Bela Lugosi: Universal’s First… Frankenstein?

Before the Frankenstein we all know, there was an earlier, short version made with Bela Lugosi. And it’s vanished!

4 min readAug 16, 2021
Los Angeles Evening Express, May 16, 1931

In 1930, Bela Lugosi was a hot ticket after filming Dracula. He was offered role after role, and one of those was in the story Universal had recently acquired the rights to: Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece.

New York Times, June 14, 1931. “Junior” refers to Carl Laemmle Jr. Carl (Karl) Freund had previously worked with Lugosi in Europe on “Das Januskopf” and was connected to “Nosferatu” director F.W. Murnau.

Lugosi was first cast as Henry Frankenstein and a new script written for him. But the director who was brought in thought Lugosi’s fame and talents would be better served as the monster. The producers, indecisive, ordered a test reel filmed.

Repurposing the old Castle Dracula set as a lab, several Universal contract players filled the roles of Victor, Henry, and Fritz. Several scenes were filmed, but if it was Lugosi who was being tested, it’s odd that he did little more than uncover himself for a reveal moment.

The short’s cinematographer, Paul Ivano, later recounted “(we) had numerous bizarre angles creating a nightmare atmosphere which was rather a rare thing for that time… These trials were so successful, so beautiful, all the directors of the studio wanted to make the film… Lugosi’s part in the footage was limited to raising his arm and pulling away the sheet which covered his face and shoulders.”

The producers were reportedly unimpressed with Lugosi’s makeup but otherwise loved the test reel. Leslie Howard and Bette Davis were cast as Henry and Elizabeth while Lugosi was set to play the Monster.

Then all hell broke loose.

Whale, Lugosi, Laemmle, and Laemmle Jr. What’s your hand doing, exactly, Carl?

James Whale, the Universal “It” boy at the time, decided he wanted to direct Frankenstein, meaning the current director got the boot. Lugosi said he wouldn’t portray a monster with no spoken lines and who was little more than a prop.

Or, if you don’t like that explanation, Lugosi didn’t like the makeup.

Or, Whale wanted the monster to be sympathetic and worried Lugosi would scare people.

There’s no shortage of theories and tales. Though in Lugosi’s defense, Hollywood historian Gregory Mank has pointed out that the early drafts of Frankenstein had almost nothing for the Creature to do except stand around and hide under sheets; so perhaps the role really was a major step backwards for someone coming in hot off of Dracula.

Whatever happened, Bela departed the project. Bette Davis was soon removed from the picture as well. Boris Karloff was spotted in the Universal canteen and brought in to replace Lugosi, yadda yadda we have an enduring image.

Oh and also the 20-minute film with Lugosi as the Monster disappeared.

Like so many early horror films (and like the subject of every third blog I write), this gem is lost to us. Until someone finds it in a dusty attic or janitor’s closet, we only have the legends...

Getting King Kong up in this Universal marketing campaign book, 1931–1932

Lugosi would play the Creature in later films, but would never match Boris Karloff’s image in the minds of movie goers. If you saw Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, you know how much it supposedly irked him. Oddly, Lugosi would float rumors, never substantiated, that it was he that recommended Karloff for the part. Perhaps he believed his own rumor, but it could also have simply been a way to reclaim some dignity for having lost the chance to portray both central characters in the two most impactful horror films in history.

“I turned down Frankenstein”

But nothing sells like a rivalry, am I right? Ask any professional wrestler whether having an imagined beef with another celebrity is good for business. My guess is that Karloff vs Lugosi has been good for the legacy of both men.

Canton Repository, December 20, 1938

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Image sources: The New York Times, Universal Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures, Canton Repository.




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