Thursday, November 3, 2011

Elyse Knox, The Mummy's Tomb, and Castle Film: a very personal blog entry.

A blonde starlet with first 20th Century-Fox then Universal, Elyse Knox's claim to fame today is her one appearance in a Universal horror franchise : The Mummy's Tomb (1941). She also did a Roy Rogers on loan to Republic (Sheriff of Tombstone, 1941) and later co-starred, with one Joe Kirkwood, Jr., in Monogram's Joe Palooka series. A former cover girl (Vogue), Knox (b. 1922) left films in 1949 to raise her three children with Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, whom she had married in 1944: Mark, Kristin and Kelly. All three would enjoy success on television, most notably Mark Harmon who starred on St. Elsewhere and many other hit shows. And that is Elyse Knox's other claim to fame: mother of Mark Harmon. (She was widowed in 1994). Unbeknownst to Ms. Knox, of course, she was to become a big part of my childhood.

The most memorable aspect of early Danish television: the test-pattern.

Allow me to explain: I grew up in entertainment-deprived Denmark which, at the time, had but one, state-run, television station. My parents purchased a set in 1957 and I, a four-year-old, was instantly hooked. I began to collect movie memorabilia at an early age (including most of the portraits used in this blog) but rarely did I have an occasion to actually see my favorites. I vaguely remember going to watch a “Fuzzy film" at a movie theater (that's what we called the Buster Crabbe PRCs, “Fuzzy Films,” after sidekick “Fuzzy” St. John) and a few other “classics” but television was a true wasteland unless you were interested in such films as Hiroshima, Mon Amour or Biruma no tategoto (“The Burma Harp"). Abd, oh, yes, Visconti's Ossessione, the climax of which (the car wreck) gave me nightmares for years. Once in a blue moon, the broadcaster, Danmarks Radio, would whet your appetite with, say, a Marx Bros. comedy, or Stagecoach. But these were inevitably shown on Sunday afternoons in the middle of July and we had to darken the TV room by hanging heavy blankets in front of the windows to be able to see anything at all. On an average, DR would show one feature film or two a month. A month!

Then, in connection with a birthday or Christmas, I no longer recall which, I was introduced to Castle Film, the early 8mm versions. The first one I got, and to be forever my favorite, was The Mummy's Tomb. (I was eight and English was truly a foreign language. My father, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, didn't speak it either, but at least he knew more than me. Unfortunately, he misinterpreted the word “tomb” and for a long while I couldn't figure out what exactly was wrong with the Mummy's thumb. But I digress).

My copy of The Mummy's Tomb was silent of course and approximately 8 minutes in length. Despite that, Castle Film had done a terrific job boiling down the original to the bare essentials and you really didn't feel you were missing anything. Subtitles (in English) were used to bridge whatever was left out but, happily, you didn't need them, either, and even an 8-year-old Danish kid could follow the plot. And what a plot it was: George Zucco leaving it to Turhan Bey to wreak havoc on the Banning family of archeologists who had unearthed Kharis (Lon Chaney), an Egyptian mummy who could be animated with the help of those dreaded tana leaves. Some of this was by way of the previous series entry, The Mummy's Hand (1940), and there was even a glimpse or two of the angry villagers from Frankenstein (1931), but we didn't know that and wouldn't have cared if we had. The plot then moved to the US and soon Kharis is carrying a supine Elyse Knox up the stairs of the burning Banning mansion, heroic John Hubbard in hot pursuit. Even as a silent film, this was a helluva lot better than that darn Burma Harp!

Although I was only a child, The Mummy's Tomb appeared more exotic to me than actually horrifying but that didn't stop me from prohibiting children under the age of 6 to attend my public viewings, cinema-style. (Not a few of those much anticipated viewings, of course, ended in disaster with the whole shebang unspooled on the floor.) I don't recall what I charged for these screenings (I soon owned several other Castle Films, including the opening chapter of the 1938 serial The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok) but the pennies I earned could never recover the original street price of a Castle Film, which, if I remember correctly, came to the awesome sum of kr. 50. To put that in perspective, my monthly private school tuition cost my parents kr. 80!

Then one day, after, I don't know, perhaps 100 viewings of The Mummy's Tomb, the full-length screen version arrived in the local theater. Or that's what I assumed. Although it was suddenly titled The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964) I was certain it had to be the same movie. I made my dad take me since admittance was restricted and got the scare of my young life. This was the Hammer version, naturally, and in glorious Eastmancolor -- and I no longer had nightmares about Ossessione.

Yet The Mummy's Tomb remains my favorite “Mummy” movie and I never fail to turn off the volume during the parts that I used to have on Castle Film. I'm instantly carried back to Randers, Denmark, 1960-1964. Naturally, we now have 75 channels to chose from on TV, most of them crap, and instead of hanging up heavy blankets to keep out the sun, I now watch movies on everything including my Android tablet. And that, my friends, is progress!

I'm obviously not the only Castle Film kid out there and I highly recommend for your reading pleasure “Castle Films: A Hobbyist's Guide” by Scott MacGillivray and that fine chronicler of everything cinema obscura, Ted Okuda. You can download a copy for very little money on

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