Richard Gordon (Part 2)
What did Bela think of Boris Karloff and what did Boris think of Bela?
"I have always said - and it’s a fact - that this rivalry between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and the feud between them was a myth that was perpetrated by Universal in order to promote the films in which they appeared together, like The Raven and The Black Cat. They didn’t have much in common so they didn’t socialise, but they were on perfectly friendly terms when they worked together. Boris actually felt sorry for Bela that Bela’s career had gone downhill the way it did, and felt that a lot of it was Bela’s own fault because he didn’t make the effort to learn the English language and reduce his accent sufficiently to be thought of in Hollywood as an actor who could play other kinds of roles.
“He was sorry that Bela had not had the success that, after playing in Dracula, he should have enjoyed. He often asked about Bela and said, ‘Poor Bela, I’m sorry that things went wrong for him the way they did.’ Bela was a little envious of Karloff’s success but not in a hostile way because although he didn’t talk about it much later, the fact is that, as you know, he was asked to do the Frankenstein film but he turned it down. So sometimes he would say, ‘If it was not for me there would be no Boris Karloff,’ but of course that’s not an accurate appraisal of the situation."
You set up the British tour of Dracula which was long regarded as a disaster but is now known to have played successfully in 22 venues. There was a book about it.
"I contributed to the book and collaborated on the book."
To what extent was it a success or failure?
"It was a failure because it didn’t accomplish what the grand plan was, which was for it to come into London and have a West End production. The whole idea of doing the tour was to create interest and hopefully establish that it was a money-making proposition and enable it to come into London where, if it had a successful run in the West End, one could then have tried to revive it in New York. When I have said in the past that it was a flop, in the overall scheme of things, that’s what it was.
“It was very hard on Bela, travelling the way he had to, doing the performances the way he had to, the conditions under which he had to work. At that stage of his life and at that stage of his health. He persevered with it. It made money in some locations and flopped in others. Overall, we considered it a failure."
Did you use the Hamilton Deane script that Bela performed in 1927?
Did it have to be updated?
"No, it wasn’t updated. It was played in period and as it was originally."
Did you come over and see it?
"I was still in America at that point, when it opened in Brighton. I did not actually see it during the tour, no."
Did you ever see the Broadway revival with Frank Langella in the late 1970s?
"Yes I did. It was a completely different version of Dracula, just like some of the films that have been made since. As far as I’m concerned, Dracula was Bela Lugosi and Dracula was the film that Universal made. All the other variations of it I don’t have that much respect or feeling for."
Why didn’t Dracula make it into the West End?
"I think what was wrong was the management was under-financed and had agreed to do this whole thing in the belief that all they had to do was put Bela Lugosi’s name in front of the theatre and that’s all that was necessary. But there was nothing to back it up. From all accounts I’ve heard, and from the many letters I got from Lillian at the time, it was very second-rate. The whole production was done on the cheap and it just didn’t back up Lugosi’s performance."
Was there much press interest in Lugosi’s visit to England?
"There was considerable interest when he arrived and there was considerable interest when the production opened, but - except for the local papers of course - the press didn’t follow it around."
When it finished...
"It wasn’t really that it was finished. It was that the management ran out of money and decided they couldn’t continue with it. Nothing had happened with regard to a West End production up to that point - and they just shut it down."
How did that lead into Mother Riley Meets the Vampire?
"It left Bela stranded in England with very little money and no plans for the future because it was unexpected. It was at that point that I came to London and tried to do something to help him financially and also to get him back to the United States. George Minter was doing the Mother Riley series; I was representing George Minter and Renown Pictures in America at the time, on the distribution of his pictures. George and I reached an agreement to do this film, which was almost ready to go anyway, although it wasn’t quite the picture that it became when Lugosi joined it. But it was a film that was very close to starting production, so it was a great opportunity for Bela to get some work immediately, and also to use the money to return to the United States."
What did the backers of the film think when the idea of Bela being in it was raised?
"There was really only George Minter who had to make the decision, although he must have discussed it with Arthur Lucan at the time. George had the rights to the Mother Riley series. He had already made two or three of the pictures, and I don’t think he had to consult anybody else."
How did Bela and Arthur Lucan get on together?
"They really never understood each other! Arthur Lucan was always Old Mother Riley - on stage or off - and always behaved accordingly. You never saw him at the studios when he was working except in the Old Mother Riley get-up. He used to arrive at the studio already fully dressed and made-up and he would leave the studio the same way. They came from two such totally different backgrounds and two totally different personalities and never quite understood each other.
“The biggest problem was that Bela, with his stage training and years of experience, would take a script and very quickly learn it until he knew it off by heart and stick to it absolutely during the filming; and Lucan was used to ad-libbing and going off the script and doing all kinds of things when shooting started that weren’t in the original screenplay. This was something that Bela found very hard to cope with. This was the problem when he was on the Milton Berle television show - that Berle started ad-libbing and Bela couldn’t follow it. He wasn’t prepared for it."
Ad-libbing aside, did Bela enjoy doing comedy?
"Yes, he did. He enjoyed it very much. For instance, he was very pleased with his role in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which was after all a take-off on his own characterisation. I think he would gladly have done more comedy if it had been offered to him. But he couldn’t really cope with Lucan."
That was his first film for three or four years - was he glad to be in front of a camera again?
"I think he was glad to be working. Let’s put it that way."
Did he prefer stage or film work?
"He preferred stage work, if he could get something worthwhile."
Did he go back to America after Mother Riley?
"He went straight back to America as soon as the shooting was finished and the studio released him. He immediately went back to America and he went directly back to Hollywood. He didn’t stay in New York any longer. At that point, my brother took over the taking care of him and I was really sent out of the picture. That was the last time I saw him."
Did you follow the last few years of his life?
"I followed it from a distance. But I was then busy in New York with my own production plans and we drifted apart."
How do you think Bela wanted to be remembered?
"He never really talked about anything like that in those terms, but I’m sure he wanted to be remembered as the star of Dracula."
What’s your most abiding memory of Bela?
"My most abiding memory of him is the extreme loyalty he had towards anybody who either did something for him or was making a genuine effort to try and do something for him. He was a very generous man, very warm-hearted. I think as a result of that a lot of people tried to take advantage of him also, and that’s where Lillian came in and tried to keep a very strict control over things. But he was a very warm and outgoing personality.”