Monday, July 11, 2011

The Story Of The Strangest Passion The World Has Ever Known!

Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan

The world's most famous bloodsucker was born on New Year's day, 1897 with the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Borrowing the name from the real 15th century Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes, and using influences from the earlier vampire works of John Polidori and Sheridan La Fanu, plus the theatricality and lofty arrogance of his boss, the great Shakespearean actor, Sir Henry Irving, Stoker creates his vampire. It was an instant smash and while Stoker was never a rich man because of it, the book remained a best seller and is still among the great money making novels of all time.
Dracula was first filmed as early as 1921 in Romania, in a plot that was reportedly reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera. Unfortunetly, that film is now lost. One film that is not lost but almost was, is the 1922 German classic, Nosferatu, which retold the Stoker story, albeit with different names and a change of locale from England to the Baltic States. It is largely considered the first, and for many, the best vampire film of all time, terrifying and eerie, highlighted by the truly creepy performance of the enigmatic Max Schreck as the vampire. The film was under fire from the Stoker estate and was ordered destroyed. Thankfully, film
preservationists saved the film in France and the United States.

Dracula went to the stage in 1925 in London, produced by Horace Liveright and starring Raymond Huntley as the Count. It simplified the Stoker novel into a drawing room mystery and the Count got a complete makeover, complete with cape and tuxedo, taking on the appearance of a magician. The final elements that brought together the popular image of the vampire came when the play arrived in the States. Huntley remained in London to continue with the part and Liveright found a Hungarian ex-patriot, Bela Lugosi, to play the title role. Lugosi's good looks and continental charm solidfied the image of Dracula forever and the play made him an overnight sensation and sex symbol. Dracula was optioned for a film since the mid-twenties, being fought over between MGM and Universal. Lon Chaney Sr. showed great interest in the project, and was the obvious choice for the title role. Universal won the rights and was negotiating a contract with Chaney, who was a long-term contractee at MGM, before the great actor passed away of lung cancer in August of 1930. Producer Paul Kohner suggested they hire Conrad Veidt to play the Count, with Paul Leni directing. Veidt was unsure of his english and went back to Germany and wouldnot return until the war years when he made films like The Thief of Bagdad(1940) and Casablanca(1942). Paul Leni would die of blood poisoning in late 1929.

Several actors are suggested for the part of Dracula, including Paul Muni, John Wray and Ian Keith, yet the front office had no interest in Bela Lugosi! Lon Chaney's most frequent collaborator, Tod Browning, was the director and the script was written by Garrett Fort and John Balderston. Edward Van Sloan, who had played Van Helsing on the stage, portayed the good doctor again. David Manners would be Johnathan Harker and Helen Chandler would play Mina Steward. Most memorably, Dwight Frye, a stage actor at the time, would make cinema history playing Renfield, the insect-eating slave of Dracula, a role that would define the rest of his career. At the final hour, Universal cast a desparate Lugosi who took the part for one-third the sum of Dvaid Manners, recieving a scant 3,000 dollars for one of the most iconic performances in genre history and the role that both made him a star and forever typecast him.

Dracula begins with strains from Swan Lake playing under a title card, appropiately painted with the picture of a bat! As the music fades out, we are in Transylvania as a carriage is travelling through rough terrain going at a rapid pace. The studio head's niece, Carla Laemmle, speaks the first lines ever spoken in Hollwood's first ever all-talking supernatural thriller. "Beyond the rugges peaks that crown down upon the Borgo pass, are found crumbling castles of a bygone age" she says, before falling into the lap of real-estate agent, Renfield(Dwight Frye) who asks the driver to go slower, but is told they must reach the village before sundown. They reach the village and Renfield has an unintentionally comic meeting with the innkeeper who insists that he stay here and not travel to the Borgo Pass where a carriage awaits him to go to Castle Dracula. The young man does not listen and goes on his way, but not before recieving a crucifix to wear for "your mother's sake."

What follows is one of the most wonderfully atmospheric moments in the annals of the horror film, as the camera pans around the crypt of Dracula's castle, a dank and dark place with no music, save for the sounds of rats and wolves in the distance. Strange insects and armadillos and possums(?) are lurking in the shadows as Dracula's wives rise from the coffins and the camera cloes in on the demonic visage of Lugosi's Dracula, eyes ablaze straight into the camera. Those same eyes appear moments later, as Dracula waits in the carriage for Renfield to arrive at the foggy and spooky Borgo pass crossroads. Renfield enters the carriage and is driven up to castle Dracula in a spectacular view of the castle, done through a composite shot that's one of the most memorable images of the genre.

Renfield enters the decaying ruins of Dracula's castle, perhaps the most impressive set design of any of the golden age horror sets. Dracula appears walking down the staircase and in rapid fire succession begins spouting off an endless number of classic lines, beginning with "I am Dracula." He leads Renfield up the staircase, which is blocked by a giant spider web, which Dracula appears to pass through! He then invites the real estate agent to a lavishly furnished room where he invites him to a late supper and offers him wine and another classic line. "I never drink wine" Bela's Dracula intones. The wine is drugged and Renfield falls unconscious as Dracula's wives descend upon him, only to be pushed back by Dracula, who bites him and turns him into an insect eating lunatic. They board a hip for England and during a terrible storm, Dracula feasts on and murders the crew, unfortunately offscreen. Tod Browning himself narrates offscreen as the ship is searched at port, only Renfield is alive, smiling and laughing wildly, in Frye's inimitable manner.

Dracula arrives in London, pausing to murder a flower girl, before attending the Opera and introducing himself to the Seward family and fixing his gaze on Lucy(Frances Dade) and Mina(Helen Chandler), though Mina's fiance, Johnathan(David Manners) and Mina's father, Dr. Seward(Herbert Bunston) are all but oblivious to this. Dracula comes to Lucy's room that night and drinks all her blood, leaving her dead and Dr. Van Helsing(Edward Van Sloan) is called on to the case, which he believes has been caused by the undead.

It's from this point onward that the film begins to resemble the stage play and becomes rather slow. The first half  is about as good as the genre gets, but the remainder is pretty talky as Van Helsing attempts to fox out the vampire and Renfield keeps escaping from the insane asylum(worst security ever) and very few classic scenes follow, especially in comparsion to that first quarter. Van Helsing finds out that it's Dracula as he shows him a mirror in a cigarette case, which Dracula promptly smashes, causing Dracula to quip; "For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing!"
Renfield has some choice scenes describing Dracula's gifts of rats, all wide eyed and creepy and gesturing with his hands, "Rats! Rats! Rats!" all while giving that classic laugh of his. Mina ends up under Dracula's spell and she is guarded(poorly) and eventually takes Mina away, but not before having a classic confrontation with Van Helsing, who has a strong enough will to battle the Count. Johnathan and Van Helsing trace Dracula back to his sadly underseen London hideout, Carfax Abbey and witness Renfield's death at the hands of Dracula, being choked and tossed away down a huge staircase. The sun begins to rise and Mina is found and The Count is staked by Van Helsing, dying with an off-screen groan, no less! Johnathan and Mina walk up the stairs and away from Carfax Abbey, before the title credits come on and folks, it's a Universal picture.

Dracula is undoubtably a film classic, but one immensely flawed film. It contains a strong first half that overpowers all the rest that folows, an unfortunate trait associated with many of Browning's horror films. There are many continuity problems(the infamous cardboard in front of the lamp) and lapses in the script, such as the actual purpose of Renfield to Dracula, who seems to exist only to reveal the Count's plans(!) and the ultimate fate of Lucy, who is seen briefly walking away from her tomb, though she is never dispatched in the movie. The film appears also much more slowly paced than other horror classics of the period, notably Frankenstein(1931) and Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1931) and contains few of the directorial flourishes that distinguish those two classics, despite the cameraman on Dracula being Karl Freund, who had made several of the best Geramn expressionist classics and would later direct the highly stylized, The Mummy(1932) and Mad Love(1935). Browning is an important name in the history of the horror film, but not for his technique. His direction of actors, as noted by some of the cast in interviews, was non-existant and it shows on screen as several portrayls are very broad and theatrical.

Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula is one of the great marriages of actor and part, giving one of the most iconic horror performances of all time. Many critics today criticize Lugosi's acting style and limitations, though Lugosi was a very capable actor and delivers a timeless portrayal that set the standard for all future Draculas to follow. His line readings are unique and eerie and instantly anthologizeable, being quoted time and time again by fans over the years and being re-used in countless other movies. Gary Oldman actually suggested to Francis Ford Coppola when making Bram Stoker's Dracula(1992) to use the "I never drink wine" line because of Lugosi. The actor's suave style is both charming and sinister and his commanding presence, especially in the nattle of wits between Edward Van Sloan, are captivating. Also, few films in the actor's career, outside of White Zombie(1932), made better use of the actor's hypnotic eyes and hand gestures which became a part of the mythology, hypnotism never a part of the Stoker creation. Lugosi portrays the count as something akin to a supervillain, and evil magician. Even with a line like, "To die to be be really dead, that must be glorious", there's little doubt that Lugosi's Count is one evil bastard and that's part of what makes him so enjoyable.

Edward Van Sloan can be a tad broad as the good doctor, changing tone and speaking sometimes to the characters in a way reminiscent of the way one would speak to a backwards child. He has effective moments though and it's clear why he became a genre staple. His determination to stop the vampire is sincere and his "duels" with Lugosi are fun to watch. David Manners is typically bland and irksome here, probably his worst performance, even though it's also his most famous! Helen Chandler seems strange and dazed throughout and even a bit vampiric before her Dracula encounter! Frances Dade as Lucy, was alot more appealing and interesting and it's a shame that she is killed off so early for her blander counterpart.Dwight Frye delivers the most developed performance of the supporting cast and actualy, probably the most multi-dimensional of the film. His  transformation from gentleman to fiendish madman is unsettling and sad. You really feel sorry for him when he cries at Dracula to spare Mina's life and his own and not make him do terrible things, even if we the audience aren't all too sure what those terrible things are! This was Frye's moment in time and set him on a new career path, much like Lugosi. Forever after, he would be seen playing lunatics and madmen, his next role being as the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, in Frankenstein(1931).

Dracula was a massive success when it was released on Valentine's Day, 1931 and was pivotal to saving Universal Studios from bankruptcy that year. A spanish language version was also produced concurrently and was a very different production, despite using the the same script. The direction was much more fluid and the camerwork alot more mobile and involving, though the performances were mixed. Lucia Tovar was the standout, giving a much more full-blooded and sexier performance than Helen Chandler had in the American version, accentuated by her sexier wardrobe. Carlos Villarias was no Bela Lugosi, however and it's a pity that Lugosi was not directed in like fashion. The film also filled in a few missing plot points including the ultimate fate of Lucy and explains what Renfield was actually going to do to that fainted maid in one scene.(He was trying to catch a fly!) Overall, it was a better directed and much more epic production with a sexier undertone that still feels ahead of it's time. Sadly, what it lacked was Bela Lugosi.

Dracula is far from a perfect film, but it's imagery and atmosphere have inspired much of the genre and it's still the way most people remember the story. Bela Lugosi creates something indelible here that even after decades of imitators and many fine actors taking on the role, can still not be topped or equalled. Despite, it's shortcomings, it's a trip that many of us film buffs take again and again, almost as if we are under Lugosi's hypnotic spell. It's not as good as many of the other golden age classics, but it delivers a mood unlike any other and a unique aura about it that invites us back for more repeat trips to the Castle in Transylvania and the Abbey at Carfax. It's certainly among the best horror films and is one of my personal favorites, though if it is your first trip, just remember to not drink the wine.

1 comment:

  1. You might enjoy my limericks on Dracula (and many other horror films) at my blog, Limerwrecks, where I have linked back to Monster Mania.