Thursday, December 2, 2010
John's Corner of Horror: The "Immortal" Bela Lugosi
Around 1931, the financially struggling film studio Universal was looking for a way to bolster its sagging empire and decided on making a film of the stage-play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston which was mildly based on the actual novel by Bram Stoker. For obvious reasons the entire novel was fairly well scrapped in favor of Deane and Balderston’s re-working of the story. Despite this fact the play was a staggering success which toured for years. When it made a trip across the Atlantic was the moment “the spirit of Bram Stoker” (say that with tongue firmly planted in cheek huh?) kicked in and my favorite actor in the role of Dracula took over: Bela Lugosi.
Mr. Lugosi was a Hungarian stage trained actor who had done numerous plays, including a portrayal of Jesus Christ, and had a few films under his belt when he won the role of the mysterious Count Dracula. I cannot confirm this but it is said that before the play he underwent hypnosis to become this immortal Transylvanian monarch who had lived for five centuries off the blood of others. Needless to say Bela was a hit in the role and even rode the success to the United States.
Now back to Universal. Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, envisioned the movie to be on a lavish scale of the Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame silent films starring his favorite actor Lon Chaney (Sr). Unfortunately Mr. Chaney had already succumbed to throat cancer by the time production was underway. The search for the actor to replace Chaney was a chaotic and fruitless one. Laemmle wasn’t interested in Bela Lugosi for whatever insane reason. Most likely he felt Mr. Lugosi “too ethnic” and assumed the “audience” wouldn’t be able to understand him despite the clear fact that Bela was very easy to understand. Gee . . . imagine Hollywood underestimating its audience. Finally, after some very staunch lobbying from Bela himself, Laemmle acquiesced and gave Bela the role at 500 dollars a week which was a pittance compared to what the other cast members made.
The director was Tod Browning with a very talented Karl Freund using some very effective moving camera scenes, notably in Dracula’s Transylvanian crypt and Seward’s Sanatorium scene, otherwise the camera held quite still for most of the movie. It’s said that Tod Browning, being a silent film director, wasn’t comfortable with the sound movie process and not happy that Lon Chaney wasn’t around to make this movie with. He kept the movie on schedule which wasn’t easy as they simultaneously shot a Spanish version at night, and an extra silent version for theaters who hadn’t quite caught up to “talkie movies” yet.
As I said, the film was based off the stage-play and they filmmakers made some changes for atmospheric reasons clearly. The play was more drawing room style for financial reasons, so Browning & company added the thrilling journey of Renfield to Dracula’s castle and what occurs there. An especially prominent addition was the classic line “I never drink . . . wine.”
This line was used twice again, in the 1979 Frank Langella remake and Gary Oldman’s movie who said in an interview that he wanted to speak that line as a nod to Bela Lugosi’s classic performance.
The sets for this movie are still an incredible thing to look at. The look of Dracula’s dilapidated castle and the Cairfax Abbey are astonishing to behold. The most effective portrayal in the movie is certainly Bela Lugosi’s. His physical bearing and his psychological jumps between well mannered Count and seething, menacing creature from hell are still wonderful and overall his portrayal of the king of vampires is still considered definitive despite the excellent depictions by Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, and Frank Langella as well as others.
Dracula was a definitive success. When the film finally premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York on Feb. 12, 1931, newspapers reported that members of the audiences fainted in shock at the horror on screen. This publicity, shrewdly orchestrated by the film studio, helped ensure people came to see the film, if for no other reason than curiosity. Dracula was a big gamble for a major Hollywood studio to undertake. In spite of the literary credentials of the source material, it was uncertain if an American audience was prepared for a serious full length supernatural chiller. Within 48 hours of its opening at New York's Roxy Theatre, it had sold 50,000 tickets. Later in 1931, Universal would release Frankenstein to even greater acclaim. Universal in particular would become the forefront of early horror cinema, with a canon of films including, The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941)*.
Yet despite his wonderful interpretation of the immortal vampire, Count Bela was shamefully treated by the machine that is Hollywood. Between his addiction to painkillers from a war injury which aggravated a severe sciatica problem he was woefully typecast as a villain only actor. What is it about the money counters being allowed creative input when their only contribution to movies is to sell them? Eventually Universal dropped their horror studio abruptly after the Black Lagoon creature features and Bela was thrown to the Hollywood wolves that used his name and talent as a vehicle for some good, and quite a few movies that were not good including the infamous Ed Wood who churned out some seriously untalented films. Bela died practically in poverty. My favorite singer Frank Sinatra is said to have visited Bela during one of his hospital stays, and pay for his bills. Bela never knew Frank which made his kindness to him all the more startling. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out “Ol Blue Eyes” was a Lugosi Dracula fan! Bela died at age 72 at home while resting on a couch. The cause was a heart attack.
It is said that while attending his funeral fellow typecast Peter Lorre leaned over to Vincent Price and whispered, “Should we drive a stake through his heart, just in case?"
Despite all the good and bad, there remains Bela’s indelible performance of Dracula and his undeniable talent as an actor. Had he been given the chance it only remains to speculation as to what other roles he would have made legendary.
R.I.P. Bela Lugosi 1882 - 1956
* Direct quotes from the Wikipedia article entitled Dracula (1931 film)