*. The Dracula mystery. Bram Stoker’s novel was not the first vampire story (Polidori usually gets credit for this), and it’s a long way from being the best. In fact it’s a terrible book, difficult to get through today. And the movie wasn’t the first vampire movie (or even Tod Browning’s first vampire movie), and it’s nowhere near as good, in my opinion, as other early outings (Nosferatu and Vampyr). So what explains the status of this film?
*. I think the sense has always been there that no, it really isn’t a great movie. Pauline Kael found it “stagey,” David Thomson “stodgy” and Roger Ebert opines that it is interesting today “mostly for technical reasons” (which is faint praise, I think, given that technically it’s not that impressive). But as these critics also point out: What of it? Quality somehow doesn’t matter when talking about a film like this, and in any event “It’s too late to complain” (Thomson). Just look at all the money it made, the impact it had, the franchise it spawned, the look it defined.
*. It’s not a personal favourite. I’ve seen it many times, but re-viewing it most recently I was struck by the fact that with less than ten minutes left to run I had no recollection of how it was about to end. Was Lugosi going to get a stake through the heart? Dissolve in sunlight? I honestly couldn’t remember. And truth be told, the ending here is rushed and anticlimactic (even Dracula’s off-screen groans were later edited out when censorship was tightened later in the decade).
*. The curtain rises on . . . the Batman logo! And music from Swan Lake (which would go on to become a Universal horror theme). It’s the only music in the movie aside from the symphony we briefly hear. I prefer watching it today with the score by Philip Glass, but I’m not sure this is a majority opinion (especially among purists).
*. My feeling is that Browning came from a silent background and essentially made this as a silent movie, which would have had an in-house score backing it up. In fact it was even released in some theatres as a silent, complete with dialogue cards, because not every theatre at the time was equipped for sound. The only thing you would have missed is Lugosi’s voice.
*. Bela Lugosi. Let’s put aside his sad decline. In reality, he just wasn’t much of an actor. No doubt the language barrier was part of it, but he was also a genuine ham. He was intense to be sure (the most intense actor in film history according to one commentator in the Lugosi featurette), but he couldn’t tone it down. He may have been the only actor on the set of this film who didn’t see the whole thing as a joke.
*. Lugosi was also cheap. David Manners (who?) got paid four times what Lugosi got because he was an established star, and this despite the fact that Lugosi had top billing. And apparently Lugosi only got to play Dracula in the stage production because the producers didn’t have any money left over to pay a real actor. That’s an odd way to back into fame.
*. According to David J. Skal, Lugosi was in fact “the last person Universal wanted in the title role.” But Tod Browning wanted to work with him (at least after Lon Chaney died). And at the end of the day it was the right call. Even his lack of English became a strength.
*. Was Lugosi sexy? Tastes change, just as they do for what’s scary and what’s funny. For what it’s worth, apparently Lugosi truly was seen as something of a sexy beast back in the day. He even hooked up with noted vamp Clara Bow. Today I think he seems a bit repulsive, even taking into account the heavy make-up. Those cupid’s bow lips are too much.
*. For such a short movie it’s remarkably slack. It gets dull and drawing-room when it leaves Transylvania. In his commentary, Skal indirectly adverts to this when he mentions how the movie slows down at different points, allowing him to talk about something else.
*. In large part I think the pacing problems are the result of its being based on the play rather than the novel. Stage business isn’t film business. They move to different rhythms. And stage acting, like film acting, was into posing at the time.
*. Posing, by the way, is coming back. Look at all the comic book movies, or CGI spectacles like 300. Posing is basically all the actors are doing.
*. I mentioned how Lugosi may have been the only one who took the production seriously. How are we to take it? How did it seem to contemporary audiences? I can’t get over the silly business of the bee climbing out of the tiny bee coffin. The armadillos and slow-moving bats the size of seagulls are one thing, but I find this shot out of place for its sheer silliness. And yet there it is.
*. It’s also damaged by repetition. Not just the shots of Lugosi’s glowing eyes (which were added in post-production because somebody thought they were needed), but also, for example, with the formula shot of the coffin, which then pans away and then back again to reveal Dracula arisen. This is gone through twice. I guess seeing Dracula get out of the coffin would have looked awkward.
*. Cinematographer Karl Freund shot Metropolis and The Last Laugh and apparently much of this film as well. Browning didn’t groove to tracking or crane shots (which are rare but quite effective in this movie).
*. No fangs are to be seen, despite being mentioned in the script. Indeed they’re not even in the Spanish version (though the puncture marks on the neck are; the Spanish version stuck to the script a little more closely).
*. About the Spanish version. Comparing Browning’s version with the Spanish-language version directed by George Melford and shot at night on the same sets, has become a cinephile parlour game. I think you gain cred as a film snob by saying you find the Spanish version vastly better.
*. I’m a bit of a film snob myself (I started off here by saying how much I preferred Nosferatu and Vampyr to this Hollywood entertainment), but on balance I’d rather watch the Browning version. The Spanish Dracula does have some advantages: it’s more technically adventurous, sexier, and handles some scenes (like the mirror scene) more effectively. But Carlos Villarias is no Bela Lugosi. His Count looks like a slightly comic stage magician. And Pablo Alvarez Rubio is no Dwight Frye, with Rubio seeming like a comic lightweight where Frye is an iconic madman. In addition to these key casting isues, the pacing and editing in the Spanish version also seem even more mechanical than in Browning’s. In his DVD commentary, Steve Haberman calls the Spanish version “quite inferior” and offers a number of his own reasons.
*. In short, I think the Spanish version has been a bit oversold, though I’d definitely recommend watching both.
*. Skal and Haberman both try to draw connections between this film’s sensibility and success and the blight of the Great Depression. Haberman even refers to Dracula as “a metaphor for the Depression.” I just don’t see it, and I’m usually all over this kind of cultural-historical analysis.
*. It’s fun to read some of the early reports on the script, complaining about its sickening gruesomeness. Were people really such prudes in 1931? Were they that sensitive? Or were they just hypocrites?
*. The mystery of the sheet of paper on the lamp.
*. What’s it doing there? Skal attributes it to general sloppiness, something left on the set by a lazy grip. Haberman sees it as set dressing, and says that to think it was an accident “shows an incredible ignorance of the filmmaking process.”
*. I’m not sure. It does seem rather prominently placed to be just a goof. On the other hand, I’ve never seen paper attached to bedside lamps like this. It looks tacky and cheap for an expensive boudoir, and what exactly would its purpose be? A shade taped on to the shade? A bedside lamp provides light for reading (as Lucy and Eva in the Spanish version demonstrate). Also, compare the Spanish version. Does it have the paper? They used the same sets. I was looking for it and didn’t see it in any of the shots. I guess they could have taken that bit of set dressing down, but that doesn’t seem right. Overall, I tend to the opinion that it was a goof.
*. This is one of those films where the casting just works, to the point where the two leads became typecast (Dwight Frye would go on to play another demented assistant in Frankenstein). Edward Van Sloan almost steals the show as Van Helsing, and I love the odd look of his cruel hairstyle and buggy glasses. Helen Chandler’s Mina is nicely feline, with slightly unconventional heroine features. David Manners, on the other hand, is just a handsome stud in a much diminished role as Jonathan Harker. It’s hard to believe he’s the one who got the big pay day.
*. Trashy? From “the first trashy novel” (according to Clive Barker), to a vaudeville play (which may have been the prize Stoker had his eye on all along), to a camp movie. Tod Browning, meanwhile, grew up in sideshows and vaudeville. The pieces just fell in place. An entire genealogy of pop culture stands behind this film.
*. And I think that it’s as pop art that it finally has to be judged. No one at Universal thought they were making great art or a film for the ages. In an interview he gave late in life, David Manners confessed that he had never even seen it. “Never! I knew it was a stinker all the while we were making it, so I just never bothered to go.”