A few years ago one of our BRI writers saw the classic 1931 horror film Dracula for the first time ...and thought it was terrible. He never knew there was a story behind why the film had so many problems -or even that other people agreed with him that this Hollywood classic was flawed- until he came across this story in a book called Hollywood Gothic by David J. Skal, a leading authority on the history of monster movies.
One of the nice things about silent films is that everyone can understand them, regardless of what language they speak. Of course, they needed title cards to help explain the plot, but it was easy -and cheap- to write new cards for each foreign market.
As a result American films found their way into countries all over the world, and silent films became a truly universal art form: American studios made half of their revenues from foreign film sales; silent screen stars like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan became the most recognized human beings on the face of the earth.
But the advent of talking pictures changed everything -and not just for silent-screen stars whose thick accents quickly consigned them to the Hollywood scrap heap. Suddenly, American films became incomprehensible to anyone who didn't speak English. American film studios faced the prospect of losing up to half of their business overnight.
Foreign countries that had become used to a steady stream of Hollywood films found themselves left out in the cold; some threatened to retaliate by slapping tariffs on films with dialogue in English, or by boycotting American films entirely.
Making matters worse, sound recording and synchronization technology was still very primitive, and dubbing foreign-language dialogue onto English-language films was all but impossible. Besides, one of the things that attracted audiences to the first "talkies" was the thrill of hearing their favorite actors speak for the very first time. Even if dubbing had been practical, it might not have been very popular. There was no easy solution to the problem, and as a result many foreign language markets were left out of the early years of the talkie era -except for the Spanish-language market. Spanish was too popular, and Mexico, Central, and South America were too close for Hollywood to ignore.
THE DOPPELGÄNGER ERA
No film crew works 24 hours a day. At some point everyone goes home, leaving the soundstage and the expensive sets unused until morning. So, reasoned Hollywood studios, why not bring in a second cast and crew at night to film foreign-language versions of the same films that were being made in English during the day?
Because the sets had already been constructed and second-string actors and crews could be hired for much less money than Hollywood stars, a film like Dracula that had cost nearly $450,000 to film in English during the day could be remade in Spanish at night for as little as $40,000. By 1930, nearly all of the major studios had begun filming Spanish "doppelgänger" films at night.
Universal Pictures was one of the last major studios to adopt the idea, when it filmed Spanish and English versions of the film The Cat Creeps in 1930. Dracula was slated to be only the studios second Spanish-language film.
Paul Kohner, Universal's head of foreign production, hired director George Melford, who'd worked with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, and cinematographer George Robinson. A 38-year-old Spanish actor named Carlos Villarias was cast as Dracula, and a multilingual actor named Barry Norton was hired to play "Juan Harker." A 17-year-old Mexican actress named Lupita Tovar was hired to play Harker's fiance Eva, who was known as Mina in the English version.
"The American crew left at 6:00 PM and we were ready," Tovar recalled. "We started shooting at eight. At midnight, they would call for dinner... They didn't pay us much, but we didn't complain. We were happy to have some money -most actors were starving."
Since they were using a second-rate cast and crew after Hollywood's finest had gone home for the day, the assumption was that the film made at night would be inferior to the original. That may have been true in most cases ...but not in the case of Dracula.
For all of its popularity and accomplishments as Hollywood's first vampire film, on a technical level, the English-language Dracula is considered a very poorly made film. A lot of the blame for this goes to director Tod Browning, a hard-drinking recluse with a reputation as a troublemaker. Browning had been fired from at least one studio for his drinking, and was blacklisted from the entire industry for two years in the early 1920s. Making matters worse, Browning had directed nine films starring horror superstar Lon Chaney, Sr. when both men worked for MGM, and he was still reeling from Chaney's recent death from throat cancer.
Browning's myriad personal problems found their way into the finished film. "In scene after scene," Skal writes, "the script demonstrates just how much Browning cut, trimmed, ignored, and generally sabotaged the screenplay's visual potentials, insisting on static camera setups, eliminating reaction shots and special effects, and generally taking the lazy way out at every opportunity." In one scene, a piece of cardboard the crew used to reduce the glare of a lamp takes up nearly a quarter of the entire screen, and in the film's climax, Dracula's death isn't even shown on film; moviegoers had to settle for the sound of Lugosi groaning offscreen.
Legend has it that cinematographer Karl Freund got so exasperated with Browning's slipshod style that he just turned the camera on and let it run unattended, Skal writes:
Indeed, there is one endless take in the finished film featuring Manners (who played Jonathon Harker), Chandler (Mina Murray), and Van Sloan (Dr. Van Helsing) that runs 251 feet, nearly three minutes without a cut that was clearly meant to be broken up with close-ups and reaction shots. At one point Chandler tells Manners, "Oh, no -don't look at me like that," in an apparent reference to a dramatic change in his expression. The two-shot, however, shows Manners as motionless as a wax dummy -as if oblivious that the camera is even catching his face.
As if that isn't sloppy enough, in the final credits, Universal President Carl Laemmle's title is misspelled as "Presient."
The film crew on the Spanish Dracula was another story.
Kohner, who had produced the Spanish version of The Cat Creeps, was headstrong and ambitious -and not above second-guessing the English-language unit, trying to improve upon their work. On The Cat Creeps, he watched the daily footage produced by Robert Julian, the director of the English version, and found the scenes to be poorly lit and uninspiring. So when filming the same scenes for the Spanish film, Kohner relit every set and filled them with atmosphere-creating candles, cobwebs, and shadows that had been missing in the English version. Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle, Jr. was so impressed with Kohner's work that he ordered Julian to refilm his own footage, this time using Kohner as his artistic advisor.
Kohner did the same thing during the making of the Spanish version of Dracula. Using a moviola machine that was kept on the set, they watched the daily footage, or "dailies" that had been shot for the English-language version, made notes of the sloppiness and mistakes, and then made sure that their own scenes were better.
One thing they didn't try to improve on was Bela Lugosi's masterful performance as Count Dracula. Instead, Kohner insisted that Carlos Villarias imitate Lugosi as closely as possible, and he alone among the actors was allowed to watch the English-language dailies to make sure he got it right. They even let him wear Lugosi's hairpiece, although it's unclear whether Lugosi ever knew about it.
Now You See Him, Now You Don't
Carlos Villarias as Count Dracula
Perhaps the most notable difference between the two films is their use -or lack thereof- of special effects. In scenes showing Dracula climbing out of his coffin, for example, the Spanish version uses a double exposure to show a cloud of mist rising out ofthe coffin and turning into Dracula.
In the English version, the coffin lid starts to tremble, the camera turns away from the coffin and points at a wall ...and by the time it returns, Bela Lugosi is already out of the coffin.
When completed, the Spanish version of Dracula cost just over $66,000 to make and only took 22 nights to film, compared to the seven weeks and $450,000 it took to film the English version. In fact, the Spanish crew shot the film so fast that they ended up shooting some of their scenes on sets that weren't completely finished. Rather than wait for them to be finished, the filmmakers compensated for the empty sets with clever lighting.
The first preview was held in early 1931, before the original Dracula was even finished, and the reviewers who saw the Spanish version were impressed. "If the English version of Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is as good as the Spanish version," Hollywood Filmograph magazine wrote, "why, the big U (Universal) hasn't a thing in the world to worry about."
The only problem, of course, was that the English version wasn't as good, as Filmograph reported a few weeks later. The first few minutes of the film were enthralling, the magazine wrote, but quickly deteriorated after that. "Tod Browning directed, although we cannot believe that the same man was responsible for both the first and later parts of the picture. Had the rest of the picture lived up to the first sequence in the ruined castle Transylvania, Dracula would have been a horror and thrill classic long remembered."
Villarias and Tovar
INTO THIN AIR
Dracula was one of the last foreign-language films produced in Hollywood. By 1931 the Great Depressions was in full swing, and American film studios, desperate to cut costs whenever possible, abandoned Spanish-language markets almost entirely. Universal never even bothered to register the copyright on the film and never had preservation copies made so that new prints could be made when the originals wore out.
The Spanish Dracula made the rounds of Spanish-language countries into the 1950s, then gradually disappeared.
Life After Death
It was thought to be lost entirely until the late 1970s, when an incomplete negative was found in a warehouse in New Jersey. Then, in 1989, a complete version of the film was found in the Cuban Film Archives in Havana. In the late 1990s, Universal and the UCLA Film Archives restored the film and released it to cable and video markets, where it is developing a new following and has finally received the recognition it deserves.
Here is the complete movie for your enjoyment.
_______________________________The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.
The 13th book in the series by the Bathroom Reader's Institute has 504 pages crammed with fun facts, including articles on the biggest movie bombs ever, the origin and unintended use of I.Q. test, and more.
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