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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Monsters Rally For Part Two

The Black Sleep Scares Up 1956 Business

There was trouble between Lugosi and Lon Chaney, going back far as Bela's resentment over Lon getting Son Of Dracula in 1943 when everyone knew (or should know) that only Bela Lugosi should play the vampire king. There's report that the conflict got physical, but my interpret is that Lon was being playful in that alarming way Lon had of being playful, especially when in cups (to wit tossing Bela over his shoulder like a sack o' taters). Anyway, the two had to be kept apart for duration of shoot. My question, though: If Lugosi was hot toward Chaney re the Dracula thing, how did he feel about John Carradine, who did Daddy Drac twice for Universal in the mid-40's and was figured for that period to own the part? There was Black Sleep succor of Tor Johnson to help (sometimes literally carry) Bela on and off the set. This man was really sick. He probably shouldn't have been there at all, but BL was dedicated trouper to the end, a hero of the horrors to fanship then and now.

Aubrey Schenck and producing partner Howard W. Koch dreamed up a stunt for peaking awareness of in-progress The Black Sleep. They'd converge upon L.A.'s famed Tail O' The Cock restaurant with most of a motley cast (Rathbone notably absent --- I can hear him shouting "I'll not!" when invited). Tail O' The Cock was an eatery always filled, their specialty steak and prime rib. They were supposedly first in town to serve Margaritas. There were two locations, both closed now. Anyway, The Black Sleep's bunch convened there for a late February lunch, arriving in a hearse, photographer in tow. You'd figure Schenck or Koch to have called ahead --- to reserve a large table at least --- but who knows? Stills from the occasion show a fair crowd seated around the demonic diners. Imagine management and onlooker response to such foolery --- or maybe all were inured to dumb Hollywood publicity intruding on their lives.

A close look at faces reveal much. Tor cheerful and expectant (Steak good!), Bela glad to be among people who might notice him, Chaney wondering if there's something stronger than iced tea on the menu. Carradine's at head of the table, and I'll bet he led conversation, peppered perhaps with Shakespearean quotes. To make sure of a crowd's attention, there was the shaved-head woman and scarred sailor from Black Sleep's dungeon, all by way of making sure this wouldn't be confused with an Elk Lodge meeting. Plates were empty when these stills were taken. Otherwise, we'd know what everyone was having. Lugosi's taste for Hungarian repast would likely not be accommodated here. Lon the expert at barbecuing would judge well the meat being served, and I'd figure Tor took care of whatever others left on their plates. As for Carradine, his gaunt frame did not suggest a hearty appetite. Was JC a little self-conscious at being here? He had, after all, just come off The Ten Commandments for C.B. DeMille.

Aubrey Schenck had lately been on a "Senate Juvenile Delinquency Sub-Committee" grill, lawmakers burned over "scaring people" with "too much emphasis on violence and crime" in he and Koch's latest for Bel-Air, Big House U.S.A. Retort by Schenck exposed the idle threat: "The very fact that crime is violent and brutal should be a deterrent to crime" (yes, well ... O.K.). Besides, he was too busy prepping The Black Sleep and Pharaoh's Curse to worry about it. "Scaring people," said Schenck, "is popular entertainment and can be had not only in theatres but in every amusement park and public library." Say, maybe it was time to start cleaning up all that mayhem in school books and redirect youth toward uplift of Schenck/Koch pictures. Might The Black Sleep be rescue from baleful influence of parks and libraries? By Schenck's reckoning, could be ...

Lon, John, and Bela Make a Frisco Meal of Tor

June 1956 Opening in L.A.
The "Zombie Pix" team pulled stops for Black Sleep openings. There'd be cast members in person at Frisco, Portland, and finally L.A., all during June '56. Gag photos were abundant, Chaney, Carradine, and Lugosi making apparent meal of Tor's bald noggin ... all in fun, and catnip to press cameras. Incidents on tour became legend. We'll never know if Lugosi stepped upon a window ledge in belief he could "fly," or if Tor dangled Bela there to teach his elderly pal a lesson (seems unlikely, considering real affection TJ had for BL). Bela biographer Arthur Lennig doubts veracity of such accounts, and frankly so do I. But they make fun stories, and fair game for most outside Lugosi worship. By Hollywood's bow on 6/27 (eighteen venues), there was Tor and by-for-a-buck Vampira, shill for this and subsequent Bel-Airs, to appear with The Black Sleep (she'd briefly double as boxoffice cashier to hypo ticket sales). Even Bela made the scene courtesy teens tending him --- well, it beat hauling BL to the deli again or getting his shoes soled, customary errands to which the boys were dispatched. Also opening that self-same Wednesday, at twelve theatre/drive-ins, was the '56 bring-back of King Kong. And oh, Frankenstein and Dracula revived at two locations. Otherwise, there'd be no genre competition that week in L.A. for The Black Sleep and its companion, The Creeping Unknown, let alone anything new or first-run. Could this account for sock business the combo did at these and other summer stands?

Teenage Visitor To The Set Gets a Shock
Variety was predicting a hot season for scares, twenty pics ready to go or in the hopper. All were low on budget but rich in exploitation spending. Radio, TV, and dailies got much of funds saved from production, all aware that horror sold best by spreading word among impressionable young with itch to dispose of allowance or lawn-cut money. Schenck/Koch figured to put $20,000 in circulation, "Barnum style," as Aubrey phrased it, "the largest (ad budget) in Bel-Air history." Some of kale went to wax figures (life size!) of Black Sleep cast that would tour with the film (today's burning question: might they still exist?). Composer Les Baxter jazzed up a theme written from his score and called it "The Black Sleep Mambo." Fly in ointment, which came in November after most cash had been grabbed, was real-life shock of a nine-year-old boy who died of heart failure while watching a Chicago parlay of The Black Sleep and The Creeping Unknown. Outrage came quick with expected call for ban of all chillers. The Cook County coroner wanted double-featured horror stopped, and toward purifying end, sent subpoenas to hapless management of the offending Lake Theatre. The incident briefly bestirred trades, but like previous Chicago attempts at censorship, came to little.

Schenck/Koch were overall satisfied enough with The Black Sleep to step up thrill production, Voodoo Island and Pharaoh's Curse a next parlay from Bel-Air. Theatrical encore for The Black Sleep would come in 1963, via independent Cari Releasing Corp., a distributor that was also handling initial US theatrical dates for Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin. Cari would amend The Black Sleep's title to Dr. Cadman's Secret, tandem billing the 1956 chiller with Silent Death, formerly Voodoo Island. Forrest Ackerman gave Cadman an eight-page boost in Monster World #1, published autumn 1964, this a mere exercise in frustration for ones of us whose close-by theatres would not book the combo. Close perusal of TV schedules might have afforded relief however, as The Black Sleep had been playing the tube since 1959, visibility renewed by its 1963 packaging with UA, Warner, and RKO evergreens in a 60 title "Science- Fiction/Horror/Monsters" group for syndication. The Black Sleep would be object of longing for collectors, pleas to owning United Artists gone unanswered until "On-Demand" DVD brought forth a full-frame transfer from old elements, hardly a best way to revisit a monster rally many hold dear, but better than nothing that preceded its disc release.


Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

You can read the truth about Lugosi during the filming of THE BLACK SLEEP in BELA LUGOSI DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES. Lugosi had the DTs and couldn`t appear during his final personal appearance. And he wasn`t even scheduled to appear for the premiere in LA. He just showed up dead drunk.

9:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Long-time makeup artist Craig reardon supplies some fascinating insight into work done on "The Black Sleep" by George Bau, and remembers the Tail O' The Cock as well (Part One)

You know, I had lunch at least once at one of the Tail O' the Cock restaurants you refer to, but I'd be hard pressed trying to remember which one, or exactly where it was. I only remember who I had it with: Christopher Palmer, a pal of Miklos Rozsa and Elmer Bernstein, as well as Bernard Herrmann, and who was a writer on music (not to say 'he wrote music', in the sense of being a composer), as well as an orchestrator, who earned the trust of both Rozsa and Bernstein and orchestrated several of their scores from their sketches. Herrmann of course famously and stubbornly orchestrated all his own scores, and most fans can clearly perceive the difference, between his style and the homogenous sound of most Hollywood orchestral background music.

As for the pictures you posted, I find the expected well of pathos in seeing the aged, frail Lugosi, someone who'd been proud at one time and was by this time full of sadness and disappointment and constant humiliation. Just so sad. He did not engage in self-pity, as far as whatever late stories have come down to us anyway, and clearly he got up and 'went to work', whenever he could and on whatever he could get. You have to admire him; you just have to. Chaney and Carradine too, though, for that matter. They'd decided to have acting careers, and come what may, they were going to stick to their last, like the cobbler.

The eccentric makeups in this film were by the genuinely talented George Bau, who'd done the great makeup on Vincent Price for "House of Wax", e.g. He also told Dick Smith that he was the one who'd actually created the makeup for Charles Laughton for his immortal portrayal of Quasimodo, and for Agnes Moorehead in her impressive look as a centenarian in "The Lost Moment", both makeups credited to members of the Westmore clan, who were adroit at taking bows for other people's work.

9:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

Bau not only whipped out some oddball makeups for "The Black Sleep" but then also turned around and somehow found the time and money to construct superb replicas of four or five of the cast members, in character, to be taken around to theaters to publicize this very boring "horror" movie. I still don't know how he was able to afford to do this!

He worked on other "Bel Air" horror pictures like, e.g., "The Curse of the Pharaoh" with its odd but enjoyable not-really-a-mummy makeup; or, the work on Boris Karloff for "Frankenstein 1970". Light duty for the man who'd done Henry Jarrod and Quasimodo, both! Bau also appears to have formulated (or perhaps simply 'lifted' the formula from a former early employer, who knows?) the foam latex mix that Dick Smith for one felt was THE only one to use during his amazing days at NBC in the '40s, '50s, up to the outset of the '60s when he quit NBC and went freelance.

All of Dick's acolytes like Rick Baker and myself, and many to follow, took up Bau's formula for foam latex in adherence to Our Leader [Dick Smith, that is]. The sad irony is that just before this mini-explosion of character makeup and effects activity in the 1980s, Bau had despaired of just about everything and had taken his life through the astounding and horrible means of seppuku! Ugh.

Suicide is bad enough but that some poor souls go out actually torturing themselves. Just an inconceivable end for a talented and skillful guy, but one who was victimized in the sense that everything he ever did for films was never recognized in his lifetime, or, it was taken credit for by the "department head" (executive).


9:12 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I wish I looked this movie more than I do--only got through it once and have had a hard time taking the plunge again.

On the other hand, I'm really enjoying the Bel-Air output, many of which are on Amazon Prime. Sure, they look like they were shot for TV, but things like Big House USA and Hell Bound have more guts than what the big studios were putting out.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

As my wife the nurse would remind me, that boy who died from fright had an underlying cardiac condition that nobody knew about. It probably could have been set off by an energetic run in the park, but leave it the do-gooders to try to curb everybody else's fun.

5:32 PM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

I remember Forry Ackerman's playing up this film so much that I began to believe that I had seen it. I had not! After reading your wonderful write up and viewing the pix, I decided to see if Amazon Prime had it. They did, and I watched a rather nice print. Having just seen a little footage from "The Bubble," I have to say that this was well acted and didn't look as cheap as it might have. A lot of fun and Basil Rathbone's refusal to give anything but his all make this memorable.

1:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Phil Smoot shares some interesting info about Lugosi's TV appearances, both actual and mythical:

I respect what you say about not believing the Bela-Lugosi-on-tour
stories.People make up so much stuff to have a story that lies become
accepted as hard fact.I doubt that Bela was off mentally nor physically
during The Black Sleep. He looks pretty healthy in the stills you
posted, especially at the diner.Frank Dello Stritto did a lot towards
ending all the myths about Lugosi's Dracula tour in England.Wish
someone could do the same for the years after that.And the Lugosi on
The Red Skelton Show myth --I asked Dello Stritto about that at the
Monster Bash in 2011,as I thought it was all fantasy (and I have found
no evidence that the show ever happened).Dello Stritto said that he was
beginning to feel the same,but said that maybe I should ask Richard
Gordon(as his brother, Alex, had false memories of when he first met
Lugosi and erroneously confused the TexacoStar Theater 1949 performance
with Milton Berle with Red Skelton).Well, I'm glad that I ran right
over to see Richard Gordon at that Monster Bash, as he died later that
year --Sad, as I had become accustomed to seeing him at that excellent
annual convention.I asked him about the Red Skelton story,andhe told me
that my suspicion was right:Bela Lugosi was never on Red Skelton
show.It never happened.Richard Gordon said "I knew everything that
Lugosi did after I first met him, and if he would have ever appeared on
Red Skelton, I would have known about it. It's just a story that never
happened."I told Dello Stritto that at this summer's (June 2014)
Monster Bash. He looked a little stunned that I had actually asked
Richard Gordon about it, as the June 2011 event was the first time that
I ever went up andtalked to Dello Stritto, but I always attended his
presentations there. Spent a little more time talking to him this
year.Well, thanks for your articles, andI'm glad to know more about The
Black Sleep and its promotion. I wish Warner would release a properly framed
Blu-ray with Tom Weaver doing one of his excellent andwell researched
commentaries.Phil Smoot Asheboro, NC

1:47 PM  

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