Poor Bela Lugosi. He packed a lot of living into his life: school drop out at age twelve, Hungarian actor, wounded World War I soldier, political refugee, Horror film icon, and drug addict. He just never seemed to get his feet firmly on the road to success. His Hollywood film career was hampered by his strong accent and a lack of creativity by various studios. And his film rival Boris Karloff claimed Bela “never learned his trade” and could not act. Hollywood studios just never seemed to be able to figure out what to do with Bela so they just typecast him as “foreign villain” or “Horror villain”. Even as a Horror actor, poor Bela often lost out to Boris Karloff simply because studios preferred working with English actor Karloff to Bela with his heavy Hungarian accent.
By the time of Bowery at Midnight in 1942, Bela Lugosi was firmly in the midst of his long career decline. The continuing pain from his World War I injuries led Bela to become dependent on strong drugs and the drug use made Hollywood studios even less likely to cast Bela in leading film roles. Bela did luck out a bit with Bowery at Midnight. While he is, once again, typecast as a Horror villain, at least he is the star of the film with a juicy role as a university professor who is actually a saintly operator of a Bowery soup kitchen but who is really a murderous criminal mastermind. Bela’s co-stars are rather forgettable. John Archer plays the doomed, and somewhat dim, hero, Richard. John (originally named Ralph Bowman) never intended to become an actor. He wanted to be a cameraman but was never able to get a job. He drifted into acting when he won a radio contest and got the top prize of a film contract and the name of “John Archer”. He later quipped “I went from being a Bowman to an Archer”. The plucky but nosy heroine Judy is played by Wanda McKay. She was a successful model who turned to acting and had a short and mostly forgettable career in the 1940s as a B movie actress.
The rest of the cast of Bowery at Midnight are even more forgettable than John and Wanda but the end result is that Bela Lugosi is very much the star and he seems to be having a great time playing a criminal with multiple lives. As professor Brenner, Bela enlightens his students (including Richard) in psychology and is an indulgent and very loving husband – at least until his student and even his wife gets in his way. As dedicated and kindly soup kitchen operator Karl Wagner, Bela helps the unfortunate out-of-work denizens of the Bowery – at least until he can recruit them to his criminal schemes. As the mysterious criminal mastermind, Bela plots daring robberies – and then shockingly murders nearly everyone who crosses his path. Bela carries the roles off with aplomb. He even gets a great quip when he scolds his crazy henchman Doc about his pet cat: “Doc! How often have I told you to keep that cat from desecrating my graves!” The film even throws some zombies into the mix just to keep Bela on his toes.
Bowery at Midnight is not Bela Lugosi’s first attempt to haunt the Bowery. In 1941, he did Spooks Run Wild, a comedy with the East Side Kids (check out my review “Spooks Run Wild: Bela Lugosi vs the East Side Kids”). In 1943, Bela takes on the East Side Kids again in Ghosts on the Loose. (my review is “Ghosts on the Loose: Bela Lugosi Haunts the East Side Kids”) You can really get a sense of Bela Lugosi’s declining career in these three films. In Spooks Run Wild he is still a big star and his appearance together with the popular East Side Kids is billed as an “extravaganza”. The following year, in Bowery at Midnight, Bela is the star but his co-stars are all completely forgettable. And one year after that, in Ghosts on the Loose, he has dropped to fourth billing and he has very little to do except lend his name to the film posters.
Bowery at Midnight is a short, black and white film that runs only one hour and one minute long. It is the fifth of the nine films Bela Lugosi did for Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. The film feels very much like a serial in that the story unfolds in a series of sometimes very short scenes. This also makes the movie zip right along and it did a great job of holding my interest (of course most of my interest was centered on Bela quickly changing from professor to do-gooder to murderer). Sadly, this film suffers from the “too dark to see what’s going on” disease that effects many older films and there are a few places (especially in the opening scenes) when I had no idea what happened. There is also some damage to the film, lots of scratches running from top to bottom (especially in the middle of the film) and some specks and white circle flashes (towards the beginning). The damage is not terribly distracting although I was worried for a bit that those lines would get out of control. The audio is pretty good except for one quick glitch. The cheapness of the Poverty Row studio is evident in some sparsely set scenes especially when Bela dispatches one unlucky henchman and in the ridiculously tiny soup kitchen queue. But overall, this was a good, quick film and Bela Lugosi gets to enjoy one of his last meaty roles. I did have one tiny complaint: what was up with those zombies? Someone should tell The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes that zombies can make a complete recovery and even get married.
Bowery at Midnight is in the Public Domain and Internet Archive had two versions that you can watch online or download completely Free. Version #1 and Version #2 are pretty much the same in terms of quality. If you, like me, are a Bela Lugosi fan and want to watch more Bela Lugosi films just click on my previous reviews below and get the links to Free films. Enjoy!
– “Bela Lugosi Enslaved Them All”
– “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla”
– “An Aging Vampire and a Guy in Drag”
– “Spooks Run Wild: Bela Lugosi vs the East Side Kids”
– “Sharp Fanged Blood Sucking Death”
– “Ghosts on the Loose: Bela Lugosi Haunts the East Side Kids”
– “One Body Too Many”