Famous Monsters of Filmland No. 35 – October, 1958
For over forty years, until the publication of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain by Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks (Cult Movies Press), the article When Dracula Invaded England gave us the most in-depth look at Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British revival tour of Dracula. Although containing many inaccuracies and juvenile in tone, it was key to the early research conducted by Frank Dello Stritto and I into the tour. Published in Famous Monsters of Filmland No. 35 in October, 1958, the article drew heavily on interviews conducted with Bela and his wife Lillian by the British press upon their arrival in Southampton aboard the S.S. Mauretania on April 10th, 1951. Whereas the tour would be written off in a few short lines as a total disaster by most Lugosi researchers over the following four decades, Famous Monsters of Filmland, writing exactly seven years after the tour ended, and only two years after Bela’s death, hailed it as “extremely successful.” The truth lies somewhere in between. The play toured Britain for six months, and would have continued for at least another month had Bela, exhausted by age, poor health and the rigours of life on the road, not requested that it be brought to an end. Although Bela garnered mostly excellent reviews, the play was too dated and the production too under-funded to compete with more modern and sophisticated entertainments of the day. As a result, it was not a great financial success, although, despite the legend, the whole cast were paid in full. It also failed in its primary aim of securing a run in the West End, which Bela had hoped would give him one final triumphant comeback. (Andi Brooks)
A new expanded edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain has been published by Cult Movies Press. Please see Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain” New Expanded Second Edition for details.
For Eager Victims
On the night of 10 April 1951 the notorious Count from Transylvania invaded Great Britain and, somewhat to his surprise, found the island’s inhabitants perfectly willing to surrender!
The Master Vampire, it is reported was not accessible immediately after his arrival and was not, indeed, on hand for an interview for at least several weeks. But as his bad-will ambassador, Bela Lugosi, was present, accompanied by his 4th wife, Lillian. Unconfirmed sources insist that the latter was secretly the Bride of Dracula but her fondness for daytime appearances sheds doubt upon this statement.
Apparently convinced that Mr. Lugosi & Dracula were one and the same person, crowds of squealing teenage fans and squealing middle-aged newspaper reporters followed him wherever he went. Odd scraps of paper were constantly being pressed into his hand and he would obligingly scrawl his autograph in blood-red ink. His fans were delighted by this symbolic touch.
Female fans, who comprised the majority of the crowds present, regarded Mr. Lugosi with the same sighing idolization normally reserved for Danny Kaye or Frank Sinatra – the most popular American movie stars at the time. These girls would either watch him wide-eyed or greet him with excited giggles as he toured the country, performing mock terror scenes over delighted “victims”.
One reporter wasted no time in getting down to the heart, liver and kidneys of the matter. He inquired of Mr. Lugosi: “Is it true that you suck blood oranges?”
“All the time,” he replied. “I often eat 6 at one sitting.” An enigmatic gleam – possibly humor, or perhaps . . .
The reporter continued, “And raw steaks?”
“When I can get them,” Lugosi replied. Now, in addition to the gleam in his eye, there appeared a slight twist of the mouth. He was prepared to go on in this manner indefinitely when finally the reporter’s courage gave way and he made an abrupt exit. Lugosi broke into a broad Slavic smile.
It had happened before.
Bela and Lillian, wearing a silver bat broach, upon their arrival at Waterloo Station on April 10, 1951
With other reporters who preferred to avoid the subject of his affinity for the red fluid which coursed thru their veins, Lugosi indulged in a bit of nostalgic reminiscing. Asked if he shared the superstitions of his peers in Lugos, Hungary, he replied:
“I was not such a brave kid in Hungary. I was born in Transylvania where the Dracula legend comes from, and never did I go down into our cellar. It was full of bats.”
In his youth Lugosi was the goalkeeper for the football team in Transylvania – the name of which has not been… unearthed.
Having not known Lugosi as well as we, the reporters were interested in whether he found the role of the vampire prince enjoyable because he shared some of the fiend’s innate wickedness. Lugosi answered, when he recovered from the shock, that the worst thing he ever did was to steal hats!
“I was a hat hunter like the Indians who used to collect ‘headpieces’ of their enemies. In 2 years I got 1500 hats from boys of a rival school. I put them up for sale and made a lot of money.”
The conversation drifted from to the origin of his career.
“Never become an actor,” he warned one young man. “There is only one place in the world where it is worthwhile – Hungary.”
Hamlet & Horror
“Over there you have a 4-year training course, and once you have passed thru that you have nothing to worry about. Even in your old age you still get a pension. In America there is always the fear of unemployment.
“I was, as a young man, an actor in the Hungarian Royal National Theater. I played the romantic leads. I have played the role of Hamlet on more than one occasion.” Lugosi, at that point, smiled proudly. “I have only played the role in Hungarian, tho.”
If he was so successful, they asked, why did he leave Hungary?
“I left my country in 1920 and have never been back. I do not like to live under a dictatorship of any kind, and I am now an American citizen.
“When I came to Broadway in 1923 I played still romantic parts – the Spanish lover in ‘The Red Puppy’ (sic) and the Valentino-type sheik in ‘Arabesque.’ Then they wanted someone to play Dracula. In America, you know, they have the type system of casting. And there was no male vampire type in existence.
“Someone suggested an actor of the Continental school who could play any type, and mentioned me. It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success – such a success!”
Programme for the premiere in Brighton
Horrorwood & Frankenstein
“I was branded then as a horror specialist, going to Hollywood in 1931 to recreate the stage role for the film DRACULA. If I had just one percent of the millions that film has made, I wouldn’T have the pleasure of sitting here now.”
Lillian interrupted jokingly: “No, Honey, you’d be stretched out by our lake in California, doing nothing.”
Lugosi chuckled. “You know, DRACULA is the only film to be reissued every year without a miss? Next I went on to play the mad scientist in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and following that I was told to make a ‘costume test’ for the part of Frankenstein’s monster.”
We need not elaborate on the outcome of that venture.
Then suddenly Lugosi made an announcement which, for the monster master, was totally unexpected and almost unbelievable.
“Horror is my business – it pays off best,” he intoned. “But I’m tired of gore. I hope that in England I find some broad-minded, intelligent producer who should say, ‘Let’s give Lugosi a comedy!”
Shortly afterward he was given a role in Glen or Glenda? – something which might be called a comedy – and then in Vampires (sic) Over London. The latter was finally released in America as My Son, The Vampire, known in England as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. (1)
But Lugosi did not switch to comedy and abandon the horror field, as the record of his subsequent films proves. He was, however, a natural for less serious roles.
The reporters found him a mild-mannered, inoffensive gentleman with a pronounced Hungarian accent and a personality that would be envied by many. As photographers took publicity stills of the “Dracula” company, he even assisted with the lights and offered friendly advice.
At other tomes he sat quietly at the side of the stage, coming out with occasional wisecrack (sic) or calling a friendly “Hi!” to the theatre folk as they went about their work.
When all was ready for the publicity stills, he grabbed his leading lady for the play. She slumped helplessly in his arms as he exposed her lily-white throat and bared his fangs.
The flashbulbs flared, the cameras clicked and the reporters happily went on their ways.
Bela met his British fans at the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party at Morden Hall Park in Surrey on June 16th.
In The Mood For “Food”
The primary purpose of Lugosi’s presence was, of course, the presentation of the stage play Dracula to Britons. The premiere was on 16 June 1951, at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. (2)
Reporters of the time were let in on a few secrets hitherto or quite unknown to monster fans.
“It takes me about half an hour to warm up before the curtain rises, “ Lugosi confessed. “I never eat before a performance – I like to go on thirsting for blood.”
Lillian explained: “He has to get himself in the mood. I can’t even talk to him for an hour before the show. And I wouldn’t want to! He’s impossible for half an hour before and after each show – he’s still Dracula!”
Normally he has rather small hands, but with a flick of the fingers he was able to twist them into one of the terrifying positions so well known to monster fans. Suddenly his fingers looked immensely long and thin.
His eyes were deep pools in which swam nameless terrors, at least as Count Dracula. Often he would warn a young girl reporter. “Never, never look into my eyes! Always I tell my leading ladies never to look into my eyes – at my forehead or nose, never my eyes. The last lady who looked into them went off – boomp! – into a hypnotic trance. I woke her with cold water.”
And many times that young girl reporter would mistake Lugosi’s usual tongue-in-cheek attitude for a fang-in-throat true account!
Concerning the British stage version of Dracula, Lugosi explained, “We are playing it perfectly straight and it has been modernized since I played it on the American stage.”
For horror, he said realistically, is not what it used to be. When the play was first presented on Broadway there were members of all audiences who took it literally. People screamed and fainted. First-aid staffs were kept busy. Lugosi as Dracula did not then dare to pretend to bite his victim’s neck, for fear of hysterical reaction from the public!
Now the customers, especially the children, know it all. They have seen plenty of horror films with Lugosi taking part, and they are more sophisticated, as they were even in 1951.
The British production of Dracula acted on the presumption that there was still, nevertheless, a strong public demand for the old-fashioned spine-tingling horror play – provided it was properly presented. Capacity audiences endorsed this view when Dracula premiered.
No concessions were made to changing or more sophisticated tastes among the theatregoers, save for a slight modernization of the setting, with the result that demoniacal laughter often rang thru the theatre, the air was seldom free from the distant barking of dogs and wolves and from unidentifiable whistles, clammy mists swirled thru doorways and windows and, in fact, almost every feature of unabashed melodrama was present.
Strangely enough, in the more recent production, there were uniformed first-aid attendants on duty throughout the play, even tho the most horrific bits were inclined to inspire more titters than gasps. There have, however, been actual cases of shock in the audience – but those were all elderly people.
After six months on the road, the curtain came down on Dracula at Portsmouth’s Theatre Royal
Good Guy Or Bat Guy?
“I don’t scare the kids,” Lugosi said. “They know I’m the good guy at heart.”
This increased awareness among audiences, plus his desire to change to comic roles, almost caused Lugosi to react against his will. Often he found himself tempted to play Dracula for laughs – especially in his curtain speech, when he said, “There are such things as vampires,” and vanished in a puff of ghostly mist.
To play Dracula in a humorous “vein” would be one thing to which Lugosi was adverse. He frequently muttered about his role in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and told reporters:
“The horror business is certainly not what it used to be. Boris Karloff, a great horror specialist – look what he is driven to do. Comedy stuff in New York!”
Despite the sophistication of the audiences, the 1951 British stage production of Dracula was extremely successful. A newspaper critic of the time gave this account:
This is melodrama in the Henry Irving tradition, magnificent, macabre and gloriously bloodcurdling; not staged, but invoked, and declaimed rather than acted. Hollywood could never provide realism like this. At a lesser theatre it would be capacity twice nightly.
The Only Way To Fly
In the modernized version of Dracula most of the action took place in the asylum of Dr. Seward (Arthur Hoskins) at Hampstead Heath Row. His daughter Lucy was played by Sheila Wynn, and the attendant, furnishing comic relief, by John Saunders.
Dracula calmly filled six packing cases with local soil and took an air-liner to Heath Row, where he mystified the Customs officials by firmly declaring ordinary boxes of earth. He explained to them that he needed them “for horticultural purposes.”
With that he began operations on London’s outskirts, where the Count in black, reeking of brimstone and tombstone, claimed the blood of the living as his due.
At last Dracula was laid to rest by the final driving of a yard-long stake thru his heart.
Bits & Pieces
Bela and Lillian Lugosi each carried a token of the vampire prince to whose greatness their fame and fortune can be attributed. Bela wore the heavy silver Dracula ring – a replica of the ring worn by the actual Count Dracula! And his wife wore a silver bat on her beret. (3)
To Bela may also be given the honor of having told the very first elephant joke! During conversations with reporters and fans, while Lillian kept up a bright and witty conversational stream, the raven-haired Mrs. Lugosi firmly announced:
“Bela could not tell a story to save his soul. He always forgets them halfway thru. There’s just one he can remember, and that takes half an hour to tell.”
“Shall I tell them the one about the elephants?” he asked.
“No!” she shouted. “That’s the one I’m talking about!”
Alas, we shall never be able to hear it.
Bela visiting the home of Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman and his wife Wendayne
Dracula Without His Cape
Hitherto we have seen the several faces of Bela Lugosi: Bela the Vampire, Bela the Jester, Bela the Actor. But we have yet to see the final face – that of Bela the Man.
We shall see this thru the eyes of Lillian Lugosi:
“He tells me he loves me every single day. I think that’s very nice, don’t you? Men get so neglectful. I know when he’s angry with me – the day he doesn’t tell me he loves me.
“Bela’s good about the house, too. Only one fault – he leaves his stamp collection all over the place.”
Bela interjected, “I love stamp collecting. I love soccer. I love dogs. I used to have seven little dogs, then little Bela Jr. Came along and Lil said we must have room in the backyard to hang up the diapers, so now I have only six dogs.”
What does he read in his spare time?
“Political science, in which I am very interested. I never read novels, but I like to keep up with things in the newspapers and magazines – especially the diplomatic news. Everybody double-crossing everybody else!”
“I love women’s fashions,” he added.
“Yes,” said Lillian, “he goes with me to buy all my clothes. Only yesterday I bought some gloves and a handbag and because he didn’t like them he marched me back to the shop to change them.”
An interviewer queried Lillian: “Does he ever get up in the middle of the night and wander around in the dark?”
“Oh yes! He’s always getting up in the middle of the night. I leave a glass of milk and a pear for him in the icebox. He gets hungry round about 2:00 in the morning. Midnight snack, you know.”
In 1951 Bela Jr. was 13, when the interviewer asked, “Did you ever scare your son?”
“How could I?” interjected Dracula, prince of vampires, lord of the un-dead, master of the nosferatu, famed voivode of ages past. “He sees me in my underwear, and how can any man have any dignity in his underwear?”
(1) Although pre-publicity for Bela’s final British film gave the title as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, the film was released as Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. It was released on August 18, 1952. Glen or Glenda was not released until 1953. The confusion over the order in which the two films were released in the article arises from the fact that Mother Riley Meets the Vampire was not released in America until 1963 as My Son the Vampire. The film had failed to find distribution in America when released in 1952 under its original export title of Vampire Over London.
(2) Dracula premiered at Brighton’s Theatre Royal on April 30th, 1951, not June 16th as stated in the article.
(3) Photos of Bela and Lillian’s arrival in England show Lillian, sans beret, wearing the silver bat broach on the lapel of her overcoat.
Related pages and articles
1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia
1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company
From A To Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield
Knee-Deep In Ice Cream, Smoke & Wayward Rubber Bats: An Interview With Richard Butler
An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson
Mother Riley Meets The Vampire
“Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot Fails To Sell At Auction
The Return Of The “Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot