Before I say anything about this topic of Renfield and Dwight Frye, I want to show you a short clip from Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931):
Admittedly, my first screening of Dracula (1931) was only a few short months ago. There is no explanation or excuse for this, except to say that in my youth, the classics paid little interest for me. I was too busy enjoying the classics of my own generation. These, according to my own worldview, were the new pillars of horror, 80’s and 90’s classics such as: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and demonic flicks like Hellraiser and Demon Night. George Romero flicks were popular as well when I was growing up, or at least with me they were always popular!! Honestly, looking back, I’m not sure I would have appreciated these black and white originators of terror. It takes a certain amount of patience to sit through a movie of images and dialogue, without much action involved. Patience, you can say, developed through age. So I’m not entirely sure if I should be happy or a little worried that I’ve reached that pinnacle of maturity? Nevertheless — let age come as it may — within the last five years I have been digesting the TRUE classics of horror, going back to the old silent greats, such: Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney Sr., and The Cat and the Canary (1939) with the ever enchanting Paulette Goddard, The Hands of Orlac (1924) with the haunting Conrad Veidt, and even the curious film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). Just to name a few. In 2014 alone, I’ve seemed to digest more of the old greats than at any other point in my horror film fanatic career. When I watched the Wolfman (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr. at the helm, I fell absolutely head-over-heels. Chaney Jr. played such a pitiful role, you really began to feel sorry for the man. But the conversations and the way people used to speak with one another calls to that nostalgic reminiscence of “those were the days,” even if we never even lived in “those days!”
This brings me to my discussion with you here today. During my first screening of Dracula (1931) my mood was abuzz with an-tic-i—-pation (think Dr. Frank-n-Furter). Watching Bela Lugosi dawn the cape and cowl for his signature role was mesmerizing. The man didn’t say much, but his — whats the right word — presence (that’s the one!) was strong. And while I love Tod Browning’s style of Dracula and the images he used to bring the character to life, or un-life, so to speak, there was just something about Dwight Frye as Renfield that was more powerful, more terrifying than Dracula himself. Lugosi as Dracula, though amazing, was still played as a borderline caricature, instead of a character. Frye shinned as Renfield because he was a character actor in its truest sense. If you’ve watched the clip above, then you know what I’m talking about. There are so many scenes, such as this one, in which you really feel the madness Renfield internalizes. He’s almost funny, in that awful, gut wrenching, maniac kind of way. The best kinds of horror that delve into madness usually — always — borderline comedy. Consider Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove: or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb (1964) as one of the best examples of the nature and influence of “dark-humor” and how off-putting it is. Dr. Strangelove was not a horror movie per-say, but its subject matter and delivery were apocalyptic nonetheless.
Dwight Frye as Renfield is just one of those instances where the minor supporting character out performed the main protagonist or antagonist, depending on how you look at it. Lugosi as Dracula was a noteworthy performance. Hell, Dracula was Lugosi’s signature role — he was buried in the damn costume for crying out loud!! He was — is — Dracula. I’m not trying to take anything away from that. I’m just saying, for me, Dwight Frye as Renfield was more frightening. He was more convincing. One moment he was sane and rational. And the next…a complete raving lunatic who still thought and rationalized in his new normality. Interestingly enough, Frye went on to play Fritz in Frankenstein (1931) later in the same year he played as Renfield. He also went on to play in other horror classics, such as: The Vampire Bat (1933), The Circus Queen Murder (1933) and, of course, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Despite being such an amazing actor, in my opinion at least, Dwight Frye would not succeed as the main star for any of his later films. Authors of his biography, Gregory William Mank and James Coughlin, said it best in Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh: An Authorized Biography, stating:
“The black magic of Universal had seemingly thrown a curse on Dwight Frye … The actor who so desperately wanted to act a variety of roles was suddenly typed as a ghoul; more personally and ironically, a Christian Scientist with a deep sense of religion found himself linked with movies blazing with the occult, blasphemy and the supernatural” (111).
When Dracula released at the Roxy Theater in New York, on February 12, 1931, no one could have guessed how huge of a box office sensation it would become. Even the cleverly crafted “fainting” rumors orchestrated by nervous executives, hoping to induce some natural sense of morbid curiosity, was unnecessary. According to film historian Michael Fitzgerald, within the first 48 hours of Dracula’s release, the Roxy Theater had sold over 50,000 tickets (Universal Pictures: A panoramic history in words, pictures, and film). Horror had just become mainstream. Dracula’s acclaim paved the way for the other classics we’ve grown to love, our Universal Studios Monsters, such as: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman, each owing their existence to the success of one film.
The era of (what we’d call today classic) Universal Studios is one of most interesting bits of Americana cinematic history. Why? The roar of the 20’s was coming to an end and the decade that had ushered in high booms would eventually end in the same dramatic fashion. The Stock Market Crash, also known as “Black Tuesday,” on October 29th, 1929, while still under much debate among certain historical circles, we can say that following the panic fire sells of stocks, America went into the greatest depression she, thus far, had ever known. By March 1930, 3.2 million people would be unemployed (see PBS for credible timeline). And while Americans were growing uncertain regarding the future in the face of food riots, strikes, and lamentable upheaval, even more uncertainty was developing on the horizon.
Beginning in 1928, against the backdrop of Germany’s (and all of Europe, really) almost two decade long depression and the peoples utter discontent with what they considered a failure with Wiemar Democracy, the Nazi Party (The National Socialist Party) slowly began taking over the Reichstag (Reichstagsgebäude). Fascism was darkening the cloud over the Atlantic. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. By 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were established, and by 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, World War II began.
This is just a brief look at the world during the era of Universal Horror. Only with the “luxurious logic of hindsight” (Ronnie Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pg.116) can we contemplate why executives were nervous over Dracula’s success in the first place. The very world was in turmoil. What better escape than a simple drive to the movies? And for the silent and black & white era, “going to the movies” was no humbug experience. Especially for theaters such as Roxy, in New York. The Roxy was a Grand Theater, a “Cathedral of the Motion Picture.” Going to the movies to see Dracula was not the same experience as going to the movies today, to say the least. Going to the movies during the 20’s and 30’s was like going to the Opera in today’s standards. Folks dressed up for cheap tickets and excellent performances. And live orchestras opened the night before the large velvet curtain pulled away revealing the traditional white projection screen underneath. Going to the movies, was going to the show.
As a film, Dracula is still, in my humble opinion, scary. The fact that the movie is, in its own way, still disturbing stresses something important about the kind of story being told. A horror story playing on fears realized in the hearts of folks told since the first campfire. Dracula was so good and still is (though, i’d argue for socially different reasons) because it plays on our fears of the foreign invader, fears of madness, fears of hierarchical purity (Nazi Germany called this:Volksgemeinschaft; the United States called it: eugenics), fears of the unknown, fears of losing freedom (especially the freedom of choice), and fears of death.
One of the greatest (of many) appeals for Dracula was its quality of acting. While Dracula was Bela Lugosi’s signature role, a role he played beautifully, my favorite was Dwight Frye’s portrayal as Renfield. Watching the movie, even now 82 years later, Renfield gives me the chills. His sensibility as Dracula’s minion, a raving lunatic, was delivered with pure genius. Especially during the scene aboard the Vesta, when the London longshoremen discover Renfield hiding below, the look on his face looking up at them is, to say the least, disturbing.
Bottom Line: Dracula is the grandfather of modern mainstream horror. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you really ought to give it a go. Don’t be shied away because of the black and white picture, this isn’t a completely artsy film; its a completely human film with real human fears, both then and now. If you are planning a Halloween horror movie marathon or hosting some other macabre party, considering adding Dracula to you’re list. You will not be disappointed.