(UK 1940 68m) DVD2
A carrion crow sat on a tree…
p George King, Odette King d George King w Edward Dryhurst, Frederick Hayward, H.F.Maltby novel “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins ph Hone Glendenning ed Jack Harris m Jack Beaver art Bernard Robinson
Tod Slaughter (Sir Percival Glyde, impostor), Sylvia Marriott (Anne Catherick/Laura Fairlie), Hilary Eaves (Marion Hairlie), Hay Petrie (Dr Isidor Fosco), Geoffrey Wardwell (Paul Hartwright), Margaret Yarde (Mrs Bullen), Rita Grant (Jessica, the maid), David Horne (Frederick Fairlie), David Keir (Merriman), Elsie Wagstaff (Mrs Catherick),
To say that Tod Slaughter is an acquired taste is one of the biggest understatements one could ever make. He’s like cinematic marmite and for many just as difficult to swallow. His films, if seen in the cold light of day, are archaic fossils, transcriptions of old blood-curdling melodramas that were popular on the boards of amateur theatrical houses in the Victorian and Edwardian era. While the upper classes went to see Henry Irving, Edward Gordon Craig and Ellen Terry, the masses came to see the predecessors of Tod Slaughter chew the scenery in productions with all the refinement of a tavern wench’s cleavage.
Slaughter’s peak period was from the mid 1930s to 1940, and included such lip-smacking nonsense as Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Maria Marten, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror and the hamtastic The Face at the Window. If one had to nominate a favourite, however, it has to be Crimes at the Dark House, which dared even to literary pretensions as a rough adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ famous chiller The Woman in White. In it Slaughter plays a scoundrel whose name we don’t know, but who adopts the name of Sir Percival Glyde after he murders him out in Australia and takes his family ring and a letter advising him to come home and take up the role of baronet because his father had died. On his arrival, he finds out that the old baronet died leaving debts of 15,782 pounds, 18 shillings and five pence. His only way out is to marry the daughter of one of the old baronet’s late friends, Laura Fairlie. She will bring a fortune, which he can then take control of.
It’s utterly ridiculous stuff, not least Slaughter playing a man who hasn’t even reached forty when he looks every year of his 55 years, but that’s part of the creaky charm. One recalls Charles Laughton saying, in response to the incestuous subtext to his performance as Edward Moulton Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street that “they can’t censor the gleam in my eye.” With Slaughter it’s not so much a gleam as a lecherous dart. On hearing of his prospective bride his first words are “the lady is young and comely, I hope.” While he’s waiting, he finds a buxom maid and orders her to come to him for “certain instructions” and, one blink later and she has a bun in her oven and Slaughter has to turn off the gas by strangling her and tossing her body into the lake. Other bodies of snoops who get too close to the truth follow her, and he despatches them with equal relish, with a laugh rather like Dwight Frye’s Renfield gibbering in the hold of the Demeter.
Everything really comes to a head in the final act, with his accomplice, a crooked doctor from an asylum (the splendidly nasty Hay Petrie) coming a cropper in spectacular style, knocked out and then hanged by a bell rope in the old parish church. His bride’s sister, Marion, then gets threatened with rape – or “breaking in a mare” as he calls it – before he’s finally trapped in his own conflagration, dying with all the thespian subtlety with which Charles Laughton’s Henry VIII ate capons and chickens. It’s utter trash, but taken in context absolutely hilarious stuff, right from the opening scene of Slaughter murdering the real Sir Percival by hammering a tent peg into his eardrum, broad enough to make the later Gainsborough costume cycle of gypsies and orphans seem like Jane Austen in comparison (even with Maggie Lockwood’s heaving cleavage). Nothing can match Slaughter threatening Petrie with “I’ll feed your entrails to the pigs” or scrapping away while Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony gets murdered. You’ll swear you can smell grilled gammon as the closing credits roll.