Monday, October 12, 2009

Halloween Monster Memories: The Other Faces of Bela Lugosi

The slicked-back black hair; the aristocratic bearing; the pointed, slightly raptor-like nose; the dark, glittering, hypnotic eyes. Is it any wonder that when Bela Lugosi intoned his first screen line, "I am...Dracula," that audiences then and forever after believed him? That god-like, he spoke, and the word was made flesh?

Bela Lugosi was nearly fifty years old when he stepped in front of the cameras to perform the role that would forever define his cinematic identity, and had already seen more hardship, adventure, and professional success in his life than most people could even dream of. He was a successful stage actor in his home country of Hungary (he claimed to have been the leading actor in Hungary's Royal National Theater, though some biographers cast doubt on this claim). He was a decorated veteran of World War I, and afterward attained the rank of Captain in the Austro-Hungarian Army's ski patrol. He had fled his home country after finding himself, as he said, "on the wrong side of the Revolution" in 1919. Eventually he sailed on a merchant ship to the United States, landing not in New York but in New Orleans (how cool is that?) and there continued his acting career on stage, in the role of Count Dracula. [wikipedia]

Another brief primer for those who might be unaccountably uneducated in Lugosi-lore: When silent horror legend Lon Chaney Sr. was forced to decline the role of the vampire count in Tod Browning's version of the Hamilton Deane stage play (NOT the Stoker novel, as should be clear to anyone who's read it), Universal's producers brought in Lugosi, who had been getting rave reviews on Broadway in the same role. (Legend has it that Lugosi, whose English was severely limited, learned his lines phonetically, resulting in his trademark strange, hypnotic cadence.) The runaway success of the 1931 film cemented Lugosi as a star in Hollywood and also kick-started the Universal Horror cycle that brought us Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and all the rest.

As most old school horror fans know, though, the success also became Lugosi's curse. A talented actor who, like all artists, wanted to practice his craft to the length and breadth of his abilities, Lugosi found himself locked into the Dracula role, permanently identified with the part that made him famous in America. Though he played many other types of characters in his career, eventually all the studio wanted from him was the sneering, aristocratic villain, who if he wasn't an actual vampire, really might as well have been. When non-Dracular roles dried up, the typecast Lugosi fell into z-grade programmers to support his ultimately fatal morphine addiction.

Going back and looking at some of the roles Lugosi played before age, typecasting, and his famous addiction to morphine brought him down, one can't help but marvel at what was lost by the producers' and directors' lack of imagination. So in the interest of redressing what wrongs I can, and further educating those who might know Bela only in his cape and tux, I thought I'd take a little time to celebrate some of the Other Faces of Bela Lugosi.

Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre in White Zombie (1932)

Legendre and one of his minions.
(thanks to The Lugosi Collection)

First of all, let that character name roll off your tongue for a minute. Has there ever been a better voodoo master name than "Murder Legendre"? If there has, I haven't heard it. A year after the success of Dracula, the Halperin Brothers Productions (though filmed entirely on the Universal Studio lots, it was not technically a Universal film) went into production with this atmospheric tale about Charles Beaumont, a plantation owner in Haiti whose lust for his friend's fiance leads him to ask Murder Legendre, local voodoo master who's providing undead labor for Beaumont's sugar plantation, to turn the girl into his necro-love slave. This works about as well as you'd expect. I think this is a great creepy pre-brain-eating zombie flick (arguably the first zombie movie ever), and Lugosi, while slightly Dracula-like here, seems to me less aristocratic, more savage in a way, and extremely powerful and dangerous. He uses his famous miming skills to great effect too, clasping his hands to focus control over his undead hordes.

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Mirakle in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Mirakle in a strikingly similar pose with his simian servant.
(thanks to

That same year, Lugosi got to play one of his first mad scientist roles as the xenophilic cross-breeder Dr. Mirakle, obsessed with mixing the blood of human women with that of his monstrous pet ape. Obviously the movie had little to do with the Edgar Allen Poe story on which it was purportedly based (did Universal ever do a straight Poe adaptation?), but his wild look and unhinged manner here show what he could do with such a role. He would revisit the mad scientist schtick several times in his career, though often as the suave, sophisticated, very Dracula-like researcher (discounting the Ed Wood flicks at the end of his career, like the infamous Bride of the Monster--though his energy and commitment to the role even in that flick are compelling, especially given his frail physical state).

Lugosi vs. Karloff

It's perhaps ironic that the actor who gained the most from Lugosi's success as Dracula was not really Lugosi himself, but his fellow fright legend Boris Karloff. I hope everyone knows the story: flush with his success and newfound stardom, Lugosi was offered the role of the Monster in Universal's literary horror follow-up, Frankenstein, but famously turned it down because he didn't fancy being obscured by heavy makeup and having no speaking lines. The relatively unknown Karloff got the gig instead, and went on to have a career full of great performances in the types of broad-ranging roles Lugosi would later long for fruitlessly. Lugosi finally got his turn at playing the monster in 1943's Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, but by then it was too late. Besides, he couldn't match Karloff's pathos or physicality in the actor's trademark role, any more than Karloff could have pulled off the Hungarian count. Being matched against the much more physically imposing Lon Chaney Jr. didn't help matters any--especially since Lugosi was over 60!

Lugosi as the Monster
(thanks to Cinematical)

But the two men's careers crossed over at several points, most famously in a pair of films also nominally based on Poe stories, The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). In my opinion it's in the former flick that Lugosi makes his biggest mark, playing borderline hero to Karloff's Crowleyan villain. Lugosi's Dr. Vitus Wedergast is a man damaged by war and tragedy, bent on revenge for the horrible wrongs done him by his archenemy. The actors match each other stroke for stroke here, at one point literally playing chess for the lives of the innocent in a memorably tragic scene. Lugosi manages to instill the character with kindness and humanity, even though his purpose is hot-blooded murder. He's good in The Raven too, but that role is not as far removed from Dracula as his half-fearful, half-raging turn in The Black Cat.

The Shoulders of Giants: Karloff and Lugosi in The Black Cat
The one role that is about as far removed from the Count as you can imagine is for my money one of Lugosi's best screen performances bar none: the bearded, savage, joyfully evil Ygor in the underrated Son of Frankenstein (1939). In Karloff's last outing as the Monster, Lugosi plays the lower-class shepherd who escaped the hangman's noose (though still with a badly healed broken neck to show for it) and befriends Frankenstein's creature in order to get revenge on those he feels have wronged him. Dirty, petty, rambunctious and all-out malevolent, he's the polar opposite of the suave count who is almost always in strict control of every situation. A fantastic performance, and one that made Ygor synonymous with evil henchmen everywhere.

That's "Ygor" with a "Y"

The last time Lugosi worked with Karloff was in the excellent Val Lewton-produced RKO feature, The Body Snatcher (1945). This is one of my favorite Karloff performances, but while Lugosi's contribution is often derided as a bit part thrown in to capitalize on his name and the famous Karloff/Lugosi pairing, I think the scene in which Lugosi falls into Karloff's web of murder is affecting nonetheless, largely thanks to the pathos of Lugosi's stupid, drink-addled character work. Some would say he wasn't playing too far off type by this point--his drug addiction was beginning to tell, even then--but it's a scene I never get tired of watching.

Bela at the mercy of the Body Snatcher
Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law in Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Though Lugosi never rounded out his monster roles with a turn as a werewolf (Ape-Man don't count), he came close in Paramount's 1932 H. G. Wells adaptation The Island of Lost Souls. Again having only a brief cameo, here he plays the Sayer of the Law, a wise but raving half man/half beast. He injects a lot of energy and passion into the part, but though the film is excellent, for Lugosi fans it's largely a curiosity.

Lugosi in full beast-man make-up
(thanks to

But of course Bela could never get away from the cape and fangs, even though he played Dracula only twice on screen, in the 1931 classic and in the Universal Monsters swan song, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Still, he played some form of vampire or other in various films after that, once again under Tod Browning in Mark of the Vampire, and later against such luminaries as the Bowery Boys and the Dead End kids. He died in 1956, and was buried in one of the Dracula capes he wore on stage in the role he made famous.

It only makes sense, doesn't it?


Jenn said...

Excellent post. I also love Martin Landau's portrayal of Lugosi in Burton's ED WOOD; it's sad, it's poignant, heartbreaking, and indicative. I especially love when they're shooting the octopus scene for BRIDE OF THE MONSTER and Lugosi/Landau is all alcohol-riddled and morphine-starved and it's the middle of the night, and he says, 'let's shoot this fucker!' Shows what a trooper Lugosi must've been.

My cat, Bela Lugosi Francis-Fuller Divine, is proud to share part of his name with such an icon.


Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for a wonderful educational feature. I've always wondered about the Dracula movie because Bela's delivery is never as stilted in any other film from the period. Either he still remembered the lines as he'd originally learned them or his way of speaking (e.g. "tomorrow...EEEEFF-ning")deliberately expressed the vampire's sheer weirdness. By Rue Morgue and White Zombie he seems much more comfortable with English dialogue, or he may simply have adopted a more natural delivery.

Your last selection seems entirely justified. Poor Bela died for somebody's sins, in a way.

BTW, my verification word is "loman." Imagine Bela in that part!...

JamiSings said...

White Zombie is about the only zombie movie (unless you count the Evil Dead movies, though I don't think of Deadites as zombies) that I like. It is by far the best as well as the truest to the actual zombie mythos.

I only pray they don't make the mistake of trying to remake it. Instead, every year around Halloween, every theatre should dedicate one screen to it so everyone can enjoy true zombie master evilness as only Lugosi can play.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Jenn: what's so amazing about Landau in ED WOOD is that he looks *nothing* like Lugosi, and yet just through his performance, he convinces you. Glad he got the Oscar he deserved for that.

@Samuel Wilson: you're right about the weird inflection--I never put it on a timeline before. :) As for Lugosi as Willie Loman--boy, what a missed opportunity! :)

@Jami: I'm right there with you on the re-release > remake thing. I saw King Kong (1931) on the big screen a couple years back, and it was a revelation. It'd be cheaper on the studios just to put these things back out there! And you know they'd sell tickets.

As to voodoo-zombie flicks, I'm sure you've seen the Lewton-produced "I Walked with a Zombie," yes? That's got to be one of my fave movies, zombies or not. Plus it's based on Jane Eyre! Talk about scooping the whole "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" phenomenon. ;)

Inspector Winship said...

A fine post on a tragically under-utilized actor. My favorite Lugosi roll was his Dr. Feodor Orloff in "The Human Monster/Dark Eyes of London." A movie that suffered from the supporting cast but Lugosi absolutely owned this flick. Cold. blooded. evil.

Gene Phillips said...

Another of Bela's mad scientists: crazy Dr. Zorka from THE PHANTOM CREEPS. The serial has a fun ending where Bela is laughing madly as he simultaneously flies a biplane and tosses out explosive charges that blow up lotsa shit, including the Hindenberg dirigible!

JamiSings said...

Vicar - No, sadly I never heard of that one until now. I'll have to put it on my "I WANNA SEE IT!" list along with all the Blacula movies.

I've never been a big zombie fan. Always been into vampires myself. Not those whiny ones like in Twilight. (Though I do enjoy the 60 second version with bunnies by Angry Alien Productions.) I can name you multiple ways to become, repel, or kill a vampire besides the traditional Hollywood ones. (Did you know that if you find cow poop in a thorn bush you can use it to scare off vampires?) But I've always meant to see The Serpent And The Rainbow.

Maybe you should make a list of "Horror and Horror-like movies you should see before zombies eat your brain."

David Lee Ingersoll said...

Actually, Lugosi did play a werewolf. He was the cursed gypsy who put the lycanthropic bite on Larry Talbot in the Wolf Man.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Inspector Winship & Gene Philips--I've seen Human Monster, but have tragically never sat down with the Phantom Creeps serial. But there were few actors who could exude menace like Lugosi, that much is sure. And that PC conclusion sounds like a real MAD movie barn burner!

@Jami--Definitely check out "I Walked with a Zombie." You can get it on a Val Lewton double-feature disc with "The Body Snatcher," which is also featured on this post--a better double feature you will seldom see.

@David Lee--Congratulations, you've won the Vicar's No-Prize for "Most Egregious Oversight of the Post"! ;) Of course you're absolutely correct--Bela is the OL (original lycanthrope) in THE WOLF MAN. I should have amended my statement to say, "Never played a werewolf in full wolf-out makeup," which is of course what I meant. Still, well caught!


I remember back in the 80's when Bela had become something of a punchline- and called a one note actor.

I like that his work has been re-evaluated I really enjoyed his work in THE BLACK CAT and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and lets face it Ygor stole every scene he was in.

JamiSings said...

Hey! I just found a VHS copy of I Walked with a Zombie in the public library system! Got it on hold already!

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