Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Horror Of...Universal Monsters, and the coming of Dracula

There has been a quite a gap in my coverage of Dracula in films, and Universal Movie monsters. So much so that I had not realized that the last of the cast of Dracula (1931) had passed last year. Carla Laemmle.

So as we delve back into the catacombs where Dracula lies, let's remember this woman with old ties to our classic horror.

Carla Laemmle was the niece of Universal Studios executive Carl Laemmle. She was lucky enough to get a role in Dracula, a speaking role even. That is a feat, if you consider how few speaking roles there are in the film, and that movies with talking in them were still rather new.

Speaking role in the movie, and great lighting. She must know someone.

More over, she gets the honor of being the first voice heard in a "supernatural thriller". She has a place in horror history. Mark her!

It's not her only tie to horror films. She also plays a small role in the early silent Phantom of the Opera. She's a dancer on stage.

People do like to know when actors overlap between different. Carla Laemmle is one of them. (And as we go through Universal Horror, we'll see some more of the cast of Dracula popping up in other later films.)

Now, let's get back to Dracula. If you have a desire to go back to some of the earlier pieces on Dracula and vampires, check here. And for a recap of Universal Horror.

I have previously touched on Dracula's early cinematic history, and Universal Studios acquiring the rights. But, before we delve into Dracula and it's making, let's look back at what made this film possible.

In those early days of film, some thriller were being made. In fact the likes of Lon Chaney were starring in man of them. The Phantom. Mr Hyde. A numerous scoundrels and murders made it to the screen. But the supernatural was a tricky area for American audiences. At least, that was the opnion of public thinkers. The "supernatural thriller" was just too much. So we had the likes of Mr.Hyde and Phantom, men marred or on drugs.

But a real monster? The public wouldn't stand for it. Something that was truly undead on the screen? Something on scream that was a minion of the Devil? It would be a disaster!

So we come to an interesting book, decades old, and a curiosity for many readers. Dracula. It was large story, with danger, chases, tension, fear, large character, and...It was a hit on Broadway. (The Deane and Balderston adaption.) It was being told nightly in the halls of that alternative to film going.

With film, they could do it so much better. The best takes. Better effects. Better sets. The best of everything. And they could get rich doing it.

But the smart and experienced people didn't like it. Dracula was a story that was just too much. Modern audiences would not stomach it. It's about a vampire. It's about a blood drinker. It's about women prayed upon by a devilish being.

Going back to 1915, the idea of adapting Dracula was being brought up. But the people reviewing the book always came back saying no. And emphatic NO. They made the point that what happen in Dracula was well beyond the point that the average American can take, or is willing to stand. Bram's Stoker's Dracula was too extreme a tale. It clearly would blow people's minds.

The Laemmle Duo
Still, Carl Laemmle did see something...Well, Carl Laemmle, Jr. did. Carl, Jr. was a fan of Gothic Horror, and earlier horror work in Europe. He saw the shift in the country's sensibilities that Dracula could feed on. (He was Sr.'s son, and Carla's cousin. And you'll notice at least 2 family member changed their names to Carl. I don't know for sure what that says about him.)

Carl, Sr. didn't think it could work, but his nephew saw the book and the play as an avenue into a new genre that could be valuable for the studio. The old exec finally was cautiously won over to try. Carl, Jr. would be allowed to produce Dracula. (Finally, something fro Carl Jr.'s that interests me!)

Starting in the late 1920's they began efforts to buy the rights to Dracula from the Stoker family. They worked to gain the rights, and also get a good deal on the price. (By the end, Bela Lugosi was helping to woo Stoker's widow, to help win the ole for himself.)

At the end of 1920's we were about to have the birth of film horror, while we were coming out of financial horror. The globally stock exchanges had faltered or collapsed. Universal found itself with far less in it's coffers/ So they were eager to find ways to save, cut back, and avoid losses

In 1929, as they were still winning the tights, an associate producer, Paul Kohner, was putting out a press release the coming movie. It would star Conrad Veidt and be directed by Paul Leni.

Conrad Veidt

The Man Who Laughed
By the end of the Leni was struck with fatal blood poisoning, due issues with his teeth. Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Man Who Laughed, The Hands of Orac) left the United States, realizing that talking pictures were talking over. He was German, and was not very fluent in English. So the idea of trying to speak English suitably on screen terrified him. (Meanwhile, later in the story, we'll meet Bela Lugosi who can to the United States not long before, knowing no English. #moxy)

So the first plan for the movie did not so to plan. It would not be the last of that.

Another plan they had was to woo back Lon Chaney to play the role. The idea was that Chaney would use his legendary makeup skills and play both Dracula AND Van Helsing.

They tried to convince him to leave MGM and sign with Universal. They offered to remake Outside the Law, Dracula, and also a sequel to Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera called Return of the Phantom (Spoiler! It would not be Love Never Dies.). It would be a chance to work with their newly chosen director for Dracula, Tod Browning, a collaborator of Chaney. But the money was too good from MGM. Later in the year, Chaney was diagnosed with lung cancer.

The film and studio had some bad luck. But they had chosen a skilled director to helm the film, and were ready to get into the casting, and development of the script.

Then filing would begin, and history made.

COMING SOON...DRACULA, the actual movie.

Meanwhile, if you do start watching Dracula, and you look at the opening credits, I hope you have a better appreciation about some of the names you see.

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