Thursday, 25 February 2016

VAMPYR (1932)

In 1929, while Bela Lugosi was still playing his pre-film stage version of Dracula in America, over in France Danish director Carl Th. (Theodor) Dreyer began planning his own vampire film. Although he would have to begrudgingly wait from its finish in summer 1931 to May 1932 for a release (so that the German UFA studio could capitalise on Universal opening their Dracula and Frankenstein first), the result would be a horror film that drew comparisons with no other - the striking fever-dream Vampyr.

Dreyer was a prestige film-maker whose previous work, the 1928 historical epic The Passion of Joan of Arc was famous for his direction and the intense, method-style commitment (bordering on cruelty) he demanded from his leading lady Renée Jeanne Falconetti.  Despite the film’s undisputed quality, its commercial failure prevented the studio giving Dreyer a follow-up. Consequently, to make his next film how he wanted it, he ventured outside the studio system. At a Paris soiree, he was fortunate to make the acquaintance of one Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, whose family of wealthy aristocrat émigrés fled the Russian Revolution for the safety of France. The Gunzburgs were part of a noble tradition in their homeland of being generous patrons to the arts, already having financed Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company in Paris.

Nicolas agreed to finance Dreyer’s film in return for playing the lead role. This would not become as damaging a compromise as one might think. He was a handsome, high-society socialite actually of Russian, Polish and Brazilian ancestry, schooled in England and with the looks and style to appeal to the Hollywood set - so much so that M-G-M’s in-house photographer George Hurrell captured him to add to their glamorous gallery of 1930s stars. Whilst his impact on our story is more as a financing ‘angel’ and a somewhat limited-range performer in Dreyer’s proposed film, Gunzburg’s immaculately cool suavity would go on to make him a famous influence in the world of fashion and the arts. Supremely well-connected, he became the style guru editor-in-chief of Conde Nast’s Town and Country magazine and then worked for Vogue for over two decades till illness forced a reclusive retirement. Aside from illustrious friends like Cole Porter, celebrated fashion designers Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass considered themselves his proteges, to the point of helicoptering in especially to attend his private funeral in 1981.

Back in 1930, with the young Baron’s funding securely in place, the next step for Carl Dreyer was what story to tell with it. The choice was entirely his as there was no longer any interfering studio bankrolling him. Even in his independence though, there was one imposition he had to accept – his next project would need to be a ‘talkie’. Dreyer resisted the sound era as long as he could, even planning to shoot Vampyr as a silent. Eventually, he had to recognise what was best commercially and so travelled to London to study the new sound technology. Whilst there, he made another valuable friend in a fellow Dane, the writer Christen Jul. Together they pored over 30-40 potential scripts looking for a strong mystery thriller, and it was when they spotted recurring imagery such as doors opening, their keys turning in the locks without a visible user etc that Dreyer realised “We could jolly well make this too” and write their own script instead.

After the premiere, Dreyer recalled of his time developing the material: “I just wanted to make a film different to all other films. I wanted, if you will, to break new ground…”

He acknowledged in the credits of Vampyr that the script he co-wrote with Jul was based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story compilation In A Glass Darkly, though only two of the five tales seem to connect with his film. There’s a hint of the famous lesbian-toned female vampire Camilla (and the fog featured therein,) and a live burial in The Room in the Dragon Volant gave rise to the infamously creepy premature burial of the film’s hero.

The plot details the events witnessed by a young man, Allan Grey, who arrives one night in the French village of Courtempierre. He sleeps fitfully, plagued by ghostly spirits and an unexplained old man who gives him a parcel. He wanders out into an abandoned factory building where he sees mischievous, disembodied dancing shadows and a strange old woman who governs them. They lead him to a nearby castle, where one of them shoots the castle’s owner. The old woman turns out to be a vampire, bites the eldest of the lord’s two daughters, Léone, while Gisèle, the youngest becomes seduced by the village doctor who is in league with the vampire. Meanwhile Allan discovers the gift he was given is a book of vital vampire lore.

The evil doctor drugs Allan with a paralysing potion, plunging our hero into a vivid nightmare imagining himself in a helpless catatonic state, sealed and buried in a coffin, eyes open, staring fixedly upward (an unforgettable POV scene of claustrophobic queasiness). Upon recovering, he assists an old servant to pierce the vampire’s heart with an iron stake. Grey unties Gisèle , whilst her father’s huge spectral head scares a peg-legged henchman of the vampire to death. The doctor flees into an old mill, where the door closes upon him, the mill machinery starts up and he is suffocated under a vast downpour of flour. Grey and Gisèle walk through the misty wood into the comforting warmth of sunlight.

In Jorgen Roos’s documentary Carl Th. Dreyer (1966), the director spoke of what he believed were the fundamentals in preparing a project: “Two things play a crucial role. One is the script, the other is casting the actors. The entire films rests on these pillars”. Interestingly, the cast of this film only featured two professional performers, the castle lord (Maurice Schutz) and Sybille Schmitz as Léone. Dreyer met Jan Hieronimko, the moustached, self-satisfied doctor, by chance on a late-night train.
For his debut lead, one-time only actor Nicolas de Gunzburg renamed himself ‘Julian West’ after incurring his family’s disapproval for working in show-business. He is something of an impassive mannequin at times and yet this appears deliberate; Dreyer wanted a relatable, ‘average joe’ chap amidst the eccentrics who could experience the events at the same time as the audience without leading their emotions too easily – all part of the surreal, disjointed mind-set that Vampyr instills. As Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg points out in his Visual Essay, Allan’s lack of action as a character does however break the screenwriter’s mantra of never taking the plot out of the protagonist’s hands. Although he prevents Léone from being poisoned and frees Gisèle, it’s the old servant who stakes the vampire and sets in motion the demonic thud of the mill machinery to dispatch Doctor Death.

Other unexplained oddities include the baffling appearance of the Terry Gilliam-esque ghostly head of the Castle Lord. He is a heart-stopper for the vampire’s peg-leg Pete crony but seems to be a quick device that is never referenced again – (this also applies to the disfigured-faced old man fleetingly seen at the inn just once and for no apparent reason). The unaccounted-for phenomena that does work are the rogue shadows, imps of unattached supernatural misrule. They are meant to be as unfathomable to Allan as to us as he holds tight on his journey into the unsafe unreal.

By all accounts, on set Dreyer was confident and clear in what he wanted. In a 1971 interview, famed art director Hermann Warm (who’d previously worked on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and for him on The Passion of Joan of Arc) credited his authority and trust in his team’s creativity as: “…the orchestra leader who must conduct all those working under him to produce a coherent, harmonious concert. Once his collaborators understood his intention…then he gave them free reign”.

Although Dreyer expected his crew to buy into his vision, he was flexible enough to adapt to circumstances. This served him well when locations suggested better ideas than were on the page. To save money on rented studio stages, the entire film was shot on real locations, lending the film a real-world veracity to anchor those eerie flights of fancy. Many of the locations were sourced by Dreyer’s assistant Eliane Tayar, who found the abandoned old factory shown in the film. The owner initially misunderstood her as a buyer and was ready to renovate the place before she stressed that they wanted it just as it was. Dreyer scouted some sites with cinematographer Rudolph Maté and came across a house “where strange white shadows danced around the windows and doors…we went inside and saw some dark silhouettes. When we saw that, we knew what our style had to be – black silhouettes against a dark background”. Those shadows would be a memorable feature of his film’s unique, off-kilter magic and the contrast of black versus white would inspire the staging of the doctor’s floury grave instead of a planned marsh-drowning.

In a 1967 interview, Dreyer also discussed the heady influence the Paris art scene of the 1930s had upon him. He rubbed shoulders with some of the notable painters and although claiming no special allegiance to particular names or movements, “I was influenced by the excitement, the energy, the variety of the work”, he had a fondness for Goya. Rena Mandel who played Gisèle recalled that he frequently showed her prints of the old Spanish master, whose fusion of horror and realistic imagery he aspired to emulate. Jean-Baptiste Corot’s lyrical Orpheus Leading Eurydice is often cited as an influence on her and Allan’s leaving of the wood into peaceful beauty at the film’s end.

Another required necessity for adaptability was in the soundtrack of Vampyr. Although it was filmed entirely silent, with all dialogue and effects added in post-production, the actors had to speak their lines in English, French and German so their lip movements could be dubbed accurately in each country’s language. Separate French and German sequences of the on-screen text shots were filmed, though it seems an English edition was never finished. At one point, Dreyer was supervising a Danish version with cruder subtitles and title cards.

Once finished, the new project’s title went through numerous changes, from Destiny through Shadows of Hell to being quoted in film journal Close-Up as The Strange Adventures of David Gray. The lead character (played by Gunzburg) ultimately changed his first name to Allan by the time of the German release. Dreyer insisted the former was simply an error. There was a baseless accusation that ‘David’ would have had unwanted Jewish connotations, but Dreyer was an avowed enemy of anti-semitism (his 1922 film Love One Another clearly fought such prejudice). A more plausible theory suggests a subtle homage to Albin Grau, the producer and set designer of Murnau’s Nosferatu which Dreyer might well have seen – Love One Another was produced by the Primus Palace cinema owners who premiered Nosferatu three weeks after their film.

Murnau’s vampire movie may have been the reason Dreyer chose to place the expository book in Vampyr to help Allan understand the malevolent force he faces. The heroes in both films make use of such tomes. For Dreyer, it is possible that he felt the need to spoon-feed the viewer this mythology of the undead as audiences back then were not as familiar as modern cinemagoers with the rules and weapons. He spent two days lovingly shooting the inserts of the vital descriptive passages, possibly overdoing it as the extensive referencing at times slows the pace of the film.

Other changes marked the film, courtesy of the German censors. They ordered cuts to the doctor’s protracted suffocation under the mill flour and a softening of the extended stake-hammering of the vampire. (Both scenes’ missing footage is available in the Masters of Cinema DVD version). Also, early audience reactions to the terse dialogue exchanges on-screen was such scornful laughter that Dreyer immediately self-censored some scenes to minimise damage.

Either way, the name Vampyr seems to have been chosen by the German distributors to enable a recognisable marketing angle. The publicity was helped by the modernist montage technique used by designer Erik Aaes for the poster campaign.

Despite the hard work by Dreyer and his team during and after production, Vampyr was not a commercial hit when it was finally brought out from its frustrated shelving in May 1932. By the time of its Copenhagen premiere in March 1933, the director himself was not present, having sadly suffered a temporary nervous breakdown soon after New Year which placed him in a French mental hospital until April. The cause was never openly discussed, though the combined stress of self-producing as well as the career freefall the failure now placed him in are likely contributors – certainly more so than the fanciful notions of any occult after-effects.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016


By 1932, Universal Studios were on the lookout for more suitable fuel to feed the hungry new engine of cinema horror they had unleashed on the world with such stunning success. Having mined a little of the English gothic from Shelley and Stoker it was only a matter of time before they would discover the rich vein in home-grown writers of the macabre and fantastical.

In 1841, Graham’s Magazine of Philadelphia published the first fictional detective tale in modern literature. Even more impressive was its author, Edgar Allen Poe, who had only just taken over the editorship and released the tale amongst his highly-regarded literary criticisms years before his poem The Raven made him famous as both gamekeeper and poacher.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and its central character, the amateur sleuth C Auguste Dupin is an enjoyable, clear precursor to the British Sherlock Holmes stories some decades later in its narrative style, main characters and format. Poe’s story is set in the Paris of that period, recounted by an unnamed everyman (possibly a wealther, idealised Poe himself) who is blessed to develop a close friendship with Dupin, a man of almost superhuman powers of observation and deductive reasoning. Like Conan Doyle’s Dr Watson, our narrator is immensely impressed by his friend’s skills and indulgent of his reclusive habits, indeed both men habitually hide themselves from the world to indulge in the life of the mind. Venturing out one night, after demonstrating his perceptive ability to read our reporter’s thoughts, Dupin’s laser-like focus is taken by an intriguing case involving the bodies of two women murdered in an upper-floor room with no apparent means of escape or motive. The younger woman had been strangled and charmingly stuffed legs-first up her chimney, whilst her mother was been brutally throat-slit almost to decapitation. The room’s contents are strewn all over but all of their savings are left untouched, and there are clumps of coarse grey hair on the floor. The police are further baffled by the sealed windows and the accounts of three men of varying nationalities who heard the assailant yet cannot agree on the language spoken by him.

Dupin channels his peculiar talent for what Poe called ‘ratiocination’ (the reasoned focusing of thought), upon the evidence allowing nothing to distract him including the by-the-book narrowmindedness of police methodology. He warns his friend: “I wish you therefore to discard from your thoughts the blundering idea of motive”. Before you can put on a Deerstalker, he’s deduced that only an escaped Orangutan with a straight razor can be the culprit. An ad placed in the newspaper pinpoints with frightening accuracy a Maltese sailor as the owner and the case is closed. The Dupin character was successful enough to reappear in two more Poe sequels: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842) and The Purloined Letter in 1844.

The same extended life was not sadly granted to the film version. Universal offered the director slot to Robert Florey to compensate him for his embarrassing dismissal in favour of James Whale before production of Frankenstein the previous year. A similar gesture invited Bela Lugosi on board to smooth over his treatment during pre-production on the same film. Aggrieved at being considered for the title role, then switched to the monster, ultimately poorly- received test footage caused him to walk away citing the mute creature as an insult to his talent.

The film of Murders in the Rue Morgue bears little relation to the source material. The studio built their plot around a contrived new role for Lugosi as Doctor Mirakle, a hypnotic sideshow performer reminiscent of Dr Caligari. Instead of a somnambulist human servant, the curly-wigged, beetle-browed showman shares his act with a gorilla, Eric. The sequences with the ape are slapdash, laughably cutting between two totally different breeds of ape - close-ups of a real chimpanzee and wide-shots replacing him with Charles Gemora in a gorilla-suit. Laurel and Hardy fans will recognise his amusingly humanoid appearance from their classics Swiss Miss and The Chimp – though here the combined effect with the chimp is a ‘missing link’ of credibility. Gemora was known by the Republic serial-esque nickname: ‘King of the Gorilla Men’ for cornering the market in such monkey business.

Dupin (Leon Ames) is now a slightly more sociable scientist with a fiancé, Camille, played by Sidney Fox and the story’s narrator Paul (Bert Roach) affords lily-livered, gentle comic relief. When the friends take in the Doctor’s show, Mirakle takes a sinister shine to Camille owing to his secret experiments in blood transfusion to supply Eric with a mate. After Eric swipes Camille’s bonnet, he attempts to throttle Dupin for trying to retrieve it. Dupin is wise enough not to allow Camille’s address to be given to the over-insistent entertainer under the circumstances. No matter thinks Mirakle, and dispatches his bearded servant Janos ‘the Black One’ (an unnecessary label if ever there was one for the Afro-American Noble Johnson) to locate her.

One remarkable scene of sadism drenched in religious imagery follows in which Mirakle has a prostitute lashed, crucifixion-style, to beams in his laboratory while he injects her blood with that of Eric. Karl Freund beautifully shadows the opening tableau of them, and an atmosphere of suitable dread hangs in the air till Lugosi snaps, backhanding away his microscope and furiously cursing the poor girl for betraying him with her unworthy corpuscles: “Your blood is RRRATTEN! Black asss your sins! You cheated me. Your beauty was a lie!” Such insane passion arouses brief interest for the viewer in the midst of the humdrum plotting so far and his sudden conversion to regretful bowed prayer before her crucified body is a moment of sublime Christ-like framing. If only this kind of memorable care could have been injected into the bloodstream of the whole film.

The prostitute’s body is then pulled out of the river – referenced in The Mystery of Marie Rogêt - a discarded reject from Mirakle’s evil bride-hunting. Dupin’s scientific curiosity is aroused. He bribes the Morgue Keeper to draw blood for his analysis, which confirms the presence of foreign entities, linking her to other unsolved murders. Mirakle tries to doorstep Camille in her apartment, but when she refuses his heavy persistence, he activates his primate pal to climb up to snatch her. Both mother and daughter vanish. The locked-room murder puzzle element of the novel is kept somewhat intact, yet weakened considerably by the fact that we already know ‘whodunnit’, making the three ear-witnesses’ confused testimony now a redundant clue. Also, the body found forcefully rammed up the flue is now the mother not the daughter. 

To keep Mirakle still integral to the plot, the police and Dupin race to his lair where Eric dispatches his master by strangulation and makes off with the live Camille across the roof-tops a year before King Kong would scale the dizzier heights of New York. Henchman Janos is blown away by the police as he runs interference and Dupin heroically shoots Eric to save his fiancé.

Murders in the Rue Morgue may only bear trace elements of Poe but it bore the imprints of other talents. Celebrated cinematographer Karl Freund was allowed freer reign to develop his stylish use of shadows and composition from Metropolis (and Tod Browning’s relinquishing of control to him for the look of Dracula). The script, adapted by Robert Florey hurriedly in a week and written by Tom Reed and Dale Van Every contained additional dialogue by a young John Huston.

Where it does have archive value is as one of the earliest translations of Poe to the screen (many years before Roger Corman vividly embraced his wider work). More importantly, there was that continuing fascination with the world of the freak-show performer – a morbid obsession with the dark side of show-business was still a strong influence on American cinema even a decade on since the Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari crossed the Atlantic. Four years earlier, imported genre star of the film Conrad Veidt came to give Universal the poignancy of the carnival freak in The Man Who Laughs. M-G-M jumped on the bandwagon and invited the rubes to gather round Rex Ingram’s The Magician and their controversial Freaks, (Tod Browning’s third circus skulduggery picture) was released at the same time as Murders in the Rue Morgue.

The mesmeric bravura entertainer was still not to be trusted, yet was anyone truly heeding the warning? Germany in 1933 elected one of them to become Chancellor, an uprising of Svengali evil that critics such as Siegfried Krakauer saw predicted in the country’s most sensational horror films years before - The Golem, Nosferatu and Caligari. Adolf Hitler would hypnotise millions to do his bidding, a salesman whose brand of snake-oil would carry a pandemic venom to poison the world.

Monday, 22 February 2016

FREAKS (1932)

FREAKS (1932)

1n 1932, Tod Browning directed one of the most peculiar and daring horror films ever made by a mainstream Hollywood studio. Freaks was designed to explore and humanise the misunderstood world and needs of those dubbed ‘freakish’ due to physical abnormalities. The setting was that of a travelling circus whose environment and separate closed community echoed his previous work. As we’ve already discussed, Browning was an ‘outide talker’ the politically name for what was formally known as the ‘carnival barker’ in his early life and had matured into a film-maker with a life-long affinity toward those classed as outsiders or misfits. The horror genre was a way for him to confront audience’s fears of the unusual members of society, gain sympathy for them and play in sensationalist imagery on what they found disturbing – arguably exploiting both sides of the debate.

Browning had dwelt on transgressive themes in a circus backdrop before. The Unholy Three (1925) was the first time Browning had achieved this dual-sided approach in that setting. The closed-off world of the circus traveller has always appealed to our romantic imagination but has equally inspired mistrust among many, in common with the Romany gypsies. Using Tod Robbins’ novel and a screenplay by Waldemar Young, Browning developed the fear of criminality in unknown ‘other people’ into a thriller. What would happen if the skills of circus folk could be corrupted to ingenious criminal enterprises? His long-term collaborator star Lon Chaney was a ventriloquist and female impersonator, partnered with Victor McLaglen’s strong-man and Harry Earles (later the lead actor in Freaks) as a little person who could convincingly masquerade as a baby for deceptive purposes as they perpetrated domestic robberies. The film was highly successful and through Chaney in particular managed to earn sympathy without villifying the world of the circus community as a whole.

The more obvious forerunner to Freaks was Browning and Chaney’s The Unknown, which we covered earlier, in which Browning combined his morbid fascination with deformity and evil whilst keeping the story very much under the big top. Here, Chaney’s masquerade as Alonzo the Armless allows him to hide out from the repercussions of his old life of crime. Once he sees that his ultimate sacrifice to become surgically bereft of arms for Joan Crawford is too late, his plot to murder her strong-man lover fails to his cost. Freaks was to be a more compassionate take on carnival folk and yet in its controversial presentation of the disabled and climactic horror denouement, Browning’s dark obsessions would cost him just as much professionally – and perhaps not without reason – hence part of the film’s unforgettable legacy.

In David Skal’s riveting book The Monster Show, he offers another personal connection that possibly gave Browning an affinity with physical deformity, namely a tragic car accident in 1915 which the director (then a young actor struggling with alcohol addiction) hit and killed a promising actor, Elmer Booth. It left the luckily surviving Browning with injuries including severe damage to his right leg and lacerations to the face and arms. His recovery may have influenced a somewhat ghoulish obsession with disability, the shark-like mouth of Chaney in Browning’s London After Midnight is a prominent image that well have been a lingering echo. (The casting of Olga Baclanova in Freaks was inspired by Browning seeing her in the film The Man Who Laughs, discussed previously, in which Conrad Veidt is a performer reduced by a childhood torture disfigurement to performing as a carnival freak with a macabre fixed grin. That movie however was widely regarded as much more sympathetic than Browning’s 1932 production.

As a young child, long before I actually saw Freaks, the still photos and status of it as a banned film exerted a strange and admittedly prurient fascination on me. My youthful self had no experience of people afflicted with disabilities; seeing the shot of the unusual performers gathered around the bearded lady new mother, I shamelessly gawped at them as spellbound as they were by the new addition to their extended family. Perhaps this inappropriate reaction, not dissimilar to ‘car-crash rubber-necking’ is what many censors tried to protect the public from, but despite an unavoidable interest in how day-to-day life is managed for those without certain limbs, that ‘spectator at the zoo’ feeling is blended in the viewer with an involvement in universal (as well as specific) relationship problems by Browning at the same time as a degree of unwholesome spectatorship.

Browning was given free reign to develop Freaks by production head Irving Thalberg at M-G-M following his monumental success with Universal’s Dracula. Seeing that horror was big business in light of their rival’s equal box-office hit Frankenstein, Thalberg rolled the dice on Browning’s pitch of providing the ultimate horror film. He was shocked on seeing the script but understood it was what he had asked for. The source material was a short story Spurs by Todd Robbins, writer of The Unholy Three and was given to Browning by the diminutive Harry Earles, co-star of course from that same film. Although it was an unpalatable story, Earles recognised it was a great opportunity to showcase him as parts for little people were so rare. Spurs shares the central plot-line with Freaks of a circus midget who falls in love with a ruthless full-sized performer and exacts a revenge ending, but the original story’s characters were all nasty and self-centred. The midget’s self-enacted retribution for example is to ride his fraudulent, now shamed ex around France, punishing her with the accessories of the title. At least in Freaks, some sympathy is retained for the protagonist as we don’t see him carry out the cruelty.

Freaks is set wholly within the backstage world of a travelling circus troupe, intriguingly never showing us their on-stage show, choosing instead to focus on the drama within their off-stage lives. Theirs is a society made up of two groups of performers who co-exist within the show-business ‘family’. There are the able-bodied artists led by Cleopatra the scheming vamp trapeze artist, Russian ex Moscow Art Theatre actress Olga Baclanova. Her partner-in-crime, Hercules the strong-man is played by Henry Victor, after Victor McLaglen turned down the chance to reprise his role in The Unholy Three and reunite with Lon Chaney, who was initially considered gfor the film before he died in 1930. There is Roscoe Ates, who channels a real-life stutter in his role, Delmo Fritz as the Sword Swallower, and the developing kind-hearted lovers Phroso the clown and Venus the seal trainer (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams).  Thalberg had wanted Myrna Loy for Cleopatra – until she read the script in horror and begged him to release her from the part. Jean Harlow was also tipped for Venus, maybe passing for the same reason.

The ‘freaks’, for want of delicacy, are represented most importantly by Harry Earles’ diminutive Hans, whose presence carries such authority and immaculacy of dress I always regard him as the circus owner – we don’t see any evidence that he isn’t. He is involved with Freda, a fellow little person who in reality was Harry’s sister Daisy in the travelling Dancing Dolls family circus act, a quartet of little people performers from Germany who toured America. Their real names were Kurt and Hilda Schneider. Intermittently the twosome revert to German dialogue in the film.

The rest of the differently-abled cast feature an assortment of people with real-life afflictions, part of a wave of CVs sent in via Browning’s circus connections from all over the world. Presentation of them would fuel a raging fire of later censorship problems. They are given insensitive but promotionally succinct titles in the show such as Prince Randian the Living Torso (born without limbs but able to roll and light his own cigarettes), Johnny Eck as Half-Boy, who despite looking as though he had no lower half, did have hidden underdeveloped legs – as well as impressive enough upper-body strength to support himself even to a one-armed handstand. He was photogenic enough to have gained work such as TV presenting parts in our generation since from the waist up he appears utterly normal. There is also Frances O’Connor the extremely dextrous Armless Wonder - and the famous real-life conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. This Siamese pairing gained a professional life beyond the carnival scene in vaudeville, playing piano and saxophone, and also attention in the media when they managed to divorce themselves from their legal guardian who had bought them from their birth mother and put them to exploitative work from earliest childhood. Notable others include the three ‘Pinheads’, microcephalic performers born with small craniums, females Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow, and male Schlitzie (born Simon Metz), a popular and personable child-like charmer  - as well as Olga Roderick, the bearded lady who was one of several who recalled less than fond memories of the film’s exploitative nature during filming.

The producers knew Freaks would be a hard sell of queasy possibilities to an audience unused to real-life, vividly disabled people in a horror film, so they prefaced the film with a scrolling written prologue intended to prepare the viewer to reframe what they were about to see. It means well, yet suffers from highly debatable sensitivity, referring from the top to the film as a ‘highly unusual attraction’ – possibly meant as a deliberate introduction of the circus theme, but it also suggests an exploitative angle that perhaps was the opposite of fostering understanding. It goes on to fall on its own sword further by inflammatorily listing ‘misshapen misfits’ from history and literature: ‘Goliath, Caliban, Frankenstein, Gloucester, Tom Thumb and Kaiser Wilhelm’, making it hard to fathom how this ill-recruited rogues gallery of perceived disability, fairy-tale Tom aside, is supposed to encourage inclusiveness. Are we to build positive associations based on a bliblical destructive giant, Shakespeare’s bestial island monster, Mary Shelley’s scientist or creature (some confusion here), Richard III in the old, misrepresented ‘evil crookback’ sense and a war-mongering anti-semite? It doesn’t help that there are more bouquets of grenades offered to ‘the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated’, insensitive treatment of whom is ‘…the result of long conditioning by our forefathers’. It’s also assisted by the 1932 present-day on the strength of this presentation. Finally, after a glimmer of welcome framing of the film as being concerned with the code of ethics amongst its circus folk, the writer again drops the piano on their foot by assuring us that modern science has rendered this film a curio since ‘such blunders of nature’ are becoming a rarity.

It’s worth mentioning one reasonable claim, not made here, in favour of the circus life of the differently-abled, which is that it provided a sense of shared community for performers who shared very unusual experiences and challenges. Without the ready-made family set-up of the sideshow life, many would have led isolated lives before our modern social media age of comforting connectivity.
Prologue self-sabotage aside, Freaks as Tod Browning’s film proper sets out its stall confidently as a mystery with an anticipatory frisson of potential horror. We are introduced to a circus outside shouter who is showing customers around his attractions when a woman suddenly screams at an unseen performer in a box. This prompts him to begin the story of the artist, a once sought-after beauty: “She was known as the peacock of the air…”

Above various sub-plots, the main thread is the sickeningly exploitative plan by Cleopatra to manipulate Hans into becoming her husband for the fortune she hears he will inherit, told to her by the wounded and rejected Freda. Meanwhile she carries on a secret tryst with Hercules and mocks Hans – firstly behind his back and then most unforgivably in front of everyone at their wedding feast by canoodling brazenly with Hercules. During the meal, the disabled performers do their best to make the undeserving Cleopatra feel a kinship with them now. They recite the haunting refrain “Gooba gobble. One of us” repeatedly, while poor Hans sinks into a drunken misery of gradual realisation that he has been deceived by the only real monster in the film.

The turning point is when Hans discovers that Cleopatra had poisoned him with Ptomaine and is covertly dosing him further along with his medicine. This leads to one of the most disturbing and thrilling climaxes in horror film history as the family of the disabled close ranks to take revenge upon her. During the rain-soaked night, armed with knives and other weapons, they crawl through the mud, friendly faces now locked in impassive yet vengeful purpose toward her caravan. We then cut to the result of what now remains of Cleopatra in the box: the frighteningly macabre final image of her as the Human Duck, her lower torso cut off, her body and face mutilated to resemble the bird, tarred and feathered for life, and squawking pathetically. To the performers she once mocked so savagely for their difference from her, she is now truly ‘one of us’.

This brilliantly downbeat ending initially made M-G-M very nervous as did much of the film after catastrophic feedback from test screenings. The original print of Freaks was 90 minutes long and in trying to reduce distress to audiences, the studio cut it to its present length of 64 minutes to satisfy the New York censors. This was despite the fact that it was in the brief more permissive era known as ‘pre-Code’ (between the full introduction of sound in 1929 and the enforcement of the aforementioned Hollywood Production Code in 1934). State censors dictated their own policies across America. M-G-M removed much of the footage of the revenge attack upon Cleopatra, a castration of Hercules, some comedy and added the filmed prologue device of the outside shouter. Arguably this may have helped the impact of the ending as we can only imagine the awful torture wreaked upon Cleopatra that led to the hideous result.

The studio also tried alternate endings to soften the impact (available on the Region 1 Warner Home Video DVD) - for example an epilogue where the now-rich Hans is reunited heart-warmingly with Freda by Phroso and Venus some years later in his inherited mansion. She comforts him that he was not to blame for the revenge, that he only wanted to take the poison, and declares her love for him after all. This feels like a soft, contrived fade-out after the bold original. There was a further crisis of confidence tinkering whereby this scene was kept in while all the weak expository dialogue was edited out, enabling a slightly stronger close, but ultimately nothing matches the uncompromising, terrible power of finishing on that final retribution.

Freaks ended its short initial run as a commercial failure, simply being too controversial material at that time in any form to be welcomed by the mainstream. The film was shelved for over thirty years. It did however gain a surprising second life courtesy of the radical hippie ethos circulating in the 1960s. The counter-culture movement on student campuses embraced what they considered to be sympathetic treatment of societal outsiders in a period when suddenly the word ‘freak’ and the adjective ‘freaky’ would be co-opted by youths who rejected authoritarian values and sincerely related to those who either were or chose to live differently to the norm .  Freaks became hugely popular at midnight college screenings. 
How apt that such an ultimately difficult and divisive film should find a home in an ideal context for stimulating hotly-argued debate. It still has the ability to challenge the viewer in the present and for its flaws justifies its existence as film art...

Sunday, 21 February 2016


This creaky horror pot-boiler echoing the silent The Cat and the Canary (1927) suffers from stagey playing and some horrendous racism for good measure. It was produced by Mayfair Pictures Corporation, a name that conjures up all the sophistication that the film doesn’t, a Los Angeles mini studio belonging to sound engineer Ralph M. Like who channelled his technical crew salary and income from leasing out the studio space into forming the production company. The Monster Walks was part of an eleven film output Mayfair made between 1931-32, all usually made to a format of being studio-bound and lasting roughly one hour.

Directed by Frank Strayer, the plot is the familiar one of the young innocent heir to a fortune, Ruth Earlton, who sleeps over in the family house and is thus targeted by unknown plotters keen to take the inheritance for themselves by any means necessary. In a stormy night prologue, her father is discovered dead by his house-keeper Mrs Krug and her son ‘Hanns’. Mrs Krug is played by Martha Mattox who was in the superior The Cat and the Canary as Mammy Pleasant and here she is a dead-ringer for the frostily devious Frau Blucher in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. She has a habit of reciting portentous lines…portentously - describing Mr Earlton’s death: ‘Yes’. (Pause. Looks away meaningfully). ‘It was very sudden’.  To be fair, as with the foul play of the plot she’s not the only suspect accused of this crime. Russian-American Mischa Auer as Hanns is a tall, eccentrically dark presence, the actor managing to distinguish himself later in his career with an Academy Award nomination in 1938 for My Man Godfrey. We are shown none too subtly that the pair are angling for some great reward from the will. Mrs Krug quells his impatience: “Wait until the will is read. We may be rich”. This functional splat of dialogue is typical of Robert Ellis’s script.

Ruth Earlton (Vera Reynolds) arrives with her fiancé Dr Ted Carver played by Rex Lease. Ruth is terrified before she even sits down to hear the will, namely because her father kept an intimidating animal companion called Yogi who freely roamed the house during her childhood. Yogi is not a bear but a chimpanzee; the script valiantly attempts to confuse us even more by referring to him as ‘an ape’. The excitable Yogi, once a victim of Earlton’s mysterious experiments, is still around but kept locked in a cage in the cellar due to being a shrieking, leaping bundle of jealousy toward Ruth, we gather.

Reynolds and Lease had worked their way up through silent films and do their best with the material at hand as they slog through the thankless Scooby Doo machinations. After the will gives Ruth sole inheritance of the fortune, the Krugs seethe on hearing that Mrs Krug will only receive a $50 a month lifetime pension for her devotion to the old man. In the event of Ruth’s death, the estate will go to the kindly wheelchair-bound paraplegic Uncle Robert who is clearly a saint, above grubby suspicion. As Ruth prepares for bed, a painting tilts to the side, permitting a peephole for someone to spy upon her. The clock strikes midnight and is snuffed out by a creeping hairy arm that proceeds to attack her through the bed-head. Ruth puts two and two together to make ‘chimp’. Lease manfully assumes the role of house detective and quizzes Hanns, who nixes the possibility of rogue monkey business, assuring him that Yogi is firmly incarcerated.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that Strayer and company availed themselves of a secret weapon in the cast – one that backfires terribly – in the form of beleaguered black actor Willie Best. Although he appeared in over a hundred films, (which is an achievement admittedly) he allowed himself to be billed for a handful of them under his nickname of ‘Sleep N’Eat’. Like fellow actor Stepin Fetchit, this manipulation would earn widespread criticism by minority performers for pandering to ruinous stereotypes instead of advancement. What made it worse was the atrociously racist characterisation he was saddled with in films like The Monster Walks. He is cast as Exodus, the wide-eyed, dim-bulb cowardly chauffeur to the young couple who, rather than leading his people to a promised land, gets to supply such choice expressions for whitey’s amusement as “Where the dead man at?” (and a famously appalling closing line we will come to at the end). Suddenly Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart appears to be documentary, not satire, in Mel Brooks’ other 1974 spoof gem Blazing Saddles, only there the black actor can mercifully subvert the stereotype. For Best, he is forced to represent it - in witless comic ‘relief’ ‘gibbering such as when he trips and thinks his foot is caught in the monkey’s mouth rather than the polar-bear rug.

The plot pushes its busted-wheel jalopy further along as Ruth switches bed places with Mrs Krug unbeknownst to our clandestine connivers, earning the housekeeper a fatal visit from the hairy hand of fate. The now-intrepid Doctor decides to examine the avuncular Uncle subtly to be sure his paralysis is real without causing offense. Ten minutes from the end, the murderers blow their own cover to the audience when we discover it was Robert and Hanns colluding all along with the unfortunate Mrs Krug for the dough – and that Hanns is Robert’s son by Mrs Krug! He berates the heart-broken Hanns for killing the wrong person.

By now, the solicitor Mr Wilkes (Sidney Bracey) and the Doctor are putting the pieces together, although in Lease’s case his jigsaw assembly occasionally suffers from inexplicable mental pause-button pressing: “There’s only one possible – solution” he concludes. Meanwhile Hanns has Ruth tied to a post while he sadistically lashes Yogi through the cage bars with a whip, presumably as there are no train-tracks near-by. Yogi understandably doesn’t appreciate this attention, catches the whip and reels in Hanns to eventually perform on him the very crime of which he was accused earlier on. Uncle Robert is left alone to be apprehended, his motive half-heartedly explained as the work of “an exponent of the Darwinian theory”. (If it wasn’t for those meddling kids…)

Fortunately, Darwinism at least meant this film died out into the public domain as not being among the fittest to survive. Unfortunately, the final line has been preserved in notorious posterity: Exodus surveys Yogi the vigilante chimp and remarks: “Ah had a gran’pappy that looked sump’n like him – but he wasn’t as active”.

Those were the days. How they must have laughed…all the way to the cross-burnings.

In Denis Gifford’s marvellous book A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, he firstly references a promotional tag-line for the film: ‘Greater than ‘Frankenstein’ say the critics!’ This sounds plausible, if by that they meant it was a mistake of creation even more poorly-conceived than the young scientist’s. Moreover, Gifford uncovered that The Monster Walks was also banned on its initial release: “blue-pencilled by the British Censor until he had introduced his Horror Certificate”. Some things are better left alone…

Thursday, 18 February 2016


(NY opening Dec 1931. General release 1932)

Regarded by many, myself included, as the greatest screen telling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic gothic tale, this Paramount horror film of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde scripted by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath is a stylish and spirited pleasure – thanks mainly to its choice of director in Rouben Mamoulian, lead actor Frederic March (deserved winner of the Academy Award) and transformation special effects that are still impressive to this day.

Frederic March was an unexpected choice for the heavy, dual dramatic challenge of Jekyll and his bestial alter-ego. He was regarded as more of a lightweight comedic actor but Mamoulian fought for him. This was characteristic of the director’s uncompromising approach and confidence in his own taste. Mamoulian, nicknamed ‘Mamou’, started out directing lavish Broadway musicals such as Porgy and Bess and was the first in New York to stage Oklahoma and Carousel. He would continue in this genre in Hollywood, aside from notably helming Garbo’s Queen Christina - wherein his directing talent shrewdly guided her in the final close-up to be simply impassive, thus enabling the audience to imprint upon her face what they felt her inner feelings could be. His loyalty and commitment to union support for the Directors Guild of America made him powerful enemies. Eventually he was professionally ruined by the notorious 1950s communist witch-hunt blacklist, but had the satisfaction of living to the ripe old age of ninety even so, presumably outliving many of those who had plotted against him.

 Frederic March had also come to Hollywood via Broadway after an emergency appendectomy caused him to re-examine his previously safe job in banking back home in Wisconsin and change direction to his dream life as an actor. Throughout his career, March balanced a love of theatre and screen roles, the varied disciplines richly rewarding him with ultimately two Academy Awards, two Broadway Tonys and a television Emmy. Despite early misconceptions about the range of his talent, which may have been partly due to his handsomeness (fears no doubt assuaged by his willingness to play rough in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), he went on to an illustrious career which included heavyweight parts in Eugene O’Neill and as Willy Loman in the film of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman - after regretting turning down the original stage run.

In 1926/7, Tom Cushing’s Broadway comedy The Devil in the Cheese would have been a hot ticket retrospectively for horror fans as it featured Frederic March, Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, effectively forming their own ‘League of Extraordinary Gentleman’ spanning Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde before any of the films would shoot them to genre fame.
March was often compared to John Barrymore, ‘the great Profile’, due to his similar matinee- idol looks. Paramount in fact tried to tempt Barrymore to reprise his 1920 turn in the film, even offering him $25,000 a week but to no avail.

Like all businesses, Paramount had suffered catastrophically during the Great Depression. It needed big box-office hits and, in common with Universal, found success with a horror picture – in this case re-casting the lead in a hit that had already worked once before.

From its opening, with the hands of March’s Dr Henry Jekyll playing the lead-in theme of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, we’re already treated to an intriguing example of Mamoulian’s directorial imagination. With the aid of his great cinematographer Karl Struss, he positions us from Jekyll’s point-of-view; we immediately become intimately involved with our hero as he goes from displaying his piano skills at home to dressing for the outside in front of his mirror, then continuing via carriage into a lecture hall, his students and colleagues privately admiring his oratorical and intellectual brilliance before he speaks. The characters orbiting this stellar figure directly address us as well – and indeed once Jekyll is finally in front of the camera, the effect is compounded by the startlingly personal way Jekyll then delivers his talk straight at us himself. It’s a rivetingly modern start to a 1930s film; Mamoulian ensures that Jekyll will have our full attention and hopefully sustain our subjective sympathy as he embarks on his terrifying psychological journey. (Incidentally, the sequence leading up to his exit from the house was cut for many years until restoration for VHS and DVD. In his genial and informative DVD commentary, Greg Mank wondered if this was due to the accidental glimpse of a capped technician caught fleetingly in Jekyll’s reflection as he dresses to leave. A lot more scenes were cut for the film’s reissue in 1936.

In this film version, Henry’s surname is pronounced ‘Jee-cull’, supposedly the way Stevenson said it when asked by reporters.

The first performance we get to enjoy on screen is Edgar Norton as Poole the butler. He had actually been playing the role on stage since 1898 opposite the famed actor-manager Richard Mansfield. Buttling was clearly his forte as he went on to the same duties in Dracula’s Daughter and then for Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein.

Mamoulian is careful to shape March’s performance through the film, beginning with showing his noble care of patients such as the little girl who he coaxes to walk without her crutches. His energy and charm though has an irreverent edge that prevents Jekyll from a bland white-wash of virtuousness.

One of Mamoulian’s other consistent style touches is a regular use of split-screen to wipe from one scene to another, often balancing the incoming scene briefly side by side with the former. This is done sometimes with a vertical divide and often with a diagonal – indicating duality long before Jekyll starts concocting his fatal potions. The first use of the technique introduces Rose Hobart as Muriel Carew, Henry’s fiancée. Like her director, she was tough, survived the same blacklist and lived to be 94. In her garden wooing scene with Jekyll, Mamoulian again uses the directness of having the lovers stare right into the camera as they profess their love for each other, placing us between them in their most private of shared stolen moments together.

The next major event in the film that highlights Jekyll’s chivalry is his fateful meeting with Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), the good-time girl who ultimately appeals to his latent Hyde persona – and every other man’s of that persuasion. He comes to her rescue when she is attacked by one of her customers.  Initriguingly, this scene is the reverse of the famous scene in the Stevenson story where Hyde is apprehended in public for the first time as he savagely attacks a little girl in the street. That plot point is notably missing in this remake.

Hopkins would have been a censor’s nightmare in her wonderfully lusty, suggestive portrayal reminiscent of Mae West. Fortunately for us, this version was released before the draconian Production Code came into effect – consequently Ivy displays a refreshingly brazen sexuality with Henry that he enjoys surprisingly conscience-free. We are treated to plentiful shots of her cleavage, she encourages his hand on her garter-belt racily close to her crotch, then tosses it like a lacy gauntlet at his feet which he penetrates in a possibly Freudian manner with his cane. Hopkins then removes her stocking to reveal a shapely leg before stripping, artfully covering herself with the bed-cover and then grabbing Jekyll in a hot kiss as his friend Dr Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) enters in the nick of time. The raunchy footage in this sequence had only been restored more or less intact for the DVD release from various cuts imposed after its 1936 re-release under the Code.  Mamoulian gets the most from Hopkins’ smouldering performance by an artful dissolve that lingers on her gartered leg, swinging like a hypnotist’s watch, for some seconds as Jekyll and Lanyon walk home through the streets, her parting whisper of “Come back” is a siren-call that will entice him to return to whole-heartedly in another guise. The scene is also valuable in that it hints at Henry’s existing flirtatious side, offering a chink of devilish light in the doorway that Hyde’s primitivism will permit to be thrown open. His wilder side will not be safely dismissed later as a monster disconnected from him; on the contrary, it reveals him.

Pipe in mouth, Henry then sets to work concocting in his laboratory amidst an authentic set of tubes, flasks and bubbling paraphernalia, one of many commissioned by Mamoulian for the utmost historical accuracy. This leads to one of the most astounding and seamless transformations ever filmed for a horror movie as Jekyll becomes Hyde for the first time before the mirror. Karl Struss ingeniously arranged a red filter in front of the lens filming March wearing a strong make-up of the same colour. This had the effect of temporarily returning his face to a basic white. By then gradually switching to a green filter, the transition revealed the heavier make-up underneath, all in a single ‘live’ take in-camera as March grimaces and clutches his throat in agony before our eyes. The result is astonishing and must have blown away audiences in an era long before digital CGI.

Mamoulian sustains the earlier all-important POV of making us sharing Henry’s experiences even at this moment of extreme supernatural horror. He has Struss move us away from his reflection into a whirling subjective maelstrom of montage images depicting Henry’s loved ones appealing forcefully to us. Simultaneously the director added a ground-breaking sound-track, capturing musical instruments played backwards such as a gong and various drums, augmented by his own recorded heart-beat. Fleetingly we see a boiling cauldron, a recurring symbol of seething emotion and then the camera returns us to the mirror to see the fully-formed Hyde…

The initial 25 seconds of Hyde’s excited frolicking - “Free! Free at last!” – were cut after audiences laughed at the shock of his ape-like appearance, yet the look of Jekyll’s alter-ego quickly grows upon the viewer and befits the flavour of Stevenson’s bestial description.  Wally Westmore (of the famous Westmore make-up dynasty) had fashioned a face suggestive of a pre-evolved human - the wig’s contours smoothed to the head, mono-brow and hirsute limbs, coupled with March’s hunched posture and physicality are all evocative of our neanderthal ancestor. The grotesque teeth are an unsightly asset (a porcelain set designed by Westmore’s dentist Dr Charles Pinkus), seving almost as a prosthetic prop in how they allow Hyde to lick and grin through them lasciviously.

Likewise March’s tremendous athleticism hurtling around the sets and from railings totally embody the author’s guilty thrill at being “Younger, lighter, happier in body”. Stevenson wrote feverishly as Jekyll of ”the light step, leaping pulses”, now that after “my devil had long been caged- he came out roaring”. Here, March has the time of his life giving vent to Hyde’s unfettered wicked glee, especially in his early outings where he is something of a mischievous teen hooligan, before later immersing himself into terrible adult evil.

The second transformation, shortly after, is an even more intricate effect whereby after the filter dissolve on Jekyll’s face and his hand, there is a series of invisible match-cuts allowing the teeth to be applied before we return to his face again, then another on his left hand so that when we next see his face he is fully Hyde. On exiting, March shows us the heightened sensory hedonism of the creature as he enjoys the anointing of the rain upon his visage.

An extra jolt of vigour to Hyde is given when he picks up Ivy at the music hall. They strike sparks off each other, which by all accounts was an unwelcome facet of Miriam Hopkins’ real-life diva behaviour. She would relentlessly upstage March and her co-stars and not just in this film. Even the strong-willed Bette Davis was brought to boiling point each day that they worked together, inflaming an old professional rivalry during the making of The Old Maid (1939). Davis said in her autobiography: ““Miriam used and, I must give her credit, knew every trick in the book. I became fascinated watching them appear one by one…”

This scene is important as we see a flash of the volatile homicidal impulses never far from the surface with Hyde when a customer of Ivy is seen off by him with a jagged bottle to hand. He also terrifies Ivy with a verbal hint of his sadistic sexual domination to come: “You see I hurt you because I love you. I WANT you…Under this exterior you’ll find the very flower of man”. The odd choice of the word ‘flower’ is noteworthy - it suggests sickeningly that Hyde believes his cruelty is an evolved, not devolved, version of the civilised Jekyll. He overpowers her and the viewer with a Hannibal Lecter saliva-drenched hiss into the camera of “You’ll come with me”. Their relationship shortly develops into a perverse domestic abuse mini-drama all of its own, with Hyde the suited tyrant at home, demonically ordering her to declare her hatred for him and preening himself in the mirror before leaving to somewhere undisclosed. Hopkins is superb in her abject terror of his volcanic temper.
As if to remind us how close Jekyll is to his alter-ego, Ivy visits him, pleading for his help against the ogre she does not know is secretly him. She kneels before him, begging him to help in a skewed echo of her previous enticement to him. He struggles internally with the baser desire she is rekindling in him, his hand trembling as he caresses her head before vowing to help.

Jekyll’s next transformation is a turning point in the film, occurring as it does in a moment of tranquility while he recites Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the park. This time, his primitive half triumphantly crows that in turning to the dark side without the drug catalyst, he is taking over control:  “But it IS death!” Hyde goes on a mission of violent revenge to the squealing Ivy; despite the urbane top-hat and tails, he has the tone of a gangster James Cagney murdering an unfaithful moll: “Thought I wouldn’t come back…Jekyll’s word against Hyde eh?” March is thrillingly macabre as he reveals he is Jekyll, launching himself across the bannister rail dynamically to stop Ivy from leaving, his cloak billowing out Dracula-style. Before he throttles Ivy obscured by the bed, Hyde utters the horrific tease: “Isn’t Hyde a lover after your own heart?” exposing the very darkest depths of her private desires as he extinguishes her life.

Mamoulian’s film builds to a crucial scene faithful to the Stevenson book where, held at gun-point by Jekyll’s friend Dr Lanyon, Hyde forces him to watch as he concocts a draught and changes once more back to his gentleman other self by virtue of dissolve photography. The worst is yet to come when Jekyll repeatedly becomes Hyde under stress. After struggling with his inability to unburden his torment to Muriel, he tries to protect her by severing their engagement - this inadvertently triggers a change which results in Hyde killing his father in-law Sir Danvers Carew. Hyde returns to Jekyll but under stress from the police pursuit led by Lanyon, he undergoes a final dreadful  transformation into a baggy-eyed disfigured Hyde before being shot by Lanyon and mercifully becoming Jekyll in death.

The final Hyde change almost ruined March’s professional career as Westmore made use of a mask attached to his face with liquid rubber directly applied to his skin. In removing the mask, Rose Hobart recalled it “took most of Freddie’s face off, too.” Though the make-up effect resulted in hospitalisation for the actor for three weeks, he was lucky to avoid any permanent disfigurement. In fact, in his acceptance speech when he won the Oscar in 1932, March paid tribute to Wally Westmore for his share of the startling portrayal March gave. On the night, his award was actually shared with Wallace Beery for The Champ. Beery received one vote less than March which under Academy rules qualified as a tie.

It is a shame that for his stunning directorial flair, Mamoulian wasn’t even nominated for Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nevertheless, March’s award is even more impressive when one considers the paucity of historical award recognition for work in horror films even to the present day. He was the first lead actor to garner such an achievement, and even allowing for the newness of the award system back then, in the decades since only two others have been similarly recognised (Kathy Bates for 1990’s Misery and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs in 1991). It seems that the genre is still unfairly regarded as lower-class when judging the merits of distinction in acting.

Sunday, 14 February 2016


The journey to the eventual film script for Frankenstein was a labyrinthine one. In 1823, dramatist Richard Brinsley Peake wrote the first dramatized version of Mary Shelley’s novel for the stage. Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein introduced plot and character detail changes to her work that were still present right through to the Universal film. 

Another connection that ties the fate of Frankenstein to Dracula in the twentieth century comes courtesy of Hamilton Deane, the theatre producer whose stage adaptation of the Stoker novel had done so much to bring it to future cinema fame. After that success, he looked for another property which he could tour around England on a double-bill with Dracula and commissioned Peggy Webley to adapt Frankenstein. This became an equal horror hit, and the duplication of the earlier formula was completed when John L. Balderston applied the same revisionary treatment for Broadway of this material in 1930 as he’d already done for Dean’s Dracula. Among his contributions to the developing mythology we know today were the introduction of a creation scene for the monster and the addition of Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz, who was mute. (It was only for the 1931 film that the creators decided he should speak so that Frankenstein had someone with whom he could share his plans!). Producer Horace Liveright, who was behind the Broadway run of Dracula, wanted to add his own stamp to the script, but before that complication could add to the mix the catastrophic stock market crash of 1929 cleaned him out. The Broadway run never happened and he finally sold the Frankenstein movie rights to Balderston and Webling who ultimately benefitted in a deal made with Universal.

The other similarity in the gestation of both horror films is the passionate commitment of Carl Laemmle Jr in pushing it through production. His enthusiasm for Universal making Frankenstein was as keen as for Dracula. For a man who had been literally gifted his post of Vice President of Production by his father as a 21st birthday present, Laemmle Jr showed great instincts in choosing commercial projects. Not only were these two highly successful, in fact vital, money-makers for the studio but he was also behind their seminal All Quiet On the Western Front.

Universal bought the film rights to Frankenstein for $20,000, giving Webley and Balderston 1% of the gross profits for cinema releases based on their work. 

Having only existed till now as an official Frankenstein film in a rushed silent short by the Edison Company in 1910, Life Without Soul (1915) and Albertini’s Italian version Il Monstro di Frankenstein in 1920, Italian Mary Shelley’s classic tale would now be galvanised into feature-length cinematic life in the sound era by an American studio who already had form in the genre. Robert Florey negotiated to write as well as direct the project in May 1931; meanwhile the studio had contracted Balderston to submit his own draft. Florey aimed to protect his position by insisting on a contract stating he was performing both duties on Frankenstein. This was granted by scenario editor Richard Schayer but Florey was too appeased to spot that the document didn’t specify the actual name of the film.

Florey wrote his own screenplay’s plot, enlisting Garret Fort to supply dialogue. Florey invented the plot point of transplanting the criminal abnormal brain into the creature, later extended in Francis Edwards Faragoh’s draft to being a replacement by Fritz for dropping a normal one. This would mollify critics by safely explaining away the creature’s homicidal actions.

Under Florey’s tenure as director, the role of Henry Frankenstein was originally earmarked for Bela Lugosi following his success in Dracula. He tested for all of the character’s scenes up to the ‘birth’ of the creature. However, Laemmle Jnr ordered that he be transferred to trying out instead for the monste, a part which Lugosi saw as degrading. His make-up featured clay-like skin and an enormous head prosthetic reminiscent of Paul Wegener as The Golem. Carl Laemmle Jr reported that seeing this footage made his father “laugh like a hyena”. According to stellar make-up artist Jack Pierce who famously crafted the creature’s iconic look, the fault lay with Lugosi who heavily influenced the design: “Lugosi thought his ideas were better than everybody’s”. Allegedly, the actor quit the film citing a desire to retain his self-professed romantic lead status – to be fair an equal case was his dissatisfaction with the script’s draft at this point, which as we’ve seen showed the creature as a rampaging soulless machine. Certainly, the final shooting script pitied the monster much more than the stage play source material. Ultimately Lugosi was to play the scientist’s creation - however this would be down the diminishing quality line of sequels in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The poor reception for Lugos’s screen test resulted in Florey being sacked as director.

To helm the project instead, Universal chose James Whale, a prestigious director they had under a five-year contract. Mounting stage productions became a passion of his whilst he was a POW in a German camp during World War One. After the war, he abandoned his work as a newspaper cartoonist to concentrate on a career in the theatre, proving his own mettle with the class material of R.C. Sheriff’s play and film of Journey’s End and the movie of Waterloo Bridge. Whale welcomed the challenge of working in the realms of the macabre, the script being “The strongest meat” of the offers made to him, and never shied away from a subject that was daring, controversial and new to him. This embrace of the unconventional echoed his private life in which, rarely and riskily for the period, he was openly gay.

To portray Henry, Whale followed his creative instinct and fought for Colin Clive, who’d played Stanhope to great acclaim in both Whale’s stage and film productions of Journey’s End. He respected Clive’s talent and his distinctive clipped tones, a vocal versatility “like a pipe organ…”The studio ideally wanted Leslie Howard (at least agreeing that something in the scientist suited a very British, cut-glass accented type that would continue through many incarnations) but Whale got his way. He had valuable experience in guiding Clive through the previous role’s intensity and suggested adding a measure of Stanhope’s simmering breakdown into the part in a letter to the actor prior to filming. Whale was careful to steer Clive toward balancing Henry Frankenstein’s excesses with a believable truth, finding different shadings to avoid running exclusively on a roaring, high-octane overdrive. He saw Henry as: “…an intensely sane person…at times rather fanatical…and in one or two scenes a little hysterical”. Even before filming, the director’s considered approach and integrity is evident and pays off tremendously in modulating Clive’s fierce energy and credibility even at the highest pitches of emotion. One of my favourite moments in Frankenstein is his subtle and amusing reaction to Dr. Waldman’s news that the creature has been given an abnormal brain. Henry ponders this coolly, his composure momentarily ruffled, glances at the doorway to the lab as if silently computing the odds of trouble and then airily dismisses any hint of setback.

Colin Clive (born Colin Glenn Clive-Greig in 1900) came from a distinguished military family. He was descended from ‘Clive of India’, the Commander-in-Chief of British India, Major General Robert Clive. Colin would later play Captain Johnstone in the 1935 film about his illustrious ancestor, Clive of India. How ironic that he portrayed notable army roles as an actor since he was training for a military career at Sandhurst when his horse fell, fracturing the young man’s knee. This ended his following of the family business as it were, so he switched careers into the theatre, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After stage repertory work, the huge critical and commercial success of Journey’s End was to make his and Whale’s careers, establishing him as a riveting talent especially in tortured roles. He would go on to appear in two more horror roles in Mad Love and reprising the young scientist in Bride of Frankenstein.

 Privately, Clive’s triumphs couldn’t allay his insecurity and the crippling inner tension of attempting to hide his homosexuality, which was still illegal in those times. Unable to conduct his sexuality with the same boldness as Whale, his conflicted inner life channelled into the seething sincerity of his performances but manifested itself more destructively in the chronic alcoholism which eventually claimed Clive’s life so tragically early in 1937.


Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in Forest Hill, Surrey in 1887 to a violent and abusive English father and an Indian mother who divorced Karloff’s father within 18 months of ‘Billy’ (her youngest child of nine) being born. Throughout his career, Karloff hid his ancestry, knowing that prevalent racism as well as racial typecasting would adversely affect his acting ambitions. Looking at early photos of him courtesy of Stephen Jacobs’ excellent biography Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, it’s hard to believe he was able to keep his dark, brooding Anglo-Indian looks a secret. He would explain this away later as the product of spending too much time in the sun!

After a somewhat uneven childhood - indulgence from his mother and bullying by his siblings - Billy dodged a life in the civil service into which most of his siblings fell. His passion was for acting, overshadowing his studies whilst at Uppingham public school and kindled by seeing his brother George in the profession (who later abandoned it for the more secure world of paper merchanting). Billy’s family tried in vain to use George’s change of heart to persuade him into forgetting the notion of an unstable career in the theatre, holding an intervention during which they cruelly belittled his looks and talent. Partly to escape this lack of support at home, Billy took advantage of the period’s welcoming of immigrants by Australia and Canada. The toss of a coin led him to plump for a Canadian adventure. He sailed to Montreal listing his profession as ‘farmer’ with no knowledge of either the profession or his new home country.

Although he had no firm plans, Billy could not be accused of being work-shy. He went from back-breaking farm work to real-estate brokering before spotting an advert by chance in a newspaper: the Jeanne Russell Players stock theatre company were looking for a character actor. He bluffed his way in and there began his grounding in arduous but solid technique as a repertory stage actor for various companies touring Canada. At one point, the turnover of productions he learned on the road was astounding – two plays a week for 53 weeks.

It was around this time circa 1911 that Billy Pratt became Boris Karloff, an important name transformation in horror history whose origin has never been definitively traced. Like many of Karloff’s anecdotes, he wove fantastical stories that were often founded more in entertainment value than strict truth. Whilst it’s true that Billy Pratt wouldn’t have the same marquee impact, Karloff claimed that: “The ‘Karloff’ comes from my mother’s family – there were some Russian ancestors - and the ‘Boris’ I took out of the air or something”. The most plausible explanation posited by Greg Nesteroff suggests the inspiration was a ‘Count Karloff’ in a Harold McGrath play that was staged in Canada two years before. Regardless, ‘Boris Karloff’ was to conjure up a usefully enigmatic aura for his heavy features and presence. Universal would exploit this to the hilt when marketing his films, going so far as to refer to him simply by the surname for extra publicity chills.

The all-important role of Frankenstein’s creation seemingly came by way of James Whale’s life partner, producer David Lewis, who had admired Karloff’s work as a vengeful convict in The Criminal Code on stage and screen.  By the time he was considered for this life-changing part, Karloff was already making a living as a Universal contract player, a veteran of 80 films varying in shades of ethnic villainy and the occasional good-guy role of varying sizes. Whale met Karloff and was captivated immediately by his cadaverous visage. Karloff recalled him remarking:“Your face has startling possibilities”.  His other physical attribute, a height of six feet would be a bonus, though in the shape of a rather thin physique which did not concern Whale as he knew the actor’s costume could be padded out to create the fear-inducing bulk of the monster. Crucially, what was within Karloff’s nature would make his monster a classic icon, more than simply the gross stuff of shock effects. Whale reflected later on the actor’s “queer penetrating personality”, and despite the painstaking metamorphosis of his face and body, underneath we feel pity for this shambling, awkward giant child, pushed rudely into the world, unwanted, trusting to a fault and hounded to death.

Karloff’s make-up by Jack Pierce followed consultations with Whale and his resulting design has never been bettered in portraying the composite creature (notable inferior attempts include Universal’s own sequels):

“I figured that Frankenstein, who was a scientist but no practising surgeon, would take the simplest surgical way. He would cut the top of the skull off straight across like a pot lid, hinge it, pop the brain in, and then clamp it on tight. That's the reason I decided to make the Monster's head square and flat like a shoe box and dig that big scar across his forehead with the metal clamps holding it together.”

Pierce initially stalled delivery of a screen test for three weeks so he could perfect his work. Once approved for shooting, every morning the actor would sit from 4 am till 8 am while Pierce began layering cotton and collodion solution onto his face to produce the operational scarring. Mortician’s wax fashioned the eyelids under which Karloff’s wounded, soulful eyes peer. Special molar fixtures were designed to reshape his jawline, and by sucking in his cheeks, cadaverousness was augmented by shading them. A blue-green greasepaint gave off a corpse-like greyness to the skin on monochrome film – and the finishing touch was the positioning of those iconic bolts to the sides of his neck as lightning-electricity inlet points.

In constructing Karloff’s remarkable full-body transformation, he was given a black suit whose colour firstly emphasised the pallor and details of his striking visage. It was double-quilted to fill out the actor’s slim frame and featured shortened sleeves to make the arms appear over-long.His fingernails were painted with black show-polish to simulate how the corpse’s blood would flow to the extremities.
   For his lower-half, steel struts were attached to his legs enabling the stiff, tottering gait and asphalt-spreader boots were worn that not only increased his height and ungainly stomp but allowed him to lean forward at an unnatural angle.

It’s easy for us to forget that Karloff’s Frankenstein monster was once totally unknown to the public – the character has so saturated global pop culture since the 1930s. Whale clearly understood the shocking impact that he must have upon being revealed to audiences for the first time. Artfully, the director staged Karloff’s entrance as a tease for maximum effect. At his master’s command he enters the scene backward and then turns slowly into the light so we can take time to savour his gloriously unsettling appearance. It is one of the greatest movie entrances of all time. In Karloff’s lumbering movements, his silent expressive eyes and hands pleading for compassion, he is a little frightened boy trapped inside an enormous skyscraper…for life.

The other principal cast members featured two returning from Dracula, namely Dwight Frye as the hunchback assistant Fritz (the role later immortalised as ‘Ygor’) and Edward Van Sloan who played Professor Waldman as well as giving an opening speech out of character that we will discuss shortly. Van Sloan was arguably something of a good-luck talisman for Universal as he appeared in the opening films of their first three horror franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein and then The Mummy (1932). Frye, despite his evident talent, had now become locked into typecasting as eccentric servant parts. By World War Two, he was reduced to working night shifts for Lockheed aircraft company and died in 1943, possibly induced by the strain of supporting his family whilst trying to stay connected with the business in local theatre productions. By then, his death certificate listed his job title as ‘Tool designer’. Fortunately we have his legacy in Frankenstein’s scenes between him and Clive; as master and servant they are sublime examples of teamwork, both actors matching each other in intensity of shared demonic purpose.

In the 1927 and 1930 theatre productions, the monster deserves that name by behaving as a violent brute rather than the sensitive, poetic soul who is turned malevolent by society’s awful treatment of him. The scientist’s lack of responsibility for his creation also intensifies into physical cruelty – he uses a whip and hot irons to dominate the creature, even ordering him to lie down and roll over like a submissive dog. Cunningly, in the film, this inhumane torturing is passed to Fritz, thus placing the creator in a more sympathetic light and amplifying the truly pathetic in Karloff’s moving and heartfelt performance.

John Boles had the dubious honour of portraying Victor Moritz, a newly-contrived character designed to drive an unnecessary wedge of soap-opera love triangle between Henry and his fiancé Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). He flourished in the era of talking pictures, his forte as a baritone in such famous operettas as the film of The Desert Song in 1929 for Warner Brothers. In Frankenstein, he comes across as an ill-at-ease tailor’s-dummy clone of Ronald Colman, blandly accompanying the heroics whilst pining ineffectually for Elizabeth. In the novel, the scientist Victor’s best friend is the breezy, optimistic Henry Clerval. For the Webling play onwards, his first name was exchanged with Moritz which for the scientist at least has a less imperious ring to it, one of a number of subtle alterations made to render him more sympathetic. 

Actress and dancer Mae Clarke had turned an uncredited gangster’s moll famously receiving a half grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) to two lead roles before the year was out. Her dancer-turned-prostitute in the hugely popular Waterloo Bridge so captivated Whale that he insisted on her for Elizabeth in Frankenstein. (The studio had considered the young Bette Davis for the part but Carl Laemmle did not find her sexy enough). Writer Anita Loos had also found Clarke enchanting; she was the inspiration for singer Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Amongst the supporting cast, Frederick Kerr was also transplanted from Waterloo Bridge.  Whale rated highly this veteran of fifty years in the theatre – “He’s an asset to any picture” – and as Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father, he makes a splendidly Colonial old buffer of comic relief, at times rambling away in a quasi-improvisatory style. Lionel Belmore playing the Burgomaster came back for the sequels Son of and Ghost of Frankenstein; so did Michael Mark, the father of the drowned child, who also pops up in House of Frankenstein.

The film opens with a speech by Edward Van Sloan as himself before a front-cloth as if making an announcement to a theatre audience. This was filmed sometime after production and was intended to pacify religious fundamentalist groups’ objections to Frankenstein’s controversial ‘God complex’. The studio had already fallen foul of regional censorings of such lines as his “In the name of God” and “Now I know how it feels to be God!” and when re-submitting the film in the more conservative climate of the Production Code for its 1937 U.S. re-release this line was cut out of all distributed prints. Other cuts would include minor surgery to Fritz’s goading of the creature, the removal of Henry’s hypodermic injection into his back and eliminating the entirety of Karloff drowning the little girl, which we will examine.

The music is by Bernhard Kaun whose score only accompanies the beginning and end of the film. Within a few years it would be standard practise for a film to be under-scored throughout.
In the credits there is the notable identity (or lack) of the actor playing the Monster as simply “?”. This is not just for the purposes of marketing mystique but playfully harks back to the 1823 stage version which reversed the mystery billing by naming the actor T.P. Cooke but labelling his role as ‘_____’.

Kenneth Strickfaden’s famously elaborate design for Frankenstein’s laboratory equipment was the product of his life-long fascination with gadgetry of all kinds. Beginning his career as an electrician, he amassed a huge quantity of parts collected from automobiles, aircraft and other sources. The cornucopia he constructed for the lab looked dauntingly impressive and wonderfully incomprehensible. Even so, the lightning sparks given off during the monster’s creation were still enough to make Karloff apprehensive as he lay prostrate under the technicians’ handiwork high up on the platform. (Me Brooks would request him personally to come out of retirement to create his wonderful workshop for 1974’s Young Frankenstein).
Whale paid as much attention to selling the creation scene to audiences as he did to every other aspect of the film, understanding that without it, vital credibility would affect their willing suspension of disbelief and investment in the characters.

Karloff got along well with his director, only differing in point of view when it came to handling the controversial scene in which the creature drowns the little girl (Marilyn Harris) by accident. Karloff felt he should treat her innocently like the delicate flowers he had been tossing into the river, whereas Whale saw this as a clumsy and brutal act, albeit unintentional. Either way, the resulting scene both horrifies us and earns sympathy for the unwitting child-like monster, unaware of the tragic consequences he has now set in motion – hence the censor’s unease over it. It seems the censored version before restoration may have increased the scene’s unpleasantness rather than tempered it as it cut just at the point where the creature reaches out for the girl, suggesting the even more awful possibility of child rape.

The Frankensteins’ wedding day festivities, like much of the shoot, was filmed on the Universal back lot. The company kept a fully-intact European market-place set for many years until it was burnt down. The staged scene was populated with genuine Austrian musicians and dancers, which unwittingly adds to some confusion over just what period and location we are supposed to be in. Characters have German-sounding names and often costumes befitting the time of Shelley’s novel and yet the principal actors sport English or modern American accents and are sharply dressed from the same era as the film-making. This clash of styles is jarringly evident during the man-hunt for the creature – suddenly Frankenstein’s people leading the olde worlde villagers resemble time-warped 1930s Warner Brothers gangsters.

Originally the climactic fire consumes the windmill, creature and Frankenstein together, however the studio realised they had a budding franchisable hit, so Whale and his scenario editor invented the survival epilogue that shows the Baron and his staff discussing his son’s recovery while Henry has Elizabeth at his bedside in the background. Because of Kerr’s positioning and soft focus through the doorway, we cannot be sure if Mae Clarke was in the scene. Another actor definitely doubled Clive who’d already returned to Europe by now. While we’re on the subject of re-appearances, fans of Kerr’s welcome dash of relish will be pleased to see him again as he vanishes mysteriously during the wedding scenes.

Let’s not forget also that in the novel, Henry’s fiancé herself does not survive. Elizabeth is strangled by the monster on their wedding night. The Peggy Webley play allowed Elizabeth to live as well, but further complicated matters by having the creature fall in love with her. Any possibility of this muddying the murky waters is mercifully cancelled out when in that version he throws himself suicidally from a cliff-top at the end.

The film was budgeted at $262,000 for a 32-day shoot, finally coming in five days over schedule at a final cost of $292,000. To boost publicity for Frankenstein’s release, the studio pulled out all the stops, using the kind of sideshow gimmicks producer William Castle would notoriously use in promoting his films in the 1950s – offering free nerve tonic in cinema foyers as well as stationing nurses and ambulances on hand in case of overcome audience members. There was no need; Frankenstein was an enormous hit, and the box-office from this and Dracula between them not only confidently began the horror movie genre that would make Universal world famous, they also rescued the studio from debts of $2.2m accrued by 1930. Azmid the glowing reviews, Film Players Herald praised Karloff’s affecting subtlety : “If Universal’s production of Frankenstein does nothing else, it establishes Boris Karloff as the one important candidate who has arisen for the mantle of Lon Chaney.”

Ultimately Boris Karloff enjoyed a happy association with the creature that made him famous over the following decades. Despite a punishing schedule of sixteen-hour days due to the make-up application (about which Karloff had to officially complain to the Academy) he was eternally grateful for the sewn-together corpse who had revived them both to stardom. “God bless the old boy. Without him, I’d have been nowhere”. Though he was initially stifled by increasingly restrictive sequels, unlike Lugosi he avoided the temptation of endless repetition of the part into self-parody. He refused to do more than two sequels in the role, re-teaming with Whale for Bride of Frankenstein (as well as The Old Dark House) increasing his range in other horror projects sufficiently to allow him to play the scientist in House of Frankenstein for Universal to no ill effect career-wise. Lugosi had done the same but could not resist recycling his signature Dracula in many touring stage productions, while complaining of the limitations that prevented him from fulfilling the matinee-idol status he’d enjoyed back in Hungary. Karloff seemed altogether more at peace with his lot as a ‘horror actor’ type and would go on to a long and lucrative career. “God bless the old boy. Without him, I’d have been nowhere”.

After finishing Frankenstein, before leaving the genre James Whale would direct three more successful horror pictures for Universal culminating in the sequel Bride of Frankenstein that re-teamed him with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff.