Universal Studios Backlot Blogathon: DRACULA (Spanish version, 1931)

In which I explain how the Spanish-language version of Dracula led to American Pie. This post is part of the Universal Backlot Blogathon, hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film.

It seems to me that most film fans are familiar with Universal’s 1931 version of Dracula. Starring Bela Lugosi in the role that made him a star, it’s still a popular choice at Halloween, and it’s still capable of creeping you out. However, many are unaware of, and fewer still have seen, Universal’s Drácula, a Spanish-language version, also from 1931. Instead of Lugosi in the title role and Helen Chandler as Mina, en el versión español there are Carlos Villarias and 21-year-old Lupita Tovar as Eva (like Mina, but, as we’ll see, different). While Tod Browning shot the English version during the day, George Melford helmed the Spanish version by night on the same sets. The two productions also shared some of the same crew, who were able to learn from any mishaps or discoveries that occurred during the day. Browning’s version began filming on September 29, 1931; Melford’s on October 23.

Drácula (Carlos Villarias) menaces Eva (Lupita Tovar) in Universal’s Spanish-language version of DRACULA (1931).

The Depression had taken a slice of Universal’s profit pie, and, with the advent of sound, producing films for the once-lucrative foreign markets had gotten more expensive. A silent film could play anywhere in the world with an update to the titles, but effective dubbing was in the future. From The Vampire Book:

Universal’s Czechoslovakian-born executive Paul Kohner suggested a solution to the studio’s head, Carl Laemmle, Jr.: shoot foreign language versions of motion pictures simultaneously with the English versions, thus cutting costs by using the sets more than once. Kohner also argued that salaries for foreign actors and actresses were far less than those of Americans. Laemmle appointed Kohner head of foreign productions. The first result was a Spanish version of The Cat Creeps, a talkie remake of The Cat and the Canary, which Universal had originally done as a silent film. Released in 1930 as La Voluntad del Muerto, it was an overwhelming success in Mexico and made actress Lupita Tovar a star.
Kohner decided to make a Spanish version of Dracula and moved quickly to secure the youthful Tovar for the lead before she could return to Mexico. He chose Carlos Villarias (or Villar) for the role of Dracula, and secured a capable supporting cast with Barry Norton (“Juan” or Jonathan Harker) , Eduardo Arozamena (Abraham Van Helsing), and Pablo Alvarez Rubio (R. N. Renfield).

Not all was smooth sailing. In 2008, at the age of 98, Tovar recalled the vampire-like hours the Spanish-language cast and crew kept, plus another slight detail…Melford didn’t speak Spanish.

Despite any difficulties during the shoot, the Spanish-language version has everything the English-language version has, and more. The camera shakes off that early-talkie stasis and actually moves, following characters in pans or swooping tracking shots. The lighting is more complicated and the scenes which rely on effects are technically better; for instance, when Dracula appears out of a cloud of smoke. Tovar’s characterization of Eva is more dynamic, and she was given a more realistic wardrobe, than Chandler as Mina.

Lupita Tovar, c. 1930.

The only deficiency in Drácula is unfortunately…Dracula himself. Villarias’ performance, especially when compared with Lugosi’s, seems exaggerated and tends to evoke more laughter than fear. When I saw the film on the big screen a couple of years ago, the audience couldn’t help but laugh, during even the most suspenseful and/or horrifying scenes. I guess it could have been just a bunch of people catching the giggles from each other; you can judge for yourself because the whole movie is on YouTube. [Edit: It’s no longer on YouTube, watch for it at your local arthouse.]

Villarias aside, Kohner certainly delivered value for money at Universal. Drácula cost just a tenth of what the English-language version had. Though it disappeared for a while in the mid-twentieth century, a revival in the 1990s returned it to prominence and many critics now rate it more highly than its English-language counterpart.

According to Michael Mallory, writing in Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror, Kohner had another motive besides saving money for making Dracula in Spanish: preventing Lupita Tovar from resuming her career in Mexico. Mallory maintains that Kohner was “madly stricken” with Tovar, who wanted to pursue opportunities at home, and that the producer’s thrifty idea was at least in part a scheme concocted to keep the beautiful actress in the U.S. and on the lot. Whether this is true or not, Kohner and Tovar married in 1932 and remained together until Kohner’s death in 1988. Their daughter, Susan Kohner, who played Sarah Jane in Imitation of Life, had two sons — Paul and Chris Weitz, the writer/directors responsible for About a Boy, In Good Company, and yes, American Pie.

TCM Week – June 4-10

Not that anyone noticed that I stopped doing my weekly TCM picks, but there’s a very simple reason. My subscription to Now Playing, the TCM monthly magazine, ran out and I forgot to renew. Evidently I’m quite reliant on it because I missed two months of it and it’s too difficult to do picks without it. Everything is back to normal this month. Just so you know 🙂

Apparently Bette Davis (as Queen Elizabeth I) slapped Errol Flynn (as the Earl of Essex) so hard during the filming of Elizabeth and Essex that he saw stars.

Monday, June 4
8:00 p.m. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
Possibly in honor of Elizabeth II’s real-life Diamond Jubilee, TCM has two Elizabeth I-related films tonight, the #TCMParty Private Lives at 8:00 and The Virgin Queen (1955) following at 10:00, both with Bette Davis as Britain’s best-loved monarch. (I just conducted a scientific poll via Google search and she is the one royal about whom people have the least bad things to say.) Watching her run a country while trying to keep the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) and Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) in line is quite a treat. Apparently Davis and Flynn were no more well-matched than their characters and feuded during filming to the point of physically injuring each other. Despite this, or because of it, this is a great period drama, with beautiful costumes, sets and lighting. Watch for Herbert Marshall and Joan Collins in Virgin Queen. Watch and tweet along with #TCMParty.

There’s a couple other people in the picture but whatever.

Tuesday, June 5
12:45 a.m. (Weds) Union Depot (1932)
A rather racy-sounding pre-code picture chosen for the presence of Joan Blondell and the fact that it takes place in real time, 20+ years before High Noon.

Looks like Orson Welles borrowed heavily from Peter Lorre’s look in Mad Love for the older Charles Foster Kane.

Wednesday, June 6
TCM has scheduled a bunch of 1930s horror films for daytime, several of which —Island of Lost Souls, Mark of the Vampire, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) — have the gorgeous Expressionistic cinematography I love so. I’ve chosen two I’ve not yet seen. Doctor X (1932) at 7:45 a.m. was directed by the versatile Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and is sung about in “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” the first number in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Mad Love (1935) at 3:30 p.m. shares a cinematographer, Gregg Toland, and some details with Citizen Kane. This film is one of several based on the novel Les Mains d’Orlac and it will be interesting to compare to The Hands of Orlac (1924), which starred Conrad Veidt as the recipient of the titular evil hands.

Thursday, June 7
8:00 p.m. Jailhouse Rock (1957)
This is one of the best Elvis Presley movies, along with Loving You and Viva Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it’s also his only his third movie, and he made quite a few more. However, nobody delivers a classic line such as “That ain’t cheap tactics, honey. That’s just the beast in me” better than Elvis. With special #TCMParty guest host @CitizenScreen.Watch and tweet along

Friday, June 8
TCM has scheduled an unofficial block to honor Alexis Smith on her birthday. Born in 1921, this Canadian actress, though not as well-known today as some of her contemporaries, had a career in movies, stage and TV for more than 50 years.
7:45 a.m. Dive Bomber (1941)
Smith had uncredited roles in 12 films before landing this, her first credited role, opposite Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray as the girl who comes between them in a WWII drama made just before the U.S. entered the war. (Her last film role was in Age of Innocence (1993)).

9:30 a.m. The Constant Nymph (1943)
I won’t even front like I like this movie. I find it very odd and at times ridiculous. Joan Fontaine is supposed to be a teenager who separates her composer cousin (Charles Boyer) from his wife (Smith). (Seriously, am I the only one who thinks this is weird?) By the end of the film, I felt they deserved each other. But I’m going to watch it again just for Smith, as I’ve read this was her breakthrough role which led to her parts in Night and Day (1946) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947).

There’s a great summary of today’s TCM Gothic offerings here, courtesy of Classic Movies Examiner Jennifer Garlen.

Saturday, June 9
5:30 p.m. The Train (1965)
In the waning days of World War II, a French railway inspector who is also a member of the Resistance (Burt Lancaster…just go with it) is ordered by the Nazi-in-charge (Paul Scofield) to get a train through to Germany no matter what. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that nearly every important piece of art left in France is on that train. Directed by John Frankenheimer, this excellent film is an unpredictable chess match that’s as near to an anti-war statement as you’ll get in a WWII picture. Look for us on Twitter with #TCMParty.

Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and someone in a sombrero

midnight The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
The Lady Eve co-stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda made this lesser-known comedy three years before Eve. Let’s see…great chemistry in a comedy/mystery with Hattie McDaniel…i’m so there.

Sunday, June 10
You can’t really go wrong with anything today.