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Monday, February 15, 2021

Classic Literature Props Exploitation Horror

Still "Masters of Macabre" After a Hundred Years

There is charm in being misled. Did you know Nathaniel Hawthorne was a “horror” writer? Just like Edgar Allan Poe! I learned of both “Masters of the Macabre” at an early age, Hawthorne familiar from when Twice-Told Tales came out in 1963, and a neighbor boy showed me Dell’s comic adapt. Missed the picture, maybe a blessing, because it isn’t much good, but wonder now if the omnibus led ones of my age and stripe to explore, eventually embrace, classic literature. Did not accomplish that for me, regret to say, but at least I knew Hawthorne, Poe, plus Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, each from whom famous monsters sprang. Getting youth to read requires sugar in the spoon. Trouble was I wanted just the sugar, so would duck past century script, even with Vincent Price on a paperback cover. Belated penance of late put me to reading tales as Hawthorne-told, a pair loose fitted to the ’63 film, Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappaccini’s Daughter. I also watched House of the Seven Gables, done by Universal in 1940 (Kino has it on Blu-Ray). Price was in that, did Seven Gables again for a last forty-five minutes of Twice-Told Tales. Maybe his was penance in late-life narrating (1990), for the Seven Gables house museum, a tour through the Salem, Massachusetts site, Price an obvious choice for such a commission.

Being of the nineteenth century, during which none of their works were properly copyrighted, Hawthorne and Poe took what adulation they could in lieu of cash badly needed, Poe for instance in receipt of $15 for The Raven, otherwise a greatest hit of his. Suppose he regretted not going to blacksmith school? It was 1851 before writing supported Hawthorne (age 47 by then), while Poe, credited by many as the first American author to, if only occasionally, live off his work, knew more lean than flush times, declaring bankruptcy at a point where he should have basked off fat of the literary land. Trouble was others routinely stealing off him, plus Hawthorne, so that all the two got was initial publishing fees, then what could be earned from lectures or public readings, not unlike musicians today who perform live to compensate for recorded work pinched offline by fans who profess to admire them. Hawthorne/Poe lived in gothic times, and so often wrote gothic stories. Hawthorne had changed his name (from Hathorne) due in part to an ancestor judge who sentenced witches to hang. Poe was branded a chiller man despite but a dozen to fifteen, out of seventy tales he wrote, being what we would call horror. Hawthorne “tales and sketches” ran to a hundred, on top of novels, essays, done for meagre fee from magazines/literary journals that had begun to flourish during both writers’ lifetime. Hawthorne and Poe were contemporaries. Oft-acerbic reviewer of books and poetry Poe sized up Hawthorne on several occasions, glowingly as befits a fan. “Eddie” (some actually called him that) has been passed down as a grim visage, hard to dismantle since his passing (1849, age 40). Want an antidote to Poe as life-long drab and eternal sufferer? Read some of scathing reviews he penned, many are riotous funny. Imagine comforts to be enjoyed had Poe been around for a 1960’s peak of movie-lent prominence. Ahead of his time? I’d say by a hundred years at least.

What is that expression … lipstick on a pig? Twice Told Tales tried it on Hawthorne, not that his stuff was piggy and needed lipstick, but a “Master” of the macabre? The trailer says yes, this as a free-floating skeletal arm chokes life out of Vincent Price. Stories are altered, but Hawthorne concepts peep in. To faithfully adapt Hawthorne or Poe for cameras is a tough nut, capturing their spirit as much as translators could hope for. I do not feel robbed of Hawthorne for watching Twice Told Tales, dull as it frequently is despite jab of woke corpses and attempt to bury alive an unwanted wife. Quoth the trailer’s narration (Paul Frees): “In this garden of evil unfolds the most diabolic delineation of the most fantastic horror conceived by a distorted mind.” AIP used same verbal gymnastics for their Poe previews. Sam Arkoff must have had kittens when he saw how United Artists ripped him and Jim off. For so many saying Poe was morbidly sick (maybe Hawthorne too after Twice-Told Tales), what were we but willing watchers of stuff that would have made these venerable authors blanch, whatever their diabolic delineations. Hawthorne’s reputation at least had The Scarlet Letter in reserve so as not to be tarred with too black a brush. It was understood, at least by men of letters, that his and Poe's style was “Dark Romanticism,” definition which suggests steep grade to horror where called for, switch to latter routinely made by those spiking their punch. Universal’s House of the Seven Gables, a strictly class approach, may not be the “Towering Screen Triumph” its 1940 pressbook promised, though it towers comfortably over 1963’s tab version. I was interested to see if Universal, being Universal, sold House of the Seven Gables on scare terms, it coming at start of a second shock cycle propelled by a fresh Frankenstein and new Mummy also from the company.

Peruse of ads and publicity suggest U did not forfeit Hawthorne’s dignity. The “Millions Upon Millions” who had read “One of the Best Sellers Of All Time” (was it actually?) might well have shrank from spook overlay, Universal understanding that a monster market was a distinctly limited one. What they stressed was romance, a barest hint of mystery via ad art of the baleful house, an alternative style proposing romance “enthralling” for pictured Vincent Price and Margaret Lindsey, “Love Comes Smilin’ Through” evoking memory of tremendous success MGM had made of 1931’s Smilin’ Through, which narrative did intersect
 Gables in meaningful ways. A family curse theme is neutered by the casting of Dick Foran as present-day descendent of vengeance seekers, him wooing Nan Grey, a still incubating “Star of Tomorrow” for Universal. The company sought prestige they could book into theatres as a single, Hawthorne’s name at least a start toward that. Here too was Vincent Price being floated, more so than before or after, as a romantic lead, which we know would not entirely come off, a break for him as things turned out. Price and first-billed George Sanders might have commiserated in years to come re similar paths careers took. Who do you suppose was first to identify sinister, or at least untrustworthy, aspects in the Price persona?

Any name associated with good writing was coin of the realm from the beginnings of film. No Hawthorne or Poe story would show up on an expense column, thanks to their being so old, and better than that, so free to use. No telling how much by these two wound up as basis, official or not, for early silent shorts. Home viewing as 50’s-primitive found Hawthorne and Poe ideal 
to fill an anthology hour, or half that. I found a Suspense episode, done live (1949), Bela Lugosi in Poe’s A Cask of Amontillado, updated to post-WWII, the 1846 yarn nothing if not flexible. Cask can be viewed at You Tube, along with Feathertop, adapted from Hawthorne for a December 4, 1955 General Electric Theatre featuring Natalie Wood and Carleton Carpenter. Feathertop tells of a witch who constructs, then animates, a scarecrow. I read the Hawthorne story, 20 pages to which 35 minutes was invested, all of it easy to picture on a screen. Turns out Feathertop was adapted numerous times, mostly on television. Point I lurch toward is relevance great writers of a century before maintained, particularly during the 50’s when there was endless TV time to fill, then the 60’s with Hawthorne/Poe handy still to exploit, amended to suit needs of what serious readers would have called a debased marketplace. But debased or not, their work was out there and noticed, and maybe not so shabbily used as first impressions suggest. How many who came up in the 60’s know Poe better as Roger Corman assist than as story source predating them by a hundred years? I wonder if a literary establishment ever acknowledged the contribution movies and television made toward preserving the legacy of these authors. If not, it is time they did.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The comic book adaptations of these films (the AIP Poe pictures, GORGO (MGM), KONGA, REPTILICUS and others) were fun. They paled next to the paperback novelizations filled with sex scenes that introduced myself and others my then age (barely into my teens)to things we had not yet imagined but sure as heck could not stop thinking about once the seed was planted.

Who did they think was buying these things?

Believe me, D. H. Lawrence with LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER had not a farthing on these writers.

A copy of GORGO can be found here for $2: .

I don't believe TWICE TOLD TALES got put through this mill. Poe certainly did.

1:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff has a very specific memory of seeing TWICE-TOLD TALES first-run:

Dear John:

While I readily concede that nearly everything you say about the movie is correct and well observed, I have always had a fondness for TWICE-TOLD TALES. After all, Vincent Price is in it, and the color (Technicolor, rather than AIP's Pathecolor) is appealingly vivid. But I believe whatever warmth I feel regarding the movie stems from the fact that I saw it at a drive-in on Sunday, November 24, 1963.

That weekend, of course, certainly ranks among the most terrible times in American memory. The shock and awful impact of the assassination that Friday was like nothing I'd ever felt before. Our family could do little but watch the reporting on television -- which was the only programming on TV, and it aired continuously until sometime on Monday, November 25 -- while the immensity of what had occurred sank in, and we dealt with our grief. Then, on Sunday morning, while suspect Lee Harvey Oswald was being moved by the Dallas police, he was shot dead by Jack Ruby on live television. This was staggering, and beyond belief.

With all of this lingering heavy in the air, that night, my sister, my brother and I decided to climb into the family car and get away from all of the sadness and turmoil... and go to the drive-in. It was a double-bill; the then recent reissue of DeMille's SAMSON AND DELILAH and UA's new TWICE-TOLD TALES. I recall very little of seeing the DeMille that night, but I remember almost everything about TWICE-TOLD TALES. It was perhaps the only thing all weekend that distracted me from sadness and a sense of feeling utterly overwhelmed. The unusual aspects of this anthology picture -- it's trying to be a horror movie, but somehow really isn't one -- drew me in, and I admired Price's dependably dramatic and effectively florid performance (all right, performances; he played three characters). I still do, actually. Afterward, I felt refreshed. I'd seen something that had briefly taken my worry and sadness away.

My memories of the movie later led me to read Hawthorne. I loved "Tanglewood Tales," his stylish re-telling of Greek myths (do teachers still try to get kids to read this?). "The House of the Seven Gables," seemed a wonderful gothic novel; I was familiar with the story because of the Universal movie and TWICE-TOLD TALES, but the novel's narrative was clearer and more supple and detailed than the film adaptations. I read a clump of his short stories, as well as the fascinating "The Blithedale Romance." I always found "The Scarlet Letter" sort of an opaque disappointment, but many of Hawthorne's other stories and books were accessible, stimulating reads.

TWICE-TOLD TALES is no masterpiece in any way, but I'm grateful for the film. Seeing it that night in 1963 was very helpful to me at a pretty dark time.

-- Griff

4:43 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

While some were quick to deride or denigrate AIP/UA Poe/Hawthorne films as dreck or hack work, Price seems to have had fond feelings. His take was they were adapted from great authors, and I think he rightly took pride in that.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The GORGO paperback is $28.00. , , , .

4:49 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"House of the Seven Gables" was adapted for Shirley Temple's Storybook. It was fitted to one hour, sterilized, and presented on sets that suggested a sprightly variety show or musical special. It's out there in DVD, along with a handful of other episodes including "The Terrible Clockman", which could easily have been staged as horror but was given the same fluffy treatment.

Adapting public domain works was and is a double-edged sword. Anyone could knock out their own version of a famous title, or conjure a "sequel". Did anybody else try to muscle in on AIP's Poe franchise?

Back in the 60s Rankin Bass did a Saturday morning show of Mr. Toad and the Reluctant Dragon, both well-known for their Disney versions. The show didn't try to imitate Disney in any wise, but even my savvy preteen self assumed they had to get Disney's legal blessing. Then of course came home video and the flood of alternate Snow Whites, Little Mermaids, Mulans and even Quasimodos -- some newly hacked out, some dug out of dusty vaults and maybe retitled. I had to admire the moxie of one line that used the slogan, "The Version Kids Love".

5:48 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

That comic book cover for 'Twice Told Tales' is awful. Couldn't they have found a better publicity still than that? I wouldn't have given that comic a second look and would have moved on to Star Spangled War Stories or Classics Illustrated.
Something I never thought of until now; What did the shops do with last weeks (months?) unsold comics when they refilled their racks? Were the comics sent back to the publisher or thrown into the dumpster?

9:59 AM  
Blogger George C. Clark said...

In answer to MikeD's question about comic books, in those days the covers were ripped off and returned to the distributor for credit. The rest of the comic was supposed to be dumped, but some unscrupulous retailers would sell coverless comics under the counter for a fraction of the regular price.

1:07 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers interim courses at our alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne College:

The small college I went to in Hickory offered what was called an “interim” between the fall and spring semesters. For three weeks, the professors could teach anything they wanted, so long as they didn’t repeat themselves from one interim to another. Students would take the courses for credit but without grading. One of the cinematically-inclined professors used it to show films, sometimes in the context of, let us say, the cultural history of the 1920s, or sometimes as part of a history of film as such, but always as film for the sake of film. Another, with a more literary bent, would augment the study of authors with film adaptations of their work. The course one year was called "From the Bookshelf to Hollywood," and considered such novels as Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which was illustrated by a black and white print of the Sam Wood production. I noted to curiosity of the others that the film had originally been presented in Technicolor, something that I would not experience until many years later. For my last year, I took this professor's course on Edgar Allan Poe, already a favorite of mine, and was able to see such films from the Roger Corman series for AIP as “House of Usher,” “Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Tomb of Ligeia.” It was great fun, discussing the stories with like-minded young men and women or comparing the excesses of various biographers as they tried to come to terms with Poe, such as Hervey Allen’s romantic speculations. Within that setting, the films seemed quite good, always valid in concept and atmosphere, if not entirely correct in incident. Of course, they were 16 mm and flat, though in color, the projector was to the rear of the classroom, clattering against the plastered walls, and there was the inevitable delay between reel changes, but this only allowed for more of the conversation I savored. Of that trio of films, I especially enjoyed “The Tomb of Ligeia,” for its quiet development and understated acting--a surprise, given the flamboyance of the other films--that is, until it built to a climax of pure hysteria. That short period between semesters was exhilarating, for study devoted to the sheer love of knowledge, and we returned to the disciplines of the following semester refreshed.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Further to the fate of out of date comics,in the 60s, the distribution network used to double pack comics with no cover or the top third missing and flog them thru smaller shops, gas stations, etc for 15c,a saving of nearly a dime!!!....being able to pick up older, and sometimes the giant issues,so cheaply kick started my collection very nicely.... unfortunately, the double packs disappeared in the late60s or early 70s no doubt as the publishers became aware of the scam, reimbursing the distribution for unsold copies, which were then sold on...

5:56 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Thanks for that answer Mr. Clark! That explains something else I encountered back in the day; some stores (drugstores, shoe stores) would give out free comic books with either generic covers or with the top 2 inches of the cover removed. Wow, if you had a relative who owned a store that sold comics back then and were prescient enough to save a mint copy of each one, you'd be riding high on the hog by now. Not me though, I wouldn't be able to sell a piece of my childhood. And I have boxes of junk to prove it!

9:21 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I have a cousin who had a large trunk full of 1950s-era comic books, collected by himself over that decade, which he - very generously - would let me look at whenever we'd visit. He sold the entire trunk, together with its contents, for what he thought was a very good price back in 1966; and sometimes I wonder, though not very often, what they'd all be worth now.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

A [computer] system that automatically generates comic books from movies and other videos

6:59 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

If Poe and Hawthorne had lived long enough to take a ride in Wells’ Time Machine and travelled into the 1960s, I think they would have appreciated Roger Corman’s treatments of their stories as source material.

12:10 PM  

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