Sunday, July 25, 2010

October 14, 2009: The Lost World: John L. Balderston’s ‘Dracula’s Daughter’

Developing a movie project is such a convoluted process that it’s amazing any films ever get made at all. There are the budgetary problems, and the casting difficulties, and the conflicts between directors and producers that have caused more than a few projects to be aborted before reaching term. In this on-going series I’ve dubbed “The Lost World”, I’ll be looking at some of these sweet abortions.

John L. Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter

It all starts with Tod Browning’s Dracula, the film that kicked off the golden age of horror, inspired endless pretenders, and became Universal Pictures’ most massive money machine of 1931. Desperate for income during the Great Depression, Universal was hot to capitalize on Dracula’s success, and rapidly followed it with such iconic chillers as Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Old Dark House. Amidst Universal’s initial horror frenzy, producer David O. Selznick bought the rights to the excised opening chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from Stoker’s widow Florence in 1933. The chapter introduced Jonathan Harker and detailed his weird encounter with a female vampire he happens across while heading to Dracula’s castle. Stoker’s publisher clipped the sequence from Dracula for fear the novel was growing unwieldy, but it was published as a short story titled “Dracula’s Guest” two years after his death. Selznick, however, decided that Dracula’s Daughter was a snappier title for his film.

John L. Balderston

Selznick recruited John L. Balderston, who’d written the stage play on which the Dracula film was based (as well as the screenplays for Frankenstein and The Mummy) to compose a treatment. This was right before Hollywood really began enforcing the priggish Hays Code that drastically reduced the level of sex and violence permissible in American films, so Balderston packed his treatment with all manner of forbidden delights. With the title vampire left staked and dead (as opposed to “undead”) at the climax of Dracula, Balderston had to explore some of the second-tier characters for a premise. As related in David J. Skal’s indispensable book The Monster Show, Balderston decided to focus on Dracula’s trio of wan brides glimpsed so briefly and tantalizingly in Browning’s film. His treatment revives a most unsavory sequence from Stoker’s novel in which Dracula presents his brides with an infant as a sack lunch. The film was to have the Prince of Darkness’s daughter offering up the bagged baby, as she was left to rule over crumbling Castle Dracula while daddy was out of town. The brides gripe that they’d prefer some young men to feed on, and the daughter expresses her displeasure at their complaints by cracking an S&M whip at her stepmothers and warning that she is their “mistress” while Drac’s away.

Dracula’s peckish Brides

Balderston also intended to explicitly portray the daughter’s attacks as sensual seductions committed by a night creature that is “amorous of her victims.” She was to torture these fellows using the sundry “industrial-strengths whips, straps, and chains” she kept in her arsenal.

Unlike Browning’s Dracula, which started with a bang then gradually relaxed into a drawing-room mystery, Balderston intended his Dracula’s Daughter to build steadily toward a heart-jolting climax more in line with Stoker’s book. The film was to begin with Dr. Van Helsing setting off to Transylvania to do away with Dracula’s brides. Unbeknownst to the vampire hunter, the Daughter follows him to London. While there she snares a handsome aristocrat named Lord Edward Wadhurst in her thrall. Van Helsing and the aristocrat’s fiancée, Helen Swaything, chase the Daughter back to Transylvania, where they put her in her permanent grave. Incidentally, this treatment (as well as all subsequent versions of Dracula’s Daughter) has nothing in common with “Dracula’s Guest” aside from the presence of a female vampire.

Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter was probably never going to get the green light simply based on its content: the sex, the gruesome violence, the torture, the baby eating. But it was legal matters that sunk the picture officially. According to Selznick’s agreement with Florence Stoker, no character or incident from any of her husband’s work aside from “Dracula’s Guest” was permitted to be included in the film. That means no Van Helsing, no Brides, and no baby in a bag. Selznick parted ways with Balderston and employed R.C. Sherriff, who’d contributed dialogue to The Old Dark House and written The Invisible Man, to rewrite the treatment. But when Universal Pictures sent the treatment to production-code führer Joe Breen, it was again rejected for its sex and violence, which Breen branded “dangerous,” and for Sherriff’s inclusion of Dracula in some flashback sequences.

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) performs her dad’s last rites.

So Dracula’s Daughter just kept getting limper and limper. The exorcising of kinky sex and violence neutered the film as a truly shocking entity. The loss of the Dracula character devalued its appeal as a sequel to the original film, which hinged so much on the iconic presence of Bela Lugosi (although Van Helsing somehow remained). Hope was in the air when James Whale, horror’s single most original and extraordinary filmmaker, came on board to direct, but his plans to craft a lavish, big-budget picture were nixed by Universal, who were reluctant to dole out the dollars. They settled for a fairly humdrum screenplay by Garrett Fort, who’d worked on the script of the Dracula play, and hired Lambert Hillyer to direct. As released in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter is certainly not without its charms. Gloria Holden brings a spooky grace and possessed intensity to Countess Marya Zaleska, the title vampire. The scene in which she puts her father to rest during an al fresco funeral ritual is among the most atmospheric and unsettling in a Universal horror film. The overt S&M torture of Balderston’s treatment may be gone, but Countess’s seduction of a street girl is still pretty racy by 1930’s standards. Still it would be glorious for a contemporary filmmaker to resurrect the film blueprinted in Balderston’s nasty treatment. Until then, John L. Balderston’s Dracula’s Daughter will continue to be just another pile of bones languishing in the Lost World.
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