How Bela Got Shafted
After the massive success of DRACULA, Universal Studios naturally wanted Bela Lugosi for its upcoming FRANKENSTEIN. Bela wanted to play the crazed scientist, but the studio wanted him for the Monster. Much has been said about Bela’s refusal to play the part, but it isn’t true. Granted, he wasn’t thrilled with the prospect, not because of the heavy makeup he’d have to wear but because the creature, in the draft of the script that Bela was offered, was not the nuanced, pathos-inspiring character that we ended up seeing onscreen. All that fleshing-out of the Monster was done after James Whale came onboard the project. The Monster that Bela would have played was a one-dimensional, mindless killing machine. He felt, and rightfully so, that such a role would fail to make proper use of his talents. Even so, he didn’t refuse to do it. He did complain: is this what earned him a position in the doghouse with Universal? Did he piss off somebody in a power position, somebody like studio head Carl Laemmle, who reportedly didn’t like Horror to begin with? Possibly.
At the time Bela was supposed to be in FRANKENSTEIN, it was to be directed by Robert Florey. Laemmle, for whatever reasons, removed Florey and Bela from the project and brought in James Whale, who, as stated earlier, did much to improve the script. Florey and Bela were given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE as a sort of consolation prize, but when it failed to bring in the big bucks at the box office, Universal, i.e. Laemmle, in the greatest blunder in cinematic history, decided not to renew Bela’s contract. That’s why we only got to see Bela play the Count so few times, in spite of the fact the he became synonymous with the character and the character with him. In the popular mindset, Bela IS Dracula, period. Yet Universal shafted him. No offense to John Carradine, a talented actor in his own right, but his Dracula (he took on the role in Bela’s absence) couldn’t hold a crucifix to Bela’s. Not until Christopher Lee came along a couple’a-three decades later did anyone manage to give us a proper Dracula, and even Lee’s personification must come in second to Bela’s.
Smooth move there, Laemmle. NOT.