Saturday, October 31, 2015

Dracula (1931)

Director: George Melford                                Adaptation: Baltasar Fernández Cué
Music Supervisor: Heinz Roemheld               Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Eduardo Arozamena and Pablo Álvarez Rubio

Oh, what might have been. If only we could take the American cast from the original Dracula, and put them into the Spanish-language production headed by George Melford. Not only would it have been the best horror film from the classic period, but possibly the best horror film of all time. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Universal’s simultaneous production of Drácula, made for the Central and South American market, was filmed at a time when there were no dubbing capabilities, and Hollywood--used to being able to market their silent films all around the world--did the only thing they could think of, and remade the films with separate casts in different languages in order to sell them overseas. In this case the American cast, under the nominal direction of Todd Browning, would film all day, and then the Spanish-speaking cast and crew would film all night on the same sets. At the head of the nocturnal production Universal put contract director George Melford in charge, and with the assistance of Spanish-speaking Enrique Tovar Ávalos, they would look at the rushes for that day and attempt to come up with subtle improvements in filming that would make their film superior. And they succeeded, but for one thing: the actors. While the film is infinitely superior, the acting by Bela Lugosi stand-in Carlos Villarías, and some of the rest of the cast, pulls the entire production down.

On the positive side, even the opening titles suggest a more atmospheric production. While the American version shows the credits over a static silhouette of a bat, the Spanish production shows them over a live shot of a candle with spider webs on it wafting in the breeze. But there are also many establishing shots and long shots, as well as second unit work, that are used from the original film rather than reshooting. Pablo Álvarez Rubio does a nice job as Renfield in the opening sequence, better than he would do in the later scenes. When the scene shifts to Dracula’s castle, instead of cutting away from the coffin the camera is moved behind the hinge, with smoke announcing the emergence of Carlos Villarías as he rises from behind the lid. But while the actor was probably chosen for a passing resemblance to Lugosi, his movements and facial expressions are anything but menacing and diminish much of the tension as a result. The next scene is a case in point. Instead of showing Lugosi coming down the stairs while Dwight Frye walks backward toward the stairs, Rubio chases away a bat flying by him and when he turns around Villarías is suddenly there on the staircase, holding a candle while the camera rushes up to him. It’s a fantastic change, but the absolutely comical look on Villarías’s face in the close up completely ruins any fear the change might have produced. And unfortunately that is Villarías’s role through much of the film, destroying the suspension of disbelief.

One of the omissions in the Spanish version, however, is Dracula chasing off his brides and attacking Renfield himself. And instead of killing the girl when he first arrives in London, Villarías’s Dracula goes straight to the theater where he meets Lupita Tovar for the first time. But the production also chose to costume and show sailors on the ship before Dracula attacks them, rather than just the stock footage of the storm. And the flight of the prop bat when Dracula attacks Lucy is far more realistically done. The Spanish version changes the order of scenes the next day. Where the American version introduces the sanitarium and goes right to Renfield, the Spanish version concentrates on Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing before going there. But despite the changes in blocking and camera setups, as well as shifting scenes around, the story bogs down when it gets to London, just as it does in the original. And with the obvious limitations of Villarías in the title role, the Spanish language version is unable to rise above the original overall. There is no music to speak of, just as in the original, and that makes for a strange viewing experience. And the comedy relief in the Spanish version seems far more forced than the British veterans in the original.

The primary aspect of the film that differentiates it from the original is the extensive camera movement by cinematographer George Robinson, especially in the stage-bound second and third acts. Robinson would go on to shoot many of the great horror films from Universal’s second wave including Son of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and would continue his work at the studio on into the fifties in films like Tarantula. Another of the obvious differences between the two films is the clarity of portions of the Spanish-speaking print. It had been assumed lost until it was discovered in the 1970s and, like so many other lost films, the fact that it was not used to make numerous copies accounts for the pristine quality of most of the print. At the same time, the soundtrack is much cleaner and, along with the use of visual effects lacking in the original, it gives the Spanish language version the feel that it was produced in the forties rather than at the beginning of the sound era. The Spanish version of Drácula has a lot to recommend it in terms of advanced production, and it’s almost painful to watch at times because of how much better the American cast would have been in it. But ultimately the Lugosi version remains the better of the two simply for the greatness of its stars.

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