There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, though, it seems that what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland can apply elsewhere, too…
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
(Dist: Universal Pictures Dir: Lambert Hillyer)
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male. — Rudyard Kipling
Unfortunately, it would seem that Carl Laemmle Jr. never got that notice.
The classic series of Universal Monsters became staples not only of the horror genre but American culture as a whole during the last century. While appreciated for years after their release, their initial theatrical windows barely kept the studio afloat, and it was often during their television runs after World War II that the studio finally saw the majority of their profit on many films in the franchise. But while they were being cycled out, Universal became one of the first victims of “sequelitis” as they kept their horror properties continually before the audience.
One surprise as one looks back is that Universal hadn’t for whatever reason gone further with risking alternative casting to keep a franchise fresh. There was some success when they allowed James Whale to revisit his earlier classic with the idea to change things up, which led to 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, though it need be said that giving the monster a mate was in the original source material. Despite the good notices the follow-up film received, the studio never seriously considered this strategy for keeping their properties interesting.
Case in point, their effort to add a woman’s touch to their Dracula series…
The origin of the film came from a rights fight: An unused chapter in Braham Stoker’s novel that became a stand-alone story, “Dracula’s Guest”, was optioned by David O. Selznick over at MGM. The studio hoped to use their version of the story to come up with a set of horror films to rival Universal’s pictures, but with the failure of Freaks, directed by Tod Browning who did Dracula for Universal, the treatment for the story ended up going over to Century City, and from there into development hell, where multiple drafts kept getting rejected by British and American censor boards as the studio was looking for pre-approval and Whale, the first director tied to the shoot, did his best to keep off the film.
One would have thought by the end of the production cycle, that had there been an effort to explore the feminine aspect of vampires, that Universal might have harkened back to the three wives of Dracula we saw in the original film:
Unfortunately, with Browning persona non grata after the failure of Freaks, which exasperated his struggles with alcoholism, the studio was not willing to revisit this approach to the property, and ultimately came up after numerous takes with the alternative scenario they did. One where they picked up the story right after the first film ended, and somehow in one night it goes from the late Victorian era to the modern day. And in the process, the good doctor (Edward Van Sloan) went from being “Van Helsing” to “Von Helsing.” And where they had two comic reliefs as bobbies arrest Van Von Helsing, found alone in Carfax Abbey, even though they should have run into Mina Harker and John Seward walking up the stairs into the dawn where the first film ended.
From there, it gets messier; the body of the victim, the Count (not played by Bela Lugosi, but a waxwork likeness), gets spirited out of the evidence locker by Contessa Marya Zeleska (Gloria Holden), the self-proclaimed daughter of Dracula, and her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), who engage in a ritual to destroy Vlad’s body and free her of her curse, the need for blood. Alas, her efforts fail, as Sandor talks her into embracing her blood lust the way a bad influence convinces a recovering alcoholic to do a long weekend in Vegas, and soon, she needs to feed, choosing a young model, Lily (Nan Gray), as her next meal.
Which is where things get a little interesting.
When the film is discussed, it is usually focused on the scene where Zeleska is seducing Lily, or is being as seductive as a heavily rewritten script in Code-dominated Hollywood can be, with Holden in her first starring role under contract carrying on as best she can even though she supposedly hated the material. The fact that there is some suggestion that Zeleska has lesbian impulses (as well as vampiric ones) has made the film a touchstone for the gay community many years later, although Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet suggests that Universal may have promoted this angle in the early stages of the publicity campaign.
It’s hard to say all these years later if Holden is actually trying to be a lesbian icon, if she took that approach to try and subvert her having to work on what she considered schlock, or if the scene just ended up that way in spite of an otherwise haphazard script where the Princess of Darkness seemed to operate under an entirely different set of rules as to how to be a vampire than her ‘father’ did.
It’s hard to determine if there was any inherent message or theme to the film beyond, “That bastard Selznick is not eating OUR lunch!” The fact that the film was re-written so many times and so often to keep film decency boards happy gives it a disjointed feel that prevents the casual viewer from full immersion into the feel and story. Going from tortured angst to bumbling comedy to a romance punctuated with insults between Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) and his affection Janet (Margaret Churchill) that’s threatened as Zaleska goes after Jeffrey (as opposed to Janet, which is telling in how little consistency there was in slapping this together), the film ultimately has the feel more than anything of a commercial product meant to generate money to keep the studio’s bosses happy.
Not that it did; by the time the film wrapped production, the Laemmle family was no longer in control of Universal Pictures, having failed to pay back a $1,000,000 loan that came due in the interim. For a few years, Universal was out of the horror business, until a series of miscues and outright flops made the new management revisit their properties.
When they did look at vampires from then on out, Universal kept it a man’s profession. We wouldn’t see a bold effort at a proper feminine vampire, including those with tastes for heroines until Hammer Films turned to Camilla as inspiration for their set of films.
Universal, meanwhile, would still have a woman problem, one that was even sloppier than the story of Zeleska…
NEXT TIME: You shouldn’t invite the kids to all your parties, especially your political ones…