Universal’s Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in 1931.

I have been a fan of Universal horror and monster movies in general since I was a very young boy growing up in Rochester, New York. Friday night Chiller Theater, Saturday afternoon Commander USA Groovie Movies, et al, introduced me to a wonderful world of science gone wrong, things that go bump in the night, and Gothic horror. Also, I was an avid reader and would have my parents order books for me from the Scholastic Weekly Reader. Dracula and Frankenstein were easy choices for me. When I was tasked with creative writing assignments in school, my musings always danced into the macabre. 

With the advent of motion pictures at the turn of the last century (1900), horror was a natural choice for visually rich material. Naturally, literature has always been a great source for movies and television shows, especially horror. Before movies, people flocked to theaters for plays and musicals, the symphony, the opera, and the ballet for their entertainment.  

But, when it comes to horror, adapting those written works has been hit and miss over the past 120 years. In 1910, Edison Studios took a run at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a largely forgotten silent movie. J. Searle Dawley directed this roughly 13-minute treatment in what is considered the very first horror film. It wasn’t until the 1920s when moviegoers packed theaters that horror films took center stage. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Haxan (1922), The Golem (1922), The Phantom Carriage (1921), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), and Nosferatu (1922) thrilled audiences in ways never before imagined.

In 1925, Universal Studios, under the direction of Carl Laemmle Sr., and his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., launched the first cinematic universe with perhaps the greatest silent horror movie ever made, The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. Not all of the movies got sequels, not all of the characters got complete story arcs, but I thought it would be fun to tackle the monsters who did.  

German filmmaker F.W. Murnau made his seminal film, Nosferatu, in 1922 without permission from Bram Stoker’s widow and had to change many elements from the novel, including names and plot points. Florence Balcombe Stoker sued and won and all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. Luckily for us, at least one survived.

While the burgeoning movie industry was finding its footing in the 1920s, Hamilton Deane’s stage adaptation of Dracula, was terrorizing audiences. With a revision from John Balderston, Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, descended on Broadway in 1927. Universal secured the rights from Stoker’s estate for an authorized adaptation of the novel. Due to budgetary constraints and other factors, Dracula would be adapted from Deane and Balderston’s stage production rather than the book. 

According to RogerEbert.com, Lon Chaney was cast to play Dracula, but died of lung cancer before he could take on the role. I have watched numerous documentaries, read several articles, and gotten into a few social media arguments, and nowhere can I find that Chaney was ever offered an actual contract to play Dracula. Tod Browning, who had directed Chaney in several earlier films, was tapped to direct. 

Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi was not Universal’s first choice to play the legendary vampire despite the success of the stage play. His command of the English language was spotty and his accent was thick. Lugosi wanted the part so badly he took a mere pittance compared to what he should have been able to command. He was eventually cast as Count Dracula, with Edward Van Sloan (Professor Van Helsing) and Herbert Bunston (Dr. John Seward) coming over from the stage production as well.  

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula

Attention: Spoilers ahead.    

I have resisted it in other articles I’ve written, but I feel the need to do it now. It’s important to note the differences between the novel and the film. In Bram Stoker’s book, a solicitor named Jonathan Harker is dispatched to Transylvania to complete a real estate transaction with Count Dracula, a local nobleman who desires to move to London. Harker completes the transaction, and is imprisoned in Dracula’s castle, accosted by three vampire women (the brides of Dracula). Dracula boards a ship called the Demeter and transports himself and 50 boxes of his native soil to be placed at his new home at Carfax Abbey and strategically throughout London. 

Meanwhile, Mina Murray and her friend Lucy Westenra spend time together while Lucy is courted by Dr. John Seward, an American named Quincey P. Morris, and Arthur Holmwood. Dracula arrives next door to Seward’s insane asylum, distributes his boxes around town, attacks Lucy and begins her transformation into a vampire. Dracula’s psychic connection to a patient named Renfield emerges along the way. 

Eventually, Harker escapes from Dracula’s castle, sends word to his fiance Mina, who travels to Transylvania, marries Jonathan and the pair heads back to England. Seward is called in to help Lucy who has taken ill thanks to the vampire next door, and he in turn involves his mentor, Professor Van Helsing. Lucy becomes a vampire, her mother dies of a heart attack and a manhunt for the perpetrator is undertaken. Long story short, after setting his fangs on Mina, Dracula is found out and chased back to Transylvania where he is destroyed just outside his castle and Mina is released from his influence. 

Dracula – 1931

In the film released on February 14, 1931, which begins with music from Swan Lake over the opening credits, it is Renfield who travels to Transylvania to complete the deal with the Count, is attacked by the “brides,” and returns to London in short order with Dracula and just three boxes of earth aboard the Vesta. Renfield is played with relish by Dwight Frye. Lugosi’s Dracula utters two iconic lines upon Renfield’s arrival, “Children of the night, what music they make,” and, “I never drink … wine.” Upon arrival in England, Dracula, in the form of a wolf, jumps ship and leaves Renfield in the cargo hold. Upon his discovery as the sole survivor (Dracula has killed the crew), Renfield is committed to Seward’s asylum. 

After attacking a female street vendor, Dracula attends the symphony where he meets Seward, Jonathan Harker, Mina Seward (not Murray, and now Seward’s daughter), and Lucy Western (not Westenra). Dr. Seward is an older gentleman, unlike the young man of the novel, Morris and Holmwood do not appear in the film at all. That night Dracula attacks Lucy (Frances Dade) in her bed. Van Helsing is called in to consult, and he comes to the conclusion that the peddler and Lucy were killed by a vampire. Dracula then sets his sights on Mina, played by Helen Chandler. 

Much of the film relies on spoken exposition rather than showing what actually happens. One of the asylum’s orderlies, Martin (Charles Gerrard), reads a newspaper article detailing Lucy’s exploits molesting children as she has now become a vampire. Renfield does a lot of explaining of Dracula’s machinations as well.

David Manners plays Harker, and he is aghast at Dracula’s attentions toward Mina. Van Helsing reveals Dracula to be the vampire they’ve been looking for. In a long-winded monologue, Renfield explains several supernatural things Dracula has done, and Dracula himself announces his claim on Mina. Harker and Van Helsing pursue Dracula to his coffin in the catacombs of Carfax Abbey, and while Harker searches for Mina, Van Helsing dispatches Dracula with a wooden stake driven through his heart. Dracula’s hold on Mina is severed. 

There are several wonderful elements in the film. Helen Chandler’s transformation into a creature of the night takes place before our very eyes, and those of David Manners as Harker. Her facial expressions are the stuff of nightmares. Lugosi’s delivery of several important lines are done with over-enunciation, and coupled with his accent, create even more menace. Van Helsing’s battle of wills with Dracula as he resists the Count’s hypnotic abilities is a key moment in the movie. Dwight Frye’s portrayal of Renfield is often imitated, almost as much as Lugosi is. 

Bela Lugosi turns in a character- and genre-defining performance. Many actors have played Count Dracula, many were better thespians than Lugosi, but it is Lugosi’s Count we impersonate and emulate, not Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman or Frank Langella. Unfortunately, Lugosi would only play Count Dracula on the big screen one more time. 

Dracula’s Daughter – 1936

It took five years for Universal to make a sequel. Dracula’s Daughter was released in 1936. The studio had already brought Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Mummy (1932) to life in the interim, RKO had their own monstrous hit in 1933 with King Kong, and Paramount had jumped into the monster business in 1931, the same year as Dracula, with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Frederic March. 

Edward Van Sloan reprises his role as Van Helsing, now called Von Helsing for some reason. Von Helsing feels the need to confess to the murder of Count Dracula. His friend Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), a noted psychiatrist of some renown, comes to his aid. Meanwhile, a certain Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) arrives in London. 

The term “Dracula’s Daughter” is a misnomer. Zaleska is not Count Dracula’s traditional biological child, she is a victim turned vampire like Lucy in the original film. And like Van Helsing did with freeing Mina from Dracula’s influence in the first film, Zaleska thinks that if she can destroy her maker, she will be rid of her vampiric curse. She steals and burns Dracula’s body, to no avail. She turns to Garth who thinks he can treat her for her “addiction” as if she was an alcoholic or drug addict … to no avail. 

Zaleska, a painter, lures her female victims in with the promise of modeling work and food and drink with her servant Sandor’s help. The fascinating thing here is Zaleska’s overt lesbiansim and the fact that the film, directed by Lambert Hillyer and written by Garrett Fort, doesn’t shy away from it.

During one scene set in a social situation, Zaleska delivers the iconic line, “I never drink … wine.”

Zaleska kidnaps Garth’s assistant and races back to Transylvania, much like Dracula in the original novel. Garth follows but it is Sandor who dispatches Zaleska as revenge for not making him immortal.

Son of Dracula – 1943

We all know Lon Chaney, Jr., as Larry Talbot, a.k.a. The Wolf Man. But in 1943 he took on the role of Count Dracula in Son of Dracula directed by Robert Siodmak, and written by Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor. Somehow, Dracula has been resurrected and transported back to Transylvania where he meets and enchants Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton). She invites Dracula, who now calls himself “Alucard,” to her family’s estate in the deep southern United States. Katherine plays Dracula for a chump, using him to gain immortality, eventually burning Dracula in his coffin in a bayou graveyard.

Allbritton is absolutely stunning when she becomes a vampire. There is a haunting beauty to her as she lay on her deathbed.

Many criticize Chaney for his performance, but I watched the film again not that long ago and he’s actually not that bad. He’s not Lugosi and he doesn’t try to be. There’s a meanness and cruelty to his effort.

House of Frankenstein – 1944

After each monster got their “origin” story if you will (and a sequel or two) – Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster in 1931, Kharis the mummy in 1940, and The Wolf Man in 1941 – Universal sought to continue to milk the cash cow that was their stable of monsters and decided mash-up films were the way to go. The first, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, was released in 1943. I won’t go into detail here as Dracula does not appear in this movie. However, Count Dracula makes a bit of a triumphant return in House of Frankenstein as Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man are also featured. 

Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.,) is continuing his search for a cure for his lycanthropy, Frankenstein’s monster, now played by Glenn Strange, has become an unwitting pawn, and the remains of Dracula (somehow), now played by John Carradine, are part of the Lampini traveling sideshow. Boris Karloff stars as the deranged Dr. Niemann who escapes from prison with his assistant. They murder Profesor Bruno Lampini (George Zucco) and Niemann masquerades as Lampini’s brother. Niemann recruits Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster for an elaborate revenge plot. The film takes place near the fictional villages of Frankenstein and Vasaria, thought to be in Switzerland. The website Movies and Mania does a better job than I ever could explaining the geography of the Dracula and Frankenstein films.

As I mentioned, John Carradine takes over the role of Dracula. According to Movies and Mania, Lugosi was set to return as the Count, but scheduling conflicts with Lugosi and Karloff led to the casting of Carradine. It has been suggested that Carradine’s appearance was more like what Stoker had intended. White hair, white mustache, etc. But I just don’t buy it. The filmmakers at Universal had long since departed from the source material and the fact that Carradine bore some resemblance to the literary character is pure coincidence. I came across a 1996 documentary series called 100 Years of Horror hosted by Christopher Lee (available on Amazon Prime), and in it John Carradine did in fact say that his appearance in the movie was supposed to resemble the way Stoker described the character in the novel. It wasn’t quite exact and Carradine said compromises were made, but that was the intention. So, I stand corrected.

I have two issues with Carradine’s performance. As distinct as his voice was, he comes across as folksy and down-home, not as a Transylvanian nobleman (neither did Chaney). The other issue is the wardrobe. Nowhere in the novel does Dracula wear a tuxedo, yet because Lugosi did, almost every Dracula adaptation puts the character in a cape and tuxedo. Lugosi wore a top hat the night he went to the symphony, now the top hat is part of Carradine’s accoutrements. This could be part of the compromises Carradine spoke of. I did not care for Carradine’s portrayal of Count Dracula. He is masquerading as “Baron Latos,” which makes little to no sense.  

Erle C. Kenton directed this film from Edward T. Lowe and Curt Siodmak’s screenplay.   

House of Dracula – 1945

John Carradine returns as Count Dracula/Baron Latos, Lon Chaney, Jr., continues as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, Glenn Strange is back as Frankenstein’s monster, and Onslow Stevens plays Dr. Franz Edlemann. Dracula and Talbot seek out Edlemann to rid them of vampirism and lycanthropy, respectively. Dracula is a long way off from denying his proclivities as he targets Edlemann’s nurse. Carradine does a serviceable job while trying to seduce his victim, but the costume and his folksy demeanor just don’t work for me. 

Eventually, Frankenstein’s monster is found and chaos ensues. Edlemann becomes infected with Dracula’s blood and decides he’d rather be a monster than a scientist. 

House of Dracula also takes place in the fictional village of Vasaria. 

These last two entries in this piece are as brief as Dracula’s presence. He has a larger role in House of Dracula than House of Frankenstein, and he is much more menacing and nefarious in House of Dracula, but he is still little more than a sidebar character.

Erle C. Kenton directed and Edward T. Lowe wrote an original screenplay.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – 1948

By the late 1940s, Universal had bled their stable of monsters dry and decided to give them one more go by teaming them up in a comedy film with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Bela Lugosi finally returns as Dracula, 17 years after the original film. He’d like to give the Frankenstein monster, played once again by Glenn Strange, a new brain and he’s selected Wilbur (Costello). Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is wise to Dracula’s machinations and has designs on stopping him.

Wilbur and Chick (Abbott) are useful idiots and are delightful as their comedic talents are on full display. Lugosi’s Dracula spends most of the film covering his face with his cape, ostensibly to hide his age (?). He has inexplicably become a doctor or a scientist of some variety. I guess you can pick up all kinds of skills if you are immortal. 

This was a fun movie and it was great to see Lugosi don the cape one more time. He is delightfully menacing and up to no good, even if many of the plot points don’t make any sense. 

To summarize Dracula’s story arc:

He travels to London where he is eventually staked by Van Helsing, he is destroyed by fire by his progeny Marya Zeleska, somehow returns to Central Europe and then destroyed by fire in the deep south of the United States, his remains are then acquired, transported (somehow) back to Central Europe and displayed by Bruno Lampini as part of a traveling show and he is resurrected when escaped lunatic Niemann (who has taken over Lampini’s show) removes a stake from his rib cage. Niemann then uses sunlight to destroy the Count. Dracula returns (somehow) and seeks out Dr. Edlemann for a cure to his vampirism. Instead he tries to corrupt Edlemann’s nurse and inadvertently turns Edlemann into a monster. This time it’s Edlemann who uses sunlight to dispatch Dracula. The Count returns (somehow) as he is shipped to Florida and is eventually killed as a bat by Larry Talbot in Wolf Man form.   

Universal’s treatment of the Dracula character after the first film doesn’t make much sense. Aside from what similarities there are in the first film, Dracula strays from the source novel almost immediately. He is irrelevant in the sequel other than to set up the events that follow. Son of Dracula makes no sense and he is a secondary character in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula as Boris Karloff and Onslow Stevens steal their respective shows. Lugosi’s return in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is more of a love letter to the monster he created rather than furthering the character’s narrative. The deaths, resurrections and transportation of Dracula from film to film make absolutely no sense. 

I wrote a piece not that long ago detailing the movie and TV adaptations and portrayals of Dracula by a slew of actors. Lugosi far and away set the bar for everyone else who followed. His deliberate mannerisms, his enunciation, his speech patterns, his glare set the standard for the character for decades to come.

Bela Lugosi: Dracula, 1931
Lon Chaney, Jr: Son of Dracula, 1943
John Carradine: House of Frankenstein, 1944
John Carradine: House of Dracula, 1945
Bela Lugosi: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948

I have often said that Dracula is the greatest literary villain ever created. Lugosi made the character his own and everyone who has played Dracula since has been chasing Lugosi’s bat-shaped shadow ever since. The 1931 Dracula has always been my favorite Universal monster movie.  

“The blood is the life.”  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s