RETRO REVIEW: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE! An Alluring But Controversial Lugosi/Browning Classic Haunts the Big Screen Once More the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: May 26th, 2014 By:

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935); Dir. Tod Browning; Starring Bela Lugosi, Carroll Borland, Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan; Friday, May 30 (8:00 p.m., 9:45 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.), Saturday, May 31 (8:45 p.m.) and Sunday, June 1 (5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Tickets $5.00; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

As part of the Plaza Theatre’s week-long celebration of Bela Lugosi starting Friday May 30 (full preview here), one of his greatest—and most controversial—motion pictures gets a rare screening: his final collaboration with director Tod Browning, 1935’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE!

Prague, 1935. An aristocrat is found dead, drained of blood, with two puncture wounds on his neck. The locals believe that vampires—in the form of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), whom they believe haunt the nearby castle—are responsible for the murder. Police inspector Professor Zeren (Lionel Barrymore) is skeptical, however, and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery behind the mark of the vampire.

Tod Browning was in need of some luck. He’d had a stellar career making deliciously twisted silent features, most notably starring the incredible Lon Chaney. He was hired by Universal Studios to direct 1931’s DRACULA starring Bela Lugosi (with whom he’d worked on 1929’s THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR). Despite the film’s success, Universal was unhappy with Browning’s work, and he moved to MGM to direct 1932’s FREAKS. That film proved so scandalous and controversial (and commercially unsuccessful) at the time that Browning’s career came to a screeching halt. So, when MGM accepted his proposal to helm a remake of his 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (now considered a lost film, with the last known print destroyed in a 1967 fire), he was determined to make the most of it.

And he nearly pulled it off. Despite the film’s more unsavory aspects being removed (implications of incest between Mora and Luna, which resulted in Mora’s suicide and the pair condemned to an eternity of living death) and the film’s trimming from 75 to 61 minutes, the film works like gangbusters. Up to a point, that is.

You see, in the realm of classic horror, few films are as debated as hotly as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. All of the ingredients of a Golden Age classic are there: a menacing, wordless performance by Bela Lugosi as Count Mora; Carroll Borland as his daughter, Luna, establishing a visual template followed by Maila “Vampira” Nurmi and Morticia Addams; and the deft, atmospheric direction of Tod Browning.

So, what’s the deal?

It’s the twist ending that provides the film’s payoff. It’s an ending that negates everything that came before. Things we have seen with our own eyes are now established as having been impossible. It’s a cheat. Even Bela thought it was ridiculous and pleaded with Tod Browning to change it. A much better ending (that even kept the light tone of the original’s) was suggested, and Browning refused to change course. I’m not going to spill the beans by detailing what happens, but it’s really impossible to talk about MARK OF THE VAMPIRE without bringing up the fact that many see the twist as a crushing disappointment.

And I’m right there with them. It’s such a blow to the film because the rest of it is so good. It’s largely the film that DRACULA could have been if Browning hadn’t been hamstrung by Universal’s budget-pinching measures. (The studio had recently sunk a lot of money into THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and was facing financial difficulties due to the Great Depression. Unconvinced that the horror thing would pay off, DRACULA had many elaborate scenes scrapped and wound up hewing closely to the play in staging the film.) MARK OF THE VAMPIRE’s sets are sumptuous. The effects scenes are brilliantly pulled off, with Luna soaring on bat’s wings and Count Mora materializing out of mist. The photography by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe is glorious. The performances of stage/screen legend Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan are rock-solid and ground the film firmly. The supporting cast (especially Lionel Atwill as Inspector Neumann and Donald Meek as the timid Dr. Doskil) is delightful. It all comes together so beautifully, only to be sold so short by an ending that aims for cleverness and lands in clunkiness.

If you can forgive the film its ending, there is so much there to enjoy. Just discount what you see happen on screen after the mystery has been solved, and imagine that Lionel Barrymore’s Professor Zelen receives a telegram saying something like “Sorry, can’t make it. Train held up at the station. Hope everything works out,” and you’ll walk out of the theater a happier person. But to miss the film on the big screen is to miss one of the best—yet one of the most unheralded—vampire pictures ever to come out of Hollywood’s classic era. Or at least 90 percent of one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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A Sexy Silent Scandal at The Strand Theatre: Daring to Reopen Louise Brooks’ PANDORA’S BOX

Posted on: Nov 21st, 2012 By:

PANDORA’S BOX (1929); Dir: Georg Wilhelm Pabst; Starring Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer; with live organ accompaniment by Ron Carter; Sun. Nov. 25 3:00 p.m.; The Strand Theatre

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Ever since The Earl Smith Strand Theatre found new life on the Square in Marietta, the theater’s event schedule has cast a wide net. In between the usual live events and mainstream film titles, The Strand quietly stands as one of the last venues in Atlanta to regularly seek out and book classic silent films, a callback to its roots as an old movie house. (The Strand’s first ever show was the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle, TOP HAT.) Except that by the time The Strand opened, the talkies had already taken hold, so the decision to run silent pictures in an increasingly-noisy age of media strikes me as more than nostalgia. It’s incredibly brave.

And so, fittingly, The Strand has found a brave picture to screen. There are few silents more daring than PANDORA’S BOX (1929), playing Sunday afternoon Nov. 25 at 3 p.m.—even braver!—accompanied by a full organ score. PANDORA’S BOX doesn’t fit the mold of the typical silent melodrama. Louise Brooks stars as Lulu, a young woman whose ambition is eclipsed only by her voracious sexual appetite. She uses sex as a weapon to get what she wants, or who she wants, and the film largely deals with an escalating series of consequences, from murder, to imprisonment, and finally… well, I won’t spoil it, but Lulu’s story crosses with a famous historical figure, and her final reward is a spot in historical infamy.

PANDORA’S BOX is directed by the great Austrian director G.W. Pabst, whose list of leading ladies includes such names as Greta Garbo and Leni Riefenstahl, but he cast no lady as magnetic or iconic as Brooks, whose distinctive flapper style and bobbed haircut are more famous today than her name. Brooks was an American actress who rubbed elbows with names like William Randolph Hearst, but who grew dissatisfied with the American system and fled to Europe, where audiences came out in droves to see her magnetism and sexuality portrayed on screen. Lulu is a part born for Brooks and, although the film met with a fair amount of pushback from concerned censors, eventually made Brooks an international star. Today, her name is inseparable from the film’s title.

I mentioned censors, but it’s important to note that PANDORA’S BOX was a pre-code picture. In fact, the film came to America in December 1929, only three months before the adoption of the Hays Code that put a lid on the titillation and sexual experimentation of the earliest studio pictures. (Even in the ’20s, people knew the truth about film audiences—sex sells tickets.) PANDORA’S BOX contains a litany of elements that would soon disappear from American cinemas, such as frank sexuality and a disrespect for marriage. Just a decade later, Lulu’s actions would have classified her as a femme fatale, and she’d certainly snare a young hero or two to their doom. Here, the reality is a bit more complicated, and although it’s true that Lulu faces retribution for her loose morals, it’s hard to ignore the allure of her behavior, which is what the Hays Code was trying to snuff out in the first place.

Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz and Louise Brooks (center) as Lulu in PANDORA'S BOX (1929), directed by G.W. Pabst. Credit: UCLA Film and Television Archive

PANDORA’S BOX is also a landmark film in queer cinema, as it does contain (if briefly) one of the first ever screen representations of a lesbian. Played by Alice Roberts, the Countess Geschwitz enters the film dressed in men’s clothes—a tuxedo—and fawns over Lulu, suggesting that the two have a sexual past. Within a year, even such a minor reference to homosexuality would be strictly outlawed on American screens.

PANDORA’S BOX is widely available online, but as with all films, especially from this era, it belongs on the screen (and trust me when I say that a live organ makes all the difference in the world). The film arrived at the end of the golden period of silent films, the end of the pre-code movies, and even puts a symbolic coda on the decade of decadence that was the 1920s. It stands proud as a threshold between two very different eras of cinema. But its sexuality, its spectacle and the compelling nature of its tragic antihero also remind us of another, sometimes-forgotten fact: what excites and thrills us today is the same as it ever was. We didn’t change—the pictures did.

For more about The Strand’s efforts to screen silents as they should be with live organ scores, read our Kool Kat interview with organist Ron Carter, who will be accompanying PANDORA’s BOX here

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