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One of the best known portrayals of Count Dracula to be captured on film is with the 1931 adaptation of the horror classic Dracula.
Bela Lugosi played Count Dracula with such an air that this has become one of the best representations of the aristocratic vampire villain on the big screen.
The movie was an adaptation of the stage play that was produced by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. It was directed by Tod Browning and produced by Universal Studios. Both the play and movie were adapted from the 1897 novel Dracula written by Bram Stoker.
Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, better known as Bela Lugosi, was born on October 20, 1882 in Hungary. As a professional actor, Lugosi is most famous for his role of Count Dracula.
Bela Lugosi played the Count in both the Broadway play version by Deane and Balderston, as well as the film version by Universal. Later in Lugosi’s life, he was also famous for his starring roles in films by director Ed Wood.
Bela Lugosi began to act when he was only 12, after he quit formal schooling sometime around 1901. He started by performing in plays and operettas in provincial theaters, but soon moved up to performing in Shakespeare and more prominent roles.
In 1911 Bela Lugosi moved to Budapest and began working with the National Theater of Hungary as an actor until 1919. Meanwhile during World War I, Lugosi was enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army as an infantry lieutenant. During his military career from 1914 to 1916 he moved up to captain of the ski patrol. Also, he was wounded on the Russian front lines, of which he would suffer tremendous pains and ultimately become addicted to pain medication.
In 1920 Bela Lugosi sailed to New Orleans so to enter the United States. However, this was not considered the legal way to enter the country as an immigrant; Lugosi had to travel to New York’s Ellis Island where he was legally inspected for entry. Eight years later he became a U.S. citizen, and he was naturalized in 1931. During this time, Lugosi was already hard at work as an actor. His first Broadway performance was in the play The Red Poppy in 1922. He also acted onstage in the comedy The Devil in the Cheese during this time.
By 1923 Bela Lugosi had made it into the motion picture industry with his first film role in the silent film The Silent Command. He continued to act in other silent movies, until his big break as Dracula. Bela Lugosi was asked if he was interested in performing in the Broadway play of Dracula in 1927. Produced by Horace Liveright, the play was a smash hit, running for 261 performances in New York, as well as tours. This was the break that Lugosi needed in order to get his foot in the door of Hollywood.
For the movie version of the Broadway play of Dracula, Bela Lugosi was not exactly a shoe-in. Producer Carl Laemmle had no interest in selecting Lugosi for the lead role, even though he had been an exceptional Dracula on stage.
The producer considered several other actors including Paul Muni, who starred in the 1932 film Scarface, and silent film star Arthur Edmund Carewe.
While none of the desired actors could or would take on the role of Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi happened by chance to be in Los Angeles, California with a touring company of the Broadway version of Dracula as the cast was selected.
Bela Lugosi fought diligently to secure the starring role, and was eventually granted his desire after he offered to do the movie for a trifling amount of only $3,500 for seven weeks of filming; his weekly salary for his role as Dracula was only $500.
As Dracula Bela Lugosi was able to retain his spooky natural speech pattern that included speaking phonetically as he did not speak English. Along with his distinct speech pattern, in Dracula Bela Lugosi wore very little makeup, which was a deviance to the pasty white face of vampires that is often seen in movies. Unfortunately he portrayed Count Dracula in such a striking and impressive way that he was type casted as a vampire and a villain for the remainder of his career.
After his role as Dracula, Bela Lugosi found work in other films including The Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, White Zombie, and Son of Frankenstein. Following Dracula, Bela Lugosi would be directed by Tod Browning in another vampire movie, Mark of the Vampire, in 1935. However, his success was quickly fading by the end of the 1930s.
Several factors including the Great Depression and the switch over of Universal left Lugosi’s career lax. At the same time, Lugosi began to treat his pain that remained from his military career injuries with opiates. As his career dwindled, his abuse of the pain killers’ morphine and methadone increased substantially. By 1948 he had come to the end of his vampire role days. In the film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi portrays Dracula for the last time ever. Bela Lugosi died in his Los Angeles home on August 16, 1956 of a heart attack. He was buried with one of his Count Dracula capes tied around his neck.
The 1931 version of Dracula Bela Lugosi starred in so well has become a true film icon in the horror genre and vampire subgenre. As a result, in 2000 the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress voted to preserve the film. Only movies that are considered valuable because of their cultural, historical, or aesthetical significance are given such a high honor.
Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula is revered by most fans and film lovers as the quintessential Count. He moved with precision and a slow, calculated effort that made him look terrifying on screen. Bela Lugosi’s facial expressions and the way he smiled so eerily with his eyes has chilled audiences for nearly a century. For his depiction of Dracula, Bela Lugosi is and will always be one of the legends of the Universal Horror classic film series.