Boris Karloff

Simpson Sunday: A Message from a Horror Icon

Boris Karloff Bride of Frankenstein

Season 5, Episode 14: Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy

Over the course of The Simpsons, Grandpa Simpson is often shown to be a big fan of writing letters to people, companies, and publications, usually to complain about something. In the episode “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” Grandpa realizes he’s nearing the end of his life and decides to give his family their inheritance early so he can see them enjoy it. Since he knows Lisa enjoys reading, he decides to give her his lifetime of personal correspondence. Lisa takes a telegram from the pile and we learn that at one point in time, Grandpa had many things to say to Boris Karloff, who was apparently not amused.

The Simpsons Telegraph from Boris Karloff

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Pre-Code Essentials: Scarface (1932)

Scarface 1932

Plot

With the death of gang leader Big Louie Costillo, the doors are open for major gang activity as various gangs fight to take control over the south side of Chicago’s bootlegging racket. Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is the ruthlessly ambitious right hand man for gangster Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Johnny gains control of the south side with Tony’s help, but Tony isn’t content to settle for just the south side; he wants to control the north side, too, even though doing so would mean starting a war with some gangsters Johnny specifically told him to leave alone. Rival gang leader Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff) tries to have Tony killed, but only ends up introducing Tony to tommy guns in the process.

Not only is Tony trying to oust Johnny for the title of Chicago’s top gang leader, he also has his sights on Jonny’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley). Johnny realizes how dangerously out of control Tony is and tries to have him killed, but Tony once again survives and kills Johnny. Johnny finally has everything that he wants — complete control over Chicago and Poppy. But his antics haven’t gone unnoticed by the police, who are moving in on him. Tony also has to worry about his younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), who has taken an interest in his lifestyle.


My Thoughts

Paul Muni doesn’t seem to get enough credit for playing one of the all-time greatest movie gangsters. Cagney, Bogart, and Robinson were all great movie tough guys, but none of their characters had the unrestrained glee that Tony took in killing people. Cold blooded? Absolutely. But giddy about killing? Not quite. When faced with a hail of gunfire, Tony lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. I’m certainly no stranger to gangster movies, but this version of Scarface is really jaw dropping compared to many others (including ones made in the late 1960s and beyond, although I’ve actually never seen the Al Pacino version of Scarface) because of that fact.

And I certainly can’t neglect to mention Ann Dvorak, who is truly electrifying as Cesca.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

The pure joy Tony takes in killing people.

The incestuous tones to Tony’s relationship with Cesca.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Scarface was a nightmare for censors before it even started filming. The original screenplay included Tony’s mother being supportive of her son’s (for lack of a better word) career and featured a hypocritical politician who rallies against criminals like Tony by day, but goes to parties with him by night. The Hays Office insisted on so many script revisions, Howard Hughes eventually got so fed up with it, he told director Howard Hawks to just go ahead and make the movie as violent and as realistic as possible. There was a lot of concern that even though Tony dies at the end, the movie still glorified criminal lifestyles. An alternate ending was filmed where Tony turns himself in, but censors still objected to that version.

To make some effort to appease the censors, some of the violence was toned down, the subtitle “The Shame of a Nation” was added, and a text introduction condemning Tony’s behavior were added to the movie.

Pre-Code Essentials: Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein Boris Karloff

Plot

Young scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) thinks he has stumbled unto the secret for bringing the dead back to life. At night, he and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) toil away in an abandoned, secluded building and stealing corpses to experiment on. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) becomes concerned about his strange behavior and arrives at his secret laboratory just in time to see him successfully bring the Creature (Boris Karloff) to life. It isn’t long before Frankenstein decides the Creature could be potentially dangerous and must be destroyed.

Before he is completely certain the Creature has been killed, Frankenstein leaves to get ready for his wedding. The Creature kills Frankenstein’s assistant and escapes, finding his way to a nearby town. He meets a young girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris), who invites him to float flowers in the lake with her. When he runs out of flowers, he throws Maria in the water, thinking she will float too. When she doesn’t float, the horrified Creature runs away to the house where the wedding is to take place, frightens Elizabeth, and escapes again. When the villagers find out what has happened to Maria, they band together with torches to hunt the monster down. Dr. Frankenstein joins the mob and when the Creature finds him, he drags Frankenstein to an abandoned windmill. The villagers corner him there and burn the windmill down.


My Thoughts

Frankenstein is my personal favorite of the Universal horror films. It’s an extremely intelligent horror film and it’s interesting to see a horror movie that leaves you sympathizing with the Creature. I really don’t like referring to the Creature as a monster because Dr. Frankenstein is the real monster here. The Creature never asked to be brought back to life, he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and all he can do is react in very primal, visceral ways and nobody around him understands that.

Boris Karloff is absolutely genius as the Creature. Although Frankenstein is not a silent film, Karloff’s performance is a testament to how much an actor can do without actually saying anything. When you take a performance as brilliant as Karloff’s and combine it with that unforgettable makeup by Jack Pierce, you get a truly unforgettable character. The story of Frankenstein has been adapted for the screen many times over the years, but Karloff remains the most famous actor to play the Creature for a very good reason.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

After the creature is first brought to life, Dr. Frankenstein declares, “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Compared to some other movies turned out during the glorious pre-code era, Frankenstein might seem pretty tame in comparison. Sure, it lacks the gratuitous undressing, gangsters, and innuendo that other pre-codes have in spades, but it’s an excellent example of another big part of the production code: issues surrounding religion. Many censors objected to anything that portrayed religious leaders in an unflattering light (The Miracle Woman and Rain are prime examples of that) or anything that could be seen as blasphemous. Dr. Frankenstein’s desire to play God most certainly fell into the “blasphemous” category, specifically his line about knowing what it feels like to be God. This line was edited out when Frankenstein was re-released after the production codes were being enforced and wasn’t fully restored until several decades later. Note how the concept of playing God is quite explicitly condemned in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein.

Censors also took issue with the scene where the Creature throws the little girl into the water. Many people thought this scene was too violent and gruesome and cut the part where we see the Creature actually throwing the girl into the water. Personally, I think actually seeing the Creature throw the girl into the water is way less disturbing than to leave it showing the Creature reaching for the girl and letting the imagination run wild.

Scarface (1932)

Scarface 1932

Tony Camonte is a young, ambitious gangster, emphasis on the word ‘ambitious.’  When we first meet him in Scarface, he’s working for gangster Johnny Lovo.  Lovo sends Tony out to bump off Big Louie Costillo, the criminal kingpin who runs the South side of town.  With Costillo out of the picture, Lovo and Tony are the new reigning kings of the South side and supply lots of speakeasies with their bootleg booze.  But soon, Tony sets his sights higher than just running the South side of town.  He also wants to run the North side, but Lovo tells him not to mess with the Irish gangs that run the North side.  Tony doesn’t listen though and starts a gang war.  He manages to take down O’Hara, the original North side gang leader, but then Gaffney (Boris Karloff) takes over and orchestrates a massive attack on a cafe where Tony and his gang are.  Instead of killing him, they just introduce Tony to the exciting world of Tommy guns instead.

Realizing that Tony was completely out of control, Lovo decides the only way to stop him was to put a hit out on Tony.  But once again, Tony manages to escape death and in return, puts a hit out on Lovo.  At last Tony has exactly what he wanted: control of the city, Lovo’s position, and even Lovo’s girlfriend, Poppy.  But now he’s also got his younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) to worry about.  She’s starting to take an interest in her brother’s lifestyle and at first, he’s not happy that she shows up at a nightclub he hangs out at.  But then while he’s out-of-town avoiding the law, she marries Tony’s best friend Guino (George Raft).  When Tony finds out about it, he kills Guino.  Later, when the police track Tony down and are ready for a shoot-out with him, a heartbroken Cesca shows up at Tony’s place ready to kill him.  But once she gets there, she can’t go through with it and instead, gets caught up in the frenzy and helps her brother fight off the police.

Gangster movies in the 1930s were often met with controversy because censorship boards were afraid that they glorified gangsters.  This explains why movies like Scarface and The Public Enemy have those messages at the beginning about how the movie is meant to expose the horrors of being a gangster and condemn that lifestyle.  But in spite of the controversy, three of the greatest gangster movies of all time came out of the early 1930s: Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface.  Of the three, I think Scarface is definitely the  most shockingly violent.  What sets Tony Camonte apart from Tom Powers and Rico is Paul Muni’s unrestrained glee.  If he’s being fired at, Tony lights up like a kid in a candy store and truly delights in firing right back.  And am I the only one who finds Tony’s relationship with Cesca to be a little bit weird?  I believed him as the protective older brother when he drags her out of the nightclub, but then when he rips part of her dress off of her struck me as rather creepy.  But perhaps the most shocking thing about Scarface is that it actually has some funny moments in it.  Specifically, when the cafe is being fired at and Tony’s assistant is only concerned with making his phone call instead of the chaos that is going on all around him.

I’ve actually never seen the 1983 version of Scarface, so I don’t know how exactly how it compares, but the 1932 version is most definitely essential viewing for gangster movie fans.  I watched it for the first time specifically to write this review and I’m quite surprised that I managed to go this long without seeing it.

What’s on TCM: November 2010

Site news time!  As you may or may not know, November is NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month.  And because I love a challenge, I’ve decided to take a shot at participating.  That’s right, I’m going to try to update the blog every single day in November!   To make things a little more interesting, I’ve given myself a theme to work with: pre-codes.  30 days, 30 pre-code classics!  Here’s hoping I can pull it off!  Now, onto the TCM schedule…


Wow!  This could quite possibly be one of my favorite months ever on TCM!  Fans of silent films, rejoice!  This month, TCM is starting its documentary series Moguls and Movie Stars.  A new episode premieres every Monday at 8:00 PM and is followed by a night of movies related to that night’s episode.  Every Wednesday night is also devoted to Moguls and Movie Stars with more related movies and an encore of that week’s episode.  This is particularly wonderful news for fans of silents because a few episodes of Moguls and Movie Stars are dedicated to the silent era, so they’ll be airing movies from people like Mary Pickford (who I always thought has been very underrepresented on TCM), Clara Bow, Rudolph Valentino, Georges Melies, and D.W. Griffith.  In addition to that, Ava Gardner is the star of the month!  I dig Ava Gardner, so I’m going to be watching a whole lot of TCM this month.

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