Bela Lugosi In Color

On the actor's 134th birthday, check out his only starring role in color.

“There were no color photographs of Bela Lugosi.”

That’s the apocryphal reason for Tim Burton deciding to film the 1994 film Ed Wood in black & white. It was without question the right decision – the iconic star of Dracula truly belongs in the shadowy realm of black & white, and the color makeup tests of Rick Baker’s phenomenal makeup on actor Martin Landau just didn’t look quite right. Good job, all; Oscars for Landau and Baker. (Better luck next time, Tim.)

But the “no color photographs of Bela” thing wasn’t 100% true. Though he appeared in over 100 movies, Bela starred in exactly one color film: 1947’s Scared To Death. The Poverty Row “programmers” of Republic, Monogram and others were Bela’s bread and butter after the studios were done with him, and Bela cranked out oodles of low-rent thrillers for the small-fry likes of Golden Gate Pictures. Alas, being in color (Cinecolor, to be precise - a process that rendered a softer palette of pastels than the more popular and expensive Technicolor process of the time) is pretty much the only distinctive thing about Scared To Death. But hey, historical importance!  

So Scared To Death is not particularly good, but it’s 67 minutes long and offers pretty much the only glimpse the world can ever have of ol' Bela in color. (He had a bit part in the 1930 color film Viennese Nights, and his other color gig was an unbilled, pre-Dracula role in 1931’s Fifty Million Frenchmen, a color version of which no longer exists.)

Bela in his prime was something to behold. In his best moments he was a weird, hypnotic force from another realm. As Dracula in 1931, he was a glaring wraith, something ancient and otherworldly trying to remember how to act human. He is pretty far removed from that vibe in Scared To Death, but as Ed Wood said (in Ed Wood, at any rate), he's still Bela. Like a dog driving a car, like Donald Trump acting like a decent human being, please enjoy the weirdly unnatural sight of Bela Lugosi in color, on what would have been the actor’s 134th birthday.