Dracula (1931-- Spanish language version) **½
A very strange thing happened on Universal Studios’ famous back lot over the course of 22 nights late in 1930. On each of those nights, after Tod Browning and his cast and crew went home from a hard day at work making Dracula, two other directors-- George Melford and Enrique Tova Avalos were their names-- would arrive on the set with a cast of Mexican actors to set about piecing together their own Dracula for the Spanish-speaking market. Melford and Avalos didn’t just use the same sets as Browning. They also employed the same basic script (right down to the terrible, out-of-place sight gag involving the big fat bug and the miniature coffin), along with the same props, the same matte paintings, and alternate takes of the same special effects sequences-- hell, even the same widow’s-peak hairpiece that Bela Lugosi wore during the daytime shooting! But in spite of all the elements it has in common with Browning’s more famous version, the Dracula made by Melford and Avalos is a strikingly different and altogether superior film.
The screenplay, as I said, was a fairly straight translation of that used by Browning. Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio, who also appeared in a Spanish-language version of The Cat Creeps called La Voluntad del Muerto) travels to Transylvania to discuss with Count Dracula (El Diablo del Mar’s Carlos Villarias) his intentions to lease an abandoned abbey in London, and gets himself turned into an insane demi-vampire for his troubles. After sailing to England aboard a chartered ship (whose sailors all end up on the vampire’s menu before the journey’s end), Dracula takes an interest in two young women, Eva Seward (East of Borneo’s Lupita Tovar, playing the character called Mina in Browning’s version) and Lucia Weston (Carmen Guerrero). The undead count first kills Lucia, transforming her into a vampire like himself, and then turns his attention to Eva. However, in so doing, he attracts the notice of Eva’s psychiatrist father (Jose Soriano Viosca, from Cheri-Bibi, the Spanish-speaking counterpart to The Phantom of Paris) and her fiance, Juan Harker (Barry Norton, who played in both El Diablo del Mar and its English-language sister film, Devil Monster), the former of whom summons a colleague of his-- a Dutch scientist named Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena)-- to help him get to the bottom of the curious change that has come over the girl since she met the Transylvanian lord. Van Helsing, as always, is a self-made expert on the arcane lore of vampirism, and in short order, he figures out exactly what’s going on, and what must be done to stop it. With a little help from Renfield-- some of it intended, some not-- Van Helsing tracks first Lucia and then Dracula himself to their daytime hiding places and dispatches them with a stake through the heart, saving Eva from the eternal undeath to which the count had very nearly condemned her.
A quick comparison between the above synopsis (sketchy as it is) and my earlier one for Browning’s Dracula will reveal an intriguing point of divergence. In the familiar, English-language version of the movie, Lucy is scarcely heard from again after she is turned into a vampire; not only do her supposed friends barely seem to notice her death, nobody even bothers to stake her after she briefly returns as a child-killing vampire! Here, on the other hand, the filmmakers understood what an important plot point Lucia’s vampiric resurrection was, and understood equally well what dire consequences there would be for the film’s continuity if the subject were left hanging. This isn’t the only difference between the two versions of the script, but it’s by far the most obvious and the most important. It’s also the one that makes Tod Browning and company look like the biggest fools.
Of course, by the time it comes up, Melford and Avalos have been directing rings around the man for more than a hour. Browning’s technique in Dracula seems creaky under the best of circumstances. In comparison to the fluid camera-work of Melford and Avalos, it looks positively arthritic. While Browning seems to have thought he was filming a stage play, the men in charge of this production really understood the possibilities the camera offered, and had the good sense to take full advantage of them. It’s also clear that Melford saw-- and paid attention to-- Murnau’s Nosferatu. A couple of this movie’s classier shots were cribbed directly from the earlier film-- check out the scene where Renfield sees Dracula packing his “bags” for the trip to England. The most outstanding difference in style, though, is the one that best reflects the presumed taste of the special audience at which this version of Dracula was aimed. The one thing about Stoker’s original novel that no commentator ever neglects to mention is its “erotic charge.” (I’ve never noticed any such thing in the book, myself, but maybe I’m just not repressed enough...) The viewer who looks for any hint of sex in Browning’s Dracula looks in vain, however. Not so here. Even the Hammer Dracula films of the 50’s and 60’s-- flicks in which the actresses’ cleavage was a large part of the point-- have nothing on this movie. Lupita Tovar’s nightgowns wouldn’t seem out of place in an Italian giallo from the 70’s. When Mina Seward gets out of bed in the middle of the night to meet Dracula in the asylum garden in Browning’s version, the outfit she’s wearing makes her look like an enormous humanoid ruffle. In the corresponding scene from the Spanish-language version, not only does Tovar’s gown cling to her fantastic figure, her nipples are faintly visible through the translucent fabric of her bodice in the close-ups! (It never ceases to amaze me what people used to get away with in the days before the Hays Code…) Note also that when Renfield is brought under the sway of the vampires in the English-speaking version, it is Dracula himself who drinks his blood, whereas Melford and Avalos have the vampire’s brides do the honors, as the scene was originally written (though, of course, in the novel, Harker is the lucky recipient of their attentions). All told, the “hot-blooded Latin” approach does wonders for the film’s overall watchability.
The superiority of the direction in this version is matched, for the most part, by the superiority of the acting. Lupita Tovar has a screen presence that puts her counterpart, Helen Chandler, to shame. Not only that, Tovar has real chemistry with Barry Norton, making the relationship between Eva and Juan far more believable than the one between Mina and John. As Renfield, Pablo Alvarez Rubio has some problems with his vocal delivery, but his physical acting is top-notch. Early in the film, when Renfield confronts the strange goings-on in Dracula’s castle, the man really does look scared. But the biggest improvement over the English-speaking version in the acting department is Eduardo Arozamena as Dr. Van Helsing. In Browning’s version, even Bela Lugosi looks good next to Edward Van Sloan (the sap who plays Van Helsing there). Arozamena’s Van Helsing is nearly as good as Anthony Hopkins’s interpretation from 1992’s mostly risible Bram Stoker’s Dracula (though it doesn’t quite bear comparison to Peter Cushing’s take on the role).
The only thing that stops this Dracula from really shining is Carlos Villarias. Lugosi was a terrible actor (in English, at least), but the man undeniably had charisma. Villarias does not, and he compounds the problem by aping Lugosi’s dreadful performance. His walk, his gestures, his posture, his vocal cadence-- all are lifted from Lugosi. As ridiculous as the model for Villarias’s performance is, just imagine how much sillier the total effect is without the force of Lugosi’s personality to back it all up. And nothing shows how much Lugosi’s natural accent covered up his inadequacies like watching someone try exactly the same shtick without it. In the absence of a viable Count Dracula, the movie runs into serious trouble when it ought to be at its most effective-- in those scenes when the vampire is onscreen. As it is, the only moments Villarias really pulls off are those in which he keeps his mouth shut and lurks in the shadows.
Still, the Melford-Avalos Dracula is a big step up from the Browning version. Its substantially longer running time (more than 20 minutes in excess of the English version’s) allows for more and better character development, and provides the opportunity to plug up plot holes left gaping in its better-known counterpart. The directors’ firmer grasp of their medium shines through in every scene, resulting in a film that is livelier despite its greater length. The more competent cast rises to the occasion throughout, putting in performances with far greater depth of feeling than the English-speakers who played their roles on the same sets by day. With a more forceful actor in the all-important title role, this Dracula could really have been the classic Browning’s version is generally regarded to be.