By Gary D. Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger.

“I could see outside the dim, shadowy forms for a moment before they entirely faded away.”
–Bram Stoker, Dracula

 “Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows,” Maxim Gorky famously wrote after attending a Lumière film screening in 1896. “If you only knew how strange it is to be there,” he added:

It is not life, but life’s shadow, it is not motion, but its soundless specter…. It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows. Curses and ghosts, the evil spirits that have cast entire cities into eternal sleep, come to mind….[1]

Gorky would not be alone in comparing the cinema to the spirit world. “A ghostly seance this, from first to last,” Hunter MacCulloch claimed in his poem At a Motion Picture Show, published in 1911.[2]     

So many metaphors for the cinema are possible, of course. Film theorist André Bazin spoke of “change mummified,” for example. The images that flicker on a screen survive, even as the living persons depicted in them do not. “Film preservation” may thus have many meanings.

But what of those films that do not survive? Lost or destroyed, approximately fifty percent of the movies made before 1930 are gone. The numbers for Hungarian silent cinema are even starker. At the time of this writing, none of Lugosi’s Hungarian films are known to exist, save for a brief fragment of one Küzdelem a létért (The Struggle for Life, 1918), aka A leopárd (The Leopard).

In many cases, a film might be lost, but its content is refracted through synopses and critical reviews that do survive, as well as in other ephemera like publicity materials. Here is the nether region in which so many silent films reside. They do not exist, but can be understood, at least to a degree, through ancillary sources. Publicity stills for London after Midnight (1927) abound, even if the film is lost.

But then there are those cases where information quickly reaches its limit, if not conflict. Consider Alfréd Deésy’s four-act Star feature Radmirov Katalin (Catherine Radmirov, 1918), which took its inspiration from Maxim Gorky’s 1902 play The Lower Depths. Lugosi had appeared in the stage version on seven occasions in Temesvár during 1903 and 1904. The 1918 film version starred Annie Góth and Károly Lajthay, future director of Drakula halála (Dracula’s Death, 1921). Trade announcements made no mention of Lugosi, nor did most period credits for the film. However, during the film’s run at the Uránia Theater in Szeged in April of 1918, newspaper advertisements listed Arisztid Olt (Lugosi’s pseudonym at Star Film) as being in the cast. A brief review in the April 25,1918, edition of Délmagyarország not only mentioned Olt and Góth, but also applauded their performances as being given “with their usual art.”[3] By contrast, other reviews of the time mention Góth, but not Lugosi.[4]

It remains questionable if Lugosi was in the film. The cast did include such Star Film Company stalwarts as Lajos Réthey, Gusztáv Turán, and Richárd Kornay. Perhaps Lugosi was misidentified. Or perhaps not, as one critic who remarked on his appearance was based in Szeged, where Lugosi had made such an impression years earlier. And while he normally played the lead or second male lead roles at Star, it is possible Lugosi portrayed a smaller supporting role for Radmirov Katalin. After all, Star films often featured more actors than the handful who were credited. Lugosi might have appeared in this film; he might not have.

Lugosi pictured on the cover of Neue Kino-Rundschau in 1917.

Then there is the case of Cornelius Hintner’s Star feature Lili (1917), a comedy in four acts based on Hervé’s 1882 operetta of the same name. In the film, Antoinine[5] is in love with René; her grandmother Lili unhappily discovers the couple kissing. She forbids them to be together. Antoinine soon finds Lili’s old diary and reads about her early life and secrets. She learns that her grandmother was not allowed to marry her lover, a militia trumpeter named Plinchard. Instead she was forced to marry the Baron de la Grange. He later cheats on her with a chanson singer, leaving Lili despondent.

 Lili is also tormented by the advances of the Baron’s uncle, an old fool. In the meantime, Plinchard’s heroic actions lead to his promotion to colonel. When he visits the town where the Baron lives, he first conquers Leona, and then secretly spends a night with the Baroness. That’s where Lili’s diary ends. Antoinine then learns that René is actually Plinchard’s nephew. With Plinchard’s help, Lili finally gives her blessing to the young couple.[6]

As late as September 1917, promotional materials for the film claimed that Arisztid Olt played Plinchard at both the younger and elder stage of his life. The same cast listings show Irén Barta and Klára Peterdi portraying Lili (apparently at different points in her life), with Gusztáv Turán as René and Ila Lóth (in her first major role) playing Antoinine.

But advertisements and reviews for Lili’s preview at the Uránia in Budapest in October 1917 show Gusztáv Vándori (aka Gusztáv Vándory) in the role of Plinchard/Tábor. Promotional materials in January 1918 repeated Vándori’s name, and indicated that Ida Andorffy alone played Lili. Lugosi’s name had vanished. Richárd Kornay’s name appears on all of these materials, but his role switched from Saint Hypothese to the Baron. Furthermore, a 1918 issue of the Mozihét Kino-Woche published a series of photographs that show Vándori as Plinchard. Lugosi did not appear in any of the images.

A contemporary review of Lili – which was screened for an unprecedented two weeks at Budapest’s Corso Theater[7] – seems to confirm the changes:

The first [film] of the second day had a charming, sunny, spring-like effect. Lili, a film [scripted] by Jenő Faragó, was based on the operetta of Hervé. In this movie, the audience was captivated by the warm and sensitive play of Ila Lóth, Ida Andorffy, Gusztáv Vándori, Richárd Kornai [sic] and Gusztáv Turán.[8]

What happened? No surviving documents explain the apparent changes, but it is quite possible that Lugosi did not play Plinchard in the final film. Or perhaps he did, but only at an elder stage of Plinchard’s life. After all, an advertisement for the film in Szeged does list Arisztid Olt as appearing in it. The historical record is incomplete. Lili probably was a Lugosi film, but it might not have been.

Advertisement for Star Film players, as published in Mozihét Kino-Woche in 1918.

A third mystery arises with Alfréd Deésy’s six-act feature Casanova (1918). In the autumn of 1917, advertisements published in Hungarian trades heralded Arisztid Olt as Casanova, the great lover. It seems the celluloid fulfillment of Lugosi the romantic lover and hero of the stage. The Szeged Romeo was now the Budapest Casanova. But when the film had its first screening at the Corso in September 1918, director Deésy received double credit: he was listed as Casanova.[9] As with Lili, something had apparently changed.

Various histories of Hungarian cinema – some written years prior to any book-length biographies of Lugosi – place him in the cast of Casanova, including Magyar filmográfia (Magyar Filmtudományi Intézet és Filmarchivum, 1962) and volume two of Új filmlexikon (Akadémiai Kiadó, 1973). But these likely relied on the early advertisements that named Lugosi in the title role.

While working on his book Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape (Henry Regnery, 1976), Robert Cremer traveled to Hungary with Lugosi’s fourth wife, Lillian. In the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, Cremer wrote:

We drove over to the Hungarian Film Archive to see that rare Lugosi footage from Casanova. When I asked why there weren’t more of Béla’s films still in existence, I was told, ‘It was tragic that so many of Hungary’s early films were destroyed. Since so many of our films were shown in Germany and their storage facilities were better than ours, we shipped many of our films to Berlin for better storage…. This short piece of film is the only record of Béla Lugosi’s Hungarian film career as far as I know.’

Then [film archivist Attila Szilágyi] ushered us into a screening room. The lights dimmed and Casanova flashed on the screen. A few minutes later, Lillian suddenly gripped my arm and whispered, ‘That’s Béla!’ Sure enough, Béla was sitting on the edge of a marble bench romancing a young lady. There was no doubt in our minds that the world’s most famous vampire possessed many talents that remained hidden by his snarling black cape. Tears welled up in Lillian’s eyes as she watched Béla wooing the young maiden.[10]

However, others who have viewed the Casanova footage have not seen Lugosi in the surviving fragments. For example, playwright László Tábori watched it on two separate occasions, unable to pinpoint Lugosi in the film. In the 1970s, Dr. István Molnár, the director of the archive, commented that Lugosi did not appear in their archive’s footage. In 2006, Gary D. Rhodes watched the same footage and also realized that it did not include Lugosi. It is possible that Cremer and Lillian in fact saw the surviving footage of Küzdelem a létért before it was properly identified. Or, perhaps more likely, that the footage they screened went missing soon thereafter, which would also account for the discrepancy.[11]

In 1970, László Pánczél – an acquaintance of Lugosi’s during his Hungarian cinema career – remembered viewing Casanova in 1918. He told researcher Jon R. Hand that Lugosi definitely appeared in the film, but not in a leading role. Here is a possible answer to all three of the movies described in this chapter: Lugosi appeared in them, but not in lead roles. That would explain why some viewers believed he was in these films, but he did not appear in their final credits. In fact, he may have appeared in yet other Star productions in small roles, not credited in contemporaneous sources. All that said, the only reason to believe he was actually in Casanova comes in the form of a memory of someone recorded over fifty years after that film’s release, making it by far the least likely to have featured Lugosi.

Perhaps Lugosi appeared in one or two of these films, but not in all three. Or perhaps he was in none of them. Their current inclusion in any filmography must be accompanied with appropriate caution.[12]

To appear in a movie might indeed result in a kind of cinematic mummification, but in Lugosi’s case, this trio of films was long ago tomb-raided by a thief called Time. Their ghosts are too faint to be documented with precision. Their specters remain soundless.


[1] Quoted in Leyda, Jay. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960).

[2] McCulloch, Hunter. “At a Motion Picture Show,” Motion Picture Story Magazine, Mar. 1911.

[3]Radmirov Katalin.” Délmagyarország (Szeged, Hungary) 25 Apr. 1918.

[4] For example, see “Radmirov Katalin” in the 28 Mar. 1918 edition of Egri Újság. A review of the film in the 28 Oct. 1917 edition of Pesti Napló likewise makes no mention of Lugosi.

[5] Some period sources spell Antoinine as “Antoinin.”

[6]Lili.” Mozihét Kino-Woche 3 Feb. 1918.

[7] “A Lili második hete a Corsoban.” Mozihét Kino-Woche 22 Jan. 1918.

[8] “Új Star-filmek.” Pesti Napló (Budapest, Hungary) 28 Oct. 1917.

[9] Alfréd Deésy is credited as portraying Casanova in many contemporary reviews, not just in Hungary, but also Germany. See, for example, “Casanova.” Der Film 30 Aug. 1919.

[10] Cremer, Robert. “If It’s Midnight – This Must Be Transylvania.” Famous Monsters of Filmland May 1976. For the sake of internal consistency, we have altered the original article’s spelling “Bela” to “Béla.”

[11] In a 31 Jan. 2020 email to Gary D. Rhodes, Robert Cremer recalled, “Lillian almost jumped out of her seat when she saw the footage. There was no doubt whatsoever that we did see [Lugosi] in the film footage that was shown; however, it must have been from another surviving fragment.”

[12] At least one Lugosi filmography has included Diadalmas élet (Triumphant Life, 1923), an obvious error given its year of release and primary sources that discuss its production. Filmographies have at times also listed Lugosi as appearing in Lulu (1918). While not impossible given that it was a Phönix film directed by Mihály Kertész produced during the same time frame as when Lugosi appeared in 99-es számú bérkosci (Rental Car Number 99, aka 99, 1918) and Az ezredes (The Colonel, 1918), no primary sources mention Lugosi’s involvement Lulu. Ads for Lulu in Mozihét Kino-Woche and in city newspapers listed as many as six actors, but not Lugosi.(See, for example, the advertisement in the 20 Sept. 1918 issue of Szeged és Viéke [Szeged, Hungary].) The same is true of articles and critical reviews of the film. (See, for example: “A Phönix készülő filmjeiről.” Mozihét Kino-Woche 9 June 1918” and “Lulu és A mandarin.” Pesti Hírlap [Budapest, Hungary] 15 Sept. 1918.”) It seems that earlier historians simply confused Lulu with Lili (1917). There is no known evidence to include Lulu in Lugosi filmographies.

The above was excerpted from Becoming Dracula – Vol. 1 (Chapter 11) by Gary D. Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger (BearManor Media, 2021). All rights reserved.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D. currently serves as Associate Professor of Film and Mass Media at the University of Central Florida, Orlando. He is the author of Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema (IAP, 2012), The Perils of Moviegoing in America (Bloomsbury, 2012), and The Birth of the American Horror Film (Edinburgh UP, 2018), as well as the editor of such anthologies as The Films of Joseph H. Lewis (Wayne State University, 2012), and The Films of Budd Boetticher (Edinburgh UP, 2017). Rhodes is also the writer-director of such documentary films as Lugosi: Hollywood’s Dracula (1997) and Banned in Oklahoma (2004).  His most recent book is Consuming Images:  Film Art and the American Television Commercial (Edinburgh UP, 2020), coauthored with Robert Singer.

William M. (Bill) Kaffenberger currently works as a writer, independent film scholar, and actor.  He has co-authored a number of books with Gary D. Rhodes on the life of Bela Lugosi and, as well, has contributed research to other classic horror themed books and magazine articles.  He served as co-producer of Hi There Horror Movie Fans! (2011), a documentary about Virginia tv horror movie host The Bowman Body.  He has had roles in numerous films and television productions, including Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) and, more recently, as an Abolitionist in Harriet (2019).

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