1933’s THE VAMPIRE BAT isn’t a Universal Horror movie, but it sure comes damn close! This independent feature from Majestic Pictures contains a number of Universal Horror stars, including Lionel Atwill , Melvyn Douglas (THE OLD DARK HOUSE ), Lionel Belmore (FRANKENSTEIN ), and a positively Renfield-like performance from the great Dwight Frye – not to mention KING KONG’s main squeeze Fay Wray as our heroine! Majestic also rented some of the standing sets from FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE to film on, giving the film a real Universal feel.
The screenplay by Edward T. Lowe (who wrote Lon Chaney’s 1923 HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and the later horror entry HOUSE OF DRACULA) concerns the village of Kleinschloss up in arms over a series of gruesome murders that point to the presence of a vampire in their midst, with Frye’s simple-minded Herman the chief suspect. Turns out the killings are not really supernatural but that old devil, mad science, with Atwill’s Dr. von Neimann needing human blood for his deranged experiments! Directed by Frank L. Strayer (1932’s THE MONSTER WALKS), enjoy today’s classic fright fest, THE VAMPIRE BAT!:
Two hundred years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley unleashed her novel FRANKENSTEIN upon an unsuspecting world. The ghastly story of a “Modern Prometheus” who dared to play God and his unholy creation shocked readers in 1818, and over the past two centuries has been adapted into stage plays, radio dramas, television programs, comic books, and the movies, most notably James Whale’s seminal 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, featuring not only a star-making performance by Boris Karloff as the Creature, but ahead of its time filmmaking from Whale.
James Whale had directed only two films before FRANKENSTEIN (JOURNEY’S END and WATERLOO BRIDGE), but the former stage director certainly adapted quickly to the new medium of talking pictures. The story had been made three times for the silent screen, but the new sound technology adds so much to the overall eeriness of the film’s atmosphere. Whale was obviously influenced by German Expressionism, with its chiaroscuro lighting and oddly tilted angles (check out Dwight Frye as Fritz climbing the staircase with his tiny cane and try not to think of Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari). The detailed set design of Herman Rosse and wonderful electronic wizardry of Kenneth Strickfaden set the iconography for all monster movies to come, and Arthur Edeson’s fluid camerawork (under Whale’s guidance) brings it all to horrifying life. Tod Browning’s DRACULA gave us the unsettling stillness of the undead vampire; in FRANKENSTEIN, the patchwork man comes to full-blooded, raging life.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Boris Karloff’s brilliant portrayal of the monster is an Oscar-worthy performance. Inarticulate, unable to communicate, Karloff conveys so much with just his body and facial expressions it’s hard to believe he was relegated for the most part to small roles before hitting it big here. His first scene, slowly turning toward the camera, eyes dead as night, his gait uneasy as he shambles forth on unfamiliar limbs, is a debut for the ages… despite the fact Karloff had appeared in over 60 films, this is the first time he truly stood out. Jack Pierce’s astonishing makeup job transformed the actor into a brute, but Boris doesn’t so much play the makeup as he becomes it, a fully fleshed-out character whose childlike innocence is stripped away after finally lashing out against his tormentor Fritz. The famed “Floating Flower” scene, cut for decades by the censors, still manages to both shock and horrify the audience, as well as elicit sympathy for the monster, who doesn’t quite understand why his little friend Maria isn’t floating like the daisies. Haunted, hunted by the soon-to-be-cliché torchbearing villagers, Karloff’s creature reverts to his animalistic nature, and when he meets his fiery fate in that windmill (a noisy, dark, and violent scene), you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for this monster who never asked to be reborn.
Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is the maddest doctor of them all, a totally obsessed genius whose quest to play God has driven him beyond the brink of sanity. Watch his eyes: the guy’s truly, gloriously crazy! His gleeful shouting “It’s alive! It’s alive!” leaves no doubt Henry’s gone over the edge. Only later, when he realizes the horror he’s unleashed, does Clive become a more rational scientist, determined to right his wrong. DRACULA’s Dwight Frye (Fritz) and Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman) are two of the genre’s best supporting players, and their presence is more than welcome. Mae Clark as Henry’s long-suffering fiancé Elizabeth doesn’t get enough credit for her part, but she’s very good. I’ve always thought John Boles’s Victor was a superfluous role, and Frederick Kerr’s Baron Frankenstein can be annoying at times. But seven-year-old Marilyn Harris as little Maria shines in her brief but memorable role, as does Michael Mark as her father, grimly carrying her lifeless body through the village amid the wedding day revelry.
As you can probably tell, FRANKENSTEIN is one of my favorite films, one that sparked my love for horror movies that still remains strong today. It’s not just a horror classic, it’s a true film classic that has stood the test of time. It’s inventive, original, and retains its power thanks to the genius of James Whale and the towering performance by the One, True King of Horror, Boris Karloff. And thanks, lest we forget, to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose fertile imagination created a truly immortal Monster.
Everybody knows the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/John Huston classic THE MALTESE FALCON, but only true film fanatics watch the original 1931 version. Since I fall squarely into that category, I recently viewed the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s seminal private eye yarn. The film, like it’s more famous remake, follows the novel’s plot closely, with the added spice that Pre-Code movies bring to the table.
The odds are six-two-and-even if you’re reading this post, you don’t need a plot recap. What I intend to do is go over some of the differences between the two versions. Let’s start with Sam Spade himself, the prototype hard-boiled detective. Suave, slick-haired Ricardo Cortez interprets the role as a grinning horndog who’s never met a skirt he didn’t like. We meet Spade in the opening shot, clinching a dame in silhouette at the door to his office. Then the door opens and the camera pans down to the girl’s gorgeous gam, hitching up her stocking, so there’s no doubt that more than just business was being conducted behind that closed door. This sets the tone for Cortez’s character, an amoral man completely out for himself. We later discover he’s been banging his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva (and as she’s played by the lovely Thelma Todd , who could blame him?!?). He’s also got a thing going on with secretary Effie ( Una Merkel , another Pre-Code cutie). Cortez made a career playing shady types, and though his Spade differs from the more cynical Bogart , he does well in the role of less than honorable gumshoe.
Bebe Daniels plays opposite Cortez as the lying, duplicitous Ruth Wanderly, enacted in the Huston film by Mary Astor. Miss Daniels, a star in the silent era, was more closely associated with early musicals (DIXIANA, 42ND STREET), and is no match for Astor in the dramatic department. However, she does get to strut her Pre-Code stuff more freely than Astor did ten years later. There’s a scene where Ruth and Sam are passionately kissing while a record comes to an end; the scene changes to Daniels asleep in his bed the next morning. Sam answers the door to find Iva, who spies Ruth peeking through the bedroom door… in her kimono! Later, when a thousand dollar bill goes missing from an envelope, Sam orders Ruth to “take off your clothes” so he can search her… and she does! Though she’s no Mary Astor (let’s face it, few actresses were), Bebe Daniels does fine in the pivotal role of Ruth Wanderly.
The villainous trio of Casper Gutman, “Dr.” Joel Cairo, and the gunsel Wilmer Cook are portrayed with no ambiguity about their homosexuality. Right off the bat, Effie tells Sam a “gorgeous new customer” has arrived, and in walks the effeminate Dr. Cairo (Danish actor Otto Matieson). Gutman (Irishman Dudley Diggs) sports feminine curls and is more than fond of his hired goon Wilmer, played by none other than Dwight Frye. It was a very good year for Frye, as he appeared in both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA for Universal in 1931. There’s also some homophobic slurs tossed by Spade at the homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus (Robert Elliott, J. Farrell McDonald), as he teases Dundy with the sobriquets “sweetheart” and “darling”, much to their chagrin.
When Warner Brothers wanted to re-release the ’31 version in 1936, the then-in-place Hayes Production Code had a fit, claiming it was too “lewd” and unacceptable to be put on the Silver Screen again. Warners then commissioned a remake, retitled SATAN MET A LADY, changing some things around and starring Warren William and Bette Davis in the Cortez and Daniels roles. The new film was a bomb (Davis hated it), and Hammett’s story sat untouched until John Huston got ahold of it in 1941, and the rest is film history. The Huston/Bogart MALTESE FALCON remains the definitive version, and is still my favorite, but this Roy Del Ruth 1931 Pre-Code take has a lot to offer. While not nearly as atmospheric or influential as the later film, this MALTESE FALCON is at least the stuff that Pre-Code dreams are made of!
DRACULA is the film that ushered in The Golden Age of Horror. Sure, there were silent films with elements of the macabre, especially those starring Lon Chaney Sr, and the German expressionist films of Ufa Studios. But this tale of a bloodthirsty vampire on the loose in London struck a collective nerve among filmgoers for two reasons. First was it talked…sound films were barely out of their diapers, and the chilling voice of star Bela Lugosi mesmerized the masses. Second, the country was in the midst of The Great Depression, and audiences were hungry for escapist fare to take their minds off their troubles. DRACULA took them to another world, a world populated by undead creatures of the night, fiends who were ultimately stopped by the forces of good.
No need to rehash the plot of DRACULA…if you don’t know the story by now, you’re reading the wrong blog! Instead, I’ll take a look at what works in the film and what doesn’t. Though the movie has lost much of its power in the 84 years since its release, the performance of Bela Lugosi certainly hasn’t. The Hungarian actor originated the role on Broadway, and perfected it to the point where he’s still imitated today. While not as ferocious as Christopher Lee’s interpretation of the Vampire King, Lugosi is in full command here. His slow manner of speaking and impeccable wardrobe make Bela the suavest of ghouls, while those burning eyes let the audience know this isn’t someone to mess with. And those long, splayed fingers reaching to clutch his victim’s throats became a Lugosi trademark, often imitated but never duplicated.
Tod Browning’s direction is somewhat static, saved by the marvelous camerawork of the great Karl Freund. The eerie sets of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey are filled with shadows, cobwebs in every corner, and a variety of vermin. Dwight Frye adds to the atmosphere as Renfield, driven to madness by the Count’s power. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing isn’t as athletic as Peter Cushing, but is convicing as the occult expert (as he was in The Mummy). But David Manners and Helen Chandler as the young lovers just don’t cut it for me. Their blandness drags the scenes they’re in down, their acting stiff and wooden. The film is slow paced as it is, and the pair doesn’t help matters. Manners, in his jodhpurs, is particularly annoying, while Chandler just isn’t appealing. Sorry, but I’d rather have Frances Dade (who plays Lucy, one of Drac’s victims).
Historically important, DRACULA today pales compared to other horror pics of the era. But it was the first, and without it we wouldn’t have those other movies to savor. I usually watch DRACULA every year around Halloween, just to see Bela Lugosi in his most famous (and arguably greatest) role. And despite some of its faults, you should, too. DRACULA has been remade and reworked hundreds of times, but let’s be honest…nobody plays the Count better than Bela. Nobody.