Just Like in the Movies Episode Four:  In Pursuit of Dracula

Micah S. Harris

There can be little doubt that most people know the world’s most famous vampire from the movies rather than Bram Stoker’s novel, even though Dracula has never been out of print since its 1897 debut. Although it was the movies that created “the legend” that light from the sun will kill a vampire, Dracula owes his immortality to another kind of light, that of the illuminated movie screen.

As of 2012, the Guinness Book of World Records found Count Dracula to be the most portrayed literary character on the big screen with 272 appearances.*

However, this month we are concerned with the first two, both silent, both foreign, and both illegal.  

It’s an interesting story, as relevant today in the on-going intellectual property wars as when it unfolded in the 1920s. Bram Stoker’s widow and heir, the former Florence Balcombe, was tipped off that the Count had escaped his intended final demise as written by her husband. The vampire had, in fact, been resurrected under an assumed identity (“Graf Orlock”), across the channel (Germany) in an entirely different medium (film).

This movie, of course, was Prana-Film’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror. And by the time Florence knew about this illegal adaptation it was already playing Berlin.

It shouldn’t have been happening. Although the U.S. did not establish that an author’s copyright extended to derivative works on film until 1911, over in Europe, the author’s rights to filmic adaptations had already been established since a 1908 amendment to the 1886 Berne Convention.

Florence’s case is even more interesting because it is one of the little guy against the film industry in that industry’s early days. Unlike the financial and cultural circumstances surrounding the U.S. lawsuit over the unauthorized movie adaptation of Ben-Hur (which we looked at last month), at this point in history, hard as it may be to believe now, Dracula wasn’t that big of a deal while Ben-Hur was.

In the silent era, this “Tale of the Christ” (not exactly, but that’s what it says on the cover) was not only America’s best selling novel but it was also making big money as a popular, licensed stage show.

Unlike the heir to Ben-Hur, Florence Stoker possessed no heavy guns like entertainment industry lawyers.  Just a mere six years after Bram’s death, his wife’s legally entitled intellectual property was already slipping out of her hands.

Actually, it has begun slipping a year or two earlier. Apparently, Florence was unaware of this first plundering of the most lucrative of the literary family jewels – their “blood diamond.” In fact, for decades, practically no one was. In Florence’s case, this was probably because Hungary, the location of this legal transgression, had never recognized the Berne Convention and thus was off the radar.  

Thus the same free-for-all spirit regarding creator rights on the Internet that that has mated Disney’s Elsa with Dreamworks’ Jack Frost (together they are, to their devotees, “Jelsa”), was very much alive in the Hungarian film industry back in 1920 when it gave the world something called Drakula halala.

That’s right. You read correctly. The first movie to draw upon the character of the Dark Lord of the Manor Carpathian, the Sovereign of the Undead himself…was called “Drakula halala.” Perhaps it should have been titled Drakula tralala for the antagonist of this story is not Count Dracula, you see, but a deranged music teacher who believes he is the Count.  

Preemminent Stoker historian David J. Skal who played a significant role in rescuing Universal’s forgotten 1931 Spanish language Dracula, has now, in his recent Bram Stoker (Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula), uncovered the plot of the tantalizingly elusive Draucla halala.

Though the action seems largely set in, appropriately enough, an asylum, the most “Dracula” it got in this lost film is an extended dream sequence in which our heroine “Mary” is taken to Dracula’s castle, meets his brides, and learns she has been elected to join the sorority.

Did Dracula halala embolden Prana-Film to proceed with Nosferatu? If so, perhaps they should have first considered how Dracula halala, despite the title, was largely an original tale. It acknowledged Dracula’s existence outside the film as a preexisting fictional character, but Dracula himself wasn’t in it. Nothing unique to the novel was actually used except for the Count’s proclivity for polygamy, and he is only presented the “real” Dracula in a dream sequence.

In sharp contrast, Nosferatu’s screenwriter Henrik Galeen took Bram Stoker’s novel’s plot outright.

Galeen did change the names:  Count Dracula became Grauf Orlock; Jonathan Harker became Hutter; Renfield became Knock; and, somewhat less imaginatively, Mina became Nina. Certainly, the make-up appearance of Graf Orlock was iconically original.

And there are narrative elements original to the film, like the plague that Dracula brings with him to town. And nobody was calling the movie “Dracula” (though they probably git “nosferatu” — meaning “the undead” – from its brief mention in Stoker’s text).

They might have gotten away with it, but, in an odd move, after all the disguising, someone decided to put in the opening credits: “Freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

Despite the unintentionally cruel pun (since Florence Stoker hadn’t been paid a farthing ), “freely” does indeed describe Galeen’s  adaptation (two drafts of his script are available as a PDF copied from the out-of-print Murnau by Lotte H. Eisner at https://dearetiennelouis.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/murnaus-shooting-script.pdf). It is a text book example of an effective first step in transposing prose into the visual medium of film to the degree that the adaptation becomes an unique work of Art on it on merits.

Galeen as a silent movie scenarist, without the luxury of dialogue, breaks free of the novel’s own narrative talkiness spectacularly. In fact, some of his visual suggestions probably were too much for Prana-Films’ budget as well as soon-to-be acclaimed director F.W. Murnau’s aesthetic sense.

Perhaps Galeen’s most outrageous suggestion reads thusly: “A black carriage. No wheels? Two black horses – griffins?” What an irresistible notion – Count Dracula’s carriage drawn by winged lions!

Of course, this is Expressionistic filmmaking, and Galeen is suggesting an impression here, not a full size manipulated props in the manner like Fritz Lang’s dragon in 1924’s Die Nibelungen (pt. one – Siegfried). But it was apparently too much for a small studio like Prana Film to pull off anyway.

Despite such elaborateness, Galeen showed himself capable of economy in narrative adaptation, and, in so doing, made his own contribution to vampire lore.

The novel’s final chase could not stand as written. So Galeen did away with it, never allowing Orlock/Dracula to flee the city he has invaded.

Instead, he has Nina sacrifice herself to Orlock in her bedroom, so that, distracted by the bliss of feeding, he will linger and expose himself to fatal sunlight. This immolation (accomplished by a double exposure fade) is Galeen’s innovation and ever since the deadly bane of Dracula and every other vampire.

Sometimes, it seems, the script writing constraints of low-budget filmmaking can create legends.   

Back in England, Florence Stoker was fighting her intellectual property with the help of a reticent author’s society and a German-connected lawyer.  She requested a one-time payment of 5000 pounds to make it all legal. The courts ruled in her favor but Prana-Film, though red-handedly waving the smoking gun of “Freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel” in their opening credits, didn’t man up and instead appealed to the court. Twice.

A frustrated Florence could not imagine them appealing to anyone, certainly not her, and took a more stringent course:

She wanted that vampire dead. Staked, beheaded, burned, and his celluloid ashes thrown in a stream of running water to never risk his reconstituting again.

She authorized a play adaptation, perhaps an attempt to regain a legal grasp on the steering wheel of the intellectual property she had inherited. That play would become the basis for Universal’s 1931 classic and rescue Dracula from the pages of a slow-selling 19th century novel, granting him true immortality in the indelible performance of Bela Lugosi. Lugosi, Dracula’s fellow Hungarian**, became the second most important person in the character’s history – not the property’s legal heirs.

Yes, this new, young country would do well by the Count. He became well-situated in sunny California – sunlight, after all, had never been a real problem for him. That was just in the movies. He had, in fact, actually arrived on American shores before the Lugosi sensation –  

— not in a coffin of consecrated earth, but in film cannisters bearing an illegal print of Nosferatu. Florence had been unable to control the would-be family familiar from across a mere channel, and now there was an entire ocean between them….

And, as it turned out, the novel had never been copyrighted in America anyway. And a vampire can, in fact, go anywhere he wishes. All he needs is an invitation. And Hollywood was calling….

*Note to all Baker Street Irregulars: I know at this point you are convinced I’m part of a slander campaign engineered by no less than one Colonel Moran in Sherlock Holmes absence and thus his inability to defend himself. According to the Guiness Book of World Records website, as of 2012, Sherlock Holmes is the literary human character with the most appearances (254) on both movie and television screens. But they follow with, and I quote from the same article, “…Sherlock is not the overall most portrayed literary character in film. That title belongs to the non-human (emphasis added) character Dracula, who has been portrayed in 272 films.”

When Guiness pointless distinction between “human” and “non-human” characters is removed (no fictional characters are “human” – they’re all simulacrums!), then Dracula is allowed his due as “the overall most portrayed literary character in film (emphasis added),” and theatrical releases alone are our focus here.

** Yes, Dracula is Hungarian, not Romanian. That smoke screen of scholarship was dispersed over twenty years ago in an excellent study of Stoker’s actual text by Anthony Ambrogio in an issue of Video Watchdog. Please find Mr. Ambrogio’s voice of reason at this PDF of that issue at  

https://diz.srve.io/zines/Video%20Watchdog/Video%20Watchdog/Video.Watchdog.019.September.October.1993.siPDF-GREASY.pdf

Here’s your chance to read some real literary criticism, not postmodern nonsense like the one recently published on Frozen, which all but said the snowman Olaf’s statement “I don’t have…bones” was a coded reference to erectile dysfunction. Fittingly, one of the Academic editors who signed off on this essay had the last name of “Bull.”

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