Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 156: The Films of Bela Lugosi (1980)

Toward the end of his life, Ed Wood contributed material to this book.

People may compare Ed Wood and his misfit cronies to the characters in Nathanael West's Hollywood-set novel The Day of the Locust (1939), but Eddie's life actually reminds me of another Nathanael West novel: A Cool Million (1934). That darkly comedic book tells the story of Lemuel Pitkin, an industrious young lad from Vermont who ventures from his quaint hometown of Ottsville into the wider world to seek his fortune. Not only does poor Lemuel not find his fortune, alas, he keeps losing body parts during his various misadventures. By the end of the book, he's missing his teeth, his scalp, his thumb, an eye, and a leg. But even then, Lemuel's brave, foolish optimism has not entirely left him. (And it probably should have.)

There's a certain hapless, Pitkin-esque quality to Ed Wood, who wound up a penniless, toothless, washed-up alcoholic living in one of the worst apartment buildings in Hollywood and yet still had big dreams for the future and fond memories of the past. Just check out this letter, excerpted in Nightmare of Ecstasy (1992), that Eddie wrote to author Richard Bojarski in March 1978, just nine months before Ed died:

"Too much on the fire."

Breaks your heart, doesn't it? Ed's talking about productions in both Norway and Mexico, and he can't even pay his rent in good old Los Angeles. I Awoke Early did eventually get filmed, but not until Eddie was in his grave. The Day the Mummies Danced, meanwhile, is still waiting for its day in the sun.

Richard "Bojak" Bojarski (1934-2009) was a writer and cartoonist from New York who specialized in classic horror history. His work appeared in magazines like Castle of Frankenstein and The Monster Times, and he published at least two full-length books: The Films of Boris Karloff (1974) and its natural sequel, The Films of Bela Lugosi (aka The Complete Films of Bela Lugosi) (1980). Bojarski got into contact with Ed Wood while researching the latter. Nightmare of Ecstasy includes an amusing/alarming anecdote about the epic meeting of Bojarski and Wood.

"I didn't know what he was talking about."

Sadly, Ed Wood did not live to see the publication of The Films of Bela Lugosi, which I'm sure he would've gotten a kick out of. Nevertheless, Bojarski graciously includes Ed's name in the acknowledgements at the front of the book. (Also thanked: Conrad Brooks, Paul Marco, Alex Gordon, and Mona McKinnon. Woodites aplenty!)

The book is not a biography of Bela Lugosi, per se, but it does include a 33-page biographical section—think of it as a sketch of Mr. Lugosi rather than a portrait—as well as an affectionate introduction by Lugosi's Mark of the Vampire (1934) costar, Caroll Borland. The main body of the book is an illustrated and annotated filmography, with each of Bela's films from Dracula (1931) to Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) receiving a few pages apiece. For each movie, we get an assortment of B&W photographs, a rudimentary cast and crew list, quotes from reviews, and a few paragraphs of critical and historical commentary from Bojarski himself. (I'd have appreciated synopses of the films, but no dice.) For the sake of completeness, the author also includes an index of Bela Lugosi's pre-Dracula films, including those made in Germany and Hungary, as well as a list of Bela's many stage credits. All useful stuff, by the way.

The photographs in The Films of Bela Lugosi, including both publicity stills and behind-the-scenes shots, are excellent. Lugosi fans will want to own a copy of this book just to browse through it and see how their hero evolved over the decades. Wood fans will take note of a few photos in the biography, including one of Eddie and Bela posing in front of the Jail Bait (1954) poster and another of actors Tony McCoy and Loretta King visiting Bela in the hospital. Three Ed Wood films are included in the main body of the book—Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957)—and each is nicely illustrated. I especially liked a shot of Bela on the Glenda set, flanked by Ed Wood, cameraman Bill Thompson, and producer George Weiss. And Eddie himself would have enjoyed the shot of Tor Johnson throttling pesky George Becwar in Bride of the Monster.

Is there any unique Ed Wood content in The Films of Bela Lugosi? A little, I'd say. A smidgen. We have to remember that this book was published over 40 years ago, well before the dawn of the internet, so it's amazing that Bojarski has his facts as accurate as they are. Bela's time with Ed is covered in the last two pages of the biography section of the book. Glenda and Bride are cited as examples of Lugosi working with "independent film producers" when he couldn't get work elsewhere. The book then briefly describes Bela's now-famous stay in rehab, including the fact that the premiere of Bride of the Monster served as a fundraiser for the actor's mounting hospital bills.

What's interesting is that Bojarski devotes a fair amount of coverage to the unmade Ed Wood script, The Ghoul Goes West. He tells us that the cast of Bride delivered the script for Ghoul to Bela when the latter was still in the hospital, and the horror-Western was to be the great actor's first role after his release. Unfortunately, says Bojarski, Gene Autry dropped out of the project "because of other commitments and backing dried up." Ed's authorship of The Ghoul Goes West is not mentioned here, nor is Ed referenced when Bojarski discusses the Las Vegas stage show The Bela Lugosi Revue. (Let me acknowledge here that Eddie's participation in that show is disputed by some.)

Eddie's name finally sneaks in during the third-to-last paragraph of the biography. Bojarski refers to Ed Wood as Bela Lugosi's friend and credits him as the director of Plan 9. He also says that Ed had further projects lined up for Bela, including Revenge of the Dead and The Vampire's Tomb, but that these plans were thwarted by Lugosi's death in 1956. Bojarski alleges that Lugosi died while reading the script for Final Curtain, but again he does not attribute this script to Ed Wood.

There are further interesting Woodian tidbits in the entries for Glenda, Bride, and Plan 9. The entry for Glenda, for instance, includes a humorous excerpt from the Los Angeles Herald Tribune's utterly bewildered review. (Sample quote: "Lugosi, the shrink, and an invisible omniscient narrator come together in a blend, or blenda.") In his own notes for the film, author Richard Bojarski reports that Lugosi's salary was $5,000 and says that Lugosi's role in Glenda was filmed at Jack Miles Studio in Los Angeles. Assessing the film critically, Bojarski says that it is an interesting look at transvestism and sex-change but acknowledges Glenda's "budget deficiencies" and "amateurish performances." As to Lugosi's role, Bojarski says the actor brings an "appropriate eeriness" to the film but complains that "his performance was weakened by awkwardly written dialogue." Funny, I can't remember Lugosi having any actual dialogue in the film, only monologues.

We then move on to Bride of the Monster. Bojarski quotes an article about the movie from something called the Independent Trade Review. This obscure publication must have disappeared into the ether entirely, since I can find no other articles from it. Anyway, their assessment of Bride is pretty standard stuff. (Sample quote: "Rest of cast tries hard despite cliché lines.") In his notes on the film, Bojarski alleges the project began with producer Alex Gordon under the title The Atomic Monster. Unable to raise money, Gordon handed the project over to Ed Wood, who "reworked" Gordon's script. Bojarski tells us that Lugosi earned only $1,000 for this film, which was shot at Ted Allen Studios and Centaur Studios. Bojarski also talks about the film's various titles and gives one I don't think I'd heard before: Monster of the Marshes.

The production of Bride is a big part of the Ed Wood legend, and Bojarski gives us many of the expected highlights, such as how Wood ran out of money midway through, how meat packer Donald McCoy and his son Tony took over the production, and how the film's octopus was borrowed from the John Wayne film Wake of the Red Witch (1948). If you've seen Ed Wood (1994), read Nightmare of Ecstasy, or sat through pretty much any Wood documentary, you've heard some version of this story. Again, though, keep in mind that The Films of Bela Lugosi came out in 1980, so this was all new information to most readers. What I found interesting about this section of the book is that Bojarski refers to Bride of the Monster as "Lugosi's last worthwhile performance" and calls it "an excellent example of an actor rising above his material." I wonder what Eddie would have thought of that, had he lived to 1980.

The annotated filmography ends with Plan 9 from Outer Space, which Bojarski lists as a 1959 release. I've gone back and forth on calling it a 1957 film and a 1959 film. (Currently, I say 1957.) As usual, Bojarski includes a quote from a vintage review, this time choosing one from the Motion Picture Herald. The Herald's critic must have been dozing through the picture, though, since he sees nothing to distinguish Plan 9 from the glut of late-1950s science-fiction flicks and calls Ed's screenplay "routine." Plan 9 is many things, but routine it is not. Bojarski apes this sentiment in his notes on Plan 9, blandly comparing it to Unidentified Flying Objects (1956) and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956). (I've seen the latter but not the former. Maybe I should check it out.) As usual, what stands out here is Bojarski's assessment of Bela Lugosi's acting performance:
Lugosi was convincing as an elderly man mourning his dead wife before an open grave. The scenes of Lugosi stalking a cemetery in his Dracula costume as a corpse raised from the dead are deeply moving, especially as it was his last role.
I think this may be the only time I've ever heard any part of Plan 9 described as "deeply moving," but I must admit that Bojarski has a point.