Thursday, August 5, 2010

Saturday, January 17, 1970: The Frozen Ghost (1945)

Synopsis: Alex Gregor (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a successful stage hypnotist who's got it all: sold-out live performances, a national radio show and a knockout assistant named Maura (Evelyn Ankers), to whom he is engaged. Performing as "The Great Gregor", his act is to first put Maura in a trance, then have her read the minds of astonished audience members.

One night a loud-mouthed drunk heckles Gregor, who gamely invites the man up to the stage. Gregor offers to hypnotize the guy and have him answer questions from the audience, just as Maura did. But the drunk is uncooperative and as Gregor stares into his eyes he angrily wishes the man were dead. Instantly the drunk keels over -- stone dead!

Gregor is mortified and turns himself over to the police. But the coroner states that the man was a heavy drinker with a heart condition, and the death is ruled the result of natural causes.

This does not satisfy the morose mentalist, who spends the night walking the streets, muttering "Death....death!" over and over.

So distraught is Gregor that he breaks off his engagement with Maura. His manager George Keene (Milburn Stone), sensing his client needs a little R&R, urges Gregor to stay at a relaxing place in a remote area for a while, and Gregor accepts.

Inexplicably, everyone agrees that the most relaxing place in the world is a wax museum, and Gregor moves into Madame Monet's, which is a sort of mansion with living quarters upstairs and wax sculptures on the main floor. He gets to know the people living there: owner Valerie Monet is assisted by brilliant wax sculptor and freelance kookenheimer Rudi (Martin Kosleck), and Valerie's general dogsbody Nina (Elena Verdugo).

As the weeks go by Gregor begins to feel more himself again, but seems only dimly aware that young Nina has developed a crush on him. Finding out about this, Valerie Monet, who had been nursing a crush of her own, is furious. She and Gregor argue, and Monet suddenly collapses to the floor. Hours later, Gregor finds himself standing down by the waterfront, with no idea of how he got there. He learns that Monet has vanished, and that her scarf is in his coat pocket....

Comments: The Inner Sanctum Mysteries were a series of films produced as a tie-in with the popular Inner Sanctum anthology series on radio. The two series really had no connection beside the name. The films can be summed up pretty simply: they were mystery-thrillers with a dollop of the supernatural. A small dollop, mind you; the spooky stuff was meant to keep things interesting, not to get in the way of the main action.

For example, the question of whether Gregor the Great actually has psychic powers, or if he is just a fraud who has started to believe his own press releases, is left up in the air for most of the film's running time. Much more attention is paid to the fairly predictable wax museum subplot, and to the shenanigans and monkeyshines of its altogether ooky inhabitants.

Lon Chaney, Jr. starred in each of the relatively short films (they usually ran about 65 minutes) and a rotating cast of Universal contract players filled out the remaining parts. Like all of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, this one was clearly done quickly and on a budget, and feels less like a feature film than an episode from an anthology TV series.

Unfortunately, the pace of television dramas hadn't been invented yet, and The Frozen Ghost drags terribly, in spite of its brief running time. Nevertheless, the much-maligned Chaney carries things pretty well; say what you want about the guy, he could do gloomy and guilt-ridden pretty well.

Evelyn Ankers, who appeared in several of these films with Chaney, plays Maura, and the combination of Maura's forgettable character and Anker's forgettable performance made me feel like the guy from Mememto: the second she was off screen I forgot she ever existed.

Douglas Dumbrille appears as a Shakespeare-spouting detective. Martin Kosleck is amusing as the deranged wax figure designer Rudi, who fusses with the wax figures, talking to them constantly ("Ah, Cleopatra -- you are the queen of the Nile, we mustn't let your hair get mussed like that"). Kosleck was a native of Germany who made a career playing cold-blooded Nazis, which he seemed to greatly enjoy.

Tala Birell has a shortage of screen time, but is at least credible as the curator of a wax museum, while longtime character actor Arthur Hohl is rewarded for two decades of film work with the indelible credit "Drunk Contestant".


kochillt said...

THE FROZEN GHOST is no classic, but remains one of the better series entries. The wax museum setting was never USED before (or since) by Universal, so that provides some novelty. Martin Kosleck easily steals the film from the star, and Tala Birell deserves mention as well. This was pregnant Evelyn Ankers' swan song for the studio that kept her so busy during the war years. She would make a sexy femme fatale in THE LONE WOLF IN LONDON, and a rejuvenated pilot in TARZAN'S MAGIC FOUNTAIN. I recently caught her at age 40 on an episode of the Western series CHEYENNE, and her impressive beauty remained intact.

Uncle Mike said...

I agree with you about Martin Kosleck. He is a very engaging and versatile actor -- he did quite a lot with a somewhat larger role in HOUSE OF HORRORS. I liked him in THE MUMMY'S CURSE as well.

As to Evelyn Ankers -- well, a healthy disagreement here. I've given her a lot of grief on this site; she is pretty enough, but her performances seem curiously insubstantial. I can't think of anything in particular that she does wrong, but she just doesn't make any kind of impression on me. the only actor I can think of with a similar problem is Grant Williams -- I can't put my finger on it, but (with the exception of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) his performances seem to just evaporate. After the movie's done I have to struggle to remember anything about them.

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