Of all the stars who inhabited the shadowy world of the horror film, none possessed the unique and individual personality of Bela Lugosi. His piercing eyes, hawk-like profile, Old World manner and distinct accent (a useful ploy in comic routines) haunted moviegoers long after a movie plot had faded from mind. Like Karloff to Frankenstein, Lugosi has been universally identified with Dracula since his portrayal of the Bram Stoker vampire for motion picture audiences in 1931. Lugosi's success as the evil Count brought him instant fame but obliterated his prior respectable stage reputation in Hungary as an actor of classical and romantic characterizations, leaving him typecast in the-well-known vampire and horror roles until his death.
In addition to Lugosi's identification with the elegant blood-sucking Count Dracula, he also created the memorable "Ygor" in the Frankenstein series for Universal and co-starred with his film contemporary, Boris Karloff, in a series of chillers (mostly for Universal) during the '30s and '40s. Except for comedy teams, Karloff and Lugosi were the only co-starring duo to rate screen recognition from surnames only.
Unlike Lon Chaney Sr. or Karloff, Lugosi's screen image was unquestionably malevolent. His dark personality tainted even non-villain roles in The Black Cat (1934) and The Invisible Ray (1936). Lugosi and Karloff began their careers together in 1931, and although Lugosi's films eventually grew erratic in quality, his characterizations of an oriental madman, monster, sinister butler, or mad scientist were always vital and convincing. Even in the lampoon film, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), his performance was passionate and sincere. Lugosi's major film work was largely ignored by critics and intellectuals during his lifetime. But with the contemporary emergence of the horror film as an art form, Lugosi's contribution has been acknowledged by film scholars. Lugosi's unique representation of Dracula continues to influence stage and screen images of all vampire roles as a true screen original.
In private, the terrifying actor was a quiet, soft-spoken man, fond of good cigars, who expressed a longing to play comedy roles and wept unashamedly at the folk melodies of his native Hungary. His friends and co-workers found him an entertaining cornpanion and gracious host. Lugosi's natural tenderness was so pronounced that when his favorite dog--a black Alaskan husky--died, he was unable to work for days. Acutely sensitive of his "rags to riches" good fortune, he was generous to those less well blessed, whether fellow actors or virtual strangers. Though at heart always Hungarian, Lugosi was proud of being accepted as a citizen in his adopted country of America.
The man destined to die continually on screen was born Bela Blasko on October 20, 1882 in Lugos, a small town in southern Hungary, at that time, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As a result of two World Wars, the town and surrounding countryside became annexed to Romania. Ironically, Lugosi's birthplace is less than fifty miles from Transylvania, the legendary countryside immortalized by Bram Stoker and Hollywood as the mist-shrouded habitat of vampires. During the filming of Dracula, Universal's publicity department elaborated on this coincidence and invented the myth that Lugosi's father was a baron descended from noblemen who owned vast land holdings surrounding his native home of Lugos.
The film was successful beyond the studio's anticipations. Lugosi's vampire creation, with hypnotic eyes, thick foreign accent and elegant evening clothes set the mold for all future vampire representations. Dracula injected life into the horror film, becoming the most important film Universal made during this time and marking the crucial turning point in Lugosi's career. He shot to immediate stardom, and was the prototype for all Draculas to come. Universal believed they had found a successor to Lon Chaney and Lugosi was signed to a two-picture contract. The studio announced that he would star in Frankenstein and Murders in the Rue Morgue. They considered starring Lugosi in a talkie remake of Chaney's classic Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Then Lugosi accepted an offer from the Halperin Brothers, who had been making independent films for a decade, to star in White Zombie. Lugosi played a demonic voodoo sorcerer called Murder Legendre, who exhumes dead bodies to work his sugar cane mills in Haiti. During the '40s, the actor signed a contract with Universal and The Black Cat marked Lugosi's first historic teaming with his rival, Boris Karloff. Lugosi and Karloff were united in seven films until the mid-forties, including The Raven and The Invisible Ray.
From 1940 on, Lugosi seesawed between Universal and independent studios, mostly represented by Sam Katzman's unit at Monogram. Lugosi's first film was The Invisible Ghost, while at Universal his important roles were linked with the youthful Lon Chaney Jr., The Wolf Man, Ghost of Frankenstein, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
Following the end of World War II, Hollywood tapered off the production of horror films. In late 1947, Universal attempted to rejuvinate the careers of Abbott and Costello by pitting them against the studio's monsters--Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A box office success, the film marked not only Lugosi's final screen appearance as Dracula, but the end of the Frankenstein series. An era in film history had ended.
Lugosi's talents were not ignored by the independent film producers. He appeared as a spirit/mystic in the sex-change eploitation film Glen or Glenda? by Ed Wood Jr. Shortly after, Lugosi was added to an all-star cast containing Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine in United Artist's The Black Sleep, but he was soon involved in another low-budget production by Wood titled Plan 9 From Outer Space. A week after filming began, Lugosi died of a heart attack in his small apartment on August 16, 1956 while reading the script for his next film.
Though Lugosi did not live to see his career immortalized, the continuing revival of his films in television and film societies has left a fascinating legacy of bizarre characterizations, proving his uncommon talent, often overlooked by Hollywood.
--RICHARD BOJARSKI, from
The Films of Bela Lugosi.
A selection of Bela Lugosi films.
Find Bela Lugosi on eBay.com
A selection of Bela Lugosi in books.
A History of Horror
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