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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Requiem for a Vampire: Remembering Bela Lugosi 65 Years After His Passing

The voice, the gestures, and those eyes. Few actors in the history of cinema are so instantly recognizable as Bela Lugosi or have had such an effect on the collective imagination. Though best known for his inescapable portrayal of Dracula on stage and screen, Lugosi’s career is long and varied. From the heights of fame on stage and screen to the lowest depths and eventual rediscovery, Lugosi’s life, career, and after-life is a fascinating journey.

Born in Lugos, Hungary (now part of Romania) on October 20, 1882, Béla Ference Dezso Blaskó was an independent, head-strong child that often clashed with his father. He left home at the age of twelve and, as a teenager, worked as a laborer of various kinds in mines and factories, as well as studying as an apprentice locksmith. At the age of twenty, he realized his true ambition as an actor with his first stage role. Under a variety of pseudonyms, eventually settling on Béla Lugossy in honor of his hometown, he appeared in many roles in Hungarian regional theater. Soon after, in order to appear more the man of the people he truly was, he changed the spelling from the aristocratic Lugossy to Lugosi.

Lugosi’s early years remain somewhat enigmatic, muddled by his self-admitted propensity for hyperbole. He often exaggerated his experiences on the Hungarian stage, claiming he was a lead actor at the National Theater and a star performer throughout his homeland. Some sleuthing by biographers, however, has shown this to not exactly be the case, but he certainly did keep busy, usually in smaller roles, at least at the National Theater. It is true that his breakthrough performance came in the role of Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on the regional stage which gained him national attention. He was also a fine singer in his youth and was often hired to perform in operettas.

When World War One broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, Lugosi enlisted in the army and served as a lieutenant in the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry in the trenches and Ski Patrol on the Russian front. He was badly injured in the Carpathian Mountains and was sent to the hospital for recovery. He left the military in April of 1916 and resumed his acting career. His first role following his service was as Jesus Christ for Easter performances of The Passion that year in the town of Debrecen before returning to the National Theater.

On June 25, 1917, the 34-year-old Bela married the woman he would apparently (even according to future spouses) love for the rest of his life, Ilona “Baby” Szmik, very much against her parents’ wishes. But the two were very much in love as Bela continued following his acting dreams into the burgeoning Hungarian film industry. Lugosi made several films in Hungary, often as a leading man, though he was still only landing small roles on stage. Among the directors he worked with were the prolific Alfred Deesy and Mihály Kertész, who would modify his name after his move to Hollywood to Michael Curtiz, the acclaimed director of many classics including Casablanca (1942). 

It was also during this period that Lugosi became active in politics, helping to establish the Free Organization of Theater Employees, Hungary’s first actor’s union in 1918. This was during a period of political upheaval in the nation as several regimes of various stripes gained and lost power over the course of a few years. A failed communist revolution was met with a counterrevolution. Fearing for his life due to his involvement with leftist politics, Lugosi fled to Austria along with his wife. During the hardships of this period and under pressure from her father, Ilona left Bela and returned to Budapest, filing for divorce soon after. Bela, surely heartbroken by this and unable to find acting work in Vienna, moved to Germany where he began playing lead roles in films almost immediately. Despite this success, Lugosi had his sights set on America and at the age of thirty-eight made his way across the Atlantic, departing from Italy to New Orleans on a cargo ship. He soon made his way to New York. On March 23, 1921, he filed his official immigration paperwork on Ellis Island. 

‘White Zombie’

At this time, he spoke no English but began to seek work as an actor in small theaters that presented plays in his native language. In 1922 he was asked to play a role in an off-Broadway play titled The Red Poppy. He confessed (speaking German, which the theatrical manager also spoke) that he did not know English but pleaded that he be given a chance to learn the part. As with several early roles, he learned it phonetically. The role turned out to be a breakthrough for Lugosi, opening doors both on stage and on screen. He made his American film debut in 1923’s The Silent Command for Fox studios, filmed in New York, playing the lead villain as would become the trend for him. During this time, he also married his second wife, Viennese actress Ilona Montagh de Nagybanyhegyes. The marriage was brief, lasting only a few months.

He continued to work as often as possible, taking whatever roles he was offered as would be his habit throughout most of his career. He appeared both in studio productions and so-called “poverty row” pictures as well as stage roles of various kinds. His big break came in 1927 when he was asked to play the title role in the American version of a play that had been a great success in England—Dracula. By this time, Lugosi apparently had a reasonable grasp of the English language, but not a full understanding of its nuances. He had the play translated into Hungarian to explore the full meaning and then learned the part in English based on that understanding. The play was a massive hit and Lugosi the talk of the town.

When the play closed on Broadway, he continued to tour with it to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it also received great acclaim, as did Lugosi. It was during a performance in L.A. that he caught the attention of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Clara Bow, and the two began a highly publicized affair. He had a nude painting of her commissioned, which he kept hung above his bed until the day he died, something his later wives simply accepted as a remembrance of his wild early years in America. After (or perhaps even before) the affair with Bow ended, Lugosi married San Francisco socialite Beatrice Woodruff Weeks. The marriage lasted only four days as it quickly became clear that the two were completely incompatible. 

Lugosi quickly returned to his career. While in Los Angeles, he began shooting films in Hollywood, usually in small parts and exotic villain roles, including The Thirteenth Chair (1929) directed by Tod Browning, the man who would eventually direct Lugosi twice more.

The success of the stage version of Dracula meant it was only a matter of time before a film version would be made. Lugosi began to lobby fiercely for the role, but Carl Laemmle, Jr., the newly appointed head of Universal Studios, was not eager to cast him because he was not a well-known film actor. To remedy this, Lugosi began to take any movie roles he was offered, usually as the screen heavy. This was not always a fruitless enterprise as he played several memorable parts in early talkies including a sheik in Victor Fleming’s Renegades (1930), a role that gained him considerable attention. Eventually, after all his other options were exhausted, Laemmle relented and gave the role of Dracula, which Lugosi had so excelled in on the stage, to him. But because of Lugosi’s clear desperation for the role, he was paid the paltry sum of $500 a week compared to the $2,000 a week that the rather bland David Manners received for his role as Jonathan Harker. All told, Lugosi was paid $3,500 for the performance that saved Universal from bankruptcy in 1931 and continues to make money to this very day.

After shooting Dracula, Lugosi returned to taking whatever roles he was offered. More often than not, these were supporting or even bit parts, including an uncredited role in Raul Walsh’s self-proclaimed “turkey” Women of All Nations, the early Charlie Chan feature The Black Camel, and Mervyn LeRoy’s comedy Broadminded. But as receipts for Dracula began to roll in, Laemmle had hopes to fashion Lugosi into the next “Man of a Thousand Faces.” Though Lugosi was a compelling screen presence and a gifted actor, he was not the chameleon that Lon Chaney was. He was also not particularly interested in being typecast in “monster” roles. When Lugosi’s name was first attached to Frankenstein, he and many others assumed that he would be playing Dr. Frankenstein, a role he may well have excelled in, but Laemmle insisted that his new horror star play the monster.

There are several accounts of Lugosi’s screen test as the monster and all of them are contradictory. What we know for sure is that a test did happen, and Lugosi was in some form of monster makeup. Some accounts say that this makeup was an absurd getup with a broad wig and claylike features, something akin to the look of The Golem of the 1920 German film. Others claim it was an early version of what was eventually worn by Boris Karloff in the final film. Whatever the case, Laemmle was apparently happy with the test and went ahead with his plans. The problems was that Lugosi was not particularly interested in playing the silent, grunting and lumbering role of the script. This was apparently fine with newly hired director (replacing Robert Florey) James Whale who wanted a relative unknown to play the monster. The rest, as they say, is film history.

‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’

Contrary to popular belief, the loss of the role of the monster was not the death knell for Lugosi’s career. He was still highly regarded at Universal, and plans went forward for him to make another film he had been slated for, Murders in the Rue Morgue. Unfortunately, the film did not do well critically or at the box office, though it is now considered a minor classic, and the studio decided not to extend his contract. This turned out to be a mixed blessing as it meant no guarantees of roles or salary, but it also made him a free agent, giving him the opportunity to explore various roles, some for the majors (including Universal) and many others for independent and poverty row studios.

In these early years after Dracula, several of these films were quite good, with Lugosi giving extremely memorable, even iconic performances. One of the best of these was as Legendre in White Zombie, a role practically tailor made for his skills. He also played the supporting, but vital role of Sayer, the leader of the beast-men in Island of Lost Souls, the first and best film version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. He also appeared in Chandu: The Magician, The Death Kiss, and the W.C. Fields vehicle International House along with several other films and serials in 1932-33. 

On January 31, 1933, when Lugosi was fifty, he married twenty-one-year-old Lillian Arch. Despite Lugosi’s matrimonial track record and the large age difference, this marriage would last, at least for many years. In 1938, Lillian gave birth to their only child, Bela George Lugosi. The younger Lugosi always spoke highly of his father saying he was a very attentive family man when they were together. Lugosi instilled in his son his values of hard and passionate work, discipline, and a love for creativity and the arts.

Soon, Lugosi’s fortunes at Universal were reconsidered for a team-up with their other major horror star Boris Karloff, to whom the mantle of “the next Lon Chaney” had been passed. In the first of these collaborations, The Black Cat (1934), Lugosi could even be considered the lead and received equal billing with Karloff. This extremely dark and stylish film was followed by another Poe adaptation (though once again a very loose one), The Raven (1935). By the time they made The Invisible Ray in 1936, Karloff’s star had all but eclipsed Lugosi’s. This led to rumors of a feud between the two actors, which the studio’s publicity department did nothing to discourage. According to both Sara Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Jr., however, there was really nothing to these rumors. “My father spoke of Boris Karloff from time to time,” the younger Lugosi said in interviews, “but I never heard him say anything bad about Boris Karloff.”

These were fruitful and successful years for the actor and, in many ways, the height of his career. In 1935, Lugosi starred for his The Thirteenth Chair and Dracula director Tod Browning in a remake of the lost Lon Chaney film London After Midnight. Titled Mark of the Vampire, Lugosi played a character very much like Dracula in demeanor and in attire. In 1939, he played a high-profile non-horror role in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy Ninotchka alongside the great Greta Garbo. That same year he would team up with Karloff once again in Son of Frankenstein to play his second favorite screen role as Ygor, the broken-necked grave robber bent on revenge against those who hanged him. He would play the role again in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) which climaxes with his brain being transplanted into the body of the monster, this time played by Lon Chaney, Jr. 

‘Son of Frankenstein’

It was only natural that Lugosi finally play the role he so famously rejected years before in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Originally intended to be played as Ygor in the monster’s body, Lugosi was apparently happy to play the role. Unfortunately, references to the monster being blinded were removed and his dialogue cut, making Lugosi’s performance of the monster look like the stumbling buffoon he originally feared the character would be. This spelled the beginning of the long decline in Lugosi’s fortunes. He began to rely more and more on bit parts in major productions and roles in poverty row features of varying quality. As it had with Karloff, playing the monster also took a physical toll, ailing Lugosi with chronic back and leg pain that would soon lead to an addiction to prescription painkillers.

Far too old to fight in World War II, Lugosi did what he could for the war effort. He made many public appearances for the USO and selling war bonds. He also made a public service film encouraging, naturally as America’s iconic vampire, blood donation in a tongue-in-cheek newsreel that depicted the actor giving blood and enjoying his post-donation snack.

During the war years Lugosi began to make more and more extremely low budget films for the poverty row studios including The Corpse Vanishes (1942), Return of the Vampire (1943-a very clear Dracula rip-off), The Ape Man (1943), and Voodoo Man (1944). In 1945, he appeared with Karloff for the last time in the Val Lewton produced shocker The Body Snatcher in which he is rather symbolically killed off by Karloff’s character. Toward the end of the war, the public taste for the classic monsters had waned. Very visible horrors of the real world experienced during the war made them seem quaint, and they were reduced to the “monster-mash” films House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) before they began meeting Abbott and Costello. The first of these was the landmark horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). The film marked only the second and final time that Lugosi would officially play Dracula on screen. It also marked the last time he would appear in a film for a major studio. 

To make ends meet, and just barely at that, Lugosi appeared on stage in revivals of Dracula and whatever films came his way. Eventually, he was hired by Edward D. Wood, Jr., sometimes called “the worst director of all time.” Though his films are considered cult classics now, they were critical and financial disasters at the time. Bela Lugosi, Jr. tried to take a balanced view of his father’s involvement in Wood’s films by saying, “the movies that he [Wood] put my father in were terrible and I’m sorry to see him in those kinds of movies. But looking at it from my dad’s point of view—he was working. Ed Wood gave him something to do, which was really very important to him.” 

During this time, Lugosi’s drug habit became unbearable for Lillian, and she divorced him in 1954. Though she had tried to help him with this problem, it simply became too much, and she could no longer deal with it. In 1955, Lugosi committed himself to a state hospital for drug treatment. At the age of 72, he became the first Hollywood star to go public with his drug problem and rehabilitation. Upon leaving the hospital he told a reporter he had, “a new lease on life. I’m cured.” Soon after, he married Hope Linninger who had been a fan and wrote him regularly during his hospital stay. The marriage was very brief as Lugosi passed away at home in his bed on August 16, 1956.

He had expressed to friends and family that he wished to be buried in one of his Dracula capes. They took it one step further and buried him in full vampire regalia: tuxedo, medallion, and satin-lined black cape. Bela Lugosi carried Dracula with him for so much of his life, sometimes to his chagrin. He had clearly made peace with the role for which he would be most remembered by the time he was laid to rest. In the sixty-five years since his passing, Lugosi has had a great resurrection to become one of the truly monumental figures in horror. His fans worldwide revel in his greatest roles and have come to appreciate the passion he infused even into the worst of films. No matter the studio, no matter the film, no matter the role, Bela Lugosi always gave everything he had to it. He is now and will surely continue to be through ages to come, one of the true greats and an icon of icons.

‘The Body Snatcher’


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