Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 25, 2009: Karloff vs. Lugosi: A brief look at the careers andrivalries of horrors’ biggest stars

And now, another contribution to Frankensteinia’s Boris Karloff Blogathon

Karloff and Lugosi. They are the two most iconic actors who played the two most iconic monsters for the most iconic studio of the golden age of horror movies. Today their names and likenesses are just as recognizable as the creatures they helped create. A quick “Google News” search of the name “Bela Lugosi” not only brings up stories from recent Halloween retrospectives, but his name is referenced in articles about former Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy, a Pop Matters piece on ‘80s Goth Rock, and an adopted puppy from Canada named after the Dracula star. A similar search for “Boris Karloff” links to articles about on and off-off-off Broadway shows, parenting, and cosmetic limb lengthening. Lugosi’s heavy Hungarian accent has been appropriated by every hack jokester who ever belched, “I vant to suck your blaad!” His voice and visage inspired a Muppet. Bobby “Boris” Pickett nicked both Karloff’s unmistakably dulcet inflection and his name for the 1962 novelty hit “The Monster Mash”. John Entwistle just settled for the name when he wrote his first song for The Who, “Boris the Spider”. Both actors inspired breakfast cereal mascots.

Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood suggested that the equally-shared popularity of Karloff and Lugosi is a relatively recent phenomenon, that Lugosi sabotaged his own career by turning down the role of the Frankensetin Monster because it lacked the romantic allure of Dracula, damning him to forever star in Z-grade cheapies like Spooks Run Wild, The Ape Man, and the Wood pictures until his death in 1956. Meanwhile Karloff’s career flourished with prestigious turns in The Mummy, Scarface, and Bride of Frankenstein. This isn’t exactly true. Yes, Karloff was treated with far greater respect by Hollywood. The Powers That Be at Universal christened him “Karloff the Uncanny” and gave him top billing in any film he so much as poked his proboscis into. But with more than 150 films to his credit, he surely starred in his share of stinkers, including the horribly racist The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Island Monster, and Frankenstein 1970.

Karloff as the “yellow peril” title character of the repellent Mask of Fu Manchu
Critics bear some responsibility for the imbalance between Karloff and Lugosi’s popularity. While no one will argue the memorablility of Lugosi’s performance as Dracula, many have revised their take on his skills, chiding his exaggerated facial expressions, his mannered movements, and his unnatural diction caused by the simple fact that English was not his first language. I contend that these elements bring an otherworldly quality to his performance perfectly appropriate for a supernatural creature, and the sheer iconography of it could never be surpassed or eradicated by another Dracula portrayer. Furthermore, the fresh portion of Lugosi’s resume is certainly not limited to Dracula. He was also excellent in The Black Cat and The Raven (both of which co-starred Karloff), White Zombie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Son of Frankenstein, in which he did his finest work and played his second-most hallowed movie monster, Ygor. The back-from-the-grave creep with the broken neck allowed Lugosi unprecedented space to flex his acting muscles. He brings a heady blend of unctuousness, seething evil, and desperation to the character, unequivocally upstaging Karloff, who is merely going through the motions in his final portrayal of the Monster.

Lugosi as Ygor and Karloff as the Monster in Son of Frankenstein

Now, I’m certainly not arguing that Lugosi was a more impressive actor than Karloff. Actually, the two were so different in presence and approach that one could not replace the other. Lugosi was icy, exotic, ethereal— qualities that made him the ideal Dracula. Karloff was earthier, more sympathetic, at once childlike and grandfatherly—all key facets of the Frankenstein Monster (well, maybe not “grandfatherly”). Lugosi’s standoffishness made him a more convincing pure-evil villain than Karloff. Karloff’s unshakable warmth made him the better conflicted villain (check out his heartbreaking work in The Devil Commands), although he could still go the full-nasty route when necessary, as he did with great deftness in The Black Cat and The Body Snatcher.

Burton’s Ed Wood presents a crazed, bitter Lugosi who basically hated Karloff for sustaining a respected career while Lugosi was left behind to make trash-o-la pictures for the “worst filmmaker of all time” and wither away in morphine addiction. Descendents of both actors contend that no such rivalry existed. Karloff and Lugosi made eight pictures together, several of them featuring some of the actors’ best work. They play off each other beautifully in their best collaboration, The Black Cat, which was one of the few films in which Lugosi played the ostensible good guy (The Invisible Ray, another Karloff/Lugosi collaboration, was another). The literal and figurative chess games in the film nicely encapsulate their work in this film, in which the two enemies—who masquerade as comrades—try to get the better of the other, leading to a gruesome climax. The truth and vitality in their performances may be a reflection of the real rivalry that may have existed between the actors behind these characters. Regardless of how they actually felt about each other, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi each influenced the other’s career profoundly. Certainly Karloff’s would never have reached such heights had Lugosi not opted out of Frankenstein. Popular culture and the horror film certainly would have been very, very different beasts without them.

Photo of a big bunny rabbit!
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