In the 1920’s newspapers around the world fueled the public’s imagination with stories of the English Archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb and the supposed curse of the pharaohs. John L. Balderston, a reporter for the New York World, was one of the first to report on King Tut’s tomb and was also one of the first to report on the curse that supposedly accompanied it. With his first-hand knowledge, Balderston was the perfect choice to write a screenplay about mummies and their curses.
When Universal recruited Balderston to write the screenplay for The Mummy (1932), he had already proven himself working on such films as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) both of which had been very financially successful for Universal. The studio was eager to continue its momentum in the horror genre as well as find new vehicle for its newest star Boris Karloff. The film also featured David Manne and Edward van Sloan who had both appeared in Dracula (1931) and Zita Johana as Helen Grosvenor / Princess Anck-es-en-Amon.
The Mummy (1932) was Karl Freund's first directorial effort. He previously worked as a cameraman for such films as The Golem (1920), Metropolis (1927), Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). Later in life he would work on I Love Lucy (1951) televisions series and would develop the three-camera system used to shoot television situation comedies. While Freund may have been a genius with the camera he was sadly lacking in people skills. As Zita Johann related in an interview, Freund had told her that she would have to play the part of Anck-es-en-Amon nude from the waist up, to which she replied "I will if you can get it past the censors." Freund never forced Johann to appear nude; however, he did make life difficult for her on set by forcing her to stand against a wall for hours to keep a dress from wrinkling, and provided her no protection from lions in a scene which was later cut from the film.
Despite his star status Karloff was not immune to the brutal working conditions on the film. It would take up to eight hours for makeup artist Jack Pierce to apply the mummy makeup to Karloff. At one point during filming, Karloff passed out and landed face down on the floor. A doctor was called and found the Karloff was not able to breathe in the mummy wrappings. Karloff once said that the make-up was "the most trying ordeal I ever endured". Karloff’s make up ordeal would begin at 11 a.m. and would be finished by at 7 p.m. he then filmed his scenes until 2 a.m., and then would spend another two hours removing the make-up.
Freund seemed oblivious to the sufferings of his actors and continued to insist on long laborious days and dangerous working conditions. It was this brutal treatment that Karloff and his fellow actors were subjected to that prompted him to help lay the groundwork for what would later become the Screen Actors Guild. Karloff became a founding member and remained active in the Guild through out his career.
Despite the friction on the set The Mummy (1932) was a hit for Universal. The film would inspire a number of sequels but its star Boris Karloff would never again appear as Imhotep/Ardath Bey. Lon Chaney Jr. would take on the role of the mummy in a suboequant films and he too would suffer for his art. Lon Chaney Jr. would later appear in The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944), The Mummy's Curse (1944) and yet despite the fact that Chaney had appeared as the mummy three times to Karloff’s one, it is Karloff’s image from The Mummy (1932) that appears on the US postal service’s Classic Movie Monsters stamps series.