October Musings: The Unexpected Feminism of “The Mummy” (1932)

I make no secret of my love for the horror movie classics released by Universal Studios in the 1930s, but by and large they’re the last place to go if you’re looking for active, interesting heroines, let alone any trace of feminism. (The horror classics produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, particularly 1946’s Bedlam, are far more satisfying in that regard.) Memorable characters abound in these films: Bela Lugosi’s despicable Count Dracula and Dwight Frye’s manic Renfield; Boris Karloff’s poignant Monster, Colin Clive’s haunted Frankenstein, Ernest Thesiger’s sinfully camp Dr. Pretorius, and O.P. Heggie’s gentle Hermit; Claude Rains’ invisible madman Jack Griffin; and Lon Chaney Jr.’s tragic werewolf Laurence Talbot. But none of them are women, unless you count the drive-you-crazy screechers played by Una O’Connor; she’s infuriating but not very forgettable. The female leads are, for the most part, dull damsels easily preyed upon by evil and very given to tears and screams — with one exception.

That exception is Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), the object of Imhotep’s (Boris Karloff) desire in 1932’s The Mummy.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: the movie itself isn’t for everyone. It’s a short film, only 73 minutes long, but it takes its time. Even fans of classic cinema, used to the acting styles and black-and-white cinematography that alienate quite a few post-Generation X viewers, sometimes complain of this movie’s slow pacing, with one YouTube critic complaining that too much of its run time consists of “men talking in drawing rooms.” I can’t say these criticisms are unfounded, though I’m fond of it. The most crucial element that carries it for me is Karloff’s Imhotep, a “monster” in a fascinating situation — executed for a crime motivated by love, reborn suddenly into a world he doesn’t understand, wanting nothing more than to be united with the woman he still adores. He’s almost a sympathetic figure, though his actions can’t be condoned. Karloff, one of my favorite actors, endows the role with a darkly charismatic presence, with his deep, resonant baritone voice and his mesmerizing eyes. Helen, the beautiful young reincarnation of his ancient beloved, is realistic drawn to him.

But the second element that draws me to the film is Helen herself, far more interesting than the pallid, weepy damsels we see in the other Universal horror classics. While ordinariness is a feature rather than a bug with the latter women — since they’re meant to represent the domestic normalcy threatened by the monsters — Helen has an exotic mystique of her own. We first see her sitting at a window and gazing out at the pyramids, a look of rapt fascination on her face. It is with the utmost reluctance that she turns away from what she calls “the real Egypt” and toward the dance to which Dr. Muller (every-mentor Edward van Sloan) has brought her. (I have no trouble empathizing with the introvert pulled out of a daydream and encouraged to socialize.) We lean in the next minute that she comes by her attraction to “the real Egypt” honestly, since her mother is an Egyptian with “a family tree a mile long.” This too sets her apart from the WASP ladies we see in the other films. Moreover, this first scene establishes her as someone indifferent to the prospect of romance, since her thoughts, as Muller says, are “far away from the dance and these nice English boys.” We’re led to expect that when it comes to love, she’s not going to be a pushover.

Since this is a horror movie from 1932, however, a love interest she must find, and the bland, callow Frank Whemple (David Manners) is not among the movie’s strengths. Why she would be attracted to so generic a man while all those “nice English boys” at the party did nothing for her is a mystery the movie never manages to explain. But in their opening conversation, she challenges him in ways that again make her unique among Universal’s horror heroines. Trying to impress her, he tells her how he and his team of archaeologists took apart the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, culminating in unwrapping the princess herself. Yet she reacts not with admiration but with disgust, turning her face away and saying, “How could you do that?” His reply — “Had to! Science, you know!” — is hardly convincing, for either Helen or the audience. She calls him out for cultural appropriation and men’s invasion of a woman’s space long before such things were commonly scrutinized.

Nonetheless, Frank manages to win Helen over, though we’re never shown how or why, and the movie presents him as the “good choice” she must make in order to save her soul from the looming threat of Imhotep, now calling himself Ardath Bey. As the love triangle intensifies, the interesting parts of Helen’s personality start to flatten out; after a fascinating scene in which Bey gives her a glimpse of her past as Anck-es-en-Amon and his own failed attempt to resurrect her after she died, Muller and Frank keep her confined to her house “for her own good” so she can’t respond to Bey’s hypnotic pull, reducing her to a state of protected passivity. But when their scheme fails and she gets away, the stage is set for a climax that first echoes, then subverts the pattern set by Dracula a year earlier.

In both Dracula and The Mummy, the hero and the mentor (played by the same actors) enter the villain’s lair to rescue the hypnotized heroine from his unholy clutches, but at this point the stories diverge. In Dracula, Mina (Helen Chandler) is in a trance, every ounce of her will drained away. In The Mummy, Helen has been drawn back to ancient Egypt, to her old identity as Anck-es-en-Amon, still in love with Imhotep. But her will remains, and when she learns he means to murder her mortal body and turn her into a living mummy like himself, she immediately resists, with all the dignity and determination of a Pharaoh’s daughter and priestess of the goddess Isis. The men burst in, but Imhotep holds them at bay with his death-dealing magic ring and wicked Karloffian glare. They become the imperiled, which gives Anck-es-en-Amon time to pull free from his grasp and raise a prayer that Isis might teach her the forgotten holy spells that can destroy her once-beloved, now enemy. The goddess obliges, the priestess chants, and Isis’ golden statue strikes the menace dead with a lightning bolt. Rather than being rescued, Anck-es-en-Amon becomes the rescuer, destroying Imhotep before he can harm the men. Female magic, the power of the goddess and her priestess, is presented as heroic, in a day and age when it was nearly always framed as evil.

Sadly but inevitably, Helen ends the movie in Frank’s arms; having her leave him to pursue her own career in Egyptology is simply too much to ask of a 1932 film. All the same, the elements of feminism are there, and Helen remains one of the very few horror movie heroines prior to the rise of the slasher film’s “final girls” to deal the monster his death-blow. This alone puts it miles in front of the abysmal 2017 remake, in which a modern-day damsel is reduced to the ultimate passive state while the female “straw feminist” mummy is overpowered by that most egoistic Alpha of all Alpha males, Tom Cruise. (The hope that this film might contain any trace of feminism was pretty much blown sky high the moment Cruise was cast.) So I’ll be sticking with the original, flaws and all.

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