Making blood-sucking, anti-God, anti-reflection monsters cool since 1931. Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners and Dwight Frye star in Dracula.
Cast of Characters:
Count Dracula – Bela Lugosi
John Harker – David Manners
Mina Seward – Helen Chandler
Renfield – Dwight Frye
Dr. Seward – Herbert Bunston
Lucy Weston – Frances Dade
Van Helsing – Edward Van Sloan
Director – Tod Browning
Screenplay – Garrett Fort
Based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker and the stage play Dracula by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston
Producer – Tod Browning & Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Renfield (Dwight Frye) is a solicitor who has traveled to the castle of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in Transylvania on a business matter, unaware that the infamous count is a vampire. The matter concerns Dracula’s purchase of Carfax Abbey in London, and time is of the utmost importance as the count seeks to leave for London the next day. Unfortunately, during this time, Renfield has come under the count’s spell, gradually being twisted into a lunatic slave.
Now in London, Dracula befriends Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) and her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), but little do they know that his outwardly sophisticated demeanor hides far more sinister intentions for them all.
Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula may be the most well-know version of the famed vampire from Bram Stoker’s novel, but it’s not the first film to tackle the legendary monster. Nearly a decade before it, F. W. Murnau helmed another cinematic gem titled Nosferatu, and though many of the story’s plot points and characters’ names and characteristics were changed, the silent film classic still was meant to be an adaptation of Stoker’s 1897 work. However, despite the changes made, the film was met with much displeasure from the late Stoker’s widow Florence, who would sue for copyright infringement and ultimately win. Though Florence had every legal right to act in the manner she did – and regardless of whose side you take, her reaction is understandable as the production company didn’t seek her permission first – it is unfortunate that the suit led to Prana Film’s demise and the court ordered all prints of Nosferatu to be destroyed. Thankfully, one print somehow managed to make it out alive, and over time it has become widely viewed, even by yours truly, as one of the most influential horror films of all-time.
So there’s your background into Dracula’s entry into the cinematic world, which now brings us to director Tod Browning and producer/Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s 1931 version. Unlike the folks over at Prana Film, Universal, the company backing the picture, did seek permission from the Stoker estate and would acquire the film rights, though Dracula would still take many departures in both plot and character from Stoker’s novel. Now, you might think that’s ’cause Universal, knowing what happened the last time, didn’t wanna to take any chances, permission or not. The truth for the departure, however, was actually ’cause this would not only an be adaptation of Stoker’s novel, but also the 1924 stage play of the same name by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Both Stoker’s novel and Murnau’s Nosferatu remained points of inspiration, of course, but the film’s production would use Dean and Balderston’s play as the primary blueprint.
Dracula initially received a good reception upon its release, but its greatest achievement would what would follow in the decades to come. Dracula’s enduring legacy and footprint on the horror genre is unquestionable. Universal, Browning and, most of all, Bela Lugosi took Stoker’s villain and turned him into a cultural icon. Google image “Dracula” and one of the first few images that pop up will most certainly be Bela Lugosi. All succeeding portrayals of the character – Frank Langella, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman among others – would borrow elements from Lugosi’s performance, be it through his look, dress, accent or dialogue delivery. The film’s influence has extended even into children’s programming, as Sesame Street’s own Count von Count has been clearly modeled after Lugosi. Even Stoker’s novel owes an ironic debt of gratitude to this film since it is both this film and the preceding Nosferatu that piqued people’s interest in the book (believe it or not, Dracula was not in any way an instantaneous success for the Irish author; in fact, he was still left quite poor following the book’s release).
When you think of Dracula, it’s impossible to not imagine Bela Lugosi. I’ve talked before in other reviews of actors that “are” the characters they portray. James Earl Jones is Darth Vader (David Prowse may disagree, but… whatever). Christopher Reeve is Superman. Well, here, Bela Legosi is Dracula, yet he wasn’t Universal’s first choice; in fact he wasn’t even Universal’s second, third, fourth or fifth choice. Actually, Laemmle didn’t see Lugosi as being any choice for the role, despite the Hungarian stage actor receiving good reviews for his recent stage portrayal. Instead, Laemmle initially sought out Paul Muni, Chester Morris, Ian Keith and even horror icon Lon Chaney, aka “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, the latter of whom would pass away prior to the film’s production. After much intense lobbying from Lugosi, however, Universal relented and cast him in the role (it’s hard to argue against Lugosi, but if there’s anyone who could’ve come close to making the character as memorable, Chaney would’ve been it).
It is unfortunate that as much as Lugosi’s portrayal would be a blessing for him – and the fact that he’s still seen as the definitive Dracula is proof of that – it would also be a curse, as typecasting would immediately follow him. Still, though it’s only one performance, what an unforgettable one it is. As previously mentioned, Lugosi is the definitive Dracula (though both Gary Oldman and Max Schreck sit in good company with him), and it’s clear in each frame that he’s relishing every second he has as the infamous count. Lugosi is charming, sophisticated, sinister and pure evil all rolled into one. His experience as a stage actor allows for electrifying display of theatrics that work marvels for the role, but even when he’s not uttering a single word, Lugosi’s presence commands our attention. Just witness his ominous entrance near the opening of the film. Not a word is spoken between him or his brides, but with a stare like his, you don’t need words.
Looking ahead, decades later, it’s obvious that Gary Oldman is the more superior actor and certainly brought more tragic humanity to the role than other prior portrayals have. But for the tone and style that Browning aims for with this picture, essentially an onscreen stage show, Lugosi hits it out of the park every moment he appears onscreen.
Attention should also be made to the supporting cast, who unfortunately have been overshadowed by Lugosi’s performance. Still, there is strong work by the rest of the cast that deserves recognition. As Mina, Helen Chandler is able to convey more with her eyes than words could ever come close to expressing. Edward Van Sloan makes for a formidable adversary opposite Lugosi. And Dwight Frye tops the entire supporting cast, bringing the film most to life, second only to obviously Lugosi, as the composed solicitor turned lunatic slave Renfield (also in 1931, Frye would later go on to play Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz in James Whale’s classic Frankenstein).
Though Dracula isn’t as technically innovative as Murnau’s Nosferatu, director Tod Browning and cinematographer Karl Freund, the latter of whom had worked previously with Murnau on 1924’s The Last Laugh, still establish an effectively chilling atmosphere, in particular settings where Dracula resides such as his castle, lair and the ship that transports him to London. Freund makes great use of shadows here, twisting them to create a creepy, unsettling vibe. He also deserves credit for his innovative lighting trick in using a pinpoint spotlight in Lugosi’s eyes to create a more hypnotic effect. Not that actor needed more help, but the technique does work.
It’s also a wonder how post-Hays Code (stiff censorship guidelines enforced in Hollywood from 1930 to 1968) Browning and Co. were able to get away with some of the film’s “risqué” scenes between Dracula and Mina. By today’s standards, those scenes would undoubtedly be viewed as child’s play, but back then some might have placed them on par with porn. Then again, this is a Dracula movie, and you have to be an idiot to not see that Stoker’s novel was essentially a giant euphemism for sex.
Coppola certainly understood that.
Browning often gets slagged as the film’s weakness, being criticized as a silent film director that is out of his element with a “talkie”, but I feel that such criticism leaves what strengths he did possess unnoticed. No one, myself included, is going to confuse Browning for being a technical director (Freund is Dracula’s technical asset, and Browning was wise to partner up with him here). An actor himself, Browning was an actors director, and his focus on primarily the performances is quite evident throughout the film, particularly during moments between Chandler, Van Sloan and Lugosi where body language is key in ratcheting the film’s tension. It’s also a testament to his skill with actors in how he handled his lead star. Not that this was Lugosi’s first film or anything, but this was the first vampire film to be filmed in sound and in the hands of a lesser director, one could imagine Lugosi’s thick Hungarian accent and stiff vocal delivery (his so-called lack of a grasp of the English language is sometimes exaggerated more than it really was) coming off as cringe-inducing if mishandled. Granted, at the end of the day, it’s Lugosi’s performance, not Browning’s, but even Lugosi himself has stated how intensely Browning directed his performance, and don’t underestimate a poor director’s ability to make even a great actor look bad (e.g., Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever). The accent and stiffness could’ve backfired, but together Browning and Lugosi worked to make them strengths that enhanced the character’s foreignness.
The one aspect of the film that has divided viewers is Browning’s interesting choice to have gone sans film score. Why such an odd move? Well, Browning desired to establish the film’s terror through the use of sound design instead of a musical score, which often led to more than a few scenes of static silence. A risky choice? Absolutely. Divisive? Yes. Call me crazy, though, I actually love Browning’s ballsy move (in stark contrast to Coppola’s substantially more erotic version which benefited greatly from Wojciech Kilar’s hauntingly beautiful score). Certainly, if not for Browning’s work with the actors and Freund’s camerawork, I’d be singing a different tune, but their combined efforts do lend to a heightened sense of dread even without the aid of a score. More recently, in 1998, composer Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet composed a score for the film, and Universal’s DVD releases does allow viewers the option to view the original version of the film or the newly scored version. Having seen both, I still prefer Browning’s original vision, but the version with Glass’s score does give the film a melancholic touch that works.
Anchored firmly by a timeless performance by Bela Lugosi, Dracula took the bar for vampire films initially set by Nosferatu and raised it to the next level. Viewers today may not find Tod Browning’s interpretation of the Stoker literary classic to be as scary or blood thirsty as today’s standards for vampires, but the suitably unsettling atmosphere and Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of the title monster are reasons enough as to why 1931’s Dracula to this day stands as one of the greatest landmarks of the horror genre.