Dracula: Fisher, Lee and the creation of an icon

Dracula 1958

Bram Stoker‘s Dracula is one of cinema’s most enduring characters that continues to fascinate and inspire filmmakers and filmgoers more than 100 years after the book’s initial publication. A classic Gothic horror, the book’s heady plot and borderline homoerotic prose is very much of its time – indeed many of Stoker’s contemporaries were obsessed with crime and ghost stories – but surprisingly, despite unanimous critical approval, the novel enjoyed limited success upon its release, only reaching its iconic status in the early 20th century after several movie adaptations and a stage play took Dracula to the masses.

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The earliest film adaptations (the unauthorised Nosferatu was released in 1922, and the Tod Browning-directed Dracula was released in 1931) cemented the character of Dracula into the public consciousness, despite their varying degrees of faithfulness to the source material. Either way, Dracula resembled a sinister, haunting evil that wasn’t out to scare, rather to play on the mind of audiences. Of course, that perception was changed forever with the release of Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the US) a full-colour, flamboyant offering that launched countless clichés, spoofs and cartoons. But that all came later, Terence Fisher’s film was a small-budget Hammer Studios production with big ambition, from the surprisingly lavish sets to the all-out action, itself only homage to Stoker’s original text.

Dracula 1958

One of the biggest amends was the characters – Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen) evolves from a solicitor to a vampire slayer posing as a librarian, the three brides are condensed into one (played gore-loriously by Valerie Gaunt) and Renfield is notably absent. The removal of Stoker’s more ‘supernatural’ elements (Dracula’s ability to turn into a bat, for example) lend an everyday evil to the story; similarly Doctor Van Helsing’s (Peter Cushing) ready explanations of vampire behaviour (an allergy to light that was introduced in Nosferatu) ground the evil firmly in the real world: this is a fight between good and bad. To move the plot along swiftly, all the action is set in fictionalised ‘middle Europe’ – this simplification was almost certainly due to budget constraints; reportedly Fisher was shooting with a budget of £81,000 (a not unusual figure for a Hammer production).

Dracula 1958

The frenzied pace suits the leading men. Christopher Lee repackaged Dracula as a well-mannered cultured specimen, a ‘tall, dark and handsome host’ that’s considerably more savage than Legosi’s depiction. In fact, Lee’s Dracula – who simmers with menacing theatricality but can, nevertheless, switch from charming host to savage monster in a matter of minutes – is actually much closer to Stoker’s original description, right down to his seemingly superhuman strength, demonstrated just after his (unsurprisingly) dramatic entrance as he carries Harker’s heavy suitcase upstairs, taking them two at a time. His ferocity is almost terrifyingly authentic, but the effect is tempered by Lee’s tendencies towards theatricality and baroque melodrama and the lavish set and backdrop – and the almost comical, vividly red dripping blood that hammers home the horror either dripping from fangs or reflected in the lining of Harker’s travelling bag.

Dracula 1958

Dracula 1958

He might be the lead, but Dracula is very much in the background and appears in very few scenes. Instead, his antics and the fear of his presence, pervade the entire film, paving the way for the ruthless, single-minded Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) to triumph over evil. One of the criticisms most commonly levelled at Dracula is overt theatricality and melodrama and, whilst not completely unfounded, there’s something in that lends itself to Stoker’s original Gothic text. Lee’s Dracula entry, complete with sweeping cloak, is accompanied by a familiar score, itself a riff on the character’s name. These tropes have become deeply ingrained into the legend that is Dracula, although later Hammer Studio sequels evolved into a caricature and were no match for the original.

Dracula 1958

Dracula 1958_6

At the heart of Dracula is a story of sexual repression. Fisher certainly played up to this element; the female characters have a yearning for Dracula and seem to enjoy being ravished by the vampire. The women function simply as secondary at characters – paralysed at the hands of this mysterious creature and unsure why he holds power over them. Some of the scenes do hint at low-grade erotica and surely contributed to the critic’s disapproval (“One of the most revolting horror films I have seen in years,” lamented the Daily Express’ reviewer); the biting that seems so tame to modern audiences would likely have been more shocking to audiences in the 50s.

Dracula 1958

Dracula was an enormous box-office success in both the UK and US, and Hammer was quick to capitalise on its success with eight sequels (including Brides of Dracula, 1960, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, 1966 and Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970). These films varied in quality, and none (with the possible exception of Brides) were a match for the original. Talking about the Dracula in 1974, Fisher explained why: “Everything was right about that film; the script, the casting, everything just clicked. The chemistry just worked the whole way. A wonderful experience”. Camp, theatrical and accidentally hilarious? Yes. But it’s also a lasting testament to British cinema and, despite the liberties with source material and lack of true ‘gore’, ranks as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Further reading: Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film / The Women of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

You’ll Never Get Rich: Rita Hayworth as Sheila Winthrop

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You’ll Never Get Rich is a curious musical. Despite the wealth of talent attached to the production – Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Sidney Lanfield Cole Porter and Robert Alton to name just a few – it feels flat and mundane. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with the lead performances, and both Astaire and Hayworth dance beautifully and have an easy, natural chemistry, it never adds up to more. To begin with, Porter’s score – apparently road tested on ‘ordinary’ moviegoers to gauge their popularity – doesn’t live up to his earlier gems, although Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song.

Something about the production feels ‘off’ too. Shot in black and white (apparently Technicolor was too expensive in wartime) the army scenes feel dated. Released in 1941, two months before Pearl Harbour, the film was one if the first Hollywood productions to be set in WWII, but there’s something very WWI in the light-hearted gags and the camp design. Not exactly a deal breaker, but the combined factors create a lack of authenticity that even Astaire and Hayworth can’t overcome.

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Perhaps the film is remarkable because it’s Hayworth’s breakout role. The actress was understandably nervous about dancing with Fred, whose billing was inextricably linked with Ginger Rogers, but he apparently went to great lengths to calm her nervous with on-set pranks and was complimentary about her talents, saying she danced with ‘trained perfection and individuality’ and ‘she learned steps faster than anyone I’ve ever known’. Unsurprising, considering Hayworth had been dancing professionally since she was 13.

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Hayworth was equally complimentary. The duo also starred together in the 1942, Seiter-directed You Were Never Lovelier and in later interviews, she recalled her films with Astaire fondly:

‘I guess the only jewels in my life were the pictures I made with Fred Astaire. You know, in his book, Fred said I was his best partner. I can tell you one thing – they’re the only pictures of mine I can watch today without laughing hysterically…’

Clearly the appreciation was mutual, and it’s disappointing they only made two films together; reportedly Astaire didn’t want to get tied into another partnership and actress associations. You’ll Never Get Rich is, however, a departure from ‘typical’ Astaire, and it’s refreshing to see him in a role that required something more than a top hat and tails.

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Youll_Never_Get_Rich_Hayworth_Astaire_1

Where Rogers had been elegant and poised, Hayworth was vivacious, joyful and lively, more than a match for Astaire (to quote the NYT, ‘she’s something to trouble a night’s sleep’). Indeed, where Astaire’s personality often overshadowed Rogers’, Hayworth was more challenging. She picked Fred (or his character Robert Curtis) because she could, not because he was the only option available to her. Although on the surface Sheila Winthrop (Hayworth) is a gorgeous showgirl who’s looking to get ahead, she also has morals, refusing theatre producer Martin Cortland’s (Robert Benchley) diamond bracelet, clearly a gift to secure her affections. In fact, Shelia is usually one step ahead of Curtis and Cortland, able to read double-crossed situations before either is aware of the truth.

Youll_Never_Get_Rich_Hayworth_Astaire

Youll_Never_Get_Rich_Hayworth_Astaire

In fact, You’ll Never Get Rich was integral to the creation of Hayworth’s on-screen persona, pitching her as a sultry goddess who wasn’t prepared just to be a love interest and had a mind and opinions of her own. It was these qualities that led to her status as one of the most popular WWII pin-ups, a legend that lives on today on Andy Dufresne’s wall in The Shawshank Redemption and that Gilda clip. It’s not surprising that Hayworth regarded the films she shot with Astaire so highly; there’s something uniquely ‘Rita’ about them (although perhaps only the Americanised Rita studio bosses saw fit to create) and they remain a wonderful tribute to one of the silver screen’s most glamorous actresses.

Further reading: Hollywood Gold: Films of the Forties and Fifties by John Howard Reid / Rita Hayworth and the loss of Hispanic Heritage / Steps In Time: An Autobiography by Fred Astaire 

This post is part of the “getTV Rita Hayworth Blogathon” hosted by Classic Movie Hub and running during the entire month of October. Please visit getTVschedule to see a full list of Rita Hayworth films airing on the channel this month, and please be sure to visit Classic Movie Hub for a full list of other Blogathon entries.

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The Importance of Being Earnest – Anthony Asquith’s frightfully faithful adaptation

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‘A ha-a-a-andbaggg?’

It’s unlikely that two words have been uttered with more disdain, displeasure and bafflement in the history of cinema. Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans), the terrifying matriarch at the heart of what is arguably Oscar Wilde’s greatest play, exemplifies the Victorian values the playwright so enjoyed satirising and is by turns awe-inspiring and laughable. Evans reprised her stage role for Anthony Asquith’s 1952 Technicolor version of The Importance of Being Earnest; perhaps one of the most faithful stage to screen adaptations ever made of Wilde’s work. Asquith even nodded to the source in film’s opening: theatre audience members take their seats and, as the curtain rises, one viewer takes the screen audience ‘into’ the action through her eyeglasses.

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One of the UK’s most successful directors after World War II , Asquith was a natural fit for the role. Much of his output derived from London’s West End, where Wilde’s play had been a sell-out hit when it was released on Valentine’s Day in 1895. Unusually, its success was confirmed before it fell into notoriety – that happened when the play was suspended 83 performances in, following Wilde’s prosecution for gross indecency after his libel suit against the Marques of Queensberry led to revelations of his homosexual relations. Ironically, Wilde’s downfall was initiated by Herbert Asquith (the then Home Secretary, later the Prime Minister) – but it was his son Anthony (himself a rumoured closet homosexual) who would make the first film version of the play.

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Although broadly viewed as a comment of marriage, manners, class conventions and morality, it can also be interpreted as a comment on Wilde’s homosexuality. Ernest Worthing and and the spectacularly-named Algernon Moncrieff, the two lead male characters (played by Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison respectively), lead double lives and the entire play is based on mixed identity and invented relations. Wilde was indeed married and had two children and (in the early days at least) took care to conceal the ‘seedy’ aspects of his personality from his family.

The_Importance_Of_Being_Earnest_Asquith_1952

The_Importance_Of_Being_Earnest_Asquith_1952

The premise is borderline-ridiculous but is saved by Wilde’s sparkling dialogue, and the all-too believable characters who, to quote the playwright, ‘live in an age of surfaces’ and never change, ‘except in their affections’. Indeed it’s testament to Wilde’s skill that the three-act play, which offers little in the way of drama and action, still feels – and indeed remains – relevant today. The film sticks to the source perhaps a little too closely, but that’s a tough criticism when the original would have been hard to improve upon. One of the main criticisms of the day was that it feels too staged – that’s not an unfair comment, but in today’s TV-saturated, Hollywood-blockbuster age, the confined and limited spaces feel almost like a novelty – a theatrical event without the need to go to the theatre. Whilst it’s true that Asquith played it safe and could have opted for a more creative adaptation, The Importance of Being Earnest is a lightweight and whimsical watch, an enjoyable whole that’s a great deal more than the sum of its parts.

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The_Importance_Of_Being_Earnest_Asquith_1952

There’s a particular richness in the colour palette that also recalls the luxury of theatre-going. Asquith made just five films in Technicolor, and Earnest was his first. The film blends colours and tones into a rich and plush tapestry that visually conveys wealth and aristocracy. Traditional gentleman’s attire (tweed, plaid and houndstooth) is presented against a riotous backdrop of William Morris-inspired wallpaper, and floral motif rugs, tablecloths and soft furnishings. The interior sets are over furnished, but the production design (overseen by Carmen Dillon who had worked as an art director on numerous Asquith films) encapsulates Edwardian living whilst also mocking it – an aesthetic, surely directly inspired by Wilde’s original script.

The stand-out character though is Lady Bracknell, who sails into Moncrieff’s apartment clad in a regal purple satin gown, detailed with bows at the shoulders and finished with enormous, exaggerated puff-sleeves embroidered with sprig flowers – all deeply inappropriate for a dowager and reflecting – as the audience is soon to learn – her domineering, narrow-minded and snobbish traits. Aside: take a moment to appreciate the wonderful absurdity of her hats, which are bedecked with everything from silk corsages to peacock feathers and realistic-looking ‘diving’ birds. Although Evans would spent musch of her life trying to avoid being typecast into Bracknell-ish roles, she appears to be extremely comfortable in them; after all, it takes a certain kind of aplomb to carry off a hat like that.

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Although Lady Bracknell is certainly the most quotable, Asquith took care to give each character ‘space’, and the droll, layered dialogue is well-paced and even. The characters’ individual intonations are reflective of their personalities (Bracknell elongates her vowels, Denison’s tone is more conversational), but they all merge harmoniously and the sub-characters – including Margaret Rutherford – are given a chance to shine.

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The_Importance_Of_Being_Earnest_Asquith_1952

Asquith’s film version is probably not as highly-regarded as it should be. It’s not a film that changed the course of movie history (indeed, it’s unlikely Asquith intended that it would) but it’s a sparkling adaptation of a play that, although self-consciuos and knowingly witty, will never go out of fashion. The stagey-ness does date the production, but it’s a faithful homage, well characterised and well produced. Although Wilde might have disliked ‘novels that end happily. They depress me so much’, the (seemingly) happy ending is the cherry on this trifle.

This post is my contribution to the Stage To Screen blogathon, hosted by The Rosebud Cinema and Rachel’s Theatre Reviews. I was keen to cover a Wilde adaptation; although he’s one of my favourite playwrights  I’d previously never watched a filmed adaptation of his work. There are loads of great entries in this blogathon: check them out here.

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Del Rio, Rogers and Astaire are Flying Down to Rio

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Flying_Down_To_Rio

This post is my contribution to Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage blogathon, hosted by the wondrous Movie Star Makeover and Once Upon A Screen. There’s some great entries examining some oft-overlooked gems – check out all the entries here.

It’s stating the obvious to say that musicals are often lightweight, gay (in the original sense of the word) feel-good affairs. But Flying Down to Rio, Thornton Freeland’s 1933 offering, really takes the (entertainment) cake. The plot, a loose love-story that’s inevitable before it’s begun and practically avoids conflict, is a let-down, but Rio is a fun film that swings along nicely, led by Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers bringing up the rear.

Flying Down to Rio actually marked the first on-screen pairing of the dynamic dancing duo. Rogers’ name even appears before Astaire’s in the billing as she was better known at the time, having appeared in 19 films to Astaire’s one. A last-minute cast addition, Rogers was actually drafted in to replace Dorothy Jordan, who dropped out to marry Merian C. Cooper, the film’s producer. Watching Rio, it’s obvious why the pairing delighted audiences and why they clamoured for more, despite Astaire’s misgivings about the film’s success and the need for a dancing partnership. The famous dance sequence is ‘The Carioca’; the film initiated a ‘Carioca’ craze that swept across the US, with studio bosses cashing in on this unexpected publicity and billing Astaire and Rogers as ‘The King and Queen of ‘The Carioca’’.

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Flying_Down_To_Rio

Astaire and Rogers’ presence might be the reason why the film retains popularity today, but that’s selling the rest of the movie short. Built to cash in on the success of Busby Berkley’s early musicals, it features elaborate, synchronised routines, Art Deco sets, lavish costumes (designed by Irene and Walter Plunkett) and exotic on-location footage: a bold statement from RKO, who were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. David Selznick got Astaire on board but after he defected to MGM, it was left up to Merian Cooper to see the project through. In fact, it was the perfect fit. Although not a fan of musicals, Cooper was a former explorer and an aviation enthusiast; producer Lou Brock captured his attention with the aerial finale and promises of a spectacular film that would capture the glamour of flight.

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Choosing to set part of the action in Rio de Janeiro also upped the glamour stakes. In the 1930s, it was regarded as one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, a perception reinforced by smouldering screen goddess Delores del Rio (who was actually from Mexico). Although she plays the lead, her role is very much ‘window dressing’; it’s her beauty that seals her personality – although much is also made of her natural confidence and flirting skills early in the movie. Latin America had a certain exotic appeal within the musical genre, which regularly played to stereotypes and character tropes. The passionate Carioca induces impure thoughts (clearly this was a Pre-Code musical) and is exuberant and free. The scene culminates with a vocal performance by Etta Moten – whose silk turban and fruit-basket headpiece recall the extravagance of Carmen Miranda – encouraging the dancers ‘be a Carioca’ against an ‘Afro-Cuban rumba’ – an interesting notion given that the action takes place in Brazil. That melting pot exemplifies how Hollywood felt about, and indeed represented, Hispanics during the era. No matter your actual culture, as long as you bought exotic flare to proceedings.

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Flying_Down_To_Rio

Early in the movie, Belinha boasts that she can have any man she desires; when she attracts bandleader Roger (Gene Raymond) with little more than the flutter of her eyelashes one friend wonders, “What do these South Americans have below the equator that we haven’t?” Whilst it’s undoubtedly one of the best lines of the film it also underscores the natural wonder that surrounds an exotic beauty such as Belinha. She’s from the Brazilian elite, but she doesn’t play to type, her very unpredictability is exciting and refreshing. She is modern and cosmopolitan, just like the city she calls home. Although Belinha doesn’t participate in ‘The Carioca’ (and is curiously absent from all of the musical numbers) it represents her and the group of well-dressed Brazilians in attendance at the hotel and show how divergent they are from the white Americans. Even Roger’s band underestimates the musical talents of the locals, who are admittedly caught sleeping on the job.

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Flying_Down_To_Rio

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Of course, no musical is complete without the costumes, and Irene (Plunkett, the credited designer, was responsible for Rogers’ and chorus attire) pushed the boat out for del Rio. What’s noticeable is the amount of sheer fabrics – and pre-Code flesh – on display; these garments would be placed back in the closet for at least 30 years after the production code was enforced. As befits her leading-lady status, del Rio’s costumes are show-stopping affairs that exaggerate her exoticism. In the opening scene she wears a dress finished with enormous polka-dot puff sleeves. Light yet structured and voluminous, del Rio appears to be floating on a cloud of her own creation. Tapping into the perceived glamour of aviation, she’s suitably attired for her flight to Rio in a tailored skirt suit topped with a large fur stole that ties with a bow. In keeping with the sleeve theme, she removes the jacket to reveal a semi-sheer voile shirt with a piped placket and (again!) oversized sleeves.

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Flying_Down_To_Rio

In contrast, Rogers’ costumes are much more restrained – apart from one slinky, sequinned affair she wears during a performance. Her dresses are more tailored, not exactly everyday as this is a musical, but significantly more restrained and less romantic than del Rio’s. Perhaps in an attempt to emphasise del Rio’s ‘exoticism’ many of her garments are white or light coloured whilst Rogers’ are in darker shades. Rogers does have one scene-stealing look: a wide-legged pant suit with contrast taping, worn with a tropical print jacket and a coordinating wide-brimmed hat that sits precariously on the side of her head.

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Flying_Down_To_Rio

But really, the gowns pale into insignificance in comparison with the spectacular finale that features some well-choreographed aerial acrobatics. Exciting and elaborate, it took Busby Berkley-inspired set pieces off the stage and into the air. Chorus girls, strapped to aeroplane wings ‘danced’ to Vincent Youmans’ award-winning score, their hair blowing in the breeze. In one particularly ambitious move, a trapeze swings underneath the plane. The watching audience – both on and off screen – could surely fail to be seduced by the newness of air travel, combining the promise of adventure with fun, romance and a feel-good musical. The release date coincided with Roosevelt’s pledge to offer transportation and tourism (instead of free trade) to Latin American delegates at Montevideo. It seems that audiences bought into the myth of the Latin beauty and, whilst perhaps were no closer to really understanding it, they certainly wanted to try.

Further reading: Hollywood Musicals and the Invention of Rio de Janeiro, 1933-1953 by Bianca Freire-Medeiros / Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers

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