The name Dracula looms like an overlarge bat in the cinematic pantheon. Any history of the horror genre is duty bound to recognise its significance. Yet it is doubtful whether as much significance would have been attached to 1931’s Dracula had it not been for a Hungarian born immigrant by the name of Béla Blaskó, better known as Bela Lugosi.
In many respects, Lugosi epitomised what it meant to live the American dream. His rise from veritable unknown to international prominence is the stuff of legend. Like his celebrated alter ego, Lugosi hailed from Transylvania, Hungary. Born in 1882, he fled his home at age 12, in pursuit of a Great Perhaps. He spent the next few years scraping a living together in mines and other odd jobs that he could find. Not until a touring theatre group showed up one day did the young Lugosi stumble across what would become his lifelong passion.
Using what tools he had at his disposal, Lugosi worked at a relentless pace to realise his new-found dream of becoming an actor. Speaking later in life, Lugosi reflected on his inauspicious start: “They tried to give me little parts in their plays, but I was so uneducated, so stupid, people just laughed at me.” Thankfully for posterity’s sake, he kept at it. Lugosi rose through the ranks of a travelling theatre company and as the new century dawned, he was accepted into the Budapest School of Performing Arts. As the forces of Europe geared up for a titanic tussle, Lugosi toured the Austro-Hungarian Empire, playing the lead roles in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Richard III.
Though students at the School of Performing Arts were exempt from serving in the trenches, Lugosi saw it as his patriotic duty to sign up. However in 1916, he was discharged on the grounds of ill-health and returned to the acting fraternity.
After the war, Lugosi became a vocal and influential supporter of the failed Hungarian Revolution. As a result, he found himself persona non grata and fled to the recently formed Weimar Germany, where he threw his considerable acting pedigree into the new-fangled medium of cinema. Despite some notable successes, in 1920 Lugosi decided to pack his bags and boarded a ship for the promised land of America.
The gamble paid off almost instantly. Despite his imperfect grasp of the language, Lugosi’s distinctive appearance and foreign mystique landed him his English-language stage debut in 1922’s New York production of The Red Poppy. His feet firmly under the table, Lugosi made his American film debut in The Silent Commander (1923) followed by an appearance in The Midnight Girl (1925). His reputation growing, Lugosi’s ship was about to come in.
In 1931, having already played the role to widespread acclaim on stage, Lugosi was cast as the eponymous lead in Tod Browning’s Dracula. Though he was by no means the first actor to portray the infamous Count, it was his singular take on one of horror’s most infamous villains which propelled both Dracula and himself into immortality. Lugosi’s Dracula had a suave, sophisticated and sexy air, which made him a captivating screen presence and one which audiences flocked in great numbers to witness. In one fell swoop, Lugosi achieved the kind of cinematic immortality that jobbing actors spend a lifetime failing to achieve.
As a result, the early 1930s were a fruitful time for Lugosi. His portrayal of Count Dracula catapulted him into the public limelight and he subsequently appeared in a string of B-list films, playing mostly villainous and grotesque characters.
However, despite swiftly cementing his position as one of the towering figures of early horror cinema, Lugosi became deeply frustrated. Having spent his youth portraying countless varied and interesting characters, Lugosi now found variety hard to come by. Of his predicament, Lugosi said “I am definitely typed, doomed to be an exponent of evil.” He became a victim of his own overwhelming success and despite a longing to portray more complex and sympathetic characters, studios persisted in offering him roles of striking similarity to the one for which he was most famous.
Despite the odd exception, Lugosi was never fully able to escape the magnetic pull of financial necessity and became a staple on the B-movie circuit. His lavish spending habits, coupled with a swift downturn in fortunes, meant that he soon fell into debt. What’s more, as his artistic prospects dwindled, so did his health. As a consequence of injuries sustained during the Great War, Lugosi became increasingly dependent on medicinal drugs to get him through the day.
Having struggled for years to attain the roles which he most craved, his spiral into drug addiction became yet another reason for studios to overlook him. At one point in the late 1940s, Lugosi was nearly overlooked for the role of Dracula in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) because the film’s producers were not even aware that the great man was still alive. When Lugosi eventually sought help to combat his addiction, he received a timely boost from an unlikely benefactor. Frank Sinatra, who Lugosi had never met, made anonymous donations to his recovery efforts. Not much is known about Sinatra’s motives for this kind gesture, but we might assume that he was a long standing admirer of his work and was struck by the plight of a fallen icon.
Towards the end of his life, a destitute Lugosi had fallen into obscurity. During the early 1950s and in an attempt to combat his spiralling debts, Lugosi appeared in stage revivals of Dracula as well as Arsenic and Old Lace – the roles to which he owed his fame. Lugosi’s final appearance on film came in 1956, in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. He died, aged 73, before the film was completed.
Despite what has been passed down through Hollywood folklore, it is not true that Sinatra paid for Lugosi’s funeral. It is a sad irony that Lugosi left his native homeland to pursue what can only be described as the American dream, only to be haunted by the fame which followed his most decorated performance. Yet in spite of his many struggles, Lugosi will forever be credited with bequeathing to us the mother of all horror villains. For many who revere the genre, there will only ever be one Dracula and he came from Transylvania.