Happy 133rd Birthday, Bela Lugosi!

It’s interesting to consider how sad a figure Bela Lugosi—born Béla Ferenc Dezsõ Blaskó 133 years ago to day in Lugos, Kingdom of Hungary (now Lugoj, Romania)—remains in the minds of so many today. After all, he enjoyed a long and largely successful acting career, enjoying stage success first in his native land and later in the United States.

He appeared in his first film in Hungary in 1917, but soon thereafter emigrated to Germany (where he made a few more films) before finally arriving in the U.S.

His acting career began just after the turn of the 20th century in provincial theatres before he moved to Budapest in 1911. There, he worked with the National Theatre of Hungary from 1913-1919 (with some time off to serve as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War).

Bela Lugosi quote

A union activist, he felt at risk in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, so he left first for Vienna before settling in Berlin, where he continued to act. Eventually, he took an assignment as a merchant marine and made his way first to New Orleans and then to New York, where he underwent legal immigration inspection at Ellis Island in 1921.

In New York, Lugosi formed a stock company with a group of fellow Hungarians that toured the East Coast. He made his Broadway debut in 1922 and continued to work on the Great White Way for several years.

Lugosi first did film work in Hungary, and continued to appear in films in Berlin. His first American film work (he had previously appeared in movies in both Hungary and Germany) was in a 1923 melodrama called The Silent Command (and if you can believe it, he appeared in 48 pictures, all totaled, before Dracula).

In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role that would prove a blessing and a curse for the rest of his life in a Broadway production of Dracula, based on the Bram Stoker novel. The production ran for 261 performances before touring the country, and the acclaim Lugosi received in the role of the bloodthirsty count led to him being offered the same role in the Tod Browning picture (though it’s said in some circles that he wasn’t the first choice for the role; rumors have long had it that Lon Chaney was originally slated for the role before his premature death in 1930).

Dracula rocketed Lugosi to stardom, but thereafter he found it difficult to get any roles outside the horror genre. Not that he didn’t pursue non-horror roles—he did, in earnest—but they were not forthcoming, and by the mid-1930s, when horror films became less of a focus at Universal Studios, Lugosi found himself assigned to the studio’s non-horror B unit, which led to small roles in lesser pictures. As a result, he frequently accepted leading roles in low-budget thrillers produced by Poverty Row companies, roles that helped pay the bills but did little to broaden the range of roles to which he was suited in the eyes of producers and the moviegoing public.

To make it worse, Lugosi suffered badly with sciatica, which doctors treated with morphine and, later, methadone. So he endured a lengthy battle with addiction to those medications, and when news spread of his reliance on painkillers, his career suffered even more.

By the 1950s, Lugosi was reduced to playing the villain in very low-budget comedies (Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla) and the even lower-budget unintentional comedies churned out by legendary (if inept) auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr. Finally, on August 16, 1956, Lugosi’s heart gave out.

Lugosi seemed a goodhearted sort, and one certainly wishes his career (and personal life—he was married five times) had worked out more to his favor, but his pictures continue to bring joy (and chills) to movie lovers today (TCM is teaming with Fathom Events to screen Dracula, in a double bill with Universal’s Spanish language version of that film, starring Carlos Villarías, in theatres around the country on October 25th and 28th). That’s a legacy that anyone might envy.

Happy birthday, Bela!

Today marks Bela Lugosi‘s 130th birthday. His was a career marked with major ups and downs, but he seems to have retained a positive outlook, for the most part.

The interview below was conducted in 1950 (or perhaps ’51) when Lugosi returned to the United States after eight months in London filming a picture he refers to as Vampire Over London (it was also known as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire and My Son the Vampire).

Oddly, Bela seems unclear whether the picture was a comedy, but given that it was an Old Mother Riley vehicle—Old Mother Riley, an Irish cleaning lady, was a popular comical music hall character created and played for twenty years by Arthur Lucan (and then portrayed by Roy Rolland for another twenty years), it should have been obvious.

Lucan made 16 Mother Riley pictures, of which …Meets the Vampire was the last.

Bela, bless his heart, would make just five more pictures before his passing in 1956, and three of those were Ed Wood Jr. pictures—not the stellar finish to his career one might have hoped for, but he was in there plugging till the end.

Goodbye to another glorious gal

If you’ve ever seen Ed Wood Jr.‘s Glen or Glenda (1953), you’ll understand how cool it was that we once got to pose for a picture with Dolores Fuller while wearing an angora sweater (we were wearing the sweater, that is—not Ms. Fuller).

Fuller, who died yesterday at the age of 88, led an interesting life well worth celebrating. Not only did was she once an “item” with the man some consider the most inept (but hardly the least interesting) movie director of all time, but she co-wrote songs for several Elvis Presley movies, among them “Do the Clam.”

Allow us to repeat that, so that it properly sinks in: Dolores Fuller was once Ed Wood’s paramour, appearing in two of his most (in)famous directorial efforts, the aforementioned Glen or Glenda and Jail Bait (1954) (not to mention her smaller role in Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955), and she co-wrote “Do the Clam.”

Fuller also studied acting with Stella Adler in New York City, was a child extra in Frank Capra‘s It Happened One Night, a model on TV’s Queen for a Day and Dinah Shore‘s stand-in on Shore’s early-’50s television show.

Fuller also started a record company and served as a talent manager, even playing an instrumental role in Johnny Rivers‘ early recording career.

She even penned a memoir in 2008, A Fuller Life: Hollywood, Ed Wood, and Me.

Fuller was truly a glorious gal, one to whom we’re sad to be saying goodbye. Rest in peace, Ms. Fuller; here’s hoping you are, even as we write this, joyfully doing the Clam in a far, far better place.

Una Merkel slept here

It’s not hard, if you’re enough of a movie buff to want to get a peek at some stars’ homes when you’re sojourning in Southern California, to track down former addresses of some of the best-remembered names from the Golden Age of Hollywood. When we last traveled to Los Angeles, over Thanksgiving in 2006, we were, with some simple Googling, able to quickly track down a dozen or more former addresses for Judy Garland, Ms. Cladrite’s favorite.

But what if you aren’t satisfied with driving by the homes in which Bogie and Bacall, Jimmy Stewart, and Bette Davis resided? What if you’re more interested in viewing the former residences of the likes of Ted Healy, Una Merkel, or Gummo Marx—not Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or Zeppo, but Gummo Marx?

Then you need only dial up The Movieland Directory, a very impressive online resource, indeed.

The Movieland Directory is downright hard to stump, and don’t think we didn’t try. It gave us addresses for Ned Sparks, for Jack Pickford (Mary’s prodigal brother, don’t you know), for Zasu Pitts, for Billy Gilbert—it even had addresses for El Brendel, for Pete’s sake.

The site also does reverse look-ups. You can enter an address, and if someone related to the movie industry ever lived there, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll turn up.

For instance, our friend Pat used to live on Alta Vista Boulevard, between Sunset and Fountain Avenues. By looking up her block (we’ve forgotten her exact address), we learned that Billy Wayne, who appeared in more than 250 pictures between 1931 and 1958 (but apparently starred in none of them—he’s listed as “uncredited” at IMDB.com in the overwhelming majority of them), used to live just a few doors south of Pat. That’s not terribly exciting, perhaps, but what if it had been Joan Crawford or Buster Keaton or Raymond Chandler? (Considering how often the peripatetic Chandler moved, it well could have been.)

John Ince, brother to motion picture pioneer Thomas Ince and a silent-movie actor and director in his own right, who would became a full-time character actor with the advent of talkies, also lived on what would later be Pat’s block.

And Peter Ostberg, a cabinet maker who was a Universal Studios employee in 1917 (and perhaps before and after that year, who knows?), lived right next to where Pat would live, though his residence has since been replaced by a contemporary apartment building that sits beside the similar one in which Pat resided.

Now, we don’t know Peter Ostberg from Adam, but it’s intriguing to have his name and these tidbits of info turn up in a search like this. (It is to us, anyway—perhaps we’re too easily fascinated.)

You’ll find former addresses of contemporary stars listed in the database, too, and it’s fun to see what those stars have in common with the stars of years gone by.

For instance, in the 1990s, Julia Roberts lived in the Colonial House Apartments at 1416 Havenhurst Drive. And so, at some point in their lives, did Fred Allen, Joan Blondell, Eddie Cantor, Marion Davies, Bette Davis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Norma Talmadge, not to mention a slew of more contemporary stars.

We managed to stump the Movieland Directory database only twice. It returned no addresses when we submitted the name of author Ursula Parrott, a once bestselling author of scandalous fiction that might be considered an arguably more sensational precursor to today’s chick lit—but then, though many of her novels were made into movies, we’re not sure Parrott ever resided in L.A., which would take the site off the hook. And the Movieland Directory has no info on Ed Wood, Jr., everyone’s favorite famously inept movie director, which came as something of a surprise to us.

But that’s nitpicking. Give the site a try, and you’ll no doubt find 95% or more of the names you’re looking for. And you might learn just a little bit of Hollywood history