I didn’t like the 1931 movie version of Dracula nearly as much as I did the 1931 movie version of Frankenstein. Perhaps it is because, while I do have distinct memory of watching the 1931 Frankenstein as a kid (long before I read the book), it may be that I had never actually seen the 1931 Dracula before last night (only after having read the book twice). Or maybe I just don’t remember it because it isn’t that good. Onto the movie, which takes significant liberties with the story.
The cast of characters is considerably paired down (although they do find time to add an orderly for some terrible comic relief). It is Renfield, not Jonathan Harker, who delivers legal documents to Count Dracula in Transylvania. He is committed on landing in England, thus allowing him to also take his role from the book. Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris are omitted entirely. John Seward, now an older man, is also Mina’s father. Lucy Westenra plays only a small role, although there is a reference to her turn as “the Bloofer Lady” from the book. Van Helsing and Mina play much the role they did in the book, although they, like everyone else, have much less to do. Jonathan Harker? Much as no man is a hero to his valet, no man can be a hero to any man wearing capri pants.
I own a beautiful leather bound omnibus of Dracula and Frankenstein. Dracula takes up a good two-thirds of that volume. The 1931 adaptation of Dracula is slightly longer—85 minutes to the 71 of Frankenstein—but the story really needs more time. I don’t know that the decisions are indefensible, but I also don’t see how you can cut the story down to an 85 minute runtime and be left with anything nearly as effective as the book.
The movie doesn’t bother to play coy with Dracula’s nature, probably because the notion of a vampire was still relatively foreign to moviegoers in 1931. The first person Renfield (okay, this still bugs me) meets tells him Dracula is a vampire.
One thing I do like about this adaptation is that Dracula himself is given as much screentime as possible. Bela Lugosi is the standout of the cast along with Helen Chandler.
I have the blu-ray collection of the original Universal monster movies. The rough transfer is more noticeable than I remembered from Frankenstein. The matte paintings used for backgrounds, castles, etc. are obvious but still look great. The frequently used bats are pretty awful. The movie does make very effective use of sound, especially the frequent wolf howls.
The whole thing wears the recent history silent movie period on its sleeve, with newspaper close-ups (also canonical), long shots of the actors not talking, and lots of exaggerated movements. One very simple, very effective trick is to focus on Dracula’s face with a bar of light across his eyes (tough to replicate red eyes in a black and white movie).