“I never drink…wine”
Bela Lugosi as Dracula, need I say more?
I’d venture to guess that many classic movie fans have fond (or not so fond) memories of being scared out-of-their-wits when they were kids as they watched Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy — or any one of those iconic Universal monster movies. For me, being a big scaredy cat and all, well, that is a gross understatement — and yet, here I am, writing about Dracula, a story which still gives me the heebie-jeebies to this very day.
As the Poster says: Dracula, the Greatest Horror Show of All Time!
The iconic Bela Lugosi film was the first Universal horror sound film of the Golden Age. It was directed by Tod Browning and interestingly-enough released on Valentine’s Day in 1931 (February 12 in NY and February 14 nationally). The film was based on the 1924 English stage play (revised in 1927 for Broadway), which was, in turn, loosely based (I repeat loosely based) on the 1897 novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. The 1927 Broadway play starred Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing, both of whom would go on to reprise their roles in the 1931 film. I will also briefly mention here that the silent 1922 classic, Nosferatu, also tells the story of Dracula (as Count Orlok) but was not authorized by Stoker’s estate, so that said, the 1924 stage play was the first authorized adaptation of Stoker’s story.
The Original Broadway production debuted on October 5, 1927 at the Fulton Theatre in NYC. The play starred Bela Lugosi as Dracula, and ran through May 1928.
I would imagine that most of us are familiar with the story of Dracula, so I won’t recount the actual film plot here, but suffice to say that Bela Lugosi creates the iconic vampire figure — a suave and sophisticated nobleman with an ominous presence, complete with eccentric accent, hypnotic stare, and long black cape. The film itself has a dark and ‘impending doom’ feel to it, thanks largely to the work of cinematographer Karl Freund and his eerie lighting, gliding camera trackings, and moody and shadowy atmospheres. Adding to the doom and gloom of course are the magnificently eerie Transylvanian castle and British abbey (Universal spent a considerable sum in building these giant sets).
I am Dracula. I bid you welcome.
I must add here however that, although the 1931 film is iconic (understatement), it is markedly different from the novel (which is a real page-turner by the way). Some of the most significant differences include:
1) In the novel, real estate solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Count Dracula’s Transylvanian castle to facilitate the Count’s purchase of an English estate. Harker is enticed by Dracula’s gracious manners, but soon realizes that he is Dracula’s prisoner (or is he really going mad???). After a series of un-nerving events, Harker barely escapes from the castle with his life. In the 1931 film, however, it is Renfield who is the real estate solicitor that travels to Count Dracula’s castle. Renfield immediately falls under Dracula’s spell and becomes a raving lunatic slave to Dracula. In the novel, Renfield is merely another patient (and madman) in Dr. Seward’s asylum (although there will be a connection between Renfield and Dracula as the story progresses).
Renfield (Dwight Frye) arrives at Dracula’s Castle
2) In the novel, Dracula-victim Lucy has three suitors (Quincey Morris, Dr. John Seward and ultimate fiancee Arthur Holmwood) — all three of whom come to her aid in her terrifying nightly distress. In the film, Lucy is not involved in any romances and quickly dies instead. That said, the characters Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris do not appear in the film.
Dracula visits poor Lucy Weston (Frances Dade)
3) As for Dr. John Seward — in the novel, Seward is one of Lucy’s two failed suitors (as noted above). In the film however, Dr. Seward, is the father of Mina (Lucy’s friend). And, as it must follow – in the novel, Lucy’s friend is Mina Murray, but in the film, she is Mina Seward (because she is now Dr. Seward’s daughter).
Publicity still of Dracula preparing to feast on Mina (Helen Chandler)
And now for some fun facts…
- In 2000, the 1931 film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. .
- There was a Spanish version of the film made at the same time as the English version. It was filmed at night after the English actors ad crew had left, using the same sets as the Tod Browning production, but with a different cast and crew, a common practice in the early days of sound films. The Spanish version contains scenes that could not be included in the final cut of the English version.
- Although arguably the most iconic Dracula, Bela Lugosi only played the Count one more time — in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) — which marked the 2nd and final time that he would play Dracula.
- The novel has been in the public domain in the US since its original publication because Stoker failed to follow proper copyright procedure.
- Universal’s original plan was to make a big-budget film that would strictly adhere to the novel. However, after the stock market crash of 1929 and during the subsequent Great Depression, Universal chose not to take a risk on such an investment. Instead, it adapted the much less expensive stage play.
The New York Times review of February 13, 1931 says “This picture can at least boast of being the best of the many mystery films.” An interesting review (to say the least) for a now-timeless horror classic…
The film debuts at the Roxy Theater in NYC on February 12, 1931.
- If you’d like to read the book, here is a link to a free download at Gutenberg.org.
- And if you’d like to see the film, here is a version of it courtesy of archives.org (embedded below).
- And of course if you’d like to purchase the DVD or streaming video, you can do so on amazon as a single DVD or as part of the set Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection.
A big Thank You to the Silver Scenes Blog for hosting this wonderful blogathon event! There are so many more wonderful Classic Bloggers participating in this event so please be sure to check out the other entries.
–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub
Poor old Renfield! No matter how loudly I yell at the screen, he will go on to the castle.
Seeing “Dracula” on the big screen a couple of years ago was eye opening. Television really does not do justice to those magnificent sets which add so much to the film.
Great review. I’ve never watched this one straight through and I’m kicking myself for missing a chance recently to see it on a big screen.
I always thought that Renfield must have been rather batty to begin with, having not enough sense to walk out of the castle at first glance. I can only imagine how spooky it must have been to see Dracula on Broadway with Bela in the role. What a thrill to be in the audience at that time. If they had a bat on a wire flying into the audience then I’ll grab myself a time machine and head back to see that showing. A great review of Universal’s most iconic horror film!
It may seem creaky now, but it was one of the reasons I became a horror film fan as a young kid. The sets and atmosphere are still enthralling. I’ve love to see it on a big screen.