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Children of the night – American horror films of the 1930’s

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Horror movies have always been a staple part of cinema, right from it’s earliest beginnings – versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were filmed in 1908 and 1910 respectively whilst vampires made their first screen appearance in 1911’s The Vampire. By the early 10’s the home of horror cinema had settled in Germany with expressionist triumphs such as The Golem (1914) and The Student of Prague (1913) piling on the terror.

Supernatural horror, naturally enough, took a back seat whilst the real life horrors of world war one were all around but by 1919 the superb The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (another German film) was scaring audiences worldwide. Hollywood’s attempts at this time and throughout much of the 1920’s borded on the comic – it took German immigrant to Hollywood Paul Leni to show the way with 1927’s The Cat and the Canary.

Arise Universal

By 1931 though Hollywood, thanks to the rise of the sound film, was really leading the way and horror films were no exception. Universal made three films in the early thirties (Dracula, 1931, Frankenstein, 1931 and Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1932) that ushered in a whole new era of horror cinema and one that would resonate across the decades.

Tod Browning’s Dracula with a star making performance from Bela Lugosi (who only got the role when Lon Chaney Sr died before filming began despite the fact that Lugosi had played the role on Broadway in 1927) started the ball rolling. James Whale then gave us Frankenstein which featured Boris Karloff as the monster and was twice as popular a Dracula which in turn had been a huge money spinner for the studio.

Finally Robert Florey (who had originally been slated to direct Frankenstein with Lugosi as the monster) directed Murders in the Rue Morgue with Lugosi once again in the lead role. Although not as profitable as either Dracula or Frankenstein it was still a huge success for Universal. All three films are clearly very influenced by the likes of Caligari and all feature their own unforgettable atmosphere of fairy tale gone awry. It’s fair to say that it’s this quality that has led to their enduring appeal.

The Floodgates Open

Before too long the huge success of these movies led to a rash of similarly styled movies – some have stood the test of time (1933’s King Kong and Tod Brownings 1932 film Freaks – which was not popular at the time, indeed many distributors refused to even show it, but is now regarded as one of the key films of the genre) and some were less successful such as 1932’s Dr X not to mention a whole raft of re-makes and sequels of the original trio which reached a nadir with 1944’s House of Frankenstein which featured Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and The Wolf Man.

A theory for the popularity of these movies expounded in recent years is that the depressed 1930’s represented a growing dissatisfaction with the world of authority – indeed there might be something to be said for that – all of the major movies in the genre show, albeit in microcosm, a world where anybody who strays from what is considered the norm must be not only punished but most likely exterminated. In reality the monster in the great Universal movies is actually a hero in the Byronic mould – misjudged and misunderstood.

Almost Universal

Despite Universal seemingly cornering the market most of the major studios tried to get a slice of the horror pie. Warner made Doctor x and The Mystery of the Wax Museum, Paramount made early inroads with a sterling take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931 and directed by Rouben Mamoulian) whilst MGM went for Tod Browning’s Freaks. However RKO came closest to stealing the Universal crown thanks to a series of low-key psychological horrors directed by Val Lewton but what really worked in Universal’s favour was the fact that, much like Disney today with their ever growing collection of franchises, all the major monsters were on their payroll. Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and even The Phantom of the Opera were all part of the stable. Only Dr Jekyll and possibly Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame were at other studios.

Unfortunately the quality of the Universal movies seldom matched up to the first trio – most were directed and written by contract players journeymen rather than auteurs – one exception was R.C. Sheriff the novelist turned scriptwriter who told in his autobiography how he was asked to write the script of The Invisible Man (1933) and after asking for a copy of the source novel was instead given a pile of scripts that bore no resemblance to Wells and in one featured an Invisible Man from Mars. Directed by James Whale, The Invisible Man is also one of the stand outs of the early Universal period. by the 1940’s though, sadly, most of the monsters were out of favour and had poached by Poverty Row studios for efforts that starred The Bowery Boys or were acting as foils to comedy double act Abbott and Costello.

Running out of steam

The Original Universal horrors were all based on classic novels albeit it was sometimes hard to see where any of the original story lay and they started to go down hill once the studio was forced to come up with ever more outlandish plots for it’s monsters, by the time Lon Chaney Jr had replaced Boris Karloff as the genre’s most prolific actor he was basically just remaking the same movies over and again.

In the end though the best of the Universal horrors have stood the test of time and have influenced countless film-makers down the years and thanks to their movie portrayals characters like Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula have become part of the very fabric of our folk-lore.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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