Thursday, 4 February 2016

DRACULA: Spanish-language version (1931)

Dracula was released at a time when many cinema houses were still not equipped for sound, so Universal prepared prints that were silent, using the old-style dialogue intertitles. They likewise knew in advance that their film in English restricted the box-office appeal from their sizeable Latin-American population and elsewhere. Dubbing was ruled out as a form of lazy cheating, so a simultaneous Spanish language version was shot on the same sets but with a different crew, director George Melford, producer Paul Kohner and cinematographer George Robinson. They effectively worked a night-shift, coming in to film during the nights after Browning’s English-language crew had finished for the day. This was a fairly common practise in Hollywood; Laurel and Hardy, for example, filmed their own international versions of their films learning Spanish, German and French dialogue phonetically before each re-shot scene.

The Spanish Dracula was budgeted at $66,000, a fifth of the cost of Browning’s version. The creative team were instructed to watch each day of the English production’s dailies before filming their scenes. Carlos Villarías as ‘Conde Dracula’ (billed as Carlos Villar) was the only actor allowed to be present as the studio wanted him to imitate Lugosi’s performance. His performance has command and urbanity of its own, if at times a shade preoccupied with jarring grimaces and eye-popping reactions.
To their credit, Melford, Robinson and Kohner did not simply want to be slavish copyists for their employers. They saw the advantage in viewing the English scenes first and noting where they could better them, and often did, making their edition widely regarded as superior to the original, despite the smaller budget and a reduced shooting schedule. Even more impressively, they somehow managed to produce a film roughly thirty minutes longer from these conditions, enabling greater character development.  One example of an improved sequence is when Dracula is shown the absence of his reflection in the cigar-box lid mirror by Van Helsing. In the Browning version, Lugosi recoils from the mirror with a spirited but slightly comedic start. The reaction of Villarias’s Dracula is much more frightening – he steps back, winds up his energy and in a wide-shot unleashes a well-placed strike of his cane to splinter the box, a flash of the latent volcanic anger within him.

Kohner was bewitched by actress Lupita Tovar (Eva) whom he married two years later. Interviewed for the Universal Legacy DVD box set, Lupita Tovar Kohner confirmed that during their shoot the Spanish actors were required to match the American actors even down to hitting the same camera ‘marks’ (their position in the frame). However, allowances were made for the latin influence of the actors. Lupita was allowed to bring greater natural passion to the role of Eva than the more subdued American style; this comes across in her soulful and vulnerable recollections of being under the dreaded vampire spell. The actresses were also allowed to wear dresses that were more revealing: ‘What they gave me were big decolletes…and what you would call sexy”. She complemented Carlos Villarías on being very similar to Lugosi in his portrayal, albeit having shorter fingers than Lugosi’s long digits employed so expressively in threat and seduction.

Pablo Alvarez Rubio as a wonderfully high-voltage, heartfelt Renfield rehearsed his scenes alone and never needed more than a single take when filmed. Argentinian-born Barry Norton (Alfredo Carlos Birabén) played the thankless utility role of Juan Harker. He’d come up through a busy career in Hollywood’s silent era, avoiding ethnic typecasting as the latin lover and had already been cast in Spanish versions of previous films before Dracula. Van Helsing here was given the heavy features and equal gravitas of Eduardo Arozamena, with a passing resemblance to Henry Kissinger.
Director Melford was fondly regarded by his cast and enabled a warm and friendly set. Nicknamed ‘Uncle George’, he spoke no Spanish yet through his interpreter was able to communicate what he wanted with no problems. Melford’s Dracula contained better special effects that its predecessor, and overall more life and style.

The Spanish edition of Dracula was considered lost until a print turned up in the 1970s and given a full restoration. This version is available in the excellent Universal Legacy DVD box set.

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