THE MUMMY’S HAND/TOMB/GHOST/CURSE dusts off the mold from the first of three dynasties of MummyMovies, with a new guy on the dune showing up in 2017. We’ll leave to another dig the Hammer Films quartet (1959-71) and the big-budget CGI trio (1999-2008), as well their spin-off ‘Scorpion King‘ cousins. Perhaps one century we will be foolhardy enough to unearth Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy (talk about Universal sacrilege!), but for now, let us swing pick and shovel, pound a few shots of Tana Leaf brew and drag rags across the 40s Four.
Maybe it was the success of 1939s Son of Frankenstein, but after lying dormant for eight years following 1932s The Mummy, Universal
dumped art into the Nile risked re-arming the non-talking, slow-walking asphyxiator from the genteel past to the higher body-count atmosphere of WW2 (blame Hitler?), starting in 1940 with…
THE MUMMY’S HAND was directed by Christy Cabanne, who amassed 166 credits, starting in 1912: seek comfort that this was his most famous work. After pillaging clips from the Karloff film for backstory, ‘Imhotep’ has become ‘Kharis’, the tomb of operations is now a hilltop temple (the handy Universal backlot) in what is obviously California. Buffoonish American buddies Dick Foran and Wallace Ford buy a vase in Cairo that brings them into contact with the full-fledged Mummy familiar to generations of kids: mute and murderous, obedient to high priests and their supply of ‘Tana leaves‘.
67 minutes of nonsense has hardy bluster from Foran, lame comic relief from Ford and the supposedly charming Cecil Kellaway (I never got this actor), screams from Peggy Moran, and glowing black eyes added to the Mummy, played by Tom Tyler. Vital thing about this is the presence of burning fanatic Eduardo Cianelli and suavely sinister George Zucco as the insidious high priests, invoking the likes of “For who shall defile the temples of the ancient gods, a cruel and violent death shall be his fate, and never shall his soul find rest unto eternity. Such is the curse of Amon-Ra, king of all the gods.” Best line is the wistful ‘I’m-dying-my-son’ utterance from Cianelli:“I shall not see the moon sink beneath the valley of the jackals again.” Zucco is excellent, just because you’re in a goofy project it doesn’t mean you don’t give it your all. Produced for $80,000, it made a tidy hit.
THE MUMMY’S TOMB, directed by Harold Young in 1942, gets my vote as the best (relative in this case) of the batch, with swell logic-speak (“This is just another of those fiend murders“), laughs at the absurdity on hand, another cute starlet to be carried off (Elyse Knox), regular dispatching of victims (“The moon rides high in the sky again, Kharis; there’s death in the night air. Your work begins“) and especially the presence of the exotic Turhan Bey as the new high priest (a big hand for Turhan Bey!) “The ways of my people are strange to Western minds.”
By convenience of available sets, the action has now moved to New England, with a resurrected Kharis transplanted to ‘Mapleton, Massachusetts’ in order to eliminate infidel defilers Foran and Ford from the previous film, who are now aged: it’s supposed to be 30 years later, which would make it 1970, but the hooting G.I.s and giggling kids in the audience don’t care. “Whether you can believe it or not, the facts are here and we’ve got to face them. A creature that’s been alive for over 3,000 years is in this town.” Clipping along (despite a dragging foot) at a mere 60 minutes, with even that span finding space for several minutes of re-used footage, this dragooned an unhappy Lon Chaney Jr. into donning dozens of yards of gauze and eight-hour makeup jobs as the Mummy. “Give out the clubs!” (instruction from sheriff to mob, already possessing torches).
With John Hubbard (making a weak contemporary joke about the Russian Front: easier to do when you’re not there) and George Zucco (passing the responsibility of the curse and mantra of the leaves to Bey, Turhan Bey).
THE MUMMY’S GHOST drifted in during 1944, 61 minutes directed by Reginald LeBorg (is that a Hollywood director’s name or what?), again with Lon Chaney as the title stalker. The new priest is John Carradine, the fresh starlet damsel is Ramsey Ames, other roles are filled by Robert Lowery, Barton MacLane, George Zucco, Harry Shannon and Frank Reicher. This one is pretty dumb, but at least it features a bog and a dog (named ‘Peanuts’). According to director William Witney, when the va-voom Miss Ames worked at Republic, stuntmen suffered more injuries running on rooftops to get a better look at her walking across the back lot than were hurt doing dangerous action sequences in the studio’s westerns.
Her hair turns grey in this monster flick, and that damn eternal curse follows her around as surely as those hungry stuntman gazes did at the rival fodder factory. Chaney nearly throttled supporting actor Reicher by accident (too strong, half-blinded by the makeup, and probably half-full of his daily chugged fifth of bourbon). Carradine appeared in 11 films in ’44, including House Of Frankenstein, where Lon got to revert from Mummy back to the more well-rounded Wolfman. Full moon or no, he still had one more Mummy up his tattered sleeve (on Kharis’ business-arm)….
THE MUMMY’S CURSE concluded the by-now draggy cycle in late 1944, a Christmas present for war-bonds-besieged moms to give their gee-whiz kids while it’s likely dads got to watch it on troop ships en route to serious real-life mayhem. Somehow, the action shifts geography from New England’s ‘Mapleton’ to the bayous of Louisiana (this is not explained:’there’s a war on’), where poorly-accented Cajuns start biting the bog when Kharis (Lon, strike 3) shuffles through the swamp doing the bidding of doofy Peter Coe (pretty bad acting) and slimy Martin Kosleck.
Leslie Goodwins directs the fast one-hour nonsense, which includes the requisite wide-eyed African-American stereotype babbling “De devils on de loose and he’s dancin’ wid de mummy!” The strong point for this one (well, it’s only strong point) and it’s a good one, is the alluring presence and committed performance of Virginia Christine. Later famous from over 100 commercials for Folgers as ‘Mrs. Olsen’, starlet Christine at 24 was a knockout, and she clearly cared enough about her craft to ignore the insipid material and come through with fervor and passion that leaves the rest of the cast mired in the muck. She actually emerges from the muck, in a well-regarded, creepily effective scene, the best thing in the film. Bravo, Virginia!
Her memories of the shoot include worrying about the self-medicated Lonster, recalling he “…liked the bottle. We’re supposed to climb up an old, ancient shrine, located in the back of Universal’s lot, and the steps were very worn and crooked, difficult to navigate under any circumstances, but if you’re in a mummy suit, have a drink or two—and he is absolutely stoned—and have a girl in your arms, it’s worse. Lon was weaving, going side-to-side on these uneven steps, and I thought oh, boy. He was a big guy, a very sweet guy, but big. I kept thinking, if he falls on me, I’ve had it. Fortunately, the director saw what was going on, got Lon out of there and put his double in the mummy suit.”
62 minutes, with Kay Harding, Addison Richards, Dennis Moore, Kurt Katch, William Farnum and Charles Stephens (the great-grandson of Apache chief Hashkeedasillaa, also known as El Diablo and Capitan Grande). The aforementioned Peter Coe was another colorful character: the Yugoslavian ex-pat, married eight times, was not only a carousing pal of Lon’s, he was a drinking & dreaming buddy of the legendary Edward D. Wood, Jr. As ‘Ilzor Zandaab’, Coe was the last in the distinguished line of Tana Leaf clerics, and it’s worth horror lore noting that to kids of a certain era the whole Tana Leaves deal was as vital a part of monster-play as the old gypsy woman’s curse from The Wolfman. While initial audiences for these four films, and others in the Universal tribe, were balconies full of shrieking home front children and massed companies of sailors and troops dosed with hoopla before going off to fight, a new group of fans found their secret potions starting in 1957, when Universal released 72 of their oldies onto the TV nation. Even us Eisenhower & Wonder bred children could see that while the Mummy was remorseless, and easy-to-imitate for quick laffs (try it, never fails) his slowness and language skills were no match for the acrobatic, snarling fury of the Wolfman. When Bill Cosby (speaking of frightening fossils) made fun of him in his record albums, we began to doubt the Mummy’s veracity, and look for our own plants to smoke. Quote the sheriff: “Looks like somebody else has been messing around with these tana leaves.”
In movies like these, a character does not say “It’s getting late”, but rather intones “The hours do not linger.” Noted, we bequeath the passing of the curse to Lon:
“I didn’t like the part at all. There wasn’t anything you could do with the Mummy. You just got into the make-up and bandages and walked around dragging your leg. I was completely covered from head to foot with a suit and rubber mask; the only thing that was exposed was my right eye! In the last of that series, the temperature was in the upper nineties! I liked playing the Wolf Man a lot better, and making those Inner Sanctum films. You had a chance to do some acting, and you had dialogue. All they ever wanted the Mummy to do was put his hand way out in front of him and then grab somebody, and start strangling him.”