From gutter to glitter and back again

Released 9 January 1931, Little Caesar was the first of the classic gangster films made famous and popular by Warner Brothers. While there certainly had been more than a few prior films featuring gangsters, it was only in 1931 that the modern gangster film as we know it took shape. Now, for the first time, real violence was depicted onscreen, and gangsters were protagonists instead of antagonists or side characters who had to be brought down.

Depression audiences keenly related to these anti-heroes who weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths and had to work hard for everything they got (even if most people in the audience didn’t climb out of the working-class world through crime!). In the blink of an eye, gangster anti-heroes also lost everything they were so proud of and worked so long and hard to achieve.

And since the über-restrictive Hays Code only came into play in 1933, these earliest gangster films were at liberty to show a great deal of violence and gritty realities.

Little Caesar was based on a crime novel of the same name, written by American novelist W.R. Burnett in 1929. This was his very first novel, and was such a runaway success he was invited to Hollywood as a screenwriter. Most of his books were converted into screenplays, and feature characters who are above all else deeply human, regardless of their walk of life. Hardened gangsters and criminals can show a softer side or even attempt to give up their wicked ways, while cops, judges, and guardians of so-called virtue can be evil, cruel, and two-faced.

And of course, Little Caesar also launched the film career of my second-favorite male actor of the sound era, Edward G. Robinson. Though he began appearing in films in 1916, it was only in 1929 that he began doing it regularly. (He began his acting career in the Yiddish Theatre District of New York in 1913, and débuted on Broadway in 1915.) Sadly, due to the institutionalized antisemitism of the era, he had to use a Gentile-sounding stage name in lieu of his birth name, Emanuel Goldenberg.

Astonishingly, Clark Gable was seriously considered for either the lead role or the second-leading role. While he certainly played his share of tough guys, I can’t see him as Rico at all! Edward G. Robinson was the absolute perfect choice for the title character. Seeing anyone else attempting that role would just feel wrong, similar to how The Wizard of Oz would be a completely different film had Shirley Temple been Dorothy.

Because Edward G. Robinson had already played several gangster characters, both onstage and in films, and since he’d proved his chops in a number of films throughout 1930, Warner Brothers asked him to take the lead role. After Little Caesar shot him to superstardom, he signed a longterm contract with the studio.

Caesar Enrico Bandello (Rico) and his buddy Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) hold up a gas station at night and promptly beat it to a diner, where they read in the newspaper about Diamond Pete Montana, a big shot in the underworld. Hearing about Pete’s success makes Rico burn with jealousy and resentment, so much so he decides to move to a bigger town and start making waves for himself. Joe meanwhile wants to return to his dancing career, and only sees crime as a temporary quick fix for money.

Towards that end, they relocate east to Chicago and start working at the Palermo nightclub, which is but a front for mob activities. Though Joe joins the gang along with Rico, he spends more time working as a dancer and predictably falls in instalove with his partner Olga (Glenda Farrell).

Olga feels the gun in his pocket while they’re kissing, and isn’t exactly pleased about it. Joe asks her to pretend she didn’t see it, and tells her not to worry, that it’s just a little good luck charm. He’s very hesitant to leave his life of crime for Olga, as much as he likes her, since no one gets away with desertion and betrayal.

Out of fear of what the gang might do to him otherwise, Joe agrees to take part in a holdup at the Bronze Peacock club during a New Year’s Eve party. He’s very shaken up when he returns to Olga’s room and confesses what happened. However, he insists he didn’t do the shooting, and reiterates that it’s impossible to leave his gang.

Rico demands a much bigger cut than boss Sam Vettori promised him, and is soon raking in riches beyond his wildest dreams. He’s particularly delighted to be honored at a swanky dinner, at which he receives a fancy pocketwatch (stolen from a shop last night). One of the people honoring him is Diamond Pete Montana, who’s now lower in the pecking order than Rico.

Absent from this banquet is Joe, who hasn’t come around in a long time.

Joe overhears a rival gang planning a hit on Rico, and phones his gang to warn them. They’re unable to find Rico until after he’s been shot, but the bullet only grazes his arm. Rico is touched to learn about how Joe tried to save him.

Rico’s next move is to take over his gang’s entire territory and convince rival boss Arnold Lorch to leave town alive before he leaves it in a pine box. His power, prestige, and wealth continue increasing. Before long, he controls the entire North Side and is living in a grand mansion.

Rico invites Joe to his new digs and asks him to be second-in-command of the North Side. It’s too big for Rico to control all by himself. Joe immediately refuses, which earns Rico’s wrath. If Joe doesn’t give up Olga and return to the gang, there will be terrible consequences.

Joe slips out while Rico is on the phone, and rushes to warn Olga. The situation becomes even worse when Olga calls the cops instead of discreetly leaving town together like Joe begged her to do.

Now the stage is set for one final showdown between Rico, Joe, Rico’s gang, and the law.

A Vampyric femme fatale stalks London

Released 11 May 1936, Dracula’s Daughter was the last of Universal’s classic horror films until the franchise restarted in 1939. It was very loosely based upon Bram Stoker’s 1897 short story “Dracula’s Guest,” originally intended as the first chapter of Dracula. Some scholars also believe it was loosely based upon Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla.

Béla Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Jane Wyatt, Colin Clive, and Cesar Romero were slated to star in this film, but the only one who ended up appearing in any capacity was Lugosi, in the form of a wax dummy seen near the beginning. Of the Dracula cast, the only one to reappear was Edward Van Sloan as Prof. Von Helsing (yes, his name was changed from Van Helsing).

Prof. Von Helsing is arrested for the murder of Count Dracula, which he admits he did and passionately defends. At Scotland Yard, he further explains his reasoning, and adds that since Dracula has been dead for over 500 years, it’s not real murder. He also decides to enlist the services of psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) instead of getting a lawyer. Jeffrey was one of his best students, and Von Helsing feels a kinship with him.

There was another body discovered near Dracula’s, a murder Von Helsing says was committed by Dracula. Both of these bodies are moved to the police station for overnight watch, but one of the cops is called away on official business. The remaining officer is hypnotized by the ring of a femme fatale (Gloria Holden). The next day, he’s found dead and in a trance.

The strange woman, meanwhile, made off with Dracula’s corpse and ritualistically burnt it in the woods, throwing salt on the fire. She’s desperate to be cured of Vampyrism, an unusual theme we also find in the dreadful House of Dracula. Since when do Vampyres feel unhappy or conflicted about their integral nature?!

Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story if she immediately got her wish. Sandor (Irving Pichel), a servant who assisted her in the corpse theft, tells her Death is in her eyes, and that she shouldn’t try to resist who she was created to be. She soon succumbs to temptation and goes on the hunt for fresh victims.

Dracula’s daughter introduces herself to society as Countess Marya Zaleska. Jeffrey attends one of her parties, and is quite taken with her. His fiancée and secretary Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), however, isn’t very happy to see the obvious mutual attraction, and begins scheming to try to nip this affair in the bud.

Jeffrey pays no heed to Janet’s objections, and goes to meet the Countess at her home at night. She claims she needs his expert psychological help for a terrible influence being exerted over her from beyond the grave.

While in the house, Jeffrey notices in surprise that there are no mirrors. He’s used to ladies having mirrors all over, and makes a joke about Vampyres not seeing their own reflection. Jeffrey also tells her about how people with addictions can overcome them by being close to the source of their weakness and summoning up the willpower to ignore it. We must confront our demons and become masters of ourselves.

Towards that end, the Countess dispatches Sandor to find a would-be victim. He spots a young woman, Lili (Nan Gray), about to take her own life by jumping into the river, and tells her to come with him for some money, a warm house, and food. At first, Lili thinks he wants to take her into white slavery, but Sandor convinces her this is on the level, that his mistress wants a model to paint.

The scene that follows is famous for its quite overt lesbian overtones, so much so it was among the films featured in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. While it’s shocking this slipped past the strict Hays Code, it also portrays the Countess’s lesbian desires as predatory and perverse, and Lili as a sweet little victim who bravely resists. Sadly, this was par for the course in mainstream films with gay or lesbian characters or overtones for decades.

The Countess hypnotizes Lili with her ring and sucks blood from her neck. Lili ends up in hospital, unable to remember anything about the attack. To try to get to the bottom of this, Jeffrey puts her into a trance and takes her back to the night of the incident. Lili gives enough testimony for him to figure out the Countess did it.

Then the Countess hypnotizes Janet, absconding with her to Transylvania. There are more lesbian overtones in a scene of Janet lying dazed on a bed as the Countess hovers over her, described as “the longest kiss never filmed.”

By now, Jeffrey’s skepticism at Von Helsing’s claims has completely melted away, and he believes Vampyres do indeed exist. Towards that end, he sets out for Transylvania to confront the Countess and bring an end to her reign of terror.

An invisible menace from the mists of time

Released 20 January 1936, The Invisible Ray was the third of the eight films Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi made together. Initially, their next teaming had been planned as Bluebeard, but the script wasn’t ready in time. The powers that be put Bluebeard on the back burner and instead found a different film.

Director Stuart Walker didn’t like John Colton’s script for The Invisible Ray, and asked for a three-day break to fix it. When Universal refused, Mr. Walker left, and was replaced by Lambert Hillyer.

The initial budget was $166,875, considered fairly lavish for a B-movie. The production went over by $68,000, as well as going over schedule (17 September–25 October 1935). According to Stuart, “The director who did the picture started nine or ten days after I was ordered to start and finished 25 or more days after I was ordered to finish.”

Dr. Janos Rukh, like many mad scientists in the tradition before him, is widely seen as a crank whose obsessive research and unusual theories are an embarrassment and ridiculous vanity project. However, he’s bound and determined to prove his work is on the level and that he’s on the verge of the next great scientific breakthrough.

Towards that end, he convinces two such naysayers, Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) and Sir Dr. Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), to come to his home for a demonstration of a fascinating new telescope. Francis also brings his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), and his nephew Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton).

Predictably, Dr. Rukh’s much-younger and very pretty wife of three years, Diana (Frances Drake), has an immediate and mutual attraction to Ronald. Diana’s father was Dr. Rukh’s assistant, and when he passed away, she dutifully married Dr. Rukh. However, she’s never felt romantic love for him.

When everyone is seated, Dr. Rukh gives a marvellous demonstration of a new telescope, along with narration. The telescope not only gives a great planetarium show, it also projects images from millions of years ago. One of these images is a meteorite striking somewhere in Africa.

Drs. Benet and Stevens are so impressed by this magical telescope, they abandon their former hardened skepticism and agree to accompany Dr. Rukh on an expedition to find the impact site and harvest the material in this ancient meteorite.

The African quest takes far longer than expected, and nothing has been found. Though the others are starting to have second thoughts and planning to return to England soon, Dr. Rukh insists on staying just a bit longer. He feels he’s on the verge of a breakthrough in discovering the impact site, and with it incredible scientific secrets.

Find it he does, with the help of a bunch of natives. As per the unfortunate standards of most films of this era, they’re depicted as easily-spooked and having really cartoonish reactions to their fear.

Though Dr. Rukh is delighted to discover not only the impact site but the actual meteorite itself, his excitement is short-lived. When the meteorite is exposed to daylight again, it explodes and sends out dangerous radiation which sickens him quite badly. Dr. Rukh now glows in the dark, and his touch is deadly.

Dr. Benet compassionately creates an antidote which Dr. Rukh must take at the same time every day. If he doesn’t inject himself religiously, he’ll go back to his fully radioactive state. However, the newly-discovered element Radium X may have permanently altered his brain, and eventual madness may descend. The antidote also isn’t a cure, just a means of keeping the worst effects under control.

After Dr. Rukh returns to base camp, Dr. Benet tells him of the secret romance between Diana and Ronald. Knowing full well Diana never loved him, Dr. Rukh fakes his own death shortly after coming to Paris. He finds a man who very much resembles him, murders him, and makes him look like he died of radiation poisoning.

Dr. Benet returns to Europe with a piece of the meteorite and uses its powers for good. His procedure for curing blindness is embraced as a miracle. He also cures other ailments with a modified form of Radium X.

Though Dr. Rukh also uses Radium X to cure his mother’s blindness, his altruism doesn’t last for long. He presently sets his mind firmly upon revenge, and takes up residence in a boardinghouse across the street from a church with six statues. Each figure represents to him one member of the African expedition, and thus the people he believes ruined his life by getting rich and famous off of his discovery and hard work.

And thus begins a reign of terror from a mysterious invisible force.

A legendary villain’s homicidal barber shop

The String of Pearls, a penny dreadful series published from 1846–47 and probably written by James Malcolm Rymer and/or Thomas Peckett Prest, introduced horror villain Sweeney Todd to the world. This character quickly became a staple of Victorian lore and legend, to the point it was believed he really existed.

In 1928, this story was first adapted for the silver screen. The first sound film version released March 1936 and starred Tod Slaughter in the leading role. Mr. Slaughter was best-known for playing crazed, maniacal villains in macabre horror films set during the Victorian era.

The story opens in the then-present day of 1936, as a barber tells a client about the infamous legend of Sweeney Todd. Though the film doesn’t specify a date, the original story is set in 1785.

Sweeney Todd runs a barber shop by the docks of London. Though he has many customers, no one is ever seen actually leaving his shop. He also goes through apprentices like water. This constant supply of poor boys is usually provided by the beadle, who gets them from the workhouse.

Sweeney’s newest apprentice, 12-year-old Tobias Ragg (John Singer), is terrified of his master, particularly since Sweeney tells him a lot of horror stories about the fate of previous apprentices who misbehaved or annoyed him. But having little choice if he wants a roof over his head and a regular supply of pennies to buy huge pies next door, Tobias quickly learns to obey and not make waves.

Sweeney’s interest is piqued when he observes Johanna Oakley (Eve Lister) and Mark Ingerstreet (Bruce Seton) talking about their future. Mark, who’s getting ready to sail with The Golden Hope, is afraid he won’t be able to win the approval of Johanna’s dad because of his lack of riches. Johanna’s maid Nan (Davina Craig) also asks Mark’s buddy Pearley (Jerry Verno) to buy her items he can’t afford either.

Once the ship sails, Sweeney buys a share of the shipping company from Johanna’s dad, Governor Oakley (D.J. Williams), and tries to woo Johanna. When Johanna expresses zero interest in this much-older stranger plying her with expensive jewelry, Sweeney then takes the matter directly to Gov. Oakley.

Though the Oakleys are facing financial difficulties and stand poised to potentially lose their wealth and position, Gov. Oakley refuses to approve such a marriage. Sweeney might have wealth and the power to ruin them, but he’s also far too old for Johanna, and Johanna herself doesn’t give consent.

Sweeney decides to bide his time by continuing to “polish off” rich customers and steal their money. After Tobias finishes lathering a customer, Sweeney gives him a penny to go next door and buy a huge pie from Mrs. Lovett (Stella Rho). With Tobias out of the way, Sweeney locks the door and pulls a hidden lever to send the unwitting customer down into the cellar via a revolving piece of flooring under the chair.

Mrs. Lovett, whose cellar connects to the barber shop, helps Sweeney to drag the corpses off and pocket their riches. However, she’s quite annoyed at her partner in crime for making off with the lion’s share and not giving her nearly enough of the cut.

Mark became quite a wealthy man while away on the high seas, and returns with a lot of jewels and gold. Per the standards of the era, the indigenous people he and his men encountered abroad are portrayed quite stereotypically and offensively. However, this only occupies a fairly short scene in the overall running time, and isn’t the film’s focus.

Sweeney is delighted to usher Mark into the barber shop. When Mark naïvely talks about his new riches and plans to marry Johanna, Sweeney is even more excited about this fresh victim to rob and murder.

But this time the murderous trap door doesn’t work as expected, and Mrs. Lovett sneaks the dazed but largely uninjured Mark to safety. Mark and his friend Pearley then begin hatching a dangerous plan to finally bring Sweeney Todd to justice.

And the plot just keeps on thickening and intensifying from here.

A mad scientist switches minds and bodies

When the draconian Hays Code began to be seriously enforced in 1934, horror films predictably suffered a decline. Thus, Boris Karloff returned to his native England to make two horror films which weren’t constrained by Puritanical censorship. One of those films was The Man Who Changed His Mind (also known as The Man Who Lived Again and The Brainsnatcher), which released 11 September 1936 in London.

Dr. Laurience (pronounced Lorenz) (Karloff) was once a respected, venerable scientist, but now he’s fallen from grace and is forced to live off of philanthropist Lord Haselwood’s charity if he wants to continue conducting his experiments. The only people in his corner are wheelchair-bound Clayton (Donald Calthrop) and young surgeon Dr. Clare Wyatt (Anna Lee, wife of director Robert Stevenson).

Laurience feels close to a breakthrough with his dream project of transferring brains into other bodies. The animal or person’s thoughts and personality will remain the same, but they’ll reside in a different body. To prove his theory, Laurience conducts the experiment with chimpanzees.

Convinced of his success, Laurience presents his findings at a scientific meeting. But instead of believing and embracing him, everyone in attendance laughs at him and leaves. Not one person takes him seriously, no matter how much he cajoles, pleads, and finally threatens them.

Back at the lab, Lord Haselwood tells Laurience enough is enough, and that he’s cutting off his financial support and use of the facilities. Laurience tries once more to prove his research is on the level, and when Haselwood remains stubborn, Laurience takes matters into his own hands.

The first brain-body switch with humans is a most smashing success, and Clayton acquires Haselwood’s body. He’s particularly delighted to finally be able to walk again, and refuses to give his new possession back. This loan soon becomes permanent by default, thus granting Laurience unlimited access to the supposed Haselwood’s wealth and patronage.

The plot thickens when Clayton discovers, to his great horror, that his new body isn’t as perfect as he assumed. Though Haselwood can walk, he also has a weak heart which requires medication. In desperation, Clayton begs Laurience to do another switch and give him a better body.

Haselwood’s son Dick, who’s courting Clare, is also unnerved when he visits to ask for a blessing on his hoped-for marriage and finds a father radically different from the one he’s known all his life.

Laurience not only refuses Clayton’s request, he also begins plotting to switch his own body and brain with Dick’s. Clare begs him to reconsider these mad experiments, but he’s bound and determined to continue down this path to power, money, and glory.

Potentially disastrous consequences may await if this plan goes ahead.