Halloween Havoc!: FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1931)

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.

Director James Whale and his star

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.

Pre Code Confidential #8: Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE (Warner Brothers 1933)

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Barbara Stanwyck uses sex as a weapon and screws her way to the top in BABY FACE, an outrageously blatant Pre-Coder that had the censors heads spinning back in 1933. Miss Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who works in her Pop’s speakeasy in smog-filled Erie, PA, where Pop’s been pimping her out since she was 14. Lily has a black female friend named Chico who seems to be more than just a friend (though it’s never stated, the implication’s definitely there). All the men paw over her like dogs with a piece of raw meat except the elderly Mr. Cragg, who gives her a book by Fredrich Nietzche along with some advice: “You have power… you don’t realize your potentialities… you must use men, not let them use you… exploit yourself, use men! Be strong, defiant!”.

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When Pop’s still blows to smithereens, taking Pop with it, Lily and Chico hop a freight train to New York City. It’s here she first tries out Cragg’s advice by seducing the railman who tries to throw them off. Arriving in The Big Apple, Lily and Chico stop outside the Gotham Trust Company, a huge skyscraper that’s an obvious phallic symbol. Lily quickly lands a job by seducing an office boy and begins her climb to the top. One of her first victims is a young John Wayne , an innocent sheep to Lily’s ravenous wolf. Wayne introduces her to Douglass Dumbrille , who’s been around enough to know better, but inevitably succumbs to Lily’s carnal charms.

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Lily and her boss get caught together in the lady’s room by his boss, Stevens (Donald Cook); he’s dismissed, but sly Lily gives a sob story about the rat forcing himself on her, and the gullible Stevens makes her his secretary. If you guessed Stevens is next on Lily’s list, give yourself a hand! However, Stevens is engaged to bank VP Carter’s daughter, who catches the two fooling around in his office, and she flees up to Daddy’s suite. Big Daddy Carter orders Stevens to fire Lily, but the jerk can’t bring himself to do it. Lily’s called up to see Carter and gives him another sob story claiming she didn’t know about the engagement. Carter then axes Lily, but sets her up in a lavish penthouse to become his mistress! Stevens loses his cool, barging in on them and shooting his former future Father-in-law, then committing suicide in Lily’s boudoir!

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This headline-inducing scandal results in the Board of Directors terminating the bank’s president and bringing in the founder’s grandson Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). “a playboy… society globetrotter” with no experience whatsoever. But Courtland’s no dummy; after Lily demands $15 Grand for her diary (the newspaper’s have offered ten), Courtland refuses, not buying her story (“I’m a victim of circumstance!”) and shipping her off to their Paris branch under an assumed alias. Courtland thinks he’s solved he problem, but when he arrives in Gay Paree, there’s Lily, and yep, he falls for her, this time actually marrying Lily, resulting in another scandal that forces the bank’s closure, an indictment for Courtland, and a suicide attempt.

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I’ve gotta say, the men in BABY FACE act like complete idiots, practically driven to the brink of madness by Lily’s sexual prowess. She must be really good to elicit that kind of response! This kind of sex scandal isn’t unheard of in real life,  especially among the rich and powerful (hello, Anthony Weiner!), which leads me to conclude the more money and fame you have, the stupider you get! Stanwyck is really good as Lily, the original Material Girl, who goes after what she wants using what she has. Equally good is Theresa Harris as Lily’s companion, Chico, who spends much of the film singing “St. Louis Blues”. Harris was an African-American actress and singer who’s featured in many classic films of the 30’s and 40’s, and doesn’t play to the stereotype of the times, but rather as an equal. Other Familiar Faces dotting the cast (besides those mentioned) are Robert Barratt, Henry Kolker, Margaret Lindsay Nat Pendleton Harry Gribbon , and Edward Van Sloan .

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Director Alfred E. Green keeps things moving as fast as Lily herself. His fifty year career in films includes directing two stars to Oscars (George Arliss in DISRAELI, Bette Davis in DANGEROUS), but he’s most remembered for THE JOLSON STORY. Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola based their sordid little screenplay on a story from Daryl F. Zanuck, shortly before he moved over to Twentieth Century Pictures. The cinematography by veteran James Van Trees is superb, as is Anton Grot’s amazing art direction. BABY FACE contributed mightily to the formation of the Hays Code, its frank look at a wanton woman causing blood vessels to pop in prudes across the country. It’s a film of its time, when the Great Depression caused desperate people to take desperate measures, and a must-see for lovers of Pre-Code films.

Pre Code Confidential #7: PLAY-GIRL (Warner Brothers 1932)

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One of the many fun things about Pre-Code films is seeing how they get away with racy dialog without being overly explicit. The risqué double entendres fly freely in PLAY-GIRL, starring Loretta Young as an independent woman who ends up marrying a degenerate gambler, winding up pregnant and husbandless until the conclusion. The story didn’t really matter to me; it was the innuendo-laden script that kept me interested.

That saucy script was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote the play “Chicago”, later adapted into the 1942 film ROXIE HART with Ginger Rogers, and then turned into Bob Fosse’s smash Broadway musical CHICAGO, which in turn became the Oscar winning Best Picture of 2002. Ms. Watkins was a former crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and based her play on the murder trial of “jazz babies” Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Hollywood beckoned, and she wrote screenplays for UP THE RIVER (the film debuts of both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (uncredited), and LIBELED LADY (Tracy again, with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy).

Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner
Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner

Though the plot revolves around Loretta Young’s travails, Pre-Code favorite Winnie Lightener receives top billing as Loretta’s best friend Georgina. Lightner’s bawdy persona made her a star in the 1929 musical GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY, which is now regrettably a lost film. Winnie starred early Technicolor musical comedies like HOLD EVERYTHING (with Joe E. Brown), THE LIFE OF THE PARTY, and GOLD DUST GERTIE (with Olsen & Johnson), but after the Production Code went into place, her career stalled, and by 1934 she retired from the screen to become Mrs. Roy Del Ruth.

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Winnie gets most of the good lines in this one. While sleeping with roommate Loretta, her panties go flying off the clothesline. Loretta asks what she’s going to do, and Winnie replies, “Keep off step ladders”. Later, when Winnie’s at work, bent over on top of a ladder, a customer quips, “I guess you ain’t got just what I want”. Loretta reads a book on merchandising, trying to better herself, and Winnie tells her, “You don’t see Peggy Joyce* reading no merchandise books and she’s a somebody. Her merchandise is the kind that sells on sight!”.

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The girls also have a frenemy named Edna at the department store they work at, Edna. She’s played by another Pre-Code favorite, Dorothy Burgess (HOLD YOUR MAN, STRICTLY PERSONAL, BLACK MOON). Dorothy and Winnie are constantly at each other’s throats, and this bit of dialog is probably the best, when Loretta throws a party at her new apartment:

Winnie: “Ooh, can I see the bedroom?”

Dorothy: “You usually do”.

Winnie: “Well you oughta know, I generally meet you coming out!”

The picture’s no great shakes, but it’s the witty, sexually laced banter that makes it worthwhile. There are plenty of Familiar Faces here, with Guy Kibbee as Winnie’s sugar daddy, Norman Foster as the gambler who Loretta falls in love with, and DRACULA’s Edward  Van Sloan as the department store owner. James Ellison, Noel Madison, George “Gabby” Hayes, Roscoe Karns, and perennial cop Robert Emmett O’Connor appear in small roles. PLAY-GIRL is a fine example of what Pre-Code’s are all about, and though it’s hardly a classic, the dialog alone makes it a film to put on your must-see list.

(*Peggy Hopkins Joyce was an actress known for her many marriages and divorces, love affairs, and extravagant lifestyle. She appeared with W.C. Fields in the all-star comedy INTERNATIONAL HOUSE.)

The Pre-Code Confidential Series:

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (Universal 1931)

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (Universal 1932)

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Boris Karloff is as slow and still as death itself in THE MUMMY. His performance as Ardeth Bey/Imhoptep conveys the horror of a living dead man with the romance of a love across the ages. This Mummy isn’t just a shuffling instrument of some High Priest; Imhotep was a High Priest himself, brought back to half-life by foreign interlopers and now searching for the woman he lost 3700 years ago. Aided by two of Jack Pirerce’s fantastic make-up jobs, Karloff brought all his sinister power to the role and created yet another masterful characterization that still frightens audiences today.

A British Museum expedition in 1921 digs up the sarcophagus of Imhotep, high priest of Karnak who, according to the hieroglyphics, was buried alive for committing sacrilege. A smaller box comes with an ominous warning: “Death, eternal punishnet, for anyone who opens this casket…Amon-Ra”. While Sir Joseph Whemple and occult expert Dr. Muller discuss the ramifications of the find, impetuous young Ralph Norton opens the box and begins reading from the Scroll of Thoth. As he mouths the ancient incantation, the mummy of Imhotep slowly opens its eyes, its hands sliding down its dusty, gauze-wrapped body. Norton screams as Imhotep grabs a papyrus and slinks out of the tent. Whemple and Muller come running, only to find Norton laughing hysterically. “It decided to take a little walk”, Norton howls, driven mad by the ghastly sight he witnessed.

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We only get a brief glimpse of Karloff as Imhotep in the first mummy make-up by Pierce. Universal reused it for its  40s Mummy series, with Tom Tyler as Kharis in THE MUMMY’S HAND, then Lon Chaney Jr. in three sequels. The rest of THE MUMMY has Karloff as Ardeth Bey dressed in fez and kaftan, coal black eyes shining from his wrinkled face, eyes that have stared into the face of death and know it’s terrible dark secrets.

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Fade in to 1932 and another expedition, this one headed by Whemple’s son, Frank. This is where Ardeth Bey arrives on the scene, telling Frank and Prof. Pearson he knows where to find the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The workers find steps buried in the sands, and the discovery is made. The princess’s coffin and other artifacts go on display at the Cairo Museum, and Bey hides in the shadows afterhours, lighting incense and reading from that ancient papyrus. Across town, Helen Grosvenor, patient of Dr. Muller, is compelled by an unseen force to the museum, banging on the door until fainting.Frank and his father bring the girl to their hotel. Helen mutters a name familiar to the elder Whemple…Imhotep!

Frank is enamored of the enigmatic Helen, who has no recollection fo being at the museum. Bey arrives at the Whemples and Helen is immediately drawn to her (“Haven’t we met before, Miss Grosvenor?”). Bey has come for the Scroll of Thoth, and Muller and Whemple realize he’s Imhotep incarnate. “If I could get my hands on you”, says Muller, “I’d break your dried flesh to pieces”. But Bey’s willpower is too strong, and he leaves after telling Whemple to have his Nubian servant (now under Bey’s control) to bring him the scroll or suffer the consequences.

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Muller urges Whemple to burn the scroll, but when he attempts it, Bey’s mystical powers cause him to have a heart attack. The Nubian retrieves the scroll and delivers it to Bey. Summoning Helen, Bey puts her in a trance and, in his pool, shows her “memories of love and crime and death”. The scene turns to ancient Egypt, where after the death and burial of Ankh-es-en-amon, Imhotep steals the Scroll of Thoth and goes to her forbidden tomb to revive her. Caught in the act, he’s wrapped completely in gauze (except his eyes) and buried alive, the slaves who buried him killed so no one will find his grave. Helen awakes, remembering nothing. Frank and Muller decide the only way to stop Bey is let Helen lead them to her. When next she’s summoned, Bey dresses her in the clothing of Ankh-es-en-amon. She’s now overtaken by the dead princess’s spirit, and Bey tells her she must be sacrificed in order to be resurrected as he was those centuries ago. Frank and Muller arrive but are powerless over Bey, but Helen, now truly Ankh-es-en-amon, prays to the statue of the god Isis for help. The statue’s arm lifts and destroys both Bey and the scroll, freeing Helen and letting the princess’s spirit have its final peace. Ardeth Bey/Imhotep’s flesh turns to dust, with nothing left of him save a skeleton and a pile of rotted rags.

Director Karl Freund’s career has been discussed this month in my look at MAD LOVE, so I’ll just say e does a tremendous job with the supernatural material. The set designs are superb, evoking ancient Egypt, and Pierce’s make-ups are always meticulous in their design. The cast features exotic-looking Zita Johann (Helen), whose screen career was short but was well known on the Broadway stage (and was once married to actor/producer John Houseman). Universal’s resident heartthrob David Manners (Frank) served the same function in horror classic DRACULA and THE BLACK CAT. Then there’s Edward Van Sloan (Muller), the Grand Old Man of Horror. The original Van Helsing to Lugosi’s DRACULA, Van Sloan contributed support to macabre movies like FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE BLACK ROOM, the serial THE PHANTOM CREEPS, and dozens of other films in his distinguished career. Arthur Bryan, Bramwell Fletcher, Leonard Mudie, and Noble Johnson add strong support in their roles as well. Boris Karloff was a star for almost 40 years, acting right up until his death in 1969. His presence in THE MUMMY and other shockers helped give them the longevity they deserve. Horror movies wouldn’t exist without these early excursions into the fantastic, and I’m grateful to be able to revisit these classics and turn new generations on to Karloff, Lugosi, and all the other pioneers of dark cinema. .

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