Double Bill Five – Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER(1936)       30th July 1977       22.35 – 00.05

‘Mad? Or unbelievable?’

Von Helsing

daughterplaguelistingsDracula’s Daughter is, let’s face it, bonkers. Not to say that it’s a bad film. It isn’t. In fact, it’s a neglected and underrated little gem of a movie, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the weirdly perverse wrong-headedness permeating almost every decision Universal made about the project gives a kind of barmy quality to the finished film that is probably the reason why it’s so often overlooked and undervalued.

The thought processes of Hollywood producers frequently passeth all understanding, even setting aside probably apocryphal stories like the one about the Hollywood exec with an eye on the main chance who, in 1990, after hearing that the then box office hot Mel Gibson had signed up for the lead in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, responded by copyrighting the title Hamlet 2: The Return. With all due apologies to the spirit of Bob Newhart, and involving considerably less exaggeration than you might suspect, I’d like you to imagine this telephone call taking place in an office on the Universal lot some time in 1935.

‘Hello Mr Laemmle … what a pleasure … yes, yes Bride of Frankenstein is still packing them in … oh, what do I think has made it such a big hit? … well, er, Mr Laemmle, if I knew for sure what makes a hit I’d probably be sitting in your chair instead of mine … but I guess I’d say audiences just wanted to see more of the monster … and we got back Karloff and Colin Clive from Frankenstein, and the same director, and carried on the story of the monster everybody loved from the first film … what’s that sir? It’s funny I should say that, because you’ve got a great idea of how to top it … I see … a sequel to Dracula … yes sir, I agree that sounds fantastic … would you like me to get Tod Browning and Lugosi on the phone … you wouldn’t … no sir, but I was just assuming that if we were following the formula that made Bride of Frankenstein so great we might want to carry on with Lugosi and the monster everyone loved from the first movie … oh … oh I see … Browning and Lugosi are already working together … oh, at MGM? … on a film where Lugosi plays a … oh … it’s called Mark of the Vampire … but it doesn’t matter because you’ve already got a better idea … oh, not technically your idea … David Selznick’s idea … the David Selznick who runs MGM? … no sir, I’m not aware of another David Selznick sir, but I just wasn’t … oh, you’ve already bought the rights from Selznick … for $12,500 plus a 5% share … I see … no, no sir, I’m sure it’s a great deal … it’s just that … well, don’t we already own the rights to Dracula? … we do … that’s what I thought … but we don’t want to come up with the idea for a sequel ourselves because … because you like Selznick’s title … OK … what title is that? … Dracula’s Daughter … no, no, it’s fine sir … it’s just … well … I think maybe someone here could have thought of the title Dracula’s Daughter for a bit less than $12,500 and a 5% share … oh, yes I see … you didn’t just buy the title … no, of course not sir, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that you were … you bought the screenplay from Selznick too … and it’s by who? … oh, Balderstone … who wrote the original film … no, no sir, genuinely, great choice … now we’re getting somewhere … so when do we start shooting? … oh I see … some problems with Balderstone’s screenplay … just teething problems, I hope sir … no, no teething … teething … you know, like vampires, and fangs … no, no sir, I won’t try to be funny again. So what kind of problems are there with the script? … I see … whips, you say … and chains … and she ties them up … and then they … yes, sir, I can certainly see that the Production Code Office might not appreciate that … yes … but it’s not a problem because … because you hired someone else to write a new screenplay … really? R.C Sherriff, who wrote The Invisible Man script for Whale … yes, well, he’s certainly good … no sir, I don’t have a problem with that … it’s just … well … couldn’t we have just hired Sherriff to write a script in the first place instead of paying Selznick … no, I understand, we’ve already been over that … and Whale’s agreed to direct? That’s fantastic news sir … but he wants what? … he wants us to buy the rights to a novel called The Hangover Murders for him to direct first … yes, well, I can certainly see how that would give us time to fix Sherriff’s script before we start shooting, so every cloud has a … wait a second, sorry … we need to fix Sherriff’s script too? … more whips … and more chains … and he touches her with what? … with her husband’s severed arm … well yes, I can certainly see that we might need to tweak that just a tad … well, thank goodness for The Hangover Murders then … oh, it’s not going to be called that … because the Production Code won’t let us say ‘hangover’… well, yes, I can certainly see that if they don’t like the word ‘hangover’ than they might have an issue with the whips … and the chains … and the severed arms … excuse me for saying this sir, but we are sure Whale and his friend Sherriff actually want to make this movie … no, no, it’s just I heard Whale really wants to get away from horror movies to do musicals … Showboat, yes … well, you don’t think he might be just making the Dracula script unworkable so he can do Showboat instead … yes, of course, much too cynical … I’m terribly sorry sir … of course … so … we’ve hired another scriptwriter to fix it … and we’ve paid Sherriff … really? … yes I’m sure $17,000 is cheap at the price for a writer like Sherriff, but if we can’t actually use his script at all … money well spent, I see sir … no, it’s not that … it’s just … well, it’s just that some people might see it as … not me, you understand, but some people might suggest that what we’ve done so far is spend $30,000 and all we’ve got to show for it is a two word title the janitor could have come up with on his coffee break … that’s not all we’ve got … Really? Lugosi is in … no, no sir, I take it all back, that is truly wonderful news … yes sir, I’d go so far as to say so long as we have Lugosi for this then we can’t lose … yes, yes, I know he was the reason Dracula made all that money for us in the first place … yes, so long as we have Lugosi … and you’ve fixed the script by? … by hiring another writer … yes I see … Peter who? … for another $2000 … but it hasn’t worked out because … because of the whips, of course … yes at least we have Lugosi, and Whale … and who? … Karloff too, you’re kidding … that’s wonderful … except … I see. Whale doesn’t want to direct after all … no, no I see … doing Showboat instead … no, not completely surprised sir, just call me Sherlock I guess … so now Karloff doesn’t want to do it after all … but it’s OK because … because you hired another scriptwriter … Garrett Fort … yes, yes, he’s good … but the Production Code don’t like the what, sir? … oh … the ‘perverse sexual desire’… they think Dracula’s daughter is a what? … no, well, I can see why they’re not keen in that case … but you think we can make Fort’s script work anyway if we can get her to look at the girl’s neck instead of her what? … oh, those … yes, I can see that would be better … so you’ve paid Fort $6,500 … no that’s fine, we’ve got a script now … no, sir, it’s just that … well sir, it occurs to me that we’ve paid about five times more for scripts we can’t use than for the one we can … No Sir! No, I’m emphatically not saying you need to pay Fort more … no, no sir … shouldn’t be focussing on the negatives, no sir … absolutely sir, at least we have Lugosi … and a script … and you hired a new director? That’s great sir … A. Edward Sutherland and … yes that’s good … except … except you’ve paid him off again for $17,500 … after he’d shot? … after he’d shot nothing at all … well, yes, at least we have Lugosi, and a script … and a new director … that’s great … Lambert Hillyer? … no, no, it’s just that … well, doesn’t he make Westerns? … well, it’s just that, well, Transylvania isn’t Texas you know sir … no, sir, that’s true, I was forgetting about that armadillo in Dracula’s castle … so now we have Hillyer … and we’re paying him how much? … a third of what we gave Sutherland for not directing the film, of course we are … and Sutherland went off to do a picture with W.C Fields … yes sir I believe it was Fields who said never give a sucker an even break … no sir, I absolutely did not mean to imply that you were a sucker … although, sucker, you know, bloodsucker, as in vampire … yes sir, I really will stop trying to be funny. So we’ve got a script, and the director, and at least we still have Lugosi … what’s that sir? You’ve decided you don’t actually want Lugosi after all? Even though he was the reason everyone went to see Dracula in the first place … but you don’t want Lugosi because … oh, the element of surprise … yes, well, I can certainly see that that would be surprising … and you’ve paid Lugosi $4000 for not being in the film … no, I’m not crying sir … no, it’s just … well, we’ve paid him a lot more for not being in the sequel than we paid him for being the star of the original … I’m not seeing the big picture, yes sir… I see, we don’t need Lugosi, because Dracula is still going to be in the movie … and Dracula’s going to be … he’s going to be made out of wax … of course he is … and does the wax dummy look like Lugosi … not even a little bit … and … what’s that sir … bankruptcy you say? … you’ve got to sell the company? … no Mr Laemmle, not totally surprised, no…’

lammle

Of all the logically-challenged decisions Universal took concerning the project, the biggest one of course centred around the role – or lack of it – of Bela Lugosi. That Universal habitually undervalued and underused him almost goes without saying. That his performance in the 1931 original had pretty much single-handedly launched the Universal monster cycle and saved the company from liquidation is beyond question. Even assuming the studio judged the quality of his performances in the early 1930s as too theatrical for modern audiences, the profits generated by not only Dracula, but White Zombie, The Black Cat and Mark of the Vampire, for instance, might seem to suggest that the modern audience in question disagreed. Lugosi was a bankable horror star, so it would seem odd for Universal to be placing aesthetic considerations above commercial ones. He was most bankable of all in the role with which he would be forever most associated, and yet over and over again Universal went to extraordinary lengths to avoid doing the obvious thing.

They preferred the clearly miscast Lon Chaney junior when they finally re-introduced the immortal Count in Son of Dracula. They used the – admittedly much better cast – John Carradine for Dracula in their two House of …monster rallies. At least in the case of those films there were mitigating circumstances. Lugosi was visibly older by the mid 40s, and involved in touring productions of Arsenic and Old Lace.  In fact, Lugosi didn’t get a chance to reprise his most famous role on screen until he met Abbott and Costello in the very last gasp of the Golden Age.

In the case of Dracula’s Daughter however, Lugosi was still physically much the same man he had been in 1931. He was keen to be involved. The script was written to include a lengthy prologue featuring Lugosi as Dracula. And then not only did Universal decide not to cast Lugosi, they removed the character of Dracula entirely from his own sequel, the only case in movie history of the most important character in a film hitting the cutting room floor before a frame had been shot. And yet he remains in some ways the most important character, because his absence casts a pervasive influence over the film which means it is impossible to watch it, for all its many strengths, without a wistful sense of missed opportunities.

lugosi

What might have been…

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…and what was.

The bizarre decision making process behind the production blends rather happily with the emphasis on barminess in the story itself. We begin, with a pleasing respect for the original, in the moments immediately following the end of the first film, as two of Universal’s stock company of comedy coppers discover the bodies of Renfield and Dracula, with Van Helsing (now rather oddly re-christened Von Helsing) still lurking in the crypt. Not unreasonably, they assume Von Helsing is barking, and a murderer to boot.

vlcsnap-2017-03-30-13h57m30s99Banged up for homicide, the fearless vampire killer faces either the rope or a lifetime in a hospital for the criminally insane. To help him out of this mess, does he turn to a crack team of the finest legal brains in the country? Rumpole of the Bailey? Atticus Finch? Perry Mason? Petrocelli? No, Von Helsing places the whole of his legal defence in the hands of a psychiatrist he happens to know. Not because he’s angling pragmatically for an insanity defence, but because he thinks the headshrinker is best placed to demonstrate his innocence by proving the existence of vampires. In which the psychiatrist in question doesn’t believe. It’s like Miracle on 34th Street with haemoglobin.

All in all then, it’s remarkable how well the whole thing hangs together. The narrative is taut and pacy, and the acting excellent for the most part. I’ll admit to being ambivalent about Otto Kruger’s at times wooden and at times gratingly smug psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth, but Marguerite Churchill as Janet puts an appealing enough spin on the 30s and 40s trope of the independent, capable and confident ‘fast-talking dame’ seen elsewhere in films like His Girl Friday and also in genre fare such as Dr X.

vlcsnap-2017-03-30-14h08m27s8Irving Pichel’s Sandor is effectively menacing, and best of all, Gloria Holden lends a sombre, enigmatic power and poetry to the title role. Perhaps she was aided in this by her evident distaste for a type of material she felt was beneath her, which, paradoxically, imbues her performance with a strangely potent sense of icy detachment.

In fact, given the staginess which many critics feel ruins the original Lugosi film, the unbearable cop-out ending which destroys the otherwise atmospheric Mark of the Vampire, and the miscasting of Lon Chaney Jr as the vampire count which mars Son of Dracula, some have even argued that Dracula’s Daughter has a strong claim to being the very best vampire film of the golden age.

vlcsnap-2017-03-30-13h59m04s8There are certainly wonderful scenes and standout moments. Unconvincing wax dummy of the Count notwithstanding, the scene in which Zaleska lights Dracula’s funeral pyre, shielding her face from the cross and solemnly intoning a eulogy, is exceptionally beautiful and among the most atmospheric sequences in all of 30s horror. In its doom-black_sunday_posterladen melancholy and wonderful chiaroscuro lighting I think it’s possible to trace a direct line from this sequence to the visual baroque of Mario Bava’s critically lauded 1960s Italian horror film Black Sunday in which Barbara Steele gives a haunting performance with strong echoes of Gloria Holden’s Marya Zaleska.

There is a later, equally effective scene in which Holden, hoping that Dracula’s death has liberated her from the curse of vampirism, begins to play the piano as an expression of her new-found freedom, only to find herself becoming seduced by ‘the darkness’ once more. The dialogue moves between Holden’s increasingly ineffectual attempts to cling to the light and her darker impulses, which are voiced vlcsnap-2017-03-30-14h05m13s120through her servant Sandor’s expression of morbid dread. ‘Evil shadows…bats wings…’ he intones, as though giving on-screen advice to Universal’s set dressers. Their conversation is underscored by Zaleska’s increasingly schizophrenic piano playing in order to suggest both her desperation and her helpless inability to escape her own essential nature. The scene creates a new and highly influential sense of vampirism as addiction, or mental illness, an idea developed through Zaleska’s later hope that Jeffrey’s psychiatry may offer her a cure.

The diegetic music proves very effective in embodying the character’s conflicted nature – using music from within the world of the film to anchor the emotions of the characters in this way is rare outside the conscious artifice of musicals, but it’s a technique horror has frequently used to great effect. There are comparable scenes in both Kiss of the Vampire and The Reptile from this season alone, for instance.

However, the best known moment in the film, and the most controversial, is the one played between Holden and Nan Grey as the artist’s model and soon-to-be victim. In itself, the scene plays very powerfully, as an ever more intense Zaleska persuades the young girl to remove her blouse to pose for a portrait, and is then unable to control her rising blood lust, moving ever closer as she hypnotises the terrified Grey until the scene culminates in an off-screen scream.

As a straightforward scene of vampiric seduction, it works very well, and could be seen as no more than an echo of the earlier moment in which Zaleska entrances and drains dry a mute, top-hatted city gent. More troublingly, however, the very very thinly disguised subtext here is to see lesbianism as the ‘addiction’ with which Zaleska is struggling.

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect anything else in the context of the 30s Hollywood studio system, and it’s true that Zaleska is portrayed quite sympathetically for the most part, but even so, I still find it a tad uncomfortable to see, fairly overtly, homosexuality being represented as mental illness.

Dracula’s Daughter is not the only film of the period to create this image of the threatening, dark-clad lesbian, of course. mooreheadThink no further than Agnes Moorehead as Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, terrifying Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs De Winter while lingeringly caressing her predecessor’s underwear. Subtlemuch. If you’ve never read Vito Russo’s book, or seen the documentary film based on it by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, I’d heartily recommend The Celluloid Closet for a thoughtful, informative and moving exploration of the representation of homosexuality in classic Hollywood cinema.

It might perhaps be easier to tolerate depictions of homosexuality as a mental disorder which might be ‘cured’ in screen fiction, were it not for the horrible and tragic reality of the ‘treatments’ and ‘cures’ that were in fact inflicted upon so many gay victims of societally-approved oppression through much of the twentieth century. The Alan Turing story, recently filmed as The Imitation Game, is probably the most high-profile example of such state-authorised torture, but is in fact only one of many such shameful case histories.

vlcsnap-2017-03-30-14h07m13s43At the time Gloria Holden was making her advances towards Nan Grey, homosexuality was widely seen as a disease. It would not have been too much of an imaginative leap from actual, everyday reality to have her see in Jeffrey’s psychiatry the possibility of a cure for the ‘sickness’ which is weighing on her, nor to have the voice of twentieth century science confidently assert the idea that such a disease exists, and that it can indeed provide such a cure.

It’s more than fifty years since Thomas Szasz published The Myth of Mental Illness and drew attention to society’s tendency to label anything it finds uncomfortable as a disease (in Soviet Russia any form of political unorthodoxy was a diagnosable symptom of mental illness, just as was homosexuality in the West), but there are cultures and communities around the world in which to be gay is still seen in the same twisted light.

Even in the liberal West, where there have undeniably been enormous advances in attitudes and legislation over the past twenty or thirty years, homophobia continues to blight the lives and the development of thousands of innocent people, and those advances, if not fought for, will be all too easily eroded as a newly illiberal wind begins to blow.

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Turing himself received a posthumous Royal Pardon, which was described as a ‘fitting tribute to an exceptional man’, rather than, more appropriately, as a recognition that he did nothing wrong in the first place. It was the rest of us who did something wrong. Like countless other unexceptional, entirely ordinary and anonymous men and women, Turing suffered horribly purely because an entirely natural sexuality was seen as sickness or sin, often diagnosed by prejudice masquerading as science or faith.

Understandably, given the repression and oppression they have faced, many in the gay community eagerly embraced the idea of the ‘gay gene’. Turns out it’s a DNA thing, with no element of choice attached. While I understand the impulse, I don’t feel the end to prejudice lies in so deterministic a direction. Whatever the truth of the scientific evidence, it’s the interpretation of it that troubles me. It can move so quickly from a ‘fact of biology’ to ‘Don’t blame me. It’s not my fault’, the problem there being the underlying acceptance that there is a ‘blame’ or ‘fault’ to begin with. And there simply isn’t.

For me, the only real ‘fact of biology’ at work here is that sexuality – yours, mine, Marya Zaleska’s – is not about categories and labels and boxes. Sex is more joyous and fluid than that – or at least it is if you’re doing it right. If we truly want to move beyond prejudice, I think we need to break the boxes, and change the labels. Sexuality is a spectrum, not a locked down identity. A continuum, not a fixed point. I believe it may have been Gore Vidal I remember saying that human beings are not ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’, they are merely ‘sexual’. I think that common identity, which we all share, points a much more positive way forwards than we have found so far. Certainly a much more positive one than Dracula’s daughter was able to find with Jeffrey.

Predictably, the conclusion of the narrative sees the Countess destroyed. Accepting that there can be no ‘release’ from her own nature, she kidnaps Janet and returns to Castle Dracula, an interior equally impressive here as it was in the original film. Leaning lasciviously over the supine heroine, she is interrupted by the intervention of Garth, and then gets an arrow through the heart courtesy of a jealous and fatally wounded Sandor. Yes, she is penetrated by his shaft. Sigh. Cue Janet waking, Jeffrey realising his true feelings for her, and the heterosexual norm being reasserted once more.

In fairness to Dracula’s Daughter however, at least Zaleska’s subtextual lesbianism is treated seriously and with some degree of empathy, rather than objectified for the male gaze as would be the case by the time Hammer got its hands on the literary wellspring for lesbian vampires, Sheridan LeFanu’s novella Carmilla. Hammer’s early 70s Karnstein trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil) was very much a case of ‘Fangs for the Mammaries’ I’m afraid, and a clear indication that attitudes to sexuality had added titillation to the mix without shifting far from the central view of lesbianism as disease and perversion.

We’ve thankfully moved on since then, but there is still much further to go in finally abolishing the damaging and degrading myth that there is such a thing as ‘normal’.

After all, as Marya Zaleska herself poignantly points out, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, doctor, than are dreamed of in your psychiatry.’

Poster

 

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