The character first appeared as a villain in a penny dreadful entitled The String of Pearls in the 1847. He turned up in several stage plays, radio dramas, TV productions and the famous Stephen Sondheim musical from 1979. However, there have only been five movies. Two of them are from the silent era and not easy to come by. As for the sound era, there are three film versions that I intend to look at in this post: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from 1936, Bloodthirsty Butchers from 1970, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from 2007.
One thing became obvious watching these three films this weekend, the story contain some of the same elements and same names, but never quite present the story exactly alike. All three feature Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Lovett, as well as characters named Tobias and Johanna. However, each one has its own quirk or trademark to the story, including sailors fighting natives at the Cape of Good Hope, a public showdown with an Italian barber and an Irish, Shakespeare-quoting, cross dressing, clown named Corky.
I'm going to start off with the most recent and best version. Director Tim Burton's big screen version of the Stephen Sondheim musical stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. The 70s stage version gave Sweeney Todd a back story that had not been present in other versions, which made him slightly sympathetic rather than a hard-core killer. Besides being motivated by revenge, Sweeney's first murder is of a former assistant, who has reinvented himself as an Italian barber and plans to blackmail him after he best him in a public shaving exhibition. In this version, Tobias is a young sailor, who saved Sweeney's life, and Johanna is Sweeney's long, lost daughter.
As with most of Tim Burton's films, Sweeney Todd inhabits a dark, gloomy, grim version of London brimming with little touches that make the film a blood-soaked nightmare. However, the one thing that I didn't care for was the Stephen Sondheim songs. To para-phrase Homer Simpson, "Why did they have to ruin a perfectly good demon barber story with all that fruity singing?"
Now, I should say here that I've owned two of these movies (Bloodthirsty Butchers and Demon Barber of Fleet Street) on DVD for sometime. I had watched them several times before this weekend. However, after watching Tim Burton's masterpiece, I chose to re-watch Andy Milligan's 1970 version entitled Bloodthirsty Butchers right after the 2007 version. WOW! Talk about a sharp contrast in production, dialogue and everything. This version has John Miranda and Jane Hilary as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Annabelle Wood is Johanna, who is employed by Mrs. Lovett. Tobias is played by Milligan regular, Berwick Kaler. Tobias works for both Sweeney and Lovett. He is as cold blooded a killer as Sweeney.
|An awkward moment between Sweeney (left), Anna and Corky (right)|
This version also features Sweeney's alcoholic wife Becky (A woman in Victorian England named Becky?), Mrs. Lovett's invalid husband, Sweeney's mistress/musical hall performer Anna and her on-stage partner, Corky the Irish, Shakespeare-quoting, cross dressing clown (above). The extra characters are there to facilitate one of Andy Milligan's trademarks: boring, unnecessary dialogue and spiteful bickering. Sweeney even gives Johanna's fiancee a sexist rant that includes an illusion to PMS. Johanna is the only likeable female character in the movie.
While Burton takes you into a gloomy version of Victorian London, Milligan really doesn't even try to pass 1970 London off as Victorian London. Sweeney Todd's name is painted on the window of his modern barber shop in green paint. The barber shop has a black and white tile floor (another Milligan trademark). The women's costumes are cute and colorful 70s maxi-dresses, probably made by Andy Milligan himself. Speaking of Milligan's dressmaking career, his old, leftover, rubber mannequins make an appearance as the victims of Sweeney and Tobias. One of the highlights of this film is an outdoor scene that features Milligan barking like a dog while filming to add a bit of ambient noise. When you watch an Andy Milligan film by itself, you notice what is wrong with his films, but watching this film immediately following Tim Burton's version, it is obvious that Andy Milligan makes Ed Wood look like..., well, Tim Burton.
Finally, there is the 1936 George King version entitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street staring Tod Slaughter as Sweeney and Stella Rho as Mrs. Lovett. In this version, Tobias is an orphan boy entrusted to Sweeney by Beadle (A character that appears in the Burton version) to work as his assistant. Johanna is the daughter of a wealthy business partner that Sweeney hopes to force into marriage. The film ends with Johanna disguised as a boy, as in the 2007 version.
This version is adapted from the original stage melodrama versions of the story in which Sweeney is a mean, greedy villain, who rubs his hands together and laughs maniacally. If Slaughter had a handlebar mustache, he would be twirling it (Actually he did in some of his films). Slaughter's Sweeney is at his menacing best when he says, "Come here, Tobias!" and "Now, I'll polish you off" as the opens the trap door beneath the barbers chair.
Slaughter and King were frequent collaborators, much like Burton and Depp. There films were part of the "quota-quickies" and later turned up on late-night television. They can now be found in Mill Creek box sets. King is not a spectacular or artistic director like Tim Burton, but his films look decent and work as a whole, unlike Milligan. King, on a tight budget, manages to include a small scale battle between a group of sailors (lead by Johanna's fiancee) and natives at the Cape of Good Hope. King does play with the story telling format by having a comical wrap-around sequence with a modern barber telling the story of Sweeney Todd to a customer.
The subject of Sweeney Todd in the movies may not lend itself to a whole book, but for a blog post it works out well. You can also watch all three of these movies in one night, just like I did. Ironically, it left me with a craving for meat pie.