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Occupy Broadway

Conventional wisdom regards Busby Berkeley musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 as plot-free, escapist fluff. As usual, conventional wisdom is dead wrong. The class resentment and solidarity of Depression-era America are bred into Gold Diggers; they drive its story of four unemployed showgirls who gold dig their way to financial stability. Furthermore, the film is bookended by two politically trenchant musical numbers—the ironic “We’re in the Money” and plaintive “Remember My Forgotten Man”—that take the Depression by its horns.

In short, this isn’t just fluff. It’s a cry for help dressed up with showbiz panache. It’s class warfare as musical comedy. The war begins as two envoys of the upper class descend on the showgirls’ apartment to rescue their compatriot Brad, a trust fund baby working incognito as a songwriter. These envoys are played by Warren William, a smug, handsome staple of 1930s melodrama, and Guy Kibbee, his pompous, buffoonish counterpart. Before you can say “gullible,” they fall into the hands of two showgirls, who (through a series of intricate, seductive games) rope them into buying extravagant gifts and making marriage proposals.

One gold-digging tactic stands out as especially risqué and genuinely cruel. Trixie, the lanky trickster played by Aline MacMahon, transports the drunken Warren William into the bed of his paramour Carol (Joan Blondell). He awakes with a disorienting hangover and the misguided belief that, blue-blooded or not, he has fucked a chorus girl. Ashamed, he pays out $10,000 in blackmail money to Trixie. It’s the 99% sexually pranking the 1%—a Marxist wish fulfillment revenge fantasy.

And they get away with everything. Trixie, who had bragged about taking her mark “like Grant took Waterloo,” is never punished. She’s rewarded with a lifelong meal ticket. In the Gold Diggers America, poverty trumps pre-Depression notions of black and white morality. These girls are survivors and, if need be, sexual/economic mercenaries. Their gold-digging, played for laughs by the film’s impressive roster of comic performers, leaves a bitter aftertaste. All that unspoken despair and frustration rises to the surface in the film’s last few minutes, as the happy ending segues into “Remember My Forgotten Man.”

Berkeley’s musical numbers are typically renowned for their overblown, macroscopic staging. The “Forgotten Man” number, however, begins with the camera trained on Blondell’s face as she delivers a spoken word intro. “I was satisfied to drift along from day to day,” she mutters. “Until they came and took my man away.” It’s a poignant, proto-feminist* plea whose power is amplified by its visual simplicity, and Blondell gives a compact, heartbreaking mini-performance over the course of the song.

Then the number shifts into full-on Hollywood/Broadway grandeur: Berkeley recreates the soggy warfare of World War I, a ticker tape parade, and bread lines, all leading up to a vast Art Deco tableau of lower-class solidarity. All this, ostensibly on a real-life stage, with Blondell as its centerpiece, begging to have her man back. Then, audaciously, the movie ends. No more backstage shenanigans; just a tragic vision of the Great Depression.

It’s a vision with renewed relevance nearly 80 years later, thanks to the endemic greed of the financial sector. 2011 is uncannily similar to 1933, with the crowds of forgotten men and women, the extreme income inequality, and the well-funded reprisals against any attempt at protest. Some things, it seems, never change. In both Depression and Recession, the jobless masses lack the power that comes with money—but at least they’ve still got voices to sing out for economic justice and, just maybe, bodies to seduce it into reality.

*The song’s gender politics are admittedly complicated. I say “proto-feminist” because it’s from a woman’s POV and calls specific attention to the Depression’s effect on her. However, it also advances a heteronormative conception of women as dependent on the love and income of their husbands. Either way, it’s certainly powerful and worthy of further discussion.

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More Faces of Bela Lugosi

Long ago, I started a movie-by-movie tribute to Bela Lugosi. Now, as we conclude what would’ve been his 128th birthday, I’d finally like to continue this series with a few more roles. (For what it’s worth, I learned that The Vault of Horror had a post with the exact same name as mine, four months earlier. Great minds think alike…?) Tracing the path of Lugosi’s career through his landmark roles is really revelatory, since it not only shows the highs and lows of his professional life, but also maps out the anatomy of studio-era Hollywood. He moved from dizzying stardom at Universal in the 1930s to decades of typecasting, painkillers, and undignified appearances in Poverty Row garbage, followed by a brief resurrection with Ed Wood. It’s a strange story worthy of a horror movie itself. So, on to the faces…

White Zombie (1932)

This is less a film than an hour-long fever dream; it observes a pair of newlyweds in Haiti who fall under the sway of Murder Legendre, an enigmatic spellbinder who creates zombies to slave in the local sugar mill. At the behest of the couple’s rich host, Legendre reduces the bride (Madge Bellamy) to a pliant, mindless body, triggering a series of angry confrontations in a seaside castle. White Zombie is slow-paced and impressionistic, giving Bela enough room to work his spell on the bride and the audience. As Legendre, he’s malevolent but also cryptic, going methodically about his dark business without any wasted words. Although he’s neither the film’s prime mover nor its hero, he’s still its main focus – the deep, foreign presence at its center. It was in White Zombie that Bela originated the hypnotic hand gesture of which he later said, according to Ed Wood, “you must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.”

The Black Cat (1934)

In the first of his many pairings with fellow legend Boris Karloff, Bela played a Hungarian veteran bent on revenge. Although he initially seems normal enough to the American couple he travels with, Bela’s Dr. Werdegast is actually a little mad – understandable given that Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig stole away his wife and daughter while he was stuck in a prison camp. Bela’s eccentric, erratic performance fits right into this truly oneiric film, as scenes of relative quiet gives way to Black Masses and cat mutilations, and Karloff matches him tic for tic. When Vitus finally exacts his grisly revenge, it’s both satisfying and terrifying, a worthy culmination of a bizarre 65 minutes and a subtle but white-hot performance.

The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Easily one of Bela’s most compelling Poverty Row vehicles (in this case, for Monogram), The Corpse Vanishes is defined by its eruptions of weirdness. For example: although they’re not vampires, Bela and his insane wife (the “sister” from Cat People, Elizabeth Russell) still sleep in coffins. The film pads its one-hour running time with a subplot about a plucky investigative reporter and the doctor she loves, but at its core is Bela as a mass-murdering flower expert who dwells in a house of horrors – including secret passageways, corpses, and a family of henchmen whose matriarch eventually turns on him. As usual, Bela’s character has a tragic wrinkle: he has been forced into his bizarre, deadly racket in order to scientifically preserve his wife’s beauty. Oh, Bela, always the gentleman.

Glen or Glenda (1953)

Generations of Ed Wood cultists have tried and failed to figure out what, exactly, Bela is doing in Glen or Glenda. The film is already a no-budget, quasi-documentary dream narrative about transvestites in the ultra-conservative 1950s. But Bela’s narration – if “narration” is the appropriate word – adds the extra, unquantifiable ingredient that throws the film into another territory altogether. Inexplicably surrounded by skeletons, bookshelves, and liquid-filled beakers that summon up a horror film milieu, Bela comments vaguely on the follies of mankind: “One is wrong, because he does right; one is right, because he does wrong. Pull the string!” He delivers these lines with such emphasis that you assume there must be rich, philosophical meaning behind them. And, well, maybe there is.

In each of his performances, Bela elevated the film he was in with his mystical, alien persona. With his thick accent, the fierce look in his eyes, and the subtle curve of his eyebrows, Bela could turn the most routine, cheap mad scientist movie into a vortex of mounting weirdness. And in a film like The Black Cat or Glen or Glenda, where the weirdness was implicit in the director’s vision, Bela could eradicate what little sanity was left and transform the film into a sublime if confusing experience. His beautiful Hungarian voice took Ed Wood’s out-of-this-world screenplay for Glen or Glenda and turned its hallucinogenic dialogue into cult film scripture. Happy birthday, Bela.

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The Many Faces of Bela Lugosi

I love Bela Lugosi. He was a towering, menacing icon of horror, yet so tragically human in every performance and his dark personal life. He had the sadness of poverty and addiction inscribed on his face as he played ghouls and mad scientists; he was the missing link between the twin horrors of B-movies and the real world. And now several generations, myself included, have grown up watching his revelatory performances broadcast late at night on local TV. So even though he may have been relegated to Hollywood’s underworld for most of his career, he’s been a cult figure since shortly after his death. Bela has meant so much to so many, from goth rockers to Tim Burton to every stripe of horror fan, and it makes me wonder: who is Bela, what is he?

So, in keeping with our new desire to make more visually-oriented posts, I want to look at some of Bela Lugosi’s faces. He may not have had the superhuman versatility of Lon Chaney, Sr., but Bela nonetheless darted from role to role – often several within a single year – playing villains, antiheroes, monsters, and confused old men. Bela’s screen persona is prismatic, reflecting different meanings and attitudes depending on how you examine it. Let’s see what a few screen shots can tell us about this fascinating, shadowy man.

The Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Moreau: “What is the law?” Sayer of the law: “Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?” Who could’ve been more appropriate as the leader of the humanimals in Paramount’s adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau? Despite spending 25 years as a villain in horror movies, Bela was rarely covered in makeup; instead he relied on his intensely expressive face and thick accent. (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man being a notable exception.) But as one of the bad doctor’s half-human creations, he gave a powerful voice to their suffering and rebellion. He only appears briefly in the film, yet his performance totally overwhelms the majority of his human co-stars; only Charles Laughton makes anywhere near the same impression. Bela’s presence, as a star in a non-star role, adds worlds to the film’s horror, and shows an artist of fear at work.

The Devil Bat (1940)

I’ve seen this movie an unreasonable amount of times, especially considering that it’s an ultra-cheap, nonsensical quickie from the Poverty Row studio PRC. Yet for all its intrinsic absurdity, The Devil Bat (one of many bat-themed titles made up to that point) is bizarrely compelling. The main – OK, sole point of interest is Bela’s performance as a perfume researcher who’s cheated by his employers. As revenge, naturally, he sets his flock of trained killer bats on them. The film overflows with hilarious badness, right down to a newspaper headline that messes up the name of the reporter protagonist, but at its heart, it’s all about Bela. He retains his gravitas in the most embarrassing films, somehow elevating his scenes beyond the low-budget monotony surrounding them. Even as a mass murderer, he’s a beacon of wounded humanity in the unlikeliest of places.

The Wolf Man (1941)

A latecomer to the Universal horror cycle, The Wolf Man is most often remembered for Jack Pierce’s makeup, Curt Siodmak’s mythology-defining screenplay, and Maria Ouspenskaya’s performance as the gypsy sage Maleva. But Bela also appears for one scene, playing Maleva’s cursed son, who mauls a woman before being struck down by Lon Chaney, Jr.’s silver cane. With sorrow in his eyes, he’s fittingly the bearer of Old World magic and fatalism who infects the once-happy Chaney. His brief presence here is strange, considering that he was by then a hard-working horror mainstay (he’d literally been in dozens of movies and serials since Dracula). But somehow with only a couple minutes of screen time, he makes the existence of werewolves plausible, and with Ouspenskaya’s help, provides the emotional impetus for the film’s central conflict. Bela could make bad movies entertaining, and good movies even better.

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Infamously, Bela’s last years of acting were spent largely at the side of reputed “worst director of all time” Edward D. Wood, Jr. Bride of the Monster is the second and least-known of their collaborations, and offers up just as many nuggets of incompetence as the others. In the midst of this silly, overwrought cinematic maelstrom is, as usual, Bela’s mad scientist with an axe to grind and a flair for soliloquies. Lugosi started out doing Shakespeare in pre-WWI Budapest, and in his own twisted way, he was the Olivier of monster movies, with his own Z-grade Macbeth and Richard III. In Bride, he’s the cherry on top of Wood’s hysterically nonsensical Cold War concoction. He bosses around the behemoth Lobo (Tor Johnson); he waxes poetic about building a “race of atomic supermen”; and he faces his own nuclear demise. Yet at the film’s core is a sad, elderly man giving it one more go. Maybe this was Lugosi’s King Lear.

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