Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spooks Run Wild (Banner/Monogram, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran my latest $5 acquisition from Suncoast Video: Spooks Run Wild, a 1941 “comedy” which credited three production companies (a Sam Katzman Banner Production, copyrighted by Monogram Pictures and released for TV showing by Astor Films) and starred Bela Lugosi and the Dead End Kids a.k.a. East Side Kids a.k.a. Bowery Boys. Not that the boys were bad — Leo Gorcey could really act, and Huntz Hall was at least cute — but their scripts were, and Spooks is Katzman’s attempt at a shotgun wedding between Lugosi’s alleged “horror” films and the kids’ series. It’s all about the search for a “Monster Killer” who’s terrorizing the countryside in upstate New York (whence the kids have been shipped in an attempt to get them out of the street and teach them some traditional family values); Lugosi, of course, is a red herring (a stage magician), and from the moment the real killer enters 13 minutes and 40 seconds into the film, his “surprise” identity is readily apparent from the pince-nez glasses and absurdly fake beard he wears. — 4/10/93


After watching Inception the other night both Charles and I felt the need for a sort of cinematic palate cleanser — a nice, short, undemanding little movie — and we found it in Spooks Run Wild, a sort of appendix to our recent run-through of the supposedly “serious” Bela Lugosi vehicles for Banner/Monogram in the early 1940’s because it was the first of two comedies that teamed him with the East Side Kids. It was made in 1941, well after what had originally been known as the Dead End Kids — they’d been assembled to play the juvenile toughs in Sidney Kingsley’s play Dead End on Broadway and then hired as a unit for Sam Goldwyn’s 1937 film version, then snapped up by Warner Bros. for the film Angels With Dirty Faces (despite its klutzy title, a superb gangster film, justly regarded as a classic, with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart in the major adult roles) and a few other, less prestigious movies like Crime School (also with Bogart) and the sequel Angels Wash Their Faces (Ann Sheridan carried over but the male lead was Ronald Reagan).

Meanwhile, Universal hired some of the Kids and built them into a series attraction of their own called the Little Tough Guys, and in 1940 producer Sam Katzman signed members of both and put them together for what he called the East Side Kids, later the Bowery Boys. (They were still making Bowery Boys movies as late as 1956, by which time the “kids” were men in their 30’s and they looked silly in all the wrong, unintended ways in these parts.) When he made Spooks Run Wild Katzman seemed unsure about the continuing drawing power of the Kids, since he billed Bela Lugosi above the title and didn’t use the “East Side Kids” moniker at all — though the most familiar names among the Kids, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan, were billed as individuals below Lugosi’s name and the title on the same card. Spooks Run Wild begins with the boys being rounded up and sent off to summer camp by well-meaning reformer Jeff Dixon (Dave O’Brien, who’d worked with Lugosi before on his 1941 PRC film The Devil Bat) and his girlfriend Linda Mason (played by O’Brien’s real-life wife, Dorothy Short). Incidentally “Linda Mason” is also the name of Marjorie Reynolds’ character in Holiday Inn, and when she introduces herself to stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as if they’re supposed to have heard of her and Crosby mocks her by saying, “Oh, that Linda Mason,” it’s nice to know that there was a real Linda Mason character in another, albeit far less prestigious movie (which is almost as amusing as the existence of a real-life Vicki Lester in several late-1930’s RKO “B” films just as David O. Selznick was producing the first version of A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor playing a fictitious “Vicki Lester”).

Anyway, the boys — including Black East Side Kid Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison (who gets saddled with some cheap jokes about his skin color but otherwise is treated far more equally than most Black sidekicks in major-studio films in 1941) — escape on their first night of camp and make it to a house on a hillside that had been deserted for 10 years before it was rented by sinister figure Nardo (Bela Lugosi) and his dwarf sidekick Luigi (Angelo Rossitto) — Rossitto, who got in a lot of Lugosi’s movies because when he wasn’t working as an actor he was a cigar seller and he apparently had access to a particular brand Lugosi especially liked, is costumed so much like Lugosi, with a miniature version of his hat and Dracula cape, that well before the Austin Powers series he seems to be Lugosi’s Mini-Me.

The kids, the reformer couple who got them into the country in the first place, the local cops (actually considerably brighter than the ones in Lugosi’s later Monogram, Voodoo Man) and everyone else are warned to be on the lookout for a sex-related serial killer who’s called “Monster Killer” in the newspaper headlines about him, and a man named Dr. Van Grosch (Dennis Moore) shows up claiming to be a criminologist trying to catch the “Monster Killer.” From the moment he shows up in one of the most outrageously fake-looking beards ever worn on screen, we just know he’s up to no good, and after the usual folderol of a haunted-house movie it finally turns out that Van Grosch is the “Monster Killer” and Lugosi is merely a stage magician who rented the old deserted house to work on a new act (a clear parallel to his role in the 1935 MGM film The Mark of the Vampire as a stage actor posing as a vampire to help police chief Lionel Barrymore catch a serial killer).

The weirdest thing about Spooks Run Wild is the writing credit to Carl Foreman and Charles R. Marion, with additional dialogue by Jack Henley — Marion and Henley had insignificant careers but Foreman went on to work on some great movies, including High Noon and The Bridge on the River Kwai (he won an Academy Award for the latter, but because he was blacklisted in the early 1950’s he wasn’t credited either on the original release of the film or on the awards citation — instead the official writer was Pierre Boulle, who had written the novel on which Kwai was based but was French, didn’t know English and therefore could not possibly have written, unaided, the script for an English-language movie, and Foreman and co-writer Michael Wilson, also a blacklistee, didn’t receive official credit for Kwai until 1984, after both were dead), an embarrassing early credit (Foreman’s only credit before Spooks Run Wild was on another East Side Kids Monogram, Bowery Blitzkrieg) to rival those of Academy Award-winning composers Elmer Bernstein and John Williams on Cat Women on the Moon and Daddy-O, respectively.

Like most of the Dead End Kids/Little Tough Guys/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies, Spooks Run Wild isn’t especially funny but is cute (the best gag is one in which Leo Gorcey is reading a book after lights-out in the camp bunkhouse, one of the other kids asks him how he can read in the dark and Gorcey says, “I went to night school”), though Lugosi is basically used as a human prop, going through a lot of Dracula-esque motions to preserve his red-herring status, ignoring his genuine talents as a farceur in supporting roles in major-studio productions like International House and Ninotchka. — 12/29/10