Shortly after relocating to the far reaches of the western San Fernando Valley, I came across this sign while driving home one day. Was this street named after Francis Lederer, actor? Of course, it was. It must have been fate and a collective touch of native soil that brought us together.
My awareness of Lederer began at a young age. After viewing Return of Dracula (1958) on local N.Y. television, I firmly believed that the Czech-born thespian was the real Count Dracula and Bela Lugosi was well… Bela Lugosi. Sorry about that all you devoted Lugosiphiles.
I was enamored with horror and sci-fi movies before acne and a deeper voice. Francis Lederer and that Dracula movie made quite an impression on me. I particularly enjoyed Lederer’s continental lilt as the Count – “…and your arm holding that cross, it feels like lead, no?” – along with a uniquely creepy score composed by the great Gerald Fried. Later on, I reflected that Return of Dracula reminded me of Hitchcock’s Shadow of A Doubt. Lederer was doing a send-up on Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie but instead of hankering for rich widows, he pined for youthful female platelets via the neck of comely Norma Eberhardt. His Dracula was so convincing that he recreated it for Rod Serling in a Night Gallery episode circa 1971; his final performance on any screen.
A couple of years ago, I screened Return of Dracula at the Egyptian Theatre during a Fantasy and Horror Festival and invited the screenwriter, Pat Fielder, as a guest. Pat confirmed she borrowed from Shadow of a Doubt for elements of her story. Nicely too. Return of Dracula holds up well.
Francis Lederer was a classical stage actor who came to the U.S. in 1932 after a huge role in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928) opposite Louise Brooks’ Lulu. He was lucky to have Pabst. The director staged a love scene between the two and insisted that Brooks be nude under a mink coat. “Who would know?” asked Louise. “Lederer”, replied Pabst. Talk about a director inspiring his leading man!
After scoring another big success, this time on Broadway in Autumn Crocus, Lederer arrived in Hollywood and was touted as a sensation. He never became a big movie star although he did a lot of good work, most notably in Midnight (1938), Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and the frequently overlooked Voice in the Wind (1944).
There was also The Madonna’s Secret (1946) a noirish mystery that my late friend Arthur Lyons screened in Palm Springs several years ago. Lederer played a very dangerous artist opposite Ann Rutherford. When I chatted with Ann Rutherford several months later at a Cinecon dinner and mentioned the film, she rolled her eyes skyward and turned to Stanley Rubin remarking, not unkindly, “Why do they always remember the films we try to forget!” It might not have been Gone with the Wind, but I thought The Madonna’s Secret and Lederer (and Ann) were pretty good.
Francis Lederer moved to Canoga Park in 1934, buying a 300 acre ranch. His house and his stable are still standing. I drove by his old horse stable, which now looks quite different, countless times before I realized what it used to be and who built it.
Here is a link from Floyd Bariscale’s blog that has some recent photos and interesting information about Lederer and his Canoga Park environs that rivaled the Ponderosa spread from Bonanza.
Finding someone who had been a guest at Lederer’s hacienda back in the day turned out to be easy. I asked Marsha Hunt if she knew him and received an immediate and glowing report (no one glows quite like Marsha). She went to a party at Lederer’s house during the 1940’s and told me it was, “a beautiful ranch in Canoga Park, …way out in the country at that time.” Marsha advised that, “Francis was an absolutely gracious and charming man.”
Lederer’s real estate investments made him a wealthy man and as the years moved on, he devoted himself to political activism and other endeavors. He was the honorary Mayor of Canoga Park for a quarter of a century as he handled the population encroachment into the Valley and the gradual disbursement of much of his land with great skill. Most notably, he became an acting teacher with a reputation for great intensity, founding the American National Academy of Performing Arts. Francis Lederer worked steadily as an acting teacher until dying at the ripe age of 100 in Palm Springs; he had relocated after the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged his hacienda.
A friend of mine, Mike Hyatt, told me a nice story about Lederer. Mike had a print of Return of Dracula and was going to screen it in Hollywood. He wanted to invite Lederer to the screening and went to his acting studio while he was teaching a class. As Mike walked in and took a seat at the back of the class, Lederer was in the midst of remonstrating a young actor about his approach to a scene and the atmosphere became tense. Finally Mike piped up, “Perhaps he was using a different approach.” Lederer turned around slowly and fixed Mike with a baleful stare, “And who is this infidel that infiltrated my class?” After a pause, Lederer broke into a smile, laughed and the tension evaporated.
Lederer attended the screening, but Mike recalled that he became confused and thought he was going to see a different film, a horror movie made in the Philippines. At the end of the screening, Lederer jumped up and exclaimed that ” That was not the movie I thought it was going to be. That was a good movie!“
It’s somehow a comfort to know that the Count Dracula of my youth still has a footprint in his native soil of Canoga Park. I haven’t figured out yet whether I am living on part of Lederer’s old ranch or the site of a long-departed Sunkist orange grove that I was told about when I moved in. Who knows? Perhaps it is one of those groves that Jack Nicholson discovered was being sold for peanuts to Noah Cross in Chinatown.
Re: Francis Lederer- Here’s a note I received from Leonard Maltin:
“Hi… many years ago I got to interview Lederer for Entertainment Tonight (those were the days!) at his home, which was fashioned after a mission. He told me that he’d been captivated by the missions when he first came to California, and arranged to purchase one that had fallen into disuse… at the last minute the owners reneged on the deal, so he hired an architect to create one from scratch! best, Leonard”
And here is another response, this one from Sybil Jason:
“Dear Alan: As usual your newsletter was fascinating but for me… this particular one was taking a walk down memory lane. First of all, I knew Frances Lederer very well not only as a child but also later in life. He was, as stated, quite a gentleman and very charming and we shared a mike at a very historic radio broadcast in the mid thirties. Take a look on page 152 of my book MY FIFTEEN MINUTES and you’ll see an equally historic picture of a number of us taken at that broadcast. Many many years later we were guests at numerous show biz gathering and to me he “aged” like Dorian Gray. Still VERY handsome and still very charming!!!”
And now, My Mental CD Player.
I have a periodic affliction of old movie or television soundtracks intruding into my brain on an ad-hoc basis. These musical interludes aren’t preordained or summoned. They just occur spontaneously as if I have a CD drawer in my cerebellum and a disk is arbitrarily inserted.
Last week’s telepathic theme was Alex North’s heralding trumpets and crashing cymbals from Spartacus. His great score played intermittently in my mind whilst I recalled the first time I watched Jean Simmons’ bouncing beauty while bathing nude – or close to it – in a lake, enjoyed Peter Ustinov’s wonderful witticisms and was appalled by Woody Strode’s body being strung up as Charlie McGraw rasped, “He’ll hang there till he rots!” I actually believed that middle-aged character actors like Harold J. Stone, John Ireland and Nick Dennis (remember, “VA-VA-VOOM! in Kiss Me Deadly?) looked like gladiators, but knew that John Dall had no business playing a Roman or any other character in this grandest of epic films. Hard to believe Spartacus is fifty years old this year.
Here’s Charlie using Kirk Douglas as a teacher’s aid in human anatomy.
At any rate, I had this martial, marching theme song in my mind most of the day and I couldn’t figure out what show it was from or just what the hell it was. I knew it was a very old television program and there was also a voice-over narrative by someone like Reed Hadley, but couldn’t pin it down. I was working out at the gym this afternoon when it finally came to me:
The narration is by the one and only Art Gilmore. Art has probably done more voice-over work and movie previews than anyone else…ever. I went to a tribute to him several years ago where a “highlight reel” of some of his work was played and I actually got to meet him. Humble, gracious and tall, Art will be 100 years old this year.
Here’s the closing of Highway Patrol
I’ve also been doing some research on Broderick Crawford for an upcoming project. Not to reveal anything not already public knowledge, but Brod should have been the last choice on Planet Earth to represent a program like Highway Patrol or any organization that touted safe and sober motoring.
RE: Broderick Crawford. Here is the second portion of Sybil Jason’s gracious note that discusses Brod Crawford and his Mother:
“In regards to Broderick Crawford….. if his mother, Helen Broderick, had had her way he would have become my adopted brother because she went as far as writing to my mother and asking if she could adopt me. She was such a warm and sweet woman and although she played rather sarcastic characters on screen she was NOTHING like that at all. She was VERY serious about that adoption but of course my mother, although complimented, said that she would keep her youngest for life. Incongruously, because I left home at such a young age and did not return to Cape Town until I was almost 13 years old, I knew Ms. Broderick better than my own mother. As you might have read in either one of my books (My new one called WHATS IT ALL ABOUT, SYBIL? will be out some time in March) Kay Francis portrayed my mother in two movies and in real life she closely resembled my own mother. Talk about Life being stranger than fiction!!!!!
Blessings to you and yours.