Carl Laemmle, Jr. needed a monster. The twenty-three year old president of Universal Pictures had produced a string of successful features since inheriting the company as his twenty-first birthday present. It was the depths of the Great Depression. Thousands were unemployed. More than ever, Americans needed an escape, and it came in the form of movies. This was an age of screwball comedies, lavish musicals, and westerns. It was also the time when Universal Pictures introduced its classic monsters — Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster. These monsters starred in the horror films that saved Universal and made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. In its quest for the next great monster, Universal searched the works of Edgar Allan Poe and found Erik. If you’ve never heard of Erik that is because it is the name they gave the previously unnamed orangutan from Poe’s mystery “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In the process of converting Poe’s detective story into one of Universal’s gothic monster movies, the producers transformed the orangutan into a classic movie monster and threw in a mad scientist for good measure.
Filming on Murders in the Rue Morgue (the studio dropped the first “The” from the title.) wrapped on December 23, 1931 at the cost of $190,099.45, far less than it had spend the previous year on Dracula. In January 1932, Universal Pictures’ publicist P. L. Hickey visited Richmond’s Poe Museum, where the Museum’s Acting Secretary Catherine Campbell led him on a guided tour of the complex. In addition to working for Universal, Hickey wrote fiction, true stories, and poetry for the pulp magazines True Detective Magazine and Weird Tales. Even though the Poe Museum had closed two of its buildings to conserve energy during the Depression, Hickey was sufficiently impressed with his visit that he told Universal’s Head of Exploitation Joe Weil.
Weil specialized in finding unique ways to promote Universal’s films. For the premiere of Dracula, Weil plastered New York City with cryptic messages like “Beware! Friday the 13th—Dracula,” “I’ll be on your neck Friday the 13th—Dracula,” and “Good to the last gasp! Dracula.” He wrote advertising copy and leaked a fake telegram in which the film’s director supposedly begged the studio not to release the movie on Friday the 13th because he was superstitious. Weil also worked with local businesses, convincing department stores have special Dracula-themed displays in their windows. Some studios of the era went so far as to station ambulances outside theaters just in case Universal’s movies frightened anyone to death.
For Murders in the Rue Morgue, Weil probably thought the Poe Museum was a natural fit to help him promote the Poe-inspired film. On January 23, 1932, he wrote Campbell, telling her how much Hickey had enjoyed his visit and promising to send her publicity stills from the film “with the compliments of Mr. Laemmle.” He also promised to send her 1,000 rotogravure heralds to distribute on the film’s behalf. Campbell wrote Weil on February 9, thanking him for the “very interesting pictures of The Murders in the Rue Morgue which your President was kind enough to send us.”
She assured him she would “certainly see the picture if it ever comes to Richmond and will try and have some of [his] pictures in a conspicuous place.” While there is no record of the stills having ever been displayed in the Poe Museum, they have remained in the museum’s collection for the past eighty-four years.
The first thing one might notice when scanning these photos is that the star of the film, the legendary horror film star Bela Lugosi does not appear in any of them. The second is that a lesser known actress named Sidney Fox appears in every one. The average fan of classic horror films might be shocked to discover that, in the film’s opening credits, Fox’s name appears before Lugosi’s—even though she was still a relative newcomer while he was at the height of a long and distinguished career. The rumor at the time attributed her sudden rise to fame to her having an affair with studio boss Carl Laemmle (or even his sixty-four year old father). The truth might be that she was seen as a promising young Hollywood star after having garnered praise on Broadway and beating out Bette Davis for the coveted role of the bad sister in 1931’s Bad Sister.
Also in 1931, Bela Lugosi’s title role in the film Dracula saved Universal from financial ruin and launched the studio’s cycle of horror films. This was the film in which Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi introduced the tuxedo- and cape-wearing interpretation of a suave Count Dracula to the silver screen. Having starred for decades at the Hungarian Royal National Theater and on Broadway, Lugosi believed he would inevitably become a leading man in Hollywood, but his thick accent and inability to master the English language doomed him to be typecast as a foreign villain.
Shortly after he starred in Dracula, Lugosi was offered the role of the monster in Universal’s upcoming adaptation of Frankenstein. Worried that the monster makeup required for the role would obscure his handsome face and that the monster did not have any dialog to showcase his acting, Lugosi declined the offer.
Meanwhile, French Expressionist Robert Florey expected to direct Frankenstein, but Universal awarded the job to British director James Whale. Without Lugosi, the studio was in need of a new monster, and Whale found him, in the form of forty-one year old British actor Boris Karloff.
With the release of Frankenstein on November 21, 1931, Karloff was a star, Whale was a respected director, Lugosi was regretting his decision, and Florey still needed a showcase for his talents. Universal followed up on the success of Frankenstein with The Old Dark House (directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff) and The Mummy (also starring Boris Karloff).
While Karloff was claiming the spotlight, Lugosi appeared in minor roles in a series of long-since forgotten B-movies like 50 Million Frenchmen, Women of all Nations, The Black Camel, and Broadminded. By 1932, both Lugosi and Florey needed a chance to shine, and Universal gave it to them with Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Murders in the Rue Morgue premiered on February 21, 1932. Although it made a profit, the film helped launch the careers of many of those involved. The director Florey left Universal for Paramount and Warner Brothers where he specialized in B-movies, making about fifty of them before his death in 1979. His best-known film is probably the Marx Brothers comedy The Cocoanuts (1939).
Bela Lugosi clearly relished the part of the mad Dr. Mirakle, who abducted women to inject them with ape’s blood in order to prove the theory of evolution. When the injection invariably kills them, he dumps them into the River Seine through a trapdoor conveniently located in his laboratory floor. By the way, he is also fluent in whatever language apes speak. As implausible as that may sound, it absolutely works in the context of the unreal atmosphere of the film.
Four years later, when it came time to cast the sequel to his hit film Dracula, Universal replaced Lugosi with a dummy, which is burned at the beginning of the movie. He would, however, reprise his vampire role in films like Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1944), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1951). Over the course of his prolific career, he displayed a great versatility, playing everything the Frankenstein monster’s sinister sidekick Ygor in The Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein to a gangster in Black Friday (1940). He even obscured his face and grunted to perform the previously rejected role of Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Universal eventually released Lugosi from his contract, and the actor spent his remaining years playing villains in low-budget films until his death in 1959. His last film was Plan 9 from Outer Space, which has been named the “Worst Film Ever Made.” Per his request, he was buried in his Dracula cape.
Leon Ames portrays the hero of Murders in the Rue Morgue, the medical student Pierre (not Auguste) Dupin. His character is responsible for delivering such corny lines as “You’re like a song the girls of Provence sing on May Day. And like the dancing in Normandy on May Day. And like the wine in Burgundy on May Day.” After Murders in the Rue Morgue Ames found steady acting work until his retirement in 1986. His best known role was that of D.A. Kyle Sackett in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
His co-star Sidney Fox was only nineteen when she filmed Murders in the Rue Morgue, and he only made a few more films. The persistent rumors of her affair with Carl Laemmle were among the factors that caused her to move to Europe. Her career never recovered. Her poor acting and grating, high-pitched voice have been blamed (a little unfairly, considering the writing) for ruining Murders in the Rue Morgue. She died from an overdose of sleeping pills ten years later.
The cinematographer, Karl Freund, went on to a celebrated career. By the time he made Murders he had already been the cinematographer for Dracula and the director for The Mummy. After working on several films, he became the cinematographer for the television comedy I Love Lucy in 1951. In so doing, he innovated television by introducing flat lighting, a technique that illuminates all parts of the scene evenly so that three different cameras can be used at the same time from different angles without having to adjust the lighting for each camera.
The producer, Carl Laemmle, saved Universal with his series of monster movies and defined pop culture depictions of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy for decades. Regrettably, he lost control of the studio in 1936 and retired a few years later. His influence on later horror films is incalculable.
The real star of the film, Erik the Ape, dies in the film, and he would not be resurrected to appear in any sequels like his fellow Universal monsters Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. The chimp who portrayed Erik in close-ups lived out his remaining years in the Selig Zoo, which provided animals for films. Joe Bonoma, who wore the ape suit in action shots, went on to a career as a stuntman. Charlie Gemora, who designed the ape suit and wore if for stationary shots, became renowned for his “realistic” ape costumes and would wear them in several films including The Monster and the Girl (1941), the Marx Brothers movie At the Circus (1939), the Laurel and Hardy comedy Swiss Miss (1938), and the Marlene Dietrich feature Blonde Venus (1932). He also found success as a special effects artist at Paramount Studios.
Murders from the Rue Morgue gradually became a cult classic and is considered a fine example of Expressionist filmmaking in America. Universal decided Poe’s name was bankable enough that they added his name and the titles of his works to films like The Black Cat (1935) and The Raven (1935) that bear absolutely no relation to anything Poe ever wrote. This tradition of adding Poe’s names and the titles to unrelated horror films continues to this day.
This was not the last time Hollywood came to the Poe Museum. A decade after the release of Murders in the Rue Morgue, Twentieth Century Fox approached the museum for help with its upcoming romance The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe. The museum consulted the studio on the life of Poe in order to make the film as true to life as possible. Then the studio’s writers promptly ignored this advice and wrote a film that bore only a passing resemblance to the author’s life. Regrettably, the thoroughly historically inaccurate The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) remains one of the most accurate Poe biopics so far.
Even earlier, in 1928, director James Watson wrote the Poe Museum to see if the institution could assist him in getting the avant-garde film The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) shown in Richmond. The Museum’s secretary replied that she was not sure of any place in town that would be willing to screen it. In recent years, the Poe Museum has shown the film in its Enchanted Garden.
Even when the Poe Museum opened in 1922, Edgar Allan Poe and his works were no strangers to film. No less prestigious a director than D.W. Griffith had already made a Poe film. In fact, the first cinematic adaptation of a Poe story dates to 1907.
Over the years, the Poe Museum has had several visitors from Hollywood. In 1975, Vincent Price, star of several Poe adaptations, visited and toured the museum, Shockoe Hill Cemetery, and Talavera, where he recited some verses from “The Raven” on the spot on which Poe once stood when he recited the poem. Around 1990, writer/director/actor Sylvester Stallone visited the museum and spoke about his own desire to write a new Poe biopic. With the critical success of his recent film Creed, maybe he will find the support he needs to make his Poe film a reality.
While the Poe Museum is best known for its collection of rare Poe manuscripts and historical artifacts dating to the early nineteenth century, but the Museum also collects pop culture ephemera like movie posters and comic books. While the core of the Museum’s movie poster collection was donated by Dr. Harry Lee Poe in 2006, the collection of Poe movie memorabilia dates to the 1932 gift of these Murders in the Rue Morgue film stills. Items like these serve as evidence of Poe’s lasting impact and our culture and the ways writers, visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, and other creatives continue to be inspired by his works. That is why–just in time for this year’s Oscars– this set of publicity stills is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.