Sunday, September 25, 2011

Me and Bela

If all goes well, I might be able to add a few more photos (I'll consider myself lucky if I manage to get this on here), but here is one of the photos the Pioneer Press photographer shot of me for the upcoming article to run in the Press.  I painted that Bela Lugosi bust years ago, after buying it from a ceramic store that my sister and I used to frequent.  Somewhere packed away is a huge head of the Frankenstein Monster.  Who knew decades later that the Bela bust would come in handy?  Hopefully when the photographer works his photoshop magic they'll make the boxes in the background disappear.

It's hard not to feel bad for Bela Lugosi when you dig into the story of how Dracula flew from print to the stage and then to the silver screen.  Bela came in late to the stage production once it had reached Broadway, yet truly managed to make the role his own with a curous mixture of smouldering chill (I know, figure that one out).  He possessed the accent and the pedigree having been raised in the area not far from where the real Vlad did his thing.  He also possessed a mysterious, imperious, perhaps even dangerous, aura that helped add to the romantic mystique surrounding the character and helped make the stage production even more popular than it was.  Yet when it came time for the story to move onto the screen, he was not the first, second or even third choice for the role.  Had Lon Chaney not succumbed to cancer, we might have a completely different history.  Bela had to lobby hard to get that role and even had to agree to lower pay.  But he got it and made the most of it.  Later roles, especially later vampire roles he would play would show just what he could have done with Dracula had he been given the chance.  Was it the rather curiously conservative direction from Tod Browning that kept the movie from being so much more, or the unfortunate stroke of luck that left the project finally greenlighted just as the Great Depression was picking up steam?  Whatever it was. what we're left with in the 1931 movie is a rather constrained production of the stage play which, written more as a drawing room drama, was a rather tepid treatment of the original novel. 

Still, Lugosi would get a chance to sink his teeth into the role again in "Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein released in 1948."  It's curious to note that Lugosi was once again not the first to be considered for the role of Dracula but the fact was, so far had his career sunk by the time of production, no one in the industry knew that Lugosi was still alive.  Universal Studios had released a few more Dracula movies after the success of the 1931 movie, but none starred Lugosi whose star was on the decline (perhaps partly due to Universal throwing him over for Boris Karloff).  Cast as Dracula trying to revive the Frankenstein Monster while being hunted by Larry Talbot, the unfortunate man cursed with lycanthropy (the character made famous and played here by Lon Chaney Jr.), Lugosi gave the role of Dracula his all.  He became the scheming, deadly, power hungry vampire hinted at in the 1931 movie and end battle between Dracula and The Wolfman is classic.

Sad to think that the role that led him to world attention perhaps also helped dig the grave for his career.  Yet having only played him twice in his life, it's Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula that gave us the iconic image not only for Dracula but for vampires decades after he last portrayed the character. 

It seemed only fitting in promoting my book on vampires that I take a picture with the master.  I hope he liked the book.

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