What madness that I didn’t think of this post sooner! (And I confess someone else inadvertently gave me the idea). We’ve done many posts about the great Hungarian-American thespian Bela Lugosi, including this biographical piece, and this one covering most of his horror and mystery films, which is what he is best known for. But Lugosi also was very useful in comedies — mostly spook comedies I’ll grant you, but some of them were more conventional ones in which he usually played the villain. The guy was a good sport, and he is always a welcome presence in classic comedy.
50 Million Frenchmen (1931)
In this adaptation of the 1929 Broadway musical, the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson play detectives hired to foil William Gaxton in his wager than he can make time with the hard-to-get Claudia Dell, strictly on charm. At a certain point Olsen steals the clothes and identity of Orizon the Magician (Lugosi) in order to keep tabs on their elusive quarry.
Insane! A terrific, zany Joe E. Brown comedy, directed by Mervyn Leroy and written by the team of Kalmar and Ruby. Brown plays a wild party hound whose uncle assigns him to take care of his cousin (played by William Collier Jr. ) and keep him out of trouble. Their instructions are to get out of New York and no gambling, carousing or women. They head to California, driving cross country and become embroiled in a feud with a nasty man (Lugosi) at a diner. He steals their car and becomes their bitter enemy, during their cross country drive.
International House (1933)
Directed by Eddie Sutherland, International House is essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.
Lugosi plays an evil Russian spy out to steal the invention. The rest of the cast includes Franklin Pangborn as the flustered hotel manager; George Burns and Gracie Allen as a doctor and nurse; and guests W.C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), and Stuart Erwin; and entertainers Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.
Gift of Gab (1934)
This would be a better remembered comedy if someone funnier than Edmund Lowe were its star. Karl Freund (better known for his horror) directed. Lowe plays a radio announcer who pride himself on his ability to sell anything to anyone. The all-star cast also includes Victor Moore, Gloria Stuart, Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, Phil Baker, Chester Morris, Alice White, Boris Karloff — and Lugosi as “the French Apache dancer”.
The Gorilla (1939)
Largely a parody of The Bat, The Bat concerns a cast of characters in an Old Dark House concerned about a threat from a mysterious murderer who signs his letters “The Gorilla”. To confuse matters, an actual gorilla (i.e., guy in a cheap gorilla suit) keeps wandering in and out of the mansion’s secret passageways. Directed by Allan Dwan, the all-star cast features the Ritz Brothers (as detectives), Lugosi (as the butler), Anita Louise, Patsy Kelly (as a perpetually fretting maid), and the omnipresent Lionel Atwill. And a guy in a gorilla suit. For this reason, if not other, this movie should be seen at least once, if never again thereafter.
Lugosi plays the harsh, unbending Commissar Razinin in Lubitch’s magical screwball comedy starring the great Greta Garbo as a Soviet spy who gets converted by the pleasures of Paris and and the charms of Melvyn Douglas.
Spooks Run Wild (1941)
Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
A better than average spook comedy featuring the East Side Kids, directed by William Beaudine, and featuring Lugosi as a Nazi spy….but best of all, as the beautiful love interest — Ava Gardner, whom we are supposed to believe is Huntz Hall’s sister! That’s enough for three movies and it’s only an hour long! Them’s what I call moovies!
Zombies on Broadway (1945)
Sheldon Leonard is a gangster who is opening a voodoo themed nightclub in Times Square. But he needs to have a REAL zombie on hand for the launch event or a Walter Winchell-esque radio columnist will trash the place. Alan Carney and Wally Brown are the publicists who caused this whole mishigas by promising an actual zombie in their press release. The gangster is not amused. He send them on a tramp steamer to Haiti, to bring back a real zombie — or else. After many spooky encounters, they actually manage to bring one back — It’s Carney, who has been zombified by a witch doctor back on the island. (Lugosi plays the mad scientist who makes zombies). Anyway, ironically Carney reverts to himself just before the gangster sees him, causing yet another crisis. But the boys manage to fake it and it all turns out alright.
Genius at Work (1946)
Well, now. I thought’s seen every RKO comedy starring the team of Carney and Brown, but to my sorrow I learn I am mistaken. Clearly a follow up to the previous year’s Zombies on Broadway, this one also features Lionel Atwill as a villain named The Cobra, in addition to Lugosi.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
This is the first of Abbott and Costello’s films to match them up with Universal Horror monsters, and as such is a stroke of producing genius, although the word “genius” can’t exactly be applied to the screenplay, direction or performances. The title of the film is a bit of a misnomer. While A & C do indeed meet Frankenstein’s monster (here played by Glenn Strange), they spend just as much time with Dracula (Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The premise is that the bodies of the former two have been accidentally sent to a wax museum where delivery boys Abbott and Costello encounter them…and encounter them…and encounter them. With some foresight they might have some of this monster power in reserve for future pictures. Nevertheless, the studio and the team had several more monster pictures in them.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)
Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo and his partner Duke Mitchell (Dominic Miceli) play themselves, en route to perform for the troops in Guam (it’s the height of the Korean War). They parachute from their plane and land on the fictional isle of Kola Kola. There they meet many natives and Duke falls for the chief’s daughter Nona (played by the fetching Charlita, whose list of IMDB credits is actually quite respectable.) Still, the boys want to escape, so they travel to the other side of the island, where a mad scientist (Lugosi) performs research in his castle. One of his test subjects is played by Ramona the Chimp, whose best known credits were as Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. Unfortunately, Lugosi also loves Nona, and when he senses the chemistry between her and Duke, he does what any mad scientist would do in his position — injects Duke with a serum that turns him into a guy in a gorilla suit. This adds a nice symmetry to the plot, for Sammy’s love interest seems to be Ramona the Chimp. At any rate, Petrillo is able to recognize Mitchell when the latter manages to sing his signature song “Indeed I Do” from inside his gorilla suit. Anyway, it all turns out to have all been a dream. (Good ending! Who saw that twist coming?) When last we leave the boys they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub.
Red Skelton Hour (1954)
Lugosi, Vampira and Lon Chaney Jr joined Red Skelton for horror themed comedy sketches on his tv variety show. Check out a clip from a sketch called “Dial B for Brush” on youtube here.
Two years after this appearance, Lugosi was dead. Still ahead of course was the unintentional posthumous comedy Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959)– but let us let the dead rest in peace.