I’ve only seen The Mummy once before, when I was still pretty young, and I remember being disappointed when I learned that the creature in bandages I’d seen on posters and merchandise all my life was only present in the film’s short prologue. Times change, and now I’m glad that Boris Karloff didn’t spend the entire film covered in heavy make-up. Karloff owns this movie. He delivers another great performance and it feels like all the rest of the cast can do is stay out of his way. Don’t get me wrong, The Mummy is a classic and deservedly so, but I think the weight of its enduring qualities rests firmly on Karloff’s shoulders. Whenever he wasn’t onscreen, I was eagerly waiting for him to return.
The rest of the cast really falls flat when compared with Karloff. Female lead Zita Johann, as Helen Grosvenor, doesn’t have much appeal in her role, and the rest of the cast really doesn’t offer much that is memorable. The only other performer to exhibit any energy is Bramwell Fletcher, and we only see him in the opening sequence.
What really struck me was how closely this movie parallels Dracula. I don’t know that it was intentional, but I wonder if the success of the Bela Lugosi outing two years earlier led the filmmakers to think they could make lightning strike again. (Which, of course, it did.) Like Dracula, Karloff’s Imhotep, in the guise of Ardath Bey, is an ancient immortal who uses his hypnotic powers to seduce a young woman to join him at his side for eternity , and both characters’ eyes glow eerily when they hold a victim in thrall. The director, Karl Freund, was cinematographer on Dracula, and the screenwriter, John L. Balderston, wrote the stage play that version of Dracula was based on. Strangest of all, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, who played Van Helsing and John Harker respectively in Dracula, play virtually the same roles as Dr. Muller and Frank Whemple in The Mummy.
A couple of other observations: I really like how the flashback sequence resembles a silent movie; it reminds of how a modern color film might similarly use black and white footage. I was also curious about how limited the use of music was. Music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays over the opening titles, and then we don’t hear any scoring until about midway through. I know many early sound films had no score whatsoever, but I also know that music was a part of film even in the silent era when most movie houses had live piano accompaniment for their features. I wonder exactly when it was that musical scoring became a staple for the movies.
Overall, I’ve probably given the impression I didn’t enjoy The Mummy, and that’s not true at all. I just think it’s a good example of how important casting can be. I’m seeing many of the films on my list for the first time, and others I’m seeing for the first time in years. I’ve idolized horror icons like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi all of my life, and in some ways it’s because many of their roles have become bigger than the films and the actors themselves. This is the third Karloff film I’ve watched since I began this project and I’m finally beginning to see what a genuinely talented actor he was. In three films I’ve seen three very different Karloffs. The Mummy certainly deserves its place among the Universal horror pantheon, and I believe it has Boris Karloff to thank for it.
This week’s supporting features:
The Merrie Melodies cartoon Bacall to Arms (1946)
The Our Gang short Bouncing Babies (1929)
Next week’s film:
Horror Island (1941) starring Dick Foran, Leo Carillo and Peggy Moran