Saturday, March 4, 1978: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) / The Raven (1935)

Synopsis: Choirmaster John Jasper (Claude Rains) wakes up in an opium den, obsessed with a vision of his nephew Edwin Drood (David Manners) being married to the beautiful Rosa Bud (Heather Angel). Edwin and Rosa have been in an arranged engagement since childhood; and while Edwin seems cool to this arrangement, it is clear that many other men are wild in their desire for Rosa.

Young Neville Landless (Douglass Montgomery), visiting from Ceylon with his twin sister Helena (Valerie Hobson), is immediately smitten with Rosa. The hot-blooded Neville is angered by Edwin’s cavalier attitude, and it is impossible for him to hide his sudden infatuation with her. Enraged by Edwin’s callousness regarding Rosa, he impetuously pulls out a knife, but the fight is broken up by Jasper.

On Christmas Eve, Edwin and Rosa admit to one another that they are not in love, and with some relief they agree to break off the engagement. When they make this decision they pause to kiss on a footbridge just outside of town, which is witnessed by Jasper.

That night, Edwin and Neville meet privately to sort out their differences. At dawn the next day, Neville is seen leaving town on a hiking trip. When Edwin goes missing, Jasper calls in the police, and Neville is arrested under suspicion of murder.

Neville’s patron, the kindly Mr. Crisparkle (Francis L. Sullivan) maintains the young man’s innocence, but Jasper darkly suggests that Neville had every reason to do away with his romantic rival. When Neville escapes from custody, it seems like an admission of guilt.

But there are reasons for us to doubt that Neville has committed murder. Who is the mysterious Mr. Datchery, who appeared in town shortly after Drood’s disappearance and made inquiries about John Jasper and his connections to the opium den? How was it that Rev. Crisparkle found Drood’s watch and chain by the river? And why was John Jasper so keen to meet with the tippling cemetery caretaker Mr. Durdles (Forrester Harvey), asking questions about the use of quicklime to speed the decomposition of a body? And why did Jasper make a wax impression of Mr. Durdle’s keys to the crypt when the old man passed out from too much drink?

Comments: Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood is probably the most famous unfinished novel of all time, with scores of writers over the years speculating on how Dickens intended to solve the disappearance of his title character.

While Dickens did not leave a detailed outline behind when he died, he left plenty of evidence in correspondence that John Jasper was the guilty party, and after the murder buried the young man’s body under a pile of quicklime in the churchyard. This has not stopped writers over the years from concocting all sorts of alternate solutions, some clever and others quite thick-headed. The movie plays it pretty straight, making it fairly clear that John Jasper is the murderer (characters in Hollywood films of the 1930s did not wake up in opium dens if they were decent people) and it doesn’t take the world’s greatest detective to foresee that Edwin Drood’s body will be found, John Jasper will be brought to justice and Ned and Rosa will live happily ever after.

This was quite a lavish production for Universal, and was clearly planned as a big prestige project. But it did not perform well at the box office. Nevertheless it is one of the better-known adaptations of the Edwin Drood story, and benefits from a strong performance by Claude Rains. Douglass Montgomery doesn’t make any attempt to come across as a lifelong resident of Ceylon save a little bit of brownface. David Manners turns in the same sort of insouciant performance he usually did in the early 1930s.

Heather Angel is supposed to be irresistible as oh-so-good girl Rosa Bud; but I rather preferred the lovely Valerie Hobson as Ned’s sister Helena.

The Raven

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 not survive.  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…

Comments: The Raven used to turn up pretty regularly in the early days of Horror Incorporated, but it’s been shown much less frequently of late. It’s good to see it again, even when it turns up in the second feature spot, as it does tonight.

This film makes a deliberate effort to make Poe’s work the center of things, rather than an afterthought — as it clearly was in The Black Cat.  In that film, there was no trace of the classic Poe short story whatsoever, the titular cat only dragged into a couple of scenes to justify the use of the title.

Here, Dr. Vollin is a Poe-obsessed nutcase who has not only has built an entire functioning Poe-inspired torture chamber in his (surprisingly spacious) basement, but has also equipped the house with steel shutters that can trap occupants inside and even a room with walls that can close in and crush its unlucky inhabitants (this probably counts as another torture device, though certainly not a portable one).

Vollin quotes from “The Raven” during his first scene in the movie; in another, ballet dancer Jean builds an entire performance around the poem, knowing it is Vollin’s favorite. Later in the film we get Vollin’s triumphant (though somewhat puzzling) shout, “Poe! You are avenged!

This movie was a follow up to the highly successful Poe outing The Black Cat, and like that earlier film Karloff was better paid than Lugosi (in fact, he reportedly earned twice Lugosi’s salary). Both actors play opposite roles from the ones they did previously;  Karloff is the essentially good but tormented man this time, while Lugosi is the cruel antagonist.

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