Sweeney Todd: Urban Legend Gone Mainstream

sweeney-razorYou know those campfire stories you hear over and over again? The one featuring a guy with a hook for a hand, or a hitchhiker who disappears from the backseat of a car, or an escaped mental patient who kills 3 new victims every year at this very spot on THIS VERY NIGHT!?

What if one of those stories grew up and got made into a book? And a stage play? And a movie? And another movie? And some made-for-TV movies? And a full-blown Broadway musical? And it got referenced in other films and on other TV shows and even got a big-time blockbuster remake with an A-list cast?

sweeney-production_cropLadies and gentlemen, may I present to you: Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

For those of you unfamiliar with the tale, here’s a brief synopsis:

Sweeney Todd is a barber working in Fleet Street, an area of London near the docks. He does offer legit barber services, but he also has an eye for those who work as merchant traders and arrive back home in Jolly Olde England with a bundle of cash and jewels. He has a special chair rigged up that will, with the pull of a lever, send his unsuspecting patron down to the cellar where he can “polish him off” with an extra deep shave of the throat. And with no other claimants, guess who keeps the loot?


Who doesn’t love pie?

His partner in crime is Mrs. Lovett, who owns the pie shop next door. She disposes of the evidence by making fabulous meat pies. No body, no crime, right? It all works swimmingly well until enough people cotton on to the fact that some rather prominent people have gone into his shop for a shave -and never come out again.

The character of Sweeney Todd was based on a combination of urban legends: shops serving mystery-meat pies, and barbers who might shave a little too close to the bone and ‘accidentally’ dispatch their clients. Todd appeared as a discrete character in The String of Pearls, a serialized penny dreadful, in 1846. He was first put on stage in a melodrama of the same title in early 1847, and enjoyed several other stagings before the well-known Sondheim and Wheeler musical triumph in 1979. Portland Center Stage has a wonderful article all about this evolution.

My favorite nod to the Sweeney Todd character has to be from St. Elsewhere (a show well known for referencing other TV shows, musicals, and well-known characters). In the first episode of season 5, Where There’s Hope, There’s Crosby, Craig pays a visit to his old pal Todd Sweeney (played by Dakin Matthews). While nothing is said of barbering services, at Craig’s final exit from Sweeney’s place, the door closes to reveal a razor strop hanging behind it. 

The specific film version I watched recently was this one from 1936, starring Tod Slaughter in the titular role.

sweeney-posterThe film quality is decent, the sound is not wonderful. Recording technology in 1936 was still in its infancy, and there is a lot of fuzz and static. I found using headphones at a lower volume helped, since louder volume in an open room just made the problem worse.

sweeney-handsThe performances are good, if a bit broad. Slaughter as Todd is very much a Snidely Whiplash type of villain – he leaves no doubt that he’s the bad guy from the first time you see him on screen, hiding in the shadows and rubbing his hands together with malicious glee. Nearly all performers of the day were used to being on stage, so actions are more broad than required for camera. Todd’s ‘sneaking’ towards his chair-activating lever is along the lines of a cartoon character ‘sneaking’ somewhere – he makes it OBVIOUS that he’s sneaking (tip-toes, looking back over his shoulder with an evil grin, etc).

You can view the 1936 version for FREE on The Internet Archive, right over here.

For more classic campy horror, check out Havilah’s Bela Lugosi roundup, or her look at Teenage Zombies or my own take on Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill.

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