Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bela Lugsoi's 130th Birthday

It was today in 1882 that Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó was born. If that name does not sound familiar, then I am certain the stage name he used throughout his career does: Bela Lugosi. Alongside Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi is perhaps the most iconic horror actor of all time. While other actors would come to be identified with the genre (Vincent Price, Sir Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing among them), it is perhaps Messrs. Karloff and Lugosi who remained most firmly tied to the genre in most people's minds. Sadly, to this day many people tend to think of Bela Lugosi primarily as Dracula, ignoring the many other roles he would play in his career, some outside the horror genre. The fact is that Bela Lugosi was a very talented actor who could play roles well beyond that of the famous vampire.

Perhaps like the majority of people I first saw Bela Lugsoi in Dracula (1931) and, while this might seem like heresy to many, I was not terribly impressed with his performance. Even taking into account that Mr. Lugosi's performance as Dracula has been parodied for literally decades, I thought he played the role much too broadly. This is particularly true in the scene in which Dracula tries to hypnotise Van Helsing (Edward Van Helsing), in which Mr. Lugosi's acting seems particularly affected. I suspect Bela Lugosi's somewhat hammy performance in Dracula was the result of a number of factors. The first is that he had played the role on Broadway for 261 performances. As  a result Mr. Lugosi brought with him to the film version of Dracula the techniques he used in the role on the stage. Unfortunately, these did not adapt well to film, nor did director Todd Browning try to adjust Mr. Lugosi's performance so it was better on the film. Second, like many actors Bela Lugosi had not been starring in talkies for very long. The Jazz Singer had only been released in 1927. Bela Lugosi had only made his first talkie (The Thirteenth Chair) in 1929. Now contrary to popular belief, silent acting styles varied from the extremely naturalistic to extremely broad. And while the broader acting styles could prove effective in silent movies, they did not always translate well to talkies. I've often wondered if I would not have appreciated Bela Lugosi's initial performance as Dracula more if the film had been a silent.

Whatever I might believe to be Bela Lugosi's shortcomings as Dracula in the movie of the same name, he proved to be a very effective actor in talkies. While it is true that he was typecast and he spent the majority of his career in horror films, in the end Mr. Lugosi would play a wide variety of types of roles and do them quite well. In fact, despite the fact that many tend to think of Bela Lugosi in his roles as a horror villain, I think my favourite of his performances are those in which he played a hero. Mr. Lugosi's skill as playing a hero can be seen in the first film he ever did with Boris Karloff, The Black Cat (1934), in which he played psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast. In the film Dr. Werdegast finds himself at odds with his old friend, architect turned diabolist Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Mr. Karloff). Mr. Lugosi plays Dr. Werdegast with a slightly more naturalistic style than he used in Dracula and it pays off quite well. Dr. Werdegast is a very sympathetic character, although one bearing the scars of his own past all too visibly. In The Black Cat Bela Lugosi matches Boris Karloff in his performance, no small feat for any actor.

Even more notable than his performance in The Black Cat is Bela Lugsoi's performance in another film in which he was paired with Boris Karloff, The Invisible Ray (1936). While The Invisible Ray was definitely one of Universal's lesser efforts, it is worth watching for Mr. Lugosi's performance alone. The Invisible Ray centres on Dr.  Janos Rukh (Karloff), who discovers a new radioactive element that, unfortunately, both poisons him and turns him into a homicidal killer. Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Rukh's kindly associate Dr. Benet, who figures out a way the new element can be used for good (healing people, curing the blind, et. al.). Bela Lugosi gives what may be the best performance in the film. It is also one of his most restrained performances, with Mr. Lugosi making Dr. Benet a complex idealist who must deal with the fact that his friend has gone mad.

Of course, there are those rare films in which Bela Lugosi played neither hero nor villain. A movie in which this is the case is the classic Island of Lost Souls (1932), a pre-Code Paramount horror that is intense even by today's standards. The film was based on H. G. Wells' novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which Dr. Moreau (played in the film by Charles Laughton), who has been experimenting in turning animals into humans. Bela Lugosi plays one of the beast men known as "The Sayer of Law," the one who reminds the other beast men of the rules. The Sayer of Law is really neither hero nor villain, but simply a tragic character cast in a situation not of his own making. Mr. Lugosi gave what could be his best performance as the Sayer of Law, endowing the character with both dignity and pathos. Indeed, it is Bela Lugosi who has some of the films' best lines.

Another film in which Bela Lugosi played a character who was neither hero nor villain was Ninotchka (1939).  In the film Mr. Lugosi has the small role of Commissar Razinin. Commissar Razinin is a strict man known for sending individuals to Siberia. While Razinin is stern, it must be pointed out that he is only doing his job. Indeed, for as formidable as Razinin is, Bela Lugosi makes him likeable nonetheless. In fact, it is here that we can see that Mr. Lugosi was a great comic actor. Unfortunately, it would be his last supporting role in a mainstream, major feature film.

Sadly, Bela Lugosi would spend much of his career playing villains, usually in horror movies. In fact, his most famous role besides that of Dracula could be Ygor, the mad blacksmith with a twisted body from Universal's later "Frankenstein" movies. Ygor first appeared in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In Son of Frankenstein Ygor manipulates Frankenstein's Creature for his own evil ends. Ygor returned in Ghost of Frankenstein and, if anything, was even more demented than ever. Bela Lugosi did a very good job as Ygor, lending the character both madness and evil, while at the same time making him somewhat believable.

While Ygor may be Bela Lugosi's second most famous villainous role, it was by no means his best. That would perhaps be Dr. Richard Vollin in The Raven (1935). Dr. Vollin is a surgeon with a love of Edgar Allan Poe and a penchant for torture devices inspired by Poe's short stories It is then perhaps unfortunate that he becomes obsessed with the beautiful Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware). Bela Lugosi is very subtle in his performance as Dr. Vollin, a character who can be chivalrous and polite, but can turn cruel and sadistic. Even though Boris Karloff received top billing in The Raven, it is Bela Lugosi who is the real star. He is the primary villain of the film (Mr. Karloff played his unwilling henchman, convicted murderer Edmund Bateman) and he gives by far the best performance.

Although he was best known for playing villains in horror movies, Bela Lugosi appeared as a somewhat villainous character in the pre-Code comedy International House (1933). In the film he plays General Nicholas Petronovich ("formerly of the Russian Imperial Guard--at present general manager of the Moscow Utilities Company").  General Petronovich wants the radioscope (a sort of early television) invented by Dr. Wong (Edmund Breese) and is willing to use either trickery or intimidation in order to buy the rights to it. At the same time General Petrnovich is trying to win back his ex wife (Peggy Hopkins Joyce, playing herself) and jealous enough of millionaire Prof. Henry R. Quail (W. C. Fields) to take a shot at him.  In International House Bela Lugosi proves that he had a gift for comedy and does a great job with General Petronovich. While Petronovich is hot tempered, manipulative, and jealous, such is his charm and elegance that one can't help but like him (one gets the sense he is more bark than bite).

Of course, Bela Lugosi's most famous screen villain would remain Dracula, and he would have a chance to revisit the character in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Mr Lugosi's performance as Dracula is much more naturalistic this time around. There are none of the affected gestures or broad displays to found in the film. Indeed, despite the fact that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is a comedy, Mr. Lugosi plays his role straight. Sadly, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein would be Bela Lugosi's last major motion picture. The rest of his career would be spent appearing in B-movies (and in the case of Ed Wood's films, Z-movies).

It seems obvious to me that Bela Lugosi was a very talented actor whose career should have gone very differently. It was perhaps his misfortune to star in Dracula, leading him to be typecast as a horror actor. While it is true that Mr. Lugosi never lost his Hungarian accent, that need not have been a hurdle to good roles. Many European actors, Marlene Dietrich and Herbet Lom being prime examples, never lost their native accents but played a wide variety of roles in both dramas and comedies. Of course, Bela Lugosi also had the disadvantage of having chronic sciatica that he developed due to injuries he had received while serving in World War I. This led to being treated with pain killers to which he became addicted. This resulted in dwindling roles as the Forties progressed. Even taking into account his eventual addiction to morphine, however, it seems that had he not been typecast and had Universal and was given better roles in non-horror films, Bela Lugosi could have been regarded as a truly gifted actor. Indeed, looking at his career, it seems to me that he may have actually been better suited to comedy roles than horror roles.

While Bela Lugosi would spend most of his career in horror movies, many of which were B-movies, he gave enough great performances that his talent should never have been in doubt. Boris Karloff himself described Bela Lugosi as "...a shy, sensitive, talented man..." Although as identified with Dracula as he has always been, many of Bela Lugosi's other roles are well deserving of rediscovery and his career is in need of re-evaluation. While his career may not have gone as well as it could have, Bela Lugosi left behind a legacy of great performances that have largely been ignored by the public at large.

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