The tale of Sweeney Todd is well-known, especially today thanks in large part to the recent motion picture adaptation starring Johnny Depp. However, the story is an old one that dates back to the Victorian penny dreadfuls circa 1846. In 1936, Tod Slaughter turned in what may very well be his best and most memorable performance in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
In the original story, Sweeney Todd is a barber who kills off his victims by pulling a lever which causes the barber chair to fall backwards through a trap door into the basement, plunging the victims to their death. Todd races to the basement to finish them off by slicing their throats with his barber’s blade. Then, his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovatt assists him in dispatching the bodies by cooking them into her meat pies and selling them to customers.
The story first appeared in an 18-chapter penny dreadful titled The String of Pearls: A Romance. It was quickly adapted into a melodrama for the stage. A wide variety of stage and printed versions have followed over the years with various alterations to story and location. Some sources claim that Sweeney Todd is based on a real character while others profess him to nothing more than an urban legend. In either case, it makes for a good story and, in 1936, Tod Slaughter brought the tale to life in what would be the third filmed adaptation albeit the first sound version.
The film begins in modern 1936 as a man enters a barber shop and begins to hear the tale of Sweeney Todd after commenting about a picture on a wall. The barber tells the story of how Sweeney Todd did his evil deeds on that very spot. We then flash back to the 1800s as we see Slaughter bringing his usual maniacal laughter and melodramatic evil sneer to the role. He lures wealthy and unsuspecting travelers into his shop to rob and kill them with the help of Mrs. Lovatt (Stella Rho). He acquires the services of an orphan boy (his eighth and the local police are becoming suspicious) to help set the stage before he pays the boy to eat a meat pie at Lovatt’s shop, allowing him peace and quiet to do the evil deed.
Todd also desires to marry young Joanna Oakley (Eve Lister) but must blackmail her father into consenting. Her father owes money and the only way Todd will not send him to prison is to marry Joanna. However, Joanna is in love with Mark Ingerstreet (Bruce Seton), a sailor who must acquire wealth in order for Joanna’s father to accept him. The stage is now set for murder and robbery with Slaughter going over the edge in his quest for riches and love.
I really enjoyed this adaptation despite its obvious flaws through its limited budget. The sets are minimal yet we do have several interesting scenes involving hidden passageways and creepy cellars. There is an odd sequence involving island natives and Mark’s ship that, while establishing how he gets money and position, seems a little out of place from the rest of the film. However, the film moves along briskly and I think it’s definitely worth checking out. You’ll have to endure some cheesy framing sequences but the crazed Tod Slaughter really makes it fun and worth the investment…which should be practically nothing. Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) is in the public domain and very easy to find, including here on YouTube. Check it out for a great example of what Tod Slaughter has to offer.
Next time, part four of our retrospective offers up a double feature with Never Too Late (1937) and Face at the Window (1939).