IT COMES TO LIFE!
After World War I, British archeologist Howard Carter resumed his search for tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. He had been doing it for many years, but his biggest prize had yet to materialize. In 1922, Carter’s excavation group found steps that led to Tutankhamun’s tomb. The boy king’s final resting place turned out to be the best preserved pharaonic tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Soon, rumors of a ”curse of the pharaohs” arose, suggesting that anyone who disturbed these graves would be punished. The curse eventually inspired Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam to write the story behind this film.
In the early 1920s, an archeological expedition finds the mummy of Imhotep, an Egyptian priest who was buried alive after attempting to resurrect princess Ankh-es-en-amon, his forbidden lover. Egyptologist Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) is wary and forbids an assistant from opening a sealed box. While alone, he opens it anyway and starts reading a scroll out loud, awakening Imhotep from his deathly sleep. The mummy frightens the assistant out of his mind and leaves the site. Years later, the case is an unsolved mystery where people assume that the mummy was stolen, but fail to understand why the assistant went crazy. A mysterious but sophisticated Egyptian named Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) is helping archeologist Frank Whemple (David Manners) look for the tomb of Ankh-es-en-amon…
Freund making his directorial debut
The year after the successful horror sensation Dracula, Universal hired John L. Balderston, one of the playwrights behind the original stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, to turn Schayer and Wilcox Putnam’s mummy story into a script. The man who photographed Dracula, Karl Freund, was set to make his directing debut and it’s impossible not to talk about all the similarities.
The Mummy opens with the same classical music during the main titles as Dracula, a piece from Tchaikovsky’s ”Swan Lake”. The story has the monster leaving his horrifying environs to walk around disguised among high society, directing his evil attention toward a young woman that he becomes enchanted by. In this case it is Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) who bears an eerie similarity to Ankh-es-en-amon. Once again there’s a group of sophisticated English gentlemen (including Van Sloan, the actor who played Van Helsing in Dracula) slowly realizing what’s going on. And then there’s the star himself. When The Mummy was released Boris Karloff was already a sensation thanks to Frankenstein (1931). Karloff had to endure heavy makeup for this role as well, but only in the opening scenes when Imhotep is awakened; the transformation of him into Ardeth Bey requires lighter makeup. Even if we don’t see him much in bandages, he’s still absolutely mesmerizing, using his eyes (lit to great effect, of course) as a superb weapon.
Johann, who allegedly did not get along well with the director on set, is also memorable in the biggest role of her career as the Anglo-Egyptian socialite who falls under Ardeth Bey’s spell.
Opening and ending with great intensity, the film is less thrilling in between. Still, considering how poorly Universal nursed its legacy with three weak Indiana Jones-type adventures 70 years later, the Karloff version is still looking pretty great…
The Mummy 1932-U.S. 72 min. B/W. Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.. Directed by Karl Freund. Screenplay: John L. Balderston. Cast: Boris Karloff (Imhotep/Ardeth Bey), Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor), David Manners (Frank Whemple), Arthur Byron, Edward Van Sloan, Bramwell Fletcher.
Last word: “[Karloff] came on after being in the makeup room and was popped into the coffin lying against the wall, and he fell face out. Everybody was very concerned and they sent for the studio doctor. He said, ‘Well, you damn fools. This fellow, he’s not breathing. You’ve got him all taped up. The man has to breathe through the skin as well as his nose.’ They brought him around, and I was able to suggest that they split the back of the surgical bandages they put around him.” (Fletcher, “Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration”)