‘Mad Love’ – This 1930s Body Horror Classic Pushed the Hays Code to Its Limits

No film of the Hays Code era revels in its own perversity quite like Mad Love (1935). Mad science, body horror, insanity, obsession, executions, gaslighting, sadomasochism—it’s all here and presented with unparalleled excellence of craft. Though it may seem tame compared to pre-Code fare like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Freaks, and Island of Lost Souls (both 1932), it manages to just barely sneak its lurid subject matter by the censors under a layer of dark humor, exceptional cinematography, and a masterful performance by Peter Lorre in his first American film.

After Dracula proved to be a huge success for Universal, other Hollywood studios became eager to get in on the horror game, though many of these studios felt the genre was beneath them. Metro Goldwyn Mayer was considered the most prestigious of the golden-age studios, famous for its big budget musicals, epic spectaculars, and boasting “more stars than there are in the heavens.” The uneasy relationship MGM had with horror is evident in the early sequences of Mad Love, which opens at a Grand Gignol Guignol style theater in Paris, Le Théatre Des Horreurs. At the box office, a woman protests to her male companion, “when I go out to a play, I want to have some fun. You bring me to a place like this where they make you scream and faint.” He counters that it is fun, to which she demands that he take her home. The film goes on to argue that the popular art of this Theater of Horrors can coexist alongside high art as the theater’s starlet Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) is married to a preeminent concert pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive). As elitist as the studio heads could be about horror films, they could not argue with the bottom line.

In 1935, MGM lured director Karl Freund away from Universal to help shepherd a new unit at the studio focused on genre films. Mad Love, the first film he chose to direct, was a remake of The Hands of Orlac, a German silent made in 1924 by Cabinet of Dr. Caligari director Robert Wiene. Freund had been a key player in the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s, serving as cinematographer on important films including The Golem (1920), The Last Laugh (1924), and Metropolis (1927) before making the transition to American films. He was made Universal’s ace cinematographer by Carl Laemmle, Jr. after suggesting the iconic “butterfly” ending of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and the massive success of Dracula a year later. His directorial debut, The Mummy (1932), was enough of a success for the studio that he was given several other assignments before MGM came calling.

The film draws from a number of successful horror films that had come before as is evident from its now restored opening narration, an almost verbatim recitation of the speech delivered before the curtain by Edward Van Sloan at the beginning of Frankenstein (1931). The inclusion of Colin Clive in the cast also draws lineage to Frankenstein, though instead of the mad doctor here, Clive plays a variation on the monster. After Orlac’s hands are crushed in a train accident, Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol grafts the hands of an executed criminal, the knife-throwing Rollo (Edward Brophy), onto his wrists. The makeup and scarring are subtle in comparison to the creature Clive created in Frankenstein but draw an undeniable parallel to the earlier film. Another familiar name from Frankenstein and other Universal projects is John L. Balderston who is credited along with P.J. Wolfson as writing the screenplay from an adaptation by Guy Endore of the original novel, Le Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) by Maurice Renard. Balderston was a key figure in the writing of several early sound era horror films including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Mark of the Vampire (1935).

Karl Freund also brings a number of elements from his days in the Expressionist movement, particularly in the use of shadows, mirrors, and the motif of the hand. Several character entrances are announced by their shadows on walls that morph and stretch depending on the nature of the character. One of Mad Love’s greatest sequences involves Dr. Gogol and several mirrors in which he sees his reflection speaking to him, evoking one of the most repeated themes in Expressionism, the doppelganger or evil twin. Here, this is not literal but more of a sense of split personality expressed in several elements of Gogol’s character. He is a gifted surgeon and shows great compassion to his patients, particularly a child who he is treating in attempts to restore her ability to walk. At the same time, he regularly attends executions at the guillotine. He has fallen in love with Yvonne and attends her every performance at Le Théatre des Horreurs but is shown to be at the brink of orgasm when her character is horrifically tortured on stage. In lesser hands, Gogol would be a caricature, but Peter Lorre navigates the subtleties of the performance in ways that only a master actor could. He manages to simultaneously repel and draw sympathy, much as he did as the child murderer Hans Beckert in M (1931).

The doppelganger is also brought to reality in the wax statue of Yvonne that Gogol rescues from being melted down and places in his study. The real Yvonne poses as her statue when she comes to his house to find information in order to escape being caught by Gogol. This appears to be something of a nod to the Warner Bros. film Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) but also serves the purpose of underscoring Gogol’s obsession with literature and his references to the myth of Pygmalion and the statue of Galatea that comes to life in his arms. Other references to previous hit horror films include the fast-talking newspaperman Reagan, played by Ted Healy, who is similar to characters found in Mystery of the Wax Museum and its companion piece Dr. X (1932). John Balderston was not above a bit of self-reference, repeating the line “it went out for a little walk” from his previous screenplay for The Mummy. Also, Dr. Gogol has an organ in his house which he plays as though he were a particularly deranged Phantom of the Opera.

Hands are of supreme importance in Mad Love and serve as the central image of the film. As David J. Skal writes in Screams of Reason, “hands are an unsurpassed symbol of human achievement[…]damaged hands often represent twisted accomplishment. Stephen Orlac’s god-given hands are delicate, nimble, and able to produce fantastic music, but are crushed beyond repair. Orlac keeps a sculpture of these lost hands on his piano as a reminder of his previous abilities and inspiration to regain them. The murderer Rollo’s larger hands that are grafted onto his arms after the accident are clumsy and he is unable to play the piano well with them, but they do have the almost supernatural ability of maintaining Rollo’s knife-throwing abilities. These abilities are then exploited by Gogol to make Orlac think that he has killed his father because the hands have taken him over. In the most striking image of Mad Love, the apparently resurrected Rollo, wearing a neck brace to hold on his severed head and donning a pair of shiny metal mechanical hands, meets with Orlac. This is of course Gogol attempting to drive Orlac mad and wearing a pair of elaborate gloves over his own hands.

The element of the hands that may or may not have a mind of their own has been one of the motifs of body horror both before and after Mad Love. In Metropolis, the mad scientist Rotwang set the stage for the black-gloved right hand, and it has been seen again and again in contexts as diverse as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Return of the Jedi (1983). The unruly hand would return in several remakes of The Hands of Orlac, most notably the 1960 version starring Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee, Oliver Stone’s The Hand (1981), Evil Dead 2 (1987), and Idle Hands (1999). Peter Lorre himself starred in the 1946 classic The Beast with Five Fingers which again involves a pianist and his possibly murderous severed hand. Mad Love itself stands as one of the great body horror films of the 1930s. Though much of the horror is left to the imagination, it does ponder fears surrounding transplants (which were largely theoretical at the time) and the ideas of an outside force taking control of the body.

Mad Love 1935 horror

Mad Love opened to rave reviews from critics in 1935, particularly for Lorre’s performance as Gogol. This was a welcome turn of events for MGM, especially after its previous horror release, Freaks, had been universally panned. Unfortunately, the movie completely bombed at the box office. According to film historian Dr. Steve Haberman in his audio commentary on the recent Blu-ray release, it made $170,000 in the United States, $120,000 less than the financial catastrophe Freaks. When all the receipts came in from domestic and worldwide grosses (it did slightly better overseas), the film lost $39,000, a disaster in 1935 dollars. The film languished practically forgotten for decades in the MGM vaults.

After Mad Love, Frances Drake continued to have a relatively successful career into the early 40s before retiring from film. Sadly, Colin Clive appeared in only a few more movies before dying of complications from tuberculosis related to his alcoholism in 1937. His legacy as Henry Frankenstein and Stephen Orlac, however, lives on and he will be forever remembered as one of the great actors of the early 30s. Peter Lorre went on to become a legend, making his name as a character actor in films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) and becoming one of the screen’s greatest icons, and most memorable villains, in the process. Mad Love proved to be Karl Freund’s last film as director. He returned to cinematography with The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and went on to shoot films including Camille (1936), A Guy Named Joe (1943), and Key Largo (1948) before revolutionizing television with the three camera technique he created for I Love Lucy.

Mad Love was rediscovered in a rather unusual way. Pauline Kael mentioned the film in her controversial essay “Raising Kane” arguing that Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland, who according to Steve Haberman shot additional photography on Mad Love for only eight days, learned all his techniques for Kane from Freund on the film and passed them on to Orson Welles. Though these ideas are generally dismissed, it did draw attention to the all-but-forgotten Mad Love and in the early 70s, it began to develop a cult following. Thankfully, the elements of the film were well-preserved and it has found new life on home video, Turner Classic Movies, and a beautifully restored Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Even now, this perverse tale of sinister obsession has a surprisingly modern flavor and despite being difficult to see for decades has had clear influence on the horror genre. The bizarre power of Mad Love remains potent and a worthy object of any horror fan’s obsession.

In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.

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