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Bowery at Midnight

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The 1942 film "Bowery at Midnight" features Bela Lugosi playing a man who lives a double life. As psychology professor Dr. Brenner, he is an affectionate husband and encouraging mentor who runs a soup kitchen for down-and-out folks in New York's famed Bowery District. But as Karl Wagner, he's a criminal fiend without loyalty or conscience—and his accomplices have a habit of taking dirt naps in the shelter's basement. What happens when the identities of Brenner and Wagner collide? For a scholarly perspective, check out this week's podcast. For the movie's answer, complete with zombies, tune in to UEN-TV.

Bela Lugosi is, of course, known for his standout performances as a vampire, madman, and general creepy guy, but before coming to the U.S., the Hungarian served his country in World War I, acted in Shakespearian plays onstage, and appeared in several films. His association with the political left as a founding member of an actor's union got him banned from acting in his native land. He exiled to Germany to act in a handful of critically respected films, then in 1920 he immigrated to the U.S. (illegally—he wasn't to legitimize his entrance into the country until a few months later).

Actor John Archer plays Richard Dennison, a wealthy student of Dr. Brenner's who asks the question—"What do people think about just before they die?" (Brenner/Wagner generously supplies the answer, of course.) Archer isn't the actor's original name: he was born Richard Bowman and won the new name—plus a contract with RKO Picture—in a contest. His appearance in "Bowery" occurred early on in a career that spanned decades and includes numerous radio, television, and film performances. Given his success, it's hard to believe the rumors that he initially aspired to jobs behind the cameras, and only turned to acting as something of a back-up plan.

Wanda McKay plays Judy Malvern, Brenner's soup kitchen assistant and Richard's fiancée. McKay also traded her given name (Dorothy Quackenbush) for one considered a little more film-friendly by contemporary studio execs. She appeared a number of Poverty Row flicks, moving down the status ladder to bit parts such as "First Girl" in "The Merry Widow" just ten years after her "Bowery" performance. Though adopting a stage name was standard practice in Hollywood at the time, it is perhaps amusing to ponder the presence of two name-changers in a plot that hinges on the power of an alias.

The Science

Harry Hughes

Dr. Harry HughesPsychology professor Harry Hughes of Salt Lake Community College discusses social science, Bela Lugosi and the film “Bowery at Midnight.”


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