Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) gave the undead king of undead kings, Dracula, his first rush of blood in the U.S. in a 1927 stage play of the same name. With Lugosi’s own spellbinding gaze, spidery fingers, aristocratic aura and mesmerizing accent, he imbued Bram Stoker’s literature character with the macabre yet sexual magnetism that he himself had, first onstage and then on screen in “Dracula” (1931). In exchange, Dracula gave Lugosi eternal life – by making Lugosi eternally associated with (or even mistaken for) the luscious bloodsucker himself.

Interestingly, Count Dracula as we know him today might never even have existed if Lugosi hadn’t fled his homeland, Hungary, to escape being executed by the government there. In the 1910s, he was a full-time stage and film actor, but he was also politically active.

Engaged early on in grassroots initiatives, he was driven by soulful empathy, fiery patriotism (he even enlisted to fight in World War I when he didn’t have to) and an unstoppable compulsion to help the underprivileged. Ultimately, he climbed the ranks and became the equivalent of a minister of culture and the arts.

But when political upheaval instantly flipped him from being a government official to being hunted for retribution by the new ruling regime, he was left with two options: martyrdom or exile. Taking his wife Ilona, he chose the latter and immigrated to Austria.

Bela Lugosi in 1920

Bela Lugosi in 1920

Following a circuitous journey through western Europe, Lugosi eventually immigrated to the United States, arriving in New Orleans – newly single – in 1920. He made his way up to New York City from there and nestled into the Hungarian community, where it didn’t matter that he knew no English.

His career gradually picked up where it had left off in Europe, as a blend of stage and screen acting, first entirely in Hungarian, and later in English as well. Miraculously, while still new to learning English he made his English-language theatrical debut in 1922’s “The Red Poppy.” To act, he simply memorized his lines and his co-stars’ lines phonetically, mimicking and listening for specific sounds, not words.

Although he had yet to learn English, Lugosi made his English-language theatrical debut in 1922’s “The Red Poppy” (misprinted as “Rose” above), delighting critics and setting fires in the hearts of lovestruck ladies in the audience.

Throughout the rest of his career, Bela continued to act both on screen and onstage. His film career spanned 40 years, and his stage days began 15 years before he made his first movie. He covered a lot of territory, both thematically and geographically, while carving his legacy into the history of cinema. 

I could go on and on about my beloved Bela, but plenty of Lugosi historians have covered his life far better than I ever could. (Check out the list of biographies at the end of this article.) What I want to present here is something no other Lugosi-phile has tackled though (that I know of anyhow): using my knowledge of Lugosi’s films to generate watchlists for different levels of Lugosi fandom. It’s my answer to the question: On a scale of “Who’s Bela Lugosi” to “I Would Watch Footage of My Beloved Bela Sleeping” (that’s me), what’s worth your time? And, in order of release date (from most recent to least recent), here’s what I suggest. Happy viewing!

Fandom Level: Who’s Bela Lugosi?

To get familiar with Lugosi’s best-known roles, check out:

Warner Oland and Lugosi in The Black Camel (1931) Photo By Fox Film Corporation - Doctor Macro, Public Domain

Warner Oland and Lugosi in The Black Camel (1931) Photo By Fox Film Corporation – Doctor Macro, Public Domain

Fandom Level: Oh, He’s in That Too? Cool!

If you’d like a Lugosi movie with a great cast, a solid story and/or a history of its own, consider:

Fandom Level: Yeah, But It’s Got Bela in It (Shrug)

If you find Lugosi so endearing that you can suspend your disbelief even if the movie or show is really hokey or corny, and you can tolerate the occasional cringeworthy supporting cast, try:

Fandom Level: I Would Watch Footage of My Beloved Bela Sleeping

If you’ll sit through absolutely anything as long as Lugosi is in it, no matter how unwatchable the movie or show is, or how little Lugosi is in it, look up:

Recommended Lugosi Biographies

“Becoming Dracula: Volume One” by Gary D. Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger (Orlando, Florida: BearManor Media, 2020)

“Becoming Dracula: Volume Two” by Gary D. Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger (Orlando, Florida: BearManor Media, 2021)

“Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration” by Gregory William Mank (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009)

“Bela Lugosi in Person” by Bill Kaffenberger and Gary D. Rhodes (Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2015)

“Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers” by Gary Don Rhodes (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997)

“Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape” by Robert Cremer (Chicago: Henry Regenery Company, 1976)

“No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi” by Gary D. Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger (Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2012)

“The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi” by Arthur Lennig (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003)

Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.