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Plans for a sequel to Tod Browning's Dracula, whose success had lifted Universal Studios out of imminent receivership in 1931, began as early as 1933... at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The driving force behind the follow-up was producer David O. Selznick. Though Universal owned the rights to the Bram Stoker novel and Hamilton Dean-John L. Balderston stage plays adapted from it, there was yet no claim on Stoker's short story "Dracula's Guest," published posthumously in 1914. Optioning the property from Stoker's widow for $500, Selznick tapped Balderston to write the treatment - ostensibly for production by MGM. Having done script duty on Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932), Balderston felt his inclination towards the grotesque was under-valued at Universal, whom he felt bungled all three of its seminal monster romps. The writer saw Dracula's Daughter (1936) as a chance to revel in unprecedented onscreen sadism. "Why should Cecil de Mille have a monopoly of the great box office value of torture and cruelty in pictures of ancient Rome," Balderston asked in a January 1934 memo. "I want... to establish the fact that Dracula's Daughter enjoys torturing her male victims... and that these men under her spell rather like it."
In a bid to beat Universal at its own game, Metro had tried its hand at horror in 1932. Both Charles Brabin's The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), starring Boris Karloff, and Tod Browning's circus revenge tale Freaks (1932) drew critical condemnation and a degree of public backlash for their unfettered sadism and presumed gratuitous violence. Consequently, it is doubtful MGM would have given the green light to the Dracula's Daughter envisioned by Balderston, as the potential for litigation stemming from producing a sequel to a film owned by a rival studio would have been a strong deterrent. Ultimately, Selznick brought the property to Universal, where studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. assigned Invisible Man (1933) scribe R. C. Sherriff to draft a screenplay. It was Laemmle's idea to tap Frankenstein director James Whale to helm the Dracula sequel. Already signed on for Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Whale had little interest in the property - the next film on his plate, as far as he was concerned, was Show Boat (1936) - but played along as promotional materials were prepared heralding James Whale's Dracula's Daughter.
Sabotaging Sherriff's script with the inclusion of baldly homoerotic material of his own invention, Whale succeeded in drawing the fire of the Breen Office, who refused to sign off on the draft. Production of Dracula's Daughter halted as writers Garrett Fort and Finley Peter Dunne were hired for rewrites and Whale slipped quietly out of the room. His replacement was A. Edward Sutherland, who had handled Paramount's Murders in the Zoo (1933). As the script was polished (Fort would share final credit with Selznick, billed as "Oliver Jeffries"), Universal took the precaution of retaining Dracula star Bela Lugosi for the sake of continuity. Radio singer Jane Wyatt and actor Cesar Romero were hired to play the film's romantic leads but were replaced by the start of shooting in February 1936, with Marguerite Churchill and Otto Kruger assuming their roles. The delayed start frustrated the patience of Sutherland, who abandoned the project and was replaced by Lambert Hillyer, a western director who had taken a stab at genre filmmaking with The Invisible Ray (1936), an above-average Lugosi-Karloff team-up. Cast in the title role was Gloria Holden, a 29 year-old actress with ballet training. Though he posed with Holden for pre-production publicity photos, Bela Lugosi was out of the picture.
It remains a delicious Hollywood irony that Bela Lugosi made more money from not being in Dracula's Daughter than he had for starring in the original. Though he had cleared only $2,000 for his services in 1931, Lugosi collected twice that for his time and patience while Dracula's Daughter idled in the wings. Due to the delays and the change in personnel, the film's budget had inflated to $278,000 (nearly $20,000 of which went in the pocket of the departed Sutherland). James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein cost more but revealed its expense in an innovative bravura showpiece while Dracula's Daughter looked for all the world like an average studio film, shot on the backlot. Despite this disadvantage, the film was innovative in its own right. Having nothing to do with the Stoker story (in which Dracula also does not appear), Dracula's Daughter was the first Hollywood film to depict a wholly sympathetic vampire, thirty years ahead of Anne Rice and seventy of Stephanie Meyer. Gloria Holden's imperious Marya Zaleska also became a cult touchstone among lesbians. In the film's most widely discussed scene, Zaleska glamours a half-dressed Nan Grey in her garret - thirsty for blood but leaving room for other interpretations.
Though Dracula's Daughter had been developed initially at MGM as an attempt to cash in on Universal's profitable horror parade, the finished film wound up capping Universal's first wave of fright films. The protests of critics, censors, and civic and church groups against the escalating violence of these films (in The Black Cat (1934), Bela Lugosi skinned Boris Karloff alive while Karloff crushed Lugosi in an industrial press during the climax of The Raven, 1935) coincided with a regime change at Universal. With Carl Laemmle, Jr. out of power and the shots being called by a set of corporate executives, all further horror projects post-Dracula's Daughter were canceled. Three fallow years passed before the studio returned to form with Son of Frankenstein (1939), whose success launched a second wave of chillers, mostly featuring the studio's repertory of Draculas, Frankensteins, Mummies and new kid in town The Wolf Man (1941). Favoring monster-on-monster fisticuffs over metaphysics or philosophy, the second wave of Universal horror lowered the intellectual bar, with the result that Dracula's Daughter is so different an animal from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) that it seems born of an entirely different genre.
Dracula's Daughter did prove influential to the subgenre in the second half of the century. The "vampire seeks cure" logline would be featured in a number of later films, among them House of Dracula (1945), House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Near Dark (1987) - though these features focused on blood cures rather than the flexing of individual will over the fiat of heredity. It would take several decades for female vampire protagonists to become a going concern, and only after the relaxation of censorship allowed nudity to become part of the equation, as in the British The Vampire Lovers (1970), the American The Velvet Vampire (1971), the Belgian Les lèvres rouges (Daughters of Darkness, 1971), and the Spanish La novia ensangrentada (The Blood Spattered Bride, 1972). Though Marya Zaleska's affectional preference goes unstated in Dracula's Daughter, the film is considered the grand-mère of lesbian vampire pictures, whose number includes (in addition to those titles already stated) Jean Rollin's Les frissons des vampires (Shiver of the Vampires, 1971), Jesus Franco's Vampyros Lesbos (1971), José Ramon Larraz's Vampyres (1975), and Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983). Also concerned with the daughter of Count Dracula, Michael Almereyda's Nadja (1994) may be the only other female vampire movie to keep its protagonist clothed throughout.
Eighty years after the fact, Dracula's Daughter retains an unexpected freshness in part to its forfeiture of the standard vampire tropes - Marya Zaleska even holds a cross at one point (during a poignant funeral scene in which she consigns her father's remains to fire). By downplaying the character's supernatural proclivities, the screenplay foregrounds her humanity. The film's key scene is not the Countess' attack on the artist's model but an earlier setpiece in which, believing herself free of her family curse, she sits at the piano to embrace life and renewed hope. Tinkling out Chopin's "Nocturne No. 5" and waxing rhapsodic about the joys of spending an evening not thirsting for blood, Zaleska is brought back on-message by her servant Sandor (Irving Pichel), a human to whom she has promised immortality. In a sly reversal of the Dracula-Renfield relationship, Zaleska has become Sandor's slave as he uses nothing more than wordplay and psychology to drive her back into the shadows... making the pair one of cinema's great codependent couples, alongside Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb in Sid and Nancy (1986).
Producers: E. M. Asher, Harry Zehner
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Screenplay: Garrett Fort
Story: David O. Selznick (as Oliver Jeffries), Charles Belden, John L. Balderston, R. C. Sherriff, Kurt Neumann, Finley Peter Dunne, Bram Stoker
Cinematography: George Robinson
Editing: Milton Carruth
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino
Makeup: Otto Lederer
Special Makeup: Jack P. Pierce
Visual Effects: John P. Fulton
Cast: Gloria Holden (Countess Marya Zaleska/Dracula's Daughter), Otto Kruger (Jeffrey Garth), Marguerite Churchill (Janet), Edward van Sloan (Von Helsing), Gilbert Emery (Sir Basil Humphrey), Irving Pichel (Sandor), Halliwell Hobbes (Hawkins), Billy Bevan (Albert), E. E. Clive (Sgt. Wilkes), Hedda Hopper (Lady Esme Hammond), Claud Allister (Sir Aubrey), Nan Grey (Lili), Edgar Norton (Hobbs), Fred Walton (Dr. Beemish).
by Richard Harland Smith
Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Michael Brunas, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver. (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1990)
James Whale's Dracula's Daughter by Philip J. Riley (BearManor Media, 2009)
Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film by Andrea Weiss (Penguin Books, 1992)