Saturday, October 18, 2008

Dracula (English version; Universal, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up breaking open the Universal Legacy collection of the Dracula movies with the intent of watching the original 1931 Dracula with Tod Browning directing and Bela Lugosi as star. Alas, the disc containing the English-language version of Dracula in our copy of the Legacy set had got badly scratched due to poor packing at the factory (it had been allowed to jiggle around the hub of the package instead of being firmly fastened to it) and therefore there was a run of scratches in a circle on the disc, spoiling the film at about 48 minutes in (fortunately I still had my copy of the 1999 DVD release, which also contains the simultaneously-filmed Spanish-language version — which is in the Legacy set, too, but on another disc — and I played us the remaining 27 minutes from that source). Also, as important as this is as Universal’s first out-and-out horror film of the sound era and the only record we have of Lugosi’s performance in his most famous role (though in the next two years he’d make two films that were even better, Murders in the Rue Morgue and White Zombie, before sinking into the rut of cheap “B”’s that marked most of the rest of his career), it simply isn’t good.

One report in the “Trivia” section said that director-of-record Tod Browning — whose best films had been made at MGM during the silent era with Lon Chaney, Sr. as star (Chaney had originally been planned to play Dracula in this film and MGM had agreed to loan him to Universal for this project, but he died of throat cancer in 1930 before he could make this movie) — was thoroughly unprofessional during the shoot, tearing out pages of the script he thought were redundant and frequently disappearing altogether and leaving his cinematographer, Karl Freund (who would briefly become a director himself, helming the marvelous 1932 version of The Mummy with Boris Karloff and Zita Johann and the almost-as-good Mad Love in 1935 with Peter Lorre and Colin Clive), to direct. The big mistake Universal made was to abandon its plans to base the film directly on Bram Stoker’s source novel — Louis Bromfield, a major novelist in his own right (best known in the film world as the author of the novel The Rains Came, on which the 1939 film was based), was hired to adapt the novel and wrote a complete script, which the studio abandoned because they were worried it would be too expensive and not attract enough moviegoers in the middle of the Depression to turn a profit — and instead they drew the film from Hamilton Deane’s creaky London stage adaptation, further worked over by John L. Balderston for the U.S. premiere in New York in 1927. Universal considered a dizzying array of actors to play Dracula, including William Powell (which would have been ridiculous!), Conrad Veidt (who would have been good), Ian Keith (maybe), William Courtenay (a British actor who didn’t have much of a subsequent career), John Carradine (who finally did play Dracula in two later Universal movies in the mid-1940’s and would have been good but nowhere near as right as Lugosi) and Paul Muni (who might have pulled it off) before finally grabbing Lugosi, who was so anxious to repeat his star-making role on film that he took a low (even by 1930 standards!) salary of $500 per week for seven weeks.

It also doesn’t help that the film has no background underscoring — just the opening of Act II of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake under the opening credits and snatches of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Wagner’s Meistersinger prelude during a concert at Covent Garden the principals attend shortly after the film’s action shifts from Transylvania to London. What’s good about this movie are the performances of Lugosi and Dwight Frye (especially Dwight Frye; he delivers a beautifully balanced reading of Renfield that manages to suggest madness even in his sane moments and sanity even in his maddest ones — and he’s particularly impressive by comparison to Pablo Alvarez Rubio in the simultaneously shot Spanish version, who just screams maniacally from start to finish) and the pleasantly Gothic flavor of the early scenes in Transylvania. What’s not so good about it is everything else: Browning’s stiff and uncinematic direction (what happened to this first-rate silent filmmaker when sound came in? My guess is he was traumatized by the death of his friend and frequent star, Lon Chaney, and never recovered from the blow), the stagy conception of the script and many of the gestures (particularly the outrageously phony move Lugosi makes when Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing flashes the crucifix in his face) and the dullness of the supporting cast: Van Sloan overacts relentlessly, David Manners and Helen Chandler are just dull as the romantic leads (Barry K. Norton and the marvelous Lupita Tovar play these parts far more effectively in the Spanish version) and only Frances Dade as Lucy Weston (called “Westenra” in the novel — apparently one of those script changes made to give the actors something easier to pronounce) suggests something of the allure of the vampire mythos. Why film veteran Browning turned in so stagy a movie while James Whale, making the original Frankenstein as only his third film, came up with something fully fluid and cinematic remains a mystery to me.

The better Draculas seem to have been adapted for radio; I still think Orson Welles’ live Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast of July 11, 1938 is the best version of Stoker’s novel in any other medium — Welles captured all the kinky twists and turns of the story that its film adapters missed, he had a superb cast (headed by himself as Dracula and Agnes Moorehead as Mina Harker) and produced dazzling moments like the wicked parody of the Christian communion ritual he had Dracula intone as he gets Mina (temporarily) under his spell, telling her she will be “flesh of my flesh … blood of my blood!” Once again, what a pity Welles never got to make a film version of Dracula, especially early on when he would still have been young and (relatively) slim enough to play the part himself! Recently Charles and I played what appeared to be a British radio program from the 1950’s, an 83-minute adaptation called Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, essentially a mash-up in which Holmes (John Moffatt) and Watson (Timothy West) were written into Stoker’s tale, with David March as Dracula and Aubrey Woods as Van Helsing; yes, this would have been a lot more fun with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Lugosi as Dracula (the two made at least three movies together, Son of Frankenstein in 1939, the second Black Cat in 1941 and The Black Sleep in 1956), but in its own right it was a relatively faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel (certainly a lot closer to what Stoker wrote than the film!) and a lot of fun.