Biopics of the Stars: When Does the Look Matter?

Recently on my stunningly exciting Twitter feed, I engaged in a conversation about actors in biopics with my previously mentioned friend Bill Ryan as well as with fellow blogger/film critic Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren and The New York Post.    The topic, raised by me, was that certain actors didn’t fit well into certain biographical portrayals because despite their physical resemblance,  the actor’s demeanor, intellect and personality all worked against him.   The actor in this case in point is Rod Steiger in the movie W.C. Fields and Me.   Steiger is made to look very much like Fields, sounds like Fields, walks like Fields and delivers lines originally delivered by Fields.  Despite all of that, Rod Steiger, a very talented actor, just doesn’t work as Fields, regardless of how much or little he looks like him.  Other times an actor nails the portrayal but looks so unlike the figure they’re portraying the performance gets lost among the brain fighting back with, “that doesn’t look like him at all!”   When does one matter and the other not?


Hey You, Horror Actor, Know Your Place!

When one thinks of Spencer Tracy, Ray Milland or Jennifer Jones, the horror/supernatural genre rarely springs to mind and yet, each one of them was in a celebrated film in just that genre.  Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Ray Milland in The Uninvited and Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie.  Each one is a favorite of mine with The Uninvited being what I would consider the greatest ghost story ever put on film.

By contrast, when one thinks of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre or Hazel Court, the horror/supernatural genre instantly springs to mind even though all of them did plenty of non-horror work (well, Court not so much) before taking on the mantle of horror actors, especially Vincent Price.    Other actors, notably Jack Nicholson, did the reverse, starting out doing plenty of horror before graduating to bigger, higher profile, prestige movies in the seventies.

Finally, some actors, like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, had only a handful of movies not associated with the genre (The Lost Patrol or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, for example, for Karloff and Ninotchka for Lugosi) and seemed to inhabit horror to such a degree that their very names alone signify the horror genre to generations.

So after breaking down all of that, the question remains:  Is there a such thing as a horror actor?


Introducing Laurence Harvey

A few weeks ago I wrote about Anthony Mann’s last film A Dandy in Aspic, which features Laurence Harvey in one of his best roles. At the time I expressed how much I liked Harvey even though many critics are quick to dismiss him. His reputation has been badly tarnished over the years thanks to shoddy journalism that often focuses on his run-ins with other actors or his sex life. It’s a shame that the negative press surrounding Harvey often outweighs the good but he’s had some notable defenders. When Harvey befriended a costar such as Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra or John Wayne, those friendships often lasted a lifetime.

I’ve always thought Laurence Harvey was an interesting actor who was occasionally miscast in roles that he seemed ill-fitted for. He was born in Lithuania and raised in South Africa so when he arrived in Britain in 1946 to study acting he was the odd man out. Harvey also openly flaunted his bisexuality at times, which seemed to bother a lot of his colleagues. He was eager to be taken seriously as a British actor but he wasn’t British and many of his costars never let him forget it.


Feel the burn

Here I am talking about vampires again.  In the course of our discussion last Friday about the size of fangs in vampire movies, my fellow Morlock Moirafinnie asked “What do you think of the changing effect of sunlight on various vampires over time in movie history? I always think it’s a gyp when a Dracula figure doesn’t start to sizzle when the sun’s rays hit him or her. Where do you stand, RHS?”  Of course, I could have given Moira a simple answer but why do that when I can squeeze a whole ‘nuther blog post out of the topic? [...MORE]

20 Years of Inappropriate Laughter

We all have our seminal texts.  These are the books that made us who we are, that are hard-wired to our psyches, whose very pages float like paper sailboats in the salty brine of our DNA.  At the far end of my life, I’d rate Don Whitehead’s THE FBI STORY (a sanitized “adapted for young readers” spin on the Bureau’s history minus J. Edgar Hoover’s endless fascination with other people’s sex lives ), Jules Feiffer’s THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES (my THE HERO HAS A THOUSAND FACES) and Carlos Clarens’ AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM as the most influential in sculpting the bona fide weirdo that is me.  Somewhere in the middle, encompassing my college and bohemian years in New Haven and New York, I’d have to say Bram Stoker’s DRACULA and Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD are (you should pardon the expression) neck and neck for the most character-building and aesthetic shaping… although both might be overshadowed by WARTS AND ALL.


My Thanksgiving with Dracula

I spent Thanksgiving with Dracula, and I don’t mean that creepy relative who likes to dress in black or my cold-hearted, soul-sucking “ex.”  On Thanksgiving evening, I watched the 1931 Universal film interpretation of Bram Stoker’s novel about the world’s most famous vampire, except it wasn’t the one with Bela Lugosi. Instead, I devoured the Spanish-language version starring Carlos Villarias. The Spanish Dracula, or Drácula, can be found as one of the extras on Universal’s DVD release, which is part of their Monster Legacy Collection. I was so intrigued with what I saw that I returned to the Lugosi version to compare and contrast.

In the early sound era, Universal sometimes produced two versions of the same film—one with English-speaking stars for American audiences and another with Hispanic stars for Spanish-speaking audiences. The purpose was to prevent the loss of the Spanish-speaking market because of the advent of talkies. In the silent era, producing a film for international audiences simply meant translating the intertitles into other languages. When sync-sound became the norm, international markets were far less interested in English-language talkies, and the big studios became concerned about losing foreign revenue. For a short while, Universal produced Spanish-language versions of some of their films to maintain their Spanish-speaking markets. Spanish versions of Universal films used different casts and directors but were shot on the same schedule using the same sets. I had heard about this practice back in film school, but I had never seen any of the Spanish-language Universal films until I watched Drácula.


Behind-the-screams photos!

Bela makeupI had an entirely different post in mind for today when I opened up my collection of studio portraits, production stills and behind-the-scenes photographs this morning.  Many years ago, before I had children and a mortgage, I lived a carefree bachelor life in New York City, where I could count on attending 3 to 4 horror-themed conventions annually.  Once I’d paid the exorbitant entrance fee, I further threw fistfuls of money at dealers (aka devils in XXL black tee shirts) whose only purpose in life was to collect things I coveted with my immortal soul… bootleg video tapes of long-unseen fright flicks (before most of these wormed their way onto DVD) and soundtracks, magazines from overseas, vintage paperbacks and board games, monster coffee mugs, monster keychains, monster dolls action figures… and of course movie posters, lobby cards and 8 x 10 glossies.  Now I’m not a huge paper chaser – for the foreseeable future I’m not going to be one of those guys who lays down thousands of dollars for an original WEREWOLF OF LONDON one sheet but I did in my day pick up the occasional (affordable) glossy or cinema insert.  Take this one on the left, of Bela Lugosi at his makeup table.  Mind you, it might not be his actual makeup table – this is a studio PR shot, manufactured to give moviegoers the illusion that they are getting a glimpse behind the magic curtain.  But who cares if it’s real or not… it’s a picture of Bela fricking Lugosi not playing anybody (or anything), just being his own bad self, all chill in his robe, making the scene with a little Max Factor eyebrow pencil.  What’s not to love? [...MORE]

Original factory settings


Halloween is slightly more than a month away but of course merchandise for this most horripilating of holidays has been on the shelves of department stores, pharmacies and party supply shops for weeks now.  That’s just good business but I’m not complaining.  While it causes me some pain to see Christmas decorations crowding out the witches and skeletons come the last week of October, Halloween can’t come soon enough for me.  Mind you, I live in a virtual All Hallows Eve nearly year-round.  My work place right here where I sit typing is proud in replicas (honest!) of human skulls, of classic monsters, of devil masks and assorted ghoulish bric-a-brac, tchotkes and geegaws.  You’d think Halloween itself would be a bit redundant in my house (of Frankenstein) but the opposite is true.  The weeks leading up to October 31st only sharpen my spooky sensibilities and bring everything into focus.  These feelings surged yesterday when I ran across the website of graphic artist Rob Kelly, whose glorious Glenn Strange is pictured at the left.  This illustration is one of several classic monster public service announcements, the remainder of which can be found (along with other eye-catching works of art) on Kelly’s website.  Even given a postmodern makeover, Strange’s underrated monster (the cowboy actor inherited the role for HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, in which he even got to speak a single word) continues to thrill me some forty years after I first clapped eyes on him.  He may very well have been the first Frankenstein’s monster I ever saw, before Boris Karloff even, possibly replicated as a latex mask in the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland or on the cover of the December issue of Monster World but certainly on the dust jacket for the Famous Monsters Speak lp that so many of us had back in the day, on which Strange’s incarnation of the Undying Monster got to stand cheek-by-jowl with Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula.  Seeing this tribute to both Strange and Frankie the other day worked a kind of magic on me… brought me back to myself, to the MonsterKid I am at heart. [...MORE]

Domo arigato… Mondo Roboto!


In a delightful starburst of serendipity a few weeks ago, my Morlock brother from another mother R. Emmett Sweeney wrote about lesser-known robots of the silver screen; this is by definition serendipitous because I find myself playing robot a lot lately, with my kids.  I don’t know where Vayda and Victor picked up on the classic robot schtick – the stiff, jointless legs; arms bent at 90 degree angles; the metallic, soulless voice droning “I am a ro-bot… I am a ro-bot…” – but they’ve got it down cold.  They’re not that into science fiction, my children, and I suspect their inspiration may have come from the TV show YO GABBA GABBA, which boasts a regular automaton character named Plex and a recurring featurette titled SUPER MARTIAN ROBOT GIRL.  Truth be told, it’s really Vayda who has the robot jones.  She recently made my wife walk home from the park with her in full-on robot character; it’s not a long walk, maybe a hundred yards or so, but it sure would seem a hundred miles if you couldn’t bend your knees for the duration and instead had to waddle Tobor-style all the way.  But that’s one of the great things about having kids – time and time again, in the sheer barking lunacy of their innocence and exhausting enthusiasm, they bring back the essential stuff from your youth, passions you’ve forgotten and left behind in your mad rush to be sophisticated, up-to-date and cool.  And one of the things my brood has brought me back to late in life is a love, a deep and abiding love, of badly designed, crudely constructed and barely viable robots.  You know the kind of which I speak:  they clatter and clank, looking as if they’ve been put together from spare Edsel parts, Swanson TV dinner trays and AC conduit, as they trudge along in the service of a mad scientist or evil alien emperor.  Why, they’re nearly as old as cinema itself. [...MORE]

Horrific, ghastly, incredible hyperbole!


Last month I wrote about specific movie trailers of the 1970s and 80s that had a big impact on me as a kid.  Looking back on that post now, however, I regret that I unwittingly gave short shrift to coming attractions of an earlier vintage and to the particular brand of hyperbole they brokered in order to get butts in seats.  So join me, won’t you, in a celebration of HORRIFIC… GHASTLY… INCREDIBLE HYPERBOLE!


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