Latin Horror: 90th Spanish Drácula anniversary interview with David J. Skal

‘Monster Show’ historian on Spanish contributions to Universal Monsters legacy

Justina BonillaBy JUSTINA BONILLA

2021 marks the 90th anniversary of the release of Universal Studio’s two most iconic classic monster films Dracula and Frankenstein.

Carlos Villarías and Lupita Tovar in the 1931 mirror classic Drácula.

Another Universal Studios film celebrating the 90th anniversary of its cinematic release is the Spanish-language Drácula. And no, that accent mark is not a typographical error, it’s a cultural one. Though highly praised at the time of its 1931 release, the Spanish-language Drácula fell into the shadows of Universal Studio’s past, and sadly, like many older films, a significant part of its original nitrate film negatives was severely damaged. It was in danger of becoming permanently locked in the Universal Studios film volt, never to be enjoyed again by an adoring film audience.

Thankfully, the perseverance and investigation of author DAVID J. SKAL brought the Spanish-language Drácula back from the dead. Skal is a critically acclaimed and highly respected American cultural historian, film critic, and author, most notably for his knowledge of classic horror cinema and horror literature.

Skal has been featured in on-camera interviews as a horror history authority in the horror television specials Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments and currently on AMC’s Eli Roth’s History of Horror. Among his array of published books include science-fiction novels and non-fiction horror cinematic history, such as Hollywood GothicThe Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, and most recently Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond.

In this exclusive in-depth interview with Latin Horror, David J. Skal shares the journey he followed with the Spanish-language Dracula, while revealing the stories and people behind one of the first groundbreaking Latino horror films in American horror film history.

Note: Due to Universal Studios labeling both the Spanish-language and English-language films as Dracula, for this piece, the Spanish-language film will be referred to as Spanish Drácula and the English-language film as English Dracula.

Horror historian, critic, writer, and commentator, DAVID J. SKAL, and friend.

Hollywood Gothic and the journey to rediscover Universal’s forgotten Dracula:

JUSTINA BONILLA: What does the Spanish Drácula mean to you?

DAVID J. SKAL: I’ve got a special place in my heart for the Spanish Drácula, because I was the only one interested enough to track down the complete film, in Havana in the late 1980s. I’m very proud of that. Universal, without that missing reel, they never would have brought it out on home video. They almost didn’t because the quality difference between what I found, the only full print of the film, and the original negative still in their vaults. You can see immediately why film preservation is a good idea.

The release of the Spanish Dracula in 1992 on home video outsold Spartacus, which was one of Universal’s big-budget releases, and really opened up the whole Spanish-speaking market for Universal home video.

I don’t think Universal expected really much of anything from the Spanish Dracula. But it’s still chugging along all these years.

BONILLA: How did you learn about Spanish Drácula?

SKAL: It took me forever to see Dracula when I was young, because it wasn’t being shown on Cleveland television at the time I got interested in the monster magazines, the fan clubs, and that sort of thing.

I had to wait for six years, until Dracula showed up in a theatrical revival. I saw it at night, and fully expected Dracula to be the greatest movie ever made. And, I saw what people had been complaining about. It becomes a very slow static stagey picture. So, I felt cheated.

I was so delighted when I found out that there was this alternate version made that was not being shown. The negative had partially dissolved. Nitrate film is very, very, very, very volatile. The third reel was just horrible. Everything else was pristine.

Drácula meets Juan Harker (played by Barry Norton).

BONILLA: When were you first able to see Spanish Drácula?

SKAL: The Library of Congress had a viewing print in mothballs. I went down there and watched the thing on a movieola. One reel at a time. And I said, ‘I’ve got to write about this, this is just great. I’ve got to find that damn third reel’. I learned that The Cinemateca de Cuba in Havana, Cuba had a show print, probably from the 1950s. It was complete.

American businesses couldn’t do business in Cuba, but journalists and educators could get visas to go down there. I applied for a journalistic visa, my publisher, W.W. Norton loved what I was doing with this and sponsored my efforts with the U.S. Treasury Department to get the visa. I went down there for three days.

BONILLA: What was your experience in Havana, Cuba?

SKAL: This is June 1989, when I went down there. It was fascinating, for all kinds of reasons besides Dracula. Here was this whole society, less than 100 miles off U.S. shores that was in this crazy kind of time warp. People were still driving 1950s cars that were billowing black smog, everywhere. It was the worst air pollution I’d ever experienced in my life.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night at my hotel thinking that there was a gas leak. And it wasn’t. It was this miasma of smog that had kind of descended over the city at night. And nothing, no buildings seem to have had a paint job since the 1950s.

It was like seeing an apocalyptic version of Miami beaches, Art Deco, historic architecture, because they were just beautiful examples, but they were just covered with peeling paint and dilapidation.

The people were wonderful though. They were the warmest, nicest people you could want. They were very curious about all my interest in this film.

They showed Spanish Dracula publicly just a few weeks before I had come down. It wasn’t too big of a deal for them. So, they set up that third reel and screened it for me several times. They let me set up my camera tripod and crudely shoot frame blow-ups from the screen. That I incorporated into my book Hollywood Gothic.

BONILLA: What happened after your trip to Havana?

SKAL: It got the ball rolling and finally came to the attention of Universal, who initially would not cooperate with Hollywood Gothic at all. They said, ‘Dracula’s a classic. We’re not going to license any rights or let you have any studio documents’.

I did the whole book without a single Universal proprietary document, which was a feat in and of itself. Having these obstacles just made me want to go a little harder with it.

So finally, Universal decided to restore the film. They couldn’t directly deal with Cuba, but they could go through various, international archives, nonprofits and educational institutions (the UCLA Film Archive). So, the reel was brought to LA, duplicated, sent back, and thrown together.

Life after Hollywood Gothic:

BONILLA: What impact did Hollywood Gothic have on your career after it was released?

SKAL: I remember when Universal released Spanish Drácula, they put out a press release and just plagiarized pages out of Hollywood Gothic. Instead of threatening them with legal action, I took a different route completely.

I started to do documentaries and I produced the behind-the-scenes chronicle of the academy award-winning film, Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters with Ian McKellen, which was an extraordinary experience to have. Gods and Monsters was the first feature film I worked on, and it went on to win Oscars. Universal released the DVD, and they purchased the documentary. That got my foot in the door as a kind of in-house historian and documentary filmmaker for a couple of years.

BONILLA: What type of content did you create for Universal?

SKAL: I did about a dozen special edition DVDs. I produced all the extras, the documentaries, the audio commentaries, and the animated still galleries. It was fun because I had the run of Universal for two years. Almost anything I needed they gave me. There’s still there were files I couldn’t get access to. They would have revealed a lot.

BONILLA: What do you remember of the first screening of the Spanish Drácula after the restoration?

SKAL: I was there at the Directors Guild theatre when Spanish Drácula was first screened in 1992. It was the same week that Francis Ford Coppola his version of Dracula, Bram Stroker’s Dracula, was being released. I interviewed Lupita Tovar Kohner (the leading lady of Spanish Drácula). In front of the audience, I said, ‘You know, Mrs. Kohner, for all the publicity that this new film is going to be getting, I think your film is going to be talked about for a longer period of time’.

And, Lupita said one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me. She reached over and put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I have to say something. This man gave me back my life’.

I hope not. She had quite a fantastic life. But it gave her something to do in her later years. She went on for quite a long time, she was 96 she lived, she lived to 106. And quite a legacy.

BONILLA: Did Lupita attend other Spanish Drácula screenings?

SKAL: Lupita did go to a number of screenings of Spanish Dracula. Although, I remember she turned one down. I think it was being shown at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown LA. They were doing a Halloween show, and wanted her to arrive in a coffin, in a hearse. She said, ‘I’m nearing my 100th year and I don’t need any more reminders’. She was a lovely, lovely lady. And meeting her was just one of the highlights of my, my time out here in Hollywood.

I was just awestruck. What a living doll.

The main players of Spanish Drácula:

BONILLA: Who was Paul Kohner?

SKAL: Paul Kohner was Carl Laemmle Sr.’s protégé from Czechoslovakia. He was kind of a second son to Laemmle Sr. Kohner expected that he was going to take over the reins of the studio when Laemmle Sr. retired. And lo and behold, Laemmle pulled a switcheroo and gave Universal to his 21-year-old son, Carl Laemmle Jr. We must credit Laemmle Jr. with his enthusiasm for horror movies that made all the Universal classics happen. Universal had their eye on Dracula for a long time.

Kohner became the head of Universals foreign productions. He had already had European distribution. He was in charge of these foreign language versions of the English films.

BONILLA: What was Kohner’s role in Spanish Drácula?

SKAL: By this point, Kohner had fallen in love with Lupita Tovar. I’m not sure when she became aware of this. He used the Spanish Dracula to glorify her status, because Lupita was going to go back to Mexico. She felt that talkies were the end. There would be no career for her in Hollywood. There’s a wonderful love story going on behind the scenes.

Kohner tried to upstage English Dracula at every turn. He had his crew look at the daily rushes and then improve upon them. He and cinematographer George Robinson improved the lighting. It’s interesting that in many of the scenes the compositions is reversed, because they had to hang their own lighting at a different spot on the ceiling, switch the furniture around and all that sort of thing.

BONILLA: How would you describe Carlos Villarías’ interpretation of Drácula?

SKAL: Carlos Villarías was the only actor encouraged to view footage from English Dracula, presumably so the character of Dracula would be consistent throughout the world. Villarías is often criticized for giving a hammy performance, but it is also possible he was giving his own straightforward interpretation of Bela Lugosi’s acting, which was highly stylized.

Dracula was not yet a familiar icon, and Lugosi’s line readings and mannerisms were—to say the least— highly idiosyncratic. Even today, people attempting Lugosi impersonations tend to go immediately “over the top,” and Villarías may have simply been doing the same thing.

BONILLA: What were the differences between the acting styles of Lupita Tovar Kohner and Helen Chandler?

SKAL: Lupita was not permitted to view the performance of her American counterpart, Helen Chandler (the leading lady of English Dracula). Her approach to the part of Eva is quite independent, and more overtly sexual. Her nearly transparent negligee is eye-popping even by Pre-Code standards. Under Dracula’s control, she becomes animated and amorous, whereas Chandler plays Mina as dazed and obedient.

BONILLA: What are the differences in the performances of Renfield between Pablo Alvarez Rubio and Dwight Frye?

SKAL: In the English Dracula, Dwight Frye played Renfield before his transformation as a slightly fey, even prissy character, underscoring a homoerotic tension with Dracula many critics have found both in the film and Bram Stoker’s novel.

The film conflated two characters from the book—Renfield, who never left England, and Jonathan Harker, who journeyed to Transylvania to complete a real estate transaction for the Count.

In Spanish Dráula, Pablo Alvarez Rubio gives no hint of effeminacy, and his fits of madness are often more visceral than Frye’s, and most dramatically presented in the scene where the hatch of the ship is thrown open. Instead of Frye’s intense stare and low, menacing laugh, Rubio loudly cries out, as if the sunlight has somehow scalded him.

Spanish Dracula behind the scenes:

BONILLA: In the 1920s and early 1930s, how influential was the Spanish-speaking market for Hollywood?

SKAL: During the silent era, 50% of Hollywood’s revenues came from non-English speaking parts of the world. The Spanish language market was the biggest international market for Hollywood.

It’s funny, we think of Lugosi as Dracula as such an icon. But, he wasn’t Dracula to a very big part of the movie-going globe. They saw Villarías as Dracula.

BONILLA: Why did Universal make a non-English versions of their English language films?

SKAL: In the days of the early talkies, Universal made these separate foreign language versions to hold on to the international market. Since, half of Hollywood’s revenues during the silent era came from overseas, it was a market they couldn’t let go.

Most of the excitement about talking pictures came from hearing actors speak in their natural voices. So, some of the earliest experiments with dubbing were knocked down or not accepted. It seemed like cheating. It was fake. It wasn’t a real talking picture.

BONILLA: Why is Spanish Drácula a half hour longer than the English Dracula?

SKAL: The Spanish film shot the entire shooting script. Apparently, the studio was not happy with Todd Browning’s cut of English Dracula. They felt that it just lagged. It had a lot of the problems that Browning’s early talkies had. It was stiff and stage-bound. They reshot some extra scenes. I think almost all those scenes of Lugosi, with little pinpoint spotlights added.

There are some loose ends. We never find out what happens to Lucy in the English film. We also don’t know what happens to the maid that Renfield is crawling toward on the floor. We find out in Spanish Drácula that Renfield is not going after the maid, he’s going after a fly that’s buzzing around her head. This was the comic relief to let you give up those pent-up emotions that have been shaking you to the core.

David J. Skal and LATIN HORROR entertainment writer, Justina Bonilla (via Zoom).

BONILLA: Did the Spanish Drácula cast use the same sets as the English Dracula cast?

SKAL: Yes, they did it. They did it at night on the same sets. But a much quicker amount of time. In fact, you can see they got ahead of English Dracula, because in some of the scenes, there are no cobwebs on the walls. They were that far ahead of the English Dracula production.

BONILLA: Were there any other goals or creative differences that the Spanish Drácula had than the English Dracula?

SKAL: There’s much more interesting uses of the moving camera, which goes on throughout the film. Especially in Dracula’s first appearance, he just kind of appears from nowhere on the castle staircase. They use the big moving crane that just dallied in and zooms up the steps, until he’s in a medium shot. And, it’s just, wow. Who would have thought of that?

I think George Melford, the director of Spanish Drácula, and his cinematographer George Robinson, editor Maurice Pivar, and everybody else involved technically just work intuitively, looking at what Browning had done during the day.

One thing I noticed is that there’s more visual depth. There are things in the foreground, centered around and background more frequently in Spanish Dracula than the English Dracula. They were thinking on their feet. This wasn’t a planned thing. But Kohner was driving it. He wanted Spanish Drácula to upstage in as many ways as he could English Dracula.

Spanish Drácula after release:

BONILLA: What did Lugosi think of Spanish Drácula?

Kohner got a big compliment from Lugosi, who attended the Spanish Drácula Los Angeles premiere, which was a couple of months before the English Dracula premiere. Lugosi announced to the world that Spanish Drácula, ‘Was magnificent.’

There was no kind of hoopla when the English Dracula opened in March at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Mrs. Lugosi remembered that there was no hoopla, there was no premiere, no red carpet. Nothing. For some reason, they released it in Los Angeles. Weeks after, it debuted around the country.

But there was a special premiere screening of the Spanish Drácula in Hollywood. That was something that Kohner got for himself.

BONILLA: Was Lugosi’s Dracula ever shown in Spanish?

SKAL: The Lugosi version with Spanish subtitles was shown in Puerto Rico.  I haven’t been able to find out much about it in the newspaper advertisements. It must have been one of the earliest experiments with subtitles in Hollywood.

BONILLA: Was there any criticism from the Spanish press about Spanish Drácula?

SKAL: When these films were being made and released, they were delighted to have Spanish-language talkies. But, there was no uniformity of accents. In other words, you would clearly have Mexican, Argentine, and Spanish, all thrown together in the same room.

After you watch the Spanish Dracula again, and again, you can see some of the shortcomings. It was under rehearsed. But the actors haven’t been doing these lines with each other. Sometimes it feels like the first time.

Lupita and Paul: The love story behind Dracula’s Cape:

BONILLAWhat was Lupita’s relationship like with Paul?

SKAL: The Lupita biography called The Sweetheart of Mexico by their son, Pancho Kohner, is worth looking down, because of the amazing life she and Paul had together. They knew everybody in Hollywood, especially the European community.

BONILLA: Were you able to interview Kohner?

SKAL: He died on March 16, 1988, shortly before he was going to give an interview putting the record straight for once and for all about Spanish Drácula.

I wish people had started doing what I did earlier. Because I missed so many people just by months, or years, or even weeks. People who never gave a retrospective interview, talked about their careers, or even had any idea that they had fans who would just hang on to every word, if you got them in front of a microphone or a camera.

Fortunately, that’s not happening now. We got plenty of audio-visual documentation. Documentarians in the future will have a lot of footage to work with.

BONILLA: How was your first interview with Lupita?

SKAL: When I talked to Lupita, I think it was only about six months after Kohner had died. I was a little apprehensive about approaching. Kohner’s agency, who I went through, assured me that it would be very good for her to talk, and she’d be delighted. So, I came out to Los Angeles and met her.

She said, ‘I can’t answer so many of your questions, because I knew almost no English at the time’. It’s funny, by the end of her life, she could speak five languages fluently, quite remarkable. But, in 1930, she knew all the faces and could understand instructions given to her in Spanish, but not much else. Imagine all of the politics, all of the drama, and all of the wonderful gossip that might have been there.

I just wish her English had been better when she did Spanish Drácula, but I’m glad she did it. I’m sure she’s looking down on all of us is delighted that we’ve given a kind of immortality to this strange little movie she made.

BONILLA: What did Kohner do after his time at Universal?

SKAL: After Universal, Kohner became one of the leading agents for European top talent in Hollywood, and he represented everybody like Greta Garbo. Lupita knew these people intimately as friends.

Kohner was John Houston’s agent. I think the longest agent-client relationship in Hollywood history going over 50 years. Lupita had a million stories about Houston and his wonderful legacy. And the anecdotes just went on forever.

Paul also had a photographic memory. He never even wrote captions on the back of all the pictures they had in their photo collection. It was just extraordinary. Lupita said, ‘I can’t identify these for archival purposes’. A number of people actually did help her do that. It’s remarkable photo documentation. It wasn’t only her work at Universal, it was the whole family’s history. They use the studio photographers basically to document their own lives. It’s a very rich history.

BONILLA: What was your favorite memory with Lupita?

SKAL: Oh my gosh. Well, I went where she lived, I believe, until the end of her life, in the house she and Paul had bought in the 1930s. And, for a pretentious neighborhood like Bel Air, it was a very unpretentious house. A very lovely little Spanish colonial kind of place, warm and inviting. I couldn’t help but notice when, after I shook her hand, and she showed me around that there was a painting of her two children as children. It was signed by Diego Rivera (Mexico’s greatest muralist and husband of Mexican art icon Frida Kahlo).

You meet a lot of strange people in Hollywood. You meet a lot of people who must have been damaged in high school in some terrible way. That’s the only way that explains their behavior. I spent 20 years in New York, dealing with traditional publishers and those kinds of people, not studio executives. Not people whose lives have been totally shaped by the movies. So, I’ve met quite a few pieces of work.

Then there are these wonderful human beings who somehow have survived it all, have not been driven crazy, and their values are not warped. They know how to behave like human beings. I just fell in love with her. She was so nice to me. so generous with their time. And it was so great to see how much pleasure she gave to other people, making these appearances with her film she never expected to. I don’t think she had that kind of attention since she made Santa in 1931.

Lupita had starred in Mexico’s first talking picture Santa (1931), which is a classic. They call it, ‘The Mexican Gone with the Wind’. That’s not really accurate, but it was that popular. She was known as ‘Mexico’s Sweetheart’.

BONILLA: Were you ever able to film other interviews with Lupita?

SKAL: I have one interview on camera that we’ve never used for anything. She doesn’t really go into any new territory. But, I will have to get that transferred from the old analog videotape that it was on and digitize it. Lupita may have something to say to her fans.

The future of Spanish Drácula:

BONILLA: Why do you think many people today are unaware of the Spanish Drácula?

SKAL: Well, if they don’t own a copy of the DVD or the Blu-ray, they’re not likely to ever be exposed to it.

Every once in a while, a show print does go out for some film festival or retrospective, but not very often. So, occasionally, when a college or a Film Society shows the film, they invite me to come talk about it. Those are very small audiences. I’m trying to think if it’s been shown on Turner Classic Movies or not.

BONILLA: I don’t believe that Spanish Dracula has reached a mass audience like TCM.

Think of home videos as the mass audience. It’s usually it’s there as a supplement to English Dracula. Film buffs know about it. But not so much the general movie going public.

BONILLA: How important is film restoration? Considering how easy it could have been to lose Spanish Drácula forever without it.

SKAL: Half the films ever made, no longer exist. That’s how bad film preservation is. Film’s not a stable medium. Photographs aren’t either. Everything ought to be digitized as quickly as possible, because after 100 years or so, original photographs aren’t going to be holding up very well either.

Thank God we have digital magic. But, all of these dreams are very fragile things. The long-range preservation is never a part of the film’s budget. And that’s part of what happens. Each film is like a corporation in and of itself. Preservation archives are just afterthoughts. We need to keep reminding them exactly in any way we can.

I hope that lousy-looking third reel of the Spanish Dracula is argument enough for why films need to be pampered and taken care of. Because you can see what could happen. It was almost gone. Without that bit, it never would have been shown to the public again.

For further information on David J. Skal: http://www.monstershow.net

LINK: https://latinhorror.com/90th-spanish-dracula-anniversary-interview-with-david-j-skal/

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