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.
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This odd hybrid could only have been produced in an era which gave no credence to genre labels. Riders of the Whistling Skull is the kind of movie which is so delightfully in love with its period that one could easily imagine a true genre geek like Tarantino falling in love with it today. Director Mack V. Wright is completely comfortable throwing horror, western, jungle, mystery and comic relief into a seamless mix.
The Three Mesquiteers (Bob Livingston, Ray Corrigan, and Max Terhune), for those not in the know, were the starring trio of a number of “B” westerns. The well-photographed, well-paced Riders of the Whistling Skull is, by far, the best of these. Pretty girl Betty Marsh (Mary Russell) is searching for her lost father, Professor Marsh (John Van Pelt), who, along with Professor Flaxton (C. Montague Shaw), has been kidnapped by a diabolical Indian cult.
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Stan Laurel and Oliver hardy were, without question, the most successful comedy team in Hollywood history. Not only were they artistically and financially successful but, unlike Abbot and Costello or Martin and Lewis, who pale in comparison, Stan and Ollie actually got along personally because they had a smart approach to their collaboration; for most of their career together they did not associate with each other off-screen.
Stan was certainly the creative end and stories abound about his dedication to his work (and neglect of his multiple wives). Stan often co-wrote the films, produced, co-directed and oversaw editing (usually uncredited). Indeed Stan and Ollie’s career together actually began with Stan directing Ollie in a number of shorts. For Stan Laurel, work was often from dusk til dawn.
Oliver Hardy had a much different approach. For him, work was essential, but it was still a 9 to 5 job. Once the day was done, he bid Stan and crew good-bye and went home to play sports with family and friends. Ollie was perfectly content with Stan being the creative end and whenever he was asked a question regarding the film work he usually said, “Ask Stan.”
Continue reading “WAY OUT WEST (1937)”