Dracula (1931, USA) Review

Dracula (1931) | Directed by Tod Browning

Written by Garrett Fort | Adapted from the 1924 play Dracula, written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston | Starring Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners
Followed by Dracula’s Daughter (1931)

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Dracula (1931, USA) Review


Pre-Code Hollywood was an incredible time for creativity in American cinema. After U.S. inventor Thomas Edison successful test footage of the Kinetoscope in the late 1880s – entitled Monkeyshines, No. 1-3 – Edison applied for a patent on the motion picture camera, and gave his first public presentation of his Kinetoscope in 1891. Although many others had involvement in the creation of motion pictures – including Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, whose experiment Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) is known to be the earliest surviving film in history – Edison’s success with the Kinetoscope led to a growing industry in silent motion pictures from the mid-1980s to the late 1920s, and later, the widespread adoption of sound in pictures in 1929.

This is where Pre-Code Hollywood begins. Mainstream Hollywood films in the late 1920s and early 1930s could depict violence, profanity and sexual themes without censorship; unless found to be indecent by the government. But whilst the silent-era of horror movies was rarely a concern for censors, sound brought an entirely new dimension to the medium of motion pictures. Now, every blood-curdling scream could be heard and this had a profound effect on audiences; especially children.

But before a code of standards could be enforced on Hollywood, movie content had few restrictions. In 1931 oversight of The Motion Picture Production Code – or “Hays Code”, named after Will H. Hays whose guidelines on self-censorship in motion pictures was developed into “The Code” – led to many Hollywood studios and filmmakers simply ignoring the guidelines they were asked to follow.

Dracula (1931, USA) Review

Universal Studios had delved into horror filmmaking with silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), but Dracula (1931) was Universal’s first “talking picture” in the horror genre. Directed by Tod Browning and an uncredited Karl Freund, Dracula was based on the 1924 stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston; adapted from the 1897 novel of the same name by Bram Stoker.

After Carl Laemmle, Jr., the son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle, was able to legally secure the novel’s film rights, screenwriter Garrett Fort began work on adapting Dracula for the movie theater. Deane and Balderston’s Broadway theatre production of Dracula had become a considerable success during this time, so Fort used the stage play as the basis for his film adaptation. The film also takes many influences from Nosferatu (1922), the first adaption of Bram Stoker novel; a silent German expressionist horror film, directed by F. W. Murnau. Murnau’s Nosferatu was unauthorised and therefore deviated from the novel creatively, but also in an effort to protect F. W. Murnau and the studio, Prana Film, from a copyright infringement lawsuit. Unfortunately for the studio, the Stoker estate filed that copyright infringement lawsuit and won, thus the court ordered all existing prints of the film to be destroyed. However, a few prints overseas survived…

“I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.”

Dracula (1931, USA) Review

Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi had starred in the Broadway production of Dracula as its titular star, but despite his critically acclaimed performance on stage, he was not originally considered for the role of Dracula in the film adaptation. Lugosi lobbied hard to get the role and was ultimately successful, resulting in one of the most iconic characters in the history of American cinema. When you think of Dracula, you think of Bela Lugosi. Dracula’s success and longevity owes more to the Broadway play from Deane and Balderston, and Murnau’s Nosferatu, than Stoker’s original novel.

Travelling to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) on a business matter, a solicitor by the name of Renfield (Dwight Frye) is warned of vampires that inhabit the castle by the locals of a nearby village.

“No. You mustn’t go there. We people of the mountains believe in the castle there are vampires. Dracula and his wives – they take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night and they feed on the blood of the living.”

Dracula (1931, USA) Review

Ignoring their superstitious ramblings, Renfield continues towards the Borgo Pass by coach, unaware that his carriage driver is Count Dracula in disguise! Upon arrival at Castle Dracula, Renfield realises that the carriage driver is nowhere to be found. Confused, he enters the castle and is greeted by the charming and eccentric Count, who offers him food, drink and a bed for the night. But first… business! Amongst the howling of wolves, the Count and Renfield discuss the lease of Carfax Abbey in London, where they intend to travel by sea aboard the Vesta tomorrow evening.

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”

Leaving him to rest, Renfield finds himself alone in his room and opens a window when suddenly a vampire bat flys towards Renfield causing him to faint! Unconscious, Renfield is approached by three women who have just entered the room – Dracula’s wives – but stop when the Count returns! Waving them away, Dracula leans over Renfield unconscious body, poised for attack!

Dracula (1931, USA) Review

Aboard the schooner Vesta, Dracula hides in his coffin, leaving only at night to feed on the ship’s crew with the assistance of Renfield; now the Count’s slave. By the time the vessel reaches Whitby Harbour, England, nothing remains but a gruesome cargo thought to be caused by a vicious storm; Renfield, seemingly the only living person still aboard the Vesta, laughing intensely due to the madness that now plagues him! But there is another person aboard this ship… not living, but not dead either. Rather… undead! A creature of the night determined to terrorise London!

Gothic horror owes much to Universal’s Dracula: from its Transylvanian set design, seeped in decaying 19th-century architecture, to the theatrical manner in which the actors portray their respective characters; particularly Lugosi as Dracula, Dwight Frye as the raving mad Renfield, and Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing. Tod Browning’s direction excels during long takes with little or no dialogue – knowing when to show terror, and when to imply horror – creating a pervasively creepy atmosphere. This can be attributed to his long career directing silent fare like The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), and the lost London After Midnight (1927), alongside frequent collaborator, actor and make-up artist Lon Chaney.

Dracula (1931, USA) Review

Indeed, Lon Chaney was the obvious choice for the role of Dracula but his death in 1930 resulted in Universal and Tod Browning looking elsewhere. Thankfully Lugosi was persistent that he should be cast as the titular Count; his charismatic presence onscreen… unnerving! The tortured delivery of Lugosi’s lines are as memorable as the iconic cape he dons – even in death – never failing to create a sense of unease. Early special effects also create Transylvanian dread, such as Dracula’s hypnotic stare; created by shining twin pencil-spotlights directly into Lugosi’s eyes.

“The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly… The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.”

But just like the schooner Vesta, not everything was smooth sailing for Stoker’s first authorised feature film. Browning was still unaccustomed to directing “talkies” and often required the assistance of cinematographer Karl Freund, resulting in a disorganised production schedule. Continuity errors run throughout Dracula; easily identifiable to the trained eye of a cinephile. And its roots in the stage result in a melodramatic second reel; a stark contrast to the energetic, fluid introduction to the Count!

With that said, Dracula could be considered Universal’s supernatural work-in-progress; the studio’s first step into what would become the first shared universe in cinematic history. For all its flaws, Dracula is essential viewing. Indeed, a few years after the enforcement of “The Code”, Dracula was re-released with its epilogue removed out of fear of encouraging a belief in the supernatural… So remember, when you are home and the lights have been turned out, that after all, there ARE such things as vampires!

Ken Wynne

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