“Top 23” Review: “The Raven” (1935)

The Raven (1935)

Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews, Samuel S. Hinds and Ian Wolfe. Directed by Louis Friedlander (Lew Landers). From Universal Pictures.

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Boris billed with only his last name – like Schwarzenegger – and poor Bela has a new middle name, I guess.

Socialite Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) has been in a car accident and lies unconscious in hospital. Her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), her fiancee, Dr. Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) and a team of doctors are at a loss. Something has impinged on the nerves at the base of Jean’s brain. The imminent Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is called. Judge Thatcher beseeches him to look into the case but Vollin initially refuses until his ego is appealed to. When Judge Thatcher says that all of the doctors in attendance say that Vollin is the only one who can do anything, Vollin agrees to operate. When he sees the beautiful Jean, he is smitten. The operation is a success and Vollin begins to make his designs on Jean known. Jean gently rebuffs the doctor, saying she is going to marry Jerry. This, combined with Judge Thatcher telling Vollin to forget about Jean, sends Vollin over the edge.

Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) arrives at Dr. Vollin’s home late one night. Bateman is on the lam and wants Vollin to change the way he looks so he can avoid the police. Vollin gets an idea. When Bateman suggests that having an ugly face makes one do ugly things, Vollin manipulates the nerve ends at the base of Bateman’s brain leaving him “hideously ugly”. Vollin says he will fix Bateman’s face if Bateman helps him exact his revenge on the Thatchers. Jean, Jerry and Judge Thatcher are part of a overnight party that Vollin hosts at his stately home. During the night, Vollin will set his evil plan in motion.

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“Do I look different?”, Bateman asks, hopefully. “Yes”, Dr. Vollin replies.

As always, I’m here to help you people. I get the feeling that no one has seen “The Raven”. Not the 1963 Roger Corman-directed film that starred Boris Karloff with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre and not the more recent film of the same name starring John Cusack. This version of “The Raven” is one of my “Top 23” favourite films of all-time. Made in the mid-’30’s at the height of Universal’s reign as the premiere monster movie studio, it was a rare chance for Lugosi to feature more heavily in a film than his frequent co-star, Karloff. It’s a well-known story that Lugosi was resentful of Karloff. Lugosi had become popular after his immortal portrayal of Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s legendary “Dracula” (1931) but this left him hopelessly typecast. For one thing, his thick, Hungarian accent made him hard to cast and for another thing the jury was out on the quality of his acting. In “The Raven”, Lugosi not only has the meatier role, more screen time and all the best lines but he actually acts and acts well while Karloff is by comparison poor. Karloff’s character, killer Edmond Bateman, is supposed to be your typical, half-literate, vicious American criminal. Karloff’s dulcet tones and British accent, however, make him a hard sell in this role. A bearded Karloff employs some colloquial dialogue in this film that he simply can’t pull off – he’s too erudite to make it work.

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As Bateman ponders his life, he suggests that a man’s appearance can influence his personality. “You are saying something profound…” says Vollin. He gets a sadistic idea.

I really struggled with how to present this review. The problem is Lugosi. He is very good as Dr. Vollin. I wanted to go into detail describing every scene because of Lugosi and his performance and dialogue. His dense accent seems to add to the luster of the wonderful lines he is provided with. The technique he employs here is perfect for the role of the egotistical fan of Poe who is obsessed with torture and death and he brings exactly what is required to the role. Everything from his accent to his eyebrows to his hair all work together for an excellent characterization. He is simply a joy to watch.

And the dialogue is great. Now, is it so bad that it’s good? I don’t know. It just all works. “The Raven” was written by David Boehm who did nothing, really, of any note besides this film and “A Guy Named Joe”, which Steven Spielberg remade as “Always”. Boehm really threw all of his good stuff into this film. The curator of a local museum visits Vollin wanting to view Vollin’s collection of torture devices. When Vollin says that the raven statue in his study is his talisman, the curator notes that it is a curious talisman, the symbol of death. “Death is my talisman”, declares Vollin. After Jean listens to Vollin play a piece on his pipe organ, she is awed with him. “You’re almost not a man. You’re almost…”. Vollin finishes her thought, revealing his delusions of grandeur: “…a god? A god with the taint of human emotions”. Vollin gives Bateman a tour of his cellar where his torture devices are kept. “They’re very old pieces but, I warn you…ready for use”. Perhaps the finest lines Lugosi is given to speak are delivered after Bateman realizes Vollin has deformed his face. Vollin – with sadistic glee – says “You’re monstrously ugly. Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate. Good! I can use your hate”. At the height of his madness, when his plans are beginning to be realized, Vollin becomes charismatic and bites of a few great lines with relish: “Do you mind if I smoke?”. “A knife – flashing!”. “Yes, I like to torture”. “Fifteen minutes! There’s the clock. You can see it”. “A humble place. But your love will make it beautiful”. And finally, drunk with the joy his diabolical plans are bringing him, Bela achieves the sublime: “What a torture! What a delicious torture, Bateman! Greater than Poe! Poe only conceived it – I have done it, Bateman. Poe! You are — avenged!!”. These are just a few examples of the film’s stellar dialogue.

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Homicidal bliss. “Poe! You are — avenged!!”

A review from the New York Times, however, certainly did not share my love of “The Raven”. In a sarcastic piece that appeared on July 5, 1935, the reviewer lambastes the filmmakers mostly for the fact that they have tied this film to Edgar Allan Poe when, it argues, those ties are flimsy at best. The film, showing at the Roxy Theater, was eviscerated thusly: “the Roxy’s current tenant should have no difficulty in gaining the distinction of being the season’s worst horror film. Not even the presence of the screen’s Number One and Two Bogymen, Mr. Karloff and Bela (Dracula) Lugosi, can make the picture anything but a fatal mistake from beginning to end”. Ouch. In a nice, old school touch, the review ends with a few words about the live show that was also featured with the film, including the dance team of Tip, Tap and Toe and the Freddie Mack Orchestra.

The cast is B-movie bland with a couple of interesting participants. Irene Ware was a beauty queen that spent only a few years making movies, one of which was “Chandu The Magician” with Lugosi. She was also in “Six Hours to Live” (1932) with Warner Baxter in which she played “The Prostitute”. Her story is a common one for her era in that she acted for a time and then quit the business to raise a family. A picture on her Wikipedia page is identified as being from “The Raven” but it is from “Chandu”.

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Irene Ware was a dish; if a generic one

Samuel S. Hinds was always playing judges and doctors except when he was playing Peter Bailey, George’s dad, in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He had been a lawyer for 32 years before becoming an actor in 1933, a year in which he appeared in 22 films. In one year. He went on to have 217 acting credits in 15 years – or almost 14.5 movies a year! Nottingham born Lester Matthews has scores of credits to his name the most notable of which are “Werewolf of London” (1935), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Now, Voyager” (1942), “Niagara” (1953), “Mary Poppins” (1964) and “Assault on a Queen” (1966). He was the go-to guy when you needed a British-type on the cheap. Spencer Charters you’ve seen in many films among them “Libeled Lady” (1936), “Remember the Night” (1940) and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942). He committed suicide in January of 1943 by combining sleeping pills and carbon monoxide poisoning. He then appeared posthumously in “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Inez Courtney was another generic B movie actress. As a young hoofer she had the nicknames St. Vitis, Mosquito and Lightning and then eventually married an Italian nobleman earning her the title Marchesa.

Ian Wolfe was a noted character actor with over 300 credits to his name. For me, Wolfe has the distinction of being in two of my “Top 23” favourite films; “The Raven” and “The Falcon’s Adventure”. But more than that the diversity of his credits is astounding. I grew up loving “WKRP in Cincinnati” and enjoyed Wolfe’s portrayal of Mother Carlson’s sarcastic butler. I couldn’t at first reconcile the fact that this was the same man in “The Raven” 40 years earlier. Wolfe always looked like and played an old man. The same year as “The Raven”, Wolfe appeared in “Mutiny on the Bounty”. He later showed up in “You Can’t Take it With You” with Hinds, 2 “Blondie” movies, 3 “Falcon” movies, “Mrs. Miniver”, “Now, Voyager” with Matthews, “Random Harvest”, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”, “A Place in the Sun”, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. He appeared in everything from the film “Zombies on Broadway” in 1945 to two episodes of television’s “Star Trek” in 1968 and ’69. He was in George Lucas’ first film, “THX 1138” in 1971 and episodes of “Cheers”, “Remington Steele” and “The Fall Guy” before wrapping up his career in 1990 at age 93 in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy”. Consider that he made films with Norma Shearer and Madonna. He died of natural causes in 1992, aged 95, leaving behind his wife of 68 years.

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Ian Wolfe has over 300 credits to his name; from 1935’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” to 1990’s “Dick Tracy” (top left) with countless TV appearances, as well.

Director Lew Landers was only in his second year of directing when he helmed “The Raven”, which he directed while still using his given name, Louis Friedlander. Why he changed his name I don’t know but he went on to direct over 100 films at every major studio but most of his work was done on B pictures at smaller studios. He directed two “Boston Blackie” movies before making his final film, “Hot Rod Gang” in 1958 for American International. He lived out his days directing on television and died in 1962.

One thing Universal always got bang on in their horror films was production design. Albert D’Agostino provided the great sets and look for “The Raven” and close to 350 other films, mostly for RKO. Vollin’s home is one of those great, old ‘movie homes’ with lots of wood, lots of curtains, lots of dark colours. A particularly nice touch is Vollin’s sinister organ (he plays Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” while Jean reclines by the fire) and the cool, little alcove it sits in next to the sitting room.

Those of you who love classic films will know what I’m talking about when I say that “The Raven” means something to me. I go way back with the film. When I was in junior high, I would often read books about the classic Universal horror films as I walked to school. It was a case of me knowing of a lot of those films before I had ever seen them. There was a local channel back then that would still present the old “late show”; a usually low quality print of an old film they would run at midnight and later. They presented a series of Universal horror films from the golden era and I taped “The Raven” on a VHS tape. So ever since I was 14 or 15 (a good 30 years ago now) I have revisited this film countless times. I always felt that it was more ‘mine’ than the other, more popular films of the era. “The Raven” is almost an asterisk or a trivia answer; it is a film that Lugosi and Karloff made together that is certainly lesser known. I eventually bought it on VHS and later on the “Bela Lugosi Collection” DVD set. I have, however, held on to that old Polaroid blank VHS tape I originally taped it on. Later in my early 20’s, I would play the film for my friends in my apartment and even these young, hip kids would enjoy watching Dr. Vollin snap his twig. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Man, they loved it. We would laugh and others would think we were laughing AT the film. But we were laughing because it was so deliciously perfect.

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“Do you mind if I smoke?”

Another aspect of my personal connection with this film involves my family. When my two sons were very young, my wife and I began introducing them to classic film. I would scan our shelves to see which films they could possibly handle or understand. We shared Abbott and Costello with them and Blondie. When Halloween would roll around, I would share the old horror films with them. The old films were creepy and atmospheric without being terrifying, satanic or just plain gross so I’d sit them down and we’d watch. “The Raven” was one of the early ones. Now my boys have a bit of a connection with this film as well.

I hope I’ve achieved what I set out to do; turn you on to a film you may have missed and also to an unsung performance of Bela Lugosi’s. He was never John Barrymore but Bela is forever the Count. And if you want to see him really shining in a role and, for once, outdoing Karloff, check out “The Raven”.

Villians Sometimes Sleep
Villains sometimes sleep.

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