Mar 111931
two reels

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.


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 coproduction, 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.

Mar 071931
four reels
dracula spanish

It’s the same story as Dracula, with Conde Drácula (Carlos Villarías) travelling to London with Renfield (Pablo Álvarez Rubio) where he encounters Eva Seward (Lupita Tovar) and Lucía (Carmen Guerrero), and faces off against Doctor Seward (José Soriano Viosca), Juan Harker (Barry Norton), and Dr. Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena).

In 1931 there was a major market for Spanish language films, dubbing was difficult, and subtitles weren’t going to cut it, so the easiest solution was to make a second version of a film. The day shift would finish up their work on the English language movie, and then the night shift would come in, using the same sets, scripts, and blocking, and do it all again.

So they shot Drácula. Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi, and the English language cast would head home and George Melford, Carlos Villarías, and the Spanish-speakers would get to work. The cast was a mix of Mexicans, South Americans and Spaniards. Melford’s assignment is a little harder to figure as he didn’t speak or understand Spanish. I can’t help but speculate that Melford’s interpreter, Enrique Tovar Ávalos, who was also a director, might have had a hand on the wheel. Whatever the reasoning, this was Melford’s forth Spanish duplicate job.

There is a fundamental difference in the purpose of Drácula compared to Dracula, and that can be seen both practically and artistically. Drácula is a sound picture. That is its reason for existence—if sound wasn’t primary they’d have just stuck intertitles on Browning’s. Talking is what matters. And talkies as an art form was different than silent films. They are, by nature, one step closer to reality. And while the image still rules, it’s no longer the only thing; sound matters. Dracula was shot to work as a talkie, but also as a silent picture. Theaters that didn’t yet have sound equipment would get a version of Dracula without sound, and with Intertitles. So, less speaking was a plus, and anything that was spoken needed to get right to the point. Drácula was only going to theaters equipped for sound located in Spanish-speaking communities, so it could allow itself to be more casual with conversations. Artistically, Dracula was interested in burning specific images into your brain, while Drácula was more directed toward the over all flow of the picture.

What hits me hardest when the film starts is how much more dynamic Drácula is. Browning & Freund’s camera work is static in Dracula. The shot will swing a bit, rotate, and shift, but rarely more. Melford takes it for a ride. We’re introduced to Conde Drácula, not with a tracking shot as he walks, but with the camera sweeping in from on-high, and then climbing up the stairs. Melford and his crew would watch the dailies from Browning’s work and try to improve upon them, adding new movements. Technically it’s more advanced, but is it better? Well, they are trying for different things, but keeping that in mind, I find Browning’s shots to be more attractive, more evocative. The rollercoaster intro of Villarías is not as eerie Lugosi’s slow steps. Except for the final shot of Juan and Eva walking up the stairs and Van Helsing standing over Renfield’s body (a very static shot), the imagery in Drácula isn’t as powerful as that in Dracula.

Drácula started with the same shooting script (translated) as Drácula, though they didn’t end up that way. Between Browning and boss Carl Laemmle, Dracula got substantially cut while this version kept the entire script. That helps with pacing and continuity. There are abrupt jumps in Dracula, along with dropped plot threads (what happens to Lucy?). Those aren’t problems with Drácula. The beginning, with Renfield on the stagecoach, flows much better giving us not only a more complete introduction to the character and the world, but to the film. We’re given a few extra minutes to adjust. And much of act 3 works better. It isn’t all an improvement. Sometimes the additional material dilutes the impact of a moment. Certainly both second act scenes of Renfield being questioned could be trimmed (as they are in Dracula), but on the whole, the editing is superior.

After editing, Drácula‘s major improvement is in relaxing the prudish nature of American films. The US was more uptight than Mexico, giving us buttoned up women in Dracula. Keeping in mind that vampirism is a metaphor for sex, those tight collars were out of place. Drácula shows a bit of cleavage, with a matching lascivious twinkle in Eva’s eye. Everyone is always so proper in Dracula. Eva and Lucía are more fun, and more alive then their counterparts. They become obsessed, instead of just depressed. I understand wanting to carry off Eva as she is in the third act, whereas I can’t figure why Dracula cares all that much about Mina.

Of course the big change is in the cast. Lupita Tovar aand Carmen Guerrero are a step up, though that may just be because they are allowed to display some sex appeal. Harker has been drab in every version of the story ever made, no matter who plays him, so his switch doesn’t matter. Arozamena makes for a slightly less powerful Van Helsing. He seems a little desperate—neither he nor Sloan are better or worse, just different. Rubio gives a substantially different performance from Dwight Frye as Renfield. He’s more manic and hysterical, and edges toward the comedic. He never feels creepy. Not that any of that matters. The change that counts is from Lugosi to Villarías and Villarias can’t compete. Lugosi is dangerous, powerful, and commanding. When he calls the women to him, I understand the force that pulls them. Villarias’s bug eyes and mugging makes him more akin to a flasher than the ultimate evil, which also makes him less sympathetic. He isn’t bad in the role. Of the many, many actors who have played Dracula, he’s in my top 10, but he can’t carry the film. He’s…fine. Lugosi is a legend.

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Mar 061931
five reels

Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to Transylvanian to arrange for Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to move to London. Renfield is turned into an insane slave of the vampire count and together they travel to England, where Dracula settles in a ruined abbey next to Doctor Seward’s (Herbert Bunston) sanitarium, inside which Renfield takes up residence. Dracula takes a special interest in Seward’s daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy (Frances Dade). This puts him at odds with Mina’s ineffectual fiancé, John Harker (David Manners) and vampire hunter Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who fight for Mina’s soul and to destroy the undead fiend.

“I am Dracula.”
“I bid you welcome.”

Few characters, and few actors, have had such a powerful and memorable introduction. Sure, first we got a moment of Dracula just out of the coffin, and as the driver, but this is, literally, his introduction. Lugosi, or Dracula, glides along those marvelous stairs, a well designed set combined with some of the finest matte paintings ever, gives us a gothic other-world that took my breath away in the early 1970s when I first saw it, and still does now. Dracula has some of the greatest dialog in cinema, but it’s about the image, not the words, and those images carry the picture.

In 1926 Carl Laemmle Jr. took over running the studio from his father, and he saw horror as the future. The film to kick things off would be Dracula, starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning, who’d worked with Chaney in a string of silent macabre melodramas. But Chaney became sick, and died soon after, and the Stock Market Crash signaled that the project needed to be reassessed. Instead of the large scope of Bram Stoker’s novel, Universal would approach Dracula by way of the successful stage play, and the star of that play, Bela Lugosi, wanted the film role. His performance had been well received, and he took lead in negotiating with Stoker’s estate for the film rights, so Universal decided to take a chance. It seems absurd to think of it as a gamble now. Has anyone ever been more perfectly cast? Dracula is one of the most famous and popular characters in the world, and it isn’t the book’s version, but Lugosi’s. Hebert Bunston as Doctor Seward, and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing, were also ported over from the play.

There were obstacles, not the least of which was cinema and the public having an uneasy relationship with horror. In America, silent “horror” rarely had a supernatural connection. Ghosts and other creepy items turned out to be a guy in a mask—it was the age of the Old Dark House film. Even the gruesome Phantom of the Opera was just a guy. But Dracula was going to be a real vampire, a supernatural monster. No one was sure how the audience would take that; they loved it, of course.

Sound was a bigger issue. It would be several years before Hollywood had a handle on sound artistically, and longer technologically. And not all theaters had been converted. If Universal wanted Dracula to play everywhere, they need to make it functional both as a talkie and as a silent film. The answer was to pull back on dialog, making every word momentous, while telling the story with the images.

The result is a hybrid, a beautiful film filled with atmosphere, but one that is sometimes hard for modern audiences to leap into because it uses a different cinematic language than most movie-goes are used to. It succeeds as a series of visual poems. It isn’t the overall flow that matters, or a step-by-step plot, but indelible instants. Think of gothic verse, not prose. Individual moments hold the weight and allure (meeting Dracula, “The Children of the Night,” Renfield crawling across the floor, Dracula and Van Helsing’s confrontations ove the mirror and cross). The effect is like walking through an uncanny art gallery. Don’t worry about your pace in moving from Canvas 1 to Canvas 2; just enjoy the paintings.

But Dracula wouldn’t have become a classic without Bela Lugosi. His expressions, piercing eyes (enhanced by lighting) and stylized voice combined death and sensuality in a way that had never been done before and has seldom been approached since. He cared about the part, dedicating himself to it. He practiced constantly, and used stage techniques to get himself into character (and no, the Internet is wrong; Lugosi could speak English; he didn’t learn it all phonetically).

It’s a good thing he was so focused, because not everyone was. Bunston and Van Sloan were ready, but Manners didn’t take the film seriously and Chandler didn’t want to be there, and it shows. I watch for Lugosi and Frye. There are no moments of Manners or Chandler that I feel the need to rewind to, to replay and study. It isn’t entirely their fault. Their characters are boring; it was a tendency in silent cinema to make milquetoast males to cling to a false image of “decency” in society, and that was held over into early talkies. It’s hard to care if something bad happens to Harker as he barely exists as a person. Mina is no better. But they are just background for Renfield’s iconic laugh and Dracula’s intense stare. Tod Browning wasn’t at his best either, perhaps grieving over the death of Chaney, or perhaps from alcoholism, which explains why Dracula looks more like a Karl Freund film than a Browning one. Freund was a cinematographer and director (credited only for cinematography here, though those on the set say he did more), whose credentials include Metropolis, which makes him more suited for this project than Browning, whose interests were in the sensational and startling and less in the otherworldly and moody.

The editing for Dracula is…uneven. Freund and others have said this is due to Browning ripping pages out of the script while filming. Browning said it’s due to Carl Laemmle finding the film too disturbing and chopping out bits. Both are probably true, along with a desire to trim down anything that wouldn’t work in silent form. While the staccato effect works most of the time, I would have liked to see a bit more in the intro scenes, and the third act could use a few extra minutes (such as letting us know what happens to Lucy). Those are minor issues when I can hear Lugosi say, “I don’t drink…wine.”

For the 1999 DVD re-release, Universal commissioned Philip Glass to compose a musical score. It was a good idea. While the silence often given Dracula a chilling vibe, a well-conceived score could do so even better (there is a reason why most films have scores). And Dracula didn’t lack a score for some well considered artistic reason. In the first few years of talkies, the studios thought that audiences wouldn’t accept non-diegetic (without a source) music in a picture. They learned otherwise quickly. So adding an optional score now is clever. But Glass’s isn’t that well conceived score. He’s a minimalist and avant-garde composer, which is far from the lush eroticism Dracula requires. What’s need is cocaine and velvet, not opium and a bare mattress.

Drácula, a Spanish language version, was shot simultaneously, using the same script and sets.

Universal would make two sequels, Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Dracula (1943); neither have a strong connection to Dracula, nor reach its heights. The character would return in two monster-mash pictures in 1944, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, portrayed by John Carradine. Lugosi would only return to the character once, in Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1944).

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Oct 041930
two reels

In the far future of 1980, when people no longer have names and personal airplanes have replaced cars, J-21 (John Garrick) and LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) want to be married, but his application has been turned down by the marriage tribunal. Attempting to become more prestigious in order to win his appeal, he takes on the dangerous job of test pilot on a trip to Mars. He is joined by his friend, RT-42 (Frank Albertson), and Single O (El Brendel), a man who died in 1930 and has just been resurrected.

The first sound science fiction movie, and one of the few space films before the 1950s’ boom, Just Imagine is an odd work that could never be made today, and as it flopped, probably shouldn’t have been made in 1930. It is a musical dystopian tale with space flight and a vaudevillian comic.  Talkies were new, and the temptation to stick stage acts into films had not been overcome (nor would it be for twenty years, and it still pops up its ugly head from time to time). I’m sure it felt very natural at the time. Audiences had been fond of variety performances where a slapstick, low-brow comic would do his shtick, then some dancing girls would appear to be followed by a tenor. So, Just Imagine became a variety show with a sci-fi setting. Much of it seems painfully outdated, but then audiences of the time were equally unimpressed. However, buried in the silliness are some remarkable elements, particularly in the art design.

The city of the future is an art deco wonder. Gleaming skyscrapers are connected by walkways while one-person, open cockpit airplanes dot the sky. The planes have inset, horizontal propellers on each wing so they can stop in midair, allowing occupants to chat. Most genre fans are well aware of the fantastic cityscape of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. However, many of those iconic images are actually from Just Imagine. For years afterwards, Fox reused footage of the skyline for serials. I don’t know why so few science fiction films in the last fifty years have taken up the art deco vision of the future past, but I’d love to see more of it.

While the sets show imagination, the filmmakers were otherwise incredibly short sighted in their view of the future. Only Caucasians exist and gender roles are unchanged from the ‘30s.  I don’t expect them to be accurate, but to at least present some change. All doctors and politicians are male and LN-18 is meek around her father and unwanted suitor.

Strangely, they do better with Mars, which has a civilization based upon old African film-natives. However, the sexes are equal, with a ruler queen. The second in command is a hulking, pleasant homosexual, and while played for laughs, still suggests social advancement that we have yet to live up to. Sex is also more open for Martians, where our heroes have their choice of being bathed by either amorous bathing beauties, or the before mentioned man. You may read in what you may that both men, supposedly heterosexual, choose in the end to be undressed by the male.  A few years later, all of the Martian scenes would have been chopped by censors.

The tribulations of young lovers is light fluff, and enjoyable enough, particularly with the nineteen-year-old Maureen O’Sullivan as the object of our hero’s affections. John Garrick is serviceable as the lead, and Marjorie White, as one of several comic relief characters injects needed energy into the proceedings.

Just Imagine’s weird blend of entertainment types might have worked better if the songs and comedy were any good. There is not a single hummable piece of music, and I didn’t remember a single song a minute after it was performed, which, considering what they were like, pleases me. This isn’t Cole Porter or George Gershwin, and nothing here will end up in any lounge lizard’s standards set. The accompanying dance numbers are a mixed lot.  The scantily clad, Busby Berkeley-styled Martian numbers kept my attention, but the flyswatter dance, performed at our hero’s going away party, is noteworthy only in its level of ineptitude.

El Brendel, a Vaudevillian whose act consisted mainly of speaking in a bad Swedish accent, supplies most of the supposed comedy, but inspires only groans. His bit, which he runs into the ground, is to pop alcohol pills and then walk around in a drunken stupor. The film would be improved by making hard edits that remove every second of his screen time. Brendel continued his Swedish act for years, appearing in the 1956’s The She-Creature with exactly the same routine.

An uneven film, there is enough of interest to sit through Just Imagine once.

Aug 261930

The new owners of the Paris Opera House are told, after the sale, that there is a ghostly phantom haunting the place. The Phantom sends a threatening note, insisting that young, pretty singer Christine (Mary Phibin) be given the lead part that currently belongs to prima donna Carlotta (Mary Fabian; yes, two actresses with similar names). Christine is…naive. She thinks the voice behind her mirror—that has been teaching her to sing—belongs to a holy spirit. Even when he says he’ll be coming for her in the flesh, she sees it as some kind of spiritual joining as opposed to sex. The spirit is, of course, Erik, the Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney), a deformed artist who wants her for himself, and away from her fiancé, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). After terrorizing the audience at a performance, he kidnaps Christine, taking her into the labyrinth under the opera house where he plans to keep her forever. She is dismayed to discover who he is, and horrified when she sees his visage. She begs to be allowed to sing on the stage again, and he allows her to return to the world for a final performance. Once free, she plots with Raoul, and Erik plans his revenge.

You might reasonably ask, “What the Hell is the 1930 The Phantom of the Opera?” Well, I can only partially answer as it’s mostly lost. But then so is the 1925 version. You think you’ve seen the silent version? You haven’t. Let’s look at a bit of history to get this all in place.

The silent version, directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney, had its initial test screening in early 1925. It wasn’t received well, so it was massively re-shot by director Edward Sedgwick, who was known for cheap westerns. This version didn’t do well at test screenings either, so a third version was made, keeping the ending of the second, but made up mostly of shots from the first, though overall trimmed and tightened a great deal. The biggest plot differences between the first and third was the character of The Persian becoming a policeman, and with that, Erik’s Middle Eastern background was changed to make him an escaped convict, and the ending was altered such that Erik no longer died of a broken heart, but by the actions of a mob. This is what was released and became a huge hit. Judging it from what has survived, it was exciting and frightening. It also made clever use of tinting to indicate where and when events were happenings. And it used Technicolor in a few scenes, bringing a beauty previously unknown in film; really, the masked ball is breathtaking. Julian was not a great director, but the production had love and money lavished upon it resulting in some amazing moments.

Then came talkies. It was not uncommon to attempt to re-purpose silent films, either by looping sound for a re-release, or by combing the silent sections with newly shot scenes. The 1930 Phantom is a case of the second. While the story was kept the same, roughly 40% of the film was re-shot, with Mary Phibin and Norman Kerry brought back for new versions of their old scenes. Unfortunately, the few years showed on them, particularly on Phibin who looks much different. Virgina Pearson, who’d played Carlotta, couldn’t sing, so she was recast with Mary Fabian. However, they still wanted to use Pearson’s scenes where Carlotta interacted with the managers, so in those cases Pearson was now said to be playing Carlotta’s mother, speaking for Carlotta. But they had a big problem. Lon Chaney had left Universal for MGM, and his  contract dictated he couldn’t be dubbed, so they were stuck. So while scenes without Chaney now had voices, as well as music and sound effects, those with Chaney used the old intertitle cards, along with the music and sound effects. Their workaround was to add a new character—Erik’s servant—who could now speak for him, at least when he was off screen. So the voice coming through the mirror was no longer The Phantom’s.

This mostly-sound version was released in early 1930 (though it’s often called the 1929 version, perhaps because that’s when the new material was shot) and did very well at the box office.

Enough history? Not yet, as that doesn’t explain what we’ve got now. The filming of the silent The Phantom of the Opera was odd by current standards. In order to have two negatives, they set up two cameras next to each other, so every scene has two versions from slightly different angles. And when they shot Technicolor, they had a separate camera nearby recording the scene in B&W.

Over the years the sound version, as a whole, was lost (I’ll return to this in a moment). And at the end of the ‘40s, in an act that seems insane now, Universal destroyed all of their silent films. So all the original negatives are gone. So how do we have any cut of The Phantom of the Opera? Several ways. First, Universal would sell 16mm prints of films back in the ‘30s for home use. The construction of these prints wasn’t given much care and they didn’t always match the theatrical versions, as in this case. The tinting and color weren’t included. Scenes would be missing and the shots from the second camera sometimes replaced the ones used for the theatrical cut. The home prints deteriorated over the years, so film preservationist John Hampton gathered as many copies as he could and spliced the best bits together. The result also has a few minutes that seem to be from the sound version. It’s faded and filled with scratches, but it is considered close to the 1925 version.

The second source comes from the George Eastman museum which had been given a 35mm print in 1950. This is a high quality version, and with some cleaning up, looks beautiful today. But it’s a strange hodgepodge of bits from the 1925 theatrical cut, alternate shots from 1925, and sections from the sound version but missing the sound—for example Fabian is Carlotta and Pearson is her mother. It’s also entirely in B&W, meaning the tinting and Technicolor scenes are missing.

And we’re not quite done yet. The Bal Masque scene, in glorious Technicolor, was discovered separately, and has been spiced into place in the Eastman cut (as well as a poorer version of it sometimes appearing in the videos made from the Hampton source). Re-tinting the film is easy now, and a scene where the Phantom appears in color while the rest of the scene is still B&W (actually blue & white) has been recreated via computer.

Which gives us a poor print of something close to the silent 1925 version, and a very good print of something less close.

As for the 1930 sound version, the sound disks for the whole film were rediscovered, though without the images except for one reel, where we have it all. Outside of that one reel, the sound can’t be directly synced to any surviving rendition of the film.

So, how do I review the 1930 version? Well, I can’t, but I can speculate. The Eastman version of the silent film is a masterpiece. Scenes are gorgeous, the pace is rapid, the metaphors are thoughtful, and Chaney is truly unique. His Phantom make-up is wonderfully ghastly, yet he’s so expressive in it. And oh, the masquerade ball, in color is a thing to behold. I think less of the Hampton version, partly because the lower quality saps away much of the beauty of the images, but also because the pacing isn’t as good. A few nips and tucks help the picture.

But this is about the 1930 version, not the ’25. I’ve heard the sound from the ’30, and while the sound effects and music are nice (really nice—I wish someone would add sound effects to the Eastman cut), the voices are less so. These are not great voice actors, and it shows. As for the visuals, I can say less, but from what little exists, the changes in Mary Phibin’s appearance is distracting. And the switch from dialog scenes to intertitles whenever Chaney appears is even more distracting. Finally, the silent The Phantom of the Opera is a very stylized film. No one is trying for reality. The acting is exaggerated and subterranean sets are there to invoke visions of Hades more than to suggest anything that could actually exist. Attaching voices—more or less realistic voices—to something so far from reality just doesn’t work. You need that dreamlike otherness or the whole story comes off as rather silly, and spoken dialog punctures the dream.

You can’t see the 1930 cut, and I don’t think that’s a problem. Just watch a silent version. As it’s fallen into public domain, multiple videos have been released of various quality and with dozens of different soundtracks, each giving the film a different feeling. I recommend one based on the Eastman source and using the Carl Davis symphonic score from 1996, which flows with the film, raising the tension when needed. It’s a solid score. The Gavriel Thibaudeau score is good enough, though a step down. I am not impressed with any of the organ or piano ones I’ve heard, nor those made up of well known classical works.

Still, the talkie version is important. Universal was looking at making horror films, and while it’s easy to think of The Phantom of the Opera as outside of that genre (the book is pulp, the feel is melodrama, and since Andrew Lloyd Webber it’s a teen-girl romance), the silent version is meant to illicit screams, and apparently did. The Phantom lives in an impossibly complex underworld that includes a torture chamber and an analog for the river Styx. He can strike anywhere, invokes fear in all, sleeps in a coffin, and of course, has a skull-like face. So yes, this is horror, and its box office success in 1930 gave them the confidence to produce Dracula, making The Phantom of the Opera the first Classic Universal Monster.

Jan 291930
two reels

The arch-criminal The Bat has just finished his most daring robbery and heads off to the country to a mansion rented by elderly but fierce Cornelia Van Gorder. The house is soon filled with an array of strange characters, including Van Gorder’s niece, a suspected bank robber, a suspicious doctor, a stern police detective, a comical PI, the nasty nephew of the owner of the house, and cowardly servants. It is likely that the proceeds from a bank robbery is hidden in the house which means we get a murder and lots of spooky goings on. Which of the guests is actually The Bat?

The Bat Whispers is a remake of the silent film—entitled The Bat—that started the Dark House genre in film. The genre puts a bunch of eccentric characters into a secluded haunted house, but where the haunting is almost always a Scooby-Do situation. Lightning flashes and strange sounds come from the walls but it is all background. While some of these films are comedies (The Ghost Breakers), more often “quirky” is a better description (The Old Dark House). That’s the case here, as nothing is funny but quite a bit is peculiar. Everyone’s behavior is loud and broad. This is no place for subtlety.

For 1930 the camera work is impressive, with several techniques and technologies developed for the project. Still, there’s no mistaking that The Bat Whispers/The Bat came from a stage play. Generally we keep on one side of a room, with characters moving left and right. I ‘m pretty sure I could block the play after watching this. And while those techniques and technologies were new, that doesn’t mean they were used in an exciting way. For the historical development, The Bat Whispers might get a cinematographers blood pumping, but for me, it’s not pulse pounding.

The story is a basic thriller with an easy to determine mystery. The story progresses by having a number of characters hear some sound and then go rushing into a room where they spend time trying to determine what caused the sound. Rinse and repeat. It’s not a bad time, nor is it memorable.

Bob Kane said that this was his inspiration for Batman. Apparently he had a wide ranging imagination as there isn’t much here to base a superhero upon.

It was remade as The Bat in 1959 with Vincent Price.

Jan 171930
two reels

Peter Foley (Rex Lease) is deeply in dept to G.W. Parker (Sam Hardy), and needs his inheritance to pay him off. His problem is that he needs a wife to get it, and his intended bride Alice Blake (Vera Reynolds) has been delayed. So Parker supplies him with a fake wife for the night, Julia (Nita Martan), who happens to be the girlfriend of jealous cop Bull Morgan (Paul Hurst), as well as several others—she’s a popular girl. Peter, G.W., and Julia head to the ghostly home of Peter’s Uncle Henry, who will inherit if Peter can’t prove he’s married, where they are supposed to meet with the lawyer. Joe Blair (Robert Livingston) also wants to marry Alice, so brings her to the old house to see that Peter is married, and thus turn to him. Morgan shows up too and hijacks ensue.

This is an Old Dark House movie mixed with a bedroom farce. Sure, the expected elements are here: there’s a spooky old house filled with secret passageways, an inheritance, a storm that maroons everyone there, an exterior threat, moans and screams, and people disappearing. But all that is, for the most part, just the setting. The storm isn’t to keep everyone trapped with a killer, but to force everyone to hide from each other by jumping in and out of beds.

Borrowed Wives is yet another Poverty Row flick from Frank R. Stayer, who made a career from the edges of the Old Dark House subgenre. This is one of his better works. It recycles old jokes and old situations, but does so in a reasonably amusing fashion. There’s plenty of mistaken identities, ducking under blankets, crawling under furniture, and slipping from room to room, observed only by the elderly woman who is shocked by the morals of the young. It all works out the way you’d expect, but then no one is looking for a big surprise at the end of a farce.

Other Poverty Row horror films from director Frank R. Stayer: Tangled Destinies (1932), The Monster Walks (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933), The Ghost Walks (1934), and Condemned to Live (1935).

Jan 011930
one reel

Crooked Privy Councillor ten Brinken (Albert Bassermann) has had some success with his experiments with artificially inseminating rats, and wants to take it to the next level: inseminating a prostitute with the sperm from a dead murderer. Seems like that shouldn’t be the next level, but hey, I’m not a mad scientist, so what do I know? He enlists the aid of his nephew, Frank Braun (Harald Paulsen), who leaves after they kidnap a local loose woman. Frank is as close to a good guy as the film gets. I thought I’d mention that as usually kidnapping takes you out of the running to be the good guy. Anyway, seventeen years later, the result of the experiment, Alraune (Brigitte Helm), returns from boarding school, with no knowledge of her conception and thinking she’s ten Brinken’s niece. She’s a bit of a wild child, and has an enchanting effect on every man she meets, which leads to deaths and an upsetting of the social order. While everything is falling apart, Frank returns, because, as I mentioned, he’s the good guy, and Alraune takes an immediate interest in him.

Novelist Hanns Heinz Ewers REALLY didn’t like artificial insemination…A lot…In the running around waving his arms in the air and yelling “fire” way. He also wasn’t fond of women not keeping to their place. But he did think eugenics was pretty cool. I think it’s fair to call him a reactionary. Of course him becoming a Nazi is the cherry on top.

Director Richard Oswald wasn’t any of those things. He was Jewish and progressive, and while never a great artist, and more interested with cranking out films than quality (he averaged 25 a year during the silent era), he wanted to make statements about how it wasn’t birth, but society that was to blame for the nation’s woes. The problem is you can’t take a work of fanatical right-wing, religious gobbledegook and swap the themes, not without a lot more skill than Oswald had.

Alraune was a very hot property in Germany. This is the fourth (or fifth—the records are unclear and several films have been lost) cinematic version, and there would be another in ’52, long after artificial insemination became socially acceptable which makes its premise feel a bit silly. Alraune’s the first female movie monster and the only one to support a series in the classic and pre-classic days. That the story is so regressive doesn’t say anything good about how women were (are) viewed.

The 1928 version was a hit, diving into the murky morality, but mainly shining due to the performance of Brigitte Helm a year after her star-making turn in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Her Alraune was the ultimate femme fatale, oozing sex and evil, yet still sympathetic. You like her, and you want her to win. People bought tickets to see her vamp about silently, so producers, being what they are, thought hey, why not do it again just two years later, but now with talking. They even re-hired Helm, though everyone else was new.

Putting eugenics and artificial insemination and the role of women in society on the backburner (but don’t forget them as they fill this story), Alraune is a variant on Frankenstein. We’ve got a mad scientist, obsessed with creating life for questionable reasons. He does so, but then his creation doesn’t turn out the way intended, and when it’s treated poorly, it strikes back. Alraune is soulless due to the nature of her birth, and as she’s a woman, her strength is in her sexuality. She doesn’t, for the most part, feel, and has no notion of right and wrong. OK, even with all that stuff on the backburner, this sounds pretty terrible. And philosophically, it is. The film versions that more-or-less work do so either from the power of the characterization (1928’s) or on style and design (1952’s – My review). This version has neither of those. Oswald, in his failed attempt to fix the message, sucks the energy out of the story.

Oswald moved the time period to the then-modern era. That means gone is the Gothic, fairytale feel and the expressionism, and in comes the mundane world. Gone as well is any hint of magic, and when you are dealing with soulless, sex-crazed unnatural women, magic really helps. But then it’s no longer clear that she is soulless, and she isn’t presented as sex-crazed but instead surrounded by comically inept men (she asks the guy to pick her a flower and he flops into the water and drowns). With those shifts, Alraune ceases to be a horror movie, becoming a melodrama, and a rather dull one. Since this time Alraune isn’t a succubus, Brigitte Helm’s smokin’ routine wouldn’t work, so she tones it down to the point I wouldn’t have recognized her without the credits. We get no sultry glances, no jerking mannerisms. Before she’d been mesmerizing and unreal. Here she’s conventionally attractive and ordinary. Helm isn’t to blame as no one is memorable except for Bassermann, who seems to relish his grumpy, thieving, incestuous role as the mad scientist. But one living character isn’t enough.

Alraune is morally repugnant. Far worse, it’s boring. Choose a different version.

Sep 091901

This site reviews the best in genre film (where genre is taken very broadly). Reviews are grouped into lists so you can compare films with similar subjects.

Foster on Film has three parts:

  • The Important Films: Here I will look at the films that changed the art form and our society. I have selected my favorite genres and picked the films that are required viewing to understand those genres.
  • The Great Films: My look at the masterpieces of cinema. Here you’ll find lists of the top films by the greatest directors and actors. This is also the home of my Foscar project, where I attempt to fix the Oscar’s Best Picture awards.
  • Film Review Lists: Reviews of films grouped by genre and sub-genre; a guide to anyone who gets into one of the “what are the 10 best X films” discussions. These are reviews, not critiques, so aimed more toward “is it good?” than “why is it good?”
  • Rankings/Lists: A collection of all my other lists of the best films.