Wednesday, February 25, 2015

'Tod Browning's Dracula' a defense of an often-maligned film and director

By Doug Gibson

It’s a safe bet that when the word Dracula is uttered, most of us think of Bela Lugosi, who played the iconic role, or Bram Stoker, who wrote the novel. But far fewer have heard of Tod Browning, the man most responsible for Dracula and other vampires maintaining their edge in the popular culture and not stuck on the sidelines with, say, Svengali.

Academic Gary D. Rhodes, of Queen’s University, Belfast, is one of the best genre scholars and he’s often tackled the film career of Bela Lugosi, who starred in Browning’s 1931 “Dracula.” In recent years, he’s broken new ground in books he co-wrote with others on Lugosi’s “lean years,” the mid 1940s and 1950s. Rhodes, along with Arthur Lennig, Frank Dello Stritto, Andi Brooks, and others underscore why Bela Lugosi, and Dracula, exceed Boris Karloff, the Frankenstein monster, Lon Chaney Jr., and the wolf man, as icons. 

But one man who has got the shaft the past couple of generations is “Dracula” director Tod Browning. In fandom and scholarship, it has become the norm to demean the 1931 film, to trash Tod Browning’s direction, and even occasionally Lugosi’s performance, although that’s more rare. David J. Skal and William K. Everson are among respectable researchers who often maligned Browning’s “Dracula,” notes Rhodes in the book “Tod Browning’s Dracula,”  376 pages Tomahawk Press, 2014. Another strong genre writer, Tom Weaver — who graciously praises Rhodes’ book — has been none-to-kind to Lugosi, Browning, and “Dracula” over the year, particularly in his excellent multi-authored book, “Universal Horrors.” 

I’m taking a long time to get to Rhodes’ book, but I enjoy the minutiae, and want it all on the pages. But here we go. Rhodes’ new book, out in the USA this year, is a spirited defense of Tod Browning’s direction of “Dracula” and the film’s high quality (which by the way, was nearly universally praised by critics when it was released 84 years ago). 

Unlike a lot of apologetics, “Browning’s Dracula” is not full of forced defense or spin; he has accumulated a strong amount of evidence to support his claim that “Dracula” is worthy of classic status and that Browning’s direction was carefully nuanced and designed to create a dark, scary classic story that is both creepy, other-worldly, full of specific images and very well-paced. Also, Rhodes easily swats away long-accepted myths, such as that Browning offered little direction to the film, or that cameraman Karl Freund actually directed the film, or that Freund, in protest left the camera static, or that Browning’s “Dracula” had less camera movement than the longer “Spanish” version. 

Take this example: It’s long been a source of amusement to “Dracula” and Browning critics that there is a piece of cardboard stuck between a lamp and a headboard of the bed where “Mina,” Helen Chandler’s character, is resting. Through careful examination of the film, Rhodes makes a strong case that the inclusion of the cardboard is a story device in which the protagonists, eager to protect a resting Mina, have placed the cardboard there to keep light rays off her face. Also, Rhodes notes that the scene as displayed also allows more light to shine upward. One can criticize Browning’s choice of prop, but it wasn’t a result of carelessness or ineptitude by the director, as so many have claimed..

Rhodes also, I hope, puts the definitive end to the long-held fantasy that the “Spanish” “Dracula” is a better film than Browning’s “Dracula.” It’s a splendid film, I agree, and a lot of fun, both as a companion piece and bit of history that’s mostly lost today (films made specially for foreign lands). But it’s not as good as Dracula. It plods at 30 minutes beyond Browning’s 74-minute film, and the acting, save Lupita Tovar’s “Eva,” (Mina) is too melodramatic. Also, as Rhodes writes, Browning has far better camera placement and interaction between his principal actors, better pacing, better continuity, better symbolism, better lighting, better dialogue, better scene selection (the Spanish “Dracula” neglects Dracula’s attack on the flower girl) and, as mentioned, the direction is better paced and more suspenseful.

As Rhodes notes, much of the criticism of Browning’s “Dracula” is rooted in what we wish we could see, such as victim-turned vampire Lucy’s death scene, or more depth to Dracula’s sea voyage, or a deathly flight back to Transylvania, or even more blood (although Rhodes notes that many critics error on their tallies of blood in the film.) However, Universal was working under budget constraints due to the Depression, and finances were tight. Rhodes’ thesis, which I agree with, is that a very talented director made a memorable, classic film. Particularly interesting uses of symbolism recounted include Chandler mimicking a bent-over male figurine — representing Dracula — by Lucy’s bedside, and an insect in the Dracula’s castle opening scene appearing to be near the size of a “coffin.” More examples: the symbolism of three women on Lucy’s bedside lamp, and their relationship to Dracula’s three wives; and Browning having Chandler, with long dress train, following Lugosi on Carfax Abbey’s stone stairs as if she is nearly another vampire wife. In the Spanish Dracula, the symbolism is lost with Tovar being carried by actor Carlos Villarias.

There’s far more to this book than I’ve mentioned. Rhodes deals with the public perception of vampires through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Readers may be amused to learn that in the early days of silent cinema, Theda Bara and “vamps” were more often associated with vampires. In fact, Universal, wary of complaints, pitched “Dracula” initially as a strange romance. As Rhodes adds, once the film was out, it quickly become known as a horror film. 

Besides Rhodes’ intent to set the record straight on “Dracula” and Tod Browning, the book, with loving detail, delves into the minutiae of the making of the film, its initial reception, and its long lifespan through the decades. Our opinions are subjective, and we are entitled to like and pan as we please. But facts are important, and Rhodes has compiled the facts well in “Tod Browning’s Dracula.” I imagine it will settle a lot of arguments and debates. You can buy the book from the publisher here or via Amazon here.

1 comment:

martyn pick said...

Refreshing to read this. Brownings film is extraordinary. The beautiful miss-en-scene with its exquisite black and white photography, haunting grandiose gothic sets and matte paintings. And the iconic performances of Lugosi, Dwight Frye and Van Sloan that everyone of my generation had in their collective consciousness because of the numerous late night tv screenings. The stately pace is mesmerising. And the blocking of the actors is ace.