Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It Came from Netflix! Poverty Row Theater

One of the invaluable facets of DVD is the resurfacing of films that otherwise would undoubtedly never see again see daylight. A prime example is the three movies included in Image’s recent Poverty Row Theater. Admittedly, there’s no doubt an extremely limited audience for the sort of cheapies represented by the selections here. However, the fact that they are available at all seems nearly a miracle. Hopefully the disc sold well enough to ensure that further such DVDs follow.

First up is Private Snuffy Smith (1942), adapted from a then-popular comic strips about hillbilly Snuffy, his wife Lowizie, who first appeared in the comic strip Barney Google. Soon Smith shared the strip’s title with Google, and eventually took it over.

As you may have surmised from the movie’s title, this is a fairly routine service comedy. It’s kind of weird how we don’t really notice a lot of profound social changes. This film, of course, was made after we entered World War II. Even after the war was over, though, a couple years of military service was mandatory for almost every male citizen, and because of this the service comedy thrived. It wasn’t until the death of the draft and a wave of markedly cynical such films, primarily M*A*S*H, that the breed really went down for the count. We still see them on occasion, as with Stripes or Up Periscope, but not often enough to any longer consider them a discrete genre.

This example is pretty routine. The early part of the film is mostly familiar hillbilly antics, with Snuffy and his neighbors attempting to shoo off some revenuers after their stills. Snuffy is played by former silent movie comic Bud Duncan, who is OK but generally victimized by the difficulty of representing a cartoon character. He’s given a huge Smith-esque putty nose, but it doesn’t help too much.

Ed Cooper, the chief revenuer, leaves the mountains to become an Army sergeant, just as Smith naturally decides he wants in on all those military perks. Free khaki pants being the primary attraction. Of course, he ends up in Cooper’s company, and wackiness ensues.

With the film running but an hour, you might think that’s enough plot, but in fact there are spies after a valuable experimental artillery range finder. Oddly, the spies never seem as interested in the liquid Lowizie accidentally manufactures that turns things invisible. (!!) Indeed, the script does nothing better with this than use it as a mechanism for Snuffy to sneak his beloved pooch Mr. Carson on base.

This proves an adequate programmer, although the only really great element is the performance of classic heavy Edgar Kennedy as Cooper. Except for Oliver Hardy himself, nobody ever mastered the slow burn like Kennedy did.

Club Paradise (1945) is a pretty decent albeit by-the-numbers cautionary ‘social menace’ type of movie. Julie is a pretty young girl hampered by her suffocating life with her family. She has a factory job and a boyfriend in trumpet player Roy, but remains unsatisfied. Then she falls for hood/gigalo Danny (played by Robert Lowery, who brings a certain Victor Mature vibe to the part).

When Roy takes her to a gambling club, the two are arrested. Roy goes in the jug for 30 days, while Julie’s stiffnecked Dad pays her fine. However, he also kicks her out. With nowhere else to go, Julie gets a job as a ‘dancer’ at Club Paradise, a juke joint that Danny and his various female admirers hang out at. Julie gets in deeper with Danny, and by the time Roy gets out of stir and obtains a good job, she’s enjoying her independence too much to go back to him. Soon, however, she instead begins to manifest a feeling of self-loathing at becoming a fallen woman, and tragedy naturally ensues.

Like most programmers from the PRC studio, this one runs a scant hour. Modern audiences will probably be bewildered by the social concepts advanced here, particularly Julie’s belief that she’s been tainted beyond all hope of redemption by her actions. I kind of liked the fact, though, that even ‘good’ guy Roy is such a self-absorbed putz that he never even acknowledges that it has his taking her to a gambling joint that destroyed her life. Meanwhile, Julie’s family is suitably and believably atrocious.

Opening with an offscreen shooting, the revelation of which closes the picture, Club Paraside is a surprisingly decent little flick.

The final film is Detective Kitty O’Day (1947), featuring a Lucille Ball-like chattering busy body who drives the police crazy when she gets involved with and decides to solve a murder mystery. After watching the film a bit I decided that Kitty was probably a series character, and so she was, although a failed one, as this was Kitty’s second and last movie. (Snuffy, too, was only a afforded a pair of movies.) Even so, actress Jean Parker made six other movies that year.

In all, the film’s pretty mild, but watchable. About the only notable fact about it is that it was directed by the prolific William “One Shot” Beaudine, who astoundingly helmed quite nearly 300 movies.

There’s nothing here I would feel compelled to add to my personal collection, but the disc provided an interesting three hours of entertainment. Let’s hope for a few more of these.


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