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raymac Written by raymac
Oct. 27, 2006 | 12:33 AM

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1931: Universal and the Birth of the American Horror Film

1931, the STAR-SPANGLED BANNER is adopted as the United States National anthem, construction on the Empire State Building is completed, and the country is in the depths of the Great Depression. For modern day lovers of horror films, it is the year that changes everything.

But let’s step back a few years to 1915 when a German Jewish immigrant named Carl Laemmle moved his production company to the Cahuenga Pass, then outside of Los Angeles, to form Universal City Studios.  One of the first properties considered for filming was DRACULA but it was rejected by the readers who said that no audience could stand the film. That sentiment was shared by all the other studios which also rejected the tale as too fantastic and horrorifying. They would all be proven wrong when the novel was adapted into a successful London play which was then rewritten to become an even bigger smash on the Broadway stage. This led Tod Browning to try to convince Universal to secure the rights to make DRACULA as a vehicle for Lon Chaney but they turned him down. Chaney and Browning instead made LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT for MGM. As was the standard at that time for American films that featured fantastic elements, the vampire in the film turns out not to be real but rather an elaborate disguise used to trap a killer. (Browning would remake this film in 1935, this time with Bela Lugosi in THE MARK OF THE VAMPIRE.)

Things started to change when Carl Laemmle Jr. was made Head of Production of the studio in 1928 as a 21st birthday present by his father. He had a deep love for old German folklore and for horror literature and tries to convince his father to make DRACULA as a film. It isn’t until the younger Laemmle produces a string of box-office successes including the 1930 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, All Quiet on the Western Front, that the older Laemmle relents but with one stipulation, Lon Chaney must play the lead or no one. However, Chaney was under contract to MGM and was also suffering from throat cancer. His contract with MGM was not exclusive for sound pictures and Laemmle Jr. considered offering Chaney a personal contract for him to star in the film but MGM received word of it and threatened legal action. It would soon be a moot point when Lon Chaney succumbed to throat cancer to a stunned nation. (As much as I admire the work of Lon Chaney, I don’t know if Dracula or vampires, in general, would have become the iconic figures that they are today. His vampire probably would have been closer to that of Max Schreck in NOSFERATU that of a savage figure of fear rather then the suave, seductive vampire played by Lugosi.)

DRACULA was originally planned to be a massive production along the lines of the earlier Universal hits, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but Chaney’s death and financial trouble at the studio prompted the production to be scaled down. Instead of an adaptation of the book, the rights to the stage play were purchased to serve as the basis for the film but Carl Laemmle Jr. made one thing immediately clear in a telegram to the agent of the star of the play which said just three words, ?NOT INTERESTED LUGOSI.? Several popular actors of the time, Ian Keith and Paul Muni, were considered for the part but Bela Lugosi kept lobbying for the lead. Realizing that they could hire him for cheap, (he made ? the salary of the juvenile lead, David Manners who played Jonathan Harker) Lugosi was hired. Contrary to popular belief, by the time the film was made, Lugosi had a good grasp of English and did not learn the role phonetically (although he probably did do so for the original stage play.)
The film also starred Helen Chandler as Mina Harker, Dwight Frye as Reinfield, and Edward Van Sloan as Professor Abraham Van Helsing. According to many accounts, it was a disorganized production and it is rumored that director Tod Browning was not around the set much and that it was essentially ?directed? by its cinematographer, Karl Freund. This idea was reinforced years later when in an interview David Manners said that he never remembered seeing Browning on the set. However, the themes of the macabre and the outsider that are so prevalent in Browning’s other works are clearly present here as well. As was common practice at the time, a Spanish language version was filmed at the same time during the night when the American crew knocked off for the day. The Spanish crew would watch the dailies of what the American crew had shot the day before and made adjustments based on what they saw. Many critics consider this version to be the technically superior of the two.

However, the American version had one huge advantage, Bela Lugosi. He brought such a strength and magnetic personality to the role that he essentially redefined the image of the vampire forever. Whether he directed it or not, much of the success of the film must also go to Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography which gave the film a mysterious and otherworldly look. Although it is considered talky and stagy by many today, the scenes in the parlor between Dracula and Van Helsing crackle with an amazing energy and vitality. Dracula is well worth another look and the new 75th anniversary set gives you all the tools to judge for yourself.

The film was released on Valentine’s Day in 1931. Billed as ?The Strangest Love Story Man Has Ever Known,? it became a tremendous hit. Newspapers at the time reported that members of the audience fainted in shock at the horror on the screen. These stories, carefully planted by the publicity department, helped insure that people came to see the film. Women, in particular, where said to be taken by Lugosi’s matinee idol looks and European charms. The success of Dracula meant that 1931 would be a profitable year for Universal (it’s only one during the Great Depression) and the decision was made to strike while the iron was hot.

Being the other great pillar of horror literature, it was only natural that Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN would be the next property to be made into a film. The production was originally announced as starring Bela Lugosi. However, a screen test shot by the proposed director Robert Florey, of Lugosi in make-up with a chalky white pace and fright of hair that resembled the creature from Paul Wegener’s silent classic, Der Golem, was rejected by the studio. Lugosi, who did not like the prospect of playing a mute monster under tons of make-up, quit the production (or so the legend goes.) Robert Florey, for reasons never made clear, was soon fired from the picture and a new director had to be hired. Carl Laemmle Jr. wanted James Whale; a renowned stage director who had success with the films Journey’s End and Waterloo Bridge. Whale, initially did not want to do the film but after seeing the script saw that there were ideas that he could work with and became downright enthusiastic about making the film. Whatever qualities that Laemmle Jr. saw in Whale’s previous works, his choice turned out to be an inspired decision in retrospect. Whale quickly set about having Robert Florey’s original script rewritten and began to cast the film.

For the role of Henry Frankenstein, (not Victor as in the book) he chose Colin Clive, who had worked with Whale on JOURNEY’S END. Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman and Dwight Frye as the mad assistant, Fritz joined the cast playing roles similar to the ones they played in Dracula. Mae Clarke as Elizabeth and John Boles as Victor Moritz rounded out the cast but the most important role had yet to be cast?. that of the Monster.

James Whale saw Boris Karloff one day at the studio commissary and though he had the perfect bone structure for the creature. Before offering him the role, Whale sat for several days making sketches of Karloff that he turned over to the make-up. Karloff accepted the role that would soon change his life forever. Make-up artist Jack Pierce soon began to shape the look of the Monster. Both he and James Whale claimed credit for the ultimate design but in reality the design was a collaborative effort between Whale, Pierce, and Karloff. The make-up job was an arduous affair for Karloff who truly suffered for his art. The body makeup was highly toxic and the role physically demanding. He lost over 25 pounds during the shooting and during the climatic scene Karloff injured his back while carrying Colin Clive which would trouble him for the rest of his life. The end results were undeniable. Because the makeup was specifically designed around Karloff’s face, it allowed him to display the full range of emotions. Instead of playing the part as an angry brute as was originally written, Karloff, in one of the greatest acting performances of all time, brought pathos and a child-like innocence to the Monster.

The look of the film set the standards for all that followed. Whale wanted the film to evoke the light and shadow feel of the German Expressionist films. The laboratory set anchored the film by creating the sense in the audiences’ mind that the dead could be reanimated. The electrical effects used in the creation scene were designed by Ken Strickfaden and were used in films through the 1970s.

Test audiences reacted badly to some of the scenes and several including the shot of the Monster tossing the little girl into the lake where cut out. To appease the League of Decency, the phrase, ?Now I know what it feels like to be God.? was cut out of the famous cry, ?Its Alive!? All of these cuts were added back to the restored version.

Right before the release, in a move that was part showmanship but also reflected the genuine apprehension that the studio had about the film, the following prologue starring Edward Van Sloan (out of character) was filmed:

How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle [the producer] feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation - life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even - horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to - uh, well, we warned you.

The studio’s publicity department went all out as was recalled by Forrest J. Ackerman, legendary editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS of FILMLAND, during a recent panel at Comic-Con:

?I was fifteen and went down to Market Street to the Orpheum to see an ambulance parked in front of the theater and thought, ?What kind of film am I going to see?? About halfway through the film, a woman jumped up and ran out out the theater, I was amazed and decided to stay to see the film again. During the second screening, the exact same thing happened, so I stayed a third time and sure enough…. That’s how I learned about the Hollywood publicity machine?

The film turned out to be a bigger critical and commercial success than even DRACULA and made Boris Karloff a star. A series of highly successful horror films followed including THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. However due to an expensive series of non horror flops the Laemmles were forced to sell the studio and the first cycle of Universal Horror came to an end.

But that would only be the beginning. For DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN brought a new phrase, the horror film, into the American vocabulary and changed Hollywood forever.