The Sinister Serials of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr.
This is quite simply the most wonderful wallow through an almost-forgotten period of cinema history.
For the obvious reason of age I have only a dim memory of the serial as a cinematic form. That was from attending the Odeon Cinema Club in Ayr, Scotland every Saturday morning –price 6d– where amongst screaming children (I of course was never one myself) I tried to concentrate on what was taking place up there on that big, magical silver screen. And in those days we had actual curtains that swung open with a delightful *swish*, an usherette who sold ice-creams and a manager who would periodically appear brandishing a torch and shouting at us to shut up!
If I have only a vague memory of the ’sixties I have none at all of the period of which Leonard J. Kohl writes with such love and enthusiasm. For that I’m indebted to connoisseur extraordinaire Anne Callanan for a recent loan of Bela Lugosi’s two classic serials The Return of Chandu and The Phantom Creeps, both of which feature prominently here.
Sinister Serials is a pure delight and a charming celebration of a long-gone era. Mr. Kohl first gives us an overview where he notes something that I hadn’t thought of before:
“For anyone who believes that the movie serials are antiques, with no bearing on what’s going on, I must point not only to the modern-day adventure films…but also to many shows produced for television. The serials live on in many forms…including daytime soap operas and miniseries epics…”
Having stamped out its credential he then focuses on the three great actors of the Golden Age of Horror Cinema—Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney Jr.—who all had reason to be thankful to the serial at various points in their careers.
In terms of what we have lost culturally the section on Boris Karloff is surely the saddest, with almost all of his work belonging in the lost files. Even so, Mr. Kohl succeeds admirably in filling in what he can and whetting our appetites for what we will never taste into the bargain.
Sad in terms of their personal lives are Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. who, despite becoming household names, never seemed to achieve the level of personal happiness that Karloff did. We can almost hear Karloff’s wonderful tones in this extract from a 1960 radio interview:
“He [Lugosi] had a tragic, tragic life, that man…I’ve always felt extremely sorry for him. In a way, he was his own worst enemy. He was a fine actor. He was a brilliant technician in every sense of the word, but he hadn’t moved with the times. He was the leading man, I believe, in the state theatre, I believe in Budapest, when he was a young man, with a fine, fine European sort of reputation, but he just didn’t move with the times. And when he came to America, he didn’t learn the language as well as he might have. I’m afraid those things were bad for him.”
Of course, there was more to it than that, but you can make your own evaluation if you pick up this lovely piece of work. And I was rather taken by Lugosi’s sense of humour and quick wit, second language or not. In a 1933 interview he was asked if he himself believed in vampires. “Of course I do”, he replied. “After all, I married three”. And since he was shortly, despite his money woes, to go on to marry for a fourth time, he certainly was a fine example of optimism over experience.
Chaney would have preferred to work under his own name of Creighton but was eventually worn down by studios that wanted to cash in on his famous father of the silent era. As Bela had with drugs, Creighton had his problems with alcohol, but I think that he comes across as an immensely likeable man. There is a fabulous photo here of him turning on the charm with Jean Rogers on the set of Ace Drummond.
And talking of photos the book is simply stuffed with some terrific images, many of which I had never seen before. Again, a delight.
If I got one thing (and I got an awful lot more than that) out of this trip down Memory Lane, it is a desire to find about more about director Ford Beebe, who seems to have poured so much energy into this forgotten art form and who is to me an unsung hero of a more innocent time.
Sinister Serials is published by Midnight Marquee Press, which is an offshoot of the outstanding Midnight Marquee magazine, now running for all of a half century. I think it’s worth giving the full address for anyone out there who loves this marvelous era as much as I do.
Midnight Marquee Press, Inc.
9721 Britinay Lane