‘Yelp, you curs, yelp; I’ll beat you yet!’
Virginal village maiden Maria Marten has her head turned by the dashing Squire Corder, who promises to take her to the bright lights of London. But when she becomes pregnant, and he needs to marry into money to clear gambling debts, he decides she is surplus to his requirements…
In 1828 all England was spellbound by the trial of William Corder, accused of the infamous ‘Murder in The Red Barn’. Plays were already being performed about the crime and ballads sung during Corder’s trial. Different versions of the facts could be purchased via the scandal sheets of the day. There was so much attention that Corder complained that he could not receive a fair hearing as a result. Was this the world’s first example of the ‘trial by media’ phenomenon that is so common today?
The varying reports made at the time have created a challenge for modem historians looking to separate fact from fiction. However, certain truths are indisputable. Maria Marten was a pretty 24-year old living in the small Suffolk village of Polstead. On the other side of the tracks was gentleman farmer, William Corder. Although only 22 himself, he already possessed a dubious reputation. Corder and Maria became secret lovers and had a child that died not long after birth. Whether this was a natural death or something more sinister is a matter of conjecture. What is known is that Corder arranged to meet Maria one night at the Red Barn as part of an apparent plan to elope to Ipswich and she was never seen alive again.
Corder left the area and later married but, almost a year after Maria’s last appearance, her stepmother Ann reported strange dreams of the girl being murdered and buried in the Red Barn. Eventually, she persuaded her husband to make a search and Maria’s remains were found. Corder was arrested, brought to trial, found guilty and died by hanging in a public execution at Bury St Edmunds in August 1828. Corder confessed in the shadow of the gallows, claiming it was an accident, but doubts about the case remain, particularly concerning Ann’s remarkably accurate dreams. She was only a year older than her stepdaughter and was rumoured to have had an affair with Corder herself, and her dreams began only after his subsequent marriage.
Whatever the truth of it, interest in the murder barely waned over the next century. Many theatrical versions were regularly revived and embellished. Maria was rewritten as a virginal innocent, the victim of a vicious dastardly predator. However, the truth was that she had already given birth to two illegitimate children before she met Corder, one fathered by one of his deceased brothers! Travelling gypsies were added to the mix, and the young Corder became a lecherous old squire with an obsession for the card table. In short, the tale was recast and reimagined to pander to the moral environment of the time with more conventional and clear-cut notions of good and evil.
Enter Tod Slaughter, an actor-manager whose troop had enjoyed success with barnstorming old melodramas before World War One. Returning from the conflict; he struggled to re-establish himself before taking a partnership in the rundown, 2,000 seat Elephant and Castle Theatre. There, he fostered such close ties with the regular audience that players and patrons became one extended family. Success followed. Forced to cut corners due to a building inspection, he decided to stage a revival of ‘Maria Marten’ for one week. To everyone’s surprise, it was an absolute sensation. It ran for over 100 performances and played to anyone who was anyone in London society, including members of the royal family. Slaughter produced and staged the play, but was actually too busy managing the theatre to tread the boards himself.
Success staging similar melodramas followed, and in 1929, Slaughter eventually took to the boards as Corder for the first time. His subsequent turn as ‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ made his name synonymous with villainous roles in the public eye. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, he began to cultivate his popular image as ‘Mr Murder’. Silent films of both stories followed in the late 1920s (without him), but by then the public’s taste for these ‘blood and thunder’ melodramas had begun to wane. The explosion of cinemas on the high street was threatening the very existence of the legitimate theatre.
Enter film producer George King. He’d already earned a sizeable income by taking advantage of a recent piece of official legislation. The government were so concerned by the flood of American movies overwhelming the British market that they decreed a certain quota of homegrown product had to be exhibited at the same time. This law resulted in what was commonly called ‘Quota Quickies’, hurried, low-budgeted efforts that typically sat on the bottom half of a double bill. It proved an invaluable training ground for future British directing greats such as Michael Powell, and King became highly successful at turning them out swiftly and cheaply.
Given the box office bonanza of the Universal productions of ‘Dracula’ (1931) and ‘Frankenstein’ (1931), King turned his attention to horror and selected ‘Maria Marten’ as a subject with name recognition and one that could be shot without significant cost. Tod Slaughter was not famous in the film world, of course, but he was associated with the story. The two agreed terms and the film began shooting at Shepperton Studios under the watchful eye of experienced actor-producer-director Milton Rosmer.
The film’s opening is unusual, perhaps even unique. A master of ceremonies on a tiny stage introduces the characters of the drama one by one. The cast all take a bow with Slaughter bringing up the rear. He is the only one who is introduced by name. Perhaps this was a nod towards the British Board of Film Classification, who had introduced the ‘H’ for Horror certificate in 1932 and were keeping a close eye on productions with ‘gruesome’ material. Don’t worry, folks, its only a story!
From there, we’re transported to a village dance held in the Red Barn. Squire Slaughter is cutting a mean rug along with the flirtatious Maria (Sophie Stewart) while handsome gypsy Carlos (Eric Portman) stands glowering on the sidelines. But things soon go south for the villainous squire when a palm reader predicts his future is at the end of a rope. Slaughter over-reacts to the news as only he can, but is in a much better mood when Stewart cuts choir practice to drop in on him at home (the hussy!). He plies her with drink and dreams of the bright lights of London before we cut to a scene of her worried middle-aged parents (D J Williams and Clare Greet). Of course, by the time we get back to Slaughter and Stewart, she’s in tears and he’s promising marriage. There’s little doubt as to what the bounder’s been up to while we’ve been away!
Unfortunately for Slaughter, their liaison leaves Stewart in the family way. To make things worse, he’s soon losing all his money in a card game to Dennis Hoey (more familiar to audiences as the dimwitted Inspector Lestrade in the Rathbone-Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series.) ‘I’d play if the devil himself was perched upon my shoulder’ the squire declares, thereby ensuring his immediate defeat and total ruin. He plans to clear his debts by marrying the psalm-singing Maud Sennet, but he still needs to solve that little problem called Maria. So a midnight tryst at the Red Barn is the next item on the menu.
It’s here where the film adaptation departs even more radically from what we know of historical events. Stewart’s disappearance provokes uproar in the neighbourhood with the blame being placed squarely at the door of the absent Portman. Greet has no dreams about her stepdaughter’s dead body or the Red Barn, although she does exhibit some kind of psychic reaction at the moment of the murder. Along with the earlier appearance of the gypsy fortune teller, these are the only references to any supernatural elements and they are slight indeed.
Instead, the corpse is discovered by Slaughter’s dog during a search of the barn; a change perhaps designed to provide him with an acting showcase towards the end of the film. Up until this point, he’s been sly, crafty and a total rotter, but it’s here when he’s finally let off the leash. His Squire Corder is revealed to be an abject coward and a violent, gibbering madman, complete with rolling eyes and maniacal laughter.
Of course, it’s tempting to suggest that Slaughter was simply ‘playing to the gallery’ because he hadn’t adapted to the medium of film. However, it’s interesting to contrast this performance with his restrained appearance as the villain in ‘Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror’ (1938) and, more to the point, the subsequent roles which found him squarely back in ‘Squire Corder’ mode. By all accounts, Slaughter took both his acting and melodrama very seriously, so the most likely explanation is that he believed that this was the way such roles should be played. The audience of the time were certainly entertained by his gleeful villainy, perhaps even experiencing a vicarious thrill from his crimes. To a modern viewer, his style is simply so old fashioned that it’s hard to take seriously, but, then again, that is the beauty of it.
Unfortunately, although Slaughter is highly enjoyable, the film drags badly when he’s off screen. Comic relief is provided by village idiot Timothy Winterbottom (Gerald Tyrell) and his lady love Nan (Ann Trevor) who works as the Marten’s family maid. They have far too much to do and: ‘It takes a Winterbottom to make a noise like that’ is the highlight of their sparkling repartee. Future Shakespearean actor Portman is definitely the poshest screen gypsy of all time, and the budget is so low that the action is confined to a handful of indoor sets.
Without Slaughter’s performance this would be a long 66 minutes, but it is a fascinating cinematic curio of a bygone era, and undeniably has its moments.
Tod Slaughter would return in ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ (1935).