The holiday season is a time to reflect on our values and appreciate the things that make us happy – family, friendship, good food, cozy homes, and of course . . . mummies.
I confess I did my utmost to frighten you with my horde of Silent Era mummies this Halloween, but they all let me down. One romantic maiden after another, wearing their bandages like sheer evening gowns. I’ve decided to change my strategy and rally my silent mummies for another assault. If we can’t make you scream, perhaps we can make you laugh.
As I pointed out in my earlier post, Mummy Love: Cleopatra as Cinema’s First Mummy, the mummies of silent film were not the vindictive monsters we know today. I like to refer to this period as BBK (Before Boris Karloff).
In the over twenty mummy films made in the first two decades of the twentieth century, you’d be hard pressed to find a single homicidal maniac or even a meagre flesh-eating scarab. Before Karloff’s undeniably memorable appearance in 1932’s The Mummy, bandaged ancient Egyptians were commonly envisioned either as objects of exotic passion or broad comedy (frequently a bit of both). These seemingly contrasting approaches mirrored the dualistic nature of early twentieth century archaeology and its impact. The oft-retold tale of the feminine mummy rescued by a dashing Egyptologist romanticized the process of exploration and glamorized archaeology. Its dark comedic counterpart ridiculed the pretensions of self-proclaimed scholars and the surrealism of commodifying preserved human remains.
The very real criminal practice of selling falsified mummies and mummy bones to eager scientists and gullible tourists inspired an entire sub-genre of macabre comedy. This type of mummy story was the domain of pranksters, mountebanks, tramps and hapless professors and took a distinctly theatrical and flamboyant approach to its subject. A number of these films center around professional mummy impersonators – live people posing as mummies to defraud scientists out of large sums of money. This alarming topic is explored in depth in the 1915 British short The Live Mummy. In 1912’s The Mummy and the Cowpuncher, an actor goes so far as to impersonate a professor, displaying his daughter as a miraculously preserved princess at his lectures. A similar underhanded scheme appears in other films such as Eyes of the Mummy Ma (Germany, 1918). Such men give a bad name to mummy-fakers and ought to be ashamed of themselves.
But not every false-mummy scheme was purely nefarious in intent. Silent filmmakers would have us believe such means could be used to achieve a nobler end. Namely, a happy marriage. Allow me to elucidate.
Thanhouser Films’ The Mummy (1911) and two American films, both made in 1914 (one by Vitagraph, the other by Kalem) – both imaginatively entitled The Egyptian Mummy – all present a common dilemma. Each of these films features a professor father who is either too wrapped up in his scholarly musings or too haughty to appreciate the charming but gormless Jack or Dick who’s stolen his beautiful daughter’s heart. * Note to the wise – if you must get a PhD in archaeology, avoid spawning a beautiful daughter at all costs. * In all three cases, the young men attempt to ingratiate themselves with the professorial father with a peace offering in the form of a mummy. The results of this gesture vary.
In Thanhouser’s The Mummy, the romantic youth (Jack in this case), makes the unfortunate mistake of electrocuting his mummy. The ravishing ancient princess, who hasn’t aged a day in the last 5,000 or so years, instantly forms an ardent attachment to him, almost losing him the love of his modern sweetheart before turning her amorous eye on the professor instead. What’s a several-thousand-year age difference when it comes to true love?
The two Egyptian Mummy films take a more cynical angle involving brainwashing and swindling. Young Dick (from the Kalem film) takes it upon himself to impersonate the mummy of Ramses III (the reason for this choice is clear only to Dick). Narrowly avoiding a live dissection, Dick rushes to give the professor marital advice in sepulchral tones. If this sounds like a far-fetched plan to you, you should see its success rate. That year’s second mummy-peddling suitor (also Dick – evidently a common name for morally dubious young men) takes it a step further, making a tidy profit into the bargain. When his sweetheart’s father offers a large reward for a genuine mummy (in the local paper, no less), Dick takes the wise precaution of hiring someone else to play the role of the mummy before selling it to the professor. The fact that the “mummy” is really an alcoholic bum who’s very much alive shows that Dick isn’t one for planning ahead.
I would tell you how it turns out, but as this film has miraculously survived the ravages of time and space-saving studio bonfires, I’m sure you’d rather find out for yourself. I’ve included a link at the end of this post.
On a more sombre note, the French film Romance of the Mummy (1911), warns of the dangers of violent emotional attachment to mummified seductresses. A young English lord nearly “loses his reason” over the mummy of an (inevitably) beautiful princess that he brings back to his estate. Her image haunts his dreams until salvation comes in the form of a modern girl who just happens to be the princess’s reincarnation. May we all be fortunate enough to meet a soulmate who’s a dead ringer for our favorite ancient corpse. I’m still looking for my own Seti I.
It seems to me the lesson imparted by these films is clear. Impersonating a mummy is a dangerous and complicated business, but so is finding a soulmate. May you spend your holidays surrounded by those you love, whether they belong to our time or have touched your heart from across centuries.
Here are links to more information on the films discussed in this post:
• The Egyptian Mummy (Vitagraph, 1914)