My Patreon Patron John M. asks…
Did HPL see the classic monster movies from Universal (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, etc.) and what did he think of them? Did he especially enjoy any horror movies?
Before the First World War, H.P. Lovecraft attended the local cinemas with some regularity. He had previously enjoyed musical shows and light opera in the theatre and, after the advent of worthwhile cinema, he may have mingled theatre and cinema during his evenings.
I am a devotee of the motion picture” — letter of 1915.
Who knows what pioneering gems he might have seen at the time, gems now lost or mouldering in the vaults? Did the seven year old Lovecraft and his Gramps enjoy Georges Melies’ shorts The House of the Devil (1896, haunted castle, vampire) or A Terrible Night (1896, giant beetle nightmare)? Did he see early science-fiction classics such as A Trip to the Moon (1902)? Did he enjoy a cheap double-bill of Frankenstein (1910) and Dante’s Inferno (1911) in some Providence flea-pit circa 1912? Perhaps but it’s more likely he saw the occasional early Poe adaptation, such as the admired Henry B. Walthall in The Raven (1915, bio-pic with story-inserts). So far as I know he doesn’t recall these in letters, and his tastes may have run more toward slapstick comedy shorts such as the Chaplin movies. He apparently had a most disconcerting laugh, which he later had to supress, so having him behind you at a Chaplin comedy screening may have been rather scary.
He was also enormously fond of anything Japanese and his favourite pre-war star was Sessue Hayakawa. Hayakawa did a lot of classy melodrama involving rather tedious-sounding love-tangles. But Lovecraft almost certainly saw his favourite star in this more fantastical major movies The Wrath of the Gods (1914, cursed woman, volcanic eruption); The Bottle Imp (1917, magic genie); The Dragon Painter (1919, frustrated painter, gods, fantasy); and An Arabian Knight (1920, Egyptologist, reincarnation, menace). It would also be interesting to learn what was in Hayakawa’s evocatively named shorts The Village ‘Neath the Sea (1914) and Mother of the Shadows (1914).
He saw The Bat and thought nothing of it… “The Bat made me drowse back in the early 1920’s”. However, it was not released until 1926, so he may even have been recalling the 1920 Broadway stage play. Could this have toured to Providence in the early 1920s, or perhaps had a run in Cleveland in 1922?
In 1921 he derided the movie of The Golem, as having nothing in it of the book.
In Cleveland in 1922 there were major cinema outings with his new friends, but these were probably the very disappointing Sherlock Holmes (1922) and the anthropology classic Nanook of the North (1922, Arctic documentary).
While living in New York he saw a number of feature-length movies. He found the opening reels of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) boring, but stayed as he was seeing it with Sonia. Luckily the later parts he found scintillating. He saw The Unholy Three (1925, creepy-crime), with Leeds and Loveman. He saw the dinosaur adventure The Lost World (1925), then a triumph of special effects and early screen monsters.
He experienced the full power of cinema at a New York showcase cinema, seeing there a pristine print of Fritz Lang’s Siegfried with his friend Leeds in late August 1925. This was about as good a cinema experience as one could get in 1925, and the house had “specially equipped itself with advanced audio equipment, so as to project the fine subtleties of the music.” The movie had however been “shortened for export” from Germany, and likely suffered 12-15 minutes of cuts, mostly those that showed the hero in ignoble situations. Lovecraft was enthused…
“Nothing had so inspired me in weeks, & I believe a masterful daemon-tale could be founded upon the sinister bass musick”
He saw a number of cinematic curiosities in New York, such the painstaking screen recreation of the Italian Renaissance in Romola (1924) and the German mountaineering documentary-drama movie Peak of Fate (1924). He was also fond of whaling movies such as Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), and one could consider the whale as a kind of sea-monster. A number of his circle had been in the New York movie business before its move to California — Leeds, McNeil, Houtain, Dench, Wheeler Dryden (Chaplin’s half-brother) — and they may have been guides on what not to see. The first Vitaphone movies were appearing, which tightly synchronised the music with the screen action, and the result was a leap forward in aesthetic enjoyment. Lovecraft saw Don Juan (1926) thus, and enjoyed it partly for this reason.
Back in Providence Lovecraft talked of going to see an unnamed movie after seeing Morton off on the New York boat in late December 1927. I suspect this could have been the German UFA silent feature The Street. An “an expressionistic nightmare” in which the street is the monster. Lovecraft did it first, in his own “The Street”.
Apparently Lovecraft had a rather short-lived job as a cinema ticket-booth man in Providence around 1929/30, to help raise the cash for a long trip. Elsewhere I’ve dated this as April 1930, most likely. I can’t see that he would have been interested in any of the movies likely to have been playing that month, ‘free tickets for staff’ or no.
It seems difficult to imagine that he missed the feature-documentary With Byrd at the South Pole (June 1930, Oscar for Best Cinematography) and that it did not help inspire the Miskatonic Antarctic Expedition of 1930–31. But there is no mention of his seeing it that I know of.
He went to see his first Universal monster movie Dracula (February 1931) when in Miami, while on his summer 1931 trip to the south. He was so bored by the “dreariness” that he simply walked out in protest and went for a delightful long night-walk along the beach instead. The things his imagination could conjure from the glistening silver surf were a match for anything on the silver screen.
In 1932 he saw his next Universal monster movie, Frankenstein (1931). It made him both drowse and seethe at the insult to Shelley’s original. “Ugh!” he wrote. Evidently the supposed silver-screen “classics” from Universal were not so in the eyes of the master of horror.
A few years later Universal redeemed themselves with The Invisible Man (1933). Lovecraft had never lauded H.G. Wells but he found the adaptation “Surprisingly good … genuinely sinister”. Although he seems to have been equally impressed with the pre-Code “boy hobos” movie Wild Boys of the Road (1933), seen at the same time. Summer 1933 seems to have been a cinema spree for him, probably trigged by the new breed of quality movies seen with the Longs at Christmas 1932/33. He almost certainly saw The Mummy (December 1932) with the Long family in New York at Christmas, though so far as I know did not remark on it. If there was a horror movie that might have made him imagine (in his rather depressed state) the impending inadequacy of fiction compared to the big screen, this was likely it.
The following summer he may even have seen the notorious Madchen in Uniform (1933), as Barlow was spurring him about it in the letters and it was fairly widely distributed.
In 1935 he told Bloch he was seeing few “cinemas”, but I expect he endured part of the awful adaptation of Haggard’s famous She (1935). Another ‘walk-out’ movie, most likely. By this time his tastes seem to have run more to historical movies such as Clive of India (1935, founding of the British Empire) or the curiously titled Ah, Wilderness! (1935, comedy nostalgia set in 1906 America). He greatly enjoyed both of these. Anything with lavish Roman architecture (de Mille etc) or set in Georgian England was also a big draw, especially if there was a fantasy element — such as in his all-time favourite time-travel drama Berkeley Square (1933).
Poe’s The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935) he appears to have left unseen, from what I can tell. Possibly he didn’t care to have his vision of Poe disturbed by Hollywood.
He was coming to a new appreciation of cinema, partly aided by having attended a Christmas 1935 lecture by S. Foster Damon at Brown on the aesthetic potential of cinema. He saw Don Quixote (1933) soon after, as a result, and found it… “a really magnificent piece of art, justifying all that Prof. Damon said of the cinema”. A late surprise in this line was Winterset (1936, crime), seen January 1936. “Damn good. I didn’t think a symbolic-poetic drama with conventional action and bold coincidence would get by [at cinemas] as well as [a movie in] a modern setting”, Lovecraft compared it to John Ford’s The Informer (1935, IRA in Ireland in 1922) which he had evidently seen. But as he aged and as production offered movie houses an ever-more crowded programme, it likely became more and more easy to “miss” a movie that might only be playing for a week or less. In this way he missed the science-fiction Things to Come (1936), lamenting that in February 1937… “it has not returned to date!” This comment indicates he was casting an eye over the new cinema listings, as they appeared in the local newspaper.
He likely experienced movie horror in another way, especially in the early years. There was a horrible tendency of cinemas of the time to show the pictures either too fast, or too jerkily, and for sections of mangled celluloid to be cut out. Music was often out of sync with the action. Cinemas could also be seen as warm cheap places to socialise and chat and eat fast-food, which would be off-putting to those who wished to simply enjoy the show. Alternatively the place might be almost empty and the projection man consequently slapdash in his job. One could not guarantee that the experience would be a good one, even if the movie was good. Some cinemas, such as the Strand in Providence, capitalised on this and made a feature of promising that every screening would be satisfactory.
I have probably missed a few movies here, seen by Lovecraft at various times. Are there any missing that he enjoyed and which might be in some way supernatural or ‘big-beast’?