It’s the 11th Annual What a Character! Blogathon. Not only is it my favorite gathering of bloggers paying tribute to actors who deserve our recognition, but it also gives me a reason to dive in and binge their films and television appearances. Thank you, Aurora at Once Upon A Screen, Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club for hosting this year’s wonderful event!
Impish pint-sized, blue-eyed, and baby-faced with a raspy voice, American character actor Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. was born on December 26, either 1903 or 1906 (sources vary) in San Francisco, California.
Cook spent his childhood in Chicago, Illinois, and his first job was selling programs in the theatre lobby. He attended St. Albans College and the Chicago Academy of Dramatic Art, debuting on the stage at age 14, and was an assistant stage manager at age 17. He later traveled with a repertory company as a stage actor, appearing in vaudeville, debuting in the vaudeville act Lightnin.’ He worked in stock companies where he got his first big break after Eugene O’Neill cast him in the lead role of his production of Ah, Wilderness on Broadway.
At age 23 Cook debuted on the Broadway stage in 1926 as Joe Bullitt in the musical comedy Hello, Lola. He also appeared as Dick Wilton in Henry Behave 1926, Many a Slip,Hello, Gertie 1926-27, The Kingdom of God 1928-29 – (featuring Ethel Barrymore), and Her Unborn Child 1928 at the Empire Theatre. In 1963 he returned to the stage as “Giuseppe Givola” in “Arturo Ui” on Broadway, written by Bertolt Brecht from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The show featured the music of Jule Styne.
Elisha Cook Jr. then moved to Hollywood where he settled in 1936. He made his film debut revising his stage role as the romantic young lead in the film version of Her Unborn Child 1930 alongside Francis Underwood. “A vividly dramatic all-talker of the Broadway stage hit which rocked the nation with its frankness.” After Hollywood spotted the young actor’s fun-sized flair, he would not return to the stage until 1963.
The diminutive actor co-starred in over 220 films and television shows from the 1930s to the 1980s. His film career, including his later television roles, lasted almost 60 years. Cook a flexible actor, played a wide range of characters. ‘Cookie’ as his friends referred to him, was cast in a wide variety of genres starting out in musical comedy, westerns, crime dramas, and most notably film noir and B horror movies.
“Few actors could claim to have played as many memorable roles in as many recognized classics or to have become the answer to so many Hollywood trivia questions,” – Robert Thomas, Jr., in a New York Times obituary.
I Wake Up Screaming is the first official noir produced by Fox, directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (he worked on Charlie Chan programmers and B-movies) who was not considered a noir director. With a screenplay by Dwight Taylor based on the novel by Steve Fisher. Eddie Muller said it personified film noir, and calls the 1941 film – Proto-noir, as it was the first of it’s kind.
Darryl F. Zanuck wanted the film’s location changed to New York City, so it wouldn’t reflect badly on L.A. There are a number of sleazy characters involved and he wanted to shift the story from Hollywood to Broadway.
The film was remade as Vicki in 1953 (with Jeanne Crane and Jean Peters, though it lacked the highly stylized artistry) Photographed by Edward Cronjager (Seven Keys to Baldpate 1929, Hell’s Highway 1932, The Monkey’s Paw 1933, Island in the Sky 1938, The Gorilla 1939, Heaven Can Wait 1943, Desert Fury 1947, Relentless 1948, House by the River 1950, The Girl in Lovers Lane 1960) pours out murky noir shadows, darkened streets, unusual camera angles, low key lighting and the high contrast, onepoint lighting that illuminates the ink black threatening spaces. The film is stark yet dynamic.
With music by Cyril J. Mockridge, you’ll hear the familiar often used noir leitmotif, the melody Street Scene by Alfred Newman. I Wake Up Screaming stars Betty Grable as Jill Lynn, Victor Mature as Frankie Christopher, Carole Landis as Vicki Lynn, Laird Cregar as Ed Cornell. The film also co-stars Alan Mowbray as Robin Ray and Allyn Joslyn as Larry Evans. Quirky character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays Harry Williams the desk clerk in Vicki’s apartment building who’s a real weirdo. William Gargan plays Detective Jerry ‘Mac’ MacDonald.
Cook is great at playing quirky oddballs (Cliff the crazed drummer in Phantom Lady 1944, George Peatty in The Killing 1956, anxious trench coat wearing Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon 1941, Watson Pritchard in House on Haunted Hill 1959).
I Wake up Screaming bares a resemblance to a whodunit, as the killer is chased down with the story playing a bit of a shell game with us. There are common noir themes of obsession, perverse lust, corruption and homicidal jealousy. The film is also has a preoccupation with images and artifice, tossing up flashbacks like a circus juggler.
Right before model Vicki Lynn heads to Hollywood to reach for her rising star, she is brutally murdered. Delicious Betty Grable in her first non-music role, plays Jill Lynn, Vicki’s sister, who is drawn to the man (Victor Mature) who is presumably her sister’s murderer.
Vicki functions as an essential part of the narrative early on in the film and is resurrected by way of flashbacks. Frankie knows that while there are images that still exist of Vicki she is no longer present. In fact Vicki is a myth and a manufactured deception in some ways. Jill on the other hand is genuine, unpretentious and warmhearted.
Carol Landis who died at 28 from an overdose, plays murder victim Vicki Lynn. I Wake up Screaming back flips into the weeks leading up to her death. The film is also somewhat of a noir variation on Pygmalion, as Victor Mature who plays Frankie Christopher, sports and show business promoter, discovers a beautiful girl waiting tables and gets the hot idea of turning Vicki into a celebrity and society girl. Vicki’s appeal, is the sphere of influence that drives the plot. Mature always makes the screen sweat with his sexy brawny build, swarthy good looks, strong jaw line and the aura of his glistening obsidian hair.
The film opens with a sensational news headline ‘MODEL MURDERED’ right from the top Frankie is being grilled by the cops in the interrogation room. Burning white hot lights are up close in his face. He says to the shadow of Cornell (Cregar) who’s a bulky shadow shot with single source lighting) to his opaque figure, “You’re a pretty tough guy with a crowd around.”
The flashbacks begin. Frankie goes back to the first time he meets Vicki at the lunch room on 8th Avenue while eating with Larry Evans (Alan Joslyn) and Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray). Vicki asks “Is that all?” Lary Evans says “No, but the rest of it isn’t on the menu.” She handles his come on, “You couldn’t afford it if it was.” Frankie pours on the charm. He gets the notion to take Vicki and mold her into a celebrity. “You know I bet in 6 months I could take that girl and put her on top of the ladder.” Mature and Landis worked together in One Million Years B.C.
Has-been actor Robin Ray (Mowbray) and ruthless gossip columnist Larry Evans (Joslyn) decide to get involved in developing Vicki Lynn’s mystique and cultivate her glamour on the road to fame. Of course both men wind up having a yen for her. A cynical Ray (Mowbray) complains that all women are alike. Evans (Joslyn) tells him,“For Pete’s sake, what difference does that make? You’ve got to have them. They’re standard equipment.”
Frankie takes Vicki Lynn out into New York cafe society – All three schemers, the columnist, the washed up actor and Frankie, bring her to the cafe and make a big noise, grabbing the attention of Lady Handel (May Beatty) who invites them over to her table. In order give the impression that Vicki will now be a new sensation, Larry Evans brags in front of the table, that he’ll plug her In his column. They also think that it’ll help Vicki to get noticed if she’s seen on Robin Ray’s arm. The outing is a success. When they bring her home to her apartment building they meet the squirrly desk clerk Harry Williams (Elisha Cook), who takes his sweet time, getting up for Vicki. Frankie gives him a hard time after being so disrespectful. Williams sneers, “She ain’t nobody.”
Back to the present and Frankie’s still in the sweat box. They’re questioning Jill too. She’s telling the cops about Vicki’s plans. She’s got, “Grand ideas about becoming a celebrity.” They ask about Frankie’s involvement. Another flashback – the sisters are talking about Vicki’s new venture. Vicki tells Jill, “They’re gonna glamorize me.” Jill tells Vicki that she doesn’t trust Frankie’s promises, and apologizes for sounding stuffy. She warns Vicki about having unrealistic aspirations. Flashback even further. Frankie shows up at the cafeteria. Vicki keeps dishing out the wise cracks. He shows her the newspaper article about her making a splash at the El Chico Club.
“Why all the cracks you don’t even know me?”“I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Back at the present day, at the police station. Jill continues to tell the cops how successful Vicki’s climb was. Backwards once again-
Jill Lynn I don’t want to tell you your business, but don’t you think you’re making a fool of yourself?
Vicki Lynn What do you mean?
Jill Oh, this Frankie Christopher. People like that, what have they got to do with people like us?
Vicki Jill, they’re going to help me!
Jill In what way?
Vicki They’re gonna’ glamorize me. They may have started this thing as a gag, but, after taking one look at those million-dollar debutantes tonight, I realized I can give them cards in spades and still come out on top.
Jill Vicky, you’ll never come out on top by any shortcuts. One week your picture’s on the cover of a magazine, the next it’s in the ash can.
Frankie arrives at the girls apartment, and Vicki breaks the news to Frankie that she’s going away to Hollywood. She’d done a screen test and signed a long term contract. He’s angry. She went behind Frankie’s back after everything he did for her. She defends herself “Some people think I’m a pretty attractive girl. I’m no Frankenstein you know!” Frankie comments, “I wonder.”
Jill tells the cops she was pounding a typewriter breaking her finger nails, and Vicki did get the Hollywood contract, so she might have been right about taking the risk with an acting career and becoming a star.
Another flashback The three men are sitting around the bar..
Robin Ray [indignant] Can you imagine her walking out on me, after all that I’ve done for her? Me!
Larry Evans [slightly incredulous] “You’ve” done for her? What have *you* done for her?
Robin Well, I took her out to all the bright spots, I let her be seen with me everywhere… It made her feel important.
Larry Why, you parboiled old ham! You don’t think anybody thought there was anything between *you* two, do you? If it hadn’t been for my plugging in the column, people would’ve thought she was your trained nurse.
Robin Why, you ink-stinking word slinger! I was famous when they were changing your pants 20 times a day!
Jumping to the present again, Jill is still being questioned by the cops. They want to know if Vicki had anyone in her life. Jill remembers a peculiar thing that happened. She tells them she was sitting at the table in the cafeteria waiting for Vicki to get off work. The peeping prowling, Ed Cornell’s giant shape stares at Vicki through the window. He has a queer look on his face. Jill maintains her stare, holding her coffee cup, she is unable to put it down as she studies him, uncomfortably. Once he notices Jill catching him ogling Vicki, he skulks away. Mockeridge’s score undergoes a sinister change, emphasis on the rhythmic accents of a classic horror picture.
Jill tells her sister, “You seem to have an admirer there’s some guy looking through the window like the wolf looking for the 3 little pigs.” The girls are walking on the street, Cornell is leaning against a wall, Jill points out to Vicki that he’s the one. “He gives me the creeps” Vicki says, “You’ll have to get used to that, they’ve got more wolves in New York than they have in Siberia” She tells the cops she saw him several times after in odd places. He never said anything but watched Vicki, it frightened Jill. There was something strange about him, the way he looked at Vicki. Always turning up in strange places. The cops look skeptical about her “mysterious stranger.”
The cops think Jill is trying to protect Frankie “I just don’t believe he did it, that’s all” They ask if she’s involved with him, and accuse her of being in love with him and wanting Vicki out of the way. Jill demands to see someone in authority, so they tell Mac to get Cornell. Who walks in? The creep who watched Vicki through the plate glass!
Enter rabid, self-righteous homicide Detective Ed Cornell (Cregar). Once he sets his sights on Frankie he begins to mercilessly hound him to the ends of hell if necessary, going after him with a flaming vengeance, trying to pin the murder on him. Cornell knows that Frankie is innocent but he is determined to persecute him. Cregar made an all too short career out playing imposing characters. He died at 28 in 1944 due to complications from a crash diet, always struggling with his weight, striving to obtain leading man status.
Jill is startled, the room is smoky and this massive shape looms over her with his girth “That’s him, that’s the man!” They think she’s crazy. First it’s a mysterious stranger peeking through windows and now it’s Ed Cornell. “Thats my job to look at people.” Leaving the dark corner of the sweat box into the smoke factory with Frankie, things become more visible as Cornell emerges as a menacing force. She insists, “I did see you.”“Alright Alright I’m a peeping tom.”
Jill Relates what happened on the car ride with Frankie, the night he learned Vicki was leaving, and she tells him he’ll be glad to get rid of her, because Jill is in love with him. That Jill is just covering up her feelings. Frankie says Jill being in love with him, never entered his mind. Vicki is sure, “I know it’s much deeper than that. That’s why its so dangerous. Anything might happen.”
Cornell writes down everything in his pad. Jill says that Vicki didn’t mean the line about being glad to get rid of her, but he corrects her, “What she meant doesn’t count. It’s what she said.”
The night Jill found Vicki, as soon as she came out of the elevator she got a feeling something was wrong. There was music blasting from the radio. Frankie was there already – ”Jill you don’t think I did it, do you?” Jill is in shock.
Cornell goes back into the interrogation room with Frankie and tells him he knows about Vicki’s ‘get rid of me’ statement. The obessed Cornell comes up with a scenario. Frankie’s mind got more and more inflamed with jealousy and hurt pride. Went up there and killed her in cold blood. Cornell loses his cool and lunges at Frankie, ”I’ve got a mind to kill you right now.”When Cornell gets rough, the other cops have to break it up. They all like Frankie and ask if he’s got any tickets to the fights. They ask Cornell “What’s the idea of riding him, so hard?” “I have years of experience in this racket. If that isn’t the look of a guilty man, I’ll take the rap myself.” The District Attorney winds up getting his back up with Cornell when he focuses so much on Frankie’s guilt.
The District Attorney (Morris Ankrum) apologizes to Frankie. Jill is in the office too, and tells him they think they know the identity of the killer. It’s the switchboard operator at the sisters’ apartment building. They think it’s Harry Williams. Jill leaves the police station and Frankie asks why they think it’s Williams. The D.A. tells him, William’s been missing since 5pm last night, probably hiding out scared and shaky.
Frankie is released and later that night, Mature wakes up to find the huge, menacing Cregar sitting beside his bed, “Well that’s the first time, I had a bad dream with my eyes open.”“Someday you’re going to talk in your sleep, and when that days comes I want to be around.” The scene hints at Cornell’s repressed homosexual passion.
Cornell tells him he’ll get all the evidence he needs and tie him up like a pig in a slaughter house. Frankie unrattled, tells him, ”You’re the bright boy” and reminds him that they think Williams murdered Vicki. Victor Mature is so smooth, so mellow when he’s playing at being sarcastic, He says, “You’re like something out of a museum you ought to have a magnifying glass and one of those trick hats with the ear flaps” Frankie throws Cornell out after he calls him cocky, and has had it his way too long. First with Vicki, then Jill. Cornell’s resentment is showing.
Jill finds Harry Williams who’s returned to the apartment building. She’s moving out, but he has already packed up her bags and taken them down to the lobby. Williams is a suspiciously hollow little insect who Jill finds strange. Frankie meets up with Robin at the police station. The cops show a reel of Vicki singing at a night club. Cornell watches her longingly which gives Frankie a window into Cornell’s longing for the dead girl. Cornell looks at Frankie with contempt.
The film of Vicki appears in the dark room filled with cigar smoke that makes wispy clouds float, and the rays of light from the projection booth. The light cast on Frankie’s eyes are like an illuminated mask, it accentuates his epiphany — that Cornell is obsessed with Vicki. He catches something in his stare. The light on Cornell’s face as HE stares back at Frankie, unmasks only half of his face, revealing the duplicity Cornell projects throughout the picture. It’s a brilliantly framed shot by Cronjager.
The film reel resurrects Vicki from the dead, like a ghost haunting the room. Robin Ray squirms in his chair and runs to get out. The door is locked. His behavior hints at his guilt. They put the lights on and bring him into the D.A.’s office. Ray tells them how he felt about her. She laughed at him. Called him “a has-been and didn’t want to hitch her wagon to a falling star.” He’s the one that arranged the screen test but she went down there alone. He is obsolete, they decided they didn’t need him. While he talks about her, Cornell looks out the window. Daylight casts patterns from the venetian blinds that cut across his face. Odd angle profiles tilt the two-shot of Cornell and Mac off kilter. Ray has an alibi. He was at a sanitarium. Cornell checked it out already and is gleeful that it rules out yet another suspect. He wants Frankie to fry for it. Cornell would have Frankie in the death house by now. “That won’t prevent you from going to the hot chair.”
As Frankie is leaving the police station Cornell asks him for a lift uptown “Sure, always happy to oblige a goon”
Ed Cornell [bumming a ride in Frankie’s car] “I’m sorry to have to ask you to do this, but I’m a little short on cash lately. You see, I’ve spent so much of my own dough, trying to build up this case against you.”
Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) “Well, if there’s anything you need, just let me know.”
Ed Cornell “Oh, I imagine they’ll make it right with me when I bring in the material for your trial. They usually do in these cases. I nick a guy on my own time and send him up to the chair, then I get back pay.”
Frankie Christopher “Must be a great life – like a garbage man, only with people!”
Ed Cornell “I got practically all the evidence I need now. I could arrest you today for that matter, but you might get some smart mouthpiece and get off with life instead of the chair. I won’t be satisfied until I’m *sure* it’s the chair.”
Frankie Christopher “You’re a gay dog, Cornell. You make me feel as if I’m driving a hearse!”
Ed Cornell “Oh, I know your type. I’ve seen hundreds of them. I don’t scare you enough to make you commit suicide, but I worry you just the same. And when the day comes they all act different. Some scream, a few faint, some light a cigarette and try a wisecrack. But it sticks in their throats – especially when they’re hung.”
Cornell shows up at Jill’s new apartment to intimidate her. Jill “What’s the good of living without hope?” Ed Cornell signals his own personal torture- “It can be done.” He advises her to just play along, insisting that she’s not even sure Frankie’s innocent. Once he’s left, Jill pulls out a note from behind a framed painting on the wall. It’s from Frankie to Vicki, “After what you did last night, the sooner you’re out of the way the better it will be.”
Frankie takes Jill to the fights and then out on the town. She asks if he ever brought Vicki to the fights, and tells him it’s the first New York night club she’s ever been to. The El Chico club, he first took Vicki to. She sees how nice he is without all the flashy bluster and pretense. He’s actually very real. Cornell follows them. Frankie asks her why she suddenly called him, “The trouble with you is that you pretend you don’t care about things but you do. You were very upset about Vicki’s death weren’t You? He tells her he’d like to find the guy, –“Save the State on it’s electric bill. She was a good kid” Jill doesn’t want him to be guilty. “Did you love her?“ “No, do you think if I’d loved her I would have tried to exploit her the way I did?… Vicki was pretty, gay and amusing She had lots to offer and I wanted to put her in the right place on the map. After all that’s my business But when a man really loves a woman, he doesn’t want to plaster her face all over papers and magazines. He wants to keep her to himself.”
Looking into her eyes, he tells her he’s in love with her. Larry Evans sees them together and calls in the story “Stepping out… Dancing on the grave.”
Frankie takes Jill to his favorite swimming spot. It’s a lovely scene, that brings some lightness to the external space in the story. She shows him the note he wrote to Vickie and he asks why she didn’t turn it into the police. Jill tells him she knew he was innocent and what the note meant, at the moment they were dancing at the nightclub. When they are back at the apartment, Cornell walks in and takes the note. They cuff Frankie. Cornell who is obviously framing him is just waiting for the chance to catch him. Frankie tells him anyone could have written a note like that. He was burned up when Vicki dropped the bomb that she was leaving. He finds out that Cornell has planted a set of brass knuckles in his apartment. Vicki was hit hard behind the ear with a heavy object. The depraved Cornell punches Frankie in the guts. “You’re like a rat in a hole.”
As Cornell is about to take him downtown, Frankie on the ground after Cornell’s hostile assault, Jill hits Cornell from behind, and helps Frankie escape. Big fat head bullying him, she says.
Frankie proposes, “Mind marrying a hunted man?” She tells him, “Most married men have a hunted look anyway.” He tells her his real name – Botticelli, the son of Italian immigrants. Then he shows her how to hide in the city. They duck into in an adult movie house, watching the same picture over and over. Then they decide to split up for the time being and she goes to the public library. The cops find her, and Frankie sees them taking her away. The newspaper headline says “Christopher eludes police dragnet.” Cornell stalks the streets. Frankie sneaks up on him. “Let Jill go”, and he’ll turn himself in. Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) “I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.”“You’re not a cop you’re crazy trying to frame an innocent man.”Frankie throws a tootsie roll at him and takes off. Cornell assures him, he’ll eventually get him. Always smirking like the devil.
Cornell tells the D.A. a parable about the African Butterfly and how to trap the male is to let the female free. He wants him to let Jill out of her box to lure Frankie. She goes home, sneaks out through the window, and surprises Frankie at the adult movie house. At the apartment she has found little cards from flowers that were sent to Vicki, and at the funeral. She shows them to Frankie. The message on the cards say, “Because I promised.”
They go to Rosedale Cemetery and when he meets the caretaker, Frankie pretends to be reporter and ask if anybody lately has been around Vicki’s grave. There were many flowers at the funeral, and the caretaker tells him that the grave’s been getting flowers each day since she died. Frankie learns where they were sent from, and goes to Keating Florist. It turns out the Larry sent them. Frankie confronts Larry who admits he was with Vicki the day she died. He had promised to send her flowers every day when she left for Hollywood, and he wanted to keep his word. Larry winds up giving Frankie a clue about the killer, and he goes to the old apartment and gets Mac to give him a half hour. He has a strong hunch.
The next scene is ripe with atmosphere when Frankie leans against the wall in Vicki’s old apartment. The lattice shadows fence Frankie in. Harry Williams is sleeping at the front desk. Vicki rings the desk and speaks in Vicki’s voice “Hello Harry, this is Vicki” He’s visibly shaken. Frankie watches his reaction. His eyes open wider as the buzzing mocks him, “Harry this is Vicki. Why did you do it Harry? Didn’t you love me?” Frankie confronts Williams. “You let yourself in with your pass key and waited for her. You loved her. She panicked and screamed.” William’s admits, “I told the cop that when he chased me to Brooklyn. Cornell knew all along it was Williams. The dirty Cornell told him to just come back and keep his mouth shut. Mac hears the confession. Frankie tells him, he wants 5 minutes alone with Cornell.
He goes to his apartment finds a perverse and macabre shrine to Vicki. Her image is like a talisman in his sufficating little apartment. He discovers the prominent photograph of Vicki in an elaborate frame. Cornell unaware that Frankie is there, comes in and places fresh flowers underneath the photograph, as an offering. Frankie watches then emerges, “You knew. Why’d you want to fry me?”He tells Frankie, “I lost Vicki long before Williams killed her. You were the one who took her away from me” Cornell wanted to marry her. Had this furnished apartment set up. Bought her perfume. “Til he came along and put ideas in her head. She thought she was too good for me. He could had killed him then.” Frankie puts it to him, “Why didn’t ya?”“Cause I had the hook in your mouth and I wanted to see you suffer.”
Cornell resented Frankie’s closeness to Vicki, and inhabits a world that excludes him. In contrast to the suave Frankie Christopher, he is a lumbering and awkward outsider. To Cornell, Vicki will always be as unattainable as the first time he gazed upon her through the window. He was struck by her beauty, but she was completely and forever out of his reach. Cornell is like a lurking monster straight out of a classic horror movie. His uneasy presence lends to a surreal and menacing mood.
CODED CLASSIC HORROR THEORY “The Uncanny & The Other”
“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”
“As a cultural index, the pre-Code horror film gave a freer rein to psychic turmoil and social disorientation because it possessed a unique freedom from censorship… the Hays Office admits that under the Code it is powerless to take a stand on the subject of ‘gruesomeness.‘(Thomas Doherty)
Horror films in particular have made for a fascinating case study in the evolving perceptions of queer presence; queer-horror filmmakers and actors were often forced to lean into the trope of the “predatory queer” or the “monstrous queer” to claim some sense of power through visibility and blatant expressions of sexuality.- Essential Queer Horror Films by Jordan Crucciola-2018
Though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, they were willing to pay for scripts that dealt with characters that were social outcasts and sexually nonnormative. The horror genre is perhaps the most iconic coded queer playground, which seems to have an affinity with homosexuality because of it’s apparatus of ‘otherizing’ and the inherent representation of difference. The horror genre crosses over boundaries that include transgressions between heterosexuality and queerness. The villain, fiend or monster plays around with a variety of elements that while usually separate, might merge male and female gender traits.
The horror film in particular, found it’s place asserting a queer presence on screen. The narratives often embraced tropes of the ‘predatory queer’ or the ‘monstrous queer’ in order to declare themselves visible while cinematic queers were elbowed out of the way. Filmmakers had to maneuver their vision in imaginative ways to subvert the structure laid out for them by the Code.
As Harry M. Benshoff explains in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film, “Immediately before and during the years of World War II, Universal Studio’s horror films began to employ a more humanistic depiction of their monsters,” and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People, reflected “a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society and the military.”So even though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, during the first true horror boom in American cinema, they were willing to pay for stories about social outcasts and sexually nonnormative figures. Horror fans thus found themselves awash in some of the genre’s most iconic queer-coded characters of all time.
On a Greek Island, Boris Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robsin’s Isle of the Dead 1945. Driven insane by the belief that Thea (Ellen Drew) who suffers from catalepsy is the embodiment of an evil vampiric force, is a demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton drew on collective fears, and all his work had an undercurrent of queer panic and a decipherable sign of homophobia.
The Vorvolaka has beset the island with plague. Thea- “Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.”
The Pre-Code era was exploding with American horror films, that reflected the angst, social unrest and emotional distress that audiences were feeling. Personified in films that used graphic metaphors to act as catharsis, the images were often filled with rage, as Thomas Doherty calls it ‘the quality of gruesomeness, cruelty and vengefulness’. Think of the angry mobs with their flaming torches who hunt down the Frankenstein’s monster, eventually crucifying him like a sacrificial embodiment of their fury. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931 was a smash hit for Universal. Other studios were trying to ride the wave of the awakening genre of the horror picture. Paramount released director Rouben Mamoulian’s adaption of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1886. The film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 stars Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. During the period of Pre-Code, many horror films proposed grisly subject matter that would shock and mesmerize the audience. For example, actor/director Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks and Fay Wray.
In 1932 Michael Curtiz directed Doctor Xstarring Lionel Atwill who would become one of the leading mad scientists of the genre.
Michael Curtiz’s macabre horror/fantasy experiment of homosocial ‘men doing science’, crossing over into profane territories and embracing dreadful taboos!
All scenes below from Dr. X (1932)
Fay Wray as Atwill’s daughter who is the only woman surrounded by a group of scientific non conformists.
The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Eastern European incubus was interpreted by Tod Browning in Dracula 1931, immortalized by Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi with his iconic cape and mesmerizing stare. While his nightly visitations were blood driven and cinematically sexual in nature, there is a very homoerotic element to his influence over Renfield (Dwight Frye) and his gaze of gorgeous David Manners as John Harker.
Robert Florey directed the macabre Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. And a film which has no connection to Poe’s story but in name, is one of the most transgressive, disturbing horror films rampant with vile taboos, such as necrophelia, incest, sadism, satanism and flaying a man alive, is the unorthodox The Black Cat (1934). The film stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, one of four pictures they would do together. A pair of enemies who have a score to settle, ghosts of a past war, and stolen love all taking place with the backdrop of a stylish Bauhaus set design and high constrast lighting.
Paramount released Murders in the Zoo (1933)with Lionel Atwill a sadistic owner of a zoo, who uses wild animals to ravage and kill off any of his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) suitors. Kathleen Burke is well known as the panther girl in Erle C. Kenton’s horrifically disturbing Island of Lost Souls 1932, an adaptation of master fantasy writer H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Incidentally, Welles, Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester had been good friends earlier on, before the filming of Lost Souls. The film stars Charles Laughton as the unorthodox, depraved scientist who meddles with genetics and nature. He creates gruesome human/animals, torturing them with vivisection in his ‘house of pain.’ The film also stars Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law.
And in 1933 King Kong shows a giant ape grasping the half naked object of his affection with unmentionable connotations of bestiality between the ape and Fay Wray. With scenes of Wray writhing in his gigantic paws, he lusts after her, until his desire kills him. It’s almost like fastasy noir, the object of your desire, will ultimately kill you!
The 1930s and 1940s — Fear the Queer Monsters
Re-assessing the Hitchcock Touch; by Wieland Schwanebeck -As Rhona Berenstein asserts, the horror genre “provides a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the host and the haunted house.”
By the same token, Kendra Bean concludes that Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as “a wraith; a sexual predator who is out to make Mrs. de Winter her next victim.”
Queer characters in horror films during the early period, reveals similarities between Mrs. Danvers and the staging of earlier sapphic characters, such as Gloria Holdens’s well-known portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter 1936. Yet, similiar to the self discipline of Mrs. Danvers, Dracula’s Daughter remains a figure of primacy and pity as Ellis Hanson argues Dracula’s Daughter presents “the possibilities of a queer Gothic” early on in Hollywood history, “rich in all the paradox and sexual indeterminacy the word queer and the word Gothic imply.
There was a revival of the horror craze during the period of WWII. The Hollywood studios, both major and ‘Poverty Row” like Monogram and Republic realized that horror movies were a lucrative business. The studios began to revisit the genre looking for, not only fresh formulas, but they resurrected, the classic monsters, dropping them into new plots. They also envisioned uniting the gangster film with horror films, and this homogenizing, led to a ‘queering’ of the two styles, that demonstrated phallocentric ( guns, scientific penetration) and homoerotic themes and images into a sub-genre.
Public awareness of homosexuality reached a new height during these years, primarily due to the new set of social conditions wrought by war. Slowly , the love that dare not speak its name was being spoken, albeit in ways almost always obscurantist, punitive and homophobic. The linkage of homosexuality with violence and disease remained strong. Monsters in the Closet -Harry Benshoff
Rhona Berenstein in her insightful book Attack of the Leading Ladies, points out that films featuring the mad scientist trope operates with the homosocial principle which speaks of the homo eroticism of males working together in consort subverting science together, as a group of men who hide behind their objectification -the female object of their gaze, are in fact, figures of objectification themselves. They are simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; … potentially possessing an extra-normative commitment between the two men.
Mad doctor movies are homosocial in nature. The mad doctor movie is a subgenre that below the surface glorifies intimate male camararderie-and male homosexuality, and by the close of the picture, society, the prevailing culture must in turn annihilate, that which is repressed. But it is not exclusively a vehicle to express the homosexuality through homosocial interactions. There is a component not only of male bonding, a world without women, the thrust is a synthesis of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny and oppression of women. Homosocial relationships between men in these science horrors show the man’s desire for connection to other men, even one created by his own hand.
According to (Twitchell) in his Dreadful Pleasures, and Attack of the Leading Ladies (Rona Berenstein) Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in all three Universal pictures, was at least performing bisexuality. Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein might give way to the homosocial realm of the mad scientist trope, of ‘homoerotic indulgence’ as these men exclude women from the pursuit of their fulfillment. Twitchell views the scientist’s fluid sexuality in order to examine the concept of a man controlling women’s primacy of giving birth. This might explain Dr. Frankenstein’s venture into unnatural reproduction. A process he wants to divert to himself without women’s exclusive right to motherhood. In the scene where he is as close to giving birth to a full grown man, he seems to display a sexual arousal, when his creation comes to life. Henry Frankenstein provokes nature and defies his heterosexuality. As Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood, it can be pondered whether he knew exactly what he was suggesting. Thesiger’s sexually ambiguous, or okay, not so ambiguous Dr. Pretorius, the mad scientist who pressures Henry Frankenstein to revitalize his experiments and create a mate for the monster. Pretorius is the scientist who insists Henry continue his creative efforts in Bride of Frankenstein. Vitto Russo called Thesiger, “man who played the effete sissy… with much verve and wit.”
George Zucco like Lionel Atwill often portrayed the unorthodox scientist who flirted with taboos. He plays mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris in The Mad Ghoul (1943) As a university chemistry professor, he exploits medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) with his experimental gas that transforms Ted into a malleable, yielding macabre ghoul, whom Morris directs to kill and remove the victims hearts using the serum to temporarily bring Ted back from his trance like death state. David Bruce’s character is represented as a ‘queer’ sort of young man. Not quite masculine and unable to get his girlfriend Evelyn Ankers to fall in love with him. As the Mad Ghoul he becomes a monstrous queer.
In 1932, director Tod Browning’s Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s story of a fiendish vampire who in a sexually implicit way, violates his victims by penetrating them with his fangs. The story pushed the boundaries of story telling, and there was an inherent subtext of ‘queer’ ravishment when he sucks the blood of Dwight Frye to make him his loyal servant.
In Jonathan Harker’s Journal, the protagonist recounts his impressions of his interaction with the vampire, Dracula “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.”For (Noël Carroll) the entry in his diary conveys revulsion by the Count’s closeness and offensive presence, that causes him to become sickened.
But it also could be read that Harker’s ‘shudder’ is not about his revulsion, rather, an uncontrolled sexual response to the vampire’s looming over him which could be interpreted not just as hunger for his ‘blood’ but an expression of repressed sexual desire and the fear it causes.
Horror movies have always pushed the boundaries of normalcy, by virtue of the fact that these films are inhabited by ‘monsters’, something ‘queerly’ different. And it is natural to observe two diverging responses to the impact of the horror genre and often, it’s persecution of what is ‘different’ and the source of what causes our anxiety.
Dracula may appear as the image of a man, but the count is far from human. While monsters in classical horror films are based on systems of maleness, they are split from being actual men. Although there are physical interactions and suggestive contact with the heroine, there isn’t the foundation of heterosexuality, but something quite deviant, with in their aggressively erotic encounters and/or assaults. The understanding of sexuality and the most narrow identifications that are assigned to varying orientation in a large sense is not translatable for the deeper layers of the monster and their relationship to their victims. In Hollywood, horror films can be seen as heterosexuality being invaded by an abhorrent outside force, inherent in the underlying message could be racism, classism, sexism and gay panic. Though it can be interpreted as a landscape of heterosexuality that is in full power of it’s universal presence, horror films are perfect platforms that can illustrate the collapse of heterosexuality, and the subversion of sexuality.
The horror genre is a breeding ground for portrayals of the shattering of heterosexual power. This can be seen in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden as the sapphic vampire who lives in a New Village type artist’s den, it signals her outsider status from dometicity and normalcy.
In White Zombie (1932) Bela Lugosi plays the eerily menacing Legendre. He turns men into lifeless workers who run the sugar mill. Legendre also begins to turn the plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) into one of his zombies. What his motivation for his control over people is ambiguous, though there seems to be a sexual reasoning for both the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Beaumont. The scene where Beaumont is nearly paralyzed, Legendre’s control over his male victim parallels the sexual entrapment of the movie’s heroine.
MAD LOVE (1935) I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?
Karl Freund’s Grand Guignol Mad Love (1935) shifts from gazing at the female to gazing at the male. Here the focus is on a Peter Lorre in his American screen debut as Dr. Gogol, who has an obsession with Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac an actress who works at Grand Guignol Theatre. To Gogol she is the typified defenseless heroine whom he tries to lure away from her husband Stephen (Colin Clive) using his knowledge of scientific alchemy.
Though Gogol tries to become Yvonne’s master, his Galatea, there are critics who read the struggle between the two men, not just as rivalry for Yvonne’s love, but Gogol’s desire for Stephen as well. Gogol is responsible for grafting new hands onto Stephen’s mangled body after a train crash. Mad Love could fit the criteria for the subgenre of the science/horror films where the male gaze is diverted from the female object toward other men, in this case what connected the two was the preservation of Stephen’s hands. Why then is it not possible that the focus could shift from Gogol’s attraction to Yvonne to the homosocial dynamics between Gogol as doctor and his subject Stephen.
Mad Lovepossesses some of the horror genre’s most tenacious performances of gender play. (Carol Clover) asks us to take a closer look at Freund’s film, it is less about the “suffering experienced by women, but at a deeper, more sustained level, it is dedicated to the unspeakable terrors endured by men.”
In similar fashion to Waldo Lydecker (Laura) and Hardy Cathcart’s (The Dark Corner) pathology of objectifying Laura and Mari, Gogol worships Yvonne – his Galatea, with a measure of scopophilia that lies within his gaze upon the perfection of female beauty. To control and possess it. The pleasure is aroused by the mere indulgence of looking at her.
Gogol pays 75 francs to purchase the wax statue of Galatea. The seller remarks “There’s queer people on the streets of Monmartre tonight.”
Gogol’s maid Francoise talking to the statue,“What ever made him bring you here. There’s never been any woman in this house except maybe me… “I prefer live ones to dead ones.”
A Time Magazine review of Mad Love in 1933 notes this queer appeal directly, even comparing Lorre’s acting skills to those of another homosexual coded actor: I find the comment about their faces rude and insulting to both Lorre and Laughton, both of whom I am a tremendous fan.
Mad Love’s insane doctor is feminized throughout the film… In fact, the same reporter who noted Gogol’s sadism argues for his feminine demeanor: “Lorre, perfectly cast, uses the technique popularized by Charles Laughton of suggesting the most unspeakable obsessions by the roll of a protuberant eyeball, an almost feminine mildness of tone, an occasional quiver of thick lips set flat in his cretinous ellipsoidal face. This reviewer came closer than any other to articulate the subtext of mad doctor movies. He seems on the verge of noting that Lorre, Like Laughton is an effeminate madman obsessed by unspeakable homosocial desire.– Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema by Rhona Berenstein
Frances Drake’s heroine masquerades as a wife who deludes herself into believing that her husband is more masculine than he really is. Gogol has a curious empathy with Stephen, whom he touches frequently and prolonged. Although Gogol pursues the heroine Yvonne, at the theater, forcing a kiss on her, his focus is primarily manipulating Stephen’s body, rejoining his hands and massaging them to stimulate life back into them. When he realizes that Stephens hands cannot be grafted back successfully to his wrists, he turns to another man, the hands of a knife thrower who was executed as a notorious murderer. Once Stephen recovers from the surgery, he can no longer continue as a concert pianist, but does develop the desire to throw sharp knives.
On the surface the plot of Mad Loveappears to be a heterosexual obsession, the most unspoken context is the connection between Gogol and Stephen. “As is true of Frankenstein’s labor of love in Whale’s first film, Gogol sews men’s body parts together and the result is a monster of sorts. (Berenstein)
In the film’s climax, Yvonne hides in Gogol’s bedroom, and pretends to be the wax statue of Galatea. When Gogol touches the statue, she lets out a scream. In a euphoric daze (as in the origianl story) he believes that he has the power to bring the statue of Galatea to life. Yvonne begs him to let her go as he tries to strangle her.
Stephen then rushes to his wife and holds her in his arms. With his eyes fixed on the offscreen space in which Gogol’s body lies, he croons: “My darling.” The homosocial desire is destroyed when Stephen murders Gogol who intones “each man kills the thing he loves”— echoing on the soundtrack.
In the film’s closing moments, the secret desire is finally spoken out loud…Has Stephen killed the man he loves. Given that the phrase that Gogol mutters was written originally by Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality scandalized the British social and legal system in 1895, reading the homosocial desire intoMad Love’s within the very last moments we are left to decipher the suspended cues. We are left with Stephen’s gazing at Gogol’s face and his knifed body as he lay dying, he speaks the words, ‘My darling” what the camera frames the two men sharing that moment in the closing scene.
The mad doctor narrative is particularly predisposed to homosocial impulses. “intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” – Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick)
Sedgwick investigated early fantasy/horror novels, Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886 and Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau 1895. In the beginning of the 1930s, these stories centered around mad doctors who delved into unorthodox, profane explorations, were all adapted to the screen. All of these nefarious or scientific, inquisitive men, cultivated secret experiments, challenging the laws of nature. What Sedgwick found was that the Gothic literary representations of men performing homosocial collaborations, were ‘not socially sanction and shunned.’
It was considered a necessary narrative element as well as a monstrous possibility that threatened to subvert the status quo. The combination of these two attitudes is expressed in homosocial narratives- male bonding is both horrifying and guaranteed, entailing the simultaneous introjection and expulsion of femininity. (Sedgwick)
James Whale was a gay auteur who often imbued his work intentionally or with the ‘intentional fallacy’ of a ‘queer’ sense of dark humor. This comical, campy absurdity, was always on the edge of his vision of horror and subtle profanity. In his picture The Invisible Man (1933)adapted from H.G. Wells story and starring Claude Rains, it was classified as a horror film by the Code.
Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) the antihero, is a frenzied scientist, addicted to his formula as he seeks the ability to make himself invisible. His sanity begins to ‘vanish’ as his hunger for power, delusions of grandeur, and bursts of megalomania grow out of control. He plans on assassinating government officials, and he becomes more belligerent the longer he turns invisible. The idea that he displays radical ideas and runs around in the nude didn’t seem to arouse the censors, In 1933, a letter from James Wingate to Hays states, “highly fantastic and exotic [sic] vein, and presents no particular censorship difficulties.”
What’s interesting about the presentation of the story, is that the coded gay leitmotifs were paraded out, right under the Code’s noses, and didn’t stir any indignation for it’s ‘queer’ humor.
Gloria Stuart and Claude Rains in James Whale’s The Invisible Man 1933
The Invisible Man perpetrates campy assaults on all the ‘normal’ people in his way. With intervals of sardonic cackles and golden wit, and at the same time, a menacing reflection of light and shadow. Claude Rains is a concealed jester who makes folly of his victims.
“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck, and kill.” –Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)
Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin an outsider (a favorite of Jame’s Whale’s characters) who discovers the secret of invisibility which changes him from a mild yet arrogant scientist into a maniacal killer. The film bares much of Whale’s campy sense of humor, with Griffin’s comic shenanigans abound, until things turn dark and he becomes uncontrollably violent. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, Murders of great men, Murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers around a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”
According to Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal) ‘The film demands crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “the whole worlds my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”
Though Griffin’s (Claude Rains) character is unseen at times, there are potent moments, when he is animated as he skips to the tune, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” flitting around like a fairy. It is suggested that The Invisible Man is a metaphor for the way homosexuals are seen/not seen by society – as “effeminate, dangerous when naked, seeking a male partner in “crime”, tending to idolize his fiance rather than love her, and becoming ‘visible’ only when shot by the police…monitored by doctors, and heard regretting his sin against God (i.e., made into a statistic by the three primary forces oppressing queers: the law, the medical establishment, and religious orthodoxy” (Sedgwick)
The Invisble Man [undressing] “They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them a bit of a shock, something to write home about. A nice bedtime story for the kids, too, if they want it”
With a fantastic musical landscape by Cyril J Mockridge and you’ll hear the familiar melody Street Scene by Alfred Newman played over the main titles as well as this trailer… It gets me humming all over the house!
The stunningly shot frames with noir style shadows, odd angles and low lighting are lensed by cinematographer Edward Cronjager.
A model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) dies mysteriously and Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar This Gun For Hire 1942, Hangover Square 1945) is obsessed with Frankie Christopher’s (Victor Mature) part in the murder!
Told in flashback we see how Frankie meets Vicky who’s first waiting tables, then introduces her to the right social circles. When she’s about to head for Hollywood to become a rising starlet, someone kills her. Inspector Cornell wants Frankie to go down for the murder, and the only one he can turn to for help is Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) who isn’t exactly crazy about the guy….
Sadly the beautiful Carole Landis who had starred in One Million B.C.(1940) with Victor Mature died of an overdose and the headlined stories about her death read like this “The Actress Who Could Have Been…But Never Was.”