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We’ve been talking about the Universal Studios’ 1931 classic Dracula, which kicked off Universal's horror movie cycle in the 1930’s and 40’s. It was also among the first batch of major studio talkies. So much so, that the film didn’t have a music soundtrack because, well, they hadn’t figured that out yet. Nor had they figured out dubbing. This is important. Nearly half of Universal’s annual profit came from the international film market (as today). With silent films, this was easy, as producers in each country would simply swap out the English dialogue cards with cards in their language. The advent of talkies presented a daunting problem. Technology for dubbing hadn’t been invented yet. The idea of dubbing hadn’t been invented yet. This immediately cut off Hollywood’s lucrative global market. Indeed, many legendary silent film directors derided talkies as a fad that would ruin the business.
But not Paul Kohner. Kohner was a favorite of Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle Sr, having worked his way up from the mailroom to being Laemmle’s personal assistant and then to in-house producer. Laemmle treated Kohner like a son. One wonders how that made Laemmle’s actual son, Carl Laemmle Jr. feel. When Laemmle Sr made Laemmle Jr the head of production, Kohner’s calls to the front office began to go unreturned. I scoured several resources for this, including McFarland Press’s Universal Classics, Universal Script Series’ Dracula and, most importantly, David Skal’s exhaustively researched, Hollywood Gothic, and while there’s no record of Laemmle Jr. having a personal animus towards Kohner could be found, it’s hard to imagine he didn’t have some sense of, “fuck that guy.”
But Kohner had a great idea, so he went over Jr’s head to Carl Sr. To maintain their lucrative international markets, they could make simultaneous foreign language versions of their American films. These could be done on a shoestring budget by shooting them simultaneously with the American versions. When the American crew went home at night, the foreign language crew would come in, using the same sets, props, etc. The actors would cost a fraction of the English speaking cast, and you would had a foreign language version of your film ready at the same time as the English language release. His first production would be… not Dracula!
His first production was a Spanish language version of The Cat Creeps, which was itself a remake of a silent film called the Cat and The Canary. So, a foreign language version of an English language film that was a remake of a film with no dialogue. Solid.
Paul Kohner was a smart, ambitious guy who loved making films. For the Spanish language The Cat Creeps, as they would with Dracula, the new crew came in at night, between 6:00 and 8:00 PM, stop for lunch at midnight, and work till dawn.
Kohner’s Dracula was directed by George Melford. Not a household name today, but a big name at the time, having directed Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik. The film starred Carlos Villarias as Dracula, Lupita Tovar as Eva (renamed from Mina), Pablo Alvarez Rudio as Renfield and Edwardo Arozamena as Van Helsing.
As he did with The Cat Creeps, Kohner had a movieola set up so he could watch the English language rushes from earlier that day and improve upon them where he could. This would make a huge difference when it came to Tod Browning’s inexplicably clunky (in some places) Dracula. Kohner and Melford would look at what Browning had shot earlier in the day to see where they could improve upon it before shooting. To that end they had an unfair advantage, and it shows. The reveal of Lugosi is effective and creepy, due in large part to the fantastic set and Lugosi’s creepy to the max performance, but Vallarias is revealed in a long, swooping crane shot that really gets your attention. Fun fact! It is the same crane – a Universal Studios workhouse – that Orson Welles used to shoot the opening to Touch Of Evil.
Visually, the Spanish Dracula one-ups Browning’s version more often than not (there is a terrific side-by-side comparison that I will link to below). Sometimes however, less is more. When Lugosi emerges from his coffin, cinematographer Karl Freund's camera drifts away, (as there’s no un-awkward way to get out of a coffin). This causes the viewer to strain to see, pulling them into the film. Medford and his cinematographer George Robinson rely on a hokey puff-of-smoke, better suited to a high school play.
It's in the casting that the English language version wins out. Carlos Vallarias was certainly accomplished, but he's no Bela Lugosi. Lugosi gets a bad rap as an actor, which I've talked about before, but his screen presence was undeniable. As Renfield, Pablo Alvarez Rubio does everything wrong that Dwight Frye does right, constantly going for sweaty, over-the-top histrionics instead of Frye’s controlled creepiness. Nowhere is this more obvious than the scene in which Renfield is found in the hold of the Demeter.
Lupita Tovar is great and much sexier than Helen Chandler’s mousy Mina. The Spanish language version has a much sexier approach to the story than Browning's. Dracula’s brides are 1000 times hotter in the Spanish language version, looking downright feral with their wild hair, leering eyes and hungry snarls. In Browning’s version they look like three uptight Goth chicks waiting patiently backstage to meet Siouxsie Sioux.
Lastly, one disadvantage that befalls the Spanish language version is Eduardo Arozamena as Dr. Van Helsing. Of course, they had no way of anticipating this, but he’s such a dead ringer for Eugene Levy that it’s downright distracting.
The Spanish language Dracula was released in Havana, and in Spanish-neighborhood theaters of New York and Los Angeles in 1931. That’s right. There was a time when both the Browning and Melford versions were playing in the same cities at the same time. The film was thought lost, reduced to little more than a curiosity in the pages of Famous Monsters magazine until the 1970’s, when a print was found in a warehouse in New Jersey. One of the reels had been destroyed by nitrate decomposition but not long after, a complete version was discovered in the Cinematica De Cuba in Havana. After a lengthy negotiation, the Cinematica allowed their version to be sent out and restored. It was released on DVD in 1999 and again (along with Browning’s) in 2012 for a Blue-Ray DVD.
Fun Fact! Paul Kohner fell in love with actress Lupita Tovar on the set of The Cat Creeps in 1930, but Lupita, fearing Kohner was just a Hollywood operator, didn’t fall for it. Kohner was patient. And determined. Tovar finally accepted his proposal in 1932. The couple had two children and remained married until Kohner's death in 1988. Tovar died in 2016 at the age of 106 (!!), one day after her daughter’s 80th birthday. Filmmakers Paul and Chris Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) are their grandchildren.
Next, possibly the best, and for my dollar, the most entertaining, screen adaption of Dracula. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster finally breaks the back of Stoker’s unwieldy novel and helps British cinema bring the Hammer down.