Like many stars of the golden age of Hollywood, some of the most notable horror icons of the era eventually transitioned to television. I won't argue their best work was done on the small screen, but there is a lot of enjoyable material from them on DVD. Let's examine some of the classic television appearances of these legendary performers.
One legendary movie monster who is not a regular on the tube is Bela Lugosi, who is of course Dracula in the 1931 Universal film as well as countless other zombie, mad scientist, and assorted creature features. Bela's TV resume is sparse, but one fun example that survives is 'A Cask of Amontillado,' the October 11, 1949 edition of the early live anthology series Suspense.
Edgar Allan Poe's short story is updated to post-WWII Italy, where Count Montressor shows up at an U.S. military outpost to report a murder, and the Americans seem disinterested. The officer, played by Frank Marth, is literally falling-down drunk, and an uncredited Ray Walston signifies his brashness by chewing gum the whole time. Still, by the end they are rapt at his terrifying tale. Well, 'terrifying' may be a stretch. The story is anticlimactic even if you aren't familiar with the source material. It's a cool, rare glimpse of Lugosi in live television, though, and he looks like he's enjoying himself as a cocky fascist general who wants to murder Montressor.
The production values are, well, 1949-ish. The Count intrigues General Fortunato with the prospect of an impossible-to-find wine. It's almost enough to make you forget that Bela said, 'I never drink...wine' in 1931. The two engage in a cat-and-mouse game, and by that I mean a Hanna Barbera cat-and-mouse game reusing much of the animation to save money. The story hinges on a long descent into the depths of a wine cellar, depicted by the actors following each other down the same set of stairs again...and again...and again. It's charming, especially when the 'castle walls' shake as someone brushes against them, but after a while you wish they'd just go grab a Ballantine.
Perhaps the most notable female classic movie horror icon is the original Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester. After starring in what many consider the best of the old Universal monster flicks, Elsa married The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Charles Laughton) before eventually moving into supporting roles in movies and television. Her guest appearance in 'The Elevator Doesn't Stop Here Anymore,' a first season episode of the underrated The Bill Cosby Show, ought to be a highlight, but it doesn't quite do her justice. The problem is this episode has an even more special guest: not just a horror icon, but an icon icon, the great Henry Fonda.
Cosby's gym teacher, Chet Kincaid boards an elevator with Fonda's fellow teacher, Mr. Richards, and Lanchester, who walks in wearing frumpy clothes and a do-rag while lugging a mop and bucket. Presumably she's going straight to the end credits of The Carol Burnett Show. All 3 are stuck overnight when the finicky elevator stalls. I guess when the producers sprung for Fonda and Lanchester, they rummaged through the pile for a script that would be...inexpensive to shoot, shall we say.
As Chet shares ideas to pass the time, Richards says Lanchester's Mrs. Wochuk doesn't speak English; she comes from 'somewhere in Eastern Eu--.' That's right, he doesn't even finish the sentence. It's evident the faculty haven't bothered to get to know the cleaning lady. Nor have the writers; poor Mrs. Wochuk is a childlike caricature, serving little function other than teaching the guys some kind of ethnic dance and perking her head up whenever she hears her name. Her expressive face gives the character some humanity, but it's unfortunate that a show as subtle as The Bill Cosby Show reduces a talented guest star to such a cliche. Shooting Elevator may have made her long for the relative complexity of a character like the Bride of Frankenstein. It's a good episode, but just don't expect chills (or much else) from Elsa. The scariest part is the bizarre but hilarious scatting Cosby does in the theme song.
After starring as The Wolf Man and in many other genre features, Lon Chaney Jr. continued his prolific career in television. The good news is he got a steady gig on Canadian production Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicansin the mid-1950s. The bad news: He was reduced to a sidekick role, playing the 'blood brother' of star John Hart. Chaney's character is named Chingachgook, roughly translating to 'He whose film career is drying up.'
Actually, you have to hand it to Chaney, who gives this role his all, donning full period garb and long braids. He never seems to be dogging it, and he reads the standard old-Hollywood 'Indian dialect' of broken English with enthusiasm. The character enjoys some good hand-to-hand combat scenes throughout the series, and Chaney is often by far the most interesting thing on screen. In 'The Search,' Chingachgook gets the single best moment, charging towards the camera to chase off a couple of scoundrels. He charges in, running and yelling, and comes across as a pretty bad dude.
It may not be the most memorable part of the actor's long career, but Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans holds up surprisingly well today. The stories aren't sophisticated, but they move along and offer some solid action. The early American frontier setting is a nice change of pace from many of the other Westerns of the day.
Chaney's co-star in House of Dracula, Glenn Strange, also played Frankenstein's monster in several other Universal classics before starting a career dominated by television, especially Westerns. Many recognize his recurring role as bartender Sam on Gunsmoke, but that show gets enough attention. I'm more interested in checking out Strange's guest appearances in something like Judge Roy Bean.
This is a half-hour Western that aired in syndication in the 1955-1956 season and starred Edgar Buchananas the self-declared judge. Naturally, when you think of maintaining law and order and dispensing wisdom, you think of Edgar Buchanan. In fairness, I'm looking at this from a modern perspective. Maybe when Petticoat Junction debuted in 1963, there were viewers declaring, 'Eh, it's a funny enough show, but I can't buy the guy who played Roy Bean as such a shiftless, lazy type.' Of course, when Hollywood made The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean in 1972, the studio said, 'Get us an Edgar Buchanan type,' so the producers landed Paul Newman.
Strange's height, commanding presence, and deep voice made him an imposing Western heavy, but he's kind of a scrub in 'The Hidden Truth.' His crooked ranch owner Samson tries to frame an employee, and then harasses him because he thinks he is hiding some stolen gold. The scoundrel shoots another crook in the back instead of mixing it up like a real man, but he's easily manipulated by Bean and overcome by the law.
Strange is similarly ineffective as a fighter in the Annie Oakley episode 'Treasure Map.' The ailing Mr. Warren and his daughter have dreams of striking it rich by using a treasure map that will reveal Coronado's hidden treasure. Strange is his co-worker Ernie, who forces his way into the plan (Again with the gold? Didn't Glenn keep ANY of his Frankenstein money?).
Ernie is more of a nag than a tough guy. When he criticizes Warren's penchant for reading and someone says, 'Aw, you're just jealous because you can't read,' the only retort Ernie musters is a weak 'Ehh,' as he walks away. During a fight scene with deputy Lofty Craig, Ernie literally gets the drop on him with a big bale of hay, and then can't follow up on it because he's so slow and lumbering. It takes him so long to throw a punch, the guy makes Frankenstein's monster look like Muhammad Ali.
Annie Oakley is fine for what it is, a serviceable early Western aiming at a more juvenile audience. However, it could use a guy as entertaining as Edgar Buchanan (It is fun to see a young Shelly Fabares in Treasure Map as Warren's loyal daughter), and I wish these shows would have utilized Strange a little better.
F Troop's 'V is for Vampire' features the great Vincent Price as Count Sfoza. The fort is already on edge after reports of spies circulating in the area, so when the Count arrives in town, the gang jumps to conclusions and assumes he's a vampire. Other than the fact Sfoza hails from Transylvania, wears a cape, has a pallid countenance, sharp teeth, and counts a black crow as his constant companion, where would they get that idea?
'V is for Vampire' surprises by both refuting and supporting the idea of vampires existing in the F Troop universe (you'll have to watch to see how). The show gets many of its laughs from the guys searching Sfoza's premises and the haunted house gags arising in that setting. As for Price, he's fine as a mild-mannered, gentlemanly vampire-looking fellow, but it's a lighthearted approach. It suits the series and also gives room for Larry Storch and the rest of the cast to do the broad humor. So if you're looking for the menacing version of Vincent, he's much more intimidating in the Hawaiian episodes of The Brady Bunch.
Television saw a quite different Peter Lorre than the one Hollywood saw in films like Mad Love and The Beast with Five Fingers. Rounder, softer, somehow even more world weary, this older Lorre kind of coasted on his creepy reputation yet remained a fascinating, charismatic presence right to the end. Take for instance an episode of the detective show Checkmate, 'The Human Touch.'
Lorre guests as an old nemesis of Sebastian Cabot's Carl Hyatt who crafts a fiendish scheme to incapacitate him involving a femme fatale, a Carl Hyatt double, and a lot of boasting. At this stage of his life, Lorre is too old to be running around swiping letters of transit, so he relies on henchmen to do the heavy lifting as he smokes and makes speeches. But the next time I fail to be entertained by Peter Lorre reading dialogue will be the first, and it's fun seeing him interact with Cabot. It's also a nice change of pace seeing Carl look foolish while his less sophisticated Checkmate agency partners protect him from his own naivete.
Boris Karloff had a particularly distinguished television career, starring as Colonel March of Scotland Yard, hosting the anthology Thriller, and making dozens of guest appearances. As a TV performer, Boris arguably stands alone above all the legendary film creatures, but one of his most famous roles comes as part of a group. I can only imagine how cool it must have been to see not one, not two, but three horror superstars in a single episode in 1962. One of the most famous hours of Route 66, 'Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing,' teams Buz and Todd with Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney Jr. in an amusing romp.
The episode opens with Chaney sneaking into a boy's bedroom while dressed as either The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Tiny Tim after a bar fight. At first the scene is played for chills, but we quickly see what's going on when Chaney unmasks. He takes a phone call and is joined on a glorious split screen by Lorre and Karloff; all playing themselves to great effect as they discuss a plan to scare the masses with a new television program (insert an Alfred Hitchcock joke about the sponsors terrorizing the audience with commercial interruption).
Meanwhile, Buz and Tod start new jobs at a high-class resort. They are going to serve as 'junior executives in charge of convention liaison,' whatever that means. If that's not vague enough, Buz adds they will be expeditors and troubleshooters. Apparently they earned this gig by being 'personable' on the phone. Ah, how easy it must have been to get a job in 1962! Personally I think searching for Coronado's gold is a more realistic prospect, but it's Route 66, and the boys can't sign up with a fishing boat every week, so let's go with it.
Lucky Buz is overseeing an executive's secretaries convention, where the main concern seems to be how to flee an aggressive boss...or marry him (Did I mention it's 1962?). Poor Tod has to handle the meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Gerenuks, the cover organization set up by our trio of actors. It's all played for laughs, but there are scenes where the trio gets to frighten the heck out of all of those secretaries. At least, it might be Karloff and not a double putting on a monster mask. As for Lorre, it’s great to see his sour expression when, not wearing any costume at all, he points at a few stricken secretaries and laments, 'These three passed out just from looking at me. I think I resent that.'
Once again, I have to give Chaney, Jr. credit. In addition to the Hunchback get-up, he dons a mummy outfit and later steals the whole show by posing as the Wolf Man. He does the most to earn his salary by far, and that includes the regulars (George Maharis mostly gets to walk around making googly eyes at Jeannine Riley, and that's hardly work). Still, Karloff is classy as always, shining in a surprisingly tender scene with Riley just by reacting. Lorre is low key, but he has his moments, like the persnickety way he smacks a bellhop's hand away from his suitcase. A priceless scene has Lorre explaining to Tod what a gerenuk is and why it needs to be preserved. Remember, 'If it can happen to the gerenuk, it can happen to you!'
'Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing' is an affectionate tribute not just to these guest stars, but to the classic horror of yesteryear. The trio is delighted to find the old ways of frightening people still work. Perhaps television didn't always utilize classic Hollywood horror icons to their full potential, or play for laughs as well as Route 66, but these episodes are all worth seeing, and the charisma and talent of the legendary screen favorites almost always emerge.
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.