Jessie Lilley
Buddy Barnett
Brad Linaweaver

November 2009     Web Edition     Issue #3

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Bela Lugosi and the Monogram Nine

Gary D. Rhodes and Robert Guffey—BearManor Media

Foreword by Larry Blamire

reviewed by Michael Copner

It would require and enthusiastic writing team such as Gary Rhodes and Robert Guffey to bring respect and probing inquiry to these Lugosi films from Monogram Studios. Are the films minor miracles or minor masterpieces? This book is food for thought in that area. For too long, “the nine” was considered throw-away entertainment. Watch it once, then forget it. The authors of this book demur.

Critics throw rotten eggs at a triumph such as Black Dragons merely because the story lacks continuity—or some absurd excuse. Film commentators like Rhodes and Guffey explain why this very lack makes the Lugosi/Monograms among the most challenging epics of surrealistic cinema in the 20th Century.

Ray Bradbury wrote “Mars is Heaven.” I wonder if Monogram was film heaven. Or film Hell? When, in those last two, they had teamed Lugosi and Carradine—and at least one with Zucco! There are the two most dramatic un-dead on silver (bullet) screen in a dime-store spookhouse. Zowie!

On signing his contract before filming anything, Bela praised Monogram to the print media, beaming: “They promise me they won’t all be children scarers!” So, to keep their star happy, and add variety to the spice, the studio made Bowery at Midnight.

Looking for all the world like a Warner Brothers gangster film, the atmosphere of Skid Row desperation built into the screenplay by Gerald Schnitzer, is enhanced by the economical production needs of Monogram. Unable to afford George Raft or a Bogart, the underworld mastermind in this crime drama is Lugosi. And he’s more of a natural than anyone but Edward G. Robinson could be. In the chapter “Multiple Realities of the Bowery” Guffey nominates this movie as a prime example of early “slipstream” in the cinema, and goes on to detail the evolution of “slipstream fiction”. Guffey makes use of an interview with Gerald Schnitzer and compares this film to the hardboiled writing of Mickey Spillane.

I never cared for the films Lugosi made with the East Side Kids. On reading Dr. Rhodes’ coverage of these, I ran and watched them both. Spooks Run Wild is the better blend of comedy with Bela’s scary moments as non-vampire red herring.

This book runs many photos, nearly one on each page. It’s getting pretty rough to find any rare, never seen photos of old classic films of all genres; but some cool illustrations grace the tome now under review. One photo depicts three East Side Kids rising from a coffin. Lugosi in full Dracula regalia stands alarmedly behind them. Gary Rhodes likely wrote the caption which declaims: “Lugosi’s Nardo is one of the best magicians in America, so famous the East Side Kids don’t recognize him.”

Only once in the book do both Rhodes and Guffey contribute their own individual chapter to one film: Invisible Ghost. Writing is most lively here, as Ghost is the liveliest film. In too many Bs, characters stand and chat before an unmoving camera. In this film of the Monogram 9, the camera is in constant motion, while formulas and standards get violated and established. Gary’s method of showing on the printed page—aided by frame grabs—the murder of the main in her bedroom, must be seen to be believed. Still used today are camera movements and editing revolutions designed for this Ghost.

In this book, other past film critics are quoted or referenced. We’re reminded that in the 1950s, film historian William K. Everson called these Lugosi/Monograms “abortions”. A 1993 quote by Tom Weaver is revived. Weaver terms one of the 9 a “landmark in the history of incoherent cinema”. These guys don’t seem to understand, “get with” or even enjoy these movies. (So why are they quoted?)

As for Rhodes and Guffey? They get it! They dig and embrace the weirdness and outer-dimensionality of these films and say, “Bravo! On with the show!”.

L-R: Polly Ann Young, Bela Lugosi and Clarence Muse in INVISIBLE GHOST

While Gary Rhodes drew a schematic for an Invisible Ghost scene via words and frame grabs, Robert Guffey does similarly, using original prose/poetry to enliven his essay. He encapsulates the film in a surrealistic outline using dialogue, action, motivation and more. So graphic it could get a reaction from one who has not seen the film, it has greater impact to one who has. Some choice lines:

There’s the wife again.
(How much more effective these scenes would be without a musical score.)
Grabs heart. Back into the trance.
Have you had your coffee yet?
What does he mean by “the others”?
We can’t leave.
There’s been quite a lot of them.
He’s waiting for his wife to come back.
She has eyes like Virginia.
She’ll be back someday.

My excerpts can’t lend the entire verse due justice. Mr. Guffey shows the movie elements as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle; dares us to reconstruct the film from those pieces. Will some beatnik poet in San Francisco be found reciting this ode to an Invisible Ghost in some North Beach coffee house? While Carradine’s double plays the bongos and Voodoo Girls reply with tambourines and zills? One can dream…

Obviously, I encourage every monster fan to get this book. You’ll love it. The treasure chest of Monogram classics is shown knowledgeable evaluation and context at long last.

“Each day brings its little surprises.”