Universal’s monster movies may be slow and theatrical. But just as today’s White Claw guzzler is tomorrow’s finicky martini sipper, the darkness and stillness of these films will one day lure new fans away from gory pop-ups. On the screen of the nearly century-old Stanford Theater, they still have the power of nightmares.
William Henry Pratt was a kindly British gent. The mists of German Expressionism, chased away by the Nazis, coalesced in Hollywood and shrouded Pratt. He took on the stage name Boris Karloff and created some of cinema’s most uncanny, undead characters. Mummy (1932), and the Lurch-like butler in 1932’s The Old Dark House (the model for the Addams Family) were famous roles. But Karloff’s signature piece was Frankenstein (1931). In closeup, Frankenstein’s monster is still startling; one thrills at the emptiness of this creature’s gaze, this snarling, unpredictable animal.
In the dark-humored sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Frank had even come around a little, having learned about himself and this cruel world. Bride is a thoroughly modern filmas in the ultimate unveiling of the bride (Elsa Lanchaster) with her lightning-styled perm. The shot might as well be David Cronenberg: the way she twitches, birdlike, before a camera that studies her scars as pitilessly as an insurance investigator recording injuries for a claim.
Dracula (1931) is stilted, and Tod Browning’s camera is nailed to the stage. But of course the Count (Bela Lugosi) is slowhe’s planning to be around for eternity. Lugosi throbs with the power of the role that stayed with him until the bitter end. Once you play Drac, you never come back. Also startling: the grim chess game between Karloff and Lugosi in Edgar Ulmer’s amazing The Black Cat (1934), the most German Expressionist of all of Universal’s horrors, suggesting the 1914-18 war as the ultimate evil, a source of diabolical energy waiting to be channeled by ruthless intelligences.
Counterpointing domestic terror with the Transylvanian variety are a series of 1931-35 melos from Universal, at that time the darkest studio in Hollywood. The word “melodrama” used to mean drama with songs, but it soon meant cheap fictions: the theater of unearned emotions, as they say. The plots of sudden ruin and misfortune may seem unreasonable, but ask a poor person what they think of the stories’ believability.
The pre-code Waterloo Bridge (1931) was remade with MGM gloss later, starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. Far from sobbing drama, the dialogue here is so fast it’s like a hardboiled detective mystery. Mae Clarke is Myra, an American dancer stuck in London for the duration of WWI. After she’s crossed the wobbly line between chorus girl and harlot, she encounters Roy (Douglass Montgomery), a 19-year-old soldier on the whore-stroll of Waterloo Bridge. The boy is so sheltered he doesn’t realize her line of work. It’s remarkable how little weeping pathos comes from the revelation. As happens during wartime, the soap is rationed. Director Frank Whale is sophisticated but never leering about the girls who go to their assignations via doors leading to the rooftop, as if they were cats. He even finds amusing piquancy in Roy’s family, English country manor types, one of whom is a shrewd little sister played by Bette Davis. Whale harmonizes the tragic lives of working girls and soldiers. The equation works because of his backdrops of a world out of balance, of searchlights and bombers and barrage balloons. The horrors of the young 20th century rewrite all the social rules.
Political unrest is the subtext of Frank Borzage’s Little Man, What Now? (1934), an affecting tale of a struggling married couple in Weimar, Germany, caught between the Communists and the Nazis. A clerk (Montgomery again) is tormented at his job by his forkbearded, shaven-headed Prussian boss, who is pressuring him to marry his dull daughter; the picked-on clerk must conceal his marriage to his pregnant “Lammchen” (Margaret Sullavan). The throaty voiced, delicate Sullavan also turns up in the Preston Sturges-scripted The Good Fairy (1935) about an idealistic theater usherette who accepts a fateful gift of a “genuine foxine” fur stole. It’s the lone comedy in a well-picked array of rarely revived movies about divorce, prostitution,racism and graveyard robbery. Scary topics, all.
Universal Pictures 1930-35: Horror and Melodrama
Oct 3-Nov 3
Stanford Theatre, Palo Alto