Mary Shelley Channels Aspern Papers!

 DATELINE: Another Dark & Stormy Movie

Stormy night Gang sits around on a dark & stormy night!

Someone read the Henry James novella Aspern Papers and found inspiration to make a movie about the real people (Mary, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley) that were fictionalized for literary movies, but made flesh for a biopic.

Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth make for a beautiful couple of poet Shelley and his young companion Mary Godwin. They are a couple of free-love, free spirits. Throw in the stepsister of Mary (Claire Claremont) who is moved to seduce Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) who greets Shelley with a kiss on the lips. Here we have the roots of The Aspern Papers.

It’s all the more intriguing because about ten years ago a lost manuscript of Claire was discovered in which she unloaded on the Romantic poets for their cruel attitudes.

This movie features Mary Shelley keeping her husband’s love letters and poems, savoring them. Of course, it was Claire who lived until 1879 and might have inspired Henry James to write his nasty novella about the mystery behind the free-love advocates.

The Shelleys meet Byron around the same time that Mary becomes fascinated with galvanism or electrifying dead bodies to bring them back to life.

The biopic is flavorful and masterly filmed, even giving us the dark and stormy night that Byron challenged them to write a ghost story. Dr. Polidori writes the first true vampire novel, and Mary writes Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus.

No one believes either was capable of such a feat—and their works were at first attributed to Shelley and Byron, respectively.

Byron comes across as a sniveling snake in this film, and Shelley is the whoremaster Mary’s father accuses him of being.

If you want to see the real Aspern Papers that Henry James alluded to in his covert way, this may be it.

 

 

 

Son of Frankenstein, Reel History

DATELINE:  Consenting Monsters?

consenting monsters Love after Death.

In the days before cable TV, let alone streaming movies, we last saw the Monster in Son of Frankenstein from 1939. So, we jumped at the chance to look at the star-studded horror classic.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes fits in well as Colin Clive’s son 25 years later, indignant that the small-town minds refer to the monster by his distinguished family name. He is bemused when Igor notes the Monster is his half-brother.

Bela Lugosi, as a Dracula clone, returns as the undead Igor. Yes, he was hanged, declared dead, and came back to life. It gives him a special aura, not to mention the hideous makeup that Jack Pierce laid on him.

Boris Karloff returned to play the Monster one last time. His wardrobe has changed enough that he now wears a sleeveless sheepskin pullover. Not to point out the obvious: he is a wolf monster in lambskin clothing.

One of the bigger surprises is Lionel Atwill as the inspector of the small town with his creaky fake arm that he postures in salute or to hold a cigarette. Our favorite scene is when he puts his darts on the forearm before throwing them. Mel Brooks, where are you? The best scenes in the picture are when master scene stealers Rathbone and Atwill lock wits.

The story has an insipid subplot featuring the good doctor’s toddler son, an American like his mother, and both are point killers.

We loved the moment when the son (Rathbone as Sherlock) deduces that Lugosi has a hypnotic effect on the monster. “Elemental, my dear Benson,” he notes.

If there is any shockeroo, it is that Igor and the Monster seem to be gayly consenting adults. Igor can’t keep his hands off the Karloff creature, and they are clearly soulmates.

 

 

Monster Magic Maker: Jack Pierce

DATELINE: Unsung Creative Force!

jack with lon jr Wolf Man Credit!

What a delicious untold story!  A Greek immigrant boy comes to Hollywood and his creative juices give us the most famous monster makeup creatures of 20th century movies. Check out Jack Pierce: Maker of Monsters.

Like all the people who came to Hollywood in its infancy, they were self-made and their artistic sense was equally applied to their own lives. Jack Pierce did it all—from stunts, to camera operator, to director, but found his niche in applying makeup to the stars.

When Lon Chaney bailed on playing Dracula, Jack was thwarted by Bela Lugosi who had his own ideas. However, it was on Frankenstein that he grew into legend, spending months researching how the creature should look. It led to a plethora of famous monsters: The Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Bride of Frankenstein, but he was head of Universal and worked on making beautiful women more stunning.

The Mummy makeup took 8 hours to apply and another hour to remove. If Karloff was uncomplaining, no wonder a friendship between them developed.

Pierce’s makeup effects often terrified the naïve audiences of the 1930s. He was Universal Studio’s master: responsible for all the horrors up to 1947. When they were about to gather all the monsters for a comedy, Abbot and Costello meet, Jack was fired, but his makeup style was maintained.

Later, a myth grew around Frankenstein that James Whale, director, created the face: not true. Karloff always gave credit to his friend, Pierce. You can thank the movie and book Gods and Monsters for the misinfo.

Always an actor at heart, Jack wore a lab coat in the makeup room, which certainly intimidated Elsa Lanchester, who was the Bride of the monster. She recalled it thirty years later in less than happy terms. Jack did Lon Chaney, Jr., as Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein, over the years. That too was not a good relationship.

If they needed a star to age from 30 to 80, Jack Pierce could make it happen for a generation. One of his last makeup jobs was for Mr. Ed, the talking horse, hired by his friend from Universal, Arthur Lubin.

When Jack died in 1969, almost no one from the movie world came to his funeral. Fascinating bio of a nearly forgotten figure of film history.

 

 

 

Black Camel: Chuck Chan in 1931!

DATELINE: Lost Gem

actor legends

 Lugosi with Oland.

One of the first of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies is a beautifully restored print from 1931. It has other surprises too. It was filmed on location in Charlie Chan’s home base of Honolulu and uses the scenery to great effect. It is cryptically called The Black Camel.

Fresh off the horror of the year, Dracula, you have two cast members in fine fettle:  Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. They play a respective butler and a questionable psychic, all too willing to help Chan.

Lugosi and Frye were scheduled to make James Whale’s Frankenstein after this picture, but when Whale saw this, he thought Bela Lugosi would be too scary for the monster. The part went to Karloff instead.

The film does not hide some white tourist prejudice, compounded because the detective is both Chinese and a policeman. And, the cast of extras includes many Hawaiians.

The dark metaphor of the Black Camel has something to do with kneeling Death coming a-calling. It is one of many little aphorisms that Charlie Chan spouts dryly.

Instead of an irritating older son, this film features an inept young assistant to Chan. We do see Charlie’s family at a large dinner table in one scene, but the cheap sets and low budget formula would come in the next few films.

Warner Oland is masterful, as always, and it is quite a mangled English that we hear from both Oland and Lugosi in their conversations, that are quite witty and delightful.

There are a half-dozen quite credible suspects, and they are indeed all gathered in the drawing room (and dining room) for the big reveal.

This wonderful early mystery is a surprise and delight on every level.

 

 

 

Gods & Monsters: 20 Years Later?

 DATELINE:   Fraser, Olyphant, or Caviezel?

Whale & Monster

As part of our continuing shock at how many years have passed since certain minor classic films have been around, we were stunned to note that it is nearly that long since Ian McKellan played the director of Frankenstein, in 1957, before his suicide.

James Whale was gay, and the Bill Condon film is based on novelized account of his last days in 1957 and is titled Gods and Monsters. Partly owing to John Hurt playing a literary critic stalking a teen heart-throb in Love and Death on Long Island the year before, we had McKellan with a sunset crush on his gardener.

How true is it all?  At least we were not treated to one of those disclaimers, “Based on a true story.”

Whale had long since left the Hollywood sound stage, partly owing to box office poison. He had made some literate and funny horror films that stand the test of time: Frankenstein and Bride thereof.

With his mind slipping away from a stroke or some form of Alzheimer’s Disease, he puts his attention on Brendan Fraser, a most handsome young yardman with a flat top hairdo that is just too preciously reminiscent of the Monster designed by Whale in 1931.

Fraser, at the time, was part of a trio of actors who could have been interchangeable in the role: Timothy Olyphant and Jim Caviezel were the other two. All the same age and style.

McKellan is, as always, brilliant and plays off Lynn Redgrave as his unattractive housekeeper. He puts the moves on the unwilling Fraser, but it is all subterfuge to force the homophobic former Marine into killing him and putting him out of his misery.

A coda to the sensitive, episodic incidents in Whale’s final days, is perhaps the weakest link in the movie as Condon had no idea how to end it, that is otherwise a powerful biographical movie.

Frankenstein & the Vampyre

DATELINE: Horrors’ Start

Lord Byron  Byronic Vampire?

As one expert notes, these personages in the title are the twin pillars of modern horror—more than a century of monstrous concepts: life coming out of the dead.

A Dark and Stormy Night  is the subtitle of this intriguing documentary that uses the words of five people thrown together at Villa Diodati in 1816. This illustrious group of young bohemians of the era included two immortal poets, Shelly and Byron, their paramours, and their young doctor.

For those without a proper literary historical perspective, Lord Byron challenged his housemates one stormy night to write a ghost story. They had the summer without light, as it was called, to do it.  In the United States, it was called “the year without summer.”

Switzerland and the world suffered in 1816 from a year without proper summer: crops failed, storms cascaded around the Earth because of a super-volcanic explosion in the Pacific. So with a constant barrage of thunderstorms and lighting candles in mid-afternoon, the crew of Mary Shelley, Percy Shelly, Dr. J.M. Polidori (Byron’s travel companion) and Claire (Byron’s latest stalker/groupie) took up the task.

They allegedly urged, critiqued, and drove each other on to come up with a horrifying tale. Mrs. Shelley wrote about the modern Prometheus, Frankenstein, and Dr. Polidori came up with the first elegant, aristocratic vampire that set the mold for Dracula in fifty years.

Some wags believed that Byron wrote the original outline, and Polidori, pretender to the poet, stole it and finished it.

The scandalous summer featured rumors of drugs, sex, and bizarre carrying on, which suited the weirdness of the weather in 1816.

Of course, burning the candle as it were all day and all night, led to an early demise of Polidori in 1821, Shelley in 1822, and Byron in 1824.  Mary Shelley lived to see her story take on a life in literature—and years later realized she had survived the ghosts of Diodati.

Fascinating documentary with earnest re-enactors, trying to avoid their sexual peccadilloes. It seems almost preposterous that those so young could produce such masterpieces of literature.

It’s a story worth watching.