Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Mummy (Universal, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One was The Mummy, the original from 1932 starring Boris Karloff and directed by Karl Freund from a script by John L. Balderston. My tape was one I’d recorded from Turner Classic Movies, with an unusual amount of cross-talk from the soundtracks of other things on the air (including the all-too-familiar theme from The Twilight Zone, which was jarring but not all that inappropriate!) and a commentary by Robert Osborne mentioning that Freund was assigned to direct the film on a Friday, had the whole thing cast by Sunday and started shooting that Monday! That’s not that unbelievable when you realize how many of the Universal horror “regulars” were in it, not only Karloff but also Edward Van Sloan (as a specialist in the religion of ancient Egypt, who first figures out that Karloff is not just a mysterious old Arab but actually a revivified mummy) and David Manners (in his usual role as the juvenile lead). One writer analyzed this film as a virtual remake of Dracula, and the similarities are actually pretty obvious: both center around a sinister figure whose life has been artificially prolonged, both feature plots which revolve around the title character’s love (or lust) for a (normally) living woman; both have title characters with great hypnotic powers which they can use by remote control, as it were; both feature Edward Van Sloan and David Manners (in similar characterizations); both involved Karl Freund (Dracula as cinematographer and The Mummy as director); and both even begin with the same piece of music (the opening of act two of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, which was also used over the opening credits of the Lugosi/Robert Florey Murders in the Rue Morgue).

The Mummy scores over Dracula, however, in several particulars. First, the technique of sound films had advanced substantially in the two years between them; Freund as director is able to move the camera a lot more effectively (and more often) than he’d been as the Dracula cinematographer two years earlier. Second, the film is less stage-bound; it was a screen original instead of a stage play, and it’s quite lavish in its use of locations (including enough footage of Egypt that Universal almost certainly had a second unit there; the Egyptian footage seems too extensive, and too closely tied to the main action, to be just stock footage from other sources). Third, Zita Johann as the female lead is far superior to Helen Chandler in Dracula; though some of her acting is stagy and over-the-top (Freund got surprisingly restrained performances from virtually all his cast members, even curbing Van Sloan’s tendency to overact, but either he couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to stop Johann from overmodulating her voice and throwing her hand across her forehead to indicate anguish and fright), she’s certainly a far more arresting and charismatic screen presence than the usual damsel-in-distress role women in horror films generally have had to play. For all the staginess of some of her gestures and intonations, she actually does a fine job portraying the confusion and conflicts within her character, who’s the half-Egyptian daughter of the British governor-general (when this film was shot Egypt was still a virtual colony of Britain) and also the reincarnation of the Princess Anckesenamon, the woman Karloff’s character, Imhotep,[1] loved way back when 3,700 years before, when they were both (relatively) normal people in ancient Egypt.

Fourth, the film had a quite lavish production budget, extending to an elaborately staged flashback sequence in which Karloff, using the magic pool in his home as a sort of early TV (apparently the ancient Egyptians invented TV, but you had to view the picture through water), tells and shows Johann (and us) the whole backstory: how he was the high priest of Amon-Ra, how he loved the daughter of Pharoah Amenophis, how she died on him and how he was caught trying to revive her with the sacred Scroll of Thoth. These scenes were powerful enough that they were recycled in some of the later Mummy films. Fifth, there is Boris Karloff — not quite as otherworldly a screen presence as Bela Lugosi, but a much subtler and more nuanced actor, playing his part with a cool understatement that makes his few big emotional moments all that much more effective. (Osborne mentioned that he had to undergo eight hours of makeup by Jack Pierce to appear as the Mummy; fortunately for Karloff, he played most of the film as the wizened but normally clad Ardath Bey, and that makeup only took four hours.) And sixth, though some key scenes (notably the actual awakening of the Mummy at the beginning — including a fine piece of acting by Bramwell Fletcher as the young man who’s driven mad by witnessing the mummy of Imhotep come to life) are still played silent, The Mummy was the first sound horror film from Universal to use musical underscoring — at Freund’s insistence. As Randall D. Larson notes in his book Musique Fantastique (pp. 27-28):

Freund worked closely with composer James Dietrich in suggesting specific scenes in which he wanted music, such as where Imhotep casts spells by the magical pool, and the final sequence. … While he wrote a number of pieces as Freund had requested, Dietrich’s own idea … was to work the various themes into a recapitulation at the finale, but this wasn’t what Freund had in mind. The director rejected a couple of Dietrich’s cues, and supplemented the score with library music (such as the familiar Swan Lake piece which comprises the main title, prefaced by the same misterioso heard in Murders in the Rue Morgue). As it wound up, about half of the movie’s 20-odd minutes of music consists [sic] of original composition by Dietrich.

Dietrich wrote five cues for the film, all of which (except one) are heard more than once in the film. … Dietrich originally composed a tragic waltz for the flashback to ancient Egypt, but this piece was not used and was replaced with a montage of library cues including excerpts by Heinz Roemheld and Belgian composer Michel Brusselmans. Dietrich’s haunting ostinato for Imhotep’s casting of magic spells becomes something of a leitmotif for the supernatural powers of the living Mummy. In fact, Dietrich had originally wanted to use this motif during the early scene where Imhotep first comes to life, a scene which was eventually played silent. — 11/2/98


The 1932 Mummy from Universal is an all-time favorite film of mine that I’d wanted to see again ever since Charles and I screened the 1999 remake. This time around I was almost painfully aware of how much of it blatantly recycled not only the plot but also the personnel of Dracula — the use as the monster of a once-normal human whose life has been prolonged through supernatural means; the intense hypnotic powers the monster has over both his familiars and his potential victims; the finale in which the monster’s own occult knowledge provides the weapon with which to do him in; the presence of David Manners as the ineffectual but decent romantic lead and of Edward Van Sloan as the expert in the occult whose knowledge proves essential in destroying the monster; the presence of Karl Freund behind the cameras in both productions (as cinematographer on Dracula and as director — for the first time — on The Mummy); the presence of John Balderston as writer on both projects (though he didn’t work on the screen adaptation of Dracula it was based on the stage version by Hamilton Deane, which Balderston edited and revised for American audiences and which was a Broadway hit in 1927 and established Bela Lugosi in the role; and on The Mummy he adapted Nina Wilcox Putnam’s and Richard Schayer’s original story — first conceived, not as a tale of ancient Egypt, but as a biopic of the 18th century hypnotist Cagliostro! — into the final screenplay) and even the use of the same music for an opening theme: the opening of Act II of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (significantly, the music Tchaikovsky composed at the precise moment the plot of Swan Lake leaves the real world and becomes supernatural!).

Where The Mummy scores over Dracula as a film is partly the greater visual imagination of Freund’s direction, and partly the use of a quite good — and surprisingly advanced, almost Stravinskian — musical score (the composer is uncredited in the American Film Institute Catalog, surprisingly), but mostly the doomed romanticism of Balderston’s script and the vast superiority of its stars, Boris Karloff as the revivified mummy Imhotep and Zita Johann as the modern girl (half-English, half-Egyptian) in whose body is incarnated the soul of Imhotep’s lost love, the Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, from the old days, to their opposite numbers on Dracula, Lugosi and the terminally wooden Helen Chandler. Karloff’s delivery of the narration of the flashback scenes set in ancient Egypt (surprisingly lavishly produced for a budget-conscious studio like Universal) is so heartbreaking you almost end up rooting for him — unlike Lugosi, who was restricted by his lack of command of the English language and his inability, at least in American films, to shed the persona of the bloodthirsty Transylvanian count, Karloff was a marvelously subtle actor (helped immeasurably in U.S. films by having English as his native language!) who might well have got a few shots at romantic leads if he’d been 10 to 20 years younger when sound films came in.

Johann is an even bigger surprise because her career was so short, and yet she was a remarkable actress (she got to play opposite Clark Gable, not in a film but on stage in 1928 in an experimental play called Machinal) — her subtle performance in the 1932 Tiger Shark more than holds its own against Marlene Dietrich’s more bravura reading in the 1941 remake Manpower — who in The Mummy (despite some rather tacky costuming when the mummy dresses her in her old Egyptian finery preparatory to disemboweling and mummifying her in order then to give her eternal life) actually manages to convey powerfully the tug of war for control between her former incarnation and her present personality: a subtle, moving performance far beyond the usual screaming damsel-in-distress one expects from the leading lady of a horror film. The 1999 Mummy was a fun film in many ways but it utterly lacked the romantic aspects of the original (the plummet from the courtly David Manners to the boorish Brendan Fraser as the “normal” male lead is indicative of the vast gulf of sophistication and interest between these two films) and, though Arnold Vosloo was actually surprisingly charismatic as the mummy (and in his human incarnation better looking than Fraser!), he was just an empty, special-effects-aided vision of menace rather than the rich, powerful figure of real pathos Balderston’s Mummy script created and Karloff brought vividly to life. — 11/3/02


I happened upon Turner Classic Movies’ showing of the 1932 film The Mummy as part of a three-film mini-festival dealing with Egyptian archaeology, along with the 1935 film Charlie Chan in Egypt and the 1955 spoof Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (their last film for Universal and actually one of their best, even though it was shot in wide-screen and Abbott and Costello needed wide-screen about as much, to poach the old feminist slogan, as a fish needs a bicycle). Not long after I watched The Mummy I read my journal comments on it from the last two times I’d seen it, and I pretty much stand by them except for my criticisms of Bela Lugosi. As I noted before, The Mummy was essentially a reworking of Dracula — though I think David J. Skal overstates the case in his book The Monster Show when he calls The Mummy “a good example of the kind of creative conservatism the studio system fostered; virtually every plot element as well as key performers (not to mention some props and set decorations) were recycled from Dracula.

True, some of the personnel were carried over from Dracula — Karl Freund, who had been cinematographer on Dracula, was promoted to director on The Mummy; John L. Balderston, whose adaptation of Hamilton Deane’s play based on Bram Stoker’s novel had been the basis of Dracula, wrote an original script for The Mummy; and Edward Van Sloan and David Manners were cast in both films (and The Mummy also recycled the opening of Act II of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake that had been used as the main-title music in Dracula) — but to my mind Universal did it better the second time around mainly because they got better actors in the lead: Boris Karloff as the revivified mummy and Zita Johann as the modern-day reincarnation of his old flame from ancient Egypt. What I’m going to backtrack on now is my suggestion that Lugosi wouldn’t have had it in him to play a figure of romantic pathos the way Karloff did here — after Charles and I watched the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu it was clear that not only could Lugosi play a romantic figure, there was at least one American film in which he had: he totally out-acts the more highly regarded Edmund Lowe in the earlier 1932 film Chandu the Magician and he’s fully credible as a totally sympathetic figure, and there are hints in Dracula that with a more subtle script he could have made the vampire a pathetic (in the good sense) figure instead of merely a villain. There’s a brief scene in which Lugosi as Dracula says, “To die — to be really dead! That would be wonderful!,” and when the person  he’s talking to looks nonplussed he says, “There are far worse things awaiting man than … death.” (Perhaps if Universal had gone with the script Louis Bromfield wrote for Dracula — a direct adaptation of Stoker’s novel without reference to the intervening play versions — Lugosi would have had a better chance to shine.)

This time around I was also struck by the cast listing for actor Henry Victor as “The Saxon Warrior,” which made me wonder what on earth a Saxon warrior was doing in a film set entirely in Egypt (mostly in contemporary times, though with the famous flashback sequence set 3,700 years earlier dramatizing how Karloff’s character, Imhotep, attempted to revive his dead girlfriend Princess Ankhsenamon), though apparently he was in a long, ultimately deleted sequence detailing Ankhsenamon’s various reincarnations between her life in ancient Egypt and her appearance as the film’s contemporary heroine, Helen Grosvenor. And it’s also worth noting that because a still photographer on the set shot an image of Karloff in full mummy makeup as the revivified Imhotep and this shot has been widely reproduced, a lot of people are convinced they’ve seen Karloff full-figure as the mummy in the actual film — which they haven’t; the mummy’s coming to life is depicted subtly, just a shot of its eyes opening, its hand moving down across its chest, and later on a hand leaving a musty fingerprint on Bramwell Fletcher’s arm as it goes for its “little walk,” a sight that drives Fletcher’s character hopelessly insane. — 10/2/12

[1] — In the movie, Imhotep is sentenced to be killed by being buried alive because of his act of sacrilege in attempting to raise Anckesenamon from the dead. In the actual history of Egypt, there was a real person named Imhotep, but he was revered instead of reviled; he was the architect who designed the pyramids and was the only human, other than the Pharoahs, whom the Egyptians deified.