Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on February 14, 2013
When I first saw Karl Freund’s MAD LOVE (1935) 20 odd years ago I was somewhat disappointed by it. I had spent decades looking at still photos from the movie in various books I came across and I had anticipated seeing a very different film than the one that eventually greeted me. Chilling photos of a grinning Peter Lorre wearing a macabre costume that consisted of a floppy hat, dark glasses, metal gloves and a bizarre neck brace haunted my nightmares. My imagination had literally run itself ragged trying to reenact particular scenes that I’d only read about in books and in my head MAD LOVE had taken on mythic proportions. I was sure that it was going to be one of the most frightening films I’d ever seen but when I finally caught up with the movie I was surprised by its odd tenderness. Instead of being terrified by Peter Lorre I was sympathetic to his plight. MAD LOVE is an eerie film with some spine-chilling moments but it’s also a tragic and twisted love story. Once I set aside my expectations and viewed the film a few more times on its own terms I began to deeply appreciate its ghoulish charm and now I often refer to it as one of my favorite films. There’s a lesson to be learned here for would be romantics. You can’t anticipate love. True love is unruly and unexpected. You can attempt to bend it to your will and contain it but love plays by its own set of rules. MAD LOVE understands the wild and unpredictable nature of love, which makes it perfect viewing for Valentine’s Day.
MAD LOVE tells the macabre and melancholy story of Doctor Gogol, a brilliant surgeon with a big misshapen heart who spends his days caring for sick children and his evenings at Les Theatre des Horreurs, where a theater group puts on Grand Guignol-style shows. Gogol is obsessed with one of the actors, the stunningly beautiful Yvonne (Frances Drake), who plays a Joan of Arc type heroine. Her dramatics thrill and enchant him. And the inquisitive doctor seems to find her scenes of tortured religious-like ecstasy both fascinating and strangely erotic. Night after night Gogol sits in the shadows of his theater box admiring Yvonne from a safe distance until the curtains fall on the final show and he decides to visit his object of affection backstage to tell her how much he’s enjoyed her performances. Sadly for Gogol, he is met with cold detachment. Yvonne is obviously turned off by his appearance and thick accent. She also finds his hesitant manner and unflinching saucer eyes unappealing and invasive. Yvonne callously tells Gogol that she’s leaving the stage for good and settling into a life of quiet domesticity with her new husband, a talented pianist named Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive). Gogol says very little but we instantly know that he’s utterly heartbroken. Yvonne clearly has no interest in him and even worse; she seems to have no real affiliation with the stage show that has mesmerized Gogol for weeks.
The doctor leaves the theater in a morose state but takes a life-sized wax statue of Yvonne home with him as compensation. Gogol is a man of many talents, and like Stephen Orlac, he’s also a capable pianist. He entertains himself by buying the wax figure expensive gowns and playing the organ for it. If this all sounds a little mad, it is. But love is mad and we all express it in a myriad of ways. Unfortunately for Gogol, the real Yvonne pushes her way back into his life again after her husband is badly injured in a train accident that destroys his hands. At Yvonne’s request, Gogol performs an experimental surgery on Stephen Orlac and replaces his destroyed limbs with the hands of a knife-throwing killer who was executed for his crimes. The operation doesn’t yield the expected results and Yvonne’s husband is unable to play the piano and begins to suffer fits of rage accompanied by the urge to throw knives. His inability to work leaves the couple in financial ruin and they once again turn to Doctor Gogol for help. Gogol attempts to offer Stephen some sound medical advice and he eventually confesses his mad love to Yvonne but is harshly rebutted. She has simply used Gogol for her own gain without any regard for his feelings and desires. Her callous dismissal and utter lack of compassion drives Gogol completely insane. He is a man of science and the unwieldy world of romance is beyond his control.
Poor, poor Doctor Gogol. Unlike Yvonne, I find Peter Lorre oddly appealing. He’s not conventionally handsome but that’s part of his charm. I get lost in his eyes whenever the camera sweeps in for a close-up and I find his full lips utterly kissable. He looks smart with a shaved head and his wardrobe in MAD LOVE, which consists of various hats and elaborate coats with fur collars, suits his small stature. While some might find his voice off-putting, I happen to find it utterly enchanting. I could listen to him recite poetry for days and in MAD LOVE he breaks into verse on numerous occasions. He might be a little morbid but so am I. Like Gogol, I enjoy a good horror show and although I’ve never attended an execution for kicks, I understand his fascination with death. I like to spend time in old cemeteries. Gogol also plays the organ and I’ve been known to tickle the ivories myself. I simply can’t understand why Yvonne finds the boring Stephen Orloc more interesting than Doctor Gogol. But who am I to judge? Love plays by its own set of rules.
Doctor Gogol doesn’t survive his encounter with love but Yvonne does. At the end of the film she’s left with a knife wielding, penniless and self-absorbed musician for a husband. She’s abandoned her once successful acting career to become his wife but will undoubtedly end up being his nursemaid instead. I don’t envy her but as the film title suggests, all love is mad. Doctor Gogol might be the designated bad guy in MAD LOVE but the real monster is love itself, which will probably end up destroying every character in the movie. Buy your heart’s desire a box of chocolate and some cheap champagne and curl up with MAD LOVE this Valentine’s Day. This tragic tale of misplaced passions and unrequited love isn’t the most conventional viewing option but it’s the kind of romantic fairy-tale that I can appreciate and you’re guaranteed a memorable viewing experience.
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