Monday, October 31, 2011


I'm out of the office for a few days, so as Halloween approaches, I'm reposting some essays about classic horror films. I'll catch up on comments early next week.

I don't think I'm going out on much of a limb here to say that Frankenstein contains more iconic images than any other movie of the era, so many, in fact, I could probably name the scenes in order and you could skip the picture altogether—grave robbing, brain stealing, thunderstorms and monster making, "It's alive," the monster's first appearance, fire, the tragic death of the little girl, the villagers with torches and pitchforks. These scenes were so well established in our collective consciousness, in fact, that more than forty years later Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder could spoof it in Young Frankenstein without having to stop and explain anything to their audience.

What movie from 1967 (which like Frankenstein in 1974 is now forty-three years in our rearview mirror) could you spoof in a full-length feature without leaving your audience scratching its collective heads—The Graduate, maybe, but what fun would that be?

The story of a young scientist who soon regrets cracking the secret of creation had its genesis in the ghost stories nineteen year old Mary Wollstonecraft, her lover and soon to be husband Percy Shelley, and the poet Lord Byron told each other while vacationing together in Switzerland. In 1818, Wollstonecraft, now Mary Shelley, turned one of these stories, a combination of a nightmare she had about a lab experiment gone awry and conversations Shelley and Byron had about the origins of life, into her first novel, Frankenstein.

"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," Robert Oppenheimer said to himself as he watched the first atomic bomb explode on the testing grounds of the New Mexico desert, and after the Second World War, a generations of science fiction writers made a cottage industry out of the question of whether we as human beings have the right to monkey around with things that before the advances of science had been the sole provence of God, and what moral culpability do we owe when our experiments go horribly awry—or worse, don't.

But Mary Shelley asked the question first and asked it so well that the phrase "Frankenstein's monster" has become shorthand for "unintended consequences."

The novel was an immediate sensation and spawned dozens of stage adaptations over the years. The earliest of these, Richard Peake's 1823 stageplay Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (read it here) introduced elements such as the elaborate creation scene, the mute monster and a lab assistant named Fritz that became as much a part of Frankenstein's literary tradition as the key elements of Shelley's original novel. Peggy Webling's 1927 stage version (credited as a source in the movie's titles) telescoped the time frame of the story, eliminated the Arctic chase that bookended the novel and, in the third act, added a bride for Frankenstein's monster which became the basis of the 1935 movie sequel. (Webling also, for the first time, named the monster itself "Frankenstein" after its creator.)

The success of Webling's stageplay caught the attention of Carl Laemmle, Jr., the head of production at Universal Studios and he bought the film rights for $20,000. The head of the studio, Carl Laemmle, Sr., wasn't keen to do Frankenstein, but Junior, who had been in charge of production since 1929, was enthusiastic and given the successes of All Quiet On The Western Front and Dracula, which he had previously produced, the father was inclined to give the son free reign. It was a good decision. The cycle of Universal horror movies that had begun with Lon Chaney during the silent era and which continues even to the present day with the studio's recent remake of The Wolfman, owes much to the enormous success of Frankenstein, which proved once and for all that the horror genre was viable box office.

James Whale, fresh off his successful screen adaptation of the play Waterloo Bridge, was slated to direct. For a man who had real reservations about the horror genre, he soon became its master—arguably the greatest director of horror in movie history.

In directing Frankenstein, Whale cast his gaze both to the past and to the future, drawing the movie's look from the German Expressionism of the 1920s—for example, in the graveyard sequence that opens the film—but using sound to generate fear and in the process, inventing many of the cliches of the horror genre we now take for granted. As British film historian David Thomson pointed out recently, Tod Browning's Dracula showed the potential that sound had for generating fear—"the wind in the trees, the wolves howling in the distance ... the women screaming in their sleep ... Lugosi's forbidding welcome, 'I am Drac-u-la'"—and then Whale took the ball and ran with it, giving us thunderstorms, shrieking laboratory equipment, groaning monsters, and a screaming Mae Clarke, that combine to keep the hair standing up on the back of our necks for an hour and ten minutes.

Although he began his career as a theater director, Whale took full advantage of the oppor- tunities film presented, using any number of techniques to distance Frankenstein from its literary and stage antecedents. In addition to the memorable use of sound effects, Whale abandoned the so-called proscenium arch—that is, the now long-forgotten habit of photographing a set from only one position, as if the camera had bought a ticket in the third row of a Broadway theater, that makes early sound movies feel so stagy—moving the camera around the room to get interesting angles, indeed, actually moving the camera, rather than leaving it bolted to the floor, such as for the long tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter through the village square.

Whale also broke the rules of the early cinema with the introduction of Frankenstein's fiancee Elizabeth and the secondary character Victor. In this early scene, Whale shows us a series of quick close-ups and only then cuts to an establishing shot of the room, rather than the traditional approach which would have made clear where we were, that there were people in the room, and finally providing close-ups to introduce the characters, an effective bit of editing that further distances the film from the staginess of its contemporaries.

But the most effective sequence in the movie is the build-up to the introduction of the monster.

We're so familiar now with the look of Frankenstein's creation—the flat head, the hooded eyes, the bolts in his neck—that it's easy to forget that an audience in 1931 had no clear idea what the monster would look like and the final choice, which was critical to the movie's success, could have gone in any number of directions. The 1910 silent movie version of Frankenstein, a fifteen minute short which may have been the first horror movie ever made, presented the monster as a sort of Mr. Hyde to Frankenstein's Jekyll. On stage, the creature was a shaggy hunchback. And as conceived by the film's initial star, Bela Lugosi, the monster had a featureless face and wore a bushy fright wig. (Lugosi dropped out of the project shortly after the test footage was shot. Laemmle, Jr. thought Lugosi's choice of makeup, based on the clay monster in the 1920 silent film Der Golem was ridiculous and in any event Lugosi wasn't interested in playing a mute—and in the early versions of the script, wholly unsympathetic—monster.)

The monster as we know it was a collaboration between makeup expert Jack Pierce and the English actor chosen to replace Lugosi, Boris Karloff. Depending on who you believe, Whale cast Karloff (born William Henry Pratt) either after seeing Karloff brooding over lunch at the Universal commissary or at the suggestion of Whale's companion, David Lewis, who had seen Karloff in Howard Hawks's prison drama The Criminal Code. Either way, the choice was inspired. Karloff's tall, lean build (along with some very clunky shoes) allowed the monster to loom over the rest of the cast and Karloff accentuate his already thin features by removing a bridge of molars from the right side of his mouth and then sucking in his cheek. He also suggested the heavy eyelids made of wax that gave the creature a look of dim confusion.

"We had to surmise that brain after brain had been tried in that poor skull," Karloff said, "inserted and taken out again. That is why we built up the forehead to convey the impression of demoniacal surgery. Then we found the eyes were too bright, seemed too understanding, where dumb bewilderment was so essential. So I waxed my eyes to make them heavy, half-seeing."

It took three hours every day to put the makeup on and almost as long at the end of the day to take it off.

After an elaborate creation scene (Mary Shelley had summed up the entire creation sequence in a single paragraph) which Whale felt was essential to convincing the audience of the monster's reality, he then delays Karloff's first appearance until the moment just after Frankenstein learns for the first time that he's gifted his creation with a defective "criminal" brain (which along with the opening grave robbing scene was an addition of the screenplay). As Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his colleague Dr. Waldman (Edward van Sloan) talk, we hear the sound of heavy footsteps coming up the stair—an early example of the role sound plays in horror—the characters at last react to the approaching footsteps and we know something important is about to happen. The door to the lab opens, the monster backs into the room, then turns, and at the speed of a tripping heartbeat, a pair of axial cuts—a jump cut directly along the line from the camera toward its subject—brings us eye to eye with the monster for the first time.

Thirty-one minutes into the picture, it's one of the greatest entrances in movie history, up there with that dolly shot that zooms in on John Wayne in 1939's Stagecoach.

Audiences of the time were completely sold. Frankenstein premiered on November 21, 1931, and immediately set box office records. Shot in thirty-five days at a cost of $291,000, Frankenstein grossed over $5 million in its initial run, despite hitting theaters at the depths of the Depression. The critical reception was just as enthusiastic and the movie made the New York Times top ten list for the year.

"Whale and I both saw the character of the monster as an innocent one," Karloff later said. "This was a pathetic creature who, like us all, had neither the wish nor the say in his creation, and certainly did not wish upon itself the hideous image which automatically terrified humans whom it tried to befriend."

And therein lies the lasting appeal of Mary Shelley's story, I think, and why we feel such empathy for the monster, because it dares to ask the question "Why, oh Lord, did you make us, as Frankenstein did his monster, so poor, so ugly and so ill-equipped to face a world that is so unforgiving of all but the rich, the beautiful and the talented?" It's a question many of us ask on a daily basis.

I've been re-reading Mary Shelley recently, and I think she was asking, albeit surreptitiously, a question even more fundamental than that of what duty scientists owe humanity, which is to say, What duty does the creator, i.e., God, owe his creation, us. That's a question religion doesn't usually ask; religions primarily concern themselves with the duties a man owes his god. To even ask the question the other way around (forget trying to formulate an answer) would have for centuries been to invite the stake as the penalty for blasphemy, and even in the nineteenth century such speculation meant financial ruin and social exile—afterall, Mary's own husband, Percy Shelley, was expelled from Oxford and became estranged from his family for touting atheism.

So I ask you, what duty does the creator owe his creation? Because let's face it, if I neglected my dog, say, the way God has neglected the earth, the SPCA would be on me so fast my head would swim.

But I digress.

Frankenstein was a huge hit but, of course, received no Oscar nominations. Admittedly, there were few technical awards in those days—no awards for special effects, costumes or makeup— but it was overlooked even in the categories of sound and set decoration, never mind screenplay, acting, directing and best picture.

And now for what I suspect is a key question for many: will Frankenstein scare you? Probably not, to be honest, but then again that depends on what scares you. I happened to catch a goodly chunk of some cable network's Saw marathon a few weekends ago (while Katie-Bar-The-Door was working ungodly hours keeping America safe for democracy) and to be honest with you, I wasn't just not scared, I was bored most of the time. For me, anyway, a good horror movie has to do more than simply test your gag reflex or your autonomic reactions to cats-jumping-out-of-closets kind of shocks, otherwise you might as well head on over to the supermarket and watch the butcher chop meat. Frankenstein is stylish, exciting, has a few genuinely disturbing moments, such as when the monster accidentally kills the little girl, and raises some fundamental questions about our role in the universe. For me, that's just about all I could ever want out of a horror movie—or any other kind of movie, for that matter.

Frankenstein is a fundamental building block, not just of movie literacy but of cultural literacy. Its look, its feel, its conventions and its concepts have so permeated the bedrock that even if you've never seen the 1931 version of Frankenstein, you've drunk from its well.

I say, time to drink from the source.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


I'm out of the office for a few days, so as Halloween approaches, I'm reposting some essays about classic horror films. I'll catch up on comments early next week.

The brain child of Oscar-winning producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., Dracula was the first of Universal Studios' classic "monster" movies, a series that included Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Black Cat and Bride of Frankenstein and continued well into the 1950s (see, e.g., Creature From the Black Lagoon). The title character was played by Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian film actor who had had a huge success on Broadway with a stage adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. Although Lugosi was not Universal's first choice to play the title character (Lon Chaney was reportedly set to play the role until his untimely death; also considered were Conrad Veidt and Paul Muni), he became so closely associated with the role, he rarely appeared in any other kind of movie.

The story, based more on the stage play than the novel, is by now a familiar one. A young British lawyer (Dwight Frye in the movie's other great performance) journeys to Transylvania to arrange Count Dracula's sea journey to London. Once there, Dracula begins to prey on beautiful young women, first Lucy Weston then Mina Harker—famously conflating sex, seduction, virginity and horror, soon to become staples of the genre—until that old vampire hunter Professor von Helsing arrives and divines Dracula's true nature.

The movie was a big box office hit upon its release in February 1931 and continues to enjoy acclaim today. Just last month, the London Telegraph included Dracula on its list of the twenty-five best book to film adaptations in movie history. The American Film Institute chose Lugosi's Dracula #33 on its list of the fifty greatest villains, ranked the movie #85 on its list of the 100 top thrillers and voted the line "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make." one of the top 100 movie quotes of all time. In 2000, the Library of Congress selected Dracula for the National Film Registry.

Lugosi himself didn't fare as well. Although he continued to work right up until his death, even appearing posthumously in Ed Wood's camp classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, most of his roles after the early 1930s were in campy, low-budget horror films for poverty row studios. He did have a supporting role as a Russian commissar in the 1939 comedy Ninotchka and in the 1945 Val Lewton adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff. Lugosi died of a heart attack in 1956.

Martin Landau won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lugosi in Tim Burton's comedy Ed Wood.

Will you find Dracula scary? Not unless you under the age of four. I mean, the guy's wearing a tuxedo for crying out loud—how scary can he be? I'm not even sure audiences in 1931 found this movie scary and certainly by the time Bela Lugosi reprised the role for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein he was playing the part strictly for laughs. But while it's true that one generation's horror becomes the next generation's camp, the appeal of Dracula has always rested not on its shock value but on its ideas and it's there you will find the lasting power of its horror.

You have to know what kind of a movie fan you are. If you're a sit back, arm's crossed "show me something" kind of viewer, you may find Dracula slow and campy. But if you're willing to give yourself up to it, particularly with Halloween just around the corner, I think you will find it fun. At least I did.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Invisble Man

I'm out of the office for a few days, so as Halloween approaches, I'm reposting some essays about classic horror films. I'll catch up on comments early next week.

For the subject of Universal's next "monster" movie, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., settled on the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man, and following the released of a mystery starring Paul Lucas called The Kiss Before The Mirror, director James Whale began production in June 1933.

The Invisible Man is the story of Dr. Jack Griffin who discovers a process that will render a man invisible, a secret he initially plans to sell to the highest bidder until he realizes to his horror that there's no way to reverse the process. Its screenplay proved to be a tough nut to crack—no less a writer than Preston Sturges tried and failed, as did Garrett Fort and John Balderson, who had successfully adapted Dracula. Ultimately it was playwright R.C. Sherriff, whose Journey's End had provided Whale's break, who figured it out. He focused on the practical problems of invisibility—for example, Griffin must hide for an hour after he eats while his meal digests. In addition, Sherriff and Whale agreed that since the film's audience would believe that "only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway," the story would emphasize Griffin's descent into madness.

"We'll begin with a reign of terror," Griffin says as his megalomania takes hold, "a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction."

To play the invisible man, Whale had initially planned on Boris Karloff, who had been such a sensation in Frankenstein, but when he proved to be unavailable, Whale opted for Claude Rains, a veteran of the stage and an instructor at the Royal Academy where he counted both Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud among his students. Although he was reluctant to begin his movie career with a horror film, Rains proved to be an inspired choice. Since the audience can't see him until the final scene, Griffin's entire character must be conveyed through his voice—and Rains had one of the richest, most melodious voices in movie history.

The other key to the success of The Invisible Man was, of course, its special effects, and those concocted by John P. Fulton and Arthur Edeson are among the best of its era. To create the illusion of invisibility, Fulton clothed Rains from head to toe in black velvet and filmed him before a black background. The footage was then optically printed over the scenes filmed on the set. In addition, to cover imperfections, Edeson retouched over four thousand frames of film by hand.

The result is startlingly effective, especially when Rains unwinds the bandages that conceal his face to reveal first empty eye sockets, then holes where his mouth and nose should be, and finally, nothing at all.

But as convincing as the special effects were, the movie would have collapsed had Whale not known how to move the story along, pull memorable performances from his actors—Una O'Connor as a terrified bar maid is unforgettable—and ratchet up the tension as the film races toward its conclusion.

The film was the critical and commercial hit Laemmle had hoped for. The New York Times named it one of the year's ten best and Whale himself won the special recognition at the Venice Film Festival for his direction. Even more important to Universal, the box office appeal of Whale's films helped keep the studio afloat during the darkest days of the Depression.

In 2008, the Library of Congress added The Invisible Man to the National Film Registry.

Despite reaching such heights, though, glory proved to be fleeting for Whale. After 1935's Bride of Frankenstein—the sequel he had resisted making for as long as he could—he never again directed a horror picture, and although credited with directing Show Boat, he was actually fired before production ended, having uncharacteristically gone over budget. Afterwards, he directed a string of commercially unsuccessful pictures and was pretty much out of movies by 1941.

In 1957, after a series of strokes, Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his swimming pool. One of the few openly-gay directors working in Hollywood, Whale's life was the subject of the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Old Dark House

I'm out of the office for a few days, so as Halloween approaches, I'm reposting some essays about classic horror films. I'll catch up on comments early next week.

Although he directed all sorts of movies, including the musical Show Boat, the name James Whale will always be linked with horror. During an age characterized by great horror films, Whale directed four of the greatest—Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and Bride Of Frankenstein. If he didn't invent the genre, Whale redefined it so thoroughly that it's difficult, even now, to make a horror film without dipping into his bag of tricks.

Born in Worcestershire, England, in 1889, the son of a factory worker and a nurse, Whale discovered an interest in the theater while putting on productions for his fellow prisoners of war in a German POW camp during World War I. After the war, he worked as an actor and director in London, with his big break coming in 1928 when he directed Journey's End, R.C. Sherriff's anti-war play about life in the trenches. Starring Colin Clive, later the star of Frankenstein, the play ran on London's West End for two years and brought Whale to the attention of Hollywood. There, he directed a film version of Journey's End as well as an adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's Waterloo Bridge, the latter starring Mae Clarke.

Seeking to cash in on the box office phenomenon of Dracula, the classic thriller about a vampire turned loose on Victorian England starring Bela Lugosi, Whale directed one of the most famous and influential movies ever made, a screen adaptation of Mary Shelley's horror novel Frankenstein. The story of a young scientist who soon regrets cracking the secret of creation, Frankenstein contains more iconic images than any other movie of the period and it made an international star of Boris Karloff, who was both menacing and sympathetic as the monster.

Although he began his career as a theater director, Whale took full advantage of the opportunities film presented, using any number of techniques to distance Frankenstein from its literary and stage antecedents. In addition to the memorable use of sound effects, Whale abandoned the so-called proscenium arch—that is, the now long-forgotten habit of photographing a set from only one position, as if the camera had bought a ticket in the third row of a Broadway theater, that makes early sound movies feel so stagy—moving the camera around the room to get interesting angles, indeed, actually moving the camera, rather than leaving it bolted to the floor, such as for the long tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter through the village square.

Frankenstein was 1931's box office champ, grossing $5 million (with an additional $7 million overseas) on a budget of $291,000.

Producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., wanted a sequel to Frankenstein, but Whale resisted. Ironically, despite helping to define the genre, he didn't much care for horror, and would have preferred to direct more movies like Waterloo Bridge—dramas and romances with literary antecedents. Business, though, was business, and after directing The Impatient Maiden, a little-seen drama starring Mae Clark and Lew Ayres, Whale turned back to the horror genre with an adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel, Benighted, retitled The Old Dark House for the U.S. market.

The plot is a staple of the horror genre—strangers forced to spend the night in a scary house—although the threat, in this case, is not supernatural but based in the psychotic behaviors of the people who live there. Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart play a quarrelsome couple stranded by a storm in the mountains of Wales with Melvyn Douglas, their good-natured traveling companion. The three seek shelter in a nearby farmhouse belonging to Horace and Rebecca Femm, an elderly brother-sister couple played by Ernest Thesinger (later Dr. Pretorius in Bride Of Frankenstein) and a particularly belligerent Eva Moore.

"What are they doing here? What do they want? No beds! No beds!"

Upstairs is their crazy father and an even crazier brother.

Playing the Femm's mute butler is Boris Karloff, so heavily made up the producers added a note at the beginning of the movie to say that, yes, he was the same Karloff who had portrayed the monster in Frankenstein. Soon added to the mix are two more stranded travelers, Charles Laughton in his American film debut, and his mistress, played by Lilian Bond.

The fun lies in trying to decide who's merely eccentric and who's a homicidal maniac. Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front, Casablanca) do a wonderful job of creating a sense of foreboding with shadows and Expressionistic camera angles. Whale was also one of the first directors to grasp the possibilities of the sound medium, and rain, wind, creaking boards, screams and howls, contribute to the mood.

TV Guide also praised Whale's ability to "emphasize an actor's entrances and exits, or to delay them as needed (as in the case of Saul). His striking flair for composition and editing works an audience over thoroughly, and he adds to the film's impact by deliberately playing with the buildup of suspense."

And Nick Pinkerton in The Village Voice noted that Whale—who was born in a working class slum and invented for himself a cool, aristocratic bearing—was particularly sensitive to class distinctions, an awareness that shows in Laughton's character, "a knighted bigmouth industrialist, still smarting from slights before his social rise."

Despite a generally warm critical reception, The Old Dark House was a box office failure in the United States (it set records in Whale's native England). The film was thought lost for decades until it's rediscovery in the 1970s and its reputation has grown over the last few years until it is now regarded as one of Whale's best.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1932)

I'm out of the office for a few days, so as Halloween approaches, I'm reposting some essays about classic horror films, this about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from March 29, 2010. I'll catch up on comments early next week.

The title role in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is an actor's dream: a dual role playing both a prig and a monster with a dramatic physical and psychic transformation from one to the other requiring the actor to hit a wide range of emotional notes. But the part also presents the actor with a dilemma, too. Ground the performance too firmly in Method realism and the action implodes; play it too broadly, and the horror becomes campy comedy.

John Barrymore, who was without doubt the greatest ham in movie history (sometimes brilliantly so), chewed so much scenery in the 1920 silent version of the story, the performance became the gold standard for over-acting—watch Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s imitation in Our Modern Maidens sometime if you don't believe me.

On the other hand, Spencer Tracy, the most empathetic actor ever to grace the screen, never really convinces us in the 1941 version he's either the priggish Jekyll or the brutal Hyde precisely because he can't convince us he's oblivious to the feelings of his fellow beings. (He probably wasn't helped much by a Production Code-era screenplay that dialed down both the violence and the sex.) It's one of the few performances of his great career that doesn't work for me.

It took Fredric March in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde to thread the needle between the two extremes and give the definitive performance in the role. The Academy recognized it as the best performance of the year and for once, I agree.

These days we like to pretend we've advanced well beyond notions of moral rectitude, repressed desire and a secret id run wild. As the A.V. Club put it just last month in writing about Stevenson's novel, "Today’s worst impulses run cheek-and-jowl with the best mankind has to offer, and the idea that some saintly seeming public figure might like to drink and whore around in private isn't so much unsurprising as it is a job requirement."

Oh, yeah? Let me just say two words: Tiger Woods.

If the apparently genuine public shock and, in any event, the nonstop tabloid Sturm und Drang over Woods's professed infidelities tell us anything, they tell us we haven't come anywhere close to getting a grip on the notion that a public figure can have a dark side. And as long as fans expect their heroes to be saints, as long as parents expect their children to be perfect, heck, as long as spouses expect their mates to stop banging cocktail waitresses, the story of a man who tries to repress his dark side only to see it destroy him is always going to be relevant.

Thomas Boswell wrote recently in the Washington Post that everyone has a public face and a private face and that "Our interior life, our soul, our truest sense of ourselves, whatever you call it, is too difficult and changing a thing to summarize easily or share widely.

"But," he went on to say, "when the gap between the public face and the private self becomes a vast gulf, people go into crisis. The split inside you becomes intolerable. You feel that are 'living a life of a lie.' You becomes reckless, partly out of self-hatred ..., but also because you want to put the warring sides of yourself back together, even if the cost is huge."

Jekyll suffers from the same intolerable split—"It's the things one can't do that always tempt me," he confesses—but unlike the rest of us, he doesn't want to put the warring sides back together; he wants a permanent split, and not just psychically but physically as well. He works feverishly to perfect a potion that will accomplish this dream, reasoning that once freed of the constraints of conscience and societal norms, the private self will fulfill its dark desires and trouble him no longer.

It's a nutty notion since as we all know (or ought to) once the baser self is allowed to run free, it wants only one thing: to quote Johnny Rocco, "More." Jekyll discovers this truth the hard way and pays the ultimate price for his knowledge.

Director Rouben Mamoulian introduces Jekyll with a tracking shot from Jekyll's viewpoint, starting in Jekyll's laboratory, following his butler through his manor house, and ending with him gazing at himself in a mirror, preening prior to an important speech before his colleagues in the medical profession. Coming from most directors, this point-of-view tracking shot would be a mere film school stunt, but here, it's an inventive way to introduce the main theme of the movie, the two faces of a man, the one people see (i.e., the face in the mirror) and the one we hide away, in Jekyll's case, even from himself.

Tellingly, director Mamoulian has Jekyll return to the mirror when he first drinks the potion and we see his transformation into Hyde in reflection—the handsome public face becoming the hideous private one. (As a side note, listen for Mamoulian's imaginative use of sound in this sequence, typically cutting-edge. The heartbeat on the soundtrack, by the way, is his own, recorded after running up and down a flight of stairs.)

A key to the movie's success is, of course, how well it shows the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde. The special effects work of Wally Westmore is very good, astounding really considering the movie will be eighty years old next year. Westmore created Jekyll's transformation to Hyde using layers of makeup, each a different color, each revealed with a different filtered camera lens, so that without clumsy cut-aways or overlapping dissolves, Jekyll's face changes before your eyes.

Well, and then they put in some big teeth and a Neanderthal's nose. But it's impressive work.

Still, if clever effects, no matter how good, are all a movie has to offer, within a few years of its release, you wind up with something akin to, say, Tron, a special effects extravaganza from 1982 that made lots of money, inspired an arcade game, and is now remembered, if at all, as an insufferably stupid movie with dated special effects. Something to keep in mind as you champion this year's special effects wonder, Avatar.

That Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde continues to speak to an audience nearly eighty years on is a testament to the screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath which takes the original Stevenson tale and adds depth and action; to Miriam Hopkins terrific supporting performance; to Mamoulian's inventive direction—the only horror movie he ever directed, and one he was justly proud of—and above all, to the skill with which March convinces us he is both the pompous, repressed Jekyll and the gleefully brutal Hyde.

"One aspect that amazes me about March's performance," Bill Cooke said as part of a roundtable discussion at Video Watchdog, "is that I don't at any point feel it's the same actor playing both roles. That certainly can't be said of every other version I've seen featuring one actor in the part."

And at the same discussion, Richard Harlan Smith argued, "March remains unmatched as the definitive Victorian throwback. His performance ("I'll show you what horror means!") still unnerves, almost 80 years later."

I agree with both assessments.

It was director Mamoulian who insisted on casting March. The studio was pushing Irving Pichel, who had earlier that year played the key role of district attorney Orville Mason in An American Tragedy, and who had a wonderful voice—he later narrated She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (he also became a director)—but who didn't fit Mamoulian's conception of the role.

"[M]y concept all along for the character of Hyde," Mamoulian later said, "was that of a Neanderthal man, not a monster, because it is the animal side of human nature that attracted me to the piece. At the time I was offered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I had seen Freddie March in some comedy, and I knew he would be perfect. Now I had never met this actor before in my life, but I took a risk and told Paramount that I would not make the film without Fredric March. And he gave an inspired and dazzling performance!"

If you know where to look, you'll discover that March gave a number of great performances throughout a career that stretched across fifty years, from the silent era to the Seventies. He was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two, for Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, of course, and for the classic film about the difficulties of coming home from war, The Best Years Of Our Lives. He played comedy and drama equally well, for example, starring with Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins in Ernst Lubitsch's ode to the menage-a-trois, Design For Living, and with Carole Lombard in the screwball classic Nothing Sacred; but also in 1937's super-soaper A Star Is Born (later remade with James Mason and Judy Garland) and the Rod Serling-scripted political thriller, Seven Days In May.

In 1960, March and fellow Jekyll, Spencer Tracy, squared off in a fiction- alized account of the Scopes' Monkey Trial, Inherit The Wind. That movie proved to be a showcase for the two actors contrasting styles, with the naturalistic Tracy and the more formal March playing off each other to great effect. If the Academy Awards are any judge, Tracy won that battle, garnering an Academy Award nomination for best actor. But when it came to the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde, March was the hands-down winner.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Out Of The Office

I'm working on a couple of projects for Sharpologist, the online shaving magazine, that will take me out of the office for a couple of days, so if I don't respond to your comments, it's not from lack of love, just lack of access.

In the meantime, Halloween is rapidly approaching, so I'll be reposting reviews of some classic horror films from the early sound era. Some of the reviews are short, some long, and some, as those of you who've been following the Monkey for a while already know, are very long.

But let's start with a short one, a mini-review of Tod Browning's Freaks.

You don't want to miss Freaks, which while a cult movie that for years was more spoken of than seen, is perhaps the most modern of all the horror movies that were released during the early sound era. Helmed by Tod Browning, who not only directed Dracula but also ten Lon Chaney vehicles, Freaks is a story of exploitation and revenge centering on the lives of those circus performers once described as "sideshow freaks." Despite Browning's sensitive treatment of his stars, the combination of sex, horror and forbidden love proved too much for audiences and censors alike, and after a brief release, the film was withdrawn from circulation for more than thirty years.

Admittedly the acting is at times amateurish, but if you like your horror genuinely disturbing, this is a must-see movie. And I don't mean faux disturbing like Hostel or Saw or any of those other slaughterhouse cheesefests with stock characters and recycled plot lines. Freaks is too real to dismiss as playacting and no pose of ironic detachment can shrug off the violence done to the "freaks" and in turn by them. It's a movie that will get under your skin—or anyway, it got under mine.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Great Directors Tournament—The Championship

The final pairing in the great directors tournament is set. The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, squares off against the greatest action director of all time, Akira Kurosawa.

Actually, the match-up has pretty much been set for one long anticlimactic week. Both Hitchcock and Kurosawa won blow-outs against their Final Four competition, silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith and comic genius Woody Allen, respectively. In retrospect, I should have allowed about ten minutes instead of ten days for those contests.

But no matter.

I assume Hitchcock and Kurosawa need no introduction. Indeed, if you don't know who Alfred Hitchcock is, well, you're still more than welcome to read this blog, but I'm not 100% sure why you would. In fact, if by some chance you've never seen a Hitchcock movie, go get Rear Window, North By Northwest, Psycho and Notorious and watch them, right now—we'll wait for you.

As for Akira Kurosawa, his movies are so good even the remakes of his movies are good. You like the classic western The Magnificent Seven starring Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen? That's a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Prefer Clint Eastwood in A Fistful Of Dollars? That's Yojimbo. And if you've ever plopped yourself down in front of a little ditty we like to call Star Wars—well, that's The Hidden Fortress.

And I haven't even mentioned Rashomon, Ikiru or Ran yet.

You have until Halloween night to finish voting. Go to it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1917—Part Four

To see my awards for 1917, click here. To read about Mary Pickford, click here. And to read about the Chaplin Mutuals, click here.

The Short Comedies of Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton
Of all the developments that made 1917 such a landmark year in film—the industry-wide adoption of what is now known as "classical continuity editing," Mary Pickford's emergence as the most powerful woman in Hollywood history, Charlie Chaplin's maturation as an artist—perhaps the happiest for movie fans today was the big screen debut of arguably the greatest film comedian of all time, Buster Keaton.

That Buster Keaton is only now arriving on the scene may come as a bit of a surprise to those of us who naturally think of Keaton as a contemporary of Chaplin—certainly we frame the debate "Chaplin versus Keaton" in those terms—but the fact is, Chaplin was already an international star with sixty films to his credit (including forty he directed himself) before Keaton ever set foot in a film studio. And although Keaton would brilliantly subvert most of the rules of early film comedy in a brief but prolific run between 1920 and 1928, it was by and large Chaplin who had established those rules, a fact that Keaton himself later conceded.

Or to put it another way, Keaton was to Chaplin what the Beatles were to Elvis, building a cathedral on the foundation the other had laid.

Which is not to say Keaton was an amateur when he joined Roscoe Arbuckle during the filming of The Butcher Boy in early 1917. He had been performing on the vaudeville stage with his parents from the age of four as part of a rough and tumble "knockabout" comedy act.

"I'd just simply get in my father's way all the time," Keaton said, "and get kicked all over the stage. But we always managed to get around the [child labor] law," he added, "because the law read: No child under the age of sixteen shall do acrobatics, walk wire, play musical instruments, trapeze—and it named everything—but none of them said you couldn't kick him in the face."

Legend has it he was dubbed "Buster" when escape artist Harry Houdini saw the infant Keaton take a fall down a flight of stairs and bounce up unharmed. Whether he was born with it, or developed it doing routines with his father, if Keaton wasn't the most talented pratfall artist in movie history, I'd like to see the guy who survived long enough to be a better one. He did stunts that rivaled those of Douglas Fairbanks, and when he was done, he doubled for his co-stars and did their stunts, too.

"The secret," he once said, "is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It's a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat."

In early 1917, Keaton was booked into New York's Winter Garden for a series of shows when he bumped into Roscoe Arbuckle while strolling down Broadway.

For those of you who only know Arbuckle—"Fatty" to his audience, "Roscoe" to his friends—through the tabloid scandal and subsequent trial that (despite his acquittal) ended his career, you're missing out on one of the greatest comedic actor-directors of the silent era. Although I wouldn't put him in the same league as "the three geniuses"—Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd—Arbuckle was, in terms of his popularity and impact, the best of the rest, the very top of the second tier of comedians that included Mabel Normand, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Ford Sterling and even Laurel and Hardy and Max Linder.

Mark Bourne in his review of the Arbuckle/Keaton collection for The DVD Journal suggested that Arbuckle was to his biggest commercial rival, Charlie Chaplin, what Adam Sandler is these days to Woody Allen, "less artistic and sophisticated by miles, but nonetheless obviously skilled and unquestionably popular with his own characteristic wacky and raucous manner."

The collaboration between Keaton and Arbuckle was to prove pivotal for Buster.

"Arbuckle asked me if I'd ever been in a motion picture," Keaton told Kevin Brownlow in 1964. "I said I hadn't even been in a studio. He said, 'Come on down to the Norma Talmadge Studio on Forty-eighth Street on Monday. Get there early and do a scene with me and see how you like it.' Well, rehearsals [at the Winter Garden] hadn't started yet, so I said, 'all right.' I went down and we did it."

That first scene, in the Arbuckle short comedy The Butcher Boy, ends in one of the best of Keaton's early gags. At the 6:25 mark of the film, Keaton wanders into the country store where Arbuckle works as a butcher and by the end of the scene, Keaton's trademark porkpie hat is full of molasses and the store is a wreck.

"The first time I ever walked in front of a motion picture camera," he said, "that scene is in the finished motion picture and instead of doing just a bit [Arbuckle] carried me all the way through it."

It's a terrific sequence, but it's as notable for what isn't in it as what is—Keaton does not wear an outrageous costume or wild facial hair, nor does he indulge in the over-the-top reactions and shameless mugging common to the era. He's just a thoroughly average American—albeit, one who can take a swipe at Al St. John, do a 360º spin in mid-air and wind up flat on his back—who has somehow wandered in off the street and found himself thrust into the insanity of a two-reel silent comedy.

Keaton's understatement was the antithesis of the Mack Sennett approach, and was so wholly original, it constituted something of a revolution. Audiences and critics alike instantly took note, if not always approvingly.

"The deadpan was a natural," Keaton said. "As I grew up on the stage, experience taught me that I was the type of comedian that if I laughed at what I did, the audience didn't. Well, by the time I went into pictures when I was twenty-one, working with a straight face, a sober face, was mechanical with me.

"I got the reputation immediately [of being] called 'frozen face,' 'blank pan' and things like that. We went into the projection room and ran our first two pictures to see if I'd smiled. I hadn't paid any attention to it. We found out I hadn't. It was just a natural way of acting."

But deadpan, as any Keaton fan can tell you, isn't synonymous with inert, and as film historian Gilberto Perez has noted, Keaton was able to show us a face, "by subtle inflections, so vividly expressive of inner life. His large deep eyes are the most eloquent feature; with merely a stare he can convey a wide range of emotions, from longing to mistrust, from puzzlement to sorrow."

Keaton's next film with Arbuckle, The Rough House, is one of their best. Not only does it feature some of the best gags of Arbuckle's career—the dancing dinner rolls, trying to douse a raging fire with a teacup, squeezing out a bowl of soup with a sponge—but many film historians also now list Keaton as its uncredited co-director.

"The first thing I did in the studio," he told Robert and Joan Franklin in 1958, "was to tear that camera to pieces. I had to know how that film got into the cutting-room, what you did to it in there, how you projected it, how you finally got the picture together, and how you made things match. The technical part of pictures is what interested me."

I confess, I'm not sure exactly which scenes Keaton is supposed to have directed, but my guess it's a sequence toward the end of the film, a location shot with Al St. John, Glen Cavender and himself—no Arbuckle in sight—containing three bits uncharacteristic of Arbuckle's previous work: a long shot of the silhouetted actors running, jumping and falling across the horizon; then the three of them running across the street toward the camera as a streetcar roars past behind them; and finally Keaton climbing over a fence only to wind up suspended by his coat on a post.

If Keaton did in fact make his directorial debut with this sequence, it's proof (to my mind at least) that his genius arrived with him fully formed. In any event, he would make his credited directing debut three years later with One Week and that one leaves no doubt of Keaton's gift for comedy.

Keaton and Arbuckle made three more comedies in 1917—His Wedding Night, Oh Doctor! and Coney Island—and each features an aspect of Keaton rarely seen after. In the first, Keaton plays a milliner's delivery boy and winds up in drag as he models a wedding dress. Mistaking him for the bride, Al St. John kidnaps Keaton and hauls him off to the preacher at gunpoint.

In Oh, Doctor!, he plays Arbuckle's little boy, a reprise of the sort of comedy Keaton and his father Joe had done for years on stage, and pulls off a stunt you have to see to believe—Arbuckle smacks him, Keaton tumbles backwards over a table, picks up a book as he falls, and lands upright in a chair, with the book on his lap as if he's been there all along, reading comfortably.

And while Coney Island is mostly an excuse to watch Arbuckle caper around Luna Park—its plot of men wooing women on park benches is a throwback to the Keystone comedies—the film is worth seeking out for two reasons: one, for its documentary footage of Coney Island nearly one hundred years ago, and two, a rare chance to see Buster Keaton smile.

The pertinent clip, fished from YouTube:

The smile notwithstanding, in terms of his look, his acting style, his fearless physical stunts and his fascination with technology, the basic Keaton was already on full display in these early two-reel comedies. He had only to add the context—that of a rational man enmeshed in the machinery of a universe that exists only to achieve absurd ends—for his unique brand of humor to reach its full flower.

Keaton and Arbuckle continued to make films together (some of which I'll talk about when we reach 1918) when Arbuckle left First National in 1920 for what seemed at the time to be greener pastures. Studio owner Joseph Schenck turned the keys to the kingdom over to Keaton who immediately began to direct two-reel comedies of his own. The rest is history.

But we're getting ahead of the story.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Pre-Code Miriam Hopkins

Adapted from three previous posts on the occasion of Miriam Hopkins's 109th birthday.

Largely forgotten now, Miriam Hopkins was one of the sauciest actresses of the pre-Code age, excelling in light comedies and lurid melodramas alike and nabbing an Oscar nomination along the way. Her early sound movies are some of the best of the era, yet often proved too scandalous to be re-issued once censors began taking scissors to Hollywood's past. Coupled with the years lost while she languished on the McCarthy-era blacklist, and even film fanatics can admit to having rarely seen her work.

Hopkins was born in Savannah, Georgia, and grew up in a small town on the Alabama border, but she was acting on the Broadway stage by the age of eighteen with her turn in the stage adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy in 1926 really making audiences sit up and take notice. She made her feature-film debut in the 1930 comedy Fast and Loose, and within a year turned in two of her best film performances, in Ernst Lubitsch's musical comedy The Smiling Lieutenant and Rouben Mamoulian's adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson horror classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the first of these, Maurice Chevalier plays a randy lieutenant in the Austrian army who beds down with an equally randy violinist played by Claudette Colbert. (Her band's name? "The Viennese Swallows." Ahem.) The two make beautiful music together, literally and figuratively, until by accident, Chevalier finds himself mistakenly flirting with a visiting princess—the prim, virginal Hopkins—instead of Colbert, threatening an international incident.

"When you winked at my daughter," asks the king, "were your intentions honorable?"
"They were," says the lieutenant.
"Well, then naturally you'll marry her."
"My intentions were dishonorable!" the lieutenant says quickly.
"Then you'll have to marry her!"

Variety in a contemporary review praised Hopkins as the more experienced Colbert's equal, while eighty years later Dan Callahan noted, "Hopkins gives an expertly timed comic performance as plain-Jane royalty with Princess Leia buns on her ears who makes a play for Chevalier."

A movie fan of today who knows Hopkins's pre-Code work waits a little impatiently for the princess to bust out—knowing that when she does, it'll be worth it. But an audience of the time, not knowing Hopkins and what she was capable of, must have found her transformation from a prudish virgin to a cigarette-smoking, jazz-playing temptress just as shocking as Chevalier's lieutenant does.

It's a fun movie, loaded with double entendres and sexy situations, served up with the director's typically light, frothy style. I tell you, it's as bracing and intoxicating as cold champagne.

Hopkins followed up her success in The Smiling Lieutenant with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a movie that is the polar opposite of Lubitsch's comedy in every sense but quality. Both pictures received Oscar nominations, the former for best picture, the latter for actor, cinematography and screenplay.

The basic outline of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is familiar to us all—a scientist drinks a potion that turns him into a murdering beast with hairy hands and bad teeth. What tends to be forgotten is the why. Dr. Jekyll (here pronounced with a long "e," as in "gee whiz" rather than the familiar rhyme with "heckle") is striving for the perfectability of man, using science to distill out our bestial dark side, freeing the angels of our better nature to pursue more virtuous callings.

As in the other great horror picture of 1931, Frankenstein, the hubris of playing God leads to disaster.

Here, Hopkins plays Ivy Pearson, saloon singer, prostitute, and physical embodiment of Jekyll's base desires. The character is not in the novel, but is so perfect, you wonder why not. Taking full advantage of the pre-Code era's permissiveness, there's no question that Ivy is a prostitute and Hopkins doesn't try to soften her. Her Ivy is both lovely and—what is the word?—skanky at the same time. Her play for Jekyll is coarse and obvious, pulling up her skirts to show her legs, offering to be his slave. Even the priggish and pompous Jekyll feels the pull of the animal, and his shame is what drives him to try to cleanse himself of his base nature, resulting in the experiments that divide him.

That's the flaw, by the way, in the great Ingrid Bergman's performance as the same character in the 1941 remake. Her Ivy may live in low economic circumstances, but Bergman can't convince us that even on her worst day she was ever low or common, and thus Jekyll's revulsion at himself for wanting her makes no sense. But Hopkins? Well, she's very convincing as someone who'd inspire you to both sleep with her and then scrub yourself with lye soap and a wire brush afterwards, so different from the prim and proper princess of The Smiling Lieutenant you wonder that it's the same actress.

After the triumphs of 1931, Hopkins would top herself in two more Lubitsch comedies, Trouble in Paradise, in which she plays a con artist who teams up romantically and professionally with Herbert Marshall's master thief, and Design For Living, in which she scandalously resolves a love triangle with Fredric March and Gary Cooper by living with them both.

Trouble In Paradise is the story of a pair of sophisticated lovers, Gaston and Lily—Herbert Marshall and Hopkins—who romance and thieve their way across Europe, only to find their happiness threatened by a beautiful young widow who also happens to be the target of their latest scam.

The widow, who may well know she's being taken but is still eager for the ride, is played with sympathy and sex appeal by Kay Francis. Her polished, dark beauty contrasts nicely with Hopkins's earthy blonde charms and no doubt was a factor in her casting, as was her performance earlier that year in Jewel Robbery, in which she plays a willing victim to William Powell's elegant jewel thief. Although her career would later take a nose-dive after a bitter contract dispute at Warner Brothers, in 1932, she was at the peak of her popularity.

Just the plot I've described so far would provide the makings of a good comedy (or spun in a different direction, suspense thriller), but Lubitsch ups the ante by creating genuine chemistry between Gaston and the widow. Suddenly Trouble In Paradise is no longer a simple story about the theft of money, but the theft of Gaston's affections as well, which realistically can't end well for somebody. The inevitable heartbreak adds what Andrew Sarris called "a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments," and is what, I think, lifts this sparkling comedy to the level of pure genius.

And that's without even addressing the numerous examples of Lubitsch's mastery of the technical end of his craft, which not only keeps the story moving but gives this confection its airy, art Deco style. "I think I have done nothing better or as good," he wrote of the film shortly before his death.

If Trouble In Paradise, with its depictions of thieves living happily ever after, had pushed the limits of pre-Code permissiveness, Hopkins's next picture, Design For Living, blew right past them.

The story of a woman who loves two men and makes them like it, Design For Living was based on Noel Coward's play about his own tangled relationship with Broadway's most famous acting couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a triangle marked by professional and romantic jealousy, and self-destructive egotism.

As the movie opens, George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March) are, respectively, an unsuccessful painter and an unsuccessful playwright—deservedly so judging by samples of their work. On a train to Paris, they meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a commercial artist not the least bit embarrassed to earn a living painting advertisements of Napoleon in long underwear. She immediately recognizes the innate quality of both men and is determined to give George and Tom the pointers they need to become great artists while taking advantage of their soon-proven talents as lovers.

"A thing happened to me that usually happens to men," she says. "You see, a man can meet two, three or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of, uh, interesting elimination, he is able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it's alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out, but—"

"That's very fine," says Tom, "but which chapeau do you want, madame?"


Hopkins is perfect in the part, never veering too far into either smug certainty or guilt-wracked introspection. Lubitsch always wrote interesting female characters, and Gilda is one of his best. We think of feminism and the sexual revolution as primarily modern movements, a product of baby boomer discontent, but in fact, many movies in the pre-Code era were about strong women insisting on sexual and economic freedom. Barbara Stanwyck's Lily Powers, who sleeps her way to the top in 1933's Baby Face, was the most ruthless incarnation of the pre-Code feminist, but Lubitsch's Gilda may well have been the strongest.

Even more scandalous was 1933's The Story of Temple Drake. Based on William Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, the story of a flighty debutante's rape proved so shocking, it was banned in many states; Joseph Breen, who succeeded Will Hays as the head of the Production Code Office, later ordered it withdrawn from circulation and it remained unseen for decades. (Click here for Erik Beck's review.)

In 1935, Hopkins received her only Oscar nomination, for playing the conniving title character in Becky Sharp. Being a fellow Georgian, she was Margaret Mitchell's choice to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, but of course it was David O. Selznick's opinion that mattered.

Despite her success on screen, Hopkins was not well-liked by her Hollywood peers and she bounced around several studios in a short number of years. She had several well-publicized battles with Bette Davis on the sets of The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance, Davis later declaring, "Miriam Hopkins was a bitch!" (That Davis was having an affair with Hopkins's husband, Anatole Litvak, was no doubt a primary cause of the friction.)

Hopkins also disdained Hollywood society, preferring the company of writers such as William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser and William Saroyan. And even her sympathetic biographer Allan Ellenberger admits she had a volatile temper, waging on-set and behind-the-scenes battles with producers, directors and co-stars alike. She was also well-known for her eccentricities, for example, always consulting a psychic before accepting a new role, leading her to turn down the lead role in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, a part that won Claudette Colbert an Oscar, proving once and for all that the stars may control our fates but they don't know a damn thing about the movies.

Hopkins grew in- creasingly unpopular as the decade wore on—in 1940, the Harvard Lampoon dubbed her "the least desirable companion on a desert island"—and she retired in 1943. She didn't appear in another movie for six years, then made her comeback in The Heiress as Olivia de Havilland's aunt, a performance the Golden Globe awards recognized with a nomination for best supporting actress. In 1952, however, Hopkins was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and again she was out of the movies, this time for nine years.

In all, Hopkins made only thirty-three movies in her career, twenty-two of them by 1937.

Hopkins launched yet another comeback in the 1961 film, The Children's Hour, playing Shirley MacLaine's ditsy aunt to good reviews. (Coincidentally, Hopkins had played the MacLaine role in the first film version of Lillian Hellman's play in 1936 when it was produced under the title These Three.)

Hopkins also did a lot of television back when that meant appearances in live theater productions on shows such as Studio One and Lux Video Theater. She continued to work almost up to her death of a heart attack in 1972.