The Children of the Night

Bela Lugosi

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Children of the Night
| published October 30, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor

Universal Studios was founded as a motion picture production facility in 1912 by Carl Laemmle. It is the third oldest movie studio in the world. Over the years, many famous films have been produced by Universal. In the studio’s early years, legends such as Lon Chaney and W.C. Fields brought in money for the studio and made it a force in Hollywood. Movies such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and All Quiet on the Western Front entertained audiences and performed at the box office as well. However, Universal was often overshadowed by the original “Big five” studios—Warner Brothers, RKO, Fox, Paramount and MGM.

The entire paradigm of movie-making shifted with the arrival of sound in 1927. The studios of Hollywood decided to cash in on the new phenomenon. Universal released its first “all-talkie” in October, 1928, called Melody of Love, a film which has since been lost. Universal released an early Technicolor film, Broadway, in 1929. Talkies were popular but with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, even movie studios began to struggle financially.

In 1928, Carl Laemmle, Jr., assumed control of Universal. In an effort to attract bigger audiences—and bring cash—Universal began making a new kind of film, the horror movie, which became a genre of its own. The studio’s first horror production, Dracula, was released in 1931 and was a huge hit with audiences. The movie, directed by Tod Browning, vaulted Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi to instant fame as the aristocratic Transylvanian count. Over the years, many people have concluded that the movie stereotyped Lugosi, but he was proud of his role in the film and he appreciated its popularity.

Lugosi had portrayed the count on the Broadway stage in 1928. The stage production was successful and caught the attention of Browning, a director who had made movies with Lon Chaney, Sr. Browning was hired by Universal to direct Dracula. The movie was to be based on the stage play which itself was loosely based on the novel, written by Bram Stoker and published in 1897.

Although Lugosi still spoke English with a heavy Hungarian accent, he was ideal for the role of Dracula. The novel is set in Transylvania, which was part of Romania and before 1919 was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Lugosi, with his tuxedo, cape and aristocratic bearing, immortalized Dracula as an iconic movie character.

Lugosi was an accomplished actor in Europe by the time he came to America in 1921. In Hungary, he performed in several Shakespearean plays and in 1913 Lugosi joined the Hungarian National Theater. In 1918, after serving in World War I, Lugosi organized in Hungary the first actors’ union. He appeared in his first American film, The Silent Command, in 1923. Lugosi was hired to portray Dracula on broadway in 1928. The play was loosely based on Stoker’s novel and was produced by Horace Liveright. Its run lasted from October, 1927, to May of 1928. Although popular, the play was not the big money-maker anticipated by Liveright. The production then moved to the west coast where it received significant press and attracted bigger audiences. An interview with Lugosi was featured in the Los Angeles Times edition of June 17, 1928 and was the first of many such interviews. The play was also successful in San Francisco.

After the west coast success of Dracula, Lugosi moved to Hollywood seeking further career opportunities. He reminded interviewers that he gained extensive acting experience and success in both Budapest and Berlin, frequently appearing in romantic roles and comedies. He was concerned about the use of European actors in roles as “heavies” and he was already looking for roles that would enable him to avoid typecasting. Lugosi wanted to demonstrate in Hollywood the versatility he had acquired in Europe. Actors in Europe, he stated, were encouraged to find another profession if they were not considered good actors.

There was some irony in Lugosi’s pursuit of movie roles. The movie that was to make him a screen legend, Dracula, was, of course, a “talking picture.” Lugosi believed that talking pictures were a fad and that the stage and radio would remain the predominant media for acting. In spite of the popularity of the stage production, he was already tiring of playing a vampire.

Nevertheless, filming for Dracula began in October, 1930. Lugosi was given 65 pages of dialogue to learn. He had been selected for the role by director Tod Browning, who had directed Lugosi in The Thirteenth Chair in 1929. Browning convinced Universal to hire Lugosi for the title role of Count Dracula. Lugosi was 48 years old.

Dracula premiered at the Roxy Theater in New York on February 12, 1931. A huge hit with audiences, the movie had sold over 50,000 tickets within two days of its release. The movie did not require a lot of outside marketing because newspapers were reporting that people were fainting in the theaters. Universal could not have asked for better publicity for a horror film. Lugosi developed a powerful presence on the screen with his resonant voice, slow, deliberate diction, physical carriage and penetrating gaze. Audiences were genuinely frightened and a cultural icon was born.

The cinematic process of making Dracula imprinted the characteristics of the silent films onto the movie. Talking pictures had only been out for three years. The sets used on Dracula were sparse as was the use of special effects. Drifting fog, flying bats and subdued lighting were inexpensive but highly effective on film. A sense of scale was shown with the props used as Dracula’s castle. The movie also contains no soundtrack, which might have been a cost-cutting move by Universal. However, the lack of a soundtrack also enhances the spooky, sparse quality of the film and emphasizes the film’s visual elements, especially the bearing, dress and countenance of the title character. Another feature of Dracula, and other movies from that period, was the exaggerated facial expressions and physical movements of the actors. This was a holdover from the silent era when feeling and emotion were conveyed visually due to the lack of sound. The change of scenes on the film mimics that of a stage play, as if an invisible curtain were coming down dividing one scene from the next. The effect is that some scenes change abruptly without the smooth segues we see in later films.

As the movie opens, Dracula’s guest, Renfield, travels to Transylvania to bring the count some documents related to Dracula’s purchase of Carfax Abbey in London. When Renfield enters the castle after a long carriage ride through the Burgo Pass, he is greeted by the count, who is standing on a towering staircase. The staircase and castle walls are a forbidding backdrop to this early scene, as if Dracula’s intent is to impress and/or overwhelm his guest. Upon hearing the baying of wolves outside, Renfield recoils. Dracula intones in a friendly manner “listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” Dracula wants Renfield to feel welcome as the count’s plans require that his guest let down his guard. After eating a hearty meal, Renfield prepares to go to sleep. As Renfield is seated at a table full of food, Dracula, in a courtly manner, pours wine for his guest and informs him that he “does not drink….wine.” After eating his meal, Renfield sees a large bat hovering outside the window and he promptly faints. Dracula appears and puts the bite on him. We do not see the actual bite but it is implied by Dracula’s actions.

The count then travels by ship to Whitby, England, presumably to take possession of Carfax. Renfield is also on the ship as Dracula’s slave. On screen, we see a sailing ship being severely buffeted by a storm. This scene was actually culled from another Universal movie, The Storm Breaker. The scene of the ship’s crew scurrying around on deck is jerky because it was filmed in 1925 at a slower silent film recording speed. When the ship makes landfall in Whitby, the lone survivor is Renfield who emerges from the ship’s hold with a maniacal laugh. The implication is that the crew were killed by Dracula. Renfield is firmly under Dracula’s influence.

We then see Dracula at the theater where he is introduced to Dr. Seward, his daughter Mina and her friend Lucy Weston. Dr. Seward is the director of a sanitarium the property of which abuts Carfax Abbey. Renfield is taken off the ship and committed to Dr. Seward’s facility. Mina is not very impressed with the count’s courtly manner and accent but Lucy is quite captivated.

Dracula targets Lucy and bites her. An attempt is made to save her by Dr. Abraham van Helsing, a doctor from Amsterdam called in by Dr. Seward to diagnose Lucy. But the attempt to save Lucy is unsuccessful and she dies. Van Helsing also examines Renfield and his obsession with eating living flies and spiders. Van Helsing starts talking about vampires, which makes Renfield uncomfortable. The doctor also shows him wolfbane, from which he recoils and van Helsing makes the connection between Renfield and Dracula.

Dracula then targets Mina, the fiancé of Jonathan Harker, and bites her, but she does not die. Harker, portrayed by David Manners, is a minor character in the movie. When Dracula comes to Mina’s home for a visit the next day, van Helsing confronts him with a mirror. Being a vampire, the count casts no shadow and his true nature is revealed. Dracula, though, tells van Helsing it is too late to save Mina and he later kidnaps her. Van Helsing and Harker then plan to kill Dracula. They go to Carfax Abbey during daylight, as the sun is rising. While Harker searches for Mina, van Helsing kills Dracula by driving a stake through his heart.

Johnathan Harker is a major character in the book by Stoker. In the novel, it is Harker, not Renfield, who travels to see Dracula and Harker becomes the story’s hero and the focus of the reader’s sympathy. By using Renfield in the opening scenes, the danger and menace of Dracula are established early in the movie. In addition, Dracula is able to go to England where no one knows him or suspects anything of him. We can also surmise that Renfield’s mental instability was caused by seeing Dracula murder the crew of the ship. The original plan for the film was to be faithful to the book regarding the roles of the characters. However, with money tight during the Great Depression, Universal decided to alter the story in order to save on the budget.

Another difference in the characters is with Dracula himself. Stoker described the count as an old man, extremely thin and wan with silvery white hair and thick eyebrows but possessing prodigious physical strength and having very foul breath. In the movie, Lugosi is very courtly, well-mannered and handsome. However, Lugosi is also able to convey the menace of the vampire when, for example, he kills Renfield and callously throws him down a flight of stairs. Lugosi’s count conveys charm and menace simultaneously. The novel portrays Dracula as more animalistic, as Harker witnesses him slithering down a castle wall in the moonlight. Lugosi’s portrayal in a tuxedo and cape gave the count an appealing visual effect and thus made Dracula more palatable to studio audiences.

The film and the book played on the latent sexual undertones of the vampire myth by the use of innuendo and implication. Dracula entrances his victims, typically women, as a form of seduction. They become completely compliant so he can drain them of their blood and take their life-force, so to speak. The swooning and biting of the victim are akin to seduction and sex and take on orgasmic overtones. Dracula appeals to men because of his power—sexual and psychological—over women. His appeal to women is demonstrated by his charm, elegance and manners. The victims are released from the vampire’s bondage only when he is killed.

The role of Dracula made Bela Lugosi a household name and a horror movie legend. He was cast in numerous other horror films and appeared in several with Boris Karloff. Many critics never gave Lugosi his due or recognized his versatility and experience as an actor. The role of Dracula stereotyped him as strictly a horror film actor. Lugosi did appear in numerous unsuccessful movies due to bad advice and the need for money. Lugosi tried to maintain a sense of humor. He appeared in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, reprising and spoofing his portrayal of a vampire. Over the years, though, Lugosi understood that the role of Dracula was the part of a lifetime and he appreciated the film’s impact as the birth of a genre. His portrayal of the vampire in 1931 is still regarded as the quintessential Count Dracula and the standard by which other renditions of Dracula are measured.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Shape Shifter; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Sunday, February 2, 2014.