Dracula disappointed me

Bela Lugosi, DRACULA, 1931.

I was really looking forward to watching the 1931 version of Dracula, always having had the impression it’s one of the all-time greats and classics of horror cinema. Instead, I found myself yet again disappointed by something surrounded by years of massive hype.

For all the issues I have with Nosferatu (to be discussed more in-depth next October), at least that film succeeds brilliantly at creating a creepy, spooky, foreboding mood, with tension in the air. It’s all thrown away with a whimper instead of a bang, but at least it’s there.

Béla Lugosi cuts an awesome figure as Count Dracula, though he seems to do about as much active vamping as Max Schreck, which is to say, not nearly enough. It does start out promisingly, but once it moves to London, the stiltedness begins.

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Stripped of all the hype and classic status, this is just another creaky, stilted early talkie. So many early talkies feel like filmed stage plays, since the first sound cameras couldn’t move very far and still pick up noise well. Dracula was indeed based on a stage play, but I really don’t feel like that best-suits any kind of horror story.

The horror is more talked about after the fact, instead of shown as it’s actually happening. How is that supposed to create a frightening mood? Silent horror films work so well because they’re not bogged down in a bunch of dialogue. We see horrific events, and experience the building of a creepy mood. Even in a sound horror film, do you really need a lot of dialogue to understand what’s happening?

Forget horror; ANY film, of any genre, becomes boring and stilted when there’s more dialogue than action. Books also suffer when they’re little more than talking heads.

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We never once see Dracula biting anyone, rising up out of his coffin, transmogrifying from bat to human, or even just showing his fangs. Beyond that, we don’t even see bite marks on anyone’s neck! Come on, those are basic elements of any Dracula story, no matter which version it’s based on!

Horror movies don’t necessarily have to be a nonstop parade of horrific images and frightening events. Sometimes the horror is more about a foreboding mood, a creepy mystery, or dark human emotions, not paranormal creatures, psychotic murderers, or blood and guts. However, I didn’t get a palpable sense of any type of horror here.

A slow pace also doesn’t work with most horror films.

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The film was directed by the legendary Tod Browning, though he was a last-minute choice. This wasn’t his project from the jump, which seems to suggest, sadly, that it’s just an urban legend that Lon Chaney, Sr., would’ve played Dracula had he still been alive. Still, I can’t help but imagine how awesome Lon would’ve been as Dracula, even with the same script and stilted feeling.

There’s also an old rumor that Carl Laemmle, Sr., of Universal Studios, wanted the awesome Conrad Veidt to play Dracula. Though he had to go back to Germany with the advent of sound, due to his thick accent and poor English, Lugosi also had a heavy accent, and his troubles with learning English are well-known. It could’ve worked with Veidt.

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Just because I most love old films doesn’t mean I automatically love all of them. It’s such a myth that lovers of classic cinema think it’s immune from criticism, only watch it because it’s old, refuse to watch anything modern, or heap praises on films just because they’re old. There were just as many bad apples then as now, even if I’d much rather watch a bad or mediocre old film than something current.

I’d give this a 2 out of 5. It wasn’t terrible, but there was nothing special or innovative about it. Even Lugosi’s character didn’t do much to elevate the overall experience.

When a much-lauded classic disappoints you

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Since finally reaching my long-anticipated goal of 1,000 silents on New Year’s Eve (and now at 1,113), I decided to focus more on early sound films. A lot of the classic era sound films I’d seen were comedies, not so many dramas and normal films. I knew that was a gap in most dire need of filling. I also had the idea to spend the year getting acquainted with James Cagney’s films. (He’s the one in the middle, with the kind of feline features, if you don’t know.) As it turned out, this is his 30th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) year, so it was really hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) at work yet again.

The Public Enemy, released 23 April 1931, was Cagney’s breakthrough role, and first starring role. Originally, he was cast as secondary lead Matt Doyle instead of anti-hero Tom Powers, but director William Wellman thought Cagney would be better in the lead, and thus switched the two actors. However, the scenes of the characters’ childhoods weren’t reshot, so the child actors still resemble the opposite characters.

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The film is based upon the unpublished novel Beer and Blood, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, and based upon Al Capone’s real-life gang rivalries in Chicago. The film too is set in Chicago, and spans the years 1909 to the Prohibition era.

The legendary Louise Brooks was offered the role of Gwen Allen, but turned it down. This was a period when she was turning down a lot of choice projects, for reasons no one could understand. Her film career was pretty much over after this. The role instead went to Jean Harlow, who wasn’t yet 20 years old when the film was being shot.

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This is an episodic story, without much of a real plot I could discern. Tom Powers and his best friend Matt Doyle are scalawags and petty thieves from childhood, while Tom’s older brother Mike is a bit of a goody-two-shoes who wants no part of their delinquent lifestyle. All the while, Tom manages to keep his overindulgent mother in the dark about their seedy goings-on.

During WWI, Mike enlists in the Marines, and Tom and Matt become even deeper enmeshed in a life of crime. When Prohibition hits, they become very successful bootleggers. Mike is really upset to discover their wealth doesn’t come from politics after all, but utterly fails in his attempts to force them to give up their bootlegging.

While all this is going on, Tom and Matt run afoul of a rival gang, and also acquire girlfriends. Matt’s girlfriend is Mamie, whom he eventually marries. One of Tom’s girlfriends is the abovementioned Gwen Allen. He also dates Kitty, the victim of the famous grapefruit in the face scene.

I’d rate this film a 3 out of 5. It’s not great or awful, but I just didn’t see anything special about it. It was paced very slowly, and didn’t have a very structured plot. As much as I love episodic stories, I have to know when the real meat of the story has begun, instead of seeing a lot of stops and starts. There also needs to be some kind of arc and structure for the storyline to be hung on, and it must be paced well. To boot, the characters never really came alive for me.

It’s also not a particularly memorable film. Other than the famous grapefruit scene and the shocking finale (which I won’t spoil), nothing really stands out. I far prefer Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar as an early gangster film. That film has a more compelling storyline, better-developed characters, and better pacing. In The Public Enemy, a lot of scenes seemed to just end in media res, and didn’t add anything to either the overall storyline or character development.

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I’d recommend this film only for its reputation value, and an example of one of Warner Brothers’ classic gangster films. It’s one of those films which you’re kind of expected to see if you care about film history, but not necessarily one you’re going to love. And even in a mediocre, overrated film like this, Cagney still has incredible charisma. The viewer is compelled to pay attention to him no matter what. (He was also a fellow shorty!)

I get the feeling a lot of folks gush all over films, books, and albums which have historically received a lot of praise because they feel like they’re expected to love it too. Anyone who doesn’t give an automatic 5 stars and recite the same mindless laudatory phrases is shouted down as a hater, and accused of having immature and pedestrian tastes. Sometimes the crowd is wrong.

Why I HATED Life Is Beautiful

Happy Shavuot!

(Among the pages I was unable to recover during my frenzied search of caches and web archives in the immediate wake of losing my old Angelfire site were both of the long, detailed rants I wrote about this film. I wrote those pieces when the film was much fresher in my memory, but I’ll try my best to recreate and summarize the most important points.)

I actually hadn’t thought about this insulting farce of a film in a good long while, but since I mentioned it in a recent post, it seemed like a good opportunity to excoriate it anew. So, let’s do that!

La Vita È Bella is one of the most overrated films of the Nineties, and of recent memory. I’m not going to squee all over it simply because it’s a (supposed) historical drama, a foreign film, and (supposedly) about the Shoah. Yet apparently many other people do squee all over it for those very reasons, simply because they’ve barely seen any other foreign films or historical dramas. Contrary to popular belief, a book or film about the Shoah isn’t an automatic tear-jerker or even high-quality just by mere virtue of its subject matter.

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Robert Benigni thinks he’s the second coming of the great Charles Spencer Chaplin, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Whatever you think of Chaplin’s personal life and politics, you at least have to give him credit for being a great filmmaker and comedian. Even a lot of people who find some of his films overrated at least respect his place in history and cinematic genius.

Benigni is always on, constantly mugging for the camera, doing obnoxious slapstick, making himself the center of attention, never deviating from the same personality, pouring on the pathos at all the “right” moments. Chaplin’s Tramp character, and the later non-Tramp characters he played in talkies, were much more nuanced. He had the right mixture of comedy and seriousness, the ability to be a sweet, put-upon underdog and then fight back against bullies. I also never feel emotionally manipulated by Chaplin, being told when to laugh or cry.

Also, to Chaplin’s great credit, he later said he would never have made The Great Dictator had he known the situation was anything but funny, and much worse than what everyone thought.

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The first half of La Vita È Bella actually isn’t that bad. It’s not particularly memorable or great cinema, but it’s at least somewhat bearable. There are a couple of amusing moments scattered throughout, and Benigni is in his element. Although it’s obvious he shouldn’t be casting his real-life wife in all his movies. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady, but she’s not a great actor.

There are a lot of plotholes and undeveloped storylines and characters in the first half. Why, for example, would Dora leave her comfortable life to marry some Jewish joker? How did Guido get into a country club on horseback, without being kicked out and punished? Why did she finally fall for him?

The second half is what most people have the biggest beef with. It’s a complete slap in the face to historical memory to depict the Shoah as Ernest Goes to a Concentration-Camp Meets Hogan’s Heroes. Seriously, that’s exactly what the second half feels like. Dark, irreverent comedy can be done well, but one has to be very careful about the execution. Benigni has claimed it’s supposed to be a heartwarming fable and not taken seriously, but then why even choose this particular setting?

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Guido and Giosué would’ve been killed for any one of the stupid things they do during the course of the second half. Stepping out of line, trying to talk to guards, wandering around at ease, taking over the broadcast system, hiding in the Barracks, you name it. There’s never any real sense their lives are in danger.

Real children who survived the camps were under no illusions as to what was really going on. They didn’t believe it was just some big, elaborate, fun game. They couldn’t get away with hiding undetected all day. Unless they’re supposed to be at a camp like Terezin, there’s no way a child would’ve been spared upon arrival. At least give us a plausible if unlikely reason a child wouldn’t have been gassed on arrival, like the gas chambers malfunctioned that day, or there were too many people waiting to be gassed. I call BS on no one ever seeing this kid or a child being totally shielded from all the horror and deprivations.

My stomach turned when Guido joked about buttoning themselves up and washing themselves up with their friends. I felt so sick and nauseous anyone would even make a joke about that. The second time I watched this film was even worse than the first, and not just because it was a dubbed version.

If you’re going to depict something that was extremely unusual/unlikely, at least ground it in circumstances within the realm of plausibility, and emphasize this wasn’t normal. I’d give this a 2 out of 5, since at least the first half was bearable, there were a couple of genuinely moving moments sprinkled in, and I believe Benigni’s heart was in the right place.