Carl Laemmle, Jr., of Universal Pictures got the idea for The Mummy from the 1922 opening of King Tut’s tomb and its supposed curse. He asked screenwriter Richard Schayer to find a novel which could serve as the basis of a literary adaptation, as the studio had done the previous year with Dracula and Frankenstein.
Schayer found a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Ring of Thoth.” He and Nina Wilcox Putnam also wrote a 9-page story, “Cagliostro,” about a 3,000-year-old magician based on famous occultist Alessandro Cagliostro.
Laemmle liked these ideas very much, and hired John L. Balderston, who’d co-written the screenplays for Dracula and Frankenstein. He’d also covered the opening of King Tut’s tomb for New York World, in his previous career as a journalist.
Balderston moved the story about the magician from San Francisco to Egypt, and renamed the protagonist Imhotep, after an architect who served Pharaoh Djoser in the 27th century BCE. He also changed the protagonist’s motivation from revenge against all women who resembled his ex-lover, to a desire to resurrect her by killing and mummifying her reincarnation.
The Scroll of Thoth was invented by Balderston, though it may be based on The Book of the Dead.
In 1921, archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple discovers a mummy of a high priest named Imhotep. Based on the evidence, he and his friend Dr. Muller conclude Imhotep was mummified alive and cursed even in the afterlife.
Whemple and Dr. Muller go outside to discuss whether they should risk a curse by opening a small casket buried with Imhotep. Left alone, Whemple’s young assistant, Ralph Norton, opens it and begins copying the Scroll of Thoth.
Imhotep comes to life and escapes with the scroll. When Whemple and Dr. Muller return, Norton is laughing like a madman.
In 1932, as modern Egyptian Ardath Bey, Imhotep leads Whemple’s son Frank and Prof. Pearson to the tomb of his lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. They give the mummy and artifacts to the Cairo Museum.
We’re then introduced to Ankh-es-en-amon’s reincarnation, the half-Egyptian Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann, who believed in reincarnation in real life).
Determined to resurrect his love, Imhotep puts a spell on Helen and compels her to come to the museum at night.
Frank discovers her passed out by the front door, and of course, they fall in instalove. I don’t mind romance in a horror film, but it shouldn’t take up excess screentime! Too many screenwriters seem to think romantic subplots are obligatory.
Frank’s attraction to Helen is driven by her resemblance to Ankh-es-en-amon, and the funny feeling he had when handling her artifacts.
Imhotep demands the Scroll of Thoth be returned, and is adamantly refused. When Whemple tries to burn it, Imhotep takes revenge.
When Helen visits Imhotep, he presents a vision of her death and burial as Ankh-es-en-amon, and himself being mummified alive as punishment for trying to resurrect her.
Imhotep plans to resurrect Ankh-es-en-amon by killing Helen and using the Scroll of Thoth. Helen, in turn, falls deeper and deeper under his spell. Can Imhotep be stopped in time?
The Mummy premièred 22 December 1932, and performed somewhat lukewarmly in the U.S., but phenomenally in the U.K. It’s received very positive reviews from critics, both then and now.
It was reimagined in The Mummy’s Hand (1940), with sequels The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and The Mummy’s Curse (1944). That mummy is named Kharis.
In the comedy-horror crossover, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), the mummy’s name is spoofed as Klaris. I believe that may have been my first A&C film.
Universal remade the film in 1999, with several sequels and prequels. Another Universal remake came in 2017.
Overall, I really enjoyed this film. Though it’s somewhat slowly-paced, it’s permeated by a great eerie mood.