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Saturday, October 27, 2012


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 Hollywood's Pantages Theatre. Times Square had seen a surfeit of so-called "weak sisters," those pics difficult to push for their sheer lack of exploitable elements, Dracula a stark departure from these. Mobs around the Roxy reflected success of posted "snipes" around town that used a Friday The (February) 13th opening day as superstition's endorsement of Dracula (actual bow had been moved ahead one day to avoid possible jinx of a 13th premiere, thus first Roxy showings on the 12th). Said snipes courted levity along lines of Monster Laff gum cards we used to buy in the 60's: Good To The Last Gasp, I'll Be On Your Neck, etc. And imagine that palace's Dracula backed by an aggregate of ballet, chorus, and "Roxyettes" 125 strong.


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 Hollywood Boulevard billboards. Keep it fun was the overriding message, as was Handle (Dracula) With Care. By all means, stay on board with eerie exploitation, but don't go overboard, and avoid targeting kids.


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.

5 Comments:

Blogger Frank said...

Hi, John...

Thanks for all the great articles you do on classic cinema. FYI...I found more info on the 5 Honey Boys via a Google search using "Five Honey Boys" (using quotes). It appears that they were former members of a troupe of minstrels knowns as the "Honey Boy Minstrels", led by a well-known (st the time) minstrel entertainer and songwriter, George "Honey Boy" Evans, who can be found in a Wikipedia entry under his name. The following is a quote from Wikipedia:

"George Evans (10 March 1870 – 5 March 1915) known as "Honey Boy" Evans was a Welsh-born songwriter, comedian, entertainer, and musician active in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Evans was born in Pontotlyn, Wales in 1870.[1] In 1910, he bought the Cohan & Harris Minstrels organization for $25,000, that were known as the Honey Boy Minstrels.[1]

Among other songs, he co-wrote "In the Good Old Summer Time". He had a well known minstrel show troupe, the "Honey Boy Minstrels". He debuted The Memphis Blues on vaudeville.

Evans became a great baseball fan after moving to America as a young man. Beginning in 1908 he had a beautiful loving cup individually designed and given to the "World's Championship Batsman",the player having the highest batting average in all of Major League Baseball. Honus Wagner, the great Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop, won the initial award in 1908. Ty Cobb,the fabulous "Georgia Peach",swept the next 4 trophy's from 1909 to 1912. Evans stopped issuing the award in 1913.[citation needed]

He died at Union Baptist Hospital in Baltimore of stomach cancer on 5 March 1915.[1]"

I found it interesting that he was the songwriter of the very old classic song, "In the Good Old Summer Time", which I am familiar with due to usage in classic movies. Also quite interesting is the fact that the Cohan and Harris Minstrels were owned and operated by none other than George M. Cohan and his partner Sam Harris. I never knew that Cohan and Harris were involved in minstrel shows.

I hope you and your readers find this information as interesting as I do.

Frank Briard

11:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thank you for this fascinating data about the Five Honey Boys, Frank. I always like learning more about vaudeville acts that performed in tandem with classic movies, and you've provided a wealth of detail here. Much appreciated!

11:59 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer on the subject of "Dracula":


Your article on the marketing of "Dracula" was fascinating. As you've shown so often, the showmanship and ballyhoo associated with a movie seem to play up some angle or attraction that has little to do with the movie itself, at least for an audience today. Perhaps it is one of sensibility. I remember seeing certain movies as a child or adolescent, or when I was a young man, first discovering romance, which had a profound effect on me. I can see them now, even see a particular scene which moved me, and realize that it would pass by me unnoticed, save for the memory of what it had meant. The studio or theater men with their ad art and tag lines obviously meant to reach their intended audience. The popularity of "Dracula" or other movies indicate that they were largely successful, and that the people seeing them did not go away disappointed. Today, the Tod Browning version of "Dracula" seems slow and stilted, even "primitive," as people associate that word with early talkies, though Bela Lugosi's performance remains one of the great artifacts of the cinema. There is a genuine eeriness, but many of its effects, especially the erotic ones, are so subtle as to be almost subliminal. Yet for the audience of the time, they were certainly apparent. The thousands of letters Lugosi received from women infatuated with him demonstrate that he had touched some chord or hidden desire in them. What changed us, then? Many things have, from the great wars to the more facile and intimate forms of communication, delving ever more deeply into the human psyche. And this Dracula was among those things, the vampire's kiss despoiling the innocence that existed just a moment before.

You've reproduced some Universal ad art of Bela Lugosi hovering over a dark haired woman clad only in a night gown. Obviously it is not taken from the film itself, since Helen Chandler and Frances Dade, the women playing his victims, are both blonde. There was a Spanish-languge version being made at the same time, however, directed by George Melford and starring Carlos Villarias and Lupita Tovar, which many regard as being cinematically superior to the Browning version. There several stills available showing Villarias and Tovar, a dark-haired Mexican beauty, in virtually identical poses. Obviously these served as the inspiration for the studio artist, though Miss Tovar seems almost chaste in comparison to her counterpart in the ad art. No doubt the difference can be accounted for by the fact that Lugosi was far more charasmatic than Villarias, as even admirers of the Melford film will concede.

Daniel

5:50 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Ironically, the Spanish version was the one that was only released in Argentina and it was a commercial and a critical disaster.

Yet, in 1938 the English language version was finally shown.

1:01 AM  
Anonymous Thomas said...

DRACULA is one of those movies that apparently doesn't click with the younger generation. I've shown it to several who proclaimed it a bore. Truth be told, though, I know a lot of people my age who feel the same way about it. Those Universal horrors of the golden age are delicate little antiques, best left to those of us who appreciate their charms, and kept safely away from the withering glare of those who find them laughably "un-scary."

8:31 PM  

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