Titans of terror in blurry grays
Imagine my surprise upon discovering, after all these years, that Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi guested on an episode of “The Red Skelton Hour.”
The episode, which aired on June 14, 1954, referenced many themes in classic horror movies. Here is Skelton flanked by Chaney and Lugosi. Bela was pretty ancient by this time, but he retained his precise comic timing, no doubt from all those (relatively recent) years in summer stock. Not to mention, professional pride.
Lugosi wore two getups: his Dracula costume and his “mad scientist” lab coat. Here he is with Chaney as the Wolf Man, kind of. Chaney wears fangs, claws and his nose seems darkened. (Or is that rummy blush?) Well, if the CBS Makeup Department had completely covered Chaney’s face, as Universal makeup genius Jack P. Pierce did, you’d never know it was him! Seeing Lugosi in Dracula’s tux shirt and cape, and seeing him with Chaney, makes us horror geeks think of several earlier films
For instance, “Dracula” (1931). Notice, in the 1954 screen shot, that the cut of the tux shirt seems almost identical to the 1931 model. The face, however, has, ahem, changed.
Seeing Lugosi and Chaney working together also brings back memories of several films, such as “Ghost of Frankenstein” (1941), in which Chaney played the Frankenstein monster and Lugosi played his buddy, the broken-necked shepherd Ygor.
Then there was “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (1943), with Lugosi as the monster and Chaney as the Wolf Man. There are others, such as “The Wolf Man” (1941), in which Lugosi played Bela the Gypsy, who bites Lawrence Talbot, thus passing on the curse of the werewolf, and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948), in which Talbot (Chaney) tries to thwart Dracula (Lugosi) in his mad scheme to revive the monster. But I seriously digress …
Here’s a better look at Chaney as the werewolf on Skelton’s program.
And here’s Chaney as lycanthrope Larry Talbot in the 1941 original.
A remarkable thing about Chaney’s performance in the skit is that, although he’s wearing the quickie Wolf Man makeup, he’s actually reprising Lennie from “Of Mice and Men” (1939), a favorite role of his. Here’s Burgess Meredith with Chaney in that film. Classy people think of it as a John Steinbeck adaptation. Hillbillies like me say: “The Penguin and the Wolf Man!”
Here’s Nurmi, who belts out a shriek for her entrance. In the inset screen shot above, notice that she has a little moment with Lugosi. This is really freaky to us horror geeks! Because we immediately think of Vampira and Ed Wood’s chiropractor, covering his face with a cape to double Lugosi, in “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959). To think that Lugosi and Nurmi actually had a moment like that five years earlier!
This screen shot highlights Nurmi’s improbable 17-inch waist (circled).
Here’s Nurmi as Lugosi’s late wife in “Plan 9.” Again, check out that waist.
Here’s a scene of Chaney transporting Skelton in a wheelbarrow so that Lugosi can operate on his brain. It’s very reminiscent of the scene in which Lou Costello is transported for the same purpose (on a gurney rather than in a wheelbarrow) in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Here’s Costello on that gurney, being attended to by the evil, but beautiful, Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert). There’s more, but I’ve already geeked out enough. The videos are below.
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P.S.: I once shook Red Skelton’s hand and got his autograph! It was when I was a grade school kid one Fourth of July at Independence Mall in Philadelphia! So I have a one-degree-of-separation from Lugosi, Chaney and Vampira! Suck it!