Thursday, July 26, 2018

Bela Lugosi, RKO and Genius at Work

By Doug Gibson

(GENIUS AT WORK airs today, July 25, 2018, at 12:45 pm EST on Turner Classic Movies) I finally got a chance -- courtesy of Turner Classic Movies -- to see the Lugosi film that for decades was just about impossible to catch; RKO's 1946 "Genius at Work," a 61-minute programmer for the B comedy team of Abbott and Costello imitators Wally Brown ("Bud") and Alan Carney ("Lou"). It's the second RKO B feature Bela Lugosi made with the low-rent team, who were at least better competitors to A and C than Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo were to Martin and Louis. The first film was the better-known "Zombies on Broadway," with Lugosi a standard mad scientist.

Bela's a henchman named Stone in "Genius at Work," second banana to the film's chief baddie, criminologist Latimer Marsh turned serial killer "The Cobra," played by Lionel Atwill. Wally and Alan are radio detectives who are playing up the Cobra's kills. Ironically, Marsh is their mentor, advising the unsuspecting pair. Eventually, the boys radio show produce, the very attractive Anne Jeffreys, starts to suspect Marsh as a suspect and he and Bela's plan the demise of the radio boys and their lovely producer.

It's important to recall that this is a vehicle for the comedy pair of Brown and Carney. Atwill and Bela play second fiddle as time is spent to provide the stars A and C-type comedy interludes. Perhaps the most effective comedy is when the boys find themselves in Atwill's Marsh's torture dungeon museum in his home, and later when they sneak back into Marsh's home. During these scenes the sinister Lugosi plays off the boys well, scaring them in comic manner.

Here's some notes I provided to a fan/historian of the genre, a co-author of a book on Lugosi, who has yet to see the film: It's nothing special, but it's a fast-paced, enjoyable comedy mystery. Brown and Carney (the Abbott and Costello wannabes) are radio detectives trying to solve kidnappings/murders by "The Cobra." A criminologist, played by Lionel Atwill, is sort of a mentor to them. However, Atwill is The Cobra and with his henchman, Stone (Lugosi) is planning to off the boys because their radio producer, played by Anne Jefferys, is starting to get suspicious. There are a couple of cops for the comedy team to play off and a scene in a torture dungeon museum in Atwill's home that is played for laughs with Lugosi tormenting the duo. It's only an hour, and the second third drags a bit due to some poor plotting but it picks up well at the end. I kept thinking that Lugosi (deserved) the Atwill role until the final reel, where Atwill's character disguises himself as an old woman in a dress, and now I'm glad Lugosi had the lesser role. Final note: No great shakes, but better than Leonard Maltin or Richard Bojorksi claim it is. I'll watch it every so often.

This was the great Lionel Atwill's final feature role; he was dying of cancer and the film was released after his death. He seems a little frail but does a good job. It's a relatively quick film and has enough lowbrow laughs and a good-enough performance from Bela to merit repeat viewings. I mentioned that it was hard to find until recently. "Genius at Work" was recently as an On-Demand DVD offering of several Brown and Carney films but at a pricey cost. Fortunately, TCM aired it and a long-time goal of this reviewer was fulfilled.

Notes: The film was the final of a three-picture deal Lugosi had with RKO. The others were "The Body Snatcher" and the aforementioned "Zombies on Broadway," which Jeffreys was also in. It was his second-to-last movie assignment with a major studio. His last would be "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." Leslie Goodwins directed "Genius At Work," the last of the comedy duo's eight pictures with RKO..

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