By Susan M. Kelly
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.
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
Chaney would assume the title role in the new film version.
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
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.
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 “Frankenstein 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
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
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Bela Lugosi Pages:
Low Budget Horror Stories by Stephen
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