After the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal decided to continue it’s foray into monster movies. In 1931, Carl Laemmle Jr. who championed those two films; wanted to find a literary source to base an Egyptian-themed horror film on. When none was found to his liking, Nina Wilcox Putnum was hired to come up with a “Karloff horror film” and also a Tom Mix western. For this film, she started by writing a nine page story called Cagliostro which was inspired by her discovery of the actual historical figure who held seances for Parisian high society in Pre Revolution France.
Her version begins in modern San Francisco and the main character of Cagliostro is masquerading as Dr. Astro, a spiritualist but is secretly an Egyptian priest that has stayed alive for 4000 years by injecting himself with nitrates. In this version, he mainly commits robberies and destroys his enemies by watching them with a television surveillance system and then kills them with a death ray that hones in on medallions he’s given his victims. Many of his victims are women who resemble his ancient mistress who once betrayed him so he kills women who resemble her out of revenge. One of these enemies is millionaire H.G. Whemple. After killing him, Cagliostro is able to frame his physician, Jack who then works to uncover his true identity and expose him as a fraud. Jack’s young girlfriend is Helen Dorington, who resembles Cagliostro’s old lady so of course, he has to kill her and ends up posing as her blind, long lost uncle in order to carry out his nefarious plan.
Upon reading the story, Laemmle thought the treatment “too science fiction. There are no monsters in it”. Putnam’s work was turned over to John L. Balderston, the same writer who adapted to the screen the two plays that Dracula and Frankenstein were based on. Balderston also had covered the famous Tutankhamun story in the 1920’s as a journalist and used that as the main inspiration for turning Dr. Astro into the mummy, Imhotep.
In fact, the story itself starts out in 1921 to deliberately evoke the Tutankhamun story when Imhotep’s tomb is uncovered. This also highlights Balderston’s other big change in moving the action from San Francisco to Egypt, appropriately. Here, we meet the expedition leader, Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), “occult expert” Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) and their assistant, Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher). They’re busy examining Imhotep’s mummified remains which they discover,was buried alive and denied access to the afterlife. Along with the him are found the Scroll of Toth, the mcguffin of the film. After Muller and Whemple go outside, the assistant starts to translate the scroll OUT LOUD, which is incredibly stupid because the scroll is actually an incantation that brings the dead back to life and with that the 4000 year old Imhotep opens his eyes, takes the scroll and shuffles out into the desert. Good old Ralph promptly goes insane and will die offscreen in a sanitarium over the next ten years.
Despite the film’s title (which was originally going to be The Undead), this is the only time we’ll see an actual mummy in this film which was a good thing for Karloff who spent 8 hours in makeup and wrapped up for what consisted of a mere handful of shots and which he called “the most excruciating experience of my life”. It’s an incredible job by Jack Pierce nonetheless.
From here, the story moves forward ten years to introduce everyone to Frank Whemple (David Manners) who has been transformed from Sir Whemple’s doctor to his son who is now following in his father’s footsteps but coming up empty handed.
In walks Karloff who has now taken the alias of Ardath Bey here instead of Dr. Astro and tells Frank he knows the location of Ankh-es-en-Amon’s tomb, the Egyptian Princess and Imhotep’s lover. She’s also the reason why Imhotep was buried alive as we’ll later learn that after her untimely death 4000 years ago, Imhotep defied the gods and attempted to utter the incantations on the Scroll of Toth but was discovered before he could complete the task. For his sacrilege, he was buried alive with the Scroll and now brought back to life again, is determined to finish what he once started with the archaeologists as his unwitting accomplice’s.
Even though that’s the last we’ll see of the mummy until the next outing, the make up here for Karloff is as impressive as his performance, getting to speak for the first time in a Universal monster film. Pierce’s old age make up for Karloff gives the unsettling effect of a walking corpse with incredibly effective lighting on the eyes that clearly demonstrate the paranormal power the character possesses. Karloff’s movements (or lack thereof) is just as effective in this film as they were in Frankenstein. There’s a disquieting stillness to his presence in every scene and stoicism to his expressions and voice that really convey the incredible age of the character and even sans dusty bandages, we’re left with the truly creepy impression of a man who may not be alive or dead. In this “body performance” you can definitely see the inspiration for every zombie character for the next 90 years as well as others. Seeing him move so deliberately and unhurried through a scene made me think of Locutus Of Borg for example.
His stoicism won’t hold for long however because next, we move from the discovery of the Princess’s tomb and Ardath invoking mystical powers to communicate with her, to a party where the heroine of the story is introduced who now becomes Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johan), changed from Helen Dorington in Putnam’s treatment. Here, she’s also not Frank’s girlfriend but a patient of Dr. Muller and half Egyptian which will become very important. Helen seems strangely effected by Ardath’s incantations on the other side of the city before Muller pulls her back into the festivities where she meets Jack for the first time busy celebrating his big find. There’s an instant attraction between the two but on the way home what Ardath is undergoing has a strange effect on Helen and she diverts the cab to the museum where Princess Ankh-ens-en-Amon’s entombed sarcophagus lies. After fainting, Frank takes her home where they eventually meet up with Dr. Muller and Sir Whemple. In a quiet moment, Frank confesses that upon uncovering the Princess’s tomb he fell in love with her and now sees a strong resemblance to the Princess’s face in Helen. And he’s not the only one. Imhotep himself shows up and upon meeting Helen, he sees the face of his beloved, reincarnated in this new form. And here we see the brilliant subtlety in Karloff’s performance as his menacing stoicism cracks and the sadness of his love for this woman begins to emerge.
And here lies, Balderston’s biggest change in the story. Unlike the Cagliostro draft, this story morphs from the formers revenge tale into a love story and it makes all the difference. It’s a change that would become a staple of many horror tales to come including Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula where the same device of love stretching across the centuries would be used to more modern effect. It’s also probably because it’s one of the more easily understandable of spiritual notions. I get it. Reincarnation makes the most sense to me and I’m not a religious person by any means but looking at nature itself, it wastes nothing. The decaying body of animals and humans alike are reconstituted into the earth upon death. Scientists themselves know that energy itself cannot be destroyed but only transferred or transformed into a different form. I’ve often thought this the same with the enormous amount of energy that fuels the human brain. It doesn’t die but simply takes a different form. I guess some would call that a soul. Whatever it is, it seems logical to me that nature would recycle this energy just as it does dead flesh. Maybe that’s why this concept has always been a staple of fantastical storytelling. It’s one of the few “paranormal” ideas that has a solid logic behind it even when held against scientific scrutiny.
It also adds a wonderful dimension to Karloff’s character. Upon meeting the reincarnation of his lost love, we see his stoicism crack in the subtlest of ways. It’s an impressively nuanced performance. Karloff was always well aware of the fact that he had one of those faces where any expression plays very large and wisely chose to downplay moments like these and it works to amazing effect. According to Zita Johan who played Helen, like any actor; it seems Karloff brought himself to the role when it came to these elements. She once said about meeting him for the first time that “I felt an intense sadness, that his eyes were like shattered mirrors and that whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. He was always a perfect gentleman.” Perhaps this is why he seemed to exmplify the sympathetic monster. Whether it’s Frankenstein, this film or even his later works like the Haunted Strangler (1958), he always excelled at playing characters who were never born monsters but became them through external forces beyond their control. Imhotep is certainly no different. He kills people in the course of the story but his motivations I think most can sympathize with. If someone told me I could bring the love of my life back from the dead by stealing a sacred scroll, I would damn sure give it a shot and the gods can go fuck themselves. If the risk was that I would be buried alive if I was caught in the act, even that seems a small price to pay. Murder is a whole other kettle of fish but after being kept out of the afterlife for 4000 years, and running into the reincarnation of your soulmate, who knows what any of us would be capable of.
Where Balderston came up with this element for the script is pretty clear however since right after turning in his first draft of The Mummy, he was given the assignment of adapting the 1887 novel She for Universal which has almost identical elements of long lost loves meeting again through reincarnation. In that story, the genders were simply switched. For the next few months, he would write both screenplays simultaneously. Eventually, the studio would recognize the glaring similarities to the two stories and sell the rights to She to RKO who would make it in 1935.
It’s not just Karloff who’s great here. Zita Johan as Helen plays her part with a theatrical but deeply conflicted bent as she struggles between her past life and her current one. An unconventional beauty with large eyes and round face, she was of Hungarian descent and a New York stage actor who quickly formed a strong dislike for Hollywood and would return to the stage only a few films later, even once saying “I have more respect for the whores on 42nd Street than I do for the stars in Hollywood.” She was however, the perfect person for this role, having a strong interest in the occult and reincarnation throughout her entire life which even influenced her acting approach. And her look may have been unusual for the time but since then it’s become a fashion statement in itself. Just look at Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees for instance and you’re more or less looking at the punk version of Zita Yohan as she appears in this film.
As Helen’s love interest Frank Whemple, David Manners is an unusually upbeat and positive presence as leading men go for the time and plays pretty much the same role as he did in Dracula (1931) as Jonathan Harker. The character itself is written with an interesting parallel to Imhotep. After admitting to haven fallen in love with the dead Princess, he reveals that like Imhotep, he too is smitten by a love he can never satiate. David Manners got his first role in Jame’s Whale’s Journey’s End but would also lose interest in Hollywood, leaving in 1936. it must have been a good decision because he would die at 97 years old in 1998.
Once again, Edward Van Sloan shows up after appearing in the two previous Monster movies. This time, the role was written specifically for him and is almost identical to his role as Van Helsing in Dracula (1931), another “occult expert”. His scenes are almost identical to the ones he had in that earlier film and this was probably due to Balderston who borrowed heavily from his Dracula screenplay. The undead character becomes Imhotep instead of the vampire who also has a hypnotic control over the female heroine after coming under his control declares, “I’ve never felt more alive”, just as Mina did. The symbol of protection here becomes a necklace of Isis instead of a crucifix.
For the rest of the film, the familiar science fiction conceits of Putnam’s story would be re-imagined as Imhotep’s mystical powers. The surveillance television system he uses to spy on his victims would become a mysterious reflection pool with which he could observe others and show Helen her past life and a very convenient way to show the audience the backstory. Instead of killing Sir Whemple with a death ray, he would use his mystical powers and spoken spells to give him a heart attack.
While many probably feel disappointed in this film since the mummy of the title is only in one scene, this film certainly has a lot to offer and has tons of atmosphere. This is primarily due to the director, Karl Freund. The Director of Photography on Dracula, Freund had secretly co-directed that film when it ran into problems and was rewarded with this, his first directing assignment. Freund was steeped in German Expressionism, having been Fritz Lang’s DP on Metropolis (1927) and Murnau’s on The Last Laugh (1924) as well as photographing The Golem (1920). This film is wonderfully shot and Freund moves the camera more than what we’ve seen in the two previous Universal Monster films and this gives the film a sense of real scale like when Imhotep shows Helen the past in his reflection pool. The camera starts level, behind them and then climbs above and over them to stare down into the pool in one beautifully fluid crane shot that was very rare for the time. There are great nods to other classic films of the time period here, for instance when the connection is made between Karloff and Helen for the first time. The camera starts on him then does a whip pan across the city of Cairo to settle in on Helen gazing out across the city from a balcony. This is a direct nod to the scene in Svengali where that character has enchanted a girl with his spell in much the same way.
Freund also paints with light in how he reveals Imhotep, often in the shadows when everyone in the same scene are clearly lit. He uses this to great effect when, in the midst of shadow, a pin light is slowly brightened on Karloff’s eyes whenever he uses his hypnotic powers of influence.
Despite all of this, many felt that this film was very slowly paced but it’s all deliberate. Freund uses the German Expressionistic technique known as Stimmung, which creates atmosphere by lingering on images to give the audience a sense of the psychological or emotional atmosphere that hovers around people and objects. For me, it’s very effective and it’s a technique that remained a part of filmmaking all the way up to the 90’s. When someone talks about a certain director or film “taking their time to create an atmosphere” they’re referring to the distant cousin of this film philosophy. If you ask me, A LOT of modern, Hollywood tentpole films could use a healthy dose of Stimmung.
Freund himself may have been quite a capable filmmaker but behind the scenes there was definite friction. It seems Freund was nervous about his first big directing assignment for the studio and attempted to create the scapegoat of a “difficult actress” that could be easily blamed for any problems that would occur on set so as to avoid being fired. He purposely antagonized Zita Yohan on set to this end. He would refuse to give her her own chair on set and tried to get her to do one scene in the nude, knowing full well she would refuse. In that instance, Yohan was able to out maneuver him by calmly saying, “If you can get it approved by the censors then fine.” That was the last she heard of the matter. I don’t find this attitude surprising considering we’re talking about a DP who learned from the feet of Fritz Lang who was a notorious asshole to the point that his crew tried to electrocute him by having him step through a puddle of water with an exposed cable in it on the set of Frenzy. It seems Freund attempted to apply the same techniques with less success. The caricature of the dictatorial director may seem stereotypical to us now but there was a reason why those characters always had a strong German accent.
In the end, The Mummy got dismissive reviews at the time and did moderate box office, not quite the follow up expected after the success of Dracula and Frankenstein. This was probably due to the whole no mummy in a mummy movie thing although that short scene with a wrapped up Karloff in the beginning is quite striking. As long as one can get past that and accept the movie for the story being told, it’s an engaging experience. Perhaps not as strong as Frankenstein or as sensational as Dracula but a wonderfully tragic love story with another haunting and creepy Karloff performance at the center and great direction by Freund that keeps the story moving along with technically superior camera work.
For a horror movie, it’s a different take than the other Universal monster films but a work of art in it’s own right and definitely earns it’s place as one of Universal’s iconic monsters that even as I write this, is getting another turn at bat. There must be a reason for that.