Category Archives: 1930s

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

*. “Based on the immortal classic by Edgar Allan Poe.” Well, I guess. Though I’d have gone for “inspired by” or “suggested by” ahead of “based on.” There isn’t much Poe here. Even the character of Dupin (Leon Ames) isn’t a detective but only a medical student.
*. Poe has received indifferent treatment at the hands of filmmakers. This was to be the first of a trilogy of Poe-inspired horrors by Universal, the next two being The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). Neither of them had much to do with Poe. Nor did Roger Corman’s Poe cycle. Or the P.O.E. movies. He was really just a name to conjure an audience with. Much like Lovecraft.
*. This is a movie with an interesting back story. Originally Robert Florey was to direct Frankenstein, with Lugosi as the star. That fell through for various reasons and this movie became a kind of consolation prize. It was not as big a hit with audiences or critics, and today is far less well known. Nevertheless it does have some admirable qualities.

*. These come courtesy mainly of cinematographer Karl Freund. Freund was a pioneer of the moving camera, and that opening dolly shot taking us into the carnival is quite impressive. More than that, however, the movie ha a rich visual atmosphere that makes heavy use of strange sets, lighting, fog, and shadow. Strange, but not as exaggerated as in parts of Frankenstein, or, more obviously, that landmark of German expressionism The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
*. In his book The Monster Show film historian David J. Skal calls this movie “the purest homage to the Caligari style that Hollywood would ever produce.” Yes, and it’s more than just style, which is expressionist but restrained. The story here is also far more Caligari than it is Poe, with a weirdo sideshow barker named Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) being the master not of a homicidal somnambulist but an ape named Erik. This ape can be sent, like Cesare, off to kidnap women and carry them back to Dr. Mirakle to perform his experiments on.

*. The nature of these experiments is hard to figure out. As I understand it he wants to inject the kidnapped women with ape blood, which will then allow him to breed them (the women) with Erik as a way of demonstrating the truth of the theory of evolution. Strange, and more than a little sick. Though while censors objected to a lot of what was going on (this was pre-Code), I’m not sure they flagged this. Perhaps they didn’t understand any more of it than I did.
*. The absurdity of the plot should just be ignored though, as I think everyone ignores the plot of Caligari. This is a great movie to look at, much more so than Dracula or even Frankenstein. And the effects are up to snuff as well. The monkey business, for example, is rendered by mixing in close-ups of a chimp’s face with full-body shots of a man in a gorilla suit. I know it sounds silly, but it’s surprisingly effective. And the process work on the rooftop at the end is first-rate as well. Just as good as stuff being done decades later.

*. Bela Lugosi. I’m sorry, but I’m not a fan. I’ve read a lot of praise for his performance here but he only seems to me to be hamming it up as he usually does, this time behind a truly remarkable unibrow. (He’d have a similar brow as Murder Legendre in White Zombie, which came out the same year. I don’t know if he just kept it on.) Not that Dr. Mirakle is a character with any depth anyway.
*. Some interesting side notes. John Huston is credited with “added dialogue” but he later confessed that he only tried to give the script more of a period feel and that Florey rejected most of what he wrote as being too stilted. Bette Davis auditioned for the part of Camille but was rejected by Carl Laemmle Jr. due to her “lack of sex appeal.” So much for those Bette Davis eyes. The role would go to Sidney Fox, who is very good.
*. There have long been rumours that it was heavily cut but the AFI apparently looked into this and couldn’t find any proof that it ever ran any longer than 62 minutes, which is the version we have now. I found it quite a lot of fun, but as I’ve said it’s a movie to be looked at rather than followed for any kind of story or because any of the characters hold our interest. Definitely worth checking out, but you can see why it missed becoming a classic.

 

Charlie Chan in Paris (1935)

*. In my notes on Charlie Chan in London I mentioned how little time Charlie actually spent in London. In this movie he arrives in Paris, which is actually where all the action of the film takes place. Though Paris is only evoked quickly through glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, Opera, and Arc de Triomphe in the background. Most of the characters have French names, but none of them even try to affect a French accent. In fact, it feels so much like the same cast as the previous film that I even thought the drunk fellow was being played by the same actor. He wasn’t. He’s Erik Rhodes here, Paul England in London.
*. It’s a very similar film as London, as you might expect given how they were turning these things out. Charlie has come to Paris to investigate a scam involving counterfeit bonds being issued by a French bank. There are a bunch of suspects who all seem guilty of something. There are a pair of young lovers who are in trouble, but they get to marry at the end thanks to Charlie catching the counterfeit gang by faking being shot. This is how Charlie Chan in London ends as well.
*. Introducing Keye Luke as “Number One Son.” What a delightful idea for a sidekick, his natural exuberance, and greater fluency in colloquial English, playing well against Charlie’s solidity and constipated speech. Detectives are often paired up as odd couples, an eccentric being teamed with a straight man (Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin), but here it’s something sweeter. They have real affection for each other, and work well together as a team.
*. I’m always impressed by how quickly the movies of this era moved. There’s a full slate of characters to be introduced here, a lot of plot to work through, and a really athletic “Apache” dance number all in 72 minutes. These flicks were efficient.
*. For a long time this was a movie deemed to have been lost. Then a print was found in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Given how many earlier films in the series are still considered lost this isn’t too surprising. In the 1930s I don’t think a lot of people thought these movies were worth keeping. And were they wrong? From our point of view, it’s nice to have them as a bit of film history. And they’re enjoyable enough in their own right. But I can also put myself in their shoes. At the time, would you have thought people would be watching Charlie Chan in Paris in the twenty-first century?

Charlie Chan in London (1934)

*. This was the sixth Charlie Chan movie to be made by Fox starring Warner Oland as Chan, but only the second to have survived. Now it’s true that a great many old movies have been lost, but I think this still might give us some idea of the disposability of the product in this case.
*. It’s also notable that this was the first Charlie Chan movie not to be derived from an Earl Derr Biggers story. Biggers only wrote six Chan novels, so for the character to become a franchise they had to start coming up with something new. In doing so, they stuck mostly to formula though.
*. Charlie’s not in London for long. Instead, most of the action takes place at a massive country estate in Retfordshire (which I don’t think is an actual place), giving the story the familiar air of a English manor-house mystery. An innocent man sits in Pentonville Prison on death row and Charlie is called in by the man’s sister to clear him by finding the real killer. Which he proceeds to do.
*. In our own time the character of Charlie Chan, with his frequent bowing and pidgin English, not to mention the whitecasting of his being played by a Swedish-American actor, will likely be offensive to some. I don’t find it so, or at least not egregiously so, especially given how sympathetically the character is presented. Charlie is, after all, the saviour-hero (Raymond “Don’t call me Ray yet” Milland is the love interest, but doesn’t hold our attention at all). And it’s notable that when the maid finds Charlie’s snooping around to be suspicious an older maid replies that he is reputed to be a “nice, kind gentleman.” That’s high praise in the English class system.
*. Speaking of that class system, this movie’s greatest claim to fame today may be that it’s what the American film producer is doing research for in Gosford Park. No need for spoilers though, as Maggie Smith’s character tells him that nobody staying at Gosford Park is going to see it anyway.
*. In fact, there’s not much in the way of mystery here. The explanation, which involves international espionage, comes out of left field, with the killer actually being the least likely suspect, at least to my eyes. But up till the end it seems anyone could have done it. There’s even the classic moment when Charlie gets everyone gathered together and tells them that the killer is among them, followed by individual shots of each of the suspects glancing guiltily at each other. I wonder what the first movie was to do this. Perhaps it’s now lost as well.
*. Still, it all wraps up tidily, and quickly. The villain is apprehended by way of trickery, followed by a man in authority saying “All right Sergeant, take him away.” A coda provides the proper bow, as every Jack gets his Jill. The whole film is pretty much a formality, but the formula works so there’s no point in knocking it. Unless, you know . . .

The Invisible Man (1933)

*. One of the all-time great movie entrances, no less great for James Whale repeating the staggered jump cuts he used to introduce the monster in Frankenstein, or for having since become a cliché (the noisy, boisterous pub falling into silence at the sudden appearance of the stranger). I wonder if the low angle (which is used a lot throughout the movie) was partly to make up for the fact that Claude Rains was only 5′ 6″.
*. It’s sort-of based on the famous novel by H. G. Wells, but the script is very much a film adaptation. The changes are instructive and I want to look at a couple of them in depth.
*. In the first place there is the method by which Griffin turns himself invisible. This is done through a process involving a generator in the book but in the movie it’s a drug that goes by the name of monocaine. Was this a nod to cocaine? Apparently it doesn’t just turn one invisible but drives one mad as well, turning Griffin into a coked-up antihero.
*. Why bother with this change? Perhaps for the tie-in to drug use. But it also disposes of the idea, first mooted in Plato’s Republic in his telling of the myth of the Ring of Gyges, that anyone with such power would naturally live a vicious life (robbing, raping, killing). It’s a bleak statement on man’s naturally depraved state. We would all be so evil if we could commit our crimes free of any consequences. Was that a message Universal didn’t want to go near? Better to blame it on the drugs.
*. The second big change was the introduction of a love interest in the form of Flora (Gloria Stuart). There’s no such character in the novel, and she’s shoehorned into the plot so crudely here that Griffin is actually surprised when he hears her name (“I’d forgotten her . . .”). Then he has to tell her that he actually did it all for her, which is clearly bullshit, so that he can finally die beneath her loving gaze. Just because that’s what women are for.
*. It’s interesting how all of these Universal horrors kept coming back to the idea of a love triangle and sexual rivalry. In Dracula there was the count trying to steal Mina (which was at least already in the novel). In Frankenstein they had Victor mooning over Elizabeth. It’s also there in many version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, and even the Creature from the Black Lagoon, where the Gill-man wants to take the hero’s girlfriend. Griffin-Flora-Kemp are just another instance of the same dynamic. I wonder what there was about this particular formula (as opposed to just having a female love interest) that Universal found so attractive.
*. Sticking with this triangle for just a moment, I wonder why Kemp (William Harrigan) is portrayed as such an unsympathetic figure. He seems to behave decently and tries to do the right thing most of the time, but is dispatched most cruelly. In the book he is the closest thing to a hero. But then in the book he isn’t challenging Griffin for the affections of a Flora.
*. James Whale was finally starting to cut loose after doing Frankenstein in a fairly restrained manner. Then he’d done The Old Dark House, and with this film and Bride of Frankenstein he was clearly sending up the genre. It’s hard to say how seriously we can take the Invisible Man’s actions. At times his “reign of terror” seems truly awful (like sending the train off the rails), but just as often he seems content to play the merry prankster.
*. Performances like Una O’Connor’s always walk a fine line. One that I think she goes over here. She really needed to dial it down a bit, but I think Whale (who was a fan) might have been encouraging her to turn it up. According to Rudy Boehlmer’s DVD commentary Whale didn’t have any problem with her “screech repertoire,” but while I like her in Bride of Frankenstein I think she’s really annoying in this movie.
*. A star is born in Claude Rains, whose first film this basically was (his actual first film, Build Thy House, is a now lost silent). He wasn’t the first choice, as Whale wanted either Boris Karloff or Colin Clive. I think Clive might have worked just as well, though Rains is wonderful.
*. The real star of the film though, and I say this even after acknowledging Whale and Rains, is John P. Fulton, who did the special, and painstakingly created, visual effects. Even nearly a hundred years later I’m in awe of what he achieved in his rendering of the Invisible Man. I’m not sure some of the effects were being done that much better in the 2020 reboot, though in Hollow Man (2000) they were pretty spectacular.
*. The upshot is that this is another great, if uneven, Universal horror from its golden age. The character of the Invisible Man himself would go on to have a varied career indeed, ranging from monster to victim to comic figure to superhero. Like the blank slate he (or she) literally was, much could be projected upon him. I don’t think he was ever in a better movie than this one though.

The Mummy (1932)

*. Curious, and disappointing. A monster movie without a monster.
*. This should be a good thing because it gives us more Karloff and not just another inarticulate barely ambulatory corpse stumbling around. But not seeing the titular figure wrapped in bandages, looming over his victims before choking them out — all the moments, let’s be honest, that are what you came in for — leaves the film with a not inconsiderable hole in its middle.
*. Audiences must have felt somewhat cheated. The posters and trailer all highlight Karloff’s one brief appearance in full mummy make-up and bandages. This comes in the first ten minutes of the movie, after which the creature is never seen again. Meanwhile, his later incarnation as Ardeth Bay (which is how he appears throughout the rest of the film) was either omitted entirely from the promotional material or played down.
*. Today I think the Mummy’s status as one of the classic Universal horror franchises of the period inflates a lot of expectations. Expectations that are, as I began by noting, disappointed. Not only is there no monster, this is distinctly third-rate work.
*. Critical opinion has been all over the place. Pauline Kael went in to raptures over The Mummy, I think mainly as an homage to Karl Freund, whose first feature as director this was. I think it’s nicely shot, but what Kael says is going too far: “No other horror film has ever achieved so many emotional effects by lighting; this inexpensively made film has a languorous, poetic feeling, and the eroticism that lives on under Karloff’s wrinkled parchment skin is like a bad dream of undying love.” That’s nice, but over the top for such a flick.
*. Consulting David J. Skal’s The Monster Show I was surprised to see that The Mummy only receives the briefest of mentions, written off as only a “remake” of Dracula. “The picture is a good example of the kind of creative conservatism the studio system fostered; virtually every plot element as well as key performers (not to mention some props and set decorations) were recycled from Dracula.”
*. It’s hard to disagree. Not only do David Manners and Edward Van Sloan both reappear, they’re basically playing the same parts as they did in Dracula. They might as well be named Harker and Von Helsing. And the story really is the same, with Imhotep as the Count using his powers of hypnotism to seduce the young man’s girl and make her his deathless bride. Not surprisingly the script was written by John L. Balderston, who had also adapted Dracula. He was just sticking to a formula, and originally he wanted the Mummy to be even more like a vampire, returning to his casket during the day.
*. How strictly he was sticking to formula can be seen from the opening vignette, where Imhotep is awakened by Norman. For some reason the appearance of the Mummy sends Norman into hysterics. This struck me as really sounding a false note, unless you see it as merely meant to echo Renfield’s madness in Dracula.
*. Joe Dante calls The Mummy “an improved remake of Dracula.” I’m not so sure (and I’m not a huge Dracula fan). The rest of the script strikes me as not just formulaic but awkward and sloppy. It was adapted out of a source story that was in turn suggested by the figure of Cagliostro, not a mummy. Paul M. Jensen’s synopsis of the Cagliostro story on the commentary is bewildering, and he concludes by calling it a “tangle of arbitrary events and contrived relationships.” Balderston was called in to add coherence.
*. Take that opening scene. Somehow it has to be arranged that Whemple and Muller will leave Norman alone so he can open the chest and read the scroll. (Why does he want to do this? Just because he’s an idiot.) So Muller says to Whemple “I cannot speak before a boy. Come out under the stars of Egypt.” So smooth.
*. Then, on the level of plot, I was never entirely sure what Imhotep planned to do with Helen. As I understand it the plan is to kill her and then bring her back as a mummy-person. But does that make sense? Why not just possess Helen and cut out the other steps? He says something about making her experience passing through the gates of life and death but that seems like so much mumbo-jumbo to me. The only reason they stuck it in is because Helen has to be physically threatened before being rescued. I think the main point is that she has to die first in order to become immortal, but you have to admit that it’s left kind of vague.
*. Not all of the inconsistencies are the script’s fault. As Jensen notes in his commentary, the script explained why Imhotep hadn’t taken the scroll from the museum guard he killed (he was interrupted and didn’t have time), but this was left out of the film for some reason.
*. Speaking of things left out, you may be wondering where the character billed as “Saxon Warrior” in the cast list appears. This was part of a historical collage representing Zita Johann’s various reincarnations that was cut.

*. I mentioned the immediate source of the story being a script based on the character of Cagliostro. But where did the Egyptian stuff come from? Mainly from the fact that Balderston was familiar with the story of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its curse. But there was actually a silent film from 1911, now lost, that dealt with a revived mummy. And before that there was Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. So the Mummy wasn’t a wholly original horror creation.
*. The work Jack Pierce did on the other Universal monsters was more memorable, but his Mummy may be better for being more subtle. Karloff’s face seems to have been transformed into a dry scrollwork of lines that’s all the more effective for seeming real. His skin looks as though it might tear if you stuck a finger in it.
*. So it’s a movie full of talk (there’s little action on screen, in keeping with what Jensen identifies as Freund’s German background), and much of the talk is confusing. It is, however, fun to listen to the dialogue in old movies and see how much more literate they were. I was grinning when Helen, in her Egyptian princess identity, says “It is my coffin, made by my father against my death.” I doubt many modern viewers will recognize that use of “against,” but it’s perfectly valid.
*. Another fun bit of usage comes in the trailer barking about “the amazing, incredulous, unbelievable story.” Incredulous is here being used to mean incredible, which is a historical usage that I don’t think you’d ever see today.
*. It’s a weird film. Karloff’s Imhotep has what Jensen describes as an “aura of fragility.” We never see him killing anyone except from a distance by use of his occult powers. He may be so desiccated that he’d crumble at any contact (note how he has to tell the older Whemple not to touch him). Meanwhile, Zita Johann is a striking but unorthodox leading lady. Apparently she was difficult on set (from the stories related in the Mummy Dearest documentary it sounds like Freund was mostly to blame) and she didn’t do many movies after this.
*. Well, I’ve said I don’t care much for this one, but with Freund behind the camera and Karloff in front it’s certainly watchable. I particularly like the wonderful shot where Imhotep and Helen sit by the magic pool and the camera both lifts and then corkscrews slightly before descending into the mists. That’s beautiful, and really striking for the time. I also have to say that compared to the follow-up Universal Mummy movies that came out in the 1940s (The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse), this one really does feel like a classic. But judged on its own I still find it disappointing.

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

*. Based on “a book” by Dashiell Hammett. That’s cold.
*. It is, of course, based on The Maltese Falcon, though it’s a very free adaptation. I guess Warner Bros. just figured that since they already had the rights to The Maltese Falcon they could film it again under a different title giving the characters different names and nobody would be any the wiser.
*. But why this title? Earlier drafts went with The Man in the Black Hat and Men on Her Mind, neither of which seem to have much relation to what’s going on. But what does Satan Met a Lady refer to? I assume the lady is Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis), but then who is Satan? Detective Ted Shane (Warren William)?
*. Bette Davis thought the film crap (or “junk,” to quote her directly) and wasn’t going to do it, but she needed the money. That’s not really an auspicious way to get started.
*. Again we are forced into making comparisons, though given the changes they made there isn’t the same sense of seeing a diminished thing as when putting the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon alongside John Huston’s 1941 classic. This is a different film.
*. Most of the changes are cosmetic. Instead of a Maltese falcon we’re chasing after the legendary horn of Roland, which is an artefact made of ivory and supposedly filled with precious gems. The Gutman character is now a tough old dame and Wilmer the gunsel is her babyish adult son (who is always just about to tell Shane somethin’). Joel Cairo is a proper English fellow. And the femme fatale is Bette.
*. The biggest shift, however, has to do with tone. This has always been difficult for filmmakers to get right. Only Bogart has managed to project the sense of wry cynicism and physical threat that Sam Spade needs. In the 1931 film Ricard Cortez was a bit too leering, while here Warren William seems to be auditioning for William Powell’s role in The Thin Man (a successful franchise in the mid-’30s).
*. It’s all very lighthearted and farcical, which doesn’t really fit with much of what’s going on. The cuckolding and murder of Shane’s partner, for example, is treated as a laugh. Which, when you think about it, is remarkable.
*. And I don’t mean remarkable in a good way. I mean a misfire, to the point where I’m not even sure what target they were trying to hit. There are a few things to enjoy here, like the big baby Kenny playing at being a gunman, and Bette Davis nearly succeeding in not embarassing herself, but overall this is a mess that doesn’t play well five years after the first Maltese Falcon and seems totally misguided in light of what we’d be getting next.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

*. This is a movie that’s hard to judge on its own merits today. Meaning that if you’ve seen it, you’ve likely only done so after seeing John Huston’s more famous 1941 version of the same story.
*. That’s hard on Roy Del Ruth’s film, because even though I think most people consider it to be a good little movie, with lots of things in it to enjoy, it doesn’t do one thing better than Huston’s.
*. Just look at the cast. The 1941 film had one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled, so it’s no surprise that Otto Matieson, though very good, is no Peter Lorre, that Dudley Digges, though also very good, is no Sydney Greenstreet, or that Dwight Frye, who hardly gets to speak but who certainly looks the part, is no Elisha Cook Jr. In sum, the gang of falcon-hunting weirdos is great, but they fall far short of what we got ten years later. The perfect, as they say, is the enemy of the good.
*. The leads, I’m afraid, are an even bigger step down. Bebe Daniels is game, but no Mary Astor. And Ricardo Cortez . . . can we say he’s no Sam Spade, or should we just say he’s no Humphrey Bogart? Because Sam Spade really became Bogie. There are no alternatives.
*. I feel bad just making all these comparisons, but like I say: there’s no way you can watch this movie without its remake in your mind, and the comparisons are all to its disadvantage.

*. Take another point that’s often raised: that this movie was made pre-Code and so could take more risks in its adaptation of a gritty novel. Yes, in theory. But in practice? There’s Sam’s strip search of Ms. Wonderly, which I’ll admit is kind of fun. But the franker depiction of his adultery with his partner’s wife just makes him seem more of a leering creep (and one who even files his nails at one point!). Also, while I’ve heard it said that they could be franker about the homosexual subtext, I don’t think this is played up any more than in the later version, where Lorre’s Joel Cairo is about as swishy as you can get and Wilmer is even more the kept boy.
*. Huston’s Maltese Falcon is sometimes considered the first film noir, though you’ll find lots of people to argue about that. Some people credit Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and others will push things even further back, into the 1920s. But it made me wonder: if the ’41 Maltese Falcon is the first noir, or even among the first, then what is this movie? What generic distinction would you make between the two to classify the one as noir and the other not? The lighting?
*. I don’t care for the ending, with Spade visiting Ms. Wonderly in a women’s prison. Gone is his big speech about standing up for something, which would only fly past her anyway since she doesn’t recognize any code. And the fact that he is now working for the District Attorney just tastes bad. Sure, Sam may have his principles, but I can’t see him working for the Man after all he’s been through.
*. So it’s a decent movie, and to say it falls short of Huston’s film is hard to hold against it. But even if it had never been remade I doubt this version would be very well known today. The leads just aren’t strong enough, the action not tough enough, the cracking wise not snappy and smart enough. It was, however, a step in the right direction. And that’s more than can be said for Hollywood’s next attempt at the same material five years later: Satan Met a Lady.

Even — As You and I (1937)

*. As with any distinctive style, surrealism soon became the stuff of parody. Anybody could “do” surrealism: all you needed was to grab a camera, shoot some random film, and then edit it together in an obscure way.
*. The next step was that the whole process became material for a meta-parody. This is what we get in Even — As You and I, a short film about three rather dim fellows (the three credited directors) who decide to enter an amateur filmmaker contest. After a brainstorming screenplay-writing session comes up with nothing but variations on the “boy meets girl” scenario they are inspired by a magazine article on surrealism to give that a try. At least they won’t have to worry about a script!
*. Taking their cameras to the street they set about trying to assemble a surrealist masterpiece, with copies of Dali paintings being their only guide. It seems their main preoccupation with surrealism is in tricks of perspective. Their Eureka moment comes from looking at a picture in the magazine that represents something different depending on which way the page is turned. So they drop a camera down a manhole and climb a hydro pole to capture odd angles.
*. This is a bit odd, since when they screen the final cut of their film, The Afternoon of a Rubberband, it doesn’t include any such material. Instead there are the usual surrealist props in motion and an homage to the eyeball-cutting scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.
*. Finally, they realize that they are too late to enter the contest, which depresses them until they realize that there is another contest for cinematographers advertised under the headline of tricks and gadgets. They are in business again.
*. Well, it’s a send-up of a style of filmmaking that was already pretty much over and an industry that most of the people who know it best have viewed as comically absurd. There are a bunch of movie in-jokes to smile at. The filmmakers didn’t go on to do much, with Harry Hay being probably the best known name and he was mostly famous for being an early gay rights activist. Otherwise, it’s a reminder of what happened to surrealism: how a groundbreaking and controversial movement had, in the space of ten years, become “tricks and gadgets” and the stuff of parody. Ironically, such a fate may be the truest measure of its success.

Chandu the Magician (1932)

*. Despite the fact that a number of early filmmakers used the new medium as a way of (re)creating their own kind of magic tricks or illusions, turning “movie magic” into a term of art, magicians have never been that popular on screen. Even superhero-magician hybrids, from Chandu the Magician to Doctor Strange, while being adapted from their sources into decent flicks, didn’t enjoy great success.
*. Chandu should have been a hit. The character had been introduced to American audiences only a year earlier by way of an incredibly popular radio serial. Gregory Mank, on the DVD commentary, says that 60% of American households tuned in five nights a week to listen to Chandu, “an amazing statistic.” The show was targeted at kids, and the movie delivered with a crazy story of exotic adventure, served up with great special effects. And yet.

*. I had a hard time telling from Mank’s commentary, and the accompanying featurette Masters of Magic: The World of Chandu, just how well the movie did at the box office. Mank doesn’t say much aside from mentioning it was “profitable.” From what I was able to dig up this is correct, but only just. It certainly didn’t provide anything like the return on investment of Frankenstein. Other voices on the documentary say that the box office was disappointing due to Edmund Lowe not having the requisite star power to carry the lead. We’re also told that it didn’t do well in cities but played well in small towns, better in matinees than evening shows (as would be expected given the target audience).
*. I don’t think anyone could have been happy, as the franchise was allowed to lapse. There was a serial a couple of years later (The Return of Chandu) made up of a dozen short films that cast Lugosi as Chandu, but that would be it. Before long the mage had gone the way of the Shadow or Mandrake, radio stars killed by video. There were various rumours of remakes and re-sets all the way into the 1970s, but nothing materialized.

*. Why has this been the fate of so many magicians? Chandu the Magician (along with The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff) was Fox’s response to the success of Universal’s monster hits of the previous year, and it checks all the right boxes. I don’t think we can blame it all on Lowe, as I don’t think he’s that bad, and the villain of such a piece (Bela Lugosi as Roxor) is always likely to steal the show anyway. Who remembers the handsome leads in Dracula or Frankenstein?
*. Even the credits are fun, with a waving hand making them appear on screen. And they are interesting credits too. Co-director William Cameron Menzies was an accomplished production designer, and gives this film a great look with some really impressive sets. James Wong Howe was behind the camera. Henry B. Walthall had been the star of The Birth of a Nation. Ken Strickfaden apparently designed the lab, as he had done in Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi turns in one of his best performances.
*. It’s a good story too, with all sorts of great adventure elements. There are multiple kidnappings, a plot involving a giant death ray that’s capable of wiping out cities halfway around the world, our hero being bound in chains and locked into a sarcophagus that’s then tossed into a river, a prison cell with a collapsing floor, and all sorts of other pulp goodies. For a children’s film it also pushed the envelope. Censors objected to a scene where a man has his eyes burned out with a branding iron and another where sexy June Lang is put on the auction block. Mank directs us to look at her bosom to see why the censors were so upset, as it’s clear she isn’t wearing anything under her light dress and it rather looks like a cool wind is blowing in from somewhere. Princess Leia’s turn as a slave girl had nothing on this.

*. About the only part that doesn’t work is Herbert Mundin’s turn as Miggles. It’s just a one-note part and gets tiring quickly, especially given how it’s overworked. Not to mention how he seems to be entirely shoehorned into the plot.
*. So it was a hot property and it still disappointed. The Chandu franchise was stillborn. And again I wonder why. Mank finishes up his commentary by saying that we have always been fascinated with the world of magic, which is true, but not in the movies. Why? Perhaps movies raised the bar too high. The movies are magic on steroids, making us less appreciative of the real illusion.

Freaks (1932)

*. The easy and obvious place to start is to say that this movie is itself a freak, an oddity, sui generis, “one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio” (David Skal). Though perhaps this is only being lazy and clever. As the initial review in the New York Times put it: “Freaks is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion.”
*. Well, let’s start with things that I think we can say about Freaks. In the first place, it was a commercial failure. MGM wanted to get into the horror business after seeing Universal’s success, but they didn’t like what they got with Freaks and it did poorly at the box office. Critics were largely (though not exclusively) against it, it was banned in the UK, and then all but disappeared for a number of years. Tood Browning’s career was basically over. Skal says Freaks “was the beginning of the end of Todd Browning’s previously charmed career at MGM,” though he did go on to make a couple of other interesting but minor films in the 1930s (including Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll).
*. In the second place, Freaks is a semi-lost film. Apparently it was cut by about a third and the stuff that was cut is gone forever. In this (one) respect it’s like The Magnificent Ambersons (or Metropolis, before that semi-lost film was found): a landmark film but also a ruined monument to what might have been.
*. As a result of having lost so much and then having extra material added in post production at the studio’s insistence (including a new opening and a dreadful epilogue), the result is a mess. There are even lines that are left not making any sense. For example, when Hercules belts Joseph(ine) he says he’ll fix her eye, which just sounds bizarre because they cut the line before it which had him saying “You’re fixing your nose are you?”
*. A final word I’d add to this short list of failure and loss is shock. There are very few horror movies that retain their power to shock, and for Freaks to be able to do so after nearly a hundred years is amazing. And yet who can forget Cleopatra’s final appearance as the Duck Lady? This is body horror long before there was a name for it, and it still packs a wallop.
*. I love the hand tearing through the title screen, and the barker’s spiel immediately grounds our sympathy. “They didn’t ask to be brought into this world.” Echoes of Frankenstein, which are perhaps not by coincidence. Early monsters tended to be more sympathetic. Contemporary horror is more about psychopaths and other killing machines.
*. There’s also a prologue scroll that played before the film that I should mention. “Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.” I had never heard the word “teratology” before. It means the study of abnormalities of physiological development. You learn something every day, and from the unlikeliest sources.

*. Danny Peary: “I can think of no film from the period that is filled with more sexual innuendo.” It really is remarkable, both for how much of it there is and for how frankly it’s presented. Some of it was cut (Skal mentions a scene where the trained seal amorously pursues the Turtle Girl), but plenty remains. Perhaps the most daring is Cleopatra’s line when she displays her bosom to Hercules and asks “What do you think of these?” But there’s also the scene where Cleopatra drops her cape for Hans while he ogles her, or when Phroso seems to notice Venus’s “shape” for the first time. Then there’s Roscoe stripping down to his (ladies’) underwear, or Frieda hanging her lingerie on the clothesline. Or think of the way Cleopatra goes into orgasm mode while Hans massages her (“It’s so good to be rubbed!”), or the similar expressions of passion by the Siamese twin who is not being kissed.

*. Why so much sexy stuff? Usually sex in horror is meant either as a distraction or as a way of suggesting some thematic or psychological link between sex and violence. Here, however, it seems like just another way to introduce a note of normality. Of course these are sexual beings. They are, as they insist, still men (and women).
*. With his background in the circus and predilection for such creepy stories (he’d already done The Unholy Three and The Unknown), I guess this was the movie Browning was destined to make. David Thomson thought Thalberg was also a key personality, but I think this may be overplayed. Thalberg initially supported the film (or at least supported Browning), before later despairing of it.
*. Thomson: “Nothing is exaggerated; nothing is set up in a world of shadow or dementia.” Because it didn’t need to go the route of expressionistic nightmare, though Browning was more than capable of this. But I think the main point is that Browning didn’t want the freaks to seem like monsters, at least initially. He wanted them to appear normal before they turn into something dangerous.

*. Perhaps because of all the cuts it seems to me to be a movie of moments. The wedding banquet is justifiably famous, remembered in films like Altman’s The Player and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “Gooble-gobble” has entered the vernacular. The sense of a net closing around Cleopatra and Hercules in the final act is well handled, and the climactic chase in the storm, with the freaks sliding through the mud in pursuit, is great, if abbreviated. Finally, the shot of Cleopatra as the Duck Woman is unforgettable, and really should have been the final shot of the film. The only other ending I can compare it to for sheer shock value is the “Help me! Help meeeeee!” at the end of The Fly (1958).
*. The sideshow performers do their thing, but the acting by the “normal” figures isn’t very good. Some of them seem as uncomfortable with the dialogue as Browning was with sound generally. Originally Myrna Loy was set to play Cleopatra and Jean Harlow Venus, but they understandably bailed. The project itself was originally the idea of Harry Earles (Hans), who wanted to make a film of the Tod Robbins story “Spurs.” Actually, as the credits read, the final script was only “suggested” by “Spurs.” They are very different stories. For example, the midget’s revenge on his gold-digging bride is only to beat her (putting the titular “spurs” to her while he rides on her shoulders), not to turn her into a freak herself.

*. I began by mentioning the conventional line about how this movie is a sort of sideshow attraction of its own. That has to be qualified, as it does tell what is in many ways a conventional story, but I think it’s as a freak  show that I still look at it.
*. What I mean is that I don’t really enjoy watching it, and don’t come back to it very often, but that it does exert that horrible fascination that we associate with freak shows, or car accidents. I think parts of it are very well done, and even in its present mutilated form it may be Browning’s best work (I’m not a big fan of Dracula). Maybe it’s the lack of any characters I really care about that leaves me feeling a bit cold toward it.

*. This is, however, also one of the more remarkable things about how Freaks works. For most of the movie the freaks are presented sympathetically: loyal to each other and generally good natured. But at the end this image is reversed: we go from their idyllic first appearance playing in the sunny woods to the last shots we have of them, covered in mud and crawling through a stormy forest at night, very much objects of terror. In other words, we’ve been fooled by a bait-and-switch. Not that the freaks really are evil monsters, but that the story is told in such way that we’ve been lulled into thinking they’re harmless and nice only to have our expectations suddenly reversed.
*. We may think we’re living in a world with certain moral rules, but in the end that’s not the way Browning wants to play it. Because let’s face it, the epilogue’s attempt to whitewash Hans’s complicity in what happened to Cleopatra isn’t just unconvincing but disgusting. We know he is an embittered and nasty man.
*. Skal calls Browning a “profoundly cynical artist.” He’s our contemporary. This is a bleak film and it belongs on a double-bill with such an example of twenty-first century cynicism and body horror as The Human Centipede. Such an outlook is more at home in our own time. Gooble-gobble. One of us.