18 October 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: BATS IN HER BELFRY

It was, of course, a fait accompli that the great success of Bride of Frankenstein, Universal's first horror sequel, was going to quickly lead to a follow-up to Dracula. It is perhaps nothing more than a lazy quirk of history that this film would even follow the Frankenstein route of adding female relative to the title.

Deciding to do a thing is not as simple as doing it, though, and Dracula's Daughter would only emerge in the summer of 1936 after a horrendously troubled pre-production history that made it arguably the most vexed of all Universal's horror films. I am not even sure where to begin, chronologically, but the easiest place to start is with the story of James Whale, who was the studio's first and only choice for their new vampire picture, after finally convincing him to make Bride of Frankenstein (it is taken as a given that the only reason for the four-year delay in creating that film was the studio's insistence that nobody but the reluctant Whale could possibly direct it). Whale was in no mood to make the film under any circumstances, so he issued an absurd condition: he'd get the same free hand he had on Bride, and oh by the way, here's the script I want to use. History does not record the content of Whale's Dracula's Daughter treatment, but apparently there was virtually nothing in it whatsoever that the Hayes Office was willing to permit. Exit Whale.

Perhaps as this was all happening, I do not quite know the details, Carl Laemmle was fighting a battle that no man could win: he wanted to get something out of David O. Selznick. Selznick was a canny businessman - maybe the best in Hollywood history - and he quickly snatched the rights to Bram Stoker's short prologue "Dracula's Guest" that were apparently not included with the Dracula novel rights that Universal locked up, with the express intention of holding the story hostage from his competitor. Now looking for a sequel, Laemmle wanted "Dracula's Guest" badly, and ended up shelling out no small figure to get it; Selznick even got a pseudonymous credit, "Story suggested by Oliver Jeffries". The sadly ironic thing is that are essentially no points of similarity between "Dracula's Guest" and Dracula's Daughter, except the presence of a female vampire.

With the rights to a short story that he weren't going to use firmly in hand, Laemmle set a chaotic and probably unknowable conglomeration of writers (final credit went to Garrett Fort, working from a story adaptation by John L. Balderston, precisely the same team that got credit for the first one) to giving him a movie. It was going to be a lavish affair, equaling Bride of Frankenstein in scope and budget, one of the big Universal tentpoles of 1936, back before "tentpole" was a phrase people used.

But it took a long time for the screenplay to take shape, and by the time it had, the budget overruns on fellow 1936 tentpole Show Boat (directed by Whale, of all people!) had put Universal in a tight spot, and Dracula's Daughter was first delayed - sending one director skipping on to greener pastures at a multi-thousand-dollar price tag - only to have its budget slashed to a still-generous $280,000, give or take (financial reporting was not so rigorous in those days), a figure just expensive enough to be expensive, but a bit too cheap to match the catalogue of marvels in Bride of Frankenstein. It's definitely a film that seems a lot cheaper than it actually was; director Lambert Hillyer had much to do with this, I am sure, because for the first time in Universal horror history, a film was framed and lit without an ounce of Expressionistic creativity, so the whole thing positively reeks of soundstages.

The worst thing of all was that the massive expenses involved in mounting Dracula's Daughter and Show Boat - mostly expenses that could have been easily lessened or avoided entirely - had driven Universal screaming into the red, and a corporate takeover mere days after Dracula's Daughter wrapped sent both Laemmles, Carl (the company's founder) and Carl Jr. (whose baby the massively successful Universal horror tradition had been in the first place) into the cold; neither man would produce a movie again, and the senior Laemmle would not live out the decade.

I was going to put in a gag about "so how is the film that destroyed Universal", except that honor rightly goes to Show Boat; all that Dracula's Daughter did was to put a stake in the corpse so to speak ha ha ha. At any rate, any way we want to phrase my pithy-ass question, the answer is always going to be: "not so great, not so bad, and anyway, it's better than Dracula". It is by far weirder than Dracula, at least, which means it is more watchable than Dracula, and I'll take whatever small graces happen to drift by. The sequel opens just a minute or two after the first one ended, with Van Helsing - oh, my, I'm sorry, they seem to have very pointlessly re-christened him Von Helsing in this installment, but he's still played by Edward Van Sloan - just rising from having put a big wooden stick in old Dracula (now played by a dummy that we see only briefly; it looks not at all like Bela Lugosi, though it's closer than e.g. a tall chiropractor hiding his face with a cape). For no reason other than to get the script rolling, two indescribably awful comic relief bobbies (Halliwell Hobbes and Billy Bevan: fuck me, even the actors' names are unbearable) wander down into the Carfax Abbey crypt, discover Renfield and the Count dead, and immediately assume that Va- Von Helsing is a murderer. When he disagrees, saying that the being he just staked died 500 years ago, they switch that around to "loony". Either way, it means that the good professor is looking at a summary trial with a long incarceration at the end of it.

I'm going to skip ahead a few pages, because in a film rotten with boring moments, everything involving Von Helsing counts as absolutely the least interesting material. Rather than a lawyer, he decides to put his faith in a former pupil, psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). It is with the introduction of Jeffrey that we can no longer pretend that we're in some mysterious Gothic Victorian past. No, from his country club to his profession, he's every inch a '30s movie hero - he even has a spunky Gal Friday, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), with whom he trades screwball banter. Although whereas most screwball banter, such as... um, His Girl Friday, is generally held to imply that, underneath the animosity and bickering, they actually love each other, the repartee between Jeffrey and Janet implies that, underneath the animosity and bickering, she actually wants to slide a butcher knife in between his ribs. I think I can sum up all that there is to say about Janet, or Churchill's performance, by stating that there is nothing I love more than a '30s heroine, and I still would rather see her thrown into heavy traffic than hear her speak.

(The apparent jump from the 1890s to the 1930s always used to bother me as much as any other problem in this film, except that now I've seen the Spanish Drácula and found that in the original script, the setting was 1930 or 1931. So now it's just another thing to hate about Dracula).

Since in a film rotten with boring moments, the parts with Jeffrey and Janet are absolutely the least interesting, I'm going to skip ahead one last time - actually, at this point I may be skipping back, but it's okay, because I'm about to get to the good part. One night, while Von Helsing lingers in the study of police commissioner Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), in lieu of actually going to prison, a woman draped all in black save for her eyes and her left hand, which bears a large ring, seems to appear in the police station, and asks one of the indescribably awful comic relief bobbies (Albert, the one played by Billy Bevan), if she can't take a peek at Dracula's corpse. He resists, but she flashes the ring in his face and he just kind of stops, and the next time we see the woman, she is setting Dracula's body on fire, chanting a rite of some sort, and thrusting a cross towards the flames - a cross that she must shield herself from, incidentally, while her imposing and slightly too make-up-ey henchman Sandor (Irving Pichel) offers his terrifying help. This is Marya Zaleska, played by the rather obscure Gloria Holden, and she is a fascinating character, fascinatingly played - much too interesting for the hopelessly dull cash-in that houses her, certainly.

And from here, I'm just going to skip about madly like a rabbit in a windstorm, because there is not anything in Dracula's Daughter that is even marginally interesting other than Marya and Gloria Holden. I suppose you could have some fun by playing the "this script was bashed out by a committee" drinking game, where every time something happens just to advance the story, even though anyone over the age of 10 could spot the plot-hole, you do a shot. The problem with this is that you will not then live to see Marya and Gloria Holden. At any rate, here's one to get you started: Von Helsing could theoretically call on Dr. Seward or John and Mina Harker to corroborate his story - Seward is a well-respected man in those parts - and thereby stave off everything after the second scene of the movie.

The joke about Dracula's Daughter is that we never actually learn if Marya is Dracula's daughter, and even if we take her late proclamation of that fact at face value, we're still confronted with the question of what precisely "daughter" means in this context. And I do stress, "if" we take her at face value. The fact is, Marya is not at all a trustworthy person, not simply because vampires are evil, but because there seems to be a fairly good chance that she's not at all a vampire, but just a woman who has become so obsessed with Dracula back in her home country that she believes herself to be a vampire (shades of the later, much greater Martin, by George A. Romero). Certainly, she attacks people by sucking the blood out of their necks, and she definitely has a mesmerising power granted by her ring. But in the same stroke, she does things that are not terribly vampiric, chief among them being her great desire to rid herself of vampirism. And she elects to do this by means of Jeffrey Garth and his psychiatry, although no matter how hard she pushes to free herself of Dracula's influence, Sandor just as strongly pushes her to remain the way she is, for reasons of his own that will become evident at the end. Certainly the middle of the film stresses psychiatry and psychoanalysis to such an endless degree that it would be almost impossible not to wonder, at least briefly, if it's all in Marya's head. The film certainly creates the framework for such doubt.

Marya ends up becoming an amazingly compelling non-entity; she remains wholly unknowable to us, and Holden, by design or accident, always keeps a certain vacant detachment about her that makes the character all the more mysterious. A lot of this is no doubt the fault of the car-wreck of a screenplay; nobody is all that well-fleshed out, and half the movie doesn't make any more sense than Marya's backstory. It's just that here, the writers' epic failure is bent towards the movie's greater good, in spite of itself. Dracula's Daughter may be a frivolous, boring waste of a movie, but Dracula's daughter herself is strange and memorable, far better than the tawdry B-movie in which she made her first and last appearance.

And there! I made it all the way through without talking about the lesbian scene! I mean... damn. Okay, so Dracula's Daughter has what is, in the muffled, coded terms of the mid-'30s, a pretty straightforward lesbian scene, and it's probably the most curious and interesting thing about the whole movie. Not that it's the first lesbian moment in American cinema (cf. The Broadway Melody and the Mahoney "sisters"), but is probably the most lesbian-ey. Lesbianic? Anyway, it is an early example of a future horror and porn staple: young men like to watch girls make it with other girls.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Browning, 1931)
Drácula (Melford, 1931)
Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer, 1936)
Son of Dracula (Siodmak, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

1 comment:

Samuel Wilson said...

When I was a kid, Sandor was the most memorable thing about this movie. Irving Pichel creeped the hell out of me with his white face and too-smooth delivery. I kind of assumed that he was a vampire. I still think he contributes greatly to that overall strangeness that you so well describe.