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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bay of the Living Dead: Gary D. Rhodes' Journey Back in Time With Dracula

Posted By on Wed, Mar 18, 2015 at 11:22 AM

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Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a regular column dedicated to the horror genre, past, present, and future. This column will appear about every two weeks. 


Gary D. Rhodes, sometimes known as Gary Don Rhodes, has dedicated his life to Bela Lugosi. Rhodes has documented Lugosi's life and career in a series of books — too many books to mention in a single column. Search Rhodes' name on Amazon, and you'll be impressed!

Today we'll take a look at Rhodes' two most recent Lugosi volumes, and at his sublime documentary about his idol.

Lugosi (1882-1956) was a classically trained matinee idol, a highly respected Shakespearean in his native Hungary. In 1927, he was cast in the title role of Dracula, a hit Broadway play based on Bram Stoker's classic 1897 novel. Four years later, Lugosi became a movie star when he reprised his performance as the undead count in Tod Browning's wildly successful film version of the play. Dracula (1931) is often credited as the first feature-length horror film of the sound era. 

Browning's Dracula was one of cinema's most influential horror films — it led to James Whale's Frankenstein later that same year. Universal Studios, in fact, produced one horror film after another for nearly 15 years as a direct result of its success with Dracula. As the first of these films, Dracula was the standard bearer, and the Universal monster movies remain the blueprint for Gothic horror films to this very day.

Rhodes' book on Browning's Dracula is a meticulously researched history lesson on the making of that movie. He reveals delicious, long-buried bits of information from the Universal Studios archives — production notes, letters between studio executives and film personnel.

Rhodes also digs up old interviews with cast members and behind-the-scenes production stills, some never before seen. Quite a bit of Rhodes' history lesson is new information: This includes profiles of several writers who attempted to script the film, but whose efforts didn't make the final cut.

Rhodes takes his readers back in time to visit the set of the film as it was being made. The author gives his readers an idea of what it might have been like to work with Bela Lugosi, an intense man who took his craft very seriously.

Rhodes also delves into the shooting of the Spanish Dracula, which was shot concurrently with the Lugosi film using the same script, costumes, and sets, albeit with a Spanish-speaking cast. The Spanish Dracula was released across Latin America and is now available to English speakers on DVD, with subtitles.

Rhodes doesn't stop with the last day of Dracula's filming. He follows the film across America on its initial release, visiting long-demolished, long-forgotten theaters to report on their dollar grosses, which remain on file deep in the Universal vaults. He also digs up photographs and newspaper clippings which report on some of the highly amusing, often over-the-top publicity stunts that theater managers arranged in order to promote the film.

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Tod Browning's Dracula by Gary D. Rhodes is an unforgettable journey into cinema's past.

In 2012, Rhodes, together with Bill Kaffenberger, co-authored another great book which offers more insight into the life and career of Lugosi. No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi dispels one of the myths that continue to haunt the actor's legacy.

In 1948, Lugosi reprised his Dracula characterization for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a grand monsterfest that works as both a chiller and as a slapstick comedy. It was to be the last time that Lugosi worked for a major Hollywood studio. The gossip mill has long maintained that the actor, who had developed an addiction to painkillers, was unemployable for years afterwards. Once again, Rhodes does his homework and uncovers the truth. 

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No Traveler Returns gets its title from the name of a play that Lugosi toured the country with after he made the Abbott and Costello film — that tour included a stop at the Curran Theatre right here in San Francisco. In fact, in between the bad B-movies (including three hilarious camp classics for the notorious Ed Wood in the mid-1950s) that he did post-1948, Lugosi worked in theater almost continuously, and not always in revivals of Dracula, as historians have erroneously claimed.

Rhodes and Kaffenberger document Lugosi's journey every step of the way, offering posters, stills, and reviews, always expressing their deep admiration for a magnificent actor who showed up and gave his all at a time when others his age were thinking about retirement. Lugosi kept working, earning a living so he could support his young son.

The true story of these later years only serves to increase one's admiration for this wonderful, old school actor. 

When checking out Rhodes' books, it might also be worth having a look at Lugosi: Hollywood's Dracula, the author's feature-length documentary. Patterned after A&E's old Biography series, the film tells the story of Bela Lugosi's life, beginning with his early days as one of Hungary's most respected classical actors. You'll follow Lugosi as he emigrates to America and finds stardom with his most famous role, only to have his star eclipsed by fellow horror star Boris Karloff (Frankenstein). The film argues that Lugosi was in fact one of the greatest actors of his generation. The film also offers a glimpse into his private life: Hope Lugosi, the star's much younger fifth and final wife, who survived him by 41 years, speaks on camera for the only time. 

Lugosi: Hollywood's Dracula, is a love letter to a movie star who never got the recognition from Hollywood that he so richly deserved. The film, now out of print,  can still be purchased on DVD at Amazon, as can Rhodes' numerous books.

And while you're at it, check out Dusty Old Movies, a charming web series starring next-gen horror fan Bobby Collins.
Here's Bobby's review of the 1931 Dracula:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrQdGbhBWlo    

Special Announcement: This column, Bay of the Living Dead, has been nominated in the Best Blog/Online Column category at this year's Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Film Awards.
Voting is open to the public, so please show us some love and email your votes for Bay of the Living Dead to taraco@aol.com.

Be sure to specify column name and category when voting.

And if I may suggest, please vote for Theater Fantastique: Madame LaSoeur in the best short film category. The film, directed by my pal Ansel Faraj, is inspired by the popular Edgar Allan Poe films produced during the 1960s. Faraj's film stars four — count 'em — four cast members from the classic TV series Dark Shadows.

The full Rondo ballot can be seen here: www.rondoaward.com                       


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