Koren Shadmi, Lugosi: The Rise & Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula. Foreword by Jon R. Lansdale. Los Angeles: Life Drawn/Humanoids, 2021, 160pp. $29.95.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
It is best to admit that we live in terrible times, while we struggle to keep things from getting markedly worse, as they surely will without the needed collective effort that a large number of Americans (among others) seem not actually to want. How does this gloomy reality affect the creation of comic art, one of the more interesting artistic developments of our time, all the more important for its popularity among young people?
Horror comics once occupied the center of social controversy, along with the supposed gay relationship of Batman and Robin and other such McCarthy Era nonsense. The Congressional hearings that broke the booming comic industry of the 1940s-50s, reducing its successors to smaller fields, hit paydirt in one real way: those horror comics were indeed bloody and grim. Harvey Kurtzman’s widow Adele insisted that she and Harvey never allowed the children to read them, not even the EC horror comics whose heavy sales made Mad possible.
Did the controversy around horror comics connect somehow with the huge cult of horror films going back to the Silent days, getting hugely bigger in the 1930s and turning upon themselves as parody in the 1940s? Without a doubt. Nothing was bigger, nothing in the future of horror films all the way into the twenty-first century, could be bigger than Dracula and Frankenstein, aka Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.
We have no Karloff comic yet, and we can hope that it is more politically attuned than the volume at hand for Boris’ leading role in the early Screen Actors Union, his ardent antifascism and his insistence that children watching the classic Frankenstein (1931) knew the supposed monster was the real victim of the ignorant, vicious villagers. His literary lineage, of course, traced back to Mary Wollstonecraft and the big metaphor about the degradations of modern aka emerging capitalist society with the monster as metaphoric proletarian body, both product and victim.
Dracula comes from a different place, of course, but is historically wound around a surprisingly similar character. The careful tracing in this comic of Bela Lugosi’s Hungarian background, his meteoric rise to stardom, his floundering personal life, downfall and notorious final engagement with Ed Wood, is enlivening but misses a whole lot. Hungary had a red revolution in 1919 followed by a rightwing takeover that placed the nation in a similar spot, a natural alliance, with Mussolini taking power in Italy, followed by Hitler in Germany.
Lugosi was not exactly a union or community organizer. But the artistic giant of the large Hungarian-American Left, Hugo Gellert, would have been well known to Lugosi, politically and culturally. Lugosi, asked by revolutionary leader Bela Kun to be the leader of the national trade union movement before his departure, seems to have become a New Deal Democrat in the US, but played a key role in the Hungarian-American Counncil for Democracy, that is, working closely with Gellart and with that other famed antifascist Bela: Bela Bartok. As the rampage of Fascism threatened the world, from the middle 1930s onward, the “two Belas” could be counted upon for financial contributions and public appearances rallying the immigrant communities, in wartime to raise funds and support antifascism, in this case, Russian and Hungarian in particular.
Of all this, we see nothing in the comic. Nor the ways in which the descending Cold War moods brought depression and a sense of panic among erstwhile antifacists. Hollywood, in Lugosi’s last years, was the home of the Blacklist. He escaped by not actually belonging to any Left organizations. Or perhaps because he was already too beaten to subpoena.
All that said, the personal drama of Lugosi’s life is well told here, and the drawing is impressive. Too much seems to be about the complicated romantic life, women won and lost, the over-extended ego that seemed to take over his creative power, with too little about the complications of his Hollywood career, let alone the unique artistry with which he approached his parts.
The Black Cat (1935), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, using a title from Edgar A. Poe’s work but bearing no other resemblance, was a masterpiece of horror and a brilliantly-wrought critique of the destruction brought upon humanity by the First World War. The two old military adverseries (the other is Boris Karloff) meet, and are seen with some of the staggeringly expessionist cinematography to that point in film-making anywhere. The subtle politics of the film are entirely lost to the comic artist, but the importance for Lugosi is clear. He was already a star, but now he became a super-star.
All too soon, the moment passed. By the time Robert Lees and his sreenwriting partner Fred Rinaldo delivered the script of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the studio in 1947 (sadly, Karloff had been replaced by Lon Chaney, Jr., and Lugosi is strictly camp), the cliches of monster films were already being turned inside out and played for laughs. Actually, with Bud and Lou offering up the best comedy around, Lugosi and Karloff were perfectly straight-faced and perfect.
But of course, this suggested a drift downward. Where to go from self-satire? Lugosi’s life was turning bad in every way. As depicted, he was addicted to drugs, unable to make a living or a personal appearance in Hollywood’s clubs and restaurants in the old way. He died too late, if earlier would have meant avoiding Ed Wood.