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Vertlieb's Views

Vertlieb's Views

Commentary on movies past and present by Steve Vertlieb


Among actors of the golden age of horror, few performers were as visible as Bela Lugosi...except, of course, when confronted by Dr. Van Helsing's handy pocket mirror. Lugosi and his on-screen rival, Boris Karloff, were the jewels in Universal's crown of terror. As were Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing during Hammer's subsequent, colorful reign. While Lugosi's reputation has enjoyed both a critical and popular resurgence in recent years, his work in the initial decade of the sound era remains towering and commandingly impressive.

A captivating presence in his prime, Lugosi immigrated to America from his native Hungary, where he was well-known in Hungarian cinema. Born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko on October 20th, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary, he was the son of a baker. Lugosi's father, with other members of the small community founded a bank and, for a time, the family prospered. When his father died suddenly on September 11th, 1894, the boy was forced to enter the work place, and became a locksmith.

Tending locks didn't appeal to the young Bela and he turned, instead, to acting in 1901. In 1903 he joined the Franz Joseph Theatre in Temesvar under the direction of Hungary's great director, Ignacz Krecsanyi. Lugosi had a fine singing voice and appeared in a variety of operettas during those early years. As he began to perfect his craft, he gained a solid reputation in the repertory company and was given increasing opportunities to play leading roles, including the coveted part of Jesus in an early local Passion Play.

After years of playing leading roles in neighboring troupes, Lugosi joined the Nemzeti Szinhaz (The National Theatre of Hungary) in the early months of 1913. Still a young man, the actor was given minor roles in this expanded venue but an assignment of a different variety was soon to place him upon an even larger stage. In June 1914, Lugosi became a lieutenant in the 43rd Royal Hungarian infantry, and fought with his comrades in the trenches during World War One. During his eighteen months of service he was wounded twice, first in Rohatin and later within the Carpathian Mountains. He left the military in April 1916, and soon returned to The National Theatre to resume his career.

It was in 1917 that the actor joined the Hungarian motion picture colony. His first recorded appearance in a film was in The Leopard for the Star Film Company in Budapest. Later that year he captured a small part in Az Ezredes (The Colonel) for the Phoenix Film Company, under the direction of Mihaly Kertesz who would later achieve success in American films under the name of Michael Curtiz.

Political unrest and Communistic upheaval forced Liberal activists such as Alexander Korda, Paul Lukas, and Lugosi to flee their native land in the summer of 1919. Lugosi found his way to Vienna, Austria. Finding no work, he moved to Berlin after several weeks. Among his early appearances in German Cinema was a role in a variation of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, Der Januskopf, directed by F.W. Murnau and photographed by Karl Fruend, with Conrad Veidt in the lead role.

Lugosi played a variety of roles during his years in Germany, including the part of the Indian guide, Chingachgook in an early rendition of James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer.

Lugosi's life in Berlin was hardly ideal. He found steady work, but he was unhappy. He had married Ilona Szmik, the daughter of a prominent Budapest bank executive on June 25th, 1917. Her parents did not approve of their daughter marrying an actor. To make matters worse, they found Lugosi's political affiliations with the fledgling Communist Party distasteful.

Struggling financially, Lugosi was forced to send his new bride back to her parents in Budapest, promising to send for her once more when his economic status in Berlin had improved. When the short lived Bela Kun regime was overthrown in Hungary, a cause to which Lugosi was passionately, if misguidedly, devoted, he found himself permanently exiled in this foreign land. Ilona was young, not terribly strong and easily manipulated by her parents who seized the opportunity to urge the young girl to divorce her controversial husband.

With nothing to return to in his native Hungary, Bela decided to make a clean break and head for American shores where he might begin again. In the summer of 1921 he secured a position as a third assistant engineer on an Italian cargo vessel, landing first in New Orleans and then working his way to New York City.

Lugosi needed to find theatrical work in America but could speak only Hungarian and German. With other emigre performers, he founded small acting troupes and continued working. Not comfortable being alone, he married his second wife, Ilona Montagh de Nagybanyhegyes, and gave her small roles to learn in his repertory company.

In 1922, a theatrical manager named Henry Baron approached Lugosi with an offer to play the role of Fernando in the forthcoming New York stage production of The Red Poppy. Lugosi wanted the part but confessed to Baron that he spoke no English. He convinced the manager that, with a tutor, he could learn enough English to play his role by time the production opened. Estelle Winwood headed the cast but, although the play opened to enthusiastic critical reviews, it closed after only fourteen performances.

In 1923 Lugosi was given his first part in an American film, The Silent Command, starring Edmund Lowe. There followed a succession of motion pictures shot in New York. Meanwhile, he continued to perform in the New York theatre. One of these plays, The Devil in the Cheese, cast him along side another struggling young actor named Dwight Frye who would later co-star with Lugosi as the mad Renfield in Dracula.

In March 1927, producer and publisher Horace Liveright saw the London stage production of Dracula and sensed the possibilities for success in America. He secured the rights to the play and hired New York World's London correspondent, John L. Balderston, to adapt the dialogue for American audiences. So successful was Balderston's adaptation that invitations from Hollywood producers led to a lucrative film career from which the journalist would contribute screenplays for The Mummy, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and Mad Love.

In late July 1927, Lugosi read for the part of Dracula, and was given the coveted role. Rehearsals began on August 29th and, following a five-performance preview commencing on September 19th, the American version of Bram Stoker's Dracula opened at the Fulton Theatre on Broadway to enthusiastic public and critical response. The production played to packed houses for 261 performances, and Bela Lugosi had become a star. When the play closed finally on Broadway on May 19th, 1928, Lugosi and the cast formed a road company and took the show on tour. Hollywood was slow to take notice of the Hungarian actor's success on Broadway, however, and continued casting him in smaller, less significant roles.

In 1930, noting the success of continuing touring companies and revivals of the vampire saga, Universal Pictures, long the home of fright films, decided cautiously to take a chance on filming Dracula. Tod Browning, a frequent associate of Lon Chaney, was hired to direct the picture, while Karl Freund would become its principal photographer. Less definite, however, was the choice of an actor to play the starring role. If Lugosi was well known on Broadway, he was still an unknown commodity in films. Ian Keith had been mentioned as a possible choice for the film. It had even been rumored that Lon Chaney, Sr. might play the part and that the studio had originally purchased it for the star. Since Chaney was in precarious health at the time, too ill to work, it's doubtful that there is any validity to that allegation. Chaney's death by Cancer on August 26th, 1930, quickly ended any such speculation.

Universal began the filming of Dracula with trepidation on September 29th. The film had been assigned a six-week shooting schedule but the studio was hesitant to make a straight horror film. They feared that the public would recoil from its ugly themes. They hedged their bets by settling upon a safer advertising campaign, referring to their new production as a Victorian Romance, rather than a startling tale of the undead. The studio finally decided to give the part to Lugosi, but the resultant film is, in retrospect, a chaotic misrepresentation of a horror masterpiece, leaving Stoker's terrifying narrative in utter shambles.

Based upon the Broadway production, rather than the original novel, the film was made relatively cheaply with little imagination or flare. Only in its earliest sequences, as Karl Freund's fluid camera shots capture the mystery and majesty of Dracula's nightmarish Transylvanian countryside, does the film ever begin to capture the wicked fear or depravity of an otherworldly experience.

Under Tod Browning's stodgy, uninspired direction, remains a deeply disappointing representation of, perhaps, the greatest horror novel ever written. Lugosi's performance is commanding, as it was on the New York stage, but little else in this Universal production is worth remembering. Filmed concurrently with the Browning production was a Spanish version, shooting at night and utilizing the same sets, but with a Spanish cast directed by George Melford, and starring the beautiful Lupita Tovar.

This supposed throwaway variation made exclusively for Latin audiences is a breathtaking Dracula, memorable and superior in every way to the Browning production, with the single important exception of the leading actor. Carlos Villarias had none of Lugosi's presence or charm. Had Melford directed Lugosi, this celebrated vampire film might have had some strength and color. As it is, however, Universal's Dracula is a frail, static, and anemic shadow of its haunting inspiration.

A Poor Businessman

Lugosi was renowned as a pathetically poor businessman. He had no concept of how to market himself. He would typically go from the leading role in a major production to a minor role in much smaller production. This continuing stream of poor choices would eventually, and irreparably, damage his career.

After the unwarranted success of Dracula, Lugosi spent the next year appearing in four less than memorable films. The fifth film was another matter. Released in February 1932, one year exactly from the release of Dracula in February 1931, Lugosi starred in Universal's Murders In The Rue Morgue, directed by Robert Florey.

While Florey's direction, like Browning's before him, is stodgy and static, Karl Freund's cinematography is stunning and Lugosi's performance is electrifying. As Dr. Mirakle, Lugosi generously chews up the scenery as a brooding, decidedly mad scientist who uses a great ape to abduct female prey, bringing the horrified young women back to his laboratory where he determinedly experiments on and tortures them. A youthful Arlene Francis becomes one of his screaming victims.

The film is moody and bizarre, if dated, but Lugosi is brilliant. It remains one of his finest performances.

Yet another of his best roles followed in July of 1932 with United Artist's release of the lurid melodrama, White Zombie. Directed by Victor Halperin, White Zombie starred Lugosi as the strange, charismatic slaver, "Murder" Legendre, whose army of undead servants work the plantation, and carry out his dastardly commands. In a Svengali-like role, Lugosi drains the life from a young, recently married woman he desires, convinces her grieving husband that she is gone forever, and attempts to force her to his nefarious will. Lugosi's hypnotic gaze and clenched fingers convey the power and poetry of an actor whose gifts were all too often ill-used, and seldom realized.

October 1932 saw the release of the fantasy classic, Chandu, The Magician. Released by Fox and directed by Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies (Things To Come and Invaders From Mars), Chandu starred Edmund Lowe in the title role and featured Bela Lugosi as the evil Roxor, a demented wizard plotting to take over the world. Lugosi is obviously enjoying himself playing the maniacal villain, and play it he does with exuberance and skill.

Lugosi's next film was, indeed, a mixed blessing for the actor. Released by Paramount in January, 1933, Island Of Lost Souls, directed by Erle C. Kenton, remains among the greatest, most striking horror films of the decade, and yet Lugosi's role is a relatively minor one in which he is covered from head to foot by wolf's hair and is nearly unrecognizable as the leader of the apemen.

Charles Laughton easily steals the show as H.G. Wells insane Dr. Moreau, but Lugosi's impassioned plea..."Are We Not Men???" remains a stunning, powerful indictment of man's inhumanity to man, which burns unnervingly through the layers of makeup applied to his face.

After that, Lugosi continued on a self-imposed decline, appearing in a succession of minor parts in unimportant films. While Boris Karloff was an astute businessman, Lugosi never seemed to understand that moving from an important picture into an unimportant one was career suicide.

The Black Cat

It wasn't until May 1934, with the release by Universal of the first Karloff and Lugosi pairing that the actor's star was to rise once more.
The Black Cat, directed by Edgar Ulmer, is a dark, erotic thriller that evenly matches the two stars in competitive, exhilarating performances. As Engineer Hjalmar Poelzig, Karloff is a sinister Satanist whose evil reign as commandant of a notorious prison for political prisoners turns his one time friend, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a renowned psychiatrist with an overwhelming fear of cats, against him.

Werdegast, as played by Lugosi, is a broken man, whose wife and child were stolen by Poelzig, and whose life is now haunted by the thirst for revenge. Karloff and Lugosi play off of one another in masterly fashion and their joy over working together at last spills off from the screen, creating another of the finest horror films of the period.

In April 1935, Lugosi recreated a role created at least in part by Lon Chaney, Sr. in the lost classic, London After Midnight, directed by Tod Browning. In the MGM remake, again directed by Browning, Lugosi plays the vampire essayed earlier by Chaney but, while Chaney played both the vampire and the detective investigating the gruesome murders in the original, Lugosi plays only the vampire in Mark Of The Vampire. Lionel Barrymore plays the remaining half of the split persona. While the film is enjoyable, Lugosi is regrettably wasted in the relatively minor role of the vampire.

His next film, however, is another matter entirely. The Raven was the second pairing of Karloff and Lugosi. Directed by Louis Friedlander, and released by Universal in July, 1935, this joyous reunion of the two great horror stars finally gives the upper hand to Lugosi as Dr. Richard Vollin, a mad surgeon whose fascination with torture chambers conceived by Poe transcends mere fantasizing. Karloff is an ex-con, Edmond Bateman, lured into the spider's web by the promise of plastic surgery to cure a hideously disfigured face. Lugosi delivers, perhaps, his most entertaining performance as the highly-strung surgeon, driven nearly mad by his lustful obsession for a young dancer whose life he saved.

In January, 1936, Universal released the third fantastic pairing of Karloff and Lugosi, this time in The Invisible Ray, directed by Lambert Hillyer, a highly imaginative science fiction drama about a scientist, Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) who harnesses an invisible ray from outer space with wonderful healing power.

His colleagues, including Dr. Benet (Lugosi) urge caution and further study, thinking Rukh mad and conspiring to steal the discovery away from him. Karloff becomes radioactive, emitting a greenish glow, as the ray begins to eat away his brain. A mere touch of the hand by the scientist means death to anyone unlucky enough to arouse his displeasure, and Rukh sets about dispatching his enemies in a most unpleasant manner until he, himself, is consumed by the radioactive disease.

January 1939 saw the release of the final Karloff interpretation of Frankenstein's Monster in Son Of Frankenstein. In a last hurrah of sorts, Lugosi, now relegated to largely character roles, played the part of Igor, the doctor's faithful servant.

His neck stretched in a failed attempt at hanging for his crimes, the mute hunchback loyally commits murderous acts against those who have hunted down and betrayed the creature. Even though hampered by the necessity for a gravelling, nearly unrecognizable voice, Lugosi still manages to convey determination and solicit sympathy as the crazed Igor.

In March 1940, Universal released their final pairing of Karloff and Lugosi, a minor gangster yarn, Black Friday, in which Lugosi steals the show once more in a highly publicized scene in which the gangster, Eric Marnay, is locked inside a closet. Terrified of enclosed surroundings, he screams for release... "Let Me Out! Let Me Out!"

It was suggested by the publicity department at Universal that Lugosi was actually hypnotized by a famous mesmerist into believing that he was dying, thereby creating a brutal moment of realism on the motion picture screen. It would be more flattering to Lugosi, one suspects, to believe that his artistry was due to talent, rather than the artificially induced suggestion of a licensed hypno-therapist.

Lugosi and Karloff parodied their screen personas in You'll Find Out, a horror comedy starring Kay Kyser and his band, released by RKO in 1940.

He had a relatively minor role as Bela, the gypsy, in the film that turned Lon Chaney, Jr. into a legitimate horror star, The Wolfman, released by Universal, the studio that had, apparently, forgotten about him. In what appeared to be strictly a token gesture, Universal cast Lugosi as Frankenstein's Monster, a role he had turned down after the success of Dracula, in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man in 1943. He looked bloated and uncomfortable in the massive costuming, and the role did nothing to recapture his fading career.

Columbia Pictures offered him an opportunity to reprise his performance as Dracula in Return Of The Vampire, but Universal owned the character so Lugosi played a generic vampire by the name of Armand Tesla in the inexpensively filmed 1944 release.

In February 1945, director Robert Wise offered Lugosi an opportunity to appear with his filmic nemesis, Boris Karloff, one last time in an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher. The completed film, while moody and atmospheric, served more as vehicles for Henry Daniell and Boris Karloff, both of whom (particularly Daniell) shone in their respective star turns. Lugosi, however, was relegated to the thankless role of Joseph, a boorish servant who is quickly and deservingly dispatched by Karloff.

The final, surprising gem in Lugos's film career would come three years later from a most unexpected source. Universal, the studio that had seduced and abandoned their once great horror star was resurrecting the classic monsters one last time for a comedic tribute to the golden age. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the reigning kings of the studio, would cast their comic genius upon the waters of fright, and do battle with the likes of Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and Dracula. Lugosi was cast as the vampire Count. Glenn Strange would play Frankenstein's Monster, and Lon Chaney, Jr. would reprise the role he created..the tragic Lawrence Talbot who, at the rising of the moon, becomes The Wolf Man. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, released in 1948, remains a comic masterpiece, a crown jewel in the annals of hilarity.

Both hysterically funny and genuinely frightening, the picture remains the quintessential horror comedy, with brilliant scripting by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, and John Grant, inspired direction by Charles T. Barton, and an unforgettably powerful musical score by composer, Frank Skinner. When Glenn Strange injured his back during the making of the picture, a double was needed to play Frankenstein in the climactic sequence in which the Monster hurls Lenore Aubert through the great plate glass window. If one looks very closely at that brief scene, you can see Lon Chaney, Jr. beneath the monstrous makeup, standing in for the injured Strange.

The picture was a huge success, and Lugosi hoped that this might signal the beginning of a whole new career. It wasn't to be. Lugosi's career continued its downhill slide with films that can only be charitably described as unfortunate.

Edward D. Wood discovered his idol in 1952 and longed to cast Lugosi in one of his films. The problem was that Wood was a hopeless incompetent with nary an ounce of talent in his bones. Wood was, however, sincere in his attempt to elevate the once famous star to his former level of public recognition, and Lugosi desperately wanted to work.

As filmic atrocities go, Wood's Glen Or Glenda rates fairly high on the charts of mediocrity. Wood followed that embarrassment with a starring role for his mentor in the horror extravaganza, Bride Of The Monster, co-starring a former wrestler turned actor named Tor Johnson. As excruciatingly inept as this 1955 "shocker" was, Lugosi still managed to recapture just a bit of the old magic when he lamented his treatment by society, and by his colleagues. He might have been alluding to the shabby treatment he received from Hollywood producers in his impassioned speech, which, despite the budgetary limitations of the production, remains genuinely moving.

Sometime earlier, Lugosi had become addicted to pain medication and sought solace increasingly from drugs as unhappiness took hold of the tired old man. On April 21st, 1955, he voluntarily checked himself into the Los Angeles General Hospital's Mental Health and Hygiene Department, requesting that he be given help for his condition. The Press learned of his condition and greedily printed the story. The resultant scandal necessitated his appearance before a judge at the Psychopathic Court. He said to the gathering reporters "I haven't a dime left. I am dependent on my friends for food and a small old age pension. I am anxious to rehabilitate myself, and decided this was the only way to do it." After a forty-five minute hearing, the judge was deeply sympathetic to the actor's plight, and courage.

Lugosi was formally committed to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California for a minimum of three months, or a maximum of two years. Three months later, Lugosi emerged, free of his horrible dependency on drugs. During his stay in the hospital he had received a series of tender, encouraging letters of support from a young woman employed in a studio-editing department.

Bela married Hope Lininger on August 25th, 1955. It was his fifth marriage. He had sired a son, Bela Lugosi, Jr. by a previous marriage, but his wife had ended the relationship, claiming that he was jealous and possessive of both her and the young boy. Bela, who had lost everything he had ever had, lived in daily terror of losing what little he had left. Perhaps now he might enjoy a scrap of happiness.

In August 1956, shooting commenced on yet another "horror" film directed by Ed Wood. Lugosi, as always, would be its faded star. During a break in the shooting, Lugosi returned to his apartment. Hope had gone shopping around seven o'clock in the evening. When she returned, she found Bela. She spoke to him in the darkness, but he didn't answer. Bela had been terrified of death. He needed constant reassurance and comforting. In the evening of August 16th, 1956, Bela Lugosi would fear death no longer. The screen's original Dracula was buried in his vampire's cape at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was seventy-three years old.

A proud and noble Count had fallen, but in the years since his death Lugosi had finally achieved the reverence and respect he had longed for over so many years. It would have made the old man happy at last.

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