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The Christmas Special Day 3: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

how-the-grinch-stole-christmasDirector: Chuck Jones

Writers: Irv Spector & Bob Ogle, based on the book by Dr. Seuss

Cast: Boris Karloff, June Foray

Plot: In the town of Whoville, Christmas is a season beloved by all. The Whos in Whoville gather together to cut down the town tree, decorate the community, and celebrate the season. But not everybody is happy with the season. North of Whoville, in a mountain cave, lives a green creature called the Grinch (Boris Karloff, doing double-duty as the narrator) who hates Christmas with all of his two-sizes-too-small heart. As he watches their celebration begin, he vows to destroy Christmas for everyone. Stitching together a Santa Claus suit and putting “antlers” on his dog Max, the Grinch sweeps into town and begins breaking into houses, stealing every present, every decoration, every morsel of food, even the roast beast. As he goes to work in one house, however, he’s interrupted by little Cindy Lou Who (June Foray).Cindy Lou mistakes him for Santa and asks him why he’s taking their Christmas tree. He tells her he’s bringing the tree to his workshop to repair a broken light, then ushers her off to bed and finishes his insidious task.

The Grinch and Max take their loot to the top of a mountain, where he plans to spy on the Whos as they wake up and find their Christmas ruined. To his shock, though, the Whos come from their houses, join hands, and begin to sing despite their lack of gifts, of trees, of boxes and bags. That’s when it dawns on him… that perhaps Christmas has a deeper meaning than those things one can buy from a store. As his heart fills for the first time in years, his sleigh of toys begins to tip over the side of the mountain. His newfound Christmas spirit gives him the strength to rescue the sleigh and he races back to Whoville to return everything he stole. The Whos welcome him with open arms and even allow him to carve the roast beast.

Thoughts: Like most movies (even short films) that are based on children’s books, when the time came to animate How the Grinch Stole Christmas there was a need to beef up the story considerably in order to make it fill the allotted running time. Fortunately, this is a case where just enough was added to make the story a real classic (as opposed to the 2001 feature film where just enough was added to make the whole thing feel like a waste of time).

Out of all the specials I’m going to talk about this month, this may be the most singularly perfect case of voice casting we’ll see. Boris Karloff, as both the narrator and the Grinch himself, delivers a legitimately flawless performance. The Narrator has the sort of homespun quality you want – it’s like having a grandfather or a gruff uncle calling you around the fireplace to tell you a story. Then he shifts into the Grinch persona, adopting a nasty edge to his timbre that sends him from being your grandfather to that creepy old man down the street you’re really afraid of but feel compelled to pester at Halloween. Complimenting Karloff in the small but vital role of Cindy Lou Who is the legendary June Foray, one of the two greatest voice artists of all time (the other being Mel Blanc, and if you want to rank anybody else above those two you are wrong). Foray gives Cindy Lou a tender innocence that could easily be obnoxious and saccharine, but she imbues it with such sincerity that she’s impossible to dislike. Cindy Lou is the child every parent wishes they could present to Santa Claus down at the mall.

Then there’s the direction. Chuck Jones, perhaps the greatest animator in American history, takes the performances of these voice artists and crafts a beautifully rendered, visually amazing world that perfectly captures the wonderful lunacy of Dr. Seuss’s best work, while still maintaining his own inimitable comedic style. In the antics of the Grinch and his dog Max, you can see the finest moments of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner or of Tom and Jerry, both of whom experienced their best years when directed by Jones.

The Grinch slinks along like a snake in this cartoon, he casually licks his fingers to unscrew a light bulb, and in one of the greatest moments in the special, his face grows into this insidious, far-too-wide grin when he concocts his terrible scheme. This sort of thing is all Jones, all part of his amazing animated style. The action sequences, when he’s racing up and down the mountain in his sled, or where he desperately tries to save the presents at the end… again, Jones is the star here, showing off the potential of animation to tell a story of this nature in a thrilling fashion.

Rounding out a perfect crew was Thurl Ravenscroft, best known as the voice of cereal mascot Tony the Tiger, singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The song is great in and of itself, but planting it in Ravenscroft’s deep baritone gives it a feeling that no other Christmas song can boast. That song, that performance, is just as famous as any other part of this cartoon, and it’s well-deserved.

This film also passes a rather unique test when it comes to Christmas specials. There are honestly far too few truly original stories out there. We live in a world where half the Christmas stories told are just retreads of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. This film is its own story, though, not a parody, which makes it impressive enough. But eventually, it reached the stage where it is the source of parody – plenty of movies and TV shows have spoofed the Grinch over the years. That places it in the upper echelon of Christmas stories, the strata of tale that writers who can’t come up with their own story choose instead to build upon. If that isn’t the sign of a cultural landmark, I don’t know what is.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 6: The Mummy (1932)

mummyDirector: Karl Freund
Writer: John L. Balderston
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan

Plot: While uncovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, an archeologist accidentally resurrects the priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff). Imhotep flees, and returns ten years later posing as a modern Egyptian and seeking a way to bring back his lover, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. He meets a woman (Zita Johann) he believes to be the reincarnation of his love, and attempts to reawaken within her the memory of their past, leading to a terrifying final confrontation.

Thoughts: Now this is interesting. I admit, this is my first time watching the original, 1932 version of The Mummy, although I was a fan of Stephen Sommers’ remake in 1999. However, I’d always assumed that the 1999 version was one of those sequels in name only, just an attempt by Universal to jumpstart a long-dead franchise in a modern way. Watching the original, I’m surprised to see just how much of the original film actually made it into Sommers’ version. The mummy, Imhotep, was cursed in both for similar crimes (love of/attempting to resurrect a forbidden princess). Also, in both versions the mummy is resurrected by accident (not really a surprise there, who would do it on purpose?), and finds a woman he believes to be his ancient lover, and thus attempts to bring her back to him.

The difference, of course, is in scale. By 1999, special effects had progressed considerably, so instead of a mummy that basically did his work by walking around and creeping everybody the hell out, we had Arnold Vosloo, who morphed from a wet, gushy corpse into… well… Arnold Vosloo, and at the same time had the power to whip up sandstorms that looked like his face. The remake is far more of an action movie than a horror movie, but I think you can attribute that to the fact that these old Universal Monsters aren’t really considered anything to be afraid of. They’ve become beloved icons of creepiness, but aren’t actually creepy anymore. They’re instantly recognizable Halloween costumes, and cartoons that sell us breakfast cereal.

At least… the iconic image of the mummy has become that. This is what’s interesting to me. When you think of a horror movie mummy in your head, you conjure up that immediate image of a desiccated corpse wrapped up in gauze or, if your parents didn’t make it to the store until 6:30 in the afternoon on October 31st, toilet paper. But Boris Karloff only appears in that particular mummy form for a scant few minutes at the beginning of the film. When he turns up again after the ten-year lapse, he looks more or less human. Old, kind of leathery, like he’s been out in the sun for a hell of a long time, but not the mystical monster he actually is. His power is internalized, and you don’t really get a sense of him being a creature of the undead until his destruction at the end, when the goddess Isis ages him instantly and he drops dead.

David Manners, who I found rather dull and lifeless in Dracula, returns to again be rather dull and lifeless here. I’m not really sure what to make of this, why in all these old-school horror films it seemed like an attempt was made to make the ostensible hero as boring as possible. Manners really does nothing in the film. He’s there to give Zita Johann’s character a love interest, but he doesn’t come to the rescue, he doesn’t get her into the trouble in the first place in any meaningful way… he simply doesn’t need to be there. By the 80s, of course, it wouldn’t matter. You’d have a thousand slasher flicks where the audience no longer really needs to identify with the supposed protagonist, and instead is really pulling for the monster, waiting to see how many kills he can rack up and how creative the filmmakers can be in throwing blood at the screen. The other characters are placeholders until they get killed, except for the final survivor – usually a teenager girl. She may survive with her boyfriend, who will be easily identified as he’ll be the only male in the movie who isn’t a complete douchenozzle.

But in 1932 that wasn’t the case. Karloff was supposed to be the bad guy, Manners was supposed to be the good guy, and the good guy was just plain dull. Karloff steals the show entirely, and while his comeuppance at the end is inevitable, it’s really hard not to wish that he had at least managed to take out David Manners on his way out.

1932 was a big year for horror, as it turned out. Next up will be one of the most controversial films of the time – and honestly, it’s still controversial today. It’s time to get into Freaks.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 5: Frankenstein (1931)

frankensteinDirector: James Whale
Writer: John L. Balderston, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris

Plot: Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has a plan to create life. Assembling a body from the pieces of corpses, he builds an enormous monster of a man. But alas, his plan goes awry when his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye)  places a criminal brain into the creature. The creation (Boris Karloff, climbing that rocketship to stardom) is innocent, but powerful and terrifying. When it gets loose and accidentally kills a small child, there can be only one solution – destroy the creature before it’s too late.

Thoughts: Right off the bat, this film is more engrossing than Dracula was for me. Henry Frankenstein (changed, for some reason, from the novel’s “Victor”) and his assistant begin the film with the eerie process of excavating the recently-dead to use their parts in Victor’s creation. Like Dracula, this actually adds to the original novel in ways that have become accepted as part of the lore – for instance, Mary Shelley was somewhat ambiguous about where Victor obtained the pieces he used to construct his man, even implying some of the parts were not human in origin. The whole segment with the abnormal brain, which is not pretty iconic for Frankenstein, started here.

That’ s by no means the only place where the film deviates from the source material, of course. It’s a pretty loose adaptation and abandons volumes worth of backstory, but it succeeds in creating a memorable, timeless interpretation of the character that has dominated our perceptions ever since. Every legendary image of Frankenstein — the green skin, square and scarred forehead, and bolts sprouting from the neck — originates here. This, my friends, is the reason Herman Munster was the man he was.

And let’s be honest here – it’s justified. This is a powerful piece of work. The creature in this film (Karloff, interestingly, was not named in the opening credits, but was given his due at the end) isn’t really a monster. He’s huge, he’s powerful, but he has no real desire to do harm until harm is done to him. This assertion, of course, is somewhat undercut by the idea that Fritz places a “criminal” brain into his body – that seems to imply that violence is in his nature after all. But then again, maybe that’s the point the filmmakers were going for.

Speaking of Fritz, I’m really starting to become a fan of actor Dwight Frye. His Renfield was one of the most memorable aspects of Dracula to me, and his portrayal of Fritz is creepy, laced with just a touch of comedy. The man really was a gifted actor, and did some magnificent work here in the early days of Universal Pictures. The classic “Igor” version of the mad scientist’s assistant actually doesn’t show up until later in Universal’s Frankenstein series, but Fritz is where the archetype has its foundation, making Frye responsible for two of the most enduring villainous second bananas in cinematic history.

Karloff, of course, is unequaled as the monster. He wasn’t really that big of a man, and reportedly the four-inch platform boots he wore as the monster were hell on him, but he brought in a tragedy to the performance that would make you think he was doing Shakespeare. You watched this creature and you felt for him. You watched the townspeople (in the classic torch-and-pitchfork wielding mob) chase after him and you had to wonder exactly who was in the wrong here. That’s what’s so great about this story – the way it can chill and still, at the same time, raise ethical questions. The creature did kill Marylin Harris, but is he actually responsible for her death? He didn’t know what he was doing. Counter-argument: if a wild animal kills a child, you put it down. Counter-counter argument: a wild animal isn’t a human being, and can’t be taught as one. Could the creature? We have to ask here – was he a monster, or was he an infant, unaware of his own strength, who had the potential to grow into a thinking, feeling man if it weren’t for all those people who wanted to poke him with stabby things and burn him with burny things?

To be fair, later films in the franchise would sort of throw away this particular hook, with the monster becoming less innocent and more malevolent, not to mention outright dangerous. But you can’t judge the original on those grounds. In this case, we can look at Frankenstein and his mob attacking the beast and wonder who was in the right. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t a zombie in the strictest sense of the word, but the ethical questions raised here feel like a precursor to the sort of things George Romero was later going to do in Night of the Living Dead and its better sequels, and that other, lesser filmmakers have attempted to do ever since.

I think it’s safe to say that Frankenstein – both the film and the creature – is my favorite of the classic Universal Monsters. But we are going to look at one more of them before we move on. So tomorrow let’s fire up the DVD player and step forward in time one year to 1932, and thrill to the tale of The Mummy.