The legacy of graverobbers Burke and Hare inspired many horror movies, but British barnstormer Tod Slaughter's portrayal of William Hare in THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART qualifies as one of the best. Although Tod Slaughter played the role many times on stage, Burke and Hare are successfully immortalised in the cinema with this entry to the horror film genre.
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Henry Oscar and Tod Slaughter as Moore and Hart in The Greed of William HartTHE GREED OF WILLIAM HART (1948)

(Ambassador) 78mins. BW. UK. Aka: HORROR MANIACS (US).
Credits: Dir: Oswald Mitchell; Prod: Gilbert Church & J.C. Jones; Sc: John Gilling; Ph: D.P. Cooper & S.D. Onions; Ed: John F. House; Mu: Charles Dixon.
Based on the exploits of graverobbers Burke and Hare.
Cast: Tod Slaughter, Henry Oscar, Patrick Addison, Jenny Lynn, Mary Love, Winifred Melville, Arnold Bell, Ann Trego, Janet Brown, Denis Wyndham, Hubert Woodward, Edward Malin, Aubrey Woods.

The age old profession of bodysnatching has always held a morbid fascination for us in Britain. Countless stage adaptations, films, radio plays and television productions over the years have thrilled and horrified audiences as the grisly trade of the "resurrectionists" unfolds.
Evidence of bodysnatching exists as far back as Ancient Egypt, but the most active era was in the early years of the Nineteenth Century before Parliament introduced the Anatomy Act in May of 1832 that prevented anyone from supplying cadavers to the medical profession unless they were licensed.

William HareWilliam BurkeScotland seemed to be a hotbed for bodysnatchers, and in the early 1800's the practice was so commonplace that people were becoming increasingly alarmed when the graves of their loved ones would suddenly become empty. Robert Louis Stevenson's tale "The Bodysnatcher" successfully captures the atmosphere of the ghoulish trade that seemed to flourish in the dark alley-ways of Edinburgh, and although a fictional work, many elements had the ring of truth about them as the legacy of the notorious William Burke and William Hare were and still remain household names.

Burke and Hare originated from Ireland, but found themselves living in a poor section of Edinburgh during the 1820's and began their notorious exploits in the foul-smelling, narrow passageways of West Port when one of William Hare's lodgers, an old soldier, died owing him 4 in back rent. To recoup the outstanding sum, Hare sold the corpse to the laboratory of surgeon Dr. Robert Knox and received 7 for the delivery of the cadaver at Number 10, Surgeon's Square .
It soon became apparent to the Irishmen that easy money could be made by luring victims back to their home, suffocating them and then packing the bodies into a sack or tea chest ready for delivery to the surgeon. Dr. Knox would be extremely pleased with the freshness of the goods he received and presumably would not ask as to how the subjects were procured.
Ultimately Burke and Hare's ghoulish crimes brought them into confrontation with the law after the mysterious disappearance of a local half-wit came to the attention of the authorities who soon discovered that the duo were responsible for sixteen deliveries to the surgeon's laboratory.
Dr. Knox, although never charged with any conspiracy, was shunned by the medical profession and ended his days by writing books on anatomy to supplement his income.
William Hare turned King's Evidence, implicating Burke as the main perpetrator of the crimes and then headed south on a train. The general belief is that he later died back in his native Ireland.
William Burke on the other hand became a sensational cause celebre and was executed on the morning of January 27th. 1829 at Edinburgh's Landmarket before an estimated 25 000 men, women and children. Burke's body was publicly dissected and pieces of his tanned skin were sold for high prices. Reportedly author Charles Dickens possessed one of these grisly souvenirs which he used as a bookmark.

"Devil's light for the Devil's work..."

Press release for The Greed of William HartAmbassador's 1948 release THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART adheres close to the recorded exploits of Burke and Hare and successfully captures the essence of the infamous tale. No locations were used, all filming took place at Bushey Studios in Hertfordshire where the dark claustrophobic sets and minimalist design, combined with an imaginative use of lighting creates an appropriate ambience to the nefarious deeds of the terrible twosome.
The film was certainly a return to form for its star Tod Slaughter who had performed as William Hare regularly on stage since the turn of the century.
Although made in 1948, the film manages to convey, intentionally or not, an atmosphere that belongs to the creaky productions of the 30's, but on this occasion the effect works towards the credibility of the story despite the fact the the character names have been changed from Burke and Hare to Moore and Hart.

Aubrey Woods as "Daft" JaimieSporting a slew of poor Border accents, the first scene establishes the squalid and disreputable conditions surrounding Swanson's Tavern situated somewhere in the maze of Edinburgh's alleyways. Outside the tavern Mr. Moore, (Henry Oscar), is arguing with his wife Helen, (Jenny Lynn), establishing the low esteem with which both Moore and Hart hold their wives. Sergeant Fisher, (Denis Wyndham), arrives to investigate the commotion and is promptly informed by Moore that it is none of his concern. William Hart, (Tod Slaughter), appears after deftly smacking his own wife Meg, (Winifred Melville), around the chops despite the fact she is pregnant, followed by half-wit "Daft" Jamie Wilson, (Aubrey Woods), who occasionally helps Moore and Hart transport their "merchandise" to the Dr. Cox's laboratory.
Moore and Hart conspire to procure another corpse for Dr. Cox's Medical School when the inebriated Mary Paterson, (Mary Love), enters the tavern accompanied by her friend Janet Brown, (Ann Trego). Moore proceeds to ingratiate himself with the drunken Mary and convinces her to come with him to his lodgings at Gibbs Close. Janet promptly asks "Daft" Jaime to alert her friend Hugh Alston, (Patrick Addison), aSlaughter & Oscar in The Greed of William Hart staunch do-gooder whose ship is in port for a month, to help her find Mary.
Meanwhile Meg Hart tries to revive the now unconscious Mary and get her out of the house before the inevitable happens, but Helen arrives and informs William Hart who threatens to "beat the breath out of [her] fat hide". The two women are ushered out of the room as Moore and Hart roll up their sleeves and snuff out the candle. "Devil's light for the Devil's work, eh Mr. Moore?"
After a feeble struggle, Moore and Hart giggle uncontrollable at the ease of their gruesome achievement. Interestingly the chest that contains Mary's body is actually half the woman's size, implying that she has been dismembered. Later Moore dryly remarks that it is a shame that Mary's friend Janet got away as "there was room in the chest for two!"
The next day, Moore and Hart pay a visit to Dr. Cox, (Arnold Bell), and there encounter Hugh Alston who they had an altercation with the night before when Alston threatened them while searching for Mary, and "Daft" Jamie who has arrived to collect his barrow. Dr. Cox appears and admonishes his assistant David Paterson for his squeamishness while unpacking the latest delivery, even though the man is the unfortunate Mary's uncle. Suddenly Dr. Cox marches over to Jamie and remarks, "By thunder, what an interesting specimen" while looking at the boy's head not knowing that Moore and Hart are making a mental note of Cox's interest in the half-wit.
Hugh (Patrick Addison) confronts Dr. Cox (Arnold Bell)Alston approaches the doctor with his belief that Moore and Hart are murderers only to be met with   "Impetuous young fool, can a man who has once tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge lay it aside to be bound by the petty laws and trammels of blinkered mortals ?"
Meanwhile Moore and Hart conspire to provide Dr. Cox with Jamie's corpse and lure him to their lodgings where they administer the boy with rat poison and then store him in a trunk hidden in a closet. Hugh Alston manages to convince Police Sergeant Fisher that murder is afoot when Jamie goes missing and together they thump on Moore and Hart's door. An angry mob has gathered outside while the sergeant discovers Jamie's murdered corpse. Hart quickly turns King's Evidence when the body is discovered, but while Moore and his wife are taken away, Hart is left to the wrath of the mob outside.

Henry Oscar in The Greed of William HartTHE GREED OF WILLIAM HART is graced with a fine cast. Alongside Tod Slaughter, top honours go to Henry Oscar (1891-1969) as Mr. Moore who equals Slaughter's treacly malevolence to such an extent that neither actor steals the scenes over the other. Henry Oscar enjoyed long and fruitful employment that included work touring the British camps during the First World War. His career also consisted of directorial duties for numerous plays, performances in repertory and on radio while also enjoying a fine reputation as a painter. His film debut was in a minor comedy titled AFTER DARK (1932) and he was soon recognised as a talented character actor and appeared in many productions including The Terror (1938), Brides of Dracula (1960) and City Under the Sea (1963).

It is equally delightful to see Tod's wife Jenny Lynn in the role of Helen Moore. She had previously worked beside her husband in countless stage productions since their marriage in 1912 and yet the only other film she ever appeared in is The Ticket of Leave Man (1937) as Mrs. Willoughby. In THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART it is fun to watch Tod deliver such lines to her as "To the Devil with you for a snivelling jellyfish!"

Aubrey Woods in The Greed of William HartAlso of note is the performance of twenty year old Aubrey Woods (1928-) as Jamie Wilson who made his cinema debut only a year before as Smike in Ealing's production of NICHOLAS NICKELBY after being tested by Alberto Cavalcanti who saw him perform in an end of term RADA production. Later in 1948 Woods appeared in The Queen of Spades and then continued on a long and varied career that included THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and as the dancing, singing Candy Man in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971).

Director Oswald Mitchell was considered as a journeyman director at best. He passed away only a few months after the release of the film at the age of 59. His career included direction of the first Old Mother Riley films of 1937 and an intriguing chiller titled House of Darkness also in 1948 that portrayed the tale of a young man who brings about his stepbrother's fatal heart attack by destroying the man's precious violin. However, from that point on the young man suffers from the ghostly sounds of violin strings echoing throughout the house.

Thirty-six year old scriptwriter and assistant director John Gilling remade the same story ten years later as Flesh and the Fiends starring Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox, the splendid Donald Pleasence as William Hare and George Rose as William Burke. Gilling became known for his work in the horror genre despite his contributions to films from all genres.Theatre poster for Tod Slaughter's appearance as Sweeny Todd

Originally THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART was scripted and filmed under the title "BURKE AND HARE" when solicitors representing a surviving relative of William Hare contacted the producers and demanded that they used a fictitious name in the place of their client's ancestor. The cast were re-convened at a London recording studio to redub the soundtrack and substitute not only Hare's name, but Burke's and Dr. Knox's as well. The result almost spoils the film completely and the moments of substitution are easy to spot as the sound quality suddenly changes when the names are spoken. Ironically Tod's stage companies had performed the tale without alteration many times throughout the provinces with no legal wrangling whatsoever.

THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART is often referred to as Tod Slaughter's final film, but after an absence of four years, Tod returned to Tod appearing in a New Theatre production of "The Crimes of Burke and Hare" (1931)Ambassador Films at Bushey Studios in two rarely seen films KING OF THE UNDERWORLD and MURDER AT SCOTLAND as ruthless criminal Terence Riley. Both of these were condensed together and then released as a series of featurettes. Lastly, Tod appeared in a short film titled MURDER AT THE GRANGE (1952) and then in A GHOST FOR SALE (1952) for Majestic Films as a sinister caretaker of a manor house who relates the tale of Philip Wraydon who haunts the house. Liberal portions of 1946's The Curse of the Wraydons were used in the film.
These are amongst Tod's lesser known works which are a world apart from his popular and bewitching performances as the razor stropping barber in Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and as the wicked Squire Corder in Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn.

THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART may have been made at the nadir of Tod's film career, but it is one of his finest portrayals. Unlike many films of the period, this doesn't fail to thrill and Tod shines while at times things are not going too well in the background. As an actor, Tod Slaughter revelled in his villainy and never failed to play up to an expectant audience by chuckling, nudging and goading them into hissing at the screen while all the while he was secretly creating a special place in our hearts.

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