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Friday, November 8, 2019

Mad Love (1935) – or, The Prime of Ed Brophy’s Hands

Mad Love (aka The Hands of Orlac in Britain) was the American debut for Peter Lorre in this oft filmed version of Maurice Renard's novel, The Hands of Orlac. It was directed by German-émigré film maker Karl Freund who had already made his mark on horror in America as the cinematographer for Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and directing Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932).

Mad Love was one of MGM’s few dips into the Horror well. With Freund directing and co-starring Dr. Frankenstein himself - the ever twitchy Colin Clive (below) - one can almost be forgiven for mistaking it for an actual Universal horror film. 
Indeed, if it was a Universal film, Lorre’s (sorry – spoiler!) insane Dr. Gogol would probably be included with the ranks of that companies Famous Monsters. Disguised as the executed murderer, Rollo, and wearing dark goggles and brandishing a pair of glistening metal hands from under a dark cloak that would have made Dr. Doom proud, I would certainly have bought and assembled an Aurora model kit of the character back in 1960’s.

The plot is a familiar one to any fan of the genre. Pianist Stephen Orlac (Clive) has his hands crushed in an accident. His desperate actress wife, Yvonne (Frances Drake) turns to her dangerously obsessed admirer, Dr. Gogol, for help. Gogol is a brilliant surgeon, but even he can’t save Stephen’s hands. Instead, he grafts the hands of a recently executed murderer, Rollo the Knife Thrower (Edward Brophy) onto Orlac’s wrists. When Orlac starts to display Rollo’s facility with knives, Gogol decides to use the specter of a resurrected Rollo to drive Orlac insane and thereby win Yvonne’s love (huh?). 

Of note, Universal’s The Raven released the same year also had a mad surgeon (Lugosi) whose medical skills play into his plan to drive his beautiful young patient into his arms.

Even without Gogol’s interference, one has to question Orlac’s sanity; as he practices following his surgery, Orlac keeps a pair of plaster (I hope) hands labeled ‘The Hands of Orlac’ on top of his piano. 
The Grand Guignol story plays out as you would expect, except for noting that the film slyly winks at itself by having Yvonne playing an actress performing in an actual Grand Guignol. The plot even manages to shoehorn in the Pygmalion myth which leads to an almost comic finale of Yvonne standing in for her own wax statue that Gogol has fixated on in lieu of having her.
Freund gives the film a lush texture of deep blacks and rich whites that includes a lot of expressionist touches. It fails, however, to really display Gogol’s brilliantly designed disguise to full effect. What’s the point of creating an outstanding ‘monster’ and then never showcasing it? Gogol’s disguise is only seen in a brief close up and then again mostly in medium and long shots when he arrives back at home. Here the film displays the same ‘keep the audience at a distance’ feel that Freund used in Dracula to mimic the theatrical sensibility of that film script’s origin. Maybe all this was dictated by the censors?

As much as I admire Lorrie’s over-the-top performance, my favourite parts of the film come from utility supporting actor, Edward Brophy, as ex-circus performer, Rollo the Knife Thrower (below). As a convicted murderer being escorted to his execution, he has a contagiously upbeat attitude even while walking up to the guillotine, quipping with his guards and the American reporter interested in his story. The screenwriters (John Balderston & Guy Endore) must have known that Brophy had played a Rollo Brothers Circus proprietor in Freaks (1932) three years earlier and made his name and profession a nod to that earlier film.

With a body like a stubbed-out cigar butt and a broad, rubbery face, Edward Brophy was born to play criminals and heavies (often good-natured) or the comic relief, e.g., his dim-witted Goldie Locke sidekick to Tom Conway’s suave Falcon in RKO’s long running B series. You’ve seen him in dozens of films from the 30’s and 40’s, and for me, it’s always a pleasure to watch him do his usual bumbling stuff. Even when his Joe Morelli forces his way into Nick and Nora’s bedroom brandishing a gun in The Thin Man (1934), you can’t really be scared of him. He later turns up again playing Nick’s friend, Brogan, in The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).

Edward Brophy started performing in small parts in 1919, and first gained notice as Buster Keaton’s foil in a classic scene in The Cameraman (1928) in which the two men share a too-small wardrobe. Brophy had steady work in films and died while filming John Ford's western, Two Rode Together (1961). His biggest and best role may have been as The Champ’s manager in the 1931 film. Movie watchers of a certain age will recognize his voice performing Timothy Mouse in Walt Disney's classic, Dumbo (1941).

Internet sources claim that Brophy was the model for Doiby Dickles, the Golden Age Green Lantern’s comedic sidekick. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but the rotund character does fill a similar role to Goldie Locke in The Falcon movies.

Keye Luke Alert: Atomic Surgery favorite and Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son, Keye Luke (below, with Lorre), turns up as Dr. Gogol’s assistant, Dr. Wong, and performs at least one operation with the same skill as Gogol supposedly has.

Is Mad Love Worth watching? Definitely! A minor classic, it deserves to be mentioned in the same discussion that would include Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) (at least).

Availability:  Easy to find in Horror multi-DVD packs from the usual on-line sources.