Frightfulness: Funny Halloween Fare

Bride of Frankenstein

Original poster.

Vintage poster. The original title was minus the article. I don’t know when it got added. E.E. Clive is erroneously listed as C.C. Clive.

Among its many distinctions, James Whale’s “Bride of Frankenstein” (Universal, 1935) is one of the few examples in movie history of a sequel that is much better than the original picture. I think it’s going too far to say that it’s a great picture, but it’s entertaining, commendably short and very very funny. Since the story treats of mad scientists, monsters and grave robbers, it’s unquestionably a horror picture, but it is primarily a comedy. For my money, Ernest Thesiger steals the whole show. I can’t even type his name without giggling at the memory of him.

Ernest the Great, Queen of the Night

Every word that comes out of his mouth is droll; every cartoon face he pulls is hilarious. I don’t know if there’s another actor who makes me laugh as much as Ernest Thesiger does. Thesiger is so outrageously queeny, he makes Quentin Crisp seem like Charles Bronson by comparison. As I’ve often mentioned in the past, I’m usually put off by camp. But Thesiger’s camping is a brand that I love. His range is rather narrow, but it’s deep and rich: he specializes in desiccated aristocratic crackpot degenerates, mincing reprobates, malevolent tipplers, and ancient imps; these rascally old gentlemen, whether they’re burying the dead (as in “Scrooge” (1950)) or digging them up (as in “Bride of Frankenstein”), are always hugely entertaining. Thesiger makes me laugh just by the way he pronounces the word “gin.”

Oh, he was a mad old thing . . . Born on January 15, 1879, Ernest Frederic Graham Thesiger, CBE, was the grandson of the Baron Chelmsford, and the nephew of General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, who, one week after Ernest’s birth, led his troops into a disastrous fight against a Zulu army at the Battle of Isandlwana, a crushing victory for the Zulus — and the British army’s all-time worst defeat at the hands of a technologically inferior indigenous force. When the Great War began in 1914, Thesiger enlisted, with the fond hope of being assigned to a Scottish regiment, because he wanted to wear a kilt. He was wounded in battle almost at once and sent home. Shortly after he recovered from his wounds, a dinner party guest asked him for an account of his time in France. He replied, “Oh, my dear, the noise! And the people!” Three years later (1917), in an improbable move, he married Janette Mary Fernie Ranken — the sister of his close friend, William Bruce Ellis Ranken. Apparently, Thesiger and Janette wed largely out of their mutual adoration of her extraordinarily handsome brother. Upon hearing the news, brother William expressed his opprobrium by shaving off all his beautiful chestnut hair.

Charcoal sketch of Ernest Thesiger by John Singer Sargent.

Charcoal sketch of Ernest Thesiger by John Singer Sargent.

Thesiger originally intended to be a painter; he haunted the studio of John Singer Sargent, who was his close friend. While still a young man, Thesiger switched from painting to acting and befriended Mrs Patrick Campbell and George Bernard Shaw, with whom he worked closely. He made his movie debut in 1916, in a spoof of “Macbeth” as it might look if presented by an American company: Thesiger played one of the Weird Sisters . . . in drag. Throughout his long life (he died in 1961, on the eve of his eighty-second birthday), Thesiger moved in several literary, theatrical and artistic circles. Shaw wrote the role of the Dauphin in “Saint Joan” for him. Maugham was also a good friend, and once wrote to him, “. . . I am always writing parts for you, Ernest. The trouble is that somebody called Gladys Cooper will insist on playing them.” In 1925, he appeared in Noël Coward’s “On With the Dance” . . . again in drag. A year or two after he appeared in “Bride of Frankenstein,” he published a book entitled “Adventures in Embroidery” about needlework, which was his hobby. It appears that the book was not a bestseller. Nor, I think, was his early memoir, “Practically True.”

Here are three of Thesiger’s most amusing moments in “Bride of Frankenstein.” (Franz Waxman’s spooky score is also hilarious.)

‘Do you like gin? It is my only weakness.’

‘Have a cigar; they are my only weakness.’

‘Oh, he’s quite harmless — Except when crossed!’

The Old Dark House

Original poster.

Original poster. J.B. Priestley’s and Melvyn Douglas’ names are misspelled.

James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” (Universal, 1932) also features a funny performance by Ernest Thesiger. This time, he plays the cadaverous lord of the manor, Horace Femm(!), who looks to me to be the model for the acerbic food critic, Anton Ego, in “Ratatouille.” His sepulchral attire and the black rings round his eyes also remind me of the butler in Chas Addams’ cartoons.
Addams Larger
Following the success of “The Invisible Man,” Universal’s front office was anxious for Claude Rains to play Horace Femm in “The Old Dark House,” but James Whale insisted on his old friend, Ernest Thesiger. It would have been interesting to see Rains in the role, but it’s hard to believe anyone could bring more eccentric lunacy to the part than dear old Ernest. Rains was a great actor, but not a natural eccentric: in this case, therefore, I think Whale was right to insist on Thesiger.

Late Night Supper with the Femms


I find Horace Femm’s sardonic observations about piety extremely appealing. And funny, of course. A year later, when the Production Code was enforced, this scene would never have made it past the censors. Why is “Have a potato” so funny? I have no idea, but I laugh out loud every time I hear him say it.

Drinks with Ernest


I love Melvyn Douglas’ line: “Correct, Mr Femm: War generation, slightly soiled — a study in the bittersweet — the man with the twisted smile.” The scintillating script is by Benn W. Levy.

Bedtime with Miss Femm

As this next clip will demonstrate, Miss Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) is not the most welcoming hostess in the British Isles. In fact, she reminds me of a witty remark made by Dame Edith Evans. When asked why she had never played Lady Macbeth, Dame Edith replied, “I could never impersonate a woman who had such a peculiar notion of hospitality.” Eva Moore was the mother of Laurence Olivier’s first wife, Jill Esmond.

“You r-r-r-revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you!” God, I think that’s hilarious. In “The Old Dark House,” piety is presented as a symptom of madness; in the case of Rebecca Femm, it appears to be no other thing but the desperate means by which a lubricious old lesbian hopes to repress the carnal desires that torment her and keep her awake a-nights. She claims to despise soft, white skin and long, straight legs, but she can’t keep her crooked fingers to herself.

The Body Snatcher

Vintage Poster.

Vintage Poster.

The best thing to be said for “The Body Snatcher” (RKO, 1945) is that it gives Boris Karloff a chance to show what a fine and subtle actor he was. Karloff is always good, even in the worst pictures, but I’ve never seen him give a better performance than he does in this one. He’s cabman John Gray, whose sideline is providing cadavers to Dr Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane’s (Henry Daniell) medical college.

The picture has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and some intermittently excellent dialogue, but it is hobbled by almost uniformly terrible acting. Daniell is as swishy and creepy as ever, but he’s better than usual, except for the stupendously terrible love scenes with his unexpected wife. It’s a dreadful thing to see Henry Daniell pitch woo to a fetching lassie — far more alarming than to see him saw up a cadaver. And less credible, too. Dr MacFarlane’s wife (Edith Atwater) tells him she is “fey” (which, in Scottish superstition, means she has the gift of prophecy) and he agrees. In the circumstance, the term is infelicitous.

Edith Atwater, Henry Daniell: 'Your a fey creature, Meg, with mad ideas . . ." Look who's talking.

Edith Atwater, Henry Daniell: ‘You’re a fey creature, Meg, with mad ideas . . .’ Right back at ya, Queenie!

New Cadaver

The young medical student, Donald Fettes, is played by the resolutely American Russell Wade. He left show business in the late forties to pursue a career in Palm Springs real estate. In the fifties, he developed the El Dorado Country Club and was the president of what became the Bob Hope Golf Classic. One assumes he was better in that line of work than in the acting game. Donna Lee is the street singer.

The murder of the street singer is echt Val Lewton; Robert Wise directed, but the moment is pure Lewton. Deep, deep shadows and not a soul in sight, then a sound effect that tells the story. The majority of Lewton’s pictures are based on the central premise that we’re most frightened by the things we can’t see.

Toddy and Gray

This next scene contains my favorite line in the picture.

“Look! Look at yourself! Could you be a doctor, a healing man, with the things those eyes have seen? There’s a lot of knowledge in those eyes, but no understanding.”

Hotel a la Swing

Here’s a curiosity: it’s from a two-reeler called “Hotel a la Swing” (Warner Bros., 1937), in which a troupe of out-of-work actors takes over the management of a hotel that is nearing bankruptcy, and through their ingenuity, turns the place into a success.

Holiday in Hades

This sequence is supposed to be happening in the new rooftop garden cabaret. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll find it as a special feature on the DVD of “Swing Time.” As you will see, the chorus line in this number is ragged as hell, but it’s awfully funny when you look at it immediately after watching Fred and Ginger in “Swing Time.”

I especially like those beefy, middle-aged devils in evening dress. They’re hopelessly out of step with each other. The girl singer is Marcia Wayne. She never made another picture.

Yes, We Don’t Make Hash

This is another number from the same short subject. It has nothing to do with Halloween, other than its being, in its own way, a horror. I like the clumsy tap dancing and the xylophone music, and I feel sorry for these three schnooks. This was their big break, and nothing came of it. They went by the name Lane Tree & Edwards . . . but not very far.

You can see the 2014 Edition by clicking here: “Frightfulness II: Funny Halloween Fare, 2014 Edition.”

2 thoughts on “Frightfulness: Funny Halloween Fare

  1. Emi

    Oh those clips are priceless. What a fascinating character this Thesiger.

    That grace scene was genius with the carving implements wielded so threateningly as he utters his disdain for her gods. Wow. Amazing to see it then. It would seem post-modern now; imagine then. And have a potato! And the Femms… well, very interesting. I watched Celluloid Closet some time ago and it was eye opening. So much that had never occurred to me. I can’t recall if the bedtime scene was included as an example of how lesbianism was depicted, but it certainly should have been.

    That squeak in the tunnel! Again, genius. Oh how I wish current horror flick makers would take inspiration from this.

    Hilarious dance number in Holiday in Hades. Followed by a horribly funny dessert.

    As always, these posts are a revelation.

    Reply
  2. David van Buskirk

    Dear Ted,
    You are amazing. I love the clips and your observations. They are truly priceless, but then your wit, and intelligence are quite special.
    xxx
    dvb

    Reply

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