Throwback SF Thursday (early): Dracula (1931 Movie Version)

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.

L to R: Van Helsing, Harker, and Seward

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 do sup.

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).

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
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9 Responses to Throwback SF Thursday (early): Dracula (1931 Movie Version)

  1. Mark says:

    I think the reason you like Frankenstein better than Dracula is that Frankenstein is definitely a better movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cambias says:

    From what I’ve heard, the studio began taking away the budget before the movie was finished, hence the rather rushed-feeling ending. (Seriously: Dracula gets staked OFF-SCREEN!)

    There’s a Spanish-language version filmed at the same time, using the same sets (shot during the night, heh, heh, heh), and apparently the director of that version watched the dailies from Laemmle’s version and tried to come up with improvements. Unfortunately, the actor playing Dracula is an absolute dead ringer for Andy Kaufman, which makes it hard for a modern viewer to take him seriously.

    Liked by 2 people

    • H.P. says:

      I understand there were some Hays Code issues, although that would have been very early in its run.

      The bigger issue with Dracula’s death is that it happens at sunrise. They literally had ALL DAY to kill him. In the book, the sun is setting and he probably disappears forever if they don’t get it done NOW.

      I heard about the Spanish version on Twitter. I will have to track it down, but I think I will watch the first Hammer version and the 90s version first.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. John Boyle says:

    I must agree, Frankenstein (1931) is a much better movie than Dracula of the same year, for the reasons you list. I did enjoy Dracula though, especially Lugosi as the Count.

    As an aside, John L. Balderston worked on the scripts used for Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein, among many other films.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. pcbushi says:

    I want to see the Christopher Lee version. Have you seen that one?

    Liked by 1 person

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