- By TOM WEAVER
In the early 1950s, horror king Bela Lugosi starred in
two men-in-drag movies -- one a laugh riot, the other a
somewhat grimmer affair. The hilarious one, unfortunately,
was the meant-to-be-serious Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood's
heartfelt pseudo-autobiography, and the unfunny one was
the English screwball comedy Mother Riley Meets the Vampire,
with Arthur Lucan as a wacky washerwoman who runs afoul
of a vampiric mad scientist!
Lugosi appeared in the movie out of necessity: His British
stage tour of Dracula had ended in failure and bankruptcy
for the producers, and the actor was left high and dry,
without the money to return to Hollywood. Enter Lugosi fan
and friend Richard Gordon, a New York-based film distributor
whose solution to Bela's predicament was to persuade English
producer George Minter to star Bela in a movie. The resultant
movie, reminiscent of (the far superior) Abbott and Costello
Meet Frankenstein (1948), was a comedic fizzle, and
a disappointment at the box office, but it earned Bela his
ticket home and gave fans one last look at a healthy-looking
Lugosi, elegantly decked out in vampire's cloak and giving
a "with-it" performance that proved he still had a bit of
the old magic. Mother Riley Meets the Vampire recently
delighted an audience at England's Festival of Fantastic
Films, held near the site where the movie was shot, with
guest of honor Gordon in attendance.
RICHARD GORDON: I got Bela Lugosi the deal to go
to England and do a revival tour of Dracula. I didn't
know it at the time, but the management company was badly
underfinanced and was operating on a shoestring. They just
about had the money to pay for Lugosi (and his wife Lillian,
of course), including his fare and living expenses, but
they economized in every other way: They had an amateurish
supporting cast, the sets were dreadful, and it was a real
cheapie. And, of course, it failed on tour before it ever
got to the West End of London, and the management declared
bankruptcy and left Lugosi stranded there, literally without
the funds to come back to the United States. In those days
in England, they didn't have a system of posting bonds to
cover the actors' salaries and things like that. When the
play folded, they were still owing Lugosi a considerable
amount of money -- which just never got paid.
After they declared bankruptcy, and I got these long letters
from Lillian about their predicament, I felt I had to do
something. I went to London and wanted to persuade [movie
producer] George Minter to do a picture with Lugosi while
he was there, on the theory that (first of all) he could
get Lugosi cheap; (secondly) it would be something we could
sell in the United States; and (of course) it would get
Lugosi the money to get him back to America. Minter was
then preparing an Old Mother Riley picture. I don't remember
now whether it was my idea or George's to turn the Old Mother
Riley picture into a vehicle that also was suitable for
Lugosi; I suspect it was his, because I don't think it would
have occurred to me. So that's how Lugosi came to be in
Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. He was paid $5,000,
he was contracted for four weeks, and they picked up his
additional living expenses during that four-week period.
And $5,000 in 1951 was a lot more than it is today, and
it was enough to get him and Lillian back to the United
States and to Hollywood. That was how the whole thing came
Lugosi wasn't just "fitted" into the script for the Mother
Riley picture that Minter was preparing, was he?
RICHARD: No. There was an existing script, but
it didn't have a part for Lugosi in it. And so George, who
was a very astute producer, figuring on the combination
of Mother Riley and Lugosi, junked the script and had a
new script written. Because of time pressure, and because
neither George nor I really wanted Lugosi to be hanging
around London waiting for something to happen, what they
actually did was crib the idea from Abbott and Costello
Meet Frankenstein -- the exchange of trunks and all
that stuff. That's how it happened.
you already know the director, John Gilling?
RICHARD: No, John Gilling I had never worked with
before. Gilling was selected, or perhaps was already under
contract by George Minter, for the Mother Riley picture.
As far as I remember, he never made any other Riley pictures.
Why Gilling got producer-director credit, I don't know,
because George Minter effectively produced the movie. Gilling
did a lot of pictures later for Hammer and other people,
and he was, of course, a very well-respected director in
England; he was considered very proficient. He just seemed
a very ordinary, down-to-earth guy to me. On that kind of
a picture and on that kind of a schedule, directors don't
really have time to talk much to anybody who's not actively
concerned with the day-to-day shooting, so I never really
got to know him.
many days did Lugosi work?
RICHARD: I don't remember; he was contracted to
work for four weeks, the shooting schedule was four weeks,
but he didn't work every day. I wasn't there all of that
time, I was only on the set three or four times, and I was
really only there to keep an eye on Bela and keep him contented
and listen to any complaints he might have and so on. Also,
of course, I was "representing" George Minter -- George
used me to some extent with trade paper publicity. He'd
say his "American distributor" was there, you know, checking
on the picture and all that kind of stuff [laughs]. But
I really had nothing to do with the making of the picture.
Lugosi have any complaints?
RICHARD: No, Lugosi was quite happy. He of course
had some trouble adjusting to Old Mother Riley. On the first
day, I think he had trouble making up his mind whether he
was talking to a man or a woman, because (as usual) Arthur
Lucan showed up in full makeup at the studio. Arthur Lucan
was known for the fact that he never appeared in public
except in his Old Mother Riley garb -- he would arrive at
the studio fully made-up as Old Mother Riley, and when he
left the studio in the evening, he would go home fully made-up
as Mother Riley.
me a little of the stories people tell of Lugosi on the
set of Dracula , stalking around in the makeup
and saying "I am Dracula" so that he'd always be in character.
RICHARD: I suppose there's some analogy there [laughs]!
But when Arthur Lucan was asked why he did that, he said
he did it so that when he went out on his own and when he
was socializing in between films, he could more or less
be anonymous, and people wouldn't be coming up to him all
the time, because they wouldn't recognize him without the
makeup. Lugosi probably never saw him without the makeup.
I certainly never did.
did Lucan behave on the set?
RICHARD: Arthur Lucan behaved on the set exactly
like he behaved in the film. He became Mother Riley and
never stepped out of character. It was rather like Dr. Jekyll
when he turned into Mr. Hyde -- but with less lethal results!
The only thing Lugosi complained about was an old complaint
of his, one that I came across on this and other occasions:
Arthur Lucan had this habit of ad-libbing and throwing extra
things into the script, extra situations. This very much
confused Lugosi, because Lugosi belonged to that era of
professional actors who knew their script word-by-word before
they appeared on the set. And if anything happened to differentiate
it, especially at that time of his life, Lugosi would be
thrown off-balance and he'd get confused. Particularly as
he was also hard of hearing. So he wasn't happy with the
ad-libbing. And he also felt that the Mother Riley character
made him in the film more ridiculous than he would have
liked to appear, by all the extra schtick that Arthur Lucan
put into it. But apart from that, he was quite contented,
and I think he was very relieved that he was working. And
of course he also believed (as I did) that the picture would
become salable in the United States and would help his career.
I don't remember that there were any problems during the
you talk to Lucan?
RICHARD: Well, I talked to Lucan a little bit,
but Lucan was such a crazy character. I think he looked
on me as some sort of "American financier," or as the man
who was going to make Old Mother Riley famous in America.
And he sort of put on a big act for me, and I never really
got to talk to him where I felt he was being himself. So,
until I read a recent book called The Life Stories of
Lucan and McShane [about Arthur Lucan and his actress-wife
Kitty McShane], I never had any knowledge of his background
or of his unhappiness and his drinking and so on.
real-life wife Kitty McShane played his daughter Kitty in
every Mother Riley movie except Meets the Vampire
-- they had recently split.
RICHARD: I know that George Minter, at Lucan's
request, banned her from the studio during the shooting,
'cause Lucan didn't want her around harassing him in her
usual manner. I never met her or saw her, but I heard all
these stories about her. From other people -- Lucan never
said anything. But from other people, and from George Minter,
I heard the stories.
was supposedly hell on wheels.
RICHARD: They thought she'd come on and harass
Lucan, and she'd probably either harass or play up to Bela,
who knows? That wouldn't have worked -- especially with
Lillian around [laughs]!
Lillian on the set?
RICHARD: Lillian was not on the set on the days
I was there, but I know that she was around because George
Minter told me. She was there, really, to keep an eye on
Lugosi. Some people tell stories about Lillian, about how
tough she was and this or that, but I must say I never experienced
it. As I remember her, her main concern was to be protective
of Bela, and everything she did was in his interests. Or
intended to be in his interests.
you remember what parts of the movie you saw shot? I'm assuming,
since you saw Lucan and Lugosi on the set, it was the scenes
at Lugosi's house from the end of the movie.
RICHARD: I can't recall. I was there on the first
day of shooting, when everybody was introduced to everybody
-- that was when I met Lucan. The film was shot, incidentally,
at Nettlefold Studios, one of Britain's oldest studios.
It was used mostly by independent filmmakers and companies
that could not afford renting space at the major studios
like Pinewood, Shepperton and Elstree. Later it was renamed
Walton Studios, and we shot my pictures The Haunted Strangler
and Fiend Without a Face [both 1958] there.
you socialize in the evenings with Lugosi?
RICHARD: No. I think he just went back to wherever
he was staying, to rest. He wasn't in the best of health
already then, and I believe that the Dracula tour
and its collapse had been a considerable strain on him.
I think he just wanted to be in good shape to get through
this [movie] and then come back to the United States.
this the only Lugosi movie you ever saw being shot?
RICHARD: Yes, it was. I saw him at some of his
television appearances in New York -- I was there when he
and Romney Brent did The Cask of Amontillado [on
TV's Suspense], and I was backstage with my brother
Alex when Bela did The Milton Berle Show. And of
course I saw him on the stage in Arsenic and Old Lace
in summer stock. But Mother Riley Meets the Vampire
was the only actual theatrical movie of his that I was ever
on the set of.
there any hint of Lugosi's drug use during production?
RICHARD: Absolutely none. Maybe Alex and I were
naïve in those days, but I have to say that as far
as we were concerned, during the period we knew Lugosi,
we were never aware of any drug use. Only that he was getting
medication for pains that he had; Lillian, having been a
nurse, used to administer the medicine, which was morphine,
a painkiller. Perhaps Alex and I were not sophisticated
enough to know about any other drugs.
The movie goes out of its way to point out that Lugosi's
character is not a vampire, just a crazy scientist who thinks
he is. They really pound that point home.
RICHARD: I think, more than anything else, they
wanted to be sure that they were making a picture that would
get a "U" Certificate from the British Board of Film Censors
and that they wouldn't have any problem selling it to the
kids. A "U" Certificate meant that children were allowed
to go and see the film alone; an "A" Certificate would have
restricted them from seeing it unless accompanied by an
adult. Mother Riley had a big "family following," and they
were afraid that if they put a supernatural element into
it and made Lugosi a character like Dracula, they
would have trouble with the censor board and they wouldn't
get the rating they wanted. All the Old Mother Riley pictures
had "U" certificates; that was practically a pre-condition
of selling them to the circuits.
you watched the picture being made, did you think it would
be salable in America?
RICHARD: No -- in fact, I told George Minter, "I
don't think I'm going to be able to sell a picture in America
called Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, even with
Lugosi in it," because I had tried releasing a couple of
other Mother Rileys earlier and it was a total disaster.
One, Old Mother Riley's New Venture , I retitled
A Wild Irish Night [laughs], trying to sell it as
an Irish picture as there always was a big audience in this
country for pictures with an Irish background, because of
the Irish population. We opened it in New York City at the
55th Street Playhouse (which no longer exists) and it was
a disaster. So, as they were making Mother Riley Meets
the Vampire, I came up with the title Vampire Over
London, and George agreed that for the United States
he would deliver it retitled Vampire Over London.
That's how that title came about.
popular were the Mother Riley movies in England?
RICHARD: They were originally enormously popular.
They always made their major money in the north of England
and in the industrial cities -- not so much in London. But
they were tremendously popular and financially successful.
At the time when George Minter took over the series, the
popularity was beginning to go down. I think if Mother
Riley Meets the Vampire had been a bigger success, Minter
might have made another Mother Riley picture. But they had
pretty much come to the end of their career.
the Lugosi name didn't help the last one enough?
RICHARD: No. The fact that Kitty McShane wasn't
in it may have been partly responsible for [the waning interest],
because it was always Mother Riley and her daughter Kitty
-- they were very popular as a combination. This may be
an extreme example, but it's rather like when Oliver Hardy
did a couple of pictures without Stan Laurel towards the
end of his career and it never worked, because people were
too used to seeing them as a team. Maybe that had something
to do with it.
you go back to the U.S. before Lugosi did?
RICHARD: Yes. And I didn't see him in New York
when he got back here [by ship]. I don't remember the details,
but I suspect he must have gone straight on to California
and not spent any time here. Certainly we were on good terms,
but I don't remember actually seeing him when he got back.
Then Alex sort of "picked up" when Bela arrived in Hollywood.
I never saw him again after that.
that ubiquitous "Ship's Reporter" interview short, shot
when Lugosi returned to the US from England, Lugosi says
he really enjoyed making the movie.
RICHARD: I think that may be possible. But I don't
think it's likely that he would have said anything [derogatory]
about Mother Riley or mentioned any of the problems. I'm
sure he wanted to be very upbeat about it and put the best
"face" on it, in the hope that the movie would be a success
in America, and that anything he said would help to promote
you think the series was funny -- and Meets the Vampire
RICHARD: I thought the series was funny for what
it was -- as kids, Alex and I used to go and see all the
Old Mother Riley pictures, and we enjoyed seeing them. I
was disappointed with the way this picture turned out because
I had hoped, and I had discussed with George Minter, that
for the sake of the American market, so that we could sell
it in the United States, there would be more of an emphasis
on Lugosi, and Mother Riley would be slightly toned down.
I felt that Lugosi should get more play, even if it meant
shooting a few extra scenes just for the American market.
But Minter never followed up on those ideas. So when I got
the picture, I was disappointed, and I felt it would be
a considerable problem to try to sell it in the United States.
Alex later conceived the idea of doing a script called King
Robot, in which we would be able to use some of the
footage from Meets the Vampire and shoot new footage
with Lugosi, bringing Mother Riley down to an absolute minimum.
But by that time, Lugosi's health had deteriorated, and
also he had become so much more aged-looking than he was
when the film was made in England. It wouldn't have been
possible to match the footage.
Were you able to get any US bookings for Vampire Over
RICHARD: No. I eventually sold the picture to [distributor]
Jack Harris, and I can't honestly say I know whether he
ever tried booking it as Vampire Over London. He
changed the title to Carry On, Vampire, because of
the huge success of the Carry On series -- and he was promptly
sued by Anglo-Amalgamated, the producers of the Carry On
series [laughs]! He was sued by them in California and they
won the case, and he was forced to change the title -- then
it became My Son, the Vampire.
a recent Festival of Fantastic Films in England, Mother
Riley Meets the Vampire was shown with you in attendance.
What was the reaction? When it was over, was there an open
eye in the house?
RICHARD: When it was shown at that festival in
Manchester, England, I have to admit that it was the big
hit of the festival. They all loved it. Well, of course,
Manchester is "home territory" for Mother Riley because
the early Mother Riley films were made in Manchester --
Mancunian Films, which produced those pictures in the early
days, was a Manchester film studio. It was the hit of the
festival, and when I was doing my interviews, everybody
wanted to talk about Mother Riley Meets the Vampire
[laughs] -- nobody wanted to talk about Boris Karloff or
any of the other pictures that I made. I was a big hero
for Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. So when you ask
"Was there an open eye in the house," very much so
-- they applauded it wildly!
I recently watched the movie for the first time in eons,
sort of expecting the pooped-out Lugosi of his other 1950s
films. The movie was as bad as I remembered, but Lugosi
looks good and seems "with it" and he's actually kinda funny
RICHARD: I think it was the last time that he really
had some scenes where he not only looked like he looked
in better days, but was able to convey the personality of
earlier days. In some of those scenes, especially when he's
talking about his grandiose scheme to conquer the world,
he really was like the Lugosi of Universal Pictures.
Tom Weaver is the author of John Carradine: The Films,
Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the
Monster Movie Makers and many others available from