Tag Archives: Somerset Maugham

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.”

Bette Davis and James Stephenson in ‘The Letter’

The Letter:  Original Poster

The Letter: Original Poster

“The Letter” (Warner Bros. 1940) is a truly fine picture, with several impeccable performances, especially by Bette Davis, who is at her best, and James Stephenson, a wonderful British actor with a vulpine countenance, who matches her performance brilliantly.

Bette Davis, James Stephenson:   'I don't want you to tell me anything but what is necessary to save your neck.'

Bette Davis, James Stephenson:
‘I don’t want you to tell me anything but what is necessary to save your neck.’

James Stephenson is worthy of special mention.  He came to acting late in life — he made his first picture when he was 48 — and died of a heart attack at the age of 52.  Like Claude Rains, he was often cast as suave villains, and like Rains, he tended to dominate any scene he appeared in.  William Wyler was so impressed with the authority of Stephenson’s screen presence that he fought hard to cast him in the important role of Howard Joyce, over the studio’s strong objections.  Once you’ve seen Stephenson as Joyce, it’s hard to imagine another actor bringing so much gravitas and pathos to the part.  Claude Rains himself might not have been quite so ideal, as he was rather too arresting a personality for the role.  Stephenson manages the almost impossible feat of playing an ordinary, plain-spoken, humorless man of high principles — without being dull or priggish.  (Alan Rickman manages the same trick in “Sense and Sensibility.”)  When he agrees to bend his own integrity to save the skin of a client, Stephenson, neither expressing his inner turmoil in words, nor telegraphing it with theatrical grimaces, conveys that the ethical shortcut he has taken on his client’s behalf has destroyed his own self-respect, and very possibly, ruined his life . . . and he knows it.  It’s a quiet performance, and is in no way showy, but it’s as remarkable a characterization as I’ve ever seen on film.  The picture belongs to Bette Davis, first, last and always, but the support she gets from James Stephenson is beyond all reckoning:  his performance makes her greatness possible.  Had he lived longer, he might well have become one of the greatest actors of the Studio Era in Hollywood.  So three cheers for James Stephenson . . . a penny for the old guy.

One of the Greats.

One of the Greats.

W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote the original story, is unquestionably my favorite second-rate author (I like John O’Hara as much or better than Maugham, but aside from the rubbish he wrote at the end of his career and a few mid-career missteps, I don’t consider him second-rate).  “The Letter” is one of Maugham’s best known short stories, but I think it’s far from his best work.  (“Mackintosh” and “The Book Bag,” both of which take place in the same part of the world, are the two I’d recommend as his best.)  The picture is far better than the story (except for the tacked on ending demanded by the Hays Office), in great part because Bette Davis actually makes the protagonist believably human, rather than Maugham’s enigmatic monster.  It is possibly the best performance Davis ever gave.  She’s wonderful in many other pictures, but this is the one that makes the most of her talent and technique.  (To be sure, “All About Eve” is also one of her best, but she’s so much like Margo Channing, that the demands on her interpretative skills were not nearly so great — nor was she called upon to do an accent.)

The opening sequence is a marvel of story-telling efficiency:  it’s made up of a pair of lengthy tracking shots, a nearly invisible wipe and a few cuts, which establish that we are on Rubber Plantation in Singapore.  It opens with the full moon:

Moon over Singapore

Moon over Singapore.

Then it cuts to shots that establish the exotic location — a rubber plantation in Singapore, where a crime is about to be committed  . . .

The Scene of the Crime

The Scene of the Crime.

. . . there’s a cut to liquid rubber dripping into buckets (all this time, Max Steiner’s ersatz Oriental music is toodling away, to reinforce the sense of the Mysterious East) . . . The camera pans down the length of a rubber tree, then begins, without a cut, to traverse the property in a remarkable, long tracking shot . . .

The Letter Shot 03

Rubber dripping from tree to bucket.

. . . we see the main house, where the plantation’s manager, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall), lives with his wife, Leslie (Bette Davis).  The camera continues to travel . . .

The Crosbies' residence

The Crosbies’ residence.

. . . to the thatched, open warren where the Malaysian workers live.  One of them plays tune on a pipe, others sit up and gamble, others are asleep in their hammocks . . .   All is quiet.

The Coolies' hut.

A Malaysian musician and his comrades.

Suddenly we hear a report from a revolver.  A cockatoo in the foreground flies away in terror.  The camera glides — in no big hurry:  it’s a hot, muggy night — over to the main house.  There’s another report; a man, holding his belly, staggers out of the house onto the veranda, with a woman just behind him.  She fires a second shot.

Second gunshot, first sight of Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie.

Second gunshot, first sight of Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie.

Now we see that the woman is Bette Davis with a smoking gun in her hand.  She shoots again.  The camera cuts to sleeping dogs as they jump up.  Another cut to the Malaysians as they awaken and begin to make a hubbub.  The dogs begin to bark.  Cut back to the house, where the man staggers down the veranda steps and falls to the ground . . .

The man staggers and falls after the third gunshot.

The man staggers and falls after the third gunshot.

Once the man is down, Davis proceeds to empty the last three chambers into his back.

'And o'er [her] countenance, no shadow passed, nor motion . . . '

‘And o’er [her] countenance, no shadow passed, nor motion . . . ‘

When the gun is empty, she looks at the dead man and quietly drops the gun.

The end of the affair.

The End of the Affair.

More hubbub from the Malaysians, barking dogs, the moon goes behind a cloud, then comes out again.  Davis turns to look at it . . .

Full Moon and Empty Arms.

Full Moon and Empty Arms.

The “Head Boy” on the plantation runs up and looks at the dead man.  He cries in alarm, “That’s Mr Hammond!”

The Letter Thats Mr Hammond

Tetsu Komai as Head Boy: ‘That’s Mr Hammond!”

He looks at the empty revolver that she has dropped on the front step.

The murder weapon.

The murder weapon.

“Come inside,” Davis says without emotion and goes back into the house.

That’s the end of the first sequence — running time is approximately two minutes and forty seconds.  I can’t think of another picture that opens more impressively or conveys more information so smoothly and efficiently.

Davis as the murderess, Leslie Crosbie.

Scarlet Woman:  Davis as the murderess, Leslie Crosbie.

Color photography could not have improved this wonderful picture.  It is a shame, however, that there’s no way the audience can know that Leslie Crosbie was dressed in scarlet when she emptied one chamber into Geoff Hammond’s belly and five into his back.

In the following scenes, we learn from Leslie that she shot the blighter in self-defense:  he showed up at the house while her husband was away and tried to rape her.  Nobody doubts the truthfulness of her account, but her attorney, Howard Joyce (the remarkable James Stephenson) tells her that a man has been killed, and this is still a civilized country, so she must be imprisoned until the trial.  There is no doubt that she will be acquitted.

Stephenson, Davis, Herbert Marshall, Bruce Lester. Joyce:  'Well, you see, you're by the way of being under arrest now.' Leslie:  'Shall I be . . . imprisoned?'

Stephenson, Davis, Herbert Marshall, Bruce Lester.
Joyce: ‘I think you’re by way of being under arrest now.’
Leslie: ‘Shall I be . . . imprisoned?’

The entire picture is full of remarkably skillful writing, acting, directing and editing.  But one scene in particular deserves special attention:  it’s right in the middle of the picture — the interview between Leslie and Joyce, her lawyer.  It’s shot in a small room, with the door closed.  The scene lasts somewhere between seven and eight minutes.  The first four minutes of that scene are played in one continuous take; after that, aside from a few inserted close-ups, the rest of the scene is played in long takes, and always with both actors in the frame.  No editor had a hand in creating the timing and tension in that exchange — and a lot goes on in that scene:  there are many shifts in tempo and emotional states.  Nor is the camera static:  it moves around a lot — beautifully, never calls attention to itself, but just enough so that we’re always shown what we need to see — and all in that confined space.  Davis and Stephenson go at it hammer and tongs.  I consider that scene to be one of the high points of movie acting.  It’s not merely that the two actors are so excellently matched and so skillful, but Wyler lets them get on with it, and doesn’t rely on a lot of ping-pong match close-ups — the sort of hackwork that Vincent Sherman so often resorted to.

Davis, Stephenson.  "Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.'

Davis, Stephenson. “Strange . . . that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.’

I could watch that picture every night for months on end and not get tired of it.  Except for Steiner’s intrusive score, I think it’s very nearly perfect, not excluding the skulking racist cartoon slant-eyed devils, which are of course deplorable, but so perfectly of their time, and so faithful to Maugham’s own mixture of fascination with, condescension of, and occasional revulsion to the peoples of the Mysterious East.