Friday, October 18, 2013

My First

While I haven't given the matter a lot of thought, it has always seemed to me that as far as songs, movies, tv shows, and etc. go, people generally prefer the version they first encountered. This preference goes beyond nostalgia for the music and tv shows that were current during the years in which they came of age. It is as though their "first" became neurally imprinted as the version by which others are measured. For me, this is especially true of Vampires, Frankensteins, and Wolfmen.

When I was just a lad, television was still new. My formative years were spent in an unathletic and rather private family. I was neither encouraged or allowed to go outside to play. Any such activity could only occur after all school work and chores had been completed, and by that time, it was dark outside. I was not allowed out when it was dark. I spent a lot of time watching tv. Back then, to fill programming needs, it was common for tv stations to show old movies. Although I certainly wasn't aware of it at the time, those movies usually came from RKO, Universal, or Warner Brothers.

Aside from RKO's King Kong, and Warner Bros. Adventures of Robin Hood, my favorite movies were Universal's horror series. My initial encounter with their Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein provided something of an apotheosis, as it contained the holy trinity of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman. A 3 minute long condensation of it was the first 8mm movie I ever purchased. And Dracula was played by THE Dracula, Bela Lugosi. (Although Lugosi played many a vampire, this was the only other time he played the role in a movie. It was also his last big movie; the rest of his career being spent in grade Z cheapies.)

I got to thinking about all of this a week or so ago after the pay-extra-for-it cable channel Turner Classic Movies broadcast a beautifully restored print of the 1958 Hammer version of the story starring Christopher Lee as the Count. Although it was titled "Dracula" in England, here in the U.S. it was retitled "The Horror of Dracula". As much fun as that version is, Lee just isn't my Dracula. The Dracula story has many film adaptions, and any number of similar stories. But my first Dracula is, for me, still the best. And that is the 1931 Universal version I memorized from televison.

The 1931 version was more or less directed by silent film director Todd Browning, who would also direct the strange and fascinating Freaks. The production was plagued by problems from its inception as a silent film in the vein of the same studio's Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney slated to star. Sound and the Depression arrived in Hollywood around the same time. Universal had already purchased rights to the Bram Stoker novel, but now needed a revised speaking script. They purchased a melodramatic stage version which had been a success in 1924 to be the basis of their new script. Depression budget constraints ruled out many of the studio's plans for the project. Lon Chaney, a good friend of Browning's, died from cancer. During the shoot, the usually meticulous Browning was often absent, leaving cinematographer Karl Freund to direct parts of the picture.

Young Bela Lugosi

Initially, neither the studio nor the director wanted Lugosi for the role of the Count. Lugosi was a Hungarian actor who had distinguished himself as an officer in the ski patrol on the Russian Front during WWI. Due to his work for an actor's union, he was forced to flee his homeland during the Hungarian Revolution. He eventually made his way to the US, and won the role of Dracula in that 1924 New York stage production. By the way, it was for that production that Dracula acquired his black cape. Along with a high collar, it enabled the Count to seem to "vanish" into the darkness onstage.

Lugosi's rhythms of speech in the role derived from the natural patterns of speech in his homeland. It is often said that this was due to his limited knowledge of English. At the time he won the stage role, he did learn part of it phonetically, but by the time the movie was made he was quite familiar with the English language.

So what is it about this particular version of Dracula? It's wonderfully atmospheric. There is almost no background music (early sound problems and budget constraints). The title cards are backed by a few bars from Swan Lake, which in this context has a sinister quality. A carriage careens along a mountain path and arrives at a village inn. Frightened women peer out of windows. When the coach's passenger insists on continuing on to the Borgo Pass, an old woman produces a cross for him to wear, "For your mother's sake".


Before long, we are introduced to the Count himself, slowly descending a castle's stone staircase with menacingly savory and quotable lines that continue for several scenes:

"I am Dracula. I bid you welcome."

(responding to wolves howling in the distance)
"Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make!"

"The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield."

"I never drink. Wine. "

Mist seems as ever present as dust and cobwebs. There is no explanation for the appearance of Dracula's wives - they just appear, floating, gliding, through a nightmare.

Lugosi's Dracula was not an ugly deformed monster, but a handsome nobleman. He approached his victims with a longing sensuality - and with repulsion for his own deeds. Maybe that's a bit of projection onto the character, but it fits and it works. He's a monster, but he's our monster - somehow, we slightly identify with him. I think that is partly due to Todd Browning, who spent many years working sideshows in circuses and carnivals. He knew a thing or two about outsiders.

After the action moves to London, things go downhill a bit and descend into Victorian melodrama. Nothing explicit is ever shown on screen, but there are still more than enough creepy moments to satisfy. There's Dwight Frye, who changes from an assured clerk insisting on going on to the Borgo Pass to a madman craving insects and rats for food.

There's Carfax Abbey. There's an incident with a mirror. And there is Dracula, stiff yet leonine. Angry, yet composed. Knowing, perhaps too knowing; "There are far worse things in life than death."
Lugosi's menace was so pronounced and memorable that years later Disney artists used his Dracula movements as a guide for drawing the demon Chernabog in the penultimate section of Fantasia.
Over the years there have been many Draculas. A personal favorite is Francis Ford Coppola's German Expressionist version, with Gary Oldman as a romantic hero of a Count. It works. I like it a lot. I like many of the screen vampires. I like vampire humor. In Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, our young hero (Polanksi) confronts a shetl's vampire innkeeper by brandishing a crucifix. The inkeep responds, "Oy, have you got the wrong vampie-ar!" Interview With a Vampire was a good read, and a good movie - but Brad Pitt would have been the better Lestat and Tom Cruise would have been better as Louis. In recent years we've had vampires that sparkle. And at the end of the month, a new tv series begins with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Dracula. That's all very well and good. Everybody has their Dracula. Mine, however, is the one and only. He was my first.


Anonymous said...

I like the original the best myself....that was one cool blood sucker.

Geo. said...

I will never forget Dracula passing through staircase cobwebs without disturbing them, followed by Renfield who is caught and tears at them. That scene is magnificent.

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

Delores, as far as film goes, the "original" would have to be "Nosferatu", a German silent. The filmmakers didn't have the rights to the novel and Bram Stoker's widow sued. Most of the prints were destroyed and the release cancelled, but thankfully a couple have survived. It is wonderfully creepy and slightly disturbing. But I still prefer the Lugosi.

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

Geo - funny you should say that. I was going to include it as one of my favorite scenes, but I couldn't find the still in my files.

Austan said...

Yes, Bela owned Dracula. But I still love Christopher Lee best.