Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Horror Of...Dracula through the Ages - Beyond Books

Stoker's Dracula novel had it's day in the light, but it did not cement Stoker's place among writer's of his day. People shifted to other stories soon enough. While much of the public moved on from Dracula, it did stick in some people's head. It latched on. Dracula would not rest.

Dracula did not make the Stoker's economically comfortable. They struggled. Late in life Stoker had to try for grants to support his family. It wouldn't be until after Bram Stoker's death that the Stoker family would see real returns from Dracula.

It would take a new medium. Theater.

Bram Stoker wrote a theatrical version, which he hoped to have done at the Lyceum Theater. He was acting as manager for the theater. Stoker had wanted Henry Irving, a respected actor and superior to Stoker at the Lyceum, to play the role of Dracula.

Stoker got a reading of his play at the theater, but Irving passed on the role and the play. So it never came to be. Dracula would not make it on stage under Bram Stoker's tutelage. Stoker would die in 1912, never seeing his work translated to another medium, or get it's due.

But this attempt to bring it to the stage did give Stoker one thing: a copyright on any future stage production of his book.

In 1924 Florence Stoker, Bram Stoker's widow, agreed to license the rights to have a new theatrical version of the book in England. She sold the rights to Hamilton Deane, who had worked briefly with Bram Stoker years before.

Deane modernized the story some, incorporating a plane (a bat winged plane) that Dracula has to get him to England, excising the need for the events aboard the Demeter. To enhance the experience, little tricks were used throughout the play. Flashes of lights. Fog. A trick coffin for Dracula to rise from.

Raymond Huntley as Dracula
Critically it was not taken to, but the public loved the play, keeping it opening night after night. It proved successful for those involved, including Raymond Huntley, who played Dracula for a portion of the run. Though originally, Dracula was played Edmund Blake.

Deane simplified the story some. Fewer main characters, fewer sets. The whole first part of the tale in Transylvania, and the return at the end were removed. It now starts afterwards, when Dracula has arrived in England. This makes sense, as the Transylvania parts are interesting, but tricky to stage, expensive, and not that hard to bypass.

Also some characters were modified. For example, Quincy Morris became a woman (but she's still heavily armed). Some humorous characters were added in the form of a hospital caretaker and a maid. Actors were also used in the audience, to heighten the experience by fainting or jumping at key moments.

As to the character of Van Helsing, Deane took on that role himself. This in part likely lead to him to expand that role. This included adding an addendum where Van Helsing emerged after the plays end to apologize if the play caused anyone nightmares, and then warned that there may be such things as vampires. A bit of theatric flourish to end the play, centered on Deane.

Dracula also had a makeover. He was less a suspicious character, and more dapper. He could fit in easily at a party. His animal side was hidden away. He was made more positively striking and charming. He moved out and into the open. Then with his last kill of the play, they have Dracula actually kiss his victim, establishing the sexual dimension to his character's actions.

Florence Stoker was not pleased with the resulting play, she didn't care for the changes. So Florence tried to stage an alternative more to her liking. But it didn't work out. So Deane's take stood alone on stage.

A stage production of Dracula with Raymond Huntley.

Years on, when the Lyceum Theater that had employed Stoker was nearing it's end, among the plays staged was by Deane. Dracula. Stoker's concept had finally conquered that theater.

With the success in England, producers on Broadway had some interest. The United States rights were then acquired from Florence Stoker, but the British version was not meeting the expectations of the New York producers. So John L. Balderston was hired to rewrite the play for Broadway.

More characters were cut from this version, Quincy Morris and Arthur Holmwood are gone. Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker were merged into a single character, now Lucy Seward (daughter to Dr. Seward -- meaning Seward is now the father of the woman he previously was wooing). The roles of Dracula and Renfield were expanded.  In fact, Renfield becomes the one who traveled to Transylvania now. Also the focus of play was moved to Seward's Sanitarium. It all expands on the attempt to make the play more of a drawing room tale, where the action moves about very little.

Bela Lugosi in 1927
In 1927 Bela Lugosi was hired to play Dracula on stage. He toured the country for 2 years (Lugosi ended up being seen in California by people interested in making a movie). Raymond Huntley also reprises the role of Dracula as well, with another touring group on the East Coast.

Bernard Jukes' Renfield attacks
Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing
Also, Bernard Juke, who played Renfield in the English production, came to the United States and garnered the role yet again.

Legosi was an interesting choice. He was still new to the United States and not fully familiar with English. But he did have a presence. He did have that voice. And, he would work for less than other leads. Sadly, Legosi was often low balled on his pay, even after theatrics and movie success.

Through this play, we'll see two future stars of Universal Horror emerge. Bela Legosi and Edward Van Sloan. Both would start reprising their Broadway roles of Dracula and Van Helsing before moving on to other characters.

John L.Balderston himself would go on to work on the scripts for a number of Universal Horror films. From the Dracula series to the Frankenstein series to The Mummy.

But before that point, Dracula was already finding his way into motion pictures.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
When movie making began, the idea of supernatural horror was one that many contemplated bringing to theaters. And some stories were made, stories of murders and a few monstrous beings. But only so far. Though in Europe German Expressionism was creating provocative movies.

In 1922 Nosferatu was made by F.W. Murnau. It was a retelling of the Dracula story. It took some liberties to simplify the tale for the short silent movie venue.

Nosferatu and Thomas Hutton
In it the heroic Thomas Hutter travels to visit one Count Orlok, He is settling a sale of real estate in the German city of Wisborg (across the street from Hutter's home). He was \sent by his duplicitous boss, Knock, who is in the thrall of a vampire. Hutter is fed upon by Orlok. He's left alive, and manages to escape as Orlok departs for Wisborg.

By the time Hutter returns home, a ship carrying Orlok arrives. But all aboard are dead. It's blamed on the plague. Orlok settles into his new home, and stalks the streets at night. All those he killed are believed to be struck down by the same plague as the sailors. But Hutter knows better.

Hutter's wife, Ellen, reads a book Hutter picked up in Transylvania about the vampires. She learns the one way to kill a vampire is for a virtuous woman to sacrifice herself. If she invites the vampire in and yields, the vampire will become so lost in it's feast that it will lose all track of time. And the rising sun will kill it.

So Ellen enacts a plan. She opens her window and allows Orlok to enter, and he\feeds on her throughout the night. Then as the rooster crows, Orlok realizes his mistake, and dies.

"Bur...this wasn't in the book..."

Clearly there are some changes from the original book, beyond even names. The action was moved to Germany, and the conflict was kept on a smaller scale. Also, all the characters from the book are omitted, except for the stand ins for Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker, Renfield, and Dracula.

This is the trend we'll see in future films.

But those were not enough to save Murnau from the wrath of the Stoker family. He had never gotten the rights to make a movie based on Dracula. So by force of court order, every copy of Nosferatu was to be destroyed...But it still exists luckily. It was illegally made, but it's an interesting artifact of early movie making, and Dracula lore

The movie introduces the idea that Dracula and all vampires fear the sun. Vampires have never really cared for the day, but it never really killed them. In Dracula, the vampire would walk about in the day, he was just powerless.

But from now on, vampires and sun will be a deadly combination.

Dracula;s Death (1921)
There was actually one other known Dracula-based movie in the 1920's. Dracula's Death. It was a 1921 Hungarian movie. The idea of it was that a woman visits a sanitarium, and meets a man that claims he is Count Dracula. In the wake of her experience she is left unsure if visions she has are real, or just nightmares.

Not much is known about the film anymore, as it was lost. But it was somewhat popular when it was released.

As it was, Florence Stoker was livid over Nosferatu. When Hamilton Deane made the agreement with her about making a stage adaptation, she made it clear she didn't want it looking or acting anything like in Nosferatu. Which guaranteed a far more human and suave vampire to come on stage, and later films.

As for legally made movies, Universal bought the rights to the book and the stage plays in 1930.

But even before this was finalized, plans were being made by Universal Studio's Paul Kohner. The plan was to have Paul Leni directing. It would have used Conrad Veidt as Dracula. But Leni died in 1929 of blood poisoning, due to a tooth infection. Veidt at that point chose to return to Germany, uncomfortable with speaking English in movies. Many international stars dealt with similar issues.

But the dream of a talkie Dracula would not die. When the movie continued, they turned to Lon Chaney as the ideal star. It was a struggle to get him, but plans were moving forward. Sadly, at this point he was suffering complications due to a tonsillectomy. A resulting injury lead to throat cancer and death in 1929, before the script was even finalized.

Teeth, blood, throats. I am honestly surprised there's no claim of a Dracula curse in Hollywood (They love that stuff.). But the movie continued on, and made history.

Bela Lugosi became the image of Dracula. The accent. The attitude. The outfit.

And following on from this, Universal would return to Dracula, or his kin, many times over the decades to come.

Dracula's Daughter
Dracula in House of Dracula

And following on these works, others added their own twists and turns to the tale of the Transylvanian Count.

From different studios, different nations, different views on the character.

Some are better made than others.

Some are better received than others.

And some are better remembered.

This is clearly not every incarnation, as there have been 100's of them now. They each make up the rich tapestry of a late Victorian character that we just can't seem to let go of, or escape.

At present he's on TV, again. He's in movies. And, if you look around, I'm sure you can find a theater putting on a version of the play soon.

Pendragon Theatre production of Dracula at SUNY Potsdam in 2011.

Dracula's tale of a dark creature who is trying to evolve with a new age. Moving country, adapting to a new world, and trying to assimilate some. He's looking to find new hunting grounds and grow. It only makes sense the character and story would grow and change with it.

My regret is that we've never got a full on complete adaptation of the book. All the characters. All the settings. You would have thought by now we'd have one. ...I still hope.

Heck, with the epistolary design of the book, a filmmaker could have fun. It feels like a tale that is ripe to be turned into a pseudo-documentary. Have all the sources used in the book be compiled, as if the descendants are revealing the history. Or, modernize the story, so there is video diaries and news coverage that can be added in. It would be interesting to see done.

That is the beauty of Dracula. It does inspire many ideas.

So I think that leaves us in a good place to now take a look at the first of Universal's talkie horror movies, Dracula.



1 comment:

Henry R. Kujawa said...

FANTASTIC article! Thanks so much for spelling out the evolution of the stage play.

Something that I continue to find amazing is that so many adaptations of the novel (or the play) have been done, EACH making their own changes to the story or the characters (or both), and yet almost all of them are so fascinating to watch. In recent years, I've gotten in the habit of watching them in a mini-marathon, with multiple adaptations back-to-back for easy comparison.

Only last weekend I found one I had never even heard of before-- the 1968 Thames TV version with Denholm Elliot. This one follows the play (in fact, it combines Jonathan & Renfield-- in this one, Jonathan's the one who ends up in the asylum) with a brief tip-of-the-hat to the 1958 Hammer version right at the end. The destruction of Dracula at the climax, astonishingly, I thought was the most CONVINCING version I had ever seen. Done in a single camera shot without edits, you see his head DISOLVE from flesh to skull to ashes before your eyes. I actually shuddered. When you've seen as many of these things as I have, it takes a lot to get that strong of a reaction. I found myself wondering, HOW is it a 1968 TV production had better effects than any of the Hammer feature films?