Thursday, September 23, 2010

19th September 2010: Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (1936)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

UK 1936 b&w

aka The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Director George King Writer Frederick Hayward

Cast Tod Slaughter (Sweeney Todd), Stella Rho (Mrs Lovatt), Johnny Singer (Tobias Rag), Eve Lister (Johanna Oakley)

Tonight we visit Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. For those one or two of you expecting the recent version, I'm sorry to say there's no Johnny Depp and THANKFULLY no Helena Bonham Carter, no Tim Burton visuals, and not one single musical number. Instead we give you Tod Slaughter's 1936 adaptation - BLOOD and THUNDER, madness, greed, murder and a hint of cannibalism.

It's the second Tod Slaughter film we've brought you on Schlock Treatment, and for the forgotten anti-hero of British pre-war horrors, it's one of his most fondly remembered. An ageing East End impresario and renowned stage villain specializing in lurid Victorian-era melodramas, Tod Slaughter (real name Norman Slaughter) made the transition from theatre to film in 1935 with his most iconic stage performance in Murder In The Red Barn. The problem with film, of course, is that it's forever, and so Slaughter's stage rendition became old quickly. So Slaughter raided his somewhat limited box of tricks, and as a follow-up filmed his equally rousing performance as the slash-happy London barber for Sweeney Todd in 1936. An unmitigated drunkard and attention whore, Slaughter would prop himself against the bar during intervals and continue to give his theatre audience the evil eye. Now that's dedication to your craft!

Slaughter as demon barber Sweeney Todd prowls around London's dockside looking for custom for his Fleet Street shavery. He's suitably sleazy and greasy to the point of redefining the term “obsequious”, and on the scrounge for lost souls with a few quid in their pockets ripe for the taking. “I loooove my work!” he oozes, and his fetish for bared throats is clear, as is his predilection for easy pickings. Once in Todd's flippable barber chair, the hapless victim is quickly dispatched to the cellar, where the body is stripped of cash and jewels and Todd's partner in crime, neighbouring pie maker Mrs Lovett, finds a way of dealing with the unwanted bodies. Theirs is an uneasy alliance in greed and one can only assume unrequited lust, at least on the part of poor jealous Mrs Lovett; once Todd slaps his varnished eyeballs on Joanna, daughter of a shipping magnate he's planning on fleecing, his tidy arrangement starts to fall apart at the seams. Enter a suspicious orphan apprentice and Mark, Joanna's betrothed, and it's clear that Sweeney will be, in his words, “soon polished orff”.

The stagebound film version of Sweeney Todd deviates very little from the play that had done the rounds of Victorian stalls since in the mid Nineteenth Century, and that includes Slaughter in the title role. It's clear Slaughter is relishing every moment playing his beloved Sweeney with his broad grins and grimaces, sinister brow-arching, cackling and sideways glances to the camera standing in for his audience, all gloriously intact. It's a wonder he didn't trade in the theatre schtick for a film career sooner, as he possesses all the trappings of a silent movie villain minus the top hat and twirly mustache. It was indeed a limited box of tricks, and was ultimately Slaughter's downfall once he's exhausted his stage repertoire; his post-war career was patchy to non-existent, and he died penniless and forgotten in 1956.

Thankfully film IS forever – not every film of course, but Slaughter's back catalogue is still with us and ripe for the plucking. Here's to you, you sozzled limelight hog, as you tread the boards once more in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. And now Inspector – arrest that woman for being deliciously filling! Take that man away for making a dishonest crust!

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