TCM Presents: Dracula (1931) & Drácula (1931)

We just discovered the “TCM Presents” series last month, with Psycho, in which we heard about this month’s entry: The 1931 Universal Dracula, followed by the 1931 Universal Dracula, in Spanish! Back in ’31, Universal had Tod Browning shoot the classic with Bela Lugosi, and immediately after they wrapped, a different crew came in and shot the exact same movie in Spanish.

This was a common gag back then, apparently, and if I were to guess, they did it because they could localize the stars. The Spanish language market knew nothing of Lugosi, and maybe wouldn’t warm to him like they would Carlos Villarias, who is one of the few people who actually had a career after these movies. Also, come to think of it, given that sound was new, dubbing might have been an unthinkable complexity.

Anyway, whatever the reason, they did it, and I’ve been hearing for most of my life that the Spanish-language version is better in most respects than the English language one, except for the presence of Lugosi.

My thinking there—borne out by actual viewing—is that a Dracula movie that is superior in every way except for Dracula isn’t going to be superior. And indeed, most of the time Villarias looks like Andy Kaufman about to sing “Mighty Mouse”.

It's cruel, but fair.
“Here I Come To Suck Your Bloooood!”

Tod Browning complained that the Spanish-language crew had the advantage of seeing how he set up the shots and how things played out, so that when they came in, they new what worked well and what didn’t. This seems to be true. There are some really great shots in the Spanish version that the English version could’ve done, too—I mean, there’s no reason for them to not have done it, except that they didn’t realize until after that it would be a good idea.

On the other hand, the Spanish language version was directed by George Melford, who was a veteran of silent movies, and who had done Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik among scores of other films, so maybe there’s a bit of post-production jealousy going on. The Melford version has more natural female characters—and all but one of the comic relief characters in the Browning version are replaced with attractive young women—and a less wimpy boyfriend and father character.

That was kind of interesting. The Browning version has this sort of WASPy deference to the expert (Van Helsing), while the Spanish father and the boyfriend are much more protective of Eva (the Spanish Mina). Also, there’s actual cleavage among the ladies in the Melford version, which isn’t easy given that they were all wearing flapper styles (and one grossly fitting nurse uniform).

I think I see what they mean when they say the Spanish version is "earthier".
On the left, the nipply Latina Mina, on the right, the modest…Dana Perino?

Nonetheless, not only is Bela a better Drac, the English Van Helsing is far better as well, and since most of the dramatic/horror tension comes from them interacting, it’s hard to claim the Spanish language version is “better” in an overall meaningful sense.

This was definitely a movie-lover’s double-feature. The fact is, the ’31 Dracula is terribly dated. The acting is stagey. The bat is ridiculous. It’s so clearly a bat on a string. The Melford version has it swooping more than the Browning one, where it just bobs up and down, and that sometimes works better but other times is just awful. We never see any transition from any form to human in either film, and in the Browning version, we never actually see Lugosi arise from his coffin. (Melford figured out an effect with smoke and lights that was not bad.) The Melford version has a closeup on vampire puncture wounds but that’s as close as we ever get to seeing anything.

Mostly it’s talking in a dramatic way about horrific things.

All the Universal monster movies are pretty badly dated—horror tends to age badly, although I do think the silent era films (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) hold up better. Frankenstein has a lot of charm in its sets and outlandishness. The Mummy—well, I can’t watch that now without rooting for the Mummy, himself. Wolfman is pretty good, but like all of these movies, ends rather abruptly. The Invisible Man also holds up pretty well, though (like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein) it has a lot of comedy in it. (Some people—notably Universal Studios PR flacks—put The Creature From The Black Lagoon in the pantheon, but that was in 1954, over 20 years after Dracula, so no sale here.)

I’d have a hard time recommending most of them to an average moviegoer, quite frankly. On the other hand, The Boy has been waxing enthusiastic about how much he liked this version, especially Lugosi’s presence, and sheer atmosphere of unadulterated evil that’s missing from this era of sparkly, sympathetic vampires.

Reading Is Fundamental
Team Bela studies up before confronting “Team Carlos” in the Dracula Internet Chat Room.

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