Posted by Richard Harland Smith on April 20, 2012
At the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival last week I got to revisit Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) … and fall in love all over again.
I’ve always liked Browning’s adaptation of DRACULA, which had by 1931 existed in the form of Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel and a stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston that played the provinces in Great Britain and the United States, and both London’s West End and Broadway. Bela Lugosi had played the title role in the 1927-1928 Broadway run (sharing the stage with his future movie costars Edward Van Sloan and Herbert Bunston) but Carl Laemmle, Jr. at Universal (who had wanted the property as a vehicle for Lon Chaney) didn’t want him. Lugosi would be left hanging for years while Universal bandied about various names (Paul Muni, Chester Morris, Ian Keith, Conrad Veidt) before begrudgingly settling on the Hungarian expatriate — it seemed a vindictive gesture that Laemmle paid Lugosi a paltry salary of $500 a week while costar David Manners received $2,000 per week. But all that is bookkeeping and water under the bridge. How it happened really doesn’t matter to me as much as what Laemmle, Browning, Lugosi, et al, left with us.
I can’t even tell you what number viewing last Saturday evening represented of DRACULA. I first saw the film in 1973 or 1974, making me 12 or 13. Before I had any opportunity to see the film, the Browning version of DRACULA was presumed a seminal text by those of us who knew of it but had never seen it. I’m pretty sure I already had a copy of Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Film and I had been reading Famous Monsters of Filmland for a few years. I had seen some Universal monster movies by then, later ones, but DRACULA, the movie that jump started the American horror film genre, eluded me. I remember arguing my case with my Dad when I saw it had been scheduled for broadcast late at night: “This may be the only time I ever get to see this!” It seems odd now, thirty years into the era of home entertainment, after the advent of digital streaming, of instant accessibility, to recall a time in which it was anybody’s guess as to when you might see a cherished film again. Well, long story short, I got to stay up and see what all the fuss was about.
As I made my interest in monsters a going concern through my teenage and young adult years with further research into the making of my cherished movies, I quickly sussed out the received wisdom that Browning’s DRACULA was one of cinema’s great missed opportunities. Dead since 1962, Browning was painted by film historians as a drunk at worst and at best disinterested in and detached from his own material (perhaps depressed by the death of his friend Lon Chaney in 1930). In The Horror Film Handbook, Alan Frank branded it “slow and talky” while Carlos Clarens echoed the sentiment with the verdict “talky, pedestrian, and un-cinematic.” In Classics of the Horror Film, William K. Everson withheld classic status from DRACULA and labeled the production “stilted, pedestrian, and sadly in need of a musical score to bring some vitality to its many lifeless passages” but also said some very positive things about “the indefinable and magical quality” of Karl Freund’s cinematography. In The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Michael Weldon assessed the Browning version as a “talky, bloodless filmed play” and in Universal Horrors: the Studio’s Classic Films 1931-1946, the tag team of Tom Weaver and Michael and John Brunas buried DRACULA as “the least satisfying of the Universal originals,” slammed Lugosi’s performance as “flawed, hammy, stagy… and far from the best work Lugosi did in films” and even slagged the Bram Stoker novel as “a crashing bore.” Coffin case closed.
The crazy thing is that, for years, I didn’t think I had a dog in this fight. If people wanted to slag DRACULA, what did I care? I did think, in line with the horror cognoscenti, that the Paul Kohner-produced, George Melford-directed Spanish language version of DRACULA (produced on Browning’s sets, by night) was superior in many ways and as worthy of rediscovery (if not more so) than the Browning version and I suppose I was distracted by the task of acquiring the classic monster and horror movies as soon as they were put out on VHS and DVD. There were books and magazines to buy and tapes to trade and dusty old DRACULA ’31 was not much of a priority. When the film was shown on TV in the late 80s, I showed it to my then-girlfriend (who laughed it off with a Count Floyd-like “Oooh… wicky, wicky scary!”) and in 1998 I caught a revival of DRACULA as part of a Universal horror retrospective at The Film Forum in New York. I have updated my home copy when feasible and affordable — my current DVD is the 2004 “Legacy Collection,” which puts me a couple of releases behind the curve. I thought I was keeping reasonably current with DRACULA and yet it took last weekend’s festival screening to concretize my feelings about this landmark film and for me to understand what Ed Naha meant when he wrote, in Horrors: From Screen to Scream , “Tod Browning’s eerie version of the Stoker classic… still manages to conjure up tombsfull of thrills and an overall atmosphere of unease.”
Growing up as I did during the heyday of Hammer horror, where it was fangs and blood and tits ’til Tuesday (presumably starting on the previous Wednesday), it baffled me that Bela Lugosi didn’t have fangs in DRACULA. Forty years on, I now see that as a benefit, especially in this age of the CGI dentistry of TRUE BLOOD and countless copycats who make an atavistic remnant seem like a fashion accessory. Oversaturation of Bela Lugosi’s iconic image has diluted the impact he must have had back in 1931 but I got a true sense of that the other night, having his face fill a cinema screen, and looking into that black, black, seemingly edentulous mouth. It’s even scarier, or maybe just more disturbing, without teeth. As much as I love Christopher Lee and prize Hammer’s reboot of the story, Browning’s DRACULA stands as one of the eeriest horror movies ever made, and doubly so for being the first, the first American horror movie made to be a horror movie and not just an adaptation of a respected literary source (as were the various silent versions of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) or an old dark house spookshow where the villain is revealed to be just some greedyguts in a mask. Lugosi’s Dracula was a true monster, who spread sickness wherever he went. If you can separate the Browning version from the Stoker novel, you can appreciate the genius of the Deane-Balderston adaptation (spun into a screenplay by Garrett Fort), which removed the tale from the idiom of mystery and adventure and dropped it into the middle of a drawing room drama, where the story revolved not around young love or inheritance money or prejudice but about a creature who steals into the house by night and drinks the blood of the living… not in a barnstorming, bodice-ripping way but in an inexorably slow and deathly quiet way that seems now, in this age of excess, to be so much more horrible for its awful gentleness.
DRACULA is rich in grand moments (those glass shots of the Carpathian mountains and Castle Dracula, Renfield’s entrance to the castle, that giant spider web, the approach of Dracula’s brides, Renfield’s mad climb from the hold of beached ship) but also offers a gallery of chilling blank stares as a signifier of the ghastly, emptying plague of vampirism. Renfield crawling toward the stricken maid anticipates by a year the creeping of the sideshow folk in Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and by decades similar business in George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), Tobe Hooper’s ‘SALEM’S LOT (1979), and the Japanese RING and GRUDGE films. Monsters that tower over us, making us feel small and helpless, are bad enough… but ones that crawl like bugs are worse, threatening as they do not to crush us but to reduce us in some way to the level of the lower forms. It’s too bad Browning and Freund didn’t attempt the bat crawl that Count Dracula does down the side of his castle in Stoker’s novel – we wouldn’t see that until Hammer’s SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), although Sid Haig does something similar to get at Carol Ohmart in Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY (1962), which seems at least partially inspired by Dracula.
In a long line of cinematic Draculas, Bela Lugosi was the first true foreigner to play the part, to stamp the role with more than just creepiness and otherness but to impart a distinctly European brand… underscoring Bram Stoker’s intent for his novel to be about contamination and the tainting of rational New World blood by the superstition-gagged ichor of the Old World. (Dracula was played through the 40s by Lon Chaney, Jr. and John Carradine, American actors who had earned a measure of legitimacy in film versions of John Steinbeck novels.) The borderline contempt with which the English characters greet Dracula mirrors the disdain with which Universal (run by assimilated foreigners) treated Lugosi yet the Browning version seems to me now to be expressly about the battle for new territory by opposing foreign interests, with the Carpathian Count blocked, countered, and stymied at nearly every turn by the Dutch Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan) while the Brits stand around with their thumbs tucked into their waistcoats, worse than useless. All of this makes the Universal DRACULA play something like a frontier tale (well, there is a stage coach… and armadillos) but it’s worth noting that both Dracula and Van Helsing wear black. (In the follow-up, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, Van Helsing — or Von Helsing as he is called — is decidedly less Eurocentric and more grandfatherly.) Might we even go so far as to claim it as an origin myth?
I have to disagree with William K. Everson about the lack of incidental music being a detriment to DRACULA. Far from it, I think the eerie quietude of the picture works in its favor, never telegraphing to the audience what it is suppose to feel as, say, Dracula’s brides converge on the senseless Renfield or Dracula himself zeroes in on the sleeping Lucy (Frances Dade) or the bitten Mina (Helen Chandler) locks on the pulsing throat of her fiance Jonathan Harker (David Manners) as he natters on, driven only by compulsion and primal instinct. I can’t think of another version of Dracula in which I get such a sense of a true plague settling in and changing everything, from the personalities of the dramatis personae to the very air they breathe. The beautiful presentation of the film last week, the clarity of the imagery, and the size of the thing in its exhibition brought DRACULA magically to life for me again, for the first time in decades, since that late night during which I first clapped eyes on the damned thing long, long ago. I hope my thoughts and these images will inspire you to revisit the Browning version, to try and see it with fresh eyes, and appreciate not only the great things it does but the way it led American cinematic storytelling to (to quote from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) a new world of gods and monsters.
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