Jay Robinson made a showy, hammy debut as Caligula in CinemaScope spectacle The Robe (1953), then bounced around minor, hammy bits for the rest of his career. He plays Mr Hawkins in Coppola’s Dracula in about the same register he plays Uncle Ephram in Transylvania Twist, mugging for laughs that seldom come along. He appears as a pancake-makeup take on Bela Lugosi’s Dracula in this bizarre vehicle for the little-remembered vocal harmony foursome Bloodstone, who must have had movie ambitions. Their hit was ‘Natural High’, which isn’t on the soundtrack of this movie. Robinson grins, prances, prompts gay panic (so do several other predator characters), wears sunglasses and carries a parasol, and swishes his cape a lot – but never seems particularly evil. Indeed, he’s not the killer in the murder mystery segment.
After appearing as ‘the Sincere’, their own support group, and doing a not-bad cover of ‘Yakkety-Yak’, Bloodstone tick off their money-hungry manager (Michael Payne) by dawdling on the way to the stage and chatting about classic Hollywood, declaring they don’t want to make movies they want to live in movies. Harry Williams Jr, the hefty bass singer, gets knocked out and dreams himself and his partners – Willis Draffen Jr, Charles Love, Charles McCormick – into some imagined movieland past where they sneak aboard a train for a three-day ride to Hollywood (though they start and end the trip at LA’s art deco Union Station). Also aboard are the Count, Humphrey Bogart (Guy Marks), Clark Gable as Rhett Butler (Jay Lawrence), ‘Charlotte O’Hara’ (Phyllis Davis), Jean Harlow (New World chicks-in-chains veteran Roberta Collins), W.C. Fields (Bill Oberlin), Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald (Peter Ratray, Ann Willis), a version of Marlon Brando who changes Wolf Man-like from the Godfather to the Wild One at the Full Moon (Elliot Robins), a guy who can’t decide whether he’s doing Al Pacino or Peter Lorre (Peter Gonneau), a tap-dancing rhythm professor (Gerri Reddick) and a sheik (John Myhers) complete with harem (Tracy Reed must have been delighted to see her character name listed as ‘Stupid Bimbo’).
Fairly catchy numbers – a mix of originals (‘Train Ride’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Choo-Choo’, ‘Hooray for Romance’) and covers (‘As Time Goes By’, ‘Toot-Toot Tootsie’) – are thrown in at random to show off the skills of the four individual group members, and we can charitably assume the (many) duff gags are a tribute to the production line groaner comedies of yore. Pies are repeatedly thrown at the manager, who shows up in the dream in whiteface as martinet director Erich von Heflin – the pies frequently miss and there wasn’t time for a retake. It turns out there’s a killer on the train – and the first victims are Nelson and Jeanette, possibly because their running joke (singing at each other in their own personal snowfall) is the most irritating. Bogey deduces that the murder method was lethal underarm smell and it turns out – after Gable and Harlow are snuffed – that Brando is the culprit, though the mystery angle is dropped. The gang stay up all night puffing on a hookah, doing a very mild dope gag in a comedy that’s surprisingly clean for a 1975 film (again, trying to stay in the Hays Code spirit) and Dracula gets to tell Bogart not to bogart a joint. There’s a funeral in a western town set for Gable and Harlow with a sincere tribute to both stars from Bogart.
Another plot comes along – geriatric students Jessamine Milner and Burt Mustin have failed to raise the money to save their alma mater so ‘Ronnie the Gripper’ will have to go into acting or politics (and, who knows, might be governor or even president some day) unless Williams fights a heavyweight champ who turns out to be a gorilla (rather, a man in a gorilla suit, Whitey Hughes). Jack DeLeon does an impersonation of sportscaster Howard Cosell and Dracula nearly bites him. Then everyone goes to Wonder Studios to audition, and there’s a surprising shift into straight creepiness as the group go into a darkened soundstage and a Karloff-voiced shadowy character reveals that their fellow passengers have been converted into waxworks and now it’s their time to get the House of Wax treatment. As the wax is poured, Williams wakes up screaming and the band are persuaded to finish their show, performing ‘Money’ while dressed in spangly white tie and tails. Though it’s well in the ‘what were they thinking?’ file, it’s an amiable enough shambles. Written by Dan Gordon, whose CV runs to Tank, Passenger 57, Surf Ninjas, Wyatt Earp, The Hurricane, A Very Mary Christmas and Rambo: Last Blood (though I’ll bet he was rewritten on most of them). Directed by Charles R. Rondeau, in a rare break from episodic TV (The Munsters, Perry Mason, Batman, Bonanza, The Virginian, F Troop, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Get Smart, Mission: IMPOSSIBLE, Kojak, Wonder Woman, etc).