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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

SUPERNATURAL (1933)

“TREAT ALL SUPERNATURAL BEINGS WITH RESPECT BUT KEEP AWAY FROM THEM” ~Confucius~ (from the opening credits)

In 1933, the producer/director team of the Halperin brothers reunited many of the team from the previous year’s White Zombie to produce what they hoped would be an equally spooky follow-up success. Supernatural proved a disappointment, mainly due to the amount of time it dwells on the pace-killing languidity of high-society types instead of the rough, seedy energy of the more energetic criminal fraternity.

This is despite the rare casting of Carole Lombard in a non-comedic role. She began acting in her teens in a series of Mack Sennett shorts where her gift for comedy became her trademark. Paramount put her under contract, initially seeing her as a dramatic actress (hence her appearance in this film), but after divorcing her first high-profile husband William Powell in 1933, her turning point came with the screwball comedy Twentieth Century which set her on the path to fame and a genre she excelled in yet limited her ambition. Her second marriage to Clark Gable was the love of his life, and he is said to have never got over her shocking death from a plane crash whilst promoting War Bonds in 1942. She was just 33 years of age and had planned to aim for more serious parts in her career.

Supernatural is an odd vehicle for her, existing as it does while the studio had not found her strengths. For the first two acts of the movie she is a vaguely perplexed, beautiful cypher as Roma the twin sister of John Courtney, from whom she inherits a great fortune when he dies mysteriously.  
Meanwhile, even more strange goings-on are being unearthed. Dr Huston (a grave, stagey turn from an otherwise excellent H.B. Warner) asks Willard Robertson’s Prison Warden if he can be allowed to experiment on the body of Ruth Rogen, an unrepentant soon to be executed serial murderer. Rogen is introduced to us with a fast, confident montage of newspapers and incendiary quotes - “Men. I hate the whole breed!” - reminiscent of Velma Kelly in Chicago.

Huston sells the down-to-earth Warden remarkably quickly on the idea that the evil dead may transfer their essence to other living humans causing “frequently an epidemic of similar crimes”. As if this isn’t macabre enough, look behind them through the window. Supposed to overlook the courtyard, it shows eerily unconvincing back-projected footage of officers patrolling endless lines of convicts, evoking the soulless drudgery of Orwell’s 1984. Huston is given permission to blast Rogen’s corpse with “mitrogenic rays” (which sound suspiciously like something Dr Zarkhov would concoct for Flash Gordon) to prevent Rogen going a-roamin’. It doesn’t take much to convince Rogen either since they lie to her with the scientific possibility she may gain greater freedom in this proposed after-life. “If I could use my hands - just for a few minutes…”.

So far everyone in the picture is working a self-serving angle. The most successful aspect of Supernatural is ironically in its grim reality, that of the even dodgier conniving underworld of its two crooks. Paul Bavian, played by Alan Dinehart, is an ex-lover of Rogen, a chiselling little fake spiritualist – I’ll leave aside the debate about what other kind there might be – with a handy side-line in sculpture and chemistry. He wants to worm his way into a slice of the Courtney fortune by contacting Roma, masquerading as having been visited by John astrally with a warning for her. Just as corrupt is his alcoholic snooping land-lady (a flavoursome Beryl Mercer) who reads his letters and blackmails him into making her a partner. She falls foul of his homicidal side, scratched to death by a ring he wears impregnated with a fast horrific powdered poison.

The engine of the plot now idles into more or less neutral now as it habitually does each time we focus on the wealthy set. Lombard is poised and elegant as Roma yet is required to do little other than slightly furrow her brow at events for the most part. A little interest is aroused when she opts to allow Bavian to perform a séance at his place for her. She goes, accompanied by the welcome cynicism of William Farnum, (probably the most vividly colourful characterisation of the heroes on offer as the jovial gourmand Hammond who manages Roma’s estate) and the less appealing second horror appearance of Western stalwart Randolph Scott as Roma’s beau Grant – see my Murders in the Zoo review of 25/4 – whose is merely needed to be dinner-suited romantic smoothness.

“The first of the vultures”, Hammond refers to Bavian. Unbeknownst, his streetwise instincts make him a repeated target for Bavian’s hidden agenda. In what turn out to be two séances, the used-clairvouyant salesman points the finger of suspicion at him with amusing brevity as if forging telegrams from the other side: “Hammond wants your money. He murdered me. You are next”. He attempts to poison Hammond with the ring – but an injection of occult influence is about to be far more effective.

At last, in this third act Lombard’s performance awakens from her gentle wafting as Rogen takes her over, literally possessing Lombard’s acting into a greater level of stirring femme fatale darkness. She speaks in a lower register and sexily arches her eyebrows. You can feel the actress becoming more emotionally engaged by the material as a bad girl. Who doesn’t like playing wicked? She toys with Bavian and high-tails it to her yacht with him, followed in tepid pursuit by Grant and Huston. It’s worth mentioning the frequency with which Bavian fingers his ring (as it were) and the editing insert cuts to Rogen’s shadow-rimmed eyes. They put one in mind of Bela Lugosi’s hokier screen moments. You wonder if perhaps the Halperins tried to get Lugosi for the spiritualist role as he would have enjoyed using his signature intensity and the part’s criminal slumming back story to offset his usual urbanity.

Ultimately, the spirit of John aids the good guys in returning Roma intact – just as events were getting interesting - damn. He gave our heroes the clue to the yacht by knocking over a model boat, and after Bavian hangs himself accidentally from the lifeboat ropes in fleeing from the Rogen-rogue Roma, the spell upon her is broken. Fancifully, as if in a Disney film, the ghostly dimension becomes a benign one again as John blows open a magazine to hint at a Bermuda honeymoon for the reunited couple.

Apparently Mother Nature created rumblings of excitement during filming as the Long Beach Earthquake struck. Sadly, the earth didn’t move at the box office and Supernatural was a resoundingly earthly also-ran, eventually becoming its deserved home as the bottom half of double-bills.

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