I’d Wear a Turtle-neck if I Were You.

*creeeeeaaaak*

*creeeeeaaaak*

In a previous article, I praised the awesome splendor that is Frankenstein and I mentioned how iconic Boris Karloff’s image as the infamous Monster had become. I also mentioned another, possibly even more iconic character: Dracula. Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, is practically synonymous with Bram Stoker’s legendary Count. Lugosi (White Zombie, The Black Cat, The Island of Lost Souls, Son of Frankenstein) made a career of playing evil and supernatural villains with an aristocratic air. He played twisted doctors, cursed men, and many other grotesques, but it is his role as the charismatic Count Dracula that keeps him alive in the public’s eye. Bela Lugosi gives a spooktacular performance making Tod Browning’s (Freaks, The Unholy Three) classic film Dracula (1931).

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

I love the original Dracula and Bela Lugosi is my favorite Dracula (second would be Christopher Lee), but I am saddened to see this version get crapped on so much. People say it is overrated, hammy, and a clunky transition out of the sound era. Well, it is technically all of these things, but it is so much fun. I admit my bias: I love Tod Browning. Frankenstein is the superior film in many ways simply because it has actual action and complicated character relationships, whereas Dracula is all mood and rich atmosphere with zero action. It’s about watching Lugosi gracefully interact with his unwitting victims and waiting for the moment to strike. The sets, costumes, and wonderful matte paintings are all exquisite as well. Even if you see it as being terribly dated, it is still a charming time capsule and swell pulp.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it's too late.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it’s too late.

Before Lugosi donned his famous cape, however, there was another great movie vampire. Haunting up the silent cinemas in 1922 was Max Schreck as Count Orlok in F. W. Murnau’s (Faust, Sunrise) Nosferatu. Orlok does not resemble your average vampire. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, which everyone copied from Christopher Lee to George Hamilton, Nosferatu looks bizarrely alien and unfamiliar and—as a result maybe—more unsettling. With his naked skull, pointed ears, high shoulders, tall stature, long spindly arms and fingers, gaunt features, demonic eye-brows, and jagged incisors, Max Schreck’s vampire is in a class all his own. When Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) directed the remake of Nosferatu in 1979 they made up actor Klaus Kinski (Aquirre Wrath of God, For a Few Dollars More) to look exactly like the sinister bloodsucker from the original and it really worked. Both versions of Nosferatu are sure to delight with fright, but I strongly advocate seeing the 1922 version first. So iconic and genuinely chilling. The Nosferatus feel like you’re running in slow-motion in a spiraling uneasy nightmare.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

Both Dracula (1931) and Nosferatu (1922) follow pretty much the same storyline.  A mysterious aristocrat (a.k.a. Vampire) is visited by a hapless solicitor. By the time the visitor learns the truth it is too late and the Count is soon on a voyage to more urban environs (Renfield is played by horror favorite Dwight Frye in Dracula). Once established in his new home the Count begins to feed. This is pretty much all you need to know for either film. Beyond this there are many differences. Dracula is more outgoing than Orlok for instance. While Dracula mingles with oblivious socialites, Orlok lurks in the shadows. Since Orlok looks more like a malnourished rodent than a human being it makes sense he wouldn’t be as charming and seductive as Dracula. Dracula has a strange sensuality about him that Orlock could never hope to pull off.

Lurk...lurk...

Lurk…lurk…

It has been said that the Spanish version of Dracula that was made using the same sets (they shot at night while the Americans filmed during the day) is a better film from a technical standpoint. I couldn’t disagree, but Carlos Villarías is no Bela Lugosi. I like both versions, but it’s all about the casting of the Count and Lugosi is it for me.

Ya caught me.

Ya caught me.

I hope in 50 years people will still picture these classic characters whenever they hear the word ‘vampire’ uttered around Halloween. What a travesty of tragic proportions if our children should imagine only Edward Cullen. The horror.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

I am a big fan of both films. They have the old, spooky castles shrouded in spider webs and that aura of Old World mystery. They have immediately recognizable villains that we catch ourselves rooting for. Both films suck you into their own Gothic fantasy and don’t let go.  Dracula also features the fantastic horror treasure, Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy) as Dr. Van Helsing, an added bonus to be sure. Where monsters like King Kong, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster are all misunderstood outcasts who are never truly evil and may be presented more as victims, it is refreshing to see an unapologetically wicked character that has the world seemingly wrapped around his finger and delights in his sly mayhem. Unlike future vampire movies, which would try to portray vampires as tormented pariahs, Nosferatu and Dracula make no bones about their vampires’ evil nature (not including the Herzog remake). They relish the kill and this is what makes the Count so engaging and horrific. There is only one goal: suck blood. Simple? Yes, but it works.

Screw it.

Screw it.

Herzog’s Nosferatu is more of a tortured soul who sucks blood for survival and he might be falling in love with a human woman. It’s a slightly different approach, but he is in no way sissified. Kinski gives another spookily unhinged performance, but you can tell he’s channeling a lot of Max Schreck.

Come with me if you want to die.

Come with me if you want to die.

Nosferatu and Dracula are two masterful classics of the horror genre with fantastic atmosphere and enchanting performances. Need I bother telling you what a magnificent double-feature they would make? Celebrate Halloween this year with a few awesome Counts.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 20, 2009

My Country White or Wong

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong

221246375_9e48852774The American film industry has had a long and illustrious span with fantastic films and innovations for more than a century. A great many good things have come from American film, but let us not forget some of the darker aspects. Throughout history non-white actors have had a hard time in American movies (as well as being the victims of prejudice outside the cinema). Things have gotten a lot better, but take a moment and appreciate how far we’ve come.

Chinese American actress, Anna May Wong, was one such talented figure whose road to success was blocked by the color of her skin. Wong was born in 1905 Los Angeles. She pursued acting in the silent era and became the first Asian American international movie star, but she had a tough time keeping her spot in the limelight. In a time when many actors of European descent would put on makeup to play other races and anti-miscegenation laws prevented interracial scenes of sensuality (including kissing) and not many ethnic leading players, the studios generally did not always know what to do with Wong and she was, more often than not, cast as exotic background or as more stereotypical characters.

Thief of Bagdad

Thief of Bagdad (1924)

I first saw Anna May Wong in Raoul Walsh’s silent classic, The Thief of Baghdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. For all Baghdad’s special effects, impressive set design, and Fairbanks’ charismatic charm and stunts, it was Anna May Wong who (in my humble opinion) stole the show. She played a shifty Mongol slave and although the role was not particularly big or racially positive, her performance left an impression on me.

wong glam

Recently I went to Hollywood’s Silent Theater for a viewing of The Toll of the Sea (1922), which was Wong’s first starring role and also one of the first films to be shot with a very early Technicolor process (so, yes, in IN LIVING COLOR). Alas, the final reel was lost to history, but the impact of the story and Wong’s wonderful performance made it well worth the price of admission.

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly” (which was turned into a pretty good operatic film in 1995), Anna May Wong plays a young Chinese girl, Lotus Flower, who finds a stranded American on the shore. They fall in love and are married, but the man, pressured by his other American friends and concerned with his public image, returns to his homeland without his bride. Promised he would return to her, Lotus Flower waits everyday for her beloved husband. Her Chinese neighbors chide her for her silly devotion because they believe she was just an exotic fling for the American. Years pass and Lotus Flower raises her son (who her husband doesn’t even know he has) and she writes letters to herself from him in broken English that tell of his love for her and his son.

Toll of the Sea (1922)

Toll of the Sea (1922)

SPOILER ALERT: The heart-breaking final act has the American at last returning to China. Lotus Flower hears of his return and puts on her best clothes and makes her son ready for his father’s arrival, but is emotionally distraught to discover he has married an American girl and forgotten about her and has only returned at the behest of his new wife to explain the situation. Lotus Flower tries to keep her composure, but soon the American woman discovers the truth and Lotus Flower gives her son to the new woman. The scene where Lotus Flower tries to tell her son that it was all fairy stories when she said she was his mother and that she was just a silly Chinese nurse is truly gut wrenching. Lotus Flower’s eyes are filled with tears and her young son does not wish to leave his mother and clings to her, kissing her and trying to dry her tears. Eventually the American wife takes the son and they return to America with Lotus Flower’s husband. Having spent her whole life waiting for her beloved’s return and removing herself from all other alliances and her son now gone she throws herself into the ocean, thus paying the toll of the sea. This film is very sentimental but it’s quite good and Wong gives a wonderful leading performance.

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

Anna May Wong was a glamour girl in her time and a very fine actress, but the Hollywood system continued to refuse her roles (Asian leads were never terribly common). The last straw arrived when she was refused the role of O-lan for the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937). This was a role Wong had desired for a long time, but it was cast to the American actress, Luise Rainer (who won the Academy Award for her role). Wong eventually relocated to Europe where ethnic performers were met with somewhat less troubles. She eventually returned to Hollywood but remained chiefly a side character.

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

She played a slightly more positive double-agent character in the British musical Chu Chin Chow (1934), but her role isn’t big enough. She starred in the stylish E. A. Dupont film, Piccadilly (1929); did radio; and had a supporting role in the classic Marlene Dietrich film, Shanghai Express (1932). She starred in the wartime dramas Lady From Chungking and Bombs Over Burma (both 1942) and even became the first Asian American with her own detective TV show in 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (sadly, nothing exists of the show today). Later in life she sold her costumes and donated the money to Chinese aid for refugees. She died of a heart attack at age 56 in 1961. She never married.

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932)

Like Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar (as well as stealing every scene in Gone With the Wind, 1939), much of Anna May Wong’s success is marred by people who discount her and her work for portraying more racially stereotypical characters. I ask these attackers to consider the times in which these actors lived. It may not have been fair then, why should we keep it unfair now? Few can deny their talent or the obstacles that faced them. Let us celebrate them rather than belittle their legacies. Racial equality may elude us for another century, but let us not forget what steps have already been conquered or the brave, stubborn people who conquered them.

annamaywong_big

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 27, 2009