Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Dracula Month Day 4: Dracula (the 1931 English film)

1931 was a banner year for Universal, the one major Hollywood studio to take a strong interest in developing horror pictures; Dracula with Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein with Boris Karloff both premiered in 1931 and became classics of the genre, archetypal pictures both.

Directed by Tod Browning, veteran Lon Chaney Sr. director, Dracula was not so much an adaptation of Stoker's novel as it was of the play by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston, with Lugosi reprising his stage role as Dracula and likewise Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing. Although much of the film is derived from the stage play, it's worth acknowledging how much of the novel was put back in for the film account. Renfield was given Jonathan Harker's role of traveling into Transylvania to meet Count Dracula, but the stage play hadn't even been set there. Dracula's brides were added to the opening sequences, Lucy & Mina were both present on-screen and back in their roles in the novel and the UK setting was shifted back to Whitby; Dracula kills Renfield.

Both I begin to criticize this film there are a few points worth applauding: Lugosi's line delivery was excellent; Edward Van Sloan was a properly indefatigable Van Helsing; the set designs of Dracula's castle and the Carfax crypt were some of Universal's best.

The unfortunate side of Dracula is just about everything else. Compared to the stage play, Dracula put in some effort to open up the story with the scenes of Renfield traveling by carriage, the doings around Dracula's castle and Dracula's visit to Dr. Seward at the theater. However, Dracula is all-too unfortunately an early talkie picture and a stage adaptation, which are so often detriments in 1930s pictures. For all that Browning did to open up the story there are still significant events occurring off-screen as they did in the play (most obviously when Harker describes a wolf running across the lawn and the film fails to cut away and depict said wolf). Early talkies were all-too enamored of relaying information to audiences through verbiage instead of action and Browning fell into that same trap; once the film moves into Dr. Seward's library - the same place most of the stage play was set - it becomes rather uninteresting visually.

The other unfortunate business about Dracula is that contemporary audiences find it laughable rather than scary. I watched this film at Cineplex a few years ago and many of the attempted frights brought a chorus of laughter from the crowd. The hovering bats were always greeted with laughter, so too the immense and clearly fake spider in Transylvania; Dwight Frye's Renfield was often greeted with laughter as his histrionics were viewed as merely campy rather than frightening; Lugosi's overly-stagy performance was likewise seen as campy. I think the film is also hindered by the sparse soundtrack; dramatic stings of music might have helped maintain tension during the picture and kept a little bit of dignity for Frye & Lugosi's performances. Instead, the lack of music intertwined with the melodramatic acting seems to convince audiences they're watching a series of blackout comedy sketches. But then, the audience I was with laughed at James Whale's Frankenstein for many of the same reasons.

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