Tuesday, December 14, 2010

THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940)

Nowadays if we were to compare THE MUMMY'S HAND to Universal's original THE MUMMY (1932), we would say that the 1940 film is neither a remake nor a sequel but rather a reboot of the franchise. Rebooting is what Hollywood studios do to re-center and re-engage with a property that they feel can still make money. The studio had recently undergone a fairly serious re-organization and the new regime was faced with a number of new commercial, aesthetic, and social realities. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) and THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) had been successful reboots of first-generation Uni monsters; THE MUMMY'S HAND was hoped to be a similar fresh start that could provide a new story arc : Im-Ho-Tep's atmospheric menace was replaced by the unstoppable supernatural killer Kharis; the thick, dreamlike gloom & doom of THE MUMMY was stripped out and replaced by the rough & tumble action-adventure of THE MUMMY'S HAND. Gone was the brooding Germanic dark Romance and in its place was substituted a plot line more akin to a Saturday matinee serial.

New York Times, October 8, 1958

But all this analysis is probably too esoteric and of little general interest for viewers of this film on TV. It was only much later that I was able to piece together why there were parts of THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY'S HAND that were so similar (the recycled hand-cranked-silent-film-looking origin scenes of the Mummy, for example) yet so completely different. But who cares? It was a Mummy movie--- how much more really needs to be said? When I first saw THE MUMMY'S HAND on television in the early 1970s, I had already seen mummy rampages on re-runs of my favorite cartoons, all of which were obviously inspired by the Universal Kharis series rather than the Im-Ho-Tep film, so everything looked like it should be to me.

"Curse of Anubis," from "Jonny Quest," originally broadcast in October 1964

Screen Gems had bundled together THE MUMMY (1932), THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940), THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1942), and THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944) for SHOCK! (THE MUMMY'S CURSE [1944] would show up on TV beginning in 1958 as part of Son of SHOCK!), but as yet I have not found a single station that aired the films of the SHOCK! package in the order of its theatrical release. Thus, if you were seeing these movies for the first time ever as a regular viewer of SHOCK!, then there was no telling what order you would see them in. It was probably just best in the interests of coherence to treat them as individual, stand-alone films rather than try to decipher them as part of a series. Leave chronologies and arc mythos to the detail-obsessed fanboy bloggers fifty-something years in the future.

As mentioned around here somewhere, kids really seem to connect somehow with Mummy movies and there's a lot to thrill young viewers here. (But let me get sidetracked for a minute: I watched this the other night with a nine year-old and her first question was: "But I thought the Mummy was ordered to kill everyone in the tents... how come he grabs the lady instead of killing her like he's supposed to?" She's right, of course--- at no point does Andoheb explicitly change his instructions; Kharis sort of improvises, roughs up Solvani, abducts Marta, and brings her back to the Temple of Karnak, where, out of nowhere, Andoheb decides to embalm her, marry her, and make her high priestess. Where did that plot point come from?) Kids probably also like the grating comic-relief sidekickery of Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), though I wonder if I ever did.

But as an adult, I think my favorite thing about this film is George Zucco. I always like his fanatical criminal style in movies from the 1930s and 1940s--- quiet, measured, articulate, intelligent, but always nuts. When it comes to movie villainy, it's no use competing against such a visually arresting figure as Tom Tyler's Mummy, so you would have to take a different road entirely, which is just what Zucco does with his urbane but insane Andoheb. But rather than scaring me, Zucco's bad guys bring me a kind of malevolently familiar comfort, like Vincent Price's Captain Robur or Gert Fröbe's Auric Goldfinger. (And put me down as a fan of Zucco's work in DARK STREETS OF CAIRO from the same year as THE MUMMY'S HAND.)

The score of THE MUMMY'S HAND (much of it rehashed from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) really adds a lot of atmosphere to the picture, as does the the detailed ruins from GREEN HELL (1940) which are pressed into duty as the exterior and interior of the Temple of Karnak. Russell Gausman and Jack Otterson were busy together doing art direction and set design for THE MUMMY'S HAND, GREEN HELL, DARK STREETS OF CAIRO, and a bunch of other movies at Universal in 1940, so it's not surprising to see so much of their work being reworked for maximum efficiency and minimum cost on a wartime budget.

GREEN HELL, by the way, is a jungle adventure pic about some heavy-breathing explorers probing Brazilian rain forests at the Amazon's headwaters; in addition to having ugly run-ins with some laughable natives from Central Casting, they also encounter the forgotten ruins of an ancient city that hide some treasure. It's amusing to see that the crackerjack archeologists in THE MUMMY'S HAND are nonplussed by the discovery of all this Egypto-Incan architecture and art; perhaps they all adhere to the "ancient alien astronaut" theory of world civilizations popularized by Erich von Däniken which explains such similarities and connections as the result of an extraterrestrial cargo cult from thousands of years ago --- that's why everyone is so nonchalant about the bizarre cultural cross-pollination on display in the Valley of the Seven Jackals. All that silliness aside, though, it still looks cool as hell in this movie and it is used to good effect. I remember the climax being particularly suspenseful when I first saw it on TV.

Brazosport Facts, Freeport, TX, Sunday August 23, 1959

I've reproduced this Freeport, TX listing only because I find it so evocative of what used to be so weird and wonderful about late-night television. These days, of course, many cable channels re-run shows at these hours that they had telecast earlier in the day, or else they sell off these blocks of time to that nemesis of us night-owl TV watchers--- infomercials and paid religious programming. Looking at this listing from 1959, you see that, for one thing, stations used to "sign off" of the air; if you stayed up to watch "Shock" on this Sunday night, there followed five minutes of news headlines and then the sign-off with the anthem (if you've never seen one, here's a recreation featuring a pre-1959 National Anthem film). I'm especially intrigued by Channel 13's one-minute "Wanted by the FBI" broadcast at 2:15 AM-- I want to imagine that it was a different profile of some hunted desperado that the station provided every night just before sign-off: "...and is sought in nine states for a series of horrific and random axe murders. Please contact the FBI if you have any information. Good night and pleasant dreams!"




NEXT: "For spine-tingling thrills tune in to this channel when Shock presents the full-length feature film THE MAD GHOUL. George Zucco plays a crazed scientist who brews a poison that terrorizes a nation. It's exciting entertainment so don't miss it!"

6 comments:

Mirek said...

Regarding the non-chronological showing of the SHOCK package, I think that's one of the things that intrigued kids when they were watching these films. They were entering not only a mysterious Universal horror and mystery world, but the mystery of the cinematic reality of that world. This is where a publication like FAMOUS MONSTERS became so invaluable. It informed these "monster kids" about the cinematic reality of these films, how many Frankenstein-Dracula-Wolfman-Mummy-Invisible Man films existed, and in what order, plus details about the stars, the directors, etc. A fun time of exploration and discovery.

Mirek said...

The embedding is unfortunately disabled by request, but YouTube does have the original Universal trailer for this film at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grFdxnpCtR0

At the end, just to make things clear, the trailer informs "A New Universal Picture."

The Creeping Bride said...

Mirek, your points about the "intrigue" of non-chronological movie showings is a good one worth pondering as we consider the SHOCK viewing experience.

You say "entering a mysterious world of Universal horror," but I wonder how many viewers were cognizant of the fact that these were all Universal films? How much brand recognition was there? As a zealous born-again Uni-holic, I often forget that not everyone is aware that there is such a distinct thing as "Universal horror."

For myself, I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to figure out that the thing that connected all those cool color horror films that I loved watching on TV as a kid was that they were all made by a studio called "Hammer." That was a revelation to my young mind-- suddenly, it all made sense why they all looked the same way and why I recognized many of the actors and actresses.

And as you say, before there were film studies books on horror films and internet resources, monster mags (and tv guide film descriptions that many kids cut out and archived in scrapbooks) were the only way to connect the dots.

Mirek said...

When I was a kid, I became aware of a "Universal horror world" fairly early on because of the repeated use of certain characters (the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, etc), places (Vasaria), a similar style and musical scoring. I still couldn't grasp the actual extent of this world, which is why it was intriguingly mysterious and something I needed to explore more and more--to finally, as an adult, research or read the research of others.

Max the drunken severed head said...

An evocative and informative post. And I loved seeing the well-written intro Lee gives for "The Mummy's Hand." Thanks for including that.

This blog is top-notch!

kochillt said...

Easily the best of the 4 Kharis features, with likable heroes, the marvelous George Zucco in one of his best known roles, and in Tom Tyler, the only actor who was actually well served by the mummy part, with John P. Fulton blacking out his eyes, and his stalking producing genuine chills. For a reboot, this certainly did the trick. No, it's not the sombre, moody film of Karloff's, but then again, by 1940, they just didn't make them like that anymore. THE MUMMY'S HAND aired 5 times on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, but was the only 40's entry to be shown after 1977.