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27. Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning

I spent Sunday in Birmingham having a late, time-shifted family Christmas. It went well - we enjoyed a nice lamb dinner, of which Dad was able to eat a modest but reasonable portion, gazed adoringly at Eloise, who played in the middle of the floor like a little angel, and exchanged various well-received presents. Amongst these in my case were all of the Hammer Dracula films which I didn't already have on DVD, and since I knew in advance that Santa had these up his sleeve, I have been deliberately putting off my final remaining re-watch (of Dracula A.D. 1972) until I got the DVD. So on Christmas afternoon, when I had eaten my roast duck and fancied indulging in some Gothic horror until it was time for Doctor Who, I curled up instead in front of an earlier generation's telling of the Dracula story - the famous original screen production from Universal starring Bela Lugosi. Partly I wanted to see where the Hammer series was coming from - where were they following in Universal's footsteps, and where were they innovating? But also I have only seen this film once before anyway, and that seemed a bit neglectful. I've seen Nosferatu (1922) on the big screen more often than that, for heaven's sake! So I also wanted to re-visit it for its own sake - especially now that I have spent so much time in the Cottage Road cinema watching other films of this vintage, and can therefore perhaps understand it better in its original context.

My memories were dominated by the latter half of the film, which is set mainly in and around Dr. Seward's asylum, and involves extended, if rather fraught, conversations between Dracula and Van Helsing in the living room, as well as a load of sappy American ladies in 1930s gowns fainting into the arms of their sappy American boyfriends. As such, I'd come to assume that the whole film was like that - stagey, Hollywoodish, and robbed of atmosphere by its modernistic setting. But this is unfair. Yes, the film eschews Hammer-style period Gothic. Of course it does - the 1930s were all about shedding the rotten trappings of discredited Victoriana and boldly embracing the spirit of modernism. But modernism had its own way of conveying a dark and supernatural atmosphere - expressionism - and although this is a Hollywood production it is actually distinctly expressionistic, thanks to the combined efforts of its German cinematographer (and unofficial second director) Karl Freund, and its two production designers, the Hungarian John Hoffman and Dutch Herman Rosse. Between them, they give us the Tartarean landscapes of Transylvania, the dramatic cobwebbed ruins of Dracula's castle, a stark silhouette of the dead captain lashed to the wheel of Dracula's ship, an implausibly long winding staircase in Carfax Abbey, and the camerawork to bring them to life - and it is good. As, for that matter, are the 1930s gowns.

It's also rather closer to the book than I had remembered from the later scenes - and certainly a lot more so than the Hammer adaptation. It includes quite a lot of material which Hammer discarded, like the superstitious villagers and wary coachmen on the way to Dracula's castle, all three of Dracula's vampire brides, the journey by ship from Transylvania to England, Dracula walking around through the fogs of London, and indeed the characters of Dr. Seward and Renfield. That's not to say it is entirely faithful, though. Characters are cut out (e.g. Arthur Holmwood), business omitted (e.g. Lucy's staking) and details are changed. Both Seward's asylum and Carfax Abbey are in Whitby rather than London, although Whitby still seems to be treated as though it is on the edge of London all the same - the characters go to a concert there, and when they hear wolves howling outside the asylum they remark that it is odd to hear them so close to London. Which LOL, NO, Americans! Also, the ship Demeter which Dracula uses to travel to England becomes the Vesta, which is a rather silly change in my opinion. Demeter has mysteries, grieves over a lost daughter and is all about the cycle of life and death, which is eminently appropriate for a vampire story, whereas Vesta is about the hearth and the home - though I suppose it's possible someone was thinking of the eternal flame in her temple in Rome, which works rather better.

Some of the changes are quite effective, though. In particular, although Jon(athan) Harker is in the film, he is not an estate agent and never goes to Transylvania. Instead, it is Renfield who fulfils this role, only to find himself enslaved and driven mad by Dracula. This actually makes more sense than what happens to Renfield in the book, where to be honest he is a bit of a human plot device. Renfield's purpose in the book is partly to build up a picture of Dracula's horrible powers, but mainly to provide much-needed information to the main characters which then allows them to hunt down Dracula himself. But we get no terribly plausible reason why Dracula should have wanted to enthrall Renfield in the first place, other than because it will later turn out to be convenient for the plot. This film's approach of using Renfield as the estate agent and sending him into the castle makes the entire thing more convincing. Indeed, as presented here it is actively the most sensible thing for Dracula to do, since Renfield can then serve him as a guard / watchman throughout the dangerous journey from Transylvania to England. It does necessitate the invention of an alternative means for bringing Mina, Harker, Lucy, and co. into the story, but that is easily enough dealt with - Seward's asylum, where Renfield is taken after he is discovered as apparently the last being aboard Dracula's transport ship, overlooks Carfax Abbey (as in the book), and Mina is his daughter. Job done.

But it is Dracula that I'm really here for, so let's talk about him. First of all let's be honest and say that Bela Lugosi can't really win with me. My first experience of Dracula was Christopher Lee's portrayal for Hammer, and for all that I read the book soon afterwards, have since read up about the real Vlad Drăculea, and recognise Lugosi's iconic status as the first proper screen Dracula and his influence on subsequent portrayals (including Lee's), Lee still remains the definitive Dracula for me - and more importantly my favourite. This means that all poor Bela can really do in my eyes is not be enough like Christopher Lee. It doesn't even matter how well he interprets Stoker's character. Lee gets a free pass on that in my book, because I like his Dracula better than Stoker's. But Lugosi doesn't, so he's liable to criticism from me for both a) not playing Stoker's Dracula accurately enough and b) still not being the Dracula I really want to see anyway, even if he plays Stoker's character to perfection. Totes unfair, huh? But there it is - I'm making no pretensions to objectivity here. Nonetheless, let's take Lugosi's Dracula apart to see what makes him tick, and how he compares to both Stoker's character and Lee's interpretation.

As I've said repeatedly in my Hammer reviews, I like Lee's Dracula best when he hits three notes within the same film - icily aristocratic, darkly sexual and violently monsterish. Lugosi does the icy aristocracy all right - as for example when he attends a concert in London in his full white and tails and introduces himself to Dr. Seward, Lucy and Mina, bowing politely to all, or when he calls on Dr. Seward in the living room of his asylum. But he does it all with a much stronger dose of outright weirdness than was ever scripted or acted into Lee's equivalent scenes. For example, when Lee's Dracula first welcomes Jonathan Harker to his castle, he offers nothing but ordinary, pleasant conversation for several minutes about household arrangements, his library and Harker's fiancée. The only slight hint that he may be anything other than a normal human being comes when he says that he will be away until sundown the next day, and then follows this up by locking Harker in his room. But this is nothing compared to Lugosi's equivalent scenes. On welcoming Renfield to his castle, his first line is fairly normal, but his second goes straight to Stoker's dialogue about the howling of the wolves: "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make!"

Of course, the effect of including the superstitious villager scenes (which Hammer omitted) has been to make us expect something frightening and strange from Lugosi's Dracula even before this, and he continues in the same style, for example walking straight through a giant cobweb without disturbing it which Renfield has to break in two in order to pass; having opossums, armadillos and giant wasps (honestly!) living in his castle; and constantly contorting his face and hands in strange and tortured gestures (surely the legacy of Max Schreck). This, of course, is all far more in keeping with Stoker's character than the Hammer interpretation, but as I said above, that doesn't mean than Lugosi wins. It was obviously a very deliberate choice on the part of Hammer to have Christopher Lee playing a much more charming and urbane Dracula during those early scenes of the first film (hence their omission of the superstitious villagers) and in my view this was beautifully judged. It must have confounded and intrigued its original audiences, who would have been expecting something quite different from Dracula's first appearance, whether they'd read Stoker or seen the Universal film. But much more importantly, even for people who had had no previous experience of Dracula whatsoever (like me at the age of nine!), it draws you into the character, creating sympathy and fascination for him, which then means that when he turns violently monsterish and darkly sexual later on, you are already involved with him and the contrast is thrilling. Neither Stoker nor Universal quite deliver this - but Hammer do, and I love it.

Second note - dark sexuality. Well, Lugosi was operating in the 1930s, so this is hardly going to be explicit. On the other hand, it's not entirely absent either. I recently read and enjoyed this article about Christopher Lee's top 10 movies, approving strongly of the inclusion of the excellent Death line in particular. But one line in it gave me pause for thought as I read: "Before the release of Horror of Dracula scholars and critics cannot find one single sexual interpretation of Dracula." Just from having read Stoker's book I found that distinctly unlikely, and it seems all the more unlikely to me now that I've revisited this film. Lugosi's Dracula exudes a distinct magnetism, and Lucy in particular is clearly attracted to him. After he has been introduced to them at the London concert, Mina and Lucy discuss this strange new acquaintance - and while Mina is joking when she says that he is romantic for talking about the broken battlements of his castle, Lucy is genuinely fascinated. Later, too, Dracula lures Mina into the asylum garden to enfold her in his cloak beneath a tree in the darkness, for all the world like a secret lover. Obviously this is nothing compared to Lee's smouldering sexuality as he seduces his victims, and that's another reason why I'll always prefer Lee's performance. But by the standards of the 1930s, Bela Lugosi's Dracula does possess sexual potency. If scholars and critics really couldn't find any sexual interpretations of Dracula once he had played the role (which I doubt anyway), they can't have been looking very hard.

Third note - violently monsterish. Again, this isn't going to be as strong in the early 1930s as it could be by the late 1950s. Christopher Lee often says that he played his Dracula to be aloof and austere, but with bursts of tigerish energy - hence the sorts of scenes in which he suddenly leaps out from the shadows with blood dripping from his fangs, hissing at people and flinging them around. This gives a thrilling texture to the character, as you never quite know which way he will go from one moment to another. But, confined by 1930s sensibilities, Lugosi's Dracula simply cannot offer such a range of contrasts. We do get some violent outbursts - for example when Van Helsing confronts him with the mirrored lid of a cigarette box in Dr. Seward's sitting room, and he smashes it to the ground so that no-one can see the absence of a reflection, or close to the end when he strangles Renfield and throws him down the stairs of Carfax Abbey to punish him for demanding eternal life. But they are nothing like as dramatic as Christopher Lee's outbursts. This time, it is Lee's rapid and total shifts of character which come closer to Stoker's Dracula, and given my totally biased perspective that means he does get to win - not because Stoker's Dracula is the best, but because his is, so whatever he does it is a winner. Ha!

Two further notes also need discussing - perhaps we could call them harmonics to the main chord. One is malice. Lee's Dracula has this in spades. He clearly has plans of utter evil on his mind, and thoroughly enjoys conceiving and pursuing them. By contrast, Lugosi comes across as rather more pantomimic or melodramatic. His is a theatrical parody of evil, whereas Lee's is underpinned by a palpably feral brutality. The other is pathos. Both have this, actually. It comes across in Lugosi's dialogue, as for example at the concert in London when he opines that "To die, to be really dead - that must be glorious. There are far worse things awaiting man than death." But it's also I think much of what his facial contortions are supposed to convey - a sort of tortured horror at what he himself is doing. Lee plays it more subtly. No-one ever scripted any lines for him about how he is such a tortured soul and longs for death - and thank goodness! We'll leave that sort of nonsense to Louis de Pointe du Lac, Angel and Edward Cullen, thank you very much. But there is a certain look in the corners of his eyes sometimes, particularly when he is getting blood-lusty, like a man in the grip of a powerful addiction who cannot resist the poison he craves, yet has a certain self-loathing about it at the same time. So again, where Lugosi's pathos comes across as a bit melodramatic, Lee's works better for me, giving the character a plausible complexity but without over-egging the pudding.

So, yeah, six paragraphs supposedly about Bela Lugosi's Dracula which are really all about why he's not as good as Christopher Lee's. I told you I wasn't approaching this issue with an entirely open mind. I do see that Lugosi's interpretation has a magnetism and a mystique of its own which worked well on screen and was well suited to the tastes of the 1930s, and fully appreciate the contribution which he made to the ongoing evolution of the character. Lee couldn't have done what he did if Lugosi hadn't gone before him. But I know what I prefer.

Meanwhile, beyond the performances of the main actor, these are some of the other specific connections I can see between Universal's Dracula and the Hammer franchise:
  • Dracula's opera cloak and ring have their origins here (on screen, anyway - still photos show they originated in the stage production), though Lugosi wears the collar of his cloak up while Lee wore it down, and Hammer did not import his white tie and tails. For their first film in particular, Hammer stick closer to the book, since Stoker's Dracula was dressed entirely in black, though from Prince onwards he has a red lining to his cloak.
  • Lugosi also gives us for the first time Dracula's habit of using said opera cloak to envelop his victims as he bites them, like the wings of a bat, which Christopher Lee also does in his earlier films - e.g. with Lucy in Dracula (1958) and Helen in Prince (1966).
  • Universal's general policy was clearly never to show us any actual biting, which would presumably have been too risqué, but instead to cut away or have Dracula and his victim move out of sight at the crucial moment, and this is more or less where Hammer start too, although we already see a little more even in the first film. But Hammer's biting scenes inevitably get progressively more explicit as censorship rules relax and they need to outdo their own previous efforts.
  • At Castle Dracula, Lugosi appears for the first time at the head of a flight of steps, coming down them to greet his visitor. This is definitely a filmic innovation, since in the book Dracula greets Harker at the castle door. Dracula (1958) also employs Universal's flight of steps device - and to excellent effect.
  • Dracula's castle is a semi-ruin with some rooms in good condition, as is also the case in Scars of Dracula (1970). Again, this isn't a case of both films drawing independently from the book, because Dracula's castle is perfectly sound in the book, if dusty and unoccupied in parts, except for the chapel which is in ruins.
  • A large and obviously fake rubber bat hangs about the castle doing Dracula's bidding. Hammer's immediate response to this was to avoid bats altogether, but by Scars they had thrown caution to the wind and were just going for it anyway. The effect is very much akin to Dracula (1931).
  • All scary, predatory close-ups of Lugosi feature a strong line of light across his eyes while the rest of his face remains in shadow. This is used in the first Hammer film too, when Dracula appears on the terrace outside Lucy's bedroom window, and also crops up repeatedly in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), as I noted when I reviewed it.
  • We never see Lugosi getting out of his coffin - only the lid moving, his hand appearing through the opening, and then a cut to a scene of him standing beside it. On one of the commentary tracks for the Hammer series (I think for Dracula, Prince of Darkness), Christopher Lee notes that this was also a conscious directorial decision for the Hammer series, on the grounds that the clambering required would make Dracula look too awkward and prosaic.
  • Universal use an assistant at Seward's asylum named Martin as a comic relief character. Hammer do much the same with an undertaker and a customs official in Dracula (1958), and with similar characters in their later films. I think there may be a few comic policemen etc. in Stoker's novel, though, and in any case it is a well-recognised literary device for leavening dark or horrific stories, so this one may not be a case of direct emulation.
  • When Van Helsing brandishes a crucifix at Lugosi's Dracula, he reacts with a hiss and a sweep of his cloak, both of which very much became part of Christopher Lee's repertoire in similar circumstances.
  • Dracula twice lurks beneath the trees in Seward's garden - once to communicate with Renfield and then later again to draw Mina to him and enfold her in his cloak. He does this pretty much constantly throughout Taste the Blood, too.
  • Dracula sweeps off, carrying Mina in his arms, to hide her away in Carfax Abbey, just as Christopher Lee also does repeatedly with a series of girls in Dracula, Prince, Scars and probably others.
  • After Dracula has been defeated and Mina and Jon(athan) walk out of Carfax Abbey together, we hear the sound of church bells - just as we do in this equivalent scene for both Dracula and Risen from the Grave (and quite probably several other entries in the Hammer franchise, too).
So there is definitely a lot of inter-textuality. Obviously Universal and Hammer were working from the same source material, and there are certain expected motifs which were bound to crop up in both of their films. But there are enough direct resemblances which don't have anything to do with the book to suggest that the Hammer team took quite a few cues from the 1931 film over the course of their own adaptations - especially the more obviously filmic aspects like strip-lighting across Dracula's eyes, the decision not to show him getting out of his coffin and the use of church bells to signal the destruction of his demonic influence. The fact is that the Hammer films I love so much couldn't have happened without Universal and Bela Lugosi, and for that I'm very grateful.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 2nd, 2014 12:09 pm (UTC)
As you know I adore the 1931 version - partly for Bela who I think is really rather beautiful, Renfield because I think he is so beautifully played and because it just looks so gorgeous in its black and white shadowyness. Plus the frocks are lovely.

I think part of the face pulling comes from the fact that both Lugosi and Van Sloan came straight from the stage play version and I think it shows at times.

I love the Hammer version too - mostly for it's beautiful 50's colour and of course for Mr Cushing who is wonderful (I especially enjoy the scenes where he is dictating into his recorder and where he helps the overly familiar servants child) but for actual creepiness and horror then the 1931 version works best for me.
Jan. 2nd, 2014 12:55 pm (UTC)
You're right that Dwight Frye as Renfield is ace - definitely one of the highlights of the movie. Good point about the facial contortions, too. They would have come across nicely in a stage setting, but they look over the top on screen, hence appearing melodramatic. And that's partly about the evolution of the medium, too - most film actors of Lugosi's generation started out on the stage, but Christopher Lee never did anything much in that line. He's a film 'native', and thus better able to deliver the right level of performance for the camera.
Jan. 2nd, 2014 06:39 pm (UTC)
Oh, also by the way, there is a very good half-hour documentary about the 1931 version of the film which you can see on YouTube here. It is an extra on the currently-available DVD version, so if you've got the film on DVD you will probably already have seen it. But if not, it is definitely worth a watch.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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