(Originally posted April 13, 2012)
Greetings, fellow miscreants.
Springtime finds me betwixt and between. As you might surmise, this is by no means my favorite time of year. All that bursting into flower irks me to no end. Sunlight wreaks havoc on my carefully cultivated pallor. It is not quite cold enough for the brown distilled beverages, but not yet hot enough for the clear. Worst of all, the trees are in an amorous mood, scattering pollen hither and thither. Although I currently reside deep within the bowels of an undisclosed industrial ruin along the North Brooklyn waterfront, a fair amount of this accursed floral fecundity wafts its way to my sensitive membranes, rendering me an itching, sneezing object of pity.
Small wonder that my thoughts turn toward cool moonlit nights, befanged Transylvanian aristocrats in elegant evening dress, and the pollen-free confines of sealed sarcophagi. Which is an oblique way of saying that we will now consider Universal Studios’ 1931 Dracula, and its simultaneously produced Spanish-language counterpart.
Not that you will find me showering the first horror talkie with effusive praise. It grieves me to say it, because of my reverence for star Bela Lugosi and director Tod Browning, but Dracula is what one might call a pig’s breakfast. An enormous success in its day, and a venerable classic in our own, it has been a fixture in the popular consciousness for generations, despite almost universal acknowledgment that it isn’t very good. What is even more peculiar is that I have watched this not-very-good picture far more often than a lot of other, “better” films, an eccentricity in which it’s safe to say I am not alone.
Like the book on which it is based—perhaps the most enduring potboiler in literary history—Dracula has something rarer than mere “quality.” It produced, in Bela Lugosi’s performance as the Count, an archetype that has taken on a complex life of its own, transcending its claptrap origins.
But first, the painful but necessary duty of enumerating its failings. Most fundamental of these was the decision to base the film not on Bram Stoker’s novel, but on the popular 1924 stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. It was the Depression, you see—and the play, which has little action and is confined mostly to various drawing-rooms, could be filmed much more cheaply.
Economical it may have been, but cinematic it emphatically was not. It would have taken a heroic effort indeed to make the play’s creaky melodramatics visually arresting. And to make matters worse, the production was in the hands of a director who was barely there.
We may never know the precise reasons for Browning’s peculiar disengagement from his most commercially successful film—a project he had hotly pursued for many years. Some combination of studio pressure, discomfort with sound, and roaring alcoholism seems most likely. But to watch Dracula is to experience a definite sensation that no one was minding the store. David J. Skal, in his book Hollywood Gothic, quotes David Manners (who played Jonathan Harker): “To be quite honest, Tod Browning was always off to the side somewhere. I remember being directed by Karl Freund, the photographer who came from Germany and had a great sense for film. I believe that he is the one who is mainly responsible for Dracula being watchable today.” (Freund continues to get credit for the film’s most fluid moments, including the famous tracking shot through the tomb beneath Castle Dracula.)
Browning’s reputation as a director is based not on his visual style, which was old-fashioned even at the time. Nor was he particularly expert at directing actors. Even though he helmed most of Lon Chaney’s greatest films, Chaney was sui generis, and more or less directed himself. What draws people back to Browning’s films is their marvelously bizarre, morbid subject matter, and the obsessiveness with which he returned to the figure of the deformed, twisted outsider. An ex-carny who literally ran away and joined the circus when he was a boy, Browning revealed his thematic preoccupations early, and stuck with them to the end. Whatever his technical limitations, he was just the kind of intensely personal filmmaker that auteurist critics build careers on. He also demonstrated, in most of the Chaney films and in later works such as Freaks and The Devil Doll, that he could spin a yarn without the glitches, howlers, and glaring boners we find strewn throughout Dracula.
Continuity errors abound. Long stretches of stagy dialogue, which could have been enlivened by cutaways and reaction shots, remain stubbornly inert. The fact that the dead Lucy is now poised to become a vampire is raised early in the film, and unceremoniously dropped. When Lugosi first appears to Renfield “disguised” as the coachman, his face is uncovered and easily recognizable as Dracula. One of the two pinpoint lights, aimed at Lugosi’s eyes and intended to give them an unearthly glow, keeps missing the mark and illuminating his cheek. Incredibly, a large cardboard shade, set up by a grip to cut the glare from a tabletop lamp, is clearly visible in two scenes. (In the first of these, it’s by far the most prominent object in the shot.)
Skal shows little mercy for Browning. “The published shooting script for Dracula reveals vividly the extent to which Browning circumvented and undermined the story’s cinematic possibilities,” he writes. “ …. In scene after scene the script demonstrates just how much Browning cut, trimmed, ignored, and generally sabotaged the screenplay’s visual potentials, insisting on static camera setups, eliminating reaction shots and special effects, and generally taking the lazy way out at every opportunity.”
Bela Lugosi offered a more sympathetic take: “The studios were hell-bent on saving money—they even cut rubber erasers in offices in half—everything that Tod Browning wanted to do was queried. Couldn’t it be done cheaper? Wouldn’t it be just as effective if … ? That sort of thing. It was most dispiriting.”
And yet … and yet. Here we are in 2012, discussing an 81-year-old film whose central figure is immediately and universally recognizable, even to the many millions who have never actually seen the picture. In the popular imagination, the Lugosi interpretation is Dracula. Given the manifest flaws of the film as a work of art, and the general perception of Lugosi’s performance as a steaming platter of thickly sliced ham, how can this be?
First, Dracula is a film of unforgettable moments. There is Lugosi’s superbly witty line reading, “I never drink … wine.” The interior of Castle Dracula, courtesy of art director Charles D. Hall and designers Hermann Rosse and John Ivan Hoffman, is an oneiric masterpiece of vaulted Gothic ceilings, crumbling staircases, ten-foot spider webs, and scuttling vermin. (I even like the surreally incongruous armadillos, an eccentric detail that Browning insisted upon.) Dwight Frye, as Renfield, remains the gold standard for cackling, pop-eyed lunatics, and his famous appearance in the ship’s hold is one of the few images in the film that can still chill the marrow.
Above all, there is the mesmeric presence of Bela Lugosi—and here’s where a look at the Spanish-language Dracula can be revealing.
In the early days of talkies, it was common practice for studios to shoot foreign-language versions of their films using the same sets and shooting scripts. Dubbing was technically difficult, and would have detracted from the novelty value of hearing actors speak in their own voices. In the case of the Spanish Dracula, director George Melford and his cast would arrive on the set after Browning’s crew had packed up, and work through the night.
Professional opinionistas generally maintain that the Spanish Dracula is superior to the Browning version, and in most respects this is true. Melford and his crew had the advantage of seeing Browning’s rushes before starting the night’s shooting, and they felt driven to make their own version superior in every way. The film, which is almost twenty minutes longer than its English-language counterpart, has smoother continuity and no odd gaps in the narrative. There are no obvious technical glitches. The camera is more mobile, and the shots more imaginatively framed. And the beautiful Lupita Tovar, dressed in gowns more revealing than U.S. censors would allow, is a far more toothsome morsel than her buttoned-up American equivalent, Helen Chandler.
There’s really only one thing wrong with the Spanish Dracula—and unfortunately, it’s Dracula. I’m afraid Carlos Villarias simply doesn’t cut it. A benign-looking fellow with a goofy grin, Villarias was encouraged to study Lugosi’s performance and copy it as closely as possible, resulting in what is perhaps the least convincing Lugosi impersonation on record. The holding power, the malevolent glare, the long talon-like fingers—it just isn’t there, leaving a black hole of anti-charisma at the center of an otherwise beautiful production.
Dismiss Lugosi as a shameless ham if you will, but just try to take your eyes off him when he enters the frame. His sheer presence demolishes anyone who shares the screen with him.
I believe Lugosi remains the definitive Count because he is the only actor to embody both the erotic and the repellent aspects of the character. Most screen Draculas have been either grotesque and vermin-like (Max Schreck in Nosferatu) or suavely handsome (Christopher Lee, Frank Langella). Lugosi has both ends covered. He played many a romantic lead on the Hungarian stage, and women perceived him as a swoon-worthy Continental type. Yet there is that acrid grimace, that baleful glare and batlike physiognomy, which suggest bottomless reserves of menace. (Tragically, Dracula would also set into motion the hard-luck pattern that dogged Lugosi’s career. His desperation for the part was so great that the producers knew he could be had for a song. For his most famous role, Bela Lugosi was paid an unforgivable $500 a week—one quarter of what the insipid David Manners earned.)
My friends, I have done many a grafting experiment in my capacity as an avant-garde surgeon, and have achieved wondrous things too numerous to mention here. Would that I could find a way to graft Lugosi’s performance onto the body of the Spanish Dracula. Then we would have a masterpiece for which no excuses need be made.