Over a period of 39 years in Hungary, Germany, England, and the United States, Bela Lugosi made about 100 films (it depends on how you choose to count his several two-parters). These mostly separate into minor roles in major filmsNinotchka (1939), for exampleand major roles in critically pooh-poohed films. Even Dracula (1931)theone “A” picture in which he starred and which launched the sounder in horror filmshas recently come under critical fire. His personal life was marred by many tragedies, including four divorces, chronic pain, habituation to pain-killers, and shameful neglect by movie studios tone-deaf to his talents. Yet, 45 years after he died with a film-script in his hands, Lugosis face and his rich Hungarian accent remain as much a part of American popular culture as Count Chocula and Sesame Street. After all these years, why does he haunt us so?
Four books on Lugosi and his films pretty much agree on the answer: Lugosi had presence. To both his roles and the creation of his own legend he brought a conviction and passionate, focused intensity that make his films fascinating to watch, be they As,Bs, or Zs.
The Count: The Life and Films of Bela “Dracula” Lugosi by Arthur Lennig (Putnams, 1974; 347 pages, $10) is a heartfelt critical biography by a film historian and lifelong Lugosi fan. Lennig traveled to Hungary and Rumania, finding Lugosis birth record and information about his career on the Hungarian stage, and interviewing Hungarian Lugosi friends whose memories would otherwise have been lost.
In general, though, Lennig is less interested in Lugosis personal life than in his career. He appear to have tracked down and viewed all the Lugosi films still known to exist. Lennig provides interesting details about the making of the films. Particularly interesting is his comparison of the shooting script of Dracula (1931) to the finished version. Director Tod Browning made several cuts in Lugosis dialogue with Renfield (Dwight Frye), the cuts enhancing the film by making Count Dracula more poetic and mysterious.
Lennig is an insightful critic. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his opinions of individual films, he makes his case with cogent arguments. Like many other Lugosiphiles, he berates Hollywood for not giving Lugosi more chance to demonstrate his versatility, but then faults The Black Cat (1934) and The Invisible Ray (1936) because they didnt give him a chance to chew the scenery, Lugosi-style. I would argue that a primary strength of those films is that they allowed him opportunities to act with Karloffian subtlety; but thats as may be.
Included is the touching account of the three late-‘40s meetings between teenage fan Lennig and his gracious idol. The book is a successful blend of critical intelligence and sweetness.
Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape by Robert Cremer (Henry Regenry, 1976; 307 pages, $9.95) is a fine complement to Lennigs book in that Cremer is less interested in critiquing the films and more interested in illuminating Lugosis personal life. Cremer wrote with the active cooperation of Lillian Lugosi, whose marriage to Bela (1933-1953) lasted by far the longest of his five marriages, and their son, Bela Lugosi, Jr.
Cremer starts with an account of how Lugosis legal use of prescription pain medication in the ‘40s gradually developed into three years of addiction after Lillian moved out on him, which Bela, in his usual grand manner, exaggerated into a 20-year addiction when he committed himself for treatment in 1955. Cremer then moves back to Lugosis Hungarian years (1882-1919), including his generous labors for the actors union that led to his exile by a hostile post-war government. Cremer describes his brief stage-and-filmwork in Austria and Germany and his dramatic ocean voyage to America in 1921, hiding out from sailors who wanted to throw him overboard because they disagreed with his anti-monarchist politics. In America we see him learning parts phonetically as he gradually learns English, then in 1927 landing the lead in the stageplay Dracula, leading to the film that would both immortalize and hopelessly typecast him.
We see Lugosi as both a charming, magnetic lover and a sometimes tyrannical husband, who kept driving wives away with his belief that they were cheating on him. We also see Lugosi the soft touch for destitute Hungarian-Americans, the generous host of lavish parties with flowing Hungarian wine and full gypsy orchestras, and the man with an elementary-school education who read and read until he could converse lucidly on almost any subject.
The Films of Bela Lugosi by Richard Bojarski (The Citadel Press, 1980; 256 pages, $9.95) includes an introduction by Carroll Borland, Lugosis friend, protégé, and Mark of the Vampire (1935) co-player, and a 30-page biography by Bojarski that touches on most of the key points in Lugosis life and career. The 200-page “Films” section includes brief credits on Lugosis European and American films from 1917-1930, and more detailed looks at his films from Dracula on. (Lugosi made about 100 films, give or take, depending, for example, on whether you count his several two-parters as one film or two.)
Bojarski includes review abstracts, production notes, his own brief critical comments, and capsule interviews with cast members on the making of the films and on what Lugosi was like to work with (mostly pleasant and professional, if reserved). My one quibble with this section is that Bojarski introduces each cast list like so: “Bela Lugosi played Tarnevarra in a cat including....” This method doesnt let us see where Lugosi was ranked in the cast.
Bojarski concludes with a chronological record of Lugosis stage career. Like other “Films of” books it can be dipped into as a reference work, or read in sequence by the devotee.
The easiest of these books to locate, and the meatiest, is Bela Lugosi, edited by Gary J. and Susan Svehla (Midnight Marquee Actors Series, 1995; 311 pages, $20). The Svehlas invited a number of film buffs to contribute essays on the Lugosi film or films of their choice. As usual with Lugosiphile projects The Invisible Ray gets neglected. Also, the book includes no chapter on Lugosis work in silent films (the silent era being so far neglected by the otherwise splendid Midnight Marquee Actors Series). But generally the book offers a well-balanced critical/historical appraisal at Lugosis career. The 24 essays include detailed critiques of about two dozen Lugosi films, and shorter comments on about 30 more.
We get a survey of Lugosis early sound films, and insightful reappraisals of such Lugosi standards as Dracula (which Brett Wood considers a far more accomplished film then current revisionists do), White Zombie (1932), The Black Cat, The Raven (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Gregory William Mank champions Lugosis performance in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and Bryan Senn calls attention to Lugosis moving straight role in the too-little-viewed Mystery of the Mary Celeste, AKA The Phantom Ship (1935). Gary J. Svehla details the guilty pleasures of the mediocre but entertaining The Devil Bat (1940), and writers examine the train-wreck fascination of Mysterious Mr. Wong (1935), The Ape Man (1943), and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).
John Soister writes that “As long as you know what youre getting into,” Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952) “can be a lark.” In “Ed Wood and the Lugosi Mystique” Bob Maidson compares Tim Burtons tongue-in-cheek bio-pic Ed Wood (1994), featuring Martin Landaus Oscar-winning portrayal of an ailing Lugosi, to the facts of Lugosis later years. Maidson finds that, while the film plays fast and loose with the prose of Lugosis career, it gets the poetry right, and it goes far to explain why, decades after his problematic career came to a close, we still find Lugosis work, his persona, and his person stirring.