Archive for May, 2012

The Stars, Our Destination: Revisiting Things To Come (1936) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 26, 2012 by mchoffman

“Three years to make. A century to live. An eternity to forget.”


Things To Come is one of the most important films in the development of movie science fiction. There were few pure sci-fi films in the 1930s, but Things To Come was one of the first, and it remains one of the best for its relevancy. Besides being a classic of the genre, it’s also one of the finest examples of screen Modernism. Growing up, I would check out the books on science fiction movies, the ones that came out in the 1980s like Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films. I’d always find photos from this highly-regarded film depicting futuristic set designs. One of the most famous examples is the photo of the modern “Everytown”– an underground city with indoor, terraced apartments and glass elevator tubes. But society didn’t have to wait until 2036; by the 1970s, hotels had lobbies that looked like that! Things To Come is also one of the most challenging films to discuss in Screen Deco because its vision is both disturbing and inspirational. It’s a science fiction film that makes us think, and in our age of special effects, how many can do that?


The film is based on the H.G. Wells book The Shape of Things to Come, which is more an essay than a novel. The story was brought to the screen because of Alexander Korda, whose London Films put the British film industry on the map. Wells, who was greatly admired by Korda, contributed to the screenplay by writing four drafts of it. (He had assistance from Lajos Biro.) Wells was a forceful presence on the set during production, although not always to the advantage of the film. Things To Come is a classic not because of Wells and the film’s tendency to hit you over the head with its message, but because of its visuals by designer Vincent Korda, Alexander’s brother. In the book Film Architecture: From Metropolis to Blade Runner, author Dietrich Neumann writes:

“Set designer Vincent Korda’s friend and artist Fernand Leger was asked by Wells to supply the special effects and architectural settings for the film. But Leger’s drawings, reminiscent of his own 1924 film Ballet Mechanique, were not approved by Wells, and the architect Le Corbusier was asked to submit designs. He declined. In the end, Vincent Korda designed the settings himself, adopting some of Le Corbusier’s formal ideas from his book Towards a New Architecture, which had been published in English in 1927. In an attempt to recognize recent advances in avant-garde filmmaking in the movie, the former Bauhaus professor and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was asked by Korda to participate… Moholy-Nagy helped to create the central sequence showing the construction of the new Everytown in 2036. In the editing process, a lot of Moholy’s material was discarded, however. He had not only created abstract sequences of moving geometric patterns to illustrate the profound changes that led to the building of the new city but also designed his own version of a city of the future, consisting of transparent cones and glass-clad skeletal towers.”



Though these abstract and impractical designs were not used, Korda did have a director with an understanding of set design and a flair for strong visuals, William Cameron Menzies. Though he has the directing credit, Menzies was also one of the great art directors of Hollywood, having worked on such silent films as Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad. In the sound era, he made remarkable contributions to fantasy films like Chandu the Magician. By the end of the decade he had earned the title “production designer” for his involvement with David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind. Menzies’ vision—laid out in 3,000 illustrations drawn for the film– was the one constant when all the directors were going through a revolving door.

Menzies also worked on one of the greatest Art Deco films of the 1930s, Reaching For the Moon. As serious drama, this Douglas Fairbanks vehicle is somewhat lacking, but we’re not overly concerned about story construction in Screen Deco. If Reaching For the Moon existed in a decent version on dvd, I would’ve played it in the series. It’s set almost exclusively on an Art Deco ocean liner. And if there is one thing Screen Deco is missing, it’s an Art Deco ocean liner.


Together, Korda and Menzies designed a memorable, though not always realistic, vision of the city of the future. The set design they devised certainly falls into the category of Streamline Moderne with open, well-lit sets suggesting efficiency. Their creation, which fuses art and technology, is a city of stark whiteness with clear glass featured prominently as furniture. In the book Screen Deco, Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers write that “Wells had not really dreamed up an astonishing technology to characterize the future. Consequently, there is a great deal of Art Moderne in the sets: severely utilitarian furnishings in spacious, inornate rooms, using white plaster, Plexiglas, Lucite, glass, and neon.” The Modernism on display is not confined solely to Everytown. It rolls across the screen in the shape of the streamlined tanks. Anything streamlined is associated with the future, and we see this in the designs of the flying wing aircraft as well as in the machinery that re-builds Everytown.

 “As a general rule you may take it that whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here.”  ~ H.G. Wells, 1936


How the movies depicted yesterday’s tomorrow is a fascinating subject unto itself. Of course, one of the greatest of all futurist excursions is Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, Metropolis. It’s a personal favorite of mine, but because it’s screened a lot and is over two hours, I decided to show Things To Come instead. Wells actually intended his movie to be a response to the Fritz Lang film, which he did not like. He saw it as a monstrous vision of the future. Wells was in the minority. But others followed the scheme Lang had laid out. There was a British silent movie in 1929 called High Treason, which was set in 1940 and was heavily influenced by Metropolis. In the United States, Fox released Just Imagine in 1930, which was a science fiction musical comedy set in 1980. It’s a fun movie with a wonderful New York skyline done in miniature. That was about it until Things To Come hit theatres.


The film opens on Christmas, 1940, with life going on in the shadow of war. Raymond Massey stars as John Cabal, a man of reason who gets caught up in the ensuing world conflagration as a pilot. The war rages on over the course of not just years, but decades. The world regresses, and what there is left of society is threatened by a plague known as The Wandering Sickness. By 1970, men like the Boss (Ralph Richardson) are leading the masses by force and swaggering charisma rather than by intellect. He fights on against an enemy now known as the Hill People, and he is resolved to get his fleet of outdated biplanes in the air. Though he challenges the existence of science, he’s not beyond using it for weapons of war. John Cabal returns from out of the sky, much older, and representing law and sanity. He is part of a larger organization of airmen called Wings Over the World, which is determined to “clean up” the mess humanity has made of things.

“We don’t approve of independent sovereign states. We mean to stop them.”

The film has three main sections or arcs, and it is in the last act of 2036 where we see the new city rising beneath the earth; the above world has been returned to nature. Though there are no warlords in this sterile world, there are reactionaries like Theotocupulos (Cedric Hardwicke), who stir up the masses against progress and the rise of the “Space Gun.” Though he, too, questions the role of technology, Theotocupulos uses it to his own advantage. As with the Boss before him, it becomes a wonderful piece of irony.

“If we don’t end war, war will end us.” ~ John Cabal (Raymond Massey)


The audience’s point of reference in all this is Raymond Massey’s John Cabal, although by the time we are in the 21st century, Massey is playing Cabal’s great-grandson, Oswald. Massey is terrific throughout, smug towards the likes of Ralph Richardson yet a sympathetic voice of reason. He actually makes us applaud Wings Over the World—even though today they would be labeled black-clad fascists. Cabal is really the emotional center of the film, and his final speech at the observatory is one of the great moments of science fiction cinema.

Massey was born in Canada and served in the Canadian army during the First World War and later as an instructor for United States officers at Yale University. After his military service, he was drawn to the London stage. Ironically, his first movie role—according to one online database–was in the aforementioned High Treason, a British science fiction film. Some of his films include The Old Dark House, The Prisoner of Zenda, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which he had played on the stage, Arsenic and Old Lace, and A Matter of Life and Death, which starred David Niven. Both he and Niven would die on the same day in 1983.

Playing the Boss (aka the Chief) is Ralph Richardson, later, Sir Ralph Richardson. He was a classically trained English actor best known for his Shakespearian roles on the stage. But beyond his work at the Old Vic Theatre and successes in the West End, he appeared in several classic films such as the British film noir Fallen Idol and William Wyler’s The Heiress. His career spanned into the early 1980s with films like Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits and Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan. Like Massey, he passed away in 1983.


Sir Cedric Hardwicke portrays Theotocupulos, the sculptor who makes a speech against progress and turns the people against Oswald Cabal. His is the voice that dares to cry out, “Halt!” Hardwicke, like Richardson, was one of the great actors of the London stage. He was well known for his performances in works written by George Bernard Shaw. In fact, Shaw once called Hardwicke his “fifth favorite actor after the four Marx Brothers.” Hardwicke also made many memorable films in Hollywood such as the 1935 version of Les Miserables and 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Horror fans will remember him as one of the Frankenstein sons in Ghost of Frankenstein, and my favorite Hardwicke role has to be that of Death in On Borrowed Time. Hardwicke had a distinctive speaking voice, and it’s his voice that narrates 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

But Hardwicke was not the first choice for the role of Theotocupulos. British actor Ernest Thesiger was cast, and a publicity still survives of him speaking to the masses via world television. However, there are conflicting reports as to why he was removed. According to one version, H.G. Wells was not satisfied with his performance. That would’ve been a shame given Wells’ pedestrian understanding of film drama and the fact that Thesiger was a great character actor. The more likely reason was that Thesiger was already committed to playing Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein and had to leave the set of Things To Come before his scenes could be completed.

Ernest Thesiger, who was replaced with Cedric Hardwicke…

Things To Come contains some terrific actors, but it’s not an actors film. It’s a film about ideas, and the actors are only symbols of those ideas. Raymond Massey said of the script, “Every trace of wit, humour and emotion, everything which made the novel so enthralling had been cut and replaced by large gobs of socialist theory.”  The film’s detractors reference its politics, which is a variation of Socialism in that the individual is subverted for the sake of collective unity. However, it differs from Communism in that Wells wasn’t putting the good of society strictly in the hands of the workers– the common people– but rather he entrusted it to the intellectual elite—the engineers, scientists, and airmen. Additionally, the individual is not completely suppressed as he would be under a totalitarian regime. It seems that Oswald Cabal allows the artisan class to exist and express themselves. People apparently still have the right of free speech, as in the case of Theotocupulos, who is allowed to speak to the masses. This would never have been tolerated in a completely oppressive regime. There is this dichotomy at work; Things To Come is both uplifting in its ability to unite us in a common cause and upsetting with its anti-individual theme. For further discussion on the film’s politics and what Wells intended in specific scenes, there is a terrific, in-depth analysis by Dennis Fischer in his chapter on William Cameron Menzies in Science Fiction Film Directors, 1895-1998.

Things to Come may be philosophically naïve in our modern age, but what I admire is the confidence the film has in its convictions. It certainly has its own viewpoint in favor of Progress, but it even offers a differing perspective if you observe what Progress has done to the Everytown of the Boss. “Why was this science ever allowed?” he asks. In his narrow-minded world view, Progress– allowed to grow unchecked– is responsible for the end of the old world order. Also, Theotocupulos, Cabel’s ideological opposite, challenges the direction of mankind and yearns for the old ways before the state took over.

Roxana (Margaretta Scott), the Boss’s mistress…

The costumes of 2036…

Some viewers feel the film is cold and soulless, and perhaps that is a result of its message which goes against our belief structure. We value democratic principles, sovereign nations, nationalism, God-given rights, and the individual self. Take all that away and what are we? But Things To Come has a heart, nevertheless, and you can feel the pulse of humanity right alongside its message. There’s a great scene that comes after a dogfight in the air in which Cabal shoots down an enemy plane. The anti-war dialogue that the dying pilot speaks is unnecessary. We already know it’s ironic that he would give up his gas mask to a little girl whose family he undoubtedly bombed. The point is hammered in, yet it is still a powerful moment. Things To Come shows us the effects of warfare on individuals and families, from the bedside scene of the Cabals as they reflect on bringing children into the world to where we see the deaths from the Wandering Sickness. A pro-human life story such as this could never be considered soulless.

There is a lot of talk in the film, but it never detracts from its cinematic qualities. Its striking camera set-ups and compositions are never dull or static. Lyle Wheeler, who himself was an art director, once said, “When Menzies worked as a director, I used to tell him, ‘You’re no damn good as a director.’ The first thing he would ask for when he came on the set is, ‘Dig me a hole here,’ and that’s where he would put his camera. He wanted to photograph ceilings and didn’t give a damn what the actors were saying.”

Things To Come also features a great film score by Sir Arthur Bliss which creates a rhythm to the storytelling, a rhythm of music with the image. A great example is the opening in which the Christmas scenes are juxtaposed with reminders of impending war. This is also seen during the montage of the new city as it is being erected. It is an epic score designed for a film intended to be an epic prophesy.

Ned Mann directed the special effects. Here are some outstanding examples of the film’s miniatures…


Some of the predictions in Things To Come are way off the mark, such as the Space Gun—complete with bullet space capsule– which seems more like something out of a Jules Verne story than Popular Mechanics. And the idea of a world war raging on for decades is improbable, unless you draw a parallel to the Cold War. But in other ways, Wells was quite prescient and closer to historical fact. The most obvious example is the emergence of World War II. Things To Come, which also anticipates the German blitzkrieg on London, has the war starting on Christmas in 1940, whereas it actually erupted in September, 1939; Wells was off by only 15 months. Additionally, Everytown 2036 is a modern world full of voices expressed through the world television. In a way, this anticipates our Internet culture where there is instant access to people around the world.

Beyond these predictions, one of the most interesting things about Things To Come is that it’s a forerunner of George Miller’s Mad Max films. The early archetype is there on the screen. Civilization has regressed and is being run by societal cast-offs like the Boss. There is no longer gasoline in this burnt-out world. One man proudly shows off his Rolls Royce which is pulled like a carriage by horses. The engine still turns over after so many years of war. Everytown is an almost medieval world where only the strong survive. If the sick wander the streets, they are shot dead.

War comes to London (“Everytown”) on Christmas, 1940…

Things To Come makes us imagine a world faced with decades of decline as a result of generations of warfare. Given such a scenario, why wouldn’t a society embrace Wings Over the World? Good science fiction is the extrapolation of an idea—projecting what something would be like in the future. OK, I don’t see people rising up against NASA any time soon, and maybe we won’t have a Space Gun twenty-four years from now in 2036, but substitute something out of our own timeline and suddenly Things To Come has an even greater relevance. In the 1980s, for example, during the Cold War, the Space Gun of Things To Come could’ve symbolized nuclear armament. Is it so crazy to think that one day, far in the future, men will rebel against whatever modern technologies we will then have?

In the world envisioned by H.G. Wells, a brotherhood of efficiency can solve the ills of society. It’s a bleak, almost frightening world view if taken to the extreme. That might be another of those naïve notions that science can cure all, but it’s an alternative Wells posits—a government of common sense. We are now living in that future, and in a way, it’s just as bleak—only we’re on another spectrum. In our own modern world of 2012, where there is little common sense in society, war and debt and unemployment are the things that hold back progress and drain prosperity. We are trillions of dollars in debt and beholden to foreign countries. Wells’ theories are certainly not the answer to our problems because his ideology is not based on human nature; it’s based on an ideal removed from how the world really works. To take Wells’ views a step further, unemployment would be completely illegal in his  21st century Everytown; the state would provide for all equally.  It’s easy to say all men are equal and all would share in such prosperity, but the reality is that not all perform equally.

And yet, there are pieces of “Wings Over the World” that are attractive, moreso for those who have lost hope in the current system. The most promising idea is that new technology = prosperity. I’d rather trust the engineers and scientists of a third political party in our current system than those who continually represent ignorance and corruption in Washington.


The power of Things To Come is that it makes us dream of these far-off things– that there is more to life than simply getting by with material comforts and everyday living. Our destiny is in the stars, not muddled in the commonplace. Things To Come is about human accomplishment and endeavor, not the base instincts that hold us back. This is the film’s greatest legacy.



Note: The preceding was the text of my lecture on Things To Come. We had 90 patrons on May 24th. Before the film I played the first chapter of Flash Gordon (1936), which features the greatest Art Deco rocketship in the galaxy!



Forever Dancing: A Preview of Swing Time (1936) by annette bochenek

Posted in Uncategorized on May 25, 2012 by mchoffman


Fred and Ginger. Their first names alone sweep our thoughts into images of slender silhouettes—usually a shimmering, ruffled gown, effortlessly whirling around a sharp top hat, white tie, and tails. In other instances they delighted audiences with the vigorous staccato of taps, pounding out a bouncing pick-me-up beat to an audience burdened by Depression-era woes. Whichever you favor, the most famous dance team in cinematic history is bound to entertain you—especially with one of their best films: Swing Time (1936).

Fred and Ginger are Deco. They are the pinnacle of a film era that portrayed the glitz and glamour of a future that never came. After the thriving 1920s, people expected a future of wealth and excess. They were instead greeted by financial disaster and the harsh reality of the Great Depression.

Yet, in the face of Depression came a need for optimism from the entertainment industry. While people were dealing with economic hardships each day, the film studios worked to make their films uplifting—both a diversion and pep talk of sorts—for the struggling citizens that made America tick. Films were not only to be an antidote for reality, but also a method of revitalization for overburdened moviegoers. The movie screen became a means of magic—transporting patrons to a fantastic world of music, love, extravagance, dance, witty quips, beautiful people, and an overwhelming sense of ease and confidence.

Coming from a successful stage career with his sister, Adele, Fred Astaire auditioned for RKO Radio Pictures. His screen test report read, “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also, dances.” While the screen test was discouraging, film producer David O. Selznick contended that Astaire’s charm was worth a try, and Astaire joined RKO.

In his first RKO film, Flying Down to Rio (1933), Astaire proved to be genuinely likeable, with a strong screen presence and potential that was complemented by his incredible dancing ability. Years of stage experience as a performer propelled him into the public eye as a gifted dancer, but with his sister happily retired from dancing, Astaire was pressed for finding a new dance partner.

Hesitant to be part of yet another dance team, Astaire was eventually swayed into the Astaire-Rogers team, as Rogers had appeared with him in Flying Down to Rio. After appearing as a snarky “Anytime Annie” in 42nd Street (1933) and a sardonic Pig Latin-speaking chorus girl in Gold Diggers of 1933, the newly-formed screen partnership moved on to their second film together: The Gay Divorcee (1934).

The repertoire of Astaire-Rogers films increased with Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). The pair would reunite ten years later for MGM’s The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). However, their early films proved to be the most profitable for RKO at the time, with each film boasting its own artistry and inventiveness.


Astaire himself is however responsible for two major advances in the musical. He asserted that dance routines were to be filmed in a single shot, ideally holding the dancers in complete view at all times. This insistence differentiated with the Busby Berkeley musical, which was filled with a variety of shots and angles of the many dancers.

Next, Astaire contended that all songs and dances should be woven into the actual plot of the film, so that the story could advance—rather than the Berkeley marvels, which were amazing to see, but did not contribute to the actual story. Astaire enjoyed complete autonomy over how his dances would be presented, and gained a percentage of film profits.

Soon enough, Rogers and Astaire became representations of class, complete with extravagant dress, happy-go-lucky attitudes, and graceful routines. Moreover, they made the art of dance more appealing to their audiences. Men wished to have the dancing skills of Astaire, while women wanted to be as poised as Rogers. With the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, and Swing rising in popularity, Astaire and Rogers brought attention to classical ballroom dancing. Furthermore, Rogers made dancing with Astaire look like the most thrilling experience. Their energy and association with each other brought dance into the limelight, and subsequently made them into household names.

George Stevens’ Swing Time, however, was Ginger Rogers’ favorite Astaire-Rogers film. Set in New York City, the film stars Astaire and Rogers, with a supporting cast composed of Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Betty Furness, Eric Blore, and Georges Metaxa, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The Kern-Fields song, “The Way You Look Tonight” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, sung to Rogers while washing her hair (with whipped cream, in reality, so it would not run down her face). Each dance routine is seen as a choreographic masterpiece, and is featured against an ornate Screen Deco set.

Swing Time continues to act as “chicken soup” for a Depression-weary audience, and is a cheerful, uplifting film. A perpetually-lucky and charismatic gambler, aptly-named “Lucky” (Astaire) moves to New York to earn money and marry his high society sweetheart (Furness). His best pal (Moore), who just so happens to be the opposite of luck, tags along on the trip. The two meet Penny (Rogers), who works as a dance instructor, her boss (Blore), and friend Mabel (Broderick). Love, laughter, and trouble ensue, framed by spectacular dance routines and outstanding songs.

The dance numbers in this film are some of the most memorable routines in cinema.  “Pick Yourself Up” epitomizes Depression-era songs, with a hopeful message of strength and an assurance that success and happiness are always around the corner. The song encourages one to, “Pick yourself up/ Dust yourself off/ And start all over again.” This basic polka, highlighted by syncopated rhythms is the first Astaire-Rogers number in the film, and is performed on a circular dance floor, in an Art Deco office. One of the most famous stills of Astaire and Rogers to be photographed and reproduced for publicity is taken from this scene. It is no surprise that President Barack Obama referenced these optimistic lyrics in his 2009 inauguration acceptance speech, preparing to lead our nation through its fiscal dilemma.

Many other memorable numbers occur throughout this film, including “The Way You Look Tonight” and its tender foxtrot. “Waltz in Swing Time” exudes romance in a syncopated waltz with tap overlays, while celebrating love and poking fun at ideas of extravagance. The quickstep of “A Fine Romance” is bittersweet, with sentimental lyrics and a comedic view of romance running dry.


“Bojangles of Harlem” pays tribute to dancer Bill Robinson and his style of tap dancing. Kern was inspired to write this number when Astaire visited his home and sang while dancing on and over his furniture. Astaire performs the number in blackface, while also using trick photography to show a bowler-hatted Astaire dancing with three of his shadows. This two-minute solo with shadows took three days to film, and resulted in a Best Dance Direction Academy Award nomination for choreographer Hermes Pan.

“Never Gonna Dance” is considered to be the greatest achievement of collaborator and choreographer Hermes Pan’s career. The haunting ballad dramatically depicts the leads’ affair coming to a melancholy close. Dancers glide up various staircases in one of the most alluring Art Deco Sets developed by Carroll Clark and John Harkrider. The routine ends with a helpless Rogers drifting away from the scene and a crestfallen Astaire accepting their fate. Its climax took 47 takes in one day, and required many arduous spins on Rogers’ part, who consequently ended the day with bleeding feet.

While Astaire is praised as a talented and innovative dancer, Rogers excelled in her own right. In T. Satchel’s Astaire, The Biography, Astaire revealed: “Ginger had never danced with a partner before Flying Down to Rio. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn’t tap and she couldn’t do this and that […] but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong.”

Rogers became a strong figure in the film industry and for several women. As the saying goes, she did indeed do everything that Fred Astaire did—albeit backwards and in high heels. Rogers herself also stated: “You know, there’s nothing damnable about being a strong woman. The world needs strong women. There are a lot of strong women you do not see who are guiding, helping, mothering strong men. They want to remain unseen. It’s kind of nice to be able to play a strong woman who is seen.”

Astaire and Rogers, however, had a great way of balancing each other out. Katherine Hepburn contended, “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” Comparing Rogers between her “Anytime Annie” character and a glamorous goddess dancing with Astaire—who many felt was born in a top hat and tails, as he quipped—shows a stark contrast.

Pan, who worked as Astaire’s choreographer for the majority of his career, added: “People have always asked me about Fred’s best partner, and I always say Ginger Rogers. Ginger had a quality that made Fred seem like the most romantic hero since Gable.”

“We had fun and it shows,” mused Rogers in a 1976 interview. “I adore the man. I always have adored him. It was the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me, being teamed with Fred: he was everything a little starry-eyed girl from a small town ever dreamed of.”

While both Astaire and Rogers had solid careers independently, their screen partnership continues to hold a particular nostalgia and glowing ambiance that few films possess. The musicals that they made together continue to entertain audiences around the world, and charm people of all ages. Moreover, their superb versatility and power to seamlessly convey emotion in a variety of dances has affirmed them as one of the most famous dance teams in motion picture history—forever at the top, and forever dancing.


Empire of the Imagination: Rediscovering She (1935) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 19, 2012 by mchoffman


“What do you know of immortal dreams, immortal memories? I am yesterday, today and tomorrow. I am sorrow, and longing and hope unfulfilled. I am Hasha-Mo-Tep– She, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. I am… I… It’s not enough that I should hope and wait unending years in pain…” ~ She (Helen Gahagan)

She is one of the great movie adventures of the 1930s, but it’s a film many have never seen. If not for Buster Keaton, tonight’s film might not exist at all. After its re-issue in the late 1940s, the film was out of circulation for many years, and then disaster struck when the RKO studio vault, which housed the negative, suffered a fire. She was feared lost until a 35mm print of the film turned up in the silent comedian’s garage. Along with Buster Keaton’s own films, She was turned over to preservationist Raymond Rohauer. In the book Screen Deco, Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers write that the film was “revived during Radio City Music Hall’s 1976 Art Deco Week, and during its Los Angeles engagement the following year, the Los Angeles Times complimented its ‘monumental sets designed in a kind of Art Deco Barbaric.'” Now, decades later, this wonderful film has been restored in the digital medium of dvd.

I mentioned the various dvd versions of the film that are available through Kino and Legend Films, but nothing could ever beat the thrill of actually owning a film print, and for a number of years I had a 16mm print which contained some scenes deleted from the film when it was re-released. It wasn’t an original print, just a dupe, but I opened one of my programs at the LaSalle Bank Theatre with it. Of course, today few people collect film prints anymore, and that’s a shame. Anyone can buy a factory-sealed, shrink-wrapped dvd or order one off Amazon, but few will understand the joy of simply holding a film strip up to the light and seeing the images, one atop another, unfold a story on a piece of celluloid. Films come alive when projected on film onto a big screen, and people have lost contact with that experience. Modern media only simulates the theatrical experience. Movies weren’t meant to be watched on a phone or computer, and they certainly weren’t meant to be beamed digitally from a satellite into a cineplex, which will be the wave of the future. Film stock itself may die in a cold future of digital pixels, but not the films themselves. As long as there are places like our Classic Film Series, movies like She will indeed live on through the millennium.

The 1935 film is based on the outstanding 1887 adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard. It had been filmed several times in the silent era, and would be remade again in the 1960s by Hammer Studios. She is the story of a centuries old queen who awaits the return of her reincarnated dead lover. It’s an allegorical tale about the quest for eternal life. The Fountain of Youth of historical legend becomes the Flame of Life within She’s empire of Kor.

Producer Merian C. Cooper

She was produced by Merian C. Cooper, the visionary who gave us King Kong. Cooper grew up as a boy reading the “Lost Civilization” literature of the Victorian period and was inspired to bring Haggard’s novel to the screen. Cooper himself was an adventurer whose real-life exploits brought an authenticity to his films. With She, he wanted to create a large scale fantasy along the lines of King Kong. As with everything else he did in life, he was determined to do it big. There are no real comparisons between the two, of course, though there are obvious elements of King Kong in tonight’s film. You might recognize that the oversized door that leads into She’s mountain palace is in fact the Great Wall that held Kong back on Skull Island. And like Kong, Cooper structured the movie around the title character who doesn’t make an appearance until Act II. But when She does finally appear, it’s a memorable entrance.

Helen Gahagan

Stage actress Helen Gahagan portrays She– Hasha-Mo-Tep, as she is also known. This would be her only film role before leaving Hollywood for politics. She served two terms as a California congresswoman before running against Richard Nixon in 1950 in a bitter senate race. Gahagan was red-baited by Nixon, who labelled her the “Pink Lady.” She would lose the election, but the nickname she coined for Nixon would remain with him for the rest of his life: “Tricky Dick.” There is a biography on Helen Gahagan called The Pink Lady. Though there is scant mention of She in it, I’d still recommend it to anyone interested in Gahagan’s political career and how she became inspired by the plight of Americans during the Depression.

Cooper originally wanted Greta Garbo for the role, However, he was unable to convince MGM into releasing her for his picture. It’s one of the great “What ifs” of Hollywood casting because Garbo had the natural mystery that the part cried for. But in recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Gahagan’s performance. Her acting has been called mannered and of the theatre, but I think it fits her ageless character. I’d go so far as to call it a great performance because she conveys so many emotions equally well. I love her look of annoyance when Leo Vincey– not the quickest-thinking of action heroes– asks She if the sacrificial woman at the Sacred Well is a dancer. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is an authoritative presence but also a tortured soul and a tragic figure. The sacrifice scene, in particular, stands out as a remarkable piece of acting because she doesn’t come across as triumphant even though she is having her way in these moments leading up to the climax. It’s almost as though she can feel her humanity slipping away, and we sense this.

Gahagan possessed a wonderful speaking voice which only adds to the great moment in which she is first introduced to us behind the smoke at the top of the palace staircase. At that moment, Gahagan immediately brings a different kind of energy to the film. Prior to her introduction, the storyline had skirted pulp fiction. Though she lacks the blinding beauty of the literary She, Gahagan makes you feel she is indeed older than her years. Additionally, other writers have commented on her appearance and its influence on Walt Disney when he envisioned the evil queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


Cooper also sought Joel McCrea for the role of explorer Leo Vincey as well as McCrea’s wife, Frances Dee, as another candidate for She. For those who don’t know Joel McCrea, he’s the current star of the month on TCM, and he had starred in an earlier Cooper production, The Most Dangerous Game. But Paramount offered to give Cooper Randolph Scott instead. Though he would become a better actor in the years ahead, Scott was, at this stage of his career, not as good as McCrea. He was a stoic, rugged actor best known for the Westerns he made in his later years, such as Ride the High Country with Joel McCrea. Nevertheless, Scott has presence and brings the two most important qualities needed for Leo Vincey: he’s heroic and handsome. In that, Randolph Scott fit the bill.

Supporting Scott is Nigel Bruce as Holly. Bruce is best known for playing Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes film series at Universal, which starred Basil Rathbone. Also starring is RKO ingénue Helen Mack, who had appeared in Son of Kong. Mack was born in Rock Island, Illinois, and she would go on to have a long career on stage and in film before eventually turning to radio as a writer. Her performance in She is very expressive, and she makes a good foil for Helen Gahagan. Three other actors who give exceptional performances are Samuel Hinds as Leo Vincey’s dying uncle, Lumsden Hare as the Arctic trader, and the German-born Gustav von Seyffertitz as She’s calculating servant, Billali. The latter is an interesting character whose jealousies and motivations could’ve easily been developed into a subplot.


The deeper elements of the story are expressed through the words of She, and there is something beautiful in her reflection on the endless flow of time. She is a haunted figure, and her poetic dialogue and delivery captures that. The screenplay was written by Ruth Rose and Dudley Nichols. Rose was an important contributor to the films of Merian C. Cooper, having penned many of his greatest adventures. I wish more people were aware of her contributions to film history. She gave King Kong its fairy tale quality, and she brought a verbal poetry to She. Rose maintained the essence of an epic novel that contained vast themes and subtleties.

Those familiar with the book decry the decision to move the story from Africa to the Arctic, but by the mid-1930s so many films had already been set in Africa. Perhaps Cooper and Rose were looking for a more remote locale that could be equally mysterious. What developed in the story conferences went beyond the realm of Haggard. “Is there anything else we can put in there to make it more exciting?” Cooper had asked Ruth Rose. “It already has everything but a saber-toothed tiger.” Ruth replied. “Great!” exclaimed Cooper. “Why didn’t I think of that? A saber-toothed tiger. Write it in!”


The original King Kong from 1933 will always be my favorite movie of all time, so I have a deep admiration for and interest in all those talents connected to it. Ruth Rose was that rarest kind of woman. For her courage and spirit of adventure, there are few I respect and admire as much as her. And she was also a darn good screenwriter. A number of years ago I tried to acquire the Ruth Rose diaries which were being auctioned on ebay along with many other items belonging to her and her husband, filmmaker Ernest Schoedsack. My own money wasn’t enough, so I contacted film curator James D’Arc at Brigham Young University for his generous assistance, and together we made a joint offer to the party in possession of the items. The seller had been a caretaker for Ernest and Ruth Rose Schoedsack.

As a writer, I was looking forward to researching the materials before turning them over to the university for preservation in their special collections. BYU also stores the Merian C. Cooper papers, so it was a natural fit to also have materials belonging to the Schoedsacks. A deal was all but done until a mercenary private collector from the East Coast inserted himself and talked the woman out of her deal with us. Though I had the small satisfaction of making the other guy pay more, this was of little importance. There were so many items relevant to film history that were lost to us. The diaries should’ve been preserved in a library for public research because they might have contained insight into the making of films like She.


In 1933 when Merian Cooper first bought the property from Carl Laemmle at Universal, he wanted James Whale to direct it. That didn’t pan out and Whale would go on to direct The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. Cooper later asked his old friend Ernest Schoedsack to direct it. Schoedsack had co-directed King Kong. This also fell through because he did not feel the material could be filmed. She was ultimately directed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel, who had co-directed The Most Dangerous Game and would go on to make such films as Destination Moon. Here, Pichel shares screen credit with Lansing C. Holden, an architect and former set designer.

Two directors were apparently needed to supervise the film’s visual look. But it was Cooper who was the driving force behind the production. It was his vision, as well as his values, that shaped its creation. She was conceived by Cooper as a color film in Three-Strip Technicolor. RKO allocated a million dollar budget for the film with a hundred thousand dollars for the Technicolor process. But before the cameras could roll, the studio executives, lacking Cooper’s vision, pulled the plug on shooting the film in color.


She has been colorized in recent years under the supervision of special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. Though he had nothing to do with the making of the original film, this was Harryhausen’s way of paying homage to Merian C. Cooper. However, as much as I respect Harryhausen, I couldn’t disagree more with his decision to colorize it. Regardless of Cooper’s intentions to film it in color, the fact is the film was not made in Technicolor. Colorizing it with a computerized paint gun only detracts from the richness of its black and white cinematography. The film was shot in black and white and efforts to modernize it negate the creative decisions of those who designed its mise-en-scene in black and white. On the dvd commentary, Harryhausen talks how the color version will create a whole new audience, but he’s out of touch when he says this because you don’t update films to do that. If kids today can’t appreciate a fun movie like She in its natural state, then they better just stay away altogether and play with their Wii games.

Though the color was never realized, a great film score was. One of She’s greatest realizations is Max Steiner’s music. It’s a moderne score that is truly haunting. It gives She its mystery and grandeur. It’s one of his best compositions, in fact. The complete recording has been preserved by the aforementioned James D’Arc at BYU. I have a copy of this wonderful CD, and I can’t recommend it enough. If anyone ever had to be convinced of the importance of film music, I can think of no better example than this.

It’s a recording as powerful and dramatic as anything written by the great classical composers. Steiner’s score has been described as “an opera without the arias.” Max Steiner was a brilliant Hollywood composer, the best in my opinion, and his score for She imbues the film with scope and depth it might not have otherwise had. One of his best music cues comes during the Festival of the Sacred Well, a dance number in the Hall of Kings that goes on for over ten minutes. It’s one of the biggest highlights of the film because it fuses the film’s two greatest strengths: the music and the Art Deco decor.


The production design was by Van Nest Polglase whom we shall discuss on May 31st. Polglase was the art director at RKO best known for his work on the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals. She’s “Barbaric Moderne” visual style recalls Egyptian and Mayan influences. Add the Caligari-like Expressionism seen in the hall of the eternal flame and you have one of the most visually-striking films RKO ever made in terms of set design. Lansing Holden, the co-director, was also an uncredited illustrator for the production. The set designs as well as the matte paintings and special effects work succeed in creating the unforgettable look of Kor, a world we can easily escape into.



“This doesn’t look so good to me.” ~Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott)

At the time of its initial release, She lost money– $180,000 to be exact. Its disappointing box office eliminated any chance of filming Haggard’s sequel, Ayesha, the Return of She. Theatre-goers perhaps expected more non-stop thrills. She didn’t make any money until 1948 when it was re-issued on a double bill with The Last Days of Pompeii. Modern reviews of She are all over the map, and I’m amused by many of the “critiques” I read on the IMDB. I’m all for democracy, but the user comments empower morons. She is not camp or kitsch. Those are terms viewers use to describe what they don’t understand– films that can’t be appreciated in the era they were made in. Some people call She a laughably bad movie or refer to its dated acting, and I’m not even sure what that term “dated” means. If it doesn’t measure up to modern standards it’s somehow less? It’s nonsense and low-grade film criticism.

As I mentioned, Merian Cooper had grander ideas for his final film under his RKO contract. You have the feeling that there were set pieces Cooper was forced to cut because of the budget, ideas that were put on ice like the inanimate saber-toothed tiger—frozen ideas thawed out now in the realm of what could’ve been. We can only imagine what She might’ve been had a visionary like Cooper been given an open checkbook. But we must judge only what is there on the screen. She is a cerebral action film that has great moments of solemn beauty. It has an other-worldly quality unlike any other film of its era. Its poetic interludes recall Universal’s The Mummy, which was another film about lost love and reincarnation.

She’s story resonates now when society is still looking for age-defying ways to preserve itself. Our eyes are still on the clock as the pendulum swings back and forth, and in the face of man’s enemy, Time, we still dream of youth. Artificial methods like Botox and plastic surgery are unnatural and have ugly consequences down the road. What we think will preserve us will only advance our decline, like Hasha-Mo-Tep after her over-exposure to the Eternal Flame. The subtext of She suggests an appreciation for growing old naturally with the love of those closest to us– not the seductive, fantasy love on the other side of the hill. Happiness and true wisdom come from accepting our mortality and not trying to hold it back. The flames of the hearth give more warmth and a longer glow than the cold flame of things not meant for man. This is what makes us human, and there is humanity to be found in She.


For more on screenwriter Ruth Rose and the making of the Cooper-Schoedsack films, please check out this video I made based on a rare audio recording.

The Face of Deco: Dolores Del Rio by annette bochenek

Posted in Uncategorized on May 18, 2012 by mchoffman

“Take care of your inner beauty, your spiritual beauty, and that will reflect in your face. We have the face we created over the years. Every bad deed, every bad fault will show on your face. God can give us beauty and genes can give us our features, but whether that beauty remains or changes is determined by our thoughts and deeds.” ~ Dolores del Rio


“The two most beautiful things in the world are the Taj-Mahal and Dolores del Río.” –George Bernard Shaw

I think it’s high time that I introduced you to someone I’m sure you’d love to meet. Sure, she can be a little eccentric and a bit unusual, but at heart, she’s a dreamer like the rest of us. Dress to impress–because you’re going on a date with Deco!

Deco has swooping eyebrows. It has hypnotizing eyes, and sleek, shiny hair. It has luscious lips, a great taste in fashion, and an overall look of sophisticated mischief. Yes, if Deco had a face, it would look a lot like Dolores del Río.


Born in Durango, Mexico, María de los Dolores Asúnsolo y López Negrete was the child of a wealthy bank director and his wife. They enjoyed a lavish life of luxury, until their riches were lost due to the Mexican Revolution in 1916. However, an artistically inclined Dolores aimed to regain the original lifestyle of her family through the performing arts.

A young Dolores maintained her studies in Mexico City. She performed as a dancer, married a man 18 years her senior, and was discovered by First National Films Director Edwin Carewe while dancing a tango. Packing up with a dream of starring in motion pictures and a husband who wanted to write Hollywood scripts, she picked up her stage surname—del Río—and headed for California and stardom at the age of 21.


While del Río went on to achieve swift fame as the first Mexican movie star, her marriage ended shortly after the release of her first film Joanna (1925). Nonetheless, her film’s sudden success propelled her to prominence and initiated her image as “the female Valentino.” Thanks to her exotic beauty, she replaced the then-popular fair-haired heroines with critical successes such as Ramona (1928) and Evangeline (1929).

Most notably, Dolores set the standard for women’s style in the 1930s, and debatably influenced Joan Crawford’s sculpted look. Rather than perpetuating a thick layer of make-up with tiny Cupid’s bow lips, del Río chose to emphasize her angular face. She instead accentuated her large lips with heavy rouge and arched her dark eyebrows in a way that complimented her defined facial structure. Additionally, she wore her shadowy tresses in a flowing, relaxed fashion.

With Gene Raymond in Flying Down to Rio

Dolores’ new look did not go unnoticed in Hollywood. She possessed a face and features made for film. Mesmerizing shadows danced across her fashionable face in black and white cinema screens. She wore sleek gowns with grace, and entranced the camera with the dark glamour of her eyes. Dolores del Río exuded radiance, and many wished to parallel her seductive, yet elegant, image.

But where to begin? Dolores made the mystique of her beauty seem so natural. Rumors regarding her beauty regimen proposed she slept 16 hours each day, and enjoyed a diet of orchid petals. Whether or not this is true, whatever del Río actually did do absolutely worked. Stars such as Greta Garbo even expressed an admiration for her beauty. Marlene Dietrich herself thought of del Río as, unquestionably, “the most beautiful woman in Hollywood.”

“Exercise, diet, beauty treatments– these things are all a complete waste of time because everyone must get older. If women were more sensible they would cease going to beauty parlors for facials and would instead lie down quietly in the peace of their bedrooms for the same length of time and arise more beautiful in face and more peaceful in spirit. The fact that I’m aging makes me a part of life, a part of the bigger scheme of existence… It is my mind, not my body, that I am trying to preserve, because it is through the mind that I can stay young.” ~ Dolores del Rio, 1964

In 1930, Dolores married acclaimed Hollywood Art Director Cedric Gibbons after meeting him at a party organized by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and actress Marion Davies. Ever the glitzy couple, Dolores and Cedric embraced the Deco era by building an Art Deco estate in Santa Monica. Their glamorous home attracted visits from other high-profile Hollywood personalities, such as Dietrich, Flynn, Wray, Bennett, Loy, Gable, and many more. In fact, their vintage home stands available on the market today at an estimated $12.5 million.

With sound films gaining popularity, del Río also scored successes in films such as Bird of Paradise (1932), Flying Down to Rio (1933), Madame Du Barry (1934), Wonder Bar (1934), and Journey Into Fear (1942).

With Ricardo Cortez in Wonder Bar

While her career as a silent siren began to be questioned with the rise of talkies, so did her relationship with Gibbons. A whirlwind romance with Orson Welles contributed to the divorce, but Mexican film director Emilio Fernandez (whom del Río introduced to Gibbons as his model for the “Oscar” statuette) cast her in the Spanish film, Flor Silvestre (1942). As a result, Dolores del Río became the most famous movie star in Mexico.

Returning to Mexico, Dolores continued to portray roles as a Mexican beauty. She also added credits in theater and television to her already impressive repertoire and involved herself in many actors’ union activities. Dolores was also a proponent of Montessori education, helping to teach children about music, dance, and the arts.


The Dolores del Río “look” is almost everywhere in the Deco films, coinciding with the high points of her career. She set a trend for beauty, while continually embracing and returning to her Mexican heritage. She brought her culture and dramatic image to the screen, standing out in an industry of flaxen-haired heroines. Moreover, her radiance and charisma continue to enchant film fanatics today, and truly make her a legendary Hollywood star in her own right.

Dolores del Río is, quite simply, the face of Deco.



A Good Game: 1934’s The Black Cat by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 11, 2012 by mchoffman


“Do you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.”
~Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)

Two weeks ago we had a wild night at the Wonder Bar. I mentioned how that pre-Code musical had a carefree, amoral tone to it. Tonight’s film goes beyond moral indiscretions into one of the lowest levels of Hell. Evil has a face in a film that offers us murder, torture, incest, and a Satanic ritual. It’s one of the most perverse, morbid films to come out of Hollywood. Some of its suggestiveness got past censors who didn’t realize exactly what was going on. What’s so fascinating from our perspective is that the atmosphere of death that pervades the entire film is closely associated with the Art Deco set design.

The Black Cat is the most striking example of Modernist design in 1930s cinema. Tonight we will see it in the horror genre and next week we shall see it in the fantasy civilization of Kor in She. In many scholarly examinations of director Edgar G. Ulmer’s masterpiece, authors frequently refer to the “Bauhaus” influence.

The Bauhaus, or “house of construction,” was a state-sponsored design school in Germany that was prominent in the Modernist movement. It was founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 by Walter Gropius. He created an environment that fostered an artistic spirit. Form following function was one of the basic tenets. These designs were often simplified and devoid of ornamentation. Some of the elements in tonight’s film that represent the style include the stainless steel staircase, the neon lights, and the chrome furnishings.

But the spirit of Modernism flourished in other parts of the world besides Germany. There was France, of course, considered the cradle of Art Deco. In America, Modernism reached the public through the medium of motion pictures where audiences could for the first time discover this new architecture. In Hollywood, theatre-goers experienced the Modernist trend in films like 1930’s What a Widow!, which starred Gloria Swanson. But one of the most memorable of all 1930s films that showcased modern decor was Universal’s The Black Cat, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.


Ulmer was a product of Weimar cinema. He had studied architecture in Germany before entering film and was undoubtedly familiar with the Bauhaus style. He served as a set designer early in his career for stage director Max Reinhardt. In addition, he was a designer-apprentice to the great German director F.W. Murnau before eventually coming to America. The Black Cat, his second film in the United States, has a strong Germanic influence throughout due to Ulmer’s (uncredited) hand in its set design. Charles D. Hall, a brilliant designer himself, was the credited art director. Besides the gothic look of the Universal monster series, Hall designed the Art Deco nightclub in the 1929 musical Broadway as well as the streamlined factory for Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

The Black Cat begins with a honeymooning couple played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells. On their train ride they meet the renowned Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, played by Bela Lugosi, a soldier from the Great War with a score to settle. After an accident on a bus in the countryside, Werdegast guides the travelers to a Modernist house built on the ruins of Fort Marmaros. The owner, Hjalmar Poelzig—the Boris Karloff character– is the man Werdegast has sought out.

David Manners and Jacqueline Wells

To say more of the bizarre plot would rob you of the element of surprise, and though many of us have seen this film many times, I always have to assume, when writing these talks, that you have not. As I mentioned earlier, the film is about the kind of evil that can be seen and felt, as embodied in one human form. Poelzig is, like the black cat of legend, evil incarnate– a practitioner of the Black Arts who is masked by a veneer of sophistication.

The classical music arrangements add to Poelzig’s façade of intellectual refinement. Unlike most films of the era, music is heard almost continuously in The Black Cat with selections from such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. And I haven’t heard Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo & Juliet” theme played this often since, well, since our screening of The Kiss with Greta Garbo.


Poelzig is an architect. (His name is Ulmer’s homage to German Expressionist designer Hans Poelzig, whom he had met on the set of The Golem back in his silent days.) The home, built on the ruins of a World War I battlefield, is heavily influenced by the geometric asymmetry of the Bauhaus tradition. Despite having the “old dark house” trappings of stranded guests and secret rooms, The Black Cat is unique because its horror is set in a thoroughly modern and brightly-lit setting–not a shadow-filled castle. Illumination contrasts with the moral darkness of Poelzig. Modernism is also equated with European decadence resulting from the First World War—a new style built upon the buried past. A sense of entrapment and doom pervade the house as though the souls of the dead soldiers are still there. His home, stark and industrial, becomes a prison for those that represent normality. The Black Cat is a superb example of how set design can establish the mood and tone of a film.

“The house is a cold and glossy marvel of glass brick, Bakelite floors, and curving metal staircases,” write Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers in Screen Deco. “Furnishings include glass tables, Breuer chairs, and digital clocks. ‘When one sees The Black Cat today,’ mused Ulmer in an interview, ‘one realizes that the set could have been conceived by Poelzig twenty years after the film was made.’” Ulmer himself was ahead of his time in designing it.


Of the film’s origins, I’d like to quote its director. In Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It, which is a collection of his earlier interviews with legendary Hollywood filmmakers, he asked Ulmer where the idea originated for the house being built on the graveyard of a battlefield.

“That came out many years before,” Ulmer said. “I had been in Prague, as I told you, and had worked on The Golem. At that time I met Gustav Meyrinck, the man who wrote Golem as a novel. Meyrinck was one of those strange Prague Jews, like Kafka, who was very much tied up in the mystic Talmudic background. We had a lot of discussions, and Meyrinck at that time was contemplating a play based upon Doumont, which was a French fortress the Germans had shelled to pieces during World War I; there were some survivors who didn’t come out for years. And the commander was a strange Euripedes figure who went crazy three years later, when he was brought back to Paris, because he had walked on that mountain of bodies. I thought it was an important subject, and that feeling was in the air in the twenties.”

Bela Lugosi

The Black Cat was the first—and best– of eight pairings of the two titans of terror of the 1930s: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. For those who’d like to read in-depth about their respective careers, one of the best authors out there is Gregory Mank, who has written profusely on the subject. The most detailed examination of tonight’s film can be found in his Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration. (Every monster fan should have this volume on their bookshelf.) Karloff, of course, best known for playing the Frankenstein monster three years before, and Lugosi, the Hungarian who will forever be identified as Dracula.

They are two of my favorite actors, and for those of us who admire Lugosi, it was nice to see him play the hero for once. Aside from things like The Return of Chandu, which was a Poverty Row movie serial, he never got to be the romantic hero. He was mostly typecast as the villain. In fact, in an earlier cut of The Black Cat, Bela’s character, consumed by madness, vengeance, and lust, veered into the familiar territory of villainy. Bela was discouraged with what he had once again become. But in the retakes that Ulmer shot, he made Bela  more a protector and less a predator.

Even with his accent I think Bela could’ve been a great character actor in Hollywood if given the right material. His role in Son of Frankenstein is considered his best performance, but even in non-horror films he could’ve tackled parts that went to actors like fellow Hungarian Paul Lukas. In his prime, long before the days when Ed Wood came knocking, Lugosi was one of the most captivating stars with a magnetic screen presence.

Some critics label Lugosi a ham and nothing more, but I’m not one of them… although his reaction to the black cats is less than subtle. But some of his best acting is also found in The Black Cat. He effectively captures a sad longing for his wife when he meets the newlyweds on the train, and later in the film, I love how he gently underplays his reaction to seeing her in Poelzig’s gallery. These are qualities of his acting that were rarely exploited in the ensuing years.


Karloff’s performance as the demonic architect, on the other hand, is more understated than Lugosi’s role, but it’s no less potent as his expression comes mainly through body movement, like a cat toying with chessboard pawns. It’s one of the most disturbing roles he ever played. The Poelzig of Ulmer’s scenario may have been inspired by the real life exploits of British occultist and Satanist Aleister Crowley, a character once called by the press, “the wickedest man in the world.”

Boris Karloff, I feel, is underrated. He was certainly one of the great character actors. Karloff the Uncanny immortalized himself by playing some of the most ghoulish characters on screen, but in real life he was the opposite of that image. He was an English gentleman, respected and admired by the industry. He did not have Lugosi’s ego, and because of that directors like Ulmer enjoyed working with him.

Boris Karloff

“Karloff kept insisting that he didn’t want to make any more horror pictures,” Ulmer had said. “One of the things he found most exciting in the film was the wardrobe. He knew he would be playing ‘Karloff,’ but also felt in these duds, he could employ a sort of ‘out of this world’ appearance. That, as you know, was exactly as he appeared.”

David Manners, who died in 1998 at the age of 98, is a familiar face to horror fans, having starred in two of the defining films of the genre: Dracula in 1931 and The Mummy in 1932. Manners was a reliable leading man, bringing an affable quality to roles that could’ve otherwise been quite thankless or perfunctory. Though he’s rendered ineffectual in The Black Cat, it’s still one of his best films. I’ve always liked David Manners for simply being a likeable presence on screen, a beloved leading man for those of us who grew up on Universal horror.

In a shortened career, he appeared in The Last Flight, Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman, and A Bill of Divorcement. He considered Hollywood to be what he called a “false place” and became bored with it and left the screen in 1936. In the 1940s he returned to the theatre and evidently made quite an impact on one young stage actor. “I owe him my entire career,” Marlon Brando reportedly once said of him. David Manners was also an artist and author of several novels as well as a book on philosophy. For more on his life, there is a wonderful tribute page at


Jacqueline Wells is better known as the actress Julie Bishop. She was never a big star, but appeared in several major films during the second half of her career. In the early 1940s the Warner Brothers studio offered her a contract but asked her to change her name. Up until then, “Jacqueline Wells” had been associated with B-movies like Tarzan the Fearless. She began as a child actress in the early 1920s and starred in some early Laurel & Hardy shorts and appeared in their 1936 feature The Bohemian Girl. After the name change, she starred in such memorable productions as Action in the North Atlantic, The Sands of Iwo Jima and The High and the Mighty. And like David Manners, in her years away from Hollywood she became a painter. She died on her birthday in 2001 at the age of 87.

Lucille Lund, who plays the angelic Karen Werdegast, broke into Hollywood on the basis of winning a Universal Studios-sponsored magazine contest for the most beautiful college girl. Lund had actually studied acting at Northwestern University. She debuted onscreen in 1933 and worked at various studios. Ironically, she would cross paths with Julie Bishop in several films. On the set of The Black Cat she had to resist the advances of director Ulmer. Author Steven Warren Hill writes that in retaliation, Ulmer treated her terribly. He called for a lunch break “as she hung helpless by her neck in her glass coffin in one case, and another time constricting her blood supply to the extent that she lost consciousness and began bleeding from the mouth.” Actor Harry Cording, who plays Lugosi’s servant, saved her life. Lucille Lund did not have a long career at Universal.


“Most of the pressbook ballyhoo recommended that theatres exploit the black cat angle. Typical of the feline-infested showmanship were recommendations that two men in a giant black cat outfit roam the streets, that a sidewalk projector beam the image of a black cat, that the theatre sponsor a black cat contest, and that an art contest be held for the best black cat drawing, and that an illuminated cat’s head be employed…” ~ author Don G. Smith

The film had a 15 day shooting schedule and was made for less than a hundred thousand dollars. As time would prove, Ulmer was a B-movie maestro and has a cult following to this day because of films like 1945’s Detour, a film noir which was made with even less. The studio attached Edgar Allan Poe’s name to the material, but aside from the title and the symbolic use of the black cat, there is no direct connection to the original source material. Poe’s name, as Ulmer would attest, was used strictly for publicity. Nevertheless, it is very much in the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe. The film runs just over an hour, but more footage had been shot, such as an opening wedding scene. The Black Cat did have some censorship issues which resulted in some cuts, such as a shot of a cat licking blood off Joan Alison’s shoulder. Some European countries banned the film outright, but in the United States it became Universal’s biggest hit of 1934 despite taking a beating by critics.

The Black Cat remains a favorite among genre fans and Karloff-Lugosi admirers alike. I believe the film is a masterpiece, and I never get tired of watching it. There are so many memorable lines of dialogue, the cinematography by Illinois-native John Mescall fluidly captures the set design, and the cast is absolutely perfect. Author Greg Mank summed it up best: “The Black Cat would be their most glorious teaming. Karloff’s Lascivious Lucifer versus Lugosi’s Avenging Angel makes The Black Cat transcend the horror movie genre, and become a grand, lunatic fairy tale, sparked by a wickedly imaginative director, a bewitched camera and a properly epic romantic score.”


Some library patrons ask me which is my favorite film in Screen Deco, and I’m always vague because I want people to see all these films—not just the ones I like the most. But if repeated viewing is any measure of a film’s impact in one’s life, then surely The Black Cat is my favorite.

The Black Cat is Hollywood’s best example of the Bauhaus influence. You don’t have to look hard to see it because its presence is as important as any character. It’s a landmark film in modern architecture because it shows the concepts of a European style in practice in American cinema. Where horror and the Bauhaus meet, you have The Black Cat. Enter at your own risk.