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Typical Script Detail at Universal in the 1940s

Saturday, April 1st, 2017

Even on the most minor projects, Universal in the 1940s paid attention to the smallest details.

Weird Woman was a modest 1944 release from Universal in their “Inner Sanctum” series, all starring Lon Chaney Jr. – here as Professor Norman Reed – many of which were directed by Reginald Le Borg, including this film. It’s about an hour long, and had a very short shooting schedule – but Le Borg manages to squeeze the most atmosphere possible out of the proceedings, even if Chaney Jr. seems a rather unlikely college professor (much of his dialogue is delivered in voice over, to heighten the claustrophobic feel of the film). But as even a cursory glance at the script page above demonstrates, on the most overtly commercial offerings from the studio during this period, a great deal of care was taken to make the film as precise and detailed as possible.

For an average shooting script, there’s a great deal of description – and even camera movements – spelled out in minute detail, so that the entire film is carefully pre-planned, and can be shot with maximum efficiency, without sacrificing quality. The budget for the film was somewhere in the $100,000 range, and Chaney Jr. at this point in his career was being used as the studio’s “clean up” man, tackling any role they threw at him – even in a western – with only a few complaints. Above all, during the 1940s, Universal was a factory, operating in a nation at war, delivering a product to audiences that satisfied genre expectations. The shooting schedule was at the most a few weeks, if that.

But even though the film is resolutely a program picture, it’s also enlivened by the skill of a gallery of gifted supporting actors, including Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, the always reliable Ralph Morgan, Elisabeth Risdon, and the ever-alarming Elizabeth Russell. Based on a novel by the gifted Fritz LieberConjure Wife – which was remade in 1962 as Night of the Eagle – this is a solid entry in the “Inner Sanctum” series, which everyone involved took seriously, even if the end result is somewhat threadbare, if only because of the circumstances of budgetary constraints, lack of time, and the ever present need for a “happy ending.” Still, it’s very much worth watching, and you can now see the whole film online.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film.

Sidney Hayers’ Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) Restored to Blu-ray

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Sidney Hayers’ 1962 Burn, Witch, Burn, finally gets the Blu-ray treatment – click here for the trailer.

As an anonymous reviewer on the website Movie Review Query Engine notes, “Night of the Eagle was the second film version of Fritz Leiber Jr.’s novel Conjure Wife (the first was Reginald Le Borg’s Weird Woman (1944), perhaps the best of Universal’s low-budget Inner Sanctum series of the 1940s). The film’s title was possibly meant to invoke memories of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier Night of the Demon (released in the US as Curse of the Demon, 1958); both films involve a rational scientist (in the case of Night of the Eagle, Peter Wyngarde) forced to accept the existence of the supernatural. All evidence points to the conclusion that the scientist’s American wife Janet Blair is the reincarnation of a witch, and a practitioner of voodoo. The actual villain is supposed to be a mystery, though the identity was made clear in the Leiber original and in both other film versions of Conjure Wife (there was a 1980 parody version titled Witches Brew). The supernatural aspect of Night of the Eagle is convincingly handled, including a knockout sequence with a wild eagle rampaging through the scientist’s tranquil study. With a screenplay by Twilight Zone stalwarts Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, the British-made Night of the Eagle was released in the US as Burn, Witch, Burn.”

Margaret Johnston in Burn, Witch, Burn – click here to see this scene from the film.

Adds David Pirie, an expert in British Gothic cinema in Time Out London, “made on a comparatively low budget, [the film deals with] is about a hardheaded psychology lecturer in a provincial university who gradually discovers that his wife Tansy and some of his closest colleagues are practicing witchcraft (in furtherance of campus politics). From the opening sequences in which Tansy (Blair) scrambles frantically round her house searching for a witch-doll left by one of the faculty wives, the whole thing takes off into a kind of joyous amalgam of Rosemary’s Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? . . . Sidney Hayers shoots the whole thing with an almost Wellesian flourish, and the script (by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) is structured with incredible tightness as the sane, rational outlook of the hero (Wyngarde) is gradually dislocated by the world of madness and dreams.”

Peter Wyngarde in the classroom, lecturing to a group of skeptical students.

These frame blowups from the new Kino-Lorber Blu-ray release of the film come from the excellent website DVD Beaver, which regularly reviews new DVD releases, grading them both on image and sound quality, as well as content and historical value. I’ve loved this film for many years, as an excellent example of black and white British Gothic filmmaking at its finest, and though she isn’t mentioned in any of the press materials, I think it’s only fair to give the deeply underrated Margaret Johnston a nod for her excellent, malevolent work in the film.

As Gary Tooze noted on the DVD Beaver website, “Burn, Witch, Burn is wonderful. I immediately got impressions of Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. I loved the story, the suspenseful build-up and Reginald H. Wyer‘s (Island of Terror, Night of the Big Heat) cinematography. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray has immense value – a superb 60’s horror production looking very impressive, a Richard Matheson commentary and an interview. This is close to a masterpiece of its genre and we give it our highest recommendation!”

As do I – check it out now, if you’d like to see a real masterpiece of the macabre.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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