Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in 1931 with co-star Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing
Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.
After waiting a number of years for me to watch his movie, Bela Lugosi graciously provided a stream of commentary as I watched his 1931 performance of “Dracula” in the title role.
It wasn’t the first time I had spoken to Bela. Initially he showed up in reference to a friend who had known him in a past life. I had no idea who he was. At first, I thought I was being punked when a dramatic figure showed up in full Dracula costume. When my friend stopped laughing she explained that was the role he was known for. Oh.
Fast forward about a year later and I was poking around a Goodwill. I found a never opened VHS copy of Lugosi’s “Dracula” for something like fifty cents. Bela popped in and made me a deal. He would give me his take on the experience of making the movie while I watched it if I bought the tape. How could I turn such an invitation down? I bought it.
It wasn’t until this Halloween, (10/31/19) that I actually watched the film. Bela kept his word, so now I am keeping mine and writing down what he had to say.
Bela’s first observation was to note he had fun drinking off set with the actors who played several supporting roles from the terrified villagers to the sanitarium nurses.
When the movie was made Bela had no idea how big a hit it would be. Of course he hoped it would do well, but it was just a job at the time. He was perfectly happy to be playing the monster Dracula. He showed me how he painstakingly practiced his lines in front of a mirror at home. I had read in an article years ago that his native Hungarian accent made mastering formal English a challenge at that stage of his career. He confirmed that. His measured and rather halting delivery suited the role perfectly.
In an early scene a horrified female villager places a rosary around the neck of the cocky Renfield before he sets off for Dracula’s castle. Having been raised Catholic I knew that must have gone over like a lead balloon. Bela also raised Catholic, chuckled as he admitted, “We got fan mail about that.”
It is always interesting to me which details actors focus on in retrospect. As Renfield made his doomed way to the castle of Count Dracula, Bela told me the gold paint on the coach had to be redone in gilt so that it would pick up as much light as possible in the dimly lit scene.
Bela gave every indication of enjoying his walk down memory lane as he followed along with his early dialogue. For me this created a stereo effect hearing Bela’s voice both on screen and in spirit form in unison.
Some of the most dramatic images of Dracula featured light focused on Bela’s eyes to make them look intense. Bela said the effect on screen was great but in real life the light blinded him for a few a moments so that he, “Couldn’t see a thing.”
His first female victim, an unfortunate girl selling flowers had to be re-shot as the actress dissolved into giggles. When I commented on the high camp factor in the movie Bela reminded me it was 1931 movie technology on a low budget film. He quipped that the sound Dracula made in bat form was created using a squeaky dog toy. Bela thought one of the reasons his iconic Dracula role became so wildly popular was that “The audience supplied their own shock and dismay.”
Since it was my first time watching the film, I asked Bela if his lines ever included, “I want to bite your neck.” He stated he never said that in the film, “I just did it,” in terms of biting the necks of his lovely victims. Turned out he was right. Dracula never says that line in the film.
As I was trying to work out the role of wolves in the movie. Bela told me that the wolves,were the “Heralds and servants of Dracula.”
Bela noted in order to make the vampire infected characters eyes more dramatic they used glycerin based eye-drops to make them glisten for the cameras.
He showed me a full color image of Nina’s bedroom as his Dracula stalked toward her sleeping innocence. The carpet was burgundy but Nina’s comforter was pink. Bela conceded that in real life the effect was “garish”.
In the climactic scene that has Dracula, Nina and the slavish Renfield positioned on the open staircase of the abbey, Bela commented that “Dave had trouble with the the stairs.” Apparently actor Dwight Frye was afraid of heights and prone to get dizzy the higher he went on the staircase. Bela said the scene when Frye goes tumbling down the stairs to his death had to be done a few times due to Frye’s swimming head.
The fact Bela called Dwight Frye “Dave” threw me at first. Then I looked up Dwight’s full name. Sure enough it was Dwight David Frye. It is always fun when little details like that line up.
I thank Bela for his patience and generosity in finally being my movie date as I first watched the cult classic he became famous for. I couldn’t ask for a more appropriate Halloween.
(c) 2019. Lynne Sutherland Olson. All rights reserved.