Bela Lugosi II ~ Installment 2
Of all the performers who have come to be known as horror actors, Bela Lugosi holds the crown for appearing in lousy movies. Although part of the glossy Universal product of the 1930s, he began a downhill slide in the forties that never abated.
It's as if there were two Lugosis. The first was part of the Hollywood Establishment: he was popular (receiving love letters from the ladies) and extravagant (spending money as if there were no tomorrow). His strange talent -- both great and limited -- was perfectly suited for such stylized portrayals as the aristocratic Dracula at one end of the social scale or the gruff, peasant Ygor at the other. He was given suave roles to play against Boris Karloff in excellent films tailored for their complementary talents. For a while, he was at the top.
Not as versatile an actor as Karloff, he was nonetheless gifted in one respect: he could project 100% two-dimensional evil in a way on one else has ever approached. Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and quite a few others in the trade of the macabre are better actors but don't look as if they've been touched by Satan either, to paraphrase what Walt Disney once said about Bela's facial expressions. And nobody has a voice like his, easy though it was to mimic.
What happened to Count Dracula in the forties, then? Plenty. But mainly Monogram.
Imagine the craggy terrain of Transylvania. Across a narrow, rocky pass thunders a black carriage en route to a foreboding castle partially obscured by mist. As the passenger finally nears his destination, he is surprised to see that the castle is not such an imposing edifice when observed at close range. It is falling apart, and what seemed to be stone is only painted cardboard.
The carriage stops, and as its door falls upon the dusty ground, we see that the passenger is Bela Lugosi. How can this be? Surely he should be waiting inside the shadowed fortress, ready to menace foolhardy visitors. But no, he is the one cautiously entering the less than imposing doorway.
The visitor stands with his back to a dingy staircase. He puts down his luggage and stares into patently artificial spiderwebs. There is trepidation written all over his wide, frowning face. Suddenly a plump figure approaches behind him on the stairs. Sensing an alien presence, Lugosi whilrls around and confronts a man dressed in a tacky "I-am-a-tourist" kind of suit. The hair is cut close on the man's potato head; he looks like the coach of a high school football team.
With an undistinguished voice, the figure says, "I am... Katzman. I bid you welcome... to Monogram." Lugosi suddenly hears sounds of falling, moaning and cursing. "Listen to them," says the funny looking man, "children of the studio. What a mess... they make."
So it was that Bela Lugosi made a pact with Sam Katzman, big cheese producer at Monogram. If he had been a fair-sized fish in the Universal pond, now he was a whale in a puddle. Monogram provides an eloquent statement on how war-time shortages in the forties frequently led to a poverty of entertainment on the movie bill. This was the studio that made films about Nazis with such apt titles as Woman In Bondage (1943) and Enemy Of Women (1944), the same outfit that created that epic of courage under fire known as Hillbilly Blitzkrieg (1942). How do you parody that? Where can you go but up?
Sam Katzman knew what he was doing. Melodrama stripped bare and bony was his stock in trade. If he provided a strong, publicity-oriented center around which the various nonsense could orbit, his films could not fail to make money. Enter Lugosi.
Bela was never one to underplay his roles. More the pity at Monogram. His exaggerated performances became the only source of entertainment in these films, but the fun was at his expense. Nowhere was this more graphically evident than in the pictures he made with the East Side Kids (later to be known as the Bowery Boys). It wasn't just that they were doing the comedy bits and he was playing it straight. Consciously or not, they were doing their best to demolish his screen image. Irony arises from Lugosi and the East Side Kids not getting along very well off the set. Robert Cremer reports in Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape that Bela was afraid the boys might mug him!
At any rate, Sam Katzman took one good look at the famous Hungarian star and saw a living caricature of Nazi spies (politically hilarious considering what the Nazis were doing to Hungary), mad scientists, psychopaths, magicians and college professors -- the parts sometimes blurring into each other. Lugosi was about to play in some of the most incompetently made films in cinema history. If the bigger studios had reduced him to red herring parts, the chance to have center stage roles again must have been too much to pass up.
A few moments culled from each of these films should capture the flavor for those fortunate enough to have never seen these pictures, and induce either nostaligia or nausea for those who can't forget.
Having already brought up the Dead-End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys, we should perhaps begin with the "better" of the two films they made with Bela, Spooks Run Wild (1941). This, for me, is the second dullest of the Lugosi Monograms, the grand winner being the unbelievable Voodoo Man (1944). The Kids engage in their usual low-brow humor, and Lugosi fails to kill them. His only excuse turns out to be that he is not the deranged sex killer. (Yes, a sex maniac is on the loose. Just what would be his interest in the East Siders anyway; just now maniacal could he be?) He is merely a harmless magician the boys mistake for the killer. The most interesting aspect of the movie is the magician's dwarf companion, Angelo Rossitto. The rest of the time, it's a bland game: Search the House for Bela!
One funny moment is probably an accident. At a gas station, Lugosi asks for directions to the local haunted house, but then drives off before receiving the information. The fact that I laughed at that should tell you something about the rest of the movie.
In Ghosts On the Loose (1943), Lugosi plays a real bad guy, a bona fide Nazi, and it looks better for the imminent demise of the East Side Kids. But be damned if he doesn't fail again.
While he wasn't raising money for the Hungarian freedom fighters, Bela played his definitive mad scientist/Nazi role in a gem called Black Dragons (1942). As Dr. Melcher, he is one of Hitler's best operatives, a genius at plastic surgery whose assignment is to turn six Japanese agents into replicas of six American industrialists so that they can infiltrate the USA. Think about that! Germany is full of people who could pass easily as American industrialists, right? So the Nazis decide to turn Orientals into fake Occidntals. Why take the long way around? It couldn't be that Monogram was appealing to racist fears with this film, could it?
But it all works out because the Japanese betray the Lugosi character so that he can later betray them, and everyone dies happily ever after. If only the Axis had taken care of itself this way. At one point in the muddled script, a character asks Lugosi if they will ever meet again, and he answers, "Who knows... in this crazy world?" Wow!
I have often thought that if Dr. Goebbels had gotten his hands on the right Monograms and released them in Germany, they would have made great propaganda, for his side. They could have simply lied about the importance of these masterworks to the American film industry.
For a statement about Monogram management, we can look to Lugosi himself for the heartfelt delivery of the following line in Return Of the Ape Man (1944). In the scene, he is contemplating a little brain snatching with help from his reluctant assistant, John Carradine (another victim of Katzmania). They are at a dull party made up of executive types. Lugosi looks around, puffs on his cigar and says, "Some of these brains wouldn't be missed."