Bela Lugosi was perhaps the first Hollywood star to openly admit to his drug addiction. Lugosi had become dependent on drugs after being prescribed opiates for relief of painful sciatica in the late 1940s. As his habit grew, his career slid into shitsville Z-list movies and his dope fiend reputation kept producers from hiring the legendary actor. Lugosi was forced into making his money through repertory tours in the US and England and special guest appearances on late-nite TV and double bills at the local movie theater.
Living the junkie life in direst poverty, Lugosi was given the chance of a comeback by the infamous Ed Wood, who offered the actor work on Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster. Grateful for the chance to turn his life around, Lugosi checked himself into a rehab clinic, before moving onto the local hospital. Lugosi went “cold turkey” and spent three months (90 days was the state minimum) getting straight. When he left the hospital in 1955, he gave what is thought to be his last filmed interview, where he talked about his drug treatment, his plans for a new film with Ed Wood and how he felt like a million dollars. The feeling wasn’t to last, by August 1956, the legendary Bela Lugosi was dead.
It was English character actor Raymond Huntley who first achieved success as Dracula in the famous stage production by Hamilton Deane of Bram Stoker’s classic novel in 1924. The twenty-year-old Huntley became a star taking the play from provincial tour to West End success. However, when offered to play the Count on Broadway, Huntley surprisingly turned the role down, later describing his time playing Dracula as “an indiscretion of my youth.” A strange and possibly rueful response to what in essence could have been a whole new career. Huntley’s refusal left the way open for Bela Lugosi, who made Dracula his own.
Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko was born on October 20, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary, to a respectable and successful middle class family. Bela’s father wanted his youngest son to follow in the family tradition and take up a career in banking, but Bela ran away from home when he was twelve with the single-minded ambition of becoming an actor. Like his father the young Bela was stubborn and headstrong. Even when his father died, Bela never gave in to the family pressure to relinquish his dreams.
After years of hoping, waiting and hanging around stage doors, Bela was given a chance to learn his trade. He spent years as the spear carrier, the one liner, or the messenger sent on to develop the plot before he impressed in several Shakespeare productions, most notably as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. This led to his being offered work with the National Theater of Hungary, which (as you can imagine) was the country’s principal theater group. Lugosi later claimed he “became the leading actor of Hungary’s Royal National Theatre,” which may or may not be true.
However, his theatrical career was drastically halted by the First World War Lugosi enlisted to fight, was wounded and spent the remainder of his service recuperating. After the war, he became politically active, helped set up an actor’s union and was then involved in the failed Hungarian Revolution, which meant he had to flee the country as a suspected radical and enemy of the state.
Lugosi traveled to Germany and eventually moved to America, where he worked with a small east coast theater company performing to fellow immigrants. His success here gave him a shot at Broadway, where he brought a seductive exoticness and great menace to the roles he played—most critically as the Arab Sheik in Arabesque, where he was compared to Valentino. But his biggest hit came when he was cast as the evil Count in Dracula. Lugosi made the dark and nefarious Count a highly seductive and erotic figure—a premeval mix of sex and death. Women fainted, men were jealous, both were equally terrified.
Surprisingly, despite Lugosi’s success on Broadway, when Hollywood decided to film Dracula, the actor was not the first choice of producer Carl Laemmle Jr. who wanted Lon Chaney to play the Count. Sadly “The Man of a Thousand Faces” died before production began, leaving Laemmle a long list of actors Paul Muni, Chester Morris, Ian Keith, John Wray, Joseph Schildkraut, Arthur Edmund Carewe and William Courtenay to consider—anyone (it seemed) but Lugosi. However, Lugosi was determined to play the Count and lobbied Laemmle for the part, eventually winning it after accepting a cut in salary.
For me, no matter who has played the role since, Bela Lugosi is the master and in many respects the definitive Count Dracula—he is the standard by which all of the other undead are judged.
As for Huntley, well, he is instantly recognizable from his many film and television appearances, where he usually played the bank manager in pin stripe suit and bowler hat, the civil servant, the untrustworthy politician, the judge passing sentence or the scientist who did things by the book, all of which makes me wonder what his interpretation of the Count was like.
This rather enjoyable documentary Bela Lugosi: Hollywood’s Dark Prince tells the story of Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko, from rebelious childhood to Universal star and sad drug-addled demise, with contributions from Robert Wise, Martin Landau and Bela Lugosi Jr.
Whether Bela Lugosi said that, I dunno, but I do know that in 1909, the young Bela was cast as Jesus Christ in a production of the Easter passion play. And doesn’t he look good? With his robe, crown of thorns and flowing locks. The young Bela thought so too, and had several studio portrait photographs taken of himself as Jesus. Whether he invited audience members to drink his blood or eat his flesh is unknown.
A suitably whimsical report for Halloween on the Dracula Society‘s day trip to Whitby in 1977, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula.
The Society was originally set-up in 1973 by actors Bernard Davies and Bruce Wightman, to offer fans the opportunity to visit locations from the book, and re-enact certain scenes. Whitby, of course, was where Dracula arrived in England from Transylvania as a dog, and continued with his vampiric deeds.
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula has never been out-of-print, since it was first published in 1897.
Stoker spent 7 years researching vampire tales from European folklore, including some of the myths and history surrounding Vlad Tepes Dracul, the infamous Prince of of Wallachia, who impaled his enemies on stakes and allegedly drank their blood.
As for the character of Dracula, Stoker captured much of his friend, the actor Henry Irving, in his description of the Count. Later, it was thought Irving would make the perfect stage Dracula, but when asked to read an extract form the book, Irving pronounced it, “Dreadful!”
Since then, there have been many great actors who have portrayed the Count, most notably Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman and Louis Jourdan - who made a memorble TV version back in the 1970s.
Dracula is the most portrayed literary character on film, with 272 films, as of May 2012. The closest rival is Sherlock Holmes with 254 films.
Christopher Lee regarded the character of Dracula as “heroic, romantic, erotic. Irresistible to women. Unstoppable by men.” When cast as the vampire, Lee “played him as a malevolent hero.”
“I decided to play him as a man of immense dignity, immense strength, immense power, immense brain…he’s a kind of a superman really.”
Dracula, and vampires, are re-interpreted by every generation. These days, the vampire is a hormonal bad boy who wants a suburban life. But when I was child, I used to ponder: can vampires lose their fangs? And if they did, what happened?
‘It is often believed that a vampire cannot lose his or her fangs, but I can assure you vampires can, and often do, lose their fangs.
‘The loss of such essential teeth leads the vampire to use various utensils to start the flow of blood: a knife, a cutthroat razor, a bottle opener. Unfortunately, this means the death of the victim, which is generally to be avoided, as the last thing a vampire wants is to attract any unnecessary attention.
‘Such toothless vampires are messy eaters, and are rarely invited to dinner parties, as they waste more than they can drink.
‘Another misconception about us nightwalkers is our fear of garlic. We love garlic – well, most of us do – as it adds flavor to our diet. This is quite understandable when you consider our native homeland is Transylvania, where the local diet is rich in garlic that infuses the blood with a very delicious tang. It also purifies, lowers cholesterol and aids digestion.
‘It is a commonly held superstition that vampires are terrified of the crucifix. Well, while some vampires are Christian and some Jewish, most are agnostic. This is because we are the living dead, or undead. We are the creatures of the night, the residents of limbo, who have not quite died and have not gone to wherever-it-may-be. If at all. We therefore find it hard to believe in an after-life, unless it is this one. Which I suppose means, we are more like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
‘You may be surprise to hear that vampires do date and have various courtship rituals, just like you day-walkers. I can still recall my first date with my dear wife – we dined out on some winos, and got pleasantly drunk. As you can imagine, my future father-in-law was not best pleased when I returned his tipsy, giggling daughter back to their crypt.
‘And let me be clear, once and for all – no we cannot turn into giant bats, dogs or any sort of ethereal mists. Which is a pity, I know. No, sadly, we have to get around on foot or by car. In fact, it was another creation of the industrial revolution, trains that allowed vampires to move away from our overcrowded homeland.
‘As for sleeping in coffins, there is much conjecture about this. Some vampire historians believe we may have slept in coffins, mainly to escape detection. Remember it would have been rather strange in the olden days to get up at night and sleep during the day. Therefore, sleeping in a graveyard became the ideal place to hide out.
‘Or, perhaps, living and sleeping in a coffin is much cheaper than maintaining a house, a castle or a condo on the upper-eastside.
‘Yes, daylight is bad for us, just as it can be for you – it gives us skin cancer, something we are highly susceptible to, as our flesh is undead and has no elasticity or protection from the sun’s harmful rays. But, thanks again to changes in society, we have been able to find work as night watchmen, town criers, long distance lorry drivers, sewer workers, or just generally the night shift workers, who stack shelves or keep garages open, you know the sort. These days, most of us are in IT, where we can work to our own flexi hours.
‘As soon as we started working we made money. And as we made money, we found that we were buying houses, moving into nice neighborhoods, raising our families.
‘Oh yes, we do have families with all that this entails. We start junior off on mother’s blood before weaning them onto small insects, rodents, then medium sized animals.
‘And as for drinking blood, well it is the world’s fast food, a kind-of McDonald’s. Just as easy to pick up, but more filling, and nutritious, and there’s always plenty of it to go round. What amazes vampires is why humans waste so much of it – murder, suicide-bombers, muggings, knifings, gunshots, slaughterhouses, funeral homes, and war.
‘Of course, our kids do all the rebellious - feasting on winos blood, or sucking on a junkie to get high.
‘As for disease, we try to be careful about this, as too often you can catch a dose from some late night snack. That’s why we tend to stick to nice, clean, straight people, middle class people, who go to church, say their prayers, look after their health and work hard for a living. And yes, stakes can kill us. As can silver bullets, regular bullets, knives, and lots of other things too. That’s because we are not, as you say, immortal, we are the Undead.
‘We live to about one-hundred-and fifty or two hundred years of age, but that’s only because our metabolism is slower than yours. Our heartbeats approximately at one beat an hour. As for reflections – you can see us, we’re physical after all not ethereal.
‘So, how can you recognize a vampire?
‘We look like you. A bit pale, maybe. A bit more lethargic. The best way to recognize us is to look out of your window tonight, some time long after dark, and just see how many people are up and about. You can take my word for it, that at least one in ten or one in twenty of the people you can see is a vampire.
‘And don’t be fooled, not all of them have fangs - some of them wear dentures.’
A fine selection of false teeth are on display here, in this short video history of Dracula. Presented by Christopher Lee, who tells Dracula‘s history from novel, to the first theatrical productions and on to the Count’s life on film. With contributions from Bela Lugosi jnr, Peter Cushing, Jimmy Sangster, Freddie Francis and Caroline Munro.
Bela Lugosi was often depressed performing the role of Dracula. He dreamt he was dead, and woke in the morning exhausted, he tells Dorothy West in this episode of Intimate Interviews from 1932.
Lugosi explains how after the First World War, he participated in the Hungarian revolution, but soon found himself on the wrong side. He therefore left the country and arrived in America, where he continued his career as an actor.
His first success was in the title role of the stage production of Dracula. This led him to starring in the classic film version, directed by Todd Browning in 1931. Thereafter, he made a series of Horror films for Universal Studios, most notably starring against that “King of Horror”, Boris Karloff.
Lugosi jokes with West telling her is learning slang and knows how to say “okay”, “baloney” and “the cat’s whiskers”. He also goes onto say he likes living in America as people know how to mind their own business - which is more a reference to the way sections of Hollywood society ostracized the actor. Lugosi ends the interview pretending to be one of the Undead.
Bonus clip, Lugosi interviewed leaving the sanitarium in 1955, after the jump…
Bela Lugosi’s cape is up for auction. It’s being offered by Profiles in History, run by Joe Maddalena.
When one hears the name “Dracula,” it is difficult to imagine anyone but Bela Lugosi wearing his signature mode of dress—white tie and tails and a cape—which he wore in the 1931 Universal Pictures classic Dracula. The “Dracula” cape embodies the iconic horror figure and is now up for auction. The cape is screen-used and consigned by his son directly. Prior to his death in 1956, Bela Lugosi gave the cape to his wife of 20 years, Lillian Lugosi, and the mother of Bela Jr., telling her that it was the cape from the film and to keep the cape for his son. Upon Lugosi’s death in 1956, the family decided that he should be buried in his Dracula costume. Given Bela Lugosi’s wish that his son should have the cape, the family dressed the body in a lighter weight version of the cape he used when making personal appearances. Lillian retained the original 1931 cape and left it, along with her other possessions, to Bela Jr. upon her death in 1981. It has remained in his possession continuously. Without question, this is the greatest single horror garment in cinema history. The auction pre-sale estimate is $1,500,000 - $2,000,000.
I think I’ll pass on this and wait for Klaus Kinski’s Noseferatu cape to become available.
Tod Browning’s career never fully recovered after he made Freaks in 1932, the notorious horror film that was centered around the lives of sideshow performers. Browning was at the top of his tree when he made the film. He had a to-die-for CV, after a string of hits with Lon “The Man of a 1,000 Faces” Chaney, and had topped it all with the previous year’s smash-hit Dracula (1931), the movie that launched Bela Lugosi’s career. Browning was the studio’s blue-eyed boy, but his next picture Freaks finished all that.
Based on the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, Browning altered the tale and added in elements from his own early experience working in a traveling circus. It was his desire to give the film authenticity that proved controversial, as Browning insisted on casting actual carnies, instead of actors in make-up or costume.
Among the characters featured as “freaks” were Peter Robinson (“the human skeleton”); Olga Roderick (“the bearded lady”); Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris (“armless wonders”); and the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Among the microcephalics who appear in the film (and are referred to as “pinheads”) were Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow) and Schlitzie, a male named Simon Metz who wore a dress mainly due to incontinence, a disputed claim. Also featured were the intersexual Josephine Joseph, with her left/right divided gender; Johnny Eck, the legless man; the completely limbless Prince Randian (also known as The Human Torso, and mis-credited as “Rardion”); Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman; and Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, who suffered from Virchow-Seckel syndrome or bird-headed dwarfism, and is most remembered for the scene wherein she dances on the table.
Even before its release, MGM flipped and demanded changes: a prologue was added; the attack on Cleopatra edited; the castration of the strongman Hercules cut; and the film given a so-called “happier ending,” where Hans is reconciled with his true love Frieda. Still, all this wasn’t enough:
When the film was released it was greeted with revulsion and disgust by both the critics and the public and enjoyed only a very short cinema run in the United States before being withdrawn by MGM. In the UK the film was refused a certificate altogether. At the time the only categories available for films were ‘U’ and ‘A’ and it was felt that the film exploited for commercial reasons the deformed people it claimed to dignify. Even the arrival of the ‘H’ category for horror films later the same year failed to save the film.
The disparity of the film’s press reviews was astonishing, ranging from outright condemnation to a subtle warning to exhibitors to shy away from this touchy piece of merchandise unless they had “the courage to go through with a play date.” Almost all the reviews had this in common, an attempt to keep the younger patrons’ morals from being corrupted by the “shock” nature of the picture.
Harrison’s Reports commented: “Any one who considers this entertainment, should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital. Terrible for children or for Sunday showing.” Richard Hanser of the Buffalo Times echoed this warning with: “While the story may tax the credulity of the onlooker, it has the fascination of the horrible. It must surely be a nightmarish spectacle for children and they had better be kept away.” Similarly, The New Yorker chimed in with: “I don’t think that everyone on earth should see it. It’s certainly not for susceptible young people.”
In the Kansas City Star, John C. Moffit’s caustic wordplay nearly burnt through the printed page with: “There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it. The reason it was made was to make money. The reason liquor was made was to make money. The liquor interests allowed certain conditions of their business to become so disgraceful that we got prohibition. In Freaks the movies make their great step toward national censorship. If they get it, they will have no one to blame but themselves.”
Freaks remained banned in the U.K. for thirty years and is allegedly still banned in certain US States. However, in the 1960s, the film was:
...rediscovered as a counterculture cult film, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s the film was regularly shown at midnight movie screenings at several movie theaters in the United States. In 1994, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
It caused nausea and vomiting when first shown at the Cinephone, Oxford Street, in London. Some of the audience demanded their money back, others hurled abuse and shouted “That’s sick,” and ““Its disgusting.” This was the idea, as writer William Burroughs and producer, Antony Balch wanted to achieve a complete “disorientation of the senses.”
Balch had a hard-on for the weird, unusual and sometimes depraved. It was a predilection born from his love of horror films - one compounded when as a child he met his idol, Bela Lugosi, the olde Austro-Hungarian junkie, who was touring Britain with the stage show that had made him famous, Dracula. Film was a love affair that lasted all of Balch’s life.
He also had a knack of making friends with the right people at the right time. In Paris he met and hung out with the artist Brion Gysin and druggie, Glaswegian Beat writer, Alexander Trocchi, who was then writing porn and editing a literary mag called Merlin, along with the likes of Christopher Logue. Through them, Balch met the two men who changed his life, Burroughs and Kenneth Anger.
Anger helped Balch with his ambitions as a cinema distributor, getting him a copy of Todd Browning’s classic Freaks, which was banned the UK, at that time. Balch paid Anger back when he later released his apocalyptic Invocation of My Demon Brother as a support feature.
Burroughs offered Balch something different - the opportunity to collaborate and make their own films. This they did, first with Towers Open Fire, an accessible montage of Burroughs’ routines, recorded on a Grundig tape recorder, cut-up to Balch’s filmed and found images of a “crumbling society.” Put together stuff like this and the chattering classes will always take you seriously. But don’t doubt it, for it was good.
But it was their second collaboration, Cut Ups which for me is far more interesting and proved far more controversial. Cut Ups was originally intended as a documentary called Guerilla Conditions, and was filmed between 1961 and 1965 in Tangiers and Paris. It included some footage from Balch’s aborted attempt to film the unfilmable Naked Lunch. The finished material was collated and then conventionally edited - but the process didn’t stop there, no. For Balch divided the finshed film into four sections of equal length, and then...