“Child, never look into my eyes!” The Hypnotic Stare of Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bela Lugosi photographed by Editta Sherman

Joan Winmill appeared in the role of the Mary Wells the maid for the first half of Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British revival tour of Dracula. Beginning her acting career shortly after World War II, she had an incredible stroke of luck in 1947 when she landed a leading role in the West End hit The Chiltern Hundreds.  For more than a year the unknown actress had one of the choicest stage roles in London. After one performance at the Vaudeville Theatre Joan was introduced to future American senator Robert F Kennedy. A romance followed, but Kennedy’s father disapproved. Despite Joan’s hopes of marriage, the relationship came to a sudden end in 1949 when Kennedy announced by letter from America that he was going to marry Ethel Skekel instead.

Joan found it difficult to follow up the success she had enjoyed in The Chiltern Hundreds when the run came to an end. Her relationship and professional woes fueled her personal insecurities and bouts of stage fright. She coped through phenobarbitals before performances and sleeping pills afterwards.  Although the barbiturates got her on stage and through a performance, they also caused her to slur dialogue or drop lines. 

Joan Winmill

Joan Winmill’s entry in the January, 1949 edition of “The Spotlight” Casting Directory

In April 1951 Joan auditioned to play Lucy in Dracula, but only managed to land the much smaller role of Wells the maid, an indication of the extent of the reversal of the professional fortunes of the former West End star. She would perform the role 121 times before leaving the tour after eleven weeks when the play’s run at the Wood Green Empire ended on July 14, 1951. 

Her career began to improve over the next three years with regular work in the theatre, television, and films. Her television credits include a recurring role in Epitaph for a Spy, a 1953 mini-series starring Peter Cushing. She appeared in four films, including uncredited roles in Alastair Sim’s Innocents in Paris (1953), Forbidden Cargo (1954), which featured Greta Gynt who had played opposite Bela Lugosi in Dark Eyes of London in 1939, and The Harrassed Hero (1954), which gave Joan her highest profile film role as the leading lady opposite Guy Middleton.

Guy Middleton and Joan Winmill

Guy Middleton and Joan Winmill in The Harrassed Hero (1954)

Despite the steady progress she was making as an actress, Joan’s inner demons were threatening to overwhelm her. By her own admission, she was feeling suicidal. Her “salvation” unexpectedly came when, “for a lark,” a friend invited her to go along to The Greater London Crusade, a 12-week evangelical event organised by Billy Graham and the Evangelical Alliance at the Harringay Arena in North London in 1954. To the amazement of her friends, Joan answered the altar call at the event.

Harringay Arena 1954

Harringay Arena in 1954 (courtesy of lettersfromthelibrary.com)

From that moment she was a transformed person. She left behind her life and career in England and has since devoted herself to spiritual work with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in America. She continues to act occasionally in films produced by Graham’s World Wide Pictures and she has written several books on devotional topics. In her 1975 autobiography No Longer Alone, which was filmed by Graham’s World Wide Pictures in 1978, Joan recounted her time with Bela Lugosi during the 1951 revival tour of Dracula. 

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No Longer Alone

“I don’t remember how I ever got to audition for Dracula, but I do know that once I signed the contract, my fears told me I had done the wrong thing.

As a child I had once seen a filmed coming-attraction for Dracula. (I was attending a bland comedy with my grandmother.) I went under the seat until assured that it was over. When we left the performance, we found a booth set up in the lobby with a sign which said, “Dare To Open These Curtains!” Someone did – just as I walked by – and there, life-size, was a model of Dracula staring at me. All the way home I knew he was following me. Nanny had to stay in my room that night until I finally fell asleep, having been convinced he was not under my bed. Now I was signed to go on tour with none other than Bela Lugosi, who had created the role in the movie!

I was very hesitant to attend the first rehearsal and meet Mr. Lugosi. He arrived late, making a grand entrance, and was introduced to each of the cast. When it came my turn, I stood there in sheer amazement. He looked just like the wax figure that had scared me so as a child. But he was gracious and very professional.

When it came time for the scene in which he was supposed to hypnotize me, I thought, “Here we go! I must not look as if I’m scared of him. After all, this is ridiculous – it is only a play and he really is just an actor.” But when he started to look into my eyes, I sensed a strange, burning sensation, and tears began to well up. He stopped suddenly and said, “Child, never look into my eyes. Always look here,” and tapped his forehead. I did just that every time we played the scene after that, and things went along smoothly.

He took playing the part of Count Dracula very seriously, and we were never allowed to change a word, a look, or a move. It was as sacred as Shakespeare to him. Once I heard him say that, perhaps, the worst thing for his career had been the success of Dracula, for people would never take him seriously as an actor any more. Apparently he had known great adulation in his homeland of Hungary.

In the final scene, set in a crypt, he was supposed to be in a coffin; the doctor and his friend, Van Helsing, drive a stake through his heart – the only way he can be killed. But Bela would never get in the coffin and would always give the death scream from the wings. He had a great superstition about this.

The only time we saw him during the day would be when we would meet at the train to move from one city to another. Then he would stride down the platform with his wife and son and disappear into a private compartment, to ride with the shades drawn for the entire journey.

The trouble with the cast was that, after we got over the awe of being with the Dracula, our emotions swung the other way. The overly dramatic dialogue became too much for us, and we all started to get the giggles. I cannot begin to describe the agonies we went through every night trying to control our feelings and playing our lines “straight.” Once the stage director called us all on stage after a particularly giggly show and said he would fire all of us if we did not stop this appaling laughter. Even as he said this someone giggled and started us all off again. We were appearing in a theatre way up north of London, and the poor director had no choice but to put up with us. It even got to him finally, as night after night he had to oversee the fake bats and smoke that always preceded Dracula’s appearance.

One night the smoke got to me, too. I came to the scene where Dracula was supposed to hypnotize me (just after I gasped in horror at seeing him). The smoke, pumped under his cape each time he made an entrance – with arms wide apart, got down my throat and knocked me out cold. The audience was unaware of what had happened, and somehow Bela ad-libbed his way through the scene – with me prostrate on the ground. As soon as the curtain came down, I was whisked off to the waiting arms of a St. John’s Ambulance man. These men are volunteers who wait around for strange occurrences such as mine, so they can administer first aid. Bela proceeded to direct all the traffic that had gathered. He even prevented brandy being administered to me from a well-meaning member of the cast. “Noooothing by way of mouth,” he kept repeating. “Nooooooothing!”

I recovered enough to go on again the next day, but I was very careful not to exclaim too heartily upon seeing Dracula coming through my window.

We returned to London and played all the surrounding theatres, and then our tour was over. I was rather relieved, I must say. Touring had never been my favourite part of theatre life, and now perhaps there would be a good break waiting for me.”

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Joan’s reminiscence, written more than 20 years after the tour, contains both accuracies and inaccuracies.

Giggling among the cast—“corpsing” in British theatre slang—was an occasional problem in the Dracula tour, as it was in many provincial tours.  But it was not persistent and common.  None of the dozens of reviews or personal recollections from audience members that we had already amassed mention it. 

In the closing scene, a mannequin did indeed lie in the coffin, as Lugosi supplied Dracula’s death cries from the wings.  However, he had no fear of lying in the coffin himself—he did exactly that every night on the tour in the play’s prologue before the opening curtain. 

Bela Lugosi and his wife often socialized with other cast members on the train. Richard Butler, who played Johnathan Harker in the production, told Andi Brooks that the couple were not aloof. “..in Bela’s case, although he and his wife had their own compartment, they had no wish to travel alone and spent many hours entertaining us.”

Bela, Jr. did not accompany his parents on the 1951 tour. Joan is probably confusing him with Paddy and Sean Dawson, the sons of David Dawson, who played Dr. Seward.

Joan’s fear of looking into Bela Lugosi’s eyes was confirmed by tour producer John Mather, who recalled without prompting that she was genuinely terrified of the actor.

In an interview with Frank J Dello Stritto, Janet Reid, the assistant stage manager, recounted peeling the costume off the unconscious actress to take her place for the rest of the performance after Joan was overcome by stage fog in her big scene with Lugosi. She told him, “I do remember Joan Winmill. I remember when she passed out in Middlesbrough. I literally stripped off her costume backstage. There was no privacy. And I finished the performancefor her. In my career I was an understudy four times, and each time I got to go on when the actress could not perform. That one performance was my swan song with Dracula. I dropped out right after that. The company went on to Belfast, and I went back to London.”

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Related Pages

 1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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Cinematographer Bryan Langley Recalls Dark Eyes Of London

Dark Eyes Of London Lobby CardBela Lugosi, Wilfred Walter and Greta Gynt

Bryan Langley enjoyed a long and varied career. The son of the opera singer and actor Herbert Langley, he was born in Fulham, London, on December 29th, 1909. His first experience of the film industry was as an unpaid assistant during his school holidays with the H.B. Parkinson Company where his father was acting and singing in silent two-reel opera shorts. When he left school at 17 in 1927 his father arranged for him to join the company as a trainee. During his three years there he learned every discipline of the filmmaker’s art from negative cutting to lugging a tripod around the streets of London. Eventually  gravitating to camera work, his first photographic assignment was shooting street scenes for Norman Lee’s The Song of London in 1930. He moved to British International Pictures at Elstree Studios the same year, starting as assistant cameraman to cinematographer Jack Cox before becoming a director of photography himself. While at BIP he worked on many productions including Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder, Rich and Strange, The Skin Game, and Number Seventeen.

Herbert Langley as Valentine in FaustHerbert Langley as Valentine in Faust

By the time the Second World War broke out Bryan was working as a freelance cameraman in Amsterdam. He returned to England and in 1941 joined the Army Film Unit as an official cameraman, filming conflicts in West Africa, Europe and the Far East. He also trained the Indian Army’s Public Relations Film Unit.

After the war Bryan resumed his career at Welwyn Film Studios in 1946 before moving to Pinewood, where, as a special effects cameraman, his films included Piccadilly Incident, The Lavender Hill Mob, Reach for the Sky, A Town Like Alice and The Weaker Sex. In 1958 he joined the BBC Television Studio at Ealing and photographed drama serials such as Bleak House, Maigret and The History of Mr. Polly. Ever looking for new challenges and opportunities, Bryan began a new career in 1960 as an international film technician and cameraman for the United Nations Relief Work Agency. On his return to England he once again set up as a freelance cameraman, mainly for the BBC, where he worked on episodes of Doctor Who, and also for industrial documentary company Hugh Baddeley Productions.

Bryan LangleyBryan setting up a shot on Kathleen Mavoureen (1937), which featured Old Mother Riley

I first contacted Bryan in June 1996 while researching Dark Eyes of London. Initially cautious, he asked me, “What do you want to know, and, importantly, why?” When I explained that I was working on a proposed biography of Bela Lugosi, he threw himself wholeheartedly into assisting me by answering my endless questions and delving into his personal archives. He was delighted to help because, as he said, “You are, in my view, what it’s all about. You are a fan and thus we in films are in your debt.”

Bryan’s answers to my questions, however, were often surprising. When I asked him about his memories of Bela Lugosi, he told me, “I’m afraid that I have no memories whatsoever of Bela Lugosi. To me, as a cameraman, he was just another actor who stood in front of my lens as and when the script prescribed.” He also told me, “I’ve never seen the film because I was a freelance cameraman pre war and on completion of Dark Eyes I went to Highbury Studios to shoot Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard and from there to Amsterdam to shoot De Spoek Trein (The Ghost Train) and was there until the invasion of Poland. Fortunately production was ending at the time so I scurried home just in time for the kick off of World War Two.”

Dark Eyes of London Hugh Williams and Bela LugosiHugh Williams as Inspector Holt and Bela Lugosi as Dr. Orloff

Bryan was curious to see the film and asked to borrow my video of it. Surprisingly, he didn’t have a video player of his own, so he took the video to his daughter’s house. I waited eagerly to hear his verdict. When it came, it proved to be another surprise. He wrote,

“I watched Dark Eyes on Saturday and was utterly shattered by recalling nothing whatsoever of the film, other than the quick-sands sequence which was not much to write home about.

What upset me mostly was the horrible print and the diabolical dissolves. Nothing was much good other than the playing of the two parts by Bela Lugosi, and of these I preferred him in the ‘blind man’s’ role. (Greta Gynt was also good).

Dark Eyes of London Bela and Greta Gynt

Bela Lugosi as Rev. Dearborn and Greta Gynt as Diana Stuart

In reality, my shock at seeing Dark Eyes is a reflection of how far the film/television business has progressed over the past 57 years. I saw it ‘cold’, with no intimation that it was so awful and thus the shock. And to think that I was proud of what I did and wrote so in my diary.

We live and learn, I’ll not ‘flash-back’ to what I did more than 50 years ago, best to remain in happy illusion.”

Bryan’s shock was no doubt compounded by the shamefully poor quality of pre-recorded videos in Britain during the 1990s. Perhaps his reaction would have been different had he had the opportunity to watch a pristine print on the big screen.

Walter SummersCaptain Walter Summers, director of Dark Eyes of London

The diary to which Bryan referred was one of his ‘photo-diaries’. Spread over five albums, they contain technical information on all the films he shot, production stills, letters, cuttings, and other memorabilia. At the beginning of Bryan’s career, H.B. Parkinson had emphasized the importance of keeping a record of all the films on which he worked, including the technical details. Bryan followed his advice and maintained a diary until 1960 when he joined the United Nations. Before his death, he donated his diaries to the British Film Institute.

His entry for Dark Eyes of London states that it was the 88th film he had worked on and the 44th he had lit. His assessment of the 18-day shoot was, “Very good for me – good make-up.”

After he retired, Bryan was urged by his daughter to write down his memories of his career. Although he said that he remembered very little of Dark Eyes of London, he did recall the amusing attempts of the crew to recreate quicksand and film the climactic scene of Bela Lugosi’s character drowning in it. Bryan wrote the following account before seeing Dark Eyes of London for the first time, and did not appear to recall that “the actor who falls into the quicksands” was Bela Lugosi.

Bryan Langley's typed notesBryan Langley’s typed notes

“Another memory is of a film called Dark Eyes of London. It starred Bela Lugosi, a well known American actor, and was directed by Captain Walter Summers. It was shot at Welwyn Studios in the spring of 1939, the year the war started. Incidentally, this film has been preserved and was seen recently on television, but not by me. I have two production stills of Bela Lugosi. Other than those photos, all I can remember of the film is as follows…..I will try to describe the scene…..SCENE….“a man falls from the loading platform of a Thames side warehouse into a quicksand which is revealed only at low tide, the man is sucked under and lost from sight. His fall is the result of Murder!!”

In order to construct a quicksand they opened up the Studio Tank, its area some 10 by 12 feet and about 7 feet deep, it may have been larger. On the far side of the tank was built the warehouse wall and its projecting loading bay. The tank was loaded with cart load after cart load of farmyard muck in the belief that this puddled into the tank would form a quicksand. Set building and tank filling went on for several days whilst we were shooting on the other stage. The edges of the tank were smothered with sand and riverside debris, green marine growth, a few rib-like planks and a dead cat. It all looked very real.

Whilst the tank was being filled we heard stories of people slipping into the tank and having their shoes pulled off by the terrible suction of the quicksands. It was all rather sinister and scary; some wondered whether the stuntman doubling for the actor who falls into the quicksands, would survive the peril.

Dark Eyes of London StuntmanThe stuntman finally braves the murky shallows of the studio tank

And so, on the day of shooting the quicksand scene, we waited for the stunt man to inspect the job. He thought it best if somebody else was lowered on a chain into the mire to test the suction, and so a double for the stunt man was obtained.

A chain was tied around his chest and he was lowered link by link into the tank and its quicksand. His feet, legs, hips and waist slid into the morass like a hot knife through butter, but he stopped descending when chest deep, the chain slackened whilst he looked around.

Dark Eyes of London - Bela up to his neck in itBela Lugosi up to his neck in farmyard muck

Somebody surmised that an idiot had left a table in the tank. The stunt man’s double on the end of the chain was told to shuffle around and find the edge of the table with his feet. He never did find the edge, the mud and muck had sunk to the bottom of the tank to form a solid mass some four feet thick, leaving some three feet of muddy slimy water above.

Captain Summers, the director, was no doubt inwardly furious, but he had a schedule to complete and thus had to improvise. He told the stunt man, who by now was fearless, that when falling into the tank he must thresh around with his arms whilst gradually sinking down into the water, to take a deep breath and then go right under and all the time make motions as though corkscrewing down. That shot was made to the satisfaction of all. We used two cameras of course.

Dark Eyes Of London Bela in QuicksandBela Lugosi takes a deep breath before going under

Next was the close shot of the ‘real’ actor. He was inserted into the muddy water at the tank’s edge and told to repeat the action of the stuntman. Unfortunately, each time he submerged, his feet shot up out of the water. This in exactly the same way as happens in the Dead Sea where one cannot submerge without feet rising from the bottom. All the muck poured into the tank had produced a ‘Dead Sea’ effect. In the end, weights had to be tied to the actor’s ankles to enable him to submerge in close up. We learnt afterwards that a better way to simulate quicksands is to fill the tank with a mixture of sawdust and old engine oil. This remains fluid.”

Bryan died on January 31st, 2008, aged 99. Although he had been suffering from heart problems, he maintained a busy schedule of interviews right up to his death, which prevented the completion of three different sets of interviews scheduled for February.

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Dark Eyes Of London (Argyle Films, 1939)

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