Old Dark House Mates & Inmates

DATELINE: Over-rated Classic

empty house Ate for Dinner .

Your first reaction to this chestnut of horror comedy is shock at the jaw-dropping cast.

Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, and Ernest Thesiger!  You have a round-robin of possible villains and victims. The problem is that they are given nothing significant to perform. Even Karloff uses makeup to look menacing, but his dumb waiter is left hanging.

Yeah, it was a dark and stormy night, but that ain’t enough.

James Whale gathered quite a retinue of talent and gave them an empty script in a drafty house.

Billed as an atmospheric thriller comedy, that’s about all this J.B. Priestly story is. With a marvelous cast, and Whale’s shadows and tricks, like a fun house mirror, the plot is ridiculous, throwing a bunch of ingrates caught in a bad torrential rain into a private household as if it’s a flea-bag hotel. T’aint funny.

Here they find their hosts eccentric (well, Horace Femm is Ernest Thesiger, which says it all) and his odd-ball bully sister.

Charles Laughter as Sir William shows up too with a show biz girlfriend, and he is given little to do. Melvyn Douglas is his trademark self, complete with pipe, and Boris Karloff still is given no dialogue yet again in one of his movies. He just looks menacing as Morgan, the scar-faced butler.

We wanted so much for this film to give us a thrill and become a marvel, but we found it disappointing to the ultimate degree—and in no way does it hold up to the other horror tales of the Universal series. This alleged classic is a let-down from the get-go.

 

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Impostors, Great & Small

DATELINE: Smarmy Smarty-pants

smarty smarmy Tony Curtis at Play

Tony Curtis was sliding into a different phase of his career by the mid-1960s. One of the earliest of these odd, new films, was titled The Great Impostor. Here he played Ferdinand Demara, a man who pretended to be a doctor, a priest, a teacher, and did other jobs—superbly, according to witnesses.

He was, first and foremost, a fake and a fraud. Yet, the movie of 1961 plays him as a fun-loving prankster, not a man guilty of identity theft.

Never having seen this motion picture, we were compelled by a neighbor who revealed she was a student of the Great Impostor in high school in Winchendon, Mass. He went by the name of Mr. Thorne and was an excellent instructor before authorities took him away.

This all-star picture features Karl Malden, Gary Merrill, Edmund O’Brien, Arthur O’Connell, Frank Gorshin, Raymond Massey, Robert Middleton, and a plethora of familiar faces from TV of the 1950s and 1960s. It was also directed by notable Robert Mulligan. There was nothing shabby here—except the attitude.

Curtis always had a regrettable habit to turn smarmy with an overbite of sugar when he was let loose. Here, his character goes beyond having no idea that he is far worse than a childish mischief maker. Alas, the movie also has the same problem.

A man with a brilliant memory and intelligence, Demara demeans people in authority by his pretense, as if the vanity of small-time bureaucrats deserves come-uppance. Curtis savors the chance too readily.

Isn’t there too much contempt for patients he operates upon? For religious rites of devout people? For patriotism of American soldiers? Demara amuses himself with his own shenanigans—and we are along for the ride.

Tony Curtis is in his own world of acting here; the audience is immaterial when it comes to his brash and frivolous performance.

As a depiction of an era and its values, this movie hits home, but as my neighbor said of her meeting with the real Demara, he was no Tony Curtis.