Movies to See Before You Die: “Dracula” & “Drácula”
Flickchart was created to address the timeless conversational exercise of comparing two films head to head. One of the most frequent comparisons moviegoers have made throughout the last century is between remakes and their predecessors; another, more niche debate is between dubbed and subtitled presentations of films not in a viewer’s native language. Lost to the annals of history is a brief period at the dawn of talkies in which studios, recognizing audiences’ desires to hear their own language would sometimes film concurrent productions of the same movie with different casts for distribution in different regions.
A rare opportunity to examine this cinematic curiosity exists in the case of Universal’s 1931 big screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famed novel, Dracula. Bela Lugosi’s performance as the titular vampire is the standard by which not just all Draculas, but all vampires, are measured, but much less commonly known is that an entirely different film with a Spanish speaking cast and an acute accent in its title, Drácula, was shot for release in Mexico. A print of this variant was found in the 1970’s, affording viewers perhaps the most equal footing for any head to head comparison of two films.
Stoker himself, business manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre, wrote the first adaptation of his novel, a one-time-only, four-hour stage production created not for its own artistic ambitions, but to secure copyright. Though Dracula today stands as the second most featured character in cinema (just behind Sherlock Holmes), the count went neglected by the performing arts until after Stoker’s passing in part because his employer, Lyceum’s owner Henry Irving, refused to touch it. Silent films were made in Russia in 1920 and Hungary in 1921, but both have been lost. In 1922, F.W. Murnau filmed the notorious silent film Nosferatu, discovering much too late that Stoker’s widow, Florence, held the rights to the work and successfully sued to have all prints destroyed. (I’m not saying we’re all better off for some pirated copies being struck to keep the film alive, but I’m not not saying it, either.)
In 1924, Hamilton Deane did what Murnau failed to do – he secured the rights from Stoker’s widow to stage an adaptation he wrote and starred in himself in England. Three years later, an American variation revised by John L. Balderston from Deane’s play hit Broadway. When Carl Laemmle, Jr. became the head of production for Universal, founded by his father, he used his position to advance production of horror films, a genre that interested him greatly and that he believed held tremendous box office potential. Laemmle shrewdly bought not only the rights to Stoker’s novel, but both the Deane and Balderston plays, securing Dracula in its entirety. His twin 1931 productions drew as much from the plays as from the novel, though the adaptation process was messier than simply putting cameras in front of the stage.
The English language version of Dracula was assigned to director Tod Browning, a veteran of the silent era not particularly comfortable with talkies. His Dracula bears the aesthetic hallmarks of silents: “extended periods of silence and character close-ups for dramatic effect, and employs several intertitles and a closeup of a newspaper article to advance the story” [Wikipedia]. Browning hoped to cast his friend Lon Chaney, Sr. as Dracula. Sadly, Chaney was diagnosed with throat cancer before filming could even begin. This loss weighed heavily on Browning, causing him to detach from the production. By some accounts, the lion’s share of filming was overseen by its director of photography, Karl Freund.
Whether directed by Browning or Freund, the film benefited from its casting of Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan as Dracula and Van Helsing, respectively, both actors having previously played their roles in the 1927 Balderston stage production. Lugosi knew he was a hit on the stage and presumed that he was the obvious choice for the film, but Laemmle resisted. So determined was Lugosi that when negotiations between Laemmle and Florence Stoker stalled, he went to her himself to try to help broker the deal. It wasn’t his active role in those talks that led to him being cast in the role of a lifetime, though, but rather the approaching production start time and his willingness to work for a paltry $500 a week.
Regardless of his inauspicious path to the film, Lugosi owned the role and dominates the screen even when he’s not present. Otherwise ordinary dialog such as “I never drink wine” that would surely have been throwaway lines in anyone else’s hands became mesmerizing in Lugosi’s. His unique delivery is so imitated that even people who have never seen his performance associate it with the character, even if they’re unaware that’s where it originated. Children dressed as Dracula for Halloween are socialized to say, “I vant to suck your blood!”, for instance, and while Lugosi never said that, the “vant” and cadence with which the line is spoken harken directly back to him.
While Lugosi, Freund, and sometimes Browning shot in the daytime, their Spanish speaking counterparts took over the sets at night. Led by director George Melford and starring Carlos Villarías as Dracula, that cast and crew set their sights on bettering their opposites. They would arrive on-set near the end of the English language day’s filming to observe, and then worked with dedication to outdo what they’d witnessed.
Though he did not speak Spanish himself, Melford had previously directed La Voluntad del Muerto, a Spanish language remake of the 1927 silent film, The Cat and the Canary (itself remade as a talkie as The Cat Creeps, now a lost film). Like Browning, he had built his career in the silent era, but differed in his willingness and interest in adapting with the medium. Browning’s film is largely static, whereas Melford’s is infused with dynamic energy from start to finish. Note, for instance, that when English speaking Renfield encounters Count Dracula on the steps of the castle, the camera simply points coldly upward at Lugosi. Contrarily, when his Spanish speaking counterpart encounters Conde Drácula, the camera cranes up the stairs, zooming in ominously on Villarías. Both approaches are valid and effective in their respective ways, but George Robinson’s cinematography for Melford was clearly more technically ambitious than what Karl Freund attempted for Browning (though this is understandable given that he may well have been shooting for himself).
Another element that Melford enjoyed was that his film was made for Mexico, where standards were more accepting of sexuality than in America at the time. Lupita Tovar starred as Eva Seward, her costumes more revealing than those given to Helen Chandler as Mina, but beyond that there’s a more sexually charged subtext to the film. Tovar was able to play Eva with more agency and purpose, whereas Chandler’s Mina is largely passive. The relationship between vampires, Victorianism and sexuality is well documented, so it’s sufficient to say that in this respect, Drácula is more faithful to the spirit of the milieu than the more constrained Dracula.
The most important single element, of course, is the role of Dracula himself and in this, there really is no argument; Bela Lugosi owned the role. Contrarily, Carlos Villarías comes off as a caricature of a used car salesman. He’s surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast, though, including the aforementioned Tovar as leading lady and Eduardo Arozamena as his nemesis Van Helsing.
How successful Melford and company were in one-upping Browning’s cast and crew is open for debate, though it’s worth mentioning that while the English language version ranked third on Flickchart’s Top 10 Universal Monsters Movies, the Spanish language version made the list at #10, ahead of such films as The Black Cat, The Raven, and The Old Dark House. Since the writing of that Top 10 list, Drácula has even risen a spot to #9 on the Universal Monsters chart. Not bad for an alternate version intended for a single market!
This Sunday (October 25) and next Wednesday (October 28), Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events will give audiences the chance to see both versions on the big screen back-to-back to decide for themselves. The double feature will play at 2:00 and again at 7:00 both days; for a list of participating theaters, visit the Fathom Events listing here.
After you’ve seen both versions, be sure to rank and discuss Dracula vs. Drácula here on Flickchart!