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The first full-length serious horror film to grace the silver screen was Dracula 1931, at the beginning of the Great Depression, was a horrifying time for Americans.
Following the epic Stock Market Crash of 1929, resulting in the total collapse of the United States economic system, those who were able to afford entertainment were not interested in the falsehood that glamorous films would provide.
Therefore, for Dracula 1931 turned out to be the perfect year for its release. The horror of Dracula provided people during the Great Depression a way to see something more terrifying than their own lives; it gave them a much needed release.
Dracula 1931 was directed by Tod Browning and produced by Universal. The movie was adapted from the wildly successful Broadway performance by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston in 1927 of Dracula, which starred Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula.
Both the Broadway play and the motion picture version were adapted from the original work of Bram Stoker, the novel Dracula, which was released in 1897. Bram Stoker’s novel had been adapted for the silent screen in 1922 as Nosferatu, illegally by F. W. Murnau, a German film maker. However, due to plagiarism and copyright infringement, all of the copies of Nosferatu were destroyed. Tod Browning’s version, as produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr., would be the first widely released adaptation of the vampire horror classic.
When Carl Laemmle purchased the filming rights of Dracula, the novel, he envisioned the film would be another one of the great silent films adapted from novels, along the same lines as The Phantom of the Opera from 1925 or The Hunchback of Notre Dame two years prior. However, Dracula (1931) would become a revolutionary film in its own right, paving the way for subsequent horror films that had never been attempted.
The film of Dracula 1931, took a new approach to the character of Count Dracula. Rather than presenting him in a repulsive way, Dracula was an aristocratic and good looking man. Also, instead of transforming into an animal, such as a wolf or bat, when attacking his victims, which is in line with the novel, the film version depicted Dracula and the images of him wrapping his cape around his victims to add an element of mystery. Another major alteration was the addition of the line “I never drink…wine” by the Count, which did not come from the novel version or the Broadway play.
During the filming of Dracula 1931 there is one scene that is not original to the movie. The scene where Dracula is traveling by ocean in a ship and a massive storm strikes was taken from a previous Universal film, the silent movie The Storm Breaker from 1925. Sound effects were added and new footage of Renfield and Dracula were pieced in to the footage.
The star of Dracula 1931 was Bela Lugosi who was also the lead from the Broadway performance of the vampire cult classic. However, Lugosi was not the first pick for the starring role of the Hollywood version. Instead, Laemmle wanted to use someone who was already an established Hollywood actor, perhaps to use their fame or experience to propel the movie into sure success.
Fortunately for Lugosi, none of the actors, which included Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, John Wray, and Ian Keith, wanted to be part of a horror film that would most likely typecast the rest of their career in this pulp genre. The stars were aligned for Lugosi, who just happened to be in Los Angeles touring with his Broadway cast members during the casting of Dracula for the movie.
All the same, it took a great deal of convincing for Dracula 1931 to star Lugosi, who ultimately resorted to decreasing his pay to a point of $3,500 for his role. This being the time of the Great Depression, funding was already hard to come by, so this final measure proved successful for Lugosi.
Another star who did not want to act in Dracula (1931) was Helen Chandler. She had auditioned for the role of Alice in the Universal film Alice in Wonderland, but lost out to another actress. Fortunately she conceded as Mina Harker in Dracula, for the performance would become her breakthrough role as the film was very successful in the box office.
On February 12, 1931, Dracula made its big screen premier at New York City’s Roxy Theatre. Reports from the newspapers stated that audience members actually fainted from the shock of seeing the movie. While this publicity turned out to be falsified by Universal, it achieved its goal of attracting curious moviegoers. Dracula was the first supernatural movie that left audiences with a sense of fear, rather than using a comedic or otherwise telling ending.
This was revolutionary to film studios, and Universal, one of Hollywood’s heavyweights, staked its name as it took a chance with Dracula (1931). The film studio had nothing to worry about. In the first weekend of its premiere, 50,000 tickets were sold. Subsequent films in the horror vein by Universal included The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man, all of which were successful.
Director Tod Browning worked with Bela Lugosi in only one more vampire movie, the Mark of the Vampire in 1935. Universal continued producing vampire films with the sequel to Dracula (1931), titled Dracula’s Daughter, five years later.
Then Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein all brought Count Dracula back to the silver screen under the production of Universal. However, while Lugosi was considered the quintessential Count Dracula, he would only be cast by Universal in one role: the comedic film of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. He would, though, be typecast for the role he portrayed in Dracula for the rest of his acting career, which resulted in a downward spiral as he had a very difficult time finding acting work for any other character.
In present day, Dracula (1931) has been regarded as one of the finest films of the 1930s and of the horror genre. As a result, the United States Film Registry preserved Dracula (1931) in 2000 under the guidance of the Library of Congress, as the movie has been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”