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Monday, October 20, 2014

Happy Birthday, Bela Lugosi!

It's been interesting reading about Dracula, the play that made the rounds of theatres in the 1920s. It is from this adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic that we receive the popular vision of Dracula as a smooth, urbane supernatural menace.

It seems Stoker had long tried to interest Sir Henry Irving (the famous stage actor that Stoker had long assisted/toadied for) in playing Dracula onstage, only to be continually rebuffed by the actor. After Stoker's death, his widow Florence entered a deal with Deane to allow him to adapt Dracula for the stage. Playing to the conventions of the day, Deane retooled the title character into a suave, exotic foreign presence who could easily mingle with polite society, unleashing his menace from within it. Deane's initial adaptation, though not a critical success, proved extremely popular with audiences from 1924 onward. And thanks to the somewhat exorbitant financial demands of the widow Stoker, the only way Deane could turn a profit from his adaptation was to tour it. Extensively.

For its 1927 Broadway run the play was extensively revised by writer John Balderston (one of many things streamlined out of the Balderston rewrite was, intriguingly a female Quincy Morris). A new actor was sought for the title role, preferably a non-name who would work for cheap. As luck would have it, an experienced Hungarian actor with nothing to lose came up for the role, and though no one could have expected it, this actor, born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, would come to be a very personification of movie horror.

The rest is history, with Universal's 1931 Dracula drawing heavily on the Broadway production, even enlisting Lugosi for the title role. (The play's Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan, wasn't far behind.) Bela Lugosi became a horror icon overnight, but, much to his consternation, he became typecast as a horror villain almost as quickly. The disrespect suffered by the horror genre over the years, combined with some severe health problems and addictions, would plague Lugosi to an early grave. But he defined Dracula at a crucial period in film history, and remains fondly remembered by horror fans to this day. And his surprisingly extensive stage career speaks to actor capable of far more than even the iconic roles for which he's best known - wouldn't you LOVE to have seen Lugosi play Jesus?


It is of course the perfect season to reacquaint oneself with Lugosi's work, and we're delighted to call him out on this, his birthday.  Dracula, as we've argued before, is always worth revisiting, and you could even chase it with Son of Frankenstein, one of our favorite Universal horrors, with Lugosi in another villainous but otherwise completely different role. Or see him take on a rare comic role in Ninotchka.

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