THE ROOKIES was a very popular cop show from producer Aaron Spelling that ran for four seasons on ABC, from its 1972 debut until early 1976, starring Georg Stanford Brown as Terry Webster, Bruce Fairbairn as Chris Owens (replacing the departed Michael Ontkean), and Sam Melville as Mike Danko, with Kate Jackson as Mike's wife Jill, a registered nurse, and Gerald S. O'Loughlin as the trio's superior officer, Lt. Ed Ryker. Spelling was inspired by author Joseph Wambaugh, a former police officer who had written the book "The New Centurions," while Martin Milner and Kent McCord's half hour ADAM-12 was still a ratings success for NBC, an attempt to dramatize each case for added tension in a serious manner, only ending after STARSKY & HUTCH arrived on the scene (and just in time for Spelling's CHARLIE'S ANGELS, again casting Kate Jackson). "The Voice of Thunder" was a fourth season entry followed by just 9 more to close out the series, broadcast Dec. 9, 1975, an examination of schizophrenia and how the still attractive and in demand model Beverly Shore (Gail Strickland) becomes an unlikely bomber with no memory of her crimes. She manufactures homemade explosives with an automatic timer kept in makeup kits to deliver to various seedy locations in one specific area, such as massage parlors or adult bookstores, performed every Sunday after attending an empty church. She endures occasional spells whenever the mania strikes, her agent (Millie Slavin) and photographer (Rene Auberjonois) concerned but unaware of just how extreme her illness has become. By contacting Beverly's long estranged parents, Webster and Owens learn of her background in chemistry and explosives, supplying photographic evidence shown by her appearance at every crime scene. The climax naturally takes place in church on a sunny Sunday morning, racing to prevent greater harm while she holds the latest bomb close to her in the pew. The script tries to create some sympathy for the troubled female culprit but the hour long length isn't enough to flesh out a sketchy character that we never get close to, though veterans Henry Brandon and Adrienne Marden earn their share as the beleaguered parents. John Zaremba cameos as the psychiatrist who spells out schizophrenia, but the biggest name connected to this episode is that of John Carradine, surprisingly never seen providing the Voice of Thunder, quoting passages from the Bible during Beverly's homicidal spells, and heard on three occasions: "and the Lord sent thunder, and the fire ran along the ground and smote every man and beast, and seven thunders uttered their voices, and the beast shall kill them, and their dead bodies shall lie in the street." Hardly a challenging assignment for the venerable Carradine though certainly an unusual one, granted special billing at the very end: "and the Voice of John Carradine" (in previous years he remained unbilled in such instances, for features like "The Crusades" in 1935, "Half Angel" in 1936, and most recently "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1972).
1935's "Murder by Television" is only recalled today due to the top billed presence of Bela Lugosi, fresh from the set of MGM's "Mark of the Vampire," but far below even the Poverty Row standard of Monogram's recent Lugosi vehicle "The Mysterious Mr. Wong." With a director in Clifford Sanforth who only stepped behind the camera on three more occasions, this threadbare quickie exploits the possibility of television but only as a weapon for a dishwater dull whodunit where the culprit is fairly obvious, and the entire cast of expressionless chain smokers seems completely unruffled by two deaths under one roof. Originally titled "The Houghland Murder Case," the new moniker merely confuses the unwary viewer into thinking a bit of science fiction may be afoot, as Prof. James Houghland (Charles Hill Mailes) is demonstrating his latest televised technology, worth millions to various unsavory characters shown at the picture's opening, when he suddenly grabs his chest and collapses dead during the broadcast. Lugosi is curiously cast as twins (18 minutes screen time), Arthur Perry the professor's assistant for several months, Edwin Perry his long estranged brother, suddenly turning up in the same suit of clothes to try to swindle a fortune for himself by selling out, only to turn up dead himself at the 38 minute mark. Never fear, the other Bela has all the evidence to reveal the killer, creating a fatal 'death ray' with his own scientific knowledge before being forced to stab the bad Bela to eliminate competition. The opportunity to play twins precedes Boris Karloff's Columbia triumph "The Black Room" by three months, but this poorly scripted fiasco wastes Lugosi's talents in either part, nor is there any satisfaction gained from figuring out which is which because they are never seen together in the same shot. A little seen, misshapen movie that fails to deliver on any of its gimmicks, looking and sounding like an early talkie without any music, it certainly deserves a nomination as the worst film of Bela's entire career.
Shown complete on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater only in 1978
The extravagant TV movie "Frankenstein: The True Story" (broadcast Nov. 28 and 30, 1973) was introduced by top billed James Mason at the gravesite of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the script by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy often deviating from its 1818 source although true to its spirit, perhaps wisely keeping the Monster (here called The Creature) a mostly silent but ever present menace. Director Jack Smight began shooting at Pinewood Studios on March 15, a star studded cast of thespians and actually few locations, never wavering from its focus on characterization, and despite its 3 hour running time is consistently absorbing. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) is forced to postpone his impending marriage to Elizabeth Fanshawe (Nicola Pagett) after the accidental drowning of his beloved brother William, admitting to her in his grief that he'd be a willing pupil of Satan if it meant William were alive again. Returning to the university where he graduated as a full fledged doctor, he meets the brilliant Henry Clerval (David McCallum), a reclusive colleague of Dr. John Polidori (James Mason) who struck out on his own to achieve renown in restoring life to the dead. Using solar power for the source of life, Henry suffers from a weak heart and calls upon Victor to supply the muscle to build up the laboratory until the experiment is ready to commence, but dies before completing his final entry about how 'the process is reversing itself' in regard to the living arm he keeps in a glass container. As The Creature (Michael Sarrazin) takes its first breath (Henry's brain inside its skull) and comes face to face with its astonished creator, we are just as surprised to see his angelic looking features for the first time, Victor accepting the challenge of commencing its education and speech. Once he feels the time is right, Frankenstein even takes it to the opera, where Henry's knowledge of French emerges from The Creature's mouth. It's not long before Clerval's prediction comes true and the once handsome Creature begins to deteriorate, forcing Frankenstein to smash all the mirrors in the tiny apartment. The Creature is bewildered by Victor's sudden rejection of him, but once he sees the evidence reflected back at him he tries in vain to stab himself before jumping off a cliff to his apparent demise (this is how Part 1 concludes). The story picks up with The Creature meeting blind man Mr. Lacey (Ralph Richardson), not frightened by his appearance and willing to entertain his new friend with music, until his curious granddaughter Agatha and her lover intrude on the two, both youngsters killed and Lacey left in shock. The Creature carries the girl's lifeless corpse back to the lab where he was born and meets Dr. Polidori, who learns that it speaks with Henry Clerval's voice (Henry used to taunt him as 'Polly Dolly'), and has patiently waited for this opportunity to use Frankenstein's creation to persuade Victor to perform him a surgical service. Frankenstein has no choice but to accede to Polidori's request, transplanting the head of The Creature's beloved Agatha onto a female body to be brought to life using various chemicals rather than Clerval's flawed acceptance of solar energy. Polidori names the newborn woman Prima (Jane Seymour) and places her in the home of Elizabeth's parents, where he intends to make her a pillar of society under his influence and knowledge of hypnotism. Prima is quite different from Agatha, an amoral child both sadist and seductress, taking advantage of being born into privilege to mock the now pregnant Elizabeth at every turn. Polidori shows Victor how he plans to use an acid bath to finally dispose of The Creature, but just as success is nearly achieved Frankenstein can't bear to see his creation destroyed, but Polidori still has his henchmen blow up the lab to his exultant cry: "burn, Henry Clerval!" Prima dances up a storm at her inaugural ball as Polidori shares in her glory, only for the badly scarred Creature to burst in unannounced, take in her incomparable beauty, remove the necklace hiding her surgical scar, and carefully pull off her head before the horrified onlookers. Elizabeth manages to appease the authorities to enable both her and Victor to board a ship headed for a new life in America, unaware of two most unwelcome passengers, Polidori (hoping to continue his experiments in Philadelphia) and The Creature, still following its creator to an uncertain destiny. With the compass locked to take the vessel straight to the North Pole, only Frankenstein and The Creature will be left alive for a final confrontation in the frozen wasteland, the first adaptation to conclude the same way as Shelley's novel. This Victor is not the total milksop of the novel, yet still easily led by those with greater scientific knowledge, while it's a fascinating contrast between man made monsters, Jane Seymour's cold and calculating Prima maintaining merely the facade of beauty (the novel's bride is never brought to life), Michael Sarrazin's Creature degenerating in appearance yet recognizably human, killing only in self defense without knowing its own strength. Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater aired the entire 3 hours in the waning days of its double feature format, two months before being reduced to a single broadcast following SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.
Bela Lugosi's most obscure Universal title survives as a pleasant diversion
1936's "Postal Inspector" appeared to serve several purposes for cash strapped Universal following the March 1936 ouster of the extravagant Laemmles: a Warners-style glorification of a rarely spotlighted branch of government, a vehicle cheaply built around newly shot stock footage of heavy flooding in Pittsburgh PA, and a way to fulfill their three picture contract with Bela Lugosi, having failed to use him on "Dracula's Daughter" or a fourth pairing with Boris Karloff (they would finish Karloff's deal in Feb. 1937 with "Night Key"). Not only that, but this innocuous programmer also had the audacity to feature Patricia Ellis as Connie Larrimore belting out a whopping four songs by the film's midpoint, making for an awkward musical enabling her songbird to trill at the nightclub owned by Lugosi's Gregory Benez, his kindly nature hiding a dark secret of being heavily in debt to an impatient loan shark who has already murdered a previous client. The plot finally settles in at the 40 minute mark, as Benez and his confederates choose to rob a shipment of $3 million worth of retired currency (the driver a fatal casualty), a crime that could be pinned on Charlie Davis (Michael Loring), brother of Postal Inspector Bill Davis (Ricardo Cortez), because his car was used by the thieves. Severe flooding in Milltown finds cops and robbers engaging in a speedboat chase until the villains are apprehended and Charlie is free to wed childhood sweetheart Connie. More romantic trifle than serious drama, the daily activities in the inspector's office offering some novelty as many people are defrauded through the mail, basically those who can least afford it. Offbeat enough to still provide light entertainment as an hour long programmer, but little material for Lugosiphiles, 4th billed Bela on screen for barely 7 minutes in a bland role that still shows he was capable of playing a character without any sinister shadings, the main reason for film buffs to seek out after missing in action for decades.
1944's "One Body Too Many" was a Pine-Thomas production (they were referred to as 'The Two Dollar Bills') issued by Paramount, an Old Dark House spoof that offered Bela Lugosi another outing as sinister retainer, called Merkil in the film but Larchmont in the original script titled "Too Many Bodies." The producers envisioned Boris Karloff as Merkil, but in completing his three year Broadway run as Jonathan Brewster in "Arsenic and Old Lace" he chose to sign with Universal upon his return to Hollywood ("The Climax" and "House of Frankenstein" the results). At 12 minutes screen time it seemed just right for Lugosi, whose early scenes offer his best material, on duty while the estate of the late millionaire Cyrus J. Rutherford is being processed by attorney Gelman (Bernard Nedell), the deceased a true believer in astrology with an observatory built atop his home and his wish to be buried in a glass domed vault so that the stars may shine down on him for eternity. What irritates his grasping relatives is his refusal to have the will read until after interment, though choice parting shots are read by Gelman in due course, he himself hardly escaping the dead man's wrath: "whom I trust implicitly as far as I can throw an elephant!" Lugosi's Merkil ominously insists on putting out cups for every guest forced to stay under the Rutherford roof, offering each one coffee (which all refuse) with a bottle of rat poison in his pocket. Into this rather unhealthy atmosphere arrives our star, Jack Haley as insurance salesman Albert Tuttle, hoping to sell an impressive life insurance policy to a dead man then forced to impersonate a private detective hired to watch over his corpse. Any thoughts of flight are dashed by his attraction to Jean Parker's pretty Carol Dunlap, believed to be the most likely heir to the Rutherford millions, and nearly a casualty from a falling stone from the observatory, while Tuttle has to endure almost drowning in the old man's coffin, numerous bops on the head, and wandering through secret passageways clad only in a towel (having just stepped out of the shower!). A good cast is needed to paper over the ancient storyline, Lugosi himself allowed many choice moments to be funny, especially with his sardonic offers of coffee: "I assure you this coffee will not keep you awake!" When Haley is told it was percolated rather than drip, his reply is equally priceless: "sorry, I'm a drip!" Unaware that Rutherford is now deceased, Haley asks Lugosi how the old man is doing: "he never looked better, sir!" Mostly sidelined after the opening 15 minutes, Bela lets his exasperation show with so many unruly relatives afoot: "what people!" At 75 minutes, even Haley's immense likability cannot prevent tedium resulting from its obvious padding, the surprise culprit for once actually obvious. The fetching Jean Parker went on to have a banner year with costarring roles opposite Lionel Atwill ("Lady in the Death House"), Lon Chaney ("Dead Man's Eyes"), and especially John Carradine ("Bluebeard").
1945's "Zombies on Broadway" marked the first of three titles under Bela Lugosi's new RKO contract, his first teaming opposite the studio's answer to Abbott and Costello, tall and thin Wally Brown with short and pudgy Alan Carney. Like the later "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla," he reigns in a studio jungle conducting sinister experiments, here a zombie master unlike Murder Legendre from "White Zombie," attempting scientific means to produce zombies using a special serum of his own making. Brown and Carney play their regular characters of Jerry Miles and Mike Strager, working as publicity agents for a new club owned by gangster Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard), but in promising a genuine zombie for The Zombie Hut they are forced to journey to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian to seek out Lugosi's Dr. Paul Renault, on the advice of museum curator Hopkins (Ian Wolfe). Renault would rather the world believe him dead, delighted to test his new serum on Mike, kidnapped from his bed by actual zombie Kolaga (Darby Jones). Jones and unbilled calypso singer Sir Lancelot repeat their roles from Val Lewton's "I Walked with a Zombie," five zombie masks called for by makeup artist Maurice Seiderman, little more than bulging pop eyes for an effect both comic and creepy, Lugosi confined almost entirely to the film's second half with only 10 minutes screen time. He actually gets a chuckle when assistant Joseph (Joseph Vitale) tells Miles and Strager that Dr. Renault is merely studying a banana blight, but the doctor insists it is coconuts: "oh, Joseph is color blind!" The antics of Brown and Carney offer some amusement but the material for surefire laughs just isn't there, later reunited with Bela for a much better comedy, "Genius at Work," offering a larger part for Lugosi and a last pairing with master screen villain Lionel Atwill (only a few weeks after completing this mad scientist fiasco, he would be cast as Joseph in Val Lewton's Boris Karloff vehicle "The Body Snatcher").
Only a diehard Bela booster might be satisfied by this episodic mess
1932's "Chandu the Magician" marked Bela Lugosi's return to Fox, the one studio that kept him gainfully employed both before and after his realization of Universal's "Dracula" (this would be his 7th talkie for the studio), but is forced to take a back seat to Edmund Lowe's somnambulistic portrayal of the title character, an ordinary man named Frank Chandler emerging after three years of dedicated training to become genuine yogi Chandu, his hypnotic powers able to overwhelm all those who mean to do harm. His sister's husband (Henry B. Walthall) has been captured by Lugosi's power hungry madman Roxor, hoping to make use of his death ray device to become absolute ruler of the world (not a bad thing if you can do it), capturing various family members to apply pressure in getting what he desires. Chandu also must protect his former love, Princess Nadji (Irene Ware), also a pawn in Roxor's ambitions, using his eyes and mystical skills to foil his adversary at every turn. Only at the climax do the two actually meet and, sad to say, it ain't a fair fight as Roxor easily falls in line, helpless to prevent his own creation from being the cause of his destruction, carefully rigged to blow up the entire cast unless they can escape in time. This adaptation of a popular radio serial betrays its origins only too well, a foolish, simple minded treatment further burdened by Herbert Mundin's obnoxious drunken antics, occasionally offset by the magnificent set design and special effects, courtesy of two credited directors, Marcel Varnel and the fabled William Cameron Menzies. It's a much smaller part than expected, only one major scene during the entire first half, 16 1/2 minutes screen time out of a merciless 72 minute running time, a stock character that only Lugosi could have pulled off (he would be reunited with lovely Irene Ware for Universal's 1935 "The Raven"). Edmund Lowe was a frequent Bela costar in titles like "Women of All Nations," "Gift of Gab," and "The Best Man Wins," all of which were better suited for the tough guy actor than this Eastern mystic, so it's no wonder that Lugosi himself inherited the role for Sol Lesser's 1934 "The Return of Chandu," granting him the one time only opportunity to essay an old fashioned, two fisted action hero in a genuine serial (only two more Fox features lay ahead, 1933's "The Devil's in Love" and 1939's "The Gorilla").
Second and final teaming of Bela Lugosi and George Zucco
1946's "Scared to Death" marked the second and last teaming of Bela Lugosi with George Zucco, two years after costarring in Monogram's "Voodoo Man." Clearly an oddity even by the usual standards of Poverty Row, an independent production from short lived Golden Gate Pictures that was shot as "Accent on Horror" in March 1946 on two strip Cinecolor (a process mainly used for outdoor adventures like Lon Chaney's "Albuquereque" and "16 Fathoms Deep"). Four years before Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." used the same device to have its story being narrated by a corpse, we open in the morgue where an autopsy will determine the cause of death of neurotic Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont), who wed husband Ward (Roland Varno) during an alcoholic haze and now stubbornly refuses to grant him the divorce he requests. Both reside at the isolated sanitarium run by his father, Dr. Joseph Van Ee (Zucco, replacing a dying Lionel Atwill), whose experience in such cases leads him to believe that his daughter-in-law may suffer a nervous breakdown at any time. Laura is so belligerent she practically dares Ward to strangle her, convinced that he and his father are out to drive her insane and terrified by some dark secret from her past, threatening the maid Lilybeth (Gladys Blake) for delivering a box containing a wax head in Laura's image. Ward discovers a wartime photo depicting two masked performers from Paris, Rene and Laurette, believing his wife to be Laurette and suspecting that she's still married to another man. Would be bodyguard Bill Raymond (Nat Pendleton) is a real bungler who parades up and down the stairs in search of a crime he can solve so that he can return to his position in homicide, while Lugosi makes his entrance as Van Ee cousin Professor Leonide at the 8 minute mark (16 minutes screen time) with dwarf companion Angelo Rossitto, a master stage magician who had spent time in the facility 20 years earlier, escaping through one of his own secret tunnels. No one apart from Leonide acts suspiciously, though reporter Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley) represents the audience's exasperation in trying to make sense of things during the picture's second half. The final link to Laura's background is an eerie green mask that regularly appears at a window, all that's necessary to put her on a slab pending further investigation. In the Monogram tradition, a deviously simple minded storyline emerges convoluted, and for once George Zucco may have a larger role than Bela, though Nat Pendleton's foibles eat up the lion's share of screen time to the film's detriment. There just isn't much life to the whole thing, revenge from beyond the grave merely a hoax with the two stars doing their best to bolster its appeal, a one time only broadcast on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1973.
1942's "Black Dragons" came third in the run of 9 Monogram titles for Bela Lugosi (working title "Yellow Menace"), a great improvement on the listless "Spooks Run Wild," its topicality and implausible plotline not preventing it from being one of his better vehicles of the decade ("Bowery at Midnight" easily tops them all). America's recent entry to WW2 finds a meeting of powerful businessmen engaged in strategy at the Washington D. C. home of Dr. Bill Saunders (George Pembroke) when a stranger arrives, a patient calling himself Monsieur Colomb (Lugosi), proceeding to put the drugged doctor to bed while taking up residence as permanent houseguest. By morning, the corpse of Kearney (Max Hoffman Jr.), one of the Saunders guests, is found on the steps of the now closed Japanese Embassy, with a Japanese dagger in his cold hand, just as the doctor's niece Alice (Joan Barclay) unexpectedly shows up to visit her uncle. Puzzled at the locked door to Saunders' bedroom, she is soon befriended by FBI agent Dick Martin (Clayton Moore), who appears too late to prevent the death of Wallace (Edward Peil Sr.), sneaking into the house in search of something only to find a fatal encounter with Colomb. Now that two of the six are deceased, the panicked Van Dyke (Irving Mitchell) is targeted for elimination by Ryder (Robert Fiske) in the Saunders basement, each one shooting the other to spare Colomb from killing them himself (their bodies are also dumped at the Japanese Embassy). Only New York banker Hanlon (Robert Frazer) is left to be used as bait for the murderer, but it won't be long before full vengeance is achieved at the expense of Dr. Saunders. The final reveal is shown during the last 7 minutes, as outrageous as a Monogram script can be, but with 17 1/2 minutes screen time Lugosi enjoys one of his few meaty roles at this stage, with an attractive leading lady in Joan Barclay seemingly drawn to him (no wonder, as they previously costarred in Sam Katzman's 1936 serial "Shadow of Chinatown"). Wallace is attacked from behind in a loud struggle leading to a humorous exchange, Colomb claiming to have awkwardly stumbled, and that the cries heard were his own humming: "is my voice as bad as that?" It's rather a shame that Alice's flirtatious nature must be shot down, but it must have been a treat for the 59 year old Bela to be flattered on screen for his looks, a far cry from his butler in Universal's upcoming "Night Monster," described by Janet Shaw's beautiful maid as looking like 'something you'd find under a wet rock.' The victims are unfortunately a rather undistinguished lot, but Robert Frazer stands out if only for his appearance in 1932's "White Zombie," plus Lionel Atwill's "The Vampire Bat." Just three months following his only brush with Universal horror, "The Strange Case of Doctor Rx," director William Nigh was previously at the helm for Lugosi's earliest Monogram, "The Mysterious Mr. Wong," best remembered for a Boris Karloff six pack, five Mr. Wong entries plus 1940's "The Ape."
Bela Lugosi dons his Dracula cape, but little else
1941's "Spooks Run Wild" was the first of Bela Lugosi's two Monograms opposite the East Side Kids, and like its 1943 follow up "Ghosts on the Loose" had an identical shooting title, "Ghosts in the Night" (first announced as "Trail of the Vampire"), but as usual no ghosts are afoot as Bela dons his Dracula cape for a witless parody that allows for a great deal of mugging from Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and their four comrades but lacks appropriate bite in regards to horror. Our motley crew gets spirited away to summer camp (Lou Costello's lookalike brother Pat plays the bus driver), but instead of sleeping in their warm beds they all set out on a date with Gorcey's Muggs, as radio reports blare about a 'dangerous maniac' or 'monster killer,' apparently preying on both women and children though it's never made clear how they were killed. This is where Lugosi's Nardo enters the picture (at the 10 minute mark), faithful assistant Angelo Rossitto as Luigi by his side, easily mistaken for the 'monster' due to his taking up residence in the long abandoned Billings house next to the cemetery. An overzealous grave digger takes a shot at one of the boys, who gets patched up by Nardo before wandering off in a trance, finding his way into secret passages while his buddies stumble around to pad out the running time (they almost make one long for the antics of Mitchell and Petrillo!). It's no mystery since no murders take place (the surprise killer appears about as dangerous as Wilford Brimley), Lugosi's screen time nearly 13 minutes, little more than a guest appearance for his top billing, though director Phil Rosen at least follows the lead of Tod Browning's "Mark of the Vampire" with a series of decent close ups. These 9 Monograms can be rough sledding, but a couple of them manage to offer some diversity for the beleaguered actor.
The only Monogram in which Bela Lugosi is not the star
1943's "Ghosts on the Loose" was Bela Lugosi's second comedy opposite the East Side Kids, and the only one of his nine Monograms in which he was not top billed, hardly even a guest star with just over 5 minutes screen time. The still unknown Ava Gardner was on loan from home studio MGM, fresh off the set of John Carradine's "Hitler's Madman," earning her first featured role as Betty, unlikely screen sister of Huntz Hall's Glimpy, all set to marry Rick Vallin's Jack and head out to their country cottage, which just happens to be next door to a haunted house. The entire first half finds Leo Gorcey as Muggs supervising the wedding since Glimpy must serve as best man while being strangled by a suit and collar borrowed from an undertaker who needs it back by morning, the entire gang finding an address and deciding to surprise the newlyweds by sprucing up the place. Unsurprisingly, it's not the completely furnished digs purchased by Jack where the boys attempt an impromptu cleaning but the one supposed to be haunted, a mere ruse utilized by Lugosi's Emil and his Nazi comrades to keep intruders away. Bela has just one scene of any importance, an unintendedly hilarious one where 'Sunshine' Sammy Morrison is dusting and the phony portrait with Lugosi apparently sneezes a bad word (we must accept that the Hungarian term for sneezing is 'hapci,' but it's still funny). There is nothing for any of the villains to do except move their printing press from one location to another ("What the New Order Means to You" is actually read aloud), easily dominated by Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, whereas their previous collaboration "Spooks Run Wild" offered Bela a major role and screen time (even Ava Gardner seems short changed apart from being carried across the threshold). If "The Ape Man" was demeaning to Lugosi as a presence, then this miniscule bit part serves as an insult to him as an actor, seen only once during the entire first half and fairly interchangeable with the other nondescript Nazis, 8 months passing before his final Monograms would be shot back to back, "Return of the Ape Man" and "Voodoo Man."
1952's "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" was Realart Pictures's follow up to Lon Chaney's financially successful "Bride of the Gorilla," producers Jack Broder and Herman Cohen looking for a similar hit with another horror star, shot in six days on an even lower budget of $12,000 (working titles "Bela Lugosi Meets the Gorilla Man" and "White Woman of the Lost Jungle"). Hollywood had ignored the chronically unemployed actor during the four years since his last triumph as Dracula in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," and here he was opposite another comedy team that only did this lone feature together, from a witless script cobbled together by Tim Ryan, husband of Irene Ryan from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, better known as a tough guy actor in Poverty Row pictures (the reissue title was "The Boys from Brooklyn"). Nightclub performers known for aping Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Duke Mitchell delivers like Martin with laid back style on two songs, while teenager Sammy Petrillo looks and sounds so much like the genuine Lewis that one might easily be confused. The actual Martin and Lewis surely wouldn't have fared much better playing two entertainers trapped on a Pacific island (parachuting off screen of course) with nothing to do but venture into the castle of Lugosi's mad scientist Dr. Zabor, working on a theory of evolution using primates as guinea pigs. Ramona the chimp falls for Sammy, but the doctor's assistant (Charlita) is sweet on Duke, driving the jealous Zabor to a desperate plan to keep her from straying from his lab by transforming the luckless crooner into a gorilla. Both Ray Corrigan and Steve Calvert are available in ratty ape costumes, Duke unable to speak but still able to belt out his signature piece "Deed I Do," giving Sammy ideas for a singing simian living close to the local zoo (while studying the later career of Bela Lugosi for Tim Burton's 1994 "Ed Wood," Martin Landau considered this one so bad that the Wood titles looked like "Gone with the Wind" by comparison). Both Mitchell and Petrillo could have carved out a niche for themselves were they not at the mercy of shopworn material, and by the time the real Martin and Lewis broke up in 1956 they too decided to call it quits (Lewis was more litigious than his partner, but only a great deal of shouting resulted). A native of Farrell, Pennsylvania, Mitchell himself later worked for Dean Martin, a man who certainly appreciated real talent, doing impressions of other singers and making a name for himself as 'King of Palm Springs.' Sammy Petrillo's belief was that Jack Broder had no intention of making their starring feature, expecting a huge payout from Paramount not to do it but went ahead to save face. Sammy truly gives it his all, but a tendency to laugh uproariously at his own lame jokes deadens all attempts at humor well before Lugosi finally makes his entrance at the 21 minute mark. The Bronx-born Petrillo later opened a nightclub called The Nut House in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, lending a helping hand to up and comers like Richard Pryor and Dennis Miller. At the helm for this oddity was old pro William Beaudine, of "The Ape Man," "Ghosts on the Loose," and "Voodoo Man," whose only remaining genre titles formed the 1965 double bill "Billy the Kid versus Dracula" and "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter." Veteran cameraman Charles Van Enger also photographed "Bride of the Gorilla," a longtime Universal veteran (including Bela's "Night Monster") with a dozen Abbott and Costello titles on his resume, his most recent being "Meet the Killer Boris Karloff." It's possible that having his name in the title appeased Lugosi in some small way, he's perfectly fine in the role but it's very old and tired, no stretch for an actor so used to playing crazed doctors. The references to Dracula are numerous and not funny, and while Bela is often smiling in the early stages (17 minutes screen time), even he becomes annoyed at Sammy's antics before long, sadly looking forward only to "The Black Sleep" and the Ed Wood trio. After working with Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe, Joe E. Brown, W. C. Fields, The Ritz Brothers, Kay Kyser, the East Side Kids (twice), Wally Brown and Alan Carney (also twice), and most recently drag act Arthur Lucan, could an ersatz Martin and Lewis really look that bad?
1942's "Bowery at Midnight" was the 5th of 9 Monograms for Bela Lugosi, second straight for director Wallace Fox, and perhaps the very best of the bunch, which admittedly isn't saying much. Those who look at the title and assume that 'Poor Bela' would again be saddled with Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall should find themselves pleasantly surprised to find a throwback to a recent Lugosi vehicle distributed by Monogram but produced in Britain, "The Human Monster" aka "The Dark Eyes of London," a crime drama with definite horror elements that produces more chills than actual horror efforts like "The Ape Man" or "Voodoo Man." As in "London," Lugosi lives a double life, during the day he is kindly Professor Frederick Brenner, happily married to a devoted wife (Anna Hope) and teaching students about psychology, while by night he is criminal mastermind Karl Wagner, using his mission in the Bowery as a front for thieving double crosses, often leaving associates dead at the scene of the crime. This is demonstrated in the opening reel, escaped convict 'Fingers' Dolan (John Berkes) shot by confederate Stratten (Wheeler Oakman) and placed inside the vault of a jewelry store to be found by the stunned proprietor. Wagner's victims are usually left in the care of Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly), a once great doctor sadly reduced to a drug addicted wreck, curiously reviving the corpses to live beneath a hidden grave as proof of his genius. Wagner's nurse, Judy Malvern (Wanda McKay), believes in her benefactor, to the displeasure of playboy fiancee Richard Dennison (John Archer), who attends Brenner's classes and intends to write a paper on the underprivileged. His sudden appearance at the mission (a great cameo from Pat Costello, Lou's elder brother) puts Wagner in danger, requiring the youth be dispatched by a new partner, trigger happy Frankie Mills (Tom Neal), but this proves to be a fatal mistake, a victim who would be missed by his prominent family. For once, the rambling plot makes a bit more sense, the large cast an exceptional one, Dave O'Brien here going from smarmy reporter in "The Devil Bat" to dedicated investigator, Vince Barnett fittingly bumped off for a change (former silent comic Snub Pollard enjoys a silent bit as a doomed motorist). Lugosi plays both characters straight up, no difference between them, unlike his heavy disguise in "The Human Monster" (requiring a voice dub to carry out the deception), Wallace Fox doing better this time than on "The Corpse Vanishes," three years before earning a Universal horror, Lon Chaney's "Pillow of Death."
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1968
1941's "Invisible Ghost" marked Bela Lugosi's his first starring vehicle under a new pact with Poverty Row Monogram, its confused script undergoing several different titles before the final moniker was chosen, making less sense than "Murder by the Stars," "Phantom Monster," or "The Phantom Killer," characters not behaving like real people, and a baffled police force who never once suspect the most obvious culprit. Director Joseph H. Lewis again works from an Al Martin screenplay (later collaborating on Universal's "The Mad Doctor of Market Street"), and is able to add some stylistic touches on an obviously short shooting schedule. Sam Katzman was a producer who freely admitted that he was doing 'moron pictures' that made money no matter how bad the result, his previous Lugosi vehicle the 1936 serial "Shadow of Chinatown." The home of Bela's Charles Kessler is where he continues to reside despite a number of mysterious murders that haven't produced a single suspect, his daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young) also unperturbed, Clarence Muse as the rock steady butler Evans. Kessler has spent the last three years mourning the loss of his beloved wife, supposedly killed in a car crash after running off with his best friend, only she remains alive yet left with the mind of a child, tended by gardener Jules Mason (Ernie Adams), who keeps her presence a secret until the day she might regain her memory from the accident. On those occasions when she escapes to patrol the grounds and stare at her husband through a window, he goes into a homicidal fog during which he removes his robe to strangle the nearest person before awakening from his trance with no knowledge that he is a killer. Lewis' camera is stalked by Lugosi for the first murder, a pretty maid who was heard being threatened by Virginia's new beau, swiftly convicted and executed in what authorities claim was an open and shut case. Inexplicably, the deceased later turns up, neither a ghost nor invisible, just a twin brother looking to solve the mystery. Lewis makes as much of the sets as possible, filming from the front door and also the top of the steps, and each time Mrs. Kessler (Betty Compson) shows her face in a window her long suffering husband stumbles down the hall toward the next victim. There was little any actor could do to salvage a part like this, but it's clearly a change of pace for Bela to essay a kind hearted soul no matter how many lives he's claimed under the influence, longtime silent screen actress Betty Compson looking far more aged as the instigator of the tragedies, mumbling to herself while urging on Kessler to commit his misdeeds: "I'm afraid to come home, you'd kill me, you'd kill anybody." No explanations are forthcoming as to whether hypnosis is involved, no background offered about the Kesslers other than they have wealth and influence. After previously working with Loretta Young in "The Devil's in Love" and Sally Blane in "Night of Terror" (both 1933), here Lugosi works with the eldest member of the acting Young sisters, Polly Ann Young in her final screen role, but the one believable performance, not surprisingly, belongs to Clarence Muse, always dignified in every film, first seen opposite Lugosi in "White Zombie," and Karloff in Universal's "Night World" (both 1932). The box office returns impressed Katzman so much that he rewarded his star by demoting him to being a stooge for the East Side Kids in his next Monogram, "Spooks Run Wild."
Audrey Totter the only standout in dreary 3-D effort
1953's "Main in the Dark" marked Columbia's debut in the short lived 3-D sweepstakes, supposedly a remake of their 1936 title "The Man Who Lived Twice" that completely botches the premise. In the earlier version, Ralph Bellamy played dual roles, a disfigured cop killer who volunteers as a test subject for Thurston Hall's eminent surgeon, in the belief that a delicate brain operation may remove the criminal element to allow the patient to become a more useful human being. The fear of exposure maintains a high level of suspense as Bellamy's criminal past threatens to derail his current position as a renowned physician, until fingerprints reveal the truth and he's arrested; this update ignores the possibilities inherent in such a scenario, casting Edmond O'Brien as convicted crook Steve Rawley, caught after hiding the $130,000 from a daring payroll robbery, spending a year behind bars before being selected for an operation that causes him to lose his memory (Lon Chaney buffs familiar with 1954's "The Big Chase" may experience deja vu in regard to the crime). Rather than retraining to become a doctor like his benefactor in the original, this version quickly goes off the rails as Rawley's old gang kidnap him and spend the rest of the picture holding him hostage in a cramped apartment, the only excitement generated by a deck of cards, a bizarre amusement park nightmare finally stirring his memory, plus a mysterious note left behind in his former home sending him off on a literal roller coaster ride. A perfect example of how a remake can go terribly wrong when they fail to use the original story, Audrey Totter easily standing out in a dreary cast led by the unsympathetic performance of a surprisingly unengaged Edmond O'Brien, looking and behaving exactly the same both before and after the operation so no change in characterization, a huge comedown from Ralph Bellamy's excellent work (only those unfamiliar with the 1936 title may get some enjoyment out of this forgettable gangster meller). Director Lew Landers had seen better days with Boris Karloff in "The Raven" and "The Boogie Man Will Get You," and Bela Lugosi's "The Return of the Vampire," his career ending with the posthumous release of 1962's "Terrified."
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1969
1944's "Voodoo Man" manages to unite Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, and George Zucco and in typical Monogram fashion completely botches the job as in their just completed "Return of the Ape Man." As expected, the script (originally conceived as "Tiger Man") is entirely at fault with nonexistent characterization and hapless dialogue, exemplified by Henry Hall's exasperated sheriff: "gosh all fish hooks!" Lugosi, in the last of his nine Monogram entries dating back to 1941's "Invisible Ghost," has the plum role of Dr. Richard Marlowe, expert in spiritualism and mesmerism, requiring both to resuscitate a bride (Ellen Hall) deceased for 22 years yet still as young and lovely as the day they were wed (unmistakable echoes of "The Corpse Vanishes"). Zucco is henchman Nicholas, masquerading, incredibly, as a gas station attendant specifically catering only to comely beauties from out of town who likely won't be missed, directing them near the Marlowe residence where a fake road sign takes them to imbeciles Toby (Carradine) and Grego (Pat McKee), each girl a receptacle to provide their life force to the doctor's voodoo ceremony. While Carradine beats on the bongos, Zucco chants incessantly in service to the mysterious god Ramboona, yet 'Ramboona never fails' proves a misnomer to every unwary viewer, all of the girls winding up mindless zombies for Toby to look after. The part of this halfwit menial was clearly a low point for the distinguished Carradine, who considered this to be his worst film until 1965's "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula" (coincidentally, both features plus "The Face of Marble" were all directed by silent veteran William Beaudine). Much of the story centers around would be screenwriter Ralph (Tod Andrews), dubbed a 'Hollywood sap' by astute maid of honor Louise Currie as Stella Saunders, vanishing along with her car only to pop up later due to Toby's negligence, the sheriff and his sleepy deputy so incompetent that they can only locate her walking along the side of the road. While Lugosi is able to convey his sorrow at times, his costars fare as badly as in their previous teaming in "Return of the Ape Man," where Carradine played a secondary scientist, Zucco on screen for mere moments as the titular creature before Frank Moran displayed his BVDs in his place. Both Lugosi and Carradine would be cast in another recycling of the same storyline in 1956's "The Black Sleep," a sadly mute Bela (six months away from his death) lamenting that Basil Rathbone now played his original starring role.
1935's "Phantom Ship" was the earliest title to survive from Britain's Hammer Films (only their second production, the first long since lost), no doubt due to the surprise casting of Bela Lugosi in the central role, his first of three across the pond, followed by 1939's "The Human Monster" (aka "The Dark Eyes of London") and 1951's "My Son the Vampire" (aka "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire"). Known in England as "The Mystery of the Mary Celeste," Hammer sought to achieve great publicity by jumping on the bandwagon for MGM's "Mutiny on the Bounty," director Denison Clift deciding on a screenplay about the real life mystery surrounding the 1872 voyage of the Mary Celeste out of New York, bound for Italy with a cargo of alcohol yet found without a soul on board after one month. Keeping the total number of crewmembers at an unlucky 13 (including one woman but not a black cat), this fairly transparent storyline is only exacerbated by an interminable love triangle, Arthur Margetson's hapless Captain Briggs set to wed Shirley Grey's pretty Sarah, much to the displeasure of fellow captain Jim Morehead (Clifford McLaglen, a dead ringer for Hollywood brother Victor), who yields to Briggs' request for one additional mate by installing an assassin to make certain Sarah returns a widow (they finally set sail at the 19 minute mark). Since we already know everyone's ultimate fate the running time simply flails when the focus is on Mr. And Mrs. Briggs, though it does allow for Dennis Hoey an attempted rape before being felled by Lugosi's Anton Lorenzen, so shaken by taking a life to save another that he breaks down in tearful remorse. Various crew members are killed accidentally (Terence de Marney as Charlie Kaye is barely visible and dispatched quickly), others are found murdered or simply vanish, with Morehead's hired killer put to death by the cook before he can stab Briggs. Much of the mayhem takes place off screen to hide the culprit's identity, but even audiences of the time had a good idea of where the plot was heading, on course without hesitation toward destinations unknown, the question was how long before the reveal? Lugosi's performance is a marvelous showcase for his dramatic prowess, Lorenzen using the alias Gottlieb to infiltrate the Mary Celeste once he learns that the first mate is the feared Toby Bilson (Edmund Willard), obvious bad blood between the two. Lorenzen is now essentially a derelict, his left arm lost to the sharks, his hair turned white, a pathetic figure that the actor plays with great zeal, and a love for the black cat that would never happen with Vitus Werdegast. The original British print ran 80 minutes, alternating the mystery with courtroom intrigue in its aftermath, 20 minutes cut from all current versions but apparently nothing minus Lugosi (though a surprise ending for the captain and his bride). Arthur Margetson would soon work with Boris Karloff in "Juggernaut" before relocating to Hollywood, his final role opposite Basil Rathbone as the surprise villain in 1943's "Sherlock Holmes Faces Death" (interestingly, his on screen romance with Hollywood actress Shirley Grey was duplicated in real life though the marriage didn't last, she too working with Karloff in 1931's "The Public Defender"). Dennis Hoey inherited the part of Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard in half of Universal's 12 Holmes entries, while Terence de Marney made more of a name for himself on American television before horror recognition later in life as Karloff's butler in the British "Die, Monster, Die!" and as a different kind of vampire on location in "Beast of Morocco," his bulging eyed decomposition a prominent feature in its advertising. Hammer completed only four features during the 1930s and would not return to full time production until 1946, then another decade of quota quickies before finding their niche in full, blood red color.
Bela Lugosi in fine comic form, for once in on the joke
1951's "My Son the Vampire" was not originally conceived as the latest entry in the Old Mother Riley series dating back to 1937, thus far a total of 14 features held in low esteem by London critics but highly successful in the provinces. Arthur Lucan made a career out of playing the frumpy Irish biddy in full drag, a music hall veteran of more than 50 years who may have inspired the members of Monty Python, his popularity obviously on the decline with just 3 titles in the previous six years. It was the financial plight of the chronically unemployed Bela Lugosi that inspired Renown to try melding his horror persona with the wildly over the top Lucan, whose screen career came to an end with "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Ironically, Lugosi's previous film was the hugely popular "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," and though he's not playing Dracula here, his characterization of Professor Von Housen is described by Scotland Yard as 'The Vampire,' taking after a legendary ancestor and boasting of his plans to rule the earth with an army of 50,000 robots under his control. When asked how many have been built, he hilariously stammers into a reply of 'one,' forced into hitchhiking to The Vampire's abode and driving off in the drunken motorist's car (he later reports to the local police station: "it was stolen by some fellow behind the Iron Curtain!"). Toned down considerably for its intended juvenile audience but Von Housen at least is guilty of drinking the blood of missing girls, his giggling assistant Hitchcock (Ian Wilson) taunting Mother Riley as his latest victim: "you're being got ready!" Once Lucan's sole musical number is dispensed with, we are introduced to Lugosi at the 12 minute mark (just under 18 minutes screen time), soundly snoring in his coffin as Hitchcock awakens him and inquires why he wears his evening clothes while he sleeps: "I was buried in them!" What appears to be a slapdash script by Val Valentine is assured a decent pace by director John Gilling, more adept at straight up chills with later efforts like "The Flesh and the Fiends," "The Plague of the Zombies," and "The Reptile." Lucan remained in character both on and off camera, always spot on after so many years honing his craft, but a little of Mother Riley tends to go a long way so Lugosi's welcome presence makes this something less of the disaster that most viewers perceive, coming after the likes of The Ritz Brothers, East Side Kids, Wally Brown and Alan Carney, or Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. What no one might have guessed was that its American distribution was no sure thing, the new title "Vampire Over London" earning no takers until it was snapped up by producer Jack H. Harris, best known for "The Blob," where his theater marquee specifies 'Bela Lugosi' in a film titled "The Vampire and the Robot." Even this only resulted in spotty playdates, its final 1963 moniker "My Son the Vampire" allowing satirist Allan Sherman a precredits sequence detailing how the picture was based on an upside down book. Unsuccessful on both sides of the Atlantic, and mostly a curiosity that only Lugosi fans will eventually seek out, discovering an actor hardly humbled by his desperate need for financing to return to the US but a confident performer who gets more chuckles than his overbearing costar, for once in on the joke.
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1973
"The Human Monster" is actually the 1939 British thriller "The Dark Eyes of London," an Edgar Wallace adaptation which Bela Lugosi filmed quickly in between Hollywood assignments "The Gorilla" at Fox and "The Phantom Creeps" at Universal, easily one of his meatiest roles in the wake of his superb Ygor in "Son of Frankenstein." One can almost believe that the country most responsible for spearheading the horror ban that severely hampered his career was among the first to offer him their first defiantly terror feature in the face of their own edict, although for most of the running time it qualifies as less horror than police procedural. A series of drownings in the Thames have put Scotland Yard in an embarrassing situation, so Inspector Holt (Hugh Williams) finds himself teamed with Chicago flatfoot Patrick O'Reilly (Edmon Ryan) to conduct a more thorough investigation. It's not long before they wind up in the office of Greenwich Insurance, run by Lugosi's Dr. Feodor Orloff, a real physician whose career was curtailed by a streak of megalomania, using clients who take out policies with him as sole beneficiary, then drowning them in a vat of clear tap water before they're dumped into the Thames. His latest pigeon proves to be his undoing, for Henry Stuart (Gerald Pring) obediently ventures to the home of the blind and destitute run by John Dearborn, revealing that he has a daughter returning home just as he's about to be murdered by Orloff's disfigured servant Jake (Wilfred Walter). The police are tipped off by a message in braille left in Stuart's pocket written by street musician Dumb Lew (Arthur E. Owen), blind like his friend Jake but no accomplice in crime. Jake is dispatched to kill forger Grogan (Alexander Field) before he can be questioned about his association with Orloff, then tries to do the same to plucky Diana Stuart (Greta Gynt) as she too nears the truth about her father's demise. Through it all Lugosi's fiendish 'caregiver' believes he can never be caught but is finally hoist on his own petard due to Diana's feisty nature, causing Jake's loyalty to shift away from his master even after a bullet for his pains. On the surface Bela's character is merely a greedy crook without scruples, but early on we are shown his ability to mesmerize chosen victims to perform his bidding, including an attractive secretary (Julie Suedo) who never speaks a word, a mutifaceted villain that makes more extensive use of his talents than any future film roles. In America Poverty Row Monogram struck paydirt with this bonanza, suitably inspired to sign the actor to a star contract for 9 titles over 3 years, including one ("Bowery at Midnight") clearly inspired by "The Human Monster."
The infamous "Plan 9 from Outer Space" was initially conceived as "Grave Robbers from Outer Space" until writer-editor-producer-director Ed Wood found financing for his masterpiece from Baptist minister J. Edward Reynolds (it took a meat packing executive to help him complete "Bride of the Monster"). Wearing his Dracula cape for what was intended for "The Vampire's Tomb," the late Bela Lugosi is shown emerging from the woods in three different shots, then skulking about someone's back door, while we first see him mourning at the funeral of his late wife before leaving his home one last time (this was actually the residence of Tor Johnson). If this was all the footage in the can that Wood had filmed for other projects, 3 silent minutes of a shattered Lugosi performance, then he must be congratulated for making certain the public would see it, billed above John Breckinridge and Lyle Talbot as 'Special Guest Stars.' Local television celebrities Vampira (as Vampire Girl) and would be prognosticator Criswell make their presence felt early on, the latter narrating off screen when necessary, while the former horror hostess appears very much in costume playing Lugosi's deceased wife, the first corpse to rise from the dead through alien means, Plan 9 to be exact (no light is shed on how the previous 8 fared). This may have been the first occasion when extraterrestrials brought back the living dead, two years before John Carradine's "Invisible Invaders," and over a decade before radiation was suggested in George Romero's Pittsburgh classic "Night of the Living Dead." Wood's story holds together as well as "Bride of the Monster," Gregory Walcott a headstrong pilot, former Western star Tom Keene assigned by Lyle Talbot's General to investigate flying saucers over Los Angeles, Duke Moore's Lieutenant in charge with the demise of Tor Johnson's Inspector Clay. The cemetery next to Walcott's home is a hive of activity, Dudley Manlove as Eros and Joanna Lee as Tanna the concerned invaders fearing the worst from mankind's acquisition of greater power in the wake of the hydrogen bomb. Far too entertaining to be erroneously labeled 'worst movie ever made,' plenty of quotable lines since exhausted from overuse, and Wood's all too real sincerity in the face of nuclear annihilation, younger viewers such as Joe Dante may have scoffed at its dirt cheap production values but no other director could have achieved so much with so little.
Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood, together for the first time
1953's "Glen or Glenda" can only be regarded as the autobiographical work of an auteur, in this case Edward D. Wood Jr., whose initial notoriety as a purveyor of bad cinema has made him something more than 'worst director of all time' in that his enjoyment of the filmmaking process creates a genuinely likable figure, unlike those (like Jerry Warren) out to make a fast buck without undue effort (Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert made this clear in their praise of Tim Burton's 1994 biopic). Producer George Weiss sought to capitalize on the recent sex change of Christine Jorgensen, her published account in February 1953 sounding like exploitation gold, but with Ed Wood on board Weiss got more than he bargained for and less of what he desired on screen. He got a man who would work for peanuts, as well as play the lead performance complete in full female regalia (especially the angora sweaters), but this impassioned plea for tolerance from a disbelieving public came up short in most every way, including running time. What most likely took place was the addition of professional names to guarantee marquee value and acceptable feature length padding, Lyle Talbot a fairly busy character player who had no qualms about working in Poverty Row productions, cast as an inspector examining the suicide of cross dressing Glen (Wood, using the acting pseudonym 'Daniel Davis'), keeping his hidden side Glenda a secret from fiancee Barbara (Dolores Fuller). Perhaps more to Ed Wood's liking is top billed Bela Lugosi as the unnamed 'Scientist' who comments on events periodically, more puppet master than mad scientist, particularly with his frequent announcement: "pull the string!" The actor leaves his comfortable chair only once to produce a smoking beaker of liquid, otherwise it's one incredible line after another delivered in typical Lugosi style, slowly drawing out the syllables for a still entertaining performance under very limited circumstances (less than 9 minutes screen time). The first half keeps the focus on Wood, but by the latter stages more daring footage is introduced by the producer of women lounging, engaged in bondage, or even enjoying simulated sex (fully clothed of course), before the introduction of a second character who undergoes the whole Jorgensen treatment to transition from man to woman. Falling on hard times in the late 40s, one would think that reprising the role of Count Dracula in a huge success like "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" would increase Bela's opportunities for further work, but shortsighted Hollywood only called upon him twice more while Ed Wood managed at least three to close out his final decade. Fortunately he's not required to leave the confines of a miniscule set, in a picture that may be worse yet no less frenzied than "Bride of the Monster" or "Plan 9 from Outer Space," a bold statement to make for a first feature attempt, just the beginning for Ed Wood's imagination to run wild and even using his own father as the horned devil!
1932's "Island of Lost Souls" was Paramount's follow up to their smash horror hit "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but like companion feature "Murders in the Zoo" found itself in hot water due to censorship problems. Minus the overripe humor of Charlie Ruggles, this sizes up as one of the decade's strongest and most potent classics, Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau a quietly menacing scientist whose megalomania results in a number of four legged beasts transformed into walking monstrosities by experimental treatments in evolution to advance the species 1000 years. Tetsu Komai as M'ling remains a faithful dog, Hans Steinke as Ouran a watchful threat with brute strength, Kathleen Burke the sultry Panther Woman Lota, with Bela Lugosi cast as the Sayer of the Law, reciting Moreau's doctrine: "not to run around on all fours, not to eat meat, not to spill blood, that is the law...are we not men?" The doctor's home is an incredible piece of architecture in the jungle of this uncharted island, into which an unexpected visitor arrives, Richard Arlen as Edward Parker, a shipwreck survivor whose fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) searches for. Despite objections from assistant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), Moreau seeks to mate Parker with Lota to learn if she, his only female creation, can love and bear children. All of his subjects emerge in their current state from the dreaded House of Pain, which even author H. G. Wells found objectionable, censors criticizing the 'manimals' as being against the laws of nature, to which Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Charles Laughton) had a powerful response: "so is Mickey Mouse!" Karl Struss expertly uses light and shadow to convey menace in every corner, and the varied makeups often walk into vivid closeup, the stuff of nightmares. Director Erle C. Kenton later completed several Universal triumphs ("The Ghost of Frankenstein," "House of Frankenstein," "House of Dracula") but this remains his undisputed masterpiece. 19 year old Kathleen Burke (also seen to great advantage in "Murders in the Zoo") proving unforgettable as the childlike catwoman Lota, Lugosi's disappointingly brief appearance under heavy makeup leading the charge as Moreau's creations turn on their creator with blades aplenty in the scream filled House of Pain. The impact of such perverse material was too much for H. G. Wells, making this arguably the most frightening pre-Code horror of them all.
Bela Lugosi and director Tod Browning in their talkie debut for MGM
1929's "The Thirteenth Chair" marked the talkie debut of MGM director Tod Browning, and also future "Dracula" Bela Lugosi, whose lead performance here should have made him a star even earlier. It was indeed his Broadway triumph that inspired Browning to cast him in a part played for laughs in Bayard Veiller's original stage version of 1916, the author's then wife Margaret Wycherly as the phony medium Madame La Grange, repeating the role in this version after missing out on the silent adaptation of 1919 (a second remake came out in 1937). A murder has already been committed before the opening scene, a curious Philip Wales (John Davidson) certain that the killer was a veiled woman, the setting a British mansion in Calcutta, where Lugosi's Inspector Delzante ferrets out the suspects until a little sleight of hand pointing at the murder weapon finally reveals the guilty party. The cast are required to stand around before an immobile camera and recite witless dialogue that drags things out further even at a mere 72 minutes, but once Bela enters at the 35 minute mark he takes charge and lights up the screen to our benefit. Despite two seances and a corpse present for the finale the mystery itself is strictly ho hum, unable to raise a single goose pimple for the killer's reveal. In a lesser actor's hands the Inspector might have come off as bullying and abrasive, but Lugosi, surrounded by so many stiffs besides those already deceased, contributes the only life the picture has, reuniting with Leila Hyams in Paramount's "Island of Lost Souls" (Margaret Wycherly would later be immortalized as James Cagney's mother in Raoul Walsh's 1949 "White Heat").
1931's "Broadminded" was an early vehicle for the hugely popular Warners star Joe E. Brown, known for his unusually large mouth and inevitable yelp when in trouble (in later years he would become immortalized by three words to climax 1959's "Some Like It Hot" - "well, nobody's perfect!"). As an athlete and former circus clown his rubbery features already looked like a clown without makeup, and this screenplay by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby takes every advantage for facial expressions and bits where he impersonates a gorilla, then Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One need only endure a fairly embarrassing opening reel, where police raid a 'baby party,' all the guests dressed as toddlers with bottles not filled with milk, and an enraged Senior Hackett (Holmes Herbert) hoping to straighten out his ladies man son Jack (William Collier Sr.) by sending him away from New York with cousin Ossie (Brown), who's an even bigger carouser than put upon Jack. A long trip to California is made far longer by Jack's insistence on stopping to flirt with every girl en route (even one milking a cow!), but once they pull over at the Cactus Cafe the fun really starts at the 15 minute mark. Here we get to see Bela Lugosi, still basking in his newfound stardom after "Dracula," making for an excellent comic foil as South American Pancho Arango, unable to get through a promising meal with Ossie throwing salt over his shoulder ("dandruff!"), then using Pancho's own fountain pen to turn his cherished dessert from strawberry to blackberry. A busload of female students distracts Ossie long enough to ram into the car in front of him, which turns out to be driven by a still fuming Pancho: "first you spoil my shortcake and now you ruin my rear end!" Jack and Ossie end up at a hotel where they've made the acquaintance of brunette Constance (Ona Munson) and blonde Penelope (Marjorie White), but Ossie's attempts to humor Connie's disapproving aunt (Grayce Hampton) get him into more trouble (it's a jaw dropping sight watching him eat celery as noisily as possible). When he begins to talk about punching out some South American 'bozo,' who should be in the booth right next to him but Pancho and his gorgeous girlfriend Gertie (Thelma Todd), giving Ossie the full Lugosi stare as he stammers and stutters, admitting defeat by feigning laryngitis. When a blackmailing former flame tries to halt Jack's engagement to Constance, Gertie is hired to play the fiancee to accept Jack's damning love letters but again Pancho spies his girl in a negligee and gets the wrong idea. Kalmar and Ruby were best known for their work for The Marx Brothers but went on to script two more vehicles for Brown, as well as Eddie Cantor and Wheeler and Woolsey. Those unfamiliar with Brown's appeal as a star comedian probably won't be swayed by his material here, but his ability to use his entire body makes him akin to Buster Keaton, and Thelma Todd was always a welcome presence opposite the cinema's top comedians. The underrated Marjorie White unfortunately has no opportunity to display her skillful singing and dancing, a diminutive dynamo who excelled in Wheeler and Woolsey's "Diplomaniacs" before her final screen performance in The Three Stooges' "Woman Haters" (she also appears with Bela Lugosi in "Oh, for a Man!" "Women of All Nations," and "The Black Camel"). With nearly 9 minutes screen time, Lugosi not only holds his own in another surefire box office success, he also gets the girl for the fadeout.
1940's "The Saint's Double Trouble" was the fourth of 9 features in the movie series based on the Leslie Charteris character, begun by Louis Hayward two years earlier in "The Saint in New York" (he repeats the role for the 1953 British finale "The Saint's Girl Friday"), third of five to star George Sanders (preceded by "The Saint Strikes Back" and "The Saint in London," and followed by "The Saint Takes Over" and "The Saint in Palm Springs"), replaced by charisma free Hugh Sinclair for both "The Saint's Vacation" and "The Saint Meets the Tiger." By now Sanders had already tired of the role so this entry offers him the opportunity to share the screen with himself, as Simon Templar as well as Duke Bates, leader of a diamond smuggling ring operating out of a waterfront dive in Philadelphia. The opening scene finds the surprising presence of Bela Lugosi in the secondary role of Bates' unnamed Partner, secretly conducting the latest shipment inside an Egyptian mummy using The Saint as cover (after this Bela remains off screen for a half hour, less than 6 minutes screen time). Templar has a new love interest in Helene Whitney's pretty Anne Bitts, whose father (Thomas W. Ross) is the recipient of the mummy, but it's Duke Bates who first calls upon the Bitts home to examine the hidden location of the diamonds. The Saint is blamed for three murders committed by the double crossing Duke, while the genuine Templar confuses his rival's henchmen in switching places. Jonathan Hale makes his third of five series appearances as Inspector Henry Fernack, knowledgeable enough of The Saint to help him solve crimes when necessary, a crack shot who misses badly when Simon Templar is his target. Sanders doesn't really stand out in either performance, soon to ditch this shady ladies man for four films as The Falcon before graduating to 'A' status. Lugosi is the main source of intrigue though cast as an ordinary thug, and not a very bright one either, similar to his brief turn in Universal's 1936 "Postal Inspector" (his next vehicle would at least find him playing crime boss in Universal's "Black Friday").