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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: Dracula (1931)

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

When considering the history of any art, craft, or set of knowledge, there will invariably be works which are both hugely important, without which the entire subject may be wholly different, and undeniably flawed. I think it can be argued that Todd Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, fits that general description. The film is undoubtedly iconic in some of its imagery and resulted in an enormous pop culture footprint that still persists today. It also possesses some genuinely fine work in its 74 minute running time. Unfortunately, the movie contains flaws that are hard to ignore. Some of these flaws are a matter of approaches not aging well, while others are simply a matter of poorly executed storytelling, both from a writing and visual point of view.

Come along, and we’ll talk a bit about both the best and worst of Dracula.

The original source for the Dracula-as-vampire story as it is primarily told in western culture was the gothic horror novel written by Bram Stoker and first released in 1897. The novel received mostly strong reviews, including an absolute rave from the Daily Mail, and Stoker was sent a very complimentary letter about Dracula from Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The general public however, did not attach any particular meaningfulness to it and the book was only a mild success financially.

This was true to the point that Stoker was personally bankrupt at the time of his death and had relied on monies from a royal grant. It wasn’t until later, when F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu appeared in movie theaters, that Stoker’s widow managed, through intense legal wrangling, to realize monetary rewards from the rights to the story. The film and the resulting lawsuits attached to it helped to raise the public profile of Dracula.

The character became even more popular in the following years with a hugely successful theatrical production that toured both England and the United Sates, with the American leg introducing audiences to the performance that would be associated with the character more than any other. Despite Bela Lugosi’s greatly praised work as Dracula both on Broadway and in a shorter run in California, Universal and Browning were not exactly chomping at the bit to cast him in their film version, instead looking for a bigger name. In the end however, Lugosi won the role through dogged lobbying and agreeing to take a modest rate for his work. His performance helped create a sensation with audiences, becoming Universal’s second biggest hit of the year.

The film was based almost exclusively on the Balderston/Dean script which had proven so successful on the stage, with some changes in locations and an extended set of opening scenes set in Transylvania. This latter point is particularly interesting in that for a first-time viewer who does not know the story or characters going in, it might appear that Renfield is our human lead. We initially join him on his business trip to meet with Count Dracula at his castle. He encounters what we are to assume he sees as foolishly superstitious villagers (but honestly, the way they are portrayed, it’s hard to blame him). We follow Renfield on a spooky ride up to his meeting and experience his encounter with Dracula in which he is left prone and at the Count’s mercy. Renfield is then the one telling us about their trip on a ship to England and offering some explanation of his new state as Dracula’s toady. When the ghost ship comes ashore with all of its crew perished, it is Renfield that the mostly unseen men there encounter.

Dwight Frye’s staring, chuckling performance in this scene is eerily effective.

It is not until the twenty-three minute mark that we finally meet the rest of the main cast, Dr Seward, his daughter Mina, her beau Jonathan Harker, and her friend Lucy Weston. There is now less than an hour remaining in the seventy-four minute film. Considering that we get plenty more from Renfield over that time, it’s hard not to consider Frye the second lead.

The stage play the film is based on takes place almost entirely in Dr Seward’s home and sanitarium and picks up shortly after Renfield has arrived there as the lone madman who survived the ghost ship Vesta. He is initially treated as the possible culprit when children go missing, but of course we all know what the name of the piece is, don’t we? In the play, Renfield serves as a sort of wild card, helping to lead Seward and then Van Helsing to an understanding of what they are facing. It’s a great role either way, and one I had the pleasure to play in a production here in North Carolina some seventeen years ago.

There I am, creeping out the rest of the cast, as Renfield.

The style of both the play and 1931 film is as a sort of drawing room melodrama, and most of the performances emphasize that these characters are rather stock (especially the supposedly comic sanitarium attendant with a “Cockney” dialect), even if the story is horrific by the standards of the time. The acting is reminiscent of both silent film and playing to the folks in the cheap seats at the back of a live theater. Modern audiences may find much of it a little ludicrous. Only Lugosi, Frye, and Edward VanSloan inhabit the film with anything close to the weight necessary.

It certainly doesn’t help that the production made no effort to improve on the sort of effects that would have been used on the stage. The hovering, flapping rubber bat that appears in more than one scene looks like something we’ve all seen in the context of a Halloween children’s toy. But that’s just one of the oddities when it comes to wildlife in the movie. The producers of Dracula appear to have been under the impression that most of their audiences would not recognize possums or armadillos if they were included in the Count’s crypt. I can almost accept a possum as a stand-in for a large rat, but an armadillo is apparently shown simply because it is weird looking.

Of course these are simply common wild animals of the American south that most of us are pretty familiar with.

An alert viewer will also notice a few examples of poorly edited or paced scenes, either cutting away from important moments or cutting scenes short which could have been held on for improved character story impact. The fact that the action peak of the whole story, our title character’s demise, occurs off screen and is followed by no real concluding idea to the scene before the entire film ends is a little jarring and unsatisfying. It may be fair to point out that film was still a rather new art form in 1931 and associated technology and strategies were in their relative infancy and it does behoove us to be forgiving at times.

Most presentations of 1931’s Dracula feature an audible hiss in the sound transfer and close to no music during the body of the story. The opening credits are presented along with a portion of Swan Lake and there is music playing when Dracula meets Seward at the opera, but otherwise proceedings are pretty much accompanied by that crackling hiss. A full score was written in 1998 for the movie by Philip Glass, but to my taste, the silence of the original soundtrack adds to the tension, leaving the proceedings compellingly stark at times.

There is no doubt that Bela Lugosi’s performance as Count Dracula became the standard conception of what a vampire was supposed to be. To this day, you will see vampire images and costumes that employ the dark suit, cape and sash look and the widow’s peak hairline. More than eighty-five years after Lugosi’s version of the character hit the big screen, this is still the shorthand image of a traditional vampire character.

Does that mean that the movie is particularly good? Not entirely, as I have detailed a few examples of above, but if you’re a fan of cinema in general or of horror specifically, it is an absolute must to have under your belt. Picking out the flaws just helps you find out how much you’ve learned about visual storytelling and language and demystifies both the creative process and some of those works that are held up as definitive.

But hey, Dracula is pretty fun anyway.

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Posted on October 24, 2017, in Halloween, Movies, reviews, theatre and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. You were one scary Renfield!

    When I was a kid, I was fascinated with the old monster movies that have been featured in these articles. Whenever I had a chance to watch one, I did. The endless procession of Draculas, Frankensteins and Wolf-men has left me a little uncertain as to which versions I have seen all the way through.

    I have rewatched a few of the classic Universal movies recently largely due to the influence of your articles. They have been worth watching, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them exactly. These movies weren’t made for modern audiences and it’s no surprise that they show their age. What was scary in 1931 wouldn’t frighten my kids and they scare easily.

    If I may go off on a bit of a tangent… I have been watching some of the Hammer horror movies from the 50’s and 60’s on TCM this month. They retain some of that “classic” flavor while introducing some very bright red blood. We’re still talking about movies that are decades old and include rubber bats on strings, but I find they appeal to my modern sensibilities quite a bit more than the Universal pictures of the 30’s. I am also enjoying them more than some of the recent attempts to revive classic movie monsters.

    Josie walked in while I was watching Curse of Frankenstein. She was highly annoyed by how long it took for the monster to be created, but once she saw Christopher Lee in his horror make-up, it caught her attention. She wasn’t scared exactly, but she was yelling at the screen when Hazel Court entered the laboratory unaware of the monster inside.

    I still have a lot of affection for the Universal monsters, but given a choice, I’d rather watch the Hammer productions. That’s my current preference anyway.

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  2. Tod Browning, the director of the 1931 Dracula, had an interesting career. In the late 1920s, he was the director of choice for “the man of a thousand faces,” Lon Chaney—they made 10 silent films together, frequently horror films like The Unknown and London After Midnight. After Browning made Dracula, he went on to direct another early horror classic, Freaks. Sadly, that turned out to be the film that derailed his career, as by 1932 standards it was too shocking for audiences—it was a failure in the US and was banned in the UK.

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    • There are some claims that Browning was not as involved as he should have been in the making of Dracula and that other members of his team actually directed a large percentage of what we ended up seeing. I’m not sure how seriously to take these claims, but the more seamless quality of the editing on Freaks makes me wonder.

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  3. This was a fun one. Thanks for posting!

    I happened to watch Lugosi’s Dracula this weekend (and Browning’s Freaks, which I love too). I agree that the movie has its share of flaws, but it’s been a favorite of mine for years. For me, the highlight of the movie has always been Lugosi and Frye. Their initial scenes in the castle are like a gloriously awkward comedy. (Honestly, I love Renfield! I judge all Dracula movies by their Renfields. Looks like you made a pretty good one. 🙂 )

    Anyway, in years past, I usually have noticed the cheesy elements of the movie (like the possums and armadillos and the very fake bat and Renfield’s halting tumble down the stairs, which I could watch on a loop all day long), but this time what worked caught my eye more.

    I’m thinking specifically of the mirror scene. Lugosi really sells going from suave, sophisticated exotic nobleman to majorly pissed and dangerous villain in seconds. That look he repeatedlt cuts Van Helsing after he has been “outed” is just wicked. I had also never really noticed how much taller Lugosi was than most of the rest of the cast. It adds an extra layer of intimidation.

    One of the things that probably shaped my love for the 1930s Dracula is that I was a teenager when the whole Twilight thing was a big deal. As a teenaged girl, I was the target audience, but there was something about the whole premise that I loathed even then. I also didn’t particularly care for Coppola’s take on Dracula or many of the more modern depictions of the story or vampires in general. It was when I finally watched Lugosi’s take on Dracula that I realized that it appeals to me more when they’re not so heavily romanticized. (And it’s truer to the original novel, which is also a favorite.) Lugosi was magnetic and attractive, but there’s still something unsettling and dangerous there. That’s a vibe I never got from Gary Oldman or most other actors who have tried the role lately.

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    • Lugosi was 6’1″ which is relatively tall. It’s really unfortunate that whoever directed Dracula’s first meeting with Dr Seward blocked it with Lugosi standing down a stair or two outside of the opera box where Seward was standing. It makes the count look much shorter than Seward and is a poor first impression.

      The scene with the mirror is definitely a highlight.

      Renfield was one of those roles that I circled early on as a young actor, believing that it was one I needed to play at some point in my life, so it was a real pleasure to get that chance. In the Dean/Balderston script that the 1931 film is based on the role is particularly key. Dracula spends a lot of time being mysterious at first, and Renfield has to draw enough attention and be a credible target of suspicion. He must be equal parts pitiful and alarming. Obsessive and dangerous, but somehow giving out clues that the “good guys” need. Without a strong Renfield, it would take way too long to offer the audience any chills at all. I can only hope that I provided all of that. The critics were kind to me at the time.

      The Coppola version has its strengths, but there are some pieces to it that I dislike. Why they needed Keanu Reeves for Harker is beyond me. An unknown British actor would have done more service to the role. Although I’m a big fan of Tom Waits, who played Renfield in the Coppola version, the role was badly underwritten. Most egregious was the positioning of Count Dracula as a sort of tragic romantic hero. The novel was an ode to the fears of Victorian era England: immigrants, sex, women with power, and the supernatural. While making Dracula something other than an encroaching monster might be more interesting to modern sensibilities, it undercuts the themes of the novel.

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      • In the coming weeks, we will have a Movieline cover story with Reeves from the time he was promoting the Coppola Dracula. In the interview, two things are clear with regards to Reeves’ performance in that movie: 1. He was cast for his looks and 2. He tried really, really hard. I think it can be argued that Coppola let him down as a director. Reeves claims that Coppola pushed everybody to their limits, but he either didn’t recognize what Reeves’ limits were or decided to push him past them.

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        • Here’s a thought: Cast a young British actor who could pull off the Harker role without breaking a sweat. There are oodles of them…and handsome too! There is almost never an excuse for making your job more difficult, and casting an actor who has to try hard instead of one who can be effortless is bad both for the actor and for your movie.

          With Hopkins, Oldman, and Ryder on board you just don’t need another name. Not for a Coppola production and not when the star of the movie is the property itself.

          Since we’re discussing next week, I’m just about to sit down for my next Halloween-themed puzzle section!

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        • Looking forward to it! I will save further conversation regarding Reeves until after the article runs. But it does address his casting in a way that I could at least understand the thought process.

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      • That’s good insight into Renfield’s importance. That’s one of many reasons that sells Frye’s performance for me. It seems common in horror movies for the victims to be clueless to the point of lacking common sense on what danger awaits, but it’s clear early on that he is creeped out and deeply uncomfortable but trying to maintain basic politeness until he can be on his way. And that only makes his inevitable fate even sadder.

        Yes, I wanted to like Coppola’s version more than I did. I first watched it in a class in grad school on gothic novel film adaptations. I liked the cast, for the most part, and thought it was visually stunning, but my objections were the same as yours and they were deal breakers for me.

        I can understand the modern impulse to “update” stories and characters for a new spin, but I felt like the depiction of Dracula himself was boring. I’ve always loved villains, and I am wondering when contemporary adaption writers/makers are going to realize that making a traditional villain a hero is really not an interesting concept and, as you say, is a direct contradiction to everything the story is about.

        The professor in the class I took on gothic adaptations claimed that there were 2 types of gothic fans–Frankenstein fans and Dracula fans. She argued that Frankenstein people (like herself) were more champions of the underdog and outsider and that Dracula people were basically fans of shiny, pretty things. I never thought the argument made sense and felt like she was ignoring the basic themes of the novel because Dracula is the ultimate outsider in Victorian England.

        I’m actually planning on rereading Dracula, starting tonight. I haven’t read it in awhile and am looking forward to revisiting it.

        The less said about poor Keanu Reeves in that movie the better. I am not a big Reeves fan, but I blame that as miscasting more than anything. He was so out of his element. I can’t even fathom the mind that thinks “Victorian British attorney = Keanu Reeves.”

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        • When an actor is miscast, there is plenty of blame to go around. Sometimes that blame is centered more on specific individuals depending on the specific situation. There is no doubt that in many situations you have to blame the actor themselves because it is part of an actor’s job to know what he can and cannot do. I’m not sure I can put that blame on Reeves in this situation, though. While he was famous already, he was not exactly A-list yet and any young actor would have loved to work with Coppola and trust the legendary director about what role he was right for. I can easily see Reeves completely failing to even read the script before accepting the role without judging him at all. It’s COPPOLA.

          Without knowing a ton about the specifics on the film, the blame seems to rest with the director – – and perhaps with other power brokers more interested in careers than in the quality of the actual work.

          I’m guessing that what your professor was reacting to in the contrast between the characters of Dracula and the Frankenstein creature is that Dracula is undoubtedly self-motivated in his evil. He has an agency that the creature in Frankenstein does not. This is particularly clear when you read the original Mary Shelly novel. Our sympathy is meant to be with the creature to some degree, even if he eventually becomes violently vengeful. The creature did not ask to be created and merely wished to be completed by attachment to others. Obviously this is a core theme in humanity as well as in literature which the Universal film versions of the story only kind of address. On the other hand, Dracula seems to revel in his own monstrosity, or at least fails to question it at all.

          I would argue that this puts the two characters on two completely different continuums. If you are judging the two under the heading of “Villain” then I don’t think there’s any question that Dracula is the more compelling figure, but if you are looking to sympathize with one of the two then the creature is your guy. It sounds to me like your professor was either failing to recognize, or dismissing outright the pleasure that can be got by an audience or reader in following the exploits of a character that is clearly villainous. It’s just not the same thing as sympathizing with that character.

          I generally agree with you about the now tiresome trope of humanizing a villainous character. One example of this that I definitely dislike is the live action adaptation of the Disney Sleeping Beauty story, Maleficent. I don’t want to sympathize with that character. I want to enjoy her awesome wickedness right up until she is brought down. Sometimes evil is just evil, and trying to explain it away only weakens the drama. Yes, there are generally reasons for a person’s twisted beliefs or actions, but quite often those reasons are stupid and not truly explanatory in any satisfactory way. How does one explain the terrible actions of a sociopath or psychopath? Childhood trauma? Maybe that can inform the character as a whole, but it in no way turns that person into a heroic or misunderstood character.

          H.H. Holmes comes to mind.

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        • The matter of agency is why I don’t actually consider Frankenstein a horror story. I remember not wanting to read it as teenager–this was before I realized I actually like gothic novels and horror–because I was afraid it would be scary. Then I read it and realized that I couldn’t find the creature scary because he was so pathetic. I honestly think Dr. Frankenstein is the true villain of that story, and he gets his just desserts.

          The more I have read about Mary Shelley’s background, the more I consider the novel a philosophical treatise on parental responsibility than horror. That was the point I tried to make to my professor that she never seemed to understand–I enjoy the Frankenstein story, but I don’t consider it horror because it just makes me sad.

          Dracula, meanwhile, is fun and scary precisely because he is bad guy and has no qualms about it whatsoever. I’ve loved villains ever since I was a child because I always found them more interesting than the hero. Dracula is a great illustration of why.

          Agreed on the problems of making villains heroes. I didn’t watch Maleficent, but I think a good example of making villains human but still horrible is In Cold Blood.

          After reading the book, you understand to a large extent what makes both Dick Hickock and Perry Smith what they were, but it never really excuses them or skims over the fact that they murdered 4 innocent people. I think a lot of people do Capote a disservice by claiming that he was overly sympathetic to the killers, especially Perry because of his sad childhood.

          But I have never gotten that impression, though I agree he found Perry fascinating. Once I started reading Capote’s letters and other personal thoughts on the case, I thought it was pretty clear that he still found both of them faintly repugnant while also still befriending them, even remarking that he didn’t want to hear Perry blame his childhood for his actions because he also had a bad childhood and hadn’t murdered anyone.

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