Thursday, October 22, 2015

Theory Thursday: Bela Lugosi is Overrated

Bela Lugosi in Dracula
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Bela Lugosi's celebrated his 133rd birthday this week.
Theory: Bela Lugosi is overrated.

Lugosi in White Zombie
Around this time of year, I do what most people do and find a new crop of horror movies to check out. October has managed to become one of those perfect months where everything scary will do and I am able to transcend between current hits and old classics. In this particular year, I have decided to tackle old Universal Horror films, which features the various monsters; including crowd favorites Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolf Man, and arguably the most acclaimed of all - Dracula. While this all comes down to a point of preference, I do think that The Monster is arguably the best of these for reasons that I choose not to get into. However, there's something else that I want to say up front: I don't like director Todd Browning's Dracula.

Released in 1931, it was one of the first major studio films in the Universal Horror umbrella, having dipped their toes previous with silent films starring Lon Chaney Sr. called The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. With those films successfully turning profits, it makes sense why they would continue to tackle classic literature with Bram Stoker's "Dracula." While director F.W. Murnau made a considerably faithful adaptation nine years previously with Nosferatu, this would become the mold by which all future vampire films would be judged. It was lush, romantic, and the Hungarian styling of stage actor-turned-film star Bela Lugosi meant that the character would have "that voice." In truth, Lugosi wasn't really great at film, which explains his stilted style. It's just that everyone loved it - and an icon was born.

It is doubtful that most people today can count more than one film that Bela Lugosi has done. Even more are likely to know of the Bauhaus song "Bela Lugosi is Dead" or the Oscar winning performance of Martin Landau for Best Supporting Actor as Lugosi in Ed Wood. As someone who enjoys classic cinema, I have had more than my fair share of exposure to his work beyond Dracula. Because of that film's success, he was pretty much dragged into almost every other Universal Horror property of the next two decades. He appeared in The Wolf Man from 1941 and played The Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. He was a company man, and who could blame him? Lon Chaney Jr. also did the rounds during this time as well as Boris Karloff. These were character actors who enjoyed the work.

Yet, if you compare Lugosi's legacy to that of Karloff of the Chaneys, he seems oddly more at the front. I acknowledge that Dracula is an iconic creation - even if I don't like it. However, it always struck me as odd that Lugosi would be considered the best because, frankly, I felt he was a one trick pony. I don't fault him for working so frequently, but he was far more limited than his peers of the time, which may unfortunately tie into his lack of charisma on film. Say what you will about his stage work (I haven't seen it), but on film I find him to be a dull presence that reflects something more dated and obsolete about acting. Even in great non-horror films like Ninotchka, he is unable to do anything but put on that Hungarian voice and stare at you. To be honest, Lugosi is overrated.

Okay, I'm not saying that he is a terrible actor. In fact, I'd call him adequate. What I'm about to suggest may itself be a more subjective view of how I perceive horror. For me, the issue is that Lugosi has only one move: intimidation. One of the perks of Dracula is that he's a "monster" that you can confide in. You can sympathize with him because he is intelligible yet also able to attack you if a situation calls for it. He's a tragic villain in that way. However, there's a lot in Lugosi's performance that is indicative of what I don't like about his career everywhere else. His way of intimidating the audience is through long stares and deep vocal patterns. Try as I might to appreciate it, but he always feels like he's doing that one shtick.

In all honesty, Lugosi may have been better had he come to fruition in the silent film era. To watch Lugosi act in talkies feels like the plight of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. In the film, she is expressive with her eyes and her dramatic gestures. She flails, desperate for attention. Because of Billy Wilder's crafty script, she is able to be a sympathetic yet intimidating portrait of someone not coping with irrelevance. What's ironic is that Lugosi seems to be doing the same shtick, but gaining popularity for it. Of course, it makes more sense in context because talkies were still new, and whoever could keep from sounding like a lunatic would do just fine. But to me, Lugosi was always the silent film star who came at the wrong time.

To sidetrack for a second, I want to discuss Karloff and Chaney Jr.'s work. In both cases, they created iconic portraits of Universal Horror monsters. For Karloff, Frankenstein's Monster was more directly in line with supernatural beings. He was horrifying and screaming as he was chased. There was complexity to the role. Between Frankenstein and The Son of Frankenstein, he portrayed The Monster with a certain infantile destruction and sensibility. It's telling that subsequent adaptations would pale in comparison because the mannerisms were always too stilted, and - in the case of Lugosi's Frankenstein Meet the Wolf Man interpretation - a little too hostile. He was timid as well as frightening. Likewise, Chaney Jr. was able to have the sympathy as well play frightening, shifting between human and lycanthrope. He is arguably the most tragic of these characters because he got wrapped up into a franchise mindset where The Wolf Man was part of the "Monster Mash" in increasingly poorly written films. Still, he was passionate and diverse in ways that Lugosi wasn't. The only edge for Lugosi is that Chaney Jr.'s character had the worst plots movie to movie.

To assess old horror is to understand the structure of what works. To me, it was always about compelling characters with active goals. Lugosi never felt like he had active goals and his intimidation factor was the most inactive of all. In another example, White Zombie, Lugosi again plays a character whose biggest threat is that he stares at people. Again, this works if you're Chaney Sr. doing The Phantom of the Opera - in which a key moment involves him staring directly at the audience for maximum effect. Film's narration used to be more complimentary to visual technique because sound wasn't available. I do feel like Lugosi's typecasting stunted his growth as an actor and thus made his film roles increasingly redundant. True, he was sometimes effectively used, such as in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but that was more as a complimentary element. On his own, he was a bore.

Another example is his first foray into the Frankenstein franchise. In Son of Frankenstein, he plays Ygor - a former lab assistant of Dr. Frankenstein who was hung, but never killed. His neck is crooked and his heart is bitter. While I have dismissed his other work, there is something fascinating that he brings to Ygor that makes it inevitably work. He is creepy in a physical manner as well as in demeanor. If I must say so, this is what I hoped that Lugosi would be for the rest of his career. I am going to discredit his countless B-Movies, of which don't have the most favorable of reviews. Everyone I named have those unfortunate titles to their credit. However, I will choose to jump to 1953 with director Edward D. Wood Jr.'s Glen or Glenda.

For those who are unaware or haven't seen Ed Wood, the director is considered to be among the worst throughout history. It's a debate worth having since, despite his shoddy showmanship, he is more entertaining than most awful filmmakers. It could be that he has passion that overshadows his limited skills. Wood and Lugosi famously worked together on a handful of films - all awful - that definitely reflects the decline of Lugosi's popularity. Where just 22 years prior he was the most iconic horror star in film, he was now doing what is commonly known as "Z-Movies," or bottom of the barrel. Of course, Wood and Lugosi wouldn't be the only collaboration of idol and director throughout history - Ed Wood's director Tim Burton made a short film called Vincent, narrated by Vincent Price. The love of old school horror has been rewarded in mysterious ways.

In Glen or Glenda, Wood set out to make a film about a transgender man. It is both progressive and baffling in parts, once devolving into a satanic hallucination. However, there's Lugosi at the center, looming over as narrator. His famous line was "Pull the string!" Wood was not good at dialogue, so Lugosi often sounded hopped up on pills. Yet he worked for the most part. The films were awful, but Lugosi was somehow a nice touch. In the most tragic move of all, Lugosi's "last film" (long story) Plan 9 from Outer Space, is constantly considered among the worst films of all time. But hey, at least it can be said that unlike Chaney Jr. or Karloff, Lugosi's last film is still remembered.

Lugosi in Ninotchka
So, what am I getting at? I am mostly providing these examples to suggest one thing that is possibly controversial: Lugosi was a bad actor in his good movies and a good actor in bad movies. To see him act in Dracula is to see a man demonically stare at you, as if that will somehow ruin your life. He was better in company than as the leader of a pack because he was a very inactive actor, choosing to be more a presence than a force. The more serious that his work was, the less interesting he would be. To some extent, he tried to be the Gregory Peck of horror and failed miserably because at least Peck walked across a room from time to time. Lugosi just stared at you, and that to me rings like novelty. However, when he was forced to ham it up, he came to life. Kooky lines like "Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep." work because Lugosi's style fits more in a campy mindset. 

To counteract this, Karloff and Chaney Jr. were far more fascinating in the good movies. Karloff's three Frankenstein movies are still among the best that Mary Shelley's creation has ever had. He brought it to life and added physicality that is unsurpassed. Chaney Jr. took after his father and was able to become a character behind prosthetic. To me, they were more compelling forces that worked on making Universal Horror what it was. They were actually intimidating in ways that were plausible to movie audiences. Meanwhile, Dracula is an inferior version of Nosferatu. Lugosi was a decent actor for the role, but he wasn't able to add a charisma to the role that seemed sustainable. Where Chaney Jr. could meld with the times, Lugosi couldn't, and he looked far more foolish for that. At best, Karloff was more hit and miss, but was still more compelling when forced to play human characters, largely because he had more acting chops than you'd expect.

If you think that calling Lugosi means that I hate him, that is far from the truth. I feel that he is integral by association to the Universal Horror franchise. It's simply that I don't find him to be such a compelling force that he deserves reverence as the best of the bunch. He's a good actor, but he cannot carry his own films. He needs assistance from the others. Also, he's often better with shoddy material that requires him to seem eerie. I know that sounds sacrilegious, but it's true. There's very little discernible about Dracula nowadays other than that he was among the first to play him, creating a formula by which most adaptations were based. I think in most cases, they improved upon him. If you think that it's obnoxious to comment on how much he relies on staring at people, then you need to see more of his movies. It will bother you quicker than you think. 

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