The Universal Monsters are pop culture icons. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman – all exist in our consciousness in the images created of them back in the 1930s by Universal Studios. All later versions of these creatures are seen through the lens of this original motion picture creation. As good as Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, or even this new Dracula Untold guy, Luke Evans, have been as Count Dracula, our first impression, our go-to visual will always be the aristocratic, Eastern accented, slick haired, perfect suited and caped Bela Lugosi version. More on the 1931 Dracula, and its secret Spanish twin, after the jump.
Back in his day, Irish author Bram Stoker was mostly known as the manager of a theater in London, but his main claim to fame today is his creation of the monster Dracula. Cobbled together from various legends, with a name borrowed from a real life Romanian warrior known as Vlad the Impaler. The tale was also probably inspired by earlier works like the short story “Carmilla,” Polidori’s The Vampyre, and the penny dreadful Varney the Vampyre.
The wildly successful novel was translated to the stage with similar success, and it was not long before filmmakers began to sniff around Dracula’s undead corpse. The classic 1922 German silent film Nosferatu was made with thin changes to title and characters because F.W. Murnau could not obtain the rights to Dracula. Stoker’s widow sued and won having most of the copies of the film destroyed, thankfully some survived. A legal version of the novel would have to wait until Universal Studios had its turn in 1931.
Browning and Freund
The brilliant Tod Browning directed the script based on the stage play that was in turn, based on the Bram Stoker novel. Originally the studio had wanted Browning’s partner in so many wonderful and horrific films, Lon Chaney, in the title role, but the legend had passed away earlier in the year. Conrad Veidt, who had played Cesare the sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the title protagonist in The Man Who Laughs, was also up for the part.
The film’s principal cinematography is by Karl Freund, who previously worked on Metropolis and The Golem, and later would add his visionary skills to movies like The Good Earth and Key Largo before pioneering television photography on “I Love Lucy” with the three camera shoot later used in all sitcoms. Freund was also a director as well. Some of his films include Mad Love (also known as The Hands of Orlac) and 1932’s The Mummy, which followed a story structure similar to Dracula. Some folks suspect that Freund may have had more of a hand in directing Dracula than Browning.
Beautiful glass painting shots, also used in other classics like King Kong, create gigantic landscapes outside and vast interiors within the castle and the like. Still, in any of these scenes, Bela Lugosi always stands a giant, larger than life. Even with that mighty presence, there is an eerie lighting around Dracula’s eyes that only adds to his mesmerizing control of any scene he appears in.
Speaking of Bela Lugosi, he was born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko in Hungary in 1882, moving to the United States after World War I and the Hungarian revolution. An actor in his homeland, he continued such work here, scoring the role of Dracula on stage in 1927. This led to the role on film and a fairly successful career in horror movies. One of my faves I’ve talked about here before, White Zombie. Despite the early success in horror, he later became involved in drugs and ended his life in the low budget films of Ed Wood. But as the king of the vampires in 1931, Lugosi was at the top of his game.
In the film Dracula, Bela Lugosi plays the Count, and his portrayal of the vampire as an eccentric aristocratic Eastern European gentleman with a thick accent and a cape is perhaps the best known version of the character thanks to this wildly popular film and its sequels. This Dracula might not be recognizable to Bram Stoker, as his descriptions were closer to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok or Gary Oldman’s ‘elderly lady’ vampire in the 1992 film. Lugosi’s image is solely a creation of the stage play for economic reasons.
The Rest of the Cast
The brilliant Dwight Frye is Renfield, a performance so mesmerizing that decades later Alice Cooper paid homage to the man in a song sung from the point of view of a character the man might have played. New to Hollywood, he left a successful Broadway career to be in the movies. This performance as the manic and quickly losing his mind Renfield, and role in the next year’s Frankenstein as the hunchbacked assistant to the title mad scientist quickly sealed his fate as a stereotyped actor. Dwight Frye was a terrific talent whose wonderfully lunatic turn here is the stuff of legend.
Edward Van Sloan who plays Doctor Van Helsing came to the role from the stage play, his biggest success before this film. Frances Dade of Philadelphia had a short Hollywood career of which playing Lucy in Dracula was probably the highlight. Her real life friend Helen Chandler plays Mina, and her career was cut short some time later by alcoholism. Later burned and disfigured in an accident, Chandler’s life ended in tragedy and loneliness.
The story is much the same as in its many film versions and other media. Count Dracula is a vampire and he is seeking new blood, pun intended unashamedly. He plans to buy real estate in London and hires a proxy to do the dirty work and be his literal slave. Once in the UK, he rampaged through the upper class until destroyed by the supernatural-wise Van Helsing.
Any scenes with Dracula or Renfield are stolen irreparably by Lugosi and Frye respectively, and early scenes in Transylvania, and in the castles, are magnificent for their visuals alone (as mentioned above), but, sadly much of the rest of the film is flat. This is due largely to its basis on the stage-bound-locked-room-mystery-confines of the play, and it’s a shame.
De Drácula Sinister Español Gemelo
This Spanish version of the film, as was the habit of the day, was filmed simultaneously with the American version on the same sets and using an identical script. However the Spanish cast and crew had a distinct advantage over their Hollywood counterparts. They watched the dailies and saw what worked, and what did not – and adjusted accordingly.
The Spanish production, directed by George Melford, and is so superior in this fashion that if it had Lugosi and Frye in it as Dracula and Renfield, it would be a perfect film. Yeah, it’s that good. The rest of the Spanish cast is stunning and the women much sexier, especially Lupita Tovar – no censors to appease in that version. An amazing, unappreciated, and largely unknown treat for horror fans – check it out.
And there you have it, an overview of probably one of the greatest monsters of our era. See the original, see its Spanish counterpart, hear the new Philip Glass score from a few years back, and see its many sequels, remakes, and re-imaginings. And while it’s true that Bela Lugosi never punched an army with a giant fist made of bats like Luke Evans in Dracula Untold can, he’s still cool in my book.