Dracula and Whitby, part III: Dracula Goes to the Movies in 1922 and 1931

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While Hollywood claims the first official movie version of Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel, the 1931 Tod Browning film was in truth merely the first to herald, rather than hide, its source novel.

F.W. Murnau had directed Prana Film’s cheekily unauthorized Nosferatu in 1922. In this now celebrated version, Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, a barely human-looking creation with conical head, bent back, and long curling fingernails. The Count’s terrifying shadow was an integral part of the artistic vision behind Nosferatu.

One of the producers, Albin Grau, was a visual artist who was heavily involved in the production’s sets, design, and story-boarding. The image of the vampire’s outline was calculated to burrow deep into the part of the brain reserved for nightmares.

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A nightmarish vision: Max Schreck in Nosferatu.

Completing the film’s disguise, Jonathan Harker, the young lawyer, becomes Thomas Hutter. His wife, Mina, becomes Ellen. ‘Home’ in Nosferatu — the place from where Hutter leaves and then returns after his ill-fated Carpathian visit — is the fictional German town of Wisborg. In Wisborg all the locations of Dracula‘s England converge.

Wisborg has a Whitby-like beach with sea view and crooked gravestones; it also has an urban district derelict enough to be a Purfleet stand-in. Count Orlok’s version of Dracula’s Carfax Abbey is a Bauhaus-style structure, part ruin, part warehouse, with many forbidding black windows.

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“Wisborg’s” version of Carfax

Nosferatu pulls the action further into the past, taking Stoker’s late-Victorian tale to 1838.

Whether the films were modern-dress or lost in a landscape of the imagination, German fantasy of the period often invoked a Medieval flavour. A folkloric past seemed to act as a portal to forgotten horrors such as the plague, the supernatural, or belief in a literal devil. In German film-making, these ancient horrors coincided very neatly with a with a modern Freudian interest in dreams and nightmares. By predating Stoker’s action, the film edges just a little closer to this favoured landscape.

The filmic precedent was well established.

Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1920), for example, plunges the viewer into long gone versions of Persia, Venice, and China as our heroine (Lil Dagover) is challenged by Death-personified (Bernhard Goetze) to save one of three forfeited lives. If she succeeds she will win back her lover whom Death has already claimed.

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Timeless folklore: Fritz Lang’s Destiny

So Germany in the 1920s was an auspicious time and place when it came the first Dracula adaptation. Stoker, like the German filmmakers, had cast his creative net wide geographically and historically, picking strands from Irish and Eastern European folklore. In fiction, he was also a risk taker, not afraid of the grotesque or horrifying image, such as Dracula crawling, lizard like, down the castle wall, or offering his three female vampire companions a baby upon which to feast. His original climax for Dracula involved the sudden crumbling of the Count’s castle into dust as soon as Dracula himself expires, an extravagant passage that the publisher, Archibald, Constable & Company, found too outlandish.

But for Nosferatu director Murnau, such ambitions were second nature. Murnau would later re-create the age of alchemy, plague, and devil pacts in Faust (1926), bringing the Stoker link full circle in a literal sense too. The Lyceum had produced Faust in 1886 with Stoker’s employer and friend Henry Irving as Mephistopheles. This connection was hardly accidental. In their darker fantasy subjects, novelist Stoker and director Murnau drew from the same creative well.

Dracula then was the perfect vehicle to kick start Prana Film. Albin Grau, who was an occultist as well as artist, intended Nosferatu as the first in a series of horror subjects. Unfortunately, Bram’s widow, Florence, had other ideas and soon launched a series of robust legal challenges ultimately forcing Prana to declare bankruptcy.

By annoying Stoker’s widow, Murnau’s pirated  movie only served to bring the “real” Dracula, or one that would bear the name, to life. Soon after beginning her legal battles with Prana, Florence Stoker sold the Dracula rights to Irish playwright and actor Hamilton Deane. Deane had once been a Lyceum man like her late husband. To Florence, no doubt, he would have seemed a much more respectable inheritor of Bram’s legacy.

Deane’s Count Dracula, who first took to the boards in 1924, could not have been more different than Count Orlok. Portrayed by young actor Raymond Huntley, this vampire dressed in a tuxedo and upturned collar and insinuated himself into polite dinner conversation.

Complete with gimmicks of attending nurse with smelling salts for terrified audience members, Deane’s Dracula toured successfully in Britain giving Stoker’s novel a new lease of life.

Soon a version of Deane’s play was rewritten by American John L. Baldeston for the American market. When it crossed the Atlantic in 1927, Dracula gathered a new leading man, the Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi would add an exotic Valentino-esque flavour to the already urbane vampire.

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Bela Lugosi, exotic and urbane (Universal Monsters)

This Deane-Baldetson Dracula is the one which would reach the screen in 1931 under the direction of Tod Browning. The cinematographer was Karl Freund, one of an increasing number of German film artists who fled to Hollywood in the 1930s. Freund had worked with Murnau on The Last Laugh (1924).

The action of this first official production is largely in Whitby, or rather John L. Balderston’s concept of Whitby which is not quite the same thing. In an early scene set during a London opera, Whitby resident Mina (Helen Chandler) casually mentions she might stay “in town” (i.e. London) with Lucy after the performance. This suggests the original plan was to travel the 250 miles back home. A British audience was clearly not forefront among the filmmakers’ concerns.

These events follow an extended prologue in which Renfield (Dwight Fry), rather than Jonathan Harker, travels to Dracula’s castle in the Carpathians to complete the sale of Carfax Abbey. This Carfax Abbey is in Whitby rather than the original Purfleet. When he returns on the stricken ship carrying Dracula and his earth boxes, Renfield is incarcerated as a lunatic under the care of Dr. Seward whose sanitarium, and home, “adjoins” the grounds of Carfax Abbey.

All the plot elements are thus brought together under one location which is ostensibly the east Yorkshire town but in reality generic England complete with cockney sanitarium attendant, Martin (Charles K Gerrard).

To the modern viewer, the play was not adapted enough. Long stretches of the movie look rather like a filmed stage performance. It could have been that director Browning had lost heart in the project after the death of his frequent creative partner and intended Dracula, Lon Chaney. But it’s also possible that the new medium of talking pictures had distracted the normally lively director. The years 1927-1931 were a time of awkward transition in the industry.

For a while the artistic ambitions of directors and cinematographers played second fiddle to the technical demands of capturing sound. A row of static actors having a drawing room conversation was easier to sustain than swift movements and fluid action.

In any case, there are no cliffs, no visible abbey, no St. Mary’s churchyard and very few exteriors of any kind. The 1931 film compares rather poorly with the more vibrant and visually daring Nosferatu.

But this didn’t matter for the Count. The 1931 film firmly established an imprint for Dracula as matinee idol, suave and sophisticated and able to seduce his victims with good looks, conversation, and charm. Although this was not Stoker’s concept, it became an unshakable aspect of the story for the next several decades.

Also see:

Dracula and Whitby, Part I: Why Whitby?

Dracula and Whitby, Part II: The Politics of Location

Coming Up: Dracula in the Hammer movies of the 1950s-70s, and the golden age of British television brings Stoker’s novel back home.

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

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Dracula and Whitby, Part II: The Politics of Location

There has been much scholarship on the symbolism of geography in Dracula. When it comes to his love of codes and odd reversals of detail, Bram Stoker could be sometimes obvious, sometimes slippery. In Dracula, he is both.

In the case of the former, Stoker wouldn’t have fooled anyone in Whitby — nor would he had wanted to — when he calls the ship bringing Dracula to English shores “Demeter” and names as its home port  “Varna.”

Whitby residents would have remembered the 1885 wreck of the Dmitry from Narva (now in Estonia), carrying the same cargo as in the novel — minus, of course, the famous vampire.

Changing things around was all part of the fun, and since Stoker was often into game playing as well as genuine disguise, it’s easier some times than others to decode hidden themes in his choices of location.

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Limbering up for Dracula. Stoker’s The Snake’s Pass (1890).

An interesting thematic prelude to Dracula sheds some light on his preoccupations. The Snake’s Pass was published in 1890, the year of Stoker’s first visit to Whitby. The novel, like Dracula, involves a villain, in this case “Black” Murdock. Like Dracula, The Snake’s Pass contains a healthy dose of folklore but this time the folklore is Irish and centres around the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.

It also involves a landscape that seems to be alive, like Dracula‘s. In this case the malignant environment isn’t comprised of frowning mountains, blue flickering flames, and hordes of wolves but rather a moving bog or “carpet of death.”

Stoker’s previous work reminds the reader that named destinations often have their twin symbolic location, the place’s real meaning in psychological terms.

Here are the ingredients of Stoker’s Whitby: a port town facing east and the ‘wild’ regions of Europe, a place vulnerable to ‘invasion,’ an abbey whose original foundations were laid in the Dark Ages long before the 11th century Benedictine structure that stands today.

Whitby is a wonderful location in itself. But its elements also apply to deeper roots in Stoker’s life.

The age of the original abbey, for instance, invokes a time when the first shoots of Christianity sprouted from pagan soil. This is a Stokerean setting, reminiscent of his Transylvania and also of his Ireland.

For Stoker, eastern coasts also had a special significance. He had been born in Clontarf within easy view of the Irish Sea. Castles had particular meaning too. Whitby might not have a castle, although the abbey is a pretty good substitute and Scarborough just down the coast boasts an impressive ruin. High on a headland overlooking the sea Scarborough Castle recalls Jonathan Harker’s first vision of Dracula’s home, “from whose tall black windows came no ray of light.”

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From whose all black windows came no ray of light: Just down the coast from Whitby, the ruin of Scarborough Castle

Stoker’s father, Abraham, toiled for the Irish civil service in Dublin Castle, essentially the colonial focus of the British Empire in Ireland.

The vampire, for Stoker, symbolized many things, but among them was certainly the burden of expectation he would have felt as a young man to follow in his father’s footsteps. Like Abraham, Bram would have been under pressure to buckle down and devote his professional energies to a  ‘foreign’ power in his own country — surely a recipe for emotional exsanguination. That a castle should be home to Stoker’s bloodsucker is as apt a metaphor as Freud could desire.

Stoker’s mother’s influence on Dracula was more direct. Charlotte Matilda Blake Thornley (1818 – 1901) would have shared with her children her memories of the 1832 cholera epidemic in her home town of Sligo, a collective trauma which included tales of  people mistakenly buried alive under mass corpses stored in a local barn. Then there were the famine years of the late 1840s and the tales of desperate, starving people forced to drink the blood of those already deceased.

But the Irish parallels don’t end there. Although we know Stoker found the name Dracula in the Whitby public library in 1890 in reference to the eastern prince Vlad Tepes, there is also uncanny resonance concerning Irish folklore. The Irish Gaelic term Dreach-Fhoula meaning ‘tainted blood’ is pronounced, folklorists argue, very much like ‘Dracula.’

Given Stoker’s known fascination with Irish folklore and his formative childhood influences, it seems likely he found a personal crossroads in his research into Balkan vampire lore.

He had come upon a place where the exotic east coincided magically with what already existed in his imagination. The seam was so rich we are still mining it today.

 

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A by-no-means full list of some sources discussing location in Dracula:

London in Dracula: Dracula in London, Gill Davies, The Literary London Journal (2004)

Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula, Barbara Belford, Knopf (1996)

DraculaCelebrating 100 Years (1997) eds L. Shepard and A. Power. Thanks Mark Pinkerton (article Why Westenra) for the tip-off.

Dracula: Sense & Nonsense, Elizabeth Miller, Desert Island Books Ltd., (2006)

How Bram Stoker created Dracula with the Aid of Irish Folklore, Leonie O’Hara, Irish Central, November 8, 2018.

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Next up, Whitby in Dracula movies through the ages.

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

Whitby and Dracula, Part I: Why Whitby?

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The ingredients are all there:

A high headland; a venerable church overlooking a picturesque town; an 11th century Benedictine Abbey which stands lofty and indomitable even as a ruin; and, most of all, St. Mary’s expansive graveyard, its crooked gravestones telling of multiple tragedies at sea and on land.

 

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Whitby Abbey, austere and foreboding

 

Who wouldn’t want to set a Gothic novel in Whitby?

There is nothing arbitrary in Bram Stoker’s choice of this Yorkshire coastal town. If Dracula were published today it would likely earn the title ‘placed-based fiction.’ In some respects the story reads like a travelogue. Whitby, London, and of course a wild adventure eastwards to the Carpathian mountains come to the reader in a vivid richness of detail.

This was what many late Victorians wanted. For his readers, Stoker captured the sights, sounds and tastes of places near and far. Setting the tone, Jonathan Harker writes a memorandum in his journal: get recipe for Mina (his fiancee).  He has just eaten a chicken dish with red pepper in a hotel Klausenburgh (present-day Cluj) and notes that while delicious, the food has made him very thirsty. Like any good ‘travel writer,’ Stoker wanted to provide a full sensory experience.

For Stoker and his contemporaries, the age of the train and the steam ship had opened up travel both at home and abroad. Once the preserve of the aristocrat’s “grand tour,” exploration had come, courtesy of the industrial age, to the well-to-do middle class.

Stoker, both a traveler and a meticulous researcher, enjoyed whetting this new appetite.  By the time he had begun Dracula, Stoker was a successful man by most standards but he was not an aristocrat. As a middle-class Irishman in London, however, he could aspire, like Shaw and Wilde, to prominence in the British capital’s literary scene; as actor-manager Henry Irving’s business partner, he did indeed rub shoulders with many of the luminaries of the age.

 

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Even if Stoker had stuck to a safe profession like his civil servant father — remaining as he once planned, either a civil servant himself or a practicing lawyer — he would likely have taken advantage of the new opportunities to voyage beyond his shores. As it was, Stoker traveled extensively on business for Henry Irving both in America and mainland Europe. Curiously, he did not go as far east as Jonathan Harker, the solicitor who makes his fateful journey to Dracula’s castle. Stoker’s Transylvania springs from his extensive reading and from the accounts of his brother George who had served as a military doctor in the area.

It might have piqued Stoker to know he had given the reader only a secondhand view of Dracula’s home. As though aware of the shortcoming, Stoker peppered his story, both in Transylvania and England, with an overwhelming amount of local detail. In his journal, Jonathan Harker records details of the lands he travels though — the ethnicity of the various people he sees, their dress (in great detail), their customs, and even their physical ailments, noting the prevalence of enlarged thyroid glands or “goitres” among the “Cszeks and Slovaks.”

Mina simultaneously records in her journal all the impressions of Whitby, including its topography, the viaduct, the history of the abbey, the folklore and beliefs. She also details the pleasures of the town and surrounding areas such as the “sweet little, old fashioned inn” in Robin Hood’s Bay. Stoker slyly draws attention to his knowledge of foreign cities when Mina compares Whitby to “the pictures we see of Nuremburg.” Stoker himself had visited the German city with Irving in preparation for a production of Faust at the Lyceum theatre.

 

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More than a holiday. Stoker’s sojourn in Whitby helped to plant the seeds for Dracula.

If Stoker’s Transylvania is a secondhand account, albeit a thoroughly-researched one, his Whitby springs from direct experience. In late July and early August 1990 he stayed for the first time on The Royal Crescent, the location he would later give for the lodgings taken by Lucy Westenra and her mother. In Dracula, Mina stays with them as a guest.

Mina’s description of the locals — blushingly patronizing by today’s standards —  springs partly from Stoker’s keen observation, partly from research. An old sea dog Mina befriends tells her he must “crammle upon the grees.” According to the notes in the Wordsworth Classics edition, this vernacular means “hobble down the stairs,” and comes from A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Whitby published by F.K. Robinson in 1876. It’s easy to imagine the many hours the bibliophile Stoker would have spent gathering and selecting from such sources.

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Walkers “crammling upon the grees” or walking down the steps leading from St. Mary’s and the abbey to the town of Whitby.

The stairs referred to, of course, are the famous 199 steps leading up from the narrow winding streets of the town to the the church, St. Mary’s, and the ruined abbey.

It’s not surprising that a brief holiday in Whitby, at Irving’s recommendation, should swiftly have become research for the workaholic Stoker. He had moonlighted as a theatre reviewer while working in the Irish civil service in the 1870s and had published four novels since signing on with Henry Irving for whom he worked tirelessly. On his Whitby “holiday” he was soon recording notes for an embryonic novel which he had already decided would be about a vampire.

Among the publications he found in Whitby’s public library was a British diplomat’s experiences in Bucharest. Stoker read, for the first time it is thought, about Vlad Tepes, a fearsome fifteenth century prince known for impaling his enemies on spikes.

A secondary name for Vlad Tepes, one given to those who inspired fear, translated into English as ‘Son of the Dragon.’

The name in question was Dracula.

Although he continued to tinker with prospective titles over the years until publication in 1897, Stoker had found his count in Whitby.

 

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In further parts to the ‘Whitby and Dracula‘ series, we’ll talk more about Bram Stoker’s love of details and coded messages, Whitby’s presence in film adaptations, and we’ll also see how Whitby celebrates its Gothic connections in the 21st century.

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).