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Dracula (1931)


The first English language film of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, this 1931 version was produced by Universal Pictures, and was significant for setting both the studio and its star Bela Lugosi onto long running horror careers.

Dracula begins with the arrival of Renfield (Dwight Frye) in Transylvania. He is presumably a solicitor or an estate agent, and has travelled from England to help Count Dracula in his move to London.

Renfield is dropped off by the stagecoach at an inn, where he explains that he is on his way to Castle Dracula. Even mention of the name of the feared Count Dracula sets the locals off crossing themselves and widening their eyes in fear. Surely you don't want to go there! They are undead, vampires, they drink the blood of their victims.

Well, Renfield isn't one to be put off by that kind of superstitious nonsense. So he heads to the castle anyway, where he finds the charming but strangely mesmerising Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) surrounded by his cobwebs and candelabra.


Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula
Bela Lugosi in a famous pose as Count Dracula

Dracula is outwardly welcoming, but unmistakably sinister. Commenting on a spider they spy in the castle, Dracula explains to the luckless Renfield that "The spider spins his web for the unwary fly", a phrase that should have set some alarm bells ringing. Later, as Renfield is settling into his spooky quarters, he is menaced by three of Dracula's vampire "brides", before being attacked by Dracula himself and turned into his devoted servant.

The action then moves to the sailing ship the Vesta, by which Dracula and Renfield are travelling to England. When the ship arrives the crew are all found dead, something that causes sensational headlines in the newspapers. The only survivor is the now insane Renfield.

Dracula next turns up in old London town, the only place in the world foggier than Transylvania. After helping himself to the blood of a passing flower girl, the Count rolls up at the theatre, where he runs into Dr Seward (Herbert Bunston) and his family. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Dr Seward runs the sanitarium where Renfield is now being treated.

Dracula has moved into nearby Carfax Abbey, but this means that Seward's young daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) are in peril from the charming but deadly Count. Fortunately, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is on hand to uncover the mystery surrounding Count Dracula and, hopefully, to save these young women from a fate worse than death.


Edward Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi
Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Dracula

Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula is one of the most famous gothic horror novels, and still the best known vampire tale of them all. The book had previously been turned into a silent film version by F. W. Murnau in Germany in 1922. That film was an unofficial adaptation titled Nosferatu, and the vampire's name was changed to Count Orlok. But the similarities to Dracula were strong enough to lead to a successful litigation from Bram Stoker's widow.

Just under a decade after Nosferatu came this official version of Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. The film was made by Universal Pictures, the studio founded and at that time still run, by the producer's father, Carl Laemmle senior. Carl Jr. intended Dracula to be an expensive production, but this was the era of the Great Depression, and the film had to be scaled back accordingly.

The producer wanted Lon Chaney, an established star, to play the role of Count Dracula. Chaney had already starred in Universal's silent films of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). He and Tod Browning had made several films together already, including the now lost film London After Midnight (1927), which is probably why Browning was chosen for Dracula.

Unfortunately, Lon Chaney died of cancer before filming on Dracula could begin, and he was replaced with the much less well known Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian actor who had played Dracula in the stage play. Lugosi lobbied hard for the part, even accepting a relatively low fee in order to do so, a fee that was apparently lower than even some of the supporting cast.


Dwight Frye at barred window
Dwight Frye as Renfield

The Universal version of the Dracula story would become one of the most famous and influential. But for a famous classic horror film, the 1931 Dracula doesn't actually hold up all that well. The film has a lot of atmosphere, especially in its early scenes, aided by creepy sets, lots of mist and fog and the dramatic music of Tchaikovsky, taken from the ballet Swan Lake.

But as a narrative it's a very bumpy ride. Fatally, the film is based not on the novel but on a popular 1924 stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Probably partly as a result, the film has a static, stagey quality, with a dull script that plods from one scene to the next.

The story is severely truncated from the novel, making Renfield the character who arrives in Transylvania to arrange Dracula's move to England and not Jonathan Harker. Harker becomes a colourless and mostly irrelevant character in this version. The actor playing him, David Manners, understandably hated the film and his part in it.

In fact, the plot of the novel has been reduced so much that there's really not that much left, and the film has to rely instead on its foggy atmospherics and air of creepy dilapidation. The story is so emaciated that it feels like a third hand version of Dracula, as if the screenwriter had based his script on someone else's vague memory of seeing the stage version. Some of the most important scenes, including the film's climax, don't even take place on screen, and the ending is noticeably rushed and unsatisfying.

The film's early scenes in Transylvania carry the most conviction, while the last two thirds is mostly flat and stilted. The sets of Dracula's spooky old castle, designed by art director Charles D. Hall, are impressive, although the fact that it has armadillos and opossums wandering around it is a particularly bizarre touch. Although not as bizarre as the presumably undead bee shown emerging from its own miniature coffin in one sequence.

The spooky atmosphere of the early scenes is well captured by the film's cinematographer Karl Freund. Freund would also have a parallel directorial career in the 1930s, including directing another Universal horror film The Mummy in 1932. It's been suggested that he was an uncredited director on some of Dracula as well.


Dwight Frye holding hand to his chest
Dwight Frye, doing some serious acting

The performances are very mixed, ranging from bad to adequate. Lugosi is memorable as Count Dracula, although he is not required to show much range beyond staring intently. His mesmerising stare was intensified by the use of pinpoint spotlights to highlight his eyes. Lugosi's black cloak, slicked back hair and strong Hungarian accent would help to define the way that vampires, and Dracula especially, were pictured in popular culture, although he is not exactly the Dracula of the book. Aside from his striking appearance and strong accent, Lugosi's main contribution as a performer is that his Dracula is defiantly strange, obviously not quite of this world, something emphasised by the actor's theatricality and curious line readings.

His portrayal of the Count as a suave and seductive nobleman was certainly different from the monstrous Count Orlok portrayed by Max Schreck in Nosferatu, presenting Dracula as sexually attractive, rather than repulsive. The portrayal of the character as a semi-romantic figure would be a recurring one, particularly in American Draculas.

Among the better supporting performers is Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, the only character who seems to understand the threat that Dracula represents. Like Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan had also appeared in the stage version of Dracula.

The other supporting performances range from painfully stilted to pure ham. Dwight Frye goes from one extreme to the other, playing Renfield woodenly in the Transylvanian scenes, when he turns up at Castle Dracula in his natty 1930s gangster gear, before going wildly over the top as the insane version in the English scenes. Some of the other performances are decidedly anaemic, but Frye is doing enough acting for everyone. His eccentric performance here would help to turn him into a cult actor. Frye would grumble about his type-casting in horror roles, but it's hardly surprising with a performance as ripe as this. He would also appear in Universal's iconic version of Frankenstein later the same year.

The Dracula screenplay was credited to Garrett Fort, although several other writers worked on it uncredited, including the director Tod Browning. The script expands on the play, but only slightly, and the film would have been much better served if it had used the novel as the basis for its screenplay. The script is also very sketchy, explaining very little about the characters or their motivations. Like why Count Dracula wants to go to England, why he kills some women but turns others into vampires, why Dracula even needs Renfield when he's invited as an honoured guest in all of the best houses, and many more questions that the audience is likely to think of when the lights go up.


Bela Lugosi as Dracula carrying a woman
Dracula with Mina (Helen Chandler)

The screenwriters had obviously never looked at a map of England either, as the newspaper describes Dr Seward's sanitarium as being "near London", while we are later informed by the characters that it's in Whitby, which is in North Yorkshire.

There is at least one nice joke in the script, when someone sees the puncture wounds on a young woman's neck and asks "What caused them?", a line immediately followed by the butler stating "Count Dracula", as he announces the Count's entrance.

Some of Dracula's theatrical effects, including a phoney thunderstorm, heavily creaking doors and acres of dry ice, must surely have seemed a little passé even in 1931, and some of the special effects work is decidedly hokey. These include a giant spider that manages to scuttle comically along the ground without actually moving its legs.

Some of the other effects have the tendency to provoke unintentional laughs, as when the characters are menaced by a huge rubber bat bouncing around on a piece of string, presumably being held by a crew member who is trying very hard not to burst out laughing.

The scenes of the sailing ship being tossed on a stormy sea were taken from the 1925 silent film The Storm Breaker, which explains why they're not an especially good match for the rest of the film. The ship was called the Demeter in the novel, but renamed the Vesta in the film, for no obvious reason.

Dracula did mark a departure from earlier American horror films, which tended to undercut themselves by providing a logical explanation for any apparently supernatural occurrences in the final reel. Dracula couldn't really do that. Instead, it even went as far as adding an epilogue, in which Edward van Sloan assures the audience that vampires really do exist. This scene was removed for the 1936 re-release. Some of the sound was also cut from the film's final scenes at this time to meet the requirements of the Production Code.


Bela Lugosi as Dracula looming over woman in bed
Dracula in Lucy's bedroom

Otherwise, for a film made in the years before the Production Code came into effect, Dracula is disappointing on the salaciousness front. Underlying the story is the fear of young women's corruption by ungodliness, by seductive strangers, by lust and overt sexuality, or worse, by foreigners. Although the sexual connotations of the story are definitely toned down in this version, there are some suggestive scenes as well as a few spooky bits that probably wouldn't have got past the Code.

These include the creepy scene of one of Dracula's female companions (their actual relationship isn't stated, so maybe they're just good friends) emerging from her coffin to a background of swirling mist. The scene where Dracula arrives in foggy London town, dressed in top hat and cloak, before helping himself to a friendly flower girl, has definite Jack the Ripper overtones. Especially when the body is discovered lying in the street by a caped policeman. And the sight of Count Dracula stealing into Lucy's bedroom at night for a quick suck is also very suggestive for 1931. Otherwise, for a pre-Code film, Dracula is a little tame and disappointing and the slow pace doesn't help.

The director Tod Browning was experienced as a silent film maker, but he has to take much of the blame for Dracula's theatricality and creakiness. He followed this film with the controversial and almost career-ending sideshow drama Freaks in 1932. That film provoked such a hostile reaction that Browning's film career was over by the end of the decade.

As was common in the early sound era, there were two versions made of Dracula. Film studios often made different versions of the same film on the same sets, and sometimes with the same actors, in different languages for different markets. A second version of Dracula was produced by Universal for the Spanish language market. This version was filmed at night on the same sets and was directed by George Melford, with Carlos Villar starring as Dracula. Some critics prefer this less inhibited version, although it is not widely seen and was thought lost for decades until its rediscovery in the 1970s.


U.S. poster for 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula
U.S. poster for Dracula

Despite his indelible association with the role, Bela Lugosi only played Count Dracula twice. The second time was opposite Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, also for Universal, in 1948. Lugosi did play similar characters in Mark of the Vampire (1935), again directed by Tod Browning, Return of the Vampire (1943) and, in the final indignity, opposite Arthur Lucan's "Old Mother Riley" character in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire in 1952.

Although it brought him great fame, Dracula helped to typecast Lugosi as a horror actor, and to the public he would forever be associated with the role. When he died aged 73 in 1956, he was even buried in one of his Dracula capes.

Dracula was also an important film for Universal Pictures, one of the smaller Hollywood studios of the 1930s. The film was a huge commercial success and helped to establish Universal in a popular new niche, the horror film. Although Universal had earlier produced silent versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, both starring Lon Chaney, it was Dracula that helped to start a whole new horror cycle that would keep the company ticking over through the 1930s and 1940s.

Dracula was followed by film versions of Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). The company later introduced new monsters with The Wolf Man (1941) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

A direct sequel to Dracula, Dracula's Daughter, starring Otto Kruger and Gloria Holden, was released 5 years after the original in 1936. Not showing too much imagination, Universal revived the series again with Son of Dracula, starring Lon Chaney Jr., in 1943. After that the Count was played by John Carradine in Universal's House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). In the 1950s the black cape was taken up by Christopher Lee in Hammer's Dracula series that ran from 1958 to 1973.

The 1931 Dracula doesn't really hold up all that well as a film today. It's poorly written, clumsily plotted, variably directed and often quite badly acted. It mostly feels exactly like what it is, which is a nicely designed and photographed, if rather hokey, stage play. But it's a stage play that hasn't been translated to the screen with much understanding of what a successful transfer would require. As a result, after a memorable beginning, the film becomes very static and tends to resolve itself into a series of dramatic tableaux. But Bela Lugosi is certainly memorable as the title character and the film is undeniably an influential and important one in the history of the horror genre. It was inducted into the US National Film Registry in 2000.

Dracula

Year: 1931
Genre: Horror
Country: USA
Director: Tod Browning

Cast  Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing), Herbert Bunston (Doctor Seward), Frances Dade (Lucy), Joan Standing (Maid), Charles Gerrard (Martin), Moon Carroll (Maid), Josephine Velez (English nurse), Michael Visaroff (Innkeeper), Anna Bakacs (Innkeeper's daughter), Daisy Belmore, Nick Bela, Carla Laemmle and Donald Murphy (coach passengers), Dorothy Tree, Geraldine Dvorak and Cornelia Thaw (Female vampires), Tod Browning (voice of harbour master)

Screenplay Garrett Fort, based on the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, and the novel by Bram Stoker  Producer Carl Laemmle Jr.  Cinematographer Karl Freund  Art director Charles D. Hall  Editor Milton Carruth  Supervising editor Maurice Pivar

Running time 75 mins (black & white)
Production company/Distributor Universal Pictures

Comments

  1. I agree about the movie. It is creaky and definitively less than the sum of its parts. What most viewers remember are certain iconic images, like the first picture you posted. For classic film fans Lugosi IS Dracula, even if they haven't seen the movie itself.

    You mention Freaks, a truly weird, shocking and magnificent movie. Now there's a topic for a review. :)

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    1. Yes, the Lugosi Dracula was so influential that it established how people imagined vampires should look, sound and act. I think Christopher Lee's Dracula is closer to the Stoker version (although he's still not quite there).

      Not sure I really want to write about Freaks!

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  2. I confess to have never seeing this Dracula though I always keep meaning to. In my head I had always envisioned the film to be legendary in it's status but reading your, always superb, review it sounds like it's not as good as I may of thought. I had the same feeling with Frankenstein tbh I know the monster, Gothic shadows and over all look are amazing. But something held me back on it being the classic I had always imagined in my head. Not helped with the characters names being changed from the novel. Which was weird I thought. Anyhow I've gone off on a side note though I must quickly add I haven't seen Bride Of Frankenstein yet and hear that is brilliant fun!

    I haven't seen Nosferatu either!!!!! I was going to ask was it Nosferatu or this Dracula that had the Spanish version which some say is a better film! You answered my question Jay, thank you :)

    "the fact that it has armadillos and opossums wandering around it is a particularly bizarre touch" LOL makes me wanna see it more for this hehe.

    I've been to Whitby Abbey which has a eerie vibe to it. Probably more for it's setting by the coast.

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    1. Frankenstein is actually much better than Dracula. It's better directed and more lively, and Bride of Frankenstein is more sophisticated again. These films are quite short though, so that's one reason why they can seem a bit thin. Frankenstein is another one that doesn't have a great deal of plot left over from the book, so it seems a bit too simple and straightforward now.

      I've been to Whitby too, a really interesting town. I've only seen the abbey from the outside but it's certainly impressive, the location really helps. Very few Dracula films seem to make much of Whitby, the exception is the 1979 one with Frank Langella, which if I remember correctly is entirely set in Yorkshire (although filmed in Cornwall!).

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    2. Really looking forward to Bride. The Invisible Man is pure brilliance from start to finish. Well apart from the hysterical screaming woman. The effects are superb and it's so brutal. The body count is ridiculously high.

      Did you by chance do the Dracula Experience? My god that was a turkey. Almost worth the 4 quid to see how bad it is LOL. We did have a big laugh about it when we stumbled out the back door 2 mins later. You so right about the Abbey. Seems weird they never really used it as a set. It's perfect. Actually the whole town has a great vibe and would of looked excellent for a setting in old black and white. Need to have a look into the Langella one. To refresh the memory. Cheers Jay

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    3. The Invisible Man is definitely one of the best ones.

      I didn't do the Dracula Experience. Four quid for two minutes - you was robbed! I thought the town might play up the Dracula connection more, but they don't, probably because it's such an interesting place anyway.

      The 1979 film is interesting, mainly because it's so different from most of the others. The 1958 Hammer one and the 1992 one are my favourite versions though.

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  3. I tried anonymous and Name/URL setting but nothing comes up to click to notify me of replies Jay! I'm using google browser with ad blocker disabled but frustratingly nothing shows. Booo

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    Replies
    1. You're right about the comment box. I tried it in Chrome and I don't see it either. I'll have to look into that. It seems weird that a Google product doesn't work in a Google browser.


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