Weird History

From Obscurity To Old Hollywood Monster Movies To Destitution: The Rise And Fall Of Bela Lugosi  

Quinn Armstrong
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Picture this: a struggling movie studio gambles big on an adaptation of a story that's existed for a long time. The director lobbies to cast a relatively risky actor. The movie is ultimately a success based on the performance of that actor and goes on to spawn a connected universe of films that dominate the box office for a decade to come. No, it's not the story of Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man. It's the story of Bela Lugosi's life and the monster movie that made him a star, Dracula.

From his humble origins as an actor in his native Hungary to the heights of worldwide fame to a long slide into dependency and obscurity, Lugosi's career was marked by bad luck and tragedy. His poor command of English made him both mistrustful yet easily duped, and his success as Dracula turned his career into one where he played increasingly cheap knockoffs of the Count.

It's difficult to tell how much of what happened to Lugosi was bad luck, and how much was the result of his own choices. By many accounts, he was vain, impetuous, and insecure. He had lavish tastes and no discernible skill with money. But he was also polite, and many of his former colleagues remember him fondly, if with a certain reserve. To many, he seemed from another era: chivalrous, aristocratic, and often aloof.

Perhaps it was this reserve, this distance from other people, that allowed him for so long to conceal his slide into substance reliance and bankruptcy. When the spotlight faded for Lugosi, he never recovered. In the end, he was laid to rest with his famous Dracula costume - the figurative memento that defined his legendary status as the first king of horror.

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He Snuck Out Of Hungary In A Hay Bale

In the early 1900s, political tension was rife in Hungary. The nation declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire on October 17, 1918. Immediately after independence, a communist revolution toppled the government. Lugosi, who had fought in WWI, agitated for the communists within the local community of actors. When the communist regime was itself replaced, though, he found himself blacklisted at every state theater, effectively ending what had been a promising stage career.

Lugosi and his wife fled the country in 1919, hiding under bales of hay as they crossed the border to Vienna. From Vienna, they went to Berlin, where Lugosi quickly established himself as a leading man in German cinema. From Berlin, he made his way to the United States, passing through Ellis Island in March 1921.

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'Bela Lugosi' Was Not His Real Name

Although "Bela Lugosi" seems like the perfect stage name for an actor who became famous playing dark, seductive Eastern Europeans, his real name would have sounded even more foreign to American ears. He was born Béla Ferenc Dezsö Blaskó, in the town of Lugos, Hungary (now Lugoj, Romania), in 1882. When he began acting on the Hungarian stage, he took the name of his birthplace and called himself Bela Lugossy.

Over time, Lugossy became Lugosi - particularly when the dramatic Hungarian introduced himself to American audiences - and the name is now synonymous with the vampire he made famous. 

The Studios Claimed He Was Descended From Royalty
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The crash of 1929 left the movie industry in shambles, and no studio suffered more than Universal. They needed a hit, though it's unlikely they expected it to come in the form of a horror movie based on a stage play based on a book. Indeed, it's surprising the project got off the ground at all, given that Bram Stoker's estate was locked in a litigation battle over an unauthorized version of the story (F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu).

To help drum up interest, early publicity for the movie claimed Lugosi himself was descended from European nobility - a claim that was completely unsubstantiated. Regardless, Dracula turned out to be a hit beyond all expectations, and Lugosi became instantly recognizable as the Count.

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Photo:  Dracula/Universal Pictures
Women Reportedly Wrote Him Passionate Fan Letters

It wasn't until 1931 that Lugosi played the big screen role that would make him famous. After playing the titular character in Dracula onstage hundreds of times, Tod Browning's film made him a household name - and his recognizable look remains a pop culture staple to this day.

But it is perhaps surprising that the man who seemed born to play Dracula didn't play the Count until he was 48 years old. Still, the impact of his performance was electric. Lugosi recalled the effect he had on the women who saw him both onstage and off:

Women wrote me letters. Ah, what letters women wrote me! Young girls. Women from 17 to 30. Letters of a horrible hunger. Asking me if I cared only for maiden's blood. Asking me if I had done the play because I was, in reality, that sort of Thing. And through these letters, couched in terms of shuddering, transparent fear, there ran the hideous note of hope.