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 about.

TOM WEAVER: 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.

Q: Did 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.

Q: How 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.

Q: Did 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.

Q: Reminds me a little of the stories people tell of Lugosi on the set of Dracula [1931], 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.

Q: How 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 production.

Q: Did 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.

Q: Lucan's 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.

Q: She 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]!

Q: Was 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.

Do 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.

Q: Did 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.

Q: Was 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.

Q: Was 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.

Q: 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.

Q: As 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 [1949], 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.

Q: How 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.

Q: Even 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.

Q: Did 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.

Q: In 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 it.

Q: Did you think the series was funny -- and Meets the Vampire in particular?

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.

Q: Were you able to get any US bookings for Vampire Over London?

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.

Q: At 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!

Q: 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 in it!

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 McFarland & Co..

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