Classic Video Showplace

CLASSIC VIDEO SHOWPLACE: Bela Lugosi’s Later Years

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For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.

Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on RCN TV with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.

Last time here at “The Showplace,” we took a look at the early career of Bela Lugosi. This week, we continue our look at the horror cinema legend.
While most people in 1929 were suffering from the initial hit of the Great Depression, actor Bela Lugosi was lobbying hard for what he believed was the role of a lifetime…HIS lifetime.
Lugosi was a natural playing Dracula on stage…his voice, delivery, mannerisms…even his face looked eerily similar to Bram Stoker’s undead creature (when he previously performed the role on the silver screen, they barely needed any makeup to enhance his features.)
Dracula was a commercial and critical success upon release, and led to several sequels and spin-offs. It has had a notable influence on popular culture, and Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula established the character as a cultural icon, as well as the archetypal vampire in later works of fiction. The film has since been selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” With most copies of the silent Dracula classic Nosferatu destroyed because of a contract dispute, Lugosi’s film became the definitive image for this (and subsequent) generation(s).
Bela, however, was not so thrilled.
Upon its release, Lugosi realized that he was becoming increasingly typecast as Dracula and was finding it near impossible to secure any other roles due to the popularity of his alter ego. Many reports claimed that he swore he would never again don the cape and play the role. He also tried to lobby film executives to hire him as something other than villains but after finding himself out of work and drowning in debt, he reluctantly agreed to take on antagonistic roles in popular sequels like Son of Frankenstein and as Dracula in parodies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
However, the side effects of his popularity caused irreparable damage to his career. Lugosi would have very few job offers other than those associated with evil villains, monsters or, during World War II, Nazis. His better films during the 1930s included The Black Cat, The Raven, Son of Frankenstein and Black Friday.
Furthermore, Lugosi was under contract with Universal Studios, who would frequently pair him with fellow horror legend Boris Karloff. Karloff always demanded top billing and got more money than Lugosi throughout their pairing, even in films where Bela was the main star and Karloff had little more than a few lines.
Two more things worked against the Hungarian actor.
In 1936, England placed a ban on horror movies and refused to show any films resembling anything from that genre.
Also, the increasing pain that Lugosi was experiencing from injuries suffered in World War I led to an increasing dependence on morphine. As word spread among Hollywood producers of Lugosi’s drug use, his job opportunities became virtually nonexistent and he found himself once again out of work and destitute.
He made one final attempt at a film career years later in 1955 by approaching Bel-Air Pictures in cooperation with the “actor friendly” film distributor, United Artists. He did receive a role in the financially successful film, The Black Sheep, which included fellow horror film legend Lon Chaney Jr., along with major motion picture stars Basil Rathbone and John Carradine. However, Lugosi’s character in the movie did not have any lines and his appearance was largely overshadowed.
Bela Lugosi died of a heart attack in 1956. He was 73.
To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of RCN or any other agency, organization, employer or company.