Corporate Authorship, Film Adaptation, and Universal Pictures’ The Raven (1935)

Curator's Note

The intentions and unique histories of filmmaking corporations are visible in the products they create. So it is with Universal Pictures’ The Raven (1935), a late entry in the horror cycle inaugurated by the company with Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) and, after Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934), the third adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe by Universal in as many years. In each successive Poe adaptation, the biographical legend of the well-known author became more central components of plot, theme and character, while the narratives of the original literary works receded in importance. This pattern culminated in The Raven, in which a brilliant physician, Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi), believes himself to be a spiritual descendent of Edgar Allen Poe due to his extraordinary intelligence, obsession with torture, and history of romantic disappointment, all traits Vollin believes he shares with the famous author. Insisting that he must avenge the wrongs against both Poe and himself and by so doing fulfill the posthumous wishes of the author (intentions that Vollin reads into the eponymous poem and other works), the psychotic physician attempts to execute an elaborate revenge fantasy using torture devices that he has meticulously reconstructed from descriptions contained in Poe short stories.

As are the villains in all Universal horror films, Vollin is ultimately thwarted and the threat of violence he posed is eliminated, but The Raven nevertheless attempts to exert a lasting influence on the popular perception of Poe. The film depicts the author as a lovelorn, sadistic genius whose impulses and desires mimicked those contained in his poetry and fiction, and it projects Poe as a kind of founding father of the horror genre. Moreover, The Raven maintains that his literary works are riddled with scenes of betrayal and torture and, in a more harrowing possibility, possess the potential of transforming a curious reader into a homicidal maniac on the magnitude of Richard Vollin (thereby positioning the film’s producer as a trustworthy mediator between Poe and the moviegoer). In these ways, Universal absorbed Edgar Allen Poe’s oeuvre and image into the prevailing conventions and cultural associations of the horror genre and its ongoing corporate objectives.

Comments

Avi Santo's picture

I'd like to learn a little

I’d like to learn a little bit more about how Poe adaptations served Universal’s corporate identity. You suggest that the studio was positioned as mediator between the author and the moviegoer, but how was this intermediary role articulated?

On another note, we can clearly see this continued blurring of biography and works in contemporary adaptations of authors like Jane Austin, William Shakespeare, and Edmond Rostand, but these have all tended to be romantic comedies. Is there a continued albeit generically altered strategy of literary adaptation that can be traced here and what might this suggest about shifting corporate identities and authorial sensibilities?

Kyle Edwards's picture

To me, veiled biopics of

To me, veiled biopics of Austen and Shakespeare (sorry, haven’t seen the Rostand) seem, like The Raven, intimately connected to our tendency to attach a writer’s biography to characters and themes featured in his or her works. This is a strategy of literary criticism actively encouraged by nineteenth and early twentieth century academic and mainstream critics and one that we may still utilize in more casual reading environments. For Poe, that process of substitution led to assumptions about his life and desires (i.e., depraved) that diverged significantly from those about Austen (i.e., obsessed with class, unlucky in love). Nevertheless, the vague facts of each writer’s life allow Poe and Austen to be integrated more easily into their works. By the way, 20th Century-Fox produced an awful biopic of Poe in 1942, The Loves of Edgar Allen Poe (my apologies if this is one of your favorites), which focused on Poe’s obsession with copyright reform. This was a fairly accurate depiction of Poe’s life and his interests, but nobody cared about this ‘version’ of the famous author, and the box office and critical reception reflected it.

Filmmaking corporations often actively exploit biographical legends and usually target public domain novels, plays, and poems (living writers are able to litigate) to offer the latitude to project an author like Poe or Austen in whatever fashion most suits their objectives—e.g., box office success, star or genre development and exploitation, cross-promotion of related merchandise, et cetera.

Kyle Barnett's picture

Kyle, your post reminds me

Kyle, your post reminds me that despite early film studies’ intense interest in adaptation, that research too rarely mentioned the film studios that brought those adaptations to screen. And the idea that a given studio’s authorial imprint would repurpose these literary texts (in this case, Poe’s “The Raven”) for the company’s purposes (extending Universal’s horror cycle) makes perfect sense.

I wonder how your take on the corporate imprint on film adaptation would play out in a later series of horror films: the later Poe adaptations by Roger Corman and American International Pictures in the 1960s. Do you see some similar dynamics? With American International’s shoestring budgets and Corman’s reputation for cinematic penny pinching, using literature in the public domain seemed a smart move for their small operation. I’m surprised I hadn’t noticed the cinematic tendency towards exploiting biographical legends (I would want to add Mark Twain to this list that you and Avi are building). But this also makes sense in terms of expanding the narrative possibilities amidst Universal’s attempts to extend the life of their horror cycle with The Raven (1935). Thanks for the post, Kyle.

Christopher Anderson's picture

Longing for the lost

Longing for the lost Lenore.

I love Lugosi’s reading of that line, especially as he echoes the actress’s flat, American line reading, his delicious Hungarian accent transforming her dime novel sense of romance into something darker and more theatrical — a European understanding of romance as a matter for the gods, a story of desire, destiny and doom.

Do you think this encounter between the gleaming, drugstore-counter sensibility of interwar America and the gothic, death-haunted culture of the Old World points toward the corporate signature of the Universal horror cycle — something that clearly distinguishes the Universal signature from that of later horror cycles of, say, Hammer or Corman? (In some ways, it’s the encounter parodied in Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

A related question: Where do we place the old, beloved auteur directors in our survey of corporate authorship?

I ask because The Raven has always seemed somewhat flat and derivative of it’s brilliant and truly eccentric antecedents, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat. Those films were directed by two ambitious European artists stranded in Hollywood — Robert Florey and Edgar G. Ulmer — whose experience in the studio system peaked with their Universal masterpieces. The Black Cat, in particular, may be the most eccentric work of art ever to emerge from a Hollywood studio. The Raven, on the other hand, is directed by Lew Landers, a capable craftsman who carved out a durable career in B-level productions at the major studios. Landers in The Raven seems to be doing his best to replicate the sensibilities of Florey and Ulmer, but I don’t think it’s in his blood.

Does he understand what it really means to long for the lost Lenore?

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