Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Black Dragons (USA, 1942)

(Spoilers!) The third of Bela Lugosi's infamous Monogram Nine,* Black Dragons followed the seventh East Side Kids film Spooks Run Wild (1941 / full film / trailer) and preceded that a wasted life fave, The Corpse Vanishes (1942). Unlike the last mentioned slice of camp surrealism, however, Black Dragons is perhaps one of the harder of the Monogram Nine to take a revisionist approach to.
* Unfamiliar with the "Monogram Nine"? Well, to simply quote the filmmaker Donald F. Glut at Amazon: "Between 1941 and 1944, Bela Lugosi starred in a series of low-budget films released by Monogram Pictures. To many viewers at the time and during the decades that followed, the 'Monogram Nine' were overacted and underproduced, illogical and incoherent. But their increasing age has recast such condemnations into appropriate praise: in the 21st century, they seem so different not only from modern cinema, but also from Classical Hollywood, enough so as to make the aforementioned deficits into advantages. The entries in the Monogram Nine are bizarre and strange, populated by crazy, larger-than-life characters who exist in wacky, alternative worlds. In nine films, the improbable chases the impossible."
Trailer to
Black Dragons:
Made under the working title The Yellow Menace, the movie's final release title was undoubtedly inspired by an actual Japanese espionage organization, the Black Dragon Society, which arose during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Released on 6 March 1942 in Los Angeles on a double bill with the Australian adventure flick Pituri a.k.a. Uncivilised (1937 / trailer), Black Dragons had gone into production soon after the 7 Dec 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, making the Poverty Row production one of the earliest anti-Japanese* wartime propaganda film releases after the US declared war (on 8 Dec 1941). (Interestingly enough, 21 days after the theatrical release of Black Dragons, the FBI arrested the members of the Black Dragon Society in California.) The filmic Black Dragons, or at least a splinter cell of the organization, promptly made a second appearance in another Monogram film roughly 2.5 months later with the release of the ninth (of 22) East Side Kids installment, Let's Get Tough! (1942 / full film), which like Black Dragons was scripted by prolific silent film and Poverty Row scribe Harvey Gates (19 Jan 1894 – 4 Nov 1948). Despite the further years of war in real life, that East Side Kids film was the last cinema appearance of devious rising-sun devils.
* Only ever referred to in the film as "Japs", of course.
Black Dragons is not a very good film, and not just because it is a blatant (if understandable for the time) slice of anti-Japanese wartime propaganda. Like all the Monogram Nine, it is very much "overacted [when not underacted] and underproduced, illogical and incoherent", but on the whole it is a lot less strange or crazy or surreal than it is ridiculous, tedious and, at 64 minutes in length, about 50 minutes too long. Director William Nigh (12 Oct 1881 – 27 Nov 1955), who began his career in films as a silent film actor (he appeared in some 25-odd shorts and feature films between 1913 and 1925, including as a Keystone Kop) before becoming a prolific poverty row director,* does little in way of direction in the movie. But for the rather intriguing opening scene of a gathering of the upper crust in Washington, D.C., partaking heavily in the kind of loose lips that sink ships during an evening dinner get-together,** the camerawork of Black Dragons is pretty much of the stationary kind: static and unexciting, it does little to add tension or flavor or any visual creativity to the at times difficult to follow and ultimately ridiculous tale.
* His most familiar title might be The Ape (1940 / full film / trailer), while his most appreciated title seems to be I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948). In general, little biographical information is known about him — for example, though it is known that he was married to "Mrs. William Nigh", who even appeared alongside him playing "Sloppy Sue" in Notorious Gallagher; or, His Great Triumph (1916), a silent he wrote, directed and starred in, when and where they married or her full name is currently unknown, and no other family member of the same name seems to share his grave location. (He shares it with three members of a Goetz family.) He was, in any event, born in Berlin... Wisconsin.
** Typical, actually: though only two young women at the dinner event, the least interesting one, the blonde with no lines of dialogue, is identified today — she's played by the starlet Ethelreda Leopold (2 Jul 1914 – 26 Jan 1998) — while the far more interesting and worldly, and chesty and braless, brunette floozy in a silk top (who asks one of movers-and-shakers present, "With your influence in Washington, why don't you get a bill passed to increase the old-age pension for glamour girls?") remains unknown and forgotten.
That the many of Republican-looking industrialists introduced at the beginning of Black Dragons are actually secret fifth-column activists is quickly established. What is less quickly established is the who or why of Monsieur Colomb (Bela Lugosi), a man that shows up late one night at the house of fifth columnist William Saunders (George Pembroke [27 Dec 1901 – 11 Jun 1972] of The Invisible Ghost [1941 / full film] and Bluebeard [1944 / full film / trailer]). Colomb integrates himself into the soon-somnambulant Saunders's household under the guise of an "invited guest" and, one by one, kills or leads to the demise of the other fifth-column businessmen...
To the plot there is Saunders visiting niece Alice (1930-40 B-movie stalwart Joan Barclay, nee Mary Elizabeth Greear [31 Aug 1914 – 22 Nov 2002], of The Corpse Vanishes [1942] and the classic The Seventh Victim [1943 / trailer]) and the butler Stevens (stage actor Joseph Eggenton [28 Feb 1871 – 3 Jul 1946], easily the best actor in the movie), who find the mysterious Colomb unnerving, and the manly if ineffectual FBI agent Dick Martin (Clayton "Lone Ranger" Moore, nee Jack Carlton Moore [14 Sep 1914 – 28 Dec 1999]), who is convinced something is rotten in the state of Denmark at the Saunders mansion.
The big showdown at the end, when Martin brings the last surviving fifth columnist Amos Hanlin (Robert Frazer, nee Robert William Browne [29 Jun 1891 – 17 Aug 1944], of the classic, entertaining horror films White Zombie [1932 / trailer] and The Vampire Bat [1933 / full film]) back to the mansion in an attempt to smoke out the now on-the-run Colomb does quickly devolve into a fun and surreally over the top resolution that aims to tie all the slippery loose ends together: Hanlin dies, while Colomb (revealed to actually be the Nazi plastic surgeon Dr. Melcher) survives a bullet in the back long enough for the now monsterfied (!) Dr Saunders to reveal... Well, that would be spoiling the big[gest] reveal, wouldn't it?
While the ending of Black Dragons does dive straight into the otherworld insanity that makes so many poverty row productions fun, the enjoyably daft resolution takes much too long to be reached. The true flaw of the movie, however, lies neither in the cheap production values nor the sub-standard acting nor the sleep-inducing direction nor in the now somewhat alienating anti-"Jap" propagandistic tone. What makes the film so unbearable is the substantial lack of interesting or noteworthy dialogue, the true key, for example, to the "success" of the indefinitely better Monogram Nine production, The Corpse Vanishes. The plot of that film is really no less nonsensical than the plot in this one, but it nevertheless works because the narrative inanity and low-brow action meshes so well with the inspired, oft-camp dialogue. Black Dragons, despite having been written by a co-scripter of The Corpse Vanishes, is almost universally lacking in the kind of knowingly fun dialogue that often saves this kind of lower echelon movie. Thus, the movie simply sinks deep into the quicksand of unbearable mediocrity and quickly becomes no fun to watch.
Still, one cannot say that some of the dialog in Black Dragons doesn't cause more than just one double-take. The number of such lines of dialogue, however, can actually be counted on one-and-a-half hands. The two least offensive lines of note are that of the previously mentioned brunette floozy, and Hanlin's response to Martin when the latter asks Hanlin whether he is not frightened of being murdered: "A busy man has very little time to indulge in feminine emotions." But the true jaw-dropper of the movie, the exchange that is close to impossible to erase from one's mind (though one would like to), is the following example of "witty" banter between Martin and Alice after Martin has tried a few times to convince Alice to leave the Saunders mansion:
Martin: "Alice, will you marry me?"
Alice: "What for?"
Martin: "So I can beat you up. It's the only way I can get you out of here."
Black Dragons – full film:

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