Friday, February 12, 2010

"Bring Me The Head Of Tod Browning...."

During the golden age of The Simpsons there was an episode where Mr. Burns wants Steven Spielberg to direct a film with him in it to win the top prize at a local film festival. When Smithers tells him that Spielberg isn't around Burns asks for his non-union Mexican equivalent. I like to think that that joke came from stories like this. In what is to date an anomaly in film history, the production of Dracula yielded not one version of the film but two. Now filming a movie in a few different languages at the same time wasn't without precedent (or antecedent for that matter) but where this movie differs is that instead of having the actors get through the film in languages they had passing or no familiarity with, Universal decided that the project would be better served if they hired a Spanish cast. This came with a whole new set of challenges to be met. Instead of relying on a team of script doctors to produce a script as lifeless as the one that Tod Browning used for his version of Dracula (which I'll henceforth call The Browning Version. Any Terence Rattigan fans in the house? No? ...I'll move on), directors George Melford and Enrique Tovar Ávalos had a single script, translated by Baltasar Fernández Cué. Cué managed not only to add more action and some actual tension but he also cleared a lot of the holes that wound up in the sister film. The other thing that the crew did differently was to come in onto the same sets and use most of the same material the nights after they had finished shooting the Lugosi version during the day. What this meant is that director George Melford and his crew could see where Browning had fucked up and improve upon his poor choices. As for co-director Ávalos, I assume that because Melford spoke not a word of Spanish, he was brought on to help coach the actors wherever Melford proved unable to do so, but again, that's just a guess. If that is the case it does make a certain kind of sense because the acting is of a totally different character than any other English language film of the time and Melford's technique blows the doors off the Browning Version; with a different director looking out for each aspect, the results would necessarily be a touch more considered and that is indeed the first thing to notice about Drácula.

by George Melford & Enrique Tovar Ávalos

The plot is nearly identical to the Browning Version with a few exceptions. Firstly the names have been Latinized, so now we root for Eva Seward and Juan Harker, the housekeepers are Marta and Martín and the woman in white is one Lucía Weston. Not much, but worth noting; the rest of the names are the same. The other big difference is that the fate of Lucía or Lucy is dealt with explicitly, instead of summarily forgotten. Other than that the stories are harmonious....oh, yeah and this one is made worth a fuck. Let's start just with Baltasar Cué's improved script. This may just be a direct translation but in this film the character's continued referencing of both religion in a general sense and God specifically makes much more sense given Spain's religious tradition. The superstitions of the peasants feel more believable because this is a uniquely Spanish interpretation of the events of Stoker's book. Religion and prayer are such integral parts of Spanish society that the idea of Renfield answering to god or of killing Lucía would be the proper things to do even if there weren't a vampire on the prowl with his own very specific mythology. Hearing this film's Renfield say "I cannot go before God with so much blood on my hands" has ten times the weight of Dwight Frye's shameless delivery of the neutered equivalent. Pablo Álvarez Rubio is not just the better actor but he can sell the line better because coming from him it means something. Furthermore the way in which the peasants deal with Renfield's departure and the filmmakers questioning the accuracy of their beliefs is far less patronizing, though this is more a matter of logic and the efficacy of leaving things open-ended. Cué also has Drácula ask Renfield whether he's burnt his correspondence, presumably because he would have invented a reason to keep his plans private that are really a smokescreen with which he can hide his identity. The conclusion is still a little too uneventful to have the punch it needed, but at the very least the lapses in logic have been taken care of; even Van Helsing's vexing last line is cleared up!

Whether it was Melford and Ávalos's doing or they simply had a better cast, the acting is much better and much more natural. Carlos Villarías has a kind of scary desperation to him (thanks to Melford's zoom lens) though he's kinda goofy looking by modern standards, but he's the exception. The rest of the cast has a modernity and a flow missing from the Browning Version. Eduardo Arozamena's Van Helsing and Pablo Álvarez Rubio's Renfield are two types that still exist today, the mildly comedic rube. Both Rubio and Arozamena have scenes where they're surprised by the supernatural and genuinely seem so, instead of the overwrought ignorance and pomposity of their respective English language counterparts. See this film's Renfield actually get scared of seeing a bat driving his carriage to castle Dracula, and of his host passing through spider webs without breaking them (an excellent touch) and of the doors opening on their own. Marvel as Van Helsing is just as terrified as he is excited by Drácula's invisibility in a vanity mirror. That is how people would actually respond to the supernatural. We aren't immune to things, because we aren't characters in fucking pictures, are we? Van Helsing is just a doctor out to prove a wildly improbable hypothesis, not a priggish superhero. He's just as susceptible to the fantastic idea of their actually being a vampire and so his fishing for answers from Renfield and Eva makes sense: he wants credit for a discovery so his colleagues will believe him. Also, Melford's decision to make him fall under Drácula's spell is both wise and in character; it gives him an opportunity to show the villains' one weakness and the hero's cunning without totally deflating both of them and the film in the progress. And moving back to Eva for a moment, Lupita Tovar's posture, indeed the way she carries herself, is...well, people still walk like her today. She wasn't capital A acting, but she manages to be a heroine you can root for and actually picture off a film set. There is also a tenderness between her and José Soriano Viosca's Dr. Seward that is wholly absent from the Browning Version. You believe that he's her father.
Melford went out of his way to give his film life and movement; there are more shots, more angles and more impressive camera work than in Dracula and it makes the scenes feel less like a stage play and more like a film. The conflicting versions of their accounts of the last voyage of the Demeter are good examples. Browning was content to show Dwight Frye raving like an idiot at a box. Melford shows Rubio raving for a time but he then actually lets the crew react to Drácula. Melford utilizes the space of the sanitarium more efficiently and uses darkness in a way that commercial American directors wouldn't have dared to. Look at the two arrivals of Renfield at Castle Dracula; the difference is literally night and day. Then there are the little things, Melford's use of a real(er looking) bat in some scenes, for example. He either had a real animal or knew how fake it looked so he covered his shitty effect with a little panache to the point that I couldn't tell the difference. There's the much-lauded crane shot when Drácula make his entrance and though everyone says it, it bears repeating how impressive this looks. He also cuts out the stupider portion of the spider-coffin scene (I'm not at all certain but I get the feeling there were must have been regulations about percentages of recycled footage for copyright reasons).

The final point I want to mention is Melford's tackling of the sexual subtext of Stoker's novel. But for the plot making the point, Browning was content for his film to have zero sexual tension; Will Hays probably had a hand in that, but still, his film is as sexy as a rerun of Antiques Roadshow. Drácula, on the other hand, does something with its subtext. Well there's the inclusion of the Lucía subplot; the scene where Van Helsing and Juan leave the cemetery just having put a stake in her heart has a definite ring of violation and coming of age to it, as it did in Stoker's novel. And finally there is Lupita Tovar and her cleavage. Melford decides to make Eva Seward's falling under the spell of the vampire and his promise of sex out of wedlock visual as well mental (though I've never understood this about Stoker's novel; the dude has three wives who look bored as shit; is this a critique of divorce or polygamy or...what, exactly? The promise he delivers of loving Mina/Eva forever sounds an awful lot like marriage, so what's everyone so buggered about? That he's a foreigner? He's got money enough to buy Carfax Abbey and he's clearly more interesting than whitebread Jonathan Harker. The argument thus becomes marry the globetrotting romantic with the accent or the boring white kid from down the street? That doesn't sound like something you need to consult a doctor about, let the girl live for Christ's sakes, she's young!) As Eva falls under Drácula's spell she begins to dress in progressively provocative outfits. The dress she wears when Drácula calls her out into the yard shows her nipples and in the scenes preceding her abduction both the angle that Melford shoots from, the dress she wears and her constant heaving and jostling make it possible to see more than you'd get in an American film until the likes of Russ Meyer arrived on the scene more than twenty years later. So as I gazed at her neckline, I kept wondering just how much cleavage they were going to get away with. Granted the Spanish had no production code or anything else I guess and so as I stared I wondered what Melford and the others on set must have been feeling when they shot that scene of her breathless on the balcony. The scene screams as loud as it can, as if the director had just come and said "The movie's about sex, yeah? Well how about some!?" Did Melford know that no one who spoke his language would see his movie intact until some 70 years later when many would fail to grasp the significance of his daring? His understanding of the novel and his disdain for the standards of the time mean that Lupita Tovar's breasts are of the earliest and most enduring 'fuck you's Uncle Sam ever got.
If only things had been different. If only Melford had directed the English version as well. If only someone had thought to drastically alter the second half of the movie: though the film starts strong, it's momentum tapers off at about the half way mark. Not even someone as technically savvy as Melford can do much with the overly talkie second half of Drácula. And so while technically the film isn't the historical marvel that Dracula remains, it is the better film and to my mind the more interesting and faithful adaptation. And I'm raising the grade from what would have been a C+ to a B- because Melford wouldn't cow to the standards of a country because he understood that ultimately, artistically and rationally, sexuality has power only if it's forbidden. Also, the man directed a film in a language he didn't speak, let's see you do that. If only things had been different....

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