Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Supernatural (Paramount, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I got two DVD’s on order from the Turner Classic Movies Web site, including  one I’ve wanted an official video of for quite some time: Supernatural (1933), a Paramount production (though, like most of Paramount’s 1929-1949 output, now owned by Universal) produced by Edward Halperin and directed by his brother Victor, the people who had made White Zombie with Bela Lugosi and Madge Bellamy the year before. White Zombie had originally been just another horror indie destined for the 1932 equivalent of grind houses, but United Artists was short of a film for their distribution schedule and picked it up. The result was a lot more people noticed it than would have if it hadn’t had the boost of at least a semi-major studio, the film was a success and Paramount decided to sign the Halperins to see if they could work the same magic at a major studio. The result is usually considered a disappointment, but when I first saw Supernatural (at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in 1975 on a triple bill with the 1927 Paul Leni The Cat and the Canary and White Zombie) I thought it was fully the equal of White Zombie and a fascinating film in its own right. I’d seen it at least two more times, one (I think) at the Cento Cedar Cinema in San Francisco and once when the Sci-Fi Channel (back when it still had a name that meant something instead of the ridiculous concoction “Syfy”) broadcast it and, despite the commercial breaks, I recorded it onto VHS tape and shared it with at least one friend who generally didn’t like old movies but found this one compelling.   

Supernatural begins with the credits seen over lightning flashes while a rather overwrought woo-woo-woo chorus sings on the soundtrack, and then we get quotes about the supernatural from Confucius (“Treat all supernatural beings with respect … but keep aloof from them!”), Mohammed (“We will bring forth the dead from their graves”), and St. Matthew (“ … and He gave his twelve disciples power against unclean spirits to cast them out”). The last makes sense because Jesus Christ is actually in this movie … well, at least H. B. Warner is, and he’d played Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 King of Kings. Then we get to a New York skyline and a newspaper clipping announcing the upcoming execution of Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne), who “yesterday confessed she killed each of her three lovers after a riotous orgy in her sensuous Greenwich Village apartment” — prose that if nothing else marks Supernatural as a product of the so-called “pre-Code” era. Rogen (whose name is pronounced with a soft “g,” by the way) wants as her last request to see her previous lover, spiritualist Dr. Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart, a superb character villain whose two best roles were this one and as the notorious blackmailer Thaddeus Merridew in the Sherlock Holmes film A Study in Scarlet, made immediately afterwards), who apparently had an affair with Rogen, only it ended badly and soured her on all men, leading to the killings for which she’s about to be put to death. The film is clearly set in the 1933 present, but when Victor Halperin takes us to Dr. Bavian’s abode we seem to have suddenly jumped back in time to the 1890’s — the streets are cobblestone, the only vehicles are horse-drawn, and Bavian himself is living in a ratty little boarding house run by the slatternly, drunken Madame Gourjian (Beryl Mercer in a much less gimmicky performance than she usually gave), who in one scene refers to the cockroaches inhabiting her rooms (if there’s another 1933 movie that gives you extreme close-ups of cockroaches, I don’t know what it is) as “my pets” and tries to swat one with her gin bottle, breaking it and forcing her frantically to look for another container in which she can pour what’s left of its contents.

Then we cut to the funeral home where John Courtney (who’s dead at the outset of the story but is shown physically enough — through a still photo and a recording of his voice — the Halperins needed an actor, Lyman Williams, to play him) is lying in state after having died mysteriously at age 24. (At first I thought he might have been one of Ruth Rogen’s victims, but he wasn’t, though the screenwriters — Garnett Weston, Harvey Thew and Brian Marlow — never quite explain how he did die.) Dr. Bavian sneaks into the deserted viewing room with plaster to take a death mask of him as part of a plot to swindle his twin sister Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard, top-billed and delivering a superb performance that indicates the screen lost a potentially great dramatic actress when the blockbuster success of the 1934 film Twentieth Century led her to concentrate on screwball comedy), though just what he intends to do with her and how he hopes to gain by it remain powerfully ambiguous. We see Roma playing a homemade record she and John made, and we see their dog fetch John’s slipper — the dog is obviously still scenting John’s aroma and doesn’t realize he’s dead — though Roma herself is clearly so overcome by the loss of her brother (and her twin, at that!) that she’s doing little but wearing black and moping around the house. It’s established through yet another newspaper clipping that the Courtneys were multimillionaires and Roma is now the sole heir to the family fortune (presumably their parents were already dead), though the money is being managed by the family attorney, Hammond (former silent-screen star William Farnum). Also on the scene at the Courtney mansion is Dr. Carl Houston (H. B. Warner), who — fittingly given that in his most famous previous role he was crucified and then resurrected — is convinced that not only do the dead remain alive in some other plane of existence, they can return to influence the living, and in particular dead criminals can return to influence living persons to commit copycat crimes. To prevent Ruth Rogen from doing this, he requests that he be given her body after her execution — for which he has to get her approval, which she gives after a nice peroration in which she repeats that she hates all men and also asks, “What’s in it for me? This isn’t going to do me any good!” (She has a point.)

Alas, after allowing Dr. Bavian to hold two séances and supposedly contact her dead brother — which explains why Bavian sneaked into the funeral home; he needed an accurate reproduction of John Courtney’s face — in which Bavian’s manufactured “ghost” of John Courtney says that the attorney Hammond murdered him (actually Bavian murders both Hammond and his landlady with a trick ring on his finger that emits a poison-tipped needle) — Roma and her boyfriend Grant Wilson (the young Randolph Scott, still a utility player at Paramount who hadn’t yet found his niche in Westerns) go to Dr. Houston’s to ask him if it’s really possible for the dead to communicate with the living. Unfortunately, they arrive at Dr. Houston’s impressive Art Deco digs on the wrong night — he’s doing his experiment on Ruth Rogen, trying to isolate her soul so it can’t get out amongst the living and do more harm. Instead the opposite happens and Rogen’s soul ends up in the body of Roma Courtney, thereby causing her entire nature to change immediately (and making Carole Lombard arguably the first actress to play a multiple personality on screen, a worthy predecessor to Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve and Sally Field in Sybil). Ruth’s soul is determined to kill Bavian for revenge, then leave Roma Courtney’s body and let Roma take the fall — and the two first go to Ruth’s former apartment (where we see plenty of the artworks Ruth made — she was an artist by profession — including a life-sized self-portrait in which Ruth is holding an apple, thereby tying herself in with Eve and the original “bad girl”) and then to the Courtneys’ yacht (which has two smokestacks and looks big enough to cross the Atlantic), where Ruth is on the point of strangling Bavian when Randolph Scott comes to the rescue, climbing the ship’s ropes (and explaining why Victor Halperin felt he needed an action star for the male lead!) and pulling the Rogen-possessed Roma off Bavian in time to save the bad guy’s life — though Bavian meets his end anyway by accidentally hanging himself off the ship’s ropes as he’s trying to flee. One quirk about Supernatural (a movie that seems to be defined by its quirks!) is that in addition to an evil ghost there’s also a good one, the shade of John Courtney, who causes a model ship in the storefront of Rogen’s landlord (George Burr Macannan) to fall over and break, thereby giving Grant and Dr. Houston the clue they need that Roma is on the yacht; and at the end John’s ghost blows through the pages of a magazine until it lights on an cruise ad, signaling to Roma and Grant that they should not only go on the trip to Bermuda Dr. Houston suggested earlier to lighten up her spirits, they should make it their honeymoon.  

Supernatural has its flaws — notably an overly complicated plot the writers have to race through to keep to a 65-minute running time while still taking quite a while to show us how the three plot threads link up — but it’s a stunning movie, brilliantly directed by the uneven but frequently great Victor Halperin. Though most of the technical people (as well as the cast) were Paramount contractees, Halperin brought along Arthur Martinelli, his great cinematographer from White Zombie, and working at a major studio Halperin and Martinelli pushed the camera moves even farther than they had on the earlier (and cheaper) film. Halperin seems to have been the sort of director who never wanted to cut when he could discover characters with his swooping camera instead, and he gets a surprising number of oblique angles into his film. The acting is generally quite good: Lombard superbly delineates the two faces of Roma — moping widow and Rogen-possessed avenging sex kitten — and Dinehart is appropriately slimy, though through part of the film I must confess I was wondering how it might have been different if Halperin had cast Bela Lugosi in the role. Not only had Lugosi been excellent as the fake medium in the 1931 Charlie Chan film The Black Camel, he also had a surprisingly romantic streak (showcased mainly in a film from the next year, The Return of Chandu) and he might have been more able to make Ruth Rogen’s twisted attraction to Bavian believable than Dinehart was. Nonetheless, the film is well acted throughout — Beryl Mercer’s character seems to have stepped in from a James Whale film (though she also anticipates the drunken landlady Raymond Chandler created in Farewell, My Lovely seven years later and Esther Howard brought vividly to life in the second and best film of it, Murder, My Sweet) and Randolph Scott is O.K. in a pretty thankless role (but then that could be said of just about all his non-Westerns; when he climbs the ropes on the yacht to get to Carole Lombard before she can kill Alan Dinehart you think, “Now I know why they wanted an action star to play her boyfriend!”). Carlos Clarens, whose book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film was key to the rediscovery of White Zombie and its attaining classic status, wrote off Supernatural as “only moderately effective,” but on its own terms — it’s as much a psychological thriller as a supernatural horror film — it’s fascinating and welcome as the only time in the sound era the Halperins got to work at a major studio.