Three Tales – One Story by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

Bela photographed by Florance Vandamm in the December  1927 issue of Vanity Fair

Some of the most interesting stories about famous people—and not just movie stars—are based on the recollections of a single person. Truly impartial eyewitnesses are rare, and human memory is never to be fully trusted. As often as not, when new corroborating facts are discovered, old legends fall apart. But sometimes, the great little stories indeed seem true.

Robert Cremer’s 1976 biography, Lugosi The Man Behind The Cape, includes an anecdote (on pages 102-103) about the first American production of Dracula, which opened on Broadway in October 1927. Bela Lugosi, so the story goes, did not impress producer Horace Liveright and director Ira Hards in the first days of rehearsal:

{Liveright} was greatly disturbed that the weak link in the play appeared to be none other than Bela Lugosi…The cast grew edgy at Lugosi’s nonchalance on stage…Just a week before the dress rehearsal, Hards suggested that Liveright have a long talk with Lugosi.

Behind closed doors with his boss, Lugosi slipped into character as he explained his approach to his acting. “For the first time Liveright sensed the power and sheer terror Lugosi could produce even in an innocuous line.” Cremer cites no source for his anecdote. The tale almost certainly came to him indirectly from Lugosi himself, who would have told it to one of his many friends and relatives that the author interviewed years later for the biography. Lugosi died in 1956: so at least 20 years separate the actor telling the story first-hand and Cremer hearing it second-hand. And an almost 50-year gap between the actual event and its first printed account. Plenty of reason to question its accuracy.

Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi, Horace Liveright, and Dudley Murphy pose for a publicity shot in a break during the filming of Dracula

In the many interviews that Lugosi gave later, he sometimes claimed that he was fired from the production for a few days, and then brought back. In his interviews on the West Coast in 1928, where Dracula created the sensation it never did on Broadway, Lugosi had harsh criticisms for the American style of acting: too much emphasis on flash and not enough on the basics. Lugosi’s recorded interviews do not directly support the Cremer anecdote, but they are certainly consistent with it.

A tale later in Cremer, based on better evidence, is quite similar to the Liveright anecdote. In early 1954, Lugosi was rehearsing for his opening at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas. Again, he was unimpressive in his first go-throughs, and again the producer had grave doubts. Cremer interviewed Ed Wood at length for Lugosi The Man Behind The Cape; and Lugosi’s sometime agent relates his confrontation with the night club’s publicity director, Eddie Fox (page 222):

Sipping a scotch, Fox watched the rehearsal the afternoon before the premiere and motioned for Ed to come over to his table…“I’m going to cut Lugosi’s contract. The man just doesn’t have it for a comedy scene. His lines are flat and unimaginative. Why, he’ll put everyone to sleep. Pack your bags and I’ll have the cashier make out a check for your severance pay.

A very rare photo of the Silver Slipper sign advertising the Bela Lugosi Revue

Wood begged for patience, and when the show opened the next night, Lugosi set the house aroar with laughter. Ed Wood, the infamously bad movie director, is also an infamously unreliable source. But quite believable is the simple fact that in early rehearsals, Lugosi strove to get the basics right, and saved the charisma for later.

In 1999, while researching AndiBrooks’ and my book, Vampire Over London – Bela Lugosi in Britain, I interviewed John Mather. Mather produced the 1951 stage tour of Dracula, where Lugosi gave his last performances in his great role. During the interview, the last thing on my mind was 1927, and with no provocation from me, John said:

I met Bela and Lillian when they landed in Southampton. Bela looked as if he were going to die. He always looked that way…For the first 2 or 3 days of rehearsals, he only walked through his part. I was wondering about canceling the whole thing. On the third day, Dickie Eastham asked the cast to do their read-throughs in character. Bela stood straight and awed everyone. Bela had always looked like a tired old man, very gray, very old and bent, years older than his actual age. He spoke very slowly, softly and mumbled a bit. This all changed when he was onstage. The transformation was complete: he looked 40 again, erect and towering. When he was Dracula, he had this twinkle in his eye. He was so charming, and then so evil. It was magnificent.

Here, quite unexpectedly, came a first-hand story almost identical to Cremer’s Liveright and Silver Slipper anecdotes.

Joan Harding and Bela Lugosi on stage in Britain in 1951

My personal opinion is that Lugosi’s almost being fired from Dracula in 1927 is true. What cannot be verified is whether, after Liveright closed his office door, Lugosi stared him down and crooned in a menacing tone (according to Cremer, page 103):

I understand your concern, but the performance is not until a week from tomorrow ev-e-nink. Now, we work for position. Our lines must be perfect. Yes, we save the atmosphere for a week from tomorrow ev-e-nink.

In the 1931 film version, when Dracula tells Renfield, “we will be leaving tomorrow evening,” Lugosi draws out the last two words with particular relish. Perhaps he was remembering the moment that he bested Liveright—but I can’t prove it.

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To order a copy of Frank J. Dello Stritto’s critically acclaimed book, A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films, Please contact him directly at: fdellostritto@hotmail.com

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A Quaint And Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore by Frank Dello Stritto

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Mystery of the Gráf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

The Feminine Love of Horror by Gladys Hall

 

Motion Picture Classic, January 1931

Seldom reprinted in full since first published, but heavily mined as a source of lurid quotations attributed to Bela Lugosi, The Feminine Love of Horror originally appeared in the January 1931 issue of Motion Picture Classic. Purportedly the result of an interview with Lugosi, Glady Hall’s article resembles nothing more than a flight of fancy, by turns sensationalistic and offensive. Whatever its shortcomings and dubious authenticity, it does give us a fascinating insight into the extreme manner in which the images of Lugosi and Count Dracula were actively being fused in the public consciousness even before the February 12th premiere of Universal’s adaptation  of the Deane and Balderstone play. Regardless of whether audiences of the day were so unsophisticated and naive as not to have seen this kind of overwrought nonsense for the entertaining ballyhoo that it clearly was, so identified did the actor become with his fictional alter ego that try as he may, Lugosi  found it impossible to disentangle himself from Dracula, a spectre which not only dominated the rest of his life and career, but also followed him to the grave.

 

The Feminine Love of Horror

Have You Ever Watched A Woman Talk About Death? “Don’t!” Warns Bela Lugosi

By GLADYS HALL

“But it is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out – and come back for more. “Women have a predestination to suffering. “It is women who bear the race in bloody agony. Suffering is a kind of horror. Blood is a kind of horror. Therefore women are born with a predestination to horror in their very blood. It is a biological thing.” Thus Bela Lugosi. Thus Dracula. Thus the Horror Man, the Mystery Man of Hollywood. The tall, too-pallid man with the enormous predatory hands, the narrow, red-lit pale blue eyes, the soft, caressing voice, the atmosphere of charnel house and carnival surrounding him, a rank miasma. Bela Lugosi from Hungary – the saga of the vampire, the lore of demonology, the dark secrets of the state of trance a part of his daily life. The man who never sleeps at night. The man who lies alone in his darkened house. The man to whom no woman can stay married – why not? No answer. No answer. No answer. There are questions better not put to Bela Lugosi. There are answers better not heard. There are secrets better – much better – left interred. Does he eat food, make love, work, play, hope, struggle as other men? No answer. No answer. No answer.

Why the Women Came Back

LUGOSI sat in a deep chair in my library. (One does not go to his house!) A single light burned above him, making his pallid face more pallid, obliterating all but the red lights burning ceaselessly in his too-pale blue eyes. The windows were opened and there came the mournful sound of the wind in the tall boughs of the eucalyptus…Was it only the wind playing in the boughs of the trees…or was it…? No answer. No answer. Better not ask. His voice came, remote and far away, dying down, rising to a penetrating. He said, “When I was playing Dracula on the stage, my audiences were women. Women. There were men, too. Escorts the women had brought with them. For reasons only their dark subconscious knew. In order to establish a subtle sex intimacy. Contact. In order to cling and to feel the sensuous thrill of protection. Men did not come of their own volition. Women did. Came – and knew an ecstasy dragged from the depths of unspeakable things. Came – and then came back again. And again.” (Was there gloating in his voice? Or was it my chilled imagination playing me tricks, feverish and fantastical?) “Women wrote me letters. Ah, what letters women wrote me! Young girls, Women from seventeen to thirty. Letters of a horrible hunger. Asking me if I cared only for maiden’s blood. Asking me if I had done the play because I was in reality that sort of Thing. And through these letters, crouched in terms of shuddering, transparent fear, there ran the hideous note of – hope. “They hoped that I was Dracula. They hoped that my love was the love of Dracula. They gloated over the Thing they dared not understand. It gave them something as potent as poison, as separate from their lives as death is separate from life, “It was the embrace of Death their subconscious was yearning for. Death, the final, triumphant lover. “It made me know that the women of America are unsatisfied, famished, craving sensation, even though it be the sensation of death draining the red blood of life. Women gloat over Death. Avidly. Morbidly. They will spend hours discussing the details of death. Over and over again. Wives will spend hours of frightful joy, telling of  their husbands’ or their lovers’ last words. They will describe with macabre minutiae the death agonies, the death rattle, the awful ceremony of the mortician, the rites of the cemetery. Have you ever watched a woman talking about death? DON’T. “It is women who crowd cemeteries, using anniversaries, the veil of sentiment, the legitimacy of grief. It is women who crouch over graves, loving them, covering them with flowers and tears. Women feed the cemeteries. Without women, the shattered vases that were our bodies would be reduced to decent ash and the ghoulish appetites of the world would be apart of folklore.

The kiss of horror: Bela Lugosi, as Dracula, the vampire, in the picturization of Bram Stoker’s great tale of the supernatural, attacks the sleeping Frances Dade. Will feminine movie-goers return to see this scene, as did feminine stage audiences?

Hypnotized by Horror

“Women will go to circuses and cast restless, unseeing eyes on clowns and trapeze artists, animals and gymnasts. They will go into the place of the Strange People, the Freaks, and stand there, mouths agape, transfixed. Back of this there is again a profound biological reason. Before a woman bears a child she goes through successive phases of horror, least the fruit of her body be a monstrous thing. “When they are looking on these ghastly distortions, they are thinking, again sub-consciously, that such horrors might have happened to them…. “During the War women fought, maneuvered, bribed and schemed to get to the front-line trenches. In their hearts, in their conscious minds, they believed that they were striving for that place in order to perform deeds of duty and mercy to their fellow-men. In order to bind their wounds and ease their last grim moments. And so they were. But mixed in with this high motive was the ghoulish compulsion to see men torn and bloody and in agony, the horrible fascination of horror, the need to look upon the suffering, which is a  part of their destiny. “In the South, where there are lynchings of Negroes, women press to the front of the mob, fight and struggle when they are held back, beat their way to a position where they may see, not miss a detail, be able to retail it all again to their neighbours, less fortunate. “At executions, in the Death House, when men and women are present together, it is the men who faint, “Men evade horror. When they cannot evade it, they laugh it off, shrug amused shoulders, pretend to be unimpressed, incredulous. When there is Death, men try to get roaring drunk, close it out of their lives and minds. They feel that to succumb to horror is to belie their masculinity, their proud virility. And no man I have ever known, who was in the front-line trenches and saw the bloodiest horrors of warfare, would go back again unless physically compelled. “Women love to go to amusement parks and ride on the most sensational thrillers. Chute the chutes. Dip O’ Death. When you stand in any amusement park you can always hear the shrill, wild shrieks of women, loving the horror, the violent sensation, and with the random chance of destruction. “I have known women who, deprived of horror, created it for themselves. One woman who walked along city streets and shuddered and grew faint with fear, least the skyscrapers fall on her. She knew she was shuddering away from the almost-impossible. But the thrill she derived from that morbid fancy was necessary to her. She made horror for herself where none existed. “The great success of the pictures of Lon Chaney is further proof of the love of horror. Milk-and-water, love, April Romance, gallant adventure all fade by comparison with these grotesque human things struggling with fates as twisted and abnormal as their bodies. !It is women who attend the dark parlours of Spiritualists. Women who attend seances. Whether they believe them or mot is of little consequence. The element of horror is there. “It is women who discuss the front-page murders with a frantic particularity, devouring every morsel, hungry for more and more. “It is women who love horror. Shudder and cling and cry – and always willing to come back for more.” Thus Bela Lugosi. Thus Dracula. Thus the Horror Man, the Mystery Man of Hollywood, with the lore of demonology, the dark secrets of the state of trance a part of his daily life.

Do You Agree With Him?

“The women of America are unsatisfied, craving sensation, even though it be the sensation of death draining the red blood of life. “Women gloat over death. They will spend hours discussing the details of death…telling of their husbands’ or lovers’ last hours, dying breaths, last words. “It is women who crouch over graves, loving them, covering them with flowers and tears. “At executions, when men and women are present together, it is the men who faint. “It is women who attend the dark parlours of Spiritualists. “It is women who discuss the front-page murders with a frantic particularity, devouring every morsel, hungry for more and more. “It is women who love horror. Shudder and cling and cry – and come back for more.”

Bat Head 2

Gladys Hall

Gladys Hall was born in New York City in 1891. After marrying portrait photographer Russell E. Ball in 1912, she began a prolific and successful writing career. Her output, under her own name and several pseudonyms, included poems, short stories, novelettes, plays and fan magazine articles. She and her husband moved to Los Angeles in 1927, where she concentrated on writing for the fan magazines. A founding member of the Hollywood Women’s Press Club, an informal luncheon group, she befriended and interviewed many of the major film stars of the 1930s. Believing that “the public want to believe in Santa Claus and the movie stars,” it was her policy not to write anything negative about actors. After the death of her husband in 1942, she returned to live in New York, from where she continued to write for fan magazines until her death on September 18, 1977. For reasons unknown, Hall seems to have taken a special interest in Bela Lugosi. She wrote four articles about him between 1929 and 1941. The depth of their relationship, or how many times they actually met, is unknown. The Gladys Hall papers, spanning the years 1918-1969, are held by the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills.