Jmaes Whale‘s The Old Dark House (1932) might be seen as a companion piece to his Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Both represent Whale at his most personal within the grand-guignol genre. While Bride Of Frankenstein is post-Production Code, so that it’s thinly disguised gay spirituality had to be delivered indirectly via myth, the pre-Code Old Dark House is awash with eccentric characters mocking dogmatic, false religious morality. Tackling hypocrisy within religion was a frequent theme with this director. Like Luis Bunuel, Whale applied the critique through cutting humor. However, as a Surrealist, Buñuel naturally didn’t give a damn about the intended audience; Whale deliberately sought accessibility. As his character states in the biopic Gods And Monsters: “The trick is not to spoil it for those who aren’t in on the joke.”
Both films are replete with Whale’s idiosyncratic humor. However, Whale’s British sensibilities are more pronounced in The Old Dark House, which makes it a stand apart from the other Carl Laemmle-produced Whale films. Although it opened to good box office in the States, The Old Dark House failed to repeat the success of Frankenstein. It did phenomenally well in England and throughout Europe, but it was simply too sophisticated for hayseed domestic audiences, and business quickly tailed off (it also undoubtedly suffered from the Freaks anti-horror backlash). The Old Dark House was only revived once in the States, its rights lapsed, and the film languished in obscurity. It was considered lost for over a decade before a print was discovered (Whale died believing it to be forever lost). It was partly restored by preservationist and Whale confidant Curtis Harrington. Near the end of his life, star Boris Karloff was grateful when informed of the discovery. The Old Dark House has been released on DVD via Kino, but still shows some deterioration. Hopefully, a more thorough restoration will be forthcoming.
R.C. Sheriff and Benn Levy adapted J.B. Priestly’s “Benighted” and, under Whale’s orchestration, superseded the original literary source. The film’s cast responds to Whale’s deviant humor with contagious enthusiasm. The film had to be as much fun to make as it is to watch.
The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932) is a pre-Code pulp serial dressed up as a feature. It is grounded in its period, which includes a considerable amount of racist baggage. If you can get past that aspect, The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a pleasantly dumb, super-sized bag of heavily salted, heavily buttered theater popcorn.
At the movie’s center is Boris Karloff‘s crisply malicious performance as Manchu, which should go down as one of the most memorable examples of ham acting, on a level with Ricardo Montalbaln inThe Wrath Of Kahn. The Caucasian-as-Oriental was a 30s and 40s casting fad (Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi, Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). Christopher Lee revived the trend in the 60s when cast as Fu Manchu in a series of films. In contrast to Lee’s laconic portrayal of the Asian super villain, Karloff plays it to the hilt; his body language—from a condescending, sadistic grin to the prickly use of his hands—is electric.
Manchu is clearly bisexual, and Karloff invests the character with a debauchery that rivals his Hjalmar Poelzig. He introduces Fah Lo See (Loy) to his subjects with these lines: “I am the most unfortunate of men. I have no son to follow me. Therefore, in shame I ask you to receive a message from my ugly and insignificant daughter.” Fu Manchu backs up his disdain for his offspring with an offer to pimp her out, which fails to earn much compassion from us for the poor girl, since Loy goes the distance in portraying Asian women unsympathetically. Loy’s performance is wildly uneven: bouts of lethargy are followed by orgasmic fiendishness (at its most fully-baked when she plays voyeur to a white man being horse whipped by two Africans). Half of her performance admirably competes with Karloff.
According to Bela Lugosi‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions. However, several biographers have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period. It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones. Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings. After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States. Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films. In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play. With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.
In 1929, director Tod Browning, shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929). Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence and brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas. Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part. His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language version of Dracula (shot at the same time on the same sets as Browning’s classic). Years later, Lugosi bitterly complained about the typecasting which resulted from the film, but realistically, Dracula was the best thing that happened to the actor. With his limited acting skills and heavy accent, Lugosi never could have been successful in the romantic matinee roles he desired.
The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) are three atypical pre-code films from Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz. Better known for such classics asAdventures of Robin Hood (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942),Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945), Curtiz was adept at practically every genre, including horror; although he only ventured there with this trio of pre-Coders and 1936’s Walking Dead (1936), starring Boris Karloff.
The Mad Genius stars “the Great Profile,” John Barrymore, and features a pre-Frankenstein (1931) Karloff in an uncredited bit part as an abusive Cossack father. It is a reworking of George du Marurier’s “Trilby” and the second 1931 Warner Brothers’ film featuring Barrymore as the mesmerist Svengali (the first was the more famous and successful Svengali, directed by Archie Mayo).
Here, Barrymore goes by the name Tsarakov, but he plays the same control freak, and gives a narcissistic performance. He is a blatantly promiscuous puppeteer, awash in Freudian issues (transferring hatred of the ballerina mother who abandoned him to women dispatched by his weapon of choice: the casting couch).
While tame by 21st century standards, the best of the pre-code productions (1929-1934) flauntingly mocked the increasing threats of industry censorship and yet, for all those displays of sex and sin, still managed to stylishly outclass thirty years of (mostly) bland “moral majority approved” films that followed. It is, perhaps, not surprising that these films, caught in the tail pipe of Victorianism and under the Poe-like eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency, were also more authentically provocative and aesthetically conscientious than the bulk of the “opened floodgate” post-Code productions that began in the 1960s. Somehow, that stressful studio climate inspired filmmakers to produce movies that were very much enshrined in the amber of their specific time and place, yet also transcend many of the films immediately following.
Red-Headed Woman (1932) is one of the sauciest examples from that all-too brief period. It helps considerably that it stars Jean Harlow, the quintessential pre-Code sex symbol. Harlow has often been referred to as the Marilyn Monroe of the 1930s. (Monroe idolized Harlow and even considered playing her predecessor in a biopic, but changed her mind after reading the script. Monroe reportedly quipped: “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.”) Actually, Harlow was more talented and interesting than that later icon. After numerous roles in features and short films (including a memorable bit in Laurel and Hardy‘s Double Whoopee), Harlow became an “overnight sensation” with 1930’s pre-Code Hell’s Angels (dir. Howard Hughes) and 1931’sThe Public Enemy (dir. William Wellman). Having been dubbed “the Platinum Blonde” and “the Blonde Bombshell,” Harlow dyes her trademark tresses here to play a carrot-topped succubus.
Before Hollywood beckoned, Indiana native Ken Maynard had been a champion rodeo rider in the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Maynard was, possibly, the most popular of the “B” Western stars from the late twenties through the mid thirties. Audiences loved him, but virtually everyone who worked or dealt with Maynard thoroughly hated him. Excessive drinking, foul-mouthed, ego-driven tirades, supreme arrogance, and prima donna ways eventually burned every single bridge Maynard ever crossed, despite being given numerous chances to straighten out his act. Eventually his excesses, reckless spending, womanizing, and difficult personality all caught up with him. His last few films, from the mid-forties, show a dissipated, grotesquely overweight star well past his prime.
Since Maynard’s popularity had severely waned, his antics were no longer tolerated, and he was forced into retirement. After his film career ended, Maynard did a few rodeo circuit shows, a radio show, started a circus, lost it, went through several more marriages, and filed bankruptcy. His last few years were spent living in drunken solitude at a run-down trailer park, being cared for by his brother and fellow “B” Westerner Kermit Maynard, hawking off memorabilia (fake and real) and (secretly) receiving financial assistance from Gene Autry (Maynard gave Autry his start In Old Santa Fe, below). Ken Maynard died destitute and suffering from severe malnutrition in the early 1970s.
Two B westerns, two years apart with the same title. Both are off the beaten path and good in their own way.
First is the 1932 Mystery Ranch, atmospherically directed by David Howard and starring George O’ Brien. This Ranch might be aptly described as a Gothic western, often looking more like an early thirties horror film than a western. Charles Middleton is a tyrannical land baron and a piano playing, manipulative sadist who is holding his dead partner’s daughter, Cecilia Parker, hostage in order to force her into marriage and seize control of the Arizona valley. Middleton is so chilling, so slimy that he leaves a trail and, in the process, steals every scene he is in. Joseph August’s expressionistic camerawork certainly helps when the villain is so moodily lit. You know from that outset that any villain who would stoop to bullwhipping a deaf-mute native American henchman is going to mean trouble for O’Brien, and our hero has his hands full trying to save the fair maiden from her evil guardian.
After the successes of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) Universal Studios and Carl Laemmle, Jr. became anxious to produce vehicles for Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. After seeing unsatisfactory test footage for an early run at Frankenstein, Laemmle had sacked both director Robert Florey and actor Lugosi from that project. To make amends, Laemmle assigned Florey and Lugosi Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and teamed them with cinematographer Karl Freund, who had done extensive work in German Expressionist cinema, including The Golem(1920, d. Paul Wegener), The Last Laugh (1924, d. F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, d. Fritz Lang).
Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first of a Poe-inspired trilogy starring Lugosi, followed by The Black Cat (1934, d. Edgar G. Ulmer) and The Raven (1935, d. Lew Landers). The star and Freund’s camera (barely) save the film from Florey’s banal touch. Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a far cry from the Count in his evening tux. Adorned in curly top, unibrow, and carnivalesque mad scientist duds, Mirakle is a Darwinist pervert who seeks to mate a young woman with his Adam-like Ape, Erik, through some kind of mumbo-jumbo blood transfusion. Of course, Mirakle really gets his jollies by tying attractive, barely legal-aged girls to a king’s cross before penetrating them with a needle. Naturally, there are failed experiments before Mirakle thinks he has found Eve in Sidney Fox. Fox, a delicate, saccharine actress, is pure decor. No doubt she got the role via her engagement to a Universal Executive, whom she wedded later that year (it proved to be a stormy marriage, ending in the actress’ suicide in 1934). Continue reading →