James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.
Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
“Are we not men?” That question is at the heart of the 1932 Island of Lost Souls (Criterion), the first adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel and (for all the changes from the novel) still the defining one. It’s also been the hardest to see. Though it was released on VHS and on laserdisc, it rarely showed on TV or cable and its arrival on DVD comes decades after the classic horrors of the thirties — “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “Freaks,” “The Mummy,” “The Black Cat” and so on — have been released. As a result it’s more known about than seen, more often a footnote in conversations about the early days of horror, when in fact it’s one of the most transgressive films of its era.
Charles Laughton enters the film as Dr. Moreau in the white linen suit of a plantation owner or a southern slaver. Once he cracks his ever-present whip to send the “natives” scurrying in fear, the resemblance is sealed, but that’s just the beginning of his brutal identity.
“Do you know what it means to feel like God?” he boasts, but he’s more a demon in the devil’s workshop transforming beasts into human-like creatures. Whether they are men is an open question, but they certainly aspire to manhood in their creation of community and adherence to laws. Whether Dr. Moreau, a vivisectionist who seems to enjoy the pain he inflicts, has sacrificed his humanity is more to the point.
The 1935 version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton, is still considered the greatest screen version of the classic novel. My essay on the film and its production is now running at Turner Classic Movies online.
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s novel of crime and punishment and justice, has been filmed numerous times in and outside of Hollywood, but the most respected and revered screen adaptation remains the 1935 film produced by Darryl Zanuck for 20th Century Pictures (before it merged with Fox) and released by United Artists. The epic story of Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to hard labor for a minor crime and hounded for the rest of his life when he attempts to escape the brand of criminal in a rehabilitated life under a new name, is condensed into a three act film (separated by intertitles that serve the function of stage curtains bringing the act to a close) and designed as a dramatic duel for two Oscar®-winning actors.
Before he became a film director in Hollywood, Russian émigré Richard Boleslawski had been a director of the Moscow Art Theatre. He toured America with his company and remained in the United States to found the American Laboratory Theatre, introducing the Stanislavsky Method to the country years before drama coach Lee Strasberg and The Actor’s Studio made it famous. There’s little of that method in most of the performances, which play out in the familiar Hollywood style apart from Laughton’s performance, which is so repressed and tightly wound. The contrast between the emotional intensity of March’s performance and the suppressed and understated performance by Laughton (where the intensity is all internal) gives their duel its defining dynamic.
Les Miserables plays on Turner Classic Movies on August 24, and again in September and October. Read the entire feature on TCM here.
Charles Laughton is the star of the month on Turner Classic Movies in November. I write about The Private Life of Henry VIII, his first major starring film role and the film that earned him his Oscar for Best Actor, for TCM:
The Private Life of Henry VIII
Alexander’s Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) is unanimously cited as the film that first defined British cinema in the sound era. It treated a quintessentially British subject – the reign of the colorful and quite probably mad King Henry VIII – with both elegance and humor, gave it an illusion of grand production values and produced and released it with a mix of high culture and popular showmanship. It starred Charles Laughton, the acclaimed British stage actor who was making a name for himself in Hollywood with flamboyant performances in The Sign of the Cross and Island of Lost Souls (both in 1932). With an eye toward the international market, Korda premiered the film at Radio City Music Hall in New York City a month before it opened in London and ballyhooed it into a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Private Life of Henry VIII is a choppy, uneven film, to say the least. Even biographer Michael Korda (nephew of Alex and son of Vincent) wrote that the film had “no central vision behind it.” It came together out of opportunity and necessity. Popular legend has it that Korda hit upon the subject when he heard a London cabbie singing the tune, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” It makes for a great story and it may even be true, at least to the extent that hearing the humorous music hall hit reminded Korda of how the monstrous king had been embraced as a colorful comic figure by the populace. But the truth is that Korda had been looking for a subject that was distinctively British, dramatically dignified yet with risqué opportunities, and, most importantly, could be built around Charles Laughton, who Korda had befriended during his Hollywood years. Korda had already made one “Private Life” film in Hollywood (the 1927 silent film The Private Life of Helen of Troy) and was partial to historical subjects, as much for the opportunities for spectacle as for the innate prestige. The fact that Laughton resembled the famous Hans Holbein portraits of the king made it an ideal project. Laughton’s rotund, hearty Henry, bouncing between thoughtful statesman and tyrannical man-child, became the definitive screen portrait of the childish tyrant king.
I have a couple of new film essays on Turner Classic Movies for features playing this month. Up first is the David Lean comedy Hobson’s Choice(1954):
Charles Laughton stars as the blustery Henry Hobson, a widower with a thriving business in boots and shoes and three daughters who work his shop without wages. Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales) are young, pretty, empty-headed things with flirtatious natures who are actively courted by the sons of local businessmen. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest, runs the shop and the home with hardheaded practicality. When Hobson dismisses Maggie’s desire for a husband, branding her an old maid (at the age of thirty) and sentencing her to a life looking after him and running his shop, she rebels against his blithe tyranny and takes her future into her own hands. She sets out to remake her life and embark on her own business, one in direct competition to her father’s boot shop. She also lets no man dissuade her otherwise, neither her father or the timorous Willie Mossop (John Mills), the shop’s brilliant boot-maker and partner in her plan, whether he knows it or not. “My brains and your talent will make a working partnership,” she promises, and proceeds to build his confidence, draw out his potential, and inspire his ambition. Along the way, she finds his way into his affections and reveals her own, and in the final act, offers Henry Hobson the “Hobson choice” that gives the film its title.