the doctor is in

boris karloff and bela lugosi are obviously indispensable as architects of horror cinema. only one man, though, appears throughout the holy trinity of universal's monster cycle. that man is vitagraph favorite, edward van sloan.

eventually becoming one of america's most durable character actors, he appeared in only one silent film, slander (1916), prior to those career-defining roles at universal. that fifteen year gap in between was filled with a lot of stage work, most notably as dr. abraham van helsing in the 1927 broadway production of dracula. it was the role he was born to play and, fortunately for us, he was also selected by universal to reprise the role when they filmed their tod browning-directed version of it in 1931. everything i love about van sloan is here in spades. he is a dedicated man of science doing battle with otherworldly forces, rational enough to understand the nature of evil, pragmatic enough to understand that there are things which defy reason. he is encouragingly paternal yet he will countenance no nonsense. most importantly, he is one tough old bastard. with his inimitable delivery, severe crew cut and flinty eyes magnified by thick glasses, he stands toe to toe with the count and does not flinch.

he is an implacable font of arcane knowledge with an almost suicidal fearlessness. he stands like a stooped colossus, an indomitable center of gravity and will in a house swirling with madmen, bats and silly young lovers. he wastes no time, ever. the very moment he deduces dracula's true nature when the count casts no reflection in the mirror, he lets him know he is onto him. he does not devise ridiculous traps and hunt only by day. he openly declares war. all this is not to say he doesn't know how to have fun, though. look at the joy in his face as he taunts renfield with wolf's bane. he doesn't walk, he runs, into carfax abbey. this is a man who clearly loves his work. while hugh jackman's van helsing is out shopping for hair care products, van sloan's is ensconced in his library, getting smarter, better, stronger.

ready for action!

the next time we see van sloan is in james whale's frankenstein (1931), where he takes time out of his busy schedule being a badass to issue this warning:

it's a kinder, gentler van sloan this time around and that costs him dearly. here, he portrays dr. waldman, henry frankenstein's former mentor and friend. prevailed upon to draw henry out of madness and seclusion, he accompanies henry's fiancée and friend to henry's castle laboratory just in time to see frankenstein's experiments bear blasphemous fruit. again, he is the stern but loving father figure, espousing common sense and dispensing valuable advice.

for instance, when selecting a brain to put into a reanimated body made of corpses, don't use the one marked "abby someone".

it's a complicated line dr. waldman walks. he is conservative, a card-carrying member of the medical establishment that has ostracized frankenstein. he tries time and again to warn henry of the potential dangers of his research, that evil will most certainly prevail. yet, he does not leave. his scientific curiosity gets the better of him. though he is repelled by the nature of henry's experiments and fearful of their outcome, he cannot completely divest himself of them or his former student. they are too fascinating. even when it becomes clear that the monster must be destroyed, he cannot quite pull the trigger before investigating a little further, which proves to be his undoing. the lure of forbidden knowledge is strong, even to someone as buttoned-down and practical as waldman. if only he'd had the fortitude of van helsing.

finally, a few months later, we arrive at my favorite of the golden age universal horrors, karl freund's the mummy (1932).

once again, van sloan is on the scene, laying down the law. think of how much destruction could have been averted in the thirties, if only people had listened to him. he portrays dr. muller here, an expert in egyptian occult lore. this time around, although still as astringent as ever, he is possessed of a romanticism that was not present in the other two films. this van sloan is much more deeply acquainted with recondite forces. he is as knowledgeable as van helsing and conscientious as waldman but the ancient mysteries of the desert manifest something quite different in him as he prophecies ruin. he struggles vainly to get everyone to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, ultimately ending up impotent against karloff's threat himself, his vast knowledge and respectful fear of the secrets of the dead being of no use to him at all. he must sit idly by and, in a rare turn of events in horror cinema, watch the heroine save herself. he suffers that terrible fate of every man with an inquisitive nature - that of having wisdom which brings no profit to the wise.

so, how did he do?
dracula - staked the villain in the final reel
frankenstein - strangled by frankenstein's monster
the mummy - powerless to help, but survived

one win, one loss, one draw - a very respectable record against cinema's greatest monsters. he would go on to play a number of doctors, doomed and otherwise, until 1950, but would never surpass this trio of films. in a span of just under two years in the early thirties, he cemented his reputation as your board-certified herald of disaster in a way that left an indelible mark on the landscape of horror cinema. my prescription? take all three of these as needed, every october. to quote another highly esteemed medical man, dr. john, "don't be ashamed to call the doctor when there ain't nobody left".

good for what ails you!

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