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?


Rick Olson said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Jonathan ... any movie with a character named "Horace Femm" is worth looking up.

Jonathan Murder Lappendre said...

It's utterly enjoyable. It's got the creepy house, the crazy family and screwball comedy. And Melvyn Douglas meeting a call girl, falling in love in less than 10 minutes and proposing marriage in under 30. And that's not even close to being the oddest thing in the movie.

Flesheating Arbogast said...

Melvin Douglas is so great in this, playing probably the most normal person in the whole film. (His best work remains for me Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.) But everyone's great and the setting is, well, to die for. My wife has been saying "Have a po-tay-to" for ten years because I made her watch this once.

Flesheating Arbogast said...

By the way, Elspeth Dudgeon has another great little role in The Woman Who Came Back, which is good Halloween viewing. Put it in your Netflix queue now.

Jonathan Murder Lappendre said...

Douglas had such a modern feel to his acting from so early on that I think he always startles people expecting to find stiff, early sound period acting from him. And he is marvelous in Blandings, delivering the driest, straight faced lines of the movie and getting the most laughs.

But there is great acting all around in this movie. Stuart's not bad either, it's just that she's merely adequate while everyone else is high entertainment.

And The Woman Who Came Back - I'll queue it up now. Thanks.

All the colors of Arbogast said...

"Bill Cole. Friend of the family."

Jonathan Murder Lappendre said...

"Who needs engineers, this isn't a train."

"I just saw it move."

Gloria said...

A favourite film of mine, as well!

And not only for Good Ol' Charlie... But Also: Gloria Stuart comments that, in order to make his first entrance, Laughton went running up and down the soudstage to get properly out of breath: While Miss Stuart has a point in saying that the breathlessness could be faked, it is also true that when laughton enters there's some thing pretty genuine about his out-of-breath-ness. I also like that he plays an unusually cheerful character (for him), even if Sir William has some skeletons in the closet.

Lillian Bond's decision to lerave Laughton for Douglas I find puzzling, and wrong, LOL, of course, Even Gloria Stuart comments she felt sorry for the laughton Character.. But seriously, it somehow fits the story and I gotta admit that Melvyn Douglas is one helluva charmer ;D

As for other things... The Femms are utterly enjoyable lot in their a-mouldering madness. Thesiger and Moore are a hoot! I wonder if the decrepit Femms are Whale's comment on the Ancien Regime values in the -then- very classist Britain... But then, we're talking about a man of low-class origins who pretended to be a high-class dandy in Hollywood

BTW, here you have some related links I have stored about the film:
Interview with James Whale:

Other assorted comments:

bill r. said...

Since Karloff is in this movie (which I just bumped up the queue), here's that list of "Professor Paul Jensen's* Ten Favorite Two-Character Scenes Featuring Boris Karloff (Plus One Bonus)" -- and I'm ashamed to admit that I've only seen half of these:

1. With Clark Marshall, in The Criminal Code

2. With Edward G. Robinson, in Five Star Final

3. With Robert Young, in The Guilty Generation

4. With Zita Johann, in The Mummy

5. With Lawrence Grant, in The Mask of Fu Manchu

6. With Bela Lugosi, in The Raven

7. With O. P. Heggie, in Bride of Frankenstein

8. With himself, in The Black Room

9. With Henry Daniell, in The Body Snatcher

10. With Peter Bogdanavich, in Targets

The "bonus" refers to Karloff's Playhouse 90 performance as Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

And I know what you're all saying: "But Bill, which scenes specifically is Prof. Jensen talking about??"

Well, my break is 15 minutes. Cut me some slack.

*Jensen is a film history/appreciation professor at SUNY-Oneonta. Wherever that is.

All the colors of Arbogast said...

In a faraway land men call... New York.

Jonathan Murder Lappendre said...

Are comments finally back? I couldn't access them for the longest time (I started having flashbacks to haloscan).

Gloria - Thanks for the great links. Everyone is so great in that Femm family it almost makes you want to visit them doesn't it?

And I think Laughton was right, not Stuart. If running up and down the set a few times adds to the authenticity of being out of breath, what's the problem in doing it.

Bill - Thanks for the list. I've only seen half as well. I haven't seen The Criminal Code, Five Star Final, The Guilty Generation, The Black Room, and as everyone here knows because I put it in my queue a couple of weeks ago, Targets. But that will be seen within the week. So that will leave four I haven't seen.

That's Arbo's cue to come in and casually mention how he's seen them all, four times each. He thinks he's so big.

Fox said...

Republican who, Democrats what?!? JUST KIDDING!...

I haven't seen Karlof in that much, but I have seen him in Targets and he's just great. He's like Martin Landau doing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood except he's Karlof doing himself.

I also wish someone would do Bela Karoli in a movie. And Abe Vigoda too.

p.s. Arbo is very big.

Jonathan Murder Lappendre said...

Arbo's average size. I'm bigger, muscle-wise I mean.

And Abe Vigoda wouldn't have been bad playing Karloff's brother in something.

All the colors of Arbogast said...

I am exactly 6'0", or as I like to tell people, I'm 5'13."

I haven't seen The Criminal Code or The Guilty Generation and I haven't looked at Five Star Final in many moons. I do recommend The Black Room, though, which was included on one of those DVD box sets of Karloff films. And Targets is exceptional, although it merits saying it probably would have been exceptional even if he hadn't been in it.

The Nellhaus that Dripped Blood said...

I've also wanted an official DVD release of Thriller, as posted here.

I saw The Old Dark House courtesy of Wm. K. Everson. That "Have a potato" seems to make a big impression on everybody.

Jonathan Murder Lappendre said...

As in you were actually at the theatre during a program he scheduled? That would be quite cool. You know, I think I mentioned this in my post from a month or so ago but he was Joe Franklin's assistant on the Classics of the Silent Era book I have.

And Thriller. That didn't get run with any regularity in syndication like Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, & Hitchcock so they would all feel completely new to me. Come to think of it, I haven't seen The Outer Limits in the longest time either so that would feel pretty new to again too.

Fox said...

On Targets...

If I'm not mistaken, I think there is a scene of Bogdanovich watching The Criminal Code. I haven't seen The Criminal Code so I didn't catch it by eye, but I think he mentions it on the commentary.

Gloria said...

Incidentally, whenever I see the film and, well, hear about the "Femm" family, I get an extra chuckle, for you know, "fems" in Catalan means... dung!

I doubt whether either J.B. Priestley (who wrote the original novel) or James Whale had this non-English acception... still, rsomehow it fits, LOL

Jonathan Murder Lappendre said...

I don't know if they considered that or not but it is kind of funny. I just like the last name period: Femm. I start humming Blister in the Sun whenever I think of it.

bill r. said...

Fox - Bogdanavich does watch The Criminal Code in Targets (as well as, I think, The Raven, which is presented as having been directed by the character he plays). It gives Bogdanavich a chance to indulge in his fetish for praising Howard Hawks (a very understandable impulse, mind you).

Targets is really, really, really good. I saw it for the second time just recently, after many years, and if anything I loved it more. It's one of my favorite movies.

Gloria said...

Incidentally, the "lost in the storm" bits at the beginning of "The Old Dark House" are a riot, too: Massey's exasperation as the water drips down his neck, the waterlogged map, Melvyn Douglas' unearthly and utter non-chalance... When I first saw this film on a theatre, there was a communal scream (of laughter) when the avalanche further worsens their situation.

And Targets is a great film, oh yes...