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Boris Karloff's popularity has kept pace with the times, over 40 years after his death in 1969. Almost every movie he starred in has been released on Home Video in one form or another. But the Warner Archive Collection has found a couple of winners for its new Boris Karloff Triple Feature. Ironically, Karloff's non-horror vehicles offer something that his more famous chillers often don't -- the chance to play a conventional character with a fair share of dialogue. Karloff is far more than just a monster man, he's a terrific actor. No matter how feeble a film role might be, none ever received less than his best effort. And when he's given something to work with, he pulls off minor miracles of acting craft.
The first title up is the best, 1937's West of Shanghai. At first we think it's a knockoff of Von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, or just another one of those Chinese Civil War movies in which bloodthirsty warlords prove to have good hearts under their savage yellowcake makeup and 'inscrutable' manners: The General Died at Dawn; The Bitter Tea of General Yen. The supporting cast is largely uninspiring, but when Karloff takes over, things pick up immediately.
In search of a profitable oil deal, a trio of Americans makes its way to a Chinese outpost. Myron Galt (Douglas Wood) wants to repossess the oil claim of wildcat driller Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver), who is behind in his payments. Myron's daughter Lola (Sheila Bromley) is attracted to Hallet, but he only has eyes for missionary aide Jane Creed (Beverly Roberts). She's presently unavailable because she's still married. Her estranged husband happens to be the third traveler, slick oil company rep Gordon Creed (Ricardo Cortez), who is determined to loan Jim the money he needs, for an interest in his oil claim. The Yankees have just arrived when the notorious warlord Wu Yen Fang (Boris Karloff) storms in. Fang's army immediately takes over. He threatens to kill anyone who disobeys him, and 'invites' in turn both Jane and Lola to accompany him on his conquests. When push comes to shove, it's Jim that defends Jane's honor, not Gordon. Jim is about to be shot when Fang recognizes him as the same man who once saved his life. Jim and Gordon conspire to send a messenger to Fang's enemies. It isn't long before Fang figures out all of the romantic and financial intrigues that are afoot, and takes a hand in 'resolving' them -- with increasingly moralistic intentions.
Karloff is sensational in West of Shanghai, bringing depth and color to a half-dimensional Yellow Peril character. The dialogue gives Fang bits of pidgin English lingo to sling about. When Fang needs an explanation for an unfamiliar English expression, his bodyguard Mr. Cheng (Richard Loo) translates. Cheng was a gangster in America, and almost everything he says is amusing.
What might have been a dull stage play is brought fully to life by Karloff. He commands our attention always but never in a narcissistic fashion. Some of the other actors are less than expressive, but Karloff holds them up and spurs them on. Beverly Roberts and Gordon Oliver are pretty colorless. If Sheila Bromley had more screen time we'd be able to decide if she really is doing a Bette Davis impression. Vladimir Sokoloff is very good early on as an enemy general targeted by Fang's spy-assassins. We expect Ricardo Cortez to be more heroic, because he's better known and the movie seems to single him out as the main character. That makes it interesting when his true colors are revealed.
This is one of ace director John Farrow's first feature assignments. It's clear that second unit directors handled a lot of the action, but Farrow gets right to the conflict in each dramatic scene and blocks out his coverage clearly. I'll bet that he won favor with his employers when they saw that his scenes add up to more than a string of camera angles.
West of Shanghai finishes on a truly unexpected note -- the 'nasty' warlord becomes our favorite character. Without begging for affection, Karloff makes Wu Yen Fang into a sympathetic guy. Karloff fans that haven't seen this show are in for a pleasant surprise.
The second picture in the set, 1938's The Invisible Menace, was made by much the same group of people -- director Farrow, writer Crane Wilbur, cameraman L. William O'Connell. But it's just not very good. The blame for a murder on an army base initially points to the slightly dopey Eddie Pratt (Eddie Craven), who finds the body when he sneaks his bride Sally (Marie Wilson) into camp for a secret honeymoon. The commander then puts unreasonable pressure on another soldier, Jevries (Boris Karloff) to confess. Only the ditzy Sally can uncover the identity of the real killer.
I found it difficult to pay attention to this show. It's based on a Broadway play called Without Warning. The way it's put together, there are no surprises and nobody to identify with. Karloff is made to play the patsy, and goes through the usual persecution scenes; we know darn well that he's not the guilty party.
Eddie Craven reportedly starred in the play, which did not have a very long stage run. The movie will probably be most interesting for fans of Marie Wilson, a comedienne who specialized in brassy but sweet dumb blondes. She seems to be less well known now than she was a few years ago. The film I remember her best in is the hilarious, fast-talking Boy Meets Girl with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.
Things pick up with 1939's Devil's Island, a good drama that either used the same research source, or provided a lot of inspiration for, Franklin J. Schaffner's Papillon. There are a great many parallels, from the stocking caps worn by the convicts to their witnessing of an execution by guillotine. There's even talk of escaping to the mainland by bribing people to provide a boat.
Kenneth Garnet and Don Ryan's screenplay re-runs aspects of Captain Blood by way of The Prisoner of Shark Island. Karloff is the French Dr. Gaudet, who is sent to Devil's Island for ten years after aiding a wounded criminal and being accused of complicity in the crime. Devil's Island is Hell, of course, with the good doctor protesting all of the injustice and unnecessary cruelty. He's punished for refusing to keep quiet when the medical staff ignores serious illnesses among the prisoners, allowing them to be worked to death. The commandant (James Stephenson) will do anything to shut Gaudet up, but when his own child needs a good surgeon, his wife (Nedda Harrigan) steps in and demands that Gaudet be allowed to operate. The rest of the show involves an escape by Gaudet and his cellmates, and the discovery that (surprise!) the hiss-able commandant has some criminal activity of his own to answer for.
This time the director is William Clemens, the man who made all those amusing Nancy Drew movies. Cameraman George Barnes probably got all the credit for the steamy tropical atmosphere. Soaking wet, Karloff looks like he's been toiling in Hell all his born days - nobody could look more persecuted or mistreated. There's nothing particularly unprecedented about the story or performances, but Karloff is a powerful presence when proclaiming his innocence or redirecting blame back at his prosecutors and torturers. If this were a different kind of picture, he'd be swearing to come back from the grave to wreak vengeance!
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Boris Karloff Triple Feature has placed all three films on one DVD disc, along with a couple of trailers. The quality is very good on two of the pictures, with The Invisible Menace looking a little less attractive than the other two. Devil's Island is worthy and good, and West of Shanghai is worth the price of admission on its own.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Boris Karloff Triple Feature rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.