DRACULA (1931): a Film Study

As part of my Universal Classic Monsters series, the first film I introduced is the groundbreaking and debonair undead of the Pre-Code silver screen, Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931). Coupled with a deep dive on the background and historical context, we discussed the many themes and symbolism which included:

-the supernatural






-science vs superstition

-nature vs. humankind


-madness vs. sanity

-sexuality and gender roles

-motherhood and maternal symbolism

We introduce our cinematic journey into Universal monsters at the beginning. The novel, “Dracula,” was written in 1897 by Dublin-born Bram Stoker. Stoker spent his childhood years as a sickly boy, bedridden until the age of seven but eventually grew up to be a red-haired strapping lad with an inspired interest in writing. While “Dracula” was written in exhausting detail in an epistolary style, it was a huge success at the time. He went on to write several horror and mystery novels, but “Dracula” remained his most beloved and infamous. Stoker died in 1912, paralyzed and insane from advanced syphilis.

A lesser known Hungarian silent (now considered lost) film, DRAKULA HALALA (translated, “Dracula’s Death,” 1921) was technically the first Dracula namesake on film. However, it does not follow Stoker’s plot at all, so the first film version of Stoker’s blood-sucking tale was released in 1922, NOSFERATU, by German expressionist director FW Murnau. He was also acclaimed for his later films, SUNRISE (1927) and THE LAST LAUGH (1924). NOSFERATU was nearly destroyed when the Stoker estate sued because no literary rights were secured prior to onset of filming. Names and some plot details were altered, but the film was released.

Stage productions of Dracula began with producer Hamilton Deane and ran on tour for three years. Opening on the London stage on February 14, 1927, critics lambasted it but audiences were thrilled and packed the theater. American producer Horace Liveright bought the rights to bring it to Broadway. John L Balderston was hired to modernize the story. A 44 year-old actor from Hungary with intensity and only phonetic English skills, Bela Lugosi portrayed the lead role. Born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko in 1882, he had his sights set for the stage from an early age. He changed his stage name to “Lugosi,” which means “one from Lugos,” his birthplace.

The Broadway production was a huge success and ran for 261 performance; closing in New York, in May 1928. Universal Studios had its eyes on this successful stage production. Universal secured both the film and stage rights for $40,000 in May 1930. A script was finished within the month by Dudley Murphy, with additional treatment by Garrett Fort.


Tod Browning was signed on to direct; and added additional adaption and dialogue. Browning was known for his expert touch in the macabre, notably with his successful collaborations with Lon Chaney, Sr. in films such as THE UNHOLY THREE (1925), THE UNKNOWN (1927), and LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927). Later, Browning would direct talkies including the now cult classic, FREAKS (1932). Chaney would have been Browning’s favored choice for Count Dracula but it would never come to light. Chaney’s battle with bronchial cancer ended on August 26, 1930 with his death, just days after Universal bought the film rights. It’s honestly a good thing the ‘man of a thousand faces’ never played the infamous Count Dracula role. While Chaney possessed on-screen intensity, his disguises and mastery of morphing makeup would not be a good fit.   

Instead, several potential candidates were considered included: Paul Muni, Ian Keith, William Courtenay, John Carradine, and Conrad Veidt. Veidt was a strong fit after his German expressionist gloomy roles in THE CABINET of DR. CALIGARI (1920) and THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928). But Veidt chose to stay in Germany so he wasn’t available. Veidt and his Jewish wife Lily fled Germany in 1933 after Hitler’s rise to power and Veidt became a British citizen in 1939. Carl Laemmle’s first choices for the Dracula film was for Veidt to star, and Paul Leni (Jewish-German Expressionist director who directed CAT and the CANARY, 1927, and THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, 1928) to direct. However, Leni died of sepsis from a broken tooth infection in September 1929 at the age of 44 years old.


Both top picks were out. At this point, Lugosi was an ideal final selection. Lugosi had portrayed the role hundreds of times on stage and brought a modernized Dracula with intensity and sex appeal. He was in need of work at this peak of the Great Depression, so he was hired very inexpensively, too. Lugosi earned a lump sum salary of $3,500 in total for his work that would forever influence every Dracula that followed. At a salary of $350/week, Helen Chandler (who portrayed Mina and was battling alcoholism during filming) was the highest paid cast member.    

Director Tod Browning was more comfortable with imbuing visual effects via his work in silent film. Sound production was still a pretty new technology, and this would be the first Bram Stoker’s Dracula of the talkies. You will notice long periods of silence without a musical score and little dialogue, which may feel alien to a modern audience. It’s been said this was a result of Browning’s awkward newness to a sound production. But the end result, combined with Lugosi’s thick accent with intentionally slowed pace, creates an extremely effective and eery quality. Browning was also known for a quiet, exacting, yet disorganized approach in his directing style. Cast members described Browning stepping back and Freund stepping up, more like an uncredited director. Cinematographer Freund’s career and contributions are impressive, and we’ll delve into that more when we discuss THE MUMMY (1932).


On a $350,000 budget and a 36-week schedule, Browning began the first week of filming with the opening Borgo Pass and castle scenes on September 29, 1930. It is in these opening scenes that Freund’s talents and the visual influences from Murnau’s NOSFERATU are apparent.   

Manners’ memories of the filming: “I can still see Lugosi, parading up and down the stage, posing in front of a full-length mirror, throwing his cape over his shoulder and shouting, ‘I am Dracula!’ He was mysterious and never really said anything to the other members of the cast except good morning when he arrived and good night when he left. He was polite, but always distant.” No doubt his dramatic persona with 2nd language limitations had something to do with that shyness. This is not the first time we’ll see cutie pie David Manners in a Universal monster classic. He was a prolific leading man of the 1930s and key player in several Universal horrors.

Dracula Cast

Most of the cast didn’t think much of this film’s staying power and feared typecasting. Lugosi upon rejecting an offer of a stage reprisal for his Dracula character: ”No! Not at any price. When I’m through with this picture I hope to never hear of Dracula again. I cannot stand it. I do not intend that it shall possess me.” Gee, who’d that work out for him? Helen Chandler had similar reservations in being typecast for a “Mina” character again: “It would be an awful fate, for instance, to go around being a pale little girl in a trance with her arms outstretched as in DRACULA, all the rest of my screen career!”

Browning only directed six more films following DRACULA, with his last in 1939. This includes, FREAKS (1932), which faced immediate public backlash for its controversial and authentic carnival horror and was pulled from distribution. It was only fully appreciated decades later and is now a cult classic. 


The early scenes reflect Hungarian language- from the locals’ praying to the signs in the village. This was a result of Bram Stoker’s original inclusion of Transylvania, then part of Hungary. However, at the time of filming, Transylvania was actually part of Romania, since the end of WWI in 1918.

Edward Van Sloan who portrays Van Helsing portrayed the same role in the Broadway stage production.

The ship scene with the violent storm was lifted from another Universal film, THE STORM BREAKER (1925).  

Due to costs, no score was composed originally for this film. The music heard during the opening credits, an excerpt from Act II of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, was re-used in 1932 for another Universal horror film, THE MUMMY. During the theatre scene where Dracula meets Dr. Seward, Harker, Mina, and Lucy, the end of the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg can also be heard, as well as the dark opening of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” in B minor.

Dwight Frye (Renfield) was born in Salina, Kansas and was a concert pianist before transitioning to stage and film as a great character actor. He died at the age of 44 years old of a heart attack. Alice Cooper wrote a rock track in his tribute in 1971. Don’t worry, we’ll see Frye again in this series. 


In this early phase of sound production, it was lucrative to film multiple versions including a silent with intertitles, plus foreign language adaptions for the international audience. Spanish language was the most popular translation. As such, an entirely different crew, directed by George Melford, and Spanish speaking cast would film at night after Browning’s production ended each day. Starring beautiful Lupita Tovar as Mina and Carlos Villarias as Count Dracula, the Spanish language DRACULA is considered by most to be a technical superior to Browning’s as they were able to view the dailies and find opportunities and innovate technical improvements. But no one tops Lugosi as the Dracula that influenced all the other vampires that followed. 

The original release had a running time of 85 minutes but was censored in its re-release in 1936, due to the Production Code. This includes the “curtain speech epilogue” that was included in the “Road to Dracula” documentary:

“Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen! A word before you go. We hope the memories of Dracula and Renfield won’t give you bad dreams. So just a word of reassurance. When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains, and you dread to see a face appear at the window; why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all, there are such things as vampires!”              


Bela Lugosi… Count Dracula

Helen Chandler… Mina Stewart

David Manners… John Harker

Dwight Frye… Renfield

Edward Van Sloan… Professor Van Helsing

Herbert Bunston… Dr. Seward

Frances Dade… Lucy Weston

Joan Standing… maid

Charles Gerrard… Martin

Moon Carroll… Briggs

Josephine Velez… Grace, English nurse

Michael Visaroff… Innkeeper

Daisy Belmore… English coach passenger

Nicholas Bela

Donald Murphy… coach passenger

Carla Laemmle… girl, reading in glasses in coach

Tod Browning… Harbor master

Directed by: Tod Browning

Produced by: Carl Laemmle, Jr.

Associate producer: EM Asher

Screenplay by: Garrett Fort

Based on: novel by Bram Stoker and 1927 stageplay by Hamilton Deane, John L Balderson

Continuity by: Dudley Murphy

Scenario Supervisor: Charles A Logue

Cinematographer: Karl Freund

Art Director: Charles D. Hall

Film Editor: Milton Carruth

Supervising Film Editor: Maurice Pivar

Recording Supervisor: C Roy Hunter

Set Designers: Herman Rosse, John Hoffman

Photographic Effects: Frank J Booth

Musical Conductor: Heinz Roemheld

Makeup by: Jack Pierce

Set decorations: Russell A Gausman

Costumes: Ed Ware, Vera West

Casting: Phil M Friedman Research: Nan Grant

Art titles: Max Cohen

Release date: February 14, 1931

Running time: 75 minutes




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