It is a long way from Transylvania to Hollywood. Béla Lugosi began as an uneducated extra and anonymous Hungarian bon vivant, but ended up as a Hollywood legend, writing film history as one of the world’s great mythmakers and horror movie stars. He played an immortal role, gave it his own face, demeanour and Hungarian identity – a character so petrified in permanence that he never succeeded in stepping out of Dracula’s coffin. He was a famous monster, a creature highly sought-after by the industry, running the gamut of evil and psychopathy, and dying on-screen in every imaginable way. He was the go-to actor for the personification of the dark genres. It was a pigeonholed character that he eventually considered a prison house, but paradoxically it guaranteed the survival of his worldwide fame among movie lovers.
In his homeland Lugosi has been largely erased from movie-goer memory, but for the rest of the world, he ranks among the most famous Hungarians. Over five decades after his death in 1956, people from around the world continue to travel to his native land to look for his roots, and not just film historians, diehard horror and cult movie aficionados intrigued by his origins want to piece together the puzzles of his life. One of the most widespread delusions about Lugosi in Hungary is that he was a second-rate actor only good for roles in B-movies in Hollywood. It is an undeniable fact that few of his films were ever shown to movie and television audiences in Hungary, but this should not overshadow the fact that not only did Lugosi take part in more than 120 films, he took the leading role in the vast majority of them. Even before he left Hungary, he was a favourite screen face of the silent-film era. In just two years, he appeared in no fewer than 12 Hungarian films, each of which shared the same fate as 95 percent of all films shot between 1901 and 1930: they were either destroyed or vanished without a trace. Two of his films from this period that have survived in fragments are Casanova (although Lugosi himself is not visible in the surviving fragments) andKüzdelem a létért (“Struggle for Life”), in which he can be seen robbing a rural post office. In Germany, he cropped up in dramas, westerns and popular Indian films, including in the role of Chingachgook. It follows from the specificity of the horror genre – or, rather, from the degeneration of those genre-specific features – that most of his later films are inferior flicks mostly bereft of any redeeming features. Let us not forget, however, that Lugosi not only gave his name to some of the worst horror dross, but he starred in several films of indisputable artistic merit, movies which remain unsurpassed classics of the genre, namely Murders in the Rue Morgue, Black Friday (co-starring with Boris Karloff, that other great horror icon of the era), The Raven, The Black Cat, and The Invisible Ray. Indeed, it was in those works that he honed the breathtaking presence that would make Dracula famous. These films’ extraordinary tour de force of lighting, picturesque sets, sophisticated make-ups, fine-art-standard shot compositions, and the leisurely, slow-paced execution of the plots render them 1930s classics despite their undoubted theatricality and occasional naïveté.
Those were the halcyon days of Universal horror films, ushered in by the 1931 release of Dracula by Tod Browning, the circus-performer-turned-movie-director. Premiered on Valentine’s Day, Dracula launched the career of what would become one of horror’s favourite subgenres, the vampire movie. The number of films devoted to the blood- curdling myth of the ruthless Transylvanian Count now stands at over 150, although more than a few are of negligible value to put it mildly. The outstanding examples include the English director Terence Fisher’s version, starring Christopher Lee as a Dracula much fiercer than Lugosi’s one, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, with Klaus Kinski in the leading role. More than an incarnation of terror, Herzog’s vampire is an accursed creature afflicted by loneliness who, in tune with the spirit of the age, survives his own destruction. Then in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola marshalled an all-star cast to evoke the legend, although his effort was noted more for the special effects and relentless forward thrust of the plot rather than the performance of Gary Oldman, fine though it was.
Based on the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker, Dracula of course had a silent-film precursor, Murnau’s Nosferatu from 1922, just as Browning’s 1931 classic was not his first attempt at the vampire film genre: his Dracula was predated by a few years by his London After Midnight. This picture starred his pet actor, Lon Chaney, who would have been cast as Dracula but for his untimely death in 1930. Browning then had no choice but to search for a new hero, and chanced upon an actor hungry for success.
The youngest of four siblings and born Béla Blaskó, Lugosi was only eleven or twelve years old when he left behind his stern father and home – then the Hungarian town of Lugos, now Lugoj in western Transylvania, today part of Romania. At first he worked on odd jobs to support himself, but soon embarked on what would become a remarkable and unprecedented career in acting. He first appeared on stages in Temesvár, Debrecen and Szeged, and gradually picked up the tricks of the itinerant rural actor’s trade. He then enrolled in Szidi Rákosi’s acting school in Budapest. After graduation, he was briefly signed on by László Beöthy at the Royal Hungarian Theatre, then run by the Beöthy–Rákosi family. In 1913, he transferred to the National Theatre under the direction of Imre Tóth, who cast him in mostly minor roles although he played Adam in The Tragedy of Man and Jesus Christ in the passion play entitled The Life and Death of Jesus.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Lugosi put his acting career on hold and volunteered for service despite having an option to exempt himself. After six months on duty he was wounded and taken to a hospital in Budapest. He returned to the front as soon as he recovered, only to suffer a nervous breakdown and be hospitalised again, as reported by the magazine Színházi Élet. He was sent on leave but soon tired of idleness.
The theatre crowd were fond of Lugosi without considering him to be a great promise. His handsome looks, well-bred manners, dignified posture and aristocratic composure set him up well for conversation plays and amorous roles. He became tremendously popular with audiences, although critics were lukewarm. Writing in the Pesti Napló newspaper about the ill-advised casting of the play Görögtűz (“Bengal Light”), the poet Dezső Kosztolányi grumbled: “Béla Lugosi certainly cuts a dashing figure in his perfectly fitted tuxedo, who draws loud gasps from the audience every time he comes on stage. But how will this otherwise pleasing actor convince anyone as a university professor from Geneva in plain clothes? No, he is unable to break the mould of the handsome, forever amorous Hungarian ladies’ man, even if his role is to play the part of the man of the countryside who deep inside remains ‘the professor of experimental psychology’, European and erudite to the bone. It is hardly surprising, then, that we the audience join the characters on stage in utter surprise at the dénouement when his true identity is revealed, when we should have been convinced and aware thereof long since”.
Perhaps driven by such doubting voices, by a sense of being neglected, or maybe by a realisation of the power of the audience, Lugosi turned toward the silver screen. Assuming the screen name of Arisztid Olt, he began working for Star, one of the major studios in the 1910s making films for mass consumption. Apart from a handful of film versions of literary classics, Star specialised in adapting bestsellers and pulp fiction for mainstream audiences, often emulating American models. Star films were not noted for their high standards but they were widely distributed in Hungary and abroad to great success. And because in 1917 and 1918 Hungary counted among the most prolific film-producing powers in the world, releasing more than a hundred films in the span of a single year, Lugosi soon had his hands full. He was taken under the wing of Alfréd Deésy, Star’s senior director, who came to direct the majority of the films Lugosi ever shot in Hungary, such as Leoni Leo (title role), Casanova (with the director in the leading role, this was apparently the first Casanova screen adaptation in film history), and Az élet királya (“The King of Life”), based on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Lugosi was also directed by Mihály Kertész (later known as Michael Curtiz) three times: in the director’s first film ever, Az ezredes (“The Colonel”, on the side of Gerő Máy, Pufi Huszár and Sándor Góth), Lulu and, finally, in 99, Lugosi’s last appearance before the cameras in his native Hungary.
During the Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919), Lugosi made the biggest mistake a Hungarian actor could ever make by getting involved in politics at a time when the entire film industry was nationalised under the command of an appointed Directory. Following instructions by his superiors, Lugosi founded an actors’ trade union, organised industry forces, and also served as secretary. After the fall of the Soviet experiment, the commission of the National Theatre stripped him of his job and forced him to emigrate, along with a director who would later be known as Sir Alexander Korda. Following stopovers in Vienna and Berlin to take part in movies, Lugosi crossed the Atlantic by steamer boat, working as a stoker. On arrival in the New World, he set about digging up Hungarian connections. He signed with Sándor Palásthy’s American–Hungarian theatre group and New York’s Hungarian theatre and toured the American countryside, directing The Tragedy of Man to considerable acclaim. As someone who thought and cursed in Hungarian to the end of his life, Lugosi had a limited command of English at the time and a huge accent, but he worked tirelessly on phonetically memorising his lines. Then, at last, his rollercoaster career which looked like it was stalling eventually took off. In 1926, he turned down an amnesty offered by the Hungarian government, and plumped for trading potential glory in his homeland for the opportunity to appear on the Broadway stage. He would appear as Dracula no fewer than five hundred times from 1927 onwards. In 1929, he won praise from critics and the industry for his performance as Inspector Delzante in Tod Browning’s film The Thirteenth Chair. Meanwhile, Universal was gearing up for a big-budget Dracula production to be directed by Browning, and with the untimely death of Lon Chaney, Lugosi’s fortune had come full circle.
What could be more poignant for an America shaken by the Great Depression than an archetypal story of a blood-sucking aristocrat exercising a reign of terror over the villagers, a story of aggression which more than hinted at repressed sexual desire? Mainstream cinema in those days had no choice but to embrace the demand for a shocking, horrifying brand of entertainment. Universal gave it everything they had, and the masterpiece it produced was crowned by the presence of Lugosi. With its tiers of Gothic windows, coffins, cobwebs and slithery critters, Dracula’s castle, rising from a wildly picturesque scenery and barely accessible by a rough meandering road, remains one of the most strikingly effective sets of filmhistory. As for the figure of the Count, he is the epitome of the primordial human fear of vampires as embodied in the classic narratives. Between his consummate makeup, the scary glint in his eyes amplified by deft spotlighting, the gesture of his menacingly raised arms, his white bony hands, his stiffly erect back, and his unique and authentic Transylvanian accent, Lugosi put in an unforgettable performance. There is indeed something immortal about the way in which he steps forward from behind the cobwebs to introduce himself, shudders at the sight of his guest’s drop of blood, and proffers him a taste of an ancient vintage from his cellar, excusing himself with the famous words, “I never drink … wine”.
It seemed Lugosi harboured something of a secret for New World audiences, something alien and mysterious, an air of restlessness and strain, a sense of being continually torn inside. He seemed cold as ice while at the same time practically bursting and seething with energy. Dracula owes its famous capacity to engender fear not so much to the expert cuts between scenes and to sound effects as to Lugosi’s piercing intensity and ability to hold sway on the screen. He shaped his character meticulously, building the role from head to toe, suffusing a tuxedo and gown with believable life. And although he no longer looked as trim and dashing as in his early playboy days, legend has it that, following the premiere, he received more love letters than Clark Gable did in the wake of Gone with the Wind. By then, Lugosi had been through two wives. Back in Hungary, in 1917, he married Ilona Szmik, the daughter of a Budapest lawyer, whom he divorced three years later when she left him, under pressure from her family according to some sources, or because of his intolerable temper, according to others. In the United States, Lugosi married the actress Ilona von Montagh, but their marriage soon capsized due to senseless rivalry and ended in divorce. Lugosi was not one to restrain his admiration for women or to leave his popularity unexploited. He also hated to live by himself. The papers would occasionally discuss his scandalous affairs, which was not without danger in those days. He created quite a stir by leaving his third wife, a wealthy widow from San Francisco, three days after the wedding for Clara Bow, a fellow scandal-maker with huge eyes and lustful lips who had taken the film industry by storm while still in her teens. One of the first sexsymbols, Bow worked for Paramount for years. She appeared nude on the screen in the title role of Hula in 1927, and led a lifestyle regarded as immoral by the standards of her day and age.
In 1931, Edward Van Sloan, who had played Professor Van Helsing in Dracula, and Dwight Frye, cast in the role of a real estate agent-turned-giggling, fly-eating maniac Renfield, showed up in Frankenstein, another cult classic of the horror genre. Lugosi himself was offered the speechless role of the monster, but allegedly took it as an affront and said no, letting in his rival Boris Karloff who rose to world fame on the strength of his performance in this role. Lugosi compounded his mistake twelve years later in the twilight of his career by reluctantly accepting the role he earlier rejected in the movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. There is a popular misconception propagated by melodrama-mongers to be dispelled here that Lugosi and Karloff hated each other and that a pathological feud raged between them. Not that they loved each other, mind. Each considered the other’s acting credentials with a healthy dose of scepticism, and of course, there was a natural rivalry between them for the roles of monsters and madmen. They played side by side in eight films, each a gem of the genre. What rankled with Lugosi though, and understandably so, was Universal’s highlighting of Karloff’s name in larger type in the headlines and credits even when Lugosi had the actual leading role.
Business pundits in the heyday of the horror movie, however, cannily billed the two stars together. Double screenings of a Dracula film and a Frankenstein film would often be shown on the same night. In The Ghost of Frankenstein, Lugosi was cast in the role of Ygor, the hunchback saved from the scaffold, who persuades the son of the deceased Frankenstein to resurrect the monster from his deep slumber. In actual fact, Karloff nourished the cult of Lugosi, and vice versa. They were of the same ilk, and shared equally in disgrace and triumph.
What Lugosi did come to loathe was his Dracula’s cloak, which he tried ever more vigorously to shakeoff. Ultimately, he was unable to put to rest the monster he had himself created. Perhaps he could have broken the mould of the type cast if he had dared to set his aims higher. He never managed, however, to get his fellow artists and audiences to recognise him as anyone other than an impersonator of the evil Count. His appearance as the Sayer of the Law, a hairy mutant, in Island of Lost Souls stands out as one of his finest performances, albeit again in the role of a monster. It was an endless cycle of self-repetition. By then, Lugosi’s discontent had grown to a level he knew from before way back in his homeland, despite the fact that his private life seemed to have at last sorted itself out. In 1933, he married Lillian Arch, the daughter of a Hungarian immigrant, who was many years his junior. In 1938, they had a son who later became a lawyer in Los Angeles by the name of Béla Lugosi Jr. In 1939 Lugosi Sr. worked alongside Greta Garbo in Ernst Lubitsch’s immortal comedy Ninotchka, a film in which the divine Garbo was first seen laughing with abandon on the screen. Despite his superb performance in the role of the grim, strait-laced comrade Razinin, Lugosi seemed unable to find respite, continuing to fight his own demons without a moment’s peace. Like many in Hollywood then as now, he saw possible salvation in alcohol and drugs. As he slid lower and lower on the Hollywood salary scale, the family had to leave the Lugosi mansion and downsize into an apartment. Not long after, to make ends meet he was forcedto tour the country with a demeaning gig as Dracula suddenly sitting up in his coffin. His fourth marriage then ended up in divorce court in the early 1950s, and the loss shook him seriously. He went into rehab in an attempt to get his son’s mother back, but Lillian remained intractable, afraid of letting herself in for more melodrama. It was probably his trepidation about loneliness that drove Lugosi to the altar a last time, when he married one of his fans, Hope Lininger, a forty-something film editor with a caring disposition. Worn out by a series of detox treatments Lugosi then fell on hard times so profoundly though that he soon needed the support of others. Frank Sinatra was among those who helped him out from time to time.
Lugosi had his friend, Edward D. Wood Jr., better known as “Ed Wood, the Worst Director of All Time”, to thank for his comeback to the silver screen. After Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster, both movies directed by Wood, Lugosi’s career ended with the film Plan 9 from Outer Space, their last undertaking together, with a title that heavily hinted at its mediocrity. Even the passing away of Lugosi did not deter the producer-director from completing the shooting. Hence, Lugosi’s last film premiered in 1959, three years after his death, allowing him, so to speak, to toss and turn in his grave. Lugosi was buried in the summer of 1956, a few weeks before his 74th birthday – dressed in his Dracula costume in honour of his last will.
His former home in Los Angeles was for a long time occupied by Johnny Depp, who impersonated Ed Wood in the eponymous 1994 movie. Martin Landau’s evocative portrayal of an old and embittered Lugosi in the Ed Wood film earned him an Academy Award. Back in his homeland, Lugosi’s tormented soul was explored by Iván Darvas in Péter Müller’s play, directed for the Madách Theatre by István Szabó.
The Hollywood dream factory presented Béla Lugosi with the dubious honour of playing the same role all his life – a hundred shades of evil, in as many guises. And he made an honest attempt to rise to that challenge. In the midst of coldblooded doctors, lunatic scientists, despicable monsters, obsessive hypnotisers and blood-sucking Counts, he never tired of bringing meticulous attention to detail in shaping each of his characters. He carried dozens of horror flicks on his shoulder, and remained just as freshly fascinating in the twentieth as in the first. Yet he became cocooned in typecast, unicellular boredom. Undoubtedly, Martin Landau is a great actor who managed to empathise with the tragedy of the toothless vampire, sensitively enacting his desperate clinging to his forfeited talent and squandered opportunities. Yet I am convinced that the Oscar statue he came away with that night was, at least in part, awarded to honour Béla Lugosi’s lifetime achievement.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel