❉ We look back on the career of the horror legend, born 135 years ago this month.
Bela Lugosi’s career as a Hollywood star is a fascinatingly camp oddity. When Orson Welles claimed to have “started at the top and worked [his] way down”, he did so in the secure knowledge of being widely considered a genius, which could explain his self-destructive embrace of showbiz cabaret in later life: it was just easier than trying to match the earlier triumphs. Bela Lugosi was not a genius and his embrace of methadone addiction in later life must have been easier than trying to follow his one early triumph with Dracula (1931).
That he is better remembered now than most leading men is not so much a testament to his acting skill than to the enduring influence of popular culture. It’s difficult now to imagine the impact in their day of films like Dracula and Frankenstein (1931), whose tremendous success helped establish two of the twentieth-century’s most recognisable icons, one of which Lugosi was destined to remain forever an adjunct of; but considering he was not even a favoured choice for the part, won mainly through a combination of luck (the script was adapted from a play he was touring with) and being cheaper than everyone else, the story of his infamous typecasting and consequent decline is a horror story unto itself own.
In the wake of its hit with Dracula, Universal Pictures quickly followed suit with Frankenstein, and the assumption (Lugosi’s anyway) was that its new horror star would take the title role. In fact he was never seriously considered, the studio offering him ‘The Monster’ instead. Lugosi must have felt it beneath his dignity to play a zombie with no speech faculties, but Universal perhaps thought it a better fit for the Hungarian actor whose limited grasp of English would soon metastasize into a popular myth which no words from him could dispel, no matter how well delivered. The role went to Boris Karloff, who became the cinema’s most famous horror star.
Lugosi’s next vehicle for Universal, Murders at the Rue Morgue (1932), was a flop, and the studio seized upon a chance to drop him from their lineup. It was in the throes of this freelance limbo that Lugosi accepted the small part of a wolf-man in Island of Lost Souls (1932). It had been little more than a year since Dracula and already his career was at an all-time low. He would spend the remaining two decades of his life slowly turning into a mute zombie on the big screen.
Karloff’s success provides a useful counterpoint to Lugosi’s stagnation. He was somehow never fettered by the role which made his name a household despite resuming his mime-like antics twice, in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Dracula had been a hit of similar magnitude but when the sequel, Dracula’s Daughter, arrived in 1936, Lugosi was not asked to return. Instead a wax facsimile of his head can be glimpsed in one shot.
The nightmare continued through a series of films pairing Lugosi with the usurper, to whom he was always billed second, often below the title, reaching ironic fever pitch with Son of Frankenstein. As the doctor’s lab assistant, and playmate of the Monster, it would seem Lugosi was doing penance for his proud refusal of Karloff’s part, but deeper humiliations were to follow. The film’s more kid-friendly approach met with approval from audiences but Karloff determined never to play the Monster again for fear of broaching self-parody. Universal had no such qualms about this as titles like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) clearly demonstrate, nor was it something Lugosi considered beneath his dignity anymore for it was in that very film that he belatedly accepted their offer. It’s worth mentioning however that, on this occasion, the Monster was blind. I doubt any macabre spite was intended, but its a twist that Saki or Aeschylus could easily have written.
A similar irony was mediated by Lugosi’s final coopetition with Karloff, Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher (1945). In the role of a creepy houseboy, Lugosi attempts to blackmail Karloff’s eponymous villain, resulting in a fight to the death which Karloff wins, a fitting end to their association.
With studio work fast evaporating, Lugosi starred in his only colour feature, Scared to Death, in 1947. The film was a comedy so top-billing was a pyrrhic victory, and the colour was turbid. His next comic turn was a slight improvement and easily the most notable, if at the least for giving him his second and last opportunity to play Dracula. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) represents the apex of Universal’s foray into spoof-horror comedy and, despite the title, Karloff was not involved (as though his genre stardom continued to eclipse Lugosi’s even in his absence). The film was a success but one can only speculate as to what difference, if any, a film called Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula could have made to Lugosi’s plight. It didn’t help matters that it renewed his typecasting for a whole new generation of moviegoers, and it was on this cruel note that Universal concluded its dealings with Lugosi, relegating him to a pantomime simulacrum of the role they had made his own.
The next comedy in which he guest-starred was Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), making the trip to England for the especial pleasure of being lampooned by drag artist Arthur Lucan. By this stage it would appear the screen’s original Dracula had less in common with himself than the waxwork from Dracula’s Daughter. Next he was recruited by a pair of ‘Martin and Lewis’ impersonators for Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1953), a film whose egregious title meant a great deal more for its namesake than whatever bestiality it promises. The man and the character were now so inextricably linked in the public consciousness that their delineation had become fungible, the former commodity worth only as much or as little as the latter. Lugosi was paying endlessly for a success someone didn’t seem to think he deserved, but Dracula had made an impression whose longevity would not be so easy to commodify, which could explain why he was twice called upon to reprise the role in earnest (or at least a proxy of it), in Mark of the Vampire (1935) and Return of the Vampire (1943). All that was missing from these pastiches was the moniker, which Universal owned and would only cede back to him under the auspices of tongue-in-cheek.
Tim Burton’s fanboy oscar-bait Ed Wood (1994) helped perpetuate the romantic idea that Lugosi (portrayed by Martin Landau, who won an Oscar) rounded out his life and career in the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr. In fact he appeared in one last, proper film called The Black Sleep (1956). Whatever depths he had plumbed for Wood – giving weight to his delirious lines in Glen or Glenda (1953), or (allegedly) lying in a puddle, pretending to fight a rubber octopus in Bride of the Monster (1955) – there was something even more abject about this final appearance. Whilst Dracula accorded him a limited stock-in-trade with purveyors of Z-list filler like Wood, Son of Frankenstein seemed to have typecast him as obsequious wretches in anything even a little more prestigious, and The Black Sleep was no exception. Critically, however, his part is completely nonspeaking, a miscreant fate for the actor who starred in Hollywood’s first talking horror picture.
Sadly the joke was not yet over. Lugosi was to be silent from beyond the grave, courtesy of Wood who contrived a posthumous cameo for him in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), in which he appears for a few seconds at the beginning before shuffling out of the frame to die an offscreen death, taken from a soundless test footage filmed shortly before his actual death in 1956. He had finally become a mute zombie.
Twenty-three years later the Supreme Court of California ruled in favour of Universal when Lugosi’s heirs tried to sue the studio for profiting by his undead likeness. Less than a year later Plan 9 from Outer Space was deemed the worst film ever made, which is a perfect end to this story.
❉ ‘Dracula’ (1932) is available on Blu-Ray as part of the Universal Classic Monsters – The Essential Collection (Universal), RRP £12.99.