Retro Reviews: Dracula (1931)

Bela Lugosi is Count Dracula in this Pre-Code American horror film. The eery, intense movie Dracula (1931), directed by Tod Browning and produced by Universal Films, was based on the 1924 play ‘Dracula’ by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston.

Retro Reviews: Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931)

The story line ultimately refers back to Bram Stoker’s novel- Dracula. (Pre-Code refers to the period in Hollywood between the launching of sound films in 1929 and the enforcing of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship rules in 1934).

A young Hollywood producer, Carl Laemmie Jr. had grand visions of the potential in the Stoker horror story of a vampire count. However, German expressionist film maker F.W. Murnau already filmed ‘Nosferatu’ without permission and Stoker’s widow sued and won. So Laemmie legally obtained the novel’s film rights. He was not sold on Lugosi as Dracula at first, however, and had other actors in mind, but Lugosi had already been playing the Count on Broadway (Dracula- The Vampire Play), and intensely lobbied for the role.

Lugosi’s intense and oft ‘melodramatic’ portrayal of the Count turned out to be a huge success, not only making him an overnight star but forever sealing his typecasting in the role. It could be that after all the silent films and the silent first attempt-‘Nosferatu’ the authentic-sounding Lugosi (indeed- he was born in Romania, not far from Transylvania) was an exciting and realistic alternative as a compelling, fearful predator. In this role of Dracula, Lugosi could use his accent and his deep voice to full advantage. Plus his tall stature, glossy dark hair and piercing blue eyes befitted a Count of noble breed. The Dracula persona created by Lugosi, has influenced almost every film characterization of Dracula thereafter, as seen in the Hammer Films’ star Christopher Lee, who played the titular role several times.

The Storyline

The story is a familiar one- but there are a few revisions and editions from the Stoker novel in this first Dracula movie:We begin with Renfield, a solicitor who travels to Transylvania to conduct a little business with the Count. Once in the looming, impressive castle they discuss Dracula’s intention to lease Carfax Abbey in London, where Dracula intends to travel to the next day. Dracula must have a sudden irresistable hunger pang at the thought of a tasty meal in the form of Renfield delivered to his doorstep so he waves away a few of his brides that night and attacks Renfield himself.

Aboard the schooner Vesta, which is ‘spiriting’ the motley group to London, Renfield, who had just freshly been attacked the night before, has become a complete lunatic and a slave to Dracula. Upon reaching England, Renfield, is the only living person left, because Dracula has been feeding on the crew during the trip. Renfield is sent to a sanatorium, adjoining Carfax Abbey, to happily join the other lunatics.

In this version, Dracula meets Jonathan Harker and his lovely fiancé, Mina, as well as the equally lovely Lucy, at a London theatre. Yes, we’re getting an inkling about the progression of the plot at this point. So, after feasting on a willing Lucy’s blood, she dies(?) after frantic attempts to save her.

Back to Renfield, who gets Professor Van Helsing’s attention with his obsession with eating bugs and spiders. Helsing then, analyses Renfield’s blood and therefore makes a little discovery. Van Helsing then gives Renfield a little wolfsbane so he can protect himself from vampires.But this marks the beginning of a growingsuspicion about Count Dracula.(Every town needs a Professor Van Helsing, in case of imminent vampire infiltration.)

It isn’t long before Dracula turns his attention to Mina, and we all know how that is going to go. Luckily, Van Helsing just happens to notice that Drac has no reflection in a mirror and then realizes he is the source of all the recent, puzzling events. After a few meetings with Dracula, Mina is feeling quite drained, and needs to rest. Helsing orders Mina’s nurse to keep an eye on her and make sure she has wolfsbane around her neck at night. Also, a woman in white (Lucy, now a night stalking vampire), has been reported luring and biting young children. Mina realizes this strange woman is her friend, Lucy.

Dracula still maintains access to Mina by hypnotizing her nurse into removing the wolfsbane and both Harker and Van Helsing realize they must stop the vampire Count. They start hunting for Dracula’s coffin, because Van Helsing knows he must sleep there during the daylight hours. Van Helsing decides to prepare a hefty pointed wooden stake for Dracula and/or any other vampires he may run into along the way. When Harker and Van Helsing see Mina in the Abbey with Dracula and shout to her, Dracula deduces it was Renfield that led them there and he subsequently kills Renfield.

After some tense moments, they hunt Dracula to his coffin while the sun is rising and the grand finale happens here- Dracula is impaled, dies a horrible death and Mina is saved.

Post Script

Bela Lugosi, nee, Bela Blasko, played Dracula several more times, but unfortunately, between his typecasting and heavy accent was often given secondary roles to Boris Karloff’s lead and often was reduced to parodying the role. And although he rarely broke away from his signature role as Dracula, he ended up playing the villain in most subsequent films. I give Dracula a 9/10 because not only is it a timeless classic, portraying the best of what early Hollywood could offer at the time, it was a milestone movie and Lugosi was legend in it.

After the success of ‘Dracula (1931)’ Lugosi enjoyed appearing in public dressed formally, with a flowing cape, as if still playing the role. Appropriately, he was buried wearing his cape, and emulating Dracula even in the private place where the Count himself must have felt the most relaxed….in his coffin.

***Creepy, Real Fact and Author’s Note: Ironically I began writing this Retro Review yesterday on August 16, 2016, which, unbeknownst to me turned out to be the anniversary day of Lugosi’s death. He died on August 16,1956.

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  1. Andria Perry
    • Lin Jenkinson

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