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The Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood, which ran April 12-15, felt a bit like a nostalgic version of the Telluride Film Festival: more than 25,000 film fans (about the same turnout as last year) flocked here from 49 states and seven countries to bliss out on 16 events and 83 screenings of old movies — some of which frequently turn up on TV. One big attraction was the opportunity to watch film legends interviewed by leading film historians. At an April 14 standing-room-only screening of Edgar G. Ulmer‘s The Black Cat at the Chinese Multiplex 3, the offspring of its stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter film critic Todd McCarthy (who also is a film historian, the writer and co-director of the classic film on cinematographers, Visions of Light).
Sara Karloff and Bela G. Lugosi bonded in the early ’90s while doing important work securing their parents’ legacies. They both firmly rejected the legend that their dads were deadly rivals. “The media hype that there was an animosity or a rivalry between our parents was just media hype,” said Karloff’s daughter, “but it went a long way toward selling tickets for the films in which they appeared together.” Indeed, The Black Cat, a low-budget, virtually German Expressionist art film, was Universal Picture’s top hit of 1934. It’s great fun to see them duel onscreen.
The kids of the two scary actors showed a playful rivalry of their own, with Karloff mock-complaining that Bela, Lugosi’s son, always told her she was older than he was, which she believed until she saw a photo of him as a baby on the set of 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. “I was born when that film was being made, so guess who’s older?” said Karloff. After Karloff, who speaks in ebullient paragraphs, answered one question, the more word-weighing Lugosi quipped, “That was sure a long answer.” “I’ll time yours next time,” Karloff razzed back with a smile.
Both had charisma, like their fathers: Karloff wore a brilliant sequined top and carried a cool translucent cane, and Lugosi looked like a distinguished, taciturn attorney, which he is. Lugosi recalled his dad showing up on parade day at his military school. “You want to blend in with the lockers when you’re a kid; you don’t want to stand out,” said Lugosi. “When Dad would show up, everybody knew it — the car and the cigar, the whole thing.” Growing up in San Francisco at an all-girls school, said Karloff, “It didn’t buy you a ticket to anything to have a Hollywood name — it was a detriment.” Lugosi said, “They took me to see [my dad’s] movie, and my friends were all like hiding behind the seats, and to me it was just Dad on the screen, it was no big deal.” Added Karloff, “My father never brought his work home, he never talked about his career, he just went to work,” said Karloff. “He never went to his own films, and girls didn’t go to those kind of movies. The first time I saw Frankenstein I was 19, and I saw it on the TV in my living room.”
“Their backgrounds were different,” said Lugosi of the two legendary horror actors. “Dad’s social friends were people in the Hungarian community, artisans and dancers and musicians, not the Hollywood crowd.” “My father was the antithesis of the roles he played,” said Karloff, “a lovely, gentle human being. His interests were cricket, gardening, animals.” Although nobody mentioned the elephant in the room — the addiction Lugosi Sr. battled heroically — at least a few viewers winced when Lugosi’s The Black Cat character injects a girl with a zombifying narcotic and murmurs that it “affects certain people very strangely.” There is a haunting strangeness to the role that deepens the fascinatingly subversive film.
And what were their fathers’ favorite films? “Other than Dracula, I think the films where he played Ygor [Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein],” said Lugosi. “Bride of Frankenstein, not only for my father’s performance, but because it’s a wonderful sequel,” said Karloff. “One of the best sequels ever made,” noted McCarthy. “I think [Peter Bogdanovich‘s] Targets, for a film my father was in without Bela,” continued Karloff. “He loved doing Body Snatcher. Frankenstein made such a pivotal difference in his life. The films he made with Val Lewton were beautifully written and directed, atmospheric. The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven — he and Vincent Price and Peter Lorre had such a good time spoofing their images and driving Roger Corman crazy.”
Although they’re connoisseurs of their dads’ work, the kids both paid tribute to their fathers’ nonmonstrous natures. “My dad was I think a proud dad, and a great dad … generous to a fault,” said Lugosi. Added Karloff, “My godmother wrote one of the [Karloff] biographies, and she said almost to a person the people she interviewed would preface their remarks by saying, ‘Oh, dear Boris!’ And so she titled the book Dear Boris.”
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