A Look At Bela Lugosi's Relationship With Boris Karloff

If we were to believe everything in the Hollywood gossip rags about the stars, we'd be left with a lot of fractional truths that have been sensationalized for the sake of publicity. Some people love to read nothing more than how certain stars love to hate one another. And this isn't a new thing; it's been a Hollywood ploy since the silent era since the fabled rivalry between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (via Taste of Cinema). While some feuds among the stars were certainly rooted in truth (the Joan Crawford vs. Betty Davis one is legendary), many more were ploys to keep moviegoers flocking to the theaters.

Fans of silver screen horror films have probably heard of a notorious rivalry between Hollywood newcomers Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Both men gained box office fandom in 1931 after the February release of Tod Browning's "Dracula" (starring Lugosi) and the November release of "Frankenstein," which starred Karloff. With both actors becoming overnight successes, what room would there have been for a rivalry?

Film historians point out that Lugosi's portrayal of "Dracula" made the horror genre become a pop-culture sensation (via Vintage News). With the immediate success of his first film, Universal Studios executives didn't waste any time offering Lugosi the role of the Frankenstein monster, in a film to be released later in the year. So how did Boris Karloff get the role?

Lugosi's refusal and Karloff's big break

When studio executives first pitched the idea of playing the Frankenstein Monster to Lugosi, he was a bit skeptical. After spending several years portraying Dracula on Broadway, and then starring on the silver screen in the same role, he was afraid of being typecast as a horror monster. After reading the script, Lugosi was furious that this prospective role had no lines at all. He was also turned off by the idea of his face being obscured by all of the makeup that he would need to have applied to play the monster. Rumor has it that he botched his screen test for the part, forcing the studio to release him from consideration (via Vintage News). 

Enter Boris Karloff. Karloff, a veteran silent-era player, had just achieved some moderate success with the recent film "The Criminal Code" (via The Famous People). Karloff begged for a chance at a screen test. Director James Whale saw Karloff's potential in this role, and legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce raved about the possibilities of being able to transform Karloff's face into that of a hideous monster (via American Society of Cinematographers). 

When the release of "Frankenstein" was announced, the studio kept quiet about who had landed the role of Frankenstein's Monster. Many movie fans were certain that it would be Lugosi in the role, and Universal didn't confirm or deny this. Even the opening credits had a "?" listed for who was playing the part. Those who saw the film became raving fans of Karloff, who was about to earn his title as "The King of Monsters" (via Library Point).

Dracula vs. Frankenstein

Studio executives were seeing the earnings potential with Karloff in more leading horror roles. Lugosi, meanwhile, was losing out on starring roles in other genres to actors like Lionel Barrymore. Lugosi's dream of film versatility was quickly fading away, and Karloff's rising star was far outshining his own. Jealous of Karloff's attention and success, Lugosi was grousing about his lack of fortune in Hollywood to others in the industry.

This jealousy was the root of rumors that the two actors despised one another. Movie houses all over the United States began to capitalize on these rumors, hosting double features of the two films. "Dracula" vs. "Frankenstein" showings were happening all over the country, bringing in scores of fans into packed theaters to watch the films again. In reality, the two actors were very friendly toward one another, and had a level of mutual professional respect. The ill-founded rumors of their resentment of each other were pure Hollywood publicity. Years later, relatives of each actor went on the record stating that the rumors weren't true (via Vintage News).

Rumors never die

But Hollywood refused to let a good story go. In Tim Burton's 1994 film "Ed Wood," the Lugosi/Karloff feud was a plot point. The film follows real-life filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. in his attempt at greatness as a director and producer. In the movie, Wood's character (played by Johnny Depp) meets Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is persuaded to star in several of Wood's films, in what would turn out to be his final film roles before his death. At one point in the movie, Lugosi's character (played brilliantly by Martin Landau), has a comment made to him about Boris Karloff. Lugosi screams (via Groovy History), "Karloff does not deserve to smell my s***!" 

While making for hilarious cinema, Lugosi's genuine sentiments couldn't have been further than how Landau portrayed his feelings about his fellow actor. In fact, the children and grandchildren of both Lugosi and Karloff made numerous public statements after the release of "Ed Wood," in an effort to hopefully dispel one of Hollywood's oldest myths.