The Oblong Box Set

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Delving into my Universal Monsters The Essential Collection Blu-rays Christmas pressie — I was drawn to some of the lesser titles, partly so they wouldn’t get neglected, partly so I could save some good ones for last. (All images here are from the lowly DVDs.)

First I ran THE WOLFMAN, which is not a very good film, alas. After THE OLD DARK HOUSE it’s nice to have another Welsh-set Universal horror — a pity they couldn’t have arranged for Melvyn Douglas to drop in as Penderell, or something. They manage to waste Warren William and miscast Ralph Bellamy, who doesn’t get to exploit his uncanny ability to remind one of that fellow in the movies, what’s his name? Ralph Bellamy, that’s it.

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak, idiot brother of the great Robert, knew that Lon Chaney Jnr was ridiculous casting as a nobleman, but doesn’t seem to have reflected too much on the implications of his story, which has a Gypsy tribe importing a contagion into peaceful Anglo-Saxon terrain. It’s a distasteful narrative for a German-Jewish refugee to serve up to American audiences during wartime, the more I consider it.

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As a kid, I was disappointed by the slow pace and lack of screen time awarded to Jack Pierce’s make-up, which I dug. But I was fascinated by Maria Ouspenskaya, who seemed genuinely uncanny.

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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA seems to have always been a tricky property — it has seminal scenes, the unmasking and the chandelier drop and the general mood of skulking about in shadows in a cape, but nobody seems able to settle on what order they should come in or who the characters ought to be. I think perhaps a failure to realize that Christine is the main point-of-view character lies at the heart of many of the problems — this may be the big thing Andrew Lloyd-Webber got right. But Chaney was the only one to get a good makeup, and played the character without any cast backstory, as a mystery.

The forties Technicolor version that’s in the box set concentrates on singing and romance and comedy as much as melodrama, and top-loads the story with an origin for the Phantom that’s sympathetic but deprives him of mystique — it also leaves no time for his Svengali act, surely the heart of the story. Claude Rains is in good form, though his coaching scenes as a disembodied voice are underexploited — this should have been the perfect companion piece to THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein is more important here than second-string director Arthur Lubin: he did a great job on Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, so I don’t know why this is so muted — partly the Production Code, I suppose. His other finest credits are THE WIZARD OF OZ, LAURA and CLUNY BROWN, ¬†and his gift for light comedy is more evident here than his knack for dramatic construction. The rather stunning ending, in which Jeanette MacDonald¬†Susanna Foster chooses her career and her two beaux, Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier, go off together arm in arm to dinner, makes the thing worthwhile — they fade to black very fast at that point.

Oh, and the three-strip Technicolor is bee-you-tiful.

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(Screenwriter and memoirist Lenore Coffee quotes a couple nice lines by Hoffenstein, not from his scripts but from his conversation. In response to the Variety headline BABY LEROY’S CONTRACT UP FOR RENEWAL, the Hoff remarked “If they don’t meet his terms he’ll go straight back to the womb… a swell place to negotiate from!” And when the legal department asked for a progress report on his latest script, a slightly tipsy S.H. bellowed “How any department as sterile as a legal department could have the impertinence to inquire into the progress of any writer, however poor… What do you think I do? Drink ink and pee scripts?”)

I believe the scene where Claude Rains strangles Miles Mander had to be taken several times because Mander’s head kept detaching when shaken.

Hume Cronyn has a tiny part and it’s great fun watching him steal his scenes.

Backstory is a problem. I quite enjoyed the intro to Dario Argento’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, in which the baby Phantom, cast adrift in the sewers in his cot, is rescued by rats, who presumably raise him as one of their own, like a rodent Tarzan. Tarzan had a fine operatic yodel, of course. But Argento’s Phantom isn’t deformed, he’s Julian Sands, which leaves him no motivation to be masked or live underground or do any of the things the plot requires.

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The Hammer PHANTOM, which I recently watched too, borrows heavily from the 1941 version — impoverished composer, acid scarring, etc. Apparently Cary Grant had expressed an interest in playing the Phantom, but his agent nixed it. I kind of wonder if that’s why the meaningless hunchback character was added, in order to give all the murderous stuff to someone else. It’s completely nonsensical and wrecks the film, which Terence Fisher handles rather nicely. Michael Gough’s slimy Lord Ambrose is a one-note baddie, and Gough hammers that note with relentless enthusiasm. Herbert Lom gets almost nothing to do.

That one was cackhandedly written by Anthony Hinds, a Hammer producer. There are undoubtedly some great producers-turned-writers — Joseph Mankiewicz springs to mind. The trouble in general is that producers can give themselves the job of writing without having any ability at it, as I found when I worked for Tern Television. Both Anthony Carreras and Anthony Hinds at Hammer got a number of writing gigs, without having the slightest sense of story structure, or even apparent awareness of what a story IS.

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Also watched DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS since Fiona’s brother was visiting, which Hinds authored — but his ramshackle narrative was fleshed out by the competent Jimmy Sangster, and then the very droll Francis Matthews acted in it, with delivery that’s as close to Cary Grant as Hammer ever got. A line like “Well I’m sure it would be educational if we knew what was going on,” isn’t necessarily witty in itself, but he gets a laugh with it. And I have to take my hat off to Sangster for the line he awards Dracula’s sepulchral manservant, Klove: “My master died without issue, sir… in the accepted sense of the term.”

The UK release is cheaper than the American, though admittedly it doesn’t come in its own coffin ~

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

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23 Responses to “The Oblong Box Set”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    As you know, I have a weakness for the Dario Argento version of PHANTOM. The sight of Julian Sands stark naked with rats running all over him is somebody’s perverse sexual fantasy. Perhaps even mine? It’s trash but at least it’s HOT trash!

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Whenever “Miss” Maria Ouspenskaya appeared on film, it’s as if a reverent hush fell on the entire proceedings, and audiences were supposed to be in awe of her almost incomprehensible line readings.

    Clint Eastwood was Arthur Lubin’s, ahem, “protege”, circa 1956.

  3. Curt Siodmak seems to have re-used many of the half-digested elements of The Wolfman in Son of Dracula — the literal importation of a gypsy, the corruption of a good woman by a wicked Transylvanian, and upstanding citizens combining to rid their world of a nefarious outside influence (albeit in the company of a Transylvanian professor, played by an echt Transylvanian actor). All very silly — and with some of the clunkiest dialogue I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear. Lon Chaney isn’t much better as the noble Count, of course…

  4. But Robert Siodmak makes SoD much more striking visually than George Waggner’s Wolfman… It’s just a shame it doesn’t have at least a well-cast Count. Hell, I’d love to see Warren William have a crack at the part.

    Julian Sands’ non-deformed Phantom reminds me of the non-deformed Richard III rehearsed by Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl — you can change characters and stories about, but you can’t remove the entire pretext!

  5. Maybe Joe Mank was a great producer-turned-writer because he started as a writer. And remembered how to do it once he became a producer.

  6. Julian Sands, clothed or naked, rat-infested or otherwise is required viewing. Why he didn’t become a major romantic star after A Room with a View I’ll never know. When I lived in central Hollywood, Sands had a place a few blocks away. Every morning I could see him jogging past my place from my bedroom window (Le Sigh!)

    Maria Ouspenskaya is an Axiom of the Cinema. The Wolfman wouldn’t work at all without her. And neither would Dodsworth.

  7. Oh, I agree that Robert S. is a big improvement on the visual level — the jailhouse scenes and the gypsy cabin are especially atmospheric, while the way that Alucard moves around is still spooky today.

  8. I just checked to see whether Maria Ouspenskya and Una O’Connor ever made a film together, and IMDb doesn’t think so. I suppose no film was big enough to contain the two together.

  9. It’s regrettable that Siodmak didn’t get much chance to work in a supernatural vein on better projects, as he clearly had the imagination for it.

    Yeah, Joe Monkeybitch was maybe more of a writer turned producer turned writer-director…

    Sands has always struck me as uneven. He can be terrific. Sometimes he seems like he can’t say lines at all, though. I don’t know what it is. In Gothic, Ken Russell frames a shot of Sands having hysterics to match a similar frame of Blair Brown in Altered States, but his hysteria doesn’t compare to hers.

  10. Curt Siodmak did give the world Donovan’s Brain! One day they may even make a good film of it. It was a classic of the Radio series Suspense.

    The Wolfman does seem disappointing to me now, nowhere close to The Old Dark House or anything by James Whale and all in all about as exciting as an amputated leg.

    When I was a tiny, tiny tot, however, those transformations gave me the creeps. And, yes, props to Miss Marie and Una too, while we’re at it. Nobody could shriek like Una. She’s got a great cameo as a fortune teller in the beginning of the film Victorian crime film Ivy, with Joan Fontaine. Wish that would be issued on DVD.

  11. Oh, Ivy’s marvelous.

    I love the transformations, and the fact that Lon had to sit still for them makes them somehow eerier. But the first film doesn’t offer us a full face transformation (unlike Werewolf of London, where he can walk and transmute at the same time)…

  12. I prefer Werewolf of London to The Wolfman, though there’s some excruciatingly unamusing “comic relief” in it. That was another thing Whale could do so well in a horror film and others couldn’t.

  13. It was always a point of honor for me, growing up, to prefer THE WOLFMAN to WEREWOLF OF LONDON. I haven’t seen the former end-to-end in a long, long time, so it’s difficult to speak with certainty, but memory tells me that the sense of narrative is much stronger in the WaGGner & Siodmak version. That plus voyeurism (Chaney and his li’l telescope) and the tragedy of Ouspenskaya and her doggerel.

    And I take it, btw, that “Jeanette MacDonald” above is supposed to read “Susannah Foster”?

  14. I’m almost certain it is!

    Though I just enjoyed JM in The Merry Widow and realized I’d rather underrated her comic gifts.

    Werewolf is unsatisfactory as drama but very nice visually. The Wolfman seems to have similar, yet different, problems. Neither satisfies my desire for a really good sleazy precode of Guy Endore’s novel Werewolf of Paris.

  15. MacDonald has some nice moments in LOVE ME TONIGHT, too … although one feels honor-bound to give the greater praise to Myrna Loy.

  16. Yes, Loy comes up trumps in that one. And she’s in Merry Widow too, but only for an instant.

  17. Isn’t Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf supposed to be based on Werewolf of Paris (somehow I’ve never actually seen it to this day, though I’ve seen a lot of Hammer horror films)?

    My book coming out on 1930s crime fiction writer and reviewer Todd Downing, who was a great fan of the horror genre as well, has his review of Werewolf of Paris, which he called a “shudder classic.” He preferred it to The Undying Monster.

    There was a book on horror films I read a dozen or so years ago which really nailed the faults and virtues of Werewolf of London, as I recall, another flaw being a protagonist you can’t care about very easily.

    But, on the other hand, Wolfman’s lead really is distractingly badly miscast, despite the appeal of the tragic legend being carried out. As I recollect I preferred even Ghost of Frankenstein to Wolfman by a pretty good stretch. Of course Ghost has some great bits with Bela.

  18. Hull’s quite unsympathetic, yes. And The Undying Monster, though nicely shot, is something of a snooze.

    The Hammer film is from their phase of letting producers write the scripts, so it begins years before the hero is even born. It’s unfaithful to Endore in the extreme, particularly in losing the political/philosophical stuff (“Hurrah for the race of werewolves!”)

    Chaney is badly cast as the son of an English lord, but very well cast as a guy with a problem. His saggy, worried face haunted my childhood, even in its un-hairy form.

    In a way, the later Universals where they throw everything at the wall to see what sticks are more diverting than the ones that try to do one simple thing, and fail. Best of all are the early ones made by people who know what they’re doing: just enjoyed The Invisible Man all over again last night.

  19. david wingrove Says:

    David Boxwell – Interesting titbit about Clint Eastwood. He’s always struck me as 101% heterosexual, if only because he seems to lack the imagination required to be anything else. But I could always be wrong!

    David Ehrenstein – Speaking of ‘required viewing’ the following Julian Sands movies are high on my list…

    After Darkness
    Siesta
    Warlock (I and II)
    Night Sun
    Impromptu
    Husbands and Lovers
    Tale of a Vampire
    Boxing Helena (yes, I truly love that film!)
    The Loss of Sexual Innocence
    Mercy

    I’ve always longed to see End of Summer, where he co-stars with the lovely Jacqueline Bisset, but that one has always eluded me!

    As to why he never become a major star…well, just look at some of the people who do. Please! Did you know Anne Rice campaigned for him and not Tom Cruise to play the Vampire Lestat? It would have been definitive casting.

  20. As my Japanese friend said when Sands began his chat-up scene in Tale of a Vampire, “But… he’s obviously strange.” As in, you wouldn’t go out with this guy. But I guess some would!

    Siesta struck me as an unbelievable farrago, but I enjoyed the first Warlock, where Richard E Grant snatched the ludicrousness prize from Sands’ astonished fingers, and clasped it to his manly chest throughout.

  21. I guess the reason Sands’ chat-up works in Tale of a Vampire is because she’s kind of strange too.

    I caught a screening of Werewolf of London back in September. Hadn’t seen it in years, and I was struck by how much more sympathetic and genuinely tragic Warner Oland is as Dr. Yogami. Even though I really enjoy the film as it is, I can’t help wishing that Oland was the lead instead of stiff unlikeable Henry Hull. As for The Wolf Man, I still like it but also wouldn’t mind seeing Robert Florey’s original concept, complete with its transformation in a confessional scene.

  22. That’s so true about Warner Oland in WOL. His character is by far the best in the film. He has the element of pathos.

  23. Oland is a fascinating presence — even the story of his death is mysterious and beautiful.

    Poor Florey almost made a career out of getting kicked off horror pictures, didn’t he?

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