A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Horror, The Horror

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)
Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye in Dracula
Count Dracula: Bela Lugosi
Mina: Helen Chandler
John Harker: David Manners
Renfield: Dwight Frye
Van Helsing: Edward Van Sloan
Dr. Seward: Herbert Bunston
Lucy: Frances Dade

Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Garrett Fort
Based on a play by Hamilton Dean and John L. Balderston adapted from a novel by Bram Stoker
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Production design: John Hoffman, Herman Rosse
Film editing: Milton Carruth

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
Dwight Frye, Colin Clive, and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein
Henry Frankenstein: Colin Clive
Elizabeth: Mae Clarke
Victor Moritz: John Boles
The Monster: Boris Karloff
Baron Frankenstein: Frederick Kerr
Fritz: Dwight Frye
Dr. Waldman: Edward Van Sloan
The Burgomaster: Lionel Belmore
Little Maria: Marilyn Harris

Director: James Whale
Screenplay: Garrett Fort, Francis Edward Faragoh
Based on a story treatment by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling adapted from a novel by Mary Shelley
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art direction: Charles D. Hall
Film editing: Clarence Kolster
Music: Bernhard Kaun

Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein have a lot in common. Both were based on stage plays adapted from celebrated novels; together they established the Universal studios as specialists in horror movies, the way gangster movies seemed to characterize Warner Bros. and musicals became identified as an MGM specialty; both launched the careers of actors known almost exclusively for their roles as monsters -- a millstone around the neck of the very talented Boris Karloff, an alternate identity for the less-gifted Bela Lugosi. There are some other incidental similarities: Both feature performances by Dwight Frye, a rather ordinary looking character actor who became a specialist in creep roles. In Dracula he's the vampire's stooge, Renfield, marked by a wheezing laugh that sounds like a cat trying to heave up a hairball. In Frankenstein he's the hunchbacked Fritz, stooge to the titular scientist. Both feature Edward Van Sloan as professorial types: the vampire expert Van Helsing and the ill-fated Dr. Waldman. Both have ingenues preyed upon by the monsters and handsome juveniles who try to be their stalwart defenders but mostly just get in the way. But Frankenstein is by far the better film than Dracula. It may be that James Whale was a more gifted director than Tod Browning, although Browning had a long career in silent films. including some standout Lon Chaney features, before Whale made his mark in Hollywood. Or it may just be that Dracula was made first, so that everyone working on Frankenstein could learn from its mistakes. Browning, I think, hadn't quite gotten used to making talkies, so that the pacing of Dracula is off: Scenes and speeches seem to halt a little longer than they need to. Dracula also betrays its origins on the stage more than Frankenstein. Apart from the spectacle of the storm at sea, there's little in Dracula that couldn't have been put on stage, whereas Frankenstein is loaded with spectacle: the opening funeral and grave-robbing scene; the sparking and flashing laboratory equipment and the thunderstorm; the murder of Little Maria; the torch-bearing villagers and the burning of the old mill. One thing they don't have much of is actual scary stuff, especially as compared to today's blood-and-gore horror movies. To contemporary audiences, Dracula and Frankenstein seem bloodless and gutless, and Dracula in particular has been deprived of its shock value by Lugosi's lack of sex appeal -- vampirism is a sexual threat, given its preoccupation with the exchange of bodily fluids, which is why vampires have gotten hotter over the years. The monster in Frankenstein on the other hand elicits sympathy: It's alone in a world it never made, which is why some think Whale, a gay man, betrays an identification with the character.  

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