Tuesday, 26 September 2017
Horror-tinged fairy and folk tales for children are as much a part of our culture as those geared to adult audiences. The nightmarish monster imagery featuring in many serve as life lessons for the young, such as in Red Riding-Hood with its implicit warning never to go into the woods alone or talk to strangers no matter how friendly they may appear under their wolfish exterior. A particularly ghoulish example is the French fairy story of Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard in English), the most popular version of which was by Charles Perrault in 1697. Perrault (1628-1703) was also the renowned creator of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), Cendrillon (Cinderella), La Belle au bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty) and Le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots), later greatly influencing the Brothers Grimm.
The title character is a rich but supremely ugly man who is even more off-putting due to his blue beard and a suspicious background of having been married several times to women who mysteriously disappeared. He manages to woo a beautiful local girl who sees past these points and becomes his wife. Bluebeard places temptation in his young wife’s way when he goes off on a business trip, giving her free reign everywhere except one room she is expressly forbidden to enter. Inevitably she cannot resist her curiosity and discovers to her horror that it conceals the bodies of the previous Mrs Bluebeards. He returns home early and confronts her, but fortunately her two brothers ride to the rescue before he can exact a terrible punishment upon her.
The moral to impressionable readers is clear, yet the grisly concealment of his past by the sinister Bluebeard inspired producers to develop theatrical and film versions of the legend. George Méliès was the first with Bluebeard in 1902, followed by two versions played as romantic comedies - Bluebeard’s 8th Wife (1923) starring Gloria Swanson and its remake starring Claudette Colbert in 1938.
The first screen treatment to accentuate the horror angle was from Poverty Row studio PRC in 1944. Bluebeard starred John Carradine, and whilst keeping a French setting, specifically nineteenth-century Paris, focuses less on his pursuit of a bride and more on concealment of his homicidal compulsions interwoven with an artistic expression. He plays puppeteer Gaston Morel whose has a lucrative side-line painting critically-acclaimed portraits. Meanwhile the city is in the grip of a Ripper-style wave of serial killings targeting attractive young ladies and disposing of their bodies in the Seine.
Morel is introduced to the lovely Lucille (Jean Parker, who Laurel and Hardy fans may recognise from 1939’s Zenobia and The Flying Deuces) who agrees to design costumes for his puppets. This sets off the jealousy of his lover Renee with whom he performs his shows. Renee was a brooding first role for Sonia Sorel who would end her career in the dark relationship comedy Harold and Maude (1971). Here her part ends post-strangulation in the river after she asks awkward questions about his previous muses.
From the early scenes it soon becomes clear that Bluebeard is a cut above the usual quality of releases from this type of studio. PRC had recently bought and kitted out the Fine Arts studio complex with new equipment and announced ambitious projects to follow. Their opening salvo would be Bluebeard (in effect beating Chaplin to the copyrighted title he wanted to use for his own movie based on the similar French literal ladykiller Henri Landru – eventually titled Monsieur Verdoux in 1947). Director Edgar G. Ulmer began as a set designer on Expressionist classics like The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1927) before helming horror pictures such as 1934’s The Black Cat and he capably directs a cast of above-average actors for the territory, augmented by decent production values spent on sets and costumes. Carradine smoothly glides through his machinations, albeit given to some eye-popping excesses when attempting a Lugosi-like hypnotic stare upon his victims.
As Morel’s other puppeteer and henchman Le Soldat, Emmett Lynn has a moustached, soiled seediness of character. Nils Asther’s Inspector Lefevre is the Sûreté’s suave and relaxed pipe man, reminiscent of Charles Boyer rather than the typical cardboard stock players normally found on Poverty Row. Though he was Danish in real life, he oozes a credible Gallic charm to virtually woo his lady interviewees into full compliance. Asther was a fallen star from the glamorous heights of silent movie romantic leads in the late Twenties, when he’d squired the likes of Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo on screen, through a ruinous blacklisting after he broke a studio contract in 1934. His career never recovered momentum and sadly PRC’s gain was to showcase him on the way down to finishing the decade as a truck driver.
Another flavourful interpretation is that of Ludwig Stössel as Morel’s crafty, pointy-bearded art dealer Jean Lamarte, the weak link in his set-up who is open to bribery. Morel also slips up when he noticeably loses the cravat with which he garrottes Lucille’s sister Francine (Return of the Ape Man’s Teala Loring) - one of the police’s best undercover agents. Lucille had previously repaired it for him and knows it is the infamous Bluebeard’s modus operandi.
The threads of Morel’s entire life now begin to unravel. Even when faced with his lame excuse as to where the cravat went, in time-honoured tradition Lucille desperately tries to reconcile her love for him with the overwhelming evidence against him – until Morel confesses all. He had been a starving Beaux Arts student of nondescript promise till an ill woman he brought home inspired his Royal Academy award-winning canvas as the Maid of Orleans. From then on, the even sicker Morel made a twisted connection between artistic triumph and requisite agonies suffered by his sitting model.
“Now do you understand?” he raves at Lucille. Only too well. More perversely still, the maniac sincerely believes his back story need be no hindrance to their happy future although “Anyone seeking to destroy our happiness is a menace – a menace who will have to be done away with”. Disproving the maxim that honesty is the best policy, Lucille understandably disagrees about their prospects together and, as in the fairy-tale, is saved from a garrotting herself in the nick of time by Lefevre and his men.
Tom Weaver’s invaluable Poverty Row Horrors quotes director Ulmer from a 1970 interview with Peter Bogdanovich in which he recalls his stint (admired as “the Capra of PRC”) with some ambivalence, summing it up as “ I drifted into PRC and couldn’t get out”. In comparison with other horror movies from that slender neck of the woods, Bluebeard at least shows what talent can achieve during a period of slumming.