As founder of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle must have been shocked… shocked, I tell you… to see the grosses that his studio’s first two monster films generated. Laemmle had to be talked into the production of both Dracula and Frankenstein by his son Carl Junior. Being an astute businessman, the elder Laemmle knew that the sincerest form of continued profits is imitation.
It makes sense that most films of a particular genre made at the same studio will be similar in look, tone, casting, and locations. Just look at the gangster films produced at Warner Brothers in the thirties or Paramount’s romantic comedies of the same decade. Look at all of those famous MGM musicals from the forties and fifties. The studios were assembly lines then and each one had a house style. When I say that I love the original string of 1930s Universal Monster films because watching them is like visiting a literal place I can walk around, that comfortable feeling extends to aspects of production beyond standing sets and contract players.
The Mummy (1932) works well for three reasons: Karl Freund’s magnificent direction, Boris Karloff’s performance, and Jack Pierce’s incredible makeup designs.
In Dracula, we travel to an ancient land and meet Count Dracula, a strange and mysterious character who then travels to England. Count Dracula sets his sights on local girl Mina Seward, who he hopes to wrest away from current boyfriend John Harker and transform into his undead “bride.” Dr. Van Helsing, a man of science and reason, battles the evil that Dracula represents and emerges victorious.
In The Mummy, we travel to an ancient land and meet Ardeth Bey, a strange and mysterious character who then travels to England. Bey sets his sights on local girl Helen Grosvenor, who he hopes to wrest away from current boyfriend Frank Whemple and transform into his undead “bride.” Dr. Muller, a man of science and reason, battles the evil that Bey represents and emerges victorious.
In the words of Barry Manilow in his song “It’s A Miracle,” “The people, they all look the same. Oh, only the names have been changed…” This is certainly true of Dracula and The Mummy. Because Universal was relying on its reliable stock company, David Manners plays the unfortunate boyfriend in both films and Edward Van Sloan plays both men of science and reason.
Similarly, when casting about for suitable Monster projects to be put into production following the jackpots of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal Studios, I am sure, did not want to travel too far afield. “Why mess with our (monster-sized) success?” could easily have been Universal Studios’ mantra in the 1930s and early 1940s. Though it is harder to see because of its literary origins, 1933’s The Invisible Man, in both theme and plot, is a virtual remake of 1931’s Frankenstein. James Whale even directed both films. Besides his involvement in both Dracula and The Mummy, John L. Balderston wrote the shooting script for Frankenstein; he also wrote an early draft of The Invisible Man… which was rejected for straying too far from H.G. Wells’ famous novel. I would love to read Balderston’s draft of the Invisible Man screenplay. I bet it involved the Invisible Man travelling to England, stealing someone’s girlfriend, and getting his invisible ass kicked by Edward Van Sloan!
In Frankenstein a young scientist, Henry, shuts himself off from the rest of the world to work on an experiment that is slowly warping his personality. His fiancée Elizabeth and his scientific mentor Dr. Waldman both try to dissuade him from his mad search for truth. Henry’s fiancée has another suitor, Victor Moritz, waiting in the wings for the moment Elizabeth becomes available. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the scientist’s experiment leads to many deaths and his own undoing.
In The Invisible Man a young scientist, Jack, shuts himself off from the rest of the world to work on an experiment that is slowly warping his personality. His fiancée Flora and his scientific mentor Dr. Cranley both try to dissuade him from his mad search for truth. Jack’s fiancée has another suitor, Arthur Kemp, waiting in the wings for the moment Flora becomes available. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the scientist’s experiment leads to many deaths and his own undoing.
Obviously, we do not only return to films solely for the pleasure of their unique plots. Both The Mummy and The Invisible Man contain unique pleasures; most involve performance and special effects. I find myself returning to The Mummy to enjoy Karloff’s amazing performance; it’s worth the price of admission alone to hear him intone, “You will not remember what I show you now… and yet I will awaken memories of love… and crime… and death.”
I also love Jack Pierce’s elaborate mummy make-up. I will never tire of Bramwell Fletcher’s insane scream in the film’s first ten minutes. Similarly, I never tire of Claude Rains’s vocal performance in The Invisible Man, nor of John Fulton’s jaw-dropping special effects work.
Of course, I’m also recommending The Mummy and The Invisible Man. Universal Horror films are the bedrock foundation every horror fan needs. Bottom line: If you find a girl you feel you can truly love, why not ask her on a date first? Killing her and bringing her undead soul back to life can wait until you’ve both agreed to a more committed relationship. Similarly, if you find yourself working incessantly on a project that is slowly warping your brain and turning you towards evil, take a goddamn break. Go get yourself a cup of coffee. Go play some hoops.
Go to a movie.