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A Lurid Legacy: Lessons from Sweeney Todd and Hangover Square

By Kevin M. Flanagan

Originally posted Special Affects, November 1, 2011.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and Hangover Square (1945) are both part of a somewhat obscured tradition of filmmaking—the heavily melodramatic ‘B’ movie—that, while largely unfashionable amongst many critics, nevertheless continues to resonate with viewers. While audiences of Tim Burton’s recent Sweeney Todd (2007) might think of it primarily as a Burtonized film fantasia on Steven Sondheim’s long-lived and much-loved musical, it is important to remember that there are many cultural sources that fed their mutual success. I’ll be briefly discussing two film antecedents (each of which is steeped in non-filmic traditions in British popular culture) that helped shepherd a sinister and pulpy version of the violent underpinnings of late 19th and early 20thcentury London to a predominantly American audience.

As is now well-known, the character Sweeney Todd first appeared in print in a text called The String of Pearls (which was serialized between 1846-1847), in a story that dates the barber’s misdeeds to 1785. The rudimentary components of the tale—the luring of costumers, the false-bottomed chair, the looting, the meat pies—are all here. Todd himself is a kind of composite villain, imaginatively constructed from several real and fictitious criminals. By the time of George King’s 1936 Sweeney Todd film, there had already been two silent tellings of the tale on screen. These two versions—one from 1926, the other from 1928—appear to be lost. The 1936 sound film was certainly the most widely circulating, popular, and long-lasting of the early films. It continues to crop up on late night British TV and can be streamed, for free, online.

The most immediately evident (and in some senses, shocking) fact of King’s Sweeney Todd is how antiseptic it feels. This is an almost totally bloodless telling of the tale, with nearly no on-screen violence, no outright statement of how the victim’s bodies were being recycled, and nearly no interest in giving the audience anything like deep psychological reasons for why Todd acts the way he does. All of these factors, I’m sure, are frustrating to our contemporary sensibilities. Much of this can be attributed to the stranglehold of Britain’s censors and the United States’ self-imposed production code, both of which prompted filmmakers to preemptively tone down their films for an imagined family audience. Note that the British censors insisted on the removal of all direct references to murder, as well as all mention of the meat pie recipe, in both the 1928 and 1936 versions! Part of it also resides in the type of melodramatic theatrical tradition that was being translated to the screen. In the film’s defense, it does give us one diamond in the rough: actor Tod Slaugther (whose name, incidentally, is probably the most fantastic ever borne by a horror film star).

Born Norman Carter Slaughter in 1885, Tod began his career as a stage actor for Victorian melodramas, before making film versions of his most famous roles in the 1930s.i Slaugther toured the British provinces in a type of production that had been phased out of the contemporary bourgeois fashionability of London’s West End. In fact, James Chapman notes that, despite their profitability and their success as exports, Slaughter’s film work was ignored by the establishment press of the 1930s, with only one of his films (The Face at the Window) receiving a review (and a harsh one at that) in The Times.ii The values of the mainstream of British intellectuals in the 1930s—one should think of the Bloomsbury Group, T.S. Eliot and his cohort, the Oxbridge academic world—were anathema to Slaugther’s two-dimensional physicality. If the theatrical values of the British establishment of this time could be said to hinge on nuance, understatement, psychological complexity, and tasteful restraint, then Slaugther gives you anything but. His villains are ham-fisted and blunt. His calling card is frightful overstatement. His characterizations are driven by crystalized impulses like greed, hatred, and jealousy, with little wiggle-room or gray area. While his films are free of conventionally disturbing violence, they also show us a leering, jeering, and occasionally sniveling mode of gesture. According to an article from The Irish Times, “Slaughter had the knack of performing on two levels; the more impressionable might be frightened or thrilled, but his plays and films could also be viewed as uproarious comedy.”iii For my money, Slaughter can now be viewed as a curio whose performative bulldozing reads to us as mildly disturbing, but at times seriously funny in its commitment to lunacy.

If Burton and Sondheim learned anything from King and Slaugther’s Sweeney, it was probably that the visual shorthands of a cheapish “B” movie—heavy on dreary atmospherics, period costumes, and almost proscenium-friendly camera framings—could do a lot of the work of getting audiences to buy into the world of this deadly London. The truly endearing connection to audiences would be forged largely through the charisma of the portrayal of Sweeney Todd, a figure who connects to spectators in a perversely benevolent way.

 Watch Sweeney Todd (1936), via YouTube

How Hangover Square relates to our current deployment of the Sweeney Todd mythology is a little bit more obscure, and will take some setting up. On the surface, we can think of the film—which is adapted from a fine novel by Patrick Hamilton—as relating to Todd in that both feature central characters who are driven to murder through some sort of inexplicable, almost supernatural compulsion. For Hangover Square’s George Harvey Bone (played with remorse, fear, and the requisite amount of insanity by American actor Laird Cregar, who died before the film’s wide release), that compulsion is a deadly cocktail of amnesiac blackouts mixed with uncontrollable acts of murder.iv Bone’s first transgression, which is given to us through a masterful camera movement that swoops into a building and then becomes the first-person vantage of a man who stabs a fearful victim and then sets fire to the corpse, is about as graphically violent as anything else on mainstream screens of the time. On the whole, the film balances these moments of surprising brutality with Cregar’s sensitive portrayal of a composer who becomes enamored of a singer, is given the opportunity to debut an important composition, and who even tries to initially entrust himself to the watchful eye of the police.

For Sondheim, the film showcases the interplay of two traditions in late 19th/early 20th century British music. On the one hand is Bone’s work as a serious composer, wherein he makes classically styled compositions that are to be debuted before persons of refinement, distinction, and wealth. But, on the other hand, Bone writes music to be sung by Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) a popular stage performer (think of the American vaudevillle tradition) who is initially shown singing to a predominately working class audience amidst beer-swilling reverie. Sondheim seems to have internalized this sequence in particular, which in fact plays off of a whole tradition of music hall, burlesque, and communal sing-along. Before the definitive encroachment of American popular culture, Britain fostered a largely ground-up, organic music culture of communal sing-alongs, which were a weekly fixture of working men’s clubs, and allowed the audience to get in on the game just as much as the performers on stage. In Richard Hoggart’s famous book The Uses of Literacy, he writes of a common culture that, prior to the 1950s, was invested in a set of songs that were performed by families, couples, friends, and colleagues regardless of musical talent or formal training.v The sing-along of working class Britons had some analogs in the United States, but by the time of the Sweeney Todd musical, was a lost tradition. Other notable films to re-view this popular musical tradition include Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer (1960) and Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives(1988). The featuring of this type of song, which had developed during the Victorian period, adds some historically- suggestive credibility to Sondheim’s stage show.

Probably the strangest thing about Hangover Square is the fact that its engagement with British culture, while sincere, is also illusory. The film’s stars were American, the director German, and the production financed wholly by American money. It was shot in Fox’s studio in California, nearly a world away from the still-bombed out streets of London. While its invocation of a lost London is credible, it also features some pretty grating moments. For example, the sequence featuring the children informing our main character about Guy Fawkes day is clearly geared towards an American audience with no specific knowledge of British history. Listen closely during these scenes to hear some truly awful approximations of working class British accents. That the film ends with a note about how it is meant to be screened to our soldiers currently at war, and with the requisite note about buying war bonds, makes for a truly strange viewing experience.

In a way, this cognitive dissonance works in favor of later Sweeneys. Given that many theatrical versions of the musical, and subsequent film versions, are produced by Americans, for American audiences, it is worth closing on the thought that the longevity of the Sweeney Todd myth has always been a transatlantic affair. Our willingness to accept Kentuckian Johnny Depp in relation to aristocratic Londoner Helena Bonham Carter is a testament to this.

Notes:

i Stephen Shafer, “Slaughter, Tod,” BFI Screenonline, <http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/467303/> (29 Oct 2011).

ii James Chapman, “Tod Slaughter and the Cinema of Excess,” The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of British Cinema, 1929-1939, ed. Jeffrey Richards (London: IB Tauris, 1993), 140.

iii “Boo, hiss! The Melodramatic Tradition,” The Irish Times, City Edition, Weekend (July 12, 2003), 56. Accessed through LexisNexis Academic. (29 Oct 2011).

iv For more on Cregar, see Mark Clark, Smirk, Sneer, and Scream: Great Acting in Horror Cinema(Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishers, 2011), 152-156.

v Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1970 [1957]), 124-137.