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Monday, July 08, 2024

Fiendish Foursome for Fun


The Comedy of Terrors as All-Star Third Acts

Grumpy Old Creeps might apply were The Comedy of Terrors reissued today, ground since 1963 littered by aged men not venerable but ill-content and objects less of laughter than derision. “Your Favorite Creeps Together Again!” was legend over flattering portraiture of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and “Also Starring” Basil Rathbone, the artist Reynold Brown depicting each on affectionate terms. The Comedy of Terrors was maybe a first for headlining old-timers to mirth-make and be respected despite ’63 youth-be-served attitude otherwise prevailing. Comedy’s creeper clutch had never been away since beginning eons before, joy to masses and now offspring since the 1930’s. All were of “Spook Show” tradition even though none to my knowing worked matinee spoof stages (as Bela Lugosi of departed league had). Each could be funny as in laugh with us, not at us, but here were clown masks on and us entreated to guffaw for whole of 84 minutes. To view The Comedy of Terrors best however is to ponder things other than what is said and done on the screen.

Being shot on rented space at General Services Studio, I’d ask how principals arrived to work each morning. Who drove as opposed to who was driven? What sort of vehicle could Peter Lorre afford at this point? At lunch break, where did they eat? And did they eat together? Suppose Evie chauffeured Boris and brought bag lunch and thermos for consult through the work day? What of pay for the cast? Price got the most surely, so what did that leave for Karloff, Lorre, Rathbone? Ten thousand … as much as $20K? Karloff like Price was an AIP star under contract. I went to The Terror, Black Sabbath, and Die, Monster, Die, but skipped The Comedy of Terrors for not liking horror stars as potential objects of ridicule. Same kept me away from Hillbillies in a Haunted House and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. I sat through snowy transmission of a Dr. Kildare episode to see Rathbone guesting. Pieces of this can be accessed here and there on You Tube. He is rancorous as Basil was known to be when fans called him “Sherlock.” He came across in the sixties as a man whom time and custom had passed by. Base in fact was our era and Basil was perhaps too good for us. He looks gaunt in The Comedy of Terrors, but his voice is crisp and borrowed teeth behave. In larger TV markets he hosted movie programs, shilling for a sponsor beer in one instance. Rathbone wasn’t fond of being in scare shows but would do them to serve necessity. He had aversion to boys who approached him holding monster magazines, one of them chased off the set of The Comedy of Terrors (lucky boy ... chased away by Basil Rathbone). I met writer Russ Jones at a West Coast show years ago and asked him about the time he interviewed Rathbone for Castle of Frankenstein magazine. He said Basil was polite if aloof on the topic of horrors, but enjoyed telling of sword roles and how he could have bested E. Flynn or Tyrone Power in duels if only scripts had let him. Basil had just bought a classical music album and was listening to it when he tipped over on July 21, 1967. I’m still hoping to wake up one morning and from that moment on talk just like Basil Rathbone.

Was Vincent Price the only Comedy creep who would someday work for fans who lined up to see his AIP’s? (Tim Burton a hirer at near career-close for VP). Price had edge of age (younger) and understood inherent humor in the genre he served. He is beyond broad in The Comedy of Terrors and so is Lorre. Peter Lorre had been a goofy gargoyle doing all sort of support work and being unlike any definition one could apply to acting, clear case since 1930 and Germany’s M. Did he really have no memory of doing Moto mysteries for all-of-time drug loop? I believe it for Lorre himself having confessed so. He would play mean practical jokes and scamper away when victims retaliated (ask George Raft). You’d think being short and pudgy would make Pete more cautious, but no. He was dear friends with Humphrey Bogart and not many people were. A stuntman wears a Lorre mask in The Comedy of Terrors and it looks spookiest of all faces on view. I was able to identify to some degree with favorites, but Lorre … might as well be a man on the moon. Halloween was busiest time on all of casts' calendar. You hope they gathered up nuts enough to eat through sunnier days when phones rung less, but hold --- Karloff got his best bid for posterity with a Christmas project, the Grinch he’s best known for now and maybe for always. Boris offscreen was too genial for monsters, and lots knew it. I recall Castle of Frankenstein’s cover headline for Die, Monster, Die that Karloff was “Playing a Monster for the First Time in 30 Years,” and me thinking, well who needs that? I’ll take him in a wheelchair and just talking, thank you.

I read of Chaney showing up in mid-sixties, his and the apx. date, at amusement parks to hand out flyers of himself in varied monster guise. What was needed was all of us older, maybe approaching our own sixties, to show up, be worshipful, and tell Lon how revered he’d be in nostalgia years to come. Presumably only Price lived long enough to grasp full dimension of monster fan culture. Yes, we were out there when The Comedy of Terrors played first-run, buying Famous Monsters, staying up late to see veterans young then, old and still serving yet, an emerging army loving them either way. Trouble was we weren’t connected to each other, small/large towns isolation wards for genre-loving to exclusion of adult endorsed recreation. Look today at the Classic Horror Film Board, lore and fan exchanging that never sleeps. I’ll bet there are more of the dedicated today than ever was during so-called Monster Booms of the fifties and sixties, which for all its remembered glories, was lonely outpost for overwhelming most. Is there present-day joy in watching The Comedy of Terrors? Depends on mood, capacity to look back longingly. I forgive any or all overage from this cast. “Karloff timed his delivery of that line flawlessly,” I will say … “Rathbone steals the show with his most exquisite late-in-life performance!” Too much cat squalling via “Rhubarb” (didn’t he/she once work with Ray Milland?), Joyce Jameson whom the script insists “sing,” Joe E. Brown (why? Because he’d been funny in Some Like It Hot?). There are those who assign “labored” to The Comedy of Terrors. Mere jiggery-pokery, I say. Will admit however to its not being for everyone, appeal limited perhaps to Grumpy Old Creeps now approaching age of Comedy's quartet.

You need a life’s exposure to this fantastic four and their associations prior: Karloff and Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein, together with Price for Tower of London, Lorre with Karloff in You’ll Find Out and again for The Boogie Man Will Get You, Price, Lorre, Karloff in The Raven, Rathbone and Price, Lorre in Tales of Terror, these for ’63-64 fanship board meetings via theatre or TV, fact of many preceding our birth all the better. Karloff and Lorre made a NY boroughs bus tour to promote The Raven and we can imagine fervid greeting they got from monster kids youthful still but walking much among us. Think how many accumulated since, having lost none of glow for ghouls. There is of late a book to confirm this and more: The Ghost of Frankenstein No. 16 of Scripts from the Crypt presented by Tom Weaver. He’s all over 380 pages with Gregory W. Mank, Bill Cooke, Roger Hurlburt, Frank Dello Stritto, and research associate Scott Gallinghouse. I’ve said same of previous Scripts/Crypt. Each goes straight from postman to lamp and chair, nary rise nor break for me till bones are as Minnie says, a last to be consumed. I last lauded Weaver work with The Mummy’s Hand, his having come out with follow-up volumes The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost since. Want to lift your mood, learn a lot plus laffs in the bargain? Any/all of these should brighten any midnight (strongly suggest watching respective movies for appetizer, dessert, or both).


Blogger Mike T. said...


There are people who wake up one day speaking with what sounds like an accent (it's called Foreign Accent Syndrome), so your dream of suddenly developing Rathbone-like intonations isn't entirely out of the question. But please be kind to people who call you Sherlock, few though they may be these days.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

As a young eager movie fan, being freshly introduced to the glories of Golden Age Hollywood via countless television broadcasts of black and white features, I wrote fan letters to both Basil Rathbone and Lon Chaney Jr. (both around 1966, I figure).

I received an autographed card back from Chaney, which thrilled my Wolf Man loving little heart. From Basil, however, I heard nothing. At the time of my letter I knew nothing about Rathbone's current plight in horror and sci fi features. Although i can't recall the contents of my letter to him I know that it would have reflected my enthusiasm over his memorable crossing of swords with Flynn and Power, a subject to which you write that Basil warmed.

I sometimes wonder if Rathbone ever read my letter in what was approaching his final year. Even though he didn't respond to it (not a good sign, I suppose) I hope it gave him a modicum of pleasure at a time when he was scrambling for employment in some pretty dire "B" film productions.

A friend, by the way, while browsing in a second hand book shop, came across a copy of Basil's autobiography, In And Out of Character. Much to his surprise it was actually signed by Rathbone on the title page, something the store's owner must not have noticed judging by the relatively modest price he had on the item. That book now holds an honoured place in my friend's his film book collection.

11:25 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

All but Rathbone seemed to embrace becoming lovable monsters (as opposed to villains you love to hate). Price would still play horror parts in earnest when needed, but elsewhere cheerfully mocked his image. Karloff's genteelness complemented his frailness; when he wanted he could imply there was something dangerous behind that soothing voice, but increasingly often it was a joke that he made evil sound so benign. With age and added weight Lorre was almost always comic; now and again there was an intentional pathos. Rathbone took everything seriously, at least in front of an audience. His comic villains were played to give the comics something to react to.

Lorre warned Barbara Eden against the day when it would seem a good idea to let somebody else sign the checks. He said that's why he was still working at his age.

4:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Phil Smoot shares data on the Karloff/Lorre NY tour for THE RAVEN:

"Karloff and Lorre made a NY boroughs bus tour to promote The Raven and we can imagine fervid greeting they got from monster kids youthful still but walking much among us."

I Line Produced 7 or 8 movies for Bill Greenblatt (who's son is James Marshall, best remembered as James the Motorcyle guy on "Twin Peaks" and as the young Marine on trial in "A Few Good Men"). James and his sister are the children of Bill's (now late) Rockette bride.

Bill worked for Radio City Music Hall for years before moving to California at the behest of his friend Martin Sheen (to produce several TV movies). Bill told me that he played cards and spent time with Karloff/Price/Lorre on that NY engagement for "The Raven" (although Bill did not remember the film).
I told him how much I envied his time with them).

- Phil

7:44 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts shares thoughts on THE COMEDY OF TERRORS and its veteran cast:

THE COMEDY OF TERRORS was, of course, a follow up to AIP's big box office on THE RAVEN, but sadly, the comedy is a bit too forced for it to be any improvement on the gentle comedy that came across on THE RAVEN. COMEDY OF TERRORS has it's moments, but THE RAVEN is a much better film.

Some interesting tidbits: apparently Rathbone and Karloff traded roles early on in the production, the part Rathbone would end up playing was thought to be too physical for Boris in his then less-mobilized condition. Sadly, Peter Lorre's health was in such decline by that time that stuntman Harvey Perry, who had doubled Lorre since back in the Mr. Moto days, doubles Lorre in the aforementioned Lorre mask through pretty much anything physical throughout the film. Vincent Price remembered it as a happy set though, and recalled that a reporter from some magazine showed up to cover the shoot with an eye to making fun of these old has-been actors being forced to do horror movies, but actually came away with real admiration for their professionalism and talent in making the film work as well as it does.

Karloff, though his part is perhaps not as important to the film as the others, is actually quite funny as the potty old pater-undertaker, his absent-minded delivery of the eulogy is beautifully done. And it must be said about Rathbone, both here and in his other late films, that no matter the level of production, he always gave his all. I was always amazed how well he gets into the slapstick in GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, and even in HILLBILLIES IN A HAUNTED HOUSE he looks like he's having a good time working with John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. And as Canuto Perez, the weary ghost in Rathbone's final Mexican-made film AUTOPSY OF A GHOST, he brings way more to the part that it probably deserved, but gives it both some humor and pathos against John Carradine who is having a high old time playing the Devil.

All of these films are worth watching because of the quality of the performers working in them. Bless companies like American International Pictures who understood that these old pros brought real life to these potboilers, and kept them working when they weren't getting so much work from the majors. This is why we are still looking at these films all these years later.


9:49 AM  

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