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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Fog of Lost London, Part 4 (Republished)

NOTE: As the Spooky Season reaches its climax, I repost the climax of my four-part tribute to the legendary lost Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight. Here it is, with a few afterthoughts. If you haven't read the first three parts yet, you'd better scroll down and catch up -- you don't want to get ahead of the story!

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The concluding chapters of London After Midnight by Marie Coolidge-Rask:

Chapter 19 - The Man in the Beaver Hat

At Balfour House, the man in the beaver hat, lantern in hand, climbs the stairs to the secret room where the bat-woman hovers near the ceiling. Come down, he says, all is ready; she is on her way.

In the overgrown garden the bat-woman waits as Lucy approaches. As the two come together, a shriek like a woman's voice rends the air. Lucy cowers, but the bat-woman soothes her: "It's nothing. They're awake -- coming." Lucy feels herself taken in two strong arms and carried bodily into the house. She sees that her bearer is the man in the beaver hat described by Smithson.

Lucy looks around; tears well in her eyes as she takes in the home she has not seen since her father's death five years before. She begs the pair with her to tell her who they are.

The man in the beaver hat silences her with a gesture. Footsteps are heard outside. Suddenly there's the crash of a shattering window and a man tumbles into the room at their feet.

Chapter 20 - Hibbs' Madness

In Hamlin House, Hibbs dashes downstairs to where the servants cluster, roused from their sleep by the sudden hue and cry from Lucy's room. They urgently entreat Hibbs to tell them what's going on, but he is incoherent, raving -- They're coming! They're all around! I go to destroy them!

The unfortunate Hibbs rummages around the kitchen, yard and outbuildings of the estate, raving about an axe and a hickory stake, the implements he must have to destroy the "vampyrs." He finds an axe in a chopping block and sharpens two pieces of wood into stakes, muttering madly all the while. The servants watch in amazement, afraid to intervene in his maddened state. Soon he is off on his way to Balfour House on his desperate, fevered mission.

At Balfour House he lurks outside a window, his eyes wide, barely suppressing the wild beating of his heart. What he sees through the window drives him madder still: Lucy standing with the man in the beaver hat and the bat-woman. She doesn't run, she doesn't flee; she is in their wicked power! She must be saved before it's too late!

Hibbs leaps through the window, falling at the feet of Lucy and the two fiends in a shower of glass. Before he can move or clear his fevered brain, creatures of unimaginable strength have pounced upon him, overwhelmed him, bound him, borne him off. Is this the end? Has he failed to save Lucy? Is he doomed to be a vampire himself?

Chapter 21 - Help from Scotland Yard

At Scotland Yard, the summons to Hamlin House has been received and a squad of constables is ready to set out. The assistant commissioner knows now that Inspector Burke's preparations -- carefully set in motion by the work of an undercover agent -- are about to bear fruit.

The constables pile into a car and swiftly depart for their destination, an estate outside London. They are told that when the car is sighted there will be a signal -- a siren; they are to reply with a howl, just like the other night.

As the car speeds along, they hear the siren -- a long, piercing shriek like a woman's scream. The car replies with its own special signal, a blaring electric horn like the howl of a dog. Peering into the darkness, the constables see the outline of Hamlin House straight ahead.

Chapter 22 - A Strange Conference

At Hamlin House, Colonel Yates hears the howl of a dog, just like the one the night of his and Sir James's visit to the Balfour crypt. Looking out the window, he sees a car approaching. It must be Scotland Yard, he tells Sir James, and not a minute too soon.

As Yates and Sir James go downstairs, the butler is admitting the police, who have arrived in response to Sir James Hamlin's request. Sir James introduces the policemen to Colonel Yates, saying he will explain the situation to them; Sir James himself is too distraught.

The colonel surveys the police detail with a military eye, apparently deciding that they will do. Quickly he summarizes the weird train of events that have led to their presence here. Now, he says, they have reason to believe that Miss Lucy Balfour is in dire peril in her former home. The police should proceed at once to Balfour House and be prepared for "instant action."

Yates turns to Sir James; does he have his revolver ready? Sir James does. Let me see it, says the colonel. Examining the gun, he notes that it has not been fired in a long time and may not be reliable. Turning to one of the officers, he asks for a spare pistol that Sir James can carry in case the need for it arises.

Sir James, seated at his desk, tries to insist that his own revolver will do, but something in Colonel Yates's eyes stops him. Sir James, in his highly nervous state, seems suddenly transfixed. Colonel Yates moves his hands before the man's face but gets no response.

Satisfied, the colonel takes Sir James's desk clock and sets the hands to eight o'clock. He places the clock before Sir James. At twenty-five minutes past eight, he tells Sir James, come to the verandah door at Balfour House.

Colonel Yates leaves with the police. Sir James, he says, will be joining them later.

Chapter 23 - From Out of the Past

Lucy is upset at what is happening to Hibbs -- those men seizing him, binding him, carrying him away, saying he must be drunk. Jerry is never drunk! The bat-woman tries to calm her. Please, dear, she says, didn't he tell you to remember your part and do it, no matter what? Yes, Lucy says, but he said he'd take care of Jerry, see that he comes to no harm. And so he will, the woman says, we all will. She turns to the man in the beaver hat. What was wrong with him? Too much excitement, the man says; he'll be taken care of and kept out of harm's way. But now we have to work fast.

Lucy pulls herself together. You'd better see the man in the next room, the bat-woman says to Lucy, prepare yourself. It might be a shock and you should get it over with.

Lucy parts a frayed curtain and looks into the next room at the man sitting at her father's desk. It is a shock. The resemblance is uncanny, eerie. For a moment she feels like a little girl again, the little girl who came into this very room and found her father dead, sitting where that man is now. Lucy looks down at herself and sees that she is not that little girl at all anymore. This man can't be her father -- but he looks so like him.

Lucy prays for the strength to do what she must. She goes up to the man, who rises to greet her. They talk briefly. She answers his questions about the night she last saw her father alive. He tells her he can only imagine how difficult this is for her. He has three daughters of his own, and he hopes any one of them would feel just as Lucy does. But he also hopes that they would find the strength to do what must be done. It's so important. "Play the role," he says, "and make it a success."

Chapter 24 - Metamorphosis

Lucy returns to the waiting bat-woman. The woman dresses her in a girlish white frock identical to one she had as a young girl. The woman tells her it is the same dress, that Smithson has retrieved it for Lucy to wear tonight. Again, as so often this night, Lucy is surprised; she thought she was being so clever in stealing away from Hamlin House, and Smithson knew all the time!

Colonel Yates strides into the hall with several men. One of them Lucy recognizes as one of the men who subdued Hibbs; in a flash she realizes that the other man who grappled with her sweetheart was the man who so resembles her father. Who are all these people? And who is Colonel Yates?

The man in the beaver hat removes his cloak and hands it to the colonel. Is everything ready? Yates asks. The man says yes, handing his hat to the colonel, then removing his wig and handing that over as well. In the hat, wig and cloak, stooped over and contorting his face, Colonel Yates looks exactly like the other man -- except for the absence of those spiky teeth, which he conceals by raising the collar of the cloak. 

And now Smithson is there, telling Lucy how sweet she looks. I followed you to the edge of Hamlin grounds, she says, to make sure you were safe. 

Colonel Yates also compliments Lucy on her appearance -- just what he wanted. As he takes her by the hand and leads her toward the other room, questions swim in Lucy's head. What is this all about? Why isn't Sir James here? Who are these people? Who is Smithson, really? And who is Colonel Yates?

Chapter 25 - Sinister Preparations

A steady stream of commands, directions and questions comes from Colonel Yates. Where is the notary? The stenographer? He questions Lucy about the arrangement of the furnishings in the room, making adjustments as she points them out. He orders everyone to their positions. He turns to Lucy and asks if she is ready. Yes, she says, but how can going through that night again bring a guilty person to justice? All will be clear in good time, he assures her. And he reminds her, after she has said good night, not to linger but to go directly to the room where the bat-woman waits for her. 

The colonel disappears behind a screen, but Lucy can just see his eyes watching through the slits between the panels. How she wishes this were all over and done. But now the house is silent, waiting. Someone is approaching along the verandah. 

Chapter 26 - Sir James Pays a Call

When the desk clock reads 8:25 Sir James rises and leaves the house, pausing briefly to tell Billings, the butler, that he is going to call at Balfour House. Billings says nothing, as he was directed by Colonel Yates, merely watches Sir James go. Billings reflects on the mystifying events of the last few days, most mystifying of all being the note left by Anna Smithson, thanking him for his many kindnesses and saying, regretfully, that it is necessary for her to leave Hamlin House immediately; a baggageman will call for her luggage in the morning. 

Sir James proceeds steadily to Balfour House, pausing to look around as he enters the grounds. What a fine estate he will have, he reflects, when these grounds are combined with his own. 

As Sir James enters the house, the butler, Mooney, announces him. His friend Roger rises to greet him. And there is dear Lucy, that lovely little girl of Roger's. Sir James observes with envy the affection between father and daughter as she kisses Roger good night. Lucy smiles at Sir James and extends her hand, wishing him a good night. Aren't you going to kiss me too? Sir James asks. 

Lucy's smile vanishes. She tells Sir James she doesn't like him when he talks like that. Then she is gone; Sir James and Roger Balfour are alone.

Chapter 27 - In Hypnosis

In Sir James's mind, it is five years ago, the night he last saw Roger Balfour alive; the man with him is Roger Balfour; and they are alone. But the man he takes for Roger -- whose real name is Drake -- knows that none of those things are true. They are certainly not alone; every move they make is being watched, every word heard and taken down for the record. Now that Lucy is out of the room, there is only one person who knows how the conversation went between the two men that last night. Sir James is reliving his half of that scene; Drake must now play a very delicate game. He must deduce from Sir James's behavior what he, as Roger Balfour, should do or say next. The slightest misstep can shatter Sir James's hypnotic trance. 

Sir James, unable to quite conceal his annoyance, tells "Roger" that he has come here tonight in a spirit of friendship to help his friend with his financial difficulties. I know about your troubles, he says, more than you realize. 

Drake plays a hunch. He tells Sir James that he knows exactly the extent of his knowledge -- he sees that his hunch has hit home, and continues -- knows that Sir James has been stealing from him right and left, made him penniless. Now that you have me in your power, he says, what do you want?

I want Lucy, says Sir James. I have loved her since she was a baby, and I want her for my wife. You have always distrusted me, suspected me. You have called me a drug user and a sensualist, but you could never prove it. 

Now Drake, with the revulsion of a father with daughters of his own, knows what Roger Balfour must have said, the only thing that could have caused events to turn out as they did. I can prove it, he says, now.

Sir James's eyes blaze with hate as he draws his revolver. He demands these "proofs." The other man refuses, and Sir James fires. Drake crumples to the floor, a bloody wound in his temple. 

Sir James searches the desk. Those proofs, whatever Roger had, must be here, he is certain. He goes through every drawer quickly but carefully, finding nothing. The fool was bluffing. Well, now he's dead, and good riddance. Sir James takes out his handkerchief, wipes his pistol clean, and lays it on the floor near the dead man's lifeless fingers. Now he must escape before he is found here. He backs toward the door. 

As he reaches for the doorknob his arm is seized in a powerful grip, then his other arm. Sir James struggles in a desperate frenzy, unable to break free. He hears a voice: Don't let him get away! He's still under hypnosis! I'm coming!

Chapter 28 - A Dramatic Awakening

 As Sir James struggles, the man in the beaver hat emerges from behind a screen. Under the man's penetrating gaze, Sir James ceases to struggle. He looks around. Balfour House! How did he get here? He sees Roger Balfour dead on the floor, exactly where he left him. But that was five years ago! Or was it? Has it all been a dream, these five years, all his patient plotting and planning to possess Lucy? All a dream during the few seconds as he made his way to the door? 

It must have been! Roger had been too clever, had his men in hiding. But not clever enough; they've prevented my escape, but they're too late to save his life. Sir James looks at the man in the beaver hat. Have I been asleep?

No, says the man, and neither have I. He reaches out and rips the sleeve from Sir James's jacket. Sir James recoils from the searing pain. There! says the man. I knew I clipped you when I shot at you tonight. You thought you'd finish Hibbs with your poison needle, but I was there instead waiting for you. 

Chapter 29 - Surprising Revelations

Drake rises from the floor, wiping the stage blood from his face, grateful that Sir James had been handed a doctored revolver back at Hamlin House. The man with Sir James removes his beaver hat, cloak and wig, revealing --

Yates! cries Sir James. I thought the years had changed you, but now I see you're an impostor. You've set this trap to blackmail me! You'll get nothing from me! Sir James shrieks with indignation.

"Colonel Yates" takes off his glasses, removes the subtle disguise from his face, rearranges his hair, and shows Sir James his badge: Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard. I have what I want from you, he says. I've spent the last three days carefully breaking down your defenses, creating a mental strain that would make you susceptible to hypnotic influence. My theory that a criminal in hypnosis, faced with the circumstances of his crime, will repeat that crime exactly -- my theory has been proven correct.

Cornered, broken, trapped, Sir James crumbles and confesses all. He murdered Roger Balfour just as Burke and his crew have seen him reenact the crime tonight. He murdered Harry Balfour with a poison injection to the throat for fear that Harry would discover the proof of his wicked life that he could not find before -- and worse, would take Lucy away from him. He tried to do the same to Hibbs to get him out of Lucy's life, before Yates/Burke's intervention sent him fleeing for his life. 

The stenographer has it all. Inspector Burke orders the statement typed up. He tells Sir James that the law will see to it that every last farthing he stole from Roger Balfour will be restored to Lucy as the last survivor of her murdered family. And finally, he orders his men to examine Roger Balfour's desk closely for evidence of a secret drawer; those proofs must be in there somewhere.

Chapter 30 - Recapitulation

Burke tells Sir James that he suspected him from the start; if only he could have acted sooner, he might have saved Harry Balfour's life. Burke's investigation had uncovered evidence of Sir James's embezzlement from Roger Balfour. A former policewoman, Anna Smithson, was planted in Sir James's household, where she uncovered evidence of Sir James's drug use and degenerate activities. She had also overheard conversations between Sir James and Harry -- no one ever notices the servants -- and knew that Harry intended to remove his sister from Sir James's influence. She had even found the vial of poison with which Sir James murdered Harry (and intended to murder Hibbs) and replaced it with a harmless liquid. The real poison is now in police hands, to be used as evidence.

Chapter 31 - Professional Pride

Inspector Burke goes upstairs to where Lucy is sitting by the bedside of Hibbs, now all but recovered from his derangement. Burke tells Lucy and Hibbs his true identity, and that he has the murderer of Lucy's father and brother in custody. He spares her any details for the moment. She must know all in time, of course, but later, when she's stronger. 

Burke apologizes for keeping Hibbs in the dark, but it was necessary to the operation; Hibbs is not dissembler enough to have been able to play a role. Hibbs sheepishly admits that he now wishes he'd taken "Colonel Yates's" advice and gone to bed. It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble -- especially himself. 

Smithson comes in to say goodbye; she will miss Miss Lucy and Mr. Jerry. She playfully scolds Burke for that "terrible tarradiddle" he made her tell about the green mist through the keyhole. 

Finally come the man in the beaver hat and the bat-woman; their part in Burke's elaborate charade is done, and now it's back to the music halls for them. Come see us, the woman says, Mooney and Luney -- Jimmy Mooney and Lunette the bat: "I fly by night an' I sleep by day, the looniest kind of a bat!"


So there you have it, friends: London After Midnight -- a Halloween treat with a trick. If you've seen 1935's Mark of the Vampire, the twist came as no surprise to you; for that matter, even in 1927 the New York Times commented that whether the ending surprised anyone would be "a matter of opinion."

I haven't read Philip J. Riley's reconstruction of the picture -- honestly, I can't remember now whether it was the opportunity to buy it or the good sense that I lacked in 1987 -- but I'll soon correct that oversight; my used copy is on its way from Amazon even as I type this. I have seen the Turner Classic Movies reconstruction, and there are major discrepancies between it and the story told by Marie Coolidge-Rask. In TCM's version, Hibbs is identified as Arthur, not Jeremiah (Jerry), and he's Sir James's nephew, not his secretary. (Variety's Mori says Hibbs is Roger Balfour's nephew, but that doesn't make sense and is probably a mistake on Mori's part.) Neither the TCM version nor the reviews mention the murder of Harry Balfour, or even his existence, although the illustration in the novel (see Chapter 2, "Another Mystery") suggests Harry must have been in there somewhere. (Oddly enough, in the caption Jules Cowles, who played Gallagher the chauffeur, is identified by his own name rather than his character's.)

Most important of all, the idea of Inspector Burke operating incognito as Colonel Yates seems to have been entirely Ms. Coolidge-Rask's invention; in the reconstruction and both reviews Burke is openly himself throughout. He is even shown investigating the "mysterious" death of Roger Balfour and deciding it was suicide, then coming back five years later to prove it was murder -- the Times reviewer pinpointed the howling illogic of that ("...Burke of Scotland Yard, the genius who wills to solve a murder mystery five years after he has declared it to be a case of suicide.").

All things considered -- and with no true copy of London After Midnight, having only Variety's detailed recounting, the New York Times's musings, and TCM's version to go on -- I have to say there's good reason to believe that Marie Coolidge-Rask, despite her cumbersome way with words, made a considerable improvement on Tod Browning's story. Once you accept the basic premise -- an elaborate police sting to hypnotize a murderer into reenacting his crime -- her story has its own clear logic and builds a good amount of suspense. There are many nicely creepy moments -- not least the eye-opening whiff of pedophilia in Sir James's character, which in the novel surely goes beyond what the Hays Office would have tolerated in 1927. Much of the plot as it reads must have been the novelist's creation; there seems far too much to fit into a picture that Variety says ran only 65 minutes (TCM's reconstruction runs 46). And the book has a good sense of pace, becoming quite breakneck as the climax approaches -- just about the time Hibbs goes crazy we begin to feel as if we have, too; as Lucy's world is turned topsy-turvy, so is ours.

I hope you've enjoyed Marie Coolidge-Rask's spooky little Halloween campfire story. Have a safe and happily creepy Halloween, everyone!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Fog of Lost London, Part 3 (Republished)

NOTE: The Spooky Season is upon us once again, so it's time for my annual re-post of my four-part tribute to the legendary lost Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight. Here's Part 3. Whether you remember it from years past or are coming to it new, I hope it brings you a creepy moment or two. Be sure to read the four parts in order -- you don't want to get ahead of the story!

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Continuing with London After Midnight by Marie Coolidge-Rask:

Chapter 10 - A Question of Vampires

The howling of the dog, coming from the direction of Balfour House, continues as Sir James and Yates make their way home from the crypt. They recount their experience to Hibbs, and the three discuss aspects of vampire lore as written in Colonel Yates's book. Since murdered men and suicides are supposedly liable to become vampires, and since Roger Balfour's coffin was still undisturbed at the time of Harry's interment, it is cautiously suggested that the son's unsolved murder may have had some supernatural effect on Roger Balfour's restless soul. Sir James is clearly rattled by the night's experience; Hibbs and Yates realize that there is some unknown factor at work over in Balfour House, and the mystery seems to deepen with every new event. It is near dawn when Sir James and Colonel Yates go to bed. Hibbs steals back downstairs to the library for further study of Colonel Yates's book.

Chapter 11 - Harrowing Tales

All three men rise late the next day, leaving Lucy feeling quite lonely in the house, oppressed in the heat that has been intensified, rather than dispelled, by the early-morning electrical storm. At dinner that evening, conversation is kept trivial; by tacit agreement among the three men, Lucy is given no hint of what happened the night before.

Later that night, after Lucy has gone to her room, the three men resume their discussion of the night before. Suddenly they hear a piercing scream from upstairs, in the direction of Lucy's room. Rushing upstairs, they find Lucy's door locked. They try to break down the door, but before they have to, the door opens. In the room they find Smithson, the maid, trembling and sobbing, her eyes wide with fear, two small wounds at her throat, similar to the ones seen on the body of Harry Balfour. Sobbing, she tells the men that Lucy is locked in her dressing room, and they release the confused and frightened young lady from her confinement.

Finally, Smithson pulls herself together and tells
the men what happened. As Miss Lucy was
getting ready for bed, she says, she left her
to fetch some towels from the linen closet.
In the hallway she saw the man in the beaver
hat, the one she saw on the steps of Balfour
House as she was passing the night before.
The man was stooped over and creeping
toward her, his skeletal hand outstretched,
his spiky teeth gleaming. Smithson was too
frightened even to scream.

Thinking of Miss Lucy, Smithson says, she
rushed back to the young lady's room,
shoved Lucy into the dressing room and
locked her in. Then she locked the door to
the outer room and thought they were safe.
But before her horrified eyes, a green mist
streamed through the keyhole and formed
itself into the man in the beaver hat. The
man came to her; she was unable to speak
or scream, or even move. She felt him
bending over her, felt his teeth on his throat.
That must have been when she screamed,
she says, but she doesn't remember it.
She knew nothing more until she heard
Sir James, Colonel Yates and Hibbs
pounding at the still-locked door.

Lucy, greatly excited, calls their attention
to the window, where all of them see
the man in the beaver hat skulking
across the grounds in the direction
of Balfour House. Colonel Yates tells
Hibbs to remain with Lucy and see
that she is not left alone; he and
Sir James will investigate the matter

Chapter 12 - Panic

Left alone with Lucy and Hibbs, Smithson realizes that the two young people (whose feelings for each other have not escaped her notice) wish to be alone, so she tells them she is going down to the kitchen; after her experience she could use a nice cup of hot tea. Downstairs she finds the servants -- butler, housekeeper, cook, maids and footmen -- cowering in the kitchen, wondering about all the commotion earlier but afraid to go and see what it was. They mill around her, clamoring for news. Deciding she could use something a little stronger than tea, Smithson asks Billings, the butler, for "a little drop of spirits." Thus fortified, she proceeds to regale the servants with another recounting of her experience in Lucy's room, this one much embellished for dramatic effect as Smithson relishes the attentions of her rapt and horrified audience. At this inopportune moment, a cat knocks over a tin pan from the sink onto the floor; the sudden clatter sends the servants into an uproar. Upstairs, Lucy and Hibbs hear the melee downstairs and wonder what can possibly happen next.

Chapter 13 - The Woman on the Ceiling

Colonel Yates and Sir James make their way to Balfour House, proceeding slowly by a roundabout route, pausing frequently to watch and listen for prowlers or anything untoward. Once again Sir James's heart is racing, and once again he depends entirely on the resoluteness of Colonel Yates to keep him going.

It is well after midnight when they approach Balfour House. The house is dark, but they can see a faint light glimmering from one of the upper windows -- in fact from the "secret chamber" that has been unoccupied for centuries, the one in which a woman's ghost is said to roam. Slowly forcing their way through the tangled grass and foliage of the overgrown grounds, they find a large tree from which they should be able to see into the lighted chamber. Taking the lead as usual, Yates climbs into the tree. At that moment they hear, low but clearly audible, the insistent sobbing of a woman in despair.

Through the high windows of the secret room they can see only the ceiling and the upper walls inside. There they behold a sight that confounds them. By the dim light inside, they see a mysterious shape in the secret room -- now sharp and clear, now blurry and indistinct, now rising to the ceiling, now swooping below the level of the windows, now contracting, now expanding as if carried by huge bat-like wings. At one point the apparition turns its head to the light, and the two men clearly see the profile of a woman -- a woman hovering and swooping high in the secret room on the wings of a bat!

From their perch in the tree they are able to step gingerly and noiselessly onto a narrow balcony by one of the windows, from which they have a wider view of the room. They see three men, all with a ghastly pallor to their faces, absorbed in watching the movements of the bat-woman over their heads. One of them is the man in the beaver hat. Another is unidentifiable, but the third man, as Sir James confirms in a trembling whisper, is Roger Balfour.

The bat-woman, where she hovers near the ceiling, turns her face toward the window, her eyes intent, as if to pierce the darkness beyond. Yates and Sir James take an involuntary step back into the shadows. The figure of Roger Balfour also turns to the window, his eyes keenly searching, his face ghostly pale, a small open wound crusted and discolored at his temple. Sir James shudders.

Colonel Yates whispers that they have seen enough for one night, and Sir James readily agrees. They stealthily return to the tree and cautiously climb back down to the ground. Sir James is highly agitated. In a distraught whisper he urges that they return at once to Hamlin House; God only knows what has happened to Lucy in their absence. In a sudden flash of insight, Colonel Yates realizes that Sir James's feelings for Lucy are not merely those of a guardian for his ward. 

From a rise a little distance from Balfour House they look back. In the dim light of the upper window they see a shape standing at the window, and they hear a voice, low and plaintive, calling: "Lucy -- Lucy -- Lucy -- "

Chapter 14 - By the Light of Day

Sir James spends a sleepless night, his mind going over and over the weird events of the night and the uncanny things he and Colonel Yates have seen. The next day at noon, Lucy, alarmed at his tired and ill appearance, asks him what happened while he and the colonel were out. Feeling it best to keep her unaware, he says that they were unsuccessful in their attempt to follow the man in the beaver hat; he had eluded them, and their long walk was for nothing. 

Sir James and Colonel Yates decide to return to Balfour House by daylight; they tell Hibbs that if they are not back in an hour he should send a party in search of them. Under the hot summer sun on a cloudless day, Balfour House looks impressive and looming, but empty and unthreatening. Sir James wonders, was what they saw the night before merely a figment of their imaginations? No, says Yates; they saw what they saw, but what it can mean is impossible to say. Sir James is not reassured.

They knock at the door, but there is no answer. Entering cautiously, they see no signs of occupancy, no disturbance in the dust on the tables, chairs and floor. The door to the secret room is still locked and bolted, the lock rusted and untouched. As they creep from room to room, searching, Sir James again has the unsettling feeling he had on the night they visited the Balfour crypt, that some unseen presence is following them, watchful. 

As they enter the library, the room in which Roger Balfour died five years ago, a strange sight greets them: High in a corner of the ceiling are a group of five bats, hanging in silent slumber. 

Chapter 15 - Two Suitors

Back at Hamlin House, Lucy waits for Colonel Yates in the rose garden; she has promised to give him a tour of the garden and a description of the blooms cultivated there. Hibbs scolds her for being alone, even in the daytime. She laughs, saying she wishes she had seen the man in the beaver hat herself; she'd have captured him! Hibbs, realizing she has been kept in the dark as to the extent of her danger, restrains himself from telling more than he should. 

Sir James and Colonel Yates come into the garden. As they discuss what to do about the previous night's events, Yates notices the flash of suspicion on Sir James's face at the apparent intimacy between Hibbs and Lucy. Yates urges Sir James to ask Scotland Yard to investigate Balfour House; involving the local police, he says, could lead to unwanted and harmful gossip, but the Yard is renowned for its discretion. Have Hibbs write Scotland Yard, he says, asking them to send several good, able-bodied men -- "men who are not afraid of man, ghost or devil" -- under cover of darkness. 

Sir James and Hibbs go into the house to draft the letter, leaving Yates and Lucy to their tour of the garden. As they chat, Lucy confides something she has never told anyone, not even her brother Harry: When she was a little girl, she was strangely afraid of Sir James, although she never knew exactly why; he was always so good to her. And since her father's death, he has been kindness itself; she feels she could never repay him for all he has done for her and Harry. 

Colonel Yates assures her that he understands. He tells her that he wants to have "a serious talk" with her, on a matter that concerns her closely. 

From the house, Hibbs watches Lucy and the colonel in the garden. He sees Lucy throw her arms around Colonel Yates and kiss his cheek, then begin weeping on his shoulder. His jealousy flares, and it is with difficulty that Sir James recalls him to the task of writing Scotland Yard. 

Later, Hibbs confronts Lucy and demands an explanation. She cannot say anything, she says, and begs him not to ask. But she mollifies him by assuring him that she intends to break the news to Sir James of her and Hibbs's feelings for one another. 

Lucy finds Sir James in the music room, as eager to speak with her as she is with him. Sir James wonders: Has Lucy been annoyed by the unwanted attentions of his secretary? No, not at all, she assures him. Before she can go on, he tells her he is glad to hear it. Hibbs could never support Lucy in a way to which she is entitled. On the other hand, he -- Sir James himself -- has long looked forward to making Lucy his wife. 

Surprised and alarmed, Lucy runs sobbing from the room. 

Chapter 16 - Exorcisms

Sir James and Colonel Yates find a passage in Yates's book: "A wreath of tube roses at the window, a sword across the door, will make it impossible for the Vampyr to enter a sleeping room at night." It may sound absurd, but after the past two nights nothing should be discounted; at least it can do no harm. 

Hibbs is tense and upset as they place a wreath of tube roses from the garden and a sword that had hung on the wall, according to the directions in the book; lack of sleep, concern for Lucy, and mistrust of Yates are taking their toll. Reading from the book, he speaks the prescribed incantation: "They shall not pass this threshold."

As everyone retires for the night, Yates draws Hibbs into the upstairs study, saying he has something to tell him. Ignoring the smoldering anger in Hibbs's eyes, Yates guides him to a chair and gently forces him to sit. He tells him that Lucy's love for Hibbs speaks well of him, that Yates can see through her eyes what a fine fellow Hibbs is. 

All thought of Yates as a rival is suddenly gone from Hibbs's mind. In the colonel's steady gaze he sees the eyes of a friend and feels an urge to confide in him. Too bad about Lucy's brother, Yates says; did he and Hibbs get along? Ruefully, Hibbs says no, Harry objected to Hibbs's love for Lucy and was resolved to separate them for good. 

As they talk, Hibbs is overcome with drowsiness. He sleeps. 

Chapter 17 - An Assassin Foiled

Midnight. The house is still. A crouching, shadowy figure moves stealthily to the door of one of the sleeping rooms. Slowly, silently, the figure turns the knob, opens the door and slips inside. The figure approaches the sleeper in the bed, in its hand a long thin object, gleaming in the dim moonlight from the window. 

As the figure is poised to strike, the sleeper lunges bolt upright, startling the attacker to flight -- out the door, down the hall, with the intended victim -- none other than Colonel Yates -- in pursuit. Yates fires his revolver at the fleeing figure, rousing the house. Lucy calls from inside her room, asking that someone remove the sword and let her out.

Sir James comes from his room, his hands shaking as he ties the belt of his robe. What was that? Nothing, says Yates; I must have had a nightmare. Sir James and Lucy are reassured, and the house settles down.

Alone again in the hall, Yates reflects that Hibbs did not appear after the gunshot. He kneels and searches the carpet. Finally he finds what he seeks: a spot of blood. His assailant did not escape untouched after all.

Yates makes sure that Lucy's room is still secured with the sword and tube roses, then goes to Hibbs's room. The door is open, the bedclothes rumpled, but the room is empty. Yates deftly makes up the bed, then goes into the study, where he finds Hibbs, still sound asleep in the chair where he dozed off while they talked. 

Chapter 18 - The Fallen Sword

Upon being awakened, Hibbs apologizes for his rudeness in dropping off. Don't mention it, says Yates; on the contrary, I apologize for keeping you up so late. Yates leaves Hibbs in the study, telling him they both should be in bed.

Hibbs looks at his watch. Two-thirty! Have they really been talking so long? He hardly remembers a word they said. Before retiring, he decides to check on Lucy's room. He is horrified to find the protecting sword missing. He pounds on the door, calling her name. 

Sir James appears, alarmed at Hibbs's display -- and outraged that he addresses Lucy by her first name. Colonel Yates joins them and they break in the door to Lucy's room. It's empty. She's gone.

Finally the strain of the past few days has its way, and something in Hibbs snaps. He becomes hysterical, babbling that "vampyrs" have taken Lucy, that they must all be destroyed. Colonel Yates tries to calm him, to no avail. As Hibbs runs off, delirious, there comes from the direction of Balfour House the wild, piercing scream of a woman in distress. Could that have been Lucy?

No, says Gallagher, Sir James's Irish chauffeur. That wasn't Miss Lucy; 'twas the wail of "the banshee o' Balfour House," foretelling tragedy to come.

To be concluded...

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Fog of Lost London, Part 2 (Republished)

NOTE: The Spooky Season is upon us once again, so it's time for my annual re-post of my four-part tribute to the legendary lost Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight. Whether you remember it from years past or are coming to it new, I hope it brings you a creepy moment or two. Be sure to read the four parts in order -- you don't want to get ahead of the story!

*                         *                         *
Here begins a chapter-by chapter synopsis of London After Midnight, a novel by Marie Collidge-Rask, based on the scenario of the Tod Browning production. Like the book, the synopsis will be


Chapter 1 - Balfour House

Balfour House is an old ancestral home on the outskirts of London whose origins stretch back to before the time of Charles II. Successive generations of the Balfour family have added to it until it is a weird and mystifying architectural abnormality, a labyrinth of chambers, corridors, passageways and dark, massively furnished and heavily curtained rooms. One room, heavily bolted and padlocked, has not been opened in centuries. It is said that a beautiful young woman once met a horrible death in that room, and that her ghost walks restlessly moaning and sobbing whenever some tragedy is about to occur in the house. Those sobs are heard the night Roger Balfour is found dead in the house, a bullet in his head, driven to suicide by depression and money problems.

Roger's son Harry, 15, and daughter Lucy, 13, become the wards of their father's friend and neighbor Sir James Hamlin. Since there was no will, Sir James supervises the settling of Roger Balfour's estate and takes the two children into his home. Balfour House and its grounds become shunned and neglected and, with no money left for their upkeep after settling Roger's debts, fall into disrepair.

Five years pass. Harry Balfour, now 20 and more than a little resentful of his and Lucy's dependence on Sir James's generosity, returns from school and announces that he wants to reopen Balfour House. Sir James says this is impossible without major repairs, either by finding a wealthy tenant or a wealthy bride for Harry. Harry refuses to marry for money. Sir James offers to buy the Balfour estate outright, to give Harry a stake in life. Again, Harry indignantly refuses: "So long as I live the Balfour estate shall not revert to other hands."

Soon after this, Harry has an unpleasant scene with Jeremiah ("Jerry") Hibbs, Sir James's secretary. An agitated Hibbs mutters to himself that Harry is "courting disaster" if he goes near Balfour House.

Chapter 2 - Another Mystery

Two days after his confrontations with Sir James and Hibbs, Harry fails to show up for a riding date with his sister Lucy. No one has seen him since dinner the night before, and his bed has not been slept in. At first Lucy pouts that Harry has ruined her day, but as the day wears on she begins to worry.

That night Hibbs sends one of the servants on a confidential errand. Overheard by the maid, Anna Smithson, Hibbs asks her to say nothing to anyone.

An hour later a group of Sir James's servants, lashed by wind and rain, spooked and unnerved as they search through the overgrown grounds at Balfour House, find the body of Harry Balfour. As they lift the body to carry it to shelter, one of the servants swears he can hear, beneath the whistling of the wind, the wails of the ghost in the secret room of Balfour House.

Chapter 3 - Who Killed Harry Balfour?

 Lucy Balfour is still worrying about Harry's disappearance when her brother's body is brought in. She is distraught at his death and horrified, as are the others, at the sight of two red wounds on his throat. The coroner's inquest returns a verdict of death at the hands of "person or persons unknown." In testimony at the inquest, neither Sir James nor Hibbs mentions their respective run-ins with Harry before his disappearance. The maid Smithson testifies that on the night of the murder, she was looking out a window into the storm and saw a man heading toward Balfour House. The man was definitely not Master Harry, she says. It is assumed that the person she saw was the murderer, but there is no clue as to his identity, his motive, or why he would make those wounds on Harry's throat.

Chapter 4 - Hypnotic Hypotheses

Chief Detective Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard, dining with the assistant commissioner of his division, discusses the unsolved murder of Harry Balfour. Burke believes that the murder of Harry confirms his suspicion that Roger Balfour was murdered as well, even though all signs seemed to point to suicide at the time. He says that he has a number of leads but no firm evidence, and plans to test his theory that under hypnosis and the proper conditions, a criminal will reenact his crimes. Burke borrows a book from the assistant commissioner's library, saying that he expects to be busy with his investigation for some time. When next they dine together, Burke says, he is sure he'll have the proof he needs.

Chapter 5 - A Betrothal

Seven months have passed since Harry's death, and Lucy is finally beginning to emerge from her grief. As May turns to June, Lucy finds herself turning more and more to Jerry Hibbs for companionship, and her feelings for him have grown more than sisterly. At last, in a sun-bathed arbor scented by the blooming roses of Hamlin House, Lucy and Hibbs profess their love for one another. They agree to say nothing to Sir James for the time being, for fear that he will disapprove and dispense with Hibbs's services.

Chapter 6 - Uncanny Tenants

Night. Two men stand under a tree on the grounds of Balfour House, near where Harry Balfour's body was discovered. They are representatives of the London realtor's office that administers the Balfour property and are waiting while prospective tenants inspect the premises by lantern-light. The people came into the office near closing time and expressed an interest after seeing a picture of the house in a magazine (the realtors having long since given up advertising the property). If satisfactory, the tenants propose to move in at once. This has all happened so quickly that the agent hasn't had time to notify Sir James, though he did get in touch with Hibbs. Hibbs told him to go ahead with the transaction if the tenants' references are satisfactory. The agent is waiting outside for the tenants because, he said, nothing would induce him to enter the house.

Meanwhile, Anna Smithson and Thomas, another of the Hamlin House servants, are returning from the village station in a cart with the luggage of a guest Sir James is expecting. They see the light in Balfour House. They can see two shadowy figures moving about with the lantern; one of them is a woman, but they can make out no other details. Thomas believes the woman is the ghost of the house, but Anna scoffs. As they watch, the door of Balfour House opens and a man emerges, tall but stooped, shrouded in a heavy Inverness coat and wearing a high beaver hat. That's all it takes for Thomas to crack his whip and hurry the horse on to Hamlin House.

The man in the beaver hat crosses slowly to where the realtor's agents wait. The agents apologize for not accompanying him into the house, but he reassures them -- in his spooky way: "Life is a mystery no man can solve. It extends beyond the grave." They remind him that the owner will make no improvements, but he doesn't mind; the house will suit his purposes.

The agent hands the man the lease papers and he peruses them, only briefly looking up when a mournful wail rises from somewhere out in the darkness. By now the agents are thoroughly unnerved and eager to be off. With a "horrible" smile, the man in the beaver hat slowly signs the lease. As he heads back into the house, the agents scurry off to apprise Sir James of the transaction.

Chapter 7 - Sir James Receives a Shock

At Hamlin House, preparations are under way for the coming of Colonel Yates, Sir James's guest, when the realtor's agents arrive. Sir James is astonished to learn that Balfour House has been let, and it is evident that the surprise is not an entirely pleasant one. Hibbs explains that he did not expect the tenants to take immediate possession; he thought they would merely inspect the property and then negotiate terms. The agents report that the tenant's references were impeccable and he paid the entire term of the lease in cash, in advance.

Reassured, Sir James glances at the papers the agents have handed him. His calm demeanor vanishes and his face goes white when he sees the signature on the lease. It is signed "Roger Balfour." And it is in Roger Balfour's handwriting.

Chapter 8 - An Unexpected Guest

Why wasn't this noticed at the office? Sir James asks. The agent replies that the matter was handled by a new employee who didn't know the house's history; the agent himself had simply presumed that this Roger Balfour was perhaps a distant relation wishing to see the ancestral home. Sir James says there are no other branches of the family and demands a description of the man in the beaver hat.

At this point, the butler announces Colonel Yates. Sir James's consternation is almost complete, because in addition to this shock about Roger Balfour, he has been trying all day to remember who Colonel Yates is; he learned only today that this "old friend from India" was coming, and has been unable to place the name. As Yates is ushered in, however, Sir James remembers him at once and is reassured by Yates's solid, dependable, no-nonsense presence. In fact, he welcomes his guest's opinions on the matter of the new tenant at Balfour House, and briefly explains the situation to him.

It turns out Yates had known Roger Balfour years before, but had lost touch and did not know of his death; he says suicide seems unlike the Balfour he knew. When the agents describe the new tenant as "creepy" and "un-holy," Yates scoffs. "You chaps must have been smoking something..." His laughter diffuses the tension in the room; even Sir James looks less upset.

Chapter 9 - Ghouls

As Yates and Sir James discuss the matter later, alone, Sir James shows Yates some documents signed by the late Roger Balfour, and Yates concedes that the handwriting on the lease is unmistakeably the same. Mulling this over, he cautions Sir James not to dismiss out of hand the idea of supernatural; years in India, he says, have taught him the folly of that. In fact, he has a book with him that he thinks might bear on the subject, and promises to give it to Sir James. Later, after dressing for dinner, Yates gives the book to Hibbs to place in the library, where it will be available to anyone interested. Hibbs (who for some reason has taken an instant, mild dislike to Colonel Yates) does so, and a glance at the book's contents interests him enough to make him resolve to come back to it later.

All through dinner, and even afterward as Lucy plays for diversion, Sir James's mind is elsewhere. He had insisted to Yates that he does not believe in ghosts, but he nevertheless has a superstitious nature and is troubled.

After Lucy finishes playing, Yates invites her to take a walk on the verandah. Hibbs, miffed and a little jealous, decides to take a closer look at Yates's book in the library. He finds Sir James in the library, himself so absorbed in the book that he doesn't hear Hibbs's approach. Hibbs suggests that a study of the book might "throw light upon the mysteries of Balfour House." Sir James says the mysteries be damned, he just wants to know who signed Roger Balfour's name to that lease.

When Yates joins them in the library, Sir James shows him a passage in the book, printed in early English text, that has particularly alarmed him: "Men who have died by murder or suicide frequently become vampyrs." The two agree that, unpleasant as the idea is, nothing will do but that they inspect the vault on the grounds of Balfour House where all the Balfours, including Roger, have been entombed. The sooner the better.

After midnight Yates and Sir James set out, armed with revolvers and carrying a lantern. Almost immediately Sir James's courage begins to fail. He senses that someone, or something, is following them and trying to stop them on their errand, but every time he turns around, nothing is there. Only Yates, in his "military determination," is unwavering, and Sir James forces himself to go on.

At one point something suddenly flaps at them out of the darkness. A bird? A bat? No way to tell. Slowly, carefully, onward they creep. At the door to the Balfour crypt Yates raises his lantern. The door is closed and locked, seemingly undisturbed since the day months earlier when Harry Balfour was interred there. Sir James's hand shakes as he inserts the key into the locked door. The rusty lock resists, but eventually yields, and the door slowly swings inward.

The two men halt at a sudden sound -- it sounded almost like a sigh. They wait, tensed, but now there is only silence. 

Standing in the yawning doorway, they peer into the darkness of the tomb. Yates raises the lantern and holds it forward in the gloom. By the dim yellow light, Sir James's eyes search the shadows. His blood freezes as he sees that the lid of Roger Balfour's coffin is open. The coffin is empty. 

There is a flash of lightning, a rumble of thunder, and somewhere in the night, the mournful, blood-curdling howl of a dog. 

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Fog of Lost London, Part 1 (Republished)

NOTE: The Spooky Season is upon us once again, so it's time for my annual re-post of my four-part tribute to the legendary lost Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight. Whether you remember it from years past or are coming to it new, I hope it brings you a creepy moment or two. Be sure to read the four parts in order -- you don't want to get ahead of the story!

*                         *                         *

London After Midnight (MGM; 1927) is the Holy Grail of Lost Films. Oh sure, there's the complete Greed. But we do have the incomplete Greed, and it's a masterpiece as it stands. Besides, tell the truth: Isn't there just the tiniest little fear, deep down in your heart, that if Stroheim's 42-reel, ten-hour cut should miraculously turn up, it just might turn out to be a letdown, maybe even (Heresy! Heresy!) a bit of a bore? But be that as it may, we do have Greed; all we have of London After Midnight is an assortment of stills like this one of Lon Chaney in makeup and costume as the Man in the Beaver Hat.

There are enough of these remnants that Philip J. Riley was able to publish a reconstruction of Tod Browning's movie in book form. If you didn't have the opportunity or good sense to pay $29.95 for it in 1987, you may have to shell out as much as 115 bucks for it now, though there are used copies available for close to the original price. A few years ago Turner Classic Movies did a similar reconstruction, this time on film, and that one's available on The Lon Chaney Collection.

In 1970 the Museum of Modern Art staged a "Lost Films" exhibit and published an accompanying book by the same title. At least three of the pictures in MoMA's exhibit -- Street Angel (1928) with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, Rex Ingram's The Garden of Allah (1927), and Tod Browning's own The Show with John Gilbert and Renee Adoree -- have surfaced since then, so there's always hope. But London After Midnight remains lost, and the pages devoted to it in the MoMA book are sparse. Author Gary Carey wrote: "It is almost impossible to synopsize a mystery film which one has not seen because critics, bound by professional ethics, divulge little of the plot let alone its solution."

Mr. Carey should have read the review that appeared in Variety on December 14, 1927. Variety's reviewer, "Mori," didn't much care for the movie ("Will add nothing to Chaney's prestige as a trouper, nor increase the star's box office value."), nor did he shrink from discouraging potential viewers by recounting the entire plot, solution and all. Then, amazingly, in his last paragraph, he said: "The usual suspicions, planted while the situations are worked out, succeed in leaving an impression of mystery regarding the outcome." (Not anymore, Mori!)

As a side note, let me add that Mori wasn't the only Variety reviewer to do this sort of thing. It's our good luck now that the Spoiler Police weren't so powerful back then; the detailed descriptions in Variety's reviews from 1907 to 1930 are virtually all we have to go on for movies now lost beyond recall. I've found them invaluable in researching the careers of the stars in the M.J. Moriarty deck of movie playing cards.

But back to London After Midnight. There's always hope it may someday surface, like Street Angel, The Garden of Allah and The Show, but it hasn't happened yet; the last known print was destroyed in a studio fire in the 1960s. Director Browning did a loose remake in 1935 -- Mark of the Vampire, with Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore taking over the equivalent roles that were both originally played by Lon Chaney -- but that time Browning made major changes; for one thing, the new picture didn't even take place in London. If we want any sense of the original, we still have to depend on the Riley and TCM reconstructions.

Or...there is this. I came across this book while perusing the shelves at the estate sale of a popular Sacramento TV personality. The novelization is the work of Marie Coolidge-Rask, who evidently made a decent living out of this kind of piecework. She's known to have also novelized Mary Pickford's Sparrows (1926) and the King Vidor-Lillian Gish La Boheme that same year (now there's a literary platypus for you: a novelization of a silent movie of an opera). 

Otherwise, Ms. Coolidge-Rask's literary output seems not to have left much impression on the shifting sands of time. These movie tie-ins weren't a terribly lucrative field for the writer-for-hire; usually there was just a flat fee -- probably, in the 1920s, no more than a thousand dollars or so, if that -- and that was that, no royalties. A shame, because London After Midnight may have sold pretty well; Mori's opinion notwithstanding, the movie was the most successful Browning-Chaney collaboration. Whatever MGM and/or Grosset & Dunlap paid her for her efforts, I hope for her sake she invested it wisely.

In any case, she doesn't seem to have slavishly followed Browning and Waldemar Young's script: Her novel features at least one character, a certain Colonel Yates, who doesn't appear in the movie's cast list on IMDB. And she isn't bound by the limits of silent movies -- her characters are certainly a talkative bunch. For that matter, so is Ms. Coolidge-Rask herself -- she crams words in like a canner stuffing sardines in a tin. Here she is describing Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall):

"Sir James, despite the studied calmness of his demeanor when with Lucy Balfour or in the presence of those he deemed his inferiors, was of a nervous temperament, at times easily influenced, again firm to the point of stubbornness, according to his mental reaction to whatever force against which he found himself in opposition."

Got all that? Here she is again, later on the same page: 

"In his presence, the baronet felt himself unusually helpless. Like a fly, pinned against the wall for scientific inspection with a microscope." 

I don't know what kind of scientist would pin a fly to the wall to see it through a microscope, but I suppose Ms. Coolidge-Rask might have known some.

Anyhow, now, just in time for Halloween, I propose to spend
the next few posts hacking through the purple undergrowth of
Marie Coolidge-Rask's prose (I do these things so you don't
have to), distilling it into a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of her
novelization. In this way I hope to get some sense of what
audiences at Browning's vampire/murder mystery might have
seen in 1927 -- sort of like Tod Browning, Polly Moran and Lon
Chaney here pretending to commune with the spirit world for
the MGM publicity department. This will be (if you'll pardon the
expression) by the book, without reference to either Philip J.
Riley's or TCM's reconstructions; if there are differences,
maybe we can talk about those later.

So be warned: if you're worried about spoiling the ending of
London After Midnight (which you can't see anyhow) or
Mark of the Vampire (which you can), proceed at your
own risk.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 31, 2013

40th Anniversary Tour: Jesus Christ Superstar

Cinedrome celebrates the "Golden Age of Hollywood", but like many ages, that one has no precise boundary date. As a general rule, I set the end of the Golden Age around 1964 -- because that was the last year when the Oscar for best picture went to a movie (My Fair Lady) that was produced entirely within the walls of a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.). On the other hand, it's a hard rule indeed that allows no exceptions, and I'm making an exception now. Here's why:

Norman Jewison's 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the great movie musicals -- arguably the last great musical before the genre went into a 30-year hibernation brought on by the collapse of the studio system, rising costs, flagging interest, and the passing from the scene, through death or retirement, of many of its best creators -- the Arthur Freeds and Roger Edenses, the Busby Berkeleys and Vincente Minnellis, the Harry Warrens, Irving Berlins and Cole Porters.

I first saw Jesus Christ Superstar on June 30, 1973, and I wasn't expecting much. It had been two years since the original concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had made such an enormous splash, and the ripples had largely subsided; for me, at least, much of its novelty had worn off. Then came the Broadway production, directed by Tom O'Horgan, who had shaken up the Street four years earlier with Hair; from what I saw of O'Horgan's Superstar in magazines and read in reviews, it sounded pretentious, bloated, glam-campy and tasteless. (Lloyd Webber and Rice reportedly weren't too pleased with it, and saw to it that things were done differently when the show was staged in London's West End.) When the movie's trailer began playing in theaters, with its tanks and jet fighters, I wasn't impressed; I thought this picture was going to be a stinker, and I wasn't shy about saying so.

Wrong. As the picture unrolled on the screen before me I was bowled over time and again. At the fadeout I sat there stunned. My friend Paul, who had talked me into seeing it with him, turned to me and said tentatively, almost apologetically, "I thought it was pretty good, Jim." I said, "I thought it was terrific, Paul." This being the Era of Continuous Showings, we stayed and sat through the picture again. The next day I returned with other friends and saw it two more times.

As Andrew Lloyd Webber's overture begins, Jesus Christ Superstar opens with the camera prowling among the ruins of the ancient city of Avdat, in Israel's Negev Desert 30 miles south of Beersheba. Two thousand years ago this was an important stop on the Incense Road between India and Ceylon in the east and the Mediterranean Sea in the west; today it's a crumbling wreck. As the camera glides among the pitted walls and topless columns, the only trace of modernity is a temporary scaffold maybe 30 feet high -- put there by some team of archaeologists, perhaps -- and the only sign of life is a small lizard skittering across a wall in front of our eyes. Suddenly, in the distance, a cloud of dust -- coming from what we see is a red, white and turquoise Israeli school bus barreling along the unpaved roads. The bus screeches to a halt at the foot of the hill where Avdat sits, and out springs a ragtag band of hippies, dozens of them. They swarm over the bus like bees in a hive, shaking the sand from the tarps that cover the baggage on the roof, opening the large wicker baskets underneath, tossing down a confusing array of props, costumes, headdresses -- and, very carefully, one large wooden cross. These hippies, we see, are a troupe of itinerant street performers; we sense that not one of them has ever seen the inside of a real theater. (In real life, every one of them had. In fact, two of them -- Robert LuPone and Baayork Lee -- would go on to create the roles of Zach and Connie, respectively, in the original production of A Chorus Line, and Lee would restage Michael Bennett's choreography for the 2006 revival.) There's an air of high spirits and camaraderie among the players -- they cheerfully help one another into their gear, kiss each other on the cheek, then move on to the next chore. Gradually their excitement settles down, a feeling of ritual and purposefulness begins to grown among them, their movements become deliberate and stylized. Each one slips into his or her character, steps into his or her place, and they assume the tableau you see at the beginning of this post. They are ready to enact their own version of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

This show-within-the-movie approach was the inspiration of Melvin Bragg, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Norman Jewison, after a false start by Tim Rice. "I was asked to do a screenplay," Rice remembered years later. "I thought great, fantastic...I wrote a screenplay rather like Ben-Hur; you know, Jesus addresses 20,000 people, or armies of Romans steam in from the left. I think they took one look at that and thought, 'No, that's gonna be $50 million, forget it.' My screenplay was instantly ditched, and Melvin Bragg -- Lord Bragg -- came in and wrote a screenplay." 

Bragg, the celebrated broadcaster, author and polymath who was made Baron Bragg of Wigton, County Cumbria in 1998, saw at once what Rice did not: that the cast-of-thousands Ben-Hur approach was not only prohibitively expensive but incompatible with the pop vernacular of Rice's libretto for Superstar. Instead, Bragg and Jewison established the framework of the traveling band of players reconstructing the last seven days of the earthly life of Jesus in a tell-us-now-in-your-own-words manner, as if this modern Passion Play had been developed in improvisational workshops before being brought out to be performed in the open air. It is, in effect, an intimate Biblical spectacle in modern dress. In 1973, you could have left the theater after seeing the movie and, before you'd gone two blocks, seen a dozen people dressed exactly like the performers in Superstar -- even the Roman soldiers in their purple tank tops and camouflage pants.

In his 2004 commentary on the DVD, Jewison credits production designer Richard Macdonald with the decision to shoot the picture on existing locations, making only minor modifications in the form of set dressing. Most of these locations -- Avdat, King Herod's Palace, the amphitheater at Beit She'an near Nazareth, where Jesus (Ted Neeley) is tried and condemned by Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) -- were the ruined remains of Ancient Rome's occupation of Palestine under the Caesars. Choosing to shoot in these places was a transformative decision, for it meant that Jesus Christ Superstar would show the early followers of Jesus, with the ecstatic joy of young people who have found something truly new and exciting, literally dancing among the bones of the Roman Empire. It's a metaphor of breathtaking power, one that (naturally) no other production of JCS in any form has ever been able to attempt, let alone duplicate. It gives Jewison's movie a level of meaning that JCS has never had before or since, one that complements and enhances Webber and Rice's original text. (These dances, by the way, were performed in desert heat that rose as high as 115 degrees or more. The performers could dance for no more than 30 seconds before Jewison had to call cut and let everybody step to the sidelines to towel off and rehydrate. That the dances -- this one is the Simon the Zealot number -- play on screen as sustained, high-energy performances is a testament to all concerned: Jewison, choreographer Rob Iscove, editor Antony Gibbs, and most of all, the dancers themselves.)

Because Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera -- or a "sung-through musical", if you prefer -- with no spoken dialogue, music is a constant on the soundtrack. Jewison makes it a constant in the image as well, fitting every camera movement, every cut, every dissolve, every zoom in or out to the rhythm of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music. Both the performers and the camera are choreographed, using techniques he learned in early television, when he directed music-variety series like Your Hit Parade and the Andy Williams and Judy Garland shows. In Superstar he does things unavailable in live TV, too -- slow motion, freeze-frames, etc. Always, everything to the music: a group of dancers will leap up and freeze midair, then we cut to another group similarly suspended, who come to life and complete the movement the first group began. Everything right on the driving beat; even something as simple as blowing out a candle matches the rhythm of the music.

All these techniques -- moving and cutting to the music, playing with time and space -- anticipated the music videos that would come along in the 1980s. As Ted Neeley put it in the DVD commentary, "This was the very first long-form music video ever done. MTV came as a result of this; after seeing these, MTV happened." 

That's a bit of an exaggeration, granted, but only a bit of one. The picture is a long-form video, with a visual freedom that spans decades of movie-musical syntax, past and (from 1973) future. Jewison's vision ranges both forward to MTV and back to variety TV, even to the unfettered imagination of Busby Berkeley: this is supposedly an impromptu performance by a band of players piling out of a bus, but the movie draws us on until we're seeing things this troupe could never have stuffed into those wicker baskets, and we move freely around, among and over the performers in a way no audience could ever do. Take, for example, this exultant rendition of the title song, where the shade of Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson, center) addresses Jesus with his own doubts and questions. This frame comes at the beginning of a soaring crane shot, the camera rising to heaven as the ensemble sings "Jesus Christ / Jesus Christ / Who are you? What have you sacrificed?" The dancers glitter like silver angels, while Anderson's costume recalls that of Sly Stone in his performance at Woodstock -- a reference that was inescapable to audiences in 1973, every one of whom had certainly seen the hit 1970 documentary.

All this, in the hands of Jewison, designer Macdonald, editor Gibbs, and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, adds up to much more than gimmickry and camera tricks for their own sake. Everything is done in service to two things: (1) Andrew Lloyd Webber's music; and (2) the complex human story at the heart of Tim Rice's libretto -- the very thing that (by all accounts I heard and read at the time) was swamped on Broadway under the campy glitz of Tom O'Horgan's elephantine production. Even those tanks and fighter jets, which had me snorting in derision when I saw them in the trailer, were organic to the movie and made their symbolic points: the tanks were the irresistible, overpowering force driving Judas to his act of betrayal; the jets, the winged furies of conscience plaguing him for what he had done.

In discarding Tim Rice's Ben-Hur-style treatment and swapping the cast of thousands for a cast of dozens, Bragg and Jewison could sharpen the focus on the libretto's four central characters. First, of course, was Jesus (Ted Neeley), a man overwhelmed by a sense of having been assigned a divine mission without fully understanding what is expected of him. Jesus's finest moment, and Neeley's, comes in the soliloquy/aria "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)", in which he sings Rice's version of Matthew 26:39 ("O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me..."): "Take this cup away from me / For I don't want to taste its poison / Feel it burn me, I have changed I'm not as sure / As when we started..."

Then Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson), the character who drew Rice and Webber to write Jesus Christ Superstar in the first place, in an attempt to understand and explicate his motives. Jesus may be the title role, but in a very real sense Judas is the lead. After the overture -- which in the movie serves to introduce the cast, the characters, and the setting -- Judas opens the proceedings with the first song, "Heaven on Their Minds". If Jesus is uncertain what God expects of him, Judas feels no such uncertainty; he believes he knows what Jesus's mission is, and he very much fears Jesus has betrayed it, letting dangerous celebrity go to his head: "...And all the good you've done / Will soon get swept away / You've begun to matter more / Than the things you say..." At the opera's climax, after his remorseful suicide, Judas returns, dropping from the sky dressed in white (a forgiven angel?) to ask what it was all about: "Don't you get me wrong... / Only want to know..." As the movie's Judas, Carl Anderson gave the performance of his life -- a life, alas, that proved
all too short; he died of leukemia in 2004, age 58.

Mary Magdalene was played by Yvonne Elliman, one of two members of the cast who played the same role in the original concept album, for Tom O'Horgan on Broadway, and on film for Norman Jewison. (Neeley was in the Broadway ensemble, understudied Jesus, and had played the role in concert.) Elliman's Mary is devoted to Jesus without fully understanding why, paralleling Jesus's own devotion to God. She expresses her love and confusion in the musical's best-known and most enduring song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him", which became an enormous hit and was recorded by dozens of artists -- most prominently, Helen Reddy, whose version was released almost simultaneously with the concept album's appearance in the U.S. If Reddy stole Elliman's thunder with her hit single, Elliman took it back again -- and kept it for good -- in the movie. Her heart-wrenching rendition is first among equals in the movie's many high points, lovingly staged by Jewison and beautifully photographed in the dead of night by Douglas Slocombe.

The other cast member to go the distance from album to Broadway to film was Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate. (Dennen had, in fact, been responsible for Norman Jewison's interest in Superstar in the first place. He had just been cast as Pilate when he left for Yugoslavia, where he was to play a small role in Jewison's movie of Fiddler on the Roof; he took some Superstar demo tapes with him to study and asked for Jewison's advice on playing Pilate. One listen to Dennen's samples and Jewison contacted Universal back in the States to nail down the screen rights for him -- this long before the Broadway production, and before the album had even been recorded.) Dennen's Pilate is a decent man and a conscientious judge, but one not immune to Roman arrogance, nor to the exasperated condescension to Rome's subjects that comes with it.

Jesus Christ Superstar took in $10.8 million at the box office, turning a more-than-respectable profit on Universal's $3.6 million investment (both amounts were far more money in 1973 than they sound like now). It has by now acquired the aura -- if not of a great movie musical, as I consider it -- at least of a classic. In 1973, however, it weathered a torrent of critical scorn such as few movies have had to withstand. I remember particularly Paul D. Zimmerman's screed in Newsweek: " of the true fiascos of modern cinema...Lord, forgive them. They knew not what they were doing." There was a fiasco on display here, but it wasn't the movie, it was Zimmerman's dunderheaded review. I might have written it myself, if I had never bothered to, you know, actually see the movie. To be fair, Zimmerman was only echoing the near-unanimous sentiments of his critical fraternity. It was as if critics all over, embarrassed at the hyperbolic praise heaped on the album two years earlier, when it was compared to Bach and Handel, had decided in some secret meeting to take it out on Jewison's movie. (Time Magazine no doubt regretted that they had already used the snark-line "I Was a Teenage Jesus" on 1961's King of Kings.) Even when a review was positive -- and Hollis Alpert's in the Saturday Review was the only one I ever found -- it carried a snide, patronizing air of I-can't-believe-I'm-expected-to-take-this-thing-seriously. The critical reception was so savage that I sent a telegram to my uncle in Muncie, Indiana:


*                    *                    *
All these musings on Jesus Christ Superstar are prompted by an experience I had last Sunday, August 25. Ted Neeley came to Sacramento on the third stop (after Los Angeles and San Francisco) in a cross-country tour commemorating the picture's 40th anniversary. He brought with him a pristine archival print from the Universal vault, and the audience that day heard Superstar's soundtrack as it was meant to be heard for the first time in years, maybe decades. (The audio mix on all the video transfers -- laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray -- is incorrect, the vocals too "hot" and instrumentals too "cold".) Mr. Neeley -- actually, I feel comfortable calling him Ted -- met with audience members in the lobby before the screening, addressed us from the stage and fielded questions as the show was about to begin, and held genial court once again in the lobby afterwards. He chatted warmly with my friend Don (that's Don on the left) and me for a good ten or 15 minutes, especially when he learned we were both actors, and that Don himself had played Pontius Pilate in a local production of the show. Like the movie itself, Ted Neeley has aged gracefully and could easily pass for 20 years younger than he is. Our visit with him was friendly and comfortable, a perfect way to top off the day's reunion with one of my favorite movies.

As we were introduced, my first words to him were: "I have to thank you. I spent the entire summer of 1973 watching this movie in one of our local theaters here; I saw it 16 times in two months. I developed a huge crush on one of the dancers, but I never knew who she was until you identified her in your commentary on the DVD; it was Vera Biloshisky." "Ahhh yes," he said in that mellow Texas drawl that disappears only when he sings, "dear Vera. I just saw her yesterday. You weren't alone in that; every guy on the set had a crush on Vera." This is Vera dancing in the Simon the Zealot number (she's visible, too, on the left in the midair shot of the female dancers a few pictures up); if you've seen Jesus Christ Superstar more than once I'll wager you've noticed her yourself; she has an energy and vivacity that makes her stand out even in that energetic, vivacious ensemble. (Ted Neeley's own crush, by the way, went in a different direction. Just visible in the background between Vera's outstretched limbs is Leeyan Granger. She and Ted met on the set; after shooting was finished they began dating, and she became -- and remains -- his wife.)

Here's Vera again, cavorting with Josh Mostel's
King Herod on the shores of the Dead Sea. She's
unrecognizable behind those shades and under
that platinum-blonde fright wig -- at least I never
recognized her, as much as I've seen the movie,
until Ted pointed her out in a photo on my copy
of the soundtrack LP. Vera Biloshisky, here's a
belated thank-you. You'll never know, unless
you're reading this now, how you brightened my
July and August of 1973. It was (for reasons I
won't go into here) an awkward time for me, and
being able to watch you dancing in Jesus Christ
Superstar helped get me through it.

Jesus Christ Superstar ends with yet another metaphor of breathtaking power, only this time it was entirely unplanned and unexpected. After the Crucifixion, after Jesus has given up the Ghost, the scene dissolves to the band of performers climbing back into the bus at dusk for the trip back to town. We see them mount the steps one by one -- Barry Dennen, Josh Mostel, Larry Marshall (who plays Simon the Zealot), Bob Bingham and Kurt Yaghjian (the priests Caiaphas and Annas), dancers Jeff Hyslop and Robert LuPone, Yvonne Elliman, and finally Carl Anderson. Everyone except Ted Neeley. Anderson stands on the bus's steps gazing at something in the distance behind us as the bus lurches away and lumbers down the hill back to the road. The picture dissolves again to what you see here: an empty cross silhouetted against a blood-red sunset. 

At this precise moment, something happened that nobody planned or even noticed. "We were shooting through a telephoto lens," Ted Neeley remembered, "from a couple of miles away, looking into the setting sun. We didn't even see it until later, when we were watching the dailies." From out of nowhere, a figure appeared -- it's barely visible here at the bottom of the image, about one-quarter in from the left. On screen, the figure moves like a ghostly apparition from left to right across the dark part of the screen under the cross. It's a shepherd leading his flock; we can just make out their woolly fleeces bobbing along at the bottom of the frame. A shepherd, leading his flock past an empty cross. And nobody knew who he was or how he got there. "Somebody Else," says Ted Neeley, "was directing that day."

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