Synopsis: Driving her car too fast on a rain-slick road, ballet dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) careens down an embankment and is critically injured in the crash. The doctors treating her declare that she will likely never walk again. Her only hope, they say, is brilliant surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). But Vollin, who has retired from practice in favor of medical research, refuses. Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), appeals to his pocketbook and then his humanity, to no avail. Only the news that Vollin’s rivals concede his superiority convinces him to perform the operation.
Weeks later, Jean has fully recovered. Though she is awed by Vollin’s talent, and grateful for her new lease on life, she is nonetheless uncomfortable with Vollin’s growing personal interest in her. Judge Thatcher notices the same thing, and warns Vollin to stay away from Jean.
Vollin, enraged that Thatcher would be so ungrateful as to stand in the way of what he desires, begins to plot his revenge, and before long he finds that an unexpected visitor has turned up at his door, one who will help move his plan forward.
The visitor is easily recognized by anyone who reads the newspapers — he is a fugitive named Bateman (Boris Karloff) and he has heard that the brilliant doctor can alter his appearance and allow him to avoid detection. Vollin changes the man’s appearance, all right — by severing a critical nerve, he causes one side of Bateman’s face to sag like that of a stroke victim. He then tells the fugitive that he will repair the nerve damage only if he assists him in meting out revenge against Jean, her fiancee and Judge Thatcher.
Vollin arranges for Jean’s family and friends to visit him over a long weekend. They do not suspect that Vollin is a man obsessed with death and torture — nor that he has a trick house with iron shutters that can trap its occupants inside — and downstairs, a collection of torture devices inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe…
If you take this Karloff and Lugosi chiller at face value — that is, if you watch it as you would any run-of-the-mill horror film of the 1930s — you will probably conclude that it does its job pretty well. It’s entertaining enough, and it’s moderately suspenseful. It doesn’t leave much of an impact on the audience, but that’s all right, because it doesn’t demand very much of the audience either.
But if you see it as Universal’s follow-up to the previous year’s Poe outing The Black Cat, you recognize how far short of the mark it really falls. This film is far less ambitious than The Black Cat, and as a result it’s far less stylish and atmospheric. More importantly, it fails to make proper use of its stars, particularly Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi tries hard to be scary and ominous here, and unfortunately that is when he tends toward his worst performances. He furrows his brow and pushes his voice down to its lowest register and tries to wring maximum terror from ev-e-ry sin-gle syl-la-ble. The result is more laughable than scary, but in Lugosi’s defense it’s hard to imagine Karloff doing much better with the role. Dr. Vollin is such a gloomy, Poe-obsessed crackpot that you never believe him for an instant.
He isn’t helped by the fact that the screenplay seems unable to decide whether Jean’s feelings for Vollin are reciprocated. In an early scene she seems clearly uncomfortable when Vollin is putting the moves on her; yet she later arranges to surprise him with an interpretive dance based on Poe’s “The Raven”, which she knows is his favorite work (and in which, significantly, she herself is the raven that comes tapping at the chamber door). When Judge Thatcher confronts Vollin at his house, he indicates that Jean is “in danger of becoming infatuated” and seems surprised when Vollin doesn’t immediately agree to keep her at a distance.
The fact that Vollin is obsessed with her in the first place doesn’t seem entirely convincing. A gloomy, middle-aged man who collects Poe memorabilia and builds a torture chamber in the basement in his spare time doesn’t seem likely to fall for the first pretty face he sees on the operating table. But you never know when Cupid will strike, do you?
Karloff, that most physical of actors, conveys Bateman’s suffering convincingly. But Bateman’s notion that ugly people are the most likely to commit ugly acts seems peculiar. This gives Bateman a story arc to follow — an opportunity to learn that his ugliness doesn’t have to lead to evil — but It must have seemed just as peculiar in 1935. Conversely, outer beauty certainly doesn’t guarantee inner beauty, which should also have been obvious.
For modern-day evidence of that, look under Kardashian, Kim.
The Great Impersonation
Synopsis: Austrian nobleman Baron Leopold Von Ragostein (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 Everard 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 Ragostein 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 Everard had once run for Parliament, Von Ragostein 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 Everard. 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 Everard 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 crumbling 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 Everard Dominey wasn’t killed in Africa, but escaped and might have made his way to England. So the question becomes: is this Von Ragostein pretending to be Dominey, or Dominey pretending to be Von Ragostein pretending to be Dominey?
Comments: Set shortly before the outbreak of World War I, The Great Impersonation is an interesting espionage thriller that trades heavily on the staunch anti-war sentiments of the 1930s. Von Ragostein makes it clear early on that the greedy munitions manufacturers that employ him are deliberately pushing the world toward war. Even during his miserable exile in Africa (where he comically strolls around his bamboo hut wearing an immaculate white suit), Von Ragostein is pitting various local factions against one another in hopes of scrounging up some business for the war profiteers.
The cynicism of Von Ragostein is matched pound for pound by the amorality of drunken playboy and advanced-level cad Dominey, a man who has left his family estate a physical ruin by the same method he employed in turning his wife into a lunatic and his personal life into a shambles. Having run away to Africa, ostensibly to hunt lions, Dominey proves that he’s an incompetent as well: when we first see him he’s staggering through the jungle in ragged clothes, abandoned by his guides and gun-bearers and being hunted by the lions he traveled so far to kill. Once rescued by Von Ragostein, Dominey’s first request is for a slug of booze and it’s clear that this is not a man who will be missed by anyone.
We are not surprised, therefore, that Dominey returns home and begins to win over the ones he has wronged, because we’re under the impression that this is in fact Von Ragostein. But we’re immediately suspicious: Von Ragostein is overdoing it. He is too kind to the staff, too absorbed in the task of rebuilding the neglected estate and too attentive to Eleanor to be the cynic and murderer we met earlier in the film. Is he being won over by Eleanor’s beauty, by the good and honest people he’s found at Dominey Hall? Or by — dare I say it — the delights of Merrie England itself?
Well, apparently not. In the final minutes we’re asked to believe that Dominey escaped his would-be assassins, intercepted Von Ragostein himself, took his place and has passed himself off as his own doppelganger in order to trap the foreign agents, and in the process has remade himself. He not only conquered his alcoholism, but found new purpose in his life, rekindled his love for Eleanor, resolved to live for others instead of himself, and make right his wrongs once and for all.
Such a wrenching about-face seems wildly improbable — more improbable, in fact, than happening upon one’s own double in the middle of the jungle. Even if you imagine that Dominey’s arrival at Von Ragostein’s door was no accident, but rather the opening gambit in a complicated con game, it still leaves the question of Dominey’s long career of binge-drinking and spousal abuse. Surely that wasn’t a put-on?
In the end we keep coming back to the only conclusion that makes sense, even if it is kind of a strange one: the man who arrived at Dominey Hall is neither Dominey nor Von Ragostein. There wasn’t enough material in either of them to constitute a good man. Only by mixing and matching their positive attributes do we get one person worth knowing. And so The Great Impersonation, which never tried very hard to be a horror film, crosses suddenly into the metaphysical.
This film was directed by Alan Crosland, not a household name today, but quite successful in his time. His career started in New York with the Edison company, and he eventually moved to Hollywood, where he earned a reputation as an able director of big costume dramas like Under the Red Robe. In 1927 he directed Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the first movie musical. The Great Impersonation was one of the last films Crosland would direct; he died in 1936.