Free Friday Film: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)

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“Take care you don’t give me cause to make you afraid of me! That’s a good boy. The first duty of a barber’s boy is to keep a still tongue in his head… I knew a nice little barber’s boy once who had his tongue cut out for letting it wag too much.” —Sweeney Todd

Tod Slaughter could’ve sprung fully formed from the pages of a Penny Dreadful. I mean, Slaughter was his real name, for crying out loud! The man, affectionately called “Mister Massacre” by audiences, was destined to menace maidens.

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When he got his start in films at the tender age of 49, his clammy, dimpled, rather deflated face had all the youthful appeal of a bouquet of pig’s bladders. A master of the stock company villain repertoire, Slaughter seemed to emit a wicked glow from his person, “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar,” if I may borrow a phrase from Dickens.

No gesture was too stereotypical for Slaughter—he rubbed his hands together, grinned, twitched, leered, winked, and preened his way through a parade of cheap melodramas produced to showcase his evil gusto.

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His flamboyant performances offer a strange blend of comfort and chill. Movie- and theater-goers of the time no doubt savored Slaughter’s over-the-top wickedness as a tonic. His unrealistic boogieman could, for the space of an hour, replace the real-world nightmares threatening England’s hallowed realm in the 1930s and 1940s. Both cozy and slightly grotesque, Slaughter’s films are chicken soup—served with a glass eye in it.

And yet, Slaughter’s slobbering malefactors still exude a strange and undeniable power. He so perfectly incarnated the exaggerated villains of Victorian literature that the viewer cannot help but be taken aback; it’s like watching a fiction come to palpitating, horrifying life. Unlike Karloff’s elusiveness or Lugosi’s soulfulness, Slaughter’s crudeness reminds me of the downright ridiculous scenery-chewing that many genuinely insane criminals and serial killers actually exhibit. His incoherent, occasionally awkward hamminess smacks of true derangement. Madness baulks at no excess.

18If, like me, you are easily fatigued by painfully earnest performances, take a vacation from all that Oscar-baiting naturalism with the barnstorming good times provided by this sadly little remembered horror icon. As an introduction to the formidable Mr. Slaughter, I suggest The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by George King. Although the movie doesn’t offer his best performance, I recommend it because most viewers are so familiar with the premise that they’re free to linger on the diabolical antics of the antihero. Also, there’s no singing, which immediately makes this my favorite adaptation of the Sweeney Todd legend.

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“Hmm. I’m one handsome devil. Johnny Depp had better look out!”

Those of you weaned on the idea of Sweeney Todd as a sympathetic victim-turned-victimizer will need to brace yourselves for a much simpler characterization. Slaughter’s “Demon Barber” is exactly that—an irredeemably nasty blighter, amassing a fortune by robbing and murdering his clients, especially seamen returning from profitable voyages. When Todd sets his sights on Johanna, the daughter of a rich merchant, he won’t be satisfied until he’s dispatched her lover and blackmailed her father into surrendering the girl to his depraved clutches.

8Admittedly, even at a little over an hour long, this film limps to its conclusion. The movie suffers whenever Slaughter isn’t onscreen. A showy action sequence in the tropics (where Johanna’s lover is saving a merchant vessel from natives) feels irrelevant and phony. The sound effects and canned stock music will make you cringe perhaps more than the violent scenes.

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That said, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street executes some fine moments of suspense, especially since Todd’s nefarious intentions are beyond doubt from the beginning, so we get the benefit of mega-doses of dramatic irony. Funnily enough, nobody else seems to realize that the barber gets a little too excited every time he exclaims, “I’ll polish him off!”

Just as the ancient Greeks used to enjoy their tragedy all the more for the spoilers, a great deal of the enjoyment we derive from melodrama is of the “don’t go into the basement!” variety.

9Every time a hapless fellow situates himself in Sweeney Todd’s “special chair,” we squirm, hoping that something will intervene to save to poor guy, despite the likelihood that he’ll end up in one of Mrs. Lovatt’s mystery meat pies. In one particularly nervous sequence, Mrs. Lovatt decides to get revenge on Todd by saving one of his customers and hiding him, as the barber scours the shop for the one that got away.

I also applaud the wry subtlety of the screenplay, since it’s never explicitly stated that Sweeney Todd’s victims end up in the meat pastries. Towards the end, one character muses, while eating one of those pies, “I wonder where he stashed his victims, not enough room to bury them.” What a delicious bit of cliché-avoidance!

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Even though we don’t see most of the gruesome action in this film, the off-screen bloodletting still proves chilling—and the body count strikes me as quite impressive for a film of this era. In my opinion, the most queasy scenes in the film concern the fate of Todd’s orphan barber’s boy, Tobias, who’s in constant peril of putting two and two together—and getting bumped off by his employer. Sweeney Todd vacillates between threatening the little tyke, slapping him around, and sending him around the corner for one of those delicious pies. (And you thought your internship supervisor was a psycho!)

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I invite you to dim the lights and play this darkly funny and, at times, quite unsettling slice of British B cinema. Get a nice close shave from Tod Slaughter in his most famous role.

You can watch The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on YouTube or on Hulu. You can also download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Did you like it? If so, you can tune in to almost all of Slaughter’s filmography free of charge. Don’t miss Murder in the Red Barn, The Face at the Window, and Crimes at the Dark House.

Sacre Bleu! 10 Reasons to Watch The Catman of Paris

First thing’s first: I’m going to get my digression out of the way.

As a young girl training at conservatory, the future famous opera singer Maria Callas used to sit and listen to all of the other singing students, many of them mediocre, during their lessons. She said that you could learn something even from the mistakes and foibles of other voices.

I offer this anecdote in order to rationalize my love of endearingly crude or creaky movies.

Yeah, like I need an excuse. Because, c’mon, people, it’s not like human beings got a whole lot more discerning and sophisticated in the past 60 years. We, the smug spectators of the 2010s, may prefer to think that we can savor a silliness and “camp” factor that those naïve ancestors of the 1940s couldn’t, but I don’t believe it for a moment. Those cynical, hard-working citizens of another era probably reacted with the same amusement as we do to absurd plot holes and exaggerated acting. They might not have understood what “snark” and “camp” meant, but they would’ve experienced them, I am sure. And it’s condescending to them to pretend otherwise.

Yeah, even your Red Cross Girl grandma would’ve found this silly.

Which begs the question, why did people go to watch a movie like The Catman of Paris? What pleasure can we derive from watching it?

10. Because it’s so very French, non?

I have never, in all of my years of obsessing over Hollywood films, seen a movie in which the name Charles is consistently pronounced in the French manner, “Shaaaaah-le,” like this one.

Charles: “Mon Dieu! I seem to be souffring from some étrange maladie!”

Which is really funny, since the accents in The Catman of Paris range from the genuinely French to the vaguely European to dodgy Pépé-Le-Pewe approximations to not-even-trying. The Inspector, primarily, speaks most of his lines in a flat American drawl, but has to say the names all Frenchy-like. Just listen to him try to do the R-in-the-back-of-the-throat that frustrates every beginning French student.

“I am sorry, Monsieur. You’ll have to take that up with another fonctionnaire.”

At one point a character tries to convince another to hide out, saying, “If you fall into the hands of the bloodhound Sévéren…!” Every phrase is so flowery and blustery that there’s really a hidden “Sacre Bleu!” in each line. Oh, did I mention that there’s also a Can-Can dance and cafés? Vive la France!

9. Quite good special effects makeup.

Not, say, Jack Piece good, but Bob Mark, the makeup supervisor, did a fine job on this and many other films (one thinks of the soulful, heavy, fuzzed-out eyeliner look he brought to Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande). Mark serves up an appropriately grotesque creature in the titular catman.

8. If you don’t have the time to read Penny Dreadfuls…

The picturesque quality of the mise-en-scene ensures that the whole movie resembles a Belle Époque engraving full of pointy-nosed maidens, idyllic gardens, and trim carriages. Only, every now and then, there’s a catman and a brutal murder.

           

This decorative frilliness combined with a monster on the loose recalls the “penny dreadfuls” of the 19th century. Like penny dreadfuls, Poverty Row horrors aren’t particularly well done, but they do sell thrills and a fussy, poor man’s Gothic ambiance that comforts as much as it scares.

7. Hey, didn’t I see him in…?

If you regularly watch Republic programmer pictures (I am Nitrate Diva and I am a Nexflix-aholic…) you start to feel like you’re going to an old repertory theater. The guy who was the murderer last week is the victim in the new production. The trampy girlfriend of the last picture plays the wife in the next one. In other words, there’s a whole extra-diegetic thrill of identifying the actor.

I admit that this sounds pretty film geeky, but even so, I would be surprised if people from the 1940s didn’t whisper to their companions, “Hey, didn’t I see him in…?”

The watching process includes a memory game—not unlike the license plate game, but with actors. Despite everything we learn in film class about absorption and identification, the classic Hollywood spectator would have discovered their own ways of playing with a movie. They would have, I hypothesize, enjoyed recognizing the same little-known actors just as much as we do today—if #TCMParty is any indicator.

Keep an eye out for Dourglass Dumbrille (what a name!) as Borchard. You’ll definitely recognize him from a much more prestigious (though not much better) film—The Ten Commandments. And you might also recognize faux-French Lenore Aubert, the lady in distress in Catman of Paris, as the would-be vampiress seducer of Bud Abbott in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein!

6. Because the plot is just too weird to pass up on.

 A reincarnated catman who’s existed since before the birth of Christ? Check.

A monster movie about—seriously—publishing? Uh-huh.

A secret trial overheard by a guy… in cat form? Yup, the plot hinges on it.

 This is whacky stuff. Don’t miss out on the sheer oddball joy of it all.

5. Nutty dialogue…

A sample: “Governments are like women. They weep and they pout and they threaten, but the more you scorn them, the more they respect you!”

“Charles, stop treating me like a government!” 

Hey, U.S. Gov—your crocodile tears don’t fool me one bit. I’m giving you the silent treatment for a while. How you like me now, Uncle Sam?

4. Because it was made by mega Western director Lesley Selander.

“Yeehaaah!” Wait, I mean, “Allez! Allez!”

Selander directed over 100 in his career, the majority of them programmer Westerns. He’d worked with John Ford and W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke. In other words, he was kind of a dyed-in-the-wool buckaroo guy.

Knowing this fact, The Catman of Paris comes across totally differently, because you can tell that the director is doing what works for him. That is to say, he includes a lot of Western-style action stuff. In 1896 Paris. Quite a combo there.

Really, there’s this great five-minute-long brawl between a whole bunch of unemployed artists and our main character—a novelist. They just drop their conversations about art and life and start knocking each other around! Leaping off of bars. Falling on top of tables. Throwing chairs. Um, French artists will scream at the top of their lungs in defense of their famous authors, but they’d be damned if they spilled a drop of café au lait while doing it, which is why this brawl is so very funny.

“How DARE you say that about Baudelaire?” 

It’s like if John Ford did a production of La Bohème.

Then there’s a carriage chase, which somebody copied and pasted from Selander’s last 40s Western. Hey, switch the stagecoaches for French fiacres—you’ve got a horror chase! I was still expecting the cavalry to show up, though.

Basically, what we’ve got here, is a horror with the tropes of a Western. How often do you get to say that?

3. Because this was the 1940s standard for violence?

As I’ve said, I don’t think our mid-century, War-Bond-buying forebears were immune to the kind of snide humor that continues to tickle us today. Nevertheless, I would argue that their tolerance for violence in film does not match our own. Even if you fought at the Battle of the Bulge, movie violence might shock you if you possess little experience with it. Movie violence often doesn’t look like real-life violence, it’s much bigger if it happens on a big screen, and we also have the hidden question in our minds: “Am I supposed to enjoy this?”

And, for 1946, Catman would’ve been considered quite bloody. In fact, I’ve read a review from the L.A. Times in which the critic has little to say about it except that it gives a few good chills and has “very violent effects.”

So, take a little vacation from blood spatter, and try to put yourself into a frame of mind to accept blood trailing down a woman’s décolleté as truly horrific. The gore you love will seem extra-gory when you return to it.

2. Because you’ll delight in a few clever stylistic touches…

Although they mostly involve cats or shadows.

1. Umm… am I the only one picking up on the serious homoerotic subtext here?

Do note that some spoilers lurk in this reason.

How often do you get to see a man slap another man in movies? Our main character, Charles, a best-selling writer, spends most of his time hanging out with his “patron,” Borchard.

We first see them both together as men about town, having dinner, just the two of them. Later, when Charles stops off at what appears to be his home, we hear Borchard call his name from off-screen and then see the patron cozily installed at a desk. So, they live together?

Things really get awkward when Charles falls in love. We get scenes of the amnesiac Charles, who thinks he might be the catman, depending on the advice and help of Borchard while Charles’ girlfriend remains on the fringes, an interloper in the relationship. When Charles grows hysterical Borchard bitchslaps him! There’s something not quite professional about that relationship.

Turns out, Borchard is the Catman (Yes, goo, goo, g’joob!) and has devised a scheme to kill off everyone who stands in the way of Charles’ path to literary immortality. In other words, Borchard kills for Charles. Psychotic love alert!

Two’s company—and three’s a foule!

In that case, The Catman of Paris is richer than it seems.  The idea of embedding a supernatural animal-man in the context of a homoerotic relationship adds a layer of interest to the story. It’s enjoyable for me, as a modern critic, to think about how the 1940s resorted to such elaborate means to represent psychological and sexual difference. I wonder, would the 40s audience have picked up on that? At the very least, I’m sure that they could intuit some of it—which makes even a silly movie like this one worth watching.