The Christmas Sunday Intertitle

Not particularly seasonal, I know, but with Fiona’s brother Roddy visiting, I didn’t get any silent films watched this week. Roddy can’t read (Williams Syndrome, the genetic condition he was born with, results in strong verbal skills but weak literary skills) so intertitles are a bother.

So DRACULA it was, although I didn’t entirely concentrate on it as I should’ve, what with the overflow of festive cheer and all. But I was pleased to find one of those intertitles, or supertitles, more common in early ’30s movies than later. Since DRAC is a filmed play, the shipboard scene gets a flurry of expository dialogue, news headlines, and a title card, just to make sure we’re not confused by the sudden departure from long drawn-out conversation scenes.

The film is a bit livelier than often supposed, though. Director Tod Browning and cameraman Karl Freund never stop serving up arresting images, even when we arrive in Whitby and the tension drops markedly. The theatrical aspect of the film becomes stronger and stronger, until the “climax” with its offscreen staking, which is indeed a letdown. But stage-trained Helen Chandler (who was suffering acute appendicitis throughout the shoot) and Dwight Frye in particular make excellent use of front-and-centre performance styles, aimed not at their fellow actors but at us, the wonderful people out there in the dark.

The thing is, it’s a lousy play, with plenty of what Hitchcock would call “no-scene scenes,” as when Mina and Lucy sit around discussing Dracula’s “romantic” manner. Playwrights used to argue that you couldn’t have a scene with just two women, because “nothing could happen.” A ridiculous idea, but this is the kind of scene they were warning against (it’s more or less reproduced in the Coppola version).

(There might be a good study to be written about the creative use of stage conventions in early talkies. When Lee Tracy in BLESSED EVENT, freaking Allen Jenkins out with his electric chair talk, refers to the audience present at an execution, he gestures at US. Both actors had transferred directly from the Broadway version.)

Haven’t been able to find out which silent movie the impressive;y hairy ship-in-a-storm footage has been culled from, but the Keystone mariners move at 20fps, so it’s certainly from elsewhere.

Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen

8 Responses to “The Christmas Sunday Intertitle”

  1. Dwight Frye made an enormous impression on me as a kid. His “overacting” has an uncanny power to it. Years later I found echoes of his masochistic relationship with the Count in the last part of The Servant — where James Fox begs Dirk Bogarde not to leave him.
    Frye’s style also echoes what Jack Smith liked in his performers — and Robert Wilson as well, on occasion.

  2. Was struck by how sweetly camp he is in the opening scenes. And then he really takes off into the stratosphere of movie lunacy. It’s a shame he got so typecast as hunchbacks and madmen, he was known in the theatre as a versatile character man. Still, he left us some indelible moments.

  3. Christopher Says:

    Dwight Frye was always the centerpiece to Drac for me growing up..The idea of him creaking thru the bedroom door in the dark and crawling up to the bed with that demented laugh of his was about as scary as it got.I also applaud Pablo Alvarez Rubio in the spanish version for bringing much more depth and sympathy to the character than one could expect for such a film..As for silent film bits in TAWLking Pic’tchers,somehow the 1932 The Mummy got jummbled in with our holiday viewing(really not that much out of place for us..or many people I assume)which we watched with commentary track,and I was suprised to learn that the creepy “flashback to ancient egypt” music that awed me in earlier times,was lifted from a german silent film ..

  4. Wow, I ought to listen to that commentary. The Mummy is an incredibly beautiful film, a reminder of how much Freund contributed to the feel of Dracula.

  5. In his marvelous little book on the movies, Screening History Gore Vidal recouns how Freund’s The Mummy scared the living shit out of him as a kid.

  6. …and he worked with the actor who goes mad at the start, years later in TV, and asked him to do the same laugh. “I have quite forgotten it,” protested the thesp. “But I hadn’t, and mimicked it for him,” says Gore.

  7. Christopher Says:

    I love the music in The Mummy,what little there is of it..It was the first of the universal horrors to use an original score in the text. Heinz Roemheld did that flashback music first for the 1930 re-issue of The White Hell of Pitz Palu…Bramwell Fletcher is the actor who goes crazy when he sees the Mummy..he was also the young pup in love with Trilby in Barrymore’s Svengali

  8. Wow, so Fanck and Pabst had an influence on The Mummy. That’s good to know!

    Really want to see Svengali again, it’s quite an odd film but the model city is beautiful.

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