Thursday, July 30, 2015

'The Entertainer' a daughter's biography of dad Lyle Talbot's life in show business

By Doug Gibson

Prior to this week, if one had asked me about the late character actor, Lyle Talbot, I'd have leaned on my knowledge of cult cinema to define him. I'd have cited his three Ed Wood films and his role in the Wood documentaries a generation ago. And I'd recall his appearances as "Lex Luthor" or "Commissioner Gordon," in cheap Superman and Batman serials. Or even his role as a narrator in the Ormond family's cheapo "Mesa of Lost Women."

It's up to Talbot's daughter, New Yorker journalist Margaret Talbot, to do justice to her dad. She has written "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century, " (Riverhead Books) (link),and absolutely brilliant tale that not only encapsulates Lyle Talbot's life, but provides the subject as a background, a Zelig, a symbol, of the history of 20th century mass market entertainment.

As his daughter relates, Talbot never became a star, but he had the privilege of earning his living solely as an actor for more than 70 years, which was his lifetime goal. Born in 1902 to a mother who died a few months later, Lyle was snatched up by his grandmother, Mary Talbot,  -- who kept his natural father away -- and ran a drummers' hotel outside a train station in Brainard, Neb. The very young Lyle never had his own bed, instead sleeping curled next to the Bohemian teenage servant girls, most of Czech origin, who were hired at the hotel to learn homemaking skills, primarily cooking, from Lyle's businesswoman grandma.

Although deprived of contact with his son early, Lyle's dad, Ellis Henderson, eventually met his son and came to have the greatest influence on his life. Ellis and Lyle's stepmother, Anna, became entertainers, traveling the region in circuses, carnivals, predecessors to today's reality TV freak shows, and small acting troupes. Son Lyle, no doubt having the genes from dad, became an entertainer as a teenager. He started at the absolute bottom, not entertaining, but cleaning up at the circuses and carnivals. But, as author Margaret Talbot notes, assumed correctly that he would eventually get a chance to be on stage.

The genesis for many of Margaret Talbot's recollections of dad's life and times derived from the many stories she heard from her father, whether at the dinner table, living room, etc. She's done a good job of research backing the stories as well as providing what must be, for her, priceless photos of her dad at long-gone locations such as the Savidge carnivals, Chase Lister company, with the magician Mock Sad Alli, ... a life of small touring troupes of actors, traveling the Midwest, hoping the gate take would provide enough for a small payday and funds to move on to the next small town with an "opera house."

Lyle gained enough stature in the 1920s to actually start his own acting company in the south; it failed thanks to the Depression. He did attract the eye of a Warner Brothers talent scout and was invited to take a screen test in Hollywood. So broke that he had to borrow money from his agent to fund the trip, Lyle, a good looking young man, beat the odds and earned a contract after the test.

Perhaps the best part of Margaret Talbot's book is her description of Hollywood in the early to mid 1930s and the life of a "movie star," or contract player for a studio. It was a tough, insular, clannish life, with 14-hour work days, contracts that favored the studios, studios that functioned as little worlds of their own, and studio bosses who arranged dates for their contract players and paid off the cops when a "star" got himself in a bit of legal trouble.

The Hollywood described in "The Entertainer" doesn't exist any more, but it must have seemed like a mythical magic kingdom to those far away and those, such as Lyle, who were successes there. It was far away from the Midwest and East, accessible by long train rides or motor trips. As recounted, Talbot had many affairs, often with the women that males dreamed about in movie houses. One of his more serious flings was with the hard-bitten, older silent star Estelle Taylor, who had earlier married, and dumped, heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey.

What I got most from Margaret Talbot's book is a desire to immerse myself in what is described as "Forbidden Hollywood," the steady stream of racy, sexy, hard-bitten films that the studios churned out prior to he Hays Office morality crackdown in the mid-30s. Lyle starred in a bunch of them, including "Three On a Match," which is clearly one of his daughter's favorites. (I'll be searching Turner Classic Movies for this take of lust, adultery, regret.) In these films, Talbot starred with Glenda Farrell, Joan Blondell, Mae West, Loretta Young, Humphrey Bogart and even a very young John Wayne. The stories of Hollywood culture in that age were fascinating, with fan clubs that featured stories about the fans, and stars who were eager to be involved with their fans. In fact, these early fan clubs, described by the author as a type of early "Facebook" with most eager to talk about others rather than themselves, even offered advice and criticism on their stars' handling by the studio bosses.

Talbot's role as a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as his "friendships" with the occasional hood, his traveling by train across country to hype Warner Brothers, the occasional theater gig, and visits from his dad, stepmother and grandma to Hollywood are detailed. I must stress that daughter Margaret's tale strays often from biography, and offers detailed accounts of the entertainment culture of her dad's era.

Lyle Talbot starred in or was featured in hundreds of films; he was ubiquitous in the 1930s and a popular item in film fan magazines. But he never became a star, eventually settling into a role as an independent actor who would take almost any role offered. He had his fat times and his thin times, but he always lived comfortably. Margaret Talbot offers theories as to why her dad never made it to the level of a Bogart or a Grant. He was handsome but lacked that thing called screen presence, that made his face irresistible to audiences. He usually played weaker characters, such as feckless hoods or spurned lovers. There may have been political reasons. His efforts to unionize actors may have annoyed Warner Brothers.

Or maybe it was his problem with alcohol, a quiet but persistent flaw in his personal life for 25 years. He had his share of mishaps, as well as several ill-advised marriages. In the latter half of the 1940s, as Lyle battled middle age and perhaps fears of an alcoholic, solitary middle age, Talbot finally met the woman he would spend 40 years with, Margaret Epple, only 20 (26 years younger than Lyle) but more mature than her years thanks to a few years as breadwinner to a semi-dysfunctional family. Margaret provided what Lyle Talbot yearned for, a family, stability, a home. She also, through some tough love, cured him of his alcoholism problem.

To Talbot, entertaining was as natural as throwing a baseball with his sons. His daughter recalls his ease and lack of nerves behind the stage as the curtain opening drew nearer. Perhaps energized by his successful marriage, he passed through his "Ed Wood era" unscathed, making a smooth and profitable move to television, most notably as the neighbor on the Nelsons on "Ozzie and Harriet." Margaret Talbot provides some interesting tales of how television was greeted by critics, along with a amusing anecdote of a New York Times writer who predicted its failure because people would not take the time to stare at the TV screen. (To cult film fans: Margaret Talbot has little nice to say about her dad's association with Ed Wood. She recounts the oft-told anecdote of a drunken Ed wearing Lyle's wife Margaret's underclothes. She describes "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Jail Bait" as "unwatchable" but has kinder words for "Glen Or Glenda," noting its progressive and forward take on accepting sexual differences.)

I could write more about this marvelous book, my favorite non-fiction offering of 2012, but it's time to stop with the final word of advice that there's much to recommend in Talbot's life and times that is found in his daughter's affectionate re-telling.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ismail and Abdel Meet Frankenstein AKA Have Mercy

By Doug Gibson

A while back on Plan9Crunch, we reviewed a very obscure, but out there for sale, likely illegal 1962 Mexican remake of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. We now bring you an even more obscure Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein likely illegal remake, from Egypt in 1954, called "Abdel and Ismail Meet Frankenstein," (although it was titled "Have Mercy" in Egypt). I actually think this film is a little superior to the Mexican ripoff, but that's not really a compliment. This film is sold via Sinister Cinema.

The film is really cheap, mostly unfunny and has a musical score that makes the score for Ed Wood's "Jail Bait" seem like Beethoven. But, to its threadbare credit, it sticks stubbornly close to the plot of Bud, Lou and Bela's film; even to the point of re-creating, with its character, the most shocking scene of the Universal classic, where Glenn Strange's monster picks up beautiful mad scientist Sandra and throws her through a window to her death. Of course, everything's cheap in this version, the window looks phony, and so on, but I was impressed they included that scene.

Anyway, Egyptian comics, and apparently stars, Ismail Yasseen and Abdel Fatah al Kasri play silly clerks in an antique store. The "Lou" type, Ismail, is romanced by a woman, Samya, who is in cahoots with a mad scientist. (Guess what, Samya wants Ismail's brain!) One night, our boys receive a delivery of a big coffin that contains a mummy that looks just like a dime store traditional Frankenstein monster. Ismail keeps seeing it, Abdel never does and eventually the mad scientist, who looks just like a dime store version of the traditional Dracula, steals the Frankenstein-like mummy.

I digress to mention that Dracula and Frankenstein monster are never mentioned, perhaps to avoid any copyright legalities? There is a wolfman, but he is the assistant to the mad scientist, and he romances the mad scientist's niece; hence the Bud and Lou film characters of Dracula's unknowing assistant, the insurance investigator, and Lon Chaney Jr,'s wolfman are covered in two characters.

To get the boys in a situation where the mad scientist and Samya can get Ismail's brain into the "mummy," the comic pair are engaged as help at a party for the mad scientist's niece. Eventually, everything moves to the same climax scenario that was so funny in Bud and Lou's version. It isn't nearly as funny in this version, and arguably not funny at all 90 percent of the time, but it's fascinating to watch this virtually nil-budget production try so hard to mimic the experts.

At the end, the mummy survives and loses his curse, so he and the niece can live happily ever after. Ismail and Abdel do their version of the Invisible Man blackout that Bud and Lou did so well. There's no lake or boat, and their last-minute visitor is the "angel of death," which sends them running wildly away as the credits start.

This is a fascinating oddity for genre fans, just as the Mexican version is, but don't watch them both in one night; no one needs the torture ... but one can survive 90 minutes of bizarre kitsch.

Friday, July 24, 2015

'House of Frankenstein' really two films in one

By Doug Gibson

I watched an old monster classic, Universal's 1944 monster-fest "House of Frankenstein." Here is a quick review:

The Dracula cameo

"House of  Frankenstein" is really two films fit into one 60-plus minute feature. It involves mad scientist Dr. Gustav Niemann, (Boris Karloff) who escapes from a prison with his hunchback pal Daniel, played well by J. Carrol Naish. It seems that Niemann was imprisoned for helping Dr. Frankenstein years ago. Bent on revenge, he heads to the air of the burgermeister who sent him to prison. Improbably, he encounters Lampini's horror show, run by George Zucco. After killing Lampini, the pair resurrect Dracula (John Carradine) by pulling a stake out of his bones??!! Niemann and Daniel use Dracula to kill the burgermeister but old Dracula has the hots for his daughter (Anne Gwynne). After her husband (Peter Coe) and others go after Dracula to save the young lovely, Niemann abandons Dracula, who dies when the sun hits him.

Enter the wolfman

Niemann and Daniel head for the hills, and encounter a gypsy camp where Daniel falls in love with a young gypsy dancer, Llonka (Elena Verdugo). Somehow the wolfman Larry Talbot joins them and the obsessed Niemann convinces Talbot to help him resurrect Frankenstein. Meanwhile, the gypsy falls for the moody Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), much to Daniel's displeasure. It all ends badly, with Verdugo's gypsy killing Talbot to save him. Unfortunately, she's mortally wounded doing that, which upsets Daniel who goes after Niemann. At this point the Frankenstein monster, played by Glenn Strange, tosses Daniel out the window and carries a badly wounded Niemann into the swamp, where they both sink under quicksand.

A drab Dracula

True, it's convoluted as heck, but it all works OK, particularly with a great cast (Lionel Atwill is also somewhere in there) and capable direction over 71 minutes by Earle C. Kenton. Of the two tales, the first with Dracula is shorter and more crisp. There's nary any fat to the plot. The second tale, with the wolfman and monster, is a bit convoluted. However, the least effective monster acting is Carradine, who is so low key as the vampire that he seems more exhausted than undead. Fortunately, a few years later, Universal International was smart enough to go with Lugosi for the monster spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Naish is not bad with his tortured hunchback with the unrequited love for gypsy Verdugo.

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! 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bela Lugosi, Buster Keaton, Death Kiss and more

By Doug Gibson

Here's another update on some films your Plan9Crunch blogger has been seeing. Watched "Zombies on Broadway" again. I have reviewed it in the past but want to add a couple of tidbits. First, it's clearly the best of the RKO (Abbott and Costello imitators) team of Carney and Brown. And the reason it's the best is due to, drumroll, Bela Lugosi's presence. Before the Hungarian is prevalent, "Zombies ..." drags. Second, it occurred to me that C and B may have not threatened A and C, but they were first in using a Hollywood scare legend in a series film, beating Abbott and Costello by two or three years. Incidentally, Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein is arguably the duo's best film, thanks to Lugosi ... not that Universal execs cared a fig.

I watched, courtesy of TCM, "So Funny It Hurts: Buster Keaton and MGM," a doc on Buster Keaton's ill-fated tenure with MGM 80-plus years ago. I have mixed feelings on all the angst for Buster. True, the later MGM films were mediocre, and the teaming with Jimmy Durante a horror, although "What -- No Beer?" gets obscenely appealing with repeat viewings, but the films didn't harm Buster's career. They made lots of money, and Buster could have used that success to move on to a different studio where he'd have more control. (Harry Langdon would have loved to have the grosses that Buster's MGM films attained.) What sent Keaton into a long tailspin (that he eventually worked himself out of) was his personal ruin, including adultery and severe alcoholism, the latter of which prompted MGM to boot him. He recovered, though, with a happy later marriage and a wonderful last decade as an elder statesman of comedy; I urge comedy fans to catch the late Buster short film The Railrodder.

Finally, watched 1933's "The Death Kiss," a small-budget Lugosi film that also includes Dracula alumni David Manners and Edward Van Sloan, as well as a very attractive Adrienne Ames. This is a murder mystery, not a horror. A film star is shot to death while doing a scene where he's, ahem, supposed to be "shot to death." His estranged wife and fellow actor, Ames, is suspected of the murder. Lugosi plays the studio manager. The role is kind of unexciting; he's neither very sinister or admirable; however, he's Bela, and that makes his scenes stand out. The sleuth/hero is played by Manners, who tries hard to be charismatic with mixed success. A gimmick was a climax scene of colored gunfire. It must have been impressive 82 years ago but seems a bit hokey today. All in all, a film worth viewing, though.

Also watched an Egyptian version of "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and the 1944 Lugosi-included film, "One Body Too Many," and I will discuss those in a future post.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Classic horror films, from what novels came these great flicks?

By Doug Gibson
Ever taken the time to read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein?” Or Bram Stoker’s “Dracula?” You’d be surprised at how both, particularly Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” differ from the iconic movies with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Film scholar Rob Backer provides an entertaining look at the literature behind much of horror cinema in “Classic Horror Films and the Literature that Inspired Them,” McFarland, 2015, 800-253-2187). 
Besides the perennials, such as the above-mentioned and “The Mummy,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and much of Edgar Allan Poe, Backer, a lawyer and self-described avid fan of classic horror films, has added literature and films that may escape the casual fan’s notice. I had never heard of “The Viy,” by Nikolai Gogol, although I have seen the film, “Black Sunday,” that many believe resembles “The Viy,” a tale of a man trying to avoid a fatal encounter with a witch. As Backer notes, though, “Black Sunday,” while a fine film, has virtually nothing to do with the book. He directs readers to an obscure, 1967 Russian film of the same name, which, he writes, “is one of the closest adaptations of a horror story ever filmed.”
I note this because horror films rarely follow closely the literature of which are based. Much of Backer’s book details the similarities, and differences, between the written word and what’s on the screen. As the author frequently stresses, this is not always a negative. In many cases, the shifts in plot are necessary. The mediums are distinct; books allow us insight into the thoughts of major characters, and more clues into how society and culture has shape them. Film has an hour or two to tell a good story. Often in the book, Backer laments the “boring” parts of a horror novel, the reading detours exploring mood swings of characters. Film appropriately bypasses these sections.
To continue reading this review, go to the website of the Standard-Examiner newspaper, where it was originally published.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Robot Monster - A Great 'Bad' Movie

By Steve D. Stones

Just how bad is Robot Monster (aka Monster From Mars - 1953)? If you consider that the entire story of the film is mostly from the point of view of a child's dream, it's really not that bad of a movie. Reviews of the film were so bad that director Phil Tucker is said to have attempted suicide. The Elmer Bernstein score eventually gets as annoying and redundant as the score by Hoyt Curtain for Ed Wood's "Jail Bait (1953)" - another great "bad movie."

Little Johnny enters a cave to play spaceman with his younger sister when he encounters two archaeologists looking for evidence of a past civilization. The two archaeologists are invited to a picnic by Johnny's mother and sister.

After waking from a short sleep during the picnic, Johnny discovers that one of the archaeologists is now his father - a man old enough to be his great-grandfather, and that the world has been wiped out by a Ro-Man - an alien in a silly gorilla suit with a diver's helmet and TV antenna on top.  Ro-Man hides in the same cave where the two archaeologists were conducting their search at the beginning of the film. He keeps communication with his leader from another planet on a cheap looking television transmission set.

It turns out that Johnny and his family are the only survivors of Ro-man's annihilation - which is a total of six people. Ro-man's leader orders him to destroy the remaining six with a "calcinator ray," but he can't seem to get it right. He constantly fiddles with his communication device in the cave as he threatens the family. He even watches stock footage of dinosaurs fighting - a scene likely appropriated from the 1925 silent film - The Lost World.

The family discovers a serum that protects them from Ro-man's death ray. Little Johnny is the first to survive with the serum after he encounters Ro-man and calls him a "pooped out pin wheel." This has to be one of the funniest scenes in the film, next to Ro-man trying to make a date with Johnny's older sister - Alice.

Rhino Video issued a VHS 3-D print of Robot Monster with two 3-D glasses in the early 1990s. This print is difficult to watch because the 3-D treatment of the film actually does not work.  A 3-D print of Cat Women of The Moon (1953) was also issued by Rhino Video with just as poor results.

Wearing the 3-D glasses for either film simply does not work. However, for the serious collector of B-movies, like myself, it is still fun to have the VHS copy of both Robot Monster and Cat Women of The Moon with the glasses.  The artwork on the box of both videos is worth the price of admission. Happy viewing!