01/02/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
pub: McFarland & Co Inc. 685 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £63.95 (UK), $75.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-3480-0.
check out websites: www.mcfarlandpub.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com
This is a large, heavy and detailed book telling not only the movie careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, especially where they shared eight films together, but also that of many of their co-stars and their fates. Considering both their film careers took off in the 1930s, getting interviews with those who worked with them was a task in itself. I should point out that this is a revised edition of the 1990 volume as author Gregory Mank managed to locate other people who clarified details and add their perspective that he didn't have before. History tends to remember the dead, even the undead, with good grace rather than with warts and all. This book has the warts and all which brings things into the right perspective. If you're a fan of either Lugosi or Karloff rather than both for what they offer rather than see them as competition, there's bound to be some eye-openers. We British don't tend to be vindictive on such issues and well and truly considering both actors have been dead for over forty years, I don't think either would care right now. In that respect, author Gregory Mank's attitude is very British in that he doesn't take sides but looks for insight.
Considering that Lugosi and Karloff were a major part of many of Hollywood's horror films, this book touches on so much of the studio system, especially Universal, at the time as well as what they were paid. As film careers, there is also a sharp contrast between them. Lugosi's career exploded largely for his part as Count Dracula whereas Karloff's did because Lugosi turned down the part of Frankenstein's monster. Would things have been different had Lugosi taken the part? Who knows? The rest is history as they say. It is also about temperament as much as anything. Lugosi as a Hungarian and slow to learn English or at least lose his accent for some roles was often seen as a limited actor. Karloff, from British stock, was very much a jobbing actor and a lot more flexible so it was no wonder that he kept working even in the lean times when a committee practically blackballed horror films in the late 30s and worked right up until his death in 1969.
Something I hadn't known until I read this book was Karloff kept going by not only appearing in films but also starring in the original stage production of 'Arsenic And Old Lace' and had a 10% share in its production. Remarkably, he wasn't picked up for the film version that starred that Cary Grant fella, mostly because the play's producers thought his name would keep people going to the theatre. Interestingly, Lugosi played the same part on stage a couple years later.
In many respects because they played these archetypal roles whoever played the roles would both become famous. However, when it's compared to those who replaces them in these roles in future Hollywood films, other than John Carradine who already had a decent career going, were only footnotes. Both Lugosi and Karloff added something unique to their roles. Looking at the Hollywood system today, every generation builds on a few stars rather than all of them. There is always a measure of luck and opportunity. It is the strength of character that keeps them going. Lugosi got caught into his addictions as much as looking for his next break, be it on stage or back on the screen. Karloff just built on whatever was available.
Apart from the text, there are stacks of photos of both actors as well as in the films and promos. All of it is indexed although it's a shame that the footnotes aren't linked directly to the main text and I have to confess to the most part I ended up ignoring them.
I found this book an incredible read and a fascinating study. There is so much in this book that a review covering all the information here would be as big as this tome. If you have any interest in either or both of these actors, let alone early Hollywood and its horror genre then this is automatically required reading. Be prepared to spend a couple of weeks doing so but what an experience. A marvellous read.
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