Aug 30, 2012


Tod Browning
Garrett Fort
Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan,
David Manners, Helen Chandler,
Dwight Frye, Herbert Bunston,
Frances Dade

"The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!"

An adaptation of a play based on Bram Stoker's novel, 1931’s Dracula kicked off Universal Studios’ golden age of horror. Universal had already produced a string of successful melodramatic hair raisers back in the 20’s, two of which, The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starred man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney. Chaney had been under contract with MGM since 1925 but agreed to take on the title role in Dracula which was to be directed by his long time associate Tod Browning. With Chaney on board producer Carl Laemmle Jr. was able to convince Carl Laemmle Sr. to greenlight the project. Unfortunately, Chaney died before filming began and the production would have to make do without his guaranteed box office appeal, another element of unwelcome uncertainty for a production staking new ground.

Dracula would be a game changer for two reasons. First was in its use of fully synchronized sound, a practice which had become standard only a few years prior. Warner Brothers beat out universal for the honour of the first talkie mystery thriller with 1928’s The Terror, a standard spooky house chiller with a standard non-supernatural resolution. Dracula, on the other hand, presented the most explicit portrayal of the supernatural in American film at that time. Count Dracula wasn't simply some garden variety maniac poser to be explained away at the end of the film. He was an honest to goodness walking corpse that liked drinking blood and could change into a big rubber bat.

The film was a gamble, the play on which the screenplay was based had been a huge hit, but how would movie audiences react to the subject matter? Universal seemed unsure how to handle the film. They downplayed the horror elements, both in what they would allow on screen and how the film was marketed. Dracula opened on Valentine’s Day weekend, reportedly with the tagline "the strangest love story of all", though I've only been able to find examples of the more ambiguous "the strangest passion the world has ever known." Either tagline appears to be playing up an exotic romance angle. Yet at the same time Universal was courting notoriety with the film’s macabre and fantastical subject matter, hoping that the bizarre and sensational would prove a large draw. Dracula turned out to be crowd pleasing stuff. The film was a huge hit, so much so that we would get Frankenstein that same year. Universal would continue to crank out horror films of varying quality over the years, milking its stable of monsters for every last dime well into the 50’s.

"Pull the strings!
The success of Dracula rests square on the shoulders of Bela Lugosi, who created quite a sensation with his portrayal of the Count. He had already done so on stage but the film would elevate him to the status of matinee idol. Odd as it may seem now, Lugosi wasn't even Universal’s second choice for the role. Aside from Chaney there was a list of actors the studio would have preferred. But Lugosi really wanted the role and pursued it aggressively, finally orchestrating a mad campaign of terror forcing the studio to yield to his demands.

Actually, he agreed to work cheap. He took just $500 per week. To put this in perspective, David Manners received $2000 a week for his supporting role as Harker.

A common assessment of Dracula, aside from it being an important classic, is that the opening scenes are terrific, the middle is too stagey and then it ends in an anticlimactic finale. I'll not disagree. I had always preferred Christopher Lee's savage take on the Count, not finding nearly as much fun in Lugosi's drawing room Svengali. However, I'd always overlooked something which worked strongly in Lugosi's favour...just how damned weird he is. The combination of his accent and unusual delivery, underscored by his exaggerated gestures, was ripe for parody the moment the film was released. Hell, he's parodied in the film. After first meeting Dracula Helen Chandler’s Mina comically mimics the line "it reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle in Transylvania..." in the very next scene.

It's a credit to Lugosi that anyone attempting to replicate his performance ends up looking awkward or ridiculous, intentionally or not. As theatrical as Lugosi's performance is it never rings false. He makes you believe that this is how Dracula sounds and this is how he behaves. Somehow he is the real deal. You may conclude that the Count is a flamboyant oddball but you never doubt that Lugosi is Dracula. I have come to believe that Lugosi makes his performance work through sheer force of will.

"Via con dios...HOMBRE!"

Speaking of imitators, a Spanish speaking night crew was filming Dracula using the same script and set. It was a common practice for foreign language versions of Hollywood films to be made in tandem with their English counterparts. The Spanish Dracula had the benefit of reshooting what had been filmed during the day while attempting to improve upon it. In many ways this film did improve upon the English version. It displays a greater technical skill with special effects and livens up stagnant scenes with a dynamic use of the camera. The performances are more natural and fluid, all with the exception of Carlos Villarias who was instructed to ape Lugosi's performance. He comes off as overly theatrical. That's overly theatrical in comparison to Lugosi. The moral is that Lugosi is often imitated but inimitable.

Dwight Frye's Renfield is another of the film’s strengths. He starts out as a realtor just traveling on boring business through Transylvania. He answers the quaint local’s superstitious warnings with polite condescension. He really should have listened. Renfield's coach ride through the Carpathian Mountains and the time spent in the foreboding Castle Dracula are the best portions of the film. The sets are terrific. The enormous shadow filled castle dwarfing the actors. Dracula and Renfield exchange pleasantries and conclude The Count’s purchase of Carfax Abbey, but Dracula has slipped Renfield a mickey, spiking his drink with the Transylvanian equivalent of GHB. Dracula's creepy, zombie-like brides slowly advance on the incapacitated Renfield, but Dracula shoos them away, wanting Renfield for himself. This reportedly troubled Laemmle who felt that Dracula should not pursue male victims.

"I am going to bite your neck homo."

Shortly after, stock footage depicts Dracula and Renfield's stormy sea voyage to London. Renfeild has been transformed into Dracula's bug eating man bitch. Dracula kills everyone on board (off screen). When the ship arrives in London dock workers are greeted to a disturbing site. A madman laughing up at them from the ship’s cargo hold. They cart Renfield off to Dr. Seward's sanitarium which happens to be right across the street from Carfax Abbey.

Dracula strolls the streets of London and grabs a quick bite before insinuating himself into the company of Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancĂ©e Harker (David Manners) and her friend Lucy (Frances Dade). Lucy really gets shafted in this film. She is genuinely enchanted with the Count but he just has his way with her and then tosses her aside to go after Mina. All of her friends pretty much forget about her. Poor Lucy. Professor Van Helsing is initially brought in to figure out what killed her but is quickly co-opted into helping save Mina. It's all about Mina. Mina. Mina. Mina.

Edward Van Sloan plays Van Helsing. He had appeared with Lugosi on stage and, much like Lugosi, never seems to have left. He delivers a performance every bit as deliberate and over mannered. Unlike Dracula however, Van Helsing is not a bizarre creature of the night so Van Sloan's performance comes off as awkward rather than intriguingly strange. He seems to be slowly enunciating exposition to the back rows of a non-existent audience and comes off as disconnected with the rest of the cast. I've read an interpretation that sees Van Helsing as a mirror image of Dracula, the goggles he wears accentuating his eyes in the same way lighting effects were used to highlight Lugosi's stare. Van Helsings slow, deliberate movements when investigating the bite marks on Mina's neck certainly lend weight to this. Viewed in this light, Dracula becomes the story of two strange old men battling for Mina's soul.

"These are just my reading spectacles.
My other glasses are binoculars."

David Manners and Helen Chandler are both beautiful to look at but are ill served by the clunky script and have no chemistry. The main problem with Dracula is that the play on which it is based is not all that good. The best parts of the film are those that do not occur in the play. The role of Harker is underwritten and should have been expanded on rather than whittled down, give the poor guy something to do. Another problem is that the film is under directed. Manners recalled never having worked with Browning and claimed that the direction of his scenes was left to cinematographer Karl Fruend. For his part, Browning blamed much of the film’s problems on constant studio interference. Whatever the case, many of the scenes in the latter half of the film are at best awkward and at worst unintentionally hilarious. Manners’ attempt to drive off the large rubber bat that threatens to land in Helen Chandler’s hair springs to mind. It's not as if the film dies half way through, there are still some good bits with Renfield and a battle of wills between Van Helsing and Dracula in which Van Sloan briefly wakes up. There is however, a distinct downward trend.

Old school matinee idol. Eat your heart out Robert Pattison.
Having said all that Dracula did break new ground. It gave us a new type of villain that was a departure from the tragic, threatening yet still quite human melodramatic antagonists audiences were used to. Dracula is not motivated by love or revenge or any recognizably human motivation. I don't think he's really motivated by sexual desire. He's a monster affecting human behaviour...strangely. His passion is for blood. He is the embodiment of death.

No comments:

Post a Comment