Posts Tagged ‘The Three Musketeers’


 

gaslight poster

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Gaslight aka Angel Street, The Murder in Thorton Street,  A Strange Case Of Murder  (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard.  84 minutes. ** 1/2

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston.  Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

So here we have yet another stake through the heart of the oft-repeated premise that “Remakes Always Suck.”

This also serves as eloquent argument against the premise that remakes are coming closer together, today, than they ever have before. We’ve already covered the three versions of THE MALTESE FALCON made within ten years, the last of which was the only great one; and, only slightly less dramatic, three versions of THE THREE MUSKETEERS made within thirteen years, of which only the last one can be legitimately argued to have gotten the story anywhere close to right. The movies under discussion this time out, made only four years apart, may seem an extreme class, but a couple of the Musketeer movies were that adjacent, and the Falcon movies were almost as much so. Still, four years is an unusually narrow gap. It may not be our all-time record – that would be two POSEIDON ADVENTURE movies made a year apart –but it’s close.

Both films are based on the 1938 play set in the Victorian era about the cad of a husband who, to keep his wife from realizing that he’s a con man searching the attic of their London home for priceless jewels, sets about deliberately driving her insane – or, more accurately, convincing her and the world that she is insane, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. If this seems an unlikely premise, please keep in mind that much of what occurs here presents a genuinely sophisticated understanding of the dynamic between some emotionally abusive husbands and their terrorized wives. In the real world, the household becomes a closed system, where the wife is cut off from any possible reality check on the part of friends and family who might be able to halt her disintegration; she is made to believe that everything that happens is her fault; she is offered little moments of affection and reward that are just as cruelly withdrawn, in a manner designed to make her feel that the blame for the loss is her own. Pathetically grateful for any indication of kindness, as her self-esteem is reduced not just to zero but to negative numbers, a woman in this position can be made to believe the most ridiculous premises, even those that contradict the evidence of her own senses. In 1940 and 1944, the premise might have seemed over the top; today we’ve seen and recognized too many real-world examples where exactly this form of abuse was made to work, and the saddest truth associated with either movie is, frankly, that when each movie’s independent investigator arrives to tell the heroine that she’s not insane and that her husband’s merely been twisting her perceptions to make  her think so, the ladies in question are, if anything, restored to sanity more easily than most. Witness the oft-seen moment from any number of domestic abuse cases, where the wives with the freshly broken nose and the freshly fat lip refuses to press charges, insisting to cops that the bullying subhuman who did it is “a good man.” Of course, the premise that a woman might have the right to defy her husband, or even walk out on him if he treats her poorly enough, was still sufficiently radical at the time these movies were made – let alone the time being written about – that the play hedges its bets somewhat, revealing in its final movements that the cad has another wife and child off in another country, and that our heroine is therefore not actually his wife,  and is therefore free to react as his treatment of her should have been enough to dictate.

The two movies are not identical. Though based on the same play, and including some nearly identical scenes, there are substantial differences between them, down to the plot level. The 1940 version is much more faithful to the play; the 1944 version changes many of the particulars, in large part to better showcase and protect its stars.

Gaslight (1940): Not Really About Her

The 1940 film, half an hour shorter, begins with a shadowy figure sneaking up behind a sweet little old lady, Alice Barlow (who’s embroidering a pious sampler, just to make sure we get the dastardly nature of the crime), and strangling her. Years later, the two upper floors of her now-abandoned home are sealed off, and the rest of the home renovated for new tenants:  Paul and Bella Madden (Walbrook and Wyngard, respectively), who pull up in a carriage, and at very first sight are recognizable to us as not the happiest of couples. Bella looks haunted, almost spacey. Paul seems stiff and resentful around her. There is no clear sign of even theoretical affection between them.

Clearly, he has already started to break her down, to make her the malleable thing he wants her to be. One immediate effect of this is that she is immediately removed from the role of protagonist; that position is taken by B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell), a retired detective who worked on the old lady’s murder case and whose suspicions are rekindled now that the house is occupied again. Rough is an older man, and a rather roly-poly one, so any question of actual sexual chemistry between him and Bella, in the latter scenes, is negated. The suspense lies in whether he can get the goods on Paul, and rescue Bella, before the damage done to her is irreversible.

We further learn, from a visiting relative who is denied permission to see Bella, that she has always been a frail person whose health has always been in question. There has never been any strength in her, never any personal will aside from the will she borrows from those who take care of her. We first meet her when she’s already reduced by her husband’s treatment of her and we therefore have no idea what kind of person she could be, if treated with genuine love or kindness. We feel sorry for her, but that’s about as far as it goes, and as far as it’s ever permitted to go.

The revelation, before long, that Paul is the murdered woman’s ne’er-do-well nephew, and that his beastly decision to drive his wife mad began with her discovery of a letter that he sees as possible evidence against him, further removes her from the center of this, her own story. It really has nothing to do with her. She saw something she should not have seen. Before that point she was just a woman who didn’t realize she was the victim of a bigamist. At some point, he either actually liked her or thought she would be useful cover to have around; we honestly don’t know, nor are we given enough evidence to know.

We find out in both movies that Paul’s nightly disappearances from his home are cover, to re-enter the home through the attic by first cutting into a nearby abandoned building, so he can search for the jewels he’s been after all along. In the 1940 film, the explanation for what he does when he leaves at night comes fairly early, to both us and detective Rough. Also in 1940, the sexual chemistry between him and the sinister young maid is explored to a much greater degree than what we’ll get a mere four years later; he actually indicates to her that when his wife is locked up in the asylum, the two of them will be free to rumpty-dumpty, and in fact takes her on an extended date to a show at a London music hall, which doesn’t add as much as to the story as the screen time would seem to indicate but does permit the film to include an extended high-kick dance number, which was considered an absolute good, once upon a time.

The climax reveals that the mind-bogglingly valuable rubies the whole thing has been about, all along, were all hidden in Bella’s locket, which defies plausibility, as the locket is about the size of her thumb and the jewels would all have to be the size of periods on a printed page. It’s hard to credit those as valuable rubies. Those are the chips removed from valuable rubies when the jeweler cuts them into a pleasing shape.

Still, once Detective Rough tells her what’s up, both apart from her husband’s presence and while he’s there fuming to hear it, Bella’s confrontation with her exposed “husband” is a powerful one, in which the weak, fragile, shattered wife actually does look like she’s about to stab him with the knife in her hand, out of sheer loathing. One advantage of not really knowing her character beforehand is that we honestly don’t know what she’s going to do; she is revealed for the first time in those scenes, and it’s a powerful moment. The film is beautifully shot and furnished with sumptuous sets, and though neither quality is quite as magnificent as what we’ll get a few short years later, it ain’t nothing, either. It’s not a bad film. It’s actually a pretty good one, better as a predecessor to its particular classic than the first Maltese Falcon  was to the Humphrey Bogart version. But few people would remember it today, or have any real reason to see it,  if not for its position as footnote to what would shortly follow a few short years later.

 

 

Gaslight (1944): Beware The Attack of Pretentious Gallic Smoothies

The 1944 version – which is, let’s say right off, to an order of magnitude a greater feast for the eyes – offers us a lot more, in the way of substantive changes, than just the introduction of far more charismatic actors.

To start with, the victim of the original murder is not a sweet little old lady making pious samplers. She’s a world-famous opera singer, renowned throughout the world, and the owner of jewels that were bestowed upon her by a smitten crowned head of state; it therefore becomes much more believable that the jewels are priceless enough to have been worth all the to-do made about them. (She doesn’t appear in the story as a character, but we see a portrait of her, and can tell that she was still relatively young and beautiful when killed; and on top of this her character helps inform that of her niece Paula (Bergman), who is here presented as a girl who has substantial singing talent of her very own, who foolishly gives up her ambitions when she falls in love with her future “husband” Gregory.)  Gregory (Boyer) a piano player who once accompanied Paula’s aunt, has pretensions of a great future as a composer, but we soon learn that he really doesn’t have much to offer in that line; he is a non-talent, who is in evil ambitions subverts a girl who, we are made to believe, is a much grander one.

None of this is critical to the plot, but note how well all of it moves the endangered wife to the forefront. In the original, he owns the house and really doesn’t need her around while he searches it; he just begins his campaign to drive her mad because she’s seen an incriminating letter and he was treating her like crap anyway. In this version, she’s the inheritor of the house. He needs her to gain access to it, and so he uses his wiles to first deprive her of her ambitions and then of her property and then of her freedom of movement and then of her sanity; it’s a much greater series of betrayals, and it’s all focused on a girl we know. We may first meet her when she’s a traumatized teen being removed from her aunt’s house in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder, but by the time we catch up with her again on the continent, she’s far away from that tragedy and, though clearly still traumatized by it, a formidable young woman with substantial potential (if not in music, then at least for attaining happiness). We see, in her radiance, the depth of the love she thinks she’s found, in Gregory…and Bergman sells this feeling so substantially, so perfectly, that she’s substantially more beautiful in these scenes  than she was in her earlier hit Casablanca. And she’s not exactly a crone in Casablanca.

Charles Boyer’s acting style has not aged as well, alas – he was a pretentious gallic smoothie then, when that was a good thing, and that has only gotten worse as most screen acting has evolved in more naturalistic directions – but that actually rebounds to the movie’s benefit. Occasionally, a flawed performance is precisely the right kind of flawed performance. For instance, McCauley Culkin was not half the actor his co-star Elijah Wood was, when they played together in The Good Son, a thriller about a murderous, sociopathic child…but the limitations to his affect, and the general off-ness of his line readings, only furthered the impression that his character was a little monster only mimicking the proper emotional responses in order to seem properly human.  Much the same thing occurs whenever Tony Curtis played a con man, pretending at sophistication; the pretense was transparent, and rightly so. There about a million similar examples. To our modern eyes, Boyer is affected and corny…but exactly the kind of untrustworthy guy who might impress a naïve young girl who doesn’t know any better. It is a perfect twist on the material.

With this chemistry, Boyer playing Gregory as the most romantic, smooth-talking sharpie alive, and the first signs of trouble appearing as Gregory insisting to his lady love that of all the possible places where they can now settle, he wants a small house on a London Square exactly like the one that Paula has steadfastly avoided since her childhood trauma…the arrival at the house where most of the action takes place now plays a lot differently. Paula is apprehensive, but believes that she can be happy there; Gregory is clearly manipulating her and just beginning his transformation from eloquent romantic to control-freak, but she is not yet a doormat; she has every reason to believe that she might be happy. Her character begins from a place a lot different than the character from the first film. In this remake, we know her well and like her before she ever enters the house with her creep of a husband. She has a character  that can be broken down. And so it plays at a much higher level when he acts downright unhinged, during a tourist visit to the Tower London; when he starts hiding household objects and leading her to believe that she has stolen them; when he encourages her to believe that she has had memory lapses; when this movie’s sinister young maid (a teen Angela Lansbury, in her movie debut), bullies her out of her plans to leave the house and go for a walk. It hurts to see this vivacious, beautiful, talented young girl having the life sucked out of her. It hurts less to see the same thing happen to somebody who’s already a doormat.

Paula’s connection to music also adds to another key moment of the story. Both films include a scene where the husband consents to her attendance at a high-society party that includes a piano recital, only to cruelly accuse her of stealing the watch which he has hidden away in her handbag, and drive her from the room in tears. In the 1940 version, there is no special reason to believe that Bella is enjoying anything more sophisticated than the rare opportunity to be seen out in public. She seems profoundly uncomfortable, even in her seat.  In 1944, it’s music. It transports Paula. Bergman is able to indicate that her character feels joy at the sound – and the cruelty of then robbing it from her is profoundly underlined.

In this film, there is no indication that Gregory’s dalliance with the nasty young maid goes any further than flirting on his part and yearning on hers; perhaps, despite clear evidence that the husband is a heel in other ways, 1944 Hollywood didn’t want to hinge too much of the story on that hard-sell, adultery. It’s a loss, even if the removal of the dance-hall sequence is a dramatic plus in that it doesn’t take us away from the main story at a point where it honestly doesn’t need to bleed tension.

(The smaller role doesn’t stop young Angela Lansbury, a teenager at the time and still a name performer today, from nailing what she’s given.  She says in an interview among the extras on the DVD set that includes both movies that she was very kindly treated by everybody – which she notes isn’t always the case, for actors of any age, and good luck in particular for the young girl enjoying her first big break.)

The revelation that Gregory is sneaking back into the house after leaving at night takes place a lot later in the story than in the 1940 version, and the solution to the mystery of the missing jewels is much more sensible and therefore much more satisfying. Paula’s confrontation with her securely bound husband, once he’s been exposed, is a killer-diller; after two hours of being reduced to an emotional invalid, she now gets to expel all of her anger and betrayal, and though there’s never any real sense, as in 1940, that she might kill him, the sudden return of the girl who’s been robbed from herself is the story’s heart, and Bergman nails it in one of the great sequences of her career. She won the Academy Award for the part, deservedly.

But the best of the story’s improvements to the play may be the most “Hollywood”; i.e., instead of giving us a fat old retired detective who swoops in to solve the case just to show he can, we get Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), a Scotland yard functionary who also, persuasively, serves as possible future romantic interest for Paula.  He’s accused by another character of being in love with her. He very likely is. There is no reasonable way, even at movie-melodrama speed, for her to reciprocate. She only has a few minutes freed of the influence of her “husband.” But it is clear at the end that she is letting her rescuer into her life, and that at bare minimum she has found a friend who will be a positive presence in her days, to counter the loss of the monster who tried to destroy her. This is also more satisfying, if less realistic, than the heroine of the original getting nothing more than the opportunity to breathe fresh air. Cotton, who often played profoundly decent men, serves that function well here, though it needs to be noted that he could radiate evil when he needed to; see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). Gaslight was the seventh full-length film of his career, all made in a three-year period, and was astonishingly his fifth great one. Nor was he finished with greatness for the decade; The Third Man was still to come.

This is, by the way, one of those occasional stories that adds to the English language; “Gaslighting” somebody has become a slang term for a pattern of psychological torture designed to get them to doubt their reality, and ultimately get them to blame themselves for their own abuse. It is therefore worth noting that when I recently mentioned on-line that I’d seen this movie for the very first time, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction editor and notable scamp Gordon van Gelder immediately insisted that my memory was failing me and that we’d seen it together. It took me hours to twig to what he was doing. Thanks a lot, Gordon.

The Incriminating Papers

1940 version: a reasonably effective melodrama, marred by remote characters and too narrow an arc for its leading lady. 1944 version: an all-time classic.

*

And now, the wife remembers it differently…!

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Gaslight aka A Strange Case Of Murder (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard. 84 minutes. ***

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston. Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

This is one of those times when I agree with Adam on the ratings of these films.  Both films are well made and for the most part well acted.  But neither one really blew me away.

I had seen the 1944 version a few times while growing up and always felt that the heroine was just too much of a pushover.  I mean first they bundle her off to get her away from London and the murder scene.  Then, some guy she’s only recently met  is allowed to take over running her life and takes her back to the murder house.  Then, some guy she doesn’t even know is allowed to convince her that not only is she not going mad, but her loving husband is nothing more than a murderer and thief.  Talk about a pushover!  And, this is the heroine we are supposed to root for?

I never knew of the existence of the 1940 version or the play until we stumbled across the listing on the cable barker.

I found the 1940 storyline much more satisfying, but constrained by the boundaries set by the stage play. It had a bit more feel of reality when a former police officer recognizes a suspect from a past case, and takes the case open again.  I mean isn’t this what COLD CASE is based on?

I guess I need to spoil everything if I want to state my major gripe with the story.  Guy meets girl/wins girl/moves with girl to supposedly strange (to him) place/begins controlling every aspect of girl’s life/begins convincing her she is going insane/is found out by third party and destroyed all in time to save girls sanity and life! The very idea of a murder occurring and the criminal being so obsessed as to hatch this convoluted plot to get his hands on the property.  It boggles the itty bitty grey cells.  And yet, the 1944 film, following these basic storylines, is considered by many to be a minor masterpiece.

Both films are very set bound and claustrophobic, which intensifies the drama.  The earlier version, just didn’t have the budget or directorial talent to pull off what the 1944 film did.

The Gaslight of 1944 had Ingrid Bergman playing weak with a steel core  and Charles Boyer playing slick and cruel.  One deserved all the praise heaped on her, the other wellll, not so much. Boyer’s stilted stylization in this film was really just an unease with acting in English and unfamiliarity with his co-star nd director. His later roles where he evinced a sly charm, came after much more time had passed and he was more a part of the American movie community.  But here, playing the foreign fella, well, the stiffness comes off as cruelty and “foreigner “ standoffishness.

Both films are well worth the time invested in their watching.  Neither is more, or less, than the set piece it was meant to be.  The earliest a good attempt at interpreting the play, the latter and lush film remembered for one of many roles of an incredible actresses career.

 


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.


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?


In which that lifelike wax sculpture was once an innocent girl with the misfortune to resemble Joan of Arc

 

 

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell. 77 minutes. ** 1/2

House Of Wax (1953). Directed by Andre De Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson). 90 minutes. ** 1/2

House of Wax (2005). Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Screenplay by Charles Hayes and Carey Hayes, from the story (note difference) by Charles Belden. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Paris Hilton, Brian van Holt. 113 minutes.  1/2

*

None of them were meant to be immortal. They were all conceived as throwaway entertainments, providing thrills and chills for the popcorn set; the first two weren’t even intended to be particularly scary, though those of us who recall seeing at least one of them in a motion picture auditorium may recall a time or two when a jump scare elicited some screams from its audience. The first features one of the damnedest love stories you’ve ever seen. The second reaches its peak entertainment value with a special effect that has nothing whatsoever to do with its story. The third has a climax of truly transcendent dumbness. There’s precious little intended subtext in any of them.

We’re talking about the three Houses of Wax, all of them horror films set in and around the titular tourist destinations, which are all run by mad craftsmen who achieve realism in their sculptures by entombing their hapless victims in paraffin. Each one of them features a hideously disfigured murderer, and a catastrophic fire that consumes the buildings and melts the sculptures to bubbling puddles. Beyond that, though, the differences are instructive. Each in their own way, they all embody the nature of popular filmmaking in their respective times. Stretching the point somewhat further than the evidence will bear, you could even look at all three and call them a history of the decline of movie-making, over the course of a little more than seventy years. It’s not entirely fair, since bad movies were made back then and good movies are still being made now, but a case can still be made from these three levels of celluloid archeological strata. You’ll see why.

Mystery Of the Wax Museum (1933) 

The first film (directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later make The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) presents us with the case of one Ivan Igor, pronounced Eye-Gor (Atwill), a London sculptor whose small wax museum stresses tableaux of great historical events, inspirational evocations of subjects like motherhood, and beautiful heroines like Joan of Arc, over the sensational commemorations of crime and violence that draw many more paying customers to another such establishment across town. It’s the old dilemma pitting aesthetic vs. commercial considerations, here complicated by a creator who talks to his sculptures as if they’re really flesh-and-blood people, and a business partner named Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) who would just as soon burn the place down and collect ten thousand pounds in insurance money. The two men grapple and throw punches even as flames engulf Igor’s life’s work, and Worth escapes believing Igor dead and the insurance pay-out his and his alone.

It is interesting to note that in both this film and the 1953 House Of Wax, the Worth figure is a villain but not an absolute one. He has no love for Igor’s art and has nothing but impatience for his partner’s creative principles, but initially wants to play fair with him within the context of his intended crime. He proposes the arson scheme as something that will rebound to the benefit of both men, and fully expects to share the ill-gotten proceeds fifty-fifty. This doesn’t render his actions any less callous in terms of leaving the wax sculptor behind to die, and happily spending the insurance money afterward. It just makes him a guy who considers himself the artist’s friend even when he expects that the artist will happily collude in destroying the work for short-term profit. I’ve worked for at least one publisher like that.

In any event, time passes. The action moves to 1933 New York City. Dead bodies start disappearing from the morgue. Igor arrives in the city, older and mostly confined to a wheelchair (with crutches hanging from a rack on the back). He cannot sculpt anymore, as his burned hands no longer possess the same level of control, but he continues his work with the aid of assistants and apprentices (that include Hugo, a sinister deaf-mute), and is about to open a newer and larger wax museum. The problem, of course, is that some of the figures on display look an awful lot like corpses recently stolen from the morgue.

The chief narrative problem here and in the 1953 version is that anybody in the audience who can’t put all this offered information together, perform the necessary math, and figure out that there’s something other than plaster beneath the wax veneers of the figures on display has likely never seen a movie before, and that since the plot is largely an exercise in marking time until the breathless revelation of the secret we already know, we need some other reason to watch in the interim.

In 1933, that’s the spectacle of the tough lady reporter Florence (Farrell), who is fast-talking, cynical, hard-edged, dumbfounding, rude, and pretty much nonstop funny, especially in her interactions with her editor-in-chief, who seems to hate her and who she seems to hate back. She tells him, “I’m gonna make you eat dirt you soap bubble!” She tells another man, “You can go to some nice warm place…and I don’t mean California!” She leads the police to a crate she imagines to be the coffin of a recent murder victim, discovers it filled with bootleg liquor instead, and instead of just slinking off in embarrassment packs her coat with as much as she can carry. Almost every line that comes out of her mouth is verbal gold, and her angry back-and-forth with her editor leads to a punch line good enough to render all the previous jiggery-pokery with crazed murderers and entombed corpses look like it was just a distraction from what the story was secretly about all along.

This is, in short, one of the few cases where the female protagonist of a horror film is as rich and as well conceived as the menace she must confront. (Another, many years later, would be Silence of the Lambs.) She’s far better than the story she’s in, certainly far better than either of the male leads, who are both dull in different ways…or for that matter her best friend, the imperiled Charlotte (Fay Wray), a “good girl” with the misfortune to look like Igor’s idea of Marie Antoinette, and who aside from the terrific set of screaming pipes you expect from that actress, really doesn’t have much else to distinguish her. She’s just a screaming ninny.

In short, despite some expressionistic sets that employ wonderful arrangements of light and shadow, this is best perceived as a romantic comedy starring Florence that has happened to wander into a horror film and then wandered out again.

(Not incidentally, most current prints look awful. The movie was filmed in Technicolor, but was never properly cared-for. Though a perfect theatrical restoration exists, the most recent transfer to home DVD on the flip side of the 1953 version made serious tint-adjustment errors that resulted in looking weak and washed-out, almost like a bad colorization of a film originally shot in black-in white.)

House Of Wax (1953)

The second film changes the name of the mad sculptor to Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) and the name of the young woman who begins to suspect what he’s up to to  Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Sue is particularly drawn to the figure of Joan of Arc, who bears a remarkable resemblance to her murdered best friend Cathy (Carolyn Jones). The creepy deaf-mute assistance is Igor (here pronounced Ee-gor, and played by the future Charles Bronson).

Price was already an established actor whose gallery of roles had included the villainous Counselor (note: not Cardinal) Richelieu in the Gene Kelly version of The Three Musketeers. He had never been in a horror film before, but this and his subsequent performance in The Fly would soon make him one of the go-to-guys for macabre movies, a streak of good fortune that only extended his professional shelf-life as he aged. His Jarrod is not the angry, embittered, almost abusive sculptor that Atwill’s character became post-catastrophe, but a wry, amusing, charming figure who deeply enjoys regaling his guests with the provenance of the horrors on display. It’s a far more entertaining performance than Atwill’s, though that is more than countered by the movie’s insistence on jettisoning the 1933 film’s funny and resourceful heroine in favor of one who is bland, helpless, and pretty much devoid of personality. (Her doomed friend Cathy, who is also a ninny but who happens to be an entertaining ninny with an adorably annoying titter to recommend her, is much more interesting, but audiences should not get attached to her.)

The absence of a protagonist worth following means that the film must get by on style, of which it has plenty, and on the gimmickry of 3-D, which is both the movie’s saving grace and its biggest flaw. It’s the saving grace because the makers of the film recognize it’s their most powerful argument and therefore stage a number of scenes that exploit the device to its fullest advantage, notably by lingering at length on a dance-hall act with leggy dancers kicking their gams at the audience, and even better in a scene where a street performer regales audiences outside the museum with paddleball tricks, that amount to launching that leashed ball at the camera multiple times in rapid succession. At one point he even says he sees someone out there with a bag of popcorn, and it’s clear that he’s not talking to anybody in the movie, but to some moviegoer laughing his ass off in a theatre. Or rather, all moviegoers laughing their asses off, everywhere. Even after Avatar and others, this may be the single most bravura 3-D sequence of all time, simply because it revels in the sheer goofy fun of the technology, without caring much that it has nothing to do with the story.

I hope you have a pair of red/green 3D glasses around the house.

Of course, watching the same scene in 2-D is less satisfying…and the same came be said for the dance-hall scene, which is even more transparently gratuitous because of the amount of time spent on it and because it clearly represents a gimmick that halts the story for no reason. I shouldn’t even have to mention the final shot where the cop holds up the wax bust of Charles Bronson and brandishes it at the camera, just so audiences can ooh and ahh one last time.

Deprived of the strange character twist that defines the 1933 version, this one brings a basic flaw of the story into sharp relief: to wit, neither one has a good climax. Each film builds to its respective mad sculptor in the middle of preparing to “immortalize” some innocent woman as Marie Antoinette with a nice shiny coat of wax, when the cops bust in and he ends up running around in circles and eventually falling into the vat of wax itself. But in neither case do the protagonists have much to do with that; the cops get the goods on him independently and just happen to show up in time to break the door down. This is convenient but does little for the effectiveness of the heroes. It’s lame. And while this didn’t matter so much in 1933, when the heroine still had a terrific punch line coming, it’s pretty flat storytelling in 1953, when she’s not all that compelling a person and her last scene consists of little more than a “thank you.”

But it’s still one of the best 3-D movies ever made…a distinction not to be confused with the best movies ever made in 3-D, which would be another list entirely, probably topped by Dial M For Murder.

So the 1933 version represents a story that gets by on character, and the 1953 version represents a story that gets by on a technological gimmick. And the 2005 version?

House of Wax (2005)

The most recent visit to the wax museum makes one good decision: moving the museum fire, the most exciting sequence in either of the two prior versions, to the climax. This only makes sense, as thrillers want to move toward their most intense moments, not away from them.

But it jettisons the bare bones of the first two and instead gives us a gaggle of tiresome contemporary college students on a road trip, who we quickly and definitively decide to be compelling only to the degree that we must compellingly despise them. As must happen, they “take a shortcut” and have “car trouble” and “split up” and wind up in an entire freaking town, abandoned and forgotten in the age of GPS, with nobody on the streets and no apparent population but for a mechanic and his deformed brother (both played by Brian Holt), who between them have been capturing motorists to make them permanent exhibits in the wax museum that is the town’s most prominent feature.

We need not spend too much time on this. We need note, first, that the odds of any modern horror movie being at all good seems to be inversely proportional to the number of protagonists introduced at the onset. If just one or two, then we stand a chance of whatever happens next being about people whose souls we know and whose fate concerns us. The movie will likely follow something that resembles a plot and involve something more than slaughters at regular intervals. If instead we’re quickly introduced to a small crowd of interchangeable pretty faces who bitch at one another, then we know that the numbers are so high largely because the movie intends on killing them regularly and that everything else about them will be subordinate to that purpose.

After far too much time spent following this particular insipid bunch on their road trip, the plot starts to creak, past the discovery of a pit of rotting roadkill to car woes that lead two of the group to accept a ride they shouldn’t, to a one-block town with no visible people. Of course, it takes forever for the heroine Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) to notice that the town is about as lively as an abandoned movie set. When they are inevitably separated, Wade is first to get the wax treatment, which in this case leaves its victims still alive, if immobile, inside that coating, an element that allows Wade to act eloquently with his irises when another in this inexhaustible band of idiots, Dalton (Jon Abrahams), tries to free him and takes forever to realize that peeling the wax off removes the skin as well. Meanwhile, the villain captures Carly, straps her to a chair, and crazy-glues her lips shut. This is pretty nasty, but since she frees herself from her bonds within minutes and physically pries her lips apart with her fingers so she can go back to screaming, the worst effect the crazy glue has is rendering her lips raw and bloody, which in practice just makes her look like she’s wearing bright red lipstick. (Her speech remains unaffected.) But she does get the tip of one finger chopped off, so that’s something.

In the place of the offended and wronged artists Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price played in the first two movies, both driven mad by crimes committed against them after they tried to adhere to a matter of principle, we have Bo and Vincent Sinclair (both played by Brian van Holt), who started life as Siamese twins born to a disgraced surgeon and a lady wax sculptor seen in flashbacks and family photos that place a strange amount of emphasis on how much Mom smoked. The boys, Bo and Vincent (ha-ha, Vincent), kill people because they’re just plain insane. It’s no more than a lifestyle choice. Not for this movie the operatic villainy of once-gentle but tragically wronged souls. These guys are just plain bad, which of course enables Vincent to survive a crossbow shaft through the chest and rise from what nobody in the audience is fooled into thinking of as death, to chase Carly some more.

Paris Hilton is in the movie, as  Paige. She and her boyfriend are parked miles away from any of these occurrences, having sex, and therefore spend much of the film having little to do with the gathering menace. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that she’s just in the film so she can strip for her boy-toy and thus attract the kind of audiences who know what she did to become famous. Ultimately, one of the killers shows up, kills the guy and chases Paige, ultimately killing her, affecting the main plot not much at all. Between them, their purpose here is to serve as subsidiary victims, making sure that not too many minutes go by without somebody getting impaled on something. Of Hilton’s performance I can say only that she manages more on-screen than she does in her life as a personality famous for being famous by displaying considerably more than one facial expression.

It all leads up to the fire in the museum, which is actually, literally, I mean seriously literally, a House of Wax, so that the staircase and the furniture and the walls get all mushy as Carly and her brother try to evade killers as the entire building turns soft as snot all around them. In the entire history of mad slasher movies, this may be the one, the one, where it’s least advisable to flee up the stairs. Expect a scene where her brother tries to run up after her and sinks ankle-deep in the ooze. Expect one of the evil siamese-twin brothers to fall through the floor and land dead on top of the other brother, in a position that precisely duplicates their orientation before surgery. That’s convenient.

So, to the 1933 movie’s focus on character and the 1953 movie’s reliance on a technological gimmick, we can add the 2005 movie’s thudding obviousness, overt sadism, and a level of literalism that works only if the members of the audience can be trusted to be as bone-stupid as the moviemakers seem to perceive them. As dire histories of the art of moviemaking go, you really can’t get any more metaphorical than that.

The Wax Seal

1933 version, a dated and damaged but still enjoyable relic. 1953 version, a nostalgic treat with plenty of remaining charm. 2005 version, ugly idiocy for ugly idiots, one of the worst films of recent years.

And now, the wife chimes in…

***

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell. 77 minutes. ***

House Of Wax (1953). Directed by Andre De Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson). 90 minutes. ***1/2

House of Wax (2005). Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Screenplay by Charles Hayes and Carey Hayes, from the story (note difference) by Charles Belden. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Paris Hilton, Brian van Holt. 113 minutes. 1/2

Pardon me for a moment, but does anyone out there have a bit of steel wool for my brain?  Why, oh why, did the worst of these films have to also be the longest?  Oh darn!  I just gave away the ending of my piece didn’t I?  Oh well, it matters not, for I expect most folks who have seen the three films under discussion here have already drawn the same conclusion: that the 2005 remake SUCKS.

I don’t hate horror films.  I love a suspenseful slasher flick a la the original Halloween of the original Psycho, but let’s face it, kids, there ain’t no such thing in the latest version of House of Wax.  Let’s see, we have sex, annoying friend, bully, good girl, bad girl and black guy.  The only thing I had to play with was which order they were going to get offed.  No original attacks and as for supposedly college bound kids, Woe for our future! Any surprises? Nope.  Any squirming anticipatory moments? Not here.  Nope not much of anything that could be called innovative or fun.  So were we supposed to watch this just for the Paris Hilton semi-strip?  I will give the special effects guys a mild thumbs up for all the great melting effects, but the previous films at least used them to emphasize the point, here it was more of a” look what we can do these days”.  Gak, please save me from the idiocy of this mindset.

Then my sanity was recovered(partially, I do still live with a writer and participate in this blog).  We re-watched the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum and I couldn’t prevent myself from enjoying the snappy patter and decent acting.  There’s something about the screenwriters then, they didn’t write down to the audience.  On the contrary, they dared the viewers to try to keep up.  So much fun!  One question that just always hits me, who opens a new business, especially a touristy thing, downtown on New Year’s day?  I mean, is anybody even able to go out?    And who would want to see a wax museum with a hangover?  Really!!!

And finally, for the sake of truthfulness, I didn’t re-watch the 1953 HOW, mainly because it has become a favorite from childhood.  My first viewing was at summer camp on a rainy day.  I was blown away and even though my cynicism has exploded over the years, my sheer enthusiasm for this film has never waned.  When Adam and I decided to do this column, I lobbied for this to be one of the first just so I could watch and discuss it again.  Vincent Price is a snake charming menace.  Charles Bronson gets to play mute artist.  Carolyn Jones gets to be quiet for most of the film.  And I get to watch 3-D effects that don’t bug the hell out of me.  Gosh, what more is needed?  Oh yeah, I get to remember that awesome early melt scene.  That is what really remains with me.  People (ok wax dummies) melting like the wicked witch.  Just too cool!

Ok, so you see, I am a bit prejudiced here.  So, I say give the first two films a fair shake, but NEVER EVER EVER succumb and watch the 2005 remake!