Silent Boris and Silent Bela: The Early Careers of Two Horror Icons

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi are not only two of the most iconic faces of movie horror, but two of the most iconic figures in Hollywood history, period. The “looks” of Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula are synonymous with those early Thirties screen interpretations, to the point where only literature buffs remember that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a disturbing elderly man with a mustache and that Mary Shelley’s Monster spoke philosophically about its own existence.

There are only these men.

We tend know Karloff and Lugosi exclusively for their work in horror, especially since both men ended up having lengthy, if very typecast, movie careers. But did you know that good chunks of those careers were during the silent era?

Let’s take a look at what Boris and Bela were up to before the talkie era arrived:

Silent Boris

A future Monster at a more youthful age.

If you had gotten to meet Boris as a young man, he would’ve introduced himself with his original name: William Henry Pratt. Yes, the one-day icon of horror used to be known as Billy Pratt.

The Anglo-Indian Billy was born in London, and was the youngest of nine children. While the rest of his siblings would forge distinguished careers in areas of diplomacy and other civil services, Billy sheepishly professed a love of acting. It’s thought that he chose his stage name, Boris Karloff, partly to conceal the disgrace of a Pratt becoming a lowly actor. (Despite his anxiety, his siblings were said to be proud of their brother’s later success.) Although he had no Russian ancestry, “Boris Karloff” suggested a connection with the Russian émigré–a big topic at the time.

Boris started appearing on stage in 1909, spending about ten years performing with shows that traveled throughout Canada and the U.S.. Manual labor jobs provided extra income, as they would during his early forays into film, starting as an extra in the Pearl White drama The Lightening Raider (1919).

Boris Karloff group photo exh herald '22

A mustachioed Boris in Exhibitor’s Herald, 1922.

Karloff had a number of bit parts and supporting roles in the early ’20s, his niches being serials and adventure stories with exotic settings (and by the way, it’s not true that he was an extra in The General). The titles of these films were along the lines of The Masked Rider, Vultures of the Sea, The White Panther, and Perils of the Wild. And funnily enough, despite his name-changing attempt to seem Russian he would often be cast in roles such as “Maharajah Jehan” and “Priest of Kama-Sita.”

Boris Karloff the infidel Exh trade review '22

As “The Nabob” in The Infidel (1922), Exhibitor’s Trade Review.

By the mid-’20s, although exclusively a supporting actor and bit player, Karloff was gradually becoming a familiar Hollywood figure. One letter to a 1925 Picture-Play Magazine mentioned: “…Boris Karloff, the greatest natural actor on the screen to-day, is becoming popular. He has always been my favorite actor ever since I first saw him in ‘The Hope Diamond Mystery’ serial.” However, it would take until the talkie era for Karloff to get his “big break”–with, yes, his role in Frankenstein (1931).

Silent Bela

Bela strikes a pose in 1920.

Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó was born in Lugos, Kingdom of Hungary, an area that is now part of Romania (so you could say that he’s practically a native of Transylvania). A few years after dropping out of school at age 12, Lugosi began acting on the stage. He adopted the name “Bela Lugosi” in 1903, probably in honor of his hometown. Over the years he became skilled enough to be in Shakespeare productions, and performed with the National Theatre of Hungary during the 1910s–although as a supporting actor, not a leading man as he would later claim.

Lugosi’s theater career would be interrupted by his service during WWI, where he was wounded three times and awarded the Wound Medal. Following this he began supplementing his stage work with supporting roles in films, his first being a small part in Az ezredes (1917). His film name was “Arisztid Olt.” Lugosi–or rather, Olt–made 12 Hungarian films before the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, when he was forced to flee to Germany (apparently due to activism in an actors’ union). There he continued with small film roles, some of which were in acclaimed works such as F.W. Murnau’s Der Januskopf (1920), starring Conrad Veidt.

Glowering in Nat Pinkerton im Kampf (1920). Image from Vampire Over London: The Bela Lugosi Blog, which has a marvelous collection of photos from Bela’s silent days.

In October 1920 Lugosi was on the move again, heading west to the United States. He quickly worked his way up to Broadway, appearing in the hit play The Red Poppy in 1922. This won him the attention of the “movie folk” and he was offered his first U.S. film role: as a sinister Eastern European leader of a terrorist gang in The Silent Command (1923). Yes, the typecasting that would follow him the rest of his career started almost the second he entered Hollywood.

Bela Lugosi shadowland 1923 stage actor

Lugosi around the time of his turn in The Red Poppy (Shadowland, 1923).

It’s an amusing coincidence that a Exhibitor’s Herald review of The Silent Command would describe it as a story of “plotters, vampires and ‘secret orders'”–“vampires” in this case meaning the 1920s femme fatales, of course.

Lugosi continued to play assorted “heavies” (usually with vaguely foreign backgrounds) in Hollywood features throughout the rest of the Twenties. But his most important role, the one that would forever influence his destiny, was in Dracula…the 1927 stage version. His version of the Count was unlike anything that had been seen before: suave, alluring, but still very frightening. And we all know who would then be chosen to star in Tod Browning’s 1931 classic.

After Silents

Both Karloff and Lugosi had surprisingly similar careers. Both had grown up in Europe, both had been active on the stage, and both spent years in small film roles before finally getting their big breaks in the early talkie period. And both big breaks happened to be the roles they would be identified with forevermore. Their horror movie statuses became so ingrained so quickly that they would even be teamed up in several films together, such as The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), and The Body Snatcher (1945). While not close friends, the two enjoyed their work together.

Both ended up being typecasted as well, eventually ending their long careers with strings of B-movies where they inevitably appeared in their familiar monster makeup. Karloff didn’t mind, as he felt that horror films were a modern-day version of Grimm’s fairytales, but Lugosi once lamented: “I don’t know if I should call it a fortune or a curse, but Dracula never ends.”

Time seems to have been kind to both of them. The cheesiness that’s always haunted their most famous characters still exists–as it probably always will be–in the form of Halloween costumes and unending cheapie horror films. But as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, both Karloff and Lugosi have ascended to the status of icons today. When you sit down and watch Frankenstein or Dracula today all the memories of cheesiness and B-movies fade away, and only those mesmerizing performances remain.

I am proud to have this post be a part of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood’s Silent Cinema Blogathon, since a finer choice for a blogathon couldn’t possibly exist (*wink*). Thank you so much for reading, and don’t hesitate to check out all the other great posts on my favorite film era of all time!

29 thoughts on “Silent Boris and Silent Bela: The Early Careers of Two Horror Icons

  1. Well, gee, I just learned about 53 things I didn’t know before!!!!

    Ironically enough, once Boris hit it big in the talkies….it was with a role in which he didn’t have any dialogue to say!!!! Life is funny!

    I actually remember being a kid and seeing “Arsenic and Old Lace” and being so excited that I was going to get to hear Karloff talk! (Incidentally, that is a day I will never forget: at 11:00 in the morning I saw “The Canterville Ghost” with Charles Laughton, then “Arsenic and Old Lace” came on….and then “The Conversation”….no silents, unfortunately…..but a day of three good movies, all in a row! (my mother had insisted I watch all three!!! Thanks, Ma!!)

    LOVE the picture of Bela in the Murnau film!! I want to see that, now! Lugosi and Veidt, with a Murnau!

    • All those years and silents, and his big talkie role has no dialogue–that’s true! 😀

      Arsenic and Old Lace, that’s one of my favorite “talkies.” It’s essential Halloween viewing (my list of essentials gets longer every year, I swear!).

      Isn’t that a great picture of Bela? The blog I got it from has a whole bunch of old photos of him, and he looks like a vampire in just about every one. It’s hilarious!

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  3. Nice article. Lea! Some great photos there, as well. I just bought a copy of The Midnight Girl (’25) with Bela Lugosi, and am looking forward to watching it. I’ve never seen him in a silent.

    • Thanks, Donnie! Early photos of Karloff were surprisingly hard to find, I’ve found, unless there’s a very obvious website out there that I obliviously missed. I haven’t seen The Midnight Girl–feel free to share what you think. 🙂

  4. This year at Cinecon I was able to see one of Boris’s earlier featured roles: as the villain in “The Deadlier Sex” (1920). He had the mustache, and a kind of youthful ruggedness I’d never seen in him. Boris himself actually credited the Howard Hawks film. “The Criminal Code” (also 1931) as being the one that made him a star before Frankenstein. In the movie “Targets” (1968), Peter Bogdonavich had him talk about the importance of that movie to his career, pretty much leaving out Frankenstein altogether.

    • Thanks for sharing, I seem to have missed hearing about how important The Criminal Code was, so that’s good to know! I knew a lot more about Lugosi’s career than Karloff’s before starting this post, so a bunch of the research was new territory for me. p.s. Cinecon…ah, someday…

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    • Thank you so much!! Yes, Bela was quite the looker then–and I love how there is almost never a time when he DIDN’T seem like a vampire. Like in that lobby card above, my gosh. 😀

  6. Hi Lea. That was a fun essay. Boris and Bela spent a long time learning their craft. Someone wrote a book about the films where they appeared together. I can’t find the author’s name.

  7. Karloff is interesting in the supporting role of the Hypnotist in a Lionel Barrymore horror vehicle called “The Bells” (1926). He’s pretty much decked out in a Dr. Caligari cosplay! The only Lugosi silent performance I’ve ever watched was “The Midnight Girl,” a rather forgettable film where Lugosi plays a lecherous art patron after the virtue of a young singer. I can only recall the scene where he violently attacks Lila Lee, probably because there was so little going on otherwise. Still Lugosi was good in it– the script just needed work.

    Thanks so much for this post!

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  10. Reblogged this on Silent-ology and commented:

    Happy weekend, readers! I wrote this piece for a blogathon back in 2015 and can’t resist pulling it up again (especially after rewatching “Dracula” and “The Old Dark House” a few day ago–October staples!). Lugosi and Karloff are horror movie icons but not everyone knows much about their silent movie careers, the essential ladders that lead up to their big breaks in the early talkie era. As it turns out, both of them had similar climbs to fame!

  11. Lea, I really enjoyed this! Like many others, I grew up on the Universal Monsters. Have you seen Karloff in the 1955/6 half-hour mystery series, Colonel March of Scotland Yard?

  12. I have always felt these actors in the early horror films never got there due. Monster movies were treated as juvenile fun but it takes even more talent to make something unbelievable, believable. There is a scene that Lugosi did in the 1932 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” That has always stuck with me. It’s the scene where he has taken a blood sample from the lady who is tied to a x shaped cross only to find out moments later she has died. The range of emotion he displays in this scene is amazing as he goes from anger to suprise then compassion and then guilt as he kneel’s down before her and then orders his assistant to drop her into the water below to rid himself of what he has done. It takes a talented actor to play a scene like that. And when you talk about Karloff as the 1931 Frankenstein and his use of mannerisms and gesture to convey message, all I can think is his silent film acting experience helped him in his performance.

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