While I didn’t have a lot of time to work on the site over the summer, I did find time to fall completely and totally in love with a sexy little show called True Blood. I’ve always enjoyed vampires, but I am a little bit picky when it comes to the subject. (I find Twilight offensive in so very many ways). But True Blood is just all kinds of awesome. And it made me think about all the great vampire movies that came out of the classic era. Of course there are the well known ones, like Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and the silent masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. But there are some pretty good vampire movies that aren’t too well known.  So, in honor of my True Blood love, and the fact that the second season will be over in less than two weeks, I’ve decided to write about two of my favorite obscure classic vampire films. One lost silent, and its remake.

London After Midnight (Todd Browning, 1927)
Sadly, the only print of London After Midnight was destroyed in a fire in the 1960s. The only material that exists are several publicity shots and a shooting script. This was enough to create a very thorough reconstruction, however.

The film stars Lon Chaney, easily one of the finest actors of the silent era. Really, one of the finest actors in film history. His makeup is, as usual, wonderful, and even through stills you can tell that his character is quite chilling.

The leading man in this movie is Conrad Nagel. Regular readers of this site will know that I’m a huge fan of his. I think that’s one of the saddest things about the loss of this film. Nagel was a wonderful actor, but he’s so little known today, and a lot of his films are lost. It’s just a huge shame that this is yet another of his performances that’s forever gone.

So, even though the film is lost, a very good reconstruction exists. From the shooting script we can see that it has a pretty good story. From its publicity stills, we can tell that it was probably quite creepy. And the presence of Chaney and Nagel assure that the acting was good.

Mark of the Vampire (Todd Browning, 1935)
Mark of the Vampire is a remake of London After Midnight. Being made by the same director, it is apparently an extremely faithful remake, almost shot for shot.

It isn’t a brilliant movie, but I think it’s a lot better than its IMDb rating would have you believe. It’s a little bit hammy, but at the end of the day Todd Browning really knew horror, and despite the ham, the most has a wonderful atmosphere.

It also has an incredible cast. Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi are they big names in this one, and both give good performances. That’s to be expected from them, though, especially Barrymore, who was really never anything but good. The rest of the cast is filled with wonderful character actors. Elizabeth Allan is the female lead, and Lionel Atwill and Jean Hersholt play support.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1932

Cast: Marie Dressler, Jean Hersholt, Myrna Loy, Richard Cromwell

Director: Clarence Brown

When their mother dies in childbirth, the Smith children turn to their nanny Emma (Dressler). As they grow up, Dressler loves them as though they were her own. She has a special bond with Ronnie (Cromwell), who never knew his mother, though Isabelle (Loy) is stuck up and insists on treating Emma as little more than a servant. As the children grow older, their father Frederick (Hersholt) and Emma being to feel lonely and end up marrying each other. On their honeymoon, Frederick dies, and leaves everything in his will to Emma so she can properly provide for the children. Isabelle refuses to believe her father would leave her nothing, and tries to prove that Emma killed her father.

Marie Dressler was definitely one of the more interesting stars of the 1930s. While she’d had some success in silent film, she had pretty much disappeared from the radar until Anna Christie in 1930. She won the Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill, and was nominated again for Emma. While not at all the type of beautiful star so many people adored, Dressler was one of the top box office stars of her time. She was certainly one of the most talented and dynamic actresses. In Emma, she’s extremely sympathetic, and gives one hell of a performance. It’s hard to believe a woman would be able to love “her” children after the way Isabelle treats her, but there’s never a doubt that Dressler means every word she says when she refuses to allow the lawyers to talk about the kids the way the do, even if it means she’ll be found guilty of murder.

Loy is also interesting in this film. Before her breakout year of 1934, she was often cast as villainous characters, and that’s pretty much what she is here. She’s stuck up, self centered, selfish, and vindictive. And so completely easy to hate. She really does give a very good performance that’s completely against the type she would soon come to play.

The film does lose a bit of steam in the middle. While the murder trial is indeed interesting, I was much more enthralled by the relationship/romance between Emma and Frederick. There was a lot of genuine emotion and affection in this love story between two older people, and that made the first half of the films a lot more interesting than the second half. A romance like this is so rare to find in film, especially classic film. I really would have loved an entire film just about Emma and Frederick’s marriage.

Year: 1931

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Cast: Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Hersholt, Alan Hale, John Miljan, Hale Hamilton

Susan Lenox is a really strange movie. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and my opinion on it has changed constantly. Initially I was so bewildered and caught off guard by it that I really disliked it, but the more times I watch it, the more I enjoy it. It’s one of those pre-code films where the following conversation probably took place in the editing room…

“It’s okay as a 90 minute movie.”

“But if we cut it down to under 80 minutes we can schedule more screenings and make more money.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“Yeah, but don’t cut out any of the sex.”

What resulted from the studio’s interesting editing is one hell of a sexy, surreal, downright strange romantic melodrama.

Garbo plays Helga, the illegitimate child of a dead mother of bad reputation. She grows up under the tyranny of her uncle, who’s so worried she’s going to turn out like her mother that he decides to marry her off to a brute. One stormy night, said brute tries to rape her, and Helga flees into the forest. She stumbles upon a cabin where Rodney (a dashing Gable) is staying. He takes her in, and the two fall in love. Soon, Rodney has to go out of town for a week for work. While he’s gone, Helga’s uncle catches up with her, and she’s forced to take off.

From there it’s a really strange and pretty heartwrenching melodrama about Helga trying to find her way back to Rodney and all the horrible things they go through to get there. During this journey, she’s forced into becoming a “fallen women” and Rodney rashly condemns her and ditches her.

I’m a sucker for movies about people in love treating each other horribly, and this is a really early example of those kinds of films. Helga, hurt by Rodney’s dismissal, allows herself to continue along the path of a fallen woman, almost just to hurt Rodney. The film is really a fascinating look at a really intense relationship between two people who are so twisted and screwed up that they’re only happy when they’re miserable together.

In addition to the strange nature of the Helga and Rodney’s relationship, the settings of the film add to the bizarre atmosphere. It starts off in America, but in a strange wilderness of America that’s almost a fantasy world, which is appropriate with Helga beginning her life in a sort of Cinderella story, to escape and find her prince charming. during her journey back to Rodney, Helga ends up as a circus performer, and that in itself… well, well obviously that whole section and all those people are weird in an of themselves. The story than shifts to what is, I assume, the Park Avenue world of New York where Helga (now known as Susan Lenox) is being kept by a politician. For this very short section of the film, Garbo plays one of her few “modern woman” roles, and fits into the skin nicely. After this part, the story moves to a seed South America bar, where the atmosphere is rowdy, to say the least. The constant change in scenery and tone is startling, but where I found fault with that upon my first viewings, I now see it as a strength of the film. Susan Lenox is a fast paced romantic melodrama. It almost feels like and adventure film, and those jarring movements between time and setting help keep thing fresh and exciting.

This was the only pairing of Garbo and Gable. Having two such dynamic personalities on the screen certainly adds to the explosiveness of the film. Their personalities clash and merge and explode over and over again on screen. In reality, Garbo and Gable couldn’t stand each other. Perhaps that helped with the explosive nature of the couple on the screen. At the same time, though, Gable is really the only male costar Gable had who could make her really seem like a girl. Garbo was an extremely sexy woman, and all of her costars (Gilbert, Douglas, Nagel, etc) embraced and enhanced her as a woman. But only Gable was really able to accentuate the basic romantic girl inside of Garbo. It’s a surprising, unexpected pairing, but it works so well.

Likewise, Garbo’s performance is kind of unexpected. This really isn’t the kind of character one would ever think of when thinking of regal, mysterious Garbo. The vamp, the tragic heroine, the mystery. This role is nothing like any of those things. In Susan Lenox, Garbo gets to something very primal in her nature that I don’t think she ever touched in any of her other roles. She accessed a really deep romantic side, and a deep aching hurt for this character that she doesn’t show in most of her performances. The more I see of this film, the more I think that it may be her best performance.

Gable is his usual rough, rugged self. This was his first starring role where he wasn’t playing a bad guy or a heavy. It’s a pretty emotionally complicated role for an actor to really start his starring career with, but Gable plays it with perfect ease.

Susan Lenox is definitely a weird movie. On all fronts, it’s not something you’d expect it to be. But after adjusting to those unexpected things, it’s easy to see this is something unique and special.

By Katie Richardson