Thursday, 22 October 2015
Dracula [Spanish language version] (George Melford, 1930)
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.)