Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that you’re 1930s Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle, Jr. Dracula has made its indelible mark at the box office and in the collective consciousness of the audience. Frankenstein met or exceeded every expectation that was formed in the minds of all concerned. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff have become the top Hollywood stars at the time. Bride of Frankenstein gathers together the team that made the original, and in what can only be called a no-brainer blueprint, they built an incredible sequel that ticked all the boxes and is often considered to be superior to the original. Given all of this, the studio turns to you and gives you marching orders to create a sequel to Dracula. How do you go about it? Logically, you’d want to bring back Tod Browning to direct, and you’d probably want to find a way to bring back Bela Lugosi. But… Browning and Lugosi just made Mark of the Vampire, a talkie remake of Browning’s (now lost) silent classic London After Midnight… for the competition at MGM. Move down the food chain. James Whale is a hot commodity, fresh off his success with Bride of Frankenstein. Whale agrees, but his leading lady (Irene Dunne) gets freed up for another project he has waiting in the wings (Show Boat). Suffice it to say, you’re in a tight spot, but the show must go on.
Laemmle’s answer was to replace Whale with A. Edward Sutherland, best known for his comedies, but he left the studio, completely uninterested in Dracula’s Daughter. The man who would helm was Lambert Hillyer. Hillyer would do two pictures for Universal that year, this one coming in short order following his work on The Invisible Ray (ironically starring both Karloff and Lugosi). He would also later be the man responsible for bringing The Batman to the big screen in a 15-part serial, to say nothing of his extensive catalog of westerns he’d direct. But wait… why didn’t Lugosi come back if he was clearly still working with Universal? The simple answer is typecasting. In the five short years since the film, the shadow of Dracula loomed large and prevented the actor from becoming the prominent leading man he wanted to be, so he took all manner of parts he could get to stay in the limelight and prove his talent… anything but Count Dracula. Lugosi would actually appear against his will in this film in the form of a waxwork dummy, lying in a coffin with a stake through his heart as the film opens. You don’t get a clear look at the face, but it’s one of those “who else could it possibly be?” moments.
The role of Countess Zaleska was Gloria Holden’s first starring role, and by all accounts, she wasn’t pleased. Not only did she look down on the horror genre as most actors of the time did, but she had seen Lugosi struggle with the typecasting issue and feared the same. In a twist of fate, the disgust she had for the role may have led to the quality of her performance. As Critic Mark Clark once stated, “Her disdain for the part translates into a kind of self-loathing that perfectly suits her troubled character.”
Dracula’s Daughter is very loosely based on an excised chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, reprinted as a short story entitled “Dracula’s Guest.” After all, if you’re going back to the well, wouldn’t you want to use all of the original Stoker material you could? The story’s rights were bought by MGM, but they knew the rights on Dracula belonged to Universal, so they couldn’t make the picture without legal ramification. Universal, not having the rights to this story, changed it considerably to make it work, essentially snubbing their competition. In the original story, a man (unnamed, but presumed to be Jonathan Harker) encounters a female vampire (with no relationship to Dracula mentioned). If you didn’t know the title of the story, you’d never know there was any connection to Dracula at all. Subsequent versions of the story that have been discovered do draw the names and connections, but for whatever reason, Stoker never released it in his lifetime. And if you know your vampire lore, there’s a prominent female vampire out there to whom Bram Stoker owes a lot, so this is where Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter comes in. More on that later.
The film picks up in the wake of Dracula. Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan reprising his role, the character’s name changed here to Von Helsing for some inexplicable reason) has staked Dracula through the heart, and in a twist that I always find funny, he’s arrested on the spot for “murdering that kindly old gentleman.” He’s to face trial, and his options seem to be to plead guilty of murder or insanity. But the classic vampire hunter knows that he’s done the world a favor, and he’s confident that if he can prove the existence of vampires, the courts will let him walk. Besides that, you can’t kill someone who’s been dead for 500 years, so the murder charge doesn’t stand up. You have to admire the logic in play. He waves the traditional defenders, opting to have his friend and former star pupil, psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), speak on his behalf.
In the meantime, the title character of Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), has stolen the vampire’s body with the aid of her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel). They hold a ritual to burn the body, hoping to break the family curse so Countess Zaleska can live a normal life. She’s set herself up as a successful fine artist, moving through high society, but Sandor tells her that there is only death in her eyes. She continues to hunt, hypnotizing her victims with a jeweled ring before striking.
[Side note: a year later, the popular radio personality The Shadow would become the star of his own series, and a line of pulp novels would be churned out to create story content. The radio incarnation’s “ability to cloud men’s minds” would be based on the pulp version’s use of a large fire opal ring, which The Shadow employed to hypnotize his targets so as to extract the truth from them. I can’t imagine where they got the idea for this. *grin*]
Zaleska, desperate to break the control of Dracula from beyond the grave, encounters Dr. Garth by chance at a society party, becoming intrigued by his theories and hoping that science can overcome supernatural power. Without full understanding, he instructs her to confront her addiction, to fight her cravings head-on. In scoring the first victory, she can then gain the confidence needed to abstain in the long term. The Countess, however, doesn’t resist long, and she attacks a model she was supposed to paint. During the course of the film, Dr. Garth discovers the truth of her condition, and she kidnaps his personal assistant / woman he loves, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), in a desperate move to get Dr. Garth to come with her to Transylvania. Dr. Garth agrees to trade his life for Janet’s, but Sandor destroys her with an arrow through the heart for betraying her promise to make him immortal. Before he can kill Dr. Garth, he is shot by a policeman.
Behind the scenes, Dracula’s Daughter was filmed at breakneck speeds, across 7-day per week shoots, going over time by a week and costing the film $50,000 over budget. That cost hit Universal hard. Laemmle was forced to borrow $1 million, but the loan was called in too soon, and Universal was unable to pay. Laemmle was forced out, replaced by Charles R. Rogers, who had partially financed the loan, and Standard Capital, who also financed, gained control of the studio. Rogers hated horror films and shut down production following the release of Dracula’s Daughter, and the golden age of Universal Monsters would cease for three years, finally returning with 1939’s Son of Frankenstein.
Reviews of Dracula’s Daughter are often mixed, both then and now. It’s a solid little movie in its own rite, but as a sequel to Dracula, it comes across as missing some vital ingredients that made the original so memorable. I said in my original post about Dracula that it’s not that the movie was all that great, but rather it was Lugosi’s star power and charisma that made it so. This movie is my defense of that claim. The plot story is quite a bit better than that of the original film, and the acting here is comparable to anything Universal put out along these lines, but ultimately it’s missing the Lugosi touch. What Holden brought to the screen, however, was something audiences and critics alike didn’t expect, but it’s an aspect that the studio capitalized on right from the beginning in a move that was beyond surprising in that era.
The poster makes the claim “She gives you that weird feeling.” The weird feeling it describes is the homo-erotic overtone that the picture carried. I mentioned earlier that Stoker’s original novel owed much to a female vampire. For those not in the know, that vampire is J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, who not only set the stage for most of what Stoker would popularize, but she’s also the first lesbian vampire, which created a subgenre within the vampire subgenre. Countess Zaleska is the first film vampire to utilize this aspect. The Production Code Administration, now in full operation in Hollywood, forced the tap dance to avoid any overt lesbian implications. For example, the model Lili was originally to pose nude, but the script was changed so that she would pose for a study involving only her head and shoulders, immediately followed by a hospital scene that makes it bluntly clear she’d been attacked by a vampire.
Even so, the results speak for themselves, and viewers of the day picked up on it and condemned it. That is… some viewers picked up on it. The New York Times review said to “bring the kiddies,” suggesting that maybe the film got past the critics and censors alike because those serving just weren’t that bright. A later scene between the Countess and Janet has since been cited as “the longest kiss never filmed,” interrupted by Dr. Garth. No matter how you look at it, gay and lesbian film studies the world over have since pegged this film and have both praised and condemned it in equal measure.
And if you’re keeping score, the first on-screen Dracula was not Dracula because he was Orlok due to necessity of changing Stoker’s original work to avoid copyright issues, and the first on-screen Carmilla was not Carmilla because she was Zaleska for the exact same reason. This movie isn’t one that sees regular rotation on my screen, but it does get my respect for what it achieved in spite of having the unenviable task of following up both Lugosi and Karloff. All things considered, if you take any of the lesbian overtones into account, combined with the idea that the new studio head didn’t like horror and the financial tight spot that this movie put the studio into to bring that new head into place, it’s a complete wonder the Universal Monsters legacy didn’t stop cold right here. History speaks for itself on that front.