October 21, 2007

Happy 125th, Bela Lugosi

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.


B-Sol said...

I was shocked to learn about Lugosi's speaking scenes being removed while watching the making-of documentary on the Frankenstein legacy DVD set. Now THAT version of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man would be something to see!

The Vault of Horror

Rory said...

Well, if you've ever read the script you might not say that. Curt Siodmak was great at writing about a wolf man, but he thought here that the Frankenstein Monster with Ygor's brain was some kind of Hitler clone. His dialog is just awful. I think this was the real reason all the Monster's lines where cut, and that Siodmak simply blamed it on poor Bela to make himself look good.

Wirral Writer said...

I grew up watching these fantastic monster movies as a kid, and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is, without doubt, one of my all time favourites. I never ever thought at the time that one day I would have all of these classic movies in my collection on DVD!