The strange case of 'Jennifer' and other curiosities



Forced out of what some would have termed a well-deserved obscurity by the demands of the home video and streaming markets, Joel Newton's JENNIFER sounded like a sure-fire attempt at a romantic thriller. But its deficiencies in directing, scripting and in some cases by the acting leave those encountering it for the first time with the feeling of a missed opportunity, in addition to a murky production history that's enhanced its curiosity value.

On the surface, the story appeared to have a good audience hook in placing a working girl in a gloomy, nearly-empty mansion, confronted by the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her predecessor. The plot had all the trappings of those gothic romance novels on your family's bookshelf if someone in the house was inclined to read them, the kind whose covers always seemed to depict a comely woman, usually the heroine, either fleeing from or looking fearfully back at a castle or dark mansion with a single light shining from a window. The setting would be New England, the Deep South or someplace with a history hinting at the supernatural or of unusual events.

That seems to be the case in JENNIFER, released by Allied Artists on Oct. 25, 1953, as Agnes Langley (Ida Lupino), in search of the Gale estate near Santa Barbara, Calif., where she's been employed as caretaker, pulls her convertible into a gas station and seeks directions from the owner (an unbilled John Brown). Upon finding out her destination, the owner, in tried-and-true fashion, warns her of the locals' uneasy feeling about the place and that Agnes will last about as long as others who have held the job -- meaning, not long. "See you in a few days," he tells her as she drives away.

We and Agnes then arrive at the Gale mansion and discover it isn't the House of Seven Gables, but a Spanish-style construction from the Roaring Twenties. "Back then you were camping out if you didn't have a music room and conservatory," jokes Lorna Gale (Mary Shipp) about the house's ostentatious look upon meeting Agnes. The family ceased living there, presumably after losing their money in the stock market crash. Unable to sell it, the house has been overseen by caretakers. Lorna confirms that Jennifer Brown, who last had the job, just recently up and left one day and hasn't been heard from since. Agnes, recovered from an illness that's left her broke, agrees to pack up the remainder of Jennifer's belongings left behind.

Agnes then stumbles onto a diary kept by Jennifer in which she describes in brief passages a feeling of being watched. Later entries tell of a growing foreboding about the place until her jottings come to an abrupt end. Agnes's reading is interrupted by local businessman Jim Hollis (Howard Duff), whose grocery keeps the caretakers in food and other needs. To summarize, Jim and Agnes are attracted to each other, but her need to discover why and how Jennifer vanished, and Jim's seemingly overprotective actions (he's always showing up as she prowls the mansion) cause Agnes to believe she's in danger.

We won't give away the less-than-sensational outcome, which explains why Jennifer went away and the secret the Gales had kept about her. On the negative side, JENNIFER suffers from a lack of focus, lots of stretches in which nothing seems to happen, and a concentration on Agnes's plight that makes us care less and less about the mysterious Jennifer.

But on the positive end, the film does create some moody and unsettling images that derive from the vacant house and Agnes's mental state. The house, which the producers obviously rented, is at first a disappointment because of our gothic expectation of a rambling old pile with locked rooms and hidden passages. Yet the large spaces and dimly-lit corridors do create an eerie atmosphere that even the exteriors don't relieve through sunshine and palm trees; a pall appears to hang over the estate.

This impression is a credit to JENNIFER's cinematographer, Oscar-winner James Wong Howe (1899-1976), whose trademark low-key lighting gives everything a slightly sinister tone. In the opening and close of the film, Howe effectively gives the Gale estate a spooky vibe as a shadow, presumably Jennifer's, glides over the pavement and up the front steps of the mansion to the front door, hinting that Jennifer will always be a part of the Gale legacy. Howe, then suffering a career decline, was available to producer Berman Swarttz and made JENNIFER a visually interesting effort before his return to A-list projects later in the '50s.

Little is known of Swarttz, who made JENNIFER his first credited film as a producer, according to the IMDB. He did produce or co-produce three more films, all released in 1954, before disappearing from the Hollywood scene. Two of these productions are prison dramas (DUFFY OF SAN QUENTIN and THE STEEL CAGE) in addition to NEW FACES, the filmization of Leonard Sillman's 1952 edition of his famous stage revue that introduced promising young talent to audiences. This screen version became noteworthy for Eartha Kitt's silky performance of the holiday favorite "Santa Baby." 

Even less seems to be available on director Newton, as he appears not to have made any other films. Whether or not it was a pseudonym for an established director who didn't want his actual name on the project is not known. Some sources, such as Turner Classic Movies' online overview of JENNIFER, claim that Bernard Girard directed or possibly co-directed JENNIFER. However, both TCM and the IMDB agree that Girard (1918-1997), a writer for movies and television since the late '40s, made his directorial debut with the 1957 western RIDE OUT FOR REVENGE. JENNIFER's opening credits inform us the film is based on a short story of the same title by Virginia Myers (published in the February 1949 issue of Cosmopolitan), but provide no credit for the screenplay. Turner Classics and the IMDB attribute the script to Girard and Richard Dorso.

Ida Lupino (1918-1995) made JENNIFER at a time when she appeared to specialize in women-in-peril roles both in the movies and on television, in addition to a noteworthy side career as a producer and director. As Agnes, the former Warner Bros. star known for the intensity she brought to her studio vehicles (notably, THE HARD WAY, 1942) is compelling by hinting at an inner distress driving her character on her quest to find out what happened to Jennifer. Often the sole person on screen as she searches dank corners of the mansion seeking clues, she commands attention. Her initially hesitant interaction with Duff, her real-life husband of recent vintage, bears some genuine touches of their bringing more to their roles than the script demanded.

Duff (1913-1990) had a facility for playing good guys and villains, his ruggedly handsome features denoting determination and turmoil in equal measure. While JENNIFER attempts at times to depict his character Jim in a sinister light, the drama leaves little doubt about his heroic intentions, especially when Jim and Agnes meet "cute" at a music shop, resulting in their first date. It's likely that Lupino and Duff, who first met while making WOMAN IN HIDING (1949), sought projects they could do together, which made JENNIFER an attractive proposition at the time. Their 33-year marriage dissolved in 1984.

While JENNIFER has good things going for it, it needed more of those elements, among them a stronger emphasis on mystery, to make it memorable. As it is, JENNIFER is watchable but unfulfilling.

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Patricia Neal may have experienced deja vu when she first examined Hans Jacoby's screenplay for STRANGER FROM VENUS, initially titled IMMEDIATE DISASTER (under which it was shown in the United Kingdom). The tale of a human-like alien coming to Earth with a plea for its less-enlightened leaders to cease pursuit of bigger and better weapons before it has untold effect on the universe smacked closely of Twentieth Century-Fox's 1951 release, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which co-starred Neal and Michael Rennie. But Neal, who hadn't been in a movie for two years at that point, wisely accepted the starring role for a thoughtful variation on the Fox production.

Although considerably more low-budget, Burt Balaban's STRANGER FROM VENUS, issued by Vitapix on Aug. 23, 1954, shares the same ambitions of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL in a more intimate setting. One may dismiss it as a pale carbon of the Robert Wise-directed Hollywood production, but STRANGER FROM VENUS captures the attention and is one of the better efforts from Balaban's Princess Pictures, which produced several offbeat if now forgotten films on the Continent before moving operations to England.

Neal is Susan North, fiancee of government official Arthur Walker (Derek Bond), who is enroute to her country home as the film begins. At the same time, the area is aroused by an object streaking across the sky at a fantastic speed. Told by air controllers that it's probably a comet, a flustered pilot asks, "Ever hear of a comet turning around and coming back?" Emitting a shrill, piercing noise as the object nears a landing, Susan blacks out and her convertible strikes a tree. A figure in boots and military-style slacks approaches the wreckage as the credits roll.

We then find ourselves at an inn operated by Tom Harding (Willoughby Gray) and his daughter Gretchen (Marigold Russell), where the Stranger (Helmut Dantine) who checked on Susan seeks lodging. At the same time, Arthur arrives along with two policemen to search for Susan. Yet Susan shows up at the inn, dazed but apparently no worse for wear given the severity of the accident. The Stranger, who's already raised eyebrows because he has no money to pay for his stay or the drink he orders, puts his cards on the table: he's from Venus on a mission to speak with the leaders of all of Earth's technically-advanced nations. Arthur relays the alien's presence and his request to his superiors, who respond by quarantining the area and denying the Stranger's presence.

The Stranger's intentions are peaceful, demonstrated by his tending to Susan's injuries following the crash and causing a swift recovery. Later, he cures Tom of his lameness in one leg. The grateful Susan finds the Stranger fascinating, and perhaps a bit bored with career man Arthur, allows a romance to develop between herself and the Stranger. Authorities (supposedly American) meet with the visitor and discover fellow Venusians will soon arrive to discuss their concerns that Earth's growing nuclear arsenal could spill out into space, disrupting the delicate balance in which the universe is held.

But the bigwigs, impressed with the Venusians' ability to conquer space, instead look to capture their craft and learn what they can. The Stranger warns of dire consequences should they proceed, setting up the suspenseful climax in which Susan, Arthur and the friends he's made aid him as he tries to avert disaster.

What STRANGER FROM VENUS lacks in scope is made up for with an engaging relationship between the Stranger and Susan. In THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, Neal's Helen Benson becomes an ally of the misunderstood Klaatu, but here the Stranger finds a kinship in Susan. The fact their feeling for each other is doomed due to the Stranger's physiological inability to remain on Earth adds a melancholy note to the proceedings. Like Klaatu, our sympathies are with the Stranger. "I like him," a newsman (Kenneth Edwards) says after his first meeting with the man from Venus. "He makes me feel as if I'm a moron, but I like him." The line echoes the Army doctor (Robert Osterloh) in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL who admits Klaatu's knowledge is overpowering: "I felt like a third-rate medical student."

There is an attempt to set the story in the U.S., but it falls flat given the obviously British settings and cast that populate the film. Balaban, son of then-Paramount Pictures President Barney Balaban and cousin of actor Bob Balaban, made his directorial debut with STRANGER FROM VENUS and doesn't do a bad job given the budget constraints, focusing more on the characters and their motivations than the larger implications posed by the story. He and co-producer Gene Martel had shot several films with U.S. stars in Germany prior to this project. One of the better examples is DOORWAY TO SUSPICION (1954), in which a bandleader's (Jeffrey Lynn) sudden romance and marriage to a mystery woman (Linda Caroll) results in Cold War intrigue.

Balaban later returned to America, and his best-known production (co-directed with Stuart Rosenberg) was MURDER INC. (1960), the riveting expose of a murder-for-hire operation in 1930s New York that made a star of Peter Falk as a business-as-usual assassin. Balaban was 42 when he died in 1965 while completing THE GENTLE RAIN, shot in Brazil and released the following year.


Neal (1926-2010), who married British writer Roald Dahl in 1953, makes STRANGER FROM VENUS work with a sympathetic performance. The surroundings were not what she was used to while under contract to Warner Bros. in the late '40s and early '50s, but she lends the role of Susan the sensitivity it needs. Austrian-born Dantine (1918-1982), who fled Nazi oppression in the late '30s only to play them in wartime Hollywood dramas, similarly makes the most of The Stranger's character. In unbilled roles are two actors who later achieved stardom in UK television comedies, John Le Mesurier (DAD'S ARMY) and Peter Sallis (LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE).

STRANGER FROM VENUS may have borrowed some great ideas from an even greater movie, but that's forgivable because it fails to disappoint.

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From the depths of Hollywood moviemaking arose W. Merle Connell's UNTAMED WOMEN, an entry in the subgenre of strange adventure films popular from the late '40s to the mid-'50s that placed modern men (and women) in isolated, far-off jungles in Africa, Asia or South America that had yet to evolve with civilization. As primitive as they were at the dawn of time, these garden spots not found in any vacation guide (or National Geographic, for that matter) are populated by people and creatures that have somehow escaped extinction.

Islands in the vast Pacific Ocean were also favored locations for these flights of fancy, and one of these is the site for UNTAMED WOMEN, a Jewell Enterprises production released by United Artists on Sept. 12, 1952. While STRANGER FROM VENUS appropriated the contemplative nature of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, George Wallace Sayre's screenplay for UNTAMED WOMEN shamelessly avails itself of incidents from a number of earlier movies, not the least of them ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), of which the film borrows footage of aggressive prehistoric life.

At a Veterans Administration hospital in Ohio, Army doctor Colonel Loring (Lyle Talbot) and Professor Warren (Montgomery Pittman) probe the mystery of Steve Holloway (Mikel Conrad), a World War II bomber pilot found floating alone on a raft. Suffering from exposure and amnesia, he is unable to provide answers as to how he became stranded or what happened to the crew of his plane.

Using narcosynthesis to break down the mental barriers Steve has erected to preserve his sanity, the doctors are treated to a lengthy flashback in which Steve reveals his craft, which has gone off-course following a mission, makes a forced landing at sea when it runs out of fuel. He and his surviving crewmen (Richard Monahan, Morgan Jones and Mark Lowell) wash up on an island they soon find populated by the title females, who are not so much wild as under the influence of their icy leader Sandra (Doris Merrick).

The women, however, are terrorized by cavemen looking to carry them off for their own nefarious purposes. The visitors keep them at bay while the ammunition holds out, a tough proposition given all of the human occupants share space on the island with dinosaurs, prompting our heroes to take a few potshots at them as well. Nature in the form of a conveniently-erupting volcano spells doom for everyone, and Steve loses all of his buddies as they attempt to return to the beach. Steve gets into the raft and drifts out to sea as the island disappears from view. While he's had his catharsis, we are left to wonder if Steve will now recover, as UNTAMED WOMEN abruptly ends with the island's destruction.

Not great but not all bad, UNTAMED WOMEN's main fault lies in its echoing better films on the same theme, especially Jack Bernhard's UNKNOWN ISLAND (1948) for Film Classics and Sam Newfield's THE LOST CONTINENT (1951) for Lippert Pictures, the latter also featuring Richard Monahan in its cast. Producers Harry Rybnick and Richard Kay sprang for location shooting at Southern California parks that give UNTAMED WOMEN a better look than such similarly-themed flicks like PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1950) and BOWANGA BOWANGA (1951). 

Director Merle Connell (1905-1963) either helmed or photographed a number of exploitation movies for "adults-only" showings during this period, his most notable being THE DEVIL'S SLEEP (1949) for George Weiss's Screen Classics. Weiss came to later prominence in the craze for movies made by Edward D. Wood Jr., whose notorious first feature, GLEN OR GLENDA (1953), was produced for the Weiss company. Connell employed the same let-the-camera-run approach that marked his usual directorial efforts for UNTAMED WOMEN, its budget and shooting schedule allowing no time for any nuances.

Lead actor Mikel Conrad, born 1919 in Columbus, Ohio, was on a slide out of his relatively brief screen career when he made UNTAMED WOMEN. After making his film debut in the independently-made adventure UNTAMED FURY (1947), he became a contract player at Universal-International. His best year was 1949, when he appeared in seven of the studio's releases, among them FRANCIS and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF. A fling at independent filmmaking that yielded the science fiction-themed THE FLYING SAUCER (1950), which Conrad wrote, produced, directed and starred, did nothing for his Hollywood standing; in fact, some publicity stunts alleging government interference with the project reportedly backfired.

In UNTAMED WOMEN, Conrad, looking better than his dissolute hero in THE FLYING SAUCER, is the picture of authority given the routine script. Rybnick and Kay employed him again for their re-edit of the Japanese monster epic GOJIRA (1954) into GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) as George Lawrence, Raymond Burr's news service boss in the U.S. scenes shot and spliced into the continuity for what became his last film appearance. Conrad died in Los Angeles in 1982.

Striking Doris Merrick (born 1919 in Chicago), a former model, had also seen better days at the big studios, but commenced a downward career path by the mid-'40s, despite the good work she put into her leading role in CLUB PARADISE (1945), a remarkably bleak effort for Monogram Pictures at the time. Like Conrad, she's commanding but little else in UNTAMED WOMEN. Her last credited film role came the following year in E.A. Dupont's unnerving crossover of sci-fi and horror, THE NEANDERTHAL MAN.

The remaining cast included some familiar names just starting out, among them Autumn Rice, who as Autumn Russell was the fetching heroine of the impoverished yet creepy ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957). Veteran Lyle Talbot (1902-1996) popped up frequently in quickies such as UNTAMED WOMEN at this stage of his career, while Montgomery Pittman later forsook acting for writing and directing television, notably for THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Pittman was 45 when he died of cancer in 1962.

Probably the biggest question surrounding UNTAMED WOMEN is "why?" The answer: as there was an apparent market for this kind of offbeat if loopy movie at the time, why not? As it is, UNTAMED WOMEN is better than its more lower-budgeted predecessors in most areas except originality.

Comments

  1. The exact quote from the Army doctor (Lawrence Dobkin, and not Robert Osterloh, who is in the scene in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), was: "He was very nice about it, but he made me feel like a third-rate witch doctor." Osterloh's character's assessment: "I don't know whether to get drunk or give up the practice of medicine." Yep, I saw it on TCM last night.

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