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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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Broken Arrow (1950)

1950 was an important year both for westerns and Jame Stewart. Stewart appeared in Winchester ’73, directed by Anthony Mann, and Broken Arrow, directed by Delmer Daves. Winchester ’73 is generally seen as the first of a series of morally complex westerns made by Mann and Stewart and which inaugurated a decade of such morally complex westerns by others. The importance of Broken Arrow, however, is that it inaugurated an increasingly more nuanced portrayal of American Indians in those westerns.

Broken Arrow plays fast and loose with historical facts, but it is based on (some) real people. Tom Jeffords (a real person, played by Stewart) is prospecting for gold when he comes across an injured Apache boy. There is currently war between the Apaches and the settlers, based in Tucson, but Jeffords stops to nurse the boy back to health. In listening to the the boy talk, he first realizes that Apaches are not so very different as he had thought.

In Tucson, however, the people exist in a state of virtual siege. They cannot even get the mail sent out without it being intercepted and the mail carriers are killed by Cochise, the Apache chief, and his warriors. Jeffords is disgusted with the general tone of hatred and desire to kill, so he sets out on a perilous journey to enter Cochise’s stronghold and talk with the chief, who has not been seen by non-Indians for years.

This meeting between Jeffords and Cochise did actually take place, though the reason for it is unknown. Some say he deliberately went to meet them and others that he was captured and impressed them with his bravery. Either way, Jeffords did meet Cochise and formed a friendship (though not as blood brothers, as in the film). In the film, Jeffords negotiates a deal with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) where the Apaches will allow the mail to go through, though the war is by no means over. He also meets and begins to fall in love with a young Apache woman named Sonseeahray (Debra Paget, a character created for the film).

The rest of the film follows Jeffords attempt, along with General Howard (another actual historical figure, played by Basil Ruysdael) to negotiate a lasting peace with Cochise. There is much resistance, however, from both the settlers and Apaches, to the idea of peace, even after a treaty has been signed.

Jeff Chandler and James Stewart

The film presents a simplified version of the tensions/war between the Apaches and settlers and historically the treaty that was signed did not last long, but the film is still a very interesting one (for a riveting account of the Apache Wars, read David Roberts Once They Moved Like The Wind : Cochise, Geronimo, And The Apache Wars). Although many American Indians were cast as Apaches (Jay Silverheels plays Geronimo), the two leads were played by non-Indians. They do, however, play their roles with a great deal of dignity and no condescension.

But what made the film especially interesting to me was how the script demonstrates how two groups of people could, entirely naturally and even understandably, be in the position of demonizing the other. American settlers were notorious for being unable to even distinguish between different tribes, let alone different individuals within specific tribes. But American Indians could also see the settlers as one entire group without distinguishing between individuals. Broken Arrow is about seeing people as individuals.

(Some Spoilers) My sister observed that the reason Jeffords is able to take a more rational and less emotional approach to the war with the Apaches is because he has not lost anyone. Rancher Ben Slade (Will Geer) lost his wife in an Apache raid and loathes the Apaches. Nearly everyone in Tucson (which is portrayed accurately as a rowdy, lawless town) has lost someone dear in the war. The same is true with Cochise and the Apaches. Each and every one of them has a real reason to hate, hence the killing and the hatred continues.

But when Slade attempts to destroy the treaty by murdering Cochise, he is unable to kill Cochise, but kills Jefford’s wife, Sonseeahray, instead. Now Jeffords is consumed with hatred and wants to see Slade murdered, showing that Jeffords is really no different from anyone else. It is then Cochise who rises to the occasion and tells Jeffords that he must yield his sense of entitlement to revenge and let the law takes it course. Otherwise, the treaty will never have a chance to take hold. In that moment, Cochise emerges as the true hero of the film.

Tragically, the Apache Wars were far from over and many treaties would be broken and many more people would die, ending with the removal of all Apaches from their homeland. But the film is a well-acted and well-made film and thoroughly worth seeing for its humane examination of how and why it is so easy to fall into self-perpetuating hatred.

The film was directed by Delmer Daves, an underrated director who made some excellent westerns, including a personal favorite: The Hanging Tree. His westerns tend to be thoughtful, as well as exciting, and I believe he definitely deserves to be better known as a director of westerns.

Broken Arrow is my contribution to “The Great Western Blogathon,” hosted by Thoughts All Sorts.

 

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2018 in Movies

 

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