Pillow Talk (1959): Color Schemes

After a cheeky title sequence of satin cushion tossing, Pillow Talk gives us an opening shot worthy of a pre-Code movie: nimble hands smoothing a stocking along a shapely leg that ends in a sparkly blue kitten-heel mule.

But the camera doesn’t linger to turn this gam into an abstracted pin-up image. It tracks back to reveal the toned and self-assured entirety of Jan Morrow in a blue silk slip as she prepares for a day’s work.

We’ll soon learn that Jan is an interior designer, a talented and sought-after career girl. For now, the way she moves tells us that this is a woman who’s comfortable in her skin. Jan rises from the bed with a playful swing of her hips, then strides across the bedroom, her arms suspended with the buoyancy of a dancer making an entrance.

She pulls a robe from her closet. A lacy blue robe. The same shade of blue as the sparkly mule and the silky slip. Note: This is a woman who coordinates. Jan pauses to primp her hair in front of the mirror, then checks her watch. Doris Day could convey extreme insecurity when she wanted to. Here she does the exact opposite. In a few seconds of this briskly sensuous routine, Day communicates that Jan Morrow is a woman who knows she’s desirable and has desires of her own. The audience needs to embrace Jan as a living, breathing woman making difficult choices—not a cardboard cutout of menaced virtue—in order for this movie to succeed. And succeed it does.


A longtime favorite of mine, Pillow Talk serves up enough witty dialogue and hilarious hijinks to fill 2 or 3 above-average comedies. It’s the kind of movie you find yourself quoting (“pot-bellied stove on a frosty morning” is often bandied about by my family) and spontaneously remembering with a chuckle (Rock Hudson trying to squeeze into a tiny car = comedy GOLD). You know a movie is funny as hell when Thelma Ritter, playing a boozy cleaning lady, seems like a bonus. Without exaggeration, I’d call it one of the best rom-coms ever made.

The first film pairing of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk is sort of a naughtier mid-century modern cousin to The Shop Around the Corner. Womanizing composer Brad Allen just won’t stop hogging the phone line he shares with Jan Morrow, a single gal who’s saving herself for Mr. Right. Jan and Brad have never met in person, but they bristle at the mention of each other. However, once Brad’s friend Jonathan Forbes, a millionaire in love with Jan, extols her beauty, Brad resolves to add Jan to his list of conquests. When a chance encounter brings Jan and Brad together, he recognizes her and tries to trick her into bed by assuming an elaborate false identity: little ol’ folksy Rex Stetson from Texas, ma’am. Will his seduction succeed? Or will Jan turn the tables on him?

The more I watch Pillow Talk, the more I’m struck by its balance of candy-colored escapism and humor drawn from dark, hard truths. Consider this moment of light-hearted banter, which nails a certain toxic attitude of monied self-pity and entitlement that’s still very much in circulation.

Above all, I appreciate Pillow Talk as a movie that empathizes with the problems of working women and takes their concerns seriously. As director Michael Gordon noted, “No matter how absurd the situations may appear to the viewer, to the people involved, it’s a matter of life and death. Comedy is no laughing matter.”

Paradoxically, the film’s joyful, zany aesthetic supports its sensitive depiction of a woman’s trials and tribulations, rather than mocking or undermining her experience. It’s as if the movie were saying to its female audience, “You deserve a movie that understands what you’re dealing with and offers you beautiful things to touch with your eyes. You shouldn’t have to choose between representation and pleasure, between the relatable and the aspirational.”

Indeed, Pillow Talk tickles us with a color palette of bright, saturated blues, bold reds, pastel pinks, and buttery, sophisticated neutrals. Jan’s profession as an interior decorator affords plenty of opportunities to delight us with odd bibelots and living spaces in a range of different styles. Even the split screen sequences provide a visual charge through the pointed contrast between Brad’s and Jan’s decorating. Speaking for myself, empathy feels more comforting when it comes clothed in fuzzy, covetable hats and Jean Louis gowns than in grimy naturalist rags.

In this sense, this 1959 comedy reminds me of the pre-Codes I love, like Our Blushing Brides and Gold-Diggers of 1933. All three of these films explore the daily struggles of women through dazzling, but by no means frivolous, spectacle. By immersing us in the worlds of fashion modeling, theater, and interior decorating, these movies help us identify with the heroines and respect the challenges of their work.

Modern audiences approaching Pillow Talk may want to snicker over Jan’s dogged resistance to premarital sex. Why, just the other day I read an article in a respected publication that dismissed the “prudery” of 1950s Americans films as a whole. Oscar Levant’s famous quip—“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”—evokes laughter in the key of hurr-hurr-hurr because it skewers Hollywood’s sanitization of onscreen relationships as well as star images.

But that bon mot and the diagnosis of prudery don’t quite tally with the character Doris Day creates in Pillow Talk. Jan Morrow isn’t naïve, immune to charm, or even repressed. Pillow Talk repeatedly highlights Jan’s healthy attraction to Brad-as-Rex.

The film’s most memorable shot—the dual bathroom split screen—establishes Jan and Brad as equals in desire through a symmetrical composition. Their feet “touch” and they both seem to feel the impossible point of contact in a moment of comical awkwardness, as though their steamy chemistry transcends the bonds of time and space!

Doris Day’s big song “Possess Me” gives voice to Jan’s lusty excitement as “Rex” drives her to the cozy country house where they intend to consummate their relationship—without the benefit of matrimony. Soft, bluish moonlight caresses the contours of our leads’ faces. Night breezes tousle their freakishly luxuriant hair and the fur collar of Day’s coat. The movie celebrates Jan’s passion rather than judging it.

Her inner monologue bursts into an unabashedly sensual hymn of anticipation and desire for a man she’s grown to like, trust, and love: “Hold me tight and kiss me right. I’m yours tonight. Possess me…. Tenderly and breathlessly make love to me, my darling. Possess me.” Yet, the dramatic irony of situation permeates this dreamy pre-glow with melancholy and suspense. We the viewers know that Brad has tricked Jan into feeling this way and apparently doesn’t give a damn what happens to her afterwards.

At the moment of Jan’s greatest shock and humiliation, we watch the realization dawn in her eyes only. Sheet music blocks the rest of her face, so we have to lock eyes with her and dwell with her feelings of surprise, betrayal, and even a bit of fear. In those wide cornflower-blue eyes, we read what she was accused of all along: frustrated desire. But not frustrated by her own “bedroom problems,” but by the callousness of the very same man who accused her of having them. We laugh at her epiphany, sure, but it’s a laughter tinged with relief and sadness.

Jan’s emotional tug-of-war, between her desire for Brad-as-Rex and her well-founded worries of what might happen if she sleeps with him, anchors this airy rom-com in sharp reality. While the conceit of waiting for marriage (or the reasonable expectation of one) may seem unrealistic even for the late 1950s, classic movies like Pillow Talk knew what was up. The men and women who voted on the Best Original Screenplay of 1959—and chose Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin’s script for Pillow Talk—weren’t a naïve bunch. In Pillow Talk, sex is merely the chessboard on which the tense stakes of gender inequality play out. It’s not merely about pleasure when that pleasure comes with far higher risks and responsibilities for one party than the other.

For Brad, the decision to sleep with a willing woman depends on whether he feels like it. For Jan Morrow, the decision to sleep with a willing man is not only a question of personal desire, but also an occasion for socioeconomic cost-benefit analysis and deep soul searching. How sex-positive can a woman realistically be in a society that punishes her for having sex outside of marriage?

Jan has to manage her passions carefully or face all the consequences that 1959 could throw at a fallen woman—unplanned pregnancies, dangerous abortions, unemployment, eviction, and general ostracism from society. A total loss of respect and independence, basically.

Pillow Talk alludes to pregnancy 8 minutes in. That’s no accident. The phone company executive explains to Jan that she might qualify for her own phone line, “If some emergency arose. If you were to become pregnant for example!” The clueless eagerness of this suggestion is downright comical. He’s so detached from the basic realities of Jan’s life that he recommends the occurrence most likely to ruin her.

All the key male characters in Pillow Talk share a blithe indifference to what women are actually feeling. Jonathan wages a campaign to wear down Jan’s resistance and convince her to marry him. Heck, he tries to give her a sports car outside her workplace as a way of pressuring her into a relationship. She wisely refuses, sensing an implied quid-pro-quo. Most significant, he kisses her without warning in his office. Jan responds tactfully, but the look on her face betrays more than the barest trace of annoyance.

Jan is almost always wrestling with men, literally and metaphorically, who try to usurp her time, her ability to do her job, and her agency. The most egregious of these men is Tony Walters, the son of Jan’s wealthy Scarsdale matron client. This cocky Harvard student, charged with driving Jan home, pulls over and tries to rape her. Here, Pillow Talk viscerally encourages us to identify with Jan by depicting the violation of her personal space. We see Jan crammed into the side of the widescreen frame, already made more claustrophobic by windshields and car windows.

Jan acts like she can and will beat the living bejeezus out of her twerpish attacker. Her nervous, half-yelled wisecracks—“I never met a young man with so many arms before!”—might elicit nervous chuckles, but it’s a tense scene, one that makes us angry and uncomfortable on Jan’s behalf. Although Tony has little significance to the plot, his presence in the film suggests the everydayness of violent harassment and assault.

What about Brad? Rock Hudson doesn’t shy away from the songwriter’s smug selfishness while compensating with an insouciant, molten charm. It’s tempting to interpret Brad Allen as precursor of the Swinging Sixties and free love. However, his blatant dishonesty and disrespect for women unmask him as a grade A slab of standard mid-century misogyny. He speaks the fashionable lingo of repression and liberation only to weaponize that jargon against Jan’s obstinate free will. He doesn’t pause to consider his own pathology until Jan calls him out for it.

Brad’s assortment of lost puppy expressions don’t soften the meanness of his lies and the trail of broken hearts he’s doubtless left in his wake. Alas, he has the kind of face you want to make excuses for. On some level, we’re all Perry Blackwell, the nightclub singer, who knows what Brad’s up to but, even as she sings, “You lied, you dog, and you’ll be sorry…” she can’t resist a smile in response to his wink.

I’m impressed by what Hudson does with his voice as Brad. Compare the honeyed tones Brad deploys on his bevy of dates with the harsh, dictatorial edge in his voice when he mansplains Jan’s life to her. That contrast tells you that Brad sees women as only as conquests or discards.

And yet, Brad is the most sympathetic male character in the movie—not only because he does improve over the course of the film, but also because he eloquently suggests that the 1950s social order hurts men too. Just as premarital sex comes with a high price for women, marriage comes with a high price for men. The script of Pillow Talk gives Brad a poetic, Muir-ish speech about rugged pines converted into shellacked furniture… and self-reliant men milled into dull husbands, shackled by responsibility. He’s not wrong. I can’t think of another actor who could imbue the speech with the same wistful, stirring quality, hinting at the fear of being trapped that drives Brad’s womanizing.

Rock Hudson has less depth to work with in Brad than Day does with Jan. Still, he sculpts a surprisingly lovable and exasperating character out of sheet music, a skinny tie, and a selection of well-appointed bachelor pad switches (lights off! lock on! bed unfurled! record turning!). In the hands of a lesser actor, Brad’s sudden change of heart could give an audience whiplash. He pivots from “I’m going to lie to this woman until she sleeps with me” to “I will renounce my wicked ways and devote myself to earning Jan’s forgiveness” in about a day! As director Anna Biller notes, “Many of the classic movies were about socializing men…. If a man saw that a sexualized woman was also a human being… he would treat women he was attracted to with more respect.” Hudson conveys this subtext beautifully, despite a lack of development in the script.

In carrying out and maintaining the elaborate pretext of Rex Stetson, Brad feigns gentleness, patience, and consideration to the point where he’s training himself in the positive features he never cared to cultivate. In some ways a send-up of the hunky, wounded arborist he played in All That Heaven Allows, Rex reveals that Brad knows what women want to an uncanny degree. To his dismay, Rex Stetson, the unreal man, a concession to a woman’s fantasies, bleeds back into Brad Allen, forever altering the composition of his identity. He stretches himself to feel empathy for Jan and cannot un-stretch. A fake courtship is still a courtship. Having experienced companionship and the slow, warm process of getting to know someone, can he really go back?

Fittingly, the woman who tames Brad Allen—without turning him into suburban furniture as he feared—is a woman who transforms environments and reinvents spaces for a living. Her creative talents as an interior designer acquire almost magical dimensions in the wild, jarring revenge apartment that she prepares in response to Brad’s contrite request. While the blood-red drapes, pink piano, moose head, tassels, pointy chair, kitschy bric-a-brac, and, yes, pot-bellied stove all horrify Brad and Jonathan, the redecorated apartment throbs with an aggressive, triumphant energy. The harmonious eye candy of Pillow Talk crescendos into a startlingly original installation of female rage and libido.

In that Freudian fruit salad of signifiers, perhaps Jan has sanctified a space outside the jurisdiction of social norms, a pocket of relief from the zero sum sex games of the outside world. She’s built a den for that rarest of unicorns, that most alien of phenomena, a relationship based not on illusion, but trust.

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and FreckledOnce Upon a Screen, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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The Scarlet Claw (1944): Fear and Flannel

The films that I’m always in the mood to watch typically aren’t great films or even the films I’d choose for my desert island list.

Like delicate bone china, masterpieces and passionate faves deserve special occasions. The films that I catch myself watching and rewatching remind me of the chipped and cherished Furnivals Quail set that holds my daily cuppa: well-made and pleasant to look at, without demanding too much attention or care on my part.

The best of Universal’s modern Sherlock Holmes movies, The Scarlet Claw has a place of honor in my collection of comfy go-to flicks. As a whole, Hollywood’s programmer mystery series achieved a mellow watchability that foreshadows television’s most enduring police procedurals. The studios excelled at rotating plot formulas, character actors, and settings among series installments, balancing sameness with piquant jolts of novelty.

It’s not hard to see why so many of these B detective movies exist (and have made it to home video). They’re concise, pacy, and twisty enough to sustain your interest, yet not emotionally taxing. You’ve got to brace yourself for the teary catharsis of a women’s picture, the bitter tragedy of a bona fide noir, and even for the whiplash wit and reversals of a screwball comedy. But, since the serial sleuth often stands apart from the drama, analyzing the situation without personal involvement, the audience doesn’t risk serious heartache by identifying with the hero. And it would be difficult to find a more aloof hero than Sherlock Holmes.

Neither as pulpy as Fox’s Charlie Chan run nor as sassy as RKO’s Falcon semi-noirs, Universal’s Sherlock films exuded quality largely due to their combination of star and director. Basil Rathbone’s Holmes manages to project unflappable dignity whether he’s sporting a curiously florid hairdo and hunting Nazis or thwarting insurance fraud in the Scottish Highlands.

Rathbone had a gift for making Holmes seem like less of a jerk than the scripts sometime painted him to be. In The Scarlet Claw, he barges his way into the murder victim’s home, examines her body even after her grieving widower tries to deny him access, then breaks in again to unlock the dead woman’s safebox and steal a clue. Nowadays an actor would be tempted to emphasize the detective’s brilliant-but-exasperating tactlessness. (Interesting, isn’t it, how the cultural cachet of knowing assholery has risen?) Instead, Rathbone’s stoic determination conveys that Holmes is simply doing his duty to truth and justice.

If Rathbone’s staid portrayal is less volatile and eccentric than the modern viewer tends to prefer in a Sherlock, the direction strikes a more familiar tone of brooding liveliness and Holmesian flamboyance. Towards the end of a career that stretched back into the 1910s, Roy William Neill helmed 11 installments of the Rathbone-as-Holmes series. The more I watch them, the more I appreciate Neill’s dynamic flair for creating atmosphere and a sense of action, even when not much was happening.

As The Black Room and The Ninth Guest show, Neill was a master of stoking slow-burning Gothic tension in period settings as well as modern. As early as 1934, Neill earned a reputation as a “dolly hound,” according to International Photographer. He was a director who knew how to keep your eyes busy with chiaroscuro lighting, artful compositions of bodies, and a nimbly moving camera.

The Scarlet Claw stands out among the Sherlocks because Universal plays to its strengths as a studio: fog, terrified villagers, and things that go bump in the night.

In a small Canadian town called La Morte Rouge (imagine the tourist brochures!), the locals whisper about a glowing monster that mutilates animals. Then the wife of an aristocratic occult specialist is found gruesomely murdered. Visiting Québec to argue with a conference of spiritualists, Holmes discovers that the victim sent him a plea for help shortly before her death. “Consider, Watson, the irony, the tragic irony,” Holmes ponders. “We’ve accepted a commission from the victim to find her murderer. For the first time, we’ve been retained by a corpse.”

After roaming the moors and encountering the luminescent spectre, Holmes deducts that the killer is no supernatural force, but a vengeful madman planning to strike again soon. Can our hero stop him before it’s too late? The answer may surprise you.

Universal had a knack for squeezing every drop of value out of its European village sets. Add lederhosen and snow, and you’ve got the alps. Add Claude Rains and ivy, and you’ve got jolly old England. In the case of The Scarlet Claw, add lots of flannel and you’ve got a Québéçois village. Think of it as the Universal horror aesthetic with gravy and cheese curds sprinkled on top.

For local color, the hatchet-faced residents of La Morte Rouge sit around the tavern, listen to “Alouette” on accordion, and wear flannel. Because what else do you do on a Friday night in a haunted Canadian town, eh? If you love flannel, this movie will not disappoint you. There are flannel shirts and blankets and shawls and scarves to indicate the cuddly Canadian-ness of the proceedings. Flannel is even integral to the plot. A hand-me-down flannel shirt—treated with phosphorescent paint, of course—provides a key clue to our intrepid detective.

However, lest you form a negative impression of Canada as some den of flannel-clad iniquity, The Scarlet Claw closes with Holmes reciting an inspirational Churchill quote about “the linchpin of the English-speaking world.” (Bien que l’on parle français au Québec.)

Despite the maple-flavored silliness, The Scarlet Claw does conjure an ambiance of foreboding and evil. With virtually no daytime scenes, the movie seems to take place in a land that sunlight dares not penetrate, in some twilight limbo or unholy kingdom of night. I live close to the great northern expanse of Québec, and I recognize the oppressive, soul-chilling darkness that descends upon this part of the world in the autumn.

The Scarlet Claw sets a deliciously spooky atmosphere from the opening scene. A bell tolls over shots of misty moors. It tolls over a matte painting of a sleepy hamlet. It tolls over deserted streets and tense townspeople, holed up in the country inn. But why does it toll? It’s no call to prayer, and the fraught silence of the villagers indicates that something is very wrong. Neill’s camera sizes up the townspeople. A long take scans over the tavern, slips startlingly from a long shot into a close-up of the the innkeeper’s face, then back to the door as the postman enters, and finally over the cast of characters again. “Who could be ringing the church bell at this time?” The postman quiveringly asks the parish priest. “Maybe it ain’t a who, father. Maybe it’s an… it.”

The reluctant postman and the stouthearted priest decide to investigate. There, on the floor of the church, lies the body of a woman, still clutching the bell rope that she desperately pulled for help.

Those first 5 minutes of The Scarlet Claw summon the magical anticipation that we feel at the beginning of a great campfire ghost story served with s’mores on a brisk, starry night.

In my more philosophical moments, I wonder what is it about grim stuff like this that I find so soothing. Well, Freud did say that the uncanny emerges from the familiar and the homey. It seems that the eerie and the unsettling can boomerang back to their origins among cozy and comfortable things. The counterintuitive warm and fuzzy feelings delivered by murder yarns may be difficult to untangle or explain, but it’s a phenomenon strong enough to support a whole industry of mystery consumption. Dorothy L. Sayers captured the close relationship between sinister and cozy in my favorite bit of her novel Strong Poison:

“Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavor seems to be.”

The details are indeed ghastly in The Scarlet Claw. The phrase “with their throats torn out” repeated over and over in the dialogue luridly highlights the bloodiness of the murders and animal mutilations. In discreet 1940s style, the camera never shows us any gore, but often lingers on the murder weapon—a gruesome 5-pronged garden weeder. Your imagination can do the rest. You might catch yourself fiddling with your collar or rubbing your neck protectively during the many close shots of that hostile implement.

Though firmly footed in the rational, good-versus-evil moral universe of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Claw manages to deliver a few shocks. (Spoiler alert!) Firstly, our genius hero fails to prevent not one, but two heinous murders.

Despite Holmes’s precautions, the paranoid Judge Brisson succumbs to the death he’d guarded against for so long. To make matters worse, the murderer strikes as Holmes waits helplessly outside. As the camera creeps around the isolated house (Neill, you dolly hound, you!), the dark silhouette of a woman, presumably Brisson’s housekeeper, closes the shutters. The tiny figure of the judge sits huddled in the background.

Holmes knocks at the door. The Judge calls to his housekeeper, deep in the recesses of the room’s shadows, to let him in. But she doesn’t. Instead she drifts forward, stiffly and strangely, a mass of darkness adorned by a white bow. As she approaches the judge, the dim lamplight reveals her old-fashioned clothes and gives us an indistinct glimpse of a gaunt face with deep sockets. A face that shouldn’t be there. Not the housekeeper’s face at all.

She—he?—reaches into a pocket. And then we see it, the vicious weapon raised high in the air, angled as if to strike the viewer, abstracted and awful in the blackness. The killer in disguise brings the sharp claw down on the judge.

Startled by the judge’s desperate groans, Holmes shouts and pounds vainly against the door. Inside the house, the outline of a matronly hairstyle—brushed tightly back against the head with a bun at the nape of the neck—slowly turns, as the killer concludes his bloody work.

Hm. A cross-dressing killer in an old dark house viciously plunging a sharp implement into a vulnerable victim. Sounds a bit like Psycho, a movie that Universal would release over a decade later, doesn’t it?

Hitchcock made a point of monitoring the thriller market. I wonder if The Scarlet Claw stayed with him like it’s stayed with me over the years.

Even more disturbing than the judge’s death is the slaying of Marie Journet, murdered because she refuses to betray her father. This pretty, kicked-around girl does nothing wrong according to the code of classic movies, yet she dies. As the men in Journet’s tavern sing a merry song, Holmes goes looking for the innkeeper’s daughter. He opens a door to the office and hesitates for a beat. A caged canary twitters pathetically. Watson cluelessly bellows, “MARIE!” But we know that she can’t answer.

It’s a testament to the Rathbone-Neill partnership that a man standing in a door can fill me with such a sinking feeling, no matter how many times I’ve seen this shot.

A moment later, as Watson bends to examine the body, Holmes make a slight movement forward that unfurls his silhouette in the lamplight, like the materialization of his regrets. “Poor innocent little child,” he laments. “I should’ve prevented this.” Thus The Scarlet Claw stretches the unspoken we-won’t-provoke-intense-emotions promise of the programmer mystery, and that’s partially why it’s so good. Holmes had better pull out all the stops and deliver a spectacular last-minute “gotcha” to redeem himself. And, fortunately, he does.

The Scarlet Claw is less a cozy whodunit than a cozy slasher movie. Its shape-shifting killer, nightmarish gloom, unexpectedly fallible Sherlock, and abundance of flannel somehow succeed in warming and chilling my heart at the same time. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times in my life and enjoyed it every one of those times. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make some tea and watch it again.

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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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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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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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The Haunted Palace (1963): A Portrait of Terror

vlcsnap-2013-10-27-23h49m23s129“You do not know the extent of my appetite… I’ll not have my fill of revenge until this village is a graveyard, ’til they have felt, as I did, the kiss of fire on their soft bare flesh—all of them!”

Joseph Curwen has no chance of escape. Lashed to a tree and surrounded on all sides by a baying mob of illiterate peasants, the stately master of the occult looks helpless, defeated, and vaguely preposterous with his frilly cravat and polished costume.

Then, he steels himself against the indignity and brazenly returns the gaze of his persecutors.

“Have you anything to say, warlock?”

Curwen trains his icy blue eyes on the crowd. “Yes. As surely as the village of Arkham has risen against me, so shall I rise—from the dead—against the village of Arkham!”

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The camera then assumes Curwen’s perspective, rapidly panning as he singles out the leaders of the riot. He pauses on each guilty, quaking face and levels his malediction. “From this night onward, you shall bear my curse!”

A torch is cast on the straw at his feet. The flames rise. Curwen looks about him in shock and disbelief, as though he cannot fathom his powers failing him. His face contorts as he attempts to bear the agony of the consuming blaze, but cannot. Curwen rears his head back, and a reedy, bellowing cry escapes him, mingling with the distant crackle of thunder.

vlcsnap-2013-10-26-23h13m37s205So begins the The Haunted Palace, my pick for the most unsettling of the Corman-Price collaborations. To address this head-on, the film, though presenting itself as an adaptation of Poe’s “The Haunted Palace” and also of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” doesn’t really fulfill either claim, on a narrative level, at least. Sure, it borrows the basic premise and a few tidbits of mythos from Lovecraft’s novella, but bulldozes the modernistic intricacy of the original.

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Nevertheless, I relish the irony that this film, with its mutants and monstrous human-god couplings, is itself a misshapen hybrid, a cross-pollination of two American horror masters. Corman and screenwriter Charles Beaumont bred the cosmic weirdness of Lovecraft with the lusty revenge motifs of Poe to forge what I consider a truly disturbing movie. And Price’s virtuoso performance captures notes of the tormented conscience and the paranoid alienation that we tend to associate with Poe’s and Lovecraft’s antiheroes respectively. Not bad for a film shot in 15 days!

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I think we can all agree that Vincent Price boosted the quality of basically every film he was ever in—and if you don’t agree, you shall bear my curse. He was the ultimate value-added actor, turning even the most threadbare of characters into tapestries of terror. However, for the film in question, his taxing role provided a perfect showcase for his considerable acting talents. As Roger Corman observed, “I think the concept of Vincent playing the dual role of Ward and Ward possessed was a challenge, but the kind of challenge an actor loves. It gives him the opportunity to work in a more complex way on camera.”

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Price plays Joseph Curwen’s meek descendant Charles Dexter Ward who returns to Arkham to claim his ancestor’s palace. Despite the threats and protests of the village, Ward and his wife investigate the drafty mansion. Unsurprisingly, a haunted psychedelic portrait of Curwen soon gets hooks in Ward and, before long, the warlock is using Ward’s body to exact vengeance on the town and continue his attempts to mate the Old Ones with mortal women.

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Foreshadowing his deadly earnest performance in Witchfinder General, Price wisely dialed down his camp sensibility to practically nothing for The Haunted Palace. I’m a huge fan of all things camp, but it does have a time and a place. In a Corman-Price picture, one might crave the comfort of wink-wink theatrics or the risible excess of some medieval debauchery. The absence of the cozy over-the-topness we expect makes The Haunted Palace doubly squirm-inducing.

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If the audience wants ham, they’ll go hungry in this one. Even some exaggerated makeup design can’t defuse the chilling impact of Price’s serene wickedness. It’s the little things that make him so unnerving. The way he calmly pops a grape into his mouth as he connives to get his wife committed to an asylum. How he tosses a lit match onto an alcohol-soaked enemy without a twitch of sympathy. His sour wit as he lights ceremonial torches, cooing, “Well, I’ll admit the furnishings do leave something to be desired, but it has a lived-in quality, don’t you think? After all, home is where the heart is…” Curwen-as-Ward is no laughing matter.

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As far as cinematic depictions of possession go, The Haunted Palace stands out as one of the most implacable and frightening ever captured on film, in my opinion. No projectile vomiting, no levitation, no special effects, merely a different entity taking up residence in someone else’s body. Whereas a great number of horror flicks focus on the consequences of possession, relatively few movies dwell on the process by which the physical being, mind, and soul of one decent man are progressively permeated and conquered by a force of darkness. I mean, The Shining portrayed this kind of transformation brilliantly, but was Jack Torrence ever a normal, lovable guy? I think not.

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By contrast, Price’s Charles Dexter Ward immediately endears himself to the viewer. He is attentive and courtly towards his wife, polite to strangers, and, when the occasion calls for it, dryly humorous. The goody-two-shoes victims in classic horror movies tend to bore me to tears and have me rooting for evil in no time flat, but I appreciated how likable and initially unaware Price made his interpretation of Ward.

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Several of the most important scenes in The Haunted Palace are essentially monologues—just Charles Dexter Ward standing in front of his ancestor’s portrait and gradually coming under its malign influence. There’s the occasional ghostly voice-over to raise the stakes, but these integral exchanges mostly consist of just one man standing alone in a room. Doesn’t sound particularly cinematic, does it? Yet, through Price’s eloquent pantomimes in these portrait soliloquies, we witness Curwen’s venom slowly digesting the mild, gentle Ward. I have a hard time imagining any other actor “selling” such a sustained transformation.

The first encounter with the portrait offers an introduction: Ward and his wife walk towards the lurid painting and one shot-reverse-shot exchange suggests Ward’s connection and resemblance to it.

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When Ward next goes face-to-face with the eldritch portrait, we see Curwin’s spirit take root. Lighting his cigar, Ward glances at the painting. Then, in a closer shot, he stares up at the portrait with guileless blue eyes, but then winces, as a man might looking into a bright light or a heavy, hot wind.

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We get a series of cuts back and forth from the painting and Ward, who tries to shield his eyes but can’t resist its lure. Ultimately, he looks straight at the portrait and his face ripples from within. The forehead seems to heighten, the eyes recede, and the mouth fixes itself into a line of immovable cunning. It’s like Barrymore’s famous no-cut transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—but in close-up. (In fact, it was that famous horror performance that stoked Vincent’s childhood interest in acting; he emulated Barrymore’s Hyde in front of his mirror for hours.) By moving a few muscles, Price alters his character’s identity. The audience sees the badness of Curwen enter and possess him.

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The third portrait scene is brief—a single frightening shot, after Simon tells Ward to “ask Mr. Corwen” the answer to a question. We see a long shot of the portrait and the camera tracks back to show Ward’s head in the bottom of the frame, dwarfed by the surroundings. The sudden intrusion of his head disorients the viewer, so that when Ward whirls around, revealing Curwen’s pallid, pitiless face, we’re all the more alarmed. Curwen has installed himself in Ward.

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The fourth major portrait scene stresses the triumph of supernatural sin over a normal, healthy mind. Under Curwen’s control, Ward cruelly tells his wife not to pry into his affairs. She runs off to bed and Ward, momentarily regaining his free will, calls back to her when a disembodied, resonant version of his own voice calls to him. The camera reframes to remind us of the painting’s presence. Ward turns towards it fearfully, but bravely calls out, “Leave me alone!”

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Two progressively closer shots of the portrait emphasize Curwen’s hypnotic power as the voice protests that he and Ward are really one. Corman cuts back to a shot of Ward, cowering slightly, as the camera sweeps down in a crane shot like a falcon in the dive. Cut to the painting: “My will is too strong…” Cut to Ward, whose face shows no fear, no love, nothing but a stony resolution as Curwen’s voice completes, “Too strong for you.” Price finishing that sentence in a slightly deeper, firmer voice scares the hell out of me; nothing has changed, yet we’re looking at a totally different individual. Ward’s own body is enunciating the victory of something that Ward hates and fears. The invasion is almost complete.

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There’s more spooky portrait soliloquy turmoil, but that gives you a taste of Price’s extraordinary task of making scenes like this—which could’ve been boring—into mortifying depictions of evil winning out over good. And you might be surprised by how much evil does win in this game.

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Some of the most effective horror stories I’ve read—Blackwood’s “The Secret Listener” and Onions’s “The Beloved Fair One” come to mind—derive their menace from repetition. A normal fellow explores and describes a confined location over and over and over again, eventually succumbing to its monotonous spell.

On film, it’s damned difficult to pull off this sort of horror that grows by almost imperceptible increments until the sum total of everything not-quite-right overwhelms the viewer.

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Of course, Corman still throws in a few drive-in shocks, like one of the townsfolk’s deformed progeny reaching its grotesque hands through a slot to receive a dinner of giblets. Still, he patiently let Curwen’s creeping evil unfold through variations on these portrait scenes.

Intimate and almost anti-cinematic, these gripping passages of time spent alone (but not really!) with our tortured protagonist make us wriggle as we notice how Ward emerges from each scene having imbibed more of Curwen into his nature. Corman thus approximates a “flavor” of fear that I usually associate with top-notch macabre literature.

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The performance has the meticulous shadings that come from strategic pre-planning. Roger Corman remembered, “Vincent and I would discuss in depth the character before each picture… In fifteen days, to shoot what were fairly complicated films, there was no time to have deep discussions about character. We had to go and shoot!”

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Price and Corman (left) rehearsing the movie’s opening sequence

The tug-of-war for the mind, body, and soul of Charles Dexter Ward, as conveyed by Price, elevates the film to the level of psychological horror. A key strength of Price’s dual characterization resides in his ability to react to the wickedness that overtakes him. The actor communicates Ward’s horror at the horror he’s becoming, as the good man pitifully struggles with the spirit that’s colonizing him.

Not only does Price bring two distinct personalities to life, but he also suggests the relationship between them—condescending domination on one side and appalled resistance on the other. He’s a one-man dialectic!

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In addition to Price, the film features some stunning wide-angle cinematography, by Corman veteran Floyd Crosby, that glints like a star sapphire. It also boasts a sublime score by Ronald Stein that conveys the otherworldly sweep of the narrative. An ill, woebegone Lon Chaney is appropriately raspy and lends his considerable horror cred to the mix, but doesn’t get much to do.

Apart from Price, the standout performance is Debra Paget as Ann Ward, who reacts poignantly to her changed husband and displays admirable fortitude and courage for a horror movie wife. She loves the man she married as much as she is disgusted by the belittling, lascivious Curwen.

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In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a delicate dance of eroticism and creepiness, Curwen-as-Ward tries to have his wicked way with her or, as he says, “exercise my husbandly prerogative.” All the great horror stars had a gift for suggesting both sexual attractiveness and repulsiveness and, if you watch this scene, you might conclude, as I did, that Price negotiated this balance most adroitly of all.

Be sure to unearth this underrated classic. I suspect that you too will fall under the spell of The Haunted Palace… though thankfully not to the extent of Charles Dexter Ward.

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I did this post as part of the Vincent Price Blogathon, which also I hosted. I am honored by the amazing bloggers who participated, so be sure to check out their entries!