Peter Lorre stars in MGM’s Mad Love (1935)
It’s movies such as MGM's "Mad Love" (1935) which continually confirm the 1930’s as my own favorite movie period. Peter Lorre's Doctor Gogol is a monster who should be as well-remembered as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the whole collection of famous Universal creatures, but perhaps Gogol was just too human for us to include him directly alongside the monster classics.
The madness of Doctor Gogol places him more within the realm of Doestoevsky's Raskalnikov, also played by Lorre in 1935, than it does with those better remembered monsters who were often monsters of the flesh. Rather than bolts in his neck or howling at the moon Gogol is a sexually depraved megalomaniac, soft-spoken in public, but a cackling madman at the peak of his monstrous plans.
“Mad Love” was based on the same novel as the earlier Conrad Veidt silent feature, "The Hands of Orlac" (1924). Bohemian born "Dracula" (1931) cinematographer, Karl Freund directs bringing Expressionistic elements to the first talkie version of this often remade tale.
Right at the opening credits the viewer finds themselves inside what seems a madhouse though in actuality is a Grand Guignol type stage performance starring beautiful Yvonne Orlac, played by Frances Drake, also of "The Invisible Ray" (1936), and attended by Lorre's Gogol, who’s shown leering at Mme. Orlac from behind the curtain of his private box.
As if Lorre's shiny bald head and creepy speech patterns weren't enough, his obsession with Yvonne is made obvious from the first time we see him, staring at a wax figure of the actress which he would soon have delivered to his bedroom. On the other hand the actress Yvonne, despite the macabre set of her current work, is actually a very normal young woman who in between acts listens anxiously to the radio back stage hoping to hear her pianist husband cough twice to signify his love for her in between tunes during his live on-air performance.
And cough he does, as Yvonne and Stephen Orlac are the ideal young and in-love couple, though anyone who had previously seen Colin Clive star as the mad doctor of the title in the classic "Frankenstein" (1931), and that would likely be everybody, knows that there may be something darker lurking inside his Stephen Orlac.
After his performance Stephen boards a train to reunite with Yvonne, but a terrible train crash damages his hands and looks to end his career. With nowhere else to turn Yvonne plays on the affections of Doctor Gogol, who despite all of his peculiarities happens to be the most renowned surgeon of his time. Gogol, like any good mad scientist, likes to attend executions in his spare moments, and has only recently witnessed the beheading of the notorious murderer Rollo the knife thrower, played briefly and hilariously by character actor Edward Brophy, who had also shown off his skills for Stephen on the same ill-fated train.
The pianist and the knife thrower, two specialty acts whose trades are ruled by their hands, so what's a mad doctor to do? Perhaps Gogol, a genius who we see performing miracles for other patients, wouldn't have ever dared down this path for a stranger, but when his Yvonne pleads for help he cannot let her down.
As Stephen’s new appendages heal into place he finds they have a mind of their own, or at least the mind of their former knife tossing owner. Meanwhile Gogol returns home each night to play creepy tunes on his organ to his wax figure version of Yvonne. Perhaps her form in wax would have been enough, but as Stephen's troubles mount flesh and blood Yvonne has no choice but to return to Doctor Gogol for help.
As Gogol is pushed over the edge "Mad Love" leads into one of the great moments of American horror cinema with Lorre donning a get-up foreshadowing Jackie Gleason's Man from Mars both in its audacity and creativity. His arms right down to his hands and individual fingers are covered in metal, his head is supposed to appear attached to his body through an elaborate brace which also has the effect of pushing his chin up causing him to bear his teeth. His bald head is hidden by a hat and his eyes behind dark sunglasses--he is Rollo reborn! When Stephen meets the monster looking for answers this reanimated Rollo speaks in a chilling whisper and punctuates his speech with the terrifying cackle of a madman.
"Mad Love" is "M" actor Peter Lorre's first American film. Besides horror features he would later gain fame in support in timeless classics such as "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon," before returning to the genre and winding down his career in B roles.
Besides the Orlacs, both played wonderfully by Frances Drake and Colin Clive, two performers as I've mentioned with other experiences in the genre, the cast includes the memorable few moments of Brophy, former Three Stooges front man Ted Healy clowning as the American reporter, most often with Gogol's housekeeper, played by May Beatty who's usually seen here with a large parrot on her shoulder. Sara Haden plays Yvonne's maid and Chinese born actor Keye Luke, best known for playing Charlie Chan's #1 Son, is actually afforded a respectable, though largely invisible, role as Doctor Gogol's assistant.
Running a tight 68 minutes there's not much more I can say about the plot elements of "Mad Love" without risking spoiling it for you. That said, I think it'd be impossible to ruin “Mad Love” for the first time viewer with any amount of details as it is typical of the hour-plus 1930's feature in that not a moment is wasted, the acting is skilled and entertaining and to further hold your attention being performed by largely familiar faces, the story is very human yet extremely strange all at the same time with some scenes and characters just playing as bizarre.
Really a wonderful horror film and a great way for the classic film fan to break out beyond the Universal classics this time of year.