Friday, September 26, 2014

From the Dust Returned: "The Mummy"


Back in college, I remember reading a book called Mumbo Jumbo. It's a radical book from the post-hippy meltdown known as the 1970s. The book itself is fine, but what I remember the most was another piece of work. An academic article from 1992, "The Limbs of Osiris," which was written by Carol Siri Johnson, attempted to tie together Ishmael Reed's novel with The Mummy, a classic Hollywood horror movie that took Boris Karloff's career one step further towards immortality.

Within the article's first paragraph, you know it's a dud. The words "hegemonic," "master-group," and (capital scare words emphasized) "the Canon" appear like individual rounds from a machine gun. There's enough cultural Marxism and post-modernism in Johnson's scribbles to sink a ship, and frankly the only reason I recall the essay at all is because it just so happens to partially focus on one of my favorite films of all time. 

Admittedly, I came to The Mummy through The Mummy, the 1999 adventure film which beefs up the original story's plot with guns, gals, and pulp romance a la the 1920s. Looking back, the '90s film is commendable in some ways, but it cannot compare to its pre-Code ancestor. For starters, whereas the later Mummy is an amalgam of horror, action, and comedy, the first Mummy is strictly a fright film. More than that, Karloff's second big hit after Frankenstein rivals Tod Browning's Dracula in terms of its style and overall mis-en-scène, which combines German Expressionism with American Gothicism. 


The similarities between Dracula and The Mummy are obvious. They begin with the duo of producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. and cinematographer/director Karl Freund, who both worked on the earlier vampire film. Although Browning's name was billed as the director of Dracula, it was fairly common knowledge in the industry back then that the disorganized shoot was partially (if not mostly) done by Freund. Born in Austrian Bohemia, Freund learned cinematography, his lifelong forte, in Berlin before World War I. After the Great War, Freund found himself working on some of the greatest films of Germany's Weimar era - it's "Golden Age" of cultural production. Freund's credits include Expressionist classics such as The Golem (1920), The Last Laugh (1924), and Metropolis (1927). Few men can brag that they worked with both F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and after immigrating to America in 1929, Freund's luck continued. During his much longer American career, Freund worked on pre-Code horror classics such as Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Mad Love (which, along with The Mummy, is a standout example of his directorial skills), plus Freund also worked with screen icons like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (Freund did the cinematography for the Oscar-winning noir film Key Largo) and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (Freund is the man responsible for the lush black-and-white of I Love Lucy). Freund was eventually recognized with an Oscar for his exceptional work on 1937's The Good Earth

But back in 1932, Freund was behind the helm of The Mummy. Although released ten years after the fact, The Mummy owes its story to the many myths swirling around British archaeologist Howard Carter's discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt. For years after, sensational newspaper stories reported of a "Curse of the Pharaohs" which sought to strike down each member of the excavation team for disturbing the royal resting place of what had been a forgettable monarch. The first casualty was Carter's pet canary, the victim of a cobra. Then Lord Canarvan, the English aristocrat who had bankrolled the entire expedition, went to his grave as the victim of blood poisoning. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man behind Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, blamed Canarvan's death on "elemental spirits" who were angered by the tomb's discovery. Odder still, in a diary entry dated from 1926, Carter himself claimed to have seen the image of the jackal-headed god Anubis working in the Egyptian sands one night.  


The fact that most people associated with the 1922 dig lived long and healthy lives seemed of little importance at the time. The idea of Ancient Egyptian curses working their ill-will in the 20th century was too good to let go, and artists, writers, and filmmakers quickly began cashing in on the newish fad of Ancient Egyptian curses. Long interested in the East, Agatha Christie, who later married an archaeologist and even participated in digs herself, wrote the best treatment of the "Curse of the Pharaohs" with "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb," which was published in a collection two years after Carter's headline discovery. 


The malevolent force in The Mummy is not named Tutankhamen, but rather Imhotep. In history, Imhotep was a real Egyptian and was a counselor under the Third Dynasty ruler Djoser. Besides being a noted poet, priest, and scholar, Imhotep is often regarded as a principal player in the construction of King Sekhemkhet's unfinished step pyramid. 


The Imhotep that Karloff plays is altogether nastier than the real man. Brought back to life by an over-eager archaeologist's assistant (played brilliantly by Bramwell Fletcher) who reads aloud from the fictional Scroll of Thoth, Imhotep slouches his way towards modern Cairo in search of his lost love, Ankh-es-en-amon. 

Imhotep, now trying to pass himself off with the thoroughly Ottoman name of Ardath Bey, finds his long-dead lover reincarnated in Helen Grosvenor (played by the Banat German actress Zita Johann). Johann, who was a Spiritualist and believed in reincarnation in her personal life, lends an eroticism to the film, and for much of her on-screen time she's barely clothed. 

The forces trying to stop Imhotep's designs for his new lover are Dr. Muller (played by Edward Van Sloan, who earlier played Dr. Van Helsing), Sir Joseph Whemple (played by Arthur Byron), and Sir Joseph's son Frank (played by David Manners). Unlike Dracula, which, as a play, was co-written by John L. Balderston, who wrote the screenplay for The Mummy, the men of science and rationalism are not the ones who break Imhotep's spell on Helen. Helen's own will weakens Imhotep considerably, while her plea to the goddess Isis is answered, with the patroness of nature and magic emitting the light that ultimately burns the Scroll of Thoth to tinder. In the end, Helen and Frank replace the completely unnatural pairing of Imhotep, the undead mummy, and Helen. 


Although the film was an immediate hit, it did not get the sequel treatment until many years after the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises had already run out of steam. Unlike its peers, which did manage a few great sequels (see: Dracula's Daughter, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein), the later incarnations of The Mummy were universally bad until the Hammer resurrection of the late 1950s. Even then, Hammer's The Mummy had less to do with Freund's film and more to do with the later Universal B-pictures. 

In this view, The Mummy has only been done twice, with the 1999 version a far cry away from a faithful recreation. The 1932 version of The Mummy stands alone as the best Egyptian-themed horror film of the pre-Code era, and in a better world it would've been left alone. Still, every time I listen as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake begins alongside the credits (a device once again lifted from Dracula), I get excited as I know this great movie is about to begin. 


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