British cinema has never produced anyone to match Tod Slaughter. He was the last of the great barnstormers, ceaselessly touring the provinces in hoary old melodramas. By some stroke of genius, quota-quickie producer George King realised that Slaughter appealed to precisely the audience who went to the cheaper houses, and so brought the full majesty of Mr Slaughter's performances to the screen.
Slaughter was born in Newcastle (as Norman Carter Slaughter) and first took to the boards in 1905. By the time war broke out he was managing his own company. After war service he resumed his career though it was many years before he finally made it into Pictures.
He always played the villain. It was what he was good at and no one was better. His first film, Maria Marten, set the tone for his subsequent films: a no-holds barred Victorian melodrama filmed cheaply with Slaughter as the obvious bad-guy. He cackled and slimed his way through most of the classics of the melodrama genre.
There were some non-melodramatic roles in his career. He was a supporting player in the modern day Song of the Road and Darby and Joan. In Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror he played the head of an international gang of super-villains. His last two films were each three episodes of the television series Inspector Morley cobbled together for theatrical release. In this he played master-criminal Terence Reilley, but the series doesn't appear to have had a UK broadcast.
These films are just aberrations. The true Slaughter film needs a period background for that authentic theatrical experience. These films genuinely feel as though they are from another age - if the Victorians could have made feature films, they would have made these. Granted, Slaughter is more of a ham than Charles Laughton, Donald Wolfit and Marlon Brando combined; but at least he's having fun!
After his death in 1956 following a performance of Maria Marten (still in harness at seventy!) his work slipped into obscurity. His full-blooded theatrical style was at odds with the prevailing preference for naturalism and there wasn't room for his films in the po-faced canon of British Classic films. Over the last ten years or so his profile has risen, largely because Channel 4 have the rights to his films and regularly stick them on at 3 in the morning when they've nothing better to show. A new generation of fans have stumbled onto his work and asked the question "What the bloody hell was that!"
Taken as a body of work, Slaughter's films fulfil every criterion for auteurism. The same concerns come up time and time again: money, sex, evil. The films have a distinctive style and an energy and lack of restraint rare in films of the time. The big question (which auteurism never addressed) is "Are the films any good?". That's a tough one to answer since by any objective standard they are cheaply-produced rubbish. And yet the best of them are vastly entertaining. It's time he was recognised as a true original of British Cinema.
|1935||Maria Marten: or, the Murder in the Red Barn|
|1935||Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street|
|1936||The Crimes of Stephen Hawke|
|1937||Song of the Road|
|1937||Darby and Joan|
|1937||It's Never Too Late to Mend|
|1937||The Ticket of Leave Man|
|1938||Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror|
|1939||The Face at the Window|
|1940||Crimes at the Dark House|
|1942||Soldiers Without Uniform (short)|
|1945||Bothered by a Beard (short)|
|1946||The Curse of the Wraydons|
|1948||The Greed of William Hart|
|1952||King of the Underworld|
|1952||Murder at the Grange (short)|
|1952||A Ghost for Sale (short)|
|1952||Murder at Scotland Yard|
Tod Slaughter at Amazon UK
Tod Slaughter at Amazon US