11/27/09

Black Friday (1940): Karloff's Doorbuster Special on Transplanted Brains

Hello folks. Welcome to my last entry for Frankenstienia’s Boris Karloff Blogathon. I’ve had lots of fun watching all these great Karloff films this week, and I’m astounded by the variety and volume of posts people contributed on Boris. There were so many interesting sides to the man, and it looks like over the course of the week pretty much every angle got covered. So I want to send a big thanks out to Pierre over at Frankenstienia for doing such a great job getting this thing going and keeping up with the deluge of posts. If you haven’t been checking it out, then take some time to go over there and see what’s going on.

That’s enough thank you’s I think. Now it’s time to get into today’s film. The day after Thanksgiving is known to be one of the biggest shopping days of the year, and to retailers, it has become known by the moniker Black Friday. So when I discovered that Mr. Karloff had starred in a film of the same title, then I knew I had to watch it. The film concerns busy businessman Boris Karloff who is on a quest to find the must have toy of the season, the Turbo Man. However Bela Lugosi is a hard working divorcée who needs a one of the action figures for his kid as well, and…. Huh? Oh, yeah. My fault. That’s the plot for the big blockbuster movie Jingle All the Way. Let’s try this again.

Boris Karloff plays Dr. Ernest Sovak, and when his best friend, mild mannered English professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges), gets run over by a car, Dr. Sovak is desperate to save him. Coming into the hospital at the same time is mobster Red Cannon (Stanley Ridges) who has been shot and paralyzed. Dr. Sovak operates on the two men replacing Kingsley’s damaged brain with that of the mobster. When Kingsley makes a recovery, he seems alright at first, but then he starts exhibiting characteristics of the mobster whose brain resides in his noggin. Dr. Sovak sees an opportunity to find a large amount of money Red Cannon hid before he died, and takes Kingsley to NYC to see if more memories come back. The trip to the city brings back more than Sovak planned for, and soon the professor is reaping the mobster’s vengeance on his old cronies (which includes Bela Lugosi in a small supporting role). As Kingsley spirals further out of control, Sovak is forced to make a decision on how to stop the friend whose life he had saved.

With a running time of only 70 minutes, Black Friday moves at a pretty fast clip, and this helps the threadbare plot seem less suspect because they don’t give you much time to think about it. It’s not that the film is written badly. It’s more that it doesn’t make much sense. How in the world do you put someone else’s brain in a body and they retain any sense of self? Maybe I’m thinking too hard on this one. This is a slice of science fiction nonsense that doesn’t need to be even vaguely factually accurate to be entertaining. Black Friday is not a thinker. Rather it’s the complete opposite. This is not a film that benefits from dwelling on its minutia. If you just accept the conceit and move on, then it’s a fun ride to the end.

I haven’t seen Karloff in enough roles where he wasn’t playing a monster or creep, and even though Dr. Sovak is not exactly on the level, he’s more flawed man than monster. Karloff is given time to flex his dramatic chops in this film, and I really enjoyed seeing him work. Sovak is a sympathetic character, but he’s also a bit of an asshole. He might have gone to great lengths to save his friend, but when the possibility of getting a chunk of change came his way, than he was more interested in that than his pal’s wellbeing. At one time the script called for Karloff to play the professor/mobster and Bela Lugosi to play the part of the doctor, but Karloff insisted on playing Sovak. The film is probably much better for this choice, and I can’t see Bela, as much as I like him, being able to bring off the conflicted emotions that Dr. Sovak goes through.

It also would have resulted in the loss of a great performance. Stanley Ridges was a character actor relegated to mostly minor roles when he landed the part of George Kingsley, and then he stole the show. Doing a Jekyll and Hyde routine in order to bounce back and forth between the loveable Professor Kingsley and mobster Red Cannon, Ridges really impresses. He was almost unrecognizable when he would change, and I honestly thought that it was being played by two actors until I took a look at the credits. While Karloff impresses with a strong dramatic performance, Ridges really shows that he deserved to have more prominent roles thrown his way. In the years to come, he would get quite a few of those in films like The Sea Wolf (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942).

While Bela Lugosi is second billed in this film, he really has very limited screen time as one of Red Cannon’s traitorous partners, Eric Marnay. While I enjoyed Bela hamming it up as a mobster with a Hungarian accent, it really could have been anyone in the role. It was really such a small role that the novelty factor of seeing Bela didn’t add much. Of the eight films that Karloff and Lugosi made together, this is also the only one where they don’t appear onscreen together. Without a meeting of the two horror legends, there seems to be little reason for Lugosi to inhabit the role in the first place.

Black Friday was directed by Arthur Lubin who was taking a shot at a sci-fi title after a string of war and crime films. Lubin doesn’t bring anything particularly special to the film, and it has a workmanlike quality that so many B grade pictures from the era had. Lubin would not find his muse in the world of science fiction. In fact, he would not hit his stride until 1941 when he directed the Abbott and Costello classic Buck Privates. He would go on to work primarily in comedy thereafter including a couple more Bud and Lou films, a pair of Francis the Talking Mule movies, and the 1964 Don Knotts live action/animation classic The Amazing Mr. Limpet.

Black Friday is not a film to boost up the classic status, but it is a solid effort from everyone involved. Even though I was disappointed that the film was not focused on Boris Karloff trying to wrap up his Christmas shopping early, I still rather enjoyed what I saw. This is a great quick watch that I would recommend to any Karloff fan who hasn’t seen it. That brings an end to my coverage of Boris Karloff, but this won’t be the last of the horror icon we see around this place. Reading about all his other great films in the Frankensteinia Blogathon has given me an even greater appreciation of Karloff and his legacy. They don’t make stars like him anymore, but thankfully we have all his great films to go back to for years to come.

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