Great Screen Draculas: Bela the Greatest

To draw theccurtain on this Halloween season, a piece from my old webpage about the greatest, most influential Dracula of all.

The Universal DVD — highly recommended

I’ve written before about the effect on me of seeing Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Dracula for the first time — creeping through ancient shadows down that cobwebbed staircase, his cape gleaming with starlight, he profoundly enchanted a fatherless eight-year-old.

I was transfixed by Lugosi’s piercing stare, his aquiline nose and strong but softly sculpted face, like an Undead Roman(ian) emperor. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula imprinted his thumb on this abandoned larva, the mark of a sinister and powerful outlaw, criminal, and dictator — the Superman of Evil before there was a Superman, and, I suspected, a much happier Superman, unbounded as he was by chains of love and morality.

Oh, how I skipped over the grass of our broad backyard as the red sun sank behind the blue Hudson Valley hills. I grew black wings and flew through clouds of fireflies in the humid summer dusk as the moonlit sky bristled with stars. I felt my skinny, clumsy body lighten, the earth draw away below as I became another child of the night. What music I made!

I didn’t see myself as foolish. I imagined I was free and powerful (until I became an easily mortified teenager). As time nudges me toward old age, any embarrassment I ever felt about this has long past.

Despite 80 long years and countless parodies on film, TV and print; despite--or because of — Lon Chaney, Jr., Count Chocula, and post-modernism, Bela Lugosi remains for many the definitive, and best, Dracula. Count me among them, Count.

Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is a powerful, obsessed demon. Look into his eyes (Look! Look!), especially in that electrifying close-up where he slowly sinks down out of the frame, fierce with hunger, down to Lucy Westenra’s throat, eyes full of Hellfire mania, a fevered bold sensuality. He is joyfully committed to conquer and feed, to use and throw away, to wrap the world in mindless thrall. Lugosi speaks and moves with the slow grace of a leech, a man so long among the dead, a foreigner among the living, he is only learning to speak again.

But for all Bela Lugosi’s talent and commitment, for all the affection the camera has for him, it’s a shame that the movie he plays in can’t keep pace and finally fails to cast the kind of shadow he throws just by standing there.

The Lugosi Dracula, the first official, approved adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, does open with great poetic promise. Following Stoker’s general outlines, it neatly re-sorts characters by slipping in Renfield instead of Jonathan Harker as the deer-eyed solicitor who travels to the Count’s Transylvanian citadel. This makes the relationship between the two characters a little more sensible: Instead of leaving Renfield to be devoured by his blood-hungry brides, Dracula takes him along to England.

Side note: This solution to the Renfield Problem is only partial. Despite Dwight Frye’s wild chewy portrayal (topped by that great laugh), Renfield remains a useless madman stuck in an insane asylum, providing poor cover for his boss. What is it with Dracula that he seems incapable of hiring good help? He gets the most beautiful women — and men — to turn their throats toward him, like moths toward moonlight. But when it comes to employing someone to help him cope with quotidian matters of daylight--as he must — he picks bumbling crackpots. Sure, bug-eating Renfield is gross-out fun, but Dracula still needs an employment consultant.

As a cinematic experience, the first twenty minutes of Dracula drips with fine Gothic atmosphere. Except for a passage of osstinato mutterings from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the story unfolds effectively without music (though the latest DVD release contains an original, Phillip Glass score, which adds so much).

The settings, the editing, the coal-smoke atmosphere, Lugosi’s entrance from the crypt and the midnight syrup of his voice provide all the music needed. The movie brings us into this haunted world with both economy and verisimilitude. It unfolds like a dream, where screams of horror, loneliness, and despair remain unheard.

But then Dracula lands in London. Mystery and excitement drain away. The pace sputters, the magic fades. We meet a row of sentimental dullards, cardboard heroes and heroines from a fusty Victorian drawing room mystery (drawn from the Broadway hit play that made Lugosi a stage star). The movie sloughs along like a dust bunny blown along the floor by a distracted toddler. When the camera turns to Bela (and to Dwight Frye), life flickers. But then suddenly appears a ghastly technical flub — a scene-stealing piece of paper glued to a bedside lampshade, a magic-killing symptom of haste and carelessness.

The climax is hurried and lame. The camera throws up its skirts and scurries away from Dracula’s demise like a frail maiden. Even by the prudish standards of the 1930s, Dracula ends timidly, especially for a pre-Production Code movie.

There are many behind-the-scenes reasons that this Dracula, the first in Universal Studio’s great series of horror films, stumbles. The initial culprit seems to be the Great Depression: It hit Universal hard and forced them to abandon earlier plans for a much more elaborate production, adhering closer to the novel instead of the play.

From here, the web of cause and effect grows sticky and I again will point you to David Skal’s excellent cultural history Hollywood Gothic (which includes a section on the surprisingly imaginative Spanish-language Dracula, produced at the same time on the same sets).

As for Bela Lugosi’s life and career after, this unique, dynamic star truly suffered the Curse of Dracula. The thing that brought him success also ruined him. Again, for reasons that are fascinating, heart-breaking, and complex, success always slipped beyond his grasp. One anecdote, maybe apocryphal, has him staring bleakly into his makeup mirror before going onstage to play the Count for the thousandth time and sighing: “To think that you once played Hamlet!”

He played Dracula-like characters a few times. Oddly, Universal overlooked Lugosi to cast graceless lumbering Lon Chaney, Jr. in the otherwise good Son of Dracula in 1944, booting away the chance to create another horror classic.

Lugosi only actually played the Count once more, in what I think may be the best portrait of the Dracula myth — sit down, please-- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Whatever your opinion of Bud, Lou (and the “whatever” plot), Lugosi’s Dracula is the real star of this movie. And the production, this time, backs him up, especially with some captivating special effects (animation by Walter Lantz, creator of Woody Woodpecker) that capture the reach of Dracula’s power. Too bad this didn’t inspire Universal to do a Dracula remake starring Lugosi.

It was Lugosi’s last Grade-A picture of a tiny handful. The greatest Dracula, and one of the great film villains ever, died in obscurity in 1956, a story too well-known and sad to tell again here.

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that “If I live to be a hundred, my soul will still go around in short trousers.” Thanks to Bela Lugosi, mine, I swear, will forever caper through glowering skies in a sparkling cape touched by moonlight.

Sleep well, my children. Keep your windows open to the moon. I’ll be by soon.

(Re-edited 8/17/11; 10/28/15;10/31/20)

Copyright 2011/2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s essay on Italian director Luchino Visconti’s contribution to film noir will appear in the upcoming Noir City. His short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth, where he consistently refers to himself in the third person.

Originally published at http://tbdeluxe.blogspot.com.

The author of BUTCHERTOWN, a 1920s gangster thriller and DRAGON’S ARK, a contemporary Dracula tale, both published through Ambler House Publishing.

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