Camp David


By • Feb 17th, 2012 •

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Francis Lederer may not have been a household name, yet countless fans of the Dracula myths on stage and screen knew him as “Bellac,” an old world vampire masquerading as a mortal in Paul Landres’ RETURN OF DRACULA (1958). This film has long been in need of reappraisal since it arrived on the scene the same year that Hammer Films of England released their groundbreaking HORROR OF DRACULA, completely obscuring this minor gem of vampire Noir. I use that term because closer examination of this film renders many similarities not only to Hitchcock’s masterwork SHADOW OF A DOUBT but Orson Welles’s THE STRANGER as well. All three films take place in small town America with an all-American family in peril of being consumed by a dark force from the old country–whether it be Nazi serial killers or, in the case of our film, vampires. The casting of Francis, a Continental leading man of the 20’s and 30’s, proved to be a natural choice to step into the role so long indentified with Bela Lugosi. I was fortunate in interviewing Lederer a few years before his death at the age of 100. Francis was one of the wealthiest stars in Hollywood, having made substantial real estate holdings at the right time, netting him millions in the process.

He invited me to meet him at his acting academy in Studio City where he was engaged in the most unlikely task for a former Count Dracula: that of coaching moppets in a dance routine. The first thing you noticed about Francis was his debonair charm, something he had a lifetime to perfect. He was most cordial in discussing his early films as it seemed to give him pleasure to recall legendary performers like Louise Brooks as well as John Barrymore. It was PANDORA’S BOX that cemented his place in film history; the Pabst film was considered daring for its time, with Louise Brooks fanning the flames of screen immortality with a performance that still resonates today.

“Louise Brooks arrived in Berlin without speaking a word of German, and of course our director Pabst spoke no English! She traveled with a translator making her persona all the more mysterious. She was the first true enigma I ever met in this business. I had worked with Pabst in the theater before we did PANDORA’S BOX. In fact I was in Berlin doing the stage version on which the film version of PANDORA was based. I had also worked with another extraordinary lady named Lotte Lenya in her signature performance doing THREE PENNY OPERA.”

Besides Louise Brooks he was captivated by the great John Barrymore as well, telling me, “I would rather spend an evening with Jack Barrymore dead drunk than most any of the stars of his day, not that I ever had such an experience. I met him during the filming of MIDNIGHT, which also starred Claudette Colbert. Some of the crew referred to her as ‘the French dwarf,’ which was rude but rather funny considering how large her screen persona was in those days. Billy Wilder wrote a funny script which Mitchell Leisen then crafted into a charming picture. Barrymore was fantastic in every way; you could imagine what a joy it was to be in his company.”

It was at this point I knew that if I wanted to ask Francis about his Dracula film I had better think of a way to do it without spoiling this great mood he was in. I had a lobby card from RETURN OF DRACULA, which featured him standing upright in his coffin wearing that topcoat which he used as a cape. I always thought that that was a clever way to keep his character from looking completely out of place in a small Midwestern town. As I fished the card out of my briefcase he looked at me for a moment and then said, “I would have never taken you for one of those monster fans, David. Where is your collection of Louise Brooks photographs?” I explained that my good friend John Kobal had the collection and that I was doing a project for Dr. Leonard Wolf, who would very much like to have his take on THE RETURN OF DRACULA. Lederer was smiling at me a bit longer than I thought he should when he picked up the card and said, “Well, it was all a joke as far as I was concerned. The script said nothing about Dracula; in fact I thought I was doing a comedy. The producers sold me on the idea of doing a spoof of these kinds of films.” I didn’t believe him until much later when I received some stills that had the title THE FANTASTIC DISAPPEARING MAN on the back. Perhaps he thought it was a comedy after all. Francis went on to explain that the film was made very quickly and afterward he simply forgot about it. I reminded him that he played Dracula again on an episode of ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY entitled ”The Devil is Not Mocked,” which was similar in theme to THE KEEP made years later by Michael Mann. Francis laughed just like Dracula and replied, “Well, yes, I did in fact. They wanted me because of that film I believe. I must tell you that I still receive mail about it, even had some photos brought over to my office from fans asking me to sign them. I do not admire or wish to be in horror films and making that film was somewhat of a mistake on my part because if I had known what they had in mind I most likely would have declined.” As he handed me back the card he reached down in his desk and got a pen, signing it without me even asking, telling me, “I imagine you want this made out to you?”

Francis Lederer was a good sport about his brush with vampirism and I think he enjoyed the attention the film has supplied over the years. One of the great things about meeting him in person was his confidence and ease with anyone he meets. This is a man who long ago made his success and knew he could really sit back and play the grand senior. I mentioned a few of his other films including the other “horror” film he did called TERROR IS A MAN. “I am an actor, and during the time I made that particular film I simply accepted work when it was offered. That film was made in the Philippines very cheaply and very fast. Let’s just say I have made my share of mistakes, but who hasn’t?” He was in the middle of a rehearsal when I arrived so he asked if I would like to stay and watch him work as our interview, such as it was, was at an end. I told him that as much as I would love to, I did have to cross over the hill before the traffic got too intense, so I said goodbye and left him to rehearse his Shirley Temple-in-waiting. My last image of Francis Lederer was rather surreal. He was hovering over an 8-year-old girl dressed as a ballerina, advising her to “Put your shoulders back, child, and remember: the audience is always Bali Hai.”

A few weeks later Mike Hyatt, a friend of mine who collected 35mm prints, was in the process of organizing a private screening of RETURN OF DRACULA for the writer of the film, Pat Fielder, over at one of the sound labs in Hollywood. I had suggested inviting Francis and for a short time he pondered the idea but in the end changed his mind so we went on without him, screening a beautiful print complete with the color insert of the staking of the girl. I have always felt that the success earlier that year (1958) of THE HORROR OF DRACULA created enough buzz throughout the American film industry to make RETURN OF DRACULA a done deal with distributors, providing it had much of the same spin–including the color insert. Pat proved to be a fun lady and was thrilled that this film, made so long ago, was still getting attention among the fans. She was also not too shy in pointing out the similarities between her script and Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and then I included Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER for good measure. Pat smiled at this, saying to me, “I am going to like you, I can tell already.”

Pat was a most entertaining lady who relished the fact that this film, made so many years ago, was beginning to be its own form of living death in that it would most likely always have a fan base because of the immortality of its source material. We got on the subject of the cat she created for their little boy in the film, which she named Nugget. In the film Nugget is wandering in a nearby cave when the vampire arrives via the local train station. This is the only time we see the little cat before we are then told that he was found drained of blood by you-know-who. I always disliked films where animals are killed, even off-camera. When I explained this to Pat she reminded me that anything human or animal bitten by a vampire would most likely return as a vampire as well. We decided right there and then if a sequel was ever made for RETURN OF DRACULA it would be called RETURN OF DRACULA PART 2: NUGGET’S REVENGE. When I told her about my friend Reggie Nalder’s Dracula epic over at Crown International, ZOLTAN: HOUND OF DRACULA, which was also known stateside as DRACULA’S DOG, she could not stop laughing until we both realized that it would not be such an impossibility to really make a film out of Nugget’s return from the grave nearly half a century after RETURN OF DRACULA was in theaters. It has never really been out of circulation thanks to shock theater packages on the late, late show, and now of course cable and DVD keep Nugget’s demise forever on the screen.

One of the lasting pleasures of both THE RETURN OF DRACULA as well as HORROR OF DRACULA are the scores created by Gerald Fried and Hammer`s resident composer James Bernard. Fried`s music score uses the Dies Irae, a sinister black mass soundscape that creates a satanic atmosphere which underscores the elegant performance of Francis Lederer. The Dies Irae was later used by Stanley Kubrick in his classic THE SHINING; it is interesting to note that Gerald Fried was a boyhood friend of Kubrick who composed background music for both the director’s early films THE KILLING as well as PATHS OF GLORY. James Bernard created an iconic score, which helped make Christopher Lee’s hellfire entrance in the library sequence so unforgettable. Both of these soundtracks are now preserved on CD.

The Dracula myth was somewhat laid to rest in American films after Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein, allowing Bela Lugosi to play the Count one last time for the Universal Studio that really began the golden age of Horror films. However calling THE RETURN OF DRACULA a bona-fide Dracula film is a bit dicey in lieu of what Francis told me during our interview. The film is, as stated earlier, a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s masterful SHADOW OF A DOUBT, replacing a serial killer played by Joseph Cotton with that of a vampire. The only two references regarding Count Dracula are made first with a voice over at the beginning of the film and then toward the end in a scene between Reverend Whitfield (Gage Clarke) and the vampire hunter played by John Wengraf, who suggests the stranger calling himself Bellac may indeed be Dracula or one of his followers; all of this adds to my conviction that they were tacked on to cash in on Universal’s blockbuster THE HORROR OF DRACULA. This kind of tie-in was also used in the 1957 release BLOOD OF DRACULA, a teen angst horror picture about a rebellious girl sent to a girl’s school whose chemistry professor spent a summer touring Transylvania where she unearthed a medallion with the power to turn its victims into a cat-like creature with fangs. This is yet another film to use Dracula in its advertising without having to present the Count in any form whatsoever.

THE RETURN OF DRACULA also made a lasting impression on actor Ray Stricklyn, who played the young male lead/love interest for actress Norma Eberhardt. Ray had a second career as a press agent, which put him in contact with some of Hollywood’s elite. Ray had long given up acting when circumstances paved the way for his return in a one man show of Tennssee Williams, and the reviews placed him back in the limelight once again. All of this lead to Ray publishing his memoir DEMONS AND ANGELS a few years ago, where RETURN OF DRACULA is given its special place in the actor’s resume. Francis actually phoned Ray after his wife saw him perform as Williams. The two of them enjoyed a 45 minute phone conversation which really brought the two men full circle after a lifetime of being out of touch. Both Ray and Norma had more than their fare share of attention from being in a film with “Dracula” in the title.

One of the many reasons this film remains so intriguing after more than fifty years is the offbeat characters that Dracula victimizes in one way or another: The blind girl who, once bitten, can see again only to regret her existence even more as one of the undead; the family that allows him to enter this placid landscape in California, perplexed without ever really understanding the situation at all; and of course the European vampire hunter arriving in the California town just in time to prevent another outbreak of vampirism. All these elements come together in a fast-paced little thriller than can still hold its own after a lifetime of viewings. My advice the next time you watch RETURN OF DRACULA is keep an eye on our feline friend Nugget–he might just be coming back one day, and make no mistake, this kitty is dangerous!

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4 Responses »

  1. Thanks, Dave. Lederer could have lapsed into generic villainy but he even infused his Moreau-type doctor (TERROR IS A MAN) with enough charm to draw sympathy (completely polarizing himself from Charles Laughton’s interpretation of the role). And, yeah, Christopher Lee’s “Dracula” is unbridled libido; Lederer’s vampire, however, is a patriarch whose predatory nature is camouflaged behind old world hubris. Both characters, played by lesser actors, would have adhered to cursory stereotypes. As a youngster, I was fond of both horror films as a result of Lederer’s more ambiguous navigation (I liked the guy; his NIGHT GALLERY “Dracula” is not only benevolent but downright heroic).

  2. Great article, David. I saw RETURN OF DRACULA back when I was about 11, and didn’t see it again for another 30 some-odd years. Between that time, I falsely remembered Bellac, with his centuries old outlook solving the internal problems of his modern era adopted family. (He became bloodsucker and therapist) Seeing the film again, I found it a rewarding tidy horror piece, even though he wasn’t the undead Dr. Phil I thought him to be. When are we going to see the other Gerald Fried scored horror treat I BURY THE LIVING?

  3. Thank you for this trip down the Guilty Lane of Pleasure!! A very big favorite of mine, growing up, I grabbed the United Artists box (laserdisc) that contains this gem. Francis Lederer always projected a hellish projection in this role-part Gestopo (overcoat/fedora) and a cobra aura of poison (with a touch of Max Schrek). Looking at my copy of the original book cover of “BRIDES OF DRACULA” by Dean Owen, it looks like Lederer’s face was used for Baron Meinster. Thank you for this!!!

  4. Mr. Lederer’s Dracula was menacing without using physical violence of any kind. He plays Dracula as a bemused, confident foreign invader disguised as a tourist, a very unusual way of handling the role. Just his stare, wet-looking eyes and creepy smile was enough to scare. His subdued performance remains one of the more memorable in vampire history which is saying a lot considering the excellent actors who’ve played Dracula.

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