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Monday, April 26, 2021

What Shook Them Plenty In The Twenties


When The Monster (1922 and 1925) Terrified and Tickled Us 

Lon Chaney in The Monster would seem to have all of necessary ingredients, adaptation from a Broadway play that ran 101 performances, Roland West direction, a dark house with trap passages, human vivisection planned if not carried out … the title alone proposes full and final statement on all things horrific. Think how many chillers before or after might thrive on such definitive labeling to sum up content a hundred score others shared. Were one to make a film about a monster, would it not be ideally called The Monster? Yet we barely know this Monster, regarding little, if any of it, as outstanding, not even Chaney, his entry delayed till thirty minutes in. I've gone years underestimating The Monster, was put right by perusing a collection of Broadway theatre reviews (1918-1923) by Dorothy Parker, most unseen since long-ago publication, then rescue from yellowed newsprint by editor Kevin C. Fitzpatrick. Parker we know as seasoned wit of verse, short stories, general observations with sting in the tail. She roasted many a hapless play, but The Monster wasn’t one of them. The hard-boiled reviewer found it terrifying, sarcasm off. Is it time we acknowledge scary tales told from darkened stages as most effective transmit of tension, a mode to spook us more than mere movies could? For all of shock I’ve seen on celluloid, there’s not been one all-out horror performed live to my eyes. Parker’s shivery review of The Monster from 1922 makes me realize I missed quite a something for not being around when scares issued more from stages than screens.

At first it seemed she was being clever at The Monster’s expense, but no, Parker was genuinely spooked. Mirroring mood of the fun-inflected chiller, there is warning to faint hearts tempered by Dorothy Parker wit that would characterize all she’d do through a long career. The best of previous thrill plays were “as the pattering of raindrops on a tin roof compared to even the calmest stretches of The Monster,” Parker citing The Bat and The Cat and the Canary as “little lullabies” beside this “truly grand show! … The gentleman seated next to me will bear to his grave the marks I left upon him when I clutched him in a frenzy of terror during the close of the second act. Heaven only knows how he laughed off those feminine fingerprints when he got home to his wife.” Parker mentions “electric lights” out front of the Thirty-Ninth Street Theatre announcing “Merry Melodrama” that was The Monster, though she barely found it merry, “you get to that state where you are piteously grateful for any little thing which brings it home to you that it is only a play, after all.” I wondered for reading all this if Dorothy Parker, other critics, audience members, were naturally timid in 1922, not like crocodile-skinned moderns who could stand anything. But explanation is not so simple as that.

Note Parker's 1922 audience was essentially captive in a theatre darkened to extreme on both the stage and among seats, especially during a third act she saw as a summit of terror, what with the heroine strapped to a table and about to be dismembered by a mad surgeon, her would-be rescuer bound in an electric chair and taking repeated shocks from villainy. Consider too a black venue where ingress-egress is made difficult if not unmanageable thanks to loss of visibility save mayhem played out before you. There were also sounds heard from the dark, live sounds, not canned to safe distance by a motion-picture track (and this was before sound movies), onlookers “gnawing the arms off their seats,” as Parker put it. Nothing can duplicate the impact of an actual voice, especially one expressing fear or panic. Consider history of live performers said to electrify crowds, but not able to do so when captured on film. I drove down to watch my niece in a Playmakers rendition of Wait Until Dark, which like The Monster, staged much of action in ink blackness. What jolted us was sudden shrieks and cries from characters we could not see, feeling they might be upon us for being so close. It’s knowing these people are actually there, not at safe remove of projected images. Here is what would give live spook shows their punch, also “haunted houses” at fairs and Harvest fests. The “for real” as opposed to “It’s Only A Movie.”

The Monster
impacts less on film. Had Dorothy Parker gone, she may well have panned it. Yet critics did speak well of The Monster, several saying it topped the play. We care, if at all, because Lon Chaney is the mad “Doctor” Ziska who has taken over a lunatic asylum and cast all of staff into on-site dungeons. Comic relief, much supplied by Johnny Arthur, weighs heavy upon expectation that Chaney will be the pivot point. Fact he isn’t causes resentment toward The Monster, plus our conviction that any chiller directed by Roland West should be way better than this. I saw The Monster a first-time years ago and did fast-forward to Chaney stuff, annoyed to distraction by Johnny Arthur. Reading the Dorothy Parker review pointed up values in the source material I had not considered, The Monster an early source for much that would shape scaring for years to come. So why does undercut of those scares alienate us now? A fan magazine review of The Monster (at right) hints at attitudes of the day, and why laughs were a needed leveler, saying that “mystery executed to the tune of comedy” is “the only way to treat this subject so as not to make it appear ridiculous.” So horror undiluted is, at least was, ridiculous? Was there risk of the audience laughing at proposed thrills not already tempered by laughter? Such policy may explain a lot of what we would see in chillers to come, Doctor X an example many of us have lately enjoyed. Who supplies the comic relief makes a difference, my vote securely with a Lee Tracy, or Glenda Farrell (in Mystery of the Wax Museum), as opposed to less appealing Johnny Arthur in The Monster.

Merry Melodrama was indeed what they wanted, what, in fact, they insisted upon. Remember how 1925’s Phantom of the Opera went back to drawing boards for being unrelievedly horrifying? Comedy was the solution in part, Snitz Edwards a supplier of it. We get him willing or not, a Phantom unexpurgated mere stuff of dreams, Snitz a forever-anchor to show how habit and expectation differed in 1925, a same year The Monster came out. Criticism goes hardest today on comics who were brought in to wet fuses, Johnny Arthur an affront to the Chaney we are there to see, getting way more screen time, even coming to a rescue which will upturn all of henchmen plus Chaney as head threat. The Monster seems an encore of Sherlock, Jr., which it does resemble, even if Johnny Arthur makes a tepid substitute for Buster Keaton. Arthur would continue in comedy, fussy types once sound came, his grip of posterity derived from being ineffectual father to Our Gangers Darla and/or Spanky for mid-to-late 30’s Hal Roach. There was a column in the old Classic Film Collector penned by a “Don Marlowe,” who claimed he was a member of Our Gang. Marlowe wrote, around 1969 as I recall, that Johnny Arthur ended up washing dishes at a hash house of undisclosed locale. For me, this was early insight into how the mighty could fall. Not sure as to accuracy however, as Marlowe was known to tell whoppers. Whatever truth or not of his kitchen policing, Arthur did, by most accounts, finish up destitute in 1951, fated to an unmarked grave at age 68.

Swat That Snitz For Befouling Our Precious Phantom!

The Monster
's house alone is reward for watching. Much like what was designed for the stage no doubt, but here are multiple levels gotten at by retreat or pursuit, advantage had by film over live staging. Night business was shot after sundown on insistence of Roland West, him devising a wire-walk, done in dark and during an electric storm, putting plentiful thrill in thrill comedy. Best way to enjoy The Monster is through eyes of those there in 1925, or 1922 if lucky enough to attend the play. Chaney gets very much into the spirit of fun, less burdened by make-up, thus more his own face than those thousand others, which he uses not to mock his menace, but to revel in exaggeration of it. Complaint I won’t argue with is not enough Chaney, absent for that first half-hour, gone again till the forty-five-minute mark, getting stride for a third act’s wow and final dispatch. His mad lab anticipates what varied Doctor Neff’s of traveling magic-and-excitation put up, then took down, from matinee stages. Chaney with scalpel hovering over a bound victim, her captive swain voltage-seated and fit with a metal bowl cap, evokes not only live spook rallies to come, but Bride of the Monster, which I’d like to think was inspired by The Monster, save fact that Ed Wood was but one-year-old when the latter came out in 1925. Chaney look and gestures are like Hjalmar Poelzig arrived early. Surely The Monster was at least partial model for Boris Karloff’s performance in The Black Cat. Things Chaney does with his hands are a delight across all his work, used here to humorously flamboyant effect. Wonder what he could have done with the Pretorius part in Bride of Frankenstein. I’ll not go further ‘long those lines, lest we recreate virtually all of 30’s horror in Lon’s image.


Blogger Ed Watz said...

Regarding Johnny Arthur's fate after film roles dried up: in 1947, Louella Parsons noted in her syndicated column, "It has just come to my attention that Johnny Arthur, fine character actor, has been unable to get a screen job and has been working in the kitchen of a local hotel." For once Don Marlowe got something right, but if I'm recalling that old article correctly, he falsely claimed that Johnny Arthur committed suicide. So half a point goes to Marlowe, but that's it.

John, your comparison of Arthur's wimp-ish role in THE MONSTER to Buster Keaton's far more dynamic performance in SHERLOCK JR. is a spot-on analogy. Coincidentally, when Charlotte Greenwood appeared in a 1930 stage revival of PARLOR, BEDROOM AND BATH in Hollywood, Johnny Arthur portrayed the milquetoast would-be lover. It's a part Johnny was born to play; you can imagine him traipsing across the stage to cries of "Oh, Mama!". Lawrence Weingarten and Eddie Sedgwick saw this revival and thought it'd be a great vehicle for Buster Keaton, proving once again that no one at Metro Goldwyn Mayer had a clue on how to best use the talents of the greatest comedian they ever had.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I don't mean to derail the subject of your post, but I did some digging about Johnny Arthur. Don Marlowe was only partly right about what happened to him. In 1947 Louella Parsons reported that Johnny Arthur "has been unable to get a screen job and has been working in the kitchen of a local hotel." Almost immediately, radio producer Larry Finley signed Arthur to a one-year contract to appear in the transcribed series "The Diary of Fate." August of 1948 found Arthur on the local stage, in the supporting cast of the Norman Krasna-Groucho Marx play "April Fool" (which failed, and was later retooled as "Time for Elizabeth"). Johnny Arthur appears to have had chronic health problems; he finished out his days at the Motion Picture County Hospital, and was buried at the motion picture fund's expense. The obituary in Variety says Arthur had retired from motion pictures "in 1945 because of failing health."

12:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, Ed and Scott, for this fascinating data re Johnny Arthur. The Marlowe squib did make quite an impression on me at a young age ... to think that someone like Johnny Arthur, or ANYONE associated with Our Gang, could come upon such hard times. Of course, Don Marlowe's was quite a story in itself. Remember when he claimed to posses a print of the Bela Lugosi FRANKENSTEIN screen test?

12:39 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What about Johnny Arthur in the MASKED MARVEL as Japanese spy Sakima???

2:14 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A big part of comedy relief is keeping nervous audiences from laughing at the wrong things.

Now the bloviation:

Many years ago saw an excellent community stage production of "Frankenstein". The playwright was also an outstanding designer, and in addition to handsome sets pulled off some convincing illusions. At one point the monster, an articulate creature determined to make his creator suffer as he had, strangles Frankenstein's fiancee. She lays dead on a couch, her head casually concealed behind some cushions. The monster considers his work. He suddenly pulls her severed head from her body.

The audience gasped, then laughed and applauded. We could guess the actress's real head was concealed within the couch, and the fact we were watching this onstage reassured us she'd be back for the curtain call. The trick in stage terror -- and in screen terror -- is holding the audience just shy of the point where nervous laughter and eager re-embrace of disbelief, our emotional self-defenses, shatter the tension. Had "The Monster's" villain actually begun to carve up the heroine, realistically or not, the initial screams would quickly dissolve into distaste and Parker's review would comment acidly on the vulgar stagecraft.

Hitchcock of course elevated this to art. While he never meddled in what we call horror, he kept us terrified that something awful -- perhaps as mundane as an arrest, but even so -- was about to happen. In fact, a mundane awful could be all the more nerve-racking because it was so plausible and probable. With horror done well the audience never quite reaches the point of pulling away in self-defense. The threat or implication of horror sustains the chill. Its actual portrayal shocks but releases the tension, so that it must be rebuilt with a fresh terror or the story must speed to an ending.

The distance created by film pushes that tipping point out a good distance. Onstage, a beating heart in a jar is quickly viewed as a clever prop. In a decently made movie, the same prop is unsettling. Onstage, explosive violence and gore is more impressive than convincing. Onscreen, horror can go a lot farther before we giggle or sneer that it's all pretend. The most memorable horrors stop just short of making us scream: the girl realizing she's been forgotten in the dungeon, the monster who's not dead, the hint the aliens are still coming for us ... the possibility I'm going to write something longer ...

4:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Always welcome Tom Weaver alerts us to charitable deeds of Johnny Arthur:

From his VARIETY obit:

He spent thousands of dollars in buying meals for the hungry and actors in dire straits. Reportedly, most of a consider­able savings account was thus spent, which left him without funds for himself.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The stage has no close ups, no CGI, and while elaborate stage effects are possible nothing on the scales of the cinema is possible. That said, a person standing on stage before an audience has more power than all the tools the cinema can provide for the stage calls into play the power of our imagination. In my teens I played the old professor in Thornton Wilder's play, OUR TOWN. No elaborate sets. Just actors on a bare stage and the power of well thought out words.

In Toronto I saw the stage production of THE ELEPHANT MAN. Again no special effects, no make up and again the power of well thought out words.

I improvised a 2 1/2 hour piece out of the life of Buster Keaton. Why? Because Keaton improvised and to do Keaton I had to do as Keaton would do. At one point I had no words. Until they came I pulled at some hairs on my arm. In that instant I realized every eye in the theater was in close-up on my arm. It was an awesome learning experience.

The theater has way more power than the cinema.It may seldom use it but it has it.

2:02 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Some time in the '80s, a little theater group in my neighborhood enacted a bunch of short, one-act plays in the style of Grand Guignol. Not every piece worked, but when it did, it was a pretty chilling experience. I wish more theaters tried it.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

My dream of an unexpurgated Phantom includes a sequence showing poor Bouquet being dispatched most cruelly by Erik, via a diabolical use of the sneaky "Punjab lasso"; a sequence showing that would serve to make the later "hand in the air to prevent strangulation" business down in the vaults much less risible.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

"The Monster" was one of the first silent films I ever saw. It ran on public television sometime in the early-to-mid '70s. I suppose I watched because of the title and Chaney's presence in the cast. All these years later I remember absolutely nothing about it or my reaction to it.

11:32 AM  

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