Well, it’s almost Halloween and this year, my friend and I have decided to make our way through the original Big Four Universal Monster Films and their sequels in release order. Of course, this will go well beyond the month of October but that’s fine with me as I would be happy with Halloween lasting all year long. Anyway, here’s the first entry, Dracula as well as the Spanish Version that was made simultaneously.
In 1931, movies were very different. “Talkies” were new and there were still many things that were taboo. One of these was Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror novel, Dracula. Full of horrific imagery that was considered shocking at the time, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with it and couldn’t seem to commit to take the plunge. On the stage, things were different. Stoker, who had spent 30 years working at a theater; wrote his novels on the side and conceived this novel as something to be adapted for the theater company he worked for. In fact, the first stage version of the novel was overseen by Stoker himself and from that time on, the story kept returning to the stage in different forms and interpretations. And in 1924, Broadway took it on. Changing the Count from a repulsive monster into a suave upper class gentleman, it became a massive hit and this time, Hollywood decided to go all in. After a bidding war with the Stoker Estate that also included MGM, Columbia and 20th Century Fox, Universal ended up the winner, buying the play rights for $40,000 which, in 1929 was a shit ton of money. In 1930, director Todd Browning began shooting his film while at night director George Melford would show up after the English crew wrapped and shoot his Spanish language version on the same sets.
The story itself starts out in Transylvania where real estate lawyer Renfield (Dwight Frye) is traveling to the castle of Count Dracula to secure a deal. On the way, the local villagers warn him not to proceed but of course, he pays them no heed. This is 1931 after all and he’s a modern man not given to such superstitions.
In the Borgo Pass, Renfield is dropped off to meet Dracula’s carriage secretly driven by the Count himself. After a rough ride, Renfield arrives at the Count’s castle where the carriage seems to have been driverless. Entering the cavernous, crumbling castle, Renfield is greeted by the mysterious, imposing figure of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), dwarfed by an old staircase and framed in front of a giant cobweb. With a sinister smile and a few cryptic comments about wolf howls being music, he turns and walks right through the cobweb. Renfield raises an eyebrow but soldiers on for what is sure to be quite a big commission.
The Count takes him into another cavernous room that is the dining area, serves him dinner and wine but curiously doesn’t partake stating, “I never drink….wine”. Over dinner, the two discuss Dracula’s plans for his move to London where he will be purchasing the estate of Carfax Abbey, an old mansion much like his own and that his only luggage to move will be three “boxes”. As Renfield pulls the contract to be signed, he inflicts himself with a massive paper cut and the Count reacts like a ten year old finding a stack of Playboys in the woods for the first time. Managing to somehow check himself, he shows Renfield to his room for the night.
As Renfield settles in and opens the veranda doors, a strange fog appears along with a bat. Overwhelmed by the events of the evening, Renfield promptly passes out just as Dracula’s vampire brides approach him but just as they’re about to feed, the Count himself appears to fend them off and takes Renfield for himself.
Sometime later, the sailing vessel Vesta battles a raging storm on the high seas. On board is Renfield who is now a raving lunatic and slave to Dracula who is being transported in a crate filled with the soil of his homeland. As Renfield revels in the chaos of the storm, Dracula slowly rises….
At a London dock, the schooner has docked and the entire crew is found dead with the captain frozen lifeless to the wheel. The only survivor found is Renfield deep in the hold laughing maniacally enough to have committed to Dr. Seward’s (Herbert Bunston) sanatorium, conveniently located right next door to Carfax Abbey.
Moving through modern London, the Count decides to take in a night at the theater where he promptly hypnotizes an usher so as to be introduced to Dr. Seward, his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiance Jonathan Harker (David Manners) and Mina’s best friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade). Dracula proves to be an exotic and charming man of aristocracy and Lucy is immediately taken with him as is everyone else with Dracula being assured that he can always come by to borrow a cup of sugar if he needs to.
That night, Dracula appears to Lucy, biting her and the next day, after four blood transfusions, she’s dead. The only other peculiarity are the two puncture wounds found on her neck.
Meanwhile at the sanatorium, Renfield has taken to eating flies and spiders. In an attempt to understand why this guy is so bonkers, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) analyzes a sample of his blood and comes to the inevitable conclusion that a vampire is afoot.
Helsing takes his case to Dr. Seward just as Renfield is captured again after his umpteenth escape from his room. Helsing interviews Renfield and surprises him with a little wolfsbane which causes Renfield to recoil in fear and explode in a tirade of threats to Mina saying he can’t be held responsible for what will happen to her if he remains on the premises. Threats aside, Van Helsing explains that wolfsbane is used as protection against vampires, noting Renfield’s reaction.
That night, Renfield’s warnings come true when Dracula visits Mina in the night and bites her. The next evening, Dracula stops by for a visit and meets Van Helsing who notices that the Count has no reflection and tests this theory by holding a mirror up to Dracula who smashes it in a rage. Van Helsing is convinced he has his culprit.
That same night, Mina walks out into the garden to meet the Count who feeds on her for a second time and is found later by the maid.
At the same time, the newspapers report of a mysterious woman in white who has been luring children at night with promises of chocolates then biting them on the neck. Mina reveals the woman in white has visited her as well and is none other than Lucy. After finding the bite marks on her neck, Van Helsing orders her maid to watch over her at night and to make sure she keeps a wreath of wolfsbane around her neck at all times. Renfield suddenly appears having escaped again and according to his guard, the steel bars on his cell were bent open. Renfield reveals that his “master” which he has been constantly referring to is indeed Count Dracula and that he has promised Renfield enough rats to feed on to ensure his immortality in exchange for his undying devotion.
After Renfield is taken away, Dracula eneters from the terrace to confront Van Helsing alone. After a warning from the Count to return to his home country, Helsing informs him that he will stop at nothing to find Dracula’s hiding place and put him down. With that, Drac is done playing nice and tries to hypnotize Helsing but the old man’s will is stronger and he forces the vampire to recoil after producing a cross.
Meanwhile, Harker finds his bride-to-be with a newfound vigor and a strange, insatiable lust for the night. After trying to convince him to remove the wolfsbane from her room and painting Van Helsing as a crazy, old coot; Mina attacks Harker but luckily Helsing and her father have been eavesdropping and the old vampire hunter steps in just in time to ward off Mina’s lunge with a cross. Mina breaks down and confesses to her relationship with Dracula and tells Harker that they can never be married.
Helsing knows what to do, grabbing Harker to hunt down Lucy and put her soul to rest. While they’re out running this errand, Dracula once again appears at Mina’s window, hypnotizing the maid to remove the wolfsbane and then takes Mina away to Carfax Abbey.
On returning from their grim task, Helsing and Harker spot first Renfield, then Dracula carrying Mina back to Carfax Abbey and pursue them. Arriving at the crypt, Dracula hears the two trying to get to them and sees Renfield. Thinking his servant has led them to him, he kills Renfield then carries Mina away with Helsing and Harker hunting him down. Luckily, time is on their side as the sun starts to rise, forcing the old blood sucker into his coffin where Helsing is able to fashion a wooden stake and take out the Count. Mina is released from his grip and the two lovers ascend the stairs back into daylight together.
Tame by modern standards, this film was shocking and full of imagery that audiences had never seen before and of course, completely changed the image of Dracula from the grotesque as seen in Nosferatu (1922) and the novel, into the seductive aristocrat he would become for the next 80+ years. Many think this was partly influenced by the times in which The Great Depression had created a strong divide between the classes. Dracula now becomes an aristocrat who literally feeds on the working class as most of his victims and those he manipulates through hypnosis are maids, servants and the innocent girl selling flowers on the streets of London.
The direction itself is pedestrian but saved by the Gothic imagery that was incredibly new then although you can definitely feel the influence of the German Expressionist Movement prevalent in film at the time especially the burgeoning horror genre exemplified by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Golem (1915) . The director, Todd Browning was not comfortable with talkies coming out of Silent Films and you can see that in the film with what is now considered to be awkward staging, lack of camera movement and no film score where many scenes could have definitely used it. It’s pretty clear as well that film had yet to figure out how to translate a stage play into cinematic terms as large sections of the movie feel like like you’re watching the play simply being recorded. Despite that, what is really impressive here is the Art Direction as seen in Dracula’s castle, the crypt, the costumes and the incredibly winding staircases that seem to almost stretch into infinity, evoking the look of those German films.
A lot of the films’ visual strengths and weaknesses can be attributed to it’s tumultuous production and the influence of the previous film adaptation again coming from Germany. Universal wasn’t initially interested in getting into the horror business but the son of the head of the studio, Carl Laemmle Jr., convinced his father to take on the Broadway play. Browning was chosen as director mainly through his friendship with Lon Chaney having previously directed him in another classic vampire tale that has unfortunately been lost to time, London After Midnight (1927) and a few others. A three picture deal was signed with the star including an agreement to make a talking version sequel to Phantom of the Opera but soon after, Chaney was diagnosed with terminal cancer which would take his life and a new lead had to be chosen.
The studio’s first choice was Austrian actor Conrad Veidt, who made a big impression in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. After that, the studio tested several actors including the great character actor, Paul Muni (The Good Earth, Bordertown, Juarez).
Meanwhile, the production itself was by all accounts, a rushed and disorganized affair and this certainly shows in the finished product with strange cuts making for a confusing continuity and a lack of close ups which probably came about due to lack of coverage because of the rushed shooting schedule. According to some cast members and crew, cinematographer Karl Freund ended up directing large parts of the movie himself with at least one actor saying that he was never directed by Browning at all. This probably worked out for the best since Freund was Fritz Lang’s frequent collaborator having been the DP on Metropolis (1927) as well as shooting The Golem and The Last Laugh (1924). The few camera moves in the production were most likely due to his involvement having come from the more innovative German Cinema of the time. One has to wonder if this was also a studio pick due to the fact that when attempting to adapt the stage play for the screen, the studio heavily studied Nosferatu even going so far as to lift a scene directly from it where Renfield cuts his finger to Dracula’s hunger-filled delight. This is a scene that only appears in the silent film and nowhere in the book. Freund would go on to bring his innovative style to such classics as The Good Earth (1937), Key Largo (1948) and what is probably his most influential work, the I Love Lucy Show.
Aside from the Expressionistic influence in the production design, the most impressive aspect of this movie has to be the performances themselves. Leading the charge here is the actor finally chosen to embody this new interpretation of Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi. Born in Hungary and coming to America during the silent era of film after becoming a stage actor in his homeland, Lugosi learned his lines phonetically which is how he acquired his trademark delivery that is still imitated to this day and became one of the most memorable traits of his iconic performance. Taking the lead role in the stage play, he was only approached for the film role after every other actor turned it down including the other lead performer, Raymund Huntley. Even then he was only offered the part because the studio thought they could get him for cheap and they were right. He was paid $500 a week for seven weeks of filming which was a quarter of what David Manners (Jonathan Harker) was making. Nevertheless, this is the iconic performance that so many are familiar with and whose influence is still felt today. Lugosi immersed himself in the role in what would probably be considered today as “going method”. He would return in other Universal movies later as Igor and even the Frankenstein Monster but would only play this character once more in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and a spoof version of Dracula for Browning in a non-Universal film, Mark of the Vampire (1935). Unfortunately as anyone who’s seen Ed Wood knows, this did not end well. Becoming one of the first victims of typecasting, Lugosi found himself stuck in the horror genre and a descending spiral into lower budgeted B movies until fighting an addiction to pain killers near the end of his life, dying almost penniless.
The other big standout here is Dwight Frye as Renfield who brings a preternatural intensity to his character, at times giving the role a true feeling of menacing danger and at others making him sympathetic and a victim to pity. But anyone who sees this film will never be able to forget that insane laugh that has become almost as iconic as Lugosi’s accent. Working mostly as a comedy actor before this, Frye would go on to appear in the next Universal classic, Frankenstein as the doctor’s original assistant, Fritz. It seems the curse of Dracula extended to Frye as well who also became typecast. Strangely enough, Frye died on a public bus in 1943 due to a heart condition that he kept a secret from friends and family.
Edward Van Sloan is the other great performance as the original Van Helsing and was the other actor to reprise his role from the stage play. This Van Helsing brings a spirit of intellectual curiosity and fearlessness to the role and truly seems like the equal foil to the Count and the film establishes this wonderfully in the scene were the two openly confront each other one on one in the parlor room. Sloan would become a Universal Monster staple, reprising the role of Van Helsing in the 1936 sequel Dracula’s Daughter as well as playing Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein the following year were he would open the film with an introduction to the audience recalling a similar sequence he shot for the opening of Dracula but was later cut. Finally, he would also appear as occultist expert Dr. Muller in The Mummy (1932) essentially playing the same character as Van Helsing. Too bad because it would’ve been really cool to see Helsing show up chasing down mummies as well.
The other leads playing Harker, Mina and Lucy are serviceable but seem to be mainly dressing to support the story and the triad of stronger performances by Lugosi, Frye and Sloan. This seems to be supported by the fact that none really went on to appear in anything else of note and all three had left Hollywood later on, having lived out their lives in other professions or in the case of Helen Chandler who played Mina, succumbing to alcoholism leading to a tragic end.
All of this is only half the story however. As soon as the production would wrap up at eight, the Spanish Language production would show up and this group had something to prove. To understand why, a little background into the studio politics at the time is in order.
At the time, Spanish markets were eager for talkies but wanted to hear actors speaking in their own language and adding to this, dubbing was a very new process that hadn’t been perfected yet and in some ways, was considered cheating. As a result, for a few years, foreign language productions were made alongside their English counterparts and in this case, the Spanish version turned out to be the better film as many critics have attested to.
The reasons for this seem to begin with the producer on the production, Paul Kohner. Kohner had become Carl Laemmle’s protege and was in line to become the head of the studio after Laemmle but then at Carl Laemmle Jr.’s 21st birthday party, his father surprised everyone by being one of the pioneer’s of Hollywood nepotism and announcing his inexperienced son as the future studio head. As a consequence, Kohner was relegated to producing the foreign language versions of the studio’s productions and when assigned to this version of his rivals’ pet project, he was bound and determined to create the superior film.
The cast and crew felt the same way and together with director George Melford who had a much more comfortable relationship with talkies due to his background as a theater director and Cinematographer George Robinson (who would go on to DP on many other Universal Monster films), the production set out with a higher goal in mind. At the start of their day, the crew would review Browning’s dailies and see where they could improve upon what the English crew shot. Using the same sets and even the same marks as the English actors, Melford would direct his actors through the use of a translator, not being bilingual himself. Nevertheless, along with Robinson and the guiding hand of Kohner, the film is wonderfully atmospheric, even more so than it’s American counterpart and features much more innovative camera work which is probably the most obvious in the scene where Harker meets Dracula on the staircase for the first time. The English version consist of locked off shots whereas the Spanish version has a wonderfully evocative crane shot that seems a more involving introduction for Conde Dracula.
Overall, the film features more close ups and inserts by far than the American version making for a more fluid film that involves the audience more. There’s also the little touches that add more like the use of smoke whenever Dracula rises from his coffin and the re-staging of many of the scenes taking place either on the veranda outside the parlor room or inside the parlor room with the veranda doors open and fog floating by in the background, opening up the confined space and having the effect of Dracula’s presence being felt even in the scenes he’s not present in, contributing to a wonderful sense of dread.
Not only that but the film runs almost a half hour longer than the American version, which doesn’t make the film bloated by any means but fleshes out the story much better and leads to a more even sense of pacing as opposed to the choppy, rushed structure of Browning’s film. There’s more exposition here where we learn that Dracula is the last surviving member of a family of vampires, an interesting explanation from Renfield as to why he likes flies and what they represent to him as well as a scene that shows the bent bars in his cell as opposed to just hearing about it from an orderly in the English version.
The Spanish version was also free from any censorship restrictions unlike it’s English counterpart which features a much more subdued shot of Dracula’s death, Mina’s attack on Harker only shown in Helsing’s reactions and opossums instead of rats which were considered grotesque at the time. Even with all of this, the American version was still censored as in the case with Dracula’s death groans which were taken out and only restored 60 years later on the laserdisc and from then on. In the Spanish version, we see Mina’s attack, rats appear and inserts of Renfield’s cut finger and bite marks to the neck are only shown here.
Even Dracula’s death is more explicit with the camera not cutting away until Helsing is holding the stake to Dracula’s heart right before he plunges it in. There’s also some wonderful shots of Carlos Villarias’ Dracula showing his full menace on the boat right before he kills the crew and recoiling in horror at the sunlight in the final scene.
Another interesting change are the vampire brides feeding on Renfield instead of Dracula.
One of the biggest changes is the more explicit sexuality in this version than the American. The costumes for the ladies here are much more revealing with plunging necklines and Lupita Tovar as Eva (Mina for this version) plays the role with an uninhibited, sensual joy especially when under Dracula’s sway.
To the Spanish actors, it never registered as risque at all. Tovar explained years later that she was surprised by how “covered up” the her American counterparts were when she finally saw the film and explained it as American audiences being simply “more subdued”.
The performances in this version vary, in some cases being better than their English speaking versions to sometimes just being different. Unfortunately, the one performance that definitely seems inferior is Conde Dracula’s. This is partly due to Villarias himself and partly due to the contrast of Lugosi’s great performance with this one. Ironically, none of the other actors were allowed to see Browning’s dailies except for Villarias who was asked to imitate Lugosi’s performance. In my opinion, not a good move. Villarias comes off as very broad and over the top.
The real standout here is strangely enough, Lupita Tovar as Eva who gives a very lively, involved turn exuding an innocent sexuality and naturalness. It also doesn’t hurt that she looks like the flapper version of Salma Hayek. At times she comes off as a little girl but when called for, shows a sensuous maturity that draws you in and yeah, she’s pretty easy on the eyes. Producer Paul Kohner must have thought the same since he was able to convince her to stick around Hollywood until he married her two years later and stayed with her until his death in 1988. So overall, considering he was passed over for head of the studio I think he would agree as The Rolling Stones would say that, “You can’t always get what you want but if you try, sometimes you just might get what you need.” By all accounts he died a happy man so yeah, fuck you Laemmle. Unbelievably, Tovar is still around at the tender age of 106. They need to cast this woman as Slama Hayek’s grandmother in something really soon.
The other great role here is Pablo Alvarez as this version’s Renfield. His batshit crazy (pardon the pun) performance is just as impressive as his American doppelganger but different. This Renfield seems less dangerous and more sad and sympathetic as if he’s playing different notes to the same song and it works. You really feel even more for this Renfield who is just as insane but appears as more of a victim than Frye’s interpretation.
This versions’ Van Helsing played by Eduardo Arozamena seems almost the same but from my modern eyes comes across as slightly distracting considering he looks way too much like Eugene Levy to me. But hey, that’s not his fault.
Overall, I find this the superior film with the glaring exception of Lugosi knocking it out of the park in the English version. Todd Browning must have felt the same way because he was reportedly furious upon seeing the Spanish film, especially when you consider the fact that his Dracula had a budget of 341,000 and Melford’s cost 66,000. Browning himself would go on to direct what many consider his masterpiece in Freaks (1932) and Mark of the Vampire which was essentially a remake of London After Midnight but he would never really have a big financial success which caused him to walk away from the business in the mid forties to live a quiet, secluded life.
George Melford who was also an actor, continued to direct up until 1946 and although financially independent, also acted all the way up until his death in 1961.
In the end, the Dracula films gave Universal a huge hit that contributed to their only profitable year during the Great Depression and launched an iconic set of films and maybe even the first example of a “shared universe”.
Both movies can be seen on the Dracula Universal Legacy Collection which curiously, is still only available on DVD but is a wonderful set that contains all of the further sequels and an option to watch the English version with a score composed by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet.
This Halloween, I urge you to take a look back at where it all started but don’t skimp on the Spanish version. Together, the two films form the nexus of a film movement that continues to this day. Next time, I’ll take the next step with James Wale’s Frankenstein. See you then.
Dracula can be seen here: https://archive.org/details/Dracula1931_938