February 11, 2013

Your (Great-)Grandfather's Old, Dark Tavern

Poster for The Rogues' Tavern (1936)
Now Playing: The Rogues' Tavern (1936)

Pros: The male and female leads; A deliciously ripe villain's speech at the climax
Cons: Stale Old Dark House cliches; Rock-bottom production values

Important Update!

It's happening, just as I predicted! Last October, in a post on Bert I. Gordon's Tormented (1960), I issued a warning to Facebook investors:
Facebook investors take note: I've been on it for a year or so now, and the surest sign of the decline and fall of a service like this is when old people like me start grudgingly using it.
Sure enough, it looks like the early reports of youngsters abandoning Facebook are indeed true, and they're jumping ship faster than rats at an Orkin convention.  In the "real" world, teens use their smart phones and earbuds very effectively to screen out older people and pretend they don't exist. Just the thought that parents, aunts, funny uncles, and grandparents are using their social media tools is too much to bear. So, it's on to the next great fad, at least until the oldsters invade it with photos of their cats, political rants, what they ate for dinner, etc., at which point the great migration will begin anew.

What will become of Facebook when all the teens and twenty-somethings are gone?
However, I do see a potential win-win situation in all this faux social chaos. With decent pensions going the way of the dinosaurs, and politicians in both parties drooling at the thought of taking big bites out of Social Security and Medicare, seniors like me are going to need some extra pocket change to keep their food pantries stocked with something more than Sam's Club-special cat food and Ramen noodles. So, all you teens and twenty-somethings with discretionary income, what's it worth to you to keep grumpy old people like me out of your precious social sites? To make it convenient, we'll accept all major credit cards, Paypal and Google payments. Since founder Mark Zuckerberg is still (barely) a twenty-something and stinkin' rich, I think he should be the first to pony up. Hey Mark, if you're reading this, contact me and we can arrange for a reasonable lump sum payment to be transferred to my account in the Cayman Islands.

While we're waiting for Mark and his peeps to do the right thing, please visit Films From Beyond the Time Barrier on Facebook. It features lots of interesting links, capsule reviews, important dates in B movie history and other extra special content that you won't find here on the blog. And, as a special incentive, if you click Like today, I'll make sure you get a cut of whatever settlement I get from the Z-man (minus attorney fees, financial transaction fees, and shipping and handling of course).

Since Valentine's Day is getting close, I thought I'd use part of this post to celebrate a long-lost love. She was nothing much to look at, but in the olden days before online streaming and Blu-Ray (heck, even before DVDs, if you can imagine that), she provided me with hour upon hour of unique, one-of-a-kind entertainment. Okay, before you get too creeped out, "she" was a video store -- the charming, eccentric, independently-owned kind that was hard to find even 20 years ago.

Morris Classic Video was located in a dumpy, nondescript mini-strip mall just north of South Bend, Indiana, near the Michigan border. It was one of those places you knew about through word of mouth, because the chances of finding it on your own were next to nil. From the outside, it looked way too small to hold much of anything, not to mention a good videotape collection. But when you entered through the creaky front door, the standard laws of physics and geometry no longer applied, and wonderfully peculiar video worlds beckoned you from every nook, corner and cranny.

To maximize their cramped space, the proprietors installed dozens of floor-to-ceiling pegboards that housed video sleeves and numbered round tags corresponding to the various titles. You browsed the cover art, grabbed the tags for the videos you wanted, and took them to the main desk where they fetched the VHS cassettes. Space was tight to say the least, and even someone as lean and mean as myself sometimes had difficulties squeezing through the maze of shelves. In the winter, with a heavy coat on, it was a real challenge to navigate--  on several occasions I backed up to make room for another customer, or absent-mindedly raised my arm, and a bunch of tags would clatter to the floor.

True to its name, Morris Classic Video played host to the all-time greatest stars of the silver screen (and some wannabes as well). There was a Katherine Hepburn section and a Bogart section, and for some reason I never quite figured out, an Eric Roberts (!??!!) section (possibly one of the owners had the hots for Eric, brother of the reprehensible and revolting Julia). And there was more than silver screen classics -- Morris was where I discovered the incomparable I, Claudius on videotape.

But best of all for someone with my peculiar tastes, they had a generous helping of "classic" sci-fi and horror. I got reacquainted with some of the great, schlocky sci-fi flicks of my childhood, titles like The Angry Red Planet (1959) and The Crawling Eye (1958). Better still, they stocked a fair number of horror and mystery thrillers from the '30s and '40s, obscure programmers from the Poverty Row studios that never made it to the Creature Features that I watched as a kid. Many of the titles were from the now defunct outfit Video Yesteryear, which specialized in public domain cinema. When I got a catalog to see what else they offered that Morris didn't, it wasn't long before I was in the grip of that terrible, yet exhilarating addiction known as video collecting.

Wallace Ford as Jimmy and Barbara Pepper as Marjorie in The Rogues' Tavern
Jimmy (Wallace Ford) and Marjorie (Barbara Pepper) wonder
whatever became of Morris Classic Video in South Bend, Ind.
I'm not sure what attracted me to The Rogues' Tavern at Morris Video, except that, apparently having had a lot of time on my hands back in those days, I systematically went through pretty much their whole collection of classic horror, sci-fi and mysteries. If you're not open-minded and in the right mood, B programmers from the '30s like Rogues' Tavern can be more work than pleasure. The medium was still evolving: cameras and sound equipment were clunky and hard to use; the acting craft was still recovering from the exaggerated mugging of the silent era; and only the best, most imaginative crafts men and women with the highest budgets were discovering that cinema could combine good storytelling with pace, movement and spectacle to transport audiences to new worlds. Consequently, B movies of the '30s were often maddeningly static affairs, set-bound, with outrageous overacting, no music tracks, embarrassing character stereotypes, and a glacier-pace.

Still, the better B's overcame these deficiencies with personable leads (especially the leading ladies), strange, eccentric supporting characters, and clever, lightning-quick dialog. Rogues' Tavern predictably suffers from some of the worst traits of the cheapies, yet delivers just enough punch -- especially through an unusual red-herring and some deliciously over-ripe dialog -- that it's worth checking out for hardcore vintage mystery-thriller fans.

Rogues' Tavern starts out with Jim Kelly (Wallace Ford) and Marjorie Burns (Barbara Pepper), two department store detectives, desperately trying to get married in the middle of the night. The Justice of the Peace tells them there's a waiting period, but he can call the nearest Justice over in the next state, and they can meet him at the Red Rock Tavern just over the state line. We're not quite sure what the hurry is, but the two lovebirds quickly agree to the plan. The next lines are a good indication of what the viewer is in for (Noel Coward this is not!):
Kelly [to the Justice of the Peace]: Are you married?
Justice: No, I was born this way.
The Rogue's Tavern features the requisite 'spooky face at the window'.
"Why grandpa, what big eyes you have!"
Ouch! The script never really rises above this clunker. The pair arrive at the tavern with the wind, and a dog, howling in the background. The interior of the Red Rock looks nothing like a tavern, but rather a standard-issue old dark house with a large fireplace, grand staircase, wall tapestries, a suit of armor, etc. Apparently, there wasn't enough money in the budget to outfit the set to look like a tavern, so they just used it as-is. But the set is appropriate, since what we're watching is a typical old dark house thriller. In its 67 minute running time, Rogues' Tavern checks off just about every cliche in the Old Dark House subgenre, which by 1936 was getting a bit long-in-the-tooth:
✓ A dark and stormy (in this case, windy) night
✓ An intrepid, wisecracking male protagonist (Jimmy Kelly / Wallace Ford)
✓ A plucky blonde female protagonist who's constantly being menaced by shadowy figures and clutching hands coming out of secret rooms and passageways (Marjorie Burns / Barabara Pepper)
✓ A houseful of unlucky victims who've been summoned to get their just rewards
✓ A mysterious, exotic-looking femme-fatale (Gloria Robloff / Joan Woodbury)
✓ An eccentric handyman/house servant who's afraid of his own shadow
✓ An eerie face at the window
✓ Creepy disembodied voices
✓ Scads of red-herrings, including a howling dog
✓ A mad, deadly plan of revenge exposed by the plucky protagonists
The two leads, Wallace Ford and Barbara Pepper, manage to make this stale affair watchable. Wally Ford is one of my favorite character actors from the '30s and '40s. No matter what he's in, his doughy-faced, wisecracking everyman act has me smiling every time. This is not one of his better performances -- he stumbles through some of his lines and slurs others -- but he still brings life to a programmer that without him would be deadly dull to watch. (It probably didn't help that this was an ultra-low budget, 1-take-and-done production. For a much better showcase of Ford's talents, see The Mummy's Hand, 1940. See also my write up of One Frightened Night for more info on his fascinating life, which rivals the plots of many of his movies!)

Marjorie (Barbara Pepper) looks around the dark, creepy tavern
Marjorie is menaced by... a stuffed dog's head!
Per the dictates of the subgrene, Barbara Pepper as Marjorie is perky, intelligent, curious and very blonde. She's instrumental in solving the mystery, but Ford's character is so dismissive and arrogant toward her that you wonder why she is so hot-fired to marry him. (Barbara went from a showgirl spot in Ziegfield's Follies to movie starletdom in the early thirties, then turned to the inevitable TV career in the '50s. Toward the end of her life, she was a recurring character, Doris Ziffel, on the TV comedy Green Acres.)

As a counterpoint to the perky blonde, Rogues' Tavern throws a dark, exotic-looking beauty, Joan Woodbury (as Gloria Robloff), into the mix. Unfortunately Joan has little to do except peer at her fortune-telling cards and glumly intone lines like "Everyone here is in the shadow of death!"

The ultimate redemption of Rogues' Tavern is the murderer's rousing, florid speech at the climax, punctuated with bouts of insane laughter. It is a memorable piece of over-the-top acting, and is mentioned in everything that I have read about the film. It is the prototype for the mad villain's taunting of the captured hero in every spy movie or comic book adaptation you've ever seen. There aren't too many candidates for the maniac in this one, so even if the culprit comes as no surprise, at least the speech will have you grinning.


Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com

Available online

YouTube

"A roadside inn turned into a trap of doom!"

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