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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Halloween Harvest --- Part One --- Claude Rains' Penny Dreadfuls

The bane of certain serious actors was horror movies, even as others surrendered to them. I recall somewhere Basil Rathbone labeling his Son Of Frankenstein a "penny dreadful," and am further told he ignored it in memoirs. According to David Skal's fine Claude Rains bio, the actor turned down Son's lead before Rathbone accepted. Were horror pics indeed a scourge to players we now revere for having appeared in them? More to the point, would there be a Claude Rains book or addictive Basil Rathbone webpage had these two not become so associated with monster shows? I've read with much amusement the story of boys who saw shooting of 1963's The Comedy Of Terrors and met an inhospitable Rathbone, who fairly blanched at the sight of a Famous Monsters magazine they'd brought along. Vincent Price could groove with horror boomers and indulge their childish interest, but such for Rathbone was equivalent to garlic and a crucifix to vampires, his association with the genre strictly one maintained for cash (and little of that).

1933 Ad for The Invisible Man's Broadway Opening

Here's a 1933 Ad That Allows a Glimpse of Claude Rains As
a Visible Man
Claude Rains "protested" fright flicks in late '58 remarks to The Vancouver Sun, that sheet exploring corrosive effect of "horror for horror's sake." Referred to as "a character actor of undisputed standing in practically all types of film," Rains took off on scare merchant's "unabashed appeal to the sick tendencies in modern society, which they hope to titillate at a profit." There was "no attempt at any kind of artistry," according to CR, no effort to "light up blind alleys in contemporary society." 1958 was admittedly a bad year to champion monsters, famous or otherwise, so far as responsible adults felt. The cheaper creepers were a cancer in theatres and lately on television, where release, or better put, avalanche, of horror had put rotting of juvenile minds on a fast track.

Had Rains by this time been shown a copy of Forry Ackerman's infamous rag, that celebration of all things abhorrent to maturity and sober reflection on society's "blind alleys"? Surely one or two misguided kids nearby Claude's New England retreat sought the Invisible Man's autograph after a late teevee serve (these almost continuous by the late 50's). Would this actor of undisputed standing, though admittedly less in demand, agree to do The Lost World or Battle Of The Worlds for anything other than cash sorely needed? Maybe it was Famous Monsters and Shock Theatre to large extent that kept Rains and Rathbone in groceries during late and leaner years when chill parts became most of what they were offered. Rathbone yielded to Nicholson/Arkoff blandishment to be in AIP thrillers --- was Claude Rains approached as well?

Universal's Blu-Rains-fall of monster classics naturally highlight Karloff and Lugosi for iconic input to the brand, but there's as much of Claude here as either of them, him arguably the titan what bestrides this initial slate of High-Def shockers. In fact, his three were among first of the eight I watched, my regard for Rains having only grown since mature discovery of great work he did in things other than horror. The Invisible Man was sold less as a chiller than a trick sensation, sort of latter-day George Mêliés, but way more sophisticated. I watched Rains this time closer than ever (and that's close as in every fiber, thanks to miraculous Uni clean-up), there being every evidence that he studied, or was at least inspired, by Lon Chaney's opera Phantom of eight years before. That seminal work had to have left deep impression on players who'd later do masked roles and rely on gesturing to put across drama. What Rains achieves with gloved hands alone was surely highlight of a marvel enactment, this in addition to his mellifluous voice.

Could you blame us for associating Rains with horror movies? His presence in them went beyond The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and 1943's Phantom Of The Opera. There was also, prominently in the "Shock!" package, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, which played TV by force of station contract as often as higher-profile horrors, a category to which a drooping Drood never properly belonged in any case. Another with Rains did not even arrive to television until Screen Gems' lease on Universal chillers expired and MCA re-grouped the features in 1972 (77 which included not only pre-48 titles, but assorted weirdies from the 50's). This was The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934), certainly a title with horrific potential, but not otherwise a fit within the genre. (As regards the "Special Rubber Matinee" at left, wonder how many "kiddies" raided Dad's bedroom drawers to get the "one pound" needed for admission)

The Wolf Man Hits Chicago, with Homemade Art and an "Adults Only" Warning.
Note Too That Bela Lugosi Gets Sole Billing Above The Title

Phantom Gets Its First Chicago Run, With
a Universal "B" Musical To Share The Ride
The Wolf Man revolved around Lon Chaney's lycanthropic ordeal, but Claude Rains was the best acting aspect of it. Was this slumming to his mind? First billing was assured, though monster kid-dom would not accord such for later (and late night) broadcasts that invariably mentioned Chaney and Bela Lugosi first. There are some who don't rank The Wolf Man so high in any event, at least not upon a pantheon with the 30's classics, but imagine if a Cedric Hardwicke or Otto Kruger had played Sir John Talbot. Good as these were, results would not have been near what's achieved with Rains in the part. The Wolf Man is prime example of one great actor carrying the ball to a score from which all of an ensemble benefit. I, for one, can't imagine this show without him.

Exploitation's siren call would have put Lon Chaney, Jr. in his father's immortal role for Universal's 1943 re-go at Phantom Of The Opera, but this was not to be a mere shock-serving to kids and sub-billing. It was instead a full-out assault on a carriage trade normally disdainful of what they considered genre foolishness. To get round such prejudice, this Phantom had to be lush and lovely, its emphasis not on fiends and fright, but elegant trappings and music (lots). Toward that end would come top-billed Nelson Eddy from prestige of MGM operetta casting, also Technicolor unknown to thrill subjects other that Paramount's oddball of a Dr. Cyclops in 1940. Claude Rains was very much a statured name as well, despite a past in horror, though he was known best to general audiences for mainstream King's Row, Now, Voyager, and other success out of Warners. To third-bill him here, and beneath teen-age and largely untried Susanna Foster, was reflection of how Rains would occupy back seat to elements Universal pushed harder to distance their Phantom from mere monsters otherwise sold as discount lots.

Says The Original Universal Caption: Lon Chaney, enacting the role of "the monster" in Universal's new chiller drama, "Ghost Of Frankenstein," visits the "Phantom Of The Opera" set where the late Lon Chaney, Sr. scored his memorable performance hit, and with the aid of trick photography, the two notable artists are framed in the same field.

Still, it was Rains back at chilling, and he was effective as ever at it, his voice an instrument more powerful than shriek/baritone enacted by Foster/Eddy. It was essentially The Invisible Man again, that a likeliest reason for Universal's casting of him, and I'd like to think he got a largest so-far payday for Phantom'ing. What Rains' Invisible Man did for bandages, this  would do for a mask, that last a beauteous creation (I want one for Halloween!) that CL was said to have fussed endlessly over. We do see more of his face behind that mask than was revealed of Chaney's, probably the reason why this Phantom was not nearly so disfigured as in the '25 issue. All kinds of reasons have been tendered for restraint applied to Rains' Phantom make-up, but I'd aver a primary one was simply the actor wanting to leave an expressive mouth and jaw exposed to confirm it was truly him darting in and out of the overproduced show's second half.


Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I remember being fooled into thinking that "The Man who Reclaimed His Head" would be a horror movie one late Saturday night. Discovering it was basically an anti-war/love triangle/melodrama made it even more interesting. And I haven't seen it shown anywhere since -- and that was at least 40 years ago. (I've never met anyone else who's seen it.)

While not a horror movie, you should check out Rains' 1935 UK movie "The Clairvoyant." He plays the title role, of course, in a story that's actually quite fascinating. It was on TCM about two and a half years ago and hasn't shown up since. (How does TCM decide the frequency of its library items anyway?)

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Chip said...

My father interviewed Basil Rathbone in the mid 1960s for a newspaper interview and told me years later that Rathbone suffered from selective amnesia. He drew a complete blank on certain aspects of his career my father questioned him about, including "Son of Frankenstein" and his Sherlock Holmes pictures. Film work he was proud of, though, like "The Adventures of Robin Hood," Rathbone went on and on at great length about.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great observations. And, of course, what an array of vintage graphics!

Some years ago I ran across a really cool promotional gimmick used for the original INVISIBLE MAN, something I've never read about anywhere else. I was researching something in old newspaper files, when I saw that the film had its first run here in Duluth in December, 1933. Everyday, the week before the film opened, there was a small display ad on the lower right hand corner of a right reading (odd numbered) page. The teaser ad was virtually empty, maybe with some bare line art on the bottom but mostly white space with one small line of copy on the top, saying something like 'he's coming'. Since I was reviewing these on microfilm, it took me a beat to realize there was always a corresponding ad on the next page, lower left hand corner, directly behind the first ad. And this second ad simply said in big block letters, THE INVISIBLE MAN - printed in reverse! So, the presumed effect when seeing that first ad, was to present the name of the film as the faintest ghost image showing through the newsprint!

Pretty slick! I guess this stunt was buried inside Universal's original press book, but I've never seen it remarked upon before.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Rains in neatly symmetrical fantasy roles:
-- A business-suited angel in "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (and in a follow-up film, I think)
-- A business-suited devil in "Angel on My Shoulder"
In both he's a nice counterweight to the overwhelming whimsy.

Remembered notes I can't place. Anybody? Bueller?

-- A memoir, maybe Price's, recalled the "Comedy of Terrors" set as being pretty festive, in part because an affable Rathbone regaled the cast with stories.

-- In the '43 "Phantom", the girl was originally supposed to be his daughter, unaware of his identity or his anonymous funding of her education. Rains supposedly vetoed that as he feared it would type him as a non-romantic old man. Did he have the heft to demand that change?

2:42 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I think they had a legitimate fear of being stuck in the horror ghetto. Look at Karloff. He surely didn't regret his horror career, given the poverty that preceded world fame, but it meant that it was very rare that he was cast in anything outside it even though he was obviously aces as a character actor (see House of Rothschild or Lured, for instance). There's no good reason that he couldn't have played the sorts of roles that went to, say, Henry Daniell (though probably not Rains' semi-romantic roles like in Mrs. Skeffington or Notorious), except that he was Karloff and that pointed the whole movie in a different direction as soon as you saw his name attached.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

It's been decades since I've seen it, but I do recall the opening scenes of "Crime Without Passion" (1934) show some mythological creatures, the Furies flying over New York City (I think). While I don't remember the specifics, I remember the horror imagery as very potent, some of the most creative from that era. And Claude is in that one as well.

11:19 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a coincidence, Kevin, as just last night I started "Crime Without Passion" and noted that horrific opening. Hoping the rest of the film will be as strong. Have not seen it before, but figure anything starring Rains from this period must be good.

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Though Rains is very good in Phantom, ultimately it is not a very good film. It's devoid of suspense, pace, thrills ... just a great let down. Sadly, this is because Universal was attempting one of its rare forays into "class;" a misguided effort to be sure.

Though I love The Wolf Man -- and think it has the finest supporting cast of any Universal horror -- I cannot for a moment buy that Claude Rains is the father of Lon Chaney. (Unless, of course, the mother was Marjorie Main....)

3:06 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...


7:34 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

Another thought occurred to me about these actors not wanting to be associated with horror movies.

In the great Bob Hope comedy "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), Hope makes a remark, during a terrific lightning storm, that Basil Rathbone must be throwing a party. I'm assuming that's a dig at his role in the previous year's "Son of Frankenstein."

Here it is, only one year later, and Basil's role in that film is already a joke in a Bob Hope comedy. No wonder actors of the stature of Rathbone and Rains - at the time - didn't want to be associated with the genre.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Hey Kevin -- actually, the joke in the Ghost Breakers is referring to Rathbone's fame as Hollywood's most celebrated party-giver. In fact, his parties are the stuff of legend.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Tiffany Brannan said...

Dear John,

This is a fine and detailed article about the horror career of one of the greatest actors of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Seeing from this article that you are a fellow fan of Claude Rains, I would like to invite you to join a blogathon which I am hosting in November.

On November 9-11, PEPS is hosting the Claude Rains Blogathon in honor of this marvelous actor's 129th birthday on November 10. We are just focusing on his extensive film career, and we are putting no limitations on duplicates. We want to hear everyone's opinions on his wonderful movies! You can read the announcements and sign up here:

I would also like to invite you to join a blogathon which my sister, Tiffany, is hosting, "The Second Annual Great Breening Blogathon." This blogathon, which will be taking place on October 12-17, is a celebration of the Code, its Era, and its enforcer, Joseph I. Breen. We are using this blogathon to honor Joseph Breen on his 130th birthday, which would have been on October 14. However, we are extending the blogathon to October 17 to celebrate the second anniversary of PEPS, which was founded on October 17, 2016. You can participate by breening a film that is not from the Breen Era (1934-1954) or by analyzing a Code films. You can also discuss an aspect of the Code, its influence on Hollywood, or Mr. Breen itself. You can find out more and join here:

We hope you can join. We could really use your talent!


Rebekah Brannan

5:13 PM  

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