Today is Bela Lugosi’s birthday! To celebrate the most legendary Dracula of all time, enjoy an excerpt from If You Like True Blood… by Dave Thompson.
Bela Lugosi may not always be viewed as the greatest cinema vampire of all time, and he certainly wasn’t the most attractive. But few of the actors and actresses who have portrayed a vampiric role, particularly among those who have taken on the best-known of them all (go on, guess), have ever seen themselves as anything but one more soul following in the footsteps of the most legendary of them all.
Bela Blasko was born on October 20, 1882, in the Hungarian town of Lugos. His stage name was thus a variation on his hometown, adopted following his arrival in America in 1921, by which time he had already made a string of movies in both Hungary and Germany.
Close to forty years of age, his impact on his adopted homeland was negligible. He made his Hollywood debut in 1923’s The Silent Command, but the talkies seemed set to murder him. His meagre command of the English language saw him confined to mere bit parts, and even there he struggled. Any lines he was given, he learned phonetically, but worse was to come.
Having been hired to direct a drama, The Right to Dream, Lugosi was fired when it became embarrassingly obvious that he was incapable of even communicating with his cast. He sued for wrongful dismissal, but the court could make no more sense of his complaint than the actors could of his direction. He lost the case and was forced to auction off his own possessions to pay the legal fees. Undeterred by such catastrophes, Lugosi remained on the fringes of the acting world, and in 1927, he was finally offered a role in which his heavily accented, beguilingly faltering English would play to his advantage, the title role in the Broadway adaptation of the smash hit London stage show Dracula. Appearing alongside Herbert Bunston (Dr. Seward), Bernard Jukes (Renfield), Dorothy Peterson (Lucy), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing), Lugosi was an immediate sensation. He remained in the role for three years, then returned to Hollywood in triumph to repeat the feat on film.
Dracula was a new sensation for Americans. We have already seen how, a decade previously, Hungarian director Károly Lajthay had adapted Dracula for a moving picture. Tragically, his Drakula is long lost, but its success can be gauged from the fact that just a few months elapsed before Friedrich Murnau recast the story as Nosferatu, while the London play (the first, incidentally, ever to win the approval of the Stoker estate) had been running since 1924. Now, finally, Broadway was thrilling to the vampire’s embrace, and when Dracula became one of the most successful stage plays of the era, Hollywood too was ready to succumb to the same savage seduction.
Universal Studios, the movie’s backers; and Tod Browning, the director, originally had no intention whatsoever of casting Bela Lugosi in the movie role, much preferring Lon Chaney Jr. He, however, was battling cancer at the time and was too ill to work. Other possibilities fell through. Finally, Lugosi was the only name left in the frame. He became Dracula—in every sense of the phrase.
It is impossible today to recapture the sheer power of Dracula. Again, vampire movies were new to American eyes and ears—had Nosferatu even been shown in this country before it was so rudely crucified? No, it hadn’t. Dracula, however, rode the renown of the stage show to the top of the box office, then rode its own moody atmosphere and unparalleled scenes of horror and ugliness even further. Overnight, Lugosi was reinvented from a litigious mumbler who once had an affair with Clara Bow to the hottest property in Hollywood, an international star who suddenly found he could take—or turn down—any role he chose.
It was a freedom in which he revelled to the full, although not necessarily to his own advantage. Among the subsequent movie offerings that he was offered, but rejected, was the title role in director James Whale’s forthcoming Frankenstein, turning it down in favor of a role in another European masterpiece, a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, titled for its main character, Quasimodo.
Unfortunately, while Frankenstein rocketed to peaks approaching Dracula’s own, Quasimodo was never made, and Lugosi—who had seen that role as essential to proving he was more than a simple stereotype monster—would never really recover. Although he remained constantly in demand, he was indeed stereotyped—if not as Dracula, then at least as a mysteriously sinister Eastern European—and few of the movies he made throughout the remainder of his career ever allowed him to break out of that cliché. By 1948, Lugosi was reduced to caricaturing his finest moment in the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a depth that apparently horrified him so much that he would not return to the screen for another four years.
Lugosi’s genius, albeit one that led directly to his downfall, was that he was so eminently believable. No matter that the count, as played by the Hungarian, was subsequently to become punishingly parodied, not only by Lugosi himself, but by countless other would-be bloodsuckers too. Throughout the 1930s, when a nervously isolationist America was spotting fresh foes under every bed, Lugosi’s Dracula was flesh-eater made flesh. From the moment he first materializes in Dracula to that in which he is vanquished at the end, Lugosi not only overcomes any incredulity that his own audience might have felt toward the entire concept of Transylvanian bloodsuckers, but he also vanquishes that of any modern viewer. He was, quite simply, too damned brilliant for his own good.
Tiring of his exile, and with his bank account again in cobwebbed tatters, Lugosi resurfaced in 1952, finally forced to accept his fate by an appetite for drugs that demanded he take all the employment he was offered. And if the only work he could get was as a parody of himself, then he would be the greatest parody of them all. His every subsequent public appearance would find him clad in full costume, while the films he now made were purposefully calculated to play on his reputation: Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, My Son the Vampire, Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, and a pair of films with the eccentric Ed Wood, Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster.
All kept the wolf from the door, but they weren’t enough. In 1955, Lugosi voluntarily committed himself in the hope of shaking off his dope habit. He succeeded, but at a dreadful cost. Having shot just a handful of scenes for another Wood spectacular, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Lugosi was felled by a massive heart attack. On August 15, 1956, the world learned that Bela Lugosi, as the song later reminded us, was dead.
If You Like True Blood…
If You Like True Blood… is a popular history of vampires in classical and popular culture, by an author who has been reading and watching such things since high school, and who seriously believes The Hunger is one of the best things David Bowie has ever done.
With chapters embracing silent movies and modern erotica, mist-shrouded myth, and gothic rock, If You Like True Blood… transports the reader from the moss-drenched wilds of Louisiana to the mountain haunts of Transylvania, via introductions to some of history and literature’s most accomplished bloodsuckers. More than 200 new-to-you stories, movies, adventures, and eccentricities are staked out in the sunlight. Exclusive interview material stirs fresh plasma into the pot, and selections from the author’s own collection of vampirabilia are among the many illustrations.
Anne Rice, Peter Cushing, Sookie Stackhouse, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Marvel Comics, Bram Stoker’s Dracula-all flit not-so-silently through these pages; Vlad the Impaler, the Countess Bathory, Mina Harker, and Roman Polanski. too. In addition, authoritative appendices offer up a guide to best movie, TV, and literary vampires out there. If You Like True Blood… may not grant you eternal life, but it knows plenty of people who can.