Dracula’s Daughter (1936)


Image Source: Wrong Side of the Art

Synopsis: While giving solace to his old mentor Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) at a party. The Countess asks for Dr. Garth’s aid in curing her from an unspecified but apparently deadly “obsession.” However, Dr. Garth is too distracted by his nosy secretary Janet (Marguerite Churchill) to pay Zaleska much mind. Zaleska then lets Dr. Garth know that she requires no less than his full attention — by kidnapping Janet and imprisoning her in her Transylvanian estate.

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Directed for Universal in 1936 by Lambert Hillyer, Dracula’s Daughter was the first direct sequel to the massive 1931 hit Dracula. Relevant to our theme here this week, it is also credited as the first big-screen usage of the “lesbian vampire” motif, a trope which dates all the way back to Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla. The exploration of sapphic themes in fantasy fiction was relished as a way of including titillatingly-taboo scenes and imagery in a genre that was considered safe from censorship due to its disconnection from reality. Furthermore, the notion that the lesbian vampire uses mind control to seduce straight women or girls into becoming their love slaves is yet another way for straight men to construe lesbians as predatory whilst enjoying the erotic outcomes of their efforts.

Of course, being produced in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter fell under the oppressive censorship guidelines of the Hays Code, and therefore had to be a little more crafty about its erotic lesbian undertones. As it was, the original script, penned in 1935 by Invisible Man screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, was revised and rejected four times before being entirely abandoned and rewritten by Dracula screenwriter Garrett Fort. Even up to the time of filming, scenes were being submitted to Production Code Administration head Joseph Breen for final approval. Of the most infamous scene, in which Countess Zaleska lures the young Lili into her spiderweb by asking her to model, Breen said of the sequence as it was originally scripted:

The present suggestion that… 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 there will be no exposure of her person. It was also stated that the present incomplete sequence will be followed by a scene in which Lili is taken to a hospital and there it will be definitely established that she has been attacked by a vampire. 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.

Even shooting the scene to Breen’s puritanical specifications, the underlying message was still delivered and the scene still gives you that “weird feeling” mentioned in the film’s promotional poster.


(Incidentally, I should mention that Lili is played by Nan Grey of Three Smart Girls.)

What I find more interesting than Countess Zaleska’s implied lesbianism is her forced attraction for Dr. Jeffrey Garth. As soon as Garth begins spouting his scientific theories about releasing his patients of their harmful mental obsessions, the Countess is desperate for him to cure her of her impulsive vampirism, to the point where she kidnaps and threatens to do bodily harm to his secretary Janet if Garth does not stay with her in Transylvania to work on her own “release.” To me this harkens back very much to the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder; Zaleska does not want to be a vampire/lesbian and she looks to the psychiatrist Dr. Garth to cure her of her obsession with bloodsucking/women. But there’s more to it than that. When Countess Zaleska invites Dr. Garth over to her apartment to ask for his assistance, she specifically states that she desires his help “as a man of strength and courage.” More than a psychiatrist, what Zeleska believes she needs to “cure” her is a strong man, thus her desire to force Garth into running away with her. Her confession to her creepy manservant Sandor about sharing her “eternal life” with Garth can be interpreted as her expressing her intentions to have heterosexual sex with the doctor. She can’t share eternal life with Sandor because he already knows what she is and accepts and encourages it, which isn’t what Zaleska wants for herself. She does not believe an ineffectual man who will let her control him is the cure for her “obsession.”

Overall Dracula’s Daughter is a spooky little gem that goes heavy on the atmosphere. Though the cinematography and acting are both above par, I still think it’s more entertaining as a historical curiosity than as a horror film. There are definitely a lot of interesting subtextual implications to be read into the film, but if you’re not willing to put that much brain power into it, it’s kind of a slow creeper at best. Interesting in the context of queer theory; not so much as a standalone picture.


Dracula’s Daughter (1936) – 3/5 stars

Three Smart Girls (1936)


Image Source: Amazon

Synopsis: When they see their divorced mother in tears over the impending nuptials of their wealthy father (Charles Winninger), three teenaged sisters – Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read), and precocious Penny (Deanna Durbin) – make it their duty to stop the wedding from happening. But with blonde bombshell Donna Lyons (Binnie Barnes) twirling dear old Dad around her little finger, and her conniving mother (Alice Brady) helping her do it, the girls worry that their father will never see the error of his ways. With handsome millionaire Lord Michael Stuart (Ray Milland) trying to woo Miss Lyons away and Dad’s accountant Bill Evans (John King) pulling the strings behind the scheme, can the girls prove to their father that Donna’s only in it for the money?

Directed by Henry Koster for Universal in 1936, this precursor to 1961’s The Parent Trap marks the feature film debut of songstress and sweetheart Deanna Durbin. Though billed last, she is touted in the opening credits as “Universal’s New Discovery” and gets plenty of opportunities in the movie to show off her dramatic singing voice, skilled comedic timing, and plucky personality. In fact, it is really Durbin who is the star of this picture, which is kind of sad for Nan Grey and Barbara Read. They give it their all, bless their souls, but it’s Durbin’s character Penny who gets all the best lines, to the point where the film drags a little whenever she’s off-screen. Unfortunately, much of this time is devoted to romantic subplots surrounding the two older girls, but the fact that these sections of the film are lackluster isn’t their fault. This is a star vehicle, and it’s simply the nature of the beast that the co-stars get the B-scenes.

That being said, Durbin lives up to her hype and definitely makes this a film worth watching. Penny is petulant, bossy, spirited, and altogether irresistibly charming. She is helped immensely by a snappy script penned by Adele Comandini, who either was a bratty teenage tomboy or always wanted to be one. I made sure to note down some of my absolute favorite “Pennyisms” to share with the class:

  • “I’m not pig-headed, I’m strong-minded!”
  • “Muffins and milk? That’s no food for fighters!”
  • [when she is caught by her father making a racket upstairs] FATHER: “Do you realize that I have guests downstairs, that Miss Lyons is trying to sing? I thought the ceiling would come down!” PENNY: [innocently] “Oh! Why didn’t you stop her?”
  • “If this is what love does to people, I’m glad I’m an old maid!”

Durbin was of course known for her effortless soprano singing voice, and while Three Smart Girls isn’t a musical, she does manage to sneak three songs in. Only the last of these, “Il Bacio (The Kiss),” which she performs before a police sergeant trying to convince him that she’s actually a budding French opera star on her way to perform at the Met, feels forced and out of place. As for myself, I’m really not fond of opera, so I don’t get the appeal of a cute little girl with an enormous, overpowering voice, but I’ll reserve further comment as it’s really not my area of expertise. Fact is, if you like musicals, you’re probably already familiar with Deanna Durbin’s singing talents, so you don’t need my uninformed opinion cluttering things up.

As for the rest of the film, it’s got some beautiful 1930s Art Deco sets and fashions that I simply adored. Binnie Barnes and Alice Brady as the fierce and deadly Lyons are an old trope, but they skillfully do their part to make you dislike them. Sometimes I had trouble telling the difference between Ray Milland and John King, simply because their characters were not very interesting and were just added to give an extra romantic twist for the younger set. They’re okay, if you like that sort of thing.

Kay, Penny, and Joan — Three Smartly-Dressed Girls!

The plot as a whole is fairly ridiculous in some places, but what else would you expect from a 1936 family-friendly comedy of errors about three teenage girls trying to patch up their parents’ divorce? I usually try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t help but say a bit about the film’s predictable-but-enjoyable ending. After all their schemes have failed to produce any results, Penny, in an uncharacteristic turn, actually tries being honest with her father as to why she and her sisters don’t want him to marry Donna, and this proves to be the most effective tactic yet. Unfortunately the next morning she disappears, which, whether she intends it to be or not, is a tremendously selfish and manipulative way of getting her father to do what she wants. Teenagers – what are you gonna do! In the end the girls’ parents are reunited at last, and we see them gaze into each other’s eyes with nostalgic affection; but the film ends there, leaving it ambiguous as to whether their love is rekindled or not. After all, the movie’s not so preposterous as to suggest that merely seeing each other again would cure whatever conflict caused the parents to get divorced in the first place. I imagine they saved the real “happily ever after” for the sequel, 1939’s Three Smart Girls Grow Up.

A wonderfully watchable little movie that pops both visually and textually, Three Smart Girls is a smart debut for Deanna Durbin and a contagiously cute family film. It’s a great pick-me-up movie and cuts the sweetness with just enough sass to hopefully avoid any cavities.


Three Smart Girls (1936) – 4/5 stars

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