Politics of Insanity in “Bedlam”

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Boris Karloff month continues with our second film review:Bedlam (1946), a film with some historical basis. “Bedlam” was the nickname for St. Bethlehem Memorial Hospital, England’s oldest mental hospital. Bedlam was known for its barbaric treatment of patients and for raising funds by charging admission so that the public could be entertained by the “lunatics.” It was all too easy to be committed such an institution against one’s will. In fact, it was not uncommon for husbands to commit their wives to insane asylums once becoming tired of their marriages.

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This is one of a few films in which Karloff’s character is truly villainous, rather than merely misunderstood. Karloff plays George Sims, the sadistic (and a tad lecherous) apothecary general in charge of the asylum in the 1760’s. His patients are not merely abused as part of misguided medical treatments, but deliberately tortured for the amusement of aristocrats. In one scene, Sims paints a patient in gold gilt to perform at a dinner party, and laughs as the poor man suffocates. Film historian Tom Weaver, who provided the commentary track for the DVD release, shared an interesting story that the actor who played the patient was indeed painted from head to toe in gold paint, and did begin to suffocate as a result. Karloff was actually the first to notice the young actor’s plight and was able to procure medical treatment for him in time.

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The female protagonist Nell is not amused by Sims’ mistreatment of patients. Eventually she poses a threat to Sims’ position, so he arranges a hearing to have her committed to Bedlam. Thank goodness that could never happen today. That would be like, say, threatening to jail one’s political opponent if one wins an election.

Nell’s character seems unusually feisty for a Code-era film. Check out Divas, Damsels, and Smudged Mascara for more about the feminist aspects of this film. Sims believes inmates at Bedlam are all savages and will harm Nell, but because she shows them kindness and tries to ease their suffering, Nell’s actions eventually lead to reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill. Of course, not before Karloff’s nasty character gets his just desserts.

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The DVD edition I own is a Karloff double feature including Isle of the Dead, which is also a solid film. Tom Weaver’s commentary track is a treat, as he delves into the history of the real Bedlam hospital as well as fascinating stories about the filmmakers and the film itself.

One thought on “Politics of Insanity in “Bedlam”

  1. Cathy Wright

    I loved this movie and appreciate the many details and research that went into making this film. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    Reply

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