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A Valentine to 1931’s ‘Dracula’: Universal Touted Film as a Love Story

Two months before the movie “Dracula” opened in 1931, Universal took out a Variety ad promoting it as “The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” That spin reflected the fear of some executives that women couldn’t resist a love story but might be put off by blood-sucking vampires — even though the novel and stage adaptation had been big hits. The movie opened on Valentine’s Day (!) and in his Feb. 18, 1931, review, Variety critic Alfred Rushford Greason (which sounds like a name invented by Bram Stoker) predicted success. He added, “It is difficult to think of anybody who could match the performance of Bela Lugosi.” He was right. The actor’s intense stare and distinct accent (from Austria-Hungary) set the standard for vampires for nearly 100 years. The creatures remained popular in movies, including the Christopher Lee/Hammer horror pics and the Francis Coppola “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” starring Gary Oldman. But the genre got new blood, so to speak, with the novels of Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer and their film adaptations.

In his review, Greason said “Dracula” created “a remarkably effective background of creepy atmosphere.” That was due to director Tod Browning and cinematographer Karl Freund. The horror genre was still a gamble back then. Universal had success with Lon Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (which some considered a scary film). But it was an unproven genre. To back up their investment, the studio simultaneously filmed a Spanish-language version of “Dracula,” directed by George Melford. This film’s crew and actors moved onto the soundstage at night, filming on the same sets that had been used during the day by Browning’s team.

The studio’s gamble paid off big time, and “Dracula” became its biggest hit of the year.

Two months later, Variety wrote an April 8, 1931, story headlined “U has horror cycle all to self.” The story said, “With ‘Dracula’ making money at the box office for Universal, other studios are looking for horror tales — but very squeamishly. Producers are not certain whether nightmare pictures have a box office pull or whether ‘Dracula’ is just a freak.” The story, with no byline, said this was one of the few occasions when a hit movie wasn’t followed by a cycle of similar pictures.

However, Universal recognized a good thing, and it followed “Dracula” with “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy,” as well as other fright-fare for decades.

Browning, with a long list of silent film credits, directed only a few more talkies, including the still-amazing “Freaks,” in 1932. Cinematographer Freund continued to work in films, and came out of retirement for his old colleague Lucille Ball and her comedy series “I Love Lucy,” helping to innovate the lighting for a filmed sitcom in an era when many similar shows aired live.

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