powered by AFI
Boris Karloff rose from the grave -- again -- when Universal Picturesdecided to add a new monster to their repertoire in 1932. Wherethey had drawn on legend and literature for such past hits asDracula and Frankenstein, however, they invented their ownhorror mythology with The Mummy, introducing to the screen the ideaof "the dead who walk." Not that the 1932 feature was the screen's firstdepiction of a revivified mummy. That honor goes to a 1911 silent with thesame title. But it was Universal and writer John Balderston who createdthe idea of a reanimated mummy trying to bring back the woman of hisdreams. Their version of The Mummy would inspire a string of sequelsin the '40s and a similar series from England's Hammer Studios in the '60sand '70s.
Studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. got the idea from the furor over thediscovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922. Shortly after archaeologistsunearthed the intact tomb, members of the expedition began dying inmysterious ways. Public interest in the so-called curse was at an all-timehigh in the early '30s, so Laemmle thought to cash in on it with a newmonster and a new vehicle for the studio's top horror star, Boris Karloff.The initial treatment, Cagliostro, told of an ancient Egyptian whouses nitrate injections to keep himself alive for 3,500 years while hekills anybody who resembles the woman who once betrayed him. Laemmleapproved the story idea, then passed it on to John Balderston, co-author ofthe hit stage adaptation of Dracula. Balderston re-shaped thematerial, borrowing liberally from the vampire tale, to tell of an Egyptianpriest buried alive for trying to revive his lost love from the dead. Whenarchaeologists inadvertently bring him back to life, he goes in search ofhis love's current reincarnation, fighting her young lover and an olderexpert on Egyptology to possess her. Also pointing up the film'sresemblance to the earlier Dracula was the casting of that film'selderly expert (Edward Van Sloan) and young lover (David Manners) insimilar roles. Balderston named the villain Im-Ho-Tep, after the highpriest serving under Pharaoh Zoser, then gave him the alias Ardath Bey, ananagram for "death by Ra." After the working titles of The King of theDead and Im-Ho-Tep, Laemmle changed the name of the film to TheMummy during filming.
Having scored triumphs in Frankenstein, The Old Dark Houseand The Mask of Fu Manchu, Karloff was considered the successor toLon Chaney's mantle. With The Mummy he achieved an almost uniquehonor; he was billed solely by his last name as "Karloff the Uncanny,"putting him on a par with Greta Garbo in terms of audience recognition.The price he paid for stardom was high, however. For the few scenes inwhich he is in full mummy regalia, he had to sit in the makeup chair foreight hours. Make-up artist Jack Pierce applied layers of Fuller's Earth,beauty clay (the same clay used to remove wrinkles on women), cotton soakedin collodion and 150 feet of rooted linen bandages to his body. Whendirector James Whale, who had cast Karloff as the monster inFrankenstein, saw the makeup for the first time, he said it lookedas though the star had had a pail of garbage dumped over him. Of course,that was exactly the effect Pierce wanted; he always considered it hisfavorite of all the many make-ups he had created. Through the day, theFuller's Earth kept getting in Karloff's eyes. Afterwards, the whole thinghad to be melted off. Things improved only slightly once the mummy took onhuman guise. Karloff still had to sit for hours as more cotton strips wereapplied to his skin to cover his face and hands with wrinkles for theremaining seven weeks of filming.
To direct The Mummy, Laemmle gave a chance to pioneeringcinematographer Karl Freund. Shooting silent films in Germany, he hadinvented the dolly shot and several special effects techniques. He wasalso one of the first to use a handheld camera. After filmingDracula at Universal, he got his shot at directing. He evenimproved on a trick he had created for the earlier horror film. To giveKarloff's eyes an unholy light, he focused baby spotlights on them whiledimming the rest of the lights. It was one of the film's greatesteffects.
Freund worked his cast and crew tirelessly in the days before Hollywoodunionization. He frequently kept them on the set until after midnight,which was particularly grueling for Karloff, who had started in the makeupchair eight hours before shooting began. But he finished the film ahead ofschedule and under budget (for less than $200,000). His visual sense paidoff. Later critics have hailed The Mummy as a photographer's film,while critic and historian William K. Everson called it "the closest thatHollywood ever came to creating a poem out of horror" (in Classics ofthe Horror Film). The film did huge business, with patrons lined uparound the block for its Christmas-season opening. Clips from the picturewould resurface in all of Universal's later mummy films, while the giantstatue of Isis in the final scene would be reused as "the great god Tao" onthe planet Mongo in Flash Gordon (1936).
Karloff would continue as the screen's reigning monster king for decades,acting until his death in 1969 and even after that (some of his low-budgetfilms wouldn't be released until 1971), but this would remain his soleappearance as the mummy. Freund would direct a few more films, includingthe Peter Lorre classic Mad Love (1935), but soon returned to camera work ,claiming that it was a more creative line than directing. His innovationswould continue with Oscar®-winning work on The Good Earth (1937). Evenwhen he turned to television, as chief cameraman for I Love Lucy, hemade his influence felt as inventor of the three-camera system used formost television series.
Two prominent members of The Mummy's cast would have only short filmcareers. Leading lady Zita Johann was primarily a stage actress when sheplayed Karloff's reincarnated lady love. The Hungarian-born beauty hadturned down Hollywood's first contract offer -- the chance to star inUniversal's 1929 version of Show Boat -- to remain on stage. Sheonly made The Mummy because another film planned for her atUniversal had fallen through, and she wanted to complete her obligation to thestudio. She would later complain that Freund made her thescapegoat anytime he had problems on the set and even tried to get her topose naked for him. She also wasn't pleased when a series of elaborateflashbacks depicting the Egyptian princess' other reincarnations were cutbefore the film's release. She made only four more films before returningto the stage, where she worked with such giants as John Houseman and OrsonWelles. She only made one more film, a cheap horror film ironically titledRaiders of the Living Dead (1986), before her death in 1993.
Romantic leading man David Manners had made his film debut by chance. Hewas on his way to a job on a Hawaiian plantation when he visited Hollywoodand was spotted by director James Whale, who cast him in his World War Idrama Journey's End (1929). The casting of an unknown was soshocking that more experienced actors would cuss Manners out in the street.But he stayed in leading roles for years, including work in the 1934horror classic The Black Cat, until he abruptly retired fromfilmmaking to focus on writing and painting in 1936. Although his officialstatement was that he was simply tired of the grind of making films, rumorspersist that he either had a nervous breakdown or got tired of pressure tohide his homosexuality by taking a wife for appearances. But though he lived morethan 60 years after leaving Hollywood, he was always best remembered as thestar of three of Universal's most famous horror films.
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Director: Karl Freund
Screenplay: John Balderston
Based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam & Richard Schayer
Cinematography: Charles Stumar
Art Direction: Willy Pogany
Music: James Dietrich (uncredited)
Principal Cast: Boris Karloff (Im-Ho-Tep/Ardath Bey), Zita Johann (HelenGrosvenor/Princess Anck-es-en-Amon), David Manners (Frank Whemple), EdwardVan Sloan (Professor Muller), A.S. Byron (Sir Joseph Whemple), BramwellFletcher (Norton), Noble Johnson (The Nubian).
by Frank Miller