Saturday, 30 April 2016
“I will come back, d’you hear? I will come back…to kill! ”
In the period following The Mummy’s release, Boris Karloff felt he needed a break from being cooped up in studio sets. He longed for the open air, in particular that of England – he’d been away for almost 25 years and wanted to see the old homeland again. As it happened, his wish to return home was granted, albeit for work rather than rest. Gaumont-British in the U.K. asked Universal to loan him to them for their horror film called The Ghoul. The timing couldn’t have been better. In March 1933, the American studio was still suffering greatly from the depletion of audiences caused by the Depression, losing nearly two million dollars the previous year. Other companies such as Fox, Paramount and Warners fared even worse. That month, the Producer’s Association instituted a 50% pay cut to most studio staff to last eight weeks. Because of his deal with the British, Karloff escaped this. He was also lucky to leave the country with any cash– a public panic run had closed all the banks. He and his wife made their first ever flight equipped with a big bag of change, the proceeds from the desperate company having to break into their own payphones to supply him.
A more luxurious trip awaited them on the S.S. Paris, and once in London, sumptuous rooms in the Dorchester hotel before Karloff reported to Lime Grove Studio to begin filming The Ghoul. It’s a handsomely-mounted tale, with atmospheric echoes of The Old Dark House and some tasty Egyptology references to remind us of The Mummy, high production values and design as well as a strong supporting cast.
The main premise is instigated by Karloff’s Professor Morlant, an Egyptologist whose passion has been corrupted into an all-consuming obsession with the promise of eternal life. He is dying, so intensifying his greed to such a pitch that he has stolen a priceless jewel, known as the Eternal Light, from the Egyptians as it forms a vital centre-piece in his planned occult ceremony. He worships the god Anubis – yes, the same one that blasted his character into kingdom come at the end of The Mummy – (will he never learn?). Morlant believes that if he is buried with the trinket, Anubis will appear before him during a full moon at 1 a.m. accept the jewel, closing his holy hand around it and open to Morlant: “the gates of immortality”.
Karloff plays his opening death-bed scenes with a fierce believable life-force that will stop at nothing to live on. His make-up, courtesy of Heinrich Heitfeld, emphasises the solemnity and weight of the actor’s features, as befitting a character who probably spent an unhealthy amount of time locked away in dark private contemplation. He possesses a heavy mono-brow as well as some unsightly scarring to the cheeks, which asks questions of where else he had been dabbling unwisely in pursuit of his evil ambition.
Although Karloff’s screen time is limited in The Ghoul, somewhat of an extended cameo really, his presence looms over proceedings while the heavy lifting is conveyed by an excellent and personable supporting cast of energy and flavour. Ernest Thesiger is reunited with Karloff from The Old Dark House (and most famously would collaborate on 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein) as his butler Laing, channelling a ripe Scottish brogue and dour disapproval reminiscent of John Laurie’s doom-bringer Frazer in Dad’s Army. “A man will na’ find peace who robs his heirs”, he comments on Morlant’s conniving. There’s a cinema debut from a young Ralph Richardson as the seemingly mild vicar Nigel Hartley. Richardson was hot from becoming the prestigious Old Vic theatre’s new leading man at this point in his career.
For those who need romance as part of the formula in old horror films (and there’s not much love for them at this keyboard), we have two developing ones here, both of which are off-kilter enough not to outstay their welcome. Betty and Ralph (the spirited Dorothy Hyson and suave Anthony Bushell) are two heirs to the Professor’s fortune who journey together to the will reading. They start off with a prickly relationship that soon softens, allowing Betty’s sassiness and Ralph’s heroic side to emerge.
The other, played more for entertaining comic relief is between Arabic servant Aga Ben Dragore, charged with claiming back the Eternal Light, and Betty’s cockney friend Miss Kaney. They play on an exotic culture clash where Harold Huth’s Dragore fakes the grandeur of a desert Sheikh to impress her - even more amusing when you consider the actor was actually from Huddersfield. Kathleen Harrison as Kaney breathlessly swallows every word of his stereotype with feather-brained plebeian charm. The punishment she would receive as one of his harem inspires more kinky fantasy for her than fear: “…Stripped to the waist and lashed for miles across the Sahara”. Harrison made her name playing this type of guileless, earthy Londoner, most notably as Mrs Huggett in the three late ‘40s Huggets series of family comedies – and made it to the impressive age of 103. Kaney is so besotted by Dragore’s fezzed faux Valentino-isms that she doesn’t see the revived Karloff about to throttle her from behind at the window while she waves merrily to Dragore. Comically, Morlant is so confused by her eccentric manner that he slopes off in search of a more deserving victim. Kaney later reveals a steel core under her fluffiness when Dragore’ s spell breaks and she threatens to dump the vital jewel down the well in spite of him.
The Egyptian-style tomb under Morland’s house is part of a marvellous production design incorporating the solid imposing door and hieroglyphic-lined walls leading to his sarcophagus. The whole house has an aura of creeping dread and benefits from gothic touches like the rough stone internal walls and ornamental figure-heads going up the staircase. The shadowy oppressive atmosphere is helped immeasurably by the work of Austrian cinematographer Günther Krampf, who’d already shot the Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu as well as The Hands of Orlac amongst others. He made six films for Gaumont-British before returning to Germany, till his possible Jewish heritage made living under Nazi rule unsustainable. He ultimately spent the rest of his life in Britain.
As Morlant gets ready to receive Anubis’s gift of ever-lasting life, conflict surfaces amongst the factions in the house trying to seize the jewel for themselves. Even Rev. Hartley’s affable exterior cannot conceal a little uncharitableness: “Not a very courageous person, our foreign friend”, he observes of Dragore.
There’s actually some significant Christian religious symbolism in The Ghoul. As Morlant rises from the tomb, it’s hard not to draw a parallel with Jesus’s resurrection. Equally strong is the Christ-like humility with which he bares his chest in supplication before his god in preparation for ritually stabbing himself with a sword. Although Morlant craves a status beyond mere mortals, even in his hubris he recognises that he is a mere servant compared to the true immortals he venerates. His ceremonial death here is powerfully evoked in how Karloff surrenders himself with passion to the vulnerability of the moment. As he collapses, his fatal folly completed, he witnesses Anubis’s statue hand close its fingers around the jewel. We then discover that the hand belongs to Hartley, hiding himself to capture the trinket. The man of the cloth is a master criminal wanting the Emerald Light for himself - by any means necessary. As all megalomaniac plans do, it ultimately consumes him – in a tomb fire from which Ralph emerges, heroically carrying Betty.
The Ghoul is satisfying and all the more so as one of the earliest British horror films. It performed well in the UK but was not a hit in America. For decades after release, the film vanished presumed lost for ever until a poor quality print was found in 1969. Far better was the original camera negative that was located by luck in a disused old vault at Shepperton Studios in the 1980s – a tomb excavation of great non-Egyptian value for horror fans. This pristine version is now available to be enjoyed on DVD and Bluray.
Thursday, 28 April 2016
“Somebody’s gonna get hurt around here with this experimentin’…“
In the 1930s it wasn’t just the Poverty Row studios that gave us B-picture horror clunkers. Columbia released this fugazi of a gem (aka He Lived to Kill) starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Ben Stoloff before they achieved major status. It’s amusingly bad with a plot resolution straight out of the Scooby-Doo play-book, but rattles along at a good pace as long as you don’t step on the evident cracks. Night of Terror hinges rustily on the combined tropes of ‘mad-man on the loose’ with a Cat and the Canary-style war of attrition as relatives feuding over a will are bumped off one by one – and mixes them with the binding agent of a (very) little science for good measure.
The film begins with that peculiarly pointless device of showing us clips of each principal cast member in turn, yet titling them with their character name instead of their stage name - to what purpose? In a sense, the mystery has already begun…
A maniac serial-killer is at large in America, leaving newspaper-clippings pinned to his victims’ bodies. For some reason, he focuses his spree on the Rinehart Mansion where wealthy head of the family Richard Rinehart (Tully Marshall) watches over his nephew Dr Arthur Hornsby (George Meeker) as he perfects a laboratory potion that will enable a human to live for extended periods of time without oxygen. He will later prove this by allowing himself to be buried alive. Marshall already had form in this horror sub-genre, having played the lawyer in 1927’s The Cat and the Canary. Meeker was also well established at playing gloomy, unlucky in love wimps. Here he demonstrates this by being so wrapped up in his test-tubes that he isn’t aware his fiancé Mary (Sally Blane) is none-too-convincingly fending off the attentions of wise-guy newshound Tom Hartley, played by Wallace Ford. She protests too much that she is not interested in the crude scoop-hunter, while he reveals they’ve just been to the movies together. Later on, she doesn’t exactly tear herself away from him when he grabs her for an impulsive snog either.
Ford’s real-life adventures were worthy of a feature himself. Born Samuel Jones Grundy (or Grundy Jones), he was placed into a Dr Barnardo’s orphanage in Bolton, Lancashire at the age of three. Four years later, he was packed off to Canada as part of a government drive to populate Empire farming families in the territory with home-grown adoptees. Sadly, he was one of the 100,000-plus kids unlucky enough to be subjected to conditions of Dickensian cruelty. After a horrendous period of fleeing and forced resettlement totalling 17 times, he escaped the cycle to find a better home and an introduction to showbiz on the road with the vaudeville troupe the Winnipeg Kiddies. At the age of 16, Samuel and a pal hitched their way aboard trains to make their fortune in America. Their grand plans were marred by tragedy however when his friend was killed by a train, prompting Samuel to take his name of Wallace Ford, partly as a tribute and also to erase his awful past. Aside from his good-hearted Phroso in Freaks (1932), Ford went on to a long career including two more of Universal’s re-activated franchise sequels The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb. He also enjoyed the happy ending of a reunion with his long-lost mother in England after a life-time of believing he was an orphan.
Back in the lab, the mood emanating from Arthur is less rosy. It’s oddly fitting that he’s preparing to be interred since Meeker seems to recite his lines as a dreary, monotonous eulogy. Surely he should be excited on the verge of a new scientific break-through? With Lionel Atwill unavailable for a mad show-boating aria, we must look elsewhere for energy in this house.
Fortunately, for those who like their dialogue delivered with impact, enter Bela Lugosi, the master of delivering ‘portentous force’ whether you like it or not. He is Degar the butler, although you’d be forgiven for guessing him as an Indian Swami guest - or Sultan as the detective later labels him - with his tunic, turban and exotic hooped ear-ring. Lugosi was mired in such personal debt when he made Night of Terror that to make extra money he pulled double-duty on this at night whilst filming as General Petronovich in the W.C. Fields comedy International House by day. This movie certainly does him no artistic favours; he simply veers between the modes of either oppressive hypnotic stare or a pained grimace of wholly understandable private mournfulness.
Degar is something of a double-act partnered with Sika, (Mary Frey), the darkly Latin-American maid who is given to Cassandra-like premonitions of doom. “Death is very close…” Together they pronounce continual warnings to the family in no uncertain terms. Degar dismisses newspaper contents as: “Nothing but…murrr-der!” amongst other creepy pearls of glowering wisdom.
Homicide is indeed very close. Richard Rinehart is murdered off-screen, emitting the discomforting groan of someone passing a troublesome stool more than passing away. We then begin to assemble the suspects in the drawing room, as it were. Firstly, there is the elusive, grotesquely ugly Maniac himself - snaggle-toothed and broad-brimmed of hat. We can rule out Tom and Mary as they have the alibi of a chauffeur- driven return to the house whilst a Lovers’ Lane couple were being murdered. Equally, we can cancel out the chauffeur himself, Martin, (Oscar Smith), a feat the actor may wish to have had extended to the entire film in a sense as, despite a sizeable part, he is clearly only there to inherit the ‘lawdy lawd-able’ dumb black stereotype mantle from Willie Best in 1932’s The Monster Walks. (See earlier review). Smith is required to play the wide-eyed coward and with a speech-pattern straight off the southern plantation. Ironically, in spite of such relegation, he displays the most common sense of any of the characters. Upon discovering that in Rinehart’s will, each surviving heir inherits the shares of the others, he’d rather be disinherited from his $100 a week inheritance that is paid “As long as I live”. It’s not only Martin that is the victim of racism. The enigmatic Degar and Sika are twice referred to as “heathens” for the presumed impertinence of being foreign. Could they be guilty, especially as Lugosi pauses to ponder the possibilities in the will for their own benefit?
Our suspicions are meant to fall on the vulture pair of relatives who’ve suddenly arrived to claim their shares. John and Sarah Rinehart (Bryant Washburn and Gertrude Michael) resent the equal parity given to the servants in the will. This now becomes a fun zero-sum game as one by one the bodies pile up, meaning Tom is repeatedly on the ‘phone calling his updated copy through to the newspaper’s night desk every time.
As the cast are bumped off, more human firewood turns up for the bonfire. The cops arrive, led by Matt McHugh, one of those Hollywood detectives who are amusingly interchangeable with unsavoury mobsters. (It takes one to catch one?). Also now on hand are a couple of professorial beards from the committee to witness Arthur’s scientific experiment. Yes, finally he’s ready to prove his amazing life-serum’s properties by having himself buried and rejuvenated by it - with all the enthusiasm of a man reading out a Nigerian spam email. Arthur entrusts Degar with the only key to the drug cabinet, impressing on him that they wait eight hours till 5 a.m. before administering it. This begs the question ‘How will they give him the serum in his grave without letting in oxygen that negates the whole point of the experiment?’ Well, it’s all mind over matter really. Once you apply a mind to this script, it ceases to matter.
John Rinehart is not waiting around. He appears to incriminate himself by pilfering the key from the dozing Degar, but is fatally stabbed by a shadowy knife-wielding figure. Martin once more shows the smart instinct for self-preservation everyone else lacks: “I don’t care where you put me as long as you put me next to a door.” I know the feeling.
The plot of Night of Terror shrinks like a slug under the salt of close examination but you have to admit it never stops moving. The occupants decide to hold a séance led by Sika, much to the objections of Degar. Sadly, she checks out with a scream whilst trying to contact her old master on the astral plane.
The group opts to revive Arthur early. Listen out for the esteemed professor who tells the detective that the serum cabinet is “In the lavatory”. The pace now moves into high gear. Degar is forced to open the cabinet, yet sneakily stalls for time by drugging the supervising cop with “An oriental cigarette”- high gear of a different sort.
Lo and behold, we discover a secret tunnel from the grave used by Arthur, the real criminal, who employed the Maniac (apparently shot dead and never explained as a character) in his dastardly plan to liquidate all his rivals to the Rinehart fortune. His uncle Richard was also dispatched because he allegedly had rumbled that Arthur’s wonder-drug was bogus. It’s a refreshing change to see Lugosi in something of a rare heroic vein, holding the culprit who would have got away with it if not for those meddling er…kids.
Speaking of rare, Night of Terror is extremely hard to find. I was lucky to trace a private owner's copy, which unfortunately cuts just before Edwin Maxwell as the Maniac actually rises from his dead place to threaten the audience with dire consequences: “...If you dare tell anyone how this picture ends”. He needn’t go to all that trouble. Anyone who recommends this to a friend at all will regret it – unless it’s for a so-bad-it’s good laugh.
Tuesday, 26 April 2016
In 1933, Universal released the murder-mystery film Secret of the Blue Room. For the most part it’s a pretty average potboiler, which is a shame as it starts out with a promising premise, but then is wrapped up with the lamest of conclusions. Based on the 1932 German film Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, it was later given two remakes. Murder in the Blue Room, the 1944 version, became a comedy with songs, which is apt as you certainly can’t take this plot seriously.
Basically, it centres around three suitors to Irene, the comely 21-year old daughter of wealthy Robert Von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill, who’s given very little else of substance to do other than exposition). Irene is played by Gloria Stuart whose longevity of career I covered in The Old Dark House review of 1/4/2016). The trio of hopefuls are Tommy played by William Janney, Onslow Stevens’s Frank (later Dr Edlemann in House of Dracula) and Walter – Paul Lukas who won an Oscar in 1943 opposite Bette Davis in Watch on the Rhine. Frank is a go-getting reporter always on the lookout for the big scoop and Walter is a suave Hungarian-accented Naval officer. (You can tell this as he spends the entire film wearing his naval uniform even though he’s off-duty).
Tommy, however, is an insufferably wet little dweeb. He declares his undying love for Irene on her 21st birthday in exactly the kind of face-palmingly desperate manner that no self-respecting woman would find attractive. She has the grace to humour him, but for us there’s only so much tiresome ‘Aw, you wouldn’t want to be with someone like me’ fishing that the viewer can take. Fortunately, he presents his own solution: a wager to prove he has the necessary courage to be worthy of her. The three men will spend a night each in the family mansion’s notorious Blue Room. Von Helldorf has reluctantly shared the grisly history of the room, which so far has mysteriously claimed the lives of his sister, who inextricably fell out of its window into the moat, his brother who died of a gun-shot wound there from a weapon never recovered, and a curious detective – and we all know what curiosity did to the cat. All the victim occupants’ lives are claimed at 1a.m. “This is better than any story I could write” says Frank, glumly. He needn’t be so hard on himself - he hasn’t seen the rest of the film.
Tommy is the first to take the bet, and Irene demonstrates a peculiar way of showing her admiration for how far he will go for her: “Thank goodness I can be a coward with a clear conscience”. Thanks for that. No wonder he vanishes. When it’s Frank’s turn, he manages to get shot off-screen while sitting at the piano. As the body-count rises, Von Helldorf is strangely reluctant to bring in the police. Nevertheless, in comes Commissioner Forster, (Edward Arnold). He subjects the household to a grindingly sluggish third-act interrogation that kills the pace. Amongst the suspects, we get a better sense of the gruff, furtive butler Paul (Robert Barrat) and Mary (Elizabeth Patterson), the caustic and sneaky housekeeper who is all too keen to pin the murders on him. Von Helldorf seems to earn our allegiance by confessing to the cops that his brother is actually alive and there’s a family secret that Irene is actually his brother’s daughter and not Von Helldorf’s. This is either crucial or irrelevant to what happens next. Guess which one?
Mercifully, Forster’s inquiries turn from Prozac to pro-active. He teams up with Walter to fool the killer into revealing himself and the sliding wall compartment he used to enter and murder his victims. Would you believe it was Tommy all along!! Me neither. It’s utter bullshit. Supposedly, he heard about the Blue Room’s history and simply decided to use it as a convenient setting to dispatch his love-rivals. Leaving aside our incredulity at this ridiculous revelation, we never get an explanation as to who killed Von Helldorf’s sister or the detective. Walter closes the double-doors on the case, and the closing sight of the Universal airplane chugging round the globe to the familiar strains of Swan Lake (used for all their horror film themes at this point) leaves us none the wiser…
Monday, 25 April 2016
Lionel Atwill’s developing identity as Hollywood’s locum mad doctor had plenty of scope to be channelled into other situations than the laboratory. His insane, all-obliterating super-villain could be plugged into any plot anywhere, given enough motivation and vision. As Bill Hicks once said about alcoholism, all it takes is the right bar, the right friends and the right girl. In Murders in the Zoo, Atwill swaps scrubs for safari-suits as Eric Gorman, a millionaire philanthropist and big-game hunter who snares more than just wild animals for sport. He is terrifyingly in tune with his animal instincts, the blue touch-paper of uncontrollable jealousy constantly lit by his ‘girl’ to murderous ends. We know this right from the start, deep in the Indian jungle, where he hog-ties a fellow American to teach him a lesson. “And you will never kiss another man’s wife!” Gorman asserts, with all the confidence of having sewn up the victim’s mouth for us to witness in a brutally vivid close-up. You couldn’t blame the poor sap for wanting her - after all, Evelyn is played by the lovely Kathleen Burke, alias Lota the sultry ‘Panther Woman’ from Island of lost Souls (see my review dated 6/4).
Part of the fun here is how director A. Edward Sutherland relishes every grisly example of Gorman’s Reaper-like swathe through his perceived love rivals – especially when you consider his background was steeped in high-profile comedy. Sutherland was one of the original Keystone Kops, the Sennett Studio’s spectacularly inept sight-gag force of the silent era. Charlie Chaplin directed him in A Woman of Paris, mentoring him into becoming a director himself, which led to his work with W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy (later in The Flying Deuces) and Abbott and Costello.
Not that there isn’t plenty of head-room for amusing comedy in Murders in the Zoo, courtesy of Charlie Ruggles’ booze-hound press agent Peter Yates. He functions as a kind of sozzled everyman, reacting with increasing alcoholic bemusement to the absurdity around him. Ruggles enjoyed a hugely prolific career, specialising in comic relief roles across almost 100 features, most notably Bringing up Baby and his series with Mary Boland. In fact, his light-hearted persona was strong enough to headline his own sitcom, The Ruggles and a recurring guest spot in The Beverley Hillbillies. As Yates, he blags his way into marketing the Municipal Zoo, for whom Gorman has been capturing wild animals, assuring the boss that he has been on the wagon “for two days and three weeks”. He’s as shocked as anyone else that his ideas have any merit, and, when not being terrified by the wild-life, constantly puts his foot in it with amusing Freudian and social faux-pas. After suggesting a glorified society Chimps’ Tea Party to gain the zoo media exposure, he invites the high-class banqueters to “Put on the feed-bag – I mean partake of the refreshments”.
Gorman meanwhile lets us in to his Darwinian world view early, rather than waiting for a climactic parting-shot rant. He sees himself reflected in the primal instincts of animals: “Their honesty. Their simplicity. Their primitive emotions. They love. They hate. They kill!” (Sam Peckinpah might have cheered at this). He sees the upcoming meal as a chance to dispatch smooth playboy Roger Hewitt (John Lodge) who genuinely has been plotting to run away with Evelyn since they met on the cruise ship home from India. “I can promise you a really unusual evening”, Atwill tells Hewitt with elegantly evil restraint, letting the audience in like Richard III to his machinations. Subtle venom like this is later fatally injected into Hewitt’s leg at the banquet. Two-nil to Gorman.
The hunter though has reckoned without a worthy opponent – and this appears in the novel sight of Randolph Scott as Dr Woodford. He is an undeniable novelty in a modern urban setting. Although cast in all types of genres, sixty-percent of Scott’s 100-plus movie roles were in westerns. (His status as a legendary oater is even name-checked with show-stopping, quasi-religious fervour in Mel Brooks’ affectionate parody Blazing Saddles). Though he was at home on the range, he reveals he is no cowboy in the laboratory. Indignant at the suggestion that Hewitt’s death was caused by his Green Mamba, Sheriff – I mean Dr Woodford discovers the fang-width of the bite on Hewitt is too wide to have been from his snake.
Clearly, someone has introduced a private mamba’s bill into the proceedings. This we already knew by virtue of Evelyn’s snooping. She finds a venomous artificial snake head in Gorman’s desk drawer. Poison pen letters indeed. Gorman catches her in the act, causing her to spill the beans on her now-thwarted plans to leave him for her lover. This scene is a macabre treat for Atwill fans. His reaction is wonderfully malignant and unexpected. No anger, no recrimination. Instead, he perversely ‘woos’ her with soft mocking cruelty, seizing and pawing at her sadistically, re-framing her repulsion as though it were passion for him. It is electrifying and bubbles with awful undercurrents as to how he must have handled her in private. Sadly, her only escape is as alligator food, feasted upon in ghoulish, water-lashing close-ups by Sutherland.
Marshall Woodford (sorry, I can’t help it) saves the day when he and Atwill take their places for the obligatory tussle in the lab, but this is one horse Gorman cannot tame. His trusty venom is no match for a nick-of-time anti-toxin administered to Woodford by his pardner, the smoky-voiced and beguilingly sunny Gail Patrick. Gorman’s suave composure at last deserts him and after releasing all the animals on the run, it rather aptly remains for a friendly Boa Constrictor to get up close and personal with him…
Murders in the Zoo feels more like a second-string programmer than a main feature, yet it’s highly entertaining, not least in the dextrous balancing act by Sutherland between laughs and horror, making a fine show-case for Charlie Ruggles and Lionel Atwill.
Saturday, 23 April 2016
Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always associated waxwork figures with frissons of horror. One of my most vivid childhood horror experiences was visiting the old Osborne-Smith Wax Museum on the Isle of Wight. Something about the frozen images of life-like humans from history sends shivers down the spine, even those depicting people engaged in harmless activities. They are preserved for ever, suspended in time, merely statues – and yet didn’t I see it move, breathe? For some, the fear they inspire is as deep-rooted and inexplicable as coulrophobia. For me, the ‘blame’ can be traced back to the wonderful horror films made by Hollywood’s Golden Age and I thank them for the extra dimension of pleasurable fear that played tricks on my imagination and that of many others. Long before Doctor Who gave us the stuff of nightmares with the wonderful cold stone chills of the Weeping Angels, film-makers seduced us with warm wax.
The creatives behind the successful Doctor X in 1932 reteamed for the following year’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, a horror tale that developed the potential evil of wax humans first shown on screen in 1924’s silent feature Waxworks (see my review here dated 8/1). A welcome reuniting it was, combining among others the confidence of director Michael Curtiz and actors Lionel Atwill and the emerging Scream Queen Fay Wray (warming up for her vocal folds for her star-making role in King Kong) – all handsomely presented once again in glorious Technicolor. Sadly, this was to be the swan-song for this format of two-colour films for a while. The technique had proved expensive, and too many movies had been made without enough quality control, leading to audiences and critics complaining of an unreality about it. This film is a show-case for what the process could achieve, largely thanks to the art design of Anton Grot and the cinematography of Ray Rennahan, also brought back from Doctor X. Like its predecessor, the sumptuous colouring of Wax Museum adds a modern freshness and shows off the creamy skin tones of the wax models to luscious effect, one that is crucial in selling the story idea of their incredible ‘realism’.
Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson based their script on the 1932 short story ‘The Wax Museum’ by Charles Spencer Beldon. Curtiz demonstrates once more his sure handling of actors. There’s not a duff note in the performances and the pacing is well-maintained. We are introduced almost immediately to Atwill as Ivan Igor, celebrated sculptor and part-owner of a 1920s London wax museum. The gentle coiffuring of his hair and trimmed beard is nicely reminiscent of a neater Vincent Van Gogh, a suave, aristocratic look that seemed to inspire the real-life Fine Arts expert Vincent Price in his 1953 remake House of Wax). Atwill also subtly alters his accent to what I believe is Hungarian. His gently rolling ‘r’ sounds match those of Curtiz, himself a native Hungarian, and he occasionally mis-stresses syllables. As a voice artist myself, I appreciate his reigning back on what could otherwise have been a fruity and ruinously distracting stereotype.
Igor is a passionate artist, yet with enough modesty to be humbly gratified by the patronage of a friend and a potential investor he shows around, who volunteers to recommend his amazingly lifelike works to the Royal Academy before they leave. He has lovingly sculpted figures from history and the arts such as Voltaire, Joan of Arc and his masterpiece, Marie Anotinette – using wax rather than stone to more faithfully reproduce their human warmth. The glow of his visitors’ flattery is soon muted though by the sudden appearance of Igor’s business partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), who delivers the bad news that they are financially bankrupt, suggests that torching the museum for the insurance money is the best solution and sets light to the place without waiting for agreement. They fight madly but to no avail for Igor, who is knocked unconscious and locked into the museum by the fleeing Worth, while his beloved wax ‘children’ melt tragically around him….
Moving forward to 1993 New York and the champagne cracks open to see in a New Year. Here the pace really kicks in, amidst the hustle of a convincing ‘city that never sleeps’. From here, Curtiz deftly handles a switch in tone and genre akin to Doctor X with the wise-cracking reporter Florence Dempsey desperate for a story to save her from being fired by her editor Jim played by Frank McHugh. Theirs is a fiery, classic newspaper movie relationship and their dynamic exchanges have all the verve and machine-gun rat-a-tat of His Girl Friday. Farrell made a name for herself as the dame with urban attitude in many films, leading to her own series as a similarly bolshy newshound Torchy Blane later in the decade.
Igor has resurfaced in the city, albeit wheel-chair bound and without the ability to sculpt with fire-scarred hands. He prepares for the grand opening of the revived London Wax Museum, created using assistants who work to his painstaking designs. At the same time, Florence‘s nose for a story leads her to suspect that something doesn’t sit right in the presumed suicide of model Joan Gale, whose corpse is secretly stolen from the morgue by a disfigured man. Florence’s flat-mate Charlotte (Fay Wray) is a link to the museum, as her boyfriend Ralph (Allen Vincent) works there for Igor. Working whatever connection she can like a good reporter, Florence sneaks into the museum, her intuition expressed in gangster-moll terms: “There’s something cock-eyed about that joint”. She is stunned by the similarity between Gale and a model of Joan of Arc. She isn’t the only one transfixed by life seemingly imitating art – Igor spots Charlotte and is transfixed by her beauty, a dead-ringer for his beloved Marie Antoinette. This unhealthy fascination, if we hadn’t suspected it already, leads us to conclude Igor has a ghoulish trade secret for achieving his uncannily life-like mannequins. He’s also involved in an underworld network of ne’er-do-wells that facilitates his work including drug addict professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and the deaf-mute Hugo (Matthew Betz).
Over the years, Worth has ‘graduated’ from insurance scamming in London to channelling his criminally enterprising streak into bootleg trade. Florence’s snooping leads her to Gale’s body on Worth’s property and the re-appearance of that unsightly-visaged man, but the evidence vanishes, meaning she can’t get the police to take her seriously. If only Charlotte had that benefit – she tangles with Igor in revelations she might wish she could unsee. Grappling with him when he apprehends her at the museum, she strikes his face, recalling the shock unmasking of Eric in Phantom of the Opera as we discover that Igor’s face is the disfigured creature under a brilliant concealing mask of his own handiwork. Wray then unleashes several lusty shrieks of terror, vocally earning her a place in the annals of horror heroines in peril even before the mighty Kong can get her in his simian clutches.
Igor allows Charlotte’s cries of fear to feed the flames of his long-burning vengeance in a speech of real feeling by Atwill that underscores the Grand Guignol horror with some pitiable sympathy for his lost humanity. He is a monster, yet one whose real ugliness is a good heart crippled beyond recognition into a seething, single-minded rage for rough justice: “For twelve years, twelve awful years, this living dead man with his burnt hands and face has searched for this fiend. Now the account is closed!” Charlotte’s distress is re-doubled when Igor opens a crate and out falls his nemesis Worth, boxed up like a bottle of his own illicit hooch. The cops arrive just in time before he can dip Charlotte into his vat of molten wax to preserve her in waxey immortality. The resulting unseemly scuffle ends with him terminally immersed in his own creativity - another gleefully macabre Atwill performance. In seizing every opportunity to memorably thrill audiences throughout the 1930s, he was no dummy.
Mystery of the Wax Museum became one of the classic staple horror plots, revitalised in a celebrated colour remake by director Andre de Toth in 1953 with Vincent Price, pioneering another cinema format of 3-D, and then (ahem) another one with Paris Hilton in 2005.
Thursday, 21 April 2016
By the end of 1932, Lionel Atwill had already co-starred with Fay Wray in both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. While Warner Bros was in post-production on the latter, enterprising Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures capitalised on the advance publicity by teaming them up once more in a rushed production called The Vampire Bat and sending that out before Wax Museum could be released. This explains its slapdash, hurried climax topping off a crackpot 62-minute quickie that features Atwill perfecting his insane scientific genius – and who can object to that?
Directing a functional script by experienced horror writer Edward T Lowe Jr was Frank R. Strayer, the same maestro who gave us another haphazard medical misfire, The Monster Walks (see my review dated 21/2). We open on the village of Kleinschloss, plagued by unsolved murders of its villagers, their deaths the result of blood-loss and neck puncture wounds. Coupled with an infestation of bats, this leads the Grand Council to conclude that the fanged undead who menaced them in 1643 have resurfaced to feast on them again. “Vampires are at large, I tell you!” shouts the Burgomeister, literally hammering his point home on the table with his fist. (No wonder he is so emphatic; this was a second time for Lionel Belmore in the role after Frankenstein and he would go on to cameos in two of the other sequels).
No-one in the village seems to have noticed the other peculiar phenomenon, that vaguely 19th-century Germanic territories in horror films of the era all share both ‘ze Cherman’-accented characters and imported modern Americans side by side. One such anachronism is Inspector Karl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas) - hot, or at least mild, on the case. Douglas had just appeared in The Old Dark House (reviewed 1/4) with Boris Karloff and here he is kept equally busy trying to get some down-time from the murders with his lover Ruth, Fay Wray. They are peppered with comic-relief peanuts from her busy-body hypochondriac Aunt Gussie, (Maude Eburne, who had previous horror form in the area of mice with wings, having featured in The Bat Whispers in 1930). The full house’s traffic also includes Atwill as the smooth, genial Doctor Von Niemann with a fully-equipped laboratory, his servant Emil played by Robert Frazer and housekeeper Georgiana (Stella Adams).
The townsfolk are keen to pin the grisly crimes upon the weirdest person they can find. Their chief suspect is Herman, the local simpleton. His qualifications include a bizarre fondness for the bats, talking about himself in the third person with wild-eyed cackling and being played by Dwight Frye. This is good enough for the reliably unbiased vigilante mob who go after him with lit torches and hounds in time-honoured pursuit of the innocent till he flees into a cave system and tops himself down the Devil’s Well.
By now Frye had become firmly locked into horror typecasting over at Universal as the jittery, eccentric henchman, (Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein), which didn’t go unnoticed by Majestic. They added him to bolster the image of The Vampire Bat being a major’s studio release. To further save money whilst giving the appearance of the opposite, the company shrewdly leased James Whale’s village sets from Frankenstein and interiors from The Old Dark House.
Meanwhile, back at the Bunsen burners, Dr Von Neimann proves there is more to him than a warm bedside-manner. In fact, he is remotely sending Emil to the bedrooms of the local ladies to sweep them off their feet – and into his lab to be drained of their blood for his experiments. We know this because we are treated to the sight of him verbally giving instructions into thin air when alone. When he hears from Brettschneider that Herman has killed himself, he sucks on his pipe, ruminating inwardly that he can no longer use the young dimwit as a scapegoat since the most recent murder occurred after his death. His remote puppeteering of Emil to do the same to the Inspector comes a cropper when Ruth overhears him. Curses! If only he’d understood that he was only contractually obliged to incriminate himself out loud as a plot device for the audience’s benefit. Brettschneider hadn’t taken the sleeping pills the M.D. had prescribed either. (Just as well, since they are hilariously labelled ‘Poison. Sleeping Tablets’ as if in a cartoon).
As aforementioned, the denouement is cobbled together and presented like a hastily-wrapped gift on the run with some very awkward moments. When Atwill grabs the suspicious Ruth outside his lab, her delivery of the line “You! You’re the one! What mad thing are you doing?” is comically wooden. As is the stilted face-off between Niemann and Emil where they look as though they’re waiting for the director to call ‘cut’. The only high-point is Niemann’s God complex declaration to Ruth after sputtering some woolly nonsense about his experiments wresting life from life. “What are a few lives weighed in the balance against the achievement of biological science?” Like a card-carrying member of the Mad Doctor’s Union, he gives an impassioned aria of messianic lunacy for the ages. Amidst this crowd of under-achievers, you can’t help rooting for him. Sadly, in a climactic fight with his servant, he is number one with a bullet.
Lionel Atwill’s horror campaign though was only just warming up…
As horror fans, when we consider the great British gentlemen of horror cinema over the decades, the names that usually leap to mind are the classic triumvirate of Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. All three had long careers, sparked by association with classic characters, which certainly helped to seal them as firm favourites in audience’s memories, and all could trade on an elegant classy persona when required.
Karloff was the first actor to play the signature icons of Frankenstein’s creature and the Mummy, the combination of which made him a star for life. Lee played the same two roles but actually shot to stardom in between when he became immortalised on screen as Dracula. Both had ongoing success sparked by being cinema’s most famous monsters, their fortunes initially rising in tandem with their respective studios of Universal and Hammer.
Cushing was a contemporary of Lee who achieved fame playing across a narrower but equally thrilling spectrum of what are still perceived as very ‘British’ qualities. He personified a heroic decency as Van Helsing (to Lee’s Dracula), yet could warp that almost clinical backbone of self-discipline into an escalating cold, ruthless villainy. How easy it is for compassionate authority’s power to be corrupted, if not tempered with humility, into an overweening God complex. His Dr Frankenstein increasingly sacrificed humanity across Hammer’s franchise sequels to become his own monster: sadistic ambition without conscience.
This unchecked scientific megalomania was an aspect of Cushing’s horror characterisations that he shared with another British actor who sadly should have been remembered as vividly as these three. Like Cushing, he was famous for essaying mad doctors and other very human figures of chilling authority in the genre. His name was Lionel Atwill and in the 1930s he was as big a star as Boris Karloff. It may be that he is partly forgotten through the disastrous consequences of equally human vulnerabilities.
Lionel Atwill’s career could have ensured him a comfortable lifetime of even greater professional security than Karloff, Cushing and Lee (if such a thing can ever be predicted). His name value and respect, unlike theirs, was already established as a household name from two decades of theatrical fame long before his first horror film.
Born in South Norwood, London in 1885, the eldest of four children Atwill began his working life in architecture, a field which held no real interest for him. Neil Pettigrew, for his impassioned biography Lionel Atwill: The Exquisite Villain, was unable to find details of the firm or much about his early schooling, but noted that Atwill was not above a little aspirational embellishment. (He claimed in a movie magazine in 1919 that he had graduated from Oxford University). Although his roots were humble, his ambition also led him to have elocution lessons in the West End to replace his South London tones with those more befitting to the gentlemanly persona he would become. This would be money well spent as Atwill’s cultured tone and enunciation of voice would become of his finest assets as an actor.
He made his professional debut as a footman in The Walls of Jericho at London’s Garrick Theatre, and from there learned his craft in years of repertory across the provinces, touring in Ibsen, Shakespeare and other classic texts. By the time war broke out in 1914, he was already established, living in a well-appointed Hammersmith apartment with the first of his four wives, Phyllis Relph, and their new-born baby boy John, able to afford a valet and the rare luxury of a motor-car. He was later protected from the horrors of the conflict by his age: at 32, he was seven years too old to enlist.
The Atwill family soon decamped to America at the suggestion of Lily Langtry, the actress who’d once found notoriety as the mistress to the Prince of Wales. Atwill had appeared with her in the play Mrs Thompson, which she felt would be a hit stateside. This proved not to be the case, but aside from switching to a vaudeville tour of the show Ashes, the move would place the young actor where Hollywood studios could eventually see him: in the New York theatre. One of the major successes he had there was as the enigmatic, feared stranger in the creepy thriller The Lodger, (later filmed as we have discussed by Hitchcock with Ivor Novello in 1927). This coupled with a stage adaptation he did back home in 1913 of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man showed that he was already flirting with the realms of horror, extending his leading man status beyond bland dramas into areas of subtle thrills and menace.
In 1920, Atwill took Broadway by storm in possibly his greatest theatre hit, Deberau, the tragic tale of a famed pantomime Pierrot actor who is crushed by his wife’s adultery and a failed late attempt to recapture his career glory. This would have been his break-through into the movies had the eventual 1924 film version starred him. Instead, Debarau is notable for the curious way in which its plot, like others he would star in over the years, mirrored the unfolding tumult of his later life. Debarau the actor is tempted by a woman into adultery away from a happy marriage. Not only did this happen to Atwill, his co-star of the play Elsie Mackay was the real-life catalyst of his affair and subsequently became his second wife. Compounding it into freakish coincidence, he himself later found her having an affair behind his back which brought that chapter of his life to a close. Furthermore, Debarau’s dashed hopes of salvaging his former fame became the saddest parallel to Atwill’s fortunes – but that lay in the future.
What propelled Atwill’s big-screen transition for good was the stage-to-screen transfer of his huge Broadway success in The Silent Witness. Like Debarau, it too was a crucial step in his career and a bizarre foreshadowing of his destiny. He plays a noble parent who will stop at nothing to secure the acquittal of his son, charged with a crime of passion. A key dramatic scene takes place in a court-room, a setting that Atwill would never forget in a trial of his own making, caused by his own principles’ conflict with the law.
The Silent Witness became a vital cross-over hit, launching Atwill’s movie work. He wasted no time in filming Doctor X. His timing was perfect to catch the horror wave that had recently broken over America with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. For the rest of the decade and into the early Forties, Atwill parlayed his well-spoken suavity with measured doses of the sinister into a wide range of roles. A string of genre pictures including The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum and Murders in the Zoo made him Hollywood’s resident ‘mad doctor’, yet he managed to sidestep the limitation of that reductive label, appearing in non-horror films as well. His theatre pedigree assured him of some degree of versatility with audiences. Atwill capitalised on this lucrative new area of fame with great energy and, for a man of the theatre, a refreshingly unstuffy enthusiasm for the young medium of cinema. Many stage actors as we have seen were grossly patronising about the artistic merit of the ‘flickers’. Atwill, however, had nothing left to prove to critics or himself. He had mastered the high-falutin’ classical repertoire and was still young enough to enjoy a new lease of life and the lucrative trappings of screen fame.
Tinseltown appealed to the gregarious side of Atwill’s personality. He was not a private man of quiet homely pursuits shunning the social scene like some. He was an avid party-goer as well as a keen charity event organiser. If he was around today, he would no doubt be all over social media forums such as Twitter. This can be a double-edged sword. Some actors such as Lon Chaney preferred a more elusive off-screen life, preserving a mystique about their work, giving them a level of control about how and when they could be judged as well as a separation between their public and private lives. Others seem to have used constant publicity as a means of extending their visibility and thus their professional lives – or even inexplicably as the only reason for their ‘celebrity’ in the first place. Lionel Atwill was a talented, hard-working actor who simply liked to make whoopee in his spare time as he was entitled. Whilst this is no bar to a long career (David Niven’s racy memoir Bring on the Empty Horses is a testament to that), he was around at a time when Hollywood struggled to balance allowing the indulgences of its privileged with the morality of the new Hayes Code designed to temper them. Sometimes the excesses, such as immoral or indecent behaviour or even vehicular manslaughter could be quietly hushed up without ever reaching the public, through studios having the police on their payroll and friendly relations with the predatory gossip columnists. In Atwill’s case, he attempted a chivalrous cover-up of his own of a harmless incident for which he paid a disastrous price that no-one could save him from.
Initially, the new decade of the Forties appeared to be a period of renewal for him. His busy run of high-profile roles and the resurgence of interest in horror after a late Thirties slump had led to Universal requesting his services. The House of Horror had produced Son of Frankenstein in reaction to the unexpected success of the reissue double-bill of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 and Atwill’s Inspector Krogh earned him a seat at the table. They invited him to further re-energise his career (as well as Lon Chaney Jr with insane bursts of electricity) in Man Made Monster in 1941, taking his megalomaniac scientist image to new heights. He certainly needed the boost. His third marriage to the hundred-million dollar heiress Louise Cromwell Brooks had foundered. After the film’s release, he received the awful news that his Flight Officer son John had been killed by a German bomber; it had hit his RAF base’s local pub after seeing the men’s head-lights while they were on a night out. John was his only child, which only made his grief even more terrible.
Atwill’s suffering was about to become far worse. He discovered on May 13th that he had become embroiled by association in a court case involving the suspected rape of a 16 year-old girl. Neil Pettigrew’s biography does sterling work in clarifying exactly how Atwill came to be involved. The case centred around teenager Sylvia Hamalaine who’d come to Hollywood to seek her fortune and shared an apartment with dress designer, Virginia Lopez, when the juvenile was allegedly molested, with a man by the name of Adolphe LaRue also present. Atwill had no connection to the incident or the location. Lopez’s defence attorney, however, tried to minimise Lopez’s culpability by besmirching the reputation of Hamalaine as a young woman of easy virtue. The L.A. Times reported Lopez’s testimony that the youth “was mistreated at several ‘wild parties’ in the beach home of Lionel Atwill, actor”. Here was a sudden unwarranted connection to an innocent man, yet in order for the court to pursue the allegations, Atwill found himself taking the stand. He was in the uncomfortable position of needing to defend not only his reputation and private life, but that of his guests – and he was mindful of this as a gentleman. He denied: “…that any improper acts occurred in my home or that any indecencies took place in the presence of the Hamalaine girl”. When asked if pornographic films were shown at his house. Atwill testified that they were not.
Here the matter should have rested. To her credit, Hamalaine withstood cross-examination attempts to implicate Atwill; the foreman of the jury acquitting the defendants on lack of evidence stated it was regrettable that celebrities should be dragged into such a matter without any proven involvement – and even Judge Ambrose felt the details of his testimony should not have been revealed to the press. Predictably, Atwill underwent a form of trial by media, reporters desperately searching for any more salacious gossip to titillate their readers. This too would eventually have blown over - except that Atwill had not told the truth about his home entertainment. It emerged that he had lied about actually showing blue movies at his house. As harmless as this is, even in the context of the Hamalaine trial, there was no getting around the fact that he had committed the crime of perjury.
On October 15th 1942, Atwill pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation instead of jail time. His attorney later read out his defence in court: “I lied like a gentleman to protect my friends”. In retrospect it has the grim finality of an epitaph – and signalled the death-knell for his illustrious career, knocking him off the pedestal of prestigious leading man into a downward slide of diminishing quality projects. Ironically, it seems there weren’t enough friends left in the profession to protect him in return. Hollywood has a short memory for success and loyalty, and a much longer one for those who fail to get away with it. The catastrophic shut-out he was subjected to by the industry was such that by the following April he appealed in court to have the conviction terminated. Since he was now a pariah in the town, he was suffering enough punishment for his error of judgement. The Production Code could continue to have him ostracized while ever he was legally branded a ‘felon’ that brought the studios into perceived disrepute. A kindly judge allowed him to reverse his plea and he walked out of court exonerated.
Unfortunately, as Roscoe Arbuckle experienced some years earlier, (found innocent of a much more direct rape accusation) legal freedom does not always remove the taint of scandal in a hypocritical system. Hollywood studios like M-G-M and Fox turned theirs back on him by and large. . Life imitated art when he tried, Debarau-style, to re-capture his Broadway halcyon days with productions of The Play’s the Thing, The Outsider and My Dear Children. All failed to bring him back to his former theatrical prominence. Universal kept him going for a while with their increasingly absurd sequels up to House of Dracula (1946), and Poverty Row companies like PRC and Republic Studios gave him work on films and serials.
On April 22nd 1946 Lionel Atwill died of bronchial cancer, comforted by his fourth wife, 27-year-old Mary Paula Prouter, and leaving behind his happier legacies of a surviving son Tony and a fantastic gallery of preserved film roles. Thankfully, as I will show, these performances create their own memories for horror fans, allowing Atwill to live well on screen as the best revenge…
Tuesday, 12 April 2016
“I hope you have a nice…looooong sleep”
In 1934 Laurel and Hardy released their second comedy short to cash in on the horror boom - here a much more chillingly full-blooded vehicle than the theatrical whodunnit of The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. This was largely due to the gloriously terrifying presence of Mae Busch whose previous roles for them as various harsh domineering wives, dangerous criminal magnets and bunny-boiling jilted exes surely inspired Stan to craft something to take her intimidating persona to an even more concentrated level whilst still retaining some sex appeal.
Mae Busch was Australian by birth, the child of travelling vaudeville performers. According to Simon Louvish’s marvellous biography Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy, in her early days at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio (home of those klutzy Kops), she was the third party who ended Sennett’s relationship with his star Mabel Normand – a romance celebrated in the musical Mack & Mabel. After a solid career in film working with the likes of Erich Von Stroheim in Foolish Wives (1932) and Lon Chaney as his gangster’s moll with heart in The Unholy Three, she very nearly became a casualty of the studio system when she left her contract with M-G-M and suffered a nervous breakdown. Long before John Travolta, she disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that “There are no second acts in American lives” thanks to Hal Roach offering her the short Love ‘Em and Weep. It introduced her to the two gentlemen in bowler hats who would make her famous. Across thirteen films her strength of character would be compressed between Laurel and Hardy’s meddling bouts of cowardice to forge a diamond of unforgettable hard-knock quality.
We are lucky that Oliver the Eighth ever saw the light of day. In the middle of filming in December 1933, Stan had to suspend filming when he heard the awful news of the death of his brother ‘Teddy’ Jefferson, who had been under laughing gas (nitrous oxide) anaesthetic in a dentist’s chair in Los Angeles and suffered a fatal heart attack. Leaving aside any fanciful Omen-style speculation about the freakish coincidence of the boys’ horror shorts both linking to real-life tragedies for Stan, the only disturbing echo is that the plot of Oliver the Eighth is generated by a nightmare of Ollie’s whilst napping in a chair at his barbershop.
The plot is in many ways reminiscent of their previous genre outing. The set-up here is that on a break in their shop, this time it is Stan who reads out the catalyst newspaper ad: “Wealthy young widow with large fortune wishes to communicate with congenial young man. Object: matrimony” This again shows a charming innocence of publicity – what man wouldn’t appear congenial under those circumstances? Stan has a rare burst of pragmatic initiative, pointing out that in a marriage of obvious convenience, he would use some of the money to simply get the expected “old crab”, as Ollie calls her, a facelift and then live the high-life without having to work any more. Such is his uncharacteristic smarts that Ollie changes his mind and they shake on agreeing to it as a gentleman’s competition. Ollie however uses his far more reliable cunning and hides Stan’s reply letter. He sits back and allows Stan to shave him…
We the meet the ringleted Busch as she knifes opens the mail, not the last time we’ll see her skill with that implement. She looks at an amusing photo of Ollie where he’s posturing the upward-tilted glamour gaze of the matinee idol, but his eyes express more a vague distaste at hearing flatulence from an upstairs window. She is in cahoots with her bushy-browed butler Jitters (Jack Barty), one of the most memorable insane supporting performances in the Laurel and Hardy canon. Together they prepare to entertain another in the list of Olivers she has vowed to wipe out since the first of that name jilted her at the altar. Jitters savours the familiar outcome, cooing: “Strange that on the eve of every wedding, you walk in your sleep, and every morning a body is found…with its throat cut”.
Oliver the Eighth awaits her cold steel…
Back in the duo’s barbershop, there’s a nice understated verbal gag from the returning Stan (he’s just been out to get a shave). In fact, all of Stan’s early scenes do have an unusually muted quality, eschewing his usual gag-rate in favour of allowing Ollie to drive the comedy and energy. This may have been connected with adjusting to his off-screen tragedy - unless he filmed them in sequence. Ollie is cheerfully packing for his prospective bride, delusions of grandeur already convincing him that he cannot associate with Stan any more: “I’m sorry but my social position won’t permit it” he announces loftily before leaving.
Once at Mrs Fox’s mansion, Ollie is ushered in by Jitters who hilariously discards his hat and coat before summoning the lady. This scene is a macabre joy as the butler shows he is crazy both in his playing of invisible cards and his small talk - in the famous exchange:
“Nice weather we had tomorrow”.
“It certainly wi-“.
“Nice weather we had tomorrow”.
“It certainly wi-“.
Oliver double-takes, realising he is in the midst of a cuckoo whilst he waits for his love-bird.
Inevitably, Stan arrives, having rumbled Ollie’s deception and demanding a half-share. He has been busy demonstrating the kind of shrewd negotiation that makes Jack of the Beanstalk fame look like Warren Buffett, having sold the barbershop business for a ‘gold’ brick (a patently obvious sprayed standard one) and a handful of nuts. Upon meeting Hardy at last, Busch sees Stan and remarks with humorous bluntness: “What is that?”
Stan shows he is on the same sublimely surreal wavelength as Jitters, while Busch alternates between a warm, ensnaring seductiveness and her own brand of unapologetic insanity, snipping off Ollie’s tie with no explanation and then providing a meal served by Jitters where they mime a total absence of any food. The entertaining daffiness then begins to turn to chills and goosebumps. Such is the total conviction of Fox and her servant in their planned murder that the butler lets the boys in on it just to watch their scared response - before Mrs Fox bids them not good-night but good-bye with the mocking terminal hospitality of the line that begins this article. Jitters’ bugling of the Last Post is a deliciously madcap nightcap to send them to their final resting place.
There is still room for situation comedy laughs once Laurel and Hardy are in their room, yet you can feel the clock ticking to their doom effectively, the tension building as they desperately try to survive the night. Stan doesn’t quite understand the concept of keeping a waking watch: “I was dreaming I was awake, and then I woke up and found meself asleep”; accidentally almost blows his friend’s foot off and Ollie’s makeshift alarm brick clonks himself into unconsciousness. This creates the most pleasurable horror frisson climax as a panicky Stan whimpers that he can’t wake Oliver up while we intercut with Busch sharpening her knife inexorably on her way to their room. For my money, these alarming shots of her deserve to be as iconic in horror film montages as Leatherface waving his chainsaw in vain.
This time, the get-out clause that the terror was all a dream is triggered with more conviction and impact - the sound of Stan’s clumsiness wakes Ollie in shock just as Busch’s nightmare knife touches his tender throat. It’s a pay-off that works well and diffuses the threat level ably cranked up by director Lloyd French.
Following Oliver the Eighth, Laurel and Hardy continued to release six more successful shorts, (Busch getting them into trouble in five of them), understandably never seeking to blend laughs with scares so deliberately again. Fortunately, their feature film projects would find plenty more genres and scenarios to keep them busy.
Monday, 11 April 2016
“You’re wanted on the ‘phone…’
From 1927 through till 1935, the much-beloved movie comedy duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy produced around 72 short films, from the silent era through sound, a run that for me represents most of their greatest work (other than the few later feature films such as Way Out West that weren’t weakened by padding). Their slap-stick and more subtle visual gags were perfect for the silent cinema, and they came equipped with amusing title dialogue cards whose humour translated seamlessly when turned into scripts for the ‘talkies’.
Together, Stan and Ollie’s personas as the ‘Fiddle and the Bow’ as they were gracefully nicknamed, would dovetail beautifully on screen. Ollie’s slow-burn reactions to camera gave the audience time to laugh and to share in his incredulity at his partner’s dimittedness. Stan could simply sit and do almost nothing yet be as fascinating as a cat. When not fiddling idly with something to occupy his two-watt brain, ideas processed in that cavernous space before coming out in a stream that makes sense initially but unravels like wool the more they are examined. If ever they seem to be in opposition, for every devious plan that Ollie constructs to secretly benefit himself, Stan will assuredly wreck it like a one-man cyclone of unwitting destruction.
As actors, they were as harmonious in their division of labour off-screen as they were in front of the camera. Stanley was obsessed with gag construction and timing, working long hours as very much a film-maker, whereas Oliver was happy to be a talented co-worker spending his free time on the golf course. Stanley was known to mischievously save up Oliver’s reaction shots to the end of the day so he’d be that little bit more frustrated (to get on the green). To Oliver, Stanley’s greater share of the earnings in their joint contract with studio head Hal Roach was entirely fitting. His friend did more of the work.
As actors, they were as harmonious in their division of labour off-screen as they were in front of the camera. Stanley was obsessed with gag construction and timing, working long hours as very much a film-maker, whereas Oliver was happy to be a talented co-worker spending his free time on the golf course. Stanley was known to mischievously save up Oliver’s reaction shots to the end of the day so he’d be that little bit more frustrated (to get on the green). To Oliver, Stanley’s greater share of the earnings in their joint contract with studio head Hal Roach was entirely fitting. His friend did more of the work.
Their wonderful short subject plots could be based around any single idea no matter how outlandish, from the sophisticated body-swap of playing each other’s wives in Twice Two and devilish baby versions of themselves in Brats, to a ‘simple’ premise like leaving home on time for a wedding or just leaving home, period, in Perfect Day. One of their best ideas was to play on the concept of henpecked husbands forever trying to hide innocent free-time activities from their tyrannical and suspicious wives. Their most memorable casting for this was Mae Busch, who could play the scorned harpie to perfection, giving genuine chills out of fear of her wrath. She had already made great use of a hardened streetwise gal image in horror feature films as we have seen in The Unholy Three and would go on to appear in Doctor X. In between, she was Laurel and Hardy’s favourite battle-axe and her unholy retribution serves as a marvellous bridge connecting their mainstream films with horror possibilities – in her later ideal casting in Oliver the Eighth.
But before they could match wits and knives with Busch, the twosome made their version of the now-familiar Cat and the Canary plot in The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. This begins with the boys in their usual hard-up state fishing none too productively on a dock-side before Ollie sees a newspaper advert announcing the reading of the will of Ebeneezer Laurel. One of the bonus pleasures of seeing their films is in considering the child-like naivete and eccentricity not just within them but also in their world. Where else would lawyers publicly advertise a $3,000,000 will reading and expect only genuine respondents? Ollie is on this like a tramp on a hot-dog, but is continually scuppered by Stan who is a virtual tabula rasa of genealogical uselessness. There’s an undeniable logic in not knowing where he was born because “Well, I was too young to remember”. Ollie prompts Stan’s only memory of an uncle who fell through a trap-door but this proves a literal dead-end as they were hanging him. He doesn’t make Ollie’s master-plan any easier as he has difficulty in computing the value of three million dollars. “Is that as much as a thousand?”
Thankfully, despite Ollie being none too great an economist himself, he has the presence of enough mind to get them to the house of the aforementioned reading. The scene that awaits them is pre-set as a classic Agatha Christie murder-mystery, a drawing-room full of potentially suspects with much to gain and a group of distinctly Damon Runyonesque detectives (including the Chaplin and L & H regular Tiny Sandford) led by Fred Kelsey who suspends the reading, barking: “Ebeneezeer Laurel didn’t die a natural death, He was murdered!” His finger point causes a hatchet-faced Frau Bluecher lookalike to collapse in hysterics. The enjoyably stagey creakiness of the plot is amplified by the (theatrically-rendered?) wind and thunder effects on the soundtrack.
Frank Austin makes a marvellous butler, having a craggy rubber face contorted for maximum macabre gurning from the moment he opens the door to Stan and Ollie. Immediately on entering, there is tension between the duo when it appears that Stan fails to appreciate Ollie’s assumption of an equal share of the inheritance (a situation neatly reversed in Oliver the Eighth). The resolution of this restores their closeness. Nothing, not even money, can ultimately divide them. The Cat and the Canary aspect is strengthened by the device of forcing all the suspects to stay the night, which is bad news for the boys as they have to sleep in the same room in which Ebeneezer died, a fact the Butler relishes. Although Ollie tries to use a disarming logic in return on the easily-frightened Stan, “Dead men can’t hurt you”, they both huddle together in bed, fearful of being bumped off by an avaricious relative. Even the glowing eyes of the house cat terrify them.
After a bad rubber bat and a more convincing levitating sheet effect, Stan is interrogated about his alibi by the detective which the police-man will soon regret. Our numbskull suspect counts through the last few months: “Septober, Octember, Nowonder…” Eventually, the cops work out that the butler, in league with a relative cross-dressing as a gypsy (don’t ask), have been systematically wiping out the cast by politely telling them: “You’re wanted on the ‘phone…”. They are then dispatched, Sweeney Todd style, by a ‘phone receiver-activated trap-door. This then match-cuts to a rushed and perplexing finish where for some reason Laurel and Hardy are now wrestling back on the dock-side. This makes no sense. If it was all a dream, shouldn’t this be made clear? If so, whose? And why?
This slapdash finish to a sporadically fun two-reeler may be partly explained by terrible news that Stan received as he was preparing the film. It’s a tragic coincidence (and please dear conspiracy theorists, let’s leave it as such) that both times Laurel and Hardy ventured into mixing slapstick with spine-tingling horror, Stan suffered awful personal losses in real life. Here, his wife Lois suffered a very difficult second pregnancy in May 1930 resulting in their son Stanley Robert Jefferson being born two months premature and dying only eight days later. Stan had to try and bring the funny whilst being utterly traumatised with grief.