Ancient Egypt has been on my mind for some time. It was the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audioplay of Imprisoned with the Pharaohs that I reviewed last spring that made me think about going someday. Curse of the Pharaoh followed, as well as two different versions of Death on the Nile, and various Mummy movies from Hammer and Universal. Eventually, I worked my way back to original film–Universal’s The Mummy from 1932, starring Boris Karloff.
This movie was filmed in California with stock footage of the Valley of the Kings and back-screen projections of contemporary Cairo, but very few movies from the early sound era ever filmed on location. Its sets and settings are steeped with imagery and lore from ancient Egypt, though a lot of it is historically confused or fiction created specifically for this story–but one also expects a certain amount of mystical fabrication from a movie about a mummy that’s come back to life. What’s most interesting to me, however, is how little of this movie’s manufactured lore and story template are reused in the numerous sequels and remakes over the 85 years since it was made.
The Mummy begins with the British Museum 1921 Expedition at Thebes. An archeological team headed by a man with the unprepossessing name of Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just discovered a previously unknown and undisturbed tomb. With his colleague, occult expert Dr. Muller (Edward van Sloan, basically playing von Helsing from Dracula again under a different name), and an eager young archeologist named Ralph, Whemple examines the dig’s most interesting finds:
- A 3700-year-old mummy of a man (Karloff, or at least a convincing-looking dummy replica of him at this point). The mummified man did not have his organs removed before burial, as was customary, and shows signs that he was still struggling when they wrapped him up and entombed him. The man’s name, Imhotep, is carved on his sarcophagus, but the sacred spells that would protect his soul in the afterlife have been chipped away. The trio speculates that he must have done something truly horrible and sacrilegious to have been doubly damned in this way. (Ralph quips that perhaps Imhotep “got too gay with the vestal virgins”.)
- A small casket of gold containing an even smaller box with its seals intact and a warning upon it: Death and eternal punishment for anyone who opens it.
Sir Joseph: “Good heavens, what a terrible curse!”
Young archeologist: Let’s see what’s inside!
Dr. Muller and Sir Joseph go outside to discuss the dangers of opening the box and unleashing a millennia-old curse; they both already assume that the box contains the Scroll of Thoth, which the goddess Isis herself is said to have used to resurrect her slain husband Osiris. This scroll, which we were introduced to via text at the beginning of the film, is part of that fabricated mythology, although it is loosely based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
While they’re talking, the young archeologist gives in to temptation and opens the box. Inside, there is indeed a papyrus scroll, which he sits down to transcribe.
This leads to my second-favorite scene in this movie. It’s a beautiful sequence in understated horror, analyzed in minute detail by better film critics than I.
The young archeologist reads the hieroglyphics he’s copied aloud in a low murmur. Behind him, unnoticed by him, the mummy’s eyes open just a crack, enough that we see a glister of life. The bandage-wrapped arms crossed over the mummy’s chest slowly move downward.
This is all we’ll see of Karloff as the wrapped-up mummy in motion. No long scenes of leg-dragging staggering around in search of victims for Imhotep!
While the oblivious archeologist continues to read, a wrinkled, aged hand bearing a large jeweled ring reaches into the shot and takes the scroll from the table. The young man only now looks up. We don’t see what he sees. He screams in terror and backs up against the nearest wall, then starts to laugh maniacally.
A couple of trailing bandages are glimpsed going out through the door.
Muller and Sir Joseph, hearing the commotion, return to find an empty sarcophagus, an empty box, a dusty handprint on the work table, and Ralph still laughing as his mind, unable to cope with what he’s just seen, tips over into insanity. “He went for a little walk!”
Ten years later, the British Museum Expedition is back in Thebes once again. The dig is now supervised by Sir Joseph’s son, Frank (David Manners, who might as well be reprising his role from Dracula too). Dialog informs us that Sir Joseph hasn’t been back to Egypt since the bizarre incident in 1921 and that young Ralph died laughing without ever recovering his sanity.
A tall, thin Egyptian visitor appears at the Expedition headquarters and introduces himself as Ardath Bey. Viewers may note that he looks very much like that missing mummy from the opening scene–it is, after all, the unmistakable Boris Karloff. He’s also wearing that same ring.
Where The Mummy differs most significantly from its sequels and remakes is that, apart from that scene at the very beginning, its title character isn’t wrapped in bandages. Imhotep/Bey appears as a living man, fairly normal-looking in spite of his desperate need for moisturizer. While this make-up job isn’t as elaborate or showy as the “mummy” make-up Karloff first appears in, it’s as impressive in a more subtle way. We can believe this man with the desiccated skin might actually be over 3000 years old.
Ardath Bey tells Frank of a discovery he’s made: the possible location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, daughter of the Pharaoh Amenophis (Apparently, she’s based on a real Egyptian queen, the wife of Tutankhamen, although the true details of her life and death are considerably different from anything you’ll see here). Bey says that, as a Egyptian, he cannot violate the tombs of the ancient dead, but the foreigners can.
Frank digs where Bey has indicated (native workers dig; the British archeology team sits under the shade of big umbrella and waits until the natives find something interesting). The tomb is uncovered right where Bey said it would be, with the seals on the doors still intact.
It isn’t long before the sarcophagus and mummy of Anck-es-en-Amon are on display in the Cairo Museum, along with all the treasures and personal artifacts from her tomb. Sir Joseph has returned to Egypt following this important archeological discovery. He meets Ardath Bey at the museum just as it’s about to close one evening and invites the strange Egyptian gentleman to come to his house. Bey receives this invitation with cool aloofness. He doesn’t like to be touched either.
Bey/Imhotep has been hanging around the Princess’s mummy in its glass case since the new display was set up. He speaks the name of Anck-es-en-Amon over it. This doesn’t bring her back to life–unlike him, her mummy was properly buried after her death with all the rituals and the organs removed and stored elsewhere–but he does rouse her spirit in someone else.
On the other side of Cairo, a young woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) is at a party; given the view of the Pyramids from the terrace, I think she’s supposed to be at the Mena House. Two men who aren’t otherwise important to the story gossip about her, and from them we learn that her father is the Governor of the Sudan, and that her mother’s family was an old, old Egyptian one, implying that Helen is not only the spiritual reincarnation of Anck-es-en-Amon, but some sort of extremely distant blood relation. Through a conversation she has with Dr. Muller, we also learn that Helen is his patient… although we never learn exactly what he’s treating her for.
As Helen dances with a young man at the party, she senses Imhotep’s summons. She enters a trance and abruptly leaves the party, gets her wrap from the cloak-room, and heads out of the hotel to get into a taxi. She tells the driver to take her to the museum then, as she sinks into the back seat, says “Imhotep” and starts to murmur words in another language.
In a nice touch, she moves and gestures in a side-view fashion, like the figures in ancient Egyptian artwork.
Helen’s taxi arrives at the museum just as Sir Joseph and Frank are leaving for the night. She pounds on the locked door with both hands and murmurs, “I must get in. I must!” before collapsing at Frank’s feet when he tries to tell her the place is closed.
Father and son bundle the unconscious young woman into their car and take her to their home. Lying on their drawing-room sofa, she continues to murmur. Sir Joseph recognizes the language she’s speaking as ancient Egyptian, which “hasn’t been heard on this Earth in two thousand years” (so how does he know what it is?), and that Imhotep is “the name of a man not spoken since the siege of Troy.”
Dr. Muller has meanwhile traced Helen from the museum to his old friend’s house and shows up to introduce her formally to the Whemples.
Helen has come to by now, but has no memory of going to the museum nor any idea what she was doing there. While the doctor and Sir Joseph go into the study to talk about the things Helen was saying in her trace state, Frank and Helen get to know each other better. Frank flirts in a creepy, necrophiliac Dana-Andrews-in-Laura kind of way by telling Helen how he began to fall in love with the Princess after handling her belongings from her tomb and unwrapping her mummified body–and, say, Helen looks just Anck-es-en-Amon!
Another nice touch: the face painted on Anck-es-en-Amon’s sarcophagus does look like Zita Johann.
Imhotep/Bey has kept the Scroll of Thoth. After the museum closes, he returns to read aloud from it near the Princess’s mummy. The light from the little oil lamp he uses draws the attention of a night watchman on patrol. When the watchman investigates, he is killed and Imhotep flees, leaving the scroll behind.
Sir Joseph is summoned back to the museum. He takes Dr. Muller with him, leaving Helen and Frank to get their romance started. The two older men identify the Scroll of Thoth from Ralph’s partial transcription, which Sir Joseph has kept. They had been wondering what Ardath Bey was doing hanging around the museum at closing time, and now they think they know. Dr. Muller already has an idea about Bey’s true identity–he never believed that the missing mummy of Imhotep was stolen–and tells his friend that the scroll should be destroyed.
They’re still arguing about it when they get back to the house and find the young couple kissing on the sofa. Sir Joseph fears that the scroll’s curse has somehow struck Helen and, through her, will strike his son.
While the three men discuss destroying the scroll in the study, Ardath Bey does take up Sir Joseph’s invitation after all. He’s after the Scroll of Thoth, but is surprised to find Helen there too. Like Frank, he recognizes her resemblance to Anck-es-en-Amon and tries his own pick-up lines on her–Have they met before? Is she Egyptian? He also has a certain glowy-eyed hypnotic power he uses over her, as well as some magic in that ring of his. Helen is soon entranced by him. Dr. Muller and Frank try to get her away, each for reasons of his own, but she says she doesn’t want to leave.
Frank does eventually escort her back to the hotel. Dr. Muller then confronts Bey/Imhotep about the scroll, but Bey does that glowy-eyed thing again and Muller and Sir Joseph are powerless against him. Sir Joseph claims that he destroyed the scroll, but Bey doesn’t believe him.
The first part of this objective he obtains easily enough by giving Sir Joseph a fatal heart attack via a remote spell, and getting the Whemples’ “Nubian” servant (Noble Johnson), who he has under his control, to steal the scroll and burn some newspaper in the fireplace to make it look like the archeologist destroyed it himself before he died.
Bey explains the second part to Helen when he next summons her. After she tells Frank that she won’t leave the hotel, she walks over to Bey’s house with an extremely reluctant German Shepherd. Poor doggie has every reason to be reluctant.
Using the large, decorative reflective pond in his home, Bey/Imhotep shows Helen exactly who she is and what he once was to her.
As the Pharaoh’s daughter, Anck-es-en-Amon was a sacred virgin dedicated to the service of Isis (the story confusedly insists on calling her a vestal virgin, even though the Roman goddess Vesta and her virgins were part of a completely different religion nearly 2000 years after Anck-es-en-Amon’s time). Imhotep was High Priest of the Temple of the Sun at Karnak and in love with her. It’s not clear whether or not she broke her vows for him. When she died young, he determined to risk the anger of the gods and restore her to life.
To do this, Imhotep snuck into the temple where the Scroll of Thoth was kept and stole it. He was caught red-handed with the scroll in Anck-es-en-Amon’s tomb. “They found me doing an unholy thing,” he tells her.
The Pharaoh punished this sacrilege in the most horrible way the ancient Egyptians could devise: Imhotep was wrapped up and entombed alive. The scene where Karloff is wrapped up, struggling as the bandages go over his face is extremely disturbing to watch. He was then buried in a hidden and unmarked place along with the Scroll of Thoth in its box. All the slaves and soldiers who knew the location were killed to ensure the secret.
This sequence is my third-favorite thing in The Mummy. It’s filmed as a silent movie–not just without sound, but in the style of the silent cinema, even to the actors’ make-up and dramatic gestures.
In 1932, the silent film era had only ended three years earlier and certainly would not have yet gone out of the memory of the general movie-going public, but even then this sequence would have seemed strikingly old-fashioned. Today, it gives viewers the impression of showing events that happened long, long ago.
Some of this sequence gets reused in the subsequent Universal Mummy movies, with any close-ups of Karloff replaced by whomever was later playing the Mummy and tanis leaves replacing the forbidden scroll.
There was originally more to this sequence, where Imhotep shows Helen some of the other lives she had lived in the 3700 years between Anck-es-en-Amon’s death and her 20th- century existence. These scenes were cut and are now lost, but the Saxon Warrior still appears in the film’s credits to perplex generations of viewers.
“My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods,” Imhotep tells Helen as he concludes his narration of the images she and we have just seen. He adds that before she can undergo her own transformation, he must kill Frank, because Helen falling in love with him.
He sends “Bast” to do his dirty work. The goddess Bast is represented by a fluffy white cat who has been present all during the last scene. The cat darts out of the room–not to kill Frank, but to kill that poor dog offscreen.
Helen returns to the hotel feeling as if she’s had a strange dream about ancient Egypt and giving a rather vague account of her whereabouts when Frank asks.
Frank proves a little harder to kill, since he carries an amulet of Isis which Dr. Muller gave him for protection. It’s only once he carelessly sets it aside while he’s supposed to be keeping an eye on Helen that Imhotep strikes him down via remote spell, the same way his father was stricken. No white cat is involved. And Frank doesn’t die. His collapse, however, gives Helen her chance to head over to the Cairo museum to meet her much, much older boyfriend without being followed.
At the museum, she becomes Anck-es-en-Amon. She dresses like the Egyptian Princess and remembers her life and death 3700 years ago. She recognizes all her old belongings in the display cases around her, and she knows Imhotep now too.
Imhotep tosses Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummy into a nearby fireplace and burns it. It was only a mere shell, he says; making it rise again would only be animating an empty body without a soul, and it’s the soul of his beloved he wants. He and the Nubian servant have prepared the materials for embalming Helen’s body–a brief period of suffering, Imhotep tells her, before she can be with him forever.
But Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon doesn’t want to die. She’s alive and young and she wants to stay that way. She doesn’t want to become a desiccated, undying thing like Imhotep. The dusty flakes of dead skin he leaves on her arm when he touches her horrifies her.
Her pleas for life fall on unhearing ears. Imhotep’s going on with the embalming whether she wants it or not.
He’s suffered for her and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t do the same for him.
The ending is my absolute favorite thing in The Mummy. Although Dr. Muller and Frank show up at the museum in time to try and rescue Helen, Imhotep holds them off with his powers. It’s Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon who saves herself by turning to the statue of Isis and making a direct appeal to the goddess she once served.
Isis responds to this plea. In a wonderful, literal deus-ex-machina, the statue raises its arm and zaps Imhotep with its ankh–the symbol of life. She also zaps the Scroll of Thoth, to keep it out of the hands of other mortal mischief-makers.
The Blu-ray edition has a number of nice additional features: two separate commentary tracks, one with a film historian and another with various filmmakers including Rick Baker. Both are informative about the creative work behind this film. There’s also a featurette about Jack Pierce and his make-up work on The Mummy–and how painful some of this was on Boris Karloff’s skin. There’s also a feature about the legacy of the Mummy, but it has more to do with Universal’s recent remakes than this original version, which in my opinion remains the best.