George King, 1936
Starring: Tod Slaughter, Stella Rho, John Singer, Eve Lister, Bruce Seton
Sweeney Todd, a London barber, charms gentlemen newly arrived at the docks of London back to his shop for a shave. But instead of grooming them, he kills them for profit by using a mechanical chair to dump their bodies into the basement. The corpses go to Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s neighbor, who sells meat pies. Meanwhile a local young woman, Johanna, is frustrated that she can’t marry her love, Mark. Her father refuses because Mark is too poor, but Mark goes out to sea to win in his fortune. While Mark is gone, Sweeney makes a number of financial agreements with Mr. Oakley, Johanna’s father, and soon turns it to his advantage. He hopes to marry Johanna and begins wooing her. Mark returns with an advanced station in life and a sizable fortune. Will he pay a visit to Sweeney’s chair?
Though its plot has changed somewhat over the years, Sweeney Todd is essentially the only surviving remnant of the penny dreadful, a Victorian pop culture phenomenon that spread from pulp magazines to cheap theater productions and beyond. You can read more about penny dreadfuls and the origins of Sweeney Todd in my lengthy article, “Victorian Penny Gaffs: Crime, Horror, and Murder.” Suffice it to say that many people have heard of Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber who cuts his neighbors throats and gives their corpses to Mrs. Lovett to bake into her very profitable meat pies. Stephen Sondheim went on to make him a tragic, sympathetic figure, driven to murder to protect his estranged daughter, but the original Sweeney was a villain, through and through.
With this 1936 adaptation, it is important to note that if you don’t already know the general story, the film might be a little confusing. Though there are multiple references to a deal between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett and it is implied that she does away with the corpses, no one explicitly mentions that she is serving human flesh in her very popular meat pies. Sweeney also does not slit any throats and instead relies on a mechanical chair with a trap door to launch his unwitting victims to the floor and break their necks. While it is again implied that he probably slits their throats if they survive the fall, as Mark does at the conclusion of the film, this is next explicitly shown or described.
Though this has some enjoyable elements, it’s really a shame that this couldn’t have been made a few years earlier when some racier horror was being produced. Though fans of Victorian-style melodrama and Sweeney Todd devotees will no doubt find it entertaining, horror fans will likely be confused, as nearly all the over-the-top violence of the original play (and later musical and films) was excised from the plot. Still, horror and melodrama actor Tod Slaughter is delightful as Sweeney and he makes the film worth seeing for anyone unfamiliar with his work.
Sweeney Todd was to Slaughter what Dracula was for Bela Lugosi. This was his signature role and he played the character over 2,000 times on stage. His acting may rub some modern viewers the wrong way, as he was trained in a melodramatic style of acting that is somewhat of an acquired taste by today’s standards. Personally, I think he is delightfully over the top. Slaughter and director George King collaborated together a number of other times, generally on crime-themed melodramas or horror films.
Victorian England looks fantastic, as do the costumes, but depending on the quality of the print you watch, it may be hard to tell. There is an odd scene included in the film where Mark’s ship arrives in Africa at a shipwreck and he has to fight off warriors. It feels incredibly out of place and seems like filler, but there are some nice jungle sets. While this attempts to explain how Mark became a captain and won his fortune, that could probably have been done with a line or two of dialogue.