The story of the tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, set its visual signature on the Jazz Age and Art Deco and brought a touch of ancient mystery to a world that had in most other respects an aggressively forward trajectory.
And then there was that delicious nonsense about vengeful curses, striking down the members of the expedition one by one. It may have been journalistic hooey, but it was also irresistible.
Here was a horror film ready written: an expedition opens a sealed tomb, and meets some dreadful supernatural peril - exactly the fusion of ancient and modern Universal had been seeking in their screenplays, and in the most romantic setting imaginable. No problem with Carla Laemmle and her guidebook turning up here: here, in reality, was a land like Universal’s Transylvania, where modern conveniences and ancient evils rubbed along together. It could have been invented for the express purpose of Universal horror movies. Howard Carter’s first thought as he made that hole in the entrance to Tutankhamen’s tomb and peered though should have been, “Universal are certainly going to get some mileage out of this one.”
.There had been mummies in literature before; Arthur Conan Doyle had written a story about them, Edgar Allan Poe had ruminated in more than usually puckish mode too. But this story, this mix of two ideas (the revived mummy and the killing off of Western archaeologists after a sensational find), this essence of every single mummy film you ever saw, this is copyrighted Universal Studios, 1932.
There was never any question, for instance, that the Tutankhamen story would have inspired a supernatural mystery set entirely in Ancient Egypt. No, it is precisely that collision between old and new, the literal break in the wall that Howard Carter’s chisel made between the age of mystic rites and strange forces and the age of twenties freedom and glamour, that is the commodity in which this film trades.
Here was a world that was at once dark and creepy and not fully explained, and at the same time already central to Western culture and familiar to the American filmgoer. It was the film they had been trying to make all the time. Whichever way you look at it, after Dracula and Frankenstein, it just had to be the Mummy on next.
Is The Mummy the masterpiece of Universal horror?
It is not (quite) my favourite: that, as for so many of us, is the one I saw first. But it does represent the perfection of that formula Universal was tinkering with in the early thirties. No other of their films mixes ancient superstition, supernatural evil and modern trappings quite so easily and reasonably. The atmosphere is beautifully maintained throughout (the best-directed Universal horror?) and there are none of the uneasy juxtapositions and lurches in tone that resulted from the attempts to modernise Dracula and Frankenstein.
Now, here we need to stop and remind ourselves that the original mummy movie, a directorial reward at last for German camera wizard Karl Freund, is not part of the Universal mummy series that played to delighted twelve-year-old boys throughout the war years, any more than The Wolf Man is a sequel to Werewolf of London. This is, in fact, about as different as a movie can be while still being about a resurrected Egyptian mummy at large in the present day.
Outside of one amazingly sophisticated opening scene, we do not even see Karloff bandaged. Even here, we get only a few quick shots of a brilliant mummy make up that took Jack Pierce hours to put on Karloff.
We see him in his sarcophagus, we see him come very dimly to life, and we see one arm move. A moment later, we see his hand, and finally a single bandage trailing behind him as he leaves. And that’s it for one of Jack Pierce’s best ever make-ups.
As an aesthetic decision it’s perfectly justified: the scene is suggestive and creepy to a degree far greater than anything in the later Kharis movies, one of the few Universal moments that really do rival the subtle effects of Val Lewton at RKO. (But how it was got past the value-for-money front office is mysterious indeed.)
If The Flying Serpent is a remake of The Devil Bat (and don’t you just love knowing exactly what I’m talking about there?) then The Mummy is a remake of Dracula.
Edward Van Sloan is Van Helsing gone bats on Egyptian folklore, subjecting leading lady Zita Johann, under the monster’s spell, to leading questions in the drawing room, while David Manners resumes his strategy of standing a pace or two behind her looking worried. Statues of Isis are handed out in place of crucifixes. There is even a civilised drawing room confrontation scene between wise Van Sloan and the monster.
This seems one of the safest projects of the early Universal movies, a surefire package like the monster rallies of the forties. The sedate, heavy, almost perfumed atmosphere, however, was not, presumably, what the studio ordered, but Freund’s intention seems to have been to recreate an opiate nightmare, a fleeting, flesh-creeping thing, rather than just another fight on the ramparts.
Observe the gorgeous scenes of Karloff loitering in the Cairo museum at night; intoning by candlelight. And look again at the most famous sequence, where the mummy first comes to life. It is so slow, and unfolds in such glorious Dracula silence, every shot counts, every moment is held just long enough… until the sudden eruption of maniacal laughter. (“You should have seen his face!”) This must have poleaxed them in 1932.
Only the flashback sequence interrupts the rhythm. Embedded within the movie, introduced by Karloff as “memories of love and crime and death”, it is a cracking, pacy, beautifully acted five-minute silent movie in its own right, with wonderful baroque performances (one-time silent actor Karloff still knows how it’s done), Cecil B DeMille costumes, Karloff entombed alive, and even a bit of good old-fashioned gore as a line of servants is bloodily impaled.
The rest of the film is as sedate and measured as the movements of Karloff’s crumbly and decrepit (but still good for his age) Egyptian scholar, who insinuates himself into the British expeditionary party for obscure motives that eventually resolve themselves in a reincarnation fantasy, as Karloff recognises Zita Johann as his long lost Egyptian queen reborn. (“Ancient Egypt! Nothing modern!” she swoons approvingly when she sees his interior décor.)
Johann’s is widely regarded as the most nuanced female performance in the Universal sequence, and certainly, few actresses playing a hypnotic trance have proved so hypnotic. Even so, her reputation is smaller than her fascinating, brief filmography and extraordinary looks warrant: she should be an icon alongside Barbara Steele or even Louise Brooks.
She only made seven movies in her three-year career between 1931 and 1934; The Mummy being her third (after The Struggle  for D.W. Griffith, and macho fishing drama Tiger Shark  for Howard Hawks.) After her trip to the tombs, she led Luxury Liner (1933), a big project from Paramount, and then one of the truly odd films of Hollywood, The Man Who Dared (1933), Fox’s semi-fictional drama based on a true event in which a man was killed in the line of fire during an assassination attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But most fascinating of all, she made one of the most unusual and provocative independent oddities of the pre-Code years, The Sin of Nora Moran (1933), playing an innocent woman about to be executed for murder.
This is a strange and relentlessly gloomy meditation on fate and mortality, told partly in flashback and partly in semi-symbolic form, in dreams and fantasies, which constantly butt into each other. It's pre-Code so, innocent though she is, she dies anyway, the real killer puts a gun to his head, and a character who has perverted the course of justice twice sums up for us and walks free.
Adultery, murders covered up by characters who go unpunished, and a supernatural climax, this really should have been Johann’s springboard to stardom. But maybe the studios weren’t looking; maybe her style is just that bit too unusual. She would have gone over in silents, for sure.
To get the most from Johann’s performance in The Mummy it’s good to come to it after watching Nora Moran rather than the other way round. That abrupt cut to our first glimpse of her, eighteen minutes in, seems instantly loaded with portent if you’ve just watched her grappling with destiny for an hour, if you already know what those soulful eyes are capable of conveying.
Watch the sequence where Karloff summons her while she is at a dance, and she walks from the dance floor, out of the building and into a taxi. It is beautifully shot, with an especially well photographed reverse tracking shot as Johann separates from her dancing partner and walks directly towards the camera, short-haired, round-faced, massive-eyed. And I‘m not sure what she’s wearing in that back-of-the-taxi shot, twenty-two minutes in, but what a fantastic composition!
Once in Karloff’s clutches, he wastes no time getting her into a snake headdress and jewelled bikini resembling one of Claudette Colbert’s fetishistic outfits from DeMille’s Cleopatra; it makes you realise just how overrated historical authenticity can be. But enjoy it while you can: like Maureen O’Sullivan’s two-piece in the pre-Code Tarzan movies, costumes like this were not to survive the purge of ’34..
And here’s David Manners, again, as I said. Who remembers now that he was actually a lot more than the guy that turns up here and in Dracula and The Black Cat... that through the pre-Code years he maintained a leading man career that constantly hovered on the brink of real stardom?
He’s certainly chiselled and dapper, and always extremely likeable; as an actor... well, I suppose it would be fair to say that the day after they handed out great dramatic talent, they made him chiselled and dapper and extremely likeable. He was in Journey’s End and The Last Flight; he’s with Stanwyck in The Miracle Woman for Capra; he’s the fiancé Katharine Hepburn spurns to look after her insane father in Cukor’s Bill of Divorcement.
If there is a problem with Manners, it is that he rarely seems to be in quite the same class as his leading ladies. Actors need real stature if they’re not to be pushed off the edge of the frame by the likes of Stanwyck and Hepburn. Zita Johann is the same. When she asks him “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” and he seems unable even to acknowledge that the question is provocative, we realise that some movie heroes really are too chiselled and dapper for their own good..
If you want to see what he’s like in a straight movie as opposed to a horror (or you can just take my word: he’s pretty much the same), a fine choice to plump for is Man Wanted (1931), prime pre-Code society drama from Warners.
Manners, who gets to do some comedy here, is a department store demonstrator who becomes magazine editor Kay Francis’s male secretary after he turns up at her office at 9pm to sell her a rowing machine. (Whatever happened to great plots like this?) Naturally, his girlfriend is against the idea (the peerless Una Merkel, in perhaps her funniest ever performance) and Francis’s philandering husband is just looking for an excuse to divorce her…
Another good reason for watching Man Wanted is that Manners’s boss at the department store, the guy who motivates him to get out there and sell that rowing machine, is our old pal Edward Van Sloan.
Strange to hear that voice, which we are so used to hearing delivering mystic mumbo jumbo in as mannered and heightened a fashion as Lugosi’s, here rattling its way through slangy American dialogue with pace and confidence and the emphases in all the right places. This is what Lugosi dreamed of being able to do, though of course Van Sloan ended up in The Phantom Creeps just as surely as he did.