I promised I would spend time this year talking about the Universal Monsters. These are the originals. These are what all else since has been based on, inspired by, or outright copied from. Sure there were a handful of adaptations of some of these works before hand, but these were the ones that caught the public eye and the imagination of an generations. There have been a few false starts and failed reboots in the past twenty years or so of some of these original creature features and rumor has it that Universal is going to try again with these films. The recent remakes have had mixed success with fans, critics, and the box office. So for todays film, lets discuss archaeology a bit, shall we?
Some spoilers below.
Egypt had been awash in mystery and mysticism to the western world for decades when this film came out. The celebrity status of the ancient culture had gone, well quite frankly, viral ten years prior when Howard Carter had discovered the intact Tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut). This launched (or relaunched I suppose) the modern era of Egyptology. It really comes as no surprise that after the success of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 that Universal would be seeking out another monster to fill their slate. They had to look no further than sensationalist newspapers tales of the Curse of the Pharaohs. I suppose the media blowing things out of proportion isn’t as new as we thought neh? With the ideas of curses on mummies and their tombs and an audience hungry for something to scare them magic was bound to happen.
The story was originally written, though uncredited, by Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam. It was adapted to the screenplay by John Balderston, who also wrote the screenplay for Dracula and Frankenstein. Balderston, fascinatingly, was a foreign correspondent who covered Carters opening of the Tomb in 1922. He also prior to this had written stageplays for both Dracula and Frankenstein. He also adapted the first version of the film Last of the Mohicans. If we thought Hollywood was a factory now, churning out writers and spitting them out, it looks to have been worse in the early days with people going uncredited, underpaid, and in some cases having no rights to their work and being forced to sue.
The film focuses on the recent discovery of an intact mummy, by the name of Imhotep, found in unusual circumstances. The movie wastes no time before the title character resurrects himself through the greed of a young explorer. Imhotep plans his not so nefarious plot to resurrect his equally dead and mummified love Ankh-es-en-amon. Yes, that is right – this is a love story with the focus on a monster. He isn’t the rotting corpse image we often imagine, but rather a dry and only slightly emaciated individual who actually spends time amongst people and takes on the name Ardeth Bay, in his search for the reincarnation of his lost love. He finds her in a young british socialite named Helen Grosvenor and begins to use his powers to remove those who would stand in the way of his love; while our “heroes” try to save the young woman’s life. It’s fascinating to me how much I find myself siding with the so called monster as I watch this and want him to succeed. What is equally fascinating is that, for its time, it is no act of our protagonists but rather the female center of the film that wins the day.
I think part of the success of the film resides in the reserved yet deeply emotional performance of Boris Karloff. Karloff, a man so awesome all they used was his last name on the poster, was already forty-five when he took this role and had a huge career behind him. He had recently been thrust into the limelight as Frankenstein. The films made the man seem a towering giant against his cast mates, yet he was only 5’11. He had decades of acting experience before him in both stage and silent pictures before. It’s worth mentioning amidst this praise that the rest of the cast does well. The style of film at the time had movies shot as if they were stage plays rather than motion pictures. Blocking, dialogue, even a bit of hollow over acting come from that particular style. Along with Karloff, Edward Van Sloan was a regular in these original films, always playing the same character by type if not by name. In the Mummy he is the wizened Doctor Muller, who understands the powers of The Mummy, his goals, and the fact that “the old gods of egypt still have power here…”
Another special mention goes to director and cinematographer Karl Freund. Sadly uncredited in Dracula for his work, he was given the appropriate credit in the Mummy. His knowledge of the camera was probably some of the best in the world at the time having worked in film since 1914. He was also the cinematographer on the German classic Metropolis. His eye for the technology, light, and even color (its important in black and white…) gave the Mummy its much needed atmosphere.
The Mummy is a classic and if you truly appreciate old Hollywood needs to be part of your collection or at least watched. It will not satisfy modern movie goers a single iota, but if you want to see where we came from. If you want to see what inspired so much in the years to come. Take 73 minutes of your life and give it a watch.
The next review will cover it’s most modern remake and I will touch on all the things they took from this film.
If you do want a copy of this I would have to recommend getting it and all of its ilk here Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray]