Dracula is a 1931 horror film directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi as the title character. The film was produced by Universal and is based on the 1924 stage play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which in turn is based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Made only thirty-four years after the publication of Bram Stoker‘s novel, Tod Browning’s film is, for all its faults, still used as a benchmark of not only Dracula and vampire films but all films in the horror genre. A quick word on the source material; Dracula is not a novel without problems – tenses change mid-sentence, written regional accents are eye-poppingly silly and beyond Harker’s early experiences within the Count’s castle is pretty much devoid of any scares. The novel also provides several challenges, not least the structure, which is largely based on diarised reflections and letters. The Count’s appearance is quite different to what one would one be lead to expect from the hundreds of filmed versions, described as extremely pale, with pointed ears and teeth and most surprisingly, a grand white moustache. You might think he would immediately come under suspicion. He is aloof, angry and bitter, particularly aggrieved that the world around him is progressing and changing. It is not a novel that immediately lends itself to film in this form.
The stage play of 1924 is notable in that it takes on these challenges and offers an attemptable template for film; other theatrical versions had already appeared as early as 1897, though with far less success. When the play transferred to Broadway in 1927, it was the cast which signposts the vision Browning eventually brought to the screen.
The role of the vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing, was played by Edward Van Sloan. Of German extraction, Van Sloan had been acting on and off Broadway for several years, the role in the stage play of Dracula simply being ‘another job’. However, his incredibly theatrical delivery and studious manner, appealed to Browning who cast him in the same role.
Notably, Van Sloan appeared in the roles of Dr Waldman in Frankenstein (1931), Dr Muller in The Mummy (1932) and again as Van Helsing in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Though all these roles are essentially the same character, he is something of a comfort blanket, a mark of a film’s authority; frequently the voice of science and sense but slow in having any effect.
The other actor pinched from the stage play is, of course, Bela Lugosi. Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó arrived from Hungary as a stage actor in his native country though with no CV under his arm that would leap out at prospective employers. Falling in with fellow émigrés in New York City, he found roles through virtue of his staid manner, exotic looks and even more exotic accent. As the mysteries of Eastern Europe appealed greatly to filmmakers and theatre directors adapting tales of myth and fantasy, he arrived at the right place at the right time. Despite success in the theatrical production of Dracula, he was far from the first choice for the director.
Browning already had a long list of successful and indeed impressive films under his belt, most notably in the horror genre The Unknown, London After Midnight and The Unholy Three. His association with the actor Lon Chaney eventually spanned ten films and both he and the head of production at Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle. Jr firmly believed the role of the vampire should be his. This would have been a risky and untested lurch into talkies for Chaney but with Laemmle having legally acquired the rights to film Dracula, he was keen to get the best there was – there was no doubt Chaney would certainly have given a bravura performance and it is fascinating to imagine how this would have influenced the genre. Sadly, Chaney was already struggling with throat cancer as early as 1928 and died of the disease in 1930. Panic would no doubt have been tinged with relief as Chaney’s expected fee would have crippled the production and would have had a negative effect of the styling of the sets.
Substitute actors considered for the lead role included Paul Muni, Chester Morris, Ian Keith, John Wray, Joseph Schildkraut, Arthur Edmund Carewe and William Courtenay; incredibly, it was not simply that they weren’t good enough for the role that any of these illustrious gentlemen missed the cape-wearing duties but that they turned the role down.
Lugosi was always on the radar due to his performance in the role on stage, which was made all the more enticing by the fact that he was extremely cheap – his rate of $500 dollars a week ($3,500 for the whole film) bordered on the paltry, though it’s reasonable to assume public appearances and the likes afterwards at least partially made up for this. Contrary to the popular ‘fact’, Lugosi did not have to learn his lines phonetically due to his poor grasp of English, this is blatantly obvious when watching him on-screen. His accent was not particularly exaggerated either, although legions of imitators since have laid on the melodic vowels in honour of his delivery.
[Above: deleted scene. Pic courtesy of Sam Sherwin]
Though saving money on actors wages, this did not prevent the film from a surprisingly shambolic production. Disheartened from losing his beloved Chaney, Browning had all but lost interest in the film, the screenplay being as garbled as Stoker’s novel. Entire tracts were rejected (imagine it being even talkier!) and Browning began to miss days on set, leaving the duties to Karl Freund, one of the world’s greatest cinematographers (Metropolis, The Golem), clearly leading to disjointed filming and disgruntled actors. One of these, David Manners who played Jonathan Harker (sappily and also Frank Whemple in 1932’s The Mummy, also like a wet fish), was so appalled he claimed to never have watched the film from the day of its release to his death in 1998. The jury’s out on that one.
The rest of the cast included Helen Chandler as Mina, Frances Dade as Lucy and Herbert Bunston as Dr Seward, none of whom had particularly interesting careers either before or after, which is peculiar for such a successful film. Beyond Lugosi and Van Sloan, only one other actor truly intrigues and captures the imagination, Dwight Frye, who starred in the role of Renfield. Frye was a method actor who frequently appeared distant or even rude to his co-stars as he fully immersed himself in his characters. Unfortunately for his co-stars, these were more often than not deranged lunatics, a part he didn’t aspire to but was without doubt un-matchable at. His wide-eyed, groaning helps to save the film from being resolutely dull though did lead to him being typecast as a mentalist; Fritz in Frankenstein, Karl in Bride of Frankenstein, and Herman Gelb in The Vampire Bat, to name but three.
The film itself starts at a rattling quick pace, introducing us to the Count and his many bon mots, very quickly but running out of steam half an hour in. There is enough to keep viewers interested stylistically, the sets being truly stunning, from the crumbling gothic castle to the misty cellars and the decaying filth therein. There is an emphasis on close-ups, particularly Dracula’s eyes which were lit up by shining pen torches into Lugosi’s eyes. Rather like the lack of a full moon in The Wolf Man (1941) Dracula is lacking something rather crucial – fangs. In fact, the threat Dracula offers is essentially that he’ll stare at you and them loom at you with gums bared.
There is worse; since cinema began, Man has struggled to master the art of making a fake bat look real. It really doesn’t matter how low the budget was, the attempts at making a draught excluder on a piece of string look like a flying mammal are a disgrace and sadly demonstrate why the film is really the poor man of Universal’s classic monsters. Crippled by a director that didn’t want to make it, a dead lead man, and a leadng man they wanted but who was dead, the film should have been laughed out of town. And yet…
Debuting at the Roxy Theatre in New York on February 12, 1931, newspapers reported that members of the audiences fainted in shock at the horror on screen; in fairness, they said that as recently as last week about the Evil Dead remake, marketing machine being as inventive (sarcasm) now as they were then. It was a necessary move by the studio to lure punters into cinemas, a talky supernatural horror film being new ground and a massive financial risk. The film’s ending, though seeing the foul undead vanquished, whilst not a downer ending, was certainly not ‘it’s all a dream’ or an unmasking. Two days and 50,000 tickets later, the risk was justified, the budget of $350,000 being repaid many-fold; though there are no official figures, it’s worth noting that the production of Frankenstein the same year generated $12 million.
The film’s legacy is astounding. Sparking the ‘monster’ trade for Universal and inspiring, in some way or another, every production of the film since, it’s a mark of the film that so many people think they’ve seen it yet clearly haven’t. Censors from the earliest days panicked at the film’s tone and subject, cutting several scenes, including Dracula’s off-camera “death groans” at the end of the film and Renfield’s screams whilst he is killed.
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The movie originally came with an introduction before the credits by Van Sloan who would calmly inform those with a nervous disposition that… “There really are such things as Vampires!” In a 1936 reissue, this epilogue was removed, out of fear of offending religious groups by encouraging a belief in the supernatural. This is presumed lost, which is a real shame. Lugosi would remain a novelty, unable to shake of the trappings of his character and though never bemoaning the role itself – buried as he was in the cape – but the typecasting he could never escape. Browning returned, rejuvenated, the following year with Freaks, a film Dracula can only aspire to.
Rather more interesting is the Spanish language version, filmed directly after, at night, using the same sets and even the same marks on the floor for the actors to hit. Directed by George Melford, with assistance from a translator, the Spanish cast excel themselves, seemingly trying a lot harder than their English language counterparts. With Carlos Villarías in place of Lugosi, he comes across as distinctly more monstrous and, well, a bit more dead.
He was the only member of the Spanish-speaking cast allowed to see rushes of the ‘other’ film and was encouraged to mimic Lugosi, which he does but adds to it to great effect. Even more exciting is the appearance of Mexican actress Lupita Tovar as Seward’s daughter, here named Eva. Cleavage in a 1930s film? You got it! If you do feel the urge to re-watch Dracula, I heartily recommend this version above the better-known film.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
Cast and characters:
- Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula
- Helen Chandler as Mina Seward
- David Manners as John Harker
- Dwight Frye as Renfield
- Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing
- Herbert Bunston as Dr Seward
- Frances Dade as Lucy Weston
- Joan Standing as Nurse Briggs [in an error on the opening credits, she is misidentified as “Maid”]
- Charles K. Gerrard as Martin, Renfield’s attendant