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Film

Exploring the feud between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are still regarded as the most iconic stars of their time, immortalised for their respective renditions of two very popular movie monsters. Starring as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster respectively, the two giants had a seminal influence on the world of cinema and their work is enjoyed by fans of the genre to this day.

As was normal at the time, Hollywood gossip columnists wrote extensively about the alleged rivalry between the two stars who collaborated on various projects. While many of these claims were often founded, it wasn’t a secret that Lugosi was frustrated about his relegation to minor roles and his lack of top billings in many projects.

It was even reported that the studio kept Lugosi on their roster because they wanted his name on the posters which was bizarre to even imagine as his talent was indispensable. However, it was Karloff who managed to secure the top billing on many of their collaborations while Lugosi was restricted to minor roles due to his lack of mastery over English during that period.

Lugosi was exposed to proper stardom for the first time only when he featured in Todd Browning’s spectacular Dracula. He had also received acclaim for his interpretation of the iconic character in theatrical productions and was approached by studio executives who wanted him to play the role of Frankenstein’s monster as well.

Unenthusiastic about the idea of being typecast as a monster with no legible dialogue and a lot of makeup, Lugosi turned it down and the role went to the silent-era veteran Boris Karloff who stole the show in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. The famous makeup artist Jack Pierce conducted a complete transformation of Karloff, turning him into a terrifying creation.

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While Lugosi later stated that he was the one who turned down the role, an alternate version of events suggested that Lugosi had appeared for a screen test but the studio executives preferred Karloff. This marked the start of a rapid decline for Lugosi who failed to garner starring turns in other genres and found it increasingly difficult to get top billing in horror projects as well.

Despite the fact that Lugosi and Karloff starred in popular productions together such as The Black Cat and Son of Frankenstein, Lugosi received less exposure when compared to Karloff and was famously denied top billing for their collaboration in The Raven even though he was the one in the lead. These minor disputes reinforced the gossip surrounding their legendary feud.

Karloff continued to work with pioneering filmmakers such as Mario Bava until his final years while Lugosi struggled with substance abuse issues, ultimately finding a kindred spirit in Ed Wood. Even in Tim Burton’s biopic about the infamously ambitious filmmaker, the alleged feud between Lugosi and Karloff was mentioned in a hilarious reference.

However, such reports have been denied by their family members who claimed that it wasn’t the case at all. In fact, it was Lugosi who later took credit for the discovery of Karloff and claimed that it was his unique scouting talent that resulted in the introduction of one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time.

Lugosi declared: “Carl Laemmle (studio chief) said he’d permit it if I furnish an actor to play the part. I scouted the agencies and came upon Boris Karloff. I recommended him…. And that is how he happened to become a famous star of horror pictures. My rival in fact.” Lugosi’s wife agreed with his evaluation of the situation, famously saying: “He made the greatest mistake of his career… Bela created his own monster.”

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