The Universal Monster Marathon – Dracula (1931)
When viewed today Tod Browning’s Dracula seems plodding and overly theatrical, but upon its original theatrical release audience members were reported to faint away in sheer terror. The movie had originally been intended as a vehicle for Universal’s top horror star, Lon Chaney but when the star succumbed to throat cancer the production was thrown into disarray.
The famous source material, namely Bram Stoker’s novel had already been filmed unofficially in 1922 as Nosferatu but Universal’s remake would be official and permission was obtained from Stoker’s estate. However with the death of Lon Chaney the producers found casting the title role to be problematic – Paul Muni, Chester Morris, Ian Keith were all considered. Director Todd Browning was not at all interested in Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi who had played Dracula in the successful Broadway play based on the novel. However against the tide of studio opinion, Lugosi lobbied hard for the part and ultimately won the executives over, thanks in part to him accepting a paltry $500 per week salary for seven weeks of work, amounting to $3,500.
The shoot was apparently troubled with the director finding himself unable to garner much interest in the movie. He had originally intended the project to be a collaboration between himself and his friend, Lon Chaney. And the loss of the actor seemed to sour the entire project for the director who would often delegate much of the work to cinematographer Karl Freund who actually directed much of the movie. In fairness Freund should have been credited as a co-director, but it was the disinterested Browning who gained the kudos for the movie.
The film though benefitted greatly from Bela Lugosi and he is arguably the best thing in the picture – perhaps the fact that the film was shot in a theatrical style suited the actor who was able to transport his stage performance into the movie. Parts of the movie reflect Browning’s greatness as a director of silent movies and much of the acting is done in the style of the silents, which again can make the film a tough viewing experience for the modern audience. But the movie is definitely worth sticking with and is a true classic of the genre. It was a massive hit for Universal and kicked off the cycle of creature features for which the studio is forever known.
The film finally premiered at The Roxy Theatre in New York on Feb. 12, 1931. Dracula was a big gamble for a major Hollywood studio to undertake. In spite of the literary credentials of the source material, it was uncertain if an American audience was prepared for a serious full length supernatural chiller. Nervous executives breathed a collective sigh of relief when Dracula proved to be a huge box office sensation. Within 48 hours of its opening at New York’s Roxy Theatre, it had sold 50,000 tickets.
There are several DVD editions of the movie available but by far the best is the Universal Monsters collection in which the film was released as a two disc package along with The House of Dracula which starred John Carradine as the bloodsucking vampire. The set contains a wealth of special features including both a commentary and an all new documentary.