Monday, March 11, 2013

Supernatural - 1933

Director:                           Victor Halperin
Producer:                         Edward Halperin
Screenplay:                      Harvey Thew and Brian Marlow
        Based on the story and adaptation by Garnett Weston
Dialogue Direction:           Sidney Saldow
Photography:                    Arthur Martinelli

Roma Courtney                         Carole Lombard
Paul Bavian                               Alan Dinehart
Ruth Rogen                                Vivienne Osborne
Grant Wilson                              Randolph Scott
Dr. Houston                                H. B. Warner
Madame Gourjan (landlady)     Beryl Mercer
Robert Hammond                     William Farnum
Warden                                      Willard Robertson
Max                                             George Burr MacMannon
John Courtney                           Lyman Williams

This is one movie I had never heard of, let alone seen.  My friend Brian Kirst of loaned me a copy recently so I was able to catch up with it.  I was surprised to see Carole Lombard’s name; she is probably one of the last actresses I would expect to see in a “horror” movie.  She is best known for some of the greatest comedies from the 1930's (or any other decade for that matter) such as "My Man Godfrey" and "Twentieth Century".  Though this movie is not really what I would call "horror" exactly.  It is a romance with some mystery and thriller elements.  

It also has something that I love about movies from this era – the gowns!  the formal wear on the gents!  Through most of the film Carole Lombard is wearing a slinky long evening dress and Randolph Scott is in a tux, stand-up wing collar and all.  I will gladly watch almost any movie with any actor if he is in a tuxedo, or especially if he is in white tie and tails – Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Randolph Scott….heck, even Adolph Menjou.

I don't think it is available yet as a DVD, but it can be found on VHS and on-line.  If you are a fan of 1930's films it is worth looking for.  I hope that some of you may be inspired by my description to seek it out.  As hokey as it is at times, it has enough atmosphere and good performances to keep one entertained for sixty-five minutes.  And there is always Randolph Scott in that tux.

Warning - serious plot spoilers ahead.  However, my spirit guide tells me that it is ok to go ahead and spill the beans, so...

After the opening credits we see these titles projected on the screen over pictures of mountains, crashing waves and the New York skyline:


All of these are underscored with a soundtrack of shrieking, wailing voices moaning in a tuneless, spooky-spirit manner. 

The story starts with a montage of newspaper stories and action. The technique is well used here; quickly filling us in on the back story without resorting to a static two shot of back and forth talking heads.  We learn that sculptress Ruth Rogen has been convicted of the murders of three men who had been her lovers – murdered after " a riotous orgy in her sensuous Greenwich Village apartment” no less! 

 (Frankly, if I was going to murder three of my lovers that's the way I would do it -- in my sensuous Greenwich Village apartment after a riotous orgy.  But I would first  have to move to NYC, find some sensuous digs, become an artist, and...but I digress.)  At any rate it's pretty racy stuff, but 1933 was right before the Production Code was enforced, so they were able to get away with a lot more than they would in about a year or two. 

We learn that Ruth is not only unrepentant, but is still reveling in the frenzy of her hatred and revenge.  As she counts down the days until her date with the electric chair, the one person she wants to see is Paul Bavian, another of her lovers and the one who turned her in to the cops.

We then move to the prison where Rogen is being held before her execution.  Distressingly earnest psychologist Dr. Houston is asking the warden for permission to speak to the prisoner.  He has a theory that the spirit can leave the body after death and wander around on its own, looking for a new home.  Some murders may be the result of an executed killer’s spirit doing just that, so if he can prevent the spirit escaping and hitching a ride, Dr. Houston may be able to prevent some murders from occurring.  Obviously willing to swallow this bilge water without question, the warden takes Dr. Houston to visit Ruth. 
H. B. Warner (L) and Willard Robertson in front of one of the worst  rear projections ever.  Watching the scene one gets the sense that the building they are in must be hovering in space over the endless stream of prisoners below.
In her cell, Dr. Houston and the warden present this claptrap to Ruth who is understandably hesitant to allow her body to be used in the doctor’s hair-brained experiments.  When Dr. Houston’s appeals about the greater good of humanity fall flat, the warden blithely throws ethics to the wind and suggests that there is a possibility that Ruth may actually be re-animated by the good doctor.  The very angry, very bitter, very unfinished-business Ruth finds this persuasive.  She would love nothing more than to have the use of her strong, strangling hands one more time and get them around the neck of Paul Bavian.  Ruth is ordering her revenge served à la carte and ice-cold. 

The scene shifts to a mansion late at night.  We follow someone as he enters surreptitiously into the living room where a casket is displayed surrounded by a bank of flowers.  The name on the casket is “John Courtney”.  Newspaper headlines have already informed us that John Courtney was a wealthy young man and his twin sister Roma is now his heir.  The mysterious figure mixes a bowl of plaster of paris and slathers some on the face of the corpse.  When we next see the mystery man he is on his way home, and the nameplate on his door tells us he is Paul Bavian, Spiritualist.  Inside his rooms we see that he has brought home the death mask which we saw him preparing earlier.  His self-satisfied smirk pegs Bavian immediately as a scoundrel and a swindler. 

This impression is confirmed when he runs into his nosy landlady, Madame Gourjan as she is bringing home a bottle for her evening tipple.  She has the one out and out comic scene in the movie when she on impulse uses the bottle to try to squash some of the cockroaches swarming around her sink.  Naturally, the bottle shatters and she desperately tries to save a bit of the precious liquid.  It’s delightfully funny and well played by actress Beryl Mercer.

Madame is a bit too nosy for her health.  She has been spying on Bavian and has cottoned to his shady spirit racket.  When she attempts blackmail he uses a poison ring to rid himself of the pest, and disposes of her body by throwing it on the handy train tracks outside his window.

Roma Courtney receives a letter from Bavian telling her that he is in communication with her dear deceased brother in the Great Beyond and that John has something he needs to tell Roma most urgently.  In spite of her estate manager Hammond and her fiancé Grant both expressing doubts as to Bavian’s motives and abilities, Roma doesn’t want to pass up even the slimmest of chances that she could speak to John.  Family friend Dr. Houston is also there and he tells Roma that the idea of communicating with the dead is not as far-fetched as some would believe.  On this sound advice Roma decides to meet the phony psychic at his place for a séance.

Bavian is a smooth operator and gives Roma the show she was hoping for.  John’s face appears (we know it is the death mask) and a voice which sounds like John tells Roma that he was murdered.  Roma buys the whole thing, although Grant does not and warns Roma once more about trusting the mendacious mentalist.

The two lovers then make a stop at Dr. Houston’s place.  As they enter they see Ruth Rogen’s body in a laboratory chair, sitting up with its eyes open and staring straight ahead.  Lab equipment is humming and sparking nearby as Dr. Houston does... whatever the hell it is he is doing.

Suddenly, the corpse closes its eyes and slumps over.  The doc tells the stupefied couple that what they saw was merely a galvanic reaction of the dead tissue to electrical stimulation, but they should not be there since there is a danger of contagion.  He means of course that Ruth’s disembodied spirit may be floating around the lab trying to get into mischief.  On cue, a breeze flutters the curtains and Roma clutches her throat saying it feels like hands on her neck.  Dr. Houston hustles them out of the room to safety since it is well known that spirits cannot get through closed doors.

Grant and Hammond decide that the best way to disabuse Roma of the notion that Bavian is on the level is to hold another séance at her home where they can expose him as a fraud.  Bavian still manages a few convincing tricks, sending Roma a message from John that Hammond is the murderer who is now after Roma’s fortune.  B
avian poisons Hammond, making it look like suicide.  

Roma faints and while unconscious is possessed by Ruth’s malicious spirit.  When she wakes, Roma/Ruth and Bavian sneak out of the party while the others are looking after Hammond.

Bavian is shocked when Roma takes him to Ruth’s old apartment and seems to know her way around.  As she stands in front of the artist’s self-portrait, Roma tells him that she was a good friend of Ruth.

She seduces Bavian—it doesn’t take much, he is drooling like a hound dog at the thought of this beautiful, rich girl coming on to him.  But just as she gets her hands around his neck they are interrupted by the apartment manager who throws these two strangers out.  They retire to Roma’s yacht for some private time.

Meanwhile, Grant and Dr. Houston trace Roma and Bavian to Ruth’s apartment building but just miss them.  While in the manager’s office the penny finally drops for Dr. Houston and he realizes that Ruth has taken possession of Roma’s body.  And it’s all his fault.  He’s right.  The delicate Dr. Houston then has a fainting spell of his own, leaving Grant to try to figure out what to do next.  Another one of those darn breezes wafts in and we see the familiar floating face of John Courtney.  The wind knocks over a glass sculpture of a ship which hints to Grant that the couple must have gone to Roma’s yacht.  He leaves the doctor to his attack of the vapors and races to the rescue of his beloved.

On the yacht Roma/Ruth has gotten Bavian drunk and he is in a sloppy heaven convinced that he must be an irresistible stud muffin.  

I have to throw something in here.  When Bavian and Roma/Ruth are embracing on the sofa, the actor’s left hand is on Lombard’s breast.  Not her face, or neck, or abdomen, or shoulder, or anywhere else.  He is copping a major feel.  I haven’t seen anyone make it to second base that fast since the last Chicago Cubs vs St. Louis Cardinals game I attended at Wrigley.  I’m surprised Lombard didn’t slug him.  Or maybe she did after the scene.

However, noticing how much Roma now looks and acts and sounds like Ruth, he finally starts to suspect that something just might be wrong.  When she kisses him and wraps her hands around his throat once more, he pushes her away, terrified.  Before he has a chance to use his poison ring on her she pounces and says, “NOW do you recognize me?  I AM Ruth Rogen!”  Just then, Grant bursts in and Ruth’s spirit leaves Roma’s body...

... as the completely unglued Bavian makes a run for it to the deck of the yacht, pursued by Ruth’s evil cackling laugh.  As he is trying to untie the lines to his get-away boat, he becomes entangled in them and the last shot of him is the shadow of his dead, hanged body swinging in the ocean breeze. 

Roma wakes as herself, with no memory of what has been happening.  She and Grant kiss as John Courtney’s head bobs into view one more time and blows open the pages of a magazine to an ad for Bermuda as a romantic honeymoon get-away.  Finis.

“Supernatural” plays the spiritualist angle both ways – belief and non-belief.  Fortune-telling and contacting the spirit world for a fee have been illegal in many places around the country – and in some locales still are, which was surprising to me.  Phony spiritualists who prey on the grief of others are represented by Paul Bavian who is proven to be a crook and a murderer.  His death by hanging (a cosmic judgment indeed) is well deserved.

But, many people believe in spirit communication and those people make up a significant portion of the movie ticket-buying public, so offending them is not a good idea.  The three title cards at the beginning of the film which quote Confucius, Mohammed and Matthew are offered as benign proof that what we are about to see on screen has a religiously approved foundation.

The spirit of John Courtney appears (He appears to us, he is unseen by the other characters.) and helps Grant to save Roma’s life as well as direct the couple to a suitably romantic honeymoon idea for a happily-ever-after.  If you believe in spiritualism you are reassured that it truly does exist and works for good in the world.  If you don’t believe in it, well, you won’t. 

The movie doesn’t quite live up to any level of scary but it does have at least one scene that is creepily evocative.  Dr. Frankenstein had his workplace in a crumbling medieval tower on a mountaintop; Dr. Houston works in an elegant, sophisticated penthouse apartment.  But the same violent thunderstorm is raging outside, providing sharp lightning flashes and cracks of thunder to punctuate the crackling sparks of the electrical equipment.  Initially the camera is positioned outside the window and we look in through the rain. The camera then enters the apartment with Roma and Grant as they walk toward where all the noise is coming from.  As they look into the lab we see Ruth Rogen sitting upright.  Her eyes open and she seems to stare at us before collapsing a moment later.  All we need is Doc Houston to sputter, “She’s alive!  She’s alive!!” 

The possession scenes are handled with a bit of double exposure, briefly superimposing Ruth’s face over Roma’s and the lighting darkens.  However, the effect is attained mainly through makeup.  Roma’s makeup is light and almost neutral, but when possessed by Ruth her eyebrows and lips are darker and sharply drawn.  Lombard hardens her features and raises one eyebrow as she stares at Bavian.  We just know she is evil.  The gradual transformation is acheived the same way Lon Chaney, Jr. was shown to change from Larry Talbot to the Wolfman.

The director/producer team of brothers Victor Hugo Halperin and Edward Halperin was hired for this project after the success of 1932’s “White Zombie”.  Most of the films touched by either of the Halperins are pretty forgettable with the above exception.  Both that film and “Supernatural” are uneven but have some similarities.  The effect used to light Bela Lugosi’s eyes in “White Zombie” while they are surrounded by darkness is used here also.  At the start we see a shot of Ruth Rogen’s eyes as she rants about revenge.  Later we see the same effect used with Roma’s eyes when as Ruth she is closing in on Bavian for the kill.
"Supernatural" eyes.

"White Zombie" eyes.

Roma’s fiancé Grant is a brave, stalwart, faithful stand-by-his-woman but not super bright kind of guy.  Even though tall, lanky Randolph Scott fills out a tux well, the part of Grant could just as easily have been handled by David Manners, or any number of other actors.  Scott has an easy physical grace in the role but his slight drawl sounds more like Arizona saddle tramp than New York sophisticate.   

After army experience in France during WWI and college in the States, Scott began his acting career with un-credited bits leading to larger parts in films from drama to comedy to musicals.  He eventually made his name specializing in Westerns, first as the handsome supporting or leading man and later as the tough, weathered veteran.  Like John Wayne, he became one of the most popular and iconic superstars in that genre. 

If you remember the moment in Mel Brooks’ western parody “Blazing Saddles” when Cleavon Little’s character is begging the townsfolk for help, and he cajoles them with the line, “You’d do it for Randolph Scott!”  The people respond with a heavenly choir of “RAN-DOLPH SCOTT!!!”

Actor Alan Dinehart plays nasty guy Paul Bavian as a villain you enjoy hating.  He had a long career in film and on Broadway, usually playing dishonest or reprehensible characters.  Dinehart was practically a double for actor William Harrigan.  Harrigan played the part of nasty guy Dr. Arthur Kemp, the weak-willed and cowardly colleague of Claude Rains’ ‘Invisible Man’ in James Whales’ 1933 film.  At any rate, Dr. Kemp and Paul Bavian are practically bad-guy soul brothers.  You decide...separated at birth?

H.B. (Henry Byron) Warner was born in England in 1875, the son of Charles Warner a well-known 19th century stage actor.  His first acting experience was at the age of seven in one of his father’s productions.  After studying medicine in London, he switched to acting and started in films in 1914.  His biggest role in silents was as Jesus in Cecil B. De Mille’s “King of Kings” in 1927.

He played the character of Chang in 1937’s “Lost Horizon” and was nominated for an Academy Award.  Among his many, many other roles he played Mr. Gower in "It's a Wonderful Life".

 A distinguished actor, but his Dr. Houston in “Supernatural” is weak and wooden.

The character of Roma’s estate manager Robert Hammond was well played by veteran actor William Farnum.

He was born in 1876 and was on stage with his brother Dustin from the age of twelve.  His first film, “The Spoilers” in 1914 was a Western spectacular and made him a star.  The film became legendary for its ten minute fist fight between Farnum’s character and the one played by actor Tom Santschi. 

Farnum became the highest paid actor in movies, until 1925 when he was injured while filming “A Man Who Fights Alone.”  He was able to play only minor parts from then on, through the silent era and into sound. 

Vivienne Osborne is excellent as the murderous Ruth Rogen.  She was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1896, and was in show business from the age of five, making her first film in 1920.  After many leading roles on Broadway she had a busy film career in the 1930s and 40s.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans may find her familiar – she played Jimmy’s drunk mom in the movie “I Accuse My Parents." 
"Hello everybody!  I'm Jimmy Wilson's mother!"

Carole Lombard’s grief stricken Roma has a delicate fragility.  She does a competent job in the role but such a simple character as Roma was way beneath her talent.  As the possessed victim of the murderous harridan Ruth, she changes not only in her look but also in her body posture and voice and is much more believable as the stronger character.

Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters in 1908 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Her first role was as a tomboy in the 1921 film, “A Perfect Crime.”  In 1925 she contracted with Fox Studios and worked there until a traffic accident almost ended her career.  She was thrown through a car windshield and sustained facial injuries requiring twenty-five stitches.  She healed well and with skillful make-up she was able to return to the screen, though she remained sensitive about camera angles.  Movies and photos don’t betray any of this and show only a stunningly beautiful woman.

In 1927 she started work with comedy director Mack Sennett and was one of his “Bathing Beauties” in several slapstick two-reelers.

Originally she used the stage name of Carol Lombard, until her first name was accidentally mis-spelled in credits with a final “e”.  She kept that spelling from then on, and changed her name legally in 1936.  She was signed in 1930 with Paramount, however she made some of her most popular films on loan out to other studios.   Her breakthrough came starring with John Barrymore in “Twentieth Century” for Columbia.  From then on she was known best for comedies, such as “My Man Godfrey” (for Universal), “Nothing Sacred” (for Selznick International), and “To Be or Not to Be” (for Alexander Korda, through United Artists) which was her last film.

By the end of the decade she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood, earning almost $500,000 per year.  Though not quite as strong with gritty drama, she was one of America’s most gifted comediennes.  She was able to bring layers to her characters, showing the depth of emotion beneath the froth.  Witty, honest, salty and genuine – she was also one of the most popular stars with her co-workers.

While working on “Twentieth Century” she managed to deal with Barrymore who was as well known for womanizing as for his profile and acting talent.  She kept him at a friendly hands-off distance throughout the shoot, and he stayed an admirer and friend.

She was married for two years to actor William Powell and after their divorce in 1933 they continued to work together and remained good friends.  In 1936 she started a relationship with fellow actor Clark Gable, and they married in 1939.   It was considered by friends to be a perfect match for both.

Carole Lombard died in 1942, thirty-four years old, while on her way home from making a personal appearance in Indiana selling war bonds.  The plane carrying her crashed, killing her, her mother and the other twenty people on board.  Her loss was felt by millions.  Gable never recovered fully from the tragedy.

Lombard was well-known, legendary in fact, for not pulling any verbal punches in expressing herself.  Evidently she was, to put it mildly, dissatisfied with every aspect of “Supernatural”, from the limp script to the hours she had to spend motionless for the makeup to transform her into Ruth Rogen in the possession scenes.  But she was  especially irate about the director: 

"Ms. Lombard was very unhappy about her assignment to ‘Supernatural’.  In Danny Peary’s book, Close Ups: The Movie Star Book, future director Sydney Salkow wrote of the actress’ antipathy toward the project.  ‘She read the script, met the director Victor Halperin, and then promptly threatened to kill herself, Halperin, and everyone in Paramount’s front office in order to avoid the assignment.  Finally, worn out by her agent and Paramount’s threats to suspend her, Carole acquiesced.’  As filming proceeded, she became highly critical of Victor Halperin’s direction and ‘bridled at (his) every suggestion.’  Never one to keep thoughts to herself, she let fly with barbs like ‘This guy ought to be running a deli.’  and ‘Who do you have to screw to get off this picture?’ “   
   Bryan Senn.  Golden Horrors.  (McFarland & Co. Inc.  1996)  pg. 203                                           

To make a difficult shoot even more difficult, an earthquake shook the studio during filming in the late afternoon of March 10, 1933.  Again, from Golden Horrors:
 “…recalled Salkow, ‘the set suddenly started to rumble; a deep roar drowned out the clatter of lights, props, furniture, and sets rattling and crashing while the ground swayed and the earth buckled and writhed.  In panic everyone ran shrieking from the set in wild flight.  To all of us it was the Long Beach earthquake….to Carole it was Lombard’s Revenge.  I watched her, mindless of everyone’s preoccupation with the moment, stride to Victor Halperin huddled outside the still-swaying stage and point a finger at him, “Victor—that was only a warning!’ “ 
 ibid.  pg. 203

Carole Lombard -- there was no one else like her.  Not even close.


Though Carole Lombard had a very happy marriage to Clark Gable, she told an interviewer in 1938 that another man had been her true love, not Gable.

    “Russ Columbo was the great love of my life.  And that is very definitely off the record.”

 It’s understandable that most people have not heard of Russ Columbo today.  He died very young, at the age of twenty-four in 1934 after an accidental shooting.  Columbo was a tremendously popular singer, songwriter, bandleader, radio star and budding actor in his day. 

Born Ruggiero de Rudolpho Columbo, he was a child prodigy who played violin and sang from the age of four.  By the 1920’s he had his own band and his smooth, silky voice was heard frequently on radio.  He became known as “The Romeo of Radio”, and was one of the three big crooners of the twenties and thirties, alongside Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. 

Columbo was a dazzlingly gorgeous man.  When he and Lombard met in 1933 the attraction was mutual and instant.  The romance grew and they eventually became engaged in 1934; Lombard took lessons in Catholicism in preparation for the marriage.  His tragic death ended all that.  But for Lombard, he remained,the great love of my life."

Have a comment about this post?  Please, be my guest.  Indulge yourself.  I would love to hear from you.  Click on “Comments” below.  Thanks!

No comments:

Post a Comment