Friday, October 25, 2013

Dracula: The Silver Screen

Entry four in my would-be chapter for my book Vampires' Most Wanted:

4. The Movie

The story of Dracula’s arrival on the silver screen is as involved as the novel itself due in large part to an uncertainty of adapting it to the screen; and the vast amount of adaptations floating around. In this tale, however, timing was everything for there was an even greater nemesis approaching that would ultimately impact the entire world. 

There were at this point two incarnations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (well, three if you count the unfortunate Morrell piece). The Hamilton Deane play was a slightly different version from the book. The Liveright production was a different version of the Deane play. Florence Stoker had managed to iron out rights over both productions, and a few in between (including that other movie to be discussed later), but she realized that should a film version be produced it would very likely rely heavily on the plays, not on her husband’s novel, leaving her rights further back in the dust. She had spent the past several years fighting for her rightful piece of the Dracula pie and was not about to let Hollywood take a taste without paying for it.

Universal studios was an early contender for the film rights, but was dragging its feet perhaps due partly to the amount of people involved. Along with Stoker there was Deane, Balderston and Liveright and it seemed that one was always threatening to sue the others, or Universal itself if an agreement was signed without their name on it. There was also the hesitation on the part of Carl Leammle, Sr. the man who started the movie studio. Horror just wasn’t his thing even though it had proven lucrative for him in the past. He had to be convinced by his son, Carl Leammle, Jr. to take on the project. At last, however, the principle players, rather than see the chance for a film slip away, agreed to a deal and the movie was green-lighted.

Conrad Veidt
The first choice to play Dracula was Conrad Veidt, a German actor whose heavy accent led him to return to Europe rather than face making a go of it in talkies. It was a concern of many a silent film star when sound came to the movies. The next choice was the “man of a thousand faces” himself, Lon Chaney who would ultimately play a vampire in the lost “London After Midnight,” but would lose his battle with throat cancer before getting the chance to play Dracula (in the 1943 movie “Son of Dracula,” his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., star of “The Wolfman,” would play the role his father had to pass up).
Lon Chaney as the vampire from "Vampire at Midnight"
Finally, with deal in hand, Universal hired Louis Bromfield to write the screenplay. A Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, he was also a Broadway dramatist and was fascinated by the new style of the talking picture. What he was given to work with were two vastly different versions of the same story, each with strengths in their own right. Three stage plays (including the Morrell play) and the book. He favored the novel’s construct which would be easier filmed than it would have been staged. He also favored the idea of massive sets for Dracula’s castle and Carfax Abbey and even fancied a storyline that would meld the old, decrepit Count of the novel with the youthful Count of the New York production. Dracula would revert back to the old man during fits of hunger.

There was only one problem with putting Bromfield’s vision to print: The Great Depression, which was affecting everything nationwide including the magic of Tinseltown. It would dog every aspect of production for “Dracula” and it’s a wonder what might have been had the movie been awarded a budget larger than $355,000.

Tod Browning
Slated to direct the feature was Tod Browning, Lon Chaney’s director at Metro Goldwyn Mayer and a man who shared Chaney’s curious fascination with the grotesque (one of his most famous pictures would be the 1932 movie “Freaks” starring real side-show performers solving a murder). In his book Hollywood Gothic David J. Skal terms Browning “…a maddeningly difficult director to asses.” He had the talent, but lacked the execution of it. Browning’s drinking was legendary among his contemporaries in the industry and undoubtedly affected his work. For a man who seemed to favor the controversial, his direction of "Dracula" at times seems remarkably afraid to take chances. The movie is filled with long, static scenes that would have been better served by being interspersed with reaction shots or different angles. One shot runs nearly three minutes without a break or reaction shot that would have made it that much stronger. Dracula’s entrance is suitably spooky but his exit at the end of the film is anything less than climactic as we see Van Helsing leaning over Dracula’s coffin, the audience merely hearing the vampire’s groan as the Professor stakes him. The action cuts to Jonathan Harker helping Mina come out of the trance she was in from Dracula.

Was it Browning’s inability to get a handle on the movie that led to poor directing decisions, or rather Universal breathing down his neck to save money? It’s possible it was a bit of both. It was this cost cutting that turned Bromfield’s vision into something the much more closely resembled the plays. While the trip to Transylvania remained, the chasing of Dracula back to Transylvania was cut. Perhaps in a desire to make Renfield’s connection to the Count easier to understand, it was his character that journeyed to Castle Dracula where the Count put him under his spell. Dracula’s sea voyage to England which was supposed to show the vampire one by one wiping out the crew was reduced to stock footage of a ship sailing on the churning sea and Renfield tending the vampire’s coffin in the hold. Eventually, Dracula does come on deck, but we’re left with Lugosi gazing off camera at what must have been meant to be the crew he was about to attack. Still, this rendition did give us one of the creepiest scenes ever shot as the hold of the wrecked ship is opened the next day and Dwight Frye’s mad Renfield smiles ominously up at the camera. 

The mad Renfield guards his master's resting place
Dracula insinuates himself in the lives of Dr. Seward, his daughter Mina, her fiancé John Harker and Mina’s friend Lucy in a rather bland fashion and for no apparent reason. As in the plays, he becomes a welcomed visitor to Seward’s sanitarium until they figure out that Lucy’s death and Mina’s wasting condition can be tied to him. And Lucy as the "woman in white" was wasted as only one poorly lit scene alludes to her attacks on the young girls.

And yet, the influence this, the first talking supernatural thriller in film history had on cinema in general and the vampire genre in particular can not be discounted. Principal photography on the film was finished $14,000 under budget, which must have made the Leammles’ hearts jump for joy, as did, no doubt, eventual response to the film. The premiere was scheduled for Feb. 13, 1931 at the Roxy Theatre in New York to take advantage of Friday the 13th. When it was realized that this was the day before Valentine’s Day, they opened it Feb. 12. While not an instant smash, (it was pulled from the Roxy after eight days, grossing $112,000) the film picked up speed as it traveled across the country, eventually becoming the studio’s top money making picture of the year and vindicating Carl Leammle, Jr.’s faith in the financial potential of the horror genre and creating a few monsters all its own.

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