1920s London in Color

Between 1924 and 1926 the British filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene made a series of short films known collectively as The Open Road. This project recorded a road trip across the length and breadth of Great Britain from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. It is noteworthy for the most extensive color photography of Britain up until that point.

Friese-Greene used a technology called Biocolour invented by his father. This process delivered a realistic color spectrum, but it was plagued by a flicker.

In 2006 the British Film Institute restored the film and corrected the flicker for a BBC broadcast entitled The Lost World of Friese-Greene.

Below is Friese-Greene’s footage of London from The Open Road.

Boris Karloff’s Guacamole Recipe

This newspaper clipping has been floating around for a while. I am unable to find the original source, but the recipe seems to have appeared elsewhere in June of 1966. A version was published in the Alton Evening Telegraph.

Karloff was an immensely likable actor. He was initially cast to frightening effect in those famous mute rolls: Frankenstein’s monster, the servant Morgan in The Old Dark House. But when he spoke he could not help but exude charm. He had a gentle voice and a rather endearing lisp. I have always liked his detective characters (Mr Wong and Colonel March of Scotland Yard) as much as his monsters.


Queen Victoria on Film

The earliest footage of Queen Victoria was taken in 1896, which was arguably the most important year for the development of British cinema.

Scenes at Balmoral was filmed by William Edward Downey of the W & D Downey photographic studio on October 3rd of that year. It shows Queen Victoria riding in her pony carriage (with her Pomeranian dog, Turi) as other members of the royal family walk along side. These include her granddaughter Tsarina Alexandra, Tsar Nicholas II, her son the Duke of Connaught, and others.

The film was screened for Her Majesty at Windsor Castle on November 23rd, 1896.

Halcyon Days of the Hollywood Cricket Club

Hollywood Cricket Club members Cary Grant and Boris Karloff in their whites

From The Rake, a history of the Hollywood Cricket Club:

On the morning that Laurence Olivier first arrived in Hollywood, he checked into the Chateau Marmont hotel to discover a handwritten note already waiting for him with the concierge. It read: “There will be nets tomorrow at 9am. I trust I shall see you there.” This seems about right for the calling card of the Hollywood Cricket Club: terse, cordial, presumptuous, and with just the right amount of suspense.

The young Olivier had no cricket flannels, and certainly nothing resembling a bat. But, bound by a sort of schoolboy duty to the national folly, he appeared at the grounds of the Hollywood Cricket Club the next morning in a pair of boots that he’d borrowed from Boris Karloff (a boat-like size 13 – Olivier stuffed the toes with newspaper before remarking that Karloff must have pinched them off the set of The Bride of Frankenstein). The welcoming arm twist had come courtesy of C. Aubrey Smith, a white-whiskered former test cricketer who’d found favour in his autumn years as officer-and-gentleman fodder for the British invasion. On his first session with the club in May 1933, Olivier soon discovered that the old boy conformed to type, receiving a two hour tirade against the deficiencies in his technique, a stiff drink, and an invitation to dinner in the order named.

This was a club that had its priorities firmly in order. At the top, an obsession with the sport that would make even the old birds in the M.C.C. lounge groan, followed closely by an appreciation of the game’s liquid assets, and finally an utter disinterest in who you happened to be off the field. Let the opposition be distracted by the slip cordon of Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) Sinbad the Sailor (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) – if you’re putting down catches, you can make the sandwiches (or at least prepare the Lobster Thermidor and make sure the Veuve is on ice.)

Smith had long dreamed of annexing a corner of the Home Counties to Southern California, but it wasn’t until 1932 that he’d pulled enough errant Englishers into his orbit to populate a side (“Aubrey found us playing on rough fields under dangerous conditions” wrote Boris Karloff with just a splash of ham horror.) When the time came to pick a spot, the founding father took the brief as literally as possible, transplanting five cartloads of English grass seed onto a field in the Hollywood hills to make a wicket, and erecting a nostalgic Victorian pavilion at the cost of $30,000. The spiritual clubhouse for the team remained, however, Aubrey Smith’s home at 2881 Coldwater Canyon Drive –  a wide and low Californian villa that, underneath it’s raised Union Jack (not to mention a weathervane constructed from a set of old stumps), seemed an unofficial embassy for Britannia’s lost sons.

Read the whole article here. Also, Sherlock Holmes-star Basil Rathbone discusses the HCC in an interview from 1959; watch below.

A Ghostly Romance of the Cloisters

The Cloisters in New York houses a fine collection of Medieval European art and architectural artifacts. The core of the collection was acquired in the early 1900s by George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor. Barnard founded the museum in 1914. It was afterward purchased by John D. Rockefeller Jr on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1938 the present day Cloisters was built in Washington Heights, half a mile north of the original. The new structure incorporated segments of four French monasteries—Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem, Bonnefont and Trie—imported stone by stone.

A rare film of the original Barnard Cloisters was made in 1928, entitled The Hidden Talisman: A Ghostly Romance of the Cloisters. It is a little over ten minutes long and employs a fictional narrative to tell the story of the museum. The Met’s curatorial notes describe the plot as follows: “Before going off to war, Thibaud leaves a talisman with Bertrade and asks her to guard it. Centuries later, she searches The Cloisters in order to recover the talisman and see Thibaud again.”

The Devil Rides Out

Wing Commander Dennis Wheatley, author of The Devil Rides Out, photographed in 1974

The actor Christopher Lee first met Dennis Wheatley in 1964 at the book department of Harrods where the author was giving a lecture entitled, “Magic and the Supernatural.” Wheatley was, at the time, one of the world’s bestselling novelists. His success was largely built on the popularity of a string of black-magic themed thrillers. Although he wrote across many pulp genres—swashbuckling adventure and espionage, historical romance and science fiction—his name became, and indeed remains, synonymous with the occult. Lee, then starring in the first wave of Hammer horror films, was attending the talk as a fan. When it was over he introduced himself to Wheatley and asked if he could have the author’s blessing to approach Hammer about adapting his 1937 novel, The Devil Rides Out.

It had been three decades since the book’s debut and during that time genre cinema had gone through a series of ups and downs. Following the decline of Hollywood monster movies in the 1940s, and the dominance of science fiction in the 1950s, it appeared by the end of the latter decade that gothic cinema was dead. Post-war fascination with space and the atom had banished supernatural themes almost entirely from popular culture. It was Hammer Films that reversed the trend. Starting in 1957, with The Curse of Frankenstein, the English production company resurrected the horror genre, breathing new life into the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy franchises, with Lee in the often thankless role of monster in each. By the early 1960s, a gothic revival was in full swing. Wheatley—“graciousness itself,” as Lee remembers—gave the actor complete authority to represent his book to the studio. Lee then began the long, surprisingly complicated process of selling it to producers Anthony Hinds and James Carerras.

The Devil Rides Out, like Wheatley’s first novel, The Forbidden Territory, features the Duke de Richleau, an aristocratic French exile living in then-contemporary Britain, who leads a modern band of “musketeers,” comprised of the American adventurer Rex Van Ryn, the English gentleman Richard Eaton, and the Jewish financier Simon Aron. These friends courageously charge into harm’s way to rescue one another and foil intrigues. The novel begins with the unusual absence of young Simon from a reunion with his friends, Rex and the Duke. Convinced that something must be wrong, the two gentlemen go immediately to Simon’s house where they find him hosting a reception for the “astronomical society” that he has recently joined. Although Simon is very anxious for his friends to leave before the meeting officially begins, the suspicious Duke mingles with the other guests, overhearing curious bits of conversation that leave him certain that something sinister is afoot. When he finds a satanic temple in Simon’s observatory, his suspicions are confirmed. He and Rex kidnap Simon before their young friend can be fully indoctrinated into the cult. From then on they are locked in a psychic battle with the satanists and their leader, Mocata. One lurid set piece follows another—car and airplane chases, demonic apparitions, mesmerism, women in peril, occult warfare, satanic orgies, a Tibetan monastery on the astral plane, and a black mass presided over by the horned, goat-headed Devil himself.

“It took me years and years to convince Hammer to make it,” Lee says, in his rich, distinctive baritone, “mainly because of all the censorship problems involved in dealing with satanism and the black mass. I had first mentioned The Devil Rides Out to Tony Hinds around 1964. At the time, I said to him, ‘You really ought to look into this, because it is very interesting material, and nobody has done this in England for years and years.’ So eventually Tony read the book and an arrangement was made for Hammer to buy the rights to film it.”

By late 1964 the company had optioned the novel. Hinds first commissioned a screenplay from author John Hunter, who had written one of Hinds’s own favorite pictures, Never Take Sweets From a Stranger. But Hunter’s screenplay was judged too “English” for the ever-lucrative American market, and was thus rejected. Next up was novelist Richard Matheson who had several years earlier been hired by Hammer to write an (ultimately un-produced) adaptation of his own vampire story, I Am Legend.

Matheson recalls that he had no previous knowledge of Wheatley’s work until Anthony Hinds sent him a copy of The Devil Rides Out. “I liked the novel very much,” he says, “so I agreed to write the script. Dennis Wheatley was certainly very happy with it. He sent me a letter thanking me for how faithful my adaptation was to his book.” Matheson’s screenplay cuts out some of the riskier and more expensive-to-film storylines—including Mocata’s plan to recover the phallus of Osiris, in order to start a second World War, and an airplane race across Europe—but he retains the story’s narrative thrust.

Lee was initially asked to play Mocata. As the actor recalls, “I told Hammer, ‘Look, enough of villainy for the time being, let us try something different and let me be on the side of the angels for once.’” In fact, he had already shown that he could play quite effective “good guys” in a number of films for the studio, including The Hound of the Baskervilles and Taste of Fear. Thankfully, Hammer agreed, and cast Lee as the Duke de Richleau. It is a role that no one else could have played—he is elegant, commanding, and humane—it is one of the finest performances of his career.

Hammer assigned their star director, Terence Fisher, to the project, and Charles Gray was cast to play Mocata. Gray gives the role a velvety smugness, suggesting an undercurrent of evil and obscenity beneath the surface. Lee says, “the casting definitely did work. I thought Charles Gray gave a marvelous performance as Mocata.” Wheatley based the character on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley. The two men knew each other socially, having been introduced by Wheatley’s neighbor—and Crowley’s onetime acolyte—the Labour MP Tom Driberg. Wheatley treated Crowley to a couple of lunches at the Hungaria Restaurant on Regent Street in the early 30s when he was researching The Devil Rides Out.

Although Lee never met Crowley, he is well versed on his life, claiming, “Crowley was an extraordinary man, who lived for a time at a house on the shores of Loch Ness, Boleskine, which is a very grim and foreboding place indeed. I know, because I went there. He was also one of the first people in history to climb a major Himalayan peak without any oxygen. He ran the ‘Abbey of Thelema,’ in Sicily, where he practiced obscene and blasphemous rituals, for which the police subsequently ejected him. He was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and called himself The Great Beast 666. He ended up living as a rather harmless old man, in the seaside town of Hastings, in England, after having labeled himself for many years as the wickedest man in the world.”

While Wheatley accepted the public role of occult expert, he was quick to dissuade members of the public from investigating the subject too deeply. “Don’t meddle!” was his official stance. In a disclaimer at the beginning of The Devil Rides Out he warns, “Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject […] I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practice of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.” Lee echoes these sentiments: “I have always been interested in black magic and know how terribly dangerous and obscene it can be. It is still practiced in different forms all over the world. The forces of evil are let loose, we know that. You’ve only got to look around to see that, so I think I know a good deal more about the practice of this particular evil than most people.”

Wheatley’s knowledge of the occult was supplemented by Lee, who conducted his own research. For example, Wheatley never provided the specific words of the dreaded (and fictional) “Sussamma Ritual,” which plays an important part in the climax of the film. As the Duke and his friend, Richard Eaton, are bombarded by black magic, huddled inside the safety of a magic circle, the following exchange takes place:

RICHARD: Can’t we do anything but just stand here? Isn’t there any way of fighting back?
DE RICHLEAU: Only one.
DE RICHLEAU: The last two lines of the Sussamma Ritual.
RICHARD: For God’s sake then, what are you waiting for?
DE RICHLEAU: I dare not use them until our very souls are in peril of destruction. To do so would destroy us as effectively as it would stop Mocata. It can alter time and space…

Drawing the suspense out to the breaking point, Fisher waits until the circle is about to be broken before cutting to De Richleau, who stands facing the onslaught, arms thrown up in the “Sign of Apophis and Typhon,” from the rituals of the Golden Dawn, finally delivering the dreaded lines: “Uriel Seraphim Io Potesta Zati Zata Galatim Galata.

This incantation comes from the Grimoire of Armadel, a book of ceremonial magic written in the 1600s. The version Lee consulted at the British Museum was apparently a copy of the original text held at the Bibliotheque d’Arsenal in Paris. Lee carefully chose eight key words from the “Operation of Uriel Seraphim,” a magical spell to put the Devil in a bottle, for “the last two lines of the Sussamma Ritual.”

The attention to detail appears to have filtered down to the art department, where Hammer’s resourceful production designer, Bernard Robinson decorated the various temple spaces with complex astrological and cabbalistic imagery. These touches of verisimilitude give the illusion of higher production values. Both Matheson and Lee agree that the special effects could have been improved upon, if only there had been more money available. “The whole scene where they’re protecting themselves from psychic attack should have been more of a scene,” complains Matheson. “It was indicated to be such in my script. It wasn’t supposed to be a giant spider that attacks them. That was something they had to put in to save money.” In Wheatley’s novel, what appears was “a Saitii manifestation of the most dangerous and powerful kind…which had a whitish pimply skin, leprous and unclean, like some huge silver slug.” This was deemed too difficult to shoot. Nor was it possible (or advisable—”Don’t meddle!”) to depict the black mass in any detail.

Not surprisingly, though, the eroticism was played up. After the success of Rosemary’s Baby, 20th Century-Fox re-named it The Devil’s Bride for the US release, quickly taking out trade ads that proclaimed, “There has never been so much interest in the Devil’s sex life as there is today! Make your arrangements for the wedding now.” Lee laughingly recalls that, “One of the executives at Fox, in all his wisdom, decided that if it were called The Devil Rides Out in America, everyone there would think they were going to see a western!”

Since its initial release many Hammer fans have come to regard The Devil Rides Out as the studio’s masterpiece. Lee has sometimes distanced himself from the work he did with Hammer. Of Dracula, the character and its legacy, he says, “I have no connection with it whatsoever, nor do I wish to have any. Nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest I ever got was when I did Count Dracula in Spain, with Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. I had a mustache and I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it was a mess, for production reasons.” His regard for The Devil Rides Out on the other hand is unequivocal. With effusive warmth, he declares, “It was a magnificent film, done in the best Hammer tradition.” Wheatley felt the same way. “Dennis was a very dear friend of mine,” Lee says, “He gave me a first edition of the book, signed by him, saying, ‘Thank you for all you’ve done to get this film made and also for your performance as the Duke de Richleau.’”

An earlier version of this article was published in the Quarterly Review in 2012.

Victorian London on Film

Motion pictures were screened in London for the first time in 1896 at the Regent Street Cinema near Oxford Circus. The first audience consisted of fifty-four people who paid a shilling each to watch the short films of the Lumière brothers projected on a hand-cranked Cinématographe.

British inventors were quick to develop competing technologies in order to enter the new market. Robert W. Paul had already created a camera based on the Edison Kinetoscope in 1895. He finished work on a projector in February of 1896—incidentally, on the very same day that the Lumière films were first shown in England. Paul exhibited his “Theatrograph” at the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square in March then toured music halls across the country.

In need of motion pictures to exhibit, Paul and other early filmmakers turned their camera lenses on London. As a result significant footage of the city survives from the year 1896. Almost all of it consists of candid street scenes. The finest, I think, is Paul’s film of Blackfriars Bridge, which depicts with excellent clarity and immersive perspective, the horse-drawn carriages, carts, and omnibuses, pedestrians, and bicyclists, crossing the bridge.

The Lumières themselves filmed London in 1896. Their footage of Hyde Park Corner was shown at a command performance for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on November 23 of that year (according to British Pathé, who revived the film in theaters in the early 1930s).

The Lumières also filmed three young women dancing to the accompaniment of an organ grinder in Drury Lane for passersby. This was apparently something of a common public entertainment—or nuisance, as the case may be—in the 1890s. Roland-François Lack at The Cine-Tourist blog discovered a newspaper article reporting the arrest of such a performer the same year the film was made.

From Reynold’s Newspaper, March 19, 1896:

One of the prettiest sights in London are the dancing girls of the street. Many of these dance in a way that would not disgrace some of the performances on the stage. So popular has this daily sight in London become that it has occurred to some unprogressive organ-men to engage rather superior dancers dressed in appropriate costume. These naturally have attracted larger crowds than usual, and, as a consequence, the unprogressive police, while tolerating the dancing of children, have decided that the superior class of street performance cannot be tolerated by Scotland Yard. As a consequence, a pretty girl named Lydia Davis was brought up at Bow-street Police Court yesterday, and charged with creating an obstruction in Adelaide-street, Strand. “She danced, and was nicely dressed,” one of the police inspectors informed the Court. But these entertainments were too popular to be tolerated by the police. Mr Lushington [the judge] looked grave, but in the gentlest tone of voice discharged the “terrible criminal,” telling her she ought not to be so entertaining as to attract a crowd.

Lack does not suggest that the woman in the Lumière film is Lydia Davis, but writes, “Lydia Davis and the performers in the Lumière film belong together as a type of London street life in the 1890s.”

Film screenings became part of the regular programming in music halls and dedicated cinemas beginning at the turn of the century. The Regent Street Cinema, more than 120 years later, is still a working movie theater.


Lack, Roland-François. (September 13, 2016) “Victorian street dancing (and other sensations),” The Cine-Tourist. https://www.thecinetourist.net/choses-vues—things-seen/victorian-street-dancing

Mast, Gerald  Katwin, Bruce. (2011) A Short History of the Movies. Upper Saddle River [NJ]: Pearson Education.

Ward, Victoria. (May 26, 2015) “‘Birthplace of British cinema’ reopens 120 years after showing its first film,” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11585227/Birthplace-of-British-cinema-reopens-120-years-after-showing-its-first-film.html