Bela Lugosi's Not Dead

Last Friday night (20th March) I went to the Prince Charles Cinema, in Leicester Square, to see Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) on 35mm. One of the many joys of that film - and it is one of my favourites - is of course Martin Landau's portrayal of an elderly Bela Lugosi. The film got me wondering about the relationship between the Hungarian actor and the role that made him an icon.

At the time of his death, in 1956, the undead bloodsucker and Lugosi had merged in the public eye (and Lugosi's mind) to such an extent that the actor was buried in a cape. (The original owned and worn by Lugosi in the film, Dracula, was put up for auction by his son, Bela Jr. in 2011, where it failed to sell. He want over $1 million for it.) 

The narrative goes that Lugosi's decline in Hollywood was a result of being continually typecast in horror roles by studio bosses. And it's probably true. The star formula has always stuck: we like to see our idols doing what they do best on screen. A deviation from that doesn't always work out. Dracula, for Lugosi, would always pay for a hot meal, even if the wage packet varied - and lessened - as he got older. Before all that happened, he was a stage performer in Hungary - the fella once played Jesus Christ - and performed in many Shakespeare plays. In America, again on the stage, he found a link back to his homeland. Lugosi clung to the Count throughout his career, reprising the role a couple of times on the big screen, but undertaking many theatre productions around the world. One senses it was a case of mutual and lucrative exploitation. He played the Count and made the character ever more popular, Stoker's novel has sold well since its debut in 1897, and Lugosi cemented his place in cinema and theatre history. And it's worth remembering that Lugosi's portrayal genuinely terrified audiences. (It helped that the actor was Hungarian and from the same part of the world as old Drac and folkloric vampires.) 

He might have died during a period when he was starring in Ed Wood's bizarre and cack-handed genre pieces, Burton's film depicts the guy as a tragic but irascible old codger, do NOT mention Boris Karloff to him, but Lugosi's long-term legacy would never be truly sullied by an ignoble end appearing in movies so far beneath him, it's like a space station in orbit looking at an ant through a telescope. (Can technology even do that?) But you get the point. It never should have happened to Bela, but it did, and there are entirely valid reasons for that episode of his life. If he'd have lived for another ten years, he may well have joined Karloff, Lorre, Rathbone and others in Roger Corman pictures and other AIP productions. And yet, to paraphrase a line in JG Ballard's Crash (1973), 'Bela Lugosi died and became immortal.' Is it not a film-world variation or form of metempsychosis? The movie star transmigrates from an earthly realm to a purely cinematic one. Gone away, but also there on the screen. A physical body becomes a body of work. 

Tod Browning's Dracula was a landmark moment for the genre and for Bela. Has the movie itself aged well? Not really. The first part is atmospheric and creepy. The second half is, truth be told, very dull, certainly when Lugosi isn't around. It is said Browning left most of the directing to his cinematographer, Karl Freund, a legendary DoP from Germany who ended up, believe it or not, shooting episodes of I Love Lucy. This is the master craftsman that photographed the German masterpieces of Murnau and Fritz Lang, and whose style had a major impact on Hollywood cinematography. And yet Hollywood has form in taking European talent and giving them what look like crummy projects. Many left Los Angeles distraught or as complete failures and returned home, but plenty also stayed put and left their mark. Mind you, Freund did excellent work on even I Love Lucy, and his choice of shooting live television with a three-camera set-up proved revolutionary for the medium. It's also worth bearing in mind the new-ness of television back then, to the point where studios reacted to its popularity by making films bigger and bigger - CinemaScope, and all that jazz. 

Anyway, back to Bela ... yes his career went from classic horror roles to an encounter with Mother Riley and roles in Ed Wood productions, but mostly people continue to remember Dracula and the other good stuff (White Zombie and The Black Cat, for example). See a photo of Bela Lugosi and you immediately think: Dracula. Is it just a generational thing? Of course not. Horror fans of any age will look back into history and rediscover the genre and its important, not-so-important figures and plain hacks. Because art appreciation is in the eye of the beholder. It's no secret anymore. So I don't think Lugosi's iconic status is under threat. 

Lugosi's charisma is captured in production stills taken during films and even the posters, that offered an interpretation - of the essence - of what is on the screen. I have placed them below this article. These promotional materials captured the deadly allure and danger of Dracula and Lugosi's performance as the vampire, as well as just being gorgeously designed and photographed promos. Some of the original posters can go for thousands of dollars on eBay and other auctions. Oh if I only had the money! Now look at them and you'll understand why Lugosi has remained one of the genre's most cherished icons. 

Production Stills

A Lobby card