Hollywood And It’s Long History Of Sexual Abuse

by Paul Batters

‘The ladder of success in Hollywood is usually a press agent, actor, director, producer, leading man; and you are a star if you sleep with each of them in that order. Crude, but true’. Hedy Lamarr

The young actress was only 22 years old, naïve to the world of Hollywood and still a virgin when she first arrived in Tinsel town. Her mother ambitious to a fault dragged her talented daughter to the West Coast to turn her into a success. From the moment she was born, the mother-daughter relationship would always be a difficult one. But being a dutiful daughter, as well as being ambitious, she complied.

The young actress, despite her naivety, had already discovered something terribly unsettling – that the expectation of young actresses was to ‘put out’. 

Not long after her arrival, she was asked to come along for an undefined screen test, with no specific role nor any brief to what the scene was about.  Nevertheless, she complied and turned up for the screen test. Stepping onto the set, all that was present was a chaise lounge.

 The young actress was told to recline on the couch and follow instructions. As she lay there, prone on the ‘casting couch’, a line of actors lay on top of her and went through a scene as the producer and crew looked on. One by one they played out a love scene, passionately kissing her, as she lay there.

One of the actors said to her ‘ Don’t worry, we’ve all had to do it’. By the time the test scene was over, 15 men had lay down on top of her and played out the scene. She remembered feeling ‘less like a woman and more like a mattress’.

The year – 1931.

 The actress?

Bette Davis.

The story has been told many a time and Davis herself often retold the story, sometimes trying to take the sting out of it with some self-effacing humour. Speaking of the actor who told her not to worry, Latin lover Gilbert Roland, Davis claimed that whilst being kissed by him she thought ‘actually this isn’t so bad’.

Bette Davis’ awful experience speaks volumes about the objectification of women in the world of Hollywood. It also outlines the sad reality that the treatment of women in such a way had existed since the earliest days of the film industry. Bette Davis, despite being a little naïve discovered fairly quickly what the expectations were. In fact, only a couple of months before her arrival in Hollywood, she found such expectations were also prevalent in the theatre. In Ed Sikov’s biography of Davis ‘Dark Victory’, he recounts the story when famed director George Cukor would dismiss her from Yellow, the stage production she was working in, because as fellow actor Louis Calhern said ‘she wouldn’t put out’. Not because Cukor, who was gay, wanted her out but because his producer, George Kondoff did. Davis would not give in to his sexual demands.

So how did Bette Davis get past this? She certainly had a will of iron and her battles with Jack Warner are legendary and well documented. She also faced down her humiliations. Not long after the aforementioned ‘screen test’, Davis took part in another Universal screen test for William Wyler’s ‘A House Divided’. Stepping onto the scene, with a low-cut dress, Wyler called out loudly: “What do you think of these dames who show their tits and think they can get jobs?” (Wyler would work with Davis in a few short years time and also engage in a passionate and torrid affair with her). 

DAVIS

Davis would also hear terrible comments from Carl Laemmle Jnr (whose father ran Universal Studios) about her lack of sex appeal and if not for her determination, her iron will, and support from those who saw her talent, her career may never have been founded or would have remained stuck in forgettable pictures. Initially, she struggled with her self-confidence and sense of worth, which wasn’t helped by comments from Laemmles Snr and Jnr, Wyler and many others. James Spada in his biography of Davis ‘More Than A Woman’, tells an interesting story. Prior to the infamous aforementioned screen test, Davis would be confused and disappointed by her first screen test with Universal where they wanted to focus on her ‘gams’. The cinematographer had to explain that ‘gams’ meant her legs. Davis asked what her legs had to do with acting. The response?

“You don’t know much about Hollywood, do you?”

Again, Davis would be mortified as they kept asking her to pull up her skirt to reveal more flesh before the cinematographer saw she was upset and ceased asking her.

But she would not only face such terrible treatment from directors, producers and studio heads but also from fellow actors and actresses, some of which were major stars. Again Spada shares a story that sums up the treatment of women in Hollywood. Some time after she had made a few films, Davis believed she needed to start acting like a film star and was sent by the studio to her first Hollywood soiree. She arrived in a ‘slinky, sophisticated, low-cut evening dress gown that would show these movie people just how sexy Bette Davis could be’.

At the party, Davis would recount her attempts to act and sound like a movie star by smoking and swearing. However, she was pretty much ignored and eventually ended up as a wallflower, wondering what to do. At that point, the dashing and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the recently estranged husband of her future greatest rival, Joan Crawford, approached her. They chatted amiably for a while but before she realized it, Fairbanks slipped his hand inside her dress and fondled one of her breasts, telling her ‘you should use ice on your nipples the way Joan Crawford does’. Mortified, Davis pulled herself away and fled the scene.

Bette Davis would say in later years that to survive Hollywood, you had to be ‘more than a woman’ (hence the title for Spada’s book). A number of actresses have gone on record that Bette Davis was one of the few actresses that didn’t have sex with men (or women) in the industry in order to make it to the top. Indeed, she fought the system for better roles and scripts, and would become one of the greatest actresses of her era.

Yet her story is still very reflective of what went on in the early 1930s, as well as long before and long afterwards.

In the light of actresses and some actors stepping forward today after the terrible revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein and others, the deep, ingrained culture of the abuse and objectification of women has become the centre of discussion. It seems to be the horrifically monotonous and repetitive story, that powerful men – directors, producers, agents and fellow actors – use their power to sexually harass and abuse women, as well as some men. These men are not anomalies but the norm and the system in place protects them, placates them and even rewards them. And they have existed in Hollywood since the first cameras were set up and a director called ‘roll ‘em’.

More and more revelations emerge as time passes, regarding the classic Hollywood. Whilst some may pass as reflective of values and attitudes of the time, such as William Wyler’s comments about Bette Davis, they still announce the ugly and toxic masculinity that has always been present and in some cases the treatment of women as objects has been far worse than a comment.  

Only recently, an old newspaper article surfaced from 1945, featuring Maureen O’Hara, who starred in some of Hollywood’s greatest films including How Green Was My Valley, The Black Swan, Miracle On 34th Street and The Quiet Man. Her comments, made when she was 25, show that the culture of harassment and abuse is nothing new. 

How many others felt this way but said nothing? How many others suffered endless abuse and harassment and remained silent, for all the reasons that actresses today are mentioning as their own reasons for previously staying quiet?  As Maureen O’Hara points out, the reputation she soon received was one of being a ‘cold potato’ and having a puritanical outlook on sex, shaped primarily by her Catholic faith. O’Hara did claim that she did not want to shock her family back in Ireland by dressing provocatively and didn’t ‘look like Lana Turner in a bathing suit’. But again, her responses reflect that her own womanhood came under attack when it did not meet the demands of men in power in Hollywood.

But this culture of male dominance was not restricted to men behind the camera, in the editing booths or behind the desks in studio offices. Some of Hollywood’s most famous actors from the classic Hollywood era are just as complicit, not only from their exploiting of starlets but outright sexual harassment, sexual abuse and even rape. As difficult as it is to accept, some of our favourite stars have been implicated and their long-standing status as legends comes into question.

A perfect example of such complicity is Errol Flynn. Errol Flynn’s reputation as a ‘hell-raiser’ is certainly not a new one nor one that surprises anyone. Engaging in heavy use of alcohol and drugs, Flynn was well renowned for his ‘womanising’ and sexual exploits. I bring attention to the terms ‘hell-raiser’ and ‘womanising’ because they also reveal the culture of male entitlement and power in popular culture. There was, and in many cases still is, a hero worship of such behavior – it’s what ‘men do’, ‘conquering’ women and of course the term ‘womanising’ is suggestive of male prowess and an admirable quality. Errol Flynn’s well-publicised and infamous 1942 arrest for statutory rape of two underage girls saw him acquitted and whilst his career did suffer slightly, his contract with Warner Bros. was not terminated. Indeed, his screen persona was capitalized on by his lawyer and a host of supporters and helped his acquittal.

But was is most telling about Flynn’s reputation and behavior is the long standing euphemism for male sexual success – ‘in like Flynn’. Whatever the origins of the term, it is clear what is being inferred and Errol Flynn loved the term so much, he was going to title his autobiography ‘In Like Me’. Some have suggested that it was the self-effacing, loveable rogue that made the suggestion. Perhaps. However, the term is suggestive of male power and entitlement and becomes a victory call for ‘bedding women’. That’s all well and good – if the sexual objectification of women is a norm for you.  

Another example of this long-standing abuse of power, showing Weinstein and other recently outed abusers are merely part of a long chain going back decades, is that of the former head of Columbia, Harry Cohn. Cohn was the head of Columbia from 1919 till his death in 1958. Cohn was the clichéd studio head – a nasty bully who treated people abysmally. Actresses signed to Columbia were expected to have sex with Cohn when he demanded it and even stars like Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak were not spared his harassment. Seth Abramovitch in an article on Cohn in ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ stated that ‘starlets in the mogul’s orbit were viewed as sexual commodities’.

Tony Curtis told a story in his autobiography regarding Cohn which also illustrates the power that the man had. Once when Curtis was meeting with Cohn, a young starlet entered the office, wanting to speak with Cohn. Curtis got up to leave but Cohn insisted the young lady speak openly. Nervously, she prodded Cohn for commitment to his promises or she would call his wife. Cohn without a blink of an eye, picked up the phone and said “Call her”. The starlet, confused and totally disarmed after playing her ace, left the office upset and defeated.

Famed head of 20th Century Fox, Daryl Zanuck, also took advantage of his power and was unavailable each day between 4.00pm and 4.30pm, as he was ‘in conference’.  The powerful MGM head Louis B Mayer controlled the lives of contracted stars by destroying or encouraging marriages and even forcing abortions. Actresses such as Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Judy Garland allegedly were forced to have abortions for the sake of their careers. One of Judy Garland’s biographers, Gerald Clarke, has alleged that the MGM mogul also sexually abused Garland during meetings with her. Thelma Adams in Variety points out that Mayer would threaten to destroy careers and hurt their families as well, if women did not comply. 

Both Cohn and Zanuck are often cited as the ‘creators’ of the ‘casting couch’. But the truth is the practice had always been around.

Actors, too, have been perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment. Fredric March had a horrendous reputation for groping actresses on the set and although some such as Sylvia Sydney waved aside his commenting about her breasts and body as ‘playful banter’, others such as Claudette Colbert complained about his groping and warned fellow actresses about his overt advances. Charlie Chaplin had a penchant for very young actresses and starlets, disturbingly stepping into the realm of under age relationships. Bob Hope was notorious for using his power to manipulate young starlets and actresses into sex.

One of the most disturbing stories emerged in 2015, regarding the ‘love child’ that Loretta Young had with the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable. For years the story was one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets. However, in 2015, the story emerged that Gable had raped Young in 1935, with Young finally revealing her story before she died to her son Chris and his wife.

gable

Anne Helen Petersen in her 2015 article in Buzzfeed raises an important point: Young, like so many from her generation, conceived of her role in “the game of sexes” as “the guy tries to get what he wants; the woman’s job is to fight him off.” The inability to fend off Gable’s advances constituted a failure on her part — not Gable’s. She spent the rest of her life trying to compensate for that failure, believing that the guilt was hers and hers alone.

I would add to this, that the feelings of failure and shame amongst victims are just as prevalent today.

Perhaps one of the most famed stars that endured the casting couch was Marilyn Monroe, admitting that she slept with producers to get ahead in the business. Although she dismissed doing so as ‘no big deal’, Monroe would exclaim after signing a huge contract in 1955 “I’ll never have to suck another **** again’.

It certainly echoes Hedy Lamarr’s earlier quote.

The terrible sadness is that the names in these stories could be interchanged with names in entertainment today.  More stories will emerge which will disgust us and the names that come with those stories will shock us. For decades, men especially have been protected in Hollywood not only through their own personal wealth, power and entitlement but because toxic masculinity and misogyny permeates through society.

We are living in an age where an American Presidential candidate, who openly displays misogynistic views and even admits sexual abuse, still gets elected – and continues with that misogyny and language of hate against women. It’s a sad indictment of where we are at in the 21st century and it remains to be seen if the Hollywood swamp of abuse will finally be drained. However, by seeing how far the problem goes back, it may mean that there is real change for the future. It means that it needs to be confronted today.

So when a 22 year-old woman with great talent arrives in Hollywood, she will only need to focus on the quality of her work.

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

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Food Means Murder: Symbolism Of Food in ‘The Godfather’ (1972)

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by Paul Batters

“Thank you for the dinner and a very pleasant evening. If your car could take me to the airport. Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately”. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) 

Food plays a central role in societies and cultures across the world. It has powerful, symbolic meaning, as well as being a necessity of life. Whatever meaning food has will be shaped by the significance we attach to it. The gathering of people to share in a feast or a meal has been engaged in since time immemorial, often acting as ritual for a vast array of reasons from religious to celebratory to turning points in one’s life. The central ritual in many celebrations will be the sitting down to eat a prepared meal. It becomes intimate, accepting and enhances the connection between friendship and family.

How many wonderful moments have there been in film, where food has played this role – be it families gathering for Christmas lunch or Thanksgiving dinner, feasts in banquet halls or a romantic dinner. As an audience, these moments evoke vivid memories, which find themselves deeply imbedded in the experience of sharing food, from everyday moments to special events. But food in film can symbolise darker elements as well.

And the symbolism of food in Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather, certainly boasts that achievement. As Vasna Jagarnath states in the Nov 23, 2013 edition of ‘The Con’, ‘food is used to comfort a friend, to welcome a child, to evoke memories and announce death’.

The significance of food in The Godfather is often overlooked and understated. David Sutton and Peter Wogan in Hollywood Blockbusters (2009) make the point that in The Godfather, food symbolises identity, honour, family and accomplishment. For the Corleone family, these are important values that shape who they are and thus need to be adhered to. But as we will see, food in The Godfather also signifies dark omens and even death.

The film opens with the wedding of the daughter of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando); a celebration held with all the Sicilian traditions, which means good food, music and shared joy. As Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) points out to his wife, no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day. As a result, Nazorine the baker asks the Don for help, marking an exchange that defines their relationship, with the baker providing a towering wedding cake for the couple gratis. When singer and godson to Don Vito, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) seeks help, Don Vito uncharacteristically gets angry and yells at him to ‘act like a man’, later adding when his anger subsides that only a ‘family man’ can call himself a ‘real man’. After all, a family man provides and puts food on the table. He then embraces him stating ‘I want you to eat’, indicating that home-cooked food will ease his troubles – the food symbolising love and closeness of family. Other references to food speak volumes. Michael (Al Pacino) asks his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) if she likes her lasagne, indicating that true enjoyment of the wedding is focused on how good the food is. Tessio (Abe Vigoda), one of the Don’s top men, juggles an orange whilst sitting at his table – an ominous sign of what is to come for him.

We also see the act of sitting down to eat as a time when business is done. When Tom Hagen goes to see studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) to discuss Johnny Fontane’s career, he is invited to Woltz’s home, where they sit at a large table set for a sumptuous meal. Sitting at opposite ends of the table, also symbolises the deep divide between the worlds of these two men. Woltz loses his temper, telling Hagen to ‘get the hell out of there’ showing little of the supposed intelligence and control that a powerful man in business is supposed to possess. Maintaining his composure, Tom Hagen thanks Woltz for the nice dinner and leaves, without making any threats. The intimacy of sitting together to eat and the trust in sharing food as a sign of friendship becomes severely broken. Jack Woltz will later discover the extent of the Corleone family’s power in one of the most infamous scenes in cinema history.

As Sutton and Wogan point out, the way business is done in the world of La Cosa Nostra and indeed in the wider world is one of a ‘gift economy’. Whether its’ a deal over union control, a contract in the world of entertainment or a corporate meeting, there is an exchange which means goodwill, trust, agreement and decision-making. The raising of glasses and sharing of drinks is also symbolic of this exchange.

Food as a marker or announcement of death is prevalent in the film. The presence of oranges as harbingers specifically has been oft spoken about; despite the film’s production designer Dean Tavoularis stating that there is no symbolic meaning to the presence of oranges. Tavoularis is on record as saying that in a film with darker tones and sombre sets, oranges provided a nice contrast in colour and work well against the lighting. But you can judge for yourself. During the Woltz – Hagen meeting, there are oranges on the table close to Woltz. When Don Vito is shot at the start of the film, he is purchasing oranges on the street, which will then spill out across the road as he stumbles towards his car, whilst catching bullets from the hitmen. During the big meeting with the Five Bosses, oranges are carefully placed near the two Dons, Tattaglia and Barzini, who have plotted against the Corleone Family and will face a violent ending. And as already mentioned Tessio, the trusted caporegime, is seen during the wedding scene, sitting at a table picking an orange from a bowl.

Later in the film, the death of Don Vito, while not violent will see him with an orange. Now retired and growing tomatoes in his garden, he plays with his grandson, and starts cutting an orange. Using the rind, he places it in his mouth and starts making faces, which for a moment scares his grandson. Not long after, as the two play, chasing each other amongst the tomato plants, Don Vito suffers a massive heart attack and dies. It is a poignant and powerfully symbolic scene – the tomatoes representing both richness and the old country, with a powerful man leaving behind his previous life and returning to his peasant roots. Yet as Jagarnath also suggests, the old Don growing tomatoes is symbolic of his preparing for the future, assuring his family will have plenty for the future after he has gone. The presence of his grandson also is indicative of those future generations which he is caring for, further exemplified by their playing amongst the tomato plants. Incidentally, Marlon Brando improvised the whole scene. The trick with the orange was one he had used with his own children and he also encouraged the boy playing his grandson to run through the tomato plants. To Coppola’s credit, he let Brando do his thing and captured a wonderful moment on film.

Additionally, the method by which the Corleone Family receives the news that their greatest weapon, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) has been murdered also provided the film with one of popular culture’s greatest lines. A package arrives with Luca’s body armour and inside some fresh fish. The ‘Sicilian message’ is clear as well as chilling and haunting that ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes’.

One of the most celebrated scenes in the film involves the hit on turncoat soldier Paulie Gatto. It is a scene which perfectly depicts the typical Mob hit, at least in terms of attitude. Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano) arranges the hit, with Rocco Lampone pulling the trigger and ‘making his bones’. The lead up shows the usual approach – lulling the victim into a sense of assurance, acting casual and then finally committing the act. Paulie’s bloodied face stares lifeless as it lays on the steering wheel and Clemenza utters perhaps the second most famous line in the film; ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’. The classic Sicilian sweet holds more importance than a man’s life but more importantly it becomes a device to show the cold, business-like approach that Mafia takes when dealing with problems. It is a chilling and memorable scene.

The reporting of Paulie’s demise occurs during a moment when the jovial Clemenza teases Michael Corleone about a phone-call from Kay. It is then that he invites Michael to the stove to show him how to cook spaghetti sauce. It’s a warm and close moment, as a group of men sit behind Clemenza in the kitchen eating. Yet a moment later, Sonny (James Caan) the acting boss walks in and asks Clemenza about Paulie, to which Clemenza nonchalantly replies ‘Oh Paulie, we won’t see him no more”. Despite being murderers and dangerous men, the scene also shows Clemenza, and by extension Don Vito, as being nurturers and providers, looking after their families and those who are close to them. They do so through the traditional food which they provide; prepared with care and love, and coming from old recipes from their homeland. In Harlan Lebo’s outstanding book ‘The Godfather Legacy’ (2005), Coppola has stated that he added the scene to give everyone a ‘great tomato sauce’. It is one of those touches the great directors added, to give the film greater authenticity and cultural identity. Similar touches can be found elsewhere in the film. During a meeting between Don Vito, his eldest boy Sonny (James Caan) and Tom Hagen, a bottle of home made anisette, made by Coppola himself from his father’s recipe, sits on a table near Don Vito. Whilst the Corleone men sit around planning murder, they sit around eating Chinese food – evoking a personal memory for Coppola because his ‘father liked Chinese food’. It may not connect for the audience as authentic, but the fact that it does for the director does make the scene authentic to his sensibilities and his shaping of the film’s ‘bigger picture’.

Perhaps the most important scene in the movie is the killing of Virgil Sollozzo (Al Letierri) and Sgt. McClusky (Sterling Hayden) by Michael Corleone. The symbolism of food and dining in this scene is layered with complexities. Earlier during the planning, Sonny announces that the meeting place is Louie’s Restaurant, The Bronx. Immediately, Tessio approves the choice for its’ good food and the implication that Michael will meet with Sollozzo and McClusky is that they will eat together as they speak. Again, the sharing of food also implies trust but in this case it will mark death. In the restaurant, Sollozzo echoes Tessio’s earlier approval telling McClusky to ‘try the veal, it’s the best in the city’. As Sollozzo and Michael speak, his mind turns over what is to come. When the moment arrives, despite all the audience’s prior knowledge, we are shocked at the suddenness and the intimate explicitness of that moment. There is an almost comic moment where McClusky, fork filled with veal mid-air, cops a bullet in the throat and then the head, before pitching forward and upsetting the table. The significance of this moment cannot be understated – Michael had declared throughout his life that he never wanted any part of his father’s business. His committing murder is a betrayal of himself. Regardless of what has unfolded, Michael is now forever set on a path he can never turn around, no matter what he tries. The upturned table represents the life of Michael Corleone and the family also upturned, with further problems to come.

Upturned tables also feature in the sad marriage of Connie (Talia Shire) to Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). Beating her regularly and treating her terribly, Connie tries to be the dutiful wife. As a ‘good wife’ in the Sicilian tradition, she cooks in the same way her mother does, setting the table and telling her ingrate husband that dinner is on the table. For Connie, the set table with cooked dinner represents her understanding of a home and stability, fulfilling her duties as a wife. Carlo’s indifference as he gets ready to go out and meet his mistress, will then follow into one of the film’s most disturbing and ugliest scenes, as Connie loses her composure and begins to ruin the set table. The domesticity of the home breaks into unfettered violence, as Carlo begins to beat his pregnant wife. The normal promise of food on the table symbolising a loving home has been broken for Connie and adds further tragedy to the story of the Corleone Family.

The Godfather was never a ‘gangster film’ nor is it a crime drama. Its’ endurance is that it is a film about a family who happen to be in the Mafia. Brando also believed that the film was the representation of the American Dream and capitalism at its’ very core. The Corleone Family may be gangsters but they are still a family shaped by Sicilian traditions in place for generations. Food is a key tradition because it brings family together and becomes the link between those generations.  Coppola would use food extensively in the next two films to convey the same values, traditions and messages. (If you don’t believe me, take a good look!) That other great TV drama about a family in the Mafia, The Sopranos, certainly sees the values embedded in food. And we as the audience cannot help but see it, too, if we look hard enough. 

This article was featured in the ‘Food In Film’ Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings https://silverscreenings.org/2017/11/06/foodinfilm-blogathon-aperitif/ and Speakeasy https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/announcing-the-food-in-film-blogathon/

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 Top Five Great Performances Of Bela Lugosi

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by Paul Batters

‘To die, to be really dead…that must be glorious’ Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931)

Halloween is upon us! And without a doubt, film fans are finalising their viewing lists for the evening. I’m always interested in the carefully chosen lists of film buffs – lists that often stay thematic (or within a sub-genre) or offer a smorgasbord of horror delights or are even look quite eclectic.

For fans of classic film, the horror genre is rich with great films to enjoy, particularly during Halloween. And of course there are countless B-features and horror schlock quickies that are guilty pleasures, as well as the great classic films that broke ground and established two of horror’s greatest stars in the early 1930s – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Of these two, Karloff’s career was perhaps the more successful and long lasting. While typecast in the horror genre, Karloff was able to eventually embrace it. Lugosi was not so fortunate and perhaps did not manage his career as well as Karloff did. Despite starring in some successful film, Lugosi would sadly find a career relegated to Poverty Row films, which would dwindle in his final years to films remembered for the wrong reasons.

Despite Lugosi’s less than glamorous final years, he is immortal amongst classic horror film fans. Yes there may have been some clunkers in which he starred but Lugosi alone often pulled the film out of the doldrums simply due to his presence.

So when considering your Halloween viewing lists, consider the following performances, which I feel are his best.

Just for the record, the aim here is not to critique the films per se but Lugosi’s performances. Even a bad film can have an interesting and/or fantastic performance.

  1. Murder Legendre – White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie was an independent production by the Halperin brothers, which was not kindly received by critics at the time. Despite harsh criticism of the film’s ‘woeful acting’, most critics were positive about Lugosi’s performance and it is still the best thing about White Zombie. Since its’ initial release, it has seen in a different light and revived to some degree. At best, White Zombie is interesting with its’ creepy atmosphere and strange storyline. If it has any life in it, it’s due to the Bela Lugosi’s commanding charisma.

Looking Satanic in his goatee, with wild eyes and imposing stature, Lugosi plays the master of his domain to the hilt. The camera attempts to exploit Lugosi’s hand gestures, emphasising the use of his power over others with close-ups. Lugosi’s voice is also commanding, delivering with intimidation as his eyes burn into those upon whom he fixes his gaze. Sean Axmaker in his Jan. 2013 review of the Kino Blu-ray release of White Zombie for Parallax View makes the following observation of Lugosi:

‘…a languorous hypnotist and voodoo master who dominates the film with his assured bearing and cruel control. Not just menacing, he is ferociously vindictive, supplying the local mills with an army of zombie laborers and turning his enemies into his personal zombie servants…’

The fact that Kino has gone to the trouble of releasing a Blu-ray version of White Zombie is testament to its’ lasting success as a cult film and the fact that it still stands as one of Lugosi’s best performances.

  1. Armand Tesla – The Return Of The Vampire (1943)

 Directed by Lew Landers and released by Columbia Pictures, The Return Of The Vampire was made during a period where Columbia dabbled in a number of supernatural/horror releases. Most critics make it clear that Lugosi is obviously playing Dracula but for legal reasons (namely Universal owning the rights) the character was re-named Armand Tesla.

The Return Of The Vampire feels stranded between an A and B-feature and it is the last time Lugosi would work in such a quality picture for a major studio, not counting his last turn as Dracula for Universal in 1948’s comedy/horror Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. The plot, set in London, tells of Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), who is being pursued by a vampire named Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi). After wreaking havoc on her household, he is eventually pursued and a stake driven into his heart by Lady Jane and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery). However, during World War Two, the cemetery is disturbed by air raids and gravediggers who have been ordered to re-bury the disturbed bodies find Tesla’s body and remove the stake. Tesla is revived and aided by his werewolf servant Andreas (Matt Willis), seeks out Lady Jane and the daughter of Saunders, Nikki (Nina Foch).

Despite a fairly run of the mill vampire story and, I feel, some unfair criticism, the film has some effective scenes and fairly solid production value. True, Tesla is no Dracula but Lugosi is forever the effective vampire and convincing in the role. Lugosi presents a vampire hell-bent on survival, impatient and raw in emotion, unlike the smooth, measured count of his greatest role. Better dialogue is found wanting but Lugosi makes the most with what he has and gives a strong performance.

Lugosi had always hoped for a follow-up to Dracula. There was disappointment for him with Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and though he played his famous role in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Lugosi’s best days were behind him. The Return Of The Vampire was the closest he was ever going to get to a follow-up.

The final scene showing Tesla’s final demise exhibits some gruesome horror, befitting the last starring role, which Lugosi would hold for a top line studio.

  1. Dr. Vitus Werdegast – The Black Cat (1934)

When Karloff and Lugosi became stars in the early 1930s, it made sense that Universal would cash in on their success and bring the two stars together. In total, Karloff and Lugosi would work together in seven films. However, the first film they made stands as their best. Both would later add that the film stands as a personal favourite for each man.

The Black Cat (1934) is a masterpiece of the macabre. As a piece of dark poetry, it delves into the realm of perversion far more than the cornerstones of the Universal horror cycle ever did. It descends down a long staircase into the bowels of the bizarre, further darkened by themes which would not be tampered with again for many years in cinema, such as Satanism, torture, human sacrifice and necrophilia (just to name a few).

True, the film has some plot holes an ocean liner could sail through and many critics have stated how little the film resembles Edgar Allen Poe’s original story, despite the advertising using Poe’s name in promotions. But don’t let that distract you. The incredible art deco set alone is an attention-grabber and director Edgar G Ulmer creates an eerie and trance-like atmosphere, in which the young honeymooning couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) find themselves entangled. But they become a plot device for the duel between archenemies Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), meeting again after 15 years.

Werdegast (Lugosi) is ostensibly the hero of the film, returning to seek revenge on the diabolical Poelzig (Karloff) for his terrible crimes of the past. What follows becomes a game of chess where the two pit their wits against each other, with a horrific climax to the duel that still shocks today.

Lugosi is commanding, showing the perfect balance between restraint and zeal as the revenge-seeking doctor. His channelling of Wedegast’s inner torment is well balanced by his ability to gain our sympathy, whilst his rage bubbles underneath. His first moments in the film are impressive, as Lugosi carries himself with class and charm as he meets the young couple. Early in the film, Wedegast says little in terms of his experiences as a former P.O.W but the weighting that Lugosi carefully places on each word combined with his anguished eyes is enough for the audience to understand what horrors he has survived. Not long afterwards, as the young couple and Wedegast travel on the bus from the station, the driver tells the story of the place they are heading to:

‘All of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. And that high hill yonder where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on its very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world!’

As the driver tells his story, Wedegast re-lives the horror of war and the personal tragedies faced, which Lugosi expresses by simply closing his eyes. Wedegast is a man who has suffered terribly and Lugosi brilliantly conveys that anguish, particularly in the final scenes of the film, where his rage bursts through and the time for masks is over. His glee is unconfined and Lugosi holds nothing back. Whilst there are moments that are disturbing, such as his caressing of Jane as she sleeps and of course the film’s climax, the audience cannot help but feel for Wedegast and the horrors he has endured.

Lugosi’s performance was in need of some tempering by Ulmer. Indeed, the moments when Lugosi encounters the black cat are hammy. According to Bret Wood in his review on TCM:

Ulmer cleverly moderated Lugosi’s performance by limiting his screen time, focusing more on reaction shots of other characters. “You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously,” Ulmer said, “to cut him down.”

I would add that if that is the case, it speaks more for Lugosi who gave Ulmer plenty to work with.

  1. Ygor – Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Son Of Frankenstein (1939) was the last time Karloff would take on the role of the Monster and whilst an interesting and still entertaining film, it does not have the quality of the prior two and pales in comparison to James Whale’s 1935 classic The Bride Of Frankenstein. Whilst there is no doubt of its’ A-film status, there are hints of the B-films to come in the early 1940s, particularly evident in moments which show the Monster as a mindless brute following Ygor’s orders.

But for all intents and purposes, it’s a valued member of the original Frankenstein trilogy. The premise is simple enough. Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of Henry Frankenstein returns to his ancestral home with his wife and son and finds the village haunted by the past and still living in fear. The Baron, also a scientist, seeks to rehabilitate his father’s memory and prove his father was correct. Exploring the castle, he discovers the evil Ygor who leads him to the Monster’s body, in a coma in the family crypt. The Baron is ecstatic but as his father before him discovered, things will not go well!

Other than his most iconic role, Lugosi as Ygor is perhaps his best. Lugosi is creepy and unsettling in his portrayal of the demented blacksmith who has survived a hanging. Our first encounter with him eerily playing his flute and then re-telling the story of his escaped execution is thoroughly memorable and off-putting. The audience’s lack of trust in Ygor is confirmed when we finally see his intentions in bringing the Monster back.

Ygor’s plan is to take revenge on those who sentenced him to death by hanging. As demented as Ygor is, he is not foolish enough to execute his plan without careful planning. He bides his time and finds the perfect tool in the Monster. In one particular scene, inflected with a touch of humour, Ygor fakes a coughing fit in order to spit in the eye of one of his accusers. It is an ominous moment, as he will enact revenge on the same man in a far more horrific way.

It is no wonder that Ygor and the Monster form a connection. Both are outcasts and like the Monster, Ygor has cheated death and hates the people of the village. Lugosi’s hideous smile barely hides his evil intentions, leaving the audience feeling uncomfortable. For all the charges made about Lugosi’s heavy accent and lack of versatility, here he uses his voice exceptionally well. Harsh, gruff and menacing in tone, Lugosi makes Ygor a fuller and meatier villain in great part due to the effective use of his voice.

Son Of Frankenstein is a high point in Lugosi’s career and arguably he would never again have such a strong role in an A-film production. J. Hoberman in the Village Voice makes the valid claim that Lugosi ‘steals the movie in his last really juicy role’.

  1. Title Role – Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931) is the film that truly started it all. Not only would it make Lugosi a star but it would also begin the classic horror cycle and take audiences into the world of the supernatural.

Today, Dracula feels dated and even stagey, due to its’ script being based on the stage version, as well as the clunky directing by Tod Browning. The oft-repeated criticism is that it is crying out for a soundtrack and is often stilted. The climax of the film is particularly disappointing and Browning blew a great opportunity for an exciting finish.

The cast has its’ strengths. Edward Van Sloan projects authority and wisdom as the brilliant Dr Van Helsing and I would challenge anyone to find a more disturbing Renfield than the one created here by Dwight Frye, who is exceptional and haunting as the deranged slave to the vampire.

But the true strength of the film is none other than Bela Lugosi. He is supreme with authority as the commanding vampire and uses his gaze to full effect. The supposed weaknesses of his voice are at full advantage when he speaks, with the deliberation and control of one who need not rush for anyone.

The first scenes of the film are amongst its’ best. From the first appearance of Dracula himself in the decrepit bowels of his castle, as he emerges from his coffin along with his vampire wives, the audience is transported into a dark fairy tale where time seems immaterial. When Renfield arrives, he is met by the aristocratic count descending the broken staircase and speaking the cinematically immortal words, ‘I am Dracula…I bid you welcome’. Measuring Renfield carefully like a ‘spider spinning his web for the unwary fly’, Lugosi exudes menace and power as speaks of the ‘children of the night’. Every phrase spoken by Lugosi is just as measured and though he speaks seldom, Lugosi does so with purpose and he is arresting at every word.

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The film starts to slide away when the setting steps into modern London but Lugosi still dominates and his commanding presence is fitting as a count who has lived through the ages. His psychological dual with Van Helsing still impresses and whilst his seduction of his victims is assuaged to some degree, Lugosi still brings controlled energy to each scene.

The love/hate relationship with the character would remain for Lugosi throughout his life. It would typecast him and yet it gave Lugosi his fame. It launched yet also destroy his career, although Lugosi’s choice of roles would certainly play its’ role in impacting on his career.

As wonderful as Christopher Lee and others have been in playing the infamous vampire, they are always measured against the still-haunting and mesmerising performance of Bela Lugosi.

There are quite a number of B-films, serials and even worse that Lugosi made for Poverty Row studios and independent producers. Many of them lack the production value that Lugosi was more deserving of and in some cases the films are outright terrible. Yet many of them still entertain and deserve a little more respect than what is often afforded them. In all the productions Bela Lugosi was involved with, he was the consummate professional. Most of all, he was the first true horror star, sparking off the classic horror cycle and remaining long after his passing as the Dark Prince haunting the broken battlements of his castle.

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

John Ford’s ‘How Green Was My Valley’ – A Thematic Review

By Paul Batters

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‘Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still – real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then’.

One of Hollywood’s greatest directors, John Ford, famously described himself as a director ‘who makes westerns’. Indeed, Ford raised the bar regarding the quality of the western – taking it beyond the long established standard, as evidenced in films such as Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and Fort Apache. Ford possessed the reputation of a tough, hard-drinking Irishman yet he directed three sensitive, powerful and iconic films, which remain exemplars in the pantheon of classic film; The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), The Quiet Man (1945) and the focus of this article How Green Was My Valley (1941).

How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a story told in retrospect of a Welsh family of coal-miners, impacted upon by the changes that come to their village, as well as the challenges of life – both of which they have little control over. The power of the film lies in its’ central themes, which are universal to all families and the individuals within the family unit.

Let us look deeper into the themes and messages of the film.

For me, the theme that reaches deepest is the power of memory. It is at the very beginning of the film and at its’ bittersweet ending – and of course permeates the very essence of the story. Indeed, the story is told as the narrator, Huw Morgan, is about to leave the village he so dearly loves. As he is about to leave, he retells his story and the visual imprint of the impoverished and dying village of the present evaporates into the green and beautiful village of the narrator’s past. The village-scape, his family and the people of the village come alive, accentuated with the beautiful musical score by Alfred Newman. It is a dream-like moment, where as Huw points out, he remembers his home before the grey sludge of the mines took over the valley. What remains is the durability of memory and at the end of the film, he says of his home “it’s still there”; alive in his mind and heart and the sounds of his brothers singing, the love of his family and the moments and lessons of his life which cannot be erased.

The adult Huw (Irving Pichel) narrates the story but we as the audience experience the tale through Huw as a young boy (Roddy McDowall) and the landmark moments in his life. Indeed, two voices of the same person speak and memory brings back the voice of the child. It is through the child’s eyes that the story comes alive. What we eventually realize as audience is that whilst a child can be quite invisible to the adults around him or her, what they see and remember can be quite vivid and their perceptions are quite strong, even if they don’t have the full capacity to articulate those perceptions at that time.

One of the most touching moments reflecting this is evident during a difficult turning point for the family, when three of Huw’s brothers refuse to bow to their father’s authority. Differing over how the workers in the mine should address their concerns, the family at the dinner table becomes torn and the brothers leave the house. The father, Gwilym (Donald Crisp) sits alone at the table, resigned to the fate of his family, with Huw at the other end, sitting silently. Not wanting to feel invisible, Hugh clanks his knife and fork against his plate and then coughs, trying to get his father’s attention. Without looking up, the father responds, “Yes my son, I know you are there”.

Obviously, family is a central theme, as the film focuses on the story of the Morgan family. The tight-knit Morgan household is a place where great love is shown. The nature of rite and ritual is also important in establishing family norms and structure, as shown by the men’s daily routine of washing the coal dust from their bodies and how the family sits together at the table. Huw’s father, Gwilym, is a solid and hard-working, sitting at the head of the table and leading the family in prayer. His mother, Beth (Sara Allgood), is kind, loving and also strong in character, moving around the table to much sure that her family is looked after and always being ‘the last to start her dinner and the first to finish’. Family roles are clear and obviously paternalistic in the context of 19th century Wales, where Huw reminisces ‘whilst my father was the head of the family, my mother was its’ heart’.

But despite the closeness of family and clarity of role and position, turmoil results when outside forces question the values and norms of the household. What will befall the Morgans, befalls every family – the divisions which can split a family through religion, politics and the questioning of authority in the household. The normal and natural challenging of parental authority must eventuate, as does the child becoming an adult and developing their own ideas and feelings. The family becomes divided as industrial turmoil hits the mine and threats of striking and the forming of a union for the mine-workers, splits the class-conscious brothers from their conservative and too-trusting father. Whilst there will be a settlement of sorts and the love of the family will endure, it cannot completely withstand the harsh economic realities and Huw’s older brothers will move on elsewhere. Three of the sons will move to America, which in those times meant that they would never see their family again – a reality that their father, Gwilym, sadly recognizes when announcing the send-off he’s planning.

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On a larger scale the change in the family structure reveals the inevitability of change in the greater world, whether we want to face it or not. The impacts of change in the film are shown as negative – loss of community and the values that held it together, the division of family, the change that the mine brings to the village and the impacts that greater change outside the village brings to the community. The ‘hero’ of the film, the new pastor Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), tries to bring positive change to the community but eventually feels defeated, broken by the hypocrisy of his church, the ugliness that has crept into the community and the love which he can never hope to realize for Huw’s sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara). The physical change, which occurs to the village from green valley to slag heap becomes an allegory for the change in the community. Huw feels this deeply and clarifies this feeling when he narrates the story. The change is irreversible and Hugh knows this, seeing that his village will never be the same and of course neither will he.

Yet there are lessons learned from the struggles, which also provide a new light and opportunity for growth in Huw. The fight against injustice becomes an important theme in the film and Huw not only watches the battle against exploitation and poverty by the miners but the fight that the pastor undertakes as well. He fights against ignorance and gossip and stands with the miners in their fight as well. Huw sees the Christ-model alive and bright in the pastor’s mission, particularly when he stands against the deacons in his church. Encouraging the miners to form a union, he is accused of stepping outside his ministry, to which he responds ‘my mission is to fight whatever stands between man and God’. His final speech to the community is perhaps one of film’s finest, railing against those whose faith is founded in the fear of God but not the love of Jesus. The hypocrisy of religion and its’ failings as human institution meant to provide comfort, as Angharad points out, is accentuated by the pastor’s very real Christianity. As Mr. Gruffydd is about to leave, he looks at Hugh who looks back with great sorrow. But Huw’s steps to fighting injustice begin that moment, when he follows the pastor out of the church, ignoring the call of the deacons to remain.

As the audience we watch Huw growing up and facing the obstacles, difficulties and joys that come with the process. It is an obvious theme yet a very universal one. Whilst we see the narrator as a boy, we also experience his witnessing of the change in his family and his village and community. Just as importantly, we also experience how growing up impacts on him. Huw must at some point leave he safety of his family, when he begins school and must deal with not only a bully in the classroom but the harsh cruelty of his teacher. The beatings from the bully and the teacher reflect the harshness of life and whilst his older and stronger brothers could easily solve these problems, Huw shows fortitude and growth when he says he must deal with it himself. To his mother’s horror, Huw’s father arranges for him to learn to box and eventually the school bully is dealt with. The violence of youth is shown to be inescapable and a reality that needs to be faced – with violence.

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Ford also focuses on the importance of strong role models, evident in the shape of Huw’s father Gwilym and particularly Mr. Gruffydd the pastor who, despite being an important figure in the village, will be sacrificed by the community to their bigotry and small-mindedness. Both are principled men, strong in their convictions and honorable in their intentions. Yet despite their great strength of character, both have serious flaws in terms of their trust of others and their naivety. Gwilym states that owners of the mine are not ‘savages’ and that they are ‘men like us’, initially blind to the exploitation and poor treatment of the miners. He, himself, will be treated badly by the management of the mine and the village community will turn on him as well, despite Gwilym ’s hand of friendship perennially extended to all. Mr Gruffyd will himself see the folly of his failings, even sharing them with Huw, whose eyes are filled with tears:

‘Huw, I thought when I was a young man that I would conquer the world with truth. I thought I would lead an army greater than Alexander ever dreamed of, not to conquer nations, but to liberate mankind. With truth. With the golden sound of the Word. But only a few of them heard. Only a few of you understood’.

Huw sees these flaws in both men, even as a boy, which heightens the tragedy and deepens the love that he holds for both men, in spite of their naivety. Yet there is also a harsh reality, which Hugh discovers as a boy, which is also part of the reality of life and a painful lesson in growing up –we lose those we love. Huw will see Mr. Gruffydd leave his village and see his father die in a mining disaster. As a child, Huw discovers the true cost of loss and thus his innocence will be lost as well.

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But not only does Huw have strong role models in the form of men. There are strong women as well, particularly in the form of his mother, Beth, delivered via a stirring performance by Sara Allgood (which would win her a Best Supporting Actress Nomination at the Oscars). She loves her husband but is not afraid to give him a piece of her mind and speaks with dignity and strength. At one of the turning points in the film, most of the men have turned on Gwilym for not supporting their strike, despite his own sons being involved with the miners’ union. One cold, blustery night as the strikers meet, Beth tells Huw to take her to the meeting, to which a shocked Huw responds that it’s no place for a woman. But Beth is unfettered and with firmness states that ‘there’s a place there for this woman!’ Her speech to the gathered men is fiercer than the snow storm howling around their heads, as she rains down scorn upon them:

‘You are a lot of cowards to go against him. He has done nothing against you and he never has and you know it well. How some of you, you smug-faced hypocrites, can sit in the same Chapel with him I cannot tell’.

But Beth Morgan is far from done:

‘There’s one thing more I’ve got to say and it is this. If harm comes to my Gwilym, I will find out the men and I will kill them with my two hands. And this I will swear by God Almighty’.

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It is doubtful that any man at that meeting would test Beth Morgan on her word. 

The power of love and the joy and pain it brings to one’s life spans Huw’s experience in the film. At first, the love of family is clear and uncompromised, with closeness between parents and their children and between the siblings. With each crises faced by the family, love ultimately holds them together and even when there are fractures in the family, the bonds of love also protect them. The family split during the workers’ dispute sees the sons initially defy their father and leave the house. But they will later return, not out of fear for their father but out of love for the family. Huw will recount the pain the family endures when the eldest brother is killed and three of his other brothers leave to seek their fortunes in America. Love has its’ price, which Huw will learn in the most difficult way.

As the film progresses, the experience of ‘first love’ arrives for Huw when he remembers falling for his eldest brother’s fiancée. Of course, this first love is one of innocence and impossibility but it foreshadows one of the greatest tragedies also examined, the terrible pain of love unrealized and the realities of life preventing true love from being founded. The mutual and deep love held between his sister Angharad and the pastor Mr Griffin, will see further turmoil for Huw’s family but most of all for the aforementioned two. As much as Mr. Gruffydd loves Antharrad, ne makes it clear that the reality for them would be poverty and economic difficulty, stating that he could not bear seeing her hair go grey before its’ time. In the end, she will marry the snobbish son of the mine-owner, which will mean economic stability but a cold and dead marriage, devoid of true love. Angharad becomes a prisoner in a gilded cage and Mr. Gruffydd is ‘not the same’. The family servant spreads gossip and rumor which will end in infecting the village ‘like the black slag’ from the mine spreading through the hearts and minds of the village folk. It will takes its’ toll on Huw’s family.

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But Mr. Gruffydd does not take this so easily and rains on the heads of the congregation his fury at their malicious gossip, their black hearts and hypocrisy. It is the final battle in his futile war against ignorance and as he points out, the desire to bring the ‘love of Jesus’ into the community and abandon their concept of faith as fear of God. It is this overcoming of adversity that permeates throughout the story as narrated by Huw. There are personal battles to be fought – the pastor bringing enlightenment and perspective to the village is but one of them. Huw must deal with his own obstacles and trials. Along with his mother, Hugh faces near death when both face illness and injury after falling into freezing water. His recovery is long and difficult, during which Mr Griffin raises his spirit and gives him hope, in spite of the dire prognosis from the doctor. Again, with Mr. Gruffydd’s help, Huw walks again despite his initial lack of faith. But Mr Gruffyd is also speaking to Huw’s spirit and faith, and offers lessons that will stay with Huw:

‘And as your father cleans his lamp to have good light, so keep clean your spirit, huh?…By prayer, Huw. And by prayer, I don’t mean shouting, mumbling, and wallowing like a hog in religious sentiment. Prayer is only another name for good, clean, direct thinking. When you pray, think. Think well what you’re saying. Make your thoughts into things that are solid. In that way, your prayer will have strength, and that strength will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit’.

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Mr. Gruffydd also encourages the men to form their trade union, against the will of the senior pastors of the church, and they stand up against the mine-owners. Theirs is a fight against exploitation and for their rights, which will cause not only division in the village but within Huw’s family. Yet it is this fight against adversity, which informs Huw on the need to fight against repression and certainly inspires his own aforementioned private battles.

The film may end in tragedy but again we are reminded that we hold true in our hearts and minds can truly die. The people in Huw’s life are always with him because of the love they have given him and he in return. Their lessons stay with him and guide him still as an adult; they give him, as Mr. Gruffydd teaches him, strength (that) will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit. At the beginning of the film, Huw shares a touching yet powerful sentiment, which rings true even as the final credits roll:

‘Everything I ever learnt as a small boy came from my father, and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday’.

Some critics suggest the film sails dangerously close into over-sentimentality – but this is an unfair criticism. The pain of memory is addressed and central to the story and at times the reflection touches one of the themes of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ – “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” Huw’s memories are not completely romanticized and as the story unfolds, this becomes more than evident. True, we are all capable of evoking nostalgia of our own family and growing up and we do so regularly. However, in the deepest regions of our hearts, we know and can recall the vast array of moments and events that shape our own family story and how it has impacted on us. The stark and harsh realities of memory are evoked through the direction of John Ford and his eye is cast across the film’s narrative. 

‘How Green Was My Valley’ has powerful lessons not tied to a different era nor shaped purely by Hollywood’s studio system. The film’s power remains. much like the memory of love and family has for the adult Huw. The lessons transcend time and context. John Ford left us an artwork for us to not only learn from but emote with and touch us in a way that only classic films can. 

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.

Patron Saint Of The Mad Scientist: A Look At ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932)

by Paul Batters

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‘Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?’ Dr Moreau

The early 1930s saw the beginnings of the classic horror cycle, spawned by the incredible success of Universal’s two big releases, Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1932). Both films would put Universal on the map as the home of horror and other studios also sought to cash in on Universal’s success. Even M.G.M did with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Paramount faired a little better with the brilliant remake of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1932) and in the same year made another film that, like Freaks, would be banned in the U.K. Based on the story ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’, its’ author H.G Wells would also denounce the film. Despite Paramount’s huge advertising campaign, it was a commercial failure as well.

It would be forgotten until revived when interest in classic horror films grew during the 1960s, thanks to television re-runs and monster movie magazines like Famous Monsters Of Filmland.

As a result, The Island of Lost Souls (1932) has become a curiosity, as much as a deserved addition in the pantheon of the mad scientist genre.

So what makes it interesting?

The story itself has all the hallmarks of the horror film with the mad scientist at its’ core. On an isolated island, Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) is obsessed with turning different animals into humans, delving into the possibilities of speeding up the process of evolution. This is itself reflects the aberration that other mad scientists find themselves involved with. However, unlike Dr. Frankenstein who seeks to create life from dead human tissue, Moreau aims to transform already living animals into humans. However, the aberration does not end there, as he also aims to mate his ‘creations’. It is into this world that our heroes, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) are thrown, with Moreau’s intent to make them part of his experiments. At first, Moreau shows them his successes but also his ‘less successful experiments’ with a casual wave. Horrific enough – but there is more horror to come! Needless to say, the reviewer will attempt to avoid any further plot developments in order to spare the reader any spoilers. But of course no guarantees can be given.

Thematically, The Island Of Lost Souls does explore the classic features of the mad scientist. Dr Moreau is a man who has isolated himself from the world in his pursuits and forgone the methodology of his discipline. Like Victor Frankenstein, he sneers at the mainstream scientific world and seeks answers in the same sacrilegious way. But of course such isolation creates a greater disconnect from a moral centre which questions his actions, as well as the fundamental aspect of science – peer assessment and the challenging of theories. Moreau, as a result, becomes a man who sees himself beyond reproach and thus the danger has long set in for Moreau. His sense of himself as a ‘god’ mirrors what Frankenstein initially feels. At one point, Moreau literally plagiarises Frankenstein and states “Do you know what it feels like to be God?’ However, Frankenstein’s ‘God moment’ will not last, as he is repelled by his creation and regrets his mistakes. Moreau, however, is undeterred and like the true mad scientist, continues ‘working ‘, not merely intoxicated by his ‘Godliness’ but is completely immersed in it.

Like Frankenstein, Moreau does not wish to be at the mercy of nature. Indeed, his goal is to control it, again reflecting the perception of himself as God. His desire to mate his creations with the at-first unsuspecting heroes of the story, expands on this desire for control. Yet here runs a deeper thematic concern that Moreau is as much a prisoner of this as are his creations. His desire to be God will be his downfall, as is the lot of any mad scientist. Trapped on his own island, Moreau is also trapped by his obsession and unable to look beyond it. Strangely, the concept of reason, which is a fundamental principle of science, eludes him completely. Admittedly, Parker’s attempt to play wiser head to Moreau is not only poorly done but also futile as well as beyond the reach of Parker. Moreau has developed his own logic to suit his schemes and experiments – as any mad scientist who knows his or her business would do.

Moreau is not ‘mad’ in the deranged sense of the world, nor is he a sadist fulfilled by the infliction of pain. Indeed, he is indifferent to the pain, which he inflicts, especially when examining his creations. The scene where he is examining Lota the Panther woman is particularly horrific, not only because of the pain and disgust that it draws from the audience but more so due to Moreau’s complete disconnection from Lota’s pain and the clinical method in which he examines her. As Randy Rasmussen points out in “Children Of The Night’, Moreau is enraged at Lota’s bestial flesh regaining its’ dominance but rejoices at her tears, as they betray her humanity – the aim of his experiments.

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But Moreau as God cannot only be sustained by his own self-image. It needs to be fed and endorsed by followers – hence the congregation being his own creations. Like any god, Moreau sets the laws to be lived by, partially so that he can control them but also because it feeds his god-like status and illustrated his control over nature. The laws are spoken as ritual by the creatures and they are further controlled by the fear of the House Of Pain, the place of punishment where the breakers of the law are sent. Moreau’s whip and gun are but extensions of his will, both of which represent law and order rather than any sadistic quality.

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The greatest strength of the film is the characterisation of Dr Moreau by the irrepressible Charles Laughton. I would venture to say that his performance is beyond the film and one of the key features that lifts it out of mediocrity. The display of arrogance as an all-knowing scientist with a powerful God complex becomes apparent from the smallest gesture in the way he casually wields his whip to the use of his voice when he commands his creations. The goatee adds a satanic element, contrasting with his white suit, making for a stark appearance. But this is accentuated by the almost relaxed manner in which Laughton strides and the supreme confidence is more than apparent, particularly when he reveals his abhorrent experiments and mad scheme to Parker. Laughton dominates every scene, leaving his fellow cast members looking wooden and staid.

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However, in fairness, there is another performance, which deserves mention. It easy to miss Bela Lugosi in his extremely hirsute role as the Sayer Of The Law. Under the layers of hair, Lugosi emanates the tortured soul of Moreau’s creation, repeating the mantra of his creator’s law, “Are we not men?” It is the question, which reflects one of the great questions regarding what makes us human – is it enough to have that consciousness? For Moreau’s experiments, this is the key aspect to what it means to be human. The very asking of the question suggests that human consciousness is present. The ending of the film will suggest even more, with quite the allegory about who makes laws to govern – God or humans?

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Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman played a roll which was central to the marketing campaign for the film’s release. Beautiful and sensual, Burke is also effective in the role. Lota is the prize creation for the mad scientist and Burke successfully portrays the duality of the role.

In the end, Moreau will face the terrible and awful dilemma that seems to be the lot of the mad scientist. As tempting as it is, this reviewer will not give away that ending. Needless, to say the audience will recognize the irony for the mad scientist who becomes undone by his own devices. Despite the genius of the mad scientist, being doomed to failure seems to be his or her lot in the genre. Perhaps the mad scientist’s greatest sin is that he commits the greatest sacrilege not necessarily against God but against science itself and the laws of nature.

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The Island Of Lost Souls feels like a journey into darkness – one that is disturbing and at times repellent, particularly in view of the cruelty of the key character. The greatest irony is that the mad scientist, believing they are bringing enlightenment into the world, has created that darkness. Instead of improving the world, the mad scientist has inflicted pain, trauma and death. Moreau is the very symbol of the mad scientist and that ultimately the very person that he has fooled most of all – is himself.

The Island Of Lost Souls is available through the Criterion Collection and is a must for not only fans of horror film but also those who are captivated by the mad dreams of the mad scientist.

This review was part of the 2017 Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner – https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/great-scott-the-movie-scientist-blogathon-is-back/

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 Pre-Code Tale: Review Of ‘Dark Hazard’ (1934)

by Paul Batters

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“If you marry that gambler, you’ll marry into a life of trouble and disaster.”

The Pre-code Hollywood period is a fascinating time for film and still fascinates audiences today, perhaps more than ever. The time period for Pre-code is relatively brief, from 1929 through to June 1934 when the Code took hold. But what a period it was for film! Pre-Code Hollywood challenged old norms and values and saw the emerging of new stars and even new genres. Whilst Dark Hazard would not be one of the period’s ‘classics’, it is still an interesting film for fans of Pre-Code and particularly for fans of one of Hollywood’s greats, Edward G. Robinson.

Released by Warner Brothers in February 1934 and directed by Alfred E. Green, Dark Hazard has all the appearance of a morality tale but twists and turns into anything but. Indeed, a very different ending can be imagined if Dark Hazard had been made a year or two later!

Jim Turner (Edward G. Robinson) is a professional gambler, outlined in the opening scene when he wins $20,000 at the racetrack. Alongside him is Val (Glenda Farrell), who seems very at ease and in her natural environment of fast action and excitement. As Jim collects, a fellow behind him looks on begrudgingly, just before he collects his winnings of $6. But Turner’s success is short-lived, as in the next scene he is cleaned out at a casino, left to borrow $5 from the doorman for a cab ride. Jim slides from successful gambler to working as a cashier at the same racetrack where he won his fortune, seeking lodgings at a boarding house run by Mrs. Mayhew (Emma Dunn), a dour fuddy-duddy who asks for references and demands ‘good character’ of her boarders. Jim is especially taken, by Mayhew’s beautiful daughter Marge (Genevieve Tobin), who doesn’t seem bothered by his working at a racetrack.

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The pacing of the film moves fast, perhaps a little too fast. By the next scene, Marge intends to marry Jim, sternly warned by her mother that the marriage is doomed because of Jim’s past as a gambler. Marge claims Jim is all done with gambling but the warning will proves ominous. It’s only ten minutes into the film and Jim and Marge are married and living in Chicago where, working as a hotel clerk, he comes across John Bright (Sidney Toler), who constantly provokes Jim. Wanting to keep his job, Jim ignores the constant ribbing, remembering the advice of his dour and hard-hearted boss that he needs to ‘look out for number one’ and that ‘jobs are scarce’. The financial troubles of Marge’s family add to Jim’s pressures. Although he stays true to his promise to not gamble, Jim can’t help but look at the form guide, giving tips to other hotel guests who show their appreciation by sharing in their winnings.

During Christmas, Jim sneaks away from the front desk to see Marge in their room. However, Jim makes it clear why he’s there to see her and whilst there is nothing salacious about sexual desire between husband and wife, it’s certainly a reflection of the Pre-Code era that such desire is shown! As Marge shoos him back to work, Jim even begs ‘just five minutes, Marge’, as he paws and kisses her. The intimacy shown on screen, even between a married couple, would become too much for the Code after 1934.

The turn of events for Jim will come after an altercation with Bright sees him fired, with Bright daring Jim to meet him at a nearby restaurant the next morning. Jim does just that and starts a scuffle, which ends with Bright and his off-sider, calming the situation down and explaining that the whole thing was ‘a joke’ and producing one of the best lines in the film as he tells Jim ‘Don’t be an Airedale and sit down’. The scene also shows Robinson at his toughest in the film, showing no fear when he’s threatened with a gun and even daring the holder to use it.

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This impresses Bright and it turns out that he was testing Jim all along, wanting him to run a racetrack in California. Jim is ecstatic as not only is the money good but he returns to the game that he knows best, with people he can deal with. Marge is unhappy at his newfound job but goes along with him to California to a new life in a nice home with a garden.

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At this point in the film, what becomes evident is the inversed world depicted. Something, which could only happen in the world of the Pre-Code era. Jim and the people he integrates with, all operate and socialize in the world of gambling, which by all other standards is occupied by shady characters, gangsters, loose women and ne’er-do-wells. Yet in Dark Hazard, they are all honest, straightforward and stand by each other. There’s no backstabbing or exploitation and a win is happily paid and a loss stoically accepted. Val doesn’t try to juice him for his winnings at the track. When Jim loses his money, the doorman happily lends him money for a cab. John Bright, at first, exudes nastiness and appears to be a bully. Yet he’s testing Jim, seeing greater worth in him and treating him square once the joke is over. Later in California when Jim is checking the books, he finds everything is square and those involved in the day to day running of the track have also been square.

However, most of the people outside Jim’s world are quite the opposite. Despite the façade of respectability, principle and honesty, the people in this larger world are mean, double-faced and pretentious. Marge’s family is not exactly one filled with happiness nor one with principle. Mrs. Mayhew looks down her nose at Jim for his gambling, with her snooty, judgmental and disparaging remarks when he first appears at the boarding house. Hypocrisy could be added to her list of failings, as later she seems to have no qualms about sending letters to her daughter for money. Marge’s brother is a no-account and weak individual, leaning on anyone for money and apparently indulging in his own vices. Pres Barrow (George Meeker), an early boyfriend of Marge’s, looks sneaky enough and we learn that he ‘owns most of the town’, a hint at small-town corruption and entitlement. Jim’s boss at the hotel is not only mean and cantankerous but also cruel, ordering Jim to throw out a guest who is behind on the rent at Christmas. Chicago is pretty cold that time of the year!

But it is Marge particularly who disappoints. When they first meet, she apparently has no problems with Jim’s being a professional gambler. But she never accepts him for who he is and what he does, pushing him to change and because Jim loves her, that’s what he tries to do. Marge also complains about lack of money and worries for her family back home in Ohio instead of her own home and marriage. As the story progresses, Marge will disappoint even further.

The turning points in the film arrive while Jim is at the track.

The first is a reunion with Val, which obviously indicates some feelings still exist. They reminisce over some stories, which allude to intimacy beyond what the Hays Code would come to accept. Val isn’t bitter that Jim is married nor does it stop her from having other designs on him. She smiles and throws a line without any bile: ‘Another good man on the straight and narrow’, which also indicates her view of marriage and what it does to people.

The second turning point in the story is Jim’s discovery of Dark Hazard, the greyhound and it will be this meeting that will be fortuitous. Marge’s frustrations with Jim’s gambling and lifestyle will deepen with his obsession of the racing dog and it will come to represent the rift that continues to grow between them. Jim, on the other hand, cannot see what lies ahead and as with any addiction, tries to wave away Marge’s concerns without listening to her. In fairness to Marge, who finds herself pregnant, her concerns exacerbate when bills aren’t paid and the gambling increases. She is also unimpressed with Jim’s friends, particularly one evening when Val arrives with two other friends, one of which is more than inebriated. Val makes it clear to Marge that she and Jim had shared more than just friendship, which adds further fuel to the fight between Marge and Jim.

It will prove the breaking point and Marge wants Jim to leave. Jim still refuses to see the damage being caused. Indeed, Jim succumbs to a night out gambling with Val till all hours and it’s when they get back to her hotel that Val tests Jim in a very sensual way. Lying back on a divan, Val offers herself up to him, accentuating her assets and letting her body do the talking. Jim is obviously tempted but stays true to Marge and is shooed off my Val. Jim delivers a line heavy with suggestion and one which must have bothered the censors:

‘It’s the first time I ever let you down, Val’.

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Jim returns to his home at the crack of dawn, with $20,000 in winnings in his pocket. He thinks that this will pacify Marge and he even lies that he has just woken up to water the bamboo. Marge delivers her best line, with a brilliant wisecrack:

‘Looks like you’ve been watering the bamboo all night’.

The moment is taken for granted but Marge then pulls a fast one on Jim, leaving with his money and returning home to Ohio. She also leaves a note that if he truly wants to make a change and leave behind his gambling, that he can go to her and they can start again. After all, there is also a child on the way.

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As affable and likeable as Jim is – and as much as the audience is not thrilled with Marge – one cannot help but be disappointed in Jim’s decision not to follow. Marge does care for him and instead of thinking of her and his unborn child, Jim chooses gambling.

Time passes and the last couple of years have not been kind to Jim. Shabby and broke, he train hops to Ohio and ends up on Marge’s doorstep. His former mother-in-law is shocked to see him but Marge welcomes him in. He discovers that Marge is seeing her old flame Pres Barrow and that she is seeking a divorce.

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Yet despite this, Jim agrees to reform and reaches out to Marge, and they re-connect. But it will not last long – as Dark Hazard comes back into his life. Saving the dog from being put down, Jim purchases the dog and brings it home, to which Marge responds with exasperation and resignation that their marriage cannot survive. Yet for Jim, Dark Hazard is symbolic of his own situation. Like Jim, Dark Hazard is broken and given up as a failure and a has-been. Jim sees his bringing Dark Hazard back to health and success as a form of his own personal revival and phoenix-like rising from the ashes of defeat. But this desire will be the death knell for his chances with Marge. The marriage collapses into Jim starting to drink and Marge seeing Pres Barrow again and the audience cannot help suspect that Pres Barrow has been agitating behind the scene. A confrontation where Jim slugs Barrow becomes the final realization for Jim that his marriage is doomed, as Marge comforts Pres.

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If this were a morality tale, which is how it appears up to this point, the final scene would be Jim standing on a dusty road with Dark Hazard. Pathetically sharing a sandwich with the dog, Jim seems deluded as he claims that he’ll make it big again. This is where the story should end – with Jim defeated by his gambling addiction. Not only has Jim lost his winnings over time but more importantly he has lost his wife and child and any possibility of a secure and happy future. Jim’s future appears doomed.

Yet that is not the way of the Pre-Code world.

The audience discovers that Dark Hazard has recovered and Jim has been travelling around the world, making his fortune and becoming a great success. Dark Hazard has proved the winning ticket for Jim and not only is he living the good life but the audience discovers that Jim is with Val.

Jim has the final word, delivering a line which links back to an earlier attempt by Val to get Jim into bed:

“This time, honey, I won’t disappoint you!”

Oh my!

Dark Hazard is by no means a classic and to be fair is in many ways a forgotten film. (Incidentally, I first saw it on the old TNT channel and it has been released as part of Warner Archive’s ‘8th Forbidden Hollywood’ collection on DVD). Yet it perfectly illustrates the values of the time and reflects the zeitgeist of the Depression Era. Jim Turner is very much a man on his own against the world, bucking against a system that demands subservience to a failed economy. He makes his own luck and owns the losses, as much as he owns the big wins. Jim is not a violent man but he stands up for himself, when it all becomes too much. Even in this day and age, Jim’s story is one that encourages us to be true to ourselves and not lose our identity to please others.

Audiences would have admired these characteristics at a time when most people felt powerless. They would have cheered when the hotel boss got his just desserts, as he represents the type of employer that many of them would have had. But he also represents the economy, which brought so many to their knees and the lack of empathy from those in power for those who were struggling. The same could be said for Pres Barrow, the kind of small town baron who had control and power over peoples’ lives. As far as Jim is concerned, Pres interferes in his marriage to Marge and he decides to do something about it. There is futility in Jim’s punching Pres Barrow and perhaps many in the audience would have empathized with the futility of hitting out against monster that the Depression was.

On another level, Dark Hazard is the story of the rise and fall, and incredible rise again of Jim Turner – a man whose transparent independence also reveals something deeper. He is a man who prides himself on his ability to pick a winner and whose sense of self-worth is very much shaped by winning and winning big. ‘People used to pay plenty’ for his tips, he says, reflecting how he measures his self-worth. When meeting again with Val at the racetrack, she reminisces how a casino shut down its’ tables when they saw Jim approaching. Jim gets all puffed up, enjoying the story and affirming his identity as a top gambler,

In spite of the seeming moralizing of the dangers of gambling, Jim finds redemption and even greater success – through gambling!

Thus, Dark Hazard IS a morality tale but not the one you thought you were watching!

When all is said and done, the film belongs to one man alone and that is Edward G Robinson. And let’s be honest, the film only gets any viewing today because he’s in it. With the pacing and storyline slightly awry, E.G holds it together with an enthusiastic performance, with flashes of the tough guy thrown in for good measure where necessary to the plot.

Genevieve Tobin is as beautiful and angelic as always, yet I find it hard to warm to Marge. She loves Jim yet wants him to change. She pressures him with her family’s financial problems and he’s more than willing to help – yet complains about the way he obtains the answer. In some ways, Marge represents straight society with all its’ claims to propriety and decency, yet reeking with hypocrisy and condemnation. Additionally, despite her claim to love Jim, she rarely accepts his true nature despite knowing exactly who he is and what he does.

Perhaps the most under-used player in the performance is the always-electric Glenda Farrell, who lights up the screen and is quicker than what the director’s pacing allows. For my money, Farrell is the perfect partner for E.G and she plays her part to the hilt. As Val, she is certainly fun to be around and you can see Jim is perhaps still taken with her, even though he is married. The hot seduction scene is shaped as much by the sultry Farrell laying back and showing her goods, as much as it is countered by Jim’s hesitation and final refusal. Val isn’t exactly angry but certainly disappointed and her shooing him away illustrates this. I get the sense that inside Val is saying to herself ‘what happened to you, Jim? Did you lose your manhood when you got married, as well as yourself?’. This is certainly obvious when in deliberate ear-shot of Jim, she picks up the phone and asks the porter for a wheelchair, adding before the screen fades ‘No, I didn’t do anything to him’.

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But what I feel is most admirable about Val is that she doesn’t want Jim to change and encourages him to be himself – honest and true to who he is. Val is no gold-digger either nor does she waste his money. Indeed, at the end of the film we see that Jim’s spend-happy demeanor has been tempered. It’s Val who exercises some fiscal responsibility. Moreso, Val never quits on Jim and obviously loves and wants him even when he is married. Yes, there is an attempt at seduction but not because Val is a seductress in the classic sense. She wants Jim but she won’t wreck a marriage per se and sends him off home. In fact, she just might be enticing Jim to be himself and be true to his own instincts and thus be truly happy. Marge on the other hand is rarely happy with Jim and eventually gives up on him, even taking his winnings and running back to Ohio. 

In his autobiography, ‘All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography’ (1973), Robinson claimed that he ‘loathed it’ and appeared glad that it was a forgotten film. Being the consummate professional that he was, it’s hard to find that sense of loathing in his performance. 

Fans of Edward G Robinson will still enjoy this odd little Pre-Code film and indeed fans of Pre-Code will also be surprised by how entertaining Dark Hazard is. So if you have 70 minutes to kill one fine evening or on a Sunday afternoon, try Dark Hazard and enjoy the strange little ride it takes you on.

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.

Romance In Classic Film – Where Tragedy Speaks Greater Than Forever After

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Film is an incredible visual and aural expression, which an audience forms relationship with at a range of levels. Horror will draw out our fears, terrifying us and perhaps even haunting our dreams and nightmares. But we will not be terrorised by vampires and werewolves. Sci-fi astounds us with incredible worlds, strange beings and technology beyond our imagination. Yet the chances of travelling at light-speed or being trained by an old and elfish master on a distant planet are very slim indeed. Westerns still take us to a frontier, which is long gone and we ache to be the hero we see on screen. Yet the truth remains that we are not necessarily heroic nor will we face the bad guy with a six-shooter when the sun is high. We will not meet a pharaoh nor dine with a king.

But there is something that all of us will experience to varying degrees – no matter how old one is. Of all the stories that have been told on film, the love story is one that can reach everyone.

One of the great ironies of romance on film is that there is an incredible vastness to how it is portrayed. Often relegated as ‘chick flicks’ or ‘women’s pictures’, love stories have a habit of spanning a number of possibilities – beautifully produced and enduring, warm, fuzzy and perhaps a little too saccharine and even corny and then the absolutely nauseating. The love story on film is often in the eye of the beholder – one person may see romance on film as touching and sweet whereas another reaches for the bucket.

Romance on film needs to be looked at in context of the genre and an audience needs to remember that the love story can be dealt with in a variety of ways. For example, comedy can be light-hearted or even ruthless in its’ dealing with a love story. Screwball comedy is particularly adept at handling romance, with break-neck speed and examining the love story at a very different angle.

Of all the love stories ever told on film, the most beautiful, touching and enduring stories are those that are tragic. Words often become redundant when trying to encapsulate the incredible emotion when watching the film end – and two lovers part forever.

I will briefly look at five films which audiences will be more than familiar with that I believe prove my point.

Be prepared for spoilers!

Gone With The Wind (1939)

GWTW is perhaps one of the best examples of the classic Hollywood studio film – few films can boast neither such grandeur nor such an incredible cast. Yes, there is incredible controversy in how slavery, the South and the Civil War were portrayed. But that is not what we’re focusing on here, tempting as it may be.

GWTW is many stories but I would argue it is ultimately a love story – one of unrequited love. The story’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is surrounded by men who want her and declare their undying love for her. Yet her heart aches for a man she cannot have, one Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who is engaged to be married to Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though Ashley will later admit during a mad moment of weakness that he does love Scarlett, he also states that it is Melanie whom he ultimately loves and understands. Scarlett seems to pine for something that she cannot ultimately understand, which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) points out to her. However, this very truth will allude Scarlett to the very end and when she realises it will be late.

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On the flipside, Rhett Butler is ‘no gentleman’ but he is real and full of life and experience. He knows the world and understands it better than most. Despite everything, he cannot help but also fall for Scarlett, not in the foppish manner of her many other suitors but with a passion and aggression that is all consuming.

Scarlett will marry twice (not for love) but firstly for petty, immature reasons and secondly for survival. Her third marriage to Rhett will also fail, for a complexity of reasons. But ultimately it fails due to her blindness and failure to see happiness. Rhett final leaves, delivering what is probably the greatest line in cinema history. What makes it tragic is Scarlett’s epiphany that she does love Rhett. She declares she will find a way to get him back but we as audience will never know if she does. The camera pulls back, revealing a solitary Scarlett standing at Tara – and the audience cannot help but sense the tragedy of a love unrealised.

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca is perhaps one of cinema’s most loved and enduring films. It often lists higher on greatest film lists than films which are certainly much better. Some critics have declared it to be one of the best worst films ever made and Pauline Kael has even described it as ‘schlocky’. There are holes in the plot, which an ocean liner could comfortably sail through and by all reports there was daily confusion on the direction of the plot whilst filming. So why does this film endure?

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Well Bogart sure helps, as does the ethereal beauty of Bergman. And it has one of film’s most memorable and beautiful songs. But I would argue it endures because it is a tragic love story.

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) seems self-assured and blasé to the events going on that have set the world ablaze. Running his club and illegal casino in Vichy French controlled Morocco during World War Two, Rick makes his money and occasionally helps some of the continental refugees to escape (betraying his supposed neutrality and disinterest). However, his world is turned upside down when the lost love of his life Elsa (Ingrid Bergman) turns up at his club with her husband escaped Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). Rick’s face contorts for a moment though he composes himself in time, saving his pain for later.

After the club has closed, Rick drinks in the dark alone, tortured by her arrival after trying hard to forget her. He utters one of the most famous lines in film history; adlibbed by Bogart himself:

We are brought up to speed when Rick relives their romance in Paris before the chaos of war will wedge between them. Experiencing their happiness, it is impossible not to recall our own moments of the joy and happiness of love. But the memories are bittersweet and the audience’s transference onto Rick and Elsa heightens that emotion. We see the reason for their parting, as Rick waiting at the train station in the pouring rain, receives a letter from Elsa stating they can never see each other again. Rick’s pain becomes ours and it is difficult not to be moved by the beautiful cinematic moment of the ink melting into the rain, as the train pulls out.

His pain is undeniable and flames when she comes to him alone. Trying to explain herself, Rick’s responds with bitter-soaked cynicism, insulting her. She turns away and leaves, realising that it is pointless to continue. As she walks out the door, Rick collapses at the table, torn with inner pain, knowing his responses achieved nothing and walking the line between love and hateful despair.

As the story progresses, Elsa’s desperation to get out of Casablanca with Victor becomes intertwined with her revived love for Rick – it even appears that Rick and Elsa will leave together. The ending is one of the greatest scenes in film and is also the reason why Casablanca endures as a great romance film. Bogart delivers a parting speech that cemented his place in cinema history.

The two are not parted by war, and only in part by the situation that war created for them. Rick and Elsa are parted by the strength of their love. Sacrifices are made but their moment together remains a testimony to the old adage that some can love more in a few days than most do in a lifetime. As both find out, they’ll always have Paris.

Which is why Rick and Elsa as a couple endure – whether they are together or not.

Now Voyager (1942)

At times a little drawn out and occasionally (and unfairly) dismissed as a ‘women’s picture’ or ‘tear-jerker’, Now Voyager is so much more. Bette Davis’ turn as Charlotte Vale, from lonely, mentally abused frump transforming into a stronger, more confident woman, is perhaps her best-known film role.

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Charlotte, suffering from a nervous breakdown after years of her mother’s mental abuse and cruel domination, goes to a sanatorium run by Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains). As part of her therapy, she later goes on a luxurious cruise where she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is travelling with friends. She discovers that Jerry is in an unhappy marriage with two daughters to a woman who didn’t want children, echoing Charlotte’s own mother-daughter relationship.

Charlotte’s nervous caution, highlighted by her fragile self-consciousness, is slowly evaporated by Jerry’s patient kindness and the two form a friendship. However, it will blossom into love, one complicated by his marriage and sense of honour.

Both Charlotte and Jerry return to their respective lives, when they return. Charlotte has gained confidence and strength from Jerry’s love and she moves forward in her life. But the memory haunts her, best expressed when her inner thoughts reveal: ‘And I have only a dried corsage, an empty bottle of perfume and can’t even say his name’.

A chance meeting at a party again finds the two maintaining convention and on the surface acting cordial. Their love affair must be kept secret for propriety but as Sarah Kozloff points out in Overhearing Film Dialogue (2005) their sotto voce revelations underneath the casual banter burst through with deep passion. It is difficult to wave such passion away, particularly when it is aided and abetted by Max Steiner’s musical score.

Charlotte faces a setback with her mother’s death and when seeking solace at Dr Jaquith’s sanatorium meets Jerry’s youngest daughter, Trina who is fraught with problems. Charlotte becomes close to Trina and it also gives her the chance to be close to Jerry. But they cannot be together as they wish to be. Charlotte and Jerry must maintain distance for the sake of Trina and the film ends with one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and memorable scenes:

Whilst not truly parting, never to set eyes on each other again, Charlotte and Jerry must face just the opposite. Whilst the film ends on a ‘high’, the audience cannot help but feel for the love that the two cannot have completely.

Brief Encounter (1945)

David Lean is generally associated with what could be termed big films, offering a big cinematic experience with power and scope. Think Lawrence Of Arabia and The Bridge On The River Kwai. Yet earlier films such as Brief Encounter (1945) cannot be ignored when considering classic film. For the purposes of this article, it can also not be ignored as a perfect example of two lovers parting and a love never fully realised.

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Though Brief Encounter is Lean’s picture, the love story comes from the pen of Noel Coward. As David Thompson accurately pointed out in his 2010 Guardian article, the discretely gay Coward understood middle-class sensibilities at the time and showed great restraint, avoiding any suggestions of impropriety and shaping characters that were decent and ‘nice’. Lean, on the other hand, would have happily taken things a step or two further. However, the power of the film exists in the reality that the two never consummate their love.

Middle class housewife, Laura (Celia Johnson), is married to a fairly dull though respectable man named Fred. Their marriage is one of comfort, safety and fondness yet hardly inspiring of passion or fire. An innocent chance meeting with a doctor named Alec (Trevor Howard) sees a seemingly harmless friendship strike up, with regular meetings for lunch, going to the cinema, drives together and eventually the chance to take things further at a friend’s flat which ends awkwardly.

The story itself would barely hold up in an era of online encounters, Craigslist and cheap comedies depicting quite explicit casual sex. Yet therein lies the quality, depth and beauty of Brief Encounter. There is depth and power in the emotion of what could be. Far from being a melodramatic soap opera, the film’s depiction of a couple torn between loyalty to family and marriage and the possibility and hope of love and passion. One can see the desperation in their eyes as they look at each other and the agony that consumes them.

The final goodbye is perhaps where the tragedy reaches its’ zenith, as the moment is stolen from them by the banality of an acquaintance of Laura bumping into them at the station and prattling on to Laura as Alec’s train arrives. Laura and Alec’s haunting last look at each other betrays the terrible anguish of their final parting. No final goodbyes, no last kiss or last moment of passion. No words could possibly encompass the loss that each feels. Their dream of being in each other’s arms dissipates like the steam from the train engine taking Alec away. Laura returns to her husband and all ends ‘well’ in terms of a return to normality.

But there may not be one amongst us who cannot feel the anguish in their own hearts – of what could have been and what will never be. Laura and Alec are the patron saints of lost love.

Dr Zhivago (1962)

Another masterpiece courtesy of David Lean. Unlike Brief Encounter, the love affair between Yuri Zhivago (Omar Shariff) and Lara (Julie Christie) is realised and consummated, revealing a very different and interesting dynamic. A generation earlier revelled in the shy, cautious and ‘honourable’ couple in Laura and Alec – not so in the early 1960s. Changing values and attitudes in the audience saw acceptance of an extra-marital affair.

Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and civil war that followed, the poet/doctor Zhivago is married to a childhood sweetheart and also has a son. However, his war service during World War One sees him come into contact with Lara, also married to an idealistic yet ruthless revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtney). Entranced with Lara who also feels something for him, they maintain honour and part when their war service is over, having done nothing a la Brief Encounter.

Yet this time Lean goes further and takes the steps he would have taken had Coward not tempered Lean’s wishes in 1945. As the civil war worsens, Zhivago takes his family further east to safety in Varykino and incredibly discovers that Lara is living with her own daughter in a nearby town named Yuriatin, abandoned by her husband who is now a general calling himself Strelnikov.

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Meeting again, Lara and Zhivago finally fulfil their desires and begin a passionate love affair. However, Tonya falls pregnant, Zhivago ends the affair and is soon press-ganged into becoming a doctor for a partisan group in the civil war. Two years pass before they are reunited but Zhivago’s family are gone and the situation has worsened for both and he and Lara. As the tragedy unfolds, Zhivago stays behind so that Lara and her daughter can escape. As she leaves, Zhivago watches her and there are no words that could be written to match those within the hearts of the audience.

But perhaps the true tragedy is years later when Zhivago finds himself back in Moscow. Sick and weak and working as a doctor, he is travelling to work on the tram – a touching moment harkening to an earlier moment in the film when a younger Zhivago shares the same tram with Lara. As he sits, Zhivago sees Lara walking along the street and cannot believe his own eyes as he struggles to get off the tram. But his weak heart cannot take the excitement and a massive heart attack takes him on the street, as he reaches out to Lara, who continues on her way oblivious to him. It is a terribly tragic moment, with the chance for them to be finally reunited, stolen from them both.

Dr Zhivago highlights the tragedy of history and how it impacts on people and their lives. But it also reflects the tragedy and beauty of love, where the worst times in history throw people together, allows them to taste the joy of love and then cruelly rips it from them.

There are many films where we celebrate and cheer the couple living happily forever after, especially when overcoming incredible adversity to reach each other. The couple joining hands and walking into the sunset together leaves us warm and cosy, and perhaps even inspired. Yet it is an easy feeling and too simple a finish. We know that life is not so kind to us and certainly not as tidy as film. Perhaps what makes the tragic love story so touching and enduring is that it mirrors life a little more than the happy ending and may even reflect elements of our own lives.

Special Mentions

Wuthering Heights (1939) Directed by William Wyler. With Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

Dark Victory (1939) Directed by Edmund Goulding. With Bette Davis and George Brent.

The Heiress (1949) Directed by William Wyler. With Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift.

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.