horror film favourite, Tod Slaughter appears in one of his most famous
roles as Sweeny Todd, gleefully attacking the part in traditional barnstorming fashion as
he "polishes off" his barber-shop customers.
THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
(1936/George King Productions) 65mins. BW. UK.
Aka: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (US).
Credits: Dir. & Prod: George King; Prod Manager: Billy Phelps; Sc: Frederick Hayward &
H.F. Maltby; Ph: Jack Parker; Ed: John Seabourne; Art: Percy Bell.
From the play "The String of Pearls" by George Dibdin-Pitt.
Tod Slaughter, Bruce Seton, Eve Lister,
Stello Rho, Johnny Singer, Norman Pierce, Ben Soutten, Davina Craig, Jerry Verno, Aubrey Mallalieu, D.J. Williams, Billy Holland.
If ever you feel the urge to see villainy personified, then
settle down for any of the films starring Tod Slaughter. Sadly, most people today are
unaware of Tod Slaughter's achievements on both stage and screen, but he created his own
niche in cinema history by portraying a series of top-hatted, drooling characters in the
tradition of Victorian melodramas. Tod Slaughter had the ability to bring screen villainy
to new heights, performing the melodramas primarily on the stage for the majority of his
career. Later in his life, when times became hard, he took these hoary old dramas on the
road, performing in the provinces until his death in 1956.
In this, perhaps his most notorious role, Tod so delighted audiences at the
"Elephant and Castle" theatre during the early '20s, that even London society from the West End
would arrive to sit in the stalls, share a pork pie and join in with cheering the hero and
hissing the villain. Tod also recorded a 78rpm record with his wife Jenny Lynn of 'Sweeney
Todd', which was able to offer a somewhat stronger rendition than what was later deemed
permissible in the cinemas.
SWEENEY TODD is Tod's second feature-film appearance, directed by his new found
collaborator, producer and director George King, whose partnership would end in 1940 with Crimes at the Dark House.
In England during the 1830's, Fleet Street barber, Sweeney Todd awaits the arrival of
men at the dockside who have made their fortune in foreign parts, and are in need of a
shave. One of Tod's preliminary lines, just so you know right off the bat who the villain
of the piece is:
"There's scarcely a man of the crew I havn't had in my barber's chair.
Brownbeards, blackbeards, redbeards...I've polished them all off !
When Mark Ingestre (Bruce Seton), our stiff-jawed hero sets sail on the 'Golden Hope',
he promises to return a rich man so that he and his sweetheart Johanna (Eve Lister), may
receive her father's permission to marry. However while Mark is away, Sweeney Todd
engineers a scheme by which Johanna's father Steven Oakley, (D.J. Williams), must give him his daughter's hand in marriage or face
Back in his barbershop, Sweeney sends his young apprentice Tobias Wragg, (Johnny Singer), next door to Mrs.
Lovett's, (Stella Rho), pie shop to buy himself a pie...
"...one which will last you to St. Dunstan's and back".
While Tobias is out of the way (it is mentioned that Tobias is Sweeny Todd's eighth
apprentice, posing a question as to the fate that befell the previous seven), Sweeney Todd
gleefully polishes off a wealthy visitor (Norman Pierce), after he has sat in Tod's
"special chair". Sweeney pulls a lever that tilts the chair and deposits
his victim into the basement.
With his sharpest razor, and sporting his finest diabolical cackle, Tod and Mrs. Lovett
from next door rob the poor man of his belongings and dissect his body up for the main
ingredient in Mrs. Lovett's popular penny meat pies.
Mark Ingestre returns from his voyage armed with a bag of pearls and succumbs to Sweeney
Todd's insistence of a thorough "polishing off"..., however, this time
Mrs. Lovett hides the unconcious Mark from Sweeney after discovering that Tod is swindling
her out of a share of the booty.
eventually escapes, but later returns to Todd's shop in an attempt to find some proof of
the barber's activities feebly disguised as a wealthy Yorkshireman. Todd is aware of the
growing conspiracy behind his back, kills Mrs. Lovett, grabs his stash of loot and sets
fire to the premises, all this while giggling uncontrollably like some mischievous
schoolboy. Mark manages to rescue Johanna, who, disguised as an apprentice has been
locked in a cupboard, and wrestles with Todd who finally is engulfed in the flames and
plummets to his death into the basement, not laughing anymore...
Interestingly SWEENEY TODD begins and ends with a comical framing story, perhaps
tacked on during post-production, set in contemporary Fleet Street. A customer arrives at
a barbers shop, and is regaled with the legend of Sweeney Todd who inhabited the same
premises a hundred years earlier. In the epilogue the customer becomes increasingly
distressed by the legendary tale and sneaks out of the shop, taking flight down the road.
A prime "fey Sir Jasper" melodrama, the film would nevertheless be
unrewarding without the presence of Tod Slaughter's central performance. To steal a quote
from film historian Denis Gifford:
"Slashing throats or snapping spines, Tod weltered in his glorious gore, leering
and chuckling, winking and nudging his audience to laugh along with him on the road to
Aside from the multitude of stage renditions of the story, two earlier silent screen
treatments of 'Sweeney Todd' had been produced. The first, a filmed stage play performed
for the 'Kinematograph Garden Party' in 1926, and
secondly in 1928 with Moore Marriott as the title
villain. Marriott later became a popular character actor, and is now forever associated as
one of Will Hay's cohorts in the famed series of Gainsborough's Will Hay comedies.
Tod Slaughter reprises his role of Sweeney
Todd in two short films produced by Pathé in 1936 and 1938, and a short vignette titled Bothered by a Beard (1945). In 1954 he appears
again as the infamous character reciting a monologue in PUZZLE CORNER NO. 54.
Tod Slaughter's life and work is currently under review from researchers who have
established contacts with his surviving relatives and those who worked with him on stage
and screen. The prospects of a book being published with possible snipets about this
larger-than-life character appearing on these very pages is imminent.
you informed of further developments!
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