The Boris and Bela Show

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for Halloween. Need we say more? We love these guys. They’re the Garbo and Dietrich of Hollywood horror. And they’re just as mesmerizing to watch as those ladies. We even detect a Garbo-Dietrich resemblance here. Boris has the sadness, the reserve, and the taut cheekbones of the former, Bela the self-absorbed flamboyance and pouty lips of the latter. Bela had an actual Garbo connection: He acted with the Divine Swede in Ninotchka (Bela is a commissar in one scene with her, and he plays it straight, deliberately; he’s very funny). Boris’ connection is more intangible: Like Garbo at MGM, he was often given one-word billing by his studio, Universal. KARLOFF—just that; simple, stark, complete. Sometimes he was billed more grandly as KARLOFF THE UNCANNY. That’s a king’s title; like Alfred the Great or Ethelred the Unready. Even Garbo didn’t rate that.

Karloff and Lugosi’s cinematic teaming is poetically fitting. There’s Boris, gaunt, saturnine, ascetic, his gaze burning like a laser via those sunken, melancholy eyes—he looks like a monk who’s broken his vows and can’t atone for it. He’s a man with a haunted past, he suffers. In contrast is sleek, slick-haired Bela, frequently as white-tied and -tailed as Astaire. With his slight, stiff bow from the hips, like a diplomat addressing a monarch, he emanates Old-World courtliness; yet those glittering-onyx eyes, that Cupid’s-bow mouth, the long, febrile fingers, and, of course, that rococo accent, exude the louche decadence of a Continental libertine. You know he’s a fellow who enjoys beautiful women, good food, and fine wines (even if he never drinks any). It’s the monk of Apollo versus the emissary of Dionysus—the meeting and clash of the Spartan Yin and the Voluptuous Yang.

Clash of the Titans.

The Abstemious Monk and the Voluptuous Emissary were first paired in Universal’s The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935), two films that manage to take the horror genre’s well-known motifs and pull and stretch them into shapes of which you’d never dream. Such as, for example, that familiar trope of What’s In The Basement. Norman Bates may stash his mother in the fruit cellar, but he’s a piker compared to Boris in The Black Cat, who uses his basement as a vast female storage facility. They’re all his dead ladies whom he can’t bear to get rid of; so he preserves them in glass boxes, like glazed fruit. And Bela’s basement in The Raven displays his assortment of Edgar Allan Poe torture devices. Bela plays a Poe fanatic here, and he devises torture machines based on objects in Poe’s stories, including a knife-edged pendulum and a room with crushing walls. One scene features a squirrelly little museum representative salivating over the thought of acquiring this grisly trove (who runs this museum, Hannibal Lecter?), and who dubs Bela’s cache “the Poe Collection.”

Basement Storage: Above, Bela and Boris discuss one of Boris’ trophies; Below, Bela proudly displays his Poe-ian torture devices. Note the pendulum hanging from the ceiling.

Just pause and contemplate that phrase: The Poe Collection. The latest in madness and morbidity arriving for Spring. One man bottles ladies instead of cider in his cellar; the other is furnishing a Sadean rumpus room. In terms of human behavior, these two men are on that place on the map that warns of dragons. It’s the sort of fun and games you’ll find in the films of Lionel Atwill, one of the great, unsung classic-film horror stars, and Hollywood’s go-to guy for everything depraved. Lionel was the 1930s-40s’ exemplar of what might be called the Cinema of Cruelty. It’s not the horror of supernatural vampires or man-made monsters, but of unseemly pleasures. And Lionel exulted in it; he seemed never happier than when leering over his latest deliciously deviant vice. In Murders in the Zoo (you can read about that film in our post here), he bumps off his wife’s lover and then excitedly gropes his reluctant spouse; he gives you the nasty feeling that the first action serves as foreplay to the second. In The Sphinx he lures a young woman to his isolated mansion and ties her up in his den (Fifty Shades of Gray fans: why aren’t you watching Lionel’s movies?). And in The Mystery of the Wax Museum, he tries to dip Fay Wray into a vat of boiling wax. Why so glaze the beauteous Miss Wray? He’s doing it for the sake of art. The Marquis would understand.

You’ll find quite a few similar dragons romping through the celluloid crypts of The Black Cat and The Raven. Both films are based loosely (very) on the same-titled works by Edgar Allan Poe. When we were kids, we used to hold séances in which we would call on the spirit of the late Mr. Poe to appear. If not Poe, then Jack the Ripper; we weren’t fussy. That’s the kind of reputation Poe had amongst us youngsters. And in what we think is a Poe-ishly perverse touch on Universal’s part, these two films are essentially reverse-mirror-imaged master-slave relationships. In The Black Cat, Boris is a Satanic high priest forcing Bela to do his bidding under threat of virgin-sacrificing the plumply alluring Jacquelyn Wells, David Manners’ barely touched bride (it almost seemed bad etiquette if a Universal horror film didn’t include the proper Mr. Manners). In The Raven, Bela is a doctor who grossly disfigures Boris so that the latter will do his bidding (torturing the doctor’s enemies) in hopes that the former will restore his looks. In each case, the put-upon victim turns and delivers a fitting comeuppance: Bela flays Boris alive in a grotesquely macabre scene in The Black Cat, while Boris in The Raven tosses a screaming Bela into the room with crushing walls. We imagine partisan fans of each actor must keep score while they watch.

Mark one for Boris in the first film. Although Bela gives a fine, subdued (for him) performance as Boris’ vengeance-seeking opponent, Boris dominates The Black Cat. Its narrative has nothing to do with Poe’s original story; and cats have little to do with the plot save to frighten poor Bela, whose character has a dread fear of felines. “He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats,” says Boris, dropping his voice on the final word and exhaling it with sibilant malice. If you needed any persuading what a great actor Karloff was, watch him in this film. He plays Hjalmar Poelzing, an avant-garde architect (when not practicing the Rites of Lucifer in his off-hours), and he seems to have conceived his character also as a piece of architecture, as solid and imposing as a dreadful monument. Boris doesn’t walk, he strides; yet he never hurries. He keeps his arms hanging straight down and his head balanced rock-still on his neck; he’s an ambulatory pillar, an unstoppable force. And his physique and make-up are sheer geometry, a series of downward-pointing triangles, from his haircut with its exaggerated widow’s peak, to his high-angled cheek bones sloping down to his chin, to his T-bar shoulders narrowing to a pinched waist. He also sports an all-black wardrobe, which fits him like paint and which contains simply the most beautiful male costumes we’ve ever seen.

Karlovian Fashion Statement: Boris (with Lucille Lund) in ultra-slimming lounging pajamas; and in a chic dressing gown trimmed with white tubing. Note the triangular widow’s peak.

Boris’ faceted look is reflected in the film’s actual architecture, the famous Bauhaus-influenced set design that’s like slice-n-dice Art Deco. Its riot of stark, slashing diagonals and jaggedy angles surges into a feverishly moderne and luridly staged Satanic Black Mass sequence. The scene is truly (to borrow some wording from Universal) Uncanny; it’s like something out of Huysmans. Per Greg Mank in his invaluable study, Karloff and Lugosi, The Story of a Haunting Collaboration, the film’s brilliant director, Edgar Ulmer, based Poelzig and his rites in part on Aleister Crowley, though there’s nothing of Crowley’s orgiastically pagan frolics going on here. Ulmer choreographs the sequence with grim austerity, as if clocking it to a metronome. The camera cuts between segregated groups of men and women and then between their gargoylish faces; the editing echoes and builds on itself, in rhythmic waves, like a visual fugue. Boris, in jet-black robes, stands at the altar, between a skewed Lorraine cross and what looks like a cluster of Cubist stalagmites, his cavernous echo-chamber voice reciting the catechism in Latin. Note that—in Latin. Smack dab in a commercial B-film. Once waiting in line at a revival theater to see this movie, we stood next to a business-suited, briefcase-carrying gentleman who recited its Mass scene to us. Also in Latin. We were impressed. This movie doesn’t attract your average horror fan.

Boris (behind cross) conducts a Black Mass. Bela stands at attention in lower right-hand corner.

In a gesture of fair play, Universal made The Raven into Bela’s film through and through. And Bela grabs his chance here; he does about the most uninhibited acting we’ve seen this side of Timothy Carey. It’s a parachute jump into the wild blue yonder, without the parachute. We can try to give you a sense of what his performance is like by noting how the film’s DVD subtitles describe his laughter in the utterly demented finalé, in which Bela variously binds, drugs, imprisons, and torments a group of victims: First he laughs “fiendishly,” and then “maniacally,” progressing from the merely demonic to the totally unhinged. It all climaxes when, in a splendid emotion-hurled-to-the-heavens bit, Bela raises his arms and howls (“maniacally,” per the subtitle), “Poe! You’re avenged!!!” Avenged for what?, we invariably think. But no matter. This is Bela’s moment; and he plays it like grand opera, just at the point when the tenor goes down belting out the high-C.

Bela’s vengeance quest seems driven by his own Poe-ian obsession for an unobtainable woman. At least this lady, unlike Boris’ potted damsels, is alive and moving, a young dancer (Irene Ware) whom Bela, as Dr. Vollin, a crackpot medical genius, has cured of a seemingly inoperable brain injury. In gratitude, she performs a dance based on “The Raven,” a choreographic frenzy of backbends, flung arms, and whirls of black chiffon. “Whom the angels call Lenore,” a witnessing Vollin breathes in critical rapture. But his Lenore is engaged to another, and Vollin’s thwarted passion drives him into another obsession with what he calls “Toahrrchurre.” “I’ll soon be rid of my toahrrchurre,” he typically rants, “and then I’ll be the sanest man that ever lived!” He actually means “torture,” but we were so fascinated with Bela’s pronunciation (which he repeats, like scattered birdseed, throughout the film) that we’ve tried reproducing it with the meager resources of the English alphabet. We’ve also tried pronouncing for ourselves Bela’s grandiloquently rolling R’s that vibrate like timpani in a Beethoven symphony; but so far we’ve only managed a noise like a bubble-gum card rattling against the spokes of a bicycle wheel. If you try it yourselves, please let us know if you get better results.

Bela and Feathered Friend

After so much of Bela in this film, dear Boris seems almost an afterthought, sidling onscreen after about twenty minutes or so, in a Walt Whitman beard and slouch hat (this film really covers the ground in 19th-century American poets). As Bateman, an escaped murderer seeking plastic surgery who’s unfortunate enough to seek it from Vollin, Karloff doesn’t have much to do except slink around in gruesome make-up and cast forlorn glances at the comely Miss Ware. But he’s in one striking scene, when a freshly mutilated Bateman, locked by Vollin inside a mirrored room and seeing his reflection for the first time, frenziedly shoots the glass, which shatters in a sound-and-image cascade of shards and crashes. The whole thing plays like a surreally sadistic preliminary to the famous funhouse-mirror-shooting sequence in The Lady From Shanghai; could Welles have seen this? Meanwhile, Vollin can be heard offscreen, giggling maniacally (or fiendishly). “I fix you, Bateman,” he later gloats with bloodcurdling relish, “I fix you gude!” You can’t help but wonder, in light of Lugosi’s career-long obsession with Karloff’s greater cinematic success and earnings, if Bela’s only acting here.

Boris encircled by his mutiiated image.

The inevitable question arises when watching these actors: How do they compare? Mank writes that the two “complemented each other dynamically,” but perceptively notes that Lugosi’s intensity onscreen “seemed all too real, all too much of the man himself; and this…made him all the more difficult to take seriously.” Bela “didn’t really grow with the times,” Mank quotes Karloff as saying, and that’s apparent in their acting styles. Boris understood the camera and how to work with it. He pulls in his effects, and he pulls the viewer in with him; it makes his quiet moments loom large. Whereas Bela …“poor Bela,” as Karloff said. Lugosi’s acting resonates with the frustration of the ex-matinee idol denied the great parts. He’s Hamlet, Lear, Faustus, all rolled up into a seething ball of fury, a big actor trapped in little roles in little films. But he was also a chunk of uncured ham. While Boris acted in the 20th century, Bela was going for baroque in the 19th. Or maybe he goes back even further, to the solo performer in the ancient Greek amphitheater, booming out to the spectators at the farthest rim. Bela was large, he contained multitudes. Whitman would have understood.

But as it’s Halloween, we want Boris and, especially, Bela raw and straight like whiskey. Take away that bland shot of Twilight-wine cooler and give us the ghoulishness, the craziness, and the grandeur. That’s what Horror should be. And that was what these two lovely, accomplished gentlemen offered to us, so generously. Forget what a certain literary bird once said—Boris and Bela will, for us, be evermore.

Bela, you’re avenged!

BONUS CLIP 1: Bela meets Boris in The Raven and has a proposition to offer—something right in Boris’ line:  “Torture [or “Toahrrchurre”]. And Murder.”  

BONUS CLIP 2: The Black Mass scene from The Black Cat, with Boris as High Priest and Bela in attendance. Jacquelyn Wells is the fainting sacrifice; David Manners is trapped in the cellar:  

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16 Comments

  1. muriel

     /  October 29, 2012

    Fabulous post. The Black Cat is my favorite pairing of Karloff & Lugosi. From set design to acting, even the minor touches are all so over the top creepily stylishly enjoyable. I’ve given the movie to a few friends for Halloween and they just don’t get it. Not even my friend who loves Art Deco! She just thinks I am weird. Oh well, I enjoy it by myself and with my ephemeral internet acquaintances.

    Reply
    • We can sympathize with what you feel – The Black Cat is eerily fabulous, but it’s not for everyone. The Art Deco styling is wonderful, as are both Karloff and Lugosi. It’s really a one-of-a-kind film, beautifully photographed, written, and directed. We hope you can soon find friends to share it with (but it’s also great spooky fun to watch by yourself late at night)! Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

      Reply
  2. I think THE BLACK CAT is easily the best B&B teaming. First, it’s the closest they come to similarly-sized roles (even though Karloff dominates the film as you say). Second, it’s a very good–but very bizarre–movie. Frankly, I’m not sure how it got made in the U.S. in the 1930s. I always felt Bela did best as a supporting actor; I mean, he was quite effective as Ygor in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. His theatrical background often worked against him because he often failed to tone down his performance for the motion picture camera.

    Reply
    • We agree with your points on the excellence of The Black Cat and curiosity on how it could have been made in the US. Greg Mank points out that the film did come out before the Production Code crackdown, so that may be one reason. And it does seem that Ulmer had an unusual degree of freedom in making it. Lugosi, as you note, pretty much did drift into smaller character roles after the early 1930s and his Dracula success. Karloff thought that Bela’s lack of comfort with English worked against him, as well as his flamboyant acting style. Plus poor Bela (to quote Karloff) had poor business and career sense. Thanks, as always, for your perceptive comments, Rick.

      Reply
  3. GOM, fascinating post on the various pairings of Karloff and Lugosi. I saw “The Black Cat” on TV as a youngster, one of the first times I had ever seen either one in a movie, and its bizarre plot and exaggerated imagery made a strong impression on me. Rewatching it many years later, I found it to be not so dramatically appealing to me as an adult as it had been to the child. But the weirdness of its story and the haunting Deco/expressionistic look hadn’t diminished a bit, nor had the power of the intense and disturbing performance by Karloff.

    Reply
    • Hi, Richard, glad you stopped by! The Black Cat is certainly bizarre (maybe even a little hokey), but, as you say, it is a remarkably intense viewing experience. What strikes us about the film is its emphasis on the First World War (Karloff’s mansion is built on a WWI fort) and how its terrible scale of destruction still reverberated a decade and a half later. And Ulmer’s Bauhaus set design is simultaneously gothic and mechanistic in its look (wonder if Lang’s Metropolis was an influence?), and adds to the film’s overall eeriness. Universal seemed more open to more experimental/expressionistic horror films in the 1930s (the set design for Son of Frankenstein is also remarkably expressionistic); by the 1940s, though, the films (the ‘monster rally’ series) became far more conventional. Thanks again for your comment.

      Reply
  4. Wonderful descriptions of two justly beloved performers. You had me smiling and nodding in agreement throughout the article.

    Reply
  5. The name Poelzig was borrowed from architect Hans Poelzig , whom Ulmer claimed to have worked with on the sets for Paul Wegener ‘s silent film The Golem .

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s apparently true; Greg Mank notes that in his Karloff-Lugosi book. He also writes that ‘Hjalmar’ (Karloff’s character’s first name) was inspired by a same-named character in Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck,’ and that Ulmer partially based the character on — Fritz Lang! Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  6. Great article! I’m really glad I found you on Twitter! I recently saw this film again for the third time and turned my friend onto watching. You have created a fantastic website and sharing your in-depth knowledge is much appreciated! Keep up the fantastic work and I’m going to be checking back and telling my cinema pals.

    Reply
  7. The Black Cat is often lumped in with the other Universal horror pictures of the era. It’s difficult to say that it’s the “best” of them, because we’re comparing it with titles like Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and Dracula. But it certainly is the most ambitious. It was one of the only times Ulmer had a reasonable budget to work with and it gives us a true idea of how much talent he really had. It’s a great film.

    Reply
    • We agree, The Black Cat is a great, unusual film, and one of the best of 1930s horror. It certainly doesn’t look like Universal’s other films of the era. Ulmer brought a distinct sensibility to it; the studio obviously allowed him a lot of freedom in making it. Ironically, it was his falling in love with Universal chief’s Carl Laemmele’s niece while working on this film, and marrying her (after she divorced her first husband), that led to Ulmer being banished from major-studio film making for the rest of career. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

      Reply
  8. Just found your blog, and had to let you know that I adore it…glad you gave some love to Boris and Bela. It’s great to find more wonderful writing and coverage of actors and films from a time where greatness sprang. Your new fan Joey

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment! We’re glad you enjoy our blog – it’s great to find someone who’s also a classic-era Hollywood fan, a real golden age.

      Reply

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