Thursday, 22 October 2015
In 1897, the Irish writer, ex-clerk and sometime theatre manager Abraham 'Bram' Stoker unleashed his opus Dracula upon an unsuspecting world. This has been viewed by lovers of the Gothic and the macabre as A Good Move.
In 1922, the German film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau decided not to bother with all of that 'securing permission from the copyright holders' nonsense, and to mount a thinly-veiled (with the names of characters changed to protect the not so innocent) 'free adaptation' of Dracula entitled Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens ('a Symphony of Horrors'). Although the author's widow, Florence Stoker, gained a court order for the destruction of all copies of the movie, prints thankfully survived and it is now widely viewed as one of the most important and influential horror films ever made, and a cornerstone of the genre. This is not its story.
In 1924, actor and producer Hamilton Deane staged the first ever theatrical adaptation of Dracula, starring Edmund Blake as the titular Count and Deane himself as Dracula's arch-nemesis, the vampire slayer Van Helsing, in Derby. We all have to start somewhere. By 1927 the play had proven popular enough for American producer Horace Liveright to engage John L. Balderston to Americanise and adapt it for a U.S. audience, and it opened on Broadway starring unknown Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the title role, and Edward van Sloan as Van Helsing. 261 Broadway performances, a national tour and three years later, Universal Pictures would pay $40, 000 for the screen rights and bring the show and its two lead actors to the silver screen in the world's first legitimate (discounting the bait 'n' switch trick of the Tod Browning / Lon Chaney 1927 lost classic London After Midnight) vampire film, helmed by 'Master of the Macabre' Tod Browning and immortalising Lugosi as Dracula incarnate. This is not its story.
Rather, this is the parallel production, shot on the self-same sets at night after production on the Browning version (ha!) had finished, with a Spanish-speaking cast. The brainchild of associate producer Paul Kohner (who had served as supervising producer on Universal's silent fright classic The Cat and the Canary [Paul Leni, 1927]), who approached Universal head Carl Laemmle with the proposal of eschewing the practice of dubbing in favour of a full alternate language production, and directed by veteran director George Melford (who routinely helmed adventure pictures such as The Flame of the Yukon , Sea Fury  and The Viking , but had a long list of credits including the Rudolph Valentino classic The Sheik ) the production team would set out with the express intention of making a better film than Browning and Lugosi. As film historian David J. Skal says:
"Paul Kohner had the opportunity to produce the Spanish version of Dracula, and he decided to upstage Tod Browning's effort at every chance he could."
Engaging screenwriter Baltasar Fernandez Cue to adapt the John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort Dracula script (which had in turn, of course been adapted from the playscript by Hamilton Deane, which was adapted from the Stoker novel...) into Spanish, the crew and cast - headed by Carlos Villarias (who, later in life, would feature in Hugo Fregonese's 1953 Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine starring Boccaccio adaptation Decameron Nights) as Conde Dracula and Mexican ingenue Lupita Tovar (Tropic Fury [Christy Cabanne, 1939], The Crime Doctor's Courage [George Sherman, 1945]) as the renamed Mina character, Eva - began filming on the already-constructed Charles D. Hall designed sets in the evenings after the cast of Browning's film had completed. As Lupita Tovar (later Kohner, after she and Paul Kohner married) remembers:
"The cast for the English version would shoot... The Spanish cast would start in the evenings and shoot all night long 'til next morning, because we used exactly the same sets. In fact, we had the same marks that the English cast had. We stepped in exactly the same place."
With the advantage of being able to view the previous days' rushes from Browning's film, Melford - although not able to speak a word of Spanish, and communicating with his Hispanophone cast through an interpreter - would find ways to improve upon Browning's static and stagey presentation. As Universal had acquired a surviving copy of the 1922 Nosferatu, Kohner and Melford would view the Murnau film and utilise it as inspiration for several shots and sequences, resulting in a Dracula based much more in the tradition of cinema than the stage.
"The result is a film that, unlike many of these foreign versions which are quite forgettable today, is superior in most technical levels to the Tod Browning film."
Better paced, clocking in at 104 minutes as opposed to the Browning feature's truncated 75, and featuring Dracula staples oddly missing from its Anglophone sibling (the punctures of the vampire's bite upon the neck of Carmen Guerrero's Lucia are featured in close up, whereas Browning throws away any such reveal after Drac's attack on Frances Dade's dull Lucy), the production would also utilise a greater fluidity of camera movement courtesy of cinematographer George Robinson (The Invisible Ray , Son of Frankenstein , Tarantula ) - including a wonderful tracking crane shot up the crumbling staircase of Castle Dracula to reveal out first sight of Villarias' Count, silhouetted against a giant spider's web - that outshines anything achieved by Browning and his cinematographer Karl Freund (and considering Freund's reputation for the camera, having worked on Paul Wegener's The Golem , Murnau's The Last Laugh  and Fritz Lang's visionary Metropolis , as well as his accomplishments as director on The Mummy  and Mad Love , one feels that the blame for the listless and dull stagebound nature of the Lugosi film must fall squarely at Browning's feet).
Featuring good support from Pablo Alvarez Rubio as a Renfield who's a match in mania for Dwight Frye's celebrated portrayal, and Argentinian actor Barry Norton as 'Juan' Harker, one finds oneself dearly wishing that Melford (and some of his cast, including Tovar and Guerrero) had filmed the English language version with Lugosi (who interesting fleetingly appears - as ghostlike as the undead Count himself - in long-shot in alternate shots and outtakes from Browning's movie). In that way audiences would truly get the legendary Universal Dracula production that disappointing hype has made the Browning film out to be. But here we have a fascinating lost classic that any film buff without an aversion to monochrome or subtitles would do well to seek out.
As Lupita Tovar said:
"We wanted our version to be the best, and - according to the critics - i think it was."
Bela Lugosi's dead. Lupita Tovar Kohner celebrated her 105th birthday this year.
(David J. Skal and Lupita Tovar quotes from interviews in Kevin Brownlow's superlative 1998 documentary Universal Horror, which i also wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre and period.)
Thursday, 1 October 2015
Another of this notionally cinematic blog's occasional detours into the realms of the televisual here, just to coincide with my current marathon of The Avengers hitting one of the series' most notable and controversial highlights - Brian Clemens' and James Hill's gleeful and infamous "A Touch of Brimstone".
When i began this Avengers-athon a few months ago i found myself enjoying the early 'gritty' phase of the series, the time when this was a show about Ian Hendry's Dr David Keel avenging the murder of his fiancee, of Keel and Steed stalking through noir-ish stories in raincoats, of the ineffectual Martin King, of Venus Smith and her chansons and of Honor Blackman as Catherine Gale of the judo throws and the kinky boots (oh, and now i have that song stuck in my head). In fact, i was enjoying the neglected early phase of the programme so much (how hipsterish of me) that i found myself approaching the much lauded, much repeated 'Steed and Mrs Peel' phase of the show with something approaching dread. It just wasn't going to be the same - it was going to throw away the verisimilitude of real world settings and believable characters for quips and a lighter touch and fairytale and i probably wouldn't like it. And then i realised that i was beginning to sound like a bitter old Doctor Who fan mumbling into his real ale darkly of Moffat and murder and bring back RTD, and a quick self-delivered headsmack later i stopped.
What on Earth was i worried about? This era of the show, wherein it went from ABC (Associated British Corporation) to the ABC of the Yoo-Ess of Ay, and escaped the videotaped claustrophobic confines of Teddington Studios for the filmed vistas of Elstree - all overseen by the new producer Julian Wintle (with Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens as executive and associate producers) - is viewed by fans both hardcore and casual as a golden age for a reason. And this particular nugget of dark sulphuric wit, written by Clemens (later to be the scriptwriter of And Soon the Darkness , Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde , The Golden Voyage of Sinbad , Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter  and The Watcher in the Woods ) as he was approaching the height of his powers as a writer of witty fantastique, and ably helmed by Hill (A Study in Terror , Born Free , Black Beauty ) with the leading duo of Patrick Macnee's John Steed and Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in the full bloom of their witty / flirty / sexy charm.
Opening with an arch statement of intent performance from guest villain Peter Wyngarde (The Innocents , Night of the Eagle , Flash Gordon  as well of course as television's Department S [1969 - 70] and Jason King [1971 - 72]) as the debonair, decadent and distinctly dis-Honourable John Cleverly Cartney the scene is soon set for foxy flirting betwixt the carnal Cartney and an icily imperious investigating Emma ('I've come here to appeal to you, Mr Cartney' says Mrs Peel undercover as a charity collector. 'You certainly do that...' he rogueishly replies).
Cartney, along with a cabal of upper-crust rakes, rogues and reprobates, has revived the Hellfire Club - the infamous 18th century society dedicated to decadence and 'Do what thou wilt' (a motto later expanded upon the The Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley) founded by Philip, Duke of Wharton and later made (in)famous by Sir Francis Dashwood before the decline of the cult of carousing. Cartney and his henchmen have resurrected the rituals of the Club in raucous and Rabelaisian meetings spent in 1700s period dress indulging in the gratification of the senses in orgies of wine, women and cries of 'Hellfire!' that may qualify as song. A sideline of pranks played on visiting dignitaries (such as the opening scene's exploding cigar causing the humiliation of a Russian ambassador) leading to governmental embarrassment have lately escalated into murder, leading to Steed and Peel getting on the case and infiltrating the Club.
Paradoxically both the highest-rated episode during The Avengers' original television run, and the story the was notoriously banned in the USA and remained unscreened during it's American network run (though stories of TV executives gathering in hotel rooms for 'private viewings' of it have abounded for years), much of "A Touch of Brimstone"'s reputation hangs not only on its artfully debauched air of decadence but on That Costume worn by Diana Rigg when Mrs Peel is put on display by Cartney for his roistering chums as The Queen of Sin. The outfit of corset, knee-high boots and leashed collar studded with the three inch spikes (oh, and a snake: tres Santanico Pandaemonium!) may not quite be gentleman's relish for the palate of today's internet-jaded public, but at a time when television censors went snippety-snip double quick at the word 'Hell' in dialogue or an exposed belly button, those American network chiefs gathered around their flickering screens in seedy hotel rooms must have been having palpitations.
Oh, and if you'll pardon my problematic Male Gaze, it still works for me - especially since the indomitable Mrs Peel remains unbowed and not cowed throughout the cracks and lashes of Cartney's whip (another controversial element, which was cut for both domestic and international release, and the scene remaining unseen in full until its pristine DVD restoration).
Also starring Colin Jeavons, Jeremy Young and Monty Python's Carol Cleveland "A Touch of Brimstone" is a fine example of a television series and its confident pomp and prime, wittily written, artfully directed and fronted by a trio of superlative performances from Macnee, Rigg and Wyngarde.
'Mrs Peel, we're needed.' You certainly are. Who's Ian Hendry again?