Black Friday

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(5/10) Even if Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were the marquee names for this 1940 gangster/brain transplant mashup written by Curt Siodmak, it is unheralded actor Stanley Ridges who steals the show in his dual role as fussy professor and cold blooded mobster boss. 

Black Friday. 1940, USA. Directed by Arthur Lubin. Written by Curt Siodmak, Eric Taylor, et.al. Starring: Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Bela Lugosi, Anne Nagel, Anne Gwynne. Produced by Burt Kelly. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A. 

1940_black_friday_002For a decade Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were the kings of horror movies, and while their biggest triumphs were made separately, the two teamed up for seven different films between 1930 and 1940, many of them made for Universal, the studio that “discovered” them both. And even if their careers would still continue, with varying degrees of commercial and artistic success throughout the forties, Black Friday from 1940 was something of a bookend, as it was the last Universal film in which the two horror icons would star together, even if they two more collaborations down the road. As a Karloff-Lugosi vehicle, Black Friday is unfortunately something of a disappointment, as the two actors don’t have any scenes together, and Lugosi is tucked away in a rather small and uninteresting role as a New York mobster, a role ill suited to his talents or lack thereof. This was not how the film was originally imagined, but the result of a cast rotation. Still, Universal gave their two horror icons top billing, even if the lead actor of the movie is the much less known Stanley Ridges, and marketed Black Friday as yet another standoff between the two legendary ghouls.

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Anne Nagel as Sunny and Stanley Ridges as Red Cannon.

The movie was directed by Arthur Lubin, an actor turned director who seemed to be equally at home in almost any genre, and is perhaps best remembered today for directing some of Abbott and Costello’s finest comedies. Writing duties went to Hollywood newcomer Curt Siodmak, a German expat author and screenwriter who had already contributed to a disparate assembly of genres in both Germany, France and the UK before flying over to Hollywood in 1938, where he was snatched up by Universal after a short stint at Paramount. Siodmak had already co-written scripts for science fiction films F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer (1932, review), which was based on his novel F.P.1. antwortet nicht (1932), The Tunnel (1935) and Non-Stop New York (1937, review) before arriving in the States, and he was attached to Universal as the primary writer for the studio’s horror sequel The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review) as it was now revamping its horror cycle. After working on what was essentially a remake of the original The Invisible Man (1933, review), Black Friday gave him the chance to work with his very own material, and it was material that would become his trademark in years to come: the brain.

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Anne Nagel and Bela Lugosi.

Stanley Ridges plays the pleasant George Kingsley, Professor of English literature, who on who is involved in a car accident in Friday 13th (hence the title of the film). At the hospital he is treated by his best friend, the brilliant surgeon Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff), who also cares for the other victim of the car crash, the notorious gangster Red Cannon. Both men’s injuries are fatal, but Sovac realises that he will be able to save the brain-damaged Kingsley by transplanting Sovac’s brain into his body, which he does — in secret, as such a procedure is not strictly speaking legal. But things get complicated when the police arrive to pick up Red Cannon’s body and mention that before he died, the gangster had half a million dollars hidden away somewhere. With dollar signs suddenly flashing before his eyes, Sovac decides to take Kingsley on a trip to New York, and sets him up in Red Cannon’s old hotel room, hoping the familiar surroundings will jolt Red Cannon’s subconscious into remembering where he stashed the dough.

Of course, as some readers will have observed, this makes little sense. Even if brain transplants were possible, the transplanted brain would not assume the identity of the body it was transplanted into. So how can Kingsley still be Kingsley? Well, even the movie sort of catches itself halfway through, when Sovac’s lines start insinuating that only part of Red Cannon’s brain was transplanted into Kingsley’s skull, even though previous lines have stated quite clearly that he transplanted “Red Cannon’s brain” into a new body. The movie remains ambiguous on this issue, an issue that would arise again in later Siodmak-penned movies.

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Boris Karloff as Dr. Sovak and Stanley Ridges as Professor Kingsley.

Now, unsurprisingly, Sovac is able to awaken the dormant Red Cannon side of Kingsley’s (or is it Red Cannons?) brain, but remains buttoned-up regarding his motives for doing so. Sovac hopes that through some amateur hypnosis, he will be able to drive Red Cannon back into a dormant state after the gangster has led him to the money, and keep the whole lot for himself. But Red Cannon, being no fool, soon catches on to the plot. Putting spokes in the wheel is also Eric Marney (Bela Lugosi), Red Cannon’s rival for power withing his mob, who was the one who orchestrated Red’s “death”. And when Red starts killing off his former henchmen who were in cahoots with Marney, the film develops into a rather generic gangster drama. Add to the plot Red’s old girlfriend Sunny (Anne Nagel), who has now hooked up with his former rival, and the soup thickens. Also in the film are Sovac’s daughter (Anne Gwynne) and Kingsley’s wife (Virginia Brissac), who don’t really have any part in the plot, except perhaps for function as Sovac’s conscience.

As these stories go, one of the main plot points is the struggle between the Kingsley side of the protagonist’s brain, and the Red Cannon plot. However, this plot feature doesn’t really go anywhere, as the main conflict of the movie is the one between Red Cannon and Sovac. Kingsley just sort of “wakes up” between sessions, and is unaware of what’s going on, as he has no memory of his Red Cannon periods. This means that there isn’t really any struggle between the two personalities — it’s just sort of an on/off switch, which takes some of the potential suspense out of the film, and feels like a lost opportunity.

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Bela Lugosi and Anne Nagel.

This said, the actor playing what is essentially the Jekyll/Hyde role of the movie, Stanley Ridges, is marvellous. As mentioned above, Boris Karloff was originally intended to play this role, and Bela Lugosi was supposed to play the Eastern European surgeon Dr. Sovac. There are several stories as to why this didn’t pan out. Curt Siodmak claims that it was Karloff who backed out of playing the dual role, because he thought he couldn’t handle it: “He was afraid of it; there was too much acting, it was too intricate”, Siodmak says in an interview with film historian Tom Weaver in the book Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes. However, anything Siodmak has said in his later interviews should be taken with a grain of salt, as he was prone to make statements that didn’t necessarily have much basis in reality in his eighties. Karloff’s forte was playing dual roles, as he had already played half a dozen mad scientists brought back to life with a new personality, not to speak of the fact that he had played an actual dual role in The Black Room (1935) as the brothers de Berghman. Another explanation is that either Karloff himself or Arthur Lubin thought that he was too British and too “refined” to play the mobster Red Cannon, which is an explanation I find more plausible. A third possibility is that Lubin didn’t think that Lugosi was up to scratch as Dr. Sovac, and thought it was easier to find another actor to play the victim of the mad doctor than the mad doctor himself, as Dr. Sovac was cut out for one of the horror icons. Another reason for downgrading Lugosi’s role in the film may have been that Universal may have wanted to do what they tried to do on Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), which was take advantage of the fact that Lugosi was in financial straits, finish his scenes for peanuts in a week and take full advantage of his marquee value. Director Rowland V. Lee protested wildly against this on Son of Frankenstein and made Bela’s role a lot bigger, so he had to be on set for the whole shoot, just to spite Universal.

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Boris Karloff.

This is perhaps the most plausible explanation. While it makes little sense to remove the heavily accented Lugosi from his role as Eastern European doctor and make him a New York wise guy, the role of Marney is so small and inconsequential that it doesn’t matter much. In the interview with Tom Weaver, Siodmak has little good to say about Lugosi, saying “He could never act himself out of a paper bag. He could only be Mee-ster Drac-u-la, with that accent and those Hungarian movements of his. He was a pest!” Siodmak famously didn’t like actors, but in this case he has a point. Lugosi is terribly miscast and does one of his worst performances here. His health problems and morphine addiction still hadn’t become catastrophic by 1940 — this was only a year removed from his fantastic performance in Son of Frankenstein, so that’s not the issue here. He is just plain bad in the role.

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Bela Lugosi as New York mobster.

One can, like Gary J. Svehla in his book Bela Lugosi: Midnight Marquee Actors Series Revised, bemoan the fact that Lugosi is demoted to secondary villain and that he and Karloff are never seen together on screen, and call Black Friday “one of the great what-ifs”. I personally don’t think that this somewhat uneven gangster/horror mashup would have been any better had Karloff played Kingsley/Red Cannon and Lugosi played Sovac. I think whoever made the call to bring in Stanley Ridges to play the central role did the film a favour. Ridges’ performance of the dual role is a masterclass in acting, be it that he doesn’t possess the innate charisma of his two co-stars. The switch between the characters is done almost completely without the help of makeup. When he becomes Red Cannon he loses the glasses and the makeup department slicks his hair back, putting some product in to hide the grey. In fact, these crutches are unnecessary, as the two personalities as Ridges plays them are as different as night and day. In fact when I watched the movie, I actually had to go back and check that it was in fact the same actor playing the kindly, fussy professor and the stone cold killer.

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Left: Stanley Ridges as Professor Kingsley. Right: Stanley Ridges as Red Cannon.

Born in 1890, British Ridges made a name for himself on the London stage, eventually making his way to Broadway as a song and dance man, and later as a romantic lead. He made his film debut in 1923, but only made his second film in 1930 after the advent of the talkies. At 40, his hair was greying and he had to give up the romantic lead roles, and instead found himself a respected, if unheralded, character actor. Black Friday gave him a real chance to show off his acting chops, and he turned up in important, if not particularly memorable, supporting roles in films like Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) and Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944). Robert Siodmak was, of course, Curt’s brother. Perhaps because of his somewhat nondescript appearance in his later middle-age, Stanley Ridges never became a marquee name, and would probably be more or less forgotten today, if it wasn’t for the fact that someone shuffled around the casting in Black Friday.

Black Friday is competently filmed by American director Arthur Lubin in a Warnerish film noir style. The film especially picks up toward the end, as Red Cannon retrieves his money stash at the New York docks and is ambushed by Varney and his men. The fight scene that ensues is well choreographed using stunt doubles, and drenched in Expressionist shadow. Varney gets away with the money, running straight to Sunny, whom Red Cannon still believes to be his girlfriend. As Red Cannon rings the doorbell, Varney hides the money in the oven and himself in a kitchen cabinet. This is the most famous scene in the film, as Red Cannon reviews the room in a POV shot, noticing Varney’s muddy footprints by the kitchen cabinet. He locks the cabinet and pushes the refrigerator in front of the door, with Varney desperately pleading to be let out, before finally suffocating to death. As a publicity stunt Universal showed a film clip of Lugosi being “hypnotised” during the scene, actually believing himself to be suffocating, but both director Lubin and writer Siodmak, as well as Anne Gwynne, who played Jean Sovac, have confirmed that this was pure hogwash. The scene is an effective one, though, and the only one in the film in which Lugosi is actually good.

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Director Arthur Lubin.

Black Friday was Arthur Lubin’s first major picture as a director. Even if it was essentially a B movie, it was still one starring both Karloff and Lugosi, who were at this time yet in the prime of their careers, be it that Lugosi’s standing was better with the audience than with the studios. In 1941 Lubin got his big breakthrough as Universal attached him as director to the Abbott & Costello movie Buck Privates, which was the first of five successive collaborations in 1941 and 1942, all of them big successes, making Lubin Hollywood’s top-grossing director of 1941. He then switched gears completely, first making the South Seas adventure film White Savage (1943) and got a lucky break as he was brought in as a replacement director on Universal’s high-profile Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943), followed by the equally successful Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. However, his subsequent films were less successful and his was let go by Universal in 1946, only to be re-hired in 1950 when he proposed the first of what would eventually become seven animal comedies about Francis the Talking Horse. This theme continued in the late fifties, when Lubin created, produced and directed the TV series Mr. Ed, about another talking horse. The series was a huge success, ran for six seasons and is probably what Lubin is best know for today.

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Arthur Lubin with Mr. Ed.

Black Friday is sometimes claimed to be based on a 1939 novel of the same name by Curt Siodmak, however, apart from a Wikipedia bibliography, I can’t find any reference to such a novel online, and Siodmak doesn’t mention it in any of the interviews I have read, even when discussing the film in question. Whatever the case, the movie is notable for the fact that it is the first film in which he formulates his famous trope of a “disembodied” brain imposing its will on another person’s mind, even if the brain in this case isn’t disembodied but transplanted. The theme reared its head again in his 1942 script for Ghost of Frankenstein, in which Bela Lugosi’s Ygor has his brain transplanted into the brain of Lon Chaney’s Monster. In 1943 Siodmak published his magnum opus, the novel Donovan’s Brain, in which a scientist removes the brain of a dying, corrupt businessman and keeps it alive in a vat with saline solution. He manages to establish telepathic contact with the brain, which then starts to dominate the scientist’s personality, using his body to continue the businessman’s shady and criminal activities, much like Red Cannon in Black Friday. Donovan’s Brain is supposed to have sold five million copies worldwide, but as this figure comes from the mouth of Siodmak himself, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless it was a huge success, and was turned into a radio play starring Orson Welles and a film called The Lady and the Monster starring Erich von Stroheim in 1944. Its most famous film adaptation is the 1953 movie Donovan’s Brain, starring Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan, of all people. It was remade again in 1963 as The Brain. Siodmak basically reworked the story in a sequel called Hauser’s Memory in 1968, and wrote a final sequel in 1991 called Gabriel’s Body. Hauser’s Memory was turned into a films starring David McCallum and Leslie Nielsen in 1971, which was nominated for a Hugo award. Hauser’s Memory involves transplanted brain RNA, and as such it is actually a closer relative to Black Friday than to Donovan’s Brain.

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Writer Curt Siodmak.

Curt Siodmak loved to lay claim to the brain switcheroo and brain-in-a-vat tropes, and bemoaned each subsequent film and book that used the same idea without giving him money or credit. And it is certainly true that he did much to popularise the trope, and many later films did borrow heavily from Donovan’s Brain. But either Siodmak was wilfully misrepresenting literary history or he was simply unaware of the wealth of brain-related SF predating Donovan’s Brain — by his own admission he neither liked nor read science fiction. The brain-in-a-vat trope goes back at least as far as 1860, and was featured in a whole slew of pulp stories during the first three decades of the 20th century, including Gustave Le Rouge’s Le Prisonnier de la Planête Mars (1908) and Guy Dent’s Emperor of the If (1926). The man who arguably brought the idea to a larger audience over ten years before Siodmak was H.P. Lovecraft with his 1931 novella The Whisperer in the Dark. When it comes to brain transplants, the father of this trope is without question French writer Maurice Renard, who used it as the central premise of his 1908 novel Le Docteur Lerne, sous-dieu, translated in 1923 as New Bodies for Old, and it was picked up by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1928 in The Master Mind of Mars.

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Posters.

Black Friday is one of those films that I like execution-wise but not particularly script-wise. The script is not bad, though. But after its very promising start, the movie gets lost in the gangster story, as if a Warner mob potboiler had been spliced into the script midway. Donovan’s Brain has a similar problem, both the 1943 novel and the 1953 film. And I don’t really buy Dr. Sovac’s sudden turn into money-hungry Svengali, not after Karloff’s highly sympathetic portrayal of the character in the beginning of the movie — it all seems to sudden and out of character. But still, the fluid and atmospheric direction, the superb acting from both Karloff and Ridges, as well as a couple of highly inspired scenes make this a very enjoyable movie. It should perhaps be pointed out that the script was co-written by Eric Taylor — a crime drama specialist — and Edmund Hartmann — specialised in comedies. The latter is credited as “screenplay construction contributor”.

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Anne Gwynne in a pinup shot used to market the film.

I have not found much on the film in my library, but there is an interview with actress Anne Gwynne, who played Karloff’s daughter, in Tom Weaver’s book It Came from Horrorwood. She doesn’t talk that much about Black Friday, except that she repeats what just about every person who has worked with Boris Karloff says about him: “What an actor; what a man! […] He was not only a fine actor who could play just about anything, but a really terrific human being.” She relates a story of her “big” scene (she is criminally underused in the film) in which she convinces Dr. Sovac that he is morally wrong to take advantage of his old friend as he does. According to her, Lubin shot the whole scene with a single camera on Karloff, without bothering to shoot any close-ups of Gwynne: “Boris came to my rescue and said, ‘Don’t do this to her. Give Anne a close-up.’ Which is exactly what Lubin had to do. And it is in the picture! Now that is a really terrific guy. Most actors wouldn’t think of it or do it if they did think of it, but Boris I’ll always admire.” Gwynne explains that because of the language barrier she didn’t talk much with Lugosi on set of the two films they made together, save “pleasantries”, but she describes him as “a very nice, pleasant fellow”, and that she has “only praise” for him, especially for the way he would try to play every role he did differently, which she says he did better than Karloff.

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Anne Gwynne in a publicity shot for Weird Woman (1944).

Anne Gwynne was a genre staple. She teamed up again with Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941), with Lionel Atwill in The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942), Lon Chaney Jr. in Weird Woman (1944) and John Litel in Murder in the Blue Room. She appeared in the sci-fi serials Green Hornet and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in 1940 as well as in House of Frankenstein (1944) and Teenage Monster (1958), in which she was top-billed. Gwynne is good in Black Friday, although she hasn’t much to do. Gwynne was also a popular pin-up model and was the grandmother of future Captain Kirk, Chris Pine

Anne Nagel played the female lead in The Green Hornet and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1940), as well as in Man Made Monster (1941) and The Mad Monster (1943). She had supporting roles in The Invisible Woman (1940) and The Mad Doctor of Market Street, and appeared uncredited in Mighty Joe Young (1949).

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Anne Nagel and Stanley Ridges.

Paul Fix appeared in lesser supporting roles in a number of SF movies, like Dr. Cyclops (1940, review), Captive Wild Woman (1943) and the wonderfully bad Night of the Lepus (1972). He also had guest spots in half a dozen science fiction TV series, perhaps most notably as Doctor Piper in the third episode of the first season of Star Trek, Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966).

Today it seems critics’ opinions hinge on either one of two things: whether they are upset because Lugosi was demoted, or whether they can forgive the faulty brain switch logic. The Horror Incorporated Project accepts both, writing “On the whole Black Friday works, though it is built on an astonishingly rickety set of plot contrivances. […] Black Friday is fine for what it is, an entertaining programmer that came and went quickly, as movies of the time did, with no expectation that they’d be remembered”. Sylvia Bagley of FilmFanatic does not: “Unfortunately, however”, she writes, “the fine performances aren’t enough to save this B-thriller from its frustratingly illogical script.”

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Boris Karloff backstage.

No-one out out there thinks this is a terrific film. German site In meinem Herze haben viele Filme Platz gives the film 7/10 stars, and Blu-ray.com gives it 3.5/5, which are the two highest ratings I can find. Jon Davidson at Midnite Reviews settles for 6/10, writing: “Black Friday benefits from solid performances, topnotch make-up effects, and thought-provoking moral commentary. Creature feature buffs may nevertheless choose to avoid this film, which suffers from an absence of iconic horror tropes.” Hans J. Wollstein at AllMovie rates it at 2.5/10, as does Dario Lavia at Argentinian Cinefania.  At the lower end of the spectrum is Richard Scheib of Moria, giving Black Friday 2/5 stars. Scheib notes that it is “slightly better directed than most other B movie mad scientist efforts of the era”, but is one of those bemoaning the bad logic in the brain switch department: “if Boris Karloff simply transplanted Red Cannon’s brain into the professor’s body, why is there such a problem getting Ridges’s professor to recall Cannon’s memories? Why for that matter does Cannon’s brain possess the professor’s memories at all if the professor’s original brain has been removed?” He also notes that “In the latter half of the film, the brain transplant aspect drops out almost altogether (the same structural problem that Donovan’s Brain also had) and the film becomes a routine mobster melodrama”. Still, he concludes it is “slightly better directed than most other B movie mad scientist efforts of the era”. The movie does have a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on six reviews.

Janne Wass

Black Friday. 1940, USA. Directed by Arthur Lubin. Written by Curt Siodmak, Eric Taylor, Edmund Hartmann. Starring: Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Bela Lugosi, Anne Nagel, Anne Gwynne, Virginia Brissac, Edmund MacDonald, Paul Fix, Murray Alper, Jack Mulhall, Joe King, John Kelly, Robert Morgan. Music by Hans Salter, Frank Skinner. Cinematopgraphy: Elwood Bredell. Editing: Philip Cahn. Art direction: Jack Otterson. Set decoration: Russell Gausman. Gowns: Vera West. Sound supervisor: Bernard Brown. Special effects director: John P. Fulton. Produced by Burt Kelly for Universal. 

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