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The Lord of the Rings, If Warner Bros Made It in the 1930s-40s

So, I’ve always liked to kick around the idea of what a Lord of the Rings would have looked like if a studio like Warner Bros. had dedicated all their resources (and perhaps resources of other studios) to making a version during the height of the studio era, discounting the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy was not published until the 1950s. Admittedly, I have not solved all considerations. How would they have portrayed orcs? What about Gollum? And the hobbits? The technology was not there, but it is still fun to speculate.

I have also still not solved all casting conundrums and would like to invite other opinions! Since studio productions of the 1930s and ’40s were always the product of multiple voices and opinions, it seems appropriate.

But rather than present a comprehensive rubric, I would like to offer thoughts for consideration. Actors, composer, make-up artist, production code considerations.

Cast

I don’t think there is any doubt that Warner Bros. would have cast their leading male star as Aragorn: Errol Flynn.


When I taught a class to high school students on the early history of American cinema, I was told that Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood looked like Link. I always thought of Link as an elf, so perhaps Errol Flynn would have made a better Legolas, who is far merrier in the book than he is in the movies, but there is no way Warner Bros. would have given him anything less than the all-important role of the king.

I’m also inclined to think that any studio era production of LOTR would, like the Peter Jackson films, have given Arwen a bigger role. With that in mind, it seems fitting that Arwen should be played by none other than Olivia de Havilland, who would have been an excellent elf.

For Gandalf, I’m partial to the casting of Claude Rains. He’s brilliant in almost anything, but as Gandalf,  he would have brought a wry wit and wisdom – and a lovely voice – that would have been ideal, especially since Gandalf has to carry the heavy lifting of cinematic plot exposition.

Alan Hale might possibly have been cast as Gimli, though the Gimli of the book is far more dignified than in the movies. Though I’m also tickled by the idea of casting Edward G. Robinson, as well. And Patric Knowles for Legolas, perhaps?

Boris Karloff as the Witch King, hands down. And for the important role of Eowyn, quite possibly Bette Davis. I could see her riding her horse, taking on Boris Karloff and raging against being trapped in a cage. And falling in love with Errol Flynn.

How about Sir Cedric Hardwicke for Saruman? And Vincent Price needs to be in the film somehow. Maybe as Wormtongue? John Garfield was a star and would need a role, but I’m a bit stumped on that one. Any thoughts? Also, if James Cagney can appear in a Shakespeare play as Bottom, then surely he could appear in LOTR as somebody…even a hobbit! Okay, so maybe not.

Lionel Atwill should also undoubtedly have a role…perhaps as Elrond. We need a Galadriel, too. Hmm…

Basil Rathbone likewise deserves a role, possibly even a heroic role. Like Boromir or Eomer, though I’m leaning towards Boromir. It strikes me, though, that he could have played the stern Strider who morphs into a king, but it’s doubtful he would have been given the part.

Score

Max Steiner was Warner Bros. most prolific composer of the era and scored over 300 film scores, which boggles the mind. He scored King KongGone With the Wind, CasablancaThe Treasure of the Sierra MadreThe Big Sleep, and The Searchers. He clearly had the epic score down pat.

Costuming and Makeup

In all probability, Warner Bros. would need the experience of Universal Studio’s Jack Pierce, who designed the make-up for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster and Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man. This reminds me that Lon Chaney Jr. should surely have a role in the film, as well. Maybe he could play an orc leader or Uruk-hai? Or Gollum. He actually might be the best bet for Gollum and would certainly bring pathos to the role. Though Bela Lugosi could handle Gollum, as well.

Studio era Hollywood didn’t have a track record with fantasy, so it’s possible that a Lord of the Rings would look more like a medieval horror movie. And actually, we can learn a lot about how a studio era LOTR might have been handled by examining Universal Studios films. The make-up in The Wolf Man was designed not too look realistic. There was concern that it would be too frightening, which means that in all probability the makeup for the orcs would have been muted.

The costumes (or at least the gowns) could be designed by Vera West, who specialized in costuming for Universal’s horror movies: The Bride of FrankensteinThe Wolf Man, various Mummy movies, Dracula. But Walter Plunkett also designed a lot of period garb, most notably for Gone With the Wind, but also The Hunchback of Notre DameThe Three Musketeers, and Singin in the Rain. Perhaps they could design together.

I suspect that for the monsters – like the Balrog – Warner Bros, would also have need the assistance of stop motion animator Willis O’Brien, of King Kong fame.

Direction

Probably Michael Curtiz. He established his bone fides for epics and large crowds with the 1928 silent/talkie hybrid Noah’s Ark. He also directed many of Errol Flynn’s best films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Motion Picture Production Code

On the whole, I think there is not much in LOTR that the Breen Office would have objected to, except excessive violence and gruesomeness. The gruesomeness in particular would have been in relation to the orcs and Uruk-hai. This means the battle scenes, along with the makeup, would have been far less intense, less bloody, more on the line of the battle at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood. With Universal Horror monsters as the villains.

An adventure/horror film! Which means the movie might end up more lighthearted, more in the spirit of The Hobbit. Though it might depend on whether they took horror or adventure as their model.

What do you think?

This has been my contribution to “the Great Breening Blogathon,” hosted by Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. For more posts on this topic, be sure to check out their site, here.

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Posted by on October 15, 2017 in Movies

 

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Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

220px-A&cfrankMost people say that the comedy/horror/spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the best way to be introduced to the original Universal Studio’s monster movies. But not me. I did my research to watch Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Never was a person more prepared than I. I have so often watched the spoof of something before actually watching the something and this time I was determined to be on the right side of the joke. And my preparation included: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man and even The Invisible Man – all in their original, horrific glory.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is probably the most remembered movie Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made (though their routine “Who’s on First” might be more well known). It was apparently their most financially successful and definitely their most critically praised.

The story revolved around Chick (Abbott) and Wilber (Costello), two baggage clerks, who are warned not to deliver two large boxes to the McDougal House of Horrors. But they ignore the warning (which came from Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man), and the monsters are loose…though not in the McDougal House of Horrors. They have a nice, creepy castle they can repair to that is owned by a fugitive scientist from Europe, Dr. Sandra Mornay, who, as far as I can gather, specializes in brain implantations. She is also going to help Count Dracula to recharge Frankenstein’s monster, who apparently has depleted energy. It is not exactly clear why Dracula wants the monster, other than to have someone to do his dirty work, but his entire purpose seems to be wrapped up in getting the monster in working order.

However, he does not want the brain that is currently in the monster, the brain that was put in by Dr. Frankenstein in the original movie and was labeled abnormal. He wants a brain that is obedient, weak, easily led and not too bright. Dr. Mornay thinks Wilber’s brain will do nicely and is trying to vamp him, as is an insurance investigator for Mr. McDougal, Joan Raymond, who is trying to figure out where Mr. McDougal’s exhibits disappeared to. Meanwhile, Chick can’t figure out why all these pretty girls are chasing after Wilber.

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Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Glenn Strange, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi

Also in the mix is Lawrence Talbot, who is trying to convince Chick and Wilber that he is the Wolf Man and that he is on their side. The trouble is, they don’t believe him and he keeps turning into a wolf and trying to attack them.

Half the fun comes from Wilber, who keeps seeing these monsters, but Chick never believes him and always seems to just miss being where they are. Wilber’s reactions are priceless, his flabbergasted terror and inarticulate gasps and mumblings. Chick is trying to talk sense into him – when he is not trying to talk him into giving him one of his two dates for the costume ball that Sandra invited Wilber to…although Joan has also managed to come along.

The ending is definitely the highlight. Chick and Wilber are running around in comic terror from the bumbling Frankenstein monster while Dracula and the Wolf Man are engaged in an earnest, deathly combat that is entirely peripheral to Chick and Wilber.

One of the things that makes the movie so funny is how absolutely serious the monsters take their roles, especially Lugosi as Count Dracula. He said that he approached the movie with exactly the same attitude as he did his role in the original Broadway show and the original 1931 film. Lon Chaney Jr., also plays his role earnestly in his quest to stop Dracula and deal with his nightly transformation. There is a fun line when he tells Costello, with internal torment at his plight, that every night, when the moon rises, he turns into a wolf. “Yeah, you and every other guy.” Costello replies.

th8OW940SCFrom all accounts, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, had a lot of fun with the role. He would walk around the studio in all his makeup with a big grin on his face and he would constantly break out laughing at the antics of Costello during shooting, so they had to keep shooting retakes.

Ironically, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein marks the final appearance of all three monsters; monsters who had each been in multiple sequels. Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney both originated the roles and it is poetic that they should make the monsters’ final appearance. Lon Chaney is actually the only person to play the Wolf Man in all the Wolf Man movies. Boris Karloff, however, declined to play his originated role of the monster, so instead they cast Glenn Strange.

As a bonus, there is a vocal cameo by Vincent Price as The Invisible Man. Although Claude Rains originated the role, Vincent Price did play the second Invisible Man in The Invisible Man Returns.

Of course, this wasn’t really the end of these monsters. They were remade many times, by many different studios, by many different actors. Hammer Film Productions began making horror films in the 1950s and 60s that were in color, with lots of blood (which was new, since horror had traditionally been associated with black and white movies because of how shadowy and atmospheric black and white movies can be). I want to see their 1958 Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Count Dooku vs. Grand Moff Tarkin? What’s not to like?

But there’s not much to beat great monsters and great comedy, all in the same movie. And although Abbott and Costello would go on to meet many other monsters, like the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the Invisible Man (and Boris Karloff in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff), this is considered their finest.

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Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Movies

 

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The Wolf Man (1941) – Evil in Every Man

th4HD75MWEI’ve been recently watching all of Universal Pictures classic horror and monster movies: Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), as well as the continuation of some of these stories like the macabre and utterly enjoyable The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). I’ve enjoyed all of them beyond my expectations. I am usually a person who likes musicals and romance and comedy, however I am intrigued by these movies and what each one has to say about the nature of humankind and evil.

But The Wolf Man, made in 1941, is possibly my favorite of all, with its excellent cast, good story and unique philosophical questions. The movie begins at a leisurely pace, with the arrival of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr., improbably cast as Claude Rains’ son) who has been in America for the past eighteen years and has returned to take his place at his ancestral home following the death of his brother. His scientific father, Sir John Talbot (Rains), and he have been estranged for years, but agree to put all that behind them.

Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. all look at the silver wolf's head cane

Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. all look at the silver wolf’s head cane

That same day he sees a young woman working in a shop, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), and while trying to flirt with her in the shop, he buys a silver headed cane, with the silver head in the shape of a wolf’s head. She is the first person that day to quote to him the poem regarding the local folk tradition about werewolves. His father and Gwen’s friend also go on to quote it to him.

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright

Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi

He finally talks Gwen into going out with him, although she brings along a friend named Jenny, and they go to have the gypsies tell their fortune. Of course, if they’d known who played the gypsies, they might have stayed home. Bela Lugosi (of Dracula fame – he played the character on both Broadway and in the 1931 movie) is Bela the gypsy and he travels with Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya). Bela takes one look at Jenny’s hand and sees the mark of a pentagram on her hand (the sign every werewolf sees on their next victim) and tells her to flee. The next thing Larry and Gwen know is that they hear Jenny screaming. Larry goes to protect her and finds her being attacked by a huge wolf. He fights the wolf, beating it over the head with his silver cane, and is bitten. When the local townsfolk arrive, they find Jenny dead, no wolf, Larry with blood all over him and Bela. No one can figure out how Larry ended up killing Bela and where the wolf is who killed Jenny. The town panics and some people blame Larry, since there was no trouble until he arrived.

Larry and Gwen

Larry and Gwen

And this is where the philosophical questions really get going. Larry is told by Maleva that Bela was a werewolf and that everyone who is bitten by a werewolf will become one, too. And to his horror, he does; he changes at night and goes out and kills a gravedigger. He wakes up horrified. The constable (Ralph Bellamy) and Sir John’s gamekeeper (Patric Knowles) are out hunting the wolf. Meanwhile, everyone is convinced that Larry is sick. Larry is convinced that he is a werewolf and keeps asking his father and the doctor (Warren William) questions. The doctor tells him that sometimes in a kind of groupthink or mass hypnotism, someone can believe almost anything and can manifest physical signs of his belief. He wants Larry to leave, but Sir John says that he is a Talbot and must stay and face it.

There are some intriguing questions left unanswered, mostly because some of the questions are left over from a previous vision of the screenplay. There was going to be doubt about whether Larry is really turning into a werewolf or not. However, the studio decided that audences would want to see the monster, so they changed the story slightly so that we know for sure that Larry is a werewolf. However, the original emphasis is still there. Is Larry really cursed or if he left, would he be able to break free? Is it all in his mind or not; is the werewolf just a physical manifestation of his mental state? This is never answered, but it is interesting to ponder.

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Cladue Rains confronts the werewolf (Chaney) with the silver-headed cane

One of the things my sister and I found interesting is how he is, by far, the most innocent monster we have seen yet. He had nothing to do with his own misfortune. He was trying to rescue a young woman and was bitten in the process. How innocent can you get? He’s not a vampire (the personification of evil, in a way), or a mummy killing people in his obsessive quest to be reunited with his love. He wasn’t created by another being and reacting to rejection by killing people, like Frankenstein’s monster. Larry Talbot is just an ordinary, decent guy.

But that is precisely the point of the movie. The writer of the screenplay, Curt Siodmark, had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 because he was Jewish and knew something about how ordinary people can be far more evil than we know. In the movie, it’s almost like an accident, misfortune, something he can’t control, a curse, but it is also symbolic of how there is evil latent in everyone.

The cast is superb: Lon Chaney Jr. makes an excellent monster and does a good job conveying his general ordinariness, fear and confusion. Claude Rains is wonderful in everything he is in and plays the scientific father who does not believe in werewolves but thinks his son needs to face his fears and that nearly anything is possible in the mind. Maria Ouspenskaya is a real standout, too. She plays Bela’s mother, a gypsy, who knows about werewolves and how it works and tries to help Larry and his father, though nobody listens properly to her. She was only 5’1, but she has more compelling presence than anyone I’ve ever seen. And of course, Bela Lugosi is excellent in his small role as Bela (why the same name?), the original werewolf in the story.

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Maria Ouspenskaya and Lon Chaney, Jr.

It’s not actually a very frightening movie, though utterly compelling. The werewolf does not look like a real werewolf, it’s more of an impressionistic take on wolves. The atmosphere is wonderful, blending, as most Universal monster movies do, both the past with the present in an atmosphere that is curiously out of time. The music is also great, and it occurred to me that most of the other monster movies I had watched, because they were made in the early thirties, had hardly any music (though the silence was used for great affect). Even if you don’t normally like monster movies, this is really an excellent film, very accessible and highly thought-provoking without being grotesque, gory, or particularly bone-chilling, but still creepy enough to give you a pleasant thrill.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Horror

 

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