Saturday, February 8, 1974 (Midnight): Black Friday (1940) / Gog (1954)

Synopsis: Mild-mannered professor of literature George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) teaches at bucolic Newcastle College, and while he is happy in this familiar setting, he announces to his students at the end of the term that he may not be back; he is being considered for a position at a more prominent university.

Young Jean Sovac (Anne Gwynne) walks with him to the car being driven by her father Dr. Ernst Sovac (Boris Karloff) who is one of Kingsley’s closest friends. Along with Kingsley’s wife Margaret (Virginia Brissac) they go into town. Crossing the street alone, however, Kingsley is run down by a car driven by gangster Red Cannon. Cannon was being chased by a group of gangsters in another car: Marnay (Bela Lugosi), Kane (Paul Fix), Miller (Edmund McDonald) and Devore (Raymond Bailey).

Cannon’s car crashes after hitting Kingsley, and Cannon himself is paralyzed. When Dr. Sovac examines him at the scene, Cannon tells him that if the doctor saves his life he’ll split $500,000 with him that he’s hidden. Kingsley is also still alive, but has sustained considerable brain trauma from the accident.


Realizing that $500,000 would allow him to start a new and far better practice, Dr. Sovac hatches a plan: he decides to transplant part of Red Cannon’s brain to Kingsley, replacing the portion damaged in the accident.
Kingsley makes a speedy recovery, and during his convalescence Dr. Sovac proposes an unusual form of therapy: he suggests the two make a trip into New York and live it up — check into a nice hotel, see a show, eat out at fancy restaurants, and so on.

The two go to the city. Sovac knows that Red Cannon was a regular at the Midtown Hotel, and takes Kingsley there, hoping it will jog Red Cannon’s memories. The tactic works – Kingsley asks for a specific suite of rooms at the hotel, and tells the bellhop to use a specific knock, which the bellhop recognizes as Cannon’s.

Later Sovac takes him to a show, where Kingsley recognizes singer Sunny Rogers, Red Cannon’s girlfriend. Back at the hotel, an exhausted Kingsley falls into a half-conscious state. Sovac is able to coax Red Cannon into consciousness. He tells Red what has happened; and while Red is at first unhappy to find himself in an unfamiliar body, he soon realizes that none of his old associates will recognize him. He slips away from Sovac and murders Devore.

The next morning, Kingsley is Kingsley again, but Sovac knows he’s been up to no good during the night when he sees blood on his hands. He believes Kingsley is back in control now, but the wail of a siren brings the Red Cannon part of his consciousness to life. Soon Cannon is completely in control of Kingsley’s body, and swears to avenge himself on all of his former gangland friends….


Comments: Even if you’d completely missed the opening credits, you would have no trouble figuring out who wrote the screenplay for Black Friday. The movie is filled with ideas that Curt Siodmak would use over and over throughout his career.

Plot elements from this film would be cannibalized for a number of later films. Brain-swapping would be a prominent part of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); the revenge subplot was recycled for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943); and the idea of a criminal’s brain slowly taking possession of an innocent man’s body was revisited in Siodmak’s most successful work, his novel Donovan’s Brain (1943), which was adapted for the screen twice, most successfully in the 1953 film of the same name starring Lew Ayres.

When people talk about this film, though, they usually talk about the casting. Black Friday is blatantly marketed as another Karloff-Lugosi team-up, but Lugosi only appears in the relatively small role of gangster Marnay. Karloff, most sources agree, was originally slated to play Kingsley / Red Cannon and Lugosi Dr. Sovac.

Some accounts claim that Karloff found himself unable to effectively play the Red Cannon part. This seems unlikely, since Karloff had started his film career playing tough guys and gangsters. The more common (and far more likely) explanation was that Karloff coveted the Sovac role because of the two it was closer to the “lead” (Sovac narrates the story in flashback as he is being led to the electric chair). With Karloff playing Sovac, another actor had to be found to play Kingsley / Red Cannon. It wasn’t a good fit for Lugosi and his thick accent, so Stanley Ridges stepped into the role and Lugosi was demoted to playing Marnay.

Ridges is actually quite effective in the part, perhaps better than Karloff himself would have been. He does well differentiating the vacant milquetoast Kingsley with the tough, driven Red Cannon and they really do come across as completely different characters.

On the whole Black Friday works, though it is built on an astonishingly rickety set of plot contrivances. The mechanics of just how Red Cannon’s brain is fused with Kingsley’s isn’t very well explained, and a lot of people who write about the film seem to think that Cannon’s brain was completely transplanted into Kingsley’s body (in fact only part of it was). On top of this, getting gangsters involved in the life of a shy English professor is accomplished via the clumsiest of plot devices: an improbable high-speed chase down the streets of a sleepy college town.

Equally unlikely is Red Cannon’s promise to split the money with Sovac, and Sovac’s decision to perform a completely unprecedented brain transplant in order to take him up on the offer (after all, the Nobel prize Sovac would earn as a result of such revolutionary surgery would pay much more than Red Cannon’s stash). Sovac also seems to know just how to trigger Red Cannon’s memories once the surgery is complete. For his part, Kingsley seems pretty chipper for a guy who recently underwent brain surgery – there isn’t even a trace of a surgical scar anywhere on his scalp.

But picking apart this movie seems unfair. Black Friday is fine for what it is, an entertaining programmer that came and went quickly, as movies of the time did, with no expectation that they’d be remembered.

Gog

Synopsis: In a top-secret laboratory complex, researchers are working to make practical the age-old dream of manned spaceflight.  In one experiment, a monkey is given an injection and then placed in a cold chamber.  The temperature drops to over 100 degrees below zero; the monkey is quickly frozen solid but when it is thawed out it’s as good as new. In a similar manner, we are told, astronauts will one day hibernate during long space journeys.

Later Dr. Huburtus (Michael Fox) is working inside the chamber alone when the door slams shut behind him.  The controls begin to turn on by themselves, plunging the temperature inside the chamber to -100 degrees.  Huburtus freezes to death, as does his assistant (Marian Richman)  when she tries to go inside the chamber to rescue him.

The two mysterious deaths cause station director Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) to call in the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI), a sort of brainy FBI.  Soon Dr. David Sheppard (Richard Egan) arrives at the facility, which is located in the desert southwest. Sheppard is brought in via helicopter, as the base is inaccessible by road.  As the helicopter approaches the base, the controls begin to move by themselves,  and the pilot lets go of them. He explains to Sheppard that the last part of the voyage is controlled by the installation’s computer, NOVAC.  This, he says, is in order to keep the exact location of the base a secret.

Dr. Sheppard is introduced to Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling), who is tasked with giving Sheppard a tour of the facility.  However, we soon find that Joanna and Sheppard have been lovers, a fact they keep hidden from the rest of the personnel at the base.

Sheppard is shown the various experiments going on in the lab.  We see a chamber where gravity can be artificially reduced, and a man and a woman do acrobatic feats in a near-weightless environment.  In another part of the facility, a centrifuge whirls prospective astronauts around at dangerous speeds.

Dr. Van Ness shows Sheppard a scale model of a planned orbital satellite.  America, Van Ness says, must be the first to launch such a satellite.  If the enemy gets into space first, it could be the end of the United States.  To prove this dubious claim, he shows Sheppard a parabolic mirror that will be mounted on the satellite.  The mirror is designed to focus sunlight into a mercury-filled chamber, creating steam and powering the space station.  However, he warns, such a mirror could be used for more sinister purposes.  He uses the same kind of focusing mirror to direct sunlight on a scale model of a “an industrial city on the shores of Lake Erie”.  The model city bursts into flames as soon as the focused sunlight touches it.

Later, Sheppard meets Dr. Zeitman, a suspicous German expatriate who designed NOVAC and spent five years assembling it in Switzerland. Zeitman is clearly a genius, and he demonstrates two innovations he believes are even greater than NOVAC itself: the robot Gog, and its twin Magog….

Comments: Before I sat down to watch this Ivan Tors meller again I tried to put aside all prejudice and disengage all my 21st century cynicism. I made every effort I could to put myself in the place of a moviegoer from 1954, presumably weaned on Andy Hardy movies and Flash Gordon serials, seeing Gog for the first time.

Approaching it this way helped me appreciate Gog‘s strengths. We’re pretty jaded these days; we have seen a lot of on-screen death and mayhem, and have become quite desensitized to it. But conceding that the intended viewers were somewhat more innocent than we are today made the opening scene — in which Dr. Hubertus gets trapped in his own cold chamber, pounding desperately on the glass as the temperature plunges to below -100 and he freezes solid — quite impactful. The grim fate of the two scientists at the base is rolled out early and helps to do two things: it effectively demonstrates the omnipresent danger inherent in working at the secret installation, and it also sets up an intriguing mystery: who or what is responsible for the computer system going haywire and killing people at the base?

So let’s give the movie points for a strong opening and move on to the main narrative conflict. Dr. Sheppard comes in and surveys the situation, and asks a question that, to the viewer, should be pretty obvious: if the base is so dangerous that scientists are being systematically murdered, why not shut down operations until the culprit is found? But Van Ness is adamant that the work is too important to be halted. He then reveals that there’s a race to launch the first satellite between the US and the Soviets (who are, as is typical in this sort of movie, only mentioned obliquely, as “the other side” or “an enemy power”, etc). He demonstrates for Sheppard a focused solar mirror that can melt metal, and tells him that an orbiting platform equipped with such a mirror could burn cities to the ground and boil oceans. He uses a scale model of “an industrial city on the shores of Lake Erie” to show how such a mirror could burn America’s industrial might to ashes (one wonders how many scale models of Cleveland Dr. Van Ness has sitting around).

Now, this must have been worrisome stuff for your average viewer in the mid 1950s, who were just beginning to understand that America wasn’t quite as unassailable as it had always believed itself to be. And the race against time adds spice to the plot: if the Soviets get their satellite in orbit first, America will be helpless as fur-hatted collectivists gleefully burn our cities to smoldering ruins. Only by getting our satellite up first can we prevent that fate — presumably by burning Ivan’s cities to smoldering ruins before he can do the same to us. Ah, the Cold War!

The movie assumes — as many Americans at the time assumed — that war with the Soviets was inevitable, and that they were determined to attack us the moment they got the upper hand. Like Destination Moon, Gog pushes the idea that being second into space wasn’t even an option. We were either first, or the Russians would be dancing on our collective grave.

But while channeling audiences of 1954 helps us appreciate Gog a bit more, our goodwill can only go so far. All Ivan Tors movies are talky, but this one is irredeemably so, burying the audience under an avalanche of words, most of them unnecessary. Nonsensical systems, useless gadgets and Rube Goldberg-esque contrivances are explained to us, and explained and explained and explained. We are told seemingly everything about the robots Gog and Magog in excruciating detail — everything, that is, except what exactly they’re for. The robots are able to respond to voice commands and hand people objects like screwdrivers. Why? They are equipped with cutting torches — again, why? There is some vague hand-waving toward working in hazardous environments, but the robots seem ill-equipped for much of anything except destroying the lab they’re occupying. Moreover, if launching the satellite is such a desperate priority, why does no one seem to be working on it? Why are we freezing monkeys solid and fooling around with robots and watching gymnasts leap around? Who’s in charge here?

In fact the urgency of the task at hand is an argument for, rather than against, shutting down operations at the base and moving essential research projects to more secure locations. Once the miniature transmitters are discovered on the base it would have been obvious that not only is the location of the base known (the movie makes a big deal of the fact that even its location is classified) but that there is at least one mole running loose within it. On top of this, the Russians are able to murder any scientist they want, whenever they want, just by pushing a button.

So rather than the impregnable, super-secret base with which we’re supposed to be so impressed, instead we have a facility that is so vulnerable to Russian spying and sabotage that it might as well be located in Red Square.

It’s absurd to imagine any classified facility continuing its work after such an enormous security breach.  The biggest mystery in Gog is why Dr. Van Ness still has a job at the end of it. In fact, had Tors really wanted to add some life to the movie, he ought to have made Dr. Van Ness the mole, thus revealing his refusal to shutter the base as a way to play for time while the Russians get more intel and cause more damage. It would probably be too much of a plot twist for a movie as stuffy as this one. And making a high-level government official the bad guy would probably have been too much for Cold War-era censors.

Unusual for SF films of the time, Gog was originally released in color and 3-D, giving it a lush look that belied its relatively modest budget. The original prints suffered greatly from neglect over time, but the film was given a splendid restoration in 2016, a preview of which you can see below. The beautifully restored Gog is now available on Blu-Ray.

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