Thursday, May 29, 2008

Part II: “Bela Lugosi’s (Un)Dead”

Now, before discussing the Count’s screen presence any further, I should first say something about Dracula, the play, since most of the films, beginning with 1931’s Dracula, used the stage adaptation as the basis for their scripts; which is why most of the Dracula films are seemingly so far off the mark—they are, after all, adaptations of an adaptation.

Florence Stoker agrees to the purchase of the dramatic rights of the property by actor/manager Hamilton Deane. According to David J. Skal, it is to Deane’s credit that the “modern” image of Dracula—that of the charismatic and seductive nobleman, as opposed to the ancient and repulsive Count of the novel—must go.
In order to scale down the novel so as to make it viable as a stage play, Deane had to reinterpret the character, drawing inspiration from the literary image of the vampire from over a century before, notably, the dashing, very sociable, and aristocratic figure, as portrayed in such stories as John Polidori’s The Vampyre. (Lord Ruthven, the titular bloodsucker, bears an uncanny resemblance to Polidori’s one-time friend, Lord Byron; the story itself was based on Byron’s unfinished “Fragment of a Novel.”)
Other liberties were also taken for the play, among them, the bizarre transformation of the Quincey P. Morris character, who is instead, a woman (!) in this version.

Opening in Derby in June 1924, and touring for three years before landing in London’s Little Theatre on Valentine’s Day, Dracula left the critics cold, but stirred the blood of the English theatre-going public to frenzied heights.
So popular was the play that publisher/producer Horace Liveright bought the American stage rights and had the script completely re-written, presumably to better suit an American audience.
Even more alterations were made for its debut across the pond: Lucy and Mina collapse into one character, Lucy Seward, who is the daughter of Dr. John Seward! Meanwhile, the novel’s other suitors, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey P. Morris, disappear altogether.
Initially offering the lead to the most popular of the English stage Draculas, Raymond Huntley, Liveright was turned down by the 22-year-old actor.

Thus was the quirk of casting fate that brought Hungarian expatriate Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko, better known to us as Bela Lugosi, into the spotlight, giving him his big break and catching him in the gilded cage that would forever hold him in its not-so-tender trap. (I wonder how the actor would have felt though, had he known that he would be immortalized not only in photos and celluloid, but in song as well, in Bauhaus’ classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”)
Though Lugosi spoke only a smattering of English, he learned his lines phonetically, thus adding to the bizarre inflections he would subsequently become famous for. Repeat after me: “I vant to dreenk your blahd!”
After initial stagings in Hartford and New Haven, the American production of Dracula opened at the Fulton Theater in New York on October 5, 1927, going on to be a major hit for Liveright and company.

In Part III of “The Cinematic (Un)Life of Count Dracula” (to be found elsewhere in the Archive), we take a look at Universal’s two film adaptations from 1931.
The article above is a slightly altered portion of the second part of the previously published
Blood, Love and Rhetoric series of articles written in 1997, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

(Bela Lugosi image courtesy of; “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” 12” single sleeve art courtesy of

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