May 10, 1946
Mark Robson, William Hogarth, Carlos Keith
Boris Karloff as Master George Sims
Anna Lee as Nell Bowen
Billy House as Lord Mortimer
Richard Fraser as The Stonemason - William Hannay
By Uncle Pump
- Bedlam is : “scene of mad confusion,” 1667, from colloquial pronunciation of “Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem” in London, founded 1247 as a priory, mentioned as a hospital 1330 and as a lunatic hospital 1402; converted to a state lunatic asylum on dissolution of the monasteries in 1547.
Yes Bedlam was the nickname of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum. A particularly harsh environment for the mentally challenged in 1761, which is when our story is set. Now, for the telling of our story, we have to travel forward to 1946, but first let me make a Dusty Mustie comment in general. One thing you will see time and time again with older classic horror films, is that most are set in centuries prior to the filmmaker’s. Most modern horror films are set in current times–most older ones were not set in their current time. Is any gothic horror made anymore?
Well back to 1946 and our feature presentation:
Karloff, Lewton, RKO–all three will make frequent appearances among the Dusty Musties, and this is great film to showcase them.
We’ll start with Karloff, a true icon of the genre. Truly one of a kind. Frankenstein’s Monster. The Mummy. And is there a more dinstinctive voice in the genre? He narrated and was the voice of The Grinch, who was stealing Christmas way before Mr. Skellington came along (he even took the roast beast!) and honestly, who’s voice was Pickett trying to imitate when he recorded the original classic Monster Mash? Because of how great he was as Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy, alot of younger primates don’t recall what a great actor he really was in a human role. With the possible exceptions of The Body Snatcher and Targets, this may be his finest acting performance. He plays the Master of the asylum, George Sims. Such a lush performance. Notice the difference in facial expressions and even body movements as he shifts effortlessly from subserviant, groveling kisser of the dandy Lord Mortimer’s fat ass to the ruthless, cunning, and cruel Master of the inmates. Karloff’s performance alone makes this film worthy of multiple viewings.
Now we come to Mr Val Lewton and his wonderful relationship with RKO pictures. A relationship that brought us The Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Body Snatcher. These are the three that most folks have heard of, and as much as I love them, I think Bedlam is right up there with them. As producer, this was Lewton’s most expensive film for RKO, but also the least sucessful. It didn’t impress moviegoers or RKO and Lewton never made another picture for that studio. Most folks have never heard of this movie, but I think it deserves to be mentioned with Lewton’s best. It is easily his most underated film.
Most folks think Lewton directed these horror classics for RKO, but although he was involved in every aspect of the film-making, the actual ” getting your hands dirty” directing was done by his frequent collaborator Mark Robson. Robson and Lewton co-wrote the screenplay which was inspired by a William Hogarth engraving. The scene depicted in the engraving is actually reproduced in the film.
Although Robson is usually completely forgotten in the shadow of his mentor, Lewton, he was a fine director in his own right who would later get two best director nominations from the academy for 1958’s Peyton Place and 1959’s Inn of the Sixth Happiness. He would later go on to direct 1967s Valley of the Dolls, and 1974’s Earthquake.
As you can tell from the age of the movie and the posted photos, this is a black ‘n’ white movie and a beauty. The use of shadows was very important in a black ‘n’ white movie and Lewton and Robson were masters. They were absolute geniuses in the use of lighting and shadows and it is rare to see a black ‘n’ white film so lush and beautifully shot.
Karloff/Master Sims’ adversary, Nell Bowen, is portrayed by the lovely Anna Lee, a goddaughter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and probably best known for her later lengthy run as Lila Quartermain on the soap, General Hospital. And a worthy adversary she is, as her character takes an instant dislike to Sims and his methods of dealing with the inmates under his care. She is the one who does not fall for his blowing of smoke up noble asses. The banter and arguments between Sims and Miss Bowen are some of my favorite moments in the film–true examples of fine verbal swordplay. Another trivia note regarding Anna Lee: The dress she is wearing when she mounts her horse is the same one Vivian Leigh made from curtains in Gone With The Wind.
Many may not consider the film itself to be a Horror film, but more of a psychlogical thriller, although the setting of an 18th century English insane asylum should garner quite a bit of fear. Nell Bowen is the protege of Lord Mortimer, although she makes it clear that, “He has no more freedom with me than any man”. They happen to be taking a carriage ride (I love those carriage rides) past the asylum when an unfortunate “accidental death” occurs. She dislikes Master Sims immediately and is further disgusted and horrified to learn that Sims is making a profit by charging people to come in to “see the lunatics in their cages”. Her rage only grows once she sees his treatment of the inmates.
During her angry persistance at trying to cause Sims’ downfall through Lord Mortimer, she finally crosses the wrong lines and ends up at the mercy of Master Sims as one of his inmates. It’s a chilling and forboding moment during her first night in the asylum when Sims, gleefully evil, shoves the money in her mouth.
What will become of young Nell? Who will come out on top? Who will survive their stay in Bedlam? You’ll have to watch it to see.
The cast is rounded out by a great group of inmates, whose various afflictions, illnesses, and disorders I won’t spoil. Look for a young Ellen Corby (of Grandma Walton fame). Look for Ian Fleming’s inspiration for suffocation by gold paint. You won’t have to look for the other important character, The Quaker, who is everywhere spreading his message of creamy Quaker goodness that we’re all the same in God’s eyes (now whether God loves us all or God thinks we’re all fucked, I’m not sure). There’s also the wonderful Mr. Wilkes who doesn’t mind letting Nell know that he requires much more freedom with his proteges than does Lord Mortimer.
For those of you interested in the evolution of women’s roles in Horror films, Anna Lee’s portrayal of Nell Bowen has been described as the first real feminist heroine, setting the stage for the Strodes and Ripleys to come.
As dusty as this Mustie is, compared to many more well-known 1940s Horror movies, I believe you’ll have to look hard to find one that decade that truly surpasses this gem. The film is a wonderful example of how deep, and rich black ‘n’ white filmaking could be in the right hands. The dialogue is a tremendous piece of writing and Karloff and Anna Lee give performances as good or better than anything else they’ve done. And the ending–oh the ending–it is truly worthy of the film.
That’s it for this session. See this movie. Eat your bananas.
And please–try to scare yourself.