Some months ago, we had so much fun reading Frank Dello Stritto’s masterful I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It, his memoir of growing up during the Golden Age of Television, that we decided to dip further into his corpus. My interest happily coincided with the new, revised 2nd edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain. For those who love Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) or Dracula, and you know who you are, this book is essential.
It is a strange quirk of history and cinematic fanaticism that the great figures of the age often sink into obscurity and people less respected in their own time find greater posthumous importance. Such is certainly the case with Bela Lugosi; more books have been written about Lugosi than Clark Gable (1901-1960) or Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) or Gary Cooper (1901-1961) or Bing Crosby (1903-1977) combined, though those luminaries worked in the upper echelons of the movie industry while Lugosi toiled on Poverty Row.
What is it about Lugosi that makes him so potent a figure nearly 60 after his death, while greater stars (and much better actors) fade into obscurity? Perhaps it has something to do with the medium of film itself. Though the camera moves very close, it loves the large gesture, the show of big personality and individuality. Smaller, more subtle actors are applauded by the critics, but the movie-goer loves people who take it big. And few actors took it bigger than Lugosi.
Lugosi’s legacy to motion pictures remain a handful of interesting performances, a generous number of truly bad B films, and a legend that has lost none of its potency. Lugosi first played Dracula on Broadway. When Dracula premiered at the Fulton Theater, neither the critics nor the audience realized that they were witnessing the creation of one of modern theater history's great signature roles. Typecast as Dracula forever after his 1931 film appearance, actor and role merged for eternity when the actor requested that he be buried in his vampire costume.
Like many jobbing actors, Lugosi strove to go where the money was. He made two trips to Great Britain – the 1930s and 1950s, respectively – and little is known of his activity there. Legends among Lugosiphiles suggest that his 1950s tours of Dracula throughout the English countryside were a dismal failure. However, research by Dello Stritto and Brooks suggest that the tour was wildly successful, and that it was the last great triumph of Lugosi’s tumultuous life.
Dello Stritto and Brooks interviewed many of the survivors of tour, and also unearthed a great deal of previously unpublished material to make this a rich history indeed. But a book full facts could be deathly dull – despite the inherent interest of the topic – if the historian cannot make them come alive. Dello Stritto and Brooks do not drown in his own research. They are scintillating raconteurs, and this 300+ page book moves along as breezily as a fascinating dinner conversation.
This is not just a chronicle of a once-respected actor trying to recapture former glories, but a wonderful evocation of English provincial theater in the 1950s. It reflects a lost world of interest to theater buffs, movie buffs, Dracula and Lugosi mavens, and people drawn to the nascent English film industry. It is all there, from train travel and one-night stands in the sticks, to alliances and challenges among a small company of players, to hoping to open big in London’s West End. (Sadly, that was a triumph denied Lugosi and company.)
In addition to a lively and inviting text, Dello Stritto and Brooks have managed to uncover dozens of photos never-seen-in-print. Your Correspondent has spent decades reading about Bela Lugosi, with little hope of anything new on the horizon. Vampire Over London is crammed with photos I have never seen, that provide a greater understanding of both Lugosi the theatrical presence and Lugosi the man. This is a terrific book, not to be missed.
Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain can be ordered directly from Cult Movies Press at: http://www.cultmoviespress.com/.