DRACULA (1931: Universal Pictures, USA/Spanish language version)
Director: George Melford
Universal made foreign language versions of their products back-to-back on a regular basis to keep interest fresh in their markets overseas.
I have only seen George Melford’s Drácula, with Carlos Vallarius (Count Dracula), Eduardo Arozamena (Van Helsing) and Lupita Tovar (Eva), as recent segmented downloads on the Internet YouTube service. Before this revelatory experience, I had to exist solely on tantalizing stills, and piece together a cinematic wonder through reviews of varying degrees.
Carlos Vallarius is billed as Charles Villar. In the photographs, smiling inanely with giant candelabra, he looks to be enjoying himself immensely as the Spanish Count. In another shot, ascending stone steps with said candelabra, he looks a little shocked at the idea of being a photogenic vampire. Bending over the sleeping form of Carmen Guerrero, we see an edge of sensuousness that was missing from Lugosi’s portrayal. Villar loses the stiff baroque poses in favour of high camp melodrama it seems and has three brides dressed in varying degrees of fashion to suit the historical period in which they were fanged. The movie segments show a film that is indeed displaying an energy that is missing from it’s American-speaking cousin. Gone are the dead spots of interminable silences and the weird inclusion of armadillos and possums that scurry around in Bela‘s castle. In their place are convincing bats, fluid camera movements and vigorous verbal exchanges from a cast that seem to be having real fun with the material.
Pablo Alvarez Rubio switches from his mousy and stuffy, but efficient, store room clerk into a gleefully maniacal familiar as Renfield. Lupita Tovar and Carmen Guerrero deliver strikingly animated performances that totally contradict the dour, maudlin and, frankly, wooden turn of Helen Chandler as Mina. Dracula’s brides hungrily emerge from the shadows in the wake of Yorga’s croned hags almost forty years later. Fangs are absent, but one can easily imagine these caged tigresses ripping and tearing their prey, gnawing on flesh and bone as we would strip a turkey drumstick of every last vestige of meat.
Tod browning himself had confessed in interviews that he constantly had to ‘hold down’ Bela Lugosi as the Count. It seems that the Hungarian actor’s two years on stage had thrown him into the habits of over-gesticulating his every nuance, and emphasising every spoken syllable with broad, dramatic gestures. This, coupled with the aspect of Karl Freund’s immovable camera, leaves me wondering as to how much interaction between the two sets of cast was allowed. I say this, because it is now common knowledge on the internet that Vallarius had been told to be “as much Lugosi-like as possible”. When we see the Spaniard perform, we witness, first hand, these animated gestures and devious changes of gleeful expression that were so cruelly bereft of use in the ‘classic’ Lugosi performance. While watching these few, but very tantalising segments, my mind began to ask all sorts of questions concerning this ‘lost’ treasure.
Melford, a prolific director of westerns had helmed Rudolph Valentino’s successful 1921 production The Sheik. Not understanding a word of Spanish, he directed his commands through an interpreter. All the cuts that had been ordered by the censor in Lugosi’s film, that Tod Browning was still grumbling about almost thirty years later, remain intact in this version: the staking of Lucy, Dracula preparing to disembark for England with his boxes of earth and some comedy interludes between Renfield and a maid. Also apparent are the first ideas of sex being brought into the proceedings as Guerrero and Tovar wear sensationally low cut gowns. Tovar (who would become Mrs Paul Kohner two years later) confessed in a rare interview that the Spanish cast were not as intimidated by the idea of showing off their bodies as their American counterparts. She also conveyed the fact that they were living like vampires themselves, working through the night from 8pm until 6am the following day
Discovering these incredible pieces of film opened my mind to all sorts of questions and speculation that may or may not be too far from the truth. I list my ideas below.
When Lon Chaney died in August 1930, it was no secret that Universal were trying to lure him back to the studio to repeat his success as the master of horror – albeit , before the term ‘horror’ had entered into usage amongst film goers. Dracula would be the perfect vehicle for the ’man of a thousand faces’. As noted above, it is a possibility that Chaney would have taken both the lead roles of Count Dracula and Professor Abraham Van Helsing. It is broadly evident that Chaney directed the films himself and brought life to the grotesqueries of Tod Browning’s imagination in their many collaborations together.
The bulk of all the characterisations tended to deal with life-changing deformities such as could be found under the tents of a travelling circus. Browning himself had been a circus performer in his youth and would have met the people that he wrote about in his screenplays that culminated in his best, and probably most heartfelt film, Freaks (1932). Even his sole stab at an original vampire story had the element of sensational showmanship attached to it and waylaid public perceptions by being titled, The hypnotist (1927). known around the world today as London after Midnight, the most intriguingly famous lost film ever. The vampire himself would be explained away at the end as being an elaborate ploy to catch a murderer, explaining all the spook shenanigans away in a neatly tied knot at the climax. Again, Chaney portrayed the anonymous Inspector Burke who takes on the identity of the Dr Caligari-like vampire.
Without warning, Chaney succumbed to the throat cancer that had plagued him for a number of years – possibly irritated more by the intense vocal mannerisms that he had used in his last film, The Unholy Three (1930). The actor publicly signed an affidavit to assure audiences that all the voices used in the picture (an old woman, a midget pretending to be a baby etc..) were his own. It was an impressive, yet tragic transition into the new medium of talking pictures and cemented Chaney’s reputation – by this author at least – as one of the greatest actors who ever lived. Browning would continue with a take on this character in the horrific revenge thriller, The Devil doll (1935) with Lionel Barrymore substituting for the absent Lon Chaney.
But what did Tod browning know about vampires? Or for that matter, directing a movie? His heavy-handed approach to Dracula ruins many scenes, because he seems to hold no concept of the evils of these supernatural beings. He happily allows the screenplay to relay the novels highlights/horrors through idle chat and throwaway remarks from a cast that, quite frankly, seem lost and bewildered. Again the insertion of ridiculous animals in the Count’s castle tend to rely on the feeling of wonderment as opposed to outright horror.
The Spanish cast would watch these rushes before filming and threw down the gauntlet that they would make the better film. And they did.
Universal’s publicity machine had touted Bela Lugosi as the Count Dracula. Carlos Vallarius, I believe, was to be nothing more than a doppleganger to sell the Lugosi image overseas. George Melford, a better director than Browning, who had seen better days in Hollywood, was given the project, attacking it with a verve of a man embarking on his first feature for a major studio. The finished film outclassing Browning’s original in almost every respect.
I believe that measures had to be taken by the studio and they buried the film – literally – for over sixty years, to instil the image of an underpaid and relatively unknown actor into the public consciousness as the one and only Count Dracula.
The Spanish language feature appeared on video in 1992 after an intense restoration project. Today it shares billing on a double-sided DVD with Lugosi’s own film – but there are no pictures on the casing of Carlos Vallarius. Finally, it has taken it’s place in a standard Universal DVD box set of five classic Universal horror films. I confess that I still have to see the film in it’s entirety and keenly look forward to a night in with possibly one of the best horror movies of the 1930s!
DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA (1953: Demurrage Studios, Turkey)
Director: Mehmet Muhtar
Never released in the West, Atif Kaptan dons the black cloak in this Turkish re-telling of the story, directed by Mehmet Muhtar, and borrowing its screenplay from Stoker and Ali Riza Seyfi’s novel The Impaling Voivode. This would be the first film to fuse Stoker’s creation with the 15th century tyrant Vlad the Impaler, the original novel Kazikli Voyvoda (1928), being little more than a translation of Stoker’s fable.
Again, the film has a legacy of providing just a series of tantalising stills. The most often printed one shows Kaptan with bald head and vicious looking fangs – the first screen fangs since Nosferatu (1922) – glaring hungrily at some unfortunate midnight traveller out of camera shot.
Atif Kaptan was born in Izmit, Turkey in 1908 and was, apparently, as big a horror star as Peter Cushing in his own land! Billed second on the impressive movie poster, he lusts after the films major star, Annie Ball, who plays the character Guniz – Mina – as a performance artist who enjoys dancing in the flimsiest of attire. Filmed on a shoestring budget with a generous nod towards cameraman Ozin Sermet for his atmospheric cinematography, the film retells the Dracula story from a modern Turkish perspective and, for those unfortunates who haven’t seen it, the reviews really get one licking ones lips in anticipation of a worldwide DVD release!
A real film oddity that intrigues because the vampire looks to be an amalgamation of Max Schreck’s decadent invader and Bela Lugosi’s belligerent philanderer. The fangs hinting at the shape of things to come and preparing everyone for the technicolour horrors of Christopher Lee’s interpretation of the role in Dracula (1958).