Monday, September 30, 2013

Black Dragons, the wackiest Bela Lugosi Monogram film!

Editor's note: I watched Black Dragons last Saturday for likely the seventh or eighth time and loved it so much, as always, that I resolved to write a review. I went to Plan9Crunch and, lo and behold, learned I penned a review three-plus years ago. OK, so many reviews; hard for this 50-year-old brain to recall them all. So, I will re-post it but reserve the right to add more observations, which I have (in black). -- Doug Gibson

Black Dragons is probably Bela Lugosi's oddest C-movie cheapie, and let's face it, the competition is fierce. But, oh, how I love these old '40s gems. It's a Monogram film, made under its Banner Productions. I'm sure it played in LA and NYC street theaters and smaller cities and towns, perhaps paired with an East Side Kids flick?

But I digress: Black Dragons, 1942, directed by William Nigh, runs 69 B&W minutes and stars Lugosi as Dr. Melcher and Monsieur Colomb. He's a sinister guy who pops up just as a bunch of American industrialists are getting mysteriously bumped off. There is also pretty Joan Barclay as the niece of a Dr. Saunders (Robert Frazer), who is all mixed up in whatever is going on. It's also fun to see future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore as an FBI agent.

Now, we have mysterious deaths, we have Lugosi. It's all set to be a horror, right ... ahem, no. This is 1942, the U.S. is at war with the Axis, and Monogram head honcho Sam Katzman saw money to be made by creating a combination thriller/WW2 propaganda anti-Japanese film. So that's what Black Dragons is, and it makes the film an interesting historical curio piece. One has to appreciate Katzman's ability to mix patriotism with a quick buck! He had this film in the can and ready for theaters by late spring 1942. The film ends with a banner headline, "Jap spy ring smashed!" and a fade out of Old Glory, the American flag.

You see, these U.S. industrialists are Japanese spies, created through plastic surgery to look like the American industrialists. Lugosi was the Nazi surgeon who did all this in Japan ... and then was doublecrossed and thrown in prison. Somehow -- the film sort of glosses over this -- Lugosi escaped Japan and headed to the U.S. to get his revenge on the spies. The plot is delightfully bizarre. Lugosi not only conducts plastic surgery on the Japanese agents, he lightens their skin and provides them accents, as well as hair and body shapes. All the industrialists who are now having doubles were killed off sans anyone knowing, even their families! Once Lugosi's character is tossed into a Japanese cell, which appears to be all stone, he somehow is able to conduct perfect plastic surgery -- from his bag -- on another prisoner!

As I mentioned, I love these time-capsule films. Monogram was famous for its bizarre intricate plots that its ultra-low budgets just could never keep up with. They dissolve into fun nonsensical action. Lugosi is Lugosi in this film. He's wonderful, whether he's coyly flirting with starlet Barclay or cleverly and calmly dispatching his victims. And there's also that wonderful, ubiquitous menacing, Monogram music. As Lugosi biographer Arthur Lennig notes, this was the last film in which Lugosi (in his early 60s) was considered attractive to a young lovely. Barclay does flirt rather unabashedly with Bela. Also, Robert Frazer, who co-starred with Lugosi in the classic "White Zombie," is in this film.

The boom of video and DVD plus public domain has made Black Dragons, once rather obscure, easy to find. It's often in the $1 DVD bin at Wal-Mart or in the 20- to 50-set public domain offerings. Those with broadband Internet can watch it free on the Net. Buy it and enjoy an hour-plus diversion into a different filmmaking existence. I love the opening sequence, where fat, bloated and old Washington pols, lobbyists and businessmen are partying with lots of liquor, cigars and blonde babes. Some things never change.

-- Doug Gibson

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