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Starring Bela Lugosi
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Starring Bela Lugosi - 1/22

At the 1995 Academy Awards ceremony, Martin Landau won an Oscar® as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood (1994). Landau was the first actor to win an Academy Award for portraying another film actor; the subject of his performance, Bela Lugosi, certainly had a dramatic arc to his life and career. His macabre appearance, strikingly theatrical performance style and rich Hungarian accent made him the very incarnation of evil in scores of horror films from the early sound era through the mid-1950s.

Lugosi was already 48 years old and many years into his acting career by the time he played the film role that would make him world famous - Dracula (1931). The actor was born in Lugos, Hungary on October 20, 1882; his full name was Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko. He began performing on the Hungarian stage in 1902, borrowing the name of his birthplace as his stage name, calling himself Bela Lugossy. He took on roles both large and small, eventually becoming a member of the National Theatre of Hungary. He made his film debut in 1917 but left Hungary in 1919, following the Hungarian Soviet Republic's collapse, to avoid political entanglements due to his efforts to form an actor's union. In Post-WWI Germany Lugosi appeared in several films in progressively larger roles, following which he immigrated to the United States, in 1921. He could not speak English, but he formed a stock company to play to Hungarian-American audiences. He gradually began performing parts in English, speaking the language phonetically. In a sign of things to come, he played a villain in his first American film, The Silent Command (1923). Lugosi continued with his stage work and in 1927 scored the lead role in John Balderston's Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker's vampire novel, Dracula. In spite of this leading man status on stage, Lugosi continued to play supporting roles in films, such as a police inspector in the whodunit The Thirteenth Chair (1929), directed by Tod Browning. Browning landed the directing assignment for the film version of Dracula, but the brass at Universal had to be convinced to take Lugosi for the role of the Count. Lugosi was so anxious to get the part, he accepted a paltry salary of $500 a week. (Underselling his talents became a chronic problem. Lugosi performed in the independent feature White Zombie (1932) for the grand total of 800 dollars).

James Whale passed on casting Lugosi as the monster in Universal's Frankenstein (1931), although Lugosi had filmed a make-up test with a previous director. Boris Karloff was cast in the role, and Universal subsequently put their publicity power behind Karloff. Lugosi nevertheless appeared in several memorable films for a variety of studios in the early 1930s, including the independent production White Zombie, Island of Lost Souls (1933) at Paramount, Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) opposite Karloff at Universal, and Browning's Mark of the Vampire (1935) at MGM. Lugosi, though, had met his industry nemesis - typecasting. He realized the situation as early as 1934, just three years after the release of Dracula, when "I discovered that every producer in Hollywood had definitely set me down as a 'type' - an actor of this particular kind of role. Considering that before Dracula I had never, in a long and varied career on the stage of two continents, played anything but leads and straight characters, I was both amused and bitterly disappointed."

No doubt part of Lugosi's predicament was of his own doing. He rather stubbornly retained his thick Hungarian accent throughout his career. As Arthur Lennig wrote in his biography, The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi, "Yes, it is Hungarian, but it is also Lugosian. In the odd way his lips and jaw muscles function, he seems to speak with great effort, as if forcing a mouth long dead to move again. His consonants are stressed, and the vowels are heavy and drawn out. The above phrase, 'forcing a mouth long dead,' becomes 'forse-sink a mau-ith longk deadt.' The overall effect is guttural, strong, and somehow the very embodiment of evil..."

Lugosi's supporting role as the Commissar in the Greta Garbo film Ninotchka (1939) showed that he could act outside the horror and mystery genres, but following an unforgettable character role as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939), Lugosi settled into a long string of killer and mad doctor parts in films from Poverty Row studios such as Monogram and PRC. Such titles as The Devil Bat (1940), The Ape Man (1943), and Voodoo Man (1941) hint at the blur of quickies made during this period. Lugosi nonetheless gave it his all in these as well as bogeyman roles in such drab comedies as Ghosts on the Loose (1943) with the Bowery Boys, The Gorilla (1939) with the Ritz Brothers, and Zombies on Broadway (1945) with RKO comedy team Brown and Carney.

Beginning around 1943, Lugosi was treated by doctors for constant pain in his sciatic nerve; he was given morphine, and began an addiction to the drug that would last for several years. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was a wonderful farce in which the comedy arose from the comedians' reactions to the monsters populating the film - Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein's monster were treated seriously within the framework of the comedy. The film marked the second and last time that Lugosi played Count Dracula (he was passed over for John Carradine in two previous monster outings). Lugosi and his agent had to lobby hard for the part - it would prove to be the 65-year-old actor's last film for a major studio.

When motion picture work was lean in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lugosi took to the stage in touring productions of Dracula and, ironically, of Arsenic and Old Lace, the black comedy most closely associated with Lugosi's rival, Boris Karloff. These roaming stage productions were low-paying, slipshod affairs, usually mounted in small towns. The appearances must have seemed like the height of prestige compared to the downright odd movies that Lugosi appeared in during the 1950s. They included Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), a British comedy made following a tour of Great Britain in the Dracula stage show; Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), starring a couple of Martin and Lewis imitators; and Glen or Glenda (1953), the notorious transvestite semi-documentary directed by long-time Lugosi fan and friend, Edward D. Wood, Jr. The latter two films are often revived today as "camp" classics, thanks to their entertaining level of awfulness.

Following his energetic role as Dr. Eric Vornoff in Wood's Bride of the Monster (1955), Lugosi found himself broke and needing medical care. He stayed for a few weeks at the Motion Picture Country House Hospital, but was informed that he couldn't remain because he hadn't worked on a union picture within the previous five years. With no other choice, Lugosi checked himself into the Los Angeles General Hospital for drug detoxification. His emergence was widely reported in the press, a precursor to the many celebrity "rehab" stories that are common today. Lugosi made only one film after his release, though he was too ill to speak - he played a mute servant in the shockfest The Black Sleep (1956). Lugosi died at the age of 73 on August 16, 1956, and was buried in one of the many Dracula capes fashioned for his later stage performances. Fate would have one more indignity in store for Lugosi: Ed Wood had shot some miscellaneous scenes of the actor just before his passing, emoting in front of Tor Johnson's house for some unrealized Wood project. The director cut this footage into an unrelated film he made a few years later, the notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Just as this film cemented Wood's reputation as "worst director" of all time, it also illustrated the depths to which the former romantic Hungarian actor had fallen from a career high almost 30 years earlier.

Unfortunately, Lugosi died just shy of the late-1950s resurgence of interest in the classic horror movies. In 1957, Universal released a package of its 1930s and 1940s horror films to television in a syndicated package called "Shock Theater." The movies were shown on local stations throughout the United States in late show time slots, and, significantly, in Saturday afternoon time slots, when children would tune in. A new generation of kids discovered these films, and the interest spawned Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in 1958, and from there, a slew of monster merchandise and a "monster craze" that lasted through the 1960s. Lugosi's face was on magazine covers, model kits, paint-by-numbers sets, puzzles, games, gum cards, and more. This was significant because to depict Frankenstein's monster or the Wolfman, the merchandise did not necessarily need to depict Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney, Jr. To depict Dracula, however, Universal had to use Lugosi's image. This did not go unnoticed by the Lugosi family, who successfully sued to retain the right to market that image themselves.

Although Lugosi might have enjoyed a film career as prestigious as Lon Chaney's or even Karloff's - he missed his opportunity due to his indiscriminate selection of film roles - the fact is that Lugosi remains eminently watchable; he is often the only reason to view some of the films in which he appears. As Lugosi biographer Lennig wrote, "it is a tribute to [Lugosi's] talent that he made his roles as palatable as they are. If Lugosi chewed the scenery at times, he chewed with grandiose vigor - and often that chewing provides our only nourishment. This much can be said: he was never bland." Thanks to the popularity of his films (both the good ones and many of the bad ones), and to the continued merchandising of his Dracula image, Bela Lugosi remains one of the most visible and recognized film stars from any era.

by John M. Miller

* Titles in bold air on TCM in January

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