Master of Horror: Boris Karloff in BEDLAM (RKO 1946)

 

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(This post is part of the TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS blogathon hosted by Kristen at JOURNEYS IN CLASSIC FILM! )

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Boris Karloff made a trio of films for producer Val Lewton in the mid-40’s: THE BODY SNATCHER , ISLE OF THE DEAD, and BEDLAM. The Old Master of Terror was given the opportunity to show off his acting prowess in these dark, psychological horrors. Freed from the restraint of playing yet another mad scientist or creature, Karloff excels in the roles of murderous Cabman Grey, plague-ridden General Pherides, and here as the cruel martinet of Bedlam, Master George Sims.

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Lewton cowrote the script with director Mark Robson  , “suggested by” William Hogarth’s 8th painting in the series “A Rake’s Progress”. There are a lot of sly references to Hogarth in BEDLAM, and the artist even gets a screenwriting credit. It’s 1761 London, and the class struggle between rich and poor rages (the more things change… ). One of the inmates of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (known to the locals as Bedlam) attempts to escape via the rooftop, but a guard stomps on his fingers, plunging him to his doom. Corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) calls Master Sims, the “apothecary general of St. Mary’s” and noted poet, on the carpet for the death. The unctuous Sims, who’ll do anything to keep his position, offers to amuse Mortimer by having his “loonies” put on a performance for the Lord and his upper crust cronies. Mortimer’s “protégé” Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is appalled when one of the inmates, a young boy gilded in gold paint, dies while doing a recital.

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Nell tours the asylum, and is further dismayed at the squalid, deplorable conditions the inmates are forced to live in, and at Sims’ cruelty, referring to them as animals and even keeping some in cages. “They’re all in themselves and by themselves”, she says, and gets Mortimer to agree to make changes. But the wily Sims appeals to Mortimer’s pocket book, and Nell leaves the Lord in a fit of pique. Sims and Mortimer conspire to have Nell committed to Bedlam, and she lives in fear for her life as she becomes a prisoner of Sims’ house of horrors.

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BEDLAM is more costumed drama than out-and-out horror, though there are more than enough shocks to satisfy genre fans. Director Robson made his first five films under Lewton’s aegis, and along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, conveys a sense of dread throughout the film. Of course, the fact they had horror’s King Karloff as Sims didn’t hurt. Boris gives us a restrained depiction of evil as the master of Bedlam, his purring voice belying the corruption that lies within. He’s subservient to Lord Mortimer, his rich and powerful benefactor, and takes out his self-loathing on those less fortunate, the “loonies” in his charge. Sims will do anything to retain his minute amount of power, and gets no sympathy when he gets his comeuppance at the film’s powerful conclusion. It’s a bravura performance, and alongside Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER, Boris’ best of the 40’s.

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Anna Lee had played opposite Boris before, in the 1936 British horror THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN. She became a favorite of John Ford , and was featured in seven of his films, including HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, FORT APACHE, and THE LAST HURRAH. Miss Lee was also in the horror classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and known to millions as Lila Quartermaine on the long-running soap GENERAL HOSPITAL. She goes toe-to-toe with Boris here, and her transformation from silly plaything for the rich to enlightened woman is a good job of acting itself.

Billy House (Lord Mortimer) was an old burlesque comic who transitioned into a fine character actor, particularly in Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER. The rest of the cast isn’t well-known, but Richard Fraser does well as a Quaker who aids Nell. More Familiar Faces to film buffs include Ian Wolfe (a standout as a former lawyer, now an inmate of Bedlam), Jason Robards Sr, Elizabeth Russell, Skelton Knaggs, Ellen Corby, Tommy Noonan,  and future horror/sci-fi star Robert Clarke.

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This was the last of the Lewton/RKO entries, sending the series of intelligent psychological horror films out on a strong note. Karloff lovers won’t want to miss this one, as Boris adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. He wouldn’t get as good a role as Master Sims until the monster revival in the 60’s, and it’s his last great film of the classic horror era. BEDLAM does with its modest budget what many bigger films fail to do, sending a potent message while entertaining the audience at the same time.

Pre Code Confidential #6: Jean Harlow in THE SECRET SIX (MGM 1931)

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(Once again, your Cracked Rear Viewer is taking part in the TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon, hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film  .  Just like last year, I’ll be posting on two stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Jean Harlow (8/7) and Boris Karloff (8/26).)

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Before she became The Platinum Blonde Bombshell of 1930’s Hollywood, Jean Harlow played a pivotal role in early gangster films. She was James Cagney’s second moll in the essential THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and a slutty seductress in THE BEAST OF THE CITY. In THE SECRET SIX, Jean plays a temptress who turns on the mob in a wild Pre-Code film that represents another milestone for Miss Harlow: it’s her first of six with costar Clark Gable.

THE SECRET SIX [US 1931] WALLACE BEERY, JOHNNY MACK BROWN, JEAN HARLOW

Wallace Beery plays Slaughterhouse Scorpio, who rises from the stockyards to the top of the gangster heap. He accomplishes this by brute force, bribery, and rubbing out his rivals. Slaughterhouse is as thirsty for power as his customers are for bootleg booze, and he’ll go to any lengths to get it, including using sexy Ann Courtland (Harlow) to seduce reporter Hank ( Johnny Mack Brown ).

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Hank’s fellow reporter Carl (a moustacheless Clark Gable) is also hot for Ann, but he’s too smart to fall for Slaughterhouse’s games. Carl becomes a double agent working for The Secret Six, a mysterious group of public officials determined to take Slaughterhouse down. When Hank goes searching for Slaughterhouse’s gun, instrument of many a murder, Ann warns him that the gangster is after him. She helps him escape, but the reporter is gunned down in a subway car.

Slaughterhouse is arrested and taken to trial. His aide Metz, whom everyone thought was mute, breaks down and confesses. Ann testifies, but the rigged jury finds Slaughterhouse not guilty in a gross miscarriage of justice! Carl and Ann are about to be taken for  ride, but The Secret Six swing into action with warrants for Slaughterhouse and his mob for tax evasion, arson, murder, and deportation. There’s a violent shootout and a twist ending before Slaughterhouse is finally captured and executed by the state.

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This movie’s loads of fun for gangster film devotees, with its blazing machine guns, colorful slang, and seeing stars in early roles. Beery excels as the rough and tumble, braggadocios Slaughterhouse in a part tailor-made for his talents. Good old Judge Hardy Lewis Stone is on the wrong side of the law here as lawyer Newt Newton, the brains behind the brawn,. Ralph Bellamy makes his screen debut as gangster Johnny Franks, one of Slaughterhouse’s early victims, and it’s a hoot to watch Bellamy play a hoodlum! Marjorie Rambeau shines as the floozy Peaches, and John Miljan, Theodore Von Eltz, and Murry Kinnell all add to the excitement. Even Johnny Mack Brown, more known as a cowboy hero, is good his role as the doomed Hank.

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20-year-old Jean Harlow stands out as Anne, adding a depth of emotion to her scenes, especially her time on the witness stand. Starting out as a typical bad girl, Harlow’s change of heart during the proceedings let her show off her acting chops, and this film led to both her and Gable receiving contracts with MGM and a successful string of hits lasting until her unfortunate death in 1937. Jean Harlow’s three contributions to the gangster genre weren’t large, but were important in getting her noticed after critics excoriated her in Howard Hughes’ 1930 HELL’S ANGELS.

Unlike many early talkies, THE SECRET SIX is fast-paced and energetic, thanks to director George Hill, with a dynamite script from his then-wife Frances Marion. The cast of pros, including young Jean Harlow, bring the tale to rip-roaring life. THE SECRET SIX hasn’t received the attention and accolades of THE PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, or SCARFACE, but it’s just as exciting as those classics, and contains one of the genre’s best casts. For a wild screen ride, and a look at Jean Harlow becoming an accomplished actress, pick Six- THE SECRET SIX!