Good Cinema: The Raven (Dir: Lew Landers, 1935)

“When a man of genius is denied of his great love, he goes mad.”
Dr. Vollin in The Raven

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Fewer actors are identified by a single role more than Bela Lugosi. In fact, when many of my co-workers spotted me reading Lennig’s biography on the man, they didn’t have a clue who he was until they noticed the cover with Lugosi in full Dracula garb – the visage that has adorned countless t-shirts, action figures, postage stamps, and coffee mugs; a quick Google search of the word “Dracula” yields a picture of Lugosi as its first image. It seems only fitting that a man who played the world’s most infamous “undead” would continue to be immortal, even in death.

Since his heyday in the early ’30s until the day he died, Lugosi himself was trapped in a purgatory like state with his relationship to the Count, desperately trying to convince studios that he was more than The Vampire – yet knew that he could always rely on “Dracula” to bring him quick cash. Chronically broke and habitually underpaid by major and minor studios alike, Lugosi would tour between film projects in various productions of the play that made him a Broadway star, even creating various truncations that he took around to old vaudeville houses and radio programs; in his old age when the world had all but passed him by, he even sat around his apartment with fan boys reciting dialogue from Dracula, purportedly still remembering all of his lines. So engrained was the image of Lugosi as Dracula that he chose to be buried in his cape; an image ironically that Lugosi had to practically beg for when Universal wanted resident horror icon Lon Chaney as The Count – but he fortuitously died before production could begin.

Despite performing Shakespeare with the National Theater in his native Hungary and known for being somewhat of a handsome playboy (he dated Clara Bow and was married 5 times), Lugosi, due to his heavy accent, was the victim of “othering” in Hollywood – cast primarily as a mad scientist, vampire, swami, or other nefarious characters.

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Next to Dracula, Lugosi’s greatest legacy was his on-screen pairing (and off-screen rivalry) with fellow horror icon, Boris Karloff. Competing to be Universal’s Next Great Horror Star after Chaney’s death, Karloff was seen as the more bankable and versatile of the two (in no small part because of Lugosi’s accent – even though Karloff had a very pronounced lisp himself….) and as a result always pulled bigger salaries and was afforded the liberty to play a more diverse range of roles, including of course Dr. Seuss’ famous Grinch; on their films together, Karloff ended up getting star billing and double Lugosi’s weekly rate, even on films like The Raven, in which Lugosi was the clear star. Ironically, Lugosi once scoffed at the idea of playing the mute Frankenstein monster when Universal head Carl Laemmle, Jr. first developed the property for him – the role that of course launched Karloff’s career; to add insult to injury, the role of Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, a role Karloff originated on Broadway, was one that Lugosi played more than once on the road in between tours of Dracula and a variety of Poverty Row film projects, forever destined to be in Karloff’s shadow. [Sidebar: Lugosi and Karloff did see eye to eye on one thing; they were both two of the first members and most active proponents of the Screen Actors Guild; Lugosi was quite political – i.e. Communist – and helped form a similar organization in Hungary, which precipitated his need to flee the country when the Communist regime lost power].

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Lugosi and Karloff made eight films together, although only two truly pit them against one another as co-leads, battling for supremacy. The first of their pairings, The Black Cat (1934), is an excellent thriller based very loosely on Poe’s story, in where Lugosi, freshly released from a military prison, goes to visit his old friend Karloff to discover what became of his wife and daughter while he was incarcerated. Turns out, his wife died years ago and Karloff has kept her preserved in glass in the hopes of one day resurrecting her – of course for his own purposes. The film is filled with atmospheric cinematography and inventive direction – helmed by Edgar G. Ulmer, famous for his B-noir masterpiece, Detour (1946) – great acting from its leads (including some tender moments from Lugosi), and such daring topics for 1934 as necrophilia and Satanic worship (Ulmer was heavily inspired by Aleister Crowley).

Again inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven (1935) is the third pairing of Lugosi and Karloff and possibly Lugosi’s greatest performance. Despite Karloff’s prominent billing position, Lugosi’s character is really the star [Notice the way in which the publicity department felt the need to remind audiences that Lugosi was Dracula, whereas Karloff is known simply by a single name…].

Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) – famed dancer and the daughter of a prominent judge – is critically injured in a car accident. The doctors claim there is only one man who can save her: the brilliant surgeon – and avid Poe enthusiast – Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) implores Vollin to help his daughter, but he is retired and only interested in research and his Poe collection; Vollin, a man who has been surrounded by death and sickness for decades, doesn’t see death in the same way as others and has transcended mortal concerns like empathy. In fact, the eponymous raven is seen prominently in silhouette against his wall, as if Death is an almost welcome friend in his presence. Yet when told he is her only hope, Vollin’s ego supersedes his ambivalence and he agrees to help.

With Jean resurrected, she and her fiancé Jerry (Lester Matthews) – a fellow doctor whom Vollin has recently promoted – are indebted to him. Jean surprises Vollin with a new ballet based on “The Raven” she has created as a thank you. But what surprises Vollin most is that he has fallen in love with Jean. Notice Lugosi’s performance during the ballet and its surrounding scenes. He imbues these moments with tenderness, desperate romance, and a dose of sensuality; it is easy to see that he was once a heartthrob in Hungary. Thatcher notices Vollin’s attraction and begs him to stay away from her. Which does not go over well with Vollin’s ever-increasing madness. Vollin is not a man whom others tell no. Enter Bateman.

That night, a recently escaped convict named Bateman (Boris Karloff) enters Vollin’s chambers with a gun, demanding that Vollin change his face [“Maybe if a man is ugly, he does ugly things”]. Vollin assures him that the gun is not necessary. He is willing to quid pro quo: he will change his face on the condition that he does something “in his line…torture and murder.” Bateman begrudgingly agrees. But Vollin double crosses him and makes him even more monstrous in order to blackmail him into keeping his end of the bargain.

Lugosi and Karloff are glorious in this scene. Bateman’s hopes of being changed into something less terrifying are met with Vollin’s mad cackles [“Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate. Good! I can use that hate!”]; Bateman shoots out all of the mirrors in the room, leaving him with an empty chamber when given the chance to kill Vollin [Karloff primitively grunts and shakes his fist in a moment reminiscent of the Frankenstein Monster]. Bateman is left with no other option than to do Vollin’s bidding.

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Vollin makes his sadistic tendencies abundantly clear. He shows Bateman his personal collection of Poe inspired torture devices – including a Sword of Damocles that undulates like in “The Pit and the Pendulum” – they will use to seek revenge on the people who have scorned his love. It is worthy to note that Vollin’s madness is brought upon not by the desire for world domination or blood or material possessions but by love – he describes himself as “a god…with the taint of human emotions”; from an actor most associated with otherworldly obsessions and motivations, The Raven cleverly uses the most human of phenomenon as his downfall. Bateman tries to use the machine against its creator, but Vollin warns him that if he dies, there will be no one who can fix his face; the film early on establishes Vollin as singular and we believe that no other surgeon could undo what he has done. So once again Bateman acquiesces to his “Master’s” wishes. Lugosi is great here, knowing Vollin has the trump card, but behind his confidence plays a tinge of panic in his eyes.

Vollin invites Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher to a dinner party he is having for some friends. Much to Thatcher’s chagrin –  “Oh, Dad. He’s not going to slit our throats in our sleep” – Jean and Jerry decide to attend; Thatcher follows after. Throughout the evening, the disfigured Bateman tries to warn them of the danger they are in, but Vollin is quick to intercept. And that night with the guests all asleep, Bateman drags Thatcher into the dungeon and straps him to the table to await the impending sword. Jean’s room, which is actually an elevator, is then lowered into the dungeon. Jerry and some of the other dinner guests chase after her.

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Vollin throws Jean and Jerry into a room with compressing walls (much like the trash compactor in Star Wars). With mania in his eyes, he brags to his slave, “What a delicious torture, Bateman! Better than Poe!” Though he has been subjugated, Bateman serves as the only person who could possibly understand the thrill of killing and Vollin professes his triumph with glee; it must be lonely at the top for a sadist.

Bateman will not stand for this and opens the room, disfigured face be damned. Vollin shoots him, but before he dies, he knocks Vollin unconscious and drags him into the chamber; he awakens just as the door slams and the walls begin to close in on him. Thatcher is saved, everyone flees, and Bateman dies alone on the floor.

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The Raven is a taut thriller clocking in at 62 minutes with no wasted scenes. The cinematography by Charles Stumar (The Mummy, 1932) is not quite as Expressionistic as The Black Cat‘s obvious German influences, but still creates a mood of anticipatory horror. Universal had some unique promotional ideas like a “Chamber of Chills” in where part of the lobby would have pendulums and the like and a “Curtain Teaser Stunt” where “brave” filmgoers could open a curtain with the doom-laden message, “This Curtain conceals a Face that is a Crazy-Quilt of Horror! Look at it Before You Dare See The Raven” [paging William Castle…]

The Raven was panned in the trades [The New York Times said it had “the distinction of being the season’s worst horror film…”] and its gruesome nature saw that it was censored (or not even shown) all over the world, especially in England. Given Britain’s ties to the American market, this led to a brief moratorium on horror films, which among other factors, definitely hindered the rising career of Bela Lugosi; he was never given a role as dimensional and exciting in a film as good as The Raven again.

Based on his performance as Dr. Vollin alone, it’s a shame – and somewhat of a curiosity – that Lugosi was not given better projects in which to shine. Studios continued to underestimate his potential and continued to throw their support behind Karloff and eventually Chaney, Jr; Lugosi even had to fight for the role of Dracula in Universal’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)! [To wit: when Karloff made Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), he was paid double what Lugosi made for his outing with Bud and Lou…] And when Lugosi’s brand of horror finally fell out of vogue in lieu of science fiction and a post-WWII sense of American prowess (having defeated the ultimate of Evils), he was destined to a “career” (which is being generous) of butlers, red-herring heavies, and an embarrassing finale of duds with Edward D. Wood, Jr.  – as well as a debilitating addiction to morphine.

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When Lugosi died, after almost 40 years as an actor, his estate was worth less than 2000 dollars. When Lugosi’s son and widow tried to sue Universal for profiting off his image without their consent, the studio fought the lawsuit – and won. [In 1985, Lugosi vs. Universal was overturned and replaced by the California Celebrity Rights Act, in where a deceased celebrity’s likeness is treated as a copyright, protecting their heirs from exploitation for a period of 70 years, post-mortem].

In 1995, Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Lugosi during the final years of his life in arguably Tim Burton’s greatest film, Ed Wood (1994); finally, albeit indirectly, giving Bela Lugosi the artistic recognition he so desperately craved.

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*Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

*The Raven is available on YouTube.

*FURTHER VIEWING:

  • Dracula (Dir: Tod Browning, 1931)
  • The Black Cat (Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
  • Invisible Ghost (Dir: Joseph H. Lewis, 1941)
  • The Return of the Vampire (Dir: Lew Landers, 1943)
  • Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (Dir: Charles Barton, 1948)
  • Bride of the Monster (Dir: Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1955)

*FURTHER READING:

  • Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank
  • The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi by Arthur Lennig
    • A caveat: while a great place to start on information about Lugosi’s career and personal dealings, the book is plagued by its author’s blatantly biased fandom for his subject; filled with unnecessary minutiae, broad suppositions, and personal anecdotes of his time with Lugosi (and then having the hilarious gall to use the ironic moniker of “the author” to make it seem less subjective), as well as snide putdowns of anyone who dared say a word against his idol (including but not limited to Boris Karloff, and in the most tasteless display, questioning the veracity of some of Lugosi’s female co-stars memories because, perhaps, they were mad he didn’t flirt with them).
  • Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. by Rudolph Grey
    • While not directly about Lugosi, it outlines the world and company Lugosi kept in his final years (and is one of the best books on Hollywood I’ve ever read).

 

 

Good Cinema: It’s a Gift (Dir: Norman Z. McLeod, 1934)

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“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
– W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields is a celebrated, yet underrated, singular icon in the history of entertainment – the lovable misanthrope who hated kids and loved booze, heavily armed with a cynical zinger. Yet I fear this is too simple. This deprives Bill, as he was informally known, of his humanity. The archetype of Fields as a mean ol’ drunk was one built toward the end of his career, thanks mostly to his cantankerous radio tête-à-têtes with Charlie McCarthy, his escalated levels of drinking (which only rose with age and the impending doom of his declining career), and also the ways in which his latter films like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had anything resembling sentiment removed from them by the studio for the sake of slowing down the jokes. But if you look at his earlier films, behind the snark, behind the swindle, was a lonely man, hiding behind the bombast, trying to do right by the family who seemed to hate him.

To know his family history taints, or more accurately, paints his work with an autobiographical brush. Born in Philadelphia in 1880, Fields left school to work with his father selling fruit at age 12. It was here where he first learned to juggle, using the merchandise from his father’s fruit cart, and practicing his craft by watching a traveling circus act. His family completely discouraged any dreams of stardom (his grandmother even destroyed all of his props he had been collecting) and Fields eventually ran away from home to get away from his father’s abusive ways, promising not to return until he was a star.

Fields met and married his wife Hattie when they were both cast in a review called The Monte Carlo Girls. Hattie became his juggling partner, touring the world as a double until she became pregnant. Now with child, she returned to the States, wanting Fields to abandon his career for a life of provincial Americana. But Fields refused. Hattie held this decision against him for the rest of his life, using their son as collateral to guilt money out of him, and turning the young Fields against his father. Fields, having emotionally moved on with other women, begged Hattie for a divorce, but her Catholicism wouldn’t allow it. They remained married – and bitter rivals – until he died; and even then she strong-armed his estate into giving her the lion’s share of his earnings. The nagging, manipulative Hattie and their helpless son Claude (who relied on his father’s checks for survival well into adulthood) were the models for all of his “wife” and “son” characters in his work.

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Fields’ genius afforded him a rare level of autonomy in his work during the Studio System of Hollywood. He had starred in vaudeville and burlesque as the most respected and versatile juggler in the business; Broadway musicals; and the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor where he honed his comedic zest and skills as a writer; worked in both silent and sound films, directed by luminaries like George Cukor, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett and acted alongside such formidable talents as Elsa Lanchester and Mae West. Later, he performed in radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with whom he had an ongoing “feud.” The only medium he didn’t tackle was television and that was only because he died in 1946.

He rehearsed his physical bits tirelessly until every movement was choreographed to perfection (an obvious harken to his juggling days), yet struggled to remember his lines. Or possibly he was just contemptuous of the idea of playing by anyone else’s rules. Whichever the reason, Fields was an ingenious improvisor, never doing a second take the same. No one ever really directed W.C. Fields – or wrote for him for that matter; if they knew what was good for them, they merely stayed out of the way and allowed him to be brilliant.

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He was a shrewd businessman, grossing $50000 a week in 1930s cash, in addition to his fees for the writing, which could earn him an additional $15000 – $25000. Even though Fields was quite wealthy, he never wanted to appear so on film. He believed that comedy came from struggle and always made his characters circus performers (based on his own experiences as a traveling performer) or working class men trying to find his slice of the American Dream among the crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression, a character not so subtly modeled after his father and the family life he left behind in Philadelphia. Occasionally, his characters would hit a windfall, but in the end, it was all a way for him to enjoy the simple things in life. Like a drink in the middle of the day with his best pals.

Like the greatest comedians, he recycled material relentlessly, trying to create the “authoritative” version of a bit. Many of his films were based on sketches he had written for the Ziegfeld Follies or Earl White’s Scandals (another review show in which he starred on Broadway): For example, You’re Telling Me!, a sound remake of the silent So’s Your Old Man, featured his famous golf routine, which had been its own short film based on his sketch from the Follies.

W.C. Fields – like Mae West, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and really any other legendary comedian of the first half of the 20th century – is not solely defined by a single performance, a single film; they exist as personalities with very little deviation; well honed “types,” variations on a theme, that find themselves in a series of situations with similar results: Mae’s sexuality (and sharp witted tongue) could always get her out of trouble; Lucy’s schemes (whether as Mrs. Ricardo/Carmichael/Carter/Barker) always got her in trouble with the male authority in her life; Abbott was the con-man to Costello’s naif (yet ended up getting conned himself in the end); and Groucho and his Brothers existed in a world with no consequences, where zaniness and chicanery were met with reward.

Fields essentially played two characters in rotation:

  • the Swindler, a carney who uses his gregarious charm to coax chumps out of a dollar
    • For examples, see:
      • Pool Sharks (1915)
      • Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
      • Two Flaming Youths (1928)
      • The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
      • Poppy (1935)
      • You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
  • the Everyman who tries against all odds to provide for his family while they – led by the nagging wife – are embarrassed by his failures and refuse to believe in him.
    • For examples, see:
      • It’s the Old Army Game (1926)
      • So’s Your Old Man (1926)
      • The Potters (1927)
      • Running Wild (1927)
      • The Dentist (1932)
      • The Barbershop (1933)
      • The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
      • You’re Telling Me! (1934)
      • It’s a Gift (1934)

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In It’s a Gift (1934), possibly his greatest and tightest film, Fields plays Harold Bissonette (which his wife insists on pronouncing “bis-o-nay” to sound fancy), a small town New Jersey grocer who uses his inheritance from his uncle’s death to buy an orange grove in California, much to his wife’s chagrin (played by the indomitable Kathleen Howard). The film is comprised of five distinctive bits that could stand alone, but collectively create a beautiful patch work of family dysfunction. They can stand alone because in true Fieldsian fashion, they had their roots in earlier material:

  • The opening scene in the bathroom where Harold struggles to shave, as well as the idea of being “duped” into an investment, came from The Potters.
  • The swing scene on the porch was reworked from a bit in The Comic Supplement, a play he did for Ziegfeld; in fact, the film’s original title was Back Porch 
  • Their car trouble departing for California was the combination of two Ziegfeld sketches, “The Family Ford” and “The Sport Model.”
  • The picnic scene and some basic elements of the plot were reworked from It’s the Old Army Game.
  • Only the scene in the grocery store with the blind Mr. Muckle (played to the hilt by Charles Sellon) was originally conceived (and mostly improvised) for this film – with the hilarious additions of Baby LeRoy (Fields favorite foil and somewhat improbable star; rumor has it that he once spiked the baby’s bottle with gin…) and Tammany Young (his favorite doofus; check out his deadpan as the caddy in You’re Telling Me!) as his neighbor’s child and his inept clerk, respectively.

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What anchors It’s a Gift amongst the hilarity is Harold’s humanity. As our Everyman, he braves on for the promise of a better life, deflecting insults from strangers and loved ones alike for what they all see as embarrassing folly, a flimflam, or both. Harold believes in his heart that the end will justify the means. So when they arrive to the lot in which he has sunk his life’s savings, his integrity, and dignity, of course it is a barren wasteland. Disgusted with Harold’s failure, his wife grabs the children and starts to abandon him. Notice Fields’ delivery of the line, “Come on back, Amelia. I’ll drive you” – imbued with such sincerity that it was obviously a choice by the studio that he not be given more chances to shine in dramatic work for fear of losing one of their preeminent comedians.  Harold sits on the running board of their car and it, like his life, collapses. He meanders to the front porch of his rickety shack and in probably the most tender moment in Fields’ whole oeuvre, the family dog nuzzles up beside him, kissing him on the cheek.

But suddenly, a car rounds the bend, passing Amelia and the children on the dirt covered bridge. And their future takes another unsuspected turn.

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It wasn’t until Fields’ final three starring roles that he seemed to really break the mold from his aforementioned archetypes – or at least he combined them in new ways: My Little Chickadee (1940) casts him as a con-man, but this time as a bachelor and for the first time shows him as a somewhat pathetic Lothario to Mae West’s chronic troublemaking bachelorette (in real life, Fields definitely enjoyed having much younger women on hand as his secretaries and assistants, but history is unclear whether or not bedding him was part of the job description…); The Bank Dick (1940) saddles him with the shrewish wife, but his desire to “get ahead” seems to be for his own hedonistic purposes (laziness and drink) instead of providing for his family; perhaps this is why it is his most popular film, embracing a modern cynicism. And Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), the most surreal of his films, literally has him playing himself, pitching a script to a Universal executive and being hit with all the reasons why it should not be made (ironically, this film, possibly his most scrutinized and rewritten – and autobiographical – work ended up being shot as close to his original intentions as possible).

The constant in all of his films was the daughter who believed in him despite life spitting in his face. It’s telling that Fields never had a daughter nor any daughter surrogates in his life; it seems that he was, to paraphrase one of Alvy Singer’s famous quips, trying to get things to come out right in Art because they so rarely do in Life. It should come as no surprise that Fields was hired for the most quintessential of W.C. Fields roles, The Wizard of Oz – the charlatan with a heart of gold, ready to help the lost, little girl find her way home – but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. 

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But it is another famous Alvy quote (taken from Fields’ friend, Groucho Marx) that could have summed up Fields’ life: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” Fields, while not the misanthropic recluse people presumed, was a private man with few friends and traveled with cases of booze in his early years on the road as bait to ingratiate himself to his fellow cast members. Ironically, the booze, the very thing that once made him popular in private, became his way of alienating others in his old age – all the while being embraced by the public as our favorite, lovable louse.