This weekend, October 20 was Bela Lugosi’s 125th birthday.
In 1931, Bela Lugosi became an instant sensation upon the release of Dracula, the film that ignited the first golden age of horror films. Universal Studios quickly followed up with a plan to shoot Frankenstein, featuring their newly minted star. Lugosi's name appeared on a preview poster for the film. A notorious, now lost screen test was made, and then everything fell apart.
One story goes that Lugosi stubbornly refused to play the part of The Monster because of no dialog and too much makeup. Another version has Universal chief Carl Laemmle laughing at Lugosi’s appearance and shelving the project, at least until James Whale stepped in, retooled the script and shot it with Boris Karloff.
In 1939, Lugosi appeared in the third Frankenstein outing, Son of Frankenstein, as the broken-necked Ygor, and pretty much stole the film right out from under Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone. Returning in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, this time with Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Monster, Lugosi’s Ygor, in the final scene, had his brains inserted in the Monster’s skull, with catastrophic results: The re-brained Monster was now blind!
In 1943, Lugosi finally accepted the part that had eluded him twelve years earlier when he donned the heavy monster makeup for Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman. It made sense: Ygor’s brains were now inside The Monster’s square head, and Lugosi was able to speak The Monster’s dialog with Ygor’s accent. The part was difficult for the frail actor and he is doubled by stuntmen, often obviously, in several scenes. The final ignominy came when, prior to release, Universal yanked all of The Monster’s speaking scenes. Curiously, Lugosi’s stiff-arm groping, meant to indicate The Monster’s blindness, now unmentioned in the film, became the standard Frankenstein Monster robot walk.
Lugosi played opposite The Monster one more time, as Dracula, commanding Glenn Strange is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in 1948.
Frankenstein may have been a footnote and an irritant in Lugosi’s career, but Bela made several contributions to the myth, and he made The Monster come alive in many ways.
The cover illustration above was designed and colorized by Joe Schovitz for Jim Clatterbaugh’s superlative Monsters From The Vault magazine. That issue, #22, is still available directly from the publisher.