Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan could be defined as the first true American feature-length horror film. It was certainly one of the first that did not try to explain away the supernatural. Up until Dracula, American studio executives assumed, incorrectly, that the American audience was too sophisticated for the horror genre unless the supernatural element was explained away by natural means. Dracula 1931 was an incredible risk for Universal Pictures, for in this film the vampire is real and the supernatural elements are presented as fact.
Despite the inherent risk, Carl Laemmle, Jr,. who was in charge of production at Universal Studios, felt that Dracula had tremendous box office potential and he planned to produce it on the same lavish scale as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Laemmle was insistent that Lon Chaney play the role of Dracula although Chaney was still under contract with MGM. Laemmle hired the very competent and successful director Tod Browning to direct. Browning had already worked with Chaney in several films including the widely successful London after Midnight, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown. However before production could begin Lon Chaney was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1928 from which he would later die from in August 1930 at the age of 47.
Bela Lugosi had helped Universal Pictures negotiate the film rights for Dracula from Bram Stoker’s widow Florence Stoker. Florence Stoker’s original asking price for the film rights for Dracula had been a whopping $200,000. Lugosi, however, convinced her to accept payment of $40,000. Although Bela Lugosi had helped Universal Pictures secure the rights to Dracula and had received raving reviews for his performance in the stage play Dracula, Laemmle still considered other actors such as Paul Muni, Chester Morris, Ian Keith, John Wray, Joseph Schildkraut, Arthur Edmund Carewe and William Courtenay for the part. Lugosi did not get the part until a few weeks before filming started and then only after a feverish campaign. For his services, Lugosi was paid a mere $3500, half of what David Manners (Jonathan Hawker) was paid.
Due to the depression the studio was unwilling to take large finical risk. The budget for Dracula was drastically slashed to $355,000 and the plans for the films lavish sets went to the wayside. The stage play Dracula had been a roaring success in both United States and Europe since the late 1920s and Laemmle reasoning that stage play adapted to film would guarantee success ordered Browning to follow the stage play as closely as possible. It is for this reason that Dracula (1931) has a staged look to it once the storyline moves to London. Scenes of the sailing ship, Vesta, being sieged by violent storm were taken from the Universal silent film The Storm Breaker (1925). The Storm Breaker was photographed at silent film speed approximately 16 frames per second (fps) versus 24 frames per second (fps) this accounts for the jerky motion of these scenes.
It was reported that during filming Browning would tear out pages from the script that he felt were unnecessary. Browning who was noted for being a very thorough and careful director was often absent from the set leaving cinematographer Karl Freund in charge. It is believed by many film historians that Browning had become disenchanted with the project after losing his friend Lon Chaney and being forced to follow the play so closely. Watching the film it is apparent where the screenplay ends and the stage play begins. The scenes prior to Dracula’s arrival in London were not part of the original stage play and there’s a stark difference between these scenes. The scenes involving Transylvania are far superior in camera work and lighting than those that take place in the London location.
The Universal Pictures executive, Paul Kohner suggested the English and foreign language films should be shot simultaneously as a result a Spanish version of Dracula was produced simultaneously using the same sets as the English version. The Spanish version was filmed at night after the English cast had left for the day. The film directed by George Melford, who did not speak Spanish, and featured Carlos Villarías as Dracula. Villarias was the only cast member permitted to see rushes of the English-language film with Lugosi. He was encouraged to imitate Luqosi’s acting style. Although produced for a mere $70,000 the Spanish version of Dracula is considered by many to be far superior to the English version.
The English version of Dracula premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York on February 12, 1931. Newspapers reported that some audience members fainted from shock. This was obviously a publicity stunt perpetrated by the film studio to help boost ticket sales. Dracula was a huge box office hit. Lugosi’s performance would set the standard for movie vampires in the coming decades, yet the film Dracula is void of many of the elements associated with vampire films. Notably missing from the film was Dracula’s fangs. The only blood in the movie was shown when Renfield accidentally cuts his finger and the special effects were kept to a minimal limited to fog and large rubber bat.
Critics, fans, and film historians agree that Dracula is a film that fell short of its true potential. Whether the constraints of a low-budget, Browning’s indifference, Laemmle’s insistence that the film follow the stage play as closely as possible or perhaps a combination of all three is debatable. However, Dracula unquestionably had the largest impact of any film in the horror genre. It was this film that would convince American studio executives that the American audience would not accept the horror genre it would embrace it. There would be many more horror films to follow Dracula, but none would ever have the impact that it did in 1931.