OK, it’s time to talk about sex and race.
We’ll do the recap bit in a hurry. The Mummy of 1932 rehashes several of the plot points (and a couple of the actors) of Dracula with an extra dose of exoticism. An unsuspecting Brit revives Imhotep, who spends all of a minute of screen time in bandage-wrapped mummy form before converting into an exotic mind controller. Add a time jump, and Imhotep – in full Karloff-ian glory and using the pseudonym Ardeth Bay – is leading the next generation of British archaeologists to the tomb of his beloved. Repeat the mind-controlled love interest plot of Dracula, with even more useless turns from the characters played by David Manners (Harker in Dracula and Frank Whemple here) and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula’s Van Helsing and The Mummy’s Doctor Muller), and end with the monster defeated at the last minute. The big difference at the end is that Manners and Van Sloan are totally incidental to the defeat of the monster; the heroine (Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann) takes down Imhotep with an assist from the goddess Isis.
What The Mummy gives us that we didn’t get in Dracula is backstory. Perhaps because there is no source for the story other than Western stereotypes about Near Eastern curses, the movie uses magically-aided flashbacks to explain why an ancient Egyptian burial practice has led to the movie’s plot. Midway through the movie, we see Imhotep in his original life falling in love with his pharaoh’s daughter, who oh-so-coincidentally is identical to the beautiful Miss Grosvenor (of the half-Egyptian heritage). The present-day storyline in 1932 is all about him using mind control on Helen to draw her to him so that he can engage in some vague rituals that will kill and resurrect her to join him in eternal life. It is only her resistance at the very end that drives her to appeal to Isis, who provides the final help necessary to end Imhotep.
Even in its most literal reading, the movie doesn’t exactly portray white dudes in the best light. It’s a brazen British imperialist-slash-plunderer who revives Imhotep, and the rest of the Euro-coded male characters prove completely ineffectual in stopping the mummy. In its way, the movie is a condemnation of white-knightdom, with the various “nice” men who condescendingly try to help a woman winding up totally ineffectual. Helen, even deluded into somewhat thinking she is the Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, fights for life and appeals to Isis before Whemple and Muller even arrive on the scene.
Possibly unintentional feminism aside, the movie still has some pretty deep issues.
This movie’s heart is almost in the right place. The various British archaeologists in the movie, along with Van Sloan’s Germanic Muller, wind up either useless or victimized. One is driven insane by his experience with Imhotep, another is killed, and the rest fail at achieving their most important goals. There’s even some brief commentary on the British looting of Egypt in the name of archaeology.
Then we get to the actual portrayal of Egyptians in the movie. Here we get nearly the full range of problematic Hollywood tropes.
Whitewashing of casting? Check. Zita Johann was from Austria-Hungary, with no apparent Egyptian (or even Middle Eastern or North African) heritage to speak of. Boris Karloff’s only claim to non-European heritage came in potential grandmaternal and/or great-grandmaternal Indian background, which is obviously not the same as Egyptian.
Exotification of “the other”? Check. Ancient Egypt was apparently magical, with resurrection of the dead made possible through “the scroll of Thoth” (not a real thing) and the revivified Imhotep able to exert mind control powers over others and summon visions to his high-definition pool of reflection.
Lack of actual names for characters played by actors of non-Euro descent? Check. The top-billed character played by someone with some non-European heritage is only ever called “the Nubian.” He’s played by Noble Johnson, an African-American actor who founded a studio called The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, devoted to creating movies where black actors wouldn’t be forced into stereotyped or caricatured roles. (He was also, per IMDb, a childhood friend of Lon Chaney, Sr., who reconnected with the horror icon when both were working in Hollywood.) In this movie, however, he’s a nameless servant.
About the only saving grace on this front is that we don’t get much, if any, blackface in the movie. Also, to the extent we get an “exotic” man using mind control on a woman, both are actors in whitewashed roles, so…that’s something? Maybe? Probably not.
Production-wise, this movie was directed by Karl Freund, who was the cinematographer (and by some accounts, the shadow director) for Dracula, so the similarities between the two are not hugely surprising. We do get some interesting visual elements, including the framing of the flashbacks in Imhotep’s indoor reflecting pool. We also get some moments of non-diagetic music in the background, which make up somewhat for the reuse of the same bits of Swan Lake used in the opening credits of both this movie and Dracula.
Ultimately, what The Mummy gives us is another mind-controlling baddie, dressed up in the “exotic” trappings of ancient Egypt instead of the folklore of eastern Europe. What both The Mummy and Dracula give us, then, is a monster who is in some way the Other from the perspective of the late-19th-century/early-20th-century U.K./U.S.A.
Monsters are often the Other from the perspective of the dominant society. To revisit the ideas of transgression and protecting the borders of community discussed in the post on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, transgression is often part of what makes monsters appealing outsiders. To those inside a community who welcome or seek out new experiences, what may appear monstrous to some in their community can prove enticing and appealing…up to a point. After a certain point, violating the norms of a community stops being intriguing or seductive and becomes heinous.
Dracula, Frank N. Furter, and Imhotep aren’t content to simply invite others to join them in their rejection of London/mainstream American/colonialist British norms. They go a few steps further, both outright killing people who stand in their way and trying to force others to comply with their desires. What makes the three characters compelling is their unapologetic difference from the society around them. What makes them villainous is their disregard for the consent or lives of others.
We can contrast this with Karloff’s other iconic Universal monster, Frankenstein’s creature. In Frankenstein, the creature’s acts of violence are driven by a combination of self-defense, lack of understanding of consequences, and anger at the way he’s been treated. He doesn’t try to force others to join him. If anything, he craves an acceptance that he is denied by society. Unlike Drac, Frank, or Imhotep, he doesn’t reject society’s norms in favor of his own vision; society rejects him, starting with Fritz and ending with the angry mob at the windmill.
Dr. Frankenstein himself does reject society’s norms, which is part of why there’s a case to be made that he’s the real monster of Frankenstein. He transgresses the long-held belief that it is not humanity’s place to flout the border between life and death. When he’s building his creation, he doesn’t care about his community’s rules. He is much more of a rebel than his creation, and much of what makes him compelling comes from this self-assured pursuit of his vision.
Frankenstein differs from the Dracula, Rocky Horror, and The Mummy in another way: it’s never about sex. Sure, the doctor has his nuptials spoiled by the creation – and one of the creature’s least sympathetic moments is his torment of Frankenstein’s fiancee – but we don’t really see any of the characters display much sexual interest in each other. Dracula and Frank N. Furter are both trying to be sexually seductive, and Imhotep’s whole storyline once he’s brought back to life is about trying to restore his lost love by any means necessary. In a month or so, we’ll see if The Bride of Frankenstein manages to change that dynamic in the Franken-verse.
For today, though, I think it’s safe to say that so far, The Mummy is the weakest of the Universal classics considered thus far. There isn’t much new about this monster that we haven’t seen before, and the parts that are newest (other than some of the production choices) often reflect Hollywood’s worst patterns when depicting other cultures and making difference equivalent to monstrosity. That’s probably also why it proved a good candidate for a remake in 1999. More on that it in a couple weeks.
Also, if someone wanted to make a series about Helen Grosvenor deciding based on this experience to become a monster fighter aided by the power of Isis, that could be fun to watch (provided it was done with a thousand percent less exotification and racism).