John and Lon: The actors who tried to fill Bela Lugosi’s patent-leather pumps

The best Dracula movie to come from Universal is, in my opinion, Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943). Lon Chaney drops the ‘Jr’ tag and dons the cloak for the role his father never got to play in this pleasing wartime pot boiler dreamt up by Curt Siodmak with a Screenplay by Eric Taylor.
While the second world war raged on in the real world, Dracula, hiding behind the alias Count Alucard for the first time, visited the quiet seclusion of Louisiana, to romance and marry a young girl (Louise Allbritton), who, like many cinematic Lucy Westenras, is obsessed with death and the more morbid side of life. Dracula is unmasked by the learned Professor Lazlo, a convincing performance by J. Edward Bromberg, a survivor of Transylvania.

Dracula gets to perform most of the tricks that are reported in the novel. He has amazing strength, and, with the aid of John P. Fulton’s cartoon animation, he is able to transform into a bat, but both he, and his new bride, seem to prefer wandering around as a floating  mist for most of the time. The Siodmak brothers give the Count his best PR in this film. Never hitting the atmospheric heights of their The Spiral Staircase (1945), the film does carry one or two unpleasant jolts and a couple of rather physical fist fights.

As Dracula, with a thick American accent, powdered temples and pencil moustache, Chaney is serviceable. Obtaining the role through his success as the ill-fated Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941). He would go on to portray the monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and Kharis, in the studio’s final three Mummy films. Apparently, his casting as Dracula would cause a rift between himself and the real studio Count, Bela Lugosi, that would boil over when they appeared together in Reginald LeBorg’s, The Black Sleep (1956). LeBorg insisted that they had to be kept apart quite a bit.

Chaney’s Count Dracula is played as a belligerent thug and he suffers deterioration by the sun’s rays, when an irate love rival sets fire to his coffin, after he has totally decimated the family unit. The same prop skeleton would be used in Universal’s next two monster marathons providing quick and cliched death scenes for the next famous face to climb into the distinguished plimsoles.

The Count that prefers a tip of the top hat is John Carradine. Born Richmond Reed Carradine in 1906, he had entered films in 1928, making his horror debut in The  Invisible man (1933). I believe that his first Draculoid character shone in John Ford’s classic western Stagecoach (1939), as the deliciously ambiguous gambler, Mr Hatfield. His first official Dracula, going under the guise of Baron Lattos, is wasted in Universal’s monster extravaganzas, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Carradine, at his own insistence, is the first actor to make himself up to resemble Stoker’s vampire on the screen. His segments, in both films are by far the most interesting. In the first, he is revived by mad scientist, Dr Neimann, played by Boris Karloff, who pulls the stake from his heart and threatens to replace it unless Carradine’s Count serves him (?). Agreeing all too easily, Bram Stoker would have spun wildly in his own grave at this ridiculous plot device, Dracula swings into stately action with Carradine relying on his magnetic, Shakespearian gait and deep-velvet tones to breathe a new kind of life into the Transylvanian dandy. Promising the ladies a new start in a world that is magnified in his jewellery, he is forced to fend for himself when the rhubarbing villagers chase Karloff’s circus of horrors out of town. His coffin is slowing the troupe down and is discarded. Dracula doesn’t make it in time and, like Lon Chaney before him, is destroyed by the sun.

The sequel has Dracula turning up unexplained at the home of Dr Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), even moving his coffin in to ensure his room and board. He is looking for a cure to his bloodletting and hopes the doctor can help him out. Interest in this angle is dropped when Dracula begins his old tricks by romancing a pretty hunchbacked nurse (Martha O‘Driscoll). He infuses the doctor with his own blood and the medic – now transformed into a pastiche of Mr Hyde –  takes revenge by exposing him to the sunlight.

At least he was spared the horrors of having to meet Abbott and Costello! Carradine would go on to play Dracula in the silly and unintentionally funny, Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1966), in the vein of a lecherous old man and interpret the role on stage. He is also the first actor to bring the Count to life on television in 1956. Unfortunately, this little gem seems to be as elusive as the Count himself.

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