Other Notable Performances: Peter Lorre (Crime and Punishment), Charles Laughton (Ruggles of Red Gap), Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty), Victor McLaglen (The Informer), W.C. Fields (The Man on the Flying Trapeze), Boris Karloff (The Bride of Frankenstein), Gary Cooper (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), Ronald Colman (A Tale of Two Cities)
Peter Lorre an actor who has been remembered for his quirky voice and disturbing eyes that we often forget he was a fine actor. He came to Hollywood from Germany in 1935 and immediately turned in two fantastic performances. In some ways his portrayal of Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment is meatier than the obsessed doctor in Mad Love. While Lorre has some great moments in Crime and Punishment – especially after he begins to overcome the guilt of his crime and toys with the inspector – his task is tougher in Mad Love.
Lorre pulls off the near impossible: he plays a crazed villain that the audience can empathize with. Dr. Gogol, a brilliant Paris physician known for performing daring and intricate experimental operations, is an awkward, socially inept man who can only love from afar. His love for actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) is unfulfilled. He has never talked to the beautiful woman; he only sits in the same box every night watching her perform. On the last night of the show he works up the courage to go backstage and introduce himself, eager to discuss her schedule for the next season. But Yvonne graciously explains that this show has been her last because she is going to England with her husband Stephen. Gogol is heartbroken.
Things change however when Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) is seriously injured in a train wreck, his hands crushed beyond repair and Yvonne, anxious for her pianist husband to play again, goes to Gogol and begs him to help. Gogol reluctantly agrees, unable to say no to the woman he loves. What he doesn’t tell anyone is he has to amputate the hands and attach new ones onto Stephen – new hands salvaged from the body of a recently guillotined knife thrower which will have disastrous unforeseen consequences.
The plot about Stephen Orlac’s new hands is not what makes this picture compelling. Peter Lorre’s characterization of Dr. Gogol drives the movie. He is creepy but not inhuman. We can connect with his shyness and social discomfort. In fact, Gogol is acutely aware that he is unattractive and inarticulate; early in the picture we sense that he knows better than anyone Yvonne could never love him. Maybe it is this knowledge that pushes him over the edge when circumstances thrust her back into his life. He finally sees a way to have the once unattainable but the closer he gets to having her (in his mind) the more his own inadequacy is highlighted, pushing him further into obsession and psychosis.
What is so remarkable is that Lorre created a whole person who isn’t defined by his insanity. If things had gone a different way we sense he would have continued as the quiet and reclusive genius, without turning murderous. Lorre is alternately scary and sympathetic, though we know the scary will overcome as the picture progresses. With Mad Love Lorre proved that he was one of the most interesting and dynamic actors of the 1930s.
Other Notable Performances: Margaret Sullavan (The Good Fairy), Greta Garbo (Anna Karenina), Bette Davis (Dangerous), Sachiko Chiba (Wife, Be Like a Rose!), Miriam Hopkins (Becky Sharp), Carole Lombard (Hands across the Table).
Katherine Hepburn gave one of the most touching and nuanced performances of her career as Alice Adams. Her natural range brought the necessary depth for a successful performance of Booth Tarkington’s discontented heroine. The role of Alice is tough – Hepburn needed to play sympathetic while also acting snobby and lying to make a handsome rich man believe her family is wealthy and, in turn, she is worthy of his affection. She pulled off the balancing acting marvelously. We watch her foibles and insecurities undermine her ambitions and we truly feel for her, something only an accomplished actor like Hepburn could have pulled off.
Since we can see through the upper crust artifice she assumes, we can’t help but feel sorry for her. This isn’t an icy gold digger, but a sweet girl dazzled by the promise of a life with money. This is especially harrowing during the ill-fated dinner she has for Arthur with her family. Slowly her pretence of wealth crumbles and her face becomes increasingly dejected (see the photo above). One thing after another – from a surly hired maid (wonderfully played by Hattie McDaniel), to the obvious humble furnishings, to food ill-suited for hot weather – betrays Alice and her family as an ordinary middle class family. Alice’s mortification becomes our own because Hepburn’s characterization is so charming and relatable that we understand why she lies and, even as we know it’s wrong, we forgive her. All we want is for her to be happy at whatever cost.
She partly builds the audiences sympathy in scenes where she exhibits fierce loyalty to her father. One of the best scenes of the picture is when Alice confronts her father’s former boss, Mr. Lamb, after he has done his best to financially ruin his former employee. Her indignation and pain bubble up into a passionate tirade in defense of a good and honest man. A lesser actress could have flubbed this moment and misled the audience, making us believe her anger stems from the realization that her family will never have the wealth she feels she needs for the life she wants. Hepburn, however, hits all the right notes, never betraying our confidence or sympathy. We know she is angry because her father is hurt; her own concerns are secondary.
Hepburn plays scene after scene like this and should have won the Academy Award that year. Bette Davis won for Dangerous but that was really the Academy making up for their oversight of her stunning work in Of Human Bondage the year before. Davis delivered a fine performance as an alcoholic actress in Dangerous, but even she acknowledged that Hepburn should have won for Alice Adams. She was right.
Other Notable Performances: Helen Broderick (Top Hat), Hattie McDaniel (Alice Adams), Mary Boland (Ruggles of Red Gap), Una O’Connor (The Informer), Yuriko Hanabusa (Wife, Be Like a Rose!) Edna May Oliver (A Tale of Two Cities), Edna May Oliver (David Copperfield)
Best Supporting Actress goes to another screen villain, but Blanche Yurka’s DeFarge avoids the charm of Thesiger’s Pretorius. Is there any creepier, icier portrayal of Charles Dickens’ most famous villain Madame DeFarge than Blanche Yurka? She oozes malevolence and there isn’t a moment that we don’t believe she is so thoroughly evil that she would wage a twenty year campaign against every member of the aristocratic Evremonde family, even an innocent five year old girl. Cloris Leachman got the look right in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I but she was playing it for laughs. Yurka is deadly serious. She is the specter that threatens everyone in this adaptation of the classic novel, though all she does is sit and patiently knit through much of the picture.
Her eyes are cold, calculating. She doesn’t give us a twinge of sympathy, but her sinister characterization is never cartoonish. She plays DeFarge at a gentle simmer until her climatic speech at Darnay’s trial. She is passionate, but it is the passion of a demagogue. Like the great demagogues of recent years (Father Coughlin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Jim Jones, Glenn Beck), she hammers at emotion and fear, ignoring facts and circumstances.
Yurka skillfully avoids playing it so straight that it descends into camp, which it could have easily, especially when she and Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) have their final showdown. She exhibits such genuine rage and pain that we can’t laugh at her, the way we may have with a lesser actress glowering and overacting for the same part.
Yurka didn’t make a huge impact on the film world after A Tale of Two Cities, but her performance in this movie, like Ernest Thesiger’s in The Bride of Frankenstein, was enough to make her one of the most memorable screen villains ever.
Best Supporting Actor: Ernest Thesiger (The Bride of Frankenstein)
Other Notable Performances: Frank Morgan (The Good Fairy), Edward Everett Horton (Top Hat), Wesley Ruggles (Ruggles of Red Gap), Edward Arnold (Crime and Punishment), Stepin Fetchit (Steamboat Round the Bend), Guy Standing (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), Henry B. Walthall (A Tale of Two Cities), W.C. Fields (David Copperfield)
Let’s do it like the Academy Awards and get the supporting acting categories out of the way first.
There were a number of fine supporting roles by actors in 1935, especially from comedic movies. Frank Morgan in The Good Fairy and Edward Everett Horton in Top Hat exceeded their usual good work. And Stepin Fetchit, a shamefully derided actor, delivered another fine performance in the Will Rogers picture Steamboat Round the Bend. (Yes, we were meant to laugh at the racial stereotype of the lazy, dim-witted black man, but we are far enough away from the racist intentions of the filmmakers that we can assess Fetchit’s worth as an actor objectively. It wasn’t his fault that these were the only parts being written for him and he was genuinely funny in spite of the perpetuated racism.)
But there is one supporting performance of 1935 that topped them. This one is also a comedic performance, however, it is featured in the shock-fest (for 1935) The Bride of Frankenstein. Ernest Thesiger flamboyantly plays Dr. Septimus Pretorius, gleefully perpetuating horrible acts. Like Dr. Frankenstein, he creates life, but his work is limited and needs Frankenstein’s collaboration to fully complete it. That Frankenstein doesn’t want to help doesn’t faze a man who isn’t afraid to play the evil card; Pretorius has other ways to compel the beleaguered doctor to cooperate.
Thesiger’s razor-thinly coded homosexual character is one of the great movie villains. He is truly rotten, playing God in ways Freddy Frankenstein could have only dreamed when his heart was still in the monster making business. But Thesiger’s Pretorius is also genuinely charming. His mad scientist credentials don’t detract from his amiable personality and gracious sociability. He is one of the few people not to be repulsed by the Monster’s appearance, probably because he robs graves in his spare time and picnics in crypts. He is as happy to chat with the Monster as he is anyone else. His own exclusion from society has made him open to accepting that which others fear and hate. That he does it with panache is all the more captivating. Sure he often has an ulterior motive, but that would never compel him to be inhospitable or ungracious. He may be evil, but he isn’t rude.