18/09/2011

The Brain From Planet Arous (1957)



Er, yep. That's the titular brain all right and pretty impressive it is too. Or at least it is until the climax of Nathan Juran's splendid Atomic Age B picture, when the hero whose body the offending cerebrum has previously taken possession of hacks away at its "Fissure of Rolando" with an axe and you realise that it's just a helium balloon bobbing around with lights attached. Still, a fine effort for such a low-budget production.

Juran's film concerns the visit to earth of the eponymous brain, an evil, echoey-voiced fugitive named Gor hiding out in California and hell bent on world domination. A bit like Mel Gibson. Attracted by the high levels of radiation being picked up on his Geiger counter, nuclear scientist Steve March (John Agar) visits the desert caves of "Mystery Mountain" - where else? - with his flippant partner Dan (Robert Fuller), who is promptly eviscerated by the floating alien intellect. Steve survives but Gor elects to use his body as a vessel while he goes about his plan of enslaving all humanity. Returning to Steve's devoted little fiancée Sally (Joyce Meadows), Gor-as-Steve paws her hungrily until the family dog George is forced to intervene to keep things decent. Sally is shocked by her man's uncharacteristic display of heated sexual aggression and becomes concerned about Dan's disappearance. Meanwhile Gor is busy using Steve's professional influence to score a meeting with the government's Atomic Energy Commission, wherein he demonstrates his awesome ability to blow up aeroplanes and buildings with nothing more than a frantic wiggle of his eyebrows. Things are beginning to look pretty black for planet earth, until a second remarkably similar-looking brain named Vol arrives in pursuit of Gor and agrees to possess George, the aforementioned canine, so that he can observe his prey at close quarters and ultimately thwart Gor's fiendish apocalyptic masterplan. Vol turns out to be oddly ineffectual, as it happens, and a great deal of nonsense ensues.

Juran was a Romanian immigrant who began working in Hollywood in 1937 when he joined RKO's art department, going on to win an Oscar for Best Art Direction in 1941 for his work on John Ford's How Green Was My Valley. He directed a number of cheapo genre pictures between 1952 and 1973, reaching his creative peak - well, sort of - in the late fifties with Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman and The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (both 1958). Juran's direction here is appropriately unspectacular for a man who considered himself a "technician" rather than an artist but does show occasional flashes of brilliance, as when he shoots Agar's tormented, contorted expression through a glass water cooler, distorting his face and making him all the more monstrous. Genre stalwart Agar is also excellent though it has to be said that he's not especially menacing at the best of times and looks damn foolish in a pith helmet and sweat patches. However, Agar does deserve bonus points for soldiering on manfully in tinfoil contact lenses. Those babies really must have chafed something awful.


As with many B-movies of the period, it's hard to ignore the unintentionally hilarious, matter-of-fact period sexism on show. Meadows is lovely as Steve's concerned other half and plays her role with more conviction than The Brain From Planet Arous deserves. However, her Sally is nevertheless primarily concerned with feeding the men around her - charred hamburgers are a speciality - and washing dishes and is routinely patronised by the menfolk, even her doting dad. For me though, it's Gor's insatiable lust for her that represents the film's stand-out detail, hands down. This peculiarly earthy and sinister pronouncement from the supposed intergalactic polymath in conversation with Steve really had me in stitches: "I chose your body very carefully. Even before I knew about Sally. A very exciting female!... She appeals to me. There are some aspects of the life of an earth savage that are exciting and rewarding. Things that are missed by the brains on my planet Arous... Even I must have some interest to stir me up. She'll do very nicely". This kind of extraterrestrial lusting recalls the romantic travails of Phil Tucker's Robot Monster (1953), with which Juran's film's shares its Bronson Canyon shooting location. Both are, needless to say, highly recommended if you like this sort of amiable faff.

02/09/2011

Way Out West (1937)



As a feature, it has to be said that Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West has a pretty thin plot. The boys are on the road again and heading for the town of Brushwood Gulch where they have been instructed to deliver the deed to a gold mine bequested by a dead prospector to his impoverished daughter, Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence). Duped instead into handing it over to a crooked saloon owner and his showgirl wife (the reliably wild-eyed and irate James Finlayson and Sharon Lynne), Stan and Ollie connive to get it back, knocking each other over and getting tickled a good deal in the process. Er, that's it. The only clues we have that this is even the Old West - before the boys are eventually overtaken by a stagecoach - are that their coats are slightly longer than usual and their familiar clanking jalopy has been replaced by a pack mule named Dinah. What follows would just be business as usual but for a handful of musical interludes that elevate the piece to immortality and are surely among some of the most inspired moments ever committed to film, all the funnier for coming from such an unlikely source. Elegantly choreographed dancing and sweet syncopation are the last things you'd expect to see from these two self-proclaimed saps.

First up is their irresistible impluse to bust a move to Marvin Hatley's song 'At The Ball, That's All', being performed on the tavern steps by period vocal group The Avalon Boys (who also appeared briefly in Pardon Us, 1931, and the W.C. Fields comedy It's A Gift, 1934), which is simply one of life's great joys and the mother of all funny dance scenes. I've posted the original below rather than one of the myriad anachronistic remixes uploaded to YouTube by various wags, although this Soulja Boy mash-up is admittedly oddly pleasing.



The second such gem is, of course, 'The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine', a lovely little ditty in its own right written by Ballard MacDonald and Harry Carroll in 1913 that was released as a single in the UK in 1975, long after Stan and Ollie had passed on, reaching a respectable number two in the charts. The b-side was 'Honolulu Baby' from Sons Of The Desert (1933), incidentally.



The film's closing number, 'We're Going To See My Sweet Home In Dixie', is also a peach and brought on by Ollie and the heroine getting nostalgic for the Old South and the promise of home-cooked "possum and yam". Yuck.