My editor actually wanted me to cut this entry from the book (I did manage to put it in the chapters on Scary Vampires. It was a request I couldn't honor (it's freakin' Bela Lugosi, for crying out loud). Though in some respects, the request is in keeping with the life that was Bela Lugosi's. He would touch the tiniest corner of fame, and then have it pulled away from him whether through his actions, through timing, or through circumstances.
5. The Star
|The iconic look|
What was it about Lugosi? Was it the regal bearing every bit the bearing of a count? Was it the strange cadence to his speech as he wrestled with words so foreign to him? Whatever it was, Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula left an indelible imprint on the film going psyche and remains the archetype for the vampire decades after his performance. It seems amazing that the studio considered several other actors for the role before at last giving it to Lugosi, the man who played it so successfully on Broadway. He wore the role like a well tailored suit though in the end, the suit would be in tatters.
|A young Bela Lugosi|
Born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko Oct. 20, 1882 in Hungary (not far from Transylvania) he would eventually take as a stage name a version of his home town’s name Lugos. His father was a banker and the Blasko children were expected to enter respectable careers as well. His siblings did. He couldn’t. Perhaps he had too much of the adventurer about him. Eventually he ran away to escape his father’s ruling ways. In 1913, he joined the National Theatre Company, after finding work in the back of a chorus with the Szeged theater and plenty of manual labor before that.
He was not a timid man. In 1914 he enlisted in the army to fight in the Great War. Once, while under fire from Russians, he left the tree he was using as cover to help a wounded comrade and then returned only to find that the tree had been blown away by a mortar in his absence. After his discharge he went back to the National Theatre Company and was eventually talked into Hungarian cinema by a friend. It was around this time that he became very political, trying to create a National Trade Union of Actors among theater and cinema actors; as well as writing politically orientated articles for trade journals. Decades later, he would be instrumental in forming such a union in Hollywood, though then, he did so anonymously perhaps remembering the turbulent time in Hungary. He backed the wrong horse politically and when Bela Kun’s communist regime fell, Lugosi was one of the many people fleeing from the wrath of the new government. He fled to Vienna and eventually to Germany where he found work in cinema there. In a curious coincidence, one of the people he found work with was F.W. Murnau, director of that other movie. Eventually, however, he found himself drawn to the United States and landed in New Orleans after an uncertain voyage across the ocean on a ship where the crew wasn’t exactly fond of his politics. He found his way to New York, immersed himself in the Hungarian community, and eventually found his way on the stage.
His uncertainty with the English language has been given as one reason for his inability to find work. And it’s true that in the beginning he had to learn his part phonetically. But while he wasn’t a formally educated man, he was self-educated; a voracious reader who craved knowledge, perusing several periodicals daily, Hungarian and English. And he even sculpted the likeness of his own head that would appear in the 1932 play “Murdered Alive” that he starred in.
It’s possible that he would have had a more successful career had he stayed and made films in Germany. In Europe, as he explained once, an actor was expected to play a variety of rolls and play them well. In the U.S., the audience wanted to see the same thing over and over. He often bemoaned his reputation as a bogeyman, but it paid the bills.
Dracula was a part that he lobbied for hard when the movie was being planned, even going so far as to contact Florence Stoker to help obtain the rights (his lobbying would eventually work against him with Universal executives who smelled his desperation and weren’t afraid to play off it). One can understand; he did after all perfect it on Broadway. The very traits that made him perfect for the role of Dracula, however, may have spoiled for him others. The distinct features, the mesmerizing stare, the thick accent; once that was associated with Dracula it was hard for audiences to see him for anything other than Dracula, or the characters of horror he would be compelled by financial need to return to throughout his life. Perhaps if the follow up movie he made to Dracula had been better, he might have been able to deter the typecasting. “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” based loosely on the Edgar Allen Poe tale, was given to director Robert Florey who had been scheduled to direct “Frankenstein” before it was given to James Whale. Lugosi played Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist using virgins in an attempt to create a creature that he could breed with his ape Erik. While Lugosi’s performance was suitably unnerving, the movie itself left much to be desired thanks to some injudicious cutting.
After that he would be plagued by having to compromise, as he did when having to take $500 a week to star in Dracula. Money did not sit comfortably in Lugosi’s pocket. He was very much a man who lived for today and was also guilty of giving away money to people who needed it. Yet, fortune seemed always against him. He worked for a studio that changed hands in 1936 and the new owners were only interested in what they could get from his decreasing king of horror image. As his money troubles deepened, Universal would continue to take advantage of him and he would often work in outside, low budget productions that cemented his image further. When given something to sink his teeth into, he was perfectly up to the task as he did in the small budget “White Zombies.”
|(L to R) Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi|
In his movies with Boris Karloff he was more than capable of holding his own and the common belief is that he stole the movie from him when he appeared as Ygor in “Son of Frankenstein” a role that was originally much smaller but grew as filming went on. Later he would play a notable yet small role in the Greta Garbo film “Ninotchka” which the actor hoped would prove that he could play something other than horror.
His worsening finances though left him taking whatever roles that he could. He was an actor after all, this was his craft. But he had been a star, and that’s what people were seeing; a fading star, taking whatever roles would pay the bills. And very often, they didn’t. In 1936 a ban on horror movies in Britain encouraged Universal to take them off their shooting schedule, leaving even less productions that would be open to Lugosi. When Bela Lugosi, Jr. was born in 1938, with no work coming in, Lugosi was left turning to Actor’s Relief to help pay the hospital bills. When a re-issuing to theaters of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” resuscitated the horror market, the five-year deal he inked with Universal allowed him to buy back his beloved dogs after poor finances forced him to give them away. It brought him films, like “Ninotchka” but horror crept back in “Ghost of Frankenstein” where he reprised his role of Ygor to Lon Chaney, Jr.’s monster (Karloff had give up the role by this time); and in “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” he donned the make-up he refused over a decade before and at last played the Monster.
|Abbott and Costello meet Universal Studio's big three monsters|
Throughout his career, he spoke hopefully of making the transition to other roles but that reality seemed to slip further away from him. Back on the stage he saw some success replacing Karloff in the play “Arsenic and Old Lace” (many say his performance was better than Karloff’s). He reprised the role of Dracula in the film “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” a film and his performance that was well received with critics and audiences. As the years went by, however, his body of work seemed heavy with forgettable movies like “Scared to Death,” “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” (a film he agreed to do to collect passage fare back from England) and “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.” It was in the 1950s that he met Ed Wood, a huge fan of Lugosi’s who tried to help him launch his career in earnest but poorly made films that Wood directed. It didn’t help.
In 1955, Lugosi entered rehab for a drug addiction that started during his days with Universal. Divorced from his fourth wife, he was living in an apartment and relying on the charity of friends to get him through. Upon leaving rehab three months later, he spoke glowingly of his plans to star in “The Ghoul Goes West” to be directed by Ed Wood. And in an effort to help people appreciate the danger of drug addiction, he starred in “The Devil’s Paradise,” a show that ran in a little theater in Hollywood. The “Ghoul” film never saw the light of day and on Aug. 16, 1956, he was found dead by his fifth wife. Lugosi made what he could with his career and the chances he was given. In the end, that might be all that anyone can say about their life.