Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill and Boris Karloff — Three Live Ghosts (1941) 🇺🇸
What of Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, and Boris Karloff, prime portrayers of horrific characters? What are they like, what do they think of their abnormal rôles, and what have been their experiences? This joint interview tells you all you want to know.
by Helen Louise Walker
“An’ the wind goes woo-oo!” in the words of Orphan Annie. The children clustered closer to the fire and peered furtively over their shoulders, fearing the approach of those Gobble-uns who git you ef you don’t watch out!” The spellbound children of yesterday loved those talcs of naughty youngsters who were snatched through the ceiling by ghostly hands, or the story of the little girl who mocked and shocked old folks and then got what was coming to her. When the lamp wick sputters and the flame burns blue.
Modern youngsters do not have to cluster round a kitchen fire to experience their nightmare thrills. They may save their nickels and go to the theater at the corner and he frightened even more effectually than was Annie’s eager audience. And don’t think that their ciders are not willing to accompany them. A right powerful, hair-raising scare is worth anybody’s money. Horror and mystery pictures are second only to Westerns in popularity at the box office.
Why do the kiddies, to say nothing of father and mother and also grandpa and grandma, so enjoy jittering at the goings-on of a Frankenstein or producing gooseflesh over Dracula?
Wondering about these matters, I braved the Hollywood “gobble-uns” recently and asked them about their private lives. Somewhat to my dismay, I found the three chief monsters to be dignified, prosperous, and rather civic gentlemen.
First there was Bela Lugosi who, what with years of playing the dreadful Dracula on the stage and then upon the screen, is almost our pioneer hair-raiser. Bela likes making you shudder and producing chilly sensations along your spinal column. And he admits to an occasional more or less enjoyable shudder, himself, in the pursuit of his horrific career. When it began to seem that the portrayal of Dracula might well become his life work, he used to have pretty awful dreams about sucking blood.
“Your nerves are bound to be affected,” he remarked, “by any rôle which you play constantly over a period of years. If it were only the repetition, it would do something to you. But when you are playing, with all the earnestness and sincerity you can muster, a horrendous monster, when that portrayal is constantly on your mind, it must eventually have some effect upon your nerves and your mentality. It never becomes quite mechanical. Toward the end of my session of portraying Dracula I became downright neurotic about the character.”
Yet, he likes playing horror rôles. He has always been interested in psychology, and the study of the reactions of the human mind to the horrible has absorbed him since he has become, as it were, a professional house-haunter.
He receives a greater volume of fan mail than do many of the romantic heroes of the screen. Almost as great a volume, in fact, as does that new star, Shirley Temple. Most of this is from women and children.
“But why?” I marveled. “Why do these people enjoy being frightened out of their wits? Why will they stand in line, eager to deposit their money at the box office for the sake of a gruesome thrill?”
Mr. Lugosi, professional frightener, shrugged and smiled. “Most women are masochists,” he opined. “That is, they enjoy suffering, or they think they do. Every psychiatrist and almost every layman is familiar with the woman who insists upon being ill, enjoys her imaginary symptoms or who invents mental woes which she enjoys discussing.
“With children I think it is a little different. To them it is romance and unreality. They enjoy these stories of monsters just as they enjoy the tales of dragons and Gorgons, fairy stories or accounts of intrepid hunters who face man-eating beasts of the jungle.”
He told an amusing story of a time, recently, when he was making a personal appearance in a theater. An urchin recognized him as he entered the stage door one afternoon and when he emerged there were swarms of youngsters waiting for him.
“Make bogyman faces for us!” they begged. Bela explained to them that the management of the theater did not allow him to go about frightening people on the streets for nothing. But since these enthusiasts obviously could not pay to see him in costume and make-up, he donated a few dreadful grimaces, to their intense delight. He feels that his slight Hungarian accent is an asset rather than a liability, that it lends a certain distinctive filip to his macabre performances. He memorizes carefully all the actual syllables of the lines of a rôle before he allows himself to hear the cues or to try to get the sense of the lines. Interpretation comes after he is, literally, letter perfect in a part.
Boris Karloff, the horrific Frankenstein, is extremely practical about these matters. Karloff, a cricket-playing, plum-pudding Englishman, son of a clergyman, fine journeyman actor, finds it “much more fun” to play horror rôles than to essay straight parts. He is not in the least neurotic about his work. He is not interested in the study of the occult. On the contrary, he is a bit impatient with the very notion of such a thing. Being horrible is a business, a matter of mechanics, to Boris.
“The fun comes in trying to invent tricks, to visualize eerie effects, in devising make-up, inventing walks and gestures which will be suggestive of the terrible,” he said.
Boris doesn’t enjoy reading horror or mystery stories unless they are potential material for pictures. He has no natural tendencies in these directions. He has never shivered a single shiver or had one hair stand on end over a “thriller.”
His public, also, seems to be composed mostly of women and children. He is amazed to discover, from his fan mail, that many of his admirers, especially the very young, are consumed with pity for the grisly characters he portrays.
“In ‘The Old Dark House,’ for instance,” he relates, “I played a most unwholesome creature who pursued the lovely lady hither and thither with the most sinister intentions. I was finally dispatched by an exceedingly upright young man who was made to appear much smaller than my awful self.
“A twelve-year-old correspondent, commenting upon this episode, expressed great pity for the poor monster and deep indignation over his untimely death. ‘The big bully!’ he said, referring to the virtuous and physically slight gentleman who had slain me.”
This feeling among Karloff’s public may arise from the fact that Boris actually feels pity for these poor monsters. He is convinced that the most fiendish of the really criminally insane folk have moments when they are bewildered and terrified at the deeds which they are uncontrollably impelled to commit. They do not want to perpetrate these crimes, he believes, and he is sure that the very worst of them have moments when they say, “Can this be I?”
Therefore Karloff’s monsters have a quality of helplessness and puzzlement over their own astonishing tendencies which lends them a certain pathos.
Despite Boris’s casual and detached attitude toward all this, the make-up he was wearing for “The Raven” while I talked to him on the set had me in a state which required two aspirins to soothe. And the fact that a carelessly dropped cigarette caused that same set to burst into flames as I sat there did little to calm my fluttered nerves.
I don’t think that I really trust these bogymen, however casual they may appear to be.
Then there was Lionel Atwill who has frightened you in many pictures as often as he has soothed with his suavity in others.
Mr. Atwill is a charming gentleman who has difficulty in telling you where he lives. This is due to the fact that the large real-estate sign by which he used to direct people has been removed. That defeats him. I located him at last by means of the emphatic white picket fence which surrounds his small estate.
Mr. Atwill did not exactly choose to play horror rôles. They were, rather, thrust upon him. But he likes them. He has always been interested in the occult, in metaphysical research in an amateur, open-minded fashion. He likes the reactions from the people he knows, from the people who write to him, from the public at large. He enjoys especially the letters from professors of psychiatry, from spiritualistic mediums, from fortune tellers of all types, from genuinely earnest students of eerie matters and from pseudo-scientific charlatans. His own very real interest in these affairs causes him to sift this mail carefully in the hope of finding one letter which will offer him a grain of hopeful truth.
The rôles he plays, the horror rôles, are tied up in his mind with his researches in metaphysical fields. But Lionel, also, has his mechanical tricks from which he gains a certain boyish satisfaction.
“Certainly you are affected by any rôle you play over a long period,” he said, in total agreement with Mr. Lugosi. And he proceeded to relate anecdotes of famous actors and the effect that their rôles had had upon them.
Mr. Atwill continued, “For instance, I have learned certain tricks of being dreadful. I have found them very useful in private life. Like this.” He became, before my eyes, a frightful creature and just as I was preparing to leap through the French window, he laughed. I gasped and relaxed.
“It is a useful face to make at people who want me to buy expensive and useless advertising space in small periodicals,” he observed. I thought that it might well be!
“It is only this,” he continued. “I smile a wide smile, showing all my teeth, and I allow my eyes no expression at all. The effect, ordinarily, is what you experienced just now. My wife doesn’t allow me to do it in the house any more.
“I have found myself walking with a threatening and carefully rehearsed tread along the Boulevard, to the dismay of newsboys and vegetable mongers. These things get to you! There is no preventing it. You dream about these rôles, you have them on your mind. It is dangerous to allow yourself to dwell too much upon them.”
Lionel Atwill’s closest friends are mostly people outside the acting profession. Doctors, bankers, journalists. From these he draws not only pleasure but fresh perspectives upon his own work.
A banker friend brought his eleven-year-old son to call recently. Atwill tried to engage the boy in conversation without success. The lad merely peered at him fearfully from a corner. Atwill, knowing that the youngster had a passion for tennis, finally asked him to come and inspect his own excellent courts. The boy declined, politely but with an emphatic firmness. At last the truth came out. The kid was not sure that Atwill would not turn into something vicious before his eyes.
After Lionel had gained the lad’s trust and friendship, he opined that the boy was really disappointed to find him just a regular human being. He was a little like Karloff’s young admirer who, having asked for and received an autograph from the great frightener, requested, timidly, “Would you mind putting the name of ‘Frankenstein’ under ‘Karloff’?”
They want to be frightened, they insist upon having their shivers, and I think that they will be glad to know that these portrayers of horrific rôles are a little bit afraid of or sorry for the monsters that they create.
Bela Lugosi has no yearning for different rôles. He thoroughly enjoys making people shudder. He memorizes all the syllables of a part before he studies the words as a whole. That is because he can extract a the more horror from them.
Lionel Atwill is just as soothing in suave rôles as he is chilling in monstrous ones. He can change himself before one’s eyes without the east make-up.
Being horrible is a business, a matter of mechanics, to Boris Karloff, a cricket-playing, practical Englishman who doesn’t even enjoy reading horror stories except as potential screen material.
Karloff and Lugosi, most famous of frightening teams, are together again in The Raven,” the new horror picture inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s eerie poem.
Source: Picture Play, August 1935