Thursday, October 4, 2018

Monsterpiece Theater: Universal Monster Mash- The Silent Era

by Rustbelt

I was working at my computer, late one night...
Searching for a theme that seemed just about right.
Hammer, slasher, modern, nothing was a rise...
Then, suddenly, I remembered and quickly realized...

To do the mash
Let’s do the monster mash
The monster mash
It’ll be a graveyard smash
Let’s do the mash
The Universal Monster Mash!
All right everyone, it’s the Haunting Season again! And that means another season of Monsterpiece Theater! Now, I know last year’s theme (Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee movies), was a little bit niche. In this business, you gotta take risks. Some work out, some don’t. So, this year I decided to go with a better-known theme: The Monsters of Universal Studios! Dracula, Frankenstein (and his Monster), Mummies, Wolf Men, the Phantom... let's begin!

A Brief History of Universal Studios

Universal’s origin starts not in California, but in Chicago. It was in the Windy City where, in 1906, German immigrant Carl Laemmle quit his job as a bookkeeper for a clothing company and opened one of the city’s first movie theaters, (better known as ‘nickelodeons,’ because tickets only cost five cents). He soon ran afoul of the Motion Picture Patents Company, Thomas Edison’s trust that controlled the distribution of films and manufacture of film equipment. It seems Carl was showing films made by independent filmmakers and advertising the films’ main actors, gaining their support and single-handedly inventing the ‘movie star.’ A few years later, he moved to the New York area, intending to make his own movies.

Once in New York, Laemmle and other renegade theater owners formed the Independent Moving Pictures Company. Eventually, this team and other eager filmmakers got together and formally founded Universal Studios on April 30, 1912 in New York City. Laemmle was named president. Eager to keep his monopoly, Edison fought back. Having invented or bought the patents to all equipment needed to make or project movies, he filed endless lawsuits to shut down his competitors. This resulted in Universal following other film companies and moving to the Los Angeles area. Not only did the communication methods of the time- letters, telegraph, train, etc.- make it hard for Edison to coordinate his lawsuits, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, (which covers L.A.), was known for not adhering to patent laws as rigidly as the courts in the East. Regardless, Edison’s scheming came to an end in 1915 when the Supreme Court found MPPC to be in violation of both the Sherman and Clayton Anti-Trust Acts. Film studios were now free to make movies at will.

But something was missing at Universal. Though Laemmle had his filmmaking freedom, his studio was in chaos. Enter the boy genius. Irving Thalberg was just barely over twenty when he became Laemmle’s personal secretary at Universal’s New York office. Laemmle then took Thalberg to the Hollywood campus and, after listening to Thalberg’s appraisal of the place, made him studio manager on the spot. Thalberg quickly remade the filmmaking process. He instituted the pre-screening of scripts, itemized budgets before filming, shooting schedules, and test audiences, among other things. (Though sometimes criticized for stifling creativity today, these processes truly helped improve the quality and profitability of films.) He even took Laemmle’s promotion of ‘stars’ to new levels, having them look classy, glamorous, and heavily promoted in public. His incredible understanding of both the business and artistic sides of film helped Universal reach new heights in the early silent era.
Another of Thalberg’s innovations was to make grand films based on classic literature. And that’s where this weeks’ films begin!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Universal, 1923)

Plot: (Briefly summarize a freakin’ Victor Hugo story? Well, I’ll try.) In 1482, a love triangle develops during the Festival of Fools, as both the virtuous Captain of the Guards Phoebus (Norman Kerry) and the vile Jehan (brother of Dom Claude, the kind arch-deacon of Notre Dame Cathedral) pine for the gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller). Jehan tries to kidnap her with the help of the hunchbacked Quasimodo (Lon Chaney), but fails when Phoebus himself catches them in the act. Jehan (Brandon Hurst) escapes, but Quasimodo is captured. Quasimodo, (who is deaf and half-blind), is tried and ordered to be tortured for his behavior before the court. At the scene of his lashing, Esmeralda brings him water to ease the pain before Dom Claude arrives and brings him down. Meanwhile, Phoebus woos Esmeralda, bringing her to a noble gala that is broken up when her stepfather Clopin- the leader of the Paris underworld- crashes the party. The lovers meet again at Notre Dame where Jehan sneaks in and stabs Phoebus. Esmeralda is caught at the scene and tried for Phoebus’ apparent murder. (He actually survives.)

Not long after, on the day of Esmerald’s scheduled execution in front of the cathedral, she is rescued by Quasimodo and given sanctuary within Notre Dame. Clopin then leads his army- a Torches-and-Pitchfork mob of thieves- into Paris, to bring down the aristocracy and retrieve his step-daughter from the cathedral. Quasimodo holds them off by tossing construction material on the mob before Phoebus and his soldiers arrive. Inside, Jehan tries to catch Esmeralda, but is stopped by Quasimodo, who is stabbed. After Esmeralda and Phoebus walk off safely, Quasimodo rings the bells once last time as he dies in front of Dom Claude.

Thoughts and Background: When I made a list of the films for this article, this was the film I was least familiar with. Needless to say, I went in expecting just another silent film and ran headlong into a true classic. Honestly, this film left me at a loss for words. Everything about this movie is on a truly epic scale. (I honestly didn’t think films were made like this for at least another decade.) The sets are massive, built to the actual scale of 15th-century Paris. The film also used literally hundreds of extras for the massive crowd scenes. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the costuming and other period props.

There also seems to be controversy over how this film came about. The long-held story is that Thalberg convinced Laemmle to make the film by promising to script it as a love story. The other is that Lon Chaney himself bought up the rights and gave himself almost total control as an uncredited producer over the film. Regardless, this film is truly amazing. The characters are all well-acted, actually overcoming the production values. (Not an easy feat for this film.)

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo: Chaney, one of Hollywood’s original megastars, was also an incredible makeup artist in addition to being a gifted actor. For Quasimodo, he used a knotted wig, facial putty, a contact lens, false teeth, a leg brace, and a plaster hump that weight somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds.
But this was just the costume. Chaney’s true gift wasn’t in ‘looking’ like the character, but in allowing his acting to shine through the costume. With only a few facial movements, he’s able to portray curiosity, betrayal, pain, anguish, shock, hope, and caring. The film’s most famous scene, where Quasimodo is lashed on the scaffold, is a hard scene to watch. Chaney’s reactions as his character is shackled and then stripped- thus baring his deformities and humiliating him before the heart of Paris- are gut-wrenching until Esmeralda arrives to offer him kindness and his reaction is of shock and gratitude. His later devotion also makes his death scene difficult. As he’s dying, he’s forced to watch the only woman he cared for walk off with another man and he almost dies alone. Yet, the expression on his face as the arch deacon arrives is one of peace. We feel for him. We feel we knew him. At least I did. It took a while to type this because Chaney’s performance haunted me for several days. I just couldn’t get it our of my head. Maybe it’s because it was so well-written. Well, yes. But perhaps, maybe, that of all the characters Chaney played throughout his career, Quasimodo was the most human. (FULL MOVIE)

The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1925)

Plot: As a new production of Faust is set to open at the Paris Opera House, the new managers are informed of a strange figure (Lon Chaney) who has been making demands of the production and resides in Box #5 during productions. Rumors of the stranger- known as ‘the Phantom’- run rampant through the opera cast and staff. Apparently, the stranger is demanding that a young performer named Christine DaaĆ© (Mary Philbin) take the main role. Unknown to the managers and Raoul- Christine’s boyfriend- the stranger has been mentoring Christine by speaking through the wall of her dressing room. The managers refuse the Phantom’s demands. He responds by dropping a chandelier on the audience during the next performance and kidnapping Christine. He takes her to his underground lair, revealing that he feels love for her and that she makes him feel complete. He asks her to stay, but warns her not touch his mask. Christine eventually disobeys, pulling off his mask and revealing his skull-like face. To quell his wrath, she promises to dump Raoul and become his forever.

The next night, Christine and Raoul (Norman Kerry, he’s back!) make plans to escape for England, but the Phantom- who the managers learn is an escaped criminal from ‘Devil’s Island’ with genius level intelligence- overhears them. During the next performance, the Phantom kidnaps Christine, with Raoul and Ledoux (Arthur Edmund Carewe)- a French secret policeman- in pursuit. The Phantom traps them in his dungeon and tries to force Christine to play a game of Russian Roulette involving two levers- one that will save Raoul and the other that will blow up the Opera House. Christine convinces the Phantom to spare them, and he relents. At that point, a Torches-and-Pitchforks Mob breaks into the Phantom’s lair and chases him through Paris, where he is cornered at the Seine, thrown in, and drowned.

Thought and Background: This film had a troubled production. The idea started when Csrl Laemmle met author Gaston Leroux, who convinced him to consider his novel for a major film. Laemmle agreed. Once production got underway, Lon Chaney promptly went on an ego trip and clashed endlessly with director Rupert Julian. Poor reviews caused a reshoot. Edward Sedgwick was brought on and remade the film as a sort-of slapstick romantic comedy. This had a terrible test screening. (The audience booed loudly.) Finally, Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber were brought in to make a third cut, which used mostly footage from Julian version. (And you thought Star Wars was saved in editing!) Finally, a decent cut was completed and released.

This film has all the grandeur and epic-ness of Hunchback, but something feels like it’s missing. A lot of the information is conveyed not through title cards, but through letters the characters send to each other. (The surviving prints of this film aren’t very good. This can make the letters hard to read.) The film also suffers from uneven pacing. It feels like it’s taken a Red Bull at the start but slows down considerably after Christine takes off the mask and doesn’t pick up again until the torture scene. I also think I noticed a slight feel of German Expressionism with the use of shadows. This is particularly noticeable when the Phantom- before he’s unmasked- is shown talking to Christine with only his shadow on the wall. (Now, if only the shot didn’t bear a slight resemblance to a certain someone...) It’s still a decent movie, but the production problems really hinder the production.

Lon Chaney as the Phantom: Or...“IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED TO SEE??!” Without a doubt, this is definitely Chaney’s most famous appearance. Unlike later productions of Phantom, which portray Erik (the Phantom’s name) as scarred, here the character keeps his printed page appearance and his face looks like a skull. To achieve this, Chaney pulled his nose back with fish skin, (or a hook apparatus, which apparently caused him severe nosebleeds that delayed production), painted his nostrils and eye sockets black, built up his cheeks with cotton and collodion, glued his ears back, and put on a bald wig. (He added egg membrane on his eyes so they would look ‘cloudy.’) He ‘tested’ the look on cameraman on Charles Van Enger by summoning him to his dressing room and turning around without warning. When Van Enger nearly wet himself (by his admission), tripped over a stool, and fell on his back, Chaney knew the look would work. (Van Enger also said that Mary Philbin was unaware of his appearance and her on-camera shock at seeing him in character- for the actual first time- was genuine.
It’s also worth noting that no pictures, posters, or stills of Chaney were released prior to the film’s premiere. This was to terrify the audiences as much as possible. (Kind of like how Psycho had lobby signs asking moviegoers not to reveal the ending as they left.)
Chaney’s performance is, again, quite good. He’s playing a character similar to Quasimodo- a deformed, misunderstood man. The Phantom, however, disdains the presence of others and lives in a subterranean world. Though refined, he is finished with people in general. And I must confess, it is really hard to like the Phantom in the same way that I felt for Quasimodo. I didn’t mention it in the plot summary, but the Phantom kills several people who get too close to his lair. This combined with the chandelier scene and his treatment of Christine, Raoul, and Ledoux, makes it harder to sympathize with him. I was left with a feeling that he deserved to meet his end in the River Seine. (FULL MOVIE)

And because we just discussed the Phantom and you want to hear it.

The Man Who Laughs (Universal, 1928)

Plot: (Victor Hugo, again?!?! Gimme a break!) In 1680’s England, King James II gets an unexpected gift: his enemy, Lord Clancharlie has been captured. The King has his enemy killed in the Iron Maiden (called “the Iron Lady” in the film), only after telling the unfortunate ex-Lord that his son was sent to a gypsy surgeon who carved a permanent grin on his face so he could forever laugh at his fool of a father. The boy, Gwynplaine, is abandoned by the gypsies when the king exiles them and is taken in- along with a baby he found in the snow- by the trickster Ursus (Cesare Gravina). The film jumps ahead years later, where Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) is all grown up and he, Ursus, and the blind Dea (the baby he rescued earlier), have created a successful traveling carnival show- The Laughing man- based on his face. Here, things get complicated. Bear with me.

Through a series of events, Barkilphedro- James II’s former jester who schemed his way into power under Queen Anne- discovers Gwynplaine’s heritage and plots to use it to humiliate Duchess Josiana, who originally received Clancharlie’s wealth and position. Gwynplaine continues to perform while trying to reconcile his face and his love for Dea.

Later, (after Gwynplaine meets Josiana due to the latter’s curiosity in him), sentries from the Queen take Gwynplaine to make him into a Peer, as per his birthright. Gwynplaine’s companions, wrongly believing he was executed, fall into despair and are ordered to leave England. Once in the House of Lords, Gwynplaine rebukes them when they laugh at him. He escapes and is followed by a Torches-and-Pitchforks mob to the docks where he meets the others and they sail away for the safety of Parts Unknown (France?).

Thoughts and Background: As you can probably tell from the summary, I wasn’t as enthralled by this film as I was by the prior two. Granted, the production values are still quite high. The period costumes are quite good. And…wait. I need to mention something. Everyone is in period dress except Duchess Josiana. Her outfits are a Renaissance/1920’s hybrid. Not only that, there’s a scene where Barkilphedro (God, I beg Thee, please don’t make me write this name too much), entices a messenger to peer through a keyhole at her and we get a full bareback shot of her in a tub! Yowza! I guess we can conclude the Production Code is still a few years off! Another thing I noticed is how all the sets look like sound stages. Elaborate, but lacking the epic-ness of Hunchback or Phantom. It’s prescient of the look that will come to define Universal’s ‘Monster Look’ in years to come. Heck, we even get our first look at the iconic Universal plane-flying-around-globe intro screen that will the studio’s trademark for decades.
But my real gripes here are with the story. Was it the screenplay? Or was all this just courtesy of the original social justice warrior himself, Victor Hugo? (What, didn’t you think the ending of Hunchback was actually the French Revolution trans-placed 300 years earlier?) Yes, I know he was trying to champion the plight of the poorer classes and outcasts of society. But I have a few questions. Namely, what did Barko... Baril... Barkimus... the Evil Jester hope to gain out of seeing Gwynplaine receive his rightful inheritance as a Lord? What was the purpose of Gwynplaine’s companions being exiled? Why did Gwynplaine become a fugitive for refusing his seat in the Lords? Why was the Torches-and-Pitchforks Club here working on the side of the aristocracy? And... I’ll just stop here.

Watching this film was a trial. At 1 hour, 51 minutes, it was too long. It felt slow and padded and was a chore to sit through. Meh.
Conrad Veidt as The Man Who Laughs (Gwynplaine): The procedure for Veidt’s look in this film might have drawn the attention of the Geneva Convention today. Basically, newly-minted Universal makeup boss Jack Pierce (a former dentist!) fitted Veidt with dentures containing hooks that pulled his face back and into the correct position. I can only imagine that Veidt could only act for short periods before the pain became unbearable.

Again, this character is similar to Quasimodo. But something is missing. Whereas Quasimodo is seen in several states- a lackey, a torture victim, praying, heroic, tragic, victorious (in his own way)- we only see Gwynplaine whine about his condition. Seriously, he does it in his first scene and in every scene thereafter. He often says- through the title cards- how he longs for people to see past his face and glimpse who he really is. (I guess that makes it the first movie to actually spell out its message for the audience.) This still might work if only he didn’t do it every single scene. Show. Don’t Tell.
Don’t get me wrong. Veidt tries really hard, showing tears, agony, and even joy with his eyes. But unlike Chaney in Hunchback, it’s really not enough to overcome the makeup the movie is hedging its bets on. (FULL MOVIE)

Wait a Minute: There’s something else I should mention about The Man Who Laughs. It seems that (roughly) when this film came out, a young lad- we’ll call him Robert K- was in an audience watching the show. Years later, Robert K had become an artist working on stuff in the cartoon section of the Sunday paper. He and his coworker- we’ll call him William F- needed to come up with a new no-good-nick for their hero to face. Suddenly, Robert K remembered watching Gwynplaine in the theater back when he was a kid. The two conceived of the idea of a creepy clown and the rest, as they say, is history.

Hm, let’s see... pale complexion; expressive eyes; clown theme; hideous, permanent grin. Now, who could that be? Could it be…?

Note: Yes, nerds. I am well aware of Jerry Robinson’s claim that he invented/co-invented the Ace of Knaves. That’s a different subject for a different article. For now, we’re sticking with Bob Kane’s official version of events AND THAT’S FINAL!


tryanmax said...

Thanks for the full movie links. I'll have to do some watching this weekend. I also found (from a different youtuber) The Man Who Laughs:

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the article, Rustbelt! That's interesting about The Man Who Laughs and the Joker. They really are amazingly similar, aren't they?

wulfscott said...

I had read that about The Man Who Laughs, and yes, the resemblance is there. Even the hairstyle is similar.
I really liked Veidt as Major Strasser, he played a good movie villain.
Hunchback sounds like a good movie, I'll have to watch that.

Rustbelt said...

Sorry about the lateness everyone. I was traveling today.

You're welcome, tryanmax. I'll have to check out your link, later.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, my pleasure.
I first became aware of the connection when I saw a documentary on Batman when I was a kid. But I forgot the name of the movie for a while.
Here's another interesting fact. I remember reading that Lon Chaney Jr was once asked about what was the scariest thing he could see if someone rang his doorbell in the middle of the night and he answered it, finding someone standing there. He said, "a clown. Because you never know who's behind that funny face."
Good insight.
And, yeah. The similarity is uncanny.

Rustbelt said...


I like Veidt as an actor. For me, it comes down to his role and movie selection. Obviously, Casablanca was a better film (and role). Strong characters. Strong story. Man Who Laughs does everything it can to be arty and forces the meaningfulness. That kept me from enjoying it.
Hunchback is a very good movie. I highly recommend it.

wulfscott said...

I'll look for Hunchback. Silent films get overlooked because the lack of sound (dialogue, soundtrack, and ambient sounds) and the filming conventions make for a very different experience than what we're used to. TCM has shown silent films from time to time, but I imagine they do so with trepidation, from fear of losing their audience.

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