Bela & Boris—The Birth of Modern Monsters, Part I

by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini

Both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were foreigners in their 40s when they became famous for playing monsters. Both spent their early years in Hollywood portraying ethnic villains, sometimes in yellowface, and fought typecasting with varying degrees of success. This meant they could go from lead roles to playing a waiter, which is exactly what happened to Boris Karloff in the month “Frankenstein” was released. But their screen presence and the way each handled their stardom was very different. This month we look at the lives and legacies of two actors who created the now-iconic horror movie monsters, and how horror movies looked through the lens of pre-Code.
Had Lon Chaney not died at the age of 47 in 1930, he would have been the first great actor in pre-Code. Although Chaney’s monsters and villains were groundbreaking in many ways, they still followed a certain universal order, common in the silent era, which comforted audiences in the knowledge that beauty and innocence in the world could defeat evil. This overly simplified view would not be found in pre-Code horror. When Frankenstein’s monster befriends a girl throwing daisies into a lake, the monster, trying to join in the fun, throws the girl into the lake and accidentally kills her. He’s not trying to be evil, but the innocence of the girl doesn’t save her. Once again, pre-Code shows us a more complex world that exists in shades of gray rather than stark good versus evil. This was befitting an audience who, in the depths of the depression, were no longer as innocent in their worldview as they had been just a few short years before.

In 1927 “Dracula” made its way from the London stage to New York, and Bela Lugosi was cast as the undead count — a huge hit that ran for nine months on Broadway before moving to Los Angeles. When Universal Pictures bought the rights to make a film version, Todd Browning was set to direct it and Lon Chaney was to play the undead count. But Chaney didn’t live to make the film, and instead, Bela Lugosi would become forever synonymous with Dracula.
Lugosi was born Bela Blasko, October 20, 1882, in Lugos, Romania. He ran away from home after his father’s death and decided to be an actor at age 18. Later incorporating the city’s name into his stage name, he became a big star in his small town. After serving in World War I, he starred in silent films in Hungary and was beginning to make a name for himself as a heartthrob when revolution broke out, forcing Lugosi to flee to Austria, Germany, and finally the United States in 1920. In New York, he starred in productions for Hungarian immigrants. He worked sporadically on both stage and screen but being middle-aged with a heavy accent and a limited command of English limited his prospects.
His luck changed when he landed the role of Dracula on Broadway. Clara Bow saw the play and the two became romantically involved for a year. It was Bow who championed him for the film version. To secure the role, he offered to work cheap asking for only a $3,500 flat fee with no percentage of box office or bonus. “Dracula” was taboo in its depiction of sexuality and the disease of vampirism that spread through the exchange of bodily fluids via a bite. Dracula is capable of charming, seducing, and murdering Mina. Her innocence alone doesn’t save her, and her virtue is weak in the face of Dracula’s hypnotic powers. This was the first film to portray Dracula as an evil force in the form of a handsome man you might meet at the opera rather than a terrifying creature like Nosferatu. Universal, unsure of how audiences would react, marketed the film as a “strange romance” without a celebrity premiere. To their surprise “Dracula” was the first horror hit of the sound era, saving the struggling studio from collapse.
Universal immediately began looking for a follow-up and found it in the form of “Frankenstein.” Lugosi was supposed to play Frankenstein, but once in makeup, he didn’t look right for the part, and his vanity got in the way. He saw himself as a romantic leading man and felt the movie was a step down for him, complaining that he had no lines and was unrecognizable under makeup that took five hours to apply. The incident offended the higher-ups at Universal resulting in his removal from the project and he was cast instead in “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” This firing or quitting, depending on which Hollywood legend you believe, lead to Karloff playing Frankenstein which was a great success and a thorn in Lugosi’s side for the rest of his career. To make matters worse, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was a flop and though it wasn’t Lugosi’s fault, he was dropped from his contract with Universal. He spent the next few years making B movies for poverty-row studios including the classics “White Zombie” and “Island of Lost Souls,” and more forgettable fare like “Night of Terror” and “The Death Kiss.”
In the next issue, Part II — Karloff as Frankenstein and Boris and Bela in “The Black Cat.”

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Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.

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