Book Review: The Very Witching Time of Night

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The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema by Gregory William Mank is big. It took me a long time to get through, but it was certainly never boring, with its lively presentation of facts, bio and backstory. Don’t be scared away by the title if horror isn’t your thing. Though a horror film or genre personality anchors each of the (lucky) 13 chapters, they’re really just a gateway to wide-ranging classic Hollywood material, what Mank nicely describes as a focus on the tangential. Things like Carl Laemmle Jr.’s genius and hypochondria, John Barrymore’s curses and the strange stories of both his and Lionel Atwill’s remains being moved posthumously, how a little lie Helen Chandler told to get a part nearly cost her her life, how Mae Clarke sued a TV horror hostess, what Douglas Sirk thought of Edgar Ulmer, what got Simone Simon shipped back to Europe, and so much more.

With the sheer volume of detail presented here, it’s definitely a big plus to be very interested in the people being discussed. But Mank’s writing is so colourful, dynamic and easy to read, that any serious movie buff would find much to enjoy in all the 1930-40s studio politics, production timelines, notes from the head office, box office statistics, casting processes and the lives that intersected during this period.

The chapters:

The book starts with the life of Helen Chandler, since Dracula (1931) was the “baptism of Hollywood horror for the sound era.” Chandler’s sister helps tell her tragic story, how she broke into movies, married actor Bramwell Fletcher, was lauded by Darryl Zanuck as “the next Lillian Gish,” and how she missed her moment, suffered devastating injuries in a 1950 fire and died at age 56.

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John Barrymore in Svengali and The Mad Genius, with special attention given to the public reception and impact on the stars’ careers. Marian Marsh fans will enjoy the spotlight she gets here as Mank follows her Cinderella story from casting, to set gossip, to details of her performance. There are lots of shoot secrets and comparisons between directors Michael Curtiz and Archie Mayo. I loved reading how Svengali used miniatures to show Barrymore looking out a window and sending his gaze across the city rooftops and into Marsh’s bedroom, and there’s even what Lionel Barrymore believes to be a cursed totem pole.

Murders in the Zoo (1933) is a notorious “pre-Code screwball comedy horror film” and this is the incredible story of its filming, censorship and reception. The off-kilter comedy and disturbing content led to wrangles with censors, but those were nothing next to a deadly conflict between the animals used in the film.

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Lionel Atwill’s real life scandal rivaled some of the worst shocks in his horror movies. This chapter features an interview with his son, who was a baby when Atwill died. He talks about his mother, singer Paula Pruter, her colourful life as Atwill’s young wife and widow, and his own strange adventure acquiring and relocating his father’s “lost” ashes.

Universal and James Whale’s controversial film One More River (1934) sparked a furious censorship battle but experts consider the movie Whale’s masterpiece. Covered extensively here is Diana Wynyard, followed by Colin Clive and Whale’s mental state as a result of the troubles on this movie. There’s a great story from Jane Wyatt, who was making her debut and balked at having her eyebrows plucked by Jack Pierce after he reassured her by showing photos of his best work–on Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Boris Karloff at Warner Bros. 1935-39, tells of the actor’s difficulty getting respect and decent projects from the head office, dashing his hopes of it being his best period. Here you learn why Warner’s deal to buy Universal studios fell through, why Kay Francis twice refused to work with Karloff, and which Karloff movie made during this time was the only picture to ever win an Oscar by write-in vote.

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The full story of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), from hit Broadway play to classic film. “Dear Boris” Karloff gets continued coverage in this chapter since he was an investor in the play, and made lots of money from its success and the bidding war for the screen rights, but didn’t get to recreate his role in the movie version. That went to Raymond Massey, whose casting is just the tip of a great saga that even involves Humphrey Bogart.

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Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944) get the production diary treatment here, from script to screen and scandal in between, mainly from displeasure with Simone Simon’s antics and scene-stealing attempts. The many highlights in this section include the movies’ promo art, Jane Randolph’s insights on the costuming and cast dynamics, Elizabeth Russell watching the movies decades later at a festival and fleeing from her scary on-screen self, Val Lewton giving up credit for some big ideas and his widow claiming he was afraid of cats.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) is the story of a train wreck, and of Bela Lugosi’s decline in one of the most “infamously troubled” horror pictures ever. Maybe they should have stuck with the original idea of having Lon Chaney Jr. play both monsters, because Bela was the opposite of thrilled at playing what he called a scarecrow, and the studio was horrified at the result, “a blind, sick, yakety-yak monster with a Hungarian accent.”

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The chapter on PRC’s Hitler’s Madman (1943) tells of the race to make movies about the assassination of Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich. Francis Lederer was considered but John Carradine landed the role in the Douglas Sirk film, Hobart Cavanaugh played Hitler but was replaced, MGM bought the movie, and the production was racing to release before a competing Fritz Lang treatment, Hangmen Also Die (1943). Lots here about Patricia Morison, Curt Siodmak, a young Ava Gardner in a lineup scene added by MGM, and the awkward attempts to market this movie.

When John Carradine put together his dream Shakespeare company, he met the young actress Sonia Sorel, who would become his second wife and mother to three of his children. Here you get a well done bio of the talented and troubled Carradine, from his idolization of Barrymore, through his low opinion of his movies and Hollywood, to his death.

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When in 1957 Universal packaged their movies for TV airing under the Shock! banner, the “horror host” became a pop culture staple. In those first airings, one hostess (Ottola Nesmith) got into character as a haggard and batty old lunatic living in an alley, and then claimed in jest to be Mae Clarke because she happened to be introducing Frankenstein. The real Mae Clarke didn’t find that funny and sued Nesmith and Paramount for $1M. Mank here includes a Clarke bio, details of the trial, and Clarke’s thoughts on being depicted as a broken-down has-been. Another TV horror host is covered in this chapter, Richard Dix (not the actor) and his wife, whose act “Dr. and Mrs. Lucifer” predates The Addams Family.

Finally, Carl “Junior” Laemmle, who, in a few short years running Universal, produced the Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Dracula (1931) and kicked off their horror cycle. Mank talks to his widow Evelyn Moriarty, a frequent body double for Marilyn Monroe (who Junior Laemmle dreamed of casting in Rain). Moriarty discusses Laemmle’s kindness, eccentricities, disabling hypochondria and disappointing later career at MGM, and the sad fact his good decisions and contributions seem to have been forgotten.

Challenge

This review is part of the SUMMER READING CLASSIC FILM BOOK CHALLENGE hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: The Very Witching Time of Night”

  1. I originally picked this up for the Helen Chandler chapter, but it was so easy to get hooked into the rest of it. Great collection, and it’s awesome to have a Chandler biography to point to now! Excellent look at the treasures to be found inside this pricey, but hefty, volume.

    1. Thanks Cliff, I hardly knew where to start describing what all is in here. 🙂 Loved all the tangents, because he covered many who don’t get enough attention elsewhere, like Chandler, or background that might not be well known. Fun read!

  2. Thank you for the review! Richard Dix’s TV host may predate the television version of the Addams Family. However, Charles Addams cartoon had been running in the New Yorker magazine since 1938, so the Addamses predate broadcast TV networks by some years.

    1. Right, and Dix said in the book how they’d re-enact the cartoon scenes to prepare 🙂 It’s good reading. And thanks!

  3. Unlike other horror geeks, I thought Massey did a great job on Arsenic. Genuinely scary, and he obviously studied his Karloff: the hunched posture, walking with backs of his hands facing out. Too bad, tho that the real deal couldn’t finally be imported from B’way. Grant vs Karloff – the two great icons of their respective genres. Karloff did do the play decade later, twice on tv.

    1. He did do a good job, I agree, and there’s a lot in here about the process of making him up etc. Also in that chapter it goes through all the different cast members of the play. Loved learning that.

      1. Have read the book, never heard anything before about that proposed switch. Despite the trepidations, he passed the difficult job of playing straight to Grant while inhabiting another actor’s persona.

  4. Really love Greg Mank’s books – a wonderful writer, so enthusiastic about his subjects and so knowledgeable. Thanks for highlighting this in your review, is now on my list!

    1. I am currently into his book on Boris and Bela. Great readable style, written by a fan makes a ton of material like this easy to plow through and enjoy 🙂 Thanks

  5. I generally regard Mank as my favorite film writer. He always keeps me engaged and his in depth look at studio productions and facts are always intriguing if you know the players. He’s frequently at a festival in Pittsburgh I attend on occasion and is easily approachable.

    1. Yes I enjoy that kind of writing, professional but fan-like, love of movies and their backstory comes through. You know I’m reading that Boris-Bela book too.

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