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In Edinburgh in 1831, Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane runs a medical school where Donald Fettes is a student. Fettes is interested in helping a young girl who has lost the use of her legs. He is certain that MacFarlane's surgical skills could be put to great use but he is reluctant to do so. The good Dr. MacFarlane has a secret that soon becomes all too obvious to young Fettes, who has only recently been promoted as his assistant: he has been paying a local cabbie, John Gray, to supply him with dead bodies for anatomical research. Gray constantly harasses MacFarlane and clearly has a hold over him dating to a famous trial many years before where Gray refused to identify the man for whom he was robbing graves. Fettes isn't aware of any of this but soon realizes exactly how Gray obtains the bodies they use in their anatomy classes.Written by
Opening credits prologue: In Edinburgh, in 1831- See more »
SPOILER: The 4-Front UK video, released in 1998, was the first time (including TV screenings) the The Body Snatcher had ever been shown uncut in the UK. Previous versions were missing nearly 7 minutes of footage cut by the BBFC back in 1946. The cuts were as follows:
all references to to the names Burke & Hare were removed from dialogue scenes. This includes the scene just before Karloff kills Lugosi in which he explains how he "Burked them" and sings a little song and also trims to a dialogue scene near the end in which Henry Daniels' mistress explains to the young hero Daniels' sordid past. At least three other small cuts in scenes when characters refer to the names Burke and Hare.
the scene in which Karloff kills Lugosi was missing several shots of Karloff smothering Lugosi's mouth with his hand. A later shot of Lugosi dead in a barrel of water also cut.
an entire dialogue scene was removed in which Karloff takes a body to the doctor and demands his money. In the cut version you only see Karloff taking the body in. The uncut version has a whole additional exchange between Karloff and Daniell's assistant. The assistant accuses Karloff of murdering the person and Karloff (being very menacing) says he is mistaken and asks for his money which the assistant reluctantly gives him - the following scene when the assistant voices his suspicions to Daniell the next day is in the cut print.
the ending is abridged to removed various shots of Karloff's naked torso in a death grip round Daniell. In the cut print you hardly see Karloff at all.
Robert Louis Stevenson has had a rough going in modern literary tastes. When he died in 1894, he was rightly regarded as one of the finest writers and stylists of his day - for grown-up readers! However, the enmity of a one time friend , W.E.Henley, diminished his reputation. Henley said that Stevenson was too superficial, and was basically a writer of pot-boilers. This view was somewhat softened into a "boy's" writer of adventure stories (TREASURE ISLAND and KIDNAPPED were the titles that usually were pushed as boy's novels).
Actually Stevenson was far from a writer for youths. TREASURE ISLAND has the perplexing, exasperating figure of Long John Silver as it's anti-hero, chum and protector of Jim Hawkins, but mutineer, pirate leader, and murderer. KIDNAPPED does the same with Aleck Breck Stewart, whose weaknesses (such as gambling and drinking) ruin a political mission. He was hardly a simple adventure novelist, anymore than the real Jules Verne was simply a French chap with an outlandish imagination regarding scientific progress.
The movies have done well by Stevenson. TREASURE ISLAND and KIDNAPPED have been made several times, as was THE MASTER OF BALLENTRAE. His novella DR. JECKYLL AND MR. HYDE was made more frequently than any other title of his. In 1931, it earned it's star (Fredric March) the Best Actor Oscar. Even some of the lesser known works have gotten into film: THE WRONG BOX (one of two novels written with Stevenson's stepson Lloyd Osbourne) became a marvelously funny comedy about a scramble over a legacy. THE EBB TIDE was a film with Ray Milland, Lloyd Nolan, Oscar Homolka, and Barry Fitzgerald, and a good television version was made with Robby Coltrane in it. The tales of Prince Florizel of Bohemia from THE NEW ARABIAN NIGHTS became TROUBLE FOR TWO with Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell, Frank Morgan, and Reginald Owen. Finally there is this nice gem, THE BODY SNATCHER. It is based on one of Stevenson's best short stories, a moody, psychological drama about the evil that is committed supposedly in the way of greater good.
In most of these films the scripts start out with the novel or short story, but branch out into their own scenarios. Gray, the murderous but sympathetic cab man in the film is (in the story) a drunk who MacFarland actually hates. When he kills Gray for his corpse (for medical study) MacFarland is actually settling a score. The conclusion of the story is similar to the film, except that Gray's mysterious resurrection to confront the frightened MacFarland does not lead to his death, but to his total demoralization. He flees into his own oblivion at the conclusion.
Stevenson was very into history including crime and the vagaries of the law.
It has been noted in the other posts that this story owes much to the crimes of the West Port murderers of 1827-28, William Burke and William Hare (in the film Gray sings a tune about them to the drunken (and doomed) blackmailer Joseph). But this is not unusual for Stevenson. The final blow to Alan Breck Stewart's mission in KIDNAPPED is the hue and cry against him as a suspect in the Appin Murder of 1752, which led to the judicial murder of James "of the Glen" Stewart. The latter story is told in the sequel novel CATRIONA. DR.JECKYLL AND MR.HYDE is based on the story of Deacon Brodie, a wealthy cabinet maker and town councilor of Edinburgh in the 1770s and 1780s, who was a burglar at night, and who was eventually hanged on a a scaffold he had built for the city. Even in his best novel (the unfinished WEIR OF HERMISTON)the title character of Hanging Judge Weir is based on that legendary jurist Lord Braxfield, a man of strong prejudices and harsh statements.
THE BODY SNATCHER was not the first historical movie by Val Lewton's production unit. But THE BODY SNATCHER was the first of three films (all first rate) starring Boris Karloff (the others being ISLE OF THE DEAD and BEDLAM). THE BODY SNATCHER manages to set the period of the 1830s pretty well, although an early distance shot is from some routine film stock and (if you look carefully) shows a car in the distance near a flock of sheep outside of Edinburgh Castle.
The acting is actually quite good, in particular Karloff's Gray and Daniell's astonishing MacFarland. Henry Daniell was one of the best screen villains of his period, in films like CAMILLE (as Baron De Varville) and THE SEA HAWKE (as Wolfingham). He also could do comic villains (Garbitsch in Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR). But this is a rare occasion where he actually shared a full screenplay with a fellow actor.
Daniell's MacFarland is in a battle to the death with Karloff's Gray, one that his mistress knows will destroy both. Both have flaws (Daniell's intellectual arrogance; Karloff's willingness to kill anyone who is expendable). But both are human too. Daniell is aware that his operation on the little girl is "flawless" but nothing improves her ability to walk. All he can do is harshly order the little girl to walk (and she doesn't). Gray sneers at him in their famous scene in the tavern, where Daniell explains his confusion at the failure of a successful operation and hits on the actual missing aspect - Gray knows that the basic cause of life is not something that MacFarland can fix, but the basis of life itself (God or nature itself - something beyond a puny mortal like the doctor). But Gray, for his cynicism and murderous ability, does wish the "wee" one could walk. Oddly enough, hearing his horse move causes the poor girl to walk finally.
It is a fine movie, and gave both Karloff and Daniell a shining moment on the screen.
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