Saturday, October 20, 2007

Happy Birthday to Bela and Arlene

Today, October 20, marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the incomparable Bela Lugosi (we couldn't very well call him "inimitable," could we?) and the centenary of WHAT'S MY LINE's "delightful star of stage and screen" panelist, Arlene Francis. While Lugosi has always seemed to me almost irretrievably Old World, except through the exegencies of the supernatural, of which his screen persona was so much a part, I find it nearly impossible to accept that Ms. Francis could have been born 100 years ago. As a weekly viewer of WHAT'S MY LINE's "Black and White Overnight" reruns on GSN every Sunday night at 3:00am, I can only think of Arlene Francis as a sharp, vivacious, and sexy lady full of life and laughter -- forever present tense, her warm-bloodedness immortal in a way to which the comparatively clammy Lugosi could only balefully aspire.

Memorably, Bela (born Béla Blasko in Lugoj, Romania) and Arlene (born Arline Kazanjian in Boston, Massachusetts) once shared the screen in Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, directed by Robert Florey and released in 1932. Arlene played a "woman of the streets" in her screen debut, lured by Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle into his coach and abducted to his secret laboratory where he seeks to make her "the bride of science" by mating her blood with that of his pet orangutan, Erik. The admixture doesn't take and, condemning her "rotten" (read syphillitic) blood, he consigns her to the murky depths of the River Seine. It's one of the most hard-hitting sequences to be found in the Universal horrors of the 1930s.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has always been regarded as one of Universal's problem titles, suffering as it does from overly florid writing (though the script is co-credited to John Huston) and awkward pacing. Though the details were always somewhat vague, it became known through books like Gregory William Mank's KARLOFF AND LUGOSI that studio executive Carl Laemmle Jr., then 23, was responsible for ordering that changes be made to Florey's director's cut of MURDERS prior to its release. In VIDEO WATCHDOG #111, I published an article called "Re-arranging the RUE MORGUE," in which I proposed how the extant version might be recut to restore Florey's most probable original intentions. Having written that piece on a deadline, I wasn't able to take the time to actually cut together the version I was proposing, but it made sense to me by playing the scenes in my reordered sequence using my Search button. (I was delighted to discover that my attempted "reconstruction" merited mention in the recently published Second Edition of UNIVERSAL HORRORS, the classic reference by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas.) VW contributor/reader/horror film scholar Gary L. Prange did take the time, however, and, by doing so, he found that my article accounted for maybe 90% of Florey's intentions, while proposing a few additional, crucial tweaks in a letter that we published in VW #114.

Since that article and letter appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG, I've seen bootleg discs of the recut for sale at film conventions and other copies freely circulated by fans. I was hopeful that someone at Universal might consider Gary's and my findings of sufficient interest to offer a recut version on DVD, either as a newsworthy stand-alone or as a fascinating supplement. Alas, it hasn't happened yet -- but I remain hopeful. I think a director's cut of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE would attract as much popular interest as David Skal's recovery of the Spanish DRACULA did, a decade or more ago. This 60m re-edit makes for a more enticing, innovatively structured, and effectively scary movie -- moreso than the extant version, a far better tribute to the memory of Robert Florey and his two stars, born this day in October such a long time ago.

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