Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi would work together on a total of eight movies. Their collaborations were legendary in Hollywood and are even the subject of a book written by film historian Gregory William Mank, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, with a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together. Their best two films together were The Black Cat and The Raven. Gift of Gab (1934) is an ensemble comedy with the two only appearing in cameo roles. By their fourth film, The Invisible Ray (1936), Karloff had already assumed the top role as would be prevalent in their remaining features together. Lugosi gave a great performance in Son of Frankenstein (1939) but by the following year’s Black Friday (1940), the two stars wouldn’t even share one scene together. In fact, Lugosi was relegated to only a small part in the film but that wasn’t the way it was originally planned.
Boris Karloff stars as Dr. Ernest Sovac, a famous scientist who has developed a method to replace part of a human brain with that of another. When Sovac’s friend Professor George Kinsley (Stanley Ridges, To Be or Not To Be) is injured in a car accident, Sovac uses part of the driver’s brain to save his life. However, the other man was a notorious gangster named Red Cannon (also played by Stanley Ridges) and soon Professor Kinsley begins to act like Red Cannon. Sovac decides to use this to his advantage as Red Cannon had hidden $500,000 and Sovac hopes to find the money. But there are other gangsters not far behind as the race is on to find the money.
The movie is told through flashbacks as it begins with Dr. Sovac being led down to the electric chair to die. Death plays a big part in the 70-minute flick with no less than 10 bodies by the time it wraps up. Karloff does his usual fine job as a mad scientist, a role he was perfecting at this time through a series of similar films. However, he was originally cast as George Kinsley/Red Cannon and Bela Lugosi was to be Dr. Sovac. Karloff determined that he was not suited for the dual role and opted to play the mad doctor. Unfortunately for Lugosi, their roles were not automatically switched. The decision was made to cast stage actor Stanley Ridges in the dual role, ultimately turning it into the role of his film career.
For poor Bela, his role was that of gangster Eric Marnay. Despite receiving second billing under Karloff, his role was a much smaller one. Script writer Curt Siodmak was never very fond of Lugosi as an actor, which likely led to the role of Eric Marnay never getting much screen time let alone one scene with Karloff. Lugosi was clearly wrong for the part but, as big studio roles were far and few between now for Lugosi, he never complained and did the best that he could. The most notable part of Lugosi and this film centers on a publicity stunt where Lugosi was supposedly hypnotized prior to his death scene. Sadly, much of it was either cut prior to release or not even filmed at all.
This would be the last time Karloff and Lugosi would star together in a film for Universal Studios. They would star together in two more films with Lugosi having the better role in You’ll Find Out while suffering a glorified cameo role in their final effort together, The Body Snatcher (1945). Black Friday is worth checking out but is really only an average film at best and not their best work together. It’s part of The Bela Lugosi Collection, if you can still find it, as well as the Universal Vault Series. Check out the trailer for yourself before tracking it down for your personal collection.