(Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)
Happy Birthday, Bela Lugosi.
The actor, who in 1931 became the first and foremost movie star to play Count Dracula, was born on October 20, 1882.
Granted, German director F.W. Murnau filmed an unauthorized silent adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel Dracula in 1922. But in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify the Stoker heirs, Murnau called his horror masterpiece Nosferatu, and Stoker’s conception of a gruesomely ghoulish vampire (faithfully rendered by actor Max Schreck) was renamed Count Orlok.
When compared with Lugosi’s Dracula, based both on Stoker’s novel and its authorized 1927 Broadway adaptation (also starring Lugosi), Schreck displayed none of Lugosi’s aristocratic charm, good looks and sex appeal. And, of course, Schreck never spoke on screen.
In addition to his imposing physical countenance (six feet one, taller than Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff), Lugosi possessed a mellifluous baritone and a pronounced Hungarian accent. As quintessential vocal characterizations go, you’d be hard pressed to find any impressionist attempting John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman or any of the other 79 actors (according to IMDB), who have essayed Dracula over the past 90 years.
Previously a well-known stage and film actor in Eastern Europe, Lugosi created a filmography of 77 movies, starting with the The Thirteenth Chair (1929), directed by Tod Browning who would go on to helm Dracula.
Lugosi, however, will forever be Dracula. And its his indelible persona that also helped type-cast him in films about cape-wearing mad doctors performing crazy experiments on chimps, gorillas, oversized bats, and – thanks to legendary schlock director Ed Wood – a rubber octopus.
In fact – and I think sadly – Lugosi made only two films as Dracula (the second being 1948’s excellent Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
But Lugosi helped muddle his image by taking film roles that blurred the lines between the famous vampire and himself. He appeared most explicitly in Dracula-like garb as Count Mora in Mark of the Vampire (1935). In The Return of the Vampire (1943), he is essentially Dracula, just by another character name.
Lugosi also parodied himself (and Dracula) on TV with the likes of Milton Berle, Paul Winchell and Red Skelton. Here he is in 1954 with Skelton, Lon Chaney Jr. and Vampira (starts at 8:31).
Before the 1930s were over, Lugosi had begun a steady and unfortunate decline into bottom-of-the-bill potboilers. However, while still in his prime, he excelled in a number of A-quality horror films, creating iconic characters quite removed from vampires and crazy scientists of any ilk.
Consider Lugosi’s brief, but poignant half-man, half-beast, Sayer of the Law from Island of Lost Souls (1932). In The Black Cat (1934), he plays revenge-driven Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a man damaged by his experience as a World War I prisoner. And in Son of Frankenstein (1939), he is truly unrecognizable as the highly engaging Igor, the monster’s (Karloff) protector.
Incidentally, Lugosi made nine films with Karloff. Having played second fiddle to Karloff in so many of those movies, it’s nice to see Lugosi steal the show in Son of Frankenstein.
Lugosi Streaming Options
The Return of the Vampire can be streamed free on Dailymotion or right here:
Mark of the Vampire can also be streamed free on Dailymotion or right here:
Island of Lost Souls is currently unavailable to stream
Son of Frankenstein can be streamed free at The Internet Archive.
Editor’s note: Charlie Greenberg has composed original scores and songs for numerous off-Broadway productions and instrumental ensembles. His new album, ‘Songs of Male Middle-Age-Crazy!,’ is available from CDBaby.
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