Dracula and Frankenstein play chess

by André Schulz
9/28/2020 – In the 1930s, Bela Lugosi (best-known as Dracula) and Boris Karloff (best-known as Frankenstein) were the world's two most popular horror movie actors. In the film "The Black Cat" from 1934, Lugosi and Karloff played a sinister game of chess against each other - for the life and the liberty of a young woman.

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Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi was born on October 20, 1882, as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in the town of Lugo, which at that time belonged to Austria-Hungary but today is part of Romania. In 1893 Lugosi left his home because he wanted to become an actor whereas his parents had decided to send him to High School.

Lugosi pursued his acting ambitions with great energy. He played a number of small parts on the stage in Hungary and in 1917 starred in his first film.

According to him he served as a lieutenant of the infantry in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. As an actor he was exempted from military service but he volunteered for front line duty with a ski patrol and was honored with several medals because of his bravery. After the end of the war, Lugosi joined the Hungarian Communist Party.

But soon communists were persecuted in Hungary, and Lugosi and his wife Ilona Szmik had to flee. They first went to Vienna and later to Berlin where Lugosi continued his acting career in a number of silent movies.

In 1921 Lugosi divorced Ilona Szmik and emigrated to the USA, and six years later, in a Broadway adaptation from 1927, he played the role that was to make him famous, for the first time: Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat

In 1931 Tod Browning turned Bram Stoker's novel into a film and Lugosi became a Hollyood star. 1931 Lugosi was also asked to play Frankenstein in James Whale's film Frankenstein but Lugosi declined, which gave Boris Karloff the chance to play the role of his life.

After some years of success Lugosi's popularity declined, and he was forced to act in B-movies until he hardly got any offers in the end. He became an alcohol- and drug-addict and died on August 16, 1956.


Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff, whose real name is William Henry Pratt, was born in London in 1887 and belonged to an old English family. But he became an orphan at an early age and grew up with his older siblings.

During his studies Karloff came into contact with the theater. He took acting lessons and broke off his studies in favour of acting. At the age of 21 he left England and went to Canada and moved across the country with travelling theaters. Then he lived for a while as an actor in Australia. In the 1910s he came to Hollywood for the first time, where he at first acted as an extra in silent movies and worked as a truck driver to earn money. When talking films became popular, Karloff was cast more and more with character roles.

Boris Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig in "The Black Cat"

In 1931, Karloff was offered to play the role of the monster in the film adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. In 1935, the Bride of Frankenstein appeared, also directed by James Whale. In 1939 followed Son of Frankenstein, however, this time Rowland V. Lee was the director. Bela Lugosi played Frankenstein's assistant Ygor.

In 1941 Karloff returned to Broadway and appeared in the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, in which he played a vicious gangster who is frequently mistaken for Karloff. The play was a huge success that ran for three and a half years and was turned into a well-known and successful movie by Frank Capra. The movie was shot in 1941, but could only appear in 1944, after the Broadway production closed. The main character of the movie was played by Cary Grant while Raymond Massey took Karloff's role

Until old age Karloff played in countless movies, leading and supporting roles, impersonating all kinds of types. With advanced age he suffered from back problems, arthritis and, as a heavy smoker, from lung problems, and he died on February 2nd, 1969 in England from pneumonia. For his contribution to film and television, Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


The Black Cat

The Black Cat was the first of eight films, in which Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi appeared together.

In the International Movie Database (IMDb) Sister Grimm <srgrimm@teleport.com> gives a short synopsis of the film:

"Honeymooning in Hungary, Joan and Peter Allison share their train compartment with Dr. Vitus Verdegast, a courtly but tragic man who is returning to the remains of the town he defended before becoming a prisoner of war for fifteen years. When their hotel-bound bus crashes in a mountain storm and Joan is injured, the travellers seek refuge in the home, built fortress-like upon the site of a bloody battlefield, of famed architect Hjalmar Poelzig. There, cat-phobic Verdegast learns his wife's fate, grieves for his lost daughter, and must play a game of chess for Allison's life."

Dr. Werdegast's daughter Karen, left

Poelzig wants to make Joan his next victim

Boris Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig

Damsel in visible distress

The figures of Joan and Peter Allison later served as model for the couple "Janet" and "Brad" in the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975). Hjalmar Poelzig's name is an allusion to the German architect and stage designer Hans Poelzig, who, among other things, created the set for Paul Wegener's film The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), one of the classics of German cinema.

The following film clip with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi was recorded by Universal Studios in the mid-1930s to put the two stars in the right light and alludes to the chess scene in The Black Cat.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer




André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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