Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.
Character actors add so much to the movies they’re in, it’s hard to imagine these movies without them. Never receiving the praise heaped upon the major actors and stars of the genre, these folks nonetheless are often every bit as effective as the big name leads.
Up today, an actor known to horror fans for three key roles in three classic horror movies, and that actor is Edward Van Sloan.
Edward Van Sloan played three similar roles in three of Universal’s best horror movies from the 1930s. He played Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA (1931), Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and Dr. Muller in THE MUMMY (1932).
As Dr. Van Helsing, a role he had played earlier on stage opposite Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, he’s one of the best. While Peter Cushing is my all time favorite movie Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan came closer to the Stoker interpretation than Cushing did, but even he deviated from the way Stoker wrote the character. Probably the closest I’ve seen an actor capture the literary Van Helsing on-screen would be Frank Finlay’s performance as the vampire hunter/professor in the BBC production COUNT DRACULA (1977), starring Louis Jordan as the Count.
But for Edward Van Sloan, it’s all about presence and authority, something he definitely wields in DRACULA. Bela Lugosi is absolutely mesmerizing as Dracula, and his performance dominates the movie. Yet Van Sloan is up to the task of matching wits with Lugosi, and his Van Helsing is a worthy opponent for the vampire king. The scene where Dracula tries to use hypnosis to overpower Van Helsing is one of the strongest scenes in the film, acted so expertly by Van Sloan, as you can see it in his eyes as he’s resisting Dracula’s powers, and for a split-second, Van Sloan’s eyes go blank, and at this instant the audience shudders, begging that he doesn’t succumb to Dracula’s powers, and when he rallies and resists Dracula, it’s a great moment in the movie.
As Dr. Waldman in FRANKENSTEIN, Van Sloan plays Henry Frankenstein’s former professor, who for most of the movie, acts as the voice of reason. He tries throughout to talk sense to Henry Frankenstein and is constantly urging caution. As Dr. Waldman, he gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he warns young Henry. “Your success has intoxicated you! Wake up! And look facts in the face!— You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”
Prophetic words. Actually, they were more on the money regarding Waldman’s fate, because later in the movie, the Monster (Boris Karloff) kills the professor. In fact, Professor Waldman’s death is one of the more shocking moments in FRANKENSTEIN, a film which contains more than a few of them, and it’s a testament to Edward Van Sloan’s screen presence. Van Sloan was so effective as Professor Van Helsing in DRACULA, so convincing when he destroys Dracula, it strikes audiences as an absolute shock when he doesn’t do the same in FRANKENSTEIN, when in fact it’s the Monster who kills Professor Waldman, and not the other way around.
And Edward Van Sloan is one of only two actors— the other being Dwight Frye who played Renfield in DRACULA and Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN— to star in both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.
In THE MUMMY (1932), Van Sloan plays Dr. Muller, a variation of his Van Helsing/Waldman characters. This time, he’s an expert on Egyptology, and he matches wits with Boris Karloff’s Mummy, Imhotep. THE MUMMY is an excellent horror movie, as good if not better than DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. Once again, Van Sloan nails the role of the heroic professor and is completely believable as the knowledgable scholar who takes on the supernatural Imhotep.
As for the rest of Edward Van Sloan’s career, here’s a partial look at his 88 screen credits, focusing mostly on his horror film roles:
SLANDER (1916) – Joseph Tremaine – Edward Van Sloan’s first film credit is in this silent movie from 1916, the only silent film Van Sloan made.
DRACULA (1931) – Professor Van Helsing – probably Van Sloan’s most famous role, and the role he is most remembered for. Van Sloan’s work as Van Helsing in this movie is as memorable as Lugosi’s Dracula and Dwight Frye’s Renfield.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – Dr. Waldman – Another famous role for Van Sloan, this time playing Henry Frankenstein’s former professor and the man who tries to convince Frankenstein to destroy his creation. We all know how that turned out.
BEHIND THE MASK (1932) – Dr. August Steiner/Dr. Alec Munsell/Mr. X – a crime drama marketed as a horror movie due to the presence of Boris Karloff in a small role. Van Sloan plays the villain here, in a role that Karloff probably would have played had this movie been made a few years later.
THE DEATH KISS (1932) – Tom Avery – a comedy/mystery notable for reuniting three cast members from DRACULA: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan.
THE MUMMY (1932) – Doctor Muller – takes on Boris Karloff’s evil Imhotep in this horror classic.
DELUGE (1933)- Professor Carlysle – early “disaster” film as New York City is threatened by an earthquake and tidal wave.
AIR HAWKS (1935) – Professor Schulter – weird hybrid of drama and science fiction. Ralph Bellamy plays the owner of an airline company who hires a mad scientist— played by Edward Van Sloan— to build a death ray to force down his competitors’ planes.
THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935) – Calvus – Historical adventure set in the doomed Roman city, directed by KING KONG directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. With Basil Rathbone as Pontius Pilate. A box office flop.
DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) – Professor Van Helsing – reprises his Van Helsing role in this well-made sequel to DRACULA. The movie starts right where DRACULA left off, and Van Helsing finds himself arrested for the murders of Dracula and Renfield. Before he can be officially charged, however, the bodies disappear, whisked away by Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) who happens to be Dracula’s daughter, and who’s now in London with an agenda of her own. Smart horror film, well-written, acted, and directed.
THE PHANTOM CREEPS (1939) – Jarvis – Science fiction serial from Universal reunites Van Sloan with Bela Lugosi, as Lugosi plays a scientist hell-bent on taking over the world.
BEFORE I HANG (1940) – Dr. Ralph Howard – This time Van Sloan is reunited with Boris Karloff, as Karloff plays a doctor on death row for mercy killings, who injects himself with a serum that turns him into a Hyde-like villain.
THE MASK OF DIIJON (1946) – Sheffield – Erich von Stroheim plays a magician who uses his hypnotic powers to seek vengeance.
SEALED VERDICT (1948) – Priest – Edward Van Sloan’s final screen credit in a World War II war drama starring Ray Milland.
THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950) – Minister at Funeral – Edward Van Sloan’s final film appearance, an uncredited bit as a minister at a funeral in this film noir crime drama.
There you have it, an abbreviated look at the film career of Edward Van Sloan.
Edward Van Sloan died on March 6, 1964 at the age of 81 in San Francisco, California.
While he enjoyed a long and successful career as a character actor in the movies, for horror fans, he will always be remembered for his roles in three of Universal’s best horror movies from the 1930s: DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE MUMMY. Van Sloan made for a fine hero in all three of these films.
Edward Van Sloan -November 1, 1882 – March 6, 1964.
I hope you enjoyed this IN THE SHADOWS column. Join me again next time when we look at the career of another notable character actor.
Thanks for reading!
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.