Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Saturday, December 17, 1971 (Noon): The Strange Mr. Gregory (1945) / The Face of Marble (1944)

Synopsis: A famous magician called Gregory the Great (Edmund Lowe) is experimenting with an ancient method of suspended animation.  He has managed to place himself in a trance so deep that it is indistinguishable from death. Moreover, he is able to maintain this trance for days on end.  His butler / personal assistant Riker (Frank Reicher) assists him, and he is the only one who knows about Gregory's mysterious endeavors.

One night, at the conclusion of his stage show, admiring amateur magician John Randall (Donald Douglas) and his wife Ellen (Jean Rogers) come to Gregory's dressing room to visit him.  Riker tells them that Mr Gregory never receives visitors.  But Gregory, noticing the beautiful Ellen, immediately invites the couple in.  John Randall is quite excited to meet Gregory -- so excited that he doesn't notice that Gregory's attention is fixed almost entirely on Ellen.

The fact that Ellen is a) married and b) uninterested in him does not deter Gregory in the least. He decides to make Ellen his.  He gets Randall to invite him to his home, for a gathering of the local amateur magician's club.  In front of many onlookers, he shows Randall how to make a slip-noose that can easily be used as a garrote.  Later, seeing Ellen walk out onto the back patio alone, he follows her. Using his powers of hypnotism, he draws Ellen to him and embraces her, just in time for Randall to see what he's up to.  Angered by the liberties he's taking, Randall throws Gregory out of the house.

The next day, Gregory sends Ellen a dozen roses. She throws them out, but the next day, he sends eleven -- and the next day ten, and the day after that nine.  Eventually Randall finds out about this flowery countdown, and goes to confront Gregory. 

To Randall's surprise, Mr. Gregory is found dead the next morning, strangled with the very same garrote he had demonstrated at the party.  Riker sees to Gregory's burial, but soon he too is strangled in the same way, after writing a note implicating Randall.

Randall finds himself on trial for a double homicide, and the prosecution's case is strong: Randall had means, motive and opportunity. But just when things are at their bleakest, a surprise witness arrives to testify at the trial -- Gregory's twin brother Lane Talbot.  Talbot explains to the court that Gregory was a cad, and he might even be considered an evil man. No one should be judged too harshly for doing away with him.  In light of this testimony, the jury spares Randall the death penalty.

With Randall safely in prison, Lane Talbot begins worming his way into a grateful Ellen's life.  But Ellen's friend Sheila (Marjorie Hoshelle) is becoming suspicious.  Is Lane Talbot who he says he is?  Or is this the sinister Mr. Gregory, alive and hiding in plain sight?

Comments: The very first image we see in The Strange Mr. Gregory is this:

Which for some reason always reminds me of this:

We've been to the cinematic equivalent of the emergency room a few times, in spite of the warning provided by Monogram label.  But let's ignore the warning and chug down the contents of the bottle again, shall we?

If the name Gregory the Great sounds familiar, it's probably because Lon Chaney, Jr. sported a similar sobriquet ("Gregor the Great") in The Frozen Ghost.  And  the whole set-up is somewhat reminiscent of a contemporary PRC effort, The Mask of Diijon.  Nevertheless, The Strange Mr. Gregory benefits greatly from the presence of Edmund Lowe  (Chandu the Magician, The Great Impersonation) and Jean Rogers (Flash Gordon), both of whom are, as befits a Monogram production, talented actors a bit past their prime. And the script actually starts out pretty well, as we see Gregory, apparently dead, lying on his back with his eyes wide open.  It's an attention-grabbing opening, especially noteworthy because Monogram's low budgets usually meant a distinct lack of visual flair: in fact we're usually treated to an excessive use of close-ups and two-shots in order to draw attention away from the threadbare sets.  In fact, the audience for Gregory the Great's stage is compsed entirely of stock footage.

The opening shot of dead Mr. Gregory is, of course, misdirection -- a clever shorthand of what is to come.  And the movie does a good job keeping us guessing about just what Gregory's game is.

The movie stalls, however, as soon as the sleight-of-hand is done and Gregory's plan becomes clear. Gregory's pursuit of Ellen is what makes the whole movie go, yet there is little to convince us that Ellen is really what Gregory wants.  He has set his heart on her after meeting her exactly once, and his obsession with her seems to have as much to do with her indifference to him as it does with her beauty (her personality can't possibly figure into it -  he never has an extended conversation with her during the entire picture).. Love at first sight seems to be a flighty thing for a man as calculating as Gregory.

All the same, this picture provides a stronger script and better acting than we normally get in a poverty row production. The operating philosophy of Monogram was that the first draft and the first take were always good enough, so we need to be forgiving of the process and welcoming of whatever glimmers of intelligence and even (dare I say it) quality that seep through. 

It's hard to overstate the impact Edmund Lowe has on this picture.  He carries it effortlessly, providing Gregory with a droll sense of irony that wasn't necessarily intended. Lowe specialized in playing just the sort of charming cad that Gregory happens to be, making me wonder if the script was written with Lowe in mind (my guess is that it probably was).

Jean Rogers is quite lovely as Ellen, though the screenwriters felt it necessary to keep re-emphasizing that she's not attracted to Gregory at all. This was clearly done to make Ellen more sympathetic to the audience, but as an unintended side effect Gregory's motivation becomes more problematic.  It's not unusual for people to want what they can't have, of course, but most guys who murder people and fake their own deaths for the love of a woman usually have the woman on board first, at least to some extent.  Would Walter Neff have murdered Phyllis Dietrichson's husband if she had never given him a second glance?  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

The Face of Marble

Synopsis: Dr. Charles Randolph (John Carradine)  lives comfortably in a large seaside house with his wife Elaine (Claudia Drake). Working in the basement with an array of high-voltage appliances, Randolph and his assistant David (Robert Shayne) are trying to find a method of bringing the dead back to life.

As the movie opens, Randolph and David are trying to restore to life a drowned sailor they found washed up on the shore. David is uneasy with this, fearing that they have crossed a moral line; but Randolph insists that they can't do any harm to a man who's already dead.

As they apply higher and higher voltages to the body, Randolph notes that the face of the sailor has taken on a stone-like appearance.  As the two men watch, the sailor sits up, then stands, but suddenly collapses, dead.  The experiment has failed, but Randolph feels they were very close to success.  He notes that the electrical generator has burned out, and  he goes into town to get a replacement.

The next day the local chief of police comes to visit Randolph, who had earlier alerted the authorities a body had washed up on the shore. The chief says the sailor Randolph found died under curious circumstances. --  an autopsy has revealed he was electrocuted.  Furthermore, the sheriff notes that Randolph had gone into town to buy a replacement generator, and he wonders if there is a connection. Randolph tries to laugh it off, but it's clear that the police chief is suspicious.

Meanwhile, we learn that Elaine has fallen in love with David.  Randolph is entirely unaware of this; and David's behavior is quite above-board, but the Randolph's maid Maria, who's very loyal to Elaine, practices voodoo, and plants a doll under David's pillow - one that she believes will make him fall in love with her mistress.  Meanwhile, Dr. Randolph, noticing David's growing uneasiness around the house, arranges for David's girlfriend Linda (Maris Wrixon) to come and visit.  This only increases the tension in the household, and before long Linda becomes troubled by the house's odd vibe and leaves.

Dr. Randolph decides to try the experiment again -- this time on Elaine's beloved Great Dane Brutus.  He and David fail to revive the dog.  But before long, they hear Brutus barking from another room.  The dog is alive, but somehow changed: it has an odd, stony faced appearance, seems to have turned savage in the presence of humans, and has an odd ability to walk through walls.

Unexpectedly, Elaine dies, and Dr. Randolph can only think of one way to save her --by reviving her the same way he revived Brutus, and suffer the consequences, whatever they may be....

Comments: Hoo boy, another Monogram picture, and perhaps not coincidentally, another picture about scientists working on a way to bring the dead back to life. This no doubt seemed like a jolly good idea back when Frankenstein premiered. But really guys, enough already.

The problem with The Face of Marble isn't that it's bad (though it isn't good, exactly); it's that it never quite figures out what sort of movie it wants to be, and lurches from one disconnected plot point to another until time runs out.  Using electricity to revive the dead and stealing corpses for the experiments is borrowed from countless movies that in turn borrowed from Frankenstein; the voodoo maid could have come from Night of Terror or I Walked With a Zombie or a dozen other movies. The small-town chief of police who keeps stopping by for friendly "chats" about sinister doings about town is equal parts The Devil Commands and Son of Frankenstein.

Only two plot points come across as even slightly original.  The love triangle stands out because it's Elaine, not one of the men, who wants to change the romantic equation.  In this era, women characters were distinctly lacking in agency, particularly involving matters of sexuality.  By introducing Maria and her black magic, the movie cheats a bit, taking some of the onus off Elaine.  But there's no way around the fact that Elaine hungers for something she doesn't have and which society says she shouldn't want.  And this is made more interesting by the fact that the movie chooses not to stack the deck against her husband, Dr. Randolph. He is not depicted as a jerk or a boor.  To the contrary, he is charming and generous to those around him, certainly more likable and lively a character than stuffed-shirt David.

The other point of interest is the mysterious transformation of Brutus. The dog's personality changes as a result of the experiment -- he becomes savage -- and he also gains the ability to move through solid objects, which even for a movie like this is an unexpected side effect. And so it's a bit novel to have the dog wandering around the house, walking through solid walls.  And later, when Elaine inevitably undergoes the same treatment, she and the dog become a tag team, moving through solid objects like ghosts in a spooky seaside manor.  

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm not a John Carradine fan but I have to admit that I liked him here.  He plays a character not unlike the one he played in The Invisible Man's Revenge, which perhaps not coincidentally was the other Carradine performance I liked.  I never find the man's evil characters interesting or compelling, but for some reason I find him more believable as a good-natured (but slightly naive) tinkerer. 
 Claudia Drake is perfectly acceptable as Elaine, and Robert Shayne gets all of his lines right as David.


kochillt said...

With THE STRANGE MR. GREGORY, your opinion is again greater than my own. The always reliable Frank Reicher was in fine form, and his shocking murder by Gregory was akin to Bruce Wayne killing Alfred. Coming off top billing in a previous Monogram, DILLINGER (despite Lawrence Tierney playing the title role), Edmund Lowe was nearing the end of his career, only six minor supporting roles still ahead. THE FACE OF MARBLE was typical Monogram, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink in its oddball plotting. We are in agreement on this title, and I felt that John Carradine was light years better than his previous somnambulistic turns in such Monograms as REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES and RETURN OF THE APE MAN. His least seen title for the studio remains ALASKA, playing a drunken Shakespearean actor opposite Dean Jagger, Margaret Lindsay, Nils Asther, and Glenn Strange.

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