41 Things We Learned from the ‘Dracula’ Commentary

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Dracula 1931

Universal Pictures

Every year near Halloween, I find myself re-watching at least some of the classic Universal monster movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. This year, thanks to purchasing the Universal Classic Monsters 30-Film Collection, I’m pretty much revisiting all of them. Kicking off that list is Tod Browning’s timeless classic Dracula, which was the first Hollywood production of the character and also the risky endeavor Universal diving into the monster movie market.

Of course, being more than 80 years old, there are no contemporary filmmaker commentaries available on this title. In the DVD box set, which packages together all the Legacy Collection discs, we are left with a commentary by film historian David J. Skal and the screenwriter from Dracula: Dead and Loving It. As much as I enjoy Mel Brooks’ works, I felt it was a better bet to go with the possibly drier but more insightful historian.

This was a good choice as Skal packs quite a bit of information into this relatively short 75-minute film.

Dracula (1931)

Commentator: David J. Skal (historian)

1. The opening title music comes from Act II of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” It is also used as the opening music for The Murders of the Rue Morgue and The Mummy.

2. The opening shot of the carriage against the mountain involved a real carriage shot behind painted glass to serve as the background. A similar technique is used when Renfield (Dwight Frye) enters Castle Dracula, and the foyer extends high along the staircase.

3. The first lines of the film are spoken by Carla Laemmle, daughter of the film’s producer.

4. The peasants at the beginning are praying in Hungarian, and the signs of the village are also in Hungarian. This was because when Bram Stoker wrote the original novel, the Borgo Pass was near Transylvania and Hungary. Now that area is part of Romania.

5. Cinematographer Karl Freund, who also shot Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, was a pioneer of the moving camera. However, director Tod Browning preferred a static camera, which is why the few moving shots you see are crane shots and tracking shots for establishing purposes.

6. The first vampire to emerge from her coffin is one of Dracula’s brides, played by Geraldine Dvorak who used to be Greta Garbo’s stand-in. One of the other brides was played by Cornelia Thaw, whose real name was actually Mildred Pierce.

7. Some shots – like the first push-in reveal of Dracula (Bela Lugosi) – appears off-center. This was because the image was shot with full aperture, and later part of it was masked for the optical soundtrack.

8. Bela Lugosi is clearly identifiable as the coach driver, which is odd because Renfield never recognizes him as the same person. In the original novel, the film Nosferatu and the Spanish-language version of the film, the driver’s face is mostly obscured.

9. Stoker never visited the Borgo Pass, which is actually quite lush and picturesque. The filmmakers wanted something more sinister, so they entirely invented the look for the film.

10. When Dracula says, “The blood is the life,” he is quoting Deuteronomy 12:23, which prohibits the consumption of blood. Stoker may have also written that line to play off of an advertisement for a contemporary quack cure for “bad blood” (a Victorian-era euphemism for syphilis).

11. The scene of Renfield and Dracula entering the dining room was delayed for hours for the huge roaring fire to die down since the crackling wood interfered with sound recording.

12. Part of Lugosi’s distinct accent comes from his earlier work when he learned his English lines phonetically. This contrasts with the novel, in which Dracula has full command of the English language with no accent.

13. A deleted line from the script explains that Renfield was the sole proprietor of his real estate practice, which is why he was not missed by anyone when he did not immediately return.

14. In the movie, Dracula only takes three boxes of earth with him. In the novel, he brings 50.

15. The finger-cutting sequence was taken directly from Nosferatu.

16. Dracula’s infamous line “I never drink wine” was not in the book or the stage play. However, after it became popular from the film, it was added to the dialogue of the stage play.

17. The stage play featured Dracula traveling to England by plane overnight. It was suggested at the studio to have that plane have the wings of a bat, but the concept was abandoned and the ship from the novel was put back into the story. The wide shots of the ship itself were taken from Universal’s silent short film The Storm Breaker.

18. Tod Browning provided the voice of the harbormaster heard over the discovery of the ghost ship.

19. The shot of Renfield below deck at the bottom of the stairs was not in the script but likely an on-set improvisation.

20. Several scenes in the script described fangs for Dracula, however Lugosi never wears them. Even though the Count in Nosferatu had fangs, the vampires from the early Universal films did not have them.

21. The shot of Dracula talking with Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) in the theater box shows Lugosi at the bottom of the steps. This prompted one critic from Cleveland to suggest that Lugosi was short in stature. He was, in fact, 6’1”.

22. Even though vampires shape-shifting into wolves was commonly found in their folklore, Stoker was the first person to suggest they could shape-shift into bats.

23. In the 1930s, Frankenstein director James Whale eclipsed Tod Browning at Universal. Part of this was because Browning did not like working with dialogue in the talkies while Whale had plenty of experience with this from working on Broadway.

24. Even though the word “nosferatu” is used throughout the book and the film, it is not a legitimate word in Romanian. Stoker had read a book about folklore by Emily Gerard who claimed it was the Romanian word for “vampire” and simply took her word for it.

25. Originally, Stoker planned to call the title character Count Vampyr. However, he stumbled upon the history of Vlad Tepis and his name Dracula (meaning “son of the Devil”).

26. When Dracula first enters Mina’s room, you can see a large piece of cardboard clipped to the shade of a lamp in the foreground. This can also be seen later in Mina’s bedroom on her right-hand bedside table lamp.

27. Stoker’s version of Dracula was not romanticized. The version seen in the film drew from the book as well as previous romantic versions of vampires.

28. Dracula had appeared twice before in film, both times unauthorized by Bram Stoker’s widow. The first was in a 1921 Hungarian film called Dracula’s Death in which a musician in an insane asylum tries to prove he is the real Dracula. The other time was in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in 1922. Stoker’s widow convinced the German court that the movie was a work of plagiarism and had the prints ordered to be destroyed. (Obviously, some survived, and this is now a classic.)

29. In the book, Harker notices Dracula does not cast a reflection in his shaving mirror. In the stage play, Van Helsing discovers this in a wall mirror which Dracula breaks with a vase (which later became him threatening to break it, in order to save stage productions money from repeatedly breaking expensive props). In the film, Dracula smashes the mirror Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) shows him, and in the Spanish-language version, he smashes it with his cane.

30. Long before William Castle was on the scene, the stage production in the Little Theater in London’s West End hired a registered nurse to administer smelling salts in the lobby for those who fainted.

31. Lugosi originally got the role of Dracula on stage when Raymond Huntley refused to go to Broadway over a salary dispute. Because his English was so choppy, Lugosi had to be directed in French.

32. The shot of Renfield crawling at the fainted maid is not as sexual or violent as it first appears. In fact, he is trying to catch a fly that has landed on her. This was edited out of the English-language version but left in the Spanish-language one.

33. Other studios that wanted the rights to Dracula were MGM, Columbia, and Fox. Universal eventually bought them for $40,000. (That’s about $550,000, today.)

34. Originally, Lugosi was not considered for the role in the film. Trade papers suggested Conrad Veidt (the sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). The studio wanted Lon Chaney, and they ended up offering him a three-picture deal which included a talkie sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. However, Chaney died before this could be done. After several other considerations, Lugosi got the role with a $500 per week salary.

35. In addition to the Spanish-language version that was produced at night on the same sets, Dracula was also produced as a silent version to appease those theaters that had not yet been wired for sound.

36. The Spanish-language version of the film was produced for $66,000. The English-language version had a budget of $341,000.

37. Because rats were considered too unsavory for Hollywood audiences, Frye’s soliloquy about rats is only spoken. Earlier in the film, the rats seen in Dracula’s castle were actually opossums.

38. Lugosi only played Dracula on-screen once again in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. However, he did play vampires several times again, including Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire for MGM.

39. In the book, Dracula is killed by knife during a chase back to Transylvania after his box of earth is pulled from the carriage. In Noferatu, he is killed by the first rays of morning, even though the book has Dracula walking around during the day. In the stage play, he was originally stabbed through the heart and later stabbed with a wooden stake in the Broadway version. In the 1931 film, he was killed by Van Helsing pounding a stake through his heart.

40. Dracula’s death groans were edited out of early prints by the censors. They were eventually put back into the film for the laserdisc release.

41. The movie originally ended with a speech by Van Helsing, which became famous for people speaking it along with the movie at the time. The speech was eventually removed later by the censors for fear religious groups would be offended because it encourages the belief in the supernatural.

Best in Commentary

  • “This is David Skal, and I bid you welcome to Universal’s Dracula.”
  • “Bram Stoker himself would barely recognize the Draculas we know and love in the twentieth century.”
  • “It is actually not clear at all what Renfield is doing for Dracula.”

Final Thoughts

These commentaries for movies this old can be tricky. They are often hosted by a historian or relative of the filmmakers, and it’s a crap shoot whether they will be compelling speakers. While Skal does quite a bit of reading throughout his commentary, you cannot say that he doesn’t offer a comprehensive and informative view of the film.

The best parts of the commentary are when he dissects the differences between the many versions of Dracula – from the book to the stage play and eventually the movie itself. This puts the film in grand historical perspective, especially considering Universal’s two biggest launches of their monster movies (this film and Frankenstein) differ so significantly from their source material.

This isn’t a laugh-out-loud commentary with a director trying to entertain anyone. In fact, Skal can be a bit dry at times, evidenced by the somewhat pale “Best in Commentary” notes above. However, he does a fine job getting the information out about this classic. In this sense, the commentary feels more appropriately like a film lecture than a sit-down with your buddies while you have a few beers (if you never drink wine). And there’s nothing wrong with that now and then.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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