When I was assigned to write about the priciest poster ever sold, I immediately looked it up and found that it was Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, topping in at a whopping $690,000 and rumored to have been sold to none other than Leonardo DiCaprio, but I thought, what could I possibly say about METROPOLIS? I mean it’s a brilliant film and all but, I don’t know…ya know? Then I saw that in October of 2018 Sotheby’s auction house had announced the auction for the one-sheet to Universal Pictures 1932 picture THE MUMMY, and that the starting bid was at set at, pinky finger in lips, one million dollars! Now that seemed like a story that I could wrap myself into, did you get that, wrap myself…? Well, anyway, Sotheby’s last sold this exact poster for $453,500 in 1997 and it’s one of three known in existence, one of the other ones is owned by Metallica’s Kirk Hammett who’s a massive horror collector and published the book, Too Much Horror Business in 2012, as well having his collection exhibited.
Aside from the rarity, how can a poster that was made to be a disposable item command such a high price, one may ask? Well, In this article I hope to shed some light on that, starting with the film itself, its place in history, and why it was made; also I’ll talk about how the poster was made and who designed it.
It All Began With A Curse…
ARCHEOLOGIST HOWARD CARTER AND THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB.
“Can you see anything?”
On November 4, 1922, after several years of excavating in Egypt’s The Valley of The Kings, a young water boy, who was in the employ of Archeologist/Adventurer Howard Carter, stumbled upona stone that looked to be stairs, immediately he informed Mr. Carter of his find. Carter dug it out and discovered that in fact it was a flight of stairs that lead to a concealed door upon which were hieroglyphic writings. Could this be the find he’d been hoping for, for the last several years, the find that could give him fortune and glory? Carter refilled the staircase so that no one would know of its location and wired Lord Carnarvon of his find; one must remember that these were the days when archeology was not a science studied at university, but rather the days of high adventure with exotic locales and perilous thrills and the public ate this stuff up.
What the hell does DOWNTON ABBEY have to do with this?!
George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon or simply Lord Carnarvon had been sponsoring Carter’s excavations, as he was a bit of an amateur Egyptologist himself (fans of TV’s DOWNTON ABBEY will be interested to know that Lord Carnarvon’s family were the owners of the “Abbey” Highclere Castle and continue to be so. Lord Carnavan was actually born and raised in the castle and at one time it was filled with all kinds of Egyptian artifacts, most of which have been moved downstairs. So, the scenes with Miss Hughes, Carson and the gang in the kitchen, are all shot on sets.) Once Lord Carnarvon arrived at the site in The Valley Of The Kings with his daughter Evelyn (Rachel Weisz’s character in 1999’s THE MUMMY, Evelyn Carnahan, is named after her in homage.), they opened the door “Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon asked. Howard Cart replied “Yes, many wonderful things!”. What they found there were treasures beyond their wildest dreams: golden Chariots for the boy king to ride off in the otherworld, Gold furniture and most famous of all the gold death mask; to say that they were awestruck would be an understatement…
Tutankhamen’s tomb was found underneath the tomb of Ramses The 6th which had been built many years later, and because of this construction it had sealed King Tut’s tomb, keeping it hidden from looters over the centuries and that is why this find was so extraordinary, it was completely intact. It took Carter and his team over three months to catalog all their findings in this antechamber, before knocking down the wall to King Tut’s final resting place and his golden sarcophagus. As you can imagine this find stayed in the news and the public’s imagination for quite some time as new treasures where found, but then, another part of the story continued up until around 1930…a curse!
“Put it back. Bury it where you found it. You have read the curse. You dare defy it?” – Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) THE MUMMY 1932
THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB
When Lord Carnavon died of an infected mosquito bite in Cairo on the 5th of April, 1923 it was suggested that perhaps a curse had befallen upon the expedition, and it’s not surprising because many pulp novels had been filled with this sort of thing for years. One of the people suggesting a curse was none other than SHERLOCK HOLMES scribe Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle who was infatuated with the supernatural and the occult, he was a true believer in the Cottingley Fairies photographs in the early 1900’s, photos taken by two cousins with fairies they had encountered by their home in Cottingly, England, even as far as writing a book on the subject. So, if world famous writer Sir ArthurConan-Doyle believed there was a curse than it must be true! Journalists jumped on this story calling it THE CURSE OF THE PHAROHS, and the public were immensely fascinated as well with this story of an ancient civilization, exotic treasures, globe-trotting adventurers, and diabolical curses, I mean who wouldn’t be, right? Curiously, in 1890, 33 years before HowardCarter’s find and 7 years prior to creating his iconic detective, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote a pulp story for The Cornhill Magazine and the name of this pulp…THE RING OF THOTH.
Written in a first person style reminiscent of
Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre stories, THE RING OF THOTH is about an Egyptology student
who goes to the Louvre Museum to study some scrolls. He gets locked inside
where he meets an odd man who is performing a ritual on one of the mummies. The
man tells him he was born 3500 years ago and that some people call him Tim, or
rather Sosra, once a priest for Osiris and who had discovered an elixir to
prevent death. He had wanted to use it on his fiancé, Atma, but she
passed on before he had the chance to administer it. Despondent because he had
used it on himself and cannot die, he dreams to become mortal once more so that
he can die and be with his one true love for all eternity and the only way to
do this lies within the Ring of Thoth, but his assistant had hidden it.
For 3500 years the mysterious Sosra roamed the earth until his beloved Atma was discovered, along with the ring, and put inside the museum for exhibition. The next morning the student leaves only to read in the newspaper a few days later that a man had been found dead clutched in the arms of a mummy in the museum. What is most interesting about Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle mentioning the curse is that his RING OF THOTH story would eventually serve as inspiration for Universal Picture’s 1932 horror picture THE MUMMY.
“It grossed something like 12 million dollars and started a cycleof so-called boy-meets-ghoul horror films.”-Boris Karloff on FRANKENSTEIN
THE MUMMY 1932 Universal Pictures
d. Karl Freund
s. Boris Karloff, Zeta Johann, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan
In the early years of cinema each major studio had their signature type picture. At Warner Bros it was Gangster pictures; Paramount, comedies; MGM, musicals and at Universal Pictures it was the horror film. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE sent shivers down the spines of audiences everywhere and made Universal Pictures the masters of the macabre. In 1931 Universal struck gold with Tod Browning’s DRACULA and James Whales’ FRANKENSTEIN, which became the biggest grossing film of the year, so it was only logical that they make another one and quick.
stated earlier, the world at large was fascinated by Howard Carter’s discovery
of King Tutankhamen’s tomb and the supposed curse that had befallen the dig.
Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. dug up a treatment written by Nina
Wilcox-Putnam called CAGLIOSTRO and this was later reworked by John L.
Balderston, who had written the stage version of Bram Stoker’s
DRACULA and who adapted it for Universal’s film, which may explain the many
similarities to his MUMMY screenplay. Laemmle brought DRACULA
cinematographer Karl Freund in to make his directorial debut. Freund was
a pioneering cinematographer who shot many iconic pictures in his native
Germany, films like, DER GOLEM, Murnou’s THE LAST LAUGH, and Fritz
Lang; METROPOLIS to name a few, before fleeing Hitler’s Germany for
Freund was one of the first to really move the camera around and he does so to great effect in THE MUMMY. But the biggest asset to the picture is without a doubt Boris Karloff who, after FRANKENSTEIN, THE OLD DARK HOUSE and MGM’s deliciously sinister THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, had become a massive star, so big in fact Universal billed him as KARLOFF THE UNCANNY on their marketing materials and was featured in a total of ten pictures that year including Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE!
THE MUMMY is not my favorite of what is now branded as UNIVERSAL’S CLASSIC MONSTERS, that would be perhaps THE WOLFMAN or THE INVISIBLE MAN, but what THE MUMMY does have is one of the most frightening moments in cinema history, personally I’d rank it on my top five scary moments of all time and If you’ve seen the picture, I’m sure you know the scene I’m talking about, in fact it opens the picture.
The film opens in 1922, the same year as Carter’s discovery, inside a tomb are archeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Bryon), his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) and Dr. Muller (DRACULA’s Edward Van Slone), a specialist on the occult, and they have just unearthed an Egyptian mummy. Naturally the young assistant wants to open a box that was found inside the tomb, but Dr. Muller suggests otherwise, because of the curse that was inscribed in the sarcophagus. While the two older gentlemen step outside to discuss the inherent dangers of opening it, The assistant Ralph takes it upon himself to open the box, where he finds the sacred scroll of Thoth and this awakens the mummy, and this is the creepy moment…
Karloff’s eyes slowly open as his crossed arms slowly slide down. The young man transcribes the scroll; he turns to see the ancient mummy and laughs himself into madness. You really don’t see much of the mummy just his eyes, his hand and a couple of dusty strands of bandages, that’s it; No music, just some cool camera moves and editing and Ralph’s frightful laughter, but that’s all you need to have the chills go up your spine.
The rest of the film takes place ten years later where we meet Miss Grovesner (Zeta Johanne), a patient of Dr. Muller and who catches the eye of Sir. Joseph’s son, Frank Whemple (DRACULA’S David Manners), who are all in Cairo celebrating the discovery of another tomb, the tomb of Ahks-En-Ahmen, for The British Museum. The location of this tomb was told to them by the mysterious Egyptian Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) who, it’s later discovered, has Mrs. Grovesner deep within his thrall, as he knows that she is the reincarnation of his beloved Ahks-En-Ahmon and Ardeth Bey is really…Im-Ho-Tep, her beau from way back and he’s lookin’ to rekindle his old flame and kill her so that they’ll live forever.
THE MUMMY isn’t the greatest of UNIVERSAL’S monster films, aside from the opening and a flashback, it really is not the least bit frightening, but as a gothic romance it works quite well, though I much prefer William Wyler’s WUTHERING HIGHTS and Robert Stevenson’s JANE EYRE in the gothic romance genre, THE MUMMY fits right in with those films in a way. THE MUMMY is a fun slice of entertainment with exotic set and lavish costuming and Jack Pierce’s brilliant make-up that would go on to inspire many a make-up artist and model makers everywhere.
THE MUMMY was star Boris Karloff’s tenth and last picture in 1932, his first picture that year was BEHIND THE MASK written by Jo Swerling -I used to work with his granddaughter Tanya Swirling who was a producer on FRINGE and an editor on WESTWORLD- The film had actually been made before FRANKENSTIEN by Columbia but was held up a year to cash in on Karloff’s success and his face features predominately on the poster.
In this period Karloff made five standout and iconic films in a row with him as the star, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, THE MUMMY, and 1933’s THE GHOUL (made for Gaumont-British Picture Corporation in his native England after Universal refused to up his pay after THE MUMMY’S success) and John Ford’s excellent desert picture THE LOST PATROL. Karloff was really able to maintain and even elevate his career more so than fellow Universal Monster Bela Lugosi and not all because of bad choices, in the late 30’s there was a ban on horror pictures in England, a large territory, so Universal started making fewer of them and moved Lugosi to their ‘B’department. There he did stage work as well before his declining heath and addiction to Demerol, -Demerol was prescribed to help with pain he had after being wounded in WW I, it was believed that Demerol was a non-addictive answer to morphine, but that was later proved to be highly inaccurate- but Lugosi always remained very popular and today it’s hard to tell who’s more popular in the world of memorabilia. It’s hard to imagine Karloff without Lugosi and vise-versa. I often picture them as ghosts at conventions betting with each other as to who will sell more stuff!
Director Karl Freund would do on to direct seven more films, his last directorial effort is one of my favorites from this era MGM’s MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre, an expressionistic masterpiece in my opinion. He would continue shooting pictures like THE GOOD EARTH, for which he won an Oscar, the amazingly shot BALALAIKA, A GUY NAMED JOE, KEY LARGO and many more. Freund would also revolutionize television with I LOVE LUCY, by shooting on film with a three camera set-up
THE MUMMY was released Thursday December 22,
1932 to great reviews and big box office, ranking in at number 16 grossing 3
million dollars (that’s about 122 million today). That may not seem great
compared to the previous year’s FRANKENSTEIN that took the number one spot with
12 million, I believe that’s a little over 1 billion today, but competition was
fierce in 1932 with pictures like GRAND HOTEL, HORSE FEATHERS, TARZAN THE APE
MAN, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, A FARWELL TO ARMS with SHANGHAI EXPRESS taking
the number one spot, so THE MUMMY did pretty good.
THE MUMMY spawned five “sequels”, none of which starred Karloff. My father, who moved back to Mexico during WW II as a kid, could recite the trailer for THE MUMMY’S TOMB as he was the only on in his town who was bilingual and would often translate the films playing in his little town in Michocan. I can still hear him say something about Turhan Bey. I’m thinking maybe Universal promoted Turhan Bey in Mexico because of his exotic looks, even though he was just a tan Austrian!
THE MUMMY sequels had nothing to do with the original and it’s in these films where the lumbering Mummy comes from, Lon Chaney Jr. starred in most of these which was a waste of his talent for sure. Universal wrapped up the mummy for the final time with the comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY.
Universal Pictures Art Department was headed by Karly Grosz who was responsible for handling the poster art. I’m not quite sure who actually painted the illustration for the poster, having worked in marketing as a promo editor and being involved in launching TV shows and movies, I can tell you the lead person gets the credit while the people doing the actual work often get nothing but a check, but hey, I’m not bitter…much. So, whether Grosz did the work or not the illustration was put to stone at Morgan Litho Co. in Cleveland Ohio, who more than likely hired the artist for the poster and followed Karly Grosz direction. Possibly Grosz sent them these photos and with feet on desk and cigar in hand and phone on shoulder said “Make it look pretty, boys.” And it does at that!
THE MUMMY’S STONE
In the early years of cinema the studios needed to draw attention to their pictures and the best way to do this was the movie poster, or “one-sheet”. To entice patrons to their local bijou’s, the images on the posters had to be big, bold and larger than life. So, if cowboy hero Hoot Gibson plays a rodeo star, he and his gregarious steed must look like they are coming out of a sandy malevolent maelstrom, as in Universal’s THE CALGARY STAMPEDE or perhaps the lovely Mack Senett bathing beauty Myrtle Lind opening up a can of whoop ass in the serial WINNERS OF THE WEST, also from Universal. It wasn’t just action that needed to be showcased, but sex appeal as well.
Unlike today’s digital artists with their photo-shopped collages of heads, yesterday’s artisans had to rely on their hands with more traditional skills to achieve stunning results; seriously, what would you rather have hanging in your dining room, one of today’s garish superhero movie posters or ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT featuring a somber Lew Ayers?Or, for you ladies, what would be more fitting for the head, er…bathroom, an obnoxious Amy Schumer posteror1921’sPLAYING WITH FIRE, with a beautiful rendition of actress Gladys Walton. The posters I’ve mentioned all have a few things in common; they were made by Universal Pictures, they were all made at the printing house Morgan Lithograph Co. and they were all made using the stone lithograph process. I’ve written a companion piece on the history and importance of lithography. You can read it here.
The Universal Monsters and Their Legacy
Another factor to the high value of this poster is the legacy of the UNIVERSAL MONSTERS. Universal Studios was wise to brand their legacy, the Monsters have saved them during tough times, bringing them out with re-releases in the 50’s, then Shock Theater on television, and licensing their characters to Aurora Models. Between the models and Shock Theater a monster boom was created in the 60s and monsters were everywhere.
The merchandising of toys, records, and what-have-yous keep the characters alive, hell, even Hasbro’s G.I. Joe got into the action with G.I. JOE AND THE SECRET OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB. In fact, I had this as a kid. I remember getting my hand stuck in the buggy and having to call my dad home from work, I stuck it under the facet with hot water and finally having it slip out, I thought the old man would be pissed when got home, but he said that was a good idea and thanked me for giving him the rest of the day off. This collaboration insured that the next generation of fans embraced the films, and continues to do so today. Today’s kids may not be familiar with the original monster films but I assure you that they can recognize the characters, thus making this poster iconic.
As I write this January 31, 2019 King Tutankhamen’s Tomb is still making headlines. His tomb has just been beautifully restored and scientists have also mentioned that some of the deaths associated with Carter’s excavation may have been from exposure to mold and fungus, who knows, maybe that’s how the curse was planned. Like King Tutankhamen’s mummy and his tomb have continued to live on after thousands of years perhaps, so too, will Universal Pictures and Boris Karloff’s mummy will live for thousands of years. THE MUMMY, without any literature background like his pals Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, can rightfully stand proud next to his monstrous brethren.