If you’re familiar with 1930s horror films, you’ll be well-acquainted with Edward Van Sloan. He played Van Helsing in Dracula, Frankenstein’s old teacher in Frankenstein, Van Helsing with a different accent in The Mummy, and Van Helsing with a different spelling in Dracula’s Daughter. So yeah: the horror genre typecast him as a genteel authority figure.
But what of his other, lesser-known roles? Well, I’ve taken it upon myself to sample some of Edward Van Sloan’s performances outside of horror films. Here are my findings…
Storm Over Bengal
In this imperial melodrama, Viceroy of India John Galt (yes, that’s his name) is in a sticky situation: the Maharajah who maintained cordial relations with Britain lies dying, and a rebel leader plots to take his place in a bloody uprising. It’s down to the colonists to try and keep things from boiling over, but first they’ll have to work together. The main characters are two British soldiers caught up in a love triangle as they squabble over the film’s heroine.
And Edward Van Sloan? Well, he plays the Maharajah. It’s not a particularly demanding role, since pretty much all it requires is to lie in bed wearing brownface and a false beard, but if nothing else it added another genteel authority figure to his CV.
The Road Back
Frankenstein’s James Whale directs this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, a sequel to his better-known All Quiet on the Western Front (also turned into a film by Whale). The Road Back takes place in 1918, and follows a band of German soldiers as they return to their civilian lives to cope with psychological wounds and wonder what the point of it all was (this was 1927, and it’s hard to imagine a film with such a strong anti-war stance being made a few years down the line).
Germany is in the middle of an uprising against the Kaiser, and one satirical scene has a group of revolutionaries drag the mayor out of bed to chair a public meeting. As he’s in the process of nodding off, he can’t deliver a speech, and so the revolutionaries hand the speech to an appropriately genteel substitute authority figure: Edward Van Sloan, in a part so brief he’s not even listed in the opening credits.
The Death Kiss
Here we have a Hollywood whodunit about a murder taking place on a film set. Death Kiss shares a substantial chunk of its main case with Dracula, leading to the slightly odd situation where the film-within-a-film is produced by Count Dracula, written by Jonathan Harker and directed by Van Helsing. Hmm.
(If you’ve spent the last 80 years avoiding spoilers for this movie, look away now). The killer turns out to be Van Sloan’s character; to keep this twist hidden, Death Kiss portrays him as quite possible the single most laid-back film director in all of fiction, quite unlike the blustering taskmaster of stereotype. So for the most part, this is another film where Van Sloan is (mostly) playing a genteel authority figure.
The Mask of Diijon
This film opens with a scene of Edward Van Sloan executing a woman in a guillotine. Has he left his genteel authority figure routine behind? Well, no: it turns out that he’s actually a stage magician performing an act.
The plot of The Mask of Diijon sees Van Sloan’s assistant being menaced by her husband, the titular Diijon (played by Erich von Stroheim), a former stage magician who has abandoned trickery for genuine occultism. He uses hypnosis to get back at those who have wronged him, before finally stumbling into the guillotine prop and being decapitated by Edward Van Sloan’s cat. Yes, really.
The Last Mile
In this harrowing tale of a man wrongly sentenced to death and subsequently embroiled in a prison break, one of the main members of the supporting cast is a priest who comforts the convicts on their way to the chair. But one of the convicts is Jewish, and so has a Rabbi see him in his cell. And this genteel authority figure is played by… Edward Van Sloan!
And so completes my by-no-means exhaustive survey of Edward Van Sloan’s career outside of Universal horror. The main takeaway? Well, it seems safe to say that, if you were a filmmaker in 30s-40s Hollywood and wanted a genteel authority figure, Ed was your man.