DVD REVIEWS (10/14/02):


Film Covered: Lugosi: Hollywood's Dracula (1997); available now from Spinning Our Wheels Productions, $20.00 (plus $3.00 shipping and handling) online from www.lugosidvd.com or send payment to Spinning Our Wheels Productions, P.O. Box 6016, Norman, OK 73070-6016.

     In an on-screen interview with this documentary's writer/director (included as an "extra" on the DVD), Gary Don Rhodes states that his intent was to capture that "elusive quality" that was Bela Lugosi's. Through judicious use of still images (many of them rare, including a well-edited sequential set of shots showing Jack Pierce making up Lugosi as Ygor), stock footage to illustrate the narrative (e.g., a WWI battle scene while discussing Lugosi's military service), interviews with friends, colleagues, and historians, and all-important clips from the films themselves (or trailer footage from the non-public domain Universals), Rhodes has indeed succeeded in bringing to light that elusive quality that has made Bela Lugosi a classic horror icon.
     From the documentary's opening, in which "Swan Lake" (Dracula's---and Lugosi's---unofficial anthem) plays, it's obvious that this work is an affectionate labor of love from Lugosi historian Rhodes and all those involved (including co-producer Richard Sheffield, who was one of a group of teens who befriended the down-and-out actor in the 1950s). But don't construe this obvious fondness as "fannishness," since there's nothing amateurish about Lugosi: Hollywood's Dracula. Slickly edited, well-photographed (with varied camera movement on the still photos to keep it visually interesting), and offering intriguing audio (including evocative music and occasional thunderclaps for punctuation!), not to mention a well-written, insightful script narrated by actor Robert Clarke, Hollywood's Dracula generally appears as professional as anything seen on A&E's Biography. (There are the occasional blips, however, such as the unfortunate inclusion of a goofy song called "Lon Chaney Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out," and a somewhat pretentious montage that features biology-film shots of blood flowing through veins and---inexplicably---1930s derelicts sleeping in doorways edited in with the Lugosi footage, but these are brief and minor missteps.)
     The documentary is peppered with fabulous curios, such as snippets from a 1939 cartoon, "G-Man Jitters," in which an animated Lugosi (as Dracula), along with a cartoonish Frankenstein Monster, menaces a duck! Other gems include 1941 home movie footage shot outside a soundstage; color(!) footage of Lugosi and Karloff on the set of You'll Find Out; a shot from the filming of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, showing an unsuspecting Lugosi descending the castle stairs during a take as someone wearing a dark cloak apes his movements behind him---while everyone in the scene cuts up---except Lugosi; and footage of a very aged looking Lugosi (in Dracula attire and dark glasses) leading a man-in-an-ape-suit on a chain into the theater for the premier of House of Wax---a publicity stunt Lugosiphiles have read about for years and now can finally see (despite his haggard appearance, Bela is all smiles and seemingly eating up the attention of the surrounding crowd).
     Also impressive is the range of interviewees assembled: colleagues Audrey Totter, Loretta King, the late makeup man Harry Thomas, Howard W. Koch, David Durston (who calls Lugosi "the Lawrence Olivier of Hungary"), Louise Currie, Richard Gordon, Lucille Lund, Robert Wise, Helen Richman (who talks of Lugosi making a pass at her during a summer stock tour of Arsenic and Old Lace), and even Sammy Petrillo (co-star of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, and who becomes teary-eyed when reminiscing about how "sweet and quiet a man" Lugosi was and how Bela cried when he talked of his impending divorce from Lillian). Along with some erudite comments from historians such as Frank Dello Stritto, there're also interviews with Lugosi family and friends, including Bela Jr., Richard Sheffield, Robert Shower (who claims Lugosi "fought in 11 duels"), and the late Hope Lugosi, Bela's fifth and final wife (who merely states, in the only on-screen interview she ever granted, that Bela "was too old, that was all in the past" and talks rather callously and dismissively of finding her husband's dead body). The full interview with the last Mrs. Lugosi (included as an extra) is a real eye-opener, since it's more frightening than any of Bela's movies. She comes off as a callous and bitter old woman, commenting about their marriage, "He saw a sucker, and I was it...I don't care too much for Hungarians," and how Lugosi (she only referred to him as "Lugosi") was full of hot air. "Poor Bela" indeed.
     A boatload of extras rounds out the proceedings, including 12 scenes deleted from the documentary (obviously owing to time constraints), with more on-screen interviews (including comments from Poverty Row director Joseph Lewis, who didn't make the official cut) and film clips.
     Further extras include: the full 1932 "Intimate Interview" with Dorothy West that fans have seen before---but never in such pristine condition; a 1948 Texaco Star Theater TV show that pits Lugosi against Milton Berle; 1918 lost film fragments; and the aforementioned Hope Lugosi interview. Brrrr. (Also, a hidden "Easter egg" consisting of Rhodes' quite funny half-hour mockumentary on his trials and tribulations in acquiring a chair once owned by Bela can be found by going to the last page of the "DVD Notes" section, highlighting the "Back" menu, pressing the "Up" arrow key on your remote, and then hitting "Enter.")
     But wait, there's more... . Also included is a bonus CD of five never-before-available 1940s radio shows featuring Our Villain. Some are silly (a Fred Allen broadcast in which the comedian visits Lugosi's house), and some are serious (a radio interview in which Lugosi talks passionately about the underground resistance in Hungary and his native land's need for liberation). The best is a very funny "Command Performance" episode in which Lugosi plays (what else?) a mad scientist opposite Bob Hope as...Superman! (Paulette Goddard plays Lois Lane.)
     The impressive documentary ends, appropriately enough, with an audio-recording of Lugosi giving his famous curtain speech at the close of the Dracula play: "...remember, there are such things, heh heh heh." Thanks to Gary Don Rhodes and Co., every Lugosi fan will indeed remember.

--Bryan Senn


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