A British beauty with red hair who according to Gregory Mank in his Women in Horror Films, 1930s, left England for Hollywood and an MGM contract. She is the consummate gutsy heroine, the anti-damsel Irena Borotyn In Tod Browning’s campy Mark of the Vampire (1935) co-starring with Bela Lugosi as Count Mora (His birthday is coming up on October 20th!) Lionel Atwill and the always cheeky Lionel Barrymore… Later in 1958 she would co-star with Boris Karloff in the ever-atmospheric The Haunted Strangler.
Mark of the Vampire is a moody graveyard chiller scripted by Bernard Schubert & Guy Endore (The Raven, Mad Love (1935) & The Devil Doll (1936) and the terrific noir thriller Tomorrow is Another Day (1951) with sexy Steve Cochran & one of my favs Ruth Roman!)
The film is a Tod Browning’s re-take of his silent Lon Chaney Sr. classic London After Midnight (1927).
The story goes like this: Sir Karell Borotin (Holmes Herbert) is murdered, left drained of his blood, Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) believes it’s the work of vampires. Lionel Atwill once again plays well as the inquiring but skeptical police Inspector Neumann.
Once Sir Karell’s daughter Irena ( our heroine Elizabeth Allan) is assailed, left with strange bite marks on her neck, the case becomes active again. Neumann consults Professor Zelin the leading expert on Vampires. This horror whodunit, includes frightened locals who believe that Count Mora (Bela in iconic cape and saturnine mannerism) and his creepy daughter Luna (Carroll Borland) who trails after him through crypt and foggy woods, are behind the strange going’s on. But is all what it seems?
Directed by the ever interesting director Maurice Elvey (Mr. Wu 1919, The Sign of Four, 1923, The Clairvoyant 1935, The Man in the Mirror 1936, The Obsessed 1952) Elizabeth Allan stars as Daisy Bunting the beautiful but mesmerized by the strange yet sensual and seemingly tragic brooding figure- boarder Ivor Novello as Michel Angeloff in The Phantom Fiend! A remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s first film about Jack the Ripper… The Lodger (1927) starring Novello once again.
There is a murderer loose in London who writes the police before he strikes with a sword cane, he signs his name X. It happens that his latest crime occurs on the same night that the Drayton Diamond is stolen. Robert Montgomery as charming as ever, is Nick Revel the jewel thief responsible for the diamond heist, but he’s not a crazed murderer. The co-incidence of the two crimes have put him in a fix as he’s now unable to unload the gem until the police solve the murders.
Elizabeth Allan is the lovely Jane Frensham, Sir Christopher Marche’s (Ralph Forbes) fiancé and Police Commissioner Sir Herbert Frensham’s daughter. Sir Christopher is arrested for the X murders, and Nick and Jane band together, fall madly in love and try to figure out a way to help the police find the real killer!
Heather Angel is a British actress who started out on stage at the Old Vic theatre but left for Hollywood and became known for the Bulldog Drummond series. While not appearing in lead roles, she did land parts in successful films such as Kitty Foyle, Pride and Prejudice (1940), Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943) and Lifeboat (1944). IMDb notes -Angel tested for the part of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), the role was given to Olivia de Havilland.
Heather Angel possessed a sublime beauty and truly deserved to be leading lady rather than relegated to supporting roles and guilty but pleasurable B movie status.
The L.A times noted about her death in 1986 at age 77 “Fox and Universal ignored her classic training and used her in such low- budget features as “Charlie Chans Greatest Case and “Springtime for Henry.”
Her performances in Berkeley Square and The Mystery of Edwin Drood were critically acclaimed… More gruesome than the story-lines involving her roles in Edwin Drood, Hound of the Baskervillles or Lifeboat put together is the fact that she witnessed her husband, stage and film directer Robert B. Sinclair’s vicious stabbing murder by an intruder in their California home in 1970.
Heather Angel is Beryl Stapleton in this lost (found negatives and soundtracks were found and donated to the British Film Institute archives) adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holme’s thriller Originally serialised in The Strand magazine between 1901 and 1902.
In this first filmed talkie of Doyle’s more horror oriented story it calls for the great detective to investigating the death of Sir Charles Baskerville and solve the strange killing that takes place on the moors, feared that there is a supernatural force, a monstrous dog like fiend that is menacing the Baskerville family ripping the throats from it’s victims. The remaining heir Sir Henry is now threatened by the curse.
Mystery of Edwin Drood (played by David Manners) is a dark and nightmarish Gothic tale of mad obsession, drug addiction and heartless murder! Heather Angel plays the beautiful and kindly young student at a Victorian finishing school, Rosa Bud engaged to John Jasper’s nephew Edwin Drood. The opium chasing, choir master John Jasper (Claude Rains) becomes driven to mad fixation over Rosa, who is quite aware of his intense gaze, she becomes frightened and repulsed by him.
The brooding & malevolent Rains frequents a bizarre opium den run by a menacing crone (Zeffie Tilbury), a creepy & outre moody whisper in the melody of this Gothic horror/suspense tale!
Valerie Hobson plays twin sister Helena Landless, the hapless Neville’s sister. (We’ll get to one of my favorites, the exquisite Valerie Hobson in just a bit…) When Neville and Helena arrive at the school, both Edwin and he vie for Rosa’s affections. When Edwin vanishes, naturally Neville is the one suspected in his mysterious disappearance.
Though I’ll always be distracted by Baclanova’s icy performance as the vicious Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s masterpiece Freaks which blew the doors off social morays and became a cultural profane cult film, Baclanova started out as a singer with the Moscow Art Theater. Appearing in several silent films, she eventually co-starred as Duchess Josiana with Conrad Veidt as the tragic Gwynplaine, in another off-beat artistic masterpiece based on the Victor Hugo story The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Tod Browning produced & directed this eternally disturbing & joyful portrait of behind the scenes melodrama and at times the Gothic violence of carnival life… based on the story ‘Spurs’ by Tod Robbins. It’s also been known as Nature’s Mistress and The Monster Show.
It was essential for Browning to attain realism. He hired actual circus freaks to bring to life this quirky Grand Guignol, beautifully grotesque & macabre tale of greed, betrayal and loyalty.
Cleopatra (Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor) plan to swindle the owner of the circus Hans, (Harry Earles starring with wife Frieda as Daisy) out of his ‘small’ fortune by poisoning him on their wedding night. The close family of side show performers exact a poetic yet monstrous revenge! The film also features many memorable circus folk. Siamese conjoined twins Daisy & Violet Hilton, also saluted in American Horror Story (Sarah Paulson another incredible actress, doing a dual role) Schlitze the pinhead and more!
Anyone riveted to the television screen to watch Jessica Lange’s mind blowing performance as Elsa Mars in American Horror Story’s: Freak Show (2014) will not only recognize her superb nod to Marlene Dietrich, but much reverence paid toward the Tod Browning’s classic and Baclanova’s cunning coldness.
( BTW as much as I adore Frances McDormand, Lange should have walked away with the Emmy this year! I’ve rarely seen a performance that balances like a tight rope walker, the subtle choreography between gut wrenching pathos & ruthless sinister vitriol. Her rendition of Bowie’s song Life on Mars…will be a Film Score Freak feature this Halloween season! No I can’t wait… here’s a peak! it fits the mood of this post…)
here she is as the evil Countess/duchess luring poor Gwynplain into her clutches The Man Who Laughs (1928)
In celebration of our upcoming Anti Damsel Blogathon on August 15 & 16, I had this idea to provide a list of bold, brilliant and beautiful women!
From the heyday of Silent film and the advent of talking pictures, to the late ‘20s to 1934 Pre-Code Hollywood, films were rife with provocative and suggestive images, where women were kicking up a storm on screen… The end of the code during the early 60s dared to offer social commentary about race, class, gender and sexuality! That’s our party!
In particular, these bold women and the screen roles they adopted have become legendary. They sparked catchy dialogue, inspired fashion trends, or just plain inspired us… All together there are 111 of SOME of the most determined, empowered and uniquely fortified femmes of classic film…!
First of course I consulted the maven of all things splendid, shimmery and SILENT for her take on silent film actresses and the parts that made them come alive on the immortal screen…. Fritzi at Movies Silently has summoned up these fabulous femmes….
Stars like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck , Joan Crawford and Ida Lupino managed to keep re-inventing themselves. They became spirited women with an inner reserve of strength and a passion for following their desires!
This post is a collaboration between Fritzi of Movies Silently and me, Joey, here on the Last Drive In.
1. Helen (Miriam Nesbitt) in The Ambassador’s Daughter (1913): This short film from Thomas Edison’s motion picture studio features espionage and a quick-thinking heroine. She tracks down spies at the embassy, follows her suspect and manages to steal back the documents that he purloined from her father. Not at all bad for a film made seven years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.
2. Helen (Helen Holmes) in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916): Helen Holmes was an action star who specialized in train-related stunts and adventure. In this 1916 serial, she saves the day on numerous occasions and even saves her love interest from peril on the train tracks. (It should be mentioned that the Victorian “woman tied to the train tracks” cliche was incredibly rare and usually treated with ridicule in silent films.) This is another movie that is missing and presumed lost.
3. Diana Monti (Musidora) in Judex (1916): Not all the empowered women in classic film were heroines. In the case of Musidora, her most famous roles were as criminals. She was the deadly thief/hit-woman Irma Vep in Les Vampires and then took on the titular caped crusader in Judex. Smart, stealthy and likely to slip a stiletto between the ribs… in short, a woman not to be trifled with.
4. Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) in The Doll (1919): Ernst Lubitsch featured another feisty heroine in this surreal comedy. Our hero wishes to dodge marriage but cannot gain his inheritance without a bride. A plan! He will buy a lifelike doll from a famous toymaker and marry that. What he doesn’t know is that the doll was broken, the toymaker’s daughter has taken its place and she means to teach the reluctant bridegroom a lesson. Oswalda’s mischievous antics are a delight.
5. Lulu (Lois Wilson) in Miss Lulu Bett (1921): Independent women weren’t always given to violence and thievery. In the case of Lulu, she is a single woman trapped in two Victorian social conventions: spinster and poor relation. During the course of the film, she rejects both titles, learns her own self-worth and empowers herself to enter into a healthy relationship with the local schoolmaster. Tasty feminism!
6. Rischka (Pola Negri) in The Wildcat (1921): Ernst Lubitsch’s hyperactive Dr. Seussian comedy is worth seeing for the sets alone but the best part is Pola Negri’s Rischka, a young bandit queen who is terrorizing the mountains. She meets the local Lothario during a robbery and by the end of the scene she has stolen his heart. And his pants.
7. The Countess (Pola Negri) in A Woman of the World (1925): Anyone who thought going to Hollywood would tame Pola Negri’s wild side had another thing coming. In this film, she plays a countess whose skull tattoo causes an uproar in Anytown, USA. The film also features a romance between Negri and the stuffy local prosecutor, who soon finds himself on the receiving end of her bullwhip. Not a metaphor.
8. Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser) in The Eagle (1925): Rudolph Valentino specialized in aggressive wooing but he finds the shoe on the other foot in this Russian romance. Louise Dresser is a kick as the assertive czarina who knows what she likes and goes for it.
9. Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy) in The Bat (1926): It’s a dark and stormy night and a murderous costumed villain means to recover stolen loot in an isolated mansion. What is an elderly woman to do? Take up her trusty pistol and investigate, of course! She also wields a dry wit and keeps cool under pressure. The Bat doesn’t stand a chance.
10. Eve (Leatrice Joy) in Eve’s Leaves (1926): Another gender reversal comedy, Eve’s Leaves features twenties fashion icon Leatrice Joy as a tomboy sailor who finds the perfect man while ashore on business. She ends up saving the day– and her favorite dude in distress– through quick thinking, a knowledge of knots and a mean right hook.
11. Molly (Mary Pickford) in Sparrows (1926): Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart during the silent era and audiences adored her fearless heroines. Molly is one of her boldest. She’s an orphan raised in a Southern swamp who must rescue a kidnapped infant. The epic final race across the swamps– complete with alligators– is still harrowing to behold.
12. Zaida (Bebe Daniels) in She’s a Sheik (1927): Silent movie audiences enjoyed reversals of gender tropes. The Rudolph Valentino vehicle The Sheik (1921) had been a smash hit and had spawned many rip-offs and parodies. (kidnapping + love = box office success!) In this case, a warrior princess falls for a French officer and decides the most sensible course of action is to abduct him for the purpose of marriage. Sadly, this comedy seems to be one of many silent films that is missing and presumed lost.
13. Gilda Carson/Erickson (Dorothy Mackaill) Safe in Hell (1931): Gilda is a complex cigarette smoking call girl who is laid back about her status as a working girl. When a friend calls her up to meet a guy whose wife is out of town she tells her “Okay, I’ll go right into my dance.” When Gilda is accused of murdering the man who rapes her, she flees New Orleans and seeks refuge in the Caribbean. But even there she is surrounded and must fend off criminals and sleaze balls especially the local police chief who threatens her freedom. On and off the screen actress Dorothy Mackaill pushed against the boundaries of virtue and stirred up a lot of social-incorrectness.
“Who has the good times, the swell clothes, the excitements… We do! And not because we’re portrayed as nice girls, no! because we’re smoking, drinking, dancing and being made love to.”
14. The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) Bride of Frankenstein (1935): The Bride might be one of the first screen woman to rabidly defy an arranged/deranged marriage. She’s iconic, memorable and filled with glorious hiss!.. because The Bride may have come into this world in an unorthodox way, but she’ll be damned if any man is going to tell her who to love! Elsa Lanchester manifested The Bride with a keen sense of fearsome independence. No matter whether the Monster demands a Mate, The Bride isn’t ready and willing. Lanchester always took daring roles that were larger than life because she had a way of dancing around the edges of Hollywood convention. Charming, hilarious and downright adorable even with the wicked lightning struck hair and stitches and deathly pale skin!
15. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Gal Friday (1940): Hildy is a hard-bitten reporter for New York City’s The Morning Post. She’s just gotten back from Reno to a get a divorce from her louse of a husband who happens to also be her boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Hildy’s anxious to break ties with her manipulative ex-husband who just isn’t ready to let her leave the job or their marriage so she can marry straight-laced Bruce (Ralph Bellamy)… and he’ll do so by any means. But she’s nobody’s fool… and if she stays it’s because she’s made up her mind to embrace Walter’s crazy antics…
Hildy [to Walter]: “Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong!”
16. Charlie (Teresa Wright), in Shadow of a Doubt (1943): Charlie is tired of small-town life with her parents and annoying younger sister. She’s a longing for something exciting to happen, & overwhelmed with joy when her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) decides to pay the family a visit. But something isn’t quite right with her idol, he begins to exhibit a strange sort of underlying hostility and troubling secret nature… Her mother’s younger brother is actually a sadistic serial killer who preys on rich widows by marrying them, then strangling them! But young Charlie begins to see through his facade. She may be a girl who indulges in romantic fantasy she’s got a strong resource for self preservation and since no one else in the family believes her suspicions that he’s The Merry Widow killer. And she might just have to wind up killing him in self-defense…
“Go away, I’m warning you. Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See… that’s the way I feel about you.”
17. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) Double Indemnity (1944): set fire to the screen as one of the most seductive femme fatales— a dame who made sunglasses and ankle bracelets a provocative weapon. She had murder on her mind and was just brazen enough to concoct an insurance scam that will pay off on her husbands murder in Double Indemnity (1944). Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is the insurance guy who comes around and winds up falling under her dangerous spell…
Walter: “You’ll be here too?”
Phyllis: “ I guess so, I usually am.”
Walter: “Same chair, same perfume, same ankle?”
Phyllis: “I wonder if I know what you mean?”
Walter: “I wonder if you wonder?”
18. Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) in Lifeboat (1944): It’s WWII and Connie is a smart-talking international journalist who’s stranded in the middle of the Atlantic ocean with an ensemble of paranoid and desperate survivors. Eventually her fur coat comes off, her diamond bracelet and expensive camera gets tossed in the sea. But she doesn’t give a damn, she can take the punishment and still attract the hunky and shirtless (yum) John Kodiak… survival’s just a state of mind… and she does it with vigor and class and a cool calm!
“Dying together’s even more personal than living together.”
19. Margo Channing (Bette Davis) All About Eve (1950): In all Bette Davis’ films like (Jezebel (1938) Dark Victory (1939) The Letter (1940) Now, Voyager (1942)), she shattered the stereotypes of the helpless female woman in peril. Davis had an unwavering strength, fearlessly taking on the Hollywood system and embracing fully the moody roles that weren’t always ‘attractive.’ Davis made her comeback in 1950, perhaps melding a bit of her own story as an aging star in All About Eve. Margo must fend off a predatory aspiring actress (Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington) who insinuates herself into Margo’s territory. Davis’ manifests the persona of ambition and betrayal which have become epic…
“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
20. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in Night of the Hunter (1955): There are certain images that will remain with you long after seeing masterpieces like Night of the Hunter. Aside from the frightening portrayal of an opportunistic sociopath, the film is like a childhood fairy tale. It’s a cautionary tale about the boogeyman but it’s also a story about the resilient spirit and far reaching imagination of children, and those who are their guardian angels of the world. One of the most calming and fortifying images is that of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) protecting the children from harm, holding a rifle and keeping watch like a wonderful fairy god mother elected to guard those little ones with her powerful brand of love… There’s just something about Gish’s graceful power that emanates from the righteous Rachel Cooper….
“It’s a hard world for little things.”
21. Serafina Delle Rose (Anna Magnani) in The Rose Tattoo (1955) As the tagline states ‘Seething with realism and frankness!” Magnani’s her passionate soul is up front, on her face, and in her movements. Like a wild animal she moves so freely as Serafina, who is perpetual grieving widow filled with fire. Serafina, a seamstress in a small New Orleans town, still mourns her dead husband Rosario Delle Rose (who had a rose tattoo on his chest) as if he were a saint, even after he was killed by police for smuggling drugs for the mafia. Burt Lancaster’s bigger-than-life presence comes her way bringing about lighthearted romance.
Serafina honors an older world of ancient feminine magic and empowerment), so the local Strega (or witch) with her wandering goat, and the town full of wives and gossips who stare and judge, cackling with unkind insults, forces Serafina to fight for every last bit of dignity. Once she learns her dead husband was having an affair, the spell that imprisoned her with mourning breaks and she awakens to celebrate life once again. She is stubborn, passionate, and she has a strength that commands the birds out of the trees.
Serafina: “We are Sicilians. We don’t leave girls with the boys they’re not engaged to!”
Jack: “Mrs Delle Rose this is the United States.”
Serafina “But we are Sicilians, and we are not cold-blooded!”
22. Anna Lucasta (Eartha Kitt) in Anna Lucasta (1958): Young Anna is rejected by her sanctimonious father Joe played to the hilt by Rex Ingram. While the rest of the family wants Anna to come home, her self-righteous father can’t resist demonizing his daughter, with an underlying incestuous desire that he is battling. Anna takes the cliched road of the fallen woman and becomes a good time gal who meets Danny (Sammy Davis Jr.) a cab driving sailor who is as smooth as silk and as fiery as molten lead. Though there is an underlying sadness because of the estrangement with her father, Anna possesses a strong sense of self, and exudes a fiery passion that cannot be denied… She isn’t a bad girl, she had to find her own way and again, it often leads to taking control of who you love and how you love. She and Sammy have a smoking hot chemistry on screen, and Kitt is a powerful woman who made that road her own…
Danny: “Tell her who Papa is” (Papa is a little carved wooden Haitian idol)
Lester: “That’s the model of Agwé the Haitian god of the sea. Seems he’s good to sailors.”
Anna: “Looks like Papa and me’s got something in common…”
23. Kelly (Constance Towers) in The Naked Kiss (1964): The opening of the film is one of the most audacious entrances in early exploitation cinema as Kelly confronts her pimp who has shaved off her hair and stolen her money. She brutally pummels the rat with her handbag. Stripped of her hair, looking like a mannequin (signifying her as an ‘object’), ahe is introduced to us as a fighter. She manages to fit in to her quaint new town of Granville until the perverse secret about the Granville’s benefactor is exposed. Kelly stumbles onto Grant’s (Michael Dante) dark secret that ultimately explodes in scandal.
Kelly is persecuted by local cop Griff (Anthony Eisley), who assumes she’s still a prostitute. Griff tells Kelly that it’s a “clean town” and he doesn’t want her operating there, although he isn’t adverse to taking Kelly to bed himself or frequenting Madame Candy’s (Virginia Gray) high class “cat house’ acting like he’s above reproach. But Kelly wants out of the business. She takes a job at a children’s hospital and brings joy and a special brand of love. Grant woos her, but before they reach their wedding day, Kelly stumbles onto Griff’s deviant secret and winds up accused of his murder. The story is a mine field of social criticisms and hypocrisy. Kelly initially starts out as the ‘whore’ of the story; as the one who needs redemption. But it’s the town that must be redeemed of it is jaundiced complacency. Kelly is a powerful protagonist, because she kicks down hypocrisy and judgement, shattering the limitations that are placed on women. In the end she no longer is labeled or objectified or persecuted. She is embraced as a savior, a heroine who becomes the catalyst for cleansing the ‘white middle-class’ town of it’s hypocrisy…
“I washed my face clean the morning I woke up in your bedroom!”
24. Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Rosemary has a fearless defiance in an ordinary world that becomes an unsafe space of paranoia. Aside from guarding her body and motherhood against intruders, Rosemary has an open mind, a delicate brand of kindness although troubled by a catholic upbringing that haunts her, she is still ‘too good’ and too independent to taint. She winds up taking life and the life of her baby on her own terms. Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse is an indomitable image of striking resiliency. A heroine who takes on an entire secretive cult of devil worshipers entrenched in the high society of NYC. That takes a lot of guts, people!… And Ruth Gordon is a meddling old New York busybody who just happens to be a modern day witch. As Minnie Castavets she does what she wants. She is empowered with her quirky style and her beliefs, as wicked as they may be…And her wardrobe is bold, kitschy, and fabulous!
“Pain, begone, I will have no more of thee!”
25. Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) in The Bride Wore Black (1968): Julie Kohler is on a mission of revenge for the men who accidentally shot her husband on their wedding day outside the church. Julie has a maniacal almost macabre sort of presentation to her theater of revenge, she moves through the film with the ease of a scorpion. But there’s dark humor and irony running through, like a good mystery thriller. Julie is a captivating figure of sadness and passion put out at the height of it’s flame. Once passion for her late husband, and now passion for revenge. It’s playful and sexy and Moreau is utterly brilliant as the resourceful Julie Kolher. She creates a satirically dire and elaborate, and slightly Grande Guignol adventure of a vengeful woman on a crusade to exact poetic justice where the system has failed.
Coral: “Permit me to make an impossible wish?”
Julie: “Why impossible?”
Coral: “Because I’m a rather pessimist.”
Julie: “I’ve heard it said: There are no optimists or pessimists. There are only happy idiots or unhappy ones.”
Here’s to those Empowered Women of Silent & Classic Film! — Your Ever-Lovin’ Joey
— Mary Shelley
When I think of Kenneth Strickfaden I visualize the mad scientist grabbing the master switch in his clandestine laboratory. Suddenly the machinery hums and glows, glass tubes boil with liquids, electrical currents charge through the coiled tubes and conductance. Lighting leaps across the sky and finds its way into the diving spot in the lab. The crackle, snapping hiss and sparks of ozone. The well orchestrated machinery of mad science that now act as futuristic hardware. The electrical odor that would still permeate the air for years to come as he shaped the way we perceived the mad scientist labs and mysterious scientific exploration!
Kenneth Strickfaden was an expert in high voltage electricity, film set designer, and electrical special effects master. Using his skills as a carnival electrician, he created the science fiction apparatus that can be seen in more than 100 films and television programs, showcasing Strickfaden’s technical phantasmagoria of light and sound!
I often wonder how many of these films centered around mad science and the laboratory environment utilized some of Strickfaden’s machines and electrical effects without giving him credit.
I can see influences in Edward Dymtryk’s The Devil Commands 1941 with Boris Karloff. With art direction by Lionel Banks and props by Franz, Oscar and Paul Dallons. The Man They Could Not Hang 1939 & Man Made Monster 1941 Set direction by Russell A Gausman and John P Fulton who had worked with Strickfaden before. I believe Strickfaden did the special effects and used part of his equipment for. Doctor X (1932) , The Invisible Man 1933, The Man Who Lived Again and more!
Strickfaden’s first contribution was to Just Imagine 1930. Today it has become something of a “lost” film and nearly impossible to see on the big screen. “While the beautiful art deco sets, enormous miniatures, and remarkable projection effects still amaze,” says Production Designer John Muto, Founder of the ADG Film Series, “the music, comedy, and love story are derived from vaudeville and must have seemed very dated as cinematic musicals exploded in the 1930s. I suspect that may be why the film faded from view. Our audience will discover a very surprising film!”
“Today, most films set in the future portray a bleak, dystopian, even apocalyptic world.” Besides the beautiful art design Just Imagine featured a stunning laboratory filled with electrical equipment by Ken Strickfaden.
But it was his work for James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein that struck like lightening! Stock footage of the lightning bolt generated by Strickfaden’s equipment.can be seen in so many films and television shows. John P Fulton head of the special effects department at Universal Studios was responsible for the special photographic effects-
Jame’s Whale had wanted a lab that was reminiscent of the one in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis 1927 Lang’s art deparment/set designers Otto Hunte, Erich Kettlehut, Walter Schulze-Mittendorf & Karl Vollbrecht. Special effects by Ernst Kunstmann, Konstantin Irmen-Tschet and Erich Kettelhut. Visual effects Eugen Schufftan , Willy Muller, Hugo O Schulze and an uncredited Edgar G. Ulmer.
You can see Strickfaden’s wonderful creations in The Wizard of Oz , The Mask of Fu Manchu to television’s The Munsters, and his final work, Young Frankenstein. Strickfaden recycled a number of the pieces that he kept maintained like his “Cosmic Ray Diffuser” that he used in the original Frankenstein.
Kenneth Strickfaden was born in 1896-by the time he was in high school he was using a camera and setting up shots of amusement parks, battle scenes, and visualizing and creating his own laboratory apparatus and equipment.
When I was just a little tiny wide eyed MonsterGirl I would day dream plenty on rainy days and spend hours down in the basement assembling pieces of metal and plastic doohickeys having taken apart various appliances around the house, trying to create my very own little mad scientist lab. I’d get large pieces of wood and paint the control panels. I could literally spend hours down there pretending to be Dr. Pretorious. I was fascinated by science fiction technology and the secrets of life and death, and the fantastical story telling Universal Monsters had to offer.
My pop would continually ask me where I put his hammer, though it was true most of the time, I did take his tools to aide in my small scale construction of a basement laboratory. I was constructing panels with knobs and meters, I didn’t always have his hammer. And by no means did I have the eye or the technical brain to develop such intricate machinery that could spark and crackle streams of white heat, the suggestion of the life force arching in splendor. It just felt so good to be living my own fantasies without being told that I should go play with dolls. That’s also partly how I got to be known as MonsterGirl by the neighborhood bullies. Anyway… back to the genius of Frankenstein’s electrician.
Strickfaden had, the sort of fascination for creating a milieu of science realism , working on our sense of wonder and the possibilities of the creations these machines would aide in either creating life or destroying it, was always a draw for me. His special electrical designs and effects were visually groundbreaking for American film audiences, far-fetched perhaps but divine. He used junk yard electrical parts from the 1930s, fake wiring,high voltage jacob’s ladders (An electric current then flows until the path of ionized gas is broken or it as it rises will pull the arc apart and so extinguish it.) and spark gaps and the occasional Tesla Coil. “Ribbed ceramic insulators are a must… as are the slate front panels and wooden cabinetry that were standard of scientific and medical devices of the day”
And that’s why I wanted to do this little feature tribute to a man who’s responsible for shaping the look of so many classic horror and sci-fi fantasy film milieus over the years. The sets and laboratory apparatus that contributed to the Gothic science mood of the story, came to life because of the innovation Strickfaden used in creating with his fantastical yet plausible designs. As key to the plot structure as the players themselves.
During the grand days of classic horror between the decades of 1930’s and 1940s, the landscape might have looked entirely different if Kenneth Strickfaden hadn’t been so fascinated with creating apparatus and contraptions that flashed and sparked with high voltage, meters keeping track, tubes and coils and large equipment that paid true homage the science fiction writings he was trying to breath life into himself a technician like Pretorious and Dr. Frankenstein. The appearance of these industrial gadgets and machines, and the look of the laboratory brought such a sense of realism to an already Gothic stunner, and Mary Shelley’s story, too which was ahead for it’s day. As Harry Goldman refers to in his book title, Strickfaden was the right electrician for the job.
Though his fascination started in high school by the early 1920s film makers saw the potential in his inventive apparatus. He was given work at many Hollywood studios, in which he offered them a slew of amazing special electrical effects.
From Goldman’s, Kenneth Strickfaden, Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician, Strickfaden’s work was not easy, “Apparatus constantly failed due to overheating,” he once revealed to writer Scott MacQueen. “Most effects did not photograph as expected, or they were eliminated due to electrical failures.”
Despite these unusual, and expected, setbacks, the onscreen results were phenomenal, and far more convincing than any simulations. Strickfaden made much use of the inventions of Nikola Tesla, which had been perfected more than thirty years before the first Universal Studios “Frankenstein” movie. But, unlike Tesla, he was also concerned with the theatrical “look” of his fanciful contraptions, which had to appear to be futuristic and capable of untold wonders. The names he gave the machines were often equally marvelous, such as: “the retrogressive wave charger,” “DXL Accumulator,” and “High Amperage Pyrogeyser.”
When, in the late 1940s, real-life scientific marvels turned out to be subtler than Strickfaden’s machines, his work apparently went out of fashion and was little seen in Hollywood until the ’60s, when it was used extensively in The Munsters TV show and in commercials.
Before his death in 1984, he spent much time touring with his “Kenstric Space Age Science Show,” educationally demonstrating spectacular electrical phenomena.
A few highlights of Strickfaden’s career include:
Frankenstein (1931) the equipment brought the Mary Shelley’s monster to life.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) Strickfaden created a dazzling electrical death ray even doubling for Boris Karloff, who played Fu Manchu when the evil mastermind spreads his hands and the powerful lightning dances between his long sinister fingernails.
Murders in the Rue Morgue 1932 Bela Lugosi is Dr Mirakle- Ken Strickfaden lends his electrical gadgets to Mirakle’s laboratory.
Chandu the Magician -Strickfaden’s machines came from FRANKENSTEIN now they equip (Bela Lugosi) Roxor’s lab- His death ray, a giant ray gun that sends pulsating death beams aimed at the major cities of the world!
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)Strickfaden configured the electrical displays for the Bride creation sequence.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) He created the effect of the Wicked Witch of the West trying to remove Dorothy’s ruby slippers and receiving an electrical shock. The orb she uses to scry was a Strickfaden design.
The giant crystal ball that Margaret Hamilton uses as the Wicked Witch was actually uncovered in a junk yard found amidst the remnants of other discarded Hollywood memorabilia from a now defunct prop house. The enormous hand blown glass, with high voltage Tesla coils had a new owner who spotted it in Goldman’s book Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician. It had been used by Bela as Roxor in Chandu the Magician. It was a great prop for Boris Karloff in Mask of Fu Manchu, but once he placed it up for auction the new ownder learned that it had actually been the crystal ball used in The Wizard of OZ.
Fighting Devil Dogs (circa 1941)“Manifested projectiles of something like ball lightning.”
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) “He simulated an unusually realistic lightning strike.”
Young Frankenstein (1974) Strickfaden recreated some of his best work from the original Frankenstein.
He was born in Montana in 1896, Kenneth Strickfaden’s was an imaginative and adventurous guy who worked at amusement parks, taking myriads of photos. He traveled overseas serving in World War One. He was also an airplane mechanic so he was very handy technically, having built and tuned Tesla coils and X-Ray machines. A Tesla coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit invented by Nikola Tesla around 1891. It is used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency …Eventually he found himself in Hollywood working as a studio electrician in the late twenties.
In 1931, Kenneth Strickfaden was hired to set up the equipment for Frankenstein’s tower laboratory. He was to furnish it with a ‘powerful engine.‘ Strickfaden assembled various machines. One which was used for the lightening powered scene that would help resurrect Boris Karloff’s monster back from the dead to life on the slab. He combined his knowledge of electrical science engineering and part of his love of creating side show electrical pageantry in order to transform Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory into a place of unorthodox alchemy within a modern science dominion.
At first the designs were to be more streamline and modern in their look, but Strickfaden had managed to construct a place of Gothic dread within the medieval structure of the setting and seamlessly adapt the apparatus of modern science with the stone walls. The juxtaposition of the two worlds adds to the feeling of Dr Frankenstein’s heretical, rebellious and clandestine primacy as his secrets lay hidden away.
Strickfaden’s apparatus quivered, sparked, crackled and shrieked. The imposing levers were pulled in harmony with the dialogue, like an orchestrated scientific waltz. White hot arcs of electrical tendrils reached out and thrust wildly like serpent’s tongues. Beautifully glistening glass vials and tubes sat amidst copper spheres that wound themselves around like industrial jewels. Needles indicated where the force of energy was heading on the dials, and disks whirled like fun-house wheels. It was all so mesmerizing in Frankenstein’s laboratory with it’s arcane machinery that sung the songs of the universe, and the secrets of immortality and life from death, the sounds of voltage that pushed the machinery to its limits.
From then on 1931 James Whale’s Frankenstein with its elaborately detailed laboratory up on the mountain tops set the tone for all mad scientist laboratories to follow. Kenneth Strickfaden would utilize and reconfigure his glorious apparatus over and over again in the Frankenstein films that followed, like Bride of Frankenstein.
You can see his fantastical machines like his “Megavolt Tesla Coil” & the “Nebularium” in Flash Gordon serials and so many other horror and sci-fi features over the decades. Even in one of the most memorable episodes of The Munsters in the 60s, where Grandpa transfigures Herman into Fred Gwynn, losing his square headed, neck bolted Frankensteinian charm! The episode is called “Just Another Pretty Face.”
And Mel Brooks truly paid homage to the Universal cycle of Frankenstein pictures with his Young Frankenstein in 1974. Co-starring with Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn doing her Mae Clarke bit as Elizabeth and Marty Feldman as Igor to Dwight Frye’s Fritz.
The Gothic laboratory that Gene Wilder plays Doctor, waxes campy and raises Peter Boyle back to life using a lighting storm and complex equipment that sparks and radiates arcs of light was the very same set of scientific apparatus used from Whale’s masterpiece in 1931 film when Kenneth Strickfaden first configured it all for the set of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff.
Strickfaden died in 1984, and up until that time, he traveled the country with all machines and apparatus, and gave lectures in schools and auditoriums, also creating music with electrical instruments that he designed. He would demonstrate his lighting effects with ultraviolet light on radioactive materials, and shock and amaze students with something he called hi “gravity nuetralizer” He did these programs from 1933 til his death.
Strickfaden would step in at times as a stunt double in the films, for instance, he played Karloff’s monster for a scene that didn’t make it into the film. When Karloff didn’t want to use the “QUCH” machine fearing it was too dangerous as Fu Manchu, Strickfaden stood in for him. He held a large wand that generated a streaming arc of lightening which called for a million-volt sparks to dance over his body. in Mask of Fu Manchu, Strickfaden was thrown across the set when he wasn’t grounded properly and received a jolt of electricity.
He became the most trusted man around high-voltage trickery, yet Strickfaden admits very plainly that there’s no mystery to what he is able to do and that producing high voltage or amperage is rather simple.
One of the key apparatus that Strickfaden uses is his million-volt generator, which produces the large sparks, and fat blue flames that which can actually reach a height of 6 feet into the air. It’s his most intricately designed piece of equipment. The multi-distributor consists of a motor driven set of whirling electrodes that can throw sparks. Strickfaden does say that a shock from the circuits could actually prove fatal.
Another device Strickfaden used was called a ‘lightening screen’ This is another high voltage generator which throws sparks across a large disk with a radioactive backing. Used with a darkened stage, the radioactive material continues to glow along the path of each spark even once the current has been shut off.
A note about Nikola Tesla-THE GENIUS WHO LIT THE WORLD- “ Young Nikola Tesla came to the United States in 1884 with an introduction letter from Charles Batchelor to Thomas Edison: Nikola Tesla developed polyphase alternating current system of generators, motors and transformers and held 40 basic U.S. patents on the system, which George Westinghouse bought, determined to supply America with the Tesla system.
In February 1882, Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, a fundamental principle in physics and the basis of nearly all devices that use alternating current. Tesla brilliantly adapted the principle of rotating magnetic field for the construction of alternating current induction motor and the polyphase system for the generation, transmission, distribution and use of electrical power. Tesla’s A.C.induction motor is widely used throughout the world in industry and household appliances. It started the industrial revolution at the turn of the century. Electricity today is generated transmitted and converted to mechanical power by means of his inventions. Tesla’s greatest achievement is his polyphase alternating current system which lights is used throughout the world
SOURCE MATERIAL FROM-
FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #21 1963
Memorabilia Heritage Auction Galleries
Photos from the Academy of Motion Pictures homage to Strickfaden.-A selection of surviving gadgets from Strickfaden’s movie laboratories.
Modern Mechanix scan of a Popular Mechanics article from September 1949-by Eugene M Hanson.
1. Scott MacQueen, “Kenneth Strickfaden: Strange Revelations of the Man Who Lives in the House that Frankenstein Built,” Gore Creatures, no. 24, October 1975, pp. 24-26.
2. William Ludington, “Mister Electricity: The Multi-Volted Career of Kenneth Strickfaden,” American Classic Screen, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan./Feb. 1983, pp. 26-29.
This has been electrifying -your ever lovin’ MonsterGirl