Members of the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention will be given an opportunity to vote retroactively for Hugo Awards for 1945, for works from 1944. I am not actually old enough to have been around in 1944. The year 1944 was roughly a flowering when fantastic media was seen by much of the public. I am not sure when I started seeing fantastic media from the year 1944 until about 1960, but I do remember the early general public availability of some of the films nominated for a 1944 Retroactive Hugo. They had science fiction and fantasy for which the fiction was absurdly bad (but fun) and the "science" contained no science at all. It can still be fun to be misinformed by science from someone who knows less science than you do and by fiction that is just written. There is a certain charm to science fiction written by someone with no obvious understanding of science trying their best to make it sound credible
Many true fans of science fiction and fantasy still retain an interest in the fantasy fiction from 80 years earlier. Reading it creates an atmosphere from a writing style of decades ago. Few fans delude themselves into believing that this prose eight decades old is true artistry.
Personally I see only one or two titles among the nominees that say to me "classic." By the time I finish this article you will probably have very little doubt which two are the ones that I consider the true classics. In the meantime I will hint for the reader think about which would the real classic be. Evelyn and I will both be viewing the choice of nominees and independently recording our opinions.
Enjoy your sojourn to the fun films of 1944. I know I will.
CAPTAIN AMERICA (serial): The Scarab, an evil master criminal (played by Lionel Atwill) is manipulating members of the wealthy class with something that has been called "The Purple Death". With it, Scarab can telepathically order people infected with the Purple Death to commit suicide. The Scarab and his minions know each other because they carry a jeweled scarab beetle. (The jewel has four pairs of legs, but scarabs are insects and so have only three pairs of legs; scarabs are beetles and so have six pairs of legs, not eight.
THE GREAT ALASKA MYSTERY (serial): In the 1940s it was cheap to have and reuse the plot of bad guys being Nazis trying to get their hands on some sort of American super weapon. And what was the weapon? It was usually a death ray. That was a really cheap effect to create. A film is easy to stretch to distort. That gives an impression of melting rock. (I have seen only the first chapter.)
THE UNINVITED: In the middle of these weak B-movies is a true A- movie classic. It is a film that tells a good story and at the same time has comedy, drama, horror, a good mystery, and romance. Director Lewis Allen has given one of s small handful of the best English-language cinematic ghost stories ever made. (By the rules, this could be relocated into Short Form.)
The Short Form is for works of 90 minutes or less. However, works of 72 minutes or more could be relocated into the Long Form Category. These will be individually noted. Several of the films below are available on YouTube.
THE GIRL WHO DARED, MURDER IN THE BLUE ROOM, and ONE BODY TOO MANY: Three of the nominees are comedy horror films. A group of possible heirs are met in a creepy old mansion for the reading of a will. One guest is willing to murder to inherit the estate. He may or may not wear a horrific costume to enhance the horror. Perhaps best remembered was 1927's THE CAT AND THE CANARY or its 1939 sound remake, also named THE CAT AND THE CANARY. The 1944 examples of haunted house horror films include THE GIRL WHO DARED, MURDER IN THE BLUE ROOM, and ONE BODY TOO MANY. [ONE BODY TOO MANY could be Long Form.]
"Sherlock Holmes" Films: Prior to 1944 20th Century made two Sherlock Holmes films, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, both made in 1939. Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce played Watson. Rathbone and Bruce had a screen chemistry that worked and audiences responded to. Universal decided to try using the same two actors in the same two roles, but they would update the setting to wartime. Three of these films took place in wartime England pitting Holmes and Watson against Nazis. In 1944 they made SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE PEARL OF DEATH, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SCARLET CLAW, and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SPIDER WOMAN. Universal would lend Holmes's authority to patriotic speeches for which Rathbone would lapse into rhetoric. Still the films were generally entertaining. [SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SCARLET CLAW could be Long Form.]
BLUEBEARD: This actually was one of PRC's most respected productions. Director Edgar Ulmer gives his settings the feel of a Paris set avoided long shots, setting a film in Paris drives up production costs even if the audience sees only little snatches of what is supposed to be Paris but is really just a few obvious stage props. John Carradine plays the title killer. BLUEBEARD does not really work as an account of a serial killing murderer, but director Ulmer was a talented artist and his work is worth seeing even if it was created for pittance. [Could be Long Form.]
THE CLIMAX: The previous year, 1943, Universal had cashed in with their Technicolor production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with Claude Rains. It offered beautiful music and bright, vibrant color. In 1944 Universal tried that same formula again: strong, saturated colors, semi-classical music, and tissue-light horror plotting. It made an escape for soldiers at war. Universal wanted to see if that same formula would work again. The plot was a combination of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and SVENGALI. Sadly, this was not much of a success for Universal this time. Probably it was because the film starred Boris Karloff as the villainous hypnotist--an adequate but an uninspired choice. [Could be Long Form.]
CRAZY KNIGHTS: Five or six incompetent comedians play themselves in a comedy devoid of any humor attempts that work. It is just one more comedy of imbeciles in a haunted house.
CRY OF THE WEREWOLF: When Universal was making its horror films, Columbia was borrowing heavily from the Universal style and giving Universal a run for its money. One good touch in this, for example, is that it used real wolves in scenes with werewolves and not people in yak-hair wigs. The story is not great, but it does have its moments. At a slight 63 minutes it was a decent use of its time. Notice the cast included popular gangster actor Barton MacLane and Nina Foch.
THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE: Even though RKO had the extreme but unappreciated luck of having director Val Lewton working for them, they always insisted they would pick the title of the next Lewton film. Lewton was never consulted on the choice. CAT PEOPLE had been such an assignment. Then Lewton was told he would make a sequel. In spite of a short reference in the script of THE CURSE OF CAT PEOPLE, Lewton wrote a strange little story about the good and bad that children can create for themselves and others who are under the influence of fantasy, but THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE had nothing much to do with CAT PEOPLE.
DEAD MAN'S EYES: This was an "Inner Sanctum" murder mystery. Universal, running out of material, turned to "Inner Sanctum", a mystery book-of-the-month book club. The mysteries all starred a perpetually miscast Lon Chaney, Jr. DEAD MAN'S EYES was an "Inner Sanctum" mystery.
DESTINY: This story from Universal was originally planned to be a segment of the anthology film FLESH AND FANTASY. It was a little overly sentimental for that film, combining elements of LES MISERABLES and GREEN MANSIONS. Cliff is running from the police as the film opens. His life keeps falling into chapters with him running from the police, and he repeatedly betrays people or is betrayed by others but he refuses to abandon his wicked ways. Then he finds a valley that is somehow attuned to a blind girl who lives peacefully with nature. The director, Reginald Le Borg, who also directed several of Universal's lesser horror films of the caliber of JUNGLE WOMAN, directs the film.
HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN: Universal made some of the great monster movies starting with DRACULA (1930), but by 1943 the formula was getting tired. It occurred to Universal that a story with two monsters might attract audiences better than one with one, so they made FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Two monsters did indeed help to revive the market. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN did just that. They herded a bunch of monsters in one script. It had Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, and they introduced a new "monster", a pitiable hunchback. And they got Boris Karloff to appear again in a canonical monster film for the first time since SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Dracula almost has his own second (albeit weak) story. Audience members who came expecting to see monsters fight each other will be disappointed. No two monsters are ever in the same scene when both are conscious.
THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE: This was late in Universal's "Invisible Man" series. Jon Hall plays a revenge-minded adventurer who was swindled by his partners and left for dead in the jungle. He stumbles on a scientist re-discovering the invisibility formula. This film was made eleven years after Universal made its first "Invisible Man" film and it used just the same photographic effects. There is very little progress in the visual effects or the story-telling. [Could be Long Form.]
JUNGLE WOMAN: This is unique among Universal's horror series in that it is the only series composed entirely of bombs: CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE CAPTIVE, and JUNGLE WOMAN. In this one, a gorilla has been vivisected to become a very near copy of a human woman.
THE LADY AND THE MONSTER: This was the first of three film adaptations of Curt Siodmak's novel DONOVAN'S BRAIN (THE LADY AND THE MONSTER (1944), DONOVAN'S BRAIN (1953), and THE BRAIN (1962). A powerful but criminal industrialist has his brain kept alive after the rest of him dies. The brain can dominate the scientist who is keeping him alive.
THE LODGER: This is director Edgar G. Ulmer's version of Jack the Ripper. Ulmer specialized in dramas very dark in tone. This is his remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 silent version. All of London is terrified by the Jack the Ripper murders. Laird Cregar plays the man suspected of being the Ripper Murderer who no doubt has deep psychological problems, Ripper or not. [Could be Long Form.]
RETURN OF THE APE MAN: There was a previous Poverty Row film entitled THE APE MAN. It had nothing to do with RETURN OF THE APE MAN. In RETURN OF THE APE MAN a prehistoric man is thawed out of ice and freed into our world.
THE SOUL OF A MONSTER: In this film a great doctor becomes a national hero for his great feats of healing, but he can only do so with the help of dark forces. This film borrows heavily from Val Lewton's bag of suspense tricks and odd camera angles. It also gives some feel of Universal's horror films.
VOODOO MAN: Mad scientist played by Bela Lugosi rearranges road landmarks to trap passing motorists to make them test subjects. Lugosi uses pseudo-science and voodoo to resurrect his wife. This is wackier than most Lugosi outings, with a lot of different ideas thrown together to make this story. There is even a bit of stop-motion animation thrown into the pot and stirred.
WEIRD WOMAN: None of Universal's "Inner Sanctum" mysteries, of which this is one, rises above low mediocre. This is the best "Inner Sanctum" mystery of the lot. That is at least in part because it is based on Fritz Leiber's horror novel CONJURE WIFE. I recommend instead the 1962 remake, NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, a.k.a. BURN WITCH BURN.
In my introduction to this series of articles I promised the reader to reveal which two films I considered to be genuine classics. When I was first becoming a horror film fan I was not quite sure what to make of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. There are certainly aspects to admire in its well-rounded commentary on children and imagination. I still am not quite sure what Val Lewton was saying, but it has enough to keep me guessing. Lewton deserves veneration after all the years. And the film most easily appreciated is THE UNINVITED. Those two were the best fantasy films of 1944 in my opinion.
After Mark published his overview of 1944 candidates for the Retro Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Cora Buhlert pointed us to a spreadsheet that containing several presentations Mark missed; we also had input from Nicholas Whyte. Some are very short films (e.g., Warner Brothers cartoons) or radio programs, and Mark was concentrating on what were considered at the time feature films.
Mark is currently tied up on other projects, but I have decided to jump in and comment on the new additions to the list (feature films only). And here they are.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: This is one of those English fantasy films so popular in this period: not the high fantasy of elves and dragons, but the "Twilight Zone" sort of fantasy where ordinary people end up in a weird situation. In fact, the "Twilight Zone" episode "Passage on the 'Lady Anne'" bears more than a passing resemblance to this one. In this one, ten people find themselves on a steamship--somehow--that is going ... somewhere. They are supposedly a cross-section of society (including Americans), and we are given ample opportunity to like the likeable ones and dislike the others. Not quite as talky and preachy as THEY CAME TO A CITY, but of the same ilk.
THE CANTERVILLE GHOST: Based on the Oscar Wilde story, this suffers from too much "thee" and "thou" and "yea" and heavy under-cranking in the first scene, and one wonders how the Allies won the war if American soldiers were this wacky. Then again, this is in keeping with other American comedies during the war--the soldiers seem a cross between Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers. (I suppose the idea is to downplay the fact that these soldiers are supposed to go out and kill people, and make them just like the friendly neighbor back home.) Charles Laughton is a bit over the top (but he always is) and Una O'Conner is way over the top (but she always is). And while the curse will be lifted when a Canterville has to do something brave while wearing the signet ring, no one thinks to give the ring to Margaret O'Brien, who keeps doing brave things. Still it's more enjoyable than something like THEY CAME TO A CITY or the many low-budget horror films Mark covered in his article.
COBRA WOMAN: Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu, Lon Chaney (Jr.), Jack Pierce, Vera West, ... in Technicolor, no less. Clearly designed as a (low-budget) adventure romance, it has no real fantasy elements--it doesn't even seem to be a lost race story.
THE HALFWAY HOUSE: (We were unable to find a copy of this.)
IT HAPPENED TOMORROW: Not quite along the lines of BETWEEN TWO WORLDS and THEY CAME TO A CITY, this is another fantasy that is similar to a "Twilight Zone" episode--in this case, "Printer's Devil". Larry Stevens is a reporter who gets copies of the next day's newspapers, but when he tries to act on the advance information, things don't turn out as he hoped. (No surprise there.) There is also a romance, and a lot of comedy, but altogether it is nothing special.
THE PHANTOM: (We were unable to find a copy of this.)
THEY CAME TO A CITY: Like BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, this is one of those English "Twilight Zone" fantasy films of the period. The best known is probably DEAD OF NIGHT, but there are enough that someone should write a book about them (and probably has). In this one, nine dissatisfied people are transported from their ordinary lives to ... someplace, and someplace with very striking art direction (by Michael Relph, who also did the art direction for DEAD OF NIGHT). The "Twilight Zone" episode this evoked for me was "Five Characters in Search of an Exit". THEY CAME TO A CITY is very talky--Lord, is it talky!--being not much more than a filmed stage play, and extremely heavy on its socialist message, but still worth watching. As noted above, very similar to BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, but much more stylized and artificial. (By the rules, this could be relocated into Long Form.)
TIME FLIES: Though this is claimed by some to be the first film with a time machine, there is apparently an earlier Hungarian film. However, since the latter is basically unavailable, this should be recognized as the first widely seen. That said, Mark observed it was more on the level of a "Carry On" film that a serious look at time travel. It is mildly amusing, full of puns and the like, but not Hugo material. (By the rules, this could be relocated into Long Form.)
THE TOWER OF THE SEVEN HUNCHBACKS: The only fantasy content in this Spanish film is a ghost that wants the main character to protect his daughter from a gang of hunchbacks. The main story involves this gang counterfeiting money in an underground city built by Jews who were hiding there after the Expulsion. The latter idea may be more bizarre than the ghost, and the set design is more interesting than the plot. (By the rules, this could be relocated into Long Form.)
WHILE NERO FIDDLED (a.k.a. FIDDLERS THREE): Not the 1948 Three Stooges movie. (We were unable to find a copy of this.)
Mark R. Leeper Evelyn C. Leeper Copyright 2020 Mark R. Leeper and Evelyn C. Leeper