Wednesday, 6 December 2017

British censors ended the 1930s Hollywood horror boom - a desperate cinema owner revived it

The '30s Hollywood horror boom began on 12th February 1931, when Universal Studios released Dracula, starring the heavily-accented Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi in the title role. It ended five years later, when Universal...

...stopped making horror films: its last genre offering was Dracula's Daughter in May 1936 - a film in which Lugosi had been due to appear, but from which he was dropped before the start of production (he was paid more not to appear in it than he had been to star in Dracula). Between the release of the original Dracula and that of the Count's female offspring, Hollywood made horror hay - especially Universal, despite the fact that the boss, "Uncle" Carl Laemmle (the executive who, according to Ogden Nash, had "a very large faemmle") despised the genre.

Those five years saw Universal churning out a slew of video nasties, many of which were far better than Tod Browning's glacially-paced Dracula. These included Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Old Dark House, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London,  The Raven and The Invisible Ray - while other studios gave us Freaks, Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, White Zombie, Mystery of the Wax Museum, King Kong, The Devil Doll, Mark of the Vampire, The Monster Walks, The Black Room, Doctor X, Murders at the Zoo, Supernatural etc.

By 1936, unsurprisingly, the American public's appetite for horror was pretty much sated. Besides, the new post-Code censorship regime was starting to have an impact on the amount of perverse nastiness which could be shown on screen, and the British were cutting up rough about the content of horror movies - to such an extent that the British Board of Film Classification actually introduced an "H" for Horror certificate in 1932, which gave councils the power to ban under-16s from seeing horror films. So strong was the British horror of Horror that some films were banned outright, including Freaks and Island of Lost Souls - even the Mickey Mouse short, The Mad Doctor, got itself banned for having a "horror atmosphere"! This mattered to Hollywood, as British box office receipts were far more important to American filmmakers then than they are now.

The Studios - having largely survived the sharp-downturn in profits caused by the Great Depression - were back in the black, and finding they could flourish without savagely violent gangsters, semi-naked girls or flesh-ripping monsters (on-screen, at least). In any case, horror had always been a bit of an embarrassment to Hollywood - it must have been hard for studio bosses to pass themselves off as pillars of the community when they were producing films such as 1934's gloriously demented The Black Cat, which ends with Bela Lugosi skinning Boris Karloff alive. Hollywood's virtual studio ban on the genre saw the financially-incompetent Lugosi ("Poor old Bela", as Karloff invariably referred to him) losing his home and his cars and having to rely on hand-outs. Karloff, who was a more rounded character actor, was just about able to keep his head above water, but he spent months without an offer of film work, and, when Warner Brothers made one, it was for half his normal rate. The future for both of them - let alone less-celebrated horrorians - looked pretty damned bleak, until...
In August 1938, E. Mark Umann, the manager of an independent 640-seat cinema on Wilshire Boulevard, was facing bankruptcy. In sheer desperation, he offered patrons a triple bill of three old horror movies - Dracula, Frankenstein and Son of Kong. The result was extraordinary: people travelled from miles around and queued around the block in their desperation to bag a seat, and Mr. Umann - who reckoned he could have sold each ticket ten times over - started showing the films 24 hours a day (eventually dropping Son of Kong). Word spread, and cinemas across the country started following suit, with the same result. Universal got the message, hastily reissued Dracula and Frankenstein as a double bill nationwide, and made a quick $500,000 profit. It also welcomed Lugosi and Karloff - whom it had treated abominably - back into the fold, signing them up to star in Son of Frankenstein.  Horror - the mad relative kept under armed guard in the basement - was allowed back upstairs.
Bela Lugosi Jr. meets the Monster
The first Universal creature feature for three years should have been a stinker, given that James Whale, the English genius who directed the first two Frankie in Hollywood outings, wasn't involved: his replacement, Rowland V. Lee, was pretty much making it up as he went along; Karloff, in his last appearance as the Monster, was made to wear a weird, furry smock; and a bonkers new character had to be shoe-horned into the mix to give Bela Lugosi something to do. Instead, the film was an absolute  triumph - a more than worthy successor to its lustrous forebears. Karloff reached new heights of pathos as the big, misunderstood, green lug; Bela Lugosi eschewed  his standard, ponderous, sleek, Mittel-European lounge lizard persona to create a crude, cunning, lively, roguish peasant - the shock-haired, dentally-challenged, broken-necked Ygor, the Monster's BFF. Partly thanks to the Mel Brooks/Gene Wilder '70s comedy homage. Young Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein has made a greater contribution to the public's image of the films than any other Frankenstein movie, what with its wonderfully OTT German Expressionist sets, the addition of Ygor to the dysfunctional family, an adrenalised Basil Rathbone overacting his socks off as the Baron's son, and Lionel Atwill (yet another Brit) almost outdoing him as the splendidly bizarre police chief with a mechanical arm - into which he actually does plunge his "arrows" while playing darts!
"Go on, Boris - lend us a fiver till pay-day!" 
To be honest, I prefer Son to Bride - I've always found the latter a bit camp for my tastes, especially the sequence involving Ernest Thesiger as queeny old Dr Pretorius showing off his silly historical homunculi: give me Atwill, Rathbone and Lugosi any day. Son made Universal profitable once more and convinced the studio to invest heavily in the horror market: it made 21 horror pictures in the '30s, but no less than 41 in the '40s - including The Wolf Man in 1941, which turned Universal's trio of great monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy) into a quartet.  Frankenstein's Monster returned in The Ghost of Frankenstein  (Lon Chaney Jr. - 1942),  Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Bela Lugosi - 1943), House of Frankenstein (Glenn Strange - 1944),  House of Dracula (Glenn Strange - 1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Glenn Strange - 1948): Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Invisible Man were also given regular outings throughout the decade.

If Son of Frankenstein had failed to respond to those lively, special-effects electrical rays, none of the above would have happened: it was undoubtedly the film that saved the horror genre. Of course, if you're not a horror fan, you might think that's a bad thing - in which case, the Monster has a message for you:
I learned all this from reading Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, with a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together by Gregory Williams Mank, which is wonderfully entertaining and informative, and to which I will return in the near future.


  1. A really excellent post. Thank you. I am very ignorant about this film category, but one is never too old to learn.

    The only time I have seen Boris Karloff was in a superb thriller directed by Bogdanovich - "Targets" [1968]. Bela Lugosi I have never seen on screen, but I had a good laugh watching the bronzed lounge-lizard, George Hamilton, play him in "Love at First Bite" [1979].

    1. Targets is one of the most interesting and underrated films of the 60s. I think I may have recommended it to the Blogmeister at some point. It probably suffered at the box office because the matter of fact way in which the killings are depicted was so out of step with the Hollywood conformity that each impending dramatic event had to be signalled in advance, with a dramatic score building up to a climax to match.

      Bogdanovitch was only funded to make the film on the basis that he would incorporate some expensive footage from an abandoned Karloff film lying in the vaults of the company, no doubt for accountancy purposes. That's why we are treated to a young Jack Nicholson knocking at the door of a typically Hammer horror creepy looking mansion on a stormy night, as the storyline has the Karloff character in a drive-in movie watching one of his old films. Clever.

      Thanks SDG. You're the only other person I've come across who has seen it.