Béla Lives! 

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I finished reading Arthur Lenning's The Count: The Life and Films of Bela "Dracula" Lugosi about a week ago. Lennig, a child fan of Lugosi's, met his hero and actually became friends with the Hungarian actor in the 1940s.

Lennig's biography of Béla (pronounced "Bay-la") is what you would expect from a friend who wants to salvage something of his hero's reputation. The writer spends little time on the five wives and how the first four became ex Mrs. Lugosis: one returns to Hungary and the reader never hears from her again. When did the divorce happen? Or was Lugosi a bigamist when he remarried a year later?

Then there is Lugosi's drug addiction. The actor, after his fourth divorce and the loss of his wife's help in curbing his drug use, committed himself to Los Angeles General Hospital's mental health and hygiene department on April 21, 1955 (a year before his death).

It's not clear when Lugosi's addiction to morphine blossomed: he himself hinted at the years 1935, 1938, 1944 and 1948. Lennig, though, a true friend, estimates the last year (page 275), to stress that the strain of his failed career was what drove him to drugs.

What really did in the vestiges of Lugosi's career was was the 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Playing Frankenstein's monster with the brain of Ygor implanted in his head, Lugosi performed the part of Shelley's original talking monster. However, Universal ultimately removed his spoken scenes from the film, leaving plot holes that studio heads then blamed on Lugosi. Thus, Lugosi's career with that studio came to an end.

In the same year, Lugosi filmed Columbia's The Return of the Vampire. This film ran afoul of the critics, driving another stake into Lugosi's career.

It was only in 1948 that Lugosi's agent, Don Marlowe, convinced Universal president to hire Lugosi for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Marlowe "barged" into the president's office, explained that Lugosi had saved the studio in 1931, that he only made $3500 off the classic film, while Universal reaped millions, and that the studio owed the old man. The studio laid off Ian Keith from the role and replaced him with Lugosi. This meagre offering would be Lugosi's last major studio role.

One can appreciate Lennig's efforts in tracking down Lugosi's oeuvre and the gusto with which he describes the plot of each film, lovingly detailing how Lugosi would pronounce every cheesy mad scientist cliche with theatrical reverence.

Béla Lugosi not only defined the role of Dracula, starred in the first zombie movie, and perfected the mad scientist, he was also the first Ygor, in 1939's Son of Frankenstein.

In the end, Lugosi's contributions to American culture have created a career for Gary Larson; spawned movies, songs, books, toys, postage stamps; gave Transylvania's tourism board a raison d'être; and permanently removed Dracula's moustache.

Some highlights from the biography and the quirky scripts:
  • Premiering on December 19, 1926, was The Devil in the Cheese, in which Lugosi appeared a Greek bandit masquerading as a priest. Worth noting is the synopsis of the play that Arthur Lennig describes: "The father, to find out what makes his daughter tick, eats a bit of mummified Egyptian cheese and so frees the little god Min, who subsequently takes Quigley into his daughter Goldina's head." If only her head contained anything of interest: "She dreams of adventure with her young hero on the South Seas, on a desert island, and finally in New York; she also envisions cooking, having babies, nursing, and some politicking from which her husband becomes president."

  • In the 1937 S.O.S. Coast Guard, Bela Lugosi played the mad inventor Bornoff who's involved in the disintegration gas weapons trade with Morovania (page 208). Who cares about the show. It's Morovania I want to fixate upon. Morovania is obviously a combination of Moldova and Romania, in the spirit of Molvanîa and Syldavia (Transylvania + Moldova - though more Balkanized than the real Romanian countries). In 1943, he finally played a real Romanian in The Return of the Vampire.

  • Another script to drool over is 1941's The Devil Bat: "Bristling with passionate resentment as only Lugosi can, he seeks revenge by breeding giant bats and giving his enemies a shaving lotion that attracts the creatures."
Oh the possibilities! Lennig recalls, on page 241, the old adage that "No one would ever go broke underestimating the taste of the American public."

(P.S. Dear Béla, though some people claim you have some sort of double-chinned-ness happening, I have to disagree. You were one sexy bastard and you stole the show in Dracula. Love, FG Maktaaq.)

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I'll have to look for that book. It sounds great. Often considered a bit over the top nowadays, I've always loved Bela in movies. He had a look in his eye no one can really imitate well.
But don't get your hopes raised, Hebdomeros - the book is less about his life than synopses of his movies.

Though I agree with the look in his eye - he was the only worthwhile part of Dracula.
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