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Dracula: A 90th Anniversary Interview with Monster Historian David J Skal

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On February 14, 1931, the film Dracula was released, with Bela Lugosi creating one of the most famous characters and iconic roles in cinematic history, Count Dracula. This groundbreaking horror film forever changed Hollywood and international cinema.

Over the last 90-years, Dracula has become the most popular monster from the Universal Studios classic monster series. His fang marks can be seen throughout a variety of films from America’s, Interview with a Vampire and Twilight to England’s Horror of Dracula, Mexico’s El Vampiro, and Korea’s Thirst.

The fascinating story of Dracula from stage to screen and beyond is shared in this extensive interview with American cultural historian and author David J. Skal.

Skal is highly regarded as a Dracula and vampire authority. He’s written multiple books on these topics such as The Monster Show: A Cultural History of HorrorHollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage and ScreenV is for VampireRomancing the Vampire: From Past to Present, and Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula.

Horror historian, critic, writer, and commentator, DAVID J. SKAL, and friend.

Dracula Before Universal:

Justina Bonilla: Is there truth in the story that Bram Stroker did not properly copyright Dracula?

David J. Skal: That’s true. Bram Stoker messed up his copyright registration in the United States. And, in fact, it was never copyrighted here. Anybody could have made a film. However, they couldn’t distribute it overseas because there was the Berne Convention. Copyright took care of it in Europe and around the world.

Bonilla: The film Nosferatu is known for committing copyright infringement against Dracula. How did Stroker’s estate react to this?

Skal: Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe Stroker staged an amazing war that lasted years against the German producers of Nosferatu, who essentially pirated the book, got the German courts to declare it plagiarism, and have all prints and negatives destroyed. Which fortunately for us, never happened.

It’s funny because Nosferatu is one of the most artistically acclaimed adaptations of Dracula. And as far as I could determine, Florence had captured a copy of the Nosferatu print that was being shown in London and refused to see it. She missed out on quite an event and spent her time selling it to Universal Studios.

Bonilla: How did Florence sell the rights to her husband’s novel to Universal Studios?

Skal: She was really selling the rights to the Dracula stage play, written by John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane to Universal Studios. That was very different from the novel. It was a big hit on Broadway. Dracula traveled around the country and broke records city after city.

 Bonilla: What was Bela Lugosi’s experience in the Broadway production of Dracula?

Skal: Lugosi didn’t start taking English lessons until the late 1920s, around the time he did Dracula on Broadway.

The producers of the Dracula Broadway show ended up directing him in French because it was a language they both could understand. He often learned his roles phonetically, deliberate by syllable at a time. That’s where his very deliberate spooky voice came from. It’s a Hungarian speaking English phonetically.

Onstage, Lugosi would sometimes be thrown off guard by somebody throwing him or a different line or flubbing up. Then, he suddenly would be on a different track.

Universal Studios gets bit by Dracula:

Bonilla: Before Dracula, were there any previous supernatural Hollywood films?

Skal: In the history of Hollywood, there had never been a supernatural horror film. There have been scary movies in the silent era. If something spooky, unnatural, or paranormal seems to take place, it always was explained away. It was a plot to steal somebody’s inheritance or that kind of thing. It’s a formula that came from the stage. Dracula was different. Universal Studios was attracted to it when it was founded in 1915.

Bonilla: What was Universal Studios status as a studio at that time?

Skal: Universal Studios was not the big deal it is today. It was very much a second-tier Hollywood studio. It made its bread and butter doing Western serials and programs that would enable a dependable supplier of programming to theaters all over the country. Their film All Quiet on the Western Front was an unexpected success.

Nobody thought Universal Studios could do anything on the level of Dracula. It’s still a remarkable achievement. Dracula was going to follow it as another “Universals super-production”, based on a famous novel. Then the stock market crash hit.

Bonilla: Who at Universal Studios was keen on making Dracula into a film?

Skal: Universal Studios lavished attention on Dracula for a very interesting reason that I tell in my book, Hollywood Gothic. Paul Kohner, who came from Czechoslovakia, was Carl Lemley Sr.’s protégé. Lemley Sr. himself was from Germany. Kohner was kind of a second son to Lemley.

Kohner expected that he was going to take over the reins of the Universal Studios when Lemley Sr. retired. And, low and behold, Lemley Sr. pulled a switcheroo and gave the studio to his 21-year-old son, Carl Lemley Jr.

We must credit Lemley Jr.’s enthusiasm for horror movies, which made all the Universal Studios classic horror films happen. His father didn’t want to have anything to do with it really. But they had their eye on Dracula for a long time, and Kohner was initially going to produce and direct it.

Bonilla: Is it true that Lon Chaney was considered a choice for the lead role of Dracula?

Skal: Yes, when Universal Studios bought the rights to the novel and the stage play of Dracula, they did it with the understanding that they needed Lon Chaney Sr. “The man of 1000 faces”, one of the biggest, bankable stars in Hollywood, to take this on.

That was one of the reasons that Lemley Sr. finally agreed to do it. The play had a track record, and that Chaney Sr. would star in it. They made overtures to Cheney Sr., who was under contract to MGM, so they’d have to get a loan out contract from him. What MGM didn’t know or was keeping secret that Cheney Sr. was suffering from lung cancer. He died suddenly right in the middle of the negotiations.

It’s unlikely he would have done it, because his last outing with Universal, The Phantom of the Opera, even though it was a huge worldwide success, it was one of the most embattled and difficult productions Universal had ever done. They went through multiple directors, and then Cheney Sr. essentially was directing himself, and I think he was very happy to go back to MGM.

Bonilla: Was anyone else considered for Dracula?

Skal: Kohner had planned to use Conrad Veidt, the great German silent actor, in what would be his first talking role. However, Veidt got cold feet about doing a talkie. So, he fell by the wayside.

Bonilla: How did The Great Depression influence the production of Dracula?

Skal: All the studios were just teetering on the edge, including Universal Studios. They had the Dracula rights and were committed to going ahead with it. But the budget was suddenly dwindling. You can see this in Dracula.

Dracula opens and some of the first sequences that were filmed are in Transylvania, in Dracula’s castle. They’re very atmospheric and quite cinematic. Then, the film becomes more like a stage play because that was the most economical way to do it. That’s always been one of the main criticisms of the film.

Dracula’s Production:

Bonilla: How was Todd Browning as a director?

Skal: From what I’ve learned about the filming of Dracula, it was a film that really got away from Todd Browning. He was a great silent director, but talkies really threw him off. He couldn’t keep up the steady stream of conversation.

Browning was involved in all aspects of the story, writing the final intertitles for silent film, and editing. With talkies also came in the trade unions and one person like him, couldn’t do it all anymore.

As Browning was described to me by David Manners, who played John Harker, he said, “He didn’t direct any scene that I was in. He was a figure sitting back, in the shadows all the time. It was Karl Freund, the cinematographer, who directed any scene that I was in, in Dracula”.

Some people don’t believe me and say, “Oh, Manners must have been senile by that point”. He was not. Manners was absolutely lucid. It was a wonderful conversation I had with him. It was very surprising to hear that.

Bonilla: How did Karl Freund’s camera style influence Dracula?

Skal: Freund used a mobile camera to great effect at the beginning of Dracula. Then, the camera became more pedestrian.

Freund is also credited with inventing the three-camera technique for television sitcoms. He also was the director of photography for I Love Lucy.

A friend of mine met Freund at some trade event back in the 1960s. I believe it was in Cleveland. My friend approached him, asking about Dracula. Freund said, “Why do you want to ask me about that?”

Bonilla: What was the cast experience on set?

Skal: Nobody had a good memory of working on Dracula. Manners said that he and his costar Helen Chandler, who played Nina, would just snicker among themselves when they were off-camera. It’s interesting, that the two of them were not having the greatest time doing Dracula. They thought it was a disorganized and crazy production. They also saw Lugosi as a very odd man. In Dracula, neither of them really looks pleased.

Dracula’s Impact on Cast:

Bonilla: What do you see as the impact of Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula?

Skal: It’s so iconic. No matter how good the other versions of Dracula are, or how technically innovative they are, they always raise the memory of Dracula.

Bonilla: How did this film impact Dwight Frye’s career?

Skal: After Dracula, Dwight Frye kind of typecast himself and did a number of these kinds of films. Toward the end of his life, wasn’t even doing full-time acting work. He died young in the early 1940s.

Bonilla: Were you able to connect with any living cast members of Dracula?

Skal: When I started researching for my book Hollywood Gothic, I was approaching people who were at the limits of living human memory. I was lucky to get to know three people who appeared on screen, Lupita Tovar Kohner, from the Spanish-language Dracula, Manners, and Carla Lemley, the niece of Lemley Sr., who became a close friend.

Bonilla: What was Carla Lemley’s role in Dracula?

Skal: Carla speaks the first lines of dialogue in Dracula, “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are crumbling castles are found of a bygone age”.

Bonilla: What did Carla remember about filming her part in Dracula?Skal: When I first contacted Carla, I told her I was doing research for my book Hollywood Gothic. She said, “Dracula? No, I don’t remember Dracula. I was in The Phantom of the Opera”.

I recognized her voice immediately on the telephone. Carla had been dragged in one day by the casting office and was told, “We need you to do a bit part. Go to costume, and here’s your dialogue”. Her dialogue was written on the back of that travel brochure she reads in the film. She just read the part cold and never met Browning or Lugosi.

Bonilla: Did Carla ever get an opportunity to interact with fans?

Skal: Yes. When Carla was the last living Lemley, I took her to fan conventions around the country. People would come and have her autograph pictures of Boris Karloff and Lugosi because she was this living link.

Bonilla: What was Lugosi’s life like in later years?

Skal: Lugosi was the first major star to come out with an addiction problem publicly. He had suffered injuries in World War I that gave him excruciating sciatica pain in his legs. He became addicted to Morphine and later Demerol.

He did get clean a year before he died and thought it was going to be the beginning of a resurrection of his career, which sadly never happened.

Bonilla: Since Lugosi never finished filming Plan Nine from Outer Space, how was his role completed? 

Skal: Lugosi died before they could shoot all his scenes for his last film Plan Nine from Outer Space. The director, Ed Wood’s chiropractor, would hold up the cape in front of his face and pretend to be Lugosi.

Dracula’s Influence:

Bonilla: How much of an impact has Dracula had on those involved with the book, play, or film?

Skal: Going back to the time when Stoker wrote it. Everybody who has crossed the path of Dracula has gotten involved in its peculiar energy. Dracula possesses you. It just brings out the most possessive and predatory instincts. The agent who negotiated the Broadway rights for many years told me, “I dread having to negotiate a new production of Dracula because it brings out the worst negotiating instincts in everybody involved. Everybody wants to possess it, control it”.

A lot of the people who’ve tried to control Dracula have not had happy careers. Lugosi, perhaps most among them, became so typecast in the role of Dracula, because he did such a good job, could do almost nothing else. He didn’t have special makeup. That was his voice, his face. Though he was a trained classical actor from Europe, all people could see or hear was Dracula. It limited his opportunities. He went to the grave in his Dracula costume.

Bonilla: What lead Lugosi’s son, Bela Lugosi Jr., to sue Universal Studios?

Skal: Lugosi thought that the role of Dracula was his and didn’t negotiate very well. He was paid less than other actors in the film. He made $3,500 total. A lot in the Depression era, but not what big stars in Hollywood were making. He never saw another dime from Universal Studios, no residuals, nothing.

Lugosi’s son, Bela Lugosi Jr. had to sue Universal Studios in the great tradition of Florence Stoker, for his father’s image used for marketing and merchandising. It went on for years and years. Again, another chapter in Dracula’s ability to bring out the most combative instincts.

Bonilla: What makes Dracula a classic film?

Skal: Dracula is a classic film because it changed American moviemaking. It set in motion this whole imaginative current in American cinema, the outright fantastic without any explanation, or apologies.

Without Dracula, the whole history of Hollywood would have gone in different directions. Maybe a supernatural movie would have come along in Hollywood at some point, I suppose, but nothing like Dracula.

Bonilla: How did Dracula and the other monster films influence other film genres?

Skal: The Universal Studios cycle of classic horror movies, set in motion the science fiction films of the 1950s. Without those monster films, some of the biggest blockbusters of all time would never have been made.

Dracula and The Monster Kids:

Bonilla: How did Dracula and the other Universal monsters influence “The Monster Kids”?

Skal: For a lot of us, we were inspired as kids by these pictures. I was one of those kids. We became “The Monster Kids” of the 1960s when the Universal Studios monster movies were showing up on television. We made our own eight-millimeter versions of Dracula and Frankenstein in the backyard and basement. And some turned out to be filmmakers like Steven Spielberg.

Bonilla: As a Monster Kid, what is your favorite scene in Dracula?

Skal: Renfield’s arrival at Castle Dracula. 

Bonilla: And your favorite Dracula line?

Skal: “I never drink…wine.”

Many people believe the line originated in Stoker, but it’s original to the 1931 film. I’ve always believed it was one of Browning’s personal contributions to the script. Interestingly enough, the line was added to the stage version starring Frank Langella in 1977, and ever since, theatre companies have found ways to squeeze it back in. It has never actually been part of the Deane/Balderston published script.

Bonilla: Why do people love monsters, especially Dracula?

Skal: You get a piece of these monsters on you anywhere, and they stick to you. It’s not easy to brush off. People are going to remember. On some level, monsters are so important to us all. There are oldest and best and most reliable imaginary friends. 

Bonilla: Do you think the film would have been as successful without Lugosi?

Skal: It would not have been as successful without Lugosi, even if a major star like Chaney Sr. had played the part. Of all the actors considered for the part, only Veidt might have achieved a screen characterization comparable to Lugosi.

Bonilla: What do you think has led to the long life of Dracula?

Skal: The main reason, almost certainly, is Lugosi’s riveting, iconic presence. It was an indelible star turn, instantly recognizable today even to people who have never seen the original film. Few screen performances have ever had that kind of longevity and impact.

Justina Bonilla
Justina is a Mexican-American freelance writer and journalist based in Orange County, CA. She has written for a number of publications. Currently, she is also a contributing writer for Latin Heat Entertainment. In her spare time, she volunteers as a film blog writer for the non-profit arthouse cinema, The Frida Cinema, in Santa Ana, CA. Her areas of expertise include retro pop-culture (film, music, and television), Golden Age of Hollywood, cult-films, classic horror films, Latino American cinema, Latin horror films, and the history of American rock ‘n’ roll.

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