Movies from the 1930s

A collection of scenes, people, lines, props, and other details from the movies of the 1930s.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein (1931)

Those metal studs in the creature’s neck, much beloved by the makers of horror parodies and Halloween costumes, aren’t bolts at all.

They’re electrodes, left over from the mechanism that fed electricity into the creature’s body when he was brought to life. So leave the spanner set at home when you go the storm the castle / windmill / wherever he’s got himself holed up this time: it’s not going to do you one bit of good.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein (1931)

Near the beginning of James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein, the hunchbacked assistant breaks into a university in order to steal a brain. First he rather wisely takes a jar marked “normal brain”, but he’s startled by a loud noise and drops it, forcing him to instead take the other brain on offer, this one bearing the less promising label “abnormal brain”.

According to Rudy Behlmer, who supplies a commentary for the Universal DVD of the film, this detail was apparently a last-minute addition. It would seem to contrast with the film’s presentation of the creature as an innocent, and Behlmer suggests that perhaps the intention was to provide a shorthand explanation for the creature’s violence early in the film.

Still, the brain substitution is a bit silly, and doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the story. It was deservedly parodied in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974), in which the hunchback is under the impression that he’s picked up the brain of one “Abby Normal”.

The Normal Brain
Dracula

Dracula (1931)

Watching Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula for the first time can be an odd experience. Apart from seeing Bela Lugosi laying the groundwork for eighty years of imitations, there are some real double-take moments, like hearing those classic lines spoken without irony (“Listen to them… Children of the night… What music they make.”), and seeing Dwight Frye as Renfield laying the groundwork for Andy Serkis’s Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, well, and the vampire bee…

The vampire bee appears near the beginning, when we first see the Count’s castle and the Weird Sisters are waking up. After a couple of shots of the women beginning to emerge from their coffins, there’s a brief shot of what appears to be a bee (or maybe a wasp?) crawling out of its own, teeny-tiny coffin.

A report from a fantasy convention in 2000 does mention the bee, and suggests that it might be intended to be a giant bee in a regular-sized coffin. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t look that way. It’s almost cute.

Lacking any definitive explanation of the bee, why its there, and whether it’s a giant bee or a tiny coffin, it’s probably best not to even get started on the armadillos that appear a moment later…

Armadillos in Dracula
Vampyr

Vampyr (1932)

Although credited as Julian West, the star of Carl Dreyer’s haunting film Vampyr is really Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, the film-loving son of a Russian aristocratic family whose international travels had become an exile following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Baron Nicolas met Dreyer at a party in Paris; they fell into conversation, and he offered to help fund Vampyr, on condition that he be allowed to play the lead role: Allan Gray, a young man whose interest in the occult leads him into conflict with a vampire.

This seems to have been de Gunzburg’s only acting role: he later moved to the USA, where he worked as an editor on magazines including Town & Country and Vogue. Nicolas de Gunzburg’s life story is told in a fifteen-minute documentary included as an extra in the Masters of Cinema DVD release of Vampyr.

Vampyr is based on the work of Sheridan Le Fanu, but there’s a remarkable physical similarity between Julian West / Baron Nicolas and another horror author, H. P. Lovecraft (photo right), who was writing during the period when the film was made.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable if it wasn’t for the fact that Allan Gray and Lovecraft share an interest in the more esoteric mysteries of life, or in the blurring between dreams and reality: as it is, one can’t help pondering the opening line from Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Picture in the House’: Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.