Saturday 29 March 2008

Sh! The Octopus (1937)

Here's a real guilty pleasure and a personal favourite. Made in 1937 and only 54 minutes long, it has no pretensions to grandeur. It's a hokey B-movie that entertains through sheer energy and satisfaction at being what it is. Everyone in the film knows how hokey it is and they all have fun with their roles and the fact that it's so thoroughly jam packed full of every component part of thirties pulp mystery/horror stories that you don't have time to blink before something else happens.

We're in a lighthouse, one that hasn't been owned for twenty years. It's apparently deserted, abandoned and safe as houses, which is why 'peace loving artist' Paul Morgan buys it. However for a deserted, abandoned and safe as houses lighthouse, it's about as busy as Grand Central Station and there's the prerequisite storm raging outside. There are a couple of caretaker types: Captain Cobb and Captain Hook, and yes, Captain Hook has a hook for a hand and turns homicidal whenever he hears the ticking of a clock. There are hidden panels, hidden passages, hidden everything, out from which eyes gaze, tentacles wave and blood drips.

There are a couple of off duty detectives from Precinct 49, who are driving past when a tyre blows. They're Detectives Kelly and Dempsey and they're reading about the new police commissioner who has declared war on 'the octopus of crime' when the police band tells them about a drifting schooner, a mysterious submarine and a sighting of an octopus. These cops are bumbling cops, played by Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins, so they haven't got a clue what any of it all means and so associate the two statements. They think they can make a name for themselves by catching the Octopus, who they think is some master criminal.

Seconds later a girl screams and runs out of the bushes into the storm. She's Vesta Vernoff and she's the daughter of a scientist who has invented a radium ray so powerful that everyone is seeking it so they can take over the world. She's also being chased and tells stories of a murder in the secret basement of the lighthouse. When everyone gets there, they find a murdered man hanging by his feet from the roof. Given that it's a very high roof, being a lighthouse, and there are no stairs, this would seem more than a little mysterious.

Oh, and we're now about ten minutes in. Whew. For a hokey B-movie, that's already more setup to the story than most movies have story, and it doesn't even stop there. Vesta talks of a mysterious plot, mysterious phone calls and mysterious messages. She even gives the cops a mysterious note signed by the Octopus. Then there's terrifying laughs, shipwrecked women, giant spider webs, murder attempts, blackouts, poison gas... I don't think there's anything that isn't in this film! Naturally nobody is who they seem or even who they say they are and everyone is trying to doublecross everyone.

The cast are hardly stars but they have a riot. Hugh Herbert was a popular comedian of the thirties, who jittered, stammered and floundered around exclaiming 'woohoo' at everything. I'e seen him in many films of the era, probably most notably Merry Wives of Reno, which is another screwball riot of a comedy that most people have never heard of. Allen Jenkins was everyone's sidekick: not just to Herbert in 11 films (5 in 1937 alone) but also to James Cagney (5 films together), Humphrey Bogart (7 films together), Edward G Robinson (4 together plus the much later Robin and the 7 Hoods), seemingly anyone who starred in a Warner Brothers film of the era. My favourites are when he teamed up as a double act with Frank McHugh (13 collaborations, including the outrageous Swing Your Lady).

Marcia Ralston has the last of the three lead credits. She was the first wife of Phil Harris, who memorably voiced many characters in Disney films such as Baloo in The Jungle Book, Little John in Robin Hood and O'Malley in The Aristocats. Marcia didn't have as memorable a career but she made a string of movies over a decade and a half. I'll be seeing her again shortly in Men are Such Fools with Humphrey Bogart (and Hugh Herbert).

Then there's the octopus and an effects job that rings so stunningly true I haven't forgotten it from my last viewing two years ago. A nice old lady turns into a witch in a few frames of film and I still haven't worked out how they did it. I did another set of rewinding, frame advancing and trying to fathom it and the only thing I can think is that they touched up the film itself, by playing with the negatives or something similar. But this is a low budget B movie from 1937. Why would they choose to do that? I still don't get it.

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