as the masters of the horror movie, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are often seen as
rivals, but it seems that in the beginning their careers depended entirely on each
Dear Old Pals?
"My dear old
monster, I owe everything to him. He's my best friend" -Karloff
"If I had one percent of the millions Dracula has made, I wouldn't be sitting here
The Black Cat
Gift of Gab The Raven The Invisible Ray
Son of Frankenstein Black Friday You'll Find Out The Bodysnatcher
Some stills link to hidden soundbites
or video clips
It seems redundant to dismiss either Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi over the other. It is true to say that during their peak,
both actors' careers ran parallel, but that is where most similarities end.
Karloff managed to maintain a run of high profile character portrayals, while Lugosi
steadily found himself being cast in a stream of low budget programmers of decreasing
quality. Many factors were to cause Lugosi's fall from grace, especially after Universal
procured his services for Dracula at $500 a week
on a seven week shooting schedule, the other studios became wise to the fact that he could
be bought cheaply. Later on Lugosi would just be thankful for the work that was offered
him while his lack of business acumen made his career even more precarious. The overiding
factor, however, was the handicap of his thick Hungarian accent making it difficult for
studios to cast him in mainstream roles. Even Boris Karloff remarked after Lugosi's death,
"Poor old Bela, it was a strange thing. He was really a shy, sensitive, talented
man who had a fine career on the classical stage in Europe, but he made a fatal mistake.
He never took the trouble to learn our language. He had real problems with his speech and
difficulty interpreting lines."
For Karloff, the opportunities to play outside the horror genre came thick and fast where
he proved himself adept in these roles. After a succession of minor parts for a multitude
of studios, his celebrated appearance as "the monster" in Universal's Frankenstein elevated the name of
"Karloff" to star status, continuing from strength to strength while the minor
studios only managed to procure his services when Karloff deemed the salary to be a
The pivotal point in both their careers was
during the casting of the Frankenstein monster. As the newly crowned "King of
Horror", Bela was approached by Carl
Laemmle Jnr. to be cast as the monster with Robert Florey assigned to the director's
chair. However, tempers began to flare when Bela discovered the role was a non-speaking
part. Lugosi and Florey both demanded to know why a handsome star with a superb voice be
wasted in a role that, as Lugosi put it, "any half-wit extra" could play?
Bela eventually agreed to a test reel with his own make-up design. After viewing the
footage, unhappy studio executives quickly reshuffled their schedules and assigned James Whale to Frankenstein's director's chair after his recent success with
The most likely account of Karloff's casting is when Whale, who was dining in the studio
commissary spotted the potential in Karloff and invited him to test for the part. In 1935
Lugosi offered his own version of the story, "I made up for the role and had tests
taken, which were pronounced okay. Then I read the script and didn't like it, so I asked
to be withdrawn from the picture. Carl Laemmle said he'd permit it if I furnish an actor
to play the part. I scouted the agencies and came upon Boris Karloff. I recommended him.
He took the tests, and that's how he happened to become a famous star of horror pictures.
My rival in fact."
Lugosi's wife Lillian supported his claim. "He made the greatest mistake of his
career. He brought Boris Karloff to Universal and that put Karloff, an extra, on the map.
It's a damn shame, for otherwise there would be no Boris Karloff today. Absolutely none.
Bela created his own monster."
Reports of these incidents by both actors and of those who recount these remarks should be
looked upon with sceptisim. Over the passing years the true accounts have been blurred by
speculation and some fabrication. In any event Lugosi had clearly been the subject of
harsh studio descisions, despite Universal attempting to quell any bad-feeling by teaming
Lugosi and Florey for the first of three Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Karloff and Lugosi apparantly first met in
March of 1932 on the set of Universal's NIGHT WORLD, a drama centered around a nightclub
with Karloff cast as "Happy" MacDonald, the proprieter. Both monarchs of terror
greeted each other cordially and posed for publicity photographs. Soon after Universal
announced that Karloff would appear in THE INVISIBLE MAN, and they would both appear with Lionel Atwill in THE SUICIDE CLUB an adaptation
from the work of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Claude Rains would take Karloff's role in The Invisible Man and THE SUICIDE CLUB never got past
the planning stage. MGM. later produced "The Suicide Club" in 1936 as Trouble For Two.
Finally the two stars would appear together on
February 28th. 1934 as cameras began to roll for Universal's production of The Black Cat directed by the Austrian, Edgar G.
Ulmer. With a budget of over $90 thousand and made on a fifteen day shooting schedule, the
film became Universal's top-grossing film of the year and one of the most disturbing
exercises in Grand Guignol made during the Thirties. The script originally combined Poe's
"The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Black Cat", but a new script
was fashioned from a story by Edgar G. Ulmer containing allusions to Aleistair Crowley and
his devil worshipping activities that were currently making headlines in the nation's
press. All that remains of Poe in the final release is the title and the brief appearances
of a black cat representing a spectral figure. Although the script had left Poe far
behind, the film managed to evoke the right Poe-like atmosphere with visually rich
photography provided by John Mescall and the magnificent art-deco sets by Charles D. Hall.
Although this continues to be a firm favourite with horror fans, the film does suffer from
an inconsistant storyline. One reason for this might be the studio's reaction to the final
cut. Believing the film to be too sordid for public consumption Universal ordered Ulmer to
shoot three and a half more days of retakes that pushed the budget over $95 thousand.
Despite these changes many critics found the film incomprehensible and even Karloff and
Lugosi received short measure in the reviews.
Regardless of the film's shortcomings, no one could deny the electricity created when the
two stars appeared together. Karloff later recalled "Bela
was very suspicious on the set. Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene
stealing. Later when he realised I didn't go in for such nonsense, we became
Immediately following their first appearance
together, Universal cast Karloff and Lugosi in an all-star curio titled GIFT OF GAB
keeping both stars busy before their next horror assignment. The film directed by Karl Freund featured a host of stars with
Karloff cast as "the phantom" and Lugosi as a French apache dancer with little
to do other than stand in a closet holding a gun and asking "what time is
it?" The film's series of sketches are bridged by a smooth talking radio
announcer named Philip Gabney, (Edmund Lowe). This burlesque murder-mystery was at its
best an interesting recreation of early radio, but hardly bolstered the reputation of
Before production began on their next horror outing, Lugosi had been deluged with
theatrical offers and was loaned out to other studios while a script was being prepared.
His appearances included the title role in the 12 chapter serial The Return of Chandu; in Mysterious Mr. Wong, his first, but not last assignment for the
independent studio Monogram; and a sound remake of London
After Midnight (1927) titled Mark of the
Vampire for director Tod Browning.
Meanwhile Karloff was kept busy on two prestigious productions that further consolidated
his position as a top star. In the superb The Black
Room for Columbia, audiences saw two Karloff's for the price of one in his role as
twins besotted with a family curse. In a superior sequel to Frankenstein, The Bride of
Frankenstein Karloff again appeared as "Frankenstein's monster". As a note
of interest BRIDE... had been planned as early as 1933 under the title THE RETURN OF
FRANKENSTEIN with Karloff starring alongside Lugosi as Dr. Pretorius, the part was
eventually played to great effect by Ernest
Filming for The Raven began in
March of 1935 after no less than seven writers had laboured on the script. Again little
remained of Poe's original inspiration in Universal's final Poe adaptations. Lugosi was
second-billed to Karloff for the only time during his career and received only half of the
$10 thousand that Karloff was paid. Ironically it was this role as Dr. Vollin that gave
him an opportunity to dominate the film over his rival.
Director Louis Friedlander (later named Lew Landers), who had only ever directed serial
adventures, brought out the best in the stars, but it has to be said this is Lugosi's
film. Given the lion's share of the dialogue, Lugosi gives a fine portrayal of uninhibited
madness. Mix this with the heady concoction of lust, torture and warped revenge, then it is no wonder that the already nervous British censor
should decide to ban American horror films only two years later.
By 1936, the horror genre had firmly been established as a cinema staple prompting
Universal to team Boris and Bela once again in an adaptation of BLUEBEARD, however, when
the scriptwriter Bayard Veiller ran into some problems, the property was shelved until
Universal could find another suitable project. The film Bluebeard was later made with John Carradine by Publishers Releasing
Corp. in 1944. Lugosi meanwhile was busy making The
Mystery of the Mary Celeste in England for the fledgling Hammer film studios in a part
as a half-crazed seaman. During his stay in Britain Lugosi received a number of film
offers to keep him there, but these plans along with a proposed trip back to his native
Hungary were changed when Universal ordered his return to begin work on The Invisible Ray.
Although the first choice of director was Stuart Walker who
had directed Werewolf of London, the director
refused the offer when he read the script and became dissatisfied with the limited time
schedule. Universal then opted for Lambert Hillyer who was well regarded as a director of
Westerns from the silent era and rarely ventured out of the genre throughout his career.
His only other horror offering is the well regarded sequel to DRACULA, Dracula's Daughter (1936). Working with the film's
original title THE DEATH RAY, Hillyer utilised the standing sets from the Flash Gordon serial that was being filmed at the
same time and added footage of Kenneth
Strickfaden's electrical gadgetry from Frankenstein.
The Invisible Ray became the blueprint for many of the
science fiction classics made during the Fifties.
Initially budgeted at $167 thousand, the final cost came in at $235 thousand and several
days over it's allotted shooting schedule. One of the reasons for the film's success was
due in no small measure to John P. Fulton, a
special effects genius whose work on The Invisible Man
in 1933 secured him a permenant place in the industry. John Colton's well constructed
screenplay effectively manages a tasteful understatement as many of the more gruesome
scenes take place of screen. Lugosi's performance of Dr. Felix Benet was comparatively
smaller than Karloff's, but no less important and both actors stood out from the otherwise
mediochre cast. Ironically stock footage of this film appeared in Universal's serial
adventure The Phantom Creeps with Boris Karloff
in head-gear representing Lugosi's character climbing into a pit.
Shortly after THE INVISIBLE RAY's release,
Universal intended to team Boris and Bela again in a film with a similar theme titled THE
ELECTRIC MONSTER from a script hastily written titled "The Man in the Cab".
Eventually the production was scrapped as the public's appetite for horror movies
dwindled. The film would later emerge in 1940 as The
Mad Monster with Lon Chaney Jnr. and Lionel Atwill in Lugosi's intended role.
slump for Hollywood chillers seemed to reach its peak from 1937-1938 . After THE INVISIBLE
RAY Karloff returned to his native Britain and appeared as a mad scientist in The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) and Juggernaut (1936) and then in America he found he was
free to take on non-horrific parts without any degree of difficulty including appearances
in NIGHT KEY (1937), WEST OF SHANGHAI (1937) and in MR. WONG DETECTIVE (1938), his first
association with the low budget studio Monogram. Lugosi, however, found it increasingly
harder to shake off his Dracula image and producers were reluctant to cast him in anything
other than horror pictures.
approximately 40% of their overseas market, Universal re-issued their old horror successes
Dracula and Frankenstein to renewed acclaim. Sensing that the public were ready
for more, the studio began work on their third Frankenstein installment The Son of Frankenstein, considered now to be the
last true classic of the series. In an ambitious attempt to recreate the excitement of the
previous films, Universal extended a lavish budget that director Rowland V. Lee managed to substantially increase; elaborate sets
reminiscent of Germany's silent screen classics; and above all an impressive cast.
During the negotiation of their contracts, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, who took the part of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein after
Peter Lorre had refused the part, were
assured handsome salaries, but Lugosi fared somewhat worse than his co-stars. Knowing of Lugosi's financial
straits, Universal decided to cut his $1000 a week salary to only $500 and scheduled all
his scenes to be shot in one week! When Rowland
V. Lee heard of the studio's intentions he remarked "Those gaddamned sons of
bitches! I'll show them. I'm going to keep Bela on this picture from the first day of
shooting right up to the last!" Universal's front office was incensed. Originally
Lugosi's role of Ygor didn't exist in Willis Cooper's script, but revisions ensured the
role was built up to become a pivotal character as a companion to Karloff's monster giving
Lugosi freedom to develop the character as he wanted.
Rowland had kept to his word, recalling later that "Bela was geatly underestimated
by the studio". Lugosi also recalled "For Dracula I used no heavy
make-up, but for Son of Frankenstein...God he was cute! He was first a little part, but
every day the director made him bigger and finally he is the biggest part in the
picture!" Unfortunately Lugosi was never afforded this opportunity again.
In contrast Karloff was given little to do other than lay
motionless on a slab until the final reel. The film also
marked the last time Karloff would appear as the monster, excluding a brief appearance in
a Halloween episode of television's "Rout 66" titled
"Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" in 1962.
Two surprises befell Karloff during shooting, the first was a cake for his 51st. birthday
and the second was the birth of his daughter Sara Jane by his fourth wife Dorothy Stine.
En route to Britain for the film Dark Eyes of London
Lugosi quipped to reporters that "as [he] and Karloff, as freshly blessed fathers,
(Bela Jnr. was born in 1938), that we often get together and talk about when our children
grow up and how nice it would be if they fell in love with each other."
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is the longest film in the Frankenstein series and one of the last
prestigious horror films of the Thirties.
Black Friday (1940) marked the fifth and final teaming of
Karloff and Lugosi at Universal. Directed by Arthur Lubin, whose hand would later turn to
comedy by directing the first handful of films by Abbott and Costello, BLACK FRIDAY marked
a declining interest in filmdom's foremost horror duo, managing only poor receipts at the
box office. Under the original script title of FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH Lugosi was to appear
as Dr. Ernest Sovac and Karloff as Prof. George Kingsley with Red Cannon as a hoodlum.
Drastic changes were made that scriptwriter Curt
Siodmak would later reveal were insisted by Karloff as "He was afraid of it.
There was too much acting in it. It was too intricate." After the reshuffle Bela
was left with a minor roll as rival gangster Eric Marnay, but Universal's cardinal sin was
not having the two horror stars appear in a single scene together. Realising this
faux-pas, the studio issued a statement that Lugosi had been hypnotised for the death
scene by Manley P. Hall as witnessed by stagehands and Boris Karloff who wryly remarked
that he was positive that Lugosi was actually hypnotised because he had never seen his
fellow actor keep his back to the camera for so long.
Arthur Lubin later confessed that it had all been a stunt and there was no truth to it at
all, but he also admitted that Lugosi's death scene unnerved him. "I don't think I
ever saw a man die so horribly on the screen. I nearly died watching him!"
Sadly, his performance failed to help bear the brunt of studio executive decisions and he
was happy just to be able to work and support his family. Many years later Curt Siodmak outraged Bela Lugosi fans by saying
"Bela couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. He could only be Mee-ster
Draa-cula, with that accent and those Hungarian movements of his." Richard
Gordon, a New York based producer who had worked with Lugosi during his declining years in
the Fifties, defended Lugosi. "Regrettably he [Siodmak] proves that he can no
longer be taken seriously, and belongs inside the paper bag out of which Bela Lugosi had
acted his way out when Curt Siodmak was still a child!"
In reality the film Black Friday belongs to
Karloff and British born actor, Stanley Ridges whose only other horror genre credit is The Phantom Speaks (1945).
Leaving the studio that first established
them as stars, Bela's career lay dormant while Karloff resumed his role as a dreanged
scientist in The Man With Nine Lives and Before I Hang. He continued again as Mr. Wong in
DOOMED TO DIE and appeared as Dr. Adrian in The Ape
In 1940 Karloff and Lugosi found themselves together again in a
ludicrous mystery farce for RKO titled You'll Find
Out also starring Peter Lorre. The film was primarily a vehicle for the popular Kay Kyser and his
band who made a stream of musical comedies for various studios during the first half of
The film's entertainment value is mainly derived from its traditional horror elements
including the somber mansion, a seance and a host of hidden passageways, but these are so
diluted with awful wisecracks that there is very little left for genre fans. The mood for
horror parody continued right through the Forties as typified by Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The reviews were moderate, but
they highlighted the waste of the stars' talents.
In contrast, the director of YOU'LL FIND OUT, David Butler later recalled "The
picture was one of the happiest I ever did. Everybody simply had fun making it."
If only that sense of fun had made its way to the screen.
Once again it was rumoured that Lugosi
and Karloff would star together again in THE MONSTER OF ZAMBOR, a film that probably
didn't even make it past the planning stages, and then George Waggner, director of The Wolfman announced that they would both be in a "chiller
diller to end all chiller-dillers" with THE CHAMBER OF HORRORS. After the film's
numerous cast and script changes, it emerged in 1944 as House of Frankenstein with John
Carradine replacing Lugosi as Count Dracula.
In late 1940 Boris was lured to Broadway with an inviting offer to appear as Jonathan
Brewster in the play "Arsenic and Old Lace" which ran for over 1600
performances. For the film adaptation in 1944
Warner Bros. cast Raymond Massey in Karloff's
role because of the latter's stage commitments. Lugosi hoped Karloff's defection to
Broadway was an opportunity to star in Universl'a forthcoming horror productions, but to
his disappointment Universal groomed Lon Chaney
Jnr. to become their new horror star.
While Universal led the way in the manufacture of chillers, head of RKO's
production unit, Val Lewton was releasing a
successful series of low budget, psychological thrillers. Beginning with the highly
acclaimed Cat People (1942) the films offered a
much more cerebral form of terror. Lewton cast Karloff in a major supporting role for the
film The Body Snatcher alongside Lugosi in a distinctly minor
role as Joseph the houseman. This is the last time they would be on screen together.
Director Robert Wise later commented, "As a matter of fact, it was really a
manufactured role in order to work him into the film. The role was actually created for
Lugosi and probably would not have existed in the screenplay if Lugosi had not been
available..." Boris and Bela's last scene together is as poignant as it is
moving. Supplying Joseph, (Lugosi), with brandy, graverobber Gray, (Karloff), reaches over
and suffocates his victim with his hand over his mouth.
In this final gesture Karloff had unknowingly ended their association and Lugosi was never
to reach the heights of his success again.
After the horror heydays of the Thirties,
Bela's film work virtually came to a standstill before the infamous actor, producer and
director Ed D. Wood Jnr. cast him in three of his low, low budget features. There were
guest appearances on television and radio, but the glory days were left far behind. Bela
was to say "...where once I had been the master of my professional destinies, with
a reportoire embracing all kinds and types of men, from Romeo to the classics of Ibsen and
Rostand, I became Dracula's puppet...the shadowy figure of Dracula, more than any casting
office, dictated the kinds of parts I played...never, surely has a role so influenced and
dominated an actor's personal life and private fortunes..."
Bela's wife Hope Lininger, who he married in 1955, was awakened one night to see Bela
stumbling around in the dark insisting that Boris Karloff was in the living room
downstairs and that he needed to spruce himself up before meeting him. He died soon
afterwards on August 16th. 1956.
"Poor Bela" lamented Karloff in his later years, "he was worth a
lot more than he got."
In contrast Karloff's later career was filled with film roles, constant work on stage and
great success on television and radio. It was only when his physical condition began to
decline that Boris was ordered to take things easy. Confined to a wheelchair and with an
oxygen tank nearby, scenes were shot in Los Angeles for a series of Mexican films.
Returning to Britain, Boris caught a severe chill and was admitted to hospital where he
died several months later aged 81 on February 2nd. 1969.
Despite rumours of animosity and friction,
the evidence suggests that these two professionals treated each other with the upmost
respect. To call them the best of friends would be a little strong as Lugosi, it seems,
developed a certain amount of bitterness regarding his rival's success. However, I
personally like to believe that the one would not have survived in the same way without
the other. In one respect they created each other's images and together, not apart,
they gave the horror film the foundations on which it stands today.
Bela Lugosi Filmography Boris Karloff Filmography
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