Bela Lugosi was born Bela Ferenc Deszo Blasko on October 20, 1882. He was almost fated for his most famous role—his birthplace was located near Transylvania, the setting for Bram Stoker’s literary creation and Lugosi’s alter ego, Count Dracula.
Lugosi’s family was respected and prosperous. His father, Istvan, was president of a bank, and one of his brothers was a lawyer. Despite a family emphasis on education, young Bela dropped out of school and ran away from home to the city of Resita at the age of eleven. He worked as a miner, but dreamed of becoming an actor, an ambition stoked by his love of traveling repertory companies that crisscrossed Eastern Europe.
Lugosi began acting in his teens. He was often laughed off stage, but this failure only fueled his desire to succeed. He moved to the town of Szabadka, where he lived with Vilma, his sister, and his widowed mother. Lugosi balanced railroad work with acting jobs for a local theater company. Honing his craft, he was apparently accepted into the Academy of Performing Arts—”apparently” because much of Lugosi’s early biographical information was liberally embellished by Lugosi himself. In any case, it’s clear that it was at this time, a few years before World War I, that Bela Blasko adopted the name “Lugosi.”
Lugosi began to play larger roles and his career flourished. Then came World War I, and the actor quit the theater for the trenches. In 1914, he enlisted in the Hungarian Army. Two years later he was discharged, managing to convince army officials that he was “mentally unstable.”
Lugosi married Ilona Szmik on June 25, 1917. He began appearing in Hungarian films, became a Communist (and, consequently, politically unpopular), and moved to Germany. By 1920 he was acting in German films and watching his marriage unravel. He divorced Ilona, moved to the United States, and married another Ilona—Ilona von Montagh. This marriage also ended in divorce, but at the same time Lugosi’s acting career was taking off.
In 1923 Lugosi appeared in his first American film, “The Silent Command.” Through the 1920’s he balanced stage work in New York with film work in Hollywood, appearing in such films as “Daughters Who Pay” (1925) and “How to Handle Women” (1928). The titles were appropriate, for during this time Lugosi earned the reputation as a ladies man. In between affairs and films, he also worked on his English.
Lugosi broke through in 1931, ironically the same year he became an American citizen, by playing a bloodsucking Transylvanian count. He had played Count Dracula on the stage in 1929 and won rave reviews. But when Universal Studios planned a movie version, they opted for Lon Chaney, Sr. to play the lead. But Chaney died of throat cancer, and Lugosi played the title role for only $500 a week, a total of $3,500 for the seven week shoot. “Dracula” (1931) was a box-office success and Bela Lugosi was, amazingly, a household name.
Lugosi’s broad acting style and heavy accent made casting him in anything other than horror films problematic. Consequently, his greatest cinematic roles during the 1930’s were in such films as “White Zombie” (1932) and “The Raven” (1935). The notable exception to these films was Lugosi’s role as Comrade Razinin in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy, “Ninotchka” (1939).
By the 1940’s Lugosi was hopelessly typecast in horror films, and Universal, the studio most known for these films, was making fewer of them. Also, the ones they did make often starred Lon Chaney, Jr. rather than Lugosi, or Bela’s good friend Boris Karloff, who created the role of Frankenstein. Perhaps this was poetic justice, as Lugosi had snatched the role of Dracula from Chaney, Sr. after his death. The decade soon found Lugosi a staple of schlock horror films like “Spooks Run Wild” (1941) and more bizarrely appearing in low grade UK film “Old Mother Riley Meets The Vampire“.
The 1950’s were even worse than the 1940’s for Lugosi. His 20-year marriage to Lillian Arch ended in divorce in 1951. Lugosi couldn’t find work and hooked up with infamous auteur Edward Wood, Jr., with whom he made the schlock classic “Glen or Glenda?” (1953) and the so-called “worst film of all time,” “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959). Maybe it was merciful that Lugosi never saw “Plan 9” released. After being hospitalized for an addiction to morphine, he died on August 16, 1956.
Even in his 1950s heyday, a lot of people would have thought twice before crossing a busy road to see Richard Todd. Yet he was enormously popular. With clean-cut, chiselled features you could cut your hand on, nicely proportioned shoulders and more virtue up front than a van-load of Bibles, Todd looked as if he had come off a drawing-board instead of having been born the usual way. Wisely, he made the most of what he had, which could be summed up as an inability to sit still while there was a horse to leap astride, a swollen river to swim, or a tree to vanish into.
His first big success was as a dour Scots Guards corporal in The Hasty Heart (1949, Vincent Sherman). The setting is a wartime Burma field hospital, and Todd, unknowingly, is riddled with some fatal disease. He is arrogant and dismissive, more difficult to handle than a Scots football fan at closing time, but everyone else, including fellow patient Ronald Reagan and nursing sister Patricia Neal, knows that his number is up so tolerance prevails.
Looking every inch a stage weepie – which it originally was – the story rumbles on towards a predictable climax, with Todd learning of, and coming to terms with, his condition, but not before a rather pathetic attempt to woo Miss Neal – ‘I’ve good teeth,’ he insists. Todd’s playing is in tune with the sombre mood of the piece and his faltering, change-of-heart address at the end works reasonably well, but some of the earlier writing lacks conviction.
He was another terminal case in Flesh and Blood (1951, Anthony Kimmins), a consumptive medical student who discards pushy girlfriend Ursula Howells for some peace and quiet – only to find his action has precisely the opposite effect. Miss Howells rounds on him like a demented fishwife, hollering, ‘I wish you’d die!’ to which poor Todd, semi-convulsed in yet another coughing fit splutters, ‘I’m . . . doing . . . my . . . best!’ She gets her wish, but Todd reappears as his own grandson, an even worse cad with the ladies. ‘Do you think I’d have let you kick me around all this time without adoring you’, trills Glynis Johns, pacifist daughter of an ammunitions tycoon when, after she has carried out a chequered pursuit of the rotter, he grudgingly proposes to her.
Walt Disney picked Todd for three costume actioners, including an attempt at Robin Hood, during 1953-1954, as if determined, at all costs, to establish him as Errol Flynn’s successor. In The Sword and the Rose (1953, Ken Annakin) and Rob Roy the Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French) only the costumes, and Miss Rice were changed. Disney brought in his Flesh and Blood co-star Glynis Johns, plus Robin hoodlums James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough.
Todd risked being adversely compared with Errol Flynn for a second time as Raleigh to Bette Davis‘ Elizabeth in Virgin Queen (1955, Henry Koster), which did nothing for Todd, but reminded audiences how far ahead of his imitators the charismatic Flynn had been in his heyday.
Todd rose to the bait as wartime flying ace Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955, Michael Anderson), a pleasantly restrained performance projecting strength of character without showiness. Todd had not been an easy actor to accom- modate dialogue-wise, but the hero of the Mohne and Eder dam raids settled on his shoulders like an expensively tailored jacket, and the film, whose over-reverence for its subject was its only obvious flaw, was hugely successful.
Several factors helped to maximise its impact. There was Todd’s remarkable physical resemblance to Gibson, and Michael Redgrave’s to Dr (later Sir) Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb’s dogged inventor; there was the near-documentary feel of the early experimentation sequences, the squadron briefings and the raid itself; the despairing loss as well as the triumph expressed by Redgrave as the dreadful death toll becomes known, due as much to the dangers of low flying in the dark in a target zone surrounded on all sides by steep hills as to the enemy’s defending battery stations; and there was the stirring theme music by Eric Coates, impossible to hear then or now without the spirits being stirred.
Nothing much stirred watching D-Day Sixth of ]une (1956, Henry Koster), which used the Normandy landings as backdrop for a turgid love triangle involving Todd as a British colonel, Dana Wynter as his girlfriend, a cross between Mary Poppins and a toothpaste commercial, and Robert Taylor as a married Gl captain who fills in for Todd while the lad is engaging the Hun elsewhere.
Even though it means putting the china doll-like Miss Wynter in storage for a while, Todd is no shrinking violet when the call-to-arms comes. ‘I have a singular theory – the quicker more of us go, the quicker more of us’ll come back,’ he tells Miss Wynter. Her grumpy old retired defence chief dad is in agreement – ‘A bit of cold steel now is worth twenty Americans later,’ he urges, before killing himself because he is too old to kill others.
Miss Wynter’s tally falls short of twenty Americans, presumably because not enough of them looked like Robert Taylor. Their dreary, lukewarm affair has to be heard to be believed. Apologising for her father’s dismissive attitude towards LIS troops – they meet originally when Taylor is sent along to smooth out an incident involving her father and a group of Gls – Miss Wynter explains rather grandly: ‘We [meaning the British] are not much good at being thank- ful. We haven’t had an opportunity to he thank- ful to anyone, except maybe God, in several hundred years.’
Later, on a dance floor, she ticks him off: ‘Don’t be cross but would you mind awfully not calling me Honey.’ Sitting in a cafe overlooking the Thames, the watchful Taylor acknowledges the presence of the moon. Miss Wynter coos, ‘Please God, let him be looking at it,’ apparently unaware that any soldier staring at the moon is unlikely to notice an enemy sniper creeping up behind him.
In the end. Miss Wynter loses both of them. Taylor is badly wounded in action and shipped home to the USA, and Todd is killed when he trips over a land mine on the newly-liberated beachhead.
It took the filming of a real-life heroic naval incident, the escape from Chinese waters of the RN frigate Amethyst in 1949, after months of blockading, as Yangtse Incident (1957, Michael Anderson), to restore Todd’s prestige after D-Day Sixth of June. Todd played the ship’s commander, the redoubtable Commander Kerans – a part which suited his sharp-eyed, closed-mouth style comfortably – and the tension of the wait in Communist waters followed by the ship’s nimble getaway down the Yangtse River under cover of darkness, was graphically conveyed without the need to resort to expensive special effects.
In Danger Within (1959, Don Chaffey), a wartime POW drama, Todd was a paratroop colonel who heads the obligatory escape committee, plagued on this occasion by the presence of a mysterious traitor. He appeared against type in Never Let Go (1960, John Guillerman), as a seedy cosmetics salesman whose car is nicked by sadistic Birmingham car-thief Peter Sellers. In the conflict that follows, Todd is the underdog but he comes through in a way that Sellers could never have anticipated. This was an intriguing – but not altogether successful – pairing of two stars playing outside their familiar selves.
By the early 1960s, he was beginning to run out of steam. He played a Gary Cooper-style lawman in The Hellions (1961, Ken Annakin), urging the inhabitants of a remote 19th-century South African township to find their backbone and repel Lionel Jeffries’ outlaw gang. In The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin) he risked re- minding us of his earlier Normandy landings caper, in a small role as a British Army major, again refreshingly brisk and stiff-upper-lip among hordes of laconic Americans.
In one of his later films, Asylum (1972, Roy Ward Baker), a modest Amicus horror compilation, Todd’s was the first story, a loony tale in which he and lover-doll Barbara Parkins bump off and dismember his troublesome wife, Sylvia Sims. He packages the assortment of odd limbs in neat brown paper packs, and stores them in a freezer till he can get around to final disposal. But the victim refuses to rest in pieces. Like a well- drilled football squad, the gory parcels gang up to inflict a nasty surprise on Todd and his girlfriend.
Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, whose golden curls, comic capers and winsome smile enraptured early filmgoers, became the first powerful women to emerge in Hollywood–on and offscreen. As a young thesp, she was directed by D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios and, in just two years (1909-10), made 77 films and became an international star. Beneath the curls schemed the brains of a shrewd businesswoman. In 1919, at 27, she co-founded United Artists with Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and husband Douglas Fairbanks.
Pickford practically invented screen acting–legendary director George Cukor once called her the first Method actress because she eschewed the broad, melodramatic gestures common at the time. Just as important, she was a true pioneer behind the scenes, demanding–and getting–salaries commensurate with her box-office appeal (million-dollar-plus). In the process, she showed women from Barbra Streisand to Madonna there was more to show biz than singing and acting.
The Last Word: “The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me.” – Mary Pickford, after retiring from the screen (when her youthfulness finally evaporated, at the precocious age of 41) and becoming a full-time producer.
Classic Directors: Anthony Mann
Anthony Mann was an often underrated director who introduced perceptive insights into his high, wide and handsome treatments of outdoor spectaculars, notably Westerns, war films and historical epics.
During the 1960s he had a fascination with sheer size, his El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1963) rank as two of the most intelligent grand-scale spectacles ever made.
Arriving in Hollywood via Broadway and the theatre, he directed his first film, Dr Broadway, in 1942 for Paramount. In the 1950s he established the style that was apparent in all his subsequent work: the analysis of men of action under stress. His Westerns and film adventures with JAMES STEWART – plus a succcssful change of pace for both in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) – were especially notable. He died while directing the spy melodrama, A Dandy in Aspic (1968), which was completed by its leading actor LAURENCE HARVEY.
Other key films include
Strange Impersonation (1946),
Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Winchester 73 (1950)
The Tall Target (1950)
Bend of the River (1951)
The Far Country (1955)
Strategic Air Command (1955)
The Man from Laramie (1955)
The Tin Star (1957)
Man ofthe West (1958)
The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
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