Monday, September 20, 2010

The Mummy's Hand - 1940

Director:                       Christy Cabanne
Story:                           Griffin Jay
Screenplay:                 Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane
Cinematography:        Elwood Bredell
Editing:                        Philip Cahn
Art Direction:              Jack Otterson
Gowns:                        Vera West
Make up:                    Jack P. Pierce (uncredited)

Stephen Banning:            Dick Foran
Babe Jenson:                   Wallace Ford
Marta Solvani:                  Peggy Moran
The High Priest:              Eduardo Ciannelli
Professor Andoheb:       George Zucco
The Great Solvani:           Cecil Kelloway
Dr. Petrie:                         Charles Trowbridge
Kharis:                              Tom Tyler

I love mummy movies.  I’m a sucker for them.  All of them..good, bad, or indifferent.  Some women go for the tall dark and handsome type; me – just wrap a 3000 year old guy in some bandages and my heart’s a-flutter.  Having grown up watching these over and over I have a genuine fondness for this series that eclipses all logic and good taste.  So please, bear with me.

After successfully bringing back Frankenstein’s monster in 1939’s "Son of Frankenstein" Universal Studios looked around for another franchise.  The mummy had been packed back into the sarcophagus for 8 years after the 1932 movie starring Boris Karloff,  but was revived for four non-sequels starting in 1940.   Karloff passed on repeating the character as he was no doubt too expensive at this point and had no use to go backward.  Stunt man Tom Tyler was tapped as the star of the first, with Lon Chaney, Jr. lumbering into the role for the last three.
Actor Tom Tyler
The Karloff film had an ending that didn’t really lend itself to a sequel (that wouldn’t stop anyone today), so they sort of started over.  But, besides that fact, Universal was trying for a slicker product so the resulting movies made over the next 4 years were more action packed, with more thrills and less atmosphere.  They were B-movies, made with fair to middlin’ production values at best.  In other words, they were made quickly, cheaply and with little regard for anything other than being a vehicle for selling popcorn.  Believe me, I am not saying there is anything wrong with that.  After all, I liked “Predators”.
Actor Adrien Brody ("The Pianist") preparing for his role in "Predators"
Film clips from the original are used several times to explain the history of the doomed prince and his princess.  You can recognize the scenes, and can even recognize Karloff though you cannot see his face clearly.  Tom Tyler is used in the close up inserts.  The old footage and the new are not blended particularly well so the difference between the two is striking. 

All of these flicks use a very similar backstory, but lose the names, the motivations and pretty much most of the dignity of the original.  At the beginning of each movie, some old character reviews the history for those of us who just joined and for the new chump who is being sent on the latest hair-brained scheme.  The plots are all related, so related in fact that it is sometimes downright incestuous.  Together in sequence they form a story arc that is almost Wagnerian in a lovable B-movie kind of way.  Think of this as a very low rent “Ring of the Nibelung”  For this epic instead of dwarves, mermaids, gods and goddesses, giants, magic rings, or valkyries we have – mummies, archeologists, heroes and heroines, high priests, magical tea, evil henchmen and one brave little dog. 

Enough already with the high-falutin’ blather, let’s get on with it.  Everyone comfy?  We will start with…. "The Mummy's Hand", 1940. 

It starts in Egypt at the temple of Karnak in the Valley of the Seven Jackals where we meet the old High Priest, who is lecturing a younger priest, Andoheb, and bringing him and us up to speed on what the heck is happening  They are members of a sect that is dedicated to protect the tomb of the Princess Ananka (not Ankh-es-na-mun).  Their secret weapon is the living mummy, Kharis (not Imhotep) who is also there to protect the princess’s tomb.  We lose the Scroll of Thoth angle from the 1932 film and here Kharis is kept alive by a tea made from tana leaves.  Are we all on the same page?  No?  You in the back there! – Try to keep up!   

So, the High Priest shows Andoheb a misty vision of what happened 3000 years ago.  We watch the old film clip and see Kharis (Karloff/Tyler) stealing tana leaves in order to revive the princess after her death.  He is discovered and sentenced to a living death for sacrilege.   (aside - Ya gotta love this…the High Priest hears a wolf howl and actually, really says something about “the children of the night”.  Well, as I always say, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.)  Andoheb, we find out later, is also a professor employed by the Cairo Museum and seems to be the head of the mis-direction department.

Unlucky archeologists Steve Banning (hero) and Babe Jenson (comic relief)...
...actually, Steve and Babe both look like comic relief in this still...
...uncover the location of the tomb of Princess Ananka, but they inadvertently find the tomb of Kharis.  Andoheb has tried to direct them away from the tomb, but now that they have found it, he sends Kharis out on a killing spree.

Dr. Petrie, one of the archeologists on the team is working alone in the tomb, and who shows up but Andoheb, now revealed as the bad guy- surprise!  He laboriously leads Petrie to the knowledge that Kharis is alive.  He brews some tana leaves.  Three keep Kharis alive but nine will get him up and running.  “Nine tana leaves,… nine doctor.  But that wouldn’t mean anything to you” Andoheb smirks.  Petrie: “You mean we should never have opened the tomb?”  The doctor is not a bright bulb.

Obligingly, he takes the mummy’s wrist to feel for a pulse.  So, of course Kharis grabs him and there is one less dim bulb in the world. (Didn’t he ever see "Frankenstein"?)  Lesson learned too late:  If George Zucco, the master of B-movie creepy is staring at you and tells you that you shouldn’t be there and that the mummy is alive, get moving!  It is actually a well played out scene with plenty of tension as we wait for Petrie to be killed.  Kharis’s increasing heart beat is heard on the soundtrack adding to the suspense. 

Tyler is probably the scariest mummy of the series.  He is slim and athletic and gives the impression that he really could break you in half.

He wore contact lenses to make his eyes completely black, which looks great.  However he didn’t like wearing them, and so in a couple of close ups his eyes are blacked out on the film itself in a pretty decent special effect for the times.

  The sets, recycled from other films, are well done especially the elaborate temple. 
Temple set in "The Mummy's Hand" which was recyled from...
...the 1940 film, "Green Hell".  Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Bennett, above.

A lot happens and Kharis kills several people.  Marta, Steve’s love interest is kidnapped and brought to the temple to become the reincarnated form of the princess.  However, Andoheb takes one look at her and decides that her fate should be eternal life with him, not with Kharis.  He tries to give her the tana leaf potion but is interrupted by our heroes.  Marta is saved, Andoheb is shot and presumably killed, and Kharis is set on fire.

Well, thank god that’s all over.  We never have to worry about any of that ever again!  Uh-oh….., look out!  Here comes "The Mummy's Tomb”!

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