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

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Announcing The 2021 Swashbucklathon: Celebrating The Swashbuckler In Classic Film

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

Outline Of Rules

  1. This Swashbucklathon is not just restricted to just reviewing actual swashbuckler films. Participants are encouraged to write on any angle regarding the topic area e.g. comparisons of film versions, actors or actresses known for starring in swashbuckler films, a specific character and how they have been depicted, production aesthetics etc
  1. Duplicates of films will be allowed for review but of course it’s a case of first in, so act fast. Whilst you are welcome to write more than one entry, there will be a limit of three posts per blog.
  1. This Swashbucklathon does focus on the classic era of Hollywood film – from the silent era to the 1960s. But please don’t let that hold you back, as all entries from all periods will be happily accepted.
  1. All contributions must be new material only. Previously published posts will not be accepted.
  1. The Swashbucklathon will take place through June 25th, 26th and 27th, 2021. Please submit your entries on either of these days or earlier if you wish. For those of you posting early, just remember that your entry won’t be linked until the event starts. 
  1. To express your interest in participating in the Swashbucklathon, you can so in the following ways:
  • please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover
  • or you can always register by email at: silverscreenclassics2016@gmail.com. For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover.

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

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

Looking forward to seeing you in June!

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

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

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

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

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

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without further ado, let Day Three begin:

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

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

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

The Conquering Power (1921)His Fame Still Lives

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

Ebb Tide (1937)A Scunner Darkly

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

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

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

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

The Wind In The Willows Caftan Woman

Jane Eyre (1943) Hamlette’s Soliloquy

Carrie – The Three Versions Blogferatu

The Light Of Western StarsVT Dorchester

Pollyanna: Rejecting VictimhoodSilver Screenings

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

Great Expectations (1946)Dubism

The Three Musketeers (1948)18 Cinema Lane

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

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

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

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

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

The Invisible Man (1933)Once Upon A Screen

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

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

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

The Personal History Of David Copperfield (2019)Movie Rob

The Three Musketeers (1973) Movie Rob

They Came To Cordura (1959) Movie Rob

The Grapes Of WrathSilver Screen Classics

Becky Sharp (1935)Top 10 Film Lists

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

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

by Robert Short – Special Guest Contribution


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

Literary Origins

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

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


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


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


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

An Overall Look at the Film Adaptations


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Face Of Evil

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

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

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

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


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


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

Conclusion

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

LITERARY SOURCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTHER SOURCES

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

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1887 play),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dr.Jekyll_and_Mr._Hyde(1887_play)&oldid=1011482899

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920 Paramount film),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dr.Jekyll_and_Mr._Hyde(1920_Paramount_film)&oldid=1009017584

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 film),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dr.Jekyll_and_Mr._Hyde(1931_film)&oldid=1006821338

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941 film),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dr.Jekyll_and_Mr._Hyde(1941_film)&oldid=1006402058

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

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

Hollywood, Volume 30, No. 11, November 1941

http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ells/article/view/15237

http://www.robert-louis-stevenson.org/richard-dury-archive/films-rls-jekyll-hyde.html

https://www.brightwalldarkroom.com/2017/07/11/sex-sadism-censorship-dr-jekyll-mr-hyde/

https://thewritersblockonline.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/homosexual-undertones-in-robert-louis-stevensons-the-strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde/

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

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

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

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

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

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

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

Outline Of Rules

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

– please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover
– or you can always register by email at: silverscreenclassics2016@gmail.com. For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover.

– or contact me through Twitter: https://twitter.com/PaulBee71

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

Here are our entries so far!

Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – 84 Charing Cross Road

Silver Screenings – Pollyanna (1920)

Caftan Woman – The Wind and the Willows (1983)

J-Dub – Great Expectations (1946)

Once Upon A Screen – The Invisible Man (1933)

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

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

Top10FilmLists.com – Becky Sharp (1935)

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

Critical Retro – Huckleberry Finn (1931 and 1939)

Pale Writer – The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Blogferatu Carrie (1976)

Hamlette’s Soliloquy Jane Eyre (1943)

A Scunner DarklyThe Ebb Tide (1937)

Voyages ExtraordinariesThe Jungle Book (various adaptations)

His Fame Still Lives – The Conquering Power (1921)

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

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

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

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

Announcing The 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

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

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

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

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

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

Outline Of Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 – or you can always register by email at: silverscreenclassics2016@gmail.com. For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover. 

– contact me through Twitter: https://twitter.com/PaulBee71

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

Looking forward to seeing you in April!

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

by Paul Batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Classic Horror Films We Love – A Collection Of Favourites

by Paul Batters

It’s Halloween and classic film fans are enjoying their favourite classic films, be they silver-toned masterpieces, slasher films, schlocky D-graders or spooky atmospheric chillers. It’s almost impossible to pick an all-out favourite but there are those films which stand out and we all turn to for the thrills and chills that we love.

The following classic film fans, bloggers and writers have all contributed a classic horror film that they love. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to share yours!

Jennifer Churchill – Write and author of ‘Movies Are Magic’ https://instagram.com/p/BfuGI9uHZAp/

Dracula (1931)

Classic horror film I love? Dracula (1931) Why? Two words: BELA LUGOSI. Oh wait, two more words: PRE-CODE (is that two words or just a one-word hyphenate?). It’s a perfect film. Scary. Timeless. Sexy. The close-ups of Bela! I even took my 3-year-old to see it at a local cineplex and he LOVED every minute of it. And I love the story of how it was filmed on the same set in both English & Spanish, as noted in my children’s book (have to plug my book).

Dominique Breckenridge – Entertainer and blogger at Dominique Revue

Night Must Fall (1937)

Though not your traditional Classic Horror Film, as it does not include the general “monster” in form of beast, creature, or ghost, and while I could easily place Curse Of The Demon (1957) as my fave Classic Horror Film, the events in Night Must Fall (1937) are horrific, nonetheless. Without ever seeing one actual horrific event play out on-screen, the images left to the imagination, far exceed any you could witness were they shown. All in form of … a hat box. Accompanied, compliments of, new employer at the house of widow Mrs. Bramson’s (Dame May Witty), in form of the maid’s beau from The Tallboys, pageboy, Danny (Robert Montgomery). A suspenseful annual Fall/Hallows’ Eve watch for me. (For the blog piece I wrote on Night Must Fall a while back: https://dominiquerevue.weebly.com/cinema-coffee-mighty-like-a-rose.html

Patricia Nolan-Hall – Blogger at Caftan Woman

The Mummy (1932)

Cinematographer Karl Freund directed an atmospheric and moody film of mystical love that survives beyond death written by John Balderston, the playwright of Dracula and Berkeley Square. Boris Karloff is commanding in the roles of the ancient priest Imhotep and the resurrected mummy Ardeth Bay. Zita Johann is luminous as his beloved, the long-dead Princess Anck-Su-Namen and the contemporary woman Helen Grosvenor. The unseen world clashes with the will to live and the rights of the living.

Erica D – Blogger at Poppity Talks Classic Film

The Devil Bat (1940) Starring Béla Lugosi as Dr. Paul Carruthers

“All Heathville loved Paul Carruthers, their kindly village doctor. No one suspected that in his home laboratory on a hillside overlooking the magnificent estate of Martin Heath, the doctor found time to conduct certain private experiments – weird, terrifying experiments.”

The best part of The Devil Bat is Béla Lugosi who delivers a wonderful performance. Clearly, Béla is in his element playing the part of a mad scientist and he exudes both ease and happiness on-screen. While this movie was made by a no-name studio, the result is not as bad as one would think. Producers Releasing Corporation was a member of Poverty Row, a term used to describe a group of studios who specialised in low-budget B-movies. Known for never spending more than $100,000 per production, The Devil Bat was the very first horror film they made. The movie was filmed quickly and cheaply but it is honestly not badly written and the sets are pretty good. In fact, the Dr.’s laboratory was nicely decorated and gives off a creepy, ghoulish feel that definitely puts you in a horror/thriller mood.

Maddy – Blogger at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

The Innocents (1961).

My favourite haunted house/psychological horror film.

When Paul asked me to submit a few words on a favourite Horror flick, I just knew I had to share my love for The Innocents (1961).

The Innocents plays on our deepest fears. Fear of losing our grip on reality; fear of the dark; fear of what we think we’ve just glimpsed out of the corner of our eye etc. This is the type of horror film I like best. It’s my favourite horror film and I consider it to be the best haunted house and psychological ghost story ever filmed.

I also love how it’s written in a way which means you can view the events in one of two ways. Either the hauntings and possessions are real, or the governess is going mad and seeing things that are not real. Whichever of those explanations you choose to accept, the film remains equally terrifying either way.


The eerie and unsettling atmosphere is like no other. There are many terrifying moments that stay with you long after the film has finished. Who can forget the ghost in the lake? Or the ghost at the window?
At the heart of the film is Deborah Kerr’s magnificent performance, as a woman slowly unravelling and becoming more and more scared before our eyes. I highly recommend watching The Innocents on a dark night, or on a dark and stormy afternoon.

Jay – Blogger at Cinema Essentials

Night Of The Demon (1957)

My favourite classic horror film is probably Night of the Demon (1957), also known as Curse of the Demon.

The film stars Dana Andrews as a doctor visiting England for a conference on paranormal psychology. While there he incurs the wrath of cult leader Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) for suggesting that he is a charlatan. Unfortunately, people who get on the wrong side of Karswell tend to meet with unfortunate accidents. He places a curse on Holden that will summon an ancient demon, telling him that the curse will be lifted if he retracts his claims. But Holden loses the parchment he was given inscribed with the curse, meaning that the demon is coming anyway, no matter what.

Night of the Demon is a wonderfully atmospheric film directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) and based on a story by M. R. James. Dana Andrews is a bit wooden as the lead, but MacGinnis is fine as a warlock who has unleashed forces he can’t really control. Despite the controversial decision to show the demon, there’s plenty of spookiness and suspense here, and a terrific finale as Andrews and MacGinnis both try to pass the cursed parchment onto each other before the demon arrives to claim its victim.

Frankenstein (1931)

My own choice can only be the film which would not only help establish the classic horror film cycle of the early 1930s at Universal but also made Boris Karloff a star – of course that can only mean Frankenstein (1931).

Karloff’s amazing performance saw him steal the film from everyone, including Colin Clive in the title role as the scientist looking for the secrets of life. Whilst the iconic make-up was crucial in shaping the monster, Karloff’s sensitivity and quality as an actor truly brought it to life.

Some of the film’s classic scenes have become templates in film-making, as well as some of the most iconic moments in film history: the laboratory scene and the moment the monster comes alive, the first time the audience sees the monster, the innocent, touching yet tragic interaction with the girl at the lake, the mob with torches hunting the monster and the dramatic ending on the burning windmill. It all makes for a true classic of the silver screen and must-see viewing at Halloween.

A huge thank you to all contributors whose efforts are very much appreciated. Additionally, I encourage you to visit their blogs and sites to discover their work.

Hope you all enjoy Halloween and take the time to watch some classic horror films to give you chills and thrills!

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.

All The King’s Men (1949): The Power of the Political Drama

by Paul Batters

Do you know what good comes out of?…Out of bad. That’s what good comes out of. Because you can’t make it out of anything else. You didn’t know that, did you? Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford)

The ‘political drama’ is a concept fraught with trip-wires and potholes. It can lose its’ impact over time, either through the context becoming lost on newer audiences or simply because the story loses impact, particularly if it pales against current events. Neither rings true regarding All The King’s Men, a film whose key character and context runs almost too close to the events of the political sphere of 2020. Of course, the political drama can also be controversial, particularly if it is dealing with the corridors of power, politicians and leaders (real or supposed) and the machinations of governments.

Released through Columbia Studios and written, produced and directed by Robert Rossen, All The King’s Men was based on the 1946 Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. In hindsight, it’s incredible that the film was made. The very nature of the story, the Code (which forbid any condemnation of government and the political system) and the soon-to-dawn McCarthy Era in a fervent era of Cold War paranoia makes for a courageous production. (Rossen would find himself dragged before HUAC and questioned). It’s controversial nature also lies in its brutal honesty and cold realism, with a powerful and all-encompassing cynicism from which there is no redemption.

In the discussion of All The King’s Men, this review will not hold back from political discussion nor apologise for making political comment. Indeed, the nature of the film was to confront it’s audience with the dangers of populism, demagoguery, corruption, nepotism and how idealism can become stifled and destroyed by realpolitik. As a result, All The King’s Men cannot be discussed, in this reviewer’s opinion, without that political discourse, particularly in the current climate of not only U.S politics (on which the story draws from) but indeed politics around the world. Ultimately, All The King’s Men is a story of the rise and fall of Willie Stark and his character arc is a fascinating one. But Rossen was also making a comment on the very system which allowed for that rise to occur and what would follow in Stark’s wake.

Despite the obvious nods to the infamous Louisiana governor Huey Long, the fictional character of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a complex individual who initially appears as a possible hero. Initially, the audience discovers a man who wants to do good and make positive changes to his community, yet finds himself alone, stifled and bullied into submission and failure. His apparent decency may very well be part of his undoing but it is also his naivety of the political game that marks his early political failures. However, he is a very quick learner and after an attempt by the local party machine to use him, Stark gets wise and knows what he has to do to win.

The power of populism as a force to gain political power is employed by Willie Stark, driven by an instinctive understanding rather than the seasoned nuances of a politician. Stark understands whose support he needs – the average Joe, the ‘hicks’ – and he is smart enough to include himself as one of them. As Governor, he distances himself from the party machinations and usual political shylocking whilst involving himself in them with an all or nothing approach. Yet he is also open about the need for deal-making, if he can achieve his aims and objectives for the people of the state. The extremes that Willie Stark will go to are simply a means to an end; case in point, his impeachment which will see him tell his supporters that the impeachment is not an attack on him but an attack on them. In another instance, he tries to find ‘dirt’ on Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf), the attorney-general who has resigned with disgust from Stark’s administration. The parallels to the current political climate need not be drawn out.

The tragedy is that Willie Stark was a man who sought to fight the good fight but sold out his principles and values for power and influence. Any semblance of good has been supplanted by the poison of cynicism and the harsh realities of the political game. Yet he has a loyal base of support and the voters believe in his program, despite his many sins, and appear totally accepting of the man who speaks their language. But the fact that the newspapers and radio have been manipulated also suggests the dangers of a monopolised media – and again, the relevance of this to today is clear. The newsreel which Stark and his inner circle watch which asks is he ‘messiah or dictator?’ highlights the polarisation of politics in Stark’s state and the problems that emerge from such a polarisation. There are some terrifying, prophetic images of Stark’s base marching with torches and backed by Stark’s own private force. Rossen’s commentary on the dangers of fascism are more than evident.

As William Brogdon pointed out in his 1949 review in Variety, ‘the politics practiced, in the story were not Long’s alone’. Interestingly enough, Columbia’s infamous boss Harry Cohn would become almost obsessed with the character of Willie Stark, seeing traits of the man within himself and perhaps recognising the modus operandi that he himself employed in his own studio. Like Stark, Cohn was a self-made man and also used punishment and reward as a means of executing his power and authority. To Cohn’s credit, he gave Rossen plenty of freedom and went with Rossen’s decisions, particularly with the key decision of casting Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark (Cohn had wanted Spencer Tracy, Rossen stuck to his guns).

Production-wise, Rossen crafts a film with a starkness, obviously inspired by the Italian Realists. The documentary-style shooting, however, is also crossed with elements of noir, as much in rich tones as cinematic technique. Particularly effective are the use of montage sequences to track his rise to power and the election process as he gets there. The audience watches a man with a strong solid compass slide into a man thirsty for power. Despite the monstrous things that Willie Stark does, as Governor he actually does some amazing things for his state; incredible infrastructure programs, better education and health opportunities and in all of his megalomania he never loses touch with the people. Nevertheless, Willie Stark uses his touch with the people to use and abuse his mandate, as well all the vestiges of democracy including the judiciary, the electoral system and his position as governor.

The question also arises if Willie Stark was ever the moral man and always a man wanting power just waiting to emerge. It’s a compelling argument aided and abetted by Rossen in subtle ways, as much as by the blunt realism of the camera work. The montage that truly highlights Willie Stark’s road to Emmaus moment is his fairground speech. Intercut with real townspeople (from around the North California state) and again shot in the documentary/newsreel style, it is the powerful turning point where Willie Stark the idealist and naïve political pawn becomes Willie Stark the political realist and head-kicker.

The story is told through Jack Burden (John Ireland), a reporter who will become very close to Stark and part of his inner circle. His idealism, too, will take a steep nose-dive and his bitter cynicism will eat away at him, as he also watches the girl he loves, Anne (Joanne Dru), become Willie’s mistress. Ireland is solid in his performance but perhaps the most telling character in the inner circle is Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge). Sadie is also cynical and hard, initially part of the scheme to use Willie but she falls for him and remains loyal, hoping against hope that Willie will leave his wife for her. But she cannot compete physically with the younger and more beautiful Anne. The hard and tough secretary looking in the mirror and lamenting the scars of childhood smallpox is a sad and difficult moment to watch. McCambridge is outstanding as Sadie and deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts.

The film though belongs to Broderick Crawford and despite a magnificent cast, he carries the heavy weight of the film with drive and determination. It’s a heck of a character arc to build and deliver from social crusader to a monstrous political beast, particularly in a film that was highly controversial. Cohn and the studio wanted a big name to assure the film’s success and Crawford was a relatively unknown quantity. It’s perhaps his greatest performance, one that is genuine and authentic and Crawford would be rewarded with the Best Actor Oscar as a result.

The greatest irony of all is that Willie Stark becomes what he first claimed to detest, and the family he sought to look after and protect is abused and used for his political purposes. His son Tom (John Derek) pays a terrible price and though not explicitly portrayed, the sense of a son filled with admiration for his father collapsing into disgust and hatred, is certainly part of the overall tragedy. His wife Lucy (Anne Seymour) who has loved and supported him through the difficult times is cast aside and plays along with the façade. Her stoicism and love for her son shows a greater strength of character than initially supposed. Willie betrays those who have given their lives to him and ultimately betrays himself as well, as he gives himself over to drink, thirst for power and a fall for his own megalomania. In this sense, All The King’s Men is as much a Greek tragedy as it is a political drama. Stark is a fallen king intoxicated by his own hubris as much by the alcohol he consumes.

All The King’s Men would also win Best Picture and whilst Rossen missed out on Best Director, his vision was realised. Sadly, Rossen would face greater pain by being blacklisted and despite later success with The Hustler (1961), would fall ill and die in 1966.

The parameters of Willie Stark’s character perhaps do not seem so extreme in the modern era where a man like Donald Trump becomes the U.S President. But the film does make the dangerous point that the machinations of the political machine allows for the creation of such people and that corruption, nepotism and the opportunities for populists are endemic to the system not the people that it creates. Stark is a product of the system and learns that for him to benefit from it, he needs to work within it and even corrupt it further. As outlined earlier, this was a dangerous and highly incendiary commentary on American politics for the time, though also understandable against the backdrop of post-war cynicism.

William Brogdon’s 1949 Variety review stated ‘the chicanery of politics as have been practiced in the past… may crop up again’. Truer words were never spoken as we scan the political landscape of the last five years.

This article is an entry in the CMBA Politics On Film Blogathon for October 20 – 23. Thank you so much for the opportunity to take part. I encourage to visit the link (above) to read some interesting articles on Politics On Film.

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 Mummy (1932): A Unique Monster in the Universal Pantheon Of Monsters

by Paul Batters

 ‘My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods‘ Imhotep (Boris Karloff)

Directed by the great cinematographer Karl Freund, The Mummy (1932) is one of the great films from the classic horror cycle that began at Universal with Dracula (1931). A huge success at the time, it would cement Karloff (billed by only his last name) as a huge star. 

With Boris Karloff now hailed as the heir to the throne vacated by the death of Lon Chaney Snr (and incidentally and arguably missed out on by Bela Lugosi), opportunities for his talents were sought out after his film-stealing performance as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Like the Monster ‘created’ by Colin Clive, Karloff’s Imhotep would also be brough to life. However, unlike the determined doctor using science to bring his creature to life, the long-dead mummified body of Imhotep would be re-animated by magic. Thus The Mummy is truly a supernatural horror film, closer in essence to its’ predecessor Dracula and indeed even sharing similar tropes.

What makes The Mummy unique is that the story is one not directly drawn from a literary classic or traditional folklore. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, and even The Wolfman, the story of The Mummy was one concocted from the minds of movie-makers alone. True, the idea of a mummy brought back to life had emerged during the silent era but it the story for the 1932 classic came primarily from the writing of John Balderston and the creative team at Universal. Balderston, of course, is famous for the stage-play he co-wrote for Dracula, which would be adapted for the film version. Gifted with the job of writing the screenplay for The Mummy, Balderston borrowed the key storyline from Dracula and adapted it to the idea of a re-animated mummy seeking out the reincarnation of his former love and doing battle with those trying to protect her. 

There are carbon copy elements from Dracula down to characterisation and casting as well. Like the vampire count, Imhotep aka Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) is a supernatural being with a powerful will, incredible powers of telepathy and hypnotism and great wisdom and knowledge from their dark powers. Perhaps the most important aspect of the story was taken from the stage production of Dracula, was the concept of the undead being seeking out the reincarnation of his long dead love. It was a plot device that worked well and adds a tragic, as well as horrific element to the story. Zita Johann would play Helen Grosvenor/Princess Ankh-es-en-Amun and despite a solid stage career, is primarily known for her role as the object Imhotep’s love and desire. David Manners plays a similar role to the one he played in Dracula as Frank Whemple, the young man in love with Helen and seeking to protect her. And the ever-wise and sagacious expert of the occult is again played by Edward Van Sloan, this time named Professor Muller. 

Of course, at the time of the film’s production, the world was still excited by and in the grip of ‘Tutmania’ and the mysteries of Ancient Egypt after the exciting discovery of the Boy-King’s tomb in 1922. Surrounding the discovery was a great deal of sensationalism and mystery, particularly with the story of the ‘curse’ (a completely invented tale to sell newspapers) and the amazing finds in the tomb. Note that the opening of the film starts with the ‘1921 Expedition’ which is certainly a nod to Carter’s 1922 discovery. Indeed the love of Imhotep is named after the wife of Tutankhamun. But of course, in classic Hollywood style, a fair amount of the ‘Egyptology’ in the film is invented and appropriated rather than based in fact and history. But it feels convincing and authentic, which is the key to a film’s success – convincing the audience of its believability.

Yet, interestingly enough there were other influences outside of Ancient Egypt and the already lifted tropes from Dracula. As film historian Paul M. Jensen points out, the story was also inspired and influenced by the short story written by Nina Wilcox Putnam called Cagliostro, a tale of an 18th century Italian occult figure who claimed to have lived through the ages. Balderston would also draw from this to shape the character of Imhotep. Initially, Cagliostro was the vehicle for Karloff which Universal wanted to capitalise on after his amazing success after Frankenstein. The Mummy would be the final result. 

From start to finish, The Mummy is an eerie homage to the tragedy of love unfounded, as much as it is an atmospheric horror-melodrama. The opening scenes are unforgettable and perhaps the most memorable in the film, as the audience watches the young archaeologist (Bramwell Fletcher) scream and go mad with an endless, maniacal laugh as the re-animated mummy goes ‘for a little walk’. It remains a remarkable moment in classic film yet the only time that the audience sees Karloff in the celebrated and heavily promoted make-up, created by the legendary Jack Pierce. Yet the dread and menace of Ardeth Bey touched with the pathos and tragedy of his cruel death and lost love, is beautifully conveyed by Karloff. His stiff movement and measured tone barely hides the power underneath. His deathly stare would become famous as well, with Freund perfecting the technique he pioneered in Dracula by directing two lights into Karloff’s eyes. Freund’s camera work lifts the film out of his own sometimes pedestrian direction. 

The flashback is also exceptional and gives fascinating back story, as well as give the audiences the depth of the tragedy of Imhotep and the sheer horror of his punishment by being buried alive. It feels like a silent film within the main story and the audience cannot help but feel sympathy for the terrible fate of Imhotep, even if his alias Ardeth Bey emanates fear and dread. It’s a strong visual montage sequence that gives The Mummy a greater depth and perspective.

There are many wonderful moments of supernatural horror and magic, which also make the story unique. The Scroll of Thoth (an invented plot device) is more than superstition but has a magical power that is all too evident to not only Imhotep but the learned Muller – and of course the audience discovers this in the opening scene. Statues come alive to give warning or execute justice and offer protection (as is the key role of the goddess Isis) which is particularly effective and again assists in underpinning the supernatural atmosphere of the film. The effect of Imhotep reaching out to send death to those attempting to thwart his plans add to the tension, as well as highlight how dangerous and determined the risen mummy is in his quest.

Of the classic monsters, the Mummy itself is perhaps over-shadowed by the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and The Wolfman and does not seem to inspire the same dread and fear as its’ fellow creatures. It is perhaps also unfortunate that it would be nearly ten years before the next cycle of ‘Mummy’ movies would be produced by Universal. Whilst enjoyable and certainly lots of fun, the pedigree isn’t there and they are a far cry from the atmosphere and quality of the original film. In fact, other than the title, the four latter films hold no real connection with the original film, other than exploiting the make-up and re-using scenes from the original. In some ways, the Mummy has suffered the same fate as the Frankenstein Monster, becoming a one-dimensional and mindless automaton instead of the tortured and tragic figure as first portrayed.

Nevertheless, The Mummy is a wonderful showcase for the talents of Boris Karloff. The film remains a jewel in the Universal crown of classic film and one that still gives classic film fans the chills. 

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.

Rear Window (1954): Hitchcock And The Audience As Voyeur

by Paul Batters
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‘That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public’ – Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey)

Often described as one of the greatest directors of all time (and deservedly so), Alfred Hitchcock knew how to play his audience and to paraphrase a line from The 39 Steps (1935) ‘lead them down the garden path’. Hitchcock did so not only through brilliant execution of cinematic technique, fascinating character arcs and truly thrilling plots but because he knew his audience. Francois Truffaut made the interesting observation, that Hitchcock shaped his films by asking ‘all the questions (he thinks) will interest (the) audience’.

Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated masterpieces and one which usually tops the lists of favourite Hitchcock films. Critics raved about it at the time, with Bosley Crowther acclaiming the film’s tension and plot whilst also its’ thematic concerns. That acclaim has not died down. In 2000, Roger Ebert made the fascinating point that what was ‘intended as entertainment in 1954, is now revealed as art’. Indeed.

Photographer L.B Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is stuck in his apartment and laid up with a broken leg. Called ‘Jeff’ by his fiancée, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), he’s a frustrated man as his very nature as well as his job is to be out and about taking photos. Lisa is a beautiful fashion model and it is obvious to the audience that she wants to desperately be with him but is frustrated by his distance. The only other visitor is his therapeutic masseuse Stella (Thelma Ritter) whose early comments offer some foreshadowing to the greater crime that will follow.

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As Jeff sits in his apartment, he looks out his window and in his direct line of sight are a series of apartments into which he watches the goings-on of their occupants. Jeff becomes immersed in what they do from the mundane to the sad and eventually the tragic. As Andrew Peachment states in Time Out: ‘everyone’s dirty linen: suicide, broken dreams, and cheap death…’ is hung out for all to see. As the story unfolds, Jeff will become more than a passive witness to all of this and find himself immersed in a murder mystery. This reviewer will leave you to discover that journey yourself! Needless to say, as much as Jeff’s involvement appears as passive, he will not remain as a strict spectator.

Hitchcock knows exactly how to draw in the audience from the moment the film begins. The camera not only guides the eye of the audience but becomes the eye of the audience, tracking across the neighbourhood and settling along the way on small details, seemingly simple moments until it sets itself on what will be the centre of attention. Before long, the camera and the eye of the audience will meld into the view of the protagonist and our journey ‘down the garden path’ begins with Jeff. It is a brilliant and incredibly empathetic approach from Hitchcock and his knowledge of his audience shines from the opening. Of course, the powerful irony is that the audience experiences it all through the eye of the camera.

 

But it is not enough for Jeff to watch with the naked eye and he uses his expertise with the camera, to get a closer, deeper and more refined view to feed his obsession. Interestingly, enough the camera acts as multi-functional tool for Jeff; it gives him greater and closer access but it still remains a barrier or shield, it provides greater intimacy yet provides him with distance and allows him penetration without fear of impotence.

Rear Window is a film about intimacy and the powerful irony of a man who watches the intimate moments of others whilst avoiding a more intimate and deeply emotional involvement with Lisa. Ebert has suggested that Jeff’s avoidance of something deeper with Lisa is a fear of impotence, symbolised in great part by being stuck with a full leg cast. If going by the many psychoanalytical essays written on Hitchcock’s sexual pathology, Truffaut’s statement that Hitchcock is revealing a great deal of himself in the film rings true.

Grace Kelly is unbelievably stunning whose ice-cold blonde beauty is one of controlled eroticism. Certainly a favourite of Hitchcock’s, the audience gets the sense that the focus should be on Kelly’s sexual allure and incredible beauty and not on what is happening in the apartments of other people. Indeed, one cannot help wondering ‘what the hell is wrong with this guy?’. Of course, with voyeurism comes a price.

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Yet this links to the theme of obsession, one which Hitchcock regularly explored, most famously in Vertigo (1958). Of course, both Vertigo and Rear Window star Jimmy Stewart, in two very different roles yet both sharing an obsession with what they see. For Scotty, it is obsession with Madeline; for Jeff it is an obsession with the lives of his neighbours. Yet they also share a deeply-rooted problem with intimacy – Scotty cannot make that physical connection with ‘Judy’ until she transforms into Madeline, the woman with whom his obsession took root. Indeed, he becomes obsessed with transforming ‘Judy’, objectifying his obsession and driving her to exasperation. His ‘impotence’ is ‘cured’ once the transformation is realised.

Jeff is similarly impotent, as discussed earlier, and indeed completely imprisoned as well as incapacitated by his predicament. The only release that he has is to watch his neighbours and thus this becomes his obsession. It is also one which creates an intimacy without being intimate, and additionally an escape. His broken leg may very well be a hindrance to expressing love and connection for Lisa but the deeper symbolism holds far truer. But there is another level of intimacy that becomes apparent and that is that of the audience experience. It’s far easier to love from afar than finally have what he desires in his arms only to find that he cannot perform sexually. Avoiding that disappointment becomes the easier option. It is a foundational reality at the core of the theme of voyeurism. Michael Sragow in The New Yorker correctly describes Rear Window as ‘an audience-participation film’, although our own impotence is evident through the inability to act.

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That theme of voyeurism is also at the core of the film’s gaze. The audience and Jeff meld into one, both restricted to and yet drawn into the secretive world of Jeff’s view. His eye, the audience and the camera all become the one vision, which as a result will also heighten the tension and leave us bound by Jeff, as much as he is bound by his broken leg. Perhaps this is part of Hitchcock’s little joke on us. Of course, the tension and danger are also born out of his inability to act, as the audience watches the danger unfold and like Jeff all that we can do is watch.

Rear Window is also a perfect example of how story is always the driving and central force of any film. The famous constructed courtyard set offers a view into many other apartment windows  and becomes an obvious focal point, due to Jeff’s incapacitation. But it also shows how suspense and tension does not need multiple or expansive sets, nor incredible special effects. Nevertheless, the real art of the set is found in its’ construction; far more intricate than meets the eye.

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There are other clever in-jokes as well. Listen carefully and you’ll notice Bing Crosby singing “To See You Is to Love You”, hinting further at Jeff’s obsessions and the addiction of voyeurism. (I can’t help but see this as foreshadowing of Vertigo!) Hitchcock was not simply a master of the visual but of the complete cinema experience, and was careful to use sound as a powerful part of that experience. Diegetic sound beckons to Jeff (and the audience) as it drifts across the courtyard, drawing him towards the windows across from him. It also amplifies that Jeff is a part of the neighbourhood, which he is only watching and not participating in. Of course, sounds such as a far-off siren not only signal life in a city but is also ominous for the danger that will unfold. To quote Peachment again, the audience in essence is watching a ‘silent film’ of other people’s lives, whether across a courtyard or up on a screen…’ with the sound of the action being incidental.

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Jeff gives his neighbours interesting and even humorous names (Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts etc), ‘knowing’ them from watching them. Yet, does he know them or what is he projecting onto them? Jeff’s need to watch them and track their lives also exhibits an intimacy with being intimate.

Hitchcock holds the spell right through to the end. The final moments of the film between Jeff and Lisa suggest some sort of common ground to their relationship. Hitchcock gives the audience some sort of ending, regarding the neighbours whose lives have been carefully watched. A wry smile would surely appear on the audience’s face when the newlyweds have their first fight and the other ‘stories’ are also suitably dealt with.

And yet the greatest joke of all is that the audience shares that obsession with Jeff. We, too, enjoy watching what they are all doing and wonder how their story will unfold. All of Jeff’s neighbours have their own stories and perhaps we find kindred spirits in the lives of those we are watching. In the midst of our mild disapproval of Jeff’s actions, we are also voyeurs and the greatest irony is that as film-viewers, we too are enjoying intimacy without being intimate.

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 Citadel (1938): Robert Donat’s First Oscar Nominated Performance

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by Paul Batters

Robert Donat is perhaps one of the most loved actors from the golden years of Hollywood and is best remembered for his Oscar winning performance in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). It was and still is a beautiful and heart-warming performance, and deserves to be remembered as it still resonates with audiences today. It is one of my favourite films which I discovered as a child but it was not my first experience watching Robert Donat. That discovery came with the film which would draw his first Oscar nomination; 1938’s The Citadel. 

It’s also a performance that does not get the acclaim that it deserves and has been greatly overshadowed by the film which eventually brought Donat his Oscar win in 1939.

Based on A.J Cronin’s novel. The Citadel tells the story of Dr. Andrew Manson (Robert Donat) and follows a character arc which sees him shift from a young, idealistic doctor looking to bring change to the world to losing his faith in himself and the world and discovering it again. As a result, the story still resonates and there are some powerful themes that also still resonate, particularly in light of the current socio-economic and political climate of today – the divisions of class that exist within society, the contrasting lives of the poor and the privileged, the lack of health care for the poor and needy and certainly the lack of action on the part of the authorities to accept the need for change and adopt new technologies as well as new thinking.

Yet at the very personal level there exists something that is timeless; the idealism of youth that turns to disillusionment and despair. Critic David Kehr outlines in his review that director King Vidor was always fascinated by the concept of personal rebirth and that certainly comes through strong in the film, as evidenced by the uplifting climax. If anything, it is the central theme of the film which also has a powerful universal connection to audiences. How many of us have felt our idealism slip away or eroded over time or indeed even destroyed quite suddenly? And how many of us have rediscovered that idealism? Two deeply personal questions but ones that legendary directors like Vidor were driven by and Donat certainly seeks to channel answers through his portrayal of Dr. Manson.

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The young doctor is assigned to the mining village of Blaenely, working under the tutelage of Dr. Page (Basil Gill). The opening scenes show Manson’s excitement as he travels there by train, looking at the countryside as well as some of the conditions the men are working under. There is a foreshadowing of what he will face and perhaps what will temper (and then mute) his idealism when he is warned by the coach driver.

Initially, Manson works hard to treat the local miners and notices that their impoverished life and conditions leave them in misery. Yet all his attempts to bring positive change are thwarted, not only by the authorities but also by the miners themselves. He finds friendship in fellow doctor Denny (Ralph Richardson) who will be a great support and indeed share the same ideal, going to incredible and dangerous lengths to do something about the problems of a possible typhoid break out in the town. True happiness will be found in Christine, a school teacher (Rosalind Russell), whom he will marry afters securing his position as a doctor, although their first meeting will not be a pleasant one. However, after Christine comes to him as a patient for a sore throat, something happens between them. But it seems it is not enough and all his efforts in the town come to nothing, leaving the young dejected and lost, and after a particularly traumatic incident, the couple move to London.

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It will be here that he runs into an old classmate from medical school, Dr.Lawrence (Rex Harrison) and Manson finds himself converted to Lawrence’s way of thinking, to Christine’s disappointment. He becomes a very successful doctor for the upper class of London and enjoys the benefits and money that comes with it. But at what cost?

 

This reviewer will not divulge what follows but it will take not only Christine’s pleading to remember who he was and the ideals they both shared, as well as some tragedy, for Manson to realise what has happened to him. Again, Dr. Manson will find the fire within to act for what is best and the final scene is a strong ending, befitting theme of rebirth which Vidor felt so driven by in his films.

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Robert Donat planned his portrayal carefully, measured within the development of his craft and particularly the development of ‘The Emotion Chart’, that was used in preparation for his role as Dr. Manson. Donat saw the importance of regulating the emotional content of the performance, using the character arc as the guide and plotting the emotional response to the ups and downs of the character’s life.  Vicky Lowe’s article in Film History (2007) looks at Donat’s methodology used in The Citadel with incredible depth. She points out that Donat allowed his acting to be informed by other moments in the story whilst in character and thus using the appropriate emotional timbre for that moment, dependant on what had happened before and afterwards in the plot. As a result, the audience can see the dissolving of Manson’s moral resolve and his idealism dissipating which will lead him to a more lucrative professional outlook, underpinned by his disillusionment. But the audience also see Manson’s growth through the key turning points in the film, particularly the first where Manson first feels like a ‘real doctor’ when he saves the premature Morgan baby. Donat’s whole approach to the moment draws our empathy and it is the moment that connection is made firmly with the deepest investment into the character of Dr. Manson. Naturally, this is beautifully aided by the camera work, using close-ups on Donat’s face and so it is through his experience and interpretation that the moment is experienced by the audience. His point of view and his vocation as a doctor finally becomes a reality for both Manson and the audience.

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The whole cast is exceptional with outstanding British luminaries such as Richardson, Harrison, Emily Williams and a host of other familiar faces from British stage and screen. As a prestige MGM feature made and produced in Britain, the authenticity is not lost with the addition of the beautiful Rosalind Russell, who was the only American in the cast. According to her fascinating autobiography, Life is a Banquet, Russell did not feel particularly welcome as the local British industry felt an English girl should have held the role. Any animosity certainly did not transfer onto the screen and Russell is outstanding in her supporting role, which she had built a career on at that time at MGM. But Russell’s character of Christine is far more than that; she is a strong character who works to revive Manson’s conscience and rediscover his idealism.

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In truth, the film runs close to the wind in terms of preachiness but when considering the state of the world in 1938, it is understandable. Additionally, the film was a first to champion the need for reform in medical institutions which was quite a courageous act as well. Sally Dux in her interesting 2012 article in the Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television also points out that it was an important film in depicting the incredible social and class divisions that existed in Britain at the time and thus also significant ‘in the depiction of social realism in British cinema… resulting in its pivotal position in the story of the founding of the National Health Service in 1948’. Quite a feat indeed and also indicates that the power of film to influence and bring about positive change in the world has long existed.

What keeps the film together other than the strong performances is the hand of brilliant director, King Vidor, who anchors the film with his vision and knowledge of how to craft a film. Allowing the content of the film to mould and shape the direction of the film, Vidor allowed for the realism previously mentioned to work through. Donat as a result found a solid framework within which to build and develop his portrayal.

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The Citadel was well-received by a number of publications such as the New York Times and when watching Donat’s performance, it is no surprise that he was nominated for an Oscar. The film would also receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay as well, receiving no wins but it was up against some very tough competition in 1938.

As always Robert Donat brings incredible dignity and humanity to the role of Dr. Andrew Manson and was a deserved recipient of the Best Actor nomination. He would lose to Spencer Tracy (for Boys Town) but as classic film fans know, the following year would see him win against the likes of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Laurence Olivier in the year considered the greatest of the golden years. However, it would be foolish to look past Robert Donat in The Citadel and any fan of the great actor should take the time to revisit this wonderful film.

This article is an entry for the Robert Donat Blogathon kindly run by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please visit her site for some wonderful entries on the great actor and of course take the chance to read some great work from Maddy as well.

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 Sunshine Blogger Award – A Second Time Honour!

by Paul Batters

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It is an absolute thrill to receive this award a second time and I cannot thank Brittaney from The Story Enthusiast enough. It is very kind and thoughtful of you to think of me, and similarly I think I needed this award at this time to boost spirits. It’s nice to be recognised and this award gives impetus to bloggers to continue writing and not be disheartened.

In keeping with the process, I’ll first state the rules of the award nomination.

  1. List the award’s official rules
  2. Display the award’s official logo somewhere on your blog
  3. Thank the person who nominated you
  4. Provide a link to your nominator’s blog
  5. Answer your nominator’s questions
  6. Nominate up to 11 bloggers
  7. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  8. Notify your nominees by commenting on at least one of their blog posts

Here are the answers to the questions kindly provided by Brittaney. 

1. What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?

To be honest, this would greatly be impacted by what type of cinematic experience they were after.

I would probably direct them to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1945) as a dark yet beautiful and tragic fairy tale. The magic and fantasy of Cocteau’s vision is stunning and unforgettable.

In terms of Italian Realism, then I would direct them to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), which I think is one of the greatest films ever made and inspired so many international directors.

For sheer beautiful sentimentality and an ending I cry to EVERY time I see it, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) is a masterpiece.

To choose a British film is near impossible but if I had to choose ONE as an introduction it would probably be a pre-Hollywood Hitchcock like The Thirty Nine Steps (1935), simply because it’s one of my favourites.


2. Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favourite of their films?

Hitchcock is a stand-out and whilst I have the greatest affection for most of his films, Vertigo is the one which reaches deep into me every time. A real masterpiece in every way.

Also a huge fan of John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle) and Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution).

3. Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?

Oh Claude Rains certainly and indeed showed that he could in a few films. For me, Rains is one of the most incredible actors – period. He would have also been a great success in the modern era as well.

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4. What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?

Bobby Driscoll is a child actor who had wonderful potential but was treated poorly, cast aside and followed a tragic course that ended his life. If things had been different and he had been taken care of as a boy, we may have seen Driscoll become successful as an adult.

5. What film do you love, but dislike the ending?

I wouldn’t say I ‘love’ Schindler’s List but it is one with an ending that I have found problematic. Over time, I have found myself less enamoured with the film, even though it was an Oscar winner and had a massive impact. In fairness, it is impossible to bring to the screen the horror of the Holocaust and do justice to those that suffered (although Come And See (1985) is quite a harrowing film in presenting Nazi atrocities in the East). But Schindler’s List does have its’ issues.

For me the ending is one of the key issues. It seems to shift our emotions as an audience to the figure of Oskar Schindler himself, instead of the millions of Jews, Roma, political prisoners, POWs and others who were murdered by the Nazis. It feels like Spielberg is going for the Oscar winning moment with Schindler declaring ‘I didn’t do enough’ and the orchestral manipulation of our emotions as we cry for Schindler becomes a strange sort of catharsis. Who should we actually be crying for?

The moment at the actual grave of Oskar Schindler is bittersweet but again our attention is drawn away from who the victims of the Nazis were and are. I would have ended it in the following way:

After Oskar Schindler declares the war over to the gathered workers and the SS guards ‘leave as men not murderers’ and asks to observe three minutes of silence, the audience hears a sole voice singing which leads to a candle being re-lit and a return to colour. Fin.

6. Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?

I must say that Cary Grant looks impeccable and would undoubtedly stake a claim on his wardrobe.

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7. Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?

There are certainly many original films which should not be remade. Yet some original films (such as 1930’s The Maltese Falcon and 1936’s Satan Met A Lady) were remade (in the aforementioned case as 1941’s The Maltese Falcon) and became iconic films.
I’m also going to cheat with this question and ‘remake’ and partially recast a film by doing so at the time it was made.

The film I would remake would be Dracula (1931) and whilst keeping Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing and Dwight Frye as Renfield, I would make the additional changes to the cast:

                                                           Mina – Madeleine Carroll                              

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                                                             Harker – Robert Donat

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                                                           Dr. Seward – Claude Rains 

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                                                                Lucy – Myrna Loy

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Certainly the first part of the film would remain unchanged, as Lugosi’s entrance is legendary and his interaction with Renfield especially memorable.
I would like to add more of Dracula’s brides attempt to seduce Renfield, as well as Renfield’s view of Dracula – imagine seeing Lugosi scamper like a lizard down the side of his castle!

Lucy’s demise and vampirization would be further delved into, with the infamous delving into the crypt to confront her as a vampire also depicted. It’s just too good an opportunity to ignore.

The much criticised anti-climactic ending would obviously be far better done, with the Count being staked in full view of the audience (or at least show Lugosi’s face and a wonderful supernatural ending to the vampire).

8. Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?

Something tells me that Joan Crawford would have been successful. She was tough enough and determined to make it in a very different time under very hard circumstances. Crawford was also incredibly hard-working and adaptable, with a career that spanned five decades – that’s pretty good going!

9. What film trope do you never tire of seeing?

I’ve never tired of the MacGuffin and the way that outstanding directors use it. Hitchcock, of course, used it perfectly, and John Huston used a MacGuffin in The Maltese Falcon.

10. If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?

I’m going to cheat here and include a response I previously used for a similar question elsewhere. But I cannot get past Budd Schulberg’s book ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ – not because it’s a favourite per se as many books I love have been made into films but because it’s a powerful book and should be made. I know and understand the stories behind why it’s never been made as a film, as it is a terrifyingly cynical view of the film industry.

In terms of casting, it’s very difficult which might also explain why it was never made. But I’ll take my best shot, using actors from the classic era.

Al Mannheim: Dana Andrews
Sammy Glick: Frank Sinatra
Cathy ‘Kit’ Sargent: Teresa Wright
Sidney Fineman: James Gleason
‘Sheik’: Anthony Quinn
Laurette Harrington: Martha Hyer
Carter Judd: Jeffrey Hunter
Rosalie Goldblaum: Cathy O’Donnell

11. Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

George Clooney and Jessica Chastain. Both have an amazing quality on the screen, photography beautifully and most importantly are outstanding actors who bring their A game to every performance.

The Nominees

I now nominate the following bloggers for the Sunshine Blogger Award. All of these are classic film bloggers are wonderful writers and I encourage you to check out their sites if you haven’t already.

Silver Scenes

Classic Movie Man

Out Of The Past

Stars And Letters

Cinematic Catharsis

The Classic Movie Muse

Silver Screenings

Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

The Last Drive In

4 Star Films

I Found It At The Movies

The Questions

The questions I was given by Brittaney were fun and challenging, and so I am going to offer them to the nominees as well.

  1. What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?
  2. Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favorite of their films?
  3. Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?
  4. What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?
  5. What film do you love, but dislike the ending?
  6. Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?
  7. Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?
  8. Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?
  9. What film trope do you never tire of seeing?
  10. If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?
  11. Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

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.

 

Great Films Of The 1970s: The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974)

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by Paul Batters

“Gesundheit” – Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau)

The heist film is always one that draws in an audience at a number of levels. Like a number of other like films in the early 1970s, the term ‘multiple jeopardy’ could apply. But I don’t think it trips into that very clichéd formula, which it could quite easily have done. The Hollywood Reporter points out that The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three had a plot that was “perfect for the national obsession with disaster.” But it isn’t truly a disaster flick a la The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. In my humble opinion, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three fits more with what critics Emmanuel Levy and Dave Kehr call a focus on ‘urban paranoia’. After all, the story is set in New York, which during the 1970s and into the 1980s became synonymous with crime and danger. True, there aren’t the visuals of typical urban decay or graffiti scarred trains and subways, but we get the gist of it.

The plot is simple enough and certainly not complicated. Led by Mr. ‘Blue’ (Robert Shaw), four disguised men with equally colorful names hijack a train and hold the passengers hostage, demanding $1 million in cash or they will start shooting the passengers one by one. Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) of the Transit Authority is trying to not only negotiate the situation but also keep the hostages safe and eventually catch the crooks. At its’ very core, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a heist film.

On the surface, you could argue that there’s nothing impressive about the plot. Filler for cable TV? A made for TV midday movie? Absolutely not.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is far better than that!

So what makes it work?

The Setting

From the opening scenes, the feel and atmosphere of the film exudes New York attitude at its’ finest and reflects the concept of urban paranoia. This is probably best expressed by John H. Dorr in his original release review in The Hollywood Reporter:

‘New Yorkers, packed together closer than any other people and living under the constant threat of municipal breakdown…’.  

The over-the-top bustling business of a major city is at every turn and there is even a feel of barely controlled chaos, from the efforts of the police to the general running of subway system, where naturally the bulk of the story is set. People are tired, fed-up and cynical and they deal with this specifically through raw humour that is expressly resigned to the fate of living in New York.  The characters of course are as much part of the animal that is New York as much as they are their own individual people, reflecting attitude that could be clichéd but actually reveals real humanity and their coping mechanisms for living in such a tumultuous city. The street scenes are also ultra-busy and even chaotic as the police try to grapple with the hostage situation and the usual New York traffic at the same time.  Even the mayor, assisted by the excellent and under-used .., wants nothing to do with his own city.

Of course, the irony is that the centre of it all occurs underneath the city in one quiet carriage filled with frightened people and a gang of four led by Mr. Blue. Filmed on the tracks of the famous the Court Street station in Brooklyn (also used in numerous films including The French Connection and the Pelham remake), it allowed for the realism that made it all work so well.

The diegetic sounds of the subways and trains also adds to a film that has a strong sense of realism and gives it, its’ gritty and raw atmosphere.

The Plot

It’s actually simple enough and almost too easy to follow. Yet we are all still wondering how the hell the gang is going to get away with it – and that’s what keep us hooked. Of course, in the course of determining how they will get away with it, there are the sarcastically soaked comments (“They’re gonna fly it to Cuba”) and even Garber offers his theory: “They’re gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred.” The truth is that no-one except the gang has an idea.

What also makes the plot work is that our focus is permanently affixed on the plot and not interrupted or distracted by side stories a la other films of the era (such as Airport, Earthquake etc). As Roger Ebert opined, ‘the hijack is worked out in a straightforward, plausible way; the film concentrates on the communications between Walter Matthau, trying to buy time, and Robert Shaw, maintaining credibility…’.

And the ending – one of the best and this reviewer won’t spoil it for you.

The Cast and Characterisation

The performances of Walter Matthau as Lieutenant Garber and Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue are the keystones to the film’s success. The contrast in characters could not be further from each other with Roger Ebert describing ‘these fine, detailed performancesWalter Matthau is gruff, shaggy and sardonic as a Transit Authority lieutenant; Robert Shaw is clipped and cruel..’. Matthau’s Garber is a joy to watch, with that perfect balance of grim humor, pragmatism and resignation whilst Shaw is icy and calculated, carefully annunciating his words without panic. But whilst Garber flexes his quick lip with everyone else around him, he’s professional and serious as he deals with Mr. Blue. Both lock in a tense arm wrestle as the time ticks away and their interaction drives the story forward. The tension is taut, timed and the perfect driver for this tale. 

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But it’s the supporting cast and incidental characters which also make the film work and give it depth and strength. Amongst the hijackers, Hector Elizondo as the psychotic Mr. Grey is believably dangerous and adds to the ongoing tension from the moment he lecherously flicks his tongue at an attractive lady on the train to his penchant for violence, as he casually tells a passenger that he ‘will shoot your pee-pee off’ whilst chewing gum, and looking for any excuse to commit an act of brutality. Martin Balsam as the nervous, former Transit employee with a grudge gives a solid and measured performance that he always delivered as an actor of his caliber.

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Dick O’Neill as Frank Correll, the bad-tempered controller, is a contrast to the relatively calm Garber and Jerry Stiller as Lieutenant Rico Patrone (‘who on weekends works for the Mafia’) shares Garber’s wry humour. Tom Pedi as the angry Transit supervisor who perennially yells finds an unsuspected fate that offers a quick turn from the humor. Even the short scenes with Lee Wallace as the Mayor and Tony Roberts as Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle are not overdone and add to the tension of the film, again perfectly peppered with humour.

Even the small, incidental roles are worthwhile. Waiting for the train he is about to hijack, Mr. Blue looks at the dandified Vietnam vet who catches Blue looking and asks ‘what’s wrong dude? Ain’t you never seen a sunset before?’ After brief contemplation, even the cool and deadly Mr. Blue cannot help but almost smile.

The Director

Joseph Sargent has spent the 1960s directing television before moving into television films and cinema releases in the 1970s. Best known for this film being reviewed, it was also his best work.

In terms of how characters are utilized, the director Joseph Sargent is astute in the concept that less is more. None of the characters are over-used and Sargent makes sure that the key focus is on his two main stars, Matthau and Shaw and the tension between them in resolving the hijack situation.

Sargent keeps the film taut by allowing some insight into the heist, with the plan going into action as soon as the film starts. He allows for some slackening just to hook the audience, relieving the pressure with incidental humor and then reeling us in, as the action gets more and more serious. As a result, Sargent shows himself as a director sensitive to the audience’s sense of story development and as Ebert mentions does not allow the film to fall into cliché but makes the story more than believable. The audience is constantly manipulated and just as we feel we have found the rhythm of the film, Sargent shifts the gears a little so to speak. Tension is manipulated with the subtle touch which assists in hooking the audience and at no point is it drawn out and over-cooked.

The Dialogue

Aside from what people say, how they say it is the greatest revealer of how people feel, what shapes their thoughts and what world they live in. The dialogue is all New York and reflects the frustrations living in a chaotic city, managed through cynical humor, heavy sarcasm and combative tones.

From start to finish, it’s sharp, quick and fully-loaded.

The key dialogue between Matthau and Shaw is particularly interesting because most of it happens over the train’s radio connection. The cool and measured tone of Shaw up against Matthau’s gravely, Lower East Side accent dripping with sarcastic asides and insults, works beautifully. But there is a bitterness to the humour and an acidity that is hard to miss between the laughs of the audience.

However, all the characters seem quick to insult with the fast talk and acidic sarcasm. Again, the dialogue is reflective of living in a chaotic New York. Contextually it was a time when New York was also bankrupt, suffering from urban decay and gang activity and a rising crime rate.

The Musical Score

It’s one of my favourite 70s film scores and it’s heaving basslines drive deep like the very subways that crisscross underneath New York City. Composed and conducted by David Shire (also responsible for The Conversation and All The President’s Men), the score is ‘every bit as vital to the film’s tempo, tone and key scenes’ as Steve Grzesiak correctly states. The funkiest horns stab across smooth and slippery percussion, giving the audience a sinister feel and a sense of mounting tension.

It’s a multi-layered groove that fits like a glove, reflecting the unpredictability of living in New York City, where you could be on your way home from work and find yourself taken hostage.

According to Grzesiak, ‘Shire was hired quite late and wasn’t given a huge amount of time to work with…’ but that’s what perhaps it ‘works in his favour’ so that when ‘the music starts up again, it actually feels like it matters’. There’s no wasted space or time and like the rest of the film, it leaves the music tight, taut and building the tension.

Final Comments

Michael Sragow in The New Yorker makes an accurate assessment of the film as ‘once, just a solid thriller, now a time capsule spiked with amphetamines. It doesn’t rely on the sparkles, noise and CGI that cinema has relied on for some time. Instead, we are gifted with a tough film that is trimmed of the fat. It shows what can be done with amazing talent, substance and lack of pretence. The Taking Of Pelham 1,2,3 is rarely spoken of when talking about films from the 1970s. But it should be and often.

This entry is inspired by Movie Rob‘s Guesstimation Series with a focus on New York Films of the 70’s, which he graciously allowed me to choose. Please visit Movie Rob to see his incredible reviews on great films from the 1970s. Thanks so much for the opportunity, Rob!

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.

Top Five Classics For Comfort – The Films We Turn To

by Paul Batters

Cinephiles, film fans, critics and academics have all locked horns, run debates and published on the question of what are the greatest films? Lists have been compiled by some of the most respected publications and the most learned, whilst the rest of us pour over these lists and either nod in agreement or guffaw in disgust. Case in point – some agreed wholeheartedly and others were shocked when Sight And Sound removed Citizen Kane (1941) from its reign at the top of the list and gave Vertigo (1958) the number one spot. There was then and still is plenty of discussion around such decisions and that’s as it should be.

However, when it comes to the question, ‘what films do you turn to for comfort?’, there are no incorrect answers. It’s totally subjective and that, too, is as it should be. We turn to some films that are particularly special to us, especially when we need that boost to our spirits or simply something to make us feel good inside or even an escape to somewhere else.

Taking this opportunity for the CMBA Comfort Classics Blogathon, here are five of my favourite Comfort Classics.

  1. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

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There are a few who condemn this film as the exploitive death knell of the classic Universal monster era and such criticism is understandable. Yet in fairness, any such exploitation was happening before the comedic duo crossed paths with our favourite monsters, and the shine and quality of the early 30s period was long gone. But it’s still a film that’s filled with fun and for many, including myself, it’s one of the first experiences of a wonderful partnership that stands the test of time.

As a child in the late 1970s in Australia, video was rare and most films appeared on television once a year. As a result, some films were a major event! When Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was scheduled (usually a midday treat on a weekend), neighbourhoods were cleared out as kids raced home to watch.

The story revolves around two hapless baggage handlers Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) who get all caught up in a mad monster mystery, crossing paths with the tormented Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jnr), who is trying to finally destroy the plans of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). There are plenty of scares and Bud and Lou pull off their routines with perfect timing and slick delivery. For me, some of the most effective moments are Bud and Lou’s scenes with Chaney, leaving the audience terrified whilst we are laughing.

The combination of horror and comedy made the film a smash hit at the time and helped not only to revive the duo’s slightly slipping popularity but also gave them a new template to work with. For many fans of Abbott and Costello, their meeting with the Universal monsters remains their favourite and the one that is best remembered. Those cold winter afternoons warm up for me whenever I slip Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein into the DVD player and the magic of childhood returns.

  1. King Kong (1933)

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The mightiest of monster movies – with the one true king being a 50 foot ape rampaging through jungles (both literal and urban ones) whilst holding onto a gorgeous girl screaming for her life. Does pure escapism get any better?

Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s incredible fantasy-action tale utilised Willis O’Brien’s then ground-breaking (and incredibly painstaking) stop-motion animation technique that still thrills. It was a gamble by RKO, spending nearly $700,000 during the Depression and long after the studio closed down, it’s still reaping the rewards. It’s got everything and as Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) declares to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) – ‘it’s money and adventure and fame…it’s the thrill of a lifetime!”. And there certainly is plenty of adventure, thrills and lots more besides. From the moment Kong first appears to his final fall from the Empire State Building, King Kong does not disappoint. The battle between Kong and the T-Rex is like watching a prize-fight (which was apparently inspired by the film-makers’ love of boxing and wrestling) and Kong rampaging through New York is pure mayhem.

Driven by Max Steiner’s superb score, King Kong deserves its place in cinema history but it also holds a special place in my heart. Whenever I watch it, before long I find myself transported to Skull Island to watch Kong in his kingdom, lament his capture and mourn his demise. It truly is a silver screen ‘thrill of a lifetime’ and a classic I turn to for a comforting dose of escapist fun.

  1. The Thin Man (1934)

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Not many films have that perfect combination of mystery, comedy and a little dash of screwball with a screen couple radiating incredible chemistry like The Thin Man (1934). It was a ground-breaking film which not only gave birth to one of the most successful and loved series of the classic era but would see Myrna Loy break the typecast roles she had been playing. Her comedic chops came to the fore, melding perfectly with William Powell, whose wit and ad-libbed moments brought a new sophistication to comedy. The sheer magic of the two on screen has a beautiful naturalness without any confection and that undoubtedly was the key reason for the film’s (and the subsequent series) success.

The Thin Man, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, is far more than a mystery. Neither was the well-paced film simply a vehicle for Powell and Loy. What emerged was something special that was not formulaic but formed from the natural chemistry of the two stars from a well-crafted script and the intelligent foresight of director W. S Van Dyke to let magic happen and ‘catch it’ when it happened. But that did mean that the shooting had to be tight and the cast had to know their dialogue.  

As much as I love the series, the first film is particularly magic for me. The feel of spontaneity, the playfulness and the witty banter makes for a fun filled 93 minutes. With Powell and Loy, there’s romance without the corn and sex without the sleaze. No wonder it was a huge hit on its’ release in 1934 – it’s still a huge hit for me and one I turn to often. Like Nick Charles with a mixer, it’s the perfect comfort cocktail. And boy, is Myrna Loy gorgeous!

  1. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

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Something tell me this film is on most people’s list and I imagine that’s not much of a surprise. The Wizard Of Oz is that trip over the rainbow that is clearly for ‘the young and the young at heart’. It gets the full MGM treatment, which means the best production quality, with a talented cast and of course some of the most famous musical numbers in cinema history.

For me, The Wizard Of Oz is not only a comfort classic but also holds a strong personal memory. As a child in Australia, colour television did not come to Australia until 1975. When my father brought home a colour television in 1976, the first film we watched as a family that evening was The Wizard Of Oz. That moment when sepia changes to bright Technicolor was a true moment of magic and no matter how many times I watch it, I still get teary.

I’m not particularly a fan of the musical but The Wizard Of Oz has a special place in my heart, and it is a film which I will often turn to for an indulgence.

  1. Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

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A murder trial may seem like the strangest subject for a comfort classic but Billy Wilder’s superb court-room drama is the perfect film to lose oneself in. Tight and taut, with the superb touch of humour that Wilder knew how to add without ruining the tension of the story, Witness For The Prosecution perhaps sets the bar for the classic shocking plot twist.

The film showcases incredible talent not only in its key stars but in the incredible supporting cast, mainly from a range of quality British actors and actresses. For all the brilliance that Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich bring to their performances, the film’s true star is Charles Laughton who is superb as Sir Wilfrid Robarts. The sharp wit, acerbic manner and dazzling mind of the highly respected yet unwell barrister keeps the audience hooked into the story without chance of escape.

I’ve watched the film countless times with a complete and full awareness of how the plot will unfold and what the now famous twist will be at the climax of the film. Yet I am always riveted by the story and the beautiful craftsmanship that goes into shaping the film. The energy in the courtroom never dissipates and the flashbacks add depth and value to the story. There’s no fat to be trimmed and each moment in the film is an important layering to character development as well.

It’s an impeccable film and one which I thoroughly enjoy. More than a favourite, it’s like an old friend whose conversation I always find sanctuary in. Witness For The Prosecution, like that old friend, never fails to disappoint.

This entry is part of the Classic Movie Bloggers Association Spring Blogathon: Classics For Comfort. It’s been a pleasure to take part and a special thank you to the CMBA for running a blogathon that is much needed at this time! Click on the link to discover what other bloggers have revealed about their comfort classics.

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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 Tomb Of Ligeia (1964): Vincent Price in his Gothic element

by Paul Batters

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“Man need not kneel before the angels, nor lie in death forever, but for the weakness of his feeble will.”

Vincent Price holds a warm place in the heart of many classic film fans. Whilst appearing in many films outside the horror genre in a variety of roles, Price is understandably associated with horror films. Without a doubt, Price had one of the most distinguishable voices and an incredible presence on the screen which could never go unnoticed.

My earliest memory of Vincent Price is of his appearance in the last of the Roger Corman films drawn from the tales of Edgar Allan, The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964). Incredibly, my parents allowed me to stay up with them when it was screened on television in the 1970s. At the time, naturally, I failed to grasp the deeper nuances of the film and was more taken by the looming presence of Price when he first appears on the screen. It felt scary at the time but I also recall being a little bored with it too, perhaps in great part because I could not comprehend all that was going on.

Now reviewing the film well over 40 years later, The Tomb Of Ligeia fares better with a more educated understanding of the film. Yet something still seems amiss.

The film opens ominously with a funeral, where Verden Fell (Vincent Price) is placing his apparently dead wide Ligeia in her tomb, amongst the ruins of an abbey. However, she will not be interred in peace as the local religious authorities pour scorn on the burial, claiming that her blasphemies and atheism do not afford her a Christian burial. Fell returns their scorn despite their curses on her but the sudden screeching appearance of a black cat on the coffin seems like an ominous moment, particularly when the eyes of Ligeia flick open. It is a very effective scene, as we are led into the titles and Price is as dominant a figure as ever, in his disdain and spite for those around him.

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Verden Fell appears to be a man haunted by his dead wife and his dark clothes and even darker demeanour suggest he is still in mourning. However, a chance meeting with the fair and lovely Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) during a hunting accident will lead to more, as she becomes drawn to him. Likewise, he eventually opens to her and after falling in love, the two marry. For a moment, the morbidity seems to dissipate but for the audience the ever-haunting words from the long-dead but enigmatic Ligeia herself whisper in the background – that she would be Verden’s wife forever. Indeed, even when they return to his home after the marriage, Verden’s happy outlook seems to return to the former haunted morbidity that enveloped him. Is Ligeia’s presence about to announce itself?

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Sure enough, their marriage is soon visited upon by the spirit of Ligeia, particularly in the form of the black cat. A number of times it even attacks Rowena, who also has strange dreams and appears even possessed at times.

The mystery builds as to Ligeia and Rowena’s former beau and fiancé Christopher Gough (John Westbrook) seems determined to discover the truth. The ending, far removed from the original story but very fitting for a Corman film, will see all revealed – Rowena’s horror is all apparent and Verden appears as a broken man given in to the madness which has closed his grip on him almost completely. The audience is left with the supporting cast to explain everything. But of course, the ending will be far more colourful than that. By the way, see if you can pick up some of the stock footage used in the grand finality. If you are familiar with Corman’s approach and his other Poe films, you won’t have to look too hard.

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As with a number of the Corman films, The Tomb Of Ligeia is loosely based on the Poe short story and the very nature of the story meant that screenwriter Robert Towne had to flesh out the story further for a full film production. As a result, there are some other familiar symbols employed, specifically the ‘black cat’ (which feels like more of an annoyance than an object of terror, and could be easily dispatched with by a swift kick).

The film was shot on location in England with exceptional use of the countryside and the ruined abbey. This is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the film and as Nate Yapp on classic-horror.com points out, releases “Ligeia from the stagy, claustrophobic studio sets that marked the rest of the series”. The subtle use of Dutch angles, colour and beautiful camera work achieves a spooky atmosphere with solid Gothic overtones. with the ruined abbey again beautifully used.

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Corman does build a suspenseful film with the help of Townes’ script but the tension loses its’ way during the second act and the atmosphere needs to be built up again (with a little too much help from the Ligeia-possessed cat and some inexplicable dreams that look parachuted in to help the re-building process. Some of the moments are effective, such as the broken mirror which reveals a doorway and the awful discovery at the tomb itself. However, the film seems to fall into cliché and the usual methods are employed to serve the audience with a climactic ending. Contrary to what some critics have suggested, there are plenty of Gothic elements still employed to hook the audience in – thunder and lightning, tombs, graves, haunted mansions, ruined abbeys and a dark past. Not to mention hints at necrophilia and insanity.

 

Corman would go on to say that he thought The Tomb Of Ligeia was one of his best Poe films. It is beautifully shot and the supporting cast do well. However, with all due respect to a man I greatly admire, I am not sure if audiences would agree. For a film clocking in at 81 minutes, it feels like double that in time. It is also certainly atmospheric with some frightful moments but not ones which will leave the audience reeling in horror. It looks polished but the veneer cannot hide that the film fails to click.

Price is certainly miscast in the role of Verdun Fell, with a younger actor more befitting in the part of the tragic and haunted figure. According to the April 2, 2008 issue of Cinemafantastique, Corman, whilst a huge fan of Price, did not want him in the role but he was at the mercy of AIP’s money. Corman apparently wanted Richard Chamberlain, a far younger and incredibly handsome actor with both characteristics serving the tragedy of the character of Verden Fell even better and making Rowena’s fascination more believable.

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But Price is formidable in the role. He plays the tragedy of Fell to a fault, alternating from the tall-standing, supercilious husband burying his dead wife to the morose man struggling with his existence. The dark glasses are an interesting touch (for 1821!) and he is superb at channelling his pain right up to the finale, which whilst a little silly is still campy and fun.

The Tomb Of Ligeia probably also reveals that the Corman formula had run its’ course. Of all the Corman films based on Poe, this film would make the least at the box office. It may well be the weakest of the eight Poe films by Corman but it is not by any means a non-enjoyable film. It’s still fun to watch and of course the main reason for that is the irrepressible Vincent Price.

A link to the full movie is below:

This article is an entry into the Vincent Price Blogathon kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget. Please don’t forget to click on the link to support this great blogathon and read some fantastic entries from some wonderful writers.

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