Lionel Atwill

House of Dracula (1945, Erle C. Kenton)

House of Dracula is immediately disappointing. The film opens on man of science Onslow Stevens as Dracula (played by a boring John Carradine) comes visiting, hoping for some cure to vampirism. Will Carradine try to seduce Martha O’Driscoll’s fetching nurse? Will something go wrong with Stevens’s cure for Carradine? Unfortunately, yes to both. Director Kenton and screenwriter Edmund T. Lowe Jr. don’t so much have foreshadowing in Dracula as much as they immediately follow tangents.

The film feels relatively tame; I wonder if it was meant for a more child-aged audience than usual. George Robinson’s photography is boring, though somewhat competent–the shadows don’t tell stories or hide monsters, they’re just contrasted well against the lights. There’s no nuance to Dracula. Kenton’s particularly disappointing.

Lon Chaney Jr. escapes mostly unscathed. He has a lousy part but he does try. Same goes for the rest of the cast, with the exception of Carradine. Once Stevens starts to feel the effects of the vampirism, he plays an excellent Mr. Hyde. But Lowe’s script is still lame. Kenton’s direction is still disinterested.

Some of the problem is how uncomfortable the film gets with Jane Adams’s nurse. She’s the hunchbacked assistant this picture, only Lowe doesn’t give her anything to do. Kenton gives her a little more–mostly because O’Driscoll’s just around for the nurse’s outfit’s skirts–but not enough. The film’s in desperate need of a protagonist. It’s not Stevens, it’s not Chaney, it’s not Adams.

In Dracula’s smallest significant role–inciting, wrong villager–Skelton Knaggs does some good work. It’s a shame there’s not a good film here for him to be doing that work in.

House of Dracula barely runs sixty-five minutes. It’s boring from the first three minutes. Nothing so short, so full of monsters and effects and Universal contract players should ever be boring.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Erle C. Kenton; written by Edmund T. Lowe Jr.; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; produced by Paul Malvern; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Onslow Stevens (Dr. Franz Edlemann), John Carradine (Count Dracula), Lon Chaney Jr. (Lawrence Talbot), Martha O’Driscoll (Miliza Morelle), Jane Adams (Nina), Lionel Atwill (Police Inspector Holtz), Ludwig Stössel (Siegfried), Skelton Knaggs (Steinmuhl) and Glenn Strange (The Frankenstein Monster).


Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V. Lee)

Son of Frankenstein is a mostly wasted opportunity. For everything good, there’s something significantly wrong with it. The script is good, director Lee doesn’t direct actors well. The German Expressionist-influenced sets are great, Lee shoots it so stagy, the sets go to waste. Lee likes his long shots. He and editor Ted J. Kent do nothing to make the cuts interesting. Though, really, Kent doesn’t have any material to work with. Lee has about six different shots and he just goes through them in a cycle. It’d be annoying on its own, but with everything else, it gives Son of Frankenstein way too much narrative distance. If the sets had been worse, if the actors had been better, who knows….

The Son in the title is Basil Rathbone. He is returning to Castle Frankenstein. Oh, right–it’s basically a lot like Young Frankenstein. Rathbone discovers the monster, brings it back to life, chaos ensues. He’s got a wife (Josephine Hutchinson in an admirable performance given all the constraints on her–Lee’s lack of direction, Rathbone’s inability to share scenes) and son (Donnie Dunagan, who’s supposed to be adorable). Right off, Rathbone’s a mad scientist. Most of the film has him hanging out with Bela Lugosi (who understands how to upstage a screen hog and delivers a fairly solid performance). Lionel Atwill’s around as a police inspector with only one arm. Yes, there’s a dart scene in Son too.

Oh, right. The Monster. Boris Karloff. You’d think he’d be important but he’s not. There’s no room for Karloff or the Monster in Son, not with Rathbone, Lugosi and Atwill. Atwill’s got more chemistry with Hutchinson than Rathbone and Atwill’s not even good. Lee doesn’t direct him and sort of lets him dangle in the film’s most thankless, but most important role.

Karloff is great. He has almost nothing to do, but watching him examine himself in the mirror, one can just imagine how good it would be with better direction. Cooper’s script is full of little moments Lee just can’t convey. The script’s far from perfect–anyone but Rathbone needed to be the lead the story, the part itself is inherently unlikable and Cooper doesn’t go anywhere interesting with it.

Really lame music from Frank Skinner doesn’t help things.

Even when Son of Frankenstein feints to impress, it manages to disappoint. And most of it is Lee’s fault.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Rowland V. Lee; written by Wyllis Cooper; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Basil Rathbone (Baron Wolf von Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Lionel Atwill (Krogh), Josephine Hutchinson (Elsa von Frankenstein), Donnie Dunagan (Peter von Frankenstein), Emma Dunn (Amelia) and Edgar Norton (Benson).


The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, Erle C. Kenton)

The Ghost of Frankenstein is pretty bad stuff. Running less than seventy minutes, it’s unbearably boring from the twenty-five minute mark, once the picture focus on Cedric Hardwicke.

Ghost opens with villagers pursuing Bela Lugosi’s evil hunchback. Though awful, Lugosi’s at least an enthusiastically vile character. Hardwicke–playing a neurosurgeon with his own castle (he’s a Frankenstein, after all)–is bad and boring.

Besides the subplot (if one wants to be gracious and call it a subplot) involving the Frankenstein monster (Lon Chaney Jr. here) befriending a child, played by Janet Ann Gallow, the best thing in the main part of the film is the flashback to the original Frankenstein. It’s never clear, but the flashback infers Lugosi was the hunchbacked assistant in that film. Only, he wasn’t… Dwight Frye doesn’t just appear in the flashback, he shows up at the beginning of the film too, along with some other Universal monster movie regulars.

Also lousy is Lionel Atwill. He and Hardwicke have some painful scenes together.

The end’s pretty cool for a few minutes, when Lugosi’s evil brain ends up in the body of the monster. Chaney has a great time mouthing the words and doing a Lugosi impression.

Ralph Bellamy keeps a straight face for his role as town prosecutor (who knew Eastern European villages had legal systems based on the United States) and Evelyn Ankers is okay.

Scott Darling’s script’s disastrous; Kenton has a handful of decent shots. Nice photography of bad sets.

Ghost is ghastly.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Erle C. Kenton; screenplay by Scott Darling, based on a story by Eric Taylor; directors of photography, Elwood Bredell and Milton R. Krasner; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by George Waggner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Cedric Hardwicke (Ludwig Frankenstein), Ralph Bellamy (Erik), Lionel Atwill (Doctor Bohmer), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Evelyn Ankers (Elsa Frankenstein), Janet Ann Gallow (Cloestine Hussman), Barton Yarborough (Dr. Kettering), Doris Lloyd (Martha), Leyland Hodgson (Chief Constable), Olaf Hytten (Herr Hussman), Holmes Herbert (Magistrate) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Monster).


Mark of the Vampire (1935, Tod Browning)

MGM cut at least twenty-five percent out of Mark of the Vampire, which accounts for some of the plotting problems but still leaves the film a little messy. Ben Lewis’s editing is weak during dialogue exchanges, not just in general. And no amount of studio interference could have changed Browning’s reliance on weak special effects.

There is, however, one special effect sequence of startling mastery. Unfortunately it only lasts six seconds.

Vampire is a mix of Universal horror and MGM character drama. Elizabeth Allan and Henry Wadsworth are the engaged couple, Donald Meek is the comic relief, Lionel Barrymore is the wise old man. It feels very comfortable, but it’s so plot-heavy (it’s impossible to know if Browning intended it to be so) one can’t really enjoy the cast enough. Though Allan’s weak and Wadsworth looks lost in a horror film.

Vampire tries for reality–it has a definite setting, a small town near Prague in 1935–and is partially successful.

Jean Hersholt is fantastic as Allan’s guardian. The film contracts a lot in scope–the studio edits move the halfway point up twenty minutes. But Hersholt keeps it grounded for that first half, before he can pass it over to Barrymore.

Browning too occasionally has a great shot or two (ably assisted by James Wong Howe’s photography) but not enough overall. He usually stumbles during the dramatic scenes.

Vampire should be better. Maybe, before the studio got ahold of it, it was more successful. And maybe not.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; screenplay by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert, based on a story by Browning; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by Browning and E.J. Mannix; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lionel Barrymore (Professor Zelen), Elizabeth Allan (Irena Borotyn), Bela Lugosi (Count Mora), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Neumann), Jean Hersholt (Baron Otto Montay), Henry Wadsworth (Count Fedor Vincenty), Carroll Borland (Luna Mora), Donald Meek (Dr. Doskil), Ivan F. Simpson (Jan), Leila Bennett (Maria) and Holmes Herbert (Sir Karell Borotyn).


Man Made Monster (1941, George Waggner)

Man Made Monster, at least for the first fifteen minutes (of an hour), gives Lon Chaney Jr. one of his best roles. He gets to be the affable guy his other performances from the forties often hint he’s capable of being, but never gets to be. Not surprisingly, Monster takes that aspect of his character away and turns him once again into a tragic monster. This time, Lionel Atwill is turning him into an electronic zombie.

Lots of Man Made Monster is familiar. The opening reminds a great deal of Unbreakable, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say M. Night Shyamalan is aware with this film–it’s clear from his films he doesn’t know anything about movies. And Danny Elfman has at least heard Hans J. Salter’s score, as he turned some of it into the Batman score.

The film’s uncredited legacy aside, it’s a misfire–too cheap, too short. There’s not enough time spent with Chaney to make it a significant tragedy and the special effects are goofy. A glowing electric man is not scary.

There’s a lot of great acting here. I’m not sure if Atwill’s ever had more fun; he’s a joy to watch as he oozes evil. Samuel S. Hinds plays the good scientist here and does well. Anne Nagel and Frank Albertson are somewhat unlikely love birds who figure Chaney’s not really bad; it’s got to be mad scientist Atwill.

Waggner has some great closeups and some mediocre medium shots.

It pretty much evens out.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Waggner; screenplay by Waggner, based on a story by Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz and Len Golos; director of photography, Elwood Bredell; edited by Arthur Hilton; music by Hans J. Salter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lionel Atwill (Dr. Paul Rigas), Lon Chaney Jr. (Dan McCormick), Anne Nagel (June Lawrence), Frank Albertson (Mark Adams), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. John Lawrence), William B. Davidson (District Attorney Ralph Stanley), Ben Taggart (Police Detective Sergeant), Chester Gan (Wong), George Meader (Dr. Bruno) and Russell Hicks (Warden Harris).


The Vampire Bat (1933, Frank R. Strayer)

It’s hard not to be, at least, somewhat impressed with The Vampire Bat, if only because it came out in 1933 as a knockoff Universal horror picture. Except at this point, there’d only been Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. The Vampire Bat brilliantly resembles a Universal horror picture in every way but the filmmaking. There’s the burgomaster, played by the same guy as in Frankenstein (Lionel Belmore). Dwight Frye plays a role somewhat similar to Renfield. It’s only the three principles who don’t really fit–and Lionel Atwill would go on to do a lot of Universal horror pictures.

The screenwriter Lowe eventually did write a Universal horror picture. It took him eleven years, but he wrote House of Frankenstein.

It’s a knockoff, but it’s an effective knockoff made on a lower budget without music. By Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935, music was very important in the Universal horror formula. Seeing one of these pictures without the music is very interesting–it’s a transitory step, but made by a different studio.

The film was shot on the Universal backlot at night. But the set isn’t directed like it’s a Universal horror picture. Frank R. Strayer had time to do a lot of crane shots. His interior shots aren’t impressive (way too much headroom), but the exteriors and transition shots, it looks like Curtiz shot it during his exterior movement phase.

It distracts the viewer from realizing he or she has never seen the exterior of Lionel Atwill’s house. It’s referred to as the castle, but it’s never shown.

Atwill is pretty bad. He would go on to develop a certain character and he hasn’t gotten to it here. Fay Wray’s in it, just before Kong. They don’t use her much. She’s the girl in peril, but only a little bit. The movie only runs sixty-five minutes. She’s second-billed and it’s like they couldn’t get her to stay up late to shoot.

The most interesting thing is Melvyn Douglas, being someone who went on to greater fame. He’s fantastic in this film. He’s very aware of what film he’s in, almost mugging for the viewer when he has to deliver crazy lines–actually, when the other actors deliver the crazy lines to him, you can feel his understanding of how absurd the viewer feels watching the exchange.

Maude Eburne plays Wray’s aunt. It’s never explained why Wray works for Atwill or why Eburne lives there with them (Wray probably lives here because she’s Atwill’s assistant). It’s also never explained what kind of medicine Atwill practices (or why he needs the Universal horror bubbling devices).

Thinking about The Vampire Bat at all, it collapses–which isn’t to say it holds up. It’s an interesting debacle. It ends on a joke and it’s one of the most unfunny jokes you could end on. There’s a whole comic element to the film. Eburne’s played for laughs and it makes no sense.

For a sixty-five minute film to be as meandering and as loosely constructed as this one, it’s impressive.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr.; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Otis Garrett; produced by Phil Goldstone; released by Majestic Pictures.

Starring Lionel Atwill (Dr. Otto von Niemann), Fay Wray (Ruth Bertin), Melvyn Douglas (Karl Brettschneider), Maude Eburne (Aunt Gussie Schnappmann), George E. Stone (Kringen), Dwight Frye (Herman Gleib), Robert Frazer (Emil Borst), Rita Carlyle (Martha Mueller), Lionel Belmore (Bürgermeister Gustave Schoen), William V. Mong (Sauer), Stella Adams (Georgiana) and Harrison Greene (Weingarten).


The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939, Harold S. Bucquet)

Watching The Secret of Dr. Kildare is about two things–seeing Lionel Barrymore’s fantastic performance (even as he’s spouting expositional dialogue, it’s riveting) and finding out the deep dark secret of patient Helen Gilbert. It’s the third film in the series and the staples are already in place–Lew Ayres, under some false pretense, stops working for Barrymore. Ayres’s parents, Samuel S. Hinds and Emma Dunn, show up for some contrived reason. Laraine Day is heartbroken Ayres doesn’t know she loves him. Nat Pendleton flirts with Marie Blake before having one fantastic scene involving a fist fight. The script’s just loose melodramatic threads to get these set pieces into place, held together by the cast’s likability, Barrymore’s talent and the mystery to be solved.

What’s most distressing about the film is its length. It only runs eighty-four minutes but halfway through, it’s already at a near standstill. It’s excruciating at times because the titular Secret is one the audience knows and the film’s present action is a couple weeks. There’s no tension to it–it’s just a matter of how everything will be fixed by the end, not if. The script doesn’t take any chances, it’s all paint by numbers. The mediocrity makes every decent moment in the film seem fantastic, whether it’s Ayres picking up Day for a date or Barrymore fishing with assistant George Reed. The occasionally inventive developments–like Grant Mitchell’s crack “doctor” and Sara Haden’s wacko–get Secret‘s heart rate up, waking the viewer.

While the script gives Barrymore a complex, textured character, Ayres’s Dr. Kildare–especially considering the film’s title bares his name–gets a lukewarm treatment. Ayres gives a fine performance–though Bucquet and editor Frank E. Hull hold reaction shots too long–but there’s no enthusasim… not just from Ayres, but from the film itself. He’s the least interesting character in the film, when he’s not around Barrymore, Dunn or Pendleton, it’s hard to believe Ayres could stay awake to deliver his lines. The scene with his fellow interns offers three other characters who give the impression of being far more interesting. Ayres’s romance with Day is boring–she’s far more lively in her scenes with Barrymore. When it’s just Ayres and Gilbert, only the change in setting, from the hospital to a skyscraper observatory for instance, keep the film moving. If it weren’t for Haden’s loon, the second half (when Barrymore and Ayres are bickering) would be static.

Bucquet, besides that annoying editing laziness I mentioned before, does a decent job. He keeps the scenes with Barrymore, those long expository scenes, interesting. But he doesn’t do anything to overcome the script’s shortcomings.

Besides Barrymore, there’s some fine acting from Pendleton (who has almost nothing to do, but approaches it with relish) and Lionel Atwill. Atwill’s a fine character actor, it’s a shame he’s mostly known for his work in horror films. Gilbert’s okay… as the film progresses, she gets more histrionic. Day has nothing to do.

It’s hard to get involved with the film or invested in it, because there’s little sign the filmmakers had any interest either.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Harry Ruskin, based on a story by Max Brand; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by David Snell; produced by Lou L. Ostrow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Jimmy Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Lionel Atwill (Paul Messenger), Helen Gilbert (Nancy Messenger), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Sara Haden (Nora), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Walter Kingsford (Dr. S.J. Carew), Grant Mitchell (John Xerxes Archley), Alma Kruger (Head Nurse Molly Byrd), Robert Kent (Charles Herron), Marie Blake (Sally), Martha O’Driscoll (Mrs. Roberts) and Nell Craig (Nurse Parker).


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