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Movie of the Week: Condemned to Live (1935)

In a dark cave with the sound of drums beating in the background, a young woman moans that she can’t stand it anymore. “If you love me, kill me.” The man attending to her steps away with another man to discuss the infestation of vampire bats. While one describes how they “attach” themselves to a victim’s neck to drink the blood, the woman screams. They return to find such an animal attached to her neck.


It’s a great start for Condemned to Live (1935), an independent feature from Invincible Pictures Corporation, which produced 30 other movies during the early-to-mid 1930s, very few of which were of the genre. The screenplay by Karen DeWolf, who later wrote several of the Blondie movies, is surprisingly human in that vampirism is treated as a malady and the villain is portrayed as sympathetic.


After the opening scene, a note on the screen reads, “Years later… the mark of the Bat brings tragedy and terror to a peaceful village in another land.” My first thought when viewing this other land was that it looked like a typical village in a Universal monster movie. Indeed, it seems that director Frank Strayer used “some costumes and set dressings” from Bride of Frankenstein (1935.)


He also used the same music and sets from a film he directed two years earlier, The Vampire Bat (1933.) It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that one and, while the plots sound similar, I don’t recall how much alike they really are. It wasn’t uncommon then (and I don’t guess it’s uncommon now) for two movies with different titles to depict almost the same story.


The characters in Condemned to Live are all good and innocent, from the heroine, Marguerite Mane (Maxine Doyle), to her father, John Mane (Carl Stockdale), to her fiancée, Professor Paul Kristan (Ralph Morgan), to his friend and colleague, Dr. Anders Bizet (Pedro de Cordoba.) The “fiend” is never suspected; in fact, when he/she confesses, the angry, torch-bearing mob doesn’t believe.


Even the hunchback, Zan (Mischa Auer) is portrayed sympathetically as a faithful servant that would do anything to protect “his master,” although he’s the first person suspected. One man among the angry mob says, “What good can there be in a hunchback?” But, although Marguerite recoils when she sees him, it’s because she was startled and she proceeds to apologize to him.


Interestingly, the least sympathetic character is the assumed hero, David (Russell Gleason.) That’s probably because, although he’s the true love interest for Marguerite, he aggressively attempts to get her to end her engagement to Professor Kristan. She loves Kristan, but, as David tells her, she isn’t “in love” with him. Such are the morals of these characters that respect equals love for Marguerite.


You recognize Condemned to Live as being low budget because of stationary cameras, non-familiar actors and, at times, the 1930s feel of a theatrical play. However, you don’t recognize it as being low budget from its other physical attributes. I think of modern films that are more blatant about their budgets. This one hides it pretty well. It’s a little-known gem that’s worth watching.


Written by Karen DeWolf

Directed by Frank R. Strayer

Starring Ralph Morgan, Pedro de Cordoba, Maxine Doyle, Russell Gleason, Mischa Auer Released September 15, 1935 RT 67 min.

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