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.
Posted on October 24, 2017, in Halloween, Movies, reviews, theatre and tagged Bela Lugosi, Bram Stoker, Building My Movie Posters Puzzle, Daffy Stardust, dracula, Dwight Frye. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.