Sunday, June 14, 2015

'Bela Lugosi In Person' captures the stage, personal appearance career of screen 'Dracula'

Review by Doug Gibson

Gary D. Rhodes has been writing books on Bela Lugosi for a generation but the last several years he's moved toward deconstructing the first film Dracula's career and life, doing some admirable research into various aspects of Lugosi's career. Several years ago, with Bill Kaffenberger, he wrote "No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi," which detailed the barnstorming last half of the 1940s, a time filled with long vehicle journeys with wife, Lillian, summer stock, personal appearances and spook and magic shows, and one gold mine, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." 

Rhodes' latest book, also with Kaffenberger, is an historical prequel to "No Traveler Returns." Bela Lugosi In Person" (BearManor Media, 2015) details the stage and appearances Lugosi made from his time as the vampire on Broadway to roughly the end of World War II. Except for a dry economic spell in 1937 and 1938 -- due more to a British influence at Universal rather than the usually blamed British horror ban, opines Rhodes -- Lugosi enjoyed mostly star status for roughly 15 years, and was a success economically, on stage and film. He may have been paid far less than screen rival Boris Karloff, but he worked hard, traveled extensively, and had consistent offers.

He was a star, and a gracious star, attentive to fans and charmingly tongue-in-cheek sinister with the media, particularly local media, which pursued him often during his long stage assignments. Lost in dusty old-media files and updated media websites are reviews of the many plays Lugosi entered, as star, or supporting role. Perhaps the strongest part of this wonderful book is the carefully detailed play and vaudeville histories of Lugosi's stage career. Some of the stage productions covered include "Murder At the Vanities," "Tovarich," "Stardust Calvacade," "Arsenic and Old Lace," and a successful 1943 revival of "Dracula" in 1943.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter of the "Dracula" revival. Interestingly, by 1943 the iconic play was already beginning to be seen as old-fashioned, hokey, melodramatic and even mirthful in spots, as some reviews say. Nevertheless, Lugosi still commanded high respect from nearly all the critics tallied in the book. The 1943 revival, with the claims of an outdated "Dracula," were similar to the same complaints that would be tagged almost a decade later, when Lugosi starred in a British production of the Dracula play, a period of history covered in detail by genre historians Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks.

It was interesting to learn more about Lugosi's vaudevillian "Dracula" sketch that he did in theaters in 1933, as part of entertainment that included a feature film. That's certainly of era of theater entertainment that we may never see again. Also, the book notes that Lugosi was not as passive an actor as many have tagged him as. He didn't sit around waiting for offers. He tried to form a production company that would have featured him in a film version of "Cagliostro." It didn't pan out, but he regularly tried. Lugosi regularly pitched himself to New York agents for stage productions.

The book tends to confirm that the latter half of the 1930s was a time Lugosi harbored a better chance to move out of horror typecasting. He was in "Tovarich," did some personal appearances not as a horror star but an actor, had small parts in "Ninotchka" and "The Saint's Double Trouble" and roles as the heavy but not a monster in serials. But, that was also the period he earned the least, and lost his home. "Son of Frankenstein" in 1939 was a big hit and re-booted Bela in the horror genre with his portrayal of Igor. His career would pick up but there would be no more serious forays into non-horror.

Rhodes has a scholar's joy in uncovering new tidbits of history and he may have tracked down the origin of the lost Lugosi compilation film, "Lock Up Your Daughters," which played in Britain 55-plus years ago. Bela Lugosi In Person reveals a 1950 TV listing that notes an hour-long show called "Bela Lugosi and Murder," that had Lugosi hosting an edited version of an old Monogram film, likely "The Invisible Ghost." It may all be a coincidence, but the TV listing, with Lugosi hosting, sounds a lot like "Lock Up Your Daughters," which also boasted Lugosi as a host of sorts.

I could go on, but just buy the book. If you're a big Lugosi or genre fan, you'll delve with appetite into the details of the stage and other appearances. More general fans may skip by the many reviews but will learn a lot about a cinema icon as well as how hard an aging film star worked to maintain strong paydays in a tough, always competitive environment.

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