11/26/09

The Mummy (1932): Or, Boris' Other Bride

Hello, folks. First off, happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and I hope you’ve all given plenty of thanks. Lot’s of bloggers have been giving thanks this whole week to Boris Karloff thanks to the Frankensteinia’s Boris Karloff Blogathon. I’ve had great fun reading all the posts and getting a chance to take in a few classic Karloff films as well. Today I wanted to talk a bit more about Karloff, but as usual, I also want to turn my eye to another Beautiful Lady of Genre, Miss Zita Johann. After the great success of Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, Universal wanted another property for a Karloff lead. The movie that they made was The Mummy, and what is Imhotep without his long lost love?

I’m sure most of you have seen The Mummy, so I won’t spend very long on the synopsis. Some nosey archeologists in Egypt unearth the cursed body of Imhotep (Karloff), and even though it’s clearly marked, the young upstart archeology student just has to open the container with the cursed scroll on it. You know what happens next, the mummy comes to life, the kid goes crazy, and Imhotep takes it on the lam. Cut to ten years later, Imhotep gets another group to dig up his old girlfriend. He has a plan to get her back, but it’s going to take finding her resurrected form. Luckily for him, she’s right in Cairo in the form of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), and if he can just keep his magic scroll and pesky archeologists in line, he’ll reunite with his lost love.

I’ve glossed over the whole archeologist angle of the film because honestly that part of the picture is not all that interesting in the first place. The milquetoast hero character, the appropriately named David Manners as Frank Whemple, isn’t very fun to watch, and Edward Van Sloan, who’s been very good in many things, only shows up here to give a repeat performance of his performance as Van Helsing in Dracula. Only this time there’s an amulet of the goddess Isis standing in for a cross. Surely, this Universal horror, the first not to have literary forbearer, owes a great deal to Tod Browning’s 1931 film. From its cast of characters to the story of love across the ages, there are many comparisons to be drawn.

The love story, while similar to Dracula, finds its own footing in the Egyptian mythology from which it was drawn, and Karloff’s Imhotep is surely no suave, dapper count. From the moment Karloff’s character is introduced to us under layers of Jack Pierce’s makeup, he presents a foreboding figure. Even after he sheds his wrappings, Karloff’s gaunt frame and sunken eyes convey everything essential about the character. Add to that the makeup that made his skin look paper thin, and no matter if he was wrapped up from head to toe or not, there was no mistaking Imhotep for anything but a revived corpse. Karloff’s languid performance makes up for the film’s plodding pace and boring protagonists. Just the scenes where he gets his crazy hypnosis eyes going are enough to make up for an awful lot. Before I move on, I just have one last thing about Boris Karloff. When it comes to the big time Universal Monsters, there’s The Mummy, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein. When you immortalize 50% of those characters, there’s no wonder that hundreds of folks would spend whole week writing about you.

The object of Imhotep’s affections is a Helen whose face might well launch a whole crapload of ships. Zita Johann was an Austrian born actress, but she perfectly embodied the poise and grace of someone that was supposed to have been the resurrected form of an Egyptian priestess. One interesting thing about The Mummy is that its setting is 1932, and unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, it could portray modern style. Zita Johann was perfect for this. With her slight frame and huge eyes, these days she would probably be plastered on a tabloid page alongside Kira Knightly and a title reading “Are They Too Thin?”, but even though she was thin, her look seemed very natural. I also thought her costuming seemed chosen to reflect Helen as a modern girl as opposed to the girl of Imhotep’s dreams. Her performance is a perfect compliment to Karloff’s imposing performance, and I wish she had done more films. She had a very short screen career before leaving Hollywood for Broadway, but she returned one more time to the genre in 1986 for an appearance in the less classic film Raiders of the Living Dead.

While The Mummy is a film fraught with goofs (mouths neglecting to move when a character is speaking), fumbles (the uninteresting hero characters), and faults (a weak story that seems derivative), Karloff and Zita sell the film with the help of director Karl Freund. Before coming to American, Freund established his reputation in Germany as a skilled cinematographer working on films with Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. When he arrived in Hollywood, he climbed behind the camera for Tod Browning’s Dracula, and within the span of two years, he was in the big chair shooting The Mummy. The influence of German expressionistic film is evident throughout, and some conceits, like shooting the flashback sequence like a silent film complete with exaggerated expressions, were genius ideas.

The Mummy is a film that only half works, but the half that’s doing the work is doing a hell of a job. Freund told the story with his images, Karloff delivered an imposing, iconic performance, and Johann provides the alluring qualities that make it seem like a guy would come back from the dead for her. When I was younger, The Mummy was my least favorite of the Universal films because it was slow, didn’t have any direct sequels, and there wasn’t more of Karloff in the bandages. As an older viewer, I appreciate it more warts and all, and it’s a classic film that belongs in any horror fan’s library.


Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. Great post - Zita and Boris really breathed life into those two doomed lovers. Apparently Zita never really liked the spotlight, and after about 7 or 8 features she quit films to go back to theatre full time. Until, like you said, her bizarre appearence in Raiders of the living Dead! Keep up the good work.

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  2. This movie actually freaked me out bad as a kid. I recently rewatched it and enjoyed it. I love those Universal monsters.

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  3. Great review as always, Bugg! I'm planning on doing this one myself tomorrow, and Karl Freund's work is something I'd planned to focus on -- good eye with noting that the flashback scenes resemble a silent film -- I'd never caught that before!

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  4. Thanks for the comments fellers.

    @James- There was limited info out there on Miss Johann and I wondered why she shied away from the screen. I did also see she was married to John "We Make Money the old fashioned way" Houseman and appeared in many broadway shows with him.

    @Willy- I never got too much into he Mummy when I was a kid because it moved so slow. I do of course have all the love in the world for the classic Universal characters. This is only the second film of the four big boys that I've tackled. I'm sure the others will come along in time.

    @Bill- I look forward to checking out your review tomorrow. Karl Freund is a cinematic badass, and he's definitely someone whose career I would like to delve deeper into.

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