Although I’m now nearly old enough to be Medicare-eligible, I will forever be known in some circles as a monster kid.
To those familiar with the term, a monster kid is someone, usually male, who was a youngster and horror-movie lover in what was probably the best time ever to be those two things: the late ‘50s to early ‘60s.
It had all started around 1957, when a package of the famed scary movies released by Universal Pictures in the ‘30s and ‘40s were made available to television, thus introducing the studio’s legendary monster characters to a whole new generation. (The syndicating company, Screen Gems, suggested that individual stations employ “horror hosts” to introduce the pictures, thus beginning a tradition that persists to this day.) Meanwhile, scrappy little independent studios like American International and Allied Artists were grinding out cheap-but-effective chillers aimed at a young demographic, hitting their target audiences with unerring frequency. In 1958, editor-writer Forrest J. Ackerman and publisher James Warren came out with the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine about both classic and contemporary horror pictures that soon spawned an avalanche of imitators. (Keep in mind in those days before DVDs, VCRs and even pay TV, there was no way for most people to see an old movie on demand; photos and stories about these films were, therefore, popular attractions in the monster mags.)
To top it all off, network television had gotten into the act, giving us such eerie series as Thriller (1960-62, with the great Universal horror star Boris Karloff as host), One Step Beyond (1959-1961) and the original Twilight Zone (1959-1964).
As a horror-happy kid, I wandered joyously through this wondrous cloud of escapism that swirled endlessly around me. I seldom missed the TV shows, and Mr. and Mrs. Bell at the Maribel Theater in Chelsea, my hometown, booked tons of double-feature scary movies on weekends; because I usually went both Friday and Saturday nights, they’d let me in free on Saturdays to watch the films for a second time. (I remember thinking at the time that they were showing all this horror stuff in part because of my best friend Walter Bell – their monster-kid son – and maybe me; now I realize it was simple economics. The films were cheap to book, and they got plenty of us kids in the seats, moving a lot of popcorn and pickles and Cokes and Charms suckers in the process.)
I also devoured the monster magazines, so I knew at a fairly early age that Lon Chaney Jr., one of Universal’s biggest horror stars of the ‘30s, had been born in Oklahoma to a father who would go on to become the first major American film actor known primarily for his horror portrayals.
Until last year, however, when I was asked to be a guest curator at the Oklahoma History Center’s Oklahoma @ the Movies exhibit – still up in Oklahoma City and well worth a couple of hours of any film fan’s time – that I found out two of his co-stars in a pair of the best-remembered of all the Universal horrors were also Oklahoma natives.
To take Chaney first: He was born in February 1906 near Oklahoma City to a pair of small-time roadshow actors; his dad wouldn’t become a star until the 1920s. Legend has it that young Creighton Chaney (Lon Jr.’s given name) was stillborn, and Lon Sr. revived him by breaking the ice on a nearby lake and dipping him in. (Family members have disputed the story, however.)
What we do know for certain is that Creighton, after giving the plumbing business a try, got into movies in the early 1930s and, after making good impressions as the slow-witted Lennie in the first movie adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1939) and a bad-guy caveman in the prehistoric epic One Million B.C. (1940), signed with Universal. By that time, he’d jettisoned his real name for the moniker Lon Chaney Jr.
Universal had begun the horror movie craze with a pair of 1931 releases – Frankenstein, starring British-born Boris Karloff, and Dracula, featuring Hungarian native Bela Lugosi. Almost a decade later, these now-famous monster portrayers were joined at the studio by Chaney, who soon became, as Michael R. Pitts put it in his Horror Film Stars (McFarland, 1991), “the horror film king of the 1940s, taking over the throne that once belonged to his father, to Boris Karloff and to Bela Lugosi.”
Chaney would be the only one of Universal’s unholy trio to play each of the studio’s four major monsters: the Wolf Man (which he originated), the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula. He played the latter character only once for Universal, in the 1943 release Son of Dracula, which found the blood-seeking Count, calling himself “Alucard” (get it?) heading to Louisiana, where he finds a willing victim in Kay Caldwell, a steamy Southern belle.
Kay was played by a young beauty named Louise Allbritton, an Oklahoma City native, who received top billing. The only child of L.L. and Caroline Greer Allbritton, Louise spent a couple of years studying journalism at the University of Oklahoma but shucked college to head west and, ultimately, into the movies. In 1946, she married the soon-to-be-famous radio and TV correspondent, Charles Collingwood, and they remained together until her death in 1979.
Universal may have been grooming Allbritton for future horror parts. The Son of Dracula pressbook – an oversized publicity booklet sent to theater owners by the studio – touts her as “The Screen’s New Temptress of Terror.” But even though Allbritton exuded plenty of beautiful menace in the picture, and her acting career extended into the ‘60s, no other scary portrayals were forthcoming.
Two years later, Chaney reprised his most famous character, the Wolf Man, for a fourth time in a monster mash-up called House of Dracula, which featured John Carradine as Dracula and Glenn Strange (later Sam the Bartender on TV’s Gunsmoke) as Frankenstein’s monster. A mad doctor (Onslow Stevens) and hunchbacked nurse (Jane Adams) were thrown in for good measure, as was the doctor’s assistant, a striking actress from Tulsa named Martha O’Driscoll, who got second billing after Chaney. A precocious child, she’d been discovered by the noted choreographer Hermes Pan when she was 9 years old, dancing in a little-theater production in Phoenix, where the family had moved. She was barely in her teens when she started landing her first, albeit uncredited, movie roles, usually as a dancer. Although O’Driscoll was only 23 when House of Dracula came around, she was already a Hollywood veteran. In the House of Dracula book edited by Philip Riley (MagicImage Filmbooks, 1993), co-star Jane Adams notes, “Martha O’Driscoll was very nice, very helpful to me, because I didn’t really know anything about movie-making.”
The film finds Chaney, as Wolf Man alter ego Larry Talbot, visiting Dr. Edelman (whom Talbot doesn’t know is mad) to try and find a way to stop turning into a werewolf when the moon is full. Although a nearly 70-year-old film probably doesn’t need a spoiler alert, I’ll issue one anyway, because I have to tell you that Talbot is ultimately cured, and the film ends with him and O’Driscoll’s character, Miliza, together and intact.
I think that’s the reason House of Dracula has long been my favorite of all the Universal horrors – that ending, with Chaney, as the long-suffering Talbot, holding the hand of his fellow Okie as the mad scientist’s laboratory burns in the background, its horrors destroyed and silent, if only for a little while.