Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi

I recently had a chance to pick up a copy of “The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi” (University Press of Kentucky, 2003), by Arthur Lennig. One of the preeminent film biographers, Lennig (whose other works include the insightful and revealing “Stroheim”) manages to give readers a good sense of Bela Lugosi the person, and how this Hungarian actor came to be so powerfully associated with a single role. For an actor whose career spanned nearly half a century, I have always felt that film writers are too quick to discuss Lugosi’s work only in terms of his most famous roles. This attitude, while understandable, overlooks the breadth of his acting roles over the years, including memorable turns in such films as the manic comedy, International House, and Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka.

Lennig draws on extensive research and interviews with those who knew and worked with Lugosi over the years to draw a complete picture of the actor. A particular revelation of the section dealing with Lugosi’s work in the theater is just what a diverse series of roles he played early in his career. Apart from his becoming so strongly associated with the role of Dracula, Lennig conveys the frustration Lugosi felt as a foreign actor in Hollywood, typecast in heavy roles.

Particular attention too is given to the relationship between Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Universal, seeing Karloff as the “next Chaney” (who had been such a moneymaker for the studio in the 1920s), treated Karloff as the crown jewel of the studio, while Lugosi was rather unceremoniously cast aside following Dracula. There was apparently a bit of bitterness between the two, though neither expressed this publicly (the two would work together, memorably, in The Black Cat, made for Universal by Edgar G. Ulmer in 1934).

In addition to the light shed on Lugosi’s early career, his later years are given similarly in-depth treatment. Lennig covers Lugosi’s battle with and eventual recovery from drug addiction, as well as his infamous work with Edward D. Wood Jr. (a series of films which, thankfully, Lennig does not belabor). Such films as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla are also discussed. This period probably represents the nadir of Lugosi's career.

It is rather poignant how deeply Lugosi cared about his most famous role. While he would describe it as both a blessing and a curse, the role of Dracula certainly made Lugosi into an icon. If he had played no other role, it is probably safe to say that Lugosi's name would still be remembered by film fans just as strongly today. In addition to the meticulous preparation he went through in getting into character for the part, it is also interesting how he handled the issue of self-parody in films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which he plays the Count straight as the two comedians pull their comic business. Lennig reports that Lugosi was put-off by the lackadaisical attitude that Abbott and Costello took to their work (and attitude shared, incidentally, by others who worked with them, including Buster Keaton). Whatever else can be said about Lugosi's appearance in the film, it certainly reinforced his iconic status.

"The Immortal Count" stands as one of the most solid, well-researched and enlightening film biographies I have read in some time. Arthur Lennig manages the impressive task of revealing the actor behind one of the most iconic roles in all of cinema. The reader comes away with a revealing account of Bela Lugosi, the man and the actor.

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