Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

You know, it's been a while since I've seen "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  And the first thing I thought as the music from Swan Lake was playing and the opening credits were being displayed was "who is Sidney Fox, and why is she getting top billing over Bela Lugosi ?"  It's actually a very interesting and tragic story.  But first the film ...

The film is based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and takes place in Paris in 1894.  A group of friends are enjoying an evening out at "Carnival" and are wandering about observing the various sideshow attractions.  Members of the group include "Mlle. Camille L'Espanaye" (Sidney Fox) and her escort "Pierre Dupin" (Leon Waycoff, aka Leon Ames).  The group of friends decide to enter the tent of "Dr. Mirackle" (Bela Lugosi) to see what spectacle the doctor has to offer.  As they enter the tent Camille sees the doctor and exclaims "what a funny looking man, he's a show in himself."

As the show begins, Mirackle claims to be able to communicate with "Erik" his pet ape and to be able to translate what the beast says.  He asks the spectators "Do you understand him, or have you forgotten?" Mirackle translates to the crowd how Erik was taken from his home, away from his family, and how lonely he is.  He then proceeds to lecture on the theory of evolution and human's descent from the apes.  People in the audience become offended and insulted, and begin heckling Mirackle, who then exclaims that he will prove the theory by "mixing the blood of man and ape."  What no one knew was that the doctor's experiments had already begun.  And his next subject would be the object of his and Erik's obsession, Mlle. Camille.

Director Robert Florey had a unique approach to filming his scenes with the ape.  He used close up shots of a real chimpanzee and edited them in with shots of the man in the gorilla suit for more realism.  Charles Gemora played the role of "Erik" the ape and also had the distinction of playing the part of the chimp (uncredited) in the Laurel and Hardy short "The Chimp" (1932), and also played one of the aliens (uncredited) in the sci fi classic "War of the Worlds" (1953), among the many other roles throughout his career.  In an early role Arlene Francis appears briefly as a "woman of the streets", one of the doctor's victims.  The film is a Bela Lugosi tour de force and he is at his menacing and sneering prime.  The film was produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. which brings us to the story of Sidney Fox.

According to his book "Women in Horror Films, 1930s" author Greg Manks writes that there may have been some favoritism shown to Sidney Fox at Universal because of Laemmle Jr. who "discovered" her and became infatuated with her, which in turn gave her the top billing over Lugosi.  There were also rumors that there was some kind of affair between Fox and Laemmle Sr. at some point, and that many people were not happy with Fox's acting talents in general.  Ms. Fox denied all the gossip but in reality she actually did have a tumultuous personal life including a troubled marriage, and poor performance reviews throughout her brief career.  All this culminated in a "probable" suicide after consuming a large quantity of sleeping pills on November 14, 1942 at the age of 34, only ten years after this film was released.  Another tragic Hollywood ending for a young actress with a promising career.

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