BOOKS… Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula (2021) by Koren Shadmi

#2020s

 

A Life in Pictures…

 

A graphic novel tells the true story of the Hungarian-American actor who played Dracula, Bela Lugosi.

 

Dracula (1931) Official Trailer #1 – Bela Lugosi Movie, Movieclips Classic Trailers

 

In his book, Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula, author and artist Koren Shadmi remembers Bela Lugosi in an original way. Lugosi’s life is told in a biographical graphic novel. It is a visual treat, with cartoon drawings and text outlining Lugosi’s life from 1893 to just before his death. Bela Lugosi’s defining role was Dracula and he played this role both on stage and in the acclaimed 1931 film.

Shadmi’s book starts with a foreword from prolific author, Joe R Lonsdale. Lonsdale gives a short introduction to this actor and gives a hearty endorsement for this book. Following Shadmi’s detailed biography, Shadmi adds some of his initial sketches for this book. The book then concludes with references and a detailed bibliography with lists of Lugosi’s films, documentaries and interviews used in writing this book.

Lonsdale adds that Shadmi tells about Lugosi life in a “whole biographical banquet” as it covers

“the triumphs, the misfortunes, the oddities as well as the wonders and high points of  Lugosi’s life”.

Shadmi begins Lugosi’s biography in 1955 and he depicts this time in sepia colour themed pictures. As he recounts Lugosi’s life before this date, drawings are then coloured in black and white. However, as I write about his biography – as recounted by Shadmi – I will write it in a linear way to prevent confusion.

This biography starts in 1893, in Lugos, Hungary. It tells of Lugosi’s childhood dream at 10 years old and tells that he was then obsessed with becoming an actor. His family were unsupportive and uncaring, and he ran away after he was blamed for his father’s death. In 1917, he was an active and passionate leader of the actors union in Budapest. After the Hungarian Soviet Republic was dissolved, he was expelled from the Hungarian National Theatre and blacklisted. He fled for his life with his first wife Ilona Szmick for Vienna, where this marriage soon ended.

After he immigrated to New York, he worked with his Hungarian speaking theatre company. He then won a number of English speaking roles in film and on stage. Lugosi performed in the play in the titular role of Dracula in the West End, Broadway and beyond. During this time, Lugosi was married and divorced twice and it’s reported that he had a fling with the actress, Clara Bow.

After he was dismissed from the lead film role as Frankenstein, he was replaced by Boris Karloff. In 1932, his career was “upended”, and Lugosi declared bankruptcy and lost everything he owned. He starred with Karloff in their first of eight film collaborations and in many minor roles. After MGM took over the Dracula franchise, Lugosi reprised his Dracula role.

1935 was seen as his most prolific acting year, and then his career went into a sharp decline. By 1937, Lugosi was in dire financial straits and he declared bankruptcy. His then fourth wife Lillian was expecting a baby. After Dracula and Frankenstein were re-released, Lugosi made a comeback and this led to more supporting roles. During this time he was diagnosed with sciatica and took morphine for the pain and he gets addicted to this drug.

He collapsed on a movie set in 1942, and then his run ended at Universal Pictures. He took on less memorable roles. He worried about Lillian having an affair with the actor, Brian Donlevy after she started an assistant job with this actor. In 1952, Lugosi is offered a role in a film with Ed Wood. After he and Lillian divorce, he started to retake the addictive drug. After Lillian leaves, he felt alone and forgotten and became suicidal. He asked Wood to join him, and tells him that he is missing his wife, Wood convinces him to live.

The sepia pictures tell of events in 1955 and 1956. This story starts as 73 years old Lugosi admitted himself voluntarily to the Motion Picture and Country House Hospital. He was in severe pain but keen to be treated for his then drug dependency.  After he was given an injection to stop his pain he was seen to have a high fever and hallucinations.

The visual and auditory hallucinations are of Dracula and his nemesis Karloff and they taunt the actor about his accent and that he is a forgotten Hollywood actor. Later Lugosi is devastated when the Screen Actors Guild refused to pay for his stay in hospital and that he will have to leave.

After a court appearance, he is committed to the Metropolitan State Hospital for 3 months and given treatment for two years. During this time, he was visited by Ed Wood, who offered him a role in his new film. After he was discharged after three months, Lugosi felt like a new man and was about to take a new role with Wood. He also had an ardent admirer, in Hope Louise Lininger, who wrote to him while he was in the hospital.

In the epilogue, Shadmi tells that Lugosi married Lininger and he then filmed a number of improvised scenes for a new film with Wood. It ends with Lugosi being appreciative of Wood allowing him to act once more.

This book brings this actor to life in a wonderfully unique way. Shadmi easily met the challenge of telling of a life in words and pictures. In 160 pages, I got a full picture of this actor from his life as an actor in Hungary through to his friendship and film collaborations with Ed Wood. Where the film, Ed Wood (1994) had at times diverged from the truth, Shadmi made no mentions of these particular topics and this made it a respectful biography for both his fans and family.

I loved how Lugosi’s present-day of 1955 and his past were differentiated by colour. This gave an old Hollywood film feel to the telling of Lugosi’s life. This touch made his story easy to follow and it showed how Lugosi’s past concerns shaped his fears in his later life.

Accurate and detailed pictures both illustrated and conveyed the relevant historical times and key places during this actors lifetime. These drawings were supported by short succinct and accurate descriptions. These provided the context for the subsequent scenes and were shown in wonderfully intricate historically based representations of buildings, key figures and historical symbols.

These included pictures of key places such as Budapest in 1917 and then flags. In the later parts of the story, the Hollywood sign appropriately changes from Hollywoodland to Hollywood, dependant on the date of the then storyline. Shadmi has clearly researched the then appearance of the buildings at this time.

These are seen in his credible illustrations of the Motion Picture and Country House Hospital and the site of his marriage to his first wife, Church Of St Anne Budapest. All pertinent buildings are majestically recreated and signs on those illustrated buildings are written in the Hungarian or English language as appropriate to the time and place. 

Lugosi’s Hungarian accent was also honoured in his dialogue bubbles. A little text also indicates when Lugosi speaks languages other than English. These attributes all added up to a warm and affectionate telling of Lugosi’s life story. Touches like these added to the history and storytelling in subtle but strong and effective ways.  

Shadmi also wonderfully recreated this actor’s physical presence as he looked at different ages in his life and in his roles in many of his movies. These are seen in wonderful true to life illustrations. Other familiar Hollywood and historical names such as Ed Wood, Clara Bow, Boris Karloff and Lenin as they appeared in his life story were tributed in the same credible manner. These characters donned both appropriate clothes and spoke appropriate dialogue.

The content must be praised for its detailed recreations of his films. These are included his character alongside his scenes and dialogue. In one (favourite) picture, Shami wonderfully recreated Lugosi in character in a number of his films. I believe this picture would be a delight to his fans. Shadmi provided a tribute to this actor’s character’s physical presence in a wide range of films. 

The dialogue bubbles used within the story were easy to follow and set the scene telling of this actor’s life and times, his career and many marriages. The book also appears to have taken note of the criticisms from his family, in response to the Ed Wood biopic. At the same time, this book appeared to be paying homage to this film with his and Wood’s dress and appearance reminding me of this biopic movie.

I would love to see this well researched and captivating book made into an animated cartoon. Perhaps, as a tribute made in time for the 140th anniversary of Lugosi’s birth, which is next year.  I  concur with Lonsdale, that the love for Lugosi in his definitive role of Dracula continues as;

“there’s always a place in our hearts for the man who introduced us to vampires and creeping terror”.

So, I would wholeheartedly recommend getting your teeth into this graphic novel biography on the Dracula actor who was haunted by his most immortal role.      

 

A disclaimer and personal thank you to NetGalley and Life Drawn for giving me an Advance Reader Copy of Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi. Financial compensation was not received, however, I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions expressed here are my own. If you would like your book to be featured or promoted here, please drop a line to me via my Contact Me Page.  

 

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4 thoughts on “BOOKS… Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula (2021) by Koren Shadmi

  1. Great review,, Gill.
    I love the idea of a biography as a graphic novel! Bela Lugosi is life seems perfect for this medium.
    Sadly, graphic novels are complicated for my visual impairment oh, so I probably will never experience this brilliant book.

Love your thoughts... but only if they are spoiler free!

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