Saturday, September 6, 1970: The Great Impersonation (1935) / The Invisible Ray (1935)

The Great Impersonation

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.

The Invisible Ray Synopsis: Renowned scientist Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) demonstrates his newest discovery to a disbelieving group of savants, including Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi). In a somewhat surreal and complicated sequence, he reveals that all light and sound waves are preserved in space and time, and that looking back far enough he can see the moment millions of years ago in which a meteor containing an ultra-rare element called Radium X fell in southwestern Africa.

Radium X, as the name implies, is a souped-up form of radioactive material, possessing great potential for both healing and destruction. Somewhat baffled but convinced by his demonstration, the scientists join Rukh on an expedition to recover the meteorite. In Africa, Rukh works obsessively to unlock the secrets of Radium X.

Meanwhile, Rukh’s beautiful young wife Diana (Frances Drake) begins to fall in love with another man on the expedition (Frank Lawton). Most of the party returns to Europe. Dr. Benet quickly discovers that Radium X, applied properly, can cure any physical ailment, and he uses it to heal the sick, though he assiduously credits Dr. Rukh with the element’s discovery.

When Rukh returns home he learns of his wife’s infidelity and of his rivals building new careers on his work. After receiving an accidental overdose of Radium X, Rukh discovers that his skin glows in the dark and that his touch can kill.

The overdose also seems to have left him deranged, and he decides to murder all those whom he believes have betrayed him, starting with the scientists who accompanied him on the expedition….

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.

My pledge to you (well, you weren’t there, but it was to you) was to watch every movie on the schedule, in order, just as if I was watching Horror Incorporated each week. Didn’t matter if I’d seen the movie before. I wouldn’t cheat and throw a note up saying, yep, saw this on December 20 — though of course I did, and you can read the review here.

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:

All this makes a man like me feel quite small and useless.
Oh, but you’ve entered uncharted places too!
[That’s what she said!]
And here’s Diana returning to her tent in the jungle:
Bring me three boys for a safari!
[That’s what she said!]

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.

If I ever receive a lethal dose of radium X and find that I can both glow in the dark and kill with a touch of my hand, I’ll keep asking myself, What would Boris Karloff do? And then I’ll do that. Just letting you know in advance.

THE INVISIBLE RAY can be found on the Universal DVD set The Bela Lugosi Collection. It’s available on Amazon.

One comment

  1. Another fascinating double feature, in that they were actually shot back to back in the fall of 1935, and were both part of the SHOCK! television package. THE INVISIBLE RAY remains my favorite of the big three Karloff-Lugosi teamings of the Laemmle era, broadcast 7 times on CHILLER THEATER. I have enjoyed seeing Frances Drake in nearly a dozen films, with MAD LOVE being her one other horror title. Frank Lawton, coming off the title role in DAVID COPPERFIELD, was also a more natural performer than the genre was used to, whose one other notable horror credit was Tod Browning's THE DEVIL-DOLL. This was Karloff's very first mad scientist, also the first horror film where he clearly goes over the top, while Lugosi underplays beautifully, stealing every scene from his higher salaried co-star. Curiously, THE GREAT IMPERSONATION never once appeared on CHILLER THEATER, but it's the only version of this oft-filmed story with a slight horror element, represented by the small role, mostly heard rather than seen, for Dwight Frye, as the crazed Roger Unthank, whose lone tirade provides the climax. Valerie Hobson does well in a difficult role, and Edmund Lowe was probably better here than in anything else I've seen him in. From WOMEN OF ALL NATIONS, CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, THE BEST MAN WINS (all with Lugosi), THE GARDEN MURDER CASE (as Philo Vance), THE WITNESS VANISHES, THE STRANGE MR. GREGORY (only the last showed up on CHILLER THEATER). Also featuring Frank Reicher and Nan Grey.


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