- The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi
A Lugosi admirer from his early boyhood and now professor emeritus of cinema at the University of Albany, Arthur Lennig published The Count: the Life and Films of Bela "Dracula" Lugosi in 1974, releasing into the comparatively young world of film studies a biography of an actor who, for many experts and movie lovers alike, didn't rate much higher than someone like Vincent Price. The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi is a comprehensive rewrite and expansion of Lennig's well-respected earlier biography, now out of print.
After his 1931 success in Dracula, which ushered in the horror era of Boris Karloff, wolfman movies, mad scientists and their crippled assistants, Lugosi was typecast in a manner so disabling that as an elderly man, in the last few years of his life, drug-addled and defeated, he was forced to give one-man shows at suburban movie houses as the suave vampire he had created.
Unfortunately, Lennig takes the opportunity of this expanded biography to expand the amount of praise he gives the actor. Too often he seems to be a Lugosi fan rather than an expert and apologist. However, he atones for his critical missteps by working for the most part from an informed vantage point that helps him convince us of the central tenet of this hefty book: Lugosi was an underappreciated actor primar-ily because he was underused and overlooked for roles, notably comedic ones, that a close appraisal of
his films suggests he could have excelled at. Following Dracula, for which he was poorly paid (he was desperate for the job), Lugosi was to take his place in the gallery of famous actors whose dignity diminished with the importance of their films.
Lennig had the good fortune, and (for him) overwhelming thrill of meeting Lugosi on several occasions. He [End Page 194] visited with the actor backstage after one of his skid-row performances and even invited Lugosi and his then wife back to his home, where the young admirer proudly showed off his collection of Lugosi memorabilia.
This book is as much film-by-film synopsis and study as it is a biography, and the chapters can get a bit thick. But after reading it you may well find yourself converted, if you are not already, admiring the epic quality of the man and his doggedness to soldier on. Lugosi endured a life that would quash the spirit of most people: two-plus decades of money problems; a humiliating and debilitating reliance on drugs; the necessity of accepting just about any job, no matter how demeaning, to get by, while a former rival like Boris Karloff, who took the role in Frankenstein that Lugosi passed up, enjoyed phenomenal success despite a talent that the author sees as considerably lesser. Had he not been so disastrously typed, Lennig argues convincingly, Lugosi had the genius to play comedic roles that he was never considered for.
Lugosi was a deeply flawed man, and Lennig deals with those flaws fairly. The years on the road, the constant touring, the endless scrambling for income, tore apart the Hungarian's home life. Son Bela George barely had a relationship with his father
(yet after Lugosi's death, according to Lennig, he did absolutely everything possible to cash in on his fa-ther's image).
The Immortal Count is a classically tragic Hollywood tale and a worthwhile revision of Lennig's impor-tant thirty-year-old biography.