Dark Dreams
Dracula Vs. Frankenstein: The Lugosi/Karloff Rivalry

Devan Sagliani | 13 Oct 2014 16:30
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Universal was hot to repeat their original success and Bela was their bright new star. They were intent on cashing in on the name he'd made by casting him as the Mary Shelley's monster but Lugosi was horrified when the script for Frankenstein finally arrived. It had no dialogue and required him to wear upwards of thirty pounds of heavy makeup and bolts on his neck. The proud actor who was fond of telling anyone who would listen about his classical training didn't see himself as a moaning monster. Even though he thought it was beneath him he agreed to do a test shoot, enduring hours of makeup while biting back his indignation. The experience only strengthened his resolve not to play the oafish imbecile. Bela immediately set to work concocting a way to get out of playing the role, even using a medical excuse, but in the end the studio management were so offended by his rejection that they let him go without a fight. It's the first of many decisions that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Along came Boris Karloff. Boris had already been working in Hollywood a decade playing small parts by the time he was discovered at the Universal Studios cafeteria eating his lunch. Like so many others Boris dreamed of making it big in Hollywood, and just like Bela he worked in plays before migrating to California to try making it in pictures. For the most part the roles he took were unforgettable and inconsequential. He spent an equal amount of time acting as he did driving trucks and doing odd jobs like digging ditches, shoveling coal, and laying street car tracks. Despite being raised in comfort he was barely scraping a living hoping for his big break, which came in the form of director James Whale. Boris, who had worn his best suit that day, was surprised to learn the director was considering him for the role of Frankenstein's monster but agreed anyway.


Frankenstein was his eighty first role in a movie and it put Karloff's name on the map for good. It would require that Boris report at four in the morning for a grueling makeup session every day of shooting, and remain perfectly still. Then, after a full day of having the heavy, toxic sludge caked on his face Karloff would patiently sit another two hours to have it properly removed. To make matters worse the director ordered Karloff to cover his face when leaving set after the timid actor accidentally frightened a studio secretary so badly that she fainted at the unexpected sight of him. Between the tedious hours, the heavy wardrobe, the poisonous makeup, and the unbearable heat, Boris, a thin man to begin with, lost almost thirty pounds.

When Bela heard about the working conditions on the Frankenstein set he was convinced he made the right choice but his bubble was soon burst. Frankenstein turned out to be a smash hit at the box office. Karloff's performance of the monster left horror fans, and studio heads, clamoring for more. His days of driving trucks were officially over. Lugosi would later say it was his biggest mistake in life, and that by turning down the role he had created his own Frankenstein's monster in Karloff, a rival that would steal his fame away and plague his career until the bitter end. In 1932 Universal, the new kings of horror cinema, set up a publicity stunt pitting their two great stars against each other at a meet and greet and capturing their first encounter on film. The studio was eager to cash in on a rivalry even if they had to invent it.

Karloff received a handsome contract from the studio and the two began to fight over roles in upcoming horror films, each vying for the better part. Lugosi snatched up a role in White Zombie while Karloff took his chances on playing The Mummy. Once again Karloff's gamble paid off as he terrified fans with his ghastly performance. Finally in 1934 the studio decided to cast the fearsome duo together in their first movie, a horror film called The Black Cat about a deranged Satan worshipper and his doctor that ends with Lugosi skinning Karloff alive. Some critics have gone as far as to suggest that Lugosi's ghoulish final scene belied his true animosity towards the man who had quickly eclipsed his fame and stolen his spotlight, but to his dying day Bela's only voiced complaint about Boris centered around his routine tea breaks on set, saying he loathed tea and the breaks and found them equally insufferable. No matter how much he was prodded he refused to sink so low as to openly bash his rival, but he couldn't hide his jealousy.

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