How fortunate that Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) has a birthday 11 days before Halowe’en, no? You could have a swell Hallowe’en film festival that consisted entirely of Bela Lugosi movies, and it would last several days!
Yet it’s ironic that Lugosi came to be identified with “monster” — he was originally cast in the stage production of Dracula in 1927 because he was dashing and handsome, hence against type. (Bram Stoker’s book specified someone who looks more like what we think of as “Nosferatu”.) Hamstrung, too, by a thick Hungarian accent that he never bothered to shed himself of, the man became typecast in roles that echoed the one he played so indelibly in the 1931 film version of Dracula directed by Todd Browning. He did this for 25 years, culminating with his notorious final roles in the films of Ed Wood.
And, true, his range wasn’t great. But to their credit, some producers did allow him to push it. After playing one of his most terrifying villains in Chandu the Magician (1932), for some reason he came back in the 1934 sequel as the all-American hero Frank Chandler. The result, shall we say, did not suspend our powers of disbelief. But still there were other uses for him besides mad scientists and monsters. One of the most promising of these is in the all-star 1933 comedy International House, wherein he plays the Russian rival to the hero, General Petronovich. Or, he could be the creepy butler in a spook comedy, such as The Gorilla (1939). In The Black Cat (1934) he is the hero, but only because he turns his insane wrath against the slightly creepier villain, Boris Karloff. A good cross sampling of the kinds of films he played over the years can be found in this little sampling of “ape movies” I wrote a few weeks ago. What else should you know about him? Oh, it wasn’t only Dracula he played amongst the classic Universal movie monsters. In various sequels, he also played Frankenstein’s monster and Igor. And he was also (briefly) in vaudeville! In the early 30s, when so much was in the air, he made public appearances at presentation houses, alongside movies — ironically, to make sure he would remain viable in movies.
Lugosi was a special character. Unlike some, about whom you might say, “”If only he’d lived a little longer his career would have gotten better again”, I think there is small doubt this wouldn’t have been true of Lugosi. Think of all those aging guest stars on Batman, or a film like William Beaudine’s 1966 Billy the Kid vs. Dracula starring John Carradine. BUT, if he’d lived (and acted) well past the century mark (no doubt through supernatural forces), he might have done okay. Think of how well, and how respectfully, Tim Burton used Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands.
Or, if he’d lived even a few months longer, as he announces in this amazing 1955 interview (filmed as he emerged from rehab for his heroine addiction), he might have starred in “Eddie Wood’s” The Ghoul Goes West. Oh, God in heaven! Why did you rob us?!
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.