Thursday, October 23, 2008

That is One Old Dark House

Allow me, for a moment, to heap unbridled praise upon Ernest Thesiger. He made dozens of movies in his career, often playing small bit parts but he is most famous for his role as Dr. Pretorious in The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale in 1935, and justly so. He is, to put it mildly, magnificent in this role, providing further proof that a great ham actor is not the same thing as a hammy actor. A hammy actor forces everything, overacts by design and allows you to see the wheels turning every step of the way. A great ham on the other hand is completely a product of nature. That's simply how they are. Playing a role to the hilt comes naturally, feels effortless and doesn't bother the audience. Ernest Thesiger did that in The Bride of Frankenstein to be sure, but before The Bride there was The Old Dark House, also directed by Whale and also containing a magnificent performance by Thesiger.

The Old Dark House was made in 1932, coming on the heels of Whale's success with Frankenstein, made the previous year. To exploit this success, the director was once again teamed with Boris Karloff who plays the role of the lumbering, drunken and violent butler Morgan. And Thesiger is there as the owner of that old dark house, Horace Femm. But the movie also includes Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton (another great ham), Lilian Bond and Gloria Stuart. Stuart is the least impressive of the bunch, or more accurately, the only unimpressive one. Douglas and Massey are as reliable as ever while Laughton bursts onto the scene in expected over the top fashion. Karloff is perfectly menacing as the dangerous butler and Lilian Bond delightful as the free spirited Gladys. But three other standout performances from virtual unknowns come from Eva Moore as Rebecca Femm, Horace's God-fearing, belligerent, cranky sister; Brember Wills as crazed lunatic brother Saul Femms and Elspeth Dudgeon, an actress playing the male role of the 102 year old patriarch of the family, Sir Roderick Femm. The scenes of Dudgeon in bed speaking in a scratchy old voice and laughing the laugh of a too far gone old man who knows they're all doomed is too creepy, funny and effective to put into words.

In fact, this whole movie is too creepy and funny to effectively put into words. Normally, this would be the part of the review where a basic plot synopsis would usually reveal itself but what's the point? Here's all you need to know: Travellers in a storm need a place to stay. Five of them (Douglas, Massey, Stuart, Laugton and Bond) end up at the Femm house for the night. And the Femms, every last one of them including the butler, are nuts. Absolutely, completely and one hundred percent nuts. How can you not make that premise work?

It's a personal favorite of mine and I admit I am biased towards thirties productions anyway. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend The Old Dark House to anyone looking for an early sound production devoid of the usual ill-paced creakiness that accompanies many of the movies made in the first five years of sound film and instead filled with humor, horror and more than a couple of twists and turns. And it's got Ernest Thesiger playing the whole thing for laughs from start to finish. What more could you want?