Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain

Review by Doug Gibson
Fifteen years ago, Frank J. Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks published "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain." The book was unique in that it broke new ground in the history of an iconic actor, Bela Lugosi, who even then had a career that had been well analyzed. "Vampire Over London" erased a myth within Lugosi's biography: that the actor's final acting gig as Dracula, in England, had been a huge failure, the play a shoddy, near-amateur effort that left Lugosi and wife Lillian stranded, penniless in London, only able to return to the U.S. by securing a role in "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire," with its $5,000 salary.

That was all nonsense. The myth of a failed "Dracula" play was a sin of omission, in part the fault of Lillian, who offered virtually no information on the five-month-plus tour of "Dracula." But the actor's "official biography," "The Man Behind the Cape," accurately said it was a success. (1) Nevertheless, the legend grew.

The evidence of the play's staying power and marginal success was out there, in old newspapers, promotional sheets, stage receipts, attendees' recollections, and the accounts of those who produced and performed, John Mather, Sheila Wynn, Joan Winmill, Eric Lindsay, Ralph Wilson, Dick Gordon, and so on. It required a meticulous, painstaking, time-consuming effort to gather the reminisces and archival histories of the 1951 "Dracula" tour in England,

But the effort was accomplished, and "Vampire Over London" was published. Besides its main focus, capturing the play's history, the work encapsulates a lost part of history; the details of producing a regional, mid-size play in post-war England. The book also included accounts of the three films in England that Lugosi starred in: "The Mystery of the Mary Celeste," (1935) "Dark Eyes of London," (1940) and "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire" (1951). (All three would have different titles for U.S. release.)

Over the past decade-plus of its release, the authors gathered additional information on the 1951 tour, more recollections, more archived history. It prompted the recent publication of "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain: 2nd Edition," 495 pages instead of the former's 363. If you possess the first edition you are a fortunate person, but you are even more fortunate if you have both editions.

Besides the pleasure a Lugosi fan derives from more knowledge of the iconic Dracula's career and personal life, the life of a traveling play company is fascinating. All aspects of "Dracula" are covered: auditions, creation of a staff, hustling for playing dates in the provinces, the mechanics of creating "Dracula," with smoke guns and fake bats, the actors' digs (where they boarded), the era of big salaries for the star and 10 pound or so weekly paychecks for the rest of the cast, the Sunday train rides to a new city and theater, actors' camaraderie, including how blown lines were covered and even details of "corpsing," where actors would get the giggles on stage.

Particularly interesting is "Dracula's" frequent play dates in the now-gone British music halls, the more boisterous crowds, the grueling twice-nightly performances, the eccentric house music that greeted players' arrival on stage. Producer Mather was persistent, making desperate efforts to get Lugosi and his "Dracula" in a West End theater, the equivalent of Broadway in New York City. While it stayed outside London, touring as far as the north of England and in Scotland, "Dracula" kept its head above water financially. Its sole chance to make a big profit was to get to the West End. That failed to happen. The play was considered for the big stage, and may have eventually got its shot as 1951 winded down, but after several months touring, Lugosi was simply too worn out to chase that dream. As the authors note as well, Mather realized that his aging star had reached exhaustion.

There is poignancy in how the Lugosis reacted to the long "Dracula" gig. Bela and Lillian clearly saw it as a chance to be major stars again; a West End triumph would lead to a Broadway return. The authors note their disappointment to learn that "Dracula" would have a long second-tier run before any chance of the West End. Bela, befitting his personality as an actor, took it in stride, playing every role in every music hall as if he were in a major theater. As the book notes, Lillian was more vocal with her disapproval, frequently arguing with Mather and writing long letters to Gordon, in NYC, relating how she and Bela felt misled and cheated.

Despite the end of their marriage after they returned to Hollywood, it's clear that Lillian cared deeply for her husband. Like a mother, she took care of him, making sure he ate healthy, giving him his pain shots for his severe sciatica "lightning pains" and fiercely guarding the privacy and dignity of the man she called "my papi." As the authors relate, there were many incidents where the stressed woman, missing her young son, Bela Jr,, could be heard sobbing behind closed doors.

As mentioned, there are chapters devoted to all three films Lugosi made in England. They are very detailed and include anecdotes such as Lugosi attending a performance of "Dracula" on stage during the filming of "Dark Eyes of London." What's interesting is that for the three films he made in London, including the "Mother Riley" spoof, he was paid far more than what he was earning for films in the U.S. at those distinct times. Also, readers who have wondered what is that film they see on YouTube or on late-night TV as "My Son the Vampire" or "Vampire Over London" -- with the pantomime dame's rapid dialect -- will learn a lot about how Lugosi came to act in it.

There are little details in "Vampire Over London" that readers will cherish, such as Lugosi's practice of commandeering a large prop chair for his dressing room so he could rest his aching back. Or Lugosi constantly puffing on a cigar, his battles with fire marshals over that issue, and the tender recollections of Lillian tending to his cigar while he acted. Despite the aging, often-ill frame, Lugosi was still able to burst out of his coffin at the beginning of the play, and he wowed the fans with his end-of-play solo epilogue. While reviewers and fans sometimes scoffed at an antiquated play, poor special effects, and mediocre support, virtually all reviews praised Lugosi. Another anecdote is Bela insisting the cast perform even though the house that night tallied a few paid attendees.

If you're a Lugosi fan, the book is an essential. As mentioned, it also serves as an excellent history of an era of British stage history that simply doesn't exist anymore. There are detailed appendices that include every review of the play tour that has been located as well as details of "Dracula's" stage history and additional information on the three films. The post-1951 histories of the principals of the play tour are added. It's bittersweet but not surprising to learn that several have died since Volume 1 was published. Co-author Brooks is the webmaster of Vampire Over London: The Bela Lugosi Blog, which is the best Lugosi website on the Internet.

1) In the book, Eric Lindsay, who played Renfield in the 1951 "Dracula," relates his efforts to visit Lillian in the mid 1970s when he was in Los Angeles. According to Lindsey, during their phone call Lillian professed no memory of the British stage tour or of 1951! 

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