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The Shabby, Greasy Joys of the Ralph M. Like Production


The Shabby, Greasy Joys of the Ralph M. Like Production

The Gorilla Is Just A Gorilla Here . . . (Astor Pictures/Like, 1932)

Few things are finer to me than the grimy joys of a super-impoverished production from some lost era of filmmaking.

If that Z budget film was shot in some stinky variety of urban jungle--streets covered with cobblestones with horeshit forced down into the crosshatching between the stones--prior to the 1950's, well .  .  .  orgasm approacheth. Mop on standby.

I love cheap films, exploitation films (and those fans of the more modern exploitation fare/grindhouse of the 1970's will be pleased by the next addition to the Olanola series of blogs, migrating to this platform while maintaining its current URL .  .  .  TBA soon). I love the disorientingly odd mise en scene, I love the ratty acting of bottom feeder actors one step away from the street and visibly addled with all kinda awful human problems and vices that likely constitute--in part at least--the very reason why they are in such sandbagged productions in the first place. 

The Shabby, Greasy Joys of the Ralph M. Like Production

..suddenly we have Kong on deck...this was 1932 after all. (Astor Pictures/Ralph Like)

Cheap-o-matic films from the Long Ago and the Far Away require a completely different sensibility and approach from the viewer who at the same time treasures arthouse/quality cinema of the Criterion/MoC stripe. I see it not only as a benefit, but a duty--a gawd-damned obligation--to bend my arthouse-o-fied senses back to the open minded disposition of my youth .  .  . whereby to this day I not only crave watching an old episode of Planet of the Apes, the TV Series, Welcome Back Kotter or The Love Boat just as much as I do Andrey Rublyov by Tarkovsky, but that I place films like The Monster Walks or Chinatown After Dark in the same category of human enjoyment as something by Preminger or Murnau or Renoir or Kurosawa. They all give me a freight car's load of enjoyment--the only variable is the differentiation in style and manner of construction and intention of the input to my brain. All qualitative assessments rendered on planet earth are never representative of more than the sole individual who wrote or spoke them, and thus carry little to no weight in the overall, when you come right down to it. .  .   and this of course includes me. The only factual statements in a film essay are 1) the film was made by the people who made it on the dates it was made and released, 2) that the film affects that specific viewer in the manner described. No manner how the reviewer may try to speak for the masses, he speaks for none other than himself.

Aside from the nostalgic TV series of my youth, I have loved exploitation films and low budget films from the shadows of the disintegrated, collapsed past for one specific reason: these films allow a huge glob of then-current day life of the ordinary and the low in to their cinematic proceedings. They bring a certain smell alive to the viewer. The vanished vernacular, the look of the streets, the glossless reality of the cheap tenements and low dives in the the worst part of town, the cheap clothes worn by the commoner, the dances the working man did on the weekend, the sort of illicit behavior and entertainment that the underclass sought during after hours for escape from the backbreaking doldrums. The species of crime committed by immigrants oblivious to the English language and seeking alternatives to humiliating testes-crushing hard labor for virtually no pay. "Better carefully organized crime and graft for a dignified economic family life than humiliating poverty under back breaking labor," is a maxim that insured that cities in America were spangled from street to street with all manner of hustle, con, gangster, storefronts running numbers in back rooms, paid off cops, dancehalls, low dives, whorehouses, wisecracking asphalt talk, characters spangled with snide nicknames, corrupt politicans, and on and on. An entire ethos and human substrata that has vanished from the diorama of the 21st Century American City Street.

Super low budget films never had the high pretensions of multimillion dollar studios of today and yesterday; they are not fantasy worlds where escapist dreams are manufactured daily. The glossy, artifice saturated product of Hollywood is the highly controlled result of the studio universe, which does its best to erase the rough edges of the world outside.

Low budget films, on the other hand, by their very nature, cannot affect that level of filtration versus the world beyond their doors. Take a midcentury film from Hollwood like Double Indemnity: this is a film which scared its actors and stunned the industry by the grim portrayal of a couple of ordinary Americans as "fast buck motherfuckers," paraphrasing a writer on the Universal disc's documentary.

And yet--Double Indemnity, even in it's tiny milieu of backstabbing, murdering "fast buck motherfuckers" bears no resemblance to reality. The world outside of the doors of Paramount may have contained fast buck pieces of trash like the MacMurray-Stanwyk team in the film .  .  .  but they certainly looked nothing like that duo. . . the world of inequality, unfairness, of wrenching poverty, the tough world of survival, street corner hustles, legitimate cons and bunk--none of this is available to the viewer in the Paramount crime drama.

A so-called bad script is often a script that--by the professional Hollywood yardstick-- bears no resemblance to the demands of studio artifice at its best (and let's keep our eye on the ball here and remember that studio artifice is often glorious, enthralling, exhilarating, heartbreaking, wonderful... we are just celebrating something rarely appreciated and entirely different and giving it a moment in the bright sunlight--okay..cloudy skies-- of this blog).

But in the measure of the overall and the ever-after, a script like, say, Narcotic by Hildegard Stadie Esper is certainly running completely contra to everything that a Hollywood script requires .  .  .  as is the construction and execution in all departments of the film itself .  .  .  but this does not mean that the film is a) bad, or b) without value. This is an assessment or byproduct contingent upon each individual viewer on a case by case basis. Good for one, bad for another--a film is never anything but the prints, negatives and memories of those who made it once production has wrapped forever. All else--including this article--is mere keyboard thwacks, and disappating air from the lungs of unimportant civilians like me.

*           *           *

Ralph Like Productions operated at 1425/8 Fleming Street, Los Angeles, California, operating in a studio facility on that location that originally housed silent era production house Charles Ray Productions. Ralph Like, former soundman in the business, purchased the lot from Charles Ray productions when that house (that had produced some huge budget silents, one of which included a scale reproduction of the ship The Mayflower) folded.

There's naturally not an encyclopedic wealth of knowledge available out there about the studio, but from the remaining titles that exist we can get the sense of the product that the studio produced: quickly made, extremely low budget films; tales of low criminals; of streetwise undecorated cops; old dark house horror titles that were exceedingly common for the age .  .  . westerns, action and adventure titles. Like, before returning to his old craft of Sound Man, cranked out these genre pieces under the banners of Ralph M. Like Productions, Action Pictures, Mayfair Pictures and Progressive Pictures.

Chinatown After Dark, Docks of San Francisco, Dragnet Patrol, The Monster Walks, Tangled Destinies .  .  .  these are the precious treasure of remnant titles that have survived the dust and creeping must of the ages. To a title, each one of these films is acted in an often stilted manner, strangely tempoed, concerned with low sleazy characters, are shot either on oft-used locations or on studios that are redressed and used over and over again (Chinatown After Dark is a giant offender in this department).

And yet each of these films deliver to me an essential extract of the age that most glossy studio product from the early sound era deliver very rarely--a feel for the common, non-epic spirit of the times. The way the room of the common lower middle class person looked, a sense of the patter and vernacular, since the scripts were never highly labored over and the actors were typically not rehearsed into falseness. To tweeze out the feeling of authenticity that I mean, which is somewhat resident on the subliminal level of viewing, each of the films must be viewed more than once--these KIND of films must be viewed more than once to at last develop the craving. Then the key is given up to the viewer and he (or she) can start looking around within the proceedings and picking up items for closer examination: this line, that prop, this street, that action. Once no longer distracted or annoyed by the typical viewer's original untrained sensibility which informs the mind "This is a bad film," the aficionado has expanded their senses, formally and officially become widened in the amount of material they can step into and regularly participate with, forever-after.

The Shabby, Greasy Joys of the Ralph M. Like Production

Sublime grit and violence . . . and Mary Nolan. (Ralph M. Like, 1932)

The atmosphere of these films and others like them from the early sound era deliver a flavor of delicious, exotic strangeness; the bizarre Mischa Auer in Monster Walks; the bizarre line readings of Carmel Meyers' sinister Chinese female mastermind Madame Ying Su, as well as the eerie ethnic Chinese haunting the background, spying on Rex Lease and Frank Mayo through rainy windows in Chinatown After Dark; the weary eyed, gorgeous, junk-addicted, exhausted-in-real-life tragic figure of Mary Nolan in the fabulously tough and seedy Chinatown After Dark; the malevolent priest in Tangled Destinies in an unexpected plot twist and more.

These impressions are very personal and will vary from person to person depending on the elements they crave for transmission in their direction. The distant shadows in a crumbling plaster wall on a vacant leaning musty staircase from a vanished ancient NYC tenement past .  .  . it's an accidental visual poetry and their receipt triggers an enzyme release that is rather pleasant. The damp autumn leaves of Kirsanoff and Epstein.

This author's disposition is perfectly suited to the rank, weird and slimy residue that these early 30's films leave on the dashboard of his mind's eye. I don't kid myself that the masses love these films, and seek them out in their low budget packages (three bucks a pop, quite often) whenever and wherever they're found like I do; but there are many I know who do indeed exist in the same sphere of preoccupation as I, and thus know full well what this love-letter to a pre Cheepnis cheapness is all about.

Schreck / Clive


Published by , 26.03.2015 at 19:28
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Owen Stone
Owen Stone 27 March 15 16:48 I still come back to read these blogs daily, just to get a glimpse of these awesome artworks. Text hided expand
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