Juggernaut (1936)

Director:  Henry Edwards

Starring:  Boris Karloff, Joan Wyndham, Mona Goya, Arthur Margetson, Morton Selten, Anthony Ireland, Nina Boucicault

Screenplay:  Cyril Campion, H. Fowler Mear and Heinrich Fraenkel, based upon the novel by Alice Campbell





Ah, Juggernaut! – the film that dares to ask the question—how far will a scientist go to get his research funded?

By 1936, the first horror boom was drawing to a close; no-one as yet was predicting the wave of science fiction that would replace it. Boris Karloff, for one, was taking work wherever he could get it—including making this low-budget B-movie, easily the least of his films from that year (which is hardly a fair comparison, inasmuch as 1936 gave us both The Walking Dead and The Man Who Changed His Mind).

Though Juggernaut makes it into Science In The Reel World courtesy of Karloff’s character and one particular aspect of the plot, ultimately we don’t get nearly as much Boris, let alone as much SCIENCE!!, as we would like. Instead, we have to pick our way through a plot centred on wealthy Britishers living on the French Riviera.

Sir Charles Clifford (Morton Selten) has made a foolish second marriage to a former chorus girl, Yvonne (Mona Goya). While he is at his villa on the Riviera, incapacitated by poor health, she is out burning through his fortune at the casinos, and conducting a not particularly well-hidden affair with Arthur Halliday (Anthony Ireland), a parasitic wastrel who lives off women. Sir Charles is starting to cut off Yvonne’s supply, however, to which Halliday responds by making up to a much older but very rich woman, and intimating to Yvonne that he is wangling out of her a job on one of her many properties around the world (and signing up for gigolo duties too). Desperate, Yvonne starts searching for a way to get her hands on more of her husband’s money…

While this is going on, in Morocco, Dr Sartorius (Boris Karloff) is dismantling his research laboratory in a mood of anger and disgust, after failing to secure a grant:

Sartorius:  “I was on the point of success! I’m convinced that, in a few years, I’d have had a cure for certain types of fracture paralysis… I would give ten years of my life to get the money to enable me to carry on!”

But as Sartorius very well knows, he may not have ten years to give: his health is failing, and a part of his distress is his awareness that there might not be time to complete his vital work.

But, as things stand, Sartorius departs Morocco for the Côte d’Azur, where he resumes his practice of medicine in order to support himself, while trying, with his greatly restricted means, to carry on his research in a small home laboratory. He also hires a nurse, Eve Rowe (Joan Wyndham), after an amusingly terse interview.

Sir Charles Clifford’s health isn’t getting any better, and his sister Mary (Nina Boucicault) suggests that he try another doctor—Dr Sartorius, perhaps, who is quickly building a reputation.

But it is Lady Clifford who first approaches Dr Sartorius. She tells him that she read an article about him in the newspaper, about his work in Morocco, and how it had to stop. She asks him how much money it would require, to enable him to complete his experiment? After some reflection, Sartorius puts the figure at £20,000:

Yvonne:  “I am prepared to find that sum for you.”
Sartorius:  “You are sufficiently interested in science!?”
Yvonne:  “No. I don’t mind for science. I told you—I want to consult you about my husband…”

The arrangements made for Dr Sartorius to take over the case of Sir Charles include him and Eve Rowe moving into the Cliffords’ villa. (Sartorius immediately sets up a baby lab in his room.) Sir Charles and Mary take a shine to Eve, the latter treating her like one of the family—pre-empting the reaction of Roger Clifford (Arthur Margetson), Sir Charles’ son, who soon wants to make her just that.

When Roger arrives at the villa, his father calls him to his bedside for a serious conversation. Admitting the foolishness of his marriage, Sir Charles tells Roger that he is determined to pull Yvonne into line—apologising, however, for putting the weight of a very unpleasant job on him. Roger learns that his father has given him power of attorney, effective immediately; and also that Sir Charles has changed his will, making Roger his executor and Yvonne’s trustee—and leaving her, as he puts it, “Enough for one to live on—but not two.”

Matters reach a climax when, late one night at the villa, Roger catches Yvonne and Halliday together. He throws Halliday out; while during the row that follows between himself and Yvonne, he warns her that if Halliday sets foot in the house again, he’ll tell his father all he knows about her—which will certainly mean divorce. Frightened but also enraged, Yvonne insists that Roger has no right to give her orders, which prompts him to tell her about his power of attorney.

The scene that follows between Yvonne and her ailing husband ends in her laying violent hands on him. Her shrieking brings the others running: Sartorius pulls her off, and Roger drags her away. In his efforts to silence her, he puts his hand over her mouth: she responds by biting him savagely.

Sir Charles is left both physically and emotionally battered by his wife’s assault, and no-one thinks twice when Sartorius begins to prepare an injection of “a stimulant”. He administers it under the eyes of Eve and the night nurse, passing the former the syringe to clean, as per their normal procedure. Eve is then called to treat Roger’s bleeding hand. Distracted, she puts down the used syringe…

When Sartorius hears that Eve has misplaced the syringe, he reacts with a degree of anger that seems to her disproportionate, ordering her furiously to find it immediately.

But perhaps his irrational anger has something to do with having just lost a patient…

When Roger breaks it to Yvonne about the change in her late husband’s will, it is difficult to say who is the more appalled, she or Sartorius. They are not slow to conclude that they have only one possible course of action. Roger is already ill and feverish, his hand injury having become infected; before long, his health begins to fail.

Eve, meanwhile, has found the missing syringe…

Though amusing enough to anyone who has every been through the painful, exasperating, counterproductively time-consuming and so often futile process of trying to acquire research funding – to paraphrase Edmund Gwenn’s famous dictum about comedy and dying: murder is easy; grant applications are hard – Juggernaut is finally a disappointment. After those promising opening scenes, Dr Sartorius’s research is allowed to recede too much into the background, while the Cliffords’ plots work themselves out; so too is Boris himself.

This is one of those rare films in which Boris plays a character almost entirely unsympathetic: this is the problem with it. Sartorius’s research, vitally important as we have no doubt it is, is allowed to fade from the narrative as soon as it has served its purpose. We never, for example, see Sartorius working with paralysed patients, to drive home to us what is at stake.

This is in sharp contrast with the Columbia “mad doctor” films that would keep Boris busy over the next few years, which generally introduced some moral complexity by having his characters doing the right thing, for the right reason, but (to put it mildly) in the wrong way, thus investing the viewer in the outcome.

But Sartorius barely hesitates when Lady Clifford makes her proposition. There’s no heart-burning, no weighing of the greater and lesser evil. On the contrary, he  seizes the first opportunity that offers to uphold his own end of the bargain, and displays no remorse afterwards; and when he learns about Sir Charles’ change of will, he immediately takes steps to remove Roger from Lady Clifford’s path. The only moment with any subtlety about it is Sartorius’s reluctance to shake hands with Roger when they are first introduced—when Sir Charles is still alive. Presumably the doctor’s bad temper is supposed to suggest the strain he under, or the workings of his conscience, but he simply comes across as unpleasant (most unusual for Boris); while his rough treatment of Eve brings about his own downfall.

Here Juggernaut stretches credibility too far: why on earth would Sartorius involve Eve in the cleaning of the deadly syringe, even if that was their normal practice? And quite as hard to believe is that Eve doesn’t recognise Roger’s injury for what it is, a dangerously toxic human bite, and therefore fails to take it as seriously as she should at the outset. Inadequately treated, the infected injury provides cover for what Sartorius and Yvonne do next.

Sartorius’s explosions of rage over the missing syringe finally cue Eve in on the fact that something untoward is going on; so that when she eventually finds it, she conceals the fact—and sends the object for testing. Her instructions to the chemist are clear enough – he is report to her – but when the man finds himself on the phone with the great Dr Sartorius, well…

Sartorius and Eve in the former’s makeshift lab.
(And Boris smoking again, tsk.)

This entry was posted in Science in the Reel World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.