Monday, November 21, 2011

Dracula - 1931

for the English language version

for the Spanish language version

What can there possibly be to say about “Dracula” that hasn’t been said in the past 81 years?   

Universal Studios produced two versions of “Dracula” simultaneously in late 1930; the English version we know, and a version in Spanish to reach foreign audiences.  The same script and sets were used in both films.  The English speaking cast and crew filmed during the day, with the Spanish speaking cast and crew arriving later and filming all night.
Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Recently I watched both the English and the Spanish films, and even though it is not easy for me to be objective since it is one of my favorite movies, I will try.  This isn’t going to be a review exactly; it will be a response to criticism I have heard and read of the English movie, and praise I have heard about the superiority of the Spanish language version.  Also, I would like to relate some interesting tidbits about the movie and Bela Lugosi, as well as his interpretation of Dracula and a few reasons why it shines.

The English version starred Bela Lugosi, was photographed by Karl Freund and was directed by Tod Browning.  Remembered now mostly for “Dracula” and “Freaks”, Browning is also notable for his  partnership with Lon Chaney, Sr., directing him in many of the actor’s best films, such as; “The Unknown”, “The Unholy Three” and “West of Zanzibar”.  
Tod Browning (left) and Lon Chaney Sr. on set
George Melford was the director of the Spanish version.  He was a former actor turned director of many silents, including “The Sheik” with Rudolph Valentino.  At Universal he directed the Spanish language versions of “Dracula” and “The Cat and the Canary”.  Unable to speak Spanish, he communicated with his cast and crew via an interpreter.  Cinematography was by George Robinson.  This Dracula was played by Spanish stage actor Carlos Villarias (billed in the film credits for some reason as Carlos Villar).     

The creative and technical differences between the two movies are striking.   At best, the Spanish “Dracula” is a fairly interesting curiosity.  I wonder if the exaggerated hoopla about the film is in part because it was a “lost film” for many years.  A print finally turned up in Cuba
--> around 1990 and the restored film was released several years ago.  The anticipation and excitement about viewing a new interpretation of the beloved classic may have overcome common sense a bit.

Some have the opinion that the Melford film is technically superior to the Browning film, using more creative and imaginative photography and direction.  In my view Browning set just the right pace for the story with efficient and assured work.  Using a moody and atmospheric approach, he focuses our attention where it should be in each scene, and avoids action or dialogue not necessary to move the story forward.  Freund uses his camera to maintain a dark Gothic look and texture, especially in the Transylvania scenes.
Bela Lugosi
The Melford work looks brighter and has less depth.   The direction is distracting and the effect literal or obvious, losing a lot of the mystery of the story.  The continuity is sloppy and the camera seems to move just to be moving.  Lupita Tovar, the lovely Mexican ingénue who played the female lead Eva Seward, has stated in interviews that at the start of their shift the Spanish crew looked at what the Americans had filmed each day.  She has said that different approaches and camera angles were used to make their film "better".  Well, “different” doesn’t always equal “better”. 
Carlos Villarias
Lupita Tovar
As for the performers, no one can seriously compare the two Draculas.  Where Lugosi is magnetic, Villarias is flat.  Where Lugosi is terrifying, Villarias is merely annoying.  Lugosi projects mastery and a dark sexual allure, Villarias mugs for the camera.  I find it interesting that most of the glowing reviews for the Spanish Dracula delicately fail to mention Villarias’ performance.  His realization of the ageless Count is absurdly overripe and amateurish. 
Carlos Villarias
Lugosi, with Frances Dade as Lucy
Let me start by saying it took me several attempts to get through the Spanish language version because I kept falling asleep.  I think that says a lot about the film all by itself.  The three problems I want to address specifically are – unnecessary business and dialogue which slow the plot down, poor blocking, and atrocious continuity. 

The Spanish cut is 28 minutes longer than the English, mostly due to additional dialogue; dialogue which does not add anything important to the scenes, and sometimes undercuts the tension.  This happens throughout the movie and only drags down the action until it creaks to a halt.  Browning’s film moves along briskly in comparison.  For example, in Browning’s film the character Renfield has three scenes with Van Helsing which provide much exposition.  Dwight Frye as directed by Browning, conveys all of this in a short time.  (He does a great job with this character.  Frye was a versatile stage actor with a much greater range than he was allowed to show in movies.) Melford directs his Renfield in five talky scenes which go on much too long.  While the actor playing the Spanish Renfield is not bad, his character definitely wears out his welcome. 
                                                      Dwight Frye as Renfield
                                               Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield

When Dracula and Renfield are upstairs in the castle discussing the lease and transportation arrangements, we see another example of the scene being drawn out by Melford to little effect while Browning films it efficiently yet creatively.

In the Spanish the director takes twice as long to get the business conversation completed.  We get to see Renfield tearing into a chicken, and then cutting his finger while slicing bread.  This brings on the blood lust in Dracula which is squelched by seeing the crucifix.  The Count’s reaction looks as if he is smelling something slightly unpleasant.  Up to now this bit is similar to the scene in Murnau’s “Nosferatu”.  Unfortunately, we do not have the fascinating Max Schreck to concentrate on.  Villarias has to offer Renfield two glasses of wine so we can finally get to the line about “I never drink….wine”  Villarias recites this line with a long pause before ‘wine’.  He leans into Renfield and raises his eyebrows just to make sure that he has made his point.  At least he didn’t nudge Renfield with his elbow.  There is an unnecessary camera set-up across the room for the rest of the statically filmed accommodation scene. 

Browning takes care of all this business in about half the time at the table, with Renfield cutting his finger on a paper clip while unfolding the lease.  When Dracula sees the blood the camera zooms in on his face.  We watch him slowly stalk Renfield and react violently to the sight of the cross.  At the line about not drinking wine, well…no one can do it better than Lugosi.  The meaning is all there with an almost imperceptible pause and emphasis on the word.  The rest of the business is conducted with the same camera set-up, still at the table, intercut with close-ups.  When Dracula takes his leave the camera moves gracefully around the table in a wide arc, staying focused on Renfield and emphasizing that he is surrounded by evil; alone, with no escape.   

But even worse than the slow pacing, the Spanish version has very poor blocking for the title character.  ‘Blocking’ is the term for how a director tells his actors where and how to move.  The first example of this is the scene of Dracula and Renfield meeting on the great staircase in the castle.  Where Lugosi looks like he is leading Renfield to his doom, Villarias looks like a maitre d' showing Renfield to a table.

In Melford’s version of this scene Dracula’s power is diluted by the blocking.  Dracula introduces himself after he and Renfield have approached each other.  They stand  together on the landing like neighbors getting to know each other and then walk up the stairs together.  This pedestrian decision places both characters literally on the same physical eye-to-eye level and makes us unconsciously think of them on the same level psychologically, undermining Dracula’s position as master.
Pablo Alvarez Rubio and Carlos Villarias as directed by Melford
Browning has Dracula slowly descend the stairs on the left before Renfield sees him.  Renfield backs up, turns and freezes at the bottom of the staircase as he sees Dracula coming toward him.  The director always has the Count standing or walking several steps above and looking down on Renfield.  This position keeps Dracula physically where he should be to keep the psychological levels unbalanced .  He looks down on Renfield, literally and figuratively, because he is the lord of the manor, he is the one who knows what is really going on.  His victim, Renfield, has no idea what is really going on and Browning keeps him on a lower, weaker level so he must continually look up. 
Lugosi and Frye directed by Browning

In the Spanish film, Renfield enters the great hall, swats at a bat, turns around and sees Dracula standing on the staircase.  The reveal is accomplished by a swooping crane shot up to the vampire.  Robinson’s camera move is used by some to demonstrate Melford’s superior craftsmanship as opposed to Browning’s supposedly stodgy direction.  Unfortunately, the camera movement is rather bumpy which spoils the effect.  (Compare this crane shot to Karl Freund’s smooth camerawork into Seward’s Sanitarium, different takes of which are used in both movies.) 

Browning keeps the attention focused on Lugosi’s powerful performance and isolates the helpless Renfield.  The camera stays tight on Lugosi when he delivers the iconic lines, “I am Dracula”, and the one about “the children of the night”.  For that line Melford moves the camera behind Villarias looking toward Renfield.  This is one of Dracula’s big moments and best lines– he deserves to have the camera looking at him alone– as he does with Browning.

The London concert hall scene is another example of Tod Browning's assured direction.  The lights come up as the orchestra takes a short intermission, allowing the characters to have their conversation.  And once again Browning has Dracula positioned correctly in relation to the others.

When the Count is standing in the hallway introducing himself to Dr. Seward he is looking up at Seward who is standing on the step into the box.  This blocking has been criticized as showing Dracula at a ridiculous disadvantage.  I disagree.  When Dracula is introducing himself, he is playing the supplicant; he is the outsider who must insinuate himself into this group.  Then Seward invites the Devil into his house so to speak by bringing him into the box for the rest of the introductions.  Dracula is now standing on the same level as Seward and the power starts to shift subtly.  Dr. Seward leaves, the two women remain seated throughout, and hapless Jonathan standing off to the side.  Browning keeps Lugosi standing and centered with the others looking up at him.  Dracula is aware of the power shift (he should, he is controlling it), but the others are not.  The Count is now master of the situation and will destroy or attempt to destroy all of them.  

The music begins again on the low gloomy chords of Schubert's Symphony No.8, the "Unfinished" when Dracula is delivering his final line: "There are far worse things awaiting man than death”.  The lights dim at the same time, obscuring and changing the faces of the innocents.  It is a very well done scene.

In the Spanish language version of this scene, Dracula introduces himself to Seward while they are both standing as equals in the hallway.  When Dracula enters the box he sits down after the introductions so he is on the same level with the others.  This makes him seem more ordinary and diminishes the power shift.  Additionally, the concert music continues non-stop throughout the scene.  This is ridiculously inconceivable.  At every theater I’ve ever been in, anyone having a conversation during the performance would be shushed by everyone around them, and if they didn’t shut up would be thrown out by the management.  The people in the other boxes must have been having a fit.  I’m surprised Dracula didn’t start unwrapping candy. 
Carmen Guerrero, Carlos Villarias, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton
A tidbit I’ve always enjoyed about this movie is the poem that Lucy quotes. 
  “The abbey always reminds me of that old toast – the one about…              
                Lofty timbers, the walls around are bare,          
                Echoing to our laughter,
                As though the dead were there.
                Quaff a cup to the dead already!
                Hurrah for the next to die!”
I’ve always assumed that was something made up by the screenwriters.  It is actually a version of an old poem or song dating back at least to the early 1800’s.  Its exact origin and authorship are unknown and there are several variations.  Here is the first stanza of the version known as, ‘The Revel’, credited to Bartholomew Dowling, from “A Victorian Anthology 1837 – 1895” (ed.1895)
                     WE meet ’neath the sounding rafter,  
                      And the walls around are bare;
                     As they shout back our peals of laughter
                     It seems that the dead are there.
                     Then stand to your glasses, steady!
                     We drink in our comrades’ eyes:
                      One cup to the dead already  -
                      Hurrah for the next that dies!
Various forms have appeared in song as “Stand by Your Glasses”.  A version was sung by a group of WWI pilots in the 1930 Howard Hawks film, “The Dawn Patrol”, as well as in the 1938 remake. Here is a clip from the 1938 film starring Errol Flynn and David Niven.

The next scene is another example of clumsy blocking by Melford, but also an example of an alternate interpretation of the story draining the drama and suspense out of it.  It takes place in the Sewards’ drawing room when Dracula comes to call, and after Van Helsing has just examined the bite marks on Mina’s neck.   Browning has Harker ask “what could have made those marks?”  With no beat in between, the maid instantly announces “Count Dracula”, making it an obvious answer to Harker’s question. Melford simply has the maid announce Dracula with no question/answer tension. The drama of the Count’s entrance has disappeared.

Browning keeps Dracula at a dignified distance from each of the characters, except Mina – his next intended bride.  He particularly keeps Dracula and Van Helsing apart.  They look at each other, in alternate close-ups, as careful adversaries.  Melford films a long shot of the entire room with Dracula approaching Van Helsing and shaking his hand (!).  Again, it places the Count within the group in a prosaic and non-threatening attitude. So much for wary antagonists.
Introduction of the two adversaries as staged by George Melford
Continuity is another difference between the two movies.  Throughout his film Melford used outtakes or extra footage which had been shot by Browning.  Even though Villarias had a slight physical resemblance to Lugosi and was made up to look as much as possible like him, you can still recognize Lugosi in some long shots, e.g. in front of Lucy’s home, and in front of the theater.

He used Browning’s footage in the crypt when we first see Dracula.  This scene is beautifully handled by Browning and Freund.  It is bungled by Melford.  In Browning’s, the camera moves into the crypt to the coffin.  We see the lid opening and Lugosi’s hand reaching out.  There are various brief shots of the brides waking up and the small vermin crawling out of their holes.   The next cut is the camera coming in close to the standing Dracula and staying on him, his glowing eyes staring at us.  It’s a great scene, beautifully lit and photographed.   
Lugosi reaching for the snooze button
Melford inserts similar footage from Browning for the beginning of this scene.  We see Lugosi’s hand again, the same brides, etc.  Suddenly the set is completely different.  The coffin is now one of three wooden crates that are in front of a different wall.  Dracula appears out of his box in a brightly lit swirl of mist.  I’m not saying that it is a bad idea to use the mist as a different entrance for Dracula.  I’m saying that the use of a jarringly different set and props is bad.  It’s bad direction, bad editing and bad continuity.  It’s just plain bad.  By the way, this is one of the effects that gets the most praise from those who champion Melford’s imaginative direction and criticize Browning. 

Dracula (Villarias) has emerged from his,, in a swirl of mist.  But where the heck are we??

After Renfield has been drugged and falls to the floor, Browning moves the three brides  toward him.  Dracula appears at the French doors, waves the women back with a slow sweep of his arm, and bends down to help himself to Renfield’s neck.  Melford shoots this scene from the outside of the doors looking in.  The three brides, not Dracula, attack Renfield.  Another distracting break in continuity is provided by Melford using different actresses to play the wives.  The Browning excerpts show the same three silent, pale,gliding phantasms we saw earlier in the crypt.  Melford’s actresses look like wild harpies with bared teeth and claws.  This is a different interpretation of the scene, but the glaring lack of continuity is appalling.   
                                            Dracula's three brides - by Tod Browning
Dracula's three brides, per Mr. Melford.  At least I think that's who they are supposed to be. 

Another of Browning’s outtakes used by Melford is in the scene with Renfield in Dracula’s coach on his way to the castle.  Instead of being spooky, it is laughable.  Renfield looks out the window and sees a large bat leading the horses.  But whoever was controlling the string must not have been paying attention.  The bat is flying forward, sideways, backwards.  I think it’s safe to say there was a reason Browning didn’t use that bit of film.  It was bad.  Just plain bad.

I admit there is one small scene that Browning used and probably should have re-shot; the opening scene in the carriage with Renfield and the rest of the passengers.  If you look closely at Dwight Frye he is obviously about to crack up and is trying to keep a straight face.  It only lasts a few seconds because he controls it and gets back into character.  But it always makes me laugh.
I have to say again, the difference between the performances of the two Draculas is mind-boggling.  After all, the title of the movie is, well…”Dracula”.  He is a pretty important character, and if the actor cannot fill the cape, then your movie collapses in on itself like a house of cards.  If your lead actor is shall we say, weak or miscast, then I don’t really care what camera angles you use -- your movie, shall we say, sucks.

Lugosi is unfailingly compelling, powerful, romantic, fierce, commanding.  The actor had played the role on stage a thousand times over the years.  He said in interviews that he had the habit of playing to the back of the theater, he “took it big” and he had to be re-trained to take it “small”.  He has been quoted as being grateful for Browning’s help in crafting his performance, directing him to play to the more intimate space of the camera.**
**from the commentary by Steve Haberman to the dvd release Dracula - 75th Anniversary Edition

Villarias seems to be playing a stage character with his broad gestures, grimaces and wide staring eyes.  If George Melford gave him any good advice about to how to act for the camera it must have gone unheeded.  His Dracula is more like the deadly dull uncle with the bad jokes you try to stay away from at family reunions, or the grumpy waiter who doesn’t leave you alone and drives you nuts because he keeps trying to take your plate away before you are finished and  knows he will get a lousy tip.

Carlos Villarias.  Sadly, no longer available for children's parties. 

As I said earlier, I tried to be objective about both films.  The Lugosi version is much beloved by me.  However, I previously had the opinion that it was a little slow and stage-bound at times.  After watching it with an open mind, I appreciate it much more.  Tod Browning created a complete Gothic horror tale which still stands up today.  I approached the Spanish version as an interesting unknown quantity, and was expecting to be impressed after the praise I had heard.  I was severely disappointed. 

If you are a completist movie fan the Spanish “Dracula” might be a fun addition to your library.  Or, you could (like me), just turn down the lights, pop in the old familiar DVD, and then settle back on the couch to be thrilled and chilled once more by the brilliance of Tod Browning and, especially, Bela Lugosi.
Dracula.  Lugosi.  Any questions?

  ….and a few more tidbits about “Dracula”

I love Bela Lugosi.  He was an underused and underappreciated actor in his time.  For sure, he had his own personal demons to contend with, probably not to mention some bad business judgment.  But how I would love to be able to re-write history and see him given the chance to take more roles with more variety.  Remember him in the comedy “Ninotchka”?  In the 1931 Charlie Chan movie, "The Black Camel" he played a very interesting and sympathetic role as a red herring suspect who helps the detective solve the mystery. 
Lugosi applying his own make-up.

He bravely overcame his addiction to morphine when he checked himself into a rehabilitation hospital in the mid-1950’s.  Unfortunately, by this time the opportunity for good roles was long past.  He worked in the 1950’s with notoriously inept writer/director Ed Wood, Jr.  But if you look at the films they made together, “Bride of the Monster” or even “Plan Nine from Outer Space”, you see an actor who is giving his all -- even to a bad movie. But he is remembered best for “Dracula”, the role that was his triumph but also his albatross. 

He has been criticized for his strange line readings in “Dracula” which make some of his dialogue off kilter.  Let’s be real here.  Lugosi played this role so many times he could probably have recited it backwards.  Doesn’t it seem logical that in all that time, in rehersals and performances, he honed his line readings for exactly the effect he wanted?  The whole situation in "Dracula" is off kilter to say the least.  Renfield (and by extension the audience) is kept off balance by everything he sees and hears.  Certainly you can say that his Hungarian accented English makes very odd stresses on odd syllables, but it works brilliantly. 

In Transylvania, when he is leaving Renfield in his room for the night, Dracula says the very prosaic farewell, “Good-night, Mister Renfield”.  However, Lugosi speaks this line in anything but a prosaic manner.  Lugosi smiles sardonically and with a very slight raising of an eyebrow he delivers it as “Good-night, Mis-ter Renfield”.  It is my favorite line in the movie.  The emphasis on the word ‘mister’ and the rolling Rs, make it drip with arrogant and malignant  irony.  He is saying, “Yes, I will play the game for a bit longer.  We will pretend that you have any significance.  You are just where I want you.”  It is clear and yet not overdone.

Throughout the scene in Seward’s living room when Dracula pays a call on Mina, Lugosi is dignified and aristocratic. He underplays the evil and maintains a superficial benevolent civilty.  His arrogance and assuredness of his superior position are barely concealed under his mask of social grace.  Mina is obviously affected by his presence.  The undercurrent of sexual attraction and lust are there in her rapt gaze at Dracula and in her rapid breathing. 
Mina eyeing Jonathan after she has experienced Dracula's kiss. 
The moment when Van Helsing traps Dracula with the cigarette case mirror is an outstanding lesson in how an actor can convey a myriad of emotions in a few seconds while maintaining the character.  When the professor is speaking, Dracula is standing in front of him, relaxed and confident in his power.  There is nothing that can harm him and he looks down at the case in the professor’s hands calmly.  When it opens, Dracula with a sudden, instinctive, bestial violence smashes it to the floor with his hand.  He pauses – glares at Van Helsing while his face changes from murderous rage to sharp spiked hatred.  Slowly he gains control.  When he realizes that he has been tricked and exposed, a very small, very brief cloud of sadness seems to pass over his face.  It’s as if in that micro-split second we see volumes.  He is aware of Van Helsing as an astute scientist, and so if Van Helsing is on to him, not only is his goose cooked but it is about to be sliced and served. 

He regains a measure of civility and outward calm while he apologizes to Dr. Seward.  With one more if-looks-could-kill glance at Van Helsing, he turns to walk out of the room.  He stops and speaks his line to the professor, “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing”.  Now he has returned completely to the elegant character he was when the scene started, except there is an edge of hatred and yet respect for his enemy.  All of the above occurs just over 60 seconds.  It is an exceptional performance.  

Compare, if you want to, the scene done by Lugosi to the very inferior take in the Spanish version.  Carlos Villarias as the Count is a carnival attraction compared to the polished Hungarian actor.  It takes him several seconds to look into the mirror and react to it.  How long should it take?!  It makes Dracula look incompetent. 

One more tidbit about Lugosi:  
His face was used as the model for the face of the devil in the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ segment of the Disney movie “Fantasia”. 

And finally,…
The original English film had a final curtain speech by Edward Van Sloan.  It is similar to the pre-curtain speech he delivers before the start of “Frankenstein”.  It was removed from the film after 1938 when the Hollywood Production Code was in full force.  The Code protected the public from all sorts of nasty things in movies, like any hint of sex, violence, adult themes, or religious controversy.  Or, the idea that vampires could really exist. 

             “Just a moment, Ladies and Gentlemen, just a word before you go.
            We hope the memories of Dracula won’t give you bad dreams.  So just
             a word of reassurance.  When you get home tonight, and the lights are
             turned out, and you’re afraid to look behind the curtains, and you dread
             to see a face appear at the window, well…just pull yourself together.
             And remember, after all...there ARE such things.” 

Prints of old films, considered lost, are still being found.  I have hope that this delightful bit of film will be discovered someday in someone’s vault and restored.

Last and certainly not least, I couldn't stop before adding this clip of film history.  It documents the meeting of two show biz legends:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I have deleted the comment from "WhiteLady". It was inappropriate, rambling and offensively anti-Semitic.
    I've had to adjust my comment settings so now I can see the comments first, and either approve or reject them. Like your teacher in grade school said: It only takes one to ruin it for the rest.

    I welcome and appreciate comments, however I trust that all of you wonderful people will keep it sane, polite and relevant to the review. Thank you!!

  3. I just realized I should have said "virulently anti-Semitic", not "offensively anti-Semitic". After all, there is no such thing as "inoffensively anti-Semitic".