90 years ago Count Dracula came to haunt America.
Released in 1931, Dracula, the film adaptation of the famous 1897 novel, starring Bela Lugosi.
Due to the success of the film, its eponymous lead actor overnight became an international movie star. A respected stage artist, Lugosi’s life subsequently changed, not least because the role of Dracula and the actor who played him have now become synonymous.
What Lugosi didn’t know then was that as a name shines more in the lights above the movie theater, inevitably the shadows must lengthen below. In what was to follow, the actor’s life took on the appearance of an endless struggle to escape the confines of the vampire cloak that slowly began to envelop him.
According to the Universal Studio publicity machine, the star of his latest box office smash was born from a noble line in the land beyond the mountains, in the vampire realm itself, namely Transylvania. The truth was more banal. Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskówas was born in 1882 in the industrial town of Lugos, hundreds of kilometers from Transylvania. His family was middle class and Catholic.
That said, her life before her most famous role was eventful, even more than any studio could invent. Lugosi had “played” many roles: a runaway child, a decorated veteran of World War I, an intellectual, Shakespearean actor, husband, revolutionary, film star in Berlin with the famous UFA studios, lover, husband again, husband again, and much more. more. These are just a few of Lugosi’s roles before, in the winter of 1920, he made his way on a merchant ship bound for New Orleans.
After arriving in America, he would identify with one role; the role that would slowly drain the creative force from his veins.
It all started on Broadway. Lugosi played the role of the vampire count in the theatrical adaptation of the novel. The play was a success. But for him success on the New York scene with Dracula was welcome, although it was hardly unexpected. Remember Lugosi was a serious actor. He looked forward to many more nights of standing ovations and rave reviews for his performance. He was also looking forward to other rooms, more demanding the roles. In fact, he wanted to explore the entire repertoire of classical theater. Soon he would move on, he thought, when, like any actor, he got tired of the role.
For Lugosi, however, Dracula turned out to be something else.
“Come in freely and let some of the happiness you bring. So says Count Dracula to Jonathan Harker, the innocent who, at the beginning of Bram Stoker’s novel, goes to the vampire’s lair. Perhaps these fictitious words could apply to Lugosi as well. In an interview, he said this: “The role seemed to require me to keep myself at peak fever, so I took on the true attributes of the horrible vampire, Dracula.”
Disturbing signs of it emerged even while he was playing the role on Broadway. Take a look at this curious newspaper article (“Dracula Star: Same at Home”) from the Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1929:
“Bela Lugosi, star of ‘Dracula,’ a play that had long passages where she was shown, took her temper into the house and couldn’t put aside her irascible part of the role when he walked in.” in his home, his wife, Beatrice W. Lugosi, testified in divorce court here to substantiate his divorce… ”
Ultimately, all roles are masks that actors put on and take off at will. But what if the mask cannot be dislodged? What if after the lights went out and the crowd had long left for the house, the mask remained? The success on Broadway would be nothing compared to what Hollywood would subsequently offer. After the release of the film version of Dracula, there was to be no way out for Lugosi, no way to remove the mask he had created – and no matter how hard he tried.
The last few years have been filled with bathos. Success, a mercurial element at best, had faded for the actor almost as quickly as it had unexpectedly swamped his life. Lugosi had known the heights of worldly success, if only for less time than one might imagine; in the end, he had come to better understand the depths of despair. Only a few years after his dazzling entry into the collective consciousness of the world, he was acting, or perhaps more correctly, working in the “factory” of what were called the Poverty Row films. The name given to this genre speaks for itself. Artistically, he had become “living dead”.
“I look at myself in the mirror and I say to myself: can it be you who played Romeo?
Broken movie contracts, broken relationships, five marriages and a myriad of drug problems were in time to escalate Lugosi’s sentences. Yet even though the end is drawing near, he’s still working. But the role, if it’s not called that anymore, is still Dracula.
The B movie Plan 9 of outer space (1957) will be his last film. Today, it is regularly voted one of the worst films ever made. Lugosi died four days after filming began – his role was then filled by the director’s wife’s chiropractor, as a favor. Yet in the film’s final cut, the final footage of the most mysterious of movie stars, we see Lugosi, still clad in the vampire cloak, standing next to an open grave.
In the wee hours of August 16, 1956, Bela Lugosi died.
Subsequently, he was buried in his Dracula cloak at Holy Cross, Hollywood’s Catholic cemetery. On the tombstone are written the words:
1882 – 1956
Next to the inscription is a cross. The letters are engraved on it: IHS.
In hoc signo vinces.
We can only pray that, as in the best horror tales, the Cross has prevailed.