This excerpt from author Keith Banner’s blog 2 +2=5 gracefully expresses what the loss of David Bowie means: “Bowie was a weirdo that somehow found a way to make weirdness majestic, worth putting up with. Of course it’s January when David Bowie dies. Cold silvery light, frosted-hard glass, that sense of loss locking into place: roads, tree-branches, ditches, power-lines. He was silvery like that somehow, frosty; you didn’t know him, you just experienced his atmosphere. That’s exactly how I remember him. Just enough cold to make you shiver, just enough strangeness to make you feel scared, just enough glamor to make you understand, just enough video to freak you out. Once somebody like him goes, you get what he means, and it’s startling. You’ve depended on his strangeness to get you through. I have. Truly. Depended on David Bowie’s oddness and fearlessness and creepiness, his shapeshiftingness, his ability to disappear and reappear. It gave me hope. Gives me hope still. He pursued a swarm of off-kilter notions that turned into a kingdom.”
Bowie’s music is going to be covered for quite some time, but for this site, we will cover his second career as a celluloid actor. Apart from The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976),The Hunger (1983), and Labyrinth (1986), his films have not received the same kind of publicity and exposure as his music. Indeed, Bowie rarely spoke of his film acting, and repeatedly turned down roles that others competed for (he once rejected the role of a James Bond villain, saying with shrewd sarcasm, “I don’t want to get paid watching my double fall off a cliff for five months”). Although Bowie possibly considered his body of film work to be a dabbling in the medium, his screen persona was (to borrow that overused, suave cliche) chameleon-like. In sharp contrast to the cement tradition of everyone from Bing Crosby to Madonna, Bowie did not rest on his musical laurels or rely on his celebrity status to forge a zombie-like cinema rendition of his pre-existing persona. Indeed, Bowie is probably the pop music icon who has been most successful in establishing himself as a legitimate actor. His stage personality, as a reflection of his life, was restlessly birthed from a highly refined sense of the absurd and a razor-sharp perception of artistic trends. When he immersed himself in the medium of film, he did so with concentration and humble thoughtfulness.
Harry Langdon (June 15, 1884 – December 22, 1944)
Charlie Chaplin said he “only felt threatened by Harry Langdon.” Samuel Becket wanted Langdon to act in his experimental film, but had to use Buster Keaton after Langdon’s early death. James Agee, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Robert Youngson, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were among those who sang high praises for Langdon’s art.
Langdon’s characterization expressed the most pronounced silence of the era’s clowns. This is why, despite his fans’ claims (seen on the documentary included on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection”), sound proved completely disastrous for him. Langdon’s persona was only suited to the abstract plane that silent cinema offered.
According to Bela Lugosi‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions. However, several biographers have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period. It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones. Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings. After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States. Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films. In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play. With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.
In 1929, director Tod Browning, shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929). Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence and brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas. Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part. His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language version of Dracula (shot at the same time on the same sets as Browning’s classic). Years later, Lugosi bitterly complained about the typecasting which resulted from the film, but realistically, Dracula was the best thing that happened to the actor. With his limited acting skills and heavy accent, Lugosi never could have been successful in the romantic matinee roles he desired.
“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff.
After the death of the silent star, Lon Chaney, The King of Horror crown was up for grabs. It was Universal Studios contract actor Boris Karloff who inherited Chaney’s mantle, and reigned supreme as horror’s newly christened patriarch.
Karloff was not the studio’s first pretender to Chaney’s throne. Bela Lugosi starred as the screen’s most iconic vampire in Tod Browning‘s Dracula, released at the beginning of 1931, nearly a year before Karloff’s star-making performance in James Whale‘s Frankenstein (also 1931). With the premiere of Karloff’s monster, Lugosi and his vampire alter-ego were usurped.
Lugosi often told the tale of how he turned down the role of the monster, thus gifting Karloff his career-making role. Lugosi’s version of the casting switch has made the rounds, becoming part of Hollywood folklore, but, as is often the case, it is pure myth. Lugosi was wanted by neither the new director (James Whale, replacing Robert Florey) or producer (Carl Laemmle, Jr.). Lugosi’s career and life quickly deteriorated, catapulting the Hungarian actor into parody, abject poverty, drug addiction, and pathos. In 1956 Lugosi was buried in his vampire’s cloak, forever merging actor and role. On the face of it, Lugosi should have reigned supreme in the genre. He seemed to really believe in all that malevolent nonsense. However, he lacked Chaney’s sense of humanism, thus paving the path for a better actor.
In sharp contrast to Lugosi, Karloff celebrated unabated success until his death in 1969. Since Karloff’s passing, Lugosi has exacted posthumous revenge on the thespian who stole his crown. Lugosi’s cult status has risen considerably, far surpassing that of Karloff. This turnabout is, in part, due to the increasing faddish (and increasingly dull) obsession with vampires, and with Lugosi’s more colorful biography compared to the workaholic Karloff. Justice, it would seem, has been served, except that the revisionist take is dead wrong. Karloff’s genteel nature and cultured leaning rendered him a vastly superior artist. The studio heads were correct in preferring Karloff to Lugosi: Bela was not in Boris’ league. Karloff triumphed because he approached his craft with an intelligence and insight that Lugosi simply did not possess. Karloff was also more pragmatic, calling the monster: “The best friend I ever had.” Lugosi, oddly, resented his genre typecasting. Karloff embraced it, knowing it won him hard earned security. Astutely, Karloff referred to his film work as “fairy tales,” as opposed to “horror.” Continue reading “A BORIS KARLOFF RETROSPECTIVE”