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Tod Slaughter, First British Horror Star - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

June 2007

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Nowadays, Tod Slaughter is mainly known as Britain's first real star of horror cinema, but in his lifetime he was more famous as a stage actor, credited with bringing back the Victorian melodrama - but not high literature but a lower kind that is full of gruesome stories that later also built the basis for his horror films. In this respect it is also interesting to note that Slaughter initially showed contempt for making films (as did many stage actors of his time) and did not make his first movie until the age of 50.

By and large, Slaughter was famous for his overacting that often seems a bit out of place (but in a good way) in his movies but was very effective on stage, where he tended to play a villain bordering on caricature for a primarily working class audience - and the audience always loved him ...

 

But let's start at the beginning: Tod was born Norman Carter Slaughter in 1885 in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and it was at the early age of 16 that he became an assistant stage manager at the Olympia Theatre of his hometown. Reportedly, he had his first on-stage role in 1905, when he played an Egyptian priest in the play The Wrecker of Man. A variety of other plays followed and over the next few years Tod toured the country with various companies.

In 1912, Tod married Jenny Lynn, a woman who did not only remain at his side until his death, she also played female leads or supporting roles in many of his plays and some of his films.

1913 saw Slaughter rise from mere actor to theatre manager when he leased the Hypodrome in London, which allowed him much greater control over his plays. However, this was only shortlived as he was drafted for service in World War I in 1914.

 

In 1919, Tod returned from the war, where he had served in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force. For the next four years, he produced his own shows in the Theatre Royal, but it was in the Elephant and Castle Theatre, which he took over in 1923, when his rise to fame really began:

Instead of playing the classics or contemporary plays, Tod Slaughter dusted off an endless array of Victorian melodramas which best fitted his stage persona. These plays were not exactly high literature in any way but sensationalistic pieces ripped from contemporary gruesome headlines spiced up with the sentiments of penny dreadfuls (or pulps as we would say nowadays) that were primarily there to give the audiences a cheap thrill in the good old grand guignol fashion (other than his films, Tod's plays were not short on gore). The most famous of these plays were possibly Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street - the latter written by Victorian playwright George Dibdin-Pitt -, both gruesome tales based on true events that have eventually found their way into popular folklore, and Tod Slaughter has made both these plays his own. These plays (and others like them), which were both revolving about an immensely evil but two-faced central character, were of course the perfect stuff for Slaughter, as he could ham it up as much as he wanted and still get away with it as he was the only important character in the plays, with the rest of the actors just there to give him his cues - which was exactly how Tod Slaughter liked to make theatre, with himself being the center of the world ...

 


Tod Slaughter's career went from strength to strength in the late 1920's early 30's - even if he was not playing the Old Vic -, so it was only a matter of time until the film industry came knocking. Initially, Tod Slaughter showed the same contempt towards the (relatively) new medium that many stage actors did, but in 1935 he came to terms with producer and occasional director George King to bring some of his greatest successes to the screen. Tod's first film was Murder in the Red Barn (1935, Milton Rosmer), based of course on Tod's famous play Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn.

Murder in the Red Barn is essentially the story of a two-faced squire (Tod Slaughter, who else), who talks a young girl, Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart) into making love with him, then he loses interest in her and plans to marry a society lady - and when poor ary confesses to him that she's pregnant from him, he kills her and puts the blame on a gipsy (Eric Portman) who has always been in love with her. After much to and fro though the squire is caught and condemned to death - and his hangman turns out to be the very same gipsy ...

From today's point of view, the cheaply made Murder in the Red Barn will probably seem awfully crude, the sets are as inexpensive as they are unconvincing, the direction is stagey, the camerawork is static, the story and dialogue are blunt, not all actors are really up to their roles, and Tod Slaughter walks through ihe whole thing like a bulldozer - but the film's crudeness paired with Slaughters ham acting give the film an atmosphere all of its own and a certain (admittedly old-fashioned) charm only rarely found nowadays.


When Murder in the Red Barn proved to be a success, Tod Slaughter and George king were quick to follow the film with another of his greatest successes on stage, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936, George King), which essentially had even less of a plot as such and even more opportunities for Tod to do his shtick. Essentially the film is all about the historical figure of Sweeney Todd (Tod Slaughter of course), a barber who cuts the throats of his customers rather than their beards to get his hands on their money and sell their corpses to the neighbouring butcher shop. The actual plot about the sailor (Bruce Seton) who survives his visit to the barber and will ultimately prove Sweeneys downfall plays only second fiddle (and by and large lacks imagination). And while most of the violence in this film is merely impied (remember, this is 1936, and the British censor has a strict ruling concerning horror or horrific melodrama), Tod Slaughter, overacting like a madman (quite fitting since he plays a madman) makes sure the film sticks with you anyhow.

Essentially, what applies to Murder in the Red Barn also goes for Sweeney Todd (and most of Tod's future pictures): static camerawork, stagey direction, so-so supporting performances and mediocre screenplays at best can't keep Tod Slaughter from shining and the film from having an atmosphere all of its own.

 

In The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936, George King), Tod Slaughter plays a kind old moneylender by day who thinks of noone but his adopted daughter - but by night he's the Spinebreaker, the most ruthless of all ruthless serialkillers, who invariably kills the rich to steal enough for his daughter's inheritance - but occasionally he also breaks the spines of bratty young boys ... In the end, how fitting, Slaughter dies breaking his own spine in an accident.

Again, the film is Slaughter's vehicle and Slaughter's vehicle alone, though giving his character an extra dimension by adding a person he really cares for (his daughter) might not have been the best of ideas - primarily since the way Slaughter played his characters (as flat as they occasionally were) did not call for an extra dimension.

 


Tod's next film was It's Never Too Late to Mend (1937, David MacDonald), based on a play by Charles Reade and Arthur Shirley. This time around, Tod plays a prison squire who is generally regarded as one of the most honourable citizens there are, but who takes delight in torturing his prisoners and even using his position to try and have a man (Ian Colin) incarcerated after whose girl (Marjorie Taylor) - who's about 30 years younger than him - he lusts. Of course, in the end, Todd once again gets his just desserts ... and once again it's him who carries the film.

Of course, It's Never Too Late to Mend is less horror and more crime drama, but such distinctions only matter arbitrarly, primarily the film is a Tod Slaughter film.

 

After these four films for George King Productions, Slaughter's career saw a change of pace though when he - outside of his partnership with King - played supporting roles in two musicals, Darby and Joan (1937, Syd Courtenay) and The Song of the Road (1937, John Baxter) ... but both films are pretty much as forgettable as they are forgotten, and - hardly surprising - Tod Slaughter was not able to expand his range of roles (mainly due to his limited dramatic range).

 

1937 also saw Tod's first appearance on TV on the BBC, in the 15-minute play Heard in Camera, described as a dramatic thrill in one scene. Tod's own wife Jenny Lynn co-starred.

(Please note: In the 1930's, naturally, television was hardly as common as it is nowadays, but the BBC had the new technology in experimental use since 1932 and in regular use since 1936. In 1939 though, the service went on hiatus until 1946 due to the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.)

 

Slaughter's next project with George King was The Ticket of Leave Man (1937, George King), based on the 1863-drama by Tom Taylor. The original drama was a vehicle for Hawkshaw the Detective (played in the film by Robert Adair), but in the film version, Slaughter's villain, the Tiger, resumes center stage, turning the play that is often described as a Victorian source for Sherlock Holmes onto its head and making it into yet another showcase for Tod Slaughter.

In the film, Tod does what he does best, playing a honourable and respected citizen by day and a ruthless criminal by night - and this time his angle is he is a kind squire who grants convicts tickets of leave ... only to make them commit crimes in his name (and his favour) in return. Of course, in the end, Hawkshaw gets the better of him, but this being a Tod Slaughter vehicle, that is a tad besides the point.

 


Tod's next film, Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938, George King), once again produced by George King, was actually a sequel to two Sexton Blake-films made in 1935 and produced by the Fox Film Company, Sexton Blake and the Bearded Doctor (George A.Cooper) and Sexton Blake and the Mademoiselle (Alex Bryce). In all three films, George Curzon plays Sexton Blake - a popular pulp detective who first showed up in the story The Missing Millionaire written by Harry Blyth aka Hal Meredeth for the penny dreadful Halfpenny Marvel. Soon, Sexton Blake was called a poor man's Sherlock Holmes, but at the same time he was successful enough that about 4000 (!) stories featuring the character were published from 1893 to 1978, written by as much as 200 different authors.

Of course, Tod Slaughter plays yet another two-faced character in Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, this time he's a kindly old stamp collector by day (stamps will play a role in his downfall) who is a crime overlord by night, leading a ring of black-robed and -hooded outlaws similar in style (if not colour) to the Ku Klux Klan. But when he lusts after Greta Gynt, a woman many years younger than him who's originally a member of his gang but who later falls for Curzon's Sexton Blake, this leads to his demise ...

Tod Slaughter shows more restraint in acting in Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror than in any of his previous pictures, which might be for a whole number of reasons: Firstly, the film is the first Tod Slaughter-thriller set in modern times, where his usual over-the-top style of acting would have been rather out of place, secondly the film is not a Slaughter-vehicle by definition but an installment in a series that had nothing to do with Slaughter, so he had to share center-stage with the hero of the series, Sexton Blake as played by George Curzon. And thirdly, Slaughter had real actors to interact with this time around - e.g. Curzon, Greta Gynt, David Farrar - rather than his usual stock company, and they would give him less space for his histrionics ... but even though this might not be typical Slaughter-fare, Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror is one of his more interesting films.

(By the way, David Farrar, who plays a supporting character with the beautiful name Granite Grant in this one, would go on to play Sexton Blake himself in two 1945 films, Meet Sexton Blake and The Echo Murders [both by John Harlow].)

 


But while Tod's acting was subdued in Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, he was back on top of his game in The Face at the Window (1939, George King), where he again takes center stage (quite unlike the Brooke Warren melodrama the film is based on) and is by and large unchallenged.

The setting of the film is Paris 1880, and Slaughter plays a nobleman, who on one hand is respected by everybody, on the other hand he lusts after yet another woman (Marjorie Taylor) who is (as usual) many years younger than him. But that's only during the day, during the night, he is the feared killer The Wolf who announces his killings by a wolf's howl and who goes on his killing spree with his disfigured brother (Harry Terry), who appears at the window of every victim for diversion so Slaughter can comfortably stab them from behind.

In terms of Slaughter the film is of course great, and none of his previous films were so outrightly horror as this one.

 


After The Face at the Window, Crimes at the Dark House (1940, George King) was a bit of a disappointment: Though based on Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White - a piece of high literature especially when compared to Slaughter's usual sources -, the film is highly reminiscent of Slaughter's first film, Murder in the Red Barn, and not only in title, a whole subplot seems to be directly derived from the earlier film - Tod plays a man who wants to marry a rich woman (Sylvia Marriott) but has an affair with a poor maid (Rita Grant), whom he eventually has to kill when he learns she's pregnant -, and when Crimes at the Dark House diverts from the Murder in the Red Barn, the plottwists often range from unbelievable to ridiculous. Basically, the film is about Slaughter, who has killed another man and returns home after 20 years abroad in his stead. Interestingly nobody but one woman (Elsie Wagstaff) seems to notice the difference at all (true, 20 years is a long time, but it's not that long either). Unfortunately, upon returning home, Slaughter learns he is not only penniless but in debt, and a madwoman who has escaped from the asylum is after him ... but he has also set his eyes on a rich woman for her money ... and eventually, he sends his new wife to the asylum in the madwoman's stead (by mere coincidence the two women do look exactly alike), then he kills the madwoman (by a common cold) and claims her to have been his wife - but of course, he gets his just desserts in the end (again)  ...

Even if the film suffers from a weak script though, Tod Slaughter, hamming it up as usual, saves the day, making this one enjoyable after all.

 

Then came the Second World War, and it changed the face of the British film industry, and not to Slaughter's favour: 

Horror - even in the form of horrific melodramas Tod Slaughter used to make - was suddenly out of demand (hardly surprising considering the real horrors of war) and many producers - George King among them - started producing propaganda films, something Tod Slaughter, who always played very British villains, was just not cut out for. 

For Slaughter, this was just as well, as his first love always was the stage, and thus he returned to the musichalls and fleapit theatres for a long run of his greatest successes, and he even premiered a few new plays, including dramatisations of Jekyll & Hyde, Landru and Jack the Ripper.

 

1945 Tod Slaughter returned to the screen in a rather weird film, Bothered by a Beard (E.V.H.Emmett), a 36-minute documentary (or rather mockumentary, if you may) about, you guessed it, beards. And who else would Tod Slaughter play but his most popular character, Sweeney Todd ? (You don't have to answer that.)

(By the way, Tod's Sweeney Todd -footage was newly shot and not from the 1936 film.)

 

In 1946 finally, Slaughter hooked up with small-time British producer Bushey Studios for a couple of films. The first film was The Curse of the Wraydons (Victor M.Gover), in which he played a villain ripped directly from folklore, Spring-Heeled Jack, a legendary (but not real) killer from the 1880's who was supposedly 8 feet tall, breathed fire and could leap over buildings - something the now considerably rotund Tod Slaughter was definitely not cut out for -, but who was eventually revealed to be nothing but a hoax, thought up by a nobleman with a morbid sense of humour.

In the film, based on a play by Maurice Sandoz, the character was treated as matter-of-fact though, and Slaughter played him with gusto as another two-faced aristocrat. His main opponent in the film is played by Bruce Seton, who also played Slaughter's opponent in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In all though, The Curse of the Wraydons is one of Slaughter's worst films, it drags considerably, the production values are poor, the direction is uninventive and static and the whole film simply lacks atmosphere.

 


Slaughter's second film for Bushey was The Greed of William Hart (1948, Oswald Mitchell), a film based on the exploits of the graverobber-turned-killer-duo Burke and Hare - however, the film was hampered by numerous causes. One was that the British censor had a keen eye on films treating graverobbing, thus the topic could only be hinted at, another was that you simply weren't allowed to use the names of Burke and Hare in a film, so the censor forced the studio to change the character names, but after the film was finished, which means the audience is treated to some anomalies on the soundtrack every time the two lead characters are called by their names (especially since different voices were used for the re-dubbing). Poor production values and poor direction of course do not help either. And then there is of course the decision to let Tod Slaughter, the portrayer of murderous aristocrats, play a working class villain - which is something that just doesn't stick ...

By the way, John Gilling, who wrote the script for The Greed of William Hart, remade the film with himself in the director's chair in 1960 as Flesh and the Fiends, starring George Rose and Donald Pleasence as Burke and Hare respectively (this time they were allowed to keep their own names) and Peter Cushing as their employer, the infamous Doctor Knox. This version is far superior to The Greed of William Hart.

 

The Greed of William Hart was the last feature film starring Tod Slaughter as such, and once again Slaughter returned to his first love, the stage. However, in 1952, after a series of financial misfortunes, Slaughter was forced to make a handful of two-reelers, again for Bushey, for the series Inspector Morley. The series was first and foremost intended for television, but several of these episodes were edited together into a couple of feature films and brought to the big screen, namely King of the Underworld and Murder at Scotland Yard (both 1952, Victor M.Gover). Mainly, the Inspector Morley-films were crime dramas with Patrick Barr playing the title role and Slaughter joyfully hamming it up as the villain Terence Reilly (and sometimes his also evil twin brother Patrick Reilly).

 

1952 also saw the release of another two-reeler produced by Bushey, directed again by Victor M.Gover and starring Inspector Morley-regulars Slaughter, Patrick Barr and Tucker McGuire (Barr's assistant in the Inspector Morley-series): Ghost for Sale. The interesting thing about this film is that it re-uses scenes from Gover's and Slaughter's earlier The Curse of the Wraydons aplenty, framed by a story about a man (Slaughter) retelling the Spring-Heeled Jack-story to a man (Barr) and his wife (McGuire) - before it turns out that he is actually the ghost of Jack himself ...

The good thing about Ghost for Sale is that it's not as boring as The Curse of the Wraydons, the bad thing is that it's just cheapskate moviemaking and cutting corners left and right at its most obvious.

 

Puzzle Corner No.14 (1954) is a weird bookend to Tod Slaughter's film career. Basically, the film has an unseen commentator quizzing his audience about a number of unrelated subjects, and about halfway through the film (it's a mere 19 minutes long), the subject all of a sudden becomes Tod Slaughter, who once again reprises one of his biggest roles, Sweeney Todd, doing a short monologue from the play - curiously enough to a large sack (!) sitting in his barber's chair. Tod's sequence is very short, but he proves that at the age of 69, he was still on top of his game, hamming it up like nobody's business.

 

Even though is film career was over, Slaughter did not give up acting as such and continued to revive his greatest successes on stage again and again, almost literally to his death: He died on the 19th of February 1956 from coronary thrombosis in Derby, England, only hours after he gav a performance of Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn.

 

It is of course true that Tod Slaughter was not the greatest actor Great Britain ever had, he was a terrible ham and too egocentric to really interact with other actors, and he never played the great classics of William Shakespeare and the like - but that all said, his performances are just so enjoyable to watch, even nowadays when his acting style seems terribly dated, his limitations as an actor are more apparent than ever, and filmmaking has certainly moved on from his days

But British horror cinema no doubt would be much poorer without him.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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