The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #2

The Universal Classic Monster Collection, Part 1  

David Christenson

Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection
Eight DVD set released October, 2000 by Universal Studios
Includes Dracula, the Spanish version of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, Creature From the Black Lagoon
Mono sound, full screen, unrated. Extras include critical commentaries, documentaries, theatrical trailers
Manufacturer’s suggested retail price, $199.98

First thoughts: what’s in and what’s out

Do I really have to tell you to buy this set? If you are a horror fan and a DVD collector, you’ve already got it, or you’re planning to get it. These films are essential viewing and essential components of a horror film collection.

The composition of the set brings up a fannish question: If you were putting together a set of eight “classic” Universal monster movies, what would you include? For starters, the pinnacles of the golden age are here: Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy. After these four are included, you get to the tough decisions. The Wolf Man is a logical next step, to include the best film and top monster of the 1940s. The Creature From the Black Lagoon is an acknowledged classic monster, and a solid representative of Universal’s work in the 1950s.

But with two more slots to fill, things get really hairy. From the other classics directed by James Whale, Universal chose The Invisible Man, a worthy film that spawned several belated sequels, and a more accessible and better known film than Whale’s other classic, The Old Dark House. Besides, The Old Dark House has been licensed to Image Entertainment for home video sales.

The final slot in the arbitrary eight is The Phantom of the Opera, in one of its least known incarnations, the Claude Rains version. It’s the only color film in the bunch. Personally I don’t think of it as a monster movie, but more on that anon.

Myths of the early sound era #1: “A” to “B”

Dracula and Frankenstein are occasionally referred to as “B” pictures, as though the flaws we find in them through hindsight can be blamed on low budgets and rushed production schedules.

There was no such thing as a “B” picture in 1931, technically speaking. The term refers to the second, lesser movie in a double feature, and double features were not standard fare until the mid-1930s. In a typical 1931 program, there was a main feature plus shorts, and maybe even a live vaudeville act. The class division between expensive and inexpensive films was not as rigid as in the 1940s, when Universal’s monster flicks were churned out on the studio assembly line by underpaid contract workers who dreamed of working on more prestigious (and now forgotten) dramas.

Yes, there were some cheaply made films in 1931, but the original Universal sound horrors were not cheap by the standards of the day. Dracula cost $442,000 for a 42-day shooting schedule (depending on whose ledgers you’re reading), while Frankenstein cost $291,000 and took 34 days to shoot. The average shooting schedule for a 1931 film was 22 days, and the average cost was about $200,000, according to sources quoting from Variety. Dracula and Frankenstein were not big-budget films, but they were above-average investments, particularly for Universal, which was close to insolvency that year, and was not known for big spending anyway.

What did Universal get for its money? A couple of hot directors: Tod Browning, a famous filmmaker from the silents, and rising star James Whale. Large and talented casts. Elaborate makeup, costumes, and sets—terrific sets. Why such a lavish treatment for gothic grotesquery? In 1931, the big eight movie studios had just been through a good year for attendance, but box office was dropping as the novelty of talking pictures wore off and the reality of the Depression set in. Big-budget westerns were losing money and musicals, after a couple of good years, now looked like poison. Hollywood needed new stories, new attractions, new must-see movies. The “weird romance” of Dracula was a gamble, but the gamble paid off with profits, and Frankenstein was a well-financed follow-up.

In a way, the filmmakers had tapped into a formula that had been paying off ever since the heyday of D.W. Griffith—Victorian morality tales dressed up to look like daring modern stories—but this was a darker vein of Victorian storytelling that Griffith would never have touched.

A theory about the armadillo infestation

Many have speculated about the presence of opossums and armadillos in the castle of Dracula in the Tod Browning version of the film. Opossums are evidently stunt doubles for rats, but armadillos? How about this: vampires and their rat friends are associated with the bubonic plague, and armadillos are the only animals other than humans that are susceptible to the plague....

Myths of the early sound era #2: the off-season

Modern-day moviegoers might wonder why, if Dracula and Frankenstein were intended as big commercial films, why were they premiered in February and December, respectively, and not in the summer? Well, in 1931, the moneymaking season for movies ran in the cold months, from Labor Day to Memorial Day, just the opposite of today’s blockbuster season, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Why? No air conditioning. Also, it was assumed people had better things to do in summer, like farming, or fishing.

By the way, my prejudices about “extras”

For those of you who haven’t experienced movies on DVD: the format is so efficient that a movie of normal length does not nearly fill the disk. There is room for “extras,” which fans of DVD demand in ever increasing quantities. Typically these “extras” take the form of interviews with moviemakers and actors, discussions by critics, pages of text and illustrations such as posters and “stills,” scenes that were deleted from the finished film and demonstrations of special effects techniques.

Frankly, I’m a skeptic about such frills. The information you can glean from “making of” documentaries, still galleries and text-on-screen features is better presented in a book. Most deleted scenes I’ve seen in contemporary films were deleted for good reason, and there are a few I wish I’d never seen at all. Most contemporary special effects demos are a letdown: the computer did this, the computer did that, ho hum. The big cloth tube they used to simulate a tornado in The Wizard of Oz was more interesting.

DVDs also allow the viewer to switch to alternate soundtracks—same images on the screen, different sound. It’s becoming customary for “special edition” DVDs to include a commentary soundtrack, typically executed by the director in the case of new movies, or by a film critic in the case of old movies.

The art of film commentary is still in the formative stage, in my opinion. I find that the most rewarding commentary tracks bring out details in the scene or niceties of storytelling that escaped me, or moments of fine film acting, or errors of technique or continuity. Most critics agree that the best commentaries are “screen-specific,” which is to say, focusing on the images on the screen rather than going off on tangents. The commentaries in this Universal set are primarily of the tangent variety, particularly in the matter of long-winded biographies of the actors and bit players. They’re informative, but difficult to take in while you’re watching completely unrelated images. Meanwhile, some of the same information is dispensed in the documentaries, along with an awful lot of comments about how great the films are—c’mon, we’ve already bought the DVDs; you don’t have to sell them to us twice!

Myths of the early sound era #3: silent to sound

The transition from silent movies to sound movies was not as abrupt as most folks imagine. It wasn’t as though Jolson sang “Mammy” in 1927 and by 1928 everything was geared up for talkies. The classic years of horror movies were still transitional years. In 1931, only about 13,000 of the nation’s 22,000 movie theaters were wired for sound. In 1933, the year of The Mummy, about 1,400 more theaters were wired, but there were about 1,500 fewer theaters. It seemed that, for a while, theaters were going out of business faster than the sound phenomenon was growing.

What did this mean for distribution of the early sound horrors? Silent prints of Dracula were made, with title cards cut in to replace dialogue, but I have seen no indication that the same was done for Frankenstein. Many early sound films were simply inaccessible to many moviegoers, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods or small towns, where the theaters couldn’t afford sound equipment. In slums and rural areas, an audience for silent films continued, of necessity, until nearly 1935, almost the end of the first sound horror cycle. It’s interesting to imagine that Lon Chaney might have been the king of horror for many of these folks long after his death in 1930.

It took a while to develop the best technique of putting sound to film. The sound for Dracula was originally recorded and distributed on Vitaphone discs, which were played on a machine separate from the projector. The projectionist was expected to synchronize the sound with the film, an expectation that was not always met to the audience’s satisfaction. The technology we call the soundtrack—an optical track on the film print itself—was adopted by Universal and other major studios in the course of 1931. When studios re-released films such as Dracula, they needed room on the prints for the soundtrack, so they reduced the size of the frame. Therefore the version of Dracula you may have seen as a kid on TV was missing 25 percent of its picture.

In a restoration of Dracula for laserdisc in the 1980s, an original “silent aperture” full-frame print was used. But in his commentary on the current DVD, David Skal says that a particular image is off center because of the masking of the frame for a soundtrack, so it seems as though Universal used something other than the restored print. It actually doesn’t look off-center to me, and I can’t imagine why Universal wouldn’t use its own restoration for this version.

(The above might also explain why some silent films appear “cropped” when a musical soundtrack is added for re-release or television release. Thus, in inferior prints of the silent classic Nosferatu, the vampire rises from his coffin and bumps his head against the top of the frame. Very annoying.)

The Spanish version, and a defense of Browning

Silent film was a truly international cinema—no language barrier. In the early sound years, studios were reluctant to lose their lucrative foreign film markets, so it was common to shoot foreign language versions of films alongside the English productions, employing foreign actors on the same sets. Eventually sound evolved to the point where dubbing of a film in another language could be done for a fraction ($3,000 to $4,000) of the cost of a parallel production ($30,000 or more). But the customs of the early 1930s gave us the Spanish version of Dracula, a fascinating document. I can think of no other situation where we have the chance to study an alternate version of a classic film, made at the same time, on the same sets, by different talent.

At last, you think, I have both movies on one disk—now I can finally compare scenes with the push of a button! Sorry, Bub. If there is such a button I couldn’t find it. Navigation is so clunky that, in order to make meaningful scene-by-scene comparisons, I ended up popping the disk in and out of the player repeatedly. This is not what DVD is all about, folks. There’s some debate about which 1931 version of Dracula is “better.” Each has its merits, in my opinion.

The standard line is that the Spanish version is technically better, while the English version had a better cast. True, with some exceptions. Lupita Tovar in the Spanish language version is a terrific Mina/Eva, and her honest performance is certainly a highlight of that film. Pablo Alvarez Rubio is a fine and memorable Renfield and brings out shadings in that character not seen before or since. The other actors in the Spanish version are merely adequate, in the case of bug-eyed Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing, or mannered to the point of silliness, as in the case of Carlos Villar’s hammy Dracula. (It may have been doubly annoying to Latino audiences that Villar spoke with an accent from his native Spain, while the other principals hailed from Mexico—producers at Universal apparently didn’t realize Spanish has accents.)

In the English version, Bela Lugosi is an unsurpassed vampire; the conviction he put into his histrionics is still effective, and his attempted attack on Van Helsing is one of the great moments of horror film. Dwight Frye is excellent as a pitiable and otherworldly Renfield. Edward van Sloan as Van Helsing is stiff and strange, well-cast for the role. Helen Chandler as Mina is only as good as the film allows.

Director George Melford was more generous to his actors than Tod Browning, and Melford’s Spanish version quite rightly develops Tovar’s character as an emotional center for the story. Dracula and Renfield are at the center of the Browning version, but their most grotesque actions are off-screen; the film’s center is off center.

Like too many directors, Browning sometimes treated actors like props. But Melford occasionally betrays some of the same tendencies. When Melford slips up, it’s usually when he doesn’t trust his actors to carry a scene, as when he cuts away from an actor’s soliloquy for a reaction shot, breaking the mood for the sake of pace. When Browning slips up, it’s usually in matters of visual continuity.

The DVD packaging claims that the two had “identical scripts,” adapted from the stage play. If so, there were plenty of script changes on the set, because the final dialogue is far from identical. The Spanish version is about a half hour longer. Tovar and Rubio get more screen time than Lugosi and Frye, and it pays off. The endings are markedly different: while the Spanish version is less logical (Dracula really should not leave crowbars and wooden stakes lying around in his crypt), it has a more emotionally satisfying denouement.

I’ve heard that the “photography” in the Spanish version is better, and there I have to disagree; the failings of the English version are not likely the fault of the great cinematographer Karl Freund (though there are a few sloppy moments). It seems to me it’s not the photography but the staging and editing that are markedly different, and these are typically not within the photographer’s control. In the Spanish version, point of view in most scenes is well established, the relationships between characters more clearly defined, and the cross-cutting more sophisticated. But because it’s slicker, it’s not quite as creepy, to me. Melford’s version leans toward gothic melodrama, and Browning’s version toward shock horror, a movie that slithered out from some dark corner of Hollywood.

I believe Browning’s Dracula retains its unsettling effect partly because of things that we now perceive as technical glitches: old-fashioned camera work, oddly timed edits, etc. Part of this is Browning’s style, going back to his silent collaborations with Lon Chaney. Keep in mind, though, that with Dracula Browning was simultaneously making a silent movie and a sound movie, both of which evidently clocked in at 78 minutes. He had to accommodate the insertion of title and dialogue cards, which may account for the choppy rhythm in the sound version. Scenes were staged in a conservative way, possibly to ensure that the audience knew which character was speaking the dialogue. And when the film cut away from the dialogue card, the audience had to be returned to the scene without disorientation.

When we look at Browning’s actual task—turning a talky stage play into a visually interesting film, dealing with the primitive sound technology of the day, juggling the requirements of sound and silent filmmaking, not to mention dealing with a quirky cast and meddling studio executives—we can better appreciate his great achievement.

Myths of the early sound era #4: Dracula needs music

For some reason, it became a truism among critics and fans that the Lugosi Dracula would be a much better film with a full musical score. Now, Philip Glass has proved us wrong.

Next: the Whales

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David Christenson is a journalist, photographer, dealer in used and rare books, ex-beekeeper and movie buff who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.