According to Bela Lugosi‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions. However, several biographers have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period. It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones. Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings. After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States. Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films. In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play. With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.
In 1929, director Tod Browning, shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929). Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence and brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas. Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part. His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language version of Dracula (shot at the same time on the same sets as Browning’s classic). Years later, Lugosi bitterly complained about the typecasting which resulted from the film, but realistically, Dracula was the best thing that happened to the actor. With his limited acting skills and heavy accent, Lugosi never could have been successful in the romantic matinee roles he desired.
Between Men is a strongly composed “B” directed by Robert North Bradbury (Courageous Avenger and several of John Wayne’s Lone Star Westerns). Bradbury was also the father of B-Western star Bob Steele, and his expertise in the genre is delightfully natural. Between Men has a strong cast in Johnny Mack Brown as the stalwart hero, and this may well be his best role. Beth Marion excels as the love interest, as does William Farnum in his scene-stealing role as Brown’s tormented father and Earl Dwire as the standard slimy villain.
Between Men has a richly melodramatic plot. Farnum (great wide- eyed acting) believes he has killed his young son (Brown) and flees west. Actually, the boy was only injured and is adopted by Lloyd Ingram. Twenty years pass and the visuals shift from the upper-scale Virginia countryside to the stark New Mexico desert as Brown embarks on a journey to find his adopted father’s long lost granddaughter (Marion). Farnum has assumed a new name and is now Marion’s guardian after his hired hand (Dwire) rustles her cattle, kills her father, and attempts to raper her. Marion is saved by a “drifter” whom Farnum hires for protection, not realizing that Brown is his son, whom he believes to be dead.
Robert North Bradbury often seemed to add a pinch of the offbeat into his westerns, but when it came to directing his son, star Bob Steele, there was a downright oedipal underpinning because, quite often, Bob was thrust into an onscreen situation in which he lost his father.
Big Calibre utilizes this plot situation yet again, but regardless what Sigmund would have to say about it, it is of little consequence to this enjoyably odd oater. Bob’s father is killed and robbed of his cattle cash by a local chemist, played by screenwriter and Steele friend Perry Murdock. Bob pursues him, but the chemist escapes. Some time later, Bob, still in pursuit of his father’s murderer, is accused of holding up a stagecoach and murdering Peggy Campbell’s father, who also was robbed and killed with corrosive gas while en route to save his ranch from foreclosure.
Time to dust off this collection of B-Westerns from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun Collection. The packaging is ultra-cool, starting off with those priceless trailers:
Trailer # 1: “Ride at Full Gallop into a Thundering Texas Romance to the rescue of a girl haunted by killers! Johnny Mack Brown as the fist-flashing GENTLEMAN FROM TEXAS” blazes across the screen as Johnny shoots and punches his way across bar tables. Add in beer bottles over the head, a pretty dame named Claudia Drake and the TrailsMen singing “Texas Jubilee” on banjos. It’s a “Violent Drama of Valorous Love and Texan Vengeance” from Monogram Pictures.
Trailer # 2 screams “It’s the Real McCoy” (as in Tim McCoy) “heading this way to tame the town that defied the law!” More fisticuffs, six-guns blazing, horses, good guys in white hats, and fallen bad guys in black hats (who never bleed) are all promised. “The Outlaw Deputy Tim McCoy made bad men check their guns while he checked up on romance! Cow-Town became a mad-house of Thundering Action when the nerviest outlaw East of the Rockies turns OUTLAW DEPUTY!” A Puritan Picture.
Trailer #3: ” Come Along Boys and Girls on a Thrilling Trip to MYSTERY MOUNTAIN where KEN MAYNARD the screen’s most popular Cowboy Actor and his famous horse TARZAN will ENTHRALL you! will THRILL you! will STARTLE you! in their 1st SUPER SERIAL! ACTION! ROMANCE! All the THRILLS of THE OLD WEST! Don’t miss seeing Ken Maynard and his horse Tarzan in MASCOT’S MIGHTY EPIC SERIAL MYSTERY MOUNTAIN! WATCH FOR IT!” This one has all the elements of the previous two, but throws in locomotives and a star horse.
The Miracle Rider was the last film of Tom Mix and his horse Tony, Jr. (Tony Sr. had departed this earthly realm). It is a sound serial from Mascot with twice the normal Mascot budget. Mix was 55 when he made this and showing it. Although his voice was deep and suitable for sound, and he was still in good shape, Mix looked his age and was now using a stunt double for complicated stunts. Mix had made several sound films for Universal, but they fared only moderately well. Mix had officially retired and was promoting his Tom Mix circus when he was talked back to the silver screen for one last go round. It is fortunate he did. The Miracle Rider was an astounding success, making both Mix and Mascot over ten times its investment. The serial is one of the better serials of the period, too, and so Mix went out on top, dying five years later in an automobile accident. Even though Mix had been out of the public eye for five years following Miracle Rider, his death caused a large outpouring of grief. Mix’s enigmatic life, career and tragic demise are the stuff of legend.
“With a few exceptions, The Bride of Frankenstein represented the last gasp of the horror film as a serious genre,” claimed Andrew Sarris. The late critic had a point. By now, Whale’s blackened horror comedy sequel to Frankenstein (1931) has become so legendary, it is almost too easy to forget how much Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a standalone film, possessing a texture unlike anything before or since. Genre classifications be damned.
Director James Whalehad vehemently and repeatedly refused Universal Studio’s pleas for a sequel to his runaway 1931 hit, but when they promised him carte blanche, his enthusiasm was inspired. Whale set to work on a high camp satire, playing havoc with Western family values. Our contemporary idea of a Gothic celluloid baseball bat taken to the bourgeoisie might be Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family Values (1993). Compared to Whale’s authentic island of misfits, the creepy, kooky klan are comparatively status quo. Continue reading →
The Raven (1935) marks the second teaming of Universal’s dual horror stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It is also downright mortifying in its pedestrianism. Director Lew Landers simply did not have the sense of style or vision with which Edgar G. Ulmer imbued The Black Cat(1934) .
Worse, Landers lacked the foresight or directorial strength to shape or reign in Lugosi’s performance. Lugosi’s overacting is both the key to that which remains most fascinating about The Raven and, paradoxically, sinks the film into abject parody. It was Lugosi’s deliriously sadistic antics here which inspired the two-year UK ban on horror films. The ban significantly hurt Lugosi, causing his salary stock, never good to begin, to plummet. Seeing The Raven today through a decidedly more jaded contemporary lens, one wonders what all the fuss was about. Still, one can easily imagine why 1935 audiences were nonplussed regarding the Hungarian ham.
As the Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed, stark staring mad Dr. Vollin, Lugosi melodramatically throws up his arms, laughs maniacally, and screams: “Poe, you are avenged!” It plays like a scene out of a wretched comic book, with a Transylvanian Marx Brother in the lead role. The reason for Vollin’s madness is his unrequited love of the prettified Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), which never seems feasible. In gratitude for Vollin saving her life, Jean does a Poe-inspired ballet for him, but the dance is as dull as she is. Earlier, Vollin compares himself to a god, and that is ultimately the nagging problem with Lugosi’s screen persona. Karloff inspires us to identify with his suffering and outsider status: Lugosi, with few exceptions, distances himself from his audience. Continue reading →
London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era. Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.
MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate. For Mayer, film was strictly profitable, escapist fare to corn feed an increasingly dumb down audiences. At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world. Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim). However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality. Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit. He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.