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Mad Love (1935) Karl Freund

Since the library is shut down for two weeks, I've got a bit of time on my hands, so I've decided to recycle some reviews from my previous blog (which, I was surprised to learn, goes all the way back to 2004). Stay tuned. There will be more!

Mad Love (1935)

Directed by Karl Freund

Produced by John W. Considine Jr.

Written by John L. Balderston, Guy Endore

Based on the 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac by Maurice Renard

Cinematography by Chester A. Lyons, Gregg Toland

Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

Edited by Hugh Wynn


(1:08) originally viewed on Warner Archive Instant in 2014

Take four people, put them in four separate rooms, show them four different scenes from Mad Love and ask them to tell you what type of movie it is. Depending on which scenes they’re shown, their answers might include horror, suspense, romance, or melodrama. Mad Love is, in fact, none of these, although it certainly contains elements of each. It’s been labeled a horror film for over 80 years, but no matter how you classify it, you can’t forget it.


For all its weirdness, Mad Love’s plot is fairly straightforward. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre, in his first American film) is obsessed with stage actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), a beautiful young woman who appreciates Gogol’s generous patronage of the theater, but otherwise finds him repulsive. Her heart belongs instead to her husband, concert pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive, infamous for his role as Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), who would only make four more films after Mad Love, dying in 1937).

The train carrying Stephen home from his recent concert engagement derails, crushing his hands to the point that they must be amputated. With no nowhere else to turn, Yvonne pleads for Dr. Gogol to save her husband’s hands. Gogol, having recently witnessed the execution of a knife-throwing criminal (Edward Brophy), gets the idea that he can surgically attach the knife-thrower’s hands to Stephen’s arms, with the lovely Yvonne in his eternal debt, all the while thinking Gogol has repaired Stephen’s hands.

Messed up much? Yeah. You can probably guess what happens from this point on, but maybe not the exact details. I think part of the reason the audiences in 1935 didn’t take to Mad Love had to do with a couple of things:

For most American audiences - unless they’d seen Fritz Lang’s M (1931) or Alfred Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) - Lorre was a new and possibly shocking face (all the more so because he’s bald in this film). The movie’s poster also warned “Suitable only for adults,” and with the Motion Picture Production Code just starting to get seriously enforced, audiences may not have known what they were getting into.

The first third of the film is loaded with oddities, starting when the final moment of the opening credits is shattered by a gloved hand. Then we journey through the Parisian 'Théâtre des Horreurs' and encounter the bizarre people inhabiting it along with Yvonne. (And it’s not every day you see a door pushed open by a human bone.) Combine this with German Expressionism, as well as cinematography by Chester A. Lyons and a guy you may have heard of named Gregg Toland (who a few years later photographed Citizen Kane) and you’ve got a very distinctive look. Although the German Expressionism stylization never really leaves the film, the second act is more focused on the weird (okay, let’s call it mad) love relationship and Gogol’s obsession with Yvonne. And although we see the ending coming a long way off, it’s still strangely satisfying, if not unbelievable.

Maybe horror is the correct category for this film after all. As brilliant as he is, Dr. Gogol is a dangerous man, at least to Yvonne. Although he’s strange to look at, Gogol is respected by his co-workers and the community at large. He’s well-established and trusted, so when he visits Yvonne in her dressing room, no one thinks much of it. Think about how many stalkers and predators have at least an air of respectability, even today. Yet the deeper we get into Gogol’s mind, the more we (and Yvonne) discover the depths of his dark and twisted obsession.

The film also boasts a musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin and an adaptation of Maurice Renard’s The Hands of Orlac by John L. Balderston and Guy Endore, who wrote the famous horror novel The Werewolf of Paris. Mad Love also marks only the third credited role for Keye Luke (pictured above left), the Chinese-American actor who became famous as the “Number One Son” in the Charlie Chan films and years later starred as Master Po in the David Carradine TV show Kung Fu. Mad Love is available as part of the Hollywood Legends of Horror DVD collection from Warner Bros. You can also rent it on Amazon Prime. Enjoy!

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