Tuesday, 28 November 2017
The last of Bud and Lou’s riotous collisions with Universal’s vault of horror icons was in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). This seems to have been long overdue in that detours were made after tangling with the big three of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man by way of half-hearted tangling with Boris Karloff, a belated crossing of paths with the Invisible Man and then falling foul of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde before seemingly realising they still had one more of the studio’s Hall of Fame to encounter. Admittedly The Mummy as a franchise had dragged its weary soul through enough diminishing quality sequels to understandably seal its own sarcophagus from the inside. However, one last bid was made to create laughs in the midst of fear around Lou’s panicky coward persona and Bud’s overbearing know-it-all.
As we saw in Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there were definite signs of weariness in the duo after almost two decades together and 36 films. (This was to be their penultimate one together before finally calling it a day with Dance with Me, Henry the next year). Lou was still dogged by recurring rheumatic fever which caused him to noticeably lose weight, and Bud now looked heavier than he. Meet the Mummy appears to be the only one of their films where John Grant received sole screenplay credit after all his years of service. Sadly it is a poor showcase for him.
Bud and Lou ,under their stage names, are two pith-helmeted numbskull explorers seeking their fortune in Cairo who get wind of the need for a couple of guys to chaperone the body of Klaris, a mummy who in life guarded the tomb of Princess Ara. His corpse bears a sacred medallion said to point to the location of her fabled treasure. Inevitably the boys become a target for a cult led by a dark, satanic femme fatale (aren’t they all when it comes to our heroes?) Madame Rontru, played betwitchingly by Marie Windsor. In real life she was a protégé of Maria Ouspenskaya, famous for her Gypsy Maleva in The Wolf Man movies. Perhaps a little of the Polish grand dame’s occult flavour was handed down to her almond-eyed student, a character ruthlessly pursuing the medallion for her own gain.
The sinister group will stop at nothing, firstly killing Klaris’s finder Dr Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch). There is a smile-worthy moment when Lou listens to a tape Zoomer made before he death in which he decrees that deaths awaits the acquisitive. “Ohhh” Lou tails off, mournfully in response. Bud and Lou soon realise the deadly import of the trinket after they have the bright idea of trying to sell it in the marketplace to find out its true value. “It’s death to whoever find it!” shrieks one trader. On hearing this, the dunderhead duo feud between themselves in a restaurant set-piece in which they repeatedly conceal it in each other’s hamburgers until Lou eats it with the kind of lingering, to-camera resigned reactions reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.
Madame Rontru’s single-mindedness is so extreme that, when seduction fails, she forces Lou to undertake an x-ray so she can prove the medallion is inside him and then forcibly remove it – to expectedly fatal results. An amusingly surreal gag is the crew’s shaking-up of him that results in the dislodged parts forming ‘HELP’ on the next scan.
The evil lady boss teams up with the balding, sinister Semu (Richard Deacon) who she will blithely double-cross on her way to the treasure. Genre fans may recognise Deacon from the original 1956 Invasion of the body Snatchers and The Birds (1963), but here he subtracts any lustre from his scenes by delivering his lines as though embalmed like his quarry. Also along for the wicked ride is Michael Ansara in one of the early roles that made use of his Syrian colouring to simulate different ethnicities – sometimes playing First Nation parts in Westerns. Later he would find sci-fi fantasy stature as Klingon commander Kang across Star Trek TV franchises: Star Trek (1966), Deep Space Nine (1993) and Voyager in 1995.
With banal villain lines like Semu’s “Two more mice come to nibble at the golden cheese” we can be grateful that the last act at least has some enlivenment and one or two chills in store within the tomb itself that Lou accidentally stumbles into via a secret passage. The set design with its central sarcophagus and wall hieroglyphics is impressively spacious, if uncannily clean and spartan like a modern ballroom.
Lou is terrorised by a flying bat, a mischievous skeleton and a giant process-shot lizard. Eddie Parker, an in-demand stuntman who doubled for Lon Chaney in his earlier Mummy sequels, embodies Klaris and adds more substance to the threat level after he is awakened from slumber. On the rampage he’s fairly convincing - which is more than can be said for his bandaging which is evidently a one-piece suit instead of bound wrapping. Following a lame three-way farce set-up involving a trio of mummies (Klaris, one of the henchman and Bud), Parker may well raise a goosebump or two in the faint-of-heart as he goes after the treacherous Rontru. Bullets are no match for him; ultimately it takes a sizeable wedge of dynamite to blow him up in a death more excitingly rendered than some of the genuine horror endings of the original film series.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy is a weak ending to their experiments in horror-comedy hybrids. All too often the movies were cut-and-shut vehicles fused together from disparate elements without due care for roadworthiness. Only Meet the Invisible Man found an artful way to mix genres. There is a sense as well with this last one of the boys’ ongoing struggle with the watering-down of their plots. They had often complained about the preponderance of song and dance ‘interruptions’ insisted upon by Universal; Meet the Mummy shoe-horns in a song by Peggy King and no less than three sneaked-in choreographed dance numbers.
Despite tax problems that later bedevilled them, Abbott and Costello could look back on a monumental run of over twenty years together that conquered every medium they worked in – from theatre to radio, film to television – and at one point made them the most popular and highest paid entertainers in the world...
Monday, 27 November 2017
For their fourth jaunt into horror-comedy mash-ups involving infamous monsters, Bud and Lou’s producers still kept The Mummy on the back incense-burner while they took on another unholy double-act in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953). Although versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s lurid 1886 tale had unleashed man’s inner primitive self on screen since 1908, surprisingly this was only the second time it had been exploited for humour – the first being Stan Laurel’s excellent pre-Hardy solo short from 1925, Dr Pickle and Mr Pryde (see my earlier review). The other more pleasant surprise is the degree of integrity that the Abbott and Costello brand applies to their remake. Theirs is less of a comedy (mainly bereft of laughs, which is a weakness) and more like a straight horror homage with added comedy support – in some ways to its benefit – in a script by Sid Fields partnered with Lee Loeb and the usually dependable John Grant. Fans may be disappointed that one-liner gags are unusually sparse in the resulting script, sacrificed for kinetic physical energy.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the second time the boys were pitted against Universal’s master of velvety menace, Boris Karloff. Intriguingly, the studio’s original choice was Basil Rathbone. Due to his unavailability, house director Charles Lamont suggested Karloff again for a role that would be his first return to full-on monstrosity since working with Rathbone on Son of Frankenstein (1939).
Such is the film’s keenness to respect Stevenson’s story that Bud and Lou are only in one scene in the first twenty minutes. Instead we are given time to be gradually absorbed into the Hollywood idea of Victorian London with its pea-souper fog, ever-present police ‘bobbies’ and a commendably serious bid to establish the key relationships. The opening in fact goes straight for horror frissons by showing Mr Hyde beating to death eminent surgeon Dr Poole (named after Jekyll’s butler in the novel) with his cane in Hyde Park.
We are then introduced to the romantic lead, reporter Bruce Adams played by an assured Craig Stevens four years before becoming TV’s equally dogged private eye Peter Gunn. He becomes enamoured of suffragette music-hall chanteuse Vicky Edwards (Helen Westcott) which is more than modern feminists will after seeing how they are portrayed here. How are they shown drumming up support for their cause to be taken seriously? Why, by a Folies Bergère cabaret song and dance complete with high-kicking leg show of course!
The meeting soon descends into lowbrow rough-and-tumble when Abbott and Costello arrive as two American cops, Tubby and Slim, learning on the job about British policing. They soon learn they are not cut out to handle excitable public disorder in a riotous set-piece of Keystone Kops-style acrobatic stunt-work matching the unsubtlety of their character names. (This vibe carried over into their next film where they indeed meet Mack Sennett’s force of farce). Meanwhile, Karloff’s highbrow Dr Jekyll, very distingué in grey hair and moustache, whisks away Bruce and Vicky (his ward) in a carriage ride that allows him time to set out his experimental agenda in a speech delivered in a single close-up: “It is the less fortunate that I want to help. If I can find some way to tame that instinct so that it is always under control -then perhaps we can eliminate bloodshed, violence…” This allowance for detailed exposition is rare in this type of comedy and the substance must have been heartening for Karloff even though it is rather plainly written - and there are clunkier dialogue points to come.
Jekyll’s depth of pondering on man’s duality is a dead giveaway that he is more than just idly theorising. His home features a huge underground laboratory complete with John Dierkes’s hulking mute assistant Batley. Privately Jekyll wrestles with his conscience, tipping off the audience as to his alter-ego - “the embodiment of all that’s evil” - but one whose raw power wins out as being the only way to eliminate the snooping Bruce. The first of Karloff’s two transformations uses conventional dissolve photography by David S. Horsley to morph his face into one of the new technology fitted rubber masks rather than the time-consuming facial prosthetics painstakingly built up when Jack Pierce was in charge. This would have suited the aging Karloff who had endured more than his fair share of make-up chair hardships in the past. Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan augment the bestial element with a porcine snout and fangs to make Hyde resemble a primitive hog. The heavy disguising by the mask-work also pays off during the demanding physicality of Hyde’s rampages, replacing both Karloff (and later Costello) undetectably with stuntmen.
Where the lack of good comic byplay for the boys becomes glaringly evident is in the scenes following this where they pursue Karloff’s Hyde into the music-hall backstage area in a vain attempt to regain their jobs. What was once a frantic trading of Lou’s ‘fraidy-cat badinage with Bud’s frustrated naysaying in their heyday is now reduced to underpowered and thin reactions. Both men seem tired and a little disengaged now after all these years. Even a wax museum sequence only reminds us of their better days: we see effigies of Dracula and an electrically-animated Frankenstein Monster coming to life as briefly as comic interest in the film.
Having said that, as I’ve already intimated, what is comedy’s loss is arguably horror’s gain as the plot is streamlined by the narrative drive of pursuing Hyde and poor Lou’s status as a two-time victim of transformational serums. While the boys investigate Jekyll’s ongoing animal experimentation, including a savagely barking rabbit-dog hybrid, he drinks a potion that turns his head and hands into those of a mouse. To save time (and regrettably laughter potential) he simply sports a costume fur head reminiscent of the Mouse King from The Nutcracker Suite whilst nibbling at lame cheese-related wisecracks.
It’s a good thing the action scenes are well-handled as the verbal connective tissue sometimes hits the floor with a resounding thud. A classic example is Vicky’s confrontation with her shape-changing guardian (who secretly covets her for himself): “Henry, is it true you’ve been experimenting with weird drugs that turn humans into animals?”
Beleaguered Costello barely has time for pest control before his sits on a hypodermic and turns himself into a marauding Hyde doppelganger, thus causing confusion to the cops and, as they say, frightening the horses. At least the fast and furious climax shows off elaborate set designs from Bernard Herzbrun and Eric Orbom on the ground and above the rooftops. All is rendered more or less right with the world once Karloff plunges to his death and a restored Lou reverts back to his innocent self – though like Meet the Invisible Man it is capped with a perplexing gag as for some reason the apprehending officers now chase him off as multiple Hydes!
Overall, Abbott and Costello meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde struggles as schizophrenically as its eponymous horror villain between being a cultivated horror picture and an unsavoury beast of base comedy.
Saturday, 25 November 2017
Almost two years after all-too-briefly meeting Boris Karloff on screen in 1949, Bud and Lou’s creative team opted to do another comedy film plundering Universal’s horror back catalogue for inspiration. The Mummy was yet to be excavated, but instead a story was developed by Hugh Wedlock Jr and Howard Snyder centred around The Invisible Man whom you’ll recall made a cheeky, hat-tipping audio cameo via Vincent Price’s voice at the end of Meet Frankenstein (1948). The resulting script welcomed back the team of Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and invaluable house gag-smith John Grant; their first film with the boys since that classic horror-comedy melange three years before, and the more assured tone given to this new one is as transparent as H.G. Wells’ anti-hero. Russian-born veteran comedy director Charles Lamont cut his teeth in churning out silent comedy shorts for the likes of Mack Sennett before later graduating to Universal features. This would be his second for Bud and Lou, going on to helm all their last three horror-tinged ones we will explore.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) benefits from using the most compelling aspect of the sublime 1933 Claude Rains original: his eroding humanity into serum-inspired megalomania. Fans will recall its sly black humour even so, courtesy of masterful director James Whale. As a vehicle for this loud comedy duo though, a less subtle approach was needed to play to their strengths. The clever stroke was splicing the plot to a vigorous genre whose literally knockabout energy suited Bud and Lou’s style: the sports movie. To be specific, the writers used the popular sub-genre of corruption in the boxing world, one they would have seen notably exploited in the recent Body and Soul (1947), The Set-up and Champion (both 1949).
Abbott and Costello – actually named Bud and Lou here - make the acquaintance of a boxer when he is their first client as new graduates of the Dugan Detective School - The acronym D.D.T. a deliberate reference to the controversial pesticide on sale in the U.S. from 1945. Tommy Nelson has broken out of jail and is on the run from the cops as chief suspect in his manager’s murder following a middleweight bout. Arthur Franz is fittingly raw as Nelson, combining the decency of the lead’s pal he played in Invaders From Mars (1953) with the gritty edge of his most famous role, the unhinged homicidal ex-soldier in The Sniper (1952).
Tommy is desperate to prove his innocence, so the boys agree to take him to see his fiancée Helen Gray, the lovely Nancy Guild, and her uncle Dr Philip Gray, a scientist who just happens to be experimenting with a revolutionary invisibility serum. (Though American-born, Gavin Muir’s English education equipped him with a handy British accent for a career of upmarket Hollywood villains.) He supplies a nice name-check and a wall photo harking back to Claude Rains’ John Griffin from The Invisible Man (rather than the gradually weaker sequels) to warn Tommy of the mental instability the serum still causes until a reagent can be created. The frantic Nelson cannot wait that long, and as the police arrive he sends the Grays out to run interference while he self-injects the drug. A further nod to the superior originating film is the sight of Tommy resembling Rains’ iconic bandaged head complete with goggles.
From here on, this spin-off of two worlds is well mined for the visual gag potential of invisibility and the co-opting of boxing physicality for laughs. Verbal gags are thinner on the ground, despite an occasional pleasing turn of phrase such as Lou’s eye-witness account to the cops that Tommy disappeared “in instalments”.
There are some boisterous burlesque-style routines, such as Lou’s subsequent visit to a city psychiatrist (Paul Maxey, better suited to portraying a burly butcher perhaps) who, along with an office full of others, falls under Lou’s reverse hypnosis. There’s a slick sleight of hand sequence where Lou continually pockets their new client’s retainer despite Bud’s best efforts to keep hold of it.
We also see the advancement of special optical effects since the early Thirties by David S. Horsley. He had worked on the last three sequels: The Invisible Man Returns and its jokier follow-up The Invisible Woman (both 1940) plus the espionage war iteration The Invisible Agent (1942). He creates marvellous moments of floating objects, especially some seamless card manipulation by the unseen Tommy during a game.
The transparent fugitive is a great lynchpin for drawing together the funny and the serious elements on offer. On the one hand, Tommy partners Lou in a show-off exhibition at the gym to convince murder-guilty gangster Morgan (Sheldon Leonard, continuing his crime-wave after Zombies on Broadway’s Ace Miller) to pit him in a bout against John Daheim’s Rocky Hanlon. This then sets up Lou’s unlikely porky pugilist in the extended end fight for maximum sight-gags. To the movie’s credit, it meanwhile honours the horror franchise in never forgetting the vital escalating monstrosity building inside Tommy. “I don’t want friends. I want followers” he drunkenly declaims in a club.
The fight clock is ticking. Can Bud and Lou expose Morgan as the one who framed Tommy before their client is KO’d by his inner megalomania? It’s hard to believe that Morgan as written is trusted with anything more demanding than the mob’s laundry, such is his stupidity. Not only does he send ‘Louie the Looper’ a note spelling out a death threat if he doesn’t take a dive (handy evidence for the cops), he even accompanies it with the boys’ $15,000 bribe in advance. His moll Boots Marsden (Adele Jergens), unable to win over Lou either with her siren seductiveness, is understandably deadpan when he tells her he has the syndicate’s entire holdings riding on the match.
We are then given a ring-side seat for an extended climactic bout between the two totally mismatched opponents - sight-gags aplenty capitalising on a comedy scenario dating as far back as silent maestros Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Plot-wise, the hapless Lou simultaneously aims for authenticity, avoids a beating by Hanlon and gets a two-fisted unseen assist by Tommy to actually win, much to Morgan’s eventual self-incriminating rage.
It only remains for Tommy to receive the re-agent in a blood transfusion with Costello that somehow backs up into bestowing invisibility upon the donor. Lou blithely rolls with the punch as gifting him future detective stealth, albeit with an inexplicable back-to-front torso!
Like Brando’s doomed ex-boxer Terry “I coulda been a contender” Molloy in On the Waterfront (1954), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man ultimately had no chance of an awards title-shot - but it comes out swinging, and sometimes with this pair that bruiser spirit goes the distance...
Thursday, 23 November 2017
By the time of their huge resurgence of success with Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello were averaging roughly two movies a year, so after Mexican Hayride (a Cole Porter musical denuded of songs due to audience complaints that their films had too much music) they released another horror-edged comedy, though one less obvious than before. Instead of pitting them against three Universal monsters, this time their opponent was to be the studio’s greatest horror star.
Boris Karloff had shot to overnight stardom in his mid-forties with Frankenstein (1931) and since then had maintained a loyal and grateful relationship with the studio that made his name. In his early flush of fame, the studio’s marketing department had in fact shortened his to just ‘Karloff’ to take advantage of its slightly sinister association. Rather than see this as reductive and demeaning, ever the gentleman Karloff saw it as a rare honour bestowed usually on stellar luminaries like ‘Garbo’. However, there could be nothing but cynical positioning in a title like Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), which must hold a record for managing to mislead fans on three levels. Not only is Karloff not playing a murderer, or appearing under his stage name, but to top it off he isn’t even a main character, reduced instead to a small supporting part that was originally intended for a female character named Madam Switzer. The little Karloff can bring to his brief screen time does aid in edging a simple crime caper movie tenuously into the boys’ horror-comedy sub-series.
Once again, Charles Barton pacily directs a script written by Hugh Wedlock, Jr, Howard Snyder and with added gag polish by John Grant. Set in the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel, Bud plays the hotel’s cigar-chomping house detective Casey Edwards, cousin to Lou’s bumbling bellboy Freddie Phillips. The hotel plays host to an eminent criminal attorney Amos Strickland (a suitably egotistical, short-fused Nicholas Joy), poised to publish memoirs that could implicate a group of former clients who also non-coincidentally happen to be guests. At least he would if not found dead shortly after Freddie’s incompetent handling of him gets the poor schlub fired. On going to his room to apologise, Freddie discovers his dead body and becomes an immediate suspect. The rest of the film is his bid to clear his name helped by Casey whilst Strickland’s ex-clients try to cover their tracks by bumping him off.
The first to attempt Freddie’s murder is Lenore Aubert as Angela Gordon, channelling the same evilness of agenda and vampish charm she had in Meet Frankenstein. She has a femme fatale history of poisoning an ex-husband with champagne cocktails. Lou needs no initial incentive to fall for her though, prompting one of the movie’s best exchanges:
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Yes. It don’t go over so good with the boys”.
Freddie is gullible enough to be persuaded by Angela to write and sign a confession to Strickland’s murder. What he won’t do thankfully is drink the deadly cocktail.
Somehow our hero’s natural stupidity also saves his life when tangling with Karloff’s ‘Fake Swami from Brooklyn’. The role of Talpur is a breeze for the star (his Anglo-Indian ancestry adding a touch of authenticity to the romp); he gamely shows up in elegant silk and a bejewelled turban to serenely dispense a dark lulling mesmerism upon Freddie. This is possibly the funniest scene in the picture as we see, even under hypnosis, dimwit Freddie has enough survival instinct to thwart Talpur’s commands. “You’re going to commit suicide if it’s the last thing you do!” urges Karloff. Freddie sabotages the Swami’s efforts by bringing down a rigged-up hangman’s noose, and jumps backward into the room instead of throwing himself out of it. The creepy urgency of Karloff certainly adds a macabre frisson to the laughs.
The only other scene that earns The Killer its place as a genre hybrid movie is later on after the bodies of two Strickland associates, Mike Relia and secretary Milford (Vincent Renno and Morgan Farley) are found in various locations designed to point the finger at Freddie. He first of all disguises himself as a chambermaid to transport the bodies in a laundry cart, thus earning the amorous and unwelcome attention of employee Abernathy (Percy Helton). Bud and Lou then desperately fake a card game using the two corpses in an impromptu bridge foursome to throw Abernathy off the scent. The sight of the bodies drooping over the table manages a frisson or two within the farcical set-up as Abernathy offers lecherous assistance to the new ‘maid’ – (“You’ve got a stiff there”).
For the most part, this is a standard Abbott and Costello vehicle. No-one could accuse Lou of not giving his money’s worth, although his frantic energy feels forced at times compensating for often weak gags. This may have also been due to the lingering after-effects of his infant son’s tragic drowning in the family’s swimming pool five years before; he was no longer a man as light in temperament as he had been before the tragedy.
The stakes are made high enough by the constant pursuit of intrepid Inspector Wellman (a barking, hard-boiled turn from James Flavin), but there’s no denying this is a disappointing missed opportunity to build a stronger film around Karloff’s wasted marquee value boasted by the title. The climactic staging of a well-realised cavern set (with impressive depth of perspective by art directors Bernard Herzbrun and Richard H. Riedel) gives production value to Freddie’s tangling with the hooded murderer over an incriminating handkerchief, and yet it all plays out as functional mechanics. The final protracted drawing room exposition by Wellman revealing hotel manager Melton (Alan Mowbray) as the real murderer also kills off any momentum.
Tuesday, 21 November 2017
In June 1948 Bud and Lou made a comedy horror film that managed to single-handedly revive not just their fortunes, but those of their studio’s languishing monster icons. Although Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the brain-child of producer Robert Arthur, the boys themselves had considered a horror team-up with Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and the Wolfman as far back as around 1943 which would have pre-dated Universal’s two botched serious attempts to combine them in what became a kind of ‘King of the Ring’ tawdriness. The format would have been a Broadway show playing to their preferred live audience, but at that point they didn’t have the time to develop it.
By 1948, their studio Universal had already shelved its creature features and Abbott and Costello were similarly finding their usual comedy vehicles were running out of steam. Arthur pondered how to refresh their brand with his writers when it struck him that they could have the duo tangle with Frankenstein’s Monster. Gradually the team of John Grant, Frederic Rinaldo and Robert Lees all chipped in ideas: a plot motive could be that the huge behemoth had now grown too dangerously intelligent to serve an evil master - and who better to provide a more suitably backward brain than Lou’s dim-bulb comedic character? Perhaps the leathery-winged Dracula could be flown in as owner of the body and the Wolfman, with his soulful, tortured alter-ego could warn them of impending danger. It all fitted, and the beauty of it was that Universal still owned the copyright on all these former cash cows.
Initially the script was not to Abbott and Costello’s liking; Lou in particular didn’t find it funny enough. After this was fine-tuned, next came the all-important casting. Lon Chaney (Jr) was the assured choice for Lawrence Talbot/The Wolfman, continuing his proud sole ownership of the character on screen for the fifth time. Dracula however proved a case of history repeating itself agonisingly for Bela Lugosi. Once again he had to suffer the indignity of Universal weighing up a replacement – in fact the same actor. Back in 1931, despite originating the role on Broadway Lugosi had to wait while the studio pondered Ian Keith for the movie version. Such was Lugosi’s evident desperation that this sadly established a weak bargaining position from which his career choices never recovered. To be fair to Universal, by 1948 the Hungarian horror star was a long-in-the-fang 66 years old, but his association with the role was firm in audience’s minds even after just the 1931 Dracula film due to regular money-spinning theatrical tours of it over the years.
For the part of the Monster, there was no way Karloff would agree to return to the part. He had already retired from the role after three physically tortuous incarnations – although he did agree to help publicise the new movie. Instead, the safe option was to re-use Glenn Strange who had already played the part in the last two sequels House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), albeit crowbarred into brief, rushed cameos bringing the house down. As a former prolific Western actor, Strange had in fact worked with Bud and Lou the previous year in their oater The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap.
It was make-up supremo Jack Pierce who had spotted Strange’s physical potential for the Monster whilst applying scarring to him for a Western. More than his 6ft 6-inch height, he possessed a facial bone structure that Pierce thought ideal for the Creature. Sadly, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein would not benefit from Pierce’s pioneering talent. He was unceremoniously dropped from Universal after twenty years to make way for Bud Westmore of the famed Westmore make-up family dynasty. The studio felt that Pierce’s painstaking prosthetics, ground-breaking in the Thirties, were now deemed too costly and time-consuming for their future productions. Westmore would in turn be a pioneer in their use of foam rubber which, in the case of the Monster’s head construction, reduced the application time from four hours or more to roughly one and a half. Whilst this obviously suited actors like Strange needing detailed work, one disadvantage was the discomfort caused by rubber’s inability to absorb collected sweat under the strong lights, something that Pierce’s cotton and collodion materials could achieve.
Off-screen conflicts aside, the actual filming of Meet Frankenstein was a merry affair by all accounts. Abbott and Costello had established a good relationship by now with director Charles Barton and pranks aplenty were encouraged to keep the required energy levels up amongst cast and crew. The set even had its own resident professional clown Bobby Barber on hand to cause mayhem with pies, squirted soda syphons etc. The documentary Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters features him in some priceless outtakes including one where Lugosi makes one of his grand entrances down a staircase, not realising that a black-shrouded Barber follows mischievously behind him, waiting to blow the take.
Moving on to the execution of the film, it soon becomes clear how much it departs from previous entries and learning from past mistakes. There’s a knowing shift in style catering toward the younger audience that Abbott and Costello brought with them - the opening credits depict cartoon versions of the monsters pursuing frightened skeletons of our heroes. The morphing of Dracula between bat and vampire is rendered as confident and deliberate animation instead of looking like the lazy spot effect fill-in of before. The pace is bright and the gags played fast and loose with plenty of great one-liners. Tonally, there’s a pleasing balance between the boys’ familiar shtick and performances by the horror stars gauged for a surprisingly serious edge to bounce the gags off.
Having Chaney’s lugubrious lycanthrope on board immediately grounds the plot. Never an actor hired to radiate unconfined joy, he opens the film already with a grim agenda. From London, Lawrence Talbot calls a railway office in Florida to impress on them that on no account must two huge crates be delivered to their destination, a wax museum called The McDougal House of Horrors. He knows they contain the bodies of Lugosi’s Dracula and Strange’s Frankenstein Monster. Unfortunately the call is taken by the world’s most incompetent baggage-handler double-act of Chick Young and Wilbur Grey (Abbott and Costello) who have enough trouble negotiating their daily work, what with Chick’s characteristic severe bullying and Wilbur alternating between the wheezing, cowardly man-boy and harmless insolence toward authority figures like Frank Ferguson’s weaselly McDougal. Inevitably time is against Talbot and before he can make Wilbur understand the urgency, that pesky full moon turns him into an excellent Werewolf incarnation.
Lou’s lovable persona is so ingrained by now that it doesn’t seem totally inconceivable that he becomes quite the unwitting ladies’ man. On the one hand, there is the darkly sexy Dr Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert, who would also apply her Slovenian charm to the team’s next outing with Boris Karloff). She secretly covets his low-wattage brain for her transplant work with Lugosi upon Strange. Later, he will be easily be suckered by another self-serving professional, Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph) an undercover insurance investigator. Val Lewton fans will recognise Randolph from tangling with aggressive female felines twice in the Cat People films.
McDougal insists on the bungling Wilbur and Chick personally delivering the precious cargo to his museum’s basement, which sets up the fraidy-cat Wilbur exasperating Chick in one of the duo’s most famous recycled routines – ‘the Moving Candle’ – from 1941’s Hold that Ghost. Here, instead of a phantom-powered candle-stick, what moves it is Lugosi’s silent uprising from the wooden crate as Wilbur quakingly reads from the Dracula legendry. “Oh Chii-iiick!” splutters Wilbur, constantly calling back his partner in a variation on the ‘He’s behind you’ ghost sketch familiar as well to British pantomime audiences.
Lugosi’s appearance this early on, along with his reactivation of Strange’s Monster when alone, marks another improvement over the House Of sequels. Part of their failure was in not integrating their Horror Hall of Famers properly into the story; both movies side-lined Dracula (House of Frankenstein even killing him off at the end of the first act, leaving what was left as effectively a separate film) and kept the Monster strapped to a gurney for solely a literal, last-minute rampaging climax before the end. Here, all three icons are seen in the first twenty minutes in a more satisfying bid to involve each as actively as possible.
Masquerading as Dr Lejos, Lugosi’s Dracula is positioned with much more to do as the instigator of a Costello-minded Monster with “No fiendish intellect to oppose his master”. His return to subtler playing is assisted by the support of better material, careful direction and the backing of a somewhat more credible budget than he’d had to endure in Poverty Row flicks – around $800,000, still low enough for the $3.2m box–office result to make it the second-highest hit for the studio that year.
Though the white foundation make-up and dark lips given to him are a touch too strong, reminiscent of Twenties silent movie actors, Lugosi imbues the Prince of Darkness with imperious power amidst the laughs. What campery there is surrounding him is more down to circumstance than his performance – (the sight of him in full Dracula evening-dress working laboratory equipment is an incongruity that no actor could really sell). He also gets to have fun by applying sly nuances to lines, such as when coveting Wilbur: “What we need today are young blood – and brains”.
Sandra too practically salivates over his potential: “So full-blooded, so round, so firm…”
Lou especially benefits from the contrast between his explosive antics and the lower-key acting of his co-stars. Chaney’s desperate gravity is a perfect foil for his irreverence, as in the oft-quoted exchange where Talbot tries in vain to tell him of the immense danger he poses when transformed:
“In a half-an-hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf!
“You and 20 million other guys!”
The climactic revitalisation of the marauding Monster is probably the film’s most stunning change of mood when Strange picks up Sandra and hurls her body brutally through the laboratory window. Rarely has a comedy film switched gears to horror beats so powerfully. As in the far superior Young Frankenstein (1974), when horror or quiet poignancy are reached for and succeed, those serious elements are amplified all the more than if embedded in a straight genre picture.
That’s not to say Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein ever forgets that it’s ultimately a knowing crowd-pleaser. A lovely verbal in-joke is saved for the end, introducing a fourth Universal chiller into the mix: the distinctive, disembodied tones of Vincent Price briefly reprising his voice as anti-hero Geoffrey Radcliffe from The Invisible Man Returns (1940). Though he was not seen (or unseen) in 1951’s Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Invisible Man, fans of all ages can enjoy his brief cameo closing a first chapter in the new adventures of a comedy team about to face even more very familiar foes…
Friday, 17 November 2017
When we think of Ealing Studios, we mostly associate it with those soft whimsical comedies it famously produced from the late Forties about peculiarly British eccentricities and our cherished way of life. Classics like 1949’s Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore poked affectionate fun at the parochial outlook and preoccupations of the little Englander. There was always more to the studio’s brand though than such limited charms: that same year saw the mischievous black humour delight of Dennis Price blithely murdering his way through the D’Ascoyne family line in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets for example, not to mention the attempted bumping-off of a little old lady by Alec Guinness and his criminal cohorts in the similarly-toned The Ladykillers (1955).
But Ealing had spent the early Forties addressing the war with gritty, drama-documentary films such as Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well and The Foreman Went to France (both in 1942). Till that point, there was no British horror film industry to speak of, nor a studio like Hollywood’s Universal to cater to any perceived demand. The closest we actually had in influence was a nexus centred around Ealing’s own producer Michael Balcon. He had himself given us Boris Karloff in The Ghoul (1933) under his previous company Gaumont-British. There had also been a small trickle of home-spun horrors like Hitchcock’s The Lodger (also from Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures founded in 1924) and the clutch of 1930s Grand Guignol melodramas including Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), all starring Tod Slaughter, for George King’s self-titled outfit.
With Dead of Night, the studio that began with comedy vehicles for the likes of George Formby and Gracie Fields (under Ealing’s former name of ATP) and then brought back the funny in a house style later, sandwiched between the two cycles a ground-breaking horror film, one that would single-handedly position Britain as a formidable player in the genre. It also kick-started the modern anthology (or portmanteau) multi-story structure developed by Hammer and Amicus in the Sixties and Seventies.
The pleasures offered by Dead of Night are many and varied. Its five stories embody different tones from gentle - and gentlemanly - humour through period-flavoured supernatural ghost story haunting into terrifyingly intense modern psychodrama. The framing device that contains them expertly ekes out the commonality that draws a central character into the paranormal web of a disparate group before seizing him with a final shocking revelation. Directors Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer all worked on renowned Ealing feature films – and did so whilst helming their individual story duties here.
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is an architect hired to quote for a job at the country house belonging to Elliot Foley (Roland Culver). Upon arrival, he develops a growing unease about the property and the group of guests already gathered, brought on by recurring dreams in which he foresaw all of them. This becomes the catalyst for each person to share their own experience of the supernatural. (Incidentally, Johns had already appeared in an earlier Ealing anthology film we’ve reviewed, 1944’s The Halfway House, although there the tone was a poignant, redemptive fantasy impacted upon by the raging war. Dead of Night exists to some extent in a timeless bubble, never once referencing the war). As the confused newcomer Johns is excellent, guided by Dearden’s overall control of the framing device’s tempo, shading just the right subtle air of gradual bewilderment as the other guests indulge his belief in clairvoyance.
The first tale is ‘The Hearse Driver’ directed by Dearden, and is the briefest one, based on the short story ‘The Bus Conductor’ by E.F. Benson’ in which racing driver Hugh Grainger (a smooth Anthony Baird) recovers from a race crash in hospital. Whilst convalescing one night, time appears to jump forward by six hours, and from his window he sees a hearse below, the driver casually offering up to him: “Just room for one inside, sir”. The scene feels slightly more sinister by having the familiar, affable Miles Malleson as the enigmatic driver. Grainger is intrigued but almost dispels any deeper meaning – until he recognises the same figure as his bus’s conductor. In being too startled to board it, he narrowly saves his life as the bus then crashes. The man later appears inviting him on board an elevator, also warding him away from its own fatal last journey. This story makes an engaging and unthreatening appetiser to lull the audience in before the stronger meat is served.
‘The Christmas Party’ is the second story and also concerns itself with a ghostly apparition, though here grounded in a very real murder case known to moviegoers of that time. Personable teenager Sally O’Hara (Ealing contract player Sally Anne Howes) attends a party during which all the children play a game of Sardines. After a chaste kiss from a playmate who tells her the house is haunted by a murderous child, she strays into what should be the locked nursery. There, she comforts a lonely little boy by the name of Francis Kent who fears that his cruel sister wants to kill him. Taking this lightly, Sally returns downstairs where her encounter is disbelieved by her mother who points out that Francis was indeed killed by his sister Constance but back in the Victorian era.
The murder trial of the actual Constance Kent was a public sensation in the England of 1860. She had killed Frances when she was sixteen and he was aged just three, almost decapitating him with a knife. The case remained a controversial one as her confession had only been given to her priest; speculation fell that it was falsely made to protect her father, a known adulterer. In 2008, author Kate Summerscale’s book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House further extended the debate by suggesting the true killer was her close brother William taking revenge for their father’s transfer of affection to his second marriage’s children. Whatever the truth, the murder of Francis Kent adds a frisson of veracity to Cavalcanti’s direction of McPhail’s script. In the documentary discussion Remembering Dead of Night, Matthew Sweet points out that, surviving to the age of 100 in 1944, Constance Kent almost lived long enough to see herself name-checked in this film.
The third instalment begins to delve into heavier subject matter with ‘The Haunted Mirror’. This is a simple but engrossing tale helmed by Robert Hamer in which Foley’s guest Joan Cortland buys her soon-to-be husband Peter the gift of a Chippendale mirror and then finds him gradually possessed by its reflection of a different bedroom from the past. Decades before wrangling repressed sapphic and homicidal inmates as the prison Governor of TV’s Within These Walls, Withers applies equal cool elegance to weathering Ralph Michael’s suitably tortured Peter before heroically shattering the mirror and the spell.
The red-headed stepchild of episodes is Charles Crichton’s ‘The Golfing Story’ owing partly to a very clear comedic tone unwelcome to some. The more problematic issue was its very British cultural specificity - resulting in the American print excising this whole sequence. (‘The Christmas Party’ was cut out for the U.S. release as well). Esteemed American horror director John Landis recalled that when he viewed this part in an uncut version as a young man - “I didn’t get it”. It’s essentially a love triangle between two male golfers - whose friendship would today be labelled a ‘bromance’ if not something more substantial - and the woman who comes between them, over whom they play a game to decide her future partner. H.G. Wells’ tale ‘The Inexperienced Ghost’ was the inspiration, though only its club setting and spectral vanishing business was used.
The twosome of Parratt and Potter are played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, alias the cricket-obsessed duffers Charters and Caldicott first introduced in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1941). Such was their immediate popularity that three official follow-up films featured the duo over the next two years (Night Train to Munich, Crook’s Tour and Millions Like Us). Ealing had to change their names for Dead of Night in order to benefit from the association but without infringing on any character copyright.
Their closeness is so evident that Peggy Bryan almost seems an encumbrance rather than a desired prize. She does however function as a catalyst for Radford and Wayne to demonstrate the pursuit of sportsmanship (or lack of) as an illustration of trumpeted British decency. This for me is why this story deserves to be included. Whilst Dead of Night makes no mention of the war, golf serves as a metaphor for the pair to reflect back to concerned British audiences those self-regarding English values like fair-play that were once under threat. Ironically, Radford’s victorious cheating in the match triggers Wayne to embody the ultimate Englishman’s stoicism by calmly walking out into the pond to drown himself, a blackly funny suicide in that only his hat remains bubbling above the surface.
Wayne then contrives comedic business from his inability to disappear, an intrusion on Radford’s privacy that seems just punishment. Moreover, when he accidentally vanishes Radford there is an intriguingly kinky suggestion in how he is now free to enjoy his friend’s woman as if Radford would not mind.
Crichton was an excellent choice for this story; indeed, his understanding of comedy technique and the uniquely British character prompted John Cleese to bring him out of retirement to co-direct the charming, Ealing-esque A Fish Called Wanda (1988) at the age of 77.
The strongest and thereby most famous story in Dead of Night showcases a superbly committed performance by Michael Redgrave in ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ under Cavalcanti’s direction. As famous vent actor Maxwell Frere schizophrenically tormented by his macabre dummy Hugo, it was the screen role of a lifetime for him. A celebrated Shakespearean of the stage and father of the illustrious Redgrave acting dynasty, Redgrave acknowledged his debt to it in later life, thus helping ascend the film’s reputation above patronising media attitudes to the genre.
I’ve deliberately avoided in-depth amateur psychoanalysis about the sexual undercurrents running through Dead of Night – there is rich genuine food for musings on sexual awakening, the anxieties of consummation or understated homoeroticism for example - yet it is tempting to consider where potentially real life circumstances may inform notable passion in an actor’s work in Redgrave’s case here. His bisexuality was a life-long source of inner struggle to him, especially in a climate of illegal homosexuality in Britain. Although he confessed his nature when his wife Rachel Kempson proposed to him in 1935, he would always be conflicted about his desires. Like Colin Clive, a similarly troubled fellow Brit shot to horror stardom in the first Frankenstein films, this repressed volcano of feeling may well have added an electrifyingly personal edge when erupting on screen. Certainly, many admirers have noted how remarkably Redgrave seems to live the vulnerability and volatility of Frere’s harrowing slide into psychosis, a literally shattering turn when he climactically crushes the head of his alter ego under foot.
However Redgrave comes by his performance, he is well supported by Frederick Valk as the archetypal ‘Cherman’ psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten, whose account this is, and Hartley Power as the wiseacre American competitor ventriloquist Sylvester Kee duelling for possession of Hugo. (A child custody aspect open to even more elaborate analysis if you wish to go there). The tale ends with the unforgettable, downbeat sight of a broken and bed-ridden Redgrave who haltingly begins to speak, but now in the sinister voice of Hugo, his face a grotesque mask of child-like marvel.
Credit must go to Basil Dearden and McPhail’s screenplay structure for keeping the tension tightrope vibrating beyond this point. Back in Foley’s house, befuddled Walter Craig suddenly finds himself blasted along a nightmare rollercoaster ride through each of the told episodes, most frighteningly accosted by a walking version of Hugo. We are then teased with an epilogue initially tricking us with an “It was all a dream” ending at Craig’s home with his wife until Foley calls and the invite begins again. According to Matthew Sweet, the extended ending showing Craig once more arriving at the house was a benign projectionist accident. What a happy accident it was, as it compounds the cyclical form of Craig’s vision and who knows if it will ever end?
Aside from the wonderful legacy Dead of Night left to horror fans and filmmakers alike, it even radically affected the theories of a major astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, who was inspired by it to create his Steady State model of an unchanging circular universe.
Wednesday, 15 November 2017
For a short period during 1945, the sure-fire comedy team of Abbott and Costello suffered in battle, though it was very much internal ‘friendly fire’ combat between them that temporarily broke up the act. The result of this was a two-film spell where the boys appeared as separate characters rather than a duo, firstly in the relative failure Little Giant filmed at the end of 1945, and then more markedly in the romantic fantasy comedy The Time of Their Lives (1946). Fans not knowing their earlier work could be forgiven for thinking that this film was their introduction to each other, the division between them is so pronounced (they only interact with one another at the start as rival lovers). Happily their dispute caused no harm to what turned out to be one of their best comedies. The script by Walter DeLeon, Val Burton and Bradford Ropes (augmented by their resident gagsmith John Grant) eschews all the usual Burlesque routines, by necessity, and drives along a more seriously-pursued plot than usual but is still funny. The circumstances arguably injected a freshness into audiences’ expectations of the team: Lou is given a charming temporary new female partner to bounce off, whilst Bud demonstrates his skills as a straight actor in what is almost a leading man role.
The setting is King’s Point in America’s New England during 1780, five years into the War of Independence. Tom Danbury (Jess Parker) is the wealthy owner of a family estate whose staff include Abbott as his butler Cuthbert Greenway, a dark schemer who will stop at nothing to marry housemaid Nora O’Leary (Anne Gillis). His rival for her affections is a travelling master tinker Horatio Prim - Costello in lovable child-man mode. Horatio proudly bears a letter of recommendation from General George Washington that he hopes will impress Danbury enough to release Nora from servitude to marry him. (This letter will become a focal point of the movie’s plot). At this news, Greenway leaves nothing to chance and removes his competition by locking Prim in a trunk. Danbury meanwhile is even more corrupt: a secret British loyalist, he holds secret meetings to betray his countrymen. Nora is caught eavesdropping by him, so Danbury hides Prim’s letter he gave her and conceals it in a clock. Tom’s own fiancé Melody Allen (Marjorie Reynolds) is about to ride off to alert the rebel forces with the newly-escaped Horatio when arriving British soldiers shoot them in error. The poor dead pair are dumped down a well, leaving the officer to curse their presumed treacherous souls to an eternity bound to the property “till crack of doom” unless proof of their innocence can be found. And so they must stay as spectral prisoners until 1946 – a passage of time charmingly rendered by lovers’ initials carved into love-hearts on the estate trees across the decades.
Director Charles Barton, in the first of eight films he directed for Bud and Lou, ensures this first act of the story moves at a decent pace, which is just as well since it has to set up quite a congested storyline through till the modern day. The lace and periwigged costumes for the cast are handsomely produced by Rosemary Odell, and Milton Rosen’s fanciful music score adds a welcome lightness. In terms of the boys’ established characters, Costello benefits greatly from the luscious warmth of his partner Reynolds, at times softening his usually frenetic style so as not to overshadow her. They make a beguiling double-act, teasing each other like an elder sister and younger brother. Melody schools Horatio in the finer points of disappearing and teleportation for example, allowing him the space to still be the wheezing, lily-livered innocent exclaiming “Odds bodkins!” and other archaic phrases of wonderment.
Abbott channels the alpha-male persona he would normally use to dominate Costello into making Greenway an unsympathetic ancestral bully so that his twentieth-century descendant, Dr Ralph Greenway, has a legacy to atone for. Here, he is so effective as an urbane, white-collar psychiatrist targeted by the taunting Horatio that one can easily imagine he’d have made a credible straight contract player for Universal had comedy not panned out. Abbott plays his role commendably straight, only straying into eye-popping broad comic reactions when called upon to react to floating matches, decanters etc that Horatio invisibly uses to frustrate him.
The Forties Danbury household contains sight-gag potential galore for Melody and Horatio to explore the modern age marvels of electric light, telephones and radios. The new owners Sheldon Gage and his fiancé June Prescott (John Shelton and Lynn Baggett) also employ Gale Sondergaard’s Emily, who seems at first the archetypal frosty housekeeper she had portrayed in horror films so many times before – as in The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Black Cat (1941). Here though, rather than simply a harbinger of doom, she is a psychic in sympathy with the restless phantoms, determined to enlist the house in helping them seek eternal rest. She even gets a possible sly in-joke as she exits a scene - “All you gotta do is whistle” – referencing Lauren Bacall’s bewitching come-on to Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s To Have and Have Not. More blatant wise-cracking is supplied by June's Aunt Millie played by Binnie Barnes, an actress who lived to be ninety-five and prided herself on never accepting subservient parts.
Eventually a séance is held whereby the unseen Melody and Horatio communicate enough via prompted table-knocks to set the household on the hunt for the all-important exonerating letter, aided by Emily becoming a conduit for the spirit of Tom Danbury to voice a cryptic rhyme of clues. Greenway’s theft of a Queen Anne clock from a museum causes a climactic broad comedy car-chase, one concession made to Bud and Lou’s regular slapstick territory, between Horatio and a beleaguered Police Sergeant (William Hall).
Finally, the document is found and enables the movie to end in an upbeat glimpse of the afterlife (even more rosily depicted later that year in A Matter of Life and Death) as Melody is restored in a stream of astral glitter to Tom but Horatio is temporarily blocked from Nora at the Pearly Gates by its closure for Washington’s birthday!
The Time of Their Lives overcomes the challenge of its stars’ divisiveness extremely well to give fans an insight into how strong both Abbott and Costello could be even when functioning as solo talents. Fortunately, their normal service as a duo was resumed with their next film, the post-war sequel Buck Privates Come Home (1947), just two years before they and their parent studio Universal enjoyed a new wave of popularity by pairing them with Universal’s dust-gathering monster Hall of Fame…
Sunday, 12 November 2017
As part of Bela Lugosi’s tragic slide downhill in career terms, 1946 only yielded one film role for him, which was then not even released until a year later. Scared to Death (1947) was a lame and very low-budget offering by an alliance of producers working under the banner of Golden Gate Pictures. Its only redeeming value for Lugosi fans is that it remains the only starring role he had in a colour picture. (According to IMDb, his only other colour appearances were in a short film promoting war-time blood donation and as the uncredited and unflatteringly named Hungarian Ambassador Count Von Ratz in the 1930 operetta Viennese Nights). The process used is optimistically named ‘Natural Color’ in the credits – actually the widely used two-strip Cinecolor format instead of the more costly Technicolor three-strip. Cinecolor was in its heyday at the time, being used by the bigger studios as well due to its speedy printing turnaround time and the fact that it could be shot using existing black and white cameras. So helpful was the inventor William Crespinel that he was given the lynchpin part of Rene at the movie’s end.
In Gary D. Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger’s exhaustive and invaluable No Traveler Returns, they describe in some detail the inspiration for the film: a lurid real-life Chicago murder trial in 1933 involving reputable Dr Alice Wynekoop whose daughter-in-law Rheta was found dead on her home operating table. Wynekoop claimed that her use of chloroform was unintentionally fatal; however, to cover herself, she had shot the corpse with a bullet to fit a botched burglary story. A trial revealed extra-marital philandering on her son’s part, but the real smoking gun was the discovery that the doctor had taken out a valuable life insurance policy on the deceased woman.
The following year theatre director Frank Orsino wrote a successful stage play based on the case, Murder on the Operating Table, which was then turned into the film (under the original shooting title Accent on Horror) scripted by Willian Abbott. The director was Christy Cabanne who, like Lugosi, was on a downward trajectory from B-pictures such as The Mummy’s Hand (reviewed earlier) to even lower depths working for Poverty Row outfits like PRC and Monogram.
Scared to Death unfolds as a series of flashbacks told by the corpse of Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont) as to how she ended up on the mortuary slab - a novel device later used for the main character of dead writer Joe Gillis opening the classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). Here though the execution is laughably and annoyingly sabotaged by a frequent return to her present day close-up, delivery of one bridging line of her voice-over, and then the screen shimmering with spooky music to send us back in time again. (Why not simply stay in the past and just overlap the linking dialogue into the next scene?). Bad movie buffs will relish the byplay worthy of Ed Wood between the wooden pathologist and his equally anaesthetised colleague introducing the device:
“One hates to perform an autopsy on a beautiful woman”
“You’ve no other choice, doctor”
For this movie, the scheming fictional version of Wynekoop is the reliable George Zucco as Dr Joseph Van Ee, who cannot persuade Laura to divorce her son Ward (a stiff Roland Varno). Fortunately, proceedings are enlivened by the flamboyant entrance of Bela Lugosi, vivid enough in full opera-cloaked ham even without the benefit of colour photography. He plays the famous magician Professor Leonide accompanied by his little person sidekick Indigo (Angela Rossitto). Although he stood at only two feet eleven inches, Rossitto’s career stretched across six decades including 1932’s Freaks and two previous turns as a Lugosi man-servant in the forgettable Spooks Run Wild (1941) and The Corpse Vanishes (1942) both reviewed here.
Lugosi seems to recognise that Scared to Death can’t be taken seriously and declaims most of his lines with the heavy portentous squint of a pantomime villain, at one point reciting a rhyming couplet of dark intentions as if doing an aside to a theatre audience: “Laurette, Laurette I’ll make a bet/ A man in green will get you yet”.
Virtually assisting him in this department is Nat Pendleton as former detective nincompoop turned private security nincompoop Bill Raymond looking for a juicy murder to get him back in with the force. Pendleton was a wrestler before becoming an actor yet comes across more as an ex-boxer with his thick-ear, broad comedy physique and vocal style. He’s an amiable lunk and its easy to see why he was plugged into multiple sequels of such series as the Dr Gillespie and Dr Kildare films as well as both of Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates comedies. He is kept busy whilst scoping for a case to crack by pursuing Lilibeth (Gladys Blake) the Van Ee’s streetwise housemaid.
The plot, which bears little scrutiny, turns on Laura’s real background as Laurette, one half of the married dance duo Rene and Laurette in occupied wartime Paris, thus potentially enabling Ward to claim convenient dismissal of his marriage to her as bigamous. Theirs got off to an ignominious start by him getting hitched to her one night as a bet. What follows is very much a stage-bound chat-fest without the benefit of any exteriors to lift the monotony. Sporadically Laura is haunted by what is meant to be a green mask echoing her old dance partner’s costume, yet in Cinecolor it looks more like a floating cameo from the Blue Man Group. When she goes missing, Zucco’s reaction amusingly telegraphs his relief: “Oh, how dreadful” he deadpans.
The energy level is lifted somewhat by the involvement of newshound Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley) and his airhead girlfriend Jane (Joyce Compton). Fowley later gained recognition as the film director struggling to get a sound performance out of his silent movie female lead in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Here, his force of will grills everyone with the directness of an investigative cop rather than a reporter – “I want the facts and I want them now!” – begging the question as to why the houseful of suspects don’t just tell him to buzz of and clean his typewriter since he has no actual jurisdiction over them.
Eventually Laura’s murky past catches up with her: she had cruelly shopped Rene to the Nazis for one million Francs to get away from his overbearing behaviour, not realising that he would (inexplicably) meet the Professor in a concentration camp and hatch a plan to be avenged. Lilibeth, who appeared to be killed by the mystery assailant, is revealed to actually be under a hypnotic spell. No such happy ending befalls Laura: before Rene is finally unmasked he gets his revenge by literally scaring her to death. This at least means that the film’s title is accurate, even though the contents are a wasted opportunity to showcase one of horror’s most beloved icons in colour.