31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula (1938)

Dracula (1938)


Director: Orson Welles

Dracula: Orson Welles

This premiere performance of Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air came about thanks to a re-release of the Browning/Lugosi Dracula in 1938. Seeing a seven-year-old film smash box office records, Welles rushed into writer John Houseman’s hotel room with only three days to go before their debut and told him “We’re doing Dracula!” To avoid trouble with Universal, Welles and Houseman went back to the novel and rescued plenty of material including (of course) stuff considered too racy for film by the Hollywood censors. Welles’ Dracula intoning “flesh of my flesh” when he preys upon Lucy (Elizabeth Fuller) then Mina (Agnes Moorehead) out-lurids Lugosi, and the “splorch” of the final staking sequence (Welles used a watermelon) contrasts dramatically with the off-screen film death of Dracula.

Welles and Houseman combined Seward and Holmwood into “Arthur Seward,” whose narrator role became so central that Welles took it for himself, adopting a mid-Atlantic accent, as well as playing Dracula, using more weird intonations than accent there. The accent prize goes to Martin Gabel, whose Van Helsing sounds more like Lugosi than it does a Dutchman! Unusually for adaptations, Welles and Houseman use the changes to drive the story — the question of Mina’s loyalty to Dracula becomes far more central in this version, for example. Radio also let Welles and Houseman recreate the multiple narrators of the novel, creating a hybrid of narration and drama that became a Mercury Theatre hallmark. (And one to consider when performing a similar audio-forward task as the GM.) In only an hour, driven by Bernard Herrmann’s score and Welles’ frantic narrations, the radio performance covers more of the novel more faithfully than almost any cinematic version.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a dramatic Dracula. Expanded and enriched (after listening intently to your own thoughts and comments), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can order resonant, echoing hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

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