Charles Laughton in Hollywood: Different from all the world



“UGLINESS which is as powerful as CHARLES LAUGHTON's can spell as great success as beauty, it seems...”.
- caption to Laughton's picture in The Wonder Album of Filmland - A Beautiful Collection of Super Art Plates Comprising a Complete Pictorial Survey of Filmland, published in 1933.
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Ugly? Well, yes, I suppose he was.
But ugly is relative, isn't it? I mean, look at Fred Astaire. Look at a picture of Fred Astaire and imagine you have no idea who he is. Observe that massive cranium, almost medical-textbook in its bulbousness, the faint, sickly wisps of brilliantined hair, the nervous, distended eyes. Here, surely, is a gargoyle to rival Rondo Hatton.
But then you see him in Top Hat, see him move, react and relate, and you realise that what you mistook for one of the most unattractive people to have ever been born is actually the most attractive person to have ever been born.
It’s all part and parcel of our tendency to look at the curtains rather than the view from the window, the lamentable desire to see greatness in beauty, rather than beauty in greatness. Laughton, it seems to me, when he’s really alive on screen, really on fire, has as strong a claim to being beautiful as anyone in the movies. It’s some kind of movie star’s face he's got, that's certain; the camera can't get enough of looking at him, and he repays the attention with a dazzling repertoire of subtle effects.
Elsa Lanchester characteristically described him as "really better-looking than a lot of good-looking people who are so good-looking you could throw up."
And his associate Paul Gregory recalled that such was his insecurity about his appearance that there were times when he would literally hide himself away, "and yet I've seen him when he was absolutely, radiantly beautiful, and I told him that one time." The disclosure reduced him to tears: "It was just terrible, you know? It was like Niagara Falls because he didn't even cry lightly."
Laughton himself said in a 1935 Picturegoer interview: "Imagine a face like mine photographing so well! My features cut through the screen like a knife through cheese. It's sheer good luck, but who would have believed it?"
And there was a time, once, when a Hollywood producer like Paramount's Jesse Lasky could get wind of this magnetic, ugly man tearing up the stage in London and New York and to see in him potential for movies, a corner for him somewhere in the glamour factory yet, and to give him a Hollywood contract the kind of which many established stars went to bed dreaming (two years, three films a year and choice of roles), and to launch him as a ready-made star. Now, when stars are produced in laboratories and sliced from a big loaf it should be more salutary than ever to recall how Hollywood set about making a star from what to them must have seemed the most perversely unusual clay.
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"Movie acting is simple: Feel it in your guts and then let it dribble up through your eyes." - Charles Laughton, 1932
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I want to talk here about those films Laughton made in that first wave of Hollywood glory, before the certain star vehicles; before those laps of honour like The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, back when Paramount knew only that they had inherited an English actor unlike anything they had seen before and set about providing roles to match.
Watching films like Devil and the Deep, White Woman and, of course, De Mille's The Sign of the Cross., it's incredible to think how limited his previous screen experience had been. His triumphs had all been on stage (which suited the still-nervous talking Hollywood fine), but even in that arena he was a new as well as brilliant illumination: still only 33, with only six years of professional acting behind him.
His weight and his unusual appearance made him look older, of course, and he had already shown on stage that he could play virtually any age. But it was more than dexterity and versatility that earned him his ticket across the Atlantic, that was obvious. This was never going to be another George Arliss.
There is an intensity, and an unbridledness, a secretiveness, and yes, an almost voluptuous quality to him at this time, that is as unmistakable as it is hard to pin down, but which gives his performances a real edge of mystery and danger; a glint in his eye that, as he famously said, "they can't censor" (nor quite define).
It was clear from the start that Paramount had him in mind for a very particular kind of pre-Code villainy; morbid eroticists, seducers, decadents, neurotic egotists in thrall to their corrupted passions and pagan appetites, thwarted little men finding stature in madness and monstrousness, wielding the power they have forged for themselves in the distorting flames of defeat.
No other actor quite so thoroughly cornered the market in questioning whether flesh and soul are ever perfectly matched: his triumphant Quasimodo in 1939 was merely symbolic confirmation of what Paramount had spotted from the first: that it was in this misshapen Englishman, not in Paul Muni and certainly not anywhere in Universal's horror factory, that the true screen heir to Lon Chaney had been found.
And his Quasimodo survives the fade-out, what's more, because in Laughton there is not merely the capacity for tragedy and the monstrous, but for redemption also. He is not a monster so much as the potential for monstrosity: his performances plead for greater understanding even as they articulate the consequences of those pleas going unheard.
One of his most significant early stage roles had been in A Man With Red Hair, adapted from Hugh Walpole's novel by Benn W. Levy in 1927. In it Laughton plays the eponymous Mr Crispin, ugly and insignificant and heir to a massive legacy of psychological corruption, or "a very gargoyle of obscene desires" as the Observer put it, taking insane revenge on the world that shunned him. In the climax he addresses his bound and gagged victims:

You who have laughed at me, mocked me, insulted me - you and all the world: now you are mine to do with as I will. An old, fat ugly man, and two fine young ones. I prick you and you shall bleed. I spit on you and you shall bow your heads. I can say 'Crawl' and you will crawl, 'Dance' and you will dance.

That Laughton drew on his own experience in playing such roles goes without saying. Whether as a child he had truly been deemed so ugly by his peers that they jeered and threw stones at him, as he once claimed, is anyone's guess, but there is no reason to think he would have found life easier than any other overweight homosexual aesthete growing up in England in the early twentieth century. It's certainly no surprise that he was unhappy at school, since, as Barry Norman observed, "in the entire history of the world no fat boy has ever been happy at an English public school, and a fat boy who was hopeless at games and interested in art, literature and wild flowers was clearly doomed to years of utter misery."
Then came the war, of which he clearly saw a great deal, though he rarely discussed it, preferring to keep it locked away with everything else. (In her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester recalls how in the Second World War, during which Laughton elected to stay in America and was rather absurdly criticised in the British press as a slacker, he would say privately "I was in the First World War, in the trenches, bayonetting men and getting gassed. I think once in a life is enough.")
Clearly, compared to the average young actor, here was an enormous depth of experience to pile alongside his precocious gifts. Already he had known much and seen much, and thought deeply.
"I was different from them all," Crispin explains in Man With Red Hair, "I was different from my father, different from all the world, and I was glad that I was different. I hugged my difference. Different... Different... Different."
This, with variations, is the Laughton Hollywood wanted and got: here is Nero, here are his tyrants from Island of Lost Souls and White Woman, outcasts from their own society reduced to building their own remote kingdoms in compensation, here even is his blank-faced drudge from If I Had a Million, blowing the most timid yet triumphant of raspberries at his boss when he learns he has inherited a million dollars from a stranger.
That this was how Paramount perceived Laughton is obvious from the first, in the vehicle they tailored especially to serve as his introduction to the American public: Devil and the Deep (1932), written by Benn W. Levy, author of Man With Red Hair.
. To introduce what the opening credits bill as 'the eminent English character actor', Levy wrote his man another monster, and one who again hides behind a veneer of respectability. In private Submarine Commander Charles Sturm's displays of savage, near-murderous sexual jealousy drive his wife (Tallulah Bankhead at her most languid) to the brink of despair, but to his friends and colleagues he maintains an air of affable respectability quite sufficient to fool them into thinking him the wronged party.
First, handsome Lieutenant Cary Grant shows interest and he wrecks his chances of promotion by having him transferred for inefficiency. But when she falls for his replacement (Gary Cooper) he arranges a more ostentatious revenge: to sabotage his own submarine, killing Cooper, Tallulah and everyone on board.
Coop saves the day, and the crew, but Sturm, now axe-wieldingly insane, locks himself in his cabin, where his manic, high-pitched laughter is silenced only as the rising waters fill his mouth.
Laughton's debut was hugely acclaimed, with raves like the following from Photoplay the norm rather than the exception:

This Charles Laughton – what an actor! He will give you a new thrill as you watch him almost steal the picture from Tallulah Bankhead and Gary Cooper. You’ll forgive him for doing it, too, because his portrayal of a jealous, crazed submarine commander who carries his wife and her lover to the bottom of the sea for revenge, is magnificent.

The odd film out in this batch is his second, The Old Dark House (1932), again written by Levy but with an infinitely lighter touch. Actually it was Laughton's first American film, made on loan to Universal when Devil and the Deep was briefly delayed, but only on condition that it be released second. Made for James Whale (who knew Laughton fairly well from England) it fails to conform to the model of Laughton that Paramount had constructed for America; it's a one-off, though another delightful and equally illuminating tour-de-force.
His late entrance is the film's happiest innovation; he looks younger than he ever did at Paramount - about his real age for once - in an expansive but realistic portrayal as a Yorkshire mill-owner seemingly so brash he doesn’t notice anything sinister about the house or any of its occupants, but in reality so insecure he has to pay Lilian Bond to be his travelling companion. (“He doesn’t expect anything – do you know what I mean by anything?” she makes clear towards the end of the film.)
In a brilliantly written and delivered monologue, he defends a perceived slight against his wealth with the story of how his young wife had died, he implies, of depression, after a cotton dress she had worn led to her being snubbed at a society party:

Well, Lucy worries about it. Gets it into her head that she’s going to hold me back… Well you may not believe it, but I know that’s what killed her. That’s what started me making money. I swore I’d smash those fellows and their wives who wouldn’t give my Lucy a kind word. Ha! And I ‘ave smashed ‘em… At least, most of them.
Once you’ve started making money it’s hard to stop. Especially if you’re like me. There isn’t much else you’re good at.


It’s a moment on a par with Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws: the movie stops for a moment, you admire it separately, then resume. However optimistic he was feeling about his new Hollywood career, Laughton must have seen the sort of things Paramount were lining up for him and felt the direction in which the wind was blowing; he would have known that characters this good-hearted would rarely be his to claim. And so he leaps into the chance to show us that he can be lovable too.
His rapid and completely convincing transition from anger to mockery to warm acceptance on learning that his protégée is ready to swap him for dishy war veteran Melvyn Douglas is a comparably fine moment. "I may not be this and I may not be that," he says at one point, "but you don't catch me pretending to be what I'm not."
.Paramount loaned him again, to MGM for Payment Deferred (1932) in a role he had played on stage in London and New York, then cast him in that memorable cameo in If I Had a Million (1932) for Lubitsch, all of which was mere prelude to the most iconic role of this first Hollywood batch: Nero in De Mille's Sign of the Cross (1932).
That Laughton is the most glisteningly perverse constituent of the thing is no small achievement in a film awash in perversity and decadence, especially given his surprisingly limited screen time. If pornography is as much a matter of attitude as degree then surely this is pornography: it is a work of stunning tastelessness filmed with exquisite beauty, descending in its final quarter into voyeuristic sadism that is somehow of a piece with the lurid erotics that precede it.
And these two strands of the film are made flesh in the pudgy body of Laughton's Nero, plucking his lyre as Rome burns, almost sliding off his throne with post-coital languor ("My head's splitting; the wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!"), and submitting to the political manipulations of Claudette Colbert's Poppaea in exchange for her kneading his flesh like dough. (This is of course the film in which Colbert takes her famous bath in asses' milk, looking straight at the camera as she strokes the breasts that the surface of the liquid can only barely conceal, and which at times – if you pause, reverse, zoom, frame advance, pause again and sit back contentedly to admire your achievement only to realise that your girlfriend left the room ten minutes ago – it cannot conceal at all.)
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The pressbook makes the film's focus more than clear: "Beautiful slave girls... courtesans... harlots... their only purpose to outdo each other in the orgiastic rites loved by a lustful Caesar. A flesh-mad emperor... Nero... painting the ancient city red with the warm blood of his victims... just for a sadistic thrill. Naked women... their helpless beauty pitted against the ferocity of frenzied animals... while Nero licks his lustful lips."
But the full extent of the film's explicitness was forgotten for decades. For years it was available only in a shortened version prepared for reissue in the early forties, with a silly new prologue and epilogue added set in a warplane flying over Rome, and much of the detail removed to conform with the Hays Code.
A far cry from its first run, when Hays himself demanded of De Mille what he was going to do about the film's lesbian dance and seduction scene, and the director replied: "Will, listen carefully because you might want to quote me. Not a damn thing." (His later, more considered explanation - "How are you going to resist temptation if there isn't any?" - is the key that unlocks virtually his entire oeuvre.)
The original, unedited version survived only as single print in his personal vault until its recent restoration. What it revealed is a film like little else prior to Pasolini's Salo in its combination of horror, degeneracy and an all-pervading sense of doom. There is a genuinely apocalyptic feel to the thing. A naked girl is tethered horizontally two feet from the ground as hungry crocodiles scuttle towards her, another is tied to a pole as a gorilla advances, her fate presumably an altogether different one, a battle is staged between gladiators and dwarves, an elephant crushes a man's head beneath its foot, and through it all De Mille cuts to Laughton and the other spectators salivating and laying wagers on the outcome.
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From this to the unvarnished charnelry of Island of Lost Souls (1932) is but the daintiest step, yet after Nero it seems almost too easy to have cast Laughton in straight horror, and in so plainly malicious a guise.
Not that his mad jungle experimenter Dr Moreau considers himself wicked, neither are his motives merely the standard mad scientist fallback of all-for-the-good-of-science. Here, too, we sense the voluptuary behind the vivisectionist, the man half obsessed and half aroused by the taboos he is violating. Confronted by the hero in his lab like a hundred other mad doctors, his response is to lounge before his personable young accuser in a pose of mock-seduction on his operating table. ("You're an amazingly unscientific young man!" he says mildly.)
It's the casualness that's different, that is pure Laughton. Even when doing the standard Lugosi tour of the madhouse he inserts a characteristic note of bathos by way of punchline:

Those are some of my less successful experiments. They supply the power to create others, more successful. But with each experiment I improve upon the last. I get nearer and nearer. Mr Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God? I'm talking too much aren't I.

George Zucco's mad scientists would never have spotted or acknowledged that.
They call Laughton a ham; they say he 'over-acts'. Even if I knew quite what that meant, and I confess I don't really, still I say: show me another actor who surprises quite like Laughton, either by going much further than you expect him to, or by going elsewhere. If this is overacting, so be it.
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That Island of Lost Souls is able to leave so potent an aftertaste is quite something after the porno-horrors of Sign of the Cross yet it surely does: along with Murders in the Rue Morgue it is pre-Code horror's most unabashed parading of sadism as entertainment. And Murders, at least, had gorillas and frock coats and Bela Lugosi going at it nineteen to the dozen. Here, in modern dress and with little conventional spooky atmosphere, no effort is made to distance the viewer from its atrocities; "it had all of the ingredients but little of the mood required," as William K. Everson put it.
It wallops you with torture, cannibalism and inter-species miscegenation; H. G. Wells, on whose novel it was based, protested loudly and the British censor banned the thing outright.
Yet Laughton would have been wasted were it otherwise. We do have him in outright gothic horror, with Karloff for company, in a 1951 piece called The Strange Door. It's not one of his more interesting performances because there's not much the script allows him to do with it: he can play straightforward horror-villains as well as anyone, better no doubt, but they don't give him the opportunity to do what he does best, which is to offer that curiously modern mixture of fear and revulsion that the more banal kind of monster does.
The gothic costumes and sets allow the audience room to breathe, but Moreau lets Laughton do what he does best: to go beyond the point with which the viewer is comfortable.
The climax, as his high-pitched screams inform us that his hybrid slaves, having rebelled against his rule and carried him into his own 'House of Pain', have now begun vivisecting him to death, is virtually without parallel in thirties horror, as, of course, is the miscegenation subplot. (Though both occur more elliptically in Murders in the Rue Morgue the same year.) Nervous memos from the Studio Relations Committee to Paramount chief B.P. Schulberg advising that that the film be abandoned ("for I am sure you would never be allowed to suggest that sort of thing on screen") were blithely ignored, but the film was turned down flat when the studio applied to the Hays Office to reissue it in 1935.

White Woman (1933) is the last and in some ways the most interesting product of this initial campaign, though frequently ignored, partly because it was preceded by a return to the London stage and the triumph of Henry VIII, partly because it is usually written off as an ignoble potboiler unworthy of its star, who responds in kind by giving one of his most over the top and unconsidered performances.
The film is an insane mix of Rain, Red Dust and Lost Souls; at once compendium and culmination of his early American work. His character - Horace Prin, king of the river - is an egomaniac sexual sadist with a Zapata moustache and a natty straw boater, whose sense of invincibility is dependent on having complete control of all who come under his purview. Like Dr Moreau he is lawless lord of all he surveys, a tyrant and oppressor (his slaves not animal hybrids but what he calls 'ostile 'eathens; his staff are criminals on the run over whom he can exercise power like his assistant in Lost Souls). There is Nero here too, obviously, not least in the sexual appetites the pre-Code scenario writer need not obscure, yoked to the pathological sexual jealousy of Devil & the Deep's Commander Sturm. We even get a glimpse of a real man behind the performance - which is Prin's performance, not Laughton's - in a moment as unexpected as his speech in The Old Dark House:

You 'avent spent any part of your childhood in the slums have you, your ladyship? Well I have. If it don't take the 'eart out of you I don't know what it does. It makes a blooming king out of you.

Hard to imagine how the character was written, before Laughton got his hands on him, but he opts to play him as music hall cockney, and to deliver every single line of dialogue sarcastically, as here, when a member of his blackmailed staff announces his intention of returning to civilisation, to which Prin has seemingly acquiesced:

Well, pleasant journey to you, Hambly. My compliments to your family. You remember Anderson now, don't you? He 'ad to go 'ome, sudden like, just like yourself. Poor chap; he 'ad a bit of business with the crocodiles on the way down. We all missed 'im, didn't we, fellas? You might look in on 'is family, tell 'em how we missed 'im. When you gets 'ome.

There is all you need here already for grim melodrama, especially at a studio with no qualms about supplying the kind of horror imagery American cinema would henceforth be denied for thirty-five years, as when we see in explicit detail a severed head being thrown through a window and rolling across the floor. But we haven't reckoned on the explosive final ingredient: the white woman herself.
She's Carole Lombard, and white she most assuredly is, like a marble ghost. Dressed alternately in white and black sheath dresses she looks almost unhealthily pale (and preposterously so, given the tropic location); the skin is porcelain, the hair is platinum melted to the contours of her head. Only the dark slash make-up of lips and eyes bring definition to the glowing haze.
Prin's attitude towards her is difficult to work out: dazzled on first appearance and tempted by the prospect of another over whom he can exercise control (her husband committed suicide after discovering her sexual infidelity; she's now a café singer facing extradition) he offers her marriage in exchange for no more harassment from the authorities. She accepts, but by the time we next see them arriving at his river home a wall of disgust has already risen between them.
That Prin wants her principally as a trophy is obvious ("'Ere, you greasy beggars, you 'ave the 'onour of beholding Mrs Prin," he says to his assembled staff; "She's lovely isn't she?") though we are left in no doubt of her responsibilities when he proceeds to order her into the bedroom.
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Yet his ardour seems to cool almost immediately; though he threatens murder to the men who instantly flock to her, he does so lazily, as if going through the motions merely, and he makes little effort to deny her the opportunity for romantic encounters. (Charles Bickford's bluff overseer is a particular delight: "You can do a lot worse in this hole than give me a tumble," he tells Lombard; "I've watched those big eyes of yours - and other things!")
Prin's end comes through hubris and that speciality of the actor: the slow, painful, visible slide from extreme mental instability to unequivocal madness. So often his characters are not mad but skirtng the condition's edge, only to fall at the last. Think of Sturm in his submarine or, later, Sir Humphrey Pengallon in Jamaica Inn, leaping to his death from a ship's crow's-nest before first informing the crowd below to tell their children they were present when the great age ended.
Here, trapped in his fortress home with only Bickford for company and death inevitable, the pair opt to play cards, but when Bickford is killed in his chair by a poison dart Prin sees this as just one more betrayal ("You ungrateful 'ound!"), and ends up screaming in his face:

Soft! That's what you was! All of you! Mush! Eh! Can you 'ear me from where you is now, Ballister? If the flames ain't roaring too high maybe you can 'ears me. Eh? I'm Prin, king of the river! I always was king and I'm stayin' king, and you can laugh that off! I'm Prin! King of the river! King of the river and king of everything in it, under it and alongside of it. King! KING!

Whereupon he calmly steps outside to take a fatal spear in the gut. White Woman may not have the sobriety of high art, and Laughton may have taken its lead role on in the spirit of a lark, but it is much more than a mere programmer: it's one of the strangest damned things you ever saw, actually. And Laughton's performance is amazing.
Think where he is at this point: he's been to Hollywood, conquered it, stolen all the notices from under the noses of his co-stars, from De Mille even, went back to England, re-asserted himself on stage and is now poised to wow two continents simultaneously as Henry VIII... confident, I would say is the word. This is an incredibly confident performance.
He's having fun but he's not sending it up; he's turning it into something as unique as he is. Laughton biographer Simon Callow (who, like the few others to have even noticed the film, has little praise for it), at least points out that there is nothing whatever suggestive of Laughton's performance in Prin as scripted: he's a "conventionally cruel river trader". What you see on the screen is all Laughton.
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A year later, when Sidney Franklin, director of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, nervously asked his star how he saw his role, Laughton replied impatiently "as a monkey on a stick". In other words: I know exactly what I'm doing, sit down and you shall see me do it.
His apprenticeship served, now he was off and running, and that career, alternately triumphant and frustrating (for too often frustrated), could begin in earnest.
In the films that followed, I've never seen Laughton give a bad performance. I've seen White Woman and Captain Kidd and Jamaica Inn and Salome and Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd, but I've never seen Laughton give a bad performance.
Billy Wilder, who oversaw one of his greatest ones in Witness For The Prosecution, was in no doubt either: "My God, who was there better than Laughton? Nobody. There has never been anybody that even came close."

My Grandfather's Autograph Book


Following on from my previous post, here are some of the autographs that my grandfather acquired while working at London Films.
For some reason the thought of my grandfather walking up to the likes of Charles Laughton and Robert Taylor and - especially! -Miriam Hopkins, and asking for their autographs amuses me no end. (Imagine your grandfather blithely starting a conversation with Miriam Hopkins and you may get a sense of some – though still, I fancy, not all – of the comic incongruity of mine doing so.)
And in these pages it is somehow possible, I think, to get a sense of how these luminaries differed even from the British stars of the period. While Robert Taylor’s signature, for instance, is a florid, confident scrawl that almost fills the page, the British signatures are generally smaller and more formal, often carefully dated like an official document. Edward Chapman signs himself ‘E. Chapman, 2/9/36’, more in the manner of a civil servant than a film actor. (Indeed it was a while before I realised that this even was one of the actors’ signatures: a busy and popular character actor, Chapman is probably best-remembered these days as Mr Grimsdale in several of Norman Wisdom’s comedies. For some reason his was the only autograph he obtained on the set of Things To Come.)


The contrast in styles between the two stars of Knight Without Armour seems especially revealing. Britisher Robert Donat – though a huge star both at home and abroad – writes his full name in a friendly hand, and dates it. His co-star, with aristocratic hauteur and in what feels not by chance to be the exact centre of the page, writes simply ‘Dietrich’.

Not many people remember Annabella these days. She was a French actress who made her debut in Gance's Napoléon and went on to appear in Le Million and many other French films (including one enticingly named Trois jeunes filles nues/Three Naked Flappers in 1929) before being courted by Hollywood and Britain in the late thirties. The English-language films she made over the next ten years were mainly undistinguished, however, and she was more famous for marrying Tyrone Power than for any of her movies. The autograph probably dates from the production of Dinner at the Ritz (1937), a New World Pictures production filmed at Denham.
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A neat and very attractive signature from one of my favourite actresses, the neat and very attractive Elsa Lanchester. This was while making Rembrandt (1936), directed by Korda himself..

And a grand and eccentric one from Rembrandt's star, Elsa's husband and my favourite actor, the grand and eccentric Mr Charles Laughton.
.If you've never seen Men Are Not Gods (1937) I recommend it wholeheartedly: a charming and unusual British comedy drama with lovely period atmsophere, and Miriam Hopkins giving a delightfully relaxed and buoyant performance alongside a very young but already balding Rex Harrison. My grandfather astutely avoided Rex and went straight for Miriam.
.My grandmother's favourite: Robert Taylor, on the set of A Yank at Oxford (1938), an MGM film shot at Denham. I would have been happier with Maureen O'Sullivan's autograph myself. Or Vivien Leigh's, Lionel Barrymore's or the great Tully Marshall's, all of whom appeared in the film. Still, that's women for you.

Despite being a chronic asthmatic, Robert Donat managed to write his full name and the date on the set of Knight Without Armour (1937)...

... unlike his more enigmatic co-star!

When my grandfather met Miriam Hopkins


In his army pay book, when he was ‘released to the reserve’ after the end of the Second World War, my grandfather’s trade is listed as ‘carpenter and joiner’.
It was one that led to various forms of employment through his life. He built coffins for an undertaker’s, worked in a London hotel, ran his own hardware shop, and for a few years in the nineteen-thirties, he worked on the sets of the most important films being made in Britain.
.Fernley Arthur William Brock, Arthur to those who knew him, was in his late teens when he applied for work at Alexander Korda’s London Film Studios, by far the most prestigious filmmaking company in Britain, at a time when it was brimming with confidence. It had been a Korda film of 1933, The Private Life of Henry VIII, that had suddenly made Hollywood sit up and take notice of British movies, rewarding it with unprecedented box-office and Oscar success. With the world profits of the film, the ambitious and imaginative Korda constructed Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire, establishing himself as Britain’s only true Hollywood-style movie mogul.
The studios were finished in 1936, and it was the first general call for skilled craftsman that my grandfather successfully answered.
John Aldred, a young man who worked in Denham’s sound department, recalled that as he arrived for work every morning he would pass a long line of carpenters, plasterers, electricians and labourers hoping for casual daily work. Those like my grandfather who had received permanent contracts were therefore fortunate indeed.
.These were the golden years for London Films, and Arthur worked on many of the company’s most prestigious productions.
The Denham studios were by far the largest in Britain, with seven separate stages totalling 110,500 square feet. There were fully equipped electricians’ galleries to facilitate state of the art lighting effects and any conceivable camera angle, the most up to date sound equipment, a private water supply and the largest private electric power plant in the country. My grandfather was one of a permanent staff of two thousand technicians and craftsmen.
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At the time, he was engaged to my future grandmother and would regularly drive to and from Plymouth where she lived in his Austin Seven. Before motorways this was no small trip; it took about eight hours. On his visits he would tell of the experience of driving through London’s famous pea-soup fogs; so thick that you could only crawl, as the car in front would be literally impossible to make out.
But of far greater interest to my grandmother was the autograph book he kept for her, where, sitting nonchalantly alongside friends and members of the family, were the signatures of many of the biggest names in films at that time.
How many other prospective suitors could bring her Robert Taylor’s autograph?
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Looking at it now, the autograph book is especially useful; because it shows us exactly which films my grandfather worked on. The signatures of Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton (the latter helpfully dated 22/8/36) mean that he worked on Rembrandt, the film Korda hoped would equal the success of Henry VIII. Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich (who signs herself simply ‘Dietrich’) place him on the set of Knight Without Armour (1937).
Men Are Not Gods (1936), a wonderful if largely forgotten comedy drama, must have been his opportunity to approach firebrand Miriam Hopkins.
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The art department for which Arthur worked was internationally recognised for its excellence. It was under the control of Korda’s brother Vincent, whose “period as a painter in France,” writer John Halas has noted, “made an imprint on both his personal set designs and those produced under his charge in the studio, while his strongly persuasive character and impatience dominated the work of those around him, from his fellow designers to carpenters and decorators who carried out the finished sets.” A demanding and irascible employer, it was said that in those pre-unionised days he sometimes worked his crews through the night to ensure the work was completed on time, though my grandfather never complained of this himself. The results, however, spoke for themselves: “Even when the film itself failed to gain acceptance, the set design received acclaim.”
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One of the most ambitious films to which Arthur contributed was Things To Come (1936), Korda’s adaptation of HG Wells’s futuristic novel. This elaborate production gave him a chance to work not just on sets but also special effects. The film was pioneering in its use of models and false perspective to give the illusion of great size and distance.
He recalled to me the experience of sitting in the audience at the film’s premiere, and noting the excited gasps of the crowd as the film unspooled – an excitement entirely lost on him, because he knew exactly how the sights they found so amazing were achieved.
In particular, a shot of planes flying in perfect formation he knew all too well to be miniatures, the exact formation simply attained by having them all linked together on a metal frame. He told me to look closely if I ever saw this scene, because he swore that, once you knew the trick, the wires were plainly visible. Perhaps on a big screen and luminously clear nitrate film stock they were: but I’ve never spotted them on television.
.He also gave me some fascinating behind the scenes photographs of the films being made, appearing here for the first time.
One shows him with the submarine set he helped construct for the film Dark Journey (1937). Clearly visible on its side is a gash from a scene in which the submarine was supposedly breached and flooded, a sequence he watched being filmed.
The effect was simply achieved. A small section of the submarine’s interior wall was cut away and covered with stiff paper. This was then linked to a large tank connected to the studio’s private water supply. On the director’s signal, the water was released and came crashing through the paper, while the actors on the receiving end of this deluge were tossed about like ninepins.
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Dark Journey: the submarine completed...

... and still under construction: note the hole in the side to allow for the flooding effect. Arthur is stood in the centre of the back row.
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The most interesting of all the pictures are the ones showing the galleon constructed for the Elizabethan seafaring adventure Fire Over England (1937). They reveal that not only did the vessel never go to sea; it was in fact only ever built as a cross-section.
Only one side was ever seen by the cameras, and was beautifully designed and painted - the other was a hollow wall of twentieth century scaffolding. Needless to say, the vessel was entirely stationary, and all the stirring maritime action achieved through studio trickery.
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Fire Over England: set construction

The side of the galleon audiences saw...

... and the side they never saw!

.I don’t know if it was Arthur’s intention to continue working at Denham, or if he imagined his long-term future as being part of the film industry. In the event, Hitler made the decision for him. He signed up immediately war was declared, eventually joined the 6th Airborne Division and on 6th June, 1944, he landed in Normandy in the first wave of D-Day landings.
But that’s another story…

This poster makes me laugh

Here's a poster that never fails to give me a chuckle as I pass it on the way to my local train station.

It's the perfect illustration of the law that the self-regard of any film increases in direct inverse proportion to its ability to justify it. In other words: those with the silliest voices shout the loudest. (This is know as Herzlinger's Law, named after Ivan Herzlinger, whose seminal study Techniques By Which Modern Hollywood Prats About is available in ten volumes from the University of Frankfurt Press; come after 10.30 and ask for Steve.)
With Herzlinger's law fresh in your minds, look again at this poster.


Look at the two men. Look at Leo, kitted out for action with sunglasses and a light dusting of what in his more fanciful moments he presumably takes for facial hair. Best of all, gaze in awe at that blurred left hand - he's so fast no camera can do him justice! 

Look at him pointing his toy gun. If he was holding a feather duster he wouldn't look sillier. He might even look less silly.
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And does anyone seriously think that either of this pair has earned the right to use their surname only? That anyone - even the guy's biggest fan - has ever once in their lives referred to Russell Crowe as 'Crowe' in any context other than that of a paragraph in which his full name has been mentioned once already? 

When did you hear someone excitedly announce that there was a new Crowe movie coming out? 
Send Junior to your parents, honey, Crowe's got a new one playing downtown.
Gable, yes. Karloff, yes. Dietrich, yes. Bogart, yes. Ruggles, yes. Even Brando, yes. But Crowe?
Nah.

From Beyond the Belgrave


In its heyday, the city of Plymouth boasted dozens of cinemas. Hitler took out a few, television picked up where he left off, and by the time I was born in 1973 there were only three.
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All film fans have what are often referred to as 'guilty pleasures': films of which they are inordinately fond despite being fully aware that they could never in a million years construct a rational artistic defence for them. The reason usually boils down to a nostalgic attachment to the circumstances in which they were first encountered, and it is certainly the case that the majority of my guilty pleasures date from the early to mid-nineteen-eighties, the period when I first began going to the cinema, sometimes unaccompanied, as a habit rather than a treat.
Films like The Monster Club with Vincent Price disco dancing, Jaws 3-D and, God help me, Clockwise with John Cleese are treats which I still have to ration lest their magic wears off. It hasn't yet; any one of the above gives me as much pleasure - no, who am I trying to fool? - much more pleasure than The Maltese Falcon or Psycho or whatever my 'official' favourite film might have been at the time.
.I can no longer remember the first film I ever saw, I suspect it was a Disney cartoon; I remember seeing Dumbo at a very young age, and being fascinated by the inside of the whale in Pinocchio.
I certainly saw Star Wars on its first run (but not Superman, which I have still never seen; indeed I have not seen any Superman film, from any era.) The first time I remember being somewhat disappointed by a film was by the The Spaceman and King Arthur; until then the novelty of cinema was enough to make a treat of anything.

.Ironically, by the time I became a regular movie-goer, the city’s grandest cinema by no small margin was the Drake (later the Drake-Odeon, then just the Odeon): ironic because it was also the newest. (It opened in 1958; the first attraction was South Pacific; my parents were there.) Named, of course, after the city’s most famous son, it boasted a splendid replica of his ship the Golden Hind above the entrance. (It’s still there, in fact, looking lost and lonely in a new plastic and metal landscape.)
Of all Plymouth movie houses still standing in my youth, only the Drake hinted at something of that atmosphere one associates with cinemagoing in the golden age.
According to Gordon Chapman’s superb book Devon at the Cinema it was the only cinema in Britain built by 20th Century Fox, though quickly sold to the Rank Organisation. Fortuitously so, since as well as a splendidly spacious entrance hall, high ceiling and mezzanine, it boasted wonderful Rank wallpaper, covered with pictures of Kenneth Williams and Bruce Lee.
Built with only one massive screen it had split into three by the time I first visited, and again into five by the time it closed its doors in 1999. It was the Drake that got the James Bond films, and where I was taken to see Moonraker on two consecutive nights because I fell asleep the first time.

Just up the road, the smaller three-screen ABC (later the Cannon and the MGM, now the Reel) still stands.
This is where I was deemed too young for Jaws, saw ET three times, Morons From Outer Space once and, in later years, sat almost alone through afternoon screenings of Bitter Moon, Blame It On The Bellboy and Parting Shots.The only time I can remember starting a film halfway through and sticking around for the next showing (until ‘where we came in’) was here in 1985; the film was King Solomon’s Mines with (if memory serves) a moment in which a tribe of cannibals put Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone into a big pot with vegetables floating in it.
The ABC was a cosier affair than the Drake, and (as mentioned above) ingeniously made its own wallpaper out of old posters, including one for Kenny Everett’s Bloodbath at the House of Death. Going up the stairs were framed posters for Lugosi's Dracula, the Karloff-Lugosi Black Cat and Chaplin in, I think, The Adventurer.
Built in 1938, and still with many of its original art deco fittings, it survived the blitz and is still valiantly standing fast against the multiplexes, though hellish plans persist to turn it into just another plastic fast film outlet.

Plymouth's third cinema was the Belgrave. It seems obvious to me today that this was the most cherishable of them all, though my only clear memory of visiting it was to see Abba the Movie.
It was the oldest (built in 1912), the most ramshackle, eccentric and charming. (Here it was that my father laughed so unrestrainedly at Peter Sellers in The Smallest Show on Earth that he kicked a woman in the head.)
To my parents’ generation the ‘Grave was the number one choice for fifties sci-fi and horror, rock and roll films, double-bills and second runs. By the seventies it had been forced into less innocent forms of exploitation; I have a vivid recollection of staring at the little reproductions of garish film posters that accompanied the listings in the local paper, transfixed by the mysterious promise of The Hills Have Eyes and, especially, by what seemed the most enticing double-bill ever: Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Toolbox Murders. The ‘Grave closed its doors in 1983 before turning itself into a snooker hall. This it remains, the rather splendid old building still standing as it was.

A little later I discovered that the Plymouth Arts Centre had a cinema. This was strictly no-frills but its programmes completed my cinema education: here I saw Battleship Potemkin, Birth of a Nation, Grande Illusion, Nights of Cabiria, The Chelsea Girls and Blue Velvet for the first time.
Designed merely to supplement the output of the main cinemas with more offbeat fare, today it is one of only two cinemas in the entire city (or three if you count the multiplex, but I'm assuming you don't).

.Nothing has ever come close to the sense of intoxication engendered by childhood visits to the Drake and the ABC, though I have of course had memorable times in other cinemas since. In London, I lived for a while just around the corner from the ABC, Catford, built in 1913 as the Central Hall Picture House, and another lovely old three-screener which maintained a suicidal programme of films other more impressive cinemas in the area couldn’t be bothered to show.
It was also steeped in that quintessential cinema smell - dust and popcorn and old upholstery - to a degree I have never encountered before or since. Almost overwhelming in its intensity, it hit you like a wet duvet when you entered, and clung to your clothes for hours after. Weeds grew out of its façade.
Here I enjoyed Dracula Dead and Loving It in the company of one old man on a Friday afternoon and Miss Congeniality with rain pouring through the ceiling and spattering on a nearby seat. It closed soon after.

The story of British cinemas in the post-war years is, alas, one of constant decline. Death came with many smiling faces, first television, then video, then the multiplex, with several other factors chipping away at the gaps in between.
Doubtless a generation older than mine quite rightly recalls video as an evil fully comparable to those damned multiplexes. It seems obvious now that video was the decisive blow that did for the Belgrave, just as the multiplex unquestionably finished off the Drake.
I am just old enough to have had a silent Super-8 projector at a time when they were not a collector's retro novelty but the only way of watching a film of your choice at a time of your choice at home. I had one-reel versions of House of Frankenstein and Easy Street (and a Laurel and Hardy film in fact called Their Purple Moment but to me forever to be known as Passing the Buck, the title it had been given for home consumption).
I still have them and many more, and now am a devoted aficionado of the unique experience they provide, of the whirring of the projector, of that hot smell made by the film rushing past the bulb. But at the time home movies were dying just like the Belgrave and thanks to the same culprit.
Still, I was too young to resent video. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever encountered: a big silver box in the living room built like a tank with a remote control connected to it by a long lead that actually allowed you to make recordings of Jaws and the Kenny Everett show.
The first film we ever recorded was Love at First Bite, which I certainly feel is excellent for what it is, but again - not quite worthy of the warm place it occupies still in my family's memories of the time. My sister and I watched it so often that we could recite the entire script from beginning to end, and I'll wager we could still make a pretty good stab at it.
I can even remember word for word the way it was introduced by Roger Shaw, the continuity announcer. (This was in the days when ITV, in our region at least, employed announcers we could see as well as hear; they sat in a kind of minimalist mock-up living room, and we were encouraged to get to know them by name and think of them as part of the entertainment. Which they certainly were, especially a chap, now alas deceased, called Ian Stirling.)
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This was before the sell-through revolution (when the Video Collection started putting out tapes of the Marx Brothers in Love Happy for £6.99 in Woolworth’s). You could buy some films at about £20 a pop, but who needed to, when just about every newsagents and corner shop had a rack of enticing plastic boxes for rent? And every neighbourhood had its own specialist video rental shop – our favourite was Video Express (in Laira, Plymouth fans) – where whole rooms would be lined with the likes of Who Dares Wins and The Amityville Horror and Zulu Dawn, all smelling beautifully of dust, sunlight and fag smoke.
Video Express had two rooms: a cavernous, overflowing one for VHS, and a sparse little drab one for we Betamax lepers. Here I was reacquainted with those iconic images of the hand rising from the grave from Zombie Flesh Eaters and that scary bald chap from The Hills Have Eyes, along with perhaps the most famous video cover of all, for a film I had never heard of (and in fact have still never seen): Driller Killer.
These films, Driller Killer especially, would soon achieve a degree of celebrity far beyond their worth when they were re-christened ‘video nasties’. For most of my generation, recollection of the titles alone is enough to be instantly transported back to those glorious early days of video tape. But for me, they take me further: to 1979 and those little posters in the newspaper. Video nasties they may have become, but they will always be first and foremost Belgrave movies.

Why 1931 is the new 1939



As I explained in my post on Dracula, 1931 is a year that held an almost magical glamour for me throughout my childhood purely because of that one film. Because of it, I always took notice when another film came along made in the same year.
And the odd thing is that, in the years of film watching that followed, I found that I noticed it a lot.
Time and again, when a film really impressed me, and especially if it impressed me in a way that took me by surprise, it would turn out to have been made in 1931. .

It was the middle of the pre-Code era, and all of Hollywood was turning out cinema of matchless vivacity and allure. The mood was for those tangy society dramas, schizophrenically informed by the frivolities of the roaring twenties on one hand and the social conscience of the Depression on the other, that help define pre-Code not merely as an era, but almost as a genre.
Talkie technology had settled in, got over its teething troubles, and was safe in the hands of masters like Mamoulian, Arzner and Cukor. The new stars were in place, Broadway had been plundered for writers and personalities, and the dialogue and performances had real bite and sophistication.
So, there are good reasons. But still - so many amazing films in just one little year!

The book illustrated at the head of this post is Who's Who In Filmland 1931 and it's one of my most prized possessions. It never leaves my house and it's so fragile that nobody is allowed to touch it without written permission and videotaped surveillance.
Contained inside is exactly what the (British) film industry was in 1931; how it worked, how it saw itself, how it envisaged its future, its attitudes to new technologies and to emerging trends in popular cinema narrative. It is a living document, entirely in the present tense. Even more than immersing oneself in the movies themselves, it gives you a feeling of being absolutely as one with its moment.
A series of articles at the beginning of the book convey such a powerful sense of immediacy that, for as long as you are reading them, it really is 1931. It's also very, very British and frequently hilarious.
John Maxwell, Chairman of British International Pictures asks Have the "Talkies" Helped British Pictures? and answers himself thus:

I have no hesitation in saying that dialogue pictures offer the British producer new and great opportunities, and if the alliance between the pantomimic and elocutionary arts continues, as assuredly it will, that we shall have to drastically revise that ancient adage, "Speech is silvern, but silence if golden," and give it an opposite meaning - that is to say, with respect to British motion pictures.

You try saying that with no hesitation and you'll realise just why they made him Chairman of British International Pictures.
Maurice Elvey, ruminating on the same question, notices that:

... since the screen became articulate, pictures of international appeal have almost ceased to exist. This is largely due to the fact that the great mass of the people, in any country, do not understand foreign idiom, nor is it possible to translate it, except in rare instances, without losing the point or confusing the issue. And so, as American idiom on the British screen is never translated, the public find it difficult to understand what the characters are saying.
For example, they see and hear a girl in an American picture asking for crackers in a chemist's shop in July, and naturally wonder how it is that these Christmastide commodities are on sale in such an establishment and at such a season, whereas anyone acquainted with both countries would know that a chemist's shop, or drug store, in America approximates somewhat to a grocer's shop in Great Britain, and that "crackers" is Americanese for biscuits.


Sir Gordon Craig, Chairman and Managing Director of New Era National Pictures has been having similar difficulties, and sees in them good grounds for envisaging London As The Film Capital Of The World!:

London as the film capital of the world! Why not?..
The British public, in which I include that of the Dominions, is thoroughly weary of most American "talkies," particularly those of the revue and underworld type, expressed through voices that not only sound unpleasantly nasal and shrill to British ears, but speak a lingo that is often incomprehensible and which the Continental and South American countries cannot understand at all.

Perhaps for Maurice and Gordon's benefit, or else in tacit acknowledgement that the shrill and nasal Hollywood talkie was here to stay, the editors of Who's Who In Filmland 1931 have equipped their directory with a delightful glossary of its strange new terms of reference, as supplied by Universal Pictures Ltd.
Here are some of my favourites, and note how in many cases the British translations are every bit as charming and of their times as the incomprehensible "Americanese" they are intended to clarify:

Weenies/Janes/Dames/Broads: Girls.
Classiest Mammas in town: Smartest women in town.
He's phooey/He's crackers/He's blooey: He's mad.
A dim bulb/A banana/A sap/An oil can/A sucker/A dumb-bell: A fool.
The parrot's cracker/The bunk/Boloney: Nonsense.
Okay: All right.
Raspberries: Cat-calls.
Dope/Snow/Coke: Cocaine.
A cap pistol/A cannon/A gat/A rod/ A shooting iron: A revolver.

A weisenheimer: A smart fellow.
Punk-hoofer: Bad dancer.
Peeved up: Annoyed.
Roll over: Stop talking nonsense.
The Homicide Squad: A police department dealing exclusively with murder cases.
To tie on the nose bag: To have a meal.
Ditch that rod: Put that pistol in your pocket.
Sugar daddies: Men who "protect" girls.
Shoot: Go on with what you have to say.
Automat: A cheap restaurant where the clients help themselves to dishes from a kind of slot machine.
Right through the old pump: Right through the heart.
Gimme a drag on that weed: Give me a puff at that cigarette.
Give the little girl a big hand: A form of cabaret introduction popularised by Texas Guinan in her night club.


Thus armed, you need never be confused by an American movie again.

Elsewhere in Who's Who In Filmland 1931 we sense that innocent idealism so characteristic of the Roaring Twenties, such as was still not quite crushed by the Depression but would be, for all time, by Hitler. The Progress myth is still flowering here, as is the notion that communications technology would prove socially cohesive rather than destructive.
Douglas Fairbanks writes on Speed - The Secret of Life with an advertiser's zeal: "Speed's the keynote of this age; it's the principal ingredient in the success formula."

There's no cause for alarm. It's not a question of morality. This younger generation is just as fine and decent as any generation ever was. They're living ten jumps ahead of their parents and instructors, and they're deserving of our respect and admiration... The oldsters say that the youngsters scoff at authority and standards. Well, perhaps the old rules and the old standards don't fit...
Fundamentalism and modernism aren't confined to religion. They're battling all along the line. And it's always a speed dash... The dark ages were dark because they were slow as well as wicked...
Speed improves conditions of living. With swift transportation we don't have to live so close. Congestion is relieved. Cities spread out, as witness Los Angeles. Slums and skyscrapers disappear. Traffic and police problems are relieved. So morality and health both step up.


(Is it just me who hears Thora Birch in Ghost World at this point, saying "Yeah... that'll definitely happen!")

Norma Talmadge is even more touchingly plaintive in The Mission of Motion Pictures:

We live in the Age of the Dawn of Understanding. And one of the most potent factors in bringing about understanding among the various scattered nations of the earth is the motion picture... Misunderstanding breeds intolerance, and this is the most fruitful cause of war, and of minor dissensions, too...
When nations comprehend the motives back of another nation's procedure, they cease to be intolerant... (The motion picture) is bringing about that understanding and tolerance that will eventually mean world-wide peace. For, in my opinion, wars will cease when the nations of the world really understand each other.
Naïve, of course, but given that it was written in 1931, very poignant too.
But how's this for making a year come alive? This is again from Doug's paean to speed, and be prepared to be smacked up sharp by its concluding observation:

The increased tempo of modern life has been a priceless boon to women. The speed they're able to show since they rid themselves of their corsets and half their skirts has developed them into interesting partners as well as charming companions. They live faster, better, longer and more usefully. A few years ago, the average human being lived to be thirty-nine or forty. Now he gets to fifty-six.

And look who else we have here - Mr Alfred Hitchcock, no less, already something of a celebrity ("the famous producer of British International Pictures"), already writing in his instantly familiar, lugubrious voice, already being invited to ruminate on How I Choose My Heroines, and already explaining that they should be (as well as a "thoroughly nice girl" and ideally no more than five feet tall) "the kind of girl I can mould into the heroine of my imagination."
Hitchcock, incidentally, made Rich and Strange in 1931, a film that was both those things yet remains, unfairly, one of the least seen and discussed, as well as least typical, of all his British productions. Easy to overlook, though, in the light of that profusion of cinematic riches with which it shared its year.

What a year to be alive and going to the movies!

To hear Gloria Swanson sing in Indiscreet, while rejecting the advances of Monroe Owsley, my favourite pre-Code cad, neither of them guessing for a minute that theirs were careers running out of time. (If you don't know Monroe Owsley - or think you don't - first go to his filmography, where you may well surprise yourself at the number of his films you've seen, then look out for him whenever you rewatch them: he takes the thirties art of shiny-pated, slick-mannered high society untrustworthiness to its ultimate heights. I could watch him forever: even Cary Grant didn't have this much effortless style!)
To see and hear John Gilbert, having an eccentric final fling in The Phantom of Paris at MGM, where Norma Shearer is trying open marriage in Strangers May Kiss and Joan Crawford is everywhere, sometimes blonde, sometimes brunette, sometimes dancing, often the poor girl making good in the big city, and frequently paired with Clark Gable, at this point as often as not a heavy: Dance, Fools, Dance, This Modern Age, Possessed, Laughing Sinners.
It's a great year for Stanwyck; she's The Miracle Woman for Capra, living unmarried and Illicit in a story latter rejigged for Bette as Ex-Lady, the Night Nurse who saves the day, with the help of a friendly bootlegger and a sassy Joan Blondell, and the spirit of the age indeed in Ten Cents a Dance, directed by Lionel Barrymore. Universal invent the horror film, and cast the lovely Sidney Fox as Bette Davis's Bad Sister. At Paramount, morals are loose, everyone is languid and it's all terribly European. Kay Francis is The False Madonna, pretending to be an orphan's mother so she can carve off his inheritance, one of the Girls About Town for Cukor, and one point in a sleazy love triangle (with Carole Lombard and William Powell) in Ladies' Man.
The love of Fay Wray is enough to reform notorious criminal Ronald Colman in The Unholy Garden, somehow emanating from the acerbic pens of Hecht and MacArthur.
Clara Bow is fun in No Limit with Stuart Erwin and Harry Green, and serious and impressive in Kick-In.
Dietrich is Dishonored.
Dorothy Arzner has her hands full juggling Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Charlie Ruggles and Ginger Rogers in the frothy society cocktail Honor Among Lovers while Rouben Mamoulian's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde sets a new benchmark for cinematic artistry while still coming up with an artistically valid excuse for Miriam Hopkins to do a slow striptease to camera.
At Columbia, Capra makes Platinum Blonde, Harlow leaps justly to the front rank of stars, and nobody notices the wonderful performance of Loretta Young, or the great support of Halliwell Hobbes, Reginald Owen or Walter Catlett.
The Marx Brothers (Monkey Business), Laurel & Hardy (Pardon Us and lots of great shorts), Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts, Chaplin (City Lights), Charlie Chan and Betty Boop are all at the top of their game.

True, these are far from all well-known, widely celebrated classics. But they are all sources of sheer delight from America's most concentratedly inventive era of great film-making, and only respect for your patience prevents from me celebrating them all in detail.
And the list is far from exhausted. In the next four posts, I shall look at some more.

1931: How “Dracula” invented the modern horror film


My life changed at 10 pm on Saturday 9th July 1983.

I was what generation upon generation, separated in all other matters by unbridgeable chasms of social change, would have unanimously deemed an odd boy, simultaneously morbid and extrovert, and affecting a worldly-wise cynicism considered precociously endearing in a small child, less so as I reached double figures and downright obnoxious in later teenage. (Oddly enough, now that I am beginning to lose my hair it has gone back to being endearing.)
Outdoorsy things interested me not at all. I am perhaps the only boy in history who never finished Treasure Island on the grounds that, fascinated though I was by all the comings and goings at the inn in the beginning, my attention wandered when they hit the open seas.

I basically had one big interest. My parents tried to get me to acquire a few more; some took, some didn't, but none displaced my one true passion which was always, for some reason I cannot explain since it dates back further than I am able to recall, Dracula. That my mother was not wholly in approval of this obsession did nothing to dampen it. Nothing could. If I could convey to you even a fraction of how obsessive I was you would probably fear for your own sanity on the grounds of contamination.

But not until the age of 10, on Saturday 9th July, 1983, did I actually see a Dracula movie.
That Saturday marked the first time that a late night horror show had coincided with my parents deeming me mature enough to stay up and watch it. And with the good luck that so often accompanies such things, it was a double-bill of the peerless 1931 original Dracula and Frankenstein, week one of a season of Universal classics that ran through the summer. Dracula played at 10pm (which was late in those days: stations shut down at around midnight), with Frankenstein following it at 11.15 (and in those days still lacking the famous scene in which Karloff's Monster throws the little girl in the lake: one of the great holy grails of lost cinema, it was long presumed lost forever, and we felt hugely privileged when it was unexpectedly rediscovered and reinstated a couple of years later. Now we all take it for granted and I find myself feeling oddly privileged that I ever had the chance to see the film while it was still missing.)

Neither the first nor the last time that a picture of Glenn Strange would be used to represent Karloff - but this page of the Radio Times still gives me goose-pimples.

I knew as much about them as was possible without actually seeing them. I had read their production histories, knew the plots, stared for hours at the famous stills. Alan Frank's Horror Movies was not so much a book to me as a portal to an enchanted world.
But finally seeing them, seeing those stills move, was an experience that has stayed with me throughout my adult life. And while other films in the season also made a huge impression, especially The Mummy, The Raven and House of Frankenstein, it was that first double-bill that remained my ultimate favourites.
And of the two, Dracula was the clear first choice. It still is, actually, whatever their relative merits as pure cinema.

Looking back, I can now see that I was discovering (or confirming) a love of two things: Dracula and, more generally, the iconography of American popular culture in the late twenties and early thirties.
For the film is no sober adaptation of a Victorian British novel. It is a spunky rethinking of it, set in the year it was made, and adopting and adapting the milieu of the American society drama. Lugosi’s vampire is not different from the book’s by accident: the character has been radically reconceived.

There’s another 1931 movie, called Secrets of a Secretary, in which Claudette Colbert plays a young woman who marries unwisely, to a conspicuously wasteful and extravagant lounge lizard (Georges Metaxa). Naturally, he turns out to be a parasite, who refuses to work, spends all her money and angrily insults and abandons her when her funds run dry.
It took me most of the movie to think who he reminded me of, but once the penny dropped it was astonishing. Here were the exotic East European accent (Metaxa was, in fact, Romanian), the shiny black skullcap of hair, the opera clothes: all the standard uniform of the society gigolo and European romantic mystery man.
And what was his narrative function? He is a bloodsucker, who gains the control of a beautiful young woman, drains and abandons her, and all with a cheerful, amoral selfishness. Variations on this character recur throughout pre-Code cinema, and conform in almost every degree to Browning and Lugosi’s conception of Dracula!
What Lugosi had done then, was to turn a fictional character that is old, isolated from modernity, physically unpleasant and pitted against British nineteenth century Victorian society, into a modern sexual predator, suave and foreign and mysterious, whose prey is the new, high-kicking, easily-led American gal of the Roaring Twenties.
The classic image of Lugosi’s vampire in his evening dress and cape, looming over a reclining female is an exact parody of the typical attitudes of high society lovers in contemporary drama.

In particular, there’s an oft reproduced still from Grand Hotel (1932) showing John Barrymore’s Baron looming over Garbo’s ballerina in exactly corresponding postures. I remember seeing it when I was young and wondering at first if it might be a still from a vampire movie. Everything is in place for it to be so: the woman reclining in loose, flowing white in an attitude of surrender, passivity and hypnotic languor, and above her the male, vigorous, swooping and in command, clad in black with slicked back hair.


It is remarkable how many pre-Code society dramas feature a central female figure with a best friend who doesn’t make it to the fade-out, a casualty of one or other of the perils and excesses that await the youthful citizens of (to quote the title of a great Joan Crawford movie of 1931) This Modern Age. They suffered the consequences of unrestrained desire on behalf of audiences with little chance of following their example, but a keen desire to see the illicit pleasures they encountered on the way down.
The characters of Mina and Lucy, their relationship, attitudes (and fates), could have sprung straight from this formula. The scene in which Mina mocks Dracula’s accent and pretentious speech (after he meets them at the opera) and Lucy defends him (“I think he’s fascinating!”) plays like a moment from any one of a dozen other movies of their time. Lugosi is the threat not of the supernatural, which Browning does not emphasise, but of decadence and loose living, and the pursuit of sensation.
Then think of those three lovely undead girls that keep Lugosi company in his cellar.



By Hammer’s standards (still more by Coppola’s) they are demurely clad, their high-necked billowing shroud-dresses trailing in the dust behind them, with no hint of cleavage or even so much as an ankle on display, but my, are they gorgeous all the same!
With their dark, stylish make-up, their hair gelled and gleaming, one blonde, two brunette, they are the epitome of twenties glamour gone bad. They are the bad sister, the one that dated the bootleggers and went to the nightclubs, while Joan Crawford or Claudette Colbert worked hard as a secretary and made something of themselves. And this is where they have ended up: in the basement of a vampire’s castle, their beauty, and the ephemerality of their bobs and bangs, preserved forever in living death.
The very word 'vampire', in fact, was far more likely to conjur up images of Theda Bara than of Dracula to 1931 audiences, as revealed by Photoplay Magazine's review of the film: "... before it’s over you’re pretty confused about this vampire (a bat-like demon, not a lady in black negligee) business."
So, the famous Hollywood On Parade short, in which Lugosi bites Mae Questel mid-song, intoning, “You have booped your last boop!” is not so far from the world of Browning’s film as it may now seem!

This raises two points about Lugosi. First, it clarifies a fact that some film writers consider faintly ludicrous: that he received sacks full of passionate fan letters, and was considered, albeit briefly, a sex symbol. This matinee idol type (the tall, dark, foreign and mysterious) may have disappeared today, but Lugosi is by no means untypical of the breed. If Valentino is sexy, so is Lugosi.

Second, it renders similarly less ludicrous the actor’s own pleas, which became more plaintive the further they receded from likelihood, to be cast in romantic or light comic roles. Had he been launched in any other way than as Dracula this would have been a distinct possibility. He must have considered himself a Valentino or Paul Lukas type, frustrated by his accidental identification with a single role, but not as a horrifying or sinister personality per se. (Close your eyes next time you see a Paul Lukas movie and tell me who you see…)
Of course, his fame may have been short lived, as the Latin lover archetype retreated from visibility and with the thick accent that would always have conspired against general casting. But had he come to Hollywood ten years earlier than he did, there is every chance he could have been a huge sex symbol of the silent screen. (And if he had died as tragically and as young, there is no reason why the name Lugosi would not linger iconically as the name Valentino does today.)

This is why, even now I am older and more critically objective, I continue to find Dracula a more interesting film than Frankenstein. The latter, like all of James Whale’s films, adopts entirely its own fairy book style rooted in English theatrical traditions. But Dracula is an American movie, made by Americans for Americans, and to the social historian of cinema it is more evocative and resonant. It was Dracula re-imagined for its own times, a time that also just happened to be the most stylish and vibrant – and visually distinctive – of modern American history. This was Dracula in the Jazz Age, vamping the vamps; it was Gothic filtered through the iconography and preoccupations of pre-Code.

The film disguises its true intentions for about twenty seconds. In the first shot we are, just, in the realm of literary gothic. Beautiful glass-painted Transylvania skylines, the small inn, the nervous peasants, the horse drawn carriage… all seem to have come straight from the pages of Bram Stoker.
But almost instantly this spell is broken: “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass, are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”
These lines are the first heard in the film, spoken by an American tourist in cloche hat and glasses, reading aloud from a travel guide. (The squeaky flapper voice, Helen Kane by way of Jean Arthur, belongs to Carla Laemmle, aka Rebekah Laemmle, Uncle Carl’s beautiful, bob-haired, dancing niece.)
Instantly, then, we realise that this is today, that is to say 1931. And Dracula, though clearly a product of this pre-industrial wilderness, has somehow survived (and kept up with the fashions, more or less) into a time when pre-industrial wildernesses start turning up on the summer travel itineraries of American college girls.
There’s something delightful about the fact that this place is both a land of wolves and vampires and dark powers and terrified villagers, and an international tourist stop. But this is exactly the world of Universal horror; a no man’s land between the present and the past, with the freedom to pick and choose the best of each: that modern sassiness of speech, the idiom of the wisecrack, by which thirties sophisticates identified each other, the latest fashions for the ladies, and the chance that our slumbers might be violated by some frightful fantasy of the pre-scientific imagination.
It’s a heady brew, because it brings horror home. The Gothic had traditionally been set in the past, this time the past is coming back to haunt the present. It was Hammer in the fifties that fetishised the Victoriana, even opting, with the utmost perversity, to set their version of The Mummy in the eighteen-nineties. Universal horror is almost always modern, sometimes even modernist, as in The Black Cat (1934 version).
The stage version of Dracula, on which the film is in fact based, was the first to modernise the story and update the Count, and as such was set entirely in modern London. But the film opts to retain the beginning of the novel, where we see Dracula in his Transylvanian castle - but he's still the drawing room vampire of the play!
It is sheer absurdity, just plain silly, yet so potent that today it doesn't even bother us or strike us as odd in the least. This complete discrepancy, this mad and lazy convenience, blithely codifies the fundamental visual language of talking horror cinema.
Here, for centuries, in a country of gibbering peasants, has dwelled a vampire who is sleek, charming, dinner-jacketed, elegant to the point of immaculate with the little medallion and the hair slicked back, yet lives in ornate filth, in conditions of stately, picturesque but absolute decay, among cobwebs, wild armadillos and loose dirt on the floor of his reception hall.

Clearly, the risk of the whole edifice crashing down amidst gales of audience laughter was a distinct possibility. So, what Browning has done is to downplay the supernatural parts, get the spooky stuff at the start out of the way in one reel, and leave the real frights off screen for the characters to describe. (“What’s that running across the lawn? Looks like a huge dog!”)

Not that he's above moments of extreme weirdness in that first reel, however. The armadillos in Dracula's cellar, certainly, are weird. The giant wasp crawling out of the coffin is weird. Or is it meant to be what it clearly is: a normal-sized wasp with its own little coffin? And wouldn’t that be even weirder?



One side-effect of this scraping away of supernatural barnacles, and of centralising the action in London society, is that John Harker, robbed already of his participation in the Transylvanian prologue and of two thirds of the syllables of his first name, is rendered a peripheral, faintly ludicrous figure. (He's played by David Manners, now remembered chiefly for his roles in Universal horrors but very nearly a big star in the early thirties.) His girlfriend is talking in an eerie monotone to a bat flapping above her, and he’s slapping at it and saying, “Look out, it’ll get in your hair!” When she tells him of her hallucinatory nightmares, his considered response is, “Darling, we’re going to forget about these dreams, think about something cheerful, aren’t we?”
With almost nothing to do and little chance to appear heroic, if ever there was a truly redundant male it is he, with all the vampire-hunting know-how going to Van Helsing, and all the sexy mysteriousness coming from the chap who thinks being really dead must be glorious.

Stalking London in top hat and cape, Dracula becomes a Jack the Ripper figure, closing menacingly on a flower seller in another superbly staged near-silent sequence, and reserving his wit and table manners for the upper class girls he desires for reasons above mere sustenance. These most eligible of young English ladies are Helen Chandler as Mina and Frances Dade as Lucy..
There are so many posed publicity stills of Lugosi carrying Helen Chandler on various bits of the set, him glaring at the camera, her in a swoon; they must have been taking them all day. No fun for either, I’d have thought. Chandler, pilfered from Broadway when the talkies came in, seems to have been quite the eccentric, as this account from the book ‘Hollywood Players: The Thirties’ suggests:

Once, after reading a book on the life of Gauguin, she rushed out and bought huge supplies of paint tubes, several oversized canvases, and “an inspiring easel plus a bouquet of lovely little brushes.” However, oils took too long to dry and this annoying fact destroyed her impressionist period. She had an aversion to banks because they bounced her checks due to her forgetfulness about making deposits. She disliked anything governmental, especially since she was being constantly besieged with income tax “nonsense”. She hated opening letters, theorizing, “If you don’t open and read something, you can prove you didn’t know a thing about it.”

She once said in an interview: “They have problems with me in pictures. With this sharp profile, when they turn me sideways to the camera, I look just like the edge of a Bible.”
Actually, her life, quirky wit aside, seems to have been that all-too predictable one of great promise and wooing words being converted into disinterest and dismissal when plans do not immediately run as predicted. She did a few more movies, putting her gift for sardonic asides to good use in The Last Flight (1931), John Monk Saunders’s Sun Also Rises among the airmen, where she was a welcomely feminine distraction from David Manners and the other angry young men. But already disenchanted, she opined in an interview:


Hang me for heresy if you like, but sounding the screen robbed it of glamour. I used to love the silent movies, their beauty the enchanting lighting, the slow gestures. Just try to open your mouth and look soulful. The voice reveals, ah, it does!

A few trips back to Broadway seemed disloyal, and Hollywood more or less gave up on her; the rest is bad films, dwindling offers, mental breakdowns, near-deaths unconscious in a burning room, committal to mental hospitals… the typical spiral.
But one from which she was, thankfully, rescued, and best of all, by Lillian Roth. Roth, who had been through the mill a few times herself, invited her to stay at her house and get better. This was at the end of the fifties, for Helen and Lillian several lifetimes away from that time, on Broadway and then, just for a moment, in Hollywood, when there really was nothing to do but enjoy yourself. How often do you think they discussed those days, the fun times and the absent friends and the people that screwed them over, as the evenings drew in, around the kitchen table?

Frances Dade had been doing okay for herself in exactly these sorts of socialite roles, with Manners in He Knew Women, with Ronald Colman and Kay Francis in Raffles and female lead in Cukor’s Grumpy, all in 1930. She’d come to Hollywood via the lead in a touring production of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (She billed herself as Lorelei Lee for a time.) But for some reason she didn’t go much further than Dracula; we will cross paths with her again, however, when she appears with Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon (1931) over at Paramount.
Dracula’s defining sequence is Lugosi’s nocturnal assault upon Dade, the ultimate demonstration of pre-Code vampirism. We see her undressing by her window while Dracula watches outside, then getting into bed and finally lying prone in her satin sheets as a bat flaps excitedly at the window. Then Lugosi is there in the room (we see nothing so absurd as an actual transformation), his hand outstretched, closing in on her as she sleeps… It was at this moment, I suggest, that Dracula became the smash hit movie of the year.

Once the girls are bitten, and we’ve had the shots of the undead Dade on the prowl, the film is inevitably anti-climactic. Dracula is exposed for the cad he is with a clever trick at a dinner party, having already crossed swords with a peevish John Harker:


Dracula - In my humble effort to amuse your fiancée, Mr Harker, I was telling her some rather grim tales of my far-off country.
Harker (indignant) – I can imagine!

Thus, the dramatic exposure scene over and done with, and with little chance of a chase back to Transylvania, all that remains is to get the men up to speed, track the Count back to his London lair – cobwebs, windows smashed in, filthy cellar: a real home from home - and drive a stake through his heart. (Off-camera, of course.)

I thought I'd never enjoy myself so much again.