Was Bela Lugosi Nearly the Original Universal Studios Frankenstein’s Monster?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Bela Lugosi nearly played Frankenstein’s Monster, who would have looked dramatically different!

I once asked my mother about the Outlander TV series. I had recalled that she had enjoyed the novels, so I recommended the TV series to her and she said she preferred not to watch it. When I asked why, she explained that she already had her vision of what the characters looked like and she wasn’t interested in seeing a conflicting version to spoil her own vision.

The interesting thing about that is that is very much what DOES happen with popular film adaptations of famous novels. The film version becomes the definitive version, whether it matches the novel at all. In the case of Frankenstein’s Monster, Mary Shelley’s novel describes the character MUCH differently than the version that was played by Boris Karloff in 1931’s Frankenstein, and yet the Karloff version is now the iconic depiction of what Frankenstein’s Monster looks like.

It’s fascinating to note, then, that said iconic depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster almost never came to pass!!

You see, in early 1931, Universal Studios had a massive hit on their hands with Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi as the villainous vampire…

Universal quickly put the Hungarian actor under contract and set out to find a new starring vehicle for him. While waiting for that, he quickly appeared in the then-latest Charlie Chan flick…

Carl Laemmle, Jr. (Universal’s head of production) wanted to capitalize on the success of Universal’s first horror film and get Lugosi into another film just like Dracula. Frankenstein was to be it and they even shot some test reels featuring Lugosi as the monster, although said test reels have been lost to history.

What we DO have is a poster for the film depicting Lugosi as the monster, and here’s the key, his monster was to be MUCH different and basically a killing machine and, of course, the visuals were much different.

It was said that Jack White (famed makeup artist for Universal, who designed Lugosi’ look for Dracula) was basing his original look on the 1920 German film, The Golem (the original director of the film, Robert Florey, was very familiar with German films)…

Then a new director, James Whale, took over, and he completely re-invented the character, making him no longer a mindless killing machine but now a real, feeling and thinking character. This led to Pierce coming up with a completely different look, leading to the classic image of the character that we now know today.

Contemporary reports claimed that Lugosi lost the gig because he wouldn’t sit still in his makeup, but the odds are much more likely that Whale just wanted a different actor when he took over and changed the project completely, re-writing the script entirely.

Lugosi would later play Frankenstein’s Monster in a number of films, but by then, Karloff’s look had become THE look for the monster.

The legend is…


Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of film.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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