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.

Say, folks! If you’re interested in the topic of queer images in film, have I got an event for YOU! From June 18-22, Garbo Laughs (that’s me) and Pussy Goes Grrr will be hosting the Queer Film Blogathon. Check it out now to find out how you can contribute and even win prizes. The party simply won’t be the same without you!

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

Japanese Cinema Blogathon: The Cat Returns (2002)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: Shy and awkward Haru Yoshioka feels like she never does anything right. She can never wake up in time for school and is always tripping over things. When Haru performs a good deed by saving a cat from getting hit by a truck, the animal responds by thankingher and promising to repay her kindness! Soon Haru is getting all kinds of gifts from the Kingdom of Cats, including cattails in her garden (which make her sneeze) and live mice in her locker (which make her squeamish)! Haru regrets helping the cat, because now his brethren won’t leave her alone. But things really turn serious when the Cat King decides to bestow upon Haru what he views to be the ultimate gift: the hand of his son, the prince, in marriage! Desperate to avoid being taken to the Cat Kingdom and turned into a cat forever, Haru seeks the help of the Baron, a dapper kitty in a formal suit, along with his fat and grumpy friend Muta and a crow named Toto. But before her new friends can stop them, representatives of the Cat Kingdom come and steal Haru away in the night. Can Haru find her way out of the Kingdom before she’s completely and permanently transformed?

This is an official entry in the week-long Japanese Cinema Blogathon for disaster relief, co-hosted by CinemaFanatic and Japan Cinema. As we all know, Japan was struck with a 9.0 earthquake on March 11, resulting in devastating tsunamis and widespread destruction. Please CLICK HERE to make a donation to the represented charity of your choice to aid Japanese disaster victims, and be sure to click the banner at left to view the other contributions to the blogathon.

The fifth and final installment in my week-long tribute to Studio Ghibli started off as a twenty-minute short about cats commissioned by a Japanese theme park. Banking on the popularity of the two felines from 1995’s Whisper of the Heart – Muta/Moon, the fat train-riding cat, and Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, the well-dressed figurine in the antique shop which provided inspiration for the main character’s novel – Hayao Miyazaki wanted to bring both characters back in anthropomorphic form for the short. He hired Aoi Hiiragi, who had written the manga on which Whisper was based, to pen the manga equivalent of the new film. However, when the theme park pulled out of the deal, Miyazaki instead decided to keep the existing material and expand the film as a training exercise for future Ghibli directors. Hiroyuki Morita, who had done previous animation work for the studio on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), was handed the task of directing based on the 525 pages of storyboards he created based on Hiiragi’s manga. (more…)

Penny Serenade (1941)

Image Source: Heritage Auctions

Synopsis: Julie Gardiner (Irene Dunne) is just a lonely girl working in a music shop when she meets handsome stranger Roger Adams (Cary Grant). The two fall instantly in love, but their courtship is cut short when Roger’s job as a newspaperman sends him to Japan. Before Roger departs, they have a quickie wedding and even quicker honeymoon. When Julie joins Roger in Japan a few months later, he is delighted to discover that she is pregnant. But their joy quickly turns to devastation when a catastrophic earthquake causes Julie to miscarry and leaves her unable to have children. When the couple moves back to the United States to start their own newspaper, their inconsistent income throws a wrench in their dream of adopting a child and becoming a real family. With the good-hearted Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi) pulling for them at the orphanage and lovable third wheel Applejack (Edgar Buchanan) helping them make ends meet at home, will Roger and Julie be able to convince the powers-that-be that the love they have to give is enough to make their house a suitable home for a child in need?

I have a very special place in my heart for this dreadful little movie, directed by George Stevens for Columbia in 1941. Of course, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne first teamed up in the much-loved Leo McCarey screwball comedy The Awful Truth in 1937, now considered a classic of the genre; in 1940 they made My Favorite Wife, another delightful screwball and one of my personal favorites, directed by Garson Kanin and produced and co-written by McCarey. With these two brilliant and successful comedy hits behind them, Dunne and Grant teamed up one last time for Penny Serenade. I like to think of it as one cruel, vicious joke on the movie-going public. “You laughed and hooted along with their hilarious antics in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife; now see them in Penny Serenade, where you will CRY YOUR EYES OUT FOREVER AND EVER AS THE PAIN AND SORROW REFUSE TO CEASE.” I imagine people flocking jovially to the theater, thinking they’re going to have a rollicking good time; but as they sit down, straps and buckles shoot out from the seats, trapping them in place, where they are bombarded with two straight hours of depressing, heart-wrenching, dead-baby melodrama. The mental image makes me laugh, because I’m a terrible person.

Your first mistake was building the house out of cardboard.

There are a few things I like about Penny Serenade. Cary Grant was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance here; watching the movie, you may not at first understand the reasoning behind this, but once you get to his impassioned appeal in the judge’s chambers, you’ll see why. It’s the best scene in the whole picture, and Grant gives a devastatingly vulnerable performance as he pleads to keep his adopted child whom the court is threatening to take away due to the Adamses’ lack of steady income. Maybe I’m insensitive, but I really don’t root for this couple; it’s irresponsible to think they can raise a child on love alone, and it’s pretty damn entitled of them to think they deserve a baby any more than the countless other couples who can provide a more stable home. But Grant’s speech does tug on my heartstrings, and I do believe it is the most emotionally exposed I’ve ever seen him. (Keep in mind, I have not yet been able to track down a copy of None But the Lonely Heart, the 1944 film for which he received his second Oscar nomination.) Besides Grant, I also have a fondness for Edgar Buchanan’s performance as the Adamses’ sweet-natured pal Applejack. Buchanan steals every scene he’s in – quite a compliment, given the star power of his illustrious co-stars!

While it has its moments, overall I find Penny Serenade to be an overblown melodrama that tries every trick in the book to squeeze a tear out of you. There are a few comedic scenes intended to lighten the mood, but in a way they almost make it worse; given all the sorrow that bombards them, laughing at these characters’ small joys is more painful than soothing. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama, but this one just seems too overwrought and unrealistic, to the point of campiness. The last twenty minutes are pure torture as the film is finally drowning in a sea of its own tears and trying like hell to pull you down with it. We do get a very tacked-on happy ending in the last few seconds, which is laughably nonsensical and, in a way, almost crass. Because I find camp irresistible, I do get enjoyment from this film, but maybe not for the reasons I’m supposed to.

Penny Serenade (1941) – 3/5 stars

Burnt Offerings (1976)

Image Source: MovieGoods.com