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Sink Your Teeth into a Hungarian Star's Legacy PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 01 November 2010


Dear readers,

Last year we had a Béla Lugosi birthday celebration on Politics.hu. I was then and continue to be very gratified and encouraged by the response and participation from so many people. This time, thanks to the efforts of Erik D’Amato, we will see an enhanced presentation and format that shows the films and material to best advantage. I hope that you will look at last year's link as well, because of the lively follow up discussion ran to Hungarian films, newsreels and even some WW2 era cartoons! I have chosen to reuse the biographical text. Since last year quite a few more Lugosi films have appeared on youtube, which helps make this tribute better than ever! It’s a great coincidence that his birthday is so close to Halloween, thus allowing us to celebrate two things at once!

- FL

Click the still to see the YouTube video, as the embedding function is disabled on it.

Dracula (1931) It’s always a pleasure to introduce this film. Dracula made a big hit worldwide, (was dubbed in many languages) and made a megastar out of Lugosi. (Also features some Hungarian dialogue in the beginning) Although dated, it’s appeal is enduring and earns for it new fans with each generation. Dracula is one of the best classics of the horror genre.

Born Béla Blasko in the town of Lugos in Temes county, Béla considered himself true blue Hungarian all his life, in spite of his surname of Blasko, which hints at Slavic ancestry. There was a lot of ethnic intermarriage in those days, and many non-Magyars could speak Hungarian. Later when Lugosi was in a position to help others get studio jobs in Hollywood, he accepted as a brother or sister anyone who could speak to him in Hungarian. The man was a real patriot, and got many of our people hired into the film industry, at a time when there was a depression on and people born in the US had a very tough time getting studio jobs. Studio jobs were sought after, as they often paid ranging from well, to extremely well, to just plain out of this world.

Lugosi showed a passion for the stage from boyhood. He would write and direct plays and stage them in a barn, using his playmates as actors. He wound up on the stage in Lugos, and from there made it into the theater in Szabadka and then Szeged, from where he participated in a repertory that toured Hungarian towns and counties. From there he was noticed by a couple of theater companies in Budapest. In 1911 he accepted an offer from the Royal Theater in Budapest, and in 1913 was accepted by the prestigious National Theater, or Nemzeti Színház.

Following his service in the army and becoming wounded on the Carpathian front fighting the Russians, he returned to the stage in 1916 and also became involved with the Hungarian film industry, which then was only 5 years old.

As I look over the list of Lugosi’s credits from the Hungarian stage alone, I am astounded by their sheer number. From between 1902 and 1919, he starred in about 165 productions! That’s an average of almost 10 per year. They included Hungarian productions of Shakespeare, such as Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Macbeth, Julius Ceasar, Schiller’s Maria Stuart, Goethe’s Faust; Hungarian literary classics like Madács’s The Tragedy of Man (Az ember tragédiája) and historical play’s like II Rákóczi Fogsága by Szigligeti.

From 1917 to 1918, he starred in 9 Hungarian films, three of them directed by the legendary film genius Kertész Mihály, who went on to America as Michael Curtiz and immortality as the director of the famed movie Casablanca (1941) (often voted as one of the best and favorite movies of all time), and other film classics.

The national and political troubles intensified and affected everybody. With the rise of the Károlyi “government” (The use of quotation marks is my editorial sarcasm), Lugosi and some other actors got involved in the creation of an actors union (something Ronald Reagan did in the 40’s), the purpose of which was to ensure that actors were paid what they were promised by management and that they were paid some livable wage. Károlyi was quickly followed by Kun Béla and his Soviet style regime. Although the new Communist govt. supported the idea of an actors union, Lugosi was appalled by the ideological violence and totalitarianism. This soviet “experiment” came to an end, to be followed by the rightist Horthy regime.

Horthy rode into “sinful Budapest” on his trademark white horse in order to clear out the red scum, as he viewed it. He had a lengthy list of names to go after, and anybody that was involved in unionization of any kind was a red to be purged. As a result, Lugosi, along with Curtiz, the fabulous Korda brothers and others involved with the actors union, had to flee the country. Lugosi and his wife escaped to Vienna. For the rest of his days, even after he had become a world famous star and celebrity, Lugosi did not dare to return to Hungary, fearing Horthy’s wrath. Film stardom didn’t mean much to Horthy, who reportedly did not care for movies.

Between 1919 and 1920, Lugosi starred in 11 German films. (None of them are considered today to be among the great German film classics of that creative era.) It was at this time that he started to attract the attention of producers and film critics. To his roles he brought an intensity and presence that was rather unique, and which served him throughout his career.

In 1920, Lugosi wanted to improve his financial condition by moving to America. He went to Trieste, got a job on a freighter bound for America, and jumped ship at New Orleans. Making it to New York City in 1921, Lugosi was assisted by a Hungarian cultural organization that helped Hungarians to get residency and naturalization. That was no easy thing back then, as the Anglo Protestant rulers of America had had their fill with waves of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, whom they looked down upon, and so greatly restricted legal immigration from those parts. The average Hungarian immigrant in those days could not afford the legal fees and lawyers that getting around the restrictions would have required. Had he not gotten this help, the American govt would have deported him back to Hungary as an illegal alien and to Horthy’s tender mercies.

As there was a rich Hungarian cultural life in New York and other cities then, Lugosi got busy with a Hungarian stage company. They were putting on Madács’s Tragedy of Man at the Lexington Theater in 1922, when Lugosi’s remarkable stage presence was noted and appreciated by off Broadway producer Henry Baron. Baron signed Lugosi to star in a play called The Red Poppy, which opened at the Greenwich Village Theater At this time Lugosi did not speak English, but was eager to learn. He was given a tutor and 12 weeks to learn to parrot the lines, even though he didn’t understand them. You could imagine his nervousness reciting lines he barely understood, to a large audience. He delivered a letter perfect performance.

Upon seeing Lugosi’s performance in The Red Poppy, Fox Studios (which was run by another Hungarian) signed him to star in his first American film The Silent Command (1923). Lugosi got to go to Hollywood for the shooting and to Panama for location shots. In this film, Lugosi is cast in one of his innumerable roles as a sinister character. He played a spy who wanted to steal plans from a US naval engineer and blow up the Panama Canal.

Between 1923 and 1928, Lugosi starred in 11 American silent films. His stage career took off in 1924, and between 1922 and 1928 he starred in 6 major American and British stage productions. His big break before going to Hollywood to star in horror films was appearing in a stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1927) The play was a runaway hit and played for many weeks on and off Broadway. When the cast and show reached the Biltmore Theater in Los Angeles in 1928, Lugosi once again attracted the attention of Hollywood film producers. The man had such obvious star quality.

From that point on, it was Hollywood for the rest of Lugosi’s life; he had found his destiny and place in history. Between 1929 and 1930, he appeared in 8 films prior to his big role in Dracula.

Universal’s Dracula (1931) catapulted Lugosi to world fame, stardom and immortality. Playing the elegantly dressed, tuxedo clad Transylvanian vampire count has become a trademark in the horror genre, and is recognized almost universally to this day. His image is often imitated, for which his descendents get no royalties. This film is endlessly replayed on TV and cable and remains a perennial favorite. It is dreamy (or nightmarish as you will), and cleverly uses the artistic possibilities of black and white photography. The sets are imaginative, and the picture embodies well the style and tastes of early 1930’s filmmaking. I can’t imagine such a picture being made today.

At this peak period in his career, Lugosi got thousands of fan letters a week. He said that 97% came from women, and often included marriage proposals. The other three percent were mostly from scientists and priests. He said: “The scientists and priests ask my views about spiritualism, yogi, theosophy and things like that. Women are interested in terror for the sake of terror. For generations they have been the subjected sex. This seems to have bred a masochistic interest- an enjoyment of, or at least a keen interest in suffering vicariously through the screen.”

I will provide to you youtube links to several of Lugosi’s early films, for your viewing and entertainment pleasure. I hope you can share with me the enjoyment of reliving this man’s life and work. He was a great person on screen and off.

While a star in Los Angeles, Lugosi became involved in the life of the Hungarian American community. The ones that had top jobs in the film business made huge money, often earning 20-50 times what an average person earned. I see an old photo of Lugosi posing with some of these Hollywood Hungarian nouveaux riche men and their wives, all decked out in tuxedos, gowns and jewels. It’s a rich image. Lugosi sponsored a Hungarian football club called the Los Angeles Soccer League.. He was very accessible and helpful to any local Hungarians.

Having turned down the starring role in Frankenstein (1931) to his rival in horror, Boris Karloff, Lugosi vowed never again to say no to a role. As a result his later film career was characterized by his appearances in a lot of schlocky, low budget films, where he was often cast as a mad scientist.

During the war, Lugosi formed a Hungarian anti-fascist committee, and engaged in personal appearances throughout the country to raise funds for resistance fighters and victims of war in Europe.

In the early 1940’s, Lugosi was hospitalized, and developed a dependency on the morphine pain killers they gave him. This was before non-narcotic pain relief was available, and addiction was a common side-effect to hospital treatment. In 1955, he voluntarily checked in for treatment for his addiction. He was helped through this tough time by frequent letters from a woman who had written him fan letters since 1931. She was Hope Lininger, a 39 year old studio cutting room clerk at RKO. She and Lugosi became married.
Lugosi passed away in 1956, just a few weeks before the uprising in Budapest. How it would have broken his heart.

If there is a heaven or afterlife, I hope that Béla is watching all this with pleasure. May God bless him, and may he be never forgotten among his people. Happy Birthday!

I also hope that you will bookmark this thread, with its information and film links which can be enjoyed repeatedly!

I am indebted to the work and research of Richard Bojarski in the preparation of this article, who wrote The Films of Bela Lugosi (1980).
To read this in it's origional form with film clips click or go to the following link:




Last Updated ( Tuesday, 30 November 2010 )
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