Prelude to Rebellion

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 201st installment in the series.   

September 14, 1915: Prelude to Rebellion 

Just as the passage of the Home Rule Act in May 1914 seemed about to bring the longstanding controversy over Irish self-government to a head, external events unexpectedly intervened. With the outbreak of the First World War the whole issue of Irish autonomy was moved to the back burner by the British government with the Suspensory Act of September 1914, justified on the grounds that now was not the time to proceed with a major reorganization of the state. 

This delay was supposed to last just one year, until September 18, 1915, but the changing political landscape threatened to make it permanent. In the spring of 1915 the crisis in British munitions production led to the “Shell Scandal,” which forced Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a new coalition government including members of the opposition. One of the key figures in the new cabinet was the Ulster Unionist Edward Carson, who as a Protestant bitterly opposed Irish Home Rule and demanded continued “Union” with the rest of Britain. 

Carson joined the cabinet as Attorney General of England and Wales, giving him considerable influence over domestic policy; meanwhile the Irish Nationalist Party led by John Redmond, which represented Irish Catholics demanding Home Rule, was the only parliamentary party not included in the coalition. 

Following this political realignment, it came as no surprise when the cabinet issued an Order in Council renewing the Suspensory Act on September 14, 1915, just a few days before it was due to expire – deferring Irish Home Rule for the duration of the war (which everyone now realized would probably last for years). 

Moderates Eclipsed 

As the British government reneged yet again on its promises of Irish Home Rule, discontent was mounting rapidly among Irish nationalists, many of whom now turned their backs on the policy of peaceful legislative change advocated by moderates like Redmond, and embraced more radical (meaning, violent) solutions. 

Even before the cabinet renewed the Suspensory Act, in May 1915 the radical nationalist leader Thomas Clarke had secretly formed the Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council, which would be responsible for organizing the failed Easter Uprising in April 1916. The IRB Military Council would coordinate the activities of the Irish Volunteers (top), a paramilitary led by Patrick Pearse that seceded from John Redmond’s National Volunteers (below) over the issue of service in the British Army, and the smaller Irish Citizen Army led by James Connolly. 

By fall 1915 British intelligence was well aware that rebellion was brewing in Ireland. In one secret report filed in November (which, like many Irish people, mistakenly identified the rebels as belonging to the nationalist organization Sinn Fein) British agents warned that the advent of conscription, then under debate, might trigger an uprising: “This force is disloyal and bitterly Anti-British and is daily improving its organisation… its activities are mainly directed to promoting sedition and hindering recruitment for the Army and it is now pledged to resist Conscription with arms.” 

Indeed, the preparations were more or less open in many parts of Ireland, as ordinary people made no secret of their hostility to Britain – even to the extent of shunning their own family members who served in the British Army. Edward Casey, a “London Irish” (Irish Cockney) soldier in the British Army, recalled a visit to his cousin’s family in Limerick in the company of a priest in mid-1915: 

He took me in[to] the house without knocking, and when my Aunt (who is a widow) saw us together, [she] said in her deep Irish Limerick brogue: “And what in the name of God are you bringing into my house? A British soldier! And I’m telling you Father, he is not welcome.”… The atmosphere in the room was very chilly… It was a very anxious time for me. They were the only Relations I have known. But they accepted me, as a relation.

Later Casey and his cousin visited a pub, the latter telling him on the way: 

“I feel very sorry for you.  The Germans are going to win this War, and we (us Sinn Feiners, both Men and Women) will do all we can to help.”… He then made a little speech telling his friends who I was, and finished with the words, “Blood is thicker than water, and like someone said on the Cross, “we forgive you, ye know not what ye do.”… When one man, asked Himself who the hell I was, Shamas repeated, “This is my first cousin from London. He is my Mother’s Sister’s Boy. And I’ll have you treat him with respect. If you don’t, I’ll ask you all to come outside and take your coats off and fight.” 

Another Irish soldier serving in the British Army, Edward Roe, also recalled the rebellious mood prevailing in Ireland during a visit home in July 1915: 

What a change of sentiment since 1914. Home Rule had not materialized; there was a dread of conscription; even my friend Mr. Fagan (Tom the Blacksmith) had turned pro-German and cheers for the ‘Kaizar’ [Kaiser] when leaving the village pub at ‘knock out.’ The ‘Peelers’ [police] have threatened to jail him several times, but he still defies them. 

Conflicts Behind the Front 

Although armed rebellions like the Easter Uprising were relatively rare, the First World War exacerbated ethnic tensions and stoked nationalist movements across Europe, presenting yet another challenge to governments which found themselves grappling with angry dissidents on the home front at the same time as foreign enemies abroad. 

This was especially true in Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia – polyglot empires ruled by dynastic regimes which dated back to the feudal era, and were ill-equipped to deal with the competing demands of their rival nationalities. 

In Austria-Hungary Emperor Franz Josef sat uneasily on the two thrones of his divided realm as the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, trying to steer a common military and foreign policy with mixed results. Meanwhile both the Austrian Germans and Hungarian Magyars were pitted against the Dual Monarchy’s numerous minority nationalities, including the Italians, Romanians, and various Slavic peoples (including Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenes, Poles, Slovenians, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Serbs). Indeed it was Franz Josef’s desperation to neutralize these centrifugal nationalist movements that precipitated the First World War.    

Unsurprisingly nationalist resentments were rife within the ranks of the Habsburg armed forces. As early as September 1914 Mina MacDonald, an Englishwoman trapped in Hungary, recorded a Slavic military doctor’s gleeful prediction: “I assure you, whichever way it goes, it’s the end of Austria: if the Central Powers win we become simply a province of Germany: if they lose, it’s the disintegration of Austria. A country composed, as Austria is, of so many races, each one more discontented than the other, must not risk going to war.” 

For their part at least some Austrian Germans had already given up on the idea of a multinational empire altogether, instead embracing the pan-German ideology first espoused by George Schönerer in the late 19th century and later by Adolf Hitler. Bernard Pares, a British observer with the Russian Army, recalled meeting a Habsburg prisoner of war in mid-1915: 

There was one very militant Austrian German, who would have it that Austria would win; he was so rude about the Austrian Slavs that I asked him at the end whether Austria wanted the Slavs. He said they wished to be quit of Galicia, and in fact of all their Slav provinces; I suggested that Austria proper and Tirol might find their rightful place inside the German empire; he answered with alacrity, “Of course, far better under Wilhelm II.” 

Similar tensions afflicted the Russian Empire, memorably described by Lenin as a “prison house of nations,” which ruled non-Slavic or ethnically mixed populations in Finland, the Baltic region, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Even when the subject peoples were also Slavic, as in Poland, nationalist feeling often fueled resentment of the “Great Russians” who ruled the empire – and this feeling was certainly reciprocated. 

In January 1915 a Russian soldier, Vasily Mishnin, casually noted of the Polish inhabitants of Warsaw, part of the Russian Empire for a century: “The crowd seeing us off are not our people, they are all foreigners.” And in August 1915 another British military observer, Alfred Knox, noted the dilemma faced by a Polish aristocrat who didn’t want to abandon his estate to the approaching Germans: “Many officers sympathised with the poor landowner who had been our host. He wanted to remain behind, but Colonel Lallin, the Commandant of the Staff, spoke to him brutally, telling him that is he remained behind it would simply prove that he was in sympathy with the enemy.” 

The Armenian Genocide, precipitated by the Christian Armenians’ support for the invading Russians, was only the most egregious example of ethnic conflict in the decaying Ottoman Empire. The Turks also expelled around 200,000 ethnic Greeks during this period, resulting in widespread misery among refugees temporarily housed on Greek islands (eerily foreshadowing the migrant crisis unfolding now), as recalled by Sir Compton Mackenzie, who described the encampment on Mytilene in July 1915: 

There was nowhere one could walk but a small emaciated hand would pluck at one’s sleeve and point mutely to an empty hungry mouth. Once a woman dropped dead on the pavement in front of me from starvation, and once a child. No street was hot enough to dispel that chill of death. There were, of course, many organized camps; but it was impossible to cope with this ever increasing influx of pale fugitives.

Although Muslim Arabs fared somewhat better than the Armenians or Greeks under Ottoman rule, they remained politically and socially marginalized, stoking bitter resentment against the Turks among Bedouin nomads and townspeople alike. Ihsan Hasan al-Turjman, a young, politically aware middle class Palestinian Arab living in Jerusalem, wrote in his diary on September 10, 1915 that he would rather die than be drafted to fight the British in Egypt, decisively (if privately) renouncing his Ottoman identity along the way:

However, I cannot imagine myself fighting in the desert front. And why should I go? To fight for my country? I am Ottoman by name only, for my country is the whole of humanity. Even if I am told that by going to fight, we will conquer Egypt, I will refuse to go. What does this barbaric state want from us? To liberate Egypt on our backs? Our leaders promised us and other fellow Arabs that we would be partners in this government and that they seek to advance the interests and conditions of the Arab nation. But what have we actually seen from these promises? 

Ironically some British troops, who understood Britain’s Irish troubles well enough, had a hard time grasping that their foes faced similar internal tensions. A British officer, Aubrey Herbert, remembered trying to convince ANZACs at Gallipoli that some captured enemy soldiers really wanted to collaborate with the invaders: “It was a work of some difficulty to explain to the Colonial troops that many of the prisoners that we took – as, for instance, Greeks and Armenians – were conscripts who hated their masters.” 

Allied Hatreds 

Internal ethnic tensions were only part of the picture, as traditional national rivalries and prejudices continued to divide the nations of Europe – even when they were on the same side. Although the war forced Europe’s Great Powers into marriages of convenience, which official propaganda did its best to portray in rosy terms of popular sympathy and mutual admiration, reality tended to fall rather short of this warm embrace. 

For example, there was no getting around the fact that many British and French people simply disliked each other, as the always had (and still do). Indeed, while Brits of all classes sympathized with their French allies and paid tribute to their bravery, there was no question these feelings existed alongside traditional less flattering images, rooted in a millennium of warfare and colonial competition and reinforced by a cultural inferiority complex – and the French, despite their gratitude and affection for some British institutions, fully reciprocated this resentment and scorn. 

One common British stereotype was that the French were incompetent when it came to warfare. Mackenzie recalled the contempt felt by the British officers at Gallipoli for their French colleagues in the Corps Expeditionnaire d'Orient: 

It would be absurd to believe that the General Staff credited French G.Q.G. at Helles with as much military ability as themselves. They did not. They regarded French fighting much as Dr. Johnson regarded a woman’s preaching. Like a dog walking on his hind legs it was not done well, but they were surprised to find it done at all. The French and English were never intended by nature to fight side by side in joint expeditions. 

The ordinary rank and file British soldiers seemed to share these views, and many French civilians made no secret of their dislike for the British. The novelist Robert Graves recalled an honest conversation with one young French peasant woman in the small village where he was billeted: “She told me that all the girls in Annezin prayed every night for the War to end, and for the English to go away… On the whole, troops serving in the Pas de Calais loathed the French and found it difficult to sympathize with their misfortunes.” 

Typically the Brits, famous for their lack of interest in foreign ways, made little effort to bridge the obvious linguistic or cultural gap. On September 5, 1915, Private Lord Crawford complained in his diary about the lack of British translators: “It is a pity we can’t find officers of our own who can talk French well enough – but the linguistic ignorance of our officers is positively phenomenal.” 

It’s worth noting that even within the British Empire, linguistic differences reinforced national prejudices and colonial resentments; thus one anonymous Canadian stretcher-bearer confided in his diaries, “I hate the very sound of the English accent.” In fact sometimes communication was almost impossible. Edward Roe, the Irish soldier, described his mystification at the rural accents he encountered in the English countryside while on leave in October 1915: 

I go for long walks on Sundays and visit country pubs, and listen with amusement to country yokels talking in their quaint accent about cows, sheep, oats, cabbages and boars. I could not understand them, as they seem to speak a language all their own. One Sunday… I got into conversation in a pub with a bewhiskered old farm labourer. The subject we “were on” was sheep. I could only reply in yes’s and no’s… I could not understand a word of what he said.

An anonymous ANZAC soldier recorded a similar mix of disdain and incomprehension for rural English folk: “Our camp lay within two miles of Bulford village… inhabited by a bovine-looking breed, whose mouths seemed intended for beer-drinking but not talking – which, in a way, was just as well, for when they did make a remark it was all Greek to us.” 

For their part troops from the British Isles found their peers from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand alarmingly undisciplined. Roe noted of some Australian convalescents who shared an English hospital with more reserved British counterparts: 

They are a wild, devil-may-care lot and have upset the discipline of the whole hospital… Some are minus an arm and some a leg. They broke out into town the second night they were in hospital. Legs or no legs, arms or no arms, they scaled a 12 foot wall, set Devonport on fire and got uproariously drunk. It took the whole crew of a super-dreadnought in combination with the Military Police to shepherd them back to hospital… They do not understand discipline as it is applied to us. 

Seething Central Powers

These tensions paled in comparison to the mutual antipathy between the Germans and Austrians, fueled by the Germans’ contempt for Austrian fighting prowess following the disastrous defeats in Galicia in the early part of the war, complemented by Austrian resentment of German arrogance, which only grew with the German-led victories after the breakthrough at Gorlice-Tarnow in May 1915. 

These attitudes were shared by elites and ordinary people alike. In the fall of 1914 the anonymous correspondent who wrote under the name Piermarini recalled a deliberate social snub at the Berlin opera: “… [I]n front of me were two Austrian officers, while at my side some German people were discussing the war. They were speaking loudly about the battle in Galicia, and passed many untactful remarks, evidently meant to be heard by the Austrians. They carried this to such a length that the two officers left their seats and walked out.” The German author Arnold Zweig, in his novel Young Woman of 1914, recalled the bitter tone in spring 1915: “In every German beer-house men sat and jeered at these feeble allies, and the increasing reinforcements that they called for – which now amounted to entire German armies.” 

The Austrians returned the German contempt with interest. In September 1915 Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Berlin, noted in her diary: 

The chief subject of discussion is the feeling between Austria and Germany… One cannot help being slightly amused to notice how the point of the whole war is forgotten in the greater interest of internal jealousies. I asked Princess Starhemberg one day whether there was much hatred against England in Austria. “Well, when we have time to, yes, we do hate them; but we are so busy hating Italy and criticizing Germany that we don’t think of much else at present.” 

The dislike translated into a social gulf between German and Austrian officers, even when on foreign assignments where they might be expected to fraternize, if only because of their shared tongue. Lewis Einstein, an American diplomat in the Ottoman capital Constantinople, noticed the frigid relations between the “allies” there: “It is odd how little the Austrians and Germans mix. At the Club each sit at separate tables, and not once have I seen them talking together… The Germans make their superiority felt too much, and the Austrians loathe them.” 

At least the Germans and Austrians in Constantinople had one thing in common – their complete disdain for their Turkish hosts, which Einstein also noticed: “It is odd to see with what scorn both Germans and Austrians talk of the Turks… If they do this as allies, what will it be afterward?” Of course the Turks, sensing more than a whiff of racism in these attitudes, weren’t shy about sharing their opinions of their esteemed guests. On June 23, 1915, as fighting raged at Gallipoli, Einstein noted: “There are more reports of growing ill-feeling between Turks and Germans. The former complain that they are sent to attack while the Germans remain in safe places. ‘Who ever heard of a German officer being killed at the Dardanelles?’ a Turkish officer asked… From the provinces as well come reports of the same ill-feeling.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

20 Things to Look for While Watching John Carpenter’s Halloween

Compass International Pictures
Compass International Pictures

Horror movies don’t come simpler or more effective than Halloween, director John Carpenter’s 1978 classic that helped revitalize the slasher genre and, of course, created one of the most popular costumes of all time. Halloween sends chills down your spine with nothing more than a few piano notes and long shots of the masked Michael Myers looming in the background, stalking his victims. (Today’s masters of horror could learn a thing or two from its less-is-more potency). To paraphrase Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis talking about Myers, this is a story about a man made up of pure evil.

After countless sequels and franchise reboots, including David Gordon Green's new Halloween sequel starring Jamie Lee Curtis (which, strangely enough, was co-written by comedian Danny McBride), it can sometimes feel like there’s no fresh ground in Myers. But it’s worth revisiting the movie that started it all to see how many deeper nuances were hiding just below the surface of Carpenter’s sublime terror. We rounded up the strange facts, goofs, and hints to catch next time Halloween inevitably pops up on a TV screen near you.

1. THE HALLOWEEN THEME SONG IS ITS OWN CHARACTER.


The opening credits set the mood with an image of a jack-o’-lantern and the movie’s theme song, which instantly communicate that Michael Myers is on his way and you should not underestimate him. The thing about that theme song: John Carpenter, who scored the movie himself as he did with many of his movies, clearly understood its power. It plays six different times throughout the film, along with variations on it (enough to make its own drinking game).

2. HALLOWEEN HAPPENED THANKS TO ONE RICH MAN IN THE CREDITS.


After seeing Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, Syrian American financier Moustapha Al Akkad put up the $300,000 budget for the director to make a movie about a psychopath who stalks babysitters. Today, the Akkad family is still involved with production of movies in the franchise.

3. JAMIE LEE CURTIS WAS A NOBODY WHEN HALLOWEEN CAME OUT.


It seems hard to fathom now, but Halloween was Jamie Lee Curtis’s feature film debut. Curtis, of course, is the daughter of Janet Leigh, who had one of the most memorable roles in a scary movie ever with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. If you look closely, Myers’s knife of choice even resembles the one from Psycho.

4. THE TOWNS IN HALLOWEEN DON’T EXIST, THOUGH THEY’RE (SORT OF) BASED ON REAL PLACES.


Halloween is mostly set in Haddonfield, Illinois, the sleepy Midwestern town where young Michael Myers begins his murderous mayhem. He later escapes from a hospital in Smith’s Grove, Illinois. Both places are fictional, but Smiths Grove, Kentucky, is close to where John Carpenter grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Haddonfield is a reference to co-writer and producer Debra Hill’s hometown of Haddonfield, New Jersey. And the shooting location for the haunted Myers home was actually Pasadena, California.

5. MICHAEL MYERS HAD AN EARLY OBSESSION WITH MASKS.


We watch a six-year-old Myers put on a clown mask that’s been discarded on the floor in the earliest Halloween scene, before he tragically kills his own sister Judith. The masks help make Myers seem human-like, yet somehow beyond human thought and reason. “The idea was to make him almost humorless, faceless,” Hill said.

6. MYERS CLEARLY HAS A TORTURED RELATIONSHIP WITH SEX.


All of the murders we see happen in the original Halloween are tied to sexual activity: Myers stabs his sister to death after she’s been fooling around with a boy. Later Annie, Lynda, and Bob all suffer similar fates after they’ve disrobed or slept together.

7. LAURIE, HOWEVER, SEEMS DOWNRIGHT CONSERVATIVE FOR 1978.


According to common horror movie logic (which Halloween helped usher in), the more of a prude you are, the more likely you are to make it through the night. So it is here: Curtis’s Laurie, especially for her age in the late 1970s, stays covered up and doesn’t kiss a single person. She also expresses embarrassment when confronted about her feelings for a classmate.

8. DR. LOOMIS ISN’T VERY GOOD AT PARKING.


Loomis pursues Myers after the killer has escaped a hospital, using his deep knowledge of the patient to track him down. But Loomis does something un-doctorly in the process: He parks in a handicapped spot, despite not having any noticeable handicap.

9. LAURIE GETS A SCHOOLING IN FATE THAT’S AN IMPORTANT CLUE.


While she’s in a high school class and Myers is lurking outside, Laurie answers a teacher’s question about destiny. It might seem like filler dialogue, but it speaks to how Myers is constantly driven back—including in later movies—into the lives of the people in Haddonfield. She says, “Costaine wrote that fate was somehow related only to religion, where Samuels felt that fate was like a natural element, like earth, air, fire, and water."

10. A MATCHBOOK HOLDS CLUES TO MYERS’S PAST (AND FUTURE).


You can see Loomis looking at a matchbook in a car with his colleague Marion Chambers early in the movie. It says: The Rabbit in Red Lounge. Loomis later finds the same matchbook after Myers steals the car, which helps lead him to the killer. The Rabbit in Red Lounge nightclub makes an appearance in Rob Zombie’s 2007 reboot of Halloween, as the place where Myers’s mother works as a dancer.

11. THERE ARE TWO BRIEF GLIMPSES OF MYERS UNDERNEATH THE MASK IN HALLOWEEN.


We barely see Myers in profile as he jumps on top of a car outside the hospital where he’s being held early in the movie, but you get a much better look at his face when Laurie pulls off his mask near the end. That is the face of actor Tony Moran, who didn’t go on to do any of the sequels, though he still became a cult icon. The masked Myers is played by Nick Castle, who’s credited simply as “The Shape."

12. LAURIE SINGS A REALLY CREEPY SONG THAT MIGHT BE ABOUT HER AND MYERS.


While Laurie walks around town and Myers pursues her, she sings a couple lyrics that sound sweet but are haunting in context: “Wish I had you all alone / Just the two of us.” Internet digging reveals that it’s not a pop song, but rather it could be a reference to her repressed romantic feelings, or a nod to what will become her ongoing connection to Myers.

13. THE KID LAURIE BABYSITS LOOKS WEIRDLY LIKE YOUNG MYERS.


Myers as a six-year-old is played by Will Sandin, with blond longer hair. The actor playing Tommy, the boy Laurie is babysitting, bears a striking resemblance to Sandin.


It could be a coincidence, but somehow we think not.

14. MYERS’S GHOULISH MASK IS ACTUALLY JUST WILLIAM SHATNER.


As Halloween didn’t have a lot of money to go around, its art director Tommy Lee Wallace bought a cheap mask at a costume store, which happened to be of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk from Star Trek. Apparently the mask didn’t look much like Shatner, anyway, which worked for the best: The filmmakers painted it and adjusted the eyeholes to provide the unsettling visage for their maniac.

15. THE MYERS HOME MAGICALLY TRANSFORMS OVER TIME.


In the opening sequence of Halloween, we see Myers walk through his family’s home on his way to killing his sister, and there’s floral wallpaper.


In a later shot, we see Loomis and Sheriff Brackett walk through the very same area of the house, and it has a different floral wallpaper. But Brackett says no one has lived in the house since the incident in 1963. So did Myers redecorate on his trip back into town?

16. JOHN CARPENTER PREVIEWED ONE OF HIS NEXT MOVIES IN HALLOWEEN.


Halloween has two movie-within-a-movie moments: The teens and the kids they’re babysitting are seen watching The Thing from Another World (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956), both of which undoubtedly influenced Carpenter. In fact, Carpenter went on to make The Thing (1982), an adaptation of Who Goes There, the same novella on which The Thing from Another World is based.

17. A NEIGHBOR DOESN’T HELP LAURIE WHEN SHE’S IN TROUBLE.


One of the more unnerving moments in Halloween is so brief that you could easily miss it: As Laurie is being chased by Myers later in the movie, she runs to a neighboring house and screams for help. You can see an outside light turn on and an arm of someone inside looking through a window. But the person quickly walks away, leaving Laurie in harm’s way.

18. MYERS IS HARD TO KILL—EVEN BY HORROR MOVIE STANDARDS.


It became a running joke in the Halloween franchise that Myers is impossible to kill. In fact, he seems to resurrect himself on the spot, a trope that was reused in many later slasher films. In the first movie, we watch Laurie stab him once, then again in a closet with his own knife. Then Loomis shoots him multiple times, leading him to fall off the second floor of a house. But when Loomis goes to check on the body, Myers is already gone. As little Tommy puts it best, “You can’t kill the bogeyman."

19. MYERS’S AGE DOESN’T QUITE ADD UP.


Myers is supposed to be age six when Halloween begins in 1963. In 1978, then, he should about 21 years old. Yet in the end credits, the older Myers is said to be 23, which is impossible. Except, of course, in a movie.

20. CARPENTER GAVE HIMSELF A CODE NAME.


In the end credits, the music is listed as being performed by The Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra. Well, there is no such orchestra. Carpenter is from Bowling Green, Kentucky, and decided to gussy up his music credit. (To be fair, he did get help on the songs from a few friends.)

All screenshots via Anchor Bay Entertainment.

12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi

Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 20, 1882—136 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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