The Incredible Mr. Blasko!
“Who the heck is Mr. Blasko?” you may being asking yourself… And not to be nefarious or tricky on my part, Mr. Blasko is simply one of many names of one of the great pillars of horror, and certainly a reluctant one at that. The King of Horror Bela Lugosi, the man most recognizable as Dracula, was born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko on October 20, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His birthplace was only some fifty miles away from the western border of Transylvania and the Poenari Castle, the legendary home of Vlad the Impaler, the historical Dracula, whom Lugosi would portray to great acclaim on both stage and screen. Bela came from farmers and bankers but would never find his place there. He would be a runaway, a traveler in search of himself in the world. Bela became captivated by the touring theatrical troupes that came through Resita and set his heart on becoming an actor…
What is it about horror that seems to take hold of certain careers and never let go? For some stay for only a short while, a place for struggling up and comers to make a splash in the dark pool, a place for actors and actresses to earn their bones, so to speak. Consider the likes of Kevin Bacon or Johnny Depp for example, who played in Friday the 13th (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) respectively…while both also growing to see much success, would often dabble in horror, they were never typecasted into horror as some tend to be. Its a tragic disposition for many of the classic actors, from their own perspective. They wanted to be actors and not just the strange ones, but as it would be, the world, or Hollywood for that matter, would only allow the strange and menacing portrayals they played so well. Some would dawn these cowls with glee, I think Vincent Prince is an excellent example of someone accepting that history would always look upon him as one of many faces of horror. Bela Lugosi fell into this…though from the very beginning it seem he was always destined for the cowl as King of Horror.
In 1919, when Bela fled Hungary (interesting side note: in 1914, Bela served in the Hungarian Army against Russia during The Great War, discharged in 1916 for health reasons, he would later support the Hungarian Revolution…however, when the revolution collapsed Bela found himself a wanted enemy of the new government) for Germany and broke into the Wiemar era films of the 1920s, he played in many dark films, including The Head of Janus and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was a great success in Germany. Its curious why he decided to immigrate to the United States…
Yet it was for our benefit, was it not? Bela came first to New Orleans during the last waning week of 1920 and then eventually made his way to New York City, working for a Hungarian theater as a stage actor. Again, he found great success performing for his native trope, making it all the way to Broadway. And he even made his way to film, in America, silent-pictures were still dominate and Bela had not yet mastered the English language. Though, it would be in 1927 when Bela’s biggest role would come to fruition.
It was in 1927 when Bela Lugosi first dawned the cope and cowl of Dracula. First it was a play, based on Bram Stroker’s gothic novel of the same name. Apparently, it was one of the more romantic and alluring renditions. According to his biography, Bela was handsome, mysterious and seductive, so much so that its reported audiences gasped when he first spoke with his strange albeit mesmerizing accent. Whoever cast Bela as Dracula for the stage is a genius. For in the minds of those who read the book, he was the perfect depiction for that haunting place known as Transylvania…this unknown, dangerous, yet, romantic place.
The introduction of talking pictures, also known as The Age of Sound, or just “talkies” for short brought a new era of filmography. Universal Pictures at this point had produced some of the most memorable silent-era films, including the more memorable Lon Chaney pictures, like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and there were also Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt pictures, The Cat and the Canary (1927), and The Man Who Laughs (1928) to name a few. In 1931, Universal set their sights on adapting the famous stage play, which was based on the famous novel by the same name, Dracula. The equally incredible Tod Browning would direct what would be nicknamed, “The Strangest Passion the World Has Ever Known, while Bela would make his own into a major Hollywood role, keeping to his adaptation of Dracula, Bela will forever be idolized and synonymous as the character. The 1931 film was a smash hit, and for obvious reasons. Despite the struggling of production, the film, even today, felt dark and foreboding. Bela was and still is the perfect Count immortal.
Bela would dawn the cowl of Dracula many times throughout the rest of his life, even in roles that were not technically Dracula, directors would want his essence of the immortal count. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he would never venture far from horror. His most notable performances were Murderers in the Rue Morgue (1932),White Zombie (1932), International House (1933), The Raven (1934), Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). The 1940s would bring the era of spoofs, the terror ebbed away by the effects of another world war, in such films as, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). While none of these roles were especially noteworthy in isolation, Lugosi’s cumulative body of work during the 1930s established him as one of the first great stars of the horror genre. Nevertheless, throughout his entire career Lugosi was frustrated by his inability to break through into other types of films. In 1956, while in production of Plan 9 From Outer Space, he would be buried wearing the iconic costume.