1937: Almost Total Eclipse

Through 1937, no horror film came from Hollywood. Not from the major studios, not from the independent. Lugosi’s only screen work is his fourth movie serial, S. O. S. Coast Guard. His only theatre work came in a supporting role in Tovarich, which played four weeks in San Francisco and four weeks in Los Angeles in the spring. Publicity for the play generated Lugosi’s only new interviews of 1937. Warner Brothers rushed a film version of Tovarich into production for Christmas release, and cast Basil Rathbone in Lugosi’s role.  That Christmas did see a lengthy and rather odd interview with Lugosi, published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer. The article ignores the horror ban, praises Lugosi as a reigning horror king, and describes in detail a huge home that Lugosi had to leave due to his crumbling finances.

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Tovarich 1

Tovarich programme

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The San Francisco Call-Bulletin, April 3, 1937


Dracula would reform quickly enough if only they’d let him.

I had it straight from his stage and screen counterpart, Bela Lugosi, after he had stolen into this department yesterday without his usual “Boo!” (If he had his way he’d never scare any more little children, either.

In the interest of less horror on the screen—England helped some with its movie ban of a year ago—Dracula is now occupying himself on the Curran stage as Russian Commissar Gorotochenko in Tovarich, his first straight role in years. If, meanwhile, they do decide to resume things horrific in Hollywood, they’ll have to wait—or “get another boy.”

“It’s about time the film producers were shown I can play roles like this in Tovarich, or those I did for 20 years before coming to Hollywood,” proclaimed the tall Hungarian, with a stroke of his stage Van Dyke.

Why Won’t They Let Me Be Human?

“I wouldn’t expect them to remember I played a Spanish lover in The Red Poppy in New York 15 years ago, or everything from Hamlet to Liliom in Budapest…comedy, tragedy, tragic-comedy—everything old Polonius named.

“But perhaps after Tovarich, they’ll call me for something half-way civilized—no Draculas, White Zombies, Chandus or Mysterious Mr.Wongs, I hope.”

Any future call for a human sort of role will find Mr. Lugosi ensconced in his Hollywood hill fortress of steel and concrete, as if fortified against one of his own scientific menaces. He is, in private life, unterrifying—a kindly husband, a kindly master of seven blooded canines, an art connoisseur.

“And please,” he pleaded, “don’t let people thing that because I’m playing a Russian Communist in Tovarich, I might still be a horror type. Gorotochenko is at least a hero to his own kind. But personally, I’m an individualist.”

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The San Francisco News, April 5, 1937


Actor Who Has Made Record as Dracula Now Seeks to Show Movies He is Dramatic Possibility Through Work in Jacques Deval-Robert Sherwood Comedy

by Claude A. LaBelle

In Tovarich, the smash comedy at the Curran, Bela Lugosi wears some very snappy whiskers. I took it that “zits” or “beavers” were the usual chinpiece tucked on with spirit gum before every performance, and ripped off, with cussing on the side, after the show. By calling on Bela Lugosi at the hotel, I found out that they were simon pure. You see, I had momentarily forgotten that Hollywood leaves its mark on one, and down there, when the role calls for whiskers, the actor “grows a bush.” The camera detects crepe beards and artificial beards to easily. “Yes, it is so much more authentic,” he told me. “I do not have to be a matinee idol, and so I can wear whiskers if I wish.”

Fluent English

Mr. Lugosi’s English is fluent and his vocabulary extensive. He was years learning the groundwork of his English, then for five years he avoided his countrymen as an oil magnate avoids a process server.

“Some of my confreres thought I had gone high hat, or something, but it was necessary that I hear no word of Hungarian spoken if I was to be able to talk English fluently.”

When he perfected his English, he was cast for various roles in American plays, finally achieving national frame as Dracula. This also took him into the movies.

“But now horror pictures are definitely out, and I must do something else, and since Hollywood has me typed as a horror actor, I am pleased beyond measure to have the rich part of Gorotchenko in this play. It is a dramatic part, and I did such parts before Dracula was heard of as a play.”

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Bela & Clara Bow portrait

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The Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 26, 1937

Bela Lugosi, Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 26, 1937


An Interview in the Mystery Home of a Hungarian Baron’s Son whose Work on the Stage Has Drawn Public Curiosity Toward Him

by Inez Wallace

The shadows of the afternoon crept across the only black carpet in all Hollywood. Silently, they reached the place where two velvet drapes were parting and a man stood between them. He was six feet two and his hair was dark and smooth. Dressed in a silk lounging coat, black trousers and a series sash of stain, he looked foreign. Poised and very sure of himself. “Mademoiselle,” he said, and bowed low; but when he kissed my hand his lips were as cold as ice. “Come,” and he held the curtains aside for me to walk, slowly now, into a huge living room. It was just like a show.

A sense of great space, odor of muck, a baby-grand piano carved from black ebony, two divans before a large fireplace and upon one wall the painting of a woman, nearly nude, with a dash of red covering her heart and a smile on the cruel mouth. “But be seated, my dear,” said Bela Lugosi—and poured me a glass of cognac. As I started to refuse it, “Do not argue, Mademoiselle,” and (remembering the line in Murder in the Rue Morgue, where he had asked as he tortured the French girl, “Are you in pain, Mademoiselle?”) my mind raced back to the circumstances which had brought me here—to this strange house.

I am a movie writer, not a detective who solves mysteries, but that there was something both weird and mysterious about the atmosphere of this place, I could not deny. Well, I had asked for it. When I told Universal Studios that I wanted to talk with the man who is known as “Dracula” throughout the world, they had discouraged the idea. “His house is hard to reach,” they began. “It is high on a mountaintop with a drop of hundreds of feet on both sides. He keeps a pack of police dogs who come into the house through a secret trap door in the cellar, and—well, writers just don’t go there.”

And that is how it happened that my Scottish camera-man and I were on our way to Lugosi’s home—to explode the theory that it couldn’t be done. As we wound out way around the devious road which led to the mountain top, the camera-man said timidly:

“I’ve no heart to stay in this place after nightfall, nor will you after you see the inside of it. I’ll take any pictures you want, but one thing is understood—we leave before dark or you take a taxi home.”

“What is this?” I asked, “an act? Is the studio giving this man Lugosi a big mystery buildup to scare me into the mood for the story? If so, save your breathe. I’ve been scared by experts, including the voodoo doctors in Haiti—and it doesn’t take anymore.”

Then we were at the big iron gate, solidly backed by a wooden door—and as we rang the bell, its echo came back across the mountain—but that was all. The door swung open, and we walked into the hall. “Remember,” whispered my companion, “to leave before the sun goes down.”

But with the Scotsman sent outside to take some exterior shots, his warning was completely forgotten. The fire was so inviting and Mr. Lugosi, with his foreign accent, so fascinating, that time seemed to stand still. To be sure, pleasant little chills were running up and down my back but—“Tell me,” I asked my host. “Is there really such a thing as a vampire?”

“Of course, M’m’selle knows of the vampire bats in Trinidad?” he countered.

“I don’t mean that—I mean a real vampire—like Count Dracula.”

“Dracula was said to be a fictitious character,” he replied, “sometimes I wonder. Remember the lines in Hamlet:

There are things in heaven and earth, Horatio

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“But how can I entertain you?”

“Tell me about yourself.”

“I live very quietly—as perhaps you have heard. I never go out at night, but I’m up at five every morning. Of course, you know that Dracula had one of the longest runs of any play in America. Horace Liveright bought the stage rights abroad and, in the Harvard Club of New York, was lamenting the fact that he could not find an actor for the role. So, John D. Williams, who directed Rain, suggested me because I had continental training and am really the son of a Hungarian nobleman. My father was Baron Lugosi, a banker. When the play had run two years in New York, Universal bought the rights from Mrs. Stoker, widow of the author who wrote Dracula. They immediately tested five other actors—each executive having his favorite actor for the role. But Mr. Laemmle said, “as we cannot decide on who shall play it, let us use the original Dracula, and make the film without even testing him.”

I began to “unlax” a little—this was the sort of conversation which accompanies all interviews. Probably everything was going to be all right—and yet.

“These police dogs of yours,” I went on, “I could hear them howling a mile down the road. May I see them and also have some photos of you.”

“Both in the cellar. I mean my study is below ground. Would M’m’selle care to come down?” And as we neared the cellar stairs, he turned on the light switch, but nothing happened. “So, annoying—the lights are off again. But no matter, just give me your hand. I can find my files in the dark so we will get the photos now. And I will let the dogs in through the trap door later.”

“He’s doing this on purpose to scare me,” I said to myself. “How I hate the folks who set the stage.” But now my hand was in his and he was leading me, unerringly, through a long passage. The air was warm but damp and at last we came to the room which called his study. He went over to the files, found without effort the file containing the photo envelope and as he took my hand again to lead me back, my heart almost stopped beating. I had remembered, with sickening reality, that Arthur Treacher, who also lives on a mountain side in Hollywood, had told me that in electric storms, their lights do go blotto. We had had a bad storm that very morning! This was not a frame-up—it was real—and Bela Lugosi could go about in the dark as well as in the daylight.

Somehow, we got back upstairs and after I had seen the police dogs (with snow white the leader of the pack) come up through the trap door, we adjourned again to the living room. I’d had enough mystery. From now on, only questions and answers, so I began with the old one, “where were you born, Mr. Lugosi?”

“In Transylvania,” he answered—and looked into the dying embers of the fire.

“Transylvania?” I echoed, “But wasn’t that the home of Count Dracula?”

“Certainly. Does Mademoiselle find anything strange in that?”

“Not in itself—no. But when a person can see in the dark as you did just now; when he never goes about at night but is up at the crack of dawn—well you know the tradition better than I. Are you trying to scare me to death or what? Lugosi smiled, not his film smile but the warm cheerful smile of a very human man who has a sense of humor.

“Just a coincidence, which my very capable press agent has capitalized,” he admitted. “He also made much of the fact that I spend an hour alone in the dark before starting to play Dracula. I do—I have to, in order to get into the mood of the role. You see, the more farfetched a character is, the more an actor must believe it, if he is to put it across successfully. Therefore, I take Count Dracula very seriously—when I’m playing him. And even at that, many fans write that they ‘see through me’—especially the ladies—who tell me that they know I do horror pictures only because producers demand it of me. Yesterday a woman in New England wrote that she would like to see me (just once) when my continental manners might shine on the screen, without contributing to the death and downfall of the heroine. Now, as only a small portion of fans can possibly have seen me in anything but horror pictures, this is a fine tribute to the astuteness of the American woman.”

“Well,” I said, resignedly, “the producers have typed you, all right. And it’s too bad since before Dracula, you played only leads and characters on the stages of Europe and Broadway. How the heck did you happen to do such a weird thing on Dracula in the first place?”

I thought I caught a hint of sadness in his smile as he replied: “When they first asked me to do it, I looked upon it as a challenge—an adventure into new fields. So I played it, made good and created a Frankenstein for myself by so doing. Because, you see, while the public can imagine me in other roles, the producers think of me only as Dracula. There are times when, were it not for the encouragement of my wife…”

“So you’re married?” I asked quickly.

“Yes—this is my fourth wife.”

“Four wives,” I said to myself, “Gosh, maybe he’s a Bluebeard, as well as Dracula.” And aloud, “May I ask a favor: I’d like to go back into that cellar—this time with a flashlight. Not that I’m so curious to see your study, but I just want to convince myself that I wasn’t in a tomb a few minutes ago.” He clapped his hands and a foreign looking butler entered. When the servant had brought a flashlight we again descended to the floor built below the earth. The most orderly study I have ever been in in my life was revealed by the rays of our light. Everything was filed and indexed—letters, photos, publicity stories. At the far end of the cement hall the dogs growled at the door. “Why do you keep a pack of dogs?” I inquired, and his answer was “I love them—they are my pals.”

As he spoke, he crossed to a file and took out a pamphlet from Raymond Ditmars, famous reptile authority of the New York Zoo. It was a treatise on the vampire bats of South America and was signed, “To my friend, Bela Lugosi.” We returned to the living room fire, and it was while he replenished the logs that I realize the major attraction about this strange man—his hands. Next time you see him on the screen, never mind his face—take a good look at those hands. They talk—in many languages.

There was a movement of the curtains, and my cameraman was standing in the doorway. “I’ve got all the shots you ordered and its time to go, Miss,” he said with a meaning look toward the sun going down the mountain.

“But you cannot go—you have not yet seen Madame Lugosi,” and as I glanced uncertainly at the cameraman. “I will fetch her,” and Lugosi disappeared into the darkening hall.

“I warned you of this,” the cameraman began when we were alone. “I tell you I won’t stay here.”

“Go on home then, you big panty waist,” I replied, “or wait in the car if you’re really scared.” Tripod under arm, he made a quick exit, as Mr. Lugosi returned with his wife. She is tall, handsome, and very refined. She radiated a hospitality which comes easily to those born on the continent, and she certainly lifted the great Lugosi out of the horror groove, and placed him in my mind as an ideal husband and host. “All we lack now is Dracula’s daughter,” I said laughing.

Sorry to disappoint you there,” he replied, “but someday I shall write a story called “Dracula’s Wife”—only, thank God, it won’t be a horror yarn, but the sweetest love story ever told.

As Mrs. Lugosi departed to confer with her cook about supper, I dragged a huge ottoman up to fire, and flopped down upon it, which brought me directly in front of this man who has played The Raven, The Thirteenth Chair, Chandu, and other horror roles.

“Look,” I began, “I came here to get a horror story. In fact I was so set for chills and coffins that I’ve almost scared myself—and my cameraman is expiring in that car outside.”

“Then you got your story?” He asked, his eyes twinkling.

“Yes, I got it,” I replied, “but not the sort of one you mean. The true story of you debunks this Dracula stuff, and what I want to know is—is it all right to print it?”

“Certainly my dear—you will earn my gratitude—and the gratitude of thousands of my fans. Maybe it will be the means of suggesting to ‘the powers that be’ that they cast me in roles which will not cause mothers to use me as a bogey man to scare little children.”

In the hall, we met Madame Lugosi. “We will accompany you to your car,” she said. “We always say ‘au revoir’ to visitors together at the gateway.

Mr. Lugosi again kissed my hand in the continental manner—and somehow I felt very sorry for him as I left him standing there. But as I glanced through the window I could see his supper, spread out on a long, dark wood table, lighted with very tall candles, the bread on a board with a big knife and the bottles of wine beside silver goblets. And then I did not feel sorry for him any more—for I knew he had what so many successful people in Hollywood never find—a home.

At one of the many turns in the road, I had the cameraman stop the car so we could look back. Little lights were twinkling gaily in the house atop the mountain. But there was no gaity in my heart—only a lasting wonder of why I stay on in the crazy business—of why I work so hard on stories like this one, full of creeps and excitement—and then have the darn thing explode like a firecracker—before I can complete it. But when I remembered the title I had planned for it, I laughed in spite of myself. “Dracula’s Castle is in Hollywood,” I said. “Ha. Ha.”