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Thursday, June 25, 2009




Favorites List --- The Lodger





There was no Jack ripping in 1944 when Fox’s "A" thriller got bookings at theatres normally off-limits to horror films. Younger viewers won’t regard The Lodger so highly as Greenbriar veterans who were creeped by it in theatres and syndication TV. Slashing kids expect of J the R was withheld for obvious censorial reasons in firm place then, but more than merely that imposed restraint. 40's audiences weren’t missing explicit mayhem they’d have otherwise enjoyed. Wartime crowds for The Lodger’s first-run were accustomed to filling in blanks for things heard though not seen (and the film uses sound very effectively). To show Ripper murders was to invade imagination’s personal space among these patrons, a breach of protocol we don’t appreciate for not having experienced suspense and horror programming on radio as all of them did. Late 30’s/early 40’s broadcasts I’ve played are harrowing for shock effects we can visualize to oft-disturbing effect. Listeners then honed senses far more acute than our own for envisioning horror served now to us raw. Applying imagination to things unseen really is a lost capacity. My generation missed it and certainly younger ones have. Those who’d knock The Lodger for pulling back really don’t know what they’re missing, or rather, denying themselves. For myself, there’s hesitation to watch Time After Time, a 1979 Ripper reboot with good things, though its gorier killings are ones I now scan past. Do we grow out of appetites for explicit bloodshed? I think I did years ago, and for that The Lodger serves me still, being a chiller with atmosphere to live in and a lead performer whose on and off screen complexity gets way beyond mere recital of Jack The Ripper’s fiendish way with a knife.








To delve deep into Laird Cregar’s mystery would be not unlike study of history’s real-life Ripper. Both are fascinating and impenetrable. Cregar’s life is narcotic to fans who prefer idols tormented and fated to bad ends. With talent enormous as his bulk (I don’t mean to copy you dozen other writers who have undoubtedly said that), Cregar was richly flamboyant and commanded scenes with a silken, yet forceful, voice. Losing him so early inspires reflection on missed opportunities and imaginary recasting of films he’d have made better. His agonized homosexuality was an open secret during Cregar’s lifetime, even if unpublished then, and histories since have spotted it as motivation for ill-advised (massive) weight loss and early demise. He died at thirty-one and within months of The Lodger’s release. Portly teens with orientation issues had early arrival of their own James Dean in Cregar, though misery on his sleeve would surely have made Laird's life a less likely one to emulate. I’ve long been alert to colleague observations about him. Quotes abound in reference to garrulous/withdrawn/moody/resplendent Cregar. I’m hackneyed for saying the actor himself was more interesting than parts he was given, but there it is. The Lodger might have worked with someone else --- but who? The Cregar mystique translates well to psychosis, and for Fox to have followed The Lodger so quickly with Hangover Square’s further serial slaughter must have given the actor considerable anxiety. The Ripper part was sensitively written and Cregar lends considerable empathy, but it’s no romantic lead and that apparently was his goal. Physical size and isolation thus imposed was limiting then, but it’s since conferred immortality, for nearly no one forgets Cregar once they’ve sampled him, and to The Lodger he brings tragic grandeur beyond skilled writing and direction already in place.














Particulars of knife killing figure into much of The Lodger’s dialogue. Cregar’s application of the weapon is limited, but others discuss and demonstrate its effect upon victims dispatched offscreen. Such clinical, even casual recapping of what the Ripper does to women must surely have raised gooseflesh among those for whom the idea of being stabbed, let alone mutilated, was as frightening as witnessing the act itself. Here again was a device effectively transplanted from radio. You had only to talk about effects of a madman’s assault to scare watchers silly. Characters simulate the Ripper’s moves in lieu of our watching him make them. We’re at all times removed but one step from the crime, a convention taken for granted then but almost never observed now. The Lodger was a horror movie not to be sold as such, sneaking into (most) theatres under a cloak of respectability its studio and star cast implied. All the more surprising then was the fact that this would emerge most unsettling of all thrillers released during that decade. Poster and ad mats underplayed carve-ups explored in the film, but enterprising showmen often vetoed suggested art and designed lurid come-ons of their own (as in above's display). The Lodger could have been sold like the Blood Feast of its day or as period drama for the carriage trade, so flexible were choices in an exhibition universe catering to varied audiences and communities.











Lives set to movies (like my own) intersect over and again with a favorite. Each encounter brings something new to the relationship. Mine with The Lodger began on a lumpy couch at my grandmother’s in 1965 watching a television turned low as not to wake the house. Its horrors seemed not so restrained, for hadn’t Hollywood continued operating under Code restriction, albeit a weakened one? The Lodger remained of a piece with features we were seeing in theatres (sort of a Hammer horror minus color). It was introduction of MPAA ratings and resulting explicitness that dated The Lodger and its kin. As with anything of similar vintage, I chased it around late nights and UHF backroads. A station near my college town bought The Lodger and several hundred Fox titles from NTA, retaining two dozen or so after their license period expired. Dead air was thus filled with The Lodger, Great Guns, Son Of Fury, and others ad nauseum, playing them like radio used Top 40. Film collectors would seek The Lodger and often find it, thanks again to NTA’s relaxed vigilance vis a vis 16mm prints. Some of these were spectacular. My memory suggests they looked better than the DVD. Certainly they were sharper. The blacks seemed deeper too. Could mine be selective recall of a time when mere access to such was thrill enough? 16mm rewarded on one hand and snatched away with the other. The Lodger may have been pictorially stunning, but variable density soundtracks were sometimes (often it seemed) printed too dark or light with a resulting motorboat effect that all but obliterated dialogue, especially in quieter scenes. You might pick up multiple prints or odd reels with peculiarities of their own toward constructing a perfect whole, an ideal seldom attainable. I do wonder what The Lodger would look like in 35mm. Alan Rode saw it and Hangover Square at an Egyptian Theatre revival several years ago and wrote an excellent piece about them. Anyone know if Fox still has original negative elements on these two?

16 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

I saw this for the first time a couple of months back and it is truly unique (well, except for Hangover Square)-- the one serial killer movie of that time that really feels as psychologically unhealthy as the best modern ones (when the genre has been raised to front and center, for all that says about us). Everything looked kind of diseased for a few days after watching it

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Jacob said...

What is the origin of the color photo of Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster? The costume indicates Son of Frankenstein, obviously. I've always hated seeing that makeup--or countless variations of it--in color because I think the green skin looks ridiculous.

10:48 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a frame from a color home movie that was taken on the set of "Son Of Frankenstein."

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

No kidding, John! Wow! Who took the movie, do you know? The fact that it's an on-set home movie explains why -- to me at least -- the picture looks more like Boris Karloff and less like "The Monster": He's not in character, he's just standing around waiting for the cameras to roll again.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Scott said...

You can see that color SOF footage here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3QZEh_rXx4

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Thanks for the tip, Mike. I checked out that YouTube footage, and I see that John's banner image comes just a moment before Karloff turns and sticks his tongue out at the camera. Out of character indeed!

4:10 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I don't think it would be as good in color..That awful green has got to be the color used to bring about the proper shade of pale for black and white..Can't imagine they'd have him running around looking like Robin Hood for real!

10:28 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

John, I must have been at The Egyptian the same night as Alan Rode (although I don't know him) because I saw the double-bill of "The Lodger" and "Hangover Square" there with my Pal Craig Reardon, too. "Hangover Square" looked (and sounded) terrific; "The Lodger" was a mess (both films were screened in 35mm.). It is my understanding that "The Lodger" required a MAJOR restoration for the DVD release....
I agree with ALL your observations regarding "horror" for "today's sensibilities" (or lack thereof). What was once terrifying (such as "The Haunting", "The Innocents" or even "Psycho") is now considered "boring, slow, and dull" by people who must have constant "thrills" with this kind of new-age junk. ALTHOUGH, thatbeing said, to see and hear a film such as "The Haunting" in a theatrical venue with an appreciative (or even a skeptical) audience, on a big screen, in the dark, still makes for a harrowing experience. ALL these films should be experienced this way AT LEAST once in one's lifetime.....

Keep up the great work!

James

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Lee said...

Christopher, your theory is correct. Jack Pierce, who created the makeup, never intended the monster to be green. Seen in black and white, though, it gave the creature's skin an appropriately gray, dead look.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

not JUST Frankie,but I think we'd be shocked to see what most ordinary actors had to wear on their faces so that the proper shades register in black and white..Every production a horror show!..Red eye shadow anyone?

3:16 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

I dunno. I just watched a video of "Cat and The Canary" (from 1927) the other night at 2 am by myself and I was pretty-scared!

5:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first saw the Lodger a few months back, on the recent Fox John Brahm DVD release. It probably would have been even more enjoyable if I hadn't watched Hangover Square first. Still, a first rate film! Your allusions to the radio audience being used to filling in details themselves is spot on. The Lodger itself was a staple of radio horror shows as well. I own at least six different versions, three from "Suspense" alone, starring such disparate actors as Herbert Marshall, Robert Montgomery, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in the title role.

In one of the documentaries on the DVD set, somebody comments that had he lived, Laird might have gone on to have the career that Vincent Price carved out for himself. What's particularly interesting is that Vincent himself filled in for Laird on two radio adaptations of Laird's films, "The Lodger" and "Hangover Square." (These might be on the DVD? Can't recall.) Listening to them immediately after viewing the films, you are struck by the similarities between Laird's delivery and Vincent's. (At this point, of course, Vincent was not a horror star, merely a talented studio actor just breaking into lead roles and still being offered a fairly wide range of parts. A few years later, in the radio version of "The Saint," he was still being billed as "Hollywood's brilliant young actor, Vincent Price.")

I've bought the DVD for "I Wake Up Screaming" -- supposedly Laird steals this one picture as well--but haven't had time for it yet. Maybe some night I can get the kids to bed a bit early...

11:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Here's an e-mail I received from Craig Reardon about Laird Cregar ...

Hi John,


Excellent piece on "The Lodger" which derives its best interest from your personal perspective, as in all your pieces. I went around in the later '70s interviewing people who would agree to talk to me about Bernard Herrmann. I wanted to capture some of the impressions retained by people who'd known him (after his death at 64 in December 1975), which the getting was good. I thought perhaps I'd gather them for an oral history.

One of the people I met, in a Malibu trailer home park, was the director of the film, John Brahm. A nice old fellow with a thick German accent, I remember that he had some interesting and by today's lights, clueless comments to make about Cregar, saying that he was a, quote, "sissy", and that he was helping to shape him up----butch him up, you know? He said, as I recall, that Cregar was beginning to snap out of it and date women, or words to that effect. Amazing. This is what gay people have to deal with, I guess. Yet as we infer from biographical portraits of Cregar, he apparently had very mixed emotions, himself, about his own personal identity. One thing that is indisputable, I think, is his screen enormous presence (you're right, it's easy to fall into a clumsy analogy to his girth!), his intelligence, and his theatrical power. Yet he's as good in "I Wake Up Screaming", "Blood and Sand", "The Black Swan", "Heaven Can Wait", and "Hangover Square", especially. I too used to seek out these films in the listings of our local TV Guide in L.A., and it was just about as hard to find them as it probably was in your part of the country. Many was the time I'd be up past midnight, still enduring a punishing barrage of used-car salesmen and other denizens of the wee small hours, hawking their goods, interrupting these gorgeous old movies every ten minutes.

11:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon recalls Lon Chaney Jr. at a 60's encounter. Great stuff here --- Thanks Craig! ...

I think like many of us, Lon Jr. was what they like to call 'conflicted' about being an actor, and although I dismiss a lot of what the late Curt Siodmak is quoted as having said, I suspect the one theme you get, that Lon Jr. was at best trying to equal his father's great impact, and at worst competing against it and feeling he would always fail, are persuasive. It's a simple (even simple-minded) "explanation" of his alcoholism, but substance addictions (a term unknown in those wonderfully more direct and euphemism-free----not that that is all good!----times) often go in and out in geneologies. Who knows where Chaney, Jr.'s alcoholism came from? It seems clear it foiled him even further. My interest in him obviously has its roots in my childhood addiction to movie monsters, and I LOVED the Wolf Man. However, I've seen many of his films, and no one ever seems to remark upon his total immersion of himself into the characters he played! For example, if you look at one of the "Inner Sanctum" (God, I hope I've got that right!----my mind, lately, often makes embarrassing substitutions, a la Reverend Spooner!) mysteries he did, in which he manages articulate dialog and convinces as a doctor or professional person of some sort, often either right after having stumbled around in those "Mummy" pajamas, or before looking ridiculous as hell in something like "Cobra Woman", I think you're looking at some sort of professionalism and dedication. It's taking an easy out to cite the oft-cited appearances he made in films such as Stanley Kramer's [productions] "High Noon" or "Not as a Stranger" or "The Defiant Ones", as continuing proof he could so much more than portray a belligerent imbecile. He was quoted as having said, "They always want 'Lennie'." Maybe so. His physicality as he aged also obviously forced him to assume the role of a LITERAL "heavy". I have a DVD, a bootleg perhaps, which includes an old television program or two, including one in which he does a nice job of playing an immigrant, and the plot features nary a beating or murder or 'skulk'! I remember the incredibly-brief run of the 1966 "Pistols 'N' Petticoats", too, but I can't for the life of me remember Lon as an Indian chief, in that----another very odd bit of semi-typecasting he fell into! I don't even remember my reaction to Ann Sheridan in this, although I DO remember my own mom's shock----I must interject that mom was a giant movie fan----at Sheridan's wasted appearance. Now, today, when I'm much more familiar with Sheridan's youthful allure and vivacity, I'm sure I'd have reacted as my mother did. Sheridan was mortally ill with cancer when the show began, and it evidently accelerated so quickly that Universal had to cancel the show (and it may only have been a matter of execrable content and bad ratings, too----again, I can't remember.) But, there's another rug Chaney had pulled out from under him.

More of this e-mail from Craig in the next comment ...

11:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two of Craig Reardon's observations re Lon Chaneys Junior and Senior ...

The most telling example I can give you that suggests to me that Chaney loved acting is that at this dinner, where I met him, which was an awards-based evening conceived and sponsored by the exceedingly-odd "Dr." Donald Reed, head-cannibal of the "Count Dracula Society" (I remember all these years later him introducing Chaney as "Mr. Lawn Channey"!), Chaney gamely arose to collect his little paperweight, to tumultuous applause, a true standing ovation. At first he joked, "There's hardly room enough up here for me and my belly!" (behind the dias, erected ad hoc in the bandshell, which resembled the mouth of a grimacing monster; you would have had to see it to believe it. I've actually since seen a couple stills of this, taken that night.) He was moved, however, and he said, almost quote-unquote, "You've all been so nice to me, and bought my drinks tonight, that I feel like I owe you something in return." So saying, he doffed his glasses and mussed his hair, and standing at the dias, he 'became' Lennie Small, again, passionately enthusing about "the rabbits". Somehow, he made what was originally a poignant dialog into a soliloquy, and at the end, I will always remember him reaching out, grasping at the air, in a poignant, plaintive gesture I've since seen him make in so many of his old films for Universal, crying out, "GEORGE!!" It was not anything verbatim from the play or the film, but a kind of extrapolation of the tragedy of this simple, well-meaning creature. I think Chaney was not by any means limited to playing figures of tragedy, but he did it so well, we remember him that way.


It's also worth remembering that his grandson, Ron Chaney, remembers that he "loved" acting. I think it's sad that as in so very many father-son relationships, the father often gets it into his head that "no offspring of MINE...!" is going to go into the same field they did. One often wonders, why? Are they afraid of the competition? Was it so terrible? This, however, was apparently very much Lon Sr.'s attitude toward Creighton, who we of course know as Lon, Jr.


Another quick anecdote. My maternal grandmother got to California from the midwest in the early '20s, and worked for a brief time at Universal Studios as a secretary. It was such a small concern back then that she told my mother than one day, she was standing waiting for the bus with a friend, and Lon Chaney (that's correct) recognized them both, and pulled over and offered them a lift to the studio! What makes this amazing is that he apparently did the same for the then-unknown Boris Karloff, if you remember that anecdote, which I believe Sarah Karloff has related on video. Anyway, my 'grammy', as I knew her, told my mom that Chaney, Sr. was VERY proud of his son, and talked about him quite a bit. I believe this. I believe that people are more complex than just "this" or "that", and therefore when I read Curt Siodmak speaking only of a grim Chaney, Sr. who dealt out corporal punishment to Lon, Jr., and little else, I just can't believe it. Perhaps I just don't want to believe it.


I was happily able to fly to London, England in 1973, and that's another whole story, but I remember my amazed sadness upon returning that in the two weeks I'd been gone, three great actors had passed away, end-to-end: Jack Hawkins, Robert Ryan, and Lon Chaney, Jr. I naturally though immediately of that evening, and long before that, my rapt self, watching his heart-tugging struggle with lycanthropy in those atmospheric Universal classics.


Craig

11:35 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

nice little stories.
..Poor ol' Lon,seems people can't talk about him without recollecting the heavy drinking and the frequent trips down to the Universal"Principle's Office"Even Evelyn Ankers,in her forward for the MagicImage Wolf Man script book,speaks more often of his drinking,brawling and pranks..
On the Lon Chaney web site they sell a series of framed photos with autographed check stubs by Chaney,all from around 1971-73,all pretty much from the same Drug Store in LA..I can just picture big kindly Larry Talbot coming in to pick up his prescriptions..A much loved old familiar face, going thru the daily routines of his final days..

12:17 AM  

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