Miklós Béla (birth name), Nick Bela, Nicholas Bela
actor, screenwriter
18 July 1900, Budapest, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy
18 November 1963, New York City, New York, USA

Miklós Béla initially planned to go into music, studying piano and conducting. He inherited his literary vein from his father, publicist Henrik Béla, thus he was already writing music reviews for Budapest Hírlap at the age of 15. Even so, his interest turned towards the theatre and he only returned to writing, as a screenwriter, later on. In 1922 he graduated from the Budapest Academy of Drama, then he became a popular actor at the Comedy Theatre. Here he played with several colleagues who similarly went on to make careers in Hollywood, among them first and foremost Pál Lukács (later known as Paul Lukas) with whom he had a close friendship. Alongside his stage successes, he got his first silent movie roles also in Hungary. In 1926 he played in A csodadoktor (The Miracle Doctor, director: Dezső Major), and a year later in Átok vára (Castle of Curses, directors: Endre Gál, János Vanicsek). Following short study tours in Paris and London, in 1927 he arrived in the United States in order to continue his career in Hollywood, and despite initial difficulties this proved to be the right decision.

Korda and The Yellow Lily

Nicholas Bela with his wife in Hollywood (source: Színházi Élet 1931/9., 66.)

To begin with, the young actor newly arrived in Hollywood found life difficult. Without contacts and the language, opportunities were few and far between. The professionalism of the business awed Béla but he found it difficult to get used to the alien culture. This is how he reported his first somewhat mixed impressions of his chosen home: “It’s very beautiful here, it’s very interesting here, it’s very instructive here. They test one’s abilities in all directions, in life, in learning, in the English language, in observation, in tact, in the practice of speech and intellect; here you see as much from film production in a single day as you can in a lifetime in all European film factories, the countryside is very beautiful, the climate is extremely good. Life is very strange, the food is very nutritious. Oh, yes, God knows, this is not the real thing.” He continues the letter somewhat sadly: “I do miss a familiar face now and then, a ‘servus’ greeting, the lift of a hat, a ‘God go with you, my boy’. The word sensitivity must be wiped off the board for good. Sensitivity is a ridiculous thing here. And how so! Everyone has to stomach what they get. This is unavoidable. It is merciless, but a great school. The great school of life, — high school. Anyone who can stand their ground here (after Budapest) really has matriculated. […] I pick up everything I hear and see. I swear, you cannot imagine what filmmaking is like here. So much so that even the directors working here are frequently astounded if, for instance, they look into the special effects department. Film production has such a future that everything that has been produced here so far can be said to be just the start.” 1

He had a great piece of luck in that the experienced director Alexander Korda was also in Hollywood at this time, before he left and found his true place in London. Korda had always helped his talented compatriots, thus he got Béla a small part in The Yellow Lily (1928), which allowed him to pay his way. He was not alone in this because the production featured Hungarians Pufi Huszár, Gusztáv Pártos and Tibor Mindszenty as well. The heroine of this romantic tale adapted from the work by Lajos Bíró, Judith Peredy (Billie Dove), who steals the heart of the frivolous duke Alexander (Clive Brook), also stayed as a Hungarian character; the plot is set in Eastern Europe, an exotic location for Americans.2

Béla, who in the meantime had changed his name to Nicholas Bela, played with an old colleague, Paul Lukas, in the next Korda film, Night Watch (1928), set on a ship. Despite Commander Corlaix orders his wife, Yvonne from the ship, she remains on board when the ship leaves harbour. The woman is then trapped between an intriguer, an admirer and her own husband, added to which, war in then declared. The film is a fine example of the transition between silent and sound technologies because there are parts with audio but the storyline could still be followed silently in cases where screening theatres had not yet installed audio equipment. Together with many of his colleagues, Bela, too, was negatively impacted by the switch to sound movies that happened virtually overnight. In 1931, as an experienced actor, he returned to Hungary and spoke thus about his early career in the US and the change: “I am proud to have starved more than I have eaten during these five years, until I managed, with great difficulty, to work my way up to be noticed. The talkies, that deposed so many stars from one day to the next, also forced me to face enormous difficulties. I thought that I spoke perfect English, but sound film taught me that I had to start learning all over again from scratch...”3

Bela overcame this obstacle and soon found himself swamped with offers. His tall stature, distinctive face, protruding forehead and pronounced eyebrows primarily made him suitable for character supporting roles. He appeared in the first core work of American gangster films, Little Caesar (director: Mervyn Leroy, 1931), he had a part in Dracula (director: Tod Browning, 1931) as well as the film The Lady in Question (1940) by fellow Hungarian émigré Charles Vidor. Here, Bela plays Nicholas Farkas, father of Nathalie Roguin (Rita Hayworth), the innocent girl accused of murder. Farkas, the Hungarian immigrant taxi driver, speaks Hungarian twice in the film, and on one occasion, when he is talking to the girl, she responds with a few words in what will have appeared to be a very strange language to locals.

Hollywood Hungarians for the Olympics

Outside the Hollywood studios, Nicholas Bela built himself a significant reputation as an athlete. A healthy lifestyle was particularly important for locals, which émigré Hungarians found somewhat odd but looked on as being the essence of the American character: “Right up until they become breadwinners, Californian boys and girls, starting as infants, spend all their time outdoors. Naturally, even after this they spend all their leisure time in the fresh air, for the large part playing sports. This lifestyle has produced the American type, which today is the finest and healthiest in the world.”4 After Paul Lukas, Nicholas Bela was the other Hungarian who excelled in physical exercise and became an active member of the Hollywood Athletic Club. Even at that time, Hungarian water polo players had an excellent reputation and it soon became clear that Bela was an outstanding water polo referee, which is why he was often invited to matches and everyone sought his advice. He excelled as a water polo trainer, too, so much so that in 1948 his Los Angeles sportsmen represented the United States at the London Olympics. Actor Gusztáv Pártos, who was also living in Los Angeles at the same time, called Nicholas Bela the ‘water polo pope of Hollywood’ in an interview.5

While preparations were underway for the 1932 Los Angeles 10th Summer Olympics, Nicholas Bela embarked on intensive organizing work. Hungarians in Hollywood initiated a collection to cover the travel expenses of Hungarian athletes, and as this did not generate sufficient funds Bela proposed that the Olympic fund should be backed by revenues from film distribution. He himself undertook to do all the work in this connection. His concept was that he would screen film reports about contemporary and ‘peacetime’ Hungary in cities around the United States with large Hungarian populations, and involve the Hungarian director of Paramount, Adolph Zukor, as a partner. We do not know whether the initiative was ever realized, but the plan clearly shows that Bela not only actively maintained relations with his homeland in the field of art, but sports diplomacy, too.

Stage, film, TV

After a time, Bela switched away from acting and went back to writing. He worked in New York as a screenwriter for Columbia Pictures but he also penned stage plays. He was involved with several Broadway productions and The Zenger Case was chosen as stage play of the year by the National Theater Conference in 1948. When in 1948 he visited Hungary again to see the country being rebuilt, he complained that American theatre culture was in crisis and that, with the exception of New York, there were hardly any quality performances being staged in the country. However, he predicted a great future for television even then, indeed, he reckoned that it would solve theatre’s problems since combining stage performances and film could create a totally new genre.6

A Hungarian in the dock with those charged with anti-American activities

Bela’s social sensitivity is apparent in that, in autumn 1947, at an artists’ evening of the American Hungarian Alliance of Artists, he spoke at length appealing for improvements to the social situation of retired actors.7 A year later, he proudly told the short-lived anti-fascist paper Haladás (Progress) that two of his works had been shown at the National Negro Theater in Harlem, adding that American writers and actors had protested in a memorandum that guests of colour were not being admitted to the only theatre in Washington.8
However, in the first half of the 1950s, during the Cold War and ‘Red Scare’, this activity came back to haunt him. Fearing that communist forces organizing in secret would undermine American democracy from within, the House Committee on Un-American Activities and senator Joseph McCarthy began a relentless purge that also reached the entertainment industry. Members of the Committee started drawing up lists and charges aimed at uncovering those with supposed or genuine communist relations. Numerous performing arts careers were broken by denunciations, with Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles also being accused.

Nicholas Bela was summoned to the Committee in 1954 and was almost the last in his profession to testify.

At a hearing on 14 December, he declared that he himself was a member of the Hollywood Communist Party between 1937-1943 and he named 43 others involved. The details of his recruitment are particularly interesting. According to his testimony, he first came into contact with communist circles through the Hungarian community in New York, who invited him to give a talk on Hollywood filmmaking. He accepted the invitation but later on a few members of the audience tried to convince him that instead of false Hollywood films, true art was represented by works dealing with the problems of simple people and the workers. This is when Bela first met Tom Brandon, owner of Brandon Films, who worked in the field of amateur films but also distributed Eastern European and Soviet movies throughout the US. At a later hearing, Bela specifically emphasized how much he had been impressed by Soviet silent films, although he had not developed a closer political commitment at that time. He testified that on returning to Hollywood he joined the Screen Readers’ Guild made up of experts who read books and stage plays that could possibly serve as the basis for films, then they wrote brief summaries of these works for the studios. After officially joining the Communist Party, he was primarily an organizer in the professional community of writers and private meetings were held regularly at his home. However, a few years later he decided to quit the party, a decision explained by the changing political situation caused by the war and his commitment to water polo that took up an increasing amount of his time. In his statement, Bela added that earlier he had cooperated with the FBI and he wound up his testimony by saying he regretted his mistakes.

Naturally, confessions given to the Committee on Un-American Activities must be treated with some scepticism but even so, the transcript of the hearing says much about the era of the Cold War and how a Hungarian immigrant got mixed up in the purges that seriously impacted the entertainment industry. In the end, the Committee acquitted Nicholas Bela, former artist with the Comedy Theatre, Budapest, successful film character actor and writer, but we know virtually nothing about his life and career thereafter.

Notes

[1] Magyar színész Hollywoodban. Pesti Hírlap, 1928. április 18., 16.
[2] A darabnak 1914-ben készült egy magyar némafilmes adatpációja is, amelyet Félix Vanyl és Beöthy László rendezett. A magyar gyártású Sárga liliom kópiája sajnos elveszett, de tudjuk, hogy Huszár Pufi abban is szerepelt.
[3] Béla Miklós 1931-ben az amerikai vízum meghosszabbítása miatt tért haza. Béla Miklós, a népszerű pesti színész hazajött Hollywoodból. Esti Kurir, 1931. augusztus 22., 8.
[4] Komor Mihály: Boldog Hollywood, ahol egész évben nyitva tart a strand és a műjégpálya. Sporthírlap, 1930. február 27., 7.
[5] uo.
[8] Gách Marianne: Hölgyfutár. Haladás, 1948. október 7., 6.
[7] Béla Miklós: Az öreg színész. Magyar Jövő (Hungraian Daily Journal), 1947. október 25., 6.
[8] Gách Marianne: Hölgyfutár. Haladás, 1948. október 7., 6.

Sources

Magyar színész Hollywoodban. Pesti Hírlap, 1928. április 18., 16.
Komor Mihály: Boldog Hollywood, ahol egész évben nyitva tart a strand és a műjégpálya. Sporthírlap, 1930. február 27., 7.
Béla Miklós: A hollywoodi magyarok mind megbetegedtek spanyolban. Színházi Élet, 1929/2., 54.
Béla Miklós, a népszerű pesti színész hazajött Hollywoodból. Esti Kurir, 1931. augusztus 22., 8.
Meg kell szenvedni a hollywoodi kenyérért. Az Est, 1931. augusztus 26., 11.
Az Olimpiai Bizottsága valutanehézségek ellenére is ragaszkodik esélyes versenyzőink amerikai kiküldetéséhez. Meghiúsult az amerikai gyűjtés Propaganda-filmeket akarnak kivinni Amerikába. Magyarság, 1931. november 21., 9.
l. m.: Amerika minden európai eredményről tud és félelmetes biztonsággal készül az olimpiára. A Los Angelesből hazatért Béla Miklós beszámolója. Sporthírlap, 1931. augusztus 27., 9.
Béla Miklós házasodik Amerikában. Az Est, 1936. május 28., 6.
Béla Miklós: Az öreg színész. Magyar Jövő (Hungarian Daily Journal), 1947. október 25., 6.
Gách Marianne: Hölgyfutár. Haladás, 1948. október 7., 6.
Whitlach, Michael D.: The House Committee on Un-American Activities Entertainment Hearings and Their Effects on Performing Arts Careers. PhD disszertáció. Graduate College of Bowling Green State University, 1977.
Communist Methods of Infiltration (Entertainment, Pt. 2). Hearing before the Committee on Un-American Activities. House of Representatives. Eighty-Third Congress. Second Session. December 14, 1954.