Monday, November 10, 2008

The Mummy (USA, 1932)

(Spoilers.) Born in 1890 in Bohemia, Karl Freund had a long career as a cinematographer, ending in 1956, some 13 years before his death in Santa Monica in 1969. The man behind the camera for such German silent classics as Wegener's The Golem (1920), Murnue's Der Letzte Man / The Last Laugh (1924), Dupont's Varieté (1925) and Lang's Metropolis (1927), as well as both cinematographer and scriptwriter for Walter Ruttmann's inventive masterpiece of visuals Berlin, Symphony for a Big City (1927), Freund can be seriously viewed as a seminal influence in the way films were and are made.
Upon his eventual immigration to the USA, Freund's talent was put to use in such films as Browning's (overrated) Dracula (1931 / trailer), Zinnemann's The Seventh Cross (1944), Huston's Key Largo (1948 / trailer) and numerous other movies, duds to classics and all. That, throughout the years in which Freund was active in the business, he only won one Oscar (for—SURPRISE!!!—cinematography in 1937 with The Good Earth) reveals that even back then Hollywood had trouble recognizing real talent. (That he never won a Lifetime Achievement Award probably has to do with that old Hollywood prejudice against television, where Freund spent the twilight of his life, lastly as the Head Cinematographer for The I Love Lucy Show.) Still, somewhere along the way, for the brief span of three years, someone of power saw enough talent in Freund to allow him to direct a total of eight films, mostly second rate, but bookended by two high classics, The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935), the latter an entertaining Peter Lorre vehicle and remake of The Hands of Orlac (1924 / trailer). Starring Boris Karloff (born William Henry Pratt in 1887 in London), The Mummy is another one of those classic Universal horror films that almost everyone (in the US, at least) has seen as a child on some afternoon local TV creature feature show, thereafter forever fondly remembered but most likely never viewed anew. Regrettably so, for the film is a beautifully filmed masterpiece that deserves repeat viewing: it is truly a breed far apart from all the later variations, remakes, sequels and bastardizations. Keep in mind that this film has less to do with any later namesakes than it does with the silent films still being made as little as four years before; especially the flashback scenes of ancient Egypt display an obvious reference to silent films, filmed and staged in exactly the same artificial, obviously studio-bound manner they were done in the early movies of Leni, Wegener and Lang. The scares are relatively few, the special effects little more than mechanization, acting, lighting, and excellent make-up (by Jack Pierce), the dated script heavy on talk and quaintly funny at times, the narrative thicker on atmosphere than action. Closer to cinematic art than a horror movie, Freund's The Mummy won't take your breath away with manic thrills, but it will satisfy your visual pallet much like a good Rioja Reserva satisfies that of your tongue. The actual mummy itself, in its famed bandage-rapped form, is seen for less than 15 minutes; mere moments actually involve it moving. For most of the film, the "mummy" is seen only as aged Egyptian Ardath Bey, played by Boris Karloff, whose exceptionally perfect diction is equal only to his powerful screen presence.
The Mummy begins in 1921 Egypt at the archaeological site of Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), where the 3,500-year-old grave of Im-Ho-Tep has been discovered, along with sacred Scroll of Thoth. While Sir Joseph discusses the rights and wrongs of the discovery outside with a colleague, his helper unwittingly revives the mummy while transcribing the text of the scroll. Sir Joseph's assistant is driven mad by the experience, the mummy and scroll gone. Ten years later, Sir Joseph's son Frank Whemple (David Manners) is in the midst of breaking down his own unsuccessful archaeological dig when the mysterious Ardeth Bey turns up and, before mysteriously disappearing, helps Frank make a sensational find: that of the undisturbed grave of an ancient Egyptian Princess. Later, in Cairo, Ardeth Bey attempts to use the Scroll of Thoth to revive his long dead love, the princess (the very same sacrilegious act that originally cost him his life some 3,500 years earlier). He comes to realize that his love has been reincarnated in the form of Helen Grosvner (Zita Johann) and, after killing Sir Joseph, takes her prisoner. He plans to kill her so that they may be eternally reunited in death. Unlike in most other films of this ilk, Helen and the other "good guys" are saved only by the last minute intervention of Isis, the ancient Egyptian Goddess. 
Truth be told, the visual direction and Boris Karloff are the strongest aspects of this movie, although the intentional humor of the dialogue is so unbelievable that it must be enjoyed, such as Zita Johann's zinger of a question (to Frank) "Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?" and Sir Joseph's assistant's wonderful conjuncture about why Im-Ho-Tep was buried alive: "Maybe he got too gay with the vestal virgins in the temple." (The humor of the dialogue works better on screen than on paper.) Zita Johann, a mysteriously beautiful starlet with the mandatory terrible posture of the modern woman of that time looks good (if not slightly hunchbacked) in her braless dresses and handles her roll well enough, but Canadian-born David Manners as Frank is as unbearably terrible—as he always was in any film he appeared in. That Manners could have a generation long career as a horror and B movie leading man back in the 1930s is un-understandable today, as is the fact that as Jonathan Harker in Dracula (1931) he was paid $2,000 to Bela Lugosi’s $500.
Zita Johann never had such luck. Born in Romania in 1904, she died of pneumonia in Nyack, New York on September 20th, 1993. In between, she appeared in few other films, there being—according to my sources—52 year time span between her last, the atrocious Raiders of the Living Dead (1986 / credit sequence) and her second to last, Grand Canary (1934). Though successful on Broadway, her only other film of any real note is perhaps the bizarre oddity The Sin of Nora Moran (1933), re-released in a colorized version in the 1980s as Voice from the Grave.

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