Raymond Massey: Abraham Lincoln & Boris Karloff + H.G. Wells

Raymond Massey movies: From Lincoln to Boris Karloff

Though hardly remembered today, the Toronto-born Raymond Massey was a top supporting player – and sometime lead – in both British and American movies from the early '30s all the way to the early '60s. During that period, Massey was featured in nearly 50 films.

Turner Classic Movies generally selects the same old MGM / RKO / Warner Bros. stars for its annual “Summer Under the Stars” series. For that reason, it's great to see someone like Raymond Massey – who was with Warners in the '40s – be the focus of a whole day: Sat., Aug. 8. (See TCM's Raymond Massey movie schedule further below.)

Admittedly, despite his prestige – his stage credits included the title role in the short-lived 1931 Broadway production of Hamlet – the quality of Massey's performances varied wildly. Sometimes he could be quite effective; most of the time, however, he was an unabashed scenery chewer, using his voice, posture, and unusual facial features to create characterizations that would stay in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

British phase: 'Things to Come' and 'The Scarlet Pimpernel'

Highlights among TCM's Raymond Massey movies include William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come (1936), based on an H.G. Wells novel, but clearly inspired by the look of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The film's final lines, in reply to fellow Man of the Future Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman), are delivered by Massey himself:

Little animals. If we're no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?

World War II would be the immediate answer to that. The threat of global warming and tribal terrorism, which could potentially wipe out all the “little animals” – much to the relief of the planet's other inhabitants – would become a reality a few decades later.

Directed by the now largely forgotten Harold Young, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) is a surprisingly enjoyable version of Baroness Emmuska Orczy's novel. Leslie Howard landed the Zorro-ish title role; Merle Oberon, shortly before she became a Hollywood star, plays his clueless wife.

Raymond Massey Arsenic and Old LaceRaymond Massey in 'Arsenic and Old Lace' with Peter Lorre.

'Arsenic and Old Lace'

Later this evening, TCM will show three of Raymond Massey's best-remembered movies: Arsenic and Old Lace, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and East of Eden.

Based on Joseph Kesselring's Broadway hit, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944; filmed in 1941) stars Cary Grant (Allyn Joslyn on stage) as the nephew of two old dears (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair) who take it upon themselves to relieve the elderly and the lonely of their suffering. Massey plays the Boris Karloff-like character (Karloff himself on Broadway), who is not to be fully trusted. But then again, who is?

Arsenic and Old Lace could have been a (black) comic masterpiece, but Frank Capra's direction and Cary Grant's performance are both so over the top – though Grant was surely a less unfortunate choice than the originally intended Bob Hope – that much of the film's humor is diluted. On the plus side, Arsenic and Old Lace features a mostly flawless group of supporting players, including Broadway cast members Hull, Adair, and John Alexander, in addition to Massey, Priscilla Lane, and Peter Lorre.

In fact, this is the sort of flawed movie adaptation that deserves to be remade. Well, as long as they cast someone other than Adam Sandler, Vin Diesel, or Robert Downey Jr. in the old Grant role. Come to think of it, Tom Hiddleston might do just fine. Benedict Cumberbatch could be the Karloff look-alike.

'Abe Lincoln in Illinois' and 'East of Eden'

Raymond Massey was nominated for his one and only Academy Award for his performance as Abraham Lincoln in John Cromwell's nice-looking but much too reverential Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), based on Robert E. Sherwood's play in which Massey had starred on Broadway. As to be expected, he recreates his stage role in a manner unmodulated for the big screen; 21st century audiences will surely find Massey's characterization inferior to Daniel Day-Lewis' in Steven Spielberg's well-regarded Lincoln.

Also in the Abe Lincoln in Illinois cast: Ruth Gordon, nearly three decades before her dotty, little Satan worshiper in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), and Gene Lockhart (father of Lost in Space actress June Lockhart).

Massey, by the way, lost the Best Actor Oscar to James Stewart in George Cukor's comedy The Philadelphia Story.

In Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955), Massey creates a forceful portrayal as James Dean's (self-)righteous father. Dean, who overacts quite a bit in some of the film's more dramatic moments, was shortlisted for the Best Actor Academy Award; as his brothel-running mother, Jo Van Fleet took home that year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Massey was bypassed.

Despite several heavy-handed moments, East of Eden remains one of the seminal Hollywood movies of the '50s.

'Dr. Kildare'

Raymond Massey, who also played Dr. Gillespie in the popular Dr. Kildare series in the early '60s, died of pneumonia on July 29, 1983, in Los Angeles – nearly one month before his 87th birthday (Aug. 30). Curiously, one of his fellow The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) players, David Niven, died that same day.

Massey's son Daniel Massey was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Noël Coward in Blake Edwards' Star! (1968), starring Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence.

Massey's daughter Anna Massey was one of the leads in Michael Powell's cult classic Peeping Tom (1958).

Raymond Massey Abe Lincoln in IllinoisRaymond Massey in 'Abe Lincoln in Illinois.'

Raymond Massey movies: TCM schedule (PT)

3:00 AM THINGS TO COME (1936). Dir.: William Cameron Menzies. Cast: Raymond Massey. Edward Chapman. Ralph Richardson. Cedric Hardwicke. Margaretta Scott. Ann Todd. Derrick De Marney. Kenneth Villiers. Uncredited: John Clements. George Sanders. Terry-Thomas. B&W. 97 mins.

5:00 AM THE DRUM (1938). Dir.: Zoltan Korda. Cast: Sabu. Raymond Massey. Roger Livesey. B&W. 94 mins.

6:45 AM THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1935). Dir.: Harold Young. Cast: Leslie Howard. Merle Oberon. Raymond Massey. Nigel Bruce. Anthony Bushell. Bramwell Fletcher. Joan Gardner. Walter Rilla. Mabel Terry-Lewis. O.B. Clarence. Edmund Breon. Melville Cooper. Uncredited: Derrick De Marney. B&W. 98 mins.

8:30 AM SANTA FE TRAIL (1940). Dir.: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Raymond Massey. Ronald Reagan. Alan Hale. William Lundigan. Van Heflin. Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams. Gene Reynolds. Henry O'Neill. Alan Baxter. Moroni Olsen. John Litel. B&W. 110 mins.

10:30 AM SEVEN ANGRY MEN (1955). Dir.: Charles Marquis Warren. Cast: Raymond Massey. Debra Paget. Jeffrey Hunter. Color. 92 mins.

12:15 PM THE NAKED AND THE DEAD (1958). Dir.: Raoul Walsh. Cast: Aldo Ray. Cliff Robertson. Raymond Massey. Color. 131 mins. Letterbox Format.

2:45 PM ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). Dir.: Frank Capra. Cast: Cary Grant. Priscilla Lane. Raymond Massey. Peter Lorre. Josephine Hull. Jean Adair. Edward Everett Horton. Jack Carson. John Alexander. James Gleason. Grant Mitchell. John Ridgely. Charles Lane. Hank Mann. Lee Phelps. Raymond Walburn. B&W. 118 mins.

5:00 PM EAST OF EDEN (1955). Dir.: Elia Kazan. Cast: Julie Harris. James Dean. Raymond Massey. Jo Van Fleet. Color. 118 mins. Letterbox Format.

7:15 PM ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1940). Dir.: John Cromwell. Cast: Raymond Massey. Gene Lockhart. Ruth Gordon. B&W. 110 mins.

9:15 PM DESPERATE JOURNEY (1942). Dir.: Raoul Walsh. Cast: Errol Flynn. Ronald Reagan. Nancy Coleman. Raymond Massey. Arthur Kennedy. B&W. 108 mins.

11:15 PM GOD IS MY CO-PILOT (1945). Dir.: Robert Florey. Cast: Dennis Morgan. Dane Clark. Raymond Massey. B&W. 88 mins.

1:00 AM CHAIN LIGHTNING (1950). Dir.: Stuart Heisler. Cast: Humphrey Bogart. Eleanor Parker. Raymond Massey. B&W. 95 mins.

Raymond Massey movies cast info via the IMDb.

Raymond Massey image via Doctor Macro.

Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey Arsenic and Old Lace image: Warner Bros.

Raymond Massey Abe Lincoln in Illinois image: RKO Pictures.

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