Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 152: 'Lugosi: The Forgotten King' (1986)

Is this documentary worthy of being resurrected? Or should it stay buried?

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make. Even though Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) is a major player in the Ed Wood saga—and a big part of why Eddie even has a cult following in the first place—I have never done a deep dive into the great man's life and career. It's just too big a subject. While I've seen many of Bela's films, perhaps two dozen or so, I've never even cracked the spine of a full-length Lugosi biography. The only Lugosi book I've read cover to cover was Richard Bojarski's informative The Films of Bela Lugosi (1980).

A copy of the script with notes by
Forry Ackerman himself.
Frankly, there's so much Ed Wood history to explore that I've scarcely had time for poor Bela. We must remember that Bela's time with Ed Wood in the 1950s was but one brief chapter in the Hungarian actor's eventful and often tragic life, a sprawling saga that spans decades and continents. So many plays! So many movies! So many wives! So many drugs! Where to begin?

What I desperately need is the CliffsNotes version of the Bela Lugosi saga. As luck would have it, I recently learned of a somewhat neglected 1986 documentary called Lugosi: The Forgotten King. This film's compact 46-minute runtime suggests that it was meant to run on television as an hour-long special with commercials, though I can't tell if it ever did. Whatever audience it had, it seems to have garnered through home video. The Forgotten King's two credited directors, Mark Gilman, Jr. and Dave Stuckey, are known almost exclusively for their work on straight-to-video showbiz documentaries.

Lugosi: The Forgotten King is a humble affair, obviously produced on a low budget, but it is well worth viewing for fans of either Bela Lugosi or Ed Wood. The program's enthusiastic host and narrator is horror superfan Forrest J. "Forry" Ackerman (1916-2008), founder of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and Ed Wood's literary agent for a brief stint in the 1960s. (Once Eddie started writing for adult publisher Bernie Bloom, no such agent was required.) Ackerman performs his duties from the so-called Ackermansion, his famed Los Angeles home that served as a museum of sci-fi and horror memorabilia. Unfortunately, the video quality of The Forgotten King is so murky that you'd be hard pressed to identify any of the classic props behind Mr. Ackerman.

With just three-quarters of an hour to tell its story, The Forgotten King sprints through the highlights of Bela's life—his childhood in Hungary, his theatrical career, his breakthrough in Dracula (1931), his downward career trajectory due to typecasting, his battles with drug addiction, and finally his death at the age of 73. Most of this is told through the same old photographs and film trailers you've probably already seen many times if you've researched Bela at all. This material probably seemed a lot fresher in the pre-internet days of 1986.

Like many retellings of Bela Lugosi's life, The Forgotten King has to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, the film tells us repeatedly that Lugosi was unfairly pigeonholed as a horror actor and should have been allowed to play more comedic, dramatic, and even romantic roles to demonstrate his versatility. On the other hand, directors Gilman and Stuckey obviously knew what viewers wanted from a documentary like this: spooky stuff and plenty of it. Therefore, Lugosi's many horror films dominate this retrospective. Forrest J. Ackerman even says that Lugosi's "very name became synonymous with the mysterious, the monstrous, the macabre." This documentary proves that the typecasting of Bela Lugosi continued long after the man was dead.

Alex Gordon in The Forgotten King.
(Note the skull behind him.)
So if there's very little information about Bela Lugosi in The Forgotten King that you couldn't glean from simply reading the actor's Wikipedia page, why bother tracking down this film today? The answer is that it includes interviews with some very noteworthy folks. Actor Ralph Bellamy, who appeared with Bela in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), drops by to talk about the making of that film and share some insight into its director, Erle C. Kenton, who apparently directed with a megaphone bigger than Rudy Vallee's. Carroll Borland, Lugosi's costar in Mark of the Vampire (1935), comments favorably on Bela's sex appeal and says he should have been the next Ezio Pinza.

But most intriguing of all, The Forgotten King prominently features another key figure in the Ed Wood saga that I have largely neglected in this series: British film producer Alex Gordon (1922-2003). Dedicated Woodologists know Gordon for his contributions to the screenplays for Wood's Jail Bait (1954) and Bride of the Monster (1955). Alex also served as executive producer on The Lawless Rider (1954), a Johnny Carpenter Western that Eddie cowrote.

Somehow, in all these years of studying the life and career of Edward D. Wood, Jr., I had never even seen a picture of Alex Gordon, let alone any footage of the man. In The Forgotten King, Mr. Gordon is revealed as a stout, soft-spoken, well-mannered gentleman with kind eyes and splendid enunciation. His accent is neither American nor English but somewhere in between, and he comments fondly about Bela Lugosi's versatility and charm. Gordon also mentions that he originally met with Lugosi because the latter was interested in doing a touring version of Dracula onstage in England. 

One thing I did learn from this film was how England's temporary ban on horror films negatively affected Bela Lugosi's career. I wonder what Bela would have thought of England's "video nasty" scare in the 1980s. For that matter, what would Ed Wood have thought of it? I'll never understand how the same country that produced Hammer Studios could be so squeamish and prudish when it comes to the horror genre.

If you're wondering how much Ed Wood content there is in The Forgotten King, rest assured that there is plenty. Eddie himself had passed away by the time this documentary was made, so he "appears" only via a photograph, but Alex Gordon is there to represent him and talk about the projects that Wood and Gordon had planned for Bela, including Doctor Voodoo, The Vampire's Tomb, and The Phantom Ghoul. According to Gordon, these would-be projects gave Bela hope during his waning years when work was difficult to come by.

Elsewhere, The Forgotten King includes the entire trailer for Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) and mentions the film's cult classic status, never alluding to its Golden Turkey Awards infamy. The documentary actually treats Ed Wood with a surprising—dare I say, refreshing—degree of respect and affection. The narration even repeats the old story (probably apocryphal) that Bela Lugosi died while reading the script for Wood's Final Curtain. Forrest J. Ackerman neglects to mention Glen or Glenda (1953), but he does have this to say about the Wood/Lugosi relationship:
In 1953, Lugosi joined forces with young exploitation film director Ed Wood to make what would be his last films. The legendary Wood was chiefly responsible for keeping Lugosi working during his lowest ebb and remained a trusted friend to the end.
I think Ed would have been very happy with that.

PLEASE NOTE: In 2017, Mark Gilman released another documentary called Lugosi: The Forgotten King of Horror. Running an hour and 20 minutes, it can be described as an expanded version of the 1986 film. Perhaps someday, I will review it, too. In the meantime, if you want to see the longer version of the documentary, it is freely available from Tubi.