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