Friday, October 06, 2006

Cardboard Sets

Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) stands guard over Mina (Helen Chandler) in Tod Browning's DRACULA. Pay no attention to that huge chunk of trash blocking our view of the lamp.

Occasionally there is a great thread over at the Classic Horror Films Board that presents, in a nutty nutshell, what it's all about. Right now there's an impassioned new discussion, excited by Universal's new 75th Anniversary triple-dip of 1931's DRACULA, about a chunk of roughly torn cardboard that's visible in the movie and also in the production still pictured above.

The new reissue disc features two audio commentaries, one by HOLLYWOOD GOTHIC author David J. Skal (included on the previous issues) and another by DRACULA - DEAD AND LOVING IT screenwriter Steve Haberman. Mr. Skal believes the cardboard was obviously an accident, an oversight, a production gaffe never meant to be included in the picture; meanwhile, Mr. Haberman insists that it was just as obviously an intentional set prop and has some very harsh words to offer anyone who would seriously propose otherwise.

In a single day, the CHFB has racked up an impressive four pages of illustrated debate and discussion, with board moderators David Colton (Taraco) and Kerry Gammill (Count Gamula) getting into the act with film scholars Tom Weaver and Gary L. Prange, filmmaker Ted Newsom, and more pseudonymous cyber-phantoms than you could find in the Paris Opera House. Everything from frame grabs to shooting script notations have been dragged into the melée, and a lot of minds have been changed. As I was reading through it, I had my own response ready to roll out, but by the time I reached the last page, anything I might have contributed would've seemed redundant... so I thought I decided to post this blog instead.

My own response: I have to agree with Mr. Haberman's view, though, like many of the CHFB posters, I feel he should have phrased his information less offensively -- especially since he's referring to someone who's done as much on behalf of DRACULA history as David Skal. We probably wouldn't have the Spanish DRACULA on video today without his trail-blazing research, which located the only extant print at a Cuban cinemateca... and that would have been a terrible thing to miss, regardless of Mr. Haberman's dislike of this alternate version. The DRACULA shooting script refers to a device used to dim the light in Mina's room, and this slab of junk is plainly it; of course, they could have found something more attractive to do the job, like a neatly scissored piece of cardboard, but I imagine time was in short supply and the crew had to make do with what they had. (As Lupita Tovar boasts in the UNIVERSAL HORROR documentary, the Spanish version of DRACULA, which was shot at night on the same sets, finished filming earlier than the Browning version, which must have come as a profound embarrassment to Browning and crew, considering the Spanish version's lengthier running time and more mobile use of camera.)

It's possible too that this whole issue is a funny souvenir of a lighting problem. The filmmakers may have intended to do what most people do when they want to dim a lamp: drop a scarf over it. For some reason, that didn't work -- maybe the scarf or cloth caught fire, began to smell, or became a compositional distraction -- and another solution was needed on very short notice. Perhaps the cinematographer needed a dimmer that could sculpt the light cast on the side of Miss Chandler's face rather than diffuse or interfere with it, as the card does function here as a sort of "barn door." Maybe it was Tod Browning's way of flashing a finger at a production executive who was telling him to hurry up. We'll never know. Clearly, the cardboard shield was a solution but hardly an elegant one; it overwhelms the problem. And just as clearly, while it's possible that a piece of cardboard like this could go unnoticed in a single shot, like any other continuity error, it is much harder to explain as an accident when such an eyesore occupies such pride of place in a production still.

A scene from another picture comes to mind with that cardboard. I forget the film's title, but I remember the dialogue:

"I've never seen that before!"
"Now you always will."

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