In 1931, in a sea of mist and eerie silence Dracula, the first of Universal Studio’s classic monster series haunted the silver screen. It was at the end of cinema’s transitional period from the silent era into the age of fully realized sound. The film’s stark and barren soundscape, while adding to a sense of ghostly unease, was reflective of an industry in the process of establishing the cinematic norms for sound and music and refining technology still very much in it’s infancy.
Warner Brothers would change the world of cinema forever with the first “talkie.” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927) took the world by storm. General Electric’s Vitaphone system produced ambient sound effects, dialogue, and music, recorded onto a phonographic record and played in sync with the picture. While a massive innovation, the Vitaphone technology proved cumbersome, often falling out of sync with the picture, much to the confusion of movie goers still marveling over cinema’s new world of sound. It required all sound and dialogue to be performed in one take as the records were unable to be edited. Fox Studios had invested in a rival technology also developed by General Electric called Movietone, made famous by the short news reels filmed on location by the famous trucks that aired before the feature presentation in theatres. Movietone was an optical film technology in which a lamp was used to burn a variable density image of the sound into a photo-sensitive film strip and could be edited. It was this technology that was adopted by Universal in a mad scramble to retroactively convert their “silent” musical—1929’s Show Boat—into a talkie. Interestingly RCA found itself locked out of the cinema sound business by an agreement between General Electric and major studios who were forced to create RKO Pictures in order to promote their version of a variable density optical system. Photophone ultimately became victorious as the standardized system of sound reproduction in film up until the digital age.
Jack Foley, an industry legend, would go on to single-handedly invent the post-production sound process now known as ‘Foley’ by recreating sound effects for Show Boat. In early film sound this process was often acted out in real-time. Before the invention of multi-channel recording, only one or two inputs of audio were generally available to record the dialogue, sound effects, and musical accompaniment in the picture. Foley would later work on Browning’s Dracula, creating the wonderful moodiness and sense of macabre through the sporadic use of footsteps, wind gusts, howling wolves, etc. When restoring the original audio track for the 100 years of Universal anniversary re-release, the restoration team discovered, imbedded under a layer of tape hiss (common in recordings of this era), a bed of shrieking wind noise to match the misty fog that pervades the visual landscape of the film.
Dracula is an interesting anomaly in that it does not contain any non-diegetic musical sources. The only music to appear in the film is a redacted version of Act II of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the opening credits, a stock standard piece of music used in the silent era. Extracts from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony appear in the scene at the London Opera House. There was a prevailing school of thought among critics and film producers at the time that audiences would have difficulty accepting music in film unless there was a tangible onscreen reason for it being there. It wasn’t until Max Steiner’s ground-breaking score for King Kong in 1933 that the power of music as a dramatic device became an accepted part of filmmaking. Audiences in 1931 were also seemingly fatigued by the endless parade of musicals trotted out after the success of The Jazz Singer, with movie houses advertising pictures at the time as ‘No Music Pictures’ in response to the backlash. There were also practical reasons for not including music in the films of this era. Due to the limited sound reproduction technologies, an orchestra would need to be present onsite for the filming, an expensive exercise for a film like Dracula with a limited budget. Microphones of the time were generally omni-directional and not great at capturing the human voice, needing to be close to the performers for intelligibility. There was concern that music could obscure the dialog further. These problems were resolved in the year Dracula was released with the invention of the directional microphone and the boom pole as standards in the industry.
Dracula was the first supernatural horror film of the sound era, but Universal also created a silent version to screen in smaller theatres not yet equipped with the new sound technologies. For Dracula’s screenings in Europe it was shown with classical musical accompaniment as was standard practice in the era. Browning was known to be uncomfortable with the advent of film sound which added to his well-reported disengagement with the filmmaking process after the death of collaborator and friend Lon Chaney (Originally slated to play Dracula before his diagnosis and death from lung cancer). It is predominately through the use of sound that Dracula’s supernatural elements are conveyed. In 1931 the prevailing moral climate in the film industry made it impossible to depict the types of visceral violence permeating Bram Stoker’s novel. Even Universal head honcho Carl Laemmle was against Universal producing such ‘morbid’ horror films, despite its success on Broadway. Scenes such as ones appearing in the early drafts of the film where Dracula lasciviously kisses an unconscious Mina (Helen Chandler), would have been impossible to show onscreen under the spectre of the Hays Production Code, which limited on-screen portrayals of sex and violence. The budget constraints and virtually non-existent special effects industry meant that the magical transformations of Dracula into bat and wolf would have to appear off-screen. Yet it is the sound that informs the audience of the supernatural goings on through the off-screen howls of a transformed Dracula and screams of his victims. The sound acts as what audio theorist Michel Chion refers to as acousmatic sound, where the source exists outside the frame of the picture leaving it to the imagination of the audience to visualize the grizzly act of Dracula draining his young victim’s blood. The disembodied laughter of Renfield (Dwight Frye) as he madly waits, the sole survivor of the journey by sea to England, is used to unsettle the audience who at the time were genuinely horrified by the film. The use of dialog is another way in which the sound in Dracula is used to convey a sense of dread and anxiety. Renfield and Mina both give ghastly descriptions of their encounters with Dracula:
“A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire! And then he parted it, and I could see there were thousands of rats, with their eyes blazing red, like his, only smaller. Then he held up his hand, and they all stopped, and I thought he seemed to be saying, ‘Rats! Rats! Rats! Thousands! Millions of them! All red-blood! All these will I give you! If you obey me!’” -Renfield
Lugosi’s drawn out pronunciation in his thick Hungarian accent adds greatly to the character’s sense of unearthly otherness, giving him a distant, darkly ethereal, sensual presence to match his gaze. Frye’s voicing of Renfield vacillates between the debonair and well-spoken businessman and wild, high pitched maniacal madness throughout, as he descends into insanity. Van Helsing’s (Edward Van Sloan) thick Germanic accent gives weight to his role as the authoritarian bearer of logic and justice.
While born out of the limitations of the time, the long, ominous stretches of silence add to the almost disembodied strangeness of Bela Lugosi’s stilted and lingering performance and penetrating stare. There is a cavernous emptiness in the wide-open space of Dracula’s misty castle that lends itself to the slow and foreboding unfolding of time during the long tracts of silence. The natural reverb on the voices as they spread through the almost boundless halls give us a sense of immersion in the creepy atmosphere at the heart of the gothic melodrama that is Tod Browning’s Dracula. The absence of sound is a spine-tingling presence in itself, the presence of the undead. It is the enduring sonic mark of the vampire that resonates alongside the black and white visuals the make Dracula such an enduring masterpiece of horror cinema.
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