In the Court  of the Crimson King
After a healthy dose of monster education in the '60s  from "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine, and non-stop marathons of monster  movies throughout the succeeding two decades, I don't think I thought all that  much about Bela Lugosi. I mean, outside the arena of the usual, classic  horror-movie actors and the respect they're naturally due. Then two things  happened, separated by quite a bit of time:

1.) The 1994  movie "Ed Wood" and
2.) A recent series of articles in the  "Scary Monsters" and "Cult Movies" magazines on the last stage production of  "Dracula", starring Lugosi, that toured England in  1951.

We'll examine these things and more about this  enigmatic actor in the paragraphs that follow. 
In retrospect, the release of the movie "Ed Wood" (a 1994, black-and-white Tim  Burton film starring Johnny Depp as Wood and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi) was,  no doubt, responsible for causing lots of film students to re-examine the  contributions of a few "crucial" filmmakers. Like many others (I suppose), I  had, up to that time, taken Bela Lugosi for granted. (Ed Wood, too, but that's  another story.) Martin Landau's brilliant performance as the fragile, aging  Lugosi in "Ed Wood" effectively--if somewhat ironically--helped me rediscover  the talent of the original.

What was particularly amazing  was that the film wasn't even recreating Lugosi in his glory days...instead it  showed a once proud and aristocratic man striving for perfection in his art  despite the skid-row productions he was reduced to acting  in.

Despite the film's historical inaccuracies, the gist of  the situation Bela and Ed found themselves in is, I believe, largely accurate.  (Film historian and collector, Forrest J Ackerman, who knew Lugosi personally,  contends Bela was never potty-mouthed as portrayed in the movie...nor was he  contemptuous of Boris Karloff--that anyone knew for sure of, anyway. Plus, the  real-life funeral was attended by quite a few people...not the sad little  gathering like in the movie. Those are the main objections, as I  recall.)

For the record, "Ed Wood" rates as my favorite Tim  Burton film
"You vill help us Frank'shtein! Although Bela  Lugosi will be forever linked to his potrayal of Count Dracula, and not without  justification, it is with some irony, that I must point out what I and many film  fans regard as his far greater acting triumph: that of Ygor (sometimes spelled  "Igor"), the broken-necked, ex-criminal, who found and controlled the  Frankenstein monster, after the events of "Bride of Frankenstein"  (1939).

Through the events of "Son of Frankenstein", we  learn that the villagers tried to hang Ygor (presumably for a murder) but failed  to kill him. They did manage to deform his neck in the attempt, which resulted  in his head being permanently canted to one side and a bony protrusion just  above the "nooseline". (Jack Pierce's make-up job here rates as one of his most  realistic and poignant.)

In the "Ghost of Frankenstein"  (1942), Ygor basically wants the heir of Frankenstein to transplant his (Ygor's)  brain into the monster's body, so that "I vill haff the strength of a huntret  mennnn!" No longer a maimed cripple, Ygor would exact revenge on his  enemies--including those who hung him. His plans were thwarted, however, when  Frankenstein chose to re-animate the monster (this time played by Lon Chaney,  Jr.) with a different brain. 
Quick facts:  born Bela Blasko, October 20, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary, Bela was the youngest of  four. The 1927 stage version of Dracula, with Lugosi in the title role was  tremendously successful, followed by a 2-year tour. Although Universal initially  wanted Lon Chaney to don the cape for the 1931 movie, eventually the role went  to Bela. (There is some controversy over how seriously Universal was courting  Lon Chaney--he had been in ill health for some time and much too weak to  consider the role.) Broken English notwithstanding, Dracula became Bela Lugosi's  career-defining role. Also memorable were Ygor from the Frankenstein sequels (as  mentioned above), Mark of the Vampire, Island of Lost Souls, Black Cat, White  Zombie, Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, and of course, as mentioned at  the top of this page his sad "return" in "Plan 9 From Outer Space". Every film  he ever made was memorable.
70 years of  Dracul
Both "Cult Movies" and "Scary Monsters" magazines have  found much interesting history on the highly-disputed last stage production of  "Dracula", London 1951. Legend has it that it was awful, Lugosi was too old and  frail to handle the acting chores, the production was cheap, almost shoddy, and  the play closed inside 2 weeks.

Nothing could be further  from the truth.

Surviving participants in this endeavor  have since been contacted and their stories are being compiled into books which  should be published and available soon. Bela Lugosi was old and fragile, yes,  but his acting did not suffer---in fact, he was an inspiration to the entire  cast, totally professional. Although he and his wife, Lillian, did not socialize  with the production crew, he was never regarded as "snobby". It was understood  he needed privacy for his "medication" (that's another whole  story).
The origin of the bad reviews myth must lie somewhere in urban legend land, because the authors could not find any negative reviews!  The only thing possibly confusing some contemporary article writers is that "Dracula" was supposed to open in London's East End temporarily and then move on to more lucrative establishments.  Due to bad luck, bad timing, less than impressive ticket sales, or whatever, this never happened.  "Dracula" continued to play smaller venues for the duration.  This is misinterpreted as meaning the play sucked, got bad reviews, and went broke.  On the contrary, the production staff and all performers were heralded for producing so much with so little.

So, that's it in a nutshell. My testimonial to one of the noblest and  talented--and, for a long time, under-appreciated--actors of the twentieth  century. 
Nolan  B. Canova
©2001 Nolan B. Canova
Nolan's Pop  Culture Review