Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dracula: Vs. Frankenstein

Number nine in the chapter I used to propose my book Vampires' Most Wanted. I've always found the "rivalry" between Universal Studio's two greatest monsters interesting. Especially in light of how Karloff's fortunes began to rise as Lugosi's fell. And yet, the two monsters are forever linked even though their stories were published 79 years apart.

9. The Rivalry

Mary Shelley
With the fantastic success of “Dracula” Universal Studios began to realize just what might best butter its bread during the hard times of the Depression when people were looking for a little escapism in movie theaters to take their minds off the real horrors of every day poverty. With this in mind, Universal turned to adapting to film another horror classic in the hopes of keeping the gravy train running. While at a house party with friends, an unassuming young woman entered into a contest with her fellow house members and wrote what would become one of the most revered novels of all time. Like Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, would eventually spawn stage productions. What better follow up to “Dracula” then “Frankenstein,” and what better actor to offer the role to than the man who wowed them as Dracula? 

A dashing Lugosi
When Bela Lugosi received the script, however, he was not impressed. He saw in the creature nothing that he could wrap his acting chops around. The fiend had no dialogue, simply grunts, and the make up would hide the very features that Lugosi had hoped to parlay into a career of romantic leads. It was his eventual flat-out refusal of the part to Universal executives that did the trick, and quite possibly sealed the fate of his future career. Lugosi would forever regret giving away the role that gave the man who ultimately took it a success that would forever eclipse his own. 

Boris Karloff had been in Hollywood for 10 years and had made 80 films, usually appearing in bit parts, before being noticed by director James Whale in the studio commissary one day. He was dressed in his best suit, but all Whale could notice was his face, which he felt could very well be perfect as the face of the Frankenstein monster. Born William Henry Pratt in 1887, Karloff, like Lugosi, left family expectations behind, changed his name to Boris Karloff and appeared on the stage before finding his way to Hollywood, working odd jobs between bit parts in movies. It’s likely during filming that Karloff often wondered if Lugosi had made the better decision. Arriving in the makeup chair at 4 a.m. Karloff had to sit perfectly still for five hours while the monster’s thick makeup and prosthesis were applied. He wore padding to make his relatively thin frame appear more imposing, heavy shoes to make himself taller, and steel struts to stiffen his legs for the monster’s famous gait. After shooting, it took two hours to take it all off. He lost about 30 pounds during filming. 

Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein's Monster

The effort paid off, however, judging by the reaction of a secretary who chanced upon him one day while the actor was taking a break outside between scenes. The sight of him made her faint. It was decided after that incident that a veil would be needed for any further excursions outside while in make up.

When “Frankenstein” was released it was a smash even bigger than “Dracula.” It seems only logical. The country’s appetite for film horror had been whetted by “Dracula” it was only natural that they’d want more.

It was also apparent that “Frankenstein” had a superior director in James Whale, a former stage director, who seemed more comfortable with this new medium of “talkies” than did Tod Browning whose past experience had been in silent films. There’s a desperate madness fueling the story of “Frankenstein” that Whale is able to bring out in the actors, the sets and the pacing of the movie. Though to be fair, Browning had been blazing a trail directing the first talking supernatural thriller with unexpected budget constraints brought on by the Depression. These were budget constraints that “Frankenstein” probably never felt thanks largely to the success of “Dracula.”
The Monster makes a friend
There was perhaps another reason why Karloff’s monster outdid Lugosi’s. Quite simply, Dracula was not a sympathetic character, while the Frankenstein Monster was. Drawing upon her own issues of abandonment, Mary Shelley fashioned a creature whose very creation was the stuff of horror: Dead flesh, bone, sinew, patched together and somehow sparked into life. He was in physique a monster, but would he have been so in emotion and thought were it not for the fact that his creator, horrified by his own actions, had turned his back on him? Was that when the monster truly emerged? In the novel, the monster has speech and a level of intelligence, most of it gained on his own. He also has a rage toward the man who reanimated him, then left him to fend for himself. In the movie, the level of the monster’s intelligence is questionable, and he communicates in grunts and groans, yet he is still the creature, confused, perhaps afraid, and abandoned to his own devices. How many people during the Depression felt as abandoned, confused and angry as this?

Dracula finds some food
Dracula, on the other hand, was a predator. As sensual as Lugosi played him the movie Dracula was still the cold, blood-sucking fiend of the novel, standing over the bed of an innocent woman ready to take her life to prolong his. Perhaps even worse, he passed this living death on to his victims who, as blood suckers themselves, would join him in eternal damnation. Later movies would bestow consciences onto the characters of the vampire, but the Dracula of the book, the plays and the 1931 movie was devoid of it.

Karloff and Lugosi "The Black Cat"
Karloff and Lugosi would go on to make more movies together, most successful. But Karloff’s name began to outshine Lugosi’s even on the movie poster as he was billed simply as “Karloff,” “Bela Lugosi” appearing under him in smaller letters. The studio used Lugosi’s name to help sell pictures, but when it came to parts and pay, he was no where near their golden boy Karloff. In the film “The Raven,” Karloff was originally pegged to play the scientist, Lugosi the gangster, but Karloff prefered the gangster’s part, so the two switched. Years later, in their last film together for Universal, “Black Friday,” they tried to switch roles again, but this time, the Karloff role was given to another actor and Lugosi was given what amounted to a bit part. The one time Lugosi was given the material to best Karloff was in “The Son of Frankenstein” playing the sinister of Ygor to Karloff’s mute monster. But as time went on, their careers would separate, Karloff rising and weathering any storms that might have hit it, Lugosi floundering. Karloff was able to avoid the typecasting that hit Lugosi so hard and was working with a young actors into his final years. Karloff died in 1969 at the age of 82.

Dracula and The Monster tip a glass together.

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