Media that perpetuated dossier lies want Trump to get over it. Plus: Bad journalism; taking on wokeness; classic monsters
By Gary Abernathy
Trump’s complaint draws media’s ire, unprompted
Christopher Steele has surfaced in an effort to restore his reputation.
As if more examples were needed, the wide array of media that hate Donald Trump with a passion demonstrated again last week why Trump supporters and many conservatives in general rightfully complain about news coverage.
Speaking with the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Thursday, Trump mentioned the salacious accusation contained in the notorious Christopher Steele dossier that Trump had hired two Moscow prostitutes to urinate on a bed as part of a sexcapade of some sort.
“I’m not into golden showers,” Trump is quoted as saying on Thursday.
This prompted countless media outlets to run almost identical headlines. to wit:
“Trump brings up ‘golden showers,’ unprompted” - Salon.
“Donald Trump, unprompted, tells GOP donors he doesn’t like having women pee on him” - Vanity Fair.
“Donald Trump still screaming about golden showers” - The Cut.
“Trump shares thoughts on golden shower unprompted” - Complex.com.
The examples go on and on and on. Typical of most of the reporting, Salon wrote that Trump was guilty of “dredging up old rumors unprompted.”
At what point is someone supposed to just move on from having such a salacious lie made up about them? The media — filled with journalists who talk endlessly of Trump’s lies — perpetuated the “golden shower” legend, suggesting it constituted compromising material held by Russia, speculating on it with endless analysis and, of course, laughing along as the late night comedians had a field day with it.
But if Trump still seems upset about it, and brings it up “unprompted,” that’s something else to mock, according to many in the media. He should have let it go by now, they imply — just as the mocking reporters would have done had it been said about them, right? Hardly.
If the Trump years taught us anything, it’s how remarkedly thin-skinned many journalists turned out to be. Instead of letting their work speak for itself, they lowered themselves to engage in verbal sparring matches with Trump and passionately defend themselves against his claims of “fake news.” It gave the appearance of insecurity rather than confidence.
Most of the outlets mocking Trump got their information on his Thursday remarks from a Washington Post story, which did note that Trump made his comment “unprompted,” but to its credit, did not mention that part of Trump’s speech in its headline.
But here’s the thing. It’s not like the rumor ever went away, or people stopped talking about it. In fact, in related news over the weekend, Christopher Steele — the former British spy whose discredited dossier on Trump contained the allegation — has surfaced and is doing interviews to try to restore his reputation. It’s entirely likely that Trump was aware this was happening, prompting him to mention the outlandish claim again on Thursday. The Post’s Erik Wemple has an excellent take this week on Steele, his dossier and those in the media who still have not corrected their reporting.
Trump’s enemies inside and outside the media truly enjoyed perpetuating and sensationalizing the rumor, which was very likely planted by Russia as part of its disinformation campaign.
Former FBI director James Comey — who, for me, is also discredited after admitting to leaking information to the media in hopes it would lead to Trump’s ouster — wrote in his book, “It bothered him if there was ‘even a one percent chance’ his wife, Melania, thought it was true. … He just rolled on, unprompted, explaining why it couldn’t possibly be true, ending by saying he was thinking of asking me to investigate the allegation to prove it was a lie. I said it was up to him.”
Notice the word “unprompted.” Just a coincidence.
In a 2018 interview, Comey told ABC News, “I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current President of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It’s possible, but I don’t know.”
That’s a textbook example of how to give credence to something by saying you don’t know whether it has credence. One of the best things to happen to the FBI under Trump was the exit of James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok and others who politicized the FBI and abused its power to go after Trump and others associated with him.
I blame Trump for many things, including losing an election he should have won had it not been for his failure to reach out beyond his base, but particularly for his reckless behavior after the 2020 election when he refused to accept the results and then pointed an angry mob toward the U.S. Capitol. But I can’t blame him for clinging to bitterness over a salacious allegation that was perpetuated by a media universe that’s now mocking him for not getting over it.
Chuck Todd blames ‘loudmouths’ for Buttigieg criticism
Speaking of really bad journalism, Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” can seldom do much to further disappoint me, but on Sunday as he interviewed Pete Buttigieg, the Biden administration’s transportation secretary, he brought up complaints from some quarters that Buttigieg was not paying enough attention to current issues since he was already on family leave during the first year of his new job.
Whether you agree with the criticism or not, it’s a fair point for debate, especially with the supply chain disasters facing the nation. Not according to Todd, who led into a question by saying, “I know you've been under some bizarre attack for taking paid leave by some loudmouths in our political system...”
Is it any wonder that Republicans think there’s a too-cozy relationship between many in the mainstream media and Democrats? If Buttigieg is being criticized, it’s “some bizarre attack” by “loudmouths in our political system,” according to Todd. It must be nice to have such coddling and protection.
Noonan nails ‘woke’ attacks on Netflix & Chappelle
Peggy Noonan wrote an outstanding piece in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, taking on “wokeness” and the attack on Netflix and comedian Dave Chappelle from critics demanding that the streaming giant remove Chappelle’s latest comedy special from its lineup because, they allege, it’s homophobic or anti-transsexual — one or the other, or both.
Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos pushed back. The special won’t be pulled: “Chappelle is one of the most popular standup comedians today,” Mr. Sarandos wrote in a memo. “His last special . . ., also controversial, is our most watched, stickiest and most award-winning standup special to date.” The mob pushed back: Mr. Chappelle makes them feel unsafe. Mr. Sarandos doubled down. Next week Netflix employees and their allies plan a walkout. It would have been more powerful and certainly less crass if Mr. Sarandos had hit harder, had hit solely, on the issue of artistic freedom, and not profit. But he did push back. If he stands firm it will be progress: Free speech won and the mob lost.
She also manages to weave into her narrative William Shatner, “The Lehman Trilogy,” “The Sopranos,” Thermidor, J.K. Rowling, Bill Maher and other references and examples.
‘Frankenstein’ started a genre and created a horror star
As promised, I’m continuing my look at a few of the great horror films as we celebrate Halloween month. Last week, we dove into the Hammer Studios “Dracula” series. This week, examine Universal Studios’ classic “Frankenstein” collection.
On the heels of the great success of 1931’s “Dracula,” Universal wanted the star of that vampire classic, Bela Lugosi, to headline another similar project, “Frankenstein.” At first, Lugosi was flattered, but he soon learned that the part of the Monster included no dialogue, and his handsome features would be mostly concealed under heavy makeup. Lugosi reportedly said that anyone could play the part. He basically felt it was beneath him.
That was fine with James Whale, the director who was eventually handed the film, since he felt Lugosi was wrong for the part anyway. Whale looked around for an unknown actor and settled on Boris Karloff, who had been making movies for many years, but always in character parts, usually as foreigners and heavies. He was not a star. Only the most diehard movie fanatic or newspaper critic might even know his name.
Whale said that what sold him on Karloff were the actor’s expressive large brown eyes. Indeed, within the iconic look devised by makeup artist Jack P. Pierce, in collaboration with Karloff, the eyes were key to conveying any emotion, especially with no dialogue. Karloff revealed a rich talent for pantomime. What could have been a mere brutish role — and we saw it played that way by other actors in future films (more on that later) — became a vehicle for Karloff to turn the Monster into a sympathetic creature.
By turning down the role, Lugosi created his own monster. Karloff eclipsed Lugosi as both a star and an actor. While Karloff was able throughout his long career to adopt to many genres — from horror films to popular television guest star and host to the Grinch himself — Lugosi, by contrast, was limited by typecasting (in part due to his thick Hungarian accent) and victimized by studios, often as a result of his own poor decisions.
Coming out just a few months later, “Frankenstein” outdid “Dracula” and many who witnessed its debut later compared it to “The Exorcist” in how it sent terrified moviegoers running from the theater. Indeed, it’s harder now to understand — because we are so familiar with it — how Karloff’s first appearance in the film must have shocked audiences in an era when makeup tricks were not as familiar to the public as they are today. In 1931, if you saw it, you believed it.
Here’s a clip of Karloff’s first appearance in “Frankenstein.”
Whale often used those quick, jump-cut closeup tricks to introduce a character, and its particularly effective in bringing us closer and closer to the Monster’s face. It’s understandable how many audience members in 1931 and 1932 probably lowered their eyes or turned their heads to avoid this image on the giant screen in front of them.
Through his eyes and hand gestures, Karloff evokes the audience’s empathy. As he later noted, he received countless letters from children who, by the end of the film, felt sorry for the Monster, rather than afraid.
The tragic Colin Clive is outstanding as Dr. Frankenstein, in a role almost given to Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes of “Gone With the Wind” fame). Clive was an alcoholic, a troubled soul who would die just six years later at age 37. But his personal torments undoubtedly enhanced his role as the maker of monsters.
The success of “Frankenstein” launched a series of eight films (if you count the Abbott & Costello sendup, which most do). Here’s a brief look at them all.
Bride of Frankenstein - 1935
Despite the great success of the original, it took longer than expected for Universal to finally produce a sequel. Karloff and Whale were back as Monster and creator, and Whale returned as director. But “Bride” is as different from the first film as day is from night. “Frankenstein” was stark. It was intended to shock audiences. It had no music score outside the opening credits. By contrast, movie making had come a long way in four years, and this time Whale threw in everything but the kitchen sink, including as elaborate score by renowned composer and conductor Franz Waxman. As the TV Guide blurb declared for many years in its description, “Bride of Frankenstein” is a top-notch amalgam of acting, direction, scenery, sound, photography and music.
This time, against Karloff’s objections, the Monster is given dialogue. His encounter with the blind hermit is a classic — so cleverly spoofed 40 years later by Mel Brooks in “Young Frankenstein” that it almost spoiled the original inspiration. More than ever, the Monster’s status as an outsider is driven home, which accounts for a large part of his appeal. Whether awkward teenager or lonely member of a minority, anyone who feels different than everyone else can relate to Karloff’s Monster.
Because Whale was openly gay — something rare in the 1930s, even in Hollywood — there are many who read gay subtleties in “Bride.” Perhaps, but many who knew Whale best said the director was not one to infuse his work with hidden meaning or touches from his private life. Still, in every case, one’s own life is always an influence, intentional or not.
The beauty of the film is that it is, like much great art, interpreted differently by different viewers. What is universally agreed upon is that it is a masterpiece, not only the greatest horror film of its age, but one of the great movies of all genres. Many critics include “Bride” on their list of top films of all time, deservedly so. It stands alone outside the “Frankenstein” series, a one-of-a-kind accomplishment, more fairy tale than monster movie, more fantasy than horror. It’s a beautiful film.
It’s the only film of the “Frankenstein” series to receive an Oscar nomination, for “Best Sound” by sound engineer Gilbert Kurland. Today, film historians agree that Karloff deserved the Oscar, too, and there’s a longstanding movement to award him one posthumously for his body of work, which would be nice while daughter Sara is alive to accept it.
Son of Frankenstein - 1939
Karloff returned for one last go-round as the Monster, and the film remains worthy of his time and talents. Basil Rathbone stars as the original doctor’s son, motivated to restore the family name. Bela Lugosi almost steals the show as Ygor, a deranged shepherd who had been hanged, but managed to survive with a broken neck. Almost stealing it from Lugosi is Lionel Atwill as the one-armed police inspector.
James Whale’s fortunes had fallen at Universal by this time, and the movie was handed to the new fair-haired boy, Rowland V. Lee. Lee was, in fact, very good, and he handles “Son” with skill and a nod to Whale’s influence. It’s an exciting film with some memorable sequences, but Karloff recognized that the Monster was in danger of becoming a bogeyman to be saved for a rousing finale, and after this one he embarked on a long run as Jonathan Brewster on Broadway in “Arsenic and Old Lace” — which included the famous exchange where Brewster is asked why he had murdered someone, and he replies, “He said I looked like Boris Karloff.” It always brought down the house.
Karloff — once again unburdened by dialogue — is given a chance in one scene in “Son” which shows why the part belonged to him. When he grabs Rathbone’s arm and pulls him in front of a mirror, comparing their features, it’s heart-wrenching as we can read the Monster’s thoughts just through his actions, until the Monster turns away, repulsed at his own ugliness.
Ghost of Frankenstein - 1942
With Karloff away on Broadway and having sworn off the part, Universal replaced him with its new and upcoming horror star, Lon Chaney Jr., son of the silent film star best known for “Phantom of the Opera,” “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and many others.
Chaney had just come off a huge hit of his own, “The Wolf Man,” creating the role of the doomed Lawrence Talbot. As the Monster, Chaney — a large, hulking man in real life — is indeed imposing. But he fails to bring to the role the emotion that Karloff so nimbly demonstrated, in part because it simply isn’t written that way in the script. Chaney is intended to be frightening, to wreak some havoc, and he does that very well.
Lugosi returns as Ygor, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke steps in as yet another son of the original (no one knew the family was so big). Evelyn Ankers, who starred in many Universal horror films throughout the 1940s, is beautiful and classy as the doctor’s daughter, and Ralph Bellamy is fun to watch in an early role as the local prosecutor and Ankers’ love interest. “Ghost” is the last serious film in the series, and the final one to feature the Monster alone, before other classic creatures got into the act.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man - 1943
Universal felt that storylines featuring the Monster as the main attraction had grown thin, so they decided that the way to keep audiences interested was to begin pairing their famous creatures. This film is the granddaddy of all movies that have pitted fiend versus fiend, from King Kong against Godzilla to Freddy versus Jason and so on. It also took some creativity, since the Frankenstein series was set sometime in the 19th century, while “The Wolf Man” was set in modern time (1941 when it came out). But Universal monster movies were always so entertainingly vague in their time periods, practically inventing their own universe — someone in 1840 might be seen using an early form of a telephone — that they managed to make it work.
The original idea was to have Lon Chaney Jr. play both monsters, since he had recently done so in separate films. But the trick photography would have been time-consuming, so they called on the services of Bela Lugosi, who at this point in his career needed the work and was in no position to turn down the Monster role that he had shunned 12 years earlier.
Now, at age 60, Lugosi gave it a shot, although at one point he had to be taken to the hospital after collapsing from exhaustion. He was hampered both by his age and a last minute change in the storyline. At the end of the previous film, the brain of Ygor (Lugosi) had been transplanted into the Monster, the result being the Monster going blind. This film was scripted to carry on that idea, so Lugosi’s casting as the Monster made some sense. But after screening the completed film, execs didn’t think Lugosi’s dialogue worked, so they ordered all scenes with his dialogue and referencing his blindness to be deleted. The result finds Lugosi playing the part as written — walking around blindly, arms outstretched, bumping into things — with no explanation as to why that’s happening.
Still, the film is fun, entertaining and fast-paced. Lawrence Talbot is Chaney’s best character, and he brings to the part the sad aura of a doomed man, immediately gaining the audience’s sympathy. Maria Ouspenskaya reprises her role as the Gypsy woman Maleva from “The Wolf Man.” The beautiful Ilona Massey replaces Evelyn Ankers as Elsa Frankenstein, the daughter from the previous film, and Lionel Atwill assumes yet another role as the village mayor. Starting with “Son,” the versatile Atwill appeared in five straight Frankenstein films, always as a different character.
It’s an enjoyable movie to watch, but it’s a step down into multi-monster hijinks aimed more at teen audiences, a trend that would last the remainder of the series.
House of Frankenstein - 1944
“Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” was a big hit. Two monsters were good, three are better, Universal thought, so enter Dracula to go along with the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man. For Universal’s own odd reasons, Lugosi was passed over for his most famous portrayal in favor of John Carradine, who brought to the vampire an air of a courtly gentleman. Most notable is the return of Boris Karloff — but not as the Monster. Karloff instead plays a doctor who wants to emulate Dr. Frankenstein’s notorious experiments.
The Monster is played by big, burly character actor Glenn Strange, best known for a recurring role in later years as Sam, the bartender on “Gunsmoke.” Strange had the right name for a horror movie, and he was known as one of nicest and most lovable men in show business. But, despite some coaching from Karloff, he brought little to the part, and at times seemed to lapse into almost comedic actions that Fred Gwynn would demonstrate later as Herman Munster. Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. carry the film, and Elena Verdugo as a pretty Gypsy dancer and Chaney’s love interest plays her role with poignancy, especially in the tragic ending.
Again, it’s a fun film with plenty of action, but it’s obviously designed to pack one thrill after the other and wrap it up in 70 minutes.
House of Dracula - 1945
Audiences were still lining up at the box office, so Universal put the same three monsters played by the same three actors together again for this quick follow-up. As in the last film, Dracula is dispatched early on, the Wolf Man is the main focus, and the Monster is awakened only for the final act, just as Karloff had predicted years earlier when he quit the part.
The unique attraction here is that Lawrence Talbot is actually cured of his Wolf Man curse, through scientific means. It’s a moving scene near the end as he watches the moon rise without undergoing the transformation.
Whatever their budgets, Universal’s horror films — especially the ones featuring their famous monsters — always seemed expensively produced. This is the first one to show some cheapness, with spare sets and hurried production that might have benefited from some extra takes. But executives had probably already decided this one would be the last….. until….
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein - 1948
By 1948, the series of classic monster films were in Universal’s past (I don’t count the Creature from the Black Lagoon as a classic monster, fyi — it’s a guy in a rubber suit — although the three films are entertaining), and the popular comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were beginning to wane, too, both on and off screen. Someone suggested, hey, what if we paired Bud and Lou with the classic monsters?
It worked, big time. Lon Chaney Jr. was back as the Wolf Man (with no explanation of why his cure in the previous film didn’t last), Glenn Strange once again stomped around as the Monster, and, lo and behold, Bela Lugosi was finally invited to return as Dracula.
The movie is effective because all the monsters play their parts straight, while Bud and Lou react to them with their classic takes and routines. Until Mel Brooks came up with “Young Frankenstein” nearly 40 years later, this was the gold standard of comedic horror films. It’s very funny to this day, and spawned a whole series of films featuring the comic pair encountering different monsters. Some of them have their moments, but they never matched the consistent laughs found in this film.
To this day, Universal’s classic horror films and characters live on, a testament to the creative forces behind the scenes and the impressive talent in front of the cameras. They hold up for generation after generation, and continue to influence countless new filmmakers to this day.
Next: Classic horror stars of the 1930s and ‘40s reemerge in the 1960s and ‘70s.
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