Old-timey monster movie fans already know the story: Boris Karloff wasn’t the first choice to play Frankenstein’s monster back in 1931. The folks at Universal Pictures wanted to cast Bela Lugosi, fresh from the success of his Dracula performance.
Apparently the original screen test didn’t go very well for the Hungarian-born actor. Depending on what you’ve read, Lugosi either looked like Prince Valiant or Buster Brown. Reportedly, his on-screen reveal was more laughable than scary.
Thus Boris Karloff got the iconic part—and the rest was celluloid history. Frankenstein was a big hit and kept the stately British actor rich and comfortable for the rest of his life. “My dear old monster,” Karloff said at the time. “I owe everything to him.” For Lugosi it was the beginning of a long slide into Grade Z pictures, drug addiction, unemployment and a squalid death.
Over the years, the Lugosi screen test has become a highly coveted item for movie and monster nuts. Even though it resurfaced for sale about 40 years ago in a Los Angeles trade-paper advertisement, it may no longer exist. The two-reel screener was either purposely destroyed back in 1931 or inadvertently lost over the years. We’ll never know.
In Alive!, Loren D. Estleman’s novel from 2013, Tinseltown is turned upside down when the Frankenstein clip is unexpectedly rediscovered. Naturally it stirs up interest with a sundry of Hollywood freebooters, gangsters, collectors and preservationists.
Chief among them was Valentino (no relation to Rudolph btw). His business cards identified him as a “film detective,” a romantic indulgence befitting a life on the outer edge of the motion picture industry. In reality, he was merely a consultant for UCLA’s Film Preservation Department.
Because of one late-night phone call, Valentino found himself in the middle of a mad scramble for the 30-minute Lugosi screen test. He eventually got it, but he had to navigate all of the gorillas, dinosaurs, blobs, alien invaders and giant bugs that had crawled, slithered, stomped and swooped through the backlot of every studio, major and minor, since pictures began.
In 1943, Bela Lugosi finally had the opportunity to portray the monster that initially escaped him in a movie called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It must have galled him to don the square headpiece created for Karloff a dozen years after he haughtily turned down the part.
Even though he created the iconic and beloved screen image of Dracula (itself a once-in-a-lifetime role), Lugosi could never escape the shadow of Mary Shelley’s creation. “Frankenstein, always Frankenstein,” he lamented, “ever and again until the end.”
[Alive! / By Loren D. Estleman / First Printing: April 2013 / ISBN: 9780765333315]