Monday, November 23, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 1: “I end as I began!”

Good day to Karloff fans one and all! For those of you who have never visited Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (and confidentially, I don’t blame you for staying away—my mother was always singling out which neighborhood kids I could associate with, too) let me take a quick moment to introduce myself. My name is Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., and because most of my formative years as a “yoot” were spent watching vintage movies and television shows while my peers were outside getting plenty of fresh air, I am technically unqualified for normal employment. I started Yesteryear six years ago both as an outlet for writing and because “all the kewl kids were doing it”—today, it is one of most respected nostalgia blogs in the “blogosphere,” reaching an audience somewhere in the high two figures.

When I learned about this week’s Boris Karloff Blogathon project from Frankensteinia, I knew I had to sign up as one of the participants because of my tremendous fondness for the actor that many consider the yardstick by which cinematic horror is measured: William Henry Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff. My exposure to Boris as a kid included all of the classic Frankenstein movies (the 1931 original, Bride and Son) but as I notched more of Karloff’s films into my belt I discovered a staggering versatility in the performer—from the low-budget films he made at Columbia, Warner Bros., etc. to the celebrated films he made for Val Lewton at R-K-O in the mid-forties. As a fan of old-time radio, I’ve also had the pleasure of listening to Karloff’s oh-so-cultured tones on series like Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mysteries…and of course, as one of the many children raised by television (with apologies to both Brent McKee and Tony Figueroa) I saw him brighten up episodes of Route 66, I Spy and The Wild Wild West—not to mention host a series that my good friend Steve Vertlieb once observed “perfectly captured the unimagined terror and literacy of some of the greatest works in modern horror literature”: Thriller (1960-62).

I’m not going to be able to touch on all of these during the Blogathon, but I hope that what I have to contribute will entertain any and all who drop by. I thought I’d kick off the proceedings with a look at a pair of Karloff films that I purchased some time back from Oldies.com in a collection entitled Boris Karloff: Icons of Horror. I grabbed this set for $7.98 (an unbelievable bargain) for two of the movies but found the other two included films every bit as enjoyable. So, let’s proceed to Disc One!

The Black Room (1935) – Twin sons are born to the house of Baron de Berghman (Henry Kolker), and while this would normally be a reason to open up a few bottles of bubbly and party like it’s 1799, the news fills his Baronship with dread because the history of the de Berghmans starts with twins—namely Brand and Wolfram. Brand, the younger of the two brothers, killed his twin sibling in what was known as “The Black Room”—and from that point on; descendants have feared that this prophecy will occur again and again and again. (“This house began with murder,” the Baron seriously intones. “It will end the same way.”) It looks as if this may take place between the newborn sons (though whether it will be 20, 30 or even 40 years later remains undetermined) Gregor (the oldest, by a minute) and Anton—and to further complicate matters, young Anton was brought into this world with his right hand paralyzed. The Baron is offered a simple solution—brick up “The Black Room” (lick of paint, lick of paint) and voila! No more prophecy. So he brings in a couple of builders to block off access to the murderous room, and that seems to solve that dilemma.

Twenty years later, Gregor—now head of the estate—has become a cruel, despotic tyrant whose popularity among his people polls only slightly ahead of smallpox. He has sent for his younger brother to return to the House of de Berghman to assist him in tamping down a possible revolt; Anton, a kindly, benevolent gentleman and scholar more prone to buy a few rounds than having people killed, quickly finds favor with the population…and with Thea (Marian Marsh), the niece of family friend Col. Paul Hassel (Thurston Hall). However, the degenerate Gregor also has designs on the beautiful Thea—but having had his advances rebuffed by the young lady he settles for a dalliance with the far-below-his-station Mashka (Katherine DeMille).

MASHKA: Don't you want to kiss me?

GREGOR (Cutting a juicy pear with his knife and eating it as he talks): A pear is the best fruit!

MASHKA: Every time you see her, you want to be rid of me.

GREGOR (Ignoring her): Lots of juice in a pear!

MASHKA: Well, you'll find out I'll not be got rid of so easily! Do you hear what I say?

GREGOR: Adam should've chosen a pear.

MASHKA: You've got it all planned, haven't you? You're gonna marry her…you're gonna make her your wife, your baroness!

GREGOR: I like the feel of a pear! And when you're through with it... (He carelessly tosses it across the room.)

When Mashka threatens to expose Gregor’s involvement with the “disappearances” of many of the womenfolk in town, Gregor quickly allows her to join the ranks of the vanished by killing her. But he’s overplayed his hand; the villagers have a gypsy eyewitness (John Buckler) who saw Mashka enter the Baron’s castle…and a servant (Torben Meyer) of Gregor’s has produced in evidence the very shawl the woman was wearing that evening. Gregor manages to escape a noose around his neck by agreeing to resign his position in favor of the younger Anton—but is this just another ingenious ruse by the diabolical Gregor?

What sounds like an adaptation of an old folk legend is in actuality both a rousing original tale written by Arthur Strawn (who co-wrote the screenplay with Henry Myers) and the best of the Columbia Karloff films; a movie (which has a deserved cult following but deserves to be much better-known) that showcases one of Boris’ finest onscreen performances. Karloff excels in what is essence three roles—Gregor, Anton…and what I like to call “Gregor-as-Anton”—a trio of characters with completely unique personalities that at no time confuses members of the audience as to who is who. Room, admittedly produced as part of the studio’s hefty B-product, doesn’t look like a B-film, thanks to sumptuous standing sets and the skillful direction of Roy William Neill, a woefully underrated filmmaker who could take chicken salad and make chicken a la king.

I was really excited to see Room get a DVD release because I previously owned the film on a VHS tape that was released by Columbia in 1996—and then licensed to Goodtimes Video a year or two afterward in a decidedly inferior version (recorded in SLP mode). It frequently turns up on TCM (it was one of the movies showcased in a recent Karloff marathon on October 30th) and if you’ve not seen it—do so at your earliest available opportunity. (I eliminated a bit of the plot resolution so as not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of watching what is truly a splendid film.)

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) – In his yearly forays to Columbia Pictures, Boris Karloff made a number of films that Karloff fans have dubbed the “Mad Doctor” series. This particular picture was the first of the series, and it stars Boris as Dr. Henryk Savaard, a scientist and inventor who’s created an artificial heart pump that will allow him to stop a human heart (“the motor” of the human body, as he refers to it)—all the better to perform any necessary surgery, since “you wouldn’t repair a car with the motor still running.” Young med student Bob Roberts (Stanley Wilson) has volunteered to be the guinea pig for Savaard’s crucial experiment, despite the reservations of Betty Crawford (Ann Doran), Savaard’s nurse (and Bob’s fiancée):

BETTY: Oh, Bob, you can’t do it…I won’t let you…

BOB: Now, take it easy—there’s nothing to be panicky about …

BETTY: But don’t you realize he’s going to kill you? You’re going to die!

BOB: That sounds a lot tougher than it is

Bob certainly displays a casual nonchalance about all this—“Why, inside of two hours we'll be eating chop suey and fighting about where we'll be going on our honeymoon”—but I wouldn’t be ordering any crab rangoons just yet. Even Savaard has reservations about what he’s doing, remaking to his toadying assistant Lang (Byron Foulger): “We've taken a human life! If we can't restore that life, the law will call it murder…” But just when everyone’s starting to have a good time, party pooper Betty (eh, whatcha gonna do…bitches be crazy) rings up the gendarmes and spills the beans on Savaard’s doings. The police come ‘round (headed up by top cop Don Beddoe) and on the advice of Dr. Stoddard (Joe De Stefani), arrest Savaard for murder…ignoring his pleas to allow him one hour to bring Bobbo back from Death’s door.

Drake (Roger Pryor), the district attorney, throws every law book in the library at Savaard to successfully convict him of murder, and the “mad doctor” is sentenced to hang for his crime. But with the help of faithful Dr. Lang, Savaard is brought back from the Great Beyond (his broken neck repaired due to Lang’s surgery…which is just one of the implausible things in an already whacked-out scenario)—and rather than use his “resurrection” to demonstrate that his invention really works, bitterly swears revenge against Drake, Stoddard, Lt. Shane (Beddoe), Judge Bowman (Charles Trowbridge), Betty and a few of the jury members—six of which have already died by suicide hanging, thanks to the probing of reporter “Scoop” Foley (Robert Wilcox).

The best thing about Hang and the other Columbia “mad doctor” films is that their running times are fairly short (lasting a little over an hour) but the worst thing about them is that their plots are all so similar there’s very little to distinguish one from another. Boris is a misunderstood genius whose dabbling in radical scientific methods often alienates him from his peers and colleagues…who all consider him muy loco en la cabesa. This results in at least one good rant from Karloff per picture, as he is forced to lecture these Neanderthals (“Fools! You stupid, ignorant fools!”) on how the grey matter in their tiny craniums is simply incapable of understanding the gi-normous contributions he’s making to science:

Think of it! The Edison or Pasteur of tomorrow need not die merely because his heart is worn out…we'll give him a new heart taken perhaps from the body of a young man who's been killed in a automobile accident…and our great genius is awakened to another sixty years of useful life! You ask me if that's a benefit to mankind? I answer it's the gift of eternal life! But whether man's wise enough or old enough to receive such a gift, I don't know…I don't know!

This having been said, I enjoyed the heck out of The Man They Could Not Hang—particularly seeing all the stock Columbia players—Lorna Gray (as Karloff’s daughter), Beddoe, Doran, Dick Curtis (as the jury foreman), John Tyrrell, Stanley Blystone—if you’re sharp-eyed enough, you’ll also glimpse James Craig (also on the jury) and Robert Sterling as one of the reporters. Hang was directed by Nick Grindé (accent grave), who would also direct Boris in The Man with Nine Lives (1940) and Before I Hang (1940)—and was the auteur behind Girls of the Road (1940), previously discussed on the blog here.

Tuesday: Reviews of Before I Hang (1940), another “Mad Doctor” entry with Boris as a scientist whose serum to prevent aging and death also turns people into killers; and The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942), a bizarre horror-comedy made to cash in on the success of Karloff’s appearances in You’ll Find Out (1940) and the stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace.

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1 comment:

dgb said...

Ivan, I'm glad to see that someone began Karloffing with The Black Room, a favorite of the actor's and of mine. An even bigger treat is the fact that the essay is excellent. I will be back for more as I have recently started my own blog for those, like me, with decidedly retro tastes in movies, fiction, etc. It's at Bentin's Miscellany http://bentinsmiscellany.blogspot.com/

Please stop by to say hello.

Doug Bentin