The Life and Times of Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s Daughter: Part Two
Having taken a look at the plot of the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter in my previous article, I shall now discuss the origins of the film and make a closer examination of its themes.
The Birth of Dracula’s Daughter
The film started life as a proposed adaptation of “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker, a short story that was published posthumously and is thought to have been a sequence excised from Dracula. It is a slight but atmospheric work, following an unnamed narrator (presumably Dracula’s Jonathan Harker) as he briefly glimpses a female vampire in a tomb while en route to Transylvania.
In 1933, MGM producer David O. Selznick bought an option on the film rights to “Dracula’s Guest” from Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, and hoped to turn the story into a film with the perhaps more intriguing title of Dracula’s Daughter. The treatment was written by John L. Balderston, a screenwriter who had already worked on multiple Universal horror films. The book Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946 has a quotation from Balderston that gives insight into his vision for the film:
“Why should Cecil B. DeMille have a monopoly on the great box office values of torture and cruelty in pictures about ancient Rome? I want to see her loathsome deaf mute servants carry into her boudoir savage-looking whips, chains, straps, etc. and hear the cries of the tortured victims without seeing exactly what happens…. I feel sure that so long as it is a woman torturing men, the thing is not too unendurable as it would have been had the man Dracula so treated his female victims.”
The story initially drafted by Balderston bore little resemblance to “Dracula’s Guest.” It was to have begun with Van Helsing slaying Dracula and heading off to Transylvania to kill the Count’s bride, but failing to find the tomb of Dracula’s daughter. Balderston’s storyline had the surviving vampiress heading to London under the name of Countess Szkekeley and seducing an aristocrat named Ned Wadhurst – only for her would-be victim to end up slaying her with the aid of Van Helsing.
The project was haunted by MGM’s fears of legal action from Universal, who owned the rights to the novel Dracula, and Selznick eventually sold Balderston’s treatment to the rival studio. At Universal, R. C. Sherriff rewrote the scenario for Dracula’s Daughter into a quite different story. This version of the narrative included a prologue set in fourteenth-century Transylvania, giving a strange fairy tale origin for both Dracula and his daughter. James C. Robertson summarises this sequence in his book The Hidden Cinema:
“Count Dracula has carried off to his castle a dozen peasant women from the nearby village for his amusement and that of his local noble friends. While the nobles play dice for the choice of women, Dracula retains one of them for himself and calls her his daughter. To free the captives, the village peasants vainly attack the castle, the attack being repelled by the use of boiling lead, until a traveller passing through the village summons the aid of a wizard who changes the nobles into various animals and Dracula himself into a bat. The castle crumbles into ruins which nobody ever visits.”
Sherriff located the remainder of the plot in the modern day, with four American tourists visiting Dracula’s castle and having a run-in with the vampiress – whose name had been changed from Szkekeley to Szelenski. Finally, Van Helsing would have come to the aid of the protagonists by dispatching Szelenski as she tried to escape aboard a steamer.
Censors in both the United States and Britain objected strongly to this version. The Breen Office noted “countless offensive stuff” in the story, while the British Board of Film Censors complained that:
“Dracula was ghoulish-weird-eerie and every other adjective in the language that expresses Horror, but Dracula’s Daughter would require the resources of half a dozen more languages to adequately express its beastliness. I consider this absolutely unfit for exhibition as a film.”
And so the story was subjected to another round of revisions until it reached a state that pleased the censors. “I think the result is excellent,” wrote BBFC commentator John Hanna. “The background of the old vampire legend is maintained, but all gruesome and horrific details have been entirely eliminated.” Little of R. C. Sherriff’s weird scenario survived, which may explain why he did not mention Dracula’s Daughter in his autobiography. Garrett Fort, who wrote the screenplay for Universal’s original Dracula, is known to have worked on the final script for Dracula’s Daughter; despite this, neither Sherriff nor Fort are credited in the film itself. The opening titles instead credit the story to Balderston, with a “suggested by” credit given to Lionel Jeffries.
Countess Zaleska: Origins and Inspirations
Although the vampire film was still a young genre in 1936, the theme already boasted a surprisingly broad range of interpretations. Bela Lugosi portrayed Dracula as a sinister but suave and dignified figure, later beloved by parodists. The vampires of Nosferatu (1922) and London After Midnight (1927) were rat-faced ghouls. The title character of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) was an elderly woman – a variation that, even in the vampire-saturated media landscape of today, remains uncommon.
The glamorous but tragic Countess Zaleska represents still another distinct take on the motif. So where do her roots as a character lie?
“Dracula’s Guest,” the film’s ostensible basis, includes a female vampire named Countess Dolingen. Like Zaleska, she is physically attractive, described as “a beautiful woman with rounded cheeks and red lips,” and also something of a tragic figure: she is established to have committed suicide in 1801, before rising again as a vampire. However, Dolingen is a questionable basis for a film character as she appears in just one paragraph, when the narrator describes her corpse awakening in pain as her tomb is struck by lightning, presumably destroying her.
More direct precursors can be found in the novel Dracula itself, which includes four female vampires. The first three reside within Dracula’s castle and are popularly interpreted as his brides, although their exact relation to the Count is never made clear. Their most significant scene is their attempted seduction of protagonist Jonathan Harker:
“They came close to me, and looked at me for some time, and then whispered together. Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red when contrasted with the pale yellow moon. The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at the moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.”
Harker refers to these women as the “weird sisters”, an allusion to the three witches in Macbeth. The fourth female vampire in the novel is Lucy Westenra, who becomes one of the undead after being killed by Dracula. Her vampiric form is described in similar terms to the weird sisters:
“[W]e recognized the features of Lucy Westenra. Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed. The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness. […] When Lucy, I call the thing that was before us Lucy because it bore her shape, saw us she drew back with an angry snarl, such as a cat gives when taken unawares, then her eyes ranged over us. Lucy’s eyes in form and colour, but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew. At that moment the remnant of my love passed into hate and loathing. Had she then to be killed, I could have done it with savage delight.
As she looked, her eyes blazed with unholy light, and the face became wreathed with a voluptuous smile. Oh, God, how it made me shudder to see it!”
Universal’s version of Dracula retains these four vampiresses but reduces their roles. The film does not grant them dialogue, and so they become purely images: apparitions of seductive women in pale gowns.
It could be argued that both the novel and film contain a fifth female vampire in the character of Mina Harker, who comes under the sway of Dracula’s power and eventually begins to manifest vampiric attributes – although she never fully joins the undead and is cured with Dracula’s destruction. The Universal film depicts the semi-vampirised Mina as a chirpy, head-in-the-clouds girl who gushes about her love of the night and holds cheerful conversations with bats. In the Stoker novel, however, she is wrought with self-loathing: “Unclean! Unclean! Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh!”
This is a trait that can also be found in Zaleska, albeit in subdued form. Zaleska is, perhaps, what Mina may have ultimately turned into had Dracula not been slain.
Another literary precursor can be found in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, which was serialised from 1871 to 1872. The titular vampiress is described by other characters as being “the prettiest creature I ever saw… so gentle and nice” and having “such a sweet voice” – this girlish, languid creature is obviously a long way from the world-wary vampire woman of Dracula’s Daughter. That said, both Carmilla and Dracula’s Daughter share one significant aspect: implicit lesbianism. While Bram Stoker’s female vampires feed upon men and children, Carmilla preys solely on young women, and develops a particular fixation upon the story’s narrator, Laura:
“Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.'”
While the character of Marya Zaleska has her roots in nineteenth-century literature, the final element was added by actress Gloria Holden.
Holden played the part of Zaleska with a maturity and composure quite separate from the more childlike vampiresses described by Stoker and Le Fanu. The actress reportedly disliked the horror genre, but it is tempting to imagine that any disdain she felt towards her material was translated onscreen into the dignified weariness of her character, who shows a total detachment from the mortal world that she yearns to join.
Ramsey Campbell said this of the actress in the introduction to his 1977 novelisation of Dracula’s Daughter:
“[Holden] was unknown in films, though she had worked for years in radio. ‘MORE SENSATIONAL THAN HER UNFORGETTABLE FATHER!’ posters claimed of her role, but her playing was intelligently unsensational, and suggested the plight of the vampire as much as her undoubted power. Like [Greta] Garbo’s in Camille, her smooth beautiful face is already the character’s death-mask.
Did Universal hope to create a female horror star? If so, they failed, for she seemed never again to have worked in horror films—but perhaps that relates to some prejudice against her sex: even today such considerable performers in horror films as Barbara Steele, Martine Beswick, Barbara Shelley, and Sheila Keith are less widely noted than they deserve.”
The Role of Sandor
As a relatively early example of vampire cinema, some aspects of Dracula’s Daughter will seem unusual to viewers familiar with the genre as it later developed. Amongst these is the character of Zaleska’s servant, Sandor, played by Irving Pichel.
Since Bram Stoker created the character of Renfield, whose role was expanded in adaptations for stage and screen, vampires have often been depicted with mortal underlings. Sandor is very different from the grovelling Renfield, however: in a key respect he is in charge of Zaleska’s destiny, rather than the other way around.
Early in the film, when Zaleska falsely believes herself to be cured, she tries to focus her mind upon happy, innocent thoughts. But as she plays a lullaby on a piano to help her recall her childhood, Sandor deliberately tries to steer her mind towards darker images:
“Twilight, long shadows on the hillsides…”
“No! No, peaceful shadows. A flutter of wings in the tree tops.”
“The wings of bats.”
“No, no the wings of birds. From far off, the barking of a dog…”
“Barking because there are wolves about.”
“Silence! I forbid you!”
“Forbid? Why are you afraid?”
“I’m not, I’m not! I’ve found release!”
“That music doesn’t speak of release…”
“No… No! You’re right”
“That music tells of the dark… evil things… shadowy places…”
The two characters share what could be described as an enabling relationship, with Sandor encouraging his mistress to indulge her evil impulses. Initially, it is easy to interpret Sandor as a Mephistopheles figure and Zaleska as the victim of his temptation. Only towards the very end of the film do we learn the truth: that Zaleska had promised Sandor eternal life – and, implicitly, her eternal love. His attempts to control her, then, are driven by the fear that she may never fulfil this bargain; when she finally spurns him for Jeffrey, Sandor’s response is to murder her.
Sandor outwardly fits the stereotype of the tall, sinister manservant that was later parodied by Lurch, butler to the Addams Family. But as a character, he is a strange hybrid of Renfield-like underling and Svengali-like manipulator.
The Lesbian Factor
The scene in which Zaleska menaces the partially-clad Lili, leering at her before going in for the kill, is almost certainly the most widely-discussed in Dracula’s Daughter. Towards its end, the film offers a similar scene of twisted Sapphism when Zaleska prepares to bite the unconscious Janet, her mouth opening in what could just as easily be preparation for a sensual kiss. In Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, Ellis Hanson describes this as “what must surely be the longest kiss never filmed.”
These two moments have inspired many viewers to ask a simple question: is Countess Zaleska meant to be a lesbian?
The homosexual element of Dracula’s Daughter should not be overstated. For one thing, the film’s character relations are structured around an entirely heterosexual love rectangle. Janet, the feisty secretary who is eventually kidnapped by Zaleska, loves Jeffrey. She resents the fact that he is spending time with Zaleska, and attempts to disrupt one of their therapy sessions with a prank telephone call (“this is the zoo speaking, one of our elephants is seeing pink men”). Zaleska becomes attracted to Jeffrey, as evidenced by how she still desires him even after realising that he cannot cure her. Finally, we have the relationship between Sandor and Zaleska discussed above. The rectangle is broken when Zaleska and Sandor are killed, allowing Jeffrey and Janet to unite as a conventional screen couple.
It is also worth noting that the first of Zaleska’s onscreen victims is male – although her entrapment of him carries nowhere near the same erotic charge of her later attack on Lili.
Nonetheless, the lesbian implications of the film are hard to miss. Certainly, contemporary censors picked up on them, as shown by these comments made by a Production Code Administration reviewer during production:
“The present suggestion that the girl Lili poses in the nude will be changed. She will be posing her neck and shoulders, and there will be no suggestion that she undresses, and no exposure of her person… The whole sequence will be treated in such a way as to avoid any suggestion of perverse sexual desire on the part of Marya or of an attempted sexual attack by her upon Lili.”
Considering the obvious homosexual charge of the scene as filmed, one can only wonder what it would have looked like without interference from censors.
Critics, too, have long noted the suggestiveness of the scene. As early as 1967, Carlos Clarens commented in Horror Movies: An Illustrated Survey on “the muted Lesbian quality” of Zaleska’s attacks on both Lili and Janet, stating incorrectly that her victims are “exclusively female.” In his book The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo points out a contemporary review in the New York World-Telegram that mentions Zaleska “giving the eye to sweet young women.” Russo also reads suggestive undertones into one of the film’s original taglines: “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!” Discussing the scene between Zaleska and Lili in Horror Film: An Introduction, Rick Worland remarks that “Everyone probably understood that the bite on the neck (discreetly off-screen) was really foreplay,” adding that “Hollywood has a long history of equating homosexuality with criminality, perversion, and morose self-destruction.” Tom Johnson, in Censored Screams, is more skeptical when writing about this scene, commenting that “it is doubtful that many 1936 viewers chose to see it as sexual.”
One of the more comprehensive queer readings of the film was provided by Rhona J. Berenstein in her book Attack of the Leading Ladies:
“[T]o characterize Zaleska as lesbian or bisexual in a conventional sense is to misread the transgressions performed by monsters. Monsters do not fit neatly with a model of human sexuality. Instead, they propose a paradigm of sexuality in which eros and danger, sensuality and destruction, human and inhuman and male and female blur, overlap, and coalesce.”
Berenstein also points to the rather flat performance given by Otto Kruger as the heroic Jeffrey Garth – something noted by at least one contemporary critic – as weakening the heterosexual drive of the story and making the lesbian subtexts that much stronger.
The exact creative intentions behind Zaleska’s onscreen interactions with women will remain a matter of debate. Still, Dracula’s Daughter has undeniably become accepted as an early example of queer cinema; no in-depth discussion of the film can avoid addressing this.
To Be Concluded
Zaleska’s story did not end when she was shot by Sandor: later generations have continued to find fascination in this character. In the third and final article in this series, I will examine the adaptations and derivative works inspired by Dracula’s Daughter.