Tag Archives: John Barrymore

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Halloween Double Feature): “Doctor X” (1932) and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933)

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“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

It’s doesn’t take a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient to figure out why the horror movie genre first flourished during the Great Depression. When the things that scare the hell out of the average person are life-changing events like losing one’s job or home or, in some extreme cases, life (due to starvation, illness, or suicide), it’s understandable why movie audiences would seek cathartic thrills in the frights provided by supernatural menaces they would never encounter in real life, such as vampires, werewolves, or man-made monsters.

It was Universal Pictures that virtually invented horror pictures with the one-two punch of Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (both 1931). However, as film historian Carlos Clerens stated in his seminal 1967 book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, “Warner Brothers loomed large as Universal’s most serious rival, at least in the first years of the vogue.” Warners’ first two horror pictures (also both 1931) were starring vehicles for the great John Barrymore,[1] Archie Mayo’s Svengali and Michael Curtiz’s The Mad Genius. (Svengali is an especially memorable film with one of Barrymore’s finest film performances.) Both of these pictures were definitely in the European Gothic mode established by Universal.

But for their next two horror movies, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, both directed by Curtiz), Warners decided to up the ante, photographing them in Technicolor, which then was still utilizing the original two-strip process (the first instances of using color cinematography for this genre). In addition, these next two efforts would be the first “modern” horror pictures, both set in contemporary New York City and, typical of Warners’ output of the period, reflecting the economic realities of the Depression. (The heroes in both movies, played by Lee Tracy in the former and Glenda Farrell in the latter, are newspaper reporters who are forced to risk their lives pursuing dangerous stories under threat of losing their jobs.)

The cynical wise-cracking newshound would eventually become one of the most oft-repeated clichés of the horror genre, but in these initial instances, the characters were unique and genuinely amusing, thanks mainly to the expert comedy chops of Tracy and Farrell, and the crackling dialogue provided by scenarists Earl Baldwin and Robert Tasker (Doctor X), and Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson (Wax Museum). Lee Tracy practically created the smart-ass reporter archetype when he played the role of Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway premiere of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s iconic newspaper comedy The Front Page. After that triumph, Tracy spent most of his career type-cast as reporters or publicity flacks or other similar fast-talking roles. A few months before Doctor X, Tracy had the best role of his Hollywood career as gossip columnist Alvin Roberts (the movies’ first, but by no means last, caricature of Walter Winchell) in Roy Del Ruth’s screamingly funny black comedy Blessed Event.

Before Wax Museum, Glenda Farrell’s most notable roles at Warners were in two dramatic classics directed by Mervyn LeRoy, in an atypical ingénue role in Little Caesar (1931) and in a much more typical role as the alcoholic floozy who blackmails Paul Muni into a loveless marriage in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). Mystery of the Wax Museum was the first movie that revealed Farrell’s considerable gifts as a comedienne and had a major influence on her subsequent film career as well as leading to her own ‘B’ mystery franchise as reporter Torchy Blane. (Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went on record as saying that Farrell’s performances in the Torchy Blane films were their inspiration for the character of Lois Lane.) Almost forty years later, the smart-assed, monster-hunting reporter archetype would come full circle in the person of burned-out, middle-aged but indefatigable scandal monger Carl Kolchak, thanks to writer Richard Matheson and actor Darren McGavin, in the hit 1971 made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker, which spawned a sequel and its own weekly series.

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In place of Barrymore, these next Warners horror flicks featured leading performances by two actors making their debuts in the genre they would be linked with for the rest of their lives, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Not surprisingly, Wray played the damsel-in-distress in both films, the type of role she would best remembered for, particularly in King Kong (1933). Atwill’s roles in the films under discussion were quite different. In Doctor X, he played the title part of Dr. Xavier, noted scientist and father of Wray’s character. Despite some sinister dialogue and camera angels, he was an obvious red herring designed to draw attention from the real villain of the piece. However, in Wax Museum, Atwill had the role of his career as the story’s demented fiend, wax sculptor Ivan Igor. As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, Ivan Igor was the type of villain role usually played by Boris Karloff, an initially completely sympathetic character “driven to madness and revenge by the greed and stupidity of others.”

Another notable contributor to both films was Anton Grot, the innovative set designer who was head of the Warner Brothers Studio Art Department from 1927 to 1948. Grot’s deliberately stylized sets influenced Warner’s visual style immensely. “I for one do not like extremely realistic sets,” Grot once said, “I am for simplicity and beauty and you can achieve that only be creating an impression.”[2] This approach dovetailed perfectly with Curtiz’s distinctive visual style which was formed from his days in Vienna in the mid-1920s, making films in the German Expressionist tradition of the period. (Curtiz used Grot extensively while they were both at Warners.) Cinematographer Ray Rennehan’s color photography in these two films also enhanced the surrealism of the visuals.

Just as Roland West’s 1930 thriller The Bat Whispers was filmed in two versions, widescreen and normal Academy ratio, Doctor X was likewise filmed twice, in Technicolor and black-and-white. The color version was shown only during opening engagements in major cities, whereas the black-and-white version was the one that most of the country saw. The suits at the Technicolor company weren’t happy with this approach, however, so Mystery of the Wax Museum was only filmed and released in Technicolor. (The use of color was so integral to the film that shooting an alternate version in black-and-white would’ve been pointless anyway.) Eventually, both films were forgotten by the general moviegoing public, replaced in popular memory by the slicker, more elaborate horror pictures that came later. (Wax Museum, of course, became completely overshadowed by its more profitable but inferior 3-D 1953 remake, Andre De Toth’s House of Wax, which became a cult favorite due mainly to Vincent Price’s performance in Atwill’s role.)

For decades, Mystery of the Wax Museum and the Technicolor version of Doctor X were considered irretrievably lost, with just the black-and-white version of Doctor X surviving. But, in 1970, a 35mm nitrate Technicolor print of Mystery of the Wax Museum was discovered in Jack Warner’s personal vault at Warner’s Burbank lot. As well documented by Everson, Wax Museum unfortunately received a rushed restoration job that botched the Technicolor hues and failed to retain the original vibrancy of the colors. (The result looked like a badly colorized version of a black-and-white movie.) After Warner’s death in 1978, a Technicolor print of Doctor X was found in his personal collection and received a far superior restoration job in 1986 by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, providing modern audiences with a better idea of what the movie originally looked like.

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In Doctor X, a serial killer, who strangles his victims, then cannibalizes their bodies, is stalking New York, but only during a full moon. (The recurring shots of a full moon glowing through the clouds against the background of an emerald green sky are among the film’s most memorable use of Technicolor.) In the opening scene, reporter Lee Taylor (Tracy) is prowling the city wharfs looking for news—any news—when he stumbles onto a possible scoop. He spots a couple of police officials escorting a renowned scientist into a waterfront morgue. He tries to get past the plainclothesman (Tom Dugan) guarding the door, but with little success.

Cop: “Only stiffs go in there tonight.”

Lee: “No kidding?”

Cop: “No kidding.”

Lee: “What’s keepin’ you out?”

Lee then heads for the nearest pay phone, which, this definitely being a pre-Code picture, is located in a nearby cathouse. After trading some banter with the resident madam (played by none other than Mae Busch, best remembered by Laurel & Hardy fans as various villainesses or the shrewish Mrs. Hardy), Lee calls into his paper’s night editor (Selmer Jackson).

Lee: “Give me the night desk, please… Yeah. Willard Keefe… Yeah, this is Lee Taylor. I’m down at the Mott Street Morgue. Just now they bring in the body of an old scrubwoman murdered under very peculiar circumstances… No, they won’t let me see it. I can’t get any dope. Police—” (ogling an attractive prostitute walking by) “Very good.” (back into phone) “I say very—what? I say I can’t get any dope on it. Police orders. Just now, Stevens, O’Halloran, and a guy named Dr. Xavier arrived. Something’s doing.”

Keefe: “Yeah, I’ve heard that one, too.”

Lee: “Listen, you lunkhead, I’m not clowning. Look out the window, will you?”

Keefe:  “What do you mean, the moon?”

Lee:  “Certainly, I mean the moon. I’m laying 10 bucks to a dime it’s another Moon Killer murder.”

Keefe: “Well, that’s different. Now, listen, Lee, stick right on it.”

Lee: “Fine.”

By impersonating a corpse under a sheet, Lee’s able to learn that the evidence points to the killer being someone associated with Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research, the prime suspects being one of four scientists: Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), an expert on cannibalism whose lower left arm has been replaced by a cosmetic prosthetic; Dr. Haines (John Wray, no relation to Fay), who was once suspected of cannibalism when he and two other scientists were cast adrift for several weeks in a lifeboat and one of the men disappeared before their rescue; Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), an expect on lunar studies researching the effects of moonlight on peoples’ psychology; and Dr. Duke (Harry Baresford), a paraplegic dependent on wheelchair and crutches who was the other surviving scientist in the lifeboat incident. (Even from just these brief descriptions, any dedicated fans of mystery fiction should’ve already figured out who the guilty party is!)

Annex - Wray, Fay (Doctor X)_01S Lee Tracy, Fay Wray

Xavier is granted 48 hours by the police to conduct his own investigation before they give the story to the newspapers, a promise that becomes moot after Lee exposes the deal. Then Lee scams his way past the maid into Xavier’s home where he “meets cute” with Joanne Xavier (Wray) when she catches him red-handed swiping photos of her and her father. Needless to say, Lee’s immediately smitten and makes some clumsy attempts at flirting with Joanne. For the rest of the picture, they carry on the type of light semi-affectionate sparring that would become so prevalent in the screwball comedy genre established just a couple of years later.

Lee: “Are you going swimming with me in the morning?”

Joanne: “No, thanks. Good night.”

Lee: “What will you do if I start to sink and yell for help?”

Joanne: “Throw you an anvil. Good night.”

docteur-x-1932-01-g Harry Beresford, John Wray, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Lionel Atwill

Running at just 76 minutes, Doctor X is divided into a traditional three-act structure. Act One, the first half-hour, takes place entirely in New York City. Act Two, the second half-hour, moves the action to a remote mansion located at Long Island’s Blackstone Shoals, where Xavier hopes to continue his personal investigation. (In what would become another oft-repeated horror film cliché, this sinister old mansion resides on a cliff overlooking the ocean.) Per theatrical tradition, Act Two concludes with another murder. Finally, in Act Three, the last two-reels, the movie kicks into high gear, particularly when, in the picture’s most justly celebrated sequence, the villain transforms himself into a monster with the aid of electricity and a creepily ghoulish invention he calls “synthetic flesh.”

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Providing a plot synopsis for Mystery of the Wax Museum is practically superfluous since most film enthusiasts have already seen House of Wax. Indeed, several scenes from the original were faithfully duplicated in the remake, including the opening scene (the sculptor’s museum being destroyed in a fire started by his corrupt business partner to cash in on the insurance [3]); the theft of a young woman’s corpse from the city morgue (both versions featuring the morgue attendant’s sexist wisecrack about a dead female body moving and moaning under the influence of embalming fluid, “Ain’t that just like a woman, always has to have the last word?”); the grand reopening of the wax museum in New York; the female ingénue beating on the sculptor’s face in self-defense, revealing a horribly mutilated face hiding underneath a wax mask; the cops grilling a suspect who’s a strung-out addict (heroin in pre-Code Wax Museum, alcohol in post-Code House of Wax) until he cracks and reveals that the sculptor, whose hands were injured in the fire, has been repopulating his museum with corpses encased in wax; and the grand finale in which the sculptor tries to turn the ingénue into a recreation of his masterpiece, Marie Antoinette, by strapping her to a gurney and showering her with molten wax. (House of Wax’s sole improvement over the original was David Buttolph’s effectively frightening background music.)

mystery-of-the-wax-museum-production-still_2-1933 Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray

There are some major differences between the two versions, however. The original had a contemporary setting, while the remake was done as a period piece in the 1890s (in keeping with Hollywood’s tiresomely obsessive nostalgia for “the Gay Nineties” that began during World War II). The prologue takes place in London in the earlier version, and is set in Baltimore in the later one. But the biggest difference between the two is the emphasis on humor in Wax Museum, provided mostly by Glenda Farrell’s reporter Florence (no surname)[4] and her cynical editor Jim (Frank McHugh). (There are no characters equivalent to Florence and Jim in House of Wax and the only thing resembling humor in the film is the guy with the paddleballs.) Many of the dialogue exchanges between Farrell and McHugh anticipate the similar verbal skirmishes between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), such as this one after Florence notices that the new wax museum’s Joan of Arc statue looks suspiciously like the suicidal young socialite whose body was stolen from the morgue.

Florence: “I am right! I know I’m right!”

Jim: “Well, no one would ever suspect it. You don’t sound right.”

Florence: “Listen, Jim—and if you wisecrack while I’m talking, I’ll crown you with the inkwell.”

Jim: ”All right, wise guy. Go ahead. Spill it.”

Florence:  “Jim, there’s a little hokey-pokey wax museum opening up down on 14th Street.”

Jim: (sarcastically) “Now don’t that call for an extra?”

Florence: “I asked you to keep your trap shut!”

Jim: “Well, you can’t blame a guy for getting a little breathless with a scoop like that.”

Florence: “All right, you poor baboon, you can guess the rest of it!”

Jim: “No kiddin’? What’s your idea?”

Florence: “Just this, I got a look at that dump a little while ago and if they haven’t got a wax figure of Joan Gale in that line-up, then I’m crazy.”

Jim: “We’ll grant that.”

Florence: “What?”

Jim: “About the Gale girl, I mean. Where do we go from there? What of it?”

Florence: “Listen, Jo-Jo, does this mean anything to you? Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue! Did you ever hear of such a thing as a death mask?”

Jim: “I used to be married to one.”

Florence: “And it came to life and divorced you. I know all about that. Now my idea is this, somebody swipes the girl’s body, takes an impression, makes a mold, produces a wax figure, and—bingo—peddles it to this old skate down there!”

Jim: “Work that up into a comic strip and we’ll syndicate it.”

Florence: “You go to hel—“

Jim: “What?”

Florence: “Let it go.”

Jim: “Come down to earth. Do you think they would dare do anything like that? Don’t you think they’d know that figure would be recognized? Shake your head real hard, you’ll be all right.”

Florence: “All right, master mind, but there’s something cockeyed about that joint and I’m going to find out what it is.”

mystery-of-the-wax-museum-production-photo_6-19331Glenda Farrell on the set

Mystery of the Wax Museum was arguably the first feminist horror picture. Long before Joss Whedon created that vampire-slaying blonde Buffy, Florence proved to be tougher and superior to any of her male counterparts, completely outwitting the police, exposing the villain’s plot, and rescuing her friend Charlotte Duncan (Wray) from a fate worse than death. (In the remake, the savior was more traditionally a man, a police inspector played by Frank Lovejoy, although, in both versions, it was a male cop’s haymaker that sends the villain plunging into his own vat of bubbling wax.) Florence’s toughness and independence is beautifully accented by Farrell’s comic timing and caustic delivery. (When the playboy Florence is dating wants to chicken out of assisting with her investigation, she responds with, “All right, brother, then you can go to some nice warm place and I don’t mean California!”)

WM-004Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Lionel Atwill

The story was remade yet again under the title House of Wax in 2005 (with a dimbulb cast that included Paris Hilton). This time around it was a trashy piece of teenage torture porn so ineptly made that it single-handedly killed off the Dark Castle Productions series that had proven to be a successful annual Halloween attraction for Warner Brothers in the previous four years. Far more enjoyable than either remake was Hy Averback’s Chamber of Horrors (1966), an intended television pilot that was released theatrically instead, in which the House of Wax was reimagined as the headquarters for a trio of amateur criminologists (Cesare Danova, Wilfred Hyde-White, and Tun Tun) in turn of the century Baltimore. The villain in this picture was a demented blueblood (Patrick O’Neal in a creepy, underplayed performance) whose severed right hand had been replaced by an all-purpose prosthetic equipped for such instruments of torture as a hook, scalpel, and meat cleaver. Interestingly, Doctor X was never remade. And, no, despite its title, Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Doctor X (1939) is in no way, shape, or form a sequel. That movie’s sole claim to fame was Humphrey Bogart’s only performance in a horror movie as a resurrected scientist who requires the blood of others to sustain his undead existence. (Bogart, who hated the picture, later quipped that, if only he’d been draining Jack Warner’s blood, he would’ve found the experience more rewarding.)

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Mystery of the Wax Museum is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray as an extra for the 1953 version of House of Wax. Doctor X has been released only on DVD as a double-feature with The Return of Doctor X in Warner Home Video’s Legends of Horror set. And both films often turn up on Turner Classic Movies, especially around Halloween.


[1] It’s not inconceivable that the thought of becoming Warners’ answer to Lugosi and Karloff played a major role in John Barrymore’s decision to take his brother Lionel’s advice and jump ship for MGM.

[2] Introduction to Film Studies, Jill Nelmes, editor, Routledge, 2012.

[3] In the remake, the partner was rather blandly played by Roy Roberts, while, in the original, the role was played by one of Hollywood’s most wonderfully malignant heavies, Edwin Maxwell. Significantly, Roberts got killed off early in the proceedings, whereas Maxwell remained a major supporting character throughout the rest of the picture.

[4] For years now, way too many film historians who should know better have repeated the IMDB’s mistake of listing Dempsey as Florence’s last name, a characteristic IMDB gaffe obviously posted by some humor-impaired film nerd unable to grasp the concept of sarcasm when a cop responds to Florence deliberately slapping him hard on the back by calling her “Mrs. Dempsey” (you know, referring to the boxing champ), even though it’s well-established that Florence is single and is roommates with Charlotte.

Jekyll Hyde Barrymore

Savant Blu-ray Review: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920)

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One can’t get closer to the roots of modern horror than Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Predating modern psychology, Stevenson’s notion of a personality split along moral lines played well in Victorian times, as it rationalized the need for society to repress man’s baser nature. Freed from moral restraints, the benign Dr. Jekyll becomes a soulless hedonist. He defiles women, tramples children and murders men without guilt. The ‘innocent’ Jekyll cannot control his alter ego, who eventually takes over.

The book was almost immediately adapted as a London play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, who added a love interest and hyped Jekyll’s big transformation scene into a shocking showstopper. The popular stage star Richard Mansfield made Jekyll his signature role. Perhaps it was partially a publicity stunt, but Mansfield’s notoriety resulted in his being interviewed about the Jack the Ripper murders. A hundred years later, Armand Assante played Mansfield performing Jekyll & Hyde on stage in a TV movie, Jack the Ripper. Mansfield is seen using special makeup effects to pull off his transformation scenes.

The flashy role was a magnet for flamboyant actors. Eight films on the subject had already been produced when actor John Barrymore, “The Great Profile”, starred in the extremely popular 1920 Adolf Zukor version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Directed by John S. Robertson, this version is based on the Sullivan storyline. Barrymore’s performance retains the theatrical excesses that seem dated today, yet are still quite impressive. Using heavy makeup to give his hands a spidery appearance, Barrymore twists and stretches his face into a series of nasty smiles, glaring wide-eyed (even cross-eyed) at the camera. Additional makeup is added across camera cuts, until Barrymore’s Hyde is a hunched, straggle-haired fiend, with a horrid, half bald pointed head.

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Taken with a proper appreciation of the film’s age, Barrymore’s interpretation is startling and disturbing. The dull Jekyll tends to stare with a vacant, noble look on his face, while Hyde is a repulsive embodiment of evil. Modern impressions of the film have been affected by many parody versions, and the use of film clips out of context for comic purposes. One of the actor’s expressions, with his face stretched out and his eyes staring downward, pops up from time to time in the rubber-face schtick of popular comedians: Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, even Dick Van Dyke.

The story is the same as the more familiar later versions by Paramount and MGM, minus Rouben Mamoulian’s Pre-code sexuality and the bizarre Salvador Dali dream sequences in Victor Fleming’s tame remake. The conventional Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane) warns Jekyll against pursuing “the wrong kind of science.” As in the book, attorney Utterson (J. Malcolm Dunn) drafts the document in which Jekyll bequeaths all of his worldly belongings to Hyde. In the film, Utterson serves double duty as a rival for the attentions of Millicent, Jekyll’s chaste sweetheart. Millicent’s hypocritical father Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst) goads Jekyll into sampling the seedy Soho nightlife, advising the innocent young doctor to sow his wild oats while he may. Carewe chats up a female guest at his own party, telling her that she “is Paradise for the eyes but Hell for the soul.” In the original novella Carewe is a Member of Parliament, has no daughter and is one of Hyde’s more mysterious victims.

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One story point neglected by all the screen versions is the question of what becomes of Dr. Jekyll’s benevolent charity ward. Even before the trouble starts, Jekyll is too busy with his research and his clinic work to properly woo Millicent. As in the other versions, it looks as if the ‘indispensible’ Jekyll leaves the poor children in his clinic to rot. Another basic inconsistency is the idea that the Dr. Jekyll character is inexperienced in sexual matters. In Victorian London, a doctor working in a clinic for poor people would soon know everything there is to know about human behavior, of all kinds.

Some of the supporting characters make strong impressions. Hyde’s elderly, cackling landlady is well played by an unbilled, toothless actress. Pug-faced Louis Wolheim (All Quiet on the Western Front) runs the low-class music hall, where performs the seductive dancer Gina. Jekyll is clearly aroused by her embrace. He turns away and excuses himself, but the flame has been lit. A title clarifies things: “For the first time in his life Jekyll had wakened to a sense of his baser nature.”

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The Dancer Gina is played by the legendary Nita Naldi, in her first film role. She’d very shortly become silent cinema’s “female Valentino” in Blood and Sand. Although Naldi wears a daringly low-cut costume, her character isn’t given equal time or billing with the “good” Millicent Carewe. Gina’s relationship with the domineering Hyde is barely suggested: we see no more than the frightened look on her face when they’re introduced. Later on comes a scene meant to depict the rock bottom of Hyde’s vices. He finds Gina in a low dive, compares her to another prostitute in a mirror, and then rejects both for a younger moll brought to him in the opium parlor next door. For 1920 it’s a fairly depraved set-up: while Hyde manhandles the women at the bar, a drug addict nearby hallucinates ants crawling over his body.

Eventually Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde begin to happen spontaneously, even against his will. One of them is handled with a simple, effective dissolve. The most weird by far employs a surreal effect: pure “evil” is manifested as a ghostly spider creature, which climbs onto Jekyll’s bed and merges with this body. The hairy abomination is genuinely disturbing.

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As with other stories about evil doppelgängers, Dr. Jekyll moves a mirror into his lab to assure himself that no Hyde characteristics peek through his mild-mannered normal form. He leads a double life and spends all of his energy hiding his ugly secret from his friends and Millicent. Although all believe Jekyll to be a saint, he is of course highly corruptible, and therefore not really an inverted image of Hyde. The morally delinquent Jekyll even says that his intention is to evade responsibility for his actions: “I propose to do it … to yield to every impulse but leave the soul untouched.” After the final act’s savage murder the guilty Jekyll cannot face being unmasked. As might be expected, Millicent has been kept in the dark about everything. When Lanyon and Utterson witness a transformation with their own eyes, they lie to Millicent for her own good. The last impression is of the handsome John Barrymore, lying still — in facial profile, of course.


The Kino Lorber Classics Deluxe Blu-ray of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a good new transfer and encoding of this 97 year-old gem, billed as the first serious American horror film. The primary source is a 35mm negative with a great many fine scratches, digs and minor damage built-in. The image is reasonably sharp and stable, but no digital cleanup appears to have been applied. We’re told that five minutes of missing footage have been incorporated back into the film. We see some introductory shots in the Carewe household that appear to come from another source, as well as an interesting flashback to the time of the Borgias, to explain how poison is hidden in a special ring. It is difficult to know exactly which scenes are new, if any. Kino’s previous (2004) DVD release carries the same extras. It has a shorter running time, but this 79-minute version may be longer by virtue of a more accurate, slower frame rate. However, it has been noted online that Kino’s edition may not be as complete as David Shepard’s edition, and specifically is missing footage after the intertitle introducing Brandon Hurst as Sir George Carew. The entire show is given color tinting in keeping with original prints.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra performs a full score compiled by Rodney Sauer. The music fits the show nicely, working up to some impressive melodramatic climaxes.

As the style of inter-titles changes more than once during the presentation, it’s a sure bet that multiple sources were used to reassemble the movie. Archivist David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates is credited with the first extra, the 1912 James Cruze one-reel version of the story. Considering its brevity, it is very well made: in his Hyde makeup, future director Cruze looks like a crazed ghoul, with vampire-like fangs. In 1920 at least two copycat productions followed Barrymore’s film. F.W. Murnau’s German Der Januskopf starred Conrad Veidt, and is still considered lost. But Kino offers a 15-minute excerpt from Louis B. Mayer’s version, starring Sheldon Lewis. It’s a polished show in its own right.

“The Transformation” is an audio excerpt from 1909 that appears to be a recording of a stage act. Actor Len Spencer quotes passages from Robert Louis Stevenson as part of his dramatic buildup.

The final treat is a Stan Laurel farce from 1925 called Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride. Laurel’s spoof of Barrymore’s Hyde is very funny; he transforms while his gum-chewing girlfriend looks on, suitably unimpressed. Running loose in the streets, the mirthful “Mr. Pride” pulls off a series of infantile pranks.

Looking into the histories of the cast members, we find that more than a few were personal colleagues of the star. Barrymore apparently encouraged Louis Wolheim to become an actor, telling him that his face was made for the stage. But the story of beautiful Martha Mansfield is a forgotten chapter of silent movie horror. Three years later on the set of The Warrens of Virginia, the actress’s dress caught on fire. Mansfield was so badly burned that she died the next day. She was 24 years old.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Blu-ray rates:

Movie: Excellent

Video: Good

Sound: Excellent

Supplements: two other silent film interpretations of the story (see above), audio record “The Transformation”, Stan Laurel spoof short subject from 1925.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English

Packaging: Keep case

Kino Lorber Classics

1920 / B&W with tints / 1:33 flat Silent Aperture / 73 min. / Street Date January 28, 2014 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.95

Starring John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst, Charles Lane, Nita Naldi, Louis Wolheim, J. Malcolm Dunn, George Stevens.

Cinematography Roy Overbaugh

Art Director Clark Robinson

Written by Clara Beranger from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson

Produced by Adolph Zukor

Directed by John S. Robertson
Reviewed: January 10, 2014

 

 

DVD Savant Text Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson
 

Hopper 3

Anyone for Dennis

Success in Hollywood came remarkably easy for Dennis Hopper — but vanished just as quickly. It began on the day the teenage actor auditioned for the role of an epileptic in a television series called Medic. After a little small talk, he suddenly fell to the floor in a seizure. The casting director was reaching for the phone to call an ambulance when the 18-year-old jumped up and smiled broadly. The 32 other actors waiting in the corridor were sent home. Hopper had the role.

His screen performance — his body becomes rigid, he falls down and he even foams at the mouth — may not be authentic, but it reminded his grandmother of the day when as a little boy he discovered the intoxicating effects of mood-altering substances.

Hopper was born in 1936 in the Kansas dust bowl. His father went off to war — Hopper was told he was dead — and until he was 10 he spent most of his time on his grandparents’ small farm. There were “wheat fields all around, as far as you could see. No neighbors, no other kids.”

His grandfather owned an old tractor with a gas tank at the front where the radiator is usually found. The boy’s curiosity led him to remove the cap and sniff. Breathing more deeply, he reeled from the petrol fumes. But he enjoyed it.

Nearly every day, he stretched out on the hood of the tractor, inhaled and lay on his back. The sky became animated; the clouds changed into clowns and goblins. One afternoon he overdid it. The tractor’s grille and lights turned into the face of a terrifying monster attacking him. His grandfather pulled him away as he smashed at it with his baseball bat. The boy was so high he wasn’t even aware of what he was doing until his grandparents explained it to him afterwards.

It set the scene for a turbulent life. Four decades later, after a chaotic acting career disrupted by too many rages and bad trips, Hopper was in a rehabilitation clinic, where a counselor wrote that “no character he had ever portrayed on screen, including the frenetic photographer in Apocalypse Now, came close to projecting the dazed, lunatic quality” of the man himself. Hopper once said he became an actor “because I hate my parents . . . I hated my home life, the rules.”

His father was “a hard, totally secret man with no words,” whose “death” had been a ruse to cover secret work with the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) in China. His reappearance after the war confounded the boy. “Now wouldn’t that make you a paranoiac?” Hopper later said.

He claimed that his mother had been a swimming champion, whose Olympic ambitions collapsed when she became pregnant with him at 17. She took out her resentments on him. “She was wild, very emotional, a screamer and a yeller,” he said. “My mother had an incredible body, and I had a sexual fascination for her.”

His gateway to Hollywood was the southern California city of San Diego, to which the family moved when he was 13. At school he was the class clown, but he took acting lessons (to his mother’s horror). He tried to escape his parents’ disapproval by running away.

“I was a crazy kid, mixed up with a wild bunch — delinquents, I guess — but I got away from that in acting. I was into the general gang stuff. Petty theft and a lot of misdemeanors.”

Stage work at the La Jolla Playhouse brought contact with Hollywood stars like Vincent Price, an art collector who introduced Hopper to the new Abstract Expressionist painters.

Hopper’s role in Medic led to a rancorous audition with “King” Harry Cohn, the infamously coarse boss of Columbia Pictures.

Hopper claimed to have told the mogul to “go fuck” himself for criticizing Shakespeare.

Hopper 1

But he promptly landed work in 1955 with Hollywood’s hottest new actors, James Dean and Natalie Wood, on a film that became a cultural icon, Rebel without a Cause. Both stars changed Hopper’s life. Dean dazzled him. Wood drew him into a world of debauchery (with painful consequences for her when she tried to start an orgy in a bath of champagne).

Wood’s parents, Nick and Maria Gurdin, were Russian émigrés. He was an alcoholic carpenter.

Maria yearned for wealth and fame — and found it when a film crew visited their home town in northern California. She pushed four-year-old Natalie onto director Irving Pichel’s lap. She charmed him by singing a Russian folk song and was rewarded with a brief walk-on role — prompting Maria to move the family to Hollywood, where she maneuvered her daughter into her first speaking role and a career as a child actress.

By the time Rebel Without a Cause was on the horizon, Wood was 16 — too mature to play children, yet too young to play leading roles against older male stars. Her home life was tough. Her father periodically erupted in drunken rages and chased his wife around the house with a butcher knife. Her mother banned anything that threatened her earning power as an actress — including relationships with boys her own age.

“I was a rather dutiful child,” Wood said later in life, “and when my parents read the script of Rebel, they said, ‘Oh no, not this one,’ because it showed parents in a rather unsympathetic light, and yet I read it, and for the first time in my life I said, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I have to do this!’” She identified with Judy, one of the teenagers from dysfunctional families around whom the film revolves.

Rebel’s director, Nicholas Ray, then 43, was a bisexual, misogynistic womanizer addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling. Wood showed up at his office looking how she thought a sexy, mature woman should look. Heavily made up, wearing the slinkiest dress she could find and perched on high heels, she threw herself at him.

It did little to change his impressions of her as a child actress, but she ended up in his bed at the Chateau Marmont hotel on the Sunset Strip. Ray had a poolside bungalow where he enjoyed afternoon trysts with pliable young actresses, most notably Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, another candidate for the role of Judy.

He agreed to give Wood a screen test with Hopper. It took place on a rainy evening and “by the time we were finished, Natalie and I both felt like wet, unhappy animals,” he recalled.

Next day the phone rang in his apartment. A young girl’s voice said, “This is Natalie Wood. I tested with you the other night on Rebel. Remember? It was raining?”

Hopper barely remembered the skinny little girl “because I tested with about 10 women that day. But she was really funny. She told me I was great looking, and she really liked me, and she wanted to have sex with me . . .

“In the Fifties to be aggressive like that as a woman was really amazing. It was an amazing turn-on to me, for one thing. But it was certainly contrary to any kind of movement, or idea, at the time.”

Hopper picked Wood up at Ray’s hotel, where she had spent the afternoon with the director, and drove up to a lover’s lane to make out. He was about to go down on Natalie when she exclaimed, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Hopper said, “Why?” She said, “Because Nick just fucked me.”

Hopper 2

“I thought it was weird, okay?” Hopper recalled. “At the time I was 18 years old! I thought it was strange, I thought it was weird of her to be doing it . . . he was having an affair with a minor. It was illegal for me, too, but at least I was only a couple of years older.”

Wood became Hopper’s Hollywood tour guide, tooling around town in her pink Ford Thunderbird with him and Rebel cast member Nick Adams. They placed their hands and shoes in the imprints of the screen immortals at the entrance to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Hopper became her surrogate for James Dean, who hadn’t responded to her interest. The two young men looked similar and were both dedicated to the Method school of acting.

Wood and Hopper alternated between a search for seriousness and frivolity. Hopper said they watched foreign films, “trying to find another way of, like, working. We were very ambitious to change things.” But they also thought of themselves as the logical successors to the great names of show business and began emulating what Hopper called “wild, crazed Hollywood icons.”

Hopper said: “It was almost as if we were naive to the point: ‘If people did drugs and alcohol and were nymphomaniacs, then that must be the way to creativity, and creativity’s where we wanna be. We wanna be the best.’ She [Wood] always wanted to be the best.

“We were always envious of the generations before us,” he continued. “In the Fifties, when me and Natalie and Dean suddenly arrived, we all sort of felt like an earlier group of people who thumbed their noses at Hollywood tradition, people like John Barrymore and Errol Flynn, both of whom died as alcoholics.

“It seemed a romantic, a colorful way to go. I mean, we heard of the orgies that John Garfield used to have, the Hollywood roulette. It seemed wilder. So we tried to emulate that lifestyle. In a strange way we were trying to emulate some sort of past glory.”

Hopper and Nick Adams rented a house in the Hollywood Hills, where, with Wood, they tried to be wilder than their notorious predecessors. “For instance,” Hopper said, “once Natalie and I decided we’d have an orgy.”

Among the guests was Hopper’s high school friend Bob Turnbull, who recalled: “It was kind of a big event. She just wanted all kinds of guys doin’ her.”

Wood wanted a champagne bath, Hopper said, because, “I think she had heard that Jean Harlow or somebody had had a champagne bath. So Nick and I went and got all this champagne, and we filled the bathtub full of champagne, and we said, ‘Okay, Natalie, we’re ready for the orgy.’ Natalie takes off her clothes, sits down in the champagne, starts screaming.”

Why did she scream? “Well,” Hopper said, “because it burned her pussy. Set her on fucking fire, you know.” Hopper and the others raced the agonized Wood to the nearest emergency room, where she was treated for a “very expensive burn.”

“Of course, she had other times, too, when Dennis, Nick and I would be enjoying her company as well,” Turnbull said. “She was just a wild and crazy gal. She was just very friendly but oversexed. She was a very classy girl. She just had a whole different outlook on the morality of one’s life. She was a nice person, very polite, just a very free-flowing spirit.”

There was sexual jealousy between Hopper and Rebel’s director. Hopper told Steffi Sidney, another friend, that he went looking for Wood at Ray’s bungalow one evening and caught them having sex. “He told me about being in love with Natalie and what he was going to do, because Nick hated him,” Sidney said.

Hopper said he visited the Chateau Marmont with a gun to confront Ray, who, fortunately, wasn’t at home that night.

The anger extended to the film set: Ray tried to fire him and removed much of the dialogue from his part, a gang member called Goon. But it was on set that Rebel had its lasting effect on Hopper, as a result of his watching Dean at work. “I thought,” Hopper said, “I was the best actor in the world — I mean the best young actor. Until I saw James Dean. He fascinated me. Dean completely disregarded any direction in the script. He would do a scene differently every time. It came straight out of his imagination, his improvisation.”

Hopper tried to talk to him about his technique, but Dean preferred to stay in his dressing room, smoking marijuana and playing classical music. “I tried to get to know him. I started by saying, ‘Hello.’ No answer.”

Hopper said he finally got Dean’s attention by throwing him into the back seat of one of the cars used in the “chickie run” scene. Hopper enjoyed a student-teacher relationship with Dean, sharing peyote and marijuana. “He started watching my takes,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t even know he was there. He’d come up and mumble, ‘Why don’t you try it this way?’ And he was always right.”

The 24-year-old Dean was killed when he crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder on September 30, 1955, a month before Rebel was released. It is difficult to overstate the impact of his death on Hopper, who once spoke about him as if he were the love of his life: “I was with him almost every day for the last eight months of his life and then he died. I was haunted by the death of Dean, which had been the greatest emotional shock of my young life. He taught me so much. When he died, I felt cheated. I had dreams tied up in him, and suddenly that was shattered. The alcohol and drugs brought me temporary escape. That was the first major thing that really affected me . . . My life was confused and disoriented for years.”

Dean’s immediate legacy was a delusion that Hopper could wield the same power on set as his idol had done. To Hopper, it appeared that Dean dominated Nick Ray and called the creative shots on Rebel. Hopper, however, was not in Dean’s league.

In 1957, he engaged in an epic battle with veteran director Henry Hathaway while filming From Hell to Texas. Following in Dean’s footsteps, Hopper refused to do things the director’s way. Hathaway finally broke his will when they spent all day shooting 87 takes of a 10-line scene. Hopper was effectively banished from Hollywood studio films.

Hopper married Brooke Hayward and worked sporadically in episodic television and low-budget films. He channeled his creative energy into photography and collecting Pop Art. He directed second unit footage of Peter Fonda on The Trip and the two collaborated on Easy Rider, which became the surprise hit of 1969.

Hopper, regarded by the Hollywood establishment as “a maniac and an idiot and a fool and a drunkard” before Easy Rider, suddenly became their hot ticket to the youth market. He had creative carte blanche to direct his next film, The Last Movie. He later recalled that making The Last Movie, a disastrous project filmed in Peru in 1970, was one long sex-and-drugs orgy.

“Wherever you looked,” he said, “there were naked people out of their minds. There was a mountain of coke down there, and we went through it all. But I wouldn’t say it got in the way of the movie. I’d say it helped us get the movie done. We might have been drug addicts, but we were drug addicts with a point of view and a work ethic. It was all about the movie. If we were going to take coke and fuck beautiful women, we’d do it on camera. The drugs and the drink and the insane sex, they all fueled our creativity. At least, that’s my excuse. If you’re gonna be that debauched, it’s better to have a good reason.”

Hopper spent over a year partying with a hippie entourage while editing The Last Movie at his new home in Taos, New Mexico. He married singer Michelle Phillips on Halloween in 1970. She ran away from him days later, accusing him of handcuffing her, calling her a witch, and firing guns inside his house. The Last Movie, an incoherent, pretentious mess, alienated audiences and critics and bombed, taking Hopper’s career with it.

Hopper exiled himself to Taos, working occasionally outside the U. S. in films like Mad Dog Morgan, The American Friend, and Apocalypse Now.

The nadir came in 1982.

“I was doing half a gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine a day — and that wasn’t getting high, that was just to keep going, man,” he said. “It was like a nightmare roller-coaster paranoid schizophrenic journey that was totally crazy.”

Delusional, and convinced that the mob put out a contract on his life, Hopper performed an old rodeo stunt called the Russian Suicide Death Chair at a speedway in Houston to promote a retrospective of his art at Rice University. He sat on a chair wired with dynamite sticks and lit the fuse. He emerged from the explosion miraculously unscathed.

A German producer wanted Hopper for a film about a group of models captured by a South American drug lord. The money was more than he’d ever been offered. So he headed down to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where it was going to be made. The job became Hopper’s entry to madness.

“What happened was my manager had called and said ‘don’t give him any booze,’ so I couldn’t get a drink and I started having hallucinations,” he said. The three complimentary shots of tequila left for him in his hotel room sent Hopper over the edge. He later said they were spiked with LSD.

“I became convinced that there were people in the bowels of this place who were being tortured and cremated,” he recalled. “The people had come to save me, and they were being killed and tortured, and it was my fault.”

He escaped into the warm Mexican night but the hallucinations kept coming. He masturbated to a tree and thought he was creating a galaxy. Insects and snakes broke through his skin. He tore off his clothes and walked into the countryside. He saw mysterious lights and thought they were alien spaceships.

As dawn broke, Hopper wandered naked back to town, hurling rocks at oncoming cars. “When the police tried to get me dressed, I refused,” he said. “I said, ‘No, kill me like this! I want to die naked.’”

Some of the film crew managed to get him on a flight back to Los Angeles. “On the plane I was hallucinating, and I crawled out on the wing in midair,” he recalled. “I decided that Francis Ford Coppola was on the plane, filming me. I had seen him, I had seen the cameras, so I knew that they were there. The crew started the wing on fire, so I crawled out on it, knowing that they were filming me. I was out there, and a bunch of stuntmen grabbed me and pulled me in.”

Hopper woke up in a straightjacket in a psychiatric ward, surrounded by celebrities in straightjackets who were screaming. “I better stop drinking,” he told himself. An antipsychotic drug gave him the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It took him agonizing minutes to get food or a cigarette into his mouth.

He forswore alcohol but secretly continued using large amounts of cocaine — “half an ounce every two days, 2 days, three days at the most” — and then went totally crazy: “It’s really amazing when the telephone wires start talking to you.”

Hopper 3

Hopper finally questioned his behavior. “I had built in such a strong endorsement for drinking and using drugs, because, after all, I was an artist, and it was okay for artists to do that,” he said. “The reality was that I was just a drunk and a drug addict. It wasn’t helping me create. In fact, it hindered me. It stopped me getting jobs. I dealt with the rejection by taking more drink and drugs. All alcohol and drugs got me was a lot of misery.”

A year after Hopper sobered up, David Lynch, a master of the grotesque with a gift for infusing banal situations with the dread of imminent horror, cast him as gas-huffing psychotic drug dealer Frank Booth in his new film, Blue Velvet, without even meeting the actor.

Hopper called Lynch to assure him that he understood the role. “I am Frank,” he told Lynch, which gave the director some pause. Hopper viewed the film as a love story, explaining: “I understood his [Booth’s] sexual obsession. But I saw him as a man who would go to any lengths to keep his lady.”

His inimitable performance became his signature role, eclipsing everything he had done before. It would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. Though he worked constantly afterwards, he became trapped playing endless variations of Frank Booth for the rest of his life.

Before his death at 74 from prostate cancer, he summed up: “Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of, and yet they’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.”

© Peter L Winkler 2014 Excerpted from Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, published by Barricade Books. Available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle e-book, and audiobook editions from Amazon.com. Be sure to visit Peter’s website: dennishopperbook.com

 

Lee Marvin Point Blank

Lee Marvin – Point Blank: “These Horrible, Animal Men”

An abridged book excerpt of Lee Marvin: Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein

Lee Marvin Point Blank

As a civilian, mustered out from the Philadelphia Marine Barracks on July 24, 1945, Lee Marvin could not shake off the intense mixed feelings he was experiencing: anger, frustration and worst of all, survivor guilt as the war stubbornly wore on. On the bus ride back to his parents’ Manhattan apartment an old woman angrily tapped his shoulder with a cane and asked why such a healthy looking young man was not in the military fighting for God and country. Acting on reflex, Marvin turned and barked at her that he was physically unfit. Years later he told a reporter, “I won’t repeat exactly what I said to her. Hell, I wanted to drop my trousers and show her exactly what I did for a legitimate 4-F classification!”

Lee’s celebratory homecoming was short-lived, at least as far as his family was concerned. His mother, Courtenay, was extremely glad her son was home safe and sound, but his war experiences made it extremely difficult to talk to him. She wrote in a letter to Robert, “Your brother is quite a man…. I hear many strange and some horrible stories about his adventures, and at first it took a strong stomach to sit quietly and listen.” As for Monte, Lee quickly discovered his father was finding the adjustment to civilian life even more difficult than he was. If Lee was damaged by the war, he said of Monte years later, “It ruined him. He came home from that half dead, totally broken. He was never the same.” During the war, First Sergeant Monte Marvin received a military citation from the British Government. However, as a civilian, he was unable to find gainful employment.

Marvin - Parade

After another disheartening day of job hunting, Monte entered his 79th Street apartment building barely able to muster a businesslike smile for the doorman. He went in and ran hot water for a bath. The family maid found him. She immediately dressed his sloppily cut wrists and called the police. The police then contacted Bellevue, where he was transported in a siren-blaring ambulance for several days’ observation. Unable to afford a private room, he was placed in a public ward where the rest that Monte desperately sought was impeded by the screams that went on through the night. He survived the suicide attempt and the family never spoke of it while he was alive.

Through an old friend Monte secured a sales job with the Chicago Tribune and the entire family moved to the ‘Windy City.’ At his father’s urging, Lee enrolled in night school to get his high school diploma, but his heart was clearly not in it. He still had no plan for his future as the following excerpted letter to his older brother Robert illustrates:

 Boy just wait until you get out and see all the shit they hand you.

Well, as you know I am now going to school and brother, that is a task, and I don’t mean maybe. At the present I am taking English, Geometry, Physics and History. I just don’t have any interest in the stuff but I am doing it for Pop.

Funny thing, my feet are getting itching again and I want to be on the move. Where I don’t know but just some place that I haven’t been before, like the Yukon or some other desolate place.

I just want to strike out and do something constructive with myself. In fact, I have often thought about going back into the Corps but I know that is just a way of trying to get back with the real friends I had. I mean real, because as you know when death is close at hand you don’t do anything that you don’t want to and the same with your friends. Boy, that was a real crowd and their only thought was to be happy while they could. So here I am still trying while the rest of them are dead. The main thing that I regret is that there is no longer any frontier to work on which is just my speed. Therefore I must conform to convention which I have a very deep-set distaste for.

Lee struggled with his classes, but said years later, “It made no sense. After committing murder, it was hard to find sense in peace. How could a guy all mixed up in murder get an education? The two didn’t make sense…I had to do something, though. They gave me a typing test and I couldn’t spell half the words. I looked around and saw all those frivolous chicks and guys…what was I doing there? So, I quit.” Forty years later “The Sergeant,” his character in The Big Red One (1979), would tell one of his charges, “We don’t murder. We kill,” a distinction that was not yet clear in young Lee’s mind.

The day he quit class, he walked right into a Marine Recruitment Center. The officer in charge sympathetically responded, “Thank you for your offer and prior service, son, but due to your disability status…” Lee shook the officer’s hand and proceeded to laugh it off at the nearest watering hole. As to his disability, a physical later that fall spoke the final word as only the military could: His sciatic wound disabled him exactly 20%. He received a check of $27.80, and would continue to do so each month for the rest of his life. Monte’s job in Chicago was short-lived, forcing the entire family to move back to New York. When the family returned to New York, the postwar housing shortage made it impossible to find worthy accommodations in the city. The Marvins decided on the Woodstock area since they had summered there often when Lee and Robert were boys. They purchased a home, and Monte eventually found work nearby with the New York and New England Apple Institute. He periodically attempted other employment, but, like an over-the-hill athlete dreaming his time would come again, he never saw the better employment materialize and stayed with the Institute until retiring in 1965. Through it all, Monte got by on the two things he could always rely on: his undiminished Puritan ethic and large quantities of alcohol.

Nestled in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, the Woodstock community had long been a sanctuary for many of the colorful avant-garde artists and intellectuals of the day, decades before the eponymous historic rock concert that would take place in a nearby town. The small community even maintained three legitimate live theaters at the time: The Woodstock Playhouse, The Valetta Theater and the 1,000-seat Maverick Theater.

Lee took classes at Kingston High School to finally get his diploma around the time that Robert mustered out of the service. As he had done many times as a child, Lee frequently cut class to fish or hunt. Monte had hoped Lee would get his diploma and use the G.I. Bill to become an engineer. Lee had contemplated several other careers, including forest ranger and car salesman, but when requirements like geometry became insurmountable, he again disappointed his father by dropping out of school altogether.

Marvin - Seahorse

In Woodstock, Lee could often be found at a favorite hangout: The S.S. Seahorse. One longtime resident referred to it as “The greatest dive I’ve ever seen in my life. People used to line up in the summer just to get in to it.” The oddly shaped tavern resembled a landlocked ship, complete with appropriate decor and portholes for windows. The local artisans and bohemians welcomed Lee as the most popular reveler in their midst. The music and laughter offered only a fleeting refuge from the nightmares. According to Robert, “When Lee would come home, he was a little disturbed at night. He had a lot of nightmares. He wasn’t exactly yelling but the poor guy would go through all kinds of convulsions.” In rare moments of candor, Lee confessed to his brother he saw snipers in the trees just as he drifted off, or that he had relived the battle that decimated his outfit.

On occasion, he would drink at home with his family. The evening would start innocently enough, but would spiral out of control at the slightest provocation. Courtenay would sneak off to safer grounds when the dark clouds began forming. Inevitably, as the night and alcohol wore on, Monte would declare, “You Marines are a lot of bullshit!” or “My outfit in the artillery can do anything the goddamned Marines can do!” Sometimes Lee would be the provocateur, making the same pronouncements about the Army. Whoever started it, the end result was often physical. Even though Monte and Lee were both dealing with the same issues, the men were too polarized to reconcile with each other. The guilt Lee suffered the morning after a family brawl often kept him away for days at a time.

Sometimes he would inexplicably find himself in a bar somewhere in Brooklyn. Other times he’d wander down to Greenwich Village and hang out with the bums that drank through the night. They would string a rope across a building and hook their arms on to it so they could sleep standing up without getting arrested. The next morning, someone would untie the rope and send everyone sprawling. Marvin would then join the denizens in a concoction known as “smoke,” a powerful mixture of illuminating gas blown into a jar of water that resulted in a high akin to LSD. Whatever he did, Lee could never travel far enough or drink enough to escape his war-induced or domestic trauma.

When he would return, dutifully apologetic, the cycle would start up again, often at Courtenay’s subtle instigation. Her attempts at maintaining the facade of domestic bliss would result in Lee and the other Marvin men having to sit through meaningless social teas or Sunday afternoon art lectures. On one such occasion, the entire family made an appearance on local radio for a show based on “Thanksgiving in Strange Places.” The Marvin men discussed their war experiences while a Girl Scout Choir sang in the background. Unfortunately, no tape of the show exists, or of the drive home.

Monte had become fairly well known in the rural community, to the point he could get jobs for both of his sons. By early 1946, Robert was working for a printer and saving for college, while Lee became a plumber’s apprentice under the tutelage of Adolph Heckeroth.

To anyone willing to look, Bill Heckeroth–who now runs his father’s business–will gladly point out a treasured memento carved in the wood of his father’s wall-hung toolbox: “This is Adolph’s. Help yourself.” The engraver was, of course, Lee Marvin. Bill was just a child when Lee worked for his father, but he remembers with great affection the oversized young man with the booming voice who’d put his feet up on his father’s desk and tell fascinating stories to anyone within earshot.

Lee’s work consisted of digging septic tanks and hand-threading pipes for $1.25 an hour. Hard as it was, this work proved therapeutic. “A guy digging ditches or a plumber wiping joints, it solves problems, you know?” Marvin later said. “You have to dig this hole so wide, so long, so deep. You dig it and that’s it. You climb out and say, ‘Boy, I don’t know what it was, but I solved it today.’ Good therapy for my back.” Marvin found such comfort in this work that he maintained his union card even after his rise to cinematic stardom, and often worked on the plumbing in his Hollywood agent’s house.

Adolph Heckeroth genuinely liked Lee, who impressed the veteran plumber with his natural prowess for the job. Once, when Heckeroth wanted Lee to help him measure the depth of a well, Lee told him not to bother with the old knotted string and weight device. Lee boasted he would merely drop a pebble and could tell by its acceleration the exact depth of the well. Heckeroth was astonished when Lee’s measurement proved to be exactly what Heckeroth’s string registered. He never knew Lee had measured the depth the night before.

Lee’s off-hour pursuits in Woodstock were often spent in the company of another local, David Ballantine. The diminutive Ballantine may have seemed an unlikely partner in Marvin’s revelry, but the two shared many common interests. Ballantine had met Lee after his own discharge from the service in June of 1946. “I fought WWII in the Zone of the Interior, which is a euphemism for the United States. When I met Lee, I was in Woodstock on the 52/20 Club, the unemployment thing,” he jokes today. “He was quite strong, too. He would do things I think sometimes to show everybody he was Lee Marvin and they were not, like carrying Heckeroth’s big pipe-cutting tripod one-handed, or lifting up the front end of a car. When people ask me what was he like, I usually say, ‘Try to imagine a non-effeminate Clint Eastwood!’”

Studio biographies have said the Ballantines and the Marvins were good friends. “I knew Monte and Courtenay very, very slightly,” corrects David. “Children now will invite friends in for dinner and such. In those days, there was a separation. I was Lee’s friend, really. Not that they weren’t friendly to me. Courtenay was pleasant enough and Monte had a dignity to him. Lee told me, if someone went in a bar to give everyone shit, they’d walk a wide circle around Monte. Monte was pretty tough.”

David Ballantine did not often share his friend’s penchant for what he called “the gargle.” As he recalled, “A couple of times Lee was just snot-flying drunk. I remember many years later, when he came to visit, he was just causing shit in a bar. I took him aside and said, ‘You know what’s going to happen one of these days? You’re going to walk around the corner and there’s going to be a younger Lee Marvin and he’s going to pound the shit out of you. Stop pushing your luck!’ He understood. He wasn’t stupid.”

On a cool March night in 1946, Lee was sleeping off one such episode on a bench in the village green. At sunrise, children familiar with the sight of him in this condition as they passed him on the way to school, knew that even prodding the unconscious giant with a stick was a dare not worth taking. One local resident, either not aware or braver than most, disregarded the danger and proceeded to talk to the prone figure. When Lee’s vision came into focus and the buzzing in his head had sufficiently dulled, he saw a very proper young woman beside him discussing the virtues of community services.

Scanning the area and realizing she must be talking to him, Lee smirked at the irony when she asked him to appear in an amateur Red Cross Benefit at Woodstock’s Town Hall, titled “Ten Nights In a Barroom.” He had been in school productions as far back as grade school and, figuring it might be a similar kick, he shrugged his shoulders and proceeded over the next several weeks to rehearse the farce with his young fellow amateurs.

Marvin - Woodstock Red Cross

“Lee’s performance was the most hilarious I’ve ever seen,” a proud Monte recalled in 1966. “The mustache kept falling off. Everybody in the cast forgot their lines and Lee’s hands were very much in evidence pushing out scripts from the wings. Even then, he left them in the aisles.”

Like the tales of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, the story of Lee’s professional acting debut has become the stuff of legend that begins with a kernel of truth and grows with time into larger-than-life proportions. Marvin told several interviewers that it was while he had his head in the Maverick Theater commode that he heard his destiny beckon. As he recalled many times over the years, “The director needed a tall loudmouth to play a Texan. The actor who played the part was sick. I was standing in the wings after fixing the head, eyeing this redheaded actress. Later, the director looked at me and figured I was made for the part.”

When told of this, Monte Marvin later commented, “Nothing could be further from the truth since the theater had no toilet, only a one-holer outside.” David Ballantine also concurs on this point. However, the event that actually catapulted Lee Marvin into acting was just as good a story.

When David Ballantine turned twenty-one, his family held a celebratory birthday party in his honor. Lee always looked forward to any party but especially enjoyed the Ballantine family. David’s brother Ian was publisher of Ballantine Books and his mother Stella was a founder of Lee’s progressive school, Manumit. David’s father, E. J. ‘Teddy’ Ballantine, had an illustrious theatrical history, which included membership in Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Players and, most impressive to Lee, drinking bouts with the great John Barrymore. Teddy was also an integral part of the aptly named Maverick Theater. Also in attendance was Ian’s wife, Betty. A petite woman known for wearing long flowing dresses, even in the muggy summer, she eventually became a confidante to the young Lee Marvin.

Lee himself recalled the events that transpired that night when his tale-spinning talent was still in its infancy: “I got swocked. I was dancing with a girl named Joy, which is what she was: 145 pounds and all of it pink and beautiful. At the party I found out the leading man of the local theater had run out on an upcoming production.” It was just this fact E.J. Ballantine was discussing with the director when he noticed Lee jumping for Joy amid the other revelers.

“He was a very impressive character even then,” recalled Betty Ballantine. “First of all, there was his voice. His voice was absolutely amazing. Then, he had a real gift for telling stories with a great sense of humor. He used body language, since Lee had an extraordinary control of his physical presence. He was the kind of a person who comes into a room and you damn well notice him. The play they were preparing was called ‘Roadside.’ They wanted a loudmouth Texan. Teddy said, ‘We got a loudmouth right here. Hey, Lee! Come over here!’ Of course, we were all feeling no pain. Lee with that wonderful voice he had, read for the play. He got the part and Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday, I sat with him. Teddy and I both walked him through it. Well, he never really learned the script. How could he? He only had a day and half.”

Lee makes his professional acting debut as 'Texas' at the Maverick Theater's production of the Lynn Riggs' play, "Roadside."

Lee makes his professional acting debut as ‘Texas’ at the Maverick Theater’s production of the Lynn Riggs’ play, “Roadside.”

When Lee heard his cue opening night, “It grabbed me just like that!” he would say with a snap of his fingers. “Suddenly I felt…Expression!” After years of rebellion, masked fear and uncertainty, Lee stepped out on to the stage that rainy summer night and made it his own. Lee’s powerful voice rumbled through the Hudson Valley like a small earthquake to let one and all know that he had discovered his true calling.

The summer of 1947 saw Lee devoting all of his considerable energy to the Maverick Theater’s summer stock productions. He later reasoned, “It was the closet thing to the Marine Corps way of life I could find at the time–hard work and no crap.” The camaraderie was key, but acting also did something else for the combat veteran: it gave him an outlet to express his inner demons that had been frustrating him since the war. He quit his job at Heckeroth’s the very next day.

Lee no longer questioned what he was going to do with his life and decided to tell his parents. Monte’s reaction was swift and decisive. “Lee told my father he wanted to be an actor,” recalled Robert, “and my father almost went through the ceiling, naturally. My father told my brother, ‘If you become an actor, don’t expect any help from me. You’re on your own.’” Lee would have preferred his father’s blessing but the lack of it made him just as determined in his pursuit. As far as Lee was concerned, the war ruined his father, and he refused to accept the same fate. Acting was no foolhardy dream to him. “Acting is a search for communication,” he said later. “This is what I’m doing — trying to communicate and get my message across. I can play these parts, these horrible animal men. I do things on stage you shouldn’t do and I make you see you shouldn’t do them.”

Although many actors enter the profession as a means of expressing their sensitive nature, Lee Marvin chose acting to explore something infinitely more challenging: The cauldron of violence that simmered beneath the surface and was capable of erupting at the slightest provocation. When he did depict this darker side on stage and screen he did so in such a fashion as to change the face of modern American screen violence. This, above else, would make Lee Marvin one of the most consistent and fascinating actors of postwar American cinema.

Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank was published earlier this year by Shaffner Press. It’s available as a hardcover, softcover, and as a NOOK. And be sure to visit his website: http://pointblankbook.com/