Synopsis: Austrian nobleman Baron Von Ragenstein (Edmund Lowe) has been banished to the wilds of Africa after killing a romantic rival in a duel . He is surprised to come upon his exact look-alike, Sir Edward Dominey, half-dead in the jungle.
Not only are the two identical in appearance, but their lives have gone on parallel trajectories: they had attended Oxford together, and Dominey has recently banished himself to Africa, after he too had been accused to killing a romantic rival. Now Dominey is a dissolute fellow, busily drinking himself to death. But a plan is already germinating in the Baron’s mind.
It seems that since his exile, Von Ragenstein has been working for an international munitions manufacturer, one that wants to push the nations of Europe toward war. They have agents throughout mainland Europe and now need an agent in England, someone influential who can help ensure that the peace-loving Brits join the fray. Knowing that Sir Edward had once run for Parliament, Von Ragenstein decides to have Dominey killed and take his place in England.
Before long he shows up at Dominey Hall and easily passes himself off as Sir Edward. But his reception is a frosty one. Housekeeper Mrs. Unthank (Esther Dale) believes he killed her son Roger (Dwight Frye), though the body was never found. His wife Eleanor (Valerie Hobson) was traumatized by the alleged murder, which took place on their wedding day; moreover, she can still hear the ghost of Roger crying piteously in the night. Dominey Hall itself is in a state of decline and discord.
Everyone in the household is soon astonished by the “new man” that Sir Edward has become. He is no longer a drunken, boorish cad; he is courteous and attentive. He takes charge of the estate, engaging workmen to effect repairs on the dilapidated buildings and walls. He treats the servants with a decency they have not seen before. He even treats Eleanor well, showing her the affection that had always been denied her. Soon morale at Dominey Hall is high, and Eleanor is well on the road to recovery.
But the strange sobbing from Roger’s ghost are still being heard in the house, and the Baron’s lover Princess Stephanie (Wera Engels) visits Dominey Hall, and begins to suspect that he has fallen in love with Eleanor.
But then she learns that Edward Dominey wasn’t killed in Africa, but escaped and might have made his way to England. So the question becomes: is this Von Ragenstein pretending to be Dominey, or Dominey pretending to be Von Ragenstein pretending to be Dominey?
Comments: I’m not entirely sure that The Great Impersonation can rightly be called a horror movie. Just what kind of movie we’re dealing with is hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s more easily defined by what kind of movie it isn’t: it isn’t a political thriller, isn’t a Victorian melodrama, isn’t a haunted-house film, isn’t a propaganda film, and isn’t a romance.
But like two earlier Horror Incorporated entries, The Black Room and The Man Who Lived Twice, The Great Impersonation cleverly plays with the idea of identity. By the end of the picture we find that we didn’t know who Edward Dominey was any more than we knew who Von Ragenstein was. And unusually for a movie of this era, the answer is less pat than it first appeared.
After all, the man who ends up living in Dominey Hall couldn’t really be Edward Dominey, the blue-blood drunk that everyone back home had learned to despise. Even if he had somehow managed to escape his captors and return to England, he would still be the same man he was — the same moral coward who tormented his wife into the madhouse, who lied and cheated his way into exile, the same heel who decided once in Africa that the highball glass was the only thing worth living for.
Nor could he really be Baron Von Ragenstein, the cold-blooded and morally bankrupt shill for a crooked arms dealer, the man who would — literally — kill for the chance to get sent back to Europe.
Somehow, we have wound up with an amalgamation of the two; the doppelgangers have fused into one man, more than the sum of their parts. This is never explicitly stated; rather, the conclusion offers a daffy switcheroo that can’t be taken seriously. It’s only on reflection — walking home from the theater, let’s say — that the real significance of The Great Impersonation sinks in.
Edmund Lowe is probably best known for playing the title role in Chandu the Magician (1932) and he specialized in playing smug, upper-crust types. I’ve written admiringly about Valerie Hobson’s performances in two other movies released the same year as The Great Impersonation: Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Werewolf of London (1935); she is much more naturalistic than her contemporaries and she is a joy to watch here.
THE GREAT IMPERSONATION is available through Satellite Media Productions.
Comments: When I first embarked on the Horror Incorporated Project, I knew there would be days like this. I knew there would be repeat broadcasts of movies, and I knew that some of the movies would be clunkers. And I spent some time thinking about how to handle that.
I decided I’d try to have something new to say about repeated films, try to find some angle I hadn’t examined before. And so far, I’ve been able to keep that up. But I am sorry to say that The Invisible Ray didn’t wear very well on a second viewing, and I found it difficult to say anything new. So instead, I decided to build a drinking game around the alleged romance between Frances Drake and Frank Lawton, two of the most unconvincing screen lovers you are likely to come across.
But even in this modest goal I was frustrated. There wasn’t a catchphrase repeated often enough to warrant a drinking game, but I did find myself seeing everything Diana said as a double entendre. This might be due to the faintly suggestive tone she used to deliver every line, or it might be that I just have a dirty mind.
Well, why not both? Here’s Diana and Ronald, witnessing the great scientists preparing to unlock the mysteries of the universe:
This dreary romantic subplot mostly takes place during the movie’s Africa-based second act. But on this viewing I must admit that Diana and Ronald do step aside in the lively third act, which takes place in Paris and involves a glow-in-the-dark Boris Karloff taking loony revenge on everyone whom he thinks has betrayed him — which is, of course, just about everyone. Karloff certainly isn’t afraid to go over the top in this effort, and his death scene — where he literally disintegrates in midair — is quite spectacular.