Nineteen thirty-two. The year Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, was published. The Great Depression was at its worst. Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican Pres. Herbert Hoover to become the American president in a landslide win. Gandhi went on a hunger strike. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Eighty-four-year-old Paul von Hindenburg was re-elected president in April, defeating Adolf Hitler. Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was kidnapped from his New Jersey home. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the first scifi radio show was first aired. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington all had hit songs.
And in 1932 Boris Karloff starred in the Universal Picture’s film, The Mummy. It was a dark, brooding film shot in black and white, rich in noir-ish shadows and implied threat. It was inspired in part by the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the alleged curse that carried (spoiler alert: it didn’t) – the opening of the tomb was a worldwide pop culture event even a decade later – and also possibly by a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Ring of Thoth (1890).
But oddly enough, it was also a love story, one that stretched out through millennia. The iconic mummy costume – therefore the monster – is seen only for a short time at the start of the film, making it less visually scary than some films in the genre. Karloff, shorn of his wrappings, plays a newly-resurrected human – still pretty creepy in a restrained, almost gentlemanly way. And yet there’s a certain sympathy in the movie for the monster who remains in love. Roger Ebert even called his performance “poignant.”
The 1932 version, seen today, is far from scary, and more artistic than you might expect from a monster movie. The monster-into-man transition turns it into more of a suspense thriller than fright film. Universal came back with more traditional monster roles for the mummy in a series of low-budget remakes in the 1940s (most starring Lon Chaney Jr), but they failed to win over audiences or reviewers.
Universal had had significant successes with its first two monster films, both released in 1931: Frankenstein (also starring Karloff) and Dracula. These two would go on to spawn several sequels, but The Mummy never had a real sequel, although several “re-imagined” Mummy films would be made from 1940 through to the 1970s. Other monsters would join the party in the subsequent years: The Invisible Man, the Creature From the Black Lagoon and many more.
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