Black Friday (1940)

One of the things I’m thankful for this time of year is a paid vacation day on the Friday after Thanksgiving. However, I usually don’t do my patriotic duty on Black Friday and buy, buy, buy to try to single-handedly rescue the nation’s retailers, and the economy itself, from the doldrums. Instead, I sleep in late, make myself a nice hot cup of coffee, and leisurely read about all the crazy things my fellow Americans have done in the early morning hours in desperate pursuit of cheap consumer goods. I used to get a chuckle out of the crazy Black Friday news, but lately it’s become sad and downright pathological. For example, the top Google news search item this morning is headlined: Police to review videotape in Wal-Mart pepper spray incident

Los Angeles police detectives hope to retrieve video surveillance evidence from a Porter Ranch Wal-Mart store by early Friday afternoon to begin trying to identify a woman who shot pepper spray at other shoppers to get a Black Friday competitive edge. … The woman apparently sought to purchase an Xbox video game console and used the spray to clear out other shoppers. About 20 customers, including children, were hurt in the Thursday night incident, which police officials called ‘shopping rage.’

Poster for Black Friday, 1940 Yikes! My advice to this woman and bargain shoppers everywhere is to relax —  instead of camping out in front of a big box store for hours on end and then macing your fellow shoppers to get your hands on the latest electronic gadget, put your feet up, eat a leisurely breakfast, and then take in a movie. There are some pretty good family-friendly movies showing at the nearby multiplexes, from Hugo, to The Muppets, to The Descendants for a somewhat older crowd. Don’t worry, they’ll make more X-Boxes, and there will always be sales.

Of course, there’s also home and your handy DVD player for an even more relaxing movie experience (let’s just hope you didn’t score that DVD player or flat screen HDTV on some other Black Friday by muscling a poor little old lady out of the way). Maybe the ultimate relaxing experience is watching a classic film from an earlier, more innocent (and less consumer-crazed) era. I suppose given the time of year I should recommend something light and festive, but then, a 1940 film titled Black Friday is just too good to pass up.

Black Friday (1940) is not light, sentimental holiday fare, but it is an interesting mix of gangsters, horror and sci-fi. It also features the last pairing of horror greats Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff at Universal Studios, although it’s a disappointing one– they never share a scene together (more on that later). The film starts out with the somber Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff) handing over his scientific journal to a reporter on his way to an appointment with the electric chair. As the reporter examines the journal, we see Sovac’s tale unfold in flashback. In a small university town, Sovac and his daughter Jean (Anne Gwynne) are taking their good friend Prof. George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) to the train station. Just as Kingsley is getting out of the car, gunshots are heard and two cars come racing around the corner. In his desperation to escape from rival gangsters, Red Cannon (Ridges in a dual role) sideswipes the professor and crashes his car. The pursuing gangsters take off.

The two men are taken to the local hospital, Cannon with a broken back and Kingsley with a severe head injury. Sovac is somehow able to find the time and the opportunity to put his life’s research into practice, and transplants part of the gangster’s brain into his friend’s cranium in a desperate effort to save his life. Sovac learns from Cannon that he stashed away $500,000 in loot stolen from rival gangster Eric Marnay, but Cannon dies before revealing the location. With avarice activating the reptilian part of Sovac’s brain, he concocts a scheme to take the recovering Kingsley to Cannon’s old stomping grounds in New York City, in the hopes that the surroundings will awaken the dead man’s memories in the transplanted area of his brain.

Boris Karloff and Stanley Ridges

Dr. Sovac (Boris Karloff) evilly manipulates his friend and patient, Prof. Kingsley (Stanley Ridges)

When Kingsley sees one of the rival gangsters in a favorite nightclub of Cannon’s, more than memories are activated– Cannon’s whole persona takes over the professor’s body. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Cannon’s personality keeps reasserting itself– in two scenes, all it takes is a siren wailing in the background to awaken the gangster in the academician’s body. “Cannon” visits his old flame Sunny Rogers (Ann Nagel), amazing her with his knowledge of Cannon’s business and his familiar mannerisms. Deeply suspicious, she rats out the new Cannon to arch-rival Marnay (Lugosi), who with fellow gangster Frank Miller (Edmund MacDonald) trails Cannon / Kingsley out to where he stashed the loot. After Cannon retrieves it, the two confront him and demand the money. In the ensuing struggle, Cannon kills Miller, but Marnay takes off with the box containing the money.

The avenging dead man in Kingsley’s body follows Marnay back to Sunny’s apartment, where he manages to lock his rival in a tight, airless closet and strangle the turncoat girlfriend to death. Kingsley awakens in a cab, oblivious to all that’s happened. Still clutching the money box, he has the cabdriver take him back to his hotel, where he collapses in exhaustion. The greedy Sovac takes the box and his friend back to their quiet hometown. He believes that the Cannon portion of his friend’s brain will now lie dormant, but he’s tragically mistaken– and the consequences land him on death row, where the film started.

Black Friday is a taut, Warner Bros.-style gangster thriller with horror and sci-fi elements that add a nice edge to the film. However, fans have long debated the casting changes that occurred right before the film went into production, and whether or not a much better film would have emerged without them. According to Tom Weaver and the Brunas brothers (Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931- 1946, 2nd. Edition, McFarland, 2007), Boris Karloff was originally slated to play Kingsley / Cannon, with Lugosi to portray Dr. Sovac. The authors quote co-screenwriter Curt Siodmak as saying that Karloff was “afraid” of playing the complicated dual role. Afraid or not, the authors point out that Karloff’s genteel Englishness worked against his playing an American mobster “using gangland slang, jumping around urban rooftops, playing kissy-face with Anne Nagel or brawling in the waterfront dirt with burly Edmund MacDonald.”

Whatever the reason, almost the day before filming was to begin, Karloff became Sovac, veteran stage actor Stanley Ridges was brought in to play Kingsley / Cannon, and poor Bela was relegated to a smaller role as gangster Marnay (which did not suit him particularly well). Many fans bemoan that the two horror greats never got to square off in their original, far meatier roles. Others contend that although Ridges was certainly not in the same name recognition category, he steals the film with a very robust and sensitive performance. I’m firmly in the latter camp– Ridges clearly has the chops for this complex Jekyll and Hyde-type role, and his performance makes the picture that much stronger.

Bela Lugosi as gangster Eric Marnay

Bela Lugosi tries on his best gangster snarl in this studio shot

Fortunately, you don’t have to manhandle competing shoppers or spray them with mace to get your hands on this one. It’s available on DVD in The Bela Lugosi Collection for a very reasonable price.

The Rundown:

  • Black Friday (1940)
  • Universal Pictures
  • Directed by: Arthur Lubin
  • Written by: Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, Donovan’s Brain) and Eric Taylor
  • Starring: Stanley Ridges (Prof. George Kingsley / Red Cannon); Boris Karloff (Dr. Ernest Sovac); Bela Lugosi (Eric Marnay); Anne Nagel (Sunny Rogers)
  • Running time: 70 minutes

Black Friday Fascinating Factoid: The studio, hoping to generate more publicity for the film, invited select members of the press to the set to witness Lugosi being hypnotized for the scene where he suffocates in the airless closet. Bela was put under by mentalist / spiritualist (and good friend) Manly P. Hall. Right before action was called, Hall supposedly whispered in Lugosi’s ear, “now you’re suffocating!”  Director Lubin declared that the scene was “100% better” than a previous take without hypnosis. Years later, Lubin came clean in a Fangoria interview that the whole thing was a corny hoax. (Weaver, et. al, Universal Horrors)

For more reviews of worthwhile B movie thrillers, see my blog, Films From Beyond the Time Barrier.

See also Films From Beyond on YouTube.

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