Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ten Classic Horror Films for Halloween

Happy Halloween! It's time for spooks, ghouls, and other things that go bump in the night, which means now is the perfect time to curl up with some classic horror movies. It's the season of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and other iconic horror stars, all of them still delightfully creepy even in films made more than fifty years ago. Here are ten of my favorite Halloween treats; as you can tell, I like my classic horror both classy and campy, although I'm not generally a big fan of gore.

1) THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936) - Tod Browning directs Lionel Barrymore in drag! The dolls, as creepy as they are, still aren't as scary as Rafaela Ottiano, who plays the wife of the scientist who creates them.

2) THE WOLF MAN (1941) - My favorite Universal monster makes his screen debut, with Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, and scene-stealer Maria Ouspenskaya. "Even a man who is pure of heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon shines bright..."

3) CAT PEOPLE (1942) - Val Lewton's signature horror gets extra class from director Jacques Tourneur, while Simone Simon's feline anti-heroine suffers the fatal pangs of romantic disappointment. The stalking sequences are still enough to make you nervous about being alone in dark places.

4) ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) - No, it's not really a horror film, but it has such a good time playing with the conventions of the genre, from Peter Lorre's Dr. Einstein to Raymond Massey's Boris Karloff lookalike. There's something inherently absurd about homicidal old ladies, but we love the Brewster sisters all the more for their deadly idea of charity work! Besides, the story takes place on Halloween, which makes it the perfect movie to watch on October 31.

5) BEDLAM (1946) - I adore Val Lewton, so he gets a second film in my list. This one stars Boris Karloff and Anna Lee and takes place largely in the notorious 18th-century London madhouse. Gothic, literate, and full of great shocks, BEDLAM is not as well-known as CAT PEOPLE but definitely deserves more attention from classic horror fans.

6) EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960) - Georges Franju's haunting tale of murder, mutilation, and madness is one of the scariest classic horror films I have ever seen, mostly because its images and themes stay with the viewer long after the movie ends. If you're looking for serious chills for Halloween, this is the picture for you.

7) THE HAUNTING (1963) - For serious scares I love this iconic haunted house chiller, which skillfully adapts the novel by Shirley Jackson and really puts the screws to the audience as well as the characters. Julie Harris and Claire Bloom fall apart magnificently when the house cranks up the horror, and that breathing door scene is something you'll never forget.

8) THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963) - This black comedy brings so many of my favorite horror players into one place. We have Jacques Tourneur directing and Richard Matheson writing, with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone playing the leads. You'll die laughing!

9) DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) - Disco Dracula! This is one of the trippier Hammer horrors to star both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in their vampire and Van Helsing roles, but it's just so much fun, including the house party performance of "Alligator Man."

10) HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983) - It's silly and more like a thrill ride than a straight horror story, but I can't resist this movie's dizzying array of classic horror stars. Who can resist Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, John Carradine, and Peter Cushing all together?

What are your favorite classic horror movies for Halloween?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958)

Despite its lurid title, Corridors of Blood (1958) is really a very serious picture that derives its horrors from the combined specters of Victorian surgical theater, drug addiction, and coldly calculated murder. This Dickensian medical chiller from director Robert Day stars genre heavyweights Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, which is reason enough to see the movie for most classic horror fans, but it also offers a compelling combination of the themes that inform earlier films like The Body Snatcher (1945) and the many adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In its merger of murderous Burke & Hare shenanigans with de casibus tragedy, Corridors of Blood creates a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on the many Faustian bargains that Victorian medical practitioners were forced to make in order to advance their scientific knowledge and our own common good.

Karloff stars as benevolent surgeon Thomas Bolton, who strives to pioneer a technique for painless surgery by experimenting with forms of anesthesia. His professional peers doubt the practicality of Bolton’s work, but the doctor devotes himself to his research and becomes his own test subject for various opiate mixtures, to which he inevitably becomes addicted. While Bolton’s son, Jonathan (Francis Matthews), and niece, Susan (Betta St. John), worry over his increasing exhaustion and drug dependence, the proprietor of a seedy tavern sees Bolton’s distress as an opportunity to get falsified death certificates for murder victims being sold as cadavers to the local hospital.

Throughout the film, Karloff’s protagonist moves back and forth between two worlds. His friends and family tell him that he belongs in the respectable circle of well-off Victorian physicians, but he feels drawn to the shadowy underworld of extreme poverty, first by his commitment to heal the sick and later by his addiction. Like Dr. Jekyll, Bolton does not remember his actions while under the influence of his drugs, but Bolton never really becomes a monster during these breaks, even though his need for more chemicals does ultimately make him a criminal. What we as viewers realize is that the two worlds are far closer to one another than they originally seem. The operating room relies on desperate poor people for its surgical demonstrations, in which screaming, bleeding patients become edifying spectacles for wealthy men of privilege. The hospital’s autopsies depend on a constant supply of fresh corpses, which arrive from the ranks of the poor with very few questions asked about their origin. Bolton’s excursions into the darker world are discouraged by his peers because they lay bare the unsavory fact that “civilized” society exists on top and at the expense of its outcasts.

That is not to suggest that the residents of the Seven Dials are angelic martyrs. The film presents them as dangerous people, a strange menagerie of rejects, sharpers, and thieves. They are part Beggar’s Opera and part Oliver Twist, a dirty but cunning lot ready to murder one another for a mere handful of coins. Francis de Wolff has the largest role among them as Black Ben, the Falstaffian barkeep, but Christopher Lee’s Resurrection Joe is certainly the scariest. Joe provides cadavers for the hospital by suffocating drunks with a pillow, although he’s equally willing to employ a knife when the occasion permits. Without the heavy makeup of Dracula or the Frankenstein monster, Lee still manages to be truly terrifying, especially in his climactic scenes with Karloff. If Karloff’s character is a Faustian type, then Ben and Joe are his devils, a thought that gives extra import to their insistence that Bolton repeatedly sign his name to further their black plans.

Be sure to note Finlay Currie and Adrienne Corri in supporting roles as the medical superintendent and Black Ben’s partner, Rachel. See more of Christopher Lee’s work from this period in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). Karloff’s other films from the late 1950s include Voodoo Island (1957), The Haunted Strangler (1958), and Frankenstein - 1970 (1958), although you should certainly catch his turn as the resurrection man in The Body Snatcher (1945) for the sake of comparison. Finlay Currie is best remembered as the truly Dickensian Magwitch in the 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations, while Adrienne Corri also appears in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Vampire Circus (1972). For more from director Robert Day, try The Green Man (1956) and She (1965).

You'll find Corridors of Blood streaming on Hulu Plus as part of the Criterion Collection. Even on streaming, the crisp Criterion edition gorgeously displays the moody black-and-white cinematography that is a big part of this film's atmospheric appeal.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Halloween Playlist: 10 Songs Inspired by Classic Horror Movies

Halloween is my favorite holiday, partly because it's a great excuse to watch classic horror movies, and partly because I get to trot out my Halloween playlists of songs about vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night. (OK, so I listen to them all year round, but this time of year they just sound cooler.) Actually, a lot of great pop and rock songs have been directly inspired by classic horror films, and not just the most popular movies that everyone already knows. If you're looking for something to listen to this week while you fill your streaming queues with Hammer horror, Universal monsters, and other ghoulish goodies, here are ten of my go-to favorites for a classic horror Halloween playlist.

1) "Nosferatu" by Blue Oyster Cult - The 1922 silent vampire classic from F.W. Murnau is the direct inspiration for this song from the band best remembered for "Don't Fear the Reaper." The song actually covers the plot of the whole movie, and it's creepy enough to deserve a top spot on any Halloween playlist.

2) "Ballad of Dwight Fry" by Alice Cooper - Horror icon Dwight Frye played Renfield in the 1931 Dracula and also appears in supporting roles in other Universal horror classics, so it's no shock that Goth god Alice Cooper might want to sing Frye's praises. In the song, Cooper impersonates the kind of character Frye often played, not the actor himself.

3) "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" by Dave Edmunds - The Universal monster gets his own theme song with a rock n roll groove; the song appeared on the 1979 album, Repeat When Necessary. The Creature doesn't get as much love as some of the earlier monsters, so I appreciate this song for giving our watery friend some overdue musical attention.

4) "I Walked with a Zombie" by Roky Erickson - Released in 1981, Roky Erickson's album, The Evil One, is full of Halloween treats for monster fans, including this tribute to the 1943 film from producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. Check out the rest of the album for "Night of the Vampire" and "Creature with the Atom Brain." A new version of The Evil One was released in September 2013.

5) "Blood and Roses" by The Smithereens - J. Sheridan Le Fanu's sapphic vampire Carmilla got a sexy update with the 1960 film of the same name, which then inspired this moody lament from The Smithereens. The song captures the vampire's sense of longing and exclusion from the world of the living beautifully, although most people who hear it probably don't recognize its cinematic roots.

6) "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon - This rocking werewolf anthem specifically calls out Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. as its horror icons, but the title also recalls the 1936 film, Werewolf of London, which stars Henry Hull, Warner Oland, and Valerie Hobson.

7) "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus - You really can't have a classic horror playlist without this song inspired
by the great Lugosi, who became immortal as Count Dracula but played many other memorable horror roles.

8) "Batman, Wolfman, Frankenstein or Dracula" by The Diamonds - Any classic horror fan can appreciate this song's theme and wicked sense of humor. The speaker in the song takes his date to horror movies because that's the only thing that turns her on: "She gets romantic, it's really quaint/ When all the other women start to faint."

9) "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett - Here's another one you just can't have a Halloween playlist without. All of the classic movie monsters do the mash in this much-played rock novelty tune.

10) "Howl" by Florence + The Machine - This memorably Gothic track from the band's 2009 album, Lungs, uses the ominous motto from The Wolf Man (1941) as its refrain. "Even a man who is pure of heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the moon is full..."

What are some of your favorite Halloween songs with classic horror connections? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE UNINVITED (1944)

The Uninvited (1944) is an old-fashioned ghost story with deep roots in the Gothic tradition. Adapted from a 1941 novel by Dorothy Macardle, the story borrows major themes and motifs from Rebecca (1940), just as Daphne du Maurier’s novel had borrowed from Jane Eyre. In all three tales, romance mingles with mystery and horror generated by dark family secrets, but in The Uninvited the idea of the heroine being haunted by other women becomes quite literal. With its seance scenes, ghostly moans, and strange apparitions, The Uninvited offers abundant otherworldly thrills for Gothic romance fans, who will find plenty to love in this atmospheric tale of love and hatred from beyond the grave.

Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey star as siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, who buy an old estate on the rural English coast only to discover that its cheap price stems from its reputation as a haunted house. The previous owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), seems glad to be rid of the place but stubbornly refuses to see the new residents as friends, while his granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), welcomes the society of the Fitzgeralds, despite her grandfather’s orders to avoid them. As Roderick and Pamela confront the restless dead that roam their home, they begin to uncover the mystery of Stella’s past, but it turns out that the ghosts are not the only ones who wish deadly harm to the innocent girl.

The Fitzgerald siblings function as detectives and drive the narrative forward with their supernatural sleuthing, but Gail Russell’s Stella is the central heroine, the lynchpin on whom all these manifestations and secrets depend. The young actress’ fragile, melancholy beauty perfectly suits the ambience of the story and her character’s situation. Only twenty years old and accustomed to being controlled by her grandfather’s relentless will, Stella blooms when Roderick takes a romantic interest in her. The leap into sexual maturation inspires her to disobey the Commander, a dangerous but necessary step because it brings her into contact with the ghosts of Windward House, who must be laid to rest before Stella and Roderick can be united. Sexual subtext dominates much of the narrative, especially when another character reveals a passionate obsession with one of the dead women from Stella’s past.

Most of the scenes unfold with an emphasis on mystery rather than horror, with Roderick and Pamela interviewing everyone who might be able to shed some light on the shadowy past of Windward. The ghostly moments are reserved, like a rich treat, for periodic enjoyment; we get one thrilling scene of disembodied weeping or terrified pets and then have to wait a while before the next one presents itself. Each new manifestation increases the Fitzgeralds’ sense of urgency and also reveals the danger that the house presents to Stella. The film wisely limits its use of the floating apparition, relying instead on more subtle effects or the characters’ descriptions of their experiences within the house. Rooms turn cold, perfume fills the air, and an unseen hand flips the pages of an open book. These moments inspire the audience with delicious, spine-tingling chills, especially when ghostly moaning fills the house and a seance calls forth the spirits of the dead.

Take a moment to appreciate the supporting performances of Alan Napier as Dr. Scott and Cornelia Otis Skinner as Miss Holloway. Lewis Allen, who directed The Uninvited, also directed The Unseen (1945), Appointment with Danger (1951), and A Bullet for Joey (1955). See more of Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Ruth Hussey is best remembered for her supporting role in The Philadelphia Story (1940), while Donald Crisp plays more paternal types in How Green Was My Valley (1941), Lassie Come Home (1943), and National Velvet (1944). Sad-eyed Gail Russell also stars in Angel and the Badman (1947), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), and Seven Men from Now (1956). If ghostly Gothic romance thrills your heart, try Dragonwyck (1946) as a double feature with The Uninvited.

The Criterion Collection released newly restored Blu-Ray and DVD versions of The Uninvited on October 22, 2013. Special features include a visual essay, a trailer, two radio adaptations, and a booklet with an essay from classic movie blogger, Farran Smith Nehme.

Read more about Gothic romance:
REBECCA (1940) 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: TWO ON A GUILLOTINE (1965)

Although it’s billed primarily as a horror film, Two on a Guillotine (1965) throws in about as much romance and comedy as haunted house horror, which makes for an uneven picture that sometimes loses sight of its purpose and plot. Slow at times, especially in the second act, Two on a Guillotine is by no means a perfect or even a really good horror movie, but it’s watchable enough if you have patience with its digressions and some affection for its stars, including Connie Stevens and Dean Jones as a meet-cute couple and Cesar Romero as the mad magician whose demise sets the whole plot in motion.

Romero plays Duke Duquesne, a stage magician who leaves his daughter to be raised by relatives after the disappearance of his wife. The daughter, Cassie (Connie Stevens), grows up to be an exact double of her mother, and she returns to the family home after her father’s death. Duquesne, who has promised to return from the grave, leaves his entire fortune to Cassie provided that she spends a week in the house without losing her nerve. Cassie soon finds that the house is full of secrets, including many macabre practical jokes devised by her father, but she has stalwart company in the person of Val Henderson (Dean Jones), a young reporter who comes looking for a story but stays for the sake of the pretty heroine.

The opening sets the story up and creates a great sense of foreboding about the role of the titular guillotine, which Duquesne intends to use as the centerpiece of a new illusion recreating the execution of Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately, the movie then loses its momentum through the long funeral and will reading scenes, with Cassie and Val exchanging tart looks and lines that tell us they are destined to wind up together. Later, their date sequence once again disrupts the creepy effect of the house and brings the mystery screeching to a halt. Duquesne, being dead, disappears for most of the film, which is too bad because Romero could really work a character of this sort given half a chance. Cassie and Dean find plenty of Scooby Doo scares inside the house, especially at night, but the tension is repeatedly broken by practical reveals or the decidedly unscary appearance of a cute little bunny. Spend two seconds trying to make sense of the bunny’s presence and you won’t be able to think about anything else. Who feeds this rabbit? Is it leaving trails of bunny poop all over the place? How does it jump three feet straight up to get on top of tables and desks? The bunny even has his own theme music, which cuts into the score every time he shows up.

Only in the third act does the picture really get rolling, and it’s difficult to say much about that without spoiling the climax. Before the grand finale, however, we do get some fun haunted house moments, especially when the newly hired housekeeper (Connie Gilchrist) discovers one of Duquesne’s practical jokes. The best performance in the picture belongs to Virginia Gregg as Dolly Bast, the devoted nurse who once cared for baby Cassie and stayed on to look after Duquesne until his death. Gregg gets to take Dolly through a variety of moods, from grieving unrequited lover to wild-eyed harridan, and she keeps us guessing about her character’s motives right up to the end. If anyone in the movie realizes this is supposed to be horror, it’s definitely Gregg, and her scenes in the house are the scariest and most effective moments of the whole show.

Director William Conrad was primarily an actor, probably best remembered today for his leading role on the television series, Jake and the Fatman, but he also directed The Man from Galveston (1963) and My Blood Runs Cold (1965). You can see more of Connie Stevens in Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), Susan Slade (1961), and Never Too Late (1965). Dean Jones is best known for his roles in Disney films like Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), The Love Bug (1968), and The Shaggy D.A. (1976). Look for Cesar Romero in Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Week-End in Havana (1941), and Captain from Castile (1947). Virginia Gregg had 200 screen credits to her name when she died in 1986; she appeared in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), Operation Petticoat (1959), and The Hanging Tree (1959), but if you close your eyes you might also recognize her as the voice of Norma Bates in Psycho (1960).

Two on a Guillotine is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Hammer Halloween Blogathon: DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. Go to to view the complete blogathon schedule.

We’ve gotten pretty far afield from Bram Stoker’s original Dracula by the point at which Hammer adds Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) to its long line of vampiric sequels, although not perhaps as far as we’ll get with Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). In the 1968 picture, released a decade after Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee returns as the iconic count, although without Peter Cushing as his perpetual nemesis; this time we have priests instead of occultist academics as humanity’s defenders, played by Rupert Davies and Ewan Hooper, as well as a handsome young skeptic whose philosophical views get quite a rude check by the appearance of the bloodsucking undead. Neither the greatest nor the least of the Hammer Dracula films, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is worth watching primarily for the ways in which it employs the studio’s favorite motifs while shifting the burden of the narrative arc to a character who is neither the monster nor his most visible opponent.

Lee’s immortal count, having been vanquished some years earlier, returns to prey upon the living when a fearful priest (Ewan Hooper) accidentally discovers him and supplies him with blood. A righteous Monsignor (Rupert Davies) has blocked Dracula’s access to his castle with prayer and a large cross, which enrages the count and inspires him to track down the high-ranking cleric in order to avenge himself. Luckily for Dracula, the Monsignor has a beautiful niece (Veronica Carlson) for the vampire to seduce, and her lover’s attempts to save her are hampered by his own disbelief in God.

In many ways, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave merely shuffles the various conventions established by the earlier films and Stoker’s original novel. We have two central female victims, one (Barbara Ewing) associated with sexual liberty and the other (Veronica Carlson) so identified with virginal innocence that she cuddles a doll in bed. Unlike Stoker’s Mina, neither has any real agency as a character, although like most Hammer heroines they do boast impressive decolletage. Monsignor Ernest stands in for Van Helsing as the believer and elder human champion, while Paul (Barry Andrews) plays the Harker role as acolyte and romantic partner of the threatened good woman. Paul’s theological doubts do add a touch of modernity to his character, but, while there might indeed be atheists in foxholes, there certainly aren’t going to be any in the lair of the damned undead, especially when crosses have such an obvious effect.

That leaves the nameless priest played by Ewan Hooper as the Renfield character, the helpless and repugnant slave to evil who commits unspeakable acts in his master’s name. Hooper’s priest, however, is really the protagonist of the film, if you pay close attention to the action. The priest’s weakness begins when he discovers one of Dracula’s victims within his own church. Because of his inability to cleanse the church, the community loses faith. Because of his fear, he fails to accompany the Monsignor to the castle and thus accidentally stumbles upon the vampire and awakens him. Too weak-willed to fight, the priest promptly succumbs to Dracula’s control, but we see in every scene that he loathes himself and hates the terrible acts that he commits. He never loves and desires the vampire, as Renfield and the many female victims do, for he recognizes evil even when he cannot resist it. Ultimately, Dracula’s destruction depends on the priest, not on the Monsignor or Paul, which makes the priest the most dynamic and psychologically complex character in the entire film. His namelessness and relatively few lines might suggest that the priest is merely a secondary character, but they also give him the air of an everyman, and Ewan Hooper actually gives a wrenching performance in the many close-ups that show his horror at being the instrument of such relentless evil. Much more than Paul or the women, the priest suffers and struggles, rendering the film’s climactic moment both triumphant and tragic, but utterly his, even if the camera cuts away at the end to focus on the more conventional couple.

Every Hammer fan knows where to find more of Christopher Lee, but newcomers to the horror canon should see him in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). Veronica Carlson also appears in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). See more of Rupert Davies in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Witchfinder General (1968), and The Oblong Box (1969). Ewan Hooper is a Shakespearean stage actor who turns up in films like How I Won the War (1967) and Kinky Boots (2005), but he has done quite a bit of British television, as well. Director Freddie Francis worked as a very successful cinematographer and also directed quite a few horror films; he won Oscars for his cinematography on Sons and Lovers (1960) and Glory (1989), but he also directed Trog (1970) and Tales from the Crypt (1972).

More Hammer horror reviews on Virtual Virago:

THE MUMMY (1959)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Audie Murphy's Grave at Arlington National Cemetery

Our family's fall break trip to DC didn't work out, thanks to the government shutdown, but I did manage to visit Arlington National Cemetery before we defected to Colonial Williamsburg for the rest of the week. Here's a photo of the headstone that marks the resting place of World War II hero and classic Hollywood star Audie Murphy.

Famous as the Army's most decorated soldier during the war, Murphy became a leading man by playing himself in To Hell and Back (1955), which was adapted from his own written account of his experiences. He also starred in Westerns like Destry (1954), No Name on the Bullet (1959), and The Unforgiven (1960). Tragically, Murphy died in a plane crash in 1971 when he was only 45 years old.

Murphy's memoir is still in print, so if you want to learn more about one of Hollywood's real-life heroes you can check out To Hell and Back on Amazon.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Heavy: The Life and Films of Laird Cregar

            Laird Cregar is by no means a household name today, but in the early 1940s the up-and-coming 20th Century Fox star stood perched on the edge of a long and productive career. The studio clearly imagined Cregar as another Vincent Price type, destined to play heavies because of his large size and cultured but sinister manner. Cregar, however, had other plans, and his obsession with proving himself as leading man material ultimately cost him not only his promising film career but his very life. The story of Laird Cregar fascinates movie buffs and film scholars today because it underscores the tragically high price actors sometimes paid in pursuing their dreams of stardom and prestige, but Cregar also merits attention as a gifted performer whose too-brief career reveals a tremendous talent that would have given the illustrious Price a run for his money had Cregar lived just a few more years.
Samuel Laird Cregar was born in Philadelphia on July 28, 1913. The youngest of six sons  sired by a professional cricket player, Cregar was sent to England at an early age to be educated at Winchester College, and it was there that he became involved with the theater, although he harbored a strong desire to act from early childhood. On his arrival in Hollywood, Cregar made the most of his theatrical experience by playing Oscar Wilde at the El Capitan Theatre, and he was so successful in the role that Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck took note of the young performer. After two small roles in forgettable films for other studios, Cregar made his debut for 20th Century Fox in the 1941 historical adventure, Hudson’s Bay, which also featured rising Fox star Vincent Price.
From there on Cregar enjoyed increasingly memorable roles, including several in high profile Fox productions like Blood and Sand (1941), The Black Swan (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (1943). At 300 pounds and six feet three inches tall, however, Cregar found himself typecast as a stock villain in most of his films, and he usually played characters decades older than the young actor, who was only in his late twenties in 1941. Cregar’s menacing size and more mature appearance were not the only reasons that Fox viewed him as a natural villain; his homosexuality, although not openly acknowledged, gave him a slightly fey quality that translated on screen as a debauched, even perverse, sensuality. Filmmakers capitalized on that aspect of Cregar’s persona in the noir films, I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and This Gun for Hire (1942), and in Cregar’s final two pictures, the atmospheric horrors The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945).
Cregar, determined to remake himself as a traditional leading man, could not change his height or sexual orientation but could dramatically alter his girth, and he embarked on a radical weight loss program between the filming of The Lodger and Hangover Square, dropping more than one hundred pounds in a very short period of time. The alteration put a terrible strain on Cregar’s mind and body, but the actor still was not satisfied with his transformation. In November of 1944, he underwent gastric bypass surgery. His heart, already weakened, gave out, and Cregar suffered a massive coronary. On December 9, 1944, at 31 years old and on the verge of real stardom, Cregar died, and Hangover Square, the only film for which he would receive top billing, was released some two months after his demise. Vincent Price delivered the eulogy at Cregar’s funeral, and he was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where his simple headstone bears the epitaph, “I am with you always.”
Thus ended the brief, tragic life of Laird Cregar the man, but his epitaph would prove prophetic in regards to Laird Cregar the screen persona. He left behind sixteen film performances, some nine of them destined to ensure that Cregar’s name would never be completely forgotten. Although Cregar had resented the studio’s typecasting and given his life to escape it, his work in his most memorable pictures reveals that he had a tremendous talent for heavy roles, and his larger-than-life personality demands the viewer’s attention even in small supporting parts. A closer look at a handful of his best-known films - particularly Blood and Sand, I Wake Up Screaming, This Gun for Hire, The Lodger, and Hangover Square - shows how adept Cregar was at creating memorable villains whose obsessive yet charismatic personalities help them steal the screen from the movies’ ostensible leads.

I should mention before moving on to Cregar’s full-blown bad guys that he did, in fact, play other types of characters with great success. He appears as the comical sidekick, Gooseberry, in his breakout role in Hudson’s Bay, and in The Black Swan he makes a wonderfully funny Captain Henry Morgan, especially in the scenes of Morgan uncomfortably rising to respectability as the governor of Jamaica. In the 1941 Jack Benny comedy, Charley’s Aunt, Cregar plays the father of a college student - ironic because Cregar was actually three years younger than the actor who plays his son. His best scenes in Charley’s Aunt have Cregar pitching middle-aged woo to a cross-dressed Benny, who spends much of the movie disguised as the picture’s title character. Fox even flirted with Cregar’s reputation as a villain by casting him as the Devil in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 romantic comedy, Heaven Can Wait, in which a recently deceased Don Ameche tells the story of his misspent life to Cregar’s smiling Satan. Smartly dressed and infernally sophisticated with his black goatee, Cregar is actually a very sympathetic listener to Ameche’s long confession, although he does relish dropping Florence Bates through a trapdoor to Hell. Despite these memorable forays beyond straightforward villainy, Fox primarily viewed Cregar as a character actor and career heavy, and Cregar’s ability to shine in comedic roles did not substantially alter the studio’s opinion. Cregar was brilliant at playing villains, no question, but these other performances remind us that his desire for a more diverse career was not unrealistic or beyond his considerable talents.
Cregar got his first big antagonistic part in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 Technicolor bullfighting spectacle, Blood and Sand, a lavish Spanish epic adapted from the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibàñez. Here Cregar establishes several of the qualities that recur in his later heavies. His character is the bullfighting critic, Curro, an egotistical, bombastic dictator of the public taste. Curro at first antagonizes the hero, an aspiring matador played by Tyrone Power, but when Power’s fighter becomes a success Curro fawns on him and praises him as lavishly as he had once denounced him. Curro, however, can turn as viciously and suddenly as an asp, and he celebrates the matador’s eventual fall with cruelly barbed quips. Throughout the film Curro demonstrates a talent for thrusting his knife into his victims’ most vulnerable spots. He is the most dangerous and unpredictable sort of villain because he is simultaneously sadistic, clever, and weak, a limp snake in the grass that bites where the flesh is most exposed.
Cregar also invests Curro with a subtle jealousy of the masculine Juan, which might be interpreted either as Curro’s desire to be more like Juan or to be with him, a position that makes Curro a theoretical rival to both Linda Darnell’s angelic wife and Rita Hayworth’s destructive siren. As one critic in the documentary short, “The Tragic Mask: The Laird Cregar Story,” points out, Cregar “plays the character quite gay,” a risky choice in the closeted world of 1940s Hollywood. The gamble, however, pays off handsomely. In a film that boasts iconic stars like Power, Darnell, Hayworth, John Carradine, and Anthony Quinn, Cregar makes his villain stand out, no small achievement for an actor making his fourth film with only one year of Hollywood roles behind him.
In I Wake Up Screaming, released the same year as Blood and Sand, Cregar plays corrupt cop Ed Cornell, the villain who persecutes stars Betty Grable and Victor Mature after the murder of an aspiring model played by Carole Landis. Film critic David N. Meyer pans this minor film noir as “unconvincing” and even “unwatchable,” but he praises Cregar’s performance as “creepy and terrific” despite his complaints about the rest of the picture (142-143). In his book, Film Noir, Andrew Spicer identifies Cregar’s character as an example of the homme fatal, which Spicer describes as having “connotations of sexual perversity as well as sadism” (90). Cregar’s Ed Cornell thus belongs to the same camp as Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), and Claude Rains’ Victor Grandison in The Unsuspected (1947), with strong parallels to Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958), as well. The similarity between Waldo Lydecker and Ed Cornell is more than coincidental trivia; Cregar was actually considered for the role in Laura until director Otto Preminger rejected him as too obvious a villain. The typecasting that Cregar so desperately wanted to avoid cut him out of the running for one of the greatest character roles in film noir history, which only made him more determined to pursue his fatal makeover scheme.
Fox loaned Cregar out to Paramount for the more successful 1942 noir picture, This Gun for Hire, in which Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake take the leads as a professional killer and the beautiful girl who might or might not be trying to help him. Cregar plays the treacherous crook, Willard Gates, who betrays Ladd’s Raven by paying him off for a job with stolen, marked bills. In A Girl and a Gun, David N. Meyer describes Cregar’s character as an “early-noir archetype - the oversized, soft-spoken villain with the palette of an urban sophisticate and the implied sexual preferences of a degenerate” (254). Willard is both a pervert and a coward, but once again Cregar uses his character to steal the movie from its stars. Cregar himself described his character type as “a grotesque,” a term that perfectly suits his most villainous roles but highlights Cregar’s sense of his size and sexuality as limitations that prevented him from winning the coveted leading man roles.
Cregar’s final two films at Fox reveal his genius at playing the grotesque and also his obsession with breaking out of the villainous typecasting. The 1944 Gothic thriller, The Lodger, provides a truly iconic villain for the actor to play - that depraved Victorian vivisectionist, Jack the Ripper. The source material for the film was the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which had already provided the inspiration for a silent 1927 treatment from Alfred Hitchcock and would later be made again with Jack Palance in 1953 as Man in the Attic.
Ironically, Cregar is the title character in The Lodger but not the top-billed actor; both Merle Oberon and George Sanders are credited above him. Despite third billing, Cregar is clearly the protagonist of the story, and his truly macabre performance dominates the film. He plays the mysterious Mr. Slade, a stranger who rents a set of rooms from an older couple in the midst of the Jack the Ripper murders. His landlady, played by Sara Allgood, becomes suspicious of the new tenant, but nobody takes her seriously until it is almost too late, after Slade has already settled on lovely Merle Oberon as his next victim. George Sanders stars as the police detective determined to uncover the killer’s true identity and save Oberon’s character, Kitty, from a horrific fate.
The audience knows from the beginning that Cregar’s protagonist is the killer, which eliminates any concern about the actor being too obviously the villain. There’s no twist to spoil, and the plot moves forward with the tension relying on how long it will take for everyone else to figure out what the viewers already know. Cregar gives an incredibly creepy, intense performance, but like the best monster players he mingles his monstrosity with pity, especially in the scenes where he laments the death of his beloved brother, for whom he harbors a decidedly homoerotic passion. Cregar murmurs many of his most chilling lines, and his soft-spoken, almost dreamy manner leads Merle Oberon’s Kitty to pity him as a lost, lonely soul, little suspecting the brutal violence that lurks beneath the surface.
The Lodger revels in full-on Gothic atmosphere, with a Victorian setting replete with foggy streets, gaslight, and an aesthetic attitude toward horror very similar to that of Val Lewton in the RKO pictures Cat People, Bedlam, and I Walked with a Zombie. Cregar’s Slade perfectly embodies the Gothic themes of sexual repression and obsession; he both adores and hates Merle Oberon’s youthful beauty because he sees it as a snare that traps and destroys men. Like a more bloodthirsty version of the speaker in “Porphyria’s Lover,” he kills women and cuts them up in order to remove their evil natures and make them perfectly good and still. Slade also evinces a fascination with water, in this case the River Thames, which he ironically sees as a cleansing force that washes evil away. The finale lets Cregar cut loose with a wild-eyed, bravura performance that prefigures Orson Welles’ trapped rat run at the climax of The Third Man (1949) but also reveals shades of Peter Lorre in M (1931).
The Lodger proved successful enough that Fox reunited its major players for Cregar’s final picture, Hangover Square. George Sanders was cast as the detective, John Brahm was again tapped as director, and Barré Lyndon adapted the screenplay from the novel by Patrick Hamilton. Hamilton was already known for his Gothic work thanks to the successful screen versions of his play, Gaslight, and in 1948 another of his plays, Rope, would be made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. It was Cregar himself who suggested the novel for his next project, although he did not react well to the drastic alterations Fox made to the story. The final picture actually bears little resemblance to Hamilton’s black comedy, since the studio changed the period and the plot to more closely resemble The Lodger, but the idea of the protagonist as a man with a split personality disorder remains central to the film, as does his destructive relationship with a greedy, self-serving woman.
Cregar, achieving top billing at last, stars as classical composer George Harvey Bone, a gentle, soft-spoken soul who transforms into a homicidal maniac any time he hears a discordant sound. He has a sweetly bland girlfriend, Barbara, played by the unremarkable Faye Marlowe, who supports his musical career and promotes his work with her father, a successful conductor. Despite the girlfriend’s devoted concern about his periodic blackouts George becomes entangled with the seductive Netta, a self-interested singer played to deliciously repugnant effect by Linda Darnell. Netta milks George for music to advance her own career but only pretends affection for him while keeping a variety of other useful lovers on the side. Little does she realize that the gullible, pathetic George is also a violent murderer whose impulse to kill becomes fixed on her when her deception is finally revealed.
As far as Fox was concerned, Hangover Square was simply meant to duplicate the basic elements of The Lodger, but Cregar saw the love scenes with Linda Darnell as his opportunity to prove himself as a leading man. His intense diet and exercise regimen resulted in rapid weight loss and put a tremendous strain on him both physically and emotionally. According to “The Tragic Mask: The Laird Cregar Story,” the stress made for a difficult production, with Cregar eventually getting into an ugly and very public spat with John Brahm and the film crew through the Hollywood media. His death before the picture’s release in early 1945 meant that Cregar would never see how his obsessive makeover played out on screen.
The ultimate tragedy is that Cregar’s performance is simply brilliant, a showcase of the actor’s potential to play both romantic and maniacal types. Cregar had always been good at villainy, but in this role he adds even greater nuance and meaning to his monster by changing the way the audience sees him as a physical presence. Only in Hangover Square do we see Cregar looking close to his actual age, without the makeup, facial hair, and costumes that so often made him seem to be decades older. Like Cregar himself, George Harvey Bone is a young man on the verge of a promising career, laid low by darkness both within and without. With his slimmer figure and thinner face, Cregar sells himself as a worthy romantic hero, even though evil ultimately gets the upper hand.
Cregar manages to make George sympathetic, even tragic, despite a set up that once again tells the audience that he is a killer in the very first scene. We are introduced to George in homicidal mode, stabbing an antiques dealer and then setting fire to the shop. As water had been the murderer’s obsession in The Lodger, so fire becomes a central motif for George in Hangover Square. Both elements function as violent cleansing agents, with Cregar’s character as the final stain that must be removed from the world. When George is sane, Cregar plays him as a gentle artist, naïve perhaps but not so much a sap that he doesn’t resent Netta’s treatment of him. His sensitive nature makes Barbara want to protect him even as it invites Netta to take advantage of him, but Cregar gives George enough spirit that we see the bridge between his two sides. Besides, his artistic sensitivity is the quality that also causes him to go mad at the clang of pipes falling or the screeching thump of instruments being knocked over. He presses a hand to the back of his head, blinks hard, and then becomes a dangerous sleepwalker, barely aware of anything beyond his compulsion to kill. When the fog finally clears, George remembers nothing of his violent escapades, and we pity him deeply as he struggles to come to terms with a monstrosity that he suspects lives within him without his knowledge or consent.
Cregar again makes the most of a deliriously Gothic finale, with George finally recognizing his own evil and choosing death by fire rather than execution or life in the insane asylum. “I’ll never be held nor hanged!” George shouts at the Scotland Yard detectives. He sets the house on fire and plays his final concerto as everyone else rushes out. Fittingly, Laird Cregar sits at the piano, an artist to the last, performing with his whole soul until the billowing smoke rises up. In the final shot, he vanishes from our view.
Cregar’s death prevented him from playing the next role that Fox meant for him, that of Nicholas Van Ryn in the 1946 Gothic thriller, Dragonwyck. The part went to Vincent Price instead, and it would help to advance Price’s career as one of Hollywood’s most memorable heavies. Price died in 1993 with nearly 200 film and television credits to his name, leaving us to speculate what Cregar might have done had he lived past the age of 31. Instead, Cregar became an obscure footnote in the history of Hollywood tragedies, another casualty of the dream machine’s darker side. Some of his costars also met terrible fates: Carole Landis committed suicide at age 29, Tyrone Power suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 44, and Linda Darnell burned to death in a house fire when she was 41. George Sanders killed himself in 1972, at the comparatively old age of 67. All of them left questions, roles that might have been, and films that proved the worth of that which had been lost, but Cregar, so talented and so ambitious, is as tragic a figure as any of those better known stars. As the mourning Slade lamented of his departed brother in The Lodger, “He need not have died.” Had Cregar been able to accept his fate as a heavy, or had Hollywood been more broad-minded in its image of the leading man, he might have lived a long life, and cinema would have been far richer for his presence.

This paper was originally presented at the 2013 conference of Popular Culture in the South (PCAS) in Savannah, GA. Works Cited information is omitted to discourage plagiarism.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE (1939)

Fox’s Technicolor Tinseltown retrospective is by no means one of the most significant pictures to come out in 1939, but Hollywood Cavalcade has its charms as a sentimental tribute to the silent film era. Like the later - and much better - MGM musical, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), this story follows the changing fortunes of silent movie stars as the sound age arrives, with Alice Faye and Don Ameche as the leads in a cast that also includes some real veterans of the earlier era. Silent movie fans will find Hollywood Cavalcade worthwhile for its cameos and silent segments, even if its vision of cinema history is both romanticized and compressed, while Fox devotees will be glad to see strong performances from Faye, Ameche, and the very likable J. Edward Bromberg.

Don Ameche plays rising filmmaker Mike Connors, who signs Broadway actress Molly Adair (Alice Faye) and stakes his career on making her a star. Once they arrive in the infant Hollywood, still awash in orange groves, Mike and Molly start making pictures together, and Molly soon becomes a huge success. Molly pines for Mike’s romantic attention, but his single-minded obsession with the movies leads her to marry her handsome leading man, Nicky (Alan Curtis), which provokes a rift with the outraged Mike. Even Mike’s long-suffering friend and backer, Dave Spingold (J. Edward Bromberg), eventually walks out on the difficult and self-destructive director, but Molly, Nicky, and Dave never stop hoping for reconciliation and a chance to help Mike get his career back on track.

Oddly enough, Alice Faye never sings in this picture, and although the silent film sequences contain a lot of slapstick the central narrative is really a drama that focuses on the collateral damage caused by Mike’s intense dedication to his art. Ameche therefore carries most of the story’s punch, and he’s very good, especially as Mike spirals downward after Molly and Nicky marry. We understand, of course, that Mike has his chance with Molly and ignores it, but to Mike her marriage seems like an unforgivable betrayal, and it becomes a catalyst for the rise of his darker side. Mike’s movie-making combines the efforts of Mack Sennett, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and other early innovators, and we see him run through the major styles defined by the silent directors in the inevitable march toward sound.

Alice Faye takes most of the comedy work in stride, getting pies in the face from Buster Keaton and being chased around by the Keystone Cops. Some of her silent film segments run a bit long, but they’re sincere homages to the earlier age, and it’s nice to see some of the old stars reliving their glory days, especially Al Jolson in the climactic recreation of The Jazz Singer (1927). Mack Sennett plays himself, as do Ben Turpin, Chester Conklin, and Lee Duncan, although Rin-Tin-Tin Jr. stands in for the original Rin-Tin-Tin. In the regular supporting cast, handsome Alan Curtis makes an attractive second choice as Molly’s love interest but has little to do, while J. Edward Bromberg brings a lot of heart to his loyal sidekick character. Modern viewers will probably find Willie Fung an irritating stereotype, but Donald Meek has a good small role as the studio head who first clashes with Mike.

Although Irving Cummings is the credited director for Hollywood Cavalcade, both Buster Keaton and Malcolm St. Clair made contributions to the film. Cummings, a silent film veteran himself, also made Curly Top (1935), Lillian Russell (1940), and Down Argentine Way (1940). For more Hollywood commentaries on motion picture history, try Footlight Parade (1933), Sunset Boulevard (1950), or The Artist (2011). Alice Faye and Don Ameche also star together in In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and That Night in Rio (1941). Catch J. Edward Bromberg in Strange Cargo (1940), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and Son of Dracula (1943).

Hollywood Cavalcade is included in the Alice Faye Collection Volume 2, and the DVD includes some several good bonus features, including a featurette about the film.