Monday, April 7, 2014

The Climax (1944)

Director: George Waggner                                  Writers: Curt Siodmak & Lyn Starling
Film Score: Edward Ward                                  Cinematography: W. Howard Greene
Starring: Boris Karloff, Susana Foster, Turhan Bey and Thomas Gomez

After their Technicolor remake of Phantom of Opera with Claude Rains in 1943, Universal found themselves in strange territory. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards and actually won two. Granted, none of them were in the major categories but it was enough to inspire the studio to go right into a sequel. All of the major principals were to return, including Rains who can be heard moving the rubble on top of him in the climax of the film. But Rains’ contract required him to return to Warner Brothers and, without him, the literal sequel was scrapped. But the idea lingered on. Boris Karloff was hired to replace Rains and Susana Foster was brought back from the first film, and The Climax went into production using the same sets as the first film. This was another Technicolor spectacular, but without the famous story, or stars, the film failed to capture the magic of the first and today is little more than a footnote in Universal's Phantom legend.

The film begins with Karloff as a theater doctor making his way to the dressing room of the former singing star June Vincent who disappeared mysteriously ten years before. But a flashback shows it was Karloff who killed her in a jealous rage, not wanting her to sing in public. Theater manager Thomas Gomez, meanwhile, has to deal with his current prima donna Jane Farrar. But when he discovers Susanna Foster singing in the theater library with composer Turhan Bey at the piano, he realizes he’s found a new star. Unfortunately Karloff hears her as well, and is convinced that her voice is the same as Vincent’s, starting a new obsession for him. He takes Foster back to his office and hypnotizes her into believing that she can’t sing anymore. Bey is mystified by her changed behavior, but before Gomez knows this he has already started rehearsals of Vincent’s signature musical for Foster to star in. Will Bey discover who is behind Foster’s seeming reversal in time for the big performance? It’s about the only suspense in the entire film.

The story was based on the 1909 stage play by Edward Locke, which was successful enough that it was subsequently novelized by George C. Jenks. Despite claims to the contrary, there is a lot from the play that survives in the film. The idea of the girl singer and her composer boyfriend, along with the doctor who becomes so jealous of sharing her voice that he sabotages her by paralyzing her voice, is very much the main thrust of the play as well. Universal did as much as they could to ensure the success of the sequel, by tabbing George Waggner to produce and direct. He had helmed Universal’s most artistically successful horror film of the forties, The Wolf Man, but the constraints of attempting to emulate the style and story of Phantom definitely worked against him, even with the presence of Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak. In fact, the script really doesn’t know what it wants to be and ends up being a bad pastiche of Poe and Locke and what little suspense there is barely gets noticed. All they really had to do was keep Karloff’s interactions with both women a secret until the end and they might have had something, but instead it fails miserably.

The only reason for watching the film is its tenuous relationship to the Phantom and the presence of Karloff. Of course, if you actually like the operatic singing, there’s plenty more of that. Edward Ward returns as composer, this time given a free hand, but the odd mélange of ballet and Waggner’s attempt at Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics is a real head scratcher. It’s also hard to believe that the film was nominated for yet another Academy Award. But the nomination was for the same group of production designers who won for the previous film, using virtually the same sets as before, so in retrospect it makes sense. In addition to Karloff the only other actors worth noting are the great Thomas Gomez, as well as Ludwig Stössel who had been in Casablanca and would go on to appear in House of Dracula. The Climax isn’t really a bad film, it just lacks suspense. But it’s only really recommended for fans of Universal horror films, or more specifically the remake of Phantom of the Opera, and even then with some reservations.

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