They came under the shadow of darkness – quite literally. Just as Dracula star Bela Lugosi was no doubt being tucked up for the night, director George Melford, cast and crew made their way on to the Universal studio lot in 1931 to shoot a Spanish-language version of the Bram Stoker 1897 horror novel, filmed using the same sets and costumes as the much more familiar Tod Browning masterwork.
Melford’s production of Dracula was what is known as a multiple-language version – AKA MLV – which was one method by which the recently developed sound “talkie” aimed to reach non-English speaking audiences. Initiated by the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer – which featured 15-minutes of synchronised singing and talking – producers created prints in which dialogue was replaced with music and foreign inter-titles – the “international sound version” – but this became quickly obsolete and close to extinction by 1931. Instead, producers began to make entirely new versions of the same film: Paramount Pictures’ Paramount on Parade, directed by Edmund Goulding and released in 1930, saw 13 different releases, with Czech, French, Dutch, Hungarian, German, Italian, Japanese, Romanian, Polish, Serbian, Swedish and Spanish as well as English. But the MLV was expensive, and could rarely escape the perception that they were lesser productions.
The Spanish Dracula, or Drácula, may be an exception. Director Melford had been a stage actor of some note before making the jump to movies, first as character actor, then director. He was behind the camera for the sensational 1921 silent hit The Sheik, starring Rudolph Valentino. It’s been said that Melford was given the Drácula gig due to his ability to speak Spanish. He’d directed La Voluntad del Muerto for Universal, a Spanish language adaptation of The Cat Creeps, a year earlier. However multiple sources claimed, including Mexican-American actress Lupita Tovar, who played Eva Seward – Mina Harker in all but name – that the director couldn’t speak the language at all, only ever communicating via a translator.
Shot in half the time the Lugosi vehicle was allotted, and on a much smaller budget, Drácula contains revealing differences. It’s 29 minutes longer the Browning’s film, with more dialogue – we see more of Dracula’s castle; and the framing of shots are argubly superior – thanks to Melford’s crew having access to Dracula’s dailies when they arrived at night, thereby being able to make revisions to lighting and camera angles.
More emphasis is placed on religion; hardly surprising given the dominance of Catholicism within the markets that Melford’s film was targeting; on the other hand it’s saucier, an early dawn for the erotic tropes that would come to define define the vampire genre. Only when Tovar saw the American version did she realise how different her costumes were. “The dresses that Helen Chandler wore were all covered up,” she recalled in a 2014 interview for a DVD extra. “What they gave me were big décolletées, what you’d call sexy. I wasn’t even aware of it!” Tovar married the film’s producer, Paul Kohner, a year after Drácula’s release. They remained a couple until his death, aged 85 in 1988. Tovar was the last of the cast to pass away, doing so aged 106 in 2016.
And what of the Count himself? Played by Córdoba-born Carlos Villarías – credited here as Carlos Villar – the Spaniard’s take on Dracula is less carnal than Lugosi’s, chivalrous even. He kisses the hands of the women he meets; he shakes their husbands’ hands. Less overtly monstrous perhaps, but this shroud of humanity still chills.
Like so many MLVs, Drácula was long feared lost. Prints for many similar productions were often recycled for their silver content, and by the late 1950s it was assumed that Melford’s film had gone the same way. In the 1970s, however, a copy was found in a New Jersey warehouse, though large sections of it had long rotted away. Then in the early 1990s it transpired there was a copy in Cuba, a fact confirmed by the Cinemateca de Cuba in Havana. Still, it took four meetings – the UCLA Film and Television Archive had to fly out to take part in negotiations – to arrange a temporary loan. As of 2015, the film sits in the US Library of Congress, preserved forever in the National Film Registry. MLVs are long gone, but Drácula will live on forever.