RETRO REVIEW: CIAO BELA! Celebrate the Legacy of Lugosi With a Week of Rare Screenings at the Plaza Theatre!

The Plaza Theatre presents the Bela Lugosi Film Festival; Starts Friday, May 30 @ 8:00 p.m., final show Thursday, June 5 @ 8:45 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Schedule here; Tickets $5.00 per screening, available at Plaza box office.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Plaza Theatre is taking a week to honor the legacy of one of the greatest icons of horror to ever grace the silver screen, Bela Lugosi. And in doing so, they’re avoiding the obvious choices of programming; there’s no DRACULA, nor any of the films he appeared in for Edward D. Wood, Jr. Instead, we’re getting treated to a wide variety of his lesser-seen films, ranging from major studio productions (MGM’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE—see our Retro Review here—and 20th Century Fox’s THE GORILLA) to his most accomplished independent film (the brilliant WHITE ZOMBIE, which we’ve covered here), and the rest of the roster is filled with a sampling of the work he did for what was then known as Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios.

Born in Lugos, Hungary (previously part of Transylvania, now part of Romania) in 1882, Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó had aspirations to stardom. He found success on the local stage in his late teens, which prompted him to move to Budapest and join the National Theatre of Hungary, where he played numerous roles both before and after World War I, where he served on the Russian front. After his return, his political activism as part of organizing an actors’ union resulted in his fleeing the country after the Hungarian Revolution failure in 1919 made life difficult for those perceived to be leftist agitators. He made his way to New Orleans on a merchant ship, adopted the surname “Lugosi” to honor his birthplace, and began working the stage in New York, forming a stock company with fellow Hungarian actors and performing for immigrant audiences. Soon, Broadway beckoned, and Lugosi was quick to answer her call. After a series of successful parts in comedies and melodramas, he was approached with the role that would change the course of his life.

In 1927, he was cast in the title role of the smash Broadway adaptation of DRACULA. It ran for 261 performances before touring the country during 1928-29. Despite the play’s phenomenal success, when Universal optioned it for a motion picture, Lugosi was not their initial choice. But Lugosi lobbied hard for the part, accepting a smaller salary—only $500 a week—in return for having his acclaimed stage performance immortalized on the screen.

However, because Lugosi was so effective in his role, he quickly became typecast as a horror “heavy,” playing villains at nearly every turn, no matter how often he tried to demonstrate his versatility. And even though he proved a box-office draw during his time at Universal, he frequently found himself second-billed to co-stars like Boris Karloff, or cast in smaller roles. Sometimes those roles were instantly memorable—such as that of Ygor in Universal’s series of FRANKENSTEIN sequels—but other times, he found himself playing butlers or other domestics, most often as a red herring in some convoluted mystery plot. But a 1936 regime change in Universal, combined with a ban on horror films in the UK, led to Lugosi’s fall from favor with the studio and his decision to turn to the smaller studios of Poverty Row to supplement his income.

“Poverty Row” was an umbrella term for the plethora of smaller, independent studios that popped up in Hollywood’s golden age to capitalize on the need for cheap films to fill out the “B” slots of double-feature bills (hence, “B-movies”). Because the pictures were made quickly, even though they didn’t pay well, a featured player could get consistent work. Cast into Hollywood’s forsaken jungle hell, Lugosi could prove that he was all right. And it’s in these films, where we’re neither seeing the Universal “superstar” Lugosi, nor the Ed Wood films where he’s been unfairly regarded as an on-the-skids camp figure, where we can get a picture of Lugosi the working actor. Just an honest guy plying his trade. And while some of the films are more ludicrous than others, they’re all chances to witness that no matter how low the budget or how silly the concept, Bela Lugosi gave them his all. Frequently relegated to public domain home video releases, these movies are rarely shown in theaters, as they’re not instantly recognizable titles like DRACULA. So it’s a rare treat to see them once again where they belong.

THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942, Monogram Pictures) is one of the more lurid low-budget exploitationers of the 1940s. Here, Lugosi plays Dr. Lorenz, a horticulturist and mad scientist, who needs glandular excretions from virgin women to restore the youth and beauty of his octogenarian wife. He uses poisoned orchids to place young brides—at their weddings, yet—in suspended animation, and drags them back to his laboratory. Reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) is hot on his trail, however, and is determined to uncover the mystery of the orchid killer. Lugosi shows a great deal of restraint in his portrayal, which contrasts with the over-the-top aspect of the scenario, while the film displays tight pacing and a real sense of suspense. As a result, THE CORPSE VANISHES is one of Lugosi’s best Poverty Row horrors.

Keeping in tone with the “Lugosi distributes pleasant-smelling objects that wind up killing people” theme of the previous night, THE DEVIL BAT (1940, Producers Releasing Corporation) finds cosmetic chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers passing out “test samples” of his new after-shave lotion to those who have wronged him. Unbeknownst to his victims, Carruthers has been breeding giant bats, trained to attack those who wear the scent of doom. Here, Lugosi is deliciously over-the-top in his performance, relishing every bit of evil he sows forth. As the film takes a much more comic tone than THE CORPSE VANISHES, Lugosi’s portrayal supports the movie’s aims, establishing a kind of proto-ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES on the cheap. It was so successful, PRC made a sequel (without Lugosi), DEVIL BAT’S DAUGHTER.

INVISIBLE GHOST (1940, Monogram Pictures) finds Lugosi playing a Jekyll-and-Hyde role as Dr. Kessler, a normal family man who falls into a murderous trance-like state whenever he sees his wife, whom he believes to be dead, but is really just living in the gardener’s shed. The plot is absolutely ridiculous, but the film is salvaged by the inspired visual flair of celebrated B-movie auteur Joseph H. Lewis and Lugosi’s nuanced performance. The film is very nearly stolen, however, by Clarence Muse as Lugosi’s butler, Evans. While most roles for African-Americans in this era fell into broad caricature and stereotype, Muse remains intelligent, strong and dignified throughout.

In THE GORILLA (1939, 20th Century Fox), one of the rare non-Poverty Row productions on display here (yet one whose lapse into the public domain has placed it alongside them), Bela plays second fiddle to the Ritz Brothers, Fox’s answer to the Marx Brothers. Playing a butler, Lugosi is largely just there as sinister window dressing while the Ritz boys and Patsy Kelly (longtime star of stage and screen, she is, however, best known today as Laura-Louise in ROSEMARY’S BABY) clown around. It’s a spoof of the “old dark house” sub-genre, wherein the Ritzes are bumbling detectives protecting a wealthy attorney (Lionel Atwill) from a murderer known as “the Gorilla” while an actual escaped gorilla shows up at the estate. Everybody’s a suspect, and of course, all eyes are on Bela. It’s a shame he’s not given more to do, as Lugosi is in fine form, but the zany comedy keeps things moving along nicely.

We wrap things up by staying on the simian side of the street with one of Lugosi’s most insane, yet jaw-droppingly entertaining, motion pictures: BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952, Realart Pictures). What can I say about this movie? Where else can you see the musical comedy team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo carry out the most blatant rip-off of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis ever committed to celluloid? (Paramount studio head Hal Wallis, who had Martin and Lewis under contract, tried to purchase the movie in order to have it destroyed. They just couldn’t settle on a price.) Where else can you see Bela Lugosi on a tropical island planning to turn a man into a monkey? Lugosi, as always, gives it his all against the wacky backdrop, despite the fact that he was in poor health and hadn’t worked since 1946. People like to say that Lugosi’s Ed Wood pictures were his nadir, but at least those were earnest pictures. They were sincerely done. With this movie, though…who the hell knows what was going on in the filmmakers’ minds other than “let’s cash in on Lugosi’s name by pairing him with low-rent Martin & Lewis imitators?” And even then, you have to wonder why they were thinking that in the first place. It’s not like some time-tested means of making a profit. It’s just so gob-smackingly weird that I find it completely enthralling. It’s got to be seen to be believed, and even then you might not believe it. And to see it on the big screen? You gotta be kidding me.
Ordering Phentermine from https://levgrossman.com/phentermine-online/ for few month already.

So, that’s it. It’s nearly a week’s worth of Lugosi the working man. Giving it his all in movies that, frankly, probably didn’t deserve him (aside from the amazing MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and WHITE ZOMBIE, of course). But in movies that are made all the more remarkable and entertaining by his presence. Movies that were enriched by his old world style and class. It’s a rare theatrical treat that should not be missed by anyone who considers themselves a fan of the man, a student of cinema history or a horror movie aficionado. Because while these movies have long been easy to overlook, they—and the history they represent—are a vital part of the legacy of Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó. May they live forever.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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