Clubhouse: four films from the 1930s worth watching

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Carrying on with yet more 1930s films I think you should know about.

(1932) – WHITE ZOMBIE

This is allegedly Bela Lugosi’s favourite film, preferring it even over his role in “Dracula” (1931), which is distinctly odd as he had played Dracula over a thousand times on stage prior to landing the role in film. So eager was he to be chosen he even wrote letters to Bram Stoker’s widow to get her to drop her film-rights fee from $200,000 down to $40,000. How did Universal studios reward him? They let him play Dracula for $500 a week over seven weeks of shooting. David Manners, playing the male lead, who so hated the film for cutting his lines and performance in the final edit, reducing his role to a simpering fool  (in his opinion), that he always refused to watch the film, was paid twice as much. Lugosi was often shoddily treated. In “White Zombie” he got $250 a week for two weeks work.

That Lugosi preferred his role as Murder Legendre in “White Zombie” is odd for another reason, in that he often claimed his work for Hungarian and German films prior to his coming to America constituted his best performances for cinema. Unfortunately it is hard to judge because during WWII the Hungarians sent their film archive to Berlin for safe keeping. In hindsight, a very bad idea. Blown to smithereens, along with most of the German films. Gone are such roles as diverse as Dr. Jekyll’s butler and Chingachgook. Photos survive, but not the films.

When I first watched “White Zombie” I thought it was probably one of the earliest “talkie” films, say from 1929 or 1930, because the Gothic Romance atmosphere, slowness of pace, and excessive dialogue seemed symptomatic of that. I was astonished to learn it was filmed after “Dracula” had been a runaway sleeper hit for Universal. “White Zombie” was an independent film by the Halperin brothers. Victor Halperin directed. Interestingly, Jack Pierce, evidently moonlighting from Universal, did the makeup. Based on William Seabrook’s 1929 novel “The Magic Island,” it is the first film to feature Zombies, in Haiti of course. Later, in 1936 the Halperin brothers released “Revolt of the Zombies,” not at all a sequel, starring Dean Jagger, which starts off with zombies from Cambodia fighting in WWI trenches in France. Full marks for originality of the basic premise, but it’s mostly a dull love triangle and rather disappointing.

“White Zombie,” on the other hand, is great fun to watch, in part because of Pierce’s makeup for the wide-eyed zombies, in part because of the moody, dreamlike photography, and fantastic sets—being borrowed from films like “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Hunchback of Note Dame” and “King of Kings,”—but mainly because of Lugosi’s splendid performance as Murder Legendre, a Haitian sugar plantation owner who believes in the cheapest possible labour force, namely the reanimated dead. Lugosi often described himself as a victim of his stage performances in “Dracula” and was grateful the movie’s director, Tod Browning, toned his performance down to something restrained enough to work on film. But in “White Zombie,” with the character of Murder Legendre, Lugosi exhibited greater freedom of action, portraying Murder as gleefully malevolent, yet without chewing the scenery as he sometimes did in his later films. I think, for Lugosi, his performance in “White Zombie” felt fresh and wildly creative, compared to the stage-bound chains wrapped around his role as Dracula, and that this is why this performance was his favourite of all his American films. Well worth watching.

(1933) – DELUGE.

This RKO film begins with the destruction of New York city by a combination tidal wave and earthquake. Quite a spectacular special effect, these crumbling buildings, and clips of the destruction were later reused in many Republic Studio serials. You’d think that whatever follows comes as an anti-climax, and you’d be right. What we get is yet another love triangle wherein one chap discovers that his presumed dead wife is in fact alive and how this complicates his love for another woman who is loved by another man. Pure soap opera, with a melodramatic ending.

However, what makes this film morbidly watchable today is that most of the world has been flooded and the very few remnants of humanity left have to struggle from scratch to build a new civilization. Bear in mind that, at the time this film was made, the world was in the throes of the Great Depression and millions of people, not just the unemployed, were questioning the morality and practicality of the unrestrained greed that had brought this state of affairs about. Not only was capitalism threatened, but even the concept of democracy was held in some disrepute. Many concluded what was needed was tough discipline, perhaps in the form of Technocracy (a world run by engineers), or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. This is why a number of prominent teenage SF fans joined the Communist party. Then fan and later SF author Frederik Pohl referred to this era as his “Boy Bolshevik period.” And also many people were attracted to Mussolini’s Fascism. It was an age of longing for extremes.

Consequently, watching the film’s characters grope for a social solution so that the survivors of the catastrophe can live in a safe and perhaps better world is painfully contemporary in light of today’s growth of nationalist populism and the extreme polarization and potential for violence in the Trumpian universe. Some people in the film function as scavenging barbarians. Others are more intellectual in their planning but are icily libertarian in their refusal to tolerate anyone without useful skills. In the end it takes a charismatic demagogue to browbeat people into a gung-ho sort of unified discipline to work together at the expense of the evil ones. Not sure this is the ideal solution. Could be the only difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the former have better PR flacks and the latter are simply brutally honest. At any rate, a new order is established very much in the simplistic tradition of extreme American patriotism.

I would say this film was politically relevant in its day, speaking to the fears and needs of the depression-era public, then lapsed into obscurity for decades as a silly, pointless bit of fantasy, and now, once again, has become strikingly relevant. How DO you get an effective, working democratic government going? Enquiring minds want to know.

(1935) – MARK OF THE VAMPIRE

An interesting film in many ways. It is every bit as atmospheric as any Universal Studios horror film, but was made by MGM. It stars Bela Lugosi playing a dead ringer for Dracula, with the same costume, the same makeup, and the same mannerisms, but his character is a certain Count Mora. It is a remake of “London After Midnight” (1927) which starred Lon Chaney Sr. as a police detective impersonating a vampire in order to scare a confession out of a murder suspect. Both films were directed by Tod Browning, who also directed “Dracula” (1931). One of the two scriptwriters, Guy Endore, was a hot, hot property at the time as his novel “The Werewolf of Paris” had been New York Times best seller when it was published in 1933. The Hammer film “Curse of the Werewolf” (1961) was later based on this novel. So, all in all, you can be forgiven for suspecting this is a really great movie, and it is, but for two minor flaws.

The first flaw is Lionel Barrymore. He plays the detective with a hammy enthusiasm way out of line with the more restrained performances of the other cast members. It has always puzzled me that Lionel is remembered as a great actor whereas Lugosi is stuck with the reputation of chewing the scenery, yet, more often than not, Lionel is over the top and frequently, where the script and the director allowed, Lugosi was capable of refined and subtle roles beyond his typecasting. Truth is they are both great actors who, at their very worst, are wonderful scene stealers and always fun to watch. That said, Lionel’s histrionics disrupt the flow and atmosphere of this film. Tod Browning should have exercised a firmer hand methinks.

The other flaw is Count Mora, through no fault of Lugosi’s. As the mysterious vampire, accompanied by his companion Luna, played by 21 year old Carroll Borland, Lugosi is quite convincing as an evil supernatural being. Certain aspects of their behaviour, such as Luna’s flying scene, strongly imply they could not possibly be mortals. So, in the end, when it is revealed they are mere actors hired by the detective to impersonate vampires, it doesn’t ring true. It feels a bit like a betrayal of the audience’s expectations. On the other hand, the scene where Lugosi as the actor is congratulating himself on a great performance is endearing. Comes across almost as a behind-the-scenes out-take from “Dracula.”

Lionel dragging the film into the realm of comedy may be the reason a major element of the script contributed by Guy Endor was edited out of the film, the element in question being too dark and serious to match the tone set by Lionel. Mora and Luna were originally incestuous lovers, Mora being Luna’s father, and they became vampires as punishment for his murdering his daughter and then committing suicide. This explains the bloody bullet hole in the side of his head. Had this been a “serious” horror film this would have added a strong creepy element, certainly an unsavoury one, but it was cut out, leaving the bullet wound unexplained. I suspect Lionel is to blame. Lugosi did his own makeup, by the way, which is not unusual given his stage acting background, but the bullet hole he left to the film’s makeup artist, Bill Tuttle.

Apparently Tod Browning was a hard task master during filming. Seems he was satisfied with lugosi’s restrained and “classic” Dracula-like performance, but didn’t like what Lionel was doing at all. Perhaps he saw Lionel as undermining and sabotaging the intent of the film through his irrepressibly hammy treatment of the detective character. Allegedly Browning was several times heard to mutter “That’s not how Chaney would have done it.” Maybe, if he was expecting Lionel to “channel” Chaney, or at least equal Chaney, his direction of Lionel was doomed to failure. Chaney had been Browning’s favourite actor to work with and it could be he considered Lionel a poor substitute.

Minor flaws aside, even though they contributed to a somewhat disjointed construction of mood as if two separate films, one horror, the other a comedy, had been edited together, overall the film is great fun to watch. Makes me want to watch the original version to compare, but, alas, “London After Midnight” no longer exists apart from a couple of short clips and a few hundred stills. I’m pretty sure the two films would make a fantastic double-bill. In the meantime, pending discovery of the original “London After Midnight” found stashed away somewhere, “Mark of the Vampire” is a darn entertaining film in and of itself. I like it.

(1939) – SON OF FRANKENSTEIN

Say what? This ain’t no obscure film, boyo. Everybody has seen it. Nevertheless, I include it here because it is my favourite Frankenstein film in the Universal Studio series. I saw this film when it was first broadcast on TV in 1958 as part of the “Son of Shock Theatre” collection of Universal horror films. I was seven years old. I firmly believed the incredibly atmospheric sets of this and the other films in the package were shot on location in Europe in actual castles and villages. I assumed even the interior shots were genuine locations. Consequently, to my childish mind everything, apart from the actors and the monsters, was 100% authentic. My suspension of disbelief was total. I was completely immersed in the “reality” of these films. In this age of non-stop CGI I don’t think that level of participation IN a film is even possible anymore.

Fact is I believe I fell in love with this film for the same reason I fell in love with the original Star Trek TV series. In the latter case, it was the witty banter and competition between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. In the former it was the edgy energy and implied threat between Basil Rathbone as Dr. Wolf von Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi as the already-hanged Ygor, and Lionel Atwill as Police Inspector Krogh. All three actors shine in their roles and, given that most of the film takes place in castle interior sets, has the immediacy and impact of live theatre (in my opinion). It should be noted that the best and funniest scenes in “Young Frankenstein” (1974), such as the dart contest, are direct spoofs of scenes in “Son of Frankenstein.” Apparently Lugosi’s role was originally rather less than what we see, but because director Roland Lee was absolutely delighted with Lugosi’s spontaneous insertion of a rather perverse humour into the “style” of Ygor’s evil nature, the role was built up and added to on a day-by-day basis during filming. No wonder Lugosi had such great fun with the role. He was allowed and even encouraged to be creative and innovative. Many critics, myself included, consider this one of his finest performances. Certainly vastly different from the suave Dracula!

For Boris Karloff, his role of the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein was, in this third film of the series, a swan song. Never again, apart from a charity baseball game in 1940 and a brief appearance in a 1962 Halloween episode of the TV show “Route 66,”did he play the monster. But then, born in 1887, Karloff was about 52 years old when he made this film. The boots were heavy, the makeup was heavy, and the wool sweater he wore throughout was annoying heavy. He really hated that sweater. For the most part his monster was merely a zombie-like threat-in-being ordered about by Ygor. A murdering tool rather than a character. Though his grief on discovering Ygor’s dead body is convincing, and his rage in the final battle, but overall the script didn’t afford him the subtlety of performance he evidenced in “Frankenstein” (1931) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). Perhaps it was the direction of James Whale that made all the difference in those earlier films. Then again, maybe the script writer of “Son of Frankenstein,” Willis Cooper, wasn’t up to the task of treating the monster as anything more than a gimmick. Still, Karloff’s interpretation, if limited and pedestrian, is effective and familiar, I might even say, comfortable, for the audience used to the previous films. Lugosi, even older than Karloff, being 57 years of age, has the more spritely role, but that was due to Director Lee’s support. Pity something similar didn’t happen between Lee and Karloff.

The only real sour note in the film is the portrayal of Frankenstein’s very young son Peter by child actor Donnie Dunagan. With his curly blond hair and precious, hyper-keen earnestness he seems to have been conceived as a male equivalent of Shirly Temple. I’m not the only one who hated him. I have the impression Basil Rathbone didn’t like him either. When I first watched the film I assumed Rathbone as Wolf von Frankenstein was secretly hoping that the monster would kill Peter as much as I, and was somewhat disappointed that he survived. On the other hand, Peter is given some very good lines that advance the plot. Pity they were delivered in so annoying a fashion. Donagan’s other claim to fame is that he was one of four actors providing the voice of Bambi in the Disney movie “Bambi” (1942). Makes for an interesting resume. I’m told that “Bambi” was the first film I was taken to see in a movie theatre when it was re-released in 1957. I’d be about six years old at the time. It seems I thought Bambi was an idiot, but I really liked Thumper.

Anyway, the interaction and rivalry between Rathbone, Lugosi, and Atwill are what makes “Son of Frankenstein” a terrifically wonderful film, most watchable and quite entertaining. I enjoy it at least once a year.

 

 

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