Saturday, October 28, 2017

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Bela Lugosi!



He was born Béla Blaskó in Lugos, Hungary on October 20, 1882 (or possibly 1884). 

in 1900
 His parents could afford to send young Bela to the Budapest Academy of Fine Arts where he developed his dramatic talent.  In a few years he caught the eye of theater producers  and starred in many productions at the Royal National Theater in Budapest, among them Romeo and Juliet- appearing as Romeo. 


in the 1920's

onstage circa 1915, as Jesus Christ
Inevitably, film work followed and Bela appeared in his first film in 1910,  He was by that time known professionally as Bela Lugosi, his last name a tribute to the town of his birth.   


in a 1917 Hungarian film
Film actors at the time were often unbilled or were credited under assumed names.  Bela was credited in many of his early films as  "Arisztid Olt".  

At the start of WWI Bela enlisted in the Hungarian army.  He quickly advanced to the rank of officer and showed great courage under fire.  He served for two years on the Serbian front and later in Russia.  Bela was wounded three times and eventually was discharged at the rank of captain with honors for bravery and "action above and beyond the call of duty" winning the Hungarian equivalent of the Purple Heart.  

In 1917 Bela returned to the Budapest theater and also married his first wife, Ilona Szmik. 

In 1919 Bela supported the Communist Bela Kun who overthrew the current Hungarian government.  Unfortunately, the future of freedom and economic fortune promised by the new regime did not come to pass and the Kun government itself was overthrown.  Bela found himself on the wrong side of the political tracks and so he fled to Vienna and later to Germany.  His marriage ended in divorce.

Bela found some film work in Germany, including the role of the Native American Uncas in "The Last of the Mohicans".  F. W. Murnau cast him in an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde entitled "Der Januskopf".  That film starred Conrad Veidt and saw Bela in a small part of the butler.  (As with Murnau's film "Nosferatu" which ran into legal problems due to the neglect of his company to secure the rights to the novel Dracula, Murnau also changed the plot of Jekyll enough to avoid royalty issues with the estate of author Robert Louis Stevenson.)

When work dried up in Germany Bela earned passage to America by working as an assistant engineer on a freighter.  Landing in New Orleans, Bela identified himself as a political refugee and soon made his way to New York and the Hungarian community there.  He established himself as an actor and founded a small theater company of other Hungarian émigrés.  The company toured the U.S. playing for Hungarian communities (Bela still could not speak English).  During this time Bela married again, to Ilona Montagh de Nagybanyhegyes.  

In 1922 he was noticed by producers and was offered a part in The Red Poppy in New York.  The legend is that in the early days Bela learned his parts in English phonetically.  At any rate, he achieved good notices for his work and made his first American film in 1923.  After many other theater and film roles his was cast in the 1927 stage version of...Dracula.  

Dracula opened in New York in late 1927 receiving critical disdain but huge public success.  Bela continued with the role in New York and later on tour.  In 1928 he met and married his third wife, Beatrice Woodruff.  
onstage as...well...you know

In spite of the unique stamp he put on the role, Universal Studios did not consider Lugosi when they were casting their film version of the story.  Bela campaigned hard for the role, even going so far as contacting Bram Stoker's widow Florence in an attempt to lower her asking price for the rights.  The studio did not show its gratitude for Lugosi's work.  After considering almost every actor in Hollywood with the possible exceptions of  Laurel and Hardy and Rex the Wonder Horse, they finally offered the role of Dracula to Lugosi for the ridiculous sum of $500 per week.  David Manners who played the very small role of Jonathan Harker, received $2,000 per week.  


"Dracula" and Bela Lugosi were a smash and saved Universal's bacon in 1931.
with Helen Chandler as Mina


with Dwight Frye as Renfield




Bela received thousands of fan letters, mostly from women.  Can you blame them?


at home



Part 1 of an interview with Lugosi from 1932:

Part 2:


Bela Lugosi became a star, but his star never shone as brightly again.  He was Dracula in the minds of the public (and casting directors) for the rest of his career.  

as Dr. Verdegast in "The Black Cat" ,  with Boris Karloff


To keep the marriage board up to date:  He was divorced from Beatrice in 1929.  Married Lilian Arch in 1933, divorced in 1953.  They had a son, Bela Jr., born in 1938.   Married to Hope Lininger in 1955 and remained so until his death in 1956.  
Among his many other film roles:
as Dr. Mirakle in "Murders in the Rue Morgue".  The lady he is tormenting is Arlene Francis.  "That's two down and eight to go.  Over to you Bennet Cerf."  Oh god, I'm so old.



as Dr. Dearborn in "The Human Monster"
as Murder Legendre in "White Zombie"


as Dr. Vollin in "The Raven".  with Boris Karloff
as Dr. Benet in "The Invisible Ray"
the Sayer of the Law in "The Island of Lost Souls"
as Tarneverro in "The Black Camel"  with Warner Oland

He was considered for the role of the Creature in Universal's 1931 production of "Frankenstein" but either turned down the role (because it was a badly written non-speaking part under heavy make-up) or was not cast by Universal (because the film test was not very good) - take your pick.  Either way, if Bela had taken the part he might just possibly have remained the top horror star at Universal and his future may have been very different.

Lugosi was a much more talented actor with a wider range than he is remembered for today.  A man of great personal charisma, charm and integrity.  

I love you, Bela.  Rest in peace.


relaxing on "Dracula" set

in 1956


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