Duck Soup (1933): Classic Cinema’s Great Political Satire

by Paul Batters

“Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup for the rest of your life.” Groucho Marx

Of all the films that the Marx Brothers made, Duck Soup is the one that usually ends up at the top of the list as their best. True, it often competes with A Night At The Opera (1935) which took MGM genius Irving Thalberg’s approach to shape a clear storyline with less gags, more music to become a huge hit. Running at 68 minutes, Duck Soup took Marxist anarchism with all its acerbic humour and poured it on thick. Resplendent with fast dialogue, double entendres, absurdism and visual gags, Duck Soup remains their greatest comedy, whilst delivering a powerful knock-out punch to the absurdities of how governments rule and the nature of war. Groucho biographer Stanley Kanfer raises an excellent point that despite script co-writer Harry Ruby’s claim that what the brothers did was strictly entertainment, ‘the result far outran the intent’. 

In 2015, Craig Brown in The Guardian made the excellent assessment:

‘Duck Soup has been praised for its understanding of paranoia in international diplomacy and of the economics of warfare. It is full of gags about the futility of war and its financial advantages’.

It is a film that does all this and more. 

As the opening credits roll, the first visual gag of ducks swimming in a large boiling cauldron is more than a nod to the nonsensical title of the film. Indeed, the inter-war years saw a world which was very much a boiling cauldron; one where the Depression had hit the world, democracy and capitalism were in crisis and fascism had emerged as a real danger to the world. Whether or not this may not have been the intent of director Leo McCarey, it does introduce us to an imaginary nation aptly named ‘Freedonia’ that appears to be in political chaos. The immediate absurdity emerges where the government, relying on the financial support of wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), asks for more money. She acquiesces on one condition – that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) be made the leader of all Freedonia. The ensuing musical number with its pomposity and ‘Hail, Hail, Freedonia’ anthem meets the anti-climax of Firefly not only turning up late after sliding down a fire-pole into the proceedings but asking if someone is expected before standing in line to salute their approach.

What follows is perhaps one of the best and funniest interactions on the silver screen between Groucho and the long-suffering but brilliant Dumont. The brutal putdowns come thick and fast from Firefly as Mrs. Teasdale tries desperately to keep things on keel. Groucho breaks the fourth wall in a way that only he can, reminding us of the absurdity of it all:

Firefly jigs and dances, as he delivers his plans to all on how he will rule through song. It is a clever musical number, which again lampoons the concept of freedom, stifled by the rules and regulations put in places by government. But even more so, it reveals the deep power of the state over the individual and how the those who intend to abuse power and authority, do so under the guise of freedom. In the current world, this has become an even more confusing and difficult reality to comprehend.

The darker undertone is introduced with the intrigues of Trentino, the Ambassador of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), whose schemes include using Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) as spies to find the dirt on Firefly, marrying Teasdale to control Freedonia and using the gorgeous Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres) to seduce Firefly and bring him into disrepute. Firefly will see through it all, beating out Trentino for Teasdale’s affections (while still insulting her) and hiring Chicolini as his Secretary Of War. All the while the gags come thick and fast while revealing a deeper more cynical truth; despite a world which declares law and order, chaos seems to rule instead. Much like the dictatorships that were present in the world at that time. 

Nothing is sacred in the Marxist world. Even with Freedonia in trouble, an emergency cabinet meeting sees Firefly playing a game of jacks and arguing with his cabinet members over procedure, how to handle industrial relations and taxes. Later when war is declared, Firefly still lets fly with the absurdities telling Trentino to ‘go, and never darken my towels again!’ Additionally, the slide into war is peppered with insults but again satirises the language of diplomacy and the oft-announced claims of peace made by nations planning for war. The parallel to what was happening in Europe needs no explanation.

The scenes with Chicolini and Pinky trying to steal the war-plans from Teasdale’s home are some of the most hilarious in the film. They are also testimony to director Leo McCarey’s eventual winning over the brothers regarding his view of comedy; it works best visually. As Kanfer points out, sight gags abound in the film and Harpo was particularly drawn to it. The sneaking into the house to steal the plans is an example of this or Harpo’s using blowtorch to light a cigar. A special treat during these scenes is to see Chico and Harpo impersonating Groucho, whilst maintaining their characters. It harkens to a famous story where during stage performances for A Day At The Races, the brothers interchanged their personas with the audience unaware of the changes. Of course, the old mirror scene gag is cleverly worked in with Harpo and Groucho adding their own Marxist flavour. 

Courtroom procedures likewise are lampooned with plenty of puns and nonsense. Firefly flits between ardent prosecutor and defender of the hapless Chicolini, who innocently sees the whole proceedings as one huge joke. It leaves Firefly with the only fitting assessment of Chicolini.

FIREFLY: Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot’.

The musical number announcing and celebrating the declaration of war is also a send-up of the propaganda and jingoism that had aided and abetted the destruction and horror the world had seen only 15 years earlier. Again, there is a darkness to this musical number, in context of not only the previous war but the one to come in only six years’ time. Lyrics such as ‘All God’s chillum got guns’ is an explicit ridicule of the evoking of God during war by opposing nations. Complete with banjos, minstrel singing and southern anthems, the reminder of how war can divide nations as well as destroy them is more than clear. 

The final war scenes never let up with the rapid-fire dialogue, whilst leaving nothing that cannot be ridiculed and lampooned. The various military uniforms worn range from contemporary uniforms to those worn during the Revolutionary Wars and the Civil War. Even Davy Crockett’s raccoon hat has its moment when things gets desperate a la The Alamo. The message is very clear – all war is at best absurd. The recruitment drive is ridiculed, as Harpo with sandwich board sporting ‘Join The Army And See The Navy’ walks through the battlefields. Firefly tells his general when it is reported that the men are dying life flies to ‘run out get some trenches’ as he hands him some money to buy some. The dark irony of friendly fire is derided, as Firefly uses a machine gun on his own men, followed by the farce of awarding himself the Firefly Medal, again reflecting the habit of dictators covering their chests with all manner of medals. Even a call sent out for reinforcements is sent ‘collect’. The final moment sees poor Margaret Dumont suffer further indignities, as the end credits roll for the final reel. 

There are some memorable scenes that are wonderful examples of Marx Brothers mania. Chicolini and Pinky’s interactions with poor Edgar Kennedy are both hilarious and frustrating. Kennedy, of course, was famous for his ability to shape the ‘slow burn’ and worked with everyone from Chaplin to Laurel And Hardy and was an original Keystone Kop to boot. He turns up later in the film in the risqué scene when Harpo does his turn as Paul Revere. Spying on a half-dressed woman about to have a bath, Harpo discovers that the woman is Kennedy’s wife and hides in the filled bath-tub only to find himself in there with Kennedy. Louis Calhern plays it perfectly straight as the Ambassador and villain and Dumont is outstanding as always.

One must feel for Zeppo whose place as a Marx brother on the screen becomes superfluous. Whilst solid playing straight man to Groucho, he knew that it was time to move on and so it was the last time he would appear on screen with his brothers. But we needn’t feel too bad, as soon afterwards Zeppo would find success as a Hollywood agent. 

Contrary to the oft-repeated claim, the film was not exactly a total flop. True, there was some criticism from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. It did not do so well in the small towns and mid-West and was perhaps too cerebral for the masses looking for escapism from the Depression. Yet as Simon Louvish points out in ‘Monkey Business: The Lives And Legends Of The Marx. Brothers’, Duck Soup grossed nearly as much as Horse Feathers (1932) and was Paramount’s fifth highest earner for 1933. Variety initially gave it a positive review as well. Yet the immediate memory of the film after initially doing well was not a fond one. Stefan Kanfer makes the point that the Depression saw people looking for something to hold them together against the cruelty of what they were going through. The cynicism of Duck Soup just may have been too much and with Americans in an ‘isolationist mood…a satire of Balkan despots was too esoteric for their tastes’.

It was not a film which exactly placed the Marx Brothers on the scrap-heap and the ending of the Brothers’ contract with Paramount was very much a mutual agreement. But for the Brothers, it meant a complete re-assessment of who they were, where they were at and what direction they would go in. As Marxist history shows, it was Chico who found the way forward through Irving Thalberg and MGM. Interestingly, Groucho would later state that he enjoyed working with McCarey and would claim he was ‘the only great director we ever worked with’. 

Perhaps this is what makes Duck Soup so beloved and usually at the top of the list for Marx Brothers fans. Once they went to MGM, fans would never again see the wild brilliance which first made them stars. In some ways, Duck Soup is the swan song of that legendary approach to comedy and the final testimony to that brilliance. As wonderful as A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races (1937) are, the comedy of the Marx Brothers is more tempered and refined. Duck Soup would see a revival in the 1960s, in big part thanks to Groucho’s stardom on television, as well as its anti-establishment comedy finding a new home amongst university students and the growing movement that was challenging the conventions of society. Indeed, the irreverence, anarchism and inherent deflating of pomposity and entitlement that underpinned the Marx Brothers, would endear them to new generations.

Duck Soup works because it’s funny. And I’d like to believe it will continue to be so for future generations. 

This article is an entry into the Laughter Is The Best Medicine Blogathon run by the CMBA. Click on the link to see other fantastic entries on classic comedy.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Dracula, Prince Of Darkness (1966): Hammer Horror In Full Colour

As it’s classic horror month, here’s an older article submitted for the 2018 Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon. It was fun to write and of course the film is fun to watch.

Silver Screen Classics

by Paul Batters

Dracula-Prince-of-Darkness-featuredDuring the classic era of cinema, it is indisputable that Universal was the master of the horror film. They would introduced to audiences iconic monsters that are known and loved and in Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney (Snr and Jnr) gave us wonderful actors who themselves became deserved icons of the silver screen. When the first cycle of horror films began in the early 1930s, high production values and story development were key with directors such as James Whale and Tod Browning, as well as the cinematography of the brilliant Karl Freund, shaping now classic films. By the 1940s, however, not only had production values changed but audiences had as well, and what were initially quality films became arguably less so, with more of an exploitive approach that sought to capitalise on ‘monster combinations’. The final nail in the coffin (excuse the pun) was the Universal pantheon of…

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The dark brilliance of Val Lewton: RKO’s Other Genius

Recently during the lockdown here in Australia, I’ve been re-watching the brilliant films of Val Lewton. There’s so much more I could add to this article written in 2016 but thought it was worth re-blogging at any rate, in honour of this underrated cinematic genius.

Silver Screen Classics

8638692_f1024‘There is no beauty here, only death and decay’ – Paul Holland ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943)

So another Halloween has passed by, where people not only decided what to wear at parties (or when trick-or-treating) or what party to go to but also what horror films to watch. TV horror marathons ensued, playing everything from classic Universal to 50s sci-fi to slasher films. It’s always an interesting time from the point of view of film fans, as we get to share with others our favourite classic (and not-so-classic!) horror films. It’s always interesting to read must-see lists and top ten lists of all kinds. At times, we even discover something new – perhaps a gem from the past that we overlooked or a little-known film that finally gets some notice.

I’ve been looking at a number of lists, posts and articles on Halloween horror viewing across a range…

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The Roaring Twenties (1939) – Last Of The Classic Gangster Films

In honour of James Cagney’s birthday, here’s a reblog of an old article I wrote on The Roaring Twenties (1939) – the last of the classic gangster films.

Silver Screen Classics

the-roaring-twenties-1939“Cheating yes, cheating if you get caught. But you don’t get caught if you take care of the right people, and this is big business. Very big business.” James Cagney The Roaring Twenties (1939)

by Paul Batters

Previously on Silver Screen Classics, I focused on William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931); one of the trio of films that would institute the hallmarks of the classic gangster film. What would make the canonical three interesting was that they were made and released during the Prohibition Era with gangsters such as Al Capone very much in the news. It was also the time of the Great Depression where questions about democracy and capitalism were being asked. And of course, in Hollywood it was the Pre-Code era, where film was reaching into areas that would soon be shut down and not make an explicit appearance for many years later.

I wanted to…

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Day Three: The 2021 Swashbucklathon Wraps Up

It’s the last day of the 2021 Swashbucklathon and that means the blogathon celebrating swashbucklers on film comes to an end. Our final entries are below for your enjoyment!

A huge and heartfelt thank you to all contributors. I hope that you enjoyed the blogathon and if people are interested I’ll run it again next year. If you missed the first two days, you can have a look through the following links:

Day One

Day Two

So without further ado…

Captain Blood (1935)Stars And Letters

The Man In The Iron Mask (1939)18 Cinema Lane

The Sea Hawk (1940)Movie Rob

Peter Pan (1924)Taking Up Room

The Fighting Prince Of Donegal (1966) Old Books and Movies

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Day Two: The 2021 Swashbucklathon Is Here

Hello classic film fans. Here is Day Two of 2021 Swashbucklathon. It is a touch late but in the meantime, allow me to offer a huge thank you to the contributors and their amazing efforts

Here are some more great entries from our wonderful bloggers. Please don’t forget to like and leave comments on their blogs; it means a great deal to writers to have their work supported and appreciated. Sharing their work on your own social media is also very appreciated!

The Sea Hawk (1940)Whimsically Classic

The Crimson Pirate (1952)Movie Rob

Scaramouche (1952)Move Rob

Solomon Kane (2021)Blogferatu

The Mark Of Zorro (1940)Moon In Gemini

Day Three is on its way and hopefully some last minute entries as well. Thanks everyone!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

A TALE OF ROMANCE AND DERRING-DO (With Synchronized Music and Sound Effects): A Study of Don Juan (1926)

by Robert Short, special guest writer.

Promotional Poster for Don Juan

DON JUAN (1926) Directed by Alan Crosland. Starring John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Warner Oland, Estelle Taylor, Montagu Love, Helene Costello, Gibson Gowland, Willard Louis. Screenplay by Bess Meredyth. Intertitles by Walter Anthony and Maude Fulton (both uncredited). Silent with Vitaphone musical score and sound effects.

General Abstract: Having settled in Rome after attending the University of Pisa, devil-may-care playboy Don Juan de Marana (John Barrymore) runs afoul of the tyrannical Borgia family, despotic Cesare (Warner Oland), powerful Lucrezia (Estelle Taylor), and the Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love). Juan has his way with, and is pursued by, many women; it is, however, for Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor), the one he could not have, that Juan suffers the wrath of Cesare for ignoring Lucrezia and killing Count Donati in a duel.

Literary Origins

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think”
– from Canto III, Don Juan, by George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS

Conventional wisdom, and a notification in the October 1926 issue of Photoplay magazine, have indicated that Lord Byron’s epic poem served as the underlying literary source for Bess Meredyth’s original screenplay to the 1926 swashbuckler Don Juan.  While Byron’s massive satiric chef-d’oeuvre, begun in 1819 and still unfinished at the time of Byron’s death in 1824, might certainly have played a significant role  in the development of Meredyth’s script, there was in reality a myriad of sources from which Meredyth might have drawn her ideas; the opening credits of the film simply stated “Inspired by the Legend.”      

Fictional libertine Don Juan, sometimes known as Don Giovanni, the consummate roué who devoted his life to seducing women, has in fact been a staple character in literature and drama for many centuries.  The first written version of the Don Juan story, the circa 1630 Spanish play El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra, translated as The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, by Tirso de Molina, portrayed as Don Juan as an evil seducer owing to his ability to manipulate language and disguise his appearance, a decidedly demonic attribute; subsequent versions of the tale included Molière‘s 1665 drama Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre, Italian playwright Carlo Osvaldo Goldoni’s Don Giovanni Tenorio, written in 1735 José Zorrilla‘s 1844 play Don Juan Tenorio (1844), still performed throughout the Spanish-speaking world on November 2, All Souls Day.  Wolfgang Mozart’s highly-praised 1787 opera Don Giovanni later inspired works by Alexander PushkinSøren KierkegaardGeorge Bernard Shaw, Albert Camus, and German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann.  

Although Lord Byron’s lyric narrative has undoubtedly become the most famous presentation of Don Juan in English literatiure, the promiscuous rake was initially introduced to the English-speaking world in Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 drama The LibertineDon Juans Ende, a play derived from an unfinished 1844 retelling of the tale by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau, influenced Richard Strauss‘s 1889 orchestral tone poem Don Juan.  While Meredyth might have depended more heavily on one literary root over others, or perhaps disregarded all of them, she certainly had a treasure trove of literature and drama from which to create a scripted depiction of the great Renaissance lover.

Title Card from Don Juan (1926)

A Brief History of Vitaphone

“Vitaphone will bring to the audiences in every corner of the world the the music of the greatest symphony orchestras and vocal entertainment of the most popular stars of the operatic, vaudeville and theatrical field.”
– Harry Warner

Undoubtedly the most important and far-reaching cinematic technical innovation of the 1920’s was the introduction of sound; August 6th, 1926, the debut of Warner Bros.’ lavish swashbuckler Don Juan, along with numerous film shorts, proved a pivotal date with the introduction of Vitaphone, a new sound-on-disc process.

Sound itself was not new to motion pictures.  The combination of moving images and sound had begun with Thomas A. Edison; as far back as 1894. in the Kinetoscope parlours, customers could, by means of stethoscope-like ear-tubes, hear scratchy, poorly synchronized sound as they watched some fleeting, flickering images.   Early sound-on-disc systems included the Chronophone, patented in 1902 by Leon Gaumont, and the Vivaphone, developed and marketed by the British firm Hepworth Film Manufacturing  Company circa 1913.  Using Photokinema, another sound-on-disc method, legendary director D. W. Griffith, in a filmed prologue to his 1921 feature Dream Street, stepped out in front of a curtain to talk to the audience about the motion picture.  On April 15, 1923, in New York City, American inventor Lee De Forest, a pioneer in sound films, premiered eighteen short films produced with Phonofilm, a primitive sound-on-film system.

None of these motion picture sound experiments achieved sustained success;  it was a sound-on-disc synchronization procedure developed by technicians and engineers at Western Electric, working in conjunction with Bell Telephone Laboratories, that caught the interest and attention of Sam Warner in 1925.  Harry Warner, at the urging of his brother Sam, agreed to use this method for musical accompaniment to Don Juan.  Christened Vitaphone by the Warner brothers, this system recorded the soundtrack on a 16-inch, 3,343-revolution-per-minute wax disc that played from the centre outward; this sound-on-disc method ultimately became the only disc process both widely used and commercially successful.  The marriage of Warners and Vitaphone took place on April 26, 1925 with the signing of a contract; the consummation of the relationship, so-to-speak, climaxed a little over fifteen months later with the August 6, 1926 premiere of Don Juan, the first silent film embellished with sound effects and a full background musical score courtesy of Vitaphone.

The Vitaphone sound-on-disc system would subsequently enjoy only a brief period as the main recoring technology for Warner Bros. and First National Pictures, a studio in which Warners held controlling interest. While the sound quality of the phonographic discs produced a richer audio quality than the emerging optical sound, or sound-on-film, processes, the discs were prey to synchronization issues, could not be directly edited, which limited the ability to make alterations in a film after its initial release, and suffered from general wear and tear, degrading after numerous screenings of a film, requiring disc replacements. By 1929, such major studios as Paramount Pictures and M-G-M had abandoned the sound-on-disc system in favour of optical sound for their productions; RKO, which began its film operation in 1929, used only optical sound. However, for a time these studios did continue to reproduce a number of soundtracks on phonographic discs for theatres not equipped for broadcasting optical sound; consequently some soundtracks of otherwise incomplete or lost motion pictures, such as the full roadshow version of RKO’s Rio Rita, and M-G-M’s The Rogue Song, have survived. Among the first twenty-five inductees into the TECnology Hall of Fame upon its establishment in 2004, the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process was discontinued by 1930 in favour of Movietone optical sound, although Warner Bros. retained the Vitaphone trademark for a number of years for its live action and animated short subjects.

The voice of Vitaphone: a 16-inch disc being lined up with its synchronization mark

The Cinematic “Don Juan”

“‘I made it for money.’” – Response by John Barrymore to an interviewer’s comment “‘I thought you made Don Juan for satire'”

 “In ‘Don Juan’ there are moments when I look like a male impersonation of Lilyan Tashman.” – John Barrymore

Originally intended as John Barrymore’s first film under his new Warner Bros. contract, Don Juan was postponed in favour of The Sea Beast, the first screen adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; although he had starred in the 1924 version of Beau Brummel, Barrymore apparently disdained costume films.  Quoted as saying “sweet-scented Don Juans affect movie audiences like a rough crossing of the English channel”. Barrymore agreed to the film, provided that a cinematic representation  of Moby Dick, evidently one of his favourite novels, take precedence. As expressed by Barrymore:

“It [Moby Dick] appeals to me and always has. It has an especial appeal to me now, for in the last few years, both on the stage and screen, I have played so many scented, be puffed, bewigged and ringletted characters- princes and kings and the like that I revel in the rough and almost demoniacal character such as Captain Ahab”

The Sea Beast was a very loose variation of the Melville classic. Its script also written by Beth Meredyth, The Sea Beast imposed a great deal of licence on Melville’s narrative; Ahab competed with his half-brother Derek, an invented non-Melville character, for the love of Esther, a minister’s daughter; Ahab’s motivation to return to sea was not to pursue the white whale, but rather to try to forget that Esther loved another, and, in true Hollywood fashion, a happy ending was created in place of Melville’s original tragic conclusion. Literary liberties aside, The Sea Beast appeared to have appeased Barrymore; immediately following Don Juan Barrymore undertook more “pansy parts” , as he referred to them, in the 1927 motion pictures When A Man Loves, the third film to include a Vitaphone soundtrack of background music and sound effects, and The Beloved Rogue.

Its production starting on October 18, 1925, Don Juan contained the requisite elements of a swashbuckler spectacle with its inclusion of the hero’s scaling of stone walls, leaping off balconies, swinging on vines with rapier and poignard at the ready, breasting the Tiber River, and duelling enemies; in addition, the film offered the mandatory damsel-in-distress in the personage of Mary Astor as Adriana della Varnese. Astor, with whom Barrymore had been romantically involved when the two were performing several years earlier in Beau Brummel, was not Barrymore’s choice for the role; Barrymore preferred Dolores Costello, his newest paramour who would in 1928 become his third wife. As Astor had already been signed to the part, Warner Bros. was loathe to risk a breach-of-contract lawsuit.

Unlike contemporary actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Barrymore was not generally known for athletic prowess and an ebullient screen personality; Fairbanks had forged his career on such cinematic costume adventures as 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, 1921’s The Three Musketeers, The Thief of Baghdad from 1924, and The Black Pirate, released the same year as Don Juan, whereas Barrymore had initially found his fame on stage, most recently as a Shakespearean actor, and through a very divergent variety of film roles. Nonetheless the October 1926 edition of Photoplay exclaimed:

“Hey Mr. Fairbanks, come home quick! John Barrymore is stealing your stuff. He climbs balconies, he rides horses, he fights duels and he makes hot, hot love. Here is a young feller who is determined to live down his dark past as a Shakespearean actor.”

While in all probability posing no serious competition to any Fairbanks feature as a film of action, Don Juan did surpass Fairbanks’ motion pictures in the element of romance. Certainly a Fairbanks film included an actress, such as beautiful Billie Dove in The Black Pirate, as a leading lady or love interest; the focus, however, in a Fairbanks vehicle centred on the actor’s acrobatic gymnastics, while Don Juan surpassed the swashbuckling component in favour of romance, containing between 127 and 191 kisses, depending on the reference source, bestowed by Barrymore upon a number of actresses, including Astor, Estelle Taylor, Myrna Loy, and others. Submitting himself daily for hours in the make-up and costume departments to transform the forty-three-year-old actor to a more youthful-looking, handsome Don Juan, including the dying of his grey-streaked hair to a shade of blonde, Barrymore seemed a perfect choice for the role of the Great Lover; his own reputation as a philanderer preceded him. While his performance was not met with unrestrained praise, with some critics describing the acting as “the worst they had ever witnessed”, Barrymore’s grace and elegance of bearing, and his steamy, for the era, love-making, captivated audiences. It is now somewhat difficult, and perhaps even unfair, to assess the acting style prevalent in the era of the silent film; without the benefit of spoken dialogue performances may appear florid, exaggerated, or overwrought in their quest for expression.

Warner Bros. most expensive film to date, produced on a reported budget of $546,000 , Don Juan was adorned with lavish period sets and the more fluid and creative camerawork evident in the motion pictures of the late 1920’s. No longer in its infancy, the silent cinema had artistically developed beyond the mere capturing of moving images; ironically the advent of sound would initially return the early “talkies” to a more stagnant state. While some sources have criticized Meredyth’s screenplay for the introduction and consequent abandonment of a number of characters, chiefly Adriana’s father and Don Juan’s sidekick Petrillo, and the historic licence taken with Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, such objections may be viewed as petty in nature; many motion picture scenarios, both before and since, have followed a similar pattern as the narrative progresses. Any shortcomings in the screenplay notwithstanding, and marketed with such hyperbolic taglines as “The greatest adventure picture ever produced” and “It Thrilled the World!”, the latter catchphrase admittedly more in reference to Vitaphone than the film itself, Don Juan found favour with movie audience, earning a purported $1,693,000 in worldwide rentals.

Double-page advertisement for Don Juan in The Film Daily, September 1, 1926

The addition of the Vitaphone soundtrack, with its orchestral score played by the New York Philharmonic, distinguished Don Juan immeasurably, an aspect possibly more evident when compared to the all-silent version prepared for theatres not equipped for sound reproduction; while enjoyable and entertaining, the film alone was not markedly or especially superior to other contemporary features, either those in the swashbuckling genre or otherwise. Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate, presented in early two-strip Technicolor, made up for a thin plot with its action and technical polish; other 1926 offerings, such as Beau Geste and Old Ironsides, with its use of Magnascope, an early wide-screen process, provided similar adventure, sweep, and spectacle. Ultimately Don Juan was what it set out to be, no more and no less, namely a showcase for Barrymore, who was, at times, photographed in his famous profile and clothed in progressively tighter costumes; acting with “an abandon that will arouse the disapproval of the School of Eyebrow Lifters” the actor added another memorable, if melodramatic, character to his ever imposing curriculum vitae.

Legacy and Conclusion

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.” – first words of screen dialogue spoken by Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer

Its programme supplemented with eight short features that demonstrated the wonders of Vitaphone, including the Honorable Will Hayes, President of the Motion Picture Producers of America, directly addressing the audience, the New York Philharmonic playing the overture to Tannhäuser, and coloratura soprano Marian Talley singing Caro Nome from the Giuseppi Verdi opera Rigoletto, the world premiere of Don Juan was held on August 6, 1926 at the Warner Theatre in New York City, having been previewed two days earlier on an invitation basis; for the princely cost of $25 per ticket, first-night audiences were witness to an enormous milestone in the history of cinema.  Interestingly, the audience responded to the arrival of this landmark innovation generally “warmly rather than wildly”.

In an opposite response, the press greeted Vitaphone with a more unbridled enthusiasm; in his review in The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall proclaimed:

“The natural reproduction of voices, the tonal qualities of musical instruments and the timing of the sound to the movements of the lips of singers and the actions of musicians was almost uncanny”.

Hall’s review effusively continued:                                                

“The future of this new contrivance is boundless [. . .] the vitaphone [italics mine] will give its patrons an excellent idea of a singer’s acting and an intelligent conception of the efforts of musicians and their instruments. Operatic favorites will be able to be seen and heard, and the genius of singers and musicians who have passed will still live”.

Photoplay echoed Hall’s thoughts, declaring in its October 1926 issue:

 “The executives of Warner Brothers, the Bell Telephone Company and the Western Electric Company believe that the Vitaphone [italics mine] will revolutionize the presentation of motion pictures.  It will bring famous singers and orchestras to the smallest theaters.  [. . .]  Perhaps, back in their minds, these experts believe that the Vitaphone [italics mine] eventually will make possible a genuine talking picture.  However, no definite plans have been made along this line.  So far they are confining their activities to an invention which bids fair to transform the exhibition of pictures.”

Albeit unknowingly at the time, the latter thoughts in the Photoplay article were very prophetic; on October 6, 1927, fourteen months after the premiere of Don Juan, Warner Bros. elevated Vitaphone to a new level with its release of The Jazz Singer.  Although still often considered the first talking film, The Jazz Singer was in reality essentially a silent film with a synchronized Vitaphone soundtrack; it did, however, contain several scenes with recorded songs and dialogue, not a great deal of spoken content overall, but sufficient to change forever cinema development.  Safely finding its standing in cinema history, The Jazz Singer has rather unfairly overshadowed the historical importance of Don Juan.  In the interim months between the debuts of the two films, Warner Bros. had released six more silent features with a Vitaphonesoundtrack, rendering the technology still enjoyable but less wondrous; the importance of Don Juan has over time been relegated to the back burner.  As time has passed, The Jazz Singer has continued to enjoy its reputation as a cinematic milestone; Don Juan has been diminished to a pebble in the course of motion picture evolution.        


Eyman, Scott, The Speed of Sound – Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930 (New York:  Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1997)

Hirschhorn, Clive, The Warner Bros. Story (Hong Kong:  Mandarin Publishers Limited, 1982)

Kobler, John, Damned in Paradise:  The Life of John Barrymore (New York:  Atheneum Books, 1977) 

The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron, with an Introductory Memoir by Sir Leslie Stephen (New York:  The MacMillan Company, 1907), 1048 

Sperling, Cass Warner; Millner, Cork; with Warner, Jack Jr., Hollywood Be Thy Name:  The Warner Brothers Story (California:  Prima Publishing, 1994), 96   

Thomson, David, Warner Bros:  The Making of an American Movie Studio (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2017)


“$25 Premiere for New Film”, Variety, Volume LXXXIII, No. 10, June 23, 1926

“Bringing Sound to The Screen”, Photoplay, Volume XXX, No. 5, October 1926

Don Juan (1926).  [DVD]  Directed by Alan Crosland.  USA:  Warner Archives

“Don Juan (1926 film),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,  (accessed June 9, 2021) 

‘“Don Juan,’ Vitaphone, Pre-Opening August 4”, Variety, Volume LXXXIV, No. 2, July 28, 1926

Hall, Mordaunt, “Vitaphone Stirs as Talking Movie; New Device Synchronizing Sound with Action Impresses with Its Realistic Effects.  Noted Musicians Heard Provides Orchestral Accompaniment to Photoplay ‘Don Juan,’ with John Barrymore”, The New York Times, August 7, 1926, retrieved from

St. Johns, Adela Rogers, “Hollywood Can’t Exist – But It Does”, Photoplay, Volume XXXI, No. 1, December 1926

The Film Daily, Volume XXXVII, No. 53, September 1, 1926

“The Shadow Stage”, Photoplay, Volume XXX, No. 5, October 1926

Variety, Volume LXXX, No. 8, October 7, 1925

“Vitaphone,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 9, 2021) 

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have Robert Short as a guest writer for the 2021 Swashbucklathon.

Day One: The 2021 Swashbucklathon Is Here!

The 2021 Swashbucklathon has begun and it’s a thrill to be hosting. Just to recap what the Swashbucklathon is about, the main aim is to celebrate those adventurous films that have graced the silver screen since the inception of cinema.

There is still plenty of room for people to join in and I would love to see a host of writers add their articles to the roster. You may submit on any day of the blogathon and for a complete outline of the rules and how to join in please visit the following link: Announcing The 2021 Swashbucklathon.

Please share the blogathon on your social media and you are welcome to use the memes to advertise the Blogathon that your article will be part of.

Without further ado, let’s begin with the first entries. So sit back and enjoy!

The Lady And The Highwayman (1989)ReelWeegieMidget Reviews

Robin Hood (1922)Silver Screenings

A Study Of Don Juan (1926) Robert Short, special guest at Silver Screen Classics

The Crimson Pirate (1952) – Fraser Sherman’s Blog

Preview: The 2021 Swashbucklathon

We are under one week away from the 2021 Swashbucklathon and I’m certainly excited about it. The Swashbucklaton aims to celebrate those adventurous films that have graced the silver screen since the inception of cinema.

There is still plenty of room for people to join in and I would love to see a host of writers add their articles to the roster below. You may submit on any day of the blogathon and for a complete outline of the rules and how to join in please visit the following link: Announcing The 2021 Swashbucklathon.

Please share the blogathon on your social media and you are welcome to use the memes to advertise the Blogathon that your article will be part of.

Below is a list of current participants which may also help to spark ideas.

Robin Hood (1920) – Silver Screenings

The Sea Hawk (1940) – Whimsically Classic

Don Juan (1926) – Robert Short

Solomon Kane (2009) – Blogferatu

Peter Pan (1924) – Taking Up Room

The Sea Hawk (1940) – Movie Rob

The Crimson Pirate (1952) – Movie Rob

Scaramouche (1952) – Movie Rob

The Man In The Iron Mask (1939) – 18 Cinema Lane

Plunkett And Maclean (1999) – Thoughts All Sorts

The Crimson Pirate (1952) – Fraser

Captain Blood (1935) – Stars And Letters

The Lady And The Highwayman (1989) – ReelWeegieMidget

The Mark Of Zorro (1940) – Debbie Vega

The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937) – Silver Screen Classics

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Red House (1947): A Classic Of American Gothic

by Paul Batters

‘Did you ever run away from the scream? You can’t. It will follow you through the woods. It will follow you all of your life’. Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson)

Cinema is filled with films that are celebrated and considered as timeless classics. Many are deserving of such celebration, yet there are many (at least in the opinion of this reviewer) which are not so deserving. More to the point, there are too many films that stand in the shadows and go unnoticed or unheralded. These unhidden classics need to be brought out into the light and celebrated. They are not always conventional and may even be unpolished and raw, yet that gives them an authenticity and value that makes them classics. Delmer Daves The Red House (1947) is one of those ‘hidden classics’ that deserves to be honoured.

The Red House has been described as noir although it is perhaps closer to the mark being described as a ‘horror film. Yet my contention is that this cinematic gem is a classic of American Gothic. The film’s strength lies in its unique approach to the conventions of the Gothic genre, conveyed through brilliant cinematography and delivered by a solid cast, underpinned by Miklos Rozsa’s musical score. Ultimately, it is a thriller where the audience is torn between the possibilities of the supernatural and the powers of suggestion. This Lewtonesque approach melds beautifully with the storyline and, like the protagonists in the story, we are led through winding trails in the woods trying to discover what the truth is.

Dawes transforms George Agnew Chamberlain’s 1943 novel of the same into a tale which perfectly traverses rural Americana with traditional Gothic tropes, in a fresh and interesting way avoiding cliches that would often turn up in far more celebrated Gothic films. Dawes establishes this in the opening scene, where the narrator describes an idyllic American farming community, where the farmers raise ‘good apples’ in ‘fine soil’ – a beautiful metaphor for the young people, who are a ‘healthy lot…where the girls don’t come prettier anyplace’. The wholesomeness of this salt-of-the-earth farming community, however, also contains a deeper secret. The mystery is already suggested by the ominous presence of Ox-Head Woods, where civilisation has yet to penetrate, with its deep, dark woods criss-crossed by broken trails leading to nowhere. Immediately, the audience is placed on a trail which will symbolically lead into a darker mystery.

The Morgan farm is described as having ‘the allure of a walled-castle…which few have entered’ accessed only by one road. Even in a rural America of farms, warm sun and the film’s focus on youth, the link to classic Gothic themes is beautifully linked. The symbolism of the Morgan farm as secluded and distant from the rest of society, suggests secrets, family trauma, tragedy and hidden tales. Here live Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) and his sister Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson) with their adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts). They are ‘self-sufficient’ with little need to interact with the outside world, ‘content with how things are’ and no need for outsiders to ‘spoil things’. Pete has a wooden leg from an old accident which also reveals a sub-plot involving Ellen and her unfulfilled love for the valley doctor who helped Pete when he lost it. Meg loves her adopted parents and she doesn’t question how she came to be adopted. She loves Nath (Leo McCallister) who much to Meg’s dismay is going steady with Tibby (Julie London). Dawes will take this seemingly simple orientation immediately into darker Gothic thematic concerns and build tension with a deft hand. 

Dawes also touches on subjects which the Code must have shuddered at and yet incredibly still find their way onto the screen. Teenage sexuality and relationships are both more than overtly looked at and indeed become a central theme connected to the storyline.  From the opening scene on the school bus, Nath is told by Tibby to bring his swimming trunks to their ‘swimming date’ so they can ‘change at the reservoir, just the two of us’. Next to them, the shy, innocent and pretty Meg sits disappointed but silent, knowing full-well what is being suggested. It becomes clear that Meg loves Nath but it is a love from afar and she says nothing as she treasures their friendship. 

But Meg’s love and affection for Nath reveals something darker in Pete Morgan that the audience recognises goes beyond the normal concerns of a father or guardian. When Meg begs Pete to give Nath a job on the farm, Pete gives in to Meg because he could ‘never turn her down’. All seems friendly enough after a hard day’s work as Nath sits with the Morgans for supper but as he’s about to leave for home, Nath mentions taking a shortcut through the Ox-Head Woods. Suddenly, Pete’s manner changes and he argues with Nath that it would be foolish to take that shortcut. Nath ignores Pete’s pleading which becomes more frantic. As Nath steps out into the night, the howling wind and darkness barely drowns out Pete’s near-mad rantings of the ‘screams in the night’ from the ‘red house’. The complexity of Pete’s deep psychological pathology emerge in waves of panic and near-madness, revealing his fears as he calls out ‘did you ever run away from a scream?’ As Nath disappears into the night, across the wind-swept fields, Pete goes back inside looking near-mad, eyes wide as he mutters away to his sister and himself. Ellen knowingly looks on but Meg is confused as well as afraid. Here, Dawes takes a brilliant turn into the fine line between supernatural and human fear, as Nath becomes scared and disoriented in the Ox-Head Woods. Is there some supernatural force conjured up the wind? Or is his own primeval fears fuelled by Pete’s rantings? Are the screams coming from some terrible presence in the woods? Or the result of the wind in the trees accentuated by a highly charged imagination? What does the red house have to do with all of this? At any rate, terror overcomes Nath, who makes his way back to the farm. Pete seems to regather his wits and dominance, his fears and concerns abated by Nath’s return and his secret therefore safe for the meantime.

Nath is the boy Meg loves and he will become the agent of change for not only Meg but the Morgan household. Like a lord who dominates his estate and sits all-powerful in his castle without question, Pete sees Nath as the great outside threat to his power and hold over Meg. Nath is a young boy becoming a young man, wanting to assert himself. Pete blames Nath for Meg’s change but as Ellen points out to her brother, Meg is growing up and has a right to her own life. She will begin to ask questions which emerge after the first fateful night, and as any teenager on the cusp of adulthood, will seek her own autonomy. This will also push Pete over the edge, as she disobeys his demands that she not ask questions. Nath and Meg will both seek out the red house, seeking answers to deeper questions which for Meg will reveal far deeper truths than she anticipated. In their quest, they will grow even closer together. Pete uses all manner of means to pull Meg closer to him and drive Nath apart from her, from giving gifts to Meg and even threatening her, as well as doing what he can to encourage Nath and Tibby’s romance. Pete will go so far as use Teller (Rory Calhoun), the local no-account school drop-out to inflict violence and keep Nath (and Meg) out of the Ox-Head Woods. It seems that Pete will stop at nothing to hold onto Meg.

Pete’s jealousy will not only border on the incestuous but almost cross it, enough for the kind Ellen Morgan to ask Meg if Pete has ever touched her. Pete’s now tender grip on reality will see him calling Meg another name which Meg seems to recognise but is unsure where to place. In one disturbing and alarming scene, the audience watches Pete standing at the lake’s edge on a small pier watching Meg swimming. As she approaches with an innocent smile to the edge, Pete stands suggestively over her, looking at her strangely and calling her ‘Jeanie’. Meg is obviously scared and disturbed, as she is also vulnerable in her swimsuit. Later, as Meg is in her bed at night, Pete will come into the room and stand at the doorway calling her Jeannie. Again, the dark secret and mystery that underpins Pete’s growing madness is a long-repressed truth which is too big to be hidden for much longer. The red house becomes the powerful focal point for that truth and Nath and Meg’s search for it will enrage Pete.

The terrible secret is not one which only haunts Pete, as Ellen has sacrificed her own happiness to try and protect the people she loves and cares for. The rumours and gossip about the ‘mysterious Morgans’ perhaps also asks the question about the relationship between brother and sister, and if something more is going on. Long-suffering Ellen tries everything to convince Pete that he needs to let Meg live her life and save him from his madness but it is all to no avail, as Pete descends further and deeper into the chasm. The lesson that Ellen tries imparting, that everyone has their Ox-Head Woods, falls on deaf ears. The darker Gothic overtones of seclusion, growing madness and the oppressed sexuality channelled into darker outlets all emerge in The Red House. 

The climax is still powerful high drama, even if the audience has put most of the puzzle’s pieces together. The red house itself becomes more than a symbolic focus for Pete’s madness or Meg’s search for truth. In the red house itself, all will finally be revealed as history is repeated in the ruins of the old house and the mystery finally see its denouement. 

The cast of The Red House is solid and the younger cast who hold a fair amount of the screen time do a commendable job. Leo McCallister does well as the farm boy and he has some solid mo ments on the screen. Allene Roberts, in her film debut, is particularly interesting as Meg, who is reminiscent of the kind of roles sometimes taken by Cathy O’Donnell or Teresa Wright. Conveying an ‘innocent beauty’, with her slightly breathless voice, Roberts carries the role with an unexpected strength. Julie London, also in her film debut, is incredibly sensual as Nate’s girlfriend and smoulders with her suggestive glances and claims that she is ‘already a woman’ after excitement and adventure beyond the valley. Whilst initially looking down her nose at Teller, she is also excited by him. The earliest screen encounter when Tibby gets off the school bus shows Teller waiting for her, looking like a proto-50s rocker with his tough stance and long rifle pointing at her, with obvious Freudian overtone. Teller smiles lecherously telling Tibby that he’s ‘learned plenty of things they don’t teach in school’ which scares her but also entices her, betrayed by her backward glance at him. Eventually, Teller’s prophecy that when Tibby ‘decide(s) on a man, you come to me’, will prove correct and see Nath rejected by Tibby. Rory Calhoun takes on a minor role as a plot device to drive the story and does enough with it as the bad boy who will lead Tibby into trouble. 

Of course, Robinson and Anderson are the veterans who bring their superb skills to the fore. Dame Judith Anderson supports the story with her usual depth and gives room for everyone else to deliver their performance. But for this reviewer, Robinson gives one of his finest performances and is evidence for The Red House as a hidden classic. He never chews the scenery and tempers the character’s descent into madness with well-timed fits and starts that mesh perfectly with the psychological decline of the character as well as the plot. He seems to have a permanent weight on his shoulders befitting Morgan’s tortured soul. He uses not only physical movement beautifully but expresses emotion through facial expression and even voice, lurching between his character’s love for Meg, the desperation to keep his madness in control and the defeat when it overwhelms him completely. 

The Red House is wrongly described by some as a ‘haunted house’ story, but it certainly is one of a man who is haunted; by his past crimes, by the pain of unrequited or ‘stolen’ love and the terrifying and twisted love he feels towards the young girl in his care. In essence, it is a pure Gothic tale of secrets which would tear all down around them if revealed, as well as free those bound by them. In the climax of the film, Pete himself asks that he could be free of the screams as his ‘castle’ collapses around him. It will mean final peace for his tortured spirit. But it will also mean that Meg finds her questions answered and she takes a step into a future no longer determined by Pete or the terrible secret which has them all prisoners of the past. 

The Red House has suffered from the unavailability of a decent print for years, as well as its presence in the public domain meaning cheap VHS and DVD releases or compilations with B-features. As it is in the public domain, it has also been available online as well. As a result, it is easy to dismiss it as a B-feature and one to be overlooked. Yet it deserves far greater attention. It was a ‘sleeper hit’ upon its release and received solid notice. Dawes’s direction is tight, even if there is a little fat that could use some trimming, and its unique as an American rural Gothic tale. More to the point, The Red House is an American hidden classic which deserves its’ place in the pantheon of films from the classic era. 

This article is an entry in the Hidden Classics Blogathon run by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Please click onto the link to read other wonderful entries!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Announcing The 2021 Swashbucklathon: Celebrating The Swashbuckler In Classic Film

by Paul Batters

Knights, pirates, buccaneers, musketeers, caballeros, gallant gentlemen and damsels in distress – what do they all have in common? They are all the perfect heroic protagonists in the swashbuckler film; a cinematic adventure with lots of exciting action, heroics and daring acts from heroes fighting the good fight. 

The 2021 Swashbucklathon will focus on celebrating, examining, critiquing and reviewing those films that focus on and feature swashbucklers at their finest! 

Think Robin Hood, D’Artganan, Captain Blood, the Count Of Monte Cristo, Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the many others who have graced our screens with a devil-may-care attitude as they bring on adventure and fun. Yet underlying this is often a desire to right what is wrong, stand for the oppressed and fight against the oppressor. More than often, the swashbuckler film is pure escapism and entertainment but who cares, they’re fun.

Please have a look at the rules below and I TRULY hope you will take part!

Outline Of Rules

  1. This Swashbucklathon is not just restricted to just reviewing actual swashbuckler films. Participants are encouraged to write on any angle regarding the topic area e.g. comparisons of film versions, actors or actresses known for starring in swashbuckler films, a specific character and how they have been depicted, production aesthetics etc
  1. Duplicates of films will be allowed for review but of course it’s a case of first in, so act fast. Whilst you are welcome to write more than one entry, there will be a limit of three posts per blog.
  1. This Swashbucklathon does focus on the classic era of Hollywood film – from the silent era to the 1960s. But please don’t let that hold you back, as all entries from all periods will be happily accepted.
  1. All contributions must be new material only. Previously published posts will not be accepted.
  1. The Swashbucklathon will take place through June 25th, 26th and 27th, 2021. Please submit your entries on either of these days or earlier if you wish. For those of you posting early, just remember that your entry won’t be linked until the event starts. 
  1. To express your interest in participating in the Swashbucklathon, you can so in the following ways:
  • please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover
  • or you can always register by email at: For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover.

Once you get confirmation, please spread the word about the Swashbucklathon by advertising the event on your blog and other social media. Please feel free to use one of the ads below to advertise the event.

For the record, I will be looking at The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937).

Looking forward to seeing you in June!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon – It’s A Wrap!

Well the 2021 Classic Literature On Film comes to an end but hopefully not an end to people reading the work of contributors. As always, blogathons offer an opportunity to expand our horizons, discover films we have not seen and learn fresh perspectives on those films we have seen. Hopefully, everyone is inspired to watch more classic film as well!

Again, there may be some late contributions and I’m happy to add those in.

Below are each day if you care to re-visit or share with others.

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

Thank you to all our wonderful contributors and the fantastic support from readers. Remember to please leave comments and support these writers.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon Is Here – Day Three

It’s the third and final day (falling on Easter – so Happy Easter to everyone!), so with the busyness of the weekend, there may be a few late arrivals which I am more than happy to add on over the next few days.

From some of the feedback, people have been thrilled with the articles written and my plan tonight is to finally sit down, pour a red wine (or three) and read the remaining works I have not had a chance to read. Again, a huge thank you to all participants!

If you are running late with your entries, please do not be disheartened or believe you’re late. Just let me know and I’ll add you in here when you get them to me.

Without further ado, let Day Three begin:

Of Human Bondage (1934): Bette Davis Crushes Leslie Howard Cary Grant Won’t Eat You

First Love (1939): A Version Of Cinderella Old Books And Movies

Faust On Film: Faust (1926) and The Devil And Daniel Webster (1941)The Everyday Cinephile

The Conquering Power (1921)His Fame Still Lives

Verne’s Extraordinary Adventure: 20,000 Leagues Under The SeaTaking Up Room

Ebb Tide (1937)A Scunner Darkly

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon Is Here – Day Two

Hello classic film fans. Here is Day Two of the Classic Literature On Film Blogathon. Forgive the tardiness but it is the Easter weekend (yes, I probably should have timed it better!) In the meantime, allow me to offer a huge thank you to the contributors and their amazing efforts

Here are some more great entries from our wonderful bloggers. Please don’t forget to like and leave comments on their blogs; it means a great deal to writers to have their work supported and appreciated. Sharing their work on your own social media is also very appreciated!

The Wind In The Willows Caftan Woman

Jane Eyre (1943) Hamlette’s Soliloquy

Carrie – The Three Versions Blogferatu

The Light Of Western StarsVT Dorchester

Pollyanna: Rejecting VictimhoodSilver Screenings

The Haunting Beauty Of The Ghost And Mrs Muir (1947) Watching Forever

Great Expectations (1946)Dubism

The Three Musketeers (1948)18 Cinema Lane

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon Is Here – Day One

Hello everyone and I’m excited that the 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon has begun. I hope you are also looking forward to reading some fantastic articles as well as be inspired to watch the films we haven’t and or revisit those we have with a new and different perspective.

Here are some of our entries. (I’ve cheated a little and will include my most recent article)

It’s just the start and more articles will be added over the next three days.

The Invisible Man (1933)Once Upon A Screen

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife Of Bath – Episode Two(2003) RealWeegieMidget Reviews

The Evil Within Us: A Study Of Three Versions Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr Hyde – Robert Short

Master Of The World (1961)Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

The Personal History Of David Copperfield (2019)Movie Rob

The Three Musketeers (1973) Movie Rob

They Came To Cordura (1959) Movie Rob

The Grapes Of WrathSilver Screen Classics

Becky Sharp (1935)Top 10 Film Lists

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Evil Within Us: A Study Of Three Versions Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde

by Robert Short – Special Guest Contribution

General Abstract: In 1887 London prominent physician Henry Jekyll incurs the ire of his older colleagues because of his experiments and views on the possibility of separating the good and evil aspects of man’s nature. As his experiments with potions continue, Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when, transformed into the animalistic, bestial Mr. Hyde, his dark side runs wild.Literary Origins

Literary Origins

“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”.

Originally published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has served as the underlying literary basis for all cinematic adaptations of the story. Certainly film versions have explored many of the dark themes introduced in the written work, the duality of man, good versus evil, and religion versus science chief among them.

While the Stevenson story was rightfully given on-screen credit as the original source for the 1920, 1931, and 1941 screen presentations, the cinematic editions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also owed a debt of gratitude to an 1887 four-act stage adaptation written by Thomas Russell Sullivan in collaboration with the actor Richard Mansfield. Whereas Stevenson presented his tale using multiple narrators and a circular style, which allowed the events of the story to end back at the narrative’s origin, Sullivan composed the play in a straightforward, linear fashion, staging the action in chronological order, thereby conveying a stronger impression of realism for the audience. Sullivan’s work also gave greater visual emphasis on the contrast between Jekyll’s good and Hyde’s evil, of which the latter, in Stevenson’s work, was more left to the imagination of the reader than explicitly expressed; as author James B. Twitchell observed:

“What Peggy Webling did for Frankenstein and John Balderston did for Dracula, Thomas Sullivan did for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The stage play made the story part of popular culture; it straightened out the plot, it provided causality, it made sexual interactions clear, it excised all narrative sophistication, and it profoundly transformed the monster. By the time these adaptations of Victorian horror in prose had made it to film, the stage plays had already made them myths.”

The other significant change brought about in the Sullivan theatrical adaptation was the introduction of a more dominant female personage in the character of Agnes Carew, Jekyll’s fiancée. Stevenson’s original work was noteworthy for its lack of female presence; while not totally void of females, the novella included them as decidedly minor, unsubstantial characters, none of whom had more than a few lines of dialogue. The paucity of any strong women has prompted a number of theories from literary analysts and scholars; some have noted the lack of females as symbolic of the subordinate position in Victorian society, while others have declared it representative of Jekyll’s repressed homosexuality.

An Overall Look at the Film Adaptations

1920 Version. Directed by John S. Robertson. Scenario by Clara S. Beranger. Starring John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield, Charles Lane, Nita Naldi, Louis Wolheim.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, under the screen title of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which will hereafter be shortened to Jekyll and Hyde, proved very popular material in the early days of cinema; between 1908 and 1912 no less than seven adaptations had been filmed, the majority of which were one-reel, or approximately ten to twelve minutes, in length. The year 1920 boasted three versions of the Stevenson tale. The Barrymore film was the first to be released; with a running time of 79 minutes, it was also the first to present the story in a more substantial manner. Certainly the most famous of the silent presentations, given the prominence of the Barrymore name, it may be said that this version of the Stevenson tale brought the genre of the horror film to a higher level; a solid “A” production, the 1920 Jekyll and Hyde did not climax in a cheat ending, where the events turned out to be a dream or an elaborate hoax. Heralded in the film’s advertisement as “The Greatest Actor of Our Time”, handsome Barrymore, known in his early theatrical days as “The Great Profile”, apparently found a personal level of sympathy in the dual role of kindly Jekyll and evil Hyde further; himself possessed of dark urges, alcohol could literally transform the actor “from a courteous, charming fellow into a foul-mouthed beast.”

Clara Beranger’s screenplay followed the 1887 stage concept of Jekyll’s being engaged, the fiancée rechristened Millicent from the play’s original Agnes, and later renamed Muriel and Beatrix in 1931 and 1941 respectively. As in the stage play, unlike the Stevenson work, the Sir Danvers character, his name altered to Sir George Carewe in the Barrymore version, General Carew in 1931 and Sir Charles Emery a decade later, was presented as Jekyll’s future father-in-law. In the 1931 and 1941 adaptations, Jekyll’s future relation was depicted as a straitlaced, highly proper individual; interestingly, unique to the Barrymore film, Sir George encouraged his future son-in-law to yield to temptation, paving the way to Jekyll’s subsequent probing of good and evil. The eventual murder of the Sir Danvers personage, an occurrence from both the Stevenson novella and the Mansfield drama, was also retained in Beranger’s script, and carried over into the subsequent 1931 and 1941 films.

Quite significantly, the 1920 script introduced a second major female role, injecting an element hitherto excluded in both Stevenson’s original work and the 1887 stage adaptation. The attractive dance-hall girl Gina awakened the prim Jekyll’s baser instincts, and later had a relationship with Hyde; while the Barrymore version did not deeply explore the dalliance, one could easily assume it was at very least an unsavoury one, contrary to the mores of Victorian times. In subsequent screen adaptations, Gina evolved into Ivy, the barmaid, whom Hyde physically torments, psychologically tortures, and eventually destroys.

It is now somewhat difficult, and perhaps even unfair, to assess the artistic quality of a century-old film, unless evaluating it through a historical lens. While no longer in its infancy, the silent cinema of 1920 had yet to develop the fluid camerawork and imagery more evident by the end of the decade in such classics as Sunrise, The Crowd and The Wind; ironically the advent of sound would initially return the early “talkies” to a more stagnant state. In a review in Silent Film Sources film historian David Pierce said of the 1920 feature “The staging is not compelling, the scenario communicates the story largely by titles rather than action, and the motivations of the characters are not well developed.” Like many motion pictures of the era, the 1920 Jekyll and Hyde certainly may appear rather static and stilted to modern audiences, although certain scenes, such Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, are grandly overacted.

1931 Version . Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath. Starring Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbs.

Florid and cinematically exciting, the 1931 version of Jekyll and Hyde has often been considered the best screen adaptation of the Stevenson work. The temporal setting was perfect for another Gothic horror tale; by the time the filming of Jekyll and Hyde had begin in the summer of 1931, Universal Studios had scored a massive hit with Dracula, and would later enjoy similar success with the November 1931 release of Frankenstein. The first film directed by European-born Rouben Mamoulian, the 1929 Applause, demonstrated the director’s innovative use of sound and camera movement; Jekyll and Hyde, Mamoulian’s third film, again provided the director with ample opportunity to utilize his creative talents. Opening the film with the ominous strains of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Mamoulian initially employed the subjective camera, so that the audience saw the physical surroundings through Jekyll’s eyes; Jekyll himself was first seen as a reflection in a mirror, a technique later repeated when Hyde made his initial appearance. This premier sound presentation of the Stevenson story also benefited from having been produced in the “pre-code” era, a more liberated time in the history of early cinema.

Mamoulian’s interpretation of the classic story did not involve the more commonly accepted underlying theme of good versus evil, but rather “the primitive, the animalistic versus the spiritual because that’s in all of us, including the saints”, a concept depicted in a combination of horror and Freudian psychology. The director spoke of Hyde as “an animal” that “knows no evil”. As Jekyll gradually became corrupted through the continuation of his experiments, Mr. Hyde likewise became more and more evil, deteriorating with each developmental stage he experienced.

Mamoulian’s version further influenced most future productions of Jekyll and Hyde through the emphasis of the contrasting characters of the two the leading women, Jekyll’s upper-class fiancée, Muriel and Hyde’s promiscuous music hall singer Ivy. While the 1920 film did include both Jekyll’s fiancée and Hyde’s romantic interest, Millicent and Gina respectively, the notion of stressing their differences was never specifically addressed; while Millicent was undoubtedly virtuous, Gina was never particularly portrayed as someone of a baser nature, although the fact that she was a dancer perhaps implied that she was of lower social standing than Millicent; moreover, the Hyde/Gina relationship might be viewed in general as distasteful. In the more liberated era of Hollywood, prior to the 1934 Production Code, director Mamoulian illustrated the barmaid Ivy’s loose morals quite graphically in contrast to the chaste fiancée Muriel; upon her first encounter with Jekyll, after he has rescued her from an attacker on the street and checked her wounds, Ivy performed a playful striptease, ultimately slipping fully nude under the covers of her bed. Actress Miriam Hopkins, who appeared as Ivy, had reportedly actually wanted the part of Jekyll’s fiancée; she found the pivotal character of Ivy too unsympathetic. Ultimately, Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde, with its sexual undercurrent, did not escape the watchful eye of the Production Code; a 1936 reissue saw the film shorn of 15 minutes, reduced from a 97-minute length to an 82-minute running time. The film did not realize a full restoration until the 2004 release on DVD.

Recognized by literary scholars as a motif in Stevenson’s work, the theme of repression featured strongly in the Mamoulian adaptation. With its sober and dignified surface, the repression of the Victorian era, no expressions of emotion orsexual appetites in the public sphere, was woven throughout the 1931 work; the more Jekyll’s forbidden cravings were suppressed, the more he desired the life of Hyde, and the stronger Hyde grows, his evil magnified after months of repression.

Paramount Studios had initially wanted middle-aged character actor Irving Pichel to star in Jekyll and Hyde, a choice to which Mamoulian was opposed. Although agreeing that Pichel would make a wonderful Hyde, the director envisioned a young and handsome Jekyll. Mamoulian pursued a reluctant Fredric March for the eponymous title roles, regarding him a “marvellous actor who also is a very intelligent one” ; to that point in his career, March was considered more a “matinee idol” type, having achieved a huge hit, and eventually an Academy Award nomination, for a wickedly funny parody of John Barrymore in 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway. The idea of playing a monster, or even an animal in Mamoulian’s term, was not immediately appealing to the star, although the part would ultimately earn March his first Oscar as Best Actor. In a later interview given to Screen Book Magazine, March explained his approach to the dual role:

“I conceived Mr. Hyde as more than just Dr. Jekyll’s inhibited evil nature, I saw the beast as a separate entity – one who could, and almost did, little by little, overpower, and annihilate Dr. Jekyll. And I tried to show the devastating results in Dr. Jekyll as well. To me, those repeated appearances of the beast within him were more than just a mental stain on Jekyll — they crushed him physically as well.”

Rose Hobart and Fredric March (1931)                                      Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March (1931)

1941 Version. Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin. Starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner. Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter.

While lacking the more candid sexual imagery or inventive camerawork of its 1931 forerunner, director Victor Fleming’s 1941 adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde, from the perspective of the general story line, was essentially a remake of the Mamoulian version of a decade before, albeit not recreated scene-for-scene. An Academy Award winner for his direction of the 1939 landmark film Gone with the Wind, Fleming informed publicists that his adaptation would be a more naturalistic presentation than Mamoulian’s. Nonetheless, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the producing studio of the Fleming film, was evidently concerned about any possible competition from or unfavourable comparison to its Paramount predecessor; having acquired the rights to the 1931 film, MGM consequently suppressed it, succeeding so effectively that the Mamoulian version remained hidden for over twenty-five years, even believed lost, until an abridged print was discovered in 1967.

While both the Mamoulian original and the Fleming remake concerned a Victorian gentleman whose sexual instincts, warped by the puritanical society in which he lived, ultimately took a monstrous form, Fleming’s Jekyll and Hyde, developed under the constraints of the Production Code and produced by the more conservative studio of MGM, eschewed of necessity the more forthright sexual undertone of the Mamoulian version. The progressiveness of Mamoulian’s adaptation, including the views on sex espoused by Dr. Jekyll and the more frank eroticism, were obliterated in the 1941 remake; the Fleming production expressed a greater emphasis on Victorian repression and psychological interpretation. In an early scene, the father of Jekyll’s fiancée Beatrix disdainfully proclaimed “I do wish Harry wouldn’t make such demonstrations of affection in public.” Ivy’s behaviour towards Jekyll in their first encounter was more flirtatious than provocative; Hyde’s later terrorizing of Ivy, demonstrated through constant threats of violence in the 1931 treatment, became an exercise in psychological cruelty, a more subtle horror, and. in its manner, more malicious and calculating, evolving into a sadistic intensity quite unlike the 1931 forerunner.

The eroticism of the Mamoulian presentation did, however, strikingly manifest itself as violence, notably in several fantasy sequences occurring during Jekyll’s transition into Hyde. Not part of the diegetic action of the film, these segments, more extreme than any depiction seen or suggested in the 1931 version, included the whipping, although the actual whip was never shown by order of the Production Code, of Beatrix and Ivy as “horse-women” and an image of Ivy’s laughing head as a champagne cork; visions which would undoubtedly elicit a sexual interpretation from a Freudian analyst.

Envisioned at one point as a vehicle for Robert Donat, Jekyll and Hyde piqued the interest of Spencer Tracy. As the actor explained,

“I had always been fascinated by the story and saw it as a story of the two sides of a man. I felt Jekyll was a very respectable doctor – a fine member of society. He had proposed to a lovely girl and was about to marry her. But there was another side to the man. Every once in a while, Jekyll would go on a trip. Disappear. And either because of drink or dope or who-knows-what, he would become – or should I say turn into? – Mr. Hyde. Then in a town or neighborhood where he was totally unknown, he would perform incredible acts of cruelty and vulgarity. [. . .] The girl, as his fiancée, is a proper lady. But as his fantasy whore, the girl matched his Mr. Hyde. She would be capable of the lowest behavior. The two girls would be played by the same actress [some sources have indicated Katharine Hepburn, whom Tracy had not yet met, was a consideration]; the two men would be me.”

Apparently originally tested as good-girl Beatrix, Jekyll’s fiancée and the ingenue of the narrative, Ingrid Bergman, “fed up” playing such roles, approached director Fleming and producer Victor Saville with the idea of performing the part of the more promiscuous Ivy. The legend that Bergman and co-star Lana Turner “swapped” roles was exactly that, a piece of Hollywood folklore. The part of Beatrix had been initially announced for Laraine Day, who ultimately bowed out of the project; Turner was cast in the role only one day before shooting of the film began.

Even with the Mamoulian film safely out of the way, the 1941 Jekyll and Hyde did not generally compare favourably with its 1931 counterpart. Mamoulian’s earlier version has been deemed over the years to be a masterpiece; in his contemporary review in The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall hailed the presentation as “a far more tense and shuddering affair than it was as John Barrymore’s silent picture. [. . .] Fredric March is the stellar performer in this blood-curdling shadow venture.” A decade later the same publication dismissed Fleming’s more cerebral approach to horror as a “preposterous mixture of hokum and high-flown psychological balderdash”. Although praising the Bergman performance, an issue of Hollywood observed “While Spencer Tracy does a grand job in his dual role, his Mr. Hyde is inclined to be more humorous than terrifying.” Modern Screen described Jekyll and Hyde as “funniest when apparently it is trying to be most serious and never so routine as when it is trying hardest to be different.”

In fairness, critical reviews of the 1941 Jekyll and Hyde were not consistently negative. After a preview showing of the film in late July 1941, prior to the August 12, 1941 premiere in New York City, the trades paper Variety, while noting “The promise, however, of something superlative in film making, in the combination of the star, the Robert Louis Stevenson classic and Victor Fleming’s direction, is not completely fulfilled”, did acknowledge “Nevertheless, it has its highly effective moments, and Tracy plays the dual roles with conviction. [. . .] Jekyll may be put down as one of the big ones for fall release.”.

Despite any adverse or lacklustre critical reaction, Fleming’s Jekyll and Hyde appeared to have enjoyed a modest financial success with the movie-going public; domestic and foreign box office returns totalled approximately $1,211,000. Nor was the 1941 production overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences; while not a recipient of any prize, Academy Award nominations were earned in the categories of Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Musical Scoring of a Dramatic Picture.

The Face Of Evil

“He is not easy to describe.  There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable.  I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why.  He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point.  He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way.  No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him.  And it’s not  want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”

                  – Stevenson’s description of Edward Hyde, as expressed by the character Richard Enfield

As depicted in the Stevenson novella, the evil of Mr. Hyde was seemingly portrayed only in his sickly smile; while he bore a definite malevolent countenance, Hyde was substantially “human” in appearance.  In the 1887 stage production actor Richard Mansfield, co-author of the play, performed Hyde with a change of expression but no make-up.  The cinematic Hyde has been presented in a number of ways, all of which emphasize, to a greater or lesser degree, a very visible, physical illustration of horror.

Barrymore’s 1920 personification of Hyde was first produced through facial distortion; make-up was then applied to create the image of an obscene, corrupt monster, his lank locks falling from a peaked head. A masterful characterization of the embodiment of horror, Hyde’s heinous persona was underscored by a slinking, hunching gait; as was later the case with March and Tracy, the physical ugliness of Hyde stood in stark contrast with the naturally handsome visages of the three actors.

In keeping with director Mamoulian’s concept of a more bestial Hyde, actor March’s 1931 physical portrayal of the evil character was the most unrealistic in human terms, and the furthest from the original Stevenson description; Hyde’s simian appearance was more Neanderthal than modern homo sapien in nature. Application of the make-up was an arduous task, a process demanding up to four hours; makeup artist Wally Westmore drew many sketches in consultation with March, ultimately creating a plaster mold of the actor’s face to spare March gruelling hours in a makeup chair. The device needed a sufficient level of comfort to allow March to wear it for prolonged periods of time, without impeding the actor’s ability to speak clearly. Developing the animal-like fangs proved most difficult; March was required to sit for hours as a dentist made necessary adjustments to the dental work. The end result of these laborious efforts were perfect; the final makeup combined both the sub-human and satanic aspects of the character.

Tracy, in his 1941 portrayal, originally had the idea of doing the transformations from Jekyll to Hyde entirely without makeup; as the actor noted “The change was not essentially physical. It went deeper than that. It was his soul that turned black.” In late December 1940 the actor filmed an unsuccessful makeup-free test of the initial transformation scene as scripted by screenwriter John Lee Mahin. Despite ultimately agreeing to use makeup, Tracy’s depiction was closest to Stevenson’s description of the detestable Hyde; although the face bore an unmistakably dark, venomous look, it still retained a human appearance.


The general concept of the Jekyll and Hyde story, the notion of good and evil shared by one physical body, and presented as a mesmerizing horror narrative, has never stopped fascinating the public.  Stevenson’s literary work has never gone out-of-print, and has served to date as the underlying source for no less than thirty film adaptations, some comedic or exploitative, thirteen stage presentations, and seventeen television productions. With its many layers, Stevenson’s chef-d’œuvre can be appreciated on numerous levels; exploration of the various themes and motifs invite literary or philosophical analysis, or a reader may simply choose the book as a chilling midnight treat. 


Curtis, James, Spencer Tracy: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)

Luhrssen, David, Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen, (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2013)

Osborne, Robert, 50 Golden Years of Oscar: The Official History of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (California: ESE California, 1979)

Peters, Margot, The House of Barrymore (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)

Soister, John T.; Nicollela, Henry, American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 (North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, 2012),

Sragow, Michael, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, (1886) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, (Reprint Scotland: Waverley Books Ltd., 2008)

Tranberg, Charles, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor (Oklahoma: Bear Manor Media, 2013)

Twitchell, James B., Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy Of Modern Horror (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1985)


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932, 1941). [DVD] Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, Victor Fleming. USA:
Warner Bros.

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1887 play),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920 Paramount film),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 film),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941 film),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

Fleming, Victor (Director), (1941) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [Film], Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Hall, Mordaunt, “Fredric March in a Splendidly Produced Pictorial Version of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’”, The New York Times, January 2, 1932

Hollywood, Volume 30, No. 11, November 1941

Modern Screen, Volume 23, No. 6, November 1941

“Spencer Tracy Essays Dual Role of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ Which Opened Yesterday at the Astor”, The New York Times, August 13, 1941

“Tradeshow Reviews”, Variety, Volume 18, No. 7, July 23, 1941

The Grapes Of Wrath (1940): The Enduring Power Of Family

by Paul Batters

‘Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there’. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda)

One of the greatest challenges for any film-maker is to successfully transfer the textual integrity of a great novel onto the screen. Many a book has been butchered and found itself at the mercy of the profit margin and not the integrity of the author’s original intent. Thankfully there are also many films which have not suffered this fate. Whilst some changes have occurred in the name of the cinematic process, those said films still hold true to the key themes of the original text.

Perhaps one of the greatest American writers, John Steinbeck has the incredible ability to channel the experiences of his characters and his American classic The Grapes Of Wrath certainly captures the harrowing and heart-breaking experiences of the ‘Oakies’ and their journey to California, as they are forced to leave their homes and farms in the Dust Bowl. Not only is the book an American classic but so too in cinema is the film, directed by the great John Ford. 

“The Grapes of Wrath” a 1940 drama film starring Henry Fonda. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

The Grapes Of Wrath was released in 1940 , starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a newly released convict returning to his family home but finding that all is not the same. The degraded land has left the local people in abject poverty but also rendered them homeless, as banks in far-away cities are seizing back the land. Forced to leave, the Joad family make the difficult decision to go to California, where they believe they will find work and be able to start again. They will instead find misery and second-class citizenship, as they have to deal with being mistreated, exploited and face their dispossession.

Whilst a number of powerful message are clear in the film, this essay will discuss the focal themes of family and the importance of home. 

Tom Joad is a strong-willed individual, returning home from prison after serving time for manslaughter. His strength of character and the depth of his convictions is an important part of the foundation of the family’s unity but Tom will also find those traits stretched to their limits as he holds things together. As he walks back home, meeting up with former preacher Casy (John Carradine), the howling wind picks up along with the dark, gathering clouds as an ominous sign of the harsh reality. Tom finds his home dark and abandoned but for his near-mad neighbour Muley Graves (John Qualen) in the shadows. As Muley describes what has been happening in a flashback sequence, it becomes clear that the concept of home is no mere abstract idea but a firm and central necessity to life itself. Muley’s whole life and family are torn apart by the cold, impersonal and hard financial decisions made miles away in a bank boardroom. What is also clear is that banks and big business place no value on the homes and families of the people on the land, with only what can be bought and sold being considered of any worth. The scene where the ‘cat’ (Caterpillar tractor) ploughs through Muley’s house and continues on its’ way, speaks volumes about this cold indifference and brutal business approach to the homes and families of the farmers. In the space of a few moments, Muley loses everything and he is powerless to do anything. Indeed, the young man driving the ‘cat’ is a local who declares that he has to worry about his hungry family and not the problems of others. The desperation of people torn by their plight is a sad, tragic and reality which sees the fabric of the community not only torn but destroyed.

Tom’s family have moved to his Uncle John’s nearby and in a sense he does return home when he sees his Ma (Jane Darwell) and his face lights up with a smile. Her care-worn face also shines with happiness, as she goes out to see him, interestingly shaking his hand which reflects that whilst she is restrained and reserved, it does not mean that there is a deep love for her son. She is concerned that prison has ‘made him mean’ but Tom denies this, after which he is greeted by the rest of the family. Yet the happy welcome home is blunted by the harsh reality that they need to go. California is the destination but senile and stubborn Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) refuses and rants that he is going to stay. Grandpa’s declaration echoes the hopeless, forlorn and fruitless pronouncements made by countless men before him. Like Muley, Grandpa is powerless, even when he grabs at the soil that he has farmed and declares he is a part of it. It will take getting him drunk so that he falls asleep to get him onto their packed truck so that the Joads can leave.

The poignancy and bittersweet tragedy of the meaning of home and family is beautifully conveyed through the sensitive and powerful performance of Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, holding the family together. Watch as she sits quietly by a small fire, going through her memories and remembering the joys and pains that the family had gone through together over the years in the home they had made. Small trinkets and newspaper clippings pass through her fingers until she comes to a pair of earrings which she holds up to her ears, as she looks in a faded mirror. The young woman who once wore them is long gone, and she looks at a face old before its time from the hard toil of working the land and raising a family. No words are uttered but the mis en scene of the small lit fire, throwing light onto the news papered walls of the poor cabin suggest the difficulty and poverty of the family’s life. It is a powerful scene and one which cannot help but illicit powerful emotion from the audience. Despite their poverty, the family has remained strong as a unit because they have each other, as well as the land they were born, lived and died on.

As they leave, again Ma Joad further channels the pain of losing home yet refusing to look back. Defiant in her gaze to the future, she pushes down the angst of what has happened to her family. Yet it is also her own personal pain which she expresses in one of the film’s most powerful scenes:

Al Joad : Ain’t you gonna look back, Ma? Give the ol’ place a last look?
Ma Joad : We’re going’ to California, ain’t we? All right then let’s go to California.
Al Joad : That don’t sound like you, Ma. You never was like that before.
Ma Joad : I never had my house pushed over before. Never had my family stuck out on the road. Never had to lose everything I had in life.

Their journey to California is fraught with challenges. The Joad family face not only the severest financial struggles in getting there but the death of beloved family members, Grandpa and Grandma. True, their age means that the journey is too much for them and too great a burden for them to bear. Yet there is the sense that their being dispossessed from their home and land has taken away the essence of their being. The further away from home they travel, the more life ebbs away from the old-timers who have known nothing else except the land they have toiled and raised families on.

Yet for the younger members of the Joad family, there is still an element of hope. They believe in the possibilities that lay ahead and this drives them on to their goal. Ma counts on her son Tom for guidance and whilst he does what he can to stay positive, he is perhaps understands best what is unfolding before them. This certainly rings true when they come across a fellow Oakie, who tearfully and manically recounts the tragedy of his own journey and what has happened to his family. 

The harsh reality hits home for the Joads when they arrive in California and get ‘work’ fruit-picking at the Keene Ranch. The poor wages is met with abhorrent treatment by the bosses and the surrounding desperation and inhumanity of thousands like the Joads, whose dreams are dashed on the poverty of reality. Their sense of powerlessness is underpinned by having lost everything and the family is pushed to its’ limits. Rose O’Sharon is left pregnant and alone by her no-good husband and Tom wonders how the family will be kept together. The Joads become the allegory for the many families who have made the desperate trip to find poverty, exploitation and terrible ill-treatment. The Joads are the humanised face of the desperate and grim reality of the countless and faceless many whose journey finished in such misery, with hope dashed on the rocks of that grim reality. California is no land of milk and honey for them. 

It is within these sensibilities that The Grapes Of Wrath is  particularly powerful; via its political analysis of that very situation. But it is through Casy the Preacher that the audience discovers this. His political awakening and sense of social responsibility to his fellow human rings strong when he says ‘something’s going on out here. Casy speaks of the ‘human family’ and he knows that there is a price to pay for fighting for what is right and just. For Casy, he finds not only his place in the world but his purpose, and it is through that purpose that he comes alive again.

The Joads will find some solace at the Department Of Agriculture-run Farmworker’s camp where they are treated decently and where everything is done above board. But it is only a small haven inside a far greater problem. Tom knows this and like Casy before him understands the concept of all people being brothers and sisters; all part of one human family. Sadly, whilst the Joads survive their ordeal, others do not. Others are broken, left bereft of hope and unable to manage the severe trauma of land dispossession, family break-up and the loss of their homes. There is no happy end for the Muleys, the near-mad Oakie returning home with despair and a dead child nor many of the others unable to escape the stark and grim reality of their broken dreams.

To suggest that Tom is ‘radicalised’ or ‘politicised’ is missing the point. The issues of social justice, equal rights for all and the right to work and fair pay should not be seen as a political football to score points with. Tom understands what Casy had been talking about; that each human is ‘just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody’. Indeed, Tom, like Casy, recognises that all are members of the same great human family; a concept not steeped in sentimentality. Tom is not even completely sure at the end of the film on what he needs to do. However, he knows that there is work to do. His final moments on the screen speak strong to the fire kindled within:

Ma Joad also finds strength after the family’s ordeal and declares that she will never ‘be scared no more’. Her simple yet powerful way of speaking articulates the strength of not only her family but ‘the people’. They have endured incredible hardships but ‘they can’t wipe us out’. There is a deep authenticity in her words and the experiences of the Joads, which gives the film its agency. Ultimately, the survival of the Joads in the face of losing everything is triumph enough.

The film has that feel of being a ‘left-wing parable’ as Roger Ebert described it and yet it endures for its’ universal story of a family enduring very real historical events and experiences. The context of the Depression and 1940 being one of the 20th Century’s most tumultuous and desperate may be missing in action for today’s audience. Yet many of the harsh motifs of cold, cruel and uncaring banks of 1930s Depression America are not exactly foreign to the audiences of today. Nor are the terrible injustices and chasms of division or political, social and economic realities of crisis merely distant memories of history. They are all too real and current in this very day and age, without this reviewer needing to point them out. Families have suffered and continue to. They struggle with the realities of today and this is the tragedy of The Grapes Of Wrath for a current audience. 

But perhaps, like the Joads, our endurance is our victory and the belief that we are all ‘the people’ part of ‘one big soul that belongs to everybody’. The Grapes Of Wrath remains a powerful cinematic masterpiece. It’s profundity lies in the simplicity of the language and the character’s discovery of deeper consciousness through their experience. It’s crafted with the stark and brilliant photography of Gregg Toland, the outstanding performances of Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and John Carradine, and of course the sharpened vision of John Ford. Ultimately, The Grapes Of Wrath is a film that also endures and its’ victory is in its’ authentic message to us all.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Update: The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

As we come to the end of February, time is getting a little closer to the The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon which runs at the start of April. So far there have been some fantastic choices and of course there is plenty of room for more.

I’ll take the opportunity to restate the conditions of entry:

Outline Of Rules

  1. This blogathon is not just restricted to reviewing actual films based on classic literature. Participants are encouraged to write on any angle regarding the topic area e.g comparisons of films based on a particular text, discussion of the textual integrity of films based on classic literature.
  2. Duplicates of films will be allowed for review but of course it’s a case of first in, so act fast. Whilst you are welcome to write more than one entry, there will be a limit of three posts per blog.
  3. This blogathon does focus on the classic era of Hollywood film – from the silent era to the 1960s. But please don’t let that hold you back, as all entries from all periods will be happily accepted.
  4. All contributions must be new material only. Previously published posts will not be accepted.
  5. The blogathon will take place between April 2nd and 4th, 2021. Please submit your entries on either of these days or earlier if you wish. For those of you posting early, just remember that your entry won’t be linked until the event starts.
  6. To express your interest in participating in the blogathon, you can so in the following ways:

– please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover
– or you can always register by email at: For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover.

– or contact me through Twitter:

Once you get confirmation, please spread the word about this blogathon by advertising the event on your blog and other social media. Please feel free to use one of these ads to advertise the event.

Here are our entries so far!

Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – 84 Charing Cross Road

Silver Screenings – Pollyanna (1920)

Caftan Woman – The Wind and the Willows (1983)

J-Dub – Great Expectations (1946)

Once Upon A Screen – The Invisible Man (1933)

Films From Beyond The Time Barrier – Master of the World (1961)

Taking Up Room – 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (both versions) – Becky Sharp (1935)

Robert Short – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920, 1931 and 1941)

Critical Retro – Huckleberry Finn (1931 and 1939)

Pale Writer – The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Blogferatu Carrie (1976)

Hamlette’s Soliloquy Jane Eyre (1943)

A Scunner DarklyThe Ebb Tide (1937)

Voyages ExtraordinariesThe Jungle Book (various adaptations)

His Fame Still Lives – The Conquering Power (1921)

Cary Grant Won’t Eat You – Of Human Bondage (1934)

RealWeegieMidget – The Canterbury Tales (2003) Ep02 – The Wife Of Bath

If you’re after some more ideas, you can also have a look at the entries from last year’s blogathon here.

Your sharing of this on your own social pages would be greatly appreciated as well! Thanks everyone!

Announcing The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

To kick off 2021, I am very pleased and excited to announce my second hosting of the Classic Literature On Film Blogathon! And of course you are all kindly and heartily invited to partake!

Classic novels and plays have provided cinema with some of the greatest stories of all time. They are part of the fabric of culture and have been powerful in helping us to understand ourselves. Since the early days of cinema, film-makers have mined the richness of classic tales for the silver screen. Some of our most beloved films have been based on the works of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Mark Twain, to name a few. Indeed, many classic novels have been produced many times. 

So, the main focus of the blogathon is to celebrate, examine, critique and review those films that have been based on classic literature! 

As already mentioned, the concept of ‘classic literature’ reflects what has been traditionally considered by scholars as those books and plays which have had a considerable impact on the development of literature. They have set the standards for and established certain genres and have given us some of the most recognised stories and characters.  So this blogathon aims to keep the focus within those boundaries – but of course that leaves everyone plenty of options!

Please have a look at the rules below and I TRULY hope you will take part!

Outline Of Rules

1. This blogathon is not just restricted to reviewing actual films based on classic literature. Participants are encouraged to write on any angle regarding the topic area e.g comparisons of films based on a particular text, discussion of the textual integrity of films based on classic literature.

2. Duplicates of films will be allowed for review but of course it’s a case of first in, so act fast. Whilst you are welcome to write more than one entry, there will be a limit of three posts per blog.

3. This blogathon does focus on the classic era of Hollywood film – from the silent era to the 1960s. But please don’t let that hold you back, as all entries from all periods will be happily accepted. 

4. All contributions must be new material only. Previously published posts will not be accepted.

5. The blogathon will take place between April 2nd and 4th, 2021. Please submit your entries on either of these days or earlier if you wish. For those of you posting early, just remember that your entry won’t be linked until the event starts.  

6. To express your interest in participating in the blogathon, you can so in the following ways:

 – please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover

 – or you can always register by email at: For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover. 

– contact me through Twitter:

Once you get confirmation, please spread the word about this blogathon by advertising the event on your blog and other social media. Please feel free to use one of these ads to advertise the event.

Looking forward to seeing you in April!

A Christmas Carol (1938): A Classic Christmas Film For All

by Paul Batters

Christmas is one of these. I’ve always looked on Christmas as a good time, a kind, charitable, forgiving, pleasant time. It’s the only time when people open their hearts freely. The only time when men and women seem to realize that all human beings are really members of the same family. And that being members of the same family, they owe each other some measure of warmth and solace‘. Fred (Barry MacKay)

The festive season is one which offers a wonderful array of classic film to enjoy. It has become a staple (at least in our household) to enjoy these films again, as they not only revive the spirit of Christmas but allow us to re-think the year that has passed, give us the chance to reflect on the future and count our blessings in the meantime. Certainly, 2020 has been a year where we have needed hope for the future and needed Christmas to brighten our spirits after such an annus horribilis.

Like other classic film fans, we will also watch It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street and White Christmas. Yet there is one film which warms my heart and tells me that Christmas is truly here – and that is the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol.

The famous Dickens tale has been filmed numerous times and it is one which is powerful in its’ simplicity and can touch anyone who seeks redemption and a chance to change oneself. Directed by Edwin L. Marin and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Christmas Carol is a relatively honest and beautifully produced adaption of the Dickens novella. The miserly, mean-spirited and cynical Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) has long been lost to his avarice and the milk of human kindness also long-soured. The question emerges whether Scrooge is beyond redemption and the earliest encounter with him reveals a man without a hint of sentimentality nor any love for humanity. His treatment not only of his kind and long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) but also his vivacious nephew Fred (Barry Mackay), suggests a man who has rejected all joys and only finds comfort in his ledgers and business affairs. His meanness is evident in his refusal to give to charity as well as his nephew’s invitation to Christmas lunch.

In contrast to Scrooge, his clerk Bob Cratchit is a kind and loving father, whose dedication to his family, particularly his crippled son, Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn) is touching. He will spare them the pain and difficulties of his own employment with Scrooge and even says nothing when he is cruelly fired on Christmas Eve. He still finds joy in the spirit of Christmas and will not let Scrooge’s unkindness ruin his family’s Christmas, recognising the importance of the season.

Scrooge will be tested by the spirits Of Christmas Past, Present and Future, all of whom offer the chance for him to change his ways. Initially, the terrifying visitation of his long-dead business partner Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll) will be the beginning of these proceedings, yet even Scrooge refuses to acknowledge Marley’s ghost. It will take all three ghosts to test Scrooge and make him see the error of his ways.

Whilst not strictly an A-picture when considering the incredible stable of talent at MGM in 1938, it is a testimony to MGM that the production values are all there and it reflects Mayer’s desire to make family films. It is also reflective of the many literary-based productions which were made during the period, avoiding some of the darker and grittier aspects of Dickens’ tales but certainly appealed to a safer, warmer and rose-coloured view of ‘ye olde England’. At any rate, the MGM dream factory offered escapism during a time that was grim enough, with the Depression and the growing concerns emerging with world affairs in the 1930s. The streets of London have the quaint and snow-globe feel and look of a Christmas card, with the children playing in those streets not exactly the starving street-urchins to be found in Dickens’ stories. Visually, it’s a beautiful film, aided by the musical score resplendent with Christmas carols and superb casting, even without drawing on the many stars that MGM had.

A rather portly Gene Lockhart gives a heart-warming performance as Bob, supported by his real-life wife Kathleen Lockhart as Mrs. Cratchit. Look carefully and you’ll see his daughter, a young June Lockhart, playing his daughter on-screen as well. Again, the scenes of the family excited around the Christmas table and happy to be together are beautifully filmed, if not a little syrupy. Terry Kilburn, who in the following year would play his most memorable and famous role in Goodbye Mr. Chips, is also effective as one of Dickens’ most sympathetic characters. Again, the scenes of the Cratchit family at Christmas are designed to evoke the joy of Christmas, as much as offer a powerful counter to the mean-spiritedness of Ebenezer Scrooge. But the scenes with the Cratchits are more than biscuit tin moments. The pain of Bob Cratchit dealing with the loss of his beloved Tiny Tim is heart-rending and delivered with a balance that will not only test Scrooge’s twisted soul but our own consciousness of how precious family is.

The remainder of the cast is testimony to the depth of talent at MGM, even if they are nominally a supporting cast. Barry Mackay is particularly outstanding as Fred, and the sheer joy he brings to the role is as infectious as the Christmas spirit should be. His moments with his fiancée, Bess (Lynne Carver) are sweet and it is impossible not to like him. But there are plenty of other great moments from strong character actors and actresses. Ronald Sinclair does a fine job as the young Scrooge and Forrester Harvey has a wonderful turn as Scrooge’s first employer, Old Fezziwg. Ann Rutherford, famous for the Andy Hardy series and as Scarlett O’Hara’s sister in Gone With The Wind, is an interesting choice as the spirit of Christmas Past. However, Lionel Braham as the spirit of Christmas Present is outstanding casting and true testimony to one of the strengths of the film. Big and boisterous, Braham brings the role alive with his large grin and equally strong glare, admonishing Scrooge with one withering look for his cruelty to the Bob Cratchit. Many have played the spirit of Christmas Past but certainly Braham brings an aplomb to the role which does justice to Dickens.

Of course, the most important casting is that of Reginald Owen as Scrooge. It is well-known that Lionel Barrymore was to play Scrooge but the actor’s crippling arthritis made it impossible. No doubt he would have been outstanding in the role and Owen had huge shoes to fill. Yet Owen is solid, delivering to the screen a short-tempered, cantankerous and callous Scrooge with a blasphemous attitude to Christmas and the whole of humanity. Owen doesn’t hold back and offers a measured performance. Watch as he allows the cracks to appear in Scrooge’s demeanour before reverting to type. Owen allows the character to follow its’ arc, going through the transformation that will unfold.

For many, the 1949 version with Alistair Sim is the definitive version and it is indeed outstanding and achieves a deeper reach in terms of the Dickens’ story and atmosphere. Some of the key elements which detail Scrooge’s descent into cold-hearted cruelty and callousness, such as his fiancée leaving him as a young man are missing. Likewise, the thieves who go through his belongings after Scrooge is ‘dead’ are also missing. As already mentioned, these were omitted to not only trim the film down but to also keep with MGM’s creed of producing ‘family films’. At any rate, the film illustrates the thematic concerns well enough whilst conceptually creating a family film for the Christmas season. MGM were masters at producing such polished films, which would be palatable to all audiences and gentle enough for children to watch. It is a classic example of how the studio system, particularly MGM, worked to produce such films, within a certain formula but with creativity and talent as well.

What the 1938 version offers is a heartful and nostalgic version of the timeless Dickens’ tale. Whilst a little saccharine at times (and admittedly a little too saccharine), A Christmas Carol still works through its’ sentimentality and warmth as a Christmas classic. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else and allows everyone to find the child in themselves, which Christmas gives everyone a chance to do every year. To not seek out our inner child puts us in danger of turning into a Scrooge, which is exactly the point of the tale in the first place. A Christmas Carol, thus becomes a beautiful invitation to allow the Christmas spirit to encompass us all, find the joy in the season and allow some sentimentality to flow through our lives, particularly when we need it most.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.