A BELA LUGOSI RETROSPECTIVE

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi

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.

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi
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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HIGH NOON (1952)

High Noon

Olive Film’s 60th anniversary Blu-ray edition of High Noon (1952) presents this critically lauded, still controversial western masterpiece in a Hi-Def transfer that renders all other home video versions obsolete.

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The Stanley Kramer production, tightly directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by the blacklisted Carl Foreman, earned the hatred of 1950s McCarthyists, including John Wayne and Howard Hawks, who were so outraged they made Rio Bravo (1959) as a right-wing response. Wayne went further than that, teaming up with Hollywood Gossip mogul Hedda Hopper and the House Un-American Activities Committee to run Foreman out of the country. Foreman moved to England and never returned. Wayne forever boasted of forcing the writer into exile. Kramer, responding to accusations that High Noon was anti-American, tried to get Foreman’s name taken off the credits. Gary Cooper intervened on Foreman’s behalf, making Kramer’s effort unsuccessful, but Kramer had better luck forcing Foreman to sell his part of their company. So much for loyalty under pressure: ironic, given the film’s theme of civic morality.

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The biggest offense of the film, for Wayne and his fellow extremist kooks, was the final shot of Will Kane supposedly dropping his marshal’s badge in the dust and stomping on it. Wayne saw symbolism aplenty, but his faulty vision was filtered through a lens of Cold War paranoia and exaggeration.[1] Will Kane merely dropped the badge. He never stepped on it. The other offense was the portrayal of the townspeople as a greedy, self-cannibalizing lot, a hypocritical church community who argue their way out of communal (and personal) loyalty. Wayne and Hawks’ Rio Bravo depicted, in sharp contrast, a town full of old-fashioned buddy-buddy camaraderie. If Wayne and Hawks were alive today they might have rethought their depiction, because High Noon could served as an apt snapshot of contemporary division. It’s a good thing that actor/director team didn’t live to see the 21st century, though, because despite the intent behind Rio Bravo, and despite its occasional tendency towards sentimental phoniness, it remains, along with High Noon, one of the standout westerns in the genre’s greatest decade.[2] Continue reading