The Mummy | Karl Freund

Boris Karloff, 1932

The opening of the King Tut exhibition at the Saint Louis Science Center put me in mind of the “Egyptomania craze” kicked off by the discovery of his tomb in 1922.* Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood was one of many movie palaces constructed around that time that capitalized on the craze for all things Egyptian, while Tin Pan Alley songwriters churned out including references to King Tut and women adopted dark eye makeup and upswept hair in imitation of tomb paintings. Hollywood also got in on the game, of course, producing a lot of forgettable films and a few classics. Among the latter is one of best of the first run of Universal horror films, Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932).

Freund’s film has gotten something of a bad rap from people who mistakenly believe it to be on a par with the many low-budget mummy movies that came later. Many of the latter are no better than the rubber mask monster movies of The Alligator People variety, but The Mummy is something else entirely. So step one in watching The Mummy is to clear your mind of what you think it may be like, and just see it for what it is. It also helps to get into a 1932 frame of mind, transporting yourself back to a time when Hollywood offered Depression-era Americans the vicarious experience of glamorous lifestyles and foreign locations, things most of them they were unlikely to enjoy in real life.

The title sequence establishes the location with images of pyramids, hieroglyphs, and the Sphinx, while ominous music suggests peril, with an excerpt from Swan Lake connecting The Mummy to two other Universal horror movies, Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). The theme of reincarnation is introduced with an excerpt from “The Scroll of Thoth” which purportedly has the power to raise the dead (remember, this is Hollywood’s version of ancient Egypt).

Several archeologists on a 1921 expedition for the British museum are examining their finds, which include the mummy of Imhotep and a sealed box that promises “Death, eternal punishment, for anyone who opens this casket.” Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan, playing a variant of the role he also played in Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula,) advises reburying the box, but brash young archaeologist Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) can’t wait to open it and read the text out loud. Genre blindness has its price as a truly scary sequence ensues: Imhotep gradually comes to life, takes the scroll, and walks out the door, leaving Norton babbling in fright. Notably, you see Imhotep only in parts—the eyes, a hand, a partially-unraveled bandage—which makes this sequence all the more effective.

Jump ahead to 1932 and another British Museum expedition, this one led by Frank Whemple (the exceptionally handsome David Manners). They haven’t found much, but that changes with visit from the forbidding Ardath Bey (Boris Karloff; he also played Imhotep’s mummy in the opening scene), who leads them to the burial site of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Jumping forward again, the finds from this excavation are displayed in a Cairo museum. As Bey visits the exhibit, across town Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), dressed to kill in a shimmery evening gown, gazes longingly at the pyramids. Product of an English father and an Egyptian mother, she literally turns her back on the European couples dancing in the background and describes how she is drawn to the ancient glories of Egypt (which she contrasts with “this dreadful modern Cairo”). The connection between Grosvenor and Bey, partially explained in flashback sequences shot as if they were part of a silent movie, is the crux of the story, and that story is gloriously preposterous as only a Golden Age Hollywood film can be.

Karloff delivers perhaps his finest acting performance in The Mummy, creating a sympathetic and distinctively human character in Bey. Jack Pierce received special recognition for creating Karloff’s makeup, which created the impression of extreme age while leaving the actor’s face sufficiently free that he could use it expressively. Johann is very good as an exotic beauty; she didn’t have much of a movie career after The Mummy, unfortunately, due her disinclination to accept on-set mistreatment or to act in inferior movies (she one reportedly once asked MGM production head Irving Thalberg “Why do you make these awful pictures?”). Charles Stumar’s cinematography is at times positively poetic, most notably in a candle-lit scene in the museum (Stumar amassed 111 credits from 1917 to 1935, his career cut short by a plane crash as he was scouting locations for an upcoming film).

Improbably as it may sound, The Mummy is actually somewhat respectful of ancient Egyptian culture, particularly given the time in which it was made. Karloff’s character is not a cartoon mummy, staggering about with his arms outstretched and murdering people at random, and his actions are motivated by an ancient love story. California makes a decent stand-in for the Egyptian desert, and art director Willy Pogany skillfully mixes live shots with stock footage (e.g., the exteriors of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo) and model shots to create as good a stand-in for Egypt as Hollywood could have been expected to produce at the time. The museum interior sets are particularly lavishly decorated, making them a delight to the eye of anyone who’s ever gazed longingly on a slab of hieroglyphs or a golden artifact secured behind glass.

The screenplay by John L. Balderston acknowledges that, even if you are sponsored by the British Museum, there are some limits to what you should do in the name of science. Clear consequences are presented for those who ignore ancient warnings and tamper with that which should be left undisturbed, for one thing. For another, the artifacts from the 1932 expedition remain in Egypt; when Frank Whemple complains that “I think it’s a dirty trick this Cairo Museum keeping everything we’ve found” his Egyptologist father Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) reminds them that they agreed to that condition from the start. Besides, Sir Joseph continues, “The British Museum works for the cause of science, not for loot.” If only companies engaged in mineral extraction today showed as much respect for the countries in which they work. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

*I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but I do have to say something about cultural context. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was acceptable for Western archaeologists to excavate the tombs of dead Egyptians and bring their remains and other artifacts back to whatever museum or organization financed the expedition. Many major museums in the West today have large Egyptian collections as a result of these expeditions, including the British Museum in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo also houses an impressive collection of excavated antiquities. But times have changed, and today it is illegal to take antiquities out of Egypt, while cultural responses to the display of human remains have also changed. The Science Center exhibit features replicas that allow visitors to appreciate the beauty of the featured objects without endangering the fragile originals themselves, which remain in Egypt.

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