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Movie Crash Course: M

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Boy, did I like this one.

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I have a bit of a soft spot for police procedurals – born of watching countless actor friends go on to be single-scene extras on Law and Order – and that’s exactly what M is, is a police procedural.  Or, rather, it’s a police procedural where the mob also takes on its own separate investigation to catch the real bad guy.

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We’re plunged right into the story from the start – the story’s set amongst the lumpenproletariat in a German city, where everyone’s on edge because of an ongoing series of child murders. The parents are keeping a sharp eye on their kids. The kids have made up gruesome jump rope rhymes. People are giving their more suspicious-looking neighbors the side-eye. The city is plastered with posters warning parents and promising a reward.  And a girl on her way home from school is stopped by a man in a trenchcoat, who buys her a balloon and leads her away to parts unknown, as her mother sits at home and starts to fret when her daughter is late home from school.

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In their desperation to catch the killer, the police are bearing down hard on the city’s low-lifes, conducting near-nightly raids on all the pawn shops, speakeasies, brothels, bars, and other dens of ill repute.  Which gives one of the city’s criminal masterminds an idea – if they can find the child killer and turn him over to police, maybe the police will finally get off their back.  So while the police are assembling forensic scientists, fingerprint experts, and graphologists, the city’s criminals are enlisting beggars, pickpockets, and streetwalkers to spot, follow, and ultimately corner and catch the culprit.

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This was Lang’s first work with sound, after a career full of silent films, and he uses it in some fun ways. There are a few sequences where one character’s speech becomes narration for a separate sequence – such as when the police commissioner is on the phone to the mayor, and as he complains about how tired his men are from their investigations, we see a slow stream of very tired-looking officers returning to their squad room at days’ end, nudging awake still more officers asleep at their desks.  Or when the mother of the missing girl starts to realize she’s gone; we hear her desperately calling for her daughter as we see a series of still scenic shots – her building’s empty stairwell, the attic of their apartment, the empty sidewalk in front of the girl’s school – all places where presumably a search party would have looked.

And then there is the sound that introduces us to our killer.  Fortunately we don’t see any of the actual murders; but as he leads his first victim away, he is whistling an air from Peer Gynt.  There is another sequence later that really caught my eye, though, when he sees another little girl playing alone on the street, he starts to whistle that same tune again…only to be thwarted when her mother comes out of a store and hurries her inside.  He scurries to an outside café and orders two shots, desperately knocking both back, and then sits back in relief – only to start whistling Peer Gynt again, before getting up to seek out another child.

We spend just as much time with our killer’s trackers, though, and the different paths they’re following to find their culprit.  One minute, we’re watching the police puzzle out that a packet of cigarettes in their suspect’s room matches the brand on the butts left behind at one crime scene; in another, we’re seeing the crime bosses meticulously assigning each of the various beggars different blocks to monitor.  While the police are heading for a stakeout at the killer’s boarding house, the criminals are breaking into an office building where they suspect he may be hiding.

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We hear very little from our killer until the very end, when he is dragged before a kangaroo court the criminals have set up in an old warehouse and he is ordered to account for himself and his actions.  Peter Lorre is our killer, and desperately begs for mercy on the grounds that he is suffering from an irresistible compulsion.  He’d very much like to not kill, but sometimes the urge is too strong to resist.  Some of the criminals listening are sympathetic, others less so, and the kangaroo court starts to argue what to do….Lorre’s pretty impassioned here, but I found him equally as expressive when he was on the run from the criminals he’d figured out were chasing him – and wasn’t saying a word.  This may have been Fritz Lang’s first sound picture, but he still knew how to work with silence.


Movie Crash Course: The Public Enemy

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For some reason my mental impression of James Cagney before this was almost entirely from his turn in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy, where he bizarrely takes on the life of Broadway songster George M. Cohen.  He gave it a good, energetic go, but his singing is….kind of….not.  In The Public Enemy, he brings that same energy to what is to my mind a much better fit – that of Tom Powers, a young Chicago gangster.

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He’s actually one of a pair, two childhood friends who went bad early. Tom and his buddy Ed live next door to each other, getting into the usual mischievous kid scrapes and dodging Tom’s father and goody-two-shoes older brother; but also earning pocket money by petty theft, selling their prizes to a Fagin-esque criminal named “Putty Nose” who runs a sort of Boys-Club-gone-bad; when he’s not making backroom deals with the kids, Putty Nose entertains them on the piano.  Putty Nose enlists the pair into a breakin at a nearby furriers’ when they’re a bit older, but when the deal goes bad, Putty Nose flees, abandoning Tom and Ed to their fate, and for a few years they go legit, getting low-level jobs for extra cash.  Good thing too – since Tom’s brother Mike has enlisted in the First World War, and he insists someone should take care of their mother.

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But their jobs – truck drivers for a local brewer and distiller – catch the eye of bootlegger Paddy Ryan, who enlists them back into the mob.  In a few short years, Tom and Ed are living large, spending most of their money on suits and cars and girls.

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Tom does occasionally try to give dear old Mom some money now and then, but brother Mike – now home from war – won’t let Mom accept Tom’s “blood money”.

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Eventually the pair are caught up in a mob war, when their boss “Nails” is killed in a horse riding accident, and other mob bosses rush in to take over.  During a shootout, Tom is seriously wounded and taken to a hospital, where his brother, sister-in-law and mother rush to his side.  Tom and Mike patch things up, with Tom proclaiming he’s seen the error of his ways and wants to reform.  The family promises to help him get on his feet when he’s discharged.  But after Tom’s family goes home, he has some further guests, with some less-helpful aims in mind….

In typing all that out, it does feel a little melodramatic and cheesy. But Cagney’s energy carries it along nicely, making the whole story crackle and zing.  The story is a bit more realistic than Little Caesar – Tom and Ed do rise up high in the mob ranks, but at least it looks like they’ve earned their way up with actual bloodshed as opposed to simple bluster.

….I would be remiss in not at least acknowledging the film’s most famous scene, where Tom gets into a spat with one of his girlfriends as they eat breakfast; to silence her, Tom makes use of a grapefruit.

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The scene was thrown in by director William Wellman, who was undergoing a little bit of a rough patch with his wife.  At the time often fantasized about doing exactly the same thing during their own arguments, but always stopped himself; only to have the urge come up again.  He was hoping that by putting it into the film, it would get the urge out of his system.   Not only does it seem to have done so, in later years it proved a salve to the ex-husband of the actress involved, Mae Clarke; he and Clarke had divorced either just prior to or during filming, and when he saw the scene, he very carefully noted exactly what time the scene took place in the film.  Then, whenever he needed cheering up, he would show up at a theater box office about five minutes before the scene happened, buy a ticket, enter the theater, watch only that scene, and then cheerfully leave.

The Movie Crash Course Holds a Bake Sale

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So!  There is a lot of buzz around the upcoming movie adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time. I’m going to be seeing it for certain, and am especially intrigued to see what Ava Duverney does with the story.

Towards that end: there are more than a few schoolteachers who’ve started Kickstarters and Go Fund Me drives to take their classes to screenings of the film.  I’ve actually thrown my hat behind this drive, from a school in Oakland, California; several of the students speak English as a second language, but this teacher sounds like a hell of a force of nature, and I’d love to see them make their goal.  They are pretty close, too.

If you have some shekels to spare, please consider donating.

Thanks – the next review coming soon.

Movie Crash Course: The Great White Silence

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We’re jumping back in time on the list a bit; I’ve only just now been able to find a copy of 1924’s The Great White Silence. It was made just about a decade before Bride of Frankenstein – and only about five years before Frankenstein proper, and the differences are a little staggering.

Then again, it was filmed much earlier.  Great White Silence is compiled from the footage captured by Herbert Ponting, the official chronicler of the United Kingdom’s doomed Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910.  The Terra Nova team, lead by Royal Navy Officer Robert Scott, set out on a quest to be the first to reach the South Pole.  After a year of training and preparation in their base camp in Antarctica, Scott set out with four teams of four men each; three of the four teams would be setting up supply depots for the polar team for their return trip.  Scott reached the South Pole with three other men in early January of 1912 – only to discover that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them all by about a month.  Severe storms slowed them on the return trip, and all four men who reached the pole eventually froze to death on the way back to base camp.

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Ponting managed to escape all of that.  He was some years older than the others in the expedition, and Scott therefore asked him to stay behind on base camp.  Ponting didn’t seem to mind; while the others had been preparing for the expedition, Ponting was filming absolutely everything he could – well aware that his footage would be the first glimpse of the Antarctic that anyone back in England would ever see.  In fact, most of the film is taken up with Ponting’s footage of seals, killer whales, and penguins.

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Ponting also got a lot of footage of the crew of the expedition proper, as they cared for the horses and sled dogs or practiced skiing.

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There are some lighthearted moments – like one of the men on the expedition showing off how he’s trained the crew’s pet cat to jump through a “hoop” made by his outstretched arms.

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(Fair warning to anyone tracking down the film: the name the Terra Nova crew chose for their all-black cat is one that we would consider wildly inappropriate today.)

Ponting even manages to get some behind-the-scenes shots – after some breathless footage of the ship plowing its way through pack ice in the Antarctic sea, Ponting’s narration cheefully adds: “And here’s how I took that picture!” before cutting a still photo someone took of him filming while lying precarioiusly on a plank.

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The bulk of the film is so happy-go-lucky, in fact, that I started wondering if Ponting was even going to address the death of Scott and his crew.  And in fact, he seems to have left Antarctica just before Scott’s body was found; he holed up in New Zealand, combining his footage with some still photos he’d taken of the crew that winter, like this photo he took of Scott, to turn the film into a fundraising campaign for future expeditions.

When he heard the news of Scott’s death, however, he quickly turned the last act of the film into a memorial, using dotted lines on a map to trace their steps and returning to capture a photo or two of the snow cairn covering Scott’s remains, erected when the rest of the crew finally found them.

The tone of the last reel is a little different from the rest of the film, as a result; instead of Ponting’s dazzling footage of natural wonders, and breathless excitement of hope, the last bits are understandably dour. The intertitles dwell on the nobility and bravery of Scott’s team and their acceptance of impending death; but it’s also where the wonder in Ponting’s narration turns to the danger of the Antarctic.  Instead of shots of the beauty of the surroundings, we get notes from Scott’s diary: “Great God! this is an awful place….”

As each member of the team dies on the return, Ponting follows up his account of their death with one of his portraits of each man.

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Most poignant is the story of Captain Lawrence Oates; I’d heard his story before. Oates was one of the four men to reach the Pole, but suffered severe frostbite in both feet.  His injuries slowed the team’s return considerably, and several times he asked the team to just leave him behind in a tent and go on without him.  But the others would have none of it.  Finally, one night, as the team was hunkered down during a heavy blizzard, Oates struggled to his feet and calmly told the others: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”  He then walked out into the storm, never to return.

Instead of raising funds for future expeditions, Ponting’s film became a tribute, used to drum up funding to support the widows and children of Scott’s team.

Movie Crash Course: Bride of Frankenstein

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So there are adaptations that stay faithful to their source, and there are adaptations that take some liberties with their source.  And then there are adaptations that pole-vault over the source like ‘roided-up Russian athletes.

To be fair, Bride of Frankenstein was not meant to be based on Mary Shelley’s novel as such. Universal Pictures was simply reacting to the success of Frankenstein.  Producer Carl Laemmie was down with the idea – but Boris Karloff and director James Whale both had to be convinced; Whale thought that he’d said all he wanted to say with his original work, and Karloff was skeptical about the notion that his Monster would now be able to talk a little.  Shelley’s Monster became quite articulate, but Karloff’s conception of the Monster was of an innocent, naïve, and mute creature.  Still, after a few years, both eventually came around.  To everyone’s surprise, Bride of Frankenstein was another smash hit, and several scholars consider it to be Whale’s masterpiece, outdoing even the original Frankenstein.

 I….am conflicted about that.

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In my defense: I had Shelley’s original work on the brain and was still thinking about where the previous adaptation differed.  And Bride even starts out with a prologue scene featuring Mary Shelley, alluding to how she wrote the original work – and the movie version of Shelley even says some of the same things I was thinking in the end of my last review.  “Ah-ha!” said I, as the movie Shelley started to tell Lord Byron “what happened next” to her characters, “Whale must be re-directing and re-emphasizing what was lost in the original film.”  Whale was not doing that, however; he assumed that there was no way that the sequel would outdo the original, so he may as well go full-on wacky.

And that’s how kindly blind hermits, comic-relief busybody maids, skunk-striped fright wigs, and a scientist with living Barbie dolls he kept sealed up in mason jars got introduced to Shelley’s work.


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The historical anachronisms alone were glaring.  That prologue suggests that this whole story is the same story that Shelley is telling in 1814 – but at one point, a pair of graverobbers unearth someone buried in 1899.  There are a lot of pistols and rifles throughout that look more like 1914 weapons than 1814 ones.  And Frankenstein even talks to his wife Elizabeth by telephone at one point.…Okay, I know  this is some serious nitpicking. Everyone clearly wanted to tell a different story than the one from Shelley’s novel, though, so why even bother with the prologue?

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Actually, the script went through a few versions first, by three or four different screenwriters, that presumably were even wackier; I haven’t been able to find copies, but I’ve learned that Whale said of one treatment that “it stinks to high heaven”.  It wasn’t until draft/screenwriter number Four that anyone even thought to include anything from the source material; screenwriter John Balderston had the idea of making the sequel be about getting the Monster a wife.  Balderston also added the prologue with Shelley telling the story.  Whale seemed to like the ideas, but gave the script itself to yet more screenwriters, William Hurlbut and Edmund Pearson, for some polishing work.  Hurlbut and Pearson actually wove in bits and pieces from the earlier drafts as well.  Whale didn’t seem to mind.

Whale also had a hand in the casting; he decided that the actress cast to play the Bride should also play Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue, to symbolize how “horror comes from the dark side of imagination” or something.  It’s not really anything I noticed, however, until after the fact.  But the reason why I didn’t notice speaks well of Elsa Lanchester, who plays both roles.  Her version of Shelley is a little bit of a pampered and simpering genteel lady, which didn’t really seem much like Shelley to me.  Her Bride, though, is profoundly different – and not just because of the costuming and that hair.  She moves entirely in birdlike jerks, and her lines are all shrieks and hisses, which reportedly she based on the noise made by frightened swans.  I didn’t get “swan hiss” off it either, but I didn’t really need to; she was just trying to be freakishly different, and succeeded.

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I think the biggest reason why I was taken so aback by this film is solely because it tried to remind me of the source material in the first place.  It’s more of a Personal Statement for Whale at the end of the day; it’s a creature of Whale’s own making.  It’s why Bride probably surpasses Frankenstein in the minds of many, and is probably why we have the flat-top bolt-neck image of the Monster in our heads, as opposed to Shelley’s creation.

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In fact, I think seeing this as a double-feature with the original Frankenstein is a mistake; they’re very different.  Instead, if you’re looking for an even better double-feature idea, I’d pair this with the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, a biopic which covers the last few months of Whale’s life.  Whale was an openly gay man at a time when living as an openly gay man didn’t win you any friends or favor, and some even point to Bride of Frankenstein as a story about Whale’s attempts to find a sense of belonging.  Gods and Monsters imagines a friendship between Whale – beautifully played by Ian McKellen – and a young gardener (Brendan Fraser), a very straight former Marine and horror fan.  It’s a beautifully sensitive story that complements Bride of Frankenstein perfectly.

And to bring everything around back full circle – it seems that Gods and Monsters’ screenwriter, Bill Condon, is currently under contract to direct a remake of: The Bride of Frankenstein.


I have a couple more Oscar Bonus Round Reviews as well.

  • Phantom Thread: I’ve realized something about Daniel Day-Lewis.  He’s an exceptional actor – but the parts he plays are just unlikeable people.  So he’s brilliant at becoming people I hate spending two hours with.  And his fussy, fastidious London dress designer in this film is no exception.  …The lead actress is endearingly forthright, but the rather…unique way in which she tries to gain the upper hand in their relationship is also just too twisted for belief.
  • The PostIt’s just fine.  It’s well-acted, well-written, well-performed, and about a serious and important topic.  But all of that just feels like Standard Issue Spielberg Oscar-Calibre Film Model #103.  Seriously, it felt almost like he went to Ikea and got a flatpack “Oskar” kit and put it together in his garage one weekend.

Movie Crash Course: Frankenstein

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This film made me think a lot about adaptations in general.

Both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had adaptations released one after the other in 1931, during the classic cinema era; and then both had remakes in the 1990s. First came Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula in 1992, followed by Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Frankenstein in 1994.   Both the 1990s adaptations trumpted their faithfulness to the original novels; and now that I’ve seen all four, and have even read Stoker’s novel, I can confirm this is the case.

But “faithfulness to the source material” doesn’t always make for a good adaptation (remember: Coppola cast Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker).  Each director, each filmmaker, chooses to emphasize certain parts of the story, and cut certain parts they consider irrelevant – and the things you leave in, and the things you take out, can sometimes lead to the final story you tell being very different.

For instance:  In the original novel (and thus, the 1994 adaptation, with Robert DeNiro as the monster), the monster escapes from confinement and then spends several weeks hiding in a peasant family’s barn, learning to speak and teaching himself to read.  His cruelty comes from a place of intelligence and a desire for revenge against Victor Frankenstein; he is calculating, he is manipulative, he is self-aware. He knows he looks terrible and that he is therefore doomed to a horrific life; so much of his revenge against his creator is designed to force Frankenstein to create a wife for him, so he’s not totally alone.

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Our 1931 adaptation, though, drops all of this.  The monster escapes confinement after only a couple days of being kept in darkness, and blindly stumbles to a peasant’s house where a child innocently invites him to play, and he throws her in a pond, as he thinks that is part of the game.  Then he simply wanders off.  The grieving father rallies a mob to pursue his daugher’s killer – whom they all somehow know is Frankenstein’s creature – and they pursue the monster in the mountains, with Frankenstein finally confronting him at the head of the mob.  The monster attacks him, takes him hostage and barricades them both inside a windmill, where he and the mob have a final standoff.  But this monster cannot speak, and seems to not even recognize Frankenstein; he’s just a creature following a survival instinct.

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This adaptation also gives Frankenstein a much happier ending than the original book – the monster interrupts Frankenstein’s wedding to the lovely Elizabeth, but with the monster defeated and Frankenstein rescued, this film ends with Frankenstein’s father enjoying a champagne toast to the honeymooning couple.  The original novel has a much bleaker end for Frankenstein, and Elizabeth fares even less well.

Actually, Elizabeth’s fate is one of the few places that the 1994 film differs from the novel, which simply has the monster kill her off.  In the 90s film Frankenstein takes the freshly-dead Elizabeth and attempts to re-animate her as he did with his monster. He intends to revive her for himself, but the monster thinks that Elizabeth is to be his.  Elizabeth, however, wants nothing to do with either of them and kills herself almost immediately.

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In 1931, though, Elizabeth only gets a brief scare when the monster breaks into her bridal chamber right before the wedding.  He chases her around the room a bit, then simply leaves again, leaving her shaken, but alive, and able to marry Frankenstein the next day.

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Now – in general, there are a lot of reasons why filmmakers can omit things from adaptations. Sometimes it really is for dramaturgical reasons; movies are very different from the printed word, and audiences need things to be a little more streamlined as a result; you can go back and re-read things you don’t understand in a book, but you can’t ask the projectionist to “rewind that last two minutes so I can watch that again”.   If you’re working wtih an especially long novel, you may also need to make some cuts so you don’t end up with a seven-hour marathon of a picture; and as beloved as some of those elements may be, if they don’t contribute to the whole of the story they may need to go (all y’all missing the Tom Bombadil sections from the Lord Of The Rings movies, take note).

But taking away the monster’s intelligence, and giving Frankenstein a happy endingprofoundly changes the story being told.  Frankenstein does have a line or two about how his “madness” caused him to do terrible things, but effectively all he has to do is make his creation go away.  He suffers no real comeuppance – not from his fiancee, not from his family, not even from his former teacher, from whom he stole most of his equipment.  He’s injured by the monster, but recovers.  It’s like he simply let a couple petri dishes get contaminated and just had to clean the lab out a little more thoroughly.  He’s “created life”, but that “life” doesn’t really seem to impact him at all.

Shelley’s original story was a warning against science going too far, and a call to scientists to be prepared to face the consequences of their actions.  But this film is all about how creepy the monster is, and how the scientist won in the end so it’s all okay.  That is a very, very different message; and it’s one I’m not entirely certain we can chalk completely up to Hollywood needing a happy ending.

Movie Crash Course: Dracula

Like I said with Nosferatu a while back: it’s a vampire story, you know the drill.

Although in this case there’s a bit more to it.  Nosferatu was originally going to be an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original work, except that F. W. Murnau didn’t do the due diligence getting the rights, and Stoker’s widow sued.  So Murnau changed the name and some of the details of the story. In this case, producer Carl Laemmie was a bit more careful, and got the rights to the story of Dracula first before proceeding.

Even so, this isn’t a straight adaptation of Stoker’s book; instead, it’s an adaptation of a stage play, which was itself an adaptation of the novel.  This was probably a wise move – the book has a number of extraneous characters that would be getting in the way, while the play pares down the cast list considerably and streamlines the story, to its benefit.  I’ve read the book, and even seen the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation (which is a more faithful by-the-book version), and even with that reinforcement I still don’t remember any of the names of the extra characters; but Van Helsing, Mina, and Dracula, I know solid.  For this reason alone, basing the movie on the play was a wise move.

The film also owes a debt to the stage play in one other respect, however. Originally, despite rave reviews as Dracula during the stage production, Bela Lugosi wasn’t even under consideration for the lead role; Laemmie was considering a number of other actors instead. But while Laemmie was auditioning actors, a touring company of Dracula came through Los Angeles, and Lugosi was conveniently playing the lead here as well.  He all but dragged Laemmie to see the production, and campaigned hard for the role, going so far as to accept a pittance of a salary: only $500 per week for the two months of filming. Even though he came to regret it in later years, Lugosi became so associated with the role that it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else playing this cursed count.

Lugosi’s performance wasn’t the biggest revelation for me watching this film, though. Somehow, despite never seeing more than the occasional clip here and there, I found that I’ve managed to build up a version of the film in my head that was wildly different from the actual film. I was expecting a much more violent and frantic Count Dracula, and a wild orchestral score.  But instead – there is very little music, and Lugosi is much more prone to stony stares and languid, hypnotic pacing, and I’m not entirely sure how I got my previous impressions.

Dwight Frye, as Renfield, was another revelation. In the Francis Ford Coppola film, Renfield is played by Tom Waits, so you already know from the start that he’s a little nuts.  But here, Renfield is one of the first characters we meet – a spit-and-polish solicitor who bravely sets off for a meeting with the Count, poo-poohing the warnings from the villagers about Dracula being a vampire as he does.  He still turns into a madman in due course, but the contrast with the earlier sane Renfield is especially striking.

There’s some “special effects” moments that are a little laughable – the film makes frequent use of a bat flying around and menacing characters, and the bat in question is a little too obviously a puppet on a string.  I also raised my eyebrows a bit at an early scene in Dracula’s castle, when Renfield was timidly checking the place out and saw all kinds of creepy animals crawling around, like spiders and rats – and, strangely, he sees a group of armadillos nosing around some stairs.

Nevertheless, this is a film that has worked its way into our collective id, even if – like with me – the impression you have of the film is wrong.  It’s earned its way in there, wobbly bats and Lugosi’s stare and all.