Dr Phene’s House of Mystery

 

Although I don’t normally collect postcards of old buildings, this one caught my eye in an antique shop late last year – and with a title like ‘Dr Phene’s House of Mystery, Chelsea’, I simply could not resist.

At first glance I (mis)read the caption as ‘Dr Phibes’, the vengeful protagonist played by Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr Phibes (Fuerst, 1971) but there’s a good case to be had for making an equally memorable film about the man who built the House of Mystery.

Dr John Samuel Phene FRIBA, FRGS (1824-1912) – architect, property developer, traveller, collector, scholar and antiquarian –  studied at Kings Lynn Grammar School, Durham University and Trinity College Cambridge before being articled to the firm of an architect by the name of Hardwic​k.
He seems to have inherited some property in Chelsea sometime before 1850, and in the following years he had constructed a number of buildings in what would become Oakley Street, Margaretta Street and Terrace (both named after his wife Margaretta Forysth, whom he married in 1850), Phene Terrace and Upper Cheyne Row. The Phene Arms was built in 1853 and is still a popular pub to this day. Phene had it built to provide a social hub for local tenants and he seems to have been a progressive thinker, planting trees on both sides of Oakley Street ‘to purify the air and help prevent epidemics.’

From his house at 32 Oakley Street he supervised the construction of ‘The House of Mystery’ on the corner of Upper Cheyne Row. Work seems to have begun in the early 1900s, and its curious appearance led locals to call it the ‘Gingerbread Castle.’  Phene, however, called it ‘The Chateau’ and a close-up of the lettering above the doorway reveals the words: ‘Renaissance du Chateau de Savenay’ – rebirth of the castle of Savenay – in honour of the area in France’s Loire valley that Phene claimed as his ancestral home.

Despite the murkiness surrounding facts about his ancestry, it is clear that Dr Phene maintained an interest in the traditions of old France, for in 1885 he was one of the founders of the Huguenot Society of London. Despite the wealth of (often) apocryphal stories that circulate regarding this mysterious man, he was a serious scholar who published numerous research papers and gave both his services and artefacts to museums around the country. He was managing director of the Royal Polytechnic Institution before being succeeded by John Henry Pepper (of Pepper’s Ghost fame), and when Sir Peter Coats presented the town of Paisley with a Museum and Library in September 1870 it was Dr Phene who gave the inaugural address. Nonetheless there is often a tinge of eccentricity clinging to his publications, such as the pamphlet On Prehistoric Traditions and Customs in Sun and Serpent Worship (1875), an illustration from which is given below:

It’s a curious (albeit impressive) piece of work that examines the links between diverse traditions of sun and serpent worship around the world, from the Scottish Hebrides (where Phene spent several years and considerable expense looking for carved stones depicting serpents) to Egypt, America, Mexico, Greece and the west coast of Africa. The insights into ancient history might (or might not be) valuable, but the paper reveals some intriguing details about contemporary events: a footnote on p.4 informs us that ‘A curious illustration of fondness for serpents exists at Chelsea at the present time, which has led to alarm in the neighbourhood.’

A full list of his published work would be too long to detail here, but as a Life Member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he presented papers at a number of their annual meetings, including ‘On some Evidences of a Common Migration from the East’ (Brighton, 1872) and ‘On the District of Mycene and its early Occupants.’  (Plymouth, 1877.) The British Library lists five publications:

Reptile Tumuli. A lecture … Reprinted from the ‘Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette.’              [16 pages]
​      Paisley : J. & J. Cook, 1871

Records of the Past. A lecture.             [16 pages]
Paisley : J. & J. Cook, 1873

On the Causes of Art: with an outline of the origin and progress of art from prehistoric to modern times … A discourse … Reprinted from ‘The British Architect.’       [19 pages]
Manchester ; London ; Glasgow, 1874

Victoria Queen of Albion : an idyll of the world’s advance in her life and reign.
London: Blades, East and Blades, 1897.          [165 pages]
This was written in verse, with twelve pages of plates, plus  an appendix carrying article on Roman London – presumably by Phene – which appeared in several newspapers and magazines in 1896

Exhibits by Dr. Phene in the Ecclesiastical & Educational Exhibition in the Imperial Institute, Kensington, October 7th to 14th 1899.  [8 pages]
London, 1899.

His long-standing interest in Scottish antiquities confirmed by a ‘Photograph of wooden idol from deep peat in Scotland’  taken by Phene in 1900 and registered with the Copyright Office. At the same time he also registered his  ‘Photograph of the Great Stone Ship Temple in Minorca. (Plate 1 of group of ten)’ and ‘Photograph of remains of pre-Roman and Old Roman London, sculptured masonry now in the Guildhall Museum, to illustrate Mr Roach Smith’s discovery of Sculptured Masonry in the foundations of the old Roman wall of London, testifying to a Pre-Roman stone built city of the Trinobantes (Plate 5 of group of five)’ – further evidence of his fascination with ancient stones.

Although sometimes referred to as a reclusive character, there seems to be plenty of evidence of social activities, including a photograph of him taken by Sir Benjamin Stone outside the House of Commons on 2 July 1907 in the company of Mark Twain and other gentlemen. His membership of numerous activities actually suggests a gregarious nature, and he was also an active member of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature; following his death tribute was paid to him by Sir Edward William Brabrook (1839–1930) that offers further proof of his diverse interests:

‘I must first mention my dear old friend Dr. John Samuel Phene, who had reached his eighty-ninth year. He had been a member of the British Association since the year 1863 was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1872, and Joined our Society in 1875. In the year 1892, when Lord Halsbury became President, Dr. Phene and I were added to the list of Vice-Presidents, of which list, as it then stood, I am now the last survivor. His deep interest in the Society was manifested by his contributing not fewer than eight papers to our Transactions, in which he brought great erudition and shrewd observation to bear upon a variety of subjects, viz.: ‘Linguistic Synonyms in the Pre-Roman Languages of Britain and of Italy’ (vol. xv), ‘King Arthur and St. George’ (vol. xvii), ‘Ethical and Symbolical Literature in Art’ (vol. xviii), ‘ δενδροϕορία or Tree Transporting’ (vol. xix), ‘Place Names in and around Rome, Latium, Etruria, Britain, etc., with Earthworks and Other Works of Art illustrating: such Names’ (vol. xx), ‘The Rise, Progress, and Decay of the Art of Painting in Greece’ (vol. xxi), and ‘The Influence of Chaucer on the Language and Literature of England’ (vol. xxii). There was thus, in recent times, hardly a year in which he did not make some communication to our Society: he was regular in attendance at our Councils up to the last year of his life.’
                              –   Report of the Royal Society of Literature, (1912) pp.12-13.

The stories about his reclusiveness may have some truth, for it seems that the doctor began building Cheyne House for his wife, and after her death he lost interest in the project and began to spend more time alone. He rarely left his Oakley Street residence after this, while the House of Mystery and Cheyne House in Upper Cheyne Row – now a storeroom for his collection of stones  – were both boarded up and abandoned. The four acre garden behind the house was strewn with large statues and other curios.

For those interested in reading more about Dr Phene, there’s an article on him in the July 2013 edition of Fortean Times (which I must confess I have not yet read), ​and also a nicely-illustrated blog post here.

Max Gülstorff and Adolf Wohlbrück

Max Gülstorff (1882 – 1947)
Those who have seen Ich war Jack Mortimer (Froelich, 1935) may remember the scenes in which Fred Sponer (AW) meets the parents of his girlfriend Marie Polikow. played by Maria Lojda and Max Gülstorff (below.)

Fred Sponer (AW) and Colonel Polikow (Max Gülstorff) in ‘Ich war Jack Mortimer’ (1935)

Recently the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum – where I have worked as a volunteer for many years – acquired a large album of photographs and press cuttings compiled by Max Gülstorff that had been passed down through his family. It contains 64 large pages of pictures, in between which are loosely pressed a mass of newspaper cuttings, theatre programmes, photographs and other ephemera. I have written a blog post on the album for the museum’s website which you can read here, but I wanted to give a short overview of Gülstorff’s life and the points of intersection with AW’s career.

Max Walter Gülstorff was born on 23 March 1882 in Tilsit, East Prussia, (now the Russian town of Sovetsk) and began working in provincial theatres in his late teens. He moved to Berlin about 1911 and four years later joined Max Reinhardt’s ensemble at the Deutsches Theater. This was around the same time that young Adolf Wohlbrück enrolled at Reinhardt’s drama school which was attached to the theatre, so as a student AW would have had many opportunities to watch Gülstorff perform on stage. There is a photograph in the album of Gülstorff with three other famous members of the company: Emil Jannings, Paul Hartmann and Werner Krauss, all of whom AW worked with either on stage or screen.

He began appearing in silent film in 1916, and one of his earliest roles was playing Uncle Eli alongside Conrad Veidt in Jettchen Geberts Geschichte (Oswald, 1918.) He went on to appear in over forty silent films during the 1920s, using his skill as a character actor to bring life to minor roles such as schoolmasters, professors, doctors and pompous officials, while continuing to appear regularly on stage (below.)

Gülstorff on stage in 1926 with AW’s regular co-star Renate Müller, in Georg Kaiser’s play ‘Zweimal Oliver.’
In November 1930 Gülstorff, AW and Werner Krauss appeared on stage together in Ferdinand Bruckner’s Elisabeth von England. Those wishing to read more about this production can go to my blog post here.
During the 1930s Gülstorff became a familiar face to cinema audiences, appearing in almost seventy films during that decade alone. The album contains promotional film stills from many of these, and even a cursory glance through this section shows that Gülstorff worked with the very best of Germany’s actors and directors, including numerous names familiar from AW’s career such as Adele Sandrock, Gustaf Gründgens, Sybille Binder and Theo Lingen.

Gülstorff with AW in another scene from ‘Ich war Jack Mortimer’ (1935)
In Ich war Jack Mortimer (Froelich, 1935) he played AW’s prospective father-in-law (above) and there is a photograph of Wohlbrück taken around this time on a loose page inside the album. Unlike AW, Gülstorff remained on in Germany during World War Two. He made a couple of films after the war, but died in Berlin on 6 February 1947 at the age of 64 and was buried at the Lichtenrade cemetery.  The full post is available to read here, and the original Gülstorff album is currently on display in the lower gallery of the museum.

Barbara Stanwyck in ‘The Bitter tea of General Yen’ (Frank capra, 1933)

There are many reasons to love and admire Barbara Stanwyck, not least of which is her versatility as an actress – in a film career that stretched beyond five decades she appeared in screwball comedies, melodramas, noir thrillers, musicals and westerns. Whatever the genre, she was at her best when playing a certain type of character – feisty, strong-willed women, who are prepared to think independently and defy convention when required.  Megan Davis, the heroine of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, is such a person.

This was her fourth film with Frank Capra, who had already directed her in Ladies of Leisure (1930),  Miracle Woman (1931) and Forbidden (1932.) (Their fifth and final film together, Meet John Doe, followed in 1941.) It is clear that Capra had a deep affection for the young actress, but how much she reciprocated his feelings in less certain. By the time Bitter Tea was made they were both married to other people, and it is tempting to read a poignant subtext into the film’s central theme of forbidden love.  Reducing the film to this would do it a great disservice however. Capra, hoping to obtain his first Oscar, strove for high artistic standards and created a world of opulent oriental glamour, with lush sets gorgeously lit and photographed by cinematographer Joseph Walker, whose specially designed patent lenses captured Barbara’s face in radiant close-up:

Set in China during the civil war of the 1920s, the story is simple enough. Childhood sweethearts Megan Davis (Stanwyck) and Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Strike (Gavin Gordon) are engaged to be married, but haven’t seen each other for three years. Megan belongs to the ‘finest oldest Puritan family in New England’ and the film opens in Shanghai as the American mission community await her arrival, which is to be followed immediately by her wedding. They have barely had time to greet one another before news arrives of endangered orphans in nearby Chapei – and gallant Bob declares the wedding postponed as he dashes off to save the children. Megan accompanies him, but after being ‘roughly handled’ in a crowd she is knocked unconscious and wakes up on a moving troop train in the company of the notorious General Yen, played by Swedish actor Nils Asther in heavy oriental make-up.

The rest of the film follows events in the general’s sumptuous palace over the next few days, a situation that is further complicated by the actions of the general’s concubine Mah-Li (played by Japanese actress Toshia Mori). Neither of the female leads was the first choice – originally, Constance Cummings played the part of Megan with Anna May Wong in the role of Mah-Li. Capra too was a late arrival: despite the fine reputation enjoyed by Herbert Brenon for silent movies such as Peter Pan (1924) and Beau Geste (1926), he couldn’t work well with Columbia executive Harry Cohn and was dropped from the film in June. The poster below shows the original line-up:

The film was based on Grace Zaring Stone’s recently published novel, which – rather like Edith Hull’s The Sheik (1919) that inspired the 1921 Rudolph Valentino movie – explored what might happen when a morally upright white woman is plunged alone into a dangerously exotic eastern setting. There was no suggestion in the book of any sentimental feelings between Megan and the general, but Hollywood must have romance, and this requirement raised the difficult issue of miscegenation which was then still illegal in many American states; it was also one of the  scenarios prohibited by the Motion Picture Production Code. This being the ‘Pre-Code’ era, Capra was able to be more daring – which is not to say that no-one objected, nor that the film (in both content and production) broke free from the inherent racism of the time.

​What is intriguing about Bitter Tea is the way in which it puts forward some provocative and subversive ideas at the same time as reinforcing a number of embarrassing racial stereotypes. Both consciously and unwittingly, the film raises a series of fascinating questions about the clash of civilizations, cultural superiority, racial stereotypes, sexual politics, gender and power.

Over the space of the next few days and nights Megan and Yen engage one another in a battle that is both cultural and personal, spiritual and sexual. While Megan seeks to preach the gospel of forgiveness and mercy to the general, he rises to the challenge and announces that he will ‘convert the missionary’ to his own philosophy. Stanwyck captures the gradual shift in Megan’s attitude, as haughty defiance and courageous pleading give way to doubt about her own beliefs and emotions, and – finally – the revelation of her innermost feelings. It might not rank among her very best roles, but her performance here is curiously overlooked and – arguably – underrated. Megan may be a missionary but she’s no angel, and Stanwyck’s reputation as a strong personality gives her character’s inner conflict a believable depth that might not have been portrayed so effectively by the other actresses considered for the part.

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Not your average Puritan missionary
The reality of this inner conflict is depicted most memorably in a remarkable dream sequence. Megan dozes off in her chair after enjoying a cigarette out on the balcony, where she has been watching soldiers and girls kissing and flirting in the gardens below. The frame dissolves into a montage of superimposed images – the ‘cherry moon’, rippling water – as she drifts into sleep to the sound of soft pipe music. The mood is shattered as a threatening figure smashes down the door and forces his way into her bedroom – it is a diabolical version of Yen, resembling an oriental Nosferatu with pointed ears, fang-like teeth and nails as long as talons.  Just as he forces her down on the bed and runs his hands over her breast, she is rescued by a masked hero in western dress who pulls off his mask to reveal….General Yen. As is the way with dreams, she registers no surprise at the conundrum, but kisses him passionately. It’s an extraordinary sequence, made even more unforgettable by the skewed camera angles and the sight of General Yen floating backwards – an effect achieved by mounting him on a dolly. It’s brilliantly effective, both visually and psychologically, offering a highly expressive insight into Megan’s subconscious desires.

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Chinese whispers
Her wavering between attraction and repulsion hinges, at least partly, on the racial barrier that separates them, and there is no shortage of orientalist stereotypes in the film: China is shown as a place of chaos, sensuality and cruelty, where human life is cheap and everyone conceals their inner selves behind masks of ‘inscrutability.’ Yet western culture is far from idealised. The American missionaries are shown from the outset to have little understanding of, or sympathy with, the Chinese society in which they live. Apart from Megan the most prominent western character is General Yen’s financial adviser Jones (Walter Connolly), a cynical and mercenary individual, a self-confessed ‘renegade’ who is indifferent to killings all around him as long as he makes money for (and from) his employer.

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You might not guess from this poster that Barbara Stanwyck was 5’5″
When General Yen asks Megan if she has ever read Chinese poetry, listened to his culture’s music or studied their painting, her silence proves his point. Jones slyly points out to Megan that the treacherous Mah-Li was raised in a mission school, effectively undermining the value of the work done by the likes of Dr Strike. The ruthlessness of General Yen has its own logic too: in response to Megan’s protest about shooting prisoners for whom they have no food, he asks her ‘Isn’t it better to shoot them quickly than to let them starve slowly?’ ​Sunday School has not prepared her for this. She has no answer. Inch by inch, all certainties about the superiority of her culture and religion are taken away.

​Despite her education and social status, Megan is clearly no match for Yen in theological debate, and indeed the film seems to support his accusation that her fine-sounding words are false. When she urges him to change his mind about Mah-Li she ends with a heartfelt appeal: ‘I promise you, for the first time in your life you’ll know what real happiness is.’ His decision to do what she asks leads instead to his downfall – a result that he accepts with Stoic equanimity. Megan, by contrast, is shown to be totally out of her depth, in a complex world she does not understand; her well-meaning but misguided actions will result in the deaths of those she sought to save.

As a final indictment of Megan’s Christianity, the document that betrays Yen is disguised as a prayer for forgiveness – her ignorance of Chinese script means that she is blind to the true meaning of the words.

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Already dressed in Chinese silk, Megan finds her certainties increasingly undermined
This incident mirrors an earlier one when Bob Strike’s inability to read the same script meant that he believed General Yen’s mocking message was actually a pass guaranteeing safe conduct for him and Megan. There are several such recurring motifs in this carefully-crafted movie, which was filmed in the summer of 1932 and cost around $1 million to make. The Bitter Tea of General Yen was Columbia’s most expensive film to date. The studio was uneasy about its prospects, however, sensing that the taboo subject matter could prove problematic. Its planned opening date of 20 December was postponed until 11 January 1933, when it was screened at the revamped Radio City Music Hall in New York:

This was the first ever movie to play at the vast hall, which had opened as a high class venue for vaudeville entertainment two weeks earlier. Unfortunately this was the at the height (or rather low point) of the Depression, and few could afford the $2.50 tickets. Poor attendances forced the owners to hastily reconstitute the building as a movie picture palace, and for their prestigious re-opening they paid $100,000 to rent Capra’s new film. It was scheduled to run for two weeks, but disappointing box office returns led the owners to pull the picture after  only eight days, leaving them with a loss of over $20,000. Both Stanwyck and Capra later expressed their belief that the film’s poor reception was due to racist attitudes, not just in America but in Britain and other Commonwealth countries. A cursory skim through contemporary reviews suggests they were correct.

​What can the film offer to modern audiences? To be fair, the use of ‘yellowface’ make-up and negative Chinese stereotypes is bound to jar with many contemporary viewers, but hopefully this should not distract from the sincere efforts made to challenge prejudices about the taboo of interracial romance. Despite its mixed messages, there is no denying the visual pleasure to be found in watching The Bitter Tea of General Yen: thanks to the designs of art director Steven Goosson, Joe Walker’s camera work and the costumes of Edward Stevenson and Robert Kalloch, the film looks stunning. Few things in Capra’s later work compare with the beautifully-lit, opulent interiors of General Yen’s palace, the carefully-orchestrated crowd scenes and the feverish expressionism of that erotic dream.  Capra succeeded in making the arty-looking film he wanted, even if it failed to bring him his much-coveted Academy Award. He’d have to wait another two years for that.

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Capra, Asther and Stanwyck on set, summer 1932
As for Stanwyck, well she could make any film worth watching, raising even the most humdrum storyline up by the sheer vitality of her performance, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen gives her a great deal of material to work with.  Her opening scenes are rather weak, perhaps because she couldn’t quite square with the notion of Megan as the girlishly eager young saint the script desired. Once Yen appears onscreen, she grows into character, responding powerfully both to the general’s words and to her own conflicting feelings. Watching her face after she awakes from that dream, it is possible to see her expressions capture successively the subtle, intoxicating ripples of shock, guilt, pleasure and confusion as she remembers what has passed through her mind. Although not as provocative as Babyface, the daring sensuality of Bitter Tea would be impossible to screen after strict enforcement of the Code began the following year.  In more ways than one, the film is a prisoner of its age; but no imprisoned missionary ever looked more radiant or alluring than Barbara Stanwyck does here.
This post is part of the ‘Remembering Barbara Stanwyck blogathon’ and you can find all the other wonderful posts by clicking here.