A CONVERSATION WITH GARY D. RHODES (2007)
BELA LUGOSI: DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
I’ve been a fan of Gary D. Rhodes work for a number for years. From his McFarland book on White Zombie, to his film documentaries Lugosi: Hollywood’s Dracula and Banned in Oklahoma about the censorship of the film The Tin Drum in his home state, through his many contributions to genre magazines, I knew Rhodes was a kindred spirit. When Bela Lugosi, Dreams and Nightmares (with Richard Sheffield), was published in 2007, I was quick to get a copy and devour it, and did whatever I could to help promote it. I’m a Lugosi-phile myself, and had been developing a film script about Lugosi’s life and theater work in New York, up until Dracula’s opening night.
This conversation occurred during Labor Day weekend in 2007 while I was a guest at The Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester, England, there to screen my recently produced film Chainsaw Sally. Rhodes and I had been corresponding briefly up to that time, and he surprised me one day with an email saying that he was planning on stopping by the festival on his way back to Ireland (where he is currently teaching film), to see some friends, and would like to meet me, as well.
He arrived on Saturday afternoon, tired from the long flight from the US, just as the Festival guests were herded into the scheduled autograph session by festival director Gil Lane-Young, and sat with me at my table for an hour or so, before agreeing to meet at the bar later. Meeting Gary for the first time, I realized another thing that we had in common: we were the only men in the room wearing neckties. On the spot, I suggested an interview talking about Lugosi for my blog An Actor’s Notebook. And, as we were occasionally and pleasantly interrupted by folks stopping by the table, I turned on the recorder and we had the following chat:
REDFIELD: What was it about Lugosi that originally captured your heart?
RHODES: I think I first saw DRACULA around the age of four years old, and then my oldest sister bought a paperback book on the history of horror films. I spent hours staring at the stills in it of Lugosi and the others. My mother loved the classic horror flicks… she was an original Shock Theatre viewer… so I loved the old horror films from an early age… as well as ghost stories and so forth. But vampires seemed to be a particular interest, and Lugosi had a kind of personality that was so unique. At once familiar and yet at the same time “foreign.” I thought he was amazing, and of course buying FAMOUS MONSTERS ingrained that in my mind even further. I sort of lost interest for a few years as a STAR WARS-era kid, but by the age of 12 or so, the proliferation of home video and ease of access to Lugosi films I’d never seen before brought me back to him.
REDFIELD: This new book (Dreams and Nightmares—I had flyers promoting it on the table with me, as we share the same publisher) was years in the making; did you have a “eureka” moment in your long research period?
RHODES: Well, I originally thought of writing about Lugosi’s final years when I was a kid, because I knew from Forry Ackerman and Dick Sheffield that so much that had been written about that period was wrong. That meant some early research when I was a teenager, interviewing folks like Reggie Le Borg and so forth that later passed away. Through my twenties as well… more interviews and so forth. When I really focused on bringing the book to a conclusion a few years ago, I was 32. It was 2005, and I thought most folks who knew Lugosi had died, except for some of the Ed Wood folks. What really surprised me was finding a few actors who worked with him on stage, as well as stage directors… people who had never been interviewed. Then a couple of folks who worked at the Metropolitan Hospital, where he went for drug rehab. But the real prize was my weeks in Europe. Thanks to some friends in Lugoj, I found his birth home. I found evidence of previously-unknown films he made in Hungary and Germany. And best of all, I found the granddaughter of his first wife, who had some amazing tales of Lugosi’s relationship with her, ranging from his wedding night to the letters he wrote to her long after he moved to America.
REDFIELD: I still want to know if Lugosi really is in the Chaney film HE WHO GET’S SLAPPED and if not, where’d the rumor start?
RHODES: Dick Sheffield found a photo with Lugosi and Chaney Sr. together marked HE WHO GETS SLAPPED in one of Lugosi’s own scrapbooks at Lugosi’s apartment. That’s how the mystery began. There’s no evidence Bela was in the film, though more than one photo shows a clown that looks like him. What I do know is that he left a play in Chicago just before the shooting of GETS SLAPPED started in the summer of 1924. He had gotten at least one good review in the play, but then leaves it, with an understudy taking over his role. Why he left and where he went for the coming weeks is unknown. So he could well have gone to LA in hopes of getting into some films there. He had already appeared in THE SILENT COMMAND in 1923. He was actually thinking about the US cinema before he left Hungary… he told his first wife that when they fled to Vienna. So he might well have ditched the play in Chicago, with hopes of Hollywood, maybe even the promise of a role that didn’t materialize, which in the end led to nothing more than an extra role or two, as in GETS SLAPPED, before returning to New York…a place he had friends, but also a place that he owed some debts at that time too. Something definitely caused him to have an unexpected departure from Chicago… but we just don’t know for sure why.
REDFIELD: You point out that there were other actors who made better “box office” for the film of DRACULA other than Lugosi, and that many other actors were touring the country with the play, including the role’s originator. How much did Lugosi campaign for the role of Dracula prior to being cast in the play? Did he ever read the novel and talk about it?
RHODES: Lugosi certainly made a vigorous campaign for the role in the film, including being versed in the novel and even writing to Stoker’s widow… though once he had the film role, he complained about being typecast as a vampire even before its release. It was really a brave move on the part of the Laemmles to give him the role, as the numerous other persons under consideration would have been safer bets at the box office. They would have all paled in comparison to Lugosi, no doubt, but they would have actually made more financial sense in 1930. The Laemmles were pleased with his performance after filming was underway, though, and they started announcing possible follow-ups in the autumn of 1930. Even before FRANKENSTEIN and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, they mentioned starring parts for him in never-made films like THE RED MYSTERY.
REDFIELD: Lugosi’s political background, as detailed in your book, is of great interest to me. As to his career downturn, it seems to me to be less a question of “blacklisting” and maybe more about an actor of a certain age working in Hollywood at a certain time in history…
RHODES: Yeah, to me it was a really fascinating issue. It has been to some of us for years. My friend Frank Dello Stritto had earlier written on Lugosi’s politics too. My time in Europe, as well as vigorouscampaigns to get all OSS and FBI files on Lugosi and the organizations he was affiliated with show an interesting story. At times I think Lugosi has been presented as a kind of dupe… a bright-eyed actorthat got tangled up in politics he didn’t understand. But that isn’t the story that emerges from the surviving documents in Hungary, where he was not merely a supporter of the Communist regime, but someone whohad a somewhat important role in it… and someone whose comments in the press show had command of the issues. When he gets to the US during a period of anti-communism in the 20s, he carefully erases his connections to the Hungarian communist regime, whether in the press or to the US government. After he becomes acitizen in the early thirties, though, he gets politically involved again. He ends up becoming head of a Hungarian-American organization that helps raise money during World War II, but the organization was also something of a front for communists. Though he later tells the FBI that he was merely a figurehead president, surviving OSS files and some letters Lugosi wrote show he was heavily involved in the groupand was quite well-versed in the issues. Quite adept a leader, who devoted a good part of his schedule to the group. They even held a major event or two at his Hollywood home. During the McCarthy period, Lugosi actively seeks out a chance to testify to HUAC, but never gets to do so. FBI files seem to show that they were worried about him in the 1950s, whether due to his drug use(which they knew about) and even thinking of possibly deporting him. All that said, though, Lugosi apparently wasn’t blacklisted. Even after the worst of the McCarthy era was over, the William Morrisagency signed him. Jack Broder, who was making millions from Realart Re-releasing, not only cast him, but put his name in the title of a film… a tiny picture, sure, but why would Broder have risked everything he was making with Realart? Or why would William Morris have signed him if he was too hot politically to handle? Why would shows like Red Skelton have featured him on TV? Or a much-publicizedrole in BLACK SLEEP? If you look at other talent that we know was blacklisted, they weren’t getting those opportunities. It is a long and complicated journey, Lugosi’s politics, but in the end I guess the quick version is that he fibbed about his leanings so much and for so long that he seemed to (apparently) avoid blacklisting. Lugosi’s final years are more the result of a down-and-out actor, who was left behind in a world of modern sci-fi flicks. But he got just enough high profile gigs to make the blacklisting claim extremely questionable.
REDFIELD: The sections that detail Richard Sheffield’s relationship with Lugosi are wonderful. Every star-struck kids dream come true: to meet his hero. Tell me about your friendship and working relationship with Richard Sheffield.
RHODES: Dick is like a godfather… the best uncle you could ever have. I met him in LA when I was about 12 or 13, thanks to Forry Ackerman. We’ve been the greatest of pals ever since. Dick’s memories and Dick’s story… his befriending Lugosi and sticking by his side to the day he was Lugosi’s pallbearer and beyond… that is quite a tale. I think the new book tries to speak to Lugosi’s entire life, but it usesDick’s friendship as a kind of narrative frame. He’s a great guy, though. That’s the main thing. It was a kick to hear all his memories, but being his friend has even been better. After 25 years of togetherness, we’re like family.
REDFIELD: I’m curious to know more about Lugosi’s romance with Clara Bow. I think there’s a novel in there somewhere. “The Vampire and the ‘It’ Girl“—clunky, but a good title for a romance novel. Did she write an autobiography, or ever talk about it?
RHODES: Much as I hate to say it, my research led to the same place as David Stenn’s, who is Clara Bow’s biographer. Their relationship apparently wasn’t the kind of stormy and torrid affair that was scandalized in a few newspapers in the 1920s. Lugosi did keep a painting of Bow in thenude until the time of his death, but she didn’t pose in the nude for it.
REDFIELD: Well, hope springs eternal that something may come to light. It would make a good novel, a roman a clef…Speaking of Hope; I’m remembering the uncut footage of the interview with Lugosi’s last wife included as an extra on your documentary LUGOSI, HOLLYWOOD’S DRACULA. It’s as frustrating as it is interesting. What do you make of her, and what was the trip to interview her like? What was she trying “not to say”?
RHODES: Hope was really wonderful to Dick and me. She gave a reporter an interview in the 1950s and was very displeased with the result. So she never gave another interviewer or historian an interview that was intended to be published again, except for ours. She did talk to a few folks, but never gave permission for their discussions to be published, and they weren’t during her lifetime. In our case, she knew we were doing a film and a book… so we spent a good amount of time filming her. She was tired of being mistreated by horror film historians, as well as tired of having been Mrs. Bela Lugosi, I think. She was bitter, and seemed on the one hand to want to express her unhappiness, but on the other hand to be somewhat guarded. That interview is pretty long… only a handful of minutes appear on the DVD… much of it just seemed like it shouldn’t be released, as it revealed maybe too much.
REDFIELD: Knowing what you know now, after years of research—if you had a time machine, what part of Lugosi’s life would you like to travel back to in order to meet him and spend some time with him?
RHODES: So many fascinating periods in Lugosi’s life. The production of WHITE ZOMBIE would have been incredible to see. Or him as Romeo in Hungary, or onstage as Dracula. But I think the period Dick knew him would have been the best to actually speak to him, to get to know him. He had time for people then, and an interest in talking to them.
REDFIELD: Have you heard from Bela Jr. regarding the book? I spoke with him recently, but that was just before I got my copy (of your book). What does he think?
RHODES: I’d never have anything to say but the nicest things about Bela Lugosi Jr. He has always been like an uncle to me as well. I got a wonderful Halloween card from him last year with Snoopy as Dracula.He’s a lot of fun, and is a delightful guy. I know I’ve heard from Satanists and other crazies in my life thanks to writing books on Lugosi, so I can’t imagine how much he’s been bothered in hislifetime. But he’s always supported the things I’ve done on his father. The books and films and even a newsletter I published on Lugosi in the eighties. Always been very helpful. I think that heappreciated a lot of the attention I gave to Lugosi’s early life in the new book…
REDFIELD: Where did you find the Ed Wood script THE PHANTOM GHOUL?
RHODES: To be honest, I don’t remember. Years ago, my pal Rudolph Grey and I traded interviews and clippings and so forth… that was when he was still working on NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY. So it might have been him. But it could also have been Alex Gordon or someone else. Funny, butyou know I’ve done about 9 books now. DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES was in a kind of off-and-on situation for so long that I had boxes and boxes of research, some of it dating back to my pre-teen years. The book has kind of extended across my life from the ages of 12 to 34 or so… but I’m glad I waited to finish it. I think it made it a better book… I hope.
REDFIELD: Lugosi’s idea, post the Vincent Price version of HOUSE OF WAX, for a color, 3-D, re-make of DRACULA is fascinating. I think an incredible opportunity missed.
RHODES: I really hate that Lugosi didn’t get the chance for a remake of DRACULA, or at least some film role in something with a decent budget. But the tale of a bunch of teenagers collecting signatures on a petition all over LA is a great story. That was Dick and his pals, because there was really a whole group of Lugosi fans that clustered around the kingpin Dick Sheffield. They sent the signatures to Universal… but of course it came to nothing, in spite of their valiant efforts. But I also kind of regret the fact that some of the other TV and film things that were talked about for Lugosi in the fifties didn’t happen. Some of the other Ed Wood stuff, for example, or even that strangeROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS starring Bela that was talked about.
REDFIELD: Is there anything left to write about when it comes to Hollywood’s Dracula?
RHODES: I have, believe it or not, one more Bela book left in me. It will mean another trip or two to Hungary and Berlin. So much about his pre-DRACULA period is still unknown, but I’ve begun excavating it. I have dozens and dozens of articles from his short period in Berlin, reviews of films and press clippings and so forth from 1919 and 1920. So I’m going to do one more Lugosi book to collect all of that info. Right now, I’m eagerly awaiting my pal Greg Mank’s new KARLOFF/LUGOSI book… and in five or six years will get back to Bela. I always need some space between Lugosi projects to work on completely unrelated topics… it helps me get energized for Lugosi again.
REDFIELD: What are you working on now?
RHODES: Well, living in Ireland has made life a lot different in all kinds of ways. But it has been productive. Since Bela Lugosi, DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES, my Stanley Kubrick book has been published. In May 08, my book of essays on Edgar Ulmer gets published. And I’ve just finished a book that I think is my best, a book on the perils and problems of early moviegoing. Individual chapters cover the enormous number of movie theatre fires, movie theatre robberies, movie theatre bombings, movie theater mashers, movie theatre transmission of disease, and so on. Next up are books on Irish-America and early cinema, as well as a book on the beginnings of the horror film in the US. I also translated the 1921 novella DRAKULA, which is the book version of the 1921 film of the same name, which predated Murnau’s NOSFERATU and was the first (and very loose) adaptation of Stoker’s novel. I’m hoping to get it transformed into a comic book or animated film.
REDFIELD: You’re as busy as I am! Are you working on any new films now?
RHODES: On that front, I’ve tried to keep busy with filmmaking too. I recently finished an hour film about an Alzheimer’s victim that I think was worthwhile. And a 90 minute comedy film with Rue McClanahan and William Sanderson called WIT’S END that is almost finished. I’ve got a vampire comedy script called FLY BY NIGHT that I wanna make, so my fingers are crossed.
REDFIELD: We should re-make WHITE ZOMBIE.
RHODES: I can’t wait. Udo Kier can be Murder Legendre, and we’ll have to finda plum role for you as the hero.
REDFIELD: Hmm. Plum is right. The hero is a prune pit as written, but we can fix that!
RHODES: Will the undead in our version eat brains, or just stick to Haitian sugar cane?
REDFIELD: Oh! Haitian sugar cane! Voodoo! Keep it old-school and capture that “fairy-tale feeling” everyone loves about it. We’ll leave the brain eating to other zombie pictures!
Copyright Mark Redfield 2007