Dracula (1931) Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan. Directed by Tod Browning. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. Screenplay by Garrett Fort and Dudley Murphy. Based on the novel, Dracula, by Bram Stoker (London, 1897) and the stage play, Dracula (1924), by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Run Time: 75 minutes. U.S. Black and White, Horror.
Every major studio seemed to have a genre that it excelled at. For MGM it was musicals, at Warner Bros. it was gangster films and for Universal it was the horror genre. Seeing how Halloween is at the end of the month, Trophy Unlocked has decided to take a look back at some of the classic horror tales from Universal, starting with Dracula (1931).
Universal had been making horror since its inception as Independent Moving Pictures Company, which produced a silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913). Universal would produce such films as The Phantom Melody (1920), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) before sound. While their subject matter might not be mainstream fare, Universal felt, and I’m no doubt misquoting a former college professor, that there was an idiot fringe who would be attracted to these kinds of films.
With the coming of sound, the studio saw no reason to change course. While other studios were also making horror films, Paramount made their own version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and Warner Bros. made The Mad Genius (1931) with Michael Curtiz at the helm, no one made as big of a splash as Universal did when it released Dracula on Valentine’s Day, 1931.
The movie is based on a play, Dracula (1924) by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which is itself based on Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name, published in 1897. Although Stoker did not invent the vampire, many of our modern conceptions date back to this book.
The novel had already been made into a movie by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau. Nosferatu (1922) was made without authorization and the names of the characters were changed, but this thinly veiled adaptation was a prime example of German Expressionism. When Stoker’s widow tried to get it removed from theaters, the controversy sold more copies of the novel and added to its popularity.
While Nosferatu ignored the Berne conventions rules on copyrighted materials, that was not an issue in the U.S. Stoker had failed to follow proper copyright procedure so his novel has been in U.S. public domain since it was published here in 1899.
|Nosferatu (1922), the first film adaptation of Dracula.|
The 1924 play was originally written by Deane, but was substantially revised by Balderston, three years later, when the play was brought to Broadway by Horace Liveright. The star of the American production was a Hungarian-American actor, named Bela Lugosi. Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, Lugosi made his first film Nászdal (1917) in his native Hungary. While he appeared in several U.S. films after arriving here, none would be bigger than Dracula.
Carl Laemmle Jr., the son of the founder of Universal Studios and the head of production there from 1928 to 1936, saw the box office potential of the Stoker book and legally acquired film rights. Originally he conceived the film as an epic on the scale of the studios earlier productions like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera and headlined by the star of those two films, Lon Chaney. But not only was Chaney under contract at MGM, he would die of throat cancer in 1928.
Universal Studios, like the rest of America, was hit hard by the depression, so the grand budget had to be cut back and several scenes from the novel had to be excised. After paying $40,000 for rights to the play and book, Laemmle had Frederick Stephani write a treatment. While Garrett Fort would get writing credit, Louis Stevens, Louis Bromfield and Dudley Murphy were also contributing writers to early drafts. Using the play as a blueprint, the writers would also watch Nosferatu for inspiration, even going so far as to lift scenes from the film.
Next they had to cast the film. And while Lugosi would now seem like the obvious choice, he wasn’t’ Laemmle’s. With Chaney dead, Laemmle considered the following actors: Paul Muni, who had only been in two films by then; Chester Morris, who had received an Academy nomination for Alibi (1929) and would go on to play Boston Blackie in a series of films; Ian Keith, a dependable supporting actor who had appeared in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930); John Wray, best known then for his appearance in All Quiet On the Western Front (1930); Joseph Schildkraut, who was featured in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927); Arthur Edmund Carewe, who had appeared as Ledoux in The Phantom of the Opera (1925); Conrad Veidt, best known at the time as Cesare, the somnambulist, in the German silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920); William Courtenay, a popular and handsome actor of stage and silent screen; and John Carradine, who had only been in two films by then. With the exception of Muni, Carradine and Morris this was not a real who’s who of Hollywood.
|Bela Lugosi starred as Dracula on Broadway, but wasn't a shoe-in for the film role.|
Lugosi just happened to be in Los Angeles with a touring company of the play, during the casting process. He lobbied hard for the part and won studio executives over with his talent and the fact he would take $500 a week to play the part.
Production began on September 29th and finished on November 15th, 1930. The opening scene of the horse-drawn carriage was photographed by Frank Booth, and other scenes were filmed at Vasquez Rocks in Chatsworth, California. Additional shooting was completed on December 13th, with retakes completed on January 2, 1931. The film was released six weeks later. Budgeted at $355,000 the film was actually made for less; the final cost being about $341,191.
The film opens with the arrival of English businessman Renfield (Dwight Frye), who arrives by carriage into a small village just before dusk. While everyone else departs, Renfield insists he has to get to a rendezvous with another coach at Borgo Pass at midnight. The keeper of the inn tries to dissuade him from keeping the appointment, especially after Renfield tells them that it is with Dracula. The innkeeper (Michael Visaroff) is full of stories about Dracula the vampire and his three wives who live in the castle, transform into wolves and bats and drink blood, all of which Renfield dismisses as folklore. He insists that he has business to attend to and the driver takes Renfield to his appointed meeting.
|Dracula's Castle. Dark and forboding.|
Meanwhile, with night fall, Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and his three wives (Geraldine Dvorak, Cornelia Thaw and Dorothy Tree) arise from their coffins where they sleep during the day.
|Dracula's wives arise from their coffins at nightfall.|
At Borgo Pass, a second carriage awaits and even though the driver never speaks, we can see under his cloak that he is Dracula. This is confirmed when Renfield tries to speak to the driver and sees no one driving the horse team. He does, however, see a bat flying above the horses which seems to be steering them. When they get to Dracula’s castle, the driver and the bat, along with Renfield’s luggage, have disappeared.
|Renfield (Dwight Frye) meets Dracula (Bela Lugosi) for the first time.|
Renfield goes inside. The rooms are massive and the place is dark. While he is tentatively looking around, a lone figure comes down a treacherous stairway and introduces himself as Dracula. The Count is charming though quite eccentric. He offers Renfield some food and wine and they briefly talk business. Renfield has traveled from London to deliver the lease for the Carfax Abbey to the Count. For the first time we’re shown the Count’s hypnotizing eyes as Renfield falls under his spell.
|Dracula's hypnotizing eyes get shown again and again throughout the film.|
After the Count leaves him alone, Renfield opens the room’s giant window. When a large bat flies by, Renfield faints, or perhaps passes out due to drugs in the wine. Lying unconscious on the floor, Renfield attracts Dracula’s wives, who move in unison towards him, but Dracula appears and waves them off. He wants Renfield for himself and we see him descend upon him to feed on his blood, though we dissolve away before the actual bite.
|Dracula waves off his wives. He wants Renfield all to himself.|
Aboard the Vesta, a schooner Dracula has hired to take him to England, Renfield is shown to be Dracula’s slave, keeping watch over his master’s coffin by day, while Dracula feeds on the crew at night. Renfield is happy with flies which he consumes for their blood. By the time the ship drifts into Whitby Harbor, the entire crew is found dead, the Captain lashed to the wheel. Only Renfield is found alive and he is considered insane and institutionalized at Dr. Seward’s (Herbert Bunston) sanitarium. The doctors there study his eating habits.
|The only survivor of the Vesta is Renfield and he's considered insane.|
Meanwhile, Dracula is free and walking about London. We see him attack a woman selling daffodils on the street. Later at the opera, Dracula introduces himself to Dr. Seward and meets his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé, John Harker (David Manners), and Mina’s friend, Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).
|Dracula meets Mina (Helen Chandler), John Harker (David|
Manners) and Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) at the opera.
Lucy seems enchanted by Dracula's romantic manner, and later, the Count enters her room while she is asleep and feasts on her blood. The next day, we’re shown doctors working over her body in a teaching auditorium. Despite blood transfusions, they can’t save her. Another female victim of a mysterious killer.
|Dracula about to put the bite on Lucy while she sleeps.|
Meanwhile, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) arrives to assist Seward with Renfield, who has moments of lucidity. Renfield asks the doctor to send him away, for fear his nightly cries might disturb his daughter’s dreams. When Dracula calls for Renfield using a wolf’s howl, Van Helsing shows him wolfbane, which disturbs Renfield. Van Helsing explains that wolfbane is used to keep away vampires.
Since Carfax Abbey is next door to the Seward’s estate, Dracula has easy access to its occupants and targets Mina as his next victim. Transforming once again into a bat, he flies to her room and attacks her in her sleep. She doesn’t die immediately, the way her friend had, but undergoes a change over several nights.
Van Helsing has his theory which is confirmed for Seward and Harker when Dracula drops by for a visit. When Van Helsing opens a cigarette box with a mirror in it, Dracula has no reflection, proof he is a vampire. Dracula leaves quickly.
|Dracula doesn't see his reflection in the mirror at the bottom of the cigarette box.|
Convinced Dracula is behind the recent deaths in London and is after Mina, Van Helsing has her room filled with wolfbane. But despite these precautions, Mina is not safe from Dracula. He hypnotizes her maid into opening the windows. Even though she has been instructed to stay in her room, Mina wanders out into the garden where Dracula attacks her once again, turning Mina into a vampire.
Her body is found in the yard by one of the maids (Moon Carroll) and is brought back into the house. Mina confesses to Van Helsing that she has seen Lucy since she was buried, which confirms his suspicions that the "woman in white" who has been attacking young children is Lucy.
Harker wants to get Mina away from the sanitarium and take her to London for safety and though he is adamant at first, he is convinced it’s best to leave her in the care of Van Helsing. Van Helsing wants her confined to her bed room and even orders Nurse Briggs to put wolfbane on her when she’s asleep.
Renfield, who escapes his cell, listens to the men as they discuss Vampires. And in a final lucid moment he tells them Dracula had convinced him to allow him to enter the sanitarium by promising him thousands of rats with blood and life in them.
Dracula appears in Seward’s parlour, where he confronts Van Helsing over Mina’s soul. Van Helsing believes that if she dies she can be freed from Dracula’s spell. But the Count relates that if she dies at night, then she will be forever his. Van Helsing promises to excavate Carfax Abbey, find Dracula’s resting place and kill him. Dracula then tries to hypnotize Van Helsing to do his will, but the Professor resists; his will is too strong. When Dracula tries to attack him, Van Helsing uses a crucifix to repel him.
|Dracula tries to get Van Helsing to do his biding, but Helsing's will is too strong.|
Meanwhile, Harker tries to see Mina, but Briggs tells him no. However, Mina appears on the balcony outside. She knows what is happening to her and tells Harker that even though she loves him, they can’t be together. When a bat flies by, Mina communicates with it. She then tries to attack Harker, but Van Helsing and Seward save him.
|Mina about to attack her fiancee, Harker.|
Dracula, followed by Renfield, takes Mina back to Carfax Abbey, where he plans to make her final transition. Van Helsing and Harker follow Renfield there and when Dracula discovers their presence, he kills Renfield by throwing him down the stairs.
|Renfield swears his allegiance, but is still thrown down the stairs.|
Dawn approaches, and when Van Helsing finds Dracula in his coffin, he drives a stake through his heart, killing him for eternity. At the same time that Dracula is killed, Mina is released from her spell and is reunited with Harker.
|Van Helsing finds Dracula's coffin and kills him with a stake through the heart.|
When first released, the English-language version included an afterword performed by Edward Van Sloan, in which he warned audiences that vampires do indeed exist. This ending was deleted in 1936, at the same time that the soundtrack was cut in the scenes in which Renfield and Dracula are killed.
The film would prove to be a big hit, selling 50,000 tickets in the first 48 hours after opening at the Roxy Theatre in New York. The success of Dracula would not only lead to more horror films from Universal, like Frankenstein, which would come out the same year, but also more Dracula films. Even back in the 1930s, Hollywood loved a franchise. Not only was a Spanish version, Drácula, made using the same sets at night with different actors, but over the next 17 years, Universal would produce five more films with the character of Dracula or a relative in a leading role, including: Dracula’s Daughter (1938), starring Gloria Holden; Son of Dracula (1943), starring Lon Chaney, Jr.; House of Frankenstein (1944), starring John Carradine; House of Dracula (1945), again with Carradine; and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) with Lugosi reprising the role, would follow.
|Carlos Villar would star in the Spanish-language version of Dracula, shot at night using the same sets.|
The character would also spawn a series of movies from the British film studio, Hammer Films, starting with Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee, which was released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula (1960) followed with David Peel as a disciple of Dracula’s Baron Meinster. Lee would return and star in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966); Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968); Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969); Scars of Dracula (1970); Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and finally The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), which was released in the U.S. as Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride. John Forbes-Robertson starred as Dracula in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).
Other productions featuring a Dracula character include a 1973 British television production of Dracula, directed by Dan Curtis and starring Jack Palance and a 1979 German film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani.
Universal has also routinely dipped into the Dracula well, producing Dracula (1979), starring Frank Langella as Dracula; Van Helsing (2004), directed by Stephen Sommers and starring Hugh Jackman and Richard Roxburgh, and the new film, Dracula Untold (2014), coming out this month.
Bela Lugosi meanwhile would find himself typecast as a horror villain in such films as Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), White Zombie (1932), Night of Terror (1933), The Raven (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Lugosi’s thick accent didn’t help either. With a change in management at the studio, the Laemmles were bought out in 1936, and the studio’s suspension of making horror films, due to a British ban on the genre, Lugosi ended up in a B-unit at Universal. But Lugosi was put into competition at the studio with another horror film star, Boris Karloff, whom management preferred and who would get the better roles.
Lugosi’s career would get a shot in the arm when he appeared in Ninotchka (1939) at MGM opposite Greta Garbo. However, he was quickly back to B-movies at Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Things would get worse, as Lugosi would have to take painkillers to deal with injuries suffered during World War I. As his medication became more severe, his roles dried up. But while Lugosi might have been gone from the silver screen, he was not forgotten.
Ed Wood, a quirky independent filmmaker, offered him roles in his films, including the narrator of Glen or Glenda (1953) and as a mad scientist in Bride of the Monster (1955). His last film would be for Bel-Air Productions, The Black Sheep (1956). Despite his death in 1956 of a heart attack, he would also appear in footage used in Ed Wood’s “masterpiece” Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
Helen Chandler, who played Mina, and had been acting in films since The Music Master (1927), didn’t want to play the part. She wanted instead to be Alice in Paramount Pictures’ Alice in Wonderland (1933), a part that would go to Charlotte Henry. Chandler had a relatively short career and made her last film, Mr. Boggs Steps Out, in 1938. Her body was badly damaged in a fire when she fell asleep smoking in bed, ending her acting career.
David Manners was discovered by James Whale at a Hollywood party and would become a popular leading man. Whale directed him in his first film, The Sky Hawk (1929), and by his second, Journey’s End (1930), he was already getting notice from The New York Times and Variety for his acting abilities. Following Dracula, he appeared as a romantic leading man. He would work with director Frank Capra on The Miracle Woman (1931), work with Chandler again on The Last Flight (1931) and appear in The Mummy (1932). Despite his success, Manners never took to Hollywood, finding it a fake place, and retired from films in 1936.
Dwight Frye was a stage actor before making a few appearances in silent films. With sound, he became known as “The Man with the Thousand-Watt Stare” and specialized in playing mentally unbalanced characters. After Renfield in Dracula, Frye would play the gunsel Wilmer Cook in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon. But he was far from being done with horror films. He had a featured role in The Vampire Bat (1933), played a reporter in The Invisible Man (1933) and in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) he played Karl.
|Dwight Frye would become know for playing unbalanced characters.|
Edward Van Sloan originated the role of Van Helsing on Broadway in the Dracula play opposite Lugosi. Like Frye, he would make his mark acting in horror films, playing Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Muller in The Mummy (1932) and would reprise Professor Van Helsing in Dracula’s Daughters.
Horror films would not be so kind to the director, Tod Browning. After having directed films since The Lucky Transfer (1915), Browning, despite the success of Dracula, would only direct six more films. His career would be derailed by Freaks (1932), but more on that in a later review.
Watching Dracula now, I have to wonder if people were genuinely frightened by the film when it was first released. The film is sometimes a little melodramatic. Browning repeatedly shows us Dracula's hypnotizing eyes and Renfield's laugh is a little like fingernails on a chalkboard, but both are effectively used. While Lugosi gives a compelling performance, I don’t think I’ve ever been truly scared by this portrayal. So many more films, and even television shows, are more graphic and brutal. This Dracula is menacing, but not frightening. Perhaps it’s the re-editing for the Production Code, but there are no bloody scenes in the film and even the murder of Dracula takes place off camera.
|An obvious publicity shot for the movie, with the main cast around the novel that started it all.|
That said, I would say the film is still worth watching. There is a history in the making feel to watching this movie. From this story, and the book it’s based on, pretty much all we know about vampires as characters is set up. Future films, television and books would either play off these established norms or play against them to differentiate themselves. But in so many ways this is the spring from which modern stories continue to draw from. A must-see for anyone who loves vampires or horror films.