***Note: I received a free digital review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.***
There’s the likeness and the icon itself. The myth and the man behind it. We owe our modern conception of Dracula to Bela Lugosi, who donned the cape of the infamous bloodthirsty count in Tod Browning’s production of Dracula, which premiered in 1931, before the pearl-clutchers would focus their prudish crosshairs on the film industry in the form of the Hays Code, which forced studios to either veil or completely eliminate references to anything the aforementioned pearl-clutchers would consider morally reprehensible. Horror films were a natural target of the Code, so it is to the benefit of the culture at-large and the horror industry in particular that Dracula was released in the pre-Code era.
Bela Lugosi was a Hungarian émigré who first cut his teeth on the stage in the National Theatre of Hungary. After facing political persecution, he made his move to the promising shores of America. First starring in (as well as producing and directing) shoestring-budget theater productions with other Hungarian émigrés, young Bela soon found himself disheartened, feeling as if he was destined to die a penniless pauper.
His first big break came when he met Henry Barton, a theatrical manager who had been impressed with Lugosi’s performance in one of his Hungarian-language productions. The American impresario hadn’t understood a word of the dialogue, but had been captivated by Lugosi’s command of the stage. He told him he would be perfect in a new play he was producing called The Red Poppy if only his English were better. Never one to give up, Lugosi told Barton he was a quick learner and would be willing to have an English tutor hired with the tutor’s wages deducted from his own.
The Red Poppy’s run was short-lived, a commercial failure. Lugosi, however, was praised for his performance and afterwards he had consistent work in small-budget English-language theater and silent film productions. Once he secured the role of the titular character in Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s Broadway production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, his fate was sealed. The rest, as they say, is history.
Koren Shadmi does an excellent job bringing Bela Lugosi to life. Penning a pictorial biography of one of the world’s most iconic actors is a daunting task, certainly not for the faint of heart, but Shadmi deftly illuminates the man behind the myth, waking him from his coffin for a whole new generation.
Shadmi’s book is just as perfect for the longtime Lugosi acolyte as it is for those who only know him through his image as Dracula. It is evocative and daring and sobering. I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.
Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi is due out on September 28th, 2021 and is available to preorder wherever books are sold.
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