As you would expect of a man who spent his career portraying the undead, the legacy of Bela Lugosi refuses to fade away.
As well as being immortalised in some of the most iconic films from the golden age of horror, the Hungarian-American actor was featured in Andy Warhol’s legendary 1963 silkscreen ‘The Kiss’, a project that depicts Lugosi’s Dracula about to bite into the neck of Mina Harker. It is culturally engrained images like this that have made Bela Lugosi one of the most iconic actors in the history of cinema.
Lugosi’s story begins with an escape. At the age of 12, he decided to run away from home and began working a number of jobs to keep himself from starvation, one of which was stage acting. From there, he went on to study at the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts, making his stage debut in 1901. From 1913-1919, he found himself involved with two important institutions: the National Theatre and the Austro-Hungarian armed forces, for which he fought during World War One.
At this time he made sporadic appearances in a number of Hungarian theatre and film productions. However, the turbulence of the age made it impossible for Lugosi to avoid the carnage of war and revolution and, a year after the war ended, Lugosi took part in the failed Hungarian communist uprising of 1919. His socialism made him an enemy of the state and so, in 1921, he made passage to Berlin and then to the United States. It’s here that our career-spanning list begins.
Bela Lugosi’s six definitive films:
The Silent Commander (J.Gordan Edwards, 1923)
Bela Lugosi’s American film debut, The Silent Command, predicts the type of role he would eventually become famous for. The actor stars as Benedict Hisston, a foreign saboteur who is part of a plot to destroy the Panama Canal and the US Navy’s Atlantic fleet. It was actually intended as a propaganda film on behalf of the US Navy, so it’s unsurprising that Hisston’s plot fails.
In The Silent Commander, Lugosi is an intimidating physical presence. At over six feet tall, he worked as a labourer on arrival to America before entering the theatre through New York’s Hungarian immigrant colony. It’s just as well his breakout film was a silent drama because, at this point, Lugosi still hadn’t mastered English.
He was frequently cast as a “continental type”, performing in a number of small theatrical roles with no dialogue – almost always as a villain, thief, or murderer. But it was America’s exoticisation of the Eastern-European foreigner that would land him one of the most important roles of his career.
Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)
In the summer of 1927, Lugosi was approached to star in a Broadway theatre production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The production proved to be a huge success, running for 261 performances before embarking on a critically acclaimed tour throughout 1928 and 1929. His performance as the story’s titular vampire drew the attention of Fox Film, who cast him in small films such as The Veiled Woman.
But Lugosi had his eyes on a bigger prize. After hearing tell of Universal Pictures’ ambition to make a film adaptation of Dracula, Lugosi began lobbying for his participation, referencing his much-celebrated stage performance. After considering a long list of prominent actors for the role, Universal Pictures eventually offered Lugosi the part of the Vampiric count. It was a good decision. Today, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula stands as one of the most archetypal and evocative horror villains of all time.
The Murders In The Rue Morgue (Robert Florey, 1932)
This film, in which Lugosi stars as Doctor Mirakle, a carnival sideshow entertainer-come-scientist who kidnaps Parisian prostitutes and blends their blood with that of his pet gorilla, marks the beginning of a period that saw the actor typecast, time after time, as a horror villain.
Throughout the early 1930s, Lugosi appeared in a variety of monstrous guises in films like White Zombie and The Black Cat. Despite his desire to branch out into more diverse roles, Lugosi still seems to relish his performance in The Murders In The Rue Morgue, one which essentially defined the image of the mad scientist.
Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939)
By the late 1930s, war was brewing in Lugosi’s homeland. But, back in America, the actors’ chief concern was how to override the success of Dracula. His performance in that film had come to both define and restrict his career, and he wanted out. Son of Frankenstein offered Lugosi an opportunity to revitalise his career.
His role as the half-mad hunchback Ygor in Son of Frankenstein has come to be regarded as one of his finest on-screen performances. It was also one of the first films in which Lugosi teamed up with his horror rival Boris Karloff, the British actor who had portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in the original 1931 film adaptation.
The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise, 1948)
In the 1940s, Lugosi’s career began its gradual decline. A range of factors contributed to his fading stardom, not the least of which was his diagnosis with severe, chronic sciatica – most likely as a result of injuries he sustained during the First World War. Doctors prescribed him opiates for the pain, and by 1948, he was highly dependant on morphine and methadone.
One of Lugosi’s stand-out roles during this difficult period came in the form of ‘Joseph’, a supporting part in a 1948 B-movie based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story about an unhinged doctor who hires a grave robber (played by Boris Karloff) to supply him with cadavers on which to experiment.
That same year, Bela Lugosi would spoof his own performance as Dracula in the comedy film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a role that truly reveals the extent of Lugosi’s fall from grace. That being said, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is one of the comedy duo’s best films. It’s just a little sad to watch Lugosi forced to mock himself.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (Ed Wood, 1959)
After joining forces with Ed Wood – a man who has been described as one of the most notoriously inept filmmakers of all time – Lugosi starred in a number of highly questionable films including Glen or Glenda (1953) and Bride of the Monster (1955). Following the critical and commercial failure of these films, Lugosi decided to seek treatment for his opiate addiction and checked himself into a hospital.
Upon exiting treatment, Lugosi gave an interview in which stated his intentions to work on a new Ed Wood film called The Ghoul Goes West. The director put Lugosi in his iconic Dracula cape and shot a reel or two of test footage in a suburban graveyard and even outside Lugosi’s dilapidated apartment building.
Although the footage wasn’t utilised before Lugosi’s death, it was used posthumously in the 1957 film Plan 9 from Outer Space. Wood hired Tom Mason, his wife’s chiropractor, to double as Lugosi, but as you’ll notice if you watch the film, Mason is very obviously taller than Lugosi. The actor, who had travelled all the way from war-torn Hungary in 1921, remained committed to his roles until the very end. Indeed, it is said that on his deathbed, Lugosi was clutching the script for The Final Curtain, an upcoming Ed Wood project. However, most people believe this to be little more than a rumour.