Dracula (1931)

Director: Tod Browning

Producers: E.M. Asher, Tod Browning, Carl Laemmle Jr. (Universal)

Writers: Bram Stoker (novel), John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane (play), Garrett Ford (screenplay)

Photography: Karl Freund

Music: Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Wagner

Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, Charles K. Gerrard, Tod Browning, Michael Visaroff

“Karloff does not deserve to smell my shit! That limey cocksucker can rot in hell for all I care!”

So says Martin Landau in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Dracula legend Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Like the real Lugosi, the character cannot hide his jealousy over the success of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein: “You think it takes talent to play Frankenstein? It’s all makeup and grunting.”

Indeed, his jealousy is rooted in the pains of missed opportunity. For after the success of Dracula in 1931, its Universal producers E.M. Asher and Carl Laemmle Jr. offered Lugosi the title role in Frakenstein (1931). But he turned it down, saying the part was too degrading for a big star like him. The rest is history. Frankenstein became an even bigger success than Dracula, and Karloff launched to superstardom. Meanwhile, Lugosi settled for 103 lesser films, saw his work turn into parody, and ended his life a penniless drug-addict. Still, the fact that Lugosi never escaped Dracula underscores his effectiveness in the role. As Thomson writes of Lugosi, “‘I am Dracula’—his first words were less introduction than assertion.” (B) In the end, it’s better to be remembered for one thing than none at all.

Based on Bram Stoker’s famed 1897 novel, and the subsequent theater adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, Dracula opens with realtor Renfield (Dwight Frye) traveling to Transylvania to meet with the infamous Count Dracula (Lugosi), who’s interested in selling his castle and moving to London. On his way, he receives a warning: “We people of the mountains believe that in the castle there are vampires, Dracula and his wives. They take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night and they feed on the blood of the living.” Renfield soon finds this out for himself, as Dracula dines on his neck, converting him, too, into a vampire and a servent to the mesmerizing count.

Their journey to London ends in disaster at sea, where the only remaining survivor, Renfield, has become a “raving maniac” and is sent to a sanitarium, run by a Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston). Of course, the undead Dracula has also survived, and moves into the derelict Carfax Abbey estate, located next to Seward’s home. There he pays visits to Seward’s daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiance John Harker (David Manners) and their friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade). One by one, the count targets the girls, but his mysterious nature catches the suspicion of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who’s investigating a trail of murders full of victims with bite marks on their necks. It’s Van Helsing who suggests such vampire repellants as crosses, wolfbane and daylight, and it is he who ultimately searches for Dracula’s coffin to drive a stake through his heart once and for all.

The story is familiar to us all, almost intuitively. As Van Helsing star Kate Beckinsale says, “Dracula and Van Helsing have become part of the mythological fabric of our consciousness.” (A) As such, modern viewers will certainly be disappointed by the lack of drama in the Dracula-Van Helsing climax, a stake-driving death that is barely noticable off-screen. The climax packs so much more potential than this rushed finale, especially with the deeper theme that Dracula’s death is actually doing him a favor, according to his own words: “There are worse things awaiting man than death … To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious.”

Even with its flawed ending, Tod Browning’s 1931 version remains a landmark in the Dracula cultural phenomenon, even if it was predated by work overseas. In France, Louis Feuillade had dealt with vampires in the essential silent film Les Vampires (1915), and in Germany, F.W. Murnau had crafted Stoker’s novel into the German Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu (1922). By the early ’30s, Germany’s Carl Theodore Dreyer chose vampires for his first sound film, Vampyr (1932), and Spanish director George Melford shot a Spanish version of Dracula simultaneously with the American version, shooting at night on Browning’s same sets (you might say he was in the Dracula time slot). But though these previous efforts did exist, it is nearly impossible to dock originality points from Browning’s Dracula, sheerly for all it has meant to the franchise hereafter. As the first non-silent version, Browning’s Dracula was every bit as important as Murnau’s Nosferatu, if not stylistically, than certainly culturally.

The immitations are countless, from its own immediate sequels — Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Dracula (1943) and House of Dracula (1945) — to Dracula’s crossover appearances in such films as House of Frankenstein (1944) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). The Browning-Lugosi combo remains the envy of all the Dracula remakes, whether its Terence Fisher directing Christopher Lee (1958), John Badham directing Frank Langella (1979) or Francis Ford Coppola directing Gary Oldman (1992). It seems also the godfather to all other vampire works, its presence felt on the likes of Interview with a Vampire (1994), Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997), Van Helsing (2004), and Twilight (2008). According to IMDB, the number of films that include references to Dracula may total 649 (F). Add that to the fact that Lugosi remains the quintescential Dracula, and you can do the math on the film’s influence.

Much of the film’s cultural stamp lies in its mood. The Castle Dracula becomes almost a character all its own, full of gothic architecture, cobwebs and, yes, armadillos. But more effective than anything in Transylvania are the shadows, used to denote a captain dead against his ship’s wheel, or a mad Renfield entering the room. In contrast to the dark, we get strategic use of light, specifically in shining tiny pinholes of light onto Dracula’s hypnotic eyes.

This entire aesthetic belongs to cinematographer Karl Freund. Born in Austria-Hungary, he worked under German greats like Murnau, for whom he shot The Last Laugh (1924), and Fritz Lang, for whom he shot Metropolis (1927). When he arrived in Hollywood, he brought with him the feel of German Expressionism that was required of Dracula. It wasn’t long before Hollywood recognized his talents, handing him the Oscar for The Good Earth (1937) and a Technical Achievement Award (1955) for developing a direct reading brightness meter. Later, he would shoot such TV shows as I Love Lucy (1951), while developing the very three-camera system that’s still used in TV today. (E) Why do I go on and on about a cinematographer? Because with the exception of Lugosi, he is the most integral part to Dracula‘s success.

It’s rumored that Freund had to take over and direct full scenes when Browning, deep into alcoholism, would leave the set. (E) Indeed, something feels slightly off with the end product, whether it was because Browning recklessly tore pages out of the script, or because a full 20 minutes was lopped off in the editing room, or because there was little to no soundtrack because early sound films weren’t quite sure if audiences would accept it. In 1998, the legendary Philip Glass finally composed a musical score for the film, but since the original had none, I find it unfair to give the film’s soundtrack rating high marks.

Still, amid Browning’s flaws, there are flashes of a real directorial talent, reminding us that Browning was indeed a protege of D.W. Griffith and the man responsible for directing and producing the horror classic Freaks (1932). In Dracula, one can most admire the series of visual tricks he employs to create Dracula’s supernatural illusion. The most basic is his pan away from a coffin beginning to open, followed by a pan back seconds later to see Dracula standing above the pine box. The most fascinating is his strategic cutaway to bring Dracula “magically” from one side of a staircase cobweb to the other. (C) The most impressive is his use of a mirror inside a cigar case, creating an illusion of invisibility that catches Van Helsing’s attention. And the most prevelant is his insistence on showing key action off-screen. His bite of the London flower-girl comes to mind, as does a scene where the doctors see Dracula has turned into a wolf. The accompanying dialogue — “What’s that, running across the lawn?” — indicates immediately the film’s reliance on the Deane-Balderston play. And on the most part, it’s not a flaw, rather a device that allows audiences to imagine the horror for themselves.

Of course, the biggest carry-over from the 1927 Broadway play was Lugosi himself. Browning initially had not considered Lugosi for the part, choosing instead Phantom of the Opera (1925) star Lon Chaney, whom he had direced before in the silent vampire film London After Midnight (1927). But in 1930, when Chaney died an untimely death at age 47, Browning went searching for a replacement, and settled on Lugosi, whose Dracula was already successful on stage across Van Sloan’s Van Helsing. Continuing the two as silver screen nemeses today looks like a stroke of genius on Browning’s part. But was it not a stroke of horror fate, that horror’s biggest star, Chaney, would die to open up a slot for history’s greatest Dracula?

Lugosi’s interpretation of the part is beyond words. One could say he was so good to be typecast, but in discussing “types,” I prefer to use the word “archetype.” Lugosi is the archetype for the character, proven by the fact it was his Dracula that was voted #33 on AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains. “He had this kind of crazed, very sedate sex appeal,” says Van Helsing director Stephen Sommers (A). On top of that, there’s the signature Hungarian accent that brought fame to some of cinema’s earliest examples of spoken dialogue. No, he never actually says, “I vwant to suck your blood,” but he does have some zingers, only good if you say them with the accent. My personal favorite: “I never drink…vwine.” The most famous: “Listen to them! Children of the night! What music they make.” Ranked #83 on AFI’s 100 Movie Quotes, it is the fourth oldest quote on that list. And from this position of the first “talking” Dracula, Lugosi’s impact cannot be underestimated.

At his death in 1956, he was buried wearing his black Dracula cape. I guess he figured that since he could never escape the role, he might as well wear it into eternity. But isn’t the role already immortal? Undead? To this day, his movie memorabilia has outsold Karloff’s by a substantial margin. (D)

Which brings us back to Landau’s portrait in Ed Wood. If Lugosi were alive to see it, he may not have enjoyed Landau’s washed up drug addict. But one has to think he would have been tickled by Landau’s plug for Dracula as the perfect date movie. “The women prefered the traditional monsters,” he says. “The pure horror, it both repels and attracts them, because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is horror. Take my word for it. If you want to make out with a young lady, take her to see Dracula.” Give it a shot. If you can laugh at the datedness, the flawed ending, the fake flapping bats, it might be sound advice. If nothing else, it’ll open an opportunity for some sure necking.

CITE A: Dracula DVD Bonus Feature: Stephen Sommers on Universal’s Classic Monster – Dracula
CITE B: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE C: BRAVO’s 100 Scariest Movies
CITE D: End Credits of Ed Wood (1994)
CITE E: IMDB Trivia…confirm?
CITE F: IMDB Character Bio for “Dracula”

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