American Cinematographer Online - November '99

Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karlof) is questioned by his defense attorney (Harlan Briggs), under the withering glare of Judge Bowman (Charles Trowbridge).

Although most of us regard a day in court with dread, many actors look forward to facing a judge and jury — on stage, that is. George Arliss, Gregory Peck, Paul Muni, James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb and other fine performers have given some of their finest speeches while arguing make-believe cases.

Scenarists are equally enthusiastic about writing eloquent dialogue to be delivered in soundstage courtrooms. Karl Brown, ASC, a great cinematographer-turned-writer, was no exception. Brown's favorite courthouse oratory was tailored for his friend Boris Karloff, in his screenplay for Columbia's 1939 film The Man They Could Not Hang. Director Nick Grinde and cinematographer Benjamin Kline, ASC, placed Karloff in slatted light from a large window. Handsome in a styled wig (his head had been shaved for Tower of London), Karloff brought Brown's words to life with British elan.

Portraying Dr. Henryk Savaard, whose experiment in putting a volunteer to death and bringing him back to life was ruined by police interference, Karloff gently defends himself before a stern judge, a jury and a roomful of extras. He declares that surgery upon a living person is "like trying to repair a motor that's still running," adding that his method would make it possible to "replace vital organs that have worn out." He wants to "make death our servant instead of our master."

D.A. Drake (Roger Pryor) shreds this thesis before the jury — which features Western badman Dick Curtis as Kearney, the foreman. The verdict is guilty, and the convicted Savaard indulges "the privilege of addressing this court for two minutes": "You who have condemned me, I know your kind. Your forebears poisoned Socrates, burned Joan of Arc, hanged, tortured all those whose only offense was to bring light into darkness. For you to condemn me and my work is a crime so shameful that the judgment of history will be against you for all the years to come. You, Mr. Prosecutor, are guilty not only of murdering me, but countless thousands who might have lived had you not destroyed the only man who could have saved their lives. When your last moment comes, remember that you killed the one man who could have made your life secure."

Savaard tells the woman who betrayed him to the police, "The world may condone what you have done, but you know deep in your heart that, but for your treachery, the boy you loved would be alive today... You killed him. And for that murder, you will live and die in the contempt and loathing of your own heart." He addresses the jurors thusly: "When those you love best lie dying, think back to this moment when you held their salvation in your hands and threw it away. Always remember that I offered you life and you gave me death." Finally, Savaard tells perennial movie judge Charles Trowbridge that "after my death you will be overtaken by a punishment far more terrible than anything you can do to me."

He could have saved his breath; Trowbridge sentences Savaard to hang. In the same room a year later with Grinde and Kline and another Karl Brown yarn, Before I Hang, mercy killer Karloff again got the noose from Judge Trowbridge. Three decades later, Dr. Kevorkian is getting away with it.

Why was Karl Brown, a protégé of D.W. Griffith, the celebrated photographer of The Covered Wagon, and a member of the ASC since 1919, writing screenplays? Because in 1926 he went to the Great Smokies to produce, write and direct his great realist drama Stark Love. When he returned to Hollywood, he couldn't find work as a cinematographer, so he began directing. He hated directing, so he became a successful writer.

Brown's first published writings appeared in 1920 and for several years thereafter in American Cinematographer, for which he served as associate editor. His five-part series "Modern Lenses" was very important. Karl was 93 and again writing for AC when he died in 1990.

— George E. Turner