Horror Film Review: The Mummy (dir by Karl Freund)


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Did H.P. Lovecraft enjoy movies?  I’d love to think that he did but in all probability, he didn’t.  After all, Lovecraft frequently wrote, in both his fiction and his personal correspondence, that he found the modern world to be “decadent.”  He was not a fan of technological development, viewing it as being the source of civilization’s decline.

In all probability, Lovecraft did not enjoy the movies.  When The Mummy was first released in 1932, it’s probable that Lovecraft did not rush out to a local Providence movie theater and buy a ticket.

And, really, that’s a shame.  Of the many horror films released by Universal Pictures in the 1930s, The Mummy was perhaps the most Lovecraftian.  The bare bones of the film’s plot could have easily been lifted from one of Lovecraft’s stories: a group of rational and educated men are confronted with an ancient evil that defies all reason.  When the title character is brought back to life by a man foolishly reading from the fictional Scroll of Thoth, one is reminded of not only the Necronomicon but also of the dozens of other fictional-but-plausible texts that have appeared in the works of both Lovecraft and his successors.  Just the sight of the Mummy coming back to life causes one man to have an immediate nervous breakdown, a fate shared by almost every Lovecraft protagonist who was unfortunate enough to learn about Cthulhu, Azathoth, and the truth concerning man’s insignificant place in the universe.

The story of The Mummy goes something like this:  In ancient Egypt, a priest is caught trying to bring his dead lover back to life and, as punishment, he is mummified alive and locked away in a tomb.  Centuries later, a group of explorers discover the tomb.  The mummy comes back to life and, ten years later, he abducts the woman (played by the very beautiful Zita Johann) whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his former love.

I’ve watched The Mummy a few times and one thing that always surprises me is how little we actually see of the Mummy as a mummy.  After he’s accidentally resurrected by Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), the Mummy steps out of his sarcophagus and stumbles out into the streets of Cairo, leaving a now insane Norton to giggle incoherently about how the mummy just stepped outside for a walk.  That is pretty much the last time that we ever see the Mummy wrapped up in bandages.  When we next see the Mummy, he’s going by the name Ardath Bey and he bears a distinct resemblance to Boris Karloff.

Karloff gives one of his best performance as the sinister and calculating Bey.  Of all the horror films that were released by Universal in the 1930s, The Mummy is perhaps the only one that can still be considered to be, at the very least, disturbing.  That’s largely due to the fact that, as played by Karloff, Bey is the epitome of pitiless and relentless evil.  I’m always especially shaken by the scene in which Bey uses his magical powers to make a man miles away die of a heart attack.  It’s not just the fact that Bey has the power to do something like this.  It’s that Bey seems to get so much enjoyment out of it.  There’s a sadistic gleam in Karloff’s eyes during these scenes and his expression of grim satisfaction is pure nightmare fuel.

Just compare Bey to the other Universal monsters: The Invisible Man was driven insane by an unforeseen side effect of his formula.  Frankenstein’s Monster was destructive because he didn’t know any better.  The Wolf Man spent five movies begging people to kill him and put him out of his misery.  And while Dracula was certainly evil, he had as many limitations as he had power.  He couldn’t go out in daylight.  He was easily repelled by both crosses and garlic.  He often didn’t do a very good job of hiding his coffin.  Ardath Bey, on the other hand, was not only evil but apparently unstoppable as well.

The rest of the cast is pretty much overshadowed by Karloff but fans of the old Universal horror movies will enjoy picking out familiar faces.  They’ll recognize David Manners from Dracula.  Edward Van Sloan also shows up here, fresh from playing Van Helsing in Dracula and Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein.  But ultimately, it is Karloff who dominates the film and that’s the way it should be.  There’s a reason why Boris Karloff could get away with only his last name appearing in the credits.  He was an icon of both cinema and horror and The Mummy reminds us why.

For a film that was first released 84 years ago, The Mummy holds up surprisingly well.  There have been countless movies about homicidal mummies over the years but none have yet to match the original.

Cleaning Out The DVR #28: Top Hat (dir by Mark Sandrich)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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The 1935 film Top Hat is a film that, much like An American In Paris, is pure joy.

Top Hat features Fred Astaire as Jerry Travers, a famous dancer who has come to London to star in a show that’s being produced by his friend, Horace Harwick (Edward Everett Horton).  (Oddly enough, Gene Kelly also played a character named Jerry in An American In Paris.)  Jerry may be sophisticated and refined but he’s still enough of an American that, upon leaving a snooty British club that insists on total silence, he still breaks up the tedium with some impromptu tap moves.

Back at his hotel, Jerry is practicing a tap routine and makes such a racket that he ends up waking up the guest staying in the room below him, Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers).  When Dale goes upstairs to complain, Jerry immediately falls in love with her.  Soon, he is pursuing her all over London, trying to win her heart.  Eventually, he even follows her to Venice.

And Dale is definitely attracted to Jerry.  Whenever they get near each other, they start dancing.  (Needless to say, whether they’re dancing or talking or merely looking at each other from across the room, Astaire and Rogers have wonderful chemistry.)  However, Dale thinks that Jerry is actually Horace.  And Horace happens to be married to her friend, Madge (Helen Broderick.)  Convinced that Jerry is pursuing an adulterous affair with her, the indignant Dale makes plans to marry the Italian fashion designer, Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes).

The plot is typical screwball comedy stuff and the fact that you don’t even end up getting annoyed with all the misunderstandings is a testament to the abilities of Astaire, Rogers, and their wonderful supporting cast.  Even if not for the dancing, Top Hat would be a success because of the chemistry between the actors and film’s mix of sophistication with just pure silly fun.  I imagine that for audiences dealing with the daily realities of the Great Depression, Top Hat offered a wonderful escape.  And you know what?  It still provides a wonderful escape for today, as well.

(Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just dance this presidential election away?)

And then, of course, there’s the dancing.  That really is the main reason that we’re here, right?  Check out a few scenes.  They’ll make you happy.

(Incidentally, I’m a bit disappointed that YouTube does not feature more from Top Hat.)

Top Hat was nominated for best picture, though the award itself went to Mutiny On The Bounty, a film that did not feature quite as much dancing.

Cleaning Out The DVR #23: The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir by Michael Curtiz)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Flamboyant.  Athletic.  Joyous.  Determined.  Handsome.  Outspoken.  Bigger than life.  Revolutionary.  Anarchist.  Sexy.  Libertarian.  Is there any doubt why Errol Flynn remains the definitive Robin Hood?

And. for that matter, is there any doubt why the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood remains not only the definitive Robin Hood film but also one of the most influential action films in history?

The Adventures of Robin Hood tells the story that we’re all familiar with.  The King of England, Richard The Lionhearted (Ian Hunter), is captured while returning from the Crusades.  His brother, King John (Claude Rains, in full autocratic villain mode), usurps the throne while Richard is gone and immediately raises taxes.  He claims that he’s only doing this to raise the money to set Richard free.  Of course, the real reason is that John is a greedy tyrant.

The only nobleman with the courage to openly oppose John is Sir Robin of Locksely (Errol Flynn).  Sir Robin protects his fellow citizens from John’s main henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, also in full autocratic villain mode).  In fact, Robin is so brave that, on multiple occasions, he even enters Sir Guy’s castle so that he can specifically tell King John and Sir Guy that he has no use for their laws.  This, of course, always leads to Robin having to make a dramatic escape while arrows flies and swords are unsheathed all around.

And through it all, Robin Hood keeps smiling and laughing.  He’s a wonderfully cheerful revolutionary.  He may be fighting a war against a ruthless and unstoppable enemy and he may be the most wanted man in England but Robin is determined to have fun.  One need only compare Robin to his humorless foes to see the difference between freedom and bureaucracy.

(We could use Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood today, though I suspect our government would just blow him up with a drone and then issue a statement about how, by stealing money from the rich and giving it to the poor, Robin was keeping the government from being able to rebuild bridges and repair roads.)

When Robin isn’t exposing the foolishness of organized government, he’s hanging out in Sherwood Forest.  He’s recruiting valuable allies like Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.)  He’s playing constant pranks and promoting revolution and, to his credit, he’s a lot more fun to listen to than that guy from V For Vendetta.  He’s also romancing Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) and good for him.  Two beautiful people deserve to be together.

Even better, he’s doing it in glorious Technicolor!  There’s a lot of great things about The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The action scenes are exciting.  The music is thrilling.  The film is perfectly cast.  Errol Flynn may not have been a great actor but he was a great Robin Hood.  But what I really love about the film is just the look of it.  We tend to take color for granted so it’s interesting to watch a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood, one that was made at a time when color film was something of a novelty.  For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about how much we love old school black-and-white, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film that says, “Hey, color can be great too!”

But what I mostly love about The Adventures of Robin Hood is just the pure joy of the film.  Just compare this Robin Hood to the grimly tedious version played by Russell Crowe.

(True, nobody in The Adventures of Robin Hood shouts, “I declare him to be …. AN OUTLAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWW!”  Actually, now that I think about it, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood would have worked much better if Oscar Isaac and Russell Crowe had switched roles.)

The Adventures of Robin Hood was nominated for best picture and it probably should have won.  However, the Oscar went to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Foreign Correspondent (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


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Before watching a film like 1940’s Foreign Correspondent, it helps to know a little something about history.

Nowadays, when we think about World War II, there’s a tendency to assume that, from the minute that Hitler came to power in Germany and started to invade the rest of Europe, the entire world united against the Nazis.  The truth is actually far more complex.  The world was still recovering from World War I and throughout the 1930s, even as the Axis powers were growing more and more aggressive, respected intellectual leaders and politicians continued to argue that peace must be maintained at all costs.  Pacifism was such a popular concept that otherwise intelligent people were perfectly willing to make excuses for Hitler and Mussolini.  For five years, the UK followed a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany.  Even after war broke out between Britain and Germany, the U.S. remained officially neutral.  In the 1940 presidential election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt — running on a platform of neutrality — was overwhelmingly reelected over internationalist Wendell Willkie.

Foreign Correspondent, an American film made by a British director, opens before the start of World War II.  An American newspaper editor, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), is frustrated because none of his foreign correspondents seem to be able to understand the truth of the situation in Europe.  They all claim that there is going to be no war in Europe but Mr. Powers feels differently.  He also feels that the newspaper’s most celebrated and respected foreign correspondents are just a bunch of out-of-touch elitists.  Instead of sending another upper class academic, Mr. Powers decides to send a hard-boiled crime reporter to cover the situation in Europe.  Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) has never been to Europe and that’s exactly why Mr. Powers decides to send him.  In one of the film’s more clever moments, he does, however, insist that Johnny write under the more distinguished sounding name of “Huntley Haverstock.”

(Foreign Correspondent‘s pointed criticism of out-of-touch elitists repeating the establishment line remains just as relevant today as it was in 1940.)

From the minute the brash and tough Johnny arrives in Europe, he finds himself caught up in a huge conspiracy.  He’s been assigned to report on a group known as the Universal Peace Party and, since this film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, we automatically know that any organization with the word “Peace” in its name has to be up to something shady.  The Universal Peace Party has been founded by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who appears to sincere in his desire to avoid war.  Johnny meets and falls in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day).

From the minute that Johnny witnesses the assassination of distinguished Dutch diplomat Von Meer (Albert Bassermann), he suspects that things are not how they seem.  Working with Carol and a British journalist named Scott ffolliot* (delightfully played by the great George Sanders), Johnny discovers that Von Meer was not killed at all.  Instead, a double was assassinated and Von Meer was kidnapped by a group of spies.

But who are the spies?  After nearly getting killed by one of Fisher’s bodyguards, Johnny starts to suspect that Stephen Fisher might not be as into world peace as was originally assumed.  Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Johnny is now engaged to marry Carol…

Foreign Correspondent is a wonderfully witty thriller, one that has a very serious message.  While the film is distinguished by Hitchcock’s typically droll sense of humor (eccentric characters abound and the scene where Edmund Gwenn keeps getting interrupted before he can attempt to push Joel McCrea off of a tower is both funny and suspenseful), the film’s message was that America could not afford to stay neutral as war broke out across Europe.  As the all-American Johnny Jones says at the end of the film:

“All that noise you hear isn’t static – it’s death, coming to London. Yes, they’re coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out, hang on a while – this is a big story, and you’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come… as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!”

Foreign Correspondent was nominated for best picture of 1940 but it lost to another far different Hitchcock-directed film, Rebecca.

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* Yes, that is how he spells his last name.  As he explains, his family dropped the capital name in his surname after an ancestor was executed by Henry II.  Since it was George Sanders doing the explaining, it somehow made perfect sense.

Insomnia File #1: The Story of Mankind (dir by Irwin Allen)


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What’s an Insomnia File?  You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable?  This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, last night, you were suffering from insomnia at 3 in the morning, you could have turned on TCM and watched the 1957 faux epic, The Story of Mankind.

I call The Story of Mankind a faux epic because it’s an outwardly big film that turns out to be remarkably small on closer inspection.  First off, it claims to the tell the story of Mankind but it only has a running time of 100 minutes so, as you can imagine, a lot of the story gets left out.  (I was annoyed that neither my favorite social reformer, Victoria C. Woodhull, nor my favorite president, Rutherford B. Hayes, made an appearance.)  It’s a film that follow Vincent Price and Ronald Colman as they stroll through history but it turns out that “history” is largely made up of stock footage taken from other movies.  The film’s cast is full of actors who will be familiar to lovers of classic cinema and yet, few of them really have more than a few minutes of screen time.  In fact, it only takes a little bit of research on the imdb to discover that most of the film’s cast was made up of performers who were on the verge of ending their careers.

The Story of Mankind opens with two angels noticing that mankind has apparently invented the “Super H-Bomb,” ten years ahead of schedule.  It appears that mankind is on the verge of destroying itself and soon, both Heaven and Hell will be full of new arrivals.  One of the angels exclaims that there’s already a housing shortage!

A celestial court, overseen by a stern judge (Cedric Hardwicke) is convened in outer space.  The court must decide whether to intervene and prevent mankind from destroying itself.  Speaking on behalf on humanity is the Spirit of Man.  The Spirit of Man is played by Ronald Colman.  This was Colman’s final film.  In his heyday, he was such a popular star that he was Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  However, in The Story of Mankind, Colman comes across as being a bit bored with it all and you start to get worried that he might not be the best attorney that mankind could have hired.

Even more worrisome, as  far as the future of mankind is concerned, is that the prosecutor, Mr. Scratch, is being played by Vincent Price.  Making his case with his trademark theatrics and delivering every snaky line with a self-satisfied yet likable smirk on his face, Vincent Price is so much fun to watch that it was impossible not to agree with him.  Destroy mankind, Mr. Scratch?  Sure, why not?  Mankind had a good run, after all…

In order to make their cases, Mr. Scratch and the Spirit of Man take a tour through history.  Mr. Scratch reminds us of villains like the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (John Carradine) and the Roman Emperor Nero (Peter Lorre, of course).  He shows how Joan of Arc (Hedy Lamarr) was burned at the stake.  The Spirit of Man argues that, despite all of that, man is still capable of doing good things, like inventing the printing press.

And really, the whole point of the film is to see who is playing which historical figure.  The film features a huge cast of classic film actors.  If you watch TCM on a semi-regular basis, you’ll recognize a good deal of the cast.  The fun comes from seeing who tried to give a memorable performance and who just showed up to collect a paycheck.  For instance, a very young Dennis Hopper gives a bizarre method interpretation of Napoleon and it’s one of those things that simply has to be seen.

And then the Marx Brothers show up!

They don’t share any scenes together, unfortunately.  But three of them are present!  (No, Zeppo does not make an appearance but I imagine that’s just because Jim Ameche was already cast in the role of Alexander Graham Bell.)  Chico is a monk who tells Christopher Columbus not to waste his time looking for a quicker way to reach India.  Harpo Marx is Sir Isaac Newton, who plays a harp and discovers gravity when a hundred apples smash down on his head.  And Groucho Marx plays Peter Miniut, tricking a Native American chief into selling Manhattan Island while leering at the chief’s daughter.

And the good thing about the Marx Brothers is that their presence makes a strong argument that humanity deserves another chance.  A world that produced the Marx Brothers can’t be all bad, right?

Anyway, Story of Mankind is one of those films that seems like it would be a good cure for insomnia but then you start watching it and it’s just such a weird movie that you simply have to watch it all the way to the end.  It’s not a good movie but it is flamboyantly bad and, as a result, everyone should see it at least once.

 

 

 

Shattered Politics #2: They Won’t Forget (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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The title of the 1937 film They Won’t Forget works on many levels.

It describes the reaction of a small Southern town, following the brutal murder of teenager Mary Clay (played, in her film debut, by Lana Turner).  The town won’t forget Mary and they won’t forget the terror caused by her murder.  They also won’t forget that local teacher Robert Hale (Edward Norris) was accused of the crime.

The district attorney, Andrew Griffin (Claude Rains), hopes that the people of his state won’t forget his efforts to see Griffin convicted of that crime.  Griffin wants to be elected to the U.S. Senate and he knows that the high profile case could be just what his career needs.

The Governor (Paul Everton) knows that, if he steps into the case and acts on his suspicion that Hale is innocent, the voters of his state will never forget.  And they certainly won’t be willing to forgive.

And, on a larger level, the title lets us know that the South and the North will never forget the Civil War and the conflict between the two regions.  The film opens with three elderly veterans of the Confederate Army, preparing to march in the town’s annual Confederate Memorial Day parade and admitting to each other that, after all these years, it’s difficult to remember much about the war other than the fact that they’re proud that they fought in it.

It’s while the rest of the town is busy watching Griffin and the governor ride in the parade that Mary Clay is murdered.  It’s easy to assume that Hale was the murderer because Hale was one of the few townspeople not to go to the parade.  You see, Hale is originally from New York City.  When he’s accused of murder, it’s equally easy for Griffin and tabloid reporter William A. Brock (Allyn Joslyn) to convince the town people to blame this Northern intruder for both the murder of Mary Clay and, symbolically, for all of the post-Civil War struggles of the South itself.

Meanwhile, up North, Hale is seen as a victim of the South’s intolerance.  A high-profile lawyer (Otto Kruger) is sent down to defend Hale but, as quickly becomes clear, everyone involved in the case is more interested in refighting the Civil War than determining the guilt or innocence of Andrew Hale.

They Won’t Forget is a hard-hitting and fascinating look at politics, justice, and paranoia.  It’s all the more interesting because it’s based on a true story.  In 1913, a 13 year-old girl named Mary Phagan was murdered in Atlanta.  Leo Frank was accused and convicted of the murder.  (In Frank’s case, he was born in Texas but was also Jewish and had previously lived in New York before moving to Atlanta, all of which made him suspicious in the eyes of many.)  On the word of a night watchmen, who many believe was the actual murderer of Mary Phagan, Leo Frank was convicted and sentence to death.  After spending days reviewing all of the evidence and growing convinced that Frank had been wrongly convicted, Georgia’s governor committed an act of political suicide by commuting Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment.  Leo Frank was subsequently lynched and the man who had prosecuted the case against him was subsequently elected governor.

Well-acted and intelligently directed, They Won’t Forget is probably one of the best films of which few people have heard.  Fortunately, it shows up fairly regularly on TCM and, the next time that it does, be sure to watch.  It’s a great film that you won’t easily forget.