Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Image Source: Wrong Side of the Art

Synopsis: While giving solace to his old mentor Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) at a party. The Countess asks for Dr. Garth’s aid in curing her from an unspecified but apparently deadly “obsession.” However, Dr. Garth is too distracted by his nosy secretary Janet (Marguerite Churchill) to pay Zaleska much mind. Zaleska then lets Dr. Garth know that she requires no less than his full attention — by kidnapping Janet and imprisoning her in her Transylvanian estate.

Say, folks! If you’re interested in the topic of queer images in film, have I got an event for YOU! From June 18-22, Garbo Laughs (that’s me) and Pussy Goes Grrr will be hosting the Queer Film Blogathon. Check it out now to find out how you can contribute and even win prizes. The party simply won’t be the same without you!

Directed for Universal in 1936 by Lambert Hillyer, Dracula’s Daughter was the first direct sequel to the massive 1931 hit Dracula. Relevant to our theme here this week, it is also credited as the first big-screen usage of the “lesbian vampire” motif, a trope which dates all the way back to Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla. The exploration of sapphic themes in fantasy fiction was relished as a way of including titillatingly-taboo scenes and imagery in a genre that was considered safe from censorship due to its disconnection from reality. Furthermore, the notion that the lesbian vampire uses mind control to seduce straight women or girls into becoming their love slaves is yet another way for straight men to construe lesbians as predatory whilst enjoying the erotic outcomes of their efforts.

Of course, being produced in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter fell under the oppressive censorship guidelines of the Hays Code, and therefore had to be a little more crafty about its erotic lesbian undertones. As it was, the original script, penned in 1935 by Invisible Man screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, was revised and rejected four times before being entirely abandoned and rewritten by Dracula screenwriter Garrett Fort. Even up to the time of filming, scenes were being submitted to Production Code Administration head Joseph Breen for final approval. Of the most infamous scene, in which Countess Zaleska lures the young Lili into her spiderweb by asking her to model, Breen said of the sequence as it was originally scripted:

The present suggestion that… Lili poses in the nude will be changed. She will be posing her neck and shoulders, and there will be no suggestion that she undresses, and there will be no exposure of her person. It was also stated that the present incomplete sequence will be followed by a scene in which Lili is taken to a hospital and there it will be definitely established that she has been attacked by a vampire. The whole sequence will be treated in such a way as to avoid any suggestion of perverse sexual desire on the part of Marya or of an attempted sexual attack by her upon Lili.

Even shooting the scene to Breen’s puritanical specifications, the underlying message was still delivered and the scene still gives you that “weird feeling” mentioned in the film’s promotional poster.

(Incidentally, I should mention that Lili is played by Nan Grey of Three Smart Girls.)

What I find more interesting than Countess Zaleska’s implied lesbianism is her forced attraction for Dr. Jeffrey Garth. As soon as Garth begins spouting his scientific theories about releasing his patients of their harmful mental obsessions, the Countess is desperate for him to cure her of her impulsive vampirism, to the point where she kidnaps and threatens to do bodily harm to his secretary Janet if Garth does not stay with her in Transylvania to work on her own “release.” To me this harkens back very much to the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder; Zaleska does not want to be a vampire/lesbian and she looks to the psychiatrist Dr. Garth to cure her of her obsession with bloodsucking/women. But there’s more to it than that. When Countess Zaleska invites Dr. Garth over to her apartment to ask for his assistance, she specifically states that she desires his help “as a man of strength and courage.” More than a psychiatrist, what Zeleska believes she needs to “cure” her is a strong man, thus her desire to force Garth into running away with her. Her confession to her creepy manservant Sandor about sharing her “eternal life” with Garth can be interpreted as her expressing her intentions to have heterosexual sex with the doctor. She can’t share eternal life with Sandor because he already knows what she is and accepts and encourages it, which isn’t what Zaleska wants for herself. She does not believe an ineffectual man who will let her control him is the cure for her “obsession.”

Overall Dracula’s Daughter is a spooky little gem that goes heavy on the atmosphere. Though the cinematography and acting are both above par, I still think it’s more entertaining as a historical curiosity than as a horror film. There are definitely a lot of interesting subtextual implications to be read into the film, but if you’re not willing to put that much brain power into it, it’s kind of a slow creeper at best. Interesting in the context of queer theory; not so much as a standalone picture.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) – 3/5 stars

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: On a dark and stormy night, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley beg Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) to continue her story of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his Monster (Boris Karloff). Picking up where she left off, Shelley reveals that neither the doctor nor his abominable creation died at the hands of angry villagers, but in fact both survived the windmill blaze that was intended to signal their doom. Frankenstein is brought back to his bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) and vows to cease all efforts to create life, except within the more traditional bounds of marriage. However, he is quickly tempted back into his old diabolical ways by the charismatic Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who proposes an even deadlier plan: to create a female version of the Monster, with the hopes that their two unnatural offspring will procreate, spawning “a new world of gods and monsters.”

James Whale‘s sequel to 1931’s Frankenstein is oft noted for its camp sensibility and homosexual undertones, although it is fervently denied by many who personally knew the openly-gay director that these motifs were intentional. It doesn’t matter whether Whale intended his film to act as a sly commentary on sexual mores or not; films are living, breathing beings, which are open to an infinite number of interpretations depending on when and where the movie is seen as well as the lived experiences of those seeing it. Like the Monster itself, Bride of Frankenstein is its own entity which was out of Whale’s control as soon as the chains were off. The entire field of film theory would be obsolete if each movie had one correct reading and one only. I say, if it makes the film more entertaining for you to construe queer undertones, go for it. As for me, it always does.

It’s alive, and it’s faaaaaabulous!

That being said, there are some truly delicious moments of camp here. Although the prologue is very brief, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron clearly had a lot of fun in his role. But it’s Dr. Pretorius who really pulls out all the stops and is the character that has most grabbed history’s attention. Thesiger truly relishes his diabolical role, and it’s obvious. Whether he’s dining with skulls in a crypt or begging Dr. Frankenstein to “reconsider” his plans to marry Elizabeth, Pretorius is a joy to watch from beginning to end. The moments of over-the-top creepy silliness (and even outright humor) are tempered by stretches of action and even some of extreme poignancy, most notably the famous sequence in which the Monster meets and befriends a blind hermit. All throughout, the cinematography is truly eye-catching and beautiful, a testament to Whale’s ability to grab the viewer’s attention and never let go.

However, I expected to like this film a lot more than I actually did. When Whale resorted to standard horror fare, I just found myself bored and wondering when the Bride would be revealed. Then again, this film really set the standard for that horror fare, so maybe it isn’t quite just to criticize it for being cliché. After all, it’s not the movie’s fault if every other horror film afterward copied from it. Still, I have to consider the film in the context of my own experiences, and I can’t deny that I was disappointed. A beautiful movie, for sure, and worth watching without a doubt. It’s just a shame that Bride of Frankenstein was spoiled for me by all the copycats that came after.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – 3.5/5 stars

Three Smart Girls (1936)

Image Source: Amazon

Synopsis: When they see their divorced mother in tears over the impending nuptials of their wealthy father (Charles Winninger), three teenaged sisters – Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read), and precocious Penny (Deanna Durbin) – make it their duty to stop the wedding from happening. But with blonde bombshell Donna Lyons (Binnie Barnes) twirling dear old Dad around her little finger, and her conniving mother (Alice Brady) helping her do it, the girls worry that their father will never see the error of his ways. With handsome millionaire Lord Michael Stuart (Ray Milland) trying to woo Miss Lyons away and Dad’s accountant Bill Evans (John King) pulling the strings behind the scheme, can the girls prove to their father that Donna’s only in it for the money?

Directed by Henry Koster for Universal in 1936, this precursor to 1961’s The Parent Trap marks the feature film debut of songstress and sweetheart Deanna Durbin. Though billed last, she is touted in the opening credits as “Universal’s New Discovery” and gets plenty of opportunities in the movie to show off her dramatic singing voice, skilled comedic timing, and plucky personality. In fact, it is really Durbin who is the star of this picture, which is kind of sad for Nan Grey and Barbara Read. They give it their all, bless their souls, but it’s Durbin’s character Penny who gets all the best lines, to the point where the film drags a little whenever she’s off-screen. Unfortunately, much of this time is devoted to romantic subplots surrounding the two older girls, but the fact that these sections of the film are lackluster isn’t their fault. This is a star vehicle, and it’s simply the nature of the beast that the co-stars get the B-scenes.

That being said, Durbin lives up to her hype and definitely makes this a film worth watching. Penny is petulant, bossy, spirited, and altogether irresistibly charming. She is helped immensely by a snappy script penned by Adele Comandini, who either was a bratty teenage tomboy or always wanted to be one. I made sure to note down some of my absolute favorite “Pennyisms” to share with the class:

  • “I’m not pig-headed, I’m strong-minded!”
  • “Muffins and milk? That’s no food for fighters!”
  • [when she is caught by her father making a racket upstairs] FATHER: “Do you realize that I have guests downstairs, that Miss Lyons is trying to sing? I thought the ceiling would come down!” PENNY: [innocently] “Oh! Why didn’t you stop her?”
  • “If this is what love does to people, I’m glad I’m an old maid!”

Durbin was of course known for her effortless soprano singing voice, and while Three Smart Girls isn’t a musical, she does manage to sneak three songs in. Only the last of these, “Il Bacio (The Kiss),” which she performs before a police sergeant trying to convince him that she’s actually a budding French opera star on her way to perform at the Met, feels forced and out of place. As for myself, I’m really not fond of opera, so I don’t get the appeal of a cute little girl with an enormous, overpowering voice, but I’ll reserve further comment as it’s really not my area of expertise. Fact is, if you like musicals, you’re probably already familiar with Deanna Durbin’s singing talents, so you don’t need my uninformed opinion cluttering things up.

As for the rest of the film, it’s got some beautiful 1930s Art Deco sets and fashions that I simply adored. Binnie Barnes and Alice Brady as the fierce and deadly Lyons are an old trope, but they skillfully do their part to make you dislike them. Sometimes I had trouble telling the difference between Ray Milland and John King, simply because their characters were not very interesting and were just added to give an extra romantic twist for the younger set. They’re okay, if you like that sort of thing.

Kay, Penny, and Joan — Three Smartly-Dressed Girls!

The plot as a whole is fairly ridiculous in some places, but what else would you expect from a 1936 family-friendly comedy of errors about three teenage girls trying to patch up their parents’ divorce? I usually try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t help but say a bit about the film’s predictable-but-enjoyable ending. After all their schemes have failed to produce any results, Penny, in an uncharacteristic turn, actually tries being honest with her father as to why she and her sisters don’t want him to marry Donna, and this proves to be the most effective tactic yet. Unfortunately the next morning she disappears, which, whether she intends it to be or not, is a tremendously selfish and manipulative way of getting her father to do what she wants. Teenagers – what are you gonna do! In the end the girls’ parents are reunited at last, and we see them gaze into each other’s eyes with nostalgic affection; but the film ends there, leaving it ambiguous as to whether their love is rekindled or not. After all, the movie’s not so preposterous as to suggest that merely seeing each other again would cure whatever conflict caused the parents to get divorced in the first place. I imagine they saved the real “happily ever after” for the sequel, 1939’s Three Smart Girls Grow Up.

A wonderfully watchable little movie that pops both visually and textually, Three Smart Girls is a smart debut for Deanna Durbin and a contagiously cute family film. It’s a great pick-me-up movie and cuts the sweetness with just enough sass to hopefully avoid any cavities.

Three Smart Girls (1936) – 4/5 stars

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: When wayward seafarer Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a freighter after being stranded by a shipwreck, he and the frequently-soused captain don’t see eye to eye. Instead of transporting him to the Samoan capital of Apia, where his fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) is eagerly awaiting her beau, the nasty captain drops Parker onto the boat of manservant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and his mysterious boss Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who are receiving a large shipment of wild animals to take back to their private island. Parker is naturally upset, but Moreau promises to give him a ship to sail to Apia in the morning. When they arrive on the island, Parker is treated to dinner, drinks, and the delightful company of the exotic and friendly Lota (Kathleen Burke). She warms to Parker quickly, and soon informs him that the charming Dr. Moreau isn’t what he seems. In actuality, he’s a scientist on a devilish mission to control the process of evolution – transforming animals into men.

This scifi/horror gem by director Erle C. Kenton was the first in a long line of cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Its status as a pre-Code talky is evidenced by the repeated references to rape and bestiality, as well as Moreau’s own explicit blasphemy. The film was banned in the United Kingdom for over twenty-five years – though interestingly it was the scenes of vivisection, prohibited by the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of the 1930s, which kept it under wraps for so long. Furthermore, H.G. Wells himself was outspoken in his dislike of the way the movie overshadowed his more serious philosophical ponderings with overt horror elements. I must admit that I haven’t yet read Dr. Moreau, although Wells is one of my favorite authors. I hope his spirit won’t be too angry at me for saying this – who knows, he could be out and about, what with it being Halloween season and all – but I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed this film.

“This is Ms. Panther; she’ll be cleaning your teeth this morning.”

The picture features some striking cinematography and an excellent use of shadows, as well as employing its tropical jungle setting (which was really just Catalina Island) to appropriately spooky effect. The story itself is intriguing, but it’s the performance of Charles Laughton as Moreau which really makes this movie worth seeing. Laughton is at once smooth, calm, and dangerous; he wields terrifying power over his subjects and all that goes on on his island. Perhaps I’m reading too much into his portrayal, but I found something slightly sissified about Moreau, imbuing him with a “menacing queerness” that adds a whole new dimension to his obsession with creating life in a non-procreative manner. In the same way that critics have read homosexual undertones into the mad scientist character of Dr. Pretorius in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, I feel there’s definitely a little more lurking beneath the surface of Dr. Moreau than what we’re explicitly told. Whether this was an intentional move by the filmmakers or by Laughton (who himself was homosexual), or whether it’s just me choosing to see what I want to see, I don’t know, but I stand by my hypothesis.

Another performance I enjoyed was that by Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman, who I think portrayed a perfect blend of naïvete, awkwardness, and sexual curiosity in her film debut. A dental assistant working in Chicago, Burke began acting after winning a beauty contest sponsored by Paramount Studios; she went on to appear in over twenty films before retiring from the profession in 1938 at the age of 25. However, besides Laughton and Burke, there’s not really much worth noting about the other actors, with leading man Richard Arlen being particularly hammy and terrible. Bela Lugosi also has a very very small role as the Sayer of the Law, the animal-human hybrid who recites the rules as dictated by Moreau. I found it to be a pretty big waste of Lugosi’s talent – but then again, Lugosi specialized in that. Overall this is a truly creepy yet beautiful film with a completely stellar performance by Laughton that really brings the whole thing up a notch from B-grade scifi/horror to a Grade-A classic. Definitely perfect for Halloween, or, hell, any time of the year – you never need an excuse to watch a movie as neat as this one.

Island of Lost Souls (1932) – 4/5 stars

Maedchen in Uniform (1931)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: When sensitive Manuela (Hertha Thiele) is sent to a strict boarding school for officers’ daughters, she is thrilled to discover that her new classmates are anything but miniature versions of their fathers. Immediately she is informed by the rambunctious ringleader Ilse (Ellen Schwanneke) that Manuela is lucky to have been placed under the care of Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), the one instructor who elicits the budding passions of every girl in school. Manuela seems especially desperate for the affections of the young and beautiful teacher, who reciprocates by giving Manuela the nurturing she so obviously craves. However, the nasty Prussian headmistress (Emilia Unda) believes young girls are best formed into strong women by discipline and hunger, and does not support Fräulein von Bernburg’s soft hand.

Here on Garbo Laughs, I’m dedicating the entire month of June to the topic of Queer Cinema (LGBTQs, and depictions thereof, in classic film). This includes reviewing one relevant film from each decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. This is all leading up to my Queer Film Blogathon on June 27th. Won’t you join me in celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month by contributing a post or two (or three)?

Based on the novel and play Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today) by lesbian author Christa Winsloe, Leontine Sagan‘s polemic against the strict Prussian education system was released in 1931 to enormous financial success. However, historically it seems this success is attributed less to the film’s strong anti-fascist message and more to the groundbreaking all-female cast and the fact that this was one of the first films produced to feature an explicitly pro-lesbian storyline. It is quite astonishing to see lesbianism portrayed as a de facto way of life here; it is almost immediately introduced and not viewed as strange or different at all by the boarding school students. It’s disapproved of by the school administrators, but not so much due to its Sapphic nature but rather because any sign or expression of emotion is frowned upon. There is never any mention of the notion that these girls might be “settling” for lesbian relationships due to the lack of males in their lives, at least not in the English subtitles. You can definitely see why this film was viewed as revolutionary for its time; hell, there are very few movies even today that treat queerness so matter-of-factly. (more…)