Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Radio review – Orson Welles’ Dracula

Notes on Orson Welles’ 1938 adaptation of Dracula.In Hollywood Gothic, David Skal follows ‘the tangled web’ that begins with Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) and stretches to Stoker’s abortive theatre version, hit stage plays by Hamilton Deane and/or John S. Balderston for the West End and Broadway and three movies, the unauthorised Nosferatu (1922) and Universal’s English and Spanish-language Draculas (1931). The book is so compelling and wonderfully-researched that I wish Skal had followed the thread further, dealing with all the subsequent Draculas. The property escaped from Stoker (and his widow) to become material for some of the most important creative artists of the last century — and many others, from Jesus Franco to the makers of Dracula Sucks!

Conventional wisdom has it that between Tod Browning and Terence Fisher, Dracula was exclusive property of Universal Pictures and the role’s then-prominent interpreter, Bela Lugosi. Actually, there’s a missing Dracula, mounted by a 22-year-old who had conquered the theatre and would become a genius of the cinema but was in the interim attaining mastery of another medium. On July 11 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System transmitted the first of a nine-week season of literary classics adapted by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air. Welles was making pin money by cackling as pulp vigilante the Shadow, but Dracula (a late substitute for Treasure Island) was his first auteur venture in what was then the dominant mass home entertainment medium of America, radio.

In his excellent Welles biography The Road to Xanadu, Simon Callow describes how Welles and Mercury sidekick John Houseman set about Dracula. ‘They gutted the book of its most striking moments, thrashed out a framework onto which they latched dialogue transcribed from the book, cobbled together narrative links (in this case using Stoker’s device of multiple narrations) and finally staggered away from the restaurant with a script.’ Welles, aware of Universal’s stagebound film and the Deane-Balderston drawing room Dracula, and was the first adaptor to voice that now-familiar cry of ‘let’s go back to the book’. Running a brief, breathless hour, Welles’ Dracula has to combine Lucy’s suitors into one narrator, Dr Arthur Seward (played by Welles), drop Renfield (whom Welles must have missed) and the vampire wives. It takes the form of an inquest, with Seward introducing diaries, news items and testimony in evidence and moves like one of the story’s often-heard steam trains — with short, choppy scenes, dizzying changes of locale, barked-out telegrams and telegraph messages.

Composer Bernard Herrmann, in his first collaboration with Welles, provides clanging, ominous tones to cover transitions and a tinkling fairytale theme for Mina’s trances. Welles, who would later call a film studio ‘the best train set a boy could have’, was clearly excited by the possibilities of sound effects and layers in a constant background of aural gimmickry both melodramatic (howling wolves, shrieks, gales, thundering hooves) and subtle (a slight echo on Dracula’s voice). Welles even takes the time for a sneaky in-joke, as loud reports of the gruesome death of a sailor called Balanchine refer to the choreographer George Balanchine, who was competing with him for the affections of the ballet dancer Vera Zorina. If Welles had later restaged this adaptation as a movie (as he did with his radio script for The Magnificent Ambersons and might have done with Jane Eyre and Treasure Island), we might now rank the Browning-Lugosi Dracula along with the Roy Del Ruth-Ricardo Cortez Maltese Falcon of 1931 (with Dracula’s Dwight Frye in the Elisha Cook role). But, of course, Universal had the film rights and Welles’s Hollywood deal was with RKO, so posterity is cheated of what might have been the greatest of all Dracula movies.

Besides narrating, Welles (of course) hogs the title role: as only the second recorded Dracula, he doesn’t do a Lugosi impersonation but tries out the imposing, vaguely Eastern European voice he would later use in Mr Arkadin. Fifty years before it was fashionable, Welles stresses Dracula’s strangely romantic attachment to Mina (Agnes Moorhead), with the hypnotised heroine murmuring as he insistently repeats ‘blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh’. Among Welles’s happiest inventions is a scene in which Dracula courteously unlocks all the doors in his castle to allow a complaining Harker (George Couloris) to go free, as we hear the wolves outside and realise no escape is possible. Like Francis Coppola, Welles stresses the parallels between Dracula and Van Helsing (Martin Gabel), who often seem to mimic each other’s vocal mannerisms; he even predates Coppola’s final coup by having Mina mercifully hammer home the stake that does away with the Count, after the sheer force of his personality has deterred the feeble Harker and Welles has delivered an impressively savage yet pitiful soliloquy (‘claw, wing, tooth, scale’). There are a few giggly moments (one incidental peasant sounds like Welles doing Bluebottle from The Goons) and the story would probably be impossible to follow if the book weren’t so well known.

The play is available online.


3 thoughts on “Radio review – Orson Welles’ Dracula

  1. Dear Kim – My late friend Arthur Anderson was indeed disappointed when TREASURE ISLAND was pushed back a week, but when the time came, he did an excellent job as Jim Hawkins. As to Welles’ desire to film DRACULA, he is on record in the Bogdanovich interviews. But the scene where the Count toys with Harker at open door to his castle was not Orson’s invention. It is straight out of Stoker, and I used it in my Quicksilver Radio Theater dramatization. You can hear a better-sounding, uncut version of the Mercury production at the link below. Best, Craig Wichman. https://orsonwelles.indiana.edu/items/show/1961

    Posted by Craig | May 22, 2019, 4:44 am
  2. A most illuminating weblog entry, sir. I was hitherto unaware that the redoubtable Mr Welles had adapted the novel for the wireless. Many thanks.

    On a related note, you may be amused to learn of a current project whose basic structure owes at least something to the Stoker classic, and serves as a receptacle for tropes familiar to aficionados of early Hitchcock, Dennis Wheatley, Captain WE Johns, Dornford Yates, Alistair MacLean, and Mr Welles’ apocryphal (alas!) adaptation of Ian Fleming’s MOONRAKER, among others. A promo video, as I believe they are termed, can be viewed at:


    Your obedient servant,

    Danvers Nettlefold

    Posted by Danvers Nettlefold | May 22, 2019, 10:47 pm
  3. I found Welles version to be very openly sexual, especially by 1938 standards. When Dracula states that he has “known” Mina, his meaning is clear. A 1938 audience which was much more familiar with the Bible than today’s listeners would have no doubt about this.

    Posted by Andy | January 25, 2023, 11:38 pm

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