Robert Frazer

White Zombie (1932, Victor Halperin)

For a while, I almost thought White Zombie was going to feature a good Bela Lugosi performance. It does not. However, it does feature one of the best Bela Lugosi performances I’ve ever seen. He plays a zombie master who controls his helpless zombies (who mostly do manual labor for Lugosi at his sugar mill–I think it’s a sugar mill–it’s a mill anyway) with his unibrow and by clasping his hands. White Zombie is short on logic.

However, it’s got a lot to make up for it. While the script isn’t stellar in the logic department, it’s pretty darn fantastic otherwise. The film’s premise–plantation owner Robert Frazer can’t have Madge Bellamy (her performance is occasionally too weak, but not often) as she loves ordinary John Harron too much (his performance is mostly strong), so he turns to Lugosi to turn her into a zombie. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of turmoil… especially after Frazer discovers he doesn’t like having a zombie girlfriend.

Throw in a helpful, zombie-hunting missionary (Joseph Cawthorn) and you’ve got a movie.

The biggest assets are director Vincent Halperin and set designer Conrad Tritschler–and whoever did the mattes. The film looks absolutely fantastic, start to finish (I was shocked to learn they used the Universal backlot as it looks so different from the Universal horror pictures). Then, towards the end… Halperin uses music to accompany a zombie’s actions. The zombie’s mute, it’s a silent film technique… it works out beautifully.



Directed by Victor Halperin; screenplay by Garnett Weston, inspired by a play by Kenneth Webb; director of photography, Arthur Martinelli; edited by Harold McLernon; music by Xavier Cugat; produced by Edward Halperin and Phil Goldstone; released by United Artists.

Starring Bela Lugosi (‘Murder’ Legendre), Madge Bellamy (Madeline Short Parker), Joseph Cawthorn (Dr. Bruner), Robert Frazer (Charles Beaumont), John Harron (Neil Parker) and Brandon Hurst (Silver).

The Vampire Bat (1933, Frank R. Strayer)

It’s hard not to be, at least, somewhat impressed with The Vampire Bat, if only because it came out in 1933 as a knockoff Universal horror picture. Except at this point, there’d only been Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. The Vampire Bat brilliantly resembles a Universal horror picture in every way but the filmmaking. There’s the burgomaster, played by the same guy as in Frankenstein (Lionel Belmore). Dwight Frye plays a role somewhat similar to Renfield. It’s only the three principles who don’t really fit–and Lionel Atwill would go on to do a lot of Universal horror pictures.

The screenwriter Lowe eventually did write a Universal horror picture. It took him eleven years, but he wrote House of Frankenstein.

It’s a knockoff, but it’s an effective knockoff made on a lower budget without music. By Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935, music was very important in the Universal horror formula. Seeing one of these pictures without the music is very interesting–it’s a transitory step, but made by a different studio.

The film was shot on the Universal backlot at night. But the set isn’t directed like it’s a Universal horror picture. Frank R. Strayer had time to do a lot of crane shots. His interior shots aren’t impressive (way too much headroom), but the exteriors and transition shots, it looks like Curtiz shot it during his exterior movement phase.

It distracts the viewer from realizing he or she has never seen the exterior of Lionel Atwill’s house. It’s referred to as the castle, but it’s never shown.

Atwill is pretty bad. He would go on to develop a certain character and he hasn’t gotten to it here. Fay Wray’s in it, just before Kong. They don’t use her much. She’s the girl in peril, but only a little bit. The movie only runs sixty-five minutes. She’s second-billed and it’s like they couldn’t get her to stay up late to shoot.

The most interesting thing is Melvyn Douglas, being someone who went on to greater fame. He’s fantastic in this film. He’s very aware of what film he’s in, almost mugging for the viewer when he has to deliver crazy lines–actually, when the other actors deliver the crazy lines to him, you can feel his understanding of how absurd the viewer feels watching the exchange.

Maude Eburne plays Wray’s aunt. It’s never explained why Wray works for Atwill or why Eburne lives there with them (Wray probably lives here because she’s Atwill’s assistant). It’s also never explained what kind of medicine Atwill practices (or why he needs the Universal horror bubbling devices).

Thinking about The Vampire Bat at all, it collapses–which isn’t to say it holds up. It’s an interesting debacle. It ends on a joke and it’s one of the most unfunny jokes you could end on. There’s a whole comic element to the film. Eburne’s played for laughs and it makes no sense.

For a sixty-five minute film to be as meandering and as loosely constructed as this one, it’s impressive.



Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr.; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Otis Garrett; produced by Phil Goldstone; released by Majestic Pictures.

Starring Lionel Atwill (Dr. Otto von Niemann), Fay Wray (Ruth Bertin), Melvyn Douglas (Karl Brettschneider), Maude Eburne (Aunt Gussie Schnappmann), George E. Stone (Kringen), Dwight Frye (Herman Gleib), Robert Frazer (Emil Borst), Rita Carlyle (Martha Mueller), Lionel Belmore (Bürgermeister Gustave Schoen), William V. Mong (Sauer), Stella Adams (Georgiana) and Harrison Greene (Weingarten).

Navy Secrets (1939, Howard Bretherton)

Low budget filmmaking–both today and in the past–has always been the most successful when the narrative takes the budget into account. Navy Secrets takes place over one day, with most of the locations being in cars, apartments or restaurants. In other words, easy sets. There’s one slightly more complicated scene in a park. The scenes are all competently lighted and, in general, the film never reveals its b-movie status. The lack of recognizable actors does a little.

What’s so smart about the film is its structure. That one night, with two main characters who the viewer knows relatively nothing about–all the viewer knows, five minutes in, is not to trust Fay Wray. The viewer isn’t necessarily supposed to distrust her, just be wary of her actions. It makes the film an almost interactive experience, with each line of dialogue, each look between characters possibly revealing information (or not). It’s a smart way to do a low budget film, to make the whole thing as quiet as possible.

The other main character, played by Grant Withers, is also suspicious. So is the entire supporting cast after a while. Navy Secrets‘s resolution is one of the obvious possibilities, but it’s never confirmed until the final moment and until that confirmation, there’s always a chance of something else. It keeps the whole narrative unsteady, especially since for the majority of the film, it isn’t even clear if there’s a mystery to be solved.

The chemistry between Withers and Wray has to do well to sustain the film, since there’s little action (there’s one decent fight scene towards the end, which is a surprise, given the one early is awful). The film only runs an hour and two minutes, but it actually seems to go much longer, a combination of it being all dialogue and all in one night. It’s not real time, but–for the most part–the viewer only misses eating scenes and some traveling scenes. The film seems to relate the rest of the characters’ evening… omitting, eventually, some story points to later surprise the viewer.

There’s one particularly nice scene–that park scene–where Wray and Withers kill five or seven minutes of the running time. The flirtation between the characters is rather nice, with Wray’s performance the most engaging. Withers is no slouch, but Wray assumes the lead in the film–the script doesn’t assign it to her–just because of her performance. In some ways, from what I’ve seen of her films, it’s her best performance.

The supporting cast is okay, unless they’re doing accents. Even if the accents are real, they come off poorly. But accent-free Dewey Robinson is solid. Maybe it’s simple–with the accents, the characters are automatically suspect, while without, there’s some added doubt.

The film ends somewhat nicely… a little too neat, a little too style-free. The majority of the film takes place at night with some well-produced street scenes. The last scene, an interior, lacks any flavor. The street scenes–with the rear projection of locations–give the film a real mood, one they should have kept.

Navy Secrets is a fine diversion–the title doesn’t really work for the content–and it’s a nice role for Wray.



Directed by Howard Bretherton; screenplay by Harvey Gates, based on a story by Steve Fisher; director of photography, Harry Neumann; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; released by Monogram Pictures Corporation.

Starring Fay Wray (Carol Evans), Grant Withers (Roberts), Dewey Robinson (Nick Salado), Wilhelm von Brincken (Cronjer), Craig Reynolds (CPO Jimmy Woodford), George Sorel (Slavins), André Cheron (Joe Benji), Robert Frazer (Peter), Joseph Crehan (Captain Daly), Duke York (Babe), Arthur Housman (Singing Drunk) and Joseph W. Girard (Navy Captain).

Scroll to Top