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Maytime (1937)

maytimeMaytime made me think of Beau Brummel (1924) and Love Me or Leave Me combined into an operetta. The movie was based – loosely – on an operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Rida Johnson Young from 1917 and is constructed like an extended flashback.

When a rather flighty young lady contemplates trying to become an opera singer, she quarrels with her boyfriend, who wants to marry and settle down. Her neighbor, the elderly and mysterious Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) counsels thinking twice about leaving the man she loves and tells the young lady her own story, of how she was once the great Marcia Mornay, opera singer during the time of Louis Napoleon in Paris.

Marcia was a young singer from Virginia who was found by the great voice teacher/manager Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) and through his coaching and guidance, propelled into stardom. When the flashback begins, she is just beginning to make a name for herself in Paris.

In the meantime, Nazaroff proposes marriage. His usual mode of operating is to ask sexual favors from the women he mentors, but in the case of Marcia, he has fallen too deeply in love. Mostly, it seems, out of gratitude and a little bit of awe that he would propose, Marcia accepts him. But soon after, she also meets a carefree young American, Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) who is also training to be an opera singer, except that he does not apply himself or wish strongly to succeed. They fall in love, but Marcia is unwilling to hurt Nicolai, who she feels has given so much to her and her career, and she and Paul part ways and she marries Nicolai. An inevitable, tragic love triangle ensues.

Maytime 4In certain ways, this film did remind me of Love Me or Leave Me. Barrymore’s Nazaroff is not physically abusive or bombastic like James Cagney’s character, but the dynamics are the same and John Barrymore is excellent at suggesting the passion hidden beneath the elegant exterior. He’s like a languid vampire, always behind her like a brooding shadow, sucking the lifeblood out of her. No wonder she seems so tired after seven years of marriage to him. It’s not the lifestyle of an opera singer, as she assumes; it’s him. He seems to control her entire life and career.

You know from the beginning that he’s going to be the possessive, jealous type, though he seems to be trying not to be. He knows he has no right to be jealous, because he asked her to marry him knowing she did not love him. But though he tries, one can just tell that something is wrong and that at some point he’s going to explode and Hyde is going to emerge from Jekyll.

And Jeanette MacDonald also does an excellent job of showing that, subconsciously, Marcia is afraid of Nicolai. She never articulates it, but you can tell in the tentative and careful way she treats him. One can’t help but wonder if there was fear, as well as gratitude, that prompted her to marry him and not tell him about Paul.

Nelson Eddy as Paul gets the least interesting role of the film. Love Me or Leave Me had the right idea in making the story about Ruth Etting’s relationship with her husband rather than her lover. And might have been nice to have more between MacDonald and Barrymore in Maytime. Nelson Eddy’s role is necessary, but he doesn’t have any character dynamics to offer. He does, however, share an excellent chemistry with Jeanette MacDonald when they sing. I am constantly surprised at how sexy and emotionally intense opera can be on film. The climactic scene where they sing together while Nicolai watches from the wings and begins to boil over is believable largely because of the chemistry they generate. Nicolai is not just seeing things.

Maytime 3I also found it ironic that the only intimate moment Paul and Marcia can share during the production of the opera at the end of the film is on stage – very publicly in front of a whole audience – where they can whisper a few words to each other.

The songs are lovely, though I don’t know if I found them quite as memorable as Rose-Marie, New Moon, or Naughty Marietta. Many songs from many operas are featured, but the opera at the end is a fictional opera, called Czaritza, and was written using music from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. There’s really only one song from Romberg’s operetta left, the love song “Will You Remember.”

It’s a tearjerker, but in a good way, with an ending like Beau Brummel or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I call those kinds of movies cosmic romances, a romance that transcends time or space. It’s one of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy best films, aided tremendously by John Barrymore.

His history as an actor plays well into the role of Nazaroff. Perhaps we read more into it knowing he’s played Jekyll and Hyde or Svengali (which he did in 1931). Though he’s not exactly a Svengali in Maytime. This is, after all, Jeanette MacDonald, who already has tremendous talent and drive, but it’s a related idea.

As an aside, I think Barrymore would have made an excellent vampire or Count Dracula.

This post was written as part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to read the rest of the contributions to this blogathon in honor of John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Ethel Barrymore!

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Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Mummy (1932)

220px-The_Mummy_1932_film_poster“Ank-es-en-Amon, my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you”

The Mummy is often compared to Dracula: similar plot, a supernatural being with hypnotic powers who desires the leading lady while the leading man looks on haplessly and is assisted by a canny professor with arcane knowledge. The leading man and the canny professor are even played by the same actors in both movies (David Manners and Edward Van Sloan). Fortunately, I saw The Mummy before I saw Dracula and I actually prefer it. It is one of my favorite Universal horror movies.

The first mummy film I ever saw was the 1999 The Mummy. I enjoyed it, but it’s not ultimately my cup of tea. It’s more of an action/adventure than anything else. But the 1932 The Mummy is primarily a romance, what I call a cosmic romance; love that spans over time and space. Everything the mummy does is done for love. He does not kill for revenge or sport; but only if you stand between him and his love. He doesn’t even stay looking like a mummy for long. The horror comes in the nature of his being and his seeming unstoppability, a being outside of nature.

The movie begins in 1921, in Eygpt. Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) have uncovered a mummy and a chest that contains The Scroll of Thoth, which record the words that can restore a person to life when read aloud. There is a warning on the chest that anyone who opens it will be cursed. But while Sir Joseph is deliberating with his friend and specialist in the study of the occult, Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), Norton opens the chest and reads the scroll.

The mummy - make up by the Universal studio genius, Jack Pierce

The mummy – make up by the Universal studio genius, Jack Pierce

What follows is one of the most effectively understated moments in horror history. With no music, while Norton reads, the mummy quietly opens his eyes. They don’t snap open with a sudden burst of music; they simply open and he begins slowly to move first one arm and than another. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. Then, while Norton continues to read, a mummified hand appears besides him and takes the scroll. We don’t see the mummy. All we see is Norton’s reaction and then some trailing mummy wrappings sliding out the door. First Norton shouts in horror, then goes completely mad, laughing hysterically the entire time. It’s an unexpected reaction and very unsettling.

Time fast forwards to the present – 1932 – and Sir Joseph’s son, Frank Whemple (David Manners) and another archaeologist are digging in the sands of Egypt without success, until a mysterious stranger named Ardath Bey arrives- a man looking somewhat dry and decayed, but otherwise human –  and shows them an artifact he found containing the name of the princess Anck-es-en-Amon. They dig where he said he found the artifact and find the princess’ tomb, with the seal unbroken and all the treasure still inside, which is then brought to the Cairo Museum.

The mummy as Ardath Bey

The mummy as Ardath Bey

Ardath Bey is, of course, the mummy of 1921. It is later revealed that he was an Egyptian priest, Imhotep, buried alive for stealing the forbidden Scroll of Thoth and trying to use it to bring back his dead love, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, which was a forbidden love in the first place because she was supposed to be a virgin priestess dedicated to Isis.

But in 1932, he has the scroll of Thoth once again and he intends to use it revive the princess’ mummy. But what he does not initially realize is that though the body is in the museum, her spirit has been reincarnating through the ages and is currently in Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), ward of Dr. Muller, who is half English and half Egyptian. The complication is that Helen is falling in love with Frank, though she nonetheless feels drawn to ancient Egypt and the mysterious stranger. Thus begins a battle for the soul of Helen, who has two powerfully conflicting impulses towards life and death.

I had not seen many Universal horror movies when I first watched The Mummy and my experience with horror films was largely limited to adventure films like the 1999 The Mummy, where no matter how bad the supernatural villain is, the hero can always defeat him. The original is set up completely differently and felt refreshingly original. Not only is it a romance – and a surprisingly poignant one – but there appears to be nothing anyone can do to stop him. There isn’t even a conventional hero who must battle the mummy. The mummy truly is beyond their reach, a mummy that cannot be killed because he’s already dead, with supernatural abilities, which makes him an impressive monster, though he’s not really a monster. He looks like a man and thinks like one and feels love like one. But still, nothing short of supernatural intervention will destroy him.

Boris Karloff and Zita Johann

Boris Karloff and Zita Johann

It’s requires a Deus ex machina, though instead of coming down in a cloud the gods zap him through a statue of Isis.

The poignancy Karloff brings to his character is impressive. Not only does he have one of the most intensely unsettling gazes in movie history, but his face can soften into such longing. This mummy is not on a power kick – though, judging from his expression when he uses his power to kill Dr. Whemple, a power complex could certainly be on the way. He is on a romantic quest, through time and space. And he figures that after all he’s suffered the least she can do is suffer for a minute or two and join him as a mummy (presumably a more beautiful mummy, since she won’t have all the centuries of human decay). But it is at this moment of death that she balks. All that reincarnation as given her a definite taste for life.

Many people find The Mummy a bit slow and static and there is certainly very little action. People mostly talk, with a few confrontations, but hardly any visible, physical violence or contact. But I must confess that the lack of action is partly why I like it; I’ve always had a thing for talky movies. And although all the other actors pale next to Boris Karloff (who is brilliantly nuanced as the mummy) it doesn’t bother me. Their seeming ineffectuality contrasts nicely with the sense that it will not be human agency that stops the mummy.

Stealing the Scroll of Thoth

Stealing the Scroll of Thoth

I also love the look of the film, the atmosphere. The first scene, when they are sitting at the table with the mummy’s coffin leaning against the wall. Ardath Bey kneeling in a darkened museum next to the glass case containing his beloved, reading from the Scroll of Thoth, which is juxtaposed with scenes of Helen at a party, beginning to hear his call. Kneeling in front of a pool in which he can see what others are doing and exert his hypnotic power.

There are Helen’s constant internal conflicts (Zita Johann is definitely more on the theatrical side of acting) and attempts to fight this thing inside her that is irresistibly drawn to Imhotep. She is two people, but it is the princess and not Helen that finally rejects Imhotep and chooses Frank and life. This final rejection turns the cosmic romance into a tragedy and she begs the aid of the gods she offended. And they hear her. It’s as though they decided that it was their responsibility that a mummy was let loose on the world in the first place and finally they set everything right by both destroying the mummy and the Scroll of Thoth so that such an abomination can never happen again. The modern world can return to its natural state where gods and supernatural beings are faded into the past.

The mummy’s tragedy is that he was always fighting, not against man, but against the gods. His very love was taboo, his means of coming back as a mummy and his means of trying to be reunited with Ack-es-en-Amon, all a defiance of his gods. Ultimately, the poor guy just couldn’t win.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Movies

 

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