The world-sweeping rage of Sweeneymania that Warner Bros. hoped for with the 2007 release of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street didn't occur. The film's mix of black humor, unhumable melodies and blood-drenched melodrama didn't attract either the audience for musicals or the fans of gore. Perhaps the DVD availability of a solid 2006 BBC production starring Ray Winstone was another trip wire on the stairway to paradise.
But there was an earlier movie version of the story, much different in detail than the Tim Burton film. Its star was Tod Slaughter, Britain's answer to Karloff, Lugosi and Hollywood's other actors of the macabre in the 1930s. The puzzlement of Tod Slaughter's films, as even his most enthusiastic fans have to admit, is this: are his peculiar performances enough to let us recommend his movies when "by any objective standard they are cheaply-produced rubbish." (britishpictures.com).
If you want to try one, Sweeney Todd should be it. The long journey of Sweeney Todd from blood and thunder stage melodrama to Broadway musical began in an urban legend. One of Sweeney's stops along the way was a "quota quickie," a movie made in England on the cheap with at least 75% of the paid cast and crew being English. These came about because of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, which was enacted to help the British film industry compete with American movies at home.
Slaughter was born in 1885 so by the time he made Sweeney Todd in 1936, just his third picture, he was already in his 50s. He'd spent his early years on the provincial stage, touring England in the kind of be-whiskered melodramas much beloved by the Victorians and kept alive by shamelessly barnstorming theater companies. George King, a producer and later director of quota quickies, discovered Slaughter and decided that he would be as successful in films as he was on stage if he performed in the same kind of story, and so cast his new aging star in Murder in the Red Barn. It clicked with less demanding audiences and Slaughter began his cinematic reign of terror.
In Sweeney Todd, Slaughter plays the title roll of a demented barber in Victorian London who uses a tricked-out barber's chair to "polish off" his wealthier customers. A gentleman sits in the chair, Todd pulls a lever, and the chair and platform on which it rests swivel backward dropping the victim through a hole in the floor and into the cellar. If the fall doesn't kill him, Todd soon will.
The barber shop shares its cellar with the shop next to it, Mrs. Lovatt's bakery of meat pies. The movie never explicitly points out that Mrs. Lovatt (a deliciously pinched-face Stella Rho) cuts up the bodies of Todd's customers and bakes them into her pies, but several hints are dropped along with the corpses. In one scene, a supporting character is eating one of the pies as he ponders on why the corpses of the murdered men are never seen again. Either cannibalism was a taboo that could never have gotten past the censor or it was assumed that the British public already knew what the Todd/Lovatt connection was.
As the film opens, a solid British sailor named Mark Ingerstreet (Bruce Seton) is being greeted on his return from the sea by Johanna, his one true love (Eve Lister). Unfortunately, Mark sails for Johanna's father, one of those Victorian paters who would never consider a mere employee to be an acceptable suitor for his daughter's hand (D.J. Williams). Yes, dammee, it's too bad. We see Todd standing in the shadows, watching for a likely customer he can murder and rob. "I love my work," he cackles, slapping his hands together and wringing them. "Money!" he hisses with all the subtlety of an ocean liner hitting an iceberg when he sees a wealthy nabob come ashore.
Todd invites the man into his shop for a close shave and before dropping him through the hole in the floor, he sends his young apprentice Tobias (Johnny Singer) next door for a pie. As fate, and melodrama, would have it, Todd knows Johanna's father and wants to invest in his next voyage. Of course, he also has his beady eyes on Johanna and determines to win her either through wooing or through skullduggery, preferably the latter. (I am reminded of the fella in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man who asks Larson E. Whipsnade (W.C. Fields) if he wants to earn an honest dollar. "Does it have to be honest?" Whipsnade replies.)
Weeks pass and Mark sets out on the very voyage in which Todd has invested. The film now offers a diversionary segment in which the captain of the ship is killed by rampaging natives and Mark assumes command. When he returns to London he has with him a sack of pearls (hence the story's title, The String of Pearls, in its original penny dreadful incarnation in 1846).
Todd sees him disembark, lures him to the shop and attempts to kill him. This time, the fall doesn't "polish him off" and, after Mrs. Lovatt spies Todd stealing the pearls so he won't have to divvy up with her, she helps Mark to escape. Mark then decides to disguise himself as an old country farmer and goes back to Sweeney's shop. He's dropped into the cellar again and with the assistance of another sailor he figures out exactly how Todd performs his evil deeds.
Now we get to the wild-as-a-March-hare conclusion. Johanna discovers what Mark is up to so she disguises herself as a young boy and goes to Todd's in case she needs to rescue Mark. Todd figures out who she is, knocks her out, and locks her in the closet. He has already killed Mrs. Lovatt, offstage, and in order to cover up his crimes, he sets fire to the shop. Back rushes Mark and smashes his way into the building to look for Johanna. As he pulls her from the closet, Todd returns to kill him. Todd ends up in the blazing cellar, Johanna ends up in Mark's arms, and the ill-gotten gains end up spilled in an alley.
It's been said that if the Victorians could have made movies, the product would have looked like Tod Slaughter's pictures. Obviously, there isn't much in the plot to attract anyone born after 1902 and the production values (except for the costumes) are laughably low. The acting from the supporting players is actually a notch above what you find in poverty row American films of the era—but then there's Slaughter.
He's so hammy his performances should have been condemned in Leviticus. His smile is so wide you know his characters have to be faking their bonhomie, and the smile is never reflected in his eyes, which are unmoving and dead. He does a great deal of acting with his hands, double gesturing, wringing, and rubbing palms together. He often speaks in a throaty, raspy whisper that makes him sound like the host of a radio horror series. He doesn't seem to have figured out that you don't have to play everything so broadly in front of a camera.
But there's no denying that Slaughter is a one-man time machine. Watching him transports you to another era. In fact, you may find yourself hissing the television. I suppose, though, that the real pleasure comes from watching a performer who seems to genuinely love what he's doing. I know a critic shouldn't try to slide by with saying, "I can't explain it any better than that," but hell, I can't explain it any better than that.
Let me go out quoting britishpictures.com once again. "A new generation of fans have stumbled onto his work [seeing it on late night British TV] and asked the question 'What the bloody hell was that!'"
What indeed. So is this version of Sweeney Todd's gruesome journey a good movie? Oh, hell no. As a work of cinema, it's abysmal. Okay, do I recommend it? I just can't. I want to, but I can't. But if you've read this far, you know I recommend Tod Slaughter. Forget what I say and read what I mean. Seek him out.