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DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936)

She was beautiful when she died....a hundred years ago!




  Director:
 
Lambert Hillyard

  Starring: 
Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan, Irving Pichel, Gilbert Emery, Nan Grey, Hedda Hopper, Billy Bevan, Halliwell Hobbes

  Screenplay: 
Garrett Fort, from a story by John L. Balderston, suggested by the works of Bram Stoker

Synopsis:  Two nervous policemen enter the crypt of Carfax Abbey, where they find a body lying at the foot of the stairs. At that moment, Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) emerges from an inner room in the crypt. The sergeant (Halliwell Hobbes) demands to know whether he killed the man lying at their feet. Von Helsing tells them that Count Dracula did it....and that he has just killed Count Dracula. Von Helsing is arrested and taken to Scotland Yard, where he tells his story to the Commissioner, Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), then asks to see, not a lawyer, but a former student of his, the psychiatrist Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). Sir Basil warns Von Helsing that if he persists in talking about vampires, he will either be executed for murder, or committed to an asylum. Meanwhile, at the police station at Whitby, a woman swathed in black from head to foot appears as if from nowhere. She asks to see the body of Count Dracula and, when the constable (Billy Bevan) refuses, draws him to look closely at her ring, at which he stares transfixed.... When the sergeant returns, he finds the constable insensible, and the body of Count Dracula gone.... Out in the fog-bound woods, the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) lights a pyre, burning Dracula’s body to ashes. She then cries exultantly that she is free of his curse at last. The following night, the Countess tries to celebrate her release, but her manservant, Sandor (Irving Pichel), convinces her that nothing has changed, that she is still a creature of the dark. The Countess dons her cape and her ring and goes out into the night, where she approaches a man in evening-dress.... As daylight approaches, the Countess returns to her rooms, handing her blood-stained cape to Sandor and retreating to her coffin.... Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill) tracks her employer, Dr Garth, to Scotland, telling him that his old friend Professor Von Helsing needs his help. Back in London, Garth tells Von Helsing that he cannot believe his story, but nevertheless promises to help him if he can. At an evening party, Garth is introduced to the Countess, by whom he is instantly struck, much to Janet’s annoyance. The conversation turns to the Von Helsing case, and Garth reveals that the murder charge will probably be dropped, as they cannot find Dracula’s body. He also diagnoses Von Helsing’s belief in vampires as a form of obsession, which can be cured by psychiatry. The Countess begs Garth to visit her at her apartment, claiming that she wishes to discuss his ideas further. There, she confesses that she feels herself controlled by a power from beyond the grave, one that fills her with horrible urges that she cannot overcome. Garth tells her that the way to cure an obsession or an addiction is to confront it head on and fight it. When he has gone, the Countess tells Sandor that she will be painting at her studio, and sends him out to find a girl – to model for her. Sandor smiles....

Comments:  All throughout the early 1930s, Universal Studios teetered on the brink of financial disaster, chiefly because of the company’s policy of making the bulk of its output costly prestige productions, instead of employing its rivals’ tactic of supporting a few quality films with numerous low-cost programmers. On several occasions a big success managed to hold off the inevitable – All Quiet On The Western Front, which would win a Best Picture Oscar towards the end of 1930, helped, as did the unexpected one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 – but the writing was on the wall. In 1935, a run of expensive failures finally forced the studio into some belated cost-cutting. Nevertheless, Carl Laemmle Sr obstinately refused to surrender his long-standing strategy altogether, and took out a loan in order to fund the making of Show Boat. The borrowed quarter of a million was not enough, however: the production ran $300,000 over budget. In March, 1936, the loan was called in, and “Uncle Carl” was forced out of the studio he had founded more than twenty-five years before.

A year earlier, however, Universal had finally made good on a long-standing plan to produce a sequel to Frankenstein, one repeatedly frustrated by the studio’s inability, professionally speaking, to get James Whale and Boris Karloff in the same place at the same time. Bride Of Frankenstein, when it finally went into production, was a lavish effort costing around twice what the original film had. Its success had a predictable effect upon the studio, which immediately began to lay plans for a sequel to its other great 1931 triumph, Dracula. Initially, Dracula’s Daughter was conceived upon the same expensive lines: a major production that would reunite the original cast and tell the story of the Count’s vampiric origins before picking up the story in more or less contemporary times. Circumstances, however, conspired to consign this notion to the scrap heap. By 1936, the Production Code was beginning to bite, and bite hard: horror films in general, and Universal horror films in particular, were a major target. Bride Of Frankenstein had been a battleground, with Joseph Breen taking personal offence at its treatment of sex and religion. However, the Hayes Office wasn’t the only motivation for the, pardon the expression, eventual bloodlessness of Dracula’s Daughter. With its finances in a mess, Universal could scarcely afford to risk the lucrative overseas market (and again, Bride.... had been banned in several countries). The British censors, in particular, had instigated a public crusade against horror movies, denouncing them outright in an effort to discourage their production, banning a number of them, cutting others, and slapping the dreaded “A” rating on any that made it into cinemas anyway.

And so the plug was pulled on the planned version of Dracula’s Daughter. The budget was cut, and drastically. The name cast also vanished, to be replaced by a mixture of B-level stalwarts and newcomers, along with a smattering of British character actors there to remind the audience that we’re supposed to be in England. And the screenplay went into re-writes....and re-writes....and re-writes. Officially, Dracula’s Daughter is credited to Garrett Fort. We might remember that Fort was also credited with the screenplay of Dracula, where he re-wrote the stage version of the story authored by John L. Balderston, who re-wrote the stage version authored by Hamilton Deane, who re-wrote Stoker’s novel. (Got that? Pay attention, I’ll be asking questions later.) Here, history repeating, Fort is again supposed to have based his screenplay upon “a story” by Balderston. The contribution of both gentlemen being whatever it may, at least four other writers worked uncredited upon the screenplay. Hardly surprising, amongst such a crowd, that Bram Stoker hardly rates a mention.

 

(The real mystery man, however, who did make the credits, is one “Oliver Jeffries”. Hollywood legend holds that this is a pseudonym for David O. Selznick, who acquired the rights the “Dracula’s Guest”, the story upon which this film is extremely loosely based. While we cannot imagine that Selznick had any intention of making such a film himself, his foresight and business acumen did force Universal either to buy the rights from him, or face the possibility of a lawsuit.)

The history of motion picture making is littered with examples of productions – the most famous example being, I suppose, Casablanca – that, by all known laws of logic, should have been a failure, but which instead surmounted such hurdles as constant re-writing and last minute re-casting to become greater than the sum of their parts. Alas, in the case of Dracula’s Daughter, the movie gods declined to smile. The film ended up being exactly what you would anticipate from such a production history, a patchwork effort full of inconsistent characterisations and gaping plot holes – one in particular. The critic Andrew Sarris once famously conferred upon Edgar Ulmer’s 1957 pot-boiler, Daughter Of Dr Jekyll, a kind of immortality by observing snarkily, “Anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by The Daughter Of Dr Jekyll, a film with a scenario so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr Jekyll.” One wonders what Mr Sarris would have made of Dracula’s Daughter, which in the course of its rather haphazard seventy-one minutes, never does bother to clarify whether Dracula’s daughter is, in fact, Dracula’s daughter.

All this is not to say that Dracula’s Daughter is without worth or interest. On the contrary, there are some genuinely original and imaginative touches here, but the film is guilty of continually undercutting itself, forcing even well-disposed viewers into the exasperating task of making allowances. Dracula’s Daughter begins badly, very badly, with a large helping of the kind of “comedy” that taints so many films of this era, as two bumbling British bobbies stumble (for no readily apparent reason) into the crypt of Carfax Abbey, where they find the body of Renfield lying at the foot of the stone staircase, and where, in the next room, Count Dracula has just been despatched with a stake through the heart. Although there is a pretence of continuity between Dracula’s Daughter and its predecessor, in fact this is as good as it ever gets. Our first glitch occurs immediately afterwards, as....well, as Edward Van Sloan’s character wanders into shot, and we discover that, between films, he has mutated from being Professor Van Helsing into being Professor Von Helsing. The Professor obligingly declares that it was he who drove the stake through Dracula, and is promptly arrested. He is next seen comfortably ensconced in an armchair in the officer of the Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir Basil Humphrey – and indeed, we scarcely see him anywhere else (like, for instance, a prison cell), thanks to his “position in the scientific world”, if you can believe that.

 

The Professor tells his tale – paraphrasing one of his famous lines from Dracula as he declares, “The strength of the vampire, Sir Basil, is that he is unbelievable!” – and we notice the absence of certain facts. While the powers that be might not believe a story about vampires, you would imagine that it would at least give them pause if the story were to be supported by corroborating evidence from such social luminaries as Dr Seward, Miss Mina Seward and Mr John Harker. For reasons best known to himself, however, the Professor never mentions their names, still less calls them as witnesses. (In fact, given the timing of the opening scene, in which the two bobbies encounter Von Helsing while he is still wiping his hands following the staking of his archenemy, they should have seen John and Mina leaving the crypt.) In the face of Von Helsing’s unsupported assertions, a concerned Sir Basil offers some helpful advice about retaining legal council and what an English jury will and will not believe. And jolly nice of him it is, too.

(What we have here, of course, is an instance of one of the most cherished conventions of literature and film, which states that, unlike their American brethren, British law officers are always willing to lend a sympathetic ear to an eccentric story. This is a convention that extends well beyond the horror and science fiction genres: see, for example, the reaction to Ray Milland’s “There’s-a-Nazi-in-my-cake!” story in Fritz Lang’s Ministry Of Fear.)

All this is pretty painful, and it gets even worse, as we are served up another large dollop of Sergeant Stupid and Constable Clod. But at length our endurance is rewarded, as Dracula’s Daughter moves to a whole new plane with the appearance of its leading lady. As the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleska, Gloria Holden is the highlight of Dracula’s Daughter. Holden was a newcomer to Hollywood when this film was made. She would go on to achieve critical acclaim the following year in The Life Of Emile Zola, but beyond that her career was never what it might have been, perhaps because Holden simply wasn’t the usual Hollywood “type”. It is precisely that, however, that makes her so right here. With black hair, huge dark eyes, finely chiselled features, and cheekbones you could cut diamonds with, Holden is perfectly cast as the enigmatic creature of the night. Her performance is good, too; but although she wrings what she can from the material she was given, her character is, in the end, too underwritten for her quite to achieve true iconic status. Still, there is much to enjoy here, such as Holden’s exquisitely judged re-reading of the Count’s immortal line, “I never drink....wine”, or the Countess’s half-amused, half-taunting challenge to the sceptical Jeffrey Garth, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your psychiatry!”

 

The Countess Marya Zaleska is one of thirties horror’s most interesting female characters – although it must be admitted that her intriguing ambiguities owe as much to the vagaries of an ill-structured screenplay as to any intent on the part of the film-makers. When we first set eyes upon Marya, she is swathed in a robe of black, only her eyes and a single white hand, a hand bearing the glowing jewelled ring that she uses to hypnotise her victims, visible. By all known indicators, she is a creature of evil; yet her destruction of Count Dracula’s body is accompanied neither by oaths of revenge for her “father’s” death, nor by any of the usual speeches about “freeing the soul”. Far from it. “Into the keeping of the lords of the flame and lower pits I consign this body,” intones Marya. “Be thou exorcised, O Dracula. May thy body, long undead, find destruction throughout eternity in the name of thy dark, unholy master....” – and she performs two rites of purification, tossing salt into the funeral pyre (salt, my eye! – that’s Whooshing Powder© if ever I saw any!), and then holding a cross over the fire....

And here the mystery of Marya Zaleska, and whether or not she is a true vampire, begins in earnest. If the film never really makes it clear whether Marya is Dracula’s daughter in the biological sense or the vampiric, then Marya herself seems equally in doubt. Certainly, when she destroys Dracula’s body, her expectation is that she will be released from his “curse”. “Free! Free forever!” she exults – and as all vampiric lore to this point has taught us, free indeed she should have been, as Mina Seward was in Dracula, had she been just one more of the Count’s blood-victims. But Mina, when her release came, knew it. Marya isn’t sure; and it takes only a few ominous words from her manservant, Sandor (more on his ambiguities in a moment), to send her hastening back to London before a new day can dawn, possibly fatally.

The following evening sees Marya again trying to convince herself that she is now free, celebrating with music, and recalling memories of her mother and her childhood; memories that certainly imply a biological relationship with her “father”. Again Sandor is on hand to turn her thoughts, insisting that she is still a creature of the night, and that this night will be like all the ones that came before.... And Marya yields to him, donning her robe and her ring, and trolling the dark streets of London for a victim – which she finds. The next morning, too, finds her hurrying back to her sanctuary, handing her blood-stained cape to Sandor and taking refuge in her coffin before the dawn can break....

Ambiguous? you might be saying in a puzzled way – and I say again, yes. The question is not whether Marya is guilty of vampiric activity, but whether she is truly undead, or suffering from an extreme form of delusion. After all, if Marya lived, then died, then became undead; if she has in truth been a practicing vampire for one hundred years, as the screenplay later implies, how can she honestly think that her condition is one that might respond to psychotherapy? Besides--- Never at any point do we see any supernatural act associated with Marya. She never transforms herself. She never shows herself impervious to everything save the stake and the daylight. Her hypnotism of her victims is true hypnotism, the mortal kind, as evidenced when Dr Garth examines someone recently in her thrall. She cannot look upon a cross, true – but why should she be able to touch one? In short, all of Marya’s symptoms can be interpreted as the manifestations of a mental illness – and that she is “ill”, and therefore curable, is what she most desperately wishes to believe. Small wonder that she attaches herself so desperately to Jeffrey Garth, when he begins holding forth on the various kinds of human obsession, and how they can be banished with the help of psychiatry.

Nor does the character of Sandor do much to clear these muddy waters. On the evidence available, Sandor is human....yet when Marya holds the cross over Dracula’s pyre, he too must look away. On the other hand, he does not fear the dawn, as Marya does; there is only one coffin in the back of Marya’s studio. More to the point, it is made clear towards the end of the film that what Sandor expects in return for his service is immortality: that is, for Marya to make him a vampire. The question here is whether he knows that Marya is a vampire, or whether he has, rather, bought just as deeply into Marya’s delusion as Marya herself. The relationship between the two is profoundly disturbing. When Marya consults Garth about her “condition”, he insists that the greater part of any cure is the will of the individual to be cured. In saying so he draws an analogy with the treatment of alcoholism....but in truth, a far more accurate description of Marya’s situation (one not allowed by the Production Code, even if they had wished to be more explicit) is drug addiction. Marya reacts to Dracula’s death like an addict who has heard that her pusher has been busted – as if that was enough on its own to change her condition.

 

In this context, Sandor comes across as the worst kind of enabler. He doesn’t want Marya cured of her “addiction”. On the contrary, he does everything he can to undermine her resolve to be cured, playing upon her fears and her self-loathing until she capitulates and goes out looking for a “fix”. When Garth encourages Marya not to run from her “horrible impulse”, but to “meet it – fight it!” – not realising, of course, what it is he is encouraging her to do! – Sandor is pleased. He knows very well that Marya’s addiction, whether it be vampiric or all too human, is as yet too strong for her; and when she puts Garth’s advice into practice and orders him to bring a girl to her studio – to “model” for her – Sandor obeys with alacrity.

Dracula’s Daughter is a film not much known these days, but as far as it is known, it is for the confrontation between Marya and the destitute young girl brought to her by Sandor: a confrontation that has seen this film enrolled in the ranks of gay cinema, and the Countess Marya Zaleska hailed as the screen’s first lesbian vampire. While the inference of this scene is in one sense inescapable, it is difficult to decide what was actually intended by the film-makers. Certainly there was an acute awareness on their part of the implications of same-sex vampirism: when Dracula was in production, Carl Laemmle Jr refused to allow the Count’s attack on Renfield to be shown, so bothered was he by the possible homosexual overtones of such a scene. Lesbianism being, as always, considered less “threatening” than male homosexuality, the makers of Dracula’s Daughter got away with the scene in the studio, but it was re-written and re-shot several times before it passed censorship muster, and in the end we still do not see Marya’s attack upon the girl.

Having already removed her blouse, the doomed girl, Lili, gestures towards the straps of her slip. “I suppose you’ll want these lowered?” she offers....and so seals her own fate.... There is indeed an unsettling eroticism about this sequence, not least in the contrast between Nan Grey’s fair fragility and Gloria Holden’s dark imperiousness; while the intentness of Marya’s gaze as the girl disrobes before her is certainly open to more than one interpretation. (“What’s the matter? Won’t I do?” Lili asks, becoming uncomfortable under Marya’s fixed gaze. “Yes,” reples Marya in a distant voice. “You’ll do very nicely....”) However, whether lesbianism per se is the intended implication is moot. Given the film’s vintage, it is of course possible that Marya’s expressed desire to be free of her “curse”, to “live as a woman”, to take her place “in the bright world of the living”, is meant as an expression of disgust at her “aberrant” sexuality.

In the depiction of her lifestyle, however, there does not seem to be anything so specific intended. Intriguingly, Marya lives the kind of double life generally associated with wicked young men: that is, she keeps a “respectable” apartment for the entertainment of her “respectable” friends, but also secret rooms in a far less respectable locale, taken under an assumed name, for her more nefarious activities. She is also an artist – not a mere dilettante, but a professional. She is an aristocrat....and a foreigner....and she keeps a studio in Chelsea, for heaven’s sake! She is, in a word, decadent....and if her sexual preferences seem a little unfocussed, that would be entirely in keeping with such a characterisation. Let us not forget that Marya’s first victim, one of her own choosing, is a young man out on the town; and that by the end of the film, her interest in Jeffrey Garth has become far more personal than professional. Frankly, the sexual overtones of Marya’s behaviour seem rather less significant than the social ones: when she feeds on women, like her “father” before her she preys predominantly upon the lower classes; but when she pursues a man, her preference is unmistakably for a “toff”.... 

One of the most unexpected aspects of Dracula’s Daughter, considering when it was made, is its positive attitude towards the profession of psychiatry. It was common at this time, and for some years to come, for psychiatrists to be rather roughly handled in American films; to be regarded as quacks as best and con artists at worst; the butt of jokes if they were lucky, and unmasked as villains and criminals more often than I can remember. It was not, indeed, until the later years of World War II, with so many mental casualties in desperate need of help, that this attitude really began to change. For a film of 1936 to cast a psychiatrist as its hero is very surprising – and so too is the way in which Dr Garth conducts himself. Initially Garth is completely disbelieving of Von Helsing’s stories of vampirism, but still has sufficient faith in his old mentor to promise to help him, if only he can figure out how. But although he has not believed what Von Helsing has been saying, Garth has been listening....and as soon as physical evidence of the Professor’s claims begins to turn up, he recognises and accepts it for what it is, without any sign of that contrived and artificially extended scepticism that so many films insist upon as the way of the “scientific mind” – and which so often results in countless avoidable deaths, all in the name of “logic” and “rationalism”. Here, it takes only the puncture wounds on the throat of a single victim for Garth to start contemplating the impossible.

(All this is not to say that we in the audience entirely approve of the way Dr Garth conducts himself professionally, but this is certainly due to the distance between the time of the film’s production and our own. Dracula’s Daughter is hardly alone in this respect. Try watching a Dr Kildare film these days without gasping in horror at the various gross malpractices committed by the good doctor, all in the name of “having the courage to experiment”.)

 

There is, then, quite a lot of interest to be found in Dracula’s Daughter. What a shame that so much of the material in which it is embedded is so ill-conceived! Perhaps the film’s biggest blunder is its poorly written “romance” between Jeffrey Garth and his human love interest, Janet Blake. This is obviously intended to be the kind of love-hate relationship so common in the screwball comedies of this time, but instead of coming across as affection-concealed-by-hostility, much of the interaction between Garth and Janet seems very much like hostility of the most genuine kind. This is particularly true on Garth’s part, and really, we can’t blame him: Janet Blake is one of the most annoying “heroines” ever foisted onto an exasperated audience. She’s supposed to be “cute” and “spirited”, but take it from me, she’s just plain obnoxious!

In short, we simply do not believe that Garth cares so much for Janet that he would unhesitatingly offer his life - and his soul - to save hers. This weakness in the screenplay severely undermines the final act of Dracula’s Daughter, in which Marya, after her inability to control her “impulse” with regard to the tragic Lili, accepts that she cannot change – and decides that she wants as her immortal consort, not Sandor, but Jeffrey Garth. To this end, she hypnotises and kidnaps Janet, using her as bait to lure Garth to Dracula’s castle – her castle. (Another hint of a “real” relationship between Marya and Dracula, I suppose; but then it’s not as if people were going to be queuing up to contest her right to the place.) This is the most bizarre part of the whole film. There is very little effort made in general to make Dracula’s Daughter contemporaneous with Dracula, particularly in terms of such things as the decor, the costumes, and the means of transportation; but even so, you hardly expect it when the various characters start jumping into planes and jetting off into the wilds of Transylvania! – and especially not when we arrive in “modern” Transylvania to find it still inhabited by the same old crowd of lederhosen-wearing knee-slappers.

 

Garth arrives at the castle to find Janet still trance-bound, and to have Marya make him the obvious offer: his life for Janet’s. If he will willingly join her and become one of the undead, Janet will be released unharmed. Garth agrees, but fate intervenes. Von Helsing, Sir Basil Humphrey and a couple of anonymous gendarmes (in Transylvania?) arrive at the castle just at the critical moment – namely, when Sandor is expressing his displeasure at Marya’s reneging on her promises to him by firing an arrow at her....and through her. He is about to put another one through Garth when he is shot dead by one of the gendarmes.

Marya, meanwhile, has staggered out onto and collapsed upon the ramparts of her castle, and the survivors duly gather around her to deliver the inevitable epitaph. “She was beautiful when she died,” pronounces Von Helsing, “a hundred years ago....” – a remark that means nothing and answers nothing. Had Marya been shot with a bullet, like Sandor, we should at last have known the truth about her; but a wooden arrow in the heart is, after all, just as fatal to a delusional human being as it is to one of the undead; and in this particular universe, vampires suffer no dissolution upon being “released”. Who, then, was Marya Zaleska? – and what was she? It seems that we shall never know for sure. Dracula’s Daughter, like Marya herself, takes its secret to the grave.

Want a second opinion of Dracula’s Daughter? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours And Counting.

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----re-formatted 15/12/2009