Monday, January 18, 2016

Bela Lugosi's poverty row films ... a conversation with Frank Dello Stritto

Interview by Doug Gibson

Plan 9 Crunch is pleased to have a conversation with film scholar Frank J. Dello Stritto, author of many genre articles and three books: "A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore" (a collection of his fine articles), "I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It" (his memoir of life as a "monster boomer) and the recently published a second edition of "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," that he co-wrote with Andi Brooks, who runs the best Bela Lugosi blog.

Dello Stritto's work is priceless to the cult film lover. "Vampire Over London" (our review of the book is our second most popular post) places Dello Stritto and Brooks with Gary Don Rhodes, Robert Cremer and Arthur Lennig as the Lugosi biographers one must read.

A while back, Plan9Crunch interviewed another fine genre scholar, Tom Weaver, about his book, "Poverty Row Horrors." Read it here. After we published it, I thought of interviewing Frank on the low-budget film career of Lugosi, who, it is perfectly just and fair to say, outlasts any other early horror star in prominence in the low-budget chillers of that era. Frank graciously agreed to the interview. We hope you enjoy it; we sure did. By the way, you can buy the three books mentioned above at Cult Movies Press.


1) Was Bela Lugosi (a) initially an A-actor who descended to Poverty Row roles as his career continued.
or, (b)  a Poverty Row actor who through his career occasionally enjoyed roles in A productions.

Dello Stritto: Definitely (A). Bela Lugosi gave outstanding performances when given half a chance. The few A-films in which he had sizeable roles are all enhanced by his presence. He was trapped by his stereotype and by his accent.
But he was a great presence in Poverty Row films, probably the greatest of the Poverty Row stars.

2) What was Bela Lugosi's top performance in a Poverty Row movie role in the 1930s and why?

Dello Stritto: “Poverty Row” did not really come into its own until the 1940s. In the 1930s, the films are “the low-budget independents,” e.g., those films not associated with a major studio (like Universal) or producer (like Samuel Goldwyn). Lugosi’s best among these has to be White Zombie. While it has the shortcomings of most such movies — mainly bad acting by supporting players — it sticks to a simple story and plays almost as a fairy tale. Lugosi’s role, the sorcerer/zombie master, is one that he could play like no other. The weakness of a lot of Poverty Row films is that they are so hurried. Though White Zombie was filmed on a tight schedule, effort was made to bring in some very effective cinematic touches. The editing is surprisingly good. That was all the help Lugosi needed to give one of his most memorable performances.

3) Why did Bela Lugosi find it so hard to find movie roles in low-budget films in 1937-38, during the British ban on horror, while in contrast his rival Boris Karloff thrived at Monogram and Columbia?

Dello Stritto: Boris Karloff was a more versatile actor, a better handler of his career, and was acting in his native language. And his most famous horror roles had been beneath layers of make-up, while Lugosi’s face was the face of Hollywood horror. His voice was the voice of Dracula. When horror went out of fashion, Lugosi went with it. If he had landed a solid role in a good, non-horror movie, he might have broken horror’s hold on him, but that never happened. No producer wanted to take the chance. 

4) What is your personal favorite of Lugosi's Monogram films, and your least favorite, and why?

Dello Stritto: That’s a tough one. When I was a kid, I liked them all, but in truth there is not a really good movie among them. Lugosi’s roles in the Monograms fall in two categories: those where he is purely a cardboard villain, and where his character has more depth than the film cares to deal with. He is on his own in them, and sometimes overcomes the mediocrity of the rest of the movie. My narrow winner is Black Dragons. Lugosi plays a plastic surgeon, betrayed by his Japanese clients and seeking revenge. The movie has its absurdities, but Lugosi does rather well as a basically lonely man working through his obsession before the law gets him.

Bowery at Midnight, Voodoo Man (both which give Lugosi’s character more potential than the movie can ever realize) and Return of the Ape Man (not much depth there, Lugosi is evil through and through) are close second. Except for the two East Side Kids movies, the other Monograms are closely packed in third. Lugosi’s two East Side Kids are distant last place holders. Neither makes good use of him.

5) Is The Devil Bat, from PRC, superior to the Monogram films, and why?

Dello Stritto: It is certainly better than most of the Monograms, and may well stand above all of them. The touches of humor that often simply don’t work in the Monograms, work well enough in The Devil Bat. Lugosi’s part suits him quite well. Dr. Carruthers is a bitter loner, secretly plotting revenge on those who, in his mind, have crossed him. Lugosi has a lot of scenes alone in his laboratory, and his over-the-top acting works well in that setting. The contrast between the hateful man in the laboratory and the charmer when he meets his victims is perhaps over-done, but it is well-done. Lugosi was great at overacting, which sometimes fits in Poverty Row better than in mainstream films.

6) How did RKO, where Bela had a three-film deal, square in the 40s movie world? A productions, Bs, or somewhere in between?

Dello Stritto: RKO may be my favorite Hollywood studio. It is different from the other majors. It was not founded and run for decades by a mogul. It was cobbled together by bankers (one of them Joseph Kennedy) in the early 1930s, and handed off from one production head to another (such as David O. Selznick and Merian C. Cooper). So, it was often saw hard times, and wound up owned by Howard Hughes. But 1940s RKO turned out Citizen Kane and Orson Welles’s early films, and Val Lewton’s nine horror films. It was in the vanguard of film noir, and was the distributor of choice for major independent producers Goldwyn and Selznick. Cary Grant, perhaps the most important star not under contract to one studio, did some of his best 1940s work at RKO. So, RKO may have struggled to stay among the majors, but its output includes as many enduring films as any of its competitors.
In the mid-1940s, Lugosi made three films at RKO: The Body Snatchers, Zombies on Broadway, and Genius at Work. The Body Snatchers is by far the best of them, but Lugosi has a minor role, as he does in Genius at Work. I have great affection for Zombies on Broadway. I loved it as a kid, and my sons when they were eight or so loved it, too. As light entertainment, which is all it tries to be, it dates quite well.

7) Of Lugosi's four films, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, Glen Or Glenda, and Bride of the Monster, where he was mentioned as a star, which is his best performance?

Dello Stritto: The best of performance among them is Dr. Varnoff in Brideof the Monster. It is a true “Lugosi film” built around his character and persona. Again, and for the last time, he is an angry outcast working his mad schemes in secret. The movie has all the incompetence of most Ed Wood films, but Lugosi does quite well with his part. And he has the famous scene where Varnoff bemoans his mistreatment by the world on which he plans vengeance.
Glen or Glenda needs a separate interview. As filmmaking, it is a disaster. But it is such a personal film (by Ed Wood) that I have to give it a nod.  It is like a dream — its parts don’t quite fit together, characters come and go, wild images bubble up from nowhere. Lugosi as whatever he is supposed to be, is quite fine in it.

Mother Riley Meets the Vampire and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla are intentionally silly movies. As he always did, Lugosi tries his best. You can either enjoy the nonsense, or just turn them off. I have done both. 
Thanks again, we appreciate it.

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