Tag Archives: Boris Karloff

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966, Ben Washam and Chuck Jones)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! has three rather distinct things going on throughout the twenty-six minute television special. It also some some indistinct things going on–the Whoville songs, while charming, are nowhere near as impressive as the big things.

First, but not foremost, is Washam and Jones’s direction. Although Grinch is a Dr. Seuss adaptation, as a cartoon, its possibilites are different. Jones and Washam make the Grinch (and Max, his dog) into familiar cartoon roles. The Grinch is the bad guy, Max is the reluctant accomplice. It’s familiar because the dog can’t talk, while the Grinch does. Though not to poor Max so much as at him.

And when the Grinch does talk, it’s Boris Karloff’s voice, which is the second distinct thing going on. Boris Karloff narrates The Grinch–reading the source book. When the Grinch speaks, it’s Karloff’s voice… just filtered a little. The effectiveness of the filtering is a tad questionable, but more because of the additional noise the filter adds. Karloff’s familiar but not exactly the same voice for the Grinch’s dialogue? It works. It just sounds too distant.

Karloff’s narration is always good, frequently awesome. For example, the times he has to list various silly-named Christmas items are delightful, as Karloff approaches each new and absurd word with the jovial–but still reserved–calm; it’s awesome. It’s great narration. It defines Grinch.

At least for the first half or so.

Because then in comes the third distinct thing. Thurl Ravenscroft, uncredited singer of You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. When the Grinch is stealing Christmas, sure, there’s some narration from Karloff, but it’s all about Ravenscroft’s voice. There are some great lyrics too–the song is set aside from the narration and is more a musing on the poor character of the Grinch. It’s awesome.

The Karloff narration and, eventually, Ravenscroft’s singing never bump into each other. Throughout, the animation works with the narration–expression is important in Grinch, as the amount the Grinch can contort depends on how long it takes Karloff to get through a particular line. And it can seem like Karloff is dragging it out to encourage contortion. And a contorted Grinch is not a pretty sight.

Similarly, when Ravenscroft gets back to the chorus in each of the Mean One segments–there are at least three–it defines the moment, not the animation. Lovell Norman and John O. Young cut most every sequence just right. There are a couple long moments during the Whoville songs, but Jones and Washam have the charm baseline high enough to allow indulgences. And even enjoy them. The finale’s tensions work because Jones and Washam don’t rush things, because they do slow down the pace. They let the finale rhyme with the opening, back to relying on Karloff.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is fantastic. Jones and Washam pace it out just right for the narration and song. Except without Karloff or Ravenscroft, there’d be nothing to pace. Good thing everything works so well together. Or, so well, alongside each other.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Washam and Chuck Jones; teleplay by Irv Spector, Bob Ogle, and Dr. Seuss, based on the book by Seuss; animated by Ken Harris, Tom Ray, Phil Roman, Richard Thompson, and Don Towsley; edited by Lovell Norman and John O. Young; music by Eugene Poddany; production designer, Maurice Noble; produced by Jones and Seuss; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Narrated by Boris Karloff.


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The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)

The Black Cat has a lot going on. It’s the story of two American honeymooners–David Manners and Julie Bishop–who, for whatever reason, decide Hungary is better than Niagara Falls. It’s also the story of a recently freed Hungarian soldier Bela Lugosi, who went into the war a happily married psychiatrist, only to lose his family after being imprisioned for fifteen years. Finally, it’s the story of Boris Karloff’s Austrian “architect,” who used to command Lugosi’s regiment, but sold them out to the Russians so he could escape to run off with Lugosi’s wife. Oh, and Karloff’s a big Satanic priest. Because the Austrians are Satanists and the Hungarians are either cute or loyal.

Aside from Karloff’s satanism? He kills women and keeps them hung up, preserved, in his dungeon. He built his giant, Art Deco house atop the fortress he betrayed to the Russians.

Through coincidence, Manners and Bishop find themselves in Lugosi’s questionable–but generally benevolent–company. Through bad luck, they find themselves part of Lugosi’s quest to avenge himself upon Karloff. Only Lugosi doesn’t even know how much avenging he’s going to need to do upon Karloff. He’s only got a rough idea.

Most of Ulmer’s direction is excellent. The first act has this shaky camerawork–“courtesy” cameraman John J. Mescall–but eventually those hiccups stop. He does pretty well with the actors. Bishop doesn’t have much to do except scream and pass out from fear, but she’s effective. Manners is in the awkward spot of not being the lead, but looking like he ought to be the lead. Meanwhile, actual lead Lugosi gets a character arc he chaffs against; while Peter Ruric’s script doesn’t favor anyone, Lugosi gets the harshest treatment.

The script’s rather xenophobic–look at these strange Eastern Europeans with their Satanism and so on–and Lugosi gets caught in a lot of it. Otherwise, he’s beyond sympathetic. His nemesis isn’t just a traitor, he’s a traitor who stole his family, murders random women to embalm, and is a Satanic priest.

In that part, Karloff’s okay, not much more. He looks the part–though the height difference between him and Lugosi (Lugosi’s much taller) is disconcerting. Lugosi does better. He doesn’t do great–he suffers from intense ailurophobia (fear of cats) and Karloff has apparently an endless supply of black cats around to creep Lugosi out.

The set design is a big deal, with the Art Deco house overpowering the boring dungeon. Maybe because the dungeon seems too cramped and its geography is confusing, but not in a good way. The third act takes place almost entirely in the dungeon, which doesn’t help things; it’s also when all the character problems and incongruities come to a head.

Solid editing from Ray Curtiss, especially during the first act and then the Satanic ritual. Great music from Heinz Roemheld.

The Black Cat runs just over an hour. Its present action is a day and a half or so. It shouldn’t slog but it does. The setup of the characters then of Karloff and his nightmare house (despite it being bright and Art Deco) all goes well. But Manners and Bishop’s parts get reduced a little too much in the second half; Karloff getting more to do isn’t better. He’s effective at being threatening but there’s not a lot of danger in the script. It’s too spare. There are only four real characters. It can’t spare them.

The film’s pre-Code, so the Hays Code can’t be blamed for the finish, just common morality. Still, The Black Cat’s a reasonable success, with some excellent moments for Lugosi in particular. And Ulmer’s direction can carry it. Most of the time.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay by Peter Ruric, based on a story by Ulmer and Ruric; edited by Ray Curtiss; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Vitus Werdegast), Julie Bishop (Joan Alison), David Manners (Peter Alison), Egon Brecher (The Majordomo), Harry Cording (Thamal), and Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig).


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House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C. Kenton)

Just over half of House of Frankenstein is glorious. Kenton’s direction is outstanding, the sets are imaginative, the actors are doing great. Beautiful photography from George Robinson. House is a scary movie, what with physically but downright evil Boris Karloff running the proceedings. What doesn’t work–like John Carradine’s “just okay” Dracula–gets smoothed out by unexpected gems, like Anne Gwynne and Sig Ruman. It all starts to fall apart when second-billed Lon Chaney Jr. shows up. It’s not Chaney’s fault, it’s just when exhaustion is setting in.

Well, except the general exhaustion accompanies some script problems. Edmund T. Lowe Jr.’s third act for House of Frankenstein is unmitigated disaster. If Kenton had embraced the chaos, maybe the film would’ve kept its momentum, but he tries to rein it in and fails. All of the subplots come up–with the exception of Carradine, who basically gets his own episode. That episode, costarring Gwynne, Ruman, Peter Coe and Lionel Atwill, is probably House’s best section. The sets aren’t the best, but it’s a creepy little story. And Gwynne, Ruman, Coe and Atwill are all pretty dang good, Ruman and Gwynne more so. But the other little stories, which Lowe and Kenton do succeed in establishing and encouraging throughout the busy picture… they don’t end well.

Karloff and Chaney suffer the worst. Karloff had almost half the picture to be amazing and then the second half reduces him to a bit part of a lame mad scientist. It goes from being a physical role to a sedentary one. Karloff is spellbinding in the physical parts. Standing around in a lab coat, he seems like he’s just cameoing. As for Chaney, he never gets a good part. He’s got good chemistry with Elena Verdugo, but she gets all the material. She’s quite good, but the film does just have Chaney standing around.

Verdugo’s part of both Chaney’s subplot and J. Carrol Naish’s subplot. Naish is Karloff’s assistant. Naish is pretty darn good in the film, because you want to like him, you want to be sympathetic. He’s kind of a creep though, so maybe it was a mistake to feel sorry for him. But then what does that rejection of sympathy say about you? Kenton and Naish have a great time with the character throughout the film and it even seems like he might get something to do, but no. The third act fail takes Naish down with it.

By the time Glenn Strange starts moving about as the Frankenstein Monster, the film’s completely derailed. Howe’s script can’t bring all the elements together right. The measurements are off. Simultaneously disappointing, the acting is nowhere near as good in the last fourth or so. The angry, thinly written (and acted) villagers in the second village can’t compare to Gwynne, Ruman and Verdugo examples of villagers. The frustrating thing about House is it seems to realize its collapsing. There’s a resigned air to the third act, which should help with certain storylines, like Chaney, Verdugo and Naish’s, but it doesn’t.

So it’s a disappointment. A glorious disappointment, with mostly great direction from Kenton, some excellent acting from Karloff, Gwynne and Verdugo, some decent acting from Naish and Chaney, wonderful production values (until the final act), and an occasionally ingenious script from Lowe. It’s a shame all the dim moments came together at the end.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Erle C. Kenton; screenplay by Edmund T. Lowe Jr., based on a story by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Philip Cahn; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Paul Malvern; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Doctor Gustav Niemann), Lon Chaney Jr. (Larry Talbot), Elena Verdugo (Ilonka), J. Carrol Naish (Daniel), John Carradine (Baron Latos), Anne Gwynne (Rita Hussman), Peter Coe (Carl Hussman), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Arnz), Sig Ruman (Burgomaster Hussman) and George Zucco (Professor Bruno Lampini).


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Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V. Lee)

Son of Frankenstein is a mostly wasted opportunity. For everything good, there’s something significantly wrong with it. The script is good, director Lee doesn’t direct actors well. The German Expressionist-influenced sets are great, Lee shoots it so stagy, the sets go to waste. Lee likes his long shots. He and editor Ted J. Kent do nothing to make the cuts interesting. Though, really, Kent doesn’t have any material to work with. Lee has about six different shots and he just goes through them in a cycle. It’d be annoying on its own, but with everything else, it gives Son of Frankenstein way too much narrative distance. If the sets had been worse, if the actors had been better, who knows….

The Son in the title is Basil Rathbone. He is returning to Castle Frankenstein. Oh, right–it’s basically a lot like Young Frankenstein. Rathbone discovers the monster, brings it back to life, chaos ensues. He’s got a wife (Josephine Hutchinson in an admirable performance given all the constraints on her–Lee’s lack of direction, Rathbone’s inability to share scenes) and son (Donnie Dunagan, who’s supposed to be adorable). Right off, Rathbone’s a mad scientist. Most of the film has him hanging out with Bela Lugosi (who understands how to upstage a screen hog and delivers a fairly solid performance). Lionel Atwill’s around as a police inspector with only one arm. Yes, there’s a dart scene in Son too.

Oh, right. The Monster. Boris Karloff. You’d think he’d be important but he’s not. There’s no room for Karloff or the Monster in Son, not with Rathbone, Lugosi and Atwill. Atwill’s got more chemistry with Hutchinson than Rathbone and Atwill’s not even good. Lee doesn’t direct him and sort of lets him dangle in the film’s most thankless, but most important role.

Karloff is great. He has almost nothing to do, but watching him examine himself in the mirror, one can just imagine how good it would be with better direction. Cooper’s script is full of little moments Lee just can’t convey. The script’s far from perfect–anyone but Rathbone needed to be the lead the story, the part itself is inherently unlikable and Cooper doesn’t go anywhere interesting with it.

Really lame music from Frank Skinner doesn’t help things.

Even when Son of Frankenstein feints to impress, it manages to disappoint. And most of it is Lee’s fault.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Rowland V. Lee; written by Wyllis Cooper; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Basil Rathbone (Baron Wolf von Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Lionel Atwill (Krogh), Josephine Hutchinson (Elsa von Frankenstein), Donnie Dunagan (Peter von Frankenstein), Emma Dunn (Amelia) and Edgar Norton (Benson).


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