Bela Lugosi: The Most Unsettling Eyes in Show Business – not named Marty Feldman

As a small child, Saturday night meant one thing, and one thing only…Son of Svenghoulie.  Son of Svenghoulie had a tv show on Channel 44 WFLD every Saturday night, where they would play old black and white monster movies, he would do comedy bits in between, read mail, fight a rubber chicken, and make fun of Berwyn.

  My favorite movie was Frankenstein.  I loved it, and whenever he was in a movie, I impatiently waited all week long until it was on.  Honestly, I liked the character of Dracula better, but the lead scared the bejeezus out of me. 

  Now, don’t get me wrong.  This movie was scary because of the atmosphere it created.  I’ve seen the story reinterpreted a few times, but it all came back to one thing, Bela Lugosi’s eyes.  They just stared into your soul.  And as an actor, his slow, heavily accented character, just added to how unsettling he could be.  Even as a child, I knew what he was saying, but the tension he created by speaking so slowly, made me want to jump off the couch!  As a lead, he didn’t say much, so when he did, it said a LOT.  Later, I found out why he didn’t speak much…

  Bela Lugosi was born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko in Lugos, Hungary, a Roman Catholic.  At the age of 12, the acting bug caught him, and he dropped out of school (horrible idea, stay in school kids), and made a living performing in provincial theatres, playing small roles in plays and operas.  Eventually he moved up into performing Shakespeare, until moving up again to the National Theatre in Hungary, in small or supporting roles, though he claimed to be the leading actor.  He made 12 films in Hungary, before having to flee

  He served in the military during the first World War, then was forced from Hungary because he was an activist in the actor’s union.

  Eventually, he landed in Germany, where he changed his last name to Lugosi, and played small roles in many well received movies.

  He then sailed as a sailor to the US, landed in New Orleans, travelled and was inspected in New York, and declared that he wanted to become a US citizen. (naturalized in 1931)

  In New York, he worked as a laborer by day, and an actor by night.  Eventually, they formed a small troupe with other Hungarians, and toured the east coast, playing for other immigrant audiences.

  In 1922, he played in his first English play “The Red Poppy”, and other roles soon followed.

  In 1923, he got his first silent film role “The Silent Command”, and often played villains, and other non English roles.  Silent films were perfect for the heavily accented actor, and he was quite busy.

  In 1927, he was asked to play the role of Dracula on Broadway.  This was quite successful, with a long run on Broadway (for it’s time).  When it ended there, the production hit the road, and they toured the US, with Lugosi playing the lead.

  Once they reached California, Lugosi decided to stay.  Fox cast him in a few silent fulms.  When those roles started to dry up, he returned to the stage as Dracula once again.  When that run ended, Fox, having his contract, then went back to him playing a heavy, or an exotic sheik.  All the while, he was lobbying for the role of Dracula, believed to be ready for production.

  When Universal finally decided to green light Dracula, despite him playing him off and on for the last three years, he was not the first choice.  Luckily for him, and us, they finally decided that he was the man for the job.  (And all the bigger named starts turned them down)  The movie was a smash hit, and Lugosi was a star.

  Unfortunately for Lugosi, his heavy accent more or less banished him to be typecast.  He got lots of work as a horror villain in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (it got better the older I got), “The Raven”,  “Son of Frankenstein” (I have stated before, one of my favorite movies of the genre), and the independent “White Zombie” (creepy, odd…I think with todays technology, they would absolutely ruin this movie, but I’d like to see them try)

  Lugosi started to get roles in movies with the great Boris Karloff.  Despite the size of the role, apparently Karloff had a better agent, because he always got top billing when it came down to it.  He also seemed to get the more colorful of roles, going back and fourth between villain and hero, picking the better role for himself.

  Looking back, I believe that the reason for this is that Karloff was English, and his command of the language allowed him the more outgoing role.  Despite all of this, I have heard from many people that they shared a friendship eventually, after Lugosi realized that Karloff wasn’t trying to upstage him.

  One story said that Karloff claimed that Lugosi never really learned how to act, and his portrayal of Dracula was proof.  I highly disagree.  Now, I’m not saying he was an Oscar winning actor, but his slow, clipped voice, always added a tension to a role, and added anxiety to a horror film, is always a plus

  Eventually, Lugosi got tired of being typecast in horror movies.  This lead to the slow decline of his career.  England also banned horror movies for a time (pussies), so when Universal needed a lead, they often went with Karloff.

  Lugosi then had a second, less stellar career, being in independent films, often in small roles.  They were big enough to get his name on the movie posters, and fans still loved him, so basically his name was used to draw people in.

  Lugosi’s career had declined so far, that he had to borrow money to pay for the birth of his only child.  Then a miracle happened.  The Regina Theatre decided to have a double feature, with Dracula and Frankenstein as a double bill.  They were so popular, extra shows were added, and the owner hired Lugosi to make appearances.

  This caused a surge in jobs for Lugosi, as Hollywood remembered him again.  He made “Son of Frankenstein” playing Ygor (it’s worth a watch), made a movie with Garbo, and then within a year was struggling.

  By this time, he was having trouble with old injuries sustained in the war (sciatica), and was eventually given opiates for the pain.  This became an ongoing problem for the rest of his life, and was a well known “secret”.

  Now he was back playing B and C level monster’s, or “boogie men” as he called them.  Eventually his career near the end, he was playing roles in Ed Wood movies.  (I’d recommend an Ed Wood movie, but all the ones I have seen are absolutely terrible).

  At some point, he decided that he needed to quit drugs, and went into treatment.  When Frank Sinatra heard that Lugosi was there, and having trouble paying, he stepped in.  As a non fan of Sinatra, this is a very nice gesture on his part.

  On August 16th, 1956, Bela Lugosi died in his apartment of an apparent heart attack.  He was buried in one of his Dracula robes, because his son and ex wife thought that is what he would want.

  Bela was married 5 times (once getting divorced because he had Clara Bow as a side piece), with one child, and multiple grand children.

  Martin Landau won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lugosi in Ed Wood.  His family and friends have come out and said that the portrayal was widely innacurate.

  In a film career that spanned 39 years, Lugosi made 275 appearances, from leads, to supporting actor, to small roles, tv shows, and that’s not counting the many personal appearances he did.

  He has a wide ranging menagerie of films for you to choose from.  Some amazing, and some not so good.  I strongly suggest you look him up, pick one out, realize most special effects were made from cleverness, not CGI, and enjoy a rainy Sunday.

Author: Jay Roach

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