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Revision, Competition, and Dracula

If I were a better blogger, I would have put this post up on Valentine's Day itself. Ah well, I'm stuck with being me.

Anyway, February 14th was the 80th anniversary of the premiere of one of the founding horror films of Western culture: Dracula.

Tod Browning's Dracula is a great movie, but not in the traditional sense. In truth, some of the performances don't work, and a few of the editing choices make no sense at all.

But it's been 80 years, and people are still doing Legosi imitations when they play at being vampires. Filmmakers dream of making a mark like that on the culture.

What many people don't know is that Universal made two versions of Dracula at the same time. The second was Drácula, a Spanish-language film shot at the same time as the English-language version. During the day, the English-speaking actors did their scenes. At night, the Spanish-speaking actors arrived at the studio and did theirs on the same sets and often with the same blocking.

Even more interesting, the crew shooting the night scenes would often watch the day crew's dailies and, amongst themselves, they'd tell themselves they could do much better.

If I knew how to put in a cut, it would go here. Spoilers!

Anyway, you'll sometimes hear that the Spanish version, directed by George Melford, is superior. I don't really agree, but I understand why people say that. Melford makes a number of choices that improve on the scene Browning shot. For instance, in the scene where Lucia's body is being examined by the doctors, Melford takes the trouble of shooting a close up of the bite wounds on her neck. When Renfield sees a spider on the wall, Melford actually shoots it over the actor's shoulder. When Dracula uses his hypnotic stare, they don't just shoot the actor's face (with the misaligned lights), they get a terrific close up of his eyes. Also, the scene where Van Helsing shows the mirror to Dracula was played much more dramatically.

What's more, there's a major screwup in the Browning movie that never made sense until I saw Melford's. In the English version: Seward's maid faints dead away on the floor and all the heroic menfolk rush off to take care of the plot, leaving Renfield alone with her. He gets a mad, manic smile on his face, gets down on his hands and knees and crawls to her, and it looks as though he's finally given in to his bloodlust.

The film cuts away just as he gets near her, but a couple of scenes later that same unconscious maid is shown standing in the yard, chatting away. What happened to her? Wasn't she just attacked?

In Melford's version, they don't cut away. They hold the camera on Renfield long enough show him snatching up a bug beside her body and eating it. Yeah, it's not as scary, but at least it makes sense.

And both films suffer from having cast a stiff in the part of Jonathan/Juan Harker. In the scenes where Mina/Eva breaks off their engagement (because she's becoming a bloodthirsty killer, hello) both actors are stuck in the weird body language of early cinema adoration--hips back, body leaning way forward, head craned back to stare blankly at the woman he's supposed to love. Bleh. It's more pose than performance.

As for Browning, he has a much better sense of space, which really works for the castle scenes and Dracula's attempt to mind control Van Helsing. Not to mention that the English-language version had much better actors. The Spanish version of Van Helsing is truly awful (truly, truly awful) and let me ask you: is this the face that will come to mind whenever someone thinks of vampires?

450526

Not with those ears, baby.

I'm told the dialog in the Spanish version is nothing to marvel over, but I wouldn't know because I don't speak Spanish. I'm fully ready to believe it, though, because Melford didn't speak Spanish either(!). One thing that didn't happen is that Lucia never delivers this infamous line: "The next morning, I felt very weak, as if I had lost my virginity."

I understand that she actually says "vitality" and the subtitler misheard. By accident, I'm sure.

My main point is that, when I write a book, I can fuss over a scene several times over months. My agent might offer tips for improving things, and my editor certainly will. A novel is written several times (at least mine are).

With film, it's all preparation and collaboration. They only time filmmakers do reshoots is if there's an error that will utterly break the film. When you hear a movie is doing reshoots, you know there's a big, big problem.

But with these two films, I can watch the revision process as it was happening. I like to imagine Melford as a guy who had something to prove and I'm glad for the chance to see his creative process at work.

36 Comments

1:

One of the key things about roleplaying games is that preparation and collaboration is how they work.You trade off the excitement of being a co-creator for the inability ever to see anything but the first draft.

2:

I wonder just what Browning shot for the scene of Renfield and the unconscious maid. It's a wicked twist to play on the audience expectations, much as how Hitchcock described the building up of tension as a door slowly opens, the release as the cat slinks in, and the follow-up double-whammy. But what was the follow-up shock? Did they even have one?

3:

In all fairness, Jonathan Harker is supposed to be a stiff. He's that way in the book, too. That's why Keanu was not that bad a choice for the role.

4:

That screenshot is truly priceless. It's like someone organised a screen-test for the part of Gollum and awarded Elmo the role.

5:

The Spanish version does have one thing going for it: they used nitrate based film, which gets darker blacks and brighter whites. There are several scenes where this higher contrast deepens the atmosphere considerably.

6:

One has to look no further than the British version of "Being Human" and compare it to the American version.
(In the immortal words of Bill the cat, "Ack! Thtbbft!")

7:

Just a nitpick: It's Béla Lugosi, not Legosi - he's an actor, not a minifig! (-:

8:

Andreas Fuchs #7: ::headslap!:: It's always the things I think I know that get me. And my son, dedicated Lego builder that he is, laughed out loud at your comment. :) Thanks for pointing that out. I wish I could say I'd learn a lesson, but probably not.

William H. Stoddard #1: I've long thought it was time to start doing paper and dice rpgs as a kind of improv theater, with an audience and everything. Maybe roll the dice in a special spot where a camera could show the result on the screen, and so on. I don't know who'd take that on, though, because it won't be me.

Dave Bell #2: The scenes in both versions are so similar that I've always assumed Browning snipped off the end of the scene. It never even occurred to me that he would have shot something different.

Lodore #4: To be fair to poor Carlos Villarías, he wasn't too bad in the role, but he was definitely not going to become a cultural touchstone the way Lugosi did.


Keith #5: I never realized. Thanks for pointing it out.

9:

It easy could be different editing, yes. I should have thought of that. I can certainly see from your descriptions that some things were shot differently--framing and such.

10:
They only time filmmakers do reshoots is if there's an error that will utterly break the film. When you hear a movie is doing reshoots, you know there's a big, big problem.

This is almost always the case1, but it's interesting to look at Stanley Kubrick's later films, because he was extremely compulsive a real perfectionist, and often threw away several versions of a scene before getting what he wanted. In several cases, IMHO, this resulted in much better films than if they'd not been reshot: Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut especially.

1. The pathological example of a film that was in deep trouble and constantly being reshot is Apocalypse Now, many of whose faults were surgically skewered by the short film Pork Lips Now.

11:

Ok, I didn't actually have anything to hang a comment on until now, because I've never actually seen (for values of seen that include "even known of" until now) the Spanish version of Dracula.

Real "dice and paper" role-playing as a "spectator sport" used to happen fairly regularly at Eastercons and Glasgow Fair weekend Albacons through the 1980s and 90s [Max Boyce] and I know cos I was there [/end].

12:

You should say something about the many Lego stop-motion animations of Dracula.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4F2SF3CyecA

Amazing how many there are on YouTube. Must be the influence of the ghost of Bela Legosi.

13:

I'm still awfully partial to Fred Saberhagen'sFrancis Ford Coppola's version. Excellent acting by Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder and Anthony Hopkins. Suitably stiff and amateurish performance by Reeves. Wonderful riff on the inconsistencies of Stoker's original while remaining more true to the text than most versions.

And you want vitality? You want a creature who can go from urbane to lustful to bloodthirsty and still keep his indomitable personality? Look no further than Vlad and "Do you think you can destroy me with your idols? I who served the cross, I who commanded armies, hundreds of years before you were born?"

You want a monster? That sadistic wannabe nosferatu Van Helsing and his degenerate protege Seward fit the bill.

14:

I watch the British version faithfully every week through a British proxy server. The American version could make a stone vomit.

15:

paws4thot #11: How did they go over? Were they popular?

Alain #12: I'll be sure to watch that when I get home. My son loves Lego animations and has been known to make a few himself.

A. Nuran #13: To be honest, I don't think Coppola's made a decent movie since PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED. I consider him way overrated. #14: I have to confess that I've never seen the American version of BEING HUMAN, mainly because I thought the British version was so dull.

Sorry that I don't comment more. I have a lot of demands on my time lately, especially a new enthusiastic gamer at home, which I've talked about on my own blog.

16:

theres a seppo version of being human? oh , please cthulu no
lemme guess. they are ALL pretty.
theres a NO ALCOHOL message
am I wrong?

17:

"Shadow of the Vampire" is a nice take on the subject. The actor they recruit to be dracula is typecast.

18:

Wil Wheaton pitched a Celebrity D&D show to Comedy Central a few years ago, but they didn't pick it up :-(

19:

The best Vampire mirror scene is to be found in Polanski's "Dance of the Vampires"!

20:

Shadow of the Vampire:

Loved that one. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0189998/ for anyone who doesn't know.


21:

And there's video online (at least, I think that's what it is. Cool!

22:

" .. is this the face that will come to mind whenever someone thinks of vampires? "

Er, no, he looks as if he is about to give us his version of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Nightmare Song ' from IOLANTHE .. 'when you're lying awake with a dismal headache .. '

Hereafter a more, Judicial, version but the evening dress and candle Spanish version would also work ..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA93YkOq7sk

23:

A.Nuran @13:

Francis Ford Coppola's version. ... while remaining more true to the text than most versions.

I agree that FFC's version is the most faithful to the original novel (that I know of). What breaks it for me is that where Bram Stoker, a true child of his time, only hints Coppola is far more explicit.

Wonderful riff on the inconsistencies of Stoker's original while remaining more true to the text than most versions.
I'd have to re-read it, but I think the inconsistencies of the novel may have been intentional: It is epistolary novel, so it is to be expected that different people portray the same chain of events from very different viewpoints. Remember that you can hardly ever reconcile witness reports with each other and even less with material evidence (like videotapes) in real life. In a book of course too much realism might be construed as a weakness.

What I really don't understand is that J.T.S Le Fanu's Carmilla never seems to have been acclaimed as the first "western" vampire novel despite having been written some 25 years earlier and being a lot more coherent. Worse: I don't recall a single movie based on this book although I think it is far more suitable as movie material than B.S's Dracula.

24:

A.Nuran @13: "Francis Ford Coppola's version. ... while remaining more true to the text than most versions."
I agree that FFC's version is the most faithful to the original novel (that I know of). What breaks it for me is that where Bram Stoker, a true child of his time, only hints, Coppola is far more explicit.

A.Nuran @13: "Wonderful riff on the inconsistencies of Stoker's original ..."
I'd have to re-read it, but I think the inconsistencies of the novel may well have been intentional: It is an epistolary novel, so it is to be expected that different people portray the same chain of events from very different points of view. You can hardly ever reconcile witness reports with each other let alone with material evidence (like videotapes) in real life. In a book, of course, too much realism might be construed as a weakness.

It troubles me that J.T.S Le Fanu's Carmilla (you can find it on gutenberg.org) never seems to have been acclaimed as the first "western" vampire novel despite having been written some 25 years earlier and being a lot more coherent. Worse: I don't recall a single movie based on this book although I think it's far more suitable as movie material than B.S's Dracula.

25:

There have certainly been adaptations of "Carmilla." They just aren't any good.

26:

erald@24: Varney the Vampire was published in book form in 1847, 25 years before Carmilla. Whether you want to call it a novel is a bit up in the air, of course -- it was a collection of penny dreadfuls that appeared 1845-47. Still, it more or less hangs together, and if you accept van Vogt's "fix ups," there's no reason not to accept this.

In any case, Varney was very influential on Dracula (1897), and, though it hardly created the vampire myth, it's the piece of fiction where you first get the fangs, the puncture wounds, the superhuman strength, the hypnotic powers, the vampire who hates being what he is, and so on

27:

Brian @26:
;-)
You got me. I'd certainly go for that. Where does the "true, human in vivo modifying" vampire stem line (as in in vivo human modifing property stem line virus for better or bad) come from?

28:

The best adaptation of Dracula that I've ever seen was done for the BBC in the 70's and was carried as a two-night special on PBS in the USA. Some years later I ended up corresponding with a BBC producer that had found the original tapes and gotten permission and a small budget to have them restored and transferred to DVD: unfortunately his budget was small enough they could only do a couple of hundred and I couldn't afford $45.00 at the time. Since then I've tried to buy a copy on eBay, but the one I was sold turned out to be a pirate transfer from PAL home videotape to DVD and not the restored version--which is why I generally don't buy DVD's off eBay unless they're factory sealed or only one edition.

The BBC adaptation is noteworthy for trying to fit the entire book in--I remember being surprised they squeezed in the "Bloofer Lady" rather than cutting that sequence--as well as a dynamite version of the Count by Louis Jordan. The best example of the way he handles the character I can give is the scene from the book in the basement with the rats and the terriers. VanHelsing produces the cross and it's clear that while Jordan's count is not going to let them touch him with it he's NOT afraid of it--no hissing like a snake here. Nicely done.

29:

Bruce, I watched that one about a year and a half ago and wrote it up for my blog: Louis Jordan Fucks Your Wife.

I thought it was good but not as good as you seem to. I thought Jordan was excellent when he was playing the more human aspects of the character, esp. the wife-stealing. For the supernatural aspects, well, that didn't work as well for me.

And that Texas accent!

30:

I disagree; the 1932 film Vampyr was pretty good IMO, though admittedly it used some Le Fanu stories in addition to Carmilla.

Huh, and it's on YouTube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUZihZPiyGU

31:

#15 query ref #11 - They weren't "organised programme items" like $panel or $formally_hired_film would be. It was more $role_playing_party holding their regular weekend session, with about other gamers looking over each player's (inc DM) shoulders.

32:

I had totally forgotten about the BBC Dracula and how good it was until reading your entry. And now I am saddened that it's not really available on DVD.

33:

I just went over and read "Louis Jordan Fucks Your Wife," which I somehow missed when you originally posted it. I'm not that sure we're that far apart on how good/bad it was, especially since the scenes I remember *are* the non-vampire powers stuff. I suspect my admiration for attempting to do the entire book and the way that Dracula was shown as a thinking menace when under pressure rather than a hissing, incoherent thing as usual in a film version are probably what blinded me to Jordan's Count lacking enough supernatural "juice" in the scenes with Mina, et al.

(I do remember how cheesy the video sequences with Dracula's female cohort and Jonathan were: they were referred to as "Dracula's Angels" when it aired here. I never really understood the BBC passion for split video/film productions--you may be right that it was a cost thing, but the Beeb was in enough transition then that I suspect that there were other factors as well. With luck those lucky couple of hundred who got the restored version got something that looked better than what we saw.)

As far as Quincy's accent goes, you have to wonder if the dialect coach is the one that worked with Kevin Costner for "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." I was just glad that he's one of the few characters in the book that doesn't use a "Phonographic Diary" at some point. Picture that accent in voice-overs like Harrison Ford in the original release prints of "Bladerunner." Ugh!

34:

Well, someone may release it again, if we're lucky. The producer I exchanged e-mails with had managed to convince the BBC that there were four or five productions done around that period that deserved restoration, but all of them came out as limited releases and the last time I tried that producer's e-mail address at the BBC it bounced.

What *I* want is the television show that the BBC book "Animation as a Hobby" by Bob Godfrey was designed to go with. The book is exceptional, with the cutout animation chapters and cell animation chapters in essence by Terry Gilliam and Richard Williams, and in the USA it's a collector's item: mine was stolen in high school and it took 20 years for me to find an affordable copy from the U.K. In the past I've spoken to animation book publishers at SDCC who'd never heard of the two and who said if they could find and get the rights to the book and episodes they'd release a boxed set in a shot...

35:

Varney the Vampyre or The Feast of Blood would have needed to borrow a farthing to be a penny dreadful.

36:

A belated comment on the topic of filming D&D games. Check out the "DNDWizards" account on YouTube:
http://www.youtube.com/user/DNDWizards

Search in those uploads for "Game" and you can see a bunch of filmed D&D sessions. I've only had time to watch the PAX one, but it's amazingly funny, and was filmed live before a convention audience.

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