Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dracula's Daughter - 1936

Director:                    Lambert Hillyer
Screenplay:                Garrett Fort
Based on work by Bram Stoker
Story and Treatment:  John L. Balderston
                                   and Kurt Neumann
Original Music:          Heinz Roemheld
Cinematography:       George Robinson

Jeffrey Garth                       Otto Kruger
Countess Marya Zaleska    Gloria Holden 
Janet                                  Marguerite Churchill
Von Helsing                        Edward Van Sloan
Sir Basil Humphrey             Gilbert Emery
Sandor                               Irving Pichel
Hawkins                            Halliwell Hobbes
Albert                                Billy Bevan
Lili                                     Nan Grey
Lady Esme Hammond        Hedda Hopper
Sergeant Wilkes                 E.E. Clive

I'm really giving the movie three kisses and giving one half to Gloria Holden as the best thing in the movie.

A little sanguine sibling rivalry.

"Dracula's Daughter" is one that probably a lot of people have never even heard of.  It has had mixed reviews and a shaky reputation over the years. It’s an interesting and mostly entertaining vampire story, and as close to a sequel to the original “Dracula” as we are ever likely to get.

It took 5 years for Universal to finally get a sequel to its 1931 hit into theaters.  In a big loss for the movie, Bela Lugosi lost out on repeating the role of the count.  The original script started in the 1400’s with Bela playing the Count in his human form.  The story finally explained how he became a vampire before moving on in time to the contemporary story of the Countess.
Bela Lugosi and Gloria Holden posing for a publicity shot at Universal Studios. It appeared at that time that they would be working together on this film.  Alas, it was not to be.  

A few years later another film in the same vein (sorry!) was "Son of Dracula" starring Lon Chaney, Jr.  But in that film the character Chaney plays is not specifically identified as Dracula’s son.  In this one the Countess does identify herself as the daughter of Dracula. 

Today this film is worth watching mostly as a curiosity.  It hasn’t aged particularly well and it has three striking flaws.  However, I believe it possesses one enormous asset which ultimately makes it worthwhile. 

The movie starts a few minutes after the finale of “Dracula”, with Van Helsing still in the crypt after saving Mina Seward and dispatching the Count.  Edward Van Sloan reprises his role of Professor Van Helsing and is the only returning character.  (In what must have been a typo or sloppy oversight by someone, his name is now Von Helsing.)  The police arrive and find him alone with the dead body of Renfield and the body of Dracula with a stake through its heart.  He is arrested for murder and taken to Scotland Yard.

Later, the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleska comes to the police station to claim the body of Dracula.  In an eerie scene, the best in the movie, she burns the corpse on a pyre and exorcises his spirit.  She believes that this will free her from the vampire curse and allow her to live a normal life in the sun.

"Unto Adoni and Aseroth, into the keeping of the lords of the flame and the lower pits, I consign this body, to be evermore consumed in this purging fire.  Let all baleful spirits that threaten the souls of man be banished by the spilling of this salt.  Be thou exorcised O Dracula and thy body, long undead, find destruction throughout eternity  in the name of thy dark unholy master.  In the name of all holiest and through this cross, be this evil spirit cast out until the end of time."

Von Helsing refuses to retain a barrister and instead calls on his old pupil and friend Dr. Jeffrey Garth, a psychiatrist.  The professor has faith that Garth is the only man who can truly understand what has happened and be able to explain it to a jury.  Why he couldn’t have called on his old friend Dr. Seward or any of the other survivors of the first movie I can’t begin to guess.  But then again, this guy is not Van Helsing, he is Von Helsing.  Go figure.   

This brings me to the first major flaw in the film.  The distinguished actor Otto Kruger was cast in the role of the hero Dr. Garth.  Otto Kruger?  Are you kidding?  Mr. Kruger, born in 1885, had been groomed as a sophisticated leading man type and later in his career moved on to more sinister roles.  I have to admit the only other role I remember seeing this actor play was the head bad guy in the Hitchcock film, “Saboteur”.  He was very believable there as Tobin, the icy cold traitor and murderer who happened to have a soft spot for his baby granddaughter.
Robert Cummings (L) and Otto Kruger in "Saboteur"  

In "Dracula's Daughter" he is the romantic/action hero and it just doesn’t work.  He looks stiff and uncomfortable from beginning to end. 
L-R, Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Irving Pichel

Dr. Garth's assistant/secretary Janet, played by Marguerite Churchill, is also his love interest.  The scenes between Garth and Janet are written to be a sort of pre-Tracy and Hepburn “gee-they-fight-so-much-they-must-be-madly-in-love” banter.
Marguerite Churchill and Otto Kruger in the unbelievably irritating tie-tying scene.  

This kind of humor can go in one of two directions, either: 1. light and charming or,  2. increasingly annoying.  When Tracy and Hepburn did it it was light and charming.  When these two do it, they head down road number two.  There is WAY too much unnecessary cutesy blather between them and this is the second flaw that gets in the way of it being a much better film. These scenes stop the movie dead in its tracks at least three times.  It falls so flat that Garth and Janet don’t come across as even remotely attracted to each other.  It feels more like "gee-they-fight-so-much-they-must-really-hate-each-other". 

Gloria Holden, she of the silken voice, the actress who plays the title character is our asset.  She makes a striking and unforgettable vampire.  She has a dignified and tragic quality but also a vulnerability which is very sympathetic.  Her Countess is a woman who is living with a curse which she is desperately trying to fight.  In a touching scene after she has destroyed Dracula’s body, she is at home playing the piano.  She declares her freedom from death and darkness and a return to a normal life with such depth of feeling you really hope she gets her wish.  Later, she enlists the help of Dr. Garth to help rid her of this obsession.  He agrees not knowing exactly what kind of problem she has.  He encourages her to face her fears and confront her temptation, freeing herself through will power alone. 

Her servant Sandor is not much help.  The two of them have what would be called today a very co-dependent and dysfunctional relationship.  Sandor is one of the most grimly evil characters you will come across anywhere who also happens to have a very soothing deep baritone voice.  Irving Pichel, who plays Sandor is under heavy make up and resembles the actor Paul Muni.   He certainly has the right look for an evil henchman/valet.  But if I wanted to leave the vampire world and rejoin the human race and was looking for support, I wouldn’t choose him as my sponsor.  Each time Marya expresses her hope and desire to be free he crushes her back down into the dirt.  For example….

Zaleska, in a reverie:  “I see shadows on the hillside”.  Sandor:  “Evil shadows.”  Zaleska:  “No!  Peaceful shadowsAnd I hear the flutter of wings in the trees.”  Sandor:  “The wings of bats!”   Zaleska:  “NO!  The wings of birds.”  You get the idea.  Oh well, I suppose when you hire someone through Transylvania Temps (“Ask us about our Wednesday Undead Special!”), this is probably the sort of person you get. 

Paul Muni in "Scarface"
Tidbit:  Gloria Holden worked with actor Paul Muni the following year, playing the wife of Muni's Emil Zola in the film, "The Life of Emil Zola."

There is one rather famous scene in DD - the notorious “lesbian seduction” scene. The countess has a reputation in London as an artist.  A young girl is brought to her studio to pose for a painting, but also as a test of her will power to overcome her curse.  However, curses being what they are, it proves much too difficult for her to resist.   The “lesbian” content will be found (or not found) in the eye of the beholder. 

The last third of the movie completely goes off the rails.  The Countess has fallen in love with Dr. Garth and has also given up any hope of becoming human.  She kidnaps Janet and attempts to blackmail the doctor into staying with her forever in order to save the fair maid.  She returns to Transylvania with Janet in tow, and with most of the cast chasing close behind her.  Again, I have to say this….Otto Kruger??  At one time Cesar Romero was to be cast as the doctor.  That I might believe.  Cesar would have been more fitting meat for her and more believable as a love interest.

At least when Garth travels to Castle Dracula we get to revisit the familiar 1931 "Dracula" set one more time.

There are a few other comic touches in the movie to try one's patience, mostly in the form of blundering or cowardly policemen.  They are heavy handed and wear thin quickly.  In one scene the Inspector tells his butler that he is going after a vampire.  The butler says, “But I thought you usually go after them with checks, sir.”  Modern audiences may wonder what the heck that means.  In the first two decades of the 20th century, the word ‘vampire’ was used primarily as a description of a femme fatale-type predator who led men to their deaths by draining their bank accounts of money, not their veins of blood – as in the roles played by silent movie icon Theda Bara.

The emphasis throughout the movie is on the power of psychoanalysis to heal sick minds.
I believe a very strong case can be made that Marya is not really a vampire; that it all exists only in her own mind.  We never actually see her involved in any kind of supernatural goings on.

The case for her being a vampire:
1. It is understood, but not shown explicitly, that she attacks two people and drinks their blood.
2. We see her starting to get into a coffin to sleep.
3.  She seems to have some kind of hypnotic power.
4.  There are no mirrors in her apartment.
5.  She has a creepy butler.
6.  She is killed by a wooden arrow shot through her heart (but let's face it, that wouldn’t do anyone any good).
We pretty much just have her word for it that she is really a vampire.  Yes, she does seem to live in the old Castle Dracula.  However, I think whichever realtor had that property listed would have been glad to get rid of it to anyone, even a woman obsessed with the belief that she is a distant relation of the original owner.  I’m not completely convinced that she is a vamp.  Perhaps she is just a lonely, troubled and deranged woman in a very unhealthy relationship. 

The third problem with the film happened in spite of the amount of money spent on the production.  DD had a huge budget, mostly because of an ungodly long period of pre-production missteps, re-writes, re-casting and other problems.   Most of the budget was spent before any camera started to roll, so you don’t see the dollars on the screen.   The whole movie has a flat, cheap look.  There is very little film noir shadow or depth that we can sink into.   Many of the sets appear hastily thrown together and rather empty.

So, all together it’s an interesting film relic.  I recommend it mostly to see Gloria Holden’s performance.  She gives this movie its heart, as the elegant daughter of Dracula.  Or is she?

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