Monday, August 15, 2016

Mark of the Vampire Starring Lionel Barrymore

Lionel Barrymore is not a name one readily associates with horror movies. In fact, in his entire career he only appeared in two films that clearly belonged to the genre. Both were films directed by Tod Browning :  Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil-Doll (1936). Today Mark of the Vampire is probably the best known of the two films. And while its ending is debated to this day, Mark of the Vampire is generally considered a classic.

Mark of the Vampire centres on murders in a small, Eastern European village. The local villagers suspect the late Count Mora (played by Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (played by Carroll Borland) have returned from the dead and are responsible for the crimes. Investigating the crimes are  Inspector Neumann (played by Lionel Atwill) of the police and Professor Zelen (played by Lionel Barrymore), an expert in demonology.

Mark of the Vampire was essentially a remake of Tod Browning's silent film London After Midnight (1927).  In turn London After Midnight was based on Mr. Browning's short story "The Hypnotist". Sadly, London After Midnight is a lost film, the last known copy having been destroyed in a fire that struck MGM Vault #7 in 1967. While London After Midnight was set in London, however, the working title of Mark of the Vampire was Vampires of Prague. Despite its working title, however, Mark of the Vampire is set in a village that seems much smaller and much more rural than Prague. In large part because of the more stringent enforcement of the Production Code that began in 1935, Mark of the Vampire would see some changes before its shooting script. As originally conceived, Count Mora murdered his daughter and then killed himself, and there were some strong incestuous overtones to their relationship. MGM had any reference to suicide and any hint of incest cut from the script.

MGM did face one major hurdle in releasing Mark of the Vampire. Universal filed an injunction against the film's release claiming it was too close to their film Dracula. Ultimately Universal lost their day in court, perhaps because Dracula and Mark of the Vampire have very little in common beyond Bela Lugosi and Tod Browning's visual style. 

Mark of the Vampire opened to largely positive reviews. The New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent wrote of the film, "Like most good ghost stories, it's a lot of fun, even though you don't believe a word of it." In The Hollywood Reporter review it was written of Mark of the Vampire that "It's well-produced, well-acted, well-directed by that old master of screaming thrill, Tod Browning." Not only did Mark of the Vampire get largely positive reviews, but, contrary to popular belief, it did not bomb at the box office. Mark of the Vampire made $563,000 world-wide upon its initial release. Ultimately the film did make a small profit.

Although Mark of the Vampire is often considered a Bela Lugosi's film, it is Lionel Barrymore who is the film's star. Indeed, MGM's contract with Mr. Lugosi specified that he would receive at least second billing and no actor's name would appear in larger type than his, with one notable exception--Lionel Barrymore. As it turned out, in the end Bela Lugosi was third billed. As might be expected Lionel Barrymore was top billed (and his name was in the largest type), but then MGM starlet Elizabeth Allan was second billed. 

At any rate, Lionel Barrymore certainly received much more screen time than Bela Lugosi. And Mr. Barrymore put that time to good use. He played Professor Zelen over the top, at times seeming like an affectionate grandfather and at others a stern schoolmaster. What is more, his  knowledge regarding vampires constantly seems to be changing. At times one has to suspect the professor is simply making things up as he goes along. This being the case, that Lionel Barrymore hams it up a bit as Professor Zelen actually enhanced the role (and the film as well) more so than if he had played the role straight. Unlike Van Helsing in the various Dracula movies over the years, Professor Zelen is simply playing the role of vampire hunter, when in truth he is simply a very good detective. 

Lionel Barrymore would have a slightly more outrageous role in Tod Browning's next film The Devil-Doll, after which he would make no more films that could clearly be considered horror. This is perhaps regrettable, as Lionel Barrymore brought a great deal to the genre in the two horror movies he made. Regardless, while Professor Zelen may not be one of his best remembered roles, it is certainly one of his most interesting.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I saw this film several years ago and rather enjoyed it - especially seeing Barrymore as the detective. I did not realize it was based on Tod Browning's silent film. It would have been nice to see that one, too!

I also didn't realize he made so few films associated with horror, which does seem like a shame. He could have had a lot to offer, like John Barrymore seemed to have a lot to offer to horror.

Fascinating review!