#21 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
The most obvious bit of metadata about this film is the length. The Universal Horror franchise was never about epic runtimes, but, at only 67-minutes, The Mummy’s Hand is really short. It’s so short that it effectively has only two acts. It sort of has a third act in its final five minutes, though that “act” is so quick that I don’t think it could actually qualify. Dual act structures tend to be artier rather than the thing for general audiences, and this doesn’t really feel like a conscious choice. There is rumor that the production was largely run by the producer, Ben Pivar, that was described contemporaneously as an illiterate, instead of the director Christy Cabanne, which makes sense considering the reportedly tiny budget, reused sets and footage, and, most importantly, extremely limited running time that prevents the typical three act structure Hollywood has used forever from forming.
We begin with a recap of Imhotep’s backstory from the first film, complete with footage from that first film, except now it’s not about Imhotep. It’s about Kharis (Tom Tyler) who loved a princess and tried to bring her to life using tana leaves, some sort of ancient, extinct plant that the Egyptians used to bring dead people back to life, or something (we can see the Scroll of Thoth in wider shots of the reused footage that had Boris Karloff instead of the sparing closeups with Tyler). In modern day Egypt, though, a sort of early form of Abbott and Costello are wandering the bazaars of Giza and talking about how they either need to find a great archeological site right then or find a way to get back on the boat to go home to New York. These are Steve Banning (Dick Foran), noted archeologist, and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), essentially Costello. They come upon a broken vase in the bazaar that points to the hidden tomb of Princess Ananka, and they’re off to the chief of the Egypt Museum, Andoheb (George Zucco) who is dismissive of the find and tells them it’s fake.
Convinced it’s still real, Banning decides that he wants to raise two thousand dollars himself to fund the dig, and the perfect opportunity comes when Babe tries to do a card trick against a traveling magician, The Great Solvani, also known as Tim Sullivan (Cecil Kellaway). The single best part of this whole movie is a pair of New Yorkers in a far away place discovering each other and becoming instantly connected. Babe and Sullivan are both from the City, and their bonding is actually surprisingly sweet and endearing. It dominates for only a couple of minutes, but it’s actually kind of great. The pair gets the $2,000 from Sullivan, much to the chagrin of Sullivan’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) who, with a warning from Andoheb, decides that if she can’t stop the outing, she’ll join it to ensure things go well.
This is halfway through the film, and it’s really the end of a first act. We get all of our characters together, establish the overall plot, the villain, and get them on their way, but seriously, this is halfway through the film.
The final half is the archeological dig that discovers the mummy Kharis, Andoheb using his knowledge of the resting place and tana leaves to kill the members of the dig, and the fight back. The fight back would normally be the third act, but it’s quite literally the final five minutes of the film where we suddenly discover that Andoheb wants to use Marta as some sort of vessel to make her immortal and his priestess forever, or something. I don’t know.
Two act structures tend to be used in artier projects like Barry Lyndon as a contrast between how the two acts play out. That’s obviously not what was intended here. What happened was that Universal wanted a short movie to play a bunch of times in a single day in any given theater, so they pared it down to the bone from the beginning. With that in mind, the third act ends up being an afterthought and just kind of happening.
I do think the movie, that kind of just descends into generic magic mumbo-jumbo action-like elements, would have been improved with a fully planned third act that allowed for the romance between Banning and Marta to develop and the bromance between Babe and Sullivan to develop as well. Instead, all of the work getting everyone together feels wasted as Kharis begins to prey on the people on the site.
Speaking of Kharis, there’s a fantastic design choice about him that I have to mention. He looks like Karloff’s design with one exception. When he opens his eyes and mouth, it looks like they cut out the film to black out the space where his eyes and mouth should be. It’s creepy and kind of awesome. Kharis himself is just a mindless killing machine, though, so he’s not that interesting despite the design choice.
The two-act structure works against the film. It was cheaply produced. It just kind of ends real quick despite introducing a bunch of stuff in its final moments. And yet, the stuff between Babe and Sullivan is great, and the monster looks pretty awesome. It’s largely functional, the sort of product one expects from the assembly line production methods of a studio trying to make product as fast as possible to make as much money as possible. I’ve seen worse.