Tag Archives: David Manners

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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The Mummy (1932, Karl Freund)

The Mummy is a strange horror movie. While there’s a definite villain–a monster–in Boris Karloff’s resurrected mummy, he poses a danger specifically to only one cast member–Zita Johann. She’s the reincarnation of his lost love and her exact importance to him isn’t clear until the last act. There’s a somewhat goofy moment where Edward Van Sloan, as Johann’s guardian and the closest thing to Karloff’s nemesis, reveals it all to David Manners (as Johann’s more appropriate suitor). Fortunately Van Sloan experiences the eureka moment just in time but not too early… otherwise the entire last act could have been avoided.

And the last act is the payoff of The Mummy. There are some excellent sequences throughout and Karloff is fantastic, but the last act is where Johann gets to toggle between a reincarnated Egyptian priestess finding herself in the 20th century and her initial character. It’s less than fifteen minutes of the runtime, but it’s awesome stuff. There’s an abrupt ending to the picture, but it has gotten the job done.

Van Sloan is reliable, Manners is likable–he and Johann’s initial flirtation scene is one of the film’s more successful ones between the couple. Arthur Byron is good as another Egyptologist.

John L. Balderston’s script has a lot of fine moments too, especially for Byron, as he comes to terms with meeting a reincarnated mummy.

As for Freund’s direction… it’s always good, but sometimes exceptional. Great editing from Milton Carruth too.

The Mummy is lean and successful. Rather good stuff.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Karl Freund; screenplay by John L. Balderston, based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer; director of photography, Charles J. Stumar; edited by Milton Carruth; music by James Dietrich; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Imhotep), Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor), David Manners (Frank Whemple), Arthur Byron (Sir Joseph Whemple), Edward Van Sloan (Docter Muller), Bramwell Fletcher (Ralph Norton), Noble Johnson (The Nubian), Kathryn Byron (Frau Muller), Leonard Mudie (Professor Pearson) and James Crane (The Pharaoh).


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Dracula (1931, Tod Browning), the digest version

Even though it still falls apart at the end, this truncated, eight millimeter version of Dracula is better than the regular version. It’s exactly what I was hoping for from these Castle Films digests.

All of the long dialogue scenes are gone. There’s no explanation of vampires, the entire sequence before London is gone, no one even identifies Dracula by name until the flopping finish. It’s a really neat way to see the film, as it changes so many implications.

Even better, Lugosi doesn’t even have any lines. He’s a mysterious predator, not an awkwardly accented royal. There’s just enough romance between Helen Chandler and her beau too. It efficiently establishes the characters. Chandler’s first encounter with Lugosi is random chance, which makes Lugosi’s Dracula far more dangerous.

I wasn’t expecting much from this version, but Dracula finally works out. Until that ending, which is just too broke to fix.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; written by Hamilton Dean, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort, based on their play and the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Milton Carruth and Maurice Pivar; produced by Browning and Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Castle Films.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker) and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing).


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Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)

I never got Dracula. Even as a kid, I never watched it over and over, like I did the other Universal monster movies. When I went back and saw it in the late 1990s–after Ed Wood–Bela Lugosi’s performance horrified me. He makes funny faces and does Charles Atlas exercises for scary body language and woodenly says his lines. Apparently some blame Lugosi’s English-speaking skills on this performance (the lack thereof), but really, the line’s are just crap and hadn’t Lugosi been on stage in the play version? If so, he should have at least been responsible for inflection.

Regardless, while Lugosi is a major problem with Dracula, he’s hardly the one who breaks it. He might make silly faces, but the whole approach of the film is wrong. Dracula, more than any film I’ve seen, exists solely for the audience. These events aren’t happening to the characters in the film, rather they’re happening so the viewer can see them happen. Characters talk about each other when they’ve never met, nor is there any suggestion they’ve met, but the viewer has met both and so he or she is able to make some kind of connection. This example is indicative of Dracula’s narrative style and it isn’t–in itself–a bad thing. It just isn’t used to any effect. It’s pointless and a sign of some bad writing. The further signs of bad writing–when, for example, Van Helsing promises to deal with the vampiric Lucy–whose been feeding on small children–then does nothing… well, either a scene got cut or no one read the script before they started shooting. Further script problems include the comedy relief, which doesn’t really deserve to be mentioned. Some of the storytelling problems might stem from Dracula coming soon after the change to talkies, as it did have a silent version released at the time, and most of the film is actually silent. I wonder if the silent version, with intertitles, would be better.

The acting ranges from good to awful. Lugosi’s bad, so is leading man David Manners. Helen Chandler’s girl in distress isn’t always bad–when Chandler’s doing a scene with her friend, I almost thought I was wrong about Dracula, since the scene was so good and Chandler so likable (turned out I wasn’t)–but she does occasionally slip between her “British” accent and her native South Carolinian, which is distracting. Dwight Frye is good as Renfield. Only Edward Van Sloan–as Van Helsing–gives a really good performance, interpreting Van Helsing as a severe German, straight out of an Otto von Bismarck biopic. He even mimics some of Lugosi’s mannerisms, which almost sets up a juxtaposition, at least visually, but the story never catches on.

Even with all its defects, Dracula still manages to disappoint overall. The conclusion is hurried and nonsensical, not just leaving me wondering what’s going on in a broad sense, but also in an immediate one. Like, why Manners and Chandler are going up the huge staircase instead of leaving the creepy building? Perhaps it’s a metaphor for watching the film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; written by Hamilton Dean, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort, based on their play and the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Milton Carruth and Maurice Pivar; produced by Browning and Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing), Herbert Bunston (Dr. Jack Seward), Frances Dade (Lucy Weston), Joan Standing (Briggs, a nurse) and Charles K. Gerrard (Martin).


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