I’ve been wanting to dedicate a commentary to one of the first ladies of horror since I saw her on the big screen last year at the Landmark Loew’s in Jersey City. Starring Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska, Lambert Hillyer‘s Dracula’s Daughter is the lesser-known sequel to Universal Pictures’ influential Dracula (1931) directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi in his signature role. It’s somewhat of a head-scratcher that despite the Countess’ impressive pedigree she barely gets a mention as compared to her father, Frankenstein’s Monster or any of the other big boys of classic horror, but she should. Both Dracula’s Daughter the movie and the character are worthy members of Universal’s illustrious monster legacy… because they give you that weird feeling!
While the daughter followed five years after the father in real time her story begins just as the stake is rammed into the Count’s heart in Tod Browning’s eternal classic. Right off the bat you have to overlook the fact that Dracula was set in the 19th century and his daughter’s story takes place in the 1930s, but that’s ok. You also have to overlook the spoilers that lie ahead if you want to keep reading.
When Dracula’s Daughter opens we see Count Dracula’s corpse with the stake through its heart. Professor Von Helsing, who’d done the ugly deed, is proclaiming his innocence for killing the monster. Edward Van Sloan repeats his performance as Von Helsing in this – the only actor from the original to do so – and is as dedicated to the role as he is in the predecessor. Despite the performance, however, Scotland Yard is not buying his story. They are yelling bloody murder. I mean, even a respected man must pay for such a gruesome crime. The thing is that Scotland Yard doesn’t know the victim was already dead when Von Helsing killed him. In fact, he’d been dead for centuries.
While the professor is trying his best to convince people of his innocence the body of Dracula is left guarded by one policeman who fails at his duty almost as soon as he’s left to it. But who can blame him when the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleska shows up at the Yard. Zaleska is there to make sure Dracula’s really dead and harmonizes the policeman to get access to the body. Knowing those of her ilk well, the Countess steals the body to dispose of it properly by way of a freeing ritual, which she hopes will free her of the vampirism spell. To be honest I’m not sure why she thinks it’s a spell, rather than a curse you can’t escape from as we’ve seen in countless other vampire tales, but it makes sense that destroying the source would free her of the monstrous affliction. Zaleska longs to live like a normal woman without the dark desires that plague her existence.
Countess Zaleska’s dramatic ritual manages to get rid of her father’s body for good, but her desires still rage. Her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) knows it too as he sees nothing but death in her eyes. Sandor is a creepy man who does the Countess’ bidding with his primary focus being hiding her hideous secret and finding available victims. Anyway, the Countess resumes her hunting, but not without suffering the effects of her uncontrollable urges. That is, until she attends a party and meets Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), a psychiatrist who believes in mind control. Garth suggests Zaleska can learn to control her impulses. Of course, he doesn’t know what her impulses are, but Zaleska is convinced that Garth makes sense. Surely the strength of a human mind can defeat the power of darkness. If she confronts her demons, sort to speak, she can will the cravings away. Excited about the possibility of her new-found power of the mind, Zaleska asks Sandor to bring her a new model she can paint, but it takes no time at all for the Countess’ nature to get the better of her. The pretty, young vagrant named Lily (Nan Grey) doesn’t stand a chance when Zaleska turns her hypnotizing ring and all manner of urges toward her, if you know what I mean.
The scene during which the Countess attacks Lily and a later scene where her love for the young woman is apparent are the only inklings left in the film of Zaleska’s lesbian tendencies. These work in the context of the film, which remains effectively moody, but knowing we could have gotten a deeper understanding of the Countess’ obsessions is disappointing. The Production Code, which was in full swing in 1936, left little hope for anything “suggestive” to make it into a movie. This film’s sexual theme didn’t stand a chance and it was written and rewritten until it passed muster. Following his massive hit with The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, James Whale was originally hired by Universal to write a treatment for Dracula’s Daughter with the likelihood that he would also direct the movie, but when Whale showed up with a plan for a serious film that would reunite the original cast of Dracula – including Lugosi – Universal balked. What the studio wanted was a cheap movie by lesser writers and a no name cast and that’s what they got. Or, did they? Dracula’s Daughter could no doubt have been great, but there is some irony in the fact that it has to settle for memorable, garnering a cult following for being a rare film of its era to even suggest homosexuality by what was eventually left in the movie.
And yes, you guessed it. Universal’s biggest crime with that $50 budget was no Bela Lugosi in Dracula’s Daughter. How does that even make sense? It hurts to imagine how great he would have been opposite Gloria Holden who kills it in her first starring role as Countess Marya Zaleska despite word that she didn’t want to play the part. Holden manages to add a quiet dignity to the monster making Zaleska a layered character despite the lack of heft in her story. As for Lugosi, he appeared in publicity photos for the movie and the Dracula corpse that appears ever so briefly at the beginning of the movie is a waxwork in Lugosi’s likeness – and you can tell, but we never get the scene with the impressive-looking daughter lamenting the legacy to the father who relishes his damnation. Damn! And it’s not like Lugosi was done with playing vampires either. He played a Dracula-like character in the ill-conceived, but fun Mark of the Vampire in 1935 and reprised his Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. His appearance in Dracula’s Daughter, to my mind, was essential.
It’s over eight decades after the fact, but I can’t help but continue to advocate for this movie to Universal as if they’d somehow agree to rerelease it with additional, extraordinary footage. By the way I saw Dracula’s Daughter for the first time as an adult unlike the other Universal horror classics I grew up watching, but I have an affection for it. Dracula’s Daughter came over to television along with a truckload of other movies in about 1957, but for some reason I don’t remember it airing. Anyway, there are a few other reasons why it would have been important for Universal to pay serious attention to Dracula’s Daughter so let me just remind them in case there’s a chance someone from eighty years ago is reading this. First, without Countess Zaleska Universal would have been sans a Dracula on the big screen for a dozen years after 1931. The next outing for the legendary character was in 1943 when Lon Chaney plays him in Son of Dracula and that was followed by John Carradine as the Count in House of Frankenstein in 1945 and House of Dracula in 1946.
The second reason this was a major misstep for Universal is the fact that it’s so darn good despite the studio’s lack of interest. For instance, they were not considered A-listers, but I enjoy the cast immensely. Aside from Holden’s memorable Zaleska, Otto Kruger is a worthy intellectual opponent to her force of evil and for good fun you get Hedda Hopper as a party guest. More importantly, how fantastic would it have been for Universal to allow a major effort be given to a female vampire to follow The Bride? But it wasn’t to be. The final blunder worth noting is that Dracula’s Daughter turned out to be the last movie the studio made under the leadership of Carl Laemmle. The man who’d built the studio was soon ousted and it would have been great for Mr. Laemmle to have had a decent final bow.
The ending of Dracula’s Daughter is not as compelling as the possibility of its middle as it sells out in Universal form. Or perhaps I should say in future Universal form. To this point in 1936 the studio had made a few clunkers, but nothing compared to the now beloved clunkers they’d make in the 1940s. Still, Dracula’s Daughter shines despite its flaws as Dr. Garth finds out the truth about Zaleska, but by that point the Countess is set on making the psychiatrist her mate for life. After all, if a girl has to resign herself to eternal damnation she might as well have a psychiatrist by her side. Zaleska lures Garth to Transylvania by kidnapping Garth’s love, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), but the entire thing backfires and Countess Marya Zaleska is destroyed – albeit in a manner worthy of horror royalty.
The posters and lobby cards are stunning.