IT CAME FROM THE DRIVE-IN:
At the end of the old Universal Studios chiller, The Black Cat, Bela Lugosi chains Boris Karloff to an embalming rack and strips him to the waist. Karloff, portraying satanic cult leader Hjalmar Poelzig, has got to know his number is up as Lugosi explains: “Do you know what I’m going to do to you now? No? Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar? Ha, ha! That’s what I’m going to do to you now! Tear the skin from your body—slowly—bit by bit!”
Lugosi can barely get the words out. He’s practically foaming at the mouth during this scene, and that’s completely in character. After all, Poelzig’s betrayal consigned Lugosi’s character (Dr. Vitus Werdegast) to a prison camp for fifteen years, during which time Poelzig married Werdegast’s wife. Karloff’s Satanist has since pickled and preserved his dead bride in a glass case. She hangs suspended, a necrophilic wetdream that the cult leader can enjoy during moments of melancholy. Not only that, Poelzig has gone on to marry again—this time choosing Werdegast’s only daughter as his bride!
So it’s no surprise that Bela is upset. He spits his words over Boris’ shoulder, and sources in the know claim that the scene required several takes before the Hungarian actor managed the speech.1 Close your eyes as you listen to it today and Lugosi’s voice carries such an inescapable weight of parody that it’s almost impossible to take seriously—the result of years of bad impressions by any number of hack comedians, endless television commercials featuring Count Chocula and other humorous variations on the signature screen vampire’s persona, now removed four or five generations until there’s nothing left of Lugosi but a goofy caricature of the voice itself, a voice today’s audience can barely connect with its original owner.
But any viewer who gives that voice half a chance is sure to connect with it here, and with Bela. This scene may be Lugosi’s finest single moment, and it comes in one of Universal’s strongest efforts from the classic period. For his part, Lugosi goes after it with gusto. This is the big scene in The Black Cat, and he obviously knows it. So does Karloff, who brings off the role of flayee with the admirable pantomime skill for which he was so rightly famous, wordlessly expressing just the right combination of realization, horror, and grim resignation as he hangs on the rack and awaits his fate.
The scene progresses in silhouette. Still, this is strong stuff, especially for a film from 1934. A woman—Karloff’s latest prospective sacrificial maiden, recently freed by Lugosi—screams at the sight of Bela making swift, sure strokes with the blade. Karloff’s manacled hand twists like a big white spider that’s just been stepped on but is not quite dead. Lugosi snarls: “How does it feel to hang on your own embalming rack, Hjalmar?” (The original script described the scene thusly: “An effect as if Werdegast [is] splitting the scalp slowly, pulling the sheath of skin over Poelizig’s head and shoulders.”) Finally, Karloff, his torso skinned like a chicken leg, can’t take it anymore. He howls like a demon tasting the sizzle of brimstone for the first time. “No… no!”
But Lugosi doesn’t let up.
If you ask me, he didn’t know how.
* * *
Much has been made of the “rivalry” between Karloff and Lugosi. The story has its roots in Universal’s production of Frankenstein. Lugosi turned down the role of the monster, the story goes, because it wasn’t a speaking part and he disliked the idea of hiding his face behind a ton of makeup. Riding high in the wake of Dracula, Lugosi was sure of himself… maybe too sure. Although Universal went so far as to shoot some lab scene test-footage with Bela as Frankenstein’s creation, Lugosi proved extremely difficult during filming and seemed determined to avoid the part at any cost.
The project went no further… at least with Bela. In stepped a virtual unknown named Boris Karloff. The rest, as they say, is history. In 1931, Karloff’s Frankenstein did twice as much business as Lugosi’s Dracula. To the powers-that-be at Universal, that meant Karloff was their man. Vehicles were designed with the actor in mind. Promo materials tried to wedge him into the Lon Chaney mold, though Karloff was always careful to credit Jack Pierce as the actual creator of the weird makeups he wore in his films. Still, the Universal publicity mill kept grinding. Soon Boris was billed as Karloff the Uncanny, and then simply as Karloff.
In many ways, Lugosi was left paddling along in his wake. It’s hard to say exactly why. Among fans of Universal horror, the reasons behind the studio’s seemingly deliberate renunciation of Lugosi are a matter of debate. Some say that Karloff was the more versatile (and more talented) actor. Some point to Lugosi’s language difficulties as the cause of his problems. Others say that Universal simply knew a ham when they saw one, that Bela Lugosi was one fat slice of Hungarian pork, and that he dug his own grave as soon as he turned down Frankenstein.
I’m sure Lugosi spent many a night puzzling over the studio’s decision himself. He was a stubborn man, extremely proud, and his pride was the source of both his strength and frustration. It’s obvious that Karloff’s success was cause for jealousy. In any discussion of Frankenstein, even those in which Lugosi tried to be charitable to Karloff, the Hungarian actor’s pain showed through. In 1935, he said, “[Boris and I] laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as far as Frankenstein is concerned.2 The difference in the way we work is that I believe solely in illusion, and Karloff uses heavy makeup with which I’m not in sympathy at all.”
Bela just couldn’t let it go. His unshakeable faith in his own ability not only sustained him, it allowed him to dismiss Karloff’s talent. For his part, Karloff rarely spoke of Lugosi—the few public comments he made (including his famous “poor Bela… he never took the time to master the language in which he made his bread and butter” line) are empathetic and kind. But reading about Lugosi, one gets the impression that he did his best to belittle both Karloff and Mary Shelley’s monster at every opportunity.
Whatever the case, Lugosi’s opinion meant little to Universal. When it came time to franchise one of the monsters they’d unleashed in 1931, they chose Frankenstein over Dracula… and, by extension, Karloff over Lugosi. In fact, Boris was to play the monster three times in the thirties, while Lugosi’s second appearance before the cameras as Dracula wouldn’t come until 1948 (and that was in an Abbott & Costello film).
By the time 1943 rolled around, Lugosi wasn’t quite as brash as he’d once been. Perhaps he’d seen the error of his ways, but I kind of doubt it. Perhaps he was looking for a challenge, a head-to-head tussle with Karloff. Or maybe after years of disappointment he was simply looking for another chance to grab Universal Studio’s very own brass ring. We’ll never know for sure.
But we do know this much — on an October morning in 1943, Bela Lugosi — twelve years removed from his great success as Dracula — found himself sitting in the Universal Studios make-up department at 5 a.m., ready to wear the artificial face of the Frankenstein monster.
* * *
There isn’t much to recommend Lugosi’s Frankenstein, but his monster certainly serves as a contrast to Karloff’s signature role. And since Karloff never played Dracula, the monster is the only character from the Universal franchise that both actors portrayed.
Karloff, of course, set the standard. His monster is the one we all know, and he starred in the three best entries of the Universal series: Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein. You want to talk “sympathetic monsters,” you’ve got to start with Boris Karloff. His monster is the template for that particular commodity. Take a look at Bride of Frankenstein (the rare sequel that surpasses the original) and you’ll see that. Karloff is both brute and innocent, a scar-faced horror with the sad eyes of a child too often abused.
But by the time the third film was produced, there was really nowhere else to go with Karloff’s interpretation. In Son of Frankenstein, the Universal writers transformed the monster into a fairy-tale giant. As a result, Son became a film that relied on an ensemble approach rather than focusing on Karloff’s creation, with memorable roles assigned to Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill.
Lugosi was along for the ride, too. He played Ygor, a scheming murderer with a broken neck who gains a measure of control over Frankenstein’s creation. It’s one of Lugosi’s finest roles, and it certainly proved that he could be versatile. The rough, gruff character of Ygor is as far from Lugosi’s slick vampiric count as can be imagined.
Bela reprised the role in Ghost of Frankenstein, which featured Lon Chaney, Jr. as the monster and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as yet another descendent of Dr. Frankenstein. Lugosi’s Ygor easily stole that picture (which isn’t really saying much, as Lon Chaney, Jr.—an actor cursed with what one critic has described as “Mr. Potato Head features”—was possibly the worst of Universal’s Frankenstein monsters. Even Glenn Strange did a better job.)
At the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, Ygor’s brain is transplanted into Dr. Frankenstein’s immortal creation. By some twist of logic that escapes me, Lugosi’s voice makes the trip too, and we’re treated to a monologue in which the new improved monster threatens to conquer the world… at least until he goes blind—the result of a misguided blood transfusion.
This ain’t exactly first-class science fiction at work here, but it does make an interesting segué to Lugosi’s single appearance as the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. As scripted by Curt Siodmak, the movie was to feature the monster as last glimpsed in Ghost — a blind creature with a vengeful madman’s brain locked in his skull, and, of course, Lugosi’s voice spitting such dialogue as: “Die? Never! Dr. Frankenstein created this body to be immortal! His son gave me a new brain, a clever brain… I will rule the world! I will live to witness the fruits of my wisdom for all eternity!”
Apparently, studio execs witnessing scenes with Lugosi as a talking monster nixed that angle of the picture as laughable. All Bela’s dialogue was excised from the final cut of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and with it went any mention of the monster’s blindness. What’s left for the audience is pathetic—Lugosi’s portrayal is reduced to a straight-armed, stiff-legged monster mash shuffle that any six-year-old can perform.
Lugosi must have known it. By 1943, he’d hit the skids more than a few times. He was sixty years old, and even though he was doing well with his current contracts—living in his legendary “Dracula House,” throwing parties for the local Hungarian community—he knew that he could do better… for he knew Karloff was doing better. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had to view Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as a second—or maybe even a final—chance to grab a fistful of the bigtime as only Universal could deliver it.
Here’s how he might have sized up the situation: the studio was still looking for an actor who could work in bizarre makeup? Fine. He’d give in and give the Universal bigwigs what they’d wanted all along. He’d already done that in Son of Frankenstein, playing broken-necked Ygor complete with fright-wig and snaggle-toothed dental appliance. Now he’d give them the monster, too, and he’d do it in a picture starring the son of Universal’s original makeup wizard, Lon Chaney. After all, Chaney was just a kid. Stealing the picture from him wouldn’t be much of a problem… and, with Karloff busy on the stage in New York, that would leave Bela on top.
I can imagine Lugosi at the premiere of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, watching himself in Karloff’s signature role, his own interpretation chopped to bits, nothing left but the palest shadow of the monster he had bad-mouthed for more than ten years. What could he say now, sitting silently in the audience, as mute as the creature that appeared on the screen? What alibi could Lugosi offer as he watched that thing with the rubber face stumble about on his very own legs?
Watch the movie, and you can imagine. Now and then you’ll see the monster’s lips move. But you won’t hear Bela Lugosi. His voice doesn’t appear on the soundtrack, and neither do the words penned by Curt Siodmak. The creature with Ygor’s brain doesn’t talk about conquering the world, and neither does he brag about the fruits of his wisdom.
Thanks to Universal’s editing department, he doesn’t say a single word.
* * *
A memory from Carroll Borland, Lugosi’s costar in Mark of the Vampire:
[Bela and I] were walking down Hollywood Boulevard, and in those days, the celebration for Christmas meant that every streetlight was decorated with a circle of lights, and tinsel, with a star’s picture inside.
* * *
Offscreen, Boris and Bela couldn’t have been more different. Karloff was known as an actor’s actor, a true pro. His generosity to others in nearly legendary—you don’t have to search far to find stories about “dear Boris” delivering a typewriter to a struggling writer, or helping out another actor who’d fallen on hard times, or bankrolling a small theater company.
But Boris Karloff was an intensely private man. If you want a real good look at a guy who’s completely uncomfortable as the focus of attention, search out Karloff’s appearance on the fifties television show, This Is Your Life. Surprised by host Ralph Edwards while sitting in the audience, dragged on stage as the object of a half-hour biographical program with unnamed guests waiting in the wings, Karloff looks more than a little horrified—in fact he kind of resembles good ol’ Hjalmar Poelzig hanging there on that embalming rack, waiting for a taste of the knife.
No doubt Karloff had more than a few secrets. For any man married five times (and possibly more), that’s a given. And stories which claim to relate the truth behind Karloff’s parentage are many. His family was English, of course, his father and uncles involved in the British Consular Service in India. Throughout his life, Karloff was forever brushing off comments about his dark skin. “The result of a tight collar and plenty of gin,” he’d joke. One thing can be said for sure—Karloff did not look out of place playing characters which were once termed “exotic.” Put a turban on Boris and you had yourself a rajah that any filmgoer could buy. But for a man raised in class-conscious British society, where racism often reared its ugly head, some things were obviously better left unsaid.
Lugosi, on the other hand, was a creature of publicity. From his early dalliances with screen siren Clara Bow to his desperate bid for attention as the first celebrity to publicly enter a drug-rehab program, he was no stranger to the press. He’d started out playing up the Dracula connection, of course, and Universal had sold him as an “undead Valentino” of sorts. That was the image that took root in the public’s imagination—Count Dracula, the deathless Casanova—and that was what remained when the applause ended.
I remember hearing stories about Bela Lugosi as a kid. Older cousins who’d lived in the Los Angeles area during the fifties would spin yarns about how they’d crept up to Lugosi’s Gothic “Dracula House” in the middle of the night, only to be chased off by the count’s wolfhounds as Lugosi himself screamed Hungarian epithets from an open window.
I wanted to believe those stories. I still want to believe them. But by the time the fifties rolled around, Bela Lugosi was a has-been who could be found residing in an apartment or with friends. The Dracula House still stood somewhere in North Hollywood, with odd iron grille work and strange birds mounted on the roof, and maybe the new owners kept dogs the way Lugosi had, but Bela himself was long gone.
* * *
Of course, the images created by Universal held. Karloff had problems being identified as a “horror” star, but he was always grateful to be working, always thankful for the opportunity afforded him by Mary Shelley’s creation. Similarly, Lugosi always relied on Dracula. When film work dried up he took to the road, playing the part in towns large and small, going so far as to order a coffin sent up to a hotel room with an uncomfortable bed so he could get a decent night’s sleep (and gain a little publicity from the local papers).
Universal created the promotional playbook for both actors in the thirties, and the two stars ran with it for decades. In a way, the studio was responsible for starting the Karloff/Lugosi rivalry, having planted a promo piece in the October 1932 issue of Weird Tales. In a story called “Demons of the Film Colony,” Ted LeBerthom describes a debate between Lugosi and Karloff thusly :
“Boris,” [Lugosi] went on in a ghoulish, sickingly exultant tone. “Women are thrilled by Dracula, the suave one. Women love the horrible, the creepy, more than men. Why does a woman always tell the story of her husband’s death so often and with such relish? Why does she go to cemeteries? Tenderness? Grief? Bah! It is because she likes to be hurt, tortured, terrified! Yes, Boris! Ah, Boris, to win a woman, take her with you to see Dracula, the movie. As she sees me, the bat-like vampire, swoop through an open casement into some girl’s boudoir, there to sink teeth into neck and drink blood, she will thrill through every nerve and fiber. That is your cue to draw close to her, Boris. When she is limp as a rag, take her where you will, do with her what you will. Ah, especially, Boris, bite her on the neck…!”
Of course, LeBerthom doesn’t stop there. As his imaginary debate winds down, the lights go out. A moment later a match is struck, and our intrepid scribe delivers us to a first-person climax most Lovecraftian:
I shall never know whether it was Lugosi or Karloff who struck the match. All I do know is that when the match was struck it apparently revealed, not Lugosi and Karloff on that davenport, but two slimy, scary monsters, dragon-like serpents, with blood-red venomous eyes. The apparitional things flashed before me so suddenly that I became sick to my stomach and made a rush, on buckling legs, for the exit—and the cool air…
* * *
Karloff held on through thick and thin. At times his career waned, but he always seemed to spring back, and he recreated himself more than a few times. When film work dried up, he appeared on the stage in straight dramatic roles and comedies. Every decade he managed to find his way back to Hollywood, at least for awhile… and when television came along, he was right there with it, fronting for an anthology program called Boris Karloff’s Thriller, even providing the voice of Whoville’s icicle-hearted villain in the animated holiday classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Boris started off as a monster, but he ended up as a kind of grandfather—a guy who could read children’s stories to a roomful of tots or show up on a television variety show, sing “Chim Chim Chiree” from Disney’s Mary Poppins, and actually pull it off.
Lugosi died long before Karloff. And, yes, it’s true—he went to his grave dressed in his Dracula cape. But even if Bela had lived, his road would have remained the shorter one. While Karloff worked with a series of first-class agents and enjoyed more than a few studio contracts, Lugosi was saddled with second-stringers who couldn’t seem to maximize the talents he had to offer.4 One gets the idea that his career was driven by financial concern more than critical choices. Money burned a hole in his pocket. Often either in the red or close to it, Bela was forced to take what he could get.
Universal teamed the two actors a number of times. Still, apart from Dracula, Lugosi never really got the chance to tackle a starring role at a major studio (Mark of the Vampire at MGM being the single exception that comes to mind). Most galling, Karloff always drew the bigger check for their joint efforts.
Often Lugosi seemed to be trailing along in Karloff’s shadow. After Karloff’s success as Jonathan Brewster in a New York production of Arsenic and Old Lace, Lugosi began playing the same role on the stage. For a man of Lugosi’s vanity, that must have been a particularly bitter pill to swallow. When times were especially lean he always seemed to find work in a stage production of Dracula… but he wasn’t a young man anymore, and sometimes his work drew laughs instead of shudders. At one point in the early fifties a producer tried to coax Karloff into doing a joint magic/horror act on stage with Lugosi, but Boris turned him down flat. Bela couldn’t believe it, and the perceived slight wounded him. After all, money was on the table for both actors.
For Karloff, it was probably the kind of money he could comfortably turn down.
For Lugosi… well, the word “comfortably” was no longer in his vocabulary.
The two men knew the hazards of the business. Over the years, they both took their lumps. But Karloff had more than his share of successes. For Lugosi, “success” wasn’t plural. Even when it might have been, even when it should have been, success remained stubbornly singular. Success was Dracula. Everything started there, and it seemed somehow that it would all end there, too. And—while I’m always amazed at the human capacity for self-delusion—I think that deep down Bela Lugosi had to realize that.
He knew it, the same way he knew that he wasn’t the man people had read about in the pages of Weird Tales. He wasn’t an undead vampire who would never age, any more than Karloff was an immortal monster stitched together from dead flesh and sparked by lightning. They’d both come of age in 1931, the year of Dracula and Frankenstein. Universal Studios had delivered an intangible something called promise into Lugosi’s open hands that year. But that year, and that promise, had come and gone.
What remained was uncertain.
For Karloff, “horror” had become a career.
For Lugosi, it was something else entirely.
“Horror, to me,” Bela once said, “is sitting, as I sat, night and day, day and night, by the telephone, thinking, ‘Now comes the call… now… now… now!’ Horror, to me, is knowing that if the call did not come, there would not be food in the ice-box, nor light nor heat nor a place for my unborn baby to lay his head, nor a roof over the head of his mother. There is no agony like it.”
* * *
In 1948, Lugosi enjoyed his last big moment, playing Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The surprisingly entertaining film was the last of the Universal monster rallies, and Lugosi was joined in the cast by Lon Chaney, Jr. (as the Wolf Man) and Glenn Strange (as the monster).
By all reports, the sixty-five-year-old Lugosi was in good spirits during production. He brought Bela, Jr. to the set, and photos exist of the proud father (in full Dracula regalia) and son posing together.
Karloff rejected a role in the film, but Universal did strike a deal with Boris to appear at the New York premiere. “As long as I don’t have to see the movie!” Karloff quipped.
At any rate, Boris was comped a hotel room, posed with patrons outside the theater, and went on his way without seeing the last appearance of the monster he’d first brought to the screen nearly twenty years before.
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was Bela Lugosi’s last film from a major studio. Finishing it, he probably couldn’t imagine the humiliations that waited for him in the next decade—a stint as a magician in a Las Vegas casino… shilling with a guy in a gorilla suit at the opening of a Vincent Price movie… a string of films directed by a no-talent leech named Ed Wood, Jr…
If Lugosi would have dropped dead in ’48, he would have died a happier man.
* * *
In The Raven, Universal’s 1935 follow-up to The Black Cat, Lugosi traps Karloff in a basement laboratory. He slices Boris’ nerve ends, paralyzing half his face. For the rest of the film, Karloff wears a dead man’s grimace which runs like a slash beneath one lifeless, unblinking eye.
This delights Lugosi. He’s Richard Vollin, a doctor obsessed with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, a man who sees himself as “a god—with the taint of human emotions!” Vollin has actually built replicas of Poe’s torture devices beneath his house—the pit and the pendulum, the room in which the walls come together—and he plans to use them to punish those who’ve wronged him and the woman who has rejected his love. (“What a delicious torture, Bateman!” he tells Karloff’s character at the end of the film. “Greater than Poe! Poe only conceived it! I have done it, Bateman! POE! YOU ARE AVENGED!”)
Vollin requires the assistance of a confederate to carry out his plan, and that’s where Bateman comes in. Karloff plays the unlikely role of Lugosi’s patsy, an escaped murderer who scorched off a bank guard’s face with an acetylene torch somewhere in Arizona. Having shot his way out of San Quentin (and if you can buy a single element of this plot, I’ve got some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you), Karloff only wants the good doctor to change his face.
Vollin is happy to oblige. Bateman gets what he wants, all right, but not what he bargained for. The Poe-happy doctor removes Bateman’s bandages after surgery and leaves him alone in a curtained room. Then Vollin watches from a window high in the ceiling of the operating theater as the curtains are pulled back, revealing a half-dozen mirrors. Bateman gapes at the sight of his own monstrous reflection, then pulls his rod and blasts each mirror into shards.
Enjoying Karloff’s agony, a completely mirthless sneer slices across Bela Lugosi’s face. His eyes crinkle into slits. His mouth opens like some hideous black hole, and he begins to cackle like an old hag. Freeze-frame and you’ll find yourself staring at a madman. Lugosi is nearly unrecognizable, his expression a dozen times more horrifying than the unconvincing Jack Pierce fright-face worn by Boris Karloff.
“You’re monstrously ugly!” proclaims Lugosi as he regains some small measure of control. “Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate!”
Karloff scuttles about, cringing like a whipped dog. Bela stares down, smiling now. For once he’s holding all the aces, and he knows it.
“Good!” Lugosi says, finally satisfied, and without the slightest trace of introspection. “I can use your hate!”
1 For the full story check out Gregory William Mank’s masterful work, Karloff and Lugosi: the Story of a Haunting Collaboration (McFarland, 1990). If you’re at all interested in either Boris or Bela, this book is indispensable.
2 Later in life, Lugosi would claim that he actually recommended Karloff to James Whale for the part of the monster, but few give this story much credence.
3 Mank, Gregory William. Karloff & Lugosi (McFarland, 1990).
4 In 1937, Karloff shared representation with such actors as Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, and Fred Astaire, while Lugosi’s agent handled Ward Bond, Arthur Aylesworth, and Noah Beery, Jr.
Copyright © 2002 Norman Partridge.
Copyright © 2007 Norman Partridge