By Todd Hill
Did the actor Bela Lugosi portray a vampire in the 1931 film “Dracula,” or was it the other way around?
It’s not a serious question, of course, but so peculiar were the life and career of Lugosi that one may perhaps be forgiven for asking it. After all, it was Lugosi who, after starring as the title character in Universal’s first of many monster movies, took to appearing in public in character and costume as Dracula. He was even buried wearing the vampire’s cape.
Lugosi certainly hasn’t been the only actor to make a powerful impression playing Dracula on screen, but anyone who does inevitably finds his portrayal compared to the standard Lugosi set. Play the vampire well enough and you just might end up being typecast, as Lugosi was for the remainder of his career. He couldn’t have walked away from Dracula if he wanted to.
Universal had wanted to cast Lon Chaney as the lead in its 1931 picture, but the actor died shortly before filming began. Lugosi still wasn’t the go-to choice, even though he had been portraying Dracula on stage for the past several years and happened to be in Los Angeles traveling with the show when the film was casting. The studio was finally persuaded to hire Lugosi when he offered to take the part for peanuts; he was only paid $3,500 for the role.
As a cultural artifact, “Dracula” retains its significance. Vampires are a unique form of evil — or at least were until zombies came along — and the film is committed to exploring that. But simply as a movie, “Dracula,” directed by Tod Browning, leaves a bit to be desired.
It’s merely an accident of history that the acting in the film so often comes across as awkwardly heightened. Talking pictures were still a relatively new phenomenon in 1931, and the performance habits of silent-film stars took a while to unlearn. But the real problem with “Dracula,” to the extent that it has one, is with the direction, or lack thereof.
Browning’s signature on the film is nonexistent. The picture begins in Transylvania (located in the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Bram Stoker wrote the novel that started it all, now part of Romania), where Renfield (Dwight Frye) has gone to Count Dracula’s creepy castle to close on a property back in London. All is dripping with representations of German Expressionism.
There’s a stormy passage back to England via ship, using footage borrowed from an earlier movie, which ends with everyone on board dead (or undead) except for Renfield, who is stark raving mad. The rest of the film is largely drawn from the stage play, and introduces the characters of the innocent Mina (Helen Chandler), her beau Harker (David Manners) and most notably Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who is on to Dracula.
Although there is some nice tension between the doctor and the count late in the film, at no point does “Dracula” possess anything approximating narrative momentum. Credit for the effective look and feel of the picture must go to cinematographer Karl Freund, who was evidently more than a little familiar with “Nosferatu,” F.W. Murnau’s silent classic from 1922 (a familiarity that came in less handy on television’s “I Love Lucy,” where Freund finished his career).
“Dracula’s” juiciest moments all occur off screen. Time and again we see the count lean in for a blood meal, but the camera cuts away before he shows his fangs. Even so, the film is able to capture the profound sense of violation inherent in the act, and the feeling of hopelessness at taking on a monster who’s been at this for centuries.
“To die, to be really dead — that must be glorious. There are far worse things awaiting man than death,” Dracula says at one point.
If anything, director Browning deserves a round of applause for getting out of the way when the source work, or his cinematographer, had the matter in hand. The filmmaker went on to make “Freaks” a year later, a truly disturbing look at a circus freak show that was banned from theaters for years. Browning then largely disappeared from Hollywood history.
Lugosi was a native of Hungary, Dracula’s back yard. Maybe that helps explain his connection to the character; more likely, it merely accounts for Lugosi’s strained accent, which can develop when someone learns a language phonetically. It certainly makes it seem like this is a strange man — either the count, or Lugosi, or some amalgam of them both.
For a better take on Bela Lugosi, the man and the myth, track down the 1994 film “Ed Wood,” for which Martin Landau, as Lugosi, won an Oscar. But begin your exploration, of course, with “Dracula.”
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.