Gould’s detective newspaper strip, Dick Tracy. Beginning in 1937, Byrd starred as Tracy in four Republic Pictures serials, two RKO Radio Pictures feature films, and 48 episodes of the Dick Tracy ABC television series (1950-51). Byrd also starred in other serials including another adaptation of a hero from the comics. Columbia Pictures’ serial The Vigilante (1947) had Byrd playing the masked, motorcycle-riding, crime-fighting cowboy published by DC Comics. 

Producer William Stephens had already co-starred George Reeves and Ralph Byrd earlier the same year in Jungle Goddess (1948). There they also played two pals that wind up pitted against each other. That previous film was a pretty dull jungle flick that gave actors Reeves and Byrd just a bit more dramatic meat to gnaw on, but it did not allow them any of the rambunctious fun found here. For Thunder in the Pines, they play wartime chums that became peacetime lumberjacking partners goaded into competing against each other for love and money. Reeves and Byrd approach their roles with gung-ho enthusiasm that adds a lightly comedic edge to their mutual antagonism. 

Stephens’ unfulfilled intention was to keep these two actors as a team in a succession of pictures. With the previous film set in the African jungle, Thunder in the Pines located in the Northwoods, and a third movie planned to take place in South America, perhaps the intent at the time was to make the Reeves/Byrd duo the low-budget-adventure-film answer to the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby team in their “Road” pictures. Thunder in the Pines is certainly not intent on being as satirical and musical as the “Road” films, but it features plenty of light-hearted conflict set in an unusual locale. 

The draw for today’s movie buffs seeking out this film is seeing Superman vs. Dick Tracy. Since neither Reeves’ Jeff Collins nor Byrd’s ‘Boomer’ Benson have any super powers, it should be a fair fight. The story begins with these two pals slugging each other in a barroom. This maniacal, manly fun is only interrupted when they pause to ogle shapely, blonde Pearl (Marion Martin) strutting into the tavern. Then they make a note to one another to resume their brawl at a later date and have at their beers. Throughout this film, Collins and Benson are on the verge of pummeling each other at every opportunity. 


One may wonder where hardworking lumberjacks find the energy to waste clobbering each other for kicks in their down time, especially as we see plenty of tree-cutting action without a single chainsaw to be found. Well, that’s easy for Collins and Benson, since they are the logging ramrods just barking orders all day at their men who are doing all of the grunt work. 


In the small logging town of Osega, it seems that there is nothing to do but work, drink, and fight. All work and no play make lumberjacks punch drunk. One magical aspect of this little burg is that the few women who ever set foot in town are always knockouts that can break up the monotony of beer and brawling for our heroes. 

Marion Martin, as Pearl, is my favorite character in this thing. I suppose you are all probably thinking that just makes me a lech. Hardly. I’m a lech and a lush, so there! Martin was the sexy garnish to many cinematic concoctions throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Here in Thunder in the Pines, Martin gets some of the best lines and makes adlib mixology simple and dangerous. I guess if I were going to die of alcohol poisoning, it might go down easier if my bartender looked like Marion Martin. 


Pearl sashays into Osega, Wisconsin to hook up again with Nick Roulade, owner of the town’s tavern and large swaths of the surrounding woodland. B movie stalwart Lyle Talbot plays Roulade. Talbot was a familiar face as an up-and-coming star during the ’30s at Warner Brothers, a very busy character actor in films of the ’40s and ’50s, and a prolific television performer. His Nick Roulade certainly qualifies as the heel in Thunder in the Pines. Not only does Roulade cheat at cards and try swindling the two lumberjacking partners he has pitted against each other, he slobbers all over the luscious Pearl that has come carrying a torch for him all the way from Chicago to be his barmaid. I can’t say I blame the guy, but then Nick Roulade immediately fixates on the very next nubile visitor to Osega. 

Once Yvette Cheron rolls into this little logging town, the greed and gonads get out of control. Yvette seems to enjoy wrapping every guy’s woody around her little finger. She knowingly encourages Jeff Collins and ‘Boomer’ Benson to compete for her. However, she is all too aware of the interest Nick Roulade has also taken in her. Yup, she’s a beautiful, bad influence. French actress Denise Darcel plays her without a sense of malice, but she sure can be fickle. Darcel first caught my eye as the voluptuous spitfire Lola in Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950). 

Apparently, a town as small as Osega can only make room for visitors if they are gorgeous gals. Milicent Patrick plays the last of the only three women we ever meet in Osega. She’s the beautiful brunette in black that drops in at the film’s finale. Patrick was a model, a bit player in films, and had occasional guest roles in television series, but she made her greatest filmic impact as an artist. She had worked in animation for Walt Disney Productions. Later, Patrick would become involved in special effects makeup at Universal Studios and designed such famous movie monsters as the alien of It Came from Outer Space (1953) and the Gill-man of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). 

Thunder in the Pines succeeds almost entirely because of this interesting cast. It has the added eccentricities of our two heroes’ manic behavior and the unusual locale where they brawl and bicker. Since this is all tossed off with a light touch, it makes an amusing, offbeat oddity for B film fans. So, button up your flannel shirts and pour yourself a cold one to get braced for this lumberjack lunacy. Timberrr!!!

This post was contributed to The 2nd Annual 'Favorite Stars in B Movies' Blogathon hosted at Films From Beyond the Time Barrier.

THE DRAGON MURDER CASE (1934)

Director: H. Bruce Humberstone Writers: F. Hugh Herbert, Robert N. Lee, Rian James, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine Producer: unknown...