November 25, 2004

Bela Lugosi

While cruising the net, I ran across this image, which brought back memories:


[The stamps issued consist of] five portraits of the actors based on publicity photographs of their most famous horror films. Lon Chaney appears as the Phantom of the Opera, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and the Mummy and Lon Chaney Jr. as Wolf Man.

The descendants had wanted stamps that carried two portraits of their famous relatives, one with monster makeup and one without. Designer Derry Noyes of Washington met their wishes by placing signed photographs of the four actors at the top of the sheets of 20 stamps.

The stamps are the second to contain hidden images, using a process developed by Graphic Security Systems Corp. of Lake Worth, Fla. This time designers have scrambled an image -- not letters -- into each of the stamps: bats on the Dracula stamp, hieroglyphics on the Mummy, masks on the Phantom, wolves on the Wolf Man and lightning bolts on Frankenstein.

To see the images requires purchase of a $4.95 "decoder lens" from the Postal Service.

With that as inspiration, here's the first in a series of brief bios based on those classic stamps.

(in the extended entry) Bela Lugosi was born in the Austrian-Hungarian empire as Be'la Ferenc Dezso Blasko (lots of little squiggly emphasis marks missing in that name) on October 20, 1882.

As a young man, he became a star of the stage and theater in Budapest, as his fine singing voice gained him many roles in operettas as well as traditional plays.

He volunteered for military service during WWI and was commissioned as an infantry lieutenant. He was wounded three times during the war.

He was forced to immigrate to Germany because of his "leftest" activities when he helped organize an actors union. He arrived in New York City in December, 1921.

He became a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, having membership number 28.

Bela Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956. At the time of his death, Lugosi was in such poor financial condition that Frank Sinatra quietly paid for his funeral. Lugosi was buried in his full Dracula costume, including a cape.

According to Vincent Price, when he and Peter Lorre went to view Bela's body during the funeral, Lorre, upon seeing Lugosi dressed in his famous Dracula cape, quipped, "Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?"

Biography from Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia (excerpted):

The man who will always be known as Dracula actually had a long and distinguished acting career (mostly on stage) before donning cape and fangs in Hollywood. In 1901, after studying at the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts, this banker's son made his stage debut as a featured juvenile. Tall, aristocratic, and handsome in a vaguely sinister way (with piercing eyes and a cruel mouth), he spent the next two decades building a reputation as one of Hungary's great matinee idols, and made his first film-A Leopard-in 1917. Political turmoil in his homeland drove Lugosi to Germany in 1919; he appeared in several films there, including a 1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and a 1922 filmization of The Last of the Mohicans.

Emigrating to America shortly thereafter, Lugosi toiled in stage melodramas and routine programmers (such as 1923's The Silent Command and 1925's The Midnight Girl) before assuming the title role in the 1927 Broadway production of "Dracula," which he also essayed for two years on the road. The thick, almost impenetrable accent that hampered him in most roles actually proved to be an asset when he played Bram Stoker's Transylvanian vampire. Film rights to the play were sold to Universal, which announced that Lon Chaney would play the title role. But Chaney's untimely death from cancer in 1930 prompted producer-director Tod Browning to cast Lugosi instead. Dracula (1931) launched Universal's long-running cycle of horror movies and made its star a household name overnight.

Unfortunately, the movie's success also doomed Lugosi to a lifetime of boogeyman roles in vehicles of steadily diminishing quality. After refusing to play the Monster in Frankenstein (1931, the role taken by Boris Karloff), he played his first mad doctor in Murders in the Rue Morgue a voodoo master in White Zombie (delivering a wonderfully florid, over-thetop performance), and a priest of the Black Arts in Chandu the Magician in 1932 alone. But the next year he was already working for Poverty Row producers, getting top billing in Mascot's The Whispering Shadow and Majestic's The Death Kiss but winning only supporting roles in major-studio productions such as The Island of Lost Souls and International House (all 1933). Independent producer Sol Lesser gave Lugosi a bona fide hero role as the star of The Return of Chandu a 1934 serial also released in featurelength version. That same year he returned to Universal for The Black Cat (1934), the first (and best) of several chillers that teamed him with Karloff, whose career eclipsed Lugosi's almost from the start.

Lugosi's typecasting and his failure to master the nuances of the English language certainly hampered his American film career, but he also proved to be his own worst enemy, taking leads in the most abysmal mini-budget schlockers for whatever money producers were willing to pay. A colorful character role, that of Ygor, the mad shepherd in Son of Frankenstein (1939), briefly restored Lugosi to prominence, and he appeared to good advantage in that year's Ninotchka (starring Greta Garbo), but he alternated strong supporting roles in Universal's Black Friday (1940), The Wolf Man (1941), and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, again as Ygor) with negligible turns in low-budget Monogram melodramas produced by schlockmeister Sam Katzman, who teamed Lugosi most ignobly with the East Side Kids in Spooks Run Wild (1941) and Ghosts on the Loose (1942).

Major thanks to for much of this material.

Posted by: Ted at 09:12 AM | category: Cult Flicks
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1 *slips into his Bauhaus immitation*
Bela Lugosi's dead...undead undead undead.

Posted by: Kin at January 09, 2005 01:53 PM (/Vdvc)

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