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NONFICTION OCTOBER 2007 – NO. 18




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Bela Lugosi's Legacy

by Eric Nuzum

Despite its fame, Dracula would destroy the life of the man most associated with its legacy.


In front of me was a black box and in that black box was a ring.

"Can I pick it up?" I ask.

"Sure."

I lifted it to my face for a closer inspection.

There are two pieces of jewelry associated with Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Count Dracula in the iconic 1931 film Dracula. A silver medallion and a large signet ring. In the movie, Lugosi is often seen walking with his bent arms extended slightly in front of him, as if the ring was leading the way. The medallion is currently buried six feet under with Lugosi. The ring is nested in the box in my hands.

"How did you ever get this?" I asked.

"Well, he gave me a few things himself, but the ring was given to another friend," replied Forrest Ackerman. "Then the friend thought it would be better kept with me."

People have entrusted a lot of precious things to Forrest (who most people just call Forry) — incredible rare and valuable pieces of movie memorabilia — given for him to display in the "Acker Mini-mansion," a.k.a his house, in Los Angeles's Los Feliz neighborhood. The bungalow is tiny, probably no more than 1,200 square feet, and every room is packed with items from his collections. Lugosi's ring is above the mantle. Life masks of Bela, Lon Chaney, Tor Johnson, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff hang above the doorway into the dining room. The false teeth and top hat worn by Lon Chaney in the now lost film London After Midnight [1] sit near the kitchen door. An alien hand used in the original War of the Worlds is sitting on top of a cabinet. Prop pieces from Metropolis sit in his front study. I notice two masks on top of the refrigerator that look like the creature from the Black Lagoon.

"What's the story with these?" I ask.

"Well, the one on the left is from the original and the one on the right is from the first sequel," Forry replied.

"These are the original masks?"

"Yup."

"Sitting here on top of your refrigerator?"

Forry giggles. "Yes."

Forry is credited with coining the term sci-fi to describe the monster, science, and outer space movies, magazines, books, and comics that he adored. Forry first got hooked on the fantastic when he could barely even read. He stumbled across a copy of Amazing Stories magazine when he was nine years old (which he still owns and displays in his house), devoured its collection of weird tales, and was hungry to find more. By the time he was 13, he was corresponding with more than 120 other fans, had coined several pre-sci-fi phrases to describe the genre (including scientifiction and imagi-movies) and was contributing to early science fiction magazines. Since, he's been a literary agent, film producer, comic book creator, writer, prolific movie extra, and creator/editor of the seminal sci-fi magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland.

For as impressive as his collection is, it used to be much bigger. Forry's full collection used to fill a larger house in the Hollywood Hills. When health and finances forced him to downsize a few years ago (he is nearing 90 and now lives alone), he held a yard sale to get rid of some of his 300,000 science fiction and horror items. He donated 120 pieces to the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle and has a few others here and there. The remaining items are here in this house. Every Saturday morning Forry opens his house to anyone who wants to stop by and look at his things. He's done this every Saturday since 1951.

"You're interested in vampire stuff, aren't you?" he asks.

"You bet."

Forry launched into a mini-lecture about how he views the appeal of vampires. According to Forry, vampires have much more appeal to women than to men.

"I think a lot of ladies in their love life occasionally get bitten a bit by their lovers and they can imagine it going just one step further," he said. "I think that Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee had a lot to do with spreading an international interest in vampires. Ladies would see these dashing sophisticated gentlemen. Sure, they had an evil side, but that only added to the attraction."

Forry pointed his finger towards a glass-fronted cabinet.

"Get over to that bookcase and bring me the yellow book there," he added.

I could see the bookcase, but getting to it would be a challenge. There was about four solid feet of stuff, chest-high, separating me from the bookcase. I slithered along the wall containing some of the original paintings that graced the covers of Famous Monsters of Filmland and some of the original hand-drawn panels for an issue of Vampirella — a comic that Forry created.

For someone who believes that vampire fans are primarily women, I kinda want to ask him to explain Vampirella. The character Vampirella is a dominatrix-looking, tits and ass, leather-clad hottie in a space suit it looks like she outgrew when she was eleven.

In addition to being a comic book, Vampirella is also the worst vampire movie I've ever seen.

Vampirella combines Forry's two favorite things:  outerspace fantasy and vampires. Vampirella lives on the planet Draculon and travels to Earth to avenge the death of her father. The murderer was another vampire and Draculon exile named Vlad, portrayed by Roger Daltery, lead singer of The Who. Once on Earth, Vampirella hooks up with a guy named Adam Van Helsing, who is part of a paramilitary group called PURGE that hunts vampires (a precursor to Buffy's The Initiative). The movie is so poorly acted, so poorly shot, so poorly directed that it seems too easy to make fun of it. The biggest question you have while watching Vampirella is how Roger Daltery got twisted up with this crap ball. Given, his "acting" is limited to widening his eyes and hissing, but you think that he would have rather used some of his rock 'n' roll money to buy the rights to the film and have it destroyed, rather than experience any well-deserved shame for having any association with this flick. Even easily forgiving horror fans complained about the film (many suggesting that Vampirella Talisa Soto wasn't busty enough for the role).

In the film, Vlad has, of course, decided upon the low-key profession of rock star, thus forcing Daltery through the indignity of lip-syncing some terrible songs written for the movie while wearing some oppressively '80s clothes and makeup (especially odd seeing that the movie was shot in 1996). In the meager crowd at Vlad's concert, you notice one guy really enjoying the music:  Forry.

Once I positioned myself as far towards the buried bookshelf as I could, I was able to reach my fingers inside the glass doors on the bookcase and retrieve the yellow book. Once I handed it to Forry, he opened the front cover, turned it around towards me, and handed it back.

"Look."

The book itself was a first American edition of Dracula, signed by Bram Stoker himself as well as many people associated with Dracula over the years:  Christopher Lee; Vincent Price; Carla Laemmle; Ferdy Mayne; Vampira; Raymond McNally; Lon Chaney, Jr.; John Carradine; Bela Lugosi (who signed it twice); and several others that I couldn't make out.

"And come over here," Forry said, pointing towards the bay window at the front of the house.

There stood a short black mannequin — the top of its head barely reaching my shoulder — wearing a cape. It was Bela Lugosi's cape from the Broadway stage version of Dracula. The cape Lugosi wore in the movie Dracula has been the subject of several urban myths. Unlike most of these tales, one of the most bizarre versions of this story is actually true:  Bela Lugosi was buried wearing a cape. Despite decades of trying to escape from the role, Lugosi had indicated that he wanted to be buried in his Dracula costume. The mythical part kicks in with stories that claim the cape was later found hanging in Lugosi's closet — suggesting that somehow it had returned from the grave. It wasn't the same cape. Considering the number of times he portrayed Count Dracula (among many other vampire characters), Lugosi had several.


*


Twelve years after Bram Stoker's death, his dream of seeing his novel come to life on stage was realized. The only problem was the play bore little resemblance to his novel.

The reasons no one had been willing to stage Dracula were that the novel takes place in two different countries and dozens of locations. It would require a large cast, expensive effects, and would be difficult to pare down to a reasonable length. Despite all this, when English theater producer and actor Hamilton Deane approached Florence Stoker about rights, she really didn't care what he did with the book as long as she got paid. In order to secure the stage rights, Deane had to turn over 90 percent of the royalties to Florence.

When the play debuted in August 1924 at the Grand Theater in Derby, England, critics hated it; audiences loved it. After two successful seasons in Derby, Deane moved his play to London, where it opened in February 1927. Again, critics blasted the play, but it was a sellout for five solid months. To add even more spectacle to the production, Deane positioned a nurse inside the theater for every performance of the play. Eventually, an American producer named Horace Liveright approached Mrs. Stoker about bringing the play to Broadway.

Liveright originally offered the lead in the Broadway production to Raymond Huntley, the actor who played the Count in London, but Huntley's salary demands forced Liveright to find a new count. He quickly settled on a relatively unknown Hungarian actor named Béla Blasko, who went under the stage name Bela Lugosi.

While Lugosi's bio materials stated he had been a huge star back in his native Hungary, his verifiable accomplishments were significantly less grand. After finding himself on the wrong side of the political fence in the Hungarian revolution of 1918, he worked his way across Europe and eventually to the United States. Despite the fact that he spoke practically no English, he was still able to land roles in New York by learning his lines phonetically. Even five years after his arrival, Lugosi still knew little English when cast in Dracula. He, again, delivered his lines phonetically and was directed in French. The play opened at the Fulton Theater on October 5, 1927. The American critics were far less caustic towards the Broadway production and the play quickly grew to be a huge hit. It wasn't long before Universal Pictures came calling, inquiring about turning Dracula into a motion picture.

Because of Mrs. Stoker's various rights schemes, acquiring the movie rights was complicated. By the time Universal had everything straight, they had struck deals with four different rights holders. By this time, Lugosi had wrapped up the Broadway production and was starring in the touring company. He was eager to hold on to the film version of the role and started lobbying aggressively — perhaps too aggressively.

Universal had other plans. They'd considered several actors for the part (including John Griffith Wray, Ian Keith, and Conrad Veidt), and had secured Tod Browning as the film's director with hopes they could lure Lon Chaney to the role. Universal executive Carl Laemmle, Jr., had gone as far as sending a telegram to Lugosi's agent saying they weren't interested. Yet Bela persisted, suggesting that his association with the role would be a big selling point for the film. Lugosi was doing everything he could to endear himself to Universal. He repeatedly interceded on behalf of Universal during their negotiations with Florence Stoker, trying to persuade her to grant them rights for a film version. Further, Lugosi donated his services to Universal by dubbing male voices for Hungarian versions of their films. However, to Universal, all these gestures came off as desperation. When their other choices for Count Dracula didn't pan out, they realized that they could get Lugosi for just about anything they offered him. And they did.

Just before filming began in September 1930, Universal gave the part to Lugosi with a salary of $500 a week. This rate was less than a quarter of the salary given to any of the other marquee actors. In fact, Lugosi was offered less than several of the minor players received. Regardless, he took it. All told, Lugosi's entire compensation for appearing as the eponymous count in Dracula amounted to about $3500.

In viewing Dracula, there are several things that immediately surprise you. First off, for as groundbreaking a visual film that Dracula was — arguably setting many standards in the budding horror genre — it isn't a very visually interesting film to watch. Many of the film's scenes were filmed with long, wide shots, almost as if the filmmakers were trying to capture action in a stage play rather than create a film. One camera shot in the finished film runs almost three continuous minutes without a single cutaway, camera pan, or reaction shot. That aside, some eventual staples of the horror film genre made their first appearances in Dracula, such as the dank and spooky castle, copious cobwebs, the sinister winding staircase, and fog to indicate the nearby presence of evil.

Secondly, it's obvious that Dracula was still part of the first wave of talkies. Many viewers today are struck by the sparse dialogue in Dracula — there are long silent passages in the film. For a talkie — there sure isn't a lot of talking going on. [2]

Also, for being a supernatural horror film, the filmmakers dodged a lot of the potential for special effects. This is especially odd because they were written into the script (including more of Lucy's vampire transformation and undead antics with Count Dracula, as well as an extended staking scene), but for some reason Browning altered the structure of the film to avoid producing them.

Most people are unaware that a second version of Dracula was shot at the same time as the Browning-Lugosi film — a Spanish-language version. It used the same sets, scenery, and props, but a different cast and crew. They would come onto the set during the evenings and film through the night. Filming simultaneous versions of movies was a budding practice at Universal during the time. Making multiple language versions of a film during the silent era was easy — just replace the dialogue cards. The invention of sound created many expensive problems. At the time, Universal received half its revenue from foreign markets and several foreign governments were threatening heavy tariffs on imported English-language films. Dubbing movies into foreign languages was expensive and very difficult, so producers began creating shadow productions like the Spanish version of Dracula. It was a wise tactic. While Universal spent close to $450,000 to produce Dracula, the addition of the Spanish version only added $66,000 to the original production costs.

The Spanish Dracula, starring Carlos Villarias as the Count and Lupita Tovar as the Mina character, is actually a far more interesting film to watch than the original — revealing all the missed opportunities in the American version. Though some of the characters were renamed (such as Juan Harker), the Spanish Dracula sticks to the same basic plot outline as the American version. However, the Spanish version made use of all the camera angles, lighting, and visual effects missing from the "day time" Dracula. The Spanish crew would rearrange the scenery, props, and furniture to create more depth and visual tension. While the Count's basic outfit is the same in both films, many of the Spanish version's actresses (especially Dracula's vampire wives) had much more sensuous, low-cut clothing and fleshed out the sexual elements of the story (pardon the pun) instead of suppressing them.

Browning and Lugosi's Dracula debuted at New York's Roxy Theatre on Friday the 13th, in February 1931. Again, the press reviews were mixed, and again, Dracula quickly became a runaway hit. To a degree that exceeded the novel and play before it, the movie version of Dracula struck a nerve with the public. It was more than a scary movie; its themes resonated with what frightened people outside the theater as well. At the time, the United States was just coming to grips with the extent and profound depth of its economic problems. There was a distrust of anyone associated with the three Bs:  bankers, brokers, and businessmen. In the decades that preceded the Great Depression, foreign immigration and the rise of Communism had created a general suspicion of Eastern Europe. Count Dracula, the wealthy aristocrat from the East, invaded their lives, violated young women, and overturned their worlds.

Dracula became a popular culture juggernaut — making a deeper, more ubiquitous impression on our cultural history than any previous film. Yet despite this and the assumed advantages of its fame, Dracula would directly and indirectly destroy the life of the man most associated with its legacy.

Before Dracula even opened, Lugosi was already complaining about being typecast in the role and the pittance it had brought him. While filming, Lugosi received an offer to portray Dracula on stage … again. "No! Not at any price," he proclaimed. "When I'm through with this picture I hope never to hear of Dracula again. I cannot stand it … I do not intend that it shall possess me."


*


Think what you like of Bela Lugosi's acting, but it's hard to look at his decision making post-Dracula and not conclude that he was his career's own worst enemy. Painting himself into a corner for his Dracula salary was just the beginning. Shortly on the heels of Dracula's success, Universal offered Lugosi the role of the monster in their upcoming adaptation of Frankenstein. He turned them down, thinking the heavy make-up and prosthetics would render him unrecognizable. Universal ended up offering the role to Boris Karloff instead, transforming the actor into a horror icon (and spawning Lugosi's near obsession with Karloff's successes).

One of Lugosi's first post-Dracula films was White Zombie, a bizarre story of Haitian zombies and magic potions that was shot in eleven days for less than $50,000 (even making use of some of the Dracula and Frankenstein sets and props). Even though Lugosi was a superstar who arguably was the film's only box office appeal, he was paid only a few hundred dollars more per week than for Dracula.

There was something else soon complicating Lugosi's life. Dracula hadn't only given Bela a career-defining role, it had also given him a morphine addiction. Lugosi had recurring back trouble and was prescribed painkillers so that he could work. Soon, he was hooked, an addiction that would plague him for most of the rest of his life. [3]

As the years passed, Lugosi found himself cast in progressively worse films, eventually sinking to such dogs as The Devil Bat, Ghosts on the Loose, Zombies on Broadway, and Return of the Ape Man (a film that contained no Ape Man — returned or otherwise). Though he portrayed other vampire characters in film throughout his career, Lugosi portrayed Count Dracula in only one other film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. The film would also be the last time Lugosi would be employed by a major studio. Though he repeatedly swore he had no interest in performing Dracula on stage, he'd often reluctantly accept offers just for the desperately needed cash. In the middle of one such tour, in the United Kingdom, the production went belly-up, stranding Lugosi overseas with no money to get home. In order to get back to the United States, he agreed to star in the über-clunker Mother Riley Meets the Vampire — later retitled and released as My Son the Vampire, one of the first films I watched when I began all this vampire malarkey.

A few years later, the 72-year-old Lugosi checked himself into a state hospital for his morphine addiction. At the time, Hollywood was still decades away from lionizing freshly sober celebrities and Lugosi was viewed as a pariah. The only person to hire Lugosi after his stint in rehab was director Ed Wood, Jr., who cast Lugosi in several of his films. One week into filming Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, Lugosi died of heart failure. (Wood later finished the film by using his wife's chiropractor as a stand-in, covering his face with a cape.)

"I was with him two weeks before he died — at the premier of his final film The Black Sleep," Forrest Ackerman had told me during our visit. "We sat together up in the balcony and afterward we were coming downstairs. I could see that they were set up with a big TV camera to interview him. He was very vain and wouldn't be seen in public wearing glasses. So everything down there in the lobby was just a big blur to him. So we got to the bottom of the stairs and I said, 'Bela they want to interview you' and he said, 'Just point me in the right direction.' I said take about six steps forward and you'll be there. He straightened up and filled out and all of a sudden became the tall, proud figure of Count Dracula."

According to his wishes, before burial Lugosi's family dyed his hair and eyebrows jet black, had theatrical makeup applied, and dressed him in his Dracula costume and cape. As much as he tried to escape the Count's shadow during his lifetime, it was a fitting tribute. During his life, he had portrayed Dracula more than 1,300 times.

"During the last three years of his life we went out of our way to have him in our home at parties and I took him to get groceries, have his shoes resoled, and such," Forry had told me. "One time he got out of the car, put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'I don't understand why you young people are so good to me.' And I said, 'Well, Bela, you were good to us, you know. You entertained us and we're happy to help you.' I don't think he really understood what he meant to us. Not at all."


From The Dead Travel Fast by Eric Nuzum. Copyright © 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press.


Original art courtesy Rob Grom.

NOTES:

1. This film, helmed by Dracula director Tod Browning, was the first U.S. film with a vampirelike character.

2. In partial justification for this, when Dracula was released it was still common to find theaters throughout the country that still couldn’t play sound. As a result, there was a silent version of the film that was created and shown.

3. Lugosi wasn’t the only Dracula cast member to experience tragedy after the film. Director Tod Browning created the disturbing film Freaks in 1932, which pretty much ended his serious film career. Helen Chandler, the actress who portrayed Mina, grew dependant on alcohol and pills and was unemployable by the mid-1930s. Dwight Frye, who played Renfield, was unfortunately typecast (despite a wide range as an actor) and died twelve years later from a heart attack.


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Articles in this Issue

Bela Lugosi's Legacy, by Eric Nuzum
Days of Overblown, by Albert E. Martinez
The Chief Mourner, by Brenda Yun
Cleveland 1954, by George Sparling
Those New York City Faces, by Randall Dana
Engraving, by Russell Streur
Theater, by Austin Bunn
Assyriology, by David Damrosch
September 2007

AUTHOR BIO:

Eric Nuzum is a recovering pop culture critic, VH1 pundit, and author of Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America. He writes a lot of inane stuff that falls somewhere between the styles of Ted Kaczynski and Robert Frost, with a dash of inappropriate jokes thrown in for good measure. Nuzum was awarded the 2002 National Edward R. Murrow Award for News Writing and his work has appeared in a few publications you've heard of and many more that you haven't heard of. He works for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. and lives with his wife in that same general area. He opines regularly on his Web site, www.ericnuzum.com.

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