"Dracula" (1931) on Blu-ray -- A Tale of Old Hollywood!

"Dracula" (1931), Blu-ray.  A Universal release from 2013

This disc includes TWO distinct versions of the film:  The more familiar, English version with Bela Lugosi, and the fascinating Spanish version with an entirely different cast and crew, shot at the same time, on the same sets.

Audio on this one is DTS-HD MA 2.0 48KHz (dual channel Mono).

This disc was originally released as part of a boxed set sold in 2012.  As such it still has the older style of Universal authoring, with their incredibly annoying Menu Sound Effects and their equally annoying Screen Saver.  Curiously, there are NO BD-Live features on this disc; not even Universal’s typical, Top Menu “ticker".


From time to time, I'll post about movies that particularly interest me; either because their presentation for home viewing is technically exciting, or, as in this case, because the story of how the movie came to be made is downright fascinating!

Before I get back to that teaser couple paragraphs you just read, the Extras content on this disc deserves special mention.

The iconic nature of both the original, Bram Stoker, 1897 novel, and this film adaptation -- as well as its importance in securing Universal's reputation as the #1 studio for talking picture horror -- have led to its being studied in depth, and from every conceivable aspect.  The Extras content on this disc gives a surprisingly good account of all that.

To start with, the film was originally released in 3 forms.  The English language talking picture is of course the main feature on this disc  -- a digital restoration.  Second, a silent version was derived from the English talkie -- both for distribution to the significant percentage of US theaters which were still not equipped to play sound films in 1931, and for the overseas market where foreign language intertitles could be edited in.  It's not clear to me whether the silent version survives at all at this point, but for the Extras they've recreated a scene from it, editing in title cards according to Universal's original production documents for that.  Third, in 1931, the Spanish speaking world -- South America in particular -- was crazy for sound films, but they wanted them in Spanish.  Dubbing technology was clumsy and produced pretty poor results in 1931.  Perhaps equally important, it was considered "cheating".  So a SPANISH version of the film was shot in parallel -- with an entirely different cast and crew using the same sets over again each night, to film the same scenes the English cast and crew had filmed during the previous day.

And Universal has included the full, Spanish version of the film -- ALSO in digital restoration!  This version was long thought lost, but prints were unearthed both in the US and in Europe in the 70s.

This is more than just a novelty, as there are apparently a significant number of people who think that, in many ways, the Spanish version is SUPERIOR!

The English version was Directed by Tod Browning with significant directorial help from his Cinematographer, Karl Freund.  Both Browning and Freund were established experts in SILENT film production.  Browning, for example, had Directed Lon Chaney's silent films at MGM, and had been stolen away from MGM by Universal specifically with this picture in mind.  (Chaney was expected to star in this, until his untimely death from cancer forced Universal to look elsewhere.)  And Freund had a particular knack for the German Expressionist style.  They were both established, A-picture professionals.

Meanwhile the Spanish version was Directed by George Melford and shot by George Robinson.  It starred Carlos Villarías in the Lugosi role of the Count.  It is known that Melford and Villarías were required to view the dailies of the English filming before shooting the Spanish scenes.  (Universal wanted Villarías mannerisms to closely track Lugosi's performance.)  And it is clear that the Spanish crew took this as a chance to "one up" the English team.  OK, they did it THAT way; well WE can do it BETTER!

As an early talkie, there's some question whether Browning and Freund were even comfortable with the mechanics of sound film production.  It also may be that Browning felt constrained by the need to make a film that could be edited into a Silent.  In any event, some extended dialog scenes in the script are cut out, and there's somewhat limited camera movement.

The Spanish version cut almost nothing from the script -- it is 30 minutes longer than the English version -- and includes camera motion that is described as "more modern" in style.  It is also sexier.  Largely this had to do with the fact that Universal didn't have to deal with censors for the Spanish version, but it also has to do with the fact that Melford was trying to hit on his leading lady -- Lupita Tovar, who plays Eva Seward.  So Eva's dresses are a LOT more revealing in the Spanish version, and there's more steam in looks and contact.  For example, in the English version, Lugosi's mouth never actually touches a throat.  In the Spanish version Villarias gets to do that -- with bared teeth!

The English restoration originated as a "nitrate lavender positive print"  -- an archive print struck back in 1931 from the original camera negatives and donated to the Library of Congress decades ago -- under an agreement which allowed Universal to get it back again for just such purposes as this restoration.  This put Universal in the enviable position of being able to do the entire restoration from just one, quality, film source.  The Spanish language version came from a distribution print unearthed in the 70's -- except for reel 3 which was rotted beyond hope.  For reel 3 they resorted to a distribution print that had been found at about the same time in Europe.  In both cases, these were nitrate stock prints -- meaning exceptional dynamic range, for the parts that SURVIVED.  With the exception of that reel 3 footage in the Spanish film (which is obviously inferior -- by a lot), and some additional film damage later in the Spanish version, *BOTH* restored prints look SURPRISINGLY good!

(The only HD Extra on this disc is a short presentation of the type of digital restoration work that had to be done.  See it, and you'll be amazed at how much digital cleanup was necessary for both versions.)

So what's on disc is two films -- each in digitally restored HD, each complete in footage, cleaned, and adjusted to correct for age damage, -- but not "fixed", beyond that, by any addition of modern content.  For example, no sound elements were recreated with modern tools.  For the English version, the film even includes the quaint, original, main title card -- the one with the typo which lists Carl Laemmle, Jr.'s, title at Universal Pictures as "Presient"!

There are also TWO film historian's Commentary tracks available.  David J. Skal does one and Steve Habeman the other.  Haberman is misleadingly described in the top menu text as the writer for Mel Brooks' "Dracula:  Dead and Loving It" (1995), presumably because the 1999 SD-DVD (which first featured these Commentaries) came out at a time when that comedy was still receiving a lot of buzz.  It's true that Haberman has both story and screenplay co-credits on that film, but he has ALSO done extensive study on early horror films and written on Dracula.  With the exception of a brief acknowledgement by him at the start of his Commentary that he worked on the Mel Brooks film, his Commentary makes NO references to that film, whatsoever -- nothing of the sort, "This scene in Dracula led us to put that joke into Mel's film."  Instead, both Commentaries are entirely focussed on the 1931 film, and chock full of information -- although not much emotion as both of them are evidently just reading from prepared notes.

What's fascinating, however is the degree to which the two of them DISAGREE!  Probably the biggest point of departure has to do with that Spanish version of the film.  Skal clearly thinks it is the better of the two -- more modern in structure, more complete in plot details, and, quite simply, a better made film, technically.  Haberman finds the editing of the Spanish version ridiculous -- leaving long-winded scenes that cut the legs out of the momentum of the story, and intercutting pairs of dramatic scenes, thus taking the impact out of each of them.  Haberman also finds the extra camera motion in the Spanish version ineffective and distracting.

For what it's worth, I agree with Haberman.  The English version is better.  It *IS* tighter, and with better momentum.  And Freund's most dramatic shots top anything Robinson produced.  But most of all, Villarías' Dracula is no match for Lugosi's.  Villarías default facial expression could only be described as a "silly grin".  Quite simply he has none of the gravitas Lugosi brings to the role.

Anyway, this argument adds a nice touch of irony to these two Commentaries:  Even after all this time, people can't agree that the original film is clearly a very, very special film.  For maximum enjoyment if you are going to listen to these, I suggest you listen to Skal's Commentary first and then follow up with Haberman's.

But wait!  There's more!

In the early days of talkies, filmmakers felt that audiences wouldn't understand music appearing in a sound film which didn't obviously derive from something appearing on screen.  As such, Dracula only has a musical score under the opening titles and during one brief scene at a performance hall in London.  Since Browning shot long scenes without dialog, this leads to the somewhat odd feeling that something is MISSING.

So in 1999, Universal had the bright idea to commission a modern film score -- as if this really WAS a silent film! -- from Philip Glass.  That is presented as an alternate audio track on this disc for the English version.  The modern music is mixed with the original dialog and ambient sound.  Alas, it is only presented as DD 2.0, but I still found the result a pleasant surprise!  Glass composed a very evocative and moody score, but did it in a way that it could be mixed in without becoming a distraction.  It just seems to "fill the gaps".

The disc includes subtitles, although the audio restoration is of such quality that they are not really needed.  It ALSO includes a "trivia" subtitles track -- called "Monster Tracks" on Top Menu.  Somewhat to my surprise there's actually less duplication than you might expect between that text trivia track, the TWO Commentaries, and the information in the documentary Extras.

So if you want to explore all of it, you get to watch the English film, the English film with trivia subtitles track, the English film with each of two Commentary tracks, the English film with modern musical score track, and the Spanish film.  After all of which, you probably WILL want to drink --- wine!

And that's just about watching the film!

With the exception of the one piece on the digital restoration process, all of the Extras content is SD.  I must say up front that Universal has made their usual mistake here.  They've taken 480i 4:3 content and put it on disc as 480i 16:9 -- with pillar box bars embedded in that SD stream.  Which of course means they've just thrown away a chunk of horizontal resolution.  See my prior Blog Post on SD Video Aspect Ratio for details.

That said, I thought the quality of the SD Extras was terrific!

The best of them is a 35 minute documentary, "The Road to Dracula", which explores the history of the original novel, and how that eventually turned into this Universal movie.  It is by no means a simple story, and this documentary is chock full of fascinating details.  I'll touch on just a bit of that in the feature film review below.

The next best, and a complete surprise to me, was an auto-advance slide show (with music) of marketing materials and production stills from the film.  In the Restoration piece, they point out they were in the fortunate position for this film of having a nearly complete archive of such stuff -- including the original, printed press-kit and theater owner's supplementary material.  I've seen a number of such slide shows on other discs, and I found this one stunningly good in comparison.

There is also a pretty good, 36 minute documentary on the life and career of Bela Lugosi.  Despite having landed the starring role in the Broadway production of Dracula (and one of the two touring companies that followed), Lugosi had to lobby hard -- beg wouldn't be too strong -- to land the role in this film.  Even AFTER Lon Chaney's death.  In the end, Universal signed him to a pretty demeaning contract -- just $500/week with only 7 weeks work guaranteed.  Just one of many sad events in his career.  The documentary also talks about how hard it was for him to shake the role afterwards.  It was, after all, HIS face on screen as Dracula -- no concealing makeup.  And, just as in the Broadway play, it was HIS voice.  Try as he might, in any role that followed, audiences still just thought they were seeing and hearing Dracula.

The last Extra is a collection of Theatrical Trailers for "Dracula" and the sequels that followed.

So after that LONG introduction, back to our story!


For his 21st birthday in 1929, Carl Laemmle, Jr., received an unusual birthday gift.  His Dad gave him Universal Studios.

The guy everyone THOUGHT was the heir apparent to Carl Laemmle, Sr., got relegated to doing B-grade pictures, as Junior jumped in with both feet and took complete control.  And he knew precisely what he wanted to make; a short list which included "Dracula".  Junior really got a kick out of horror tales.

Universal had toyed with the idea of "Dracula" for a while, but despite the money Pop had made on the Lon Chaney, silent grotesques, "The Phantom of the Opera", and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", he was loathe to take the step into SUPERNATURAL horror.  Besides which, the studio's "readers" were telling him that the Bram Stoker novel was (1) completely unfilmable, and (2) so utterly disgusting in almost every scene that if filmed, audiences were likely to throw up!

Junior had no such qualms, and immediately set out to secure the film rights.  This involved complicated negotiations with Bram Stoker's widow, and the two impresarios who had brought out "authorized" stage versions in England and on Broadway.  The idea was that this would be a Universal Superproduction -- their terminology for their best grade of "A" picture; extended in length and lavish in production values.  Junior sold the idea to Pop under the condition that the highly bankable Lon Chaney would play the lead.  Alas, Chaney died of cancer in 1930.

That wasn't the only problem.  There was also the minor little detail of The Great Depression.  Junior was forced to pull back his ambitions for "Dracula".  Still, it was made for about $400K -- roughly twice the typical budget for a normal, A-grade Universal release at the time.  Simultaneous production of the Spanish version added an additional cost of about $60K.  As it turned out, Junior was right.  The phenomenal success of "Dracula" contributed significantly to the fact that Universal was one of the few studios to actually turn a profit in the Depression year of 1931.  And of course it established Universal as THE source of sound film horror!

Bram Stoker was the long-suffering personal, and theater manager for "the boss from Hell", famous English actor Henry Irving.  When not busy managing Irving's Lyceum Theater, Stoker wrote fiction.  Trashy, popular, exploitation fiction -- which is exactly what "Dracula" turned out to be!  One way to get the boss off your mind, I suppose!

Contrary to popular belief, Stoker was not at all inspired by the history of the real-life, 15th century, nasty piece of work known as Vlad the Impaler -- also know as Dracula.  Stoker had the outline of his novel completed, and writing well under way, before he even ran ACROSS that name.  He just thought it was a cool name, and appropriated it.  (This is known because Stoker's original working notes survive, and can even be seen in a museum in Philadelphia.  Surprisingly, even his original, long-lost manuscript for the novel survives.  It was discovered in a barn in western Pennsylvania in the 80s and got snapped up by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.)

Stoker's novel was written in a long-winded, pseudo-docmentary style, with fake newspaper clippings, and the same events repeated from multiple points of view -- to help induce readers to believe it must be true.  The things we take for granted today about the character Dracula -- the urbane, aristocratic and even sexy vampire, with a flair for the dramatic -- are *NOT* part of Stoker's novel.  Stoker's Dracula was a foul old man, who became younger in appearance after drinking blood, but remained foul -- even to the extent of having bad breath.  He was NOT a romantic figure.

This is the sort of stuff that Laemmle, Sr.'s, readers were warning him against:  The story structure can't work for film, and the material is flat out disgusting.  Heck, it's even got RATS in it!

Stoker had ambitions of turning his story into a play -- to be produced by and starring Henry Irving of course.  But Irving would have none of it.  Under the bizarre copyright laws of the day, the novel had to be read aloud from the stage of the Lyceum to secure its future stage rights.  Irving didn't bother to sit through such a dull event, but he did wander through while it was going on, and tossed a dismissive "Absolutely Dreadful!" at the reader on the stage!  Of course the irony is that, today, almost NOBODY remembers Henry Irving.  But EVERYBODY knows Dracula!

Stoker died in 1912, and his widow eventually authorized two stage adaptations of the book.  The first was by no means so top-end as Irving would have done.  Indeed it was more evocative of cheap vaudeville, and toured the English provinces.  And THIS is were we first see Dracula in the getup of top hat and sweeping cape, while making dramatic gestures -- he's being presented in the trappings of the traditional, vaudeville stage MAGICIAN!

That provincial play worked so well that it was picked up by another promoter for a 2nd -- also authorized -- Broadway version.  Although rewritten for Broadway, BOTH plays represented a significant shortening and restructuring of Stoker's novel.  Now you had a linear structure with three acts -- the events at Castle Dracula, the attack on the girls near London, and the climactic chase back to Castle Dracula.  Here you also had the romanticizing of Dracula.  Indeed, the biggest fans of Lugosi's Broadway performance were all women!  Clara Bow, the "IT Girl" herself, was so smitten with Lugosi's Dracula that she even initiated a torrid affair with him!

Meanwhile, TWO unauthorized FILM versions of the Dracula story came out in Europe.  The first simply borrowed the name, and it is not clear Stoker's widow was even aware of it.  The second was F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922).  Although the name Dracula was not used either for the film or the character, this was clearly an adaptation of Stoker's novel.  Indeed it is much TRUER to the original novel than either of the plays, or the 1931 Universal film:  Count Orlok is a repulsive creature with the appearance of a man-sized rat!  Copyright was even less well understood for films at the time than for stage play adaptations, and it is quite possible Murnau didn't think it was even necessary to secure permission from Stoker's widow.  In any event, she succeeded in convincing a German court that Murnau was in the wrong, and "Nosferatu" was pulled from distribution with all film elements ordered destroyed!  (Fortunately some prints still survived.)

With all that going on you can see why Universal had such a struggle securing rights in 1930!  In fact, Junior's intent for his "Superproduction" was to film the actual, Stoker novel -- in all of its length and disgusting attributes.  However, the growing strength of the censors, and The Great Depression, forced him to take a different tack.

INSTEAD, he would film an adaptation of the two plays!  Indeed he shortened their abridged version even more -- discarding the climactic chase back to Castle Dracula, and having the Count get his comeuppance at Carfax Abbey, right next door.  He would also keep as much of the romantic aspect as the censors would allow.  If he couldn't scare the bejabbers out of people, at least he could get female paying customers in the seats!

The result still has some distinctly odd characteristics.  In 1931, the idea of filming rats was considered beyond the pale, for example -- in extremely bad taste.  So if you look closely at the scenes in Castle Dracula you will see, not rats, but -- I kid you not -- armadillos!  In the English language version, if you pay attention, you will also note that the bite marks, although described, are never actually shown on screen.  (They DO appear in the Spanish version.)

These days it's hard to think of ANY of this as invention.  OF COURSE Dracula's castle looks the way it does!  That's the way horror castles LOOK! Right?  But it really WAS invention.  Much of the film iconography we associate with the horror genre today derives from THIS 1931 film.  Crumbling castles with spider webs.  Bats!  Capes!  The inability of the baddies to withstand the sight of a Cross.  Stoker's trashy, 19th century novel, as re-interpreted for the stage, and as re-intepreted AGAIN for this film, invented all that!

Picture Quality on this Universal transfer is really, surprisingly good.  Even more so if you check out the Restoration Extra and see what they were starting from.  Not only did they do extensive cleanup and repair of film damage, they also corrected for degradation of gray scale -- with the same type of scene by scene and even element by element WITHIN a scene attention that's given to modern, Digital Intermediate color correction for new films, today.  They even reduced "camera weave" - the unsteadiness of the image simply due to the camera mounts of the day not being particularly sturdy, especially for shots taken from cranes.

They did NOT try to remove the idiosyncrasies of the film.  For example, in the English version Dracula is introduced standing in the crypt of Castle Dracula in full regalia.  As he stands stock still, the camera dollies in for a truly memorable closeup.  And he ends up off-center!  Browning and Freund failed to adjust the composition for the loss of one side of the negative -- the part that got replaced by the audio track!

The Spanish language version has more remnants of uncorrected film damage, and some poorer imaging from degraded elements.  Of course the 3rd reel footage is even more of a mess, but that's just a short portion.  Nevertheless, the best shots from the Spanish version look SPECTACULAR --- easily as good as the English version.  There's a REASON people dote on these old, nitrate-based films.  Nitrate stock was capable of much higher density than the safety stock that replaced it.

The original audio elements were evidently in comparatively DREADFUL shape.  As the restoration Extra demonstrates, they had to remove enormous amounts of noise, over and above age related defects like clicks and pops.  To my mind they've chosen wisely in how to balance these efforts.  There is STILL some noise remaining in the track, but that also means there's still the necessary fidelity to hear the ambient sounds, the practical effects sounds, and the dialog with delightful clarity.  NOTE:  This track also restores audio elements cut from the film by censors for the 1938 re-release.   For example, Dracula's death groans are now audible again as the stake is driven through his heart (off camera).

The history of this tale, and the resulting, thoroughly iconic film, are just fascinating.  Having all of that on disc along with a really nicely done, modern, digital restoration is simply a treat!