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October 21, 2010

Metal History: Bela Lugosi

Metal History, Metal Movies

I’ve been remiss in my Metal History posts lately, and for that I can only beg your forgiveness and cite extreme busyness and over-indulgence of chocolate. But today happens to be the birthday of someone dear to my heart. Indeed, anyone who loves horror owe a debt of thanks to this man for helping to bring the genre to life on the big screen.

“I guess I’m pretty much of a lone wolf. I don’t say I don’t like people at all but, to tell you the truth I only like it then if I have a chance to look deep into their hearts and their minds.” –Bela Lugosi

Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó was born on 20 October 1882 – the youngest of four children in a Roman Catholic family in Lugos (then part of Austria-Hungary, now part of Romania). He dropped out of school at age 12 and started acting in local and provincial plays, later moving onto Shakespeare theatre and larger, more elaborate plays. In 1911 he moved to Budapest and performed with the National Theatre of Hungary, mostly in bit parts. Eventually, though, WWI called and he went off to serve in the Hungarian army, and, thankfully for the future of horror cinema, was wounded at the Prussian front and sent home.

bela lugosi

bela lugosi

Bela Lugosi, as he renamed himself (Lugosi after his hometown), made his first film appearance in 1917, in a Hungarian film Az ezredes (The Colonel), and went on to appear in 12 other Hungarian films under the alias Arisztid Olt. the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, unions faced persecution, which lead to the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, which Lugosi took part in as part of the actor’s union. Because of his involvement, he had to flee the country. Due in part to this, and other political disagreements, he divorced his wife in 1920, and settled in Germany. He appeared in a couple of well-received films (adaptations of Karl May novels) and entered the US via New Orleans in December 1920.

He worked for awhile as a labourer, then went to New York City and formed a small stock company with some other Hungarian actors, performing for immigrant audiences. He acted in his first broadway play in 1922, and later, a part in the long running comedy The Devil in the Cheese (I’m DYING to know what this is about). He acted in a few silent films, all filmed in the NYC area, and got caught up in local scandal when he married and divorced San Francisco widow Beatrice Weeks within four months, having allegedly cheated on her with actress Clara Bow.

Standing at 6 foot 1 inch (1.85 m) and weighting 82kgs, Lugosi cut an imposing figure, and it’s no surprise he was approached to star in the Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And, thankfully, he accepted the role. The show was a roaring success, running for 261 performances before touring. Despite this, he wasn’t Universal Pictures first choice for the movie Dracula. Director Tod Browning’s first choice man, Lon Chaney, died shortly before production began, and they called in Lugosi. His eloquent and nuanced portrayal of Count Dracula made the film an instant hit with audiences.

Unfortunately, the role also typecast him as a horror actor, and though he auditioned for other roles, he is best remembered for his parts in the Universal films Murders in the Rue Morgue, Son of Frankenstein and the Raven. He was offered the part of Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein, but turned it down because he didn’t want a non-speaking part where he’d be buried under makeup. The part went to Boris Karloff, soon to become Bela’s biggest rival for the hearts of horror fans.

There’s a lot of controversy and contradicting information about the relationship between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the actor hired to play Frankenstein’s monster because he reminded people of Lugosi. The pair acted tgether on many films, with Lugosi apparently mistrustful and jealous of the English Karloff’s ability to earn roles outside horror. According the Karloff, after an initial period of crotch-sniffing, they became good friends.

In the 1930s, Britain banned horror films, so Universal dropped them from their production schedule. Lugosi found himself been used for bit roles in Universal films for “name-value” and, understandably, got a bit pissed off. He took on lots of low-budget independent films and stage work, but was still poor and had developed severe sciatica (from injuries suffered during the war). He soon became addicted to pain killers. For obvious reasons, this increased drug use corresponded to a decline in Lugosi’s acting roles. In 1948, he was cast as Dracula in the film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but his drug use was so notorious the producers thought he must be dead, and had pencilled in another actor for the role.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was Lugosi’s last “A” film, with the remaineder of his life spent playing vampires and other bogeymen in increasinly obscure “B” grade horror flicks. Enter Ed Wood, arguably the worst and most awesome film director of all time.
Have you ever seen an Ed Wood film? They are a crack-up. There’s random bits of stock footage thrown in for kicks. Alien spaceships are hub-caps suspended on strings. They are the epitome of “so-bad-it’s good” film-making.

Ed Wood found Lugosi in near poverty and poor health and essentially said “come make some terrible movies with me” and Lugosi said “sure” (or the equivalent in Hungarian).
In the most famous story about Lugosi and Wood, the film Plan 9 From Outer Space is in pre-production. Wood has only enough money for a day of test footage, so he shoots Lugosi running around in his vampire outfit in a cemetery and outside Tor Johnson’s house. On 16 August, 1956, Lugosi died of heart failure (aged 72) and this five minutes of footage became the basis for Wood’s film.
Rather than reshoot test footage with another actor, Wood decided to dress his chiropractor in a cape and have him hold his arm over his face. (I do NOT make this stuff up – you have to see Plan 9, if you haven’t already). The whole film is shot in five days for under $20,000 and remains to this day, one of the worst films of all time. He was buried in his Dracula cloak. His friends Vincent Price and Peter Lorre bore the coffin, and Lorre quipped “Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart, just in case?”

Love Life

He married five times, his longest marriage was to  19 year old Lillian Arch, and he bore a child with her – Bela G Lugosi – in 1938. They divorced in 1953, because Bela became jealous of Lillian’s work as an assistant for Brian Donlevy on his radio and TV series “Dangerous Assignment”. It seems his jealousy was founded, since that pair married in 1966. Lugosi married Hope Lininger – a longtime fan – in 1953. She had written to him while he was in hospital recovering from Demerol addiction, and signed her letters “a dash of Hope”.

The Lugosi Legend

The 1931 Dracula film was the first spoken horror film, and without Bela Lugosi’s charismatically evil portrayal of the count (sans fangs, you might notice) horror films of today might be very different indeed. His hulking statue, rich, layered accent and undeniable presence made him an incredible presence on the horror genre. He received more fan mail from admiring women than Clark Gable.

Horror and metal have been bedfellows since the early days, although metal’s association with horror stems mainly from the gore of exploitation and b-grade flicks then the seductive power of vampires, which tend to marry with the gothic subgenre. But as one of the most important figures in popularizing horror cinema (and with it, the ability for audiences to accept horror in music), Lugosi deserves credit as part of metal history.

If Lugosi was alive today, he would

  • Wear evening attire to football games
  • Play Voldemort in Harry Potter
  • Be president of the Anne Rice fan club
  • punch Stephenie Meyer in the face
  • Listen to Dimmu Borgir