Dracula (1931)

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A nightmare of HORROR! . . .

Watching today, eighty-odd years after its premiere, it’s possible to wonder what the fuss then was all about or why, now, Dracula is held in such high regard, in almost nostalgic reverence.  Sure, it is Bela Lugosi’s most famous and enduring role, and he is the reason the film is a classic, but isn’t he a bit stiff, even robotic, a bit stilted in his delivery, with those squinting, glaring eyes—a one-note, one-expression actor and crucially typecast?  Maybe.  But it works—he works.  Without him the picture would be only a notch or two above an early talkie, replete with its crude, clunking leftover silent film devices.

But that’s precisely why Lugosi is one of a kind—he is so different, and, all said and done, he is, and always will be, Dracula.

The biggest shortcoming of the film, and one that immediately strikes any one who is in any way music-conscious, is its lack of a score, apart from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (the Swan theme) behind the main title.  If ever a movie needs a music background it is Dracula.

The coach ride that brings Renfield to Dracula’s castle in the opening; the introduction of the Count himself on the staircase, with the cobwebs, crumbling drapes, armadillos (not native to Eastern Europe) and rats and the sounds of the “children of the night”; the appearance of his ghost-like three wives; Lucy’s subjugation as one of the vampire’s victims; his leading Mina through the desolate woods; the bat form of the Count appearing on the terrace to Harker and Mina; and so much more—all these scenes would be greatly enhanced by a score.

As a possible remedy, in 1999 Philip Glass, the current presiding minimalist American composer, accepted a commission from Universal Studios Home Entertainment to compose a score for Dracula.  It was subsequently released with the movie on DVD and as a separate CD soundtrack on Nonesuch Records.  Performed by the Kronos Quartet, this belated “completion” of the film received mixed reviews from both those who didn’t think the movie needed a score—not an accepted creed in these parts!—and from others who believed the music not only enhanced the film but added that final dimension that had been lacking.

The score “suggests,” wrote Roger Ebert, “not just moody creepiness, but the urgency and need behind Dracula’s vampirism.”  Mark Allender praised “the naked, scratchy sound of a bow on a string” and the “[c]omplex chord structures and dense rhythms.”  Unlike most scores of the early 1930s—if present at all, the music is sporadic—Glass’ contribution is generally continuous, perhaps even indiscriminately so.  The austerity of the four strings is fitting, much as Bernard Herrmann’s full string orchestra is apropos in Psycho.  The only possible dilemma, assuming music is to be added, is whether the Glass style is the ideal approach, vis-à-vis, say, another kind of economy found in the twelve-tone milieu of some Schoenbergian creation.

The cinematographer is none other than Bohemian émigré Karl Freund, of All Quiet on the Western Front and Key Largo fame, and, before that, many a German film, the first, Heißes Blut, back in 1911, and, most famously, Metropolis in 1927.  Toward the end of his career, he would shoot 149 I Love Lucy TV episodes; he, in fact, developed the use of three cameras during filmings of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s show, a technique still used in today’s situation comedies filmed before an audience.

Freund’s camera work in Dracula is well handled during the first part of the film, namely in the scenes centered around the Count and the goings-on in his castle.  There is an extraordinary tracking shot, moving through the streets of the village, over the walls of the jail and up to a window and, inside, the insane Renfield.  It’s only later, when the setting moves to Harker’s home, that the camera becomes a little static, conceivably because of the limitations of bedrooms, libraries and drawing rooms.

The set decoration by Russell A. Gausman is not wanting either, even when it’s limited to one of those, by comparison, hygienic leisure rooms.  As if those sets for the castle already mentioned aren’t masterpieces of chiaroscuro and decay, there’s the shadowy, dank crypt with its columns and arches, coffins, vermin and, of course, those cobwebs.  The set would be reused some twelve years later in another Universal picture, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, with, once again, Gausman as set decorator.

The plot of the 1931 Dracula is well known, although it deviates considerably from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.  A character known only as Renfield (Dwight Frye) is taking a coach ride through mountainous Transylvania to a Count Dracula’s castle to make arrangements for the shipment of the aristocrat’s personal items to a new home in England.  Before the coach reaches its destination, the cloaked coachman disappears and, instead, a bat seems to be leading the horses.

At the castle, Renfield meets the Count, standing on the landing halfway up an enormous staircase.  Lugosi delivers the first of two of the most famous lines in the film.  Looking to his left and lifting a cloak-draped arm, he intones, “The children of the night.  What music . . . they make.”  Later, in a more intimately furnished room, when the Count offers wine, Renfield suggests his host join him.  Dracula replies, “I . . . never d-r-i-n-k . . . vine!”

The wine, of course, is drugged, and when Renfield falls unconscious, he would have become the victim of Dracula’s three phantom-like, blood-sucking wives had not he chased them away and himself made the man his personal source of the red liquid.

Soon after Dracula moves into his new home, killing the crew of the ship that transports him to Carfax Abbey in England, Renfield is confined to an asylum of Dr. Seward’s (Herbert Bunston), living on a diet of flies and spiders.

At a concert at Royal Albert Hall, the Count meets Mina (Helen Chandler), the doctor’s daughter, and her friend Lucy Weston (Frances Dade).  A student of the occult, Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) suspects that the debonair Dracula has a terrible hidden personality, and when Lucy comes under his spell, he is more sure than ever.  With a mirror, he demonstrates that the Count casts no reflection, and a necklace cross sends him fleeing.  Later, with those glaring eyes and an outstretched hand with claw-like fingers, he attempts to cast his spell on Van Helsing but fails.

In the terrace scene, John Harker (David Manners) shoos away the bat as it attempts to attack his fiancée, Mina.  That night, Harker and Van Helsing are unable to find Mina and the Count.  Descending to the crypt, they find Dracula in his coffin—it is night and he must, of course, return to a comatose state, on a layer of soil from his native Transylvania.  Van Helsing prepares to drive the ritual stake though the vampire’s heart and, as the shot changes, there’s a “whack” and an “ahh-h—”  The Count is dead—permanently.  Mina is found, now released from Dracula’s spell.

Both Chandler and Manners, who made four films together, had brief screen careers, for different reasons.  Chandler, coming from the stage, proved unsuited for movies and her last effort was in 1938.  She lived another thirty years—not a happy life apparently, with commitment to a sanitarium due to drug dependency, disfigurement in a fire and death following an operation.  Manners, although he would later have the title role in Mystery of Edwin Drood, tired of the medium and returned to the stage, writing novels and painting.  Van Sloan made his career playing higher-ups, especially professors and doctors, and would repeat his role of Van Helsing in Dracula’s Daughter in 1936, with Gloria Holden in the title role.

If “high regard,” written earlier, is too lofty an accolade for Dracula, then maybe the film endures today only as a fascinating curiosity, the memory of what seemed, in 1931, an inventive, revolutionary shocker, when the twentieth century was young and more innocent.  The original intent of the movie—a fact now generally forgotten—was to make Bela Lugosi into a kind of lover on steroids, in the manner of Rudolph Valentino.  Yes, that seems rather ridiculous now—and that the bite of his fangs was somehow a sensual high.

Aside from Lugosi’s comic grimaces and Frye’s sometimes frenzied over-acting, there are scenes that seem over-brief and haphazard, as if some dialogue is missing or a last camera shot has been prematurely cut short.  (It has been observed that Lugosi’s best performance is that of Ygor, the crazed shepherd in Son of Frankenstein in 1939.)  Consider Renfield’s rather brief, static encounter with those three ghostly women.  Shocking?  Ah, come on!  Although not “shocking” in the truest sense—though maybe so in 1931—compare it with its lengthy, erotic and luxuriant counterpart, nudity and all, in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The 1992 film is truer to the Stoker novel.  It is, for example, Harker who arrives at the castle in the beginning, and the Renfield who goes crazy on flies and spiders is another character entirely.  The later film is longer and more detailed, as movies tend to become over time, and is infused with all that Technicolor, special effects and the imaginations of director Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart could muster.  There is also obvious imagination—and Oscar nominations and awards—in the sets of Garrett Lewis and the costumes of Eiko Ishioka.  And the music?  Wojciech Kilar’s sometimes terrifying, sometimes erotic score is everything that the music-less Dracula needs so badly.

While the 1931 Dracula may be a source of a few laughs for a young person too sophisticated to embrace the spirit of that era, or an ample excuse for a quite older viewer to recall being frightened by the film, simply put, the Coppola is the benchmark, so far, for all vampire movies.  Its excesses, if excesses there are, make it all the more fascinating.

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0 thoughts to “Dracula (1931)”

  1. This movie is a bit dated, but still a terrific film. I love the moodiness of it and, to me, Lugosi is the perfect Dracula.

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