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By Susan M. Kelly

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Bela Lugosi 8x10 Still PhotoTrapped forever in the confines of Dracula’s voluminous cape, the great Bela Lugosi was never quite able to translate his extraordinary classical acting skills into a popular Hollywood career.  Though he achieved no small level of fame, he was constantly tripped up by typecasting and his own poor career choices, destined to remain a frustrated stage actor seeking the ultimate big screen fame.

Be’la Ferenc Dezso Blasko was born on October 20, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary to a banker father, but finance was never on the youngsters mind.  After studying at the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts, young Bela made his stage debut in 1901 as a featured juvenile.  As a young adult, he quickly built a reputation as a classical stage actor, appearing in many Shakespearean plays including Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Richard III.

He next set his sights on the screen, and before long the tall, handsome, aristocratic actor had made himself into one of Hungary’s premiere matinee idols.  WWI briefly interrupted his career, and by 1919, the political turmoil in his own country forced him to move to Germany where he appeared in several films including “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920) and “The Last of the Mohicans” (1922).

He arrived in America soon after, where he promptly found work in stage melodramas and a few movies, such as “The Silent Command” (1923).  By this time, he was appearing under his new stage name, Bela Lugosi, a nod to his birthplace.  In 1927, Lugosi assumed the title role in the Broadway production of “Dracula”.  Though his thick accent had hampered him in most roles, it proved a great asset in playing Bram Stoker’s Transylvanian count and Lugosi took the role on the road for the next two years.  He found himself out of the loop, however, when film rights to the play were sold to Universal Studios, which immediately announced that Lon Chaney would assume the title role in the new film version.

Chaney’s untimely death from cancer just months later left producers in a lurch and they offered the role to Lugosi instead.  “Dracula” (1931) launched Universal’s successful run of horror films and made Lugosi an overnight star.  His dark, sinister good looks and thick accent left audiences chilled and mesmerized.  Theaters were driven to provide smelling salts and medical services for terrified audience members, such was the impact of the film and its extraordinary star.

Though the film made Lugosi a household name, it also introduced him to the terrible world of typecasting.  The great classical actor suddenly found himself mired in a steady stream of less than stellar horror roles, and his own career choices did little to help advance his reputation.  He turned down the opportunity of playing the monster in “Frankenstein” (1931), not wanting to be disguised under complex makeup, leaving the role to Boris Karloff, who became an instant star.

Lugosi instead moved on to play a mad doctor in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and a voodoo master in “White Zombie” (both 1932).  He got occasional supporting roles in more traditional fare including “International House” (1933) and was given the chance to play an actual hero with the starring role in “The Return of Chandu” (1934).  The same year he appeared in the first of several chillers which would team him with Karloff.  “The Black Cat” saw the two horror greats squaring off in a wonderfully elegant and creepy tale of torture and revenge, which featured both actors at their best.

Despite a few minor successes, Lugosi always seemed to torpedo his own career with his inability to master the English language and his eagerness to take on roles in the cheapest of low budget films.  A rare good choice, the mad shepherd Ygor in “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), briefly restored him to prominence and he followed it with a solid turn opposite Greta Garbo in the classic “Ninotchka” in the same year.   But he continued to alternate strong supporting roles in films such as “The Wolf Man” (1941) with less than inspiring turns in forgettable films such as “Spooks Run Wild” opposite the East Side Kids.

In 1943, Lugosi finally agreed to play the Frankenstein monster in “FrankensteinBela Lugosi 8x10 Still Photo Meets the Wolf Man”.  He managed to make the most of a small role opposite Karloff in “The Body Snatcher” (1945), but he soon hit rock bottom, mired in B movie hell.  By the end of the 40’s, even the poor roles were thinning out, but he managed a wonderfully deadpan satire of his most famous role when he appeared as Dracula in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948).

The great man was on his last legs professionally with the dawn of the 50’s, reduced to personal appearance tours and caught in the throes of a terrible addiction to morphine.  In 1955, he checked himself into rehab and shortly thereafter began work on his final film appearance, in his friend Edward D. Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space”.  He died during filming and his scenes were completed by a stand in.

By the time the film was released, in 1959, he had been laid quietly to rest, dressed in the flowing cape which had become an integral part of his most famous role.  Bela Lugosi spent a lifetime struggling to be understood – both literally and creatively – yet he left behind a legacy unique in the annals of Hollywood.  It is only appropriate that he went to his grave dressed in Dracula’s cape, for he put a stamp on the role that has proven impossible to break by even the strongest of talents.  He may not have achieved the level of stardom he desired, but there is little doubt that this extraordinary man made an indelible mark on generations of film audiences…sealed, of course, with a vampire’s fangs.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Watch for her profiles in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

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