REVIEW: NO TRAVELER RETURNS – THE LOST YEARS OF BELA LUGOSI / AUTHOR: GARY D. RHODES, BILL KAFFENBERGER / PUBLISHER: BEARMANOR MEDIA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Scholar Gary D. Rhodes has spent his career debunking myths about classic horror cinema in general and Bela Lugosi’s life and work in particular. He has done this through meticulous research, leaving no stone unturned along the way. This, his latest – and best – book on Lugosi (written with Bill Kaffenberger) is no exception.
No Traveler Returns tackles the popular misconception of Lugosi’s ‘lost years’ between 1945 and 1951, assumed by many to be a low in Lugosi’s career as the once-famous star of Dracula began sliding into unemployment, obscurity and drug addiction. Rhodes and Kaffenberger reveal this not to be the case at all: in fact, Lugosi was crazy busy at this time, touring the country in summer stock and vaudeville, making personal appearances at magic shows, and starring in a number of B pictures, as well as in the classics The Body Snatcher (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – all of which kept Lugosi’s public profile high.
Far from being the broken-down ex-bogey man of popular myth, Rhodes and Kaffenberger reveal the Lugosi of this period as a hard-working, consummate professional able to carry numerous stock company theatre productions, giving excellent performances and drawing crowds wherever he went. Rhodes and Kaffenberger detail Bela’s touring schedule down to the day, and provide a timeline that astonishes in terms of how busy and full Lugosi’s diary actually was during these years. So what went wrong after 1951? Here Rhodes challenges the usual theories of morphine addiction and Communist Party membership, arguing instead that more complex reasons lay behind Lugosi’s rapid career decline in his last years, most of them to do with the fickleness of show business in an era that was rapidly changing as the spectre of television threatened movies, closed theatres and drove vaudeville virtually out of existence. All of this goes towards restoring to Lugosi the dignity that he deserves.
No Traveler Returns is a wonderful read and you don’t have to be a Lugosi fan to enjoy it. It paints a vivid picture of life on the road for the travelling thespian in the days of spook shows, ‘straw hat’ theatre circuits and barn emporiums. Highly recommended.