Halloween Harvest 2012 --- Part Two --- Putting The Sell On Vampires
Silent era watchers knew all about that thing called a "vampire." Theda Bara had been one. So were Louise Glaum and Nita Naldi. Wrecking men's lives was a vampire's business, but to literally suck his blood was something else again. That for most went beyond belief. Supernatural done serious was for those who bought into mystics, séance following, and other such foolery. The idea of being "undead" seemed a concept unworthy even of silliest fiction. Universal's mission for Dracula was to overcome all that and make real vampires believable for picture audiences. Germany, by way of director F.W. Murnau, had earlier (1922) grooved to blood-sucking and eternal lifestyle with Nosferatu, that having belatedly US-opened in 1929 (so it's written --- were there any bookings sooner?), and mostly to "little theatres," these earlier incarnation of art houses.
There's been too much written about Dracula for me to regurgitate a fraction of here. It's a dense subject best approached by increment, in this case with emphasis on how a few 1931 theatres sold the groundbreaking pic. Dracula was an exploitation natural that foresaw horror's push to generations forthcoming. A lot of bally tricks were introduced here. Showmen could wish all merchandise came so natural to promotion. Dracula the movie was played straight, but needn't be sold that way. Exhibs found you could take the edge off nightmare inducers by stressing "fun" element of being scared silly, thus come-ons tinged with humor. Then as ever, patrons sought higher ground in relation to shows that might frighten them otherwise. Nobody wanted to be a crybaby. Let others take chillers seriously while we maintain composure and stay in on the joke. Showmen were better to tread lightly, for weren't Dracula and his kin somewhat of an irreligious lot to begin with?
Toward figuring out what this Dracula was all about, the Exhibitors Herald-World dispatched a rep to Universal during 10/30 while filming was underway. He came back to describe a vampire thus: blood-sucking "half-dead" ... who peers through cobwebs, changes himself into a wolf and then into a veil of mist. Well, it was a start toward understanding this character from a novel reported (at least by EH-W) to have sold more copies than any other book except the Bible. Uni's expenditure for production was said to be $400,000 (actually $341,191, according to my source), while star Bela Lugosi makes weirdness a part of his daily life --- even carries it into his home. Was this publicity's variation on Nosferatu's gag that lead Max Shreck might himself be the genuine vampiric article?
Setting a pace for selling's ground game was the Roxy on Broadway and
Fox West Coast Theatres laid groundwork in February for Dracula playdates ahead. The circuit heard rumors that Universal planned roadshows for the east, but trade screening raised some doubt as to wisdom of this: While it must be admitted it is a thriller ... still there are spots where it sags and takes it out of the big class ... or even out of the semi top class. Fox put its own pen-and-ink artists to ad prep for Dracula at West Coast venues, these among most striking imagery to bestir interest in the thriller. This is hardly classed as a child's picture, warned editors of the circuit's newsletter: We would not attempt any contest among school children ... it is a bit too nightmarish.
Excess morbidity was also discouraged. It would not be very good policy to use coffins in front of your house ... in other words ... don't go too far in gruesome exploitation ... keep it weird ... but don't suggest dead bodies. To further leaven the horror, a principal Fox ad pledged that "Dracula will haunt you ... he will thrill ... and yet amuse." One screwy scheme to emphasize the latter was the Pantages' placement of paperhangers in formal dress and masks to install a Dracula twenty-sheet on
Universal trade ads were frisky and distinctly precode. "Dracula Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out" seemed to trade on a Lon Chaney-spoofing song introduced in The Hollywood Revue Of 1929, while art of Bela Lugosi hovering over a barely night-dressed victim promised delights the film would sadly not fulfill. "The Story Of The Strangest Passion The World Has Ever Known" put Dracula's erotic appeal on a front burner, with eager femmes seeming to await the bloodsucker's unholy embrace. So what was this Dracula other than "a vampire petting party of 500 years ago"? That was plenty enough to fill registers. Sex was pushed, and pushed hard, for these first-run engagements, a spin that would be abandoned later when Dracula was back for reissue coin, often in Frankenstein's company, straight chilling being watchword for 1938 and beyond ads observed closer by Code authorities.
For '31 dates at least, there was promise of the vampire's kiss like the icy breath of death ... yet no woman could resist. So how many of that gender's number lined up to see what this amounted to? Dracula issued a virtual challenge for women to confront this most impure of potential lovers. Were "Gasping Heights Of Passion" not unlike "Terror," after all? Midnight previews might answer that query ---these a lure to grown-up attendance and hopeful word-of-mouth for days to follow. Dracula could do worse than "living on the kisses of youth," after all. I tried finding Google reference to some of these vaudevillians who stage-preceded Dracula at RKO's Orpheum Theatre (above). Naro Lockford and Co. were acrobatic and adagio dancers. The "5 Honey Boys" are apparently lost to time (as are a majority of minstrel acts, I suppose). The Sandy Lang Revue was known for its skating exhibitions, and continued performing as bonus to movie shows into (at least) the forties.