The Silent Films of Bela Lugosi
Bela Lugosi was born Bela Blasko on Ocober 20, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary. A “change of life” child, and the youngest in the family, Bela displayed a flare for the dramatic from an early age. His father, a baker turned banker, had high hopes for his youngest son, but died before any of those hopes could be realized. Little did he know that Bela would one day become one of the most widely-recognized actors in movie history.
Lugosi began his acting career in the years before movies, travelling from town to town with production companies that put on performances along the way. In Hungary, these companies were divided between the provincial and urban companies, the urban being of considerably highter status than the provincial. Lugosi, however, was able to move his way through the ranks, making quite an impression in a repertory theater in Hungarys second largest town, Szeged. By 1911, Lugosi was playing the big time in Budapest. His years in the theater in Budapest were interrupted by a one-and-a-half year stint of service in World War I, where he was wounded twice before returning to civilian life. His work in the Budapest theater led to work in Hungarys incipient movie industry. Although these films no longer exist, records indicate that Lugosi appeared in The Leopard in 1917, the first of many films he would make in his native Hungary.
Lugosis career reached a pivotal point when revolution broke out in Budapest in 1918. Already a union member as a result of his years as an apprentice locksmith, Lugosi turned his attention to unionizing Hungarys actors. A very class conscious group, theater society was not at all pleased with Lugosis more “plebeian” efforts. The revolution was put down, and with the counterrevolution came a crackdown on those who had organized under the former communist government. Lugosi, along with other prominent communists and socialists in the arts, was wanted for crimes against the state. Lugosi fled Hungary for Vienna, Austria and later to Berlin, Germany. It was in Germany that Lugosis film career started to flourish.
Although Lugosi will always be remembered first and foremost as the legendary Dracula, he actually played a variety of roles before 1931, and many of them romantic leads. While most of us have not had the pleasure of seeing Lugosi on the stage, we can now enjoy several of his early silent performances in films that have only recently been made available to the general public.
In 1920, Lugosi starred in Lederstrumpf (Leatherstocking), a German film released in two parts and based on the James Fenimore Cooper novels The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans. Lugosi plays Chingachgooka role reprised by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1957. Germans, like many other Europeans, were fascinated by Native American culture and traditions. While the German version is generally considered to be a fine film, the version didnt fare quite as well. The two parts that comprised the German filmtitled Der Wildtoeter und Chingachgook (The Deerslayer and Chingachgook) and Der Letzte der Mohikaner (The Last of the Mohicans)were combined to create one shorter film, The Deerslayer.
While one assumes that the original German version, longer and in two parts, makes sense, the English language version is choppy. In addition, there are several unexplained cutaways to a scout leader reading, we presume, the adventures of Deerslayer, to a group of boys assembled around the campfire. The plot, although somewhat muddled, does manage to hang together with some effort on the part of the viewer. Set in the 1740s, the story concerns the settlement of upstate New York. The Iroquois have aligned themselves with the French, and the Delaware with the English. The man known as Deerslayer is a trapper, and his best friend is Chingachgook, son of the Delaware chief.
Although Chingachgook is introduced by name early on, he doesnt actually appear until much later (although this may be true only of the edited English version). A convoluted tale of adventure, deception, romance and treachery thus unravels. The Deerslayer is on his way to meet Chingachgook, whose betrothed, Watawah, has been kidnapped by the Iroquois. En route, Deerslayer meets up with Hurry Harry, who is in love with Judith Hutter, daughter of the man who claims ownership of the area known as Glimmerglass Lake. Hutter, having had to fight off several Indian attacks already, has built “the castle,” a small cabin on a raft floating on the river.
Warned that the Iroquois have joined leagues with the French, Hutter asks Deerslayer and Hurry Harry to help him deliver his daughters to safety at the English camp. The English camp, however, is captured by the French and the Iroquois before they arrive. Hutter and Hurry Harry, as a part of a different ambush, have been captured by Iroquois Chief Rivenoak. All this leaves Deerslayer with the castle and the charge of Hutters two daughters, Judith and Hetty who, in her turn, goes to save her father.
If youve been able to follow all of this, youre in luck. Just before Hetty leaves, Chingachgook (Lugosi) mysteriously shows up on the raft. At first, Lugosi, wearing buckskin and covered in a heavy layer of what appears to be copper-toned make-up, blends into the background amidst the many “Indian” extras on the set. Once he turns his famous profile to the camera, however, he begins to stand out from the rest of the cast. He manages, with what few opportunities he is given, to stand out amidst the drama. Unfortunately, the dialogue, already heavy-handed and crude in its English edition, is further diminished by the fact that it resorts to a caricature of Native American speech, frequently punctuating awkward phrases with the expression “Ugh.”
Through a variety of contrivances, Hutter dies, as does Hetty. The English are reinstated in their fort, Deerslayer continues to live off the land, and Watawah and Chingachgook are united in love and matrimony. Throughout it all, though, Lugosi has little to do. He has very little screen time, and what little screen time he does have is, unfortunately, spent standing around looking noble. Nobility, however, is something Lugosi does very well.
Nobility is also his most prominent characteristic in Daughter of the Night (1921), a German film that was also released as Dance of the Volcano. Daughter of the Night offers the viewer a much better opportunity to watch Lugosi in action.
Daughter of the Night is the epitome of melodrama: Michelov, Andre, and Marie are high-minded nationalists, risking everything for their country; the Royalists are privileged, decadent and self-indulgent. Made just four years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the nuances of political intrigue probably played better when it it was first released. While the style of acting practiced by his co-stars is decidedly exaggerated, Lugosi is able to stand out as the passionate, loyal and loving Andre. His potential, and his appeal, as a romantic lead is apparent in Daughter of the Night, making it much easier to understand and appreciate why women swooned when Lugosi appeared onstage as Dracula.
The film opens in the aftermath of a massacre, a young woman barely escaping with her life. She is whisked away, and we are transported to Paris where a young woman, a Russian singer named Marie Dorouska, is the “toast of the boulevards.” Her most ardent admirer is Andre Fleurot, our own Bela. Here it is clear from the beginning that Lugosi is the romantic lead, a rich and dashing man about town. Later that evening, Andre proclaims his love for the singer. The singer, however, has a mysterious past. She shares her secretonly part of it being completely truthfulin the hopes that Andres love will prove true.
She tells him that she was saved from an arrogant and cruel man who professed to be her father by the kind and gentle Michelov. Although Marie lies about her “peasant” roots, it is true that she is a friend and associate of the populist Ivan Michelov. Michelov, having no affinity for neither the Royalists nor the Revolutionaries, is a true nationalistboth parties see him as an enemy. When Michelov escapes Russia, his sister is killed and Marie is left destitute, dedicating her life to Michelov and to Russia.
Fleurot, whose feelings for the singer are only strengthened by Maries confession, must throw over his previous paramour, the Countess Kaminska, for the love of the singer. The Countess, as it turns out, is the chief of the Russian Royalist partys spy network in Paris. The Countess, a woman spurned, vows to have her revenge.
In the meantime, the Countess and other Royalists are expecting a visit from the Grand Duke Frederick, a Royalist figurehead. During her visit, the Grand Duke takes a shine to Marie who, in a effort to kill the Grand Duke and thereby weaken the Royalist resolve, sacrifices her love for Fleurot to be nearer the Grand Duke. Fleurot, head over heels in love with Marie and understanding the need for Marie to become the Grand Dukes mistress in order to kill him, dedicates his life and his wealth to defend the cause that is Maries raison dêtre.
The film is marred by the screen size. The top of the picture and, more importantly, the top of some of the longer story cards, are cut off, with a slight hindering of the story line. It is, however, a great example of Lugosis early work, and his prowess as a romantic lead.
Lugosis ability to portray somewhat more nefarious types comes to the fore in The Midnight Girl (1925). The Midnight Girl was a vehicle for silent movie actress Lila Lee. Lee is most well-known for her roles in The Unholy Three with Lon Chaney and Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino. A household name in her time, she continued to work well into the 1960s. Lugosi is prominently featured as Nicholas Harmon, a rich merchant and patron of the opera. His mistress, a soprano played by Dolores Cassanelli, is the star of his opera house, despite the fact that her voice, once beautiful, is beginning to fade. A widower, Harmon (Lugosi) has a less than harmonious relationship with his step-son, Don. He is, however, delighted at the impending marriage between Don and the society girl, Natalie Shuyler. For Harmon, that means a union between his millions and the Schuyler family status. Don, however, is not particularly fond of his new fiancé, nor of his step-fathers various romantic liasons.
His step-son, offended that his step-fathers mistress would disrespect his mothers memory, leaves home, denouncing his step-father, his millions, and the fiancé who is his step-fathers choice in marriage.
In his new, less glamorous, lodging, Don Harmon discovers a rare beauty with an angelic voice, the immigrant singer Anna Meridof played by Lila Lee. Don, who has found a job as a conductor at a local nightclub, finds Anna a job. Billed as “The Midnight Girl” (her performances always begin at midnight), her reputation as a singer begins to grow. Her talents come to the attention of Nicholas, who is unaware of his sep-sons attachment to the young singer. Once he discovers his step-son is in love with Anna, he steps up his own efforts to seduce the young woman, showing himself to be an even greater cad than expected.
There is a wonderful scene in which Nicholass attempts to “seduce” (assault, more accurately) the young Anna. The camera moves to show Anna from behind, Lugosis hand, the long fingers he is so famous for, crawling across her back like a creature rather than the caressing hand of a lover. He pounces while she resists, a gleeful smile indicating his rather unseemly intent.
Nicholas regains his honor when Anna, defending herself at all costs, tries to shoot him and accidently shoots Nina, who has hidden herself in the room. Nina, Nicholas realizes, is his true love. Nicholas makes everything right by marrying Nina, establishing Anna as the new star soprano of the opera, and paves the way for marriage between his step-son and the young singer.
Again, Lugosi steals the show. Sporting a mustache and goatee, he cuts a dashing and debonair figure, even when he reveals himself to be base and nasty when it comes to having his way with Anna. His step-son, unmemorably portrayed by Gareth Hughes as a rather bland and uninteresting character, is no match for the handsome Lugosi.
These films, a rare opportunity to see Lugosi before Dracula (1931), enable us to see Lugosis range as an actor, his potential as a romantic leading man had he not been typecast by his horror roles, nor hindered by his rather unusual accent. Of course, if it had not been for his memorable dialect, or his foray into horror, he, like many other stars of the silent era, might not be remembered at all. Rather than a lament for “what might have been,” viewing films from Lugosis early career gives us an opportunity to more deeply appreciate the talent of the man who was, is, and always will be...Dracula.