The following is an article from Uncle John’s All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.
Long before Dracula became a pop icon, he was just a character in a not-very-popular novel by novelist Bram Stoker …but everyone’s got to start somewhere. Here’s the story of how Dracula made his way into pop culture through the stage and screen.
IN THE MAIL
Nosferatu——who cannot die!
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!
does not die!
What do you expect from the first showing of this great work? Aren’t you afraid? Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, “the undead,” lives on men’s blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.
That was the text of a movie advertisement sent to Bram Stoker’s 64-year-old widow from Berlin in April 1922. In the ten years since her husband’s death, Florence Stoker’s financial situation had deteriorated. All of Stoker’s books had gone out of print, except for Dracula, and sales of that were modest even in the best years. Mrs. Stoker, slowly going blind from cataracts, would have been destitute were it not for help from her son, Noel.
Now, to add insult to injury, came this advertisement in the mail. It was for Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors, a German film which by its own admission was “freely adapted” from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All of Stoker’s characters were in the film,only under different names: Dracula was renamed Graf Orlock, Jonathan Harker had become Hutter, his fiancé Mina was renamed Emma, and so on.
Mrs. Stoker was furious. She’d never given the filmmakers, Prana-Film, permission to adapt her husband’s work. Nosferatu was stolen property, and she wanted it destroyed. So she sued.
The makers of Nosferatu may not have meant any harm. Filmmaking was still in its infancy in the early 1920s, and Prana-Film, less than a year old, was owned by two businessmen who’d never made films before. But it turned out they were as impractical about making money as they were in obtaining permissions -and two months after Mrs. Stoker filed her lawsuit, the studio went bankrupt.
All existing prints of the film, including the original negative, scattered to the four winds with Prana-Film’s dissolution, With no hope of collecting any financial damages, most people would have probably left it at that. But Mrs. Stoker spent the next ten years hunting down every print of Nosferatu she could find …and had them all destroyed -including the original negative, which is believed to have burned in 1925.
“Most ‘lost’ films have vanished through neglect,” David Skal write in Hollywood Gothic. “But in the case of Nosferatu we have one of the few instances in film history, and perhaps the only one, in which an obliterating capital punishment is sought for a work of cinematic art, strictly on legalistic grounds, by a person with no knowledge of the work’s specific content or artistic merit.” Mrs. Stoker had never even seen the film she worked so hard to destroy.
Despite her dedication, though, she was unsuccessful in destroying every print -a handful survived.
First with the Most
It’s fortunate that Mrs. Stoker failed in her attempt to kill Nosferatu because the film is not only the first Dracula film ever made, it’s also considered by many film historians to be the best. “Nosferatu,” Skal writes, “would go on to be recognized as a landmark of world cinema, elevating the estimation of Dracula in a way no other dramatic adaptation ever would, or ever could… It had achieved what Florence Stoker herself would never achieve for the book: artistic legitimacy.”
DRACULA ON STAGE
In the mid-1920s a British actor named Hamilton Deane licensed the stage rights to Dracula from Mrs. Stoker and adapted the novel for the stage, creating a play that could be produced on a shoestring budget. He also recast the novel’s only American character, a Texan named Quincy Morris, as a woman, so that the actresses in his troupe could have more parts.
But the biggest change that he made was to clean up Count Dracula. He replaced the vampire’s bad breath, hairy palms, and overall bad hygiene with cleanliness, formality, and proper manners. “Gentility and breeding added a new dimension to the character," Skal writes, “and served a theatrical function -he was now able to interact with the characters, rather than merely hang outside their bedroom windows.”
Count Me Out
When he set to work adapting Dracula for the stage, Deane had himself in mind to play the part of Dracula. But he trimmed the role so much that he decided to play Dr. Van Helsing instead. Perhaps to smooth rocky relations with Mrs. Stoker and her agent, C.A. Bang, Deane cast Bang’s brother-in-law, 22-year-old Raymond Huntley, as Dracula. Huntley was paid £8 a week for the part, and was required to provide his own costumes -including lounge suits, full evening tails, a dinner jacket, and a silk hat- all out of his own pocket.
About the only item he didn’t have to provide was Dracula’s cape, which was considered a stage prop. The cape's huge standup collar completely concealed Huntley’s head when he turned his back to the audience, allowing him to “disappear” from the stage by slipping out of the cape and ducking through a trapdoor in the floor. The trapdoor exit was later removed from the play, but the cape with the standup collar remains a standard part of the Dracula costume to this day.
ON THE ROAD
Hamilton Deane didn’t intend his adaptation of Dracula to be high art: The play was what was known as a “boob catcher,” a play that used gimmickry, sex appeal -and in Dracula’s case, death- to draw common people into the theater. For that reason, Deane bypassed the London stage (and London theater critics, who would have savaged the production) and took his show on the road, hitting smaller cities and towns all over Britain.
He stayed on the road for more than two years before finally opening at London’s Little Theatre on February 14, 1927. As predicted, it was panned by the London critics. The show was at the end of its run… or so Deane thought. But as days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, the crowds didn’t get smaller- they got bigger. Despite the bad reviews, by the end of summer Dracula was playing to capacity crowds and had to move to a larger theater called the Duke of York’s. “While glittering productions costing thousands of pounds have wilted and died after a week or so in the West End,” the London Evening News wrote, “Dracula has gone on drinking blood nightly.”
COMING TO AMERICA
In early 1927 an American theater promoter named Horace Liveright traveled to London to see Dracula. He enjoyed it so much that he saw it again three more times. “Although it was badly produced,” recalled later, “I got a kick out of it every time.”
Liveright wanted to bring Dracula to Broadway… But he didn’t think Hamilton Deane’s adaptation was written well enough for New York audiences. So he got permission from Mrs. Stoker to write another adaptation, one that retained Deane’s theatricality but improved his amateurish dialogue.
Liveright offered to take Raymond Huntley to the U.S., too, and Huntley agreed to go… providing Liveright agreed to raise his pay to $125 a week. No deal- Huntley stayed in London. The part of Dracula went to an expatriate actor named Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi, 46, had established himself in Hungary and Germany by playing romantic parts and an occasional villain. But his American career was burdened by the fact that he could barely speak a word of English, and rather than work on his English, he preferred to memorize his lines phonetically.
The result of Lugosi’s inability to speak English, Skal writes, “was the oddly inflected and deliberate speech now forever associated with the role of Dracula- and a professional albatross that would forever limit the roles offered to him.”
Dracula opened at New York’s Fulton Theatre on October 5, 1927. It received better reviews than the London version, thanks in large part to the new script and to Lugosi’s acting. Lugosi’s experience as a romantic lead made his interpretation of Dracula markedly different from Huntley’s in London. Skal writes:
The London Dracula was middle-aged and malignant; Lugosi presented quite a different picture: sexy, continental, with slicked-back patent-leather hair and a weird green cast to his makeup- a Latin lover from beyond the grave, Valentino gone slightly rancid. It was a combination that worked, and audiences -especially female audiences- relished, even wallowed in, the romantic paradoxes.
Dracula was a hit. It played for 31 weeks and 241 performances before closing in 1928. Then, Liveright formed a national touring company, and in the process launched America’s first vampire craze. By May of 1929, Liveright made more than $1 million on Dracula, and would make a million more in less than a year.
A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME
Bela Lugosi was not so lucky: He’d joined the touring company for its West Coast swing, but when it moved to the East Coast he made the mistake of asking for a substantial raise, one that he felt was commensurate with his ability to draw fans into the theater.
Liveright didn’t see it that way, and he replaced Lugosi with the man Lugosi had replaced in 1927 -Raymond Huntley. Lugosi, not for the last time in his career, was out in the cold.
THE SILVER SCREEN
In 1930, impressed by the success of the Dracula stage play, Universal Pictures decided to buy it. They paid $40,000 for all rights to the novel and the stage plays, so they would have the exclusive rights to the Dracula character. Unfortunately, none of the play manuscripts proved to be suitable as a movie screenplay. So Universal brought it to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louis Bromfield. And when the lavish sets and scenes called for in his ambitious screenplay threatened to bust the film’s budget, two more writers were brought in to “help” him finish the job.
But before he left Hollywood (never to return), Bromfield made one lasting contribution: he combined the older, nastier Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel with the suave young Count that had become popular on stage. Starved for fresh blood in Transylvania, the old, tired Dracula would regain his youth drinking fresh blood when he arrived in London.
Dracula would be Universal’s first horror movie, but it wouldn’t come without a fight: Studio head Carl Laemmle, Sr. was vehemently opposed to the idea of making scary movies. “I don’t believe in horror pictures,” he would later tell an interviewer. “It’s morbid. None of our officers are for it. People don’t want that sort of thing.”
So why did he agree to make the film? Two reasons: First, Dracula was a hot property and he didn’t want it to go to the competition; and second because, he explained, “Junior wanted it.”
“Junior” was Laemmle’s son Julius, who changed his name to Carl, Jr. when his father made him head of Universal on his 21st birthday. Junior headed Universal until the studio was put up for sale in 1936, and his years at the helm were rocky ones. “His abilities and achievements are still a matter of debate,” David Skal writes in Hollywood Gothic, “but he made one indelible contribution to American culture: the Hollywood horror movie, an obsessive new genre revolving around threatening, supernaturally powered male monstrosities.”
Once they actually decided to make the film, the search for an actor to play Dracula was on.
Silent film star Lon Chaney, Sr. was the top contender for the part… until he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. At least five other actors were considered for the part, but none of them panned out.
Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi lobbied hard to win the role, trying to ingratiate himself with Universal by printing up publicity photos showing him posing as Dracula, praising the film in print interviews, and offering unsolicited suggestions on how the script could be improved. When the sale of the film rights was still pending, Lugosi even tried to intercede with Bram Stoker’s widow to get Universal a better price.
Lugosi apparently hoped that bowing and scraping would ingratiate him with the studio, but what it did was make him appear desperate -which he was. Universal finally did offer him the part, of course, but for only $500 a week. The offer was an insult -David Manners, who received third billing as Jonathan Harker, signed for $2,000 a week. But Lugosi took it anyway. He’d already lost the role once by holding out for too much money, and he wasn’t about to let it happen again.
ON THE SCREEN
To direct, Universal picked veteran horror filmmaker Ted Browning. Filming Dracula took seven weeks. Lugosi delivered a masterful performance, arguably the most memorable and influential ever. It was so convincing that a number of his co-stars wondered if he really was performing… or just being himself. “I never thought he was acting,” David Manners remembered, “just being the odd man he was… I mainly remember Lugosi standing in front of a full-length mirror between scenes, intoning ‘I am Dracula.’”
DRACULA MUST DIE!
Dracula is tame by today’s standards, but in its day it was a shocker. When it was shown in previews, people actually demanded that it be banned. “I saw the first fifteen minutes of it,” wrote the PTA’s previewer, “and I felt I could stand no more… It should be withdrawn from public showing, as children, the weak-minded, and all classes attend motion pictures indiscriminately.” Even Universal head Carl Laemmle, Jr. was put off by scenes he found to be suggestively homoerotic. “Dracula should only go for women and not men,” he dashed off in an angry memo, and the offending scenes were removed.
IT WAS A GRAVEYARD SMASH
The movie opened on February 12, 1931 and despite very mixed reviews, Dracula turned out to be a crowd pleaser. The gothic horror filmed turned out to be the kind of escapist fantasy filmgoers were looking for as the country slid deeper into the Great Depression, and the tale of ordinary mortals triumphing over seemingly insurmountable evil must have thrilled a public in the grips of seemingly insurmountable economic troubles.
Dracula went on the be one of the top-grossing films of 1931, and Universal’s biggest moneymaker for the year. Thanks to Dracula, Universal turned a profit for the first time since 1928, and though its financial problems continued for the rest of the decade, Dracula is credited with earning Universal the money it needed the weather the Great Depression.
Just seven weeks after Dracula opened in theaters, Universal purchased the film rights to Frankenstein, setting it on a course to become Hollywood’s reigning horror studio through the 1930s and into the 1940s, thrilling audiences (and its board of directors) with the Werewolf, the Mummy, and other classic Hollywood monsters.
THE CURSE OF DRACULA
In every film about Dracula, there is a curse. But did the curse extend beyond the screen… and actually affect the people involved with bringing the character to life? Don’t dismiss the idea. Read the stories, and then decide.
Horace Liveright. The stage produce who brought Dracula -and later Frankenstein- to America made a fortune doing it. But he was a terrible businessman and spent money as fast as it came in. He made more than $2 million on Dracula alone, but was so slow to pay Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, the royalties she was due that he lost control of the stage rights in a dispute over a delinquent payment… of a mere $678.01. He died drunk, broke, and alone in New York in September 1933.
Helen Chandler. She was only 20 when she signed on to play Mina Murray in the 1931 film version of Dracula, but she was already close to the end of her film career. It was tragically shortened by a bad marriage and addictions to alcohol and sleeping pills. By the mid-1930s she was no longer able to find work in Hollywood, and in 1940 she was committed to a sanitarium. Ten years later she was severely burned after smoking and drinking in bed, in what may have been a suicide attempt. She died in 1965.
Dwight Frye. In the 1931 film, Frye played Renfield, the character who goes insane after meeting Dracula and spends the rest of the movie as Dracula’s slave. He performed so well in that part that he was offered a similar role in the movie version of Frankenstein, as Dr. Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant, fritz.
Unfortunately for him, he took it -and was promptly typecast as the monster’s/mad scientist’s assistant for the rest of his career. He didn’t get a chance to play any other type of role until 1944, when he was cast as the secretary of war in the film Wilson. Not long after he won the part, Frye had a heart attack on a Los Angeles bus and died before he was able to appear in the film.
Carl Laemmle, Jr. As president of Universal Pictures, he did more than anyone else to establish Universal as the horror movie studio of the 1930s. He left the studio after it was sold in 1936 and tried to establish himself as an independent producer. He never succeeded. A notorious hypochondriac, Laemmle eventually did come down with a debilitating disease -multiple sclerosis- in the early 60s. He died in 1979 -40 years to the day after the death of his father.
Bela Lugosi. Worn out by years of playing Dracula in New York and on the road, Lugosi was already sick of the vampire character by the time he began work on the film version; the indignity of being paid less than his supporting cast only made things worse. Reporter Lillian Shirley recounted one incident that took place in Lugosi’s dressing room between scenes:
I was with him when a telegram arrived. It was from Henry Duffy, the Pacific Coast theater impresario, who wanted Mr. Lugosi to play Dracula for sixteen weeks. “No! Not at any price,” he yelled. “When I am through with this picture I hope never to hear of Dracula again. I cannot stand it… I do not intend that it shall possess me. No one knows what I suffer for this role.”
But like a real vampire, Lugosi was trapped in his role. Dracula was a box office smash when it premiered in 1931 and Universal, eager to repeat its success, offered Lugosi the part of the monster in Frankenstein. It was the first in a series of planned monster movie roles for Lugosi that Universal hoped would turn Lugosi into “the new Lon Chaney,” a man of a thousand monsters.
Stubborn Kind of Fellow
Foolishly, Lugosi turned down the role of the Frankenstein monster because there was no dialogue -Frankenstein spoke only in grunts- and the makeup would have obscured his features, which he feared would prevent fans from knowing that he was the one under all that makeup.
The roil went instead to an unknown actor named William Henry Pratt… who changed his name to Boris Karloff and within a year eclipsed Lugosi to become Hollywood’s most famous horror star of the 1930s.
“Thereafter,” David Skal write in V is for Vampire, “Lugosi was never able to negotiate a lucrative Hollywood contract. Dracula was the height of his Hollywood career, and also the beginning of its end.” His last good role was as the monster keeper Ygor in the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein, considered to be the finest performance of his entire career.
Count on Him
Lugosi played Dracula for a second and final time in the 1948 Universal film Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, his last major-studio film. After that he was reduced to appearing in a string of low-budget films, including the Ed Wood film Bride of the Monster (1956). Wood also had cast Lugosi in his film Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958), but Lugosi died on August 16, 1956 (and was buried in full Dracula costume, cape, and makeup) …so Wood hired a stand-in, who covered his face with his cape so that viewers would think he was Lugosi. When he died, Lugosi left an estate valued at $2,000.
…LAST, BUT NOT LEAST
Florence Stoker. Mrs. Stoker was nearly broke when she sold Universal the movie rights to Dracula, a sale that, combined with the royalties from the novel and the London and American plays, enabled her to live in modest comfort for the rest of her life. But she never did get rich off the property that would bring wealth to so many others. When she died in 1937, she left an estate valued at £6,913.
…Then again, Mrs. Stoker may have been luckier than she knew: After her death, it was discovered that when Bram Stoker was issued a copyright for Dracula in 1897, he or his agents neglected to turn over two copies of the work to the American copyright office as was required by law; and the Stoker estate failed to do so again in the 1920s when the copyright was renewed in the U.K. Since Stoker failed to comply with the requirements of the law, Dracula was technically in the public domain, which meant that anyone in the United States could have published the novel or adapted it into a plays, movies, or any other form without Mrs. Stoker’s permission and without having to pay her a cent in royalties.
[Ed. note: Dracula starring Bela Lugosi may have been the first Dracula movie, but another was filmed at the same time, same studio, using the same equipment -and it turned out to be a superior film. Read that story in an earlier Bathroom Reader article.]
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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