In New York City people of a certain class live on the Upper East Side. Stockbrokers, lawyers, Nazis...
This poster would have sucked us right through the moviehouse doors had we been around when it was on display. It has beautiful colors, an air of mystery, a nice design, and dramatic graphics. The House on 92nd Street, which starred William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, and Signe Hasso (who we've seen a lot of lately), definitely doesn't rise to the level of the promo art. It qualifies as a propaganda film, though the events depicted are accurate. But with J. Edgar Hoover appearing briefly in the prologue, a stentorian narration, stilted dialogue, and a soundtrack that veers toward the martial, it's pretty hard to immerse yourself in what is undeniably a Hollywood-on-FBI stroke job.
If you take the plunge, the movie turns out to be about a German American student who is recruited by Nazis but instead becomes a double agent for the FBI during the period when World War II was raging in Europe but the U.S. wasn't militarily involved yet. German spies had been deployed around the U.S., and the movie deals with a particular group that gets wind of an important military secret, the secret of—dum dum duuuuuuum—the bomb. You know. The big bomb. The A-bomb. The nuke. The edge. The be-all. The end-all. The mushroom cloud layin', eyeball meltin', city flattenin', effervescently fissionatin' ordnance both Germany and the U.S. thought would win the war. Good premise, actually.
But since World War II was almost over when the film came out, the plot's outcome was a given. Did audiences feel any suspense? We aren't convinced. Even if the FBI hadn't routed out the spies, the skyrocketing Upper East Side real estate prices would have. The Nazis would have moved to the Bronx seeking cheaper rent. With the conclusion not in doubt, the movie's thrills needed to be provided by the audience's attachment to double agent Eythe, who's in constant danger of being outed and de-cortexed by a Luger slug. Unfortunately, he's mostly an empty suit, therefore the movie fails on that level. It was well reviewed in its day, but duh, critics need to eat too. We doubt many would have panned the movie at that time. But the lens of history is cruel and today the film is considered substandard.
The best aspect of The House on 92nd Street is Signe Hasso as the cast iron Frau Farbissina style bitch operating the nest of naughty Nazis, but she's not enough to save the production—nor ultimately the spy ring. If the filmmakers had ditched the narration, the scare music, the scare Hoover, and gone less procedural and more personal, maybe there would have been a good film in this somewhere, but as it turned out it's just a middling crime melodrama considered to be a fringy film noir—certainly one the genre could do without. The poster, though, remains very nice. The House on 92nd Street premiered today in 1945.
Of course I'm happy. Why? Don't I look happy?
Above is a nice shot of Swedish film star Greta Garbo, someone who made the transition from actress to legend in her lifetime. That was not only due to her hit films and award nominations, but also her perceived melancholic persona, seeming indifference to the press, and retirement while still in her prime at age thirty-five. She was mysterious until the day she died. This promo was made in 1931 while she was playing the lead role in Mata Hari, about the infamous exotic dancer and accused World War I spy.
These mystical lion statues are supposed to bring good luck and fortune. I'm making this one my agent.
This elegant photo of June Duprez with a Chinese guardian lion was made when she was filming the drama Calcutta. According to tradition these lions ward off malign influences, and no wonder she's hanging onto it. She was born in England during World War I on a night when Germans were bombing her town. She survived and went on to make a mark in Hollywood, appearing in films like The Thief of Baghdad and Little Tokyo, U.S.A., but due to various factors her career stalled, and she found herself broke and cut off from family money back home due to the chaos of World War II. She made it through this second unstable period—no info on whether the lion helped—but her film career never recovered. Even so, we find her to be an impressive screen presence. We've heard that her best movie may be the 1945 mystery And Then There Were None, so we're going to check that out. This photo is from 1946.
In the Ministry of Fear they bake better than they spy.
Fritz Lang was one of the most important directors of his era, both in his native Germany and in the U.S., and was a pioneer of the film noir form. Movies like Scarlet Street and especially The Big Heat are essential noir viewing. Ministry of Fear dates from a bit earlier and finds Lang saddled with what we consider to be a substandard script that through sheer artistry he makes into a watchable film. Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, and Dan Duryea headline in a spy tale that revolves around Lang's favorite villains—the Nazis. Jewish and German, he left his homeland for Paris and beyond during the ascent of the Nazis during the 1930s, so the subject was personal for him, and was one he'd dealt with in previous films such as Cloak and Dagger and Hangmen Also Die.
In Ministry of Fear Milland plays a man who spends two years in a British asylum and is released at a time when World War II is raging and London is being bombed. He goes to a charity carnival and is enticed into guessing a cake's weight for a chance to win it, and because he's been given the correct answer by a fortuneteller, is victorious. But it's soon clear that the correct weight wasn't supposed to be given to him, and he isn't supposed to have won the cake. But he really wants it and resists attempts by the carny folks to take it back. He loses it during a train ride when a passenger beats the snot out of him for it, and at that point finally realizes the obvious—sweet though this confection may have been, it wasn't sought by various and sundry for its flavor, but because inside was something important. He wants answers, and he'll have to risk his neck to get them.
Generally with movies it's best to simply accept the premise, but there are limits. We were never clear on why it was necessary to put this important item in a cake. We understand subterfuge is involved in the spy game, but why not just hand the item over in an alley, or a pub bathroom, or a parked car? And if food must be involved, why a cake? Why not a haggis, or something else very few people want to just gobble up on the spot? A dried cod maybe. A blood sausage would have done. Plus they're easy to transport. You can just stick them in your pockets. And in a tight spot a whack across the nose with a blood sausage is far more effective than shoving cake in someone's mug. The cake gimmick was probably—strike that—certainly better explained in Graham Greene's source novel. We haven't read it but we're confident about that. It could have been Lang who screwed the pooch, but it was more likely Seton I. Miller. He was screenwriter as well as executive producer.
In any case Milland bumbles his way through a train trip, across a moor, in and out of a crazy séance, and into a maze of misdirection to the eventual revelation of what's inside the cake, but the whole time we kept thinking the movie should be called Ministry of Cut-Rate Spies. We don't mean to say it's a total loss. It isn't like the Eddie Izzard comedy routine, “Cake or Death.” You won't choose death over cake. But it's a pretty uninspiring flick. The old dramas that have survived have done so for a simple reason. Most of them are good. Ministry of Fear isn't bad. It's just meh. It's like a cake that fell—it's flat and dense, but teases you with how yummy it could have been. It premiered in England today in 1944.
Here, have your cake. And eat it too. Heh. I prefer blood sausage for train trips, but I guess it's better for you I'm not shoving one of those in your face, eh? Wow, you sort of... crush the shit out of your cake before eating it. Have I been eating cake wrong the whole time I've been in England?
Gardner and MacMurray juggle love and danger in wartime Malaysia.
We talked about the 1947 war adventure Singapore in August. Here's a beautiful Italian poster for the film, on which co-star Ava Gardner takes front and center, with Fred MacMurray lurking in the background. There are several Italian promos. This one is by Zadro, who painted a number of other brilliant pieces, but about whom little is known today. We'll get back to him. And you can read more about the movie here.
Hello, police? I'd like to report an explosive orgasm.
Earlier this week in Germany, outside the town of Passau on the Austrian-Czech border, a jogger was running through the forest and came across a bag that seemed to have items inside. Perhaps hoping to find something useful or valuable, the jogger investigated this discarded sack and saw that it contained what looked like a World War II-era hand grenade. Though the war has been over for seventy-plus years, live grenades are still found in the forests of Europe, and everyone there knows that, so it's no surprise the jogger called the police.
Eventually a German bomb squad slogged out into the woods to investigate, and noticed that the bag also contained a tube of sex lubricant called Aquaglide and some condoms. The anti-climax must have been tremendous.
“Horst, your camera feed is bad. What the hell am I seeing there? Is that a tube of accelerant? Something explosive? Over.”
“No sir, it's lube. Over.”
“Sex lube, sir. Sex lube for the cockenspiel. Over.”
At that point the bomb squad deduced that the grenade was actually a rubber sex toy. But looking at it, we're unsure how it's meant to be used. We poked around online, in the process turning our browser history into a sexual free-for-all, and finally found the item you see in the second photo. But we'd be lying if we said that cleared things up for us. It's a hand pump of some sort, or possibly some unisex inflatable insertable, but considering the Passau photo also shows what looks like a power brick and a usb cable, we remain mystified. We're calling the German discovery the grenade of ecstasy.
Even though we don't know exactly how the grenade of ecstasy was meant to be used, we know what it's being used for now. The Passau bomb squad is taking turns pranking each other with it. Bomb squads have a lot of down time. The grenade has already turned up at the bottom of someone's bowl of kartoffelsuppe. And for sure it's been delivered by a bomb disposal robot to someone on the toilet. But the absolute best was throwing it into the dayroom while screaming, “Grenate! Alles runter! Alles runter!” followed by someone charging in, throwing himself on top of it, and ripping a massive pilsener fart. You gotta love those bomb guys.
Interestingly, because bomb squads are used to facing death, the Passau guys never cleaned the grenade of ecstasy. It's still got forest mulch and dried human fluids all over it. That's what makes the kartoffelsuppe gag funny. But bomb squads tire quickly of even the most thrilling diversions, and eventually they'll discard their new toy just like the person who dumped it in the woods. At which point they'll turn their attention to the Aquaglide. We recommend smearing it on someone's bomb disposal tools. That'll make the next bomb emergency dangerous and slippery. Pure fun for all involved.
Medical malpractice reaches epidemic proportions in wartime murder mystery.
This poster for the thriller Green for Danger, which was made in England and premiered there today in 1946, asks about its central syringe image, “Murder weapon or clue?” Psst! It's both. That's not a spoiler. We call attention to it because it's strange that the question even made it onto the poster. It's not as if one answer precludes the other. In any case, there's more than one murder weapon. But the weapon used in the central murder is not a word that rolls off the tongue, so we guess the filmmakers opted to focus on the syringe used in a later murder because it was simple. That isn't a spoiler either.
Green for Danger, which is based on a 1944 novel by Christianna Brand, is set in World War II era London, when the city is being besieged by German V-1 buzz bombs. These bombs, actually more akin to missiles, couldn't be aimed, so instead were designed to run out of fuel over a general area and fall wherever. The point was terror. In the film, when people hear the devices flying somewhere overhead they don't panic, but if the sound of the engine stops, everyone knows death is coming down and runs for cover.
When a victim of one of these bombings dies in surgery in a London hospital, a staff member comes to think it was murder. She voices her suspicions, foolishly as it turns out, and is the next to be dispatched. At that point in comes the shambling detective to solve the crime. He's played by Alistair Sim with considerable humor, which may seem inappropriate in a thriller, but this the movie is also a bit like a wartime soap opera, young doctors in love, that sort of thing, so Sim's wry personality sort of fits.
But it's still mainly a whodunnit, and such movies usually end either with the dick explaining to the assembled suspects who committed the crime, or with him concocting some baroque scheme to cause the killer to unmask himself. This one ends with Sim doing both, which leads to a preposterous set-up for the finale, but we won't spoil that either. In the end Green for Danger—equal parts thriller, melodrama, whodunnit send-up, and comedy—was good fun.
A future literary star puts audiences on notice with a downbeat debut.
Mario Puzo published The Dark Arena in 1955. He would be world famous fifteen years later thanks to his blockbuster novel The Godfather, but here readers find him exploring post-World War II Bremen, Germany, which is bombed out and partitioned between American and Russian troops. His main character Walter Mosca tries to find purpose in this blasted landscape, but his own nature and the chaos around him prevent him finding the humanity he lost in the war. Even the love of his girlfriend Hella can't seem to fill the hole inside him. The book is overwhelmingly tragic in mood from the very first pages, and it becomes obvious which character is going to bear the brunt of the inevitable sad ending, but those aren't criticisms. Puzo's talent in this, his debut novel produced at age twenty-five, shines in the darkness. Like a lot of first books it could be pared down, but on the other hand it's interesting when Puzo stretches his literary wings in lengthy descriptive passages obviously derived from personal observation. He was clearly a star in the making. That may sound like 20/20 hindsight, but it isn't. If The Dark Arena had been the only book Puzo ever published it would be an underground classic today and people would wonder why he never built on his promise. Luckily for world literature, he did.
The deeper you go the tighter it gets.
We've all seen movies about the long con, the elaborate, drawn-out, multi-participant scam. The Crooked Web, aka The Big Shock, starring Frank Lovejoy, Richard Denning, and Mari Blanchard, is an early example of the sub-genre. The plan is for a group of crooks to sell a cache of gold one of them found in Germany during World War II, but the con takes an unexpected twist early, and we learn that the trap being set is deeper than it first seemed. We can't share more details, but we can tell you the film strives greatly to rise above its b-movie constraints with plenty of exterior shooting and a script with international scope. The plot even takes the principals to post-war Germany—which looks a lot like Southern California even with matte work designed to put the foreign illusion across. But you have to forgive budget woes. The flaw that's difficult to overlook is the unbelievable carelessness of the central scam artists, who are posing as brother and sister, but are really lovers and can't keep their hands off each other even when their mark is just around the corner. They're almost busted while in the clinch multiple times, which is a laughable lack of restraint when there's so much at stake. But the shortest route to dramatic tension is to make characters behave like morons. We've talked about it before. It's lazy screenwriting, but that's okay—The Crooked Web is still a fun movie. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1955 |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1938—Archbishop Denounces Dance Music
The Archbishop of Dubuque, Francis J. L. Beckman, makes headlines in the U.S. when he attacks swing music as a degenerated musical system destined to gnaw away at the moral fiber of young people. His denouncement follows on the heels of the music being banned in Germany due to its African and Jewish origins.
1993—Vincent Price Dies
American actor Vincent Price, who had achieved the height of his fame acting in low budget horror movies, and became famous again as the macabre voice in Michael Jackson's song "Thriller," dies at age 82 of complications from emphysema and Pariknson's disease.
1929—Stock Market Crashes
Black Thursday, a catastrophic crash on the New York Stock Exchange, occurs when the value of stocks suddenly declines and continues to decline for a month. The event leads to a subsequent crash in world stock prices and precipitates the Great Depression. This after famous economist Irving Fisher had declared that stock prices had reached a permanently high plateau.
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying
. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
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