Scary Funny: Dwain Esper’s Maniac (1934)

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Right now Torgo and the Master are sulking. Radiator Lady is in tears. And Glen/Glenda is stomping the hell out of his/her pumps. Because, I’m sorry to say, their movies were nowhere near this weird.

I want to make one thing clear before this goes any further: I am not recommending that you watch Maniac. But, if you do, you will have earned my profound respect. This movie will bore you. In fact, it might bore a hole right into your brain. It wants to steal your soul.

Actually, watching this film is, I suspect, akin to the experience of trepanation. Maniac violates the cherished cinematic logic of space and time so thoroughly that you begin to wonder whether you’ll ever be able to form a coherent thought again. The only defense viewers can muster against so insidious a threat is to laugh wildly and mindlessly. Herein lies the ironic beauty of Maniac: by the time it’s over, you yourself might very well qualify as the titular lunatic.

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Shot on location in somebody’s dank basement, Esper’s exploitation flick tries hard to pass itself off as a dramatization of mental illness. In other words, brace yourself for scrolling pages of rambling mumbo-jumbo about psychoses inserted without warning in between scenes.

The plot, and I do use the word loosely, resists dignity in any form. Don Maxwell, a down-and-out vaudeville actor, now assists the deranged Dr. Meirschultz in his experiments—raising the dead, naturally. (See, kids? This is why you don’t major in theater. Or film for that matter. Why, I had to join a firm of grave-robbers for two years to pay off my college loans… but I digress.)

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Squeamish Maxwell doesn’t exactly love the sordid errands that the doctor forces him to carry out. Still, on the bright side, he gets to revive the corpses of pretty suicide victims with vigorous massages.

However, when Meirschultz suggests that Maxwell kill himself to serve as a subject for the reanimation process, the lackey shoots Meirschultz instead. Realizing that his boss would be missed but he never would, Maxwell assumes his identity.

No sooner does Maxwell don an imitation of Meirschultz’s bushy Santa Claus beard and mimic his off-brand Bela Lugosi accent than the former ham actor slips into madness and believes that he is Meirschultz.

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“I vill be a great man!” He bellows, vowing to continue the doctor’s work. Apparently, this entails turning a patient into a sex-crazed zombie by injecting him with a glandular serum and performing sleazy examinations on scantily-clad young ladies.

Sadly, busybodies constantly interrupt Maxwell’s Nobel-worthy research. When a blackmailing widow and Maxwell’s own estranged wife show up around the same time, Maxwell decides simply to lock them in the basement and return to his regularly scheduled program of animal torture and hallucinations. Finally, the cops come to nab Meirschultz, break up the ladies’ wrestling match in the cellar, and discover the real doctor hidden in the wall.

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In a ludicrous, yet eerie epilogue (foreshadowing Norman Bates’s “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene), Maxwell addresses the audience from behind bars. Sobbing, the poor misunderstood multiple murderer confides that he only ever dreamed of being an actor. “I only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” He pleads. “But here I am. Spent my life perfecting an art that no one wanted, no one appreciated. But I showed them… Dr. Meirschultz—my supreme impersonation!”

Um, Maxwell, if it’s any consolation, you certainly amuse me.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that horror and humor complement each other, and the funniest parts of Maniac unsurprisingly emerge from its most unsettling scenes.

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Consider Maniac’s best-known moment, a highly disturbing shot of a cat’s eyeball being removed. (Trigger warning! You should know, however, that no animal was maimed for the purposes of this scene. A one-eyed cat with a glass eye was used.) While entombing Dr. Meirschultz behind a wall, Maxwell notices the doctor’s black cat looking at him. The unhinged actor, convinced that the feline is Satan, accuses the animal of standing between him and salvation. After a few disjointed shots of Maxwell chasing the cat, Esper provides this shot of an eyeball popping out of its socket.

11 “It’s not unlike an oyster or a crepe!” Maxwell-as-Meirschultz exclaims. Cackling, he drops the eye into his mouth.

Okay, so how do I even begin to react to this?

At first, I laugh. Bad acting and a wannabe Poe monologue about an evil cat = comedy gold.

Then I get creeped out. A spooky high-angle shot of Maxwell crawling out of a basement towards the camera fills me with dread.

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Then I laugh again, since we’re back in familiar territory. Jumpy cutting and pratfalls = bad movie = ha ha ha.

Then I want to cry. I don’t care if it was a one-eyed cat. Animal mutilation, even when simulated, always equates out to horror in my book.

10And then, despite myself, I feel like I’m going to laugh again. Now Shakespeare could get away with calling an eye a “vile jelly,” but the comparison between an eyeball and a crepe wins the 1934 WTF Cup. Plus, how can I hold back a snigger over the fact that the black cat transforms into a light-colored feline right before that eye removal shot?

Snarky pleasure and pain attack the viewer without warning throughout Maniac. Esper delights us with the most awkward transformation scene in the history of cinema, only to freak us out with an unexpectedly violent nudity scene. He tries to tickle our comic relief sensibilities with a quirky minor character named Goof who runs a death camp for cats. But he seemingly expects us to respond with earnest curiosity to a protagonist who suffers from every mental illness in the book—and to his lengthy hallucinogenic monologues, complete with superimposed diabolic footage stolen from (much better) silent films.

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You might be thinking, “What kind of nut would make a movie like this?” So, perhaps I ought to take a moment to introduce you to the life and times of Mr. Dwain Esper and his singular slot in film history. Okay, now, class, what’s significant about the year Maniac was made, 1934?

If you replied, “The pre-Code era ground to a halt and Hays Code censorship was enforced with new zeal”, gold star to you.

The shift back to family entertainment meant that audiences couldn’t depend on the titillation and gore they could once get from some Hollywood films. Exploitation filmmakers like Esper aimed to cash in on those forbidden desires. They’d produce often ridiculously choppy movies, but movies that nevertheless delivered the goods (or bads, rather) with scenes of drug use, kinky sex, and nudity.

esperOriginally a building contractor, Esper launched his cinema career when he acquired a set of abandoned filmmaking equipment as part of a property foreclosure. Abetted by his wife Hildegarde Stadie Esper, a streetwise carnie raised by her opium-addicted huckster uncle, Esper toured from town to town with “adults only” films. He directed his own movies on meager budgets, but would also promote and screen any sensational movies he got his hands on, including Tod Browning’s Freaks and Reefer Madness.

Gaudy lobby advertising and gimmicky publicity stunts would compensate for the less-than-stellar product Esper often exhibited. Audiences seldom got what the posters promised, but they did get to gawk at stuff that no mainstream movie of the era would’ve shown.

Operating outside the confines of the studio system, Esper could thumb his nose at the censors. Hildegarde cheerfully recalled the outrage they caused in some quarters: “The Hays Office—they hated us. You see they couldn’t stop us and that made them awful mad…they didn’t like anything we were doing. The only reason we liked it so well was because it was making money for us.” If necessary, Esper would reedit his reels to appease local law enforcement, but, all in all, Dwain and Hildegarde Esper were the Bonnie and Clyde of onscreen taboo.

Although not Esper’s most profitable film, Maniac nevertheless delivers the most unintentional laughter through its sheer bizarreness. Amateurish exploitation films affect modern audiences powerfully, I would argue, because they offer such unanticipated forays into creative plot premises or avant-garde techniques.

Jump cuts, temporal leaps, massive continuity gaps, and all manner of experimental devices—stuff that might not startle us that much in, say, a Godard film—proves deeply unsettling in the context of a 1930s movie aiming for the aesthetic of a Universal horror film. These formal eccentricities not only make us laugh at the incompetence of the filmmaker, but they also fray at our nerves and jolt us into nervous laughter.

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Similarly, nobody in this film acts like a human being—not the scheming widow who speaks in a monotone, not the gregarious cat-skin merchant, not the chorus girl dancing around her hotel room in her underwear for no reason. The magic of Hollywood acting resides in the fact that actors give us evenly stylized behavior and we accept it as reality. The black magic of Maniac gives us unevenly stylized behavior—that makes us feel like we’re watching any number of more famous horror movies through a distorting mirror. We behold a universe unthinkably out of kilter.

And then, because our short-circuiting minds can find no other appropriate response, we burst out laughing.

Maniac has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it right now. Do you dare?

This post is part of the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Click on the banner to check out the other entries!

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Hands Up! (1926): Top Secret

rayIn 1926, two silent comedians made movies set during the Civil War. One was panned at the time, but went on to win its rightful place among the greatest movies ever made.

The other, praised upon its release, is all but forgotten.

Indeed, I’ve heard more than one silent movie devotee refer to Hands Up! as “the funniest movie you’ve never heard of.” Well, we really need to do something about the “you’ve never heard of” part.

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Sure, Raymond Griffith’s masterpiece isn’t as great as The General—and you’d have a hard time convincing me that anything is—but it comes mighty close. There was plenty of greatness to go around in that golden age of comedy. A contract player at Paramount, Griffith turned out hilarious, original comedy confections even within the constraints of the studio system. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the snide brilliance of the so-called silk hat comedian deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed today. Modern audiences might even be surprised by how morally daring his comedy is.

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Unlike his contemporaries, Griffith rejected the role of the underdog, the harried little man you root for without reservation. By the time he was making feature films, Chaplin wanted you to like him, even when he was behaving badly. Keaton wanted to earn your esteem and to earn it the hard way. And Lloyd wanted to be your personal hero. That contrarian Griffith, far from trying to attract our sympathy, often goes out of his way to make us dislike him. He invites us to question his ethics and to savor his pratfalls all the more because of his doubtful motives and his urbane appearance.

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The comedian himself cited schadenfreude as a central ingredient of his humor. As he told Motion Picture magazine, “the high hat stands for aristocracy, for snobbishness, for aloofness. The boy in the street would rather fire a snowball at a silk hat than at any other type of headgear. In reality, he is taking a whack at what the hat represents, not merely at the hat itself.”

Griffith’s character does appeal to the audience through his competence and panache, but, boy, is he a smug, unscrupulous fellow. His one saving grace is that he makes us laugh with his pride as well as with his falls. It might not be off the mark to identify his persona as a proto-playa. Impressing us with his sheer nerve, he wins the audience over with his vices rather than his virtues.

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Directed by Griffith and Clarence Badger, Hands Up! takes full advantage of the star’s slippery charm. In the role of a Confederate spy known only as Jack, he inveigles to divert or destroy a shipment of gold that would save the Union cause. Brave, but decidedly not heroic, Jack literally carries a couple of aces up his sleeves, woos two women simultaneously, and cheats a Native American chief out of his headdress with a pair of loaded dice. He’s the man we hate to love.

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With his diminutive height and dapper style, Griffith accentuated the comic potential of his starkly un-rugged brand of manhood. In one of the most quietly funny moments of the film, Jack’s primary foe, burly Captain Logan (perennial villain Montagu Love) attempts to intimidate the spy in a stagecoach. Logan pulls out his enormous Colt revolver and casually examines it.

Never one to back down, Jack whips out his firearm—a dainty two-shooter, you know, like saloon madams keep in their garters—and fussily begins polishing it. The enemies sit as mirror images of each other, insouciantly posed but with the hypothetical line of fire from each of their guns trained unmistakably on the other.

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On the most obvious level, the wordless, macho exchange tickles us because of its, ahem, symbolism. (Oh, you men, always trying to prove who’s got the biggest, bestest gun!) More important, this bit of business illuminates an amusing contrast between the characters and how they fit into the movie’s historical context. Captain Logan fully embodies the robust masculinity that we tend to associate with our gun-totin’, hard-drinkin’ Civil War-era forefathers.

Griffith’s Jack, on the other hand, might strike us as comically effete for that period—and as rather unprepared for the toughness of his opponent. Yet, like his miniature pistol, he’s discreet and surprisingly useful in a jam. In a later scene, Logan holds a man at gunpoint, the tip of his Colt on the hostage’s head… whereupon Jack darts out from behind and jabs his foe in the belly with the ladylike pistol that looked so innocuous.

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In other words, Hands Up! suggests that caliber doesn’t matter; it’s the dexterity of the spy that counts.

The wit of Hands Up! often emerges from clever repetitions: sets of two parallel sequences, shown in succession, become outrageously funny as the differences (or the similarities) between the variations pile up. For instance, the film opens with scenes of the Union and Confederate agents receiving their orders respectively from President Lincoln and General Lee. First, bulky, straight-faced Captain Logan accepts his mission in a static conference room. Lincoln turns to Logan and to Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service and future founder of the famous detective agency. The President confides, “Gentlemen—this is a secret between the three of us.”

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Immediately afterwards, Jack obtains his instructions in a scene that begins the same way, but ultimately overflows with kinetic hilarity. A succession of classics from the slapstick playbook embellish an interaction that, just a moment ago, served as standard exposition. As General Lee and his aide wait in a cabin under heavy Union fire and bombardment, Jack bounds off a horse and darts into the meeting place in a whirl of dust.

64Lee explains the commission and Jack accepts, just as a bomb detonates the cabin sky-high, leaving Jack and the General shaking hands in the debris. By leading us to expect identical (and thus rather tiresome) scenarios, Griffith and Badger undermine the viewer’s expectations—and then literally blow the roof off of them.

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Unfazed by the explosion, Lee echoes Lincoln’s words exactly, “This is a secret between the three of us!” An errant bullet mows down Lee’s aide.

Jack doesn’t flinch and dryly corrects the General, “The two of us, sir.”

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Now, that update is funny, but a pretty damn morbid kind of funny. Even Lee looks a trifle scandalized by Jack’s lack of shock. Griffith engineers a joke that depends on the audience’s desensitization to onscreen death, or at least to the deaths of characters we don’t know well. His barely-there quip reminds me of the wry James Bond one-liners that make us chuckle just after 007 has dispatched a henchman.

While I’m on the subject of everyone’s favorite super-spy, I’d note that our Jack comes across as downright Bond-ish in his luck with the ladies. The most fertile running gag of Hands Up! involves Jack courting two daughters of a pro-Lincoln mine owner with a series of identical gestures. Towards the end of the film, he’s trying to make a getaway with the gold when each sister stops him. Within the space of a few minutes, he proposes to not one, but both of the girls—in the exact same manner!

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Played through once, the mini love scene might provoke titters of laughter by gently lampooning melodramatic love scene tropes. Played through twice, with recycled intertitles and all, the scene’s satire on relationships ascends to a truly farcical level.

I won’t tell you how this love triangle resolves itself, but let me say if you’re thinking, “Um, threesome?” you’re actually quite close. I usually have no qualms about spoilers, but the ending of Hands Up! is as unexpected as it is uproarious, so I’ll keep that one top secret for now. It’s worth tracking down a copy of the film just to find out for yourself how the romantic subplots conclude.

28Cunning as its saboteur protagonist, the comic style of Hands Up! also draws deftly on illusion and ellipsis. For example, early on in the film, Jack is discovered as a spy and about to face a firing squad. The entire execution scene revolves around Jack’s clever ruses to distract his would-be executioners. We neither see him being caught, nor do we actually see him escape. The sections of narrative that most silent comedians might be inclined to emphasize and elaborate on have been omitted entirely.

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In fact, the audience only learns that Jack has escaped when the head of the firing squad does—and it gives us a moment of supreme tension. The line of gunners fires and we wince. Huh? What? Who kills off the protagonist? But Jack, apparently tied up and facing a wall, doesn’t collapse. The soldiers fire again. He’s still standing? How is that possible? The head of the squad steps forward to check—and realizes that his men had been shooting at a trompe l’oeil painting that the prisoner had daubed on the wall. (Evidently, Confederate spies are forced to take a course in rapid-fire oil painting before entering the field.)

54Later in the film, Jack relies again on the power of illusion to save his hide by tricking an enemy to fire at his reflection instead of him. Because the audience only sees into a fragment of the room where Jack is hiding, we can’t know that he’s stowed behind the door—away from the line of fire. In this instance, an illusion plus a spatial ellipsis generates tension and then relief. While the gunpowder clears, we see Jack hastily making his getaway.

mirrorNow, I’ve really only scratched the surface of this rich, action-packed classic. You really owe it to yourself to see the movie. Like many of the best things in life, Raymond Griffith’s best work demands a little effort—to track down a scarce DVD or scout for an even scarcer screening. I’m sending you, dear reader, out on a little mission like Jack’s: retrieve the comedy gold. Perhaps then this movie, and the sublime comedy of its secret agent protagonist, won’t be such a secret anymore.

44(Note: Hands Up! is not by any means politically correct by today’s standards. Duh. It was made in 1926 and was cartoonishly depicting 1864. That said, I refuse to make any apologies for a movie that’s still less offensive—and way more funny—than plenty of what you can watch on TV right now.)

This post is part of the Snoopathon, a blogathon celebrating spies in classic cinema, hosted by the amazing Movies Silently. Click the banner below to check out the other entries!

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Day-Time Wife (1939): A Little Too Perfect

dtwposterIf you asked just about any American girl in 1939 to describe her fantasy of “happily every after,” the odds are good that Tyrone Power played a starring role in those daydreams.

He was, as Hollywood reporter Ruth Waterbury gushed, “more than any other man on the screen, the true Prince Charming.”

Which is why Gregory Ratoff’s Day-Time Wife, in its own humble way, strikes me as subversive—scandalous even. It dared to suggest that life with such an outwardly perfect man might not turn out to be so happy after all.

In retrospect, when we think of Tyrone Power rebelling against his studio-endorsed pretty boy image, a number of courageous performances come to mind: the sensitive, disillusioned seeker of The Razor’s Edge, the pathologically selfish carny of Nightmare Alley, and the duplicitous husband of Witness for the Prosecution, to name only a few.

While Day-Time Wife certainly doesn’t offer up a performance of that magnitude, the gossamer comedy nevertheless intimated how convincingly Power could override his godlike charms to portray a 24-karat jerk.

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Judging by the polarized reviews I’ve read, Day-Time Wife represents something of a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Although it’s far from a masterpiece, I personally find a lot to love about the movie, even apart from Ty. I can only assume that the caustic nature of its humor alienates a certain segment of viewers. Interestingly enough, Raymond Griffith—the greatest silent-era comedian you’ve probably never heard of and a damn fine script doctor to boot—got a producer credit on this underrated marital farce, and I definitely detect some of Griffith’s irreverent, topsy-turvy wit here.

20th Century Fox originally envisioned the project as another showcase for Power and frequent co-star Loretta Young. However, when Young refused a second-billing assignment, without missing a beat the studio replaced her with fifteen-year-old Linda Darnell. Anecdotes about the filming of Day-Time Wife tend to focus on Darnell’s immaturity. Love scenes would be interrupted so that a studio tutor could drag Linda off to a history less. A manicurist had to follow her around and constantly repair the damage of her nail biting habit. Stepping in like an older brother, Power would cover for her when she messed up her lines and ask for another take. Still, you’d never guess it from watching the film. Amazingly, Darnell holds her own against Power in terms of screen presence and brings a refreshing combination of cunning and naïveté to a demanding leading role that I don’t think Young could’ve embodied as effectively.

On her second wedding anniversary, Darnell’s character, Jane Norton, discovers that her lying hubby Ken has not only forgotten the occasion, but is also apparently cheating with his secretary. Rather than confront him, Jane undertakes a little research mission in order to understand why men stray from their wives… and secretly starts working as a secretary herself.

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And who hires her as a secretary? Why, none other than Barney Dexter—played by the lascivious Warren William! Fairly bursting with pent-up lechery after five years’ worth of Joseph Breen-enforced good behavior, William gets to lick his chops repeatedly over underage Darnell. Almost like old times, huh?

In fact, it’s not an enormous stretch to call Day-Time Wife a pre-Code film miraculously realized in post-Code Hollywood, complete with a gratuitous lingerie scene and a modern moral takeaway. Because, it so happens that Ken and Barney are about to collaborate on a deal, and, when they decide to double-date with their secretaries, Ken squirms as his wife reflects his own sins back to him.

I especially treasure Power’s performance in Day-Time Wife, because, with little more screen time than the supporting players, the matinee idol embraces the opportunity for smarminess afforded by a smaller role. He slips right into the skin of Ken Norton, your above-average, suit-wearing young man on the rise, a proto-Mad Men office-dweller that smokes cigars in his twenties and wears a silk sleep mask to bed. Our boy Ty also totally mastered the physical lexicon of boardroom machismo, from the over-confident chin jutting to the sales-pitch hand gestures.

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Power between takes with director Gregory Ratoff

Decades before audiences started getting lectured on the dysfunction of mid-century masculinity, Power hinted at that hollowness through his comic superficiality. He swapped his naturally joyful megawatt smile for a grin so knowingly fake and businesslike that he might’ve pasted one of his worst publicity stills onto his face. Most actors have to strive to make audiences like them; for Power, the difficulty lay rather in making himself unlikable. And in Day-Time Wife, he rose to the challenge.

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The problem is, Ken’s not an unusually bad guy. He’s something much more insidious: a casual sexist, the sort of man who brags that he’s got his wife “well-trained” then goes out with other women for adventure. We all know people like Ken: so good-looking and talented that we’re inclined to overlook their faults. Well, gee, wouldn’t it be worth putting up with [fill in the blank] to be married to a man like that and live like that?

Um, no. No, it wouldn’t, as Day-Time Wife reveals by faithfully siding with Jane and communicating her emotions as she vows to teach Ken a lesson. For instance, towards the beginning of the film, after she catches him in a lie and doesn’t let on, Ken leans in for a kiss. We’d typically brace ourselves for a swoony Ty Power soft-lighting liplock, but the mood isn’t right. Instead, as he smooches the side of her face, the camera looks hesitantly over his shoulder, sharing the moment with Jane as she wrinkles her nose in distaste. Instead of building up romantic impetus, the film cultivates sympathy for its deceptively strong female protagonist. Even the trademark lulling sheen of the elegant Fox production design doesn’t assuage the quiet, but very real resentment that the film continuously expresses on behalf of neglected wives.

linda&tySimilarly, when Ken comes home late after an evening with his secretary, Jane spritzes the dog with his mistress’s perfume to make him think that he smells of the other woman. Playing innocent, the demure wife sits down to dinner and enjoys watching her husband squirm, sniff himself, and light a cigar as he eats to cover the odor. Thanks to leisurely paced shot-reverse shot exchanges from opposite sides of the dinner table, the audience enjoys Darnell enjoying Power’s hopelessly obvious charade. The funniness of the scene derives from the fact that Ken clearly believes that he’s fooled his wife. He possesses the utmost confidence in his own sneakiness. Such genial obnoxiousness coming from Mr. Happily Ever After doesn’t fail to shock me… or make me snicker.

Moreover, the movie derives much of its comedy—and its social commentary—from the ironic symmetry of the characters’ relationships. At the end, Ken wants to vent his anger at his wife for going behind his back… but isn’t that what he was doing all along? He reacts with outrage as married-man Barney slobbers over Jane… but in condemning Barney, Ken condemns his own dalliance with his secretary. Tyrone Power and Warren William make unlikely mirror images, but the film does discreetly equate them. In one significant shot, the two working swells stand together, surrounded by the masculine trappings of a stylized office, and clap each other on the shoulder with identical jocular pats. Only a few years of unrepentant sleaze, we recognize, separate Prince Charming from becoming the Big Bad Wolf.

The final act of the film pays off with a delicious humiliation of the wayward hubby. The simultaneous presence of his wife and his mistress forces Ken to evaluate his actions and admit what an ass he’s been.

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We all have moments when we feel as though we’re watching our own lives unfold, as though we were spectators, and suddenly recognize how absurdly we’re behaving. Power hilariously conveys this level of mortification, as Ken’s remorse rankles his pride. In a series of wonderful medium close-ups, he cringes, winces, and rolls his eyes at the cooing advances of his crass girlfriend. At one point, when the amorous secretary embraces him, he struggles in the same manner that girls usually do in films when some bold fellow makes advances—flailing his leg around and pulling his lapels together, as if to cover his bosom! Observing his embarrassment, we perceive a self-deprecating, decent man start to emerge from the chrysalis of a one-dimensional dude.

If Day-Time Wife deals a bit leniently with Ken, letting him regress to a contrite little boy who reiterates his love and need for his wife, the film distinctly admonishes the straying husbands in the audience. Not too bad for a trifling comedy.

tylindabedroomThis post is part of the Power-Mad blogathon, in honor of Tyrone Power’s 100th birthday, hosted by Lady Eve’s Reel Life and They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. You’re strongly encouraged to click on the banner below and explore the other entries!

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Night Must Fall (1937): Behind the Mask

posterNowadays, playing a psychopathic murderer is practically a rite of passage for movie stars eager to show off their versatility. But, in the 1930s, Robert Montgomery had to campaign for the privilege.

As Photoplay magazine reported, “He pestered M-G-M officials until they gave in” and agreed to adapt Emlyn Williams’s suspenseful play for the screen. Determined to take on the lethally charming lead role, the actor even agreed to pay for a part of the production.

Montgomery (and the studio) took a big risk with his star image as a coy sophisticate. To put this into perspective, only 10 years before Night Must Fall hit theaters, the ending of another famous thriller, The Lodger, had to be radically altered so that Britain’s favorite matinee idol, Ivor Novello, wouldn’t turn out to be a serial killer.

A decade later, audiences were apparently desensitized enough that the gamble paid off. Montgomery even reported a net increase in fan mail after revealing his dark side.

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Still, the actor certainly alienated a segment of his admirers, one of whom carped, “At a period in the world’s history when horror of one sort or another is our daily dish, it seemed unnecessary for Mr. Montgomery to inflict this spine-chilling opus upon his public.”

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But Montgomery was determined to prove a villain. And we should all be grateful that he was, because he gave us one of the most frightening murderers ever to menace the silver screen—possibly the scariest before Psycho—a devilish blend of charisma and repulsiveness.

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Night Must Fall is a delicate exercise in encroaching dread—and one largely controlled by Montgomery, who supposedly took the reigns from workman director Richard Thorpe. As the case of a missing woman disturbs the peace of a little English village, beguiling servant boy Danny ingratiates his way into the home of hypochondriac Mrs. Bramson. This crotchety, verbally abusive dowager, played to whinnying perfection by Dame May Whitty, is a just the sort of lady who’d tempt even the most morally-upstanding individuals among us to sweeten her tea with cyanide. She’s well known in the area for her bad temper and supposed cache of hidden money. Starved for excitement and adventure, Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia, little more than a servant herself, sets out to expose Danny’s true nature at the risk of losing her heart and her life.

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At almost two hours long, the film slowly builds in fear and suspense, eschewing dramatic plot developments in favor of layered characterizations. At the end of most scenes, you’d be hard-pressed to say what’s shifted in the characters’ dynamics, but you sense a looming shock for all those touched by Danny’s deceit.

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With brooding shadows from cinematographer Ray June and directorial influence from Montgomery, Night Must Fall revels in sardonically undermining Hollywood’s idyllic dreams of merry old England. Far from reassuring, this quaint landscape is perpetually teetering on the cusp of darkness (as the title suggests).

Unlike the play, which opens with a judge intoning a sentence at a trial, the adaptation begins outside, in the shadows, as a man shown in silhouette whistles to himself while burying something at the base of a tree. The fact that he’s doing so by the light of the moon—and quickly hides when he hears human noise—tells us that he’s not planting daisies.

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The audience thus enters the film’s setting of tea cozies and servants’ quarters already disillusioned, already conditioned to pierce through the veneer of comfort and civilized behavior… already aware of what’s rotting in the garden.

In other words, we see the world a little more like Danny the sociopath does: stripped of warmth, compromised by secrets. A ruthless zero-sum game ironically embellished by roses and doilies. The late-afternoon sunlight and quaint tweedy textures mock the viewer with their insincerity.

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From this tenebrous set-up, the movie as a whole hinges on Montgomery’s performance. He doesn’t disappoint. From the moment his Danny swaggers into Mrs. Bramson’s house—about to be called on the carpet for impregnating a maid—the audience recognizes his uncanny ease and casualness. Nobody’s ever that calm. Unless he hasn’t got a conscience.

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Now, I have no intention of trying to diagnose a fictional character, but I do admire how Montgomery’s acting anticipated clinical descriptions of the psychopath: not so much a full person, but a series of performances constantly being staged for the benefit of others and even for himself.

In 1941, Dr. Hervey Cleckley published a landmark study of psychopaths, The Mask of Sanity, explaining their fundamental emptiness: “We are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly… So perfect is this reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him can point out in scientific or objective terms why he is not real.”

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Indeed, Danny does demonstrate such “machine”-like behavior, as though he’d been studying the way normal people behave, memorizing their habits rote, then playing them back.

Smiles don’t crinkle his eyes enough. His sleepy-eyed reserve erupts too easily into manic merriment. His gleeful recitation of nursery rhymes, his cigarette, forever perched at the same obtuse angle on his lip, that tune he whistles as a default noise—all these idiosyncrasies endow him with a rakishly automatic quality.

Montgomery’s roguish Irish accent, though pretty darn good, contributes to the mechanicalness of the character: too smooth, too mannered upon closer observation.

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Throughout the film, Montgomery often makes his usually animated face go unnervingly blank or impassive, especially when Danny doesn’t think anyone’s watching. At his comic best, the actor could screw up that beautiful mug of his into any number of funny grimaces or provoke laughter with a twitch of his eyebrow.

By contrast, in many medium close-ups from Night Must Fall, his cigarette practically betrays more emotion than he does. Devious melodrama villains snicker and rub their hands whenever they think they’re unobserved; this is at least recognizably human. Danny is spookier, because he possesses the ability to flip his emotions on and off like an electric current—which suggests that he never really felt those emotions anyway.

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The camera heightens the uncanniness of Montgomery’s performance by presenting Danny as a cipher. For instance, as the killer delivers a protracted, morbid speech, imagining the congregation in the local church shuddering while night closes in, the audience sees only the back of Danny’s head. Of course, throughout the entire film, we might as well have been looking at the back of his head the entire time, for how well he conceals his identity.

The menacing, hypnotic stream of words that pours forth from Danny, in contrast to the unreadable back of his head and shoulders, creates an eerie counterpoint that couldn’t have existed on a stage in quite the same way. Danny’s terrifying inscrutability washes over the spectators, jolting us into the realization that even the most outwardly affable individual could harbor a horrible, unknowable hole in place of a personality.

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Nevertheless, the film offers the viewer one unadulterated peek into Danny’s head, one glimpse of the blinding, childish panic that may represent his only genuine feeling. On the night the body in the garden is discovered, Danny peers out through the lace curtains of his window.

We see him from the outside, the glass pane a hovering box of light in the midst of darkness, reminding us of the many barriers—lies, charm, violence, false identities—the murderer uses to protect himself. That illuminated square also seemingly holds Danny a prisoner, evoking a sense of claustrophobia as his sins threaten to find him out.

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Suddenly, as he reaches to draw down the curtains, a match-on-action transports us inside his small room. In his pajamas, he appears more vulnerable and less slick than usual and almost collapses into a chair. The camera tracks in close, until we’re practically on top of his head, looking over his shoulder, aligned with his mind.

Then the focus racks to give us a sharp line of vision to the hatbox under his bed. The box which, the viewer knows by now, probably contains the head of his victim.

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We get a cut to a close-up of Danny, his shadow an abstract blur on the wall, as he covers his face with his hands.

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This brief expressionist scene, with its especially fancy racked-focus long take, provides the viewer with a benchmark of authentic emotion and squirmy intimacy in a film full of dissimulation. (I’d also note that the subjective, psychological camerawork foreshadows the first-person point-of-view in Lady in the Lake, indicating that Montgomery had a hand in directing this scene.)

Danny’s apprehension, his disgust at the object he’s brought into his own living space, and even a hint of necrophilia—I mean, why steal the head?—all bring the nightmare realm of his mind into relief. He’s not glamorous or sly. He’s the raw nerve, the open, oozing, festering wound that requires such a complex swaddling of lies and pretense.

For the most part, as Cleckley would say, Danny “is not real.” But for about 30 seconds here, shit gets real. All too real.

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While fully embracing the ugliness of his character, Montgomery also harnessed his star image to amplify Danny’s power as a fantasy vehicle. Awful though his deeds are, still more awful is his ability to leverage his evil as a kind of aphrodisiac. As the Scotland Yard inspector jokes about the unknown murderer, he’s a “regular film star,” an outlaw who revels in the publicity and the aura of romanticism that his crimes generate.

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The stakes of Night Must Fall don’t depend on whether Danny is caught or not, but on whether he succeeds in seducing Olivia and, to a certain extent, the audience. His capacity to horrify relates directly to how much we, like Olivia, are excited by his ruthlessness. Danny draws us into pity with stories of his wretched childhood, elicits awe with the virtuosity of his lies, and even gets us rooting for him by targeting the nasty old bag Mrs. Bransom. The danger of Danny is less what kills than what he awakens in others. How does he compromise Olivia and us, selling the glamour of his dirty deeds, making us believe that evil truly is glamorous and not just gross and sad?

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Only at its conclusion does the film allow spectators to fully perceive Danny as a predator who thrives on control and domination. In Williams’s play, Danny, manacled and about to be hauled off to the police station, grabs Olivia and kisses her “violently on the mouth.” Since the movie adaptation of Night Must Fall was released after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, nothing doing there.

However, just you try not to infer a sort of sexual gratification in his wordless triumph as Olivia skulks back to the house to join him, even though she suspects that he’s killed her aunt. Montgomery, a master of irresistible smugness under any circumstances, conveys Danny’s triumphant arrogance, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction and biting his thumb suggestively.

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All in all, Montgomery’s Danny alludes to a hidden temptation, affably fooling most characters, but coaxing the film’s viewers and Olivia irresistibly with the promise of a glimpse of what’s behind his mask. The fact that we do want to see—and that we shrink from the howling animal he becomes, disappointed by the annihilation of his sly wickedness—chastens us, but leaves us wiser. Well, at least, I hope so.

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In 1937, Photoplay magazine concluded its review of Night Must Fall by warning, “This will have you looking under your beds at night.” Worse, it’ll erode your trust and force you to question what’s real. It’ll make you think twice about the next person who compliments you, who makes you feel special, who makes you feel alive.

And it might even encourage you to look under that person’s bed—for a hatbox…

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This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Shadows and SatinSilver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the other wonderful posts!

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Man of Mystery: Why I Love the Falcon Series

the-falcon-and-the-co-eds-movie-poster-1943-1020548505I like to think of the Falcon movies as film noir lite.

When I can’t stomach the amoral bitterness and grisly endings of true noir, this mystery series still satisfies my craving for seductive low-key lighting, cynical dialogue, and underworld intrigue. With his Bond-like resilience and devil-may-care banter, the debonair amateur sleuth known as the Falcon makes the viewer feel reassured and protected as he leads us down those mean streets in search of answers—and gorgeous dames.

Between 1941 and 1946, RKO’s B-movie unit churned out thirteen Falcon programmers. Amazingly, the quantity did not undermine the quality of the thoroughly enjoyable films. Distinguished up-and-coming directors like Edward Dmytryk and Joseph H. Lewis helmed individual movies, and more workmanlike directors still served up polished, competently-made films that clock in at a little over an hour. On a broader level, I suspect that Val Lewton’s successful RKO horror cycle strongly influenced the sleek, shadowy look of the Falcon movies. In any case, one can only assume that the studio—which managed to produce The Stranger on the Third Floor (widely considered the first film noir), Citizen Kane, Cat People, and Out of the Past within a span of a few years—must’ve been an environment conducive to good ideas and an eye-catching, moody style.

vlcsnap-2014-03-18-12h40m28s223Although the wry, purring George Sanders created the role of the Falcon, after just a few movies he moved on to more prestigious gigs and bequeathed the title to his equally wry and purring real-life brother Tom Conway. Years before, in 1937, when starting out on acting careers, the Russian-born, British-raised brothers had flipped a coin over who’d get to keep the family name. (The self-destructive genes in the family had already been split between them.) Well, George won the Sanders name, but Tom comes out the clear winner in the Falcon series.

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Sanders might ooze deadly charm when playing bad guys, but he makes a less convincing ladies’ man on the right side of the law. By contrast, when Conway’s Falcon flirts with ladies, they stay flirted. (Warning: buckle up for fangirling, folks. This is a Tom-centric article and I feel no shame for it.)

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Probably best known for his turn as the spectacularly unethical Dr. Judd in Cat People and The Seventh Victim, Conway delivered some fine performances, but didn’t possess the ample dramatic gifts of his younger brother. However, he proved much more adept at sustaining the Falcon series. As Kim Newman observes in The BFI Companion to Crime, “Conway was less sullen with material his brother clearly believed beneath him.”

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Whereas much of Sanders’s star image depends on his disdainful aura of boredom, Conway’s less caustic brand of sprezzatura gave the Falcon persona a much-needed infusion of curiosity and energy. Over the years I’ve acquired a great deal of respect for actors who can play the same static character over and over while still making him amusing and engaging. Conway bore this onus brilliantly.

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Conway’s work in the Falcon deserves the Errol Flynn Prize for Formulaic But Consistently Awesome Performances. I’d also award him the Ronald Colman Cup for Fine Moustaches. If anybody ever looked more badass holding a teacup, I’ve never seen it. It’s not difficult to understand how the Falcon series—which RKO initially planned on cancelling soon after Sanders left—actually grew more popular once Conway took it over.

vlcsnap-2014-03-18-11h22m04s30Sanders and Conway appeared together in just one film, The Falcon’s Brother, and their collective swoon-worthiness might cause temporary blindness in certain scenes. Gay Lawrence (Sanders) begins the investigation when his brother, Tom, is falsely reported dead. In an interesting reversal, by the end of the movie, Nazi spies have killed off Gay, leaving Tom to inherit the mantle and seek out further adventures as the Falcon.

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If taken out of context, audiences’ first glimpse of the future-Falcon Tom Lawrence wouldn’t seem out of place from any purebred noir. As policemen load into a car in pursuit of Gay Lawrence, a cut shows a presumably nearby alleyway—in almost total darkness. An indistinct movement, the sound of a match striking a wall, a spurt of flame, and there he is: coolly lighting his cigarette, the contours of his face flickering in the smoky glow.

In the initial installment of the series, The Gay Falcon, the other Lawrence brother was introduced to us as a mischievous, easily distracted white-collar socialite who works in an office but shirks his duties to go off hunting killers. By contrast, Tom Lawrence strikes the viewer from the first as a less frivolous sleuth, a slightly shadowy gentleman slummer with one foot in the noirverse.

vlcsnap-2014-03-17-19h01m10s34 Adding to the more hard-boiled qualities of the series, a number of actors better remembered for their work in iconic films noirs—including Jane Greer, Elisha Cook Jr., Martha Vickers, and Sheldon Leonard—bring a darker acting style to individual movies. However, to take the edge off of that intensity, RKO drafted in a number of recognizable comic character actors, like Don Barclay, Edward Brophy, and Cliff Edwards, to play the Falcon’s sidekick.

The Falcon movies feature many classical noir plot tropes, such as psychotically jealous spouses, mercenary femmes fatales, and gangsters living under assumed identities. The better installments mesh noir elements more or less seamlessly with their high quotient of comic relief. For instance, in The Falcon and the Co-Eds, my favorite of the series, an idyllic school for girls offers plenty of opportunity for giggly hijinks, but the façade drops to reveal a roiling undercurrent of repressed passion and neuroticism.

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The Falcon in San Francisco, with its urban environment and preponderance of thugs and baddies, channels the noir atmosphere the most distinctly, but even The Falcon in Mexico and The Falcon Out West manage to cull a noirish aesthetic out of atypical settings. The Falcon in Hollywood wins my personal recommendation as the series installment that most elegantly fuses incongruous elements of dark visual textures with pervasive light comedy.

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Speaking of comedy, the main running gag of the Falcon series consists of bookending almost every film with glamorous ladies begging the sleuth for help with some conundrum or other. As the detective quips in The Falcon in Danger, cornered by a distraught stunner with a ransom demand for her father, “Why is it every beautiful girl I meet is in distress and has a note?” A Falcon movie usually finishes by opening the door for the next movie; just as the Falcon has cracked the case, a woman runs up to him and pleads for his help. Although these teasers seldom relate to the plot of the following film, they end the films on a high note of, “Here we go again!”

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It’s a miracle that the Falcon can get any detecting done at all, what with the sundry dames clamoring for his attention. In one typical scene, from The Falcon Strikes Back, the sleuth tries to deter perky reporter Marcia Brooks (Jane Randolph) from meddling in his case by bestowing a generous smooch. The ploy works a little too well, because he then has to revive her from the resultant reverie with a snap, like a hypnotist!

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I always used to wonder why men carried handkerchiefs in their pockets. After watching a few Falcon movies, I finally understood the reason: to wipe away bright traces of lipstick left on their faces by amorous ladies—or that was the hope, at any rate. Yet, as the films make clear, the Falcon is at heart a gentleman, not a playboy. For instance, when trapped among a coatrack of costumes in a dressing room full of chorus girls during The Falcon in Hollywood, he surreptitiously reaches from his hiding place to put in place a sagging shoulder strap and thus protect the young lady’s modesty.

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I find the incessant flirtatiousness in the series somewhat refreshing because, just as much as the Falcon eyes women up, they eye him up right back. Cigarette girls, hotel maids, and random broads sitting around bars look him up and down and express their approval with an enthusiastic “mmm!” of delight.  When a mysterious lady bails Lawrence out of jail in The Falcon in San Francisco, she immediately pulls him into a liplock with nary a word of introduction. In The Falcon and the Co-Eds, Lawrence has to contend with classrooms full of googly-eyed maidens who instantly crush on him as hard as I do.

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All the pretty girls that populate the Falcon’s universe are clearly furnished to satisfy the gentlemen in the audience, but you can’t mistake a robust female gaze implied in the series. I mean, how else can you explain the scene in The Falcon’s Alibi where Tom Conway is shirtless for about five minutes—freshly oiled from having a massage and wearing nothing but pajama bottoms? Sleuth that I am, I can detect no narrative rationale for this shirtlessness, apart from unabashed eye candy. (Then again, I lose consciousness whenever I watch that scene. Smelling salts must be sent for.) At the risk of rationalizing my guilty pleasure, I would argue that there’s something healthy about the equal-opportunity checking-out that the Falcon movies heartily encourage.

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Like many programmer mystery series, the Falcon movies ride high on a breezy stock company ambiance. You can discern the sense of camaraderie and ease between performers who worked with each other practically every week. Keep your eyes peeled for repeating players, including Jean Brooks, Jane Randolph, Rita Corday, Barbara Hale, and, most frequently, Cliff Clark and Edward Gargan as the flatfooted policemen consistently flummoxed by the Falcon.

Raymond Chandler once wrote, “The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.” I believe this statement applies equally to movies. Now, I’m pretty damn sure that Chandler wouldn’t have expected that statement to relate to the Falcon movies. Especially since the first film adaptation of a Chandler work was the mutilation of Farewell, My Lovely into The Falcon Takes Over. Needless to say, the already cranky author felt trivialized. I admit that the Falcon movies lack the dramatic architecture and emotional tension that supports a great screen or literary thriller, regardless of the conclusion.

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But there’s a very different quality at work that would make me tune into a Falcon film even if the ending had been spliced away. It’s the cozy charm of the situations and the rapport of the characters that brings me back to these movies. The series invites you into its world and makes you feel right at home with a cluster of familiar tropes that grow more amusing with each Falcon movie you watch. You get in on the in-jokes and experience the vague feeling, when each film is over, that you’re expected at the cast party. In the end, try as I might to analyze why I find the series so appealing, I can’t get much further than to conclude, well, they’re darn fun to watch.

conwayAnd apparently they were fun to make. Conway, often typecast as villains or tortured souls, relished his chance to play a witty detective and found the series cathartic. As he told Hollywood magazine in 1943, “every now and then I get a breather like one of the Falcon series, which acts as a purifying agent. Then I’m ready for a fresh dish of dastardly doings.”

I guess that when I need a break from noirdom, the Falcon movies are my “purifying agent,” too.

This post is part of the Sleuthathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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And for those of you who are interested, I’ll be hosting a tweetalong to two Falcon movies on March 19 in partnership with #Bond_Age. Click here for details!

From Satanists to Shirley Temple: The Storm of ’34 and the End of the Pre-Code Era

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“The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is OUT!” —Joseph Breen in a 1934 newsreel

If you’ve ever watched a classic movie, the chances are good that you’ve noticed one of these, unobtrusively tucked at the beginning of the first reel, a flash of just a second or so.

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It’s funny to think that this numbered certificate, a few feet of film, represents the culmination of hours of arguments, revisions, and hard-won concessions in the battle of art versus censorship. Or sin versus morality. It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?

This stamp of approval first flashed before moviegoers’ eyes in July 1934, affixed to The World Moves On, a lesser John Ford work. The title might seem fitting, because, indeed, the film industry was apparently moving on, abandoning an era of freedom, innovation, and blistering social commentary. All film scripts now sought the strict approval of the Production Code Administration before moving into shooting. Afterwards, a preview of the film itself would decide the PCA whether to sanction its release or send it back to production purgatory. Should a finished movie attempt to skirt censorship and obviously violate the rules of the Code, there would be no court of appeals, no jury of industry peers to rationalize it. A $25,000 fine faced any studio brash enough to defy the PCA’s ruling. No Motion Picture Association theater would release a film without that seal.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

However, before the curtain fell on the heady days of forbidden Hollywood, the first half of 1934 had blossomed with the rich final flush of the pre-Code era. As studios sensed the coming tempest of public protest, producers crammed as much illicit content as they dared into their product. The lenient “movie czar” Will Hays, brought in during the 1920s to monitor the industry’s morals, was still in charge—or as in charge as he had ever been. With little real power to stop a scandalous film, Hays gave his impotent blessing to movies that his ambitious underling Joseph Breen condemned in no uncertain terms.

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After all, 1934 was the year that witnessed four bare male bottoms crammed into one frame in The Search for Beauty. It was the year when Kay Francis, sold into prostitution by her lover, poisoned him and escaped scot-free in Mandalay. It was the year when Tarzan and his Mate swam naked, the exquisite curves of their bodies enhanced by light-dappled underwater photography.

It was the year that saw Bette Davis ignite the screen as a foul-mouthed, sluttish cockney in RKO’s Of Human Bondage, sexually manipulating a passive Leslie Howard and screaming her castrating insults right into the camera. To cite just one characteristic Joseph Breen rebuttal, the budding censor had protested the adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece as “the wrong kind of film—the kind of film which constantly gets us into hot water.”

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But his objections fell on deaf ears. Filthy mammon was king in Hollywood and the demand for “women’s pictures,” in particular—read: sex melodramas—remained high. The Production Code didn’t get its bite until mid-year.

Hollywood executives nevertheless had plenty to ulcerate over. With Roosevelt elected and the New Deal swinging into effect, the possibility of federal censorship—bruised, but not killed back in the 1920s—returned to prominence. Hundreds of state bills advocated hard protection against any kind of moral turpitude in movies. Meanwhile, the pop sociology of the Payne Studies, a bunch of pseudo-scientific research that “proved” the malign influence of movies on young people, intensified the likelihood of government interference.

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Joseph Breen saw an opportunity and seized it, supporting the Catholic establishment in a long-fermented charge against immoral movies. Its Legion of Decency officially formed in 1934 with the goal of stamping out “vile and unwholesome moving pictures.” At each Sunday mass, many were handed a checklist of condemned films in theaters and ordered to mark the ones they had attended; for each box ticked, they had to contend with a new mortal sin on their souls.

Priests would loom outside local theaters to shepherd their flock away from sinful celluloid. Christian groups of various denominations took up the rallying cry and authorities in the Jewish community denounced Hollywood for giving their people a bad name. All these leaders urged their faithful to stay away from the box offices. During the Depression, such a boycott would hit Hollywood where it hurt—in their bottom lines.

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No scholar can hold Joseph Breen solely responsible for the movement. Still, he effectively stage-managed a drama in which only he, with ties to both the Catholic establishment and the film industry, could play the appropriate hero. But for now, he let the Storm of ’34 rage until it got the studio’s attention.

The role of director during this peril-fraught transition into classical Hollywood became that of a smuggler (to borrow a phrase from Martin Scorsese), secreting thematic and visual contraband to the public under the watchful eye of America’s self-appointed watchdogs and equally wary studio heads.

Letting the Cat out of the Bag

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The troubled production Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat at Universal, shot in just 19 days, typifies the sort of unspoken depravity that quick-thinking artists could sneak into their films in the twilight of the pre-Code era. Reviewing this bizarre blend of occult horror and revenge melodrama, even the adventurous Universal front office quailed in the face of rising censorship forces.  Director and set designer Ulmer was ordered to cut lengthy passages, convert one of the story’s two main antiheroes into a slightly more heroic lead (he couldn’t assault the leading lady, for example), and balance out some of the more grisly stuff with less graphic scenes. And he did. Sort of.

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“There was two day’s extra shooting that was put in,” Arianne Ulmer, the director’s daughter, recalls, “and my father was always very proud of the fact that he pulled a fast one.” Instead of sterilizing his edgy classic with filler scenes, Ulmer staged the famous pickled brides sequence, in which Karloff strides introspectively through his corridor of preserved, dead beauties as he tenderly strokes a black cat. The disturbingly poetic necrophiliac implications went right over the producer’s heads. “They never understood how wicked and marvelous that scene was.”

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Black Cat was a huge hit and moneymaker for Universal. Clearly mid-1930s audiences had a stomach for this kind of perversion. But the public would soon be put on a sweeter, more limited diet.

The Belle’s Toll

westIn one scene of Mae West’s 1934 vehicle Belle of the Nineties, curtains rise on the hourglass-figured star in several symbolic costumes: a butterfly, a vampy bat, a rose, a spider. Last of all, Miss West stands, wielding a flickering torch, as a voluptuous improvement on Lady Liberty. It was an image that doubtlessly provoked chuckles from many Americans and shudders from a few, since the clergy had singled out West as their Enemy Number One. A Mae West-made America was exactly what the reformers were afraid of. Her Belle of the Nineties would fall the first high-profile victim of censorship in 1934.

Watching Mae West’s movies today—especially Belle—one might emerge puzzled by the vehemently outraged responses of America’s moral authorities. West dishes out a lot of sassy one-liners and doesn’t disappoint with her signature amorous growl, but her burlesque antics pale in comparison to the deadly serious predations of her contemporary leading ladies—on the sex scale, that is. The heroine of any run-of-the-mill women’s picture of the early 1930s is likely to engage in more objectionable behavior than West’s indolent idols. She might invite some lucky fellow to come up and see her, but we seldom actually see her locked in the grip of any truly improper behavior. For instance, in Belle of the Nineties, she pulls herself out of one admirers arms after he lists her many attractions, baulking, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Is this a proposal or are ya takin’ inventory?”

belleI can only infer that censors objected less to West’s suggestiveness than to the real-life image that backed it up. Her star text as a proto-feminist writer-actress-auteur in control of her personal relationships added persuasive power to her subversive arguments about the generous wages of sin. West’s characters languorously sized up and chose their playmates with the same kind of desire usually reserved for male characters, even in the pre-Code world. She taught female audiences that women who lost their reputations might never miss them.

Perhaps most offensive to the Catholic brass, she thumbed her nose at the domestic virtues that religion most valued in women. In the contended Belle of the Nineties her backstage dresser wonders, “You certainly know the way to a man’s heart!” West wryly replies, “Funny too, because I don’t know how to cook.”

Like her shrewd onscreen characters, West knew how to handle men, including the blue-pencil boys. As she explained, “ When I knew that the censors were after my films and they had to come and okay everything, I wrote scenes for them to cut! These scenes were so rough that I’d never have used them. But they worked as a decoy.”

silhouetteUnfortunately, Mae’s strategy had met its match in Joseph Breen. Reading the still-shady edited script, with a fragrant ambiance of prostitution and crime, he demanded cuts and rejected the release of the film until those cuts be made. Breen was smart enough to avoid demanding too many cuts; Paramount could’ve leveraged support from a jury of peers and gotten away with sending the picture out as it was. But even Breen couldn’t believe his luck when the slightly sanitized Belle was taken out of circulation by the New York censors. Paramount slashed the film further and tacked on an ending that ran counter to everything West stood for: a wedding. Belle of the Nineties can still enchant audiences with its breezy humor and the joy of West’s performance, but it’s weak tea compared to her earlier vehicles. The Belle had taken its toll on Mae. Her career would never be the same.

Breen had made his point, even if it wasn’t totally his doing. And, as of June, Hays made him the Production Code administrator, head of the newly-christened Production Code Administration. Backed by the authority of the Motion Picture Association of America, the studio bosses’ bosses, what Breen said was essentially law in Hollywood. He promised to vindicate moral reforms of the boycotters and the Legion of Decency. The crisis was over.

The Hitler of Hollywood

beDespite my personal distaste for the man Variety proclaimed “the Hitler of Hollywood,” I’ll admit that Joseph Breen was a canny choice to survey movieland as its self-appointed watchdog. A natural storyteller, the stout, fierce-eyed Irish-American could dance back and forth between his many roles, somehow placating a frighteningly different multitude of interests.

He understood studio production and the dynamics of a good screenplay; if he was going to ruin a movie’s message, he would try do so as unobtrusively as possible. As he admitted to a young Val Lewton, Breen liked to go to brothels, he just didn’t find it acceptable to depict them.

Having partially engineered the Catholic revolt against celluloid Babylon, he also cooled it down, making him a savior for both sides. His staunch leadership meant that Hollywood had escaped the interference of government-appointed censors. Like all purgatives, he wasn’t pleasant, but there were worse treatments out there. Still, his ascendancy largely closed the industry to the subversive content that had made the pre-Code era so thrilling.

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What changed in 1934 wasn’t merely what could or couldn’t assault the general public’s impressionable eyes and ears. Indeed, the year afterward, the PCA-approved China Seas treated the observant viewer to a brief exposure of Jean Harlow’s breast in an uncut wardrobe malfunction. Innuendo—perhaps a little less bawdy than most West-isms, but still steamy—remained par for the course throughout the classical Hollywood era. And the not-so-subtle sex ellipsis would reach its apotheosis in 1939 as Rhett carried a wriggling Scarlett up that red-carpeted staircase. Obvious prostitutes and whore houses would be restricted to the outskirts of post-Code Hollywood more stridently than they had been, but they didn’t disappear, by any means.

The stakes of 1934 ran much deeper than risqué bon mots and cleavage. It wasn’t about “the vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry,” in Breen’s words, but about social power. The Production Code Administration broadcast a vision of firm gender roles, family values, and severe punishments for individualistic transgressions. Innuendo became a ritual of clear courtship not pleasure-seeking. Salient sex ellipses—once provoked by the seductive moves of cunning women as often as by the maneuvers of charming men—now tended to affirm the dominance of men over comparatively submissive women.

Decoding the Code

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Studios worked overtime to recast their stars in a more Code-friendly light. A prime example, Jean Harlow morphed from a lippy bad girl who flaunted her ill-gotten gains to a basically decent chorine (or similar) who longed for a better life. In her first post-Code vehicle, The Girl from Missouri (originally titled Born to Be Kissed), she spends most of the movie fighting for her virtue. She remained a fortune-hunter, yes, but one fervently and improbably insistent on marriage first.

A few films in 1934, however, plotted out a prime blueprint for circumventing the Production Code in style. Both The Thin Man and It Happened One Night were released before July 1934, but they already showed signs of retooling the wit of the pre-Code era into the topsy-turvy screwball world. The sexual tension between Nick and Nora Charles was sanctioned by marriage just as the sparks between Pete Warne and Ellie Andrews were protected by the characters’ chastity. (The Walls of Jericho anyone? What better way to concede to moralists than with a biblical allusion.)

laughtonMore important, the screwball comedy’s battle of the sexes conventions—as aptly modeled by another 1930s release, Twentieth Century—provided a brilliant format for portraying relationships of uneasy equality between men and women. Teasing one-upmanship provided an apt metaphor for mutual desire and respect, as long as the script kept the lovers vertical.

Exceptional actors and directors could also skirt the censorship. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the third top grossing film of 1934, was released with PCA approval only after significant cuts eliminated more explicit references of Edward Moulton-Barrett’s incestuous desire for his daughter, Elizabeth. Nevertheless, Charles Laughton’s subtly wicked performance as the lustful father stands as a savage indictment of backwards, hypocritical patriarchs. As he quipped, “They can’t censor the gleam in my eye.”

Temple of Virtue?

It’s no coincidence that 1934 also welcomed Hollywood’s new superstar to the epicenter of its media constellation. Stand Up and Cheer gave curly-headed ragamuffin Shirley Temple her first important role and catapulted her to prominence. Four starring vehicles followed in the same year. As the cliché goes, she immediately endeared herself as a symbol of hope to Depression. But like all clichés it only tells half the story.

shirleAmusingly enough, Temple—lauded by many as Hollywood’s clean slate, an innocent star to usher in a new era of pure entertainment—had to clean up her image in 1934 almost as much as Jean Harlow had. In previous years, she’d won over audiences in a borderline-indecent series of shorts, “Baby Burlesks,” in which she frequently aped Mae West and other erotically-charged stars of the day. So much for that clean slate.

A number of film historians treat the pre-Code era as Hollywood’s adolescence, a rebellious phase of rage and despair destined to exhaust itself and boil over. By contrast, the enshrined post-1934 Hollywood, tempered by a superego of censorship, had attained maturity. Although I respect the validity of that argument—and have encountered some pre-Code films that probably could’ve benefitted from censorship—I generally disagree. On the contrary, it was in 1934 when the movies regressed, governed by censors who selected a child as their unofficial mascot and promulgated fantasies of a world that always sorted itself out.

Fortunately, not everyone bought it. And, more fortunately, not everyone sold it. The clever smugglers of the film industry found ways to curtail the curtailment of their artistic liberties. But you’d have a hard time convincing me that movies were ever quite as fun again after 1934.

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I drew on a number of sources in writing this post which I will not cite formally here, but which I gratefully acknowledge. I primarily relied upon The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons. I also consulted, among others, Pre-Code Hollywood by Thomas Doherty and Universal Horror (Kevin Brownlow’s documentary film). Full bibliography available upon request.

Crime Spree: The Wicked Darling (1919)

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The streetwalker sits on the edge of the gutter, rubs her tired feet, then slips them back into her worn shoes. She scans the street with the relaxed resignation of someone accustomed to sizing up meager and often dangerous prospects. A trace of anxiety lines her mouth only as she pauses to size up a dope fiend shambling out of a nearby store. This is a tough part of town for selling anything, much less yourself.

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Then two legs come up behind her, stepping almost daintily into the frame, legs which she seems to sense as much as hear. She turns her head slowly to look at them. We haven’t seen the man’s face yet, but the intertitles inform us that he’s a thief who’s served time—a crook called “Stoop” Conners.

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Stoop’s face fills the screen. It’s a face you might call kind. If you’re used to Easter Island statues, maybe. With a contemptuous glance around, Stoop orders the woman to get up. As he towers over her in a wider shot, the hooker pokes up at the bottom of the frame and steps up on the sidewalk to face this creepy thug. To put it mildly, they know each other.

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And so Lon Chaney made his first appearance in a Tod Browning film, The Wicked Darling, sparking a partnership that would come to define the grotesque in cinema.

Even in this brief character introduction, Browning aptly sculpts Chaney’s potential for menace through cinematic space. The legs ominously enter from the side, the upper half of Conner’s body is only disclosed after the intertitle, and Conner’s presence suddenly places the prostitute in a lower relation to another character. Chaney, in turn, maximizes the value of each shot through his stiletto-sharp focused movements. As Conners proceeds to tell Mary Stevens where she should be plying her trade, his ugly facial contortions, pointing gestures, and invasion of her space all complete the portrait of a swaggering lowlife, the kind of man who really does think he can own a woman.

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The Wicked Darling, recently rediscovered in the Netherlands Filmmuseum after many years among the lost, probably won’t ever receive recognition on a par with Chaney’s later, more horror-inclined films. I myself only dug this one up out of interest about the beginning of the Chaney-Browning collaboration. On the surface, the plot sounds like a sentimental cliché: a prostitute steals some jewels, but falls in love with a decent man and tries to go straight—but her criminal associates won’t let her escape that easily.

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Boy, was I in for a shock! Compared with even an excellent gangster thriller of the time like The Penalty, The Wicked Darling strikes me as a much more modern, uncompromising depiction of crime. The seediness of Browning’s ultra-realist underworld, the ferocity of the acting, and the subtlety of the crescendoing suspense bowled me over.

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In addition to Browning’s brilliantly askew direction, the fierce energy of Priscilla Dean also brought out the best in emerging movie actor Chaney. Though sadly little-remembered nowadays, Dean was a top female star at Universal when The Wicked Darling was made. Neither a flapper nor a glamourpuss, Dean was a fearless actress, willing to look downright sullied and unattractive to boost her credibility in a role. Chaney’s female co-stars tended to play second fiddle to him, but Dean was that rare actress whose spitfire energy and rubber-face range of expression could counterbalance his own. Their antagonistic onscreen chemistry threatens to burn a hole right through your screen.

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Browning’s penchant for all things freakish, Dean’s tough honesty, and Chaney’s vicious intensity synergized to produce an extraordinary crime melodrama. Their pooling of gutsy talent layered on the despair and grime of a celluloid skid-row more sordid and gritty than most of what moviegoers would see for another half-century.

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In this story of love and redemption, Chaney incarnates—surprise, surprise—all the obstacles to Mary’s rise from gutter. Reading between the lines, we understand that Stoop Conners not only helps Mary work her pickpocket routine, but is also one of her regular johns who also works with Uncle Pet, her stringy pawnbroker pimp. In this supporting role, Chaney bravely confronts us with a morally defunct man, lacking in anything we might latch onto as likeable. Devoid of the qualities that make most of Chaney’s characters so charismatic, like Blizzard’s satanic gumption or the Phantom’s creative madness, Stoop would come last even in a scrawny punk competition.

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There’s nothing romantic about his two-bit gangster; he comically turns a 180 whenever he sees a cop coming and gets trounced no less than three times by big burly dudes with whom he tangles. And just because he’s attached to Mary in some way doesn’t mean he’s above slapping her around; actually, his strange brand of affection practically guarantees it.

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Dean and Chaney give us a cringe-worthy duet of scorn when Mary returns from stealing some pearls. Unbeknownst to her, Stoop has been negotiating with her pimp—if he turns over the pearls, he gets her and a nice chunk of cash in exchange. Leaning back, his thumb tucked in the armhole of his vest, he coyly questions her about the whereabouts of the loot that he implies they stole together. “We! Where yuh get that ‘we’ stuff?” She retorts, claiming she lost the pearls. He shrugs, assuming that she doesn’t want to talk about the stash in a public place.

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Then Stoop leans forward with a gesture that could only come from a hustler trying to imitate something he saw in a movie, flopping his hand on Mary’s and leaning in with a goofy grin. Chaney makes this awkward come-on both risible and lewd, like Al Capone trying to ape John Gilbert. When Mary pulls away in disgust, he informs her that he’s “picked out a nice pretty flat” where he plans to install her without delay. Her face modulates from mocking disdain to horror as she realizes how she’s been betrayed by her pimp.

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She jumps up to leave, but Stoop yanks her arm and screams right into her face. Though there are no intertitles, we can read his lips and his aggressive pointing. “You’re gonna move in with me. TONIGHT!!!”

She slaps him, not with the fury of offended honor, but with the anger of a woman who’d rather take her chances as a freelancer than have to put up with one very nasty client full-time. He hauls back, prepared to belt his lady love square in the face when the bartender, built like a tank, grabs his arm in mid swing. Real smooth proposition, Stoop. Real smooth.

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Throughout The Wicked Darling, Browning goes out of his way to depict Stoop as a real-life monster. Chaney, gnashing his teeth and grimacing, basks in almost as many close-ups and medium close-ups as Priscilla Dean! The shots of Chaney are enclosed moments of contemplation. They sometimes run the risk of diverging from the plot, like a mini freak show, as if the director and actor really want the audience to think, “Holy sh*t, do people this awful really exist?”

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For instance, in the midst of the climactic interrogation scene, as Conners pushes Mary around and twists her wrist to extract information, he breaks away after a particularly nasty blow and we get a cut to this medium close-up. Stoop, his teeth bared, draws the back of his balled fist across his mouth, wiping away the spittle he salivated while beating his ex-gal. If there’s a more potent, unpleasant face of male sadism out there, I haven’t seen it.

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In these close shots, Chaney’s mug is also carefully framed for maximum dissonance—he’s usually far off to one side. He also sticks his face quite close to the camera. We recognize a total incomprehension of boundaries and personal space as one of Stoop’s strongest mannerisms. He sidles right up to whomever he’s addressing, even if that means sitting on their desk or edging his chair right up to theirs.

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Most frightening, when he turns up at now-reformed Mary’s workplace, he sneaks up right behind her and doesn’t budge except to smile, immediately crowding her with an air of entitled possession. Through a number of tight close shots, Stoop makes the audience feel like he’s invading their personal space, too.

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Now, Browning as a director tended to focus on outsiders, lost souls living on the margins of ordinary, tax-paying society. While the director often portrayed these living jetsam with tenderness and warmth, Stoop elicits no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather than facing up to his own slum exile from normalcy, he drags Mary downward to have someone he can place below him…. on the food chain, that is.

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Interestingly, though, Stoop manipulates the audience and Mary, knowing that we all want to believe that there’s a glimmer of goodness in everyone. In a key scene toward the conclusion, he lures Mary away from the edge of a pier where she’s about to commit suicide… so that he can get her back to Uncle Pete’s lair and wring information out of her. Stoop’s subtly downcast eyes, his gravely fidgeting hands, and slightly bent stance all convince even wary Mary that he’s solemnly summoning her to her pimp’s deathbed. He tricks her into seeing the decency that she aspires to reflected in him. But whenever Mary isn’t looking, Stoop’s eyes flick over to study her reaction with merciless glee.

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In a lot of prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sagas, the heroine acts like she wants to flee her immoral existence for rarified philosophical reasons. It’s a life choice for Garbo, Crawford, and co. when they turn the red light off. By contrast, Mary Stevens wants not only to better herself, but also to get the hell away from violent slimeballs like Stoop. Thus Chaney provides the muscle to back up The Wicked Darling’s brutal commentary on the hardship of a woman’s life, once she’s cut off by society and written off as “soiled.”

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Chaney’s true-to-life boogeyman, a sleazy, self-pitying, abject son-of-a-bitch, makes the viewer’s blood boil. In real life, Chaney empathized with criminals but despised bullies and often took it upon himself to protect vulnerable young women when he saw them being mistreated in Hollywood. I think he channeled a lot of his hatred for men like Stoop—and their high-ranking relatives—into one of the few utterly unsympathetic performances of his career.

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With all of his limbs at his command and a face barely touched with makeup, Chaney crafted what might be the most real and horrifying character in his gallery of nightmares.

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This post is part of the Lon Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Be sure to check out the other posts and explore the thousands of faces of Chaneys Sr. and Jr.!

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