Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Drácula (1931, the Spanish version)

In 1931 if you wanted to reach non-English speaking markets dubbing and subtitling were not options. You had to shoot a second version of the film. In 1931 Universal decided to shoot a Spanish language version of Dracula as well as the Tod Browning-directed English-language version, and to do the two films simultaneously, using the same sets. Browning shot his version during the day. At night George Melford and his crew shot the Spanish version. A legend has grown up that this Spanish version is superior to the English language version and some versions of the legend even go so far as to claim that Melford’s Spanish Drácula is the great horror film that Browning’s film should have been.

Unfortunately it just isn’t true. The Spanish version certainly has its virtues. Melford and his cinematographer George Robinson equal and in many cases surpass the visual brilliance of the Browning-Karl Freund version.

On the whole the acting is slightly better. Lupita Tovar is a more lively and more sexy heroine than Helen Chandler, Barry Norton is much less annoying than David Manners and Eduardo Arozamena is a less stilted Van Helsing. The atmosphere is less stuffy.

There are however some very big problems with the Spanish language version. The first is that Pablo Álvarez Rubio is just a bit too over-the-top as Renfield while failing to achieve the levels of creepiness that Dwight Frye reaches.

A much bigger problem is the absence of Lugosi. Carlos Villarías is, quite simply, an awful Dracula. He grimaces continually but rather than being scary it simply makes the Count seem ridiculous. More seriously he lacks Lugosi’s presence. Lugosi could make Dracula ingratiatingly charming and genuinely sinister. Villarías just seems hyperactive and silly. The more menacing he tries to be the sillier he seems.

Yet another problem is that this version is half an hour longer than the English-language version. Melford was obviously determined to shoot every scene that was in the shooting script. The trouble is that almost all of the extra scenes he shot were unnecessary, and they’re mostly very dialogue-heavy and they make Tod Browning’s leisurely paced film seem brisk and economical.

Melford’s film, despite its visual splendours, also cannot avoid the stagebound feel that was a basic flaw in the script. The initial mistake made by Universal was to adapt the (admittedly very commercially successful) stage play rather than Bram Stoker’s novel. Both versions of the film are for much of their running times too much like filmed plays. Of course it has to be said that Stoker’s novel has its problems too.

Being able to utilise the same sets as Browning’s movie was obviously a huge advantage. For very little money (a budget of just over $60,000) Universal got a movie that looks like an A-picture.

The Spanish version is certainly interesting. It’s fascinating to see the slightly different ways that essentially the same scenes were shot and to see the ways in which Melford and Robinson were often able to improve on the original (they had the further advantage of being to see the dailies of Browning’s film and so of course could see what worked and what didn’t).

Overall however it has to be said that Tod Browning’s Dracula (which I reviewed yesterday), even with its flaws, is the better film. If you’re going to make a vampire movie you have to have the right actor to play the vampire and Lugosi was the right actor, and (sadly) Carlos Villarías wasn’t.

The Spanish-language Drácula is included as an extra on both Blu-Ray and DVD releases of Dracula. Apart from one reel it looks terrific. English subtitles are of course provided.

It is definitely worth seeing even if it’s even more flawed than Tod Browning’s version.

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