Original Syn

What a strange artifact this is: DOCTOR SYN (1937) is a rollicking British melodrama similar in some ways to the bodice-ripping romps of Gainsborough Studios — it even features Margaret Lockwood, THE WICKED LADY herself. But in the star role, as pirate and smuggler Captain Clegg, who has assumed a new identity as village priest Dr. Syn, we have George Arliss. The Iron Duke, as he was affectionately known, is a queer kind of film star, and an even stranger action hero. With a face like a feminine skull, nostrils so flared as to be positively bell-bottomed, and a skeletal frame of sharp angles like an elongated swastika, he resembles the mummified corpse of Kenneth Williams, animated by hidden pneumatic tubes. I guess the closest thing there’s been to him since was Peter Cushing, and indeed Cushing played this role in a Hammer remake in 1962.

The whole tenor of the film is pretty theatrical, in line with British cinema of the time generally, but Arliss himself is at times quite subtle. Describing himself as “a strange man,” he is as divided a performer as Clegg is a character, commingling sensitivity with a crisp kind of barnstorming. He’s no Todd Slaughter, though: his work is quite nuanced, and Katherine Hepburn credited him with teaching her film acting. (Come to think of it, Hepburn could have dragged up as Arliss quite convincingly.)

At the helm of the whole venture is Roy William Neill, a British-born director who’d made his career in Hollywood. Lured back to the UK to make a few movie, he was lined up to make the project which eventually became Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, but political problems on location shut the production down. The designer of that film, Vetchinsky, creates an atmospherically angular, overhanging village for the shadowy goings on in Dimchurch.

This story has elements in common with every smuggling yarn the cinema has seen — as with MOONFLEET, the smugglers are mistaken for phantoms. (Neill would use a variation on this gimmick in his Sherlock Holmes movie THE SCARLET CLAW.) Rather than using a churchyard as entry to their secret lair, the criminal gang here use the coffin-maker’s house, and there’s a secret entrance behind a tombstone. As with JAMAICA INN, a pillar of the community is secretly a pirate chief. In fact, this premise seems to go back to the true story of Deacon Brodie, a respected town councillor by day and a burglar by night, a man whose dual nature seems to have played a role in suggesting the story of Jekyll and Hyde to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Asides from the Hammer remake and a Disney version starring Patrick McGoohan (possibly the most atmospheric and accomplished interpretation), the film seems to have inspired CARRY ON DICK, in which Sid James as Dick Turpin has a secret identity as a village vicar, a wrinkle not to be found in previous Turpin narratives, so far as I’m aware.

The strangest and most fascinating element of DR. SYN is the character played by Hungarian actor Meinhart Maur (a refugee who had worked for Fritz Lang in Germany). Known only as “the mulatto,” he’s disturbingly presented as a mute, subhuman creature who is used by the customs and excise officials as a kind of sniffer dog. As the story goes on, his unfolding backstory invites more and more sympathy, and the racist overtones recede slightly: we lean that he was mutilated and left to die by Clegg, his ears and tongue severed. He’s still portrayed as a horror movie monster (women scream at his appearance), but he actually has our sympathy. Only at the very end do we learn that Clegg was avenging his wife, whom the mulatto had “attacked” (an obvious code-word for something cinematic mulattos have a long history of attempting), clearing the way for a happy ending where the ethnically and physically handicapped avenger is blown to bits by dynamite.

British cinema can be creepy.

19 Responses to “Original Syn”

  1. Another British actor who reminds me of George Arliss is Patrick Allen. Interestingly, Allen appeared in Peter Graham Scott’s “Captain Clegg”, also set in the 18th century.

  2. I’d forgotten that Captain Clegg was based on Doctor Syn.

  3. I’d like to hear your opinion of the Cushing version.

  4. George Arliss is Gore Vidal’s favorite actor. Why? Because no matter what the role he always managed to give the same performance.

  5. As far as the “mulatto” bit, racism is not unheard of in British cinema (sometimes it’s even worse than racism in American film), and a lot of films use fear and revulsion of handicaps, mostly action and horror pictures. Novels of the era (read a Sax Rohmer sometime) have a lot of that, too, in fact it was even more prevalent.

    Dr. Syn was, I think, Arliss’ last film. He was close to 70 when he starred there. I don’t know if he does it in this film, but he always seemed to me to be the king of the muttered aside in early sound. He looked angular, birdlike, with an odd face (his face could be caricatured as a friendly tortoise), and yes, a bit feminine. Alas, the only British film I saw him in was the comedy The Guv’nor, which has a “tramp plays king” plot. He’s awfully good there, but the film is pretty routine. He (like Barrymore) was a theatrical lion whose theatrics were used to good effect on film. The opposite is probably someone like Helen Hayes, whose theatrics seem to get in the way of a good performance. Arliss may not have liked acting in film, but it doesn’t show.

  6. Oddly I ran into a woman in the library today, as I was searching out the works of George Axelrod, who was looking for Fu Manchu books. They are hideously racist and also at times very funny. The idea of the master-criminal cult leader’s female side-kick who continually sabotages his plans was borrowed wholesale for the Beatles movie Help!

    I think Helen Hayes is interesting because of that weird mix of artifice, exaggeration, and impressively observed or imagined moments of truth. Her performance are kind of unsettling, having one foot in cinema and one on stage.

    I’d like to SEE the Cushing version! Available only in a vast box set of Hammers, but I shall get my hands on it soon. The logistics that allowed Hammer and Disney to film the same copyrighted book at the same time, without suing each other, are obscure to me.

  7. The Axelrod you should seek out is “Where Am I Now That I Really Need Me?”

  8. After enjoying the Axelrod today I shall certainly seek out more. I had to read one in particular.

    The Hammer Clegg has a different ending from Syn, apparently. An ending which sounds superior.

  9. Christopher Says:

    I’ve never seen this..But I like George Arliss ,hes fascinating to watch in Disraeli,The Millionare and The Man Who Played God…

  10. Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books are amazingly nasty while still entertaining. In one of his books there’s a death of a man in a chain locker that’s so utterly gruesome, it must have been put on film by someone. Rohmer had no clue that the different peoples of Asia might not like each other, to him they were (sigh) all alike. MGM took the right approach by camping up Rohmer’s racism.

    Lots of Arliss’ early sound films were remakes of early ’20 silents he’d done. The three earliest I have certainly are. A silent Arliss seems wrong in a way silent Barrymore doesn’t, but I have to see one of them to find out how he does.

    You know, I thought of another actor who could never tone down his theatricality – Bela Lugosi. He’d hit his lines so hard that the audience in the back rows could understand him. It worked for him, that formality and stilted delivery made him seem insane, even when he was the putative hero.

  11. The chain locker thing: is this like in The Ghost Ship? I’m sure Lewton read plenty of adventure stories, he wrote some.

    Lugosi has something weirdly in common with Gielgud, in that his speech is more like music than verbal communication.

  12. Lugosi’s got a rhythm to his speech, that’s for sure. As for the Rohmer, I’m don’t remember which book now, it was about three years ago and I read it along with a number of other Rohmers. Very good description of a man getting caught inside the locker as the anchor chain paid out, and the unrecognizable mess that emerged into view. Sick enough for a filmmaker to love :)

  13. Christopher Says:

    wheres the Scarecrow in this?..gotta have a Scarecrow!..or did they think the sight of Arliss was enough..

  14. MM: That’s pretty much the scene in Lewton’s The Ghost Ship, minus the grue.

    Rest assured, Christopher, the Iron Duke does indeed drag up as a scarecrow to mislead his enemies…

  15. Damn, I thought I had that Lewton, too. Psycho captain Richard Dix, right? I swore I had it. Oh, well. Wish it had some grue. Or gore. Whichever. I begin to think the Sax Rohmer it’s from is one of the Nayland Smith/Flinders Petrie stories, but I also could be wrong.

    Still want to find a few more of The Iron Duke’s films. Waiting on Warner Archives (foot tapping).

  16. The Ghost Ship DOES have surprising bloodshed, just not in that scene, which is carried by the scary sound effects and the nastiness of the idea. Mark Robson was such a matter-of-fact director most of the time, he really sold those ideas beautifully. But he also pulls off some amazing eeriness that’s more like Tourneur, esp as regards Skelton Knaggs as the mute.

  17. Perhaps more than a little off-topic, but I just had to put this out there:

    http://www.criterion.com/boxsets/744-three-silent-classics-by-josef-von-sternberg

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