Movie News & Reviews

The secret story behind the other 'Dracula,' and the lead actress who just died at 106

Carlos Villarías as Dracula, with actress Lupita Tovar, in the Spanish-language 1931 film Drácula.
Carlos Villarías as Dracula, with actress Lupita Tovar, in the Spanish-language 1931 film Drácula.

Actress Lupita Tovar, the star of the 1931 Spanish-language version of "Dracula," died over the weekend at age 106. Her film, shot after hours on the sets of the better-known Bela Lugosi version, was presumed lost for more than half a century before a copy was located in Havana in the early 1990s.

Below is an account of the fascinating detective story behind the film's rescue, first published in 2015 in the Miami Herald.

Halloween may still be a few days away, but on Wednesday night, moviegoers at hundreds of theaters across America — including four in the Miami area — will get a chance to experience one of the great spooky moments in movie history, when Count Dracula is offered a glass of wine by a naive young Englishman and replies with sinister hauteur: “Yo nunca bebo... vino.”

That's right — though he's prowling that same creepily shadowed castle where you've seen Bela Lugosi rising from his coffin a thousand times, el Conde Drácula is speaking Spanish. In a mostly forgotten footnote to the making of Lugosi's 1931 classic vampire film, every night when production shut down, Universal Studios ushered a cast of Spaniards, Argentines and Mexicans to reshoot the movie en español.

But it's a footnote that's also sexy, scary and bit of a detective story, which stretches for decades and ends in — of all places — Havana. And now, with the two versions of the film being screened back-to-back in a one-night-only event, you can decide whether the critics are right when they say that the truly classic Dracula is not the Lugosi version but its quicker, cheaper Latino cousin, Drácula.

“That's the fun of showing them together,” said Genevieve McGillicuddy, a vice president of the Turner Classic Movies cable TV channel, which is staging the screenings. “People can make instant side-by-side comparisons and decide what they think.”

Think of Drácula as the bastard child of a technological miracle — movies that talked! — and a brutal economy, the Great Depression.

As silent movies gave way to the talkies at the end of the 1920s, Hollywood studios took a financial hit. Not only did they have to purchase all the new equipment to make and show films with soundtracks, but their lucrative foreign markets all but disappeared.

It was easy to convert silent movies to another language — you just edited in German or Spanish title cards in place of the English ones. But the early technology to dub films into another language was primitive, balky and unsatisfactory to audiences. A few studios began experimenting with shooting their films twice, once in English and once in another language, to get better return on their investments in sets and costumes.

The problem was particularly acute at Universal. “They were in a lot of trouble, and they had invested a lot of money in Dracula, for the rights to the book and to build those big sets,” said TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. “They were looking for a way to get some of it back.”

Universal producer Paul Kohner was certain a Spanish-language version of Dracula would be a hit. And it could be a good vehicle for a gorgeous young Mexican actress name Lupita Tovar, who had signed with Universal to make silent films but whose limited English wasn't yet suitable for talkies. Not part of the sales pitch: Kohner was smitten with the actress and didn't want her to return to Mexico.

“After he got the approval to shoot the Spanish Drácula, it turned into a full-blown romance,” said McGillicuddy. “He was basically wooing her on the set. They fell in love.”

Tovar played Eva, the thirsty count’s principal prey. She was joined by an all-Latin cast, including Spaniard Carlos Villarías as Drácula and Argentine Barry Norton as the young British lawyer who unwittingly brings him to London.

Those actors took over the Dracula set each night when the English-language cast and crew finished their work. Curiously, they were directed by an American, George Melford, who spoke no Spanish. “He had to bring in a full-time interpreter to the set to explain what he wanted everybody to do, but it worked pretty well,” said Javier Servin, a Paramount Studios film archivist who studied both Draculas for his graduate film degree at UCLA and operates a website called A Tale Of Two Draculas.

Director George Melford had to shoot Drácula in about half the time as the English-language version and for a tiny fraction of the budget. But he was determined that his would be better. Every night he studied the English-language footage filmed during the day to see what worked and what didn't, then composed his own shots accordingly.

“Mostly, he did the exact opposite of the English-language production,” said Servin. “"If they shot left to right, he went right to left. If they used editing to cut from a long shot to a close-up, he put the camera on a crane and zoomed in.”

But it wasn't just the camera work that was different. Tovar was stunned later when she saw the prim costumes worn by the female characters in the English-language film. “The wardrobe was different,”" she declared in a brief publicity film shot by Universal decades later. “"The dresses that Helen Chandler wore were all covered up. What they gave me were big décolletées, you know, what you’d call sexy. I wasn’t even aware of it!”

Drácula debuted in January 1931, to generally good reviews in the Hollywood trade press. Lugosi himself called it “beautiful, great, splendid.” Critics were less kind to the English-language version when it appeared six weeks later. Though everybody thought Lugosi's performance was magnificent, many critics thought the film looked too much like the stage play upon which it was based, static and visually dull. The Los Angeles Times called it “posed.”

Audiences, however, loved it. With help from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, released nine months later, the English Dracula pulled Universal back from the financial cliff. It was a hit again when re-released in 1936, and Universal — seeing a perpetual cash cow — put a copy on file at the Library of Congress to preserve it.

The Spanish version was successful, too, playing regularly in Latin America through the 1950s, but on a much smaller scale. And eventually it just disappeared, literally. “Before television, studios didn't see a long-term market for most films,” said McGillicuddy. “They just sent these prints out to the ends of the Earth and never expected to get them back. A lot of them were recycled for their silver content.”

By the late 1950s, the Drácula was officially considered a lost film. Few horror-genre fans, known for their manic collection habits, had ever seen it. When a copy was finally discovered in a New Jersey warehouse in the 1970s, a huge chunk of it had rotted away. All that survived were some half-baked rumors of a print hidden away in Cuba.

Miraculously, the rumors turned out to be true. In the early 1990s, the Cinemateca de Cuba in Havana confirmed that it had a copy of Drácula. But attempts to borrow the film to copy and restore it met a cold shoulder. And even when Universal got representatives of the UCLA Film and Television Archive to talk to the Cubans on a historian-to-historian basis, it took four trips’ worth of delicate negotiations to arrange a temporary loan.

“There was a lot of politics, in every sense of the word, that had to be overcome,” said Paramount archivist Servin. “Archivists like to say they're just working on behalf of history, but that's not always really the case. The Cubans had to be convinced: Exactly what does it do for us, for our archive, to loan you this? And I don't think they were too wild about helping a big capitalist corporation like Universal, either.”

When the loan was finally arranged and the restoration completed, Drácula finally became available to the public again 20 years ago, first as a VHS cassette, then on Blu-ray. The verdict of film historians was nearly unanimous: The Spanish version was a lot better.

Its camera work is more fluid, its editing tighter. Its Latino actors are more emotional than their buttoned-down American counterparts, who often seem to view vampirism as a vulgar social gaffe rather than as an eternity in damnation. And its frankly erotic streak anticipated the way modern audiences would see vampires 30 years earlier.

“I think the Spanish version is better — wildly better — in almost every way,” said Servin. “The big exception is Carlos Villarías as Dracula. He was the only one in the cast who was allowed to go watch the filming on the English-language set, and it seems like he's trying to do an imitation of Lugosi. It comes across as sort of hammy.”

Or maybe not. On Wednesday, you can see for yourself.

The Wednesday double-feature screening of both the English- and Spanish-language (with English subtitles) versions of Dracula will be shown at these four Miami-Dade theaters:

▪ UA Falls 12

▪ AMC Sunset Place 24

▪ Cobb Dolphin and IMAX

▪ South Beach Stadium