Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Lee’


Quick Explanation: From time to time, venerable properties already covered in this space will be remade again, prompting additional thoughts. This essay is hereby updated to cover Danny Boyle’s filmed stage version.

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. *** 1/2

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. ***

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ** 1/2

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011). Directed by Danny Boyle. Filmed Play by Nick Dear, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Approximately 2 hours. ****

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

*

Even if you know better, the first image to leap into your mind is almost certainly the wrong one.

Somebody says “Frankenstein,” and before you can remind yourself that Frankenstein was actually the name of the irresponsible (not necessarily “mad”) scientist, you flash on the image of the creature first embodied on film by the actor who was, in the opening credits at least, listed only as “?”: a hulking, flat-faced, walking corpse with bolts on his neck and a primal aversion to fire.

People persist in calling the guy with the clodhopping boots and dialogue that consists of a large number of variations on “Urrrrrrhhh!” Frankenstein, even after sequels like Son of Frankenstein (1939) took pains to include scenes that – showing a fair degree of irritation on the part of the screenwriters – explained the elemental difference to the audience one more time.

It’s probably a losing battle. To the public at large, the monster stitched together from various scavenged corpses will always have a name that sounds Jewish.

In truth, though, the nigh-total colonization of our collective imaginations by the 1931 version of the story, even among those of us who have never seen it and only know the various ways in which its central image has been echoed and repeated all the way down to the present day, the makeup first worn on-screen by one Boris Karloff is no more definitive a portrait of Frankenstein’s monster than any other. Mary Shelley, the remarkable teenager who first told the story, did not describe him in exhaustive detail. She simply wrote that he was about eight feet tall, horrific in appearance, and possessed a withered, translucent, yellowish skin that barely concealed his musculature and blood vessels. In the novel, as in several later versions, its unparalleled ugliness is what drove Frankenstein to suddenly come to his senses and flee in revulsion, leaving his creature to wander the earth alone, be treated with hatred and fear wherever it went, educate itself through a remarkably convenient encounters with books, and ultimately hate the man who brought it into existence only to abandon it; but having provided us with a modicum of description, Shelley then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination, trusting us to envision a horror more personal than any we ever could.

This is of course not an option for moviemakers, who may tease the monster but must ultimately show him to us, ultimately giving us the opportunity to grow used to his grotesque features and perhaps grow to love them. In 1931, when Boris Karloff first appeared on screen as the monster, first backing into the room and then turning around to reveal his horrid visage, some audience members passed out in fright. By the time this essayist grew up in the 1960s, the same makeup formed the face of bumbling, loveable Herman Munster, in a sitcom suitable for small children. The Karloff version and its sequel used the decreasing impact borne of familiarity to fine dramatic effect. Others took an entirely different tack. The differences are remarkable given that they all started with the same source material, which to date has never been interpreted with complete fidelity.

“Edison’s Frankenstein” (1910)

The 1910 version was not, as some fanciful accounts would have it, “directed by Thomas Edison.” It was produced at a studio owned by Thomas Edison, whose company briefly produced films to go along with its motion picture cameras and projectors. An actual Edison-directed Frankenstein would be an interesting artifact; perhaps it would consist of backdated blueprints the company could use in a patent grab. Full-length motion pictures still lay in the future, thanks to the new technology’s status as toy and the widespread belief that nobody would ever sit still for any movie much more than ten minutes long, so the story is told in broad strokes, with acting that largely consists of outstretched hands and extreme pantomime, giving modern eyes the impression that nobody in these early films ever said anything unless they wanted to proclaim it to the heavens.

Thanks to the volatility and low life expectancy of silver nitrate film, as well as the blind belief by early dabblers in the form that the art was disposable and that any films that had completed their theatrical runs could be burned for their silver content, this nevertheless important artifact was considered lost for decades, before it turned up in the hands of a private collector. It still shows the ravages of time, unfortunately, but it can be followed with a little close attention. Here, for your pleasure, we imbed the entire epic.

Because the images no longer possess the clarity they once did, we also provide this still of Charles Ogle as the monster.

Looking back on this film a full century later, it is very possible to find grounds for laughter. The acting style is only part of it. For instance, Frankenstein’s letter to his beloved is downright funny to modern eyes, especially his tight-assed signature, “Frankenstein.” (Elizabeth must swoon.) But despite its crudeness, the film is clearly still capable of evoking chills and magic, even today. That scene of the monster’s creation, a brilliant early special effect, was accomplished by burning a wax figure of the monster in a furnace and then showing the footage in reverse. As a result, it seems to congeal, the pieces coming together out of thin air (or someplace far more terrible), and joining a human form that is neither born nor stitched together, but somehow, terribly, summoned. And its pathetic death, an outright rejection of its plans to disrupt Frankenstein’s wedding that attaches an additional level of the fantastic with its disappearance inside a full-length mirror, possesses a wan pathos that was only exceeded by the next, and still most famous version.

James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)

You’ve got to say one thing about the James Whale version: as infected as some of its key sequences have been by all the parodies and homages it has seen since, it still possesses a remarkable power, most notably in this key scene that was considered so horrific in 1931 that it was soon cut from all theatrical prints and was not permanently restored for decades.

The version this essayist always saw on WPIX, growing up, was also the only one that most people my age got to see for years: it ended with a remarkably clumsy cut, just as the monster (Boris Karloff) reached for poor little Maria, and cut away to happy Henry Frankenstein’s wedding preparations. The rationale behind this was that the drowning of the little girl was far too horrific for any audiences to ever want to sit through. (Think of that in the age of Hostel, and marvel.) One effect of the cut is, of course, that the audience is then free to imagine a fate far more horrific than anything that was shown on-screen in the first place. You could even, if you choose, imagine violations greater than a mere tragic accident, at the hands of an overpowered infant who never meant the little girl any harm.

It is worth noting that by the time this scene takes place, Karloff’s monster has already committed two murders: one of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz (played by Dwight Frye, who was deeply typecast in roles like this), and one of Frankenstein’s old mentor Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). The careful exposition about the accidental use of an abnormal brain aside, both occur after the monster has been abused, imprisoned, chained, and terrified. He is an infant, trapped in a world he cannot understand, and lashing out because Frankenstein, the irresponsible fool, has never made sure that the sadistic Fritz can be trusted not to torment the seven-foot-tall powerhouse with lit torches. But now? Treated with warmth by somebody too innocent to know that she should be afraid, he is charmed; he is delighted; he shows that he is capable of responding to kindness. The drowning of the little girl is an accident no more malicious than a three-year-old spilling a glass of milk, and the censors who cut out the terrible moment in order to protect the audience’s sensibilities also robbed those audiences of one of the greatest moments of Boris Karloff’s career: the creature’s bereft, despairing horror upon realizing what it has done.

Placing this scene after the two prior murders has the effect of also underlining the terrible thing Frankenstein has done. Everybody who watches the movie understands that the monster is a monster, but also knows that it has a soul, and that is soul is in pain, and that Frankenstein has done it a tremendous disservice by making every possible error he could, after successfully bringing it to life.

(Nor is this a narrative accident. James Whale’s far superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, provides the same lesson by allowing the monster – again, after a murder or two – to encounter another innocent capable of treating him with kindness, this one an aged blind man who delights in the arrival of a vagabond who can benefit from his hospitality, and wisdom. In that movie, the monster is so moved by the first real warmth he’s ever felt from a human being that he weeps. This is naturally ruined by the arrival of sighted relatives who can see what the new houseguest looks like, but again, the lesson is clear: the so-called monster is not unambiguously evil, but a powerful, untamed child who probably deserved much better from the life Frankenstein bequeathed him.)

As for the story itself, it’s told with remarkable narrative economy. We open with Frankenstein already deeply involved in nasty business that includes the robbing of graves. Ten minutes in, we know that he’s up to nefarious doings, and what that involves. Twenty minutes in, we know that he’s virtually abandoned his fiance in order to pursue his madness, and we know that he’s about to start to create life. Thirty minutes in – after a creation scene that has never been equaled, not in all the years that followed – the monster is alive. Having only seventy minutes to tell your story in has some advantages, in the same way that a short story provides advantages over a big fat novel: your story needs to eschew the fat. The climax begins, plays out, and is over in ten minutes, wonderfully effective and startling to those of us living in an age when the final battle between hero and villain involves a battle’s worth of explosion and about ten or twenty reversals. (Which are rarely as effective as this film’s brief moment of chilling eye contact between creature and creator, through the machinery of the old windmill.)

This is not the same thing as saying that oddities didn’t arise as a result of some of the shortcuts.

For instance, there’s Elizabeth, who’s played by Mae Clark, the same actress who got mashed by James Cagney’s grapefruit. Frankenstein allows her and Doctor Waldman into his lab, to witness the birth of his creation. This is in large part so Colin Clive’s Frankenstein, overacting wildly to modern eyes, can provide them (and through them, us) with an explanation of what he has done. Okay; so she sees the monster’s birth. The movie glosses over the point so deftly that it’s possible not to notice, but we never do find out what she thinks of her beau’s “accomplishment.” Is she proud? Disgusted? Horrified? No; as far as we can see, she remains fixed on her number one priority, getting her guy out of that lab so the wedding can go ahead as scheduled. This is one focused bridezilla. Later on, Frankenstein discusses the monster’s doings with other people who know that he’s responsible – while four family servant girls, who always appear on screen together as if they’re joined at the waist, stand within earshot hearing everything that gets said. That, doctor, is no way to safeguard a dire secret. The happy ending, with Frankenstein and Elizabeth enjoying a happy tete-a-tete while his proud father beams, is unlikely in the extreme, and becomes even more unlikely with the sequel.

Still, these are small nits. James Whale’s Frankenstein is one witty and stylish piece of work, that is still deeply entertaining today, and deserves its central place in the pantheon of cinematic Frankensteins. It spawned an immediate sequel that is itself a classic and then a handful of others that, for the most part (the Abbott and Costello outing being the biggest exception) followed the law of diminishing returns. The main problem with those sequels is that, though they abandoned the original, human Frankenstein to follow the various further misadventures of the monster he created (as played in subsequent years by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange), it abandoned the early canny handling of that monster’s mistreated soul, as well as the ability to speak he picks up in Bride, and reduces him to a mere lumbering brute, who can be trained to obediently kill on command but is never again the deeply betrayed figure he is in those first two outings. By the third film, Son Of Frankenstein, he is only a McGuffin.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Few actors have had as deep and as lasting an impact on fantastic film as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who entered the genre working for Hammer Films in the 1950s.

Cushing played Doctor Frankenstein in one long-running series of films and Professor Van Helsing in another; he was also Sherlock Holmes, an early Doctor Who and, in Star Wars, the coldhearted son of a bitch who orders the Death Star to blow up Princess Leia’s home world.

If anything, Christopher Lee established an even more remarkable resume, playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, the Devil, Death, James Bond’s enemy The Man With the Golden Gun, Rasputin, Dr. Fu Manchu, the murderous swordsman Rochefort in the best Three Musketeers movies, Willy Wonka’s father, the evil wizard Saruman from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of the Rings movies, and Count Dooku from the lamentable Star Wars prequels. He also had a hilarious cameo in something called The Stupids. Trust me.

Both are on hand for The Curse of Frankenstein, which began Hammer’s own long-running series of Frankenstein movies. It was a series that followed a fascinatingly different course from the Universal franchise; the monster lives and dies (and lives again and dies again) in this first film, but is no longer a factor in the handful of sequels. Instead of following the further misadventures of the monster as the Universal films did, these sequels all follow the further adventures of the Baron, who not only persists in his experiments after the first time they lead to disaster but each time persists in continuing to make the same elementary mistake, which is to say constantly leaving his creations unattended and thus constantly inviting the disaster that always ensues whenever one wanders off. You would think the guy capable of discerning the one common factor that led to all of his life’s greatest fiascos, but you’d be wrong.

He’s also a far different interpretation of the character than anything the movies have shown before. He’s a bastard. He has no real feeling for any human being but himself, has no problem with committing murders to keep himself well-stocked in body parts, also has no problem with forcing his attentions on women, and – indeed – may be a sadist as well as sociopath. In this film, he murders an elderly savant just to gain access to his brain, and in another scene deliberately locks his pregnant mistress in a room with his murderous creation just because that’s the easiest way of dealing with her threats of blackmail. Subsequent films have him committing crimes just as nasty. In short, it can be said that this series is not about the Frankenstein monster, but about the monster, Frankenstein. The remarkably slow-learning monster, Frankenstein.

The closest the series comes to an actual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, this film takes the form of an extended confession as a haggard imprisoned Frankenstein (Cushing), who is awaiting the guillotine for an initially unspecified crime, tells a priest about his experiments and how they came to ruin. At the end, he goes off to his execution (for the murder of that luckless mistress), without any independent verification outside the flashback; it is very possible to interpret the entire story as the delusion of a common murderer rendered mad by guilt. I prefer to believe that the story is true, especially since it sets up the sequels, but your mileage may vary. Either way, the dramatic arc is the movie-length battle of wills between Frankenstein and his mentor and partner Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), who early on revolts in horror and spends the rest of the movie alternately calling Frankenstein mad and begging him to stop.

It’s good stuff, as far as it goes. But one thing’s for sure. If the story is indeed supposed to be objectively true, nobody in it acts the way a human being acts. Once he sees disaster coming, Krempe passionately begs Frankenstein’s cousin and fiance Elizabeth (Hazel Court) to leave the house and never come back; he doesn’t explain why, probably to avoid horrifying her, but after some initial anger at him for ever making such a impudent suggestion, she continues to show a level of warmth and affection toward him that seems downright odd coming from any betrothed woman who finds herself nagged about breaking it off by a guy who’s supposed to be her beloved’s best friend. Every woman I’ve ever met would take their guy aside and say, in confidence, “I want you to know that your best friend’s a real creep.” As for Krempe, who storms off in righteous disgust after the monster has already committed a murder, he later returns for the wedding party with a big smile on his face, and nothing but polite interest when his estranged friend Frankenstein tells him that there’s something in the lab that he really ought to see. (And you thought this version’s Frankenstein was a slow learner.)

Cushing’s performance covers a magnitude of sins, even though he’s easily a quarter of a century too old to be playing the driven young genius established by the young boy played by another actor who first hires the already-adult Krempe to be his teacher; by the time Cushing takes over the part, Frankenstein somehow seems to have not only caught up with Krempe in age, but leaped right past him to the point where he’s by now by a couple of decades the older man. (The age issue isn’t nearly as much a problem in the sequels, where it really doesn’t matter that much how old Frankenstein is.) Alas, Christopher Lee is not nearly as good as Cushing, here, because, for the most part, he is not given a character to play. His monster has some moments where it is as put-upon as the Karloff version, but for the most part, he’s a shuffling corpse, who kills reflexively, because he can. Encountering his own version of what is now a recurring theme, the blind man, he just up and kills the guy: not because he’s threatened, not because he’s angry, but because killing is what he does. He kills Frankenstein’s mistress just as reflexively. There is no pathos to play; again, he’s just a McGuffin. This is not fatal to the film, because it happens to be about the Baron, not the monster. But at a mere 83 minutes, the movie isn’t so long that it couldn’t have shoehorned in a few scenes where the monster demonstrated a soul of his own. Frankly, the character deserves it. (His one-sided malice is more forgivable if you buy the interpretation that the entire flashback with the monster is only a function of Frankenstein’s delusions, but, even so: in any movie, the story you’re watching is the story you’re watching, even if it’s only supposed to be a dream sequence.)

One minor point of interest: the film includes a moment where Peter Cushing peers through a magnifying glass, spectacularly enlarging his eye. He also does this a couple of times in his appearances as Sherlock Holmes. This is no doubt the source of the gag in the Zucker Brothers comedy Top Secret! where a much older Cushing also peers through a magnifying glass and lowers it to reveal that his right eye actually is that grotesquely enlarged. It’s a film-buff joke as well as a funny sight gag. Just thought you ought to know.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Despite the existence of a TV-movie called Frankenstein: The True Story, which a surprisingly large number of people who haven’t read the novel take at its word and defend as an accurate adaptation of the Shelley novel (apparently operating under the assumption that Shelley really did write about a Frankenstein monster who came out looking beautiful, and only gradually rotted in both mind and body), there has never really been a major filmed version that adapted her story with anything approaching fidelity.

This one doesn’t, either. It comes damned close for most of its length, up to and including Elizabeth’s murder at the monster’s hands…at which point it departs radically from the text and throws in a twist that really should have worked better than it did.

Part of the problem is its extended length. In eighty-four years, the changing grammar of cinema has increased the acceptable length of a feature film from just over ten minutes to more than two hours; and that really is fine, but coupled with the film’s mission statement of honoring Shelley, it does spend an awful lot of time on framing material, including the arctic expedition stuck in the ice and the discovery of a dying Dr. Frankenstein, who tells the Captain his story. After that it goes on to detail Frankenstein’s childhood, the death of his mother in childbirth, his declaration of love for his foster sister Elizabeth, his entry into medical school, his interest in unorthodox medicine, his friendship with Henry Clerval, and so on. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does delay the actual creation of the monster for a long time, and Kenneth Branagh’s direction takes what should have been Masterpiece Theatre material and treats it with palpably desperate energy, that includes swooping cameras and some of the most intrusive soundtrack music you have ever heard in your life. Had he let the material alone, it might have bored some members of the audience…but as it happens, the desperate over-the-top style alienated even more.

Things pick up a little bit with the creation of the monster. Branagh, who didn’t just direct but also starred as Frankenstein, got a lot of flack at the time for running around with his shirt off – a touch that was largely regarded as narcissism – but one’s got to admit; it does communicate the character’s frenzy. Still, we then get to the problematic birth scene…which culminates in Frankenstein and his creation flopping around, for what seems forever, on a floor soaked with his experiment’s shiny amniotic fluid. It’s not scary. Some people regarded it as horrifying, and others thought it hilarious, but the audience I saw it with groaned throughout.

The monster is played by Robert De Niro, who was at one point one of the greatest actors alive (even if he now seems to have used up his entire bag of tricks); but though he’s been rendered hideously scarred with canny makeup, the result is not that he looks like an unnatural monster, but like a hideously scarred Robert De Niro. Once he has his first actual conversation, with this movie’s gentle blind man, the distancing effect of the monster makeup is completely spent; in subsequent scenes where is seen from a distance, it almost disappears completely. This, alas, extends to the actual universe of the film. The very first thing the monster does after it escapes from Frankenstein’s workshop is run from a mob; and it’s worth noting that the mob chases him, not because he killed anybody, or because they’re horrified by his appearance, but because they think he’s a sick man, spreading cholera. In short, this is a movie where the Frankenstein monster can pass as a run-of-the-mill ugly guy.

Further developments including the murder of Frankenstein’s younger brother, the framing of Justine, the monster’s confrontation with his creator and his offer to go away if Frankenstein builds him a mate, all play out as they do in the novel, and, for a time, the movie works at the level it needs to. (It’s too bad the opening hour doesn’t.)

That is all before we get to the part that is original to the film, the part that you may consider one of the worst scenes in any Frankenstein movie to date, or one of the best; Frankenstein finds his murdered bride and, for what may be the first time, does what Frankenstein would do, create a new monster using her as spare parts, in a doomed, mad and desperate attempt to get her to live again. Only, hideous as she now is, she might now be more suited for the monster than the doctor.

The scene that results is horrible, hilarious, awful and wonderful at the same time. It is not the Frankenstein of Mary Shelley, but the Frankenstein that might have been made by Stuart Gordon; and though some people will never talk to me again because I said this, I confess to adoring it. The problem is that it simply doesn’t fit anything that came before. It belongs to a campier Frankenstein, a Frankenstein that Kenneth Branagh did not think he was making. If the entire film had been played at that level, he might have had something.

When we return to the icebound ship in the far north and Frankenstein concluding his confession only to die, and after that to the monster hollering, “He was my father!”, it’s all deadly anticlimax, there not to finish the story in any way the audience cares about, but to delay the closing credits. There’s very real genius in the film, but unfortunately, the whole fails to work.

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011)

This brings us to a splendid oddity stretching this blog’s usual definition of “film” — a filmed play by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle and shown in select theatres, internationally, for premium prices. It is very much a stagebound production, with every attribute that implies: i.e., stagecraft that includes gas jets, a turntable, and trap doors, allowing the introduction of sets and a range of locations that include everything from elegant drawing rooms to drafty old scottish castles. As Dr. Frankenstein and his unnamed monster we have two fine british actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who on stage alternated the two roles, nightly — a splendid stunt that was duplicated by the two versions of the show available in cinemas, which also alternated showings. We saw the one with Cumberbatch as the monster and consider it the best version of the story ever filmed; we assume the Miller-as-monster version to be just as good, but can only swear to Cumberbatch.

One geeky aspect to the casting is that both Cumberbatch and Miller both play updated modern-day versions of Sherlock Holmes in TV series running concurrently (Cumberbatch in BBC’s splendid SHERLOCK and Miller in American TV’s ELEMENTARY, not yet premiered as of this writing). So there’s that. There’s because of this also a nice geeky triviagasm involving just how many actors known for playing the great detective have also been important to various versions of the Frankenstein tale: not just Basil Rathbone, who was one of the two or three most identifiable players ever to perform as Holmes but also a Doctor Frankenstein in one of the Universal sequels, but also Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Gene Wilder (who, admittedly, only played Holmes’s smarter brother). Now we have Cumberbatch and Miller to add to that. Impressive.

Of the play, we report that it’s even more faithful to the Mary Shelley novel than the Branagh take, with one marvelous bit of streamlining that actually adds to the telling, and one innovation not found in Shelley that accomplishes the same. The streamlining is the innovation of beginning the story at the moment when the monster, naked and infantile and pathetic, claws its way from the membrane of the artificial womb where he has been kept. The story provides us with a Frankenstein who at first appears only long enough to reject his creation and then disappears for most of the play’s first half, while the creature staggers alone and afraid through a world that hates him on sight. This is actually kind of brilliant, because pretty much everybody knows who Dr. Frankenstein is, and the pre-creation part of the story often lies like a turd on screen; this way, we get to experience the plight of the forsaken creature, as he learns about the world around him, acquires an education, becomes articulate, and finally works his way back to his maker, seething for revenge. He is as far from the rather soulless creation played by Christopher Lee as one can imagine. As he says, he has a legitimate grievance.

We will note also that in structuring its adaptation in this manner, the play begins with a scene that Branagh’s handles much the same way, but renders ludicrous: the monster’s birth. Branagh’s has the newly-born monster flopping around in goo, at considerable length, and it’s dire; he doesn’t accomplish anywhere near the level of horror and pathos he’s going for, but instead accomplishes slapstick. This version goes on for even longer with the newborn creature twitching and writhing and attempting to stand and gradually achieving some spastic level of control over its body. We’re talking long minutes, here. An eternity. It’s a war that ends with the creature finally, at long last, achieving enough muscular coordination to stand up — and it hits where it’s meant to hit. It’s pathetic and horrifying and riveting, a brilliant bit of physical acting that pays off utterly. By the time this monster stands up, we know him; by the time he learns to speak, we love him; by the time he confronts Frankenstein, he’s a murderer, but he’s also unquestionably the figure who’s been most cruelly wronged. Karloff’s version gives us some of this, but not nearly as much as this one. It’s devastating.

The innovation, a brilliant one, is that the play actually (and finally) has a purpose in mind for Elizabeth other than being threatened, killed, or turned into a monster herself, one that doesn’t actually contradict Shelley. In the novel, Frankenstein bursts into the honeymoon chamber to discover that his love has been murdered by the monster — but he doesn’t see what transpired between them, beforehand. The implication is that the monster just terrorized and killed her. In this version, forewarned by the creature that he’s repulsive, she shows him compassion, makes peace with him, offers him friendship, and promises that she will use her wifely influence to make sure that his creator does right by him. She doesn’t say any of this out of fear. She says it because these are the gestures that come naturally to her. It is absolutely breathtaking, a new wrinkle on a classic that is both totally true to that classic, and previously unsuspected by anybody…and it culminates in the tragedy we know only because the monster, who knows and appreciates that she’s sincere, cannot let go of his own bloody vow of revenge. This scene, alone, would earn this production a place as one of the great Frankensteins of all time.

The Doctor’s Notebook

1910 version, a fascinating artifact from a distant time, with some touches of pure genius. 1931 version, a permanent addition to our shared visual language. 1957 version, a flawed but entertaining visit. 1994 version, a misshapen creation with moments of pure genius, and moments of unbelievable awfulness, stitched together to create an unnatural whole. 2011 version, a masterpiece.

And now, the wife declaims toward the Heavens as she flips the third switch…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.(Only based on the techniques used at the time)

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. ***

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. *1/2

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ***

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011). Directed by Danny Boyle. Filmed Play by Nick Dear, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Approximately 2 hours. ****

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

So, here we are, readying ourselves for the Father’s Day guilt-a-thon, and we decide to review films retelling the tale of the worst of all dead-beat dads. Great timing on this one Adam!

The 1931 Frankenstein is one of those films that became an integral part of every American childhood whether they had seen it or not. Halloween was bombarded with it, kids played run away from the monster, and as Adam has pointed out, even our breakfasts digested it. The images from the Whale version are iconic and yet soooo wrong. Did any film version come close to capturing the look and feel of the novel? Well yes and no, but that’s film in a nutshell.

To begin at the beginning, and I truly mean the beginning, The 1910 Frankenstein is a masterpiece of ingenuity. The imagination used to create the images is amazing considering the youth of the medium. However, storytelling has been around since man began to communicate and this doesn’t even come close to the story told in the book. This version is a bad game of telephone played by children being deliberately vague. It deserves its place in film history (as do the early Wizards of Oz films) for the mere fact of being the first, not for being a great film.

Then, we get to the 1931, James Whale directed Frankenstein. Is this truly a great film? Not really. Again, the story deviates vastly from the source, and much more attention is paid to the look than the plot. But, come on, lets face it. Who is the face we place with the Creation? In this version we have the Doctor (hmm gives me an idea, but that can wait for another time) creating his child in front of an audience, just to prove himself sane. Once he completes the task, he turns away in disgust and even joins in the quest to destroy the creature he created. Why? because he’s an irresponsible child, too spoiled to realize that he is the one who must take responsibility and care for this being. His idea is to take the easy way out and destroy the evidence, thus ridding himself of all guilt. Yea, bury the broken vase deep in the garbage and Mom will never notice. Good job Herr Doktor! Oh and spoiler alert, All is well in the end. Right!

The next on our list is the awful Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein. I feel that the makers of this film should have just said “Hey guys, we were told this story, but can’t really remember much , so we’re gonna make it up as we go.” Here we have the names and some of the basics, but now we have Frankenstein as a rich orphan, set on creating life with no background motivation other than He wants to do it. This guy is sleazy. He has his way with a servant girl, all the time knowing he is going to marry his “cousin”. He not only rejects his creation, he actually imprisons the creature and trains it with torture. Of course, in this film, he has no father to teach him how to be a Dad. His father figure is busy being a friend to seemingly keep his cushy position. After all, he was hired by the master to be his tutor giving him room and board and a salary (we assume) and this goes on past adulthood, would you easily give up that gig? Ok. so the creature gets loose, does the killing thing, is killed, resurrected and killed again. Frankenstein the man is declared an insane murderer and supposedly sent to his death. The end. But this is about life eternal, so of course death(as in superhero comics) is never forever. Thus , we have the sequels (or series) of the Hammer legacy.

The Kenneth Branagh version heels closer to the source material, actually including the pre and post creation scenes. I actually feel that this is the best of the films we viewed for these essays, but still a weak sister for all its pedigree. While there is nothing glaringly wrong with the film, it just doesn’t feel satisfying. The look is right, the script good enough, even Branagh’s direction (mostly of himself) is not too far over the top to kill the feel. But this film left me wanting another try. The changes made didn’t weaken the story. This was only the second time I had been exposed to an intelligent version of the creature on film. (I recommend seeing the TV movie Frankenstein the True Story to give a fair comparision).

Can Hollywood film this parable without overblowing it, or underplaying it? This is a story that deserves a really great retelling, and the 20 year cycle is coming soon (see the filmography and dates of release). Anybody wanna try that?

OK, so Hollywood didn’t quite take the challenge but the Brits did, kinda.

See, in 2011, the British National Theatre, as part of their “LIVE” series filmed the stage play of Frankenstein.  Directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (yes his real name) and Jonny Lee Miller (aka Angelina Jolie’s first husband).  The leads alternated roles nightly as the doctor and his creation, so the series filmed it both ways.  Skillful in both art and sales.  Double the audience and ticket sales out of sheer curiosity.  Wow!  If the production hadn’t been so incredible it still would have had a bit of a following just on the sheer audacity.  But, the play holds true.

Here we have two remarkable actors ripping through these characters and actually fleshing out, what had been heretofore bare bones caricatures.  Even the previous best attempts left me wanting more, but not here. The writing, by Nick Dear, pares down the slow moving intro and thrusts us straight into the abandonment and horror of the creature lurching into this world alone and unwanted. He also gets the story moving without the interference of side tales and heightens the death of Elizabeth to more than just a simple ruse, but now a true sacrifice for the cause. 

The technicians and craftspeople on this team were superb.  The sets were constructed as minimalist as possible, while still conveying all we as an audience could need  for our interpretation of place and time.  But the cast is truly the crowning achievement here.  They all play the roles as if these are the freshest of characters, giving new energy and strength to these well known roles.

All in all, this is the most magnificent pair of films to ever grace the name of Frankenstein.  I would deign to name them the Shakespearean Frankenstein duo.


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland.  Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute).  * 1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

PeterVincent

You are a rather unremarkable and not very interesting suburban teen with a loving girlfriend, an outcast friend and a single Mom. Your life is unexamined, though it’s safe to say that there’s not really all that much worth examining. You’re not exactly Holden Caulfield. But then one day the vacant house next door sells to a new owner: a fellow who, it turns out, is a vampire intent on making your neighborhood his new feeding grounds. You can’t get anybody to believe you. Your only hope is a local celebrity named Peter Vincent, who incorporates vampire mythology as part of his act and who might be induced to see you as something more than a fanboy who needs to get out more.

This is the premise of two teen horror comedies made 26 years apart, and the first thing we need to say here is that we’re not about to overstate the quality of either one of them. The first one featured a fine late-career performance by Roddy McDowall as the vampire hunter and a smoldering performance by Chris Sarandon as the vampire, but is otherwise not tremendously overflowing with wit, interesting variations on vampire tropes or genuine scares. It’s just a dopey, time-killing, amusing and frequently very fun but ultimately wholly forgettable piece of multiplex fodder. It would only be remade in a remake-mad cinematic climate where vague title recognition is considered more important than, you know, a fresh story. Similarly, the second plays many of the same notes – albeit to lesser effect – and is not wholly devoid of entertainment value, but otherwise doesn’t provide much for audiences who want to remember their movies longer than it takes to drive home afterward.

Both movies have a regrettable void at their center: the character of Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale in the original, Anton Yelchin in the remake), a kid who is just a generically good-looking teen played by somebody not in his teens, whose character is never at any point any deeper than what’s happening to him at any given moment. In the first film, his major issue is trying to get his girlfriend to put out for him; in the second, it’s a desire for popularity so overwhelming that he’s re-invented himself to be one of the cool kids and completely forsaken his nerdy old friend, “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz=Plasse). It’s a minor point, even so, sped past for the benefit of an audience that would rather get to the so-called “good stuff;” it certainly doesn’t make him at all interesting. He doesn’t grow in any particular way, he doesn’t discover himself in any particular way, and though he must act as a hero by the time the action is over, there’s no real sense of him rising to the occasion, as the most satisfying heroes must.

Both Charleys are also intensely stupid, in their way. Here’s an intelligence test: if you find out that your next-door neighbor is a vampire, who has murdered at least one local hooker, do you blurt out “he’s a vampire!” to anybody who can help you, thus making them see you as a delusional crank? Or do you employ more subtlety, showing instead of telling? In the first film, Charley first becomes suspicious of his neighbor when the beautiful young woman who arrives in a cab to visit his next-door neighbor is recognizably the murdered hooker the TV newscast references the next morning. Okay, so this is not the kind of thing you want taking place next door, and Charley does (after waffling about it) call the police. However, blurting out in the presence of a skeptical detective that he search the basement for the vampire’s coffin is clearly not nearly as promising a tactic as what Charley doesn’t do, namely advise the detective that the hooker arrived in a cab and suggest that the cab driver might be able to corroborate her arrival at this particular address on this particular day, mere hours before her body was found. Also, both Charleys, seeking help from their respective versions of Peter Vincent, are adorably certain that the two show-biz figures actually do believe in vampires and actually have experience in fighting them. These are boys who have reached their late teens and still haven’t absorbed the elemental lesson that the people they see on television, playing parts, may not be exactly like the people they play. Their naivete might have made more sense had the two Charleys been about five or six years younger, media-saturated kids who actually believed the shit they watched, but the Charleys we get seem too too old to be  so inept at distinguishing fact from fiction, artifice from reality, in the case of Peter Vincent,  that they seem almost mentally ill.

The 26 year interval between the two films does present us with some interesting contrasts. For instance, watching the old film after an exposure to the new, one realizes that we’ve completely lost what used to be a vital device in cinematic shorthand, to wit: am abandoned  television set showing nothing but static in the wee hours of the morning, thus establishing that nobody was paying attention when the station ended its broadcasting day. Yes, once upon a time, you could really turn on TV at 3 AM and find nothing but snow, rendering literal the standard complaint that nothing was on. This is no longer the state of affairs in a world of 500 channels of 24/7 programming, so this oft-used cinematic shorthand has gone the way of the dodo.

More to the point, the character type McDowall played in the 1985 film no longer existed by 2011. In 1985 Peter Vincent was an old-time horror movie actor, of the Peter Cushing / Vincent Price / Christopher Lee type, who has fallen on hard times and is now employed as a local-TV “horror host” – a personality of the sort who was once used to introduce a station’s horror movies, with some kind of witty in-character banter. There used to be a dozen of these guys (and some girls), up and down the dial – when there were dials – and some of them had followings so loyal that fans tuned in to see the shtick more than the show it introduced. No less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock did a version of the horror host, a cartoonishly macabre version of himself, for every episode of his anthology program, though most of the people we’re talking about were introducing mostly-bad old movies and not original productions like Hitchcock’s. In 1985, Peter Vincent reduced to horror host was an effective, if only barely-explored, exercise in presenting us with the plight of a once-famous man now reduced to cannibalizing what was left of his notoriety. He was such an instantly sympathetic secondary protagonist that many of this viewer’s complaints about the movie would be negated if viewpoint character Charley were removed or given less time, and Vincent rendered the main figure.

But a quarter of a century later, there were no horror hosts, really; some of the older members of the remake’s target audience might have remembered Elvira, but that was about it. So Vincent’s character had to be re-invented completely, and here became a big-time Las Vegas magician, who uses vampire lore as part of his shtick. This was a clever bit of story surgery, and was probably necessary given that the earlier model of the character no longer worked, but…really. In terms of sheer likeability, the difference between a broken-down old actor holding on to the memorabilia of past accomplishments, who has been fired from his TV-host job and is about to be evicted from his home, and a wealthy Vegas entertainer living in a luxurious penthouse along with a super-model girlfriend he treats like crap, is night and day. One is a poor fellow who becomes what he once pretended to be;  the other is a rich asshole who doesn’t even have enough heart to grieve for thirty seconds when the girlfriend he had just been screaming at is gorily murdered.

One would almost forgive that last touch if the second Peter Vincent was supposed to be, not just a rich prick, but an outright sociopath. But no. It’s just unforgivably bad story construction. The movie simply fails to notice that Peter Vincent should feel more over the death of a woman he lived with, even if he didn’t like her much. (Perhaps especially if he hadn’t liked her much.)

The screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, who as a major contributor to TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer should have done better; we can only guess if what was on-screen reflects her work or if it was mangled afterward. But it’s not the screenplay’s only violation of basic human nature. What follows is a pet peeve of mine. Any thriller where a character’s loved one – or even somebody they just sorta kinda like — dies in horrific circumstances, where those circumstances are later overcome at great personal risk, and where the person who should now finally have time to mourn his loss makes light-hearted jokes with his fellow survivors, just to provide an undiscerning audience with the fake comfort of a supposedly happy ending, is absolute bullshit. Give the ending of the remake more than five seconds of thought and it’s not just bad; it’s downright revolting. (For an example of a movie that gets it right, see the somber mood of the survivors even as they wait to be rescued at the end of the original The Poseidon Adventure.  Ernest Borgnine looks back at the disaster that claimed his wife, and weeps.)

Another bad innovation of the 2011 version: the revelation that its Peter Vincent actually has a vampire-related tragedy in his past (a bloodsucker killed his parents), and has thus spent his life collecting artifacts that include the very same artifacts vital to killing this movie’s bloodsucking fiend.

The major problem with this is that it’s profoundly shitty storytelling.

Why is it profoundly shitty storytelling?

Let us summarize.

What’s more satisfying?

1) A naïve kid who, upon discovering that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire, goes to a vampire-shtick celebrity who happens to live within commuting distance, but who doesn’t have the answers he needs, and who therefore has to overcome his very real limitations to become the hero anyway.

OR,

2) That very same naïve kid making the same unsettling discovery and going to another vampire-shtick celebrity who also happens to live within commuting distance… and who  by sheer convenient coincidence actually does own the artifacts necessary for killing this particular vampire, because he secretly knows vampires exist and is in fact motivated by the childhood loss of his parents and who ultimately finds out that his parents were killed by that very same vampire? Man! That is known as wrapping too much up in a bow. It is known as being fortunate that you have the screenwriter on your side!

David Tennant, who played the 2011 Peter Vincent, has shown in another venue I won’t insult you by naming that he excels at playing flamboyant characters who fight monsters. But this film gives him precious little to do except scream insults at his girlfriend before joining Charley’s fight. He certainly gets nothing to do as satisfying as the seesaw of mingled horror and pity that McDowall so splendidly emotes while watching one recently-turned vampire writhe in its lengthy death throes.  (It’s one of the best performances of McDowall’s late career, though for absolute best you need to check out  a suspenseful little film called Dead Of Winter.)

For some reason, I wrote off Christopher Sarandon as male-model bland in 1985, but seeing the movie for the first time in a quarter-century  appreciate the nuances in his performance now; I especially like a lengthy nightclub scene, detailing the seduction of Charley’s girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), which really is nicely put together. And he shows a significant sense of humor, throughout. I find it oddly interesting that, when first revealed as a vampire, he gives Charley  a chance to just mind his own business before declaring war; I can only wonder why (maybe as a courtesy to a neighbor?), but it is an interesting bit of character nuance. (And I wonder where the story would have gone if Charley had said yes; would we have had scenes of him earning extra money by mowing the vampire’s lawn, while nodding at the latest prostitute to be dropped off by cab?)  Sarandon is certainly a highlight of the first film, almost as important as McDowall is. Colin Farrell’s vampire is by contrast just a smirking asshole, even if he does get at least one somewhat-suspenseful early scene, in which Charley tries to escape the house with a girl who’s stayed to be dinner. The two movies have different bumpy routes to the finale, and each boast effective set-pieces not duplicated by the other – the pathetic apparent death of the vampirized Evil Ed in 1985, a fine attempt to get away from the vampire by car in 2011, a superior nightclub scene in 1985, the sad fate of a victim Charley manages to free in 2011– but, to this viewer, neither really congeal as movies worth falling in permanent love with. It’s simply not worth a scene-by-scene comparison. The stories are not strong enough, not memorable enough, to render the exercise worth the effort.

One thing’s for sure. Remakes can be most confidently dismissed as gratuitous when the first movie isn’t all that great and the remake isn’t either – indeed, when the remake has so few notes of its own to play that it makes a point of ticking off the bad guy’s fondness for apples. Talk about sad.

I do, however, love the name of the 2011 leading lady, Imogen Poots.

*

David Tennant

And now, the wife creeps in through an unguarded door, carrying a stake and a crossbow…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrel, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute). *1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

 

I was so darn excited to get into these films.

I remembered the first film with great fondness.  Not for its greatness in and of itself mind you, but for the sheer fun I had watching it all those years ago.  I remember seeing Chris Sarandon at a Horror convention and thinking not about his truly fun Humperdinck, but only his sexy vampire.  This was how I felt a modern vampire story should play out, and I held that memory as a cherished possession all this time.

Then that memory was soiled by the horrid, poorly understood remake made by folks who DEFINITELY should know better!

Yes, I know, vampires are evil, nasty ratlike creatures, who go for the easy pickings and low hanging fruit, but come on guys!  Where the Sarandon vamp is suave and smooth, the Colin Farrel  one is sleaze personified. Sure they are both great looking, but Farrel doesn’t even bother with seduction, just calling hookers and having his meals delivered.  His threats are clear and unveiled, no trying to just scare the kid off, just let him know that he and his are on the list.  Sarandon’s vampire tries everything to avoid killing the kid, well until the virgin girlfriend comes into his sights.  Even then he still seems to prefer seduction to killing in the overall scheme of things.

And, maybe today’s audiences don’t have the wherewithal to sit through a bit of storytelling, since the new film eschews most of the creepy atmosphere and build up to get right to the attacks and effects. 

Now, let’s compare our Peter Vincents.

Roddy McDowall, aging child/adult star, playing aging former horror movie dude, now relegated to late night horror host.  Got it!  When I was a kid, these hosts were pretty common, not so much now.  I asked a twenty something that I work with about Elvira and she only “kinda thought” she had heard of the character, couldn’t describe her or place her in any way.  I get the need for an update, but unfortunately, as much as I ADORE David Tennant (yes, I am a Whovian), the character given to him is too damn successful to care about the story these kids bring to him.  Come on again writers!  The vampire is the same one that killed his family and so he gets to play vengeance chicken.  Nuuh  Uhh!  No how!  No way!  Too stupid even for the youngest teens.  Did that idea come from the 7-11 school of screenwriting, because my teachers would have blown cannon holes through it all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the new film has no redeeming values.  David Tennant is still great (blinders are removed from my eyes here, I loved his Hamlet too!), despite the limitations of the character.  Colin Farrel seems to enjoy phoning in his vampire thug.  I always enjoy watching Toni Collette play American.  And the kids honestly try real hard to get across the fears.  But again, the original, for all the flawed deliveries and dated material (G-d I hate the look of early eighties hair/clothing), still produces more punch per minute, than the 2011 film can muster in any thirty.


* We* are the music makers… and *we* are the dreamers of dreams.

  

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others.  100 minutes.  ***

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. * 1/2

Let’s get this out of the way, right at the beginning.

Despite a lifetime of voluminous reading that began in childhood, I have never actually picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I have read some of that master’s short stories, notably the grisly and often-filmed modern “Lamb To The Slaughter” and “The Man From The South,” but I have never actually read Charlie.  I therefore come to Willy Wonka’s factory with no preconceptions, no fidelity to a version that exists between pages. Anything I might say about one version’s faithfulness to its story is knowledge I might have picked up by osmosis. Unlike  our previous two part essay on films starring the Three Musketeers, this one will not and cannot refer to a ‘definitive’ take, based on the characters originally portrayed in a beloved book; it can only talk about what works best on screen.

There is, as we’ll see, enough to note on that basis alone.
  
Both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory deal with the adventure of an impoverished young boy named Charlie Bucket, who lives in a hovel with an extended family that includes two sets of bedridden grandparents, perpetually sharing the same king-sized mattress in an arrangement that must lead to any number of broken noses whenever one of them kicks suddenly in the middle of the night. Charlie is a paragon of virtue, given his circumstances; he works to support his family, endures a ridiculous host of deprivations, and never complains, mever even seems to think of complaining.

Then one day, the reclusive but world-famous candy maker Willy Wonka, master of a factory that continues to churn out delicious confections decades after firing all its workers and shuttering its doors, announces that he will open his doors to five children lucky enough to find the golden tickets that have been inserted into five Wonka bars, worldwide. Each child will be able to take one adult family member and each one will win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. The first four tickets go to kids who are all truly rotten, for one reason or another; the fifth lands in Charlie’s hands, and he takes the tour along with the other winners, their equally terrible parents, and his own suddenly – one would almost say ‘suspiciously’ — ambulatory grandfather.

(Watching the film as an adult, reality intrudes and it’s hard not to feel suddenly angry at Charlie’s grandpa, who has been lying in bed for years, while his family rotted in poverty and his grandson grew up eating weak cabbage soup for every meal. Talk about lazy bums who needed to go out and get a job. This is not a profitable train of thought, though, any more than it’s profitable to despise Willy for firing all the local workers and bringing in a tribe of little people willing to live in the factory and be paid in cocoa beans. Right there, you have both the rationale behind Occupy Wall Street and the response of the opponents who tell the demonstrators to stop whining. In either case it’s not something you want to think about very much. As we’ll see in our discussion of the first film, this is a fable, that exists in an isolated moral universe.)

In any event, all of Charlie’s fellow winners, and their parents  and the other winners, are driven by their own individually awful brands of awfulness to meet whimsically horrific fates in a factory that has certainly never been inspected by OSHA. And in the end, it turns out to all come down to Willy’s desire for a deserving heir, to carry on his confectionary work.

Both films stick to this skeletal plot very closely, but in practice they couldn’t possibly be more different.
 

 

Two Willy Wonkas

The key difference is in the character of Willy Wonka himself.

He makes no sense viewed in grown-up terms. A genius businessman who lives by himself in a factory that seems to run on whimsy, its only current employees a diminutive race of men who sing germane songs while they work, he is clearly a fantasy figure, a magician, a wizard whose magic manifests as chocolate instead of bright bolts of light. Any real attempt to deconstruct him makes about as much sense as trying to reverse-engineer the Easter Bunny.

The key to recognizing why one Willy works and why the other does not is examining the context.
 
In both films, Willy Wonka exists in a universe where access to his factory is the most important thing in the entire world. It’s just about the only thing that anybody talks about, the only issue that matters. The first film has some fun establishing that this extends, to a ridiculous degree, to adult society, where one newscaster confesses that there must be stories more important than Willy’s contest but that he honestly cannot think of any; where an auction house sells off the last box of Wonka chocolate in England at a highly inflated price; and where a woman whose beloved husband has been kidnapped needs to think before giving up his box of Wonka chocolate bars as ransom. This is absurdity, but it’s absurdity that sets up the laws of its fantastical universe, that establishes Willy Wonka as, really, the most important man who ever lived. In this context, he’s not just some rich guy, exploiting the workers and running a scam contest. In a child’s terms, he’s not Donald Trump. He’s Santa Claus: the god, or perhaps Mephistopheles, of chocolate.

On the story’s chosen level, it therefore makes more moral sense that he should damn well act that way,

And while both Willy Wonkas are colorfully-clad eccentrics with childlike priorities, strange hair and an impatient streak that sometimes bubbles over into cruelty, they otherwise couldn’t be farther apart.

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is, among other things, an adult. He is charismatic, and he is charming. He is enough of a showman to enter with a painful limp and then reveal with a flourish and somersault that he’s just kidding.. When the contest winners enter his gates he is friendly enough to share introductions with both the children and their guardians, and to give them all the benefit of the doubt until they rapidly prove themselves to be a bunch of intolerable creeps. Even though disaster repeatedly strikes along the way, there is never any doubt, at any point, that he’s ever in less than full control. When he assures Charlie, at the end, that the kid who drowned in chocolate and the kid who went down the chute to the incinerator and the kid who was turned into a giant blueberry and the kid who was shrunken to infinitesimal size will all be restored to full health, there’s no doubt that he’s telling the truth, and that there was never any real danger, to any of them, at any point. The sense is that he was always testing Charlie, and – though this is not stated aloud, it is my personal interpretation – that he somehow arranged for Charlie to get that last golden ticket in the first place. We trust and like that Willy Wonka. It’s a happy ending, for Charlie to end up with him.

Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is not only manifestly not an adult,  but he’s a pale, nervous, infantile, disturbed, broken caricature of a man, twisted by childhood trauma, and so asocial that he nervously resists being introduced to the various kids  who have come to tour his factory. There are times when he seems downright evil. Some of this is actually fun – it’s amusing, for instance, that he always accuses Mike Teavee of “mumbling” whenever that boy points out something that doesn’t make logical sense. But the movie doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether this Willy Wonka is taken aback when disaster befalls the various nasty children, takes pleasure in it, or has maliciously planned it. There’s a genuine qualitative difference between Wilder’s Wonka, a man who doesn’t dwell in the real world but who seems to exist on some plane superior to it, and Depp’s Wonka, a man who has retreated from that real world in fright. Wilder’s Wonka is the ultimate prize Charlie wins: a magical friend, an understanding father. Depp’s Wonka is a good reason for a restraining order.

Nor is this a subtle thing. Tim Burton’s Chocolate Factory  builds up a substantial amount of good will with its visual wit and flawless pacing, up to the moment that the contest winners enter the factory. It is, to this essayist’s eyes, actually a substantially better film than the original for as long as the opening act lasts, in that it’s better at establishing the mystery of the factory, smarter when it comes to dramatizing and visualizing the squalor of Charlie’s everyday life, more impressively photographed, and – though this may get some hate mail – more merciful in sparing us a couple of songs that are difficult to sit through today. It seems poised to enter classic territory. Then Willy Wonka enters and opens his mouth. And he’s so bloody wrong, less P.T. Barnum than Boo Radley…if Boo Radley were not, at heart, a good neighbor, but a predatory one…that in less than a minute, the quality trajectory is recognizably steered toward the abyss. It’s hard to remember the last time a great actor sabotaged a film so quickly. Unless you remember, let’s say…Jack Nicholson and that previous Burton film, Batman.

The history of movies is a history of great directors who have forged lasting partnerships with great actors, and who did their best work with those actors; partnerships where both were better together, than they usually were apart.  John Ford made classics with John Wayne. Akira Kurosawa made more than a dozen all-time classics with Toshiro Mifune. Martin Scorcese had such a partnership with Robert De Niro and has started another one, almost as fruitful, with Leonardo DeCaprio. Tim Burton’s actor of choice is Johnny Depp. And though it has been profitable for both, the sad fact is that it has also been intensely limiting for Depp, in that Burton seems determined to always cast him as twitchy, pale-faced, freakish child-men…and that, between his collaborations with Burton and his success in the Pirates Of the Caribbean series, Depp has made a disproportionately large number of films where he played cartoons and disproportionately few where he played recognizable, nuanced human beings. It’s repetitive, and disappointing…and in this version of the Wonka story, downright unpleasant.

But that’s not even the main problem.
  

The Quality Differential In Oompa-Loompas
 

Roald Dahl’s original book was subjected to charges of racism because of its Oompa-Loompas, who were specifically African pygmies, and therefore by implication slaves being exploited in Wonka’s factory. (Dahl therefore changed a few things, in subsequent editions.)

The Oompa-Loompas of the 1971 film are little orange men with green hair, a visual design that happens to have two benefits. First, it frees them of any accidental insulting similarity to an existing race. Second, it eliminates their humanity. Some lip-service is given to them being an isolated tribe from Oompa-Land, but that might as well be Oz; what they are, really, is a magical race  like elves or dwarves; why not put them to work in a factory? They’re not serving mammon, they’re serving Willy’s perverse take on virtue.

The 2005 film makes the mistake of showing the Oompa-Loompa tribe in their homeland and dramatizing the contract negotiations where Wonka arranged to have them stay in his factory and be paid in cocoa beans. They all have a recognizable human skin tone and they are, in close-up at least, recognizably people. The racism is subtly restored.

(And while we’re on the subject, let’s be clear on this. In 1971, it was just barely acceptable that all the children who found golden tickets were white. In 2005, that story element is significantly more uncomfortable. If it can be forgiven at all, that’s because it’s hard to imagine any race feeling slighted in not having one of their own cast as one of the other, awful alternatives to Charlie. How racist would it be to have a fat black kid as Augustus Gloop, or a Japanese kid obsessed with video games as the Teavee brat? Let us shudder, and move on.)

The means the two films use to bring their Oompa-Loompas to the screen are also completely different.

The 1971 film made do with a bunch of authentically little men in costumes. The 2005 film used CGI to multiply actor/musician Deep Roy into dozens of simulacra of himself, performing in synchronized dances. It’s an impressive trick, but a grotesque one, in that the 2005 Oompa-Loompas are not little people but shrunken ones, who look disconcertingly unreal whenever they are made to appear beside actors of normal dimensions.  There are also, as a result, any number of scenes where the film seems more interested in showing off the cleverness of the technique than in serving the needs of the story. This is nowhere more true than in the scene where obese kid Augustus Gloop is sucked into the transparent tube; dozens of little Deep Roys perform an Esther Williams water ballet in the chocolate river around him, which is a) deeply unfunny, b) intrusive on the actual meaning of the moment, and c) a pop-culture reference so dated that it’s designed to sail over the heads of not only the kids watching the film, but also their parents and in some cases their grandparents. (It’s, as we shall soon see, a pervasive problem.) Six orange Oompa-Loompas popping up and down on their knees has infinitely more charm than dozens of CGI Oompa-Loompas performing overelaborate production numbers that only serve to make an already noisy film even noisier. It’s one of the many places where the advances in technology and the deeper pockets of the production actually betray the 2005 film. (The extended sequence aboard the glass elevator would be another.)

But that, also, is not even the main problem.
   

Another Problem: Overindulgence in In-Jokes and Self-Referential Humor 

The 1971 Chocolate Factory was the product of a less cynical, less media-savvy age, and exists entirely within its own universe. No other pop culture intrudes. No winking intrudes.

Since then we have have had pop-culture spoofs and Shrek movies and any number of other films that congratulate the audience on its familiarity with pop-culture precedents (though, of course, that knowledge is ankle-deep, as the references only rarely flag stuff more than a decade old). And it is now common, indeed almost expected, for a movie to step away from itself and comment on the action, in effect reminding us that it’s a movie, which in effect diminishes it.
 
This is why the 2005 Chocolate Factory has dialogue pointing out that the Oompa-Loompas seem to have a song pre-written for every occasion, and how forced this is. That is also why the Teevee brat gets to snarl, “Why is everything (in this factory) completely pointless?”, a line of dialogue of the sort that resonates deeply in any movie that has long since outstayed its welcome.

That’s why Tim Burton includes that parody of an Esther Williams water ballet, which is a fine thing if you think the kids in the audience will point and hoot, “Look! A parody of an Esther Williams water ballet!”

This is why there’s dialogue talking about how unlikely it is that the Oompa-Loompas have songs pre-written for every occasion. (Ha ha. A musical, pointing out how ridiculous musicals are. Ha, ha, ha. That is hilarious. Actually, it can be. See Urinetown. But it’s just forced, here…and it comes off as the movie, trying to be superior to itself.)
 
That’s why there’s a painful joke involving the supposedly world-traveling young Willy Wonka parading proudly past a montage of flags of the world, that suddenly becomes literalized when we are told that it’s not filmic shorthand but actually the young Willy, marching through a museum exhibit of flahs of the world. (Ha-ha.)

Winks like this have a way of destroying a story. They don’t always. After all, Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant impression doesn’t ruin Some Like It Hot. But they work best when they’re organic, when they can be glossed over, when they’re functioning parts of a tale that doesn’t stumble over them as if they were speed bumps. The knowing humor in Tim Burton’s film constantly deflates the story being told.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene in the 2005 film, in many ways a remake of a scene from the 1971 film, where Wonka demonstrates the invention that transports chocolate via television. As apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey cavort around a monolith on the TV image, the soundtrack plays “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a huge candy bar becomes a monolith, itself. Ha, ha, ha. As if parodies of the 2001 monolith and evocations of Also Sprach Zarathustra hadn’t become clichés by 1969; as if 2005 kids were going to say, “Ha-Ha, 2001!”; as if many of their parents  were going to get the reference and that most of them weren’t also going to be bored by it; as if this is particular joke (or a subsequent joke about the Psycho shower scene), weren’t less about telling the story than about Tim Burton the film buff evoking movies that were much better than this one – or for that matter any he has made.
  

(Rule of thumb: don’t quote a great movie in your less-than-great film. Especially don’t show us a scene from that movie. The audience will resent it when that much better movie goes away…that is, if they recognize it all.)

The impression this device leaves is that film buff Tim Burton is bored by the movie he’s actually making and had to find some other way to amuse himself. This is never a good impression for any moviemaker to make.

But that is also not the main problem.

Nor is the main problem something the Oompa-Loompas allude to, in the song they sing after Mike Teavee is shrunken to miniscule size; they moralize about how TV brutalizes the imagination, immediately after a film that literalized so much at such high volume that it brutalized the imagination pretty horrifically itself. Though it’s never good for any movie to accidentally critique itself, the problem lies elsewhere.

Other Issues

There is much in the 2005 version worth admiring. The design of the Bucket house, for instance. The performances of such worthies as Helena Bonham Carter and Edward Fox. The performance of its Charlie, who unlike the original actually can act.  (Actually, all the kids were better.) Some of the lines of dialogue. Some of Willy Wonka’s bits of business. The staging of the sad fate of Violet.  2005’s “Bad Nut” joke is no substitute for 1971’s “Bad Egg” joke, but hey, kids in 2005 may not have heard the phrase “bad egg” and something had to be done.  The grandfather does not have the charm of Jack Albertson, but brings his own. And unlike the first movie, which is as flatly and unimaginatively staged as any beloved film can be, it shows a genuine sense of visual flair, though that seems to be Burton’s great skill and is no real substitute for skill at storytelling.)
 
Some of the 2005 version doesn’t work nearly as well as the original. Willy’s chocolate wonderland from the 1971 film is a practical set and not the vast CGI-enhanced locale of the 2005 version, but works about twenty times better. (It, too, represents the difference between teasing the imagination and clubbing it.)

The real problem comes at the point of the story where, in 1971, Charlie has every reason in the world to betray Willy Wonka and decides instead to be true to himself and not go for the quick payday. That’s the key moment of the 1971 story; everything else leads up to it. It is a moment of karmic justice that kids and adults can appreciate. In 2005, Charlie has a much easier decision: not abandoning his family by agreeing to live with this rich but profoundly dysfunctional man instead. It’s a much easier decision, poor as his family is; we can see that they have always loved him, and only a terrible kid who valued money or everything else would turn his back on them.
  
Missing this, the entire point of the 1971 version, the 2005 version decides to hinge on how exposure to this profoundly decent kid improves the broken Willy Wonka for the better; and thus goes on to explain how Willy reconciles with his son-of-a-bitch father (Christopher Lee). But there’s a major problem with that. Lee projects so much stern evil in the prior flashbacks that, frankly, it’s hard not to conclude that this was one of those families that was better off estranged. Christopher Lee may improve any movie he’s in just by standing there, and it may be a real hoot to posit him as Willy Wonka’s Dad, but he’s better, in this film, projecting villainy than he is when reconciling with his wayward, peculiar son.
  
The whole movie leads up to an emotional catharsis it honestly has not earned.

And that’s the fatal problem, the one that ultimately turns it into a colossal bummer.
 

The River Of Chocolate

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a minor classic that soars in the performance of its star, Gene Wilder. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, a movie that for a long time also seems poised for greatness until the moment its star walks on screen. I’ll see Willy again, gladly; I don’t think I’ll ever want to take another run at Charlie, which earns most of its star grade for its excellent staging of everything that happens before Willy Wonka shows up. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

And now, eight miniature orange versions of the wife march in singing, “Oompa-Loompa, Oompaty-Ooh, I’ll Critique This Movie For You….”

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others. 100 minutes. ***1/2

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. *

Yippee!!!   This set of reviews gave me the grand opportunity to be as annoying to my hubby as he has been to me while rewatching films for these columns.  How so you may ask?  Well, Adam is a lot like those wonderful folks in the theater who already know the story, they don’t exactly give it away, they just throw enormous hint boulders at you. “OOh watch what happens here, you’ll never believe it”.  This time I got to sing along and speak the lines all through the viewing of the 1971 film.  I was sooo darn happy.  Now, he too got into the Oompah Loompah songs, but not nearly as effusively as me. For you see, I have always loved this film!

Now, when the 2005 Tim Burton film was announced, I was a bit worried , but very hopeful.  In the years between, I had read the Charlie books and knew that some differences were to be had from the sweet/slightly frightening Gene Wilder portrayal to the Wonka of the books. I wondered how the overwrought genius of Edward Scissorhands would rework the seminal figure.  YOWCH!!

What Burton and Depp wrought was a savage, over psychological mess.  This man/child twitches and tics his way through his half of the film and leaves the audience wondering why he was so beloved by past employees.  Sure the man makes great candy (not the stuff at out stores, the imaginary stuff of the film), but I can’t see how he could run an internationally recognized snack food corporation with his mind ripped to shreds by parental abuse issues.

What Burton did right was the visualization of Charlie’s impoverished family. The look and feel of the Bucket homestead are nearly perfect. The familial warmth as good as the 1971 film and the feelings evoked from the books.

He ruins the factory by overdoing it.  The initial welcome scene tells the audience that the tour is a nightmare come true, not the dream they are hoping will be.

And, must I mention the horrid Oompah Loompah.  Singular, not plural.   Does Tim Burton dislike little people,  that he could only abide one on set? Or, was this a cost cutting measure gone horribly wrong?  Having one man play an entire tribe of overeager, happy slaves just blew the magic apart of the happy little lessons “they” sing.  I can recite the lyrics of the 1971 Oompah lessons, but I can’t even remember the tune to hum it for the 2005.  Not the best move for posterity there.

Okay, so I’m obviously prejudiced  in this matter.  But I need to assure you, I don’t hate the Burton/Depp mess, I just don’t like it all that much.  And, if you ask me to show a child the movie made from the Dahl books, Well…figure out which I’ll grab every time.


All for one and one for all.

First Commentary (continued) by Adam-Troy Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. *

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner. 125 minutes. ***

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway. 105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1998). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. **

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

Welcome back to our epic two-part survey of past movie versions of The Three Musketeers, which we split into these two installments because that was an awful lot of movie neepery for one blog post and because we knew that we’d be spending an awful lot of room, in this one, discussing just why one of the many versions is so frequently described, by so many sources, as “definitive.” Indeed, we’ll spend more time explicating the reasons than we spent discussing the 1935, 1939, and 1948 versions combined.

Definitive is that loaded a word.

As we shall see, the version in question wasn’t so widely gifted with the adjective just because its D’Artagnan looked pretty. 

In the meantime, this brief recap: so far we’ve discussed the 1935 version starring Walter Abel, which was not overwhelming but which did manage to be watchable; the 1939 version starring the Ritz Brothers, which led to some confusion on my part over why my old man would ever mislead me with the intelligence that the Ritzes were so much funnier than the (to him) over-rated Marxes; and the 1948 version starring Gene Kelly, which was old Hollywood doing what Hollywood did best, in Technicolor and with one of the past century’s great dancers turning his soft-shoe wizardy into a fair substitute for brilliant swordsmanship. The last of the bunch, I said, came as close to any of these versions had to actually conveying the entire story, as written in two novels (usually published together) by the great Alexandre Dumas. 

There have been others, before and since, but this is one of the most frequently-filmed stories of all time, and sanity puts a limit on what your faithful essayists are willing to do. If you’re curious about the version we most regret omitting in this compendium, it’s the serial that featured Lon Chaney and a pre-stardom John Wayne in a version that moved all the action to the French Foreign Legion. It sounds beyond awful, but in an entertaining way. We make no judgments because we never got to it. Nor did we ever get to the Disney cartoon with Donald, Mickey and Goofy – despite much urging on the part of the wife – or the one that featured Barbie. At a certain point, even inclusiveness has its limits.

No, we’ll leave those unmentioned, and proceed directly to that “definitive” take and the many reasons it excelled why so many others fell short; followed by a brief look at a subsequent version that was so inferior to it that for years this viewer resented it beyond reason.

(Spoiler Warnings go without saying, as always, but I especially mean them in this case. I’m serious. If you don’t know the story of The Three Musketeers, and don’t want to know, stop reading. )

The Story Behind The Film

Richard Lester first envisioned his Three Musketeers as a vehicle for The Beatles, with whom he had made A Hard Day’s Night. It never happened, but it’s interesting to contemplate what that film would have been like. I doubt it would have had any fidelity to Dumas (the Fab Four disrespected conventional narrative too much for that), and believe that it would have likely been just a farce played as a vehicle for songs; but even so, which Beatle would have been D’Artagnan? (My own preferred casting, for this hypothetical version we’re all probably better off not yhaving seen: Ringo as a bumbling D’Artagnan, Paul as Lord Buckingham, John as Cardinal Richelieu, and George Harrison as Athos. Think on that, come up with your own casting choices and wipe it from your mind. However you shuffle the cards, it would have stunk up the joint.)

Whatever happened, Lester returned to the material in the early seventies, under the auspices of the Salkinds, who here pulled off a bit of a sleazy trick that lent the movie a bit of notoriety entirely unconnected to its quality: to wit, they told the cast they intended to make an epic, close to four-hour version, when in fact they always intended to cut the finished product in half and release it as two separate films.  This was a serious no-no in a business where name actors are paid a per-film rate, and a colossal act of hubris for a production that cast a current or slightly past-current who’s-who of stars. Lawsuits ensued and were eventually settled, though some members of the cast harbored resentment for life.

The upshot is that, the legal issues aside, the precedent was actually good for the business. By demonstrating that a story could be deliberately spread out over more than one film and that several could be shot at once, the Salkinds had created a  model that was later very useful on any number of big-budget franchises where it would have been impossible to keep re-building the sets and re-gathering the cast. They used it on their own Superman series (this time, telling the cast what they had in mind). Later franchises that benefited from the example were Back To The Future (Parts 2 and 3),  The Matrix (also parts 2 and 3), and, most notably, the three installments of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings.

None of which has any bearing on that “definitive” issue.

And part of what does is this: it appears to have been one of the only versions that managed the all-important trick of getting D’Artagnan right.

He’s Just A Kid

Most prior filmic versions of D’Artagnan, including the Walter Abel, Don Ameche and Gene Kelly versions already discussed, relay his deeds during the story with various degrees of fidelity – and, as in the case of Gene Kelly, with compensating charm to cover whatever they do get wrong – but otherwise, completely miss who he is. They treat him as a generic swashbuckler, grinning in the face of danger, charming the ladies, and laughing as he humiliates the bad guys with superior swordsmanship.

This is perhaps inevitable, as classic Hollywood regarded that as what a swashbuckler was like. Most of them had interchangeable dashing personalities. Errol Flynn was famous for a series of films, often co-starring Olivia DeHavilland and Alan Hale, ranging from The Adventures of Robin Hood to The Adventures Of Marco Polo to The Adventures of Don Juan, not to mention a number of others that didn’t follow that particular titling formula, where he played what was, in terms of personal manner the exact same person, plunked down into various different historical eras. He was a guy who showed teeth and laughed in the face of danger and took what he was doing seriously but always had a glint in his eye about it. Though Flynn wasn’t the first to follow this formula – indeed, the first two of the Musketeers movies we covered pre-date his best, the Robin Hood film – he pretty much made it his own, and a generation of swashbucklers that followed him all tried to emulate his example.

The problem is, this isn’t precisely what Alexandre Dumas had in mind when he took the memoirs of the actual real-life D’Artagnan and used them as the springboard for his own fanciful narrative.

And that’s this: D’Artagnan is supposed to be a  gifted but naïve kid living out a fantasy and having reality shoved in his face. 

Trained to sword expertise by his father, D’Artagnan has also been mercilessly drilled on a personal philosophy certain to get any kid killed: to wit, do not brook even the most offhand insult, and fight duels with anybody who impugns your honor. It is the reason why he challenges a well-dressed, and at this point much more dangerous swordsman, Rochefort (Christopher Lee), over some casual mockery; and why he finds himself scheduled for three consecutive duels to the death, with three of the most dangerous people in town, within mere hours of his arrival in Paris. He thinks that’s the way he’s supposed to act. He’s living up to what his father expects of him.
  
Most film versions bury this aspect in favor of his heroism, giving us a D’Artagnan who is very much already a hero, a D’Artagnan who, even when knocked unconscious by Rochefort in the Walter Abel version, simply looks like a capable guy who fell to a baddie who had gotten the drop on him. Not this D’Artagnan. He is not up to it yet. The version written by George MacDonald Fraser and directed by Richard Lester is indeed full of slapstick (more on that, later), but it’s no mere gag when in an early scene D’Artagan grabs a rope and swings on it, intent on knocking Rochefort off his horse, but instead misses his foe completely and winds up looking like a fool. It’s the act of a kid who is not yet up to his self-image. 

Similarly, in the scene where D’Artagnan meets the Musketeers for the serial duels, the dynamic between them is for the first time in this compendium played for the point intended by the author. First, we get one of Dumas’s grace notes: D’Artagnan helpfully offering his mother’s ointment to salve the old wound of the foe, Athos, who he’s here to fight to the death. It’s a moment of splendid naivete and tremendous good-heartedness on D’Artagnan’s part, and Oliver Reed as Athos plays the reaction perfectly: with surprise, a little leavening of his prior anger at the boy, and a commitment to the duel that, in the eyes of this reader of the book and watcher of the film, amounts to a private decision to let D’Artagnan off with a little wounding. After the subsequent fight with the Cardinal’s men, when D’Artagnan has proved capable of holding his own in a fight, it is about ten times more believable that the famous trio would take the young Gascon boy under their shared wing. Not only because he’s worth a damn, but because it would be a shame to let this kid worth a damn get himself killed before he amounts to something.
  
D’Artagnan’s inexperience manifests in other ways: his gullibility, the moment of startling clumsiness where he wreaks havoc in the office of an authority figure he wants to impress, the defiant speech he gives to Buckingham in  order to make a dramatic exit  just before he has to return with the shame-faced admission that he needs Buckingham’s help getting back to France.

Even his romantic adventures fit this pattern. In the prior film versions, when D’Artagnan declares himself in love with Constance almost at the moment he meets her, and immediately devotes himself to her service, it seems the straightforward act of a man; here, it’s the posturing of a boy, no less sincere, but more the manifestation of someone trying to be a dashing hero than someone who already is one.  It’s a subtle difference, but Michael York summons enough innocence to convey it. He’s role-playing.

More to the point, these two films capture a plot element present in Dumas that is scarcely touched upon in any other Three Musketeers version, before or after: to wit, as a lover, D’Artagnan has the attention span of a goldfish. He adores Constance, but when she’s not around, he allows himself to become the boy-toy of Milady; when Milady’s not around, he cheats on her with a servant. Whatever pretty face is in view, is the pretty face he’s madly in love with. Constance may spend much of the second film pining for him in a nunnery, in the era’s version of the Witness Protection Program, but D’Artagnan’s still getting his ashes hauled regularly. It’s not that he’s a cheating bastard. It’s that he’s not yet a grownup. He doesn’t become one, not really, until the end of the second film, when he arrives too late to save his lady fair. At which point, another of the film’s stylistic attributes pays off.

The Fighting Style And Why It Matters

The best fight scenes in any of the previous versions belonged to Gene Kelly, but that D’Artagnan was not just talented at fighting; he was a prodigy, a genius, a guy who, as I’ve said, didn’t so much duel his enemies as play with them, the way a cat humiliates a mouse.

Many of the great swashbucklers of movie history took a similar tack; they played up the artistry of the thing, pitting hero against villain in exquisitely choreographed duels that permitted both to shine as martial artists.

The swordfights in almost all of Lester’s version were, by contrast, not so much exhibitions of craft, as brawls. There was no elegance about them. The contestants tripped, prat-fell, stumbled over things, used their fists and their cloaks whenever possible, tried to do fancy things and failed, slipped and fell on ice, and oftentimes looked stupid…a comical, but in context deadly serious, demonstration of the difference between the way a fight looks when you have a choreographer on your side and the way one looks when you’re trying not to get killed. It’s messy. Frank Findlay is the poster child for this. In the second movie, he has a trick he’s been working on, that involves throwing his sword like a dart; but it’s a trick that leaves him disarmed if the toss fails. (Throughout both films he’s almost as surely as D’Artagnan the guy stuff happens to.)

It is about a hundred times more satisfying than any number of movie fight scenes that look like every step was planned out beforehand. Indeed, compare this franchise’s fights to the three way duel at the end of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace,  a dizzyingly choreographed battle that ranges across two vast rooms, involves three combatants wailing away at one another with dizzying swordcraft…and is, to these eyes, woefully dull, simply because it looks too rehearsed, perfect, and fake. (The second best fight in The Four Musketeers is one fought on a frozen lake, where the combatants can barely stand up long enough to swing this swords correctly, and spend just as much time falling on their respective asses.)

But what happens in the course of the two films? D’Artagnan and his friends fight enemies in Paris, in the French countryside, and on the road to England…finally, at the end of the two films, arriving at the convent Milady de Winter has infiltrated,with her agents and the Cardinal’s men, to kill Constance. D’Artagnan arrives in Constance’s room minutes after Milady has strangled his great love to death. (To viewers previously unfamiliar with the story who had expected D’Artagnan to arrive in the nick of time,  it is stunning.) Furious with grief,  D’Artagnan races through the convent halls, his anger building…until he spots his old enemy, Rochefort.

The neophyte fights the master. And, for the first time, in almost four hours of film, a swordfight is choreographed in the old-Hollywood manner. It is one of the greatest swordfights in the history of film, two masters battling each other with a fury that belies some of the old movie duels whose combatants looked like they were trying to look pretty rather than kill each other. It is real and it marks the moment when D’Artagnan is exactly what he has thus far only pretended to be.

This is not a happy ending, except insofar as justice is more-or-less served and D’Artagnan is left with the company of his old friends. But it is something we don’t get often enough: a story, in the sense that its main character has undergone a significant transformation and we’ve gotten to see exactly how.

Other Significant Accomplishments

Unlike many prior filmed versions of the tale, Lester’s Musketeers takes place in a persuasive time and place. It’s not some indoor set, not some production drowning in its own lush style; this is a world of drudgery and toil, where the gap between the poor in the streets and the rich in their palaces is extreme, and we get to see both (notably in the living condition of D’Artagnan’s servant Planchet).

There are spectacular set pieces, both based on Dumas and the screenwriter’s invention, that none of the prior versions attempted. One of these would be that fight on the frozen lake. But another is one of the greatest scenes in the novel: an extended sequence where, in order to gain a few minutes of privacy from Cardinal spies, Athos makes a bet that he and his friends can eat breakfast at a fort under heavy fire. This, they do – an act that their fellows regard as pure courage – but, in addition to showing us again just how formidable these fellows are, it serves the fine story purpose of allowing them to exchange information important both to each other and to the audience, while simultaneously battling an army intent on killing them. It is a terrific scene, and as painless an exercise in exposition as has ever been filmed.

The political background is superior. In many filmed versions of the story, the Musketeers fight for a king who deserves their loyalty. This guy is an easily-gulled cuckold who never quite knows what’s going on, and who looks bored out of his mind and deeply resentful when obliged to present his men with medals.

The characterization of the lesser but still important players is also far superior.

For instance, in most other versions, Constance is just a generic good girl, with no function other than to pine for D’Artagnan. These films take advantage of the observation we’ve already made, that for the story to work Constance must be a beautiful blithering idiot, and actually plays her that way, attributing to her a level of ineptitude that might have rendered her wholly not worth the trouble were she not played by a lady as comely as Raquel Welch. (Welch, who enjoyed a long and profitable career despite usually not being very good, is somehow terrific here; go figure).
     
The film’s Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) is the most frightening in film history, the only one so far who captures the character’s utter inhumanity. Faye Dunaway, in one of the greatest roles of her career, plays her as a woman who’s been so profoundly hurt that the only remaining option is stone sociopathy. Earlier versions – even  Lana Turner’s – downplayed her physical resourcefulness and rendered her a generic bad girl, but here she graduates, before our eyes, from secondary villainess to the human face of evil described by Dumas.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in an extended sequence where, imprisoned by Buckingham, she has three days to seduce her jailer before being exiled to America (a fate worse than death, in that particular era). Her only guard is a sexless puritan who has been described as immune to the charms of women. And in three days, he’s not only hers…but so turned against his former master that it is he who plunges the knife into Buckingham’s heart. Milady brilliantly, and hilariously, and terrifyingly has sold herself to her “incorruptible” jailer as a Joan of Arc figure, with a direct pipeline to God.

Few other versions we’ve seen attempt to tell this part of the tale. The 1948 version contains a version of it, substituting the disastrously naïve Constance for Buckingham’s right-hand man; and it was probably right to do so, since that allows the film to compress the plot and get to the deaths of Constance and Buckingham that much earlier. But it’s not pure Dumas. In the Lester version, we see, step by step, how the impressively resourceful Milady, who cannot seduce her jailer’s body, seduces his soul instead. It is relentless, and it ratchets up the suspense when she next sets her vengeful heart on D’Artagnan’s girlfriend. Can nothing stop her in time? (No.)

The film’s Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston, in one of the great roles of his late career), is given a depth he possesses in no other film version, a depth he only possesses in the novel and, briefly, in the 1948 performance of Vincent Price; he’s a man who schemes for power and has no problem arranging contract killings, but is capable of shaking his head in dismay, as the book’s Richelieu did, when Milady appeals to him for permission to kill D’Artagnan. This is, of course, a man who had only recently sent killers against D’Artagnan himself; but there’s a subtle difference between arranging assassination for power and allowing a minion to kill for a grudge, and the Cardinal dwells on that line. Heston’s weary, appalled “No” sells that difference – which is a lot of weight to put on a syllable, and goes a long way to explaining why fans of this film were so dismayed when the next version of the story had Tim Curry playing the part as a ranting super-villain.

The characterization also allows the classic ending, where D’Artagnan hands the Cardinal’s signed kill order back to him, and the Cardinal, recognizing the irony of the moment, wearily lets D’Artagnan go. In Dumas, the Cardinal is blown away by the sense that the boy before him has a hidden destiny, a greatness, more important to France than the Cardinal himself; in this movie, he simply appreciates being hoist by his own petard. Only a film deft in subtle characterization, and a performance capable of carrying it, could render the Cardinal’s contradictory behavior understandable…which is why it’s so rarely been attempted.
 
Christopher Lee as Rochefort…sorry, I see no reason why I should need to finish that sentence. Christopher Lee as Rochefort. That’s about as good as it gets.

In all versions of The Three Musketeers, only D’Artagnan and one of the titular three, Athos, are actually important to the tale; Porthos and Aramis almost fade into the background. Oliver Reed’s Athos is a brawling, heavy-drinking, embittered fellow with a past, as he’s supposed to be and some versions like Van Heflin’s have managed to be  — but that is not the same thing as saying that the other two are stinted. One, Richard Chamberlain’s Aramis, is pretty much just “the other guy,” odd enough considering that the man playing him was about to come a huge star and that he’s the kind of player who would normally be center place in something like this. More to the point, Frank Findlay’s Porthos is a splendid comic creation: the kind of guy who is always getting himself into mishaps, who can fight and even win but somehow never emerges with victory intact.

In short, why is this version “definitive”? Not because it gets some things right; because it gets virtually everything right, from the texture to the performances to the nuanced morality of the villains. It captures exactly why this has always been considered a great story. No version is ever likely to out-do it. The sad thing is that the quality decline, after this point, was not just noticeable but precipitous. And that’s without devoting any discussion to versions with cannon-bearing airships.

(There was another installment,  eventually, based on the Dumas novel Twenty Years After; it was not nearly as good, but then I don’t intend to discuss it. I mention it here because if I don’t, people will inevitably rush to call it to my attention. I know, I know.)

The Three Musketeers (1993)

A number of people have objected to my vehement hatred of this, widely called “The Disney version” despite the existence of that previous take with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy.

I’ll confess to personal resentment borne of the hubris on display when, asked in an interview about how his take would differ from the classic that came before (that he also confessed to never seeing), Charlie Sheen snotted, “Ours will finally do it right.”

Sorry. But considering the results, them’s fighting words.

Turning the Cardinal into a super-villain who twirls his red cloak like a cape and rants at length about ruuuuuling France is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having D’Artagnan say to the Three Musketeers, “The Three Musketeers! I’ve heard of you!”, as if they’re famous celebrities, and not just three members of a larger fighting force acknowledged by the film, who just happen to hang out together, is not doing it right.

Turning its Constance into a girl who speaks to D’Artagnan once, for about thirty seconds, and later confesses to the Queen that she loves him with all her heart is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Declaring, oddly, that Rochefort just happened to be the guy who killed D’Artagnan’s father, an invention that adds another layer of “Oh, come on,” to the proceedings, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Adding misplaced japanese swordsmen is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having the Musketeers show up twice to rescue D’Artagnan, in circumstances that are awfully convenient but never bother to explain how they knew where to find him, let alone managed to get where he is, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Exclamatory dialogue so disrespectful of the audience that at one point the Cardinal must address the secondary villain with an eyepatch and point out, in dialogue, that he only has one eye, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Jokes that rarely achieve wit and most often fail the “dopey” test are not, by contrast, doing it right.

Reducing Milady, who was in the last film one of the most chilling villainesses in movie history, to a wronged woman who is here conveniently arrested and convicted and marched to her execution on the side of a cliff, just when the Musketeers need her to be so redeemed by love that she provides precisely the information they need at the time they need it, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having the unbearably earnest boy king defeat the Cardinal by decking him is not, by contrast, doing it right.

None of that, Mr. Sheen, is “winning.”

In 1998, I hated every minute of this concoction. I hated how every story point had been rendered idiotic. I hated how every line of dialogue was bland and flavorless. I hated the clear contempt for an audience the makers had believed incapable of understanding anything else and I hated the gulling of a generation that would now think they knew the tale of The Three Musketeers. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

Exposure to scenes from the 2011 Paul W.S. Anderson version tells me that in 1993 I didn’t know how lucky I was.

I am forced to admit that the 1993 version was guilty of no more than reducing it to a dumbaction movie for an attention-deficit generation, and what what really irritated me at the time was not the awfulness, but the hubris – and not the hubris of daring to remake what had already been  done perfectly, as that was their right but the hubris one actor demonstrated by  claiming in specific reference to Lester’s take that this new version would be “finally done right” and thus implying that the prior version had been done wrong.

So I watched it again, straining for impartiality.

And I have to admit – while it’s more energetic than good – there’s quite a bit in it that is not actively bad.

Tim Curry was good. Yes, he was. He was there to deliver a cartoon and he did quite well at that endeavor.

Oliver Platt was good. He had infectious fun in a silly part, and it’s difficult to watch him without some of that fun rubbing off. It’s, really, the second-best performance ever given in any Three Musketeers movie, by any actor named Oliver.

Charlie Sheen gave the usual Charlie Sheen performance, but in 1993 that was not particularly bad. Keifer Sutherland is pretty good at selling Athos’s misery, even if he is no Oliver Reed. There’s also, buried in all that awful dialogue, one pretty good scene involving a discussion of “wenching” (even if it takes place in the middle of a cross-country ride to save the day and gives the impression that the Musketeers got bored with saving the day and paused to get drunk).

Some of the action sequences don’t suck, and are pretty enough, even if the final large-scale battle at the king’s palace substitutes scale and bombast for any issues we might have reason to care about.

Honestly. I take it all back. If you’re too tired or too lazy to be discerning, there are worse times to be had at the movies. (The Ritz Brothers version, for example.)

The problem, really, is that for all too many people these days, “just fine for audiences too tired or lazy to be discerning” seems to be the first, last, and only criterion.

And part of the problem with accepting a remake that is extravagantly dumb is that, a few years later, you get a remake that is appallingly dumb. The insults get larger.

I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me, in relation to the one with dirigibles, that when they go to movies they don’t want to think, they don’t want to feel, they just want to turn their brains off and watch things crash into each other at great speed.

I’ve had intelligent people say this to me.

Of that  I will currently only say, I’m too tired to have the argument…especially since the MacDonald / Lester version provides my argument.

Really, it’s possible to provide derring-do, adventure, swordplay, thrills, charisma, and humor, and do so in the context of a story that makes sense and means something. You don’t even have to look at the Lester Musketeers. Just look at the films made by Errol Flynn.

Don’t get me started, people. Really. Just…don’t get me started.

And now, the wife bursts through the palace window, a rapier gleaming in one gloved fist…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. 1/2

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner. 125 minutes. **1/2

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway. 105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1993). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. ** *

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

I know we had to cover these films. I knew there might be a bunch of ‘em out there.  But come on guys!!! 29 versions of one story?  And you still haven’t beaten that horse to death?

OK, I admit to enjoying seeing Gene Kelly acrobatically dancing out a fight or two.

And, the 1935 version didn’t stray too far from the story I knew. 

The Touchstone/Disney production tried hard to bring in the teen audience on casting alone, and the guys did a decent job.  There’s nothing unwatchable here, but its just a bit off.

Heck, even the Disney version (the one with Mickey, not Kiefer) kept me happy as a child.

But the advertisements alone for this new “steampunked” musketeers had me baffled.  I guess historical accuracy isn’t needed if wire fu is available. Has every audience, worldwide, given up on the ability to remember two minutes into the past?

Now, mind ya’all  like my hubby, I prefer the 1973 mega version (I choose to think of it as one really looong film, rather than two really good films that just happened to be shot at the same time).  The casting of Michael York as D’artagnan made me a fan for life.  I was already well aware of Richard Chamberlain (reruns of Dr Kildaire had already hit my TV).  I was re-introduced to Oliver Reed (not realizing he was the hated Bill Sykes until many years later).  But the surprise of the film has always been Raquel Welch and her ability to pull off a decent comedic turn.  She was more than just the body in the fur bikini.  The sets were and locales were nearly perfect. The swordplay almost realistic.  And the fun just what was ordered.  Guys, we watch these films at least once a year just because.

Now has my love for this one(two) punch blinded my eye to the possibility that the definitive version is yet to be made?  Naahh!  I hope they keep trying.  Lets go for at least ten more versions in my lifetime.  Just one request to any future filmmakers who do attempt this feat.  PLEASE!!!!! Read the source material, not just the Cliff’s Notes.



All for one, and one for all.

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. *

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner.  125 minutes. ***

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).  Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway.  105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1998). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. **

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

Now, here’s one of the most filmed stories of all time. There are literally dozens of versions, from the dawn of film (a 1903 version that no longer exists and that almost nothing at all is known about), to a mid-thirties version starring a pre-stardom John Wayne that somehow contrives to move all the action to the French Foreign Legion, to a full-length Disney cartoon starring Mickey and Donald, to another animated version starring Barbie, to pornographic versions, to one released just this month by the maniacs at the studio known at the Asylum, where the Three Musketeers are modern-day soldiers of fortune on a violent mission for one “President King” (cute). There are French-language versions, Mexican versions, versions which treat the story with reverence and versions that take a huge steaming dump on it. If you add to the list the various versions of The Man In The Iron Mask, which represents one-third of the final novel in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers trilogy (a very long book), you head for triple digits.

And why not? It happens to be one of the greatest adventure  stories ever written.

The long book we now think of as The Three Musketeers is actually two novels, which detail two related historically-based adventures. In the first, a young and naïve Gascon boy named D’Artagnan travels to Paris to fulfill his dream of becoming a Musketeer, but almost immediately makes more enemies than most of us are unlucky to have in entire lifetimes. In short order he finds himself scheduled for three duels to the death with Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Before the first of those fights can begin, D’Artagnan finds himself aiding the Musketeers in a larger duel against the men of Cardinal Richelieu, and so impresses the trio that they declare him a friend and take him under their collective wing. Before long, the lad’s penchant for getting into trouble embroils him in palace intrigue, as he and his companions find themselves racing toward England to retrieve the Queen’s jewels from her British lover, Lord Buckingham, before the scheming Richelieu can humiliate her at a palace ball by using their absence to prove her traitorous infidelity to the king.

In the second half, Richelieu’s spy and assassin Milady de Winter – an unstoppable female terminator, and one of the deadliest and darkest villains in the history of literature – schemes to carry about the assassination of Buckingham and the murder of D’Artagnan’s great love, Constance. Much is made of Milady’s true identity, the wife whose criminal past once broke Athos’s heart. In a twist most movies cannot tolerate, the heroes lose. Milady does succeed in bringing about Buckingham’s death, and does succeed in killing Constance before D’Artagnan and the Musketeers can arrive to save the day. She doesn’t survive their subsequent wrath, but that is of course little consolation to the murdered Constance.

It’s a long story, if between pages a riveting one. (Honestly: if you haven’t read it because of its antiquity, you really owe yourself a look.) If you factor in the various levels of court intrigue, the adultery, the undeniable fact that in the first half at least the Musketeers are fighting to hide that royal’s adultery, a historically-based bad guy who happens to be an officer of the Catholic Church, and Dartagnan’s less-than admirable (excuse me) inconstancy in forgetting Constance to fall into the arms of another woman whenever one turns her pretty head, it’s no wonder that most filmic versions take great liberties in streamlining and simplifying the original narrative, often to a fault.  Many do this by only telling the first half, but others try to cram both halves in, to varying effect.We can therefore afford to be generous on the issue of fidelity. To wit: all we really require in a Musketeers movie is D’Artagnan’s swashbuckling, Athos’s brooding, Milady’s treachery, Richelieu’s depth, swordfights, adventure, and a story that, if it doesn’t meet every beat of the story Dumas told, then at least possesses all the same attributes, in the same measure. Fidelity is, however, a major plus. You don’t take one of the great stories of all time and and replace it with idiot template. Alas, some have.

Because of the sheer number of films being covered in this installment, we will not be discussing all of them at the length readers of this blog have come to expect, but we expect our assaults on some of them to reach the usual level of volubility. For other, strategic reasons we’re gonna split this column into two, making this the first franchise to spread out over more than one installment. Judi will stick her comments in at the end of part two. So stick around.
 
The Three Musketeers (1935)

One oddity of the book-to-film phenomenon is that the nature of D’Artagnan’s first meeting with the Musketeers – i.e. getting into fights with all three of them on the same day, scheduling duels with each, and then impressing them with his heart and skill when he joins them in their battle with the Cardinal’s men – is so very perfect a character introduction that pretty much all filmed versions present it intact, if with different levels of effectiveness. It also takes up so much time to dramatize that many films skimp on further developments. This one is no different, and the fight as presented is well-staged, with D’Artagnan and the Musketeers marching off with a rousing victory song. Their moral ambiguity is also captured in a scene where the Musketeers, throwing their weight around, essentially terrorize an innkeeper into giving D’Artagnan a room, rent-free.

Further developments show some serious compression. The stout fellows do race off to Calais to retrieve the jewels from Buckingham, but there is never any need for D’Artagnan to drag himself all the way to England; instead, he meets Milady while she’s on the way back. And, though she does uttera  threat against Constance, she is stopped before she gets even close, and conveniently throws herself off a bridge just in time for the movie to wrap up. That was nice of her.

Also interesting is that, in this version, Cardinal Richelieu is not the Macchiavellian puppet-master, but a somewhat doddering innocent, barely responsible for the vile machinations of his assassin, Rochefort. Indeed, he kindly nods at the end, when D’Artagnan and company expose Rochefort in front of the king. This development may have been an exercise in not offending the Catholic Church, and it may have simply been the measure of a film that had reached its allotted length and needed to end with as little ambiguity as possible. None of it works as well as Dumas did, but the swordplay is well-staged, the characterization of the Musketeers is clever enough, and the extreme compression of the last half of the film does pretty much prevent any of the proceedings from entering the realm of tedium. Bottom-line: It’s a fun film, though far from a great one.

The Three Musketeers (1939)

This is by no means the oddest Three Musketeers movie ever made, but is by God one of the most annoying.

A little personal detail here: your friendly essayist owes much of his appreciation of old movies to his father, who made sure that he was introduced to many of the classics and helped him learn how to read the vocabulary of older movies. But this is not the same thing as saying that insoluble conflicts failed to arise. The old man had some idiosyncratic opinions, among them that the Marx Brothers really weren’t all that funny and that the Ritz Brothers beat them in every conceivable way.

Because the Ritz Brothers have not enjoyed the cultural longevity of the Marxes, leaving us with a million chances to adore the genius of Groucho and company and almost none to catch up with the Ritzes, years passed before your friendly essayist had a chance to test this premise for himself.

When he did, the only possible response was: Holy Cow, what was the old man thinking?

The Ritzes, using the precise critical term, suck.

And it is likely they never sucked as much as they do in this vehicle, where they play a pair of undifferentiated oafs who steal Musketeer outfits and are mistaken by the heroic, dashing D’Artagnan for comrades in arms. What needs to be noted here is that they are not Musketeers; they are idiots who got mistaken for Musketeers, who exist here as comic-relief foils to a D’Artagnan who is responsible for all the derring-do. Don Ameche labors hard in the straight-man role, and is pretty damned good, even if he doesn’t have the naivete that a proper D’Artagnan should have; here, he’s a generic dashing hero, laughing in the face of danger while the Ritzes mug at the camera and run around in circles. It is a lot like watching a version of Robin Hood where Errol Flynn plays Robin and the Three Stooges play the Merry Men, except that the one thing even Stooge-haters (see: almost all women), would concede about that trio is that, at the bare minimum, they had distinct personalities. The Ritzes play a single moron in three bodies. Being able to tell them apart is not just impossible, but irrelevant.

D’Artagnan never does seem to realize that he’s thrown his lot in with a trio of idiot imposters, and by the end of the movie it’s rendered irrelevant, as the fake Musketeers are last seen marching with the others. It’s unclear whether they gave in and joined out of inertia, or have simply not gotten around to making their break. Nor does it matter. There is one-fourth of a potentially good Musketeers movie here, but it’s like a cupcake floating in a septic tank.

The Three Musketeers (1948)

The first memorable version in this survey is also the first to make an honest attempt to tell the whole story, not just a piece of it – and though that is impossible in the time allotted, it comes damned close, presenting us with such elements as Milady’s fiendish skill at running mind games on prison guards and her malignant killing of Constance and Buckingham.

It also has the best D’Artagnan of this particular compendium in the person of Gene Kelly, who is woefully miscast (in that he’s totally contemporary, totally American, too old for the part, and too sure of himself), but none of that matters at all. The movie makes a deal with you, going in. Here’s your D’Artagnan. You will note that it’s Gene Kelly. We know it’s Gene Kelly and we know that you’ll never forget, for a single frame, that it’s Gene Kelly. He will make no attempt to disappear inside the role. You should not care about this. Honestly, you won’t. And that’s exactly what happens. His every fight is a dance, so brilliantly choreographed that we were not surprised to learn that Jackie Chan credits him as well as Buster Keaton as such a major influence. The first fight with the Cardinal’s men is staged as a genius, playing with and humiliating his lessers; and it is not hard to empathize with Van Heflin’s Athos, watching with dismay the skill of the young snot he came so close to dueling. It is the best duel in the film, but the ones that come after it are almost as terrific.

In the place of Cardinal Richelieu, we have another attempt to appease Roman Catholics, “Counselor” Richelieu (Vincent Price).  Guys, he was a historical figure; get OVER it.

For what it’s worth, though, giving the dude another job title turns out to be a small price for regaining him as villain. He is, robes aside, the villain of the novel, the powerful schemer beside the throne who wants to consolidate power for herself and is willing to murder in order to get it, but who once or twice betrays a streak of decency, despite himself. For instance, there’s the matter of the written permission he provides Milady, giving her a blanket license for any deeds she commits on behalf of the crown. One of the neatest twists in the novel is how this vaguely-worded permission slip for murder winds up in D’Artagnan’s possession and exonerates the Musketeers for Milady’s execution. In the novel, Richelieu is not precisely defeated when this is handed back to him; it is, after all, just a slip of paper, and he can disregard it if he chooses. But the second he sees it handed back to him he senses a certain appropriate irony in being stung by his own deeds, and a certain greatness powering the destiny of a young man who would simply hand the kill order back to him. He simply takes wry amusement in being hoist by his own petard and lets D’Artagnan go. That’s not just a great villain; that’s a villain you can respect as a man. This version takes away some of the element of choice in Richelieu’s decision, as the kill order is returned to him while the king is present and objecting will mean exposing his own perfidy. But Vincent Price knows what the moment is all about. He takes his defeat with a wry smile, and even seems to grin at the irony of his comeuppance, his eyes telling D’Artagnan: well-played.   It’s an extraordinarily subtle moment, that most film versions don’t even try to sell.

Lana Turner, who specialized in “bad girls,” is not quite a great Milady; she was great in other films, but here doesn’t quite convey the layers of cold sociopathy that the part requires. Still, it is chilling to see her manipulate the hapless Constance, a seduction of trust that will, we know, culminate in the murder of a girl naïve to the point of idiocy. (Constance, here played by June Allyson, really does only make sense in a faithful version if she’s an idiot).
 
As for Van Heflin, who plays Athos, we need to say this. The story of The Three Musketeers depends on outrageous coincidence to an extent that would almost never be allowed in a respected tale today, and one of its many contrivances is Athos pouring out his heart about his betrayal by the woman he loved, years after the event but  just before D’Artagnan needs to realize who Milady is. That’s the best-timed alcoholic reminiscence there ever was, but in prose a great writer can sell it and on-screen a great actor can sell it. Van Heflin was not, I think, a great actor, but he could be a good one, and he sells, really sells, the tragedy and pathos of the moment. (Pathos being, of course, the musketeer who was always outside of camera range.) A very, very young Angela Lansbury, who grew up to play secret serial killer Jessica Fletcher, is also in it, performing her function, which is pretty much just standing there looking pretty.

All in all, this is not a great version either, but it  is a very good one, driven by Gene Kelly’s magic. It deserves credit for making a good-faith attempt to tell the whole story in the allotted space, and might today be remembered as the definitive version were it not for the one made by the man who first envisioned his as a vehicle for the Beatles.

But that’s a story for next time.

TO BE CONTINUED


If you’re gonna bend the rules of nature, for God’s sake pay attention!

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke.  71 minutes. ****

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. ***

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ** 1/2

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

*

Even if you know better, the first image to leap into your mind is almost certainly the wrong one.

Somebody says “Frankenstein,” and before you can remind yourself that Frankenstein was actually the name of the irresponsible (not necessarily “mad”) scientist, you flash on the image of the creature first embodied on film by the actor who was, in the opening credits at least, listed only as “?”: a hulking, flat-faced, walking corpse with bolts on his neck and a primal aversion to fire.

People persist in calling the guy with the clodhopping boots and dialogue that consists of a large number of variations on “Urrrrrrhhh!” Frankenstein, even after sequels like Son of Frankenstein (1939) took pains to include scenes that – showing a fair degree of irritation on the part of the screenwriters – explained the elemental difference to the audience one more time.

It’s probably a losing battle. To the public at large, the monster stitched together from various scavenged corpses will always have a name that sounds Jewish.

In truth, though, the nigh-total colonization of our collective imaginations by the 1931 version of the story, even among those of us who have never seen it and only know the various ways in which its central image has been echoed and repeated all the way down to the present day, the makeup first worn on-screen by one Boris Karloff is no more definitive a portrait of Frankenstein’s monster than any other. Mary Shelley, the remarkable teenager who first told the story, did not describe him in exhaustive detail. She simply wrote that he was about eight feet tall, horrific in appearance, and possessed a withered, translucent, yellowish skin that barely concealed his musculature and blood vessels. In the novel, as in several later versions, its unparalleled ugliness is what drove Frankenstein to suddenly come to his senses and flee in revulsion, leaving his creature to wander the earth alone, be treated with hatred and fear wherever it went, educate itself through a remarkably convenient encounters with books, and ultimately hate the man who brought it into existence only to abandon it;  but having provided us with a modicum of description, Shelley then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination, trusting us to envision a horror more personal than any we ever could.

This is of course not an option for moviemakers, who may tease the monster but must ultimately show him to us, ultimately giving us the opportunity to grow used to his grotesque features and perhaps grow to love them. In 1931, when Boris Karloff first appeared on screen as the monster, first backing into the room and then turning around to reveal his horrid visage, some audience members passed out in fright. By the time this essayist grew up in the 1960s, the same makeup formed the face of bumbling, loveable Herman Munster, in a sitcom suitable for small children.  The Karloff version and its sequel used the decreasing impact borne of familiarity to fine dramatic effect. Others took an entirely different tack. The differences are remarkable given that they all started with the same source material, which to date has never been interpreted with complete fidelity.

“Edison’s Frankenstein” (1910)

The 1910 version was not, as some fanciful accounts would have it, “directed by Thomas Edison.” It was produced at a studio owned by Thomas Edison, whose company briefly produced films to go along with its motion picture cameras and projectors. An actual Edison-directed Frankenstein would be an interesting artifact; perhaps it would consist of backdated blueprints the company could use in a patent grab. Full-length motion pictures still lay in the future, thanks to the new technology’s status as toy and the widespread belief that nobody would ever sit still for any movie much more than ten minutes long, so the story is told in broad strokes, with acting that largely consists of outstretched hands and extreme pantomime, giving modern eyes the impression that nobody in these early films ever said anything unless they wanted to proclaim it to the heavens.

Thanks to the volatility and low life expectancy of silver nitrate film, as well as the blind belief by early dabblers in the form that the art was disposable and that any films that had completed their theatrical runs could be burned for their silver content, this nevertheless important artifact was considered lost for decades, before it turned up in the hands of a private collector. It still shows the ravages of time, unfortunately, but it can be followed with a little close attention.  Here, for your pleasure, we imbed the entire epic.

 

Because the images no longer possess the clarity they once did, we also provide this still of Charles Ogle as the monster.

 


  

Looking back on this film a full century later, it is very possible to find grounds for laughter. The acting style is only part of it. For instance, Frankenstein’s letter to his beloved is downright funny to modern eyes, especially his tight-assed signature, “Frankenstein.” (Elizabeth must swoon.) But despite its crudeness, the film is clearly still capable of evoking chills and magic, even today. That scene of the monster’s creation, a brilliant early special effect, was accomplished by burning a wax figure of the monster in a furnace and then showing the footage in reverse. As a result, it seems to congeal, the pieces coming together out of thin air (or someplace far more terrible), and joining a human form that is neither born nor stitched together, but somehow, terribly, summoned. And its pathetic death, an outright rejection of its plans to disrupt Frankenstein’s wedding that attaches an additional level of the fantastic with its disappearance inside a full-length mirror, possesses a wan pathos that was only exceeded by the next, and still most famous version.

James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)

You’ve got to say one thing about the James Whale version: as infected as some of its key sequences have been by all the parodies and homages it has seen since, it still possesses a remarkable power, most notably in this key scene that was considered so horrific in 1931 that it was soon cut from all theatrical prints and was not permanently restored for decades.

 

 

The version this essayist always saw on WPIX, growing up, was also the only one that most people my age got to see for years: it ended with a remarkably clumsy cut, just as the monster (Boris Karloff) reached for poor little Maria, and cut away to happy Henry Frankenstein’s wedding preparations. The rationale behind this was that the drowning of the little girl was far too horrific for any audiences to ever want to sit through. (Think of that in the age of Hostel, and marvel.)  One effect of the cut is, of course, that the audience is then free to imagine a fate far more horrific than anything that was shown on-screen in the first place. You could even, if you choose, imagine violations greater than a mere tragic accident, at the hands of an overpowered infant who never meant the little girl any harm.

It is worth noting that by the time this scene takes place, Karloff’s monster has already committed two murders: one of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz (played by Dwight Frye, who was deeply typecast in roles like this), and one of Frankenstein’s old mentor Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). The careful exposition about the accidental use of an abnormal brain aside, both occur after the monster has been abused, imprisoned, chained, and terrified. He is an infant, trapped in a world he cannot understand, and lashing out because Frankenstein, the irresponsible fool, has never made sure that the sadistic Fritz can be trusted not to torment the seven-foot-tall powerhouse with lit torches. But now? Treated with warmth by somebody too innocent to know that she should be afraid, he is charmed; he is delighted; he shows that he is capable of responding to kindness. The drowning of the little girl is an accident no more malicious than a three-year-old spilling a glass of milk, and the censors who cut out the terrible moment in order to protect the audience’s sensibilities also robbed those audiences of one of the greatest moments of Boris Karloff’s career: the creature’s bereft, despairing horror upon realizing what it has done.

Placing this scene after the two prior murders has the effect of also underlining the terrible thing Frankenstein has done. Everybody who watches the movie understands that the monster is a monster, but also knows that it has a soul, and that is soul is in pain, and that Frankenstein has done it a tremendous disservice by making every possible error he could, after successfully bringing it to life.

(Nor is this a narrative accident. James Whale’s far superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, provides the same lesson by allowing the monster – again, after a murder or two – to encounter another innocent capable of treating him with kindness, this one an aged blind man who delights in the arrival of a vagabond who can benefit from his hospitality, and wisdom. In that movie, the monster is so moved by the first real warmth he’s ever felt from a human being that he weeps. This is naturally ruined by the arrival of sighted relatives who can see what the new houseguest looks like, but again, the lesson is clear: the so-called monster is not unambiguously evil, but a powerful, untamed child who probably deserved much better from the life Frankenstein bequeathed him.)

As for the story itself, it’s told with remarkable narrative economy. We open with Frankenstein already deeply involved in nasty business that includes the robbing of graves. Ten minutes in, we know that he’s up to nefarious doings, and what that involves. Twenty minutes in, we know that he’s virtually abandoned his fiance in order to pursue his madness, and we know that he’s about to start to create life. Thirty minutes in – after a creation scene that has never been equaled, not in all the years that followed – the monster is alive. Having only seventy minutes to tell your story in has some advantages, in the same way that a short story provides advantages over a big fat novel: your story needs to eschew the fat. The climax begins, plays out, and is over in ten minutes, wonderfully effective and startling to those of us living in an age when the final battle between hero and villain involves a battle’s worth of explosion and about ten or twenty reversals. (Which are rarely as effective as this film’s brief moment of chilling eye contact between creature and creator, through the machinery of the old windmill.)

This is not the same thing as saying that oddities didn’t arise as a result of some of the shortcuts.

For instance, there’s Elizabeth, who’s played by Mae Clark, the same actress who got mashed by James Cagney’s grapefruit. Frankenstein allows her and Doctor Waldman into his lab, to witness the birth of his creation. This is in large part so Colin Clive’s Frankenstein, overacting wildly to modern eyes, can provide them (and through them, us) with an explanation of what he has done. Okay; so she sees the monster’s birth. The movie glosses over the point so deftly that it’s possible not to notice, but we never do find out what she thinks of her beau’s “accomplishment.” Is she proud? Disgusted? Horrified? No; as far as we can see, she remains fixed on her number one priority, getting her guy out of that lab so the wedding can go ahead as scheduled. This is one focused bridezilla.  Later on, Frankenstein discusses the monster’s doings with other people who know that he’s responsible – while four family servant girls, who always appear on screen together as if they’re joined at the waist, stand within earshot hearing everything that gets said. That, doctor, is no way to safeguard a dire secret. The happy ending, with Frankenstein and Elizabeth enjoying a happy tete-a-tete while his proud father beams, is unlikely in the extreme, and becomes even more unlikely with the sequel.

Still, these are small nits. James Whale’s Frankenstein is one witty and stylish piece of work, that is still deeply entertaining today, and deserves its central place in the pantheon of cinematic Frankensteins. It spawned an immediate sequel that is itself a classic and then a handful of others that, for the most part (the Abbott and Costello outing being the biggest exception) followed the law of diminishing returns. The main problem with those sequels is that, though they abandoned the original, human Frankenstein to follow the various further misadventures of the monster he created (as played in subsequent years by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange),  it abandoned the early canny handling of that  monster’s mistreated soul, as well as the ability to speak he picks up in Bride, and reduces him to a mere lumbering brute, who can be trained to obediently kill on command but is never again the deeply betrayed figure he is in those first two outings. By the third film, Son Of Frankenstein, he is only a McGuffin.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Few actors have had as deep and as lasting an impact on fantastic film as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who entered the genre working for Hammer Films in the 1950s.

Cushing played Doctor Frankenstein in one long-running series of films and Professor Van Helsing in another; he was also Sherlock Holmes, an early Doctor Who and, in Star Wars, the coldhearted son of a bitch who orders the Death Star to blow up Princess Leia’s home world.

If anything, Christopher Lee established an even more remarkable resume, playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, the Devil, Death, James Bond’s enemy The Man With the Golden Gun, Rasputin, Dr. Fu Manchu, the murderous swordsman Rochefort in the best Three Musketeers movies,  Willy Wonka’s father, the evil wizard Saruman from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of the Rings movies, and Count Dooku from the lamentable Star Wars prequels. He also had a hilarious cameo in something called The Stupids. Trust me.

Both are on hand for The Curse of Frankenstein, which began Hammer’s own long-running series of Frankenstein movies. It was a series that followed a fascinatingly different course from the Universal franchise; the monster lives and dies (and lives again and dies again) in this first film, but is no  longer a factor in the handful of sequels. Instead of following the further misadventures of the monster as the Universal films did, these sequels all follow the further adventures of the Baron, who not only persists in his experiments after the first time they lead to disaster but each time persists in continuing to make the same elementary mistake, which is to say constantly leaving his creations unattended and thus constantly inviting the disaster that always ensues whenever one wanders off. You would think the guy capable of discerning the one common factor that led to all of his life’s greatest fiascos, but you’d be wrong.

He’s also a far different interpretation of the character than anything the movies have shown before. He’s a bastard. He has no real feeling for any human being but himself, has no problem with committing murders to keep himself well-stocked in body parts, also has no problem with forcing his attentions on women, and – indeed – may be a sadist as well as sociopath. In this film, he murders an elderly savant just to gain access to his brain, and in another scene deliberately locks his pregnant mistress in a room with his murderous creation just because that’s the easiest way of dealing with her threats of blackmail. Subsequent films have him committing crimes just as nasty. In short, it can be said that this series is not about the Frankenstein monster, but about the monster, Frankenstein. The remarkably slow-learning monster, Frankenstein.

 

The closest the series comes to an actual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, this film takes the form of an extended confession as a haggard imprisoned Frankenstein (Cushing), who is awaiting the guillotine for an initially unspecified crime, tells a priest about his experiments and how they came to ruin. At the end, he goes off to his execution (for the murder of that luckless mistress), without any independent verification outside the flashback; it is very possible to interpret the entire story as the delusion of a common murderer rendered mad by guilt. I prefer to believe that the story is true, especially since it sets up the sequels, but your mileage may vary. Either way, the dramatic arc is the movie-length battle of wills between Frankenstein and his mentor and partner Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), who early on revolts in horror and spends the rest of the movie alternately calling Frankenstein mad and begging him to stop.

It’s good stuff, as far as it goes.  But one thing’s for sure. If the story is indeed supposed to be objectively true, nobody in it acts the way a human being acts. Once he sees disaster coming, Krempe passionately begs Frankenstein’s cousin and fiance Elizabeth (Hazel Court) to leave the house and never come back; he doesn’t explain why, probably to avoid horrifying her, but after some initial anger at him for ever making such a impudent suggestion, she continues to show a level of warmth and affection toward him that seems downright odd coming from any betrothed woman who finds herself nagged about breaking it off by a guy who’s supposed to be her beloved’s best friend. Every woman I’ve ever met would take their guy aside and say, in confidence, “I want you to know that your best friend’s a real creep.” As for Krempe, who storms off in righteous disgust after the monster has already committed a murder, he later returns for the wedding party with a big smile on his face, and nothing but polite interest when his estranged friend Frankenstein tells him that there’s something in the lab that he really ought to see. (And you thought this version’s Frankenstein was a slow learner.)

Cushing’s performance covers a magnitude of sins, even though he’s easily a quarter of a century too old to be playing the driven young genius established by the young boy played by another actor who first hires the already-adult Krempe to be his teacher; by the time Cushing takes over the part, Frankenstein somehow seems to have not only caught up with Krempe in age, but leaped right past him to the point where he’s by now by a couple of decades the older man. (The age issue isn’t nearly as much a problem in the sequels, where it really doesn’t matter that much how old Frankenstein is.) Alas, Christopher Lee is not nearly as good as Cushing, here, because, for the most part, he is not given a character to play. His monster has some moments where it is as put-upon as the Karloff version, but for the most part, he’s a shuffling corpse, who kills reflexively, because he can. Encountering his own version of what is now a recurring theme, the blind man, he just up and kills the guy: not because he’s threatened, not because he’s angry, but because killing is what he does. He kills Frankenstein’s mistress just as reflexively. There is no pathos to play; again, he’s just a McGuffin. This is not fatal to the film, because it happens to be about the Baron, not the monster. But at a mere 83 minutes, the movie isn’t so long that it couldn’t have shoehorned in a few scenes where the monster demonstrated a soul of his own. Frankly, the character deserves it. (His one-sided malice is more forgivable if you buy the interpretation that the entire flashback with the monster is only a function of Frankenstein’s delusions, but, even so: in any movie, the story you’re watching is the story you’re watching, even if it’s only supposed to be a dream sequence.)

One minor point of interest: the film includes a moment where Peter Cushing peers through a magnifying glass, spectacularly enlarging his eye. He also does this a couple of times in his appearances as Sherlock Holmes.  This is no doubt the source of the gag in the Zucker Brothers comedy Top Secret! where a much older Cushing also peers through a magnifying glass and lowers it to reveal that his right eye actually is that grotesquely enlarged. It’s a film-buff joke as well as a funny sight gag. Just thought you ought to know.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Despite the existence of a TV-movie called Frankenstein: The True Story, which a surprisingly large number of people who haven’t read the novel take at its word and defend as an accurate adaptation of the Shelley novel (apparently operating under the assumption that Shelley really did write about a Frankenstein monster who came out looking beautiful, and only gradually rotted in both mind and body), there has never really been a major filmed version that adapted her story with anything approaching fidelity.
 
This one doesn’t, either. It comes damned close for most of its length, up to and including Elizabeth’s murder at the monster’s hands…at which point it departs radically from the text and throws in a twist that really should have worked better than it did.

Part of the problem is its extended length. In eighty-four years, the changing grammar of cinema has increased the acceptable length of a feature film from just over ten minutes to more than two hours; and that really is fine, but coupled with the film’s mission statement of honoring Shelley, it does spend an awful lot of time on framing material, including the arctic expedition stuck in the ice and the discovery of a dying Dr. Frankenstein, who tells the Captain his story. After that it goes on to detail Frankenstein’s childhood, the death of his mother in childbirth, his declaration of love for his foster sister Elizabeth, his entry into medical school, his interest in unorthodox medicine, his friendship with Henry Clerval, and so on. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does delay the actual creation of the monster for a long time, and Kenneth Branagh’s direction takes what should have been Masterpiece Theatre  material and treats it with palpably desperate energy, that includes swooping cameras and some of the most intrusive soundtrack music you have ever heard in your life. Had he let the material alone, it might have bored some members of the audience…but as it happens, the desperate over-the-top style alienated even more.

Things pick up a little bit with the creation of the monster. Branagh, who didn’t just direct but also starred as Frankenstein, got a lot of flack at the time for running around with his shirt off – a touch that was largely regarded as narcissism – but one’s got to admit; it does communicate the character’s frenzy. Still, we then get to the problematic birth scene…which culminates in Frankenstein and his creation flopping around, for what seems forever, on a floor soaked with his experiment’s shiny amniotic fluid.  It’s not scary. Some people regarded it as horrifying, and others thought it hilarious, but the audience I saw it with groaned throughout.

The monster is played by Robert De Niro, who was at one point one of the greatest actors alive (even if he now seems to have used up his entire bag of tricks); but though he’s been rendered hideously scarred with canny makeup, the result is not that he looks like an unnatural monster, but like a hideously scarred Robert De Niro. Once he has his first actual conversation, with this movie’s gentle blind man, the distancing effect of the monster makeup is completely spent; in subsequent scenes where is seen from a distance, it almost disappears completely. This, alas, extends to the actual universe of the film. The very first thing the monster does after it escapes from Frankenstein’s workshop is run from a mob; and it’s worth noting that the mob chases him, not because he killed anybody, or because they’re horrified by his appearance, but because they think he’s a sick man, spreading cholera. In short, this is a movie where the Frankenstein monster can pass as a run-of-the-mill ugly guy. 

Further developments including the murder of Frankenstein’s younger brother, the framing of Justine, the monster’s confrontation with his creator and his offer to go away if Frankenstein builds him a mate, all play out as they do in the novel, and, for a time, the movie works at the level it needs to.  (It’s too bad the opening hour doesn’t.)

That is all before we get to the part that is original to the film, the part that you may consider one of the worst scenes in any Frankenstein movie to date, or one of the best; Frankenstein finds his murdered bride and, for what may be the first time, does what Frankenstein would do, create a new monster using her as spare parts, in a doomed, mad and desperate attempt to get her to live again. Only, hideous as she now is, she might now be more suited for the monster than the doctor.

The scene that results is horrible, hilarious, awful and wonderful at the same time. It is not the Frankenstein of Mary Shelley, but the Frankenstein that might have been made by Stuart Gordon; and though some people will never talk to me again because I said this, I confess to adoring it. The problem is that it simply doesn’t fit anything that came before.  It belongs to a campier Frankenstein, a Frankenstein that Kenneth Branagh did not think he was making. If the entire film had been played at that level, he might have had something.

When we return to the icebound ship in the far north and Frankenstein concluding his confession only to die, and after that to the monster hollering, “He was my father!”, it’s all deadly anticlimax, there not to finish the story in any way the audience cares about, but to delay the closing credits. There’s very real genius in the film, but unfortunately, the whole fails to work.

The Doctor’s Notebook

1910 version, a fascinating artifact from a distant time, with some touches of pure genius. 1931 version, a permanent addition to our shared visual language. 1957 version, a flawed but entertaining visit. 1994 version, a misshapen creation with moments of pure genius, and moments of unbelievable awfulness, stitched together to create an unnatural whole.

And now, the wife declaims toward the Heavens as she flips the third switch…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.(Only based on the techniques used at the time)

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. ***

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. *1/2

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ***

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

 

So, here we are, readying ourselves for the Father’s Day guilt-a-thon, and we decide to review  films retelling the tale of the worst of all dead-beat dads.  Great timing on this one Adam!

The 1931 Frankenstein is one of those films that became an integral part of every American childhood whether they had seen it or not.  Halloween was bombarded with it, kids played run away from the monster, and as Adam has pointed out, even our breakfasts digested it.  The images from the Whale version are iconic and yet soooo wrong.  Did any film version come close to capturing the look and feel of the novel?  Well yes and no, but that’s film in a nutshell.

To begin at the beginning, and I truly mean the beginning, The 1910 Frankenstein is a masterpiece of ingenuity.  The imagination used to create the images is amazing considering the youth of the medium.  However, storytelling has been around since man began to communicate and this doesn’t even come close to the story told in the book.  This version is a bad game of telephone played by children being deliberately vague.  It deserves its place in film history (as do the early Wizards of Oz films) for the mere fact of being the first, not for being a great film.

Then, we get to the 1931, James Whale directed Frankenstein.  Is this truly a great film? Not really.  Again, the story deviates vastly from the source, and much more attention is paid to the look than the plot. But, come on, lets face it.  Who is the face we place with the Creation? In this version we have the Doctor (hmm gives me an idea, but that can wait for another time) creating his child in front of an audience, just to prove himself sane.  Once he completes the task, he turns away in disgust and even joins in the quest to destroy the creature he created.  Why?  because he’s an irresponsible child, too spoiled to realize that he is the one who must take responsibility and care for this being.  His idea is to take the easy way out and destroy the evidence, thus ridding himself of all guilt.  Yea, bury the broken vase deep in the garbage and Mom will never notice.  Good job Herr Doktor!  Oh and spoiler alert,  All is well in the end.  Right!

The next on our list is the awful Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein.  I feel that the makers of this film should have just said “Hey guys, we were told this story, but can’t really remember much , so we’re gonna make it up as we go.”  Here we have the names and some of the basics, but now we have Frankenstein as a rich orphan, set on creating life with no background motivation other than He wants to do it.  This guy is sleazy.  He has his way with a servant girl, all the time knowing he is going to marry his “cousin”. He not only rejects his creation, he actually imprisons the creature and trains it with torture.  Of course, in this film, he has no father to teach him how to be a Dad.  His father figure is busy being a friend to seemingly keep his cushy position.  After all, he was hired by the master to be his tutor giving him room and board and a salary (we assume) and this goes on past adulthood, would you easily give up that gig? Ok. so the creature gets loose, does the killing thing, is killed, resurrected and killed again.  Frankenstein the man is declared an insane murderer and supposedly sent to his death.  The end.  But this is about life eternal, so of course death(as in superhero comics) is never forever.  Thus , we have the sequels (or series) of the Hammer legacy.

The last film we watched for this essay was the 1994,  Kenneth Branagh directed/starring and scripted by Frank Darabont/Steph Lady.  This version heels the closest to the source material, actually including the pre and post creation scenes. I actually feel that this is the best of the films we viewed for these essays, but still a weak sister for all its pedigree.  While there is nothing  glaringly wrong with the film, it just doesn’t feel satisfying.  The look is right, the script good enough, even Branagh’s direction (mostly of himself) is not too far over the top to kill the feel.  But this film left me wanting another try.  The changes made didn’t weaken the story.  This was only the second time I had been exposed to an intelligent version of the creature on film. (I recommend seeing the TV movie Frankenstein the True Story to give a fair comparision).

Can Hollywood film this parable without overblowing it, or underplaying it?  This is a story that deserves a really great retelling, and the 20 year cycle is coming soon (see the filmography and dates of release).  Anybody wanna try that?