Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff


Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, by Gregory William Mank
May, 2009 McFarland Publishing

This is actually the third book by Gregory William Mank I've read in the past few months; first it was his 1999 Women in Horror Films, 1930s, which was composed of essay-length chapters on several of the leading horror ladies of that day, with lots of great photos, after which I read It's Alive!, which was Mank's first book. This edition of Bela and Boris (as I'll refer to it) is an expanded edition of a book Mank originally published back in 1991 or so; this edition comes in at a whopping 700 pages. What kind of world do we live in where a 700 page book can be published about Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff??

However the most surprising thing is how enjoyable the book actually is. Mank has done his research and it shows; Bela and Boris documents basically every known instance in the lives of the two men, from their first forays into Hollywood on down to their deaths decades later, Lugosi basically destitute, Karloff enjoying the gratification of being considered a living legend. For that is the heart of the book, the supposed rivalry between the two; it's long been rumored that Lugosi hated Karloff, at least in his later years, ruined by poverty and stricken with jealousy at Karloff's fame and millions. But also the book operates on the principle of how one decision can make or wreck a life: Karloff came to fame because he was given the role of the Monster in Frankenstein, a role which Lugosi famously refused. Most believe (and apparently, Lugosi late in life believed as well) that his decision not to play the Monster was the first step in his downfall.

I have my own doubts about this. I think Karloff succeeded because he stepped into the shoes vacated by the recently-departed Lon Chaney: Karloff became a master of screen disguise, playing a variety of roles behind pounds of makeup. Lugosi was always Lugosi -- though, as Mank carefully explains, this assumption was not always correct, as there are movies where Karloff overracts (as in the awesomely over-the-top The Lost Patrol, from 1934, directed by John Ford), and movies where Lugosi underplays his role (ie 1934's The Black Cat, aka the best horror film of the Golden Age).

But regardless, having read the book and watched many of the films discussed, it seems clear to me that Karloff went on to fame due to the versatility of his acting, whereas Lugosi suffered due to his (perceived) lack of handling of the English language and his (supposed) overracting. Also, Lugosi would say "yes" to any role offered him; not even a year or two after Dracula and he was starring in a movie serial, basically the dregs of the movie world. He needed the money, but stooping to such a level could only harm him in Hollywood's eyes. Bela and Boris also shows the mercenary, backstabbing world of Studio Era Hollywood; the moguls knew that Lugosi needed money, and they'd sign him up for pitifully-small salaries, paid by the week -- even going so far as to demand that all of his scenes be shot in one week!

The book is filled to the brim with photos, stills, and poster reproductions, many of which I'd never seen before. Mank studiously footnotes the entirety of the text, going into the details of the making of each film, especially those Lugosi and Karloff made togther. One thing you won't get from Mank however is actual film criticism, something I first noticed in It's Alive! He'll tell you the production history, the on-set happenings, the changes made to the scripts and the films, and how the movies performed at the box office, but one thing he won't give you is an appreciation of the film's direction, photography, and etc. In other words, the sort of thing you would expect from a film scholar; but then, Mank is more of a film historian.

As for his writing, Mank has an annoying tendency to start off his chapters in present tense, which makes it all come off like a pretentious Entertainment Weekly sort of article, yet he's unable to hold onto the style for long, jumping back and forth from present to past tense in each chapter, which makes for a bumpy read. He also delivers quite a bit of purple prose, such as: "If Univeral was a fairy tale realm, Uncle Carl was its hobgoblin Mountain King." I mentioned in my It's Alive! review that Mank seemed uncertain of his tone, switching from a schorlarly air to a fan's praise. Though he's evened out his tone here, Bela and Boris still sometimes comes off like a Famous Monsters of Filmland article.

It's also amusing in that Mank is the reverse of the regular film scholar, the majority of whom focus on mainstream films and dismiss horror movies as junk; Mank instead praises the horror and seens unaware of mainstream films. I'm not an expert at all, but even I noticed he got some of his details wrong in his brief mentions of Lugosi and Karloff's non-horror films (for example, he states that Lugosi appeared in the climax of 1933's The Devil's In Love, which is not correct; indeed, Mank appears unware that Lugosi shared a scene in the film with David Manners, his co-star in both Dracula and The Black Cat).

But Mank's attention to detail and his love for these old films more than make up for any of this. He comes off especially well in how he, in the course of his research, made many of these forgotten stars feel important again, after decades of obscurity. The horror genre was never looked upon with much interest in the Golden Age; it was only in later decades, with Shock! Cinema and the Famous Monsters-type magazines that younger generations began to so adore these films that had gone forgotten. Many of the actors and actresses in them had themselves been forgotten in the intervening decades.

Mank, in the course of his research over the years, found many of the cast and crew and talked extensively with them about their lives and work. Mank's interviews spread from the late 1970s on up to the present, and many of the people he spoke to have died in the interim. Mank has in this way preserved the past; if it wasn't for him, many of these people would have gone to their graves without revealing insight into the films they worked on, or how they perceived Lugosi or Karloff.

But again, the rivalry plays a large part in how Mank lays out the book. For his part he doesn't reveal which of the two actors he prefers, though no one says you have to prefer one over the other. It seems to me that the "rivalry" is more of a perception of the fans; Mank mentions throughout how the Lugosi supporters and Karloff supporters often bicker and disagree. This brings to mind the humorous image of over-the-hill former "MonsterKids" duking it out: "Karloff's the best, dumbass!" "Lugosi is, you son of a bitch!"

Personally, I much prefer Lugosi. I've always found it strange his star didn't soar higher. As Mank details, Lugosi is often portrayed as only playing one character on screen -- Dracula. The common perception of the actor is that, unlike Karloff, he wasn't able to subdue his own personality for his roles. As Mank demonstrates again and again, this isn't true; anyone who has seen Lugosi as Ygor in the awesome Son of Frankenstein will know Lugosi could play any role. And yet, the conception persists, and it is true in many instances that Lugosi was usually playing a variation of himself.

But really, this isn't a problem, and that's what bugs me. Golden Age Hollywood was built around a star system in which the stars played variations of themselves (or, at least, variations of who the fans believed them to be). Clark Gable usually played a "Clark Gable" sort of role. Same for Bogart. Same for Cooper. This was how the Studio System ran; studio writers and producers would create a property with a particular star in mind, catering the script, story, and dialog to the actor. Given this, it makes no sense that Lugosi was "held back" for playing a variation of himself. In all honesty, he should've gone on to bigger things. It comes off more that Universal, Lugosi's ostensible "main" studio, just didn't know what to do with the guy. They wanted horror product and were only capable of thinking of Lugosi in a horror light. In other words, he was straightjacketed by the genre he helped make famous.

As mentioned, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff is 700 pages long, and a lot of it could've been pruned. The '30s portion is as expected fascinating, as that's when the two actors were at their height. The '40s stuff, slightly less so. But it all begins to taper off in the '50s, and by the time Bela's died in the late '50s and Karloff in the late '60s, you figure it's about time for the book to end, too.

But Mank keeps going, telling us about the sons and daughters of the actors, when particular DVD sets were released, how fans reacted, etc. He even spends a few pages griping about Tim Burton's awesome Ed Wood -- Mank appears to dislike it due to all of the "cursing," and also because it strays from the facts of Lugosi's later life. I find it odd that people expect 100% truth from biopics; films are fantasy and should be treated as such. So what that Lugosi wasn't a foul-mouthed Karloff-hater in his twilight years? It made for a fun movie all the same.

Another strange thing about Bela and Boris is that I have no idea who the book is intended for. As mentioned, Mank writes in a mostly accessible/mainstream style, with large portions of the book coming off like articles from an entertainment magazine. Yet the book is priced $70 and up, and it's published by McFarland, which specializes in academic film tones priced in the college-book range.

So in other words, we have a mainstream book about two horror stars that's priced beyond the means of the average horror film fan. I don't know too many people who would drop $70 or more on a book about Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But you can always do what I did -- get the book from InterLibrary Loan.

3 comments:

Tim Mayer said...

The best part in the ED WOOD movie was where Martin Landau (playing Lugosi) is standing in that pool of water. Old and destitute, and staring in another bottom-of-the-barrel movie, he begins with:"They wanted me to play Frankenstein...."

Joe Kenney said...

Tim, it's funny you should mention that particular scene; as I recall, it's the only scene in Ed Wood that Mank praises. In the real Ed Wood version of that particular scene, Lugosi was replaced by a stand-in while he fought the octopus. In Burton's version, they had it that it was Lugosi himself. I love that movie (Tim Burton's Ed Wood, that is) and think more people should be aware of it...I guess a lot of people ignored it because it was in black and white.

Tim Mayer said...

I was lucky enough to snap-up a DVD of it a video store which was closing. One of my favorites.