Love is in the air and plastered across every stationary surface right now as we prepare for Valentine’s Day. Across the country, millions will sit down to candlelit dinners, pour up some wine, and snuggle up on the couch to watch their favorite romantic movies. If you horror lovers out there are unsure what to watch, iHorror humbly suggests 1931’s Dracula.
This film has everything!
Brooding vampires, beautiful women, brave men willing to do whatever it takes to save the love of their life, and doctors bent on destroying ancient evil abound, and it just so happens, it was unleashed upon the world on Valentine’s Day 1931 making 2020 its 89th birthday.
The story of Dracula‘s journey to the silver screen is an interesting one that began in 1914 when Carl Laemmle moved Universal Studios from New York to California. It was one of the first properties Laemmle wanted to make, but it took over 15 years and more than a few compromises to find its way into theaters.
The studio head initially envisioned it as a sprawling epic based entirely upon Bram Stoker’s novel. Unfortunately, after the stock market crash and with the Great Depression looming, they were wary of risking that type of money on a film that wasn’t a guaranteed success. Instead, they turned to Hamilton Deane, a playwright who had already adapted the novel for the stage starring none other than Bela Lugosi.
Even using Deane’s play as a source, however, they still had to secure the rights to adapt Stoker’s story for the big screen from his widow. She had already proven herself a shrewd businesswoman when she had taken F.W. Murnau to task for basing Nosferatu on her husband’s work. She sued Murnau and had all of the known prints of his film destroyed! (Thankfully one or two remained for posterity.)
It seems that Florence Balcombe had been a fan particularly of Lugosi’s performance in the stage version, and so the studio used him as a go-between, dangling the role of Dracula in the film in front of him to see if he could convince her to lower her asking price of $200,000, a remarkable sum of money at the time.
Lugosi was ultimately successful and the studio was granted permission by the Stoker estate to move ahead for an estimated $60,000.
However, despite his work on their behalf, Universal still did not guarantee the role to Lugosi, and in fact, they saw a number of other actors for the role before finally committing to hire him for the meager sum of $500 per week for a seven week shoot. To put that into perspective, David Manners who played Jonathan Harker in the film was paid $2000 per week for his work.
Despite these foibles, however, the film soon went into production under the direction of Tod Browning who was seemingly barely up to the job at the time. His drinking had become excessive, and he would often walk off the set leaving his cinematographer, Karl Freund, to direct the action and had been known to rip pages from the script when he was less than pleased with the writing.
The studio, meanwhile, had plenty of notes for the production.
Early on, they apparently were afraid that Dracula might appear to be gay if he was shown attacking another man so they sent a note to the director and writers that “Dracula should only bite women.” Furthermore, very little score was added to the film unless there was a scene where an orchestra would/should already be in place. They feared that, with sound pictures being relatively new, audiences might be confused if there was music without visible musicians in a scene.
Furthermore, and this was especially interesting, the bite marks on the neck, though discussed in the film, are never actually shown! It’s possible they thought this might be too suggestive for the audience, but you’ll also note that Lugosi’s Dracula never had elongated fangs, either.
Finally, when the film was completed and a print was sent to the studio heads to watch, Laemmle wrote back that the film was too scary and ordered it recut. Unfortunately, the cuts made left the final product filled with continuity errors.
Still, the film was finalized and the studio had to find a way to sell it to a larger audience. They held a premiere for the film two days before the official theatrical release date and invited critics, many of whom reported audience members fainting at the horrors they witnessed in the theater.
This was all carefully crafted publicity by the studio, of course, and not the only one Universal had up its sleeve.
Dracula was set to premiere on Valentine’s Day in 1931, and while some posters spoke of the vampire horror, others called the film, “The story of the strangest PASSION the world has ever known.”
Between the horror and the sexiness and the sensationalized reported responses to the film, Dracula was almost an immediate success at the box office selling a reported 50,000 tickets in its first 48 hours and eventually turning in a more than $700,000 profit, and its success would open up the floodgates for more Universal monsters.
In its own way, Dracula really is a romantic story about an undying love that borders on obsession, and is really a perfect film for a horror lover’s Valentine’s Day.
Regardless, the fact that we are still talking about the film almost 90 years after it was first released says something about the film and its place in our culture.
So I say happy birthday to Dracula and happy Valentine’s Day to all you horror fans out there.