Wednesday, 8 April 2020
Of Human Bandage
USA 1932 Directed by Karl Freund
Universal Blu Ray Zone B
After the surprise success of Dracula (reviewed here) and Frankenstein (reviewed here), Universal embarked on the next of their big horror franchises, once more using their star Boris Karloff (who was by now being billed as Karloff The Uncanny) in the title role of Imhotep, The Mummy who was buried alive for breaking the holy codes of his people and attempting to bring his great love, Ankh-es-en-Amon, back from the dead.
This film was obviously made as a response to Howard Carter’s ‘Tutankhamun’ expedition which had finally struck lucky in 1922 (read more of the whole Egyptian invasion of popular culture around the world in my review of Eyptomania Goes To The Movies right here). One of the news reporters sent to cover that discovery was none other than John L. Balderston, who had of course written the screenplay of Dracula and the stage adaptation which gave rise to that movie.
Here, he writes a mummy movie for Universal but, really, it’s... how can I put this diplomatically... it’s pretty much a stealth rewrite of Dracula in all but name. Several elements which were in Dracula feature here, such as the pseudo-romantic pull of the titular monster on the leading lady, played here by exotic beauty Zita Johann, who is the living embodiment of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. To further seal the deal in terms of trying to capitalise on the success of their earlier pictures (not to mention casting the Frankenstein’s monster actor himself as the main antagonist) we also have David Manners reprising his role as the lover of the leading lady who is trying to save her from 'the monster who wants to have his way with her' and Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing in the two Dracula films before and after this, as Dr. Muller, a similar ‘enemy of the monster, knowledgeable in the ways of destroying him’ kind of character.
And every time I watch this film I remember I really liked it and thought I remembered it well, only to find myself seeing it with fresh eyes and having forgotten most of it. It is quite a gripping watch, though and we have Karloff in two different make-ups by Jack Pearce. The bandaged mummy version of Imhotep is quite striking and effective but you only see Karloff in this in one close up shot as he opens his eyes and moves his hand... what a shot though, completely effective with Karloffs inky black whirlpools of eyes slowly imbibing life (the bandaged up ‘dummy version’ of the mummy in his sarcophagus in the long shots never quite matches the close up, sadly). And we see his hand reaching out for the scroll which brought him to life, as we also admire Bramwell Fletcher’s brief appearance as the man who is sent mad by witnessing the wanderings of this reincarnated, bandaged Boris. There were obviously some full mummy sequences shot for this scene in this make up because there is photographic evidence and one shot even made it to one of the lobby cards but, alas, that's it for the bandaged version of Karloff in this movie.
The other make up we see Karloff in, is that of his ‘alter ego’ character Ardeth Bay, once he has assimilated himself into the modern Egyptian landscape of 1932 (ten years after he is resurrected in the opening scenes of the movie). This is absolutely brilliant make up where his skin has completely wrinkled over (goodness knows why nobody in the movie notices this) and it’s helped by some wonderful lighting on some shots, where his black eyes are lit up to become piercing, hypnotic beacons. Of course, in the 1999 version of The Mummy and its sequel, The Mummy Returns, Ardeth Bay is not the same character as Imhotep at all and is one of the ‘good guys’.
The film is, as I said, pretty much a rerun of Dracula in a lot of ways but it works really well in terms of ‘slightly less original’ entertainment and the chemistry between Karloff and Johann is amazing. Actually, a lot of unused stuff was shot for this movie as we were supposed to see Johann’s Helen Grovesnor/Ankh-es-en-Amon reincarnated over several historical periods such as Ancient Rome and the times of the Saxons, for example. Photographic stills exist for these scenes but they were removed from the movie before release (never to be seen again, alas) and that may be why, compared to the two previous Universal movies, The Mummy is about a quarter of an hour shorter than what we’d expect from these specific ‘monster pictures’ at this period of their history.
Director Freund, who famously got on very badly with his leading lady here, does some amazing work and his German Expressionist cinematography skills are certainly in evidence. The film looks fantastic, it has to be said. This new Blu Ray from Universal certainly does justice to the visual richness of the shots and is definitely a necessary purchase, as far as I’m concerned.
One thing which doesn’t seem to be discussed much... and it really should be... is the use of music in the film. There really shouldn’t be a score here because, after all, we all know that the film which brought the musical score back to talking pictures was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933 (reviewed by me here), right? Even though he also provided a score for The Most Dangerous Game the year before. Well, whatever you believe, The Mummy certainly has a fair few ‘scored’ passages in it... although I think Kong can certainly be credited with the film that gave Hollywood filmmakers the confidence to reintroduce music properly into their films once more.
So, after going into the music from Swan Lake again during the opening titles, attempting to tie it in with Dracula as a branded Universal horror picture, no doubt... we actually get some sections introduced with underscore, as the titles finish and the music doesn’t stop. It’s not an abundant score by any means but James Dietrich’s compositions are used in a few scenes in the movie as proper underscore as opposed to just standing in for source music, perhaps most notably in what remains of the flashback sequence, where Imhotep shows Helen Grovesnor her past life and again in the sequence where Inhotep causes Arthur Byron, playing the father of David Manners’ character, to have a deadly heart attack by remote control, as it were.
Unlike the sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein which were soon to be unleashed into the world, the sequels to The Mummy would feature a completely different central character (Kharis the mummy) and have not much to do with this one at all... although the back story to Kharis is pretty much the same as Imhotep and the flashbacks utilise long shots of Karloff from this movie mixed in with Tom Tyler for the close ups during the first one.
If you like your Universal monsters, well this is the first entry in the franchise of one of the big five (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman and the Creature From The Black Lagoon) and its importance in the history of the series can’t be overlooked. Also, the 1999 version was pretty much an adventure reboot of this film. But beyond all that, it’s a well made movie which is always entertaining and fun... although a lot seems to be unsaid or possibly just cut from the running time. And Karloff, without moving much and understating his lines, still has such screen presence that he’s... well... ‘uncannily good’, I guess. Definitely one that every film lover should take a look at some time.