Monday, April 21st, 2008

Year: 1935

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Kay Francis, George Brent, Warren William, Helen Lowell

Terry Parker (Brent) walks away from a plane crash that kills his family. The loss causes him to feel massive guilt since he was the pilot, and makes him feel as though he’s living on borrowed time, making him preoccupied with death and danger, with his head constantly in the clouds. He meets Amy Prentiss (Francis), who is engaged to his best friend, Gibraltar Pritcham (William). They fall in love, and Gibraltar loves both of them enough to let them be together. They marry, and while Amy tries to be supportive, the marriage runs in to difficulties due to Terry’s problems.

Living On Velvet is exactly the kind of film where Borzage seemed most at home – the small, intimate romances. Borzage had a fixation on the relationship between love and spirituality, and this is one of his most literal uses of those themes. Terry’s struggle comes from his issues with spirituality, wondering why he didn’t die along with his family and coping with the thought that he doesn’t belong on this earth. When Amy enters the picture, there’s a mingling not just of their spirits, but of their spiritual ideals. Terry doesn’t know how to bring his closer to Amy’s earthier and realistic ones.

While Francis’ solid performance and character anchor the film, it’s heart and soul is Brent’s Terry. The film is about Terry’s changing spirit and his rebirth. Amy is the catalyst for this rebirth, and his anchor throughout. The dialogue of the film shows constantly that she completely understand him, that their minds and spirits are linked. So often Terry doesn’t have to speak for Amy to know what he wants to say.

As the film goes on is becomes clear that Amy is more than wife, she’s also acting as Terry’s mother. Terry is little more than a child. He can’t be expected to follow simple instructions without allowing his mind to be preoccupied with more romantic and dangerous ideas. He can neither act like an adult husband or like a member of the society to which he belongs until he’s overcome his problems.

Early in the film, it is Gibraltor who is in the role of supporter until Amy enters the picture and takes over that role. But whereas Gibraltor seemed to be an enabler, Amy gently prods Terry into fighting his demons. This leads to a very interesting revelation between the characters that love is not enough to sustain their relationship, and not enough to fill the void in Terry’s soul.


Year: 1934

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop

In the 1930’s Universal Studios was known for its lineup of great horror films. Best known, of course, are the Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man series. However, Universal put out a lot of other horror films and one of the most strange and unusual is The Black Cat co-starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It was their first film together and probably one of their best. Directed by Edgar Ulmer (Detour, The Strange Woman) the film is loaded with erotic overtones, devil worshipping, and mass murder.

Very loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, the film takes place in Hungary and starts when a young honeymooning couple, Peter and Joan Alison, (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) meet Doctor Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi) on a train traveling through the countryside. The Doctor, just released from a prisoner of war camp, tells them he is on his way to visit an old friend. After they depart from the train, the three share a cab ride to their next destination. The drive is during a heavy rainstorm and an unfortunate accident kills the driver and injures the wife. Since they are now close to Doctor Werdegast friend’s house he invites the couple to come with him so they can take care of the injured wife. The friend, of course, is Haljmar Poelzig (Karloff), a devil worshipping mass murder.

The house Poelzig lives in is a strange reconverted futuristic fortress that we soon will discover is built upon the mass graves of World War 1 soldiers. It soon comes to light that Dr. Werdergast has not come to see a friend but to seek revenge on Poelzig who betrayed him and managed to escape from the enemy during the war leaving Werdergast to be captured and held as a POW. Werdergast is also looking for his wife and daughter who he believes were kidnapped and being held captive by Haljmar. The young couple, Peter and Joan, have become prisoners of Haljmar who intends to sacrifice Joan in one of his satanic rituals while husband Peter is held captive chained in the dungeon below. The film becomes a battleground between Werdergast, trying to save Joan from being sacrificed and also trying to find his wife and daughter, and Haljmar attempting to proceed with his Black Mass rituals and sacrifice Joan.

This is one of the few films where Lugosi is on the side of good. His gives a performance that is actually quite good. Karloff is Karloff and he is actually billed that way in the credits.

Considering this film was made in 1934 it’s a pretty dark unsettling movie filled with satanic rituals, female victims displayed suspended from the ceiling upside down and the “skinning” of human beings. While it is not as graphic as today’s horror films it is unsettling and must have been even more so to the audience of its day. It is surprising that the studio was able to get away with some of the things included. Granted a lot is insinuated or is off screen or shown in shadows and this may make the film disappointing to some of todays gore oriented audiences.

Ulmer was influenced by the German Expressionist movement. He started out as a set designer and assisted on the set of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. According to IBDB his set designer credits include Metropolis, The Golem, M as well as The Black Cat. Ulmer and cinematographer John Mescall, who also filmed The Bride of Frankenstein, created a film full of strange eeriness and a deep sense of looming danger.

Available on DVD as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection and VHS.

By: John Greco