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Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi: Classic Kings of Gothic Horror

Updated on February 23, 2011

Boris Karloff

Bela Lugosi

Boris and Bela: Rivals for the title of King of Horror

Throughout the history of Horror Films, two names that have long been seen as synonymous with monster and horror movies are Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Through the 1930s and into the 40's, these two men were the kings of the genre. Although there have been other icons associated with horror films (Lon Chaney Sr., Lon Chaney Jr., Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Peter Lorre, Robert Englund), Karloff and Lugosi have attained a special place in the pantheon of creature feature/horror flicks.

The questions always arises between these two...Who was better? Who was the real King of Horror? And was their famed rivalry really as intense and hateful has Hollywood legend would have us believe? Let's look at these two Gothic legends.

Bela Lugosi: Bela was born in 1882, in the Austria/Hungary region (In what today is Romania) as Bela Blasko, the son of a successful banker. He had a very strict upbringing. When he was a teenager, he disappointed his father by dropping out of school (An act of rebellion against his cold, stoic home-life) and worked in menial labor jobs. He began hanging around with creative types and ended up becoming an actor.

He had a fairly good career going, beginning around 1903, when he started getting leading man parts on stage. He was a handsome fellow in his youth and became the sex symbol of his acting troupe. He had a big female following. He made a dozen silent films in his native land until he was inducted into the first World War.

Bela fought in WW One and rose to the rank of Captain. In 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed and was replaced by the Hungarian Democratic Republic, Bela was forced to flee his homeland because of his activism in the actors union.

He changed his name to Arisztid Olt. Bela went first to Austria, then Germany. Unable to find work, he became a sailor in the Merchant Marine for several years. Eventually, he found himself in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. (Still traveling under the name Olt.) He made his way to New York so he could be a legal immigrant by registering at Ellis Island. He reverted back to his given name Bela, and used the last name "Lugosi", as a tribute to his hometown of Lugoji.

He worked menial labor jobs for a few months but soon fell into the acting scene again when he came across a group of Hungarian actors, putting on performances in their native language in a small neighborhood in NY with a heavy Hungarian population. Although he barely knew a word of English, he was able to get some small parts in silent films (He didn't need to be able to speak in a silent movie), usually playing a villain, because of his dark, brooding looks.

His big show business break came in 1927when he was offered the role of Dracula on stage. The play Dracula had been one of the biggest Broadway hits since it opened in 1924. Original star Raymond Huntley was taking the show on a world tour and the producers wanted someone to keep the show running of Broadway, for the tourist crowd. Lugosi was thrilled at the idea of starring in a Broadway show. Although it was daunting to step into the title role of such a big hit, Lugosi never lacked confidence. He took a crash course to brush up on his English and stepped on stage for what would become his defining role.

Three years later, Universal Studios bought the rights to make a film version of Dracula. Originally, they wanted Lon Chaney Sr. (A silent movie actor and the first horror superstar ever) to play the titular Count, but Chaney was ill with cancer and would soon pass away. Raymond Huntley also passed on the film, preferring to continue his world tour. And so, Lugosi stepped into movie legend.

Dracula was a smash hit and it made Lugosi an instant star. Universal Studios wanted to make Lugosi the new Lon Chaney. They hoped Lugosi would be to sound films what Chaney was to silent movies--the reigning king of Horror films. But Lugosi had other ideas.

Lugosi had only signed a one-film contract to play Dracula, knowing that if the movie were successful, he'd be in a much better position to negotiate conditions for a long-term contract. His gamble worked. Now, he was able to dictate terms with Universal. One of his terms was a "veto" power for certain projects. (Something almost unheard of during the height of the studio system's power.) He could now refuse any role he wanted.

Universal had a whole line-up of horror films slated for Lugosi, starting with a cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein. To the studios shock and dismay, Bela utilized his Veto prerogative and refused to play Frankenstein. He didn't want to hide his handsome face under a a lot of make-up, nor did he like the idea that he would have no dialogue. Lugosi hoped that he would be a Rudolph Valentino-type romantic leading man. Monster roles were beneath his dignity. He also refused to appear in the planned sequel to Dracula.The studio was furious and would eventually inflict their own form of retribution. In the meantime, they needed to find a new horror star.

Boris Karloff: Karloff was born as William Henry Pratt, in London England, in 1887. He was the youngest of nine children. After his mother's death, he was raised by his older sisters. His Great Aunt was Anna Leonowens (Who was the basis for the story Anna and the King of Siam, and the musical The King and I.) William Pratt attended King's College in London but dropped out to experience life on his own terms. He traveled, working odd jobs, before he got into acting. (One of his older brothers was an actor and William followed in his footsteps.)

As an actor, he chose to change his name, since the word "prat" is an insult in Britain and he didn't want to be the butt of every-one's jokes. He took the name "Boris Karloff" from a distant relative of Slavic origin on his mother's side.

His acting troupe traveled to Canada for an extended stay, in 1911, performing in Saskatchewan. He remained in Canada after his fellow actors returned. Unable to get regular acting work, he became railroad baggage handler. He soon found himself in North Dakota in the United States, where he worked for a while in a hardware store.

After working as a truck driver for a while, he ended up in Hollywood California, where he hoped to revive his acting career. He got sporadic stage work but couldn't seem to break into film. He was working as a laborer, helping re-pave part of the Universal back-lot, when he was spotted by a second-until silent film director who asked him to be an extra in a movie. The man liked Karloff's look. Karloff was over six feet tall, with "a creepy look", as it was described. The tiny role allowed Karloff to become a working extra in Hollywood.

After many walk-on roles with no dialogue, his patience paid off and his roles started to get a little bigger. He was usually limited to playing thugs and various villain types, but he hoped he could one day break the mold and become a character actor. In the meantime, he had a family to support and money was tight.

His big break came in 1931 when Bela Lugosi surprised everyone by turning down the title role in Frankenstein, necessitating that Universal find a quick replacement. Karloff had the height and the offbeat look that director James Whale felt would suit the title creature. As legend goes, Karloff scoffed at the idea of playing a monster, but in those days, the studio had the authority to force its contract players to take a role. Also, the money was very good and the Karloff family needed cash. Thus, history was made and Boris Karloff got the role of a lifetime.

The part of the Frankenstein Monster made Karloff an overnight sensation. Frankenstein (1932) was a huge hit, even bigger than Dracula. The studio immediately began planning Karloff's career and how they could utilize their new horror star.

Boris and Bela...Stage Two (After their break-out roles)

Bela Lugosi soon began to regret his decision to veto Frankenstein. He saw the royal treatment that Karloff was suddenly getting and it made him quite jealous. Universal was billing Karloff as the new King of Horror. They unrolled a plethora of films for their new Gothic star. The Mummy, the Old Dark House, The Ghoul and The Mask of Fu Manchu were all quickly produced, while Karloff was still red-hot. Karloff got a part as a gangster in the original Scarface, and a sequel to Frankenstein was announced. The brass at Universal were so pleased that Karloff even managed to get them to let him appear in some non-horror roles. He played a religious soldier in the 1934 war adventure The Lost Patrol., and a corrupt lawyer in The House of Rothschild. And all in less than two years since Frankenstein was released. Karloff's career was going great. He was the darling of Universal.

As for Lugosi, he was working steadily and made a few classic horror films in 1932, like White Zombie, Murderers in the Rue Morgue, the Island of Lost Souls, as well as the popular serial Chandu the Magician. But he couldn't help notice he wasn't getting the promotional push that Karloff was getting. Karloff seemed to get all the high profile pictures, while Lugosi appeared in the cheaper films that were on the bottom of a double bill. This was not merely retribution on the part of Universal, but it was also because Karloff was easier to work with. Lugosi had a reputation for Diva-like behavior. Karloff was an easy-going, nice guy. So he got the creme of the horror crop. He also got paid more than Bela. This was a tough pill for the proud Lugosi to swallow. He resented Karloff's success. So what would happen when the two of them met?

In 1934, Universal decided to unite it's two biggest assets in one film. Karloff and Lugosi would co-star for the first time in The Black Cat. The public was thrilled to have the two titans of terror appearing on the same screen. But behind the scenes, people wondered what would happen when their paths crossed? Universal was especially concerned that the proud and often arrogant Lugosi would cause fireworks on the set.

But ultimately, nothing happened. Both men were very professional on the set. Whatever Lugosi might say about Karloff in private, he was a total pro during filming. There was no friction between them. The two men would go on to make eight films together during their careers with no outbursts or arguments between them.

As the years went on, things went swimmingly for Karloff. His career was long and strong. He always managed to find work. He did two sequels to Frankenstein (The Bride of Frankenstein and the Son of Frankenstein.) The studio liked Karloff so much that when he decided to quit the Frankenstein franchise, they gave him their blessing, as long as he kept making other horror films for them. Even if there were no horror films on the schedule, Karloff would find work in other genres. He even took a few successful turns in comedy, co-starring with Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and with Abbott and Costello in two films. (Abbott and Costello meet the Killer and Abbott and Costello meet Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Karloff starred in a series of films playing a Chinese Detective called Mr. Wong (Clearly inspired by the Charlie Chan series.) He was always employed.

Lugosi's career, however, started to go downhill. The studio never cast him in any roles except mad scientists and vampires. His dream of being the next Valentino was thwarted. The studio felt his accent and his reputation as a screen boogieman neutralized any chance of Lugosi becoming a romantic leading man. He wasn't very adept at comedy (Although he did appear in a few comedies, he was usually playing a caricature of the villain parts he specialized in) and so he remained perpetually the bad guy, with only a few, rare exceptions.

New horror stars began to appear, such as Lon Chaney Jr and Vincent Price, who would siphon work away from Bela. The horror movie fad started to fade in the forties and Universal was making less films for Lugosi to star in. He would end up playing roles he'd rejected earlier. He played the Frankenstein Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman in 1948 (Co-Starring with Lon Chaney Jr.). He even overturned his no-more Dracula policy and agreed to play Count Dracula one more time, in the classic horror parody Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. (1948) But these last grasps at glory soon faded and a career free-fall started. He began to appear in increasingly cheap and embarrassing flicks like The Ape Man, Spooks Run Wild, Ghost on the Loose, The Devil Bat,The Corpse Vanishes, and Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.

By the 1950s, legitimate work had become almost impossible for Lugosi to find, and he desperately needed money (he'd developed a drug habit) so he ended up slumming in the lowest depths of the film industry. He made films for the notoriously inept schlock-master Ed Wood, maker of some of the worst films of all time. It was a career low for Lugosi, even though he became friends with Wood.

Lugosi's health began to suffer and he died in 1956, at age 74. As for the aging Karloff, he started to turn his attention away from film and more toward the growing medium of television. He appeared regularly in guest appearances on a variety of TV programs, although he still appeared frequently in films. In 1960, he hosted the TV horror anthology series Thriller.

In the 1963, he appeared alongside fellow Horror icons Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in a pair of amusing horror parodies, The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven. (Karloff had made a serious Horror film in the 1930s called the Raven, which co-starred Bela Lugosi.)

By this point, Karloff's career took an unexpected turn toward kiddie entertainment. He did some voice acting for the cute puppet monster parody film Mad Monster Party; he recorded a vinyl record reading of The Reluctant Dragon, and reached one last career highlight when he supplied the voice of the Grinch for Dr. Seuess' perennial favorite How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

His final film was in the excellent 1969 Peter Bogdanovitch thriller Targets (Where he essentially played himself.) He died in 1969, at age 82.

There's no denying the contribution that these two Gothic greats made over the years. They basically created the horror genre and gave us some of the most memorable screen bogeymen of all time.

Who was better? Who can say? Maybe history will provide the answer.


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