Bela Lugosi

by Johane Nozier

It was a grim period for America during 1931 (Matthews, 2009, pg. 5). The Great Depression, the biggest economic crisis in the country’s history, had negative effects throughout the land. Dracula (1931) was a perfect metaphor for the Depression and it inaugurated the classic horror cycle in Hollywood. Frankenstein (1931) also had the same effect. These movies, during a dark time, introduced a new monster and god’s world to movie audiences, entirely revolutionizing the horror film in Hollywood. Universal Studios, prior to the Great Depression falling upon America, had been cultivating the genre “horror” as it conformed to the studio’s assets and strengths (Matthews, 2009, pg. 5-6,14). Among the Golden Age movie stars was Bela Lugosi. Some of his most notable movies include Dracula, The Black Cat, Son of Frankenstein, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, released in 1931, 1934, and 1939, and 1943 respectively (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). Bela Lugosi was the star actor in various horror films. His success welcomed the horror period of mad scientists, werewolf films, and Boris Karloff.

Young Bele Lugosi

Bela Lugosi

As a stage play, Dracula moved West in 1928 aiming to entertain the increasing Los Angeles’ population. Bela Lugosi was the lead star, who even captured the attention of Clara Bow, a starlet (Baldwin, 2008, pg. 55). Lugosi possessed striking resemblance to Count Dracula, his assigned character. Born in Hungary, he spent some time in Transylvania and spoke nearly no English. For his part in the movie, he would only learn his lines. However, he usually had no idea what they meant. He was also featured in Broadway, where he played exotic extras. He had a strong accent that allowed him to offer a particular mystique to Dracula’s role that other actors failed to offer. Lugosi, in only 24 short months, would become a horror film star (Baldwin, 2008, pg, 55). He enjoyed working together with the cast, unlike with the producers. According to Fred Scollay, he was a funny person. He rarely got upset or moved, until he was on the stage where he transformed into an animal, perfectly playing Dracula. Lugosi took the role very seriously, as it was his livelihood. He was respected by everybody, something which was a great deal (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016).

In 1932, Lugosi was the star in the movie White Zombie, the film which introduced zombies to the movie-lovers for the first time (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). This movie went along to become among the most successful independent movies of the 1930s (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). It also popularized the word “zombie”, making it rapidly saluted in a song the following year and later a cocktail. He featured in another zombie movie Zombies on Broadway, in 1945 (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). This film did not echo the White Zombie as it exemplified the RKO’s horror movie custom. Lugosi had merely played part in this tradition. He portrayed a crucial character in the film, Dr. Paul Renault, which he played for not more than ten minutes out of sixty-nine minutes. He had a fight scene, but because his age was 62, he was very old for such onscreen fights. At the time, he may have been unwell or somewhat sick when shooting the movie. The Dr. Paul Renault character, different from the zombie master in White Zombie, is in essence a character of the sort that he presented on multiple instances since Frankenstein (as the mad scientist) was released in 1931 (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016).

Lugosi also featured in No Traveler Returns as the villain, Bharat Singh, evil and disturbing genius who had power for casting weird spells over vulnerable victims (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). This movie did not do well and it was negatively criticized by various commentators. The San Francisco Chronicle, following opening night, declared that this movie was likely the season’s dullest and longest play. The response was negative in different cities, including the Oakland newspapers. The Post-Enquirer reported that the “most frightening thing is that the second act is even cornier than the opening one” (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). A harsher comment was delivered by the Oakland Tribune, which claimed that Bela Lugosi and Ian Keith were overacting. It claimed that it would not be “worth the effort” giving readers any plot synopsis. The article ended with how dazed audiences scrambling for the exits immediately once the play ended. The bad reviews and negative word-of-mouth had a great effect on the sale of tickets (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). In the No Traveler Returns movie, Lugosi appears to have deviated from that which he was popularly famous. The movie itself can be labeled as unsuccessful due to the bad reception it got. The audiences did not love it and Lugosi’s part was not what the moviegoers expected him to play. The viewers wanted to see him play a scene similar to that of Dracula as it was what suited him better. Despite playing the villain, the publicity that this movie received was parallel to his horror movie credentials.

Lugosi mainly featured in horror films. In most of these films he was beside Boris Karloff (Frankenstein’s monster character), their first movie together being The Black Cat. The two became close friends, an iconic duo that went on to do seven more films together. Their last movie together was The Body Snatcher released in 1945 (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). Lugosi featured in other horror films. 1931’s Dracula, where he played the Count, forced him to have limited roles in primarily horror movies because of typecasting (Rhodes and Kaffenberger, 2016). Bela Lugosi’s legacy is a great one. Multiple movies feature the Count Dracula character. However, the performance by Lugosi set the role’s standard. The film had a cultural significance, the reason it has been selected even by the Library of Congress and also the National Film Registry. This movie has been featured among the top films regarding villains and heroes.

The popular culture has also featured Lugosi. For instance, Bauhaus, a British band, released a single in 1979, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, a gothic rock’s cornerstone song. Many have attempted to portray him, the most famous of which is Martin Landau in the movie Ed Wood. There is also a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Bela Lugosi (Carpenter, 2012, pg. 25). His films are remembered to this day. This is mainly because Dracula, the film that made him famous and designated him the role of a villain. Since then, there have been countless incarnations of the character, inspired by Lugosi’s portrayal.

Bela Lugosi was featured in a great number of Hollywood horror movies. Universal Pictures had been looking forward to producing horror movies, and Lugosi was a perfect fit. He was loved by those he worked with, many referring to him as a good and jovial man. His legacy still remains strong. After his character as Count Dracula, many movies have attempted to feature this character, but none has received as much praise as Lugosi’s. The movie remains significant even in American culture.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Ian M. American Monsters: The Rise of the U.S. Horror Film and Monster Show Culture, 1919-1932. California: University of Redlands, 2008. <;.

Carpenter, Alexander. “The “Ground Zero” of Goth: Bauhaus, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and the Origins of Gothic Rock.” Popular Music and Society 35.1 (2012): 25-52. <;.

Matthews, Melvin. Fear Itself: Horror on Screen and in Reality During the Depression and World War II. North Carolina: McFarland, 2009. <;.

Rhodes, Gary D and Bill Kaffenberger. No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi. Georgia: BearManor Media, 2016.

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