Most memorable American horror movies from the 1930s and ’40s came from Universal and RKO studios. MGM was known more for its musicals, but it did create on of the former decade’s best movies in 1935– Mad Love.
Based on the novel The Hands of Orlac, which had been made into a film once before in Austria, this retake on the story was Peter Lorre’s first American film. Sadly, it did not do well at the box office, although Lorre, as the mad Dr. Gogol, was highly praised.
The film’s story centers around Gogol’s obsession with the actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake). He practically keeps the theatre where she works running by buying a box every night her play runs. He visits her backstage after the final performance, only to learn that she is married to the concert pianist and composer, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive of Frankenstein fame). Invited to the cast party, he kisses her too forcefully in the cake line (a kiss for a piece of cake), gets shoved away, and buys the wax mannequin of her used to advertise the play on his way home. That night, Stephen is nearly killed in a train wreck, and his hands have to be amputated. Desperate, and knowing that Gogol is a brilliant surgeon, Yvonne overlooks the cake incident and goes to him for help. Using the hands of a knife-thrower recently guillotined for murder, the doctor gives Stephen a chance to play the piano again. However, Gogol cannot stand to see the object of his affection with another man, and begins to use Stephen’s frustration with his new hands against him, in an attempt to drive him mad, even as he, Gogol, realizes that he is losing his own grip on sanity.
Yvonne stands out from other movie heroines in several ways, but probably the biggest difference is that nearly everything she does is to protect her husband. She goes to her harasser for help, so Stephen won’t fall into despair after losing his hands and at the same time his art, and livelihood. She does her best to make sure her dealings with Gogol are strictly business– an uphill task– and can out-muscle him (most of the time) when he gets too amorous. She is also astute enough to realize that an outside force is causing some of Stephen’s problems, and that they go beyond his tense relationship with his father. Interestingly, the play she acts in at the opening of the film establishes her character perfectly: a strong woman, never giving in to her tormentor, even in the face of great danger.