Shed a tear for poor Bela Lugosi.
As Brooklyn boy Lenny Bruce quipped, “Bela was a junkie for ten years, cleaned up and dropped dead.” And, it’s sadly true that Lugosi had become addicted to morphine while undergoing medical treatment. It took him many painful years to kick the habit.
His was a classic case of a film career that started at the top and finished in the sub-basement. Think about it. From Tod Browning’s Dracula to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Ouch!
And, insult to injury, after a horror movie career spent sucking hind tit to his competitor Boris Karloff, Bela took over from Boris in the Broadway comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Getting sloppy seconds was bad enough but Bela had to play a character whose facial scarification was based on Karloff as Frankenstein. The biggest laughs in the play were built on that gag. (I wonder if they did a re-write so that the crazed brother Jonathan was said to resemble Lugosi as Dracula. If not… double ouch.)
When not appearing in a succession of bargain-basement horror films, poor Bela schlepped around the world in Dracula drag appearing in fleapit revivals of the stuffy old play. An actor friend of mine worked with Lugosi in one such production and reported that the company rehearsed the play without Bela who was only contracted to appear for the final dress rehearsal. And, at that, he would do only a quick walk through of his scenes. Count Dracula actually appears in surprisingly few scenes in the stage version. And, Bela sure didn’t need the rehearsal, he’d been doing the same tired moves for decades.
The cast was assembled on stage awaiting Lugosi when the theater’s hydraulic lift suddenly cranked into action and slowly raised the floor of the orchestra pit. There stood Bela in full Dracula splendor. The cast formed a receiving line and Bela walked down it shaking and kissing hands while clicking his heels and repeating “I am Lugosi.” He thoroughly charmed the pants off one and all. But, during the performance, my friend was surprised to see buckets of ice in the wings. And, saddened to see Bela thrust his pin-cushion junkie’s arms into the ice to reduce his pain.
Some critics dismiss Lugosi as a one trick pony but I think that’s unfair. He created an iconic film character that is instantly recognized around the globe and not many actors can say that. He was deliciously evil as the hunchback Ygor in Son of Frankenstein. And, he was terrific in The Black Cat and in the criminally underrated Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. If only he had lived, Bela could have feasted on the movie memorabilia boom of the late 50s and 60s. And, I gotta believe that Roger Corman would have cast Bela in his Edgar Allen Poe movies. He would have been perfect casting and big box office partnered with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.
But, hey, they can’t all be gems…
In 1952, our hero was forced/enticed into making the “Poverty Row” comedy-horror flick Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Now, I am second to no one in my affection for all things Brooklyn and for movies that feature guys in a gorilla suit but even I have my limits. (It’s on YouTube if you dare.)
Bela actually managed to walk through this turkey with style and wit. But, this former Shakespearean actor who had worked with Garbo must have been thinking, “How the fuck did I end up playing second banana to a team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis imitators and a schmuck in a gorilla suit?”
Shed a tear for poor Bela Lugosi.