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.