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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Everybody Who Was Ever Scary Is In It!

Greenbriar Deep In The Black Sleep (1956) --- Part One

BS Was No Classic, But Stills For It Surely Were
I believe there's more scholarship on The Black Sleep than for any picture released in 1956, including The Ten Commandments. It's nobody's favorite horror film, and yet close to hearts of many. BS was gothic when most of the genre was spacemen and bugs. Old-time faces were combined for a sort of pre-Mad, Mad World of chilling. Each could be had for comparative change, Basil Rathbone a sort-of exception for getting $10-15,000 to star, but even that was a bargain when you factor value of his name. Others of the group, according to recall of producing Aubrey Schenck, drew down from a thousand (Lon Chaney) to measly hundreds (poor Bela). Accounts here do vary, however. Lugosi's wife, Hope, said he got a grand, and since she was the one managing rent and groceries, I'd call her account most reliable. What does any of this matter after fifty-eight years? Nothing perhaps, but fact is it does matter, a great deal, to those of us who'd choose The Black Sleep's shooting set as Destination One in event of time travel becoming reality.

Best Since Dracula and Frankenstein? According to Anecdotes,
 A Lot of 1956 Kids Thought So

First, an acknowledgement of source from which data flows. 90% of what's out there on The Black Sleep --- interviews, research as in boots-on-ground --- is work of Tom Weaver, who dug into detail of the film's production years ago when many of participants were still among us (virtually all gone now). He is the reason we know so much of The Black Sleep, so be assured that everything here is merely Greenbriar's read on what Weaver wrote. And incidentally, he has a new book out in a few weeks, the definitive history of all three Creature (as in Lagoon) features made by Universal-International in the 50's. This will be answer to prayers of sci-fi fandom and all those who revere the Gill Man, a most hotly anticipated 2014 publishing event (The Creature Chronicles: Exploring The Black Lagoon Trilogy, available from Amazon).

Tor, Carradine, and Herb Rudley Chill Out Between Takes

Back to The Black Sleep. There is so much, maybe too much I'd say about The Black Sleep. At what point does one's enthusiasm for a topic outrun everyone else's interest, or patience? And so I guess Greenbriar is an only place I can Sleep sound, and dream of what took place for those couple or three weeks during which the show was shot, and what circumstance brought a fabled cast to say Boo in underpaid unison (that last is the fan in me talking --- I'd have been for giving Rathbone, Lugosi, Chaney, Carradine, even Tor Johnson, a million each --- of Aubrey Schenck's money). Most, I'd suppose, were grateful for the work. They all seemed to have shown up, in any event --- but what more invitations went out, and to whom? Was Karloff approached? You'd think he'd have been first. Peter Lorre had his chance, but said no. A "billing dispute," according to Variety (1/23/56). Lorre was to have had the Akim Tamiroff role. A pity we lost him, as Tamiroff was an only white sheep among a black flock, his resume notably shy of horrific content.

I'd Visit The Louvre If They Had This Framed and Six-Sheet Size On The Wall

Trades also reported Lesley Selander being replaced by director Reginald LeBorg. Were we poorer for the switch? From what I've seen of respective work, may-be. Selander was better at tempo, and could uplift weak material, but belief at the time was that LeBorg had higher pedigree for chilling (his many for Universal during the 40's). Or maybe it was just money. For all I know, Selander wanted $100 more to direct The Black Sleep, and that queered him. The film was shot at rented facility (Ziv, where TV magic was made with Highway Patrol and etcetera). The last Mrs. Lugosi visited the set and reported it a dump, but she would say that because Hope seemed to have little hope for humanity, let alone any of Bela's ventures (what a dark cloud this woman was upon BL's last horizon). LIFE magazine actually sent a photographer to cover The Black Sleep shoot during February of 1956 (they must have intended to do a magazine feature on the film --- did that transpire?). The LIFE visit yielded oodles of great art and backstage glimpses. Everyone is caught candid, looking tired, maybe a little resigned. No, this wasn't MGM, but by 1956, even MGM wasn't MGM anymore.

A great and unheralded thing about The Black Sleep was stills they took ... I mean beyond the LIFE captures. Wonderful, moody portraits of all the cast, plus group posing to better evoke a haunted house than for any chiller I've seen advertised from that period. Others say The Black Sleep was like a 40's Universal, Columbia, or Monogram mad doctor operation being performed again. It is an old-fashioned yarn, done by middle-age men who remembered scares of yore. Writing seems peeled off blueprint Sleep's cast had consulted before, by Lugosi especially. He'd complain of "big cheese" Rathbone now playing the lead that would have gone Bela-way a decade before --- before Lugosi went into voluntary rehab for drug addiction, that is. Could he have possibly carried Basil's bags (and lots of dialogue) in these last months of life? (Lugosi died in 8/56) What we'd all like in hindsight is opportunity for him to at least try, but how realistic is that? People were spending real money to finish The Black Sleep on schedule, and that money was, after all, short.

Lugosi Gets a Leather-Bound Copy of Black Sleep's Script
Basil Rathbone found Ziv a slumming address in any case. He'd been the merry prankster on We're No Angels the previous year, according to its ingĂ©nue Gloria Talbott, but that was Paramount and Technicolor and company of Humphrey Bogart as star, with Michael Curtiz directing. Basil was affable for pride in being there, We're No Angels an inarguable "A," just as was his last before The Black Sleep, which was The Court Jester with Danny Kaye. Co-player Herbert Rudley said Rathbone kept to himself through The Black Sleep. Maybe I'd have done the same under similar humbling circumstance. Rathbone did reach out to Bela Lugosi, who was, of course, worse off than Basil's darkest hours before, or to come. A little poem BR sent BL, to effect that we can't change what's past, but must look to a better future, was meant to boost a beaten man, but you wonder how proud Bela took the gesture. Did he figure big cheese Basil to be patronizing him? Oh, to have been an observer on that set, and all the human drama it afforded.

Part Two Of The Black Sleep is HERE.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

There is so much unbelievable sadness in all these faces. I remember the excitement I had walking into a theater to see it. I knew nothing about them beyond the names on the posters. That's poignant now knowing what happened to these men. Still, they had some extremely good times and left us some extraordinarily fine movies. Life has been far worse to many others. How many current stars have names which will resonate as theirs do? Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Rathbone. There is proper magic in those names.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Ironic that it was paired with Creeping Unknown, a Hammer film, the studio that would take over gothic horror.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

As bizarre as this collection of Hollywood stars, now has beens, may be, I agree that there is a profound sadness to looking at the faces of these tortured men.

At least two of them addicts, Lugosi and Chaney (and Lorre would have been a third if he had joined them), with both Rathbone and Carradine reduced to slumming it in order to still make a living in the Hollywood factory of the '50s.

I can understand why Rathbone, so extroverted on the set of the Bogart "A" the year before, may have kept to himself on the Black Sleep set.

And what awaited Lugosi and Tor Johnson at this time - Edward D. Wood, the one man wanting to work with them. What an odd collection of souls those three would make.

8:13 AM  

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