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The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

In the various cinematic incarnations of Mary Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s record for creating life is one of overall failure, for one reason or another. He fails spectacularly, wreaking havoc both on society and the pathetic monsters that he creates. The 1958 Hammer Horror film, The Revenge of Frankenstein, stands out as something of an anomaly, however. Frankenstein actually succeeds in his experiments, only not in the way one expects.

The Revenge of Frankenstein is actually a sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein (starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), though it is not necessary to have seen the original to enjoy the sequel. In Curse, Baron Frankenstein is played by Peter Cushing as an out-and-out psychopath and the film ends with him being executed for his crimes. Revenge opens with Baron Frankenstein (still played by Cushing) about to be executed. He is saved, however, at the last minute, by Karl, a man with a hunched back and paralyzed arm and leg.

Years pass and the action moves to Carlsbruck, where Baron Frankenstein lives as Dr. Stein and has a flourishing practice, much to the dismay of his fellow doctors whose business he has attracted. He has both rich patients with imaginary illnesses and poor patients, who he treats at a pauper’s hospital. One doctor, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews) recognizes Dr. Stein as Baron Frankenstein and blackmails him into allowing him to become his assistant. Frankenstein is not unwilling to have a new assistant, however (thus avoiding the classic movie scientist mistake of working alone), and shows Hans his life’s work.

He has figured out how to put a body together from scraps of human anatomy, but has discovered that the only way to animate the body is to insert a living brain. Thus Karl is willing to allow Frankenstein to insert his brain into a new and better body, with the eager assistance of Dr. Kleve.

(Spoilers contained in final analysis) The plot in The Revenge of Dr. Frankenstein definitely took me by surprise. Cushing’s second incarnation of Frankenstein is a little less overtly psychopathic, but nevertheless still obsessively driven. As in the original The Curse of Frankenstein, the true monster is him. Karl is simply a victim.

Karl’s body is successfully transferred into a new and better body (played movingly by Michael Gwynn, who nicely plays a conscious that feels alien to the body he is now in) and at first I was disappointed when a simple blow to the head renders Karl the presumed monster of the film, terrorizing the city. But it soon becomes clear that Karl is simply a tragic accident in Frankenstein’s unstoppable quest to create life. It brings up the question of what life is. What sets Karl off initially is his fear that Frankenstein is going to display both him and Karl’s previous body as scientific proof of his achievements and Karl poignantly protests that he’s always been an object people stare. He doesn’t want to be a figure of study again. He only wants to live his life.

Peter Cushing treating the poor

But it brings up the interesting question of Frankenstein’s desire to create life. Does he really wish to create life? Since to create life is presumably to create a living, autonomous being. If one truly creates life, then isn’t one obligated to let that new life free? Frankenstein’s plan to put Karl on show, to essentially possess him, is a denial of Karl’s life. One of the fascinating themes of many Frankenstein films is the sense of ownership and possession that Frankenstein feels towards his creation (or subsequent rejection of them).

Frankenstein repeatedly demonstrates a lack of respect for life, even animal life. He transfers lizard brains into frogs, frog brains into lizards, orangutan brain’s into chimpanzees. Unlike the other snooty doctors of the city, he treats the poor, but it turns out that he does so partly to obtain body parts to create new bodies to house fresh brains.

(Big spoiler)The ending in particular took me by surprise. With seven minutes to go in the film, Frankenstein is beaten nearly to death by angry patients whose body parts he as collected for his experiments. They kill his body, but Hans has learned from the master and, much to my surprise, is able to place Frankenstein’s brain into the second body that Frankenstein had cobbled together from the patient’s body parts (a rather macabre reflection that seems to bother Frankenstein not at all).

The new body is really just played by Peter Cushing, looking rather more piratical with mustache and tattoo on his right arm (taken from a pickpocket), but apparently healthy and determined to continue his experiments, apparently fully vindicated in his work. He just can’t show anyone what he has achieved. It rather took my breath away. The monster lives. And he has learned nothing from his previous experiments.

This has been my contribution to “The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon.” Many thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and Reekweegiemidget for hosting! To read the rest of the posts, click here for Days 1, 2, and 3.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2018 in Movies

 

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Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

When watching movies with clowns, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that making people laugh is depressing business. While the world relies on the clowns for their relief from daily life, tragedy and even neuroses, who is the clown to rely on? This is Lon Chaney’s problem in Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

Chaney plays Tito, a clown traveling through rural Italy, who stumbles upon an abandoned child. He keeps her, despite the protests of Simon (Bernard Siegel), his fellow clown, and names her Simonetta. He raises her and she becomes a tightrope walker, joining their act (played by 15-year-old Loretta Young).

Tito is devoted to her, but after an amorous run-in with the hedonistic Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), she returns to Tito with a new awareness that she is a young woman. Tito also has a new awareness of this, which horrifies him, especially when he realizes that he is in love with her. Definitely creepy, though he seems to be as much aware of this as the audience, with a remarkably complex bit of acting from Chaney in the scene where he makes his discovery. Alternately confused, admiring, a bit turned on, appalled, affectionate, frightened

Years pass and Ravelli comes back into their lives. He is seeking treatment from a prominent neurologist for his constant bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The neurologist says he has lived a self-serving lifestyle and prescribes falling in love with a good woman. Tito, on the other hand, is experiencing bouts of crying and sees the same neurologist, who diagnoses repressed feelings of love and prescribes winning the lady he loves or at the least going to see the new sensation in town, the clown Flik. But Tito feels he cannot win Simonetta and knows  Flik cannot make him laugh, because he is, in fact, Flik. But he and Ravelli are introduced and begin to think that maybe they can cure each other.

Lon Chaney and Loretta Young

Of course, the inevitable happens. They become genuine friends, Ravelli reforms and falls in love with Simonetta, who is concerned about leaving Tito alone, but is unaware of Tito’s real feelings for her. In Lon Chaney’s films, he often played unrequited love, always on the outside, often not even understood to be in love by others. But in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, it becomes all too plain to nearly everyone, even Simonetta in the end.

Simonetta is constantly concerned for Tito, concerned even about leaving him to marry Ravelli. He is the only family she has even known and clearly feels him to be a part of herself. Spoilers: When she realizes that Tito loves her romantically, and not just as a father-figure, she tells him that she never realized how he felt and that it is truly him that she loves. She even swears before a figure of a Madonna that she loves Tito and not Ravelli. But Tito does not believe her. He feels that she is sorry for him and really loves Luigi Ravelli.

Setting aside the question of whether Simonetta was lying or not, it’s hard not to wonder if the real reason Tito does not believe her is because in his heart of hearts, he does not believe it to be right that she should love him. When he and Luigi discuss how they both love her, he insists that Luigi propose first, so that she need never learn of his love if she prefers Luigi. In essence, he has a breakdown at the end, play-acting a happy scene from an early time with Simonetta or even dressing up in costume for a mere rehearsal and imagining there is an audience and orchestra out front, doing a dangerous stunt that leads to his death. Even if there had been no Luigi, I doubt he would have believed that she loved him. End Spoilers 

One of the lovely things about silent movies is that it allows one to easily show the incongruity of the exterior and interior of feelings. After Tito has learned that Luigi and Simonetta are engaged, he must go back on stage to thunderous applause. We see the crowd cheering and clapping and shouting, we can see the orchestra playing, and finally we see Tito run on stage in his clown costume, laughing and bowing, but we hear none of these things. All we hear is the heartbreaking score that contrasts so effectively with what we are seeing. Highly emotive, as is Chaney, who shows us the heartbreak beneath the smile.

Simon and Tito

Lon Chaney is a remarkably physical actor. Not just in stunts, but in how he conveys feeling. His entire body seems to reflect emotions, not just his face. At first, it struck me as a trifle melodramatic, but then I concluded that it is also very powerful. It’s hard not to be drawn into his story. He is probably the saddest clown I’ve ever seen, and there are some pretty sad clowns out there.

What makes it all the more sad is that audiences today generally agree that it is rather creepy that he should fall in love with Simonetta or even the idea that she would marry him. He has stood too much as a father figure and she owes him too much gratitude for it to be a healthy relationship, but it really does seem like Tito knows this, at least as Chaney plays it. There is never a chance for him. It’s a familiar story, but given unique angles by Chaney. In other hands, there is the danger that we would have been too disgusted with Tito, but it does still feel like a a personal tragedy.

This has been my contribution to “The Lon Chaney Blogathon,” hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Silver Screenings. For more articles about Lon Chaney, check out the wrap-up of articles from Days 1 and 2.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2018 in Movies

 

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How I Came to Appreciate Charlie Chaplin

A brief moment to confess, which is good for the soul. I am disgracefully late in writing this contribution to “The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon.” My own blogathon, no less! Life became more hectic than I expected and I decided that I would rather read all your contributions than write my own. And in truth, I am glad that I did so, because my topic was on how I came to appreciate Charlie Chaplin and reading the many wonderful contributions has served to increase my appreciation far more than any writing I could have done. Once again, I want to thank you all for your participation and thank Domi for inviting me to co-host! It was a pleasure.

So, how did I come to appreciate the artistry of Charlie Chaplin? As a child, I used to watch Charlie Chaplin short films. I was so young, that I could not read and would nudge my siblings for an interpretation every time there was an intertitle.

But, in truth, I don’t recall having much difficulty following the plots and what stayed with me were images. The moment Chaplin cooks his shoe and then proceeds to eat the laces as if they were spaghetti. The moment in “The Vagabond” when Edna Purviance comes back to get the violin-playing tramp at the end, who has rescued her from gypsies. The time she dressed up as a boy in “Behind the Screen,” which I somehow conflated in my mind with “The Vagabond.” The time he takes a bite out of a child’s hotdog. These were the moments that stayed with me, and I experienced a profound sense of deja vu when I went back as an adult and saw all these films. The moment of recognition, the realization of where these scenes had originated, was sweet. I was extremely excited when I found that the hot dog scene was from Circus.

But after my youth, I largely left Chaplin behind. I knew who he was; I had fond memories of watching him, but that was all. Then I watched The Great Dictator and was oddly not impressed (I was still young and the speech at the end was all I recalled). Some years later, I tried Modern Times and was still oddly not impressed. I began to watch Buster Keaton films and came to the conclusion that I didn’t like Chaplin so much.

What changed it all was watching Keystone Comedies and an increased interest in silent films. I saw Chaplin in a few Keystone films, then watched him through his Essanay and Mutual films. I watched “The Pilgim” and “Shoulder Arms” and “A Dog’s Life.” I next watched The Kid and then The Gold Rush. It seemed so obvious why he was so great, how he transformed silent comedy and led the way, how brilliant his gags were (for example, the gag with the clock that he takes apart in “The Pawnshop,” which he treats as if he were a dentist, a doctor, a jeweler, as though it were a can he was opening and so on; his inventiveness was a delight). And after watching Keystone films, as interesting as they were, I appreciated the way Chaplin had developed as a storyteller, how his gags became a part of his story.

But what really impressed me was how he used comedy to take on some truly awful topics. Starvation in The Gold Rush? Turn it into comedy. Drug use in “Easy Street?” Hilarious! Poverty in The Kid, his most Dickensian film? He even took on Hitler. He made us care, made us aware, and made us laugh. Remarkable achievement. Right up there with Charles Dickens in that respect.

And at the same time, he was important in moving forward silent comedy, and silent cinema in general. I think understanding his place in cinema history helped me appreciate even his comedy, if that makes any sense.

Perhaps it’s been a slow journey to full appreciation. Because he was always talked about in near reverent terms, I wanted to be a rebel and not appreciate the one everyone else appreciated. But sometimes when someone is so often called great, it is because they truly are great.

 

For more posts about Chaplin, click here.

“All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export”

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2018 in Movies

 

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