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7

The Man Who Was Dracula

Actually giving birth to legends about oneself is no small feat. Yet Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) managed it. Much of the stories told about him are wrong, which coincidentally gives him something in common with Vlad the Impaler — there’s a lot about him treated as gospel but which are either untrue or at least disputable.

For example, Bela Lugosi did not learn the part of Count Dracula phonetically, being unable to speak English when cast. Odds are, when he first arrived in the United States he did a play or two phonetically but he picked up language quickly enough. Certainly by the time he was cast as the vampire he understood his own lines and those around him!

He did not request to be buried in his Dracula cloak (his family thought it a fitting idea). Lugosi’s career was not ruined by typecasting. He himself made a series of poor business decisions, and then suffered some ill luck when it came to parts. Frankly, he was a man with a terrible sense of money. His roommate back in Hungary mentioned in passing that as Word War I geared up, shoes would become more expensive because the government would have such a need of shoe leather. Lugosi immediately went out to buy dozens of shoes in his size, on credit. Likewise, he tried so hard to get the role of Dracula for the film that the studio paid him a relatively tiny salary — they knew he’d work for cheap. Meanwhile, his portrayal of Dracula gave real impetus to a career that otherwise would have been extremely limited, as a middle aged man with a thick accent.

And despite Tim Burton’s movie portrayal, Lugosi did not own poodles.

Plenty of other stories, now almost forgotten, proved equally wrong. Lugosi’s tales of his early life were often exaggerated to say the least. He often gave the wrong birth year (hardly a rare practice in Hollywood). His story of traveling to New Orleans in a freighter was thrilling, but records show most of the details totally false. Contrary to many a hint or outright claim, Lugosi was never a star in his native Hungary. A working actor of some prominence, yes. But hardly a star.

Sadly, all these legends interfere with understanding of an interesting life and a more interesting man. Mercurial, opinionated and sometimes foolish, he proved himself time and again a dedicated actor determined to give his all in each performance. Witnesses noted how he kept up an intensity backstage before playing every single showing of Dracula, even if he’d been doing it for years and years. Many called his performances hammy, but taking the time to watch his films reveals something else — an intensity that felt theatrical but real. More, given the chance he showed considerable range. In “The Invisible Ray” he played the equivalent of Van Helsing, a brilliant scientist on the side of the angels, trying his best to stop a colleague’s mad rampage. In “Son of Frankenstein” he created a part the polar opposite of his suave aristocratic vampire — a hunchbacked peasant of low cunning who befriended the monster. Other parts included Jesus Christ, a Latin American gaucho, Romeo and a brilliant police inspector (in “The Thirteenth Chair”). Along the way he married five times, once for only a few months, as well as having a brief but intense affair with Clara Bow (she attended a production of Dracula and went backstage; since she’d come directly from a pool party, all she had on was a swimming suit under a mink coat). One of his most treasured possessions till the day he died was a nude portrait of her. One wonders how various Mrs. Lugosis reacted to this.

In interviews surrounded “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” Gary Oldman noted that he studied Lugosi’s performance. There’s something there, he said. When you think on it, such must be true because this actor turned into an icon. Much of the success of Tod Browning’s film (one of Universal’s very few profit-making films that year) can be laid to Lugosi. Sometime watch the Epanish version made at roughly the same time. Overall the film work is superior to Browning, and the cast much better–with one exception. Carlos Villar never manages to equal the power or effectiveness Lugosi gave to the role. To this day, his is the popular image of Dracula, despite countless other roles. He might have been justifiably upset at being typecast, but it gave him fame and a Hollywood career far longer than he had any reason to expect.

Plus there is the comfort that he is remembered, still and odds are for many generations to come.

David MacDowell Blue blogs at Night Tinted Glasses.  He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is the author of The Annotated Carmilla. and Your Vampire Story (And How to Write It) as well as a theatrical adaptation of Carmilla.
bela lugosiCarlos VillarClara BowdraculaGary Oldmanhungarynew orleanstim burtonTod BrowningVan HelsingVlad the Impaler

david • December 1, 2010


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