THE BLACK RAVEN. PRC, 1943. George Zucco, Wanda McKay, Noel Madison, Robert Livingston, Byron Foulger, Charles Middleton, I. Stanford Jolley, and Glenn Strange. Written by Frank Myton. Directed by Sam Newfield.

   If the B-movies from Universal were Subversive and (as some have suggested) those from Warner Brothers were Proletarian, then the political orientation of PRC was Anarchy. The plots of PRC movies don’t so much develop as simply happen; events seem to start and stop almost at random, giving these poverty-row quickies an eerie, life-like quality that always eluded the better-written films of the big studios.

   Take the case of The Black Raven, which was advertised as a Horror movie, starts out as a Gangster film, turns into Grand Hotel, then somehow metamorphoses into a whodunit that meanders about aimlessly until the mystery is abruptly solved by the Villain of the Piece.

   The above is as coherent a summary of the plot as I can manage, and really more than the thing deserves. The story of nine characters thrown together on a stormy night, where two are killed, two set free, one arrested and one simply disappears (I think the writer forgot about him) is at one and the same time too complex and too simplistic for further explication.

   What impressed me about the tale was the obvious contrivance of putting so many bozos together (six of them have a motive for murdering the seventh) followed by the complete aimlessness of all their subsequent actions, as if it took all of writer Frank Myton’s energy just to set the thing up, and he pretty much left the actors on their own after that.

   Fortunately for the sake of High Art, the thespians in The Black Raven are an all-star lot for a B-Movie, including George Zucco, who usually managed to rise above his material (which usually wasn’t saying much), Byron Foulger, Noel Madison, I. Stanford Jolly, Charles (Ming the Merciless) Middleton — here billed as “Charlie” Middleton, playing a hick sheriff — and Glenn Strange, providing what was apparently meant to be comedy relief.

   All of them can be seen working their little hearts out, trying to lift their parts into the realm of the not-laughable. And if they don’t quite succeed, well, it’s still fun watching them try.

   They are hindered more than a little, these thespians by the apparently complete incompetence of the craftsmen around them. Myton seems to have been unable to avoid (or write around) minor details, and hence we suffer through interminable perfunctory scenes of characters deciding which rooms to take, George Zucco deciding how to dress, various criminals trying to decide who stole what, and “Charlie” Middleton trying to decide whom to arrest next. And Director Newfield, who should have known better, went ahead and milked each of these leaden scenes for its maximum deadweight.

   Thus, we are treated to three separate scenes of handyman Glenn Strange parking the guests’ cars: In fact, this being a cheapo PRC flick, one of the prop cars is slow to start, and we get to watch its headlights flicker as Strange turns the starter on and off and on and off and on and….

   So why watch this, much less write about it? Well, for one thing, it’s enjoyable having George Zucco playing a Good Guy for a change, gathering clues, dispensing advice to troubled young lovers, and even wrestling baddies and engaging in a shoot-out. Zucco himself seemed to be having fun with all this, and in several scenes he is seen smiling for no apparent reason. True, it’s rather incongruous to hear his cultured, well-modulated voice uttering lines like, “With your imagination, you could probably see the Statue of Liberty dance the Conga!” but the overall effect is charming.

   Then too, once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to forget Glenn (Frankenstein’s Monster and Sam, the Bartender on Gunsmoke) Strange doing outrageous double takes and falling up and down stairways — for such is the level of comedy here.

   In all, it’s not a movie I’d recommend, but if you’re in the right frame of mind and care at all about B-movie actors, The Black Raven can be a lot of fun.