LEADING MEN: DAVID MANNERS

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David Manners in between Karloff and Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

Welcome to a brand new column, LEADING MEN.

Here at THIS IS MY CREATION: THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA I already write a LEADING LADIES column where we look at the career of lead actresses in horror movies, and IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at character actors, women and men, who appeared in horror movies.

In LEADING MEN, we won’t be looking at the horror superstars, folks like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Cushing, Lee, and Price, but those actors who had leading roles in horror movies and played key parts that were not character bits and who in spite of their success in these roles did not achieve superstar status.

We kick off the column with the number #1 leading man from the early Universal monster movies, David Manners. He played “John” Harker in DRACULA (1931) and the similarly dashing young hero Frank Whemple in THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff.

My favorite part of David Manners’ performances is that he took what could have been stoic wooden “leading man” love interest roles and infused these characters with some personality, which is why his characterizations in these old Universal monster films are better than most.

So, here’s a brief look at Manners’ film career, focusing mostly on his horror roles:

THE SKY HAWK (1929) – pilot (uncredited) – David Manners’ first screen appearance, an uncredited bit as a pilot, a World War I drama that also starred Manners’ future DRACULA co-star Helen Chandler.

JOURNEY’S END (1930) – 2nd Lt. Raleigh –  David Manner’s first screen credit is in this drama starring Colin Clive as an alcoholic captain trying to lead his troops in the trenches of World War I. Directed by James Whale, who would direct Clive the following year in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

DRACULA (1931) – John Harker- Sure, Manners hams it up at times, and some of the scenes with him and Helen Chandler as Mina are among the film’s slowest, but he also enjoys some fine moments in this Universal classic. He seems genuinely annoyed with both Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing, as the professor continues to argue for the existence of vampires, something Harker believes is ludicrous, as well as with Lugosi’s Dracula when the vampire shows his fiancee Mina some attention. When Dracula apologizes for upsetting Mina with his stories, Manner’s Harker reacts with a very annoyted, “Stories?” as if to say when have you been finding the time to tell my fiancee stories?

THE DEATH KISS (1932) – Franklyn Drew –  Manners stars with DRACULA co-stars Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan in this mystery/comedy about murder on a movie set.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Frank Whemple – Joins forces once again with Edward Van Sloan to stop another movie monster, this time it’s Boris Karloff as ImHoTep the undead mummy who returns to life and subsequently discovers his long lost love has been reincarnated as a woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Of course, Manners’ Frank Whemple is also in love with Helen, and so once again he’s the dashing young hero who works with Van Sloan’s professor— not Van Helsing this time but Doctor Muller—to protect the young heroine from an evil monster. I prefer Manners’ performance here in THE MUMMY over his work in DRACULA as his acting is more natural in this movie.

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Peter Allison – Manners’ turn here as mystery writer Peter Allison is probably my favorite David Manners’ performance. In this Universal classic which was the first movie to pair Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi, the two horror superstars take on each other in this atmospheric thriller set in Hungary and featuring devil worshippers and revenge. Manners plays an American novelist on his honeymoon with his wife, and the two get caught in the crossfire between Karloff and Lugosi. Manners gets some of the best lines in the movie, most of them very humorous, and Manners pulls off this lighter take on the leading man quite nicely. My favorite Manners line is when he’s speaking of Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig and says, If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.  

MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935) – Edwin Drood – Horror movie based on the Charles Dickens novel stars Claude Rains as an opium-addicted choirmaster with a taste for young women and murder. A financial flop.

LUCKY FUGITIVES (1936) – Jack Wycoff/Cy King –  Dual role for Manners in which he plays an author who is a dead ringer for a gangster and as such is mistakenly arrested. Manner’s final screen credit.

David Manners only had 39 screen credits, and that’s because after LUCKY FUGITIVES he retired from acting. He would go on to become a painter and a writer, publishing several novels.

He died in 1998 of natural causes at the age of 97.

For me, Manners will be forever remembered for his dashing leading man roles in the Universal horror classics DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY (1932), and THE BLACK CAT (1934). He gave these roles personality, and they have stood the test of time and remain integral parts of these classic horror movies.

David Manners

April 30, 1901 – December 23, 1998

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING MEN column and join me again next time when we look at another leading man in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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LEADING LADIES: HELEN CHANDLER

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Helen Chandler as Mina in DRACULA (1931), setting her hungry eyes on her fiance’s throat.

LEADING LADIES:  Helen Chandler

By Michael Arruda

Welcome to LEADING LADIES, the column where we look at leading ladies in horror movies, especially from years gone by.

First up, it’s Helen Chandler, who played Mina in the Bela Lugosi classic DRACULA (1931).

I have to admit, in all the years that I’d watched and re-watched DRACULA, I never really paid much attention to Helen Chandler.  Obviously, I was mesmerized by Bela Lugosi, thrilled by Dwight Frye as Renfield, and equally impressed by Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, but the two romantic leads, David Manners as “John” Harker, and Helen Chandler as Mina, I hardly noticed at all and dismissed them as the over-acting romantic lovers so often found in those early black and white movies from the 1930s.

But one day, about ten years ago or so, I focused on Chandler and noticed for the first time just how beautiful she was, and how sad a character she made Mina in this movie.  Suddenly, I was paying attention to her in her scenes, and I was hooked.

Helen Chandler made a bunch of movies, twenty-seven to be exact, but I’ll always remember her as Mina in DRACULA.

Chandler lived a sad life.  Early in her career, she enjoyed considerable success as a stage actress, but when she tried to make the jump to the movies, things didn’t work out as well, and she never became as popular in film as she was during her years performing on the New York stage.  She did make twenty-seven movies, her final one in 1938, a comedy/romance entitled MR. BOGGS STEPS OUT.

She was married three times, with two of the marriages ending in divorce.  Her acting career was derailed by alcohol and a sleeping pill addiction, and in 1940 she was committed to a sanitarium.  In 1950, she was disfigured in a fire, apparently the result of smoking in bed.  She died on April 30, 1965 from complications from surgery to repair a bleeding ulcer.

I’ve always thought that Helen Chandler would have made a fine Daisy Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY.  Interestingly enough, Chandler’s life shared parallels with GATSBY author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda.  Both women were sent to sanitariums, Chandler for alcoholism and sleeping pill addiction, and Fitzgerald for mental health issues, and both were victims of fires while there.  In Zelda Fitzgerald’s case, the fire was fatal.  Both women died in tragic fashion.

In her early scenes in DRACULA as Mina, Helen Chandler is so full of life.  When you look deeply into her face, you’ll find an expression of playful mischief in her eyes, especially in her scenes with Lucy and at the concert hall when she is first introduced to Count Dracula.

These early scenes are juxtaposed perfectly to her later scenes after she has been bitten by Dracula.  In these, she appears distant, lost, the vibrancy and life which had been in her eyes is now gone.  She appears almost—dead.  Of course, this is spot on, since she’s on her way to being undead, and during these scenes she’s in a state somewhere in the middle. She captures the feelings of being lost, of not knowing what is happening to her, perfectly, and she slides effortlessly from lively Mina to near-undead Mina in a heartbeat.

It’s easy to overlook these subtleties in her performance because she’s playing in these over dramatic love scenes with co-star David Manners, who hams things up more than she does, so on the surface it looks like she’s just over acting, but if you pay close attention to her, you’ll find a lot more going on.

She’s much better than Mae Clarke as Elizabeth in the Boris Karloff version of FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and her performance as Mina continues to grow on me each time I watch DRACULA.  I really wish her film career had taken off and she had starred in some other major releases.  Some more horror movies would have been nice.

It’s too bad that instead of making horror movies, her life itself became a horror story and ended on such a depressing tragic note.

But by watching DRACULA we can forget all that and enjoy and appreciate a wonderful acting performance that remains with us, timeless, throughout the ages.  Sure, in DRACULA, Chandler is overshadowed by Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan, and rightly so, because all three actors are terrific in the film, but Chandler’s performance as Mina shouldn’t be overlooked.  There’s more going on there than what initially meets the eye, and in a very subtle understated way, Helen Chandler captures perfectly the character of Mina and her struggles with being under Dracula’s spell, a woman trapped halfway between living and being undead.  She does this as well if not better than the host of other actresses who have played Mina in the movies.

Next time you watch DRACULA pay particular attention to Helen Chandler as Mina, especially watch was she does with her eyes and her expressions once Dracula has mingled his blood with hers.  You’ll like what you see.

Helen Chandler.  February 1, 1906 – April 30, 1965.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael