Race, Drugs and Lynch Before Lynch – 7 Of The Weirdest Pre-Code Hollywood Movies

Good day my little vegetarian sausage sandwiches, here’s another dose of weird things to soothe the constant rumble of the sponges in your brains.

I love everything about pre-code Hollywood movies from dubious morals to glamorous women, especially if those women got their jewels and furs via nefarious means a la Red Headed Woman, Baby Face and Midnight Mary. Interesting tidbit, Red Headed Woman was one of many vehicles originally meant for Clara Bow which she turned down due to her lack of interest in Hollywood after sound hit.

However some pretty odd films emerged, strange to today’s eyes either because of attitudes (black people relegated to servants with one line is never an easy watch but some go even further), artistic weirdness or sheer incompetence.

  1. Kongo (1932)

An odd curio, fascinating for its unadulterated ugliness and gleeful wallowing in mankind’s lowest nature.kongoposter

A disabled man living in remote Congo is believed by the local tribe to be a God due to his parlour tricks, because of course the African natives are simpletons who would revere anyone who can produce birds from a small tin. He also speaks to them with the broken English usually reserved for Native American stereotypes. He lives for revenge, believing a girl he sent to a convent years before is the product of his wife’s affair with another man.

His plan comes to fruition when he has the girl, raised in purity and naivete, brought to his claustrophobic home for he and his small group to torture. She goes from sweet girl to alcoholic harridan in 0.5 seconds, her only hope being a doctor addicted to a local root.

Interestingly the gang includes ‘Mexican spitfire’ Lupe Velez, who either drowned in the murderatthevanitiestoilet after taking pills to commit suicide, cracked her head on the bowl or lay resplendent upon the bed, depending on which story you believe.

2. Murder At The Vanities (1934)

Murder at the Vanities is an entertainingly daft musical comedy about attempted murder.

While by no means a brilliant film (some of the songs are terrible!), it’s a ritzy, glitzy screwball story of backstage jealousy and lies. There’s enough pre-code moments to satisfy including almost nude ladies and the oddest Hollywood musical number I’ve ever seen (see clip below). It’s good fun and doesn’t really try to be anything else, with enough what the…? moments (or wtf if you want to be modern about it) to keep it entertaining.

Sweet Marijuana With Sing A Long Lyrics

3. Freaks (1932)

I couldn’t really make this list without Freaks, a classic of horror and sideshow cinema. You could dismiss it as Ableism, and you can’t deny their ‘otherness’ is used as a disturbing climax, a “primal, oozing nightmare” as Mark Gatiss so beautifully said in BBC series A History of Horror.

However director Tod Browning famously lived and worked in circuses and the performers are mainly depicted sympathetically. The real monster is Cleopatra, the beautiful Trapeze artist, who manipulates Hans the dwarf into marrying her and then slowly begins to poison him for his money. The merry nature of the ‘freaks’ contrasted with Cleopatra’s ugly soul is best shown in the famous and oft mimicked wedding dinner scene.

Despite the success of Dracula (featuring, of course, Bela Lugosi), Tod Browning lost his momentum when sound came in and faded from the business.

One Of Us Gooble Gobble

4. Maniac (1934)

The infamous Dwain Esper took his independent movies on travelling tours around maniacdwainesperAmerica, showing them in tents and burlesque houses. They include gems like How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband and the soporific Narcotic. However Maniac is arguably his most entertainingly bad film which 366 Weird Movies says “seems to be the work of an actual madman.”

I’d love to tell you what on earth is going on but I really don’t know. There’s a mad scientist and his assistant doing experiments on returning the dead to life in your average, run-of-the-mill Hollywood lab. There’s intertitles explaining various ‘diseases of the mind,’ then there’s cats fighting. Then the assistant kills the scientist, seems to forget he’s supposed to be bringing him back and decides to brick him up in the wall in a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s Black Cat and, as though this reference reminds him, he gets offended by a nearby cat and plucks out it’s eye in a surprisingly well done piece of gory special effects.

At the same time there’s a nude girl they’ve taken from the morgue and a man they’ve injected with over-actor’s juice. They collide in one of the oddest ‘monster carrying off girl’ scenes I’ve ever witnessed – he seems to decide her boobs aren’t showing enough and puts her down to expose them further before carrying on.

The Entire Film

5. Murder! (1930)

From the deep, dark vaults of Hitchcock’s British films lurks this unassuming little who dunnit. A woman is killed and another is on trial for it, though she doesn’t remember committing the act. One of the jurors believes her to be innocent and begins his own investigation. Hitchcock himself wasn’t fond of who dunnits but he does the best he can, ensuring at least one visually arresting moment is included by way of a circus performance at the climax.

Spoiler:

What makes this film so uncomfortable is the reason behind the killing of one woman and theroadtoruinframing of the other – she was telling her the secret of one of the acrobats, that he is half black. Knowing the acrobat is involved in the murder somehow but not yet knowing why, the juror asks the imprisoned woman if she was in love with him. “No,” she says, horrified, “it’s impossible.” “Why?” he asks, before she explains he is ‘half-caste.’

Attitudes change, as we know, and perhaps it’s a plausible reason for killing. After all, it could have spelled the end of his career. However it’s not Hitchcock’s best film so you won’t be missing much if you decide to give it a pass.

6. The Road To Ruin  (1934)

Dirty books have a lot to answer for, leading to sex, drinking and ultimately games of dice. And death. Or at least according to this propaganda piece from 1934 they do. In fact the weirdest thing about this film is its lack of bad behaviour – a young girl makes a new friend who introduces her to drinking and a new boyfriend, though she gets tired of him and moves on to someone else.

After a party the girls are examined by a doctor and denounced ON PAPER as sex delinquents, and she dies in disgrace when an out of wedlock pregnancy forces her into a backstreet abortion. Should have stayed at home reading knitting magazines.

The Entire Film

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

A wayward young lady (Miriam Hopkins, one of my favourite pre code ladies) spends her time teasing men and spurning the proposals of an upstanding but boring lawyer. One night she goes on a drive with a man and crashes in a rainstorm, and then things get weird.

MMDSTOF EC006

They make their way to a shack occupied by a rural family and a group of gangsters hiding out from the cops. The acting is dreamlike and strange and each male presence is sexually threatening, creating a nightmarish atmosphere. Finally one man, a gangster named Trigger, crashes into the shed she takes refuge in.

It’s never 100 per cent clear what motivates her afterwards and therein lies the most peculiar aspect of the film. Who is this lady? Is she a moll who willingly follows Trigger to the city, or is she a victim of kidnap or Stockholm syndrome? Is it, as often lies in dreams, somewhere in between? Not to mention the heavy symbolism laced throughout the narrative (when Temple falls in court it’s in the shape of one crucified).

Acidemic makes a fascinating case for this as an early Lynchian story of the subconscious, and there’s a great post on PreCode.com too.

The film itself is unavailable to buy but the whole thing is on YouTube. I’ve added it below because I’m brilliant and you love me.

The Entire Film In A Playlist

The Changing Face of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Today’s pretentious book picture is brought to you by The Mad Hatter’s Tea Room in Southend. May you also stare intellectually into space whilst sampling their seriously amazing cakes. Honestly, I mean it, go. DSC_0013-2

Alice in Wonderland has meant different things to me at different times, much like it has throughout history. When I first read it as a child I hated it, it ‘didn’t make any sense.’ Slowly I was drawn back in and I remember my excitement when I realised my imagination was free – cue many stories in Primary school where the teachers probably thought I’d had some sort of breakdown but were afraid to ask.

The first filmed version in 1903:

Then, of course, I re-read it as a student, this time aware of Carroll’s possible opium use (not unusual for the time, it was sold freely in shops) and the links to psychedelia owing to homages such as this:

Incidentally model/Warholite Edie Sedgwick was keen to make an underground film version in the mid sixties but sadly it was not to be. DSC_0011-1

Recently I entered Wonderland once again, this time with all kinds of knowledge (though not as much as I’ll have in the future). I’m aware now of the possibly disturbing relationship between Lewis Carroll and the real Alice (see the documentary below, also featuring writer Will Self among others).

However I’m also aware that it unlocked fantastical and unrestrained worlds in my own brain and doubtless did for many other creative types. The pace is quick, the dialogue fun and the characters iconic. I’d like to see a new film version of the original story done well, but for now I’m perfectly happy using my own imagination when reading the weird words of Carroll.

Documentary The Secret World of Lewis Carroll. Keep watching to see the eerie discovery towards the end:

Heroin, dating and popularity: life the 50s infomercial way

I don’t know what it is about these videos that makes me chuckle so, but they really do. Some of them are quite sweet, some are bordeline offensive, and for a happy life all require you to be middle class and white.

First is Choosing For Happiness, a film where Eve is slowly made to realise that her mostly quite valid concerns should be squashed if she’s to have anyone put up with her:

Next up is that quandry that faces us all, how to be a square without our friends hating us! Moral Maturity shows us.

Now the opposite end of the spectrum, Drug Addiction. What happens when one suddenly finds themselves addicted to heroin? The particularly clunky dialogue in this one really makes me laugh:

Here Woody shows us how to ask for a date in Dating Dos and Don’ts (made in 1947 but still counts). Wow, that girl is a bitch, is he sure he wants to go with her?

And now he shows us how to make girls angry when you drop them off

Here’s another clip considering the problems of How to Date:

Finally, the all important concern: Are You Popular? All the boys are happy to park with Jenny but apparently this doesn’t make her popular the next day. Dammit, I knew I was doing something wrong!

Prostitutes and progress: the Victorians

The Victorian era is a continuing source of fascination for writers and artists alike whether it be a steampunk science fiction angle, high class manners and repressed pennyroyal-pillaffections or the out and out seediness lurking underneath. Why don’t we have a look at the various elements that draw us to them?

1. Repression. Certain things could not be discussed, even going to the toilet (what did women do around town? I’ve read a few articles which suggest they ducked down an alley but I don’t know how reliable that is). Unlike today where you can call a friend to go down the clinic and collect the morning after pill, such things back then were treated with the utmost discretion.

However there is always a way round things as this genuine advert from the era on victorianlondon.org suggests (Pennyroyal has abortive qualities). Have a look at the others; hair removal was a concern back then too.

Women’s bodies were a thing to be feared as their own wombs could cause hysteria. This led to some … interesting inventions, advertised with the usual subtlety. Or if you prefer a more direct approach have a look at this!

The invention of the camera led to uses other than miserable family photos. If you knew where to go (ie. Holywell street in London) you could find images of those accodomating ladies of the night and maybe one or two of those well-known filthy types, actresses.

2. Bizarre cures. With marijuana, cocaine and opium (or Laudenum) all legal in the laudanum-side-apharmacies it’s a wonder anyone got anything done. Laudanum was also known as ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and certainly kept a few babies quiet.

As well as this there were a number of ‘quack medicine’ products ie. stuff that didn’t work, flooding the market, including the relatively new and exciting idea that ‘electricity was life’.

Another intriguing cure idea was mesmerism.

3. Science vs superstition. It’s interesting that, in a time of great scientific ectoplasmprogress, much of the average public were turning to Spiritualism (and trickery). Gothic fiction became increasingly popular (as well as penny dreadfuls for the lower classes) and seances became the cool new thing to do, leading to some spooky photos if nothing else, as well as these posters.

4. Sideshows. Though these still occur in some parts of the world it’s difficult for us to comprehend that not only were people displayed in such a way, but they were exhalted as celebrities. After visiting perhaps a menagerie or pleasure garden, people would go along to a show. Joseph Merrick was possibly the One Direction of his day. OK, nobody deserves that, but you see what I’m saying. The posters are a colourful testament to a very peculiar point in history.

Well, there we have it, the weird and wonderful world of the Victorians. There’s so much more to say about them but it’s a start, and certainly their legacy will amuse and confuse us for decades to come. Visit blog ‘Diary of a Victorian Surgeon‘ for a glimpse into the daily life of a man who must have seen it all. Byee!

Fungi, drugs and bugs – The surreal and disturbing side of nature

It occured to me the other day how nature remains beautiful even when it’s being downright disgusting or bizarre, and I would like to honour that achievement.

So, today we shall look at the inspiration behind many people’s art: the Weirdness of Nature.

First let’s ease you in gently with some cute kitties on catnip, taken from BBC series Weird Nature:

Second is a series I find quite amusing (and very odd), Sacred Weeds. Shown back in the 90s, two test subjects take a natural hallucinogen (different in each episode) while men in suits ask questions and stare:

This is a rather sweet, inoffensive clip of mushrooms growing from the series Planet Earth (with some music added). I defy anyone not to chuckle at the willy shaped ones:

Back in March New South Wales, Australia was blighted by floods. The locals were evacuated and, desperate to escape the water, these spiders moved “onto higher ground” leaving an entire ghost town engulfed by webs. Story (and creepy pictures) here.

Next up I saw a lot of fairly grim things during the BBC series Life in the Undergrowth (creepy crawlies), but for some reason this made me go all funny:

And these leaopard slugs are beautiful (in a slightly grim, surreal way):

Anything deep sea is like visiting a hostile alien planet (just watch the BBC’s The Blue Planet). In the meantime here’s a little vid with some music:

I’d have loved to find a clip of vampire bats, particularly from the documentary that shows one creeping up on a pig. Unfortunately there isn’t one on youtube that doesn’t have a hokey American voiceover and I just can’t bring myself to do it. So you have to imagine it instead, which is probably good for you.

Penultimately have a look at series The Future Is Wild, where scientists hypothesise in a Walking With Dinosaurs kind of way on the direction the animal kingdom might go millions of years after we’ve disappeared.

Lastly is the one I find most amazing. It has all the elements: it’s beautiful, it’s disturbing, it’s insidious, it’s science fiction in the natural world; the cordyceps fungus, as shown on Planet Earth:

A lovely list of psychedelic movies

In order to celebrate the brilliant Mad Men’s entry into 1967, I decided to share with you some of my favourite psychedelic/hip/groovy movies.

Some good, some great, others just bizarre, feast your eyes on this list of eye-wateringly colourful (except for the black and white one) offerings. If there’s any I’ve forgotten, please add in the comments:

1. The Trip. Directed by Roger Corman, written by Jack Nicholson (I know?), Peter Fonda takes acid, is victimized by a man with a chair, drinks with a dwarf, watches painted boobs jiggle around and visits some seriously psychedelic houses. Dennis Hopper wins award for the amount of times he fits the word ‘man’ into one single speech:

2. More. Rather more downbeat, I like the European feel of this one; the director and main actor are German. He meets a lady in England and they go to Spain. She’s a hippie but she pulls him into heroin addiction. She also wears great clothes.

3. The Strawberry Statement. Rather sweet and funny film about a student slowly getting involved with the protests. Harold of Harold and Maude (Bud Cort) also makes an appearance.

4. Psych Out. Very silly romp through late sixties San Fransisco as Jack Nicholson (again?) helps a square deaf chick look for her brother and plays in a terrible band. Groovy:

5. Joe. Dark look at one man’s bitter take on the free love and drug scene. The screenplay was by Norman Wexler, the man reputed to be the insane Mr X in Bob Zmuda‘s biography on close friend Andy Kaufman.

6. Smoke and flesh. Nothing happens in this film. I really mean it. I think one of the main reasons I like it though is my endless nosiness for what people might get up to behind closed doors.

Basically, a bunch of groovy swingers have a party, wait for the weed to arrive, get stoned, talk about stuff and then complain about the bikers who arrive later. One of them spikes a biker with acid, which I think is a bit mean.

7. Performance. Part film part art installation, gangster James Fox goes on the run and finds himself staying with Mick Jagger and his two hippie girlfriends. Sex, drugs and identity crises ensue:

8. Magic Trip. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest author Ken Kesey went on a road trip in 1964 with The Merry Band of Pranksters, Neal Cassedy (inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road) and a few attractive ladies, and this documentary was born.

Whether you like them and agree with them or not is irrelevant, this is a slice of life and history which also includes Kerouac, Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and the World’s Fair.

So there we are, my list is currently at an end though I’m sure there are more to be added. I shall leave you with a song, swinger-tastic nineties offering Mr Excitement by Tipsy:

Classic weird films and TV, plus the meaning of weird

The independent and underground world often bring us the unusual and new, but occasionally mainstream goes weird too. There are too many examples to mention but here are some of my favourites, beginning with two well known ‘uns.

1. Twin Peaks. There may be a segment near the end of series two that goes slightly astray but the good episodes of this programme are way better than most other things that have been on TV. Fire Walk with Me is also very worth seeing.

2. The Twilight Zone. An obvious classic, and the good episodes (there are many) are half hour plays of entertaining freakiness.

3. Three Cases of Murder. I recently watched this at 2am when I couldn’t sleep and was very happily surprised. I love portmanteu horror films (more than one story linked by a main tale – Tales from the Crypt and the Vault of Horror are my personal favourites -) but this ‘un from 1955 is one I’d not heard much about before.

My favourite was the first segment directed by Wendy Toye (yes, a lady in the fifties!). When it begins you prepare yourself for harmless whimsy as Alan Badel observes his own painting with a curator at a gallery, but it quickly descends into something more disturbing. With its skewed camera angles and obsessed characters it was one of the more bonkers things I’d watched that evening. The final segment contains Orson Welles and Alan Badel again (he appears in all three stories) and I actually laughed loudly, though the comedy is, of course, mixed with something a little bit darker.

4. The Unknown. The twenties and thirties made some very peculiar filmic gems, ‘Freaks’ being one example. Another is The Unknown from 1927 by the same writer/director Tod Browning. Joan Crawford (pre ‘wire hangers’) and horror regular Lon Chaney both work in a circus.

He’s the armless (?) knife thrower and she the beautiful assistant. He loves her, and she has a terrible phobia of men’s hands. Oh, and he’s also a robber and murderer with two thumbs, who really does have hands, and decides to have them removed permanently when one of his victims recognises him. Can he live dementedly ever after with Joan, or will things go horribly wrong?

5. Weird Night. There was a 90s-tastic series of BBC programmes in 94 during a special evening entitled ‘Weird Night.’ At 13 I’d not been exposed to too much of this sort of thing yet and I consumed it eagerly. The schedule ran as such:

1.Fortean Review of the Year
2.Strange Days-Coincidences
3. The last American Freak Show (different to the one mentioned in a previous post)
4.Strange Days-Visions
5.W.S.H
6.Strange Days-Beasts
7. Weird Thoughts

You can watch each of the programmes on this youtube channel (thanks skynet!). Below I’ve included all segments of the final show – Weird Thoughts – in which ‘experts’ debate their opinions on all things weird. Weird weird weird weird (my painkillers just kicked in). As expected, everyone laughs at silly old scientist with his knowledge and that.

6. Eerie Indiana. Another 90s offering which shaped my interests growing up. Watching it as a grown up is better though; not only do you have nostalgia but you notice the horror/sci fi references that appear throughout, thus satiating the geek beast within.

7. Sacred Weeds. The 90s seemed to develop an obsession with the ‘out there’ and odd. If it wasn’t Fortean it was mind bending plants.

This was a truly odd documentary series. One person who had never consumed a certain natural drug (proper drug, not homeopathy) and another who had taken them before joined a team of scientists in a big house to trip balls while being asked questions. I’m serious, it happened. Cue many peculiar scenes of suited men assisting in salvia bong hits and mushroom tea dosage. The plants tested (one per episode) were: Fly Agaric mushroom, Salvia, Henbane and Blue Lilly.

Thats enough for now you greedy little pickles, we shall meet again.