"I promise to polish you off quicker than any barber in London," simpers Mr. Todd, as played by the obsequious Mr. Tod Slaughter. While we're waiting for the new Depp/Burton Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, we can scan over the ancient version, maybe while playing the Stephen Sondheim album in the background. The 1936 film has a reputation for creaking like a badly-greased windmill, while an eye-rolling British ham goes through his rounds. Expect to hear just that received idea in many a review of the upcoming Sweeney Todd. Such is the craft of what a friend refers to as "bullcrit" (n., the repeating of overheard ideas without personal experience).
In this space, writing about Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin, I was mentioning how much I was coming to enjoy really ripe theatrical acting. And then comes this brilliant New Yorker article by Claudia Roth Pierpont (only abstracted on their site, unfortunately). She discusses the different approaches to Shakepeare on film by Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. Both were primarily theatrical actors, given to exotic makeup and putty noses. I'd never compare Olivier and Tod Slaughter, but to use the evolutionary parlance, they had a common ancestor: the flamboyant British stage actor Edmund Kean, whose bravura knife-waving performances of the Bard used to electrify audiences of the early 1800s. As the vengeful razor-man, Slaughter is actually better than you've heard. I was happy to read that then film-critic Graham Greene once praised Slaughter as "one of our finest living actors."
There's little historical basis for this dire tale of Sweeney Todd, which counts as an urban legend. The tale must certainly have some kind of relationship to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (filmed with Anthony Hopkins, though Vincent Price also did a satirical version of the plot of Titus in an episode of Theatre of Blood). There are two obscure silent-film versions of Todd's story; this 1928 version, according to horror researcher Denis Gifford turned out to be only a dream at the end. Arrgh.
Tod Slaughter's very low-budget 1936 film begins with a bracketing sequence at Todd's still-standing barber shop in London in the mid 1930s. A modern-day barber memorializes the great man, indicating a drawing on the wall of Todd at his work. We flashback to the mid 1800s, where Todd is wharf-side, soliciting trade from arriving sailors. He's done well for himself, and has invested in shipping. All the better to manipulate a debtor, who has a daughter Sweeney has his eye on.
Johanna (the dreadfully refined Eve Lister) dreads being married to a paunchy, leering villain who dyes his hair, and stalls Sweeney out, waiting for her beloved to return from a voyage. In the meantime, Todd keeps the money rolling in through his usual methods: using his specially rigged chair, he drops the customers into his basement, knocking them cold for easy robbery and dispatching. The victim's bodies are disappearing through some as yet unrevealed manner: Todd's heavily accented partner in crime Mrs. Lovatt (Stella Rho) is taking care of that department. The only witness to the crimes is a little boy: Todd's 8th apprentice in 8 weeks, who is bribed with pennies and silenced with dire threats, cuffs and kicks.
Meanwhile in Africa, there's a native uprising, a rousing bit with spear-throwing tribesmen chanting "Lubba! Lubba! Lubba!" A British trader catches a spear right in the brisket. After making his last request, to be buried with his head pointing toward England, he delivers up a valuable pearl to some passing sailors. Using his usual twin methods of fatal chair and razor, Todd gets his unclean hands on the pearl. The gem is the seed of his undoing: crafty detective work--and the treachery of the jealous Mrs. Lovatt--spell the end of Todd's crimes.
Sweeney Todd's director George King epitomized cost-efficient inter-war British filmmaking. Having directed 10 movies in 1933, King perhaps deserves the title Mr. Quota Quickie. A little film history, now: the Quota Quickie was a kind of movie much forgotten today, the result of a 10-year long law (1927-37) to preserve the British film industry from the flood of Hollywood product. By 1937, British theaters were required to show a 20 percent quota of films made in England.
Free-market devotees will howl in outrage at the very thought, but Hollywood's steamrolling effect on many national cinemas is well documented. This correspondent suggests that the much-derided quota system kept the British cinema from ruin when sound film arrived. And he notes a lot of worthwhile movies that were created because of this protectionism. For example, Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, just re-released on Criterion, and the Olivier version of As You Like It.
Speaking of Shakespereans, if you like Ian McKellen, you'll love Tod Slaughter. See Slaughter, and you'll know exactly what David Copperfield's Uriah Heep should look like. You may have read a description in an old novel like "the villain cackled and rubbed his hands" but you may never have actually seen cackling and hand-rubbing seriously offered up. Slaughter's rich, dirty chuckle, his gleaming, slimy grin, and his beautiful rolling r's made me an instant fan. "By now, he should be ripe for rediscovery," claimed Gifford in 1973. He's, eh, even riper now.
There's a lovely story about the intermissions in Slaughter's many stage performances of Sweeney Todd... apparently the actor, still wearing a blood-covered apron, would head to the theater's bar. Seemingly still in character, Slaughter would hold down his corner and stare at the audience members, who would be far too intimidated to come over and talk to him.
Andy Boot's fine memorial page to Tod Slaughter memorializes the actor as a pain in person ("arrogant...a heavy drinker") Still, he was an indefatigable performer who lasted decades, and who briefly ran his own theater, the Elephant and Castle in South London. People came to Slaughter's plays laugh but stayed to shiver. Slaughter's performances of Victorian melodramas kept alive Dickensian quirkiness and good hearty revenge dramas. His theater was the closest thing London had to the Grand Guignol of Paris. To prep the audience for heart-stopping terror, Slaughter had nurses in uniform wandering around, ready to revive any fainters. He was a one-man horror film industry, persisting up to his death in 1957, when Hammer Studios was starting up its own reign of terror.
But there's no offending gore in Slaughter's Sweeney Todd, the movie, unlike Sweeney Todd the play. The censors were harder on movies, then as now. Slaughter has only his cackle, and his engaging vintage theatricality to offer up in this film version. Slaughter represents a kind of horror that is becoming extinct. Johnny Depp certainly keeps it alive. He has a natural theatricality, especially when teamed with Tim Burton. Over the years, Depp certainly expresses his own taste for the ripe in melodrama, make-up and odd accents.
This 1936 Sweeney Todd, though very slow in spots, is solidly built, and has all of the charm meant by the word "antique." I've seen the bracketing sequence denounced for being a mood breaker, but we need the sense of the villain still being at large, somehow, if only in spirit. We must feel that underneath British subservience, there's some hint of rebellion, some glint of hidden sharp metal. That's what makes this old story sing, just as in the Sondheim lyrics: "He'd seen how civilized men behave/he never forgot and he never forgave."