Tuesday, 28 February 2017
Lionel Atwill needed 1942 to be a positive year so he could put behind him the awful tragedy of his son’s death and 1941’s distasteful court case in which he had testified - (See LIONEL ATWILL: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's 'Mad Doctor' - my article dated 21/4/2016). Though he had no involvement in the suspected rape of 16 year-old Sylvia Hamalaine, and the foreman of the jury acquitted the defendants on lack of evidence, Atwill knew he had lied about showing blue movies to guests 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 perjury. As he picked up his busy career and enjoyed the new year’s horror roles, his minor criminal act was to prove a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off…
The first genre role of his released during February 1942 was as The Mad Doctor of Market Street, a decent if unremarkable B-movie programmer for Universal directed by Joseph H. Lewis whom we last saw helming 1941’s haphazard The Invisible Ghost, co-written as here by Al Martin. Once again, Atwill is a white-coated whacko, (bearded pseudo-scientist Dr Ralph Benson), labouring in the hot-topic medical field of suspended animation. A literally poor chap volunteers to put himself through the madman’s experimental attempts in order to feed his family. “The span of human life will be prolonged inevitably”, Benson raves exultantly. Not for his subject, who dies on the operating table just as the man’s wife bursts in with the cops.
Benson bunks out the window in full surgical garb, and then promptly reappears, clean-shaven on board a luxury liner bound for New Zealand. He comfortable escapes his identity being rumbled even when a nosy detective snoops around the ship. Benson sends him overboard to a watery grave. Amongst the passengers and crew in blissful ignorance are Una Markel as a spirited and funny bride-to-be, Aunt Margaret, desperate to get to her awaiting wedding. Her niece Patricia, the lovely Claire Dodd, plays to her type as a bewitching magnet to the gentlemen. Pursuing her with vigour as Officer Jim is Richard Davies, a regular player of servicemen on screen, and John Eldredge as the shady Dwight (previously mentioned in 1941’s Horror Island and The Black Cat). For moral and muscle support comes Nat Pendleton as Red Hogan, a real-life Olympic wrestler who parlayed his imposing bulk and thick-ear lunk persona into many a comedy film - twice for the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers (1932) and 1939’s At the Circus. One of his last parts would be in the Bela Lugosi horror vehicle Scared to Death (1947).
Fear takes hold of all on-board here when a fire causes an abandon ship, washing up our cast on a tropical island. They land just as the loin-clothed tribe of natives are bemoaning the mortal-looking condition of Tanayo (Rosina Galli) wife of their chief, played by horror stalwart Noble Johnson. “White man bring evil spirits”, he grunts with the traditional Hollywood respect for sophisticated anthropology on confusing a link between the party’s arrival with his wife’s death-door status. This forces Benson into a quandary. Either he must reveal his scientific quackery to save her or the westerners end up on the tribal barbecue. Mercifully, he chooses the former, if only out of self-preservation. He injects her with Adrenaline (not revealing to the impressed islanders that she has only suffered a heart-attack).
On Tanayo’s recovery, such is the Chief’s gratitude that he intones “You God of Life. We your slaves”, which is music to the ears of the opportunistic Benson. He now lords it over the tribe and the shipwrecked party, ordering the destruction of the boat and holding everyone as virtual prisoners to his deranged, long-term research .
Patricia is propositioned by Benson after Tanayo’s appeal to his manly needs is misconstrued as “Maybe white wife necessary to my experiments”. Patricia is repulsed but plays along into marriage. She hopes that it will curry favour for their eventual release but Benson enjoys his place in the catbird seat, purring that he will take his pick of the three ‘more civilised’ western men when appropriate. That may be difficult as Dwight shows his true colour of yellow by trying in vain to row another boat to cowardly safety before the natives capture him and the more heroic Jim.
A twist comes when the Chief demands that Benson demonstrate his ability to revive an actually dead person,drowned tribal younster Barab (Ray Mala, who had once gained international fame as M-G-M’s Eskimo/Mala the Magnificient in 1933). He is given until sun-up, which of course he stares at balefully out of the window since we know he really is only a master of hollow quackery. Sure enough, he winds up on the flames while our American friends run to a spotter-plane that flies in to the rescue.
All in all, The Mad Doctor of Market Street is a professional enough water-treader while better projects could be hoped for in the war years ahead.
Monday, 27 February 2017
Shortly after his roaring success with The Great Dictator, in 1941 Charlie Chaplin was approached with an intriguing offer by Orson Welles. He had an idea for a dramatized documentary about the notorious French wife-murdering Bluebeard Henri Désiré Landru, who preyed on wealthy widows between 1914-1919, killing ten plus one of their sons and burning their bodies in his oven before being convicted and guillotined in 1921. Chaplin paid Welles $5000 for his idea, though Welles later claimed insubstantially he had written a script for the film. Nevertheless, as agreed, the resulting film carried the credit ‘Based on an idea by Orson Welles’. It took a further four years for Chaplin to write the screenplay. The central character bore a strong resemblance to Landru as a suave furniture dealer almost succeeding in managing a secure idyllic home life whilst juggling numerous other wives and prospective rich partners unbeknownst to his wife. His ultimate capture following the active suspicion of one of the victim’s families was also used in his fictional downfall.
Partly the delay in writing Monsieur Verdoux was due to Chaplin grappling with the real-life distasteful details of a paternity suit brought against him by ingénue actress Joan Barry, but in these years he also found his happiest marriage of all with Oona O’Neill, daughter of the celebrated playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Further damaging controversy would dog Chaplin though from the submission of his script through till the final film’s reception. Joseph Breen’s Production Code office received the screenplay in March 1946 and initially refused it outright as “it impugns the present-day social structure”, an unfair position as the film takes between between WWI and WWII. In the end, the board relented yet still took their pound of flesh by prudishly demanding the removal of any reference to the screen couples sleeping together or any suggestion that Marilyn Nash as The Girl would succumb to prostitution.
Whilst Chaplin negotiated with the Breen Office, there were storm clouds gathering that brought America into the war and brooded over a gradual industry shift toward paranoid levels of patriotism that targeted anyone whose work was critical of the war effort. Monsieur Verdoux and his creator would soon come under the spotlight for his sympathy toward Communism to ruinous effect.
Whilst Chaplin negotiated with the Breen Office, there were storm clouds gathering that brought America into the war and brooded over a gradual industry shift toward paranoid levels of patriotism that targeted anyone whose work was critical of the war effort. Monsieur Verdoux and his creator would soon come under the spotlight for his sympathy toward Communism to ruinous effect.
At least Chaplin’s actual filming became his fastest and least troublesome of all of his features. The previously elephantine schedules he had enjoyed as financier of his own films had to be disciplined due to war austerity and the high cost of film stock that had once allowed him the luxury of experimenting on film. Now for the first time he was obliged to come to set with a finished script and precise storyboards of camera angles to avoid unnecessary wastage. To aid him in the design of authentic French sets, Chaplin brought in Robert Frankenstein Florey, whom we last saw directing The Face Behind the Mask (see my review of 16/1/2017). Principal shooting wrapped in just three months.
Subtitled ‘A comedy of murders’ Monsieur Verdoux is a curiosity and not always easy to define. For example. the elegant French gent he plays is an effete, somewhat camp individual and yet most definitely and fatally a ladies man. Narrating after his death from a tombstone opening shot, he declares in clipped tones that as far as being a Bluebeard goes, “liquidating members of the opposite sex”, such business is so ultimately unrewarding that ““only a person of undaunted optimism would embark on such an adventure”. The story that unfolds though is a combination of lightness of morality from its hero and a black-humoured, despondent gloom that permeates almost every character.
We are introduced to the family of one of Verdoux’s wealthy, vanished victims who suspect she has disappeared at the hands of her strange new beau. The Police Judiciare have spotted the connection between twelve preyed-on females and what could be one culprit but there is no enough evidence for Detective Morrow (an imposing Charles Evans) to make an arrest.
We then get to see the Monsieur himself in action as he shows Isobel Elsom’s Marie Grosnay around the house he intends to sell her. Meanwhile, he quickly establishes with overwhelming ardour that he is on the menu as well, to the point where she leaves in decided uncomfortability. Chaplin’s characterisation is a graceful dance partner of seduction, albeit a little too much for this prospective conquest. He gushes with praise and fulsome attention, practically skipping around his target like a maiden around the maypole. Clothed in exquisite finery, often sporting a smoking jacket with cravat, he is a dapper dude of refinery from his fingertips to the almost Dali-esque moustache (the first time he had ever actually grown one for a part).
“You must have made a killing”, observes an old employee friend from the bank where Verdoux once clerked before being fired. He presents a meticulous image of prosperity, one that Chaplin has also been careful to construct as funded by ill-gotten gains that were morally acceptable in supporting a family – but potentially which one?
It is easy to see how so many ladies have fallen for Verdoux’s charm, especially those who are widowed and vulnerable. Money gives no succour – and yet sucker it seems is the approach on Chaplin’s mind when he sketches out his females in the film. Most of them are drawn to represent unattractive and gullible marks to be exploited while his machinations are drawn with maximum sympathy in mind. His battle-axe wife Lydia Floray (a vivid Margaret Hoffman) is shrewd enough to spit venom at him when he shows up after a long absence, and yet he easily cons her out of her last 70,000 Francs with panic-mongering about a bank collapse without any proof. His murder of her is undertaken with admirable restraint though after he waxes lyrical to the moon outside her door: “How beautiful, this pale Endymion hour”. It is a beautifully composed shot, lingering before he enters the bedroom with off-screen homicide in mind. Floray’s mood-puncturing response: “Forget about him and get to bed” was one of those resulting from the censorship (the line should have been ‘and come to bed’).
Any dislike we may have of Verdoux’s duplicity is cunningly managed by supplying him with a lovely and devoted wife Mona (Mady Corell) - disabled as well – and a charming son Peter (Allison Roddan) for whom he works so secretively. “What a relief to get away from the jungle fight”, he affects as he slumps in affected tiredness into a homely armchair. Whilst preserving his family arguably gives him motive – “It’s not easy for a man of my age to make a living” - there is a flip-side of conned innocence in her that could incur a debatable charge of misogyny in the writing.
This subtext potentially gains more traction when we see that even Mme Grosnay, the house-hunter of the tingling spider-sense, has her suspicions erased by a few deliveries of flowers. She is soon also won over, as is the florist in a subtle moment when Verdoux multi-tasks his wooing by dictating an accompanying note for Grosnay and looking at her at the same time.
The other wife victim painted in less than wholly sympathetic terms is famous comedienne Martha Raye’s marvellously brassy dame Annabella Bonheur. A former big band vocalist with a celebrated mouth to match, Raye is perfectly cast as a coarse energetic vulgarian but with the street smarts to protect her own business. Through her, we fittingly get one of the film’s most physical comedy scenes when there is a mix-up of Hydrogen Peroxide bottles between he and the maid that scuppers his latest wife poisoning and backfires into convincing him he has become the victim. He gasps out loud for his wife, Annabella not realising he doesn’t mean her.
The one female in the cast who is shown as a match for Verdoux is the aforementioned Marilyn Nash. She is a pivotal character in that when he takes her in off the street from an artfully-disguised hint of prostitution (the Production Code again), she does not accept his hard-bitten view of women or the world as a whole. Somehow with her Verdoux’s veneer of success and charm cracks and we, through her, are allowed into his overt misogyny and cynicism:
“I love women, but I don’t admire them. Women are of the earth, realistic, dominated by physical facts. Once a woman betrays a man, she despises him - in spite of his goodness and position, she will give him up for someone inferior. That someone is more, shall we say, attractive…”
The Girl (she has no script name) gently disagrees, citing love for its sacrificial value, giving the example of a mother’s selfless love for a child. This would seem lame were it not for the fact that much later she will meet him again when their circumstances are reversed and she can repay his nourishing kindness a little.
Raye gets another chance to lighten the doom-laden tone when she and Verdoux take a boat out together. As he attempts in vain to lasso Annabella with a rope-tied stone to drown her, Chaplin hilariously recalls his Little Tramp’s desperate bid for the telephone, unseen by the glowering Eric Campbell, in Easy Street (1917). Alas, she is unsinkable.
The final act has one more relatively upbeat farce sequence during Verdoux’s wedding day with Mme Grosnay. The chickens almost come home to roost when Annabella shows up as a guest, yet Verdoux pretends a bout of cramps to dodge being recognised by her.
Ultimately crime must not pay; the stock market crash wipes him out, and after a montage of stock footage indicating the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and advancing age, our Monsieur’s race is run. The loss of his wife and child after the Depression has pierced his survivalist’s armour, and the reunion with the Girl has restored some humanity to him: “Everyone needs love” he admits to her.
Inevitably Verdoux must face his life’s consequences and he is tried and sentenced for his murders. There is an indomitable quality in the final statement to his peers in the court-room where he still clings to the life philosophy that has justified him to the mirror every day since he embarked on the mass-murderers’ path. He invokes the hypocrisy of governments who sanction killing under the guise of war: “As a mass killer, I’m an amateur by comparison” before leaving them a defiant parting shot: “I shall see you all very soon”.
This unapologetic commentary is expanded in Verdoux’s cell to a reporter before his execution in the most quoted dialogue of the film: “One murder makes a villain. Millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow”. As a companion piece to The Great Dictator, the dark spin he puts on society’s own moral justifications is fascinating. Whereas in the previous film he was, in a sense, an innocent appealing to the corrupted to change their ways and his fellows to defy those who would pervert us, now he was of the dark side and unrepentantly claiming “You made me this way. Don’t judge me for my response. You are far worse”. For good measure, he even challenges the priest that he would have no role if there were no sins to absolve. And with that, Monsieur Verdoux exits the cell in a pristine white shirt reminiscent of Charles I’s dignity at all costs, and takes his logic to the guillotine.
Believed in its maker’s characteristic self-confidence to be:“the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career”, Monsieur Verdoux’s release was very successful in Europe. However, the American reception was overshadowed by a press conference during which journalists ignored the film and instead used the platform to interrogate about his taxes, political affiliations and why he had never sought American citizenship. Demonstrations attacking him were organised outside cinemas; one newspaper reported that he had ‘offended the Independent Theatre Owners of Ohio. The group, owners of 325 movie houses, urged all other U.S. theatre owners to boycott Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux’.
The year of the film's release also saw the first hearings of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee that would tear apart the fabric of Hollywood, turning many creative artists against each other and devastating the livelihoods in a dubiously motivated search for Communist sympathisers.
Saturday, 25 February 2017
In his early work, Chaplin didn’t often attempt to blend comedy with the unpleasant realities of life - unless you count childhood separation trauma in The Kid (1921), the ghoulish hallucinations and the staving off of cannibalism in The Gold Rush or those fierce Grand Guignol eyebrows of supporting actor Eric Campbell across his films. At the end of World War One he found trench humour in Shoulder Arms (1918) which ended with him dreaming of capturing the German Kaiser. He would take aim at a far bigger target in his future.
Chaplin knew he must free himself from his Little Tramp shadow and of the easy, affecting sentimentality that accompanied that former alter-ego. It was time to ask questions that were more difficult, about subjects more controversial. It was the maturer, more reflective artist of later life that was about to create his masterpiece The Great Dictator.
I would argue a place for The Great Dictator in this retrospective based on fitting the definition of horror as well as satire. If we accept horror as the dwelling on nightmarish possibilities, the truly awful and terrible (in the sense of inspiring terror) then what could be worse than the Holocaust? And in its catalyst, the tyrant who ordered millions of humans to be exterminated as if ordering the shipping of produce, who could possibly be a greater monster or serial killer than Hitler? Moreover, the vileness of the method and chief instigator are all the more appalling for being real, rather than hiding behind the safe wall of the writers’ imagination.
Trying to find a humorous angle about the very worst inhumanity of WWII is surely the hardest proposition in comedy. In thinking about the unthinkable, honouring the living and the dead and aiming offence only at those deserving it, understandably few have dared to try. I can only think of one film since Chaplin’s that successfully mined pointed humour from the subject - Roberto Benigni’s stunningly brave Life is Beautiful (1997) - in which a father heartbreakingly maintains till his death the illusion for his son’s sake that their concentration camp internment is all a game. Jerry Lewis struggled so much with the tone of his Auschwitz-set 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried (as a clown recruited to divert the attention of the camp children till he finds himself locked in the gas chamber with them) that as of writing this, he has still never allowed the film’s release out of enduring shame.
For Charlie Chaplin, world events would conspire to push him into feeling he had no choice but to reflect them in his work. The course of his life and that of the emerging threat of Chancellor Adolf Hitler raise interesting parallels as well as contrasts. Both men were born in the very same week of April 1889, just four days apart. They would go on to occupy two sides of the same fame coin: the celebrated and the infamous. One short, moustached man would be loved the world over, the other feared. Chaplin was born in London into extreme poverty and his own childhood trauma, with an absent father and a mother who suffered precarious mental health that forced her into institutional care. Raised in Austria-Hungary, Hitler suffered violence at the hands of an abusive father, though he cared deeply for his mother.
Neither boy benefitted from schooling. While Chaplin educated himself on the streets and as a boy performer in the Music Halls before emigrating to America, Hitler sought his artistic future as a prospective art student. He set his sights on the lofty Vienna Academy. Their rejection of his unremarkable talent scarred him for life, the resulting dejection sent him spiralling into slum living as a real-life tramp much like Charlie’s youth. Inevitably young Hitler’s situation crossed his path with undesirables, one of whom was Guido von List, a Gandalf-bearded occultist of letters whose anti-Semitic teachings fuelled his fateful road to hate-propelled power.
The aftermath of WWII left Germany in grinding poverty, fertile ground for the whole nation to be persuaded by opportunistic factions recruiting for their belief systems. Hitler sided with his old General in the revolutionary Munich Putsch of 1923 and subsequently landed in jail where he wrote Mein Kampf. Like many, he was further inspired by the success of Mussolini’s fascist regime, particularly after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 when even Americans looked favourably on the Italian dictator’s efficiency drives for national revitalisation.
Cinema was a vital link between the actor and the politician in promoting their image. Both understood its potential influence, but whereas Chaplin’s talent translated beautifully onto the silent movie screen, Hitler’s gesticulations and ferocity looked inappropriately comical. Ironically, he benefitted from the huge communication leap provided by his nemeses in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first major studio sound film, produced by and starring jews. With the aid of acting lessons, now the compelling sound of Hitler’s speeches represented him to his people with devastating potency, taking him to supreme power as the German Chancellor. In this period Chaplin spent long hours at the cinema with his son Sydney, studying endless newsreels and declaring Hitler the greatest actor he had ever seen.
The admiration was not mutual. Though Hitler was himself a film buff enjoying American movies and a special fondness for Greta Garbo, he was no fan of Chaplin. Kevin Brownlow’s compelling documentary The Tramp and the Dictator cites examples of ugly Nazi propaganda aimed at him. The poisonous book Juden Sehen Dich An (‘The Jews are Watching You’) published in 1933 and the 1940 documentary Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew’) indulged in hate-mongering, reductionist racism singling him out as a perceived Jew. Though there was no evidence in his genealogy, to his credit Chaplin never denied the claim. Brownlow said: "He was sent a copy of this book and it is widely believed that this led him to make the film The Great Dictator as an act of defiance."
While Hitler harnessed the impact of cinema sound in his growing bid to conquer the world, Chaplin held out as long as he could against the innovation. In his mind, he had conquered the world as an entertainer without it. Even his anti-capitalist gem Modern Times (1936) made almost a decade into the new medium’s use was still a silent film with added sound effects to get around having to fully embrace the change. The film was still daringly topical even so. The factory conveyor belt sight-gags were inspired by automotive tycoon Henry Ford who had installed the first car worker assembly line, boasting immense efficiency at the cost of dehumanising labour. Allan Garcia was cast as the tyrannical Company President with his hair dyed whiter to directly resemble Mr Ford. The industrialist not only exploited his workers in pursuit of profit, he was anti-union and overtly anti-semitic, having already published the four-volume series The International Jew - reputedly a great influence on the founder of Germany’s Hitler Youth.
Such open racism was much more common in America than modern readers might realise. The pro-Nazi German-American Bund’s popularity culminated in 20,000 attendees at its rally in Madison Square Garden, New York in February 1939. There were even Congressional hearings investigating the Jewish influence upon the Hollywood film business from an attitude of unmistakeable suspicion. In the post-Depression years before the Third Reich’s monstrous plans and methods were revealed, the USA actually looked to Hitler’s German government with admiration. After all, what they saw was a nation eschewing self-pity and instead rolling up its sleeves to build new infrastructure, absorbing men and women into a collective vision of productivity. Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph of the Will (1935) paraded 700,000 proud soldiers at Nuremberg in a display still astounding in today’s era of CGI-created crowd effects.
Behind the scenes though, the Nazis were expressing their darker purpose, one that would warp an appearance of healthy creation into unimaginable greed and destruction. Their masterplan annexed Austria in March 1938, affording Hitler the chance to drive through Vienna with all the vengeful pride he felt he had lost when that city crushed his teenage artist dreams. By the time of the hideous Kristallnacht attack against the Jews within Germany, it would surely be impossible for other countries to doubt the deplorable monstrosity of Nazism’s real intent.
Chaplin refused to impotently sit by. His response was to channel his pent-up rage against Hitler into creativity and announced in October 1938 that his next film would bear the pointed title The Great Dictator. Many studio executives were horrified and tried to temper him, reasoning that they could not risk reprisals in Germany and fascist Italy, still very lucrative markets for American movies. His assistant Dan Jones recalled their advice: “You’re going to make it terribly hard for our people over there. You’re going to make Hitler furious”. He however could not conceive of any worse repercussions than what was being hinted at for the whole world. He was not alone. His admirable stance had a powerful ally in President Roosevelt who backed him fully.
Nine days after war officially broke out on September 9th 1939, Chaplin began shooting as the writer and director of The Great Dictator on secret closed sets. Much was at stake for him since the entire production was self-financed. He was putting his money where his mouth would be – and for the first time would be heard speaking through it on screen. Although the settings were given fictional Ruritanian names, there was no denying the parallels with the real world. The understated prologue card reads that between the wars ‘Liberty took a nose dive and Humanity was kicked around somewhat’.
The opening sees Chaplin as a drafted version of his plucky Little Man persona struggling to cope on the front line in 1918 as part of the Tomanian army (essentially picking up where Shoulder Arms ended). Cagily, he conceals his voice other than brief subordinate replies and presents a farcical set-up attempting to operate their Big Bertha gun which only rewards their preparation by a shell plopping out with an exaggerated cork pop effect. The sight-gag invention continues amusingly when he is ordered to retrieve the shell that swivels at him with a mind of its own wherever he turns. There is a disturbing edge to the humour when he primes a grenade and then loses it down his sleeve, only retrieving and throwing it just in time to avoid being blown up. In the fog of trench war, he even finds himself advancing alongside the enemy’s troops.
We then discover that in the ensuing Great Depression, the party of dictator Adenoid Hynkel has filled the vacuum with his overweening ego – the flip-side of Chaplin’s two dual roles. This signals the naughty schoolboy humour of Chaplin firstly in his ridiculing of names. Aside from the Hitlerian leader, there are other notorious associates spoofed from his real life cabinet: Herr Garbitch (the coolly disdainful Henry Daniell) mocking propaganda supremo Josef Goebbels, Admiral Herring (a welcome reappearance by Billy Gilbert, Laurel and Hardy’s volcano-tempered foe in 1932’s The Music Box) – and even an off-screen General named Schmell-Offel.
In spite of his reluctance to use spoken dialogue, Chaplin’s opening scenes as Hynkel relish the new comic dimension. He comes out of hiding as it were with all guns blazing in a torrent of fake German gibberish. He had the facility like later TV comedian Sid Caesar to reel off reams of semi-credible gobbledigook in foreign languages, maximising the laughs by mixing in anglicisms: exhortations of sacrifice to ‘tighten de belten’ and accusations of ‘cheesen-cracken’. Hynkel’s strident speechifying blasts with such force that his microphones bend back and spin. Notice the wide shots of the rally crowd. Was it just cost-saving or deliberate parody that the background rows are made up of dummies with mechanically-raised arms? The symbol of the party’s regime doesn’t escape the film-maker’s satirical digs. The German swastika becomes the literal double-cross insignia.
Meanwhile, in the temporary sanity of the Tomania ghetto Chaplin undertakes his other part, that of a recovering amnesiac barber, a dead-ringer for Hynkel, who is never named – possibly to reinforce his Everyman status. He dresses like Chaplin’s Little Tramp with bowler hat and cane and will need all the dexterity and courage of his alter-ego as events unfold. He develops a relationship with the lovely and tomboyish Cinderella-like Hannah, played by his real-life wife (and Modern Times co-star) Paulette Goddard. His innate dignity and her rough diamond quality are a charming match.
In these scenes as writer-director, Chaplin is careful never to sugar-coat the awful conditions looming. The brutal Hynkel Stormtroopers are shrewdly cast using burly New York actors with a convincing threat level, and whilst he shows us his still-admirable athleticism in scuffles with them, Chaplin doesn’t shy away from showing an attempted street-lamp lynching of him and their racist ‘Jew’ daubings on shop fronts.
The barber is reunited with Commander Schultz, the pilot he flew with in WWI who was promoted to governing the ghetto, played by the dapper Reginald Gardiner Their banter makes another potential dig at the Fuhrer ( ‘Fooey’ in the film):
‘I always thought of you as an Aryan.’
‘I’m a vegetarian’.
Back in Hynkel’s office, he is in expansive supremacist mood himself, rhapsodising about the possibilities of “A blonde world”. Coquettishly, he poses half-way up a curtain, insisting Garbo-like “I want to be alone” (Did the actor know then of Hitler’s own fondness for the enigmatic Swede?) This leads playfully into the most famous scene in the film, one that often features in those celebratory montages of the best moments in cinema. The genesis for it was Chaplin’s plan to emulate the splendour of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery office. Budgetary strictures curtailed him somewhat, yet what he did include was something he spotted in a photo of the interior: a globe on a stand. This may well have reminded him of a little skit he performed for the camera at home in 1928 in a skirt, boots and leafy head-dress larking about with a small globe and a German helmet perched on top. The two combined to form an idea that would beautifully and wordlessly say everything about Hynkel/Hitler’s relationship to the world.
For a brief heart-stopping sequence, we are transported like Chaplin in a gorgeous private ballet partnering him with the giant balloon of the globe accompanied by his and Meredith Wilson’s lovely string scoring. The dictator keeps his prize aloft with his hands, feet, even his bottom whilst still suspending time with thrilling grace. It is utterly wonderful and his beatific smile makes his secret desire all the more moving to watch. Never has the awfulness of monstrous ambition been rendered more poetic on screen.
The brilliance of this sequence is followed almost immediately by another bravura one in the barber-shop, showing the maestro’s own quiet prowess shaving a customer to the tune of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance. Gradually though, the light humour gives way to the darkening skies of emerging genocidal tyranny. For his treachery, Schultz is paid back by Hynkel despatching him with the tasteless: “You need a vacation. Fresh air. A little outdoor exercise. I shall send you to a concentration camp”. Chaplin must be forgiven for the seeming poor taste of this line. Jack Benny referenced the same flippancy in 1942’s war comedy To Be or Not to Be (1942): “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!” Most people were saved from knowing the nightmarish horror of camp treatment till the emaciated, barely-alive soldiers were pulled out of Bergen-Belsen in 1945.
Schultz escapes back to the ghetto and here Chaplin adds another layer of serious politicking to his observations by making Schultz a determined advocate of someone else bravely sacrificing themselves as a freedom-fighter instead of him. Another high-point of silent humour is on display as the barber and his neighbours each try to conceal the coin in his pudding earmarking him for the task. Regardless, both the barber and Schultz are apprehended.
The second half of The Great Dictator is enlivened though by the coarse whirlwind of Jack Oakie blowing in as the Mussolini-esque Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria. His crude blowhard impersonation is a master-stroke of casting, sparking rudely off Chaplin with a loud, backslapping “How are ya, Hinky?” and a stereotype accent hilariously reminiscent of Chico Marx’s ‘Noo Yooark’-a Italian-a. His raised chin and preposterous conceit sets up an endless competitiveness between him and “my brother dictate”. They try to propel their barber chairs higher than each other and take their border troop negotiations into a stubborn brinkmanship stalemate over who will invade Osterlich. Hynkel lives up to his insignia by invading it anyway.
The plot builds itself toward a climax fed by mistaken identity, a device many comedians would hinge an entire film on. An off-duty Hynkel is arrested while duck-hunting, while Schultz and the barber (dressed identically to Hynkel) escape from their incarceration into a waiting parade at the Osterlich border. The barber has no choice but to follow his impersonation into making a public victory speech.
An abandoned sequence, preserved in his brother Sydney’s remarkable colour home-movie footage has soldiers at this rally climax throw down their weapons and break up into a madcap dance. Chaplin realised the scene didn’t work and that instead he must focus on his speech to the people, the Barber being asked to rally the troops as Hynkel.
Here, Chaplin stages his other famed scene in the movie – a sudden about-face where the farcical comedy comes to a dramatic halt. Chaplin pauses at the mention of hope and at last speaks not as Hynkel or the barber but starkly as himself. He addresses us directly as the audience in close-up, fixing us with his eyes and the unvarnished middle-age of his face as he hesitantly begins an appeal for peace that will be delivered in a single unbroken take of mounting emotion. Chaplin may not have been aware that on this day of shooting Hitler was driving through Paris surveying his latest conquest, and yet it is clear the actor knows the prophetic significance of his words as he utters them: “Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – men, women and little children”. His idealistic assurance that “the hate of man will pass and dictators die” gradually turns to an energising anger, a call to arms that ironically matches the fervour of his arch enemy but for a benevolent cause. He beseeches the world’s soldiers “don’t give yourselves to brutes – unnatural men…self-serving dictators free themselves but they enslave others”. He is speaking of his time, for his time, and for all time.
Maybe in his undeniably sincere passion Chaplin should have stopped there. Where critics take issue with the scene is really over the end-piece in which he calls out to Hannah and her family, stranded in Osterlich, urging her to look up to where he imagines “The soul of man has been given wings”. The flight of reborn humanity into the rainbow is a somewhat overwrought image to follow - however he comes by it honestly, arguably driven by the enormous scale of the brutality to be overcome. Perhaps unimaginable suffering demands epic hope.
Finally, after 559 days of filming, re-shooting and re-editing, Chaplin’s production was done. It was then that the Nazis instigated their Blitzkrieg campaign that took the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Chaplin was so appalled by Hitler that he had almost had second thoughts about releasing his film: “He is a horrible menace to civilisation rather than someone to laugh at”. But the artist in him recognised that his greatest satire would have value in diminishing the German leader.
On its release, The Great Dictator certainly rewarded audiences. The film was a huge success despite being banned in parts of Europe and even in Ireland. There is evidence that its inciting villain even ordered it to be shown - twice - though Hitler's reaction was never recorded. It showed the full flowering of Charlie Chaplin’s talents as a film-maker, a comedian who could adapt brilliantly to changing times and a mature, committed artist of conscience willing to reflect them.
Tuesday, 21 February 2017
Like the vampire, the werewolf is a classic staple of mythology in modern western society. Whereas Frankenstein and The Mummy generated their appeal to the imagination from specific single stories that fed into the culture, the origins of vampirism and lycanthropy have vague connections with scientific phenomena but go further back into the fog of harder-to-source ancient superstition. The werewolf has been used most famously in the morality story of Red Riding Hood as a symbol of the eternal, shape-shifting trickster of evil appetites. He or she has even been presented for sheer grotesque shock value in the guise of the Bearded Lady or Dog-Boy of P.T. Barnum’s travelling sideshows.
Universal’s Dracula (1931) made much of a demonic link between the Romanian Prince of Darkness and his vulpine “Children of the night”, giving him the power to assume their form. His transformation though was deliberately staged off-screen as the studio feared the effects (and probably the difficulty of achieving them) of such metamorphoses. Even four years later in 1935’s Werewolf of London (reviewed here 2/7/2016), photography lap dissolves artfully hid each stage in Henry Hull’s transformation behind a succession of foreground pillars.
When it came to creating a prospective new horror franchise in The Wolf Man, Universal realised that they must be bold if their man/werewolf creation was to work. After all, Paramount and M-G-M had demonstrated with their iterations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (in 1931 and 1941 respectively) that a graphic and gradual facial changeover could create more wonderment and fear than unintentional laughter if the effects were supported properly by budget and that all-important strong screenplay.
The writer hired to tame the beast was Curt Siodmak who could relate well to the persecution theme of The Wolf Man. He had escaped from the genocidal terror of Nazi Germany and into his lycanthrope mythology he weaved aspects from his experience. The branding of the werewolf’s next victim with the pentagram symbol upon their hand is a direct reference to the targeting of the Jews and their singling out for ostracism, then capture and extermination in his former homeland. Siodmak also took great care to ground his scripts somehow in as believable a reality as he could. In Universal’s excellent accompanying DVD documentary Monster by Moonlight, he recalled: “All of my pictures have some scientific background - which makes them authentic”. Though The Wolf Man was more supernatural than his science-fiction ideas, in the film Siodmak allows modern psychiatry the chance to explain the cause. Warren William’s Dr Lloyd aims to explain the condition with his limited professional expertise: “Any disease of the mind can be cured with the co-operation of the patient”.
Siodmak claimed that his original screenplay was deliberately ambiguous as to whether Talbot actually becomes an externalised werewolf or was only convinced of it in his own delusions. The studio however pursued the unambiguous real monster manifestation and one other change that Siodmak found lacking in credibility. This was related to the central character, a star-making role for Lon Chaney Jr (now billed with thrusting, canny confidence by Universal as Lon Chaney). The assuming of his father’s name would never mean the young son of Lon Chaney senior could ever eclipse his talent, but he was about to emerge ironically as his own actor playing The Wolf Man in a vehicle that capitalised on his imposing size, much as 1939’s Of Mice and Men and Man Made Monster (1941) had done. Siodmak felt that Chaney’s burly presence as the character of Larry Talbot would make a realistic mechanic, travelling to Scotland to fix a Lord of the manor’s telescope. The studio sacrificed some believability by instead making the likeable, blue-collar chap the estranged returning son of said nobleman.
To the manor born though he was not, Chaney does fine work as Talbot. He is convincing in his doomed descent from the relaxed, brash American ‘abroad’ into the gnawing fear of a paranoid fugitive. Initially, his State-side accent is explained (with what I would call the Van Damme defence) as having been away from what is meant to be Wales for almost eighteen years. Producer-Director George Waggner needn’t perhaps have bothered with this back-story detail since film’s setting is that fantasy Neverland known as ‘Universal Backlot’. The Ruritanian village streets architecture created for their filmed Dracula onwards is a quaint back-drop merged with horse-and-carriage as well as 1940’s automobiles. The period clash is continued by a cast that once more endearingly mixes British with American residents. Reliable Chicago pipe-man Ralph Bellamy, who played similar slow decency in His Girl Friday (1940), was supposedly a childhood pal of Larry’s as Chief Constable Colonel Mountford. Moreover, the local British antique store owner (J.M. Kerrigan) has a daughter Gwen played by Evelyn Ankers, an American-sounding Chilean.
Let’s not split hairs – there’ll be enough of those sprouting in coarse, fearsome abandon soon. This is essentially Universal’s Everyman universality of location and the actors are all excellent in their parts, none more so than the prized asset of Claude Rains giving his honeyed tones as Sir John. His relatively diminutive stature against Chaney helps in contrasting against his son’s size. His urbane warmth toward him and sincere concern aids in weighting the film’s pedigree. “I do believe that most anything can happen to a man in his own mind”, he says with fatherly tact at one point.
Ankers and Chaney make a charming couple when they meet cute in her father’s shop. He, the voyeur who’s been spying on her through her bedroom window via the telescope. She, the secretly-engaged beauty confident enough not to worry at being perved over by a stranger across the street. “What big eyes you have, Grandma”, teases Larry in a nice nod to folklore after she sells him a silver-topped, wolf’s-head cane. We also hear the celebrated and oft-quoted verse that everyone in the town knows, haunted as the region is by the werewolf story:
Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.
More of the less pleasant side of superstition is close by, courtesy of the Gypsy encampment where they go to have their fortunes read - or rather Gwen’s chaperoning girlfriend Jenny (Fay Helm) does. It could be worse. She at least gets to meet Bela Lugosi using his own first name and his perfect-fit Hungarian accent as the Gypsy chiromancer. As I mentioned in my earlier Invisible Ghost article, in real life Lugosi hankered after the lead role in this movie during his second wind of gaining horror traction. It was not to be, and although he endured the knock-back of this single scene cameo, it is pleasing to see a rare, engaged vulnerability in his eyes crying out in horrified distress at Jenny’s impending demise. “Go away! Go quickly!” It is not quickly enough though. She dies by his transformed lyncanthropic paws. At this point we see an actual wolf committing the savagery as opposed to the potential movie-reality sabotage of an aging Were-Lugosi at it. As this also conceals the human alter-ego of her killer, the audience is better for dodging that silver bullet. (Until the poor actor’s monkey-business merger in 1943’s The Ape Man).
Larry throws himself into trying to save Jenny, and for his pains is bitten by the wolf before he brains it with the cane. A good deed never goes unpunished, and from here onwards the werewolf curse is transmitted to Larry. He manages to escape a death-sentence for murdering what reverted to being Bela the Gypsy, but in classic horror film style he is shunned by the outside jury of the townsfolk. Gwen’s reasonable schlub of a fiancé Frank observes: “There’s something very tragic about that man”. (Patric Knowles who plays Frank would tangle with the vulpine again in the first sequel Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943)
Bela’s death prompts the appearance of one of the most famous supporting character players in horror movie history: Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva. She is a fortune-teller like her accursed son and crops up repeatedly to deliver more intoned verse we heard at the start. To begin with, she stands over Bela’s body, quietly offering comfort: “Your suffering is over, Bela my son. Now you will find peace”. Then upon knowing that Larry now has the evil virus within him, she transfers her fixed stare of supernatural intensity to warning him of his fate, gifting him a silver pentagram medallion for safety.
No matter what he is given, Larry’s fate is sealed and back home we witness the first of his full-moon manifestations. Using dissolve photography, the close-up focus is on Chaney’s legs as they transmogrify into hairy tree-trunks (actually rubber boots) ending in gnarled, root-like toes. The prosthetic effects were once more undertaken by resident make-up genius Jack Pierce. His build-up of Chaney’s facial features, shown already fully changed in the following rampage scene, was done using his trusty technique of layering cotton and collodion. Inspired future make-up supremo Rick Baker (a multi-Oscar winner himself for werewolf films) felt that it was ultimately Pierce’s reluctance to move with the times that was responsible for his later unceremonious firing and replacement by Bud Westmore. The Wizard of Oz (1939) had recently pioneered foam rubber appliances: “It sped up the process. It kept the continuity better. It was more comfortable for the actors and it took a lot less time to make them up”.
Chaney’s relationship with Pierce suffered from impatience at the six-hour sessions he spent in the chair and also on-set while the progressive dissolves were painstakingly realised on camera. The result though was still striking. Pierce eschewed wild head hair for a tonsorial neatness, composed of layered-in yak hair then singed for added animalistic coarseness, that drew attention more to the face itself, A rubber porcine snout gave further proof that Pierce did actually work with other materials, and a lower arch of protruding fangs completed the bestial look. The artist was admirably keen to ensure that vulpine veracity was never allowed to mask the actor’s flexibility of expression.
Conceived on purpose by Siodmak as a Greek tragedy, the plot moves inexorably toward Talbot’s death. There is no cure, whether physical or talking, and it is a brutal climax that sees father killing son with the same wolf-headed cane that signposted his fate. Rains strikes each blow with committed, unavoidable ferocity leaving his poor offspring to change back just as Rains himself did at the end of his own berserk reign of terror in The Invisible Man (1933). Similarly, Larry is now believed to be in
eternal peace, the poetic leitmotif intoned more fully and gracefully now by Ouspenskaya:
The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own.
But as the rain enters the soul, the river enters the sea.
The tears run to a predestined end.
On the subject of themes, we must not forget the terrific music score by Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner with its infamous, demonic tri-tone ‘daaa-da-daaa’ augmenting the frissons on screen.
Universal realised they had a hairy hit on their hands with The Wolf Man and promptly found ways, as with all of their iconic monsters, to continually revive him, no matter how conclusively he appeared to die at the end of each sequel. Although Chaney was arguably typecast in such a role, not only was he the only actor to play Talbot as we have discussed, but his work in horror roles afforded him a long career. As with Bela Lugosi, from his signature character part onward he was to spend the next three decades building a legacy that would outlive him.
Thursday, 16 February 2017
In October 1941, RKO released a fantasy film that blended supernatural chills and light-heartedness with a classic Faustian bargain and even political discourse into the mix. Ultimately it was known as The Devil and Daniel Webster but initially came out as All That Money Can Buy, a fitting enough title referred to in an important line of the movie’s dialogue. It had to be changed though to avoid confusion with another film of theirs in the same year called The Devil and Miss Jones.
The origin of the tale began with Washington Irving’s 1924 short story The Devil and Tom Walker in which the titular impoverished New Hampshire farmer of 1840 is tempted to sells his soul in return for a chest of treasure on his land, booty left there by pirate Captain Kidd. Whilst he mulls it over, his evil wife fatally seals the deal in his absence which he then agrees to continue. In the guise of Old Scratch, the Devil finally claims his due and carts away Walker on a black horse amid lightning strikes. Stephen Vincent Benét adapted the story in 1936, this time making the contract a secret solely entered into by farmer Jabez Stone and adding a legal trial in which he enlists the aid of the renowned, real-life legal eagle Daniel Webster who is deceived somewhat by ‘Mr’ Scratch loading the jury with cut-throat pirates and traitors including Captain Kidd. Despite the cunning ploy, the jury finds for the defendant. Stone is freed, leaving an interesting epilogue whereby Scratch reads Webster’s future and accurately predicts his failed run for the Presidency, his sons’ deaths and accusations of traitorship for supporting the Compromise of 1850 whose bills may have staved off the Civil War till the 1860s. Scratch reluctantly concedes that the Union will win the war, thus earning a celebratory seeing-off by being kicked in the pants outside by Webster.
The plot and irreverence toward the Devil from this version became the blueprint for the 1941 film adapted by Benét and Dan Totheroh along with implied anti-slavery sentiment. Production and direction were both handled by William Dieterle whose esteemed pedigree had already garnered him the Oscar for Best Picture for The Life of Emile Zola in 1937 and the never-bettered Charles Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
The film starts with a prologue on screen that invites us all to consider that as the everyman fantasy fable unfolds “Yes, it could even happen to you”. James Craig makes a solidly convincing portrayal of Jabez Stone whose epic character arc encompasses the descent from ploughing a hard furrow as a good, God-fearing farmer into a rude, swaggering tyrant lording his unearned fortune over his fellow townsfolk. His performance lifted him out of the B-movie ranks into better work. He is well-supported by Anne Shirley as his loyal, suffering wife Mary (four years after her Oscar for 1937’s Stella Dallas) and the ideal mother of homespun wisdom in Jane Darwell soon after winning her own Oscar as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
The most memorable performances in the film though are the two shortest notables in screen time but nonetheless indelible. As Scratch, Walter Huston is a stand-out. Head of the illustrious Huston acting dynasty (father to director John Huston and grand-father of actors Danny and Angelica), he gives a dazzlingly mischievous turn as the Devil himself and would later join his other two statuette winners in the cast after winning as Best Supporting Actor in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He suddenly arrives in Stone’s barn back-lit superbly by Joseph H. August’s cinematography after Stone offers to sell his soul reflexively in bemoaning his bad luck – a terrific staging of such a key scene. Under his Robin Hood cap Scratch eternally beams the wide Cheshire Cat grin of the smug, charming salesman who knows he has the power to give everyone exactly what their desperate hearts desire. His smile almost never leaves his face for he knows that in return for a simple signature, as with Stone in return for seven prosperous years, each person forgets all consequences in their blind greed. Scratch pops up like an impish sprite repeatedly to survey his charges, ever-watchful for new customers as well.
Intriguingly, one who never falls to the demon of temptation is the other powerhouse and conscience of the movie: Daniel Webster played with great dignity and command by renowned portrayer of authority figures Edward Arnold. He perfectly embodies the calm centre of the story, a fundamental decency and trust in humanity no matter how lost we (as Stone) may temporarily be. Arnold’s bearing is every inch that of a man utterly unshakeable in his faith, his voice deep and measured, one that is used to being heard as it persuasively argues his case. He also graces with distinction many of the script’s best lines – worthy of mention for their period flavour, such as when hearing of Stone’s inflated grandeur: “He’s certainly made himself the big frond in the little puddle around here”. Webster is powerfully introduced in the fevered heat of speech-writing while a strikingly-rendered shadow (guess who) crouches at his side whispering seductively to no avail.
For the most part, the tale focuses on the tortuous downward trajectory of Stone as he grows lazy and cruel under the false comfort of his ill-gotten gain. His wife and mother can do nothing but look on as he alienates all around him, dishonours his previously-cherished Sabbath in card-playing and ignoring the gratitude of observing Grace at the dinner table. As his capitalist wealth expands, he upgrades his home to a huge mansion while degrading his humanity, along the way gaining a mysterious femme fatale maid Belle (literally so in the death-attracting form of beguiling French siren Simone Simon). Together they are reminiscent of Rhett and Scarlett from Gone with the Wind, wickedly compatible yet heading for ruin, accelerated by her as planted in his life by Scratch.
Stone’s disintegration lives up to his surname by even laughing at his neighbours’ crops destroyed by a freak harvest hailstorm while his fields remain supernaturally intact. Proof of what ghastly harm Belle is tolling for at his side comes at a ball when the only guests who will attend him are a spectral gathering of souls. In among them is at least Miser Stephens (John Qualen, showing his character actor as also seen in His Girl Friday and Casablanca) yet he almost doesn’t count since we know he has sold himself for the same Haitian gold coins as Stone. Another stunning sequence of effects work rendered by Vernon L. Walker under August’s soft-focus sees the ghostly carousers party until the she-devil turns the mood into a dance of death for the loan-shark.
As the revised title suggests, this must become a film where the Devil’s relationship with the lawyer
becomes vital. Stone is reduced to his son being demanded by the Devil as the only way to avoid his now-expired contract leading to Stone’s due death as payment. “I promised you all that money could buy,” gleams Scratch in triumph. “I don’t recall any other obligations”. And so Dieterle’s direction builds beautifully to a staged trial in the last fifteen minutes with Webster to the hoped-for rescue of the conscience-returned farmer. Webster asks the grinning Scratch for “An American judge and an American jury”. Befitting his nature the Devil obeys the terms, but evilly stacks the deck with a phosphorescently glowing bunch of choice criminal scumbags from history marching up from under the stable floor. These include the aforementioned Captain Kidd, Edward Teach and the disgraced General Benedict Arnold. Once again, the director creates effective frissons of the eerily hypnotic without needing to plunge into full-blooded horror.
The stage is set for a bravura defence by the beetle-browed Webster that surely must rank as the ultimate test of any lawyer’s oratorical fire since he will be doomed like Stone should his speech end in a guilty verdict. This is also where the film plays its subtlest card, that of weaving in the timely theme of (pre-Civil War) Abolitionism, paralleling the freedom sought for Stone with that of the black victims of enslavement across the nation. It is implied in Webster’s impassioned statement rather than overtly stated, yet the imagery is unmistakeably targeted: “And when the whips of the oppressors are broken and their names forgotten and destroyed – free man will be talking and walking under a free star.” With an emotional thrust enough to make Lincoln throw up his stovepipe hat in admiration, the great man concludes. We see the ‘Jury of the Damned’ confer and then with wordless impact, the Foreman slowly tears up the now-unenforceable contract. Stone is free. As for his African-American brothers and sisters, their day will not come so easily; only after the most hideously scarring of wars has wounded the soul of every family in the country.
The Devil and Daniel Webster is a moving and sincere morality tale, all the more so for being couched to some extent within fantasy trappings. The Academy Award-winning score by Bernard Herrmann combines stirring themes with atmospheric spookiness and comedic fancifulness to sweeten the more sombre predicaments played out.
Speaking of endings, there is a lovely coda courtesy of Huston. After conceding his loss like a sportsman, meriting a boot to the backside just like in Benét’s version, he scoffs a peach pie stolen from Ma Stone and then prepares to go about his business. Out comes his little black book and as his eyes roam the horizon for more suckers to bring to account, with wicked glee they alight on…us. His finger points to the audience and deliciously breaks the fourth wall, a perfectly pitched way to send us out from this gem in a spirit of playful caution.
Wednesday, 15 February 2017
1942 was a good year for Boris Karloff. He was invigorated by the huge success and profits he made from investing and starring in the Broadway play Arsenic and Old Lace with its farcical, macabre-edged black humour. On hiatus from the production that summer, he filmed The Boogie Man Will Get You, a deft and deft comedy to complete his contract for Columbia Pictures. The studio wanted to capitalise on his theatre hit, which explains why the film’s tone and content is so clearly reminiscent of it: a screwball comedy of concealed bodies in a house full of blithely innocent-seeming murderers and fruitcakes played at an increasingly fast pace.
Direction was by Lew Landers who had previously partnered Karloff with Bela Lugosi in the controversial 1935 chiller The Raven, (reviewed here on 4/7/2016), from a script rushed out in four weeks by Edwin Blum based on a Hal Fimberg and Robert B. Hunt adaptation of Paul Gangelin’s story.
Karloff portrays another in his gallery of mad scientists, Professor Nathaniel Billings, but with the refreshing variance of being a dotty and whimsical buffer instead of the slow, portentous medics that audiences usually saw him play in straight horror titles. He is keen to sell his dilapidated old tavern, presumed to be a historically valuable property from the eighteenth century. A young lady, Whinnie played by (Jean Marie) ‘Jeff’ Donnell falls in love with the place and buys it on sight, intending to make of it a boarding house. She agrees to keep on the Professor so he can continue his shady basement medical experiments that so far have caused five men to vanish without a trace. Also retained are Billings’ cuckoo housekeeper Amelia - Maude Eburne who appeared in 1930s The Bat Whispers and The Vampire Bat in 1933 (see my review of 21/4/2016) – and crotchety farmer Ebeneezer (George McKay).
Whinnie is unconcerned, indeed charmed, by the evident dry rot and run-down conditions. So too is her first guest, the prissy, coke-bottle bespectacled J. Gilbert Brampton (Don Beddoe), a most unlikely ballet choreographer. Whinnie is less enamoured at the sudden reappearance of her ex-husband Bill who’s come to save her from what he feels is a poor business decision on his way to begin army training. As Bill, Larry Parks is a winningly energetic pest, prat-falling and gamely suffering the emerging nuttiness around him. He would go on to be Oscar-nominated for the first of his famous roles as Al Jolson in 1946’s The Jolson Story (followed by Jolson Sings Again in 1949) before his confessed Communist Party membership, in front of the HUAC committee, led to him testifying on others and still being ruinously blacklisted regardless.
The perceived villain of this piece is none other than Peter Lorre having fun as Dr Lorenz. Being the holder of the crippling mortgage on Billings’ property is just one of his murky skills. Apparently he is also a scientist who scorns the other’s work – what Billings defends as “Shaking the unshakeable laws of existence” - yet whose own achievements are restricted to inventing a dubious hair-restorer. Somehow coming from Lorre this background seems entirely believable. Lorenz is also the town’s Health Officer and Sheriff, leading us to surmise he is a low-level kingpin with his fingers in many local pies. His garb of black broad-brimmed hat, black suit and short tie has the exact look of Robert Mitchum’s dangerous preacher in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter), though Lorenz is more buffoon than serious threat.
Lorre and Karloff soon team up again to our pleasure as quasi-crime partners like they did in their previous comedy double-act in You’ll Find Out (1940), once Lorenz realises there may be more depth than he thought to Billings’ scientific ‘quackeries’. Enjoy Lorre’s comic timing when he almost deflects any implied impugning that his motives would “cheat millions of people all over the world? Profane my profession? Suppose I make a few doll-“
Billings confides in Lorenz his batty proposition that with his cellar’s cabinet of wires and a skullcap he can induce the power of flight in a victim as a weapon in the war effort: “He would destroy Berlin. He would throttle Tokyo…” By the time we see Amelia on the landing clucking like a hen and telling Whinnie “I just laid my 214th egg!” we are hard-pressed to figure out who the real lunatics are.
Visiting this madhouse is ‘Slapsie’ Maxie Rosenbloom, the real-life former World Light Heavyweight boxing champion who became a much-loved character actor and owner of the famous Slapsie Maxie’s comedy club. He is perfectly cast as an amusingly incongruous powder-puff salesman who is promptly knocked out as a fresh subject for Billings’ and Lorenz’s experiments: “This one will fly. I can feel it”, enthuses Karloff as they carry him away.
Gradually, the crazy freight train of the plot builds a head of steam with Mr Johnson, Billings’ opening test subject in the film, presumed dead and olfactorily-challenged Maxie inviting the scientists and the two ex-lovers to smell the chloroform that he can’t, crumpling them to the floor. Following the body count of seeming-dead and apparently unconscious is muddied in the exposition but the lively farce speeds amiably glosses over such details.
One last whack-job character joins the parade in the shape of Frank Puglia as Silvio, an escaped aviator POW from a Canadian camp who demands a safe haven and transport to blow up a munitions plant. He’s so insane that he could pass for an anarchist revolutionary rather than part of any organised Axis power plot - “I’m a human bomb!” Puglia made some notable minor film appearances as an actor and, but for illness, would have been immortalised in The Godfather (1972) as undertaker Bonasera - an irony considering that in that film he believed in America with an immigrant’s passion, whereas here he is hell-bent on its destruction. “We are on the brink of annilihilation!” he crows, lighting his own fuse in more ways than one.
The humour in The Boogie Man Will Get You is of various types and mostly works well prformed by an integrated cast fully in on the joke. There are physical action sight-gags both concrete and surreal (such as the actual sound effect thump when Amelia mimes the baby Billings’ being dropped on his head) and whimsical one-liners. “He seems quite well done”, observes Brampton coolly as Maxie falls out of the cabinet after being experimented upon.
It turns out that the implausible choreographer’s peculiar snooping around during events is due to his true identity as Curator of the Historical Society of America. He happily certifies that the erstwhile couple’s going concern is now approved as a genuine piece of history. Meanwhile the group as a whole are looking at certification of a different sort by the arriving police – as crackpots headed for Idlewild Sanitorium. This fazes Lorenz no more than the bumping off of their victims for the cause of science (all of whom have inexplicably revived). Added to his fulsome résumé he reveals: “I am the chairman of the Board of Directors”.
The Boogie Man Will Get You is fun candyfloss fluff, sinister goings-on without heavy consequences and a nice change of gear for Karloff in the midst of his run of lugubrious medical madmen.
Monday, 13 February 2017
Whilst Universal was busy reactivating their roster of horror monsters in 1941, across town another icon that they didn’t own was getting a make-over. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had last been remade by Paramount in 1931 and deservedly earned Frederick March an Academy Award (see my review of 18/2/2016) – even now a rare accolade for acting in this genre.
The 1941 version also had promising ingredients. It was made by M-G-M who, although usually the home of lavishly-budgeted glossy musicals, had already produced some interesting early horror films. Lon Chaney was contracted to them for his last five years which contained memorable fare like The Unknown (1927). In the next decade they dabbled further, continuing their association with Tod Browning’s circus obsession in the unforgettable Freaks (1932), and backing other horror-tinged dramas such as Mad Love (1935).
The studio’s second master-stroke was in having Spencer Tracey play the dual role of Henry Jekyll and his Mr Hyde alter-ego. By now, his beguilingly naturalistic acting style had bagged him two successive Oscars for Captains Courageous (1937) and 1938’s Boys Town (a feat only matched once since by Tom Hanks in the 1990s). His oft-quoted acting advice for fellow performers was “Never let them catch you at it”, a neat summation of his minimalistic approach. For the schizoid demands of this film, he combines the subtlety of the civilised doctor with an increasingly flambouyant style as Hyde’s primitive creature takes greater control of him.
Another crucial component for the film was the choice of Victor Fleming as director. With this remake he certainly gave the lie to an industry misconception about him. He was regarded as a man’s man in terms of his directing sensibilities - Clark Gable was reputedly happier when he replaced the more femininely-sensitive George Cukor on 1939’s Gone with the Wind) - and yet both Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman deliver finely-shaded work under Fleming’s influence as the two vital female protagonists in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Lana Turner is Henry’s English rose fiancé Bea Emery, perfectly embodying a winsome femininity but hinting at what more is in store for Henry with a delightful flirtatiousness between them. “If you don’t stop looking at me like that, I won’t be responsible for my actions”, he tells her with charming restraint. She represents a publicly-concealed not repressed sexuality, very much there yet waiting for the societally-approved time of their wedding to be fully expressed. “Can this be evil then?” she asks Henry of their relationship’s tender love. She challenges his obsession with man’s latent murkiness and refuses to accept that such tendencies could ever dominate. If they attend the races, she will soon realise she has backed the wrong horse.
Bergman as the barmaid and prostitute Ivy has a role with more scope and colour than the delicate innocence required of Turner. Hers is a bold and provocative sexuality that is palpable in the private scene at her flat after Jekyll and his friend Dr John Lanyon (Ian Hunter) rescue her from a violent street customer. Hot innuendo radiates from Tracey and Bergman, enough to draw in the prudish moral guardians of Joseph Breen’s Production Code office who still held power over Hollywood depictions of celluloid sin. The script artfully skirts the shoals of sex though without ever frothing overboard. “Do you want to look at my side?” purrs Ivy coquettishly when Jekyll offers to examine any possible bruising to her. She even invites him to look at her ankle, peeling down her stocking in the full realisation of the temptation she gives him and bestowing on him a suggestive garter keepsake. No wonder Jekyll’s gentlemanly demeanour breaks and he goes in for a steamy, lingering kiss – awkwardly interrupted by Dr John.
The glowing sexuality of Bergman in these scenes is even more powerful when we learn that originally Turner and Bergman’s roles were to be reversed. She became frustrated by her limited, virtuous typecasting and campaigned successfully with Fleming to be allowed to exhibit more range. Yes, she has an odd Swedish-Cockney accent, yet to be fair this wouldn’t be an inconceivable ethnic assimilation for working immigrants in a busy port city (Consider the varying nationalities of hopeful humanity sailing into New York for example) . Her bad-good girl is a scintillating performance, morphing from a haunting siren of sex into an abused, fatally vulnerable victim. Even when she encounters the newly-released Hyde in her seedy Palace of Frivolitites music-hall workplace, the top-hatted rake bores into her immediately with a fierce intensity that is almost a physical violation. She tells him to release his grip on her arm, and even after he does she murmurs “Let go” as if Hyde still has bruising possession of her.
A great supporting cast is on hand as well, most notably Peter Godfrey as the ideal warm and efficient butler Poole and Donald Crisp as Sir Charles Emery, the firm but decent father to Bea. (In a film featuring many Oscar-winners, Crisp would go on to richly merit his own statuette the following year in his moving portrayal of another family patriarch in How Green was my Valley).
John Lee Mahin’s screenplay, adapted from the 1931 version by Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, is a literate gem that never lets us forget that this is the classic internal war between the commendably civilised and the uninhibited primitive within all of us. It is no coincidence that when we first meet Jekyll, it is inside a church, symbol of incorruptible good, where the congregation are distracted by the ugly heckling of a poor chap whose mind has lost its censoring capacity after an industrial explosion. Jekyll is solicitous with him and professionally fascinated by the erosion of public decency he is suffering. Has he been polluted with unnatural thoughts or did the damage reveal his true self?
“Suppose we could break the chain – separate these two selves?” urges Henry. “Man is weak, has evil possibilities until the creator has solved it”. Choose your friend wisely folks, for this is a man of goodness virtually crying out for the crack-pipe of transgression and will not stop until he has wilfully crossed over in the name of scientific curiosity. The truly monstrous power of addiction is in its seductiveness and the heady possibilities of experiencing a new frontier. Ivy’s charms are not the cause of his downfall; she is a convenient catalyst for a voyager who is heading for mortal danger anyway.
Moving from the inward battle to the outward expression, fans and practitioners of horror film facial prosthetic effects will enjoy Tracey’s metamorphoses into Hyde and back. First, the early transformations are actually done off-camera; special mention is worthy here for Peter Ballbusch’s brilliantly suggestive montages, a cascade of potent images featuring Ivy and Bea, betraying Jekyll’s innermost torments. The resulting physical appearance of Mr Hyde is then mainly shown in medium and longer shot, keeping us at a slight distance while the monster self is rendered in a more understated way in his early outings. This is appropriate, not only to spare us the easy sabotage of over-the-top fright-wigs and goofy teeth, but because surely Hyde is the drawing out of Jekyll’s inner beast not a pasting-on of externals.
Jekyll’s later changes, which do become suitably more extreme, are undergone in lovingly detailed, static close-ups using dissolve photography where each applied layer by Warren Newcombe can be seen. Beneath his tousled hair, much emphasis is made around Tracey’s all-important eyes, amplifying his darkened soul within. Unruly bushy eyebrows sprout forth, his crow’s feet are accentuated and increasing bagginess is added under the sockets each time the bestial self emerges. The softness of the actor’s lips are neutralised, the top lip curled back to reveal gradually corrupted teeth that match Jekyll’s decaying humanity. Vocally as Hyde Tracey reduces his voice to a harsh, lower-toned, abrasive rasp to complement the roughness of his exterior.
As in the Frederick March version, it is rightfully uncomfortable to watch the later scenes where the enabler is crushed by the monster she helped to birth. This is not fifty shades of fey - each is progressively darker than the last. The relationship between Ivy and Hyde echoes that of many an understood domestic abuse case. His sick dominance of her, once complicit, is now full of dangerous sexual overtones: “You like a man who sees a girl and makes up his mind, don’t you?” he seethes at her with aggressive sexual power, daring her to be appalled and attracted, a ghastly reminder to us meanwhile of the sinful intentions she saw beneath his surface on first meeting (though she never realises he and Jekyll are the same man). His evil is more than just the warped brutality of superior strength, it is also stoked by the illogical fire of jealousy toward his outwardly purer alter-ego whom he detests “...from his lofty brim to the souls of his virtuous feet”. Hyde taunts Ivy with an unmistakable lewd caricature of submission: “He’s the kind of man you could get down on your knees to.”
Although Hyde’s murder of Ivy is mercifully carried out off-screen, it is preceded by an awful earlier presentiment: “The world is yours, my darling. The moment is mine…” Hyde throttles her, at least sparing her any more of his hideous mockery of her dreamed future with Henry.
The set design by four-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg is also deserving of mention. Whilst he cannot resist the Hollywood cliché version of Victorian London as fog-bound, there is atmospheric depth of perspective and detail in the streets.
Listen to Franz Waxman’s score for a lesson in sumptuous musicality that doesn’t swamp or neuter the darkness of the material whilst reminding us of the intended romance as well. From his beautiful opening theme to the soft tolling of funereal bells and a tastefully-cued heavenly choir as Jekyll dies into eternal peace, he becomes as valuable a partner for Fleming’s direction as he was to James Whale in scoring Bride of Frankenstein (1935). His career earned him seven Oscar nominations, winning a brace of them in successive years for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951).
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a superb remake of Stevenson’s story which proves once again that if given serious studio support a horror film can transcend its unfair association with low-budget gutter connotations and rise to a level of artistry that places it well into the mainstream appreciation.