Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dracula Re-visted

Just in time for Halloween, I wanted to share my thoughts on Tod Browning's classic of Gothic horror, "Dracula", which I just picked up on DVD in a splendidly restored edition. Although I'm publishing this post in conjunction with Halloween, it's interesting to note that, in an ironic twist, "Dracula" was not released around Halloween at all, but rather on Valentine's Day.

I've always had mixed feelings about the Universal monster cycle of the 30s and 40s. While the films themselves contain an undeniable sense of atmosphere and often brilliant production design, the characters themselves seemed to devolve into self-parody very quickly, culminating with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" in 1948 (which, far from being seen as a parody, many enthusiasts seem to embrace as part of the horror cycle!)

"Dracula" works for me on a number of levels. Purely at a level of design, it's one of the most remarkable evocations of Gothic horror ever put on screen. In particular, a scene where Renfield (Dwight Frye) enters the main hall of Castle Dracula is such an overwhelming set (achieved with the aide of matte work) that it staggers the imagination once you begin to examine its apparent scale.

As with many early talkies, "Dracula" really benefits from its star performance of Bela Lugosi as the Count. Lugosi's skill in transforming himself into a popular culture icon can never be overstated. With this one film, he became instantly recognizable with viewers all over the world, and with many today who haven't even seen the film itself. To fully appreciate what he does with his performance, one only need to compare it with that of Carlos Villarias in the Spanish version, produced simultaneously at Universal by a different crew shooting on the identical sets at night (more on that later). Villarias is almost comical in the role of the count, not because of any lack of skill on his part, but because Lugosi took what could have so easily been a campy or over-the-top role, and embodied it with a genuine sense of mysticism and dread. Villarias is the one major weak link in the film's Spanish counterpart.

The supporting cast is an odd mix of really standout performances, and strangely ineffective ones. Dwight Frye, a Broadway actor who came to Hollywood to make this film, gives as equally memorable a performance as Lugosi, completely personifying sheer lunacy. Edward Van Sloan is also perfectly cast as Van Helsing. There is something perhaps indescribable about his performance that feels very "modern". It's perhaps no surprise that Frye and Sloan also appeared in "Frankenstein" later that year, not unlike Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre appearing in "The Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca" back-to-back, almost like a team. On the other hand, the performance of Helen Chandler as Mina lacks the color of Lupita Tovar's role in the Spanish version, while David Manners makes for an extremely bland leading man (Manners later confessed that he and Chandler never took the project seriously, and often had to hold back laughter during the shooting). It's perhaps ashame that a more serious actor wasn't chosen for the part, as such an unprofessional attitude did nothing to help the film.

A real point of contention in recent years has been the awkward staging of some shots. The first part of the film, set in Transylvania, is as perfectly eerie as anything ever put on film, while the rest of the film, borrowing heavily from the stage play, feels very static and stage-bound in comparison. David Manners recalled that it was cinematographer Karl Freund, not Tod Browning, who directed all of his scenes. This is a highly controversial claim, as Browning was not only the sole credited director, but was responsible for getting this film off the ground. Indeed, it was Browning's "dream project", so it seems unlikely that after struggling for several years to bring it to the screen, he would have taken such a casual approach as to let the cinematographer direct. That said, there are a couple shots in the film involving the moving camera that are unmistakably Freund's. (Freund, best known as the cinematographer of such Expressionist classics as "The Last Laugh" and "Metropolis", soon turned to directing, with such films as Universal's "The Mummy" and MGM's "Mad Love", before ending his career as the cameraman for TV's "I Love Lucy".) In the DVD commentary, David Skal points out that in nearly all the bedroom scenes with the nightstand lamp, there is a piece of cardboard fixed to it. While Skal calls this an error (he claims that the cardboard was to block the light from the lamp during closeup shots), Steve Haberman, in an alternate commentary track, points out that it's not an error at all, but rather a custom of the time to help dull the amount of light coming from the lamp for someone choosing to sleep with the light on. In any event, it seems hard to fathom that this could have found its way into all the shots without someone noticing, so I'm inclined to agree with Haberman on this point.

The film's director, Tod Browning, was a master of the macabre and had developed a very unique style, combining dark, almost Expressionist lighting into his silent films, and focusing on themes of deformity and outsiders. In many ways, Dracula is Browning's ultimate "outsider". While he is able to ingratiate himself almost effortlessly with his charming demeanor and old-world charm, he remains forever a part of another world. Unlike the characters so frequently played by Lon Chaney in Browning's work, Dracula is not a deformed or crippled character, instead exuding an undeniable appeal that makes him all the more dangerous. Chaney, in fact, was the original choice for "Dracula", but died of cancer shortly before filming commenced.

The film was simultaneously shot by a second unit in a Spanish-language version for the foreign market, since dubbing was considered insufficient. Paul Kohner (previously head of production at Universal before being demoted when studio president Carl Laemmle gave that job to his son as a 21st birthday present) produced this version, directed by George Melford, a craftsman whose most famous work was probably "The Sheik", the film that launched Valentino into stardom back in 1921. Kohner and his crew studied Browning's rushes, shot during the day, and made whatever conceivable improvements they could think of when they went to do their shooting at night. The result is a more technically accomplished film than Browning's, but one that lacks the personal style that Browning brought to the project. It's still a remarkable achievement, especially considering that the production team on this Spanish version was distinctly "B-unit" when compared with the crew on Browning's version. The cinematographer was George Robinson, who later shot some of the Abbott and Costello vehicles at Universal, and he manages here to match some of the brilliant shots conceived by Karl Freund. This version is available for viewing on the special edition DVD.

It's interesting to compare the film with "Frankenstein", also released in 1931 as a kind of follow-up to the success of this film. The biggest difference lies in the directors of each film. Browning was a silent film director through-and-through, with little or no experience on coaching actors through dialog and line-readings. His style was entirely visual, and his use of symbolism to convey major points in the story is one of the most significant aspects of "Dracula", with its recurring religious imagery of wine, blood, the crucifix, and images of re-birth or resurrection. The film is a visual feast of Christian symbolism, which Browning uses at every opportunity to draw parallels between good and evil.

"Frankenstein", directed by James Whale, also features heavy religious symbolism in its premise of a scientist "playing God", but while Browning emphasized the visual symbolism, Whale's strength lay in his handling of dialog. While "Frankenstein" is also heavily influenced in its design of Expressionism (both films were designed by Charles D. Hall), Whale's extensive stage experience makes him far more adept staging dialog scenes, while his visuals (photographed by Arthur Edeson) lack Browning's deeper levels of meaning. Whale's famous use of canted angles in the laboratory scenes add to the sense of panic and hysteria, but fail to convey the kind of deeper meaning contained in many of Browning's compositions (Browning's decision to shoot the initial encounter between Dracula and Renfield is significant, in that it strays from the shooting script, which called for an elaborate crane shot, bringing Renfield and Dracula face to face for their dialog, instead choosing to keep Renfield at the bottom of the staircase, with Dracula towering above him at the top).

While James Whale was comfortable working in a variety of genres, he is perhaps best remembered for the slightly campy humor he brought to "The Bride of Frankenstein", which even better displays the difference between his approach and Browning's. Browning plays "Dracula" as straight horror, filled with an underlying sense of panic, dread, death and decay that is lacking from "Frankenstein". While Lugosi's Count Dracula is an unnervingly charming character on the outside, he is the personification of evil, while Karloff's Monster in "Frankenstein" is a far more sympathetic, tragic character buried underneath a hideous appearance.

It's no surprise, then, that viewers may be more comfortable with "Frankenstein". The pacing is far more brisk, and Whale's handling of dialog is more comfortable than Browning's. Too, the fact that "Frankenstein" was written for the screen gives it a more cinematic approach than the stage-bound sections of "Dracula". However, "Dracula" is the far more stylish film, and one that gets much closer to the pure horror. Much criticism has been leveled at the long stretches of silence on the film's soundtrack (composer Philip Glass went as far as to record a new score for the film). It's important to remember that the film industry had a moratorium on underscoring from late 1930 until 1932, due to the over-production of musicals in the first months of sound film. Aside from that, Browning's use of silence is extremely effective at contributing to the atmosphere, and to tamper with it as Glass did is inexcusable.

"Dracula" remains one of Browning's most accomplished works, and one of the finest expressions of Gothic horror on the screen. "Freaks" remains perhaps his most touching and insightful look at the theme of the "outsider", and "The Unknown" is probably his most accomplished film at a level of design and execution, but "Dracula" remains his most indelible mark on pop culture.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Seven Keys to Baldpate

There are certain stories that used to get made and re-made as films seemingly countless times throughout the years. "Charley's Aunt", "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch", and others seem to have been re-made nearly every decade throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Another such example is George M. Cohan's comic play, "Seven Keys to Baldpate", from a story by Earl Derr Biggers, which was filmed several times between 1917 and 1947, including a 1934 version with Gene Raymond. Jack Benny even appeared in a Lux Radio Theatre version.

The 1929 version of "Seven Keys to Baldpate" is a fun early talkie, this one starring Richard Dix as the writer who accepts a bet that he can finish his novel in 24 hours while spending a night in a remote lodging called Baldpate, belonging to his publisher. There are plenty of twists and turns, and colorful characters and even romantic interest, as the improbable events involving stolen money hidden in the vault lead to a plot so wild that the writer is able to finish his novel on time just based on the events he's experienced in the last 24 hours. There is, of course, a big twist to the end of the film that I won't reveal here.

Richard Dix gives a strong performance in this film, while the rest of the cast feels slightly underrehearsed. Granted, the whole thing is played rather tongue-in-cheekly, such as the moment when Dix, confronting a burglar with gun in hand, leaps over a handrail on the staircase when it would have been far simpler to simply step around it. Played in this slightly over-the-top, melodramatic style, the film is quite a lot of fun. The self-reflexive nature of the plot makes for some interesting touches as well, especially at the surprise finish.

The film was directed by Reginald Barker, one of the earliest pioneers whose credits include such important, early works as "The Italian" and "Civilization", co-directed with Thomas Ince. Barker allows his actors to carry the scenes. There is some interesting, atmospheric lighting touches in the cabin scenes, but for the most part, the film is shot and acted in a very straightforward fashion that serves as evidence of its stage roots. Dix shows here what a versatile leading man he could be. Indeed, while never quite an "A-list" star, he enjoyed a brief period of success in the late silent era and made the transition to sound quite well, culminating with his finest role, the lead in Wes Ruggles' "Cimarron".

This film, which was clearly popular enough to see previous filmings in 1917, 1925, and would reach the screen again in 1934 and 1947, remains an interesting pop culture phenomenon of its time.