Making Peace with “Dracula”

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”

One of the nice things about the Turner Classic Movies channel is its element of serendipity. I wasn’t really thinking about watching Tod Browning’s 1931 film “Dracula” when I tuned in, but there it was. Now “Dracula” is a film that I’ve never been especially fond of. A friend of mine, whose father was a passionate collector of 16mm film always claimed that this was the definitive “Dracula.” Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Gary Oldman–no thanks. It was Bela Lugosi, period.

My big complaint about Browning’s “Dracula” was that–aside from a brief, visually intense tour of Castle Dracula at the start of the film–it was a crashing bore. It was a photographed stage play acted out in the most florid, pre-Method style by all concerned. Even Lugosi’s celebrated performance left me cold. His Count appeared too strange for anyone not to take him for a madman or a vampire. His delivery at this time was so stilted that it failed to engage me. By contrast, his work as zombie-master Murder Legendre in the following year’s “White Zombie” seemed far more natural, even when delivering such ripe lines as “For you, my friend, they are the angels of Death!” Perhaps because Dracula was a walking corpse, it was felt that he should sound like one.

But I’m straying from my point. I re-watched the film today, and I’ve begun to warm to it. I was thinking that Universal had a bit of a problem on their hands. “Dracula” was their first real monster movie. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Man Who Laughs” were all human beings–hideously deformed, but human. Count Dracula was the corpse of a man dead for centuries who sleeps in a coffin by day and sucks the blood of the living by night. Eeew–a tough sell in 1931. Also, he can transform himself into a bat. Universal was actually trying to market their film the strangest love story ever told, and I’m told that it was released on Valentine’s Day. This meant that Browning had to pull lots of punches. Consequently some of the signature bits of the novel–Dracula’s wives attacking his guest, Van Helsing driving a stake through Lucy–had to be omitted or toned down. Since 1931 audiences weren’t as acquainted with vampire lore as modern audiences are, some points were left rather vague. Why exactly does Dracula need the insane Renfield? What is the terrible thing that the Count forces Renfield to do? Why, biding Dracula to enter Dr. Seward’s Sanitarium of course. But it’s never really spelled out for the audience that a vampire must be invited to enter a dwelling.

“Dracula” is a photographed stage play. If you doubt it, just watch George Melford’s Spanish-language version, filmed on the same sets with the same props and costumes, but a world removed in its fluidity and drive, even though it has a longer running time than Browning’s version. But what I realized today is how much “Dracula” is actually Dwight Frye’s film. It’s his Renfield who keeps the central portion of the film moving while we await the next appearance of Lugosi’s tuxedoed Count. Perhaps directors decided that Frye was like some rare spice, a little of which went a long way, so he tended to be used sparingly. His hunchbacked assistant Fritz in “Frankenstein” is written out fairly early in the proceedings and his Karl in “Bride of Frankenstein” is hardly more than a cameo. Even when Frye appeared in crime films like “Doorway to Hell” or “Fast Company” and dramas like “Sinners in Paradise” he tended to be there-and-gone. But “Dracula” gives Renfield with his glaring eyes and unsettling laugh the run of the manor and Frye makes it pay off. If my indifference to the film has in any way been abated, it’s largely because of Frye’s fine work as Renfield moving from self-important prig, to bemused and slightly unsettled “guest” to fly-eating slave with the greatest of ease. As the Count himself would say, “Excellent, Mr. Renfield, excellent!”

 

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