Friday, 29 July 2016
DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936)
“…Strikes the living with all her father’s cunning!”
For a studio that had generated four literally monster hit stand-alone horror films in the early 1930s, Universal was surprisingly slow to capitalise on milking them for sequels. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man all took a few years to see their legends produce long-running franchises. The Bride of Frankenstein was the first in 1935 and set a high bar in expanding and surpassing its prequel of four years ago, principally by retaining the talents of original director James Whale coupled with Frankenstein leads Boris Karloff and Colin Clive.
Like Bride, the next one to be sequelled would be inspired by its literary source, but less successfully and even more tenuously with almost none of its original ‘talismen’. Whereas a half-hearted attempt at creating the monster’s mate was briefly described in Mary Shelley’s novel (a blackmailed Victor begrudgingly assembles a temporary workshop concoction of loose limbs before abandoning it), Dracula’s Daughter in 1936 initially came out of a short story edited from Stoker’s novel that bears only a single useful element.
Dracula’s Guest was a short story, formerly a chapter from Dracula that detailed an encounter between the young hero Jonathan Harker and a female vampire and was cut to keep the novel’s length more manageable. In 1933, seeing that Universal were profiting from a virtual horror monopoly, David O’ Selznick over at M-G-M bought this minor card not already in their hand from Stoker’s widow Florence. His studio used the story as a springboard to develop a movie for a female Dracula, even though at this stage there was no suggestion of any familial link between the tale’s female protagonist and Stoker’s infamous Count. M-G-M were warned by their expert legal team that any mention of Dracula in a proposed movie of theirs risked great litigious cost in treading on a rival’s exclusively copyrighted name even though Universal’s ownership was of the novel and not its offspring. Despite hiding the project under the cloak of the code-name Tarantula, the contract made with Florence Stoker clearly stated the proposed cash-in name of Dracula’s Daughter, as well as being a possible blueprint for a strategic end-game. In The Monster Show, David J. Skal speculates that the wily producer added another clause “concerning Selznick’s discretion to resell the rights. In retrospect one must wonder whether this was the point all along.” By hiring Dracula screenwriter John L. Balderston and re-using characters such as Professor Van Helsing and the locale of Transylvania, this adds credence to the idea that the aim all along was to construct an enticing property for sale back to the House of Horror and not a legally risky production in itself.
In his treatment Balderston could not recruit Count Dracula himself (even if allowed) since he had been staked to extinction by Van Helsing at the climax of the original film. Instead, he employed Dracula’s daughter to coral the harem of young nubile undead that satellited Dracula in his castle. The writer reasoned that a lead female blood-sucker would get away with overt sexuality and seduction more than a male, of the young of both sexes, and even introduce a kinky streak in portraying her as a sadistic whip-wielder whose male love-slaves enjoy the torment. By implication, a torture chamber of devices on screen might also suggest creatively awful ways of draining the blood without drawing ire in equal measure from the censors. Balderston’s concept had Van Helsing ridding Castle Dracula of the trio of vampire brides while missing the extra casket housing his daughter, who goes on the rampage in London until the fiancé of one of her victims teams up with the Professor; they ultimately mirror the thrill-ride of Stoker’s novel in heroically chasing the daughter into a fatal staking back home in Transylvania.
Selznick knew he didn’t stand a chance of making Dracula’s Daughter at M-G-M - it contravened both Universal’s copyrighted material and the agreement with Florence Stoker to only use characters from within Dracula’s Guest. As if on cue, Universal acquired the material in September 1934, and enlisted the illustrious R.C. Sheriff to rework it, whose eventual submissions suffered from restrictions themselves. In just over a year, Sheriff sent the Breen Office of censorship two screenplays, the first attempt utterly dismissed for containing ‘countless offensive stuff which makes the picture utterly impossible for approval under the Production Code’ - and the second (which featured flashbacks of Count Dracula) was forensically pecked at to neuter its suggested sexuality and horror even to the level of requesting deletion of any rats, deeming their depiction as ‘bad theatre’.
Rodent removal aside, there’s evidence that the Breen people fell victim to the temptation to blur the line between assessing the public suitability of film-makers’ work and positioning themselves as actual creative collaborators - a suggestion similarly made about James Ferman during his stewardship of the BBFC, the British Board of Film Classification, between 1975-99. Since censorship could be ruinously expensive to a film that was already finished, the Breen Office, like the later BBFC, were consulted pre-emptively at script stage. This in effect allows a judge to assert influence and input before filming begins, which is not the same thing as objective after-the-fact evaluation. In January 1936, after Universal told the Breen Office that they were resorting to a rethink of the entire story, the censors replied ‘…we shall be happy to work along with you on the script when you have it ready…’In this climate of adding another strata of cooks to meddle with the broth, it’s a wonder any films were released of any singular merit during the Production Code’s draconian grip.
Eventually a script by Garret Fort for Dracula’s Daughter was greenlit, albeit unfinished in order to satisfy a deadline in Selznick’s option. By now the hoped-for inclusion of James Whale directing Bela Lugosi and Jane Wyman was not possible – Whale allegedly had encouraged the wild flights of R.C. Sheriff’s imagination in order to get out of a commitment he had never wanted to make, freeing him to direct Showboat. The rush to get Dracula’s Daughter into production with an incomplete screenplay on February 4th 1936 carried over into the frantic pace of filming by director Lambert (The Invisible Ray) Hillyer. Universal ordered seven-day working weeks which meant it finished shooting in just five weeks on March 10th. However it still overran its schedule and budget by seven days and $50,000, coming in at $278,380.
The resulting film of Dracula’s Daughter is centred purely around the daughter with no mention of her notorious father. This was to be the aristocratic Countess Marya Zaleska, played by the haunted nobility and large striking eyes of Gloria Holden, an English born half-German actress whose memorable portrayal would linger far more potently than the surrounding movie to be a direct influence on Anne Rice’s vampire novels. We have to wait a little while for her grand entrance though.
First, there is the little matter of setting the scene. The plot immediately follows the ending of Dracula, placing us at Carfax Abbey where the Count, a dummy in no way resembling Bela Lugosi, lies coffin-bound and staked by Professor Van Helsing. This is a welcome return for Edward Van Sloan in the role, something of a lucky charm as a lead player in all three of Universal’s first three creature franchises. He has understandable difficulty explaining to the doltish Whitby bobbies the reason why he’s just impaled a perfectly decent-looking gentleman in a coffin – as well as the off-camera insect-ingesting Renfield. There’s a nice whiff of black comedy amongst the tombs -Hillyer reminds us a little of the signature blue-collar humour of the missed maestro James Whale:
“’Ow long’s ‘e been dead?”
“About five hundred years.”
Van Helsing is sent to Scotland Yard’s Commissioner Basil Humphrey (or should that be Harumphrey?) played by Gilbery Emery with the requisite scepticism in the face of the Professor’s mad talk of blood-sucking vampires in modern-day England. Van Helsing soon realises his only credible legal defence must be undertaken by his psychiatrist protégé Dr Jeffrey Garth. Before we meet the hero, his enchanting titular nemesis appears to kidnap Dracula’s body. It is his spectrally-poised daughter Countess Marya, swathed in black but allowing her hypnotic eyes to radiate a yearning, enigmatic energy. To emphasise her ethereal beauty, Universal’s famed make-up artist Jack Pierce worked with special effects talent John P Fulton to render her skin tones a grey-green for later scenes, making her pallid in contrast with the ‘living’ cast, a subtler version of the experimentation upon the undead Boris Karloff for The Bride of Frankenstein.
After transfixing one of the station cops with her ring, Countess Maria orders Daddy’s corpse stolen for ritual burial by her manservant Sandor, (Irving Pichel) whose inexpressive demeanour and Eastern-European blouse would be right at home in Ed Wood’s stock company. Pichel played the part in the days before he felt more at home as a director, helming the FX-Oscar winner Destination Moon in 1950, until his semitism and, ironically, patriotism had him blacklisted by the monstrous HUAC (House Un-American Actitivies Commission).
After a Viking-style burning, complete with fiery puffs of salt purification, the Countess feels a desperate craving for her father’s spell over her to be broken for her eternal happiness. Meanwhile, there are victims to be drained, starting with a top-hatted toff. She then crosses flirtacious swords at a party with Dr Garth in the winning form of Otto Kruger (the actor’s name belying the former American Broadway matinee-idol). Kruger has a confident, relaxed air that every so often barks crankily at his put-upon assistant Janet (Marguerite Churchill). Their unacknowledged crackling chemistry tells us he may have a future with her - if he can survive the smouldering peepers of Maria. “I never drink – wine” she intones, throwing away Lugosi’s celebrated tease-line a little too quickly for effect.
Someone at the party who chose her words with more devastating effect was infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She can be seen here as Lady Esme Hammond in her first incarnation as an actress. Shortly after this film, she spread her leathery wings and scorched flames across Hollywood as a dragon who (alongside rival Louella Parsons) lucratively kept all the buried treasure of industry secrets as her power-base of influence.
Back to a more benign persuader and Garth’s appointment book is filling fast as he now finds himself in demand as the only hope for both Van Helsing and the beguiling Countess. Here is where Dracula’s Daughter achieves its only real resonance of depth – in the theme of modernity versus the traditional. She represents the old world shackled to narrow-minded superstitious fear. He spearheads the brave new world of psychotherapy freeing people of their limiting past traumas – indeed, his mention of psychological ‘release’ is a hot button that causes Marya’s eyes to flash like fog lamps with impatience to become his patient. Garth blithely recommends forcing her to face her fears dead-on (known as ‘flooding’): “Meet it. Fight it. Score the first victory”. Freud would have loved her as a suitable case for treatment.
Garth is not too busy giving Maria free therapy to notice the lack of mirrors in her Chelsea apartment. Such is her equal confidence to his that she amuses him by tossing out that she is a vampire. Her next victim is not so fortunate; a pretty young near-suicidal blonde (Nan Grey) is brought home by Sandor to serve as a sitting subject for the Countess’s art and finds herself a sitting duck, ex-sanguinated into a near coma of off-screen lesbian advances. Under hypnosis, she reveals to Van Helsing and Garth that her ‘benefactor’ is Dracula’s daughter, who has now absconded with Janet to ensnare Garth as her immortal beloved. This prompts the shrink to high-tail it alone to Transylvania to save her.
Cue Tyrolean-style knickerbockers and wax moustaches on the Universal backlot as the locals scatter with fear at the sight of lights on up at Castle Dracula. Garth arrives at the castle, pursued with miraculous transatlantic speed by Van Helsing and Humphrey. Here we are treated to a brief, fair approximation of the original film’s expansive staircase and gigantic spider’s web. The architecture is overshadowed though by the grim jealousy of Sandor, his stoic exterior cracks into vengeance at seeing his promised immortality usurped by the therapist. The divide between ancient and modern is starkly exposed once more as his wooden arrow fatally pierces his mistress but is no match for the modern pistol. Upon seeing her beautiful corpse at rest, Van Helsing opts for gruff respect over sententiousness: “She was beautiful when she died – a hundred years ago”.
Dracula’s Daughter would be the last stake through the heart in the studio’s run of horror films for two years until the unexpected double-bill revival of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 at a New York cinema revitalised interest in Universal reactivating its iconic creatures for a second cycle. The studio blamed the gap as a crisis of investment confidence caused by the British censors banning horror films and their subsequent revenue. In truth, Carl Laemmle Jr had struggled to keep Universal afloat after the depression despite its box office hits. He was forced to gamble his controlling interest in the company as guarantee against a million-dollar loan from Standard Capital Corporation, which subsequently was called in, handing over Universal’s ownership to its debtors. Sadly, the new executives in charge, J Cheever Cowdin and Charles Rogers, were solely creators of money with no feeling or pride for the arts. They rebranded the mindset of the studio as ‘The New Universal’, quickly sacrificing horror films on the altar of the bottom line. One immediate side-effect was Boris Karloff’s relegation to straight drama character parts, for example in 1937’s crime thriller Night Key.
This downturn in fortune was soon reversed though in 1938 when the aforementioned New York theatre owner discovered a box office bonanza in reviving Universal’s two most famous properties for a one-week run. At least Cliff Work, the studio’s new head of production, had the insight to see that profit could be made once more from the House of Horror. He instigated Son of Frankenstein later that year and kick-started what became the second cycle of Universal monster movies, a gold-rush of sequels featuring all of their back catalogue of famous figureheads. For a while, bust would again turn to boom. Horror was back in business…