Universal Pictures

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Audiences flocked to Universal Pictures “monster mash” films of the 1940s, which brought Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman together on the same screen.

Universal Pictures

(pop culture)

With its production of Dracula (1931), Universal Pictures became the first studio to bring the vampire theme to the talking motion picture and initiated a wave of interest in horror movies. The studio was founded by Carl Laemmle who entered the industry in 1906. Universal initially opened two studios in Los Angeles then, in 1915, shifted its headquarters to Universal City on the site of the former Taylor Ranch in the San Fernando Valley (it is now the oldest continuously operated studio in America). After many years of making silent movies, Universal made its first sound movie in 1930, The King of Jazz. That same year, the studio obtained the rights to the Hamilton Deane/John L. Balderston play, Dracula, which was then making successful appearances around the country after completing a lengthy run on Broadway. The star of the West Coast production, Bela Lugosi, worked with the studio to secure the motion picture rights from Florence Stoker, the widow of Bram Stoker. Tod Browning was chosen to direct the picture.

As people became aware of Universal’s plans for Dracula, Paul Kohner, the executive in charge of foreign language productions, suggested that Dracula would be an excellent candidate for a Spanish version. He already had in mind Lupita Tovar (Kohner’s future wife) as the female lead. Thus, as the English-language version of Dracula was filmed, the Spanish language version, using the same stage settings but a different cast, was simultaneously produced.

Dracula (Spanish, 1931) was a success in what was then a relatively small market. However, the English version starring Bela Lugosi—after a slow start—became Uni versal’s top grossing film of the year and was credited with keeping the studio from closing after two years of losing money. The success led to a series of horror films: Frankenstein (1932), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Black Cat (1934), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). For nearly two decades, Universal became known for its horror movies, but interestingly enough, it was not until 1936 with the production of Dracula’s Daughter that a second vampire film was produced. Vampire fans waited until 1943 for a third film titled Son of Dracula.

In 1936, Laemmle lost control of Universal to Charles Rogers and J. Cheever Cowdin. During the next decade, the company produced a large number of low-budget films, including many horror features and several vampire movies. In 1948, it merged with International Pictures. Except for the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Universal-International did not produce any other movies with major vampire themes—part of a general trend away from horror films at the time.

After many years, Universal produced a new vampire film, Blood of Dracula in 1957. The movie was aimed at a youthful audience and the inclusion of a female vampire made the movie more interesting. The success of the movie was responsible for several other vampire movies during the next few years but, after the 1959 production of the Curse of the Undead, the studio dropped vampire movies from its schedule for more than a decade. Its reluctance to return to releasing vampire movies and, thereby, placing too much emphasis on the horror genre was amply demonstrated in the summer of 1958 when Universal announced that it had worked out a deal with British upstart Hammer Films. Hammer acquired all of the copyrights Universal owned on its classic horror titles, including Dracula. Universal largely abandoned the horror movie business for an entire generation.

In 1978, Universal bought the cinema rights to the remake of the Hamilton Deane/John L. Balderston play, which had enjoyed a revival on Broadway, and brought its star, Frank Langella, to Hollywood for the screen version. Langella’s Dracula (1979) proved one of the most effective presentations of the sexual/sensual element that co-exists with the terror theme in the Dracula/vampire myth. Since the 1979 Dracula, Universal had largely stayed away from the vampire theme altogether. However, in the early twenty-first century, announcements have been made that Universal will produce several new vampire movies, including the screen adaptation of Darren Shan‘s Cirque du Freak series of children’s books and a new version of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Universal will, of course, always be remembered for its launching of Dracula into the consciousness of a nation.

Sources:

Brunas, Michael John, and Tom Weaver. Universal Horrors: The Studios Classic Films, 1931–1946. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1990. 616 pp.
Hanke, Ken. A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991. 341 pp.
Holte, James Craig. Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 161 pp.
Pirie, David. The Vampire Cinema. London: Hamlyn, 1977. 176 pp.
Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. 243 pp.

Upir see: Czech Republic and Slovakia, Vampires in

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