In 1932, following the huge successes of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal Studios released their third film in their “monsters universe”. Unlike the previous film, this film had no real source material to be based on, so it was essentially Universal’s first venture into “original” monster film making. This is my Sunday with…The Mummy!
Release Date: December 22, 1932
Run Time: 73 minutes
Starring: Boris Karloff
Director: Karl Freund
“Death… eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket. In the name of Amon-Ra… the king of the gods.” – Sir Joseph Whemple
On an expedition in 1921, Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), and his team made a great discovery. Whemple, along with close friend Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) and assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), uncovered the mummified remains of the ancient priest Imhotep (Karloff). After close investigation it was discovered that this was no normal discovery, for Imhotep was alive when he was mummified due to the lack of embalming scars. The sole reason for such a horrible punishment was sacrilege. Along with the remains, the team found the scroll of Thoth. Dr. Muller recognized this as the scroll that gives life. Muller urged the other two to not to read from the scroll, for fear of the curse the scroll could bring. Dr. Muller stormed out of the camp and was followed closely by Sir Joseph. As Dr. Muller continued to convey the dangers of the scroll to Sir Joseph on the outside, Norton could not help but open and read aloud from the scroll. With this, the mummy started to move. Now awakened, Imhotep took back the scroll and left the camp. Hearing the uncontrolled laughing of Norton, the two returned to find both the Mummy and the scroll gone. When questioned about what happened, all Norton could respond between laughs was “He went for a stroll.” All that was left was a dusty hand print where the scroll had been. Fast forward ten years and we find Sir Joseph’s son, Frank (Davis Manners), and his partner Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) discouraged because of their lack of findings on their expedition. It is at this point when Ardath Bey (Imhotep disguised as a modern day man) lead the two to the tomb of Ankh-es-en-amon. This was Imhotep’s former love. The remains are brought to the museum of Cairo. Now, back in civilization we meet Helen Grosevnor (Zita Johann), a young socialite and patient of Dr. Muller. She unfortunately bears a striking resemblance to Ankh-es-en-amon. In the Cairo Museum, Imhotep is now reading from the scroll next to the remains of his love. As he completes the scroll, Helen, as if in a trance, leaves the party she is attending and makes a beeline for the museum. It is here that Frank and Sir Joseph find her right before she faints. Now, back in the home of Sir Joseph, Helen seems to be back to normal, and her striking beauty has garnered the attention of Frank. However as Imhotep creeps closer, her trance returns and she becomes infatuated with Imhotep when he arrives at the house. Imhotep will now stop at nothing to get Helen and finish the ritual that will return his former love to him, but can Frank, Sir Joseph, and Dr. Muller save her before it is too late?
The Mummy was original in several different ways when compared to the monster films that came beforehand. As mentioned in the opening, The Mummy really had no literary parent as Dracula and Frankenstein did. Instead, the idea for the film was inspired by the real life opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. This mixed with a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story entitled “The Ring of Thoth,” which helped give The Mummy the ground work for the script. The rest of the story was adapted from a short treatment by Richard Shayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam entitled “Cagliostro”. This treatment was actually about a 3,000 year old magician who used nitrates to keep himself alive. The magician also took vengeance on women who resembled his former love. John L. Balderston was hired to take all of these sources and write a script. Balderston, who helped adapt Dracula and Frankenstein for the stage, took the ideas presented and adjusted them. The magician became the Mummy and instead of nitrates his immortality and powers were supernatural. The biggest change was instead of a need for vengeance, Imhotep wanted to save his deceased love. All of this translated into the classic we now love.
Aside from the creation of the story, The Mummy is also unique in how it plays out. As opposed to the striking and horrifying visuals of the Frankenstein monster or Dracula feeding on someone, most of the scares are psychological. The pacing of the film is pretty slow, and relies more on the actual story for scares rather than the visuals, meaning that most of the violence is implied. For example, we hear a scream instead of actually seeing the action. In this regard the film succeeded in giving viewers the ability to imagine the horror going on in their own imagination. I personally found some of the plot confusing, feeling that a lot of the storyline was inferred instead of explained. This could have been because of the length of the film, but I feel it could have benefited from a tad more explanation instead of all the characters pretty much having prior knowledge about the Mummy and curses. Out of the original monster films, I found this to be the weakest. But please, before you jump down my throat even the 27 Yankees had to have a player who was not as spectacular as the others. One aspect that I really did enjoy was that underneath it all, this was actually a love story! And with the love story plot, we see Zita Johann being given probably the biggest and most important female role to date in a Universal monster flick. Karloff brings the scares, while Johann is really the driving force behind the film.
Karl Freund was tasked with directing The Mummy, marking his directorial debut in America. Freund was the cinematographer on Dracula, and brought his experience from that and his German influences with him. Visually the Mummy is pretty spectacular. Freund molded modern film by making techniques with his German expressionist silent film roots. There are long sequences without dialogue and others where we have dialogue over music. This provided a unique experience where the old meets the new. Freund’s eye for using bot light and dark created some of the most impressive effects of the film, especially when we focus on Imhotep’s face when he is chanting. The outcome is a chilling effect that the viewer cannot help being impressed with even now. This effect also lends itself to the feel of the film as nothing is overstated; the cinematography was simple, yet very effective. The film also seemed grand, with the huge visuals of Cairo and the pyramids giving the film a larger feel, even though it primarily took place in three or four sets. Freund helped establish an atmospheric, moody tone that helps the film succeed without the many usual visual “scares.” Jack Pierce added to the beauty with his breathtaking makeup. The Mummy awakening is an absolutely amazing scene and it is here where we can see not only the genius of Pierce but also the dedication of Karloff. During a grueling eight hour session, Pierce used cotton, collodion, gum, clay, and acid stained linens to create the makeup for that scene. The end result is jaw dropping as Karloff has a convincing “mummified” look. It was the combination of both Pierce and Freund that gave The Mummy its grand feel and amazing visuals.
Karloff again headed the cast and again flexed his skill, portraying Imhotep. Where you felt for him as the monster, you despised him as Imhotep. His presence is strong, and even though he is skinny and lanky, his face portrays real intimidation that brought the horror to the film. Zita Johann did a great job portraying Helen. She perfectly played the line between a strong, confident, and sexual female with someone who is being dragged into a fate against her will. She exudes personality and I feel that makes her the shining star amongst the female characters in the UMU thus far. David Manners as Frank does a solid job portraying the pursuer of Helen, however he does come off a bit creepy when he more or less tries to force himself onto her in a scene when they are in Sir Joseph’s study. Edward Van Sloan appears in his third UMU film and has fully embraced his typecast by this point. He once again does a very good job portraying the doctor character that has the information that helps fills in the film’s blanks. The Mummy features “Swan Lake” during the introduction (following in Dracula’s footsteps) and it again sets the mood perfectly.
Following in stride, The Mummy was another box office hit and a critic success. The original has no official “sequels,” however was remade several times throughout the 1940s. The Mummy once again became popular in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s with the British “Hammer films”. Again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Mummy was reinvigorated with the Brendan Fraser remake that strayed from the “horror” aspect and instead instituted a globetrotting adventure take on the characters. And of course, we cannot forget the most recent reincarnation starring Tom Cruise that will be hitting theaters next year. The bottom line is that The Mummy and its characters are not only beloved, but also constantly in high demand. The lesson we should take away is that you can’t keep The Mummy buried, and we are all the better for it!