Friday, June 28, 2013

Art, Sex, and Influence: Part 2

Here is the second part of my article about 20 gay male artists who have influenced me over the years. Read the first part here and celebrate the fact that this week DOMA and Prop 8 were overturned by the Supreme Court, though I have to wince at the margin by which these were barely rejected. 

Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980)
“I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me.”

One of the most innovative literary theorists of his generation, this French writer, linguist, leftist, critic, philosopher, and professor is one of the most important personalities of the Post-structuralist school and of semiotics. Educated at the Sorbonne, Barthes suffered throughout his life from tuberculosis, which kept him out of WWII, but also made his academic career more challenging. Barthes helped to re-imagine literary criticism, and developed new language for the interpretation of signs, photography, and the image, of critical importance to film theorists. Though Barthes occasionally wrote about his homosexual flings, he seems to have been largely romantically inactive and spent much of his life living with his mother, who died in 1977. He died a few years later when he was hit by a van and sustained chest injuries. Some of his most important and recommended works include Writing Degree Zero, Mythologies, his essay “The Death of the Author,” S/Z, Empire of Signs, A Lover’s Discourse, Image-Music-Text, and Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Beginners should keep in mind that his writing his highly theoretical and academic. A good place to start is the Barthes Reader (it includes “Death of the Author”) and Louis-Jean Calvet’s biography, which has been translated into English. 

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922 - 1975)
“I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for belief.”

Next to Oscar Wilde, Pasolini is probably the most important person on this list. Known primarily for his infamous film Salo, Pasolini is one of the most difficult men on this list to classify. He was a director, novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher, critic, journalist, and linguist, as well as an actor, painter and art critic. His brief imprisonment by German forces in WWII and his life in fascist Italy led directly to Salo, his final film, an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom set in fascist Italy. It features a number of explicit acts, including shit eating, rape, and murder. Even his less overtly shocking films included brazen depictions of sexuality, and political and religious themes that led to his work being banned. A controversial figure for most of his adult life, part of this was due to the expression of his extreme political and religious beliefs in his conservative, religious home country, Italy. He was also openly gay (one of his earliest influences was Rimbaud, the first person on my list), which led to an early scandal and contributed to his death immediately after the release of Salo when he was murdered by a male prostitute (though in recent years it has been suspected that his death was a political controversy). His neo-realist films are highly recommended and several are available through Criterion, including Salo and his Trilogy of Life. Also recommended is Teorema, one of my favorite of his films. To learn more about one of the century’s greatest filmmakers, check out this Senses of Cinema article and this New York Times article. More academic works I would recommend are Pasolini’s own Heretical Empiricism, Allegories of Contamination by Patrick Rumble, Sam Rhodie’s The Passion of Pier Paolo Passolini, and The Resurrection of the Body by Armando Maggi. 

Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984)
“Death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of man: his invisible truth, his visible secret.”

A contemporary of Barthes, French social theorist/anthropologist and literary critic Michel Foucault is another major personality in philosophy, post-structuralism in particular, and his works on sex, power, knowledge, the prison system, and mental illness are ground breaking. A student of Louis Althusser, Foucault made a name for himself with Madness and Civilization, a historical and theoretical study of the rise of psychiatry and an examination of madness in Western culture. He primarily focused on structuralism and discussions of modernity, which are represented in nearly all of his works, and he was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, particularly in his later years. I would recommend The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality, though keep in mind that all of his works are highly academic. Mostly open about his sexuality, Foucault was occasionally caught up in scandals, and he and the composer Jean Barraqué became known for incorporating drugs and S&M into their relationship. Many of Foucault’s literary influences similarly explored the intersection of sex and violence. Foucault was the first public figure in France to die of AIDS-related complications. His partner of two decades, sociology professor Daniel Defert, became an AIDS activist as a result and founded one of the first French AIDS awareness organizations, AIDES. To learn more about Foucault, check out James Miller’s biography The Passion of Michel Foucault

Kenneth Anger (1927 - )
"I've always considered movies evil; the day that cinema was invented was a black day for mankind."

Kenneth Anger is an influential American independent, experimental filmmaker best known for a number of short films that combine themes of the occult and homo-eroticism and were influenced strongly by early filmmaker Georges Méliès and the Surrealists. His Magick Lantern Cycle comes highly recommended and includes such films as Fireworks (1947), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1964), Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), and Lucifer Rising (1972). His innovative use of pop music in film influenced a wide range of directors, including David Lynch. Anger was one of the first openly gay directors in the U.S. and many of his works contain homoerotic elements or gay characters. Some of these films were shot while homosexuality was still illegal in the U.S. and Anger was taken to court on obscenity charges. He’s also well known for having “Lucifer” tattooed on his chest, for following Aleister Crowley's occult practices, and for having a number of famous friends, including sexologist Alfred Kinsey, Jean Cocteau, Anton LaVey, and Mick Jagger. Anger has also written two books, both named Hollywood Babylon, that are essentially gossip memoirs about his life in Hollywood and interactions with various prominent actors and filmmakers. If you want to read more about him, check out Alice Hutchinson’s biography and film book Kenneth Anger and visit his personal site. His films are available in an excellent two part collection from Kino.

Ian McKellen (1939 - )
“There’s no sex in Middle Earth.”

In addition to being one of the finest actors working on stage or screen, Sir Ian McKellen has become a gay icon over the years (he even played someone mentioned much earlier on my list, director James Whale, in the biographical film Gods and Monsters and starred in Bent, about the Nazi persecution of homosexuality), which is especially wonderful considering that he is also one of the world’s biggest action/fantasy stars. He began acting very early on and got his start on stage in the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, among others, before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and proving himself a leading man. If you can track down a video of Trevor Nunn’s production of Macbeth, starring McKellen, it comes highly recommended. During the ‘90s he achieved fame in the film world and has mastered a wide range of genres. McKellen has received basically every available acting award (or nomination) and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was knighted, making him the highest ranking member of the British (or any) aristocracy on this list. He is also an LGBT activist and came out to the public in 1988. He is a member and patron of a number LGBT organizations. Learn more about him through his personal site

Graham Chapman (1941 - 1989)
“Dressing up as decrepit old ladies, and even decrepit young ladies, was one of our staples.”

Alongside Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and John Cleese, British actor, writer, and comedian Graham Chapman was a members of one of the greatest (and my favorite) comedy groups of all time, Monty Python. Responsible for the surreal sketch comedy television show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and several well-regarded films, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life, Life of Brian, and more, Graham often played the lead in Python films and was regarded by the group to be the strongest actor. He came to be in the Pythons because he and writing partner John Cleese wrote for a variety of BBC shows before meeting the other members and creating Flying Circus. He struggled with alcoholism throughout his career and kept his sexuality private until 1967, when he was one of the first British actors to come out publicly. From that point, he was an active spokesperson for LGBT rights until he died of cancer in 1989. David Sherlock, Graham’s partner of over 20 years, occasionally contributed to the Pythons and co-wrote Graham’s autobiography, A Liar’s Autobiography. To learn more about one of the most wonderful men in comedy, visit the Python’s website and read the authorized biography
And now for someone completely different... 

Derek Jarman (1942 - 1994)
“Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea.” 

This British set designer, artist, and director was one of the most talented individuals working in British art house cinema and New Queer Cinema. He is best remembered for his inspired set design on Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils (1971) and for some of his own films: the first British film to positively depict homosexuality — Sebastiane (1976), the UK’s first punk film — Jubilee (1977), my personal favorite Caravaggio (1986), Edward II (1991), and others. He adapted Shakespeare (The Tempest) and Marlowe (Edward II) and many of his films focus on historical figures (Sebastiane, Caravaggio, Wittgenstein). He captured actor Laurence Olivier’s final film performance in War Requiem (1989). Many of his films include gay themes and characters, including Caravaggio, which is a biography of the gay Renaissance painter, and depicts a homosexual relationship and loose threesome. Because Caravaggio’s life is relatively shrouded in mystery, I left him off this list, but he is one of my favorite painters and Jarman’s film is a good (though fictionalized) introduction to his life and work. His adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II is another important addition to this list because Marlowe was believed to be gay (and a spy — another person whose life is somewhat a mystery) and Edward II is one of the few plays from the Elizabethan period with gay themes. Jarman was an active and often outspoken LGBT rights supporter and AIDS activist until his AIDS-related death in 1994. Though I have yet to read a Jarman biography, I would recommend checking out Tony Peake’s Derek Jarman or Michael O’Pray’s Derek Jarman: Dreams of England, and the documentaries Derek and Derek Jarman: Life As Art, both of which feature Tilda Swinton, one of his regular collaborators. 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945 - 1982)
“Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression.”

Prolific German director, writer, and actor Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of my most favorite people on this list, but one that I discovered relatively late. In the 15 or so years that he was active, he made 40 feature length films, two TV series, and directed and acted in a number of plays, and remains one of the most important figures of New German Cinema. Most of his disturbing, unsettling films are deeply personal and deal with controversial romantic/sexual relationships: homosexual relationships, relationships between people of different classes and races, relationships between employer and employee, etc. Known to be particularly brutal to his actors and collaborators, Fassbinder had sexual and romantic relationships with both men and women, often people involved in his films, and he used these relationships to manipulate and control his close-knit group of actors and crew members. His urge to shock, provoke, and confront bourgeois German mentality with cinema and theater also led to many self-destructive behaviors (not that he’s the only one on this list), which ultimately resulted in his death at 37 of a heart attack caused by a drug overdose. Visit the Fassbinder website to learn more about him. It is difficult to recommend just a few of his films, or a few of the biographies or documentaries about him (there are many of these, as well as several collections of his writings), but Criterion has put out some his films and are about to release a box set of his early films later this summer. To learn more, wait for my series on Fassbinder later this summer and maybe start with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kent, World on a Wire, Fox and His Friends, Satan’s Brew, In a Year of 13 Moons, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Lola. 

Divine (1945 - 1988)
“Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!”

Born Harris Glenn Milstead, but later known as Divine, this Baltimore based actor, drag queen, singer, Most Beautiful Woman in the World, and Filthiest Person Alive, Divine is one of my biggest heroes. She was the star of most of director John Waters films, became a cult icon in his/her own right, and a major figure in the fight for LGBT rights. Divine also became a somewhat well-known burlesque and underground theater actor in New York and California and later began a career in the early ‘80s as a disco star, where she topped the charts and toured actively. Divine died of a heart attack in 1988, just before she was about to reach national fame with a reoccurring role on Married with Children, this time with a role as a man (the gay uncle) rather than dressed in drag as a woman. To learn more about Divine, start with (at your own risk) Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1972), Polyester (1981), and Hairspray (1988). Also check out the recently released documentary, I Am Divine, touring the festival circuit now. It comes highly recommended. Divine was openly gay (not transgendered as is sometimes assumed) and overweight all of his adult life and experienced aggressive bullying as a teen, which led to the creation of anti-bully organization The I Am Divine Foundation

John Waters (1946 - )
“If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”

Divine would likely not have become such a sensation without another one of my biggest heroes, Baltimore-based director, writer, and actor, John Waters, aka the Pope of Trash. Known for such films as Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1972), Desperate Living (1977), Polyester (1981), and Hairspray (1988), his work is distinctively transgressive, subversive, sleazy, and trashy. He gained enough fame to ensure larger budgets and more famous actors for his later films, such as Serial Mom (1994) with Kathleen Turner, Cry Baby (1990) with Johnny Depp, and Cecil B. Demented (2000) with Stephen Dorff and Melanie Griffith, among others. In later years he has done a number of stand up tours (namely This Filthy World), written several books, and began producing and collecting visual art. His acting troupe, known as the Dreamlanders, which included Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and Mary Viviane Pearce, have their own official page, where you can learn more about John and his current projects. Also check out his Artsy page to learn more about his ongoing artwork. He is currently writing a book about his recent adventure hitchhiking across the U.S. Until then, you can check out Shock Value, Crackpot, Role Models, and more. He has long been openly gay and a vocal supporter of LGBT rights. I’ve had a few John Waters sightings in Baltimore bars, but have never been brave enough to introduce myself. Earlier this year, though, he was kind enough to respond to an email and read an article on my blog. Thanks John!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Karl Freund (1890 - 1969)

Austrian cinematographer and director Karl Freund made a huge impact on pre-WWII German cinema, particularly expressionist films, influenced early Hollywood through his work with Universal and MGM, and later went on to innovate the way television shows were filmed with his work on I Love Lucy. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic), Freund got his start as a Pathe newsreel camera man in 1908. Due to his weight (a life long issue) he was unsuitable for military service, which allowed him to continue working in cinema and avoid the first World War. A few years later, he joined Germany’s major film studio, UFA, and was able to create his own lab to process film and experiment with processing techniques. When he emigrated to the U.S. in 1929, he was hired by the Technicolor Co. to help develop the color film process. His innovative work developing sound and color cinema ensured his expertise in silent, sound, black and white, and color film, making him one of the most important, knowledgeable, and employable cinematographers of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Universal hired him in 1930, almost immediately after he moved to the U.S., which also guaranteed he was a major player in their series of classic horror films. 

Throughout his career, Freund worked with a number of well-known directors, often repeatedly. He worked with Frankenstein director James Whale on The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), Port of Seven Seas (1938) and Green Hell (1940), with John Ford on Airmail (1932), and with George Cukor on Camille (1936) starring Garbo. He worked on Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939), on Jules Dassin’s A Letter for Evie (1945) and Two Smart People (1945), with Vincente Minnelli on Undercurrent (1946), and with Alexander Korda on Madame Wants No Children (1926). He was also cinematographer for two of the most important early films: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the Academy Award-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), where he developed the first sound lap dissolve on film. He co-wrote and shot the documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) and repeatedly worked with many of the important German expressionist directors, particularly F.W. Murnau on Satanas (1920), about Lucrezia Borgia and starring Conrad Veidt, The Last Laugh (1924), Tartuffe (1926), and Faust (1925), among many others. 

Freund also worked with a number of well-known actors throughout his career, such as Spencer Tracy on The Seventh Cross (1944) and Tracy and Katharine Hepburn on Without Love (1945), Myrna Loy on Man-Proof (1938) and the fifth Thin Man film, The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), with director John Huston and stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on Key Largo (1948), and with Errol Flynn on Montana (1950), Freund’s last film. He worked with Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden on Golden Boy (1939), with with Greta Garbo on Conquest (1937), with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy on the flop Parnell (1937), and with Bette Davis on The Bad Sister (1931), where Freund lobbied for Davis to be cast in her very first film. He first worked with Lucille Ball on Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), which is where he met Ball and Desi Arnaz. They would later convince him to become head cinematographer for I Love Lucy.

Though primarily a cinematographer, Freund also directed eleven films, including parts of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), though he remains uncredited, Universal’s third major horror film, The Mummy (1932), and the Peter Lorre vehicle Mad Love (1935), a loose remake of German expressionist horror film The Hands of Orlac. He directed two films while still in Germany, Der tote Gast (1921) and Der große Sensationsprozeß (1923), as well as a number of mostly forgotten comedies, adventure/spy films, and musicals in the U.S., including The Countess of Monte Cristo (1934) with Fay Wray. In addition to The Mummy, Dracula, and Mad Love, Freund was cinematographer on a number of important early horror films, such as Murnau’s Der Januskopf (1920), Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920) (as well as a number of Wegener’s other films from the period), and Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). 

Unlike many other personalities in the Universal horror canon, Freund’s talent was widely recognized during his lifetime. He worked on The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which won an Oscar for Best Picture, and The Good Earth (1937), where he personally won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. He received nominations for Pride and Prejudice (1940), Tortilla Flat (1942), A Guy Named Joe (1943), The Chocolate Soldier (1941), and Blossoms in the Dust (1941). Known for being one of the most experienced cinematographers working in the first half of the 20th century, Freund was a major technical innovator - for which he won several awards - and founded the Photo Research Corporation in 1944, where he and others could explore new techniques. He designed a light meter and innovated a three camera system for filming television, which is still in use today. He was a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (known as the A.S.C.). 

Freund gave a lot of interviews, though he was relatively quiet about his personal life. His weight issues were known throughout Hollywood, as was his mixed reputation. He was known for being a genius behind the camera, but not a particularly pleasant person to deal with, particularly for certain actors (he allegedly terrorized Zita Johann on the set of The Mummy). He became a U.S. citizen in 1937 and returned to Germany only once during the war to retrieve his daughter and save her from possible internment (and death) in the concentration camps. He was unable to save his ex-wife, who was sent to Ravensbrück and later died. Freund represents some of the best elements of early German cinema and its influence on developing Hollywood and the advent of both sound and color film. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Art, Sex, and Influence: Part 1

I have long been meaning to write an article about the gay male artists/writers/filmmakers who inspired and influenced me during my formative years (generally my teens, though some are from a bit earlier and some a bit later). Pride month seems as good a time as any to tackle this deeply personal subject for me and I’ve decided to expand this into a two-part article. If I seem to be leaving out any artists you think were influential (such as Andy Warhol and George Takei), remember that this is a list of people who are especially important to me, without whom I simply would not be the person I am today.

Growing up, I had very few female role models and even fewer women in my life that I could relate to. Sexuality was a gray area, at least until I discovered a number of gay male artists, all right around the same time (puberty, surprise). Though I had some straight male role models, they were far outnumbered by gay men, especially gay male artists hidden in unexpected places, artists who just happened to be gay and did not make their sexual identity the focus of their art. They just happened to be different and, well, so did I. This fascinated and inspired me and still does. It seems particularly relevant now, when the issue of marriage rights and bullying are finally being recognized within this country (the Supreme Court makes their ruling on DOMA next week), despite the best efforts of some offensively moronic conservatives.

Here is a list of 20 of my biggest role models in chronological order. I've broken this down into two parts for readability. 

Arthur Rimbaud (1854 - 1891)
“I found I could extinguish all human hope from my soul.”

This teenage French poet, enfant terrible, master of symbolism, and, alongside Charles Baudelaire, one of the most influential poets of the Decadent movement, became a major influence on later writers, artists, and musicians, the Surrealists in particular. Known for his rebellious, anti-authoritarian attitude and libertine lifestyle, Rimbaud’s incredible verse is particularly stunning because he began to turn out some of his finest work at the age of fifteen. He also became famous for his tempestuous romantic relationship with the Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who was married when he first met Rimbaud. After an alcohol-fueled affair that tested the limits of Verlaine’s sanity, Verlaine shot Rimbaud, and the 17 year old wrote one of his greatest works, Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). During a later relationship with another poet, Germain Nouveau, he wrote Illuminations, his finest collection of poetry. He stopped writing just before he turned 20 years old to spend almost two decades traveling the globe, until he died of cancer at 37. To learn more about one of my favorite poets, check out his complete works (and selected letters) in this excellent bilingual edition. I also highly recommend the Rimbaud biography by Graham Robb

Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.”

This Irish novelist, theorist, poet, playwright, wit, and dandy is one of the world’s most important gay icons, one of the Victorian era’s most essential writers, and one of my biggest artistic influences (I’m currently in the middle of getting a Wilde-themed tattoo sleeve, for example). Today he is known for his plays, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and Salome, among others, as well as his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, most of which are still widely read and adapted for stage and screen. In addition to his long hair and flamboyant fashion sense, he was known for his decadent lifestyle and almost constant self-mythologizing. He is also known for his belief in “Greek love” and numerous relationships with men, particularly a relatively open, long-term relationship with his younger lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Though their relationship was often toxic, it lasted for nearly all of Wilde’s adult life. His sexuality landed him a prison sentence for “gross indecency” and effectively ruined his life. The prison health conditions, along with his personal misery, contributed to his death a few years later. I highly recommend Wilde’s complete works, though it is certainly a large volume, as well as this  biography by Richard Ellman, one of my favorites. 

James Whale (1889 - 1957)
“To a new world of gods and monsters!”

I’ve already written a lengthy article about the career of British director James Whale, one of Universal’s most important horror directors. In addition to his classic films Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Old Dark House, among others, Whale got his start directing theater and worked across a wide range of film genres. He helped bring the style of German expressionism to American cinema, which went on to profoundly influence the noir genre and, subsequently, almost all American thrillers and crime cinema. His use of suspense, horror, and black comedy was also a likely influence on the later films of Alfred Hitchcock. Whale was also one of the first openly gay directors in Hollywood and lived with his partner, Hollywood producer David Lewis, for over 20 years. Though modern critics have tried to imprint a gay reading on many of his films (particularly Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein), it cannot be denied that many of his main characters are loners and outsiders, and subverting normative morality and heterosexual couplings was a regular feature of his films. In addition to his movies, check out James Curtis’ impressively researched and extensive biography, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters. I also recommend the fictional biographical film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen as Whale in the later years of his life. 

Jean Cocteau (1889 - 1963)
“I am burning myself up and will always do so.”

This French filmmaker, artist, poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, and so much more was one of the most important artists from the ‘20s to the ‘60s and is associated with some of the most influential figures of the early 20th century, including Marcel Proust, André Gide, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stavinsky, Édith Piaf, Coco Chanel, and more, many of whom he collaborated with. He is known for his novel Les Enfants terribles and his cinematic Orphic trilogy, which includes Blood of a Poet (1930), Orphée (1950), and Testament of Orpheus (1959), as well as La Belle et la Bête (1946). His experiments with theater, sound recording, and film are incredibly influential. He is also known for his lifestyle, which involved an addiction to opium and a string of famous affairs with both men and women. His longest lasting and most impacting relationship was with his muse Jean Marais, a prolific artist and actor who starred in some of Cocteau’s most important films. Their relationship lasted until Cocteau’s death of a heart attack in 1963, the same day as Édith Piaf. Though I have yet to read any books on Cocteau, there are a few on my list: An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean Cocteau by Frederick Brown, Francis Steegmuller’s biography, and the academic collection Reviewing Orpheus about Cocteau’s art and films. The Criterion box set of his Orphic trilogy is an excellent place to start if you are new to his work. 

Christopher Isherwood (1904 - 1986)
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

Christopher Isherwood, often overshadowed by his more famous friend, the poet W.H. Auden, was the first person who ever made me wish I could keep a journal (reading his work still has that effect). An English journalist, novelist, and memoirist, Isherwood is largely remembered for his must-read short fiction book The Berlin Stories, the basis for the musical Cabaret, though he has received a semi-revival in recent years because his novel A Single Man, about a gay professor who loses his partner and contemplates suicide, was turned into an acclaimed film recently. Auden and Isherwood became friends and literary partners in their early 20s, traveled to Berlin in 1929, and experienced the full effect of the Weimar Republic, particularly its sexual freedom. Isherwood wrote some of his most famous novels and stories there and also collaborated with Auden on a series of plays. They later traveled to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War and then to New York City (and other places in the U.S.) where they would both spend WWII and remain for the rest of their lives. His work, both memoir and fiction, is an important record of life for artists before and during WWII, particularly openly gay artists. In addition to The Berlin Stories, I highly recommend his memoir, Christopher and His Kind

Cary Grant (1904 - 1986)
“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. So do I.”

The star of many of my favorite films, to me Cary Grant has always embodied traditional Hollywood class and masculine glamour. It is probably controversial to include him on this list, as he had several wives and his bisexuality has never been completely confirmed, but growing up, I firmly believed he was bisexual. I watched a lot of Cary Grant movies as a teenager, most of them with my grandmother, who showed me North by Northwest and Arsenic and Old Lace for the first time and proudly told me that Cary Grant was a leading man and had affairs with men (despite the fact that she was a Catholic, she supported gay rights). So, in my mind, Cary Grant has always been a bisexual icon and reading about his life (and sexuality) helped me to discover other actors of his generation and that were also rumored to be gay/bisexual or openly admitted it: Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, Rock Hudson, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, etc. It is believed Grant had a relationship with actor Randolph Scott, whom he lived with for several years, though Grant was always very private about his personal life and enjoyed stirring up drama. Regardless, the possibility of Grant’s bisexuality (along with his love of LSD) provides an interest dimension to one of Hollywood’s biggest romantic and comedic stars. This article further delves into his sexuality, as well as a tell-all Hollywood scandal book by Scotty Bowers, and this Grant biography

W.H. Auden (1907 - 1973)
“Collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy... than any sexual relations I have had.”

One of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Auden was born in England, but traveled the world to explore his sexuality and write with friend, occasional sexual partner, and writing companion Christopher Isherwood. After stints in Berlin and China, they moved to the U.S. during WWII, where Auden wrote some of his greatest poems, essays, and librettos, and where he would live out the rest of his days and meet the love of his life, the much younger Chester Kallman. (Isherwood would also spend the bulk of his adult life in America with a much younger muse and partner.) Auden’s poetry is so remarkable for its treatment of war and politics, as well as human experience and moral and philosophical issues. Many of the debates he played out within his poetry and essays inspired some technical innovations that would influence younger generations of writers. Though Auden was openly gay, his sexuality was not at the root of his writing, though love, and what it means to love, were common themes. I highly recommend this collection of Auden’s poetry and this biography, as well as one of my favorite books, The February House, which recounts Auden’s life in Brooklyn during WWII, where he rented a house with several other notable artists. 

Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992)
“All colors will agree in the dark.”

Though a lot of painters have inspired and influenced me over the years, certainly more than this list would suggest, Francis Bacon seemed the most obvious choice. This British painter’s largely abstract body of work is some of the most devastating produced in the 20th century, beginning with his 1944 work Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. His work is bleak, terrifying, and represents a subconscious unveiling of many of the horrors humanity experienced during WWII. His grotesque portraits and triptychs are intensely personal, though he actually got his start as a designer before graduating to painting in the ‘30s. In addition to early stories of cross-dressing, Bacon was known for being somewhat of a libertine and traveled in a circle with other notable artists of the time, including Lucian Freud. As with Auden and Isherwood, the young Bacon spent time in Weimar Berlin and became inspired by early innovative filmmakers, particularly Sergei Eisenstein, before moving to Paris and immersing himself in the art world. He had a series of older, aggressive male lovers over the years, though his most famous relationship is with the younger George Dyer, whom Bacon met while Dyer was breaking into his home, which he allegedly intended to rob. Though he painted Dyer during their relationship, Dyer’s suicide in 1971 influenced his later work, which is primarily concerned with death. Their relationship was dramatized in John Maybury’s film Love is the Devil (1998), starring Derek Jacobi and a young Daniel Craig as Dyer, which comes highly recommended. This is based on the biography The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, which is on my reading list. Also pick up a collection of his paintings

Jean Genet (1910 - 1986)
“Erotic play discloses a nameless world which is revealed by the nocturnal language of lovers. Such language is not written down. It is whispered into the ear at night in a hoarse voice. At dawn it is forgotten.”

This controversial French writer was raised by a prostitute before being put up for adoption. He became a teenage criminal, runaway, and prostitute, an image he later cultivated. He turned to writing in prison and soon completed my favorite of his novels, Our Lady of the Flowers, in 1944. He introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who helped him get a publishing contract and who intervened to get his impending (potentially life long) prison sentence set aside. Genet turned out an impressive body of work during his lifetime, including novels, plays, political essays, poems, and criticism. His subject matter was generally concerned with celebrating evil, criminality, and homosexuality; as a result his work was often banned, particularly in the U.S. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a wonderful analysis of his early life and novels, Saint Genet, which is how I was introduced to his works. Later in life, Genet became a political activist and worked closely with philosophers Sartre and Foucault (who will also appear on this list). His work has been adapted many times, such as his novel Querelle of Brest, which was turned into a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (another person on my list) and director John Waters and his muse, the actor/drag queen Divine (both on my list), were likely inspired by the main character of Our Lady of the Flowers, a criminal named Divine who is referred to as “she” and socializes with other men called "aunts." Gay director Todd Haynes’ film Poison is inspired by Genet’s writing, and his plays The Balcony and The Maids were also adapted as films. Genet directed his own film, Un Chant d’Amour (1950), a black and white short about a gay prisoner fantasizing about a prison guard. 

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)
“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness, of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.”

Composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten is maybe the most obscure person on this list, at least for contemporary cinema fans, but he was one of the most important personalities of 20th century British classical music and opera. He was a close friend of writers Auden and Isherwood and, like them, was gay, though he was much more private about his sexuality. With Auden’s help (and after the death of his mother), he was able to accept this part of his life and began a relationship with tenor Peter Pears, his muse and musical partner, which would last the rest of his life. One of his finest works, the dark opera Peter Grimes, about the murder of a young boy, deals with themes of sexuality, guilt, and violence and likely expressed a lot of Britten’s conflicted feelings about his own sexuality. After years of near successes, it was Peter Grimes that brought him international renown. Among many other operas and compositions, he and Auden collaborated on a number of works together and Britten also composed a song cycle inspired by Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. “J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (I alone hold the key to this savage parade), one of my favorite lines, is his refrain. As with Auden, Britten is a subject of the group biography The February House, about a house in Brooklyn they shared with a number of notable artists during WWII. 

Stay tuned for part two next week. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Alfred Hitchcock, 1942
Starring: Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Otto Kruger, Norman Lloyd

A few years ago I worked my way through the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection boxset, which I heartily recommend to any cinema fans, as well as a number of other later era Hitchcock films. You simply need to see most of these. However, there are a couple of titles I've been stuck on, namely Saboteur, which I've spent a few months wishing could be Foreign Correspondent instead. Like most of his films I'm doubtful of, Hitchcock proved me wrong yet again.

Barry Kane is accused of setting the fire that killed his best friend and blew up his place of employment, an aircraft factory. Only Kane knows that the crime was the work of a saboteur named Fry who mysteriously escaped and disappeared. As a result, Kane goes on the run from the law until he can find Fry and prove his innocence. Following a lead, Kane heads to a ranch owned by a respected businessman who turns out to be one of the saboteurs. At his wits end, Kane accidentally comes to the home of a blind man who instantly believes his innocence and cares for him. His visiting niece, Pat, is not so convinced, and she inadvertently drags the two on an adventure that plunges them into the heart of the conspiracy and gives Kane the opportunity to clear his name.

I was so reluctant to watch Saboteur because it is essentially a propaganda film and was made in the midst of the US involvement in WWII. For newer audiences unfamiliar with filmmaking from this time period, a lot of dialogue is going to seem sorely dated. There are some lengthy speeches about patriotism and what it means to be an American (many of these were written by Dorothy Parker!!!) that will seem awkward and ham-fisted to modern viewers. While I tend to hate American propaganda films, I watch a lot of WWII-era films and am familiar enough with this type of dialogue that I can ignore it or at least wince my way past it.

It is unfortunately also a "wrong man" film, one of Hitchcock's favorite premises. I wind up loving many of these, but always initially encounter them with gritted teeth. Robert Cummings, who stars as Barry Kane, doesn't have the aplomb of Cary Grant or the grim desperation of Jon Finch in Frenzy, but he doesn't really make the film, the writing and directing does.

Up until the half an hour mark, Saboteur is fairly dull. A good-hearted, hard working, blue collar American is framed by a bunch of wealthy pro-fascist traitors. He has to use his wits and will to survive and figure out who the real saboteur is, which of course is bolstered by the fact that he is a Patriot and a Real American. I don't care about any of these things. At best, I tend to find most '40s American attitudes toward the war uninteresting and, at worst, despicable.

But then Barry Kane wanders into the blind man's house and this becomes a completely different film, both visually and narratively. Kane and Pat's adventure is a bizarre amalgamation of fairy tale and propaganda film. Their budding romance has a decidedly non-sexual flavor, making them seem more like youthful siblings on an accidental adventure. The extreme innocence of both characters places them worlds away from a film like Casablanca, where the two leads have pasts, mature sexual relationships, and understand the value of sacrifice. They know losing means a concentration camp or firing squad.

In Saboteur  losing means the theoretical, dinner-table fascists win and one man goes to prison. Really though, we understand that Kane won the moment he convinced Pat of his innocence. For them, this is really a struggle about what it means to be American. Hitchcock puts his unique and thoroughly non-American spin on this with the assistance of British screenwriter Joan Harrison (who also penned Rebecca) and German screenwriter Peter Viertel. The film tells us that true Americans are people with open hearts, a willingness to trust, and the firm belief in "innocent until proven guilty." They are also freaks. Pat's uncle, the first kind person Kane encounters, is blind and decidedly eccentric. The next group of people to support him are literally circus freaks, traveling by train to their next performance.

On the other hand, the pro-fascist ring of traitors and saboteurs are mostly upper class Americans - people who dress well, have parties, hold public offices, and donate to charities. In a way, they are also innocent. They believe they are protecting the sanctity of their families by financially supporting the fascist cause. Fascism, in this case, means the rise of big business and the abolishment of socialist unions, not the formation of ghettos and martial law.

Visually, Saboteur is a masterpiece. Hitchcock takes us through a symbolic representation of what it means to be American. We move through farms, corn fields, and small towns until Kane and Pat find themselves in cities and mansions. The conclusion is one of the grandest in Hitchcock's early American works and involves, somewhat unsurprisingly, the Statue of Liberty. It might seem hard to believe now, but many of these visual effects were ahead of their time and hugely influential. Though I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, I would only recommend Saboteur to seasoned Hitchcock fans. It feels rushed and preachy and probably will seem dated. Keep in mind that it was made almost immediately after the bombings at Pearl Harbor, which definitely colored the production and reception of the film.

Check out the single-disc DVD from Universal or find it in the Masterpiece boxset. Both have some making-of special features that focus mostly on the visual effects.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

THE MUMMY (1932)

Karl Freund, 1932
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan

“Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?”

The third in Universal’s acclaimed horror series, The Mummy concerns an ancient curse and a love that lives beyond the grave. A prologue reveals that a team of British archaeologist led by Sir Joseph Whemple have discovered the 3,000 year old tomb of a mummy named Imhotep. When a younger archaeologist reads the scroll from his tomb aloud, he accidentally awakens the mummy and dies of fright, ending the exploration for almost ten years. Whemple returns with his son Frank (David Manners) and an enigmatic local, Ardath Bey (Karloff) helps them find the tomb of the ancient Princess Ankh-es-an-amon. Bey is really a revived version of Imhotep and plans to use a local girl who resembles his Princess, Helen, to reincarnate his long lost love. Frank falls in love with her and is determined to stop the sacrifice.

Unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, The Mummy was not based on a specific work of literature. Like these other two films, the script was written by John L. Balderston, who was said to be inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s mummy story “The Ring of Thoth,” and by the factual excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 and the resulting death of 25 people. Despite this, the plot is often a direct rip-off of Dracula (the film, not the novel). An undead, supernatural entity in the shape of a man, a foreigner, desires a young, living woman with morbid tendencies and an overactive imagination. A young man falls in love with her and hopes to prevent this, along with the assistant of an older, wiser man, another foreigner. In this case, the fact that David Manners and Edward Van Sloan reprise their roles from Dracula further confuses things. In addition to the plot structure, there is also the irritating/intriguing repetition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that plays in both films. Swan Lake is an opera about a cursed woman who has a dark double and her struggle to win the man she loves; subtle elements of this are in both female protagonists in Dracula and The Mummy

The major deviation between the plots of Dracula and The Mummy, as well as most horror from this period, is that Helen essentially rescues herself from Imhotep’s sacrificial knife. She desperately prays to a statue of Isis, who takes pity on the girl and gets vengeance for Imhotep’s sacrilege, suddenly turning him into a bile of dust and bones. This is certainly one of the film’s strong points, as Manners is unlikable and bland as Whemple and, as with his Jonathan Harker in Dracula, it would be utterly implausible for him to step up to the heroic role and rescue the female protagonist. The Romanian Zita Johann, a relatively inexperienced actress at this point, is excellent as Helen with her exotic looks and the somewhat unique role that The Mummy provides. Both Helen’s costumes and behavior are more sexual and less restrained than the female leads in Dracula, which The Mummy definitely benefits from. Johann unfortunately clashed with director Freund, who allegedly made her experience on set absolutely dreadful. 

Karloff, unsurprisingly, is both the star and main attraction of this film. His portrayal of the Mummy is limited to one scene, where Jack Pierce’s iconic make up is only shown in a few brief glimpses. Karloff’s real performance is as Ardeth Bey, the Mummy in human form. He is subtle, menacing, and thoroughly alien, though, in Karloff’s way, somehow disturbingly sympathetic. 

Though the film moves quickly and has a short running time, there is an occasional lag because of the relationship between Whemple and Helen. It will also seem slower if you expect the action of Frankenstein or the constant dialogue of Dracula, or, worse, if you expect this to be a film chock full of Karloff in his Mummy make up. Karl Freund, Dracula’s cinematographer, who was believed to have directed several scenes, as well as cinematographer of Der Golem and director of Peter Lorre vehicle Mad Love, was an excellent choice for director. The cinematography is one of the strongest elements of The Mummy, particularly the eerie, brooding close ups of Karloff. Freund relies on suspense, subtlety, and atmosphere. As a result, I think this is one of the most passed over the Universal horror canon and it deserves a second look and far more admiration.

“I loved you once – but now you belong with the dead!”

Though there were no direct sequels to The Mummy, Universal followed it with four unrelated films all focused on a different mummy named Kharis and starring Lon Chaney, Jr.: The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Curse (1944), and The Mummy's Ghost (1944). The Mummy and all of these films are included in the two-disc set, The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, which also contains some nice special features. Including a commentary track, there is the featurette He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce and Mummy Dearest, a documentary by David J. Skal. Some later special editions include Universal Horror, a lengthy and excellent documentary from 1998 narrated by Kenneth Branagh.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Erle C. Kenton, 1944
Starring: Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Jr., J. Carrol Naish, Anne Gwynne

Mad scientist Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff) has long been planning revenge on the town that imprisoned him for digging up and experimenting on corpses. His new friend, hunchback Daniel (J. Carroll Naish), greatly desires a new body and helps him escape from prison. They go on the run together and come across a traveling carnival act led by Professor Lampini, who has a horror exhibit centering on the skeleton of Dracula. Niemann kills Lampini and takes over his act. The first stage of his revenge plot is to revive Dracula, who entrances a young girl and kills a villager before crumbling to dust in the sunlight. Niemann next finds the frozen bodies of Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man and thaws them out. Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, begs Niemann for help, but before long he transforms  by moonlight and kills someone. Daniel, the hunchback, has rescued and fallen in love with a gypsy girl, but she turns her attentions to Talbot and promises to help him fight his curse. When both monsters are set free on the countryside, the villagers get wind of things and chaos breaks loose. 

A loose sequel to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the first of several monster rally films produced by a somewhat desperate Universal, House of Frankenstein reunites Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, a mad scientist, the Wolf Man, and a hunchbacked assistant. Originally intended to also include a number of other Universal monsters, including the Mummy and the Invisible Man, budget prevented this. All of the monster rally films include this line up, including House of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The fact that Universal regularly reused shots and sound clips from other Universal monster films, including Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein, shows how low they were scraping in the bottom of the barrel for plot, effects, and budget. 

The fifth or sixth film in the Frankenstein series, this ties with #4, The Ghost of Frankenstein, as the weakest entry in the franchise. There are numerous continuity issues, so many they are not worth listing here. The monster mash up films are all guilty of this to varying degrees and it is best to approach the film without expecting that it is a sequel to any of the original Universal monster films. Or, actually, without expecting anything at all. While I found House of Dracula (a sequel to this film) to be absolutely delightful, House of Frankenstein starts off great, thanks to Karloff, but frequently lags or just outright doesn’t make any sense. It gets confused and caught up in the numerous plot lines, each one a different bid to drag in a separate Universal monster. Niemann’s revenge plot in particular makes absolutely no sense. He hopes to switch the brains of the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, though I have no idea why or how that seemed like a good idea to the script writers. 

The acting, as with many of the Universal horror sequels, is questionable at best. Though Karloff is fantastic as Dr. Niemann, the script rapidly runs out of steam for his character. J. Carroll Naish (The Beast With Five Fingers) is good as the hunchbacked Daniel, but quickly descends into parody when he falls in love with a gypsy girl and becomes consumed with jealousy when she falls for Larry Talbot. Chaney, Jr. is dumber than ever as Talbot aka the Wolf Man, though the script certainly doesn’t do him any favors. Carradine is thrown in to the mix and isn’t able to reach the heights he does in House of Dracula. I have never liked Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster, partly because his portrayal represents the depths to which the character has sunk. The Monster is also barely a side thought in most of these monster rally films, particularly in this one. George Zucco (Universal horror regular) has a too brief cameo as Professor Lampini and I wish he had more time in the film. 

Despite its flaws, there are some reasons to watch House of Frankenstein. There is an absolutely fantastic introduction scene with Karloff. It’s so wonderful that even though the film runs out of steam at about the half an hour mark, anyone who loves Universal monsters should certainly watch the beginning. Overall it is campy and fun and throws in enough monsters and mayhem to chug through it’s 70-minute running time, though it feels more like a loose anthology than a cohesive feature film. The film is available as part of Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection, along with the entire Frankenstein series. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dwight Frye (1899 - 1943)

Known primarily for his role as Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and as Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein’s deformed assistant in Frankenstein (1931), Frye is one of the most memorable character actors of the ‘30s, though he was sadly type cast and never rose to fame. I am writing about him now because he deserves to be remembered, partly for his Renfield performance, which has been often aped but never topped, and his sheer persistence to rise to stardom both on Broadway and in Hollywood in the face of a hidden heart condition and almost constant frustration from the film industry, who refused to recognize his talents until it was too late. 

Frye did garner some fame and critical praise for his theatrical and Broadway career in the ‘20s, which he began immediately out of high school, when he got his start as a young lead in a touring theatrical company. He had some memorable roles in comedies, musicals, and plays like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, which gave him a big break, The Plot Thickens, Rita Coventry, Ropes End (the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Rope), and The Devil and the Cheese alongside Bela Lugosi. 

His most memorable, captivating role is obviously Renfield in Dracula, but Frye went on to appear in a number of other horror and suspense films throughout the ‘30s, often in side roles, in uncredited bit parts, or as extras, making him a common fixture of the Universal horror catalogue. He had a somewhat major role as the assistant Fritz in Frankenstein (not Ygor, this was a role developed by Bela Lugosi for Son of Frankenstein) and Frye went on to perform in nearly every single Frankenstein film. He was Karl, the grave digger and Dr. Pretorius’s demented assistant in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). He had a bit part as a villager in Son of Frankenstein (1939), and though this footage was unfortunately cut from the final film, stills of it remain. He was an uncredited, though instantly recognizable villager in the fourth sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and also appeared in monster-mash up film Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Frye also had a notable role in The Invisible Man (1933) as a reporter, though he was not featured in the credits. 

Frye acted with Bela Lugosi again in The Black Camel (1931), a Charlie Chan film. He appeared in the original production of The Maltese Falcon (1931, not the more famous remake with Humphrey Bogart), in old dark house mystery A Strange Adventure (1932), and as a suspect in the horror film The Vampire Bat (1933) alongside Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. He had small roles in a wide range of films throughout the ‘30s, namely adventures and mysteries such as The Circus Queen Murder (1933), Alibi for Murder (1936), as well as The Shadow (1937) and Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938), both with Rita Hayworth. Primarily Frye was cast as mentally unstable characters, assistants, and red herrings, though he appeared in a somewhat heroic role alongside the great actor and director Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935). The film was unfortunately a flop and one of the least favorite on von Stroheim's career. 

Frye was very active in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s and appeared in small roles in a number of films like James Whale’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), naval/aquatic crime/adventure films Phantom Raiders (1940), Mystery Ship (1941), The Devil Pays Off (1941), and The Blonde from Singapore (1941). He appeared as another insane hunchback in early Satanic horror film Dead Men Walk (1943) and in a small role as a patriot in the Fritz Lang directed, Bertolt Brecht written war film Hangmen Also Die! (1943). 

During WWII he was unable to enlist because of his heart condition, so he worked night shifts between film roles and theatrical productions with Lockheed Aircraft as a tool maker. Due to a physical resemblance, he was hired to co-star in Wilson (1944), in what would be a major role as Wilson’s Secretary of War, but died of a heart attack before filming could begin. Though Frye is only really remembered by die-hard Universal horror fans, Alice Cooper wrote a song for him in 1971, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” for his album Love It to Death. Fry is actually the original spelling of his name; he allegedly added the “e” because he thought it looked more theatrical. 

If you want to know more about Frye, watch his films and check out his official biography, Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh, written by Greogry W. Mank, James T. Coughlin and Frye’s son Dwight D. Frye. He deserves to be remembered for a small number of fantastic performances and the sheer will to be part of something great: the burgeoning film world. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Erle C. Kenton, 1942
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Evelyn Ankers

The fourth film in the Frankenstein series and the first to feature a new Monster — Wolf Man Lon Chaney, Jr. instead of Boris Karloff — this is also the first film to enter into B-movie territory and represents a real change of form for Universal horror: unintentional self-parody. Picking up sometime after Son of Frankenstein left off, the residents of the village near Frankenstein’s castle (the village now bears the name Frankenstein as well for some reason) detonate the castle due to their lingering superstitions. The recently revived Ygor frees the Monster from his underground tomb and they flee to the woods. The Monster is struck by lightening during a storm and Ygor decides to locate Henry Frankenstein’s son, Ludwig, to try to fix the Monster. 

It just so happens that Ludwig, along with two of his colleagues, has invented a new kind of surgery that allows the removal and repair of a diseased brain. Though the villagers get wind of the Monster and capture, imprison, and try him in court, Ygor convinces Ludwig to take up the case. Ludwig’s daughter, Elsa, is afraid of the Monster and is suspicious that her father is hiding it somewhere in their mansion. Her boyfriend Erik, the town prosector, has the same fears and is determined to bring the creature to justice. Ygor, meanwhile, intends to have his own brain implanted in the Monster’s body, so that he can shed his own mangled form and have free reign for his nefarious plans... 

Sadly, The Ghost of Frankenstein is essentially a B-level parody of the rest of the series and not a particularly funny one at that. The Monster looks simply awful, production values are at a dramatic low, and I have no idea what they were thinking with the script. I’m glad Karloff is not here to be embarrassed by such a ridiculous film, though I can’t help but think that his presence would have at least given me more of a reason to sit through this very boring film that feels far longer than its 70 minute running time. Though Lugosi does return as Ygor, he is not given much to do other than tote the Monster around and wish for a new body. His character is almost wholesome here and his sinister side that emerges in the final act feels like an after thought. 

Director Earle C. Kenton (Island of Lost Souls, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula) presumably does his best here and includes a number of explosions, fires, collapsing building, and expressionist-like storm scenes, but this is certainly one of the worst Universal sequels. There are numerous plot holes, including the miraculous revival of both Ygor and the Monster, and Lionel Atwill returns, though in another role entirely. Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein is a never before mentioned second son of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, who claims to have been raised in the area of the castle, where Henry’s son in Son of Frankenstein states that he grew up in America. The title, The Ghost of Frankenstein, refers to the fact that Henry (also played by Hardwicke) visits his son in ghostly form to encourage him to revive the Monster. What?

As far as I’m concerned, Chaney, Jr. is one of the worst incarnations of the Monster. He is physically large enough to fill Karloff’s platformed shoes, but lacks any of the pathos or sensitivity. It doesn’t help that he got what is essentially the bargain basement version of Jack Pierce’s make up and by this fourth film, the role of the Monster is extremely limited. He has some nice scenes with a little girl, but making the Monster into a public figure — he is corned by the entire town in the middle of the day, is arrested, jailed, and taken to trail — is a sad mockery that sets the tone for the rest of the film. There is simply no longer anyway to find the Monster frightening or even compelling. 

Elsa Frankenstein (Universal regular Evelyn Ankers) and her boyfriend Erik (Ralph Bellamy) are both wasted. Their romantic subplot is rushed through, seemingly in order to give the film a happy ending, and Ankers doesn’t have much to do other than run around the house in weird dresses and shriek at shadows. Cedric Hardwicke (The Ghoul, The Invisible Man Returns) is dry and unlikable as the surprise second son of Henry Frankenstein and Lionel Atwill is entertaining, but given too little screen time as his frustrated accomplice, Dr. Bohmer.

Hardcore fans of Universal horror might want to check this out simply out of curiousity and it does have some unintentionally hilarious moments. It’s a shame that this is the last true Frankenstein film, though the Monster (usually accompanied by a miscellaneous mad doctor/scientist) would reappear in monster mash-up films Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula. All of these are better than The Ghost of Frankenstein. It is available in Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection, which includes all five films in the series, as well as some nice special features.