Mar 101932
 
one reel

Years ago the fathers of John Mason (John Wayne) and Janet Cater (Sheila Terry) each owned half of the Sally Ann gold mine. Carter was cheated out of his half by the father of Joe Ryan (Harry Woods). Now, mysterious letters have brought both John and Janet back to town, at the same time Joe and his gang have appeared. What’s more, the town seems to be haunted by The Phantom, which makes things awkward for John’s scared-of-spooks stereotype Black sidekick. Is there gold in the mine? And who is the mysterious Phantom?

John Wayne in a horror movie? Not quite. John Wayne in a Scooby-Do horror Western? Closer. John Wayne in half a Scooby-Do horror Western? That’s it.

Haunted Gold is a remake (or a re-purposing) of the silent The Phantom City (1928), starring Ken Maynard, who was, briefly, a big Western star. Maynard wasn’t much of an actor, but he was a real rodeo rider who could perform some impressive stunts. So they took the old exterior shots and added sound, and shot new interior ones, and called it a movie. Wayne, who was never a great actor but was truly pathetic at this early point in his career, was hired purely because he looked enough like Maynard that they could merge the films. Of course if the idea was to reuse old exterior shots, the studio wasn’t going to spend much time or money on the new stuff, so Wayne’s part of the film involves a lot of standing around and reciting exposition.

The result is as good as you’d expect. Actually, it’s even worse as there’s a hefty dose of racism in the form of a cowardly Black servant. The film even speeds up when he’s running from imaginary ghosts because that makes him even sillier. It’s edited so there’s a specific moment when the White audience along with the White actors are supposed to laugh at the ridiculous Black man.

This is an atrocious picture. It’s overly talky, poorly made, pitifully acted, and painfully racist. It covers all the bases. Skip it.

Mar 011932
 
three reels

Within a sideshow, the Freaks live, carrying out romances, arguments, friendships, and betrayals. Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), the beautiful acrobat of the circus, plots to marry the midget Hans (Harry Earles) for his secret fortune, and then kill him, with the aid of her lover, the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). Frieda (Daisy Earles), Hans’s ex-fiancée, knows that Cleopatra laughs at Hans behind his back, but he won’t listen to her. The others go along with the situation, but when they discover how far Cleopatra is willing to go, they plan their revenge.

Freaks is a power fantasy for the disenfranchised and outsider of any kind, and it works best when considered in that way. The midgets, dwarves, Pinheads, Siamese Twins, bearded lady, and physically disadvantaged are shown to be kind, or cruel, smart or stupid, loving or hateful. They are us, assuming we are not those with power, the normals. They are laughed at and abused. They have their allies (Phroso the clown and Venus), but allies can be accepted, but never entirely understand. And the outsiders (that’s us), can band together, rise up, and avenge themselves.

It’s an important story, and one that’s always needed. And when the Freaks do finally rise up against Cleopatra and Hercules, the film becomes transcendent. It becomes culturally significant.

Unfortunately, the rest of the time it’s not so great. Tod Browning was never a top tier director. His roots were in the circus, and his sympathies with the unusual, so he could add an interesting outlook to a motion picture, but he lacked the artistry to do more. The look of his finest film, Dracula, can be assigned to cinematographer Karl Freund. If he was going to make great art, he needed a lot of help, and he didn’t get it with Freaks.

On the interesting side, he cast actual sideshow performers, people with deformities and mental and physical disadvantages. This brought realism to the picture. However, while casting for realism has advantages, one of them is not acting. The sideshow performers were mostly terrible at lines and movement before a camera. This really stands out with Harry and Daisy Earles as they play major characters, and not for a second do they appear to be anything but people reciting lines. Even the professional actors are weak, which calls into question both Tod Browning’s ability to work with actors, and the decision not to hire any established stars. Here and there, when acting isn’t required (and for that amazing revenge sequence), I can be pulled into the film, but the rest of the time, I’m watching non-actors and semi-actors going through the motions.

Freaks has another problem, and it’s a crippling one. A test audience rejected the film, many walking out and one woman threatening to sue. They hated it, calling it deviant and sickening. MGM immediately caved and cut a third of the film, and added a brief prologue and epilogue in an attempt to stitch up the story. Few films can survive being butchered like that, and Freaks couldn’t. Those missing sections are lost, but it’s known that part of what’s gone is the end of the climactic scene, when the Freaks get their hands on Cleopatra and Hercules. It neuters the movie. A film needs its climax. I can’t say if the excised material would have fixed the structural problems and slight character development, but I’m willing to bet on it.

Freaks, as whole, could never have been great, but it could have been better. It is interesting, which is enough of a reason to watch it.

Feb 061932
 
one reel

In the most Victorian of Victorian Englands, upstanding Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) investigates the duel personality of man while waiting in frustration for his delayed wedding to Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart). Her father, Brigadier-General Danvers Carew (Halliwell Hobbes) insists they wait; he’s also not happy with Jekyll’s unorthodox theories. Jekyll’s attempt to separate man’s nature works too well as his potion changes him into the murderous Mr. Hyde. Hyde, lacking the restraint of Jekyll but filled with the same lust, takes up with Miriam Hopkins Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) a “dancehall girl,” whom he abuses. When Jekyll attempts to free himself from Hyde, he finds it’s too late, as Hyde can now appear without the potion.

This seems like the natural place for a Paramount to enter 1930s horror. It’s based on a classic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, so they could always claim that they were making a literary work, not one of those low class monster films. And it was a remake of their own 1920 silent film. Like Dracula over at Universal, it only follows its source material when seen from a great distance, and is closer to a stage version. It isn’t a mystery nor is it told in flashbacks as the novella. And it adds women (as compared to the original; the fiancée and prostitute had already been inserted in somewhat different forms in the play and silent film versions). Helming the film would be Rouben Mamoulian, who already had a reputation as a innovative director, particularly with regard to camera movement. Perhaps it would be considered horror, but it would be sophisticated horror, and that label matted almost as much as the money they planned to make. Almost.

How sophisticated it actually is comes down to taste, but it does look good. Mamoulian spent a lot of money and it’s all on the screen. He built set after set and brought in a small village worth of people to walk around his faux London. And his camera tricks are all on display. His POV shots push me out of the picture instead of pulling me in, but no one was doing this better at the time, or for a very long time to come. The on-screen transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is amazing and is the finest use of special effects makeup in the decade. The final Hyde makeup design, however, is not in the same league as the work Jack Pierce was doing over at Universal, and is likely to elicit laughter now. Paramount had the money and skill for a horror film, but they were behind on artistry.

This version does vary from others (particularly the 1941 re-make when the production code had teeth) by its focus on sexual frustration. It’s lust that motivates Jekyll to take the potion, and it’s lust that drives Mr. Hyde. Miriam Hopkins is a ball of alluring lust. Her partly-on/partly-off camera stripping scene has rightfully risen above the Hyde-transformations as the most moment of the film. This is sexually charged movie. Less helpful is what it’s saying about lust and sex. Stevenson’s novel may have been a statement against the hypocritical nature of Victorian society, but the film comes off as yet another conservative rant against interfering in God’s domain. While the pompous father, who represents the sillier aspects of polite society, is noted as a fool, it’s still curiosity and the attempt to upset the status quo that are immoral. If only Jekyll had understood his place in society, then everything would have worked out fine. Sigh. While the superior Frankenstein undercut that message, it was exactly what Paramount wanted to say.

The acting is mixed. Hopkins steals the picture with the best supporting actress performance of the year. She presents extremes of emotion while creating a authentic character that I cared about. March is very different. He succeeds splitting the role; unlike the ’41 version, Jekyll and Hyde seem like completely different people. You’d never guess that the same actor played both parts. But neither part works, certainly not next to Hopkins. His exaggerated mannerisms as Jekyll (flailing his arms and dropping to his knees) and melodramatic speech come off as fake and very stage-like. This isn’t March embracing expressionism. He’s just overacting. A little subtlety would have worked wonders. His Hyde is also exaggerated, but that’s OK in an evil ape-man, though a better film would have given us more than “evil ape-man.”

While most of the violence approaches parody, Mr. Hyde’s brutal treatment of Ivy is much more realistic. It’s as horrifying a treatment of domestic violence as I’ve seen on screen and elevates the film. However, that is not enough for me to recommend it.

Back to Mad ScientistsBack to Classic Horror

Jan 171932
 
two reels

Col. Walters (Burton Churchill) and his Sphinx Club of Amateur sleuths is responsible for the arrest of a member of the evil Crooked Circle. The black-hooded members of the Circle choose their only female member as their assassin to avenge themselves on the Colonel tonight when he and other members of his club are staying at Melody Manor, an Old Dark House with all the trimmings. It will be Brand Osborne’s (Ben Lyon) last night in the Club after which he will be replaced by Hindu Yoganda (C. Henry Gordon). Brand is resigning at the insistence of his newly-met fiancée Thelma Parker (Irene Purcell), who has a mysterious connection to Yoganda. Might they be members of the Crooked Circle? Also joining the Club members are morbid and dim housekeeper Nora (Zasu Pitts) and incompetent policeman Arthur Crimmer (James Gleason).

Not much effort went into character or dialog or plot in this silly mix of Old Dark House and kid’s adventure, with an evil paranormal society and upper class do-gooders straight from a radio show. But then none of those were the point. Top billing didn’t go to the generic he-man hero, or his slightly goofy sidekick, or the lovely romantic interest, but to Zasu Pitts. For a brief and confusing time in the 1930s, Pitts was a star, and her shtick was a combination of cowardly and sorrowful, which she used in every film. She’s often described as being like Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl, which isn’t a coincidence as the cartoon character’s delivery was based on Pitts. She has no part in the story of The Crooked Circle, such that it is, but instead pops up about once a minute, to either scream or despondently point out the bleak affair of things. She utters her catch phrase, “Something always happens to somebody” dozens of times. If Zasu Pitts amuses you, then you’ll find this film amusing, but I suspect that her comedy has fallen out of style. I can handle five or ten minutes of her. Any more and it’s nails on blackboard time, and she’s around a lot more than ten minutes.

Next in importance to the film is James Gleason, who was another successful comic actor of the times, and whose character also has nothing to do with the story. He played a lot of flustered cops and criminals. With the right director and some decent dialog, I find Gleason engaging. In this case, however, he was on his own, so did a low rent version of his normal routine. It’s not funny, but it isn’t half as annoying as whatever Pitts was doing.

Beyond those two, well, things happen and none of it matters. There’s ghostly violin music, a skeleton, secret passageways everywhere, a clock that strikes 13, and none of it is in the least bit creepy. It isn’t supposed to scare you, but give opportunities for Pitts and Gleason to screech.

At least the house looks properly foreboding. So if you have more tolerance than I for Zasu Pitts, you can give it a try on a rainy afternoon. It’s easy to find online.

Oct 121931
 
one reel

Vaguely sinister stuff happens.

Not enough of a synopsis?

OK, I’ll write more, but “stuff happens” really covers it. So, master criminal The Phantom escapes from jail before his execution, using a train and a plane. He seems to want revenge on DA John Hampton (Wilfred Lucas), and then… He’s out of the picture. Reporter Dick Mallory (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) shows up at the DA’s house pretending to be The Phantom to get a story as he needs a big break to make enough money to reveal his secret engagement to Ruth Hampton (Allene Ray). I’d have thought not mucking with his fiancée’s father would be a good idea, but that’s just me. Police Sgt. Pat Collins runs around the house pushing people around, particularly the butler. Dick’s employer also shows up at the house for no clear reason; he wants to marry Ruth as well but don’t expect anything to come of that. Then the movie starts over at the halfway point. Yup. I’m not kidding. Dick, Ruth, Lucy the Maid (Violet Knights) and Shorty the Chauffeur (Bobby Dunn) go to investigate mad scientist Dr. Weldon (William Gould) at a local insane asylum, and Weldon is happy for the guests as he’s been looking for a subject for his brain experiments. Then someone is said to be The Phantom, but for no reason and contradicting everything that’s gone before.

This is fascinating. Not good, but fascinating. What kind of development did this film go through? Did they just squish multiple scripts together? Was there ever a single script? Did one individual ever read through it? Was there anyone thinking, “Yes, this is the story I want to tell”? It’s just over an hour long, and nothing in the first 30 minutes has any connection to the ending.

There’s some nice stuff in the last half. The asylum is stylishly designed and the inmates are both creepy and funny. I don’t know why a known criminal (Dr. Weldon had to go on the run when a body was found on his property) is allowed to run a sanitarium, nor why the police don’t show up to arrest a fugitive since they know the place as “Weldon’s Sanatarium” but then why should that part of the film make sense? Since we only have 30 minutes at the asylum, there’s not enough time spent developing Weldon and his strange brain experiments. There’s actually a good, and semi-coherent horror film that could have been made from this segment if it had been expanded. But it wasn’t so we could instead see that prison break (why?), and watch a guy on the phone during the prison break (why?), and have a scene at the newspaper office (why?).

Strangely for such a cheap and sloppy picture, the sets look great. My guess is that several projects fell apart (one with nice sets) and wanting something to release, they just stuck whatever they had together. I can’t recommend sitting through the result.

Oct 121931
 
four reels

Svengali (John Barrymore) is a talented musician living in an artists community that include his follower Gecko (Luis Alberni), and painters The Laird (Donald Crisp), Taffy (Lumsden Hare), and Billee (Bramwell Fletcher). He’s also a cad, who uses his charisma and hypnotic powers to gain what he wants, and in one case, to cause a no longer useful woman to kill herself. He stumbles upon vivacious artist’s model Trilby (Marian Marsh) and realizes she could be a great singer. She falls for Billee and vice versa, but he rejects her, at least momentarily, in a fit of moral pique when he sees her nude modeling. Svengali, who had left a suggestion in her mind to think only of him when he had hypnotized her to rid her of repeated headaches, convinces her to fake her own death, and then be reborn as a great opera star under his tutelage. However, when he rid her of her pain, he took it into himself, and it is slowly sapping his strength.

It’s exciting to find a great movie that had somehow escaped my notice. While I’ve been a fan of the Universal horror films since I was a kid, I’d never even heard of this. Strange as it was a big hit. Of course I knew the term “Svengali” and that it referred to a character, though I’d never read George Du Maurier’s novel (titled Trilby). This is the 5th feature version, and the first with sound, and everyone should know it. It deserves a place next to Frankenstein and Dracula. It’s a shame it was made at Warner Bros instead of Universal as they’d have done a better job of keeping it in the public consciousness.

Like all the best monsters, Svengali is sympathetic. I didn’t give a damn about Billee, but I felt it when Svengali was harmed, when he ached. It’s a wonderful performance by John Barrymore, the “Great Profile” and renowned drinker. He’s helped by an iconic character design. Svengali’s long hair is swept back; his beard ends in multiple points, and his eyes are intense, and shine when he uses his powers. For most of the first act, he seems just a playful rogue, much like the other artists, except for causing that woman to die… He is jovial, and above the traditions that pull down others (like Billee), but despair is always underneath, and eventually must show through. His love for Trilby is heartbreaking as he can make her appear to love him, but then he’s just “talking to himself.”

Trilby is a light in the sea of darkness which was female roles in the early ‘30s. In this regard, Svengali rises above its universal rivals. She’s sharp, fun, and very much alive. She has to have such strong agency for it to matter when it is taken away. Seventeen-year-old Marian Marsh (they started them young back in the day) glows in the part. While she doesn’t upstage Barrymore—no one could—she holds her own with him.

As good as those two are, they are beaten by art director Anton Grot and Cinematographer Barney McGill, who make Svengali a dreamlike wonderland. I’ve never seen expressionism used so effectively outside of the works of James Whale. They, and director Archie Mayo, were clearly big fans of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Nothing is quite right. No door is straight, no room is square, and spaces are far larger than reality would dictate. But then in a world of artists and hypnotists, what is reality?

I’m not the first to note that Svengali can be taken as a comment on May-to-December romances, with the elder controlling and sapping the life from the younger, while the stress of it does him in. But things are a bit more complex, as one would then expect Billee to be the true love Trilby should have been with, and that’s not the case. He’s shallow and cruel, in part due to his youth. The older man would almost certainly have been the better match for her, if only she’d been given the choice.

Svengali is a mesmerizing mix of tragedy, horror, and comedy. It may be difficult viewing for horror fans only familiar with modern film, but if German expressionism interests you, you’ll enjoy it.

 

Note: Warners attempted to follow up the success of Svengali by casting Barrymore and Marsh in a very similar project, The Mad Genius (1931), this time with Barrymore excessively controlling a ballet dancer. However, they removed all of the fantastical and horror elements, leaving a passable melodrama. It’s nicely directed by Michael Curtiz, who would soon become one of the great directors (and my choice for the greatest of all time), but Barrymore’s kind of ham works better when his eyes are magic and he’s surrounded by a dreamlike world.

Sep 291931
 
two reels

Ladykiller Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) is pulled into the case of the mysterious black bird by femme fatale Ruth Wonderly (NiBebe Daniels).  After his partner is murdered, he is introduced to a gang of eccentric criminals who have been searching for the statue for years: mastermind Casper Gutman (Dudley Digges), effeminate Dr. Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson), and gunman Wilmer Cook (Dwight Frye).

A pivotal film in the development of Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is one of the great American Films. But not this one. The justly famed Bogart/Huston version was not the first adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, nor the second (that was the deeply strange Satan Met a Lady, which omitted the black bird in favor of an animal horn).  No, the first rendition was this 1931 exercise in mildly amusing mediocrity.  There’s a lesson here: Never make grand statements about the undesirability of remakes.

Watching this version is not unlike sitting through a production of a neighborhood theater’s Macbeth.  It’s not bad because the material is first rate, but everything is a poor shadow of what it should be.  You can see what a great film this could be (and later, was), but it just isn’t up there on the screen.

Ricardo Cortez plays Sam Spade as if he’s in the first act of a romantic comedy.  With a broad, silent-era smile plastered on his face, this Spade is far from a troubled, Noir anti-hero.  Give him a plucky sidekick and make him learn that deep down, he truly wants to settle down, and you’ve got…wait a minute, that’s what they do.  This The Maltese Falcon has a tacked-on ending that will make you squirm.

OK, so with an inappropriate lead, characterizations that lean away from those in the novel, static camerawork, and questionable editing, this is not the 1941 version.  But few things are.  Taken on its own terms (preferably by people who have never read the book or seen Bogart), it is an enjoyable, light, crime story.  Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer are gratifyingly bizarre villains.  Gutman is nearly a carnival barker while Cairo is suited for any 1940s farce.  Dwight Frye (best known as the insane Renfield in 1931’s Dracula) is almost a match for Elisha Cook ten years later.  NiBebe Daniels and Una Merkel (as Effie, the secretary) are both sexy and alluring, if somewhat generic.

A majority of the script is taken unchanged from the book, but a great deal is missing.  Its eighty-minute running time creates a fast-paced, but slight picture.  If this had been the sole cinematic The Maltese Falcon, no one would remember anything but the novel.

For years this film was only available on VHS under the title Dangerous Female.  It is now part of a three-disk set that includes all three versions.

 Film Noir, Reviews Tagged with:
Aug 241931
 
one reel
traderhorn

A White ivory trader and “hunter” known as Trader Horn (Harry Carey) heads down the river with his oblivious friend Peru (Duncan Renaldo) and his loyal Black “gun bearer” to trade with the savages in the deepest part of that mysterious continent of Africa. Along the way they run into Edith Trent (Olive Carey—the star’s wife and mother of the better known Harry Carey Jr.), a White missionary who’s spent years looking for her baby that was taken by some evil tribe. When Trent is killed, Horn continues the quest and finds the beautiful woman (Edwina Booth), who is treated as a goddess by the locals.

It’s a bit silly of me to claim that I’m correcting Trader Horn’s incorrectly lofty status as almost no one remembers it now, and unless you are lucky with TCM or hang out on Russian streaming sites, you haven’t seen it. But it once upon a time was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, so it deserves some comment.

Trader Horn is the type of movie that the fictional Carl Denham made in King Kong. It is built around documentary footage (and staged “documentary” footage) of a dangerous and exotic local, at least as 1930s Americans viewed the world. The place was Africa, and moving pictures of leopards, rhinos, lions were pretty new and exciting. The film’s plot is slight and exists to have a reason to show Africa, thus leading to some of the worst editing in film history. The story often stops so that Carey can point to animals and give brief and not always accurate descriptions. Peru’s job for the first half of the film is to be incredibly stupid so Carey’s Horn can explain everything to him.

And more than ninety years later, a good deal of that footage is impressive. Yes, Animal planet (that’s a TV channel if times have changed by the time you read this) will give you better, but it’s still pretty good and was amazing in its time. Of course Animal Planet is less likely to torture animals, and that’s an aspect that makes this film morally repugnant while reducing its artistic and informational worth. You see, bunches of lions don’t hang out to attack animals on cue, and then attack each other. To get that, they had to fake it (sometimes in Mexico), starving and torturing the animals in enclosed spaces so they’d be desperate enough to rip at each other in ways that wouldn’t happen in nature. And yes, they really did shoot and kill the “big game” you see dying in the movie.

Well, you can’t say karma isn’t a bitch. Two crewmembers died while filming (though at least one was an African) and almost everyone got sick, in some cases seriously. Edwina Booth ended up bedridden for years.

The acting is weak and what serves for character development is ludicrous even by African adventure film standards, but then director, “One-shot Woody” Van Dyke, wasn’t going for art and didn’t care how his actors looked or what they did. Those “nature” shots were what counted. After all, the draw of this film wasn’t supposed to being seeing if Trader Horn could summon up a second emotion, but to see those animals, though I suspect the topless African women was the bigger draw. It sure beats the old National Geographic. I can’t think of another mainstream film with this kind of nudity for thirty years. But you know, “savages” don’t count as people, so you can show them naked.

The African footage, both of tribes and animals, was re-used (or used for the first time as a lot hadn’t made it into the film) in adventure movies for years to come, most famously in Van Dyke’s Tarzan the Ape Man a year later. It is odd that this film has such abhorrent views on the treatment of animals while Tarzan has nearly the reverse—ivory trading is the great evil of the Tarzan series, and White hunters are never a good thing.

So, Trader Horn has terrible animal welfare views for its time and racist views that are about on par with its time (“You’re mistaken about these people. They’re not savages; they’re just happy, ignorant children.”), but the film is bad mainly because it is boring. Documentary footage just tossed on screen is not enough. A story worth the time would have helped (note: no Oscar nomination for script), and some kind of deeper connection to the characters could have saved it all (note: no Oscar nomination for acting). It would be a less drab viewing experience if it all was more attractive to look at, but “One-shot Woody” was not known for the beauty of his cinematography (note: no Oscar nomination for cinematography or art direction). If it didn’t drag so much it might be a guilty pleasure (note: no Oscar nomination for editing). This is one of those very rare pictures that was nominated for Best Picture without a single other nomination. People at the time were simply astounded by that African footage and wanted to reward its existence. There’s worse films out there, but this “best picture” simply offers nothing to the modern viewer. You want to see those shots of Africa (minus the nipples), watch the far superior Tarzan the Ape Man.

Jun 121931
 
two reels
MurderbytheClock

Cruel, elderly Julia Endicott (Blanche Friderici), matriarch of a dying family, walks through the cemetery, trailed by Philip (Irving Pichel), her feeble-minded, brutish son and Miss Roberts (Martha Mattox), the housekeeper. Julia claims they are going to the family crypt to lay flowers, but really it is to check the moaning alarm horn she’s had installed so that she can call for help if she is entombed alive. Do you think we’ll be hearing that horn again? So begins Murder by the Clock. Vampish Laura Endicott (Lilyan Tashman) is sick of living below her standards, and of her weak, alcoholic husband, Herbert (Walter McGrail), who she presses to get money out of his Aunt Julia while she goes off to visit her lover, Tomas Hollander (Lester vail). Julia despises Laura, but surprisingly, she decides to make Herbert her heir. What choice does she have: a man-child who dreams of killing or useless Herbert. But that’s not enough for Laura. She doesn’t want to wait. What follows is a string of seductions, murders, and the obsessive detective work of police lieutenant Valcour (William Boyd)

It was 1931. Sound equipment was primitive and filmmakers were trying to catch up to the skill level they’d attained with silents. Horror had always been a tricky proposition, with audiences, by which I mean those claiming moral authority, likely to rebel. And no one knew quite what the limits were. Only Universal, old hands at horror in the silent era, really had any kind of a handle on it, and Dracula, their first horror classic, was still new. So Paramount dipped it’s toe. It had money, and it had talent, but it was never comfortable with horror.

Instead of going with a horror property, Paramount chose a melodramatic mystery novel, and the (as far as I can determine, unproduced) play based on it as the basis for their film. Then they grafted on horror elements: mists, cobwebs, ghostly sightings, death masks, graves and crypts, secret passageways, moans, screams, and an atmosphere of gloom. It doesn’t all fit together, but it is horror, and it is interesting.

All of the confusion and skill is evident when watching Murder by the Clock. There’s some elaborate sets that perfectly define the mood. Besides the house and the marvelous graveyard with crypt, there’s the lover’s apartment/studio filled with statues of Laura. And to frame those was soon-to-be Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Struss who found moments of macabre beauty. But they didn’t have a lot of skilled sound directors yet, and none familiar with horror. Edward Sloman does a passable job, but he couldn’t add the necessary magic that Whale and Browning and Freund were injecting over at Universal. The graveyard scenes, similar to what would appear within the year in Frankenstein, invoke that sense of wrongness that a horror film needs, but I couldn’t stop imagining that extra push that Whale could have given it, and did in his own film. What’s good here, should have been better. And there’s plenty that isn’t good. If your actors can’t move too quickly, or in all directions, or speak naturally, all for fear of missing the words with the mics, then your film has serious flaws, ones that Sloman didn’t know how to cover.

Luckily he had actress Lilyan Tashman, who pulled out all the stops. Laura is self-obsessed, trampy, money grubbing, controlling, murderous, and just a whole lot of fun. Everyone is a mere shadow next to her and she dominates the movie. She’s a great villain, and it doesn’t hurt that I wasn’t going to shed a tear for Julia. There are no redeeming characters in the Endicott family. Whie this is Laura’s movie, the rest of the Endicott’s are a good deal of fun too. Irving Pichel makes Philip a frightening creature, and a first cousin to the Frankenstein monster, but with a touch less soul. He thinks strangling people will be a lot fun, and has the right mix of child-like and lustful to be really uncomfortable.

But the Paramount confusion shows up with Valcour. He’s clearly the hero who we are supposed to be rooting for, and there’s nothing interesting or likable about him. He’s mostly drab, with his one character trait being his self-righteous compulsion to solve the crime. He’s obnoxious, but otherwise boring, and I wanted him to lose. And that’s a problem in a film where clearly he’s going to win.

The ending is a bit of a mess as well. It’s the ending you’d have for a procedural mystery with just a touch of thrills, not for a horror movie. We reached the point when several deaths were absolutely necessary for the film—and they didn’t happen. We get some police work when we should have had screams.

There’s a lot of good here, and a lot of potential. In better hands, Murder by the Clock would have been one of the great early horror films.

Note: It is frequently categorized as an Old Dark House film simply because there’s an old dark house. That’s not enough.

Apr 111931
 

The Ghost Train (1931) two reels
Trenul fantomă (1933) two reels
Kisértetek vonata (1933) 2.5 reels
De Spooktrein (1939) three reels
The Ghost Train (1941) one reel

A Joker pulls the emergency cord to stop the train in order to retrieve his hat that had flown out a window. This causes the train to arrive at the station late, and with no other trains coming until morning, stranding a group of passengers. Besides the Joker, the group include a newly Married Couple, a Cute Girl traveling with an Earnest Man, a teetotaling, Prissy Lady with a parrot, and a Doctor. They are warned by the Station Master that the station is haunted and that a ghost train comes by at night, and if they want to survive, they need to leave. They refuse, and the Station Master abandons them in fear of the ghosts. What follows is a string of spooky events, including a death and then the disappearance of the corpse, strange sounds and lights, the arrival of a crazed woman, and the passage of the ghost train itself.

ghosttrainplay

The Ghost Train was a very popular British play. Written by Arnold Ridley in 1923, it had a successful run and has seen numerous revivals. It was adapted for the screen in 1927 in a British-German co-production, and like so many other Dark House movies, it was remade once sound was in place just a few years later, in 1931, this time just by the British. Next, in 1933, came two from the European continent, the Romanian Trenul fantomă and Hungarian Kisértetek vonata. The French Un Train Dans La Nuit was released in 1934, but that one will get no more discussion here as no prints are known to survive. In 1939 the Dutch joined in with De Spooktrein. And finally the Brits took it back in 1941. There have been four more official versions since then, and a number more that “borrowed” from it, but I’ll stick with the years from ’31 to ‘41.

It’s surprising how much alike the five surviving films are. The basic plot is exactly the same, with all the same major events occurring in the same order, and with few changes to even the minor ones. While the character names change (I’ll use descriptive names for each), their personalities shift only a bit. Footage is even shared between three of them, and the 1941 version had the same director as the 1931, so perhaps it isn’t that surprising.

The Ghost Train is an Old Dark House story transplanted to a railway station. The characters are properly quirky, there’s a dead body and strange lights and talk of ghosts, plenty of comic relief, and an eerie atmosphere. The story line is entertaining enough, and certainly has been popular. The characters are not complex or deeply developed, but rather were intended to represent a cross section of British society in the 1920s, thus supplying a bit of commentary while also being easy to identify. Everything is here for a thoroughly entertaining film. However, a few flaws are inherent to the structure that have been magnified in different productions. The story is good, but it’s brief, at least as executed in all five films (I’ve never seen the play and am curious how it fills nearly two hours). There’s approximately an hour’s worth of material. When an adaptation gets much over that, it drags. As the story was written for the stage, there’s a tendency to replicate that a bit too closely. I’m not a fan of opening up a film for no purpose when made into a movie, but most of these renditions could be converted back into a stage play without making any changes. A few more locations or some clever manipulation of the camera to better tell the tale would be nice. But inventive cinematography is not in abundance. Also, the Joker is supposed to be annoying to the other passengers, but he can easily become annoying to the audience. And if the film features him as the lead instead of part of the ensemble, as several do, he can become downright unpleasant.

How do the individual adaptations fare?

I have to be restrained when judging Walter Forde’s first attempt at the material in ’31 as I exaggerated when I wrote that there are five surviving films. Call it four and three quarters. For a while this was a lost film, but parts have been rediscovered. Of the seven reels, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 are available. However, only 4 and 7 have sound. That creates an awkward viewing experience for the uninitiated. To make it a bit more confusing, I’ve only been able to find video of it with the reels ordered 2, 3, 5, 4, 7. I assume this was so that the two sound reels would be together. I wouldn’t suggest sitting down to watch this with no prior knowledge of the story. However, I’ve seen four other versions in a week, so it was clear for me. Based on what remains, the ’31 version seems not to deviate at all from the norm, with every character and ever plot point being exactly as I expected.

That means it drags a bit and the Joker is annoying; he’s more than commonly so (the British films have the biggest problem with him). The cinematography is good for its time, with particularly fine use of lighting, but this is 1931 and it looks like it. The acting seems solid, but no one has that extra shot of charisma that the story needs. I’d guess that this would have been one of the weaker versions, but until someone comes up with a pile of sound disks (yes, the sound was recorded on disk), and a few film reels, guessing is all I can do.

TrenulTrenul fantomă and Kisértetek vonata can be reviewed together. Just as Hollywood used to film the same feature in multiple languages for release in different countries (for example, Dracula and Drácula from 1931), these were shot together, one for Romania and one for Hungry. They use the same sets, have the same style and pacing, and both use the same exterior shots, taken from the 1931 British version. However, they had different cast and crew, and of course, different languages. Both are short, one at 64 minutes and the other at 71. I can’t find reliable information on the original lengths of either film, but neither seem to be cut. The major difference between them is that while both add a song performed by the Joker and Cute Girl to entertain the others, Trenul fantomă adds another early in film that feels out of place and stops the film dead. Outside of that, these are well paced compared to the ’31 version. They also tone down the Joker, making him only a little irritating. Since he and the Cute Girl are clearly the stars, the others get short shrift. This is partly mitigated for The Couple, who are made more affectionate, thus giving them something to do, which is kissing and fawning over each other.

ghosttrain33These are low budget films—not surprising with the reuse of footage—and it shows with static shots, uninspiring sets, and drab lighting. There’s little movement even in the main room, and people rarely leave it. But superior pacing beats out the lack of funds, making these enjoyable renditions. And there’s little to choose between them. Without seeing them side by side I wouldn’t be able to tell the lead actors apart. I give Kisértetek vonata the edge, partly for the lack of the early song, but more for Marika Rökk as the Cute Girl, in these versions named Mary. A star of German musicals, she’s electric: sexy, intense, and funny. She’s the only actress in all five films who stands out in the part.

The Dutch De Spooktrein is more stylish than the previous versions, but then it is 1939, and there had been technological leaps in filmmaking in six years. The station doesn’t look like stage set, but feels real; it’s also spookier. Generally the filmmaking is a step up, and while De Spooktrein show’s its stage roots, the story has finally been given a true conversion for film. And again, this is a shorter film. While it cannot be called swiftly paced, at under 70 minutes, it doesn’t drag. I suspect some of the improvements can be attributed to having a more skilled director: Karel Lamac. He’d been forced out of Czechoslovakia and Germany, so found himself in the Netherlands. spooktreinThis led to the movie getting a mixed reaction in its homeland. The Dutch were feeling nationalistic (hard to blame them with the Nazi’s next door) and De Spooktrein didn’t feel like a Dutch movie to them.

For the first time, there’s been a change to the characters. The Cute Girl and her Earnest Companion have become a Magician’s Assistant and an incompetent Magician. He combines the grouchiness he had in previous versions with a few of the Joker’s antics. He’s also a bit of a coward. While the Prissy Lady hasn’t changed, she has been given a more dominate role in the first section. It’s through her that we meet the other characters (she wants to change compartments to get away from smokers) and it’s the loss of her parrot that causes the train to stop instead of the Joker’s hat. Both of these changes turn out, somewhat surprisingly, to be for the good. The Earnest Man never had much of a character, and although this turns him into even more of a cliché—clearly a figure we are not supposed to like—it gives him a personality, as well as activity. And more of the Prissy Lady makes the outlandish behavior of the Joker more acceptable. She’s so unlikable that his pranks and silliness feel not only acceptable, but the sort of thing I’d like to do in the situation.

While The Ghost Train is, by nature, an ensemble piece, the Joker tends to steal the spotlight. Not so here. This is a much more balanced film. Every character gets a moment to shine, and I knew them all much better when it was done. While the ending is essentially the same, more characters are involved with what happens, which gives it the most satisfying climax, and makes it a satisfying adaptation.

1941’s The Ghost Train is the technically most sophisticated. It has some beautiful shots, with a lovely use of shadows. The camera work sells the tone. It’s also back in England with a director familiar with the property. Everything is set for this to be the best version. And wow, does it not deliver. The old problems persist, with it being too long at an hour and a half, but the failure is from a new source: radio comedy. In 1941, for reasons that elude me, Richard “Stinker” Murdoch and Arthur Askey were successful comedians. Both used a fast talking and obnoxious style, but Askey took it to another level, or I should say, took it too an older level. He’d been a music hall comedian, and he stuck with his old act. He always played the same character, with the same kind of jokes. There’s a lot of pratfalls, a lot of strange walks, and a lot of insults. He’s always very loud, always interrupting, and always talking. His routine wasn’t based on what he said, but on him always saying something. I suspect most people who would find is gags humorous have been dead for seventy years.

But it was 1941 and the studio thought there was money to be made on Askey and “Stinker” so The Ghost Train was made into a vehicle for them, though mostly Askey. The Joker role was greatly enlarged, taking over the film, and then split between the two, though Askey got the lion’s share. When the Joker was trying to hit on the Cute Girl, we now get both “Stinker” and Askey hitting on her, followed by Askey making several faces and then falling down. It’s nonstop and I don’t find a single thing Askey does amusing. I hate his character, which means now I hate the Cute Girl for being amused by him, and sympathize with the Earnest Man. Even if you like Askey (which I find inconceivable), he throws off the entire story. Nothing is frightening with him around. Nothing matters. And the other characters, including the Cute Girl, hardly exist. The Couple have been changed into a droopy pair so that they can be noticed at all. Plus, there’s a plot reason for why the Joker is acting as he does. This sticks around for “Stinker” but there’s no explanation for why Askey’s character is the way he is. He’s just an ass. And as he is more extreme, it make’s “Stinker”’s part make less sense.

This ceases to be The Ghost Train. How much you like it will have nothing to do with the story. It all depends on how much tolerance you have to Askey.

Which makes 1939’s De Spooktrein the version to see. Follow that up with Kisértetek vonata. For English-only speakers, it’s time for subtitles, or read the play first and muddle through.

Apr 061931
 
five reels

In a near fevered state, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has abandoned his upper-class lifestyle, his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and medical school to carry out secret experiments aided only by the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye). His goal is to create a living creature from corpses, which he succeeds in doing the night he is visited by Elizabeth, a family friend named Victor Moritz (John Boles), and his old medical professor, Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). When the creature (Boris Karloff) is mistreated and abandoned by its creator, it breaks free, and death and panic follow.

Based loosely on Mary Shelley’s novel via Peggy Webling’s stage play, Frankenstein chops away much of the book, changing names, and altering the creature from an intelligent entity to a savage innocent. It’s best to take the movie on its own merits, and on its own merits, it’s the most influential horror film (talkie) of all time. It created the mad scientist sub-genre, massively expanded the use of German expressionism in film, created the iconic flat-headed, bolt-necked monster, and along with Dracula, brought horror films to mainstream audiences. And it’s as good as it is important.

Much of the credit goes to director James Whale, with an assist by art director Charles Hall. The film exists in a never-never land. The German town, in daylight, is one step away from our world. It’s a little too jam-packed, a little too sharp, but it’s close to reality. But night is a different matter. Here the world is strange, with rarely a straight line or level surface to be found. The graveyard looks like it exploded. Statues are off-kilter and seem as likely to celebrate death as life. Frankenstein’s abandoned tower was designed by a mad man: stairs lead nowhere; distances are nonsensical; shadows are long and thick and may or may not have a source; walls are too close and ceilings too high. Most memorable is the laboratory, with its Tesla coils (one said to have been made by Nikola Tesla) and rising table. Much of the equipment in the set was saved and used decades later for Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein.

Most of the remaining credit goes to Karloff’ and make-up master Jack Pierce. The creature is a thing of glory. Others may have matched Pierce’s skill, but no one has touched his artistry. He created the looks of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Bride of Frankenstein, Ygor, and the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster was his greatest achievement. It didn’t hurt that Karloff had such an expressive face, and also removable bridgework so his cheeks could look hollow. Acting through that makeup, and the weighty costume, would be more than most could manage (as so many future films would show), but Karloff excelled at it. He doesn’t speak (in this film), but he doesn’t need to as I know exactly how he feels, how he longs, and how he suffers. Colin Clive and Edward Van Sloan overplay their parts, but Karloff is perfect.

Frankenstein is a movie at war with itself, at least if you don’t look too hard. The plot’s message is very clear: Do not meddle in the things that are God’s, and anything that changes the status quo are God’s. Such attempts lead to pain, suffering, and death. Even attempting such actions is both a sign of, and results in, mental illness. That’s a pretty stiff conservative message. Plus there’s the abnormal brain, giving us a division in our culture between the good people and the criminal ones.

But Whale’s sympathies lie in a different direction. He seems to be yelling around that message that no, the world is weird and wonderful, and mainly wonderful when you make it as weird as possible. Most of that conservative talk, including everything about abnormal brains, comes from Doctor Waldman, and he’s an unlikable ass. And doing things his way doesn’t work out well for him. Then there is Henry, who is a nutcase at the beginning, but he’s a bold, interesting, strong nutcase. When he gives up his wild ways, he becomes empty and weak, and nearly as unlikable as Waldman. All of the characters representing good, wholesome society are drab. No wonder Elizabeth fell for Henry over the namby-pamby Victor Moritz. And Elizabeth herself, while being beautiful and loyal, is a drag. Would anyone choose to hang out at a dinner party with Elizabeth and Victor and the reformed Henry over the insane fun of the laboratory?

Though it’s with the Monster that the moral really is set. Death and suffering do not come innately from the creature, who is clearly a sensitive soul. It was not breaking the laws of God that caused the problems; it was not taking responsibility for what you do. Henry abandons the Monster after he’s had his fun of creation into the hands of moralists like Walden and sadists like Fritz. He created life, and then didn’t care for it, teach it, give it hope. Whale’s message isn’t subtle, but many have missed it. The lesson is that new, bold steps are what makes us human and worthwhile, and our failure to act responsibly with the results of our steps is what makes us fools.

It was followed by Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945).

Back to Mad ScientistsBack to Classic Horror

Mar 171931
 
two reels

Anya Karlov is seduced and then abandoned by Prince Gregor Petroff (Wallace MacDonald), a member of an obnoxious aristocratic Russian family. She dies, and as the family refuse to say which of them is at fault, nor do they show any sign of caring, her father, scientist Boris Karlov (Warner Oland) sets out to take revenge. He’s jailed, but the Russian revolution frees him and gives him new Bolshevik allies, while it forces the Petroff’s to escape to the United States. Karlov is in possession of the Petroff family necklace, known as the Drums of Jeopardy, which had been given to his daughter to get her into bed. Karlov sends one ruby “drum” to each victim before he strikes. All of which leads to a showdown between Karlov, his always loyal assistant Peter (Mischa Auer), and his gang of Bolsheviks verses heroic Prince Nicholas Petroff (Lloyd Hughes), sleazy Gregor, US agent Martin Kent (Hale Hamilton), and two women they stumble upon, the beautiful Kitty Conover (June Collyer) and her aunt Abbie (Clara Blandick), and as this is the 1930s, it happens in an old dark house.

I wonder how this played in 1931. There seemed to be a lot of sympathetic portrayals of White Russians at the time, so were escaping Russian nobles automatically seen positively? Karlov is treated more and more villainously as we go along, although I found him completely reasonable. His hatred is justified. Gregor is made out to be scum, from beginning to end. However the film really wants me to like Nicholas and I have a hard time buying into him. He knew that his brother caused the girl’s death, and he was there when his grandfather announced that peasants have no right to speak to them. So sure, he’s better than his brother, but hero? Nah. Really all that was needed was a scene where he had to deal with the dark deeds of his family, or at least have to explain to his sudden love interest just why he’s being hunted: “Yes Kitty, Karlov is a mad man, but we drove him mad, callously taking from him the one thing he loved.” Oh well.

Outside of that, Drums of Jeopardy is a cracking little thriller. Sure, it’s stagy, with unexciting camera work and broad acting, but this was 1931, and for the time, it’s above the average in every category, and significantly so for a picture from a Poverty Row studio. It is also fast moving and dramatic, with some nice horror scenes (I love the murder that we see via shadows). Oland, better known for his many Charlie Chan films, is a fun villain, and his broad portrayal is fitting for a mad scientist. I couldn’t tell what kind of scientist he was supposed to be, and for the story, he needn’t have been one at all, but I like the looks of his lab at the beginning.

Kitty is surprisingly sharp and filled with agency for a female in ‘30s horror. She’s likable, makes firm decisions, and is cleverer than everyone else. It’s refreshing, And Aunt Abbie is several notches above the normal comic relief character. She isn’t stupid, nor does she scream constantly, and she’s the second most on-the-ball after Kitty.

The ending is unsatisfactory and Drums of Jeopardy doesn’t excel in any way (and it has inappropriately bouncy title music), but it isn’t bad for 1930s semi-horror. As it has long since been out of copyright (its original negatives were most likely burned with many others to make the fires look more spectacular in Gone With the Wind… Yeah, I’m not kidding), it’s easy to find for free.

To modern audiences, and I suspect to many at the time, the most interesting element is the similarity of the name Boris Karlov with that of horror icon Boris Karloff. It’s no accident. William Henry Pratt took his stage name of Boris Karloff from the novel Drums of Jeopardy that was the source first of a silent film, and then of this.