Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940)

Universal produced a steady stream of horror movies during the 1930s and 40s, and not all of them reached the artistic heights of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Among the lesser pictures of the era we have entries like The Mummy’s Hand (1940), director Christy Cabanne’s contribution to a series of follow-ups to the 1932 classic, The Mummy. More pedestrian than Universal’s original mummy movie, The Mummy’s Hand falls short of greatness but still offers classic horror fans a reasonably good time, thanks in large part to the presence of talented supporting players like George Zucco and Cecil Kellaway.

Dick Foran stars as Steve Banning, an American archeologist down on his luck in Egypt until he stumbles upon clues to the secret location of the Princess Ananka’s tomb. With backing from the magician Solvani (Cecil Kellaway), Steve and his sidekick Babe (Wallace Ford) set out to find the tomb, but the high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) opposes them at every turn. Determined to protect the princess’ resting place, Andoheb unleashes her mummified guardian, Kharis, on the intruders.

The story repeats many elements from the 1932 film, including the history of Kharis’ love for the princess and his gruesome punishment for trying to resurrect her. Gone, however, is the connection between the dead princess and the modern heroine, Marta Solvani (Peggy Moran), which makes the mummy’s kidnapping of her seem like an odd course of action. The mummy himself, played by Western actor Tom Tyler, lumbers about in an unconvincing suit of bandages, his face devoid of the detail and expression that make Karloff’s visage so memorable. The addition of Wallace Ford’s Babe as a comic sidekick does nothing to help the film, either, since he’s an obnoxious lout whose wisecracks inevitably fall flat.

The main attractions here are George Zucco as the fanatical Andoheb and Cecil Kellaway as the charming magician, Solvani. Zucco, an expert heavy, is much scarier than the shuffling mummy, even though we feel some sympathy for him, too, as Andoheb strives to defend his people’s sacred tomb from the greedy Western infidels. His predecessor, played with perfect intensity by Eduardo Ciannelli, also appears as an early highlight of the film. Cecil Kellaway makes an excellent foil to the serious mystics as a paternal stage illusionist, a genial fellow who can fill drinks with a finger and pull bowls of goldfish out of his hat. It’s the kind of role for which Kellaway is perfectly suited, and he provides the effective comic relief that Wallace Ford fails to deliver.

The mummy character Kharis returns for The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and The Mummy’s Curse (1944), although in each of the later films he is played by Lon Chaney, Jr. Christopher Lee plays Kharis in the 1959 remake, The Mummy. See more of George Zucco in The Cat and the Canary (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942). Cecil Kellaway also stars in I Married a Witch (1942), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There are plenty of other classic mummy movies to keep you busy, but I’m especially fond of the 2002 horror comedy, Bubba Ho-Tep, which features cult favorite Bruce Campbell as a geriatric Elvis battling an Ancient Egyptian threat.